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of memories that go unremembered, and then

Chapter Text

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.”

Baby?

“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.”

“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.”

“We have?”

“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’m sorry.”

“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?”

“What?”

“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.”

Chapter Text

How to tell if you’re bisexual in 10 easy questions,” Blair’s voice drawls through the darkness, her chin suddenly hooked over Sterling’s shoulder.

“Mary, mother of God!” Sterling yelps, jumping nearly a foot in the air.

She’s been going down an internet spiral for the last hour, unable to sleep but not wanting to leave the soft cocoon of Blair’s bed. She genuinely thought Blair was still soundly asleep.

Blair leans over to switch on the light, rubbing her eyes at the brightness. “Right, you don’t know how to swear yet.” She yawns and stretches her arms overhead. “Also: dude, you have a girlfriend. Case closed.”

Sterling chews her lip, eyes unable to fully detach from the quiz that’s staring back at her.

“I know, but…ugh, this is all just so confusing.” She knows she doesn’t have to elaborate on what she means by this. “And, like, nothing about the situation is Google-able. Except for this part, sort of.”

Blair leans forward to peer more intently at Sterling’s laptop screen. “Wait, is that tab a how-to on fingering?” 

She claps delightedly as Sterling quickly closes her laptop and hides her red face behind her hands. “Wow, diving right back in, literally! I’m so proud of you!”

Blair—” Sterling groans.

“But I don’t think you need instructions.”

Sterling peeks out from between her fingers. “Really?”

“Don’t ask me to elaborate, because it’ll force me to relive some truly horrifying memories—yes, memories, plural—of walking in on you two, but I think y’all figured it out. Like, pretty damn successfully.”

Sterling doesn’t know what it means that she feels a little flair of pride at that remark. She tucks it away to dissect later.

“Kinda wish I had those memories,” she says quietly. “Not the you walking in part, but—”

Blair’s expression softens. “I’m sorry, Sterl.”

Sterling sighs. God, she’s been home for a week, but she still feels utterly lost when it comes to navigating this new life of hers. Her existence is like a giant puzzle of tiny pieces that she can’t work out how to connect.

“It’s just—I love Luke. I’m happy with Luke.” She turns to look at Blair. “Right?”

“I mean, I don’t want to, like, co-opt your coming out journey, or whatever…”

“Cullen,” Sterling says firmly, their new code word for when Sterling wants the God’s honest truth, no matter how complicated it might be. Pulled from the Twilight books still on a shelf in Sterling’s room, of all things. 

Sometimes she’s asked for an answer that Blair doesn’t seem to think she’s ready for, and while Sterling wants honesty more than anything, wants desperately to understand what’s going on in her brave new world, the doctor has been firm that too much too soon could overload her brain, and she can’t rush this process. So “Cullen” has served as a helpful way for Sterling to prioritize the bits of information that she’s most eager for and thinks that she can handle.

Blair hesitates for a second before nodding. “Okay. You didn’t share a lot with me, at first, but from what you did eventually share, it seems like you realized that…that you wanted more.”

“Luke is great,” Sterling points out, because he is, he’s been such a solid presence in her life for so many years. 

Sure, maybe occasionally Sterling has wondered what it would be like if they weren’t together, if she got to experience having adventures on her own or with another person, but that’s normal, right? Everyone in a committed relationship thinks about that sometimes.

Don’t they?

“He treats me so well,” she continues. “What more could I possibly want?”

Blair rakes a hand through her hair. “Whatever it was, you got it from April. Or, get it from her.” This is obviously a serious conversation, but Blair can’t seem to resist tacking on, “In more ways than one.”

Sterling shifts uncomfortably.

“But you get to take a breath, here,” Blair adds. “April understands. She isn’t expecting everything to just fall back into place.”

“How do you know that?” When Blair doesn’t answer, Sterling deduces, “Right, you guys are, like, friends now.”

Which is almost more bizarre than April being Sterling’s girlfriend.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Blair says, putting up a defensive hand, “let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I tolerate April because you lo—because of what she means to you. But I do have to admit, she’s not that bad.”

Sterling can tell by the tone in Blair’s voice that the comment hasn’t come easily. She wonders what it’s taken for Blair to be in a place to say it, whether they’ve fought over the issue or if Blair has witnessed some truly extraordinary behavior from April to get here.

“Well, clearly I agree with you, I guess,” Sterling whispers.

Blair rolls her lips together, seeming to want to offer Sterling something. “Anyway, you know, maybe, like, taking some time with yourself to process all of this would be helpful.”

When Sterling tilts her head in confusion, Blair clarifies, “Like masturbating.”

Sterling feels her eyes go wide. “I can’t do that!”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s not…” Sterling stammers, knowing her face is reddening again. “I’ve never done that before!”

A small smile slips over Blair’s face. “Okay, hate to break it to you, but yes, you have. Like, a lot.”

“Seriously?”

Blair’s smile widens into a full-on grin. “Oh shit, you haven’t figured out that you’re a total horndog yet! Love that I get to go on this journey with you!”

“I’m a what, now?”

Blair shakes her head and slides her arm around Sterling’s shoulders. “Man, sweet sister of mine, we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.”

--

Sterling’s family hasn’t pushed her to get back to normal in any major ways, and luckily spring break has started, so she hasn’t had to worry about returning to school just yet.

But about a week and a half after coming home, Sterling decides that she’s ready to go back to church. Blair is skeptical—mostly, it seems, because she was able to convince their parents that she should stay home with Sterling rather than joining them at church last week, and clearly had plans to extend that arrangement—but Debbie is delighted, telling Sterling that the whole congregation has been praying for her and that they can leave whenever Sterling wants to.

Pastor Booth greets Sterling warmly, and even though the whole service is a little overwhelming, with so many people stopping by their pew offering well wishes that Sterling’s face starts to get tired from smiling, it’s actually really nice to be back. Sterling feels buoyed by the prayers and songs, momentarily letting herself get lost in Pastor Booth’s sermon, which is powerful and comforting and doesn’t require her to remember anything other than her commitments to the Lord and to being a good person.

It’s only after the service ends that things start to get a little strange. Sterling catches Luke’s eye and wants to talk to him, despite being unsure of what she’d say, but before she can get close Mrs. Creswell is tugging Luke in the opposite direction, almost like she wants to avoid him interacting with Sterling.

Weird. Though maybe not so weird, if Sterling broke his heart.

She hates the idea of that, but she doesn’t have time to dwell on it because April and Mrs. Stevens are still hovering near their own pew. Sterling knows that Mr. Stevens is in jail, though Blair has made it clear that there’s a lot more to the story, that it’s complicated in a way that requires Sterling to prepare herself mentally.

It’s a bit of an odd picture, Mrs. Stevens and April standing next to one another without Mr. Stevens’ outsized presence anchored between them. The two women don’t seem entirely at ease with one another. They never have, if Sterling really thinks about it.

Sterling focuses more specifically on April, who she notes looks pretty today. And like, objectively speaking, April is pretty. Sterling’s always known this; April being pretty is a fact that used to be mere observation, when they were friends, and then became something that Sterling was mildly (okay, maybe a little more than mildly) annoyed by, because of course it wasn’t enough for April to be the best student at Willingham, she had to be the most beautiful, too.

But now April’s prettiness means something else, Sterling supposes. Because finding someone attractive and being attracted to them are definitely different things, and it seems that Sterling is in the latter camp with April now. So when she looks at April, it doesn’t feel like she’s merely noticing that April is pretty, or feeling jealous or resentful or whatever.

She’s touched April. Like, in a sexual way. And according to Blair, she did a whole lot of staring before the touching. So does that mean that she’s checking April out? Like, has noticing April’s prettiness left the land of objective observation?

Did it ever live there, to begin with?

Sterling realizes that whatever her looking can be categorized as, it definitely is getting inappropriate in this moment. Also, April’s started to glance over at her. Not in a super obvious way; she’s talking to her mom and one of Mrs. Stevens’ church friends. But she keeps offering Sterling these little smiles that feel oddly private, like she’s letting her in on the beginning of a joke that Sterling hasn’t learned the punchline for yet.

Sterling figures that the staring is getting rude, so she takes a small step forward, deciding to just go for it and say hello to her girlfriend and her girlfriend’s mother.

But before she’s even left the pew Blair’s hand is clasping around her wrist, yanking her backwards. 

“What’re you doing?” Blair hisses.

“Oh, um.” Sterling points weakly in the direction of April and her mom. “I was gonna say hi.”

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

Sterling frowns. “Why?”

“Look, Sterl, I know we haven’t really gotten into this, but Mrs. Stevens is not your biggest fan.”

Sterling stomach jolts. She knew that the Stevens weren’t the most open-minded, but she thought that maybe seeing her daughter happy had softened Mrs. Stevens’ heart a bit.

“Because of the gay thing?” she whispers back to Blair.

Blair sucks in a breath though her teeth. “Um, sort of.”

“Sort of?” 

Blair glances around wildly, refusing to meet Sterling’s eyes. Sterling twists her wrist so she can squeeze Blair’s hand, murmuring in a low but clear voice, “Cullen.”

“This is a big one.”

“In that case, I’m Cullen-ing even harder.”

Blair sighs. “Fine. But I can't tell you here.”

--

“Bounty hunters?!” Sterling screeches, loud enough that the car might start vibrating. Or maybe it’s just her anxiety making the world feel off-balance. “You’re telling me that you and I were bounty hunters?!”

Blair winces. “I know it sounds…utterly insane, but it was actually the coolest fucking thing. I wish Bowser had let us keep doing it.”

“The dude from the hospital? I thought you said he was a new family friend!”

“He is! We just sort of met him under unusual circumstances.”

“What, catching bail-jumpers?”

“They’re called skips,” Blair provides.

“We have lingo?!” Sterling shakes her head. “You’ve got to be joking.”

“Not joking,” Blair says, and Sterling knows she’s telling the truth.

Which doesn’t make this situation any better.

Sterling closes her eyes, unable to fully process any of this. When she opens them, she glances around at their surroundings. 

“Why are we in a Yogurtopia parking lot?”

“Welllll,” Blair begins, opening her door with a flourish, “I thought maybe we’d go straight to the source.”

“Huh?”

“We worked out of here. With Bowser.” Blair shrugs. “Who knows, maybe being back in this place will jog your memory.”

Sterling doesn’t even know what to say to that, but she figures it’s worth a try, and she doesn’t really have an alternative to offer. She slowly gets out of the car, and when they walk into the shop the man from the hospital is standing behind the counter, wearing a silly visor and a bright apron.

“Oh Lord,” he mutters, but he appears to be fighting a smile.

“B-dawg!” Blair greets enthusiastically.

“We’ve talked about the nicknames, Blair.” He turns to Sterling. “How you holding up, kid?”

There’s an affection in his voice that catches Sterling off-guard, yet she finds herself oddly put at ease, despite the circumstance.

“Blair says that we used to work here,” she replies.

Bowser’s eyes go wide. “Yes, you did! Here at Yogurtopia. Serving yogurt. As teens do.”

Blair leans over the counter, popping a couple of gummy candies into her mouth before Bowser can swat her hand away. “She knows about the bounty hunting,” Blair announces around a mouthful of candy.

Bargain!” Bowser says loudly. “Bargain hunting! Y’all are great at sniffing out a deal.”

Blair gives him a weird look and Bowser points to a couple sitting at a round table in the corner. Sterling was so distracted that she hadn’t even noticed them.

“We have customers,” Bowser says through gritted teeth.

Blair’s mouth drops open in mock-surprise. “Omg, since when?!”

Bowser shakes his head, but Sterling suspects that his annoyance is at least in part a put-on. “Good to see you back here, Sterling. Even if your sister always finds a way to get on my last nerve.”

“You have endless nerves, when it comes to me,” Blair argues.

Everything about this is utterly bizarre, Sterling thinks as she watches the two of them volley gentle insults back and forth, but maybe the weirdest part is how comfortable Blair clearly is with this person who Sterling doesn’t even remember knowing. 

Their entire lives, they’ve known everything about each other. And Sterling supposes that maybe that hasn’t changed, that Sterling is, in fact, quite close with this man as well. 

But to witness Blair’s connection with him makes a strange feeling rise in Sterling’s chest, not unlike the way she felt the first time Blair went on a sleepover without her. It’s a sense of separation, like a little part of Sterling’s heart has been shaved off and leapt outside her body.

Before Sterling knows it the feeling is expanding until her eyes are burning. She feels wetness on her cheeks before she hears a rattling sob escape her lips. She clamps a hand over her mouth, but everyone in the shop clearly heard it, as four sets of eyes are suddenly locked onto her.

Blair is by her side in a flash. “Oh shit, Sterl, you okay?”

“I just need some air,” Sterling says shakily, stifling another sob as the tears start to flow down her cheeks.

“I’ve got it,” she hears Blair tell Bowser behind her back as Sterling pushes the door open.

Sterling doesn’t know where she’s going, just that she can’t be in that shop anymore, so she stomps around behind it, finding herself in front of an artfully spray-painted wall. She stares at it for a second, willing the image to flood her brain with a recognition that doesn’t surface.

“Hey,” Blair says, her voice tender and firm all at once. “Hey, I’m here, you’re okay.”

Sterling paces for another second before letting herself be held by Blair. Blair presses a kiss to her forehead and hugs Sterling fiercely, her smell blessedly familiar.

Sterling expects herself to start full-on sobbing, then, but instead her breathing starts to even out, her body kicking into a mode of resilience that’s more than a little surprising. 

“April,” she gasps out against Blair’s shoulder. “We brought her dad in?”

It’s one of the details Blair announced to her on their short car ride here, one that Sterling put on the back burner in favor of beginning to process the whole “teenage bounty hunters” thing.

“Yeah,” Blair replies simply.

Sterling lifts her head but still stays close as she asks, “And April knows.”

Blair nods. “You didn’t tell her at first, but then, um, her dad told her, and it was like this whole thing for a while.”

Sterling gulps. “I kept that from her?” She can barely imagine having anything to do with getting John Stevens arrested, but she really can’t imagine keeping something like from a person she cares about. “Why would I do that?”

“I think you didn’t want anything to get in the way.”

“I lied to her, and she still wants to be with me?”

“Well, it’s not like she was a total saint either, y’know?” Blair offers, stroking a hand through Sterling’s hair. “And let me tell you, that whole situation got a lot worse before it got better.”

“But we worked through it?” Sterling presses, oddly compelled.

“Yeah, you did. It definitely wasn’t an overnight thing, but at a certain point the two of you being together just started to feel kind of…inevitable.”

Inevitable. Sterling and April Stevens, inevitable? Like, fated to be together in some way?

It can’t be true.

And yet, Blair wouldn’t lie to her. Certainly not about this.

And, it seems, stranger things have happened.

“Can we get out of here?” Sterling asks dazedly.

“Of course,” Blair replies.

She doesn’t let go of Sterling’s hand the entire drive home.

Chapter Text

It is a truth universally acknowledged, Sterling thinks, that a young woman in possession of few of her memories must use her social media accounts to learn more about her life.

(Ever since April told her about the planned promposal, Sterling’s kind of had Pride and Prejudice on the brain.)

Sterling’s been more or less avoiding all social media since her return, pretty certain that combing through instagram would absolutely qualify as “too much, too fast.”

But the weekend before school starts back up, Blair has an all-day lacrosse training-slash-party at one of her teammate’s houses, and while she at first tries to convince Sterling to join her and then says she’ll just stay home, Sterling insists that she go and have fun. Which leaves Sterling at home, with only her phone and a long day ahead of her. 

Part of her wants to hang out with her parents, but there’s this intensity to them that Sterling doesn’t quite know how to react to. She doesn’t blame them, because she can’t imagine how painful it must have been to have their daughter fall into a coma and wake up with a year and a half of her life missing, but it’s just a little much, and she isn’t sure what to say to them right now.

So instead she takes a deep breath and starts scrolling.

Her most recent insta posts are of Chloe, which is an immediate comfort. There there are a few of Sterling and Blair: in the Volt, in the girl’s bathroom at Willingham, wearing those goofy visors behind the counter at Yogurtopia.

Sterling smiles a little, the familiarity of their closeness and their dumb camera faces—her pursed lips, Blair’s tongue sticking out—making her feel a little bit better.

And then she comes to a video.

She can see from the thumbnail that April is in it, the back of her ponytail unmistakable. Sterling closes her eyes briefly and presses play.

In the video, Sterling is clearly holding the phone and walking behind April, up some front steps that Sterling recognizes belonging to the Stevens’ house.

“And how does it feel, Miss Stevens," Video Sterling asks in a lofty tone, “to be named Fellowship Leader two years in a row?”

April spins to face her, smile radiant, but before she can answer Video Sterling adds, “Well, this is the first official year, to be accurate.”

April’s eyes widen, like Sterling’s just said something vaguely scandalous, but then she laughs. The sound is loud and unburdened and seems to bubble right out of the phone.

“Honestly? It feels right,” Video April replies. “I’d say I earned it, wouldn’t you?”

“This year? Absolutely,” Video Sterling says. April turns to lead them more fully into the house, which looks to be otherwise empty, while the camera lowers to film her bare calves.

Sterling flushes a little. Maybe Blair isn’t entirely wrong about the horndog thing.

Video Sterling appears to settle on a seat at the counter while Video April goes to the fridge.

So does this mean you’re going to be ordering me around?” Sterling asks.

“You mean more than I already do?” April quips with her head still in the fridge. Sterling now appears to be focusing the camera on her ass.

Good God, what’s wrong with her?

“You make a great point,” Sterling replies, and she can hear the grin in her own voice.

April turns to face the camera, one perfect eyebrow arched high. “End the video, Sterling.”

Her voice is low and commanding and makes something in Sterling’s stomach flip.

“Yes, ma’am!” Sterling hears herself squeak, and for half a second she thinks she might actually see them kiss before the video cuts off.

In the here and now, Sterling leaves the instagram app and just stares at her phone for a second. 

It’s one thing to hear about how she and April are as a couple, but it’s quite another thing to see it. Part of her wants to keep scrolling, to find every scrap of evidence she can and map it all out. She wonders if videos of them kissing are out there, and a weird part of her hungers to find one.

But instead she makes a different choice, finding her way to April’s number in her favorites before her brain can fully catch up to the action.

“Hey, do you want to go somewhere today?” Sterling asks when April picks up. “Some place that might trigger a memory?”

April, to her credit, doesn’t miss a beat.

“I think I know just the place.”

--

Sterling hasn’t been cleared to drive yet, plus losing one’s memory makes navigation a bit of a crapshoot, so April picks her up for their little adventure. Which is logistical and sweet all at once, but it also makes this whole thing feel even more like a date.

Which, Sterling supposes, it sort of is.

The date vibe is magnified by April’s choice to come to the door, rather than just wait in the car. Sterling told her she didn’t have to, to which April had texted back that she wasn’t raised in a barn, and also that she wanted to say hi to Sterling’s parents.

Because they’re all sort of buddies now, or something.

Debbie and Anderson both seem delighted to see April, sending the two of them off with an affectionate, “Have fun!” that feels oddly casual.

April looks good, Sterling notes as they walk to the car. She’s wearing a pale green sundress that floats up a little when she walks, and her hair is in this intricate half-braid thing that Sterling can’t stop staring at.

One of April’s hands hovers at her side, fingers flexing in Sterling’s direction, before she quickly retracts it to tug on the strap of her purse.

The sight makes Sterling’s heart ache a little as they climb into the car. God, for as weird as this is for her, it must be so hard for April, especially if they really are as in love as Sterling’s come to suspect they are.

“Music?” April prompts once their seatbelts are buckled.

“Sure,” Sterling agrees, before realizing—“Wait, I’m, like, totally behind the times, aren’t I?”

“Oh yeah, you wouldn’t believe how many songs Taylor Swift has released in the months you don’t remember.”

The statement shocks a laugh out of Sterling, since no one other than Blair has been bold enough to make memory loss jokes with her yet, and the lightness of it is kind of comforting.

April puts on the version of Fearless that Taylor apparently rereleased sometime in the last year and a half, and Sterling can’t help but stare over at her for most of it. 

The last first time she heard these songs was also with April, up in Sterling’s room at the age of nine. They were devouring all things Taylor back then, and it seems like not much has changed. Here she and April are, together again and listening to these same songs.

Except everything has changed. Because if Sterling really pays attention she can hear the ways in which Taylor’s voice has matured. And every time she glances over at April, she feels the energetic shift between them, too. 

They aren’t enemies anymore, thank God. But April was right when she said that when they’re together, it’s not like when they were kids, because they aren’t quite friends, either. They’re something different, something that seems to develop more clearly in Sterling’s mind each time she considers it.

Sterling knows Fearless (or, the old version of it) backwards and forwards, but April must have put it on shuffle (a thing Sterling thought she opposed, though it’s how Sterling likes to listen to music) because the next song that kicks in is "The Way I Loved You."

This song has never been a favorite of Sterling’s, despite Blair’s pronouncement that “it’s one of T Swift’s only true bangers.” There’s just something about the lyrics that always puts Sterling a little on edge, for reasons that she hasn’t thought too much about.

But now, with her eyes on April’s face and a swoop of nerves in her belly, Sterling forces herself to listen to the words:

“He opens up my door and I get into his car

And he says you look beautiful tonight

And I feel perfectly fine”

Sterling bites her lip to keep from gasping as the song hits the chorus. 

What had Blair said during their conversation the other day? “You realized that you wanted more."

Sterling blinks hard, tries to focus on her breathing.

Breaking down and coming undone

It’s a rollercoaster kind of rush

And I never knew I could feel that much

And that’s the way I loved you”

Maybe April feels Sterling’s eyes on her because she turns just then, offering Sterling another one of those soft little smiles. But this smile is less guarded than the ones at church, less guarded than Sterling can recall seeing April in years. 

Yet some part of Sterling knows that this is a thing she’s witnessed before. She doesn’t have a memory of it, not exactly; more like a familiar feeling, a rush of..butterflies?

When was the last time she felt butterflies?

Maybe not that long ago, in actuality, but in terms of what she can remember?

He can’t see the smile I’m faking

And my heart’s not breaking

‘Cause I’m not feeling anything at all”

What she has—had—with Luke was so good. But—

“You okay?” April asks.

Sterling tries to shake off the uneasy feeling rising in her chest.

“Yeah.”

“You can tell me if you’re not.” April’s tone is knowing, maybe because Sterling didn’t sound that convincing, or maybe because April has developed the ability to read Sterling without even trying.

She’s always been a quick study.

Sterling doesn’t say anything in response, but that doesn’t matter because they’ve arrived at their destination.

Sterling peers out her window quizzically as April parks the car. 

“The Fun Zone? I haven’t been here in forever!” She turns to face April. “Wait, have I?”

“We came here on our first date.”

“Oh.”

April shoots her a worried glance. “If it’s too much—”

“No! Not at all,” Sterling insists. Even if this place doesn’t trigger any memories, at the very least they’ll be able to play some games and be surrounded by other people, which will hopefully distract Sterling from the spiral she can feel herself rapidly approaching.

