Actions

Work Header

just grab my hand and don't ever drop it

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

“I need your help.”

Sterling never thought she would hear such a thing from John Stevens, but here they are in Bowser’s back office, ten minutes after he said those words, listening to the man’s proposition. Or, well, Bowser is listening, Blair is making side comments, and Sterling is still trying to wrap her head around the whole ordeal.

“You do certain things in prison so you can survive.”

“Yeah, like give somebody your ramen or get them a cell phone,” Blair scoffs from Sterling’s side on the couch. “Haven’t you ever seen Orange is the New Black?”

John grimaces. “Absolutely not.”

“Now I haven’t seen the show either,” Bowser starts, pointedly ignoring how Blair gasps, “but I think she’s trying to say that it’s pretty damn foolish to promise a man money that you don’t have.”

“It was for protection!”

“And who’s protecting you now?”

“That’s where you come in.”

Sterling laughs. It’s the first sound she’s made since John came into the store and they all turn to look at her like she’s a little unhinged. Maybe she is. It’s been a long year.

“You think that we’re going to protect you?” she asks. He can’t possibly be serious. After everything he’s done, why would they want to help him? And after what they did to him, why would he want their help? She finds it hard to believe that there isn’t a catch and that this isn’t just a small piece in a complicated plot for revenge.

“Believe me, I would rather go anywhere else.”

John looks around the office with disgust painted all over his face, as if they couldn’t already guess that that statement were true.

Blair points toward the door. “Then please, go.”

The part of Sterling that isn’t totally obsessed with her sister’s confidence braces for another trademark John Stevens reaction — a grown man in a huffing tantrum, whirling curse words at teenagers, and stomping out the door with threats of what’s to come — but nothing like that happens.

John sighs instead.

“I can’t. He’s got guys on the outside. I knew that when I made the deal, but it seems like I underestimated them.”

It’s as close to vulnerable and apologetic as Sterling has ever seen John Stevens get, but she still doesn’t trust it. If he thinks he’s going to gain their sympathy for not being able to lie and cheat his way out of this one thing, he’s wrong. She wants to take a page out of Blair's book and call him on it, tell him that for once his scheming ways are coming back to bite him, but Bowser grows serious over John’s admission. His eyebrows furrow as he leans forward in his chair, resting his elbows on the desk.

“How so?” he asks.

“I hired a private investigator and we were touching base every day, but I haven’t heard from him in a week.”

“You think they got to him?”

Sterling’s breath catches when John nods. She doesn’t know exactly what “got to him” means, none of them really do. It’s just the implication of something bad that makes her shiver. Maybe they threatened him and scared him off, maybe they hurt him, maybe they abducted him, maybe they —

“I need someone under the radar,” John is saying before Sterling can spiral to the worst of outcomes, “and unfortunately, the owner of a yogurt shop and two teenage girls might just be my best option.”

She looks over at Blair, checking to see if the same worry that Sterling feels in her gut reflects in Blair’s eyes, but Blair just shrugs, and that gesture, that sort of giving up, clicks something into place.

Sterling can’t believe she’s thinking this, but John Stevens is right. Over the last year they’ve caught a lot of their skips by being exactly the kind of unexpected he just described.

“So let me get this straight,” Bowser says, his voice rough as he points a finger back at John. “You want people that are under the radar, while you’re out here building yourself a public platform. How do you think that helps?”

John scoffs, arrogantly leaning back in his chair and letting the ankle of one leg rest on the knee of the other.

“I’m not going to live my life in fear because of some low life criminal.”

“I would just like to remind you that you are also a low life criminal,” Blair says, leaving Sterling to poorly stifle a laugh.

The glare that John sends their way is a lot less scary here, on their own turf, where he’s the one who needs them.

“This business of yours,” he sneers, turning back to Bowser, “doesn’t seem very professional.”

“This business of mine knocked your ass out.”

For a tense moment John and Bowser just stare at each other, like boxers standing toe to toe on their weigh in day, sizing the other up, only now there’s a desk between them and this isn’t all for a crowd of cameras and somebody is going to have to back down at some point.

Blair raises her hand. “Off subject,” she starts, causing both men to roll their eyes and finally break away from each other, “but how did you fund a campaign if you can’t even pay this Stewart Little guy off?”

“Stanley Lewitt,” John corrects, through a clenched jaw. “The man I said I would pay is Stanley Lewitt.”

Blair seems entirely unfazed. “Okay? And who did I say?”

“Stewart Little,” Sterling tells her in a whisper.

“Who’s that?”

“You know, the movie with the mouse that gets adopted by a family of humans.”

“Oh, right!” Blair waves her hand dismissively through the air. “I was close enough. You could’ve just answered my original question.”

“I don’t think anybody remembers what that was,” Bowser grumbles, shaking his head and likely having his weekly moment of regret for ever getting involved with teenagers.

Blair repeats her question. “I asked how he funded a campaign when he can’t even pay off Stanley Lewitt.”

“Sponsors,” John answers with ease, like it’s obvious.

Sterling grimaces. “Gross.”

“Everyday I hate this town more,” Blair agrees.

“Now hold on a second,” Bowser interjects. He points a finger over to the couch and Sterling thinks he’s going to call them out for their nonsense, but instead he says, “The girls make a good point.”

“We do?” she gasps.

Bowser rolls his eyes. “Don’t make me regret it, kid.” He shifts his focus back to John, staying on track. “How do you expect to pay us if you can’t even pay him?”

John smirks and that feeling that Sterling had before about there being some kind of catch presses deeper into her gut.

“I thought you would ask that,” he says, sliding a manila envelope across Bowser’s desk. “This is everything my P.I. had. Go on, open it.”

Bowser skeptically opens the envelope, pulling out all of the papers that were neatly stuffed inside. He takes a moment to flip through the pile and Sterling’s curiosity gets the best of her. She stretches her neck to try and catch a glimpse just as Bowser stops on the mugshot of a man with a scar above his left eye.

“Cain Barton,” John says with an eerie confidence to his tone. “He’s the guy on the outside that we think is leading this whole thing. That name should sound familiar.”

Bowser nods. “He has a million dollar bounty on his head.”

“A million?” both Sterling and Blair gasp in unison. They turn to each other, eyes wide with awe.

“I figured that would be enough payment.”

John’s smirk has now turned into a sinister smile, the same one he wore when they saw him out of prison for the first time, a smile that says he’s won.

“So we only get paid if he comes after you?” Bowser asks without so much as looking up from the pages of intel.

“He will.”

“You shouldn’t sound so happy about that. Barton is a dangerous guy and you’ve got a family.”

“You didn’t think twice about my family when you turned me in.”

“You didn't think twice about your family when you cheated on your wife,” Sterling mutters. It’s apparently louder than she intended, because everyone turns to her with wide eyes and slack jaws.

Shit.

She might be layering it on a little thick for somebody who only secretly kind of dated his daughter for a few days last year, somebody who has publicly been enemies with said daughter for over half a decade. But it’s hard to keep down when he’s so clearly and easily putting other people at risk, while being too arrogant to acknowledge that there might actually be repercussions.

Luckily, John pushes past it. “My family is not going to know about any of this. Do we have a deal or not?”

Bowser doesn’t answer right away. He glances down at the stack of papers and flips through a few more pages, mulling it over. He pauses at the mugshot.

“I’m in if my girls are,” he eventually says.

It hangs in the air for a second, then John slowly turns toward the couch where both Sterling and Blair now sit with his fate in their hands. He knows it too. There is something uneasy in his eyes, ready to burst, but if he wants them to say yes, he needs to keep that urge under control. Judging from the smirk on Blair’s face, that’s going to be easier said than done.

“You know, Mr. Stevens, you’ve got a very punchable face.” Blair turns to Sterling. “Doesn’t it just make you want to whack him again?”

“It really does,” she returns, no longer just on behalf of his crimes and his use of the c-word, but now on behalf of April, who broke Sterling’s heart out of pure fear, whose safety proves to be an afterthought to this man.

“Listen here—”

“Hey!” Bowser slams his fist down on the desk, firm enough to cut through whatever John wanted to snarl at them. “If we’re going to do this, you better treat us like we’re doing you a favor. I’ll gladly throw your ass to the wolves if you disrespect any part of my team.”

Blair sits up straighter at Bowser’s defense, pride clearly in her chest, but Sterling’s whole body stiffens, wondering what could happen if they don’t agree, if Bowser does in fact leave John to fend for himself. Because John will do exactly that, he will fend for just himself.

“We’re in,” she blurts.

Blair turns sharply to her. “We are?”

“We are,” Sterling confirms with a conviction that Blair doesn’t question.

“Alright, I guess we are.”

Without another word, the weasel-like scowl on John’s face remains as he nods in supposed agreement. Sterling doesn’t trust it or the handshake he shares with Bowser. She just hopes she made the right call.

“Forgiveness is so important,” Ellen says and April has to resist the urge to roll her eyes.

She knows that forgiveness is both important in life and a major part of the Bible, but if she has to hear about it one more time while sitting in a pew with her father by her side or in a classroom with Sterling getting all shifty and pouty, April might just snap.

She’s allowed to be mad at the man who prioritized a ridiculous campaign over actually apologizing to the family he horribly defamed and she’s allowed to be mad at the girl that she wasn’t allowed to have and shouldn’t even want, because that girl lied when April trusted her with everything. And if that means that April internalizes some anger, leaving her bitter and resentful on most days, so be it. It’s her problem and if anyone else has an issue with it, she can simply ask them for forgiveness. Or tell them to fuck off. Either one.

“Who here has been in a situation where they didn’t want to forgive someone?”

April hesitates, glancing around the room. She only raises her hand when she sees that everyone else has.

“And who here felt better about their situation after they chose forgiveness?”

It’s not surprising that a few hands go down, April’s included, but what catches her eye is that Sterling’s hand goes down. Strange. April tilts her head, trying to think of how Sterling Wesley’s world of sunshine and acceptance and unconditional love could possibly leave her now with her hand down. Then she makes eye contact with Blair, also with her hand down, and April quickly looks away.

She focuses back on Ellen and shakes her curiosity by deciding that Sterling and Blair are probably just fighting with each other and that lowering their hands was just a petty way of getting under the other’s skin. That could explain Blair’s tight lipped frown and the sad look in Sterling’s eyes. They’ve managed to be even more inseparable over the last year than ever before and neither of them have the most tolerable of personalities. They were bound to get on each other’s nerves at some point.

April shouldn’t even care really, shouldn’t have noticed, but theorizing about potential Wesley drama gets her through the rest of fellowship without openly scoffing at Luke’s offer to teach the group a song he composed out of The Lord’s Prayer.

Even with the distraction, she’s happy to leave shortly after the lesson is done, taking as few questions as possible about their next fundraiser, but April should’ve known she couldn’t escape entirely unscathed.

“Hey, April!”

She turns at the sound of her name and finds Sterling dashing towards her. Jesus Christ. This girl doesn’t quit. One lesson from Ellen about forgiveness and she thinks they’re on speaking terms.

April rolls her eyes and keeps walking in the other direction where Ezekiel is waiting for her at the end of the hallway. She just has to get to him and then he can whisk her away before April has to endure any interaction with Sterling Wesley.

As if they didn’t do this dance enough last year, she can still hear footsteps clamoring in a rush to catch up, and then suddenly, Sterling is by her side and Ezekiel is still too far up ahead to rescue April from anything.

“Can we talk for a second?”

“Sterling, I told you months ago to stop apologizing. I really don’t want to hear it.”

“I’m not trying to apologize.”

Normally, April wouldn’t even consider the idea of talking to Sterling, let alone in the hallway surrounded by so many lingering eyes and ears. She would just brush it off with some snarky remark and be on her way, leaving Sterling disappointed and rejected yet again. But now when April thinks back to last night, remembering the frozen yogurt that John brought home, her feet abruptly stop.

“Fine, go ahead.”

Sterling stuns for a moment, eyes wide and blinking, mouth slightly agape, like she didn’t expect April to cave without much of a fight or to actually let her speak at all.

“I’m waiting,” she prompts.

Sterling quickly shakes off her surprise and comes back down to earth.

“How are you doing?”

April scoffs, crossing her arms. “Seriously? That’s what you chased me down to say?”

“Yeah, I just — with your dad being home and the campaign going on, I imagine that it’s a lot.”

April, in her own surprise, drops her arms down to her sides, softening her stance. It’s odd and part of her is skeptical because they haven’t spoken deeply since the lock-in, but another part of her — a much more pathetic part — realizes that this is the first time since her father kicked off his campaign that anyone has bothered to ask how she’s doing and acknowledged that she should be overwhelmed.

That’s the part of her that says, “It is a lot.”

It’s a simple, quiet admission, but just those few words and Sterling’s gentle stare seem to loosen something that was lodged deep inside of her. So much so that April finds herself continuing unprompted.

“He’s hardly home and when he is he’s either too busy for anything or he tries to act like all of last year never happened, but the added attention and gossip from everyone else is the part that’s really rather...suffocating.”

“Scary too.”

April tilts her head.

“Given your, uh...situation,” Sterling adds in a soft voice. She gestures between the two of them, heavily hinting at their history and therefore April’s sexuality as her supposed situation.

“Right.” April straightens her stance, making sure there’s enough space between them. “But it’s nothing I can’t handle.”

“Oh, obviously. Of course. I wasn’t trying to imply—”

“I know,” April says before Sterling can give herself an aneurysm. She should end it there, walk away and find Ezekiel because of the constant public scrutiny and said situation, but April finds that her curiosity gets the best of her. “Question.”

Sterling lights up as if April’s inquiry were a treat and she were suddenly a Labrador Retriever.

“Sure. Anything.”

“Were you working last night?”

Sterling‘s eyes somehow get even wider. “Why?” she asks, voice cracking at a strangely high pitch. “Did, um, did your dad get arrested again?”

“Oh, fuck off,” April spits, wondering why she even bothered, why she ever gave Sterling the time of day.

She turns to storm off, but she doesn’t get far.

“No, April, wait.” Sterling’s hand suddenly wraps around her wrist, tightly keeping April in place. April, for some reason, doesn’t yank her arm away. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just — the last time you asked me about work those things were very closely related.”

“Thanks for the reminder.”

She tries to walk away again, but Sterling just tugs her right back.

“April.”

“What?”

“Just be careful, okay?”

April’s creased brow smooths over, her jaw unclenches, and her shoulders drop just a little. She just blinks for a second, still trying to wrap her head around the soft but desperate way Sterling had said those words.

“I’ll be fine,” she says, voice quieter and more genuine than she’d like.

It’s then that April realizes that Sterling is still holding her wrist, that her thumb is brushing against the smooth skin on the inside of April’s forearm, and that the warmth of her touch is radiating through April’s body in ways that it publicly shouldn’t. Knowing that this is all a lot for the Willingham hallway, April finally pulls her arm free.

“Is that everything? Can I go?”

Sterling nods.

This time April actually gets to walk away. She purposely keeps her gaze straight, not daring to glance back over her shoulder, even if that is where her mind wanders, wondering if Sterling is still standing there and watching April go, if her face has fallen for the hundredth time after an attempt at reaching out, or if she’s finally satisfied and has turned the other way.

The thing with Sterling is that it’s always this way. A lot can happen in just three minutes of conversation. It can be awkward, intense, earnest, and frustrating all in a matter of seconds. And she always leaves feeling rattled.

April doesn’t look Ezekiel in the eye when she reaches him, she just keeps walking, knowing that he’ll catch up if he wants to.

“What was that about?” he asks, hot on her tail.

April huffs. “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know what you just talked to Sterling Wesley about?”

She rolls her eyes. “No, I know that. She asked how I was doing with the campaign. I just don’t know why. Why now?”

“I think you’re over analyzing it, babe. I know you’ve been spending a lot of time with politicians but some people don’t actually have ulterior motives.”

“You never know with her.”

Ezekiel has no idea, but April does. She knows that Sterling Wesley can lie and keep secrets and do the wrong thing. She knows it quite well. And it’s not news. They all saw it with the condom wrapper fiasco. Sterling would’ve kept her sexual escapades to herself and gladly accepted her pedestal if it weren’t for April finding out the truth.

But the worst of it all happened out of the public eye.

There are very few people who know about Sterling’s biggest deceit, about how she turns in criminal fathers, ruins families, and dates their daughters, pressuring them to come out for the sake of clearing her own conscience.

Apparently there is always a game to play, which is why Sterling’s “just be careful” can’t possibly be innocent and why April is — in the words of Ezekiel — “over analyzing.” She would be a damn fool to fall for kind eyes, a gentle touch, and soft, whispered words again.

“April.”

Ezekiel stops her by tugging her arm back. It’s jarring. And annoying. God, what is with everyone just grabbing her today?

April immediately pulls herself free, although she does stay put long enough for him to say, “We’re fresh off of summer break, the early parts of senior year are stressful enough with normal college stuff, let alone campaigns and whatever the hell you two have going on, and you’ve actively been avoiding her.”

“What’s your point?”

“My point is, while you’re spiraling over ‘why now,’ the truth of the matter is that that was probably just the first opportunity you gave her to get a word in.”

April hesitates. She hates that there’s some reason behind his theory almost as much as she hates his insinuation that there is something going on past or present between the two of them, that Sterling Wesley is someone to be trusted, and that April should be the one to trust her.

“I’m not sold,” she says, catching how the corner of his mouth turns down, “but I’ll consider it.”

Ezekiel rolls his eyes, not in the way he would’ve if April didn’t claim she would consider it, but in a way that is more lighthearted.

“Stop being so cynical. Maybe she just cares.”

“Doubtful,” she says with as much assurance as she can muster, but April thinks back to Sterling’s grab of her arm, the soft sweep of her thumb, the pleading look in her eyes that looked an awful lot like it did last year when they were debating coming out or sitting outside on a bench, and suddenly she’s feeling a lot less sure.

Now April hates another thing about what Ezekiel said. She hates that she hopes he’s right.

Chapter Text

“Alright, here’s the plan,” Bowser says from in front of his cork board where the mugshots of Cain Barton and his known associates hang. “John Stevens is hosting an event at the country club tomorrow night and we are going to be in attendance.”

Sterling raises her hand.

Bowser sighs. “You don’t have to do that. You can just talk.”

She drops her hand and swallows the queasy feeling that’s been rising in her throat since she and Blair sat down on his office couch.

“Will his family be there?” she asks, muscles tensing as she braces for an answer.

“Yes, and they can’t know what we’re up to.”

“What are we supposed to tell them?”

“Nothing. Don’t interact. Don’t be recognized.”

“We go to school with his daughter. How are we supposed to go unrecognized?” Blair chimes in, voicing the exact concern that has Sterling’s stomach now tying in knots.

“Well, if you let me actually get into my plan you’ll see that I’ve considered that.”

“Okay, okay,” Blair says, putting her hands up and gesturing for Bowser to carry on. “The floor is yours.”

Sterling doesn’t know if there’s anything he could say that would get her hands to stop sweating, her neck to stop tightening, and her mind to stop racing. Because Bowser might be familiar with bounty hunting and John Stevens, but he is not familiar with April. April will see them at this event. There’s no way she won’t. And when she does, she will demand to know what Sterling is doing and Sterling doesn’t know if she can handle another lie.

“This is a little different from anything we’ve done before, but we’re going to prep for it just the same.”

Bowser points at the lineup of newly hung photos — some men, some women, some young, some old, but all potentially tied into this mess.

“These are Barton’s known associates. Do your research just like we would for any other skip. Check credit card receipts, social media, anything you can to see if they’re in the area to pull something off tomorrow night.”

Blair leans forward from where she’s perched on the arm of the couch, resting her elbow on her knee and her chin on her hand.

“How much are each of these guys worth?” she asks, eyeing the board intently.

“Depends. Yolanda ran their names so we know who can be brought in and who can’t. Anybody worth anything we can handle like usual, but the ones that are clean we can only keep an eye on. That’s why we have to be thorough. Get to know their names and faces so you know what we can do if anyone turns up.”

Sterling only nods along. She doesn’t say anything. Her mouth is too dry and her voice is probably too shaky to deliver anything with confidence, and she seems to be the only one that’s fazed by all of this.

Blair rises from the couch and goes over to the board, examining it closely with a serious expression on her face. She points to one of the photos, a younger guy with a buzz cut and a nose ring, probably in his mid to late twenties, and says, “He’s hot.”

Bowser rolls his eyes. “That’s Wilmer Fanto. He’s clean for right now. We can’t touch him if he shows up.”

“Aw, man!” Blair turns back around, shooting Sterling a devilish little smirk. “I was gonna call him Wet Willie, because just looking at him gets me—”

“Hey, come on now,” Bowser interjects with a huff. “This is a place of business, you are a child, and that man spent a year in prison. Sit your ass down.”

He points a stern finger back at the couch and Blair follows instruction, shuffling her feet the whole way, muttering something under her breath, and flopping down dramatically next to Sterling.

“He is cute,” Sterling leans over to whisper.

“Thank you!” Blair mouths, clearly offended by Bowser’s lack of taste.

“Are you girls going to focus or do you not want your cut of a million dollars?”

Blair suddenly perks up, the hot man and his mugshot long forgotten. “Oh, we’ll focus,” she says, nudging Sterling in the side with her elbow.

Sterling winces, but quickly agrees, “Yeah, we can totally focus.”

“Alright, then.” Bowser turns away to walk back to his desk. “We’ve got a lot of ground to cover at the country club and you two have to lay low, so we’re gonna split up.” He takes a seat, facing them again. “I’ll be inside at the event since no one will recognize me, Blair will be outside at the entrance, and Sterling will take the halls.”

“But the hall is so...open”

The thought of being caught makes Sterling’s skin crawl. She wants to be as far away from the action as possible. She wants to be outside with Blair.

But her concern is quickly dismissed. “You’ll be fine,” Blair says, though Sterling isn’t so sure.

Then, they’re moving on.

“We look for Barton or any of the other people on the board and we prioritize catching them, because that is the only way we get paid.”

“What about protecting the Stevens family?”

You know, the whole reason Sterling even agreed to do this.

“We’re not security guards,” Bowser tells her. She frowns. “We’re bounty hunters. We protect them by catching these motherfuckers.”

Sterling gulps. She doesn’t love that. The idea of knowing the truth while April is blissfully unaware that she could be caught in the crossfire of her father’s drama is all rather unsettling.

“Sound good?”

Blair gives an enthusiastic “Hell yeah” at the same time that Sterling mutters, “Not really.”

Bowser and Blair both turn to her, staring like Sterling said something shockingly terrible.

“I mean — hell yeah,” she says weakly.

Blair face palms.

“Off to a great start,” Bowser grumbles, shaking his head. “Let’s get to work.”

 

The country club is crowded, which helps with Sterling’s nerves for the night. It’ll be easier to blend in with all these droves of people than if the event were half empty. It doesn’t, on the other hand, help at all with her worry of what could happen if John Stevens actually wins the election in a few weeks.

Sterling tries not to think about that though. She tries not to think about much at all really. She just stares blankly as pairs of husbands and wives step out of their cars, hand their keys to the valet, and disappear out from under the dark sky as they pass through the entrance door.

“Everybody good with the plan?” Bowser glances over his shoulder to the twins in his backseat. They both nod. “Stay in contact — I know you two love your cell phones — and look for anyone that might stand out.”

Sterling glances up from where her fingers are fiddling with the hem of her dress, one that Debbie had bought her a few months ago just because that felt like she was trying to buy Sterling’s affection, one that Sterling just pulled the tag off of an hour ago.

“What would stand out?” she asks.

“It’s a John Stevens political event, so pretty much anyone who isn’t a rich conservative.”

“You’ll stick out like a sore thumb,” Blair mutters, giving Bowser a look over.

“Dressed like that, definitely,” Sterling agrees.

Bowser cluelessly glances down at his clothes. “What’s wrong with my outfit?”

“You’re wearing jeans to a country club.”

“They’re nice jeans!”

“And you’re in a sea of khakis, my dude.” Blair points out the window of his truck toward the club entrance where, sure enough, there’s at least five men in khaki pants.

“I like to be comfortable,” he huffs, turning off the engine.

After that they each go to their assigned spots. Bowser and Sterling head through the front doors, leaving Blair outside by the entrance. Sterling takes one last look over her shoulder and doesn’t find any nerves in the nod Blair gives her before the doors close and she’s left alone.

There’s a big sign in the hallway with John’s smiling face on it. He’s clad in a suit, with a tie that is striped in red and white, and a jacket that’s navy blue. His stupid slogan “the right direction” is plastered across the bottom. If anybody from the cork board in Bowser’s office comes here tonight, they’ll know exactly where to find him.

“He doesn’t make it easy,” Bowser grumbles. Sterling wants to mutter something back about how Bowser isn’t making this easy by trying to blend in with jeans and sneakers on, but she bites her tongue. “I’ll be right inside. Take a few laps around, keep your eyes open, and stay in touch,” he says before opening the double doors and slipping into the event.

Sterling spends the next hour quite bored. She wanders the hallway, scanning for anything suspicious, finds nothing, and hides behind a plant when Pastor Booth comes out of the mens bathroom.

She wants to text Blair, to see if she is dying of boredom out there by herself, but Sterling holds back. They need to be focused, they need to look for possible threats, and they need to go unrecognized.

It’s just like a stakeout, which they’ve done almost a hundred of at this point. But stakeouts are slow enough as it is when Sterling is in a car with her best friend and a man who pretends he isn’t endeared by their antics. She’s learning now that they’re even slower when she’s alone.

Sterling rounds the corner where John’s sign is pointing in the direction of the event. She stopped counting how many times she’s passed it about a half hour ago. Now as she approaches the double doors, mind numb from shuffling her feet aimlessly, she catches the sound of a familiar voice.

“I’ll just be a minute, mom. I have to use the bathroom.”

Sterling jumps back, away from the door that is sure to open any second, and looks over her shoulder. There’s no tall leafy plant over here for her to duck behind.

The doors open.

“April,” she hears Mrs. Stevens hiss. “Bring back some of the breath mints they keep on the counter. Your father is starting to smell like whiskey.”

Then April steps out into the hall and all Sterling can think to do is turn around to walk in the other direction, hoping that it renders her unrecognizable.

It doesn’t.

“Sterling?”

Sterling hates that her feet automatically stutter, wanting to come to a stop before her brain can tell her to keep walking, to pretend she didn’t hear, to pretend that her name isn’t Sterling, and to be entirely unfazed. But it seems as though there is something about April’s voice calling after her that makes Sterling want to stop in her tracks even when she shouldn’t.

Footsteps thud against the thick carpeting, quickly coming up from behind her. All of Sterling’s fears for the night are about to come true if she can’t get away. Then her phone buzzes.

Blair: wet willie just pulled up

God, could this get any worse?

Sterling: are you sure it’s him??

Right as Sterling presses send, a hand wraps tightly around her bicep and yanks her to a stop.

Apparently it could get worse.

“What the hell are you doing here?” April’s voice growls through a clenched jaw, but her eyes run along the length of Sterling's dress, lingering over her legs.

Huh.

Sterling stammers, shaking off whatever that was. “I was just, uh...”

Her phone dings with another text.

Blair: how many other hotties with a nose ring do we know that would want to be here??

Yep. Definitely worse.

“You’re doing it again, aren’t you?” Sterling looks up from her screen. “You’re here for him,” April guesses, voice breaking just slightly as she assumes Sterling is here to arrest her father.

“No! Oh my gosh, April it’s—”

Blair: miles caught me trying to get to him

Blair: he’s headed your way

Oh, for Christ’s sake. Why did John Stevens have to host an event where both Sterling and Blair would have an ex in attendance? And why do those exes instantly turn into detectives when it comes to Sterling and Blair?

April clears her throat, recapturing Sterling’s attention. “What is it this time?” she asks, squaring her shoulders, suddenly all business and ready to carry this burden. “Another prostitute? Maybe at least a white collar crime? Ugh, it really says a lot about the man that I have to hope it’s tax evasion or fraud or something.”

Blair: sterling?????

Blair keeps pressing her with more text messages, April is ranting about her father, and Sterling, in the midst of all this noise, could not form a coherent thought if she tried.

Then it all gets worse.

From over April’s shoulder Sterling sees the man Blair nicknamed Wet Willie turn the corner, where that God awful sign is, and she hears April use the word bounty, and Sterling has to get this girl to shut up fast.

She looks down to April’s mouth, remembering being in a supply closet and picturing the way April’s lips curled around a word when she was angry. She remembers the last time April ranted at her about John when they were in Ellen’s office and Sterling had just been so overwhelmed with feeling that she broke. She remembers the way April’s eyes had wandered over her when she spun Sterling around just a minute ago, igniting a flame that Sterling thought had burnt out. And in the blur of all this noise, these memories provide Sterling with a second of clarity.

She springs forward, hands rushing to April’s face, and she kisses her. This time Sterling doesn’t immediately break away with a stark and scary realization of what she’d just done. She stays in place, waiting for her brain to send some kind of an “all clear” message to her body or for April to push her away.

Neither thing happens.

Blair chimes in with another text, Sterling can hear, but she doesn’t pay it any mind. Not when April eases into her touch and kisses her back after all this time.

At first it's a little uncertain, just a soft press of her lips, a flicker of her muscles untensing beneath Sterling’s finger tips, but then April settles in and it feels monumental. So much so that Sterling forgets what she was in the middle of, that they are standing in an open hallway, that this was just supposed to be a quick ruse, and that she should be going after a former criminal right now and not opening her mouth against April’s.

After a few moments April is the one that stops, leaning back with her eyes blinking and her cheeks flushed. Sterling thinks that dazed is a good look on her. It makes Sterling want to kiss her again, but April’s face quickly contorts as she comes back down to earth, eyes still shimmering with a rush of heat, then shock, and then that familiar intensity settles in with a resemblance of anger.

That’s when Sterling remembers. The hallway, the event, the country club, the mission — it all comes flooding back at once.

Her hands drop suddenly from April’s face, down to her own sides, a feeling creeping in her stomach that leaves her unsettled.

She really has to get out of here before she does something even more idiotic.

Sterling is still breathless when she ushers a quick “Sorry” and dashes down the empty hallway after a man her brain can only recall as Wet Willie.

April’s hand goes up to her mouth where she can still feel the imprint of Sterling’s lips.

Fuck.

She kissed Sterling. Or, well, she kissed Sterling back. How could she not? Sterling is enthusiastic and brilliant and pretty and — and way too impulsive for April’s current situation, way too naive to ever understand, and way too fake with her sweet smile and her innocent, blinky eyes to be trusted with something this delicate.

To kiss Sterling at her father’s campaign event — Sterling, who can't seem to let feelings go unprocessed and is likely here to arrest her father — is bad. Really fucking bad.

God, April has completely lost her mind.

They could’ve been caught. It was public. Anybody could’ve seen them. And she couldn’t have picked a worse crowd to be caught by.

Her parents are right inside, as are their friends, the few relatives that live close by, and an entire crowd of people who think so much like her father that they want to vote for him.

April could have stood in that room and rolled her eyes at something her mother said and a dozen other people would have reminded her that her cheating father is running on a platform of “family values.” And that’s just for a small mistake, a slip up.

To kiss another girl, well, that isn’t just a small mistake. That isn’t a tiny slip up or something that could be spun into a misunderstanding. That’s huge. That’s unforgettable — unforgivable, she means. Jesus Christ.

She had been so good too. This whole time, since John came back from prison last year, April has been perfect. Any outsider would think that she was the one who needed forgiveness, who needed to make an impression, and not the man who had plastered his face all over town, making more false promises to his family than to the community he intends to serve. All of which, could’ve potentially been for nothing.

All the stress that keeps her up at night, the fear that made a home in the bass of her stomach years ago, the intensity of constantly forcing herself to be the very best while under the crushing weight of living a lie, would all be pointless if the truth were to come out.

April takes in a deep breath. It was one kiss. One invigorating, wonderful, colossal mistake.

She exhales in a short, sharp huff. If she and Sterling managed to go unseen she could still salvage the night, but April can’t be panicked or messy if she wants to actually pull it off.

So she smooths out her dress, tucks some loose hair behind her ear, and she goes back inside.

April hardly takes two steps into the room when her mother comes rushing over.

“Where are the mints?”

“The what?”

“The mints,” Martha repeats.

“Oh. Right.” April never made it to the bathroom. She doesn’t have any mints. “They were out.”

Martha’s eyebrows furrow. Her lips purse with a thought before they form a tight frown. “Strange. I’ll have to write up a complaint.”

“I’ll take care of it,” April hastily offers. She would hate for her mother to write a strongly worded letter and then suffer the embarrassment of finding out that her daughter lied. “You have voters to talk to.”

Martha grabs April by the arm. “We have voters to talk to,” she says, leading April away from the door and deeper into the crowd. “I can take care of the mint thing later.”

Normally, April hates that these adults treat her like a child who doesn’t have anything to offer (although, they would gossip mercilessly about her if she ever behaved that way), but right now she’s thankful for it. Aside from the occasional questions about school and the “you must be so proud of your father” comments, April just has to smile and nod and decidedly not think about Sterling Wesley.

It’s simple enough, but it does get tiring.

When her cheeks are eventually sore from faking a grin and her heart is fluttering inappropriately with the memory of a brief kiss, April excuses herself for a glass of water.

On her way toward the refreshments, she spots a man by the table of appetizers that she doesn’t recognize. He’s terribly underdressed and he’s using a paper napkin instead of one of the porcelain plates. It wouldn’t take any more than that for someone with half her IQ to figure out that he doesn’t belong.

Against her better judgement, April approaches.

“Hi,” she says, holding out her hand. “I’m April. John’s daughter.”

The man swallows nervously, nearly choking on whatever was in his mouth. After coughing a few times, he shakes her hand.

“I’m Bowser.”

Yeah, he definitely doesn’t belong here.

His palms are rough, he’s wearing jeans and a pair of Skechers, his button down shirt is short sleeved and untucked, and he just shook her hand with the same one he coughed into.

April immediately pulls sanitizer from her purse. “So you like my father?” she asks, rubbing her hands together until she’s sure any germs are gone.

“Sure.”

“What is it about him that you like?”

The man — Bowser, she recalls — stares cluelessly back at her for a second.

“He, um, knows what he wants.”

“That is true. Vague,” she adds, “but true.”

Bowser’s gaze wanders over her shoulder, probably searching for an excuse to walk away, but then his eyes widen, and then they roll in annoyance. Which just proves her point even further. These people don’t openly roll their eyes. It’s just a thing they do behind someone’s back.

“Excuse me for a moment,” he grumbles, shoving his crumpled napkin in his pocket and walking past her.

April turns, curiously watching Bowser make his way across the room. He exchanges a distant glance with her father, but John doesn’t react. At least not like April did. She gets a strange inkling that they must know each other.

April doesn’t have time to dwell on that fact though, because as her eyes follow along Bowser’s path she sees who he is approaching.

Now April has absolute confirmation that she was right: he doesn’t belong here. But she doesn’t get a thrill of satisfaction as she learns why. Instead she feels the sting of another disappointment.

