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i’ve got a hundred thrown out speeches i almost said to you

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April doesn’t really like Valentine’s Day. Every year it’s a class requirement to write cards and attach a piece of candy for each kid in class. Which, if she really thinks about it, is essentially just a lighter, sugary form of giving out a participation trophy (because mediocrity is apparently a thing that gets rewarded now). And every year her dad takes almost all of her candy, same as Halloween, because he doesn’t think it’s good for her to have that much sugar.

So writing note after note and attaching a lollipop to each card is a very big waste of time for April, who doesn’t feel like she has a lot of time to waste. Mrs. Willis always says that April is the busiest ten year old she’s ever seen. She does all of her homework, aces all of her tests, goes to ballet on Thursdays, horseback riding on Saturday, and with the spelling bee just around the corner, April has also been working to expand her already impressive vocabulary.

Which is why she rushes through most of the notes, crossing names off the class list as she goes, until April gets to one towards the bottom that makes her stop and think.

Sterling Wesley is third to last on the list, but luckily April has extra cards and candy (that will probably be thrown out) and can assemble something nice for her best friend.

Most of the cards are stupid, but there’s one with a googly-eyed labradoodle that has “you are PAWS-itively amazing” written on the front, and April just knows Sterling will get a kick out of it. She picks up a purple marker (Sterling’s favorite color) and attaches a blue raspberry lollipop (Sterling’s favorite flavor) and April writes her note on the inside flap.

For the rest of her peers she just wrote the kids name, Happy Valentine’s Day, and then signed at the bottom. But for Sterling, April puts in a little extra effort.

Sterling,

The front of the card didn’t lie. Although, I don’t think I would ever use the word “paws-itively” myself, I do think that “amazing” is accurate.

I don’t know what I would do without you. You’re the funniest person I know, the kindest person I know, and probably even the prettiest too. We have to stay best friends forever.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Love,
April

When April sits back to read it over, she frowns. There’s an uneasy feeling rising in her chest, the one she gets whenever she stumbles into trouble.

Something about her writing feels too much, too intense, too — what was the word? Threatening.

April can sense it in the way her stomach tightens at the thought of anyone but Sterling reading this note. If it lands in the hands of another kid in class, April will be down right humiliated. If it changes the way Mrs. Wesley smiles at her in church, April might never be able to go back. And if Mrs. Willis sees it, April worries that her parents will be notified at pickup after school, and she unfortunately knows exactly how that would go.

She can just picture the look on her mother’s face. The disappointment, embarrassment, and borderline horror would all be far too reminiscent of when Mrs. Meisner called about a thing April had said to Adele. She can hear her mom’s voice apologetically saying she doesn’t know why April is like this and that this isn’t the first time it’s happened. She can hear the way her mother’s tone will change once it’s just the two of them, telling April to calm down, wondering why she can’t be more like the other girls, and insisting that they don’t mention a word of it to her father.

And then April will stay up half the night trying to figure out why she is the only one who can’t have a best friend, why the other girls get to be inseparable but it’s too much, too far when April goes for it, and wondering if maybe her wording was just bad.

That might’ve been okay in second grade, but now April has spelling tests every Friday, math quizzes every Wednesday, and a reading list well beyond her grade level. Her wording is just fine. She’s the best writer in her class. There’s just another piece to the puzzle that she doesn’t quite get yet and she can’t lose sleep over something as silly as a valentine. After all, she’s the busiest ten year old her teacher has ever seen.

So April takes the note and folds it three times over. She shoves it deep in the back of her nightstand drawer, since she can’t risk her parents finding it in the trash. Then she takes a new valentine, one not as carefully chosen as the googly-eyed labradoodle, and simply signs her name in a color that isn’t Sterling’s favorite.

Now it looks just like everyone else’s and April feels like she can breathe again.

“Are you fucking kidding me?”

Hannah B. gasps from beside her. April rolls her eyes. They’re thirteen now, it’s not like Hannah has never heard the word “fuck” before.

April doesn’t curse often, her daddy says it’s not ladylike, but once in a while she gets so mad that it just kind of...slips.