“Dance Dance Revolution?” Sterling suggests once they’re inside and have purchased their passes for the afternoon.

April wrinkles her nose, but her eyes are shining a bit, and the whole effect is strangely cute.

“Skee-ball,” she declares, leading them over to that section of the arcade with authority. “It’s what we played last time, after all.”

Sterling agrees, though she wonders if she could talk April into a game of Street Fighter 2 later.

She’s never been great at skee-ball, her arm movements a little too flailing and enthusiastic to be very precise. After throwing a couple of gutter balls she finds herself watching April instead, who seems to approach this game with the same level of focus that she approaches everything else with. April’s teeth are biting into her bottom lip and her right arm is poised in what Sterling is sure would be considered proper form for this game, if such a thing exists.

When April releases the ball the muscles of her forearms flex in this way that, bizarrely, makes Sterling’s entire body flood with warmth.

Whoa.

Well, that’s interesting.

“Admiring my form?” April teases, and it’s not not flirty.

“Admiring something,” Sterling mutters before she can stop herself. April swivels to face her with a raised eyebrow, which does nothing to lower Sterling’s body temperature.

“Did we make out after we did this?” she blurts out, the mortification setting in a second too late. “I mean—”

April’s jaw unhinges slightly. “Are you…remembering?”

So that answers that.

“No,” Sterling replies, watching a bit of hope drain out of April’s eyes. “I just, um. I feel like maybe I would have been, like…” 

“Yes?” April prompts, her lips starting to twitch into a smirk.

“I just—that’s what people do on dates, right?” Sterling finishes weakly.

“Sometimes. If the date goes well.”

“And our date went well?”

“Very well.”

Sterling is suddenly parched.

“You wanna get something to eat?” she suggests, her voice coming out squeakier than usual.

April snorts at her reaction but agrees, and Sterling buys them chicken tenders and tater tots and fountain drinks from the snack counter.

“Half Sprite, half iced tea, crushed ice?” April asks, walking backwards to the self-serve drink area with empty cups in hand. “A truly disgusting combination, I might add.”

Sterling really needs to stop being surprised by how well April knows her.

“Yes, please. And hey, don’t knock it till you’ve tried it!”

“I have tried it!”

“How’d I convince you to do that?”

In response Sterling earns another eyebrow raise. She’s still flushing by the time they sit down.

There’s a woman at the table behind them in a low-cut red top with a mermaid tattoo on her bicep. Normally Sterling wouldn’t think anything of the sight, or at least she doesn’t think she would, but now she finds herself curious. Because yeah, there’s the April thing, but there’s also, like, the being into girls thing. 

She studies the woman, noticing the pretty curve of her smile and the way the tattoo moves when she gestures and also, okay, her very nicely-shaped boobs.

Which are all things that used to seem relatively normal to notice, but now she wonders—

“Sterl?” April says. “Am I boring you?”

Sterling’s face is just going to be permanently red today, she decides.

“No, sorry.”

“You don’t need to be sorry.”

Sterling chews her straw, considering how to verbalize what she’s thinking as April takes a sip of her soda. 

“Boobs,” Sterling hears herself say.

Well, never let it be said that she isn’t direct.

April splutters, nearly choking on her drink. “Excuse me?” she practically gasps. “Is this, like, a feminist version of the penis game? Because if you’re gonna do that, at least go for vulva.”

Sterling chooses to ignore the way her heartbeat quickens hearing April Stevens say the word vulva (which isn’t a sexy word but somehow sounds filthy coming from April), instead taking a deep breath and asking, “Am I a boob person?”

April crosses her arms. “I don’t know, Sterling, are you?”

“I mean, I’m into girls, so…” 

She rakes a hand through her hair and lets out a loud sigh. When she looks up, April is staring at her mouth. And definitely not in a “you have food on your face” way.

“Sorry,” April mutters, glancing away.

“You’re allowed to look, you know,” Sterling points out, that funny swirling feeling returning to her stomach.

April clears her throat. “Back to boobs.”

“Right. So, um, I just figure, as my girlfriend, you know what I like. I’m trying to collect some data, here.”

April nods noncommittally. “Sure. But the data points I have to contribute seem likely to tamper with your results.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, shouldn’t your conclusion be based on how you feel now?”

Sterling frowns. “I don’t know how I feel now.”

“Of course you do. You just need to pay attention.”

Sterling frowns, mildly annoyed to be out-maneuvered by April but deciding she might as well try this method. She looks back over at mermaid tattoo lady, eyes roaming over her in what she prays is at least a somewhat subtle move. 

This time, Sterling really tries to pay attention, tuning out her thoughts as much as possible to concentrate on her body’s physical response. And it’s not like Sterling wants to march right over and kiss tattoo lady, but looking at the woman does make her feel a little warmer, and she doesn’t think she’d mind touching her. Specifically in the chest region.

Sterling refocuses on April. “Definitely bi. Definitely into boobs.”

And maybe that should feel scary to say, but it sort of feels like an exhale.

April smiles. “See?”

“Does it bother you? That I’d, like, notice other women?”

April shakes her head. “Not at all. Figuring out you’re queer is hard enough without having to do it twice due to memory loss. Throw in a surprise girlfriend…” She lets out a small laugh. “You most certainly get a pass.”

Sterling bites her lip, feeling oddly touched. “Oh. Well, thank you.”

And then—maybe because she has boobs on the brain, maybe because April has recrossed her arms in a way that puts her chest more fully on display, maybe because Sterling’s inhibitions have lowered slightly over the course of this evening’s activities—her gaze is quickly drawn downward, and she bites her lip harder. Because tattoo lady’s boobs might have made Sterling feel a little warm, but April’s—

“More data points?” April teases.

Sterling’s eyes quickly dart back upwards.

“You’re allowed to look, you know,” April tells her, and wow, Sterling might just have to resign herself to blushing for the rest of her life.

--

As always, the car ride back feels shorter. It’s dark now, and Sterling guesses that Blair’s probably returned home. She didn’t text Blair to let her know about today’s sudden plans, certain that Blair would have a million questions that Sterling wouldn’t be able to answer.

But if she is home, surely Debbie and Anderson have told her where Sterling has gone, and now Sterling thinks she might have even fewer answers to offer.

April pulls up at the bottom of the Wesley driveway, turning the car off before smiling at Sterling gently. 

“Thank you for suggesting this,” April says in a quiet voice.

“Thank you for making it happen,” Sterling replies. What she wants to say is “thank you for taking care of me,” and “thank you for knowing me,” and “I’m pretty sure being with you has made me feel things I’ve never felt before,” but that all seems a little intense for their first sort-of-date post-coma.

Still, Sterling wants to say more, so she offers, “This must be really hard for you. I mean, I can’t remember anything, but you remember everything.”

April nods, once, the smile slipping off her face. “It isn’t the easiest. But I’ve gotten very good at compartmentalization.”

“Is it…” Sterling swallows. “Is it too painful to be around me?” 

“No,” April replies immediately. “Being here with you like this is so much better than…” Her voice starts to shake a little, and Sterling has an instinctual urge to hold her hand. “Seeing you in that coma was… I thought I’d lost you. Again.”

April blinks rapidly like she’s fighting back tears. “Anyway, sorry, I don’t need to burden you with all that.”

This time Sterling does reach across the center console for April’s hand. April tenses for a second before slowly interlocking their fingers, staring down at Sterling’s hand like it’s something precious.

The contact isn’t what Sterling expected. April’s hand is warm and soft Sterling feels herself relax against it. Like she’s melting into a warm bath, or coming home.

“You’re so not a burden,” Sterling whispers, gaze flicking between their hands and April’s face.

April seems to be rapidly losing the battle against her tears, as her eyes are looking rather wet. “You should go inside.”

Sterling clears her throat and nods, giving April’s hand a little squeeze before regretfully breaking their contact.

April’s eyes resettle on her face, and Sterling would swear that April is fighting the urge to stare at Sterling’s mouth again.

“So this is where I’d kiss you goodnight, huh?” Sterling can’t resist asking.

“Not if I kissed you first.”

And that's such a silly thing to say, really, but Sterling hears herself gasp. Because she’s been on the receiving end of April’s unyielding sense of competition for years, now, but to experience it like this is something else entirely.

Sterling knows she’s exhibiting much less self-restraint than April as her own eyes volley between April’s eyes and her lips. She wonders what it would be like to kiss her, if April would push her away or melt into it, if her hands would slide into Sterling’s hair or grip her shoulders. She wonders how April likes to be kissed; is sure that new, bisexual Sterling knows just how to do it to make April moan and kiss her back harder.

Sterling can feel her heartbeat quickening as she leans forward and presses a brief kiss to April’s soft cheek. April’s eyes are wide and her mouth is forming a tiny O when Sterling pulls away.

“Goodnight, April,” Sterling murmurs before opening the car door.

“Goodnight, Sterling,” April calls after her, voice just a little rough.

Sterling doesn’t turn around once, but she knows that April is watching her until she steps back inside.

Chapter Text

“You know, clothes shopping would be a lot more fun if we went to a school where we actually got to choose our outfits,” Blair remarks, flicking through a rack of crop tops three at a time. “But instead we’re forced to wear uniforms, which is really just a way of indoctrinating us into a fascist, capitalistic—”

Blair,” Debbie sighs. “Can you fight one battle at a time, please? You already convinced your father to give up hunting.”

“You did?” Sterling gasps. “You’ve been working on that one for years! How’d you finally do it?”

Sterling would swear that her mom and Blair exchange a tense look over her head.

“Um, let’s just say he owed me one,” Blair replies, the ferocity drained from her voice. “Anyway, do you think I could pull this off?” She holds up an olive green strip of fabric that Sterling thinks is meant to be a shirt.

“I’ll answer that one: no,” Debbie declares, swiping the shirt out of Blair’s hand.

Mom! You’re being such a slut-shamer!”

“And you, my dear, are a high school student. Let’s try to find something that’ll cover at least two-thirds of your torso, okay?”

Blair harrumphs off, muttering something under her breath about female empowerment, while Sterling lets out a small laugh.

“That sister of yours,” Debbie exhales, voice heavy with both tiredness and affection. “I swear, she’s gonna have me turning gray any day now.”

“Oh, c’mon, Mom, you’re so far from that,” Sterling insists. “You’re beautiful! Honestly, we’re lucky to have your genes.”

Debbie lets her hand drop from the rounder of sweaters she was looking at, eyes widening in Sterling’s direction. 

Sterling frowns, squirming a little under the focus. “What?”

Debbie just stares at her for another long second, her eyes suddenly looking a little wet. “Nothing, honey, I just really love spending this time with you.”

Mom,” Sterling groans, more out of habit than any genuine annoyance.

Debbie steps forward, pulling Sterling into a quick, fierce hug. “I love you so much, sweetheart. And I love being your mom.”

Sterling wrinkles her nose as she pulls away. “My coma has made you really sentimental.”

A shadow passes over Debbie’s face—not the first one that Sterling has noticed since she woke up, though she’s chalked it up to residual fear about Sterling dying and sadness that she’s lost so many memories—but Debbie quickly shakes it off, returning to her rack of sweaters.

“What do you think of this one?” Debbie asks, holding up a blue sweater that Sterling doesn’t think she’d be caught dead in. “Too casual for bookclub?”

“Um, yeah? You never wear stuff like that.”

Debbie shakes her head. “You’re right, you’re right. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

Debbie quickly finds a sweater that's much more her, and the rest of their shopping trip passes fairly normally, but for reasons Sterling can’t quite pinpoint, she has a weird feeling in her stomach until she goes to bed that night.

--

April had mentioned, during their not-date date, that the two of them aren’t technically out at school. Prom was apparently going to be their big debut as a couple, which makes the thought of it extra heartbreaking in a way that Sterling can’t focus on too much because it makes her want to cry.

So Sterling walks into school on Monday knowing that according to the Willingham student body, she’s a free agent, but it’s another thing to feel it. Her entire high school (and middle school) career, she’s been attached to Luke, and she didn’t even realize how much of a security blanket that relationship gave her until now.

Everyone has questions and theories about what happened, though Blair provides a pretty fierce buffer, practically growling at anyone who dares get too close. Their parents reminded Sterling about twelve times that she can come home at any point if a full day feels too overwhelming, but Sterling desperately wants to feel normal, to be back in her element.

Even if she really has no clue what that means, anymore.

Ellen is as loving as ever, enveloping Sterling in a big hug and telling her that she prayed every night for Sterling’s health and safe return. In Fellowship, April leads the group in a slightly over-the-top but mostly very sweet “welcome back” ceremony.

At lunch, Sterling quickly finds Blair, who grabs her hand and pulls her over to what Sterling knows is April’s table, though April isn’t there yet.

“I thought we weren’t—” Sterling mutters, still deeply unsure of this new world order.

“People know y’all are friends,” Blair tells her, plopping down next to Ezequiel, who smiles almost warmly.

Hannah B. practically lunges across the table to reach for Sterling’s hands. “Sterling, oh my god, did you, like, go to the other side? Did you see Jesus?” She lowers her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Is he hot?”

Ezequiel snorts. “Shit, give the girl some breathing room.” He nods toward Sterling, not unkindly. “Good to see you, Eyes.”

Sterling blinks rapidly, still taking in the fact that the people she’s always sort of viewed as April’s minions are apparently her friends, now. “No Jesus-sightings,” she reports to Hannah, who looks a little disappointed. “Also, Eyes?”

Blair waves a dismissive hand. “It’s a whole thing, just go with it.”

“Okay,” Sterling replies with a shrug, snagging one of Blair’s fries. She figures a new nickname is just about the least of her concerns, right now. “Where’s April?”

“Beats me,” Ezequiel replies. “We thought she was with you.”

“In the third floor supply closet, I presume,” Blair adds with an eyebrow waggle.

Ezequiel nods. “Where else?”

“The supply closet?” Sterling echoes squeakily. “Doing what, exactly?”

“I’ll give ya three guesses,” Blair chuckles.

“Ooh, can I guess one?” Hannah asks. “Um, practicing hula hooping?” 

When Ezequiel shoots her a deadpan look, Hannah laughs. “Kidding! I know you’re talking about gay sex.”

Sterling chokes on her water. “We don’t…do that here, do we?” she asks as Blair lightly whacks her on the back.

Ezequiel throws his head back and laughs. “Oh honey, if that supply closet could talk.”

April, of course, chooses this moment to appear. And wow, okay, obviously Sterling has seen April in her uniform, like, a lot (saw her in it this very morning, for God’s sake) but has that skirt always fit her so well? And is her hair usually that shiny?

“What’s so funny?” April asks as she sits down beside Hannah. She gives Sterling another one of those private smiles, as if Sterling’s face wasn’t red enough, already.

“I’m learning that when it comes to this lunch table, our secret is very much out,” Sterling announces. “Also, the supply closet? Have we have no self-restraint?”

April looks like she’s deciding between murdering her friends and breaking out into a huge belly laugh.

“You talking to me about restraint is the definition of the pot calling the kettle black,” April replies lowly, leaning forward on her elbows. And Sterling knows she does that for the sake of maintaining some level of privacy, but the action brings her face close enough that Sterling can see every fleck of color in her eyes, and it’s really quite a lot.

Sterling kind of wants to keep this patter up, because she feels oddly comfortable sitting at this table with April and her friends, but instead the words that she hears herself saying are, “Why don’t people know about us?”

Blair lets out a loud exhale as April sits back in her seat, eyebrows flying up her forehead, and Sterling gets the distinct feeling that she said something wrong.

“Gee, y’all, I think Mrs. Patterson is putting out a fresh tray of brownies,” Blair says loudly. “Ezequiel? Hannah? Shall we?”

Ezequiel stands silently, while Hannah chirps, “Okay, but I can’t eat more than four because that’s how my nana died,” as she follows behind him and Blair.

“Should I not have asked that?” Sterling murmurs once it’s just her and April. “It just seems, like, well, it’s kind of an open secret. What’s the big deal?”

April squares her shoulders, a posture Sterling instantly recognizes from debate tournaments. A posture that Sterling used to think made her feel nervous, though now she wonders if it was something else.

“There’s a difference between our friends knowing and everyone knowing.”

“But we were planning to come out at prom, right?” Sterling points out. “And our parents know, why—”

“It’s not that easy for me, Sterling,” April says, her voice suddenly hard. “This has been—we’ve had many discussions about this. We had a plan that we’d both agreed to, and now…”

“Well, obviously the plan has to change.”

“Don’t you think I know that?” April runs a hand through her hair, and Sterling stares at her fingers for probably a second too long. “God, you’ve been changing my plans since the day you kissed me.”

Sterling’s eyes start to sting. “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

“It’s not. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me. But I’m not like you. I can’t jump into things headfirst.”

“I’m not like that, either!”

April presses her lips together. “You are. You just…”

“Don’t remember,” Sterling supplies. The statement seems to deflate whatever this argument was, but the tension still lingers. “I’m sorry.”

“It isn’t your fault.”

Sterling lets out a shaky breath, willing herself not to start full-on sobbing in the middle of lunch. She feels that similar pull to take April’s hand, but she doesn’t know how well that would go over, here.

“Do you miss her?” she asks quietly.

April looks up at her with tired eyes. “Miss who?”

“Me.”

“You’re right here,” April says weakly, but Sterling shakes her head.

“April, it’s okay. Please don’t lie to me.”

April swallows audibly, brushing her fingers beneath one eye. “Yeah. I miss you every day.”

Sterling nods, wishing the truth didn’t feel so much like a knife inside her chest.

--

Sterling tracks Luke down after school, needing to see him despite her knowledge that, inevitably, things will be weird.

She finds him in the parking lot with a guitar slung over his back—that’s new—and a creaky smile on his face when he registers her presence. 

“Sterling,” he says softly. “It’s really good to have you back.”

Her name sounds different in his mouth than April’s; softer, more familiar. The sound makes her heart ache a little.

“Can I hug you?” she asks.

He nods and she steps forward into his arms, letting herself be fully enveloped. His smell is warm and comforting and so distinctly boyish after a few days spent around April.

“You know,” she tells him when they pull apart, “the last thing I remember is being your girlfriend.”

“I heard,” he replies, awkwardly shifting his feet. It reminds her of when they were much younger, in the days leading up to him asking her out for the first time. Except instead of anticipation she feels confusion, because there’s something almost formal in his stance. “Are you okay?”

“I’m…figuring some stuff out,” she settles on. “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

She takes a deep breath, gathering her words. “Do you think us breaking up was the right choice?”

It’s direct in a way that she knows makes him nervous, as evidenced by the way he slides a hand behind his neck. He seems to consider his answer for a few long seconds before replying, “I definitely didn’t at first. But it’s sort of like… remember when you taught me about rational and irrational numbers?”

“Yeah?”

“It totally didn’t make sense at first, like calling a number irrational just seemed mean, y’know?”

Sterling laughs a little at the memory of Luke’s frustration.

“But eventually I got it. Sort of,” Luke continues. “And even though it didn’t make sense all the time, I understood that some numbers are just irrational, and that’s okay. And I think you and me are kind of like that.”

“Irrational?”

“No. Just…not supposed to be together. And that’s okay.” He shrugs. “Plus, April’s really cool.”

Sterling’s heart starts beating faster. She’s fairly certain that in her discussions with both April and Blair about who knows what, Luke’s name did not come up.

“What about April?” she asks, trying and failing to sound casual.

He rolls his eyes good-naturedly. “C’mon, Sterl, I know I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I can figure a few things out. And no offense, but you’ve never been great at the whole subtle thing.”

Sterling flushes. “Oh.”

“Anyway, I get it. She’s pretty awesome.”

Sterling thinks about April’s intensity at lunch today, her pretty eyes shining across the table, the way that even though she was clearly struggling, she didn’t hesitate to say that Sterling kissing her was the best thing that ever happened to her.

“Yeah,” Sterling agrees. “I guess she is.”

Chapter Text

Sterling will be the first to admit that the thing that sets her off is deeply stupid.

Ellen’s late to Bible Study, and Franklin has somehow gotten the class engaged in a debate about the latest Marvel movie, and Blair whips around from her seat next to Sterling’s with her hot take on which action sequence was the best.

And Sterling doesn’t even like those dumb movies—in fact, it’s become kind of a tradition that on the weekends a new one opens, Blair and their dad go see it, while Sterling and their mom pick out a romantic comedy to watch at the same theater—but she’s still absorbed some knowledge of them through sheer osmosis, and having zero point of reference for the last year and a half of these films weirdly hurts. Not because of the movies themselves, obviously, but because it’s yet another thing she can’t join in on, yet another conversation that leaves her feeling stupid and out of the loop and with more questions than answers. Over something as silly as a superhero movie she doesn’t even care about.

Sterling’s still lightly stewing about the situation when she gets to April’s that afternoon. 

(April volunteered to tutor Sterling on the math and English units that she doesn’t remember; Debbie had insisted that Sterling still be allowed to graduate with her peers, and apparently both she and Ellen were able to plead Sterling’s case to the administration. One afternoon at the Wesley house April had overhead Debbie and Anderson talking about tutoring options and announced that she could do it, which was a solution that seemed to make sense for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being the fact that Sterling knows April likes telling her what to do, and Sterling kind of gets the sense that the feeling is mutual.)

Now, as Sterling tries to formulate an opening paragraph on her essay about the influence of Emily Dickinson on twenty-first century poets, her fingers stab at the keys of her laptop, and her eyes start to burn.

“Hey,” April calls over from her desk. 

She’d insisted that Sterling take the bed, since that’s where Sterling liked to do her work, before. April’s mom is due home at six, and April set an alarm for five-thirty as soon as they arrived. A buffer, she’d explained, to get Sterling home comfortably. The unspoken part being that run-ins between Sterling and Mrs. Stevens are to be avoided.

Sterling glances up from her laptop, seeing April’s face creased with concern.

“What’d that laptop do to you?” April asks.

Sterling bites her lip, really wanting to avoid crying again, since it feels like that’s all she does in front of April.

“Nothing,” she mutters.

April seems to consider her next move before closing her own laptop and standing from her desk. She stretches her arms overhead (and Sterling absolutely does not stare at the patch of skin that becomes visible when her shirt rides up, thank you very much) before sitting down on the edge of the bed.

“You’re a terrible liar,” April remarks, not unkindly.

“I lied to you about your dad, didn’t I?” Sterling bites back, the words coming out harsher than she intended.

April’s eyebrows fly up. “Yes,” she acknowledges. “And we worked through that.” She offers Sterling a small smile. “What’s on your mind?”

God, April is just so…so patient. So loyal. Sometimes it feels like more than Sterling deserves.

Sterling closes her eyes briefly, accepting that tears will be sliding down her cheeks when she opens them. She doesn’t quite know how to verbalize that her life still barely makes any sense, that every day that she wakes up without her memories makes the pit in her stomach grow bigger.

“What should we do about prom?” she hears herself asking. It’s definitely not the biggest question on her mind, but it’s easier to start with than something bigger.

