Word count: 3592
Notes: I'm legitimately sorry this took so long to update. For real. But I also think you'll like this chapter! And you'll be very excited about the next part, also, because I think Danny will be back, then! Enjoy, dudes.
Erica gets out of the pool first while Jackson dutifully looks away. He can hear her rustling through his backpack before she pulls out the towel and wraps herself up tightly. "You can look," she says, hugging herself around the towel. "I'm going to go sit on the bleachers."
"Okay," he says, and surges out of the water to grab his own towel. He follows her after securing it. He stops at the bottom of the bleachers, looking up at her on the third row. "This is the most innocent skinny dipping I've ever been a part of."
"That's an image I didn't need," she informs him, grinning a little.
"You've already seen me naked in water."
She snorts. "But not doing anything gross. Jeez."
He climbs the bleachers then and sits next to her. "Is that an image you're opposed to?"
"Oh my gosh, shut up." She punches him hard, but she's grinning when he looks over at her.
He smiles a little, too, and looks down at his lap. When he glances back at her, she's leaning forward to watch the ripples in the pool.
"It's pretty," she says, like it's normal behavior. "Not like the ocean, but…pretty."
"There are wave pools," he offers. "Not here. But at water parks, you know. I'll take you sometime."
"So many promises," she says, not looking at him. She sounds more somber now, though the look on her face is still relaxed.
His heart stutters.
She doesn't say anything.
They go back to Jackson's apartment because it's closer and Erica is sleepy. He listens to her in the shower because he doesn't want her to fall asleep and run him out of hot water (but also because she' nearby and he can listen to her.)
He falls asleep on the couch before she gets out of the shower, anyway.
"Hey." A soft hand runs through his hair, traces a pattern on the back of his neck. "Jackson."
"Hmm?" he murmurs, blinking hazily into awareness. He's sprawled out on the couch and the room is soft grey.
"I have to go to work," Erica says gently. She squats so she's on eye level with him and smiles. "Thank you for last night."
"We're friends now," he mumbles. His eyes keep closing. His whole body feels heavy. He only smells himself and Erica. "S'no problem."
"Mm," she says, and the hand is back in his hair. "Okay. I'll see you later, okay? Rest up."
He's asleep again before the door shuts behind her.
When he finally does wake up, there's a note on the counter. "Took an apple for breakfast," it reads. "Hope you don't mind." To sign it, she wrote an E and then kissed the paper to leave a stain of dusty rose lipstick. She's also left her library card and what he assumes is titles of several books. He tucks the card into his wallet.
He tucks the note into the edge of his mirror in the bathroom and grins at it while he brushes his teeth.
The next two weeks are spent studying everything from long-term supply aggregate curves to Montaigne's essays. He feels vaguely overwhelmed, and only Starbucks trips with Sarah and Caleb serve to distract him during the day. Eli is even more buried in cramming, and barely has time to text anyone.
Sarah is set, of course. She studies two hours a day and spends the rest baking and bringing the goods to her friends.
"I made you cookies," she says when she walks into his apartment on the first Tuesday.
Jackson looks up from his nest on the couch. He'd dragged the comforter off of his bed and cuddled up in it. It smells a little like Erica, which means he spends the entire time studying vaguely aroused. It's surprisingly not distracting, actually.
"What kind of cookies?" he asks.
She rattles off a chemical formula in response and then shrugs. "I was studying for chem while mixing."
The cookies also have math formulas iced onto them.
"And calculus," she says, shrugging.
"Does that work for you?" he wonders.
"I'm on the Chancellor's List," she says, and shrugs.
"Maybe I should try it," he says thoughtfully.
"Do you bake?"
"Not at all."
She snorts. "So high and mighty. What are you doing Saturday?"
He has to go to the library and pick up the book for Erica and call his parents. "Um, nothing, really."
"Go with us to In-N-Out. Caleb swears it's the best burgers he's ever had. I think he's a dumbass, but you know. Whatever."
"Are you guys dating?" he wonders. He's kind of been waiting on it to happen, but not pushing. Sarah is stubborn. She likes to do the things people don't want her to do.
She shrugs. "Maybe. Whatever. If he is he should buy me more stuff."
"I'll mention it to him."
She grins lazily and leans into his space. "You could buy me dinner some time, if you wanted. We've always had fun." She winks widely.
He leans forward and kisses her cheek, because he can and because it feels nice to have a friend like this. "I'll buy you dinner, no strings attached."
"You just wanna throw money around."
"It's my parents' money, so yeah," he says, shrugging.
She rolls her eyes exaggeratedly. "Well I ain't about to say no to free shit. Let's go now."