“What the hell is going on?” Bowser whisper yells to two nervous looking Wesley twins, who have just slipped in through the door. They haven’t yet noticed that April is walking up behind them. “You’re not supposed to be in here.”

“I don’t think any of you are,” April says, crossing her arms. The three of them jump in surprise, turning to face April with their eyes wide and stunned.

She gets that little tinge of satisfaction now.

When they all get out into the hallway, far enough from the event for April to be comfortable, nobody says a word. Sterling, Blair, and Bowser all exchange glances with each other, then Blair looks expectantly at April, daring her to question them, Bowser stares wordlessly down at the floor, and Sterling’s gaze shifts nervously in every direction except for April. Typical.

Of course Sterling can’t even look her in the eye. Sterling, who lied to April last year and has been pleading for forgiveness ever since. Sterling, who told April to be careful when she clearly — with no thanks to Ezekiel’s bullshit analysis — does have ulterior motives. Sterling, who...who kissed April less than an hour ago with her hands warm on April’s cheeks, her lips soft and familiar, flooding April with a feeling so strong that she didn’t even consider what they were doing until it was done.

April lets her arms fall down to her sides and exhales a short breath. She shifts her attention away from the group, focusing solely on Sterling.

“Can I talk to you for a second? Alone.”

Sterling looks up like a deer in headlights, eyes wide as if to ask, “Me?”

April nods.

“She’s all yours,” Bowser says gladly. “I don’t have time for this teen drama shit.” He immediately takes the opportunity to leave and heads down the hallway toward the event.

Blair, unsurprisingly, doesn’t go. “Anything you have to say to Sterl, you can say in front of me.”

“I would really rather not.”

“So it’s about the kiss,” Blair guesses, confidently.

April turns back to Sterling. “You told her already?”

Sterling doesn’t even get a chance to open her mouth before Blair is answering for her. “I know you had some kind of spell over her last year, but this is how it works with us.” She puts an arm protectively around Sterling’s shoulders. “We don’t do secrets anymore.”

April is about to give up, to tell them to forget it, kiss included, but Sterling steps confidently out from under Blair’s hand.

“Okay, can I speak on my own behalf please?”

“I was just—”

“Being a little much, Blair,” Sterling says, her tone still managing to be gentle even in frustration.

“My bad.”

Blair puts her hands up, agreeing to back off, and Sterling focuses on April. Her eyes aren’t wide and afraid anymore. They’re set with certainty and there's a pleading look underneath that’s desperate to be heard.

“We are here to possibly arrest someone—”

“Sterl!”

Sterling does not adhere to Blair's warning. “—but it is not your dad.”

April exhales. At least she doesn’t have to completely relive the drama of junior year.

But if they’re not here for John then who—

“And I’m sorry that I told Blair about the kiss. I thought it would be okay since she knew about everything else that happened with us and I was honestly freaking out.”

Foolishly, the only part of that that April can seem to focus on is Sterling’s little smile and flushed cheeks when she admitted that she was freaking out.

“I was too.”

“Yeah?”

April nods. Of course she was freaking out. It was equal parts terrifying and exhilarating. April hasn’t had a rush like that in months. To have a moment of letting her guard down and actually doing what she wanted gave her such a spark. It may have been her most idiotic move to date, but damn did it feel good in the moment.

It just can’t happen again.

“Look,” April starts, releasing a heavy sigh, “I know it was my own fault for indulging, but that was way too public and reckless for me. With my dad at home and all this publicity around his campaign, the risk is even bigger than it was before. I’m not happy he‘s running, as I’m sure you aren’t either, but I’m doing my best. I can’t — the last thing my family needs is another scandal.”

“Which is why we were trying to sneak in and out quietly,” Blair interjects, “but then you started screaming about bounty hunting and arrests and Sterl had to stick her tongue down your throat to get you to shut the fuck up.”

April looks back to Sterling. “Is that so?”

“Is what so?”

“That you only kissed me because you didn’t want to blow your cover.”

It sits in the air between them for a moment too long and April knows what’s coming even before Sterling sheepishly glances away. “Well, um,” — she swallows — “I did kinda need you to be quiet.”

It doesn’t hurt. It’s fine. They couldn’t get involved anyway.

April’s voice doesn’t tremble when she says, “Got it.” Her feet don’t hesitate to turn around and march her down the hallway, not even when she hears Sterling call out for her to wait or when Blair mutters a snarky “Nice going, Sterl.”

She doesn’t stop or look back or even break stride. Not until she’s back in her father’s event where she belongs, where she should’ve stayed, because going after Sterling for anything other than answers as to why she’s here to arrest someone was stupid. Going after her at all was stupid.

“Where were you?” Martha hisses.

“Speaking to someone about the mints. They should be refilling the bowl any minute.”

April’s lie seems to satisfy her mother and she plays her part of a candidate’s daughter perfectly for the rest of the night.

April is supportive and polite. She laughs at every obnoxious attempt at a joke. She nods encouragingly for each promise her father makes, even when she knows it’s likely to be broken, even when she thinks it’s a terrible, awful idea. She only lets herself be distracted on occasion to keep an eye on Bowser from across the room, but he eventually leaves empty handed just as her family heads for the door.

Right when she thinks that all is clear, that they can go home and April can stare at her ceiling while she waits for a peaceful version of sleep that will likely never come, the night takes another turn.

As she and her family exit the country club with a few straggling voters behind them, they’re met by a handful of protestors, holding signs with a blown up image of John’s mugshot, and a news camera is right there to capture it all.

Chapter Text

Sterling glances around the pale green room at the sunlight peeking through the curtains, the succulents warming on the windowsill, and the empty chair next to her that was filled by Blair last week.

God, how is it that only a week ago her biggest concern was scheduled game nights and now it’s dangerous skips, John Stevens, and April all over again?

Cara takes the seat across from Sterling, pen in one hand and a notepad balanced on her lap. “So, how was your week?” she asks.

Sterling chuckles. That is definitely a loaded question.

“Oh, you’re not gonna believe this.”

Cara lifts an eyebrow. “I’ve heard that one before. Try me.”

Sterling smiles.

Last year, after they went through a few introductions, Cara had casually asked, “So what brings you here?” and Sterling started off their first session with that same exact phrase, because how could anybody believe that crazy, terrible story was her real life? Sterling certainly didn’t. She struggled to wrap her head around the truth of who her mother really is, the fear that she felt while tied up in the bathroom of that trailer, and the fact that she technically doesn’t even have a sister, let alone a twin.

But with insightful questions and a kind, listening ear, Cara has helped Sterling acknowledge and unpack the dark, twisted feelings that have lingered in her chest ever since she found out her whole life was essentially one big lie.

And she’s helped Blair too.

The joint sessions started when sisterhood and family were redefined as more of a choice and a feeling, one that Sterling and Blair separately decided they wanted to work on since things at home were a little...unbalanced.

“You kept secrets too,” Blair reminded her in their first shared visit after Cara had noted the tension between the two of them.

“What are you talking about?”

“April.”

Sterling sighed, feeling like they had gone over this a hundred times. “I wanted to tell you that we were together, but it was her secret and she couldn’t have anyone find out.”

“I’m not just anyone!”

“I know that.”

“Do you?” Blair asked. “Because lately it feels like it’s you versus us and I don’t want you to think that you're by yourself and I really don’t want to be grouped with...them.” She had grimaced when referring to Debbie and Anderson.

Sterling laughed.

They left that afternoon with a commitment to having scheduled family time and a joint session once a month just for the two of them. For the first time since the night of the lock-in Sterling felt really good about where she stood with someone in her family.

“So you’re bounty hunting behind April’s back again?”

Sterling nods. “Pretty much, yeah.”

“And how do you feel about that?”

“Like I could throw up at any second.”

Cara crinkles her nose. “That’s not a nice feeling.”

Sterling shakes her head. It’s really not. She hardly even remembers what it feels like to have a settled stomach. This queasy ache has been constant since John showed up at Yogurtopia.

“It’s not like I have a choice this time. Her dad told us not to say anything and I told her enough already. I don’t want to make things worse.”

“Worse for who?”

Sterling’s mouth opens and then it closes, wordless. She takes a moment to think about her answer. There’s a lot at stake here. The large bounty on Cain Barton being their only form of payment, John’s very public platform, the safety of all involved, April’s—

“For you or for her?” Cara prompts after a longer than usual silence.

“For her,” Sterling decides. It’s true, she knows. She couldn’t care less about John Stevens or his campaign or the money. “April has a lot going on and I don’t want to add to it again.”

“So you still care about her?”

At this point they’ve spent hours talking about how much Sterling still cares for April, how badly she regrets pushing her to come out, and how she hates that she wasn’t the one to tell April about John’s arrest.

Which is why Sterling immediately says, “Yeah, duh,” like it’s an indisputable fact.

“Then why tell her that the kiss was just to keep her quiet?”

Sterling shrugs, a thing she does when she doesn’t really like the answer she has to give or wants to make it seem like it doesn’t actually carry a lot of weight.

“It wasn’t completely a lie. I mean, it was partially true.”

Cara just stares back at her.

Sterling sighs. “It was easier, I guess.”

“Easier, how?”

She really should’ve seen that one coming. Month after month, week after week, Sterling has been asked follow up questions that gently and sometimes sneakily leave her saying more than she planned. Still, the question agitates her.

“Well, she had just finished saying that it was reckless and that she needed to avoid scandal and that she was just indulging or whatever. I’m supposed to bear my soul after that?”

“Nobody is saying you were supposed to do anything, Sterling.”

“It doesn’t always feel that way,” Sterling mutters, crossing both her legs and arms like an angry, pouting child.

“What doesn’t?”

The loose thread along the seam of Sterling’s school pants suddenly seems interesting. Her fingers go to it.

“Like, at home, for instance,” she starts, voice soft as she stares down into her lap, “without the schedule for family time, I feel like I’m supposed to be doing more than I am.”

“Who said that?”

“Nobody. It’s just something I tell myself.”

“Sterling,” Cara says gently. Sterling looks back up. “I think you put too much pressure on yourself when it comes to your family.”

“Well, I want things to get better but I don’t know how to do it on my own.”

“You’re not on your own.”

“But the schedule—”

“The schedule was only there as a stencil. Just because it’s gone doesn’t mean you can’t trace the lines.”

Sterling’s shifts in her seat, uncrossing her legs and leaning forward a bit. Her eyebrows furrow, intrigued but confused.

Cara continues, “If you liked Saturday game nights, then ask Anderson to play Scrabble on Saturday. If you liked group TV on Tuesdays, then ask Debbie to watch a movie on Tuesday. You don’t have to suddenly reinvent the wheel. Use what you already know as a guide.”

“But what about Blair?”

“Blair gets to decide for herself. Same as you.”

Sterling kind of hates that. Sure, they’re growing or whatever, but codependency was such a staple in their relationship before. These boundaries, while probably healthy, are just another thing that’s changed in this post-lock-in world. It’s another part of the old normal — the simple, happy, fake family that Sterling sometimes longs for — that they will never get back.

Sterling looks away again, her focus returning to the loose thread on her pants. “Blair is doing better with this than I am.”

“Really?”

She nods. “It’s easy for her. Blair invites Debbie and Anderson to her lacrosse games and that counts. If I went, I’d have to sit on the bleachers and actually talk to them, but she can just play her game and check a box.”

“Is that really all you think it is?”

Sterling nods again.

Cara purses her lips, considering something for a moment. “Does Blair ride with them in the car?”

“Well, yeah.”

“So she does talk to them,” Cara points out. Sterling didn’t even think of that. She was too busy being secretly jealous of Blair’s ease with all this. “Just because you don’t play a sport doesn’t mean you can’t do something similar. If you’re going to a friend's house, or to work, or to run an errand, you can ask for a ride there.”

“That counts?”

Cara chuckles a little. “Yes, but try not to worry about keeping count. That’s not the point. Find moments that you want to spend with your family, moments that feel doable and okay.”

It fills Sterling’s chest with a confidence that she hasn’t had in a while in regard to her family. What felt big and scary thirty minutes ago now seems so simple, broken down into small steps that make Sterling feel like she could conquer the world, or at least this particular mountain.

“And maybe even talk to them about this,” Cara suggests. “You might feel less on the verge of throwing up if you’re being honest with your feelings and sharing things with the people in your life. A little goes a long way, Sterling, and” — she starts to smile — “it counts.”

 

When Sterling gets home she smells dinner cooking as soon as she walks through the front door. It takes a few steps down the hallway for her to pinpoint exactly what the scent is — chicken, steamed broccoli, and the homemade sauce recipe that Debbie sneakily copied from Mother after she refused to give it up without being on a deathbed.

She expects to find the usual sight of Debbie hunched over the stove and Anderson sitting at the island, keeping her company, but Sterling finds Debbie at the island alone.

“Hi, hun,” she greets, looking up from her phone and setting it aside. “How did things go with Cara?”

“Fine. Good.”

Sterling glances curiously around the kitchen. Dinner is already made but the table isn’t set and the house is entirely quiet.

Debbie must notice her confusion. “Anderson and Blair are out. She said she was bored of chicken and asked him to go get burgers instead. So it’s just us. Not that you have to eat with me, of course, but if you want to, it’s — it’s ready.”

Sterling’s stomach clenches at the thought of one on one time with Debbie, of trudging through small talk, of longer than comfortable silences, but she swallows that feeling and says, “Okay.”

They sit at the table together. There’s an empty chair on either side of Sterling from where Anderson and Blair would sit if they were here. Debbie is across from her, staring down at her plate. She looks up at Sterling once in a while, mouth opening, but she often closes it without a word.

They’ve already plowed through the easy topics of how was school, how is work, the weather has been so nice recently, and now neither of them seem to know where to go or what to do next.

Forks and knives scrape against porcelain dishes, filling the silence between them until Sterling can’t take it anymore, remembering a little goes a long way.

“I miss the schedule,” she says suddenly. Debbie looks up. “I liked the routine, I liked that we knew what was coming and what was expected, I liked that everyone was on the same page, and I just — I miss it.”

Debbie's fork drops, clamoring against her plate. For a second Sterling wonders if she made a mistake, but then Debbie leans across the table like they’re in on some kind of secret together. “Oh my gosh, so do I.”

“Really?”

Debbie nods. “I don’t know what to do with myself. Not a dang clue.”

Sterling laughs. It just slips out of her, bubbling up from inside her chest, nice and easy like it used to.

The corner of Debbie’s mouth tugs upwards just a little at the sound before she rolls her lips together and leans back in her seat, trying not to react too big and scare Sterling off.

So Sterling pushes, “I didn’t know you felt that way.”

“Well, this is more so about the way you and Blair feel than it is about my own feelings, but, um…” Debbie pauses, seemingly to decide which route to take, the vulnerable route that might be too much, or the casual route that might be too little. She sighs and plunges forward. “I want to be respectful of the boundaries that you girls are setting, but I don’t want to seem like I’m not interested in spending time with y’all either. It’s a tough line to walk, trying to find that balance, although it seems your father — Anderson,” she corrects, “has it down pat.”

“Yeah, he and Blair are off to a good start.”

“Can’t say I’m surprised. They’ve always been like that, running off to have their fun, while you and I…” Debbie trails off, swallowing whatever was caught in her throat instead of finishing her thought. “What can we do for you, Sterl? Do we bring the schedule back?”

Sterling shakes her head. “No, um,” — she clears her throat to stop her voice from catching — “Blair really hated the schedule and we have to move on at some point.”

“Alright.” Debbie picks up her utensils, places them on her empty plate, and rises to her feet to clean up. “We’ll find our footing soon enough.”

This is usually where their conversation would end, if they even got this far, but something in Sterling lurches one last time.

“Maybe we could watch a movie on Tuesday? Just us,” she says, adding, “since, you know, Blair and Anderson seem to be managing just fine on their own.”

Debbie stops her cleaning. This time she lets her smile overtake her whole face. “They always make such a big fuss about the movie too.”

“Exactly.”

Sterling smiles too, remembering a night where Anderson wanted to watch an old movie that Blair called a snooze and Blair wanted to watch a comedy that did not end up being family appropriate. At least she and Debbie have similar taste and once the movie is on they won’t have to talk. They can just enjoy each other’s company, which Sterling decides sounds easy enough.

From down the hallway she hears the front door swing open and Blair comes barreling in, feet clamoring along the floor as she runs.

“Sterl, we have to go.”

“What? Where?”

“John is calling a meeting.” Blair holds up her phone, showing a text from Bowser that says, get your ass to John’s office ASAP.

“John?”

Blair turns, just now clocking Debbie over by the sink. Her body tenses and at first Sterling thinks it’s because she just blurted out some information about their secret job, but then Blair looks back at Sterling with her eyes wide, like she may have interrupted something and is trying to add up whatever that something could be. Sterling gestures to her empty dinner plate and Blair does the math.

“John?” Debbie repeats.

“John Stevens,” Blair says, wincing in Sterling’s direction. How are they going to get themselves out of this now?

“What about John Stevens?”

They both jump at the sound of Anderson’s voice. Apparently he had slipped in while they were staring blankly at each other, waiting for something to click like it used to.

“He’s having some kind of meeting and the girls are going.”

“You’re going?” he asks, surprised. They both nod. “Well, that hardly matches your politics.”

“We’re, uh…” Sterling stammers, unable to come up with anything.

“Protesting!” Blair supplies.

Anderson’s eyes widen. “You’re what?”

Blair doubles down. “Protesting. He thinks he can fool us with a surprise event, like we don’t already have posters for every occasion.”

She nudges Sterling hard with her elbow for backup. Sterling yelps. “Yeah, he can’t get anything past us.”

“What?” Anderson cluelessly repeats.

“I don’t know how else to word it for you, dad.” Blair grabs Sterling by the arm and tugs her onto her feet. “Gotta go.”

They rush out of the house, leaving a bewildered Debbie and Anderson behind.

“Posters for every occasion?” Sterling says teasingly once they’re alone in the car.

“Oh, shut up. It worked, didn’t it?”

Blair throws the Volt in reverse and clumsily backs out of the driveway, the wheels on the driver's side clunking over the curb.

“What do you think this is about?”

“I have no idea,” Blair sighs, “but knowing him, I doubt it’s good.”

Even with that proclamation she still insists on stopping for coffee on their way over, but Sterling’s stomach is too tied over the possibilities to even think about having something sugary and sweet.

Bowser is dragging his feet, pacing in front of John’s campaign headquarters by the time they pull up.

“Took you two long enough,” he grumbles.

Blair holds up her large iced coffee. “Our last mission was so fucking boring. I wanted to be prepared.”

“You chased and lost a suspect on our last mission. That’s boring?”

“Indeed, Bowsie. Had I been caffeinated, Wet Willie and I would’ve gotten to know each other very well.”

Bowser shakes his head. “Oh, for Christ’s sake.”

As they go inside Sterling’s heart races, pounding between her ears and drowning out the sounds of Blair and Bowser bickering. The rest of the office is empty so Bowser doesn’t even bother to knock on John’s door, he just swings it open.

In that moment, underneath the panic and confusion, Sterling is just glad she didn’t get anything on their way over here, because she definitely would’ve dropped whatever whipped cream topped drink she ordered on the floor as soon as they stepped into John’s office and she saw April standing right by his desk, arms crossed and waiting.

For the second time in a year, John, her lying, cheating father, told April a truth about Sterling, who April thought she could trust.

Clearly, that was foolish.

Sterling is the kind of person to pursue a girl after throwing her father in jail, briefly date said girl, and insist that they come out as a couple without ever disclosing her own secrets. April knew that. So of course Sterling checking in on April and telling her to be careful would just be a part of whatever investigation brought Sterling and her sister to the country club. Of course the kiss was also part of a bigger plan, with motivations that had nothing to do with feelings, and no regard for who could’ve seen them and what trouble that would cause. Of course Sterling would play April yet again, because April seems to always make it so damn easy for her.

She constantly falls for Sterling’s sweet smile, soft tone, and gentle touch. She lets herself be swayed by surprise kisses and the naive notion that something between them could work out. But April won’t make that mistake again. She can’t.

As the old saying goes, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me, and April will not let herself be fooled a third time.

She came to her father’s office simply to drop off dinner, but when April found him watching the news footage from the night of his event — the footage where protestors shouted about protecting sex workers and he pushed the cameraman to the ground, breaking the camera — the violence had reminded her of his arrest last year and she couldn’t help but ask, “How do you know Bowser?”

John had looked up from his laptop for the first time since April entered the room. She knew that he was stalling when he said, “Who?”

“Bowser. I didn’t catch his last name but he was at the country club last night. Didn’t seem like a voter.”

“April, I don’t have time for whatever you think this is. The numbers are dropping because these idiots think I’m a criminal.”

April clenches her jaw, just barely resisting the urge to say, “You are a criminal.” Normally, she would back down and get the hell out of here to let her father stew in his anger, but instead she gets a dangerous rush that leaves her saying, “I know you know him. Why was he there?”

The story spilled out of John just like it did the year before when he told April about the Wesley twins coming to the lake house, hitting him over the head with their guns, and shoving him in the backseat of their environmentally friendly car, the same backseat that April found herself pressed into a few weeks later. And this time the story wasn’t any less horrifying.

There was a man, who John owed money to (too much money), a private investigator had gone missing, and he secretly put their lives in the hands of two teenagers and a local yogurt shop owner.

And instead of his worry being with his family, John’s rage is with his under qualified team for not keeping his secret.

He made no move to assure his daughter that all would be okay. He simply called Bowser, demanding that they all come down to his office right away.

“You should head home,” John said, his voice that eerie kind of cold he uses on Martha when warning her to drop an argument.

April shook her head, nervously standing her ground.

“I want to stay.”

Which is how she now finds herself standing at her father’s right hand side as he fully reams out Sterling, Blair, and Bowser.

“I gave you one rule.”

“You gave us more than one,” Blair scoffs, impressively holding her own against John, but April would never tell her that.

Sterling, on the other hand, has not said a word since they came into the office. She just shoots April these worried glances every once in a while that April pretends not to notice or to let on that she feels the same worry deep in her gut.

“Your family is your business. Handle it as you please,” Bowser says, steady but firm. “My business is catching skips and that’s all I’m here to do.”

“So what happened to the man that came to the county club last night?” John counters. “Did you catch him?”

It sends a shiver up April’s spine, watching their eyes widen as he plays a card they didn’t know he had, a card that she gave to him. Her stomach lurches in a way that would leave her keeled over the nearest garbage pail had she actually eaten dinner and not just delivered it to her father.

Without even realizing, April played the role of dutiful daughter and strengthened his hand. She didn’t knowingly fake it in front of an audience, with a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. She instinctively, while behind closed doors and alone with John after everything he’d done, catered to Team Stevens.

“Wet Willie is clean,” Blair says, pulling April out of that alarming realization. “There was nothing we could do even if we had caught him.”

“But it doesn’t bode well for you that he got away.”

“Hey, if this shit was easy you wouldn’t need us.”

John pointedly ignores Blair’s outburst and turns his attention back to Bowser. “Rein her in. I’ve heard enough.”

April can see the rage in Blair’s eyes as she opens her mouth to argue, but Sterling grabs her sister by the hand, giving it a squeeze, and Blair reluctantly calms down without even the need for words.

“Usually the security cameras are just there for show since nobody actually sits and watches them,” John starts, “but given our situation, I had a memory card put in so I could watch it back.”

April stops breathing. No. He can’t. He’s bluffing.

But John continues, “So you’re going to show me how exactly you lost our first lead.”

She watches in horror as he opens a file on his computer filled with hours of security footage organized into folders labeled for each camera around the building. He turns his screen so they can all see.

This time when Sterling gives April a frantic glance, April knows that she returns it. There’s no disguising the panic that’s plunging into her empty stomach and fueling her pounding heart. She can’t twist this to look like anything other than pure fear.

“I, um, I really don’t think that’s necessary,” Sterling stammers, her voice trembling on every word. “We could just tell you what happened.”

“No, I want to see it,” John insists, too stubborn to let it go. “What time did he come?”

“Dad—”

“What time did he come?”

Nobody makes a sound or maybe April just can’t hear them over the ringing in her ears. She would certainly be too dizzy to tell if their mouths moved, if she could even focus on anything other than her father’s computer screen.

“I won’t ask again,” John warns.

Blair pulls out her phone. “I texted Sterl at 8:42 that he was there.”

So John starts with the front camera. He fast forwards through the footage until they get close to Blair’s timestamp and shortly after, a car pulls up with a license plate that they can’t make out.

“That’s him,” Blair says, chewing on the straw of her obnoxiously large iced coffee.

Sure enough, a man that April has never seen before gets out of the car. Blair steps into view at the corner of the screen, trying to approach, but one of the valet boys gets in her way and the man goes inside, untouched.

John closes out the video and April starts to breathe a sigh of relief, thinking this is over, but that breath gets caught in her throat when he double clicks on another folder, simply switching cameras.

The feed starts up again and April’s chest tightens. He chose the camera in the hallway, right outside the event, also known as the spot where she kissed Sterling.

Again, he fast forwards to get into their timeframe, skipping over voters arriving and Sterling walking by about a hundred times.

When the timestamp reads 8:40 John lets the video play.

April has to come up with something. She has to stop the video. John can’t see Sterling kiss her, he can’t see April kiss back, but he can’t wonder why she doesn’t want him to watch any further. It can’t be obvious.

On screen, she watches Sterling turn the corner again and come to a sudden stop right in front of the event doors. She looks frantically around the hall and turns to go the other way just as April steps out of the event and into view.

This is it. This is it and April’s brain is too busy reeling over what’s coming next to comb through the static and form a coherent plan.

“Oh, is that me?” Sterling asks, stupidly. April could lunge across the desk and kill her. But as Sterling leans in, seemingly to get a better glimpse of herself on camera, she bumps into Blair’s iced coffee and it spills entirely on the laptop, abruptly ending the video.

“Fuck!”

John jumps to his feet, scrambling to move papers off his desk before they’re destroyed by the spill. He flinches at the sparks coming from his hard drive.

“I am so sorry, sir. I can be so clumsy sometimes,” Sterling says in what April registers as her church voice, coated with the fake tone of a nice southern girl. “Was that by chance your only copy?”

“Yes!”

“Gosh, darn it. I guess you’ll just have to take our word for it after all.”

She blinks her eyes in the sweet, innocent way that April used to hate, but now — no. Sterling is a liar. Sterling uses people to her own advantage. Sterling is literally manipulating April’s father right before her eyes. April is not impressed. She is not attracted to this quick on her feet, saving the day version of Sterling. She certainly doesn’t watch the way Sterling’s smile shifts from polite and charming to sneaky and proud the second that John rushes out of the office for paper towels. She certainly won’t be replaying that later.

“I’m glad you two got yourselves out of that little situation,” Blair says, her gaze volleying between Sterling and April, “but one of you owes me coffee.”

“I got it,” Sterling says, nudging Blair towards the door. “We’ll stop on our way home.”

“What situation?” Bowser asks, eyebrows furrowed and thoroughly confused.

Blair rolls her eyes. “Believe me, you don’t want to know.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means that whenever I tell you about teen shit, you always say you don’t want to hear about teen shit. I’m doing you a favor.”

Blair and Bowser leave the office still arguing amongst themselves, while Sterling follows quietly behind. She glances back over her shoulder at April and lets her gaze linger for an extra second. April is too caught up in what almost happened to look away.

Then they’re all gone, voices disappearing down the hallway until all April can hear is spilt coffee dripping off her father’s desk and her breath returning to its normal pace.

 

The next day at school, April really should’ve seen her coming, because of course Sterling would wait outside of fellowship to nervously ask, “Can we talk?”

As if she hasn’t done enough already.

April pretends to consider. “Hmmm, where have I heard that one before? Oh, right. The last time you lied to me about my father.”

She tries to walk away but Sterling is quick to step in front of her.

“April, come on.”

Sterling tries to reach for her arm, but April yanks it back. They’ve had way too many close calls recently. They can’t be seen touching. April can’t be seen getting dragged into a supply closet or whatever terrible idea Sterling has in mind.

“Please, just hear me out.”

It’s not the pathetic way Sterling begs that makes April turn around. It’s not the way her lips start to pout. It’s not the way her eyes well up.

April turns around, muttering a quiet, “Follow me,” because she has her own questions that need answers, her own rage to unleash.

Sterling follows April back into the fellowship room, like a dog on a leash, where they find Ellen still gathered with a small group of students that have lagged behind.

April clears her throat for their attention.

“Ellen, may we use your office? I promised Sterling that I would lead her in prayer as she pleads for forgiveness for philandering with half the lacrosse team.”

Franklin grossly perks up. “Which lacrosse team?”

“Boys.”

She’s not totally evil. Just seeking some warranted revenge.

The students turn to each other, already whispering with what will certainly be the next big rumor when Ellen says, “Go ahead, ladies.” Her eyes are wide and her voice comes at a nervously high pitch. “Take all the time you need.”

When April closes Ellen’s door behind them and turns to face Sterling, she gets a rush of déjà vu. It’s a dangerous flood of the moment where she crossed this specific room, to this specific person out of pure desire and want.

“I guess I deserved that,” Sterling mutters with an awkward shrug. “At least the boys lacrosse team is cute. You could’ve picked, like, golf or something.”

“Luke is on the golf team.”

“He is the exception. Trust me, I used to spend my weekends at those tournaments.”

April isn’t amused by Sterling’s ease in all this, certainly not when she uses words like trust me, and when April would be an absolute fool to do so.

“You wanted to talk,” she reminds Sterling, firmly from the other side of the room.

“Right. Yeah.” Sterling briefly looks down. She clasps her hands together at the front of her body, about waist height, before she looks up again. “So yesterday was kind of a lot, huh?”

“Kind of? My dad almost watched a video of us kissing. I think that can be categorized as massively terrifying.”

April hardly slept last night. Every time she dozed off she just dreamt up a different outcome to that same scenario. Each time John made it to the end of the video and reacted with a new kind of rage. Except for one time where Blair accidentally killed him first. April didn’t go back to sleep after that.

“Did you even think about the consequences when you used me as a distraction?”

“Did you?” Sterling counters.

April falters for a second, mouth wordlessly falling open. The night of her father’s event, she didn’t think much at all. Her judgement was too clouded by soft lips and firm hands and a sweetly scented perfume that used to drive her crazy. But Sterling can’t know that.

“This isn’t about me.”

“Right.”

Sterling crosses her arms and April can tell that she isn’t buying it.

Although she’s typically reluctant to admit it, April can be at fault for a lot of things — she’s been ruthlessly mean to Sterling, she’s blackmailed her, and she’s broken her heart — but April is not at fault for this.

She starts to unravel. “You had an agenda! As far as I knew it was just an empty hallway with potential voters on the other side of the wall. I didn’t know you and your sister were playing vigilante for my dad. You conveniently kept that to yourself.”

“I never meant—” Sterling drops her arms down to her sides, releases a sigh, and moves across the room, coming into April’s space. “I’m sorry, okay? I’m so, so sorry.”

“Save it.” April steps back into the door. It’s all just so typical Sterling. She’s seen it before. Sterling dives in headfirst without thinking of the consequences and April is left to scramble. “Do you have any idea what could’ve happened if he saw that security tape?”

“That’s why I spilled the coffee.”

“You got lucky. There could’ve been other copies. It could have not worked.”

“But it did.” Sterling takes another step in and April doesn’t have a rebuttal, nor can she move away with the door handle pressing into her back. She just turns her head, staring over the top of Sterling’s shoulder. She doesn’t look Sterling in the eye, or chance watching the way her lips move, or focus on the floor like a coward. “Look, I really wasn’t trying to lie to you again.”

April scoffs, crossing her arms. At least that can double as a small barrier.

“I’m serious. It wasn’t our secret, your dad isn’t our skip, and he told us we couldn’t say anything. This isn’t like last time.”

April looks up, meeting Sterling’s gaze. Even in their close proximity April isn’t affected by the desperation in her stare.

“You’re right. It’s worse.”

Sterling’s eyebrows instantly lift in surprise, whisking away the short lived sign of relief after being told she was right.

“What — how?”

“This time it’s not just him getting in trouble. We’re not up against book club moms, wielding gossip and a glass of wine. This is actually dangerous for me and my family.”

“Why do you think I agreed to help him?”

April just blinks for a moment, stunned by Sterling’s raised voice, her frustrated tone, and her implications.

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying” — Sterling inhales sharply. Her eyes flash around the room until they land on April, fixing her with a stare that makes her press her back further into the doorknob — “to be completely honest, I may have only had the guts to kiss you because of the pressure we were under and the need to keep you quiet, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t still care about you and haven't thought about doing that for almost a year now.”

Her words knock the air out of April’s lungs like a punch to the stomach, breath trembling past her lips and quite possibly into Sterling’s face.

The thing is, it was honest. Maybe a little too honest for the tight space between them and the fact that they’re in Ellen’s office where blurted confessions aren’t often met with more words.

Even now as April stares back at Sterling she can’t find anything to say. She can only feel — the doorknob in her back, the weight of Sterling’s admission, the tension in the air making it hard to breathe, hard to think.

Sterling lied to her again. Sterling kept another secret. Sterling had other motivations.

But Sterling also wanted to kiss her, to be close to her, to keep her safe.

April inhales, watching as Sterling does the same, her chest rising, her lips parting. She starts to lean forward a little until her back can’t make out every single groove of the door handle anymore and just when all forms of thought seem to be gone, the bell rings.

The bell rings.

Right. They’re in school. They have class. They can’t do whatever this is — whatever this was. April can’t be seen, or heard, or found out. Not here. Not now. Not with this girl.

She reaches back and turns the knob, slipping out the door without another word to Sterling, without a second glance over her shoulder, and without any ounce of closure.

What started as an angry conversation in an attempt to get answers, has only left April with more questions and a want she shouldn’t have.

Chapter Text

Sterling has a bad feeling. Not an I’m in a truck with someone who looks like my mom but isn’t acting at all like her type of bad feeling, but a much smaller kind. A normal teen kind of bad feeling.

Sterling keeps replaying yesterday’s confrontation with April, specifically the part where she confessed not only that she wanted to kiss April, but that she has wanted to do it all year. Which felt big and bold and brave in the moment, even seemed to melt some of April’s rage, but then the bell rang and April just left, and now Sterling can’t help but feel a little rejected and embarrassed.

She was trying to take Cara’s advice and be more honest, but sharing her truth while still being mindful of her pushy tendencies is proving to be a tough balance to find.

So while it might not be a holy shit, I could die in this bathroom type of bad feeling, it still sits in her stomach all through breakfast.

Sterling barely touches her oatmeal. She takes a bite or two and then just mushes it around in her bowl, waiting for an appetite that likely won’t come. Anderson doesn’t comment, Debbie asks if Sterling wants something else for breakfast, which Sterling declines, but Blair keeps giving her these weird looks.

Her gaze is narrow, her eyebrows are furrowed, and her mouth tugs into a tight frown pretty much anytime Sterling stammers through a sentence. It’s like she knows. Or thinks she knows. Sterling hasn’t actually mentioned her run in with April yet.