 April clears her throat. “I figured we wouldn’t go.”

“Why?”

April gives her an are you kidding me right now? face, which is fair.

“We could still come out,” Sterling says. “I mean, I don’t think we should be hiding.”

“What are we hiding?” April asks softly. “It’s not like we’re… I don’t think that a big public announcement would make anything easier, right now. But also, we have a month. A lot could change by then.”

“What if it doesn’t?”

April frowns. “What do you mean?”

Sterling rolls her lips together, preparing to voice the fear that’s been rattling inside her so loudly this last week. “What if my memory doesn’t come back?”

“By prom?”

“Ever.”

April’s expression falters for just a second before she sets her jaw, resolute. “It will. It has to.”

“It might not. Would you still want to be with me?”

“Would you?”

It’s another question that Sterling doesn’t even know how to begin answering. April is still looking at her gently, but there’s a bit of a challenge behind her eyes, a steeliness, should Sterling say something that could hurt.

Sterling glances down at their hands, noticing the way that April’s pinky seems to stretch imperceptibly toward her own.

“When we got together this time,” April murmurs after a long silence, “I told myself I wouldn’t lose you again.”

What if you already have? Sterling thinks but doesn’t say. What if we’ve all lost me, and I never come back?

Sterling pushes her laptop off to the side, hugging her knees into her chest. She’s sort of just openly weeping at this point, but she’s past the point of caring. “I just feel so…useless.” 

“You’re not useless.”

This time, it’s April who reaches out, one of her hands coming to cover Sterling’s foot. Sterling is wearing socks but she still feels a prickle against her skin at the contact. There’s been so little of it, she realizes, in all the time they’ve spent together lately.

“I don’t even know who I am,” Sterling points out. “Or…or what I want.”

April sighs. “Look, you may not understand everything that you don’t remember. But it’s not like you’re just a blank slate. You still have sixteen years' worth of memories. Plus, your feelings now aren’t inherently invalid just because you’re missing some connective tissue.”

Sterling stares up at her, a little in awe at the way April always seems to know what to say. “How are you…?”

“What?”

“So good.”

April’s eyes widen, another reaction Sterling wishes she could read. She blinks at Sterling for a second and then reaches for her phone. The movement shifts her hand off of Sterling’s foot, which suddenly feels a lot colder.

“Can I show you something?” April asks.

Sterling nods, and April scrolls through her phone for a second before finding whatever she was looking for. 

“If it’s too much, tell me, okay?”

She moves so she and Sterling are side by side and presses play on a video of Sterling; it looks to be something she filmed herself in her bedroom. 

“You sent this to me the morning after we got together,” April says quietly.

Sterling swallows and focuses on the image of herself.

Good morning!” Video Sterling trills, sporting the biggest grin Sterling has ever seen. “I just, um, I just woke up, and all I wanna do is see you again. Last night was the best. I can’t believe…” She bites her lip, seemingly overcome. “I feel so lucky, April. I’ve honestly been wanting this for so long, and, like, in case you couldn’t tell I’m very, very into you. So, um, I’m just really happy that we’re finally official. You make me feel…I don’t think I even have words.” 

There's a shout off-camera that Sterling suspects is Blair, and Video Sterling blushes. “Okay, I’m gonna go before Blair totally kills the vibe. But I hope you have a great day, and I’ll talk to you later, ’kay?” Video Sterling blows a kiss before the footage cuts out.

Sterling stares at the phone in April’s hand for what feels like a small forever. Part of her wants to reach inside of it and pull that girl out, to ask her a million questions or demand she take Sterling’s place. Part of her wants to watch that video again a dozen times, to memorize the curve of her own smile, one that’s brighter than any she’s ever seen herself wear before. 

And another part of her wishes she’d never seen this, because it’s somehow both way too close and way too far. It’s like when she was seven, and their mom took her and Blair to a butterfly exhibit at the zoo. The butterflies were all around them, fluttering and radiant, but Sterling couldn’t reach out and touch them because they were too delicate, and while her head understood that her heart pounded with confusion and want.

“Maybe I shouldn’t have shown you that,” April whispers, trying and failing to discreetly wipe a tear off her cheek. 

“I seem really happy,” Sterling replies, unable to confirm or deny whether seeing the video was a good idea.

“You were.” April sets the phone down slowly. “But if you don’t remember, if you never remember, then I don’t want to hold you back. You shouldn’t be with someone you don’t love.”

“April—”

“And I don’t want to be with someone who doesn’t want me.”

“Who says I don’t want you?”

The question is out of Sterling’s mouth before she can stop herself. April’s head darts up sharply, her gaze locking onto Sterling’s, bright and intense as ever. 

Sterling’s stomach has been doing all sorts of uncomfortable things since she woke up, but now the way it swirls is almost pleasant. 

And definitely overwhelming.

“I’m sorry,” she hears herself saying. “I’m not trying to, like, lead you on.” 

She goes to stand up when a hand clasps around her arm, just above the elbow.

“Sterling—”

Like a magnet, Sterling is pulled back down. Not by the force of April’s hand, but by something greater. April starts to pull away but Sterling covers her hand with her own.

“Do that again,” Sterling says.

“Do…?”

Sterling tugs April’s hand up on her arm just a little higher and squeezes it. “Tighter,” she instructs.

“What are you…?”

Sterling closes her eyes. There’s a piece of something, a fragment. She can almost reach out and touch it.

Willingham. She can hear people around her. Cheering, maybe?

On the bed, April follows orders, gripping Sterling’s arm tighter, and—

“We were in the hallway,” Sterling murmurs, still keeping her eyes closed. “You were angry.”

April’s face, flushed red. April’s mouth, forming the word, “No!”

“You screwed me over then and you screwed me over now.”

The phrase comes to her in a flash, but it’s not the words, it’s—

“You grabbed my arm,” Sterling says aloud. “You grabbed my arm and it was like this—”

An electric current, running throughout Sterling’s entire body. More powerful than anything she’s ever felt.

“Sterling,” April breathes beside her. “Are you okay?”

It’s like her heartbeat is everywhere, her pulse is thrumming and her stomach is bottoming out and she’s hot between her legs.

“Just wanted to congratulate you,” this boy is saying, but Sterling can’t be here. She can’t be here because April is walking away and something is rising in her, something urgent and she has to—

“The supply closet,” Sterling says. “I went there and I—”

Her hand down her skirt. April’s smile. Her rage. Her fingers on her necklace. Sterling can feel it; she’s building toward something and she’s warm and wet and all she needs is—

In the room now, April’s hand is still on her arm.

In the memory, Sterling thinks of April’s hand, dreams of it touching her, and finally finally finally—

“Oh my god,” Sterling breathes as she opens her eyes. Her heart is pounding and she knows she’s flushed. “Oh my god.”

April stares at her. “Sterl, do you remember?”

“It’s—” Sterling tries. It’s almost too much to look at April right now, when all she can feel is the want of being in that room, the yearning to have April touch her everywhere. “It’s—it’s just a little piece. It cuts out, but…”

“The debate tournament,” April says quietly, her own blush growing rapidly. “You told me after.”

“Oh my god,” Sterling repeats. 

She’s breathing hard, forcing herself to hold April’s gaze. There’s something new in April’s eyes now, or perhaps it’s something old but a thing Sterling now can recognize.

Hunger.

“April,” she exhales. Her eyes flick over April’s face, all the features she’s seen a million times, but now she sees them in a different way, sees them the way she saw them in that supply closet. Now she looks at April’s lips and doesn’t just wonder what they would be like to kiss; she wants it. 

Wants her.

“April.”

From beside April on the bed, the alarm sounds.

April swallows, and Sterling traces the movement with her eyes. 

“I need to take you home,” April says softly, her hand retreating back into her own lap.

No, Sterling wants to say. Don’t take me home. Touch me again. Make me remember.

“Do you think if we…” Sterling starts to ask, but April shakes her head.

“Get your stuff together.”

--

The ride home is virtually silent. Sterling’s head is spinning, her whole body is throbbing. She wants relief, and she’s a little afraid that if she speaks to April, the only words that she’ll get out will be a proposition.

And she doesn’t know if she’s ready for that.

“Text me when you get home,” she says weakly when they reach her house.

April nods, looking like she wants to say something more before offering a tight smile and driving off.

Sterling almost trips over her own feet as she walks to the door. She doesn’t know what to do with this but she also knows it’s a memory—her first memory—and she’s desperate to tell Blair.

She flings open the door, wondering how quickly she can get Blair away from their parents before she accidentally blurts out that she remembers her first time masturbating in front of them.

But when she walks in, she hears raised voices. Bordering on shouting, honestly, which never happens in her family.

She can’t quite make the words out; she can hear Blair and both of their parents, but they’re all talking over one another.

Sterling stands near the stairs, both curious and a little frightened, as she picks out her mom’s voice, loud and panicked: “Blair, this isn’t so simple. We just got her back. I can’t lose her again. Not after—“

“And you can’t do that to her again, either. I won’t let you!” Blair nearly yells. “We can’t keep lying to her.”

At that, Sterling steps around the corner, and her mom, dad and sister all whip around to face her, the argument immediately dying. It would almost be comical if Sterling wasn’t so freaked out.

But Sterling knows this is about her, can feel it in the pit of her stomach. It’s the weird little looks they’ve all been exchanging, the shadows that cross her mom’s face, the fact that this isn’t the first conversation to come to an abrupt stop as soon as Sterling enters the room.

“Lying to me about what?”

Chapter Text

“Lying to me about what?”

Each member of Sterling’s family stares back at her with undeniable panic in their eyes, and Sterling feels her stomach drop.

“Oh my god, what’s going on?”

Debbie sniffs loudly and straightens her cardigan. “Honey, it’s—

“Why don’t we—” her dad starts.

Sterling fixes her gaze on Blair. “Cullen.”

Blair sucks in a shaky breath. “Sterl—”

“Cullen,” Sterling repeats, her voice low and demanding. “You promised. You have to tell me the truth.”

It’s like watching a tennis match or something, the way the three of them keep glancing at one another. Sterling could throw up. She hates this, whatever this is. Being out of the loop about a Marvel movie is one matter, but clearly she’s missing something big, here, something that even Blair is hesitating to tell her.

“Sterling,” their mom sighs eventually. “Can I give you a hug?”

Sterling frowns. “Um, okay?”

Debbie exchanges another worried look with Anderson, and they step forward almost in unison, engulfing Sterling in a fierce embrace. It’s bordering on desperate, and it does nothing to quell Sterling’s rising anxiety.

Sterling can hear her dad sniffling against her hair, can smell the warm, familiar scent of her mom’s perfume, but there’s little comfort in the hug. Especially when Blair is suddenly behind Sterling, declaring, “Let me get in on this,” before wrapping her arms around Sterling’s middle.

“We love you so much,” Debbie whispers. “So, so much, Sterling.”

“You’ll always be our baby girl,” Anderson says hoarsely.

Sterling manages to pull out of the hug, feeling claustrophobic and terrified. Her family just stares back at her, teary-eyed, and Sterling’s heart thuds with clarity.

“Oh god, I’m dying, aren’t I?” she asks.

“Sterling—” Anderson cuts in.

“That’s why you guys have been acting so weird! I’m dying and you couldn’t bear to tell me but now I only have months to live!”

“That’s not it,” Blair says firmly.

Sterling gasps. “Weeks to live?”

“You’re not dying,” Debbie says.

Sterling’s eyes fill with tears. “You’re dying?”

“No.”

“Then who’s dying?”

“Nobody’s dying!” Blair exclaims, throwing her hands up.

“Though you might feel like killing us when this is all said and done,” Anderson mutters, before shooting an apologetic wince at Debbie.

“Mom,” Blair murmurs. “C’mon.” 

There’s a different look in Blair’s eyes now, one that Sterling can’t entirely recognize, but it somehow makes her look older. Weathered, almost, like she’s crossed some invisible threshold into adulthood.

Whatever is going on, Debbie seems to be in charge of it, because she’s the one to finally lead them to the living room. Blair and Sterling take the couch and Blair immediately grabs Sterling’s hand, while their parents sit opposite, also clasping hands.

Debbie lets out a long, slow exhale, an exhale with a note of finality behind it. “I really hoped we’d do this in your therapist’s office.”

Sterling’s forehead crinkles. “Since when do I have a therapist?” She shakes her head. “But wait, no, you need to say whatever it is now because I’m seriously losing my mind—“

Debbie nods. “I know, sweetheart. I just want to ask one thing of you, okay? Listen until the end. You’re going to have a lot of questions, and you’re going to be confused and angry, and that’s okay. When we’re done talking, you can take the space you need. But right now, I want you to listen. Can you do that?”

“Of course I can.”

Sterling feels like she’s on the top of a rollercoaster, her stomach swirling with the possibilities of what could be awaiting her. Blair squeezes her hand, which would be grounding were it not for the intense anxiety radiating off of Blair.

Debbie looks to Anderson, who offers a tiny nod, and then she takes another deep breath.

“Okay. Now I just want to check, you still don’t remember anything about the night of your school lock-in last year, right?”

Sterling considers the strange, intense burst of memory from earlier this afternoon. She knows it was something significant, but she’s pretty certain it didn’t take place on the night of the lock-in.

She’s also pretty certain that she doesn’t want to get into that right now.

“No,” she confirms.

Debbie presses her lips together, and Sterling isn’t sure if that’s the answer she was looking for.

“Alright,” Debbie says. “Well, let’s start at the beginning. I know I’ve kept a lot of my past from you girls, and the reason for that is because I didn’t have the happiest childhood. My parents were…well, they were difficult people. There was a lot of conflict in our house, and not a whole lot of peace.”

Sterling’s mind unwittingly drifts to April, to the way she never talks about her dad and insisted on hustling Sterling out of the house before her mom arrived home.

“Our house wasn’t like this house,” Debbie continues. “We didn’t have money, or access to nice things. And when I say ‘we,’ I’m not just referring to my parents and I.” She swallows, hard. “I had—have—an identical twin sister. Dana.”

Sterling lets out a short gasp. “We have an aunt? Why didn’t you tell us?”

“Just you wait,” Blair mutters beside her.

Debbie raises an eyebrow in Blair’s direction but keeps talking. “Dana and I, we never got along. We fought over everything, and our parents fed our rivalry, honestly. I couldn’t wait to get out of there. One day my parents and I got in a huge fight, and I said some…some terrible things. Then I just left, and right after that, our parents died.”

“Oh, Mom,” Sterling sighs. “That’s awful.”

Debbie studies Sterling for a long moment. “I met your father soon after, and when we fell in love, I thought that maybe it didn’t matter where I came from, because now I could start over. I thought I could pretend like everything in my past didn’t exist. We got married, I got pregnant, and then right before I was due to give birth, Dana reached out to me.

“She had just given birth, herself. Had heard I’d married a man from a wealthy family, and she wanted money, so I went to visit her. But she’d changed. Fallen in with some rough, hateful people. She’d never been the easiest person, but now…now I barely even recognized her. I knew that that little baby deserved better.”

Debbie’s eyes prick with tears. “I looked into that sweet little face, so innocent, and I couldn’t leave her there. So your father and I made a deal with Dana. We’d take the baby, and she’d get her money.”

Sterling frowns, confusion and something else, something vast and unnamable, rising inside of her. “Blair and I have a cousin?”

Blair squeezes her hand tighter. “Sterl,” she whispers.

Sterling looks at Blair, at her mom, at her dad. “What is it?”

But the answer is there. It's there in the set of her father’s jaw, in the tears welling in her mother's eyes, in the way that Blair’s grip on her hand is actually starting to hurt.

“What?” Sterling breathes, because maybe the thing that she’s imagining isn’t the truth; it can’t be, surely, because it’s too terrible to even be real.

“Sterling,” Debbie breathes, and an eternity passes before she says, “that baby was you.”

Sterling thinks her mouth forms the word no but she’s pretty sure no sound comes out. Or perhaps the sudden ringing in her ears is keeping her from hearing the word. She can’t—it can’t—it’s not—

“Sweetheart,” Debbie says in a rush. “This is where I need you to stay with me, okay?”

And Sterling can’t even move, can barely breathe, so she doesn’t really have a choice.

“We brought you home,” Debbie continues, voice trembling. “And then a couple of weeks later, Blair was born. And honey, it was like magic with you two. You would be crying and we’d put Blair in the crib with you, and suddenly you’d stop. You were the only one who could get Blair to smile. Y’all were sisters—twins—in every single way that mattered. And when I looked at you together, I knew you’d never feel the way Dana and I felt about each other.

“Your daddy and I planned to tell you. But we also never wanted you two to feel differently about one another, or like you weren’t equally loved. And as time went on, Dana started getting involved with rougher crowds, and we worried about your safety if you knew the truth. By the time you would have been old enough to understand, it just felt—it felt like the better choice, to let the two of you go on living as the sisters you were always meant to be.”

At some point Blair started rubbing circles on Sterling’s back, and as Sterling starts to feel a little light-headed she focuses on the contact, on the way her sister is trying to comfort her.

Except Blair’s not her sister. Was never her sister.

It was all a lie.

This is where Anderson finally picks up the story, clearing his throat and saying, “In the last few years, Dana started demanding more money. She began threatening our family. We tried to pay her off, but eventually it got to be too much. So we planned to have her move away. But she…she had other ideas. The night of the lock-in, she impersonated your mother and kidnapped you.”

“But we found you,” Blair interjects, voice rough with tears. “Bowser and I—we got you.”

“And right before the police arrived,” Anderson says, “Dana told you that—that biologically, you are her daughter. And now she’s in prison. Where, if you ask me, she belongs.”

Debbie offers a watery smile. “Ever since then, we’re been trying like hell, pardon my French, to figure all of this out with you girls. We found a therapist that y’all seem to really like, and we’ve been working hard—all of us—to get back on track. Or, a better track. A more honest one.”

Debbie leans forward a little. “Darling, I am so, so sorry. I’m sorry for lying for so many years. I’m sorry for hiding my past and yours. I’m sorry that it probably feels like your world is ending right now. But please hear this: your father, Blair and I love you more than you will ever know. And one thing I am not sorry for is bringing you into our family. Because you, my sweet girl, you belong with us. You made me a mother as much as Blair did. And nothing will ever change the way I feel about you.”

“That’s right,” Blair whispers fiercely. “This is all so incredibly fucked up, obviously, but we’re still sisters.” She exhales shakily. “We’ll always be sisters.”

And then no one is talking. The silence seems to stretch for minutes. Hours, possibly; Sterling doesn’t even know what time is anymore, doesn’t know what anything is anymore. She sits there, hand still in Blair’s but her fingers having gone slack, gaping like a fish. She can feel tears behind her eyes but they refuse to fall. It’s like her body and her brain are holding her in suspended animation, not letting her tip fully down the slope of the rollercoaster. 

“Sterling?” her dad (or not her dad, oh god) prompts. “Do you want to say anything?”

Saying something requires words, and Sterling doesn’t think she has words, right now. The question that finally works its way out, bizarrely enough, is, “Who else knows?”

Debbie frowns, clearly a little surprised as she answers, “Just us and the therapists. Yours and Blair’s, and mine and your father’s.”

“And April,” Blair murmurs. “You told her a while back.”

Sterling wasn’t certain why she asked that question but now she understands: she was looking for an out. Because she can’t be here. This is a house of lies; everything feels phony right now and she can’t stay.

Every memory is tainted, every birthday, every photo album, every utterance of “Mom” or “Dad.” None of it was real. None of it.

Sterling stands on shaking legs and just manages to get to the toilet before vomiting in it. Blair is there in a flash, rubbing her back again, but this time Sterling shrugs her off. When she can stand she shoves the door closed and splashes some water on her face.

Her face. Which she’d always thought was her mother’s and it is, but not—

Sterling can feel the need to sob rising in her but she pushes it down as best she can, because if she falls apart it’ll be too easy to collapse into her mom’s—into Debbie’s—arms, and she can’t have that.

“I have to go,” she announces once she opens the bathroom door.

“Sterling,” Debbie pleads, stepping closer. “I understand, but I would love to talk more—”

“You said I could take the space I needed,” Sterling says, her voice oddly toneless and robotic. 

“I know, honey, but I want you to be safe—”

“Blair, can you take me?”

Blair’s face is streaked with tears, but she nods and grabs her keys without another word.

Sterling follows behind her, and doesn’t look back.

--

“You don’t have to run away,” Blair tells her in the car. “I mean, I totally get the instinct to, but believe it or not, we were actually kind of starting to work through this shit before—”

“Take me to April’s,” Sterling instructs, the command coming out before she’s fully thought it through. 

“I’ll go with you, I can—"

“I can’t.”

“I know, but—”

Blair.” The name feels hard and hollow in her mouth, and Blair must hear it too because her jaw snaps shut. She’s silent for the rest of the car ride.

“Do you want me to bring you anything?” she asks when they arrive. 

The question seems utterly ridiculous in this moment, because what could Blair possibly bring her that would make anything better?

“No,” Sterling responds, halfway to a laugh at the absurdity of it all.

“I love you,” Blair calls behind her, but Sterling can’t muster a reply. 

She feels like the walking dead as she plods up the Stevens’ front steps, just aware enough to say a silent prayer that Mrs. Stevens doesn’t answer the door.

God is at least choosing to listen in this particular moment, because it’s April who opens the door.

“What’s wrong?” she asks immediately.

“They told me,” Sterling says simply.

April’s lips part, and God, was it really just today that Sterling was hungrily staring at those lips? That she was worried about prom, of all things?

“Oh, Sterl,” April breathes. She reaches for her keys, grasping Sterling’s hand firmly and leading her back down the stairs.

“What are you…?”

“We’ll go to the lake house,” April says with authority. “We can spend the night there, if you want. I’ll tell my mom I’m staying at Hannah B.’s.”

Sterling thinks the polite thing to do would be to refuse, but she doesn’t have the capacity for politeness right now. She lets April help her into the car and closes her eyes. April doesn’t ask anything of her, just turns on some oldies station and drives them in silence.

Sterling couldn’t say how long it takes them to arrive, just that it’s starting to get dark by the time April is opening her car door.

April leads her inside, past the wooden dock that Sterling used to jump off of in the summers and into the house that she always had such mixed feelings about as a kid. Because John Stevens was there, and Sterling hated the sound of his voice, but April was there, too, and that pretty much made everything okay.

Once the front door is closed April spins around to face her. “What do you need?” April asks, her face so open and concerned, and that’s when the dam breaks.

Sterling feels herself tipping forward, feels April’s strong arms encircle her, as sobs start to wrack her body.

She cries for all of it, for all of them, for the fact that she wanted the truth and she got it: not some neat, tidy, easy thing but this messy, horrible secret.

She cries for the fact that hours ago she thought she didn’t know herself and now that’s somehow even worse; for the fact that the few certainties in her life aren’t even certain anymore; for the fact that the family she’s always loved without complication is a lie, isn’t even real.

She cries until she is boneless in April’s arms, until she’s so tired that she thinks she could sleep for a hundred years. 

