Disclaimer: I don't own Grey's Anatomy. It belongs to Shonda Rhimes. I'm not even sure why I wrote this, but February is a long way away and everything that happened in the winter finale is eating my brain, so...here we go.
The sensation she feels is something of a cliché, but appropriate in the moment.
April experiences several seconds of breathlessness. She literally forgets to exhale. And in that oxygen starved interim, while her lungs are seized in airless, terrifying suspension, Jackson's words clang around in her brain like crashing cymbals…I love you and I think you love me too. Do you?
Does she? Does she? The indecisive agonizing doesn't go on for long. April arrives at her answer with ridiculous ease. She does. She loves him. The emotion has become such an intrinsic part of her very DNA that she cannot even recall a time when she didn't love Jackson Avery. Acknowledging that truth in her heart is fairly simple. Voicing it out loud, however, when she is standing there in all her wedding finery alongside the man she promised to love and marry is tantamount to scaling Mount Everest with nothing but a pickaxe and sheer grit.
The words are there, tattooed on her heart, lodged in her throat, but she cannot push them past her trembling lips. She is too aware of the dozens upon dozens of eyes trained upon her face in that moment, but she is mostly aware of Jackson's eyes…that stunning, mercurial, confusing mixture of blue, green and grey that seem to see straight into the deepest part of her soul. Those eyes that know the truth without her uttering a single word. Those eyes that are begging, no demanding that she find the courage to say out loud what she knows is plain on her face for everyone to see. She loves him and she always has. She likely always will.
But April hasn't yet found that courage. There is too much fear and uncertainty, too much confusion, too much shock. What he's said to her, what he's done has come from out of nowhere for her. She is as shocked by his declaration as the rest of her guests. So she cannot answer him, not then...not with words because she is too full of questions to provide him with answers. Instead, she takes a gasping breath, finally flooding her brain with a draught of oxygen rich air, and utters in a hoarse, confused whisper...her first words after what seems to be an endless pause of silence, "Whuh-why? Jackson, why are you doing this?"
He blinks at her, seemingly as confused by her question as she is by his actions, and swallows roughly. "You know why. You asked me to give you a reason. I know I waited too long. I know my timing could be better, but this is it, April. This is my reason. I love you. Please, don't marry him."
Strangely, after what feels like ages of frozen silence, Jackson's second declaration seems to break the shocked stupor that has settled over everyone inside the barn and, suddenly, everything and everyone is in motion. A loud murmur of disbelief and disapproval ripples through the rows and rows of guests. The bride is visibly shaken, overcome by the young plastic surgeon's sincere avowals, clearly starved to hear them. Yet, while April softens towards Jackson and grows ever closer to finding the courage to give him the answer he seeks, Matthew comes alive with the rage that has been brewing inside him since Jackson stood up the first time. With a snarling curse, he leaps down from the platform, his fist at the ready.
April barely has time to react before he lands a punishing punch squarely to Jackson's face. The resounding snap of bone meeting bone echoes through the barnyard as Jackson crumples to the ground. April's horrified scream is drowned out by the sudden scuffling of feet and scraping of chairs as several people scramble to both the men's sides to keep them from falling into a full-fledged brawl when Jackson scuttles to his feet, clearly prepared to return the blow. The ugly scene is a harsh contrast from the beautiful wedding reception that had been taking place only minutes earlier. Not long before that instant she had been ready to say her vows and now she is overwhelmed with longing for another man...longing that she has been suppressing, consciously and unconsciously, for months now. For April, the events playing out in her heart, head and even before her very eyes are almost surreal…like she is dreaming. She hugs herself tight, scrumptiously pinching her bare, upper arm, waiting to wake up, praying to wake up.
But the reality cannot be denied. In the aftermath of his scuffle with Matthew, Jackson's lower lip is bleeding and his pristine white shirt is stained with drops of red. Both his suit and Matthew's are wrinkled and pulled askew from the constant grappling they have done with those who would hold them in check. The men continue glare murder at one another, spitting out infuriated insults while struggling against the hands holding them back from doing further harm. April can only look on with sustained stupefaction. Her life is spinning crazily out of control and there is not a single thing she can do to stop it.