Like when Sterling Wesley beat her by three votes for most popular, or when Sterling Wesley won class president on a platform of sunshine and rainbows and the promise of a school dance, or when Sterling Wesley got the part of Mary in their church’s production of the Nativity despite never participating in the play before.

Or like right now, when April is standing in the overcrowded school gymnasium and sees that she tied with Sterling Wesley for best project at the science fair. Tied!

As if that weren’t nauseating enough, they have to wait together on the side of the makeshift stage while second and third place get they’re awards, and Sterling is just so giddy about it.

“Do you think they have multiple first place trophies just in case this happens or are we gonna have to break it into pieces like Cady Heron did with the tiara in Mean Girls?”

April rolls her eyes. “I’ve never seen that God awful movie.”

“Blair and I watched it over winter break while our parents were out. You should come over some time to see it.”

“I’d rather gouge my eyes out with a plastic spoon.”

Sterling laughs. “That’s oddly specific.”

April crinkles her nose and turns the other way without acknowledging it. She wasn’t trying to make a joke or get Sterling to smile. Gross. She'd much rather have silence between them.

But Sterling, as always, has other ideas. “We could pick a different movie.”

“Same result.”

“The spoon and the eyes?” she chirps, still smiling for some weird reason.

April doesn’t get it. This isn’t banter. This isn’t meant to be fun. Why is Sterling so happy?

“Precisely,” April says, jaw tightly clenched. “While your taste in film is almost as abysmal as your taste in men, clothes, and pretty much everything else, the movie is not the problem. You are.”

Her smile finally falls. “What — why are you so mean to me? We used to be friends and now you...”

“Now I what?”

“Now you hate me. I don’t get it.”

April has a thousand reasons on the tip of her tongue. She’s spent years journaling about why she hates Sterling Wesley.

Sterling thought so little of her that she gave April away as if it were nothing and clearly it was because it has never once registered to Sterling as something April could be mad about. She always just tilts her head to the side and wells her eyes up all big and innocent, like April is the one hurting her, like she is the victim here. And everybody buys it. Sterling has the whole grade — the whole school — completely wrapped around her finger. April seems to be the only one who isn’t fooled by her stupid smile and blinky blue eyes.

“You know, I—” April starts, but then she thinks better of it. They’re about to walk on stage in front of the entire student body and their parents and April will not be made into a villain again. “You’re not even worth it.”

“Not worth an explanation?”

“Not worth another damn second of my time.”

Then their names are being called and April is walking across the stage without so much as a glance back at Sterling. She first spots the Wesley clan in the sea of people, right up front and cheering louder than anyone. Then she sees her dad in the back of the crowd without so much as a smile, clapping halfheartedly over his daughter's shared victory.

She blames Sterling.

On Monday morning April is relieved, because Sterling’s absence at school is one less thing for her to worry about. She goes about her day as best as she can, trying not to notice the empty seats of the Wesley twins and certainly not letting herself be sad when she walks by a certain bench.

On Tuesday she distantly registers it as weird. Sterling and Blair already skipped a day of school last week, would they really skip two the week after? But then Hannah B. says that Lorna said that Luke kissed April at the lock-in, leaving April with bigger things to worry about than her former not-quite-girlfriend skipping school.

By Wednesday it’s concerning. April starts to think that maybe Sterling and Blair aren’t just being reckless and stupid. But it takes until Thursday for April to reach full blown panic.

The Wesley’s may be less determined, have weaker immune systems, and are more likely to slack off, but even they wouldn’t be bedridden for a week by a common cold. This could be a flu or a virus, and as somebody who spent last week very intimately involved with Sterling Wesley, April could be next.

She doubles up on zinc, takes all of her vitamins, and carries multiple medicines with her at all times just in case any illness should show. She would be more thorough if she knew what she were up against, but it’s not like April can just text Sterling out of the blue and say, “Hey, sorry I ripped your heart out by flirting with you ex. What are your symptoms?”

That wouldn’t go over very well.

But April can’t miss school. She doesn’t get sick. She doesn’t take days off or fall behind. She can’t be stuck at home all day with her father. And she certainly can’t fall ill suspiciously close to when her public enemy/secret ex-something is sick. That would definitely carry a few implications.

Everybody already knows that April stayed late with Sterling to work on the lock-in playlist, but would that be enough to fend off other potential rumors? If not, could her moronic peers really trace it back to a romantic affair?

