Sweat is prickling between Allison's breasts and thighs. She widens her stance enough to relieve some of the discomfort, longing to get inside the locked gym and wipe down every sticky part of herself and air out her damp skirt and blouse. The girl a few feet down, leaning against the overheated building and smacking her gum, must be out of her mind. Or maybe she's simply less hot, pale peach leotard exposed under her tiny denim shorts and unbuttoned shirt. Even Lydia covers more skin than that. Still, it isn't the first time Allison wrinkles her nose at the late summer heat soaking into her black practice leo through her filmy cover-up clothes. It's enough to make her hold off on too much silent judging.
By the time Roland shows up with the keys, Allison has skimmed her mind for the two new scholarship girls, and Miss Daisy Duke's name isn't on the list – unless it's Yukimura. She's going to take a wild guess and assume she's not. Watching her stretch her gum out until it snaps and then stick it to the side of the building like a bored preschooler kind of settles the whole thing. There aren't any walk-ons in Allison's year, but she recognizes the attitude – part entitlement and part resentment. The girl shoulders past her to get inside, and Allison's thoughts are shameful at best, hoping that Marin decides they don't need any more alternates for the coming season.
They don't address each other even after Roland goes, and Allison watches from the corner of her eye as the walk-on's shorts puddle around the shoes she's slipping her wide feet from, shirt fluttering down from her shoulders. She determinedly looks away when the girl starts to adjust her leo where it's sticking to her in wet patches and pulls her own top over her head. Her mind starts to shift toward the unique headspace she'd had to fight to carve out for herself the year before. She knows how to do this. She can undress and warm up without her mother's hawkish eyes on her. The facts are that she did decently well in the all-around as a freshman last year with only Marin and the individual event coaches to thank. No mother, no Kate, and she'd passed three sets of midterms and finals without her father's kind, encouraging face to carry her through. After months of home life, it takes work, remembering she's her own woman all over again. She's glad that Lydia is taking an opportunity for beauty sleep before classes begin.
The older girls arrive in a tight-knit, giggling pack. Allison's chest tightens at their familiar voices. One or two wave at her from their cluster by the bleachers, bored, fanning themselves with multicolored neon fliers for something - a party, most likely. Their names circle in her head as she stretches, trailed by the rhythmically memorized, almost soothing digits of their highest scores on the balance beam at the collegiate level. If they weren't burned into her brain at the end of last season, they would be now, after the summer with her mother. She gets the feeling none of them will be warming up until one of the coaches shows, and that's fine by her. The walk-on is only pacing the edges of the gym. Allison is serene as she loosens her body by degrees, focusing on the resistance and give, the sound of her own breathing loud in her ears. This is what she loves about gymnastics away from her mother.
Extra noise above the dull background sounds makes the world fade back into view, and she perks up to look around, the glance turning up a few fellow sophomores and two more newbies. Violet Carling is examining their uneven bars with something that, even from a distance, seems like disdain. Envy wells up in Allison before she can head it off with reason. Olympians don't usually end up on collegiate teams, and when Marin had hinted they might be getting one, they'd all waved it off as wishful thinking. An Olympic silver medalist is in her gymnasium, royal purple lycra peeking out from beneath her tank top, looking down on the whole place. It's surreal, and Allison quickly searches for their other new face just in time to watch the girl eat mat hard, fingers tangled in her own shoelaces.
It isn't that Allison has seen her before, or even process of elimination. It's just the balancing forces of the universe in action. They have an Olympian among their scholarships this year. If there weren't a girl who couldn't keep her feet under her on solid ground standing still, it wouldn't be fair, would it? Yukimura scrambles until she's sitting upright, barely missing a beat before she continues unlacing her high-top sneakers. Why she didn't sit down in the first place, Allison isn't sure, but she doesn't look embarrassed or scathed, high ponytail still tidy after the rub against the mat. At a second glance, her earbuds are still in her ears. Either she's very lucky or very used to falling.
When Marin enters the room, the juniors and seniors migrate toward the sophomores at the center of the mat in a herd, stripping as they go and settling down to stretch out while they hear what there is to say now, so early in the year. Allison suffers through an echo of this meeting a year ago, when she was new and had all eyes on her, the way there are eyes on Violet Carling now as she takes a seat. She doesn't think anyone looked at her with quite such admiration, but it had been too much attention for her even so. Violet's eyes are on Marin only, and without her tank top, Allison sees that her leo is studded with silver sequins at the neck. The walk-on rolls her eyes so hard it must be painful, and chances are looking worse for her by the minute. The coaches don't stand for that kind of thing here, and it had been a hard lesson for Allison to learn, though her trouble had been criticizing herself and not the other girls.
“Alright, girls, I'm assuming everyone remembers me. Freshmen, I'm Marin Morell. In case you've forgotten since I sweet-talked you into gracing our gym floors.” Her smile is sweet and playful but deceptive. She's not as ruthless as Kate or her mother, but Allison gives her all the respect she's due. Marin doesn't play games and she doesn't accept less than anyone's best effort. More than one girl has stormed out in tears in the middle of the season because her hangover got her taken out of the rotation for her only event. “We have two freshmen here on scholarship this year.” She gestures and confirms that the girl with the sleek ponytail and wandering, anxious eyes is Yukimura. “And our third new team member here is a bit of a legacy, Malia Hale.”
“Tate,” the walk-on speaks up, narrowing her eyes at Marin until she looks equal parts aggressive and ridiculous. “Malia Tate.”
“Tate. I apologize, Malia, it's just that I coached your cousin-”
“Laura. Two years with the highest all-around in the NCAA. I'm not here to be Laura and I'm not a Hale.” She doesn't notice the palpable discomfort from everyone around her. Or else she doesn't care, which is starting to seem just as valid a guess. Marin simply nods at her, smile somehow intact, and turns her attention to the returning girls.
“I don't have to tell you that none of your spots are safe. I'm sure you remember Allison earning her way onto all four events last year. These girls have just as much opportunity to work harder and perform better than the rest of you. Slacking isn't going to get you anywhere on my team. You might want to try the SEC if you're looking for a little relaxation time.” The group titters and eases; almost none of the girls here are from the southeast, and only a few from the east coast at all. UCLA respects Stanford on principle and almost no one else by habit. Allison suspects it has something to do with the co-reign of Laura and Derek Hale at the two schools that had drawn an awful lot of attention to California gymnastics. “The rest of the staff are here to give you finer direction than I can offer on floor, beam, and vault. You'll be seeing me about the uneven bars.”
Allison goes back to kneading at her calves, grateful for the summer of hard work that kept her in shape. She doesn't need to hear the credentials of the coaching staff again. She hadn't even needed to the first time, but she'd been polite enough to listen and try to seem impressed. That had been Kate's suggestion by e-mail and it had gotten her a warm pat on the shoulder from Marin and a spot competing in each event, despite the fact that one of the seniors lost her own chance at the all-around. It's a relief to know that all of the girls who'd gotten unsettled over the upset are gone now. Though she hadn't come here looking for friends, the chilly glances and dead silence in place of enthusiastic cheerleading from the oldest girls on the team had been disheartening. Without their support, her scores had been good but not outstanding, and it's hard not to imagine what they might have been if she'd had a few friends.
By the time Marin is ticking off attendance on her clipboard, Allison is ready to work on a few tumbling passes and then reacquaint herself with her beam. Several of the girls get compliments on their new practice outfits – they like to show off together early in the year before the season starts – and Yukimura receives a questioning look that she returns with a fervent nod. Marin pauses at Malia, raising an eyebrow, and Allison notices for the first time that the girl has downy golden hair all along her shins and calves. “That's fine for now, but it has to come off for meets.” Malia's jaw clenches but she blinks in a way that must signal affirmation to their coach. Allison gets only a smile and a shooing motion. She folds herself up from the floor to practice while the other girls finish warming up.
She doesn't know how much time passes while she tweaks her handstands and works on sticking her tumbling runs. The code allow for a single step, but something inside reminds her being allowed it doesn't mean she needs it. It's a familiar reminder. She's careful not to land too hard and risk the twinge of a mild sprain, even with meets so far off in the future. Bad ankles run in the family, and a dozen tiny injuries will ruin her just as much as one major one. Everything else is feeling right, despite her hair brushing the mat when she's upside down. Maybe Lydia will trim it for her when she gets back to the room. Yukimura will need a cut, too. Yukimura, who is wobbling on the beam line painted on one of the mats. Allison hustles to get her beam shoes so that her favorite beam isn't nabbed, chalks her hands, and confusedly returns the grin the new girl gives her.
“I'm Kira?” she offers, like she wants Allison to confirm it for her. “Is this your beam? I was just using the line, I wasn't going to take it.”
Allison stares at her expectant face for a little too long before her tongue unsticks from the roof of her mouth. “Everyone can use all of the beams. But...” She sweeps her foot back, toes pointing at the one just behind her, hoping she won't have to elaborate and come off as silly.
“But you have a favorite! It's okay, I did at my old gym, too. Mom used to say I'd do twice as well if we could pack it around to meets. You're Allison, right? Your mom coached you, too.”
Allison holds out a chalky hand and Kira shakes it, looking even more bewildered than before, and Allison feels foolish. A handshake? “Right. My mom. Victoria Argent. She coached me before Marin.”
“And Kate, too? I know that your mother coached her and then she came to school here, but I was never sure if you were sisters or- Oh, god, I'm sorry, I'm talking about you too much, aren't I? I promise I'm not a stalker, I knew who Malia was, too. I could've written my senior paper on the Argents and the Hales.” Her cheeks tint, and she keeps readjusting her feet on the line beneath them. “I never made it as far as any of you, but I thought I might do better if I tried looking at you guys. Except then I just spent a lot of time watching YouTube videos of meets and not much practicing. Almost every video has your 9.925 on beam in the suggestion bar. I'm at least forty of those million views.” She clamps her mouth shut, and Allison's stomach settles a bit. Maybe the handshake wasn't so weird after all.
“I was so close that time,” she says wistfully. “I wanted that 9.95 more than anything, but I deserved the deductions. I didn't connect when I should've. I heard about it from my mom for weeks even though I won the all-around at that meet. The code, the code, the code.”
Kira frowns. “I never thought you hesitated long enough for it to count as two separate moves. The judges just don't like giving nine nine fives. It's not any different than when they were giving tens, still. No one's allowed to be perfect, they just moved perfect down by five hundredths. I really did write a paper on the change in the judging rules. I'm kind of excited to be back to the old scoring system here. Laura Hale got a ten while she was competing here, didn't she?”
“On bars,” Allison confirms, redirecting her eyes to her feet. “More than once.”
The other girl seems to notice that it's the last thing she wants to be talking about, and, after a moment of uncomfortable silence, turns to pace the line on the balls of her feet without so much as a goodbye. Sagging with relief, Allison turns to the beam and grips it, feels it beneath her hands and remembers that she belongs here. The spot where she'd split her forehead open and bled has been cleaned up, but she's still humbled when she rubs her fingers over where the stain should be. She feels closer to this beam than she does to any of her teammates, or even to Marin or the other coaches. It's been her friend since the first day, when she'd been working so hard to prove herself as a real competitor and not just a shiny name for the roster.
After the first dozen lengths of the beam, she loses track of time so badly that the gym is almost empty when she looks up again. Violet is talking earnestly with Marin next to the bars, grips still on her hands like she's planning to go again, and Allison realizes she's skipped two apparatus altogether today. It doesn't matter now, not in August, but she gingerly pats the beam and vows to focus on bars next time. She doesn't want to entirely lose her spot in that rotation because they have a new superstar.
Lydia walks through the door while Allison is watching videos, chalky fingers streaking her keyboard and trackpad. Her heels hit the floor with a clatter just inside the room, and she moans her relief. “Why isn't it girls like you that have to wear these things? I think your feet could handle it.”
“My feet don't feel anything anymore. And I'm too tall for heels. I'm too tall for everything.”
“Except beautiful clothes, ballet flats, and gymnastics. Do you want to lose this argument again, sweetheart?” She peers at the screen over Allison's shoulder. “Malia Tate Does the Impossible?” she reads skeptically. “Are the comments suggesting that one of you can defy the laws of physics again? In under a minute this time?”
“Vault. It looks impossible; they're right about that. She looks like she's about to throw herself into a deep swimming pool, not at a vaulting table and then directly at the floor.” She clicks play and lets Lydia see for herself, listening to the commentary for a third time and wondering how she's never watched this before today. She understands perfectly now why Marin is happy to have Malia there, especially if the school isn't footing the bill. Their combined vault score could go up entire tenths with air time and landings like that.
Lydia makes a quiet, approving noise and pats her shoulder briskly. “She's fast and strong. No mysteries there. Definitely no laws of gravity being violated.” She points at the screen, fingers grazing the pixels making up Malia's chest. “Especially not here. She isn't wearing a bra.” Allison yelps as her own bra strap is snapped. “You need to go take a shower. Scott's going to be here in a little while, and you'll give him an asthma attack with all of this chalk. You can tell me about your new competition when you get out.” She pads into her bedroom and shuts the door, and Allison glances between the bathroom and the computer screen once, twice.
She types Kira Yukimura's name into the search bar. Scott carries his inhaler everywhere.
Classes start and Allison falls into the rhythm of school easily. She calls her dad after the first full week just to thank him for the years he'd taught her at home, because she doesn't think that she'd be able to make it if she'd earned her diploma any other way. Lydia hammered a 4.0 into the ground her first three quarters like it was nothing, but Lydia is a genius. The first time Allison met Scott and Stiles, they'd been asleep in a desk chair and on the floor, respectively, midterm notes stuck to their faces. One of Stiles's highlighters was slowly bleeding a neon patch into his textbook. Apparently normal high school didn't always prepare everyone for college very well.
Her dad says he's well, mentions her grandfather visiting, and discusses the new apartment he has in Santa Carla. He's enjoying himself, and it warms Allison from the inside out, though it leaves her worrying about her mother at home, coaching. Her parents never talk about the months at a time they spend apart, and Allison is too afraid to ask anyone about it, even Kate. Her thumb hovers for a while over the entry for her mother's private cell, but she doesn't dial. Instead she suits up and decides to put in some time on her own at the gym.
The walk there is, unbelievably, even more sweltering than it was on the first day. She shakes the hem of her blouse all the way there, airing out her chest and feeling incredibly lucky not to be top-heavy. The door is unlocked this time, and she's down to her leo as soon as she can get the rest off. She decides to count the sprint up the bleachers to throw herself next to the vent as part of her pre-workout warm-up. She lets the freezing air blow on her hair and face for a while before she pulls on both sets of her straps and bends until it hits the bare skin of her breasts, cooling the sweat there and making her feel human again. She's about to devise a way to cool her back, as well, when someone shouts at her from the floor.
Kira is waving at her from her permanent spot on the practice line on the mat, feet nearly on top of one another, beaming from ear to ear like she hasn't caught Allison embarrassing herself. Allison waves back halfheartedly, rubs her back against the cool metal of the vent a couple times, and descends the stairs slowly, hoping the mortification will wear off as she goes. As she gets closer she sees that Kira is wearing her beam shoes and her leotard is bright red with a lightning bolt. It looks vaguely familiar, but she can't quite place it. She doesn't want to ask about it. She doesn't want to talk at all, not after that, and not after seeing the two videos of Kira she'd been able to find online.
“Hi! I didn't think anyone else would be here on a Saturday. The other girls were all talking about the pool party going on today, and you know all of them, so I thought...” She lifts one shoulder in Allison's direction. “Malia doesn't seem like the type to come in on the weekends until she has to.”
Allison can do nothing but silently nod her agreement on that point. She'd seen Malia on Thursday having a special session with Finstock, throwing increasingly difficult vaults while he screamed at her about how dead she'd be if she screwed up and injured herself. He must not have been too angry in the end, judging by his ambitious scribbling and distracted mutterings. The weekends, though, were coach holidays until October, and without them, Malia would be in deep trouble for turning herself over in the air that many times unsupervised. “I prefer swimming at the Spieker Center,” Allison admits after processing the rest. “Actual exercise instead of splashing around in a bikini.” She hesitates. “Also, I wasn't invited. I think it's mostly the girls that are legal to drink that are going. The house that's throwing the party has to card or they'll end up on probation.”
“Oh, wow. Shouldn't we...not? Drink.”
Allison shrugs. “Outside of the season, Mar- Coach Morell. She doesn't try to enforce anything. The girls will do it anyway, and she doesn't want to lose all of her upperclassmen. And most of her freshmen and sophomores. Once meets get closer, she'll start coming down tougher on it. Kate puked on one of the vaulting horses in here while she was hungover. They worked her twice as hard as usual because she came in wearing sunglasses and ear plugs.”
It isn't a very funny story to Allison, but Kira laughs like she's never heard anything better. Something changes in her body when it happens, making her loose and natural with delight, and Allison freezes again, remembering who she's talking to. “That's disgusting, they should've put it in the yearbook or something.” She covers her mouth briefly, grin still peeking out at the corners. “The sunglasses and ear plugs, that is, not the puke! I'm not sure how well puke shows up on camera, but probably too well for sharing. Did she finish practice?”
“She did.” Allison nods firmly. “She was tougher than they gave her credit for. After she threw up, she just moved onto the beam. We don't train to be quitters.” She hardens her expression the best way she knows how, tries to look resolute. Kira nods mutely, arms held awkwardly once again, and Allison feels better about herself. The trampolines are close enough that she doesn't run to get there and away from her new teammate. She needs to work on her lines in the air, knowing she was lacking a little difficulty in her dismount on bars last season. She blocks out everything well enough until the gym door crashes into the wall with a bang.
“Allison's getting her tit pierced! Allison's growing a mohawk! Allison's starting to happen!”
“To me!” she hears Scott finish, off-key and too loud. That deserves a deep breath, preparation for the oncoming storm. A visit from the boys, and Lydia with them no doubt, had not been on her schedule today, but she did leave Lydia a note before she went out. At first she pretends she hasn't noticed them and flips a few more times, trying to be impressive with her legs flying over her head. They like to be impressed when they show up, and when she's the only one there-
Oh. She's not the only one there.
“Um. Hi?” Kira dismounts from the beam clumsily and Lydia, from the bleachers, gives Allison an eyebrow raise that could ruin whole nations on sight. It's one of her most incredible talents, right after dealing with the pair of dorks she'd wrangled as best friends in high school and giving the square roots to 4 places of numbers that Allison can barely wrap her head around. “Are you guys Allison's friends?”
Scott emanating his warm glow of joy and acceptance is Allison's doom. It's like watching a train wreck as he jogs up to Kira, hustling as if he might miss a brief window of opportunity to befriend her and tell her how wonderful a human being she is. Allison can't understand how he does it, the whole buddies with everyone thing, but he's her best friend's boyfriend, and he treats both of them like highly competent princesses. No grounds to complain.
She bumps her butt uncomfortably getting down from the tramp and pulls the resulting wedgie in a way that's hopefully unnoticeable before she creeps closer, nervous.
“I love your outfit!” Scott is exclaiming, gesturing happily to Kira's chest. “Stiles! Stiles, the new girl likes The Flash! Look!” He rounds on her again, mouth stretched so wide his cheeks must hurt. “I'm Scott, I'm Lydia's boyfriend.”
“She hasn't met Lydia yet,” Allison explains, stepping close enough to be noticed. “Sorry, Kira. I didn't know they were going to come and see me today or I would've warned you. Lydia's my roommate.” She points to the bleachers, where Stiles is fiercely arguing some point with her. “And the guy is Stiles, their friend.”
“Our friend,” Scott corrects, nudging her with his elbow. “We're a package deal; when she got Lydia, she got us, too. Nice to meet you, Kira. Stiles, he likes comics, you guys will get along.”
Kira's eyes are big, but so is her smile, and she eagerly glances around Scott to the bleachers. “Oh, I wonder what he thinks about the CW series. Grant Gustin, gosh.” She pats Scott's arm absently, eyes still focused behind him. “Nice to meet you too, Scott.”
Once she's taken off to, apparently, get nerdy (and now Allison recognizes the logo on her leotard, of course), Scott refocuses. “Hey, thanks for reminding me to bring my inhaler to dinner the other night. I don't know what set me off, but I owe you one.”
“We both know Stiles had an extra in his bag.” She rolls her eyes, grins, and tries not to feel guilty. Scott's had asthma attacks over things a lot less allergenic than Allison's chalk, but knowing it's her fault eats at her a little, especially now that she regrets her little video spree, too. “But you're welcome. Like you said, you came with the deal. Lydia will thank me for your continued existence with pretty beanies and flats from her shopping trips, since she says she can't wear them.”
“She looks good in everything,” Scott says, shaking his head and looking back at her over his shoulder. Allison aches a little sometimes over the way he looks at Lydia. She gets that they have a lot of history and all, but seeing Scott, who loves pretty much everyone, go so above and beyond with Lydia makes her feel like...well, like less. Stiles is single too (and thank god Lydia had knew better than to play her little matchmaking games with the two of them), but Allison hasn't been on a date in years. Kate had always been the one to help her out with that – picking out date outfits with her and making excuses to her mother about where she was going. After all of the mess with the Hales, Kate wasn't around to drive her to the Smoothie King or pretend they were out swimming laps and browsing for competition gear.
They join the others in the bleachers, where Kira and Stiles are flapping unattractively at one another, having somehow hopped from judging the new adaptation of The Flash to clenching their fists about someone called Roy. Lydia can't muster more than mild amusement. She seems happier when Allison and Scott sit down with her. “I think he made a friend,” she says, tilting her head at the two of them. “I can't believe it. This hasn't happened since....”
“Since you,” Scott teases. “Not by himself, at least. Allison doesn't count. Still, I'm glad he has someone else to yell at about this stuff. I hope she likes Star Wars, maybe she can cover everything I don't do.”
Lydia tugs on his hair and kisses his cheek, rubbing her nose against his smooth, baby face. Allison hasn't figured out if he doesn't grow hair or is just really good at getting all of it, but she's never seen him with stubble, not like Stiles's stray patches, the ones he likes to rub on her shoulder when he's reading over it just to annoy her. She gets the feeling Lydia has a lot to do with Scott's grooming habits, though, and probably for reasons she doesn't want to hear about. “If not, we can find him more new friends. There are thousands of people here. There are dweebs playing Dungeons and Dragons here. Someone will have a light saber fight with Stiles.”
Kira giggles, and Allison knows it's sealed now. The pit of her stomach feels weighted, uneasy, and she hears her mother's voice in her head now more than ever. It will be okay, though. Just because Stiles and Scott come with Lydia in the friendship package doesn't mean Allison comes with all the rest of them, too. Lydia isn't even talking to Kira. It should be fine, right? Right?
“Wrong,” Lydia says disappointedly, even though she's not looking at the back of the flashcard at all. “Allison, are you even paying attention? You know you need this course to graduate, right?” How she manages to lecture in that tone without sounding like a concerned parent, Allison hasn't figured out. It mostly comes off tired and supportive, today. “Seriously. This is your second class in your chemistry series, and when you finish it, you're entirely done with your basic science requirements. Forever. I can't believe you haven't been pasting your notes to the floor and doing handstands over them.”
“I hate chemistry, you know that. You spent an entire week our first quarter trying to show me the beauty of alkenes, and I cried. Twice.”
“Alkanes. There's a difference. You're supposed to know the difference. You have your first big quiz in two days and you're going to cry a lot more if you don't pass it. If you lose your scholarship-”
“I'm not going to lose it over one chemistry quiz, Lydia. Please. I do know the difference, I'm just distracted. Can we start at the beginning of the cards?”
It's too late to turn back when Allison realizes what she's done. Lydia has latched herself onto a single word, and there won't be any turning back. “Distracted?” She's trying for innocent, pitched higher than her normal voice and tilting up too far at the end. Scott says she used to talk that way a lot before they started dating.
Allison goes for the dodge that's proved most effective. “Just practice stuff. I'm not doing so hot on bars.” It's not even that much of a lie. She's not struggling, not this early in the season, before she has a proper routine to practice, but she's not up to snuff compared to Violet. It's a totally realistic comparison to make. It is.
Lydia stares pensively at her before she shakes her head. “When you're having trouble on the bars, you leave your grips on when you come home from the gym and you look like you've been on a Tilt-a -Whirl, your hair's so bad. That's not it.” She rests her hand on Allison's, index card still gripped firmly between thumb and finger. “Is this like last year? Because I told you, I know a lot of people on this campus and I can absolutely find-”
“I don't want you to set me up on a date, Lydia.”
“So you're not sexually frustrated.”
Allison groans, pulling her hand away and flattening it over her eyes as she sinks back into their overly plush couch. “I do not want to have this conversation again, at all. I'm not like you. My body works out all that stuff at the gym. And alone.”
“And I still think you're bluffing. But fine. If it's not sex and it's not bars, what is it? Floor? Vault? Is the impossible Malia Tate destroying your self-esteem? Because we can destroy her. I did some basic searches and went digging into her father, and-”
“What? I'm interested in these things too, you know. Don't tell me you haven't read everything about every girl that joined the team this year. I caught you on YouTube. You hate YouTube. You don't even have an account.”
“Malia isn't a problem. She only ever touches the vault, and that still leaves a place for me. We graduated our best last year, she's just filling a spot that needed filling. Mine is still safe. It will be me, her, Violet, Caitlin, and two of the other girls. Whoever is trying hardest this year.”
It's convincing, but as soon as Allison's finished explaining, she knows she's slipped up again. If she'd agreed to the vault lineup being the problem, she'd be having her hair braided and sipping tea. Still answering questions about chemistry, but definitely in a way that felt more like pampering. But now she's ruined that way out, and even with her eyes closed she knows Lydia's gears are turning, leading her straight to the only answer left.
“It's the beam, isn't it? Something's going on with the beam. Did they get rid of Ray?”
“I cannot believe you still call it that. Stiles is going to think he's actually funny. My beam is still there, they got all of the blood out over the summer.” Her guts are twisting into knots. Lydia doesn't play twenty questions because she's never needed more than five or six to find what she wants.
“And it's not the lineup. Marin wouldn't take you off, not after the season you had last year. It'd be ridiculous for her to even pretend you won't be pushing tens in the last few meets. So what is it? Is Violet better than you? I thought she was strongest on bars and vault.”
Allison uncovers her eyes and glares at Lydia, who has been doing maybe too much research for her own good. “Violet's extremely skilled, yes. Outstanding, actually. I don't know if I'd say she's threatening me, though. In competition, she's in the 9.825 range, usually. She bobbles a bit, and she doesn't go for as much difficulty as she does in the other events. She's probably going to murder me in the all-around, but.”
“But she's not the problem with the beam. And it's not one of the upperclassmen, because you'd have been complaining about her nonstop.” She tilts her head, expression eerily knowing, hand creeping back to cover Allison's again. “It's Kira, isn't it? You're worried about Kira. Is that why you looked like you were going to throw up when she and Stiles started getting friendly? They're not going to date. Stiles wants to be her brother in geekdom. You don't have to see her all the time and we're not going to fifth wheel you.”
“Do you like her?” Allison asks abruptly. “Do you want to hang out with her? And don't tell me what I want to hear.”
Lydia, believe it or not, puts down all of her index cards to put both hands on Allison, and before she can protest she's being pulled close. “Sweetie, she's adorable. And she's a badass like you, or she wouldn't be getting her tuition paid to do a few flips. The boys love her. But you know that if it came down to you or her, we'd always be on your side. I didn't invest a whole year and first and last month's rent on you just to sell you out for a girl that cares more about referencing her fandom with her clothes than what they look like on her. And you're not going to be able to make Scott stop believing the sun shines out of your ass.”
“And Stiles?” She squashes Lydia's flicker of intrigue with a shake of her head. No, she's still not interested in Stiles. He's cute in a Gumby sort of way, but he'll always be the boy that helped her make her first character in an online role-playing game. Things will never be that way between them.
“Stiles is going to want to spend a lot of time with her at first, but he won't sacrifice his time with Scott. And if you haven't noticed, most of his time with Scott is time with you, and with me. Kira isn't going to steal your friends. I think you're overreacting because she's good at your best thing. I know how that feels.” At Allison's incredulous look, she shrugs. “Someone almost beat me at setting the curve in my honors physics class senior year. It was crushing.” She runs her fingers through the hair draping Allison's shoulder, fingers curving like she's considering a braiding session soon after all. “Is she really all that good? She's clumsy. I decided she must be better in the air than on land if she made it in with you guys.”
It takes a bit of maneuvering and the silence is uncomfortable, pressure to explain herself weighing heavy, but Allison manages to get her back to Lydia and takes down the barrettes she's wearing, passes the brush from the coffee table over. This is Allison's favorite routine of theirs, far better than post-exam facials and pedicures. “You know how Stiles has zero hand-eye coordination on a day-to-day basis? And then you give him a controller or a joystick or keyboard and he can destroy anyone he wants to?”
“The Zone,” Lydia says, and that sage little nod of hers is happening behind her back, Allison is sure. “When his ADHD kicks in hard and he forgets to eat and drink, ends up raiding for twelve hours, and then crashes.”
“Exactly. Kira can't even stand up straight when she's on the ground, and when you guys interrupted her the other day, she totally screwed up her dismount even though it wasn't something that'd be difficult enough to show at competition. She's not focused then. I have... I found these videos of her, though. Talking with her teammates and waiting for her turn and then it's like... something happens, I don't know. She's a completely different person.” She feels unsettled just bringing it up, remembers the tiny glimpse of it she caught when Kira had been laughing at Kate. “She totally kills it up there and then skips off like it was nothing.”
Lydia's fingers weave soothingly through her hair, nails scratching against her scalp, and Allison wishes it were helping a little more. Normally this is enough to send her to sleep. “And that threatens you. You're afraid that with the same coach and the same opportunities, she's going to be even better than you.” Allison hums her agreement, quietly miserable. “That won't happen, Allison. You have experience. You never even competed against her before because she just wasn't good enough to move up and try you. You'll be even better this year than you were last year, now that you've made a blood sacrifice to the gymnastics gods.”
They sit like that for a long time, and Allison tries not to think too hard while strands of hair are gently pulled into her braid until Lydia unwraps a tie from the handle of the brush and finishes it off. The quiet is nice until Lydia presses a peck to her shoulder and asks just one more time if Allison is positive she doesn't want a date for the weekend.
Marin rifles through her papers while Allison shimmies into her jeans in the back office. It's pretense, but she's sure the coach doesn't want her to know that, punching stats from last season into her calculator and twisting her mouth into various considering shapes. Finally, she gestures for Allison to sit down. It's a good opportunity to tie her shoes, so she plants her butt into the single chair across from a desk that is probably less necessary than the school's sports program funding committee knows.
“Coach Finstock wants to see you privately about your vault on Tuesday. No worries, he just thinks you should be tweaking your difficulty instead of keeping what you did last season. He says your execution is improving, especially on landing. He's not going to jack you up as much as Malia, of course, but be prepared for working at something a little harder, okay?” She doesn't wait for Allison's nod to continue. “Beam looks excellent, floor looks good – we're weak on floor this year, I should've accounted for that. If you want to start blocking out your routine on the bars, you know you can get in touch with me any time you want.”
“I'm trying to really nail down handstands this year,” Allison says earnestly. “No deductions.” Marin nods and makes a note on her clipboard. “As far as the routine, whatever you think I'm capable of is fine. I don't really get ideas for it the way that I do for beam and floor. I'd like a good bit of difficulty, though. If I end up competing all-around, I want to have a fighting chance.”
