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just grab my hand and don't ever drop it

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Sterling and Blair seem to be the only ones who can’t forget.

With every lawn sign their knuckles tighten around their steering wheel, with every article they grit their teeth and bite the bullet just to see what nonsense has been written this time, and with every local news interview they groan so loudly that their parents have to raise the volume on the TV.

Every time they see or hear the words “John Stevens for Mayor” they give each other a knowing look. It’s a look that remembers his crimes, remembers how he acted when they picked him up at the lake house, remembers the whispered threat he made to them his first Sunday back at church, but most of all, Sterling remembers April, and everything she learned about the Stevens family from their short time together (cut short, might she add, because of John Stevens and his get out of jail free card).

So it’s fair to say that her stomach ties in knots just trying to keep the nausea of it all down on her drive to school, or during her bedtime social media scroll, or throughout their scheduled family time that when Anderson is in charge of the remote, leaves them watching the evening news.

And this feeling doesn’t die down once Sterling is at school, walking through the hallways, sitting in classrooms, and coexisting with April, who is throwing on her best fake smile, her most proper speaking voice, and never has a hair out of place in order to look like the perfect version of a candidate's daughter.

That’s the part that makes Sterling more sad than angry, because she knows that smile, knows it’s fake. She knows the whole Team Stevens always wins mantra and the pressure April must be feeling. And she knows that aside from her general bitterness towards the man, April is hiding a hell of a lot on his behalf.

“So what do you think about that, Sterling?”

“Huh?”

Sterling blinks back into focus, looking around the quiet room at the light green walls, the succulents on the windowsill, the white curtains that do nothing to shield the sun, and the clock on the wall signaling that they only have fifteen minutes left in their session. She quickly forgets all of the doodles she and Blair could draw on John’s face on the bus bench advertisement they saw on the way over here.

“Did you hear anything I said?” Blair asks, one eyebrow quirked and a familiar tease in her voice.

Sterling shakes her head. “Sorry, I was a little zoned out.”

“That’s okay,” Cara says, kind eyes peering over the squared rims of her glasses. “Blair was just saying that she thinks you both are past having scheduled family time.”

“Yeah, I’m kinda over all the game nights.”

Sterling smiles. “You just don’t like losing.”

“No, I just don’t like Yahtzee,” Blair counters. Which is fair, Sterling doesn’t like it much either, but Blair also hates Battleship, Connect Four, and Clue for the reason that Anderson usually wins. “I like to do my own thing, be my own person, and it’s been months of scheduled time. It was good at first, but I think we’re ready for the next step. Don’t you?”

Sterling thinks for a moment. On the one hand, Blair is right, they should probably keep the ball rolling in order to make more progress, but on the other hand, it’s just gotten so comfortable at home and after everything that happened, Sterling really likes it.

She likes that there isn’t pressure to spend time with her family, because they know in advance the days and times that they will sit down together. She likes that she doesn’t have to take it upon herself to make the plans or feel guilty about turning down attempts from Debbie. She likes that when they gather it’s all four of them, because that’s the rule. If they take away the rule then it can be random one on one time or the three of them without Blair, and Sterling still doesn’t like that idea very much.

“Sterling,” Cara presses gently after there had been a long pause of nothing. “Do you want to talk about why you’re so distracted today?”

“No, I was just thinking about what Blair said this time.”

“Anything you want to share?”

Sterling looks over to Blair. Her eyes are wide, almost pleading, but she offers a smile and a nod, encouraging Sterling to do as she needs. Sterling knows this because it’s a look that she has gotten a lot this year. Blair asks for something, but is willing to take it back if Sterling doesn’t want it. And while Sterling might not want this, therapy has taught her enough to know that they need it, even if it provides a challenge. It’s also not Blair’s worst idea ever.

So she says, “We can get rid of the schedule.”

It gets a grin and a celebratory fist pump out of Blair, which makes Cara smile, but it leaves Sterling swallowing the lump that has practically lived in her throat since the lock-in. She recognizes Blair’s reaction as the same one that Anderson has when he wins whatever board game they’re playing or if the Braves beat the Mets, and the little voice in the back of her mind reminds Sterling that it’s because Anderson is actually Blair’s father. And that realization stings every time.