April keeps right on holding her, and doesn’t let go.

Chapter Text

Sterling wakes up in a room that’s not her own. 

For about five terrifying seconds she thinks that it’s happened again, that she’s somehow lost even more time, before remembering that she’s in one of the guest rooms at April’s lake house.

She’s still in her clothes from yesterday, the button on her school pants digging painfully into her stomach, but when she rolls over she sees that April has laid out some pajamas for her on the dresser. It’s one of her old favorite sets that she’s been looking for ever since coming home from the hospital, and the note on top reads:

You left these here months ago. Thought they’d be more comfortable than your uniform. Come downstairs whenever you’re ready and I’ll have breakfast waiting. 

Sterling has no clue when April put this together but it makes something clench in her chest, both at the thoughtfulness and at the idea of the two of them spending the night here together, Sterling cuddled up in her coziest jammies, blissfully unaware that in several months time, everything would fall apart.

Again.

Because she would have known at that point that her family isn’t her family. Was that the night she told April? Did they whisper about it in the darkness, April stroking Sterling’s hair and telling her to breathe while Sterling raged and cried, like last night?

Except not quite like last night. Because instead of April waiting until Sterling fell asleep to retreat to her own room, she probably curled her body around Sterling’s, linking their fingers together as Sterling’s breathing evened out.

Or maybe Sterling wiped the tears off her cheeks and kissed April fiercely, telling April that she didn’t want to talk anymore, that she needed a distraction. And maybe April kissed her back and pushed Sterling against the pillows, her touch making Sterling forget just like it made her remember yesterday.

Sterling shivers a little at the thought. It’s an absurd thing to be wondering about right now, though perhaps not any more absurd than the revelations of the last eighteen hours. She slips into the provided pajama set, catching a brief glimpse of herself in the mirror and shaking her head at what she sees: red, puffy eyes, smeared mascara, cheeks stained with dried tears.

Well, she can’t possibly look worse than she did yesterday, when she was actively sobbing.

Downstairs, Sterling smells coffee and toast, but she hears April’s voice before she sees her. April is talking to someone in a low voice on the phone.

“Yes, Blair,” April is saying. “I know. She just needs—yeah. You’ve been through this before. Could you—” Her voice changes slightly, sounding a bit crisper as she continues, “Debbie, hi. Yes, I’ve got her. She’s—she’ll be okay, I think. Tell Anders—oh, hi, Anderson. Yes, Sterling is with me and she’s alright.”

Sterling steps around the corner, making her presence known, and April stiffens.

“Gotta go,” she says into the phone. “I promise to keep you posted. Mmm hmm. Of course. Bye.”

“Did you call them?” Sterling asks, hearing a trace of accusation in her own tone as she sits at the counter.

April arches an eyebrow. “They called me. They’re worried about you.”

“Well, I think it’s okay for them to worry, right now.”

“I didn’t say it wasn’t.”

Sterling tips her chin forward into her hands. “Please don’t tell me that it’ll all be okay.”

“Alright,” April agrees, suddenly quite absorbed in buttering their toast. She sneaks a quick glance up at Sterling. “Are you mad that I didn’t tell you?”

Sterling considers that, realizing that it hadn’t even really occurred to her to be mad at April. “If I was, I don’t think I’d have anyone left.”

“You have plenty of people, Sterl.”

“Not plenty who matter.”

At that, April looks up sharply, her gaze staying on Sterling’s as she carries over their plates. She stands on the other side of the counter, her expression curious but not expectant, a silent invitation to talk.

Sterling lets out a long breath. Her brain is swirling, so overloaded with this latest information that she doesn’t even know how to organize her thoughts. And her heart actually physically hurts. She’d always assumed that her first real heartbreak would be over Luke, in the event that they ever broke up, or when Chloe died or something. But this… 

She never could have predicted this.

“They lied,” she says finally, her voice sounding strained and small. “My parents lied for my whole life, and then they lied again, and Blair—” 

Sterling cuts herself off as more tears catch in her throat. God, how is it possible that she has any left? “Blair lied, too.”

April doesn’t hesitate to reach across the counter and set her hand over Sterling’s. Sterling immediately turns her hand over, interlocking their fingers.

“I know,” April murmurs. “I’m so sorry. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this situation ever since you first told me, and it’s—I can’t imagine how this must feel for you. Your parents are—”

“Don’t defend them.”

“I wasn’t going to. I was going to say that—before all of this, your family always seemed very… There was a lot of love,” April settles on. “So a bombshell like this is bound to hit that much harder.”

April’s not wrong. Maybe Sterling’s taken it for granted sometimes, but their family has always been happy. A house filled with laughter and music, with the occasional squabble but nothing that couldn’t be solved by dinnertime. April doesn’t say it but Sterling knows what’s underneath her words; that the Wesleys are a family that hurts to lose. Unlike her own.

“I just don’t know,” Sterling whispers as more tears slide down her cheeks, “I don’t know what to do with this.”

April squeezes her hand. “You don’t have to do anything with it, today. This will all take some time.”

“I hate waiting.”

“You’ve gotten better at it,” April offers with a small smile. “Eat your toast. I’ll make a grocery run later. Nobody’s been up here for a while and the fridge is pretty bare.”

April starts to pull away but Sterling keeps a grip on her hand. 

“When did I tell you?” Sterling asks.

April seems to consider how to answer that before replying, “After we slept together for the first time.”

“Really? Some pillow talk.”

April laughs a little. “It was sweet. You said you didn’t want any more secrets.”

Sterling nods, not quite certain how to respond, and takes a small bite of her toast. April continues making the grocery list, encouraging Sterling to add anything that might sound appetizing (Sterling has a strange urge to eat Bugles, which she’s never craved before but April gamely writes it down). 

It’s almost nice, sitting at the counter and filling out the list together. April is, unsurprisingly, good at keeping them on track, and having a simple task to focus on is a blessing.

But then Sterling goes to take a shower while April heads to the store, leaving Sterling alone with her thoughts, and she begins breaking down again under the water, her brain starting to piece together the domino effect of lies.

Not only is she not her parents’ daughter, but she isn’t even a Wesley. She doesn’t know who her real father is, and by the sound of things her mom—Debbie—might not know either. Her real mom is in jail, and kidnapped her. Which means Sterling could have been taken away forever. 

And would that have been better? Does she actually belong with that woman instead, living a life with the “rough people” Debbie talked about? Is that who Sterling is inside? Not the sweet Christian girl she’s always understood herself to be but someone darker, colder, hardened to the world?

And what about Blair? They’ve always felt like two halves of the same whole, but now what even are they to one another?

Sterling is shivering and crying by the time she steps out of the shower. She dries herself off quickly and pulls her pajamas back on, and she’s considering just climbing back into bed when she hears the doorbell ring.

Odd. April didn’t mention anyone coming over.

It’s probably Blair or her parents, Sterling deduces, and she’s all set to tell them to go away when she sees Bowser through the window, waving a little nervously and with a duffel bag slung over his shoulder.

“What’re you doing here?” Sterling asks by way of greeting.

“Hello to you too, Sterling,” Bowser replies, not unkindly. “Blair wanted me to bring you this.” He hefts the duffel bag off his shoulder and holds it out to her.

“What is it?”

“Clothes, I’m guessing. Didn’t do a deep dive.” He winces, looking away. “She did mention something about ‘period panties,’ but I wasn’t inclined to ask any follow-up questions.”

The lump that hasn’t really gone away the past twenty-four hours gets bigger in Sterling’s throat, because even through all of this, of course Blair knows what to pack for her.

“You were there,” Sterling realizes.

“Hmm?”

“Blair said you were there the night I was kidnapped. But she didn’t—she didn’t mention you knowing…”

Bowser shakes his head firmly. “Hey, I was there, and I was glad to get you back. But I don’t make other people’s business my own. Whatever’s happened in your family doesn’t concern me. And I can honestly say I’ve never been around two more obvious sisters than you and Blair.”

Sterling blinks rapidly, but she can tell that her fight against more tears will be a losing battle.

“Do you wanna come in?”

Bowser enters the house and sits down a bit awkwardly, not looking terribly comfortable on the Stevens’ beige couch, which Sterling can understand. The furniture here is somehow both musty and overly pristine.

“How you holding up, kid?” he asks, his voice soft beneath the gruffness.

Sterling gestures at her face, which might just be permanently wet from now on. “I’ve been better.” She takes a rattling breath. “How’s—is Blair okay?”

“She will be. This isn’t easy.”

“Does she talk to you about it?”

He nods. “Sometimes. More after it first happened.”

Sterling takes that in, still a little confused about how this man has apparently become one of Blair’s best friends, but oddly grateful for it, at the same time.

“Oh. That’s good, I guess.”

He bows his head, a silent acknowledgment, and that’s the first time that Sterling notices the ring on his left hand.

“Does your wife know about your real job?” she asks, then, considering her own situation, amends, “Or husband?”

Bowser blinks at her, mouth slightly ajar, and Sterling blushes. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have assumed…”

He shakes his head. “No, it’s not—yes, my wife knows. We work together, actually. So you and Blair worked with her, too.”

“We did?”

“You were in our wedding.”

Sterling’s chest feels tight all over again. A silly part of her wants to ask about the wedding, to see if he has pictures. She wonders if she brought April as her date, if Blair made a toast. An event so joyous couldn’t feel further from her world right now.

And yet, a small sliver of Sterling recognizes, maybe it isn’t quite so far. Because the same love that surely was present on that day still exists in her life, underneath all this pain.

“Thanks for being there for Blair,” Sterling says softly, wiping at her cheek. “I can’t right now, but—”

“I know, kid. And so does she. It’s okay.” Bowser’s eyes are soft as they look into hers. “She’ll be there when you’re ready.”

--

Sterling takes her time going through the bag. Blair’s packed all of the essentials for a multi-night stay away from home, which on a practical level is helpful, but it also hurts, because each item is a reminder of the bond that Sterling’s never doubted up until now.

She’s still unpacking by the time April returns, toting a few large grocery bags.

“Bowser came by,” Sterling says by way of explanation.

April frowns. “I could have picked that up.”

“I think she might have needed him.”

April nods, like that statement requires no further explanation. They unpack together in relative silence, but it’s surprisingly not awkward. It almost feels domestic, in a bizarre sort of way.

Then Sterling opens one of the side pockets of the duffel bag and an envelope falls out. She bends to retrieve it, noting her name written in what can only be her mother’s—Debbie’s—neat handwriting.

“What’s that?” April asks.

Sterling swallows, clutching the envelope to her chest. It feels like a grenade, with the power to explode her already shattered life into even more pieces.

When April steps forward Sterling extends the envelope to her.

“Can you open it?”

April slowly breaks the seal and slides a couple of pieces of lined paper—not the fancy stationary Debbie uses for Thank You cards—out of the envelope. Her eyes scan over the paper briefly before looking up at Sterling.

“Do you want to read it?”

Sterling takes a shaky breath. Her feelings toward Debbie have been too big to look at today. If she even focuses on them for longer than a few seconds she feels so overwhelmed that she could probably just collapse. It’s like a tsunami of emotion, threatening to bowl her right over.

But she also has a million questions, questions that might be answered in those pages. And there’s a part of her—the little kid part of her, the one that used to climb into her parents’ bed during thunderstorms—that longs for words of comfort from the woman she’s always known as her mom.

“Will you read it to me?” Sterling asks quietly.

April’s eyebrows fly up in surprise. “Oh! Um—”

“If it’s too much…”

April shakes her head and sits down on the couch. “It’s fine. You just let me know if you want me to stop, okay?” She clears her throat, then begins:

My darling Sterling,

I’ve been trying to write this letter, in one way, shape or form, since the day your daddy and I first brought you home. I was trying to write this letter before I even had the words. Just like I was preparing to be your mama before I even knew that you existed.

I want you to know that this letter isn’t meant to manipulate you in any way. It’s not meant to explain away my choices, or even to ask for your forgiveness. If you tear this letter up before reading it, I understand. If you tear it up even after reading it, I understand that, too.

But some things are easier to explain in writing, and easier to accept in writing as well. So that’s why this letter exists, because there are certain things I need to put to paper, and certain things that I need you to know.

That awful night you were kidnapped, Dana looked you in the eyes and said that you were her daughter. This is true, in the sense that she’s the person who gave birth to you, and I know that she loves you as best she can.

But sweetheart, you are my daughter. Not in a possessive way, though the mama bear in me feels it like that sometimes. That’s not what I mean when I say that, though. What I mean is: you are a part of my heart, and becoming your mother made my life complete.

There’s that old cliche that having children is like having your heart walking around outside your body. That saying is a cliche for a reason, because you and Blair (and your daddy) are the pieces of my heart. You two are the best parts of me and your father, the best parts of each other, but also your own people. Two bright, beautiful young women who constantly blow us away.

You were my daughter when you were five and you accidentally spilled grape juice on Blair’s drawing of an alligator and cried harder than she did, and then you and your daddy spent the whole afternoon helping Blair cover her room in new alligator drawings.

You were my daughter when you were nine and invited April over to our house for a sleepover, and you somehow convinced me to help you bake April’s favorite kind of muffins for the morning (lemon poppyseed, because that girl has always had good taste, and honey, I really should have seen the way you two cared for each other even back then).

You were my daughter when you were thirteen and made the tough decision to go to a different summer camp than Blair, which I know was so hard, but I was proud of you for following your heart. Plus—and I say this with all the love in the world—you would have gotten your cute little butt kicked at lacrosse camp.

You were my daughter when you were sixteen and I had a less than ideal reaction to hearing that you’d had sex for the first time. You were confused and scared, but you were also so smart, so brave, and I wish I’d handled it better. Yet at the same time, I cherish the conversation we had that night, messy and imperfect as it was.

You were my daughter the last time this revelation came out, and I feared I would lose you forever, but you gave me so much more than I deserved in the way of forgiveness.

You were my daughter the day you sat your father and me down and announced that you were bisexual and in love with April. You didn’t know this at the time, but after you told us, your dad and I just started laughing—not at you, but at ourselves, because of course it was going to be April for you, and we felt like fools for not realizing it sooner.

You were my daughter the day you fell into that coma and I thought I might never see your beautiful eyes or hear your sweet voice again, and you were my daughter the day you woke up, and even if you never get all of your memories back you will still be my daughter. 

I will admit, as terrible as this makes me sound, that you were my daughter in the dark moments when I have been grateful for your memory loss, because it means that I’ve gotten to hear you call me “Mom” again.

And sweetheart, at the risk of sounding like one of those mothers who thinks she knows everything, you’ll also be my daughter the day your daddy walks you down the aisle to marry April Stevens. Because truly, I’d bet on you two every time.

I will always be proud of you, I will always be here for you, I will always be on your side.

You take all the space and time you need. You can yell, you can scream, you can give me the silent treatment for as long as you like. I can take all of it. And whenever you’re ready to talk, I will listen. No matter what.

I didn’t know that such goodness, such sweetness, was possible in this big, dark world, but you show me every day that it is. You make all of our lives better simply by existing. This doesn’t mean that you have to be sweet every day of your life, mind you. But it means that even if you feel like you don’t know yourself right now, I know you. And you, my darling, are everything I could have asked for and more in a daughter. 

I’ve made many choices, good and bad, in this life. But choosing to be your mama is one I could never regret, not in a million years. I thank God every day that He deemed me worthy of that job.

I love you.

They’re both crying by the time April sets the letter down. April’s voice started trembling about halfway through and continued until the end, while Sterling’s weeping began less than a paragraph in.

“Wow,” April breathes. “Wow, Sterling.”

She says Sterling’s name so gently and with the promise of something more, like she wants to add something profound. But for once the always-verbose April Stevens has actually gone speechless.

She’s still in better shape than Sterling, who feels more tears spill against her cheeks every time she blinks. It’s all just so much; April’s right that it wouldn’t hurt like this if there wasn’t all of this love, too. The love is what makes the pain sharper, makes the betrayal cut deeper. Because the people who know and care for her more than anyone in the world are also the ones who lied for her entire life.

Sterling doesn’t know what she needs, but April seems to, extending her arms and letting Sterling settle into them. Sterling sinks into the embrace, half-expecting a spark of desire or memory to ignite inside her again.

But this time, April’s touch is pure comfort. Her body is warm and soft and feels like coming home.

If Sterling had a home, anymore.

Sterling is exhausted, and she can feel herself starting to drift against April’s chest. Her mind swirls with fragments of the letter, both the memories she can pinpoint and the ones that she can’t; her mom’s confidence in who Sterling is, in the fact that she belongs with April.

Since waking up from the coma, life has felt like one uncertainty after another. But now here she is in April’s arms, April stroking a hand through her hair, her heart beating steadily against Sterling’s ear.

“April?” Sterling murmurs sleepily.

“Hmm?”

“We’re really in love with each other, aren’t we?”

Beneath Sterling’s ear, she feels April’s heartbeat quicken.

“Yes, we are.”

It’s the last thing Sterling remembers before falling asleep.

Chapter Text

“Sterling,” April sighs, her voice rough and tender all at once. “I want you.”

Sterling’s body feels like it’s on absolute fire; April is perched in her lap, hands stroking up Sterling’s sides, lips so close but still too far away. Sterling reaches her neck up and closes the short distance between them, hearing herself moan because she’s never been kissed like that before.

April’s mouth is hot and insistent, kissing Sterling like it’s the only thing in the world that matters. And that just might be the case, because when April’s tongue slips inside her mouth Sterling doesn’t think anything has ever felt so good. 

She’s desperate for more, for the chance to touch April everywhere. Sterling’s hands creep up the back of April’s tank top, fingers sliding over the smooth skin of her back. April is impossibly soft and warm, and when Sterling presses her hands harder against her April shifts closer and oh, she’s wet, too. Sterling can feel it on her bare thigh, even through April’s underwear.

“I want you,” April repeats, and with a confidence that she didn’t know she possessed, Sterling thrusts a hand between them, under April’s underwear, and then she’s inside of April.

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” Sterling hears herself apologize, even though she somehow does seem to know what to do, muscle memory taking over as her fingers curl.

April moans and buries her face in the crook of Sterling’s neck. “You’re doing so good,” she whispers, and Sterling honestly couldn’t say if the compliment or the feeling of April around her feels better. “You make me feel so good, Sterling.”

Sterling kisses April’s shoulder, fingers moving almost of their own accord, desire pooling low in her belly. She’s never felt like this, so warm and wanting and good, and yet she thinks she has; this moment is tinged with deja vu.

“Make me come, Sterling,” April instructs, and Sterling groans. 

But then April is pulling back and saying, “Press 1 for more options.”

“What?” Sterling asks, body suddenly cold, before she’s startling awake.

“Shit,” Sterling whispers into the darkness. 

She’s alone. Her heart is hammering in her chest and her back is slick with sweat.

She’s also almost painfully turned on.

Sterling twists to find her phone, just that action providing enough friction to make her shudder a little. 

It’s 4 a.m. Tomorrow—or, today, now—she goes back home, not because she’s ready but because she and April can’t very well keep playing house indefinitely. Mrs. Stevens wants April back, and while a large part of Sterling wishes they could stay in this little cocoon of domesticity, away from parents or reality, Sterling also sort of misses home.

Or, what it was before.

Even the realization of what she’ll be facing in just several hours isn’t enough to cool the heat swirling inside her. Sterling takes a couple of deep breaths, considering her next move. 

She could simply roll over and try to sleep. She probably should.

Or she could get out of this bed and cross the hall. She could knock on April’s door, could beg April to touch her. Sterling can practically picture the look on April’s face: shock and confusion morphing into agreement and eventual determination. 

And God, Sterling just knows that April is good at…that. Good enough to make Sterling remember, maybe. She could pitch it as an experiment.

Sterling instead goes for option C. With fingers that only tremble a little, she experimentally dips a hand beneath the waistband of her underwear. She closes her eyes again, thinks about the way April felt in that dream, the way that April has probably felt beneath her very fingers so many times before.

It’s a little awkward at first, but it doesn’t take Sterling too long to find an angle that works for her. Her brain flashes with the memory of the supply closet, reaching to find a part of herself that she’d never touched before, unlocking something new and big and wonderful.

Sterling can feel herself building toward an orgasm, and though she knows it’s not her first in reality, she can’t help but feel like it’s her first, like she’s on the verge of an experience she hasn’t had before. Her belly tightens with excitement and also a little bit of fear.

But then April’s voice is in her ear, murmuring, “I’ve got you.” And it isn’t real in this moment, nor is it something Sterling’s pulling from a dream; this is a memory.

“I’ve got you,” April is saying, as her fingers move inside Sterling, as Sterling’s fingers move inside herself. It’s from the first time, Sterling knows, their first time, but Sterling isn’t afraid. She feels cherished and safe. She feels loved.

Now, in a guest room at the Stevens’ lake house, Sterling comes with a gasp of April’s name, biting the edge of her pillow to keep the sound as contained as possible. She comes with the knowledge that no matter what happens, what they have had was something beautiful and loving. 

But as she catches her breath, Sterling is hit with the dawning realization that she doesn’t want what they’ve had to exist in the past tense. 

This is more than a memory of things that happened before. It’s a reminder of who Sterling is, of who she wants.

In the morning, Sterling can barely meet April’s eyes.

--

Blair picks Sterling up in the early afternoon. Sterling knows that she’ll see April again at school soon—maybe not tomorrow; her parents have offered her the option to take a few days off but Sterling hasn’t decided if being home all day would be worse—yet leaving the lake house feels strangely significant.

“Thank you,” Sterling murmurs on the porch, an odd sadness settling under her breastbone. “This was—this was exactly what I needed.”

April tilts her head up, the spring sunshine casting a soft glow around her smile. “Anytime.”

“I’m serious, April. You saved me.”

“Oh, let’s not be dramatic, here.”

“Now who’s the pot and who’s the kettle?”

April laughs, the sound light and pretty, before her expression grows more serious. “I couldn’t be there for you last time. I’m glad—”

“Me too,” Sterling agrees quickly. “Though I wish…” She trails off, unsure how to put this feeling into words.

“What?”

Sterling swallows, her throat suddenly dry as she looks into April’s eyes. She’s aware that Blair is waiting, but she figures she can be granted a little extra grace today. 

“I wish I could be there for you right now,” she settles on. 

April’s jaw quivers just a bit, like she’s doing all she can to hold her emotions at bay. “You don’t owe me anything. I’m not here for you as a favor. I’m here because I—”

She cuts herself off, but Sterling hears the words as clearly as if she’d said them. She pulls April forward into a brief, tight hug, releasing her with a kiss to the cheek. 

This time, April doesn’t look surprised when Sterling pulls away.

“So, um, that was quite the intense goodbye,” Blair observes as they speed off. “I feel like one of you should have been waving a white handkerchief.”

Sterling snorts, too grateful for the comfort of Blair’s teasing to muster any embarrassment. 

“Can we stop somewhere?” Sterling asks, wanting to elongate this time with just the two of them.

“Of course.”