The gossip chain is already wild over her brief flirting with Luke. Maybe they’ll think that he gave it to both of them.

Oh, God.

Maybe they’ll connive a story of a threesome.

April will be ruined.

She needs to be prepared. She needs to know what her immune system is up against and prevent it.

Thurs. 12:42pm
April:
just wanted to check in since you haven’t been at school.

Fri. 9:23am
April:
i understand if you’re hurt and you need space, but i feel like you’re at least morally obligated to tell me if you’re sick.

Sat. 1:03am
April:
really? nothing? super mature sterling. guess i made the right decision.

Then it’s Monday again and April still hasn’t shown a single symptom, despite over analyzing every possibility. Sterling is at school not quite looking well per say, but she doesn’t display so much as a lingering cough or a red and chapped nose.

April should be relieved, but she’s not. She’s livid. She spent the whole week wondering and the whole weekend panicked and ignored, while Sterling now smiles at Brenda, of all people, in the middle of the hallway like she was never gone.

“Can I talk to you for a second?” April hears herself asking before she can think better of a potentially public confrontation.

Sterling looks briefly stunned and also exhausted now that April is up close, but then she nods, following April into the fellowship room. It’s not empty, but Ellen’s office is and April locks the door behind them.

She knows what she wants to ask. She’s thought about it for days now. It’s something along the lines of “if you immediately got sick after spending half the week with your tongue in my mouth, don’t you think I would deserve to know?” But when she turns away from the locked door and the memories of last time come rushing back, April doesn’t think it’s a good idea to start with the mention of tongues.

Instead, she decides to go with, “Why weren’t you answering your phone?”

“I lost it,” Sterling says, voice quiet and small. April thinks she hears it tremble. “You messaged me?”

“Yes, you were out of school all week. How the hell do you lose a phone?”

Sterling always keeps her phone close by. It buzzed constantly when they were pressed together in the backseat of her car. April had spent the last few days thinking that Sterling just didn’t want to talk to her anymore.

But April doesn’t get a weak excuse for why the twins were absent or a dumb story of how the phone went missing, because Sterling’s lip starts to quiver and then she’s bursting into tears before anything else could even be said.

For a second April just stands there, stunned with the sight of Sterling in front of her, chest heaving as she tries to contain her sobs to no avail.

All this over a phone? It’s dramatic and ridiculous and overly emotional even for Sterling, but mostly it’s startling. It’s not the wet rimmed eyes and quiet sniffles that April had gotten used to over the years when she’d make a quick witted remark that maybe cut a little too deep, or when she held up Sterling’s condom wrapper in front of everyone in fellowship, or when she broke her heart on a bench outside of school. This is different. April can’t just pretend not to notice.

She reaches out stiffly to pat Sterling on the shoulder, a simple there, there type of gesture, but Sterling in her blur of tears takes that as an invitation to tuck into April’s side, and then, well...April can’t not hold her.

She can’t not wrap an arm around Sterling’s waist, trying to steady her, while her body rattles through a wave of heavy sounding cries. She can’t not run her fingers through Sterling’s hair as her tears soak through April’s shirt. She can’t not whisper “I've got you,” into Sterling’s ear until she calms down enough to breathe again.

When all is said and done, April wishes Sterling was just that dramatic and crying over her lost phone.

April has never been to a real party before, always too afraid that her father would find a photo of her near a solo cup, or smelling distantly of marijuana, or maybe even a little tipsy if she decided to go that far. But now that her parents have officially begun the divorce process, he’s out of the house and her mother doesn’t pay nearly enough attention to her to notice any of those things.

So after her valedictorian speech has been given and their caps have all been tossed, when Ezekiel announces that he’s throwing a party (likely to avoid the fact that both of his parents would rather be in Cabo than at his high school graduation) April simply agrees without question.

And it’s fun. Kind of.

Everybody is talking and drinking as if they’ve never spread a rumor about the person to their left or prayed for the downfall of the person to their right or called underage drinking an abomination. April finds her peers far more bearable when out from under the watchful eye of their community and no longer in ruthless competition with each other. But just for tonight. She is still happy to never have to see most of them again.