It’s not that she doesn’t want to tell Blair, just that Blair can be a little...protective. Sterling wanted time to sit with the moment by herself, do her own analysis, and maybe even talk to Cara about it next week before fending off a potentially aggressive Blair reaction.

Nevertheless, she gets her answer as to what’s been bouncing around Blair’s head all morning as soon as they're in the Volt and on their way to school.

“Why did I have to hear from Tammy Cohen that you’re sleeping with the lacrosse team?”

Blair’s grip tightens around the wheel, turning her knuckles white.

“Because it’s not true,” Sterling says. “It’s just a rumor.”

It’s not another secret. It’s not another lie. It’s not another thing for them to unpack in therapy.

Blair seems to relax a little at that, her shoulders dropping just slightly with her next exhale. There’s still a lingering tension in the furrow of her eyebrows and the set of her jaw that Sterling can see.

“Chase Colton is captain of the lacrosse team, right?”

Sterling nods.

“And he sits next to you in math?”

She nods again.

“I bet he started it.” Blair gets a mischievous smirk, a tell tale sign that her protective side is proudly coming up with a scheme. “I’ve broken into the boys locker room before. It was part of our lacrosse team prank war last year, which the girls won, if you remember.”

Sterling does. After the boys sneakily lined the girls’ mouth guards with a thin coat of vaseline, the girls broke into the boys locker room and stole their goalie’s athletic cup, leaving them to forfeit their next game because he refused to get in the net with his balls unprotected. The entire girl’s team got Saturday detention, but Blair swore it was worth it.

“It wasn’t him.”

Blair perks up, whipping her head toward Sterling and taking her eyes off the road. “You know? Like for sure?”

Sterling nods a third time. “It was April.”

“Holy shit.” Blair turns back to the road, slamming on the breaks just before a stop sign, and muttering another, “Holy shit.” This time for an entirely different reason. “I’ll kick her ass.”

“Blair—”

“No. I know you said she works out or whatever, but I could totally take her. We’ve taken down grown men — her father even. He wasn’t exactly a tough one, but my point still stands. I will kick her ass. Not today though. I don’t want to get blood on this shirt. But come tomorrow, her ass will be kicked.”

“Blair!”

“What?”

Her eyes come off the road again.

“First of all, road.” Sterling points ahead. Blair scoffs and mutters something under her breath, but she does refocus on the street. “Second of all, I don’t need or want you to kick her ass.”

“But she lied and—”

“So did we.”

“Oh, that is not the same, Sterl. She’s just being mean to you, like she always is, and you’re letting her, like you always do.”

Sterling groans, letting her head fall back against the seat in frustration. April isn’t always mean and Sterling isn’t always such a pushover.

“I just don’t care about the stupid rumor, okay?”

“Why not?”

“Because we” — Sterling stops. She really wasn’t planning on blurting this out now, but it’s on the tip of her tongue and nearly halfway out of her mouth. She sighs and gives in — “we had a moment.”

“A moment? What kind of moment?”

“We talked about...stuff.”

Blair laughs, the sound cutting over the song on their radio, startling and unexpected.

“Christ, this is like pulling teeth. What kind of stuff, Sterl?”

Sterling feels her face warm. “Her dad and our job and my…” she drops her voice almost imperceptibly low, “feelings.”

“Your what?”

“Feelings, Blair. My feelings.”

Blair puts her hands up at Sterling’s defensive tone, thankfully, as they’re coasting towards a red light. There’s a small smile tugging at her lips over Sterling’s little outburst.

“Alright, alright,” she says, voice calm and only slightly teasing. “I didn’t know you were planning on telling April about your undying love.”

“Neither did I,” Sterling mutters, toying with the end of her tie, the same one that took her three tries to get on this morning because she kept thinking about April pulling on it.

“I guess it didn’t go well.”

“What gave that away?”

“You’ve been pouty and weird.”

Blair takes the next left and as they turn the corner, the sun shines brightly through their windshield. Sterling squints and they both reach to lower their visors.

“It’s not that it went bad, per se, it just wasn’t necessarily good.”

“And what the fuck does that mean?”

Unfortunately, it looks as though Sterling can’t be overly general about everything.

“I told her that the kiss was technically to shut her up, but also something I’ve thought about doing since last year—”

“Yikes.”

“—and she just kinda stared at me like a deer in headlights until the bell rang.”

“Then what happened?”

This is the embarrassing part.

“She left.”

“She what?” Blair gasps, stomping on the brakes.

Sterling’s seatbelt locks as her body slams forward, nearly choking her in the process. She’s still coughing when she says, “She left, Blair. What the heck was that?”

“I’m sorry, but I think we need to circle back to me kicking her ass.”

The Volt is once again in motion, thanks to the chorus of honking cars behind them. How they’ve survived almost two years on the road, Sterling sometimes doesn’t know.

“She seriously just left you there?” Blair is still asking. Sterling nods. “What a bitch.”

“Not the point.”

“You kinda poured your heart out. She could at least say something.”

“I know.” This is the part that Sterling saw coming, Blair’s fierce love on display before she’s even heard the whole story. “I just — I think I overwhelmed her. I can be a bit much.”

Blair rolls her eyes. “Did she tell you that?”

“No.” Sterling shakes her head. “It’s just something I’ve learned.”

It was a rude awakening that she received on a bench outside the lock-in, later to be unpacked in therapy once she grieved the loss of her family and finally had the emotional capacity to acknowledge her broken heart.

Sterling’s enthusiasm was usually a thing that people liked about her, always had been. She was voted most popular by her peers, the same boy loved and dated her for six years, she was appointed fellowship leader, and she spent her whole life with a built-in best friend who hated the mere idea of boundaries. Even April seemed to like it in the beginning, eyes shining and lips so soft when Sterling met her intensity with something just as eager. But then Sterling crossed a line, pushed too much, and it all vanished right before her eyes.

“I don’t think you’re a bit much,” Blair says. “You’re like the perfect amount of much.”

“Thanks.” Sterling smiles softly as they turn into the Willingham student parking lot. Blair knows her better than anybody, so her declaration should carry a lot of weight, but doesn’t. All it does is fill Sterling with a familiar warmth and contentment that she’s thankful to still have after everything from last year. “You’re different, though. There are certain things with April that need to be handled delicately.”

“Sexuality things?”

“Exactly.” They’ve had similar versions of this conversation before, Sterling explaining to Blair that April’s situation requires her to deal with her feelings in a different way than Sterling would. Which has proven to be a tough perspective for Blair to understand, given her adamant need to be captain of Team Sterling all the time. “And when it comes to April, I can get a little...excited.”

“I’ve noticed. Our walls are thin.”

“Ew, seriously?”

Blair nods, turning crookedly into an empty parking spot.

“Alright, pinning that for later.” Sterling grimaces. She likely won’t be eating lunch today either. “My point, though, is that when it comes to her sexuality and us as anything remotely involved, I’m practically a bull in a china shop.”

Blair frowns.

“I always thought it was ball in a china shop.”

Sterling opens her mouth, closes it for a second, then decides, “I have no idea what it is, but my point still stands.”

She unbuckles her seatbelt and starts gathering her school bag. They only have a few minutes to get inside.

“So what’s the game plan here?” Blair asks as Sterling opens the passenger side door.

Sterling considers for a moment. She hasn’t really thought that far.

“No kicking her ass and let me figure it out myself.”

“Aw, that’s no fun.”

“Sorry!”

She gets out of the car with a smile and a shrug of her shoulders, leaving a pouting and bewildered Blair to catch up.

 

April sits behind Sterling in English. Which is fine, it’s far less distracting than when Sterling sat behind April in Spanish last year. Or at least it should be.

The thing is, now that she can’t see April, can only sense that she’s there, Sterling has days where her imagination gets the best of her.

Today is one of those days.

Mr. Connelly is droning on about the short story they were supposed to read for homework last night. Sterling read it. She just hasn’t listened to a single word of his lecture, far too caught up in what April could be doing in the seat behind her, in what they could be doing together if they were in private and April was actually interested.

She wonders if April is twirling her ponytail, hair smoothly gliding between her fingers just as easily as it did last year when Sterling ran her hands through it. She wonders if April’s pencil is resting on the soft curve of her lip, if her teeth ever nibble down on the end like she did on Sterling’s ear when they were pressed together in the back of a car. She wonders if April ever lets herself get distracted and watch Sterling’s motions just as closely as Sterling had watched hers.

But then Mr. Connelly points just over her shoulder, likely at a raised hand, and Sterling snaps out of it, sitting at attention just in time to hear April’s say, “I don’t understand why the reading list changed. Every year the senior English class reads Hamlet. Now we’re reading Othello?”

Oh shit. They’ve already moved on from discussing last night's homework. How long did she zone out?

“Yes.”

“Why? Some of us have already suffered through Othello on our own time.”

“That was definitely just you,” Franklin chirps from the back of the room.

Sterling turns around at the sound of his voice, trying to reacclimate herself with the fact that she is in class and not hovering over April in the back of a car.

She catches the sharp glare that April fires at Franklin, one that Sterling has been on the receiving end of before, one that now makes her body grow warm, one that successfully silences him and any other classmates that dared to snicker at his little comment. Then April just turns back around.

Sterling follows suit.

“As I was saying,” April starts, refocusing on Mr. Connelly as if nothing even happened.

“I’ll stop you right there,” he interjects, putting a hand up. “I don’t know why it changed. I have no control over it.”

“Over your own reading list?”

“It’s the school's reading list,” he says, “and you will all be taking your copies home over the weekend.”

There’s a chorus of groans from all around the room.

Mr. Connelly continues, “But we will tackle that on Friday. For now, partner up. I’ll be putting questions up on the screen based on your reading from last night.”

Those groans quickly turn into murmurs as everyone around Sterling lurches in the direction of their nearest friend. She gets a potentially terrible idea.

There is no Blair or Luke for her to turn to and as her brain distantly reminds her, there is no Hannah B. or Ezekiel for April either. So Sterling, quite stupidly, turns around.

To her surprise, April is still facing the front of the room. She hasn’t yet scrambled toward her other peers to find a partner and now that Sterling fixes her with what is surely a nervous look, April doesn’t roll her eyes. She just nods and leans forward, wordlessly agreeing to work together.

The screen at the front of the classroom is still blank. Mr. Connelly hasn’t projected the questions yet. While they wait for their assignment, the only sound taking up space between them is April’s rapidly tapping pen.

“So you really don’t like Othello?” Sterling says, just trying to fill the silence.

“The man who killed his wife in a jealous rage? No, not particularly.”

Sterling lets out a soft gasp.

“You haven’t read it?” April asks, even though she seems to have already gathered the answer.

Sterling shakes her head.

“I guess Franklin was right. It was just me. Although I did think that you were my best bet,” April says, in a way that makes Othello seem like a secret or an inside joke that she was hoping Sterling would be in on.

It almost hurts how badly Sterling wishes that she were in on it and that they could just huddle together, whispering like they did whenever they read ahead in elementary school. Back then she used to practically fall out of her seat, buzzing with an excitement that needed to be kept quiet, since the other kids didn’t yet know that Mr. Tumnus wouldn’t stay stone forever.

Now Sterling longs for that feeling, so much so that she has an unnecessary urge to apologize for not being up to speed on a thing that April wants to talk about. With her. God, this is really a missed opportunity.

“I’ll be sure to attach a spoiler alert next time.”

Sterling perks up. “Next time?”

April freezes, pen stalling in her hand. It takes her a second to look up, but when she finally does she seems settled and not at all rattled like Sterling.

“The questions are up,” she says, nodding towards the board.

Sterling doesn’t fight it.

“Right. The questions.”

She lets April take the lead. Not because she’s a pushover, but because Sterling hasn’t paid nearly enough attention today to have any sort of authority in a group, especially not over April Stevens. She also would like to speak as little as possible.

With yesterday’s blurted confession still fresh on her mind, Sterling can’t help but feel a little exposed. She laid a lot out there — poured her heart out, according to Blair — and now she just pathetically perked up at the idea of a next time in simply talking to April about literature.

She needs to get a grip. Fast.

Sterling can recognize that she’s teetering dangerously toward being too much, building up, and up, and up, until she’s stuck at what feels like the top of a rollercoaster. With anticipation and want brewing deep in the pit of her stomach, she craves the relief of tipping over the edge and giving into that rush. But that, she knows, is too fast and too reckless for April.

So Sterling listens and she watches and she takes notes for the first few minutes. Then April leans forward. It’s just because Sterling has their shared copy of the short story and April wants to glance at it, but given the small space, as they both hunch over the same desk, it brings them much closer together. So close that Sterling can smell April’s perfume and shampoo, clouding her senses and proving to be a dangerous combination if Sterling actually intends to focus.

With this sweet scent in the air, she couldn’t care less about whatever foreshadowing and symbolism the author was trying to convey.

It is far easier to be transported back to a time in the Volt, when Kacey Musgraves played over the radio, and Sterling felt what it was like to have April Stevens breathless and pressed up against her. It is far easier to drift off into her blissful imagination than to be present and practical. It is far easier to watch April twirl her hair and tap her pen than to acknowledge that what Sterling really wants is for those fingers to grab the end of her stupid striped tie and yank her close until they’re—

“Sterling?”

Sterling blinks, shaking her head until she can focus again. She finds April staring expectantly back at her.

“Huh?”

The corner of April’s mouth tugs upwards, threatening the tiniest hint of a smile.

“You seem distracted.”

It takes a second for Sterling to actually register what April said and to not just replay the way her lips, teeth, and tongue work together on each syllable of di-strac-ted.

“Nope,” she squeaks, tearing her gaze away from April’s mouth. “All good.”

April leans back in her seat with a casual confidence, eyes narrow as she watches Sterling closely.

“Lying again, are we?”

“No! Oh my gosh, no. I’m—”

“Kidding,” April says, smiling in full now. Then she shrugs. “Well, kind of.”

Sterling just stares for a moment, overcome. April kidding, April shrugging, April smiling. It’s not exactly the April that was flirtatiously speaking to her in Spanish last year, but it’s the closest Sterling has gotten to that April since the lock-in.

It gets her thinking — hoping, really — that maybe this softer, lighter, happier version of April isn’t totally lost and left to be miserable after all.

April shifts under Sterling’s long stare, breaking her gaze away in their silence. “You alright?” she asks, more so to the paper on her desk than to Sterling.

“Yeah,” Sterling says, catching the pinkish hue that creeps it’s way onto April’s cheeks. “I think so.”

She definitely isn’t lying this time.

John has another event coming up. This time it’s at the Village Hall and there will be other candidates present, making the crowd a little more of a concern. Although April seems to find that everyone is worried for a different reason.

John is concerned about their appearance, of course. Following his last outburst, where he broke a news camera, he suspects that people will have it out for him.

“We need to have a united front,” he says, over dinner one night, for what feels like the thousandth time in April’s young life. “We are a team and there is strength in family values.”

Martha, on the other hand, has been a basket case ever since she was seen through a cracked lense on local television.

“The country club is for members only. Those people just walked right up and ruined our night without consequence,” she says, as if John hasn’t ever ruined anything without consequence, as if ruining their night was the sole purpose of the protest. “Village Hall is public. Anybody could come in.”

The thing is, Martha would be making a very good point if it were about the long list of criminals hunting her husband and family. But Martha knows nothing about that and John insists that it stays that way. So April can’t voice the real reason why they all should be on edge.

“There’s no need to get hysterical,” John grumbles, mouth full with a big bite of steak. April should remind him that that behavior isn’t good for appearances. “I’ve got it handled.”

“You do?” April asks, skeptical.

John nods. “Everything is under control.”

She should’ve known he simply meant that two of her classmates and Bowser will be on the scene, but as April gets the privilege to witness yet another one of their meetings, she still struggles to wrap her head around it.

“There’s three of you and three of us. Each of you can stay close to a member of my family throughout the night.”

That’s his big plan. That is how John wants to navigate a crowd of hundreds of people, a crowd that could easily be littered with criminals wanting to cause them harm.

“So now we’re bodyguards?” Bowser asks. His arms are crossed and he slouches into a chair, unimpressed. April can relate.

“You’re whatever I tell you to be.”

Bowser chuckles. “That wouldn’t be true even if you were paying us.”

April turns immediately toward Sterling. “He’s not paying you?” she mouths, distantly registering that Sterling’s eyes were already fixed on her even from across the office.

Sterling shakes her head.

And just like that John continues to prove that he’s an asshole.

But if they’re not getting paid, why do they put up with him? Why are they doing the job? Could it really all be for her, like Sterling had implied when they were in Ellen’s office?

April struggles to believe that. There is no way that Bowser and Blair would subject themselves to this solely on behalf of her safety. It just doesn’t make sense.

She carefully combs through everything from the past two weeks, trying to find something that connects and forms a bigger picture. April doesn’t let herself get distracted by panicked kisses and desperate grabs in an attempt to talk. Instead she scours her memory for something she might have glossed over.

She starts at the beginning, with the Yogurtopia cups that her father passed around the kitchen table on what was likely the night he propositioned them. Then, clear as day, she remembers Sterling’s pleading urge of just be careful the next morning.

It was strange and out of place then, but now, knowing what she knows about the money her father owes, it jumps out.

Sterling was trying to warn her.

“Trust me, this makes sense,” John says, and April snaps out of her daze. “Village Hall is bigger. You couldn’t possibly cover all the exits and handle the crowd on your own. Stay close to us and if anyone shows up, let them come to you.”

“You getting nervous?” Blair asks, a teasing challenge in her voice.

John scoffs. “Absolutely not.”

The part that should be sad is that he isn’t even putting on a brave face for the sake of his daughter. He is legitimately just this arrogant and careless. Unfortunately, though, April isn’t all that surprised.

“I want Bowser with me, Jessica can go with Martha—”

“It’s Blair.”

“Whatever,” John grumbles. “And that leaves Sterling with April.”

Sterling and April exchange a panicked look. Sure, April had done the math a few seconds before her father said it, given that they were the only two people left, but to hear their names put together like that from John of all people, sends jolt through her whole body.

April takes a deep breath. Okay, okay. This could be a good thing. It’s far better than being paired with Blair and if John is choosing to pair April with Sterling, then he likely doesn’t know anything about their romantic past.

Unless this is a test.

Maybe that wasn’t the only copy of the security footage. Maybe he saw something. Maybe someone else saw something. Maybe he heard about it through the grapevine.

John could be pairing April with Sterling because he wants to see the two of them together, to form his own conclusions.

She can acknowledge that it’s far-fetched, but the ground has fallen out from under her feet so many times in the past year that April has to be prepared for anything.

“Try to keep a low profile,” John advises. “My wife doesn’t know anything about this.”

Blair smiles mischievously back at him. “Jessica will do her best, but I can’t make any promises for Blair.”

April volleys her gaze back to her father, bracing for an outburst. Nothing comes. John clenches his jaw, but ultimately doesn’t say anything.

After what happened at the country club, it became obvious that he needs to control his temper if he wants any shot at winning. They can’t have another incident. The numbers went down far enough already. They have to be at their best, John included.

Which makes April’s recent inability to control herself and Sterling’s lack of subtly a dangerous pairing.

They have to survive the night together in front of other candidates, press, voters, and potentially even more protestors. Many of which will be looking for any given reason to push her father further out of the race.

There is no room for error.

 

Sterling is wearing a dress again. It’s not surprising, considering April is wearing one too, as are all the other women at this event, but it is a little distracting.

She’s wearing a pink dress, with little flowers on it, and a sash that ties around her waist, the knot bobbing along with every step she takes.

Is it pretty? Sure. Is it hard to focus when April knows that Sterling is dutifully watching her from across the room? Absolutely. But it’s hardly important. Not when April is constantly finding herself surrounded by people who only want to talk about her father.

“That was our first experience with protestors,” Martha says, to a rather unsympathetic crowd. “My daughter and I were nervous about their hostility. He was just trying to protect his family.”

It’s a clever spin on what really happened — John’s ego got bruised and he lashed out. Nothing new. But Martha actually sells it, likely because she believes every word.

“So you don’t think his violence is an issue?” a man — April didn’t get his name — asks from over his glass of red wine.

Martha shakes her head. “Definitely not.”

“Clearly it’s an issue for some people. He has the lowest approval rating amongst women.”

“Well,” Martha starts, putting an arm around April’s shoulders, “I think my daughter and I can vouch for him in that sense. We both feel completely safe and supported by my husband.”

All eyes turn to April. The man with the red wine stares down at her, waiting for confirmation. She quickly plasters on her best smile and nods, hating the tension clenching in her chest and the queasy feeling bubbling in her stomach.

“Absolutely,” she lies, easily. They all seem satisfied. “I am going to get a glass of water. Can I bring anyone anything?”

Thankfully, nobody takes her up on her offer and Martha’s hand slides off of April’s shoulder just as quickly as she had gripped it a moment ago. Performance over.

The bar is quiet and a lot less crowded to the point where it’s borderline peaceful and April feels like she can breathe again. Or at least it is at first.

Once April asks for her water she hears two familiar murmuring voices coming up from behind her.

“Mom and dad aren’t coming. Stop worrying.”

“What if they change their minds? Or if the Burton’s tell them they saw us? I told Debbie we were working.”

April furrows her eyebrows. Since when does Sterling call Mrs. Wesley by her first name? Strange. It feels more like a thing that Blair would suggest, probably in an attempt to seem more mature, and the two of them would do it together. It doesn’t at all seem like a thing Sterling would do on her own.

“Technically not a lie,” Blair says, her voice much closer now than it was before. Then she is resting her elbows on the dark wood of the bar and greeting April with a curt, “Stevens.”

April peels the paper off of a straw and plunges it into her glass. “Aren’t you supposed to be watching my mother?”

“I can see her from here. I was told to lay low.”

Fair enough.

April looks over Blair’s shoulder, catching a nervous smile from Sterling. “Anything to report?” she asks.

Blair takes the question. “Nada.”

“Well, at least there’s some good news.”

April takes a sip of her water and glances across the room, scanning for her mother. She finds Martha now standing in a circle of women her own age, probably trying to convince them that her husband isn’t dangerous. April hates that she has to go back over there.

“I think you’ll need something stronger than water to survive all these people,” Blair jokes.

April smiles in spite of herself. “What would you recommend?”

“Oh, I think that’s more of Sterl’s domain.”

“It was one time!” Sterling exclaims from behind her sister.

The high squeak in her voice and flush of her cheeks loosens April enough to tease, “Clearly it made a lasting impression.”

Then April gets to watch Sterling’s face go from a soft pink to a deep red. It’s the highlight of her night so far.

“Try not to cause too much trouble,” April says, mostly to Blair, and then she rejoins the crowd.

April grins as she moves from circle to circle, introducing herself and attempting to make a good impression on her father’s behalf, but my God, is it boring.

She has always been great at working a room, thriving off of the praise of an adult or the support of an authority figure. It was taught to her at a young age that Team Stevens should always be the very best, but in the rare case that they were actually not, a good handshake and an in of some sort can go a long way.

“You never know when you might need someone in your back pocket,” her father used to say.

So April has subjected herself to being called a teacher’s pet or a suck up on many occasions, simply priding herself on the fact that her reputation was pristine and that she was building a sturdy foundation in case she should ever need to use a person as a reference elsewhere.

But now that their reputation has imploded a few times over, nothing April says seems good enough to clear the air. Some people love her father and some people hate him, but everyone has their mind made up. So much so that all the circles are starting to blur together. Someone with a tall wine glass or a short cup of whiskey says something about John shattering a news camera, either with bolstering pride or grimacing disgust, and April tries to deflect as best as she can.

She’s in a particularly tense conversation with a man that won’t let it go when she feels a hand land ever so gently on her arm.

April immediately stiffens under the touch and turns to see Sterling at her side.

“Hey, can I borrow you for a second?” she asks, voice delicately soft.

April’s heart starts to race, not from the warmth of Sterling’s hand that is still against her skin, but at the possibility that something could be wrong. Why else would Sterling come to get her?

She nods.

April follows Sterling out of the circle and away from the crowd, barely excusing herself from the man who only wanted to argue.

She waits until they’re a safe distance away from any lingering ears to ask, “What’s going on?”

Sterling must hear the panic in her voice. “Oh, nothing. I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to — you just looked like you needed a break.”

April blinks, caught in an odd combination of stunned and touched.

“I did,” she admits and April feels the weight of relief lift off of her chest.

“Wanna take a walk?”

She shouldn’t, but when April looks over her shoulder at the crowd of people that she has spent the last two hours wooing, she has no desire to go back there.

“Sure.”

They walk quietly down a long hallway and up some stairs. It’s not tense, but April still feels a need to break the silence.

“Was it that obvious that I was burnt out in there?”

“Not burnt out. More like reaching your boiling point. That man was about to become your next debate conquest.”

“Perfectly welcoming for potential voters,” April mutters sarcastically.

Sterling is quick to shake her head. “He had no idea. I just know you.” April looks up at her, one eyebrow quirked and Sterling registers what she just said. “I just mean, if anyone has been on the receiving end of a disinterested April Stevens it’s me.”

“Really?” April refocuses on the length of the hallway, but she starts to smirk, ready for a playful challenge. “I think the argument could be made that you’ve also seen me very interested.”

There’s a soft gasp and then Sterling stops abruptly on the carpeted floor.

April turns around a few paces ahead. She takes a slow step backwards and tries not to smile as she regards a thoroughly flustered Sterling.

“Wouldn’t you agree?”

Sterling swallows, trying to regroup, but her voice still squeaks, “Both are true.”

Then she’s walking again, catching up to April in a heartbeat.

“So I guess that makes you the expert,” April offers.

Sterling shrugs to neither confirm or deny. “He never would’ve seen it coming,” is all that she says.

They wander up and down various staircases, sometimes in comfortable silence and sometimes in easy conversation. It’s so peaceful that April starts to forget all about the event on the first floor and has lost track of how far they’ve gone.

She isn’t even sure what part of the building they're in when she asks, “Is my mother driving Blair insane yet?”

“Probably.” Sterling climbs the stairs two at a time, causing her dress to ride up a little more than usual. “What a pairing that is, right?”

“Yes.” April tears her gaze away from the lower end of Sterling’s thigh. “I still think it was the best bet though. Could you imagine her with me or my dad?”

Sterling laughs at that suggestion, the sound vibrantly echoing throughout the stairwell.

“Now that would be a mess.”

April agrees. “Absolutely.”

They step out onto what is apparently the third floor, judging from the big 3 that hangs on the wall. There are arrows pointing in either direction indicating which way to go for the building department and which way to go for parking permits. Sterling turns to the right, toward parking permits, and April follows.

“I can’t believe your dad still thinks Blair’s name is Jessica.”

“I can’t believe he isn’t paying you.”

Sterling, always a good sport, shrugs it off.

“We get paid if we turn in the skip. Plus, don’t you think if he had the money to pay us, he would just pay off the guy that’s after him instead?”

April shakes her head without even needing a second to consider it.

“My dad loves a good bargain and avoiding responsibility, so as long as you were cheaper than the other guy he would probably still be doing this.”

They get quiet again. The soft shuffle of their shoes on the rug is all that fills the space between them, all that fills this empty hallway, so far from the event that the murmur of the crowd can no longer reach them. This time it isn’t a peaceful silence, because a question sits on the tip of April’s tongue, one that she’s pretty sure she knows the answer to. She tries to swallow it, to get a grip, wiping her sweaty hands against her dress. Nothing seems to help.

“So if you’re not doing it for the money, what’s the incentive?” April asks, going for casual and — if Sterling’s ability to read her is as accurate as she claims it is — failing miserably.

Sterling just stares down the long hallway. She doesn’t look at April when she murmurs, “I think I told you that already.”

It makes April’s breath stall in her throat.

Part of her wants to push, to demand that Sterling spell it out for her so that April doesn’t have to infer anymore. But what good would that do when April can’t even do anything with the confirmation?

She can’t tell Sterling that she might care about her too. April doesn’t even know that for sure. She can’t tell Sterling that despite everything something still pulls April toward her.

Sterling’s confession would just hang in the air between them and April would have to leave her out to dry. That hardly seems fair.

So April pushes the part of her that longs for certainty aside. “Something about your civic duty to help my father win the election?” she jokes instead.

Sterling snorts. “Oh, totally. Blair and I just love the man that much.”

“Clearly.” April looks up at Sterling, catching a small smile on her face, tension successfully diffused. “Your sister really knows how to tell him off.”

Somehow that makes the corner of Sterling’s mouth turn down, makes her throat bob, makes her steps stutter just a little bit.

“Yeah,” she says, rushed, and only glancing at April for a split second before looking the other way. “Blair really does.”

There’s something off about it, something shifty. April doesn’t know what she triggered or how, but she doesn’t like the way her stomach clenches with guilt.

They might not be on the best of terms, things are definitely very tricky and April is still clinging to her bitter feelings, but Sterling had pulled April out of the event to make sure that she was okay. The least that April can do is ask.

“Are you—”

Sterling’s phone buzzes with a text before April can finish. She checks it immediately.

“It’s Blair.”

“Speak of the devil.”

April leans over, into Sterling’s space, to take a look at the message, so close that she gets a whiff of Sterling’s shampoo in the process, a warm, cozy, vanilla type scent.

Blair: the pebble is in the building. cut off the back exit

“Who?”

“One of the guys after your father.” Sterling texts back a simple thumbs up as if the message said let’s get ice cream and not a version of hey, there’s a dangerous criminal here. “Blair has nicknames for all of them. This one looked like a knockoff version of The Rock in his mugshot.”

How can they be so calm about this? How was John so calm about this? With an election, the Stevens reputation, and their lives on the line, he decided to put teenage girls, who like to nickname criminals, in charge.

“So what should I do?”

“Ummm.” Sterling looks around, scanning for a solution. She springs toward a nearby door, turning the knob. It opens to an empty conference room. “Stay in here, I guess.” She shrugs. “Lock the door and wait for me to come back.”

How simple.

“I think I can manage that.”

April steps into the room. The lights are out but the moon shines through the windows, illuminating a long table surrounded by empty chairs.

Nobody will be climbing into a third floor window. There isn’t another entrance. If April locks the door, as Sterling said, she will be fine.

She turns back around, wanting to reciprocate some version of just be careful to Sterling, but April loses all train of thought when her eyes land on Sterling in the doorway casually loading a small gun.

April blinks, startled. “Where did that come from?”

“Oh, this?” Sterling gestures with her gun as if it’s a cell phone or a smoothie and not a firearm she may or may not use for protection. April nods. “I strapped it to my leg under my dress. Super cool, right? I feel like I’m in a spy movie.”

Sterling is beaming with pride and excitement over her gun placement. It’s absurd and April’s first instinct is to tell her so, but then she remembers how that smile twisted into a frown just a few moments ago over whatever April had said that was wrong.

“I wouldn’t go with cool per se,” April starts, wanting to amend her slip up from before. She is barely able to restrain the smirk curling on her own face and the flutter of anticipation filling her stomach. “Frightening that my dad is enlisting teenagers maybe, but also kind of...hot.”

Sterling’s mouth falls open with a soft gasp. Color rushes to her cheeks, coating them in deep red.

It sends a warmth through April as well, over the fact that she still visibly effects Sterling so much, over the fact that Sterling is simultaneously a person who straps a gun so high up their leg that April didn’t even notice it when they’re were climbing the stairs, and also a person who gets unreasonably excited about it.

It’s cute. And hot. And Sterling is standing there blushing and flustered and gorgeous, like she’s just a teenager with a potential crush, and not at all like she’s about to go kick some grown man’s ass because of something John has gotten himself into.

That’s the way it should be. That easy. That simple. That wonderful.

But alas, there is a man downstairs, who looks like a lesser version of a former wrestler turned actor, who is a threat to April’s family. There is also a man downstairs, who is a threat to them if they should cross any lines. And Sterling has a job to do. She can’t just stand here frozen in place for the rest of the night, trying to find words and remembering how to breathe.

“Sterling.”

April is grinning now. She can feel it.

“Yeah?”

“Go.”

She points toward the door. Sterling wordlessly follows the line of April’s finger before the situation dawns on her once again.

“Right.” She shakes her head, trying to refocus. “Oh my gosh. Sorry.”

Then Sterling dashes down the hallway, gun in hand, and April can only laugh to herself at what her life has become.

She closes over the conference room door and twists the lock just as she was told.

This time, though, when April turns away from the locked door, a sense of disappointment crawls into her chest. She exhales into the empty room, flooded with memories of a time where she wasn’t locking a door to hide from something her father had done. She was locking a door to run toward a girl who was eager and wanting and scared.

Chapter Text

It’s been two weeks since April told Sterling that she was hot and Sterling hasn’t thought about much else since.

All throughout her free period, Sterling sits in the library and pictures the smirk that curled across April’s lips just before she said it. The way that it flickered at the corner of her mouth, like she didn’t want it to show, but couldn’t help it. The way that she eventually let it go and that smirk grew into a grin by the time Sterling had to leave. God, she wishes she didn’t have to leave. The way that, just for a moment, April seemed as unguarded as she was a year ago when they were hidden in parked cars and laser tag arenas.

A few days later, after running a couple laps around the track in gym, she’s sweaty and gross and her face is beet red, but all Sterling can think about is the heat that rushed to April’s cheeks even as she so desperately tried to be coy about her little compliment. It might not sound like much, but to Sterling it proved that compartmentalization connoisseur, April Stevens, was unable to hide that she was being affected as well.

What also doesn’t help with her focus is that whenever Sterling makes eye contact with April, she doesn’t just immediately roll her eyes and look the other way anymore. She holds Sterling’s glance for a moment, gets that small flicker of a smile, and then she looks the other way. And Sterling feels like she could fly.

“It’s a little…” Blair pauses for a moment from behind the wheel of the Volt, thinking. “What’s a nicer way to say pathetic?”

“Hey!” Sterling whacks her arm. “Don’t call me pathetic.”

“I’m trying not to. I just can’t find the right word.”

Sterling rolls her eyes, halfheartedly. She knows that Blair is just teasing. She knows that Blair is actually trying to put this nicely, because Sterling is more sensitive about her feelings (a thing they’ve discussed at length with Cara). She knows that there was a short time where this kind of teasing was hard for them to come by.

Things have been good at home lately, even without their family schedule. Blair has flourished in her new found freedom and Sterling, well, she’s growing into it. But even still, she’s looking forward to their joint session on Thursday, ready to dive into the latest and see where they can grow, if maybe something will finally click and they’ll be able to communicate without words like they used to.

“Maybe I should check with your girlfriend. Isn’t she, like, a walking thesaurus?”

“Not my girlfriend,” Sterling corrects, choosing to focus on the first half of Blair’s remark and biting back the urge to gush about how yes, April is so smart.

“You wish, though,” Blair teases.

Sterling doesn’t correct her this time. Her cheeks start to warm and she tries to turn toward the window before Blair can see, but Blair is not known for keeping her eyes on the road.