Blair drives them to a little park about halfway between the lake house and home. They trudge over to a picnic bench away from anyone else, and it’s only then that Sterling really looks at Blair.

She looks wrung out, Sterling notes. Like she’s been crying and hasn’t slept much.

“How are you?” Sterling asks.

Blair raises an eyebrow. “I should be asking you that.” Her fingers pick at the large hole in the knee of her jeans. “Last time, you didn’t want to talk to any of us. But it was different, obviously, with the kidnapping. Tami said you had mild PTSD.”

“Tami?”

“Our therapist. You’ll meet her soon, I’m sure. She’s actually pretty great.”

Sterling blinks quickly, already feeling exhausted at the prospect of the healing road ahead of them. “How long did it take till things felt…normal-ish?”

Blair offers a tiny smile. “Yeah, we definitely hadn’t gotten there before that pesky little coma. But it was sort of… I don’t know. We were finding a new normal, or something.” 

She swivels her body so she has one leg on each side of the bench, facing Sterling completely. “I never wanted to keep it from you, you have to know that. When you woke up and didn’t remember, I felt like—like I was being torn apart, because lying to you has to be the worst feeling ever, but also, you just thought we were your family, without any, like, weird footnotes. And God, Sterl, I missed that. We all did. But I still wanted you to know.”

Blair’s eyes are wide and so genuine, full of the fierce vulnerability that Sterling’s always admired in her. Sterling can’t imagine how hard this has been for her, all of it, and while plenty of hurt still lingers, Sterling doesn’t doubt how much Blair loves her.

“I’m sure Mom and Dad didn’t make it easy,” Sterling acknowledges, wiping at the tears already starting to form.

“They didn’t. But I can’t entirely blame them, either.” Blair reaches for Sterling’s hand, her expression flashing with nervousness, like she thinks Sterling might shake her off again. The look breaks Sterling’s heart and makes her grip Blair’s hand right back.

Blair lets out a shaky breath, squeezing Sterling’s hand. There’s a slight breeze and it whips Blair’s hair against her mouth, reminding Sterling of all the times Debbie would try to tie Blair’s hair back only for Blair to squirm away, declaring that she got to make that choice for herself, so solidly her own person even at four years old.

“Finding all of this shit out has been the hardest thing ever,” Blair says in a firm voice. “But if there’s one thing I’m completely clear about, it’s this: you are my sister. I’m your twin. I don’t care if we didn’t share a womb or whatever. That’s a technicality, as far as I’m concerned. And I get that you might not be there yet, but I just want you to know that from where I’m standing, there’s no question about it.”

Sterling wishes it were that simple. That Blair’s conviction was enough to override the ramifications of this revelation. It isn’t, as nice as that would be. And yet, Blair’s determination sparks the tiniest flair of hope in Sterling’s chest, small but still present, still more than she’s felt in days.

“You’re right,” Sterling replies. “I’m not there yet. But I love you. And this…this doesn’t change that. Nothing could.” She sniffs and attempts to square her shoulders. “Twin swear.”

Blair’s eyes well with tears, as she repeats, “Twin swear.”

Sterling leans against her shoulder, closing her eyes as Blair’s arms wrap around her, listening to the sounds of a couple of kids playing on the jungle gym. Siblings, she thinks, having some light little tussle over a toy that’s resolved by one of them starting to laugh. She hugs Blair back around the middle.

“I had a sex dream about April last night,” Sterling mutters into Blair’s sweatshirt, and Blair makes a noise of delighted surprise against the top of her head.

“Alright, tell me everything!”

They talk about April for most of the ride home, to the point that the magnitude of where they’re headed doesn’t really hit Sterling until Blair is angling into the driveway.

“You ready for this?” Blair asks before opening the door.

“I have no clue,” Sterling replies honestly.

Blair holds her hand the whole walk up to the house. When she unlocks the door their parents—Debbie and Anderson—are standing stiffly, trying to smile through their very obvious nerves.

Sterling takes a deep breath.

“Hi sweetheart,” Anderson greets. “Welcome home.”

Chapter Text

Sterling supposes that the enormity of finding out that her family lied about her birth for sixteen years, then lied again for the last several weeks, easily takes precedent over typical house rules, but it’s still a bit of a shock when she announces that she’d like to eat dinner in her room, and Debbie agrees without question.

Blair offers to come with, but Sterling just kind of needs some time alone, unobserved by anyone concerned that she might be on the verge of a breakdown (which she probably is), so she takes her plate of pork chops and cornbread upstairs and eats in her bed, a thing she’s only ever been allowed to do when home sick before.

Sterling half-watches a show on her laptop as she finishes eating, then pushes her laptop aside and lies back on her bed. She’s tired. It feels like she’s been tired forever. She stares up at her ceiling, at the tiny crack vaguely in the shape of a cat face that she and Blair dubbed Maurice so long ago that Sterling doesn’t remember when it didn’t have a name.

She could run away, she thinks idly. It wouldn’t even really be running away, since Sterling’s eighteen now, a fact she constantly has to remind herself of. Instead of fleeing to April’s in a panic, she could be intentional about it, could pack a bag and make a plan. She knows Blair would join her in a heartbeat.

But Sterling doesn’t want that, not really. Some part of her feels like maybe she should want it; that she should run back downstairs and shout at her parents, then dramatically slam the door in their faces. But there’s no real catharsis in that idea. It just makes her feel sadder than she already is.

“Sterling?” Debbie voice calls softly through the door. “I have some dessert for you. I’d leave it here but I don’t want Chloe to eat it.”

Sterling sighs and slowly goes to the door. When she opens it, Debbie is attempting a smile that doesn’t reach her eyes. 

She looks so small. Debbie isn’t a physically large woman but the power she holds in the family has always made her seem big. Sterling used to admire how she wielded that power, always leading with grace; yes, Debbie could be uptight, but Sterling understood why. Or she thought she did.

Now, though, Sterling sees another side to it. Because clearly Debbie knew that if she loosened her grip, everything could fall apart.

The Debbie that stands in Sterling’s doorway doesn’t seem powerful in the least. She looks exhausted, as she extends a plate to Sterling with an artfully decorated hand pie on it.

Sterling stares down at the little pie. She’s always loved them, oddly charmed by their smallness, even though Debbie has pointed out that they’re a lot more work to make than a regular pie.

“Don’t these take forever?”

Debbie’s mouth twitches. “I’ve never done well with idle hands.”

Sterling takes the plate from Debbie, watching the way Debbie’s eyes flick over the door, like she expects it to be closed and locked to her as soon as Sterling pulls her hand back.

And that was sort of Sterling’s plan, too, but instead she hears herself saying, “I read your letter.”

Debbie’s eyebrows fly up. “Oh, I’m—I’m glad to hear that, sweetheart.”

“Please don’t,” Sterling breathes, stopping when her voice hitches. “Please don’t call me that. I just—”

Debbie nods. “Understood. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for so many things, Sterling.”

At that, Sterling steps back from the door, ushering Debbie inside. Sterling sets her plate on her desk and sits down on her bed, curling into a ball. Debbie doesn’t even try to head for the bed, instead very gingerly sitting down on Sterling’s desk chair.

Debbie rubs her palms on her slacks, clearly nervous. Sterling’s never seen her nervous before the last few days. 

“I know that letter was probably a lot,” Debbie says softly. “Perhaps too much. But I’ll gladly talk about any of it with you. Or—or anything at all. If you have questions—well, of course you have questions.”

Sterling does, though none she can even really begin formulating right now.

“I also took the liberty of making an appointment for you with Tami this Friday,” Debbie continues. “Tami is—”

“The therapist. Blair told me.”

“We can cancel the appointment if you want, but I know you found it helpful before, and we want you to have all the support you need in order to—”

“Forgive you?” Sterling asks, an uncharacteristic challenge in her tone.

Debbie shakes her head immediately. “No. To feel like—like you know who you are. To know that you have a place in this family. Baby—I’m sorry—Sterling, this isn’t about…” She blinks a couple of times, clearly trying to gather her words. “You forgiving me is not my top priority, here. I just want you to feel loved and supported.”

Sterling’s mind unwittingly drifts to last night, to the feeling of knowing, deep in her bones, how much April loves her.

“I can’t talk about the—the family stuff,” she whispers, hoping that keeping her voice low will make the tremble less obvious. “At least not right now.”

“That’s okay.”

“But can I ask you something?”

“Anything,” Debbie says emphatically.

Sterling rolls her lips together, considering her next statement. “You said that you thought April and I would get married.”

She chances a glance up at Debbie, who nods. “Yes. I’m sorry if that was a little—well, I could see it being a bit intense to read.”

“But you believe that?”

“I do.”

“When did you know?”

“That you and April were a couple?”

Sterling shakes her head, a rush of embarrassment making her flush. This conversation is, like, ten layers of awkward, but her curiosity is too strong to stop now. “That we were, y’know, the real deal, or whatever.”

Debbie leans forward a little. “Do you really want to hear this?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay,” she sighs, a hint of a genuine smile playing at the corner of her lips. “It was a couple of months ago, I suppose. You both were elbow-deep in college acceptance letters, which I knew would be the case, you’re such smart girls.”

Sterling’s chest warms a tiny bit at the way Debbie manages to sneak in a compliment so early in her telling of this story.

“You know where this ends, obviously,” Debbie continues, likely referring to the still-startling news that Sterling will be attending Sarah Lawrence in the fall. Though everything about her future feels decidedly up in the air right now. “But at the time, you two were having the darnedest time deciding where to go. April thought that the obvious decision was for you to each go with your top choice based on the school itself, while you were adamant that the distance between the schools should be a major factor.

“Eventually, it seemed like the only way to solve this conundrum was with a debate, and so you two gathered Blair and your father and me up to be the judges. It was quite the spirited debate. I remember April at one point said something like, ‘Having the future we want depends on us getting the best education possible.’” Debbie’s smile grows. “And then you responded with something along the lines of, ‘I don’t want the best education possible if it means I barely get to see you the next four years. Investing in my future means investing in my happiness. So I choose to invest in us.’”

“I really said that?” Sterling asks, sort of impressed with her past self.

“Your debating skills have come along way. Especially when it’s something you care about. April just grinned back at you and said you made a great point, and your daddy called time but honestly I don’t think either of you girls heard him because you were just—in your own little world.” Debbie quickly presses a finger to the corner of her eye. “In that moment, it was so clear to me. I’ve known April Stevens for over half her life, and for her to choose you over the swankiest degree possible—well, I knew she’d choose you every time. And that’s all any mother—all anyone could want for someone they love.”

Sterling clutches her legs a little tighter, her eyes starting to burn. The image is so sweet, and in such sharp contrast to the darkness she feels surrounding her now. 

“Wow,” she manages to get out. “That’s, um…”

“I know,” Debbie says simply. “Do you need a minute?”

Sterling nods. Her heart is pounding and she’s sure she’s about to cry again, but she doesn’t feel quite ready to do so in front of Debbie.

Debbie stands from the desk chair, reaching for Sterling’s empty dinner plate before heading for the door. 

“Eat that pie up before it gets too soggy,” she advises.

“Okay.”

Debbie’s hand is on the knob but instead of turning it she swivels to face Sterling once more. “You can take all the time you need, Sterling. But just know that April isn’t the only one who would choose you every time, alright?”

Sterling just manages to hold the tears at bay until Debbie closes the door.

--

Tami’s office is cozier than Sterling expected, with buttery yellow walls and an assortment of succulents hanging from the ceiling. The design seems to match Tami herself, who’s also different than Sterling expected. For some reason Sterling pictured a stern woman with a tight bun and an even tighter grip on her notepad, but instead Tami has a cascade of shiny hair and a wide smile, and she greets Sterling with a hug.

“I must admit, I’ve encountered a great deal of unique difficulties in my practice, but this is a first even for me,” Tami says once they’re seated. “I’m very glad to see you, Sterling.”

Sterling decides in that moment that she likes her.

“Blair said that—that you’re good. That I trust you.”

Tami nods. “You’ve done a lot of good work in this room. But I wonder if we could focus on what you’re feeling right now.”

Sterling stares at a patch on the side of Tami’s armchair, a bright purple square that’s at odds with the red fabric on the rest of the chair, but sort of works in a strange way.

“Confused,” she murmurs. “Angry.”

The admission surprises her a little, since she hasn’t really admitted the anger even to herself, yet. 

Tami seems to take note of that, prompting, “Can you tell me more about the anger?”

Sterling twists her fingers together, gathering her words. “Well, there’s, like, anger at my parents, of course. But also…also at myself, I think.”

“And why’s that?”

“Because it’s, like, I went through all this big stuff, life-changing stuff, and by the sounds of it everything really sucked for a while, but then it was starting to get better, and now I’m back to square one.”

“That isn’t your fault,” Tami points out.

“I know, but…ugh,” Sterling sighs.

Tami shifts forward in her chair. “You know, Sterling, obviously your situation is more extreme than many people’s, but the desire for healing to be more straightforward than it often ends up being is one that many of my clients share. And while you may not have the memories of what it was like to first process all the big, life-changing stuff, you’re still you. You’re still the person who handled a tremendous amount of upheaval in a very short period of time. You still have that resilience within you. And while I understand that it may feel as though you’ve lost ground, you aren’t on any sort of deadline here. You get to take this at whatever pace you need.”

“I just wish I could be there. Like, where I was before. Where everyone else already is.”

“I get it,” Tami acknowledges. “We’ve talked a lot about patience in this room, and it isn’t easy. But I wonder if you could focus on ways to have compassion for yourself right now. This part of your life isn’t a detour, it’s another opportunity for growth. And perhaps one upside to this situation is that your support system does remember what you’ve all been through, so they might be better equipped to hold space for your feelings this time around.”

Sterling bites her lip. “Can I ask you a question not about my family?”

“Of course.”

“Did I…did I talk about April in here?”

Sterling would swear Tami’s eyes gleam a little brighter. “You did.”

“I’m just so confused about that, too,” Sterling exhales, the words a relief to get out. “Because I don’t want to hurt her, but everything I’m going through is so new, but then for her, it’s like, she’s so certain about me. And I don’t know how to feel.”

“I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to feel. From everything you’ve told me, April is quite perceptive, and I’m sure she understands that this situation is very complicated. Rather than focusing on what you think you should be feeling, can we talk about how you do feel when you’re around her?”

Sterling thinks about all the time she’s spent around April recently; the reverent way she said Sterling’s name that first day back at home, her quiet encouragement and gentle teasing at the arcade, the electricity that shot up Sterling’s arm when she gripped it, her unflinching care for Sterling this last week. It’s like no matter what state Sterling has found herself in, April has known what she’s needed, every time.

“I feel safe around her,” Sterling says honestly. “Which is, like, crazy, because before all of this the last thing I remember was us fighting all the time. But even then, if I really think about it, there was like this—this pull or something. Which I guess we’ve always kind of had, it just changed over the years. And now when I’m around her, there’s this, like, intensity that I’ve never felt before, that I didn’t even know I could feel, and maybe it should be scary but it’s just…not.”

Tami smiles softly. “That sounds pretty wonderful.”

When Sterling is silent, Tami seems to sense that she needs more, so she adds, “Here’s what I can tell you: the Sterling who sat in my office several weeks ago was unsure about a lot of things, which, by the way, is entirely normal at any age. But one thing you didn’t seem to have any uncertainty about was the way you felt for April. That doesn’t mean you can’t have uncertainty now, of course—”

“I don’t,” Sterling cuts in quickly. “I’m not uncertain.”

She’s not, Sterling realizes with dawning clarity. When it comes to April, she’s actually not.

“Alright,” Tami says. “Well, sounds like one less thing to be confused about.”

--

“Why did you go along with it?” Sterling asks by way of greeting as Anderson angles out of Tami’s office parking lot another session later.

Anderson blinks at her before refocusing on the road. Sterling has gotten the sense that he’s wanted to let Debbie steer the ship on a lot of this healing stuff—not terribly surprising, since it’s her family and also Anderson has always been pretty content to let Debbie more or less be the captain of their family.

There’s been sort of a comfort in that; even though Sterling is still very angry and confused with Anderson, too, their interactions since her return from the lake house have felt just a little less loaded than her ones with Debbie.

But now, post-therapy, Sterling finds herself wanting answers.

“With which part, hon—Sterling?”

“All of it.”

Anderson sighs. “Well, you know your mama—”

“Debbie.”

He nods tightly. “Right. Debbie—she’s not an impulsive woman. I mean, you’ve seen how long it takes her to finalize a menu when it’s her turn to host book club. She thinks everything through. It’s one of the things I love most about her. So when she said that—that we needed to take you in as our own, I knew she had to be right.”

“But you hate lying,” Sterling points out.

“I do,” Anderson agrees. “And I know this might sound silly, or like an excuse, but it is the God’s honest truth: it really didn’t feel like a lie. You were just…ours. Right away. Sure, I had no clue what we were doing, and I was scared I was going to accidentally kill you half the time, but Sterling—”

His voice hitches and he raises a hand to his mouth. “Sterling,” he continues, “it was so clear to me that you were meant to be ours. I just really couldn’t imagine it any other way. So I think a part of me sort of…let myself believe that it was the truth. Because it always felt that way to me.”

Sterling kind of wants to cry herself, but instead she asks, “Isn’t that, like, the opposite of all your lawyer training?”

Anderson barks out a small laugh. “Some things are more important than that. And you sure as heck always have been, as far as I’m concerned. But that certainly doesn’t make what we did right. I’m sorry, Sterl. Truly, I am. I just never—I never fit in quite right with my family growing up. You know your grandpa and Uncle Deacon aren’t the easiest fellas. And with you and Blair and—and Debbie, I finally felt like I had a purpose. A purpose that I love more than anything in the world. And I didn’t want to screw it up.”

Sterling swallows the lump in her throat. “Our family’s pretty great,” she lets slip before she can think better of it.

Anderson glances over at her sharply, eyes brimming with tears. “It sure is, kid. It sure is.”

Chapter Text

April is the one to suggest that they all just go to prom as a group.

Sterling knows that it’s April’s way of lowering the pressure, of reducing any expectations on Sterling. The thought of skipping prom altogether was even floated before Sterling quickly decided that that was just too depressing. Sterling understands that in the grand scheme of things, having a fun night with her friends is all that prom needs to be, and Tami has assured her multiple times that she doesn’t need to punish herself for plans inevitably having to change.  

But Sterling still feels a weird twist of guilt low in her belly when she agrees to the idea. Prom was supposed to be her and April’s grand coming out; a romantic, joyous, triumphant evening for them to declare their love to the Willingham student body. Now she isn’t sure what significance the night holds, other than lost potential.

Sterling had apparently ordered a dress that had yet to arrive when the coma happened, but on Tami’s suggestion and with Debbie’s enthusiastic encouragement, Sterling decides to see if there’s another dress that feels more “her” right now. Blair declares that they should make a day of it, and April is of course concerned about matching colors, which is how Sterling, Blair, April, Ezequiel and Hannah B. end up commandeering a whole fleet of dressing rooms at the mall one Saturday afternoon.

“You guys all have to try stuff on, too,” Sterling insists, even though April and Ezequiel have had their outfits planned for the last month. Hannah B. is still trying to decide between a few choices, while Blair claims that she has yet to be inspired.

Though Sterling suspects her lack of a decision might have something to do with Sterling’s lack of availability to weight in, until now.

Everyone gamely goes along with the plan, though, loading up various options into the different dressing rooms and putting on a makeshift fashion show. The loud laughter and exuberance of her friends is almost enough to make the weird feeling in Sterling’s chest evaporate, especially when Blair and April convince Ezequiel to try on an A-line purple dress that honestly looks amazing on him.

“Oh, work, bitch, yes!” Blair exclaims when Ezequiel struts the length of the hallway, striking a dramatic pose in front of the floor-length mirror. 

He vogues briefly and April lets out a long, unburdened cackle that makes Sterling’s chest feel tight in a different way, suddenly overwhelmed by the wish that this level of freedom and unabashed queerness could exist outside these dressing rooms; that Ezequiel could wear a dress if he wanted to and Sterling and April could show up as a couple at prom without any of it feeling like a big deal.

Sterling tries to push the feeling away, snapping her fingers approvingly in Ezequiel’s direction as he makes his way back down the hallway. “Willingham couldn’t handle all of this,” he announces before shutting the door to his dressing room, and Sterling chooses to focus on the pride in his voice rather than the sadness underneath it.

At some point they started taking turns, deciding it was more fun for each person to get their moment than have to share the spotlight. April’s up next, so Sterling sits on the little bench outside her dressing room between Blair and Hannah B., absently petting the tulle skirt of the latest option she’s rejected.

Then April’s door swings open and Sterling is pretty sure all the air leaves the room.

April’s wearing a suit. Sort of. She’s wearing dress pants and a suit jacket, but underneath the jacket is this low-cut lacy top that leaves very little to the imagination. She leans on the doorway, hands in her pockets and a smirk on her face, looking so unbearably hot and confident and gay that Sterling can do nothing but stare at her, slack-jawed.

Blair is the one to break the silence, letting out a low whistle. “Damn, Stevens, that is a look.”

April lets out a satisfied little laugh, her neck arching, and Sterling’s mouth goes completely dry. “I think my mom would actually have a heart attack if I wore this,” April says, and Sterling nods dumbly, quite close to a heart attack herself, “but I do look pretty great in it, don’t I?”

“Totally great,” Sterling breathes, feeling Blair turn to look at her sharply.

“Keep it in your pants, Sterl,” Blair mutters.

“Sterling’s not wearing pants,” Hannah B. points out.

“Astute observation, Hannah B,” Ezequiel snickers.

Sterling blinks at April, whose smirk has somehow gotten wider the longer Sterling’s been looking at her.

“April’s wearing pants,” Hannah B. adds helpfully.

“Oh, yes she is,” Sterling exhales without intending to.

April bites her lip, which just makes everything so much worse, but then a shadow crosses her face, slight but still noticeable, and she’s stepping back into the dressing room with a quiet, “I should change.”

Sterling stares at the closed door for a moment, trying to clear the lust fog that’s descended over her brain and wants nothing more than for her to march into April’s dressing room and help her right on out of that suit.

Because yeah, okay, April is hot, big news. But as Blair heads off to try on a new outfit, Sterling finds herself more concerned than turned on. She makes her way over to Ezequiel, who's in front of his dressing room, back in his clothes from home.

“Hey, is she okay?” Sterling asks quietly.

Ezequiel glances up from his phone. “Hannah B? Define ‘okay.’”

“No, April.”

“Oh.” He pockets his phone, expression growing more somber. "She’s doing the best she can.”

“Does she talk to you about…”

“You?”

“Well, yeah,” Sterling replies, both surprised by and grateful for his directness. "And other stuff, too.”

“More than she used to. I’m not about to kiss and tell, if that’s what you’re suggesting.”

She shakes her head firmly. “No, of course not. She needs to… she shouldn’t have to be strong for me, all the time.” Sterling lets out a shaky breath, that guilty feeling starting to rise in her again. “Sometimes I feel like I’m…like all I do is hurt her.”

