Having daughters is both harder and easier than Anderson expected.
He’s always been a little more comfortable around women, as a kid preferring to hang around with his mom and her sisters in the kitchen instead of playing football with Deacon and Big Daddy.
That is, until Mother started to chide him for getting in the way and Deacon started to call him names that Anderson now understands are quite offensive to certain communities, and joining in with the guys became easier than fighting it.
Anderson was good enough at faking the whole macho thing, joining a frat and learning his way around a hunting rifle, until he met Debbie. He tried to be smooth at first, leaning on the fake cockiness that had gotten him his first girlfriend, but she saw right through him, quirking an eyebrow at his opening line and replying, “You don’t believe a lick of what you just said to me, do you?”
He was immediately caught off-guard, stammering his way through an apology, only for Debbie to knock back another shot of bourbon before extending a confident hand his way.
“Let’s try this again. I’m Debbie Culpepper, and you’re buying me dinner tomorrow night.”
Anderson never stood a chance.
Of course, Debbie was a helluva lot more complicated than she appeared at first blush, though even a week in Anderson would have followed her to the ends of the earth, probably. Accepting that he was to be the father of two not-exactly-twin girls was easier than it probably should have been; one look at Sterling and he was in love.
But it was one thing to accept it and quite another to actually do it; to be a father to two sweet, loving, demanding and highly emotional daughters. He loves all three of his girls more than life itself, but sometimes navigating a household so high in X chromosomes is a lot for a guy whose main lesson of childhood boiled down to “be a man.”
He’s had to learn a lot on the fly, and while Debbie occasionally gets exasperated with him she’s also patient, gently urging him to ask the girls questions, to tell them they’re doing great or that he’s proud of them without prompting. He’s discovered that his ability to French braid matters less than his ability to listen while he does it, that it’s more important to let the girls try and fail than to do everything for them, that yelling is never the solution.
And that, despite what his father has told him since Anderson was as young as he can remember, winning isn’t the point of playing a game. A lesson he has to remind himself of on days like today, when he’s overseeing the Sunday school kids in a game of soccer on the church lawn after service.
Anderson isn’t exactly competitive by nature, but he grew up thinking he was, that being any other way wasn’t an option. Being Blair’s dad has helped him figure out the line between good and bad competition, a journey that began the first time Blair cried after losing at Candy Land to Sterling, and then Sterling cried because she felt bad, and Debbie looked at Anderson and said, “We’re gonna have to do something about this.”
Sterling’s sense of competition presents itself in quieter ways, in her shyly but proudly noting that she finished a particular project before everyone else in her class. Sterling’s got this new friend—John and Jill Stevens’ daughter, April—who seems to inspire a new desire to be the best in Sterling, but it honestly seems sweet and harmless, from where Anderson’s standing. He’s even tried to use the friendship as an example to Blair of what positive competition looks like, though Blair did not respond well to that particular attempted lesson.
Now, Sterling is sitting in the shade with Debbie while Blair and April run the length of the field. They’re easily the two fastest kids, but April’s got an intensity about her that even rivals Blair’s.
April’s short, though, which can’t be helped, and her legs aren’t quite long enough to make the passes that her brain is clearly visualizing. When a kid from the other team snags the ball from her, Anderson watches April’s face fall.
He’s just about to suggest they call it a game, figuring that most everyone will want to be heading home for lunch soon anyway, when he hears a low voice bellowing from across the lawn, “Goddammit, April!”
Anderson doesn’t have to look over to recognize the voice. It’s John Stevens, of course, and when Anderson does glance up he sees Jill lightly chastising him, though if Anderson had to guess she’s more bothered by John’s use of blasphemy than the tone he’s taking with his daughter.
Anderson watches as April’s spine snaps up ramrod straight, as she hurries across the field toward her parents, as John points a ferocious finger at the lawn, practically spitting a tirade that Anderson catches bits of. Something about “you missed it” and “an embarrassment.”