She cannot imagine that the moment can become anymore chaotic than it already is and yet somehow…it does. At that point, Stephanie materializes in the middle of the melee, her pretty features twisted with disgust and hurt. She is clearly broken and angry, as numb with shock as the bride.
The instant he sees her, Jackson's righteous indignation dissipates. He stops struggling and his features become shuttered with remorse, guilt and shame. But Stephanie does not look at him. Instead, her focus is trained solely on the reeling bride. She rakes April with a seething glower.
"Are you happy now?" she spits with clipped precision, "This is what you wanted, isn't it? This is the real reason why you wanted Jackson to be here today. You wanted him to stand up for you." She pauses to direct Jackson with a scathing once-over. "…and he did. Congratulations! How romantic!" April shakes her head in denial, recoiling from the vitriol being thrown in her direction, from the hurt and accusation she can see brimming in Matthew's eyes, but Stephanie is oblivious to her pain. She is too blinded by her own.
She hammers on, too angry and too humiliated to care that she is worsening the situation. She zeroes in on April's silence, needles her with the implications of that silence. "It's your turn now, Kepner. Jackson asked you a question and we're all waiting to hear your answer. Is he right? Do you love him?"
"Stephanie, stop it!" Jackson bites out desperately. It is rather ironic that only moments before he had made the same demand of April and had felt justified in doing so and yet, it is having a bird's eye view Stephanie badgering her in the same manner that what truly imparts the gravity his actions to Jackson.
He had known when he stood up in the middle of the ceremony that he was burning his life to the ground and he had made his peace with that. He had been willing to risk decimating his relationship and humiliating himself before his peers because April was worth it...what he felt for her was worth it. What he had not considered was that when he made the decision to burn it all to hell that he would also be burning Stephanie's, Matthew's and April's lives down right along with his. However, it is too late to take back the words. Truthfully, he doesn't want to take them back. But he also doesn't want more pain to be inflicted…not on Stephanie and certainly not on April.
Jackson hopes that Stephanie can see that truth in his eyes when she looks at him, but her features are blank and cold when she finally meets his stare. Still, he implores her, wordlessly appeals to her compassion and reason. "Please don't do this. This isn't you. Don't blame April. She didn't ask for this. She didn't do this. I did. Be angry with me, not her."
Stephanie's internal struggle over his words is fleeting at best. Ten minutes earlier, the look on his face might have broken her because Jackson Avery is at his most beautiful when he is being sweet and humble and full of vulnerability. Ten minutes earlier, there was nothing she would have denied him. She loved him and she thought he loved her return. Ten minutes earlier, she had believed they had a future together but he had wiped out those misguided beliefs with four, simple words.
It is those words...I love you, April...that reverberate in Stephanie's ears, not his heartfelt plea for mercy now. For Stephanie, there is only pain and hurt and confusion. There is no room for reason at all. "No, Jackson! You don't get to play the martyr. Don't fall on your sword for her. We both know that you both did this!" she grates, "You're a liar and so is she!" She stabs Matthew with a penetrating look. "You'd be wise to get out while you still have your dignity." She is saved from disintegrating into bitter sobs in front of an audience that has already witnessed enough of her humiliation when Jo places her hands on Stephanie's heaving shoulders and begins leading her from the barn.
"Come with me. It's going to be okay, Stephanie," she whispers commiserating as she and her friend are swallowed into the crowd, "You'll be okay…"
Yet even with Stephanie's departure, the atmosphere remains emotionally charged with Matthew and Jackson both looking towards April…one stare filled with recrimination, the other filled with hope and desire. But April, tears streaking her face and her shoulders shaking with silent sobs, is unable to meet either pair of eyes. It is seeing that all parties involved are too paralyzed with emotion to address the situation that prompts Reverend Drew to retake command of the misbegotten ceremony.