Ezequiel studies her for a second, seeming to consider something. “Well, you’ve also made her happier in the last year than she’s been, like, ever.” He says it without much emotion, like it’s an indisputable fact. “Don’t go all nihilistic on us now. It’s not a good look. She just wants you. So if you can be there for her, then be there for her.”

Sterling nods a bit numbly, working her way up to a verbal response when Blair flings open her dressing room door. “Alright, scale of 1-10, how much does this look communicate that I’m DTF?"

Twenty minutes later and Sterling still hasn’t found a dress that feels quite right. Blair is starting to get cranky, a tell-tale sign that she needs a snack (sometimes Blair is very much a toddler, Sterling knows), and Hannah B. has finally made a decision about her dress so she wants to start looking at jewelry with Ezequiel.

April is insistent that she get to weigh in on Sterling’s choice, so Ezequiel suggests that they all meet up at the food court once Sterling’s made a selection.

The dressing rooms seem almost uncomfortably quiet once Blair, Ezequiel and Hannah B. have left. April says that she’s fine to wait on the little bench and tells Sterling to take her time, but Sterling is suddenly hyper-aware of her own presence as she tries on a couple more outfits. Her breathing feels too loud, her armpits start to get really sweaty, and it feels like everything is taking too long.

She decides to end on the dress that she likes the most, hoping for a positive grand finale. The only one left before it is this weird frilly thing that Hannah B. somehow talked her into trying on, and she hasn’t even fully pulled the zipper up before deciding that it isn’t right. 

She goes to tug the zipper down only to discover that it’s gotten stuck just out of reach. She tries to contort her arms behind her but somehow that dang zipper is in, like, the Bermuda Triangle of her back.

She should really start doing yoga.

“Shoot,” Sterling mutters. And this couldn’t even happen on a dress she likes, either. 

“Sterling? You okay?” April calls through the door.

Sterling looks at herself in the mirror. Her face is flushed and she’s scowling and this dress makes her look like a party clown. Plus, she’s stuck.

“Um,” Sterling calls back. “I might need your help.”

“Oh!” April sounds genuinely a little surprised.

“Sorry.”

God, and now Sterling’s blushing more. In all the time she’s spent thinking about April undressing her this past week (which has become kind of a nightly ritual, now that she’s figured out the whole masturbation thing), helping Sterling out of an ugly prom dress in a garishly lit dressing room was not high on the fantasy list.

“It’s okay,” April replies as Sterling unlatches the door and lets her in.

April’s eyes drop briefly to Sterling’s chest—Sterling realizes belatedly that her boobs are kind of exposed with this half-zipped situation—before she motions for Sterling to turn around.

“Sorry,” Sterling says again. “It’s, um, the zipper.”

As if April couldn’t figure that one out. Jesus. How did Sterling ever manage to secure herself a girlfriend in the first place?

“Don’t worry about it,” April says softly. “Were you going up or down?”

Sterling watches her eyes go wide in the mirror. “What?” she squeaks, mind suddenly swirling over the implications of going down.

“The zipper?”

“Oh, right! Down. I was going down. I mean—off. I was taking the dress off.”

Yeah, that’s not much better.

But April doesn’t say anything. Instead her fingers go to the zipper, easing it down Sterling’s back, a process that somehow feels both agonizingly short and agonizingly long. Sterling watches in the mirror, sees the way April’s eyebrows lift just a little when Sterling’s back is exposed, the way her hands linger for a second at the small of Sterling’s back.

Then April takes a small step back. 

“You're free,” she murmurs, voice deeper than normal.

Sterling turns to face her, squeezing her arms against her body to keep the dress from slipping to the floor.

Even though that idea is intriguing, to say the least.

“Thanks,” she whispers, and wow, April is extremely close to her. Close enough that Sterling can feel April’s breath on her face, can see every muscle in her throat move as she swallows.

God, Sterling wants her.

“It’s nothing.”

April’s fingers have linked together in front of her, the closeness making it so Sterling can feel the light brush of them through her dress. April twists her fingers together absently, and the sight feels familiar to Sterling, sending a strange jolt of anticipation up her spine.

Where earlier Sterling saw sadness in April’s eyes, now she sees something else. Nerves, maybe, but that’s not all. There’s an energy behind her expression, intense and jangly, and it makes Sterling feel off-kilter and long to lean closer, all at once.

“Well, I'll let you…” April whispers, turning toward the door.

Sterling’s belly suddenly floods with a sense of loss, with a need for this moment not to end.

“April,” she says, a distinct begging quality to her voice.

April’s back is still turned and her hand hovers over the doorknob. Sterling is sure she’s going to open it, maybe toss a, “We can’t,” over her shoulder and leave Sterling all alone to want and wonder.

But instead, April’s hand lowers to flip the lock, and she’s turning around.

“Sterling,” April sighs, the sound making Sterling feel like they’ve both been underwater for far too long and are finally coming up for air. Sterling takes a step forward, the goddamn dress still hanging precariously from her body, but it doesn’t matter, because April meets her in the middle and then they are kissing.

Sterling has dreamed about this moment, both awake and asleep, over the last couple weeks. She thought about it a lot before then—ever since she woke up, really—wondering what it would be like; wondering how it would feel to have April Stevens’ mouth against her own, her sharpness and passion focused on Sterling in this specific way; wondering whether her own body would know how to react, if muscle memory would take over or if it would feel like something entirely new.

But no amount of dreaming or wondering or half-formed memories could have prepared Sterling for the way it feels to be kissed by April Stevens.

April clutches the back of Sterling’s neck, tugging it down so that their mouths are at just the right angle, her body warm and solid as it presses into Sterling’s.

Sterling hears a moan—she thinks it’s from her—and when her mouth opens April’s tongue slips inside, tracing over her teeth, sending electricity shooting down Sterling’s whole body. It feels like April’s hands are everywhere even though they haven’t moved, because Sterling is hot all over, her blood pumping hard and fast, her skin surely close to bursting.

Sterling grips April’s hips, mostly just because if she doesn’t hold on to something she’s sure she’d fall over, but when she squeezes them April lets out a soft whine into her mouth and Sterling is instantly obsessed with the sound, needing to hear it again and again. She holds April tighter, emboldened enough to swipe her tongue across the roof of April’s mouth, and April actually shudders a little against her.

“April,” Sterling gasps against her lips.

April hums, one hand drifting to Sterling’s shoulder while the thumb of her other hand swipes over Sterling’s pulse point, moving in a steady rhythm that is absolutely going to make Sterling lose her mind. She sucks Sterling’s lower lip into her mouth, and Sterling honestly thought that the whole “weak in the knees” thing was just an expression but right now her knees buckle underneath her, her whole system threatening to fritz out at the way April is touching her, at the feel of her soft lips against Sterling’s own.

They’re both panting when April leans their foreheads together. Sterling feels like she could die. Or maybe she’s been dead, and April just brought her back to life.

“Oh my god,” she breathes. “That’s what it’s like?”

April lets out a breathless giggle. “Yes.”

“Every time?”

“Every time. Better than that, even, because—”

“Because I know what I’m doing,” Sterling realizes.

April nods, thumb brushing across Sterling’s lip like she needs to know that Sterling’s still here. Sterling’s eyes flutter closed at the sensation.

“Are you okay?” April whispers.

“I don’t know,” Sterling admits. Everything inside of her feels like it’s exploding. Okay seems completely arbitrary.

April squeezes her shoulder. “We should probably—”

“Go to prom with me.”

April startles back slightly but Sterling’s hands keep her from getting too far.

“I am going to prom with you.”

Sterling shakes her head, the words coming out before she’s fully processed them. “No, I mean, like…look, I know everything is still weird and complicated and hard for you—for both of us—around all of this. But I’m—I want you to be my date. My real date. And I’m completely sure about that. I want to—to kiss you and have everyone know…”

“What?”

Sterling swallows, looking into April’s eyes. “That you’re mine.”

April raises an eyebrow. “After one kiss?”

“It’s not just one kiss.”

“Sterling.” This time when April sighs her name, it sounds like a warning. Which is, honestly, still quite the turn on. “I would be going to prom with my girlfriend who I’m in love with. You would be going to prom with—with a girl who you’ve spent a lot of time with lately and just kissed for the first time. That’s not—I’m not sure how good that is for either of us.”

Sterling blinks, tears pricking behind her eyes, suddenly feeling exposed in a less pleasant way. “I’m not confused about how I feel about you.”

“I know.”

The sadness is back in April’s eyes, accompanied by something else that Sterling now identifies as uncertainty.

“But you’re confused about how you feel about me,” Sterling says with dawning, terrible clarity.

“Not confused,” April insists. “But it’s—it’s different, Sterling. We went through so much. If you never get your memories back—”

“You said that I was still me.”

“And you are, of course you are, but—”

Sterling gets it, then, what April sees when she looks at her: her almost-girlfriend. So close to the real thing but not quite right; a puzzle with the center pieces missing. It’s not unlike how Sterling feels when she looks at Blair these days; her sister, sort of. The same person she loves but with a new complication added that makes everything hurt just a little bit all the time.

But God, now Sterling understands more clearly than ever how good it was with her and April, how good it could be. By all accounts she pushed April before, and she lost her.

She won’t do that again.

“Will you think about it?” Sterling asks quietly.

April nods. “Of course. I just need to—” She rakes a hand though her hair, the gesture stupidly hot. 

Sterling nods. “It’s okay. Take all the time you need.”

That phrase has been said to Sterling over and over again ever since she woke up, but she really hears the meaning for the first time: I love you enough to wait for you. You’re worth it, to me.

All she can do is hope that April decides she’s worth it, too.

Chapter Text

“Hold up, so you guys kissed and you basically admitted that you wanted her to rail you right there in the dressing room—which wouldn’t have been the first time for that, bee tee dubs—and then she was like, ‘thanks but no thanks?’” Blair says incredulously. “Dump her tiny ass!”

Sterling sighs, collapsing back on her mattress. “You know it’s not that simple. Also, her ass isn’t tiny. Also, I absolutely did not mention anything about”—she lowers her voice to a whisper—“railing. Of any kind.”

“I said basically.

“Wait, we hooked up in a different dressing room?”

“Sure did. Swimsuit try-on day before the senior trip. Ellen was, like, ten seconds away from catching Stevens rounding third.” 

“Oh gosh. Poor Ellen.”

“Poor me. I was the one covering for you guys."

Sterling turns away, but she knows her blush is still highly visible. Her eyes settle on the garment bag hanging on her door, containing the last dress she tried on which was indeed a winner, though it was hard to feel very excited about it when April could barely look at her.

“Sterl,” Blair continues when Sterling doesn’t say anything, voice just a touch softer, “you know I’m Team Whatever Makes You Happy, which yeah, okay, usually involves April. But I sort of feel like her kissing you and then saying that she isn’t sure about you guys is, like, the definition of a mixed message.”

Sterling feels a tear slide sideways down her face, hot on her flushed skin. “You weren’t there. It was like we—God, Blair, it was like we couldn’t stop ourselves. I’ve never wanted—I never even knew I could feel that much.”

“You’re coming dangerously close to quoting Taylor Swift lyrics at me.”

“Shut up, you like that song.”

Blair leans forward to squeeze Sterling’s foot. “I just don’t want you to spend your whole life waiting for her. You’ve already waited so long.”

Sterling chews her lip. She doesn’t quite know what it means that the idea of not waiting for April doesn’t even feel like an option.

She asks Tami her thoughts on the matter at their next session.

"I think it means that you’re realizing how deeply you feel for her,” Tami replies gently. “But it’s important for you to recognize, Sterling, that you do have choices in the matter. And so does April.”

Sterling glances down at her hands, letting the fear that’s been rattling inside her for the last few days come to the surface. “What if—what if she decides that I’m not what she wants?”

“Well, I imagine that that will be very difficult, though I know you have the ability to work through it. Although the way you phrased that…”

“What?” Sterling asks, not used to Tami trailing off.

Tami offers a small smile. A slight stalling tactic, Sterling has learned, for when she’s gathering her thoughts. “I want to preface this by saying that this is merely conjecture on my part, and it’s absolutely not a substitute for you and April talking about this more together, okay?”

“Okay.”

“But based on everything you’ve told me about your relationship with April, I don’t think this is a matter of her not wanting you. You two have been through so much, both together and apart. You’ve worked through issues that would break up couples twice your age. So I wonder if April fears that in the event that your memories don’t come back, you might not understand the depths of what you two mean to each other. The depths of who she is. She’s shared more with you than any other person, which I know hasn’t been easy for her. She might be afraid to reach that level of vulnerability with you again.”

Sterling frowns. “But why would she be afraid if she did it before?”

“April isn’t accustomed to unconditional love,” Tami says softly. “She might be scared that she’s lost that with you.”

That idea rattles around inside Sterling’s head for the next several days, conjuring half a memory: the Willingham parking lot, April’s pensive expression as she brought up post-conditions, Sterling insisting that she was brave. A night of restless masturbation provides Sterling with the other half of the memory: the two of them in the fogged-up Volt, a Kacey Musgraves song on the stereo, the way April’s kiss-swollen lips wrapped around the word ravage. 

The excitement of the memory gives way to renewed sadness. Because Sterling knows that even with the terrible revelations of the last several weeks, she’s never doubted that she was loved. She may have lost trust in her parents, but their love was never up for debate.

Now she realizes that April’s spent a lifetime without that certainty.

The thought makes Sterling want to shout the words from the rooftops, to pull April into a supply closet and whisper them against her ear. But she promised patience, and she’s determined to follow through.

Thankfully, April doesn’t seem to feel that full-on avoidance is the only way to make her choice. She still brings Sterling over after school for a tutoring session that, sadly, doesn’t end with April teaching Sterling exactly how she likes to be kissed. 

Instead, once they’ve finished their Physics assignment, April hops up from the table and heads toward the kitchen, quickly donning an apron and starting to compile various baking ingredients in the middle of the counter.

Sterling leans her elbows on the counter, both intrigued and content to watch April do anything with her hands.

“Whatcha making?”

April glances up from the cookbook she seems to have procured out of thin air. “Cookies for Ezequiel’s grandmother. Her birthday is tomorrow.”

“April, you’re already Fellowship leader, you don’t have to win Ellen over by pretending to care about old people.”

April swats her with a towel across the island. “I’m not pretending. Grandma G. and I are good friends.”

“Since when?”

“Since…” She sighs, pressing her hip against the counter. “After I first came out to my mom, there were a few really rough weeks where I thought I might have to move out. One particularly rough day I called Ezequiel about it, and he happened to be at his grandma’s. She overheard him, grabbed his phone, and told me that if I ever needed a place to stay, she’d always have a bed for me. No matter what.”

“Wow,” Sterling whispers, throat feeling a little scratchy.

April nods. “I know. She still checks in with me from time to time, just making sure everything’s okay.”

Sterling gets that this isn’t the point, yet she can’t help but ask, “Why didn’t you call me?”

“What?”

“Well, you’d always have a place to stay with us. Debbie and Anderson, like, love you.”

April’s eyes shift back to her recipe, her words directed more to the book than to Sterling as she says, “With the way my mom is around you, I just… It would have made things worse.”

“Oh.”

And Sterling hates that, hates everything about it. The fact that there’s a person in this world who dislikes her as much as Mrs. Stevens does is bad enough, but that person being April’s only present parent makes it hurt that much more. Not only because Sterling wants to be liked by April’s mother, but because Sterling can only imagine how terrible it all must be for April.

That might be the worst part, actually.

Sterling watches April in silence for a while, after April rejects her two offers to help. It reminds Sterling a little bit of being back at the lake house, the quiet domesticity of sharing a space with April, neither of them needing to say much. Except now Sterling feels an extra charge beneath every second of eye contact, her breath stuttering slightly each time April opens her mouth to speak.

April is about halfway through spacing the dough balls a perfect two-inches apart on the cookie sheet when Sterling hears her let out a long exhale. When her head snaps up April’s eyebrows are furrowed, almost like she’s in pain.

“You okay?”

April nods quickly but it isn’t very convincing. “Just a little headache. I’m fine.”

“Oh, you should lie down.” Sterling rises to stand, coming around to April’s side of the counter.

“I’m fine,” April insists again. “Probably just need a good night’s sleep.”

“Have you not been sleeping?”

April offers a noncommittal shrug that speaks volumes.

“Well, if you need to sleep then go do that. I can finish up here.”

“Sterling, it’s okay.”

Sterling fixes her with what she hopes is an authoritative stare. “Debbie gets headaches. You know what doesn’t make them go away? Forcing herself to keep doing stuff. I’m not gonna burn down the kitchen. Let me help you.”

April looks up at her, eyes tired and betraying her discomfort but still so beautiful. “You don’t have to.”

“I want to,” Sterling says a bit softer, her conviction growing. 

Ever since she woke up it feels like all she does is take from April. But this small gesture is finally something she can give.

“Besides,” Sterling adds, “your mom won’t be home till late, right? So it’s kinda perfect.”

She wishes that wasn’t a selling point but it seems to be the winning argument of this debate, as April reluctantly starts to untie her apron (Sterling really wants to help with that, too, but she manages to exercise a modicum of restraint). 

“This recipe is basically foolproof,” April tells her. “Which is the only reason I’m letting you help.”

Sterling grins. “Glad you have so much confidence in my abilities.”

“I’m well aware of your abilities. Baking just doesn’t happen to be one of them.”

It feels like flirting, but before Sterling can fully process that April is heading toward the stairs, tossing a promise of, “I’ll be down in thirty minutes,” over her shoulder.

“Take your time. Drink some water.”

In truth, Sterling is actually kind of terrified of messing up the cookies, somehow, but she manages to get them into the oven without screwing anything up. She starts washing the bowls and putting away the ingredients, and by the time she’s wiping the last of the dough off the counter the oven is beeping.

No sooner has Sterling pulled the thankfully-not-charred cookies out of the oven than she hears a key in the door.

Shit.

Sterling smoothes her hair down as Mrs. Stevens’ heels echo down the hallway. She takes a deep breath when Mrs. Stevens calls out, “April? Are you baking something?”

“No,” Sterling calls back, attempting a smile that falters a little when Mrs. Stevens rounds the corner and full-on grimaces at the sight of her. “It’s, um. Just me.”

Mrs. Stevens carefully sets her purse down, eyes narrowed at Sterling the whole time. “And where is April?”

“Upstairs. She had a little headache.”

“And you decided to use our kitchen to make cookies?”

Sterling shakes her head, determined to not let the accusatory tone get to her. “I was helping April finish up. These are for Ezequiel’s grandmother.”

Mrs. Stevens stiffens even more. “Ah. April’s always had…affection for that woman.”

Sterling wants to reply that it’s easy to have affection for a person who meets a coming out with grace rather than homophobia, but instead she nods. “Yes, I—”

“Perhaps you should gather your things.”

Sterling knew that things were chilly with Mrs. Stevens, but this level of hostility is still a bit shocking.

“April drove me here,” she says quietly.

“Can’t you call your sister?” 

Mrs. Stevens practically spits the word sister, like even the thought of Blair is enough to make her sick, and Sterling’s fists clench at her sides.

“I think April would be disappointed if I just left without saying goodbye, don’t you?” Sterling replies, trying to keep her voice firm and respectful at the same time.

Mrs. Stevens squares her shoulders. “Fine. I’ll be downstairs if you need anything.”

And Sterling should let her go. Consider this battle a draw, just be grateful that no one’s shed any real blood.

But she thinks of April, coming home to this big, cold house every day. April, who works so hard and will spend the rest of her life undoing the damage that she’s endured under this roof. April, who might believe that Sterling couldn’t love all of her again, when that couldn’t be further from the truth.

“Mrs. Stevens,” Sterling hears herself saying, “I know you don’t like me. And you have your reasons, some of which I can understand and some that I’ll never understand.”

Mrs. Stevens’ eyebrows fly halfway up her forehead. “Sterling, that’s hardly—”

But Sterling barrels on. “It’s okay, though,” she continues, words only shaking a little, “because as much as I hate the thought of it, you don’t have to like me. The thing is, though, April…April loves me.” Even now, with Mrs Stevens glaring at her, Sterling’s chest feels lighter saying those words. “She really loves me, and, like—like everything else, she’s really good at it. I never want to hurt her again. I’m sure you don’t want her to be hurt, either.” 

Sterling swallows and takes a small step forward. “But when you…when you make her choose, when you try to pretend like I’m not a part of her life and force her to build a wall between me and you every single day, that does hurt her. She doesn’t talk about it, but I see that it does. So you don’t have to like me, Mrs. Stevens, but please, don’t punish April because she does.”

She takes a deep breath, thinks of Tami saying that April has a choice, too.

“And one more thing,” Sterling adds, “even if—even if April and I don’t stay together, she needs to know that you love her for who she is. Because she’s—she’s been through so much, and she’s remarkable in, like, a billion different ways. But she tries so hard, and she needs to know that—that she’s good enough.”

Mrs. Stevens appears to be speechless, her mouth hanging open, and Sterling thinks for a long, deeply uncomfortable moment that she’s just going to have to hightail it on out of here and beg Blair to pick her up along the way.

And then a throat is clearing from the stairs, and Sterling looks up to see April staring down at her, expression as stunned as her mother’s but with something like reverence shining from her eyes.

Sterling doesn’t break April's eye contact, not when Mrs. Stevens turns toward the stairs and says, “April, you better drive Sterling home.”

April nods, looking more than a little dumbfounded as she descends the stairs. Sterling herself is shaking, her body overwhelmed by the adrenaline of her words and the way April is looking at her. She grabs her bag and heads toward the front door, squeaking out a, “Bye,” to Mrs. Stevens that goes unacknowledged, to no great surprise.

“I’m sorry,” Sterling says as soon as she and April step outside, heart pounding so hard she can practically hear it. “I know I shouldn’t have said that, like I definitely might have made things worse, but I just—”

The rest of her sentence dies as April grabs her hand, tugging Sterling to her car. Sterling expects April to unlock it but instead she pulls Sterling around by the trunk, a spot out of sight from the front window.

Sterling stands with her back against the car, breath coming fast and nervous as April just stares at her, lips slightly parted, and good Lord, Sterling did not know that it was possible to be so turned on and so freaked out all at once.

“Is your head feeling okay?” Sterling asks quietly.

“Much better,” April replies before falling silent again, eyes still locked onto Sterling's.

“April.”

April lifts her other hand to press her index finger to Sterling’s lips. Sterling bites back a moan, trying to focus, which is getting increasingly difficult with April’s skin touching hers in multiple places and the way April is continuing to look at her.

“Yes,” April finally says.

“Yes?” Sterling echoes against her finger.

“I’ll go to prom as your date.”

Sterling blinks, vision suddenly clouded with tears, as April withdraws her finger. “Are you serious?”

April nods solemnly. “I’m serious. I thought that—but then you—”

“April Stevens can’t find the words?” Sterling teases, unable to resist, but when April’s eyes darken Sterling sucks in a breath.