“Fair enough. You're a smart girl, Allison. Could you send Violet in on your way out?”
Violet's leo is actually solid silver today, sparkling, and Allison watches Malia mock her behind her back when she relinquishes the bars and goes for her (probably equally as short) meeting with their head coach. It makes her smile now in a way it hadn't a few weeks earlier, accompanied by a pleasant bubbly feeling in her chest. Violet's attitude has made it a lot easier to leap that hurdle of admiration and see her as just another competitor, one she can beat in at least one event. Malia feels the same way, obviously, and she's aggressively bracing her wrists with tape while Finstock spins an analogy between vaulting and orange juice production. It's not the oddest thing she's heard him say. Poor Malia has probably heard the worst of it, staying late with him more often than not, today probably no different.
Allison's still got her head inside her t-shirt when she feels long, thin fingers grip her wrists with the kind of intensity that spells either murder or desperation. “I hate you. I hate you, Allison, who is that girl?” Stiles helps her drag her hem until it meets her jeans and her face pops through the neck hole. “I swear to god.”
Desperation, then. “What girl, Stiles? You've met everyone in here except Violet, and I know you don't care about the Olympics.” She glances around the room and sure enough, only a few of the older girls are still hanging around. “I thought you were in a hurry for us to get to the theater. I was dressing during my meeting, that's so rude, but you said we couldn't miss any previews.”
He points violently instead of using his words, and Allison follows his line of sight to Malia, ripping another length of tape off the roll with her teeth. Finstock's face is twisted in an expression somewhere between horror and fascination. “That girl. That girl, Allison, who I have never seen before and who you have not even mentioned to me, thanks! I thought we were friends.”
Allison sighs. “Stiles, that's Malia. The one that got Lydia talking about society's expectations of female grooming when we were trying to play Apples to Apples? You have heard about her, I promise. No one's been holding out on you. What are you so excited about anyway?”
He points again without looking, looking slightly less frantic now that he has a name and some information. About the state of her body hair, but anything is better than nothing, she guesses, in Stiles's book at least. “Do you have eyes? I know you do, we started the official Brown Eyes Defense League with Scott. And I'm looking at them. That girl needs my number, Allison. Can you give that girl my number?”
A grin creeps across Allison's face as she glances between Stiles's rapt attention and Malia finally throwing herself down the runway again, pushing off the vaulting table so hard she has almost too much time to spare between finishing and landing, like she could use an extra half-twist. “I think you can give that girl your number, Stiles. Two friends in three weeks. It'll be a record.” She flips the end of her ponytail out from under her collar and pulls the scrunchie from it, digging in her bag for her brush. “I can finish up here while you do it. Hurry up, before she goes to talk to Marin.”
Stiles's adam's apple bobs and he licks his lips compulsively. She watches him bounce on the balls of his feet a few times, backpack swinging. He always hypes himself up this way, and it's cute as hell, especially when it draws Scott in and they end up looking like a pair of kids on their parents' bed on Christmas morning. “Right. Yeah, I can totally do that. Just gonna. Shit, do you have a pen and paper?”
Her gym bag turns up her notebook but no pen, and Stiles scratches out his number and name in eyeliner before he hops a few more times and sets off in the direction of the vaulting table, where Malia is adjusting the braces she's put over her tape. Allison has a bizarre urge to wear pigtails, and she brushes her waves into submission before she secures them behind her ears, wondering what's gotten into her. She hasn't worn pigtails since junior high school. The reflective surface of the bottom bleacher step distorts her face, but the hair looks cute, and she takes one last glance over her shoulder at Stiles introducing himself before she goes. Scott is waiting in the Jeep outside, and she only offers a cryptic, “He'll be out,” on Stiles's whereabouts. With any luck, he'll be walking on cloud nine all night so obviously that no explanation will be necessary.
Lydia is clacking around the apartment, heels and statement necklace equally loud, and Allison is becoming increasingly sure that she isn't planning on dancing tonight. She's insisted the dress can't be worn without the accessories, though, and Allison wouldn't tell her to take the dress off for anything. It's Allison's favorite on her, and Scott's too, if the look on his face when he turns up is enough to go on. Even with her bib around her neck to protect her clothes and cleavage from her makeup, he whistles loudly and kisses her neck from behind. Her steady hand finishes the wing of her eyeliner with ease before she turns to catch his lips for a moment, mouth curving up into the kiss. They look especially gorgeous together with Scott in a button-down and jeans that actually fit. Even Stiles's clothes fit tonight. Latest word is that Malia is coming out to meet them. They've only had each other's numbers for a week, but things seem to be going well. Pride and jealousy in equal measure well up in Allison at the thought of them pairing off and leaving her as a fifth wheel the way Lydia has strictly promised wouldn't happen – with Kira, at least. She's not so selfish that she can't be happy for him. She gives him a swift hug and an approving nod when his cologne doesn't knock her flat on her back from close up.
“Allison, sweetheart, you need to do something with your hair,” Lydia frets, smoothing lipstick on inside the neat outline of red she's drawn. “You can't wear pigtails to the club.” Allison sighs, twirling the ends and clutching for a handful of clips and pins. “You can't really wear them anywhere, but definitely not out with me. I don't know what's gotten into you. You've always been so stylish and now it's 1998 again. Not in a good way.” This lecture is getting old by now, and Allison ignores the exact words and squats to share a corner of the mirror with her, carefully sweeping her hair out of her face. It isn't her fault she's been in a mood lately, and there's nothing wrong with wearing her hair in two ponytails if one is just fine.
The rest of her outfit passes inspection easily enough because Lydia picked it out for her, earrings and all. It's always been easier just to throw the closet doors open and let her dig, mixing and matching until she's satisfied. It makes Allison feel a bit like College Barbie, but she gets compliments, and Lydia knows better than to dress her too uncomfortably. The necklace dipping just into her neckline gives the illusion of a chest worth looking twice at, and she feels like she could probably punch someone out with her handful of chunky rings. God bless Lydia. She slips into her flats and grabs a purse when Lydia gives her the stink-eye for trying to slip her phone into her bra. Stiles is texting away on his own phone, sipping their last diet soda with a look of pure distaste that doesn't stop him from continuing.
“Malia has a flask. A flask, I am going to get so drunk.”
“Keys,” Scott demands.
“I'm not drunk yet!”
“I don't care, I get to drive both ways if I have to deal with you wasted on the way back.”
“You don't know I'm coming back tonight, Scott!” At the long silence, he looks up and finds three very unamused faces. “Right, right, not after we've been drinking. Shit. She's already started. I'm fucked. I'm sleeping in my own bed tonight. Why did I beg for the top bunk? I'm going to puke on you tonight, Scotty, be prepared.”
He's too absorbed in dragging his thumb across the keys to see Scott shaking his head, looking like a saint with his indulgent grin. Allison thinks Stiles will be sleeping on the bottom bunk with a cool rag on his forehead and a trash can close by. She's yet to see Stiles actually drunk because no one can manage to obtain alcohol but Lydia, who likes buying wine just expensive enough to taste horrible. The boys won't even touch it, and Lydia will bear it only if she wants to be drunk that badly. Allison doesn't go near any of it. Her father brought home so many bottles from wine country once that he'd offered to let her help them drink it all and she'd flatly refused. She hated seeing her parents tipsy, leaning on one another while they laughed like they'd done when she was younger. Lydia's not the best to be around when she's been drinking either. Hopefully, the bar will be strict at the club Malia's suggested for them.
They pack into the Jeep, and Scott blares top 40 music for the whole drive. Allison attempts to tune it out, sure that she'll be hearing all the same songs on repeat once they get to the club, if it's anything like the ones she's been to. Lydia and Stiles are both playing on their phones, no doubt in touch with their other friends. Allison's is set to silent inside her purse. The only other people in her contacts are gymnasts, family, and two people from a group project last quarter of freshman year that she never deleted. It's a little pitiful.
She's eager to get inside when they pull into the parking lot. Malia's waiting just inside the door, ahead of the line. Her flask is waving above her head and she gives them the c'mere gesture, yelling in the bouncer's ear. His stone face splits to show teeth in what must be a smile, because they cut the line and follow Malia's swaying hips like a row of lost ducklings, sparing only a glance for the agitated people in line watching them.
Allison has never been so mistaken in her entire life. The music pounding in her ears, in the floors, everywhere is nothing she's heard on the radio, at least not on the stations Scott and Stiles keep on at all times. Lydia's mouth hangs open just enough to be visible. Scott is already bobbing, ready to dance. Stiles is still eyeing Malia's thighs beneath her cutoff jean shorts, but even he's tapping his fingers against his leg to the pulsing rhythm. Allison feels like she's only just arrived at college for real. She's definitely walked into a scene from one of those trashy comedy flicks set around a college town, and this is the part where everyone gets wasted and undresses on the dance floor.
There are little booths away from the writhing bodies, and that's where they wind up, one empty glass and one mostly full sweating rings onto the table. “For mixing!” Malia yells over the bass, dumping something amber into the coke and squeezing her flask into the front of her shirt until it disappears. She pushes the glass over to Stiles who downs most of it in one go, spluttering and grinning, pushing into the booth to sit near Malia. They're shouting into each other's ears before anyone else can even settle, and Allison feels awkward sliding in to sit on Malia's opposite side. She knows her the best, she guesses, but Scott and Lydia look cozy on their side next to Stiles. Right in their comfort zone. Allison feels like she's been stranded near the buffet with an awkward cousin at an extended family reunion.
One song blends into the next and Scott brings them all a round of sodas, blocking Malia's hand when she moves to spike his and Lydia's. Lydia pulls her miniature packets of raw sugar from her purse and dumps two into her glass, clinking it with Scott's and taking a sip. They're making googoo eyes with each other for maybe a full minute before Lydia points and Scott stands, lifting an arm over the top of the booth where Allison can't see behind her. Midway through leaning to peek around the edge, her face collides with something velvety but firm, silver arrow on her barrette poking painfully into her scalp.
“Oh, god, I'm sorry!” Kira looks less tiny from this vantage point, but her expression of pained apology leaves Allison less interested in that. “Are you okay? I didn't know you were going to be here, I thought my seat-”
“It's fine,” Allison mumbles, waving her off, cautiously prodding into the tender spot on her scalp and checking for blood on her fingers. She's fine, probably nothing more than a stinging scratch. Inching across the seat to make room for Kira, she plucks an ice cube from her drink and touches it to her skin by reflex, waiting for the blessed numbness. Lydia sticks her tongue out, disgusted, but Malia and Kira both look on with understanding. Ice can be a girl's best friend, and they both know it just as well as she does. “I didn't know you were coming either,” she says, a little louder. “Stiles didn't mention Malia was bringing you. I didn't even know you were friends.”
Kira blinks and opens her mouth to answer but Lydia slams her abruptly empty glass down, rattling the unsturdy table. “Want to come to the ladies' room with me, Allison?” Without a word, Kira ducks out to let Allison by, and though she's confused and still letting her Sprite-drenched ice drip into her hair, she follows Lydia. This must've been the direction Kira had come from before they crashed into one another. That explains the empty drink. Lydia beelines for the mirror, methodically touching up her lipstick. It's not even a little smudged. It's not as cheap as it would need to be for that. Allison decides to pee anyway, and Lydia's waiting for her at the counter when she comes out of the stall to wash her hands. “You should be nice to her.”
The soap here foams everywhere, and rinsing it off her forearms gives her a moment to consider that. “I wasn't being rude. I thought it was going to be the five of us. She said she didn't know I was coming first.”
“Be nice,” Lydia repeats, sticking her barely used tube of lipstick back into her purse and pulling out another. “Here. Use this. You look cute tonight, and you need something to draw attention away from the big wet spot on your head now.” She shakes Allison's hand until she drops the ice in the sink and replaces it with something deeper and redder than Allison would've chosen for herself. “Makes you look older. Good.” Allison doesn't want to look older. 21 is hurtling rapidly toward her while her friends lag behind. Lydia's word is law on this matter, though. By the time they make it to the booth, Stiles and Malia have vanished.
“Dancing,” Scott agrees. It takes a little searching to spot them in the crowd, especially because Stiles's arms aren't high above everyone's heads, announcing his position to the whole room like usual. Malia's pinning his hands to the bare small of her back as they all watch. The jackpot sounds going off in his head are obvious from twenty feet away. Scott is laughing, showing thumbs up when his friend makes incredulous faces at their booth. “I want to dance too.” He looks to Allison first and then Kira, but Lydia unclasps her necklace, dropping it in her purse and pulling a much shorter pair of heels from its unplumbed depths. It's hard to feel shocked.
As gradually as she can, and hopefully without being noticed, Allison makes a bit of space between her thigh and Kira's. There's what seems like a full foot of bare skin between the bottom of Kira's skirt and the rainbow-striped tops of her tall socks. Her own dress is fairly short, because Lydia insists that a girl with legs so long is required to show off as much as she can get away with. Their knees touching is more than Allison can handle thinking about, much less any more. Her squirmy stomach is rebelling full steam, and apparently an uncomfortable silence can persist even through the loudest house music.
Kira breaks it first, but whatever she says is either in gibberish or half obscured by the music. Allison finds herself shouting, “Huh?” multiple times, leaning her upper half in as far as she can without spilling herself into Kira's lap. After a few failed tries, she feels lips against the curve of her ear, and she misses every single word again when they brush against the skin there, warm and oversensitive. She nods dumbly, and whatever she's agreed to makes Kira beam at her and...take her by the hand? Her heart jumps into her throat as she's pulled toward her friends on the dance floor. Lydia bumps their hips together and smiles encouragingly, arms stretching up to loop around Scott's neck.
There aren't any hard and fast rules for dancing. Allison has always left it to the others unless they were messing around as a group, showing off the vast repertoire of novelty dance moves they've collected over the years. Stiles has done The Perfect Catch on every dance floor he's graced since they met (and, according to Scott, every one before), and Scott is partial to the Bus Driver. No one's pretending to push a shopping cart or imitating a lawn sprinkler now. Scott and Lydia are pressed tight in a way that looks less than sexual but more than friendly, and Malia's moving Stiles's hips for him at this point, showing him the rhythm of the song while she dips and sways to it, breathlessly happy. Allison is out of her element. At least Kira isn't touching her when she starts dancing, and a few seconds of watching relieves some of the pressure. She's not nearly as sinuous as Malia or as comfortable as Lydia.
The song changes and the slower, deeper groove of the new one makes Allison close her eyes and focus for a second before she starts to move. She can't see anyone watching her and it's not identical to dancing alone in her room with the stereo blaring, but the anxiety fades in stages until she opens her eyes to find two smiles on her. Scott is delighted with the situation, apparently, and Kira takes a wary step closer to the beat of the music. Breathing deep, Allison stands her ground. It makes sense with the crowd pushing in around them. With the paired off guys and girls around them, occasionally lit in a flash of color from the ceiling that highlights where there skin touches and their mouths press.
Songs pass and though they never get as close as the couples around them, Allison ends up learning to mostly ignore the feeling of Kira's hips swinging just off the beat under her palms. The sleek tips of her pigtails graze Allison's arms every few seconds. Allison's own hair is sweatier at the roots the more she moves and the back of her neck feels feverish, spreading forward to her throat and up to her cheeks. Kira seems to get more relaxed and less insecure the longer they're at it, barely pausing to accept some water from Scott when he taps her shoulder. She offers it to Allison as well, wiping her wet lips on her hand before she rests it against Allison's skin again. Whatever thirst the water might've managed to quench comes alive again, mouth gone dry. A few more sips don't help, and Allison passes the bottle to Stiles behind her.
Everyone dances for a while longer, and Stiles and Malia get progressively drunker over the course of the night. Allison wouldn't have noticed, but Stiles keeps stepping on her feet, and Malia keeps trying to make everyone swap partners. Scott and Stiles do a couple obscene things that seem to be another throwback to high school dances by the look on Lydia's face, and Kira and Lydia look like something from a music video when they throw their arms up and shimmy to a song that culminates in a shower of gold flakes fluttering down from the ceiling, making their skin sparkle. Allison is shocked to find that Malia is just as tall as her and not at all shy of slipping her thigh between Allison's to grind for a minute that feels like an eternity, Stiles's eyes on them the entire time.
There's a brief moment of panic when bits of the crowd start trickling out the door, leaving the dance floor sparsely populated. She's danced with everyone and ended up back at Kira when Stiles begins to look green around the gills and Lydia mentions what time it is. It's too late to be awake, much less out, for Allison's schedule. Even on a Saturday night, this is unacceptable. Her mind refuses to feel tired even though her body is aching in confusing places that must not get much attention in her routines at practice. Scott and Lydia seem ready to head out, and Kira and Malia both have a way home, so Allison meekly hugs them both goodbye and tries to help prop Stiles up on the way to the Jeep. They only have to stop once for him to puke before Allison and Lydia are dropped off, so overall, the night is a success.
Undressing and wiping off makeup (at Lydia's insistence, overlong speech about dermatological health stopped in its tracks when she yawns hugely and finishes with 'just do it') takes much longer than usual, and Lydia is unnaturally quiet. The commentary on the night's events that Allison expects never comes, leaving her troubled as she slips into her pajamas and heads to bead. She pulls her phone out of her purse to set her alarm for a morning run and finds two missed texts from a strange number. They only say 'hi!' and 'fun night!' but they're ten minutes old, and Allison doesn't think Malia has sobered up quickly enough to be that clear.
She doesn't save the number, but she also doesn't delete the texts. She'll compare the number to one she's sure to find in Stiles's phone tomorrow when he's too grey and dull to notice her snooping.
It can't be avoided forever. Shutting her eyes, pointing herself in another direction, coming in at odd hours on non-practice days – it can only work for so long. Even Allison knows she's behaving strangely, has to try hard to pretend she doesn't when Marin or someone on the team brings it up. It doesn't help that Kira practices almost as often as she does. Turning up on a Saturday is nearly always a bad choice, but with her schedule lined up the way it is, it's usually unavoidable. Saturday mornings mean dealing with Violet and the sophomore girls; Saturday afternoons leave Kira and Allison alone in the gym. Eventually the quiet, empty spaces and open equipment become more important than putting off the inevitable.
Kira is in the middle of what looks like the trappings of a meet routine when Allison peeps through the dirty glass of the gym door windows. She presses the door open with as little noise as possible and only goes so far as the edge of the bleachers, hoping Kira doesn't glance away and notice her shadow stretching out beyond her. Then again, if Kira looks her way now, it'll be a miracle. She turns smoothly on the ball of her foot and transitions straight into a walkover, lines of her body lean and long, not a single wobble in her movements. Her short, sturdy legs seem to extend and carry her from one end of the beam to the other in a few fluid moves with no trouble. It's incredible to watch, even on the practice beam lowest to the ground, the safest to use with no one else around.
A routine is never more than ninety seconds, but Kira goes on for what feels like five minutes or more, graceful and intent. At times, Allison notices her closing her eyes, lashes brushing her cheeks and the slip of a smile on her face. Just before Allison thinks she'll turn around and sneak out, it all comes to a head, Kira not much more than a graphic-printed blur with her hair whipping after her as she flips herself off the beam. It's not a real dismount, not from this close to the ground, but it sticks anyway. She sweeps her arms above her head and grins widely, as if to the judges or a crowd, before breaking into the kind of dance she'd never have seen at a club like the one last night. Feeling guilty and intrusive, Allison tiptoes back to the door and bangs it a few time before she appears around the corner.
The rush of a good turn on the beam doesn't leave Kira's face and body fast enough for Allison to miss seeing it a little longer. She surprises herself, skipping over to say hi before she even peels out of her clothes. “We finally ran into each other again,” she says, as if she hasn't been dodging that very event. “You have my number and you don't even text me to tell me when you'll be here.”
Kira scrapes the toe of her beam shoe against the mat. “I never got a text back from you. I thought maybe...”
“That I didn't know who it was?
The cute plastic baubles on Kira's ponytail holders clack as she shakes her head, biting at her lip. “That you maybe didn't want to talk to me.”
Allison's cheeks burn. “You were right. About the night being fun! Not... We all had a good time. Even Stiles didn't regret it after the hangover wore off. Was Malia okay? She started drinking before he did.”
“We don't talk that much. She was fine at practice Monday? But I guess she'd have been fine by then, anyway. I don't really know anything about being hungover.” She shrugs casually, and Allison notices that she still hasn't reverted to her awkward habit of curving her toes under until she's nearly tipping over. She doesn't seem so short when she stands up straight. Taller than Lydia in her bare feet, definitely.
Allison admits that she doesn't have practice with the post-whiskey sickness either, and they go back and forth for a minute longer without Kira hemming and hawing over her words even once. The gym is for practice, though, and Allison can see that Kira is equally as eager to get on with her run-throughs as she is to be chatting about their boozier friends. “I have your number,” she points out while she gets out of her beam shoes.
It's just like the other times that they've practiced alone together, only...it isn't. Allison catches herself looking up and meeting Kira's eyes more than once in between tumbling runs. Once, she's upside down near the wall, holding herself still with quivering muscles and wiggling her persistently itchy nose with annoyance. Kira giggles at her and Allison doesn't feel mocked or like an outsider. It's a friendly laugh, the sound of Stiles watching her die in a raid or Kate flipping through her CD collection. Kira is laughing at her the way that a friend would, and Kira is saved in her phone, and Kira thinks they had a fun night.
Denial was fun while it lasted.
“Yeah, I know, I know. I will... I think I'll... I'm gonna fold. I think Scott's got a mean bluff going on, but who knows?” He throws his cards down and picks his phone up, holding it in front of his meager and steadily dwindling stack of chips.
Allison folds as well, deciding to hoard her remaining betting pool and let Lydia and her innocent-faced boyfriend battle it out. It doesn't matter which of them has the better hand, so she peeks at Stiles's phone instead, snorting when she realizes he's snapchatting with Malia about his five card draw failures. “Does she actually know how to do all that? She couldn't remember her email address when Marin was taking them up from the new girls at the beginning of the year.”
Stiles snaps her mid-sentence and is probably alerting Malia to her doubt in the girl's technology skill set. “She's picking it up just fine. I'm trying to get her comfortable with the medium before we start working on content.” He waggles his eyebrows and Allison grins in spite of herself. She sort of thinks they're exactly the type to be doing that kind of snapchatting, and as long as Stiles isn't pressuring her into it, it'll probably be good for them. At least it'll hold Stiles over when they're not actually together and all over each other.
“She's quick at picking things up,” Allison admits. “I started working with her on floor this week, and obviously she knew how to tumble already, but the dance elements are going really well. They don't annoy her as much as they do most of us.”
Going wide-eyed and pressing far back into his chair, Stiles wobbles his bottom lip at her for a long moment. “You're doing what?!” he asks, voice hiking up into dog whistle territory and making Scott cover his ears momentarily in the middle of scraping all of the chips in the pot toward himself. “I didn't know you were hanging out with her! I swear, if one of my best friends steals the person of my dreams from me again-”
“I didn't steal-” Lydia and Scott begin at the same time, and everything goes quiet as they stare at one another and then, in unison, at Stiles. He visibly passes through shades of pale like a paint sample card from bottom to top.
Feeling bad for him, Allison loudly smacks her ante into the middle of the table and gathers the cards, straightening them out one edge at a time so they can be shuffled. “We aren't hanging out. She's on my team and I noticed that she enjoyed herself dancing at the club. I think she could be good enough to actually go into the rotation for floor, and then she'd have two events to do at meets. You know how I like kicking upperclassmen out of their events.”
“You know you'll be one of them next year, right?” Lydia asks, adding her own starting bet into the pot Allison's begun and taking the deck from her with no preamble. She shuffles like she's been working tables in Vegas, perfect arch and rhythmic slap of the cards against the table and themselves. It's another one of those private Lydia talents that was picked up along the way to where she is now – quiet weeknights when homework couldn't occupy her and only something new could draw her interest. Allison had felt awful learning about just how bored Lydia had the capacity to be, and she's glad for Scott and Stiles finding her when they did. “You're going to be a junior. The freshmen and sophomores will be trying to kick you out of your events.”
“Not the sophomores,” Scott says warmly. “Not our sophomores, anyway. Don't know about the Olympics girl.”
“Violet would perform six times on every event at every meet if she could. She doesn't want anyone else in the lineup, me or otherwise. But that's impossible, and she's not even the best on most things; she's just really solid when you add everything up.”
Stiles steals two of Scott's chips and puts himself up with them, eyes still focused on Allison. “Everyone is missing the point here, people. Allison got up close and personal with my lady at the club and now she's probably doing the gymnastics version of leaning all up on someone to teach them to shoot pool.”
Lydia rolls her eyes and Scott slips his hand into Stiles's chips while he's distracted, keeping everything fair and square. He knows he doesn't get to borrow Scott's chips without asking, especially when they're playing for the few meager bucks they'd thrown into Stiles's baseball cap at the beginning of the night – winner take all. “She's not stealing your girlfriend,” Lydia insists as she starts to deal. “That's ridiculous, even for you.”
“She's not my girlfriend! That's the problem. If she were my girlfriend I'd – well, yeah, I'd probably still be freaking out but, like. Less. We haven't been on a real date yet, though, and I don't know if she even does boyfriends? Or if she just sort of wants to fool around and maybe she wants to fool around with Allison, too, who knows? I don't. I don't know, Lydia, and you know what that does to me.”
“Stiles, it's not even Malia that I like, calm down.” Allison peeks at her cards and hopes her expression doesn't give away her good hand. She's waiting for Stiles, left of the dealer, to bet first, but he doesn't say anything about his hand, or even about Malia. He's still looking at her when she checks to make sure he's not gone into some kind of apoplectic rage. Scott's looking at her too, actually, while Lydia hides her smile in the quirk of her lip like she's only thinking about her cards, studying them carefully. “Guys?”
“You don't like Malia,” Scott says, words slow and clear, like he's making sure she understands each separately. Allison nods. “It's not Malia that you like,” he reiterates, heavily emphasizing her name with his voice and a strong tilt of his head toward her, inquiring.
Allison is confused. She glances at Lydia, now studying her manicure instead of her cards. No help there. “No, Scott, I don't like Malia. Is it that hard to believe? She's nicer than I thought, but I think she and Stiles are going to be cute together. In fact, I thought they were already together. I didn't know Stiles hadn't asked her to be his girlfriend yet. I don't know why anyone thinks I like Malia like that in the first place.”
“But you like someone else,” Stiles blurts, leaning forward the same way Scott is, except it puts him much closer to Allison's face, as he's in the chair next to her. “It's not Malia that you like. So you like someone.”
Her hand is halfway to her face before she realizes covering her mouth and acting embarrassed isn't going to work out in her favor. She finishes anyway. “I didn't mean it that way,” she says, hand sliding to her cheek. No one is going to jump in to save her the way they saved Stiles. Lydia is decidedly not on her team about this; she should've figured that out sooner by the way she was behaving. “I just meant I'm not going to try to be with Malia because I'm not into Malia.”
“Not into Malia,” is parroted back at her, even more intensely, by Stiles. “Oh my god. So many things are starting to make sense to me right now.”
Lydia cuts her eyes at him, lips pursed in disdain. “Really, Stiles? That's how you're going to react? You could at least try to be a little better about it, considering.”
Nothing makes any more sense than it did a minute earlier, and Scott is starting to look like he might share that feeling, except it's Lydia he's making faces at. Allison clears her throat. “I'm not sure what's going on, but if Stiles would just bet-”
“Stiles is only just figuring out that you're gay.”
The burn in her cheeks is immediate and most likely obvious, and she pulls her braid around in front of her shoulder anxiously, playing with the end until half her face is hidden by both hands. “Lydia,” she says, sounding scandalized. It's not... a secret, exactly. It's just that she never dates and so there hasn't been much reason to talk about it. All the most important things about her are just unrelated – gymnastics, her secret hipster blog full of bad photography, the nights when she listens to Lydia talk about what life was like as a teenaged girl in public school and feels so disconnected from her and everyone else, holes in her experience gaping and obvious. Her cell phone contact list barely in the double digits. Her struggle to love a family that keeps secrets from her around every corner. Liking girls is not really Allison's level four tragic backstory material.
“Like, gay gay?” Scott asks, breaking the tense silence.
“No, like straight gay,” Stiles says flatly, kicking him under the table. “I think Lydia would've said bi if that's what she meant, dude.”
Scott tucks his feet away and takes a good long look at each of them. “You could've told us,” he points out. “You didn't have to, but you could've. It's not even that big of a deal? Unless you want it to be.” Anyone else would sound like they're tripping over themselves to be this good, but Scott is earnest and calm. “It isn't like... a problem for you, is it? Like, your parents or...”
“No!” Allison says quickly, shaking her head. “Nothing like that. My family knows. My mom kind of ignored it because I wasn't supposed to be seeing anyone, and my dad doesn't care. Kate used to help me go out on dates with girls before she had to move out.” The memory makes her frown rather than smile; none of the girls were quite nice enough to blur out the sharper twinge of losing her best friend. “I don't talk about it much because of gymnastics. I thought the other girls might be uncomfortable.” She glances across the table. “I didn't even tell Lydia, actually.”
“And it took me a while,” Lydia admits. “Longer than it should've. The first clue was when you weren't interested in Stiles from day one.”
“Amen,” Stiles says, but he winks at her.
“It would've been convenient, two sets of best friends. But you weren't interested even a little, and you weren't disappointed about it. You didn't even think to be. But I wasn't positive until the pigtails.”
“Oh,” Scott says, with a look of dawning realization that Allison can't comprehend. “Oh, this is awesome. This is going to be so awesome. Stiles, how awesome is this going to be?”
Stiles is violently mashing his phone's screen with his thumbs, and Lydia lifts the whole thing from his hands with the very tips of her fingers like it's something dirty or highly contagious. There's a good chance it is. “No,” she says firmly, sticking it into her lap just at the vee of her thighs, where he won't dare touch. “You're not telling Malia or Kira.”
The mention of her name in this context sets Allison on edge. “Stiles, are you going to bet? If everyone's folding, I guess I could just take the pot for myself.” She reaches in and gets, instead of the sharp swat she imagined, a gentle hand over hers. Scott's, not Lydia's like she was expecting. They're nice hands. He'll make a good nurse with them. Very soothing, probably. “I wasn't going to do it,” she mumbles, staring at his thumb brushing across her knuckles. “I just want to get on with the game.”
“I know,” he answers her. “But I don't think anyone is going to be able to play if we don't at least talk about your crush on Kira.”
Official, mandatory practices are coming thicker now that the weather is cooling off in the mornings and the quarter sails along. Some of the girls are already starting to wear tights under their practice leos, the HVAC system not doing a much better job for the heating than it had for the cooling. Malia's teeth chatter even when she does turn up in tights and a long-sleeved outfit, hiding more skin than Allison's would've ever expected. The older girls have mostly adapted, and Violet might possibly be made of steel. Kira's legs stay bare for now, and she explains that she's from New York when Malia acts scandalized, briskly rubbing her thighs to build up friction heat. She sits on the vaulting table instead of the bleachers or the floor, which she claims numb her butt with their temperature.