"Alright, I think it would be a good idea if we took a fifteen minute break. Everyone should stay where they are and give the bride and groom some time to talk." He flicks Jackson with a reproving glance. "Matthew and April obviously have some things to discuss." His expression becomes one of censorious reprimand when Jackson dares to take a step forward. "Alone. They should have time alone to talk." April makes no protest to the reverend's suggestion. She is eager to get out from beneath the censorious stares of her and Matthew's family.
However, as she trails Matthew from the barn, her last view is of Jackson pressing a handkerchief to his bleeding lip, his hypnotic eyes as focused on her as ever. She shudders at the emotion swirling in their depths, perhaps because she knows it mirrors her own. As she leaves the barn she is burdened with guilt, not because of the feelings, but because she knows that she is about to break yet another of her promises to God.
She and Matthew barely clear the doors of the barn before April is blurting out apologies and excuses in hopes of softening the blow she is set to deliver. "I had no idea that he was going to do that, Matthew! You have to believe me! That's not why I asked him to come here today!"
Her words fall on deaf ears. He plucks her by the elbow and leads her further away from the entrance so that they cannot be overheard by their guests. Once they are out of earshot and sight, Matthew drops the remnants of his calm facade.
"I know you're mad..." April begins tremulously.
He gives a terse shake of his head, scoffing at the understatement of it all. Truly, Matthew's concern is not about Jackson's declaration at all, although that irritated him enough...he is more concerned about April's reaction to it. She has not answered Jackson's bold question, but her silence in the aftermath is telling enough. Matthew rounds on her, stiff and angry and, for the first time April slowly comes to realize, afraid. He is afraid of losing her and, in that heartbreaking instant, April knows that she cannot reassure him to the contrary.
"You're not sorry, are you?" he demands softly, "You're not sorry for what happened."
She stumbles back a step, aghast by the charge. "Of course, I'm sorry! He humiliated us all in there, especially himself!"
"That's not what I mean. You're not sorry that he loves you. You're not sorry that he said the words to you."
She flinches, unable to answer. Unfortunately, Matthew does not need verbal confirmation. Her inability to reply is answer enough. The truth has been written all over her since the moment Jackson Avery said the words, "I love you, April." He has been losing her in painstaking inches ever since. Matthew slumps forward in defeat, an acrid lump of sorrow forming in his throat as he makes his peace with the realization. "You do, don't you? You love him."
April chokes back a soft sob, sorrowful at hurting him and angry with Jackson for putting her in such an untenable position. "Don't, Matthew…" she whispers, "Don't make me say the words. It's our wedding day."
He snorts an embittered laugh at that laughable excuse before pinning her with a defiant glare. "Really? Come on! You can do better than that!"
"Say the words, April!"
"Yes, okay!" she cries on a tearful hiccup, "I do. I love him. And…and, I told you that. You knew that already! But I promise you that I never expected what he did here today! I never asked him to-,"
"But you did ask," he interrupts keenly, harshly, "You asked him to give you a reason not to marry me, didn't you?"
For the second time in less than half an hour, April feels as if she has been gut punched. She wraps her arms around her middle, groaning inwardly. "That was so long ago, Matthew…"
"But you did ask him."
"Yes…yes," she confesses miserably, "I asked him." He emits a pitiable moan as April rushes to explain herself. "You have to understand…what I feel for Jackson is so…so complicated and I…I can't help it. I can't control it! I've tried to make it go away! I've tried to ignore it. And when that didn't work, I just didn't let myself think about it. Believe me, I tried and I tried!"
She wants to soothe the hurt that she knows is ripping him asunder, but her words only serve to worsen the pain rather than ease it. He can barely look at her. He is too angry, too miserable, too heartbroken. "Why did you even agree to marry me then? Was it because you couldn't be with him? So what was I? Second choice? You settled for me?"
"No!" she cries desperately, "I was not settling! Ever since I was a little girl I envisioned what I wanted my future husband to be and that was you, Matthew! You are everything I always wanted! I wanted us to be married! I wanted to be a good wife to you! I wanted to have a family with you!"
Her tearful pronouncement is genuine, sweet, heartfelt, yet he zeroes in on one word in particular because it outweighs every single word she has spoken. "Wanted. You keep saying wanted. As in past tense, as in that all changed the moment he stood up in the middle of our wedding and said that he loved you! Now none of us can go back!"