Anderson’s stomach drops instinctively. His father was never quite that tough, but Anderson can recall more than a few Little League practices that ended with a nearly silent car ride home, Big Daddy’s fists clenched around the steering wheel as he muttered under his breath about Anderson not being good enough.
Now, Anderson watches John stalk off, Jill quick on his heels. He watches as April’s own fists clench, can just imagine how hard she’s biting her cheek to keep from crying.
As a kid, Anderson became very accustomed to the taste of blood in his mouth.
“Dad, is the game over?” Blair asks from beside him, but Anderson is still focused on April, alone and looking so small on the edge of the field.
“Yeah, honey, just give me a minute,” he says, feet carrying him over the lawn before he knows exactly what he’s doing.
“April,” he says gently when he’s next to her.
She turns to face him, eyes wide and fearful. “Hi, Mr. Wesley. I’m sorry about—”
Anderson shakes his head. “Nothing to apologize for. I just wanted to let you know that you played a great game today.”
April’s expression brightens imperceptibly, but there’s still a tension on her face that no child this young should carry. “Thank you.”
He glances over April’s shoulder at Debbie, who, unsurprisingly, has observed this interaction and now offers him a small nod.
“Would you like to join us for lunch? If your folks say it’s okay, of course.”
Now April actually smiles, and Anderson finds himself smiling back.
Anderson wishes he could do more for the kid, but he figures that making April snort milk out of her nose in laughter during lunch is better than nothing.
April starts coming over so often that sometimes it feels like they have three daughters instead of two.
Anderson has mixed feelings about this development. He kind of adores April—she’s smart and funny and unfailingly polite; the best parts of Jill that he can recall from high school, before John turned her into a shell of her former self—and she brings out a confident, curious side of Sterling that Anderson loves to see.
But Sterling having another best friend is hard for Blair, Anderson can tell. Some afternoons when April is over Blair will come trudging into the living room where Anderson is watching whichever game is on with an uncharacteristic sadness in her eyes. Anderson won’t say anything—partially because he knows Blair won’t want to talk, and also because he feels a little bit out of his depth, not having been in this particular situation before—just raising his arm for Blair to slide under it, her head fitting against his chest like it has for so many years.
Plus, April being in their lives means that John and Jill are now in their lives, and any time they have to interact with John Anderson’s shoulder blades seem to draw together almost immediately, and he can see Debbie’s smile get tight across her face. Jill isn’t much better, a sudden melancholy that’s akin to guilt taking up residence in his chest whenever Anderson talks to her, as he recalls the vibrant girl she once was, now dulled by years of a terrible marriage.
As soon as the interaction is over Anderson will find himself reaching for Debbie, pulling her in to press a kiss against her hair and sending a silent prayer up to God that despite the many uncertainties in their lives, their love for one another is never in doubt.
Ultimately, however, Anderson thinks that having April around is a net positive, mostly because she makes Sterling so dang happy, and seeing his baby girl smile is just about the best thing in the world.
Tonight April is over for a sleepover. Anderson made the goodnight rounds about an hour ago, and though Sterling’s light has been switched off he’s sure the girls are still awake, likely piled in a heap of three on Sterl’s bed. If Anderson is very quiet, he can almost catch the edge of their whispers from down the hallway, and yes, they should probably be sleeping, but there’s something comforting about the sounds of his girls.
Anderson is almost asleep when Debbie shifts beside him. “Y’okay, honey?" he murmurs into the darkness.
“I’ll get ya some water.”
He can’t see her face clearly, but can hear the smile in her voice when she says, “Going for husband of the year, darlin’?”
“Just maintaining my title,” he jokes.
Her fingers skim the back of his neck as he slides out of bed—an “I love you” that’s felt as strongly as if the words were spoken aloud.