“Sterling,” April sighs, and God, Sterling doesn’t think she’ll ever get tired of hearing April say her name like that, like a spell or a prayer; something secret and special and just for them.

Her body leans forward into Sterling’s, hands slipping around her waist, and this time the knowingness of what’s to come is what gives Sterling butterflies. 

April’s intense expression melts into a smile that Sterling can feel against her own mouth when they kiss, and Sterling is certain that nothing in the entire world has ever felt better. 

Chapter Text

No one would ever mistake Sterling for a subtle person, particularly when she’s excited about something, but even she has to admit that in the days following April accepting her invitation to prom, her exuberance reaches a fever pitch.

(Well, to be more precise, it’s in the days following the morning after April said yes to prom, when April informs Sterling that while Mrs. Stevens was more than a little surprised by Sterling’s speech, she actually seems to have taken it somewhat to heart, even going so far as to apologize to April. A shocking triumph, as far as Sterling is concerned.)

“She seems happy,” Anderson observes on Monday morning as Sterling munches on an apple while humming “Enchanted” under her breath.

“You think?” Blair snickers. “I’m pretty sure cartoon birds helped her get dressed this morning.”

“Guys, I’m right here!” Sterling protests, but there’s no real fight in her voice.

Even Sterling’s first therapy session with Debbie isn’t enough to break her joyful mood. In fact, it goes better than she expects it to go. 

Tami and Debbie have clearly built a rapport from previous sessions, but Sterling always knows that Tami has her back, and for the first time she’s able to verbalize her anger with Debbie in a voice that doesn’t tremble.

“I understand,” Debbie replies, without an ounce of defensiveness. “I spent so long being angry at my parents, and I wish they would have listened. So you can tell me anything, sweet—Sterling.”

“Um, you don’t have to…” Sterling starts, scuffing her shoe against Tami’s plush carpet. “You can call me ‘sweetheart,’ or whatever. I know it’s hard not to.”

“Is that what you want, Sterling?” Tami asks.

Sterling blinks, not expecting the question. “I—uh—I’m not sure.”

“Well, let’s wait till you’re sure,” Debbie says softly, not missing a beat. “I’ll stick with ‘Sterling’ until then. It is what we named you, after all.”

And Debbie has been promising to listen and let Sterling set the pace ever since the revelations came out, but Sterling really gets the significance of that, now, and it makes something close to affection glow in her chest.

Debbie suggests they do a little window shopping after therapy, maybe see if there’s any last fun thing that could be the finishing touch for Sterling’s prom look, and Sterling surprises both of them by agreeing. As they walk through the store with melty iced coffees (Sterling’s is basically a milkshake), pondering various bracelet options, it almost feels like the way it used to.

When prom is less than a week away, Luke approaches Sterling at her locker with a very serious expression on his face. For half a second Sterling worries he’s going to suggest they go together, but then he stammers out, “Would you be okay with me asking Hannah B. to prom?”

Sterling’s eyebrows lift. “Of course! Why are you asking me?”

Luke rubs the back of his neck nervously. “I know you guys are friends, and I don’t want to, like, mess with girl code, or whatever. I was just gonna go solo, but, I don’t know, she and I have sort of been jamming on guitar lately, and she’s really funny, and I think I kinda like her?”

Sterling impulsively grabs his arm. “Luke, that’s a great idea. I bet she says yes.”

Luke’s forehead furrows and Sterling feels her own do the same.

“Did I say that to you before?” she asks, the words tasting oddly familiar.

He nods slowly. “Yeah. About April.”

And Sterling just has to shake her head at how far they’ve all come. Then she goes to find April and pulls her into the third floor supply closet.

April giggles against her mouth, breathless and gorgeous. “Hannah B. and Luke? That makes a certain amount of sense. Though I worry we might have to remind them to use protection.”

“Well, maybe you should give them a box of condoms in Fellowship. Y’know, for old time’s sake.”

April rolls her eyes good-naturedly. “You don’t even remember that whole situation!”

“And yet the story of your blackmail lives on in infamy.” Sterling nips at April’s ear. “It’s okay, though, we figured it out. Now, can we please stop talking about our friends having sex?”

“Gladly.”

Hannah B. comes up to Sterling with wide eyes the next day, but before she can even say anything Sterling takes her hand. “You should go to prom with Luke if you want.”

“But…girl code!”

“I promise, there is no part of me that’s in any way hung up on Luke.” As if on cue, April appears at the end of the hallway, her eyes immediately finding Sterling’s. “I’m happy, finally. He should be, too.” She squeezes Hannah’s hand. “And so should you.”

So that afternoon Hannah accepts Luke’s last-minute promposal, and they all decide that a celebration at Yogurtopia is in order, Blair bragging that everyone can get as many free toppings as they want, despite Sterling’s warning that Bowser won’t like it.

When they arrive at the shop Bowser is behind the counter in his little visor, actually smiling as he talks to—

“Yolanda!” Sterling yelps, practically launching herself into the woman’s arms.

Yolanda stumbles backwards with a startled, “Uh, hello to you too, mija.”

Sterling pulls back to look at her, brain suddenly forming a block tower of memories. Sitting in Yolanda’s van, witnessing her spark with Bowser, processing her explanation of “fuck you money.”

It’s all there, everything about this person who Sterling never even knew of a year and a half ago. It’s as if the memory file containing all information on Yolanda has suddenly been slotted back into Sterling’s mental filing cabinet.

Huh.

Well, this is new.

“I remember you,” Sterling announces, more than a little dumbfounded.

Blair grabs Sterling’s shoulder. “Wait, really?"

“Everything about her."

“Why Yolanda?”

“Hey!” Yolanda protests. 

Blair waves a dismissive hand at her. “Oh, c’mon, you know I think you’re, like, the baddest bitch alive. But why would Sterl remember you? And not…all the other stuff?”

Sterling shakes her head, wishing she had the answer. “The doctor said there might not be a lot of rhyme or reason.”

“I think the rhyme or reason here is that I’m extremely memorable,” Yolanda declares.

“Yes, you are, honey,” Bowser says sweetly, glaring at Blair when she mutters, “Simp.”

Sterling blinks rapidly, glancing around at her friends as they stare back at her with wonder and curiosity. She suddenly feels like crying.

“Hey,” April asks gently, linking their fingers together. “You okay?”

Looking into April’s eyes is what breaks the dam, tears starting to slide down Sterling’s cheeks. It’s honestly kind of amazing that she hasn’t had to be re-hospitalized for dehydration since coming home.

God, April is just…she’s so good. So endlessly solid and supportive, while also igniting this thing inside of Sterling that seems to grow bigger and brighter every single day.

Sterling finds herself tugging April outside, back around to the mural that weeks ago made Sterling’s heart ache due to her lack of recognition, but now hazily seems to connect with a half-memory of sitting with Blair and reveling in the newness of her feelings for April.

“Are you okay?” April asks again.

Sterling wipes her eyes and takes a breath before saying, “I love you.”

April’s forehead creases the way it does when she’s working out a math problem, and oh God, Sterling just loves her so much.

“Do you…remember?” April asks quietly.

“A little bit. Not a lot. But that’s why I’m saying it now, because in case I remember more, I want you to know that I love you. Even without the memories.”

Sterling feels more tears forming but she doesn’t really care, not when April’s eyes are starting to shimmer, too; not when she's finally spoken this truth that's been building ever since she woke up.

“Are you sure?” April murmurs. “Because you may not have all of your memories, but you’ve certainly been influenced by the knowledge that—”

“April.” Sterling lifts April’s hand to her lips, briefly brushing her lips across the back of them. “Listen to what I’m saying. You made me fall in love with you twice, okay? Consider it a win.”

April’s mouth curls into a small smile. “Well, I do like to win.”

Sterling can’t help her own face from splitting into a grin. “Don’t I know it.”

“Also, technically it’s more than twice, since the first time you said you loved me, you made it quite clear that you had previously fallen in love with me during our earlier dalliance, which yes, was rather fast, but still counts, as far as I’m—”

“Oh my god, you’re impossible.”

The joy in Sterling’s voice betrays any pretend annoyance, and April surely hears it, her smile widening.

“But you love me,” April replies. “Plus, I’m being factual.” She glances down at their clasped hands. “And while we’re sharing things, I love you, too.”

“Yeah, I’ve known that all along.”

April shakes her head, eyes huge and voice soft as she says, “Sterling, I love you without your memories. I love you even if they never come back.”

Sterling hears herself gasp, breath fully catching in her throat. “Wait, really?”

“Yes.”

Sterling gulps. She didn’t know until hearing it just how significant the distinction is; to be loved by April at all has felt like a revelation, but to be loved as she is now, lacking what she thought she needed—what they both thought she needed—in order to make this work…well, it feels like magic.

“Wow. Cool,” Sterling says with a stupid little shrug.

“Yeah. Cool,” April echoes teasingly.

“Shut up,” Sterling mutters, before pulling April into a kiss.

If Sterling was in a good mood before, going into prom knowing that she and April are in love with each other is really something else.

“Sooo,” Blair drawls as they start getting their dresses on. “When, exactly, are y’all gonna do it?”

Sterling feels herself start to blush, ridiculously. “I don’t know!”

“It’s not like it’s the first time.”

“It sort of is, though. For me at least. And I just want…I want it to be great. I mean, I’m sure she’ll be great, but I want to be great, like, for her.”

“Maybe it’s like riding a bike?” Blair suggests, before her eyes light up. “Or, riding a dy—”

“You’re not allowed to say that word!”

“Right, right, sorry. Got carried away in the moment there.” Blair lifts a shoulder. “And here I thought you were withering away with horniness.”

Sterling considers how many nights this week she hasn’t been able to sleep until getting herself off to the thought of April in her bed.

“Oh, I definitely am, don’t worry about it.”

Blair hooks her chin over her shoulder. “But I am worried about it. I don’t want your vagina to shrivel up into nothingness.”

Weirdly, Blair doesn’t seem to be the only family member with that concern. Because once Debbie has finished cooing over just how beautiful her girls look, she steers Sterling into the corner and hands her a piece of paper.

“What this?” Sterling asks.

“It’s a hotel room under your name.”

Sterling’s jaw drops open.

“What?”

“It’s for you and April this evening, if you would like,” Debbie explains solemnly.

This has to be a joke. “Are you serious?”

Debbie nods. “Yes. Now I know that this may seem quite odd coming from me, but it’s been a hard time, undoubtedly, for you both. And I think you and April deserve to have the best prom night ever, don’t you? Plus this way I’ll know y’all are safe.”

“Debbie—”

Debbie fixes her with what Sterling can only describe as a Mom Stare.

“Listen, I don’t presume to know where you two are in your rekindling of things and frankly, I’m just as happy for that to stay as none of my business. If you and April aren’t there yet, your sister will gladly share a fancy hotel suite with you for the evening.”

“Blair knows about this?” Sterling sputters.

“It was her idea. She pitched it with some choice words that I will not be repeating.”

Sterling can only imagine what those words might be, and she feels her face turn even redder. “Oh god.”

“What you do with it is your business,” Debbie says firmly. “Though don’t even think about trying to sneak alcohol from the minibar, because I’ll be able to see every single charge on the bill.”

“We won’t, of course we won’t,” Sterling replies in a rush, staring down at the paper in her hand. Just when she thinks Debbie is done surprising her. “Thank you.”

Debbie smiles. “You’re welcome, Sterling.”

She goes to grab her phone again—likely to take another dozen or so pictures—but Sterling grabs her arm.

“You can, um, call me whatever you want. I’m sure now.”

Debbie’s jaw goes slack for a second before she nods. “Alright, sweetheart.”

The nickname actually feels good to hear, but Sterling doesn’t have time to dwell on that because the doorbell is ringing, and when Anderson goes to answer it there April stands, looking so radiant in her pale blue gown that Sterling goes fully breathless.

Damn, she’s lucky.

“You look beautiful,” April tells her, eyes only on Sterling as she crosses the threshold.

“Um!” Blair chirps, gesturing at her eggplant crop top and skirt combination. “What am I, chopped liver?”

“You look great too, Blair,” April replies, seemingly too stunned by the sight of Sterling to muster up anything vaguely snarky.

“You look…” Sterling says, voice soft and awed. “I mean, I literally just stopped breathing so I guess ‘breathtaking’ is what I’m going with. Wow.”

“I seem to be provoking that reaction a lot, lately.”

“Just wait till later tonight,” Blair mutters, and when Sterling can only flush in response April lifts an eyebrow.

Blair snorts and hooks their arms together. “C’mon, ladies, we’ve got a coming out to get to!”

And maybe that reminder should spark fear in Sterling, the knowledge that everything has been leading to this huge moment, but with the hotel reservation tucked carefully in her purse, April’s hand firm in hers, and Blair’s laugh echoing down the front steps, all Sterling can feel is excitement.

Chapter Text

April is all smiles through the duration of the limo ride, gamely speculating with Ezequiel about what “crime against fashion” Lorna might be wearing tonight, but right before it’s time to step inside the extremely lavish venue where prom is being held, her face falls for just a second.

“Hey,” Sterling says softly. “If you don’t want to do this—”

“I do,” April replies, though the slight shake in her voice betrays her. “And I don’t even really care what those idiots think of me, it’s just…”

Sterling nods and they both let the sentence end there. Then April reaches for her hand and squares her shoulders.

“Let’s do this.”

Sterling doesn’t know exactly what she was expecting—a chorus of gasps, an explosion of confetti, a bucket of pig’s blood falling on them—but she’s sure it wasn’t relative indifference. 

It’s not like there’s no reaction—Franklin whisper-yells, “Dude, are they together?” when Sterling and April are only about a foot through the door—but most everyone is too preoccupied by their own individual prom night to spare the two of them much more than a raised eyebrow.

They claim a table as their basecamp, and Sterling can tell that April needs a few minutes to get her bearings, so she sits beside her, absently tracing little hearts with her thumb into the smooth skin of April’s palm. Blair is immediately ready to dance, tugging a somewhat reluctant Ezequiel along with her, while Luke somehow manages to still be sheepish asking his actual date, Hannah B., if she’d like to dance, too.

That leaves Sterling and April at the table, just watching the action in relative silence, and Sterling is struck with how utterly content she feels in this moment, despite the anticipation that’s lead them here and the chaos of sound and light that surrounds them. Sterling has spent so much time recently feeling out of place, but here with April beside her and their friends all around them, she knows she’s in the right spot.

“How are you doing?” she asks April as they sip watered-down punch. 

When April turns to look at her Sterling’s breath catches again. God, she’s stunning, hair in loose curls around her shoulders, makeup glittery but still soft.

“I’m okay,” April replies with a squeeze to Sterling’s hand.

“Just okay?”

“Well, I’d be better if you’d dance with me.”

“Thought you’d never ask!”

April laughs a little as they make their way to the dance floor. It’s not too crowded yet, and the song playing is something light and pop-y that Sterling almost recognizes, a song that doesn’t inspire much in the way of dancing other than exuberant jumping. They find a spot near Blair and Ezequiel, who actually move together quite well, both of them clearly feeling the beat, while Luke and Hannah B. are engaged in a sweet but awkward sway that’s just a little slow for the current song.

April, to no great surprise, isn’t a huge fan of this type of dancing. She’s always preferred a dance with steps, excelling in ballet and tap and ballroom, and obnoxiously pulling those moves out at every previous school dance that Sterling can remember (usually forcing Ezequiel to be her partner).

Sterling can see the gears working in April’s head, the way that she’s overthinking the lack of instruction, uncomfortable with this type of physical improv. So Sterling impulsively grabs her by the waist, pulling April in until they can jump together, a less-than-subtle encouragement for April to stop thinking and just let herself feel this moment.

April makes a startled noise at first, quickly glancing around them, but then she’s grinning and clutching Sterling right back, jumping along with her, goofy and imperfect and wonderful.

The lights shine through April’s hair as another song begins, a Spice Girls song that makes Ezequiel shriek first in delight, then despair when several of their classmates obviously don’t recognize it and retreat back to their seats. April keeps dancing, though, so Sterling dances along with her, giggling delightedly when April attempts to spin her.

Sterling’s starting to get tired by the end of the song, grateful when a slower beat starts up.

“I never came to the beach or stood by the ocean”

It’s vaguely familiar to Sterling—she thinks the voice is Miley Cyrus—and she pulls April close. April doesn’t hesitate before wrapping her arms around Sterling’s neck, and Sterling knows that they’re technically dancing too slow for this mid-tempo song but she doesn’t care, not when April is pressed right against her.

“And sometimes I get so scared of what I can’t understand

But here I am

Next to you”

April clears her throat, and when Sterling pulls back enough to see her, April’s face is painted with vulnerability, her expression in such sharp contrast to the sneer she used to direct Sterling’s way that it makes Sterling’s chest ache.

“I love you,” April says quietly, the words just for them. “You make me so happy, you know that?”

Sterling nods, because finally she does know that. “I love you, too. God, April, you’re so good to me. For me. To me.” She rolls her eyes at herself. “We’re so good together.”

April leans up, brushing their noses together, and Sterling thinks that’ll be it but then April is pressing her mouth against Sterling’s.

And it’s not a wild kiss, or anything, but Sterling still gasps into it, hands coming up to cup April’s cheeks as Miley sings, “I never would’ve believed you / If three years ago you told me / I’d be here writing this song.”

When they pull apart the world is still intact. Sterling thinks she feels a couple of pairs of eyes on her but she honestly can’t be bothered to look anywhere but at April. April, who just kissed her in front of their entire school and is now smiling up at her so sweetly.

“My mom got us a hotel room,” Sterling says in a rush, every word of the sentence slipping out before she can think to edit it.

April’s eyes go huge. “Wow, she’s really campaigning hard to be the president of PFLAG, huh?”

Sterling laughs, so in love with April’s brain for working that fast. “Guess so. We don’t have to use it, if you don’t feel ready…”

“Do you feel ready?”

What Sterling wants to say is so ready I could burst, since that’s how she’s felt ever since learning about the hotel room, but she settles for, “Yes.”

Her enthusiasm must be obvious, though, because April smirks. “How very measured of you.”

“I’ll have you know I’m an extremely low-key person.”

“Oh yes, that’s the first word that comes to mind when I think of you.”

Sterling brushes her thumb across April’s cheek, biting her lip when April leans into the touch. “There’s totally no pressure, though.”

“I feel like I should be saying that to you.”

“You’ve missed it?” Sterling can’t help but ask, though the answer is clear by the way April’s eyes have darkened, the way she’s clearly trying to keep her breathing steady. “Being with me?”

April swallows hard. “You have no idea.” Her fingers clutch Sterling’s hips a little tighter, and Sterling actually has to bite back a moan.

Good Lord, how will she possibly survive sex with this girl?

“Then let’s do it,” Sterling says quickly. “Maybe we should leave soon? Like after another song?”

April throws her head back with a laugh, and Sterling is captivated by the movement of her throat. 

“We’ve got all night,” she promises. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Sterling sort of expects the night to feel endless after that, but while her whole body does start to thrum with anticipation, she still manages to have a great time and stay present. She dances with all of her friends, even Luke, who spends the whole time asking Sterling if she thinks Hannah B. likes him, in a way that Sterling can’t help but find sweet.

Ellen is working the snack table, and she breaks into a wide grin when Sterling comes by for a few more cookies.

“You and April look great out there!” Ellen chirps, and Sterling would swear there’s a knowing look in her eye. “I’m happy for y’all girls.”

The statement is entirely genuine, as Ellen always is, and Sterling finds herself grinning back. “Thank you.”

“I always knew you two were quite the team. And all that tension after years of friendship, then connecting again—goodness gracious, what a love story! I’m rooting for ya, my hand to God. ”

And maybe it should be weird, their teacher all but admitting that she ships them (April recently explained to Sterling what that means), but it just sort of feels like an extension of the joy that this whole night has been.

Luke is named prom king, with Lorna as his queen; an odd couple, to be sure, though Lorna seems delighted by the turn of events. As Sterling watches Luke struggle to push the plastic crown over the top of his head, she’s struck by the fact that she always thought it would be her up on that stage beside him, the student body cheering them on as Willingham’s ideal king and queen.

Instead, she gladly watches from the audience, arms wrapped around April’s waist as April’s head leans back against her chest, Blair whistling when Lorna waves her scepter in the air and Ezequiel loudly advising Hannah B. to “go get her man.” Sterling really doesn’t think she could be happier.

That is, until Blair zeroes in on her several minutes later:

Dude, get out of here! It’s time to get it wet!

You think?

Totally. The coronation—kill me for calling it that—is, like, the cake cutting of prom. You’ve put in your time. GTFO and go scissor till ya drop!

Oh my god, Blair.

Don’t ‘oh my god’ me, Sterling Wesley. Our walls aren’t that thick. I know where your mind’s been.

Yikes. Sorry!

Don’t be sorry. Go take care of your normal human needs! In a very nice hotel room that I could have had the chance to stay at tonight, by the way, but I’m such a good sister that I’m telling you to go get laid, instead!

I truly owe you one.

You truly do!

April has no objection to them leaving, so they say their goodbyes, Sterling’s stomach lurching with nerves and excitement when they finally make their way back to the limo. April holds her hand the whole drive to the hotel, offering it a gentle squeeze as Sterling stammers through the check-in process.

“Breathe,” April advises when they step into the elevator. “We can’t have you passing out before we’ve even started.”

So Sterling tries to breathe as they walk down the hallway. The room itself is really nice, with a huge bed and a view of the city. She and April just stand there for a second, hand-in-hand, and Sterling realizes something needs to happen but she isn’t sure how to start.

Luckily, April does, tucking a stray strand of hair behind Sterling’s hair and letting her hand settle on the curve of Sterling’s cheek. Sterling’s brain has been whirring over the mechanics of all of this—how quickly they’ll be able to get out of their prom dresses, whether her hands will remember how to touch April, if an orgasm will be easy to recognize when it’s another girl—but looking into April’s eyes, her mind quiets just a little.

April presses a soft kiss to her cheek and Sterling breathes in sharply. God, April smells good. She kisses her way to Sterling’s lips, thumb still stroking along Sterling’s cheekbone as she presses their mouths together, kissing Sterling so gently, so slowly, like they have all the time in the world.

Sterling wants to get fully lost in this, to completely give in to the sensation of April kissing her, but she can feel the anxiety creeping back up her spine, and she can hear Tami’s voice in her head telling her to talk about it.

“April,” Sterling whispers, breath already labored.

April pulls back. “Need a minute?”

“No, or, maybe. It’s just… you know what I like.”

“Yes,” April says simply.

Sterling’s cheeks are burning as she says, “And I don’t know what you like.”

“It’s okay. I promise, it didn’t take you long to figure out last time.”

“I don’t want to figure it out,” Sterling whines, aware she sounds completely petulant. “I just want to make you feel good.”

April, infuriatingly, seems intent on staying calm.

“You make me feel good without even trying.”

Sterling groans. “How do you always know what to say?”