“Jesus, Sterl,” she exclaims. “April said you were hot one time, and boom, you’re swooning.”

“I’ve been swooning. For a year now.”

“Which may be perceived as—”

Sterling hits her again. “Don’t say pathetic.”

“—a display of supremely whipped behavior.”

It’s not much better, but Sterling does take it in stride. “Fine. I like her. Whatever. But I do think you’re being a little dramatic with your word choice.”

“Me?” The car thumps over the curb as Blair turns clumsily into their driveway. “I only pointed this out because, while I cleaned the fudge pump, you were going on and on about each type of smile April has.”

Sterling opens her mouth, then clamps it shut, unsure of what to say. Blair isn’t lying, Sterling may have spent the last half hour of their Yogurtopia shift talking about April and her smile, but Sterling also isn’t going to apologize for it.

She likes when April smiles — the real, genuine one that reaches her eyes — or lets her guard down enough to flirt, and not just because Sterling gets to experience the thrill of knowing that April Stevens thinks she’s hot, but also because, like, April deserves that for herself.

It isn’t a thing that happens often, so Sterling happens to think that an at ease April Stevens is a big deal. Sue her.

“Like, I don’t know which part I hate more,” Blair continues, putting the Volt in park and exiting the car. Sterling follows. “The fact that I know your favorite is her little half smile or that you gave such an in-depth description of it that I know exactly what it looks like.”

Sterling bashfully ducks her head, face still warm and stomach now starting to flutter with a tinge of embarrassment.

Blair takes one look at Sterling and stops. She shakes her head, smiling just a little at her supremely whipped sister, and throws an arm around Sterling’s shoulders.

“At least you're thorough,” she says, leading them toward the house. “Stevens will probably find that hot.”

“Blair!”

“Am I wrong?”

She isn’t, but Sterling doesn’t get to answer that because Debbie cheerfully greets them as soon as they step in the back door.

“Hi, girls.” She grins from beside the kitchen counter. Sterling’s nose immediately fills with the smell of something delicious, making her stomach growl. “Dinner is almost ready.”

Sterling is about to take a big step toward the kitchen, eager for something to eat, but her phone buzzes in her hand at the same time that Blair’s does. They look at each other, then glance down at their screens.

Bowser: john wants us at his house asap. be there.

Blair throws her head back and lets out a loud groan. “No can do, mom. We have to go.”

Debbie’s whole face falls, her smile turning down, her forehead creasing in confusion, all the ease of thirty seconds ago now gone.

“But you just got here,” she says, clearly disappointed. “I tried my hand at that pasta dish you girls like to order. The one with the zucchini and—”

“It’s a work emergency,” Blair says without so much as looking up from her phone as she types a reply. “Bowser needs us back.”

She brushes Debbie off so easily, sliding her phone in her back pocket and shrugging her shoulders. Even after the lock-in when tensions were sky high, Sterling still felt a little guilty for pushing her parents — Blair’s parents — away.

Debbie knows that all too well. She shifts her focus toward Sterling, likely looking for a better answer than the one Blair provided. There’s a question in her gaze, a worry creeping into the tight frown that sits on her lips. They have made so much progress over the last few months. Is this just another giant step back? Are they pushing her away again?

Sterling gulps. “Miss Cathy is out sick,” she lies, voice as steady as she can muster. “We’re all he has.”

Apparently Sterling’s voice wasn’t steady enough, because Debbie’s shoulders sulk and she just lets out a sad sounding, “Oh.”

There’s a twist in Sterling’s stomach, watching the way Debbie reigns herself in again. She obviously knows that they’re lying, they’re excuses are poor and the circumstances are too strange, but Debbie doesn’t push. She has spent the last year not pushing, awkwardly giving them the space they needed even when it looked like it was killing her.

“Well, I guess you can have the leftovers another time,” Debbie says, far better at faking a steady tone than Sterling. Sterling supposes Debbie is a little more practiced in lying, though. “I hope Miss Cathy feels better.”

With that said, Blair starts to tug Sterling back toward the door. “Us too, mom. See ya!”

Sterling still feels weird about it when they’re buckling their seat belts once again. “She knew we were lying.”

Blair gives her a puzzled look. “Who gives a shit? She lies plenty.”

“I know, but don’t you think it looks bad for us? Like we’re regressing or whatever?”

Blair sighs and raises her index finger. “One, progress isn’t linear. Two, that’s not what we’re doing. And three,” — she holds up a third finger — “we’re not responsible for how she perceives us.”

All good points, but Sterling still feels like she could gag just at the sight of food and a moment ago her stomach was growling just at the smell of it. She will definitely be putting herself through an awkward attempt at patching things up with Debbie later.

Nevertheless she says, “I guess you’re right.”

“I am.” Blair confidently throws the car in reverse and starts to back out of the driveway, muttering, “Man, I am really good at therapy,” as the Volt’s front bumper drags over the curb.

Sterling only hums in response, wishing she was also really good at therapy.

They pull up in front of the Stevens house about ten minutes later. The sky is almost done changing, the pinks and oranges of a fiery sunset fading into a darker blue as the sun retires for the night. Sterling wishes she were able to eat dinner and challenge Anderson to a classic Saturday game night, but instead she’s here, walking up to the Stevens front door with no appetite whatsoever.

“He always wants us right away and we’ve only gotten one skip out of it,” Blair grumbles, ringing the bell.

Sterling nods in agreement. “And The Pebble wasn’t even worth that much.”

“Well, hey” — Blair leans closer to Sterling, dropping her voice down to a whisper — “at least you might see April.”

Sterling hadn’t even thought of that. With the sudden complication of lying to Debbie, it never crossed her mind. So of course April opens the door before Sterling can mentally prepare.

“Speak of the devil,” Blair says, smirking.

April doesn’t react. “He’s in his office with Bowser. You’re late.”

It’s rather jarring.

Sterling’s eyebrows furrow. “We came right away,” she says, thrown over the fact that April didn’t give any of her token smiles, or bother with a greeting, or even tease Sterling with some sort of head tilt and a “were you just talking about me?”

No. April does none of those things. Her face is steady, not giving a single inkling of fear or anger or heat or even a slight flicker of joy. She’s acting as though she is entirely indifferent to Sterling and Blair being here, treating them like strangers.

“Just follow me,” she says, voice firm as she turns away from the door.

It isn’t until they’re walking behind April that Sterling notes just how rigid April’s posture is. She’s normally tense when they’re around John, but this is different. They’re not even in front of John yet and April already has her game face on.

It gives Sterling the sad thought that maybe this is just what April is like when she’s at home.

It looks nothing like the April that wandered the empty hallways of Village Hall talking and flirting freely. It hardly even resembles the April that Sterling sees in the Willingham hallway. Sure, April is guarded at school, but not like this. She lets just a little down, smiling at teachers, gossiping with Ezekiel, occasionally glancing in Sterling’s direction long enough for them to hold eye contact for a second or two.

Just before they reach John’s office door Sterling wonders what it would be like if she and April were here alone. Not like that, she quickly reminds herself, already feeling her skin warm. She simply wonders if April can ever be at ease under this roof or if just breathing in this air, smelling the candles that Mrs. Stevens frequently lights, the cologne that her father typically wears, automatically turns her tense.

“Nice of you to join us,” John grumbles, not unlike how April greeted them at the door.

“We came right away,” Sterling says, same as she did before.

Bowser is sitting in a brown leather chair in front of John’s desk. He nods toward a matching leather couch off to the side and against the wall. Sterling and Blair take a seat there.

She thinks that they’re about to start, to learn why they were called here so abruptly, when the door swings open again and Martha walks in, stopping to stand beside April on John’s side of the desk.

“I guess she’s in on this now,” Blair mutters, voice low enough for just Sterling to hear.

Sterling shrugs.

She hopes they’re not going to get yelled at again for blowing their cover with John’s family. It was his plan for them to each be assigned a person to watch. It was also his plan to sit back and let the skips come to them. So that is what they did. It’s not Blair’s fault that she caught Martha mid conversation with The Pebble, gladly leading him over to introduce him to John. Blair pounced as subtly as she could and nobody else seemed to notice.

The only person whose feathers were a little ruffled was April, because it took Sterling a little while to remember which part of the building she locked her in. But even that was short lived, fading as soon as Sterling had said that everything was okay.

Thankfully, John doesn’t start with yelling this time.

“My team booked an appearance for me at a community center downtown. They’re having a food drive and it would look good for me to be there. We need some positive press.”

“Sure do,” Bowser says, folding his hands in his lap. “What’s your genius plan this time?”

“My family is sitting this one out. It’s just me and some team members, but I still want you all there.”

“Then why is your family here now?” Blair asks.

“To keep them in the loop.”

Blair crinkles her nose. “How kind of you.”

“You don’t think anyone needs to keep an eye on your family?” Sterling wonders, eyes drifting toward April, who is decidedly staying focused on her father.

“No. I’m the only real target here. They’ll be fine,” he says dismissively. Sterling watches how Martha swallows before she nods along, hesitant to agree but not daring to be out of line. April still doesn’t budge, sturdy and stoic as ever. “So I will see the three of you Thursday night at six.”

Sterling tears her gaze away from the Stevens women to ask, “Thursday?”

John nods. “Problem?”

“That’s, um” — Sterling turns toward Blair — “that’s when we have therapy.”

John scoffs.

“We’ll make it work,” Blair assures him, patting the top of Sterling’s leg in the way Debbie used to when they were younger and needed to calm down in public. “We can skip.”

“It’s our group session.”

“We’ll reschedule,” Blair says, now facing Sterling. “It’s fine.”

Sterling doesn’t argue, just stares down into her lap as John goes over the details for their next event, details she really should be listening to.

It’s bruising to be dismissed like that, especially by Blair, over something that they both know is important. Although, Sterling supposes, skipping therapy probably is fine when you’re just so good at it.

When she eventually looks back up, trying to tune back into the conversation, Sterling catches April’s eye on her. She doesn’t immediately look away. It’s brief, but April holds Sterling’s stare for a long second, curiosity and something Sterling can’t quite put her finger on sitting in her gaze.

John ends the meeting just as quickly as he called it, because he and Martha have a dinner reservation and their friends are waiting. It makes Sterling feel used and angry, because she got pulled away from her own dinner and still wasn’t here fast enough, while he can just come and go as he pleases, upending their schedules and their lives without a care in the world.

She squeezes her hands in tight fists on their way out of the house, nails digging into her palms. John and Martha walk out with them, still discussing some of Thursday’s details with Bowser, but then he stops in the middle of his driveway to point a stern finger at Sterling and Blair and say, “I better be seeing you both on Thursday.”

“We wouldn’t miss a chance at a million bucks,” Blair is promising before John gets in his car and drives off, headlights disappearing down the dark street.

“Since when do you cater to him?” Sterling asks, practically tasting the bitterness of those words in her mouth.

Blair’s whole face scrunches in the way that it does when she eats something gross or when Big Daddy makes an inappropriate comment during a holiday dinner.

“It’s our job,” she says defensively, “and we’ve been going to therapy for, like, ever at this point. I think we can miss one session.”

“Maybe you can.”

It’s muttered, but Blair still hears.

“You’re seriously not going to skip? It’s not school, Sterl. Cara isn’t going to call home and knock your grade down a few points. It’s just one week.”

Sterling only shrugs, eyes downcast and the toe of her shoe wedging into a crack in the cement. Arguing would just further prove that she isn’t really good at therapy.

“Okay, dude,” Blair sighs, giving up the fight. “Do whatever you need. I’m going back to the store with Bowser to prep.”

“Then I will see you at home.”

For a second Blair looks surprised, eyes wide and blinking, likely expecting that Sterling would cave and come with them, but Sterling doesn’t move.

Without another word, Blair turns around and climbs into the passenger side of Bowser’s truck. He gives Sterling a wave before pulling away from the Stevens house, leaving her alone just like she wanted.

Sterling is about to head across the street to where Blair parked the Volt, already making a mental queue of sad songs to play on her ride home, when she hears a voice call out, “Hey.”

She glances over her shoulder and finds April making her way down the front steps.

April approaches Sterling slowly, her steps careful and unsure. She stops once they meet at the edge of the driveway, in the shadows of the trees, shielded from the glow of the streetlights.

“Are you okay?”

Sterling kicks a rock. “Yep,” she says without so much as looking up.

April must not buy it.

“Do you want to talk?”

“Usually I’m the one asking you that.”

“I know,” April says, a tug at the corner of her mouth hinting at one of the many smiles Sterling had detailed to Blair. “It felt weird.”

A laugh bubbles involuntarily out of Sterling, sounding a little wet and sad over the emotion that’s been piling up in her throat. Still, she appreciates a tension diffusing joke, especially from a softly chuckling April Stevens.

As their laughter dies out, Sterling expects that the conversation will die too. She knows that April isn’t really sure if she trusts or likes Sterling. She knows that April doesn’t reach out like this very often, rarely offering a vulnerable moment, and Sterling just kind of turned her attempt down. April could pat herself on the back, say she tried, and walk away.

Which is why Sterling is so surprised when April stays and says, “I didn’t know you and Blair were in therapy.”

“It’s been a long year.”

“I get that.”

The thing is, a lot of people don’t. When Sterling is having a noticeably off day, one where she clearly isn’t her bubbly, smiley, pre-lock-in self, and she gives her bullshit excuse of it’s been a long year, a lot of people say they get it and truly have no idea. But April does. She is probably the closest someone could get to getting it.

So when she says those words Sterling’s lips don’t twist into a frown and her chest doesn’t ache with the realization that she will never again be understood by her peers. For the first time ever I get it provides Sterling with a bit of relief, because in the past year April has also discovered some dark truths about her family, specifically John. She watched the once great Team Stevens fall apart, only to have to live in this weird limbo of unable to forget, but obligated to pretend, because not everyone knows the depths of those truths.

Which, as Sterling knows, is a truly terrible place to be.

April may be the only person in Sterling’s life, outside of her own family, that has had an equally rough year. So maybe that’s why she finds herself blurting out, “I’m adopted.”

April’s eyes rapidly blink, stunned. “You‘re what?”

“Adopted,” she repeats, deciding to fully go for it, regardless of the ache taking over her stomach.

“I don’t understand. You and Blair—”

Sterling shakes her head before April can finish. “Just me,” she says, the words still hard to say even almost a year later. “The twin thing was all a lie made up by our — her parents.”

April looks thoroughly confused. Her forehead is creased as her eyebrows scrunch together and her mouth is open, but no words are coming out. She’s staring at Sterling like Sterling is a puzzle she can’t put together. Despite the circumstance, it turns out, the rare sight of a stumped April Stevens is actually quite cute.

“But you look just like your mom.”

“Yeah,” Sterling says, voice catching. She remembers the way Dana had looked at her in the trailer park right before she set Sterling’s world aflame. “I do, actually.”

Something in April’s face softens. The tense confusion crumbles into a more sympathetic expression, smoothing her brow and easing the set of her jaw. She reaches for Sterling’s hand.

“Do you want to talk?” April repeats in that gentle tone that Sterling has only ever heard April direct at her.

It’s enough to replace the pit forming in her stomach, to take that ache and turn it into something lighter, something that flutters through Sterling’s body and makes her a little weak in the knees, something that leaves her thinking of a life where she spent the last year hearing that soft voice, having spent a night with it on the hardwood floor of the fellowship room.

Sterling tells April everything.

She doesn’t know how long it takes — neither of them check their phones for the time — but her cheeks are streaked with tears, they’re both sitting on the curb in front of April’s empty house, and April is still holding her hand when Sterling reaches the end with a quivering exhale and a hesitant glance in April’s direction.

This secret has a way of changing things, taking familiar, comforting people and twisting the way that they look at her into something off putting and unrecognizable. Blair, Debbie, and Anderson were all impossible to look at after that night. Something even shifted with Bowser. But when Sterling looks up now, the change in the way that April stares at her is welcoming. There’s less sympathy, less pain, no hint that Sterling is something broken and delicate. It looks a lot more like awe and reverence.

“Sterling, I” — April shakes her head and regroups, apparently speechless yet again. This has to be a record, Sterling distantly thinks — “I couldn’t imagine. I was scared just waiting for you in an empty conference room. The truck and the trailer and the bathroom, it’s...”

“A lot?”

“I was leaning more towards terrifying, but sure, let’s go with a lot.”

There’s a slight tease to her voice, a familiar sound so comforting that Sterling actually smiles back at April, thankful once again for how she so easily diffuses Sterling’s tension.

They just sit there for a moment, smiling at each other, soft and sweet. It’s then that Sterling realizes that April is still holding onto her hand. The story has ended, Sterling isn’t crying anymore, April could let go if she wants to.

Unless she doesn’t want to.

Sterling stares down to where their fingers are interlocked and their palms are pressed together, trying to wrap her head around it or at least commit it to memory, when she feels April give her hand a squeeze, beckoning for Sterling to glance up again. When Sterling does her breath catches over how intensely April is looking at her, really looking at her, like Sterling is something transparent that she can see right through.

“You’re very brave, Sterling.”

Sterling gasps. She knows that word means a lot to April. It’s not a thing April just throws around.

Sterling remembers how April backed down from it a year ago, declaring that she wasn't brave, simply because she thought coming out was scary, and Sterling had to convince her otherwise. But now April sits here, hand in hand with a girl in front of her own house, deciding that Sterling fits the mold.

It makes that small, five letter word feel like it’s everything, flooding Sterling’s chest with a rush that she is certain is too much.

She wants to tell April that she’s brave too. She wants to tell April that she’s amazing and perfect and that she made this terrible, awful thing almost easy to share. She wants to lean in again and kiss her. God, Sterling really wants that. She wants to feel April’s softly parted lips under her own. She wants to run her hand across the smooth slope of April’s cheek and slide it into her hair. She wants to hold her so tight that all of their broken pieces push back together. Sterling wants it so much that before even she realizes what she’s doing, she starts to lean in again.

Before she can get too close, April turns away with a soft sigh of, “We can’t.”

“Right.”

“I can’t,” she amends.

“I know. I just” — got too emotional, felt so comfortable and safe that I couldn’t help it, realized the feelings I still have for you are somehow even bigger than they were last year — “I shouldn’t have. I’m sorry.”

“No, don’t be. I, um…” April swallows, staring down into her lap before she looks back up into Sterling’s eyes. Her gaze is soft and yearning, but so intent. “It’s not a lack of want.”

Sterling feels that response low and warm in her body, knocking the air right out of her lungs.

April does want her.

She’s still trying to catch her breath and wrap her head around that fact when her hand goes cold as April drops it, walking away and disappearing back into her house alone.

After John’s evening at a downtown community center, he decides that he is not a politician for everyone and that giving food to the needy is beneath him.

“That shit is a waste of time,” April overhears John say to a man in his home office. “We need more exposure with our kind of people.”

He has his team plan to host a dinner at the country club for his next appearance, less of a display of his political stances and more of the wealth and status that he thinks he brings to the table.

It happens the following weekend, filling the dining room with familiar faces. It’s an easy crowd for John, one that he doesn’t have to work to impress. He can shake hands, down a few drinks, and talk about golf with the men, while Martha works her way through the latest gossip amongst the other mothers. It won’t increase his numbers, his campaign manager assured him of that, but April supposes it will boost his ego, which will help to minimize the chances of a future outburst.

It should be a simple night.

Or so she thought.

April is standing in front of the bathroom mirror, fixing her hair so that there isn’t a strand out of place, when Sterling and her mom — not mom, April remembers — come walking through the door.

“April!” Debbie greets, in a tone that says she is actually happy to see her and with a smile that reaches her eyes. That same easy smile shines on Sterling’s face. “I haven’t seen you in so long. You look lovely. So grown up.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Wesley.”

April looks down, smoothing out the fabric of her dress. In her head she can hear Martha’s voice saying, “it could always be a little better.” Although, when April looks over at Sterling, clad in a jumpsuit instead of a dress this time, one that accentuates the length of her legs and hugs her not too tight, but tight enough around the waist, April doesn’t think that her mother could be more wrong, because that is pretty damn perfect.

“And thank you for coming,” April says, realizing that she had been staring at Sterling’s waistline for a little longer than necessary. “I’m sure my father appreciates it.”

“I’m sure he does,” Debbie mutters with something like sarcasm thick in her voice.

If April didn’t know what the Wesley family had been through in the last year, she would find Debbie’s tone startling, but with certain secrets in mind it makes sense that Debbie wouldn’t really care to fake her way through small talk these days.

“Well, I won’t tell anyone if you’re just here for a free meal,” she quips, making Debbie burst with a laugh. It leaves Sterling beaming back at April with a bright smile and April gets an odd rush of pride at that. Huh. Of all the good impressions she has made these last few weeks, this one feels the most like a victory.

“Speaking of free meals,” Debbie starts, causing April to tear her eyes off Sterling’s glimmering grin, “you should come by the house for dinner one night. When things calm down, of course. I’m sure you’re swamped with schoolwork and campaign appearances.”

“Oh!” April looks over to Sterling, who seems just as surprised by Debbie’s invitation. “That’s, um, so nice Mrs. Wesley, but I couldn’t—”

“Nonsense. It’s one extra plate, no trouble at all. Plus, I’m sure the girls would like to hang out. Sterling redecorated her room and has yet to show it off.”

April shifts her focus back to Sterling, heart racing, but one eyebrow inquisitively quirked. “Is that so?”

Sterling swallows stiffly, likely for the same reason April’s pulse jumped at the mention of Sterling’s room. Had April accepted the invite, they most definitely would not be examining Sterling’s decor.

“Got rid of a few things,” she says, mouth obviously dry.

April is sure that means that Sterling tore down more than a few family photos after the big adoption reveal, secretly carrying so much hurt and anger toward them but unable to show it in almost any other setting. Maybe she should be the one to teach April a lesson in compartmentalizing.

“Less of a Taylor Swift presence?” April guesses, opting to keep things light.

Sterling shakes her head. “Taylor’s still there,” she admits with a shy blush of her cheeks, “but it’s a little more Folklore, less 1989.”

“Got it.”

April fondly recalls a collage of polaroid pictures taped to Sterling’s wall when they were young, after she had begged for a camera for Christmas, leading her then to the memory of Sterling’s red lipstick phase in the early part of middle school, and the bangs that April and Blair spent an afternoon talking her out of.

There is still so much of Sterling that is familiar, roots that have held their place even after carrying an unbearable weight, enthusiasm that still glows with warmth when she could understandably be cold and distant toward the world. It’s incredible — admirable, really — and most people don’t even know it. April doesn’t take for granted that she does.

“Come by anytime,” Debbie offers again.

“Thank you, Mrs. Wesley.” April is careful not to accept or decline. “If I don’t see you in there, enjoy the rest of your night.”

“You as well.”

April leaves the bathroom and returns to the dining room where waiters are walking around with trays of bite sized appetizers, the bar is dishing out drinks left and right, and dinner will be served shortly.

Martha immediately waves her over, inviting her into a small circle of guests.

“April, honey,” she says, draping an arm around April’s shoulders, “you remember the Cushmore’s from around the corner, right?”

“Of course,” April lies, extending a hand to the man and his wife. They’re an older couple that seems nice enough. Then again, if they’re here as supporters of her father, maybe not.

“I hear you're the fellowship leader over at Willingham,” Mrs. Cushmore says.

“Well, yes, I—”

“And the top of her class, captain of the debate team, leader of several clubs—”

“I think they get it, mother,” April says good naturedly, although she means it as more of a warning, her smile painfully forced.

How typical of Martha to only know the impressive things about April and to only share them when she wants to show off for her own sake.

“It sounds like you’ve got a bright future,” Mr. Cushmore says.

Martha takes the compliment on April’s behalf, patting April’s shoulder. “She sure does. We’ll be visiting a few Ivy Leagues after the election.”

“You don’t think John is going to be busy?”

“Oh, he sure will. But my John always makes time for family.”

Her John also cheated on her with a prostitute. Nobody mentions that though.

As April stands there with her mother endlessly bragging, she can’t help but think of the exchange she had with Sterling and Mrs. Wesley. Even with the trauma of a kidnapping and a childhood filled with lies, there was an ease about them when they walked into that bathroom. An ease that April has never had with Martha.

They had been smiling before either of them even noticed she was standing by the mirror and then their smiles grew wider. They didn’t plaster on a grin once they noticed somebody was watching, once an impression needed to be made.

It’s the kind of thing that would’ve had April raging with jealousy not too long ago, but now Sterling is one of the best people that she knows, deserving of good things, and April has come to realize that those good things do not come effortlessly to her, as April had assumed in the past.

If things are genuinely solid between Sterling and Mrs. Wesley, it is because they’ve earned it.

So if things are going to be solid between Sterling and April, they too need to earn it.

Which means having a conversation that doesn’t end with bells ringing for class or with April leaving Sterling on a curb outside of her house. It means finding an opportunity to have an uninterrupted moment and not running away from it, because April has to find the confidence to do something. She can’t keep feeling guilty for these moments of almost where Sterling puts herself out there and April continuously leaves her high and dry (well, maybe not totally dry).

April wants to be with Sterling, thinks about it so much that it keeps her up at night, craves it so badly that she keeps putting herself in scenarios where she can push the envelope, but ultimately, April can’t do anything about it.

That’s the part she knows, the part that’s easy.

The hard part, the unpredictable part, is Sterling and her ability to convince April of almost anything, regardless of what she had set her mind to.

Sterling doesn’t want secrets and complications. She didn’t want it last year and that was before her life was flipped upside down via complicated secret. She would either dangerously convince April to stray from her plan or whatever they have going on, whatever energy is coursing between them, would all come to an end.

And call April selfish, but she doesn’t really want it to end.

Dropping Sterling’s hand on the sidewalk allowed them to stay in this in-between a little bit longer, in a place where nothing is definite, where they can just be.

Unfortunately, April knows that can’t last forever.

“Harvard is our top choice,” Martha is saying when April snaps back into the conversation. She barely resists the urge to roll her eyes at Martha’s use of the word our. As if she has had anything to do with April’s college choices.

“That’s a tough one, young lady,” Mr. Cushmore replies, eyeing April from over the rim of his glass.

“I’m aware,” she returns sharply, causing the grip that Martha has on her shoulder to tighten in warning.

A few dreadful conversations and about an hour later, April spots Sterling and Blair whispering to themselves over by the bar. It’s likely far more interesting than whatever Mrs. Sanderson from church is saying.

She excuses herself.

April makes her way through the crowd, locking eyes with Sterling as soon as she appears on the other side.

Sterling immediately lights up. April has to remind herself to breathe.

“Hey!”

“Hi.” April exhales, unable to take her eyes off of Sterling, her shining smile, her sharp collarbones, her—

“How’s it hanging, Stevens?”

Right. Blair is here too.

“Fine.” It’s not, but it hardly matters. Not when Sterling is standing there with a glass of water in her hand and staring at April like she is the only thing that could quench her thirst. April leans her arm on the edge of the bar. “How are you guys planning to work a case with your parents here?”

Sterling shrugs. “We’re just hoping nobody shows up.”

“Great plan,” she chirps, with less of the biting edge Sterling had been accustomed to in the past. It leaves her with a dazzling grin, which April considers a win.

“How’s your dad doing with all these people?” Blair asks, smirking a little when April jars at the sound of her voice. She keeps forgetting that Blair is here. “We heard he had a run in.”

“Yes, he thinks so.”

April rolls her eyes. She hasn’t heard John talk about much else all week.

On the way to his office on Monday morning John stopped to pick up coffee. While in the coffee shop he noticed a man was staring at him. Instead of introducing himself and treating the man like a potential voter, John got the hell out of there without ever ordering his coffee, and swears — with zero evidence — that he had an encounter with one of the men after him.

He has been bunkered down in his office ever since and sends his new intern — that April prays isn’t a girl — to do anything else for him.

John is extremely paranoid, but nonetheless, “He says he’s fine,” April tells them.

“He’s full of shit. I’m surprised he hasn’t asked us to move in with you guys yet.”

“That would mean admitting he’s afraid, Blair.”

Blair scoffs. “Y’all will be assigned as roomies by the end of the week,” she teases, making Sterling choke on the water she just sipped.

April rolls her lips, trying to suppress a smile, trying to ignore the warmth pooling in her cheeks, trying not to think about how this is the second time tonight someone suggested they spend time together in a bedroom.

The best way to keep all of that at bay is for April to keep her focus on Blair and decidedly not on Sterling, who is red in the face and still coughing in earnest.

“In that scenario you would be staying with my mom.”

Blair gags.

April considers it another win.

“I guess be thankful that he hasn’t assigned anything. He feels safe enough sleeping with a gun on his nightstand.”

“Do you feel safe with that?” Sterling asks, finally finding her voice.

April shrugs. She has been trying not to think about it too much. Every time she does she just ends up thinking about John’s anger and his impulsivity and, well, she sleeps with her door locked anyway so it’s not a big deal.

“April, there you are,” Martha exclaims, sliding into their little circle as if she hasn’t seen April all night. “I was just talking to a family over there.” She points rather unhelpfully into the large crowd. “They have a nice looking boy about your age with a soccer scholarship.”

Of course they do.

“He must not go to Willingham if you don’t know the family.”

April pointedly ignores the part about the boy being attractive. She knows what her mother is getting at, practiced in having to deflect it through the years.

Martha swallows the last sip of her wine with a big gulp.

“I know! It’s perfect.”

April sputters. She didn’t see that one coming.

“How is that perfect?”

“You’ve said that you don’t want to get involved with boys at school because it’s a distraction. Now you can focus on your studies by day and still have a date for prom.”

April crosses her arms. “Prom is at the end of the year. I’m not concerned.”

“It wouldn’t hurt to—”

“And if he’s not attending the best Christian school in Atlanta, is he really worth our time?”

Martha actually pauses for a moment to consider.

“I guess that’s true,” she eventually admits. “Faith is important to your father and you value private school academics way more than public school athletics.”

“Exactly.”

For a foolish second April thinks that her mother is done with this conversation (at least for tonight), but then Martha gets a mischievous glint in her eyes as she places her newly emptied glass down on the bar. She turns her attention toward the Wesley’s.

“Why don’t we see what your friends think?”

“They’re not my—”

April doesn’t get to finish. Martha is already focused on Sterling and asking, “Are you and Luke still an item?”

Sterling shakes her head. “No, not for a while.”

“Shame.” She then turns to Blair, less interested, but still relatively polite. “Are you still dating that liberal senator's boy?”

“No, he dumped me.”

“Probably for the best.”

Blair frowns. “Not how I felt about it at the time.”

Mom,” April pleads, voice sounding more panicked than she would like, “leave them out of it.”

“Why?”

It’s embarrassing. It’s uncomfortable. It will not change the fact that April isn’t going to date this random boy or any boy that her mother suggests.

“It’s a little inappropriate for this setting, don’t you think? We have a campaign to focus on.” April reminds her.

Martha doesn’t take the bait.

“I disagree. I’m just making conversation. They weren’t uncomfortable, right, girls?” She turns back toward Sterling and Blair who both stammer uselessly to find an answer. “See? They’re fine,” Martha says before the Wesley’s have even confirmed anything. “Other girls your age are dating. I don’t think it would hurt for you to have an open mind and give these boys a chance.”

April takes a deep breath, prays her voice is steady, and gears up to play all of her usual cards.

“It’s just not a good time right now. I’m very busy with—”

“Nonsense.” Martha waves a dismissive hand. She’s never been this persistent before. “You’re always busy. You just have to make time.”

“Are you forgetting about the campaign your husband is currently running?” April asks through gritted teeth, although she’s hoping it passes off as a smile.

“And what about it?”

Martha signals to the bartender that she’s ready for a refill.

God, this woman is dense.

April could double down and explain that she really is too busy this time around. It wouldn’t be a lie.

Between school, her extracurriculars, her upcoming college decision, and this campaign she hardly even has the time to breathe, let alone time to force herself to think about boys, or to let herself hope for someday with a girl.

She doubts her mother would be sympathetic to that though. So April takes a different route.

“In this atmosphere, with all the attention that we get, I imagine that it would be hard to build and protect a proper connection,” she says instead of feigning disinterest and leaning into her work load.

Normally April hates Ezekiel’s jokes about paparazzi and Martha’s comments about cameras, but now she leans into it, using her father’s ridiculous, self-proclaimed platform as an out.

“You know how the rumors are, mother. There are a lot of eyes on us, which will only get worse if — when,” she corrects, “Daddy wins.”

April has to hand it to herself, she gave quite the performance, voice steady, but still soft enough to hopefully drag some empathy out of her mother.

It also helps that she knows that there’s some truth to her words. April swears the only reason that she came close to finding something real with Sterling was because they met in secret. Disaster would’ve struck as soon as they went public, pitting them against the world.

“You would have to be very careful,” a soft voice says.

April’s head snaps in the direction of that voice, locking in on a wide eyed Sterling, who just said that out loud in front of April’s mother. If April didn’t have such an outrageous soft spot for this girl, she could kill her.

“I don’t think that careful would cut it,” she says sharply, hoping that Sterling takes the hint.

Sterling does not.

“If anyone can find a way I bet it’s you.”

She can’t be serious.

“I literally couldn’t be seen in public with this person,” April fires back. “Who would even agree to that?”

“I think you’d be surprised.”

So she is serious. They’re now having that conversation. Great.

It’s not exactly the timing that April pictured when she considered taking a moment to clear the air. She certainly didn’t think that this would happen while Sterling takes Martha’s side in a debate about her dating life.

But here they are.

April typically isn’t one to waste an opportunity, even one as clumsily stumbled into as this, so braces herself to ask, “You really think that somebody would want to put up with all this” — she gestures toward the crowded room behind them — “for just me?”

April holds her breath as she watches Sterling’s throat bob. For a second she thinks that this is where Sterling finally gets it, where Sterling realizes that they’re in over their heads, that April isn’t worth all the trouble, and regretfully backs down. But then Sterling’s cheeks begin to flush and she nods, very gently declaring, “I really do.”

April lets out a soft gasp.

No matter how many times she finds herself in a moment with Sterling, April still never sees her coming. At least not with enough time to brace for impact.

“So what about Luke?”

“What?”

April turns abruptly to where Martha is standing with a full glass of wine, having apparently gotten her refill from the bartender.

For a short few seconds, April had forgotten that anyone outside of Sterling existed.

But now her mother nods across the room toward where the Creswells are gathered, definitely here, existing, and interrupting what April wishes was a more private conversation.

“He’s cute. If he’s still single maybe that’s worth a shot. Unless…” Martha looks to Sterling. “Unless you mind, of course.”

Sterling stammers. Her eyes lock on April, desperate for some kind of help that April is useless to offer.

What is she supposed to say to that? April has already tried all of her usual angles and none of them worked. Martha just keeps bulldozing right through her every attempt and she is running out of ideas.

“Luke has sex.”

They all stop for a moment, turning toward Blair in a stunned silence, the words she blurted hanging in the air between them.

“That,” April starts, realizing Blair may have found the one loophole in this conversation, “is actually true.”