Sterling sits with that quietly for the last ten minutes of their joint session while Blair and Cara figure out what life at home could look like without the schedule, how to discuss it with their parents, and what to do with this new freedom.

“I’m never playing another board game again,” Blair declares, pulling crookedly into a Chick-fil-A parking spot. She turns off the engine and the radio cuts out.

“That’s a bit drastic.”

“Nope, it’s my truth and I’m claiming it.”

Sterling halfheartedly rolls her eyes. That’s practically Blair’s catchphrase now. It gets her out of so many things with Debbie. One time she decided during dinner that “baked potatoes fucking suck” and when Debbie tried to refute all Blair had to say was “it’s my truth and I’m claiming it” for the entire conversation to be dropped without even a criticism of her language. Sterling was amazed.

“You don’t think it’s a little weird to say that you’ll never play one again?”

“No.” Blair unbuckles her seatbelt and climbs out of the car. She ducks into the door frame to say, “I think it’s weird that you want to play one again,” then punctuates that statement by closing the car door, leaving a bewildered Sterling to huff to herself while she fiddles with her own seatbelt and rushes out of the Volt.

“They’re fun!” she whines, racing across the parking lot to catch up to Blair.

Now it’s Blair’s turn to roll her eyes. “Nothing with the word ‘bored’ in it is fun.”

“That’s not the same ‘board!’”

“Oh, whatever, nerd.”

Blair opens the door to Chick-fil-A and they immediately get hit with a refreshing burst of air conditioning and the wonderful smell of french fries. Sterling’s stomach growls, but she quickly notices Blair take a right down the hallway toward the bathroom and Sterling doesn’t want to get left behind again, so she follows.

“You seriously thought it was called a bored game? B-O-R-E-D?”

Blair turns around. “No, I’m not completely stupid.” She backpedals into the bathroom door and uses her body to push it open. “It’s not like I’m—”

“Hannah B.”

“Wow, harsh, Sterl.”

“No,” Sterling hisses, whacking Blair’s arm and pointing ahead. “It’s Hannah B.”

Blair follows the line of Sterling’s finger until she sees what Sterling initially saw, Hannah B. standing over a garbage pale and drying her hands with a paper towel. The realization plays out on Blair’s face in three stages: wide eyes, a wince, and a plastered on smile.

“Oh, hey there, Hannah,” she says, remarkably chill for someone who just whipped through three emotions in about two seconds.

“Hi, Blair. Hi, Sterling.”

Sterling waves to be polite, but her mind is frankly elsewhere. With wandering eyes, she tries to discreetly check under the stall doors to see if anyone else from Willingham might be popping out, perhaps a friend that Hannah B. tends to follow closely.

She distantly hears Blair make an awkward attempt at conversion.

“Getting some chicken?”

Hannah B. hums in affirmative. “And fries.”

“Good choices. I never understand why people get fruit cups on the side instead.”

“My mom gets the fruit cup.”

“Oh, how...healthy.”

Sterling doesn’t know what she was hoping to find, but when she discovers that all the stalls are clear, she’s left with a weird emptiness. It’s not quite a feeling of relief or of disappointment, but there’s a strange ache spreading through her chest that she can’t quite put her finger on.

Sterling tries to shake it and tunes back in, but there’s no conversation left to join. They all just stare at each other for an uncomfortable few seconds until Blair says, “Well, I gotta pee,” and dips into a stall.

Hannah B. takes that as her cue to go. “I’ll see you guys at school tomorrow.”

Sterling waves again. “Bye, Hannah.”

It can’t be more than a second after the door closes that Blair’s voice echoes from inside the stall, “Is she gone?”

“Yes, but how awkward would that have been if she wasn’t?”

“It’s a risk I was willing to take.”

Sterling shakes her head, leaning back on the sink and trying to block out the sound of her sister peeing, but she finds that her mind just rolls back to that empty feeling she had before.

She had hardly seen April all summer, only from across the pews at church, allowing the sadness of their breakup and the bounty hunting reveal that made April hate her to get a lot more bearable. But now that they’re back at school, now that campaign season is really underway, and now that things in the Wesley house are slightly less complicated, Sterling has been pulled back into thinking about her past with April, where things went wrong, and how she could have fought harder for things to go right.