“It’s a gift,” April replies with a tiny smirk. “Sterling, I’m not concerned in the least about your abilities in this regard.”

Sterling can’t help but feel a little flicker of pride at that. “Really?”

“Really. Besides, just being here with you is… wonderful.” April takes a step back, gesturing to the room around them. "And we don’t have to go any further if you don’t want to.”

“Oh, I want to. Believe me, I really really want to.”

April nods. “Okay, then let’s take it one step at a time.”

She leans in for another kiss but Sterling needs to say something else; April is sparkling in the lights of the city and Sterling can’t believe that she’s hers.

“April.”

“Yes?”

“You’re radiant.”

April full-on grins. “See? You’re already making me feel good.”

“Mmm. Compliments,” Sterling chuckles. “Why am I not surprised?”

“You realize this is another pot-kettle situation.”

“We do seem to find ourselves in a lot of those.”

This time Sterling is the one to lean forward. She wraps her arms around April’s neck, letting herself sink into the moment, now. She’s still nervous but vocalizing the feeling has made the knot in her stomach loosen, more reminiscent of the sheer excitement she felt right before prom.

April’s tongue presses to hers and Sterling hears herself whimper. She longs to feel that tongue everywhere, to be reminded of exactly what it can do to her. Sterling’s hands go to the back of her dress, weakly attempting the zipper before April bats her hands away and takes care of it herself.

The gravity of the moment hits Sterling just as the dress slides off her shoulders; she and April are going to be naked with one another. A thing that’s happened many times before, but is entirely new to Sterling.

She gulps at the thought, as April helps ease the dress down her body. April has to kneel to get it all the way off, and the sight of her down on her knees in front of Sterling makes Sterling let out a shaky exhale. April’s eyes rake over her for a long second once Sterling is standing in only her bra and underwear, hands cupped around the backs of Sterling’s calves.

Sterling thinks she might be shaking but she isn’t sure, she just knows that the skin of her legs feels like it’s on fire from where April’s touching it. And that’s just her calves. 

When April’s eyes resettle on Sterling’s they’re dark with lust, as she breathes, “God, I’ve missed you.” 

She presses a kiss right above Sterling’s knee and Sterling nearly falls right over, squeaking out, “Wait, I can’t.”

April immediately pulls back and Sterling shakes her head. “No, no, I want to keep going, I just…if you’re gonna do that then we need to go to the bed, I’m not gonna be able—”

April lets out a low chuckle that’s easiest the sexiest sound Sterling’s ever heard. “Just getting your dress off, Sterl.”

“Okay. Cool,” Sterling manages, helping April back to her feet when she extends a hand.

“Can I see you, too?” Sterling asks softly, and April nods, turning around so Sterling can unzip her. When she turns back around Sterling just about falls over again.

April is a goddamn work of art.

"Oh my god, April,” Sterling gasps, taking every inch of her in.

Her eyes are everywhere except April’s face, but Sterling can still hear April’s smirk when she says, “You know, I’d make some remark about how the way you’re looking at me right now is reminiscent of our first time, but honestly, you always look at me that way.”

“Can you blame me? How the hell do I make it through a single school day knowing you look like that under your uniform?”

“You don’t. Hence the supply closet.”

“Well, it’s gonna be getting a lot more action in the last week of school, let me tell you.”

“Noted.”

Sterling swallows hard. “I think we need to go to the bed now.”

She could have anticipated it, but when April fully climbs into her lap Sterling is pretty sure she’s seconds away from passing out.

“This okay?” April asks, hands settling over Sterling’s shoulders.

Sterling answers by kissing her. April smiles against her mouth, catching Sterling’s bottom lip between her teeth. Sterling’s fingers dig into the smooth, perfect skin of April’s low back, while April’s fingers gently tug her hair out of its updo.

April kisses down along her neck and licks her way up the other side, sucking Sterling’s earlobe into her mouth, and Sterling fears she might be done for. She tries to remind herself to breathe as she manages to get her own bra off, but then April is firmly pressing her shoulder and Sterling finds herself flat on her back, completely breathless again.

April hovers over her, smile knowing and dirty, as she unhooks her own bra before draping her body over Sterling’s. She’s so warm and soft and Sterling wants to touch her everywhere, but before she can April is pinning her wrists overhead, and Sterling moans.

“God, you feel good, baby,” April whispers hotly against her ear.

Sterling’s brain is getting foggy with how turned on she is, with the combined sensations of everything happening right now, but she manages to get out, “Say that again.”

She feels April smirk against the base of her throat. “Which part?”

“Any of it. All of it. Call me baby again.”

April rocks her hips down against Sterling’s and for the first time Sterling notices how hot she is there. “Baby. You feel like heaven.”

The hand of April’s not holding Sterling’s wrists skims down Sterling’s side then back up again, thumb brushing Sterling’s nipple.

“My hands have been desperate to touch you like this,” April continues.

“Have you—have you thought about me when you—” Sterling pants, utterly past the point of any embarrassment for the question.

“Of course. Dreaming of being with you again. Pretending my fingers were yours.”

Sterling whimpers, arching up into April’s words and her body, feeling April’s nipples scrape against her own. April grins down at her, clearly so pleased with herself as she lowers her mouth to Sterling’s breast, lips closing around her nipple.

“You’re gonna kill me,” Sterling gasps, the words strained.

“Oh, I sure hope not,” April replies, but then, in a voice that tells Sterling that she knows exactly what she’s doing to her, asks, “How would you feel about me going down on you?”

Sterling lets out a strangled sound that April laughs loudly at.

“Is that an affirmative?”

Yes. Oh my god.”

April laughs again, the sound rumbling against Sterling’s stomach as she kisses her way lower. She finally releases Sterling’s wrists and Sterling’s fingers immediately sink into her hair, tightening their hold when April slips off Sterling’s underwear.

An eternity might pass, or perhaps April has gained the ability to bend time; April seems capable of just about anything at this point. Then finally, finally, her mouth is between Sterling’s legs and her lips and tongue are sliding over Sterling and nothing, truly nothing in the entire universe has ever been so spectacular.

Before tonight, Sterling wondered if this would be the moment when everything would come back, if April touching her again would be the key to unlocking the rest of her memories; if the first press of April’s tongue against her would initiate a tidal wave of recognition.

Now, though, it’s so much more feeling than actual memory. April’s warm, perfect mouth slides over her and Sterling is back in the supply closet, she’s at the lake house, she’s in the backseat of the Volt. She’s all the places where April has touched her but she’s here, most importantly; here beneath April’s glorious tongue, here as April slowly slides a finger inside of her.

Sterling’s entire body jerks, the orgasm hitting her hard and fast but April doesn’t stop, the hand not between Sterling’s legs pressing her pelvis into the mattress as Sterling squirms and cries out. 

“Yes, baby,” April encourages before her tongue resumes its work, fingers curling deep and perfect and Sterling’s going to come again, she knows it.

“Fuck,” she exhales. “Holy shit, April, I—”

She’s on her way to saying “I love you” when her second orgasm hits, stealing the last of the breath from her lungs. Sterling’s spine curls off the bed and sparks flash behind her eyes and her mouth is forming April’s name but no sound can come out.

April guides her through it all, only slowing down when Sterling stops flailing against her. Sterling twitches a couple more times as April licks the skin of her inner thighs, tongue tracing slow, unhurried patterns.

April eventually rises with a quirked eyebrow and Sterling tugs her down on top of her, needing to taste herself on April’s tongue, needing April to feel how fast her heart is beating.

April has learned her, Sterling realizes as her breath starts to even out. April has studied her like a textbook, taking the time to discover exactly what Sterling likes and needs, exactly how to touch her. The intimacy of it hits her in this moment, as she strokes a hand through April’s hair, as April’s lips press to the base of her throat.

Sterling wedges a knee between April’s legs, groaning when she feels just how wet April is through her underwear. April lifts her head, eyes half-lidded, lower lip caught between her teeth and Jesus, Sterling has to touch her, even if she doesn’t know what she’s doing.

She gently presses April onto her back, and when April falls back against the pillows Sterling would swear that she’s an angel come to earth. Sterling stares down at her, eyes wide and hungry, and April raises a hand to her cheek.

“Just do whatever you’re comfortable with,” April murmurs, though her voice is rough with want.

Sterling trails two fingers over April’s jaw and across her mouth, breath hitching when April’s tongue darts out and licks over them. Sterling can only shake her head, utterly overcome by this girl as her wet fingers travel lower, circling one of April’s nipples.

April sucks in a sharp breath through her teeth, chest arching into Sterling’s hands, and that’s what gives Sterling the confidence to bend her head to April’s other breast, swirling her tongue over April’s nipple before releasing it with a wet pop.

The sounds seems too loud in the quiet hotel room, but then April lets out a noisy whimper when Sterling’s hand creeps down her stomach. Sterling cups April through her underwear, and somehow April is both wetter and warmer than Sterling expected, making Sterling gasp.

April parts her legs wider, sighing out a, “Please, Sterl,” that Sterling feels right in her gut. She quickly drags April’s underwear off her legs before putting her hand back where it was, but this time nothing separates them as her fingers slip over April.

“Jesus Christ,” Sterling breathes. “You feel so good.”

April whines, shifting her hips against Sterling’s hand, and Sterling gets the message, starting to move her fingers in a steady rhythm. April’s eyes flutter closed, her hands clenching the bedsheets and her nipples pointing toward the ceiling and God, this is so much better than any dream.

“Need you inside, baby,” April rasps, so Sterling lowers her fingers slightly, trying to mimic what she knows she likes, what she felt April do to her. It seems to work, because April starts nodding almost in time to Sterling’s movements.

Sterling curls her fingers and April moans her name, high and breathy, a sound that Sterling absolutely needs to hear again and again. She brings her other hand back to April’s breast, stroking the skin there as her fingers work in and out of April, as April continues to pant her name. 

And then April’s own hand darts down, shifting Sterling’s wrist ever so slightly before she’s coming, clenching tight around Sterling’s fingers.

(And Sterling had nothing to worry about earlier; it is quite clear what is happening.)

Sterling watches her face the entire time; this euphoria that she can’t believe she’s privileged to witness. April Stevens: completely free, overcome with pure pleasure—pleasure that Sterling got to bring her.

“You’re magnificent,” Sterling whispers, and April just smiles up at her, expression as close to dopey as Sterling’s ever seen her.

“I love you,” April replies. 

Sterling curls up beside her, holding April close. This all feels familiar, but Sterling couldn’t say if it’s a memory or something deeper, something closer to fate; if perhaps it’s not that they’ve been in this exact moment before but that they were destined to find each other in any lifetime; that she was always meant to be here with April, in each version of the universe.

It could be a memory, Sterling thinks distantly, but for the first time that doesn’t feel important. 

April is in her arms, and nothing else seems to matter.

Chapter Text


"How will you remember?"

"That I love you?"

"Yes."

"That's easy. I can't help it."

- Sarah Ruhl, from "Eurydice"


Sterling wakes up in a room that’s just right.

The air-conditioning is whirring quietly in the background, sunlight is just beginning to dapple the room in a warm orange glow, and the bed beneath her is the perfect level of soft. 

But more importantly than any of that, April is here.

April’s hair is wild and tickling Sterling’s face, and her body is naked and pressed right up against Sterling’s, and her arm is holding Sterling’s in place; holding onto Sterling as Sterling holds on to her.

Sterling can’t recall ever enjoying waking up so much.

She presses a light kiss to the back of April’s shoulder, not enough pressure to wake her, but enough for Sterling to revel in this moment. 

Ever since the coma, it feels like everything has been tinged by melancholy, that even the happy times that Sterling has experienced have been covered in an impenetrable film of loss, always aching, always tender.

But now, propping up on one elbow and gazing down at the sleeping form of April Stevens in her arms, in a hotel room that Debbie, of all people, gifted them with, Sterling only feels joy, unbridled and uncomplicated.

She can’t help a tiny, delighted giggle from bubbling out of her—she honestly feels a little giddy—and while she clamps her mouth shut over the sound April’s eyes quickly open, taking half a second to register her surroundings before her face splits into a grin.

“Good morning,” April greets, voice rough, and wow, just that sound sends a rush of heat through Sterling’s whole body, settling between her legs.

“Good morning,” Sterling replies. “This is a really nice way to wake up.”

April scrunches her face, stretching in such a way that she can still remain under Sterling’s arm. “I agree.”

And Sterling gets it, suddenly, Debbie’s certainty that they will get married, because she truly can’t imagine not always sharing a bed with April after last night.

“Do you feel okay?” April asks, a hint of concern behind the words.

“I feel great.” Sterling frowns. “Why?”

April arches an eyebrow. “Oh, I don’t know. You only came out to the whole school and had lesbian sex for the first time that you can remember all in the span of, oh, six hours?”

Sterling laughs again, letting the sound come fully through this time. “Just another day in the exciting life of Sterling Wesley.” She traces April’s cheek with her finger. “Seriously, though, I can honestly say that I don’t think I’ve ever felt better. What about you?”

April studies her for a moment, eyes narrowing.

“What?” Sterling prompts.

April shakes her head. “I’m trying to think of the words to sum up how I feel, but…they’re escaping me.”

“That’s two times I’ve made you speechless recently. I’ll consider those wins.”

“More than two, Sterl. There were certainly a few moments last night where I was struggling with the English language.”

“Right! Thanks for keeping track of my victories, babe.”

The nickname slips out easily, and when April’s eyes go wide with awe and affection Sterling decides to count that as another win, too.

She cranes her neck to check the clock. “We have a couple of hours until checkout. Have any ideas about how to spend the time?”

April’s smile starts to look a little less earnest. “I can think of several.”

Sterling gulps, a sudden nervousness settling over her, though she’s determined to push through. 

“I, um. Didn’t get to go down on you last night,” she says in a rush.

“And are you hoping to remedy that situation?”

Sterling nods so frantically that she’s probably at risk for giving herself whiplash. Everything they did last night felt absolutely incredible—better than incredible; transcendent—but April was so focused on giving Sterling the best possible time that Sterling didn’t get to fully reciprocate, and while she’s a little concerned about whether she’ll be coordinated enough for this, she’s also desperate to taste April.

It turns out she has very little to be concerned about. Literally at the first press of Sterling’s tongue to her April is coming, spasming against Sterling’s mouth. Sterling’s head darts up so fast in surprise that April is still mid-orgasm, face and chest gorgeously flushed.

April looks down at her with a slightly chagrined expression once she’s recovered. “Sorry, I—did not expect that to happen. Your mouth—I’ve just really, really missed it.”

Sterling is sure that what April just experienced couldn’t have been fully satisfying—it certainly wasn’t for her—but the rapidness of April’s orgasm emboldens Sterling, filling her with a warm confidence that she can do this.

She loops her arms under April’s thighs, tugging her tighter against her, any timidness drained away as she puts her mouth back on April. April cries out, pulling Sterling’s hair, and Sterling hums against her, relishing in all of it; April’s taste and smell and the noises she’s making, but most of all her sheer enjoyment. April’s pleasure manages to be sharp and soft at the same time, much like April herself, and God, Sterling is so in love with it, so in love with her.

Sterling eats her out for two more orgasms, once again rendering April utterly speechless by the time she rises back from between April’s legs. Sterling’s jaw is a bit sore but she truly couldn’t care less.

All in all, it might be her best morning yet.

--

Despite her doctor’s warning that it’s unlikely to happen the longer time goes on, some part of Sterling still keeps believing that all of her memories will return. She isn’t sure whether she’s expecting a Big Bang where everything will suddenly click back into place, or a slow addition of pieces that will eventually complete the puzzle, but it still seems impossible to her that a year and a half of memories could disappear in an instant and never come back.

What actually happens is less dramatic than a Big Bang and less satisfying than a puzzle, but certainly more complicated than either. More memories do start to come back, but they’re rarely in an order that makes a lot of sense, and sometimes they make things worse.

For example, one afternoon when Blair is driving them back from Yogurtopia, she asks Sterling to feed her a Sour Patch Kid from the open pack sitting between them. When Sterling looks down at the sour-sugar residue left on her hands, she suddenly starts hyperventilating and they have to pull over. Both of them are crying by the time they make it home, and Debbie immediately calls Tami for an emergency session.

That’s the day that Sterling remembers the kidnapping. And it was one thing to hear about how it happened, but it’s quite another to remember how it felt to not know if she’d ever see her family again, to relive the terror of thinking she might die on a visceral level, to see the look on Dana’s face when she proclaimed that Sterling was her daughter.

It’s hard for a while after that, Sterling having to work through that trauma all over again. “I just feel like I’m back to square one,” she bemoans to Tami.

“I understand,” Tami replies, “but Sterling, you’re not. Look at how far you’ve come in such a short period of time. You’re getting back pieces of yourself, and that isn’t always going to be easy. Some of the pieces will be hard, but some will—and have been, already—wonderful.”

Debbie and Anderson are pillars of support through it all, giving Sterling all the space she needs while making it clear that they’re there for her. In one therapy session with just the three of them Sterling breaks down, sobbing, “I just think I need you guys to be my mom and dad again, okay?”

And they have been, they always have been, even when they weren’t, but something shifts after that. They’re Mom and Dad again, not like how it was before but in a new way; they are her parents.

Debbie asks Sterling if she wants to see Dana, and Sterling feels like her answer should be yes but every time she thinks about it she feels sick to her stomach.

“You get to navigate what your relationship with Dana looks like,” April tells her, stroking a hair through Sterling’s hair on the Wesley couch one evening. “Even if that means no relationship at all.”

Sterling knows that it’s a line April’s borrowed from her own therapist—a new addition to April’s routine that Sterling is so proud of her for embarking on.

So Sterling tells Debbie that she isn’t ready, that she doesn’t know if she ever will be, and Debbie promises that that’s okay.

Not every memory that returns is bad. Some, in fact, are very good, like the night when she and April go to the movies and halfway through Sterling remembers the time that she got bored twenty minutes into last year’s Star Wars and convinced April to let her finger her in the movie theater bathroom (an experience that April is quick to point out she only agreed to because she’d already seen the movie in question). 

And naturally, it seems only right to recreate that particular memory this time around, which is how she and April end up permanently banned from that theater when an employee walks into the bathroom at an inopportune moment.

Totally worth it, in Sterling’s opinion.

Some memories seem to provide the opportunity to do things differently. Sterling recalls an extremely awkward dinner at the Stevens house that took place a month into the official start of her and April’s relationship—an event that, apparently, inspired April’s efforts to keep Sterling and Mrs. Stevens apart.

“I think I felt guilty, or something, which is why I didn’t try harder,” Sterling explains to Tami. “But that put April in such a tough spot, and I don’t want to do that to her again.”

So she doesn’t. She gets April to convince her mom to have another dinner, and yeah, it’s uncomfortable at first, and for the two dinners that follow. But by the third one Sterling can tell that she’s starting to win Mrs. Stevens over, and before she leaves after the fourth dinner Mrs. Stevens catches Sterling’s wrist as she’s leaving and murmurs, “You may have made some highly questionable choices in the past, but you clearly make April happy. And she deserves that.”

“She does,” Sterling replies simply, afraid that she’ll start weeping or impulsively hug Mrs. Stevens if she lets the moment linger, and she just manages to make it to the Volt before breaking into a happy dance-slash-cry.

Things get easier with Blair. Not that they were ever hard, exactly, but eventually the film of sadness dissolves into almost nothing. Sterling can easily refer to Blair as her twin again, and Blair stops seeming so angry at their parents all the time. She starts dating Bowser’s new Yogurtopia employee, a sweet, whip-smart boy named Eli who’s a total music nerd and makes Blair laugh with her whole body. Even April has to admit that he’s pretty great, and though she makes a production about it, she grants Sterling’s wish to attend several double dates with the two of them.

Now that things are good (great, tremendous) between her and April, it’s natural to start folding April back in to the family activities. Sterling’s parents adore her; that much has been clear ever since Sterling first woke up, but seeing it in action now that she and April are in such a wonderful place is really something. 

Sometimes Debbie and April will disappear into the kitchen for an hour, talking about everything from literature to their respective families, and returning with a delicious meal and the look of two people who just shared a good cry. April seems genuinely interested in Anderson’s woodwork, something that neither of his daughters will even fake affection for, and he delights in showing off his “skills” to April (who, no surprise, quickly laps him in her own woodworking abilities, and suddenly hanging out in her dad’s shop holds a lot more appeal for Sterling).

Still, not every April memory is a positive one. Sterling is walking past a bench on the way into school one morning when another memory from the night of the lock-in hits her. She practically runs into Willingham, finding April and pulling her into the supply closet before her eyes spill over with tears.

“What is it?” April asks with concern.

“We broke each other’s hearts,” Sterling blubbers. “I didn’t understand, and you were hurting, and—”

April pulls her into a hug. “It’s okay, baby. We made it through.”

“I’m sorry,” Sterling sniffles into her shoulder.

“I know. I’m sorry, too.”

“I love you.” Sterling pulls back just enough to look into April’s eyes. “I was totally falling in love with you back then, too.”

“Sterling, I’ve been in love with you for so long that I barely remember what it felt like not to love you.”

Sterling kisses her then, and it’s messy and tearful and perfect.

Graduation arrives in a flash, the whole day feeling like a blur to Sterling, and soon the summer stretches ahead of them, with college lingering close on the horizon.

Sterling’s plans haven’t changed; she’ll still be attending Sarah Lawrence with April at Columbia, while Blair will be taking a gap year to travel. While the thought of leaving home seemed utterly absurd when she first woke up, she finds herself excited, now. 

She knows enough about herself to feel ready. She doesn’t have every single piece of the puzzle but she has enough, and she’d like to think that she’s made some new pieces along the way.

Today, though, she doesn’t have to worry about college or moving or life changing once again before her very eyes. She, April, Ezequiel, Blair, Eli, Luke and Hannah B. are spending the weekend at the Stevens’ lake house. The place that was Sterling’s refuge after the truth about her family came out. The place where, she’s now remembered, she and April had sex for the first time. The place where she and Blair arrested April’s dad. 

Life, Sterling has come to recognize, is full of surprises.

Now, though, April’s hand is in hers as they climb the front steps. Blair and Eli are playfully arguing over who should be in charge of music this weekend, while Ezequiel is showing Hannah B. pictures of the boy he’s been flirting with on Instagram and Luke is offering him a high-five in approval.

Sterling tugs April back a little, needing a moment just for them. April is smiling in the way that Sterling has learned is just for her, and the sun is setting behind her, glowing across her skin, and Sterling is overcome.

“I love you,” Sterling says, pressing a kiss to the back of April’s hand.

“I know. You just told me that, like, two minutes ago.”

“Maybe you need the reminder.”

April rolls her eyes fondly.

“I have an excellent memory.”

“Especially when it comes to me,” Sterling can’t help but quip.

April flushes just a little, leaning up until her lips are centimeters from Sterling’s own. “Well, as long as we’re reminding each other of things: I love you, too. More than I can fully understand, most days.”

Sterling grins. 

“Don’t worry,” she promises, “I won’t forget.”