It was easy going back to Jackson, and it wasn't. It felt familiar, comfortable in some ways, in other ways it felt awkward and scary. Being alone with him was the most natural thing in the world, the two of them finely tuned to each other. Hands meeting bodies, mouths meeting mouths. Being with him around other people was harder, less fluent. They were in some ways still getting to know each other and not ready to share how they fit together with the world. Holding his hand walking through campus, she sometimes held her breath as if someone would come tear them away from each other any second.
She hadn't been prepared for other people's reaction to seeing them together, naively thinking most of her fellow students would have no opinion at all. She saw the stares and heard the whispers from girls both younger and older than her. What is she doing with someone like him? He was still the most popular guy in school, she was still a dork and a scholarship kid. He noticed too, careful to grab her hand a little tighter and hold her a little closer.
Her friends were skeptical, finding it hard to trust Jackson's sincerity or her judgement. Hannah had been pissed at first, but swiftly chose to keep her mouth shut once she realised it upset April. George had been happy for her, but had told her to be careful. There was little to make her feel good about her new relationship besides him. Jackson also felt the weight of her friends judgement on him and worked hard to assure her, still convincing her even though he already had her.
She stepped out of the library only to be swept up in this strong arms. He pressed her tightly to his chest, as she giggled into his neck. She was relieved and elated to finally have him to herself, to simply be in his presence. Being with him was a wonderous escape from the opinions of others and the stresses of keeping up with her school work. He grabbed her waist and pulled her close as they walked over to the tennis pavilion, still one of their favourite haunts. His mouth found hers almost immediately, hands pulling her hair gently, claiming her. Her lips were burning, raw from rubbing against his, her breath shallow, too preoccupied with him to inhale deeply. He pulled away from her, closing his eyes and kissing her forehead softly. She finally took a deep breath and stilled against him, taking him in.
"I missed you today," he sighed, holding her tightly.
"You saw me after chemistry, at lunch, again after biology and at dinner," she replied, laughing quietly.
"I still missed you," he mumbled into her hair, peppering her neck with small kisses.
She knew what he meant, it was like they weren't fully together if they weren't alone. He pulled back slightly, brushing a stray curl away from her face, tucking it behind her ear.
"You gonna come see my game on friday night?"
"What, so I can watch half the female population at Hartwell drool over you running after a ball?" she rolled her eyes at him in amusement. "I don't think so."
"Ah, come on..." he smiled, eyes glinting. "The guys will be drooling too."
She giggled, squirming in his arms.
"It's the last game of the season," he moaned, insisting that she come.
"Fine. George will probably drag me along anyway," she sighed, relenting.
"What are you gonna do with yourself after the season is finished?," she teased, knowing he was a sports junkie.
"I'll think of something. Think I've got a good shot at the lacrosse team this year," he pondered out loud.
"Isn't that like dangerous?" she grimaced. "Aren't you scared they'll mess up your face?"
"That stuff doesn't scare me," he laughed. "Five missed calls from my mom scares me."
"You're such a jock," she sighed, shaking her head in mock disappointment.
"And you're such a geek," he smirked, mirroring her expression.
She giggled softly, moving into him again, pressing her face into his chest.
"Don't worry about those other girls, ok?" he said quietly into her hair after a while. He didn't expand further, just pressed her tighly into his chest and held her in silence.
The following Friday April reluctantly turned up at the final basketball game of the season, there was some sort of tournament she gathered, though she wasn't too sure what was going on. She wasn't into sports at all, but she had not been able to withstand both George and Jackson, so dutifully filled into one of the back rows after George a few minutes into the game. She had been dragged along to games before, but this one was different, crowd much bigger and the excitement more palpable.
She immediately spotted Jackson, sprinting up and down the court, deeply focused on the game. He moved gracefully, swerving to avoid his opponents, feet slamming and skidding across the hardwood floor. She was fascinated by him, taking in his tall, muscular physique. She realised she was not the only one, all around her eyes were focused on her boyfriend, who seemed to move a little bit faster and jump a little higher than anyone else on the court, as he scored point after point.
By the fourth quarter Hartwell was up by six points, but it was tight, the atmosphere in the court tense. The shouting quieted down, and suddenly she was aware that a group of girls two rows in front of her were talking about her and Jackson.
"God, look at him," one fawned. "He's so goddamn hot!"
"I know", another joined in. "I can't believe he dumped Nikki for that skinny, red haired geek, I mean, what the fuck?"
April's cheeks flushed red, ears burning as she realised where the conversation was going. Next to her George was cheering on Tom, oblivious to the exchange in front of her.
"What is up with this school lately?" the first one continued, blonde curls shaking as she spoke. "I mean, where did popular even come from, like she hangs out with some girls and three people look at her and suddenly she is popular and now he wants her? Why? How does that even happen?"
"I know!" a third girl joined in, incredulously. "Have you seen her shoes? Like that shit is so tacky it pisses me off. Fucking don't wear that shit around me, I'll straight up tell you I think it's tacky as fuck. Like learn some common fucking sense, you know?"
April looked down on her well worn trainers not quite comprehending what was wrong with them other than they seemed to be unworthy of belonging to the girlfriend of the hottest guy in school. Her heart sank, wanting to be out of there but not wanting to make a scene.