Then there’s Sterling, who walks through the door in a pretty blue dress, whose eyes light up immediately when she finds April in the crowd, and who pulls April into a tight hug as soon as she’s physically close enough.

That’s when the party gets a lot better.

“Your speech was really good,” Sterling says from over the edge of a solo cup. They stepped out back about an hour ago. It’s not exactly quiet, but it’s far less crowded than the living room was inside.

“You heard it last week.”

“I know, but I didn’t get the full effect in your bedroom. Today was just...wow.”

With anyone else, April would proudly grin over that sort of compliment, has been all day, but with Sterling, April feels her face grow warm and she looks away.

Over the last year, April has learned that Sterling thinks a lot of things about her are “wow,” but it still gets this same reaction of flushed cheeks and bashful ducking. Which is ridiculous considering they’re friends and have been since Sterling cried on April’s shoulder and shared her family trauma. But April wants more.

She loves being friends, don’t get her wrong. She loves that she can figure out what Sterling’s abundance of emojis mean without so much as a second thought, loves that they can talk about anything and laugh about everything, and loves that they don’t have to cover it with hatred in order to keep it a secret, but April never actually got over the brief thing they had before her dad came home from prison.

She’s spent all this time wanting it back, missing the way Sterling’s hands felt against her cheeks and unable to forget how soft her lips are. April just couldn’t make a move on it because John was still in the house and they were still in this hell hole of a town. Now that he’s gone and they’re leaving for college at the end of the summer, April knows that she is running out of excuses and time.

She can’t even make the argument that she’s afraid of losing the friendship, because at this point April is fairly certain that Sterling has just been waiting for the go ahead. She's spent the whole night by April’s side like she wouldn’t dream of being anywhere else. She looks at April softer than anyone ever has, smiling more often than anyone April has ever seen, and through her tenderness there’s an intensity that matches everything April has ever wanted. Her kindness is not the weakness that April once twisted it into. The gentle way that Sterling cares for people, April included, is so fierce and strong that sometimes even April is overwhelmed by it.

Now with the soft golden hue of dangling string lights hitting Sterling’s face in a way that makes her eyes glimmer, April is finding it harder to hold her feelings back.

She waits until there’s a lull in conversation as Sterling’s story reaches its end and their drunken classmates become easier to tune out.

“Sterling,” April starts, voice quivering around her name. Sterling perks up. “I’ve been thinking.”

“About?” she prompts eagerly as if she can sense it.

April chuckles. “I’m getting there.”

Sterling mouths an unnecessary apology before pulling her lip between her teeth, like she needs it to hold back. April tries not to stare too long, tries not to think about biting it herself, tries not to want it so badly. She shakes it off, reminding herself that she started this conversation with a purpose damn it.

“I was thinking about graduation,” she continues, “how we won’t see so many of these people ever again, and about summer and college and my parents and well, you.”

“Me?”

April nods.

“What about me?”

April is about to tell her. She’s about to say that no one has ever made her feel this special and wanted in all her life, despite people almost constantly telling her she’s the best at everything. She’s about to say that she hasn’t been able to stop thinking about kissing Sterling since they first kissed over a year and a half ago. She’s about to say that she cherishes this friendship so much, but —

Blair Wesley has other ideas. “Sterl, we have to go. Bowser got a location on Kendra.”

“Ugh now?” Sterling whines, an adorable pout on her face. “We’ve been tracking her for over a year and April was just—”

“Doesn’t matter.” Blair turns to April. “No offense, Stevens. We got a big fish to catch.”

April shrugs. “Duty calls.”

She sat on this speech for a long time. It will live to see another day.

Sterling turns to her, looking regretful. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s fine. Go ahead.”

“I’ll come back after.”

“I don’t know, Sterl. Stakeouts can take a while,” Blair says, making Sterling frown.

“I’m coming back later,” she insists, sharply to her sister. Sterling then softens her voice as she focuses back on April, and only April, “Hold that thought for me, okay?”

April nods and Sterling gives her hand a quick squeeze before she goes running off into the night with Blair. April can feel the imprint of Sterling’s hand warm on her skin even after she’s gone.

Back inside the house, the party is even louder than it was before, kids even more inebriated and chaotic. April shifts through the crowd searching for a place to sit down, to wait out the next couple hours until Sterling returns, when something stops her.