Downstairs, Anderson doesn’t bother turning on the lights, since he could walk this route in his sleep. He isn’t even fully awake as he fills a glass of water from the fridge (he doesn’t know why Debbie insists on not keeping glasses upstairs), but a thump of movement quickly shakes the sleep from his brain.
Anderson is immediately on alert, whirling around so quickly that he almost sloshes the water. But instead of being met by an unwanted presence, little April Stevens is standing behind him, the fear in her eyes evident even in the darkness.
“Sorry, Mr. Wesley!” she squeaks out in a whisper.
Anderson heaves in a breath, letting out a small laugh at himself for getting so startled. “It’s fine, April, you just surprised me.”
He leans over to flick on a light, seeing her genuine terror more clearly, her stance brittle.
“Oh, hun,” he says softly. Anderson sort of wants to hug her, but he feels like that might be weird, and absently he wonders if it’s not him, specifically, who scared her, but the idea of unexpectedly encountering any father.
“Fancy meeting you here,” he offers, trying to lighten the mood and earning a thin smile for his efforts. “How can I help ya?”
April shifts on her feet. “Um. Sterling was thirsty. I was going to bring her some water.”
“Ah!” Anderson reaches into the cabinet and pulls out a glass, passing it over to April. “How’d my daughter talk you into that?”
April’s cheeks seem to get a little pinker. “I offered.”
Dang, this kid is sweet.
Anderson holds up the full glass in his hand. “I was getting Debbie some water, myself. Gotta keep our girls hydrated, don’t we?”
It’s a joke, of course, but April’s pink cheeks start to turn crimson.
Anderson’s never been great at diffusing awkward situations, so in this moment leaving seems to be the best call. “Well, I’ll leave you to it. Get some sleep, April.”
“Thanks, Mr. Wesley,” she says quietly.
When Anderson slips back into bed Debbie is half asleep herself.
“Were you talking to someone?” she mumbles.
“Mmm. Sweet kid.”
“Was just thinking that.”
As Anderson finally drifts off, another potential pro of having April over here occurs to him: in this house, he hopes that she can feel safe.
Anderson has been on a lot of crummy hunting trips with his father and brother, but this one might qualify as the worst.
Normally he loves having his girls along—well, he loves having Sterling along; she’s helpful in mellowing out Blair. Today, though, Sterling had some project to work on, and Blair’s been asking all sorts of questions about Debbie. Anderson kind of lost it on her, actually yelling at Blair, which he never does.
The sound of his own voice was so reminiscent of Big Daddy’s that Anderson actually felt nauseous on the drive home.
Blair doesn’t really want to talk to him once they get back, which Anderson understands. He’s distracted and just this side of upset, eager for a shower and the opportunity to debrief with Debbie, so he isn’t really paying attention when he steps into the garage to drop off his hunting supplies.
If he had been, he might have noticed April Stevens sitting at his work table.
As it is, she’s the one to prompt, “Mr. Wesley! Hello.”
Anderson forces a smile when he looks up at April, quickly remembering why she’s here. Sterling. Project. Wood shop.
Once all of that registers he blinks a few times. It’s been so long since he’s seen this girl in his house. So long since he's talked to her at all.
April sets down the little animal that she was painting and rises to her feet. That same tension that has lived on her face for all the years that Anderson has known her is still there, but plastered over with a guarded neutrality.
Anderson has been rather preoccupied by his own family drama today, but now everything that April is going through comes rushing back in harsh detail. That old pang of sadness and guilt rises in his chest, the wish to do something for her.
“Hey there, April. Good to see you.”
“You too,” she replies, polite as ever. “Sterling is just getting us a snack. I hope it’s okay—”
Anderson waves her off. “Of course. Sterl mentioned y’all would be using my shop.” He glances down at the project on the table, which isn’t finished but is still very impressive. “Wow, you really are good with that miter saw, huh?”
April flushes a little, but a smile is tugging at the corner of her mouth. “It’s a useful skill to have.”