"I didn't plan this!" she flares.
"You keep saying that and it doesn't mean anything, April!" he flings back. And then he deflates again, suddenly tired and beyond it all. "No matter what you say, we can't just walk back in there and get married and pretend that none of this happened. It happened. I love you. I want you. And you want him. You have all along. You stood there while he said all those things and you never stopped him...because you wanted to hear it, you've been waiting to hear it. So do yourself a favor, do me a favor…hell, do him a favor and just admit it."
Helpless, April watches him walk away and fade into the approaching dusk, feeling as if she should call him back yet knowing she has nothing to offer him if she does. She does not even realize she is sobbing until she feels Jackson's arms slip around her waist and pull her heaving form back into a solid wall of comfort and warmth. And, for a fleeting instant, she allows herself to be comforted by him, to be enveloped in his scent and his closeness…to bask in the feeling of being held by him. It feels good and right and safe...and those are all of the reasons that she doesn't allow it to go on. Inevitably she remembers the mess that has been made and how he is at the heart of it all and she rips out of his arms with an angry, embittered cry.
"No!" she spits, swiping furiously at her wet cheeks, "You don't get to do that! You don't get to hold me after what you did in there, Jackson! Oh my God, what were you thinking?"
"I know you're angry," Jackson replies calmly, "You have every right to be. I get it. But I'm not sorry I did it. I'm not sorry I said the words."
"You're not sorry? What are you talking about? You ruined my wedding! You know how much this meant to me! You turned this entire day into a fiasco!"
"I did it for us!"
"What? For us?" she snorts derisively, "Are you insane?"
"Yes, for us," he retorts, "April, if you had married him, it would have been a disaster and you know it! Come on! We wouldn't even be standing here right now if you didn't love me…if you didn't want us to be together."
She draws back, suddenly losing her bluster in the face of that bold statement. "I…I've never said…"
"You don't have to," he whispers, "I saw your face as you left the barn with him. I know you love me. But it still would be nice to hear you say it."
"I'm supposed to be getting married right now," she chokes in protest.
"April, please…" Jackson pleads softly, "You and I have run from each for so long and we've hurt each other. I'm tired. Aren't you tired? The damage is already done. All that's left right now is us…this moment. Just…be honest with me." His tone lowers an octave as he takes a step to close the distance between them. "Please…"
And like that she is drowning in his eyes like she always does. In that moment, she is stripped bare, vulnerable and figuratively naked in every way…having lost everything that ever mattered to her and yet, conversely, having gained so much more. April knows the time for cowardice and fear has passed. She knows that what Jackson says is true. They cannot run anymore. She cannot run. She doesn't want to.
"Yes," she whispers finally, causing him to sag with joyful relief, "Yes, Jackson. I love you. I love you and I want us to be together. I always have." He takes a grateful step towards her, a slow smile turning his lips as he makes it clear that he wants to seal that declaration with a kiss. But when he moves to take her into his arms to do just that, April unexpectedly dances out of his reach with a small, panicked cry. She throws out her hands to stave him off when he reaches for her again.
"No! Jackson...you can't kiss me! There can be no kisses."
Jackson shakes his head, his brows knit in a bewildered frown. "What are you talking about? April, I'm going to have to kiss you. I need to kiss you."
His words wash over her like cleansing rain, provoking her trembling sigh. "And I need you to kiss me," she whispers back, "You have no idea how much I want that, how much I've missed that. But if I kiss you, I'm not going to want to stop kissing you and that's a problem because it's my wedding day and Matthew just walked out on me and his family is in that barn hating my guts for hurting him while my family probably thinks I'm the most indecisive idiot to ever walk the planet and my life is a mess and I cannot kiss you when my life is a mess, Jackson!"
At the conclusion of her rambling monologue, he falls back with a mournful sigh. "I'm sorry."
She offers him a sad smile and lifts her hand to gingerly finger to swelling corner of his mouth. "No. No, you're not."
His lips quirk in a humorless smile. "You're right. I'm not."