She doesn’t get a chance to focus on it now though, because Blair’s voice sounds from inside the stall again. “What are you getting?”

“Definitely nuggets, but I don’t know if I want a chocolate shake or a frozen lemonade.”

“Well, decide, because we have to be quick. Bowser is gonna be pissed if we’re late again.”

The toilet flushes and the thought that had been on Sterling’s mind this whole time now creeps to the tip of her tongue. With the loud noise of whirling water bouncing around the room and the prospect of Blair not hearing her, Sterling finally gets the guts to ask, “Do you think April is with her?”

Blair comes out of the stall.

“What?”

She has the perfect opportunity to say “never mind” and back down from this conversation, because she’s pretty sure she knows how it would go, but Sterling repeats her question instead. “Do you think April is out there with Hannah B.?”

“Hopefully not,” Blair grumbles, running her hands under warm water. “That would be the opposite of quick.”

“Why? It’s not like she would talk to me.”

“No, but you would stare and wonder whether or not you should try to talk to her, then I would tell you not to, but you would try anyway, then she would blow you off like always, and you would have to get both the chocolate shake and the frozen lemonade in order to not cry on our way to work.”

Sterling hates how accurate that is.

“I won’t stare,” she argues weakly.

Blair cackles, echoing through the bathroom. Now it’s like every tile on the wall is mocking Sterling too.

She insists harder. “I’m serious! I won’t.”

“No shot.”

Sterling crosses her arms, pouting. “I can do it. I can totally not stare.”

“Fine,” Blair says, though it seems like it’s just to satisfy her, “but when you do, you’re buying me a cookie.”

“Deal.”

They get in line to order their food. There are a few people standing ahead of them. Sterling has her mind made up on a frozen lemonade and is starting to antsy with the wait. Her fingers tug on a loose string at the end of her shirt, eyes darting around. First she looks to Blair, who is distracted by something on her phone, leaving a window of opportunity. There’s something nervous building inside of her at the possibility. She scans the dining room — which she had avoided so much as glancing at until now — not to stare, but just to know.

Among the tables there are kids with their parents, groups of teens, and the occasional adult enjoying a chicken sandwich, but none of the familiar Willingham faces are present. There is no sign of April or Ezekiel or even Hannah B., who they just saw two minutes ago.

She must’ve just gone to the bathroom on her way out.

Sterling leans over to Blair, muttering, “Hannah’s not even here anymore.”

Blair lifts an eyebrow, smirking. “So you looked?”

“Yeah?”

That smirk spreads into a grin and Sterling knows what’s happening before Blair even says anything, she can see the gears turning in her head.

“It was just quick and I didn’t even find anything. That’s not a stare.”

“Totally counts. You’re buying me that cookie.”

Sterling gasps. “No way!”

“Way.”

Sterling buys Blair the cookie and they’re late to work and Bowser is mad in the grumbling way he usually is, not in any way that’s serious, but Sterling doesn’t care, because she still can’t figure out the ache that took over her chest when she realized that April wasn’t in one of those bathroom stalls.

April hasn’t been the same since her father got out of jail and randomly appeared in her doorway, throwing a wrench in her plans to hold Sterling Wesley’s hand at the Willingham lock-in. Every day that he’s been back in the house, she has lived with this consuming fear that somehow, someway he just knows.

It’s not feasible. He was in a jail cell, she was denying his every attempt to reach out, her mother spent her nights with a bottle of wine, and April was somewhat careful during those four wonderful days. She locked the the door to Ellen’s office when they first kissed, she surveyed the crowd at the Fun Zone for familiar faces before settling in for skee ball, she made sure the Volt was the only car left in the parking lot when she decided to climb into the backseat, and she came up with a damn good excuse to borrow Ellen’s keys and let Sterling out of her misery during the lock-in.

So there’s no way he could know, but for some reason (presumably because of the rapid way her life keeps changing — John’s arrest, Sterling kissing her, John’s return, Sterling crying on a bench, and John’s reveal of how he was turned in) April keeps bracing for the ground to fall out from beneath her feet.