Anderson knows that he could rush off to the shower, that April probably doesn’t really want to keep talking to him, but he feels like he needs to say something, so he steps forward and clears his throat. “Hey, I know that this is none of my business, but I’m real sorry about everything going on at home for you. If you or your mama need anything, we’re here.”
He considers how close the girls used to be, wishes talking to April hadn’t become such a foreign experience. “You and Sterling may have drifted apart, but I hope that whatever happened between you can be mended. She’s been awfully excited to work on this project with you, so maybe there’s hope, yet.”
April’s eyes widen. “She has been?”
Anderson considers Sterling’s eagerness the last few days, the fact that she asked him about four times if she and April could use his shop and made it clear that they’d need to be alone. He isn’t the most perceptive guy in the world, but even Sterling doesn’t get that animated over a school project.
“Yes,” Anderson confirms. “But even if—well, we’re here.”
“Thank you, Mr. Wesley.” April swallows, looks down at her hands. “You’ve known my mom a long time, right?”
“Was she always…” April trails off, then shakes her head. “Never mind.”
Anderson once again flashes to Jill in high school; the bright, intimidating girl not unlike the one who stands before him now. He’d even had a crush on Jill back then, but had been too scared to ask her out. Now he barely recognizes her.
God, he hopes that whomever is lucky enough to one day marry April Stevens is worthy of her. Someone who won’t dull her light, but appreciate the way that she shines.
“It’s good to see you, April,” Anderson says again sincerely.
He watches from the doorway when Sterling rejoins April a few minutes later, grateful to see that when Sterling smiles at her, April smiles back.
It’s strange, Anderson thinks, that despite Blair and Sterling no longer living at home for the majority of the year, he feels closer to them than he has in a long time.
But considering what the last couple of years of them living at home entailed—a kidnapping, several monumental secrets coming out, tears and slammed doors and so many hours of therapy—perhaps it isn’t so strange. Perhaps strangeness is relative, and his family’s scale is calibrated differently than most.
Either way, he isn’t going to take for granted the opportunity to pick his girls up from the airport and envelope them in hugs without wondering if that’s okay, to hear them both refer to him as “Dad” without hesitation. It’s Christmas, and they actually feel like a family.
A family with one extra member, because after everything that happened last year, he and Debbie didn’t have to think twice about extending an invitation for April to stay with them.
According to Sterling, April had hemmed and hawed, so worried about being a burden, before Debbie had said, “Let me talk to her,” and called April up herself. By the end of that phone call, Debbie was a tearful mess, and April had finally accepted the invitation.
The thing is, having April around is just easy. It helps that there isn’t last year's coming out trauma to deal with this time, and also that the family has spent enough time around Sterling and April as a couple to eliminate any lingering weirdness. April helps Anderson string the lights without protest, she gamely assists Debbie in the kitchen, and just like when they were little, she makes Sterling happy as ever. Now, though, Blair doesn’t seem to mind; in fact, since last year an affection has grown between her and April that even seems to surprise Sterling.
Blair does protest the fact that April gets to sleep in Sterling’s room, but Anderson suspects that Debbie might be overcompensating for her initial reaction when Sterling came out to them, a thing that he knows they both still carry guilt over even a year and a half later. It wasn’t too bad, Sterling has assured them, but they could have been better. They were both just so dang worried about Sterling’s safety back then, too focused on literally wanting to protect her from bodily harm, and finding out that she's bisexual just seemed to add to their fears. Now though, everything is okay, and Sterling gets to share a room with her girlfriend, so no one but Blair is complaining.
This situation between April and Jill seems better; not perfect, but improving. Privately, Anderson wonders how anyone witnessing the dynamic between Sterling and April could interpret it as anything but love in its purest form, but he remembers Jill’s father, a tough old bastard not unlike John himself, who succumbed to cancer a while back but spent the last years of his life campaigning hard against marriage equality. So the bigotry, it seems, runs deep, but he suspects that Jill is trying, and when Debbie asks April if Jill should be invited to their Christmas dinner, April agrees.