“Well,” Martha huffs, “never mind then.”

She takes a long sip of her wine and stomps away in her heels, returning to their circle of friends.

Nobody in the Stevens family has ever been a gracious loser, but now April can’t find it in herself to care. She exhales a breath of relief, thankful to have narrowly dodged that bullet.

“April,” Martha calls over her shoulder when April doesn’t immediately follow, too caught up in whatever just happened to move.

“Coming.”

She takes one last look at Sterling, face flushed and eyes wide with panic, before walking with her mother back toward their table.

For the rest of the night, April can’t seem to go more than a couple minutes without catching Sterling’s eye from across the room, lingering her gaze along the fit of Sterling’s jumpsuit, or replaying the way that Sterling said, “I really do,” as if April were worth everything in the world.

She can’t focus, she can’t get her heart rate to slow down, she can’t get her body temperature to drop to a level that doesn’t leave her permanently flushed, and she keeps asking people to repeat their questions because she wasn’t listening the first time.

April is essentially a disaster.

“What’s going on with you?” John asks, voice low in her ear as to not alert anyone else around them. His hand is firm on April’s back. “You don’t seem like yourself.”

Of course she isn’t herself. Right now John wants the smart, confident, charming version of April, the one that plays for Team Stevens and wins, but that April can’t come to the phone right now. She’s too busy losing her mind over a girl in a pretty dress that just might be willing to be with her for all that she is.

“I don’t know. I — I guess I’m just distracted.”

“Step out for a minute. Come back when you get your head on straight.”

April nods.

She slips out into the hallway and makes a beeline for the bathroom, needing a minute alone, a minute to look herself in the eye in the mirror and tell herself to get it together.

Then she rounds a corner and nearly crashes right into Sterling.

Sterling, who is her distraction. Sterling, who she should be forgetting. Sterling, who said, “I really do.”

“Come with me, please,” April whispers, catching Sterling’s nod from the corner of her eye before leading her down the rest of the hallway. April is not going to be stupid this time and confront Sterling in front of a security camera.

After testing a couple of door knobs, she finds an open supply closet. At least behind a closed door she can come up with an excuse that satisfies her father, should he even question her. He’ll likely be far too focused on voter turnout and potential criminal sightings to give it a second glance.

She tugs Sterling inside and locks the door behind them.

“What are we doing?” April asks as soon as they’re alone in this dark, tight, private space where she can just barely make out the confusion on Sterling’s face.

“I don’t know. You pulled me in here.”

“No, not here. With us. With this whole back and forth. With you encouraging me to date in front of my mom. What are we doing?”

“You tell me,” Sterling says with a noncommittal shrug of her shoulders.

April scoffs. “You really don’t have an input?”

“Well, obviously I want to be with you.”

And there it is.

And April is still unprepared for it.

“What?” she says, quite stupidly. Her eyes have begun adjusting to the darkness of the small supply closet, allowing her to gather more from Sterling’s features.

Sterling’s gaze is wide, her tongue darts quickly between her lips, and her throat bobs with a heavy swallow. She’s nervous, but wanting, just like she has been for these last few weeks, whether she had April backed into a door in Ellen’s office, or they were flirting in an empty hallway, or she was leaning in to kiss April on a curb outside of her house.

“I’ll be whatever you want. If you want a friend, I’ll be that. If you want more, I’ll gladly be that. If you want nothing — well, that one I might fight you on. My point is,” Sterling takes a deep breath, steadying herself, “I care about you, April. In whatever capacity makes you feel comfortable and safe. And I swear I won’t ever keep another secret from you again. You can trust me on that.”

It’s a lot to take in all at once and apparently a lot to say, judging from the way Sterling’s chest heaves as she waits for April to reply.

Which may take a minute as April finds herself unbalanced, struggling to find her footing, because that was not what she expected.

She expected the Sterling of last year, desperate for one particular outcome, and so naively hopeful that April could only agree to try or break her heart.

But this...this is different.

Sterling is here and she’s stable and solid and obviously I want to be with you. She isn’t messy and frantic and stumbling into things. Obviously I want to be with you. She’s putting April’s comfort and safety before her own feelings even though obviously I want to be with you.

April takes a step towards Sterling.

“I want this too, you know.”

Sterling’s eyes shimmer. Even in the dark April can see them light up as clear as day when she steps in and says, “I know.”

“But I can’t—”

“That’s okay. I know that too.”

“Even though…”

Even though April cares about Sterling more than anyone. Even though she’s had these lingering feelings since they were young. Even though she knows if they gave it half the chance, they could easily stumble into the greatest thing either of them have ever experienced.

April doesn’t say any of that, but Sterling still gets it, taking April’s hands and agreeing, “Yeah.”

It falls like a dead weight in the space between them, the space that had gotten smaller every time either of them spoke, needing to be closer to the other.

Now they’re face to face, so close that April can feel Sterling’s breath tremble as it passes between her lips, and yet the subconscious force that pulled them in like this hasn't weakened at all.

April can’t keep her eyes off of Sterling’s mouth and for the brief second that she manages to tear her gaze away, she sees that Sterling is stuck on her lips as well, want coursing through her veins in the same way that April feels it fueling her.

Everything that April has been running from since the lock-in, everything that she’s been building towards since the country club is right here, right in front of her. She would just have to lean up a little bit and take it.

“Although, if we were to act on certain...urges,” April calls them, because it’s easier than detailing just how much she cares, “this would be our best opportunity. It would just have to be a secret. Stay between us.”

“It will,” Sterling says, too dazed to even blink.

April rolls her eyes. They both know it’s not that simple.

“You can’t just change your mind, Sterl.”

“I won’t.”

“It’s dangerous.”

“Totally.”

“And stupid.”

“Well—”

“And...and…” April swallows the rest of that sentence. It may be dangerous and stupid, like she said, but April is completely out of ideas. All she wants is to let herself go, just for a moment. “I suppose one time couldn’t hurt.”

Then they’re kissing, urgent and needy, but still with an underlying softness that says all the things they don’t have time for.

Despite acknowledging that this really shouldn’t go any further, April’s chest erupts with a sense of finally, because Sterling’s hands are on her hips, holding her close, her hands are on Sterling’s face, and it all just feels completely perfect.

Chapter Text

It was only supposed to be one time.

One kiss. In the dark. Locked in a supply closet. Giving into a moment of temptation. Indulging. It wasn’t supposed to become a thing.

But then that one kiss got heated. Sterling stepped forward and their bodies pressed together until April found herself pressed against another doorknob. And if that wasn’t the hottest thing April had ever experienced, then the sound that Sterling made when April scraped her teeth across her neck definitely was.

It was intoxicating. So much so that their supposed one time thing has now become a seven time thing and April doesn’t know what to do about it or how to stop. She doesn’t even think she wants to stop, certainly not now.

“April,” Sterling breathes into her ear, hand tightening in April’s hair as she untucks Sterling’s shirt and finds soft skin underneath. Her hand travels higher across Sterling’s stomach, purposely at a slow place, so that Sterling also whines into her ear, like she has so many times over these last two weeks. The sound makes April smile against Sterling’s neck, pressing kisses all the way up to her jawline, and —

The bell rings.

“Fuck.” April jumps back immediately, chest heaving. “Did you forget to set an alarm?”

“Last time you said it went off too loud!” Sterling whisper yells, frantically tucking her shirt back in.

Last time it did go off too loud. Had they not given themselves a five minute window to regroup and slip out of the supply closet unnoticed, the alarm definitely would have alerted any passerby in the hallway.

But now that there was no alarm and the bell has rung, there is no opportunity to leave unnoticed and be on time for class. The hallway is swarmed with students and it will stay that way until the late bell rings.

April takes a deep breath. She watches as Sterling tries to put herself back together. Sterling does a decent enough job but April can still see the signs that she was all over her. Sterling’s hair is not nearly as neat and freshly brushed as it looked a few moments ago, her shirt is sloppily tucked into her pants, collar askew, and she looks dazed, as if she had just been brought back down to earth.

There’s a familiar rush of pride in April’s chest (where her heart rate is on its way back to a normal pace, thank you very much) over a job well done.

Underneath that pride is a feeling less familiar, one that she has started noticing over the last couple weeks. It’s an inkling of something softer.

That is the something that pulls April back toward Sterling.

With a quick step forward, they’re in each other’s space again, but this time the charge is gentler, less frenzied.

April reaches up to adjust the collar on Sterling’s shirt, the one she tugged aside a few moments ago so she could have more room for her lips to wander, more opportunities to make Sterling gasp and whine and shudder against April’s body. She lets her hand linger there even once Sterling’s collar is no longer wrinkled and wonky.

“Next time we’ll put it on vibrate.”

“Okay,” Sterling agrees, short and simple, although she looks as if April just made a declaration of love.

Any mention of “next time” seems to get Sterling like this, her eyes lit up with wonder, her smile dreamy, her voice soft and breathy. It’s a lot.

It makes April fill up with something so warm that she almost wants to take Sterling’s hand and step out into a crowded hallway and also maybe actually make a declaration of love. Almost. She hasn’t totally lost her mind yet.

“You can go out first.” Sterling nods toward the locked door, cheeks still flushed and so kissable. “I don’t really mind if I’m late. I kind of, um, need a minute anyway.”

April ignores any and all implications of Sterling needing a moment to herself before returning to the outside world. They have to stay focused after all.

“You think I can step out into that hallway and not have to explain why I was in a supply closet before first period?”

“You could make up an excuse. I don’t think anyone would be brave enough to question you.”

There is a chance that Sterling is right, with one of April’s patented glares anyone who dared to question her would sulk away, but it’s risky. April can come up with a much better, much safer, excuse for arriving to class after the bell.

“I think we’re both going to be late today, Sterl.”

Sterling smiles, eyes glinting with mischief. It’s different from the fond look she had a minute ago, but April still recognizes it, even before she leans in toward April’s ear to say, “So what I’m hearing is that we have a few more minutes?”

“Not the point.”

“Totally the point.”

 

For the second time in her academic career, April is late to class.

The first time hardly counts. It wasn’t even her fault. Hannah B. needed a tampon and April had an extra one in her gym locker on the other side of the school. She missed the late bell by just a few seconds, because despite what people may think about her, April is a good friend.

This time, though, it’s kind of her fault.

April could’ve taken a second to ask if Sterling had set the alarm or April could’ve set the alarm herself or either of them could’ve been distantly aware of how much time had passed while they were pressed up against each other. But there is something about Sterling that just makes all of April’s coherent thoughts disappear, making it hard to keep track of time, and even harder to focus in class.

She likes the way that Sterling’s thigh feels when it’s wedged between her legs in the back of a car. She likes how eager Sterling always is, searching for ways to get April alone and enthusiastically meeting her as if she had been waiting for months instead of just a day, or that one time where it had only been a few hours since they found a supply closet at school and Sterling was already tugging April into an empty room at a campaign event.

She even likes how forefront it is on her own mind, constantly thinking of the way Sterling kisses so deeply that April can feel the want in all the depths of her body, or how Sterling grips April’s shoulders so tightly when she’s about to let go of everything else, or how she moans April’s name, warm and breathy, into her ear like it’s the only thing she can muster.

“April?”

“Hm?” April hums, looking up from her half eaten sandwich to find Ezekiel standing over their lunch table.

Wow, this morning has really gone by in a blur.

“I asked if you were ready to go.”

“Oh.” She checks the clock on the wall. Lunch is going to be over in a few minutes. “Yeah, almost.”

April mindlessly cleans up the rest of her food and gathers her things. She has to get a grip. She has to think about something other than Sterling for the rest of the afternoon. She has to focus in class and at home and at campaign events and even while Sterling is kissing her, otherwise this may just be another short lived, heart wrenching affair.

Which is what it was supposed to be, April reminds herself. Damn it.

“Where were you just now?” Ezekiel asks once they’re wandering down a pretty empty hallway toward their next class.

“At lunch. With you.”

“Obviously.” He rolls his eyes. “I think that was actually the first time this week you made it through the whole period without running off. What I mean, though, is that you seem a little scattered.”

“Scattered? No.”

“Really? Because Hannah B. asked you if she could duet a song with Luke during fellowship tomorrow and you said, ‘yeah, sure, whatever.’”

“I did?”

Much to April’s horror, Ezekiel nods. “Why do you think it’s just you and me right now? She’s already rehearsing.”

“Shit.”

This has gone too far.

“So I’ll ask again, why are you so distracted?”

April shrugs, trying to cling to any chance she has at seeming aloof. “Just thinking about campaign stuff.”

“Campaign stuff doesn’t make you blush,” he remarks matter of factly. Then Ezekiel smirks, giddy. “But a certain blonde does.”

“Shut up,” April warns.

“That’s not a denial.”

“But it is a demand.”

“April—”

She lets out an exasperated sigh. “I can’t, okay?”

“Can’t what?”

“Can’t talk about it now,” April hisses through a clenched jaw.

A brief flicker of surprise passes over his face. It occurs to April then that her flustered lack of denial is essentially a confirmation. She is once again breaking her own rules.

April glances down the hallway. There is nobody else in this wing and all the classroom doors are shut.

“Hell, I shouldn’t even have a thing to talk about,” she mutters, leaning against the wall and letting her head fall back.

This has gone past the point of too far and is bordering on dangerous.

Which is obviously why her phone chooses to buzz now with a text from Sterling. The Lord is testing her.

Sterling: meet by my car after school? blair has a game today

April hesitates. Her whole body hurts. There’s an ache of longing in her chest, a pit of fear twisting deep into her stomach, and a pounding between her ears that makes it impossible to think clearly. After seventeen years she should be used to this feeling of want but can’t, but she’s never actually wanted anything like this, never been so close to having something that she shouldn’t.

April is so caught up in those feelings that she doesn’t even scold Ezekiel for leaning over to read the message off her screen.

“Yes, obviously,” he says with no shame for how he’s forced his way into a hidden part of her life.

Even with his advised answer, April still doesn’t type a response to Sterling. She just stands there staring at the screen, paralyzed by the fact that she is making this known to somebody (just Ezekiel, but still) and that this really shouldn’t have happened at all, let alone gone past the promise of once that she made to herself.

“You’re seriously considering saying no? What else do you have planned?”

April looks up, utterly lost. “Nothing. I just — I don’t know.”

She has never felt so unequipped to make a decision. It’s truly embarrassing.

That only amplifies when Ezekiel fixes her with a stare that makes April feel so vulnerable and foolish that she wants to run as far away from here as possible. When she tries to just look away, he places a hand on either of her shoulders, holding her in place and forcing her to look back up.

“Since you can’t talk about it, I am going to ask you a yes or no question. Nice and easy. Forget everything else,” he starts, staring intensely into April’s eyes. “Do you want this?”

Yes, so much.

More than I’ve ever wanted anything.

She is literally all I can think about. What the fuck do you think?

April nods.

Ezekiel immediately smiles in a way that would’ve been so patronizing a few months ago. Now it’s just mildly suffocating.

“Then go see her,” he says. “Tell her that. The rest will work itself out.”

Ezekiel is so clear, so level headed, so calm, like he has the slightest idea of —

April’s eyes widen.

“Do you ever…”

“Do I ever what?” Ezekiel asks, dropping his hands from her shoulders and taking a step back. The added space makes April feel like she can breathe again.

She doesn’t really know how to ask this, typically she wouldn’t dare, but his advice was just so certain.

“Have you ever been in my shoes?” she attempts.

Ezekiel looks down at her feet and grimaces. “Orange Converse? No, not me.”

He turns abruptly and walks into their empty classroom, leaving April stunned in the hallway.

It takes her a second to recuperate, but she follows him inside.

“They match the uniform!”

“They’re disgusting,” he says, taking his assigned seat at the front of the room.

April takes the seat behind him. “Alright, agreed,” she admits without much fuss. “My mom bought them.”

“Still gross.” Ezekiel rotates to face her, disgust evident on his face. “They should’ve never left the box.”

He is halfway turned back to the front of the room when he suddenly stops. April expects another dig at her shoes or even a well deserved “fuck you” for asking such an inappropriate question.

Ezekiel points a stern finger at her. April braces herself.

“Don’t get distracted. Text blondie.”

Although relieved, April goes through the production of sighing and rolling her eyes. She can never make it easy on him.

April waits until Ezekiel’s back is fully turned to her before she pulls out her phone and does as she’s told, cheeks warm all the while.

April: okay. see you then xx

 

Not too far from Willingham there is an old strip mall that closed down a few years ago. Nothing ever went up in its place so now the building is vacant, the parking lot is empty, and it’s the perfect spot for April to climb into the backseat of the Volt and pull Sterling down on top of her, turning their supposed one time thing into an eight time thing.

Maybe she should stop keeping count.

It feels a little strange to know exactly how many times she’s snuck off with Sterling in the past two weeks, especially as the number keeps climbing. But each moment, each memory, each invigorating rush of want, stands out and feels significant.

The supply closet at the country club is where this all started. The alleyway down the side of her father’s office building is where it continued. The bathroom in the basement of their church is where she learned that Sterling likes when April holds her tight or even pulls on her hair. This backseat is where April saw stars for the first time with Sterling’s leg wedged between hers and Sterling’s lips attached to her neck. An empty conference room is where April let her hand drift under Sterling’s dress to return the favor, finally succumbing to the urge to ravage her a year later. Then the various supply closets around Willingham fill in all the in betweens, where they just couldn’t make it through the day without needing each other like this.

“Sterl,” April sighs into Sterling’s mouth. Her body is going into overdrive. Her hands can’t stay settled, her back keeps arching off the seat, and Sterling just continues kissing her, slow and deep without offering much else.

Sterling isn’t allowing her hands to wander over April’s body. Her lips don’t move to April’s jawline, trailing down to her neck in the way she likes. Sterling is taking her time, really savoring this moment.

Which is nice and all, but they’re kind of on a timetable here.

There is an alarm — one they actually remembered to set this time — that will ring out through this car once it is time for Sterling to pick up Blair. So while April knows that she could never get tired of kissing Sterling, she does decide to take matters into her own hands and speed things up a bit.

Eager for more, April tugs on her shirt until it is untucked from her pants, hoping that Sterling takes the hint and touches her somewhere.

Sterling does not.

Weird. She’s usually super attentive, aiming to please, and noting what April wants before she’s squirming against the backseat, desperate for something other than a soft, drawn out kiss (again, not that this timid approach isn’t great, it has just been a long day and they’re pressed for time).

“Hey,” April says between kisses. She gets the sense that something might be wrong. “What’s going on?”

Sterling smiles against her lips, letting out a breathy chuckle. “We’re making out?” she replies, kissing April again, long and sweet. It takes every shred of strength April can muster to cling to her sanity and focus.

April breaks away from the kiss. She stares up into Sterling’s blue eyes, feels Sterling’s breath on her face, and tries to remember how to breathe normally. “Yes, obviously,” she pants, “and I’m not trying to push you, but you’re usually more…”

“What?”

“Eager.”

One perk of the Volt being such a compact car is that it forces them together like this, cramped and clinging to one another. Which now allows April to feel the way that all of Sterling’s muscles seem to tense on top of hers.

Something is wrong.

“Why are you in a rush?” Sterling counters, tone a little sharper than usual.

April just blinks up at her for a moment, forehead creased and thoroughly confused. Did Sterling just snap?

“Because we literally have an alarm set for when we need to leave. Why are you—” April shakes her head as soon as she hears the edge in her own voice. She’s getting too defensive, sounding eerily like her parents. This doesn’t need to be a fight. “Are you okay?” she asks instead.

“I’m fine,” Sterling very obviously lies. Her body is still clenched and rigid above April’s. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”

Sterling starts to lean back in, but April stops her with a hand to the chest.

“No, Sterl. What’s wrong?”

“We probably don’t have time.”

“We do.”

“The alarm—”

“Fuck the alarm. That was hardly my point,” April says firmly, causing Sterling’s eyebrows to raise in surprise. “If you’re upset about something and you want to talk, we can do that too.”

Sterling looks off, gaze distant as she seems to consider the offer.

For her closing argument, April leans in this time. She tilts her head up, softly pressing her lips to Sterling’s forehead. “Tell me,” she urges, as tender and gentle as Sterling had kissed her a couple minutes ago.

Sterling sighs, resolve successfully crumbled.

“Anytime we're like this I kind of wonder if it will be the last time.”

April frowns. Had Sterling really felt this way all eight times? Her eyes always light up whenever April says something like, “next time we’ll put it on vibrate” or “next time we’ll use my car since it’s bigger” or “next time we’ll hopefully get more than five minutes” but April just assumed that it was all due to Sterling’s usual enthusiasm.

“Well, clearly it’s—” April stops herself. If it were clear, if she were more clear, Sterling wouldn’t be feeling this way. “I don’t want it to be the last time.”

“I don’t either.”

April knew that. It was obvious, given the meek way Sterling had shared her fear and the hurt in her voice when she wondered why April was rushing.

So April clarifies just a bit more, “I’m glad it’s gone past a one time thing.”

“But?” Sterling prompts, knowingly. Always so perceptive.

April takes a deep breath. “If all we ever get are stolen moments will that be enough?”

Yes. Why wouldn’t it be?”

“You don’t like secrets.”

“But I like you,” Sterling says, so quickly and effortlessly that it makes April’s breath catch. “I don’t want to be with anyone else.”

April might never breathe again. The person that she has secretly wanted to be with for almost as long as she can remember also wants to be with her, regardless of complications, over anyone else.

“Me neither.”

At that Sterling sits up, which is not what April anticipated. She thought that Sterling would lean in, simply overjoyed, and that they would get so lost in kissing each other that their stupid alarm would surely startle them when it rang.

“I know that a lot of our time together is short, so we kinda just...” Sterling gestures to the position they’re in: her straddling April’s waist and April sprawled out beneath her, “but I do really care about you. It’s not just—”

“I know.” April pushes herself up so she can look Sterling right in the eyes, catch the way they light up and glimmer when she says, “Me too.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.” April skims her fingers across Sterling’s face. She tucks some hair behind Sterling’s ear, then, unwilling to let go, April lets her hand linger along the soft skin of Sterling’s cheek. Her heart races when Sterling automatically leans into the touch. How did she ever think that this could be a one time thing? “Obviously it’s incredibly complicated with my dad and his campaign and the fact that there are a lot of people after him, but I wouldn’t take this risk for just anybody. I wouldn’t be doing this if it didn’t mean anything.”

“I wouldn’t either.”

“I’ve gathered that,” April chuckles, replaying the many times Sterling had heavily implied her feelings and April had just refused to connect the dots because she didn’t want to let herself hope. Now she’s so far past that. She’s clinging to hope and praying that it doesn’t blow up in her face. “If you’re actually okay with this as it is then I don’t see why there has to be a last time.”

Sterling lights up with that same fond look she had in the supply closet early this morning. This time she does lean in, smiling as she kisses April with enthusiasm. It’s enough to whisk away what remained of the fear that nearly paralyzed April this afternoon.

“How are things with Blair?” Cara asks, flipping to a blank page in her notepad and settling in on her chair across from Sterling.

“Good, I guess.” Sterling shrugs. “Blair is like the least of my worries.”

“Really?”

Sterling nods. There are much larger things at stake, like school and college applications and bounty hunting and Debbie and Anderson. Her relationship with Blair is the best relationship she has at home. It’s not exactly a pressing matter.

“I noticed there was some tension between the two of you last week.”

Right. That.

Sterling didn’t show up to John’s event at the community center because she prioritized therapy and Blair made it up to her by having their joint session the following week.

“Well, I was upset about having to reschedule with her, but it worked itself out.”

Cara doesn’t gloss over it in the way that Sterling had. She pauses momentarily, eyeing Sterling from over the rims of her glasses. “Why were you upset?”

“Because this is important to me. I — I need it.”

“You don’t feel like this is important to Blair?”

“Not as important.” Sterling knows that Blair loves and supports her endlessly, but up until last year they had always been on the same page. Now they’re not and it seems as though they haven’t quite wrapped their heads around it. “She’s doing a lot better than I am. This is all pretty easy for her.”

“You might be at different points in your journey, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that this has been easy for her.”

“Fine. Easier,” Sterling amends, slouching back in her chair. She checks the clock on the wall. They still have forty-five minutes. Plenty of time to pull at and unravel this thread that Sterling has been trying to keep together, desperate for something in her life to at least appear like it used to.

“You shouldn’t compare your progress to Blair’s,” Cara reminds her. That part is familiar. Sterling has heard it more than a few times. The next part is surprising. “Your situations are very different.”

“How? We were both lied to.”

“Yes, you were both told the same lie, meaning your situations are deeply connected, but that doesn’t mean they’re exactly the same.”

Sterling isn’t sure how that tracks. “Huh?”

Cara puts her pen down and uncrosses her legs, setting both feet down on the floor. Sturdy. She’s ready to get down to business.

“Debbie and Anderson led you both to believe that you were twins, but they are her biological parents. That’s one difference. Blair also wasn’t kidnapped by a woman who turned out to be her biological mother. She dealt with intense fear, sure — not knowing where you were, if she would ever see you again, trying to track you down against a potentially ticking clock — but she wasn’t held captive. Another difference. Both scary, both traumatic, both making you question your identity, but different nonetheless.”

Sterling takes that in. It makes some sense. They’re both caught on the same battlefield, dealing with the chaos of it all, but they’re unpacking different things.

“And even if the two scenarios were identical,” Cara continues, “you and Blair are not. You are two different people and your progress will reflect that.”

For the first time since Sterling started seeing Cara, those words don’t just go in one ear and out the other. They settle down in Sterling’s bones, warm and understanding in a place where she didn’t know she needed to be understood, leaving emotion to get caught in her throat.

“I just feel stupid sometimes,” Sterling admits, voice rough with unshed tears, “or maybe not stupid, but inadequate or something. She keeps telling me about how well she’s doing and I don’t know why it’s taking me so long to catch up.”

“First of all, there isn’t a timetable here. Second, catching up to Blair isn’t the goal. You were thrown a pretty nasty curveball, Sterling.”

Sterling sniffs. “I don’t really do sports.”

“Your life changed in a drastic way,” Cara amends, a gentle smile tugging at her lips. “You have to go at your own pace. Focus on yourself and what feels good.”

Sterling nods and wipes her eyes. She takes a deep breath, listening to the way it trembles on the way in and steadies on the way out.

“Okay,” she decides, already feeling a little kinder toward herself than she did five minutes ago. “I’ll give that a try.”

“Good.” Now that they’ve gotten that taken care of Cara picks up her pen again and leans back in her chair. “So tell me, what feels good for you, Sterling?”

Distantly, Sterling registers that they should maybe stay on the subject of family and Blair, but lately the thing that feels really good, the place where Sterling feels at her best, has nothing to do with her family at all.

“April and I are together. Like actually, for real, together.”

Cara smiles. “Alright. Why don’t you tell me about that.”

And since this is the one place where Sterling really can let loose about April, she tells Cara everything.

 

“I can’t believe there has been no sign of Scarface yet,” Blair says from the backseat of Bowser’s truck. His headlights shine brightly across the asphalt as they coast toward a red traffic light. “I want our money.”

Bowser glances into the rear view mirror, brow scrunched. “Scarface?”

“You know, Cain Barton or whoever.”

“What is it with you and nicknames?” he asks, refocusing on the road when the light turns green.

Blair shrugs. “They help me remember.” She leans forward into the space between the two front seats, loudly chewing a piece of gum. Bowser will definitely make her spit it out within the next five minutes. “Besides, Scarface was our best one,” she says, giving Sterling’s arm a playful nudge. “Sterl wanted Candy Cain.”

Sterling grins, taking her eyes off the passenger side window to find that neither Bowser or Blair seem amused.

“What? It’s festive.”

Bowser rolls his eyes. “It’s November.”

“So,” Blair starts, “is Scarface better?”

Both she and Sterling lean in even closer, waiting for his answer.

“I’m just gonna call him Barton.”

“Gross,” Sterling says at the same time that Blair declares, “Boring!”

They pull up in front of John’s campaign headquarters a few minutes later. Sterling thought the reason they were coming so late in the evening was to avoid a crowd, but there are countless cars lining the street, signaling that the office is jam packed.

“So why are we here, again?” she asks as they scour the block for available parking spots. A couple store fronts down, Sterling notices April’s car. She restrains a smile, trying not to allude to the fact that her heart just started beating faster.

“The election is in a few days.” Bowser flips on his blinker, spotting an open space between two other cars. “He’s giving us a rundown of what to expect this week.”

Traffic continues to whizz around them while Bowser puts his truck in reverse, cursing under his breath as he tries to angle them into a tight space.

“Couldn’t he just, like, email us an itinerary? I’m really over these meetings,” Blair grumbles. She then blows a massive bubble with her gum and lets it pop right between the front two seats.

Bowser abruptly slams on his breaks. “Spit that shit out.”

“What? Why?”

“I’m trying to parallel park and all your loud ass chewing is giving me a headache,” he says, to a stunned Blair, who mutters something indecipherable and reluctantly spits her gum into its old wrapper.

Sterling internally celebrates that she was right.

 

Inside the office is incredibly hectic. Phones are ringing, people are running from desk to desk with updates, and everyone seems to be talking all at once. It’s sensory overload and Sterling doesn’t know where to look or what to focus on until she spots April in the crowd. Then all the noise magically cuts out.

April is standing by her mother, still clad in her Willingham skirt and button down. She scans the room from the other side, while Martha talks with somebody else, somebody Sterling couldn’t even bother to focus on now. April’s eye almost instantly lands on Sterling and Sterling offers a small wave. Even from across the room she still catches the way that April instinctively starts to smile just at the sight of her. It makes Sterling’s heart somersault in her chest.

April appears to excuse herself from whatever conversation she and Martha were in and makes her way over to where Sterling, Blair, and Bowser stand lingering by the entrance.

“Welcome to the chaos,” she says, gesturing around them, wearing what Sterling considers to be her favorite April smile.

Bowser gives a nod. “Thanks. Where’s John?”

“He’s in his office. Give him a minute.”

At that there’s a loud crash of something falling over and said chaos temporarily stops. For a split second everybody in the room follows the sound, turning toward John’s closed office door — well, everybody but April.

April hardly bats an eye at it. She certainly doesn’t flinch. Her stance is just a little more rigid than it was before, jaw clenched and fists tight at her sides. Sterling wishes that April wasn’t so used to her father’s outbursts, that she too could jump in surprise. She also wishes that she could reach out to take April’s hand, thread their fingers together, and rub her thumb over April’s knuckles until she loosens up again.

“Early voting has been open,” April says flatly, as a way of explanation. “The projections are not in our favor.”

“Well I could’ve guessed that,” Blair scoffs.

The door to John’s office swings open and the chaos begins again, picking up right where it left off, like whatever happened in there is just water under the bridge.

John spots them right away. Two teenagers and Bowser would kind of stand out here amongst a sea of professionally dressed men and a few women who all look like they would spend Saturday drunk off of expensive cocktails at the country club and Sunday at church, praying to eliminate the sins of others, while harboring so many of their own.

“I’m in the middle of something,” he says, more so to Bowser than to Sterling or Blair. “I’ll get to you when I can.”

“The things we do for money,” Bowser grumbles under his breath. Blair agrees, and the two of them get caught in a conversation about how they’d spend a million dollars.

Sterling doesn’t join in, even though she has thought about paying off her future college tuition, taking a family trip somewhere tropical, and sitting front row at Taylor Swift’s next tour. She can't take her eyes off of April and April seems to notice. She catches Sterling’s glance and the tension in her stature fades just how Sterling pictured when she thought about holding April’s hand. Her shoulders drop, her jaw unclenches, and her nails are no longer digging into her palms.

April shifts on her feet, cheeks pink and barely restraining a smile. Her eyes shift to the side and she nods in the same direction before walking off, subtly implying that Sterling should follow.

Sterling watches April go, waiting until she turns down a hallway and is out of sight to work on her own escape. “I’m, uh, gonna go to the bathroom.”

“Seriously?” Bowser huffs. “We just got here.”

Sterling thinks fast. She crosses her arms, leveling him with a daring stare. “Do you really want to hear about my period?”

“Nope. Go ahead.”

Mission accomplished.

Sterling starts to walk away, heart already racing with anticipation, fingers twitching at her sides, itching to get tangled in April’s hair, but Blair grabs her by the wrist before she can get too far. She yanks Sterling back.

“I didn’t know you were on your period. Since when are we off-cycle?”

“I don’t know,” Sterling lies, shrugging her shoulders. “I guess mine just came early.”

“Weird,” Blair mutters, but she doesn’t push for anything else and Sterling takes the exit.

She cuts through the crowded office, where everyone seems too preoccupied to recognize anything out of the ordinary. It makes Sterling wonder if anybody would even notice if she and April had a moment right here. Blair definitely would and whatever loud reaction she has would certainly alert others, but aside from that everyone seems to be in their own hectic little world.

As Sterling turns the corner, she finds April waiting for her in an otherwise empty hallway. With a shy smile and a mischievous glint in her eye, April opens the door for a supply closet across from the bathrooms. They sneak inside.

Sterling barely has time to close the door before she’s being pushed up against it and fiercely kissed. She lets out a surprised gasp into April’s mouth, then settles her hands on April’s cheeks and kisses her with intention.

These clandestine hookups have become something a regular occurrence, but Sterling still can’t get over how April’s lips feel against hers. She didn’t get a chance to get used to it last year, since their time together was so short, but this year, Sterling doesn’t even want to let herself get used to it. She is determined to commit every movement, every invigorating feeling to memory should this all fall apart.

As if April could read that cautionary thought in the back of her mind, she breaks the kiss, resting her forehead against Sterling’s and panting, “This is definitely risky.”

“Definitely.”

“But I, um…” April’s cheeks are flushed and she is bashfully refusing to meet Sterling’s gaze as if Sterling’s hand isn’t fisted in her hair and she wouldn’t crumble like putty in April’s hands on any given day. It’s so different from how she confidently shoved Sterling against the door a few minutes ago, but Sterling loves this side just as much, loves that she is the one who can successfully fluster April Stevens and her steadfast composure. “I missed you.”

With that said, the ground seems to sway under Sterling, knees buckling in a way that would knock her clean off her feet if she weren’t wedged between April and a wall.

“I missed you too,” she says, grinning and breathless now from both the kissing and the added swooning. This feeling bubbles up in Sterling’s chest, overwhelming to an extent where she might just burst if she doesn’t find a way to diffuse it. “I didn’t think I was going to be able to sneak away. Bowser thought it was weird that I said I had to go to the bathroom, so I told him that I was on my period because I knew it would shut him up, but then Blair started asking me questions because if I was actually on my period right now that would mean that her and I were no longer synced.”

Now Sterling is also breathless from rambling.

“Huh,” is all that April offers in return.

How concise.

“What?”

April shrugs. “I’m just surprised. Blair’s mind is typically pretty in the gutter. One would think that she’d get the hint.”

“Well, luckily she hasn’t.”

Both of April’s eyebrows raise in evident surprise. “You don’t want her to know?”