"Even scholars gotta eat. Come on."
"Ugh, fine. What do you want to eat?"
They end up at De Pasada. Sarah annihilates a quesadilla carne asada, which is always kind of awesome to watch, and Jackson calmly works his way through a fajita platter. Together they go through three baskets of chips and two bottles of salsa.
"So who is this girl, anyway?" Sarah wonders when she's halfway through her quesadilla. "You smile like, all the time. I know the semester is finally ending, but you still have finals. Can't make you that happy."
"I hate school," he points out.
"Finals," she repeats.
He sighs and eats another chip to give himself a little more time to think of an answer. "I know her from back home."
"She go to school with us?"
"No." He wonders if she'd like to, sometimes, but it feels cruel to ask that kind of question. It's not really his business. Even if they were dating, it would be her decision.
Sarah takes a long pull of her soda and squints at him. "You two fucking?"
He doesn't sputter—barely. "Uh, no."
"She's not interested, then?" She purses her lips. "Because that's kind of your thing, right? Casual sex?"
He comes to the abrupt realization that their casual sex might not have been completely casual on her end. "It's—no. Of course not. Were you—"
"I'm fine," she says cutting him off before he can ask. "We talked about it before it happened, dumbass. I knew it wasn't serious, and that's how I wanted it."
"Are you sure?"
"Positive. Stop freaking out."
"I'm not." He was, a little. Sarah was one of his best friends here. He didn't want the one time they slept together to mess everything up.
"Right. Anyway, the girl. Why aren't you tapping that?"
"You don't even know what 'that' is," he says blandly, and starts preparing another fajita.
She rolls her eyes and gives him a long-suffering look. "You've never acted like you cared when it came to appearance before now," she says. "I mean, clearly you're down with girls of all color and body types." She gestures at herself, and then starts listing names, "Jessica, the chubby redhead, Liz, the butterface, Adrian, that hot latina, and of course, me, finest girl you ever seen."
He laughs and shrugs. "Lots of girls are pretty."
"Exactly. You don't have preferences. It's not a stretch to think this unnamed girl—don't think I didn't notice—is gorgeous. To you, anyway. I still can't believe you think Liz is pretty."
"She's got a unique face," he says, defensively. And yeah, Liz wasn't conventionally attractive, facially speaking, but she'd had gorgeous eyes and she always looked happy.
And her body was amazing.
It had all evened out, really.
"Right," she says, and shakes her head slowly. "Well, whatever, I'm not the one sleeping with butterfaces. Is this girl one, too?"
He shakes his head. He knows she's not, even if he's "easier" when it comes to judging a girl's attractiveness. "No. She's just…beautiful in every way."
"Every way?" she asks, eyebrows lifting. She's clearly unimpressed, but honestly he could care less.
"Yeah," he says, and smiles at her.
"Does she know you think that?"
He shrugs. "Maybe?"
"You're a dumbass. I can't believe I went down on you."
"I can," he says cheerfully, and she punches his arm, hard. He rubs it and pouts at her.
"Buy me ice cream," she says.
"Frozen Yogurt?" he asks hopefully.
"Did I ask your bitch ass for 'froyo?'" she asks, drawing quotation marks around it. "Stop asking stupid questions."
"I dunno, I really want froyo," he says, shifting away from her.
She punches him again, and he ends up buying her two scoops of strawberry in a sugar cone.
The next evening he goes to the diner as usual, but for once he's left his studying at home. Instead, he's prepared to spend the evening playing iPhone apps and flirting with Erica.
"Hey, there," she says when she arrives at his table. "How's it going?"
"It's been rough," he replies, slumping in his seat. "Lots of studying for finals and being picked on by my friends."
"Oooh," she says. "Poor baby." She pats his arm once.
He grabs her hand and holds it there. "Well, things are better, you know. Now that you're here." He wiggles his eyebrows dramatically.
She presses her other hand to her heart. "Well, I do declare," she murmurs, and pretends to swoon. Then she tugs her hand away from his and slaps her notebook against it twice. "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."
He knows it's a reference to Gone With the Wind, but he doesn't know enough about it to respond in kind.
Which means she wins.
He pouts a little while she smirks victoriously.
"Oh, take heart, honeybunch," she drawls. "I missed you, too."
Pleasure burns down to his toes, but the corner of his mouth barely twitches. Something feels wrong about being this happy. "Can I get a coffee?" he asks.
She smiles like she understands, and says, "Comin' your way."
If it's wrong to be happy, what's the point?