Also earning an invite this year are Big Daddy and Mother, at Debbie’s insistence.
“Sweetheart, Lord knows we don’t have much family between the two of us,” Debbie had pointed out. “Your parents are getting up there. Shouldn’t we try with them while we still can?”
Anderson had sighed, kissing her on the cheek. “You truly are a saint, Debbie Wesley.”
“Oh, I think we both know that that isn’t true,” she’d replied with a smirk.
There have been certain other perks to having the house to themselves of late.
Anderson is looking forward to a Christmas Eve with more laughter than tears. In the morning, he uploads a picture on FaceBook of the family wearing the matching pajama sets that Debbie had delighted in selecting. He can’t help but grin at the photo, everyone’s joy so evident; April half falling off of Sterling’s lap, Blair’s arms slung around Chloe’s neck, Debbie with her head leaned into Anderson’s chest.
They look like a family.
They’re just setting up lunch when Anderson’s phone starts to ring with a call from his father. The pleasantries are quickly dispensed by Big Daddy asking, “Will that girl be at dinner?”
Anderson doesn’t have to ask who Big Daddy means, a chill running up his spine. “Yes, April will be here. She’s Sterling’s girlfriend.”
His parents know that Sterling is bisexual, even that she has a girlfriend. But, it occurs to Anderson in this moment, they’ve never had to interact with this fact. A sudden protectiveness comes over him, the desire to shield his girls from anything less than full support becoming overwhelming.
Still, though, he waits for his father to respond, wanting to give him the benefit of the doubt.
“You and Debbie don’t seem to have a problem endorsing that lifestyle.”
A benefit Big Daddy is swiftly losing.
“That’s because we don’t have a problem with it,” Anderson replies tersely, power walking into the hallway where he hopes no one can hear this conversation. “We just want Sterling to be happy. And April is a fantastic kid.”
“Now, Anderson, you know this isn’t about—”
“Perhaps you and Mother shouldn’t join us this year,” Anderson hears himself saying. Then, before he can lose his nerve, he adds, “Merry Christmas, Dad,” and hangs up.
Anderson is breathing hard, the phone still in his hands, when April rounds the corner with wide eyes.
“Sorry, I was just—” she stammers.
“You heard that?”
She nods and Anderson feels himself deflate. “I’m sorry.”
April steps closer, fingers twisting in front of her. “I can go, if you want to have them—”
“No way in hell,” Anderson says firmly. “It’s their loss.”
“But he’s…he’s your dad.” April’s voice cracks a little, and Anderson places a gentle hand on her shoulder.
He considers how many times his own father made him feel small, how many times April’s must have made her feel the same.
But Anderson is an adult now, and so is April. And none of those bad feelings need to live in this house.
“April, I don’t think I should have to tell you that just because someone is your biological father doesn’t mean they get to treat you however they please.”
His own voice starts to shake as his mind flashes to two men he’s never met: Debbie’s father, a hard man by all accounts, and Sterling’s biological dad, someone who’s never seemed to matter.
But this isn’t about them. This is about the wonderful kid in front of him, a kid he’s truly grown to love.
Anderson swallows hard as he continues, “Now I said this to you last year but I’ll say it again: you’re part of this family. I want you to feel like this house is yours as much as my daughters’. So you’re not leaving.” He hears how that sounds, and amends, “Unless you want to, of course.”
April’s eyes fill with tears, but this time she doesn’t fight them. “I don’t. I—” She blinks rapidly. “Thank you, Anderson.”
He remembers that day on the church lawn, the fear that used to live in April’s eyes.
“Y’know, I think our daddies might’ve been a little bit alike. Telling us we had to be the best at everything, had to make ourselves hard to the world.” He offers what he knows is a watery smile. “But that gets awfully tiring, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah,” April says softly. “Sterling and Blair—they’re really lucky to have you.”