Routines are getting more structured, ready to be perfected, and Allison is unsatisfied with most of them. Not because they're bad, but because she knows (hopes?) she can do better. Finstock is the only coach who hasn't let her down on difficulty, pushing her and making her do morning after morning on the tramps. She practices her dismount for the bars behind his back when he's dealing with one of the other girls and sweetly returns to her vault when his attention has wandered back to her. Marin's not pushing as hard on the bars as she should be with any of them except Violet, and it makes Allison sick. She gets attention, sure, and the routine that results isn't terrible, but it's nothing that can compete with Violet's, and that defeats the purpose. Everyone should be performing to the best of their ability. Trying to come out guns blazing showing off only one team member doesn't sound like a great 'road to the championship' sort of plan to her.
Floor always takes a lot of tweaking and consideration, and Allison has not just her routine but Malia's to worry about. They have opposite problems, but with a lot of patience, they're making forward strides – Malia with all the pretty, technical requirements and Allison with the no-step landings she's been working her ass off for since day one. Thanks to whatever god gifted Malia with the power of the vault, she's got all sorts of tricks for landing and absorbing the shock better to eliminate the step. Allison has completely wiped it out after her easiest tumbling pass with only a few tries, but the others are going to be stubborn as hell, and she doesn't even get to the beam the day that they're really going for it. Her stomach gets a little upset when she looks up and sees Kira peeling off her beam shoes at the end of the day just before the gymnasium locks up.
A good many of them are chalky or sweaty and it's nearly Thanksgiving, too late to be indulging, but someone suggests milkshakes nearby, and before Allison can protest, she's being hustled along. There's more than one set of chalky handprints on her jeans, not all of them hers. Wedged between Malia and Heather on one side and Kira on the other in the cramped second row of a mini-van, Allison isn't sure why this is happening to her now of all times. The older girls never invited her to these nights out the year before, and they have no real reason to now. All of the freshmen were asked to tag along too, though, and only Violet had declined, heading straight from the gymnastics building to the twenty-four hour gym halfway across campus to do... something, Allison supposes. Weight or resistance training, most likely. Maintaining upper body strength is difficult to do without a lot of upkeep, and practice alone doesn't cut it unless you spend most of your time on the bars doing pull-ups and the rest on the floor doing push-ups.
Heather and Malia are casually chatting about Stiles over the indie station playing from the car's stereo system. Allison overhears more than she needs to. She couldn't be happier about the two of them being official – though not Facebook official thanks to Malia's lack of account and Stiles's insistence that it would be tacky to just write her name in – but apparently Heather has some thoughts about his hands and mouth that make Allison want to stick her fingers in her ears. It's more than she needs to know about one of her very best friends, and she doesn't want to hear about their sex life any more than she wants to hear about Scott and Lydia's. It is pleasing to notice that Malia doesn't get fussy or paranoid over another girl talking about her boyfriend this way. She seems delighted, actually, offering details and practically preening through the entire conversation.
Trying to focus in the opposite direction to avoid some intense descriptions of Stiles's fingers brings Allison nose to cheek with Kira. She has to steel herself to pull away carefully instead of snapping back and colliding with Malia. Concussions at this point in the game wouldn't do anyone any favors. The move wiggles the cord to one of Kira's earbuds, though, drawing her attention from the almost comically long list of artists she's scrolling through on her mp3 player. She pulls the bud out, eyes darting around the full car, lingering on the two seniors up front with an uneasy pause before she turns back to Allison. “Did you want something?”
“No, sorry, just didn't realize how close we were. Accident.” Their shoulders rub together when she shrugs, bashful. “You have a lot of music,” she adds, hoping that's a decent excuse for her snooping. “I don't have half that much.”
Kira flicks her thumb across her screen, mouthing along to some of the artist names as she goes. “It's not that much, I just have a lot of people I only bothered to get one song from. Mostly recommendations and requests.”
The wide grin reminds Allison of their night out a couple weeks back. “For my YouTube channel. It's under an alias because I wanted to keep it separate from gymnastics. And also because I really didn't want to end up showing up to class with one of my videos playing for the whole room to see. It seemed like something my classmates would've done. I'm not, like, nervous about my singing? But the videos I get kind of paranoid about. I actually thought about deleting when I started getting more views and comments.”
“You sing.” The surprise in her voice is probably unwarranted, but she's used to thinking of the other girls like the ones her mom had always been coaching – one track minds. “That's amazing, Kira. I bet if you have so many people watching, you're great at it. I wish I could do something like that.”
“Everyone can sing,” Kira reminds her, but her head dips, sweet little smile almost hidden behind her hair. “I just have a lot of practice. We had to have an art in high school, and it turned out that I was a lot better at singing than I was at drawing. Everybody seemed weirdly shocked by that.”
“I can shoot a bow,” Allison says without thinking. She's immediately ashamed of herself for diverting the attention from Kira. “Not as cool as making YouTube covers and no potential to get famous, but. My dad taught me how, and I always loved it. He thought I could've competed in archery if I'd had the time to practice more, but I was busy with my mom.”
“A bow like Robin Hood or a bow like Hawkeye?” Kira asks curiously. “Like, wood and catgut or modern stuff?”
“I only sort of know who Hawkeye is,” Allison admits. “But more like him, definitely. Dad has all kinds of them – he's kind of an expert in weapons – and I've shot all of the bows that I was able to draw, but I liked my compound bow the best, with all the neat extras. I always saw it like I was getting to go out to play, so they were like really deadly toys. Not that I ever shot at anything but a target. Hunting isn't my thing.”
They're still going back and forth about hobbies (right down to Allison's backlog of black and white photos for her blog) when they get to the diner, piling out of one side chatting away. The booths seat four and the two of them end up across from each other in a booth with Malia and Heather, who've thankfully moved away from discussing Stiles. The waitresses haven't converged on their tables before Kira spots the jukebox with excitement, pointing, and they all search their pockets and bags for enough change to play half an hour or so of songs.
The menu has an entire section for their malts and floats and ice cream sodas instead of a tiny line of flavors, and Allison is perusing them (and considering asking how many ounces the smallest size is) when Kira's hand touches hers. “Come on!” she chirps, fingertips pressing into Allison's palm as she tugs. “You have to help me pick the music!” Numbly, Allison follows, thanking the chalk left over on her hands preventing her from sweating all over Kira's. The jukebox is a modern one with a touch screen instead of the old-timey kind with the numbers and letters to push. The variety is impressive.
“Shouldn't we have figured out what we're getting first?”
Kira tilts her head, checks the tables where a waitress is starting to make her rounds. “I was going to get an ice cream soda, but I've seen the ones they make here and they're huge. We could share one?”
“I...” Allison catches her bottom lip between her teeth and decides it can't hurt that much, really. “I think that's a great idea. Do you have a favorite flavor? I was looking at grape or cherry.”
“Cherry,” Kira agrees decisively. “We'll get cherry. I'll go tell Malia.” Her hand feels strange and empty when she's left stranded at the jukebox. She feeds the quarters left on the flat counter surface into the machine for something to do and only looks over her shoulder three or four times. Kira is leaned so far over the edge of the table that she might faceplant into the middle of it any second, only her toes touching the floor in her neon-laced sneakers. Malia catches Allison's eye from the booth just before she's about to feed the last bit of change in and winks. The bottom of Allison's stomach drops out. Stiles is a horrible human being.
She's selected two of the songs the girls on the team had blared on the bus a lot the year before and has eight picks left when she's not alone any longer. Arms twining around her waist make her shiver and then Kira is poking her head underneath Allison's arm to peek at the screen. “Any Charlene Kaye? Ooh, or Capital Cities, while you're in the Cs.”
Their soda is sitting at the table when they make it back, “Le Disko” queuing up over the diner's speakers. It's a vivid pink with two straws sticking just up out of the glass – not nearly long enough for leaning in and sipping if they're going to share. “Um,” Allison hedges, looking everywhere but at Kira.
“You need to sit next to each other,” Malia points out for her. “Here, I'll sit with Heather, it'll be fine. Your straws are too short.” The purple straw is jagged along the top edge. Malia smiles. Allison prays she didn't shorten them with her teeth, but the fact is she did something. Allison slides into the booth and looks up from under her lashes at Kira, shifting her weight at the end of the table before she finally takes a seat. The soda is dead center between them and Allison has to adjust for it, bumping legs with Kira in the process. At least there are clothes between them this time.
The two tables around them are bustling with people reaching to share sips and loud conversation, most of it complaining about the creaks in their joints and the aches in their muscles. Their own group might as well be populated by church mice. The soda disappears a tiny sip at a time, alternated with several seconds in between, faces never as close as they had been in the car. Heather is swirling her spoon around in her sundae, barely-there hot fudge drizzle diluting and making the vanilla ice cream a dull, dirty color. Allison feels her pain. Malia is sucking down her malt at a rate that ought to be freezing her brain, blinking across the booth at them as she slurps through whatever she has. Something green. Allison hopes it's mint and not pistachio. Either way it's the only sound at the table besides the clink of Heather's spoon.
A song Allison doesn't know floats out over the diner. Kira perks up and hums with pleasure over her next sip of soda, savoring it as she tips her head back and forth to the tune. She follows the beat with her fingers on the tabletop the way Lydia does when they're alone, minus the incessant click of acrylic nails. Allison watches her while she takes her next scheduled sip, the way she closes her eyes and smiles just like those quiet moments on the beam. The ones Allison had been spying on in the shadows. It's a different experience altogether from up close in the fluorescent lights of the diner. She can see Kira's lips shaping the words without sound while they come through loud and clear overhead. It's happy and dancey and it's about love, of all things, about falling in love, and Allison feels sticky with sweat and unshakeable shame. Kira's happy and absorbed in her own world and here she is, staring, athlete's slow heartbeat racing and fluttering against its nature. She gulps down what she thinks is the rest of her portion of the soda and, mortified, asks to be let out of the corner seat to go to the restroom.
No one follows her in, thank goodness, and she digs in her bag for her phone as she locks herself into the stall closest to the door. She's always heard they were cleanest, but she's still careful not to put too much of her weight onto the toilet seat despite three layers of clothes between her butt and the porcelain. Her hands shake a little as she texts Lydia, hoping she hasn't shut off her cell for an intense study session. It's happened before.
She startles hard when her phone actually begins to ring, mashing accept before it can get through the little tune even once and staring at the connected call timer clicking upwards of ten seconds before she brings it to her ear and whispers, “Hello?”
“Allison Argent, you march yourself right back to that booth. Honestly, I have watched you take a set of stitches to the forehead without anesthetic. It's pop music. It's a song that she chose. You're overreacting, sweetheart.”
“I know how to deal with pain, Lydia,” Allison mutters, tone hardening with indignation. “This is nothing like that.”
Lydia sighs across the line and doesn't say anything for so long that Allison is afraid she hung up. She sighs again just before Allison checks. “Yes, it is. It's very much like that, Allison, it's just another kind of pain. Haven't you ever had a crush on someone before? Your brain is-”
“I don't want to hear about my neurotransmitters right now!” Allison stomps like a toddler in the empty bathroom and it echoes, strengthening her resolve instead of making her feel silly. “I don't care about chemistry and I'm never going to care about chemistry, not when there's a really cute girl out there who probably likes someone else so much that she's playing music that reminds her of him!”
“Or she could be thinking about 'Grant Gustin, gosh',” Lydia counters, her impression impeccable. “Or she could just like the song. You're hyper-aware of everything she does right now and it's not doing you any favors. Just try to finish up the evening and you can come back here and relax for the rest of the night. I'll even watch your terrible shows with you on my laptop. Are we at Teen Mom levels or more like Kardashians?”
Grudgingly grateful, Allison reevaluates her relative amount of stress on the bad reality television scale. “Kardashians,” she admits. “It's pretty bad.”
“Lord Disyck and company it is.” It reads as patient and accepting, but Allison knows that deep down in her heart, Lydia is pleased. Nothing makes her happier than watching other beautiful women with money do whatever the hell they want, bad choices and all. Allison is nothing of the sort, but Kourtney's kids are adorable, and she might or might not be hording a teeny section of her heart for Khloe, alright? Besides, she feels like anyone could feel better about their dysfunctional family watching them around each other.
Lydia talks her through a few calming breaths before the call ends and Allison washes her face. She can just pretend that the dairy or the soda has upset her stomach if anyone asks. Her phone is tucked neatly back into her bag. She's prepared for anything they can throw at her.
Except the better part of the team dancing in their seats to one of Kira's songs, two or three of the girls who know the words singing along while the staff judge them from behind the counter. Kira and Malia are crooning at each other from their opposite corners – so much for not being so close – while Heather laughs at each step up in volume. Allison's not four years old so there's nothing funny about cursing, but the two girls clenching their fists as they inform the other patrons that it's good shit is.... okay, it's hilarious. Her guts unclench a little until the singing cuts out and voices over the music start to list off the things that they like. She has to suffer through hearing how amazing it is to look at someone and catch them looking back.
She watches from near the bathrooms until everyone settles down and a song she doesn't remember choosing at all comes on. Everyone gathers up and Allison makes sure she's in a different vehicle this time, relieved when the senior driving offers to take her straight to her apartment instead of making her walk alone in the dark. The stairs are murder with the ache starting to set into her legs, but she can flop directly onto the couch ten feet into the apartment, shoes and all, groaning to alert Lydia to her presence. It's much less work than walking the extra feet to her bedroom door and gently banging her forehead against it until Lydia opens up and pulls her into that massive hunk of pillow top mattress heaven.
There better be some serious shenanigans going on with more families than the Kardashians if Allison is going to recover from today.
“How do you two even scrape up the money to pay for cable?”
“We manage.” Scott is performing a tricky maneuver on his blankets, racing against the familiar announcer's voice coming through the piss-poor speakers of the television he shares with Stiles. “And Lydia would chip in if we didn't. We watch a lot of TV when she's here and Stiles is, too.” He steps back and considers his nest of blankets and wall of pillows at the foot of the bed. “Okay, this should be close enough to the screen. Popcorn?” Allison waggles the bowl. “Twizzlers?” The pack gets tossed into the nest. “Sweet, we're set, let's do this.”
Allison carefully crawls into her designated spot and cozies in, choosing not to question how Scott manages to do this to his tiny bed. It feels safe and tucked in, though, with Stiles's bunk shadowing them from above and the wall and makeshift curtain on either side. The only light coming in is from the television at the foot of the bed, seeming comparatively bigger in the limited space. “We have to have a room just for this when you and Lydia get married and have a big house.” She reaches past the end of the bedframe and grabs her water bottle, making sure the cap is on snugly and giving it its own place of honor between them. “Or else I'm filing a lawsuit.”
“Against Lydia? You'd never win.”
Which is fair enough. For Allison, though, Scott and Lydia stretch back as far as she's known them and then onward into the horizon for as far as she can see. She'll guard her place in their lives as jealously as she knows how, the same way Stiles seems to. “Hey, it'd be a civil case. No jury to impress and convince. I could pull it off if I explained that you're the only decent person in the history of the world to watch a Harry Potter weekend with.”
“Well, uh,” Scott says, sheepish, digging into the popcorn far earlier than he has any time before. Normally he waits well into the Gringotts scene. “Actually.”
“I don't want to argue about Stiles again. I know he knows more about it than the two of us put together, but he still makes anything in reach into a wand and tries to set things on fire. It was cute for about five minutes. He can stick to those massive marathons with the Quidditch team.”
“Quidditch season is over,” Scott points out. “But I wasn't talking about Stiles. I was talking to-”
Allison shushes him loudly, finger over her lips. McGonagall is shifting from cat to human, and if you don't catch the spirit of magic from these first few moments, the whole experience falls flat. Which is the primary reason Lydia isn't allowed into these get-togethers, either. Lydia understands the concept of suspension of disbelief just fine, but refuses to apply it around them to the point of being a complete fun-suck. It's quieter without her, and they both feel freer to swoon together without her harsh, outsider judgments of the characters. Allison is pretty sure Lydia read the books just because they were something chaptered she could get her hands on as a kid. Magic inspires as little passion in Lydia as chemistry does in Allison, and they've been steering mostly clear of both when they can.
They watch in relative silence – mumbling along with the script doesn't count, after all – through a good bit of the movie and three commercial breaks before Allison relinquishes the popcorn bowl to snuggle closer to Scott, relaxing as well as she can into his lumpy mattress. “You know, you're a lot like Harry Potter.”
Scott's eyebrows do an impressive routine of movements that could probably make decent inspiration for the gym. “Uh, you mean I started out with just two friends and ended up with a whole group? And I'm dating a smart, pretty redhead.”
“Something like that.” It isn't what she meant at all, but it's better than attempting to explain. Scott is good down to the core in every way she can imagine, sweet and intuitive and a bit fumbling at times. She can barely watch Goblet of Fire with him, the scene on the owlery steps too much for her sitting next to Scott, who probably asked a girl out with the same rush of adrenaline and nerves sometime in high school. Sorcerer's Stone is much safer, knowing he won't laugh when she tears up over Hermione's speech to Harry on the chessboard. Mostly because he's still internally bitching about the scene with the flying keys being taken out, but the result is the same. “Who am I?”
Scott munches thoughtfully on his popcorn. “Not Hermione or Ron. Stiles would be better at this than me.”
Allison's eyebrows shoot up. “Stiles? Are you kidding me? Stiles would come up with some background character that only gets mentioned on the Pottermore site.”
“Oh, no, he made you get Pottermore, too? It was for sorting, wasn't it?”
“I think he wants to make us themed shirts in our house colors. He's excited about matching with Lydia.”
“Well, we'll match, too, right?” Scott asks, far more intrigued by this than the commercial for an ABC Family original film playing in the background. “So we'll be like two sets.”
Allison beams and confidently says, “Gryffindor,” at the same time that Scott lets out a proud, “Hufflepuff.”
“Unafraid of toil,” Scott says emphatically, after he's recovered from his dropped jaw of disbelief. “Just and loyal. I know you don't like talking about what happened with your aunt, but-”
“Daring, nerve,” Allison counters. “Chivalry, Scott. You can't even argue that one.”
“Well, maybe I can't but Pottermore can. At least we'll have Kira to round everything out.”
And that... is not what Allison had been expecting. “To round us out? If she matches one of us, then that still leaves someone out.” And it's likely to be Allison. That's what she knew would happen this entire time. Why not have it carry straight into the one safe world of Harry Potter? “Does Kira even want a shirt?”
“Dude, that's what I was trying to tell you earlier! Kira's great to watch this stuff with. She knows just as much as Stiles but she doesn't flip out until, like, after the movie. And then she's actually fun because she includes you instead of battling Voldemort single-handed with a Nerds rope.”
Hagrid's voice, crackly through the crappy speakers, is not as soothing as Allison would normally find it. “You guys have been watching Harry Potter with Kira?” She swallows.
“Yeah!” Scott completely misses the look of nervous dismay on her face. “And she's a Ravenclaw! So, like, we'll have one of each, and then Lydia will be the leftover and it'll be great, because she hates it anyway and she's never going to wear the shirt. It won't match anything she has.” The bed shifts, like he's trying to go up on his toes with glee even though he's lying down. “But she'll smile when Stiles gives it to her because she loves him. It'll work out perfectly! We'll be a whole set.” He breathes out slowly through his open-mouthed smile, getting a wrangle on his lungs, triggering Allison's not infrequent curiosity as to whether he has to do the same during sex. In the process, he gets a better look at her expression – now even more unnerved than before - and quirks his head to the side. “What's wrong?”
Allison waits a fraction of a second too long to meet his eyes and Scott's hair trigger worry sets in. She grabs his hand and twines their fingers together before he can do it himself, so he'll think everything is okay. “It's nothing. I just. Thought Kira was mostly Stiles's friend.”
“Well, yeah. She went to his Quidditch games and stuff. With Malia, sometimes. But she comes here sometimes to do stuff because her roommate sleeps like fourteen hours a day and yells when Kira makes noise. And Lydia invited her out dancing that once, so I thought she was everyone's friend.”
“You guys went dancing?”
Scott laughs. “You didn't even drink, Allison, I know you remember going out. You danced with her half the night and then Malia made you all squirmy and unhappy. Or maybe Stiles did, I don't know, he was being kind of gross about it, I thought.”
Letting that sink in, Allison uncaps her water and takes a long swig, trying to rinse the taste of betrayal from her mouth. It's sour and acidic and she isn't fond of it, especially from Lydia, who she trusts more than almost anyone. “Lydia invited her that night. Not Malia?”
“Right,” he confirms, nodding the best he can with his crooked jaw propped on his free hand. “She didn't have a ride, so Stiles set it up with Malia that she would drive them there and Kira would drive back and then walk to her dorm. Solved two problems with one fix.”
“Three,” Allison says grimly. “Three problems. I'm going to actually kill Lydia if I go home, you should probably just let me stay here for the next two and a half years.” She tears into the bag of Twizzlers and shoves one into her mouth, making a tally mark in her head to account for the next time she's working out. “Or you could move in with Lydia, and I'll just stay here with Stiles.”
Scott grips her hand more solidly and takes a Twizzler in solidarity, grimacing at the taste as he chews. “You know, she's only been trying to help you the whole time. You had a good night that night, didn't you?”
“I got a head wound and Malia practically molested me. I know you had a hard night with Stiles after. It wasn't the best night we've had.” She defiantly doesn't linger on the text messages still sitting in her inbox. That isn't the point right now. The night itself is sorting itself out in her head, piece by piece, and she can see the careful orchestration by Lydia now, plain as day. The outfit she'd cobbled together from Allison's and her own closet, the insistence on changing her hair before they left the apartment, the abrupt trips to the bathroom and topic changes any time Kira tried to speak for herself for too long. “I don't think I remember it the way that you do.”
“You had a good time,” Scott insists. “We all had a good time. I have no idea how I didn't know you and Kira liked each other then, it's so obvious now. I was just excited you guys didn't hate each other. And that you were dancing. You always just sit with Lydia.”
Allison dodges the better part of that, especially the part where Scott has gotten the wrong idea. “I never had much practice dancing,” she points out. “And leaving Lydia alone when she doesn't have shoes for dancing in wouldn't be very nice. Unless it was like that first night I went out with you guys.” Scott goes dreamy-eyed and she knows it was the right angle to take. “When you danced with us most of the night and then went and talked them into playing a slow song. Stiles and I were super awkward because we'd never actually touched before that, but you made Lydia so happy.”
He doesn't disagree, and Allison feeds another Twizzler into her mouth and refocuses on the movie. With any luck, the 'talking about real life' portion of this afternoon has passed and they can get ready to do Quirrell impressions until the people next door start to bang on the wall. Scott's too far on the bright side of everything. Of course he'd assume Kira likes her; it would depress him too much thinking about the alternative. Besides, how can she trust his judgment when he seemed so confident that she was a Hufflepuff? Scott has a good heart, but he never seems to get the picture when he's wrong.
When Allison shows up for one of the last practices before finals (and after them, the break), she's not surprised to find the girls sitting cross-legged in a circle with Marin in the center looking down on them. They have to talk about arrangements for over winter break, when they'll be training ruthlessly except for a few days off for 'the holidays'. Why anyone pretends that includes anything but Christmas is lost on Allison. It's not timed right for anything else, and they don't even get the first of January off, to discourage New Year's Eve drinking. So a big speech from the coach about the ins and outs of the final stretch before meets and the prospective final lineups for their first one against Oregon State? Completely predictable.
What she couldn't have anticipated is the mixed bag of expressions around the circle, capped off by Malia's, every single one of her teeth showing in a ghoulish grin that makes Allison grateful that Lydia agreed they were too busy for Halloween partying. The other girls range from stunned to thrilled and everywhere in between. Marin, however, looks like she could strangle someone. Her gaze is sharp when it falls on Allison, who drops to the floor as quickly as she can, ignoring the pain in her tailbone from the impact. The last time she saw the head coach like this, Finstock and Kali were kneeling near Erica, one of the senior girls eerily calm as she dialed 911. The heavier dosage of her epilepsy medication had controlled her seizures but made her clumsier and less alert, and one false step had lost them their most promising new talent on floor. The injury hadn't been too bad, but Erica never came back to practice.
“What's happening?” Allison whispers without turning to check who she's asking. Her eyes are still following Marin, pacing in the center of the circle, attention flickering between her clipboard and the crowd of gymnasts around her. Taking stock. Something she'd taken care of more than a week ago.
“Carling got cut,” someone mumbles from her left, and she hears Malia giggle from her right. “Morell's trying to figure out who to move up into all of her spots on such short notice.”
Before Allison can ask how or why their best chance at winning the title for the next four years has been shoved off the entire team – not an event, not a single meet, but the team itself – Marin clears her throat in the near silence. “Tate,” she says sternly. “Floor.” The giggling stops, and Allison bumps her knee into Malia's with what she hopes is encouragement. They're going to be working even harder together now. She may pretend she doesn't care, but being forever the best at vault has made Malia proud. She'll be devastated if she's the cut score on floor at every meet of the season, even if it's expected as a last minute substitute. “Walker, bars.”
The tension of their tight circle seeps out into the open air of the gymnasium, filling it to the rafters even after their coach has handed out the last two open spots – a graduating senior on vault and a junior who'd been shunted from the beam rotation when Kira appeared. Finstock barks at them to get to work, catching himself in the face on the rebound when he smacks a jump rope into the floor to punctuate his demands. They spread slowly, the girls who've already warmed up hesitant to separate and the girls who haven't clumping to jog around the perimeter of the gym at speeds that can't be serving their purpose. Allison chooses a jump rope and grabs her beam shoes to skip in when she notices Malia collecting the one Finstock had been abusing.
“Well?” she huffs after a few minutes, when Malia's skipping like she could go on for hours, floating on air with all of the good news. “What happened?”
“She took money for autographs. Not even at the Olympics! How stupid can you get?” She's wearing her tights thin with the force of her feet slapping against the wood flooring, but Allison doesn't think she cares. Even her cold intolerance and the promise of future chilly feet can't kill this buzz. “I knew there was something off about her. They didn't even let her come in to the gym to explain herself. Just called and told her she was let go.”
Allison tries her best to feel bad for the girl. College is a treasure for a lot of gymnasts, the twilight of their career after endless hours as children, juniors, and seniors. Few of them quit before they have to, and none go onto more gymnastics unless they choose to coach. It eats at Allison at times. The idea that in two and a half short years, she'll be done for life. Violet picked up the phone and found out she was done for good without even one last meet. It must be rough.
Allison smiles anyway. “You're going to impress everyone on floor,” she pants. She pauses to readjust her hands on the grips, taking a few jumps backwards just because she can. Because this is good news for a lot of them, and Violet had never really been part of their team. She'd walked, talked, and breathed gymnastics, and yet never said a word to most of the girls. Her boyfriend had visited once in his Team USA windbreaker, like he'd been the one to go to the Olympics, just as smug and distant. Scott's lucky he faced reality when it came to trying to play lacrosse before he ever applied to college, because if all of the guys are like Garrett, he'd have been miserable. They just hadn't seemed like team players. Even in gymnastics, that matters. It mattered here, where the team went out for ice cream together and sang to silly pop music in their booths. Allison feels strangely energized, bright-eyed and hopeful about their season. Marin would probably slap her face to test for shock if she knew. “Having Meredith is going to really matter on the bars, I just know it. She only got dropped once last year, and so did I. We're going to win everything, Malia.”
They skip for a while longer before Malia takes off toward the bleachers. Allison watches her snap a selfie and assumes it's being sent to Stiles. Wonders if she's been itching to do it since she found out Violet was gone, or if she's seeking approval for being given a well-deserved spot in the floor rotation. One way or the other, Stiles is so gone on her that he'll be at every meet he can get to, and Allison's heart feels light with joy for the two of them, and for herself. She decides not to feel guilty about being short a member. Rules are rules, and whether it's a sponsor or a little kid's mother at a truck stop, taking money for gymnastics is off-limits if you want to compete in college. It's surprising to feel that she might have defended Violet if she'd only been more a part of the team. As it is, something is going right for once.
She glances across the gym to Kira jogging with the other girls in her pigtails and zebra uni and doesn't let her stomach flip when their eyes meet. Allison stares straight ahead and smiles, feeling it right down to her toes like something growing inside her, and she decides. No more spying, no more dodging, no more diner bathroom rushes of panic. For once, this team feels like family to her, and nothing is going to ruin that. Allison's going to be the best friend and mentor she can be, the Kate that once was, and their team's beam scores are going to smash anyone who comes near them. Allison's going to be at the top of those scores if it kills her, crush-related sweaty palms or not.
“And I tried to explain to her that a Yurchenka loop was a completely different idea, but she hopped up on here like she was going to show me I was wrong!” Kira leans toward the toe of her good leg, stretched along the beam. She never stops talking when they're warming up, even when she grunts quietly at the pull of her muscles. “I'm so lucky Finstock threw her over his shoulder and carried her back to the run-up for the vault.”
“I've never been more happy that he's out of his mind,” Allison comments from the floor, carefully bridging up until her back is perfectly arched, palms and soles flat against the mat. “Malia on the beam sounds like a nightmare I'd wake up sweating from. One slip and we lose our ace in the hole.”
Kira tips forward, fingers slipping under and around the beam to hold herself steady. “I thought Violet was our ace in the hole, and we already lost her. Or maybe you. Malia's only on two events.” Allison is beginning to adapt to looking at her upside down, which is something that she could only say about Stiles until now. “The all-around is going to matter more than Ms. 'It's all just Yurchenka to me', don't you think?”
“Everyone is going to matter.” There's a satisfying ache in her core when she lifts her hands from the floor and gets herself upright. “Even the girls on just one event. I learned that last year. It may not seem like a team sport the same way Quidditch is, but it's going to take all of us doing our best in case someone falls or makes some other mistake that gets them dropped. But speaking of two events...” She lifts a heel onto the beam past Kira's toes, thankful that she's short enough to leave a little space. “Mar-... Morell's putting you on her event. Did I miss something? I thought she bumped Meredith into the empty spot.”
Kira blushes and turns away, clearly bashful about the compliment, and Allison takes the opportunity to lower her bent leg a little more. Lydia always says Allison is a genius, combining stretches and squats. Allison calls it efficiency. “You can call her Marin, you know. I don't care if you guys are on a first name basis. It makes sense, if she knew your aunt and your mom.”
“I try not to do it in front of everyone,” Allison admits, wobbling slightly as she lifts up a bit, the pull on her thigh too much to be healthy. “I don't want to make it look like she plays favorites. Last year was not exactly easy. Freshman on every event without the Olympics as a big, silver excuse?”
“Your excuse was being good.” Kira meets her eyes again. “And you actually care about what happens with the team instead of just about yourself. This is your event and you're helping me. And Malia wouldn't even have been an option for that spot she got without you.”
Allison swaps legs before she answers, knowing her imperfect resolve will show if Kira can see her. Facing away, she deepens the stretch. “It's not my event. No one gets an event all to themselves. If you get better, the whole team is better for it. It's not any different helping you than helping Malia.”
“Well, Malia is your friend's girlfriend.” Her voice wavers. Allison glances over her shoulder questioningly. “Helping her will make Stiles happy.”
Laughing, Allison eases her leg down from the beam and turns to hop up and sit beside Kira, who's no longer splayed out along the slender length of it. “Malia is my friend,” she says with something like certainty. It's new, but maybe repeating herself will help her believe it. “And she's my teammate. Stiles actually almost had a heart attack when he found out I was helping her.”
“The bad kind of heart attack?” Kira asks, wincing before it's even out of her mouth.
“The worst kind. He's one of my best friends, but he can be paranoid sometimes. Even when it comes to one of us.”