"Yeah, it literally makes no sense that he broke up with you for her," the first girl sighed, turning towards a fourth member of their gang, April just now realising the girls were Nikki's friends.
"Hmm.. He was all 'I really need some time to myself, to be single,' " Nikki started, mimicking Jackson's voice. " '...oh never mind, I'm gonna go be with this creepy, obsessive weirdo instead.' "
They all hysterically giggled, marvelling at their own wit, as April's head dropped into her hands.
"You ok, Apes?" George asked, creasing her eyebrows.
"Yep," she inhaled deeply, pulling herself up, forcing herself to focus on the game in front of her, eyes searching for Jackson.
She spotted him straightaway through the crowd, frantically moving across the floor. The score was now even, with less than a minute to go. She could see him focusing on the backboard, gliding towards it, shifting his hips to ward off the opposing defender. Someone passed him the ball, but the pass was long and high. She could see him push away from the floor, leaping upwards, his head now even with the rim of the hoop. He snagged the ball just as it was about to hit the backboard and drove the ball with all his might through the net, the ball bouncing against the floor a moment before his feet followed. A fraction of a second later the board buzzed, announcing that Hartwell had won, the crowd erupting in a loud roar. Jackson's teammates surrounded him, grabbing and hugging, cheering loudly as the crowd moved onto the court. Everyone was elated, but April was frozen in her spot, arms folded in front of her chest, cold feeling in the pit of her stomach. Suddenly he was in front of her, eyes trying to meet her gaze, but she avoided them. He pulled strong arms around her in a tight embrace.
"April, are you ok?"
She tilted her head and gave him a tight smile, before opening her arms and wrapping them around him.
"Congratulations, you were amazing," she said, deflecting his question with a soft kiss.
All around them, people were clamouring for his attention, slapping his back, calling his name, but he was still staring at her, trying to figure her out. His teammates came up behind him, pulling at his shirt.
"Look, I've got to go," he apologised, reaching out for her as he was being pulled away.
"It's ok, I'll see you later," she dismissed him, wiping away a tear from her eye as soon as he turned away.
She went back to her room, trying to brush off the bitchy comments that still lingered in her head. She tried to tell herself it was just jealousy, but it was hard when everything they had said resonated with her deepest insecurities about herself. Deep down she was still struggling to find the reason why Jackson had chosen her in the first place. She couldn't sit still and let her mind stew so she busied herself. She pulled out all her shoes from her wardrobe and inspected the sad little collection. The scuffed up pair of school shoes and some battered old converse she'd had for ages were allowed to stay, as were her newish running shoes that her parents had got her for Christmas. A pair of hand-me-down boots from George were also saved, as April longingly stared at the neat rows of beautiful shoes at the bottom of her roommate's wardrobe. As her eyes returned to the scruffy pile in front of her, she sighed and gathered them all in her arms and chucked them in the wastepaper basket under her desk. She was just crawling out from under her desk as Jackson walked into her room.
"What are you doing?"
"Oh, just getting rid of some old shoes," she mumbled, straightening herself.
"Are you gonna tell me what happened?" he asked carefully, settling down on her bed.
She sighed, preparing herself. She wedged open the door to her room, so they wouldn't get in trouble and jumped up on the bed next to him.
"I just overheard some girls talking about us at the game," she muttered, refusing to look him in the eye.
"What did they say?" he probed, his tone a little harsher.
"Just stuff," she said, looking at her legs and her beat up trainers. "Nothing I haven't heard before."
"Hey," he whispered, grabbing her chin, forcing her to look at him. "You're beautiful, ok? And I'm lucky to have you. You have to believe me, April." His eyes were boring into hers, holding her gaze steadily, unwavering.
She shrugged, casting down her eyes, still not convinced.
"I just never got why you want to be with me," she said quietly, baring herself to him.
"I like that you are you," he started, lifting her chin again, making her face him.
"I like that you have a few good friends and that you don't need anyone else. I like that you talk too much and laugh at your own jokes. I like that you are nice to everyone you meet, even if you don't have to be. I like that you didn't give up on me."
He paused for a moment, gently grabbing the side of her face and stroking her cheek with his thumb.
"April, you're pretty much my most favourite person ever."
He kissed her sweetly, chastely because they weren't supposed to be kissing in her room, it was against the open door policy, but at that moment she needed him to. As she looked into his eyes, filled with sincerity, her insecurities melted away. His words and his touch starved her fears, and she felt him tearing down her walls, brick by brick.
"I want you to trust me, April," he mumbled, pulling away from her. The way he said her name sent shivers down her spine, soft on the A, almost whispered, making it sound more special than anyone else could. "I'm not saying it's gonna be easy, but it's gonna be worth it."
"I'm beginning to trust you," she admitted, suddenly shy around him.
"It's scary. I feel like I'm giving you new ways to hurt me every day."
She hesitated, not sure if she wanted to say any more, but his honesty had given her courage.
"But somehow, I don't think you will," she finished, leaning into him, resting her head on his shoulder. She fit perfectly in the crook of his neck, like a piece of puzzle snapping into place.