“No, you don’t want her to know. You wanted a secret, remember?”

Just two weeks ago April was saying that all of this had to stay between them and Sterling agreed to those terms, swore to stick by it, and now —

“I thought she already knew,” April says. “She knows our history. She knows that you kissed me at the country club that first time. I kind of just assumed.”

— now it seems as though Sterling could’ve been telling Blair everything this whole time.

She didn’t have to run to her journal after April had touched her at a campaign event. She didn’t have to gush, relaying the details of it all to Cara as if it were gossip amongst teens. She didn’t have to lie about her period or where she was going during lunch or why she kept disappearing when they were supposed to be working a case.

Holy shit.

“So, just to be clear, it wouldn’t be like a massive violation of your trust if I told her?”

April immediately shakes her head. “Absolutely not. While I appreciate your commitment to the secret, this is one area where I am willing to loosen the reins. I obviously trust your judgement and although I can’t quite believe I’m saying this, I guess I also trust Blair.”

Sterling kisses her. She has to. It’s the only way she can think to express the pride that’s bursting in her chest as she remembers standing outside of Willingham, trying to convince April to let her tell Blair, only for April, still holding tightly to their secret, to reply that Blair hated her.

This time April is the one to let out a surprised little gasp, breath warm against Sterling’s lips, before she kisses Sterling soundly, short but sweet.

Then April breaks away again, eyes shifting around the small space between them, a nervous energy coursing through her.

“In the interest of honesty, Ezekiel knows.”

Sterling feels a smirk tugging at the corner of her mouth. “So you told someone and I didn’t?” If they weren’t so pressed for time she would definitely brag about this to the point where April called her “utterly insufferable” or something. “Never would’ve seen that coming.”

“I didn’t tell him, so much as he guessed it,” April argues. She rolls her eyes, but her hand skims across Sterling’s cheek, so tender and nice that it sends a shiver up Sterling’s spine. “As it turns out, I’m really bad at denying how I feel about you.”

Sterling audibly swallows.

“And how exactly do you feel about me?”

With her hand still steady on Sterling’s face, April squares her shoulders and gently pulls Sterling in for another searing kiss.

It starts off slow, but intent, each move of April’s lips thoughtful and considered, creating a sensation that Sterling has never experienced before. Sure, they’ve kissed plenty of times, she even took it slow with April when they were pressed together in the backseat of the Volt a few days ago, but nothing has ever felt quite like this, packed tight with emotion and care.

It’s that feeling that makes Sterling wrap her arms around April’s waist, pulling her in closer, desperate for more, and April doesn’t really need to be convinced.

Their kisses get more heated, more persistent, mouths opening and hands starting to wander. Sterling starts to feel a familiar want spreading down deeply through her body, one that she knows April is feeling too, if the way she grabs at the back of Sterling’s neck and arches into her says anything about it.

Sterling drops a hand from April’s hips, fingers running up the back of her thigh, reveling in the softness of April’s skin and the way her body trembles under Sterling’s touch. Distantly, she hears her phone buzz once, twice, three times, but her mind is too busy whirling over all things April.

She wouldn’t dream of checking her phone when April is whimpering into her ear, when her lips are hot on Sterling’s neck, when her hands are wound tightly in Sterling’s hair. Sterling couldn’t imagine giving her focus to anything else, certain that if she tried to even decipher a text message all that she would read is April, April, April, regardless of what was written on screen. She shouldn’t be so caught up, not when they already established how dangerous this is, but Sterling is hooked on the way April’s lips feel, the way her breath catches with each touch, the way her kisses get deeper and more insistent when she needs to silence how good she feels.

It isn’t until Sterling’s phone buzzes a fourth time that she finally, out of frustration, breaks to check it. April’s lips are doing some of their best work along Sterling’s jawline, but Sterling forces her eyes open and holds her phone up behind April’s head to find that every missed message is from Blair.

Blair: dude are you shitting or something wtf
Blair: sterl???
Blair: just checked the bathroom and it’s empty. if you’ve been kidnapped again now is a good time to say so
Blair: sos john wants to start. where are you and april???

“Fuck,” Sterling exhales, partially because they’ve overstayed their welcome and partially because April’s teeth just scraped against her neck in the way she likes, the way that makes her knees buckle.

“Good, baby?”

And that’s just not fair. Not now when they need to wrap this up and leave.

“Yes — I mean, no — I mean, yes, but we — shit, April — we have to go.”

Sterling’s hand trembles as she manages to type a response back to Blair.

Sterling: stall him pls

April ducks out from the crook of Sterling’s neck, lips tugging into a frown.

“That was Blair,” Sterling explains, breathing still more than a little labored. “Your dad wants to start. They’re looking for us.”

“Fuck.”

April practically jumps back, fear flooding her gaze, a hand running stressfully through her hair. Sterling tries not to shiver without her added body heat. There are larger things at stake here.

“Precisely.”

“This isn’t that big of an office, Sterl.”

“I know, I know.” Sterling steps in, calmly taking April’s hands in her own. She sweeps her thumb across April’s knuckles, just like she wanted to before, noting how tense April is under her touch now. Still, the gesture is enough to make April settle just a little, eyes focusing on Sterling instead of shifting in panic for an escape. “I told Blair to stall. She’s usually pretty good at that, so we should have time.”

“Okay.” April takes a deep breath. It trembles the whole way in, but by the time she exhales, April is steady. “Thank you.”

“Of course.”

She drops Sterling’s hands to step back and although Sterling longs to pull April in again, to hold her close, to tell her that everything will be alright, to kiss her absolutely senseless, she knows that they need to make some adjustments before they step outside.

It almost doesn’t feel real, watching April make herself presentable once again. April has always been the most put together person Sterling has ever walked a school hallway with (now more than ever) and yet she still lets Sterling take her apart — tugging her hair out of place, undoing some of the buttons on her shirt, leaving her lips a little swollen and her eyes dazed. It’s amazing.

“Hey,” April says, tucking her shirt back into a skirt that is still halfway up her thighs. “I wanted to ask you something.”

Sterling doesn’t meet her gaze, too busy staring at April’s legs. “What’s up?” she wonders, distantly. Sterling feels like she’s halfway between here and outer space, especially when April tugs down the hem of her skirt, covering the soft skin that Sterling can practically still feel beneath her fingertips.

“Once the election happens and this stuff blows over, do you want to go to the lake house?”

“The lake house?”

That brings Sterling back down to earth.

April nods.

“Your dad’s lake house?”

She nods again. “That’s the one.”

“You don’t think that would be too dangerous?”

April shakes her head, her appearance now considerably decent, and she moves toward Sterling once again. “There are only cameras on the outside and there’s a blind spot at the side door. He’ll never know.” She grabs the end of Sterling’s shirt and takes it upon herself to tuck it back into Sterling’s pants, since apparently Sterling is useless to do anything but stand here and stare at April. “Plus, it might be nice, right? Sneak off uninterrupted, leave unscathed.”

Sterling nods, already imagining what they can do with all that time, her mind painting a very vivid picture of it as April’s hands slide beneath her waistband.

“We can actually spend time together. Not just stolen moments when my dad is distracted,” April continues, although Sterling doesn’t need more convincing. She already indicated a yes, pretty sure she would agree to anything April suggests right now. “It’ll just be nice to have you around for longer. We could eat a meal together, stream a movie, hang out. Normal girlfriend things.”

Maybe it’s the word girlfriend or the fact that April’s hands are no longer in her pants, but Sterling finally finds the ability to speak.

“I’d really like that,” she says, eyes fluttering shut as April gently runs her fingers through Sterling’s hair, smoothing it out.

“Yeah?”

When Sterling opens her eyes she finds April staring up at her, gaze hopeful and affectionate, willingly sporting a look of vulnerability.

“Yeah,” Sterling confirms, overcome with the thought that after a heart wrenching breakup and a truly terrible year, April is finally hers.

“Okay,” April returns, a forcibly measured tone to her voice. Sterling could point out that April’s flushed cheeks are betraying her, but she just takes the sight in with pleasure. April steps back again. “How’s my hair?”

“Not your best.”

April’s hair is more wild than usual, certainly enough to warrant criticism from her parents.

“Appreciate the honesty, Sterl. You, on the other hand, look fine.”

“Fine?” Sterling gasps, teasingly. “You sure know how to flatter a girl.”

“Don’t start,” April warns, but her gaze is soft and she appears to actively be fighting a smile that would just make Sterling want to kiss her again. They certainly don’t have time for that. April backtracks toward the door, this moment nearing its end. “I’ll go across the hall to the bathroom, fix myself a bit more, and you can head back to my dad.”

“Got it.”

It’s a solid plan.

Sterling hasn’t heard a word from Blair, so the stalling must be going well. She can pop into the meeting with an overly detailed excuse that is too much for John Stevens to want to hear and then April can join them a few minutes later, perfectly put back together.

April grabs the doorknob, throwing one last dazzling smile over her shoulder at Sterling, who should be following, should be focused, but is too caught up in all that she’s feeling for —

“April?”

A harsh light cuts into the dark supply closet from where April had opened the door. It takes Sterling’s eyes a moment to adjust to the brightness of the hallway, but she hears, clear as day, April’s voice gasp, “Daddy.”

Chapter Text

“We’ve been fired.”

Sterling winces. “Bowser, I’m sorry. I feel like it’s my fault.”

“Kind of is.”

Blair slouches down in her chair, crossing her arms. “No, I blame John and his raging homophobia.”

“You think he’d suddenly be cool with his daughter messing around at his campaign office if I were a dude?”

“Well probably not cool, considering the whole purity ring thing, but at least a smidge better.”

Bowser rises from the chair behind his desk. “Look, your love life is none of my business. I don’t need all the details of your teen nonsense,” he says, walking toward the cork board, “but in the future if it involves our case, just give me a heads up. A simple ‘hey, Bowser, I’m hooking up with the angry mayor’s daughter,’ would’ve gone a long way.”

Mayoral candidate,” Blair corrects. “He hasn’t won anything yet.”

“And he’ll only get angrier if he loses,” Sterling mutters.

When he loses.”

Blair’s fierce loyalty is normally a comfort that Sterling leans into, but right now taking John Stevens down a peg just isn’t doing it. An ache settled in her stomach back at John’s campaign office and it hasn’t let up in the two hours since John quietly threw them out, since Sterling last saw or heard anything from April, since Bowser sent Sterling and Blair to wait at Yogurtopia while he tried (and apparently failed) to reason with John.

A million different things seem to be up in the air right now, which has kept Sterling relatively quiet because her priorities aren’t the same as Bowser’s or Blair’s and they’re only in this situation because she behaved a bit recklessly. But Sterling is circling the drain. No matter how many times she reminds herself to consider that her relationship isn’t the only thing at stake here, she can’t seem to think about anything or anyone but April.

Sterling knows Bowser’s stance on adolescent drama, knows he’s already in a bad mood, but with fear clenching deep inside of her, she can’t help but ask, “Was April still there?”

Bowser shakes his head. “No, I didn’t see her.”

That could be good or bad.

It might mean that April talked her way out of trouble. Maybe she convinced John that it wasn’t what it looked like. Maybe she just went home with her mother to get started on her homework (April is definitely the kind of person to do homework on a Friday night).

But that might also be wrong.

Even as the smartest kid in their grade and a ruthless debater, April still seems to shrink around her father. So there is a chance that maybe she didn’t fight her way out of it. Maybe he threw her out of the office too.

Sterling doesn’t let herself think about anything worse than that.

“I was going to get a new fudge pump,” Bowser says, successfully pulling her out of her head. He takes down the mugshot of one of Barton’s associates and Sterling feels a pang of guilt as he reaches for another and then another, working his way across the cork board. “I was going to get a new gun and an air fryer and one of those little things that makes smoothies real easy.”

“A Nutribullet?” Blair supplies.

“That’s the one.” As he reaches the end, Bowser lets out a long sigh. The only photo left on the board is Barton’s and he certainly had the highest bounty. “I was going to upgrade my futon to a couch and buy a new truck,” he says, taking down the last mugshot.

That’s when Sterling can’t take it anymore. She jumps up from her seat. “Wait! There has to be something we can do.”

Sterling snatches the stack of mugshots out of Bowser’s hand.

“Hey!”

She ignores him, staring at the photos and praying for a plan to come to mind. Cain Barton, the million dollar man who never showed up, sits on top of the pile. Sterling traces her thumb over the jagged scar above his eye, the one that led her to suggest they nickname him Scar, “like from The Lion King.” Blair didn’t like that one anymore than she liked Candy Cain.

“What about Potter?” Sterling suggested.

“As in Harry?”

“Yeah, he has a scar above his eye too.”

“It’s on his forehead and it’s a perfect little lightning bolt,” Blair had argued. “That doesn’t hold a candle to this guy.”

And Blair may have had a point back then, but now when an idea strikes Sterling, fast, sudden, and bright, like lightning, she can’t bring herself to admit that it sucked.

“We can still work the case!” she declares.

“What do you think ‘fired’ means?” Bowser asks, trying to grab the photos back. Sterling holds them tight.

“John wasn’t paying us.” She yanks the stack free from Bowser’s grip. “The bounty was.”

“Huh?” Blair perks up, uncrossing her arms.

“We might not be allowed at his events but we can still scour the area and rope anyone that shows up.”

“How?”

Sterling grins. This plan started out as a long shot, but now it seems completely within reach. “Good old fashioned stakeouts and surveillance, like we used to.”

“Ugh, I hate stakeouts,” Blair groans, which, like, same.

Sterling knows that stakeouts are way less exciting than a fancy campaign event with free food, an open bar, and April pressed up against her, but nonetheless, “It’s our best shot.”

She turns to Bowser, desperate for some kind of response. “What do you think?” Sterling asks, feeling like she just reached the top of a rollercoaster.

To her surprise, he doesn’t immediately shut it down. In fact, he looks like he’s actually considering it. “Kid,” Bowser starts, leaving Sterling to teeter on the edge for an extra second, “you might be onto something.”

Sterling erupts with a rush of both relief and excitement, doing a little celebratory dance that Blair will definitely mock her for later.

“But,” he begins again, quickly deflating her enthusiasm, “I think it might be better if you keep your distance.”

“But it was my idea!”

Bowser takes the mugshots from her without much fight this time. He starts to pin the photos back on the board. “You can definitely do the office work. Run credit cards, check social media — that sort of thing. I just don’t think it’s a safe bet to have you around the Stevens family right now.”

“No, Cain is dangerous,” Blair interjects, coming to Sterling’s defense. “She has the best shot. We need all hands on deck.”

“He is dangerous,” Bowser agrees, “which is why we need everybody focused.”

“I’m focused,” Sterling insists, pouting and crossing her arms like a child.

“So focused that you were caught with John’s daughter and got our asses fired.”

Sterling’s cheeks fill with heat. “Well, besides that,” she mutters, defeated.

Bowser hangs the last photo. They’re officially back in business (thanks to Sterling).

He must take some amount of pity on her, because he lets out a long sigh and says, “You’ll still get your cut and you’ll just be a phone call away. If we have any sightings, we’ll let you know.”

Sterling drops her arms down to her sides. “Okay.”

“We just need to be alert when we’re on scene and this case is a little too personal for you.”

“That’s dumb,” Blair argues, but Sterling shakes her head.

“No, it’s fine,” she says, returning to her seat. “I get it.”

Even if Sterling hates the idea of being stuck in the office and looking at credit card receipts, it does make some sense. She got distracted, they got fired, and April potentially got outed to her father. That can’t happen again.

“Alright, girls, it’s been a long night. Let's start tomorrow.”

When Sterling steps out into the night just a few paces behind Blair, her stomach growls and she realizes that she never ate dinner. Neither of them did. Earlier in the evening, back when things seemed so simple, Sterling expected that she and Blair would grab food after they had their meeting with John. Then that went awry and she spent two hours pacing around Yogurtopia while Blair ate gummy bears in a tense silence.

Maybe they should stop somewhere on the way home.

“Hey, do you want to get Chick-fil-A?” Sterling asks as they approach the Volt.

“I’m not hungry.”

“You’re always hungry.”

Blair shrugs. “I guess I lose my appetite around liars.”

Sterling stops just before they reach the car. “Blair,” she says flatly.

Blair keeps walking. “What?”

“If that were the case you would’ve starved last year.”

“Then I guess I just don’t want to hang out with you.” Blair tugs on the handle of their passenger side door, but it’s locked. “Open the door, Sterl. I want to go home.”

Sterling doesn’t make a move to grab her keys and unlock their car. She focuses on the first half of Blair’s remark and the sting it caused.

“You’ve been hanging out with me all night. You were just arguing in my defense and—”

“Proving that I’m a better sister than you,” Blair finishes, arrogantly. “I always have your back even when you really don’t deserve it.”

Sterling groans. So they’re doing this again. Great.

“I was going to tell you about April.”

“Bullshit.”

“I was!”

“When?” Blair crosses her arms and squares her shoulders, her gaze narrows with a challenge. “Before or after we all had to watch you guys attempt to sneak out of a supply closet?”

“Well,” Sterling mumbles, guilt sinking deep in her gut, “the plan was to not get caught and to tell you after.”

“Well, your plan fucking sucked.” Blair holds her hand out. “Give me the damn keys.”

Sterling gives her the keys and they drive home in silence.

 

Sterling: hey, just wanted to see how everything is after last night.

Sterling: april, are you okay???

Sterling: didn’t see you or your family at church this morning. let me know if you need anything

 

Sterling calls it quits after three unanswered messages and almost a full weekend of silence. Normally she would send a hundred messages if someone she cared about was in trouble, but in this situation, with John likely finding out about the two of them, Sterling figures that less is more. She just hopes that she sees April at school tomorrow.

Sterling actually can’t wait to go to Willingham. At this point she will take any excuse to get out of the house. Blair has barely spoken to her, won’t even look at her, and refused to so much as sit next to Sterling at the kitchen table for breakfast or in their pew at church. That, along with the radio silence from April, is kind of a lot right now.

Sterling holds it together as best as she can by avoiding Debbie’s knowing glances, ignoring Blair’s obvious anger, and leaving her phone at a distance so she doesn’t jump every time the screen lights up. But eventually it catches up to her.

The uncertainty that looms for the future, the guilt of getting them fired, the concern she has for April, and the hurt she feels from Blair all starts to spill out while Sterling is alone in her room Sunday evening. A couple of tears run down her cheeks. One after another they fall, warm against her skin until she is singed with sorrow. Then there’s a knock at the door.

Sterling wipes her eyes and tries to keep her voice steady as she calls, “Come in.”

The door swings open and Debbie steps cautiously inside.

“Hey,” Debbie says, her tone so soft and gentle that Sterling just knows she failed to hide the tremble in her voice. “There seemed to be some tension downstairs. I don’t want to over step, but is everything alright with you and Blair?”

Maybe it’s because things have actually been better with Debbie recently or maybe it’s because this has been stewing in Sterling since Friday and she feels ready to blow, but Sterling finds herself admitting, “Not really. I kept a secret from her.”

Debbie’s eyebrows shoot up across her forehead in shock.

Another tear slips down Sterling’s cheek. She quickly wipes it away. “So apparently I’m just the biggest hypocrite here.”

Debbie gestures toward the bed. “May I?” she asks. She never used to ask, not before.

Sterling pulls her knees into her chest to make room for Debbie to sit. The way her mattress dips is comforting and familiar.

“You’re not a hypocrite,” Debbie says, firm and certain, yet so understanding. Sterling loosens her grip on her legs. “I don’t know what you kept from Blair, but I doubt it’s as big as the secret I kept from you.”

“I don’t think anything is that big,” Sterling quips with a watery chuckle that makes Debbie smile.

“Fair.” She shrugs in return, the exchange much lighter than it used to be. “I take full responsibility for what I put you girls through. I know that I should’ve been more honest.”

Another tear slips down Sterling’s cheek. Her vision is blurring more by the second.

“But with that said,” Debbie continues, “I know how you and Blair are. You’ve always confided in each other and while that’s amazing, it isn’t always practical. If your secret isn’t something that really impacts Blair, you are allowed to share it on your own time, when you’re ready.”

Sterling just nods at first, knowing she wouldn’t be able to get words over the lump in her throat without completely falling apart.

Debbie could’ve been petty. She could’ve agreed when Sterling called herself a hypocrite. She could’ve pointed out that now Sterling is getting a taste of her own bitter medicine.

“I, um,” Sterling starts, voice quivering on each syllable. She stops to take a deep breath, hears the way it trembles, and almost gives up, almost says never mind. But then Debbie places a comforting hand on top of Sterling’s foot, warm and solid over her sock, and Sterling finds it in herself to give in and admit, “I didn’t tell her that I was dating somebody and then she found out by accident.”

“Okay. That’s okay,” Debbie squeezes Sterling’s foot in support. “That will sting, sure, but it’s not life or death. It was up to you to tell her.”

“And I didn’t.”

“And you didn’t,” she repeats without an ounce of judgement in her voice. “Do you wish you did?”

“It’s complicated.”

It’s a general answer, but it is the truth. Part of her wanted to share this with Blair, longing for the closeness they had a year ago, but another part — a much darker part — might have resented that Blair is further along in her healing. That’s the part of Sterling that was fine with keeping this to herself.

Luckily, Debbie doesn’t push for more information.

“With everything that we went through last year, secrets are a very sensitive issue around here,” she says. “That’s not your fault. Talk to Blair if you can, love her right back — because you know that she adores you — and give her some time. She will come around, she’s just a bit bruised.”

Sterling nods, wiping the tears off of her cheeks and sniffling until her breath doesn’t sound labored anymore. Debbie’s thumb brushes against the top of Sterling’s foot the whole time, never letting go.

Once they seem to be over the hump and on the other side of Sterling’s emotional break, Debbie starts to smile.

“I hope this somebody makes you happy.”

Sterling feels heat rush to her face just at the anonymous suggestion of April. God, she’s in deep.

They haven’t had the sexuality conversation yet, but after everything they’ve been through as a family, and everything Sterling has been through this weekend, she doesn’t hesitate to say, “She really does. I—”

Sterling realizes with startling clarity that she wants to finish that sentence with love her.

“—I’m very happy.”

Debbie’s grin reaches all the way up to her wet rimmed eyes. “Good. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.” Then she leans forward, dropping her voice to a whisper as if they’re in on a secret together, “I can see how that would be complicated, though.”

“Yeah, a little,” Sterling laughs, a familiar warmth flooding through her chest.

It’s the same warmth, Sterling realizes, that she felt while sitting on this bed with Debbie after it had gotten out that she had sex with Luke. It's the same warmth that she felt in middle school after telling Debbie that she didn’t want to play the clarinet anymore. Debbie had said it was okay to quit if it made Sterling unhappy and only slightly seriously asked her to talk Blair into quitting trombone too. It’s the same warmth that Sterling felt when she came home from school to a sturdy shoulder to cry on after her former best friend suddenly didn’t want to be any kind of friend at all.

It’s a warmth of love without post conditions and of unwavering support, a warmth that April has likely never felt. That thought makes Sterling’s chest clench all over again as she pictures April, more than a little scared, sitting at home with a mother who won’t talk her through her tears or offer a comforting touch.

Debbie rises to her feet. As if she could read Sterling’s mind, she leans down and presses a kiss to her forehead. “I love you,” she says. “Always.”

“I love you too.”

The words flow naturally from Sterling without a second thought. Her body doesn’t tense up, wondering how someone who claims to care so much could tell such a huge life altering lie. It just feels normal.

“And whenever you’re ready to talk about her, I would love to hear about whoever has my girl all smiley.”

Sterling bashfully ducks her head. “I haven’t been that smiley,” she argues weakly.

Debbie scoffs. “Sweetie, if your smile produced electricity it would power this whole neighborhood until Christmas.”

The embarrassment that Sterling felt is now an afterthought, bubbling out of her in the form of a laugh.

Debbie stands there for a moment, offering one last smile before she starts to head for the door. Something in Sterling lurches at that.

“Hey, mom,” she calls after her. Debbie turns around instantly, eyes wide and jaw slack, like she just heard the voice of a ghost. “Thank you.”

“My pleasure,” Debbie returns, over an obvious lump in her throat.

For the first time since Friday, Sterling doesn’t feel like she’s desperately trying to tread water.

April finally gets a moment of peace on Monday morning. Although peace might be too strong a word for it as she pulls into the Willingham student lot long before anyone else, puts her car in park, and stares blankly out her windshield.

The sky is covered with gray clouds, hanging above black asphalt and the white painted lines of empty parking spaces. April is entirely alone and yet her fingers are still gripped around the steering wheel as if it were the only thing tethering her to the earth.

Her radio is off and has been since she got in the car this morning. The only sound — other than April’s trembling breath and a ringing that’s lived in her ears all weekend — belongs to the car keys that are still sitting in her ignition and jingling with every rapid bounce of her knee.

So peace might not be the best fit for this moment, but this is the closest April has gotten to calm since she stepped out of that supply closet on Friday and nearly walked right into her father.

This is the least panicked she has felt since John muttered, “get the hell out of my office” to Bowser, through gritted teeth because he couldn’t cause a scene in the middle of his crowded office.

This is the most April has been able to breathe since she desperately tried to claim that her stumbling into the hallway, disheveled, wasn’t what it looked like. He had glared at her, gaze aflame, and growled, “I’ll deal with you later,” because as always the election took precedence.

The Stevens reputation and his potential votes are top priority. Naturally, his daughter and her potential sexuality scandal are to be brushed under the rug.

So April’s crucifixion is currently TBD and with that hanging overhead she has barely slept a wink, her heart hasn’t stopped racing, her head hasn’t stopped pounding, and her body is bracing for hell to swallow her whole at any damn second of the day.

April wouldn’t know true peace if it smacked her over the head, but a moment outside of her bedroom, without the sound of her mother’s pleading voice or her father’s bellowing demands climbing up the stairs, is close enough.

She can focus, come up with a game plan, and pull herself together before she has to see any of her peers in the hall—

The passenger side door opens.

The sound pulls April out of her head, heart leaping into her throat, and body jolting with a start.

It isn’t until she sees a familiar face ducking into her car that April puts her hand over her chest (where she can feel her pulse still racing).

“Jesus Christ, Sterl—”

Sterling’s arms are around April’s neck and pulling her fiercely into a hug before April can even say that she was scared half to death.

Beneath Sterling’s touch, so much of what April felt this weekend melts away — the tension that curled in her shoulders, the fear that sat full and heavy in her stomach, and the panic that rattled around her brain. It gives way into something much much softer. Something that washes April head to toe with relief. Something that feels almost eerily like peace — the real kind.

It’s that something that April lets herself sink into after a very long and lonely few days.

April breathes in the scent of Sterling’s shampoo and perfume, wishing she could bottle it up and save it for later. She runs a hand along Sterling’s back and up into her hair, wanting to memorize the texture of Sterling’s uniform beneath her palm and the smoothness of Sterling’s hair between her fingers.

April wants to commit every inch of this moment to memory just in case.

“Are you okay?” Sterling asks, leaning out from April’s warm embrace.

April shrugs. It’s a terrible answer, but the truth is, “I don’t know.”

“How are things with your dad?”

“He hasn’t done anything, but he’s barely been home because the election is tomorrow. I have no idea what's going to happen once the results are in.”

Saying that out loud for the first time sends a shiver up April’s spine. It’s no longer just a feeling she had in her gut or something she overheard with her ear pressed up against her bedroom door, eavesdropping as John yelled, “We’ve given her everything and this is how she repays us?”

“John—”

John didn’t let Martha finish, barreling into, “Our daughter with that girl. Martha, she threw me in prison!”

His voice rang through the house, high in pitch and booming in volume. With all that rage he was definitely pacing, too electrified to stand still.

April turned the lock on her doorknob just as her mother made the mistake of telling John to calm down.

“Are you out of your goddamn mind?” he shouted back at her.

“The election is on Tuesday.”

“You don’t think I know that? I’ve been working my ass off for months on this campaign.”

“You can’t afford another scandal.”

“We’re not having another scandal,” he said, voice firm and decisive. April gulped. “I don’t know what has gotten into her, but this isn’t our daughter.”

“But” — Martha hesitated and her voice lowered so much that April had to strain to hear her say, “what if it is?”

“It’s not. How could you even — do you know her at all? You’re actually out here suggesting this and I can’t even think about it. I don’t want to think about it.”

“John—”

“I’m going back to the office.”

“It’s after midnight,” Martha returned, sounding more tired than anything. “John!”

Then the front door slammed and the house went so abruptly silent that it rang in April’s ears as she climbed back into bed and flicked off her light. She didn’t dare to shut her eyes.

Martha’s footsteps eventually creeped up the stairs and April half expected there to be a knock on her door. There wasn’t.

The house stayed quiet for the rest of the night and April stayed in her room for the rest of the weekend, only going downstairs for food when she saw that the driveway was empty.

“Oh, wow,” Sterling says with a heavy exhale. “It’s all still up in the air?”

April nods.

“That’s, uh…”

“Daunting?” she supplies.

“Something like that,” Sterling returns, apparently at a loss for words. She leans back in her seat, staring down into her lap where her fingers fidget with the hem of her skirt. “Are, um — are we okay?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean — look, I know the timing is terrible. You’ve got like a hundred other things to worry about besides us, but I didn’t hear from you all weekend and I guess I just—”

“Sterling,” April interjects, her firm tone bringing Sterling immediately to a stop. She wants to reach for Sterling’s hand and declare that she isn’t going anywhere, but the truth of the matter is that the future is very uncertain. So instead April says, “I don’t have my phone. Until my dad figures out what to do with me or actually has the time to do it, I’m basically on lockdown.”

“Oh.”

Sterling is clearly deflated, but April doesn’t have a satisfying answer to give.

April stares out her window, scanning past the empty parking spaces and onto the street where a school bus full of underclassmen is waiting for the traffic light to change so it can turn into the lot.

They don’t have much time. April knows they can’t be seen like this. She literally had her phone confiscated and hasn’t been allowed out of the house just for the sake of saving her father from scandal.

April reaches for Sterling’s hand in a rush. “Come over tonight.”

“What?” Sterling squeaks, eyes wide.

“Both of my parents will be out for the election.”

“Won’t you be with them?”

April shakes her head. “They don’t want me anywhere near the campaign. I don’t really fit in with his intended audience.” April hates that her voice cracks and that Sterling notices. Her whole face melts into concern, but April quickly waves it off. She’s fine. She knew this would happen. It’s her own fault. “Just come for a little while. Please. So we can talk about everything.”

“Okay,” Sterling agrees with a firm squeeze to April’s hand, but something in her voice sounds weak. There’s a tremble to it that wasn’t there before.

It’s then that April realizes that she never actually answered the question of whether or not things were okay between them.

“Don’t be worried,” April says, flickering her gaze between Sterling and the school bus. The traffic light has gone green and the Willingham campus is about to be swarming with freshman and sophomore students just desperate to break the next big rumor and land themselves fifteen minutes of popularity. “It’s just — it’s a lot right now. We can’t possibly cover everything before a crowd forms.”

This time Sterling seems to get it. “Okay,” she says, smiling just a little. “I’ll see you later, then.”

Sterling is out of the car before the bus unloads and April breathes a sigh of relief. She hasn’t even made it to first period yet and she’s already pushing her luck.

 

John hasn’t been home all day and Martha left the house hours ago. April knows that her parents are long gone and will be for the rest of the night, but there is still a lingering fear in everything she does.

Her heart races when she steals her cellphone out of the locked drawer in John’s office (miraculously, he left the passcode as her birthday). Her hands shake as she types a message, asking Sterling to park down the block just in case. Then once Sterling arrives, April is quick to usher her inside, up the stairs, and into her bedroom, locking the door behind them.

When April turns around Sterling’s cheeks are flushed. Her eyes are wide as her gaze shifts from the doorknob to April.

“Force of habit,” April says with a shrug. She didn’t beg Sterling to come here just so they could make out behind a locked door again. “I really do want to talk.”

“Okay.”

April takes a seat on her bed, leaning back against the pillows. She motions for Sterling to make herself comfortable as well, but that seems easier said than done.

“So what do you want to talk about?” Sterling asks, perching on the edge of April’s mattress. Her posture is unnecessarily straight and rigid.

April rolls her eyes. “For starters, we can talk about why you’re all the way over there and sitting on my bed like it’s a church pew.”

“What do you mean?”

“You seem uptight. Mrs. Burton isn’t here to ask if you have scoliosis. You’re allowed to slouch a little.”

The corner of Sterling’s mouth tugs upwards, hinting at a smile. “She did that to you?”

April shakes her head. “Ezekiel.”

“Was that before or after she had a few glasses of wine?”

“Well, unless she pregamed for Sunday mass or stole the Blood of Christ, I would say she was sober.”

Sterling laughs a little at that, which seems to loosen up. Her shoulders droop to a comfortable angle.

“So back to my original question,” April starts, “why are you all the way over there?”

Sterling shrugs. “I don’t know. I guess I’m not really sure what you’re comfortable with. Now that we’re in your house and your parents know—”

“They’re not here.”

“It just feels a little tricky.”

Something in April softens a little bit at that. Last year, Sterling was diving in head first and without a second thought. She was pure chaos in April’s carefully curated world, wanting to hold hands and sleep side by side in front of a room full of people, completely disregarding the community outrage it would cause. Now, they’re alone in April’s house, but Sterling is still taking a moment to consider April’s potential boundaries.

April reaches out a hand. “Lay with me?”

Sterling does.

She shifts up toward the head of the bed, leaning back against April’s pillows, and letting her legs stretch out, no longer rigid and small like she was a moment ago.

April immediately tucks into her side, resting her head on Sterling’s chest.

“This okay?” Sterling asks, cradling her arm around April’s head so that her fingers can run through her hair.

April nods.

Neither of them say anything for a moment, which April enjoys at first. She simply listens to the sound of Sterling breathing and the steady thrum of her heart beat. She feels Sterling’s fingers twirling through her ponytail and Sterling’s chest rising and falling with each breath. It’s just so nice and quiet and safe that April starts crying for the first time since they were caught on Friday.

It’s just a couple of tears. She doesn’t let it all go. They would be here all night if she did. But Sterling holds April tight until her breathing evens out and she wipes her cheeks dry.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow,” April admits, breaking the silence and getting them back on track. She feels like she should attach a “but” to that, like I don’t know what he is going to do, but it won’t change the way I feel about you, or, it won’t erase the time we’ve spent together, or, it won’t make this mean any less to me.

April doesn’t say any of those things though. They each feel a little too close to a different word, one that would sum all of those options up perfectly, but would be too big, too dramatic, too tragic to say right now when everything may be falling apart.

“I kind of told my mom about us.”

“What?” April lifts her head just enough to look Sterling in the eye, catching the way she nods to confirm. Underneath the instinct to panic and even the slight confusion, pride flickers in April’s chest when she asks, “Your mom?”