Kira doesn't seem satisfied. “Paranoid about what? He couldn't have thought you were sabotaging her, she wasn't even doing floor before you told her she should. Unless he thought you were trying to embarrass her? That doesn't make any sense, either.”
Allison swallows, curls her legs away though they're not touching. She presses her fingers to her neck, wishing at least one strand of hair were stray to press behind her ear. Anxiety is welling up and she reminds herself that she made a decision to be bigger than it. Malia knows already, and probably Heather. It can't hurt, can it? “He thought I was trying to get closer to her.”
“He didn't want you to be friends?'
“Not as friends.”
She doesn't fall off the beam, or scream, or look disgusted. Nothing so dramatic as all that. There are a few beats of silence and then she looks almost ashamed of herself. “Oh my gosh. He didn't ever think that about me, too, did he? I went to all of those games with her, and I drove her home that night when she was drunk. I hope he doesn't think I would do that to him.”
“He might have? He didn't even know that I could be... interested that way. When he freaked out. So I guess he could have been imagining things about anyone and everyone.” Stiles hadn't mentioned Kira. According to Scott, Kira and Malia hadn't even been friends at the time, just a convenient pair to make sure no one had to drive drunk or be stranded at home.” He never said anything about you to me, though. Just about me.”
“It sounds like he knew about me before he knew about you, is all. The gay thing. Not that you're necessarily gay! I'm not, I mean, I am, but I'm bisexual, and maybe you're pan or ace but you like girls romantically or-”
“I'm gay,” Allison blurts. Her eyes feel dry and sensitive from being forced wide, unblinking, fixed on Kira's pinched lips holding in the last of her rant. “I mean, a. A lesbian. Just girls. I didn't know that you-”
“I figured Scott told you? Or Stiles? I'm pretty sure they found out the first day without me even saying anything. I was so nervous that it was obvious and the whole team was going to stay ten feet away from me at all times. Not just the new girl, but the new girl who's probably checking out your butt.”
The wave of relief that comes over Allison is the best thing she's felt all year. Better than finishing her last final for the quarter. “That's why I didn't tell anyone. Lydia guessed, and it's hard for her to know something without Scott and Stiles knowing, eventually. I think Stiles told Malia, too, so if you're trying to stay quiet, he might not have been the best person to tell.”
“Malia hasn't... said anything to you, has she?”
“About me? Not exactly. She doesn't talk about it, but she acts kind of strange sometimes. Looks, or that wink that Stiles does. He's rubbing off on her.” In most respects, Allison thinks that's a good thing. The meddling, though, she could've passed on. “I don't think you have to worry about her being a homophobe, anyway. Not after the things she was doing to me in the club that night.”
Kira flexes her feet, watching them curve and point, and the idea that maybe Kira knows more than she does about Malia scares her for a second. Nothing about Malia gives off the vibe that she cares at all what other people are into, especially with the way she likes to be pretty public about what she's into. More than once they've come close to getting the entire group kicked out of a fast food place for the blatant public affection going on at their table. Allison's seen Malia straddle Stiles in a McDonald's booth. It was not a high point in anyone's life, though Stiles vehemently disagreed when Lydia commented on it.
“You haven't heard her saying anything, have you? You look like you have bad news to give someone.”
“That wasn't what I meant,” Kira mutters, so low that Allison has to creep along the beam to hear. “Malia's good. I was wondering if she'd said anything to you about me.”
“About you in what way? I think you're closer to her than I am, honestly. We mainly talk about gymnastics. I doubt she's talking about you behind your back to anyone. You know her, she's not afraid to say anything to someone's face, no matter how what it is. We're lucky Stiles and Scott weren't around when she decided to have an in-depth talk comparing boobs with Lydia.”
The tiny shoulder shake isn't Kira's usual laugh. “Normally I'd say it would be safe with Scott, but I'm not so sure about it when his girlfriend is involved. If Lydia wouldn't turn her nose up at it, all four of them would be sleeping together, I think.”
Allison doesn't even pretend to be shocked by this assessment. “Lydia wouldn't be the only one with an objection, but you're not entirely wrong. Either way, whatever Malia thinks about you, she's probably made it clear. To you and anyone else who might've thought to ask. Or casually mention you. Or look in your direction.”
“That's what I'm worried about.”
The zigzag path they keep following isn't doing Allison any favors. They haven't finished warming up yet and they won't until whatever is going on gets resolved. “Do you want to talk about it, or do you want to go through your routine? You wouldn't shut up about your illusions last night on gchat while I was trying to watch Botched.” Lydia had watched her follow the beck and call of the blue flashing tab for an hour. The video quality had never been so well-buffered before.
“I want to talk about it. I'm scared to talk about it.”
“Did you ask Malia out or something? Before Stiles? I can't figure out what you're so worried about with Malia.”
“I'm really scared that you might have mentioned me or asked about me, like you said, and she did the thing that she does where she tells you whatever she's got in her head about me at the moment. Because a while back, that was that I really liked you and I couldn't focus at all when you were in the gym with me, but I got sad when we started working out at different times.” She hops down from the beam. “Here, you practice on Ray. I'll go to the line, I'm not going to be able to do anything right now anyway.”
Allison's throat is turning itself inside out with the opposing urges to speak and just shut up. “Kira, wait,” she chokes out, and Kira turns at the sound, sudden and off-balance on the too-slick mat, lacking chalk. Watching her fall seems like slow motion and then the loud smack of her landing shakes them both out of it. Kira looks like she can't decide whether to burst into tears or start laughing, and Allison clambers down off the beam, wary of coming too close but needing to be on her level. “Are you okay? That was harder than you fell the first day.”
Shifting, Kira grinds the heel of her hand into the side of her thigh and then further back – rubbing the sting out, of course, but Allison feels embarrassed anyway. “You saw me fall on the first day?”
“Well, yeah. You landed on your face. It was hard to miss. You just kept going, though, so I thought you probably had a lot of experience. Falling.” She crawls a little further and sits. “I never saw you wear your high tops to practice again. Like you learned your lesson about all of those shoelaces.”
“I have three different kinds of Converse. Giving up the high tops when I needed to get in and out of shoes fast didn't seem like too much of a sacrifice.” Pulling her knees up and tucking her chin into them, Kira looks even smaller than Lydia, taking up as little space as possible. “I was pretty sure no one was watching, since Violet was in the building and so were you. And Malia, even, with that almost see-through leo.”
“I love that leo,” Allison says, a little too honestly. Kira snorts. “I only watched Violet for a second. And I was trying really hard not to stare at Malia. And then you were introducing your face to the mat. It was the most interesting thing in the room at the moment. You didn't even lose your headphones. I was excited to see who got the other freshman scholarship, too.”
“I didn't deserve it,” Kira bemoans. “Everyone on the team is so good. I was never an elite. I don't even understand how Coach Morell found me. I was already planning to go to NYU so I could be closer to home.”
“YouTube.” Avoiding the subject until it sinks in is a good plan so far. “There are two videos of you at a meet two years ago. Not a televised one, it's obviously someone's cell phone video. Grainy. But they caught you talking to all of your friends before your name was called. And you walked over, did that press up onto the beam, and just. Went for it. It was almost scary. Like you were a person one second and something out of a cartoon the next. No one could've drawn that routine any more perfect than it was. And then you dismounted, smiled, and went right to your mom, already pointing into the crowd and talking about something that was probably not your score. Like nothing had even happened.” She takes a slow breath. “I don't know for sure that Marin found it. But I did. The other video is of you on the bars, and it's different. You're good, but you nothing changes. You just sort of did your routine, like anyone else would. I could see the deductions for myself. You scored in the nine sevens or nine eights, I can't remember. It was night and day from the first video.”
“I'm getting better,” Kira says defensively. “The bars don't come as naturally to me. I'm scared of falling. There's a reason I don't touch the vault.”
“That's not the point,” Allison sighs. “You belong here. You're good. You're so good I...I almost failed a chemistry quiz. Right at the beginning of the quarter. I watched that video once and I couldn't do anything but think about it, even though you were always wobbling and falling over when I saw you in person.”
Kira slips further behind her knees, only her eyes visible, wide. “You were freaked out because of me? After you watched me nearly kill myself getting my shoes off?”
“It doesn't matter what you do taking your shoes off. Or on the practice line, or the low beam. What you did in that video... that's what you're going to do at meets. And I always win this event. I walked in as a freshman and knocked a senior out of her spot. She didn't get to compete in the all-around because of me. I had the top score for beam at almost every meet last year. We didn't make it to the championships, but my average for the year was higher than the beam score that won there. I'm supposed to be good, and I am. I practice and I rework and I run it in my head again and again before I think it's good enough to even show someone. You just...hop up and do it. It's even freakier in person.”
“Here? I look awful when you're here. I'm always tripping. I think I've messed up a cartwheel with you watching.”
“So. Promise you won't hit me for keeping a secret.”
“Allison, I just told you that I-”
“Right. So. The Saturday afternoon I came in to practice and we talked about you texting me? When you thought I was avoiding you?” Kira nods. “I was. Avoiding you. We kept having these moments where you stopped being so floppy and nervous and it reminded me of the way you were in that video. Happy and in the moment and good at what you were doing. And that's what I caught you like, when I came in that Saturday. It was like you were having a private dance party on the low beam. You were smiling and flipping around and everything you did stuck perfectly. You celebrated after.”
Even Kira's eyes disappear behind her neon green tights now. “Oh my god. Allison, that's so embarrassing. I don't even remember what I did that day. It wasn't my routine, I was just playing around.”
“I know. That's why it was so crazy. You were just making it up as you went and it was way too long for a routine, but. If you could do that? Alone, with no one rooting you on and doing whatever came to you? I was pretty sure you were going to beat me into the ground when you actually had a routine.” Allison doesn't feel any lighter with it out in the air instead of trapped in her chest. It's a disappointment. “But then we were friends, and I couldn't be mad at you for being good. I want our team to be good. I want us to make everyone else afraid. Malia's got us halfway there just from the look on her face during her run-up. But I didn't plan on having someone else be the boogeyman on the balance beam. Not when that was supposed to me.”
Kira peeks over the bumps of her knees. “It is you. No one knows who I am. I have a good time when I'm doing my routine, but I don't plan as much difficulty and my execution's off sometimes. I don't point my toes and I skip things or go too fast because I get lost in going with the flow instead of following the plan. I'm never going to score as well as you do. The code matters more than how comfy I am up on the beam.”
“I know. And that's why I'm trying to help you. Those are things we can fix. I'll make you point your feet until you get cramps. If you do the moves the same way enough times, they'll feel natural when you get up there at the meets. You'll get less deductions.”
Abruptly, Kira tips back onto the mat. On purpose this time, at least. She sprawls her limbs out, starfished less than a foot from Allison, staring blankly up at the rafters. “I don't understand.”
“I told you that I want everyone to be the best that they can possibly be. I helped Malia. I'm helping you. You're my friends, and you're my team, and if I don't want you to beat me, I'll just have to make sure that I get better, too. I'm not really winning if you're not giving the best routine you could.”
The quiet whir of the (extremely insufficient) heater drones on for a few minutes. Allison thinks about how it's only going to get more frigid for several more weeks yet, frigid right into when competitions start. The mat is cold through her nude tights. She thinks about the practices that start for real tomorrow, and the hell of it all, especially with Marin angry and worried. Especially if things are silent and touchy between her and Kira, and now Malia in the middle of them, clearly having known all along that this went both ways.
“You still want to be my friend?” is the eventual quiet question from the girl with the highlighter yellow leo and radioactive slime tights. The girl with the pigtails and the Chuck Taylors, the one who gets into The Zone so hard that Allison wants to run scared or practice until her arms and legs fall right off. “Even after what I said?”
“Why did you tell Malia?”
“Her cousin is gay. Cora, obviously,” she adds quickly, before Allison can comment. “Not Derek or Laura. And she was saying how much she liked Stiles, dancing with him and getting drunk. She told me they kissed when they went to refill the flask the second time. Against the side of her car. And she was drunk, I didn't think she'd remember if I said something, so I told her how happy I was that you were at the club. That I thought I was going to make them dance as a group or end up sitting alone, but you showed up and I totally messed everything up the second we were even close to each other. But you danced with me the whole night anyway, and it was the Allison Argent with her hands on my hips and her dark lipstick.”
“I hate that lipstick,” Allison mutters, because she can, and because it's anything but I can't believe you realized before me, I'm so ashamed.
“She remembered. We didn't talk about it at the next practice, but she kind of nodded at you and grinned at me. And then there was the night at the diner-”
“I wanted to physically hurt her,” Allison groans. She eases herself down until she's on her back like Kira, fingers grazing her knee. “What did she even do to our straws?”
“Nail clippers. Heather's. They were big bendy straws before she cut them, like the ones in the malts. I saw her doing it. That's why I-” She pauses, sways her leg back and forth, in and out of Allison's reach. “That's why I came up behind you instead of standing beside you. To distract you.”
Allison squirms, wanting to laugh and not quite able to. “Worked.”
Kira's knee freezes just past Allison's fingertips. Allison reaches without thinking, reconnecting. “You got sick that night. Sharing the soda with me made you sick. You should've gotten what you really wanted. I bet you knew it was going to make you sick and you were too nice to say anything.”
“I wasn't sick. I was nervous.” Allison knows it has to be coming clear to her now, and maybe there's hope for all of this working out without her having to come out and say it. Kira's a smart girl. A Ravenclaw, even. “And I had to make a phone call, and you guys were kind of loud.”
“I thought you were having a good time. You helped me pick all of the music, even. And you were so nice to me in the van. It felt like the night at the club. With more talking and ice cream, which I definitely like better. Was it the straws?”
Allison rolls her head back and forth, signalling no to the empty air, since she's sure Kira can't see her from flat on her back. “We figured out the straws. It was the song. One of the ones you picked.”
“I didn't play anything weird that night. Mostly I found songs I'd done covers of, or ones I've wanted to. In case there was singing. I didn't want to make a fool of myself once you started talking about how good I probably was. And then you ran off before I could even open my mouth.”
“But you did open your mouth. You were mumbling along and you looked happy. Like you do when you're relaxed and there's something better going on in your head than there is around you. And it...it was a love song.”
“I wasn't in love with anyone,” Kira says immediately. “I'm not in love with anyone.”
“Not even Grant Gustin?”
Kira's laugh echoes into the empty air above them, all the way into the high ceilings. “Not even Barry Allen. I don't talk about him that much, do I?''
“Only once in front of me. Lydia likes to bring it up. She did on the phone that night. She said you were probably daydreaming about him, or else not thinking of anyone at all.”
“I was... I was thinking about love. The idea of it. My dad's a history professor, did I tell you that? His classes are all about the facts and the nuances and making sure that you don't only hear from the side that won.” Her voice is soft and dreamlike. Allison thinks she'd rather be home than practicing this holiday. “When he got home, he would take his glasses off, put his bag away. He would get rid of everything from school before he kissed my mom and sat down to eat with us. The stories he told at the table, or for my bedtime stories, they were all from history, but they weren't about oppression or economic struggles or war. Not really. He made it sound like fairy tales when he talked about the way people would fall in love even when they shouldn't have the time or the energy. People from different sides of the battle. People who knew they'd never get to marry or live a life together because they'd be dead. He wanted me to know the truth, but he wanted me to know that love mattered anyway. He's a huge romantic.”
“He sounds like it.” Allison thinks of her own parents in their different houses, their wedding bands a hundred miles apart but still in place. Her father is taking Christmas off to visit the school. Not home. “Does he know that you're...?”
Kira hums her agreement. “I never hid it from anyone until now. I felt like I was hiding it here, at least. Malia said I was just not blurting it at everyone. She still thought it was stupid, but definitely not like being in the closet. But it felt ugly, not talking about it. I was relieved when I started hanging out with Scott and Stiles and we could all agree how into Katie Leung we were.”
“I'm mad at you by the way,” Allison says, remembering. “Harry Potter was supposed to be my thing with them. Lydia hates it, so it was like the one thing that made them my friends instead of my friend's friends who tolerated me. I never had close friends before Lydia. So I'd better be invited the next time you guys decide to do something.”
Kira's turning over onto her stomach, squeaky sound of plastic rubbing against slightly stretchier plastic loud in the empty gym. Allison turns her head to check on her, but she's looking straight on toward the double doors, expression unreadable. It's unsettling to Allison, with so few comparisons, and all of them so easily figured out. Stiles's face says more about him than his mouth does, and that's a hard job to keep up with. “Are we going to keep finding more things to talk about that aren't what I said?”
“That's what I was aiming for,” Allison admits. “And I have pretty good aim. Bulls-eye more often than not.”
“Okay. I won't bring it up again, then. You don't have to worry about me being, you know. Creepy, or anything. We can keep training. I might be weird sometimes, but you can tell me when I'm doing it. That way we can still be friends. Right? You want to still be friends?”
Allison sits up. This is not what she'd been aiming for, after all. “I was trying to make you bring it up again. And I thought it had just started working.” Kira only looks confused. There's only so much they can do if they're not meeting in the middle. Allison breathes deep from her diaphragm like she needs to scream. “You were supposed to put everything together and figure me out so I didn't have to say anything. But I guess I forgot you're not Lydia.”
“Kind of hard to do,” Kira mumbles, looking even more intensely at the exit, like she wants to be out of here about five minutes ago. Longer, maybe. “With the sneakers and the neon and the pigtails.”
“I love your pigtails.” It makes her cheeks warm and her stomach flips more than it does doing giants on the bars, but she says it. “I started wearing them all the time after we met. Lydia made fun of me and I didn't understand why until... until I thought about it a little more.” She goes on hands and knees to rest alongside Kira, evening up their shoulders so that her feet stretch far past Kira's toes. “I was upside down when I realized. I think that's a pretty good story, right? Not as good as being on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall or anything, but. Different. Fitting.” Their eyes meet for a little longer than either of them can bear and they look away together, Allison at her own ragged fingernails and Kira stubbornly focused on the door still. “If you want to leave, you can go. I can see that you-”
“There's been someone standing just outside for a long time. I haven't been able to catch a pair of eyes, but I don't know any strawberry blondes but yours.”
“Oh my god.” Everything is painful. Allison wants to throw in the towel. Only the urge to finish this conversation prevents her from marching right out to throttle Lydia. “Could she be any more embarrassing? What does she think she's going to do, catch us making out?”
Kira's eyes go bright and mischievous. It's not as frightening on her as on Malia, but Allison is on edge all the same. It almost never means anything good for her. “You think that's what she wants? To see us kissing?”
“She knows how much I like you.” It's out. The lightness Allison has been longing for feels crisp and cold like the wind outside, her tongue no longer heavy and dragging with words that aren't the ones that she needs. “And she'd probably call me a chicken if she knew what we talked about and I didn't kiss you.” That's not true. Allison is lying to get a kiss. Maybe Stiles is rubbing off on everyone lately. She'll thank him later if it works out in her favor.
Kira grins and scoots in until they're pressed along each other, Kira in technicolor and Allison in black and white. “How are we going to know when she's watching?”
“Well, how loud can you yell?”
Lydia's startled face in the window is Allison's favorite thing for only a fraction of a second. To be fair, it never stood a chance against Kira's lips, thickly waxed with Carmex to keep out the dry wind. It isn't Allison's first kiss, and she's almost sure it isn't Kira's either. It feels new and sweet and smug no matter what, especially when Kira tips over, taking both of them down as she lifts a hand to wave at Lydia through the glass. Allison doesn't even care if she's watching anymore.
Last minute Christmas shopping is an Argent family tradition. Lydia's been accepting packages since August, signing at the door for things she slips under one of her coats to carry off to her bedroom, as if any of them can see through the packing peanuts, tape, and cardboard. Malia drives Allison to the mall a bare few days before the boys will be heading home and her father will be showing up to replace Stiles on the couch. Lydia's present is the only one Allison's taken care of ahead of time. Amazon wish lists are the personal lord and savior of their friend group when it comes to picky, demanding Lydia. But that leaves Stiles, Scott, Malia, Kira, her father... She should probably buy her mother something and mail it. The lump in her throat when she considers picking something out for Kate isn't a great omen for gift hunting.
She scours a book store for nearly half an hour trying to find something for Stiles that's short enough for him to focus on but isn't a children's book. The new age and religion section has a lot of neat things, workbooks and journals, but Allison can already imagine him filling out twelve pages at once and then losing the rest under his bed until they pack up at the end of the year. Perhaps not even then. She wanders farther and finds herself in history, tracing over the spines of the books and wondering if folklore is in this section or somewhere in fiction. She could surely find something that he'd-
Her fingers slip into empty space and her eyes refocus on the book so much shorter than the others around it. It's barely taller than Allison's palm, thick and sturdily bound. It feels heavier than it looks when she wiggles it out from between the tightly pressed books around it. The olive khaki cover is bland and rough, not slick and bright like the new, mass-marketed books in the shop. She opens it to the middle as gingerly as she can, hoping the binding doesn't crack or bend. It feels stiff, like it hasn't been opened before.
The page shows a threadbare piece of fabric – what looks like an old pillowcase to Allison – with thin black scratches across it. She squints, but it isn't in English. Her eyes flick across to the opposite page. The italicized text at the top of the page tells her the writing is Yiddish – imperfect and smeared, but easily identifiable as the Hebrew alphabet – written in ash on cloth. She doesn't look at the date; she has a feeling she knows when this is from. It's the translation that draws her eye, and she bites her lip and swallows hard as she reads a love letter written seventy years ago, possibly never received. Turning the page is the only thing that saves her from wet eyes in public, and she finds photos of wrinkly paper notes, graffiti on walls, bundles of flowers that served as code.
Her pockets are a bit light this time of year, but she doesn't check the price before she pushes it across the counter, hoping the clerk doesn't spot her slightly smudged mascara. She'll have to be careful about where she looks for the other gifts she needs. Something tells her, watching the book go into a Christmas bag made to look like Freddy Krueger's slashed, striped sweater, that it will be worth it.
It doesn't feel like Christmas morning when Allison wakes up to the smell of brown gravy. It isn't Christmas morning, after all. Just their last day together before the boys drive up to Beacon Hills in the Jeep, stuffed full of food and loaded down with presents, expecting more of both when they find their way home. Early afternoon isn't the optimal time of day for opening presents, but Allison's memories from the year before are warmed by central heating and inside jokes. She drags herself out of bed and into the shower, waving weakly at Scott and Stiles on her way to the bathroom. Malia and Kira will be over in a few hours, if they show, and Allison still has to wrap Malia's leg and arm warmers after she does her hair.
Steam pours into the living room when Allison's clean, muscles not quite as strained and legs silky smooth. She's just in time to catch Lydia whacking Scott with a spoon, chasing him away from the gravy. There'll be enough to refill the gravy boat twice at the end of the night and they all know it; Scott's grin says he doesn't mind the reprimand. In twenty years they'll be just the same, mismatched perfectly to fit together forever. Lydia is soft for Scott in ways that Allison can only imagine being, despite her sometimes frosty exterior, and Scott has a warrior's heart when it comes to his girl. They're going to have enough money and a couple of children and if all goes well, maybe Stiles won't end up living on their couch. It's a nice thought to have as she slips back into her room to dry her hair at the vanity.
The knock on the front door comes when Allison's still in her slip, honest to God rollers pinned up in her hair. They're a hand-me-down from Kate, who got them from their dad's mom. Allison has the only other heirloom, a chunky silver necklace that's a little ugly, if she's honest with herself. She can't remember Grandma Argent, so she feels entitled to keep it locked away without meaning any disrespect by it. Her dress, unsurprisingly, won't go over her head this way, slight smell of singeing fabric shocking her into action. She hisses as she pulls each curl down as quickly as she can, ringlets falling hot against her shoulders. Her dress makes it this time, and she sneaks a look into the living room. Just Malia.
Brushing her curls into waves takes almost no time at all, but then there's the frantic series of texts to Lydia about what kind of makeup to wear. It's early in the day still, but her dress is nice and festive, and they're going to shut off all the lights to eat and have presents. Lydia, goddess that she is, advises against smoky eyes or anything glittery, but okays everything else. Red lips and black eyeliner are easy enough – she wears the dark red that Lydia loves because Kira had mentioned it, too. It's different from the red in her dress, but she gets the go ahead after a mirror selfie. The second knock comes just as she's slipping into her only pair of black, footless tights, easily found in the drawer that is a sea of whites and nudes.
Malia's presents end up shoved into a repurposed bag from Bath and Body Works with a lot of leftover red, white, and green tissue paper. It looks like something Stiles would do in a pinch, and that will be Allison's saving grace. She stacks it on top of the flat boxes Stiles and Scott's gifts are in with Kira's bag and pads straight to the tiny Christmas tree in the living room to place them next to Lydia's gift, which has been wrapped for weeks. It makes her feel slightly guilty, but from the looks of some of the other presents – Stiles's are wrapped in newspaper comics, the same way they were last year – she's doing fine.
The kitchen is overfull with the five others already, but Allison squeezes in to greet everyone. Malia is wearing an oversized Christmas sweater and jeans, arms shoved up under the front of Stiles's button-up. The tails are still tucked in in the back, and he's complaining about the scratchy wool directly into Malia's open mouth. Over her shoulder, Allison can see the back of Kira's head, and her heart skips. Clearing her throat loudly makes Mr. and Mrs. PDA stumble backwards to a chair, Malia crawling into Stiles's lap. For warmth. Sure.
“Hi,” Allison says softly, addressed directly to the hot turkey sandwiches Lydia is flipping in the only skillet that they own. Scott turns first, a red mark above his collar that is distinctively not spoon-shaped and a smirk on his face. Allison rolls her eyes at him and he only looks more smug, arm pulling tighter around Lydia's waist. Her forest green dress doesn't have a speck of flour, gravy, or anything else spattered across it. Wherever the apron is hidden, it deserves a standing ovation and an honorable discharge. Lydia is a mess at cooking in a way that would get her killed if it were chemistry lab, but Allison will keep that secret for her as long as the mashed potatoes are good and the carrots are sweet enough for her taste.
Kira nearly knocks a two-liter of Sprite off the counter with her elbow and winces, grabbing at it, before she realizes it's Allison watching her. “Hi?” she asks, voice tilting up like a plea the same way it had that first day, when she'd spouted out half a family tree that Allison, of course, already knew. “You look really nice? Lydia says you guys have cloth napkins to use as bibs.” She gestures at her white dress, pretty embroidery of mistletoe at the neckline.
“I've never seen you with your hair down,” Allison answers, like that's relevant to any of what Kira said at all. God. “It's longer than I thought.”
Despite the inanity of it, Kira smiles at her, smoothing down the skirt of her dress over her tights. Allison's surprised to see they're not covered in reindeer or Christmas trees. Something is very wrong about Kira wearing plain white tights, even if they're all Allison really owns. She's wearing black mary janes, at least, which suit her perfectly. She looks beautiful. Hopefully, she'll be told that a few times tonight and Allison's tongue will loosen up a little.
“How long until food?” Malia asks, making a snack of Stiles's ear in the meantime. “I'm starving.”
“Fifteen minutes,” Lydia says without looking at the delicate silver watch on her wrist. It's the gift she'd gotten from Scott the year before, and it has a drop of gravy on its polished face. Allison casually rubs it off with her thumb, popping it into her mouth and winking at Scott. Sneaking tastes can be a shared thing this year. “I can only make two sandwiches at a time and Stiles is supposed to be creaming the potatoes, not his pants.”
Malia cackles, licking at his throat one last time before she climbs off of him, moving into the adjacent seat and playing with the oversized centerpiece. “We're going to have to move this if we're actually going to eat at the table, you know.”
“Decor is important for setting the mood of a holiday. Especially when the holiday is more than a week away and it's eleven o'clock on a Tuesday morning. Speaking of, someone go in the living room and turn on the tree. I checked the bulbs before I strung them, but one could've gotten loose while I was wrapping.”
Scott obediently treks the few steps past the couch to the two foot tall tree, cutting the overhead light and fumbling for the wire, switching on the dancing blue and white lights. Lydia had insisted on the limited color scheme because the six color sets were 'garish' and 'terrible'. Allison noticed they were slightly more expensive, and she'd been in charge of paying for the decorations. It's a small gesture, and she's grateful to Lydia for remembering that not everyone is made of money. It probably helps that Scott and his mom struggle, especially now that there's tuition to pay. The tree definitely looks beautiful, even with the kitchen light ruining the effect. It will be better when they're mimicking night, hot chocolate and blackout curtains to help them along.
Stiles creams the potatoes – 'No lumps or I will end you, Stilinski! Remember sophomore year.' - and Allison sets the table around everyone's elbows, moving the centerpiece to the counter, hoping none of the pieces fall off into the food resting there. She can see that Scott and Stiles have brought a total of four pies in different flavors, three of which will probably go home with them. The gravy boat is filled and she transfers it, trying not to spill on the tablecloth and knowing it's fruitless with Stiles and Kira at one table.
Lydia deposits their sandwiches directly onto their plates, bread perfectly browned and swiss cheese bubbling down over the thick-sliced turkey breast they'd bought at the deli the day before. Her nose wrinkles when she slides Allison's from the spatula onto her plate, spread with cranberry sauce instead of cheese. Stiles doles out the potatoes in huge scoops, pressing little wells into the middle for the gravy while Lydia watches with an approving eye. The green beans with slivered almonds that Kira turned up with look delicious as Scott takes them from her and passes them around the table, saving her the time and the opportunity for embarrassment. Allison enthusiastically digs into Malia's sweet potato and marshmallow concoction, feeling just the tiniest bit homesick over the smell of burnt sugar at Christmas. Lydia turns her nose up at it as it makes its rounds but smiles at Malia for remembering to bring something.
There's a single, tense moment when everyone glances around the table, trying to gauge whether any of them intend to pray. They hadn't the year before – Stiles is maybe vaguely Jewish, he's not sure, and all of Scott's grandparents are Catholic, but none of them are particularly religious. In the end it's Malia that extends one hand into Stiles's space and the other into Kira's, bowing her head and waiting for them to link up with her. Lydia gives everyone a stern look and they follow suit, Allison's palm tingling against Kira's.
“Good bread, good meat,” Malia mutters, hair almost falling into her gravy, “good God, let's eat.” She eagerly pulls her hands away and dives for her utensils, mouth full of potatoes before anyone else can react.
Allison thinks Christmas is already better this year.
Lydia sorts the presents into piles by recipient while Allison finesses the cocoa. They'd made the mistake of letting everyone fix their own mug early in the winter of last year. Allison had gotten no say in the way they'd handed hers around as the communal cocoa, emptying it out before they went back to their own, inferior versions. Luckily, she knows how to make a ton at once after being on duty during the colder months at home, when there were usually half a dozen or so girls with sore legs and shivering shoulders. She warms it in a pot and carefully pours it, carrying two at a time into the room until she delivers Kira's and heats her cold fingers on her own. Kira's kept her bib from the dinner table, obviously just as worried about the cocoa as she'd been about gravy, and Allison tries not to jostle her elbow though they're sitting close. Very close. She's considering a stolen cheek kiss when Lydia puts her hands in the air and calls for attention.
They open in rounds through Lydia's careful system, so that everyone gets something at once and no one's left opening long after the others or has to wait. The first present dropped in Allison's lap is from Stiles. The box, under the Blondie comics and tape, predictably contains her red and gold Gryffindor shirt, her last name printed across the back in bold letters and the number 19 beneath it.