Then he decided to run for mayor.

“Haven’t we been through enough?” April wanted to yell when he announced his plans over dinner, like it was just a regular thing to say on a Tuesday night, but she had bit her tongue.

All of his promises of “family time” and “making amends” were effectively thrown out the window in a desperate attempt to “regain their status” and “put the past behind them.”

And her mother, unsurprisingly, couldn’t have been happier with the idea of being a mayor’s wife. “Oh, John,” Martha gushed, “that sounds wonderful. A project is just what you need right now.”

April somehow resisted the urge to roll her eyes, because a massive public project like a political campaign, on what will certainly be a conservative platform, was the last thing she needed right now.

Because now she has to be even more on edge around the house, even more of a social pariah at school, and even more perfect under the dozens of lingering glances that don’t even have the decency to be subtle. They just fucking stare. Some of them even have the audacity to approach April when she’s running errands around town or out to lunch with Ezekiel and Hannah B., dramatically clutching their chests and saying that they’ve heard about her father’s campaign. Many of them call it a comeback story, “one for the ages” has even been used, and quickly they all seem to forget how they were whispering about him a year ago.

“You’re practically a celebrity,” Hannah B. says after an old man had stopped April in the Chick-fil-A parking lot to say that he’s rooting for John.

“Hardly,” she disagrees. “I’m the daughter of a local political candidate. Not some teen Disney star with a scandal.”

“Just promise to give me a warning if the paparazzi ever tracks you down,” Ezekiel teases, running a hand through his hair as he pretends to spruce it up for an imaginary camera.

It should ruin her mood — the constant attention, the exhausting display that she has to be apart of, the fact that none of these people would be smiling at her if they knew how she really felt — but these days hanging out with Ezekiel and Hannah B. is the only time where April feels like she can really breathe.

That is until Ezekiel is picking at the last of his fries and Hannah B. returns from the bathroom with a smile, saying, “You’ll never guess who I ran into.”

“Who?” he says, not at all interested in guessing.

“Sterling and Blair!”

Ezekiel’s eyes reflexively go to April, whose heartbeat is now ringing in her ears, but then he purposely looks away, fixing his gaze back on Hannah B. like that frantic glance never even happened.

“Gross,” he mutters, a terrible attempt at playing it cool.

April snatches her keys off the table. “Let's go,” she says, but Hannah B. doesn’t budge. Her eyebrows just furrow in confusion.

“But Ezekiel’s fries—”

“I can eat them in the car,” he says, already on his feet, fries in hand.

“But we’re not allowed to eat in April’s car.”

God damnit, Hannah B.

April fears that she is going to blow this whole thing wide open, that they will be caught scampering like cowards for the door just as Sterling and Blair leave the bathroom, forcing April to have to face another sad look from Sterling and another scowl from Blair, all while pretending to be entirely unbothered herself, but then Ezekiel grabs Hannah B. by the hand.

“April will make an exception,” he decides, tugging her to her feet and ushering her out the door. And for that, April will make the exception, because they all get out unscathed.

She doesn’t say a word for most of the car ride, letting Hannah B. and Ezekiel keep the conversation alive all the way to Hannah B.’s house, but once they turn onto Ezekiel’s block, he bravely breaks the silence between them.

“You can’t avoid her forever, you know.”

“I’m sorry, who are you talking about?” April asks sharply as she throws the car into park.

Ezekiel sighs. “April—”

“It’s your turn to drive tomorrow. Hannah drove yesterday.”

“Right,” he mutters, defeated. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

They do this little dance a lot. Ezekiel hints at knowing about Sterling, April sometimes lets him get away with making implications, and sometimes she threatens to feed his goldfish to her cat. It really depends on the day.

Today, April is not in the mood. She’s too tired for an argument and too annoyed to let him be, so she just sends Ezekiel on his way without another word. Then she pulls away from the curb.

By the time April gets home she’s thankful to see that there’s only one car in the driveway, her mother’s. Meaning not only that she doesn’t have to stomach John just yet, but also that she doesn’t have to deal with the comings and goings of his campaign team and how they seem to use her house as a second office.