“Oh, there you are,” a voice says and then a hand is landing on her shoulder. She turns, half expecting a miracle, and frowns when she sees it’s just Ezekiel. “Come play beer pong.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Ugh, you’re no fun.”

“Excuse me?”

“I’ve hardly seen you all night because you were attached to blonde Wesley and now that she’s gone you’re in one of your moods.”

“I am not! I just—” April stops herself and sighs. She’s so tired of lying. “Come here.”

She grabs Ezekiel by the wrist and tugs him off to the side until they’re in an empty part of the hallway, out of ear shot from the rest of their graduating class.

“I like Sterling.”

He rolls his eyes. “Obviously.”

“No, like, I have feelings for her,” she explains, but he keeps staring back at her, not reacting at all. April hates what is about to come out of her mouth, “I like, like her.”

She waits an uncomfortable few seconds, bracing for the bomb to drop, but Ezekiel just looks like he’s trying not to laugh. April feels heat rush to her cheeks.

“What?”

“That’s what I thought you meant the first time,” he says, a smug smirk on his face. “The clarification, while delightful, was extremely unnecessary.”

“Seriously?”

“Would you rather I pretend to be shocked?” Ezekiel puts a hand over his chest, ready to get into character until April shakes her head. “There is nothing straight or platonic about the way you two look at each other.”

“Well, we are just friends.”

“Lies.”

“We are,” she insists. Ezekiel eyes her, waiting for the but she’s bound to tack onto the end of that sentence. “But I was hoping to broach the subject of more. I even started to, but then she had to leave.”

“What do you mean broach the subject?”

“Bring it up. Explain how I feel, what I want, and why now is a good time since we’re about to leave for college and my dad is finally gone.”

“No, no, no. God, no,” Ezekiel says in a rush of panic and what looks like a tinge of disgust. He lays a hand on top of hers. “April, sweetie, less words, more action.”

“That’s your advice?”

“Yes. And beer pong.”

April rolls her eyes. “I drove here.”

“I’ll drink it.”

“Fine,” she agrees, much to his delight. “We’ll try it your way.”

April really shouldn’t be surprised to find out that she’s good at beer pong given that she’s such a quick learner and winning is in her blood, but she is. She is also surprised to find that it’s a very good distraction. Any time her eyes wander off towards the door in search of that pretty blue dress, Ezekiel pulls her back into the game, and the constant cheers of their peers keep her on task. She’s not about to lose in front of an audience.

She plays and plays until there isn’t another pair left in the crowd volunteering to be their next victim. Then she calls it a night.

April hardly makes it halfway down the walkway when she hears, “Oh, good. You’re still here.”

It’s Sterling. She came back.

“You came back.”

“Well, yeah,” Sterling shrugs, bashfully looking away. It might be dark but based off of her stance, April would bet that she’s blushing. “I was having fun and it seemed like you were trying to tell me something.”

April just stands there, heartbeat quickening, mind still trying to wrap around the fact that it’s late in the night, Sterling had to work, and yet she still came back. For April. Without even knowing if April was still at the party.

“Were you?”

April tilts her head. “Was I…?”

“Trying to tell me something.”

“Oh,” she remembers. Right. That. “Yeah, I guess I was.”

“Okay.” Sterling drags the word out, like she’s trying to prompt April without directly pushing her there. She takes a step closer, now within reach and a little more visible in the dull glow of the streetlights. There’s a soft smile on Sterling’s face that’s inviting enough for a moment of vulnerability and a look in her eyes that’s practically begging for it.

April thinks about her speech, her plans of expressing her feelings, of wanting to try again, of not needing to be a secret this time. Then she thinks about the wording, about how gross it felt to say like, like, and about Ezekiel telling her to take action instead.

“Fuck it,” she sighs. April takes his advice.

With a quick step forward she abandons her speech, letting her hands fall on either side of Sterling’s face, and pulling her in for a long awaited kiss.