April drops her hand with a heavy sigh. "Neither am I."
He strums his fingers over the ridge of her cheekbone, catching the teardrops that fall there. "I'm happy you're here with me, but I'm not happy I hurt you."
"I hurt myself. Stephanie was right. I'm a liar. I lied to myself and I lied to Matthew."
"You didn't lie," Jackson protests, "You buried it until you couldn't feel it anymore and I know that because I did the same thing."
"It doesn't matter. It's still a mess and I have to fix it."
"Not alone. You didn't do this, April. I did this…because I was a coward. I tried not to have feelings for you. I thought it was behind me, but it wasn't. I saw you up there with him today and I knew it wasn't. I waited too long to tell you and I hurt a lot of people because I did."
"Why did you, Jackson? When I came to you the night of the storm, why didn't you tell me then? Why did you say all of those horrible things to me? You said you didn't want me."
"I was angry with you," he sighs, "It's not an excuse, but it's the truth."
The answer is hardly satisfying to April and she makes that clear in her next statement to him. "Angry with me? Why? Because I wanted us to be together? Because I loved you and I told you so?"
"Because you had said yes to him, April! And I made my peace with the fact that we were over and we weren't going to be together. I wasn't what you wanted and I didn't have to be in knots about it anymore. I could breathe again. I could be okay without you because I knew you were happy and that's what mattered. And then you threw it all into chaos again, telling me you wanted me and then the knots were back and I couldn't breathe and it pissed me off because I was right back where I started!"
"So you were mad at me because you didn't want to have feelings for me?" April sputters in confusion.
"I was mad at you because I couldn't trust that you meant it," he whispers, "You said you wanted to give me your virginity and that it was okay, but then when we slept together and you fell apart. Then you said you wanted to marry me, but then the test came back negative and …"
"…I acted like I'd just dodged a bullet," she finishes quietly.
April moans in lamentation. "That's not what I meant, Jackson."
"That's what I heard," he whispers, "You were always changing your mind about me, April."
"And you couldn't know that I wouldn't do the same thing again when I told you I wanted you."
"Oh, Jackson…" she groans, "Don't you get it? I have never changed my mind about you."
It hits her then that they are having this profound conversation which should have taken place months and months before in the middle of what should have been her wedding and yet it all seems appropriate. This is what she and Jackson have always done. Always backwards, always coloring outside of the lines, always outside of the box and yet…always right. They have been "right" from the beginning.
"I don't regret sleeping with you, Jackson...I've never been sorry and that's the reason I've felt so guilty," she murmurs after some silence between them, "Being with you felt so right. And, for the record, I knew what I wanted from you and for us pretty soon after we started sleeping together, but I never knew how to tell you so I'll tell you now. I want a life with you, but I never wanted you to feel obligated."
"I didn't feel obligated then and I don't feel obligated now. I want you, April. I love you. You're my person. You're my soulmate."
Her wet lashes flutter as she regards him with a hopeful stare, her expression clearly stating that he is also those very same things to her. "Really?"
And then he breaks her rule, leaning in to kiss her despite the fact it's her wedding day and her groom walked out on her and his family hates them both. He cradles her against him and kisses her like he's starved for it, ignoring the stinging pain it causes and sighing with contentment and relief when she kisses him back with equal need. When it is over they are both breathless in the aftermath, foreheads touching and hearts racing as they struggle to regain their composure.
April closes her eyes, nuzzling against him, overwhelmed by what lay ahead for them but excited to face it as well...excited because they would be facing it together. "So what do we do now, Jackson? Are we supposed to date? Do we pick up where we left off before? Do you want to start over?"
He cradles her face in his hands, silently urging her to open her eyes and meet his gaze. "What do you want, April?"
"I want to be with you. I want to have a life with you."
"Are you sure?" he prods softly.
She offers him a reassuring smile, her eyes conveying not only the love she feels for him in that moment, but the peace she feels as well. "I'm sure."
"Then I guess you should marry me then," Jackson proposes, leaning forward to seal his mouth to hers in yet another kiss even as April inhales a sharp breath of pure shock, "because that is exactly what I want too."