Two weeks ago, he was miserable. For the past several years he's been miserable. Sure, there have been moments when brightness broke through the sadness, but he hasn't felt this good since he was sixteen, before all the werewolf shit.
It's not like he hasn't had friends or sex in the time he was away. He's had money, he's had challenging classes, he's had all the technology that's supposed to make him happy.
But he's been…tired. Sometimes, it feels like someone picked him up and poured out everything but the tired. Sometimes it's just…it's like there's a cloud, a black cloud of anxiety and sadness and exhaustion following him around.
But right now, the sky is clear.
So why can't he trust that?
Erica brings him his coffee. "Did you ever figure out when Isaac will be coming?" she asks as she sets it in front of him.
"Oh, right," he says, remembering belatedly that he'd never texted Scott back. He pulls his phone out now and shoots off a text message. "He'll be here around June 24. Danny is coming the week before that, and my parents are coming the week after. They picked the hottest time of the year, which, honestly, I don't get."
She shrugs. "I never thought your parents were very smart."
"I feel like that's a dig, somehow," he says, narrowing his eyes at her.
She grins back cheekily. "Yeah. I mean, they went to the adoption center and picked you, of all the children? Didn't they realize the entitlement would go right to your head?"
"Ouch," he says, clutching his heart and frowning at her. "Way to take my ego down a size."
"It needed it," she teases. "What will you be eating tonight?"
"The usual," he says. "And just for that, I'm not talking to you for the rest of tonight."
"Oh, really?" She pouts dramatically. "Whatever will I do with all the peace and quiet?" She scribbles his order down and winks at him. "See you later, babe."
Even though he gives her the silent treatment and communicates only in dramatic facial expressions, he goes home with the distinct impression that she'd won.
Saturday, he picks up three books and goes straight from the library to In-N-Out for a late lunch with Sarah and Caleb.
Caleb is already there, but Sarah will probably be late, as she tends to be.
"Hey," he says when he sees Jackson. He seems a little out of sorts, his tank top rumpled and his hair stuck to his forehead with sweat. "It's hot as Hell out there."
"Good plan; complaining before Sarah gets here to make fun of you," Jackson says drily.
Caleb groans and reaches up to shake some of the sweat out of his hair. "Is she ever going to be over it?"
"No," he says honestly. "You just learn to keep it to yourself."
Sarah sweeps in, then, and unwraps her hair. "It's too damn humid," she grouses. "I just got a perm." She jabs a finger in their general direction. "Don't even think about telling me to go natural, either. A black woman's hair is her own business."
"Never would," Caleb says immediately.
Jackson shrugs. "I might."
"You're a dick," she informs him.
"Yeah," he agrees. "But you like me anyway."
"Not really," she replies, clearly unimpressed. She hipchecks him as she walks by and comes to stand next to Caleb. "You look like you've been studying too hard, babe. Next time I'm bringing you cookies instead of Jackson."
"Hey," Jackson protests. "I love those cookies."
She levels an annoyed look at him. "We already established that you're a dick undeserving of all nice things."
"You're the worst."
"I like cookies," Caleb pipes up cheerfully.
Disgusted, Jackson pushes by both of them to go stand in line. "Whatever, losers," he says, rolling his eyes. "I'll make my own cookies."
"You don't bake," Sarah says, smirking.
"See these hands?" he says, lifting them and shaking them in her face. "God designed them to bake shit."
"Yeah, and it will be shit," she fires back.
"It will be the shit," he corrects.
She looks wholly unimpressed, and brushes by Caleb to stand in line. "This better be good, Caleb," she says, frowning at him. Then she looks at his hair and snorts. "It's not that humid, jeez."
"I didn't say anything," Caleb says immediately.
"You thought it," she says, but she's smiling up at him in a way that makes Jackson's stomach pull.
"Get a room," he mutters.
"Stop being a cliché," Sarah snarks right back.
Caleb tentatively takes Sarah's hand and Jackson breathes a sigh of relief.
At least someone knows how to make a move.
By Wednesday, Jackson has only taken one final, and he still feels like quitting school and joining the circus. He's never been a strong test taker. He's better at it than he used to be, but he knows he's maintaining his grades with the coursework he'd done earlier in the semester. He tries not to let it get him down.
"I brought a couple of books," Jackson says when Erica approaches his booth on Wednesday.
"Ooh, you got me Insurgent and Allegiant? Thank you!" She takes both of them and tucks them under her arm. "I've been dying to read these since before I got kidnapped by the alphas. Damn."
"You underlined them three times on the list," he says, nonplussed. "I figured they were a priority."
"Excellent reasoning," she replies happily.