If Sterling is surprised she doesn’t show it, but April could’ve predicted that. She also could’ve predicted that Sterling’s hands would land on her waist and pull her body in close without a second of hesitation. She could’ve predicted that Sterling would kiss her back just as eagerly as she had kissed Sterling, even smiling into it. She could’ve predicted the way that everything else would just disappear, the noise of the party, the now old fear of being seen this way, the reasons she held back on making a move to begin with. But what April doesn’t predict is the wave of joy and relief and excitement that runs through her, feeling a hundred times more powerful than it did the year before.

More often than not once April turns the key in her apartment door she finds Sterling sitting at her kitchen table, sometimes with a book in hand, sometimes with her phone, but always waiting excitedly.

Tonight is no different.

“Hi,” Sterling greets cheerfully from her usual spot. Her eyes are still glued to her phone as she taps at the screen. “I’m ordering Chinese for dinner. Is that okay?”

“Perfect.” April tosses her keys on the counter, puts her bag on the table, and kisses the top of Sterling’s head. “Thank you. I’m just gonna get changed quick. I’ll be right out.”

“Hey, wait,” Sterling whines, grabbing April’s hand and pulling her back before she can get anywhere. She kisses April firmly on the lips. “Okay, now you can go.”

April smiles, kisses Sterling once more, and then heads off to her bedroom. She can’t wait to untuck her shirt, kick off these shoes that pinch her toes, and slip into some sweatpants for the rest of the night. But as April rifles through her drawer, she can’t find her favorite pair. Her grey Harvard sweats are her softest and currently missing.

“That’s weird,” she mutters, frowning as she settles for flannel pajama bottoms instead. April hasn’t worn her Harvard pants since —

Sterling. Sterling wore them to bed last night.

She glances over to the corner of the room and spots the fuzzy ends of an inside out pair of grey pants hanging over the edge of her laundry basket.

Three more days, April thinks to herself. Then it’ll be Friday night and she will be sitting across from Sterling at one of Atlanta’s finest restaurants, one she definitely pulled some strings to get into, and she will finally ask Sterling to officially move in. It’ll be perfect.

April will get to come home to Sterling every night instead of just most nights. She’ll be met with that same cheerful voice and gorgeous smile just like she has been for the past month. They’ll decide on dinner together, they’ll greet each other with a kiss, and when April wants to change into her Harvard sweatpants, they will actually be in her bottom drawer because Sterling will have worn her own clothes to bed the night before.

April can’t wait.

But she also kind of can. Because after being long distance all through college, April wants to make it special for Sterling. They’ve celebrated birthdays, anniversaries, and Valentine’s Days over the phone for seven years now. Their occasional visits got less rare over time with the help of part time jobs and Sterling’s graduation, but nothing ever compared to that first summer after high school where they were attached at the hip, going on mini road trips, making out in backseats, and skinny dipping in April’s pool whenever her mother was out of town.

Which is why April made that reservation as soon as she moved back to Atlanta, not wanting to waste time like she did during their last year at Willingham. She loves helping Sterling set the table, loves hearing all about her day, loves that she knows whether it was good or bad just based on how Sterling says “oh, let me tell you” to start, and she loves that Sterling has all of their takeout orders memorized.

April has never known a person better, never loved a person more, and never had a person love her back so unconditionally. So she really shouldn’t be stunned when mid bite of lo mein Sterling casually says, “Can we move in together?”

April blinks. “What?”

“I just think it makes sense. We’re, like, practically living together as it is. I mean, I haven’t really been home all week, and not that I don’t love wearing your sweats to bed, but it might be more practical if I just had some of my own here,” Sterling explains rather matter of factly, before she clumsily adds, “And obviously, I love you a ton and stuff.”

“And stuff?”

“Yeah,” Sterling laughs, blushing as she fumbles with her chopsticks, “like I wanna fall asleep next to you every night, and drink your freshly made coffee in the morning, and just be here with you for everything regardless of if it’s good or bad. That kind of stuff.”

April smiles. “I like that stuff.”

“Me too.” Sterling grins back at April, eyes shining for a moment before she realizes, “Wait, was that a yes?”

“Of course, it’s a yes.”

When Sterling lurches across the table to kiss her, April is so overcome with joy and love that she can’t even find it in herself to be bothered by her foiled plan. She will gladly turn Friday’s dinner reservation into a celebratory meal if it means starting this next chapter of their lives three days early.