“You didn't play sports,” he explains. “And you were nineteen when we met you.”
When she pulls the shirt out to hold it up to her chest (Scott wants pictures, of course, because Facebook needs their Christmas documented so badly), there's something beneath it, wrapped in more of the newspaper – Dilbert this time. On closer inspection, there's a rainbow pin inside, printed with 'The Real Hogwarts Champion'. Allison blinks down at it, notices Kira pausing in her unwrapping to touch it gently and grin at Stiles.
“Cedric,” Stiles says seriously. “Scott said you asked who you were. Cedric. Fucking badass, but nice and modest and sort of awkward sometimes.” He jerks a thumb at Scott. “And Potter over here has a big crush on your girlfriend.” Scott blushes furiously and makes a point of kissing Lydia very soundly over the gift he's just finished unwrapping from her, mumbling that Luna and Harry had only been friends and she'd had nothing to do with Cedric. Allison is nearly as mortified, because girlfriend is a strong word that they haven't brought up yet, in the no man's land (ha ha, Stiles) of mutual like and no labels.
She pulls herself together anyway. “Thanks for my big gay Cedric button,” she jokes, pinning it to her tights so she doesn't poke a hole in her dress. She'll hug him later and, if she's feeling brave, ask him what kind of button he'd wear himself. It seems wrong to ask outright, especially now that he's with Malia, but Allison gets a feeling sometimes about him – the things he says, or the way he takes certain stuff in stride.
Lydia had been the one to get Allison's present in the first round, cooing over boots she'd picked out herself, so of course she loves them. Allison had deprived herself of Fiji water and brand name granola bars for a long time to make sure she had the money in her bank account for those boots, but it's worth it to see Lydia smile and shuffle off the shoes she's wearing to try them on. Malia's still pulling a length of bras clipped together out her bag, laughing. Stiles seems more interested in the individual details than she is, and he keeps glancing between them and Lydia. Allison had missed that shopping trip, not interested in having her chest measured in a dressing room. She prefers her bralets and sports bras, built to fit most people with a certain kind of frame. Malia seems amused and Stiles grateful, so that works out nicely enough.
The second round, Allison sees Scott quietly swap out the box that Lydia receives, hiding one behind his back and holding a quieting finger to his lips when he sees that he's been caught. Lydia opens Malia's gift, the individual tubes of lip gloss and lipstick rolling around loose in a way that makes Lydia cringe before she says thank you. Scott opens his own gift and tilts his head curiously at the big, plastic model of a human head, important bone structures and other features labeled. Stiles presses a button at the base of the skull and it pops wide open, spilling candy and gum across Scott's lap.
“You can study and snack at the same time, buddy,” Stiles crows. “Can you believe Allison found this thing secondhand? This is just as much candy as we could fit in the sinuses and stuff, there's a ton in the car for refills.” It's a perfectly fitting gift for the two of them to share, though it's meant for Scott, and they hug tightly, shouting thank yous to Allison as she finally manages to untie the ribbon keeping her own present for the round open. The four pairs of flats and three knit beanies inside give Lydia away even more than the meticulous wrapping had, and Allison pulls the maroon one on over her waves, turning to Kira for approval.
“You're going to share those with me,” Kira insists, pulling out the purple and comparing it against her hair before she pulls it on. “We're going to need to keep the warmth in if we're going to survive the next few weeks.” She leans in and kisses Allison's cheek as casually as if she'd done it a hundred times before and holds up her Ravenclaw shirt from Stiles proudly. The number on the back is eighteen, and Allison assumes Stiles used the same reasoning to pick hers as he'd used for Allison's. There are a pair of tights underneath that Allison spares a glance for before Stiles shouts and clambers over Lydia to hug her. He's obviously stoked for his illustrated book on eastern European folklore and the tiny statuette of a satyr she'd found, of all places, in a head shop that Malia had dragged her into.
Scott gets his Hufflepuff shirt next, eleven emblazoned across the back proudly, even though Allison is entirely positive that neither Scott nor Stiles had ever gotten off the bench in high school lacrosse. She's actually pretty sure that Scott might not be with them anymore if he'd ever managed to get put into a game. His little bonus is several issues of a comic that Allison doesn't recognize, probably something indie that Kira has gotten the two of them into. It's nice that they all have things in common that are just for them, and Scott is flipping the pages and sipping his cocoa, seemingly not too interested in more presents for the moment. He's happier to mutter things about someone named Liz with Stiles as they examine the art with a less than critical eye, Kira shaking her head at them.
Allison thinks she gets a pair of plain, white tights – it'd be her tenth pair – from Malia until she picks them up to hide her face while she tries to work out how to seem excited. Beneath there's a gift card to Dick's Sporting Goods, and Malia giggles at her proudly. Stiles is definitely teaching her all of his tricks. Allison is already imagining the BPH free, high quality water bottles she'll be able to buy. Sports bras, maybe even some money to put toward a pair of running shoes. Academy and Dick's are her favorite stores, and she finally has friends that understand that instead of turning their nose up and prancing into Macy's. The tights are actually a nice bonus – one can never have too many pairs of the thing they wear the most often, and sometimes the only way to keep warm enough at practice is to wear two pairs at once.
“You think it's funny, but I'm excited about these,” she informs Malia seriously, tucking them into her pile of loot. “I might even just buy more of them with my gift card. I'll have the monopoly on white tights one day.”
It takes her a moment to notice how quiet Kira's gone, and another to notice her own Freddy Krueger bag, ripped slightly where it had been stapled shut. The book is out and open in Kira's hands, the bookmark she'd bought and used to mark the appropriate page resting in her lap. The neat little supply list written in English has French scrawled across the bottom in a different handwriting entirely, but the information beneath says it's from a Japanese internment camp, possibly between a non-combat soldier and a camper.
“You... you said your grandmother...” Allison doesn't finish, not sure how much Kira tells people about her family or her father's work. “I thought you might-”
“It's perfect.” She flips pages, eyes drawn from picture to picture, skimming the translations with her mouth parted, moving slightly over every few words. “Honestly, Allison. It's beautiful. My dad isn't going to believe it.”
Allison rests her hand on Kira's knee with a touch of hesitance, leaning in to rub their shoulders together. “It's not for your dad. It's for you. So you can sit around and think about love whether you've got your pop music or not.” Lydia is looking at them, necklace from Scott still draped over her fingers. The stone in the pendant is tiny, and Allison hopes he hasn't blown part of the Ring Fund on it, especially if it can't hold her attention as well as two girls on her couch, not doing anything particularly special.
“I finally have an actual book to put on the built-in shelf above my dorm bed,” Kira mumbles, sounding pleased and oblivious to the fact that they're being watched by everyone but Malia now, who is still trying to unlatch each individual bra from the others with clumsy fingers. “Maybe it's fat enough to keep Watchmen from flopping over all the time. Did I tell you it fell on my head at two in the morning the other night?” Their faces are close when you she looks up, story on the tip of her tongue, and Allison is too aware of the eyes on them. The room is unnaturally quiet except for Lydia's laptop quietly wafting Carol of the Bells into the room ('for ambiance, Allison') and Kira's breath, loud from so close up. Allison might not be breathing at all.
“You're supposed to kiss her now, I think.” Kira chokes and only avoids whipping Allison in the face with her hair thanks to the haphazardly placed beanie. Malia's innocent, blank face is pointed at them, stack of sorted bras finished in her lap. “What?”
Scott laughs first, and then Stiles, and Allison taps Kira on the shoulder just as she begins to grin, pulling her in and giving her a solid peck. She doesn't feel bold enough for any more. Maybe there's mistletoe somewhere in the apartment. Allison wouldn't put it past Lydia.
“Last round!” Stiles calls, passing Allison a bag and grabbing the box behind Scott to push into Lydia's lap. “Everyone got their best saved for last.” At Lydia's skeptical eyebrow raise, Stiles shakes his head. “Nope, I promise, I topped the boots. And loverboy's necklace, too. You should really check and see if that's cubic zirconium, by the way.” Scott digs a sharp elbow into his side and they tussle before deciding presents are more important than fighting over whether the diamond is real or not. Allison, for one, doesn't doubt it for a moment. Scott works hard and he thinks Lydia deserves the world. He'll never struggle with the idea of Lydia making more than him, because he's not that kind of boy, but he'll do everything he can to give her beautiful things with his own money.
Allison waits and watches as Lydia opens her gift, knowing it's the one from Stiles and feeling curious as to why they'd held it back from her until now. She's not going to care about the Slytherin shirt that will match Stiles's except for the tall number eight, the age they were in third grade when Lydia started school with the two of them. Allison can tell she's not enthused by the careless way she pops the tape around the edges of the cheap box – Stiles and Scott must have bought a pack of the ones that fold open from a dollar store.
The tissue paper inside is a surprise, wispy and delicate, and the blouse and scarf that Lydia lifts out from among it are equally dainty. Her eyes are wide as saucers, and Allison mirrors that surprise. The pale blue top and accessory are nowhere on Lydia's well-stocked wish list, nor do they fit the theme that Stiles has doggedly pursued this year. Allison hasn't seen Stiles look this pleased with himself since the day he'd sent out a mass text of his face directly after Malia agreed to be his 'proper, for real girlfriend, with dates and stuff'.
“Did you hire a fashion consultant?” Lydia asks, checking the tag inside in disbelief. “I know you didn't shoplift this, it's an online brand only. But there's no way you picked this out by yourself, Stiles. You own six hoodies that all look exactly the same.”
Stiles shrugs at her with an expression that says maybe even he doesn't know what sort of voodoo produced such a unique, appropriate present. “Do you like it?”
“I love it. I can't believe you backed out of buying me the ridiculous jersey. I don't need a fantasy series to tell me I've got cunning and ambition.” She drapes the scarf around her shoulders. It doesn't exactly go well with her dress, but it looks striking against her hair and skin. She'll look gorgeous in the whole outfit. Allison knows she's already pairing it with bottoms and heels inside her head. “Thank you for changing your mind.”
“I thought about it a lot,” Stiles admits. “But in the end, I consulted Scott, and he agreed. You definitely fit Beauxbatons better than Slytherin.”
Allison has to physically cover her mouth with her hand to keep the gasp in. Kira's forehead is pressed into her neck, giggles smothered into her shoulder – Allison can feel the way it makes them shake, carrying down the couch. Lydia's face is priceless. From shock to anger to grudging respect and then several steps down the scale to a face she rarely shows – the look of being totally resigned to her fate. It may be a new record for her. Scott is on his back on the floor holding his ribs like he's worried they'll escape, and Stiles is frozen in his moment of glory, smirk so high up the left side of his face that he may as well be Elvis.
Malia clears her throat. “Does anyone want to give me their leftover cocoa?” Kira nudges hers over with her foot through all of the discarded wrapping paper and boxes. “Thanks. The scarf looks cool on you, Lydia.” She lifts the Frosty the Snowman mug and downs what's left of the lukewarm cocoa before she slips off the couch to get closer to Stiles, worming her way into his lap to open whatever he's bought her. Kira and Allison are alone on the couch now, sharing a single cushion, Kira's gift balanced on Allison's knees.
“Open it,” Kira urges. “So I can go and hide and pretend I'm not a stalker.”
That's worrisome, but not enough to keep Allison from tearing into the lumpy package. Inside a layer of bubble wrap (Stiles loudly calls dibs over Malia's head and Allison shoots him a glare – her present, her bubbles to pop), a scrapbook that covers most of Allison's lap sits. The cover is a team photo from the last year, Allison holding up the mini-medal she got for the highest beam score at the meet. Sure, one or two of the older girls are scowling, but Allison looks happy and proud, and Meredith and Caitlin are smiling behind her. “Kira...”
“Shh. Just open it. Don't make fun of me yet. There's a lot more. It's not all just you.”
The first several pages follow Allison from black and white laminated newspaper clippings of a kindergarten-aged girl with a frizzy French braid and most of her baby teeth to now, complete with a picture Allison didn't even know was taken. It's obviously from the night they'd gone out earlier in the quarter, lights above them making the cell phone shot distorted and full of glare. Her face is in focus, though, somewhere between dazed and smiling, her hands a pale smear on the midnight blue of Kira's skirt. The pages in between show elementary school, juniors, seniors, and more of freshman year of college. Some of the pictures she can tell are from Lydia and Scott's collection, things no one else would've bothered to take. The highlight is the picture of her from last year smiling and pointing at the huge blood stain on her favorite beam, seven stitches in her forehead giving a Frankenstein's monster feel to the scene.
“Lydia and Scott helped a lot. And I hope you don't mind, I might have sort of emailed your dad? He had the newspaper clippings and some of the things printed out from online. You were a cute kid.”
Allison is speechless. She flips past the page she's on, her arm around Marin on the last day of their season the year before, defeated but not unhappy. The next page takes her breath from her. Laura Hale's body is stretched along a balance beam, one leg in the air, posing like she's making a men's calendar. Her bare thighs are smooth and corded with muscle. She hears Kate in her head, calling her a cow, and shakes it off. They're Malia's thighs, essentially, though Laura is taller than the both of them. Malia isn't a cow and neither was Laura; these are the kind of legs that made Allison shake inside her skin when she was only just peeking around the corner of puberty. She touches the curve of Laura's foot for a moment and glances to the facing page where Derek Hale hangs on the rings in an iron cross, strong and determined, face blank of emotions.
“I had to do something with all of my Hale twins stuff,” Kira says, sounding a little embarrassed. “Malia and I are moving in together next year and I don't think she'd appreciate her cousins all over my walls. Cora's inside too. Just, ah. Ignore the little hearts around some of them. I might have gone a little overboard when I found out she liked girls.” There are fewer pictures of Cora than Laura and Derek, though, and then a whole family photo – Derek holding Laura under her back and the bends in her knees, Cora sticking her tongue out playfully and leaning just out of reach of the two hands reaching for her shoulders. They're her mother, Talia, and her uncle, Peter, Allison knows. She's also nearly sure that Peter is Malia's father, though Malia insists that her name is Tate and has always been.
“What an unfairly good-looking family,” Allison remarks, shaking her head. “And talented. I'm still sad Cora didn't take her scholarship. We'd be even more of a sure thing this year if we had her with us.”
“I'm enough,” Malia complains, adjusting the straps of the lingerie she's pulled from her gift bag over her Christmas sweater. “We don't need a Hale. I'll be enough.”
“I'm inclined to agree.” Lydia sits up a little taller to survey the photo upside down, curious. She doesn't move to join them on the couch. “There are a couple younger ones still coming up, though. Maybe when you coach.”
Allison shakes her head, flipping the page again, because Lydia insisting that she'll coach one day is never going to make it realistic. It was supposed to be Kate, and now that can't happen, so the Argent legacy will finish. It's better that way, after all. Laura can come and coach at UCLA and the Hales will have west coast gymnastics to themselves again.
“I hope you don't mind,” Kira repeats, and it doesn't register as making sense until she looks a little harder at the picture under her fingers. Kate is twelve or so, standing between her mother and father, grin already older than her years with a gold medal hanging around her neck. This would've been just before she started competing in junior elites. Not too long before she started competing with Laura Hale. Even this young, she looks wicked – not mischievous like Malia, but out for blood. Allison had never noticed when they were close, but with a little distance, she can tell it's always been there. “I know she means a lot to you, is all. And I had the things, and your dad...”
“It's okay,” Allison assures her, skimming more quickly than she had through the photos of the Hales. Kate through the years, right up to college, team photos with as much space as could possibly be put between Kate and Laura. Marin is in the photos, younger, only the uneven bars coach back then, barely out of college herself. She looks less worried, though Allison isn't sure how. Maybe this was before... things had started happening. The ugly things. “You're right. I love her. And it would be weird to see all of those pictures of me without any of Kate. I learned more from her than I did from my mom. Mom spent all of her time talking about the code, tucking my bra straps under my leos and yelling at me about the lines of my feet and my smile. Kate taught me the real stuff. How to block everyone out. How to get up when you fall. She taught me never to flinch.” Her hand goes to her forehead almost without her permission, thin scar barely raised enough to feel beneath her calloused fingertips. “I'm glad you put her in here.”
Kira flips all the way to the last picture. This one's from her father, undoubtedly. He and her mother are in their Argent Athletics windbreakers, standing behind Allison and Kate. They're wearing their matching leos, opaque white with gold fleur de lis symbols on the chest. Allison still remembers the thrill she got looking in the mirror and knowing she looked just like Kate, unwinding her braid even though she knew her mother would scold her so she could put it into a ponytail. Her hair and eyes were too dark, her eyelashes too long, her chest still flat. Still, in her uniform with the family name in script across her shoulder blades, Allison had felt like she could be great. Like she could do the things that Kate did, the things that made people hold their breath before they cheered. Her throat is closing up with the way it had felt then. To be the best, she had to become someone else.
But Kate had liked men, and Kate had been cruel, and Kate was never honestly the best. Not when you stood her next to Laura on a fair playing field. Allison doesn't know who to emulate anymore to be the best. She doesn't know how to handle the fact that being the best means being better than Kira.
When she looks up, she's dripped all over the clear plastic covering the photo and she wipes her face, looks around and finds the room deserted except for Kira at her side, holding the book open across their knees. “Pie,” she says by way of explanation, and Allison takes that to mean they'd been desperate to escape the scene. Kira stays close, though, tips her head onto Allison's shoulder and waits like she knows something more is coming and she doesn't mind. No line of questioning a la Lydia, and no fretting puppy face or flustered arm-waving. She only waits.
“You know what she did,” Allison begins, because there's no other place to start it. “Everyone knows what she did. To Laura, and with Derek. Which was stupid, my mom doesn't even train boys, and it's not like they were ever going to compete with one another. I think Derek was just another half of Laura to her.” She takes a crackling breath inward, attempts to clear her throat without coughing all over Kira's hands on the scrapbook. “They didn't even get to sleep together more than a few times. When Derek would visit Laura, and a couple times over the summer before Kate's senior year. I was fourteen.”
“And Laura was like you were last year,” Kira prompts. “Getting a lot of attention. Competing on everything when Kate had to work for that. I know she didn't compete on vault at all her freshman year.”
“It took her four meets to stop getting her score on the bars dropped that year, too. And Laura turned up when Kate was a junior and walked right on to every event like it was nothing. She got dropped on floor once or twice. It wasn't her strong point in elites. It's the reason she never got onto the Olympic team. They considered her, though. Derek, he could've gone, if...”
“If he hadn't quit when he did. I know. I know the Hales' side of the story, Allison.” It's a shove in a different direction, if a gentle one. “What was going on with Kate?”
Allison shrugs, closes the book so she doesn't have to look at her own joyful, trusting face any longer. “What's ever going on with a 22-year-old female gymnast? It was her last two years. She was burning out and Laura had more time. Kate didn't think she.... she deserved it. The attention. She was afraid of it. Those two years were supposed to be hers and Laura wasn't going along with the plan.”
“And so she-”
“Don't.” Allison pushes into the armrest as hard as she can, putting space between them, space to breathe. “I can't. I hate it. I know she did it, they proved it, but I can't talk about it. She did what she did, and the administration found out and settled it with the Hales as fast as they could to keep it from getting out. It did anyway. Kate got kicked off the team. She's not allowed to coach, college or otherwise. She could've won fair and square, but she let Laura take it all because she decided to cheat. There won't be any more Argents in gymnastics after I graduate and my mom retires. And that's it.” She presses the book onto the coffee table, ignoring Kira's clasping fingers on its corners. “The whole story from the Argent side. I'm not going to tell you she was innocent or she had a good reason. She was jealous and she was mean. She took advantage of Derek and hurt Laura and she was stupid about it and got caught.”
She's staring sightlessly in the direction of the flickering Christmas lights, abruptly tired. Maybe she'll take a nap before her dad is scheduled to show up. The arm that slides around her waist and drags her in feels distant and unreal. She's aware that she's crying again, actively crying this time instead of the leaking eyes from earlier, and she dabs at her face with her knuckles to keep from smearing her makeup. Kira doesn't speak, and the voices in the kitchen are low and rhythmic, chattering away unaware. She snuffles, tries to breathe, and feels each breath break on the inhale until she pulls herself together.
“I'm sorry,” is the first thing Allison hears, then, and she shakes her head vehemently, mussing her hair where it meets the couch. “I'm not apologizing for the present,” Kira explains. “I'm sorry I pushed. It wasn't any of my business. She's not a tabloid headline for me to follow the paper trail on. She's your aunt, and you love her.”
Against her better judgment, Allison nods. “Yeah,” she agrees, her voice scratchy. “I do. I still do. I can't just stop. Dad acts like I should be able to. As if he has already, when I know he hasn't.”
“It's okay to love her. I mean, think about when Harry found out Dumbledore-”
Allison chuckles wetly and shushes her. “No more Harry Potter today. Don't ruin the grand finale on it. I wish someone had gotten a picture of Lydia's face for posterity. She has a big decision ahead of her on whether to wear the clothes or not. Beauty versus the principle of the matter.”
“Alright, then. No Dumbledore. But you don't have to forget everything good because she did something bad, especially since it wasn't to you. People you love do bad things sometimes. They lie or... or keep secrets.” Her voice pitches down into a sad tone that Allison hasn't heard in her before. “They're not perfect. But you can still love them, because you're not perfect either.”
Stunned and exhausted, Allison sits quietly in acceptance of that for a long moment before she summons up a watery smile. “I don't know about that. I'm pretty sure I can hit that perfect ten this year.”
Her dad's couch-surfing weekend turns into a week, but Lydia doesn't mind, and Allison feels better after a few days of watching the military channel with him. They talk about his job and about how her finals had gone. She brings up Stiles's dad, his time in the service that Allison hadn't found out about until just before the holidays. The sheriff and her dad would get along, she thinks, but Allison doubts that the Beacon Hills police department will need the sort of heavy duty weapons her father is licensed to sell any time soon. She tells him about Kira, just enough for him to know she isn't lonely, and he claps her on the back and says he's glad for her. The question of whether he's happy hangs in the air unasked and unanswered.
Training makes the whole team feel like death warmed over, of course. Without classes or student groups to worry about, they practice for hours a day every day, burning routines into their brains and muscle memory. It's deep in the middle of winter, but Allison can already feel the need for ice baths creeping into her arms and legs and core. The whole setup is entirely unfair, but the team is pulling itself together in ways she had never felt as a freshman. Marin and the other coaches have rallied past losing Violet, and without her intimidating presence in the gym, everyone is pushing themselves. Allison begins to wonder if having a chance at the championships is a factual reality or just a feeling, but finds she doesn't care. It feels good.
Lydia redecorates over the break, declaring that the oncoming spring calls for a new color scheme. Two or three days a week Allison drags herself through the door to find new curtains or place mats, some easily altered detail. She's almost expecting to find a new couch in place of their cushy navy monstrosity – Allison's only real contribution in furniture beyond her own bed, dresser, and vanity. The throw pillows get new slipcovers and Lydia buys a nature-themed flip book for the coffee table, but the couch stays. It still smells like her dad's cologne and Allison collapses onto it more than once to breathe in home and comfort, trying not to move any more than she has to.
Allison's bedsheets, in comparison, smell like Icy Hot. Stiles makes more than one off-color comment about her and Kira rubbing it all over each other. She squirts a healthy portion down the back of his jeans with Scott's assistance and doesn't regret it a bit. In his defense, Kira has spent plenty of time at the apartment lately. There's almost no one they know on campus at this time of year, and there are only so many hours (in her own words) that she can watch Animal Planet and National Geographic with Malia. They start in the living room or kitchen, always, but the acoustics are terrible for watching things on Allison's laptop. Lydia keeps to her bedroom, so she's not there to lift an eyebrow when they migrate to Allison's bed to watch the Oregon State team from last year. Or Stick It, again, for the twelfth time.
Maybe there's been a little rubbing of achy muscles. Not the way that Stiles wants to be happening, but Kira's hands are wickedly precise, and her thumbs in Allison's calves are the closest thing to heaven on earth that she'll ever experience, probably. It's Kira's shoulders that kill her the most thanks to the intensive preparation for bars. Allison's not as great at taking care of it, but she does have one of those HoMedics back massagers and an extension cord. Lydia doesn't ask questions about the noises that result. She knows she'd be the first to hear if something like that were to happen. Allison's still grateful for and content with Kira's kisses, quiet but enthusiastic. They wear cosy pajamas under Allison's comforter and argue over how Kira could possibly dislike popcorn.
The closer they get to the new quarter, though, the closer Allison watches Kira at practice. Her feet are still her weak point, at least when they're in the air, and Allison's recruited the rest of the team to periodically yell for her to point her toes. Caitlin and Heather get particularly into it, and before long there's a team jingle for reminding Kira to think about her feet. Finstock takes a liking to it and claps along and can occasionally be seen with a small notepad, scratching down his own lyrics and mumbling to himself. They happen to be about things like his lazy mail delivery guy and remembering to pay his light bill instead of helping the girls, but that doesn't really surprise anyone. Allison's almost always too tired to stay after and run Kira's routines multiple times after they're let loose, but Meredith prefers the gym with fewer people, anyway, and Malia volunteers sometimes, sneaking in practice vaults that could lead to her breaking her neck.
Scott and Stiles text and call often. Scott skypes sometimes, too, though the internet at his house leaves plenty to be desired. The pixelated, glitchy image of his goofy grin never fails to make Allison laugh and hope that he and Lydia stick to phone sex. His mom calls Lydia on Christmas Eve to tell her happy holidays and reel out the gossip of the town that the boys aren't likely to pass on. Besides the recent firing of their high school chemistry teacher (who apparently had a serial taste for former students) and something going terribly but hilariously wrong at the annual holiday pageant, Melissa and Lydia's mother, Natalie, have both been asked out by the same man. Lydia sinks her snowflake-themed acrylic nails into that bit of info with a vengeance and passes over calling her own mother for badgering Melissa about it for fifteen minutes. She still seems unsatisfied when she hangs up and Allison watches her pull her stylus out to relentlessly scour the internet for whatever suitor is looking into the single mothers of the town. Allison assumes it's another way for her to pass the idle time between quarters that isn't reading her textbooks and supplementary materials before she's even stepped foot in a classroom.
The holiday creeps by, days cycling through the routine – wake up, dress, practice, soak, drag home and rest. Allison misses the Jeep with a ferocity that turns Lydia's stomach when she voices it. Living away from the dorms and not having a car, no matter how close to campus they are, seems like the world's worst choice when Allison's thighs are a single, steady flame that relents only under the numbness of ice or the bliss of sleep. Once or twice, the same seniors who dropped her off after the night at the diner drive her as far as a block from her building before they turn toward their own, and Allison thanks them enough times that they get uncomfortable and turn the music up loud. She's too wrung out to worry about what they might think about her.
They don't go out for New Year's Eve. Malia's ability to produce alcohol from thin air despite being the youngest of them means they have champagne, and Lydia sacrifices a little of her terrible wine to the cause. Kira makes the cutest pinched-up faces over both, but settles on the champagne they pour into paper cups full of the crushed ice from their fridge's dispenser. Lydia's computer has the biggest screen, so they find an acceptable show and prop it on the coffee table. Malia sprawls on the couch, sometimes upside down, with Lydia poised neatly on the one cushion she doesn't take up. She tucks her feet away from Kira and Allison on the floor, trading sips from their cups.
Kira gets tipsy fast, singing along with the night's entertainment and pressing kisses to Allison's cheek. “The bubbles,” she asserts. “It's the bubbles.” The level in Allison's cup dwindles much slower each time, drying her mouth and puckering her lips. The atmosphere does more to unwind her than the drinking. Her head rests against Lydia's knees and her fingers are tangled in Kira's, reminding her how lucky she is to be here right now. Surrounded by warmth and touch, soaked in wine, she is the furthest from alone she can remember being in years. The girls on the couch behind her peer at their phones with longing when they think no one is looking, expecting texts from their much more intoxicated boyfriends. Kira's ankles wrap around Allison's calves, her face against Allison's throat when she hides it to laugh. Tonight, they are together and happy, tripping into a new year with an outlook as bubbly as the champagne.
Scott and Lydia FaceTime when the ball drops, blowing kisses. Malia retreats to the bathroom when her own phone rings. Even without speakerphone, Stiles sounds noisy and very drunk, and there are equal chances he's in a bathroom of his own. Allison hopes it's a drunken love declaration and not a breakdown; Malia isn't equipped for either, but might be able to distract him from a happy ramble. Kira's lips are forming words against the skin of her neck and it makes the hairs there stand up, makes her shiver.
“What?” she asks, dazed. She moves Kira's face with her hand instead of pulling away, scared the girl will just flop without the support.
“Happy New Year's,” Kira repeats, not as slurry as Allison feared she might be. “We're supposed to kiss.”
“I think you need to go to sleep.”
“Kiss me first.” Allison doesn't have time to protest before Kira's open mouth slots sideways against hers, soft and wet. She lets her own mouth be coaxed open, tastes the champagne and Kira's warm breath. The wine must hit her all at once, head suddenly light. Her senses feel dulled in all the places they aren't touching, and she slides closer to escape it. Her fingertips tingle against Kira's scalp, slipping deeper into her hair, tangled from being rubbed against the couch. Everything swims pleasantly around her.
Lydia clears her throat behind them. She might do it more than once, because by the time Allison pulls away to see what's wrong, there's an obvious frown on her face. “Go to bed,” she says sternly, thumbs still dancing across her phone's keys. “To sleep,” she clarifies, gesturing at Kira, whose tongue has taken up residence at Allison's collarbone since the end of the kiss.
There's a tiny scuffle over the suggestion, but they make it to bed just fine in their comfy sweats to curl beneath Allison's thin comforter and extra blanket. The space heater sits cold and forgotten in its corner, but an extra body's worth of heat makes up for it nicely. Kira falls asleep smiling while Allison is still getting adjusted. It might be the best night of her life.
It's the worst morning in the history of the universe. Allison doesn't feel like throwing up, but her temples throb and her mouth is like a cotton ball soaked in acid and left to dry out in the sun. She can't even bring herself to turn the light on in the bathroom as she brushes her teeth. The weak sunlight filtering in through the bedroom window is plenty to line up toothpaste with toothbrush through her squinty eyes. She rinses and spits, breaks a length of floss out of her container and tries to convince her sluggish muscles to open her mouth wide enough to get at her back teeth.
Something makes a noise like a dying water buffalo from the bedroom. Lydia, as imperfect as she can allow herself to be in the safety of their apartment, has never made a noise like that in her life. Allison thinks she might not make it even if she were a dying water buffalo, or trying to imitate one. Allison locks up with minty wax wedged between her molars and waits. Rustling ensues. The dying thing is in her bed.
“Oh, shit,” she mutters as she realizes. “Shit, shit, shit.” She trashes the floss, grabs the container itself and hustles back into the bedroom. “Kira, Kira, Kira! Kira, get up, it's New Year's practice! We're late, the sun is up, we're going to die.” Sunrise wouldn't be so ominous an indicator if it weren't the middle of winter, but Allison knows they're probably already late and getting later. She grabs for the bag they'd put together the evening before, when they'd planned on heading to breakfast in their normal clothes and changing at the gym. Her leo stands out against Kira's golden one and she grabs her white tights, shoving the bag onto Kira's groaning form under the comforter. “Kira, seriously! We still have to wake Malia up enough for her to drive us!”