These days the dining room table is often covered with papers of laid out plans and speeches, or boxes of flyers and marketing gags, pretty much anything but the silverware and china that used to lay there.

April doesn’t mind eating in the kitchen though. The smaller table provides a more intimate environment than she would like, but it also means that dinner is usually rushed and not turned into a whole ordeal. Sometimes they don’t even bother to say grace. John will just take his plate and go back to his campaign without so much as a hello or a thank you.

Tonight the kitchen smells of steamed vegetables and gravy, the pot on the stove is likely boiling potatoes to be mashed, but April’s stomach is still full of fast food and nerves.

Martha looks up from over the stove, eyebrows pulling together. “I didn’t expect you to be home before dinner,” she says. April didn’t expect it either. “How were your friends?”

“Fine,” April grumbles. She doesn’t dare get into the frustrations of being stopped on the street by potential voters or the panic of a surprise Wesley appearance or the annoyance of Ezekiel trying to give her advice on a matter he knows nothing about.

“Oh, honey, don’t mumble. It’s not polite and cameras won’t be able to hear you.”

April takes an exaggerated glance around the room. “I don’t see any cameras here,” she remarks, but Martha shoots April a glare that looks a lot like her own, eyes piercing and unamused in a way that makes their peers run for cover.

“Don’t get fresh either. We need to have—”

“A united front, I know. But mom—” April stops herself just before saying that there’s no one here to perform for. With her mother standing directly across from her, that is not technically true. She sighs. “I’m just tired.”

“If anyone should be tired, it’s your father. He’s been so busy lately and you’re out getting horrible food with your friends.”

April doesn’t roll her eyes even though she wants to. It would just be another thing for her mother to comment on. Martha has always been critical, telling April that her ponytail isn’t smooth enough or that her smile looks forced or that getting Chick-fil-A with her friends couldn’t possibly be good for her figure.

“You’re going to the gym tomorrow, right?”

April nods, having learned a long time ago that it’s better to bite her tongue and let these things go, or just avoid the subject altogether.

“Speaking of dad, where is he?”

“I’m not sure.” Martha lets her attention fall back to the stove top, scrutinizing the lumps in her gravy instead of her own daughter. “Probably working on the campaign. You know him, he’s so dedicated.”

Dedicated is not the word April would use to describe a man that cheated on his wife with a prostitute, but she doesn’t chance telling her mother that.

“Anything I can help with?” she asks instead.

Martha takes a quick scan of the room. “You can set the table.”

So April sets the table, swallowing any urge to argue or be rude out of her own frustration. She’s better than that and if she’s not, she has to be. Because with the extra eyes on them, there really is no room for error, even if she wants no part of this campaign, even if she is so over this fake attempt at perfection, even if she longs for the small freedom she tasted over those few blissful days spent in backseats, locked offices, and laser tag arenas. This is her life now and she has to deal with it.

John comes back a couple hours later, the meat, potatoes, and vegetables that Martha made for him still untouched and likely to land in the trash, but that is all forgotten about when he barrels into the kitchen with frozen yogurt and a smile.

“I think we made some real progress today, ladies,” he announces, setting the paper bag on the table.

“John, that’s great!”

“Sure is, honey.” John turns to April. “A little treat to celebrate,” he says, handing her a cup with a wink.

April takes the cup with a small smile. She almost sinks into being at ease as he passes out plastic spoons and raves about his day, because every once in a while he does try and it feels reminiscent of how things used to be before the arrest, back when they were innocent to their issues and not just ignorant to them, back when they didn’t have to pretend to be perfect and happy, they just were, back when she thought her father was a man to idolize and impress.

But that feeling doesn’t last. April’s blood runs ice cold and she loses any ounce of an appetite when she reads the logo on the side of her cup.

Yogurtopia.

She internally prays that neither of the Wesley twins were working tonight, that they just went straight home after ruining her afternoon, that they didn’t run into John at all, and that he wasn’t looking for trouble when he went there in the first place.

With the pounding of her heart filling up her whole chest until it’s tight and tense, April wonders for a moment if she is saying that prayer for her father’s sake or for Sterling’s.