Sterling nods again. “I didn’t mention you by name or anything. I just mentioned that I was seeing a girl and that she made me really happy and…”

Sterling’s voice trails off and her gaze shifts away, causing a familiar ache to set in April’s stomach. It’s not quite the same twist that April got on Friday when she came face to face with John, but it’s similar to the way something in her gut clenched last year when she answered a FaceTime call from a teary eyed Sterling, who, over a lump in her throat, had said, “I told Blair.”

“What happened?”

“Nothing! Oh my gosh, don’t worry. It was nothing like—” Sterling stops. They both know where that sentence was going to end. She lets out a hard breath. “It was warm and great and it just made me realize that I had no idea what I was talking about at the lock-in. I didn’t know what I was asking you to do and I am so sorry that I put you in that position.”

April is a little taken aback. She half expected a sob story of Sterling’s own to follow, not a long winded apology for something April had forgiven her for months ago.

Sure, it sucked to be pressured. Aside from the obvious heartbreak April put herself through, there was a loneliness that crept in with the realization that the one person who knew her secret still didn’t understand. But April wanted all the same things that Sterling did. She loved Sterling’s enthusiasm, envied her naivete, and desperately wanted to believe in her conviction that they would make it through whatever this grave world threw at them. It just couldn’t work out like that. At least not for April.

“It’s okay.” April lets her head drop down again, cheek pressing into the soft fabric of Sterling’s shirt and finding comfort on her chest. She can’t bring herself to care about last year anymore. With the two of them lying here, April’s arm draped over Sterling’s waist, and John’s impending punishment looming overhead, it feels like a lifetime ago. “It’s in the past and past you now has exactly what she wished for. So you can tell your mom whatever you want.”

“April,” Sterling says, voice low and firm. “I didn’t want it like this.”

“I know.”

Sterling sits up, and therefore April does too. They’re face to face now, sitting so close together that when Sterling criss-crosses her legs and April does the same, their knees touch.

“I just wanted to be with you.”

“I know that too,” April repeats, smiling softly. She takes Sterling’s hand and threads their fingers together.

“That’s still true.”

“Obviously.”

Sterling looks down, focusing on the way April’s thumb traces along the base of her palm. Her throat bobs, audibly swallowing, and then she takes a deep breath, like she’s bracing for something.

“April, I—” Sterling pauses and April’s heart lurches in her chest, practically begging please. She lets out a long sigh and then her gaze finds April’s again. “I’m with you. For whatever you need.”

“Oh.” April’s heart rate begins to descend back to it’s normal pace. “That’s, um — thank you.”

“I don’t know what will happen tomorrow either, but—”

“Sterling,” April interrupts, squeezing her hand.

“Yeah?”

“Let’s forget about tomorrow.”

It comes out a lot softer than April intended, just barely above a whisper.

Neither of them know what the future holds and yet April has never been more certain of her feelings for Sterling. She doesn’t want to waste this time together by potting out each and every possible “what if.” She just wants to enjoy it as much as she can.

“Okay,” Sterling agrees, with a smile that looks almost teasing.

“I’m serious.”

“So am I,” she says, grinning now. “What’s tomorrow? Is something happening?”

“Sterl,” April warns, though her voice is anything but firm. She leans up onto her knees, bringing her free hand up to Sterling’s cheek. Sterling’s eyes flutter shut at the touch, head tilting into April’s palm, and filling her with a fluttering sensation that thrums through her entire body.

“Yeah?”

“Shut up.”

Without wasting another second, April kisses Sterling, long and soft and sweet until they somehow find themselves pressed against her mattress again.

 

April walks down the stairs with her hand tightly wrapped around Sterling’s. That same flutter still lingers sparingly in her chest, where a dreadful ache is starting to take up space, knowing that this short stint of freedom has reached its end.

Now that she’s dressed again, April’s phone is pressed into her back pocket and ready to be returned to John’s office. Her parents shouldn’t be home for a while, the results of the election aren’t due for a few more hours, but it’s getting late and April doesn’t want to take any chances.

“Good night,” she says reluctantly when they reach the foyer.

“Good night,” Sterling echoes, leaning down to kiss her.

Although the clock is ticking, they kiss as if they have all the time in the world. Sterling’s lips are slow and tender against April's. April cups her hand on the back of Sterling’s neck, holding her in place even though there hasn’t been a single sign that Sterling wants to leave.

Neither of them want it to end. They’re both clinging to this moment, knowing that this could possibly be a kiss of goodbye.

But then it does end.

With one last squeeze to Sterling’s hand, April sends her on her way, closing and locking the door behind her.

April shuts her eyes and takes a deep breath, willing herself to hold onto this feeling, to remember it regardless of what tomorrow brings. But as April leans dramatically into the door, she feels the press of her phone against her backside, and reality kicks in.

April has to sneak her phone back into John’s locked drawer in order to pull this whole thing off. Which means she can’t keep it close by, just in case things go terribly awry when her parents get home, she can’t repeatedly refresh all the local news outlets for election updates, and she can’t text Sterling while sitting in this big house all alone.

April turns the corner at the end of the hallway and her heart jumps into her throat. She stops abruptly when she sees a soft glow of light trickling out from John’s office.

Her first thought is of who she just shuffled out the door a minute ago.

If April is lucky, then in her panic earlier, she simply forgot to turn off John’s desk lamp. If she’s unlucky, then someone from her father’s campaign team slipped in unannounced to pick something up on his behalf. If she’s really unlucky, John came back early.

April takes a deep breath and forces herself forward. With each step, her heart thumps more and more. Her mind whirls for an excuse, a story to tell, any method of talking her way out of being caught with Sterling. Again.

“Dad?” she calls, voice trembling just before she reaches the doorway.

When April does reach the office she doesn’t find her father. Her heart comes to a stuttering stop when her eyes land on the face of a man that John Stevens would never let anywhere near his blemish free campaign: a man with an awful looking scar above his left eye.

“He’s not here, sweetheart.”

Chapter Text

The door to Yogurtopia chimes as Sterling pushes it open and steps inside. It’s almost closing time, so she isn’t surprised that Blair and Bowser are the only ones in the store.

She finds them both behind the counter. Neither of them are cloaked in a pink apron and a visor to match, because they haven’t been working.

Or they haven’t been working here at least.

“Were you guys just bounty hunting?” Sterling asks, putting her hands on her hips. She still hates that she has to miss it.

Blair narrows her eyes. “Wouldn’t you like to know,” she bites back. It’s as close to a sneer as one can get with a mouthful of gummy bears.

So they’re still doing this. Even though it has been three days since Sterling’s secret was exposed, Blair has not let up her grudge. Unfortunately, she is as angry and hurt and petty as ever.

“Yes, I would like to know,” Sterling fires back. “That’s literally why I asked.”

“How does it feel to be out of the loop?”

“Hey,” Bowser interjects without looking up at either of them. His eyebrows are furrowed and he’s sitting on a stool behind the register, counting out the money in the drawer. “I don’t know what’s going on here, but I don’t like it.”

“We talked about this,” Blair murmurs back to him. So she has spoken to Bowser about it but will hardly even look at Sterling. Makes sense. “She didn’t tell either of us that she was hooking up with April and we both suffered the consequences of her actions.”

Sterling groans. For what feels like the thousandth time, she says, “I couldn’t tell you because it had to be a secret!”

“And who said it had to be a secret?”

Sterling opens her mouth, then closes it, wordless. Technically April said it and Sterling agreed, but that likely won’t go over well. “We decided that it would be best for us.”

Blair rolls her eyes. “Hey, Bowsie,” she says, looking around quizzically. She crinkles her nose. “Do you smell smoke?”

“Uhhh no.”

“Because I think Sterl’s pants are on fire.”

Sterling blinks. “What?”

“You’re lying,” Blair clarifies. “April, once again, demanded you stay in the closet and you, once again, followed her every order like a well-trained golden retriever.”

Sterling charges. With a few quick steps she crosses the tile floor. She doesn’t stop until she reaches the counter, standing opposite Blair with just this small barrier between them. “First of all, I’m not in the closet. I literally told mom a few days ago.”

“Mom?”

Blair’s eyes are wide and her jaw hangs open. Sterling takes pride in that.

“Uh-huh. That’s another development you missed while you were ignoring me.” She flashes a bright, but petty grin. Just because Blair has been avoiding her, doesn’t mean that Sterling’s life hasn’t gone on. “And second of all, being a secret was one of April’s conditions, which I agreed to because—”

“You’re obsessed with her.”

“No, because it makes her feel safe, Blair.”

“Well, being kept in the loop makes me feel safe,” Blair counters, which makes Sterling ache with guilt. “The last time we kept secrets everything went to shit.”

Sterling starts to reach across the counter for Blair’s hand. “This isn’t like last time,” she assures her, voice soft and calm. She wants Blair to understand, to feel heard, to know that Sterling never meant her any harm, but Blair yanks her hand away before they can even touch.

“Oh, it isn’t? I could’ve sworn that last time you kept this secret it screwed me over.” Blair pretends to think about it for just a second. She snaps her finger as if the thought just came to her. “Oh, yeah, it did! First you cost me my relationship with Miles and now you’ve cost me my million dollar job.”

“I said I was—”

“Sorry?” Blair finishes, the word dripping with anger and disdain in a way that Sterling has only heard come from her own mouth when directed at their parents. It’s said in a way that makes “sorry” sound useless. That the one thing you have to offer this person really means nothing to them. “For what exactly? Repeatedly proving that your secret booty call means more than your sister?

“She’s not my secret booty call, Blair. I love her.”

Blair just blinks back at Sterling. Her mouth opens a few seconds before any words come out. “Have you told her that?” she asks, tone just a little sharp as opposed to the daggers she was throwing before.

Sterling looks away, staring down at her shoes. “I tried to.”

“Doesn’t count.”

Her eyes flash back up to Blair’s. “Yes it does!”

“What did you say?”

“I said,'' Sterling starts, but she can already feel her cheeks burning with blush, so she lowers her voice to mutter, “I’m with you.

Blair erupts with a cackle and the humiliation sets in. “What the fuck does that mean?” she asks, practically gasping for air when she can finally speak.

“I don’t know.”

I’m with you. Jesus Christ, that’s lame.”

“I know, but Blair—” Sterling’s phone suddenly buzzes in her back pocket before she can make any defense. She pulls it out and her eyebrows scrunch together when she sees the name on screen.

“What?” she hears Blair ask.

Sterling doesn’t look up from her phone. “It’s April.”

But April had her phone taken away. She stole it back from her father’s office to text Sterling where to park and then she was going to return it after Sterling left a half hour ago.

“Try not to blow it this time,” Blair quips.

Sterling ignores her. She taps the green button on her screen and cautiously answers, “April?”

“Shut up.”

Sterling frowns. That’s a man’s voice.

“I was just asking a question,” April says, thin and distant like the phone isn’t up to her ear.

Sterling is about to hang up or say something along the lines of, “Baby, I think you called me by mistake,” when April continues, “So you can’t tell me where you’re taking me?”

“No,” the man returns.

Sterling holds her breath. She doesn’t dare make a sound or a move to end the call. Despite April’s calm tone, these questions don’t sound good and that other voice doesn’t sound at all like John. Deep in the base of her stomach, a pit settles in, telling Sterling that this call isn’t an accident.

“Can you at least tell me why we’re going to an undisclosed location?”

“Your dad knows.”

Sterling’s heart hammers to a stop. No. She was just at April’s house and everything was fine. She was in April’s room, holding her and kissing her and touching her and they were all alone. Then when she left April locked the door behind her. Sterling heard the twist of the lock as she started down the stoop. No, it can’t be—

“What does he owe you?” April asks.

“Not me. A friend.”

It is. Sterling pulls the phone away from her ear, eyes wide, and head spinning as she says, “Cain has April.”

“What!” Bowser jumps to his feet. Both he and Blair come rushing around to her side of the counter. “How do you know?”

Sterling's hand trembles as she puts the call on speaker and holds out her phone so that they can hear. Right now it’s quiet. All she can make out is the rumbling of a car engine.

“April keeps asking him these questions,” Sterling explains. “He’s taking her somewhere but he won’t say where.”

“Alright, okay.” Blair is calm and steady when she takes the phone out of Sterling’s still shaking hand. “Let's put you on mute so you don’t give her away.”

With a quick tap of her finger, Blair mutes their end of the call and sets the phone down on the counter just in time for them to hear, “Did he meet your friend in prison?” April’s question goes unanswered, so she asks another, “Did you get your scar in prison?”

“Shut up!”

Sterling winces at the same time that Bowser nods and confirms, “That’s definitely Cain.”

Fuck.

The other end of the call goes quiet, almost eerily so. Sterling doesn’t even realize that she is practically vibrating until Blair’s fingers thread through her own. She can’t help it. She’s restless. Sterling feels utterly useless standing around in Yogurtopia waiting for something. Some tidbit of information. Some hint that April is okay. If they’re going to help her they need more.

God must be on her side tonight.

“Hey,” April starts as if she were talking to Ezekiel or Hannah B. about a math problem, “did it hurt when you got your nose pierced?”

Blair perks up. “Wet Willie!”

“Fanto, don’t answer that,” comes through the phone.

Blair frowns. “I always forget his real name isn’t Wet Willie.” She turns to Bowser. “What was it again?”

“Wilmer Fanto,” he says without missing a beat.

“Right!”

“God, how many of them are there?” Sterling groans. The thought of one dangerous man kidnapping her girlfriend had her skin crawling. Now apparently there’s more.

“Why am I tied up? Do you really think I’m stupid enough to put up a fight against four grown men with guns?”

“Oh, she’s good,” Blair says approvingly at the same time that Sterling gasps, “Four!”

This is bad. This is really fucking bad.

Four men — four criminals — have April tied up in a car and they have no idea where it's headed.

“What is it with you girls and getting kidnapped?” Bowser grumbles, annoyed, but he’s gathering his keys, his badge, and his gun.

“Where are you going?” Sterling asks. They still don’t know anything usable. They have zero sense of direction.

“We’re gonna pay John a visit.”

 

Sterling’s knee bounces rapidly from the backseat of Bowser’s truck. She can’t hear April anymore since apparently her panic wasn’t “helpful” and Blair put headphones in. In what has probably only been five minutes, it feels like a lifetime since Sterling last heard April’s voice.

Blair suddenly laughs.

“What?” Sterling asks, leaning over the center console. She’s desperate for something.

“Stevens just roasted this guy.”

Bowser cracks a smile. “Tough kid. She’s not going down without a fight.”

“Going down?” Sterling exclaims.

“Oh, Christ,” Bowser mutters under his breath. He glances in his rearview mirror as they coast to a traffic light just a few corners down from John’s campaign office. “It’s a figure of speech. Nobody’s going down.”

“Except for April on Sterl,” Blair interjects. “It’s the least she can do when we save her life.”

“Not the time,” Bowser grumbles.

“Come on, it’s the perfect time! A horny Sterling is a distracted Sterling.”

If it were possible for Sterling to be distracted right now that just might work, but she can’t think of anything other than getting April back safe and sound.

 

It’s a nightmare trying to get into John’s campaign headquarters. The entrance is blocked by voters chanting their support and waving their ridiculous signs.

“Hey! Ho,” they shout. “John Stevens is the way to go!”

It repeats over and over, too loud for any polite “excuse me” to be heard. Sterling has to push her way through the chaos, clearing a path for Bowser and Blair to follow.

She thinks she can exhale a breath of relief once they get to the door, but the other side is just as cramped. Sterling can hardly shove the door open, because the inside is so overrun with cameras and reporters and flashing lights, all eagerly waiting for a headline to present itself.

They wedge their way in.

“As a person of color, what do you think John Stevens does for you?” one of them asks Bowser.

He ignores the microphone in his face and nudges Sterling’s back, a silent way of saying, “Keep going.”

Then there’s the madness of the campaign staff, bouncing back and forth like they're caught in a pinball machine. Phones ring from every desk and a TV blares from up on the wall with a news anchor giving the latest updates local news has to offer.

Sterling takes a deep breath and steps forward. She doesn’t stop for anyone, side stepping past panicked assistants and ignoring any question of who she is and where she’s going, until she reaches John’s office door. With no hesitation she pushes it open.

“What the hell?” he exclaims from behind his desk. Martha stands in the corner and John’s campaign manager sits in a chair across from him, both stunned.

Sterling keeps her eyes on John, but points at the campaign manager. “You’re gonna want him to leave.”

“No, I want you to leave. You were fired, remember?”

Bowser steps in front of her for the first time since they got out of his truck. “With all due respect, we’re here as a courtesy. This is serious.”

John folds his hands on his desk. He stares quizzically at Bowser, then shifts his gaze to Sterling. Those few seconds feel like a lifetime before he finally lands his eyes on his campaign manager. “Give us a minute, Chuck,” he says, and the man leaves the room without a single question.

They wait in silence until the door closes behind Chuck, then John leans forward over his desk. He drops his voice to a low growl. “You have thirty seconds to tell me why the fuck you’re in my office on election night before I call the cops and have you dragged out of here.”

Sterling blurts, “Cain Barton showed up. He has April.”

“What?” Martha gasps, stepping further into the room instead of just hiding like a decorative plant.

“They’re lying,” John insists. He leans back in his chair, cool as could be. “How would you even know that?”

“April called me.”

“She doesn’t have her phone.”

“She stole it out of your office.”

“Impossible. I kept it in a locked—”

“The passcode is her birthday, you imbecile,” Sterling snaps. For just a flicker of a second, John briefly stuns. They don’t have much time. Cain could be bringing April anywhere, with intentions that are still unknown, and they’re already very far behind. “Where would they take her?”

“That’s your job and you were fired.”

“John!” Martha pleads.

John waves a hand, dismissing Martha’s attempt to get him to listen. His mind is made up.

Bowser takes another step forward. “Listen, we’re not fucking around. Cain Barton has your kid and he’s looking to get paid. Do you have a place where you keep money?”

“No, I do not.” John holds his head up arrogantly, refusing to even look at them. Sterling could strangle him. How could he care that little about his own daughter? “Time’s up. Get out or be dragged out.”

“Mr. Stevens,” she tries, but Sterling cuts herself off when she hears a phone chime. She turns toward Blair, but Blair doesn’t budge. The notification wasn’t hers. It was John’s.

When John leans forward in his chair to get a better look at his lit up screen, his whole face changes. The stern, narrow gaze that he glared at them, widens. The scowl that pulled at the corners of his mouth drops even more, leaving him with a frown.

“Movement detected,” he mutters more so to himself than anyone else. He looks up at Martha. “Someone just tripped the security cameras at the lake house. They’re going for the safe.”

“You have a safe?” Bowser exclaims, frustration evident. “Didn’t I just ask you if you had a place where you keep money?”

Sterling couldn’t care less. She doesn’t wait for John to answer. She simply turns back toward Blair. “Did April mention anything about the lake house?”

Blair pulls out one of her headphones. “Dude, she got her mouth taped like five minutes ago. I just didn’t want to freak you out.”

“What the fuck?” Sterling stressfully runs her hands through her hair. She is definitely freaked out. This whole thing is a disaster. She should’ve been with April when Cain showed up and John should—

“Do something!” Martha desperately pleads with her husband.

John slowly rises to his feet. He points a finger at Sterling and the whole room seems to stop. The noise from the lobby disappears and all that she hears over the ringing of her ears is, “This is your fault.” John’s voice wavers with hints of rage barely kept at bay. “If you never got involved with my daughter, she would’ve been here, safe and protected.”

Her lip quivers. Sterling inhales a shaky breath, tears threatening to spill from her eyes. But before she can cry or unnecessarily apologize, Bowser springs across the desk.

He grabs a fistful of John's shirt. “No, your daughter would’ve been here, safe and protected, if you weren’t such a piece of shit. Now, let’s go.”

“I’m not going anywhere.” John wiggles himself free. He runs a hand over his shirt, smoothing out the wrinkles and straightening his tie. “It’s election night. The results are due soon. I have to be here.”

“Oh, fuck your campaign, John.”

All four heads snap in Martha’s direction as she fully steps out into the middle of the room with the rest of them.

John blinks. Sterling doesn’t think she has ever seen him so speechless. “Excuse me?” he manages.

“Our daughter is in danger because you cheated on me with a prostitute, went to prison, and promised a criminal money that we don’t have. Go get her and bring her home.”

Holy shit.

The shock must wear off for John. He gets a familiar looking sneer on his face. It’s the same one he wore when he called Sterling and Blair the C-word on the dock of his lake house. “Or what?” he challenges, voice low as he moves into Martha’s personal space.

Sterling expects her to back down, to shy away. Martha never stands her ground against John. Not last year when he cheated and not on Friday when he caught April with a girl.

But Martha doesn’t budge. Unlike John, her rage is controlled. It only shows in the wicked little smile she gets as her eyes twinkle with an idea, like April right before she gives a closing argument. “Your family values platform will look really stupid if you end up divorced and childless.”

“You’re bluffing. You wouldn’t.”

“And you can’t afford to find out. Another scandal would ruin you.”

“Damn,” Blair says from beside Sterling. “I always liked you, Mrs. S.”

“No, you didn’t,” Sterling hisses, hushed and unheard by anyone but her sister.

“Not the time,” Blair whispers back, returning her other headphone to her ear.

When Sterling tunes back in, John and Martha appear to still be in a standoff. They don’t have time for John to cling to his ego through a staring contest with his wife.

Luckily, Sterling isn’t the only one who knows that. Bowser steps in beside Martha, ready to declare her the winner. “Are you going to walk out with us or should I drag you out in front of all these cameras and reporters?”

John walks.

 

Blair is the best. If she is willing to hear Sterling out when this is all said and done, Sterling will tell her so.

She deserves all the corner brownies, mango yogurt, and sour patch kids the world has to offer, because not only is she still attentively listening to April’s phone call, but she is also in the backseat of Bowser’s truck with John Stevens, while Sterling safely rides shotgun and stares out the window.

She thinks about being in April’s bed a few hours ago. How the future was so uncertain, and yet it almost felt like it was right there in front of them, like Sterling could just reach out and touch it.

Every caress of April’s skin, every graze of her lips, every soft sound that came fumbling out of her mouth, convinced Sterling more and more that this was worth it. The uncertainty of what was to come didn’t matter. They mattered.

She swore to herself then that regardless of what happened tomorrow, they would find their way back to each other and have another moment like that one. She swore that nothing, not even John Stevens, would stand in the way of it. But in that moment she never planned a single one of her what if’s around Cain Barton kidnapping April.

Now she’s not so sure.

“What’s the moves?” Blair asks when Bowser’s GPS shows that they’re only ten minutes from the lake house.

“I don’t know.” He already sounds defeated. “We’re outnumbered and there’s security cameras. They’ll see us coming from a mile away.”

Sterling slouches into her seat, letting her head rest against the window. Each street light they pass under flickers through the glass, bouncing off of her skin and warming her in a golden glow just for a second. She wonders how that soft hue would look if it were caught in April’s hair and shining off her already radiant smile. She wonders, if they had actually made the trip, when they would’ve woven along these roads to the lake house. If the trees would be bare like they are now or dressed in the green of spring. Would they drive over on a sunny Saturday afternoon or sneak off into the night?

When April presented the lake house trip to Sterling in the supply closet they didn’t really get into the specifics. Or maybe they did. Sterling wasn’t exactly focused. She was too kiss-drunk and high on the feeling of April’s skin beneath her fingers and her breath in Sterling’s ear. It seems now like that was the right call.

Because as Sterling stares out at the road, she is deep in thought, desperately trying to commit to memory the way April’s shampoo filled her senses as she kissed along Sterling’s jawline, dousing each ragged breath with the smell of roses, when suddenly—

“There’s a blind spot!” Sterling sits up, lifting her head off of the window. Holy shit. She was paying attention while April got herself dressed. “We could sneak in the side door and they would never even know we were there.”

Bowser and Blair stare wordlessly at her, jaws hung open, for what must be the longest second of Sterling’s life. Her heart hammers in her chest, loud enough that they can probably hear it over the hum of the engine.

John breaks the silence. “What — how did you — did you two use my lake house?”

Sterling turns to him, blush flooding to her cheeks. She almost forgot he was still back there. “No,” she says, and then just to twist the knife, adds, “but we thought about it.”

“Damn! Good for April.” Blair nods in approval. There’s a mischievous smirk on her face as she elbows John in the ribs. “Never would’ve guessed she had it in her, right, Johnny?”

“Blair!”

John is red in the face. He looks ready to erupt before Bowser interjects with, “Okay, so side door!”

 

They have to park about a half mile away from the house and walk through a wooded area in order to get to the side door undetected, according to John. It doesn’t sit well with Sterling that they’re essentially putting their lives in his hands.

Bowser tries to download the app that connects to the security cameras, but the service out here is spotty and it’s wasting time. “We’re going in blind,” he decides after a few minutes.

“What do you want me to do?” John asks.

“Wait here.”

“No. That’s my house, my money, and my kid.”

Bowser turns toward the backseat. His patience with John has worn thin. “Well, the three of us can’t protect you, save your daughter, and take down four criminals. So unless you want to be used as bait, stay put.”

John doesn’t argue again.

“Do you still have April on the call?” Bowser asks Blair.

She nods. “They split up. It seems like two of them are with her and the other two are looking for the safe.”

“It’s in the basement.” John makes himself useful for the first time all night. “I cut out the base of an old cabinet and put it over the safe so it doesn’t stand out.”

Maybe they won’t even find it. Hopefully they don’t take that out on April.

Bowser gives John a quick nod of thanks, then focuses back on Blair. “Where did Cain go?”

“Definitely with the safe.”

“Okay, I will go to the basement. You girls go for April.”

 

Leaves crumble under Sterling’s sneakers as they shuffle through the woods in single file. Bowser leads the way, Blair is in the middle, still with her headphones glued to her ears, and Sterling, reluctantly, is trailing in the back.

The pathway that John instructed them to find is old and overgrown with tree roots. Thankfully most of the leaves have fallen and the moon is bright in the sky, shining through barren tree branches and lighting the way. Otherwise, someone probably would have broken an ankle by now.

“Can you at least put the call on speaker?” Sterling asks. Her feet hurt, she’s sweating, and she hasn’t gotten a single update on her girlfriend since they got here.

“Hell no. You’ll be distracted.”

“I’m distracted right now, letting my mind wander. I just want to know what I’m walking into.”

“She’s right,” Bowser says. “We all need to be prepared. Put it on speaker until we get close.”

Blair lets out a long sigh and grumbles something under her breath. She takes out her headphones, shoves them in her pocket, and finally puts the call on speaker for all to hear.

Since April got her mouth taped there hasn’t been much on the other end. It certainly isn’t like when Sterling first answered the phone at the yogurt shop. Now the call is mostly filled by the white noise of whatever room they’re in, footsteps on a creaking hardwood floor, and the occasional muffled voice from someone on Cain’s team.

Eventually they get something clear.

Distantly a man calls, “Hey, we found it. Come downstairs.”

Sterling perks up. “Found what?”

“The safe,” Blair says.

Sterling’s heart starts to beat faster. If they don’t get to April before Cain gets the money, she doesn’t know what will happen next.

Another voice sounds through the phone. This time it comes from someone much closer. “I’ll go down. You stay with her.”

“Got it,” his partner agrees. So, if Sterling is tracking this correctly, now there’s only one person with April and three going for the safe.

“I think that was Wet Willie.” Blair stops short on the path just before they reach the clearing. Sterling nearly walks right into the back of her. “The one that stayed with April.”

Bowser stops as well, turning around. “How do you know it’s him?”

“I chased him through the country club one time and I masterbate to the thought of him on the reg. I’m basically an expert.”

“Point taken.” He grimaces. “Sorry I even asked.”

He starts to walk away, continuing to the edge of the pathway, but Blair doesn’t move. She stares at the phone in her hand, seemingly in thought. Sterling steps around her, eager to keep going when—

“Hey.” Blair grabs Sterling’s wrist and pulls her to a stop. “We have to split up. You have to go with Bowser.”

“What?” Sterling’s eyes widen. Blair can’t be serious. “No. I’m getting April.”

“Somebody has to go with him. Three on one is basically a death sentence—”

“Hey!” Bowser objects.

“—and you’re a better shot than me. It should be you.”

Sterling eyes burn with tears and she hates it. She hates that this plan actually makes logical sense. She hates that Blair shifts her grip to cradle Sterling’s hand. She hates that she feels her resolve crumbling under her sister’s comforting touch.

“But — but,” Sterling stammers helplessly for a rebuttal.

Blair squeezes her hand. “You still have to tell April you love her, remember?”

She nods. A tear slips down her cheek.

“So focus up.” Blair stands straighter, shoulders back and chin up high. “I got this, Sterl. I can take Wet Willie.”

“You are the expert.”

“Exactly.”

Sterling stares back at her, searching for any fleck of doubt that might be lurking in Blair’s gaze. She doesn’t find anything. Blair is confident and certain and she has a look in her eye that Sterling recognizes. There will be no talking her out of this.

Sterling gives in.

“I also love you,” she says, sniffling a little.

“I know,” Blair returns, “and I love you too, doofus. Now, go.”

Sterling goes.

The living room of the lake house has always been cozy. There are dark wood floors, a couple of throw rugs, a fireplace, and the blanket April’s grandmother knitted that hangs off the back of the couch.

She has good memories here.

This is where her father showed her Star Wars for the first time. It’s where she and Adele roasted marshmallows on a weekend that turned unexpectedly cold. It’s where April stayed up late, whispering gossip with Ezekiel, while Hannah B. snored through whatever stupid romcom she picked out.

But it is also where she finds herself now with her wrists zip tied to the arm rests of an old computer chair and her mouth taped shut.

Suddenly this familiar place, this childhood getaway that always brought out the best in her messy family, feels a lot like a nightmare.

There’s four men standing in the middle of the room. Two of them have guns strapped at their sides and the other two appear to be unarmed. The one that was in her house, standing behind her father’s desk, seems to be the ringleader. The other three simply do as they’re told.

They may be armed and dangerous, most of them likely have criminal records, but they’re not smart.

None of the men have thought to search April for a cell phone or a pocket knife or anything she could use to get herself out of this situation. With just her wrists tied together, she was able to sneakily dial Sterling’s number while in the third row back seat of the SUV they drove over here, and no one noticed a thing.

They didn’t even try to avoid the security cameras. They pulled right in the driveway and kicked in the front door. If her mouth wasn’t taped she could’ve told them there was a spare key under a rock by the stoop, but they didn’t even seem to care about going in undetected. It was like they wanted to leave damage, like they wanted John to know they were here.

Apparently his need to avoid scandal and police is so well known that even the men kidnapping his own daughter are aware. They know that his political career would be over as soon as the public learned about his deal gone wrong with a criminal kingpin.

The leader of the pack walks up to where April is sitting. He yanks the tape off of her mouth in one swift pull, but she doesn’t grimace at the way it stings.

“Where’s the safe?” he asks, voice low and stern.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Don’t play dumb. It’s not going to work. We know your father has a safe.”

“He’s not a heathen. He has a bank account,” April counters. “Maybe try robbing a Capital One instead.”

The man crouches down so that they’re eye to eye, his ugly, jagged scar on display right in front of her. “You better hope we find it,” he warns. “Otherwise we’ll be holding you for ransom.”

April doesn’t cower in fear like he expects, even if she may want to. She straightens her spine, tilts her chin up, and stares him down. “Then you kidnapped the wrong person. My father is not going to give you a penny to save me.”

“Then you should start saying your prayers, kid.”

He pulls the tape across her mouth again.

John has shared a lot of things with her over the years, trusted her to carry herself with more than a kid should, but April has never heard of a safe in this house.

It just wouldn’t make sense. Her family isn’t here often enough for a safe to be properly secure and they’re too far away from it should anything happen. Hell, they keep a key under a rock by the stoop. It’s hardly a place for John to hide whatever is left of his money.

But these men are insistent that the safe is here. So insistent that the leader takes one of the other guys with him to start searching for it, since apparently he thinks April just won’t cooperate.

She can do nothing but listen to the sounds of shattering glass as they recklessly tear the place apart.

The noise eventually fades out. Her ears still ring even in the silence. Both men have worked their way further into the house, surely leaving destruction behind at every opportunity.

It isn’t long after that that April hears a voice call, “Hey, we found it. Come down.”

She perks up.

John actually has a safe.

The two guys that were left in the living room look at each other and then over at April.

“I’ll go down,” one of them says. “You stay with her.”

“Got it,” the guy with the nose ring agrees. The others have called him Fanto a few times. April has never heard that name before, but she knows his face. He was on the security camera the night she let Sterling kiss her in the country club hallway. Blair probably has a ridiculous nickname for him.

Based on what she’s observed so far tonight, April guesses that Fanto is the weakest link. Which is probably why he’s here babysitting a restrained teenager and not breaking into a safe with the others.

He sits on the arm of the couch with his phone in his hand. The background music of some sort of game plays softly through the room. If April weren’t tied to a chair right now, this would definitely be her best chance to escape.

She twists her wrists and tugs with all her might, but the zip ties only press harder into her skin. They don’t snap. She doesn’t slip out.

Maybe she could talk her way out of this. She’s the debate captain for a very good reason. Maybe she can convince him to untie her.

April is about to whine and groan, in hopes that he takes the tape off her mouth, when a phone suddenly starts to ring. She jolts at the sound. It can’t be hers, can it?

Fanto leaps off the couch with a start, landing tall on his feet. It’s his phone.

“Hello?” he answers. His eyes shift over to April. She swallows nervously. “Okay, I’ll put you on speaker.”

He walks right up to her, phone in hand, and crouches down to be on her level. “They need the code for the safe,” he says, yanking the tape off her mouth. It hurts less this time.

“I don’t know it.”

“Yes, you do.”

April rolls her eyes. Is this really his best attempt at an interrogation? She definitely could’ve talked her way out of this.

“I didn’t even know there was a safe until five minutes ago,” she reminds him.

Fanto scoffs. “Come on.”

How many different ways does she have to say it before these guys figure it out? She doesn’t know anything.

“I would give you all of my father’s money if I could, but he never told me about it.”

Fanto taps his screen, muting the call. It’s just the two of them right now. “I don’t think you understand the stakes here. Your life is on the line. Even if you don’t know it, you know your father. Give them your best guess.”

He holds the phone up to her mouth and unmutes the call.

April starts with her birthday. “0-3-1-0.”

It doesn’t work.

Next she tries her parents’ anniversary. “2-6-0-2.”

That doesn’t work either.

She works through every important date she can think of — birthdays, anniversaries, addresses, Star Wars references, Fourth of July for God’s sake — and they all get denied.

April doesn’t know what else to do. She can hear through the phone that the other men are losing their patience.

She wracks her brain for another combination of numbers, but it's hard to lock in on anything when Fanto saying, “your life is on the line” plays on a loop in the back of her mind.

The one thing April can’t seem to pinpoint is when these men will decide they’re finished with her. If she doesn’t guess the code soon will they deem her useless? Or will they keep her alive until they get the money? What happens then?

Hopefully Sterling happens by that point.

“1-2-2-5,” April guesses as a shot in the dark. Christmas. The day of the Lord’s birth.