It takes ten full minutes to get everyone dressed enough to leave the apartment and another two to determine that Malia shouldn't be driving at all, switching Kira into the driver's seat and buckling Malia into the back with a gentle pat. Allison thinks she might've slept in the bathtub. That conversation with Stiles must have run well into the wee hours. Kira's a more careful driver than Malia any day, though, and they make it to the gym as quickly and safely as they can with the sun bright in their eyes.
Everyone's still warming up or just starting to stretch when they arrive, and Allison feels relief and nausea in equal parts. She strips out of her jeans, sweater, and coat and does a brisk few minutes with the jump rope so she can move on to stretching. She's supposed to be working with Marin today, and she doesn't want to look like she's slacking. Her routine is finally getting close to where she wants it to be, skill-wise, and she doesn't want to mess up any key difficult components that might make Marin doubt leaving them in so close to meets. Folding herself forward to stretch toward her toes is hell, making her stomach roll over and her pulse bang against the inside of her skull. Kira doesn't look much better, slowly jogging around the perimeter of the gym, looking green and still wearing sweatpants over her tights.
Malia is directly behind her, mindlessly mimicking her stretches, though she gets away with a lot less moaning and groaning than Allison. Apparently, you get a certain level of immunity to parts of hangovers after a few of them. She's about to consult her on how that works, exactly, whether she'd be able to ask Lydia about a legitimate chemical reason, when Malia snorts loudly and then whines.
“I hate you,” she says. “I don't want to laugh right now, Allison.”
“What did I do?” It wouldn't be the first time she's split a leo around other girls or something equally as embarrassing, but she's pretty sure everything is going as well as can be expected. “Did I do something wrong to my hair, did I miss some?” She reaches up to feel for strays. There had been no time for a braid this morning, only a quick high ponytail to keep the hair from rubbing against the back of her neck, which made her feel strangely ill. There doesn't seem to be any falling out; maybe the top is all lumpy from the rushed way she'd put it up, not bothering to find the brush.
“You have snitches on your butt,” she says, and Allison can almost hear the sound of her rolling her eyes at this point.
Allison looks down abruptly, really looks at her legs instead of focusing in past the tips of her toes at the wall. The tights are white, yes, but they're covered in golden snitches. Kira's tights from Christmas. Oh god. She wonders if anyone else has noticed. She wonders if anyone else knows, because, well. Kira has worn these tights to practice before. She hadn't stopped thanking Stiles for them until he'd left, and a few more times over text if he can be believed.
“Will you swap with me?” she asks Malia over her shoulder, as quietly as she can. Heather is only a few feet away from them. Malia's tights are black, for holding in and absorbing as much heat as possible, but they're still far less obvious than Allison wearing her girlfriend's signature tights to practice, hungover and weary the morning after New Year's Eve. “Please?”
“I don't know, Allison.” That tone, the tone Lydia gets when she's plotting something, strikes the fear of god in Allison. Why do all the women in her life have that tone? She grew up hearing it from her mother and Kate, always some scheme for better scores or more wow factor in competition. Lydia exudes it at nearly all times, about everything from color palettes to lab projects to her conniving plans to hook up innocent lesbian and bisexual girls who were only trying to do gymnastics. Kira's sweet about it, at least, and hasn't used it against Allison yet – unless she counts the hugging distraction at the diner, which she doesn't. Still too sweet. Malia, though, is the worst of them all. Dirty straw shortener. “I think they look good on you. And who knows if I washed these since the last time Stiles had his hands all over them? More than his hands, in fact.”
Allison groans and laces her hands above her head, gingerly leaning into side bends and feeling glad they'd skipped that breakfast. She'll get water before Marin gets her up on the bars, hopefully. If there's time. She hasn't had anything but the vague taste of toothpaste on her palate since she woke up. “I hate you, too, Malia,” she answers finally. She'll just have to switch with Kira, right? She'll have to come stretch at some point, and then they can casually go to the bathroom together and – oh, no. No, that's worse. That's entirely worse, disappearing to the lockers or the restroom and coming back with their swapped tights, red in the face with embarrassment. Allison has to keep the snitch tights. They're a little too tight for her thanks to her height, now that she's paying attention, and everyone is going to notice, but at least it's better than... the alternatives.
She does end up at the water fountain before Marin gets to her, at least. She runs Meredith through her routine first, and Allison looks on enviously. Meredith doesn't drink despite being a senior and legal for at least a year. Her routine looks amazing compared to what she'd been practicing before she got added to the line-up officially. Marin is really stepping things up for everyone, and if Allison didn't feel like her stomach has somehow been turned inside out, she'd be downright proud of their coach. Then again, she had dealt with Kate in her days, and anyone who could deal with Kate – jealous, overly entitled, and often hungover – can definitely handle a team full of very talented girls who want to win more than anything. It means more now, Allison thinks, that they don't have such a sure thing in their roster. They have to win on their combined merits, and even the girls who are only backups according to the current lists are working their butts off to pick up the slack in case they're needed.
The rest of practice goes on mostly without incident. Kira vanishes a few times throughout the day, but never more than once an hour, and she looks less green around lunchtime. They order salads to be delivered, since their packed lunches are sitting in the fridge back at the apartment, and anything more is a recipe for disaster, Malia assures them. Allison nibbles cold, crisp cucumber and prays to keep it down when she vaults. Repeating Argent history is not something she wants to do, unless it's her mother's stunning overall score from her prime year of competing. She hadn't competed in college – Allison's not even sure there were women's gymnastics teams at colleges then – but her elite years had been magnificent, without injury, and long. By the time she'd retired, she was ready to coach full time on every event, not just one or two or in conjunction with others. She'd hired on assistants as she'd been able to afford them and built the legacy that they have today. Definitely a better role model than Kate, hurling chunks onto the horse.
A few people comment on Allison's tights, but never seem to mention that they're Kira's. It's mildly suspicious. A junior girl who's still not being paid a scholarship after two full seasons and then some tells her how cute she looks in them, and mentions that she ought to try out of the box things more often. Have a little more fun. Stunned, Allison fumbles out a thank you and stares, wide-eyed, at Malia, who snickers. Finstock asks her if 'the wings on her balls' will make her fly higher when she vaults. Marin squints at her as if she can't figure out what's different, then smiles. It quickly disappears as she notices how sluggish and loose Allison is today. She pulls off all of her releases, but she's not sharp and in line like she ought to be, and there are no excuses on New Year's practice.
They collapse into Malia's car after they're let free, bundled in their warm clothes and basking in the heat blowing out of the vents. “I'm going to sleep for eight years,” Kira complains. “Maybe longer. I don't care about my biological clock, I'm too done.”
“You'll still be fertile in eight years,” Malia points out. “Fifteen, even. You can nap a whole decade. Can I nap with you? I think I'd like that.” Her phone rings at an ear-piercing pitch and she silences the ringer as fast as her sluggish fingers can manage. “Sorry, sorry, that's Stiles's ringtone. If he tells me he's been asleep all day I'm going to eat his entrails when he gets back.”
As it turns out, he has been asleep all day, but he also seems to tell Malia quite a bit of good news related to the phone call from the night before. Kira drops Allison at her apartment, leaning as far as the seat belt will allow to give her a kiss on the cheek. “I'll get my tights later,” she says, eyes cast down like she's picturing them through Allison's pants. “You looked really good in them.” The implication is that Allison should borrow tights more often.
She'll consider it.
The boys roll back onto campus two days before winter quarter classes start meeting, and Malia doesn't eat Stiles's entrails. By the amount of time Scott spends at their place, there might be an excessive amount of other kinds of activities between the two of them. Allison politely keeps her headphones in and composes six emails – one to each of her professors for the quarter and two for the teaching assistants in the two larger courses. Taking the last of her basic English and history requirements would be more satisfying if Allison had any idea what her actual major was going to be and whether she would need any more of those courses to complete it. It's a little late to be claiming 'undecided' as a legitimate choice, but she points to Stiles every time someone mentions it. He's had four supposed majors over the course of five quarters and is likely to keep going as long as he's allowed. Either he'll end up in school for six years or he'll accidentally graduate on time with two or three minors. Both results seem uniquely Stiles.
Public classes had taken a while for Allison to adjust to again after eight years of homeschooling, but now that she has the hang of them, the only thing scary about her new courses is the amount of reading she'll have to do on planes and buses to keep up. Their schedule is intense this season, and Allison can't be more grateful for the two trips to Stanford they'll be taking. Staying closer to home – even if it is hours and hours by bus – is a blessing, and it usually means her mother or father one will turn up at the competition. They'd both turned up at the same one last year, actually – a home meet that Allison had been particularly nervous for. If anything, watching them sit together, aimed in different directions when she wasn't actually competing, had made her nerves worse and not better.
Their first meet is at Oregon and they fly, even though it's arguably closer than some of the meets that they drive to on the bus. It turns out that Malia is a nervous flier, spends half of the flight like a cornered animal in her window seat with the shutter pulled down, refusing to open it so that Caitlin can look out. Allison has no such problems after years of flying around the country for meets when she was younger, and Kira's parents travel a lot. They're seated next to each other by some stroke of luck and spend most of their time passing Kira's book of foreign love letters back and forth, marking pages and wondering at the many beautiful turns of phrases. Allison muses that she wishes love would've turned her into a better poet, and Kira looks at her a long time before she blushes and turns back to the pages.
When they arrive, they get into their team leos and everyone sees the way they look as a group for the first time. There aren't as many of them this year as last year, as several of the graduating seniors had been non-scholarship girls, ones who'd gotten injured or too old to be worth the money or ones who simply had never been scholarship girls at all. Everyone gets a team leo, even the girls who won't be competing, and Allison hugs them all as they sit down in the designated team cheering section with their textbooks. They'll probably not get much reading done once the actual routines start, but it never hurts to get a little work in when there's time. Lord knows she learned that freshman year.
Their first rotation is floor, and Allison is more paranoid for Malia's routine than her own. Neither of them is anchoring or going first, which is somewhat or a relief, but Malia is second, before Allison. There's nothing to be worried about, in the end; the other five girls on the roster for the event are very good, and dropping Malia's score would leave them with something solid and respectable, especially for the beginning of a season. It's a disappointment when she gets too much deducted for style points and carelessness, but it at least relieves Allison of her worry so she can get up and perform. Things go well, and she manages to do her easiest tumbling run with no extra step, no trouble. Attempting it on one of her bigger runs leads to a small stumble, but her score is a nice safe high average. The other girls tack on better ones, as they're more specialists than the first three of them had been, and they end up doing fine. Their score isn't higher than the other team's, but since they're never competing on the same events, it's hard to tell how things will turn out.
Bars are next. It's an excellent draw for them, if Allison takes into consideration all of the other girls. Malia will get to recover from her disappointment on the floor before she vaults, and beam is last, when Kira and Allison will have nothing more to focus on but nailing their best routines. Of course, Allison doesn't get a rest except for the breaks everyone gets, so it doesn't help her out an awful lot.
Meredith leads them off on the bars and, as Allison has predicted since her assignment, she totally kills it. Her releases have always been fearless and perfectly timed, and Marin's work with her on grip and handstand positioning has kept her from losing the tenths that had kept her out of meets the year before. Kira goes next, and Allison holds her breath the entire time. Watching Kira compete in person turns out to be worse than Allison imagined for exactly the reasons she hadn't been worried about. Every time she lets go of the bars, Allison throws her fingers over her eyes, peeking through near the webbing where she can only confirm that Kira hasn't fallen and not much else. There are no sounds of belly or back smacking against the mat, and only once does her grip make the higher bar wobble with the force of her desperate grab. It's not a bad routine. It's not great, but it's not terrible. It may be dropped. She can't bring herself to hope it isn't, because they need their highest scores. Early meets establish respect and set the pace for other teams.
No one else falls, either. Allison does surprisingly well for a first meet, better than she'd done the year before by far, despite the fact that she hadn't gotten to compete until three meets in. She anchors, which is unpleasant, because she is leading them off on vault right after with a break that feels very short. The only thing that gets her through is knowing that Malia will go last and blow everyone's minds. No doubt all of the coaches and many of the girls know to fear Malia Tate and her almost circus-like flying abilities. Allison muses on what would happen if they shot her out of a cannon, wonders if there are any love letters between acrobats and ringleaders in Kira's book. Stiles and Malia would make an entertaining pair. The train of thought distracts her thoroughly and keeps her calm straight through to her run-up, and she manages to land on her feet on the other side, though she veers hard right and almost slips off the landing area on one side.
The spectators, though there are only a few, seem to go silent as a whole when Malia steps up to the runway. She hesitates for only a second before she goes sprinting forward, throws her arms up.... and steps to the side, skidding to a stop as she shakes her head and turns around. Finstock jogs over to take her by the elbow, eyebrows dancing across the full expanse of his forehead as they gesture inarticulately at one another. She stalks back to the beginning of her path again mid-sentence and he finishes barking at her anyway, not quite clear enough for Allison to understand. Malia blocks herself off again, acknowledges the judges with a tense smile, and hurtles for the springboard faster than before. She hits it dead on this time, twists, hits the vaulting table with a loud smack -
It's a beautiful thing. Those gasps Allison remembers hearing for her aunt all those years ago? They're amplified by ten for Malia, dynamic and graceful in the air as she tumbles smooth and quick, more degrees than Allison can keep up with passing by so fast. If her trained eye can't count the turns, she doubts anyone in the stands knows just how impressive the vault really is. There's no question that the score will be absurdly high when the landing nearly sticks, with only a half-step to take away from the overall score. Malia will have tens under her belt by the end of the season. It's an inevitable fact, and instead of envy, Allison feels pride. This is her teammate, her friend. She hopes someone has been taking video. Stiles will lose his mind over something so wildly dangerous and talented as that.
Caitlin and the other upperclassmen have already taken their turns and, miraculously, Allison's score isn't dropped. She has a shot at being ranked somewhere in the all-around scores if nothing disastrous happens on the beam. The downside is that they're behind in combined scores. The point differential isn't too big a gap to leap, but Allison's spirits sink at the idea of losing their first meet. Mere minutes after the scores of the last round are tabulated and revealed, it's time to move on and put on a show again.
Everyone going on beam today is a senior except for Allison and Kira, and somehow they've been placed last. The wait and the watching send Allison's guts twisting, burbling noises in her stomach that don't settle under the assault of emergency Sprite sips. Her weak cheers for the older girls are drowned out by Malia's beside her; she's relaxed and apparently past her less than stellar performance on floor today. Knowing Malia, she's already plotting how to murder her next turn on the routine, so that she doesn't get dropped from the line. There are older girls who would probably love to prance one more time before they graduate. Malia isn't a prancer, but she loves competing, and there's nothing that will keep her from fighting tooth and nail for her spot. Now, though, she's giving rallying cries to the girls before mount and after dismount, regardless of performance. It's somehow sweet compared to the standoffish, complacent Malia they'd met at the beginning of the year who showed up to kick ass and chew bubble gum. She's spread out beyond vault and beyond her own self-interest, and Allison is happy to have been part of that.
The scores that go up are decent. She thinks she knows which score will be dropped as the routine's being performed, and the two after it confirm that it at least won't be underperformed by another senior. Allison is up next to last, leaving Kira to anchor, and there is something soothing about that fact. She doesn't have to follow up the effortless grace Kira has on the beam and she'll be free to cool off and admire her girlfriend when her own score is secure and displayed.
Her mount is a strength move instead of a tumbling move this year. Jordan had questioned it repeatedly and she'd insisted. This year is the year that she starts behaving like a well-rounded gymnast and not just an Argent. The press goes off without a hitch and hopefully looks pretty despite the way it makes her biceps quake. She counts in her head from the second she touches her fingers to the beam, rhythmic beat in her head that she reminds herself not to use as a tempo. She has moves on half-counts and quarter-counts, moves that span awkward spaces of time in her head but fit perfectly into the routine. The fact that Kira doesn't have to do this plagues her as she passes the forty-five second mark and is relieved to be more than half done. She'll finish on time.
The Sprite she'd hoped would help her stomach burns in her throat and nose whenever she's upside down. She has to fight not to close her eyes against the sting as she connects D and E level moves, the buildup to her grand finale dismount. Strength, beauty of movement, tumbling skill. She has to have everything for this to be her year. Her father's voice joins her mother's in her head: the Code of Points above all else. She remembers her feet, her arms, her facial expressions. She's as careful as she can be about the lines of her body, and she quashes the single moment of panic that she's built too much momentum for the dismount. Malia's tips for sticking her tumbling runs will apply here. She readies herself to absorb the shock before her toes leave the beam, mentally and physically prepared for high impact as she twists and turns end over end.
There's a moment of uncanny quiet when she settles deep into the bend of her knees to compensate. Her heart beats so fast that it's nothing more than a vibration in her chest as she struggles for balance, closing her eyes to shut out the surroundings. The fight to keep from falling right on her butt is an internal one, mostly will over muscle power, and she emerges victorious, thighs clenching and lifting her upright. Her grin is real when she hooks both arms above her head, turns, acknowledges the judges. She touches her shoulders and thighs as she walks away, sure that a bra strap or too much bikini line must be showing for things to have gone so well. She finds nothing there, no uniform deductions, no recollection of anything that could count against her more than a tenth or so. Her ears are filled with a dull rushing as Marin's hand descends on her shoulder and guides her back to the bench where more people touch her, mouth things that she can't distinguish from crowd noise or her own body's background sounds.
The cheering before Kira's routine is over and done with before Allison can collect her thoughts and consider anything but what felt like the performance of her life. She can't imagine topping it. The rest of the season might be a total bust if she can't improve over the course, no matter how high the score comes out. Her face is hot and her throat dry, and now that she doesn't have to worry about self-induced motion sickness, she guzzles water from her bottle. Kira tumbles up onto the beam, her strength elements worked into the body of the event instead, and Allison watches her slip into the mindset of an Olympian – the actual gods and goddesses, most likely, not the athletes.
Only a few of the girls on the team have seen Kira run through her whole piece. Unless the other teams are very persistent googlers, they aren't ready for what they're seeing, either. Allison zeroes in briefly on her toes. They'd only had six or seven practices to assure they could land all their moves with bare, chalked feet instead of in beam shoes. The older girls were the majority, and they'd voted against them. Allison curses the mandatory team-wide yes or no on beam shoes and floor shoes and the fact that it had twice swung against her preference – no shoes for beam, shoes for everyone on floor. Chalk and toe strength serve Kira well enough, though, and she blows through her illusions with a confidence that belies the long hours she'd spent wringing her wrists and chewing the insides of her lips ragged over them. Allison had kissed her raw mouth until it stung every time, tasting the faint copper of blood, and soothed her with whatever words she could find. They look perfect from the distance she's sitting now, and hopefully better from the judges' seats; Allison thinks kissing should be a part of training procedure from now until forever.
The seconds slide by until Allison's shocked into attention by the series that leads to dismount. Does Kira remember that they'd changed two twists to two and a half? Is her right ankle braced enough for landing? Malia had taped it for her, aggressively wrapping multiple layers, doing what she could to support the team after her events were finished. Her fingernails are scratching into the somewhat soft wood of the bench beneath them now, pressing flakes of finish and bits of sawdust underneath. Allison doesn't think she realizes she's doing it, neck craning out in anticipation of the big finish, their last big finish of the meet. Kira deserves it, capping them off like the ribbon on a present.
Two and a half twists pass in fractions of a second and Kira's feet land perfectly beneath her center of gravity. Her right ankle doesn't give, tape holding strong, and Allison's scream of triumph is caught in her throat, too high-pitched for human ears, when it happens.
She bobbles. Kira, who never bobbles in a true routine. She sways forward and before she can remember herself, where she is and what she's doing – her feet are on the floor, after all, not the beam – she takes a solid step to correct her balance. Allison can see the fear in her eyes when she realizes what she's done and feels it as tight and terrifying in her chest as if she'd done it herself. Kira's smile is forced, but she holds herself together and finishes up, strong under the weight of what must feel, to her, like defeat.
The roar from their bench is deafening anyway. Marin goes up to meet her just as she'd done for Allison and a few of the girls climb up onto the bench itself, clapping above their heads and chanting Kira's name. Even with the deduction, her score will be with Allison's in the final five, and depending on the leniency of the judging, they have a real chance here.
Allison waits with open arms and nearly overbalances when she receives an entire lapful of girl instead. She rests the span between her shoulder blades against the wall behind them to support the weight of both of them and wraps her arms tightly around Kira, who crumples like a rag doll in the embrace. There are no tears and no words of discouraged faith in herself. Those will come later, Allison imagines, but for now there is only the battered heap of her, uninterested in her score or the girls rubbing her shoulders and offering congratulations.
Allison hears her score, Kira's, and the results from Marin, not the boards broadcasting all of them in neon orange. No one gets the ten they're all chasing – no surprise, at the first meet of the season. Allison's beam score is the highest of the meet, and she scores third overall. Kira's score isn't too far off Allison's, best after hers on their team, but she doesn't want to hear about that. Her mood perks up a little when she discovers they've pulled off the win. She plays with the medals around Allison's neck after the little award ceremony, clinking her own single gold against Allison's gold and bronze.
“Winner, winner, milkshake dinner?” she asks, eyes dry but darkened. “It'll be nice and late when we get home.”
The way she says it, home, makes a piece or two of the puzzle inside Allison fall into place. Kira is moving in with Malia for sophomore year, it's common knowledge, but there's a bubble of joy in her chest convincing her that maybe, the next year... At the very least, she can take Kira home with her tonight if she wants, slip under the layers of blankets and sheets after a treat and showers to rid them of their sweat and chalk residue.
“I'll text Lydia and tell her to get ice cream,” Allison confirms.
The plane ride home (home!) feels good. Not triumphant, even though they've won. Just. Good. It's a start.
“I don't know about this, Lydia.” Allison buttons her sweater up as high as it goes and grimaces at the result. It's deeply cut in the way that most of Lydia's things seem to be. Allison isn't built for it.
“It's long enough,” Lydia argues, tugging at the hem until it rests evenly along Allison's jeans. “It's made to be sort of like a tunic on me, it's the perfect length for you.”
She's missing the point on purpose, and Allison is so tired of that tactic that she tugs even harder on the hem to demonstrate the neckline diving between her breasts. “There's nothing for this to show! This sweater is for people who have more than flat skin in the gap.”
Lydia's intense glare of disapproval at the mistreatment of her clothing is fierce and, honestly, terrifying. She pries Allison's fingers away from the hem and pulls it back into place, smoothing it carefully and checking for any threads that may have come loose or snapped. “Sweetheart, Kira likes you. That includes your little gymnast boobs. Showing her the skin between them is going to remind her what's on either side. You're fine. It looks really cute.” The lipstick she produces from seemingly nowhere isn't the dark shade she forces on Allison so often.
“Not just red, a classic red. You're going to look like the Snow White you are. I never get to wear this one, it's all wrong for my skin tone, but Scott didn't know any better when he bought it. Someone should be using it.” She twists until it pokes above the tube, flawless angle preserved in its disuse. Most of Allison's lipsticks are all wonky and uneven in color because she leaves them in hot places and lets them remold. Lydia has print-outs on temperature, light, and moisture conditions for storing her makeup. She wouldn't be herself if she didn't have a system for everything, but it's intimidating and makes Allison bashful for being so careless at times like this. She takes the tube.
“Now, hurry up, she's going to be here in...when did you say the date was for?”
Allison's alarm clock says ten minutes til the hour and Lydia harumphs at it, clearly dissatisfied. “She'll be here in twenty minutes,” she finishes, hands on her hips. “I'll get the bib so you don't get powder all over my sweater. Be careful what you eat!” she calls behind her as she hurries back to her own bedroom to grab more supplies. Allison isn't entirely sure what the big deal is; Kira is already her girlfriend, and they've been eating and talking and watching movies together for a while now. Just because this is the first time they've done dinner and a movie like a real, proper date doesn't mean Kira has to see some extra side of her that's been hiding away. Dressing up can be fun, but Allison isn't sure how Kira will feel about kissing her in bright red lipstick and false eyelashes.
The bib comes in handy far more than she'd anticipated. It's smeared with not only finishing powder but concealer, bronzer, and mascara before everything is finished. Lydia had honest to god seized her by the wrist when she'd made to put on her eye shadow with her fingers instead of a brush. The results are pretty if a little over the top, and Allison thanks her graciously while she's still getting accustomed to her reflection in the mirror. This is red carpet level glamour on Allison, who's lived most of her public life in a leotard. Not in the Lady Gaga way, either.
Kira is five minutes late instead of ten, and Lydia gets the door while Allison zips her boots, the final step to the outfit. They'd bickered over which shoes Allison would wear and Allison had summarily lost. The boots admittedly suit the jeans a lot better than most of her shoes do, and Lydia's heels are both too small and too high for Allison. The heels on the boots aren't negligible, though, and flats would be so much nicer when she has to stand beside Kira and feel like some sort of Amazon for being a little over average height. She doesn't need an extra inch or two over her already 5'8” frame. Lydia blames Allison for owning the boots in the first place, and so here she is, zipping them over the skinny part of her pants and hoping it doesn't give the boots or her legs above them any telling lumps.
There's a purse waiting for her on the bed, containing cash, Allison's ID and phone, and the lipstick for touch-ups after eating. “Don't sit on this,” Lydia had said seriously. “Place it on the counter where there's lots of airflow. Not near your plate, either, especially if you order something warm. Though I'd suggest you not, the pain de poissons is to die for where you're going.” She grabs the purse and the light coat that she knew she'd need walking from the restaurant to the theater and maybe during the movie itself. Stiles and Malia, who've been doing their best to keep the late night showings in business all on their own, complain a lot about the frigid temperatures inside. They both lean cold, though, and hopefully Kira won't think she's too much of a wimp for bringing something to put over her already cozy sweater.
With coat and purse draped over her arm, Allison tests her balance on the heeled boots (she hasn't worn them more than two or three times, after all, and not for at least a year, since they're suited more to the winter) and then creeps toward the door. She cracks it just a bit, cautious of the noise it might make, so she can peep around the edge and see how overdressed she is compared to Kira.
Who is standing directly in front of her door.
Allison shrieks, slamming it by instinct, and she can hear Kira laughing on the other side before she knocks. Her makeup damn well better be doing its job to keep her from looking like a ripe tomato when she turns the knob again. “You scared me,” she whisper-screams, more mortified than angry, glancing around to see if Lydia had at least retreated to her room beforehand. Not that she could've missed Allison screaming like a small child.
“Sorry?” Kira offers, but she's still shaking with giggles , resting her shoulder on the door frame and leaning into it. “I was trying to surprise you.”
“You're lucky I didn't pee myself. We'd have been here another hour while I showered and started all over again.”
“You look like you took more than an hour.” Her gaze is wandering very slowly from Allison's impeccably groomed 'messy' bun to her makeup and further down to her outfit. “You look like you had a hair and makeup crew getting you ready for your closeup.” She waves a hand at her own outfit, navy dress belted in tightly at the waist with what must be her only pair of solid-colored leggings tucked into a pair of boots not much different than Allison's, though more tan instead of Allison's chocolate brown. “I'm dressed for a date; you look like you're on America's Next Top Model.”
“She's barely even tall enough,” Lydia comments from the other side of the thin wall, and Allison bangs on it, shaking her head. Playing both sides of the height card on her is unfair.
They don't have a reservation or anything fancy like that at the place they're going, especially since there are only two of them. The original idea had been for a triple date, but Malia had turned her nose up at the food and Scott had been buckling down on a very long biology presentation that he was struggling with. Stiles and Lydia wouldn't be caught dead going into something as a couple, and Allison was quietly relieved. Group dates weren't really her thing. Instead, they were going alone and could show up whenever they wanted as long as they didn't make themselves late for the very last showing at 9:45. Allison doubted they'd be eating for more than two hours, so it seemed safe.
Kira pronounces some of the things on the menu as well as Allison does herself. “I took French,” she says brightly, eyes flicking from here to there on the menu in search of the perfect meal. She's often more excited for pizza than anything too lush, but her when in Rome spirit has even Allison excited for the night. This is the sort of place her mom and dad used to take her to on birthdays, even when she was younger, all dolled up in her little dresses and headbands to meet her grandfather. It was the one time of year that Allison had to see him, and she's been thankful to spend her last two birthdays at school for that reason. Grandpa Gerard has plenty of money and tries to be sweet to her, she can tell, but he's always come off a little creepy for her tastes. Allison doesn't point out that she took French too, or that she is French. She orders the filet mignon, which everyone can pronounce, and decides on creamed spinach as a side because all that good iron and folate outweighs the dairy, right?
Their food takes ages to come out, which Allison remembers vividly from childhood (and how often had she been chastised for kicking her feet into the table or playing with her silverware?). It's much nicer with Kira than it had been with her relatives, watching her carefully butter slices of the crusty French loaf that had been brought to their table with their drinks. Allison has water despite her ID hanging out inside her purse, begging her to order wine with her meal. Kira may be driving, but Allison doesn't desire a repeat of New Year's any time soon. She knows one glass won't hurt, but it's still a no from her. They talk about classes, especially Kira's huge intro to psychology seminar and the number of people in it who still use ignorant, hateful words when they ask questions in lecture. Gymnastics doesn't come up once, and Allison's shoulders are lighter for it. Knowing they share things that will live past the gym is a beacon of hope for something that won't end when summer comes, or for a long time after.
Dinner is delicious but a little boring in that way only fancy restaurants can provide. Allison remembers not to drip any food on the top of her borrowed sweater and places her napkin in her lap to protect her jeans, though they're three years old and have seen worse. Kira scans the room before she tucks her napkin into the neck of her dress and Allison beams at her in encouragement. There's no one here that needs to be impressed, and the butter sauce on Kira's food probably wouldn't look so appetizing all over her clothes. It's kind of nice, being out like this, but between the conversation and everyone else minding their own business, Allison thinks that staying in or going to the diner would've been just as nice. She's pretty sure Stiles and Malia don't go to places like this, even though all signs point to Malia having the money to do it whenever she wants. Scott and Lydia disappear entirely on their anniversary. Allison hasn't asked where they go.
When the waiter (are they called waiters in expensive restaurants?) offers them little dessert menus, Kira and Allison share a long look of silent discussion. Something sweet would hit the spot right now, and there's time. Kira wrinkles her nose and lifts her shoulders. “Malted milk balls,” she points out. “Twizzlers.”
They decline dessert.
Kira grabs her hand as they're walking out, and an electric shock sparks through Allison's veins. They don't do this around campus often. It's an unspoken thing, the fear of outing themselves to the team at large. As far as Allison's aware, only Malia and Marin know. She discreetly checks her email on her phone while Kira talks about the movie they're seeing at a crosswalk to make sure that Marin has gotten everything in order. She snaps back to her background – all of the team's medals piled together from the last meet, a decently impressive stack – with a shiver of paranoia and slips her phone back into her pocket, leaving her hand inside to warm it. Her other hand buzzes with Kira's touch, the openness of it in the chilly late January air.
Allison is twenty-one, standing on a corner in Los Angeles in the middle of winter beside a girl who makes her sure of her heart and unsure of so many other things. Kira is better than her, or will be, and there are years for her to pick up the things she's missing. She's Allison's first girlfriend, the first girl to press small hands to Allison's bare skin beneath her clothes when they kiss. She doesn't know if she's still young enough to be foolish for hoping that Kira will be the only girl. She isn't Kira's first anything, she knows, and it makes her throat swell and her stomach drop. Her phone is heavy with secrets in her pocket.