Debbie’s said the same thing to him, but Anderson hears it differently in this moment. Not just as a compliment, but as an opportunity. A chance to finally do right by this kid.
“Well, I know I can’t replace—” He cuts himself off, unsure of how to finish that sentence. “But you have me, too. No matter what might happen in the future.”
More tears roll down April’s cheeks as she murmurs, “Thank you.”
And she’s always so verbose, but that simple statement makes it so clear how much that promise means to her.
The thing is, though, he feels like the lucky one.
Anderson wraps his arm around her small shoulders. “Now, let’s go eat and you can tell me about your plans for law school.”
It’s been a foregone conclusion for ages now that April and Sterling will get married, and Anderson wouldn’t have it any other way.
So when April calls him and Debbie to discuss the particulars of the proposal, he knows that this isn’t her asking for their permission or blessing (not that she needed either, but she had them long ago) so much as coordinating the logistics of the actual day. What April has planned is beautiful and nostalgic and so very Sterling, and Anderson is so excited for his baby girl; for all of his girls.
Debbie gets a call from Blair midway through April’s—he thinks that Debbie and Blair are really delighting in the secret mission nature of the upcoming proposal—leaving Anderson on the phone with April.
He thinks they’re about to wrap things up when April clears her throat and says, “Anderson, I haven’t even discussed this with Sterling yet, so please keep it between us. Well, you can tell Debbie, I know you tell her everything.”
They both chuckle lightly at that before she continues, “But I’ve been thinking that when we get married, I might like to change my name to Wesley. Would that… would you be okay with that?”
This has been a highly emotional day already, and this final question from April is the thing that breaks the dam, Anderson's eyes filling with tears.
April, sweet, smart, wonderful April, who’s been an integral part of the family for so long, at this point. Who feels in so many ways like the missing piece they never knew they needed, but now can’t imagine living without. Who Anderson can spend hours talking to about everything from the law to musical theater (they happen to be the only two fans in the family, despite April’s efforts to convert Sterling). Who loves Sterling with her entire heart; who Anderson loves with the entirety of his own.
“April, as far as I’m concerned, you’ve been a Wesley for years,” he manages to get out. “I’d be truly honored if you want to make it official.”
There’s a slight hitch in April’s voice as she says, “Thank you, Anderson. That means a lot to me.”
“I know, kiddo. I love you tons.”
The first time he told her that she hesitated, and Anderson wondered if he’d overstepped. Now, though, April echoes the statement with ease.
Anderson is still wiping his tears when he walks into their bedroom, where Debbie seems to have just finished her call with Blair.
“You alright, hun?” she asks, patting the spot on the bed beside her.
He nods as he sits down. “Yeah, I just—I’m so happy our little girl is marrying April Stevens.”
“Don’t I know it. Whoever Blair ends up with has some stiff competition.”
Anderson laughs a little before revealing, “She just told me that she wants to change her name to Wesley once they’re married. And I’m sure Blair would be quick to point out that that particular tradition is a weapon of the patriarchy—”
“I’m not certain that the same standard applies when we’re talking about a lesbian marriage—”
“Either way, it warmed this old man’s heart.”
Debbie grins at him, taking his hand in hers and kissing his knuckles. “You’re not so old.”
Anderson gazes at his wife, thinks about everything they’ve gone through; how now one (well, two) of their girls are embarking on a marriage of their own, and he couldn’t be prouder.
“We did good, didn’t we?” he murmurs.
“And then some. Y’know, we’re parents to three wonderful daughters who actually seem to like us. And only one of them is biologically ours!”
“Biology hasn’t ever really mattered much to us, has it?” Anderson muses.
Debbie leans her head against his shoulder. Her thumb traces over his wedding band, the metal of it old but still shining.
“It never was a match for the Wesleys.”