"If I finish them before next week can I just hand them to you?" she asks, bouncing on her toes. "I could probably run by after work, but I'm usually tired." She smiles at him hopefully.
He'd do anything to keep that smile in his heart, so of course he nods. "I'll take them for you. It's no problem at all."
"Great," she says, and kisses his cheek before taking his order.
Maybe his stomach comes to life with butterflies at that moment, but in response, he squashes them and reads another section in his textbook. He's basically got it under control by the time she gets back to the table with his iced tea.
"I see you aren't mad at me any more," she says, and winks. "Though I have to admit I'm impressed you kept up the silent routine as long as you did last time."
"I'm pretty good with endurance," he says archly.
She blushes at that, obviously having picked up on the innuendo. "You're disgusting."
"You're into it."
"A little bit," she says, and rolls her eyes. "I'm gonna walk away now."
Round 1 to Jackson, he thinks smugly.
When she brings him his food, she says, "So…doing anything tonight?"
"Just studying," he says, shrugging.
"Want to hang out with me instead?" she wonders, tilting her head. "I can spare ten dollars to go to a movie tonight, and Maleficent just came out."
"You want to see that?" he says, raising his eyebrows. "Wouldn't have pegged you as a Disney person."
"Sleeping Beauty is my favorite fairy tale," she says seriously. "Especially the Disney version. Phillip would have been totally lost without the fairies." She hesitates, and then shrugs. "Merryweather was always my favorite. I know she probably won't be in the movie, but I want to see the world play out. Plus, it's got Elle Fanning and Angelina Jolie."
"Sold," he says, and smirks at her.
"Ooh, maybe I shouldn't have picked a movie where the protagonist is hotter than me," she says, tapping her lips. "Do you want to see A Million Ways to Die in the West instead? Seth MacFarlane doesn't provide any kind of competition."
"There's no competition," he says, shrugging. "You already won. And yeah, I'll go with you. Do you need me to look up a time?"
She shakes her head, flushing slightly. "The closest theatre is a couple blocks away, and it's got an 11:00 showing. Marissa owes me, so she'll close up for me tonight."
"Cool," he says. He eats a fry, and then looks up at her through his lashes. "Is this a date? Because I'm…not opposed to that."
"I'm not opposed to calling it that, either," she says slowly. "Do you want it to be a date?"
"I mean, I wouldn't mind," he says. "It's just a name, right?"
"Well, it does imply certain feelings." She purses her lips and clasps her hands behind her. "Feelings which—I'm not saying I have them, but I'm not saying I don't have them, either."
He nods seriously and shakes some ketchup on his fries. "I can understand feeling that way."
She throws her hands up in exasperation. "I'm going to be blunt, if that's cool with you?"
"Great. Okay," she says, and then takes a deep breath before looking him right in the eyes. "I asked you, okay, so I think it's clear that I…Well. I like you. And I don't know if I think of you as a friend that I—sometimes—want to kiss, or if I want to kiss you all the time and call you mine. And I know you need a little time to acclimate to the idea, and I know that you're hesitant while you feel so—" she made a weird gesture. "I don't know, while you feel so broken. But, if you're ready, I'm willing to try."
He doesn't know what to think. A huge part of him is screaming that this is to fast, that he never really got over Lydia, that he still wakes up and expects to find black blood on his hands, that he could never be good enough for someone like Erica. But the rest of him wants to try. And all of him, selfishly, wants Erica to be with him and no one else, to wait for him if he's not fully ready.
But he's not sure he can ask that of her.
"What if I'm not ready?" he hears himself ask, and cringes.
"Then…" she hesitates, and shrugs. "I'll…I won't push it. You can make the move when you're ready. But we're still going to the movie tonight, right? We don't have to call it a date."
"Yeah, no, we're going," he stammers immediately. "I want to. I want you to—I want you to like me. I'm just. Scared."
She smiles a little and shrugs. "You'd be stupid if you weren't."
"So, tonight what if we say it's a date, but we don't have a lot of expectations?" he suggests hopefully. "Like…we're not together or anything, but…"
"We're trying," she finishes. "Yeah, I think—that would be good. I'd like that."
"Great," he says, and sags into the booth.
"Yeah," she agrees, nodding. "Yeah. It is great. I'll see you in a bit, okay? I gotta go check on that table."
The iced tea and the burger do nothing to slow his racing heart.
Round 2 probably goes to Erica.
A/N: Just saying-my OTP finally got together. Carah 5ever.
Also I'm so pumped about the movie Maleficent! Also that Jackson and Erica are going there on a date. Look how far they've come!