“It's time to go,” Kira tells her, dragging her through the middle of the street, little legs striding ahead in her eager rush. “We're going to be late.”
Allison is twenty-one and in love, and it's better late than never.
Stiles, Scott, and Lydia are all in the stands when they wipe the floor with Stanford on their own turf on Valentine's Day. It takes three of them to keep Malia on the floor long enough for everyone to exchange the niceties and get their medals. She's gone as soon as no one's horse-collaring her by her uniform, and Allison turns to Kira to talk about the junior on the other team who'd beaten them both on the beam with a really stunning performance that had still not earned her a ten. The judges are stingy this time of year, and Allison can only pray they loosen up closer to April. Leniency and fairness don't have to be mutually exclusive. She's knee deep in wondering aloud what deductions could possibly have been taken when Kira's responsive listening face drops into a wide-mouthed stare and stays that way.
Allison's first and only worry is that someone behind her has gotten hurt. The meet is over but the equipment is here, the gymnasts are here. The incident with Erica fills her with dread as she spins to face the other direction, searching for a group surrounding one of the girls or someone obviously hurt or in need.
The equipment is all untouched except for the sprung floor where some of the seniors who've been competing against one another since they were small catch up on what's been happening since the last year's meets. Allison frowns, and it takes her another minute to look instead to the stands, where their friends are no longer hugging and making expansive gestures imitating Malia's vault. They've gone somewhere else.
“Kira?” she asks carefully, sure that the empty stands aren't what's gotten her in a state of shock. “What's wrong?”
Kira ducks under and around Allison the way that she had the night at the diner, fitting herself under Allison's arm and pointing intently at the area in front of Stanford's locker rooms. She spots Lydia first, vibrant hair and equally vibrant pea coat covering her dress where she's leaning into Scott's side, all genial smiles and appreciation. Stiles looks stunned to silence beside them, and that's when Allison knows something is really up.
Malia has her arms wrapped around a man with a watery smile, thick forearms resting gently on her back. Malia is hugging a very awkward Derek Hale with a fierceness that says they haven't seen one another in a very long time. Kira clings tighter to her own side and yeah, Allison gets it now. It's one thing to see him on television or the internet in his heyday, fluffy hair and pretty eyes. He's not so young and pretty anymore, the arms around Malia filling out his sweater excessively, thighs inside his jeans like tree trunks.
“Hale twin,” Kira whispers, like he might perk up and turn to them if she's too loud. Allison doubts it, noting that he's now deeply absorbed in introducing himself to a relieved Stiles and their other friends. There's a tall, beautiful woman at his side who's paying more attention to the rest of the room than her immediate surroundings, and Allison is slightly afraid to catch her appraising eye.
“Are you having a crush crisis? Because I think he's here with his girlfriend on Valentine's Day. Just like you.” Kira's elbow is sharp between her ribs and she gasps and nudges back. “I'm just kidding! But you are a little in love with him.”
Kira's ponytail slaps Allison in the back a few times as she shakes her head fervently. “The Derek Hale on my wall did not look like that. Did he quit gymnastics to become a body builder?”
“Let's go find out,” Allison suggests, not as confident as she'd like to be. He's likely not to recognize her face, since she was a little kid when everything happened and she and Kate look not much alike, but her name won't fly under the radar so well. Maybe she can misdirect him with Kira. “We have to congratulate Malia for not getting her score dropped on floor routine anyway, come on. Meet the legend. He shares blood with Cora, it'll be like you second degree met her.”
Their shared hesitation keeps them rooted to the spot until Malia calls out to them, jerking her head toward Derek. The knowing glint in her eye should be invisible from this distance, but Allison knows it's there all the same, and it spurs her to action. Kira never got the chance to see the Hales compete in person the way that Allison had, and passing up an opportunity to make her starstruck and giddy doesn't seem like a good girlfriend sort of move. She's not used to being the one to drag Kira places, generally the one to hang back until she's more sure, but what's the point of being with someone different if you don't learn from them? Pasting on a smile, she leads a startled Kira toward their friends, ignoring the assortment of cut off consonants coming at her.
“Guys,” Malia says, retreating a few steps to stand with Stiles, out of the way. “This is my cousin Derek, and his girlfriend, Not Jennifer.”
Derek scratches at the back of his neck and looks away, wincing, but his girlfriend shrugs. “Braeden,” she supplies, amusement bleeding into her voice despite her bored expression. “Are you both Not Jennifer as well?”
Kira smiles weakly and presses Allison's hand down where it hovers without her conscious permission. No handshakes. “Not Jennifer,” she affirms, eyes never straying from Braeden. “Kira Yukimura. And this is Allison Argent.”
The sharp jerk of Derek's head in their direction hits Allison like a knife in the chest. She sees that she was wrong when his eyes meet hers; they're still incredibly pretty, bright, clear hazel, and they search her face and body intently to find anything that gives away who she is and who she came from. Frozen to the spot, her tongue lies heavy and useless in her mouth at the thought of having to defend herself or denounce Kate. His jaw is as tight as the fists he makes at his sides, bloodless knuckles beneath the sleeves of his leather jacket. Allison swallows.
“Argent?” the girlfriend questions. “As in, Argent Munitions?”
Everyone looks to her in confusion or relief at once, depending on how much they know about the situation at hand. Allison nods, feeling equally pinned if a little less threatened. “My grandfather's company,” she says, feigning the calm and surety that she had switched off after the meet was finished. “My father, Chris, runs it now.”
“Chris, right. I remember him. He supplied our department with new equipment last year when we finally got our budget expanded.” She lifts an eyebrow. “You don't look much like him.”
This conversation is a familiar one at least. “I look like my grandmother on my mother's side. My dad's whole family is a lot blonder than I ever had a chance of being. It wasn't even light when I was little, like my-” She pulls up short, leaving the broken sentence hanging among them, uncomfortable.
“Like your dad.” Lydia touches Allison's hair, smoothing the ends of her ponytail between her fingers. “Same texture, but his is losing pigment again now that he's older. Like Stiles's dad.”
“It makes him look distinguished, okay,” Stiles argues, crossing his arms in front of his chest and scoffing at the roll of Malia's eyes. “It does! I'm gonna look like that one day, you better hope you think he's good-looking.” The tension is totally broken and when Allison dares to check, Derek is smiling at Malia again, her nose wrinkled with distaste. He can see that she's happy, Allison thinks, and maybe she wasn't so much before. Or maybe he's glad she's not the tall post being hammered into the ground by an Argent again, repeating history.
No one brings up Kate for the rest of the conversation, and before long they have to pack onto the bus to head to the hotel they'll be sleeping at tonight before making the trek back to Los Angeles. Malia and Derek part with more hugging and Stiles makes a first class Allison mistake and goes to shake the guy's hand, getting a blank stare in return. Allison's hug goes to Lydia, no words needed, for saving her butt back there big time. There's a possibility it's the first time an Argent and a Hale have met and not been at one another's throats in decades, if they're not counting Malia – and Allison doesn't.
In the hotel lobby, Marin silently portions out the five key cards to her group of triumphant but exhausted girls – one for Meredith, one for Caitlin, one for Malia, one for herself. She hands the fifth to Allison with a cryptic smile that no one seems to pay any attention to except Allison herself, thank goodness. They all lug their duffels to the elevators and pile in one group at a time.
“But we should've just roomed with Malia, right? There's not another freshman anymore, so we'll just be a three person room.” Kira's voice is quiet but high with anxiety in the back corner of the elevator where Allison had led her. Allison makes a noncommittal sound. They're unusually quiet behind the four chattering girls in front of them. They pull to a stop on the fourth floor and Kira moves to leave behind everyone else, giving a little squeak when Allison grasps her wrist and pulls her away from the doors long enough for them to close. The up light flashes on again and carries them one floor up, ding echoing into the empty hall when the doors open again. “Allison?”
She grins and waves her key card, stepping onto the terrible geometric print carpet and lugging her bag to the sign that tells her to go left to find room 517. They aren't suites, doors spaced about as far apart as she'd seen on the floor below, but Allison hadn't been prepared to shell out suite level money. The floors above them are for honeymooners and retirees, not college girls spending one night away from their college lives. She stops at their door number, touching at the Braille beneath it on the sign, tactile and grounding as she sets her shoulders and slips their card into the slot on the door, turning the handle. She gets it on the first try – unlike most times she's ever tried to figure out the timing for these things – and the door swings open.
A king-sized bed sits in the middle of the room, sheets turned back and mints on the pillows. There are empty pads of paper and pens on the bedside tables, lamp and a telephone on the one closest to the door. There's a television, undoubtedly a hair dryer somewhere, and a small table that could pass for a desk thanks to the rolling chair tucked underneath it and the grounding plug in the wall for laptops. It looks like any old hotel room to Allison, except she's never stayed in one like this. One room, one bed, something that never worked for her family and certainly never would've happened traveling for gymnastics the year before.
Kira's bag slaps the carpet and sags at the ends, two pairs of clothes not enough to fill it out. She steps out of the doorway, letting the lock click shut behind them. “Allison?” she tries again, disbelief instead of confusion in the uptilt of her voice.
“Happy Valentine's Day.”
“How did you...?”
She sets her key card on the table with her ID, glad Marin had given both back to her and not spoiled the surprise. “My birthday was last month,” she reminds Kira. “I'm perfectly old enough to book my own hotel room if I like, since no one's going to get in trouble if I take something from the minibar. Except maybe me, if Marin finds out.”
“Got her father to call ahead. Stiles and Lydia and Scott are staying in a room on the other floor with her, they just haven't made it yet. Or, they probably have now. They were following the bus. I told them to ride a little ways back and not come in while we were still in the lobby so you wouldn't get suspicious and find out they weren't driving home tonight.”
Kira seems fixated on the bed for a long, silent minute. “Marin helped you do this.”
“Caitlin’s girlfriend used to be on the team. One or two of the girls was a little iffy about it and it's what scared me in the first place about everything, but Marin didn't mind at all. This isn't like a normal team sport. If they fought... if we fought. It might affect our individual performances like any other breakup would. But it wouldn't make the team not work right, like with basketball or something.” Allison unpacks her underwear and pajamas for something to do with her hands, since one way or another they're going to need showers tonight. “This is okay, right?” she asks, testing the elastic in the waist of her pajama pants instead of watching Kira's face for an answer. It might tell her more than she wants to know.
The touch on her shoulder is gentle and gradual, not enough to startle her as fingertips shift to the press of Kira's whole palm. “We went on a date ahead of time. We knew we were going to miss Valentine's Day for this.”
Allison shakes her head. “I knew then. That we were going to do this. That's why I let you go Dutch with me that night. I wanted to do something nice for you.” She refolds her pants and covers her panties with them, cheeks hot knowing that she didn't pack anything to wear under the shirt. She only has the sweaty strapless bra she'd worn under her uniform to wear home the next morning. She can't believe she'd thought- Well. That she might not need that. Not tonight. She puts her tank top down on top of the stack. “I'm going to take a shower. We should probably sleep early tonight if we want to be up for continental breakfast tomorrow.”
Kira's fingers curl into Allison's shoulder through her team jacket, holding her in place. Her other hand finds Allison's waist, urges her into turning so they're face to face. Her eyes are soft with wonder before she goes up on the balls of her feet for a kiss, grip tightening until they're flush against one another. “Thank you,” she says against Allison's mouth, dipping back in for another taste before she settles. “Take your shower. I'll go after you. Better be clean if we're sharing a bed.”
Numbly, Allison carries her clothes to the shower and shuts the door behind her. She stands in front of the mirror as she undresses, touching to check – her underarms are smooth and so are her legs, everything neat and in order between them. It's been less than twenty-four hours since she took care of it all, but she's acutely aware of her body as she steps under the hot water. She washes as if she hasn't showered in a week, thorough and slightly rough, leaving her skin pink and sensitive.
Steam billows out behind her when she opens the door in her tank and cotton pants. Kira's turned the heater on, and Allison thinks she could've gotten away with shorts after all, despite the fact that it's not spring weather quite yet. Kira's watching TV. Or, more accurately, is flipping through the channels every few seconds, teeth leaving a deep imprint in her bottom lip that Allison wants to trace with her tongue. “Your turn,” she says, as if Kira hasn't noticed her. “All the hot water we want here.”
“Thank god for hotels.” The remote bounces against the bed and Kira brushes their arms together on her way past, smiling. Allison shivers and takes up the waiting spot Kira's vacated for her. She understands the channel flipping when the water starts again in the bathroom, fingers antsy as the rest of her, unable to focus too long on any one program. The college sports channel scrolls their win across the bottom marquee without mentioning any scores. The chefs on Chopped have to work with leftover tuna casserole. The Pacers are twelve points down at the half.
The steady rain of the showerhead slows and quiets and, impulsively, Allison cuts the lamp. There's a little light from the city outside and the glow of the television, enough for Kira to find her way to bed. She shoves the bedclothes down further with her feet, gets beneath them, then kicks them off. Pulls them back up to her waist. Under the covers should at least be an option, right? But what if Kira thinks that means she doesn't want to look at her, or be looked at? She gets them back down over her shins before the door opens and she tries to be casual, leaning back on her hands, bed looking like a tornado hit it in the fifteen minutes she's been alone.
Leaning over to tuck her clothes into her bag, Kira glances over her shoulder and sticks her tongue out at Allison, wiggling her butt in her pale blue snowflake shorts. “Getting too late to wear these anymore,” she notes. “Gotta get them in a few more times before I swap over to florals.”
“You sound like Lydia,” Allison giggles, shoulders relaxing into the headboard. She pulls her knees to her chest. “They're shorts. We live in California. They're shorts with snowflakes. You can wear them when it's hot and feel better thinking about snow.”
Kira pulls her matching socks out of her bag and wags them at Allison before she sits at the foot of the bed to put them on. “If I ever actually sound like Lydia, take me to a doctor. Someone's done a brain transplant against my will.” She snaps the top band of her socks beneath her knees to make sure they're snug and fiddles with the tiny white bows. “Or we've swapped bodies. God, I could never do gymnastics in that body.”
“Hey, she's barely any shorter than you are. And Erica Reyes was a lot more top-heavy than Lydia is. You'd make do. Her tiny feet would never slip off the beam.” She scoots to the right as Kira climbs up the bed, leaving her an unnecessary amount of room to settle in. “It would take forever to get right on the uneven bars again, though. She has no upper body strength whatsoever. Scott has to carry her purse for her sometimes when her arms get tired.”
Kira mutes the TV, nothing but the hum of the heater under the window, but leaving the pale blue glow over the sheets and their skin. She turns over on her side to face Allison and tucks her hand under the pillow. It makes Allison feel very young and too big inside her skin looking down on her sweet face of contentment to be lying here beside her girlfriend in the dark.
“I've never-,” Allison starts, though she knows there's no need. They've talked in circles around it enough, and even if they hadn't, there was a disturbingly thorough game of Never Have I Ever one night that had ended in three very drunk people, two tipsy ones, and Allison. Kira had been in the tipsy pair with Scott, who'd only ever had sex with Lydia, and they'd talked for a long time in bed after over the background noise of Stiles and Malia laughing until they snorted in the next room. There's no question left that Allison is a virgin and Kira isn't, but it's huge and unknown to her all the same.
She feels Kira's hand slip into hers and begins to wonder if something about her specifically invites hand-holding when she's pulled down onto her girlfriend's level. The bed is softer than she'd realized and the sheets are cooler than the warmed air. The tip of her nose brushes Kira's cheek and she closes her eyes out of habit, only ever this close to kiss or fall asleep. The kiss doesn't land on her mouth where she expects it, but gently just beneath her eye and again at the line of her jaw. “No matter what,” Kira whispers into her ear, “this is really nice, right?”
The hesitance in her voice is what Allison needs right now. Maybe there's not as much of a gap emotionally as there is physically. Untangling their fingers, she hooks her chin over Kira's shoulder and hugs her close and releases a breath that feels like it's been held inside for months. “I want to,” she answers, body protesting the places where Kira's skin is warm and bare and her own isn't pressed against it. “Kiss me first.”
Continental breakfast goes just fine without them in the morning. Only Marin's insistence that she remain responsible for everyone she brought to Stanford until they're back at UCLA keeps them from missing the bus entirely and squashing themselves into Stiles's Jeep. Kira rolls her sweats up to the knees to show the socks she never took off and flops into Allison's lap for the ride back, dozing off not even an hour into the trip with one earbud dangling over the edge of the seat. Allison steals it and listens to the sticky sweet playlist on repeat all the way home, knowing it colors Kira's dreams, too.
Meets come too hard and too fast, and Allison's grades make the expected dip while she battles the fast pace of the quarter system. She loves having fewer classes than if she were somewhere else, truly, but midterms in week 4 and finals not long after are killing her soul when she may have missed lecture more than once for a meet. Whoever schedules gymnastics meets for college students can choke on his own pen cap, for all Allison cares. Kira only seems to have her head on straight in psychology, which she seems to be sticking with. The other kids get less rude as the numbers next to the class goes up, she says, and it's something she can actually wrap her head around.
Stiles is making quiet, uncertain sociology noises these days and Allison bites her nails and worries. Spits when she finds herself with a mouth dry with chalk rather than fear alone. Everything he's thrown to the side so far, he's been wildly enthusiastic about from moment one of the idea until he changed his mind. It's the careful consideration that scares her. She's pretty sure he spent too long listening to one of the deputies in Beacon Hills over Christmas break about great majors to pursue before going into the force. Allison can understand wanting to be like your family – after all, isn't she her mother made over, now that she isn't trying to be Kate? - but Stiles barrels into poorly lit rooms only to jump at shadows. She can't imagine him as a cop like his father, even though she's only met the man once. Her dad agrees over the phone, tells her to tell Stiles that he can do much more than be a cop with that degree, making Allison laugh when he mentions law. Imagining Stiles's expressive hands telling more to the jury than his wide, unruly mouth and all its tangents is beautiful and ridiculous.
For her own part, with winter quarter coming to an end and spring quarter approaching, Allison takes a look at her own credits. There's a truly horrendous amount of French under her belt if she lets it go to waste. She's not particularly interested in the pure French plans, and she wants to know more languages, eventually. She finds herself leaning toward French and Linguistics. Her minor will be LGBT studies. She'd avoided the idea of a minor when Lydia had been extolling the virtues of her plan for a chemistry and neuroscience power combo, but now that they're all in the loop, she feels comfortable making the decision. Kira'd gone squinty at the idea, the same way that she'd gone squinty when Stiles had gone on expansively about the Asian American studies program that the star Chaser on his team was working his way through. Allison's not sure if she has a problem with minors in general or the idea of taking one by default because of your identity. She seems perfectly happy to learn more about Japan and Korea from her mother and father and focus on things that they can't teach her while she's here at school.
None of these revelations matter to the coaching staff, of course. All they mean for Allison is that she has some idea of what she'll be doing when she's not swinging her feet above the ground or walking a very sturdy variation on the tightrope for the next few years. Lydia's proud of her, at least, and starts drawing up ideas for which classes she should be taking as she moves forward. Maybe she slips in a few notes on other minors (marked 'extra!' so she knows they're not meant to replace her current idea) that might help her teach French at a school. The idea doesn't sit entirely well with Allison, and she doesn't feel like there's enough time in two years to take care of everything she'd need to double minor with the pressure of gymnastics alongside it.
Kira paints her toenails with her feet propped on Allison's vanity while they discuss all of this. Some incredible sort of chain reaction has been happening lately with the six of them – Lydia will go to see Scott, which sends Stiles to Malia's and leaves Allison lonely in the apartment and dialing Kira up to walk down to see her. They spend most of the blessed alone time less than half-dressed, though more conversation passes between them than anything, and Allison makes them microwave nachos. Marin's degree was in psychology, Kira says, and she ended up coaching gymnastics anyway.
“So you could, too,” Allison says, parsing the underlying issues. “Like your mom. And you'd at least have something to land on your feet with if it didn't work out or you changed your mind.”
Kira spins in the desk chair and props her heels at the foot of the bed, wiggling her spread toes and their purple polish, sparkling with what she likes to call galaxy dust. “My mom only coached me,” she points out. “I was thinking more about how psychology has, you know, nothing to do with gymnastics at all?”
“I don't know.” Allison bends in and blows gently at the wet polish. “I think it helps with coaching, at the very least. She's a highly effective motivator and mediator. There are worse majors she could've picked.”
“Like French and Linguistics?”
Allison blinks at her and slowly comes around to the suggestion. “I'm probably going to work for my dad. I just didn't want to take business. Dad doesn't have a business degree and his dad doesn't either. They built everything from the ground up because they knew a lot about weapons. He won't just not give me a job, and he likes the French idea.” She gets nothing more than a sigh back from Kira. “What? I know nepotism isn't the greatest, but-”
“Allison, that's not what I'm worried about. You're the best gymnast on our team. You should be teaching other girls how to be as good as you.”
The reflexive answer is, “I'm not the best.” She gives one last gentle gust of cool air over Kira's drying toes and scoots back to rest against her mountain of pillows. “Malia is better than me at vault. At least two of us are better than me on bars, and I'm only not doing the worst on floor because a couple of girls have twisted ankles and Malia's still new to it. And then on beam...”
“You're better than me.” Kira lowers her feet to the floor and rests her elbows against the comforter in their place, chin cradled in her palms. “Everyone else is good, and I'm picking up all of the new stuff so fast, but you're better than me. And none of the other girls are good at everything the way that you are. Maybe Caitlin, but she got dropped on vault already this season. She's never done that before.”
“She's a junior,” Allison defends. “She has other things on her mind and she's-”
“The same age as you. You're older than Heather and the other sophomores. So don't tell me she's getting older.”
Allison doesn't want to fight. The conflict is deeply unpleasant for her, especially with someone so close to her. They've argued a little before, small things mostly brought on by exhaustion or misunderstandings, but they're yet to have a real fight. Not like the one she'd had with Lydia in spring quarter of freshman year that had nearly put a kibosh on the apartment-sharing plans she'd worked so hard to get her mother to approve, offering Lydia's transcripts and extracurriculars and setting up a meeting over Skype. Mutually enforced forgetfulness has solved the silliness of that spat without ever letting slip to Scott or Stiles what it had been about. Lydia doesn't flirt for personal gain in front of Allison anymore, and Allison doesn't have to feel righteous indignation on Scott's behalf for it. It's all for the best.
“I don't think anyone would come to learn from me.” Her words are bold and clear despite how tiny it makes her feel to admit. “My mother lost students after Kate. She's only still holding on because she loves coaching so much. Dad makes most of the money now. Half of the girls training at Argent Athletics don't even make it in seniors now.”
Kira slumps, wraps a hand around Allison's ankle and worries at the bone beneath skin. “You aren't Kate. Even Derek Hale knew that.” There's a long moment of silence for that to sink in, for the memory of that sharp look to pierce Allison's heart again only to be followed with the relief of being passed over unmolested, if not unjudged. “Kate never even really coached for your mom, did she? Just sort of helped when she was still training, too. And if they won't come out for your mom, maybe they will for you. Make your own legacy. Allison Athletics. You can keep all your monogrammed things and pretend they're specially made for the business.”
The curve of her mouth at the corners isn't Allison's intent, but it's hard to resist. This isn't something to smile about. It's been years since she considered coaching as a real possibility. Seven years, exactly. “It would make it easier not to have to rebrand when I change my last name.”
“Thought you didn't like business?” Kira teases, and she retrieves the purple polish and peels the toe separators from her own feet to spread Allison's. “Glad to hear you want to be a Yukimura,” she adds, dropping her eyes to the task at hand and conveniently saving Allison from being caught with a gaping mouth and blown-wide eyes.
By the time Allison's toes are galaxy dust purple, Kira's are dry, and she clambers into the bed and under the covers where Allison can't be just yet. She claims one corner of the fluffy mountain for herself and turns onto her stomach, both arms diving between the sheets and pillows. “You're going to take a nap, aren't you?” Allison asks flatly, because she recognizes that pose after more frequent sleepovers. “The light's still on.”
“Don't care,” Kira replies, sing-song voice divulging everything Allison needs to know about her mood. Watching her dark lashes flutter down onto her cheeks and her lips purse from the way her cheek smushes into the pillow, it's hard to believe she's even real. It's been months and Allison still isn't used to this, to knowing there's a pretty girl who feels comfortable waking up with one side of her hair flat and tangled from being crushed against her bed all night. Doesn't mind Allison's killer morning breath or the way she can't sleep with socks on but always has cold feet. Something is so easy about the two of them now that they've started that she thinks they must be missing something – or maybe ignoring it. Beyond the obvious. “Still better than me.” The mumble that makes cold, creeping doubt inch through Allison's veins as the days tick down toward the regionals and, beyond them, championships. If they're good enough. If they're lucky. Not every team that pulls it off is both.
Marin believes they're good enough. Allison is inclined to agree.
Kira flies home briefly in the break before the start of spring quarter. There aren't a lot of open days for that kind of luxury, but she's the furthest from home of all of the girls and she hasn't seen her parents in person since August. Jordan and Marin personally sign off on it together so she's cleared of any problems from missing practice. Allison doesn't get lonely for her while she's gone. There's too much to do, to get ready for, and honestly? They're days when she's on the beam and Kira isn't.
Jordan has been speechless lately at the way she pushes herself, harder than he often has the nerve to. His strength has always been encouraging girls to finish after falls in meets and helping them recover from injuries or, sometimes worse, loss of self-esteem. He ended his own career early with a fall, she knows, only now coming into the best age for men to compete – and here he is training girls at the end of their rope, the final stretch. Allison thinks there is something iron in him, something her father would admire, despite his baby face. She goads him at times, yelling, “Come on!” from atop Ray when he's been planning to have her practice something on the lower beams or, worse, the line. “I can take care of myself. I'm not going to fall. I learned my lesson about that before, remember?” She doesn't think about Kira's touch against the still-pink scar on her forehead or the way she kisses it before they fall asleep. She thinks only of tighter combinations, more difficulty, greater precision. She thinks of winning.
The consequences are burrowing down in one of the tubs in the lockers for an ice bath. The strain in her muscles and sharpness of the cold compete until the ache starts to subside, bleeding into numbness. Marin is nearby in her office, checking up on her every two minutes to make sure she doesn't drift off and wind up hypothermic. “Awake,” she calls, lifting one finger from the edge of the tub, when she hears footsteps coming closer than they had before. “Just shutting my eyes.”
“Good to know,” Kira's voice replies, and she gets a mouthful of hair and an extremely close view of her nose along with the kiss pressed to her forehead. “Coach Morell says it's time for you to get out before your toes fall off.”
Allison's too stunned to protest that her toes are still fine, icy pins and needles still stabbing at them when she flexes her feet. As long as she has some feeling, she's in the clear. She does lever herself up a bit, air hitting the damp skin of her shoulders and upper arms and chilling her further, a shiver running down her spine. “You weren't supposed to be back until tomorrow.”
“I wasn't going to be back to practice until tomorrow. I am right on time.” Her fingers toy with a chunk of hair that had wormed its way loose on the tramps, drawing it across Allison's temple. “You should get bangs over the summer,” she muses. “You can just pin them back when we compete.”
“Yeah, if I want Lydia to disown me. You haven't heard the speech about why bangs are the first great horror of the world? She'd rather I shave my head and call it a statement than wear bangs.”
Kira laughs, annoyingly relaxed and still touching Allison with fingers that feel feverish against her cool skin. “But Lydia's not your girlfriend, is she? I think you'd look really cute with them, like, right...” She traces a boundary across Allison's forehead just beneath her scar but above her eyebrows. “Here.”
“Well, it's my hair,” Allison snaps, leaning her head as far out of reach as possible. “And I don't want to get bangs no matter who my girlfriend is.” Her jaw feels tight with a frustration that comes on fast and unbidden and her eyes don't meet Kira's. In fact, she closes them again and waits for Marin herself to yell for her to stop giving herself frostbite and go home. The frigid water isn't doing much to cool her temper or soothe her so far, and a few minutes longer may make all the difference in the pain she feels walking home to the apartment – both physical and emotional.
When she opens her eyes, feeling safe and alone, she startles to find that Kira's not only still there but still standing over her. She's much taller than Allison like this, but her hand clamped around the opposite elbow, the bend in her knees, the downward cast of her eyes and mouth... She's making herself small, and the resounding quiet in the room only reinforces it. Allison fishes for something, anything, to say. Her throat scratches over, “How was New York?” and she knows it's wrong before she's finished asking. Shoving the responsibility to talk on Kira doesn't solve anything.
“Fine. I have some things for you in my suitcase. I'll get them to you when I unpack. I sort of came straight here after I changed?” Allison's eyes flicker to the clock on the wall, early afternoon, and she realizes what time Kira must've been up and how long she's been traveling. Her stomach turns over. “But I can go. Obviously, you had a bad day or-”
“I'm sorry,” tumbles past Allison's lips feeling hollow and meaningless. “I didn't mean to...”
“I'm just going to go.” Kira's resolve is firmer this time. She pulls something from her pocket and places it on the chair on top of Allison's towel and clothes as she walks out.
If she didn't know better, Allison would slide completely beneath the surface of the water and block out the whole world. As it is, her dry hair is going to save her from a world of pain and possibly a terrible cold on her way off campus. She waits out Marin instead, inching her feet up the far end up of the tub until her toes are above the water line. They are vulnerable, after all.
The photo falls onto the ground when Allison grabs her towel and vigorously rubs herself down, bringing a little warmth back to her sleeping limbs, lulled into silence by the bath. She doesn't notice until she bends over to peel off her soaked sports bra, rectangle of bright color against the pale speckled tiles. She leaves it alone until she's dressed again, shoving her wet clothes into a grocery bag for handling at the laundromat tonight. Her fingers, which were never in the water at all, shake when she reaches to pick up the shiny, high quality print, like something you'd have done professionally instead of the one hour photo booth or a kiosk that connects to your smart phone.
Kira looks very young in the photo and Allison knows she's much thinner than now thanks to how tall she looks. At her best guess, it's from four or five years ago, when Kira would've been in juniors. The focus of the photo is her pastel rainbow of a leotard, on full display, drawing attention from the center split she's doing on the beam, hands grasping to balance herself. Her grin is big and genuine, hair braided in two tails over her shoulders. A man stands just behind her and Allison recognizes Kira's own smile of pride on his face. The Sharpie on the back says 'Kira and Ken, 2010' which plays sing-song inside her head like a music box tune. Underneath it, Kira's scrawl in light pencil: 'for your scrapbook'. There are empty pages at the back, clear plastic slips waiting for more memories. Waiting for a future they can build from both of their pasts.
Her body is a dead weight the entire walk home, mittened hands out of season and gripping tight to her phone but useless to do anything helpful. She crawls like an ice cube into Lydia's bed and, like the many eerie times Lydia has just known something, they don't have to speak before the snuggling commences. Instead, they lie in the dead quiet while Allison's body warms and her heart sinks. Kira had been gone barely four days and Allison had driven herself deep back into the mindset of a one-woman show. The part that hurts is being unsure of whether it's a bad move or not. They haven't said the words yet, but Allison loves Kira, and hurting her with a short temper and cross words is wrong, a guilt that settles in the pit of her gut. That doesn't mean she shouldn't be looking out for herself first, and maybe a little distance wouldn't be the worst thing for them the closer they get to the end of the season, the real decision makers.