If April really thinks about it she has been busy her entire life. For years she filled her plate with as much as she could and gave it all a hundred percent, usually without even breaking a sweat. But now apparently it seems that working full time, preparing to relocate to a new city, and planning a wedding is where she starts to feel the heat.

Most of it is easy. April loves her job even if it means bringing case files home on weekends and almost never taking a vacation. She’s also fairly well versed in apartment hunting and gets unreasonably excited about her wedding budget spreadsheet. The problem, or not much problem, so much as the thing that’s making April sweat, however, lies in Sterling’s desire to write their own vows.

It’s awful. April has been at it for weeks, giving it her full attention in any spare moment, and yet she’s definitely wasted more paper than environmentally acceptable. Every draft lands in the trash, some feeling worse than others, but most of them just not feeling like enough. Yes, she is a great writer and her vocabulary is fantastic, but April is not very good at the whole public vulnerability thing, which Sterling excels at.

Sterling shamelessly wears her heart on her sleeve and you can read every emotion trapped in those big blue eyes without her so much as saying a word.

Meanwhile, April is an entirely different story. Therapy, cutting off contact with most of her family, and actually being loved for all that she is, has helped her to compartmentalize less and open up more, but two decades worth of misdirected anger and repressed emotions can’t just vanish into thin air. So instead of knocking this right out the park on her first attempt, April drafts and re-drafts and then re-drafts some more.

After this morning's failed attempt, she needed a distraction. Even though it’s fairly early and a Saturday, April decided to take her coffee back into the bedroom and respond to some emails.

“Babe?”

“What’s up, Sterl?”

April doesn’t take her eyes off of her computer, fingers still flying across the keyboard as she fully reams out a landlord with an overpriced space.

“I didn’t mean to snoop, but are these your vows?”

Now April stops typing. She spins in her desk chair and unfortunately recognizes the crumpled up piece of paper in Sterling’s hand.

“Not anymore. Feel free to snoop.”

Sterling’s eyes widen. “Oh, so you’re past the rough draft stage?”

Ten years ago this would’ve been an easy lie. April would say that she had a final draft already done and Sterling’s voice would comically get even higher while trying to contain what now looks like the nerves of falling behind. April knows that look well. She used to thrive on it. But she’s not ahead of Sterling anymore, they’re not competing over dumb things like fellowship leader and middle school’s most popular, and truthfully, this has been weighing on April a lot lately. Even if their vows are technically supposed to be a surprise, she just wants to talk to her person about it.

April sighs. “No, that was a failed attempt. One of many actually. I’m having trouble.”

“April Stevens is having trouble with an assignment?” Sterling gasps in jest.

“Hey, this is not that simple. You can’t just boil it down to the equivalent of homework.”

She shrugs. “Worth a shot.” Sterling takes a seat on the edge of their bed, settling right in front of April and letting their knees touch. “Why are you having trouble?” she asks. Her voice switches into the soft and gentle tone that always makes April feel safe enough for a real conversation.

It’s the same tone Sterling used when she held April’s hand after April had come out to her mom. It's the same tone she used to coerce April into getting some sleep before the LSATs. It’s also the same tone she used recently when they were sending out wedding invitations and April noticed how small her guest list was.

It’s highly effective.

“Vows are emotional,” April says with a frustrated huff. “They require a level of vulnerability that I don’t always handle as well as you. Especially when in front of other people.”

“Who cares about the other people?”

“In theory, I do get that. In practice, it’s a little hard to bare my soul in front of an audience.”

“You’re great at public speaking.”

“When it’s fact based. This is about us, about my love for you, and I just want to get it right.”

Sterling cracks a sweet smile. “I know I called it an assignment, but you’re not actually getting graded.”

“I know that, but I also know that you’re going to say something beautiful and sweet and charming and there won’t be a dry eye in the place.”

“But you are also beautiful and sweet and charming and I promise my eyes will not be dry.”

“Well, obviously,” April mutters, starting to smile. She already feels a little bit lighter, a little more sure of herself, and somehow even a little bit more in love. “I’m not trying to make this into a competition when I say that you’ll be a tough act to follow. You’re just so good at opening your heart to people, which is one of the things I really love about you.”