“I’m in,” the leader says, before he hangs up on Fanto.

It worked. Of course.

The tape goes back over her mouth before she can fully process what just happened and before she can remember her plan of talking her way out of this.

Fuck.

It was an opportunity, the best one she had all night, and she blew it. She completely missed it. Now Fanto backs away again, returning to the game on his phone and the arm of the couch.

April stares into space, waiting. She doesn’t know what she’s waiting for, though. Something is going to happen next, but she hasn’t figured out their next move. What comes after they get the money?

It’ll only be a matter of time before she finds out.

Movement suddenly catches at the corner of her eye. April turns toward the entryway, bracing for the return of the other men. Relief washes over her instead.

Never in a million years did April think her saving grace would be Blair Wesley army crawling towards her, but here she is.

Blair drags herself across the floor by her elbows, staying as low to the ground as possible. There’s a gun strapped to her hip and Sterling’s pink phone case is sticking out of her back pocket.

Sterling. God, she loves that girl.

April hoped — prayed — that Sterling got her phone call. She knew deep in her bones that if it went through and her service didn’t cut out as they weaved along the wooded roads that Sterling would come rescue her.

It was her only chance.

The police wouldn’t know enough about her father’s situation in order to get here in time and given that it's election night, John would’ve led them astray every chance he got.

She had to get Sterling’s attention and she had to hope that the Wesley’s and Bowser were good at their job.

When Blair notices April staring, she scowls and waves a hand, gesturing for her to look away.

Right. If Blair is going to sneak in here unnoticed, April has to act natural.

She shifts her focus back to Fanto, heart pounding in her chest. April still doesn’t know what will happen next, but for the first time there’s a chance it might go her way. Fanto is still happily engrossed with his phone and Blair is going entirely undetected.

Or at least she is until her shoe squeaks against the wooden floor.

Fanto looks up. He jumps from his seat.

“Shit,” Blair mutters, scrambling to stand. She rushes to the back of April’s chair and shoves it, sending April rolling toward Fanto like a bowling ball to a pin.

April ducks her head just before they collide, fully plowing into his stomach. He lets out a loud groan above her and doubles over.

Then the back of her chair is being yanked in another direction. April can only go where the wheels take her. Blair steps in front of Fanto, who is still gasping for air, and kicks him swiftly below the belt.

He groans again, falling to his knees.

“Sorry,” Blair winces.

Did she just apologize to April’s kidnapper?

Before she can dwell on it, Blair is wheeling the chair through the living room and into the hallway, where she turns to the left. If April didn't have her mouth covered and her hands restrained, she would tell Blair that the closest exit is to the right, but they keep going until Blair finds an open door.

She wheels April into John’s office — the lake house version. It’s a windowless room, paneled in the same dark wood that lines the living room floors. Book shelves span the walls, but they were mostly just filled with collectors items of model Star Wars ships and autographed baseballs. The protective cases for John’s prized possessions now lay shattered on the floor after the room had been torn apart in a mission to find the safe.

Blair locks the door behind them. “This place is like a fucking maze,” she says more so to herself than to April. She scans what can be seen of the room in this darkness. “And a mess. Damn.”

Her chest is heaving. April’s is too. The rush of adrenaline is coursing through them both, but Blair plays it remarkably cool. “I can’t believe I just had to kick Wet Willie in the balls. Sterling’s gonna love hearing about that one. I was so torn, you know? On the one hand, he’s now a kidnapper, but if he weren’t, my future children could’ve been in there.”

She rips the tape off April’s mouth in one quick go.

April grimaces. It still stings a little. Even after three times. Blair looks a little too satisfied.

“You enjoyed that,” April remarks.

Blair grins. “I did a little, yeah.”

She shuffles through the mess toward the desk that sits in the middle of the room and flips on a lamp to give them some light.

Blair immediately frowns. “The vibe in here did not get any better now that I can clearly see.” She picks up the Confederate flag that had fallen across John’s desk. She pinches it between two fingers and holds it at a distance before she drops it to the floor amongst the wreckage. “Remind me later to boil my hand.”

“Noted,” April agrees, though she will do no such thing. Her mind is rather occupied with the fact that they’re still in this house with four criminals and she is still restrained by a couple of zip ties. “I probably would’ve been more help out there if I weren’t stuck in this chair.”

“Nah, you did just fine.” Blair snickers to herself. Apparently ripping tape off of April’s mouth wasn’t the only part of this nightmare that she enjoyed.

“Okay, well I still would’ve preferred to not be used as a prop.”

“All I have is a gun, dude.” Blair points to the weapon on her hip. “Did you really want me to try and shoot the ties off you?”

April frowns. That certainly wouldn’t be a good idea. “I suppose not.”

“I suppose not,” Blair repeats, mockingly. She yanks open one of the desk drawers and starts rummaging through it.

“How did you know I was here?” April asks. She tries to wiggle her way out of the zip ties again since apparently they don’t have anything handy to cut them. “My mouth got taped before I could figure it out.”

“We went to see your dad and they came up on the security camera.”

April lifts her eyebrows. It shocks her so much that she gives up on trying to break free. “I’m surprised he even let you in.”

“He didn’t really have a choice.” Another drawer is flung open. Blair doesn’t even look up at April. She just dives right in. “Sterl pretty much forced her way inside and then your mom threatened divorce if he didn’t help us — which was totally badass by the way. Oh, jackpot!” She holds up a pair of scissors and smiles mischievously. “I know I’m not the sister you’re used to scissoring, but this will have to do.”

April rolls her eyes. Typical Blair. “That reminds me,” she starts, as Blair makes her way back over to her side of the room. “Where is my preferred Wesley sister?”

“Oh, come on!” Blair stops just short of her chair to pout. “I just saved your damn life and I’m not even your preferred Wesley?”

April looks away. She realizes that while Blair might not have been the knight in shining armor she expected, she still hasn’t been very appreciative toward her.

“Thank you,” April says, earnestly. “I’m really grateful for your help. I know you’re not my biggest fan.”

“Well, you’re not totally terrible,” Blair begrudgingly admits. She steps up to April’s chair, scissor held tightly in her hand and staring down at the zip ties. “It helps that my sister loves you.”

“She does?”

“Shit.” That’s all the confirmation that April needs. Her heart soars so much that she hardly even notices when Blair snips one of the ties off of her wrist. “Stop distracting me, Stevens. I’m trying to become a millionaire.”

Right. There are bigger things at stake here. Four dangerous men are still in this house. That should take precedence to a pretty girl being in love with April and April loving her right back.

April’s body doesn’t quite get the memo.

Her stomach still flutters with butterflies. Her chest fills with a level of elation she has never experienced before. Such a pure joy flows through her body, all the way to the tips of her toes.

It takes a minute for her mind to take control again. She has to focus on something else and distracts herself with the only way she can: she bickers with Blair.

“One million does not make you a millionaire. Especially if you’re splitting it between three people,” she says matter of factly.

Blair hesitates before cutting the last tie. “Do you want to be left behind?”

April levels her with an all-knowing stare. “You would never do that to Sterling.”

Her mouth opens and she stammers for a few seconds, failing to come up with a rebuttal. “Just shut up,” Blair grumbles before clipping the final restraint.

April lifts her wrist immediately from the armrest, cradling it like a movie character who had just been released from handcuffs. Now that she’s free, she lets herself be distracted for one second more.

“Seriously though, is Sterling okay?”

Blair shrugs and it seems to suck all the air out of the room. “I don’t know. We split up.”

April doesn’t like that answer. Given their situation, that could mean anything. There is danger lurking at every corner.

“Hey.” Blair puts a hand on her shoulder, squeezing it in support. She offers April a smile. It’s oddly comforting. “I like to take the lack of gunshots as a good sign.”

As if on cue, a loud pop, one that is unmistakably a gunshot, rings out through the house.

April flinches at the sound. She stares frantically back at Blair, wondering what her next piece of wisdom might be.

“Fuck,” Blair curses. “We have to get out of here.”

“How do you expect to do that?”

She cluelessly scans the room, searching for an answer to April’s question. “Umm…”

After a second of uncertainty Blair springs for the door. She slowly turns the handle, peeking out into the hallway. Thankfully, there’s nobody on the other side. She glances back at April and shrugs before stepping out of the office.

This is her big idea?

April very well might die at the hands of Blair Wesley.

They start to tiptoe down the hall, flinching at every blaring gunshot, and make their way back into the living room. There’s no sign of Fanto — or Wet Willie, rather. Maybe he followed the gunfire.

They step over pieces of broken glass and shattered porcelain, trying to move as quietly as possible.

“What the hell happened here?” Blair whispers, glancing over her shoulder at April.

“A kidnapping and burglary,” she deadpans in response. Blair is still staring back at her and nearing an end table with possibly the only unbroken thing in the house sitting on top. “Watch where you’re—”

She bumps the table and the old vase that belonged to April’s great grandmother plummets to the floor with a loud crash, joining the other scattered pieces of April’s childhood.

“Oh no.” Blair stands frozen as footsteps start to thunder down from upstairs, getting louder with each step. “We, um, might have a problem.”

“Let me guess,” April hisses, “you just caused it.”

“Likely true.” Blair reaches for the gun strapped to her hip. This is really happening. “You ready to fight, Stevens?”

April quickly grabs a fire poker hanging by the mantle of the fireplace. “Well, I’m not just a damsel in distress.”

There are three voices coming from down in the basement. The sound travels up the stairs to where Sterling and Bowser hover, waiting for a moment to strike.

“Can’t we get this over with?” she whispers, eager to catch some bad guys and save her girlfriend.

Bowser shakes his head and holds up one finger, signaling for her to wait a minute.

She’s too restless to listen. “I could be helping Blair right now.”

“Blair is about to be helping us,” he says in a hushed tone. Sterling scrunches her eyebrows in confusion. “When she goes for April, she’s bound to make some noise. Barton will send one of them up to check it out. We take that guy out and then we go down for the other two, evenly matched.”

Wow. That makes a certain amount of sense.

Sterling is about to huff that although it’s smart, she still doesn’t like this plan, when it suddenly launches into motion. There’s a clatter from the other end of the house, one that makes her body tense and her mind race through a quick prayer, and sure enough, Barton’s voice directs one of his men upstairs to find out what’s going on.

Sterling braces herself. This is it. Beneath the ruckus of whatever Blair is doing — are those wheels that she hears? — Sterling can just barely make out the sound of footsteps climbing up the stairs.

Bowser pins himself to the wall right by the opened door. He waves a hand for Sterling to get back. She does, crouching down behind a hallway table.

From where she’s squatting she can see a man nearing the top of the stairs. His gun is in his hand, clenched tightly in his fingers. She can’t make out much of his face. It’s too clouded by shadows in the dark stairwell. Maybe his mugshot has been staring back at her for weeks and maybe it hasn’t.

She doesn’t really get the chance to find out, because as soon as he steps out into an ounce of light Bowser knocks him in the head with his gun. It’s done with enough force to render him unconscious and the man sways, ready to fall.

“Shit,” Bowser curses under his breath. He stumbles forward, trying to catch the man before he can hit the ground with any kind of loud thud.

He does. At what seems like the last second, Bowser’s hand closes around his shirt and he lowers the guy gently to the ground, without making any extra noise.

Sterling exhales a breath of relief. Crisis averted.

She leaves her hiding spot, quickly throwing a pair of handcuffs on the man Bowser just knocked out. “Nice move,” she squeaks out. Her nerves are high, knowing what the next part of their plan is.

“Thanks.” His eyes wander to the basement door, then back to Sterling. “You ready?”

Sterling gulps. She remembers what they’re here for. “Let’s do it.”

They creep down the stairs, Bowser leading the way, each with a gun in hand. It’s just like hunting. It’s just like hunting. It’s just like hunting, Sterling tells herself repeatedly, but it doesn't calm her down at all. It doesn’t stop her hand from sweating and her heart from thundering in her chest, because she isn’t in the woods and these men aren’t deer. A deer wouldn’t shoot back. Cain Barton, on the other hand, won’t hesitate.

From over the railing she spots the safe. It’s open. April must’ve known the code. There’s stacks upon stacks of cash piled up inside, along with a few jewelry boxes for family heirlooms and Mrs. Stevens’ pearls. Unless he promised Stanley Lewitt an asinine amount of money, John totally could’ve paid his debts with all this.

Cain and another man — Sterling recognizes him from the cork board. Blair called him Python because of a snake tattoo on his neck — are crouched in front of the safe, loading as much as they can into a bag. It’s like something straight out of a movie.

The only problem is that if this were a movie this would be the scene that would make Sterling’s stomach turn so much that she'd have to bury her head in Blair’s neck until the coast was clear.

Bowser lowers his foot to the final step and his presence must catch the corner of Python’s eye, because he suddenly turns toward the stairs. Bowser draws his gun, firing on reflex, but he misses. The bullet ricochets off the steel safe and launches straight back, between the two of them, and through the wall.

Off to a great start.

Chaos ensues after that. Python and Cain scramble for their guns as Bowser ducks for cover by a stacked washer and dryer. Sterling stays crouched in the shadows of the stairwell, peering out from behind the railing.

If she’s going to shoot it has to be good. A single shot would give away her position and a simple wooden railing certainly won’t shield her from harm.

Bullets fly in Bowser’s direction. He’s completely helpless, wedged into a corner with no way to get a shot off. It’s up to her.

Sterling takes a deep breath, trying to steady her hands as she points her gun. It’s just like hunting. It’s just like hunting. It’s just like hunting. She shoots.

Python drops to the ground with a cry of pain and Barton’s attention shifts toward the stairs. It gives Bowser an opportunity to peek out from behind his cover and attempt a shot.

As soon as he leans out into view Cain quickly switches back and fires, sending Bowser to the ground as a last resort.

Then once the shot is off, so is Cain. He dashes toward a back door, ready to escape.

“Sterl, go!” Bowser calls from down on the floor.

She takes off, running through the basement, leaping over Python, and bounding out the door. The fresh air hits her lungs and she thunders through the yard, feet carrying her as fast as she can, but Cain is nowhere to be found.

“Where did he go?” Sterling pants, finally coming to a stop halfway across the lawn. She turns to see Bowser trudging up to her.

“I don’t know, Sterl.” His chest is heaving and there’s red seeping through the arm of his shirt.

“Oh my god.” Sterling rushes over to him. “Oh my god. Did you get shot?”

“No.”

“Then why are you—”

“I was skimmed,” he corrects, applying some pressure to his injury.

“By a bullet?”

Bowser nods.

“Oh my god, you got shot!” Sterling exclaims.

“I didn’t get — fuck it. Where the hell is Barton?”

“I don’t know. I lost him.” She scans the property for as far as she can see. If he took off into the woods there’s no way they could find him.

Movement catches her eye back by the house. Sterling fully turns, hand automatically reaching toward her gun when—

“Sterl!”

It’s April and Blair. They’re out of the house and running towards her.

Every muscle in Sterling’s body seems to unclench at the sight. “Oh, thank god,” she exhales, taking a few quick steps forward before April collides with her, throwing her arms around Sterling’s waist.

“You’re okay,” Sterling says more so to herself than to April. Blair crashes into her too, nearly knocking them all off of their feet. “You’re both okay.”

Tears burn in her eyes. With one arm wrapped around April’s shoulders and one around Blair’s, Sterling squeezes them tight. She can hardly breathe under the weight of both of them, but she wouldn’t have it any other way. She never wants to let go of her two favorite people ever again.

“What am I, chopped liver?” Bowser grumbles and Blair rushes over to him.

Distantly Sterling hears Blair gasp, “You got shot?” to which Bowser mutters, “Skimmed,” but she tunes it all out to focus on April, who is finally, finally safe. April, who is clinging to Sterling tightly and somehow, after everything, still smells like her flowery shampoo. April, who trusted Sterling with her life, knowing that she would come save her. April, who she loves.

That last one hits Sterling like a ton of bricks. She can finally tell her. She has to.

Sterling leans back just enough to look April in the eye, her beautiful, breathtaking eyes. “April, I—”

April kisses her before she can finish. “I love you too,” she says.

A smile immediately tugs across Sterling’s lips and her heart swells, but, “Wait — too?”

April blushes a deep pink. Her eyes bashfully flicker away. “Blair might have mentioned it.”

“My bad, dude,” Blair calls, apparently eavesdropping on what Sterling thought was a semi private moment.

Sterling throws her head back and laughs, joy fizzling out of her, unable to be tamed. Her sister is safe and talking to her again. Her girlfriend loves her. This is all so perfect.

“Dad!” April’s eyes have drifted over Sterling’s shoulder and the shine that they previously held has been replaced with a look of terror.

They all turn in the direction of her gaze, finding Cain with his arm locked around John’s neck and holding a gun to his head.

Sterling steps in front of April, drawing her weapon immediately. Blair follows and so does a one armed Bowser, but he can’t take the shot like that, Sterling knows. Not with his injury.

“Drop your guns,” Cain says.

Sterling shakes her head. “You first.”

“No, I’m getting that money.”

John’s face is turning red under Cain’s tight grip. His arms and legs flail to get free. He’s struggling and there’s no clear way for him to escape.

“You’re outnumbered, Barton,” Bowser says. The entire sleeve of his shirt is now stained with blood.

This can’t go on much longer. Someone has to make the first move.

Sterling can feel April pressed right up against her. Her hand is on Sterling’s back, clenched in a fist and gripping her t-shirt. She’s scared.

Sterling’s terrified. She has no earthly clue what to do. So she does the one thing she can think of: she turns to Blair and lets the rest of the world disappear.

What do we do?

Take the shot, Sterl.

I don’t know. It’s tight.

That’s what she said.

Blair!

Sorry! You’re a good shot. Plus, your worst case scenario is that you hit John Stevens. It’s not like it’s the pope.

Sure, because shooting my girlfriend’s father right in front of her is no big deal.

What would you do if it were me in his place?

Sterling shoots. She takes one look at Cain and pulls the trigger, aiming so that the bullet hits him in the arm (she’s already unpacking an adoption in therapy, she doesn’t need to add murder to the list).

It’s enough to get Cain to drop his gun, cry out in pain, and loosen his grip, allowing John to break free, rushing to safety as Bowser rushes to Cain.

Bowser is able to knock an injured Cain to the ground with ease. He kicks the gun out of reach and manages to wrestle him into handcuffs, both of them grunting through their injuries.

“See?” Bowser says, victoriously. He glances back at the girls once Cain is secure. “That’s the difference between being skimmed and being shot.”

Sterling lowers her weapon with a laugh that sounds more like a shaky sob.

It’s over.

They got him.

April’s arms wrap around her waist from behind and Blair is at her side in a flash, holding her too. Sterling sinks into the embrace, settling her hands over theirs just as sirens start to blare distantly. The sound grows louder and louder, ringing in her ears, until red and blue lights come flashing into view.

It really is over.

 

“Hey.” Blair nudges Sterling’s side to get her attention. She’s been watching April ever since the police showed up. Through the crowd of officers and EMTs, April gives her statement to a detective, her father speaking to another, while Bowser sits on the back of an ambulance getting his arm checked out. Sterling turns to Blair. “We did it,” she says.

Sterling smiles, those words hitting her square in the chest. “Got the million and saved the girl.”

Blair scoffs. “No, not that.” She dismisses it as if there’s something much more obvious that they accomplished tonight. “We did our thing.”

“Oh.” In the chaos of kidnappings and gunfire, Sterling didn’t even realize that. They did their twin thing for the first time in over a year. Her eyes well up for what feels like the hundredth time this week and she leans into Blair’s side. “You’re right. We did,” Sterling says, voice constricting over a tightness in her throat.

They made it. Months of therapy have paid off, landing them back where they were before secrets and lies tried to sever their bond. Blair might not be Sterling’s twin by blood, but she’s her twin in every other way and that matters so much more.

April approaches them, apparently done giving her statement. She’s calm and collected on the surface, like anyone would expect, but underneath something tired and tense lingers in her eyes and the way she holds her body.

She takes Sterling’s hand as soon as it is within reach. “Are you okay?” she asks, regarding Sterling’s teary eyes.

Sterling squeezes her hand. “All good. You?”

“All good,” April echoes.

“Should we check on Bowsie?” Blair asks, turning their attention toward the ambulance. It looks like they're wrapping things up over there too.

Sterling nods and the three of them head over to the ambulance.

“How are you feeling?” Blair asks.

“Like a million bucks,” Bowser replies, but it's quickly followed by a grimace as the young EMT pokes at his arm. The entire sleeve of his shirt has been cut off in order for her to properly tend to his injury and although he’s putting on a brave face, Sterling can tell that he’s in pain.

She smirks with an idea. “You know, Yolanda might find this whole thing badass.”

Bowser sits just a little bit straighter at that. A smirk tugs at his lips. “Terrance would probably be crying.”

“Totally,” Blair agrees, though it’s exaggerated. “You’re handling it like a champ.”

The EMT finishes wrapping some gauze around his upper arm. “It looks like the bullet just skimmed you,” she says. Bowser looks at both Sterling and Blair to make sure they heard. He raises his eyebrows, point proven. “But we should still get you stitched up at the hospital.”

“Well, I can afford it now that I’m a millionaire,” he jokes, wearing a bright and easy smile. Sterling isn’t sure if it’s because of the money or because he was right.

“Not quite a millionaire,” Blair interjects, throwing a bucket of cold water on the moment. April is the only one who seems to perk up. “You need multiple millions to be one and we’re splitting this three ways, so.”

“Why? Why are you ruining my fun?”

She shrugs. “It’s kinda my thing.”

Bowser reaches into his pants pocket with his arm that isn’t bandaged. Reluctantly, he pulls out his keys. “Well, If I’m going to the hospital I’ll need one of you to take my truck.”

“Me!” Blair’s hand shoots up. “I’m driving.”

“Oh, no fair,” Sterling whines. “I want to drive his truck.”

“Snooze you lose.”

“Honestly,” Bowser says, looking back and forth between the two of them, “I think I would rather the kid do it.” He nods in April’s direction.

“Stevens?” Blair gasps, disgust painted on her face.

To her horror, Bowser nods.

“But you’ve never even seen her drive,” Sterling reminds him, equally as offended.

April snorts. “Speaks volumes of how you two are behind a wheel.”

Bowser is quick to laugh and agree with her. Blair jumps to her own defense, throwing Sterling’s driving skills under the bus in a way that only a sister can. April gets a familiar flare in her gaze, one that Sterling recognizes from debate tournaments and years of rivalry. It’s a wonderful chaos of noise that flows between some of her favorite people, but all of it suddenly cuts out when John steps up to their circle.

He clears his throat and they all turn to him in stunned silence. What could he possibly want?

Just as Sterling is bracing for the worst, she feels a gentle touch sweep over her knuckles. April is still holding her hand tightly. She has been this whole time. She doesn’t drop it or waver in front of her father at all. She just stands steadfast at Sterling’s side, fingers tangled exactly like Sterling dreamed last year.

“One of the officers is going to give me a ride back to the office,” John says, tone uncharacteristically soft and stiff. He sounds nervous and uncertain. “I’ll make it just in time for the results.”

“Well, thank God for that,” Blair sarcastically quips.

John doesn’t roll his eyes or grit his teeth. His jaw doesn’t clench and his face doesn’t turn a fiery red. He shifts uncomfortably, shuffling his feet in the gravel of their long driveway. Then he finds Bowser’s gaze. “Before I go, I just wanted to say thank you.”

“We didn’t do it for you, dipshit,” Blair chirps again.

“I — I know that.”

His eyes dart over to April very briefly, confirming what they all know to be true: that they came here for her.

“You really couldn’t have just stayed in the car like you were told?” Bowser asks.

John shakes his head. “I heard the gunshots and there was no cell reception back where you parked.”

“Wait,” April chimes in, eyes wide, “you called the cops?”

John nods.

“But the press and the election…” April struggles to make sense of it out loud.

Her father shrugs it off, just as lost for words. “This was important,” he finally says. He doesn’t explicitly tell them that this was more important, but there’s an implication of it that leaves them all quiet. John turns to Sterling next. “Hell of a shot.”

Sterling blinks. “Huh?” She feels April give a short, sharp squeeze to her hand. “I mean, thanks — thank you.”

Did he just give her a compliment?

John doesn’t dwell on it even if it is groundbreaking. He gives them one last nod and walks off toward a waiting police car, a police car that will drive him back to his campaign office where he will wait for the results of the mayoral election.

God, this year has been weird.

Sterling looks to April, whose hand is still clasped in hers, whose eyes are wide with surprise, whose smile is utterly dazzling, and she tries to voice that weirdness as best as she can. “What the—”

“I have no idea,” April says, equally as stumped.

“But that seemed—” Sterling stops, still working to wrap her head around it. “That was okay, right?”

April nods. “For him, that was a miracle. I will take that any day.”

“Me too.” Sterling grins. She lets go of April’s hand, trading it to wrap an arm around her shoulders instead. “You can drive, Blair,” she announces as the ambulance engine rumbles to a start.

Blair quickly snatches the keys from Bowser before he can protest.

“I would much rather sit in the back with you anyway,” Sterling says lowly in April’s ear.

They walk off together, leaving flashing lights and shattered glass and bullet casings behind them. But it also feels like they’re leaving something bigger behind. Sterling can feel it in her chest.

It’s like all the weird, traumatic, and life changing events that this last year threw at them are inside that house. The dust has settled. Every secret, every lie, every broken heart lies amongst the destruction and they’re leaving it there.

She feels lighter than she has in months.

“Hey,” Sterling says, pulling April in tighter to her side. She can’t stop herself from smiling. “If I knew rescuing you was all it would take for him to come around, I would’ve done it months ago.”

It’s a joke and Sterling expects April to respond with some kind of quip about wanting to stage a kidnapping for her father’s approval, but her face flushes a deep shade of red and she bashfully looks away instead.

“You kinda did,” April says, voice soft and shy. It’s barely loud enough to catch, but, boy, does Sterling hear it.

She has to kiss her.

Sterling leans down and April leans up, eyes fluttering shut. Their mouths find each other easily, like they have so many times before. It’s a short kiss. Before they can get too carried away Blair gags from behind them. “You know I’m still here, right?”

“Unfortunately,” April mutters against Sterling’s lips. Her laughter that follows is the sweetest thing Sterling has ever tasted. She holds onto that feeling the whole way back to Bowser’s truck.

 

John Stevens loses the election. The results come late into the night from their local news network.

The Wesley family is positioned in front of the TV. Blair is on the edge of her seat and tightly clinging to Sterling’s hand as the news anchor reads out the winner.

Sterling didn’t know what to expect of the results. The election has hardly been on her mind lately with the kidnapping and getting caught in both a literal and figurative closet, but something in her stomach pulls down at the thought of an angry John Stevens.

“What would you even say?” Blair asks. She sits on Sterling’s bed as Sterling clenches her phone in her hand, screen opened to her messages with April. She’s been trying to craft a text for the last three minutes.

“I don’t know.”

“Hope your dad doesn’t burn the city to the ground in a rage?”

Sterling playfully pushes her. “No, that’s dumb. And probably insensitive. I just want to know if she’s okay.”

“So send a sign of life text,” Blair suggests with a shrug like it’s obvious.

“What on earth is that?”

“Something simple that just warrants a response. You don’t have to ask about anything specific, but you’ll at least know that she’s alive.”

Sterling glares at her. “Really?”

Blair winces. “Not my best choice of words,” she admits, amending, “You’ll know that she’s alright. Obviously, she’s alive.”

Sterling stares down at her phone, feeling a little less clueless. “Yeah, okay. That could work.”

Sterling: i love you

April: love you too

That night Blair sleeps in bed with her, cuddled close and snoring in Sterling’s ear from the time her eyes close until their alarm goes off for school the next morning.

Sterling is dressed in her uniform, sitting at her desk after just having pulled her hair back into a loose ponytail when she finally dials April’s number. It only rings twice.

“How’s he taking it?” Sterling asks in lieu of a greeting.

“Better than you’d expect,” April answers without missing a beat. “I think my mom actually scared him with that divorce threat.”

“Oh, you heard about that?”

“Yes, your sister called it ‘badass.’”

Sterling stifles a laugh. Of course Blair did.

“He’s claiming that family will be put first from here on out,” April continues, “but that’s exactly what he said last year, so we’ll see.”

“Hopefully he sticks with it this time.”

April lets out a noise that sounds like she isn’t so sure. “I’m not getting my hopes up, but I will consider it a win. He’ll either be more tolerable or he’ll be gone.”

Both of Sterling’s eyebrows raise. “You’re handling this all very well. When I got kidnapped I spiraled for a year.”

“Very different circumstances, Sterl.”

Which is true. April wasn’t tricked into a car with a woman pretending to be her mother, only to find out said woman was actually her mother, and the people she thought were her parents had been lying her whole life. But she’s still allowed to be scared.

“Are you okay, though?” Sterling can’t help but ask. “Did you sleep alright?”

“Not a wink, but I’ll be fine.”

“April,” Sterling starts to warn, because April really doesn’t have to pretend to be fine anymore. Certainly not with Sterling.

April relents. “It’ll take time, I know.”

That’s more like it.

“Fair enough.” Sterling smiles, letting it drop. She’s sure April will fully hash it out with her another time. “Can I see you later?”

It feels like a lifetime ago that they were lying in April’s bed. Even if it was only yesterday, Sterling misses it, misses her. She just wants to hold April and talk to her and kiss her until they both forget all about Cain Barton and his band of criminals.

“You’ll see me at school in like ten minutes,” April scoffs as if that were obvious.

“You’re going?”

“I don’t skip.”

“Right.”

How could Sterling forget?

It’s not exactly what she meant when she asked to see April later. School isn’t private, the halls will be filled with people who still think that they’re enemies, but Sterling will certainly take it. “Okay, cool.”

A brief second of silence forms on the other end of the call and she expects some version of goodbye to follow.

It doesn’t.

“Hey, Sterl,” April says, sounding a little distant, like she’s simultaneously deep in thought with whatever subject she’s about to broach.

“Yeah?”

“How would you feel about holding my hand in the hallway?”

Sterling’s breath catches. “Yes.” She blinks, vision quickly blurring. “I mean — I would love that. If you — um, if you want that, of course.”

“Okay,” April returns. Sterling can hear a tremor of something in her voice just from those two syllables, whether that something is excitement or nerves or a mix of both she isn’t sure.

Then Blair is knocking on her bedroom door and walking in unprompted.

“I should go,” Sterling says softly, right as Blair flops down on her mattress. Then, just because she still can’t believe it, Sterling asks, “You’re sure about school?”

“I’m sure about school,” April confirms. “I love you for asking though.”

“I love you too.”

Saying it out loud is so new and fresh to the both of them, but at the same time, Sterling finds that it feels so normal leaving her mouth. Maybe it’s because this love that they have has been building for so long. It first started to spark when April grabbed her arm. Then it began budding with each glance they shared over a miter saw, each smile that passed between them amongst skee ball lanes, and each brush of their fingers in an otherwise crowded classroom. It took up space in Sterling’s chest and sat there like lead for months until John Stevens decided he needed their help. Then that feeling began to grow, tingling all the way down to the tips of her toes until it blossomed into everything that they share today. It’s wonderful, really.

Sterling is grinning when she says goodbye to April. She hangs up the phone just in time to hear Blair groan, “I can’t go a single minute without you two drooling over each other, huh?”

“You’re pretending to hate it.”

Blair hesitates for a second before admitting, “Fine, I’m thrilled for you.” She sits up on the bed and points a stern finger at Sterling. “But that doesn’t mean I want to know all the ridiculous little details—”

“She wants to hold hands at school today.”

“Okay.” Blair is on her feet. “Tell me everything in the car.”

They leave in a rush. Sterling is both eager to get to Willingham to see April and bursting at the seams to tell Blair about this new hand holding plan. She still stops to hug both of her parents, getting her hair ruffled by Anderson and a kiss on the cheek from Debbie, but after a quick honk of the Volt’s horn, she hustles out the door to a waiting Blair.

They get right into it.

“So how did this come about?” Blair asks, throwing the car in reverse and heading down the driveway.

“She just asked.”

“Sprung it on ya? Wow. Go figure.” One of the back tires flops over the curb and they hit the street with a thump. Blair shifts gears and floors it down the block. “I have a theory.”

“What’s that?”

“Seeing you in action got her so horny that she fears she won’t be able to keep it in her pants at school anymore,” Blair says it quickly, all in one breath, so Sterling can’t fully react until the very end.

She gasps, scandalized at first. Heat rushes to her cheeks. Then, Sterling leans over the center console. “You really think so?” she asks, voice low as if there were someone else listening.

“Highly likely. You were awesome yesterday.”

You were awesome yesterday!”

“Yeah.” Blair shrugs, smiling at the road ahead of them, “but I’m awesome everyday.”

A few months ago Sterling never would’ve thought she would be driving to school with Blair and theorizing if April Stevens will be able to keep her hands to herself. She was hardly able to keep her breakfast down on the ride to Willingham, too nauseous over all the “John Stevens for Mayor” signs on their neighbors lawns that now sit at every curb, waiting with the rest of the trash.

“Ewww,” Blair says as she flips the blinker on and turns into the Willingham parking lot.

“What?”

She turns to Sterling, lips tugged into a tight grimace. “Now, if you’re both missing during lunch, I’ll know why.”

Sterling’s head falls back against her seat and she laughs, loud and joyous. “You would’ve known regardless. Obviously, I would tell you about it.”

“Okay, fair,” Blair accepts. She steers them crookedly into an empty parking space. “I don’t need too many details though.”

“When you had sex with Miles, you woke me up before my alarm to tell me about each of your orgasms.”

Blair pauses. Her mouth hangs open but all that fills the space between them is the hum of the engine.

“You know, you were never this good at debating before Stevens got to you,” she finally says.

Sterling laughs again. “You should tell her that. She would love it.”

“Well, maybe I will.” Blair turns the car off and gestures out the windshield, keys dangling from her fingers. “It would be pretty easy considering she’s waiting for us.”

“She’s what?”

Sterling follows the line of Blair’s fingers to the front of the school where April, sure enough, appears to be waiting for them. Waiting for Sterling.

She hears the driver’s side door open, but her eyes stay on April and she stays frozen in her seat.

“Let’s go get your girl.” Blair sighs, grumbling, “Again.”

A few months ago Sterling walked into school with a pit in the bottom of her stomach and what felt like a gaping whole in her heart. Now she walks into Willingham with a fizzling excitement spreading through her chest and another hand tightly clenched in hers in a way she could’ve only fantasized about and begged for a year ago.

She walks into Willingham between April and Blair, who stays with them all the way to first period with distracting jokes (mostly at the expense of Sterling’s old debate skills) and a keen eye ready for anyone who might give them a problem.

She walks into Willingham thankful for all that life has thrown at her, thankful for her family, and thankful for the love that she found along the way.

“You okay?” Sterling whispers to April as they near the fellowship room. Her hand is starting to sweat.

April nods. “Just don’t let go.”

Sterling wouldn’t dream of it.