Allison texts Caitlin after the joints in her fingers behave better. It's unsubtle and probably unfair to Kira to ask outright how to handle competition with someone you're dating, but Lydia lays a hand on her shoulder and, with an almost condescending tone, says, “Sweetie, they all know.” And so she asks and falls down the rabbit hole of advice, some helpful and some unwanted, gaining too much information about Emily herself and not enough about how meets had affected the way she acted around Caitlin until she graduated. The two are split now and Allison should've factored that in to the amount of time she'd spend hearing about the breakup instead of their time on the team together. Thankfully, though, she finds that the split had more to do with Emily no longer being around than anything related to a gymnastics rivalry.
She comes out of the conversation with warm wishes from a teammate she'd never quite considered a friend before and a lot of information that she doesn't know how to sort. Caitlin says that Emily had been cold with her for a while before regionals, but when they'd lost, things had gone back to normal, though they'd outscored each other on different events there. Regionals are close enough for Allison to taste, but she's not sure that solves anything at all. Their team is so good this year, well-rounded and high-scoring, outpacing the other teams in their rise. Malia has a ten under her belt. As a freshman. She's more like Laura than she'd ever admit to and it's enough to make Allison think they'll make it all the way. What happens beyond regionals? Will being so distant for so long ruin everything with Kira? The circumstances aren't near enough to one another for her to know.
She slips the picture of Kira and her father into the scrapbook's first empty page but doesn't decorate around it, unsure of her artistic prowess or her ability to express her feelings through it at the moment. Besides, it isn't her place to make changes to this alone. It's a gift, one that probably took Kira days or even weeks to arrange and perfect, and she doesn't feel allowed to tamper with that. Especially not with the roll she's already on today with screwing things up. She shuts the book and leaves it on the coffee table next to their flipbook, knowing that with Lydia's strict rules, nothing will be spilled on it before she's ready to take it back to her room.
The next few days are...weird. There's no other way to describe it. Allison isn't entirely sure what's even going on. She didn't text Kira the night after whatever happened at the gym, too scared to poke at something still sore. They have practices and even a meet in the period of troubled silence between them. When they fly out, Kira wordlessly trades her seat, leaving Allison next to Malia, whose new flight anxiety management strategy seems to be highlighting her entire textbook.
The meet goes fine. She can hear Kira's voice chiming in with the others cheering before and after she competes, but it doesn't feel encouraging. It makes a lump stick in Allison's throat. Sometimes it's hard to concentrate, after. She makes sure she's focused when it comes to the beam, though, too afraid to let even this take away the one thing she's able to cling to, even if it's only by her fingertips. When Kira's on bars, she yells herself hoarse with Malia over a great routine. She tries not to think about what that might mean. Maybe they are better off separate at this point in the season.
Lydia finds her the next evening under three layers of blankets with laptop slowly beginning to overheat on her chest.
“You found it, didn't you?” she asks, after she's pulled Allison's headphones from her ears. “Kira's channel.”
“Maybe.” The cover of “Latch” from a few weeks ago that she's watched at least sixteen times is there plain as day on the screen. She has no defense. “Stiles gave it to me when I mentioned it.”
Lydia purses her lips and arches an eyebrow. “Meaning you bullied it out of him.” She puts her tiny hands against Allison's hip and thigh, pushing ineffectually until she scoots over and makes room. “Oh, no. Allison. You know better than this.” Navigating away from the page, she pulls up Facebook in another tab. “Here. This is what you need.”
“Selfies and ads?”
“Private messaging. With a whole keyboard, so you can type a lot faster than on your miniature phone.” She leans further into Allison's space to pull up the chat sidebar and select Kira. The notification next to it shows activity in the last three minutes from mobile. “She's on. Apologize.”
Allison fidgets, pulling her beanie further down over her limp, slightly greasy hair. Maybe she skipped her shower after running this morning, so what? It's unrelated. “Aren't you supposed to do that kind of stuff in person?”
“Are you going to walk to the dorms at this hour and wake up her roommate?” Lydia lets the silence sit for a moment, an answer in itself. “Are you going to have time to talk at practice tomorrow, with regionals coming up? No. If you don't make up before then, you're going to put the whole team in jeopardy. Your overall score for this last meet went down-”
“I know how much it went down,” Allison grouses. “Believe it or not, I can add and subtract.”
The room goes still except for Lydia's carefully controlled breathing. Allison's has stopped. Finally, she drags the cursor over and plants it in the box. “Deal with Kira first,” she says firmly. “We'll handle everything else later. I'll give you some privacy. After...” She tilts the laptop more towards herself and does a lot of typing that Allison can't follow. “There.”
It takes less than fifteen seconds to see that she's somehow locked Allison out of YouTube on her own laptop. Whatever program she's using takes a ten-digit numerical key to unlock. She tries Scott and Lydia's cell numbers with the area codes on the off chance that Lydia was that lazy and has no luck. She wastes time trying to google her way around it. By the time she returns to the Facebook tab, the notification says Kira hasn't been active for fifteen minutes.
“Maybe she won't see it for a while,” she mutters to herself, and she begins to type.
Scott finishes moving his tiny token seven squares and pulls a Community Chest card as Allison ties on her sneakers. “Hey!” he says delightedly, and she's assuming he's gotten something excellent until she looks up and finds him smiling down at her. “You washed your hair.” She blanches. “You look good. Are you going out?”
“On game night?” Stiles asks incredulously, despite the fact that she'd gently turned down a game of Monopoly. Maybe they can stand three or four hours of Lydia running them directly into the ground, but Allison would rather play something she has a chance at. Specifically, something with a lot of luck involved. “What's more important than family game night?”
Allison shrugs at him, leaning up to zip her jacket. “It's nice weather outside. I thought I'd go for a walk.” She gestures at her feet. “I should be back before it gets really dark. I'll be fine.”
“She's going to see her girlfriend,” Lydia says coolly, and Allison makes a pinched face at her. “Stiles will come and get you if it's dark out; you shouldn't walk alone.”
Allison walks right out to the sound of Stiles's exaggerated, “Oh, of course, Stiles will come and get you,” and Scott's insistence that she tell Kira hi from him even though she's sure they've been texting. Her own phone is gripped tightly in her hand, set to vibrate. She doesn't want to take the chance of missing a ring. The walk to the building Kira lives in is a long walk away and for every second of it, she expects to get a text or a call asking her not to show her face around Dykstra.
When she gets close, though, she finds Kira waiting outside the building for her, leaning against the wall with her arms crossed over her chest. For a second, it looks she's smoking, of all things, before Allison registers that she's holding the piece of chalk she carries around for 'harmless vandalism'. She clears her throat as Allison approaches, back hunching even more over the fold of her arms, feet scraping against the ground.
“Hi,” Allison mouths. The sound just doesn't come. Her own words are stuck somewhere inside, leaving her tongue limp and useless. Kira bites her lip. “Scott,” she tries again. “Scott says hi.”
That gets her a flash of a smile. “Hi, Scott.” Allison almost rolls her eyes by instinct, as she'd usually do, and freezes up a bit when she realizes it might not be the best time. Kira doesn't seem to notice. “Joanne's asleep. Yes, at six o'clock,” she clarifies, before Allison can even ask. “This is her power nap before she stays up all night tonight.”
“Won't that keep you up?”
“Probably.” She doesn't look put off. Allison's jaw slowly begins to unclench. Being reminded of how patient and understanding Kira often is makes it difficult to stay so tense. “I'm mostly used to it, and she only does it when she has something really big coming up that's early in the morning. She can't drag herself out of bed before about eight. It's easier for her to stay up and then come home and crash.”
“You could...” Allison hesitates. “I could sleep on the couch and you could...?”
Kira's nervous smile broadens into something gentle and gracious. “I'll be alright here. I sort of promised her I'd help her study before I pass out. Thanks, though.” She bends her knee and plants one foot against the wall behind her, letting her arms fall to her sides. “You wouldn't have to sleep on the couch.”
Allison flushes. “I wouldn't make you sleep on the couch. You still count as a guest, according to Lydia. Stiles gets so angry.”
“We could both sleep in the bed,” Kira points out. “I definitely remember you liking that. Unless something's changed your mind in the last two weeks and you didn't mention it in your giant wall of text. I had to read that on my phone, you know.”
“At least I didn't send it as thirty text messages?” They both laugh, and the taut place between Allison's shoulder blades releases. She slips her hands out of her jacket pockets, rocking back on her heels. “I knew I'd never be able to get it all straight out loud. And I had a lot of explaining to do. I didn't mean to make excuses, I swear.”
Kira's shrugs in slow motion, head ducked. “I'm not upset with you. I never was, I just thought you didn't want me around. For whatever reason. So I got out of the way.”
“You're not in my way. I realized that. I've been in my way more than you have. I did awful at the last meet, way worse than I did before.”
“We were making each other better.” She sounds so sure, like she's always known it. Allison feels really stupid or emotionally stunted or both. Maybe it's another thing to blame on her mother, or on Kate. Probably Kate. “I'd kind of like to go back to that part. The good part. There was more kissing and less sitting next to Caitln snoring on the plane.”
“You were sitting next to Caitlin?” Allison's stomach drops a little. “Thank god she went to sleep.”
“Only after she told me she knew all about us and I shouldn't worry if you were acting like an idiot.”
Bright red and beyond flustered, Allison squeezes her eyes shut for a second to regroup and start a new round of apologizes. She opens them when she feels Kira's hand slip into hers, just in time to see where she's going as she stumbles toward the wall, pulled along until Kira can't back up anymore. “She knew what it was like to have a girlfriend on the team. To be dating during competition. I thought she could help, and that she wouldn't tell.”
Kira giggles and pulls down the zipper on Allison's jacket, slipping her arms inside and around her waist. “You know what she said to me first?” She waits for Allison to shake her head. “She said she thought you wearing my tights was us coming out officially. Since everyone already knew. And then we were the only ones besides Malia who wasn't in a room with other girls on Valentine's Day.”
“Fuck.” She's too tall to hide her face against Kira's shoulder. “I didn't think anyone paid that much attention.”
“I don't care anymore. If they don't care, why should we? I want to kiss you every time I nail an awesome dismount, and now I can.” She pauses. “If you don't mind.”
Allison thinks about it. She thinks about peeking in on the older girls practicing before she really knew what a crush was. Scott and Lydia touching each other's hair and faces in public and making her ache for people to see someone touch her that way, gentle and familiar. Her mother's loud insistence that the work always comes first. She adds it all up, just like she told Lydia she was capable of doing.
“I love you,” she blurts, and doesn't regret it.
She barely catches the awe on Kira's face before she's being kissed.
Things don't go back to normal. There's no time for that. Everything feels like it's rushing past now, leaving them all windblown and breathless. Kira does end up crawling into Allison's bed to get a full night's rest several times, because losing those couple of hours to Joanne's late-night cram sessions can be the difference between winning and losing.
It's so much more comfortable around the apartment now that Kira is around again. Scott and Stiles invite her to family game night and Lydia advises her not to come, since Stiles co-opting her into family will remove any boundaries they might have left. Come to find out, she doesn't actually know how to play poker, and Scott tutors her the entire night instead of playing. She goes to bed fourteen dollars richer. Lydia goes to bed sour, muttering 'cheating' at her unimpressed boyfriend. Allison smiles her way into dreamland knowing Kira's got the check the next morning at breakfast.
Kali and Finstock have been breathing down Allison's neck for weeks. Marin knows when to lay off with her by now, to step back and let her get her bearings, but she's never been as solid on floor and vault. Add to that the fact that she feels responsible for Malia, as well, and she's starting to feel run ragged. She almost misses the year before when regionals had seemed like more of an end of season party than a real competition. Almost.
Even the other girls are laying the pressure on thick. Heather is unbearably intense at times and Danielle shows up at practice more and more to knock her down a notch or two and provide water and carbs. This is the time of year when Allison would actually hate to have Lydia around. Despite the fact that she'd never seen gymnastics outside of the summer Olympics a few times before Allison, she's developed a keen eye. There's enough critique right now without that poised pause, knuckle against her pouted lips, before the decisive judgment. Lydia offers too much 'what if you...' and 'how about...' which Allison has no wiggle room for. She has to spit-polish her existing routines to as flawless a shine as she can manage.
Kira isn't cracking under the pressure. If anything, she's doing better than she has all year. Her mother used to lay it on thick early on to look for that kind of girl. Mining for diamonds, she'd called it. Kira is definitely a diamond. They hold hands over the edges of the soaking tubs when their arms have had enough ice and are only barely faking when they cry to Stiles over the phone to come get them. Malia has stopped bringing her car, using the run between her dorm and the gym as her warm-up in the morning so she can go straight to the vault when she gets inside. Of course, she still gets to benefit from Stiles turning up in the Jeep when he's not in class, almost too excited to see his girlfriend dripping sweat.
Every night of the week, Allison tries to absorb the knowledge she needs for her classes. Literally, sometimes, when she finds herself learning that it isn't only unprepared public school kids who can fall asleep on their textbooks. There are no leaking highlighters, but she does drool a little on the novel she's reading in French. No harm, no foul, though, because she's definitely planning to keep this particular book. Her dad always told her keeping the ones she liked would help her remember her vocabulary instead of losing it to disuse. It's kept her fairly fluent this far, so she won't let the advice go to waste. It's for the only class she actually feels sure about. The rest swim around in her head in a soupy mix of numbers and letters, all laid over with a heavy French accent.
The road to regionals, in short, is hell.
It pays off.
They don't exactly come home heroes, but they pass around snippets of the television coverage on Facebook and take lots of pictures with the trophy for the yearbook. Lydia has high resolution screencaps of a ton of great moments at the meet, somehow, and she ushers Kira to the the couch as soon as everyone is home to pick a few for printing. Malia picks Stiles up when he comes through the door with celebratory chips and dip. Even Lydia has some in the spirit of things. They have a little bit of breathing time, no matter how short, and Allison feels amazing. She has sex five times in one week, twice of them in a single day. It's a record.
A number she doesn't recognize has been showing up in her missed calls since the day after the competition. There are no voicemails, which is the part of it that creeps her out. If it was a wrong number, surely there'd be message after message asking why someone isn't picking up their phone, right? It's enough to make her consider setting up her inbox with her name and a message after years of avoiding it. She asks Lydia what to do.
“Pick up,” she says seriously. “It's probably a telemarketer; they buy numbers that look like regular cell and home numbers so you don't suspect before you pick up. I'll write down the steps for getting taken off the calling list for you.”
It takes two days for Allison to catch the phone ringing when she's at home and not in class or at practice. Her chest feels oddly tight when she accepts the call, even though she knows exactly what to expect from Lydia's careful instruction. “Hello?”
The voice on the other line isn't a bored, overworked American or an accent giving away a company outsourcing all their business. It's familiar.
“Finally, baby girl! I thought you fell off the face of the earth just when things were getting good!”
Allison swallows. “Hi, Aunt Kate. I've just been super busy, you know? I have to catch up with my classwork when I miss for gymnastics.”
“Oh, I'm Aunt Kate now?” She groans, but she sounds teasing, amused. “Has it really been that long, or am I just getting old?”
Tittering nervously, Allison perches awkwardly at the edge of her bed, sweeping aside the notebook with the careful notes she'd taken from Lydia. “Not old,” she reassures. “It has been a long time, though. Did Grandpa give you this number?”
“Nope!” Kate says brightly. “He still has an actual paper address book, sweetie. He's got one foot in assisted living.” Allison tries to feel upset about hearing him talked about that way and mostly fails. “Let's not talk about Gerard. I want to talk about you killing it on the beam last week! ESPN U thinks you guys have a real shot at a championship title this year.”
“That's what we're hoping,” Allison admits, almost reluctant. “Now that we're so close it's a lot scarier. We knew we weren't going to take anything home last year. M-... our coaches... have been pushing us really hard.”
“Marin's still a hardass, huh? Not surprised. You just keep sucking up and you'll be fine. She loves to be talked up.”
“I think I'm doing okay already.” She doesn't know what it means, the fact that she's more uncomfortable with Kate being rude about Marin than about her own grandfather. “She's actually a really great coach. I've been improving a lot when I should really be going downhill.”
“Oh, come on, I'm just trying to help a sister out. I've done all of this, remember? I was a phenom.”
“You poisoned Laura Hale.” Her reflection is pale with fear in the vanity mirror. She hadn't been allowed in the discussion of all of this when her parents had cut ties. She's never said these things or even given a sign that she knows.“You made your team worse and you nearly killed someone.”
Kate laughs - a cold, hollow sound that makes Allison's stomach turn. “She was never going to die. That cow was a drama queen just like her brother. She tripped over her own feet a few times, is all.”
“I looked it up, Kate. The muscle weakness and the falling over and feeling sick? That's just the beginning. Even if you didn't kill her, you could've blinded her. If she hadn't gone to see a doctor...”
“Allison, doll. Don't you think I've been beaten up about this enough? I wasn't trying to kill the girl, I just wanted to put her in her place. She's fine now. She's busy guinea pigging her training skills on the new generation of little Hale calves.”
She sounds like she's expecting laughter or some kind of agreement about the Hales. Maybe she'll find it somewhere, but it won't be from Allison. Derek Hale's stricken face is still vivid in her mind. Anything that can make a man like that give away so much hurt in his expression alone is beyond Allison's forgiveness. “I love you,” she says slowly, distanced from the words in a way she hasn't been before. “I'll talk to you some other time, Aunt Kate.”
She hangs up and flips to the back of her scribbled notes – how to block a number. Allison can live with the emails, but she's not sure she can go on loving Kate if she has to hear her voice again. It's not til she's falling asleep later that she realizes she didn't even think to tell her aunt about Kira. It's something Allison doesn't want her to be able to touch. She's kept it safe.
No one knows about the call, and she decides to keep it that way. Lydia asks her if she got her business taken care of, and Allison nods and thanks her for the helpful instructions. Her smile doesn't falter; after all, it's not an outright lie. The conversation moves right along to everyone's classes and the resuming practices for the main attraction, as Stiles calls it. He frets about having to find somewhere to watch it on a bigger screen yet again.
“No one could see how fucking awesome Malia was when I was yelling that she was my girlfriend,” he pouts. Allison and Lydia share a secret smile and change the subject.
There are more cameras in Fort Worth than Allison has ever seen in one place. There had been a few here and there when she was in the elites and regionals have been televised the past two years, of course. Little broadcasts that she images no one pays attention to when they're trying to find a basketball game or something. She's been to the championships before, actually, when she was smaller and her mom wanted to show her the older girls, the big crowds compared to the small ones that showed up to her own meets. Pushing her even then to want more – more medals, more eyes on her, just more.
It's only fitting that this is where she sees her mother for the first time since summer. The few phone calls and emails have been brief but earnest, and Allison's relieved to find herself much closer to the happiness she'd felt seeing her father than the bitter dread she'd felt hearing from Kate. Her mother hugs her for a very, very long time, acrylic nails not unlike Lydia's scraping against the material of her windbreaker.
“Dad's coming,” Allison warns her. “He called me this morning to wish me good luck in case he didn't get to see me before everything started.
“We bought the tickets together,” Victoria answers. “So we could sit together. Did you think we wouldn't both be here to see you win?” She shakes her head at Allison's blush. “You will win. As long as you don't let yourself get distracted. I've heard a few stories.”
“You know what they say about gossip,” Allison mumbles, staring at her feet.
Her mother tips her chin up with a finger, piercing gaze fixing her to the spot as it always has. “Now, which one would that be? That a rumor doesn't care for the truth? Or that where there's smoke, there's fire?” Allison bites at the inside of her lip to keep from answering, and after a beat, the touch leaves her. “I wouldn't call it gossip when it's coming from your father. I just hope you haven't let it affect your performance. I've been following your progress all season.”
“So have I,” Allison points out. “And so have my coaches.” She stands her ground and silently dares her mother to dispute that Marin trumps her now, when it comes to gymnastics. It takes gritting her teeth and thinking of Malia to keep herself from looking away, trying to imitate that force of will. “We have everything under control. I'm doing better than I did last year.”
Victoria Argent doesn't fold and likely never will, but she relents. “You're growing into yourself,” she allows. “A little later than I'd have liked. But I think we both know that's not entirely your fault.” She pats Allison's shoulder again and gives her a thin smile. “We'll be cheering for you. The girls from the gym, too. They look up to you, you know.”
Allison's left to riddle out how that makes her feel, slightly dazed as she rejoins her teammates and coaches. Look up to her? A glance to her left and right shows her Kira and Malia, both shiny with nervous sweat. They're her equals, that she's sure of if nothing else. The idea of them looking up to her despite the age difference seems absurd. They help each other and grow together, filling in the gaps that they each have and taking up the slack. She starts to wonder if you only ever look up to someone you don't really know. If
Did she ever really know Kate?
Allison hopes that the girls at her mother's gym are smarter than she was. Carefully stepping into someone else's footprints won't ever make them the best that they can be. The significance of being a team of individuals is weighing heavy on her again, this time a settling force in her body. If someone else stumbles, she doesn't go down with them. Instead, she's there to raise them back up. She slips her hand into Kira's beside her and waits.
The longest days of the year are supposed to happen in June. Allison thinks they've come early. Lydia nags in her head (and over the phone, at night) that none of the days are longer, sweetie, they just have more sunlight. Lydia's science is wrong. The championships are definitely the longest days of her life.
Competition is stiff. For all that they joke about it before the season starts, the teams from the southeast don't play around, and neither does in anyone else that makes it this far. Michigan and Utah are stacked with sophomores, trained and used to the spotlight but not yet losing momentum like juniors and seniors. The Georgia team lives up to being called Bulldogs. The fight to be in that Super Six is like shadow-boxing, aiming blows at nothing and hoping something lands.
They're tough, though. Not just three or four of them, the ones who've always been self-assured and under control, but all of them. They have an intense system of checks and balances in place for dealing with nerves and weird behavior. Allison watches Caitlin physically put Malia to bed the first night when she starts pacing. It's impressive; she doesn't think Stiles could actually do that if he tried.
The morning of the finals, Allison turns on her phone to find a voicemail from Scott. She plays it on speakerphone for everyone, letting them hear the good luck wishes from him and from Stiles shouting over him. He clearly steals the phone at the end, but doesn't actually decrease his volume, yelling that he loves Malia, but also Lydia, for buying them a bigger television. He gets cut off while he's still rambling about the dimensions and features, and they all laugh, thankful for the tension release. It's brief but not negligible. Allison's spirits are lifted more by Malia's embarrassment when the other girls push at her arms and giggle about Stiles.
“That wasn't the first time, was it?” Kira asks. “They're not supposed to just blurt it like that.” She eyes Allison, barely concealing her smirk.
“No,” Malia admits. “He says it a lot.” The tone of her voice is exasperated, but Allison knows better.
When the afternoon session actually starts, things go well. Almost impossibly well. Finstock is so bewildered that even his hair looks confused, chunks sticking in all directions where he's run his hands through it repeatedly. Malia doesn't get a ten on her vault – the judging is tight – but it's about as close as it gets. Allison's got a lower starting value, because there's no point risking the extra difficulty. It keeps her from getting many deductions – any deductions at all, actually. She could kiss Malia full on the mouth, if she weren't a taken woman.
Malia's help pays off on the floor, too. Nailing her tumbling passes with the loud, solid smack of a stuck landing to punctuate the ends feels like winning in itself. Malia doesn't do as well. There are welcoming arms waiting at the benches anyway, a small comfort in exchange for watching her name drop off the scoreboard. Allison has a feeling that won't be the case next year. She actually suspects this summer might involve more dance moves than vault runs.
It's hard to know whether to watch the teams or the scoreboards at any given time. They hover in second behind Georgia early on, watching the scores stack up and shift around. Caitlin doesn't watch the tallies at all, seemingly ignoring even her own scores to watch the events with a fierce concentration. She's a senior. This is her last, best chance at making a mark on gymnastics. Allison wants to win for herself, but even more she wants to win for Caitlin, for Meredith. The girls who can go out on a gold chariot if she pushes as hard as she can and doesn't let up. She puts her faith in the others to do the same.
Balance beam, like in their very first meet of the year, is their last rotation. They're less than a tenth of a point behind Alabama, who've recovered and zipped past them as well as Georgia. Allison's heart feels like it's going to beat out of her chest. She's going last. Under this level of pressure, she becomes the fidgeter she's never been naturally. She twirls the end of her ponytail and it curls, sending her into a brief moment of irrational panic that it will make her hair different enough to go against the code. No matter how stupid it is, Malia smooths it out against her back for her, anyway, mumbling back and forth with her about anything but what's happening right now.
Meredith, not unlike Lydia, keeps the calculations running in her head faster than most of them could manage on paper. As the scores go up, she whispers to herself, scratching tiny lines through the residue of chalk on her thighs as she tallies things up. Kira's score gives them a huge cushion between themselves and Georgia – there's only Alabama to worry about now. Malia makes disparaging comments about any school that calls itself 'The Crimson Tide' and expects to be taken seriously. Allison tries not to hyperventilate.
“If Allison's dropped, we lose,” Meredith points out, picking the chalk from under her fingernail for the last time. The last time ever. Not for this meet, or this year. This is Meredith's last tally on the fly. “If Heather drops instead, we can make it.”
Yeah. No pressure at all. None. It's just any other routine. She doesn't look at her parents in the stands or Kira on the bench, at last glance still grinning from posting up her highest score of the season. A diamond. Allison tries to be that. She locks hands with Jordan briefly, knowing that absolute terror is written across her face.
“Come on,” he says to her. An echo of Allison's own challenge, softened. Encouraging. He smiles at her and squeezes his fingers tight around hers before he lets go.
She presses up onto the beam feeling stronger than she ever has. Her arms don't give or wobble. She forces herself not to hold her breath. There aren't any extra points for her face matching the True Blue team leotards. The seconds tick by in her head, slow and accurate, and she gets to work. No acid washes up her throat this time – Danielle sent two bottles of Pepto with Heather for everyone to pass around. The only thing she feels when she's upside down is the phantom of her feet touching down on the beam again. If she imagines hard enough, her body will obey. It's the first thing her mother ever taught her, back when she was still tucking and rolling across the mats and turning cartwheels.
Allison feels the deductions as they happen, but she ignores them. They'll only slow her down. The last thing she needs is to get tripped up and actually need one of Jordan's pep talks about getting back up on the horse. She imagines she's atop Ray in the gym alone – no, with her friends in the stands, arguing about comic books and ice cream flavors, laughing. She holds the sound in her mind when she gets ready to dismount, knowing she's safe to stop counting. She'll finish in the allotted time.
The landing sticks like glue, like every other landing of the day. She doesn't register the roaring around her as cheering. It isn't the numbness she's felt from time to time; everything is vivid and loud around her, but she can't find context. Jordan swoops her up and spins her around, dizzying her. He drops her, lightheaded, onto the bench. He turns, like everyone, toward the scoreboards. The voices around her are ecstatic and sure; Allison's score has to be higher than Heather's, they all agree. She lets her eyes flicker up to the list and lets herself be perfectly still, heels of her hands digging hard into her thighs, grounding her.
Her score appears below Kira's, bright orange letters spelling Argent where she'd once seen the very same ones for Kate. Gutted and disbelieving, she's too aware of her eyes threatening to spill tears. There are mere hundredths separating her from Kira. A freshman. Someone she taught to be better than her. It hurts in a way she hadn't anticipated. She hadn't understood before, and she still can't imagine doing the kind of things that Kate did, but -
“Allison.” Hands on her shoulders. Marin's face is blurry through unshed tears. “Allison, you won.”
“I lost,” she argues reflexively.
She's jerked by the shoulders toward another scoreboard and held there, blinking rapidly to clear her vision until she can read again. The overall individual scores, something she hasn't even been watching, are tallied. The winner has a 39.625. A good effort.
The name beside it is Argent.
She doesn't have time to react. A huge wave of people clamors over her, some screaming, some crying. Caitlin is pressed into her side, somewhere between the two. They've won, as a team, they're all excited. The best in the country. And among them, Allison came first.
The crowd disperses as people find cameras and family, and seniors hug the coaches. Finstock has his arms above his head, protesting loudly as Malia squeezes him around the middle. She feels a tap on her shoulder and turns to find Kira, wide-eyed and beautiful.
“They trapped me on the outside, I couldn't get through, I'm sorry, I'm so happy for you.” She's sincere, so sweet and bright and honest. Allison's humbled. “I can't believe we won, I can't believe you won-”
“You won,” Allison answers, throwing her arms around her girlfriend, the balance beam prodigy. She can't find the words to congratulate her, couldn't say them if she did. Instead, she leans down and kisses her soundly in the packed gym, oblivious to the fans and reporters with their attention on the team.
There's only one camera pointed at them, and it goes off with a faint click just as they pull apart.
“I'm just saying, if we get a triple, it'll be cheaper! And Liam won't be alone for his first year on campus. We can show him how to make friends and make sure he doesn't drink himself to death.”
“Scott,” Stiles scolds. “Really, bro? Are you trying to make it harder to have sex? Mason can keep him from drinking himself to death. Or, you know, his lacrosse coach.”
Scott waxes poetic about how talented Liam is and how much he deserves the scholarship he's gotten. Allison is pretty sure talented, in this case, means that he got off the bench as a sophomore when Scott and Stiles were still warming it as seniors, but it's sweet to hear. He seems like a good kid from the way they talk, and his boyfriend isn't coming out to LA with him. He'll enjoy not starting out his college years alone. Allison got lucky with Lydia early on and has been grateful for it ever since.
Lydia's doing her end of the year makeup ransack, shoving things she doesn't want at Malia, who makes faces at everything but the lipstick. There are a half-dozen test dabs on the back of her hand, in everything from pale mauve to burgundy, that Lydia scrutinizes before passing judgment. The buying spree that will follow this is going to have to be done without Allison this year. Maybe Malia won't mind being a stand-in while she's away.
“Paris?” Kira asks, smearing glue onto a fresh page, aligning her father's well-timed photo of their celebratory kiss so that it sits perfectly centered. “For the entire summer. Won't that be expensive?”
Allison shrugs. “Dad says Grandpa Argent is going to let us stay in the vacation house there, since he's too sick to go this year. I don't think he really cares how much money he's spending right now anyway.”
“Because of the new contracts or the divorce?”
The word doesn't sting as much as it did the first twenty or so times. “Both, I think. He seems really happy, actually. I just wish they would've told me sooner.” She peels the protective film from the back of a yellow foam smiley face sticker and plants it above the picture confidently, warming at Kira's giggly reaction. “I think he plans on taking me to a couple other cities. He's probably going to try to smooth over not letting me know they were officially separated by showing me art and buying me wine.”
“So when do you fly out?”
“Not for a week and a half. And, um...”
Kira turns to look at her, pausing with the lace border she's been considering still in her hands. “Um?”
“The flight is actually out of New York?”
Allison lands with her back against the couch, hair fanned out behind her, laughing as she goes. “You're going to eat my dad's sushi and you're going to like it,” Kira insists. “But lasagna, too. Can we do stupid tourist stuff? I'm not allowed by myself; I'll lose my cool points.”
“Only if we take bad tourist pictures, too. My followers will love some terrible black and white NYC pictures.”
They kiss, then, and Allison forgets that she'll spend at least six weeks surviving through Skype. She forgets that she has two more long years of figuring out the balance between her life and gymnastics, when they were once the same thing. For now, she ignores Stiles's wolf whistle and tastes the chapstick on Kira's lips. For now, she smiles, and it feels like winning.