“Maybe write that down,” Sterling quips, playfully offering April the crumpled paper she pulled from the trash.

April shoves it away with a stifled laugh. “Shut up.”

Sterling doesn’t bother to restrain herself. She just laughs, vibrant and full sounding until it cuts out with a realization.

“Wait, does that mean I’m officially going first?”

April levels her with one glance. “Do you really think you’re going to be able to recite anything clearly after I read mine?”

“Good point.”

April reaches out to take Sterling’s free hand. She knows about what she wants to say in her vows, which seems to be the frustrating part, because no matter how April words them they still feel cheesy and like she wouldn’t be able to look anyone in the eye on the receiving line afterwards.

“I know you’re the only one that matters,” she says, interlocking their fingers. The last thing April wants is for even an ounce of her love to be doubted here. “I have very little family attending our wedding. We could literally get married right now and I would be thrilled with it. But you know me, I’ve never been satisfied with subpar work, and we’ve been through a lot. I just want to do it justice — I want to do us justice.”

“Read it to me.”

“What?”

Sterling holds out the paper, seriously offering it this time as a shy smile graces her lips. “You said you would marry me now.”

April stares down at the page, then back up at Sterling, speechless and confused.

“April,” she says, squeezing April’s hand tighter and holding her gaze intensely. “On our wedding day, I want you to say whatever you're comfortable with. We don’t have to write anything. We can just slip on the rings and kiss each other and start our life together. I don’t care. Really. I don’t care what we say in front of a room full of people. I don’t care who cries and who doesn’t. I just want you and I to be happily married. But right now, for us, for just me, can you please read it?”

“Okay,” April manages over the lump that’s already forming in her throat. Dear God, this is going to be rough.

“Wait, really?”

She laughs. “Yes, give it to me.”

Sterling slowly hands over the wrinkled piece of paper, still in disbelief. “I thought we would have to debate it a bit more.”

“You made a very good argument, baby,” she praises, smoothing out the page against the tops of her thighs and skimming over her jumbled handwriting. “Now, remember, this was a rough draft that landed in the garbage.”

Sterling winces. “I know. I almost poured my oatmeal on it.”

“Why do you keep making oatmeal if you don’t like it?”

“I’m trying to eat healthier foods. Just read.”

“Fine.” April sits up straighter, clears her throat, and — “Wait, do you have a draft to share afterwards?”

“No, I haven’t even started yet.”

She rolls her eyes. “Should’ve known.”

April also should’ve known that she could say anything in her vows and Sterling would love it. She also should’ve known that while she read them the rest of the world would fade away, taking out all the noise from the street down below and their neighbors in the hall until all April was left with was Sterling. She also should’ve known that the love filling in her heart, overflowing into her chest, and radiating through her entire body would be stronger than any pressure she’s ever put on herself to be perfect.

But when April reaches the end where she references a Valentine that she wrote for Sterling over fifteen years ago, the same one she finally gave to Sterling when they cleared out her childhood bedroom, saying that Sterling is the funniest person she knows, the kindest person she knows, as well as so many other wonderful things that April has learned over the years, she is still surprised to hear a muffled sob.

April stops reading and looks up.

“Are you okay?”

Sterling wipes at her eyes. “You’re gonna ruin my makeup if you read that day of.”

“I could sing the A, B, C’s and you would ruin your makeup day of.”

“Oh, shut up,” Sterling says, but she’s grabbing April by the collar of her t-shirt and pulling her in for a firm kiss before April can even joke about that being a weak rebuttal.

It’s hard to believe and certainly a thing April would roll her eyes at if anyone ever said it out loud, but when Sterling kisses her she somehow feels everything she felt when they were young and kissing for the first time, or blissfully falling in love in the summer, or growing together into the people they are now.

“I love you,” April murmurs against her lips about a minute later, eyes still shut and leaving them in this moment a little longer.

“I love you too. But you’re an idiot.”

“What?”

April leans back, now catching the affection that oozes out of Sterling’s watery gaze.

“You are very good at this,” Sterling says, and maybe April isn’t as good with words as she once thought because she doesn’t say anything in response. April just leans in again, knowing in her heart a thing she’s known for years, a feeling so strong and familiar: she has no idea what she would do without this girl.