“I don't like it,” Malia said.
“You don't like it?” Stiles asked.
“No, I don't. I don't like it.”
He stared at her, bemused. “Well, okay. Sure. I mean, I guess that's okay. But...” He squeezed his hands and, knowing it was probably a bad idea, went on anyway. “Why not?”
“I can never get it right,” she answered.
Coach Finstock prowled along the outside row of the classroom, watching the class the way a hyena stalks a herd of wildebeest, seeking out the weakest calf. Stiles watched him but kept his attention on Malia. She was infinitely more interesting than writing Econ notes from the overhead; however, Finstock breaking into their conversation right now would result in painfully embarrassing back story on Malia's part. Stiles wanted to avoid that.
Still... this was important to her, and Stiles was all about the helping.
“But you did like it,” he pressed. Quietly. “In Eichen House, you liked it.”
She shrank into her denim jacket. “In Eichen House, I was always cold.” She shuddered at the memory. Stiles nodded, grimly, and chewed his thumbnail.
Finstock rounded the row. “I hear whispering,” he sang. “The only sound I should hear is the slow dying gasps of any hope you have of retiring on this nation's crumbling Social Security system.”
Stiles looked over at Scott. His head was bent low over the page. Along the outside margin of his notes, he busily added a long column of numbers. Kira was on the outside row, writing in her flowy, ornate script. Two seats ahead of Scott, Lydia scribbled extra notes around Finstock's notes. Finstock hovered over her, his brow furrowed as he mouthed along with her pen strokes.
Stiles saw his chance. He said, quietly, “So it was just about getting warm, then?”
“Yes,” Malia hissed. The duh in her voice was implied.
A few seconds lapsed when Finstock muttered, sullenly, “Martin... see me after class.”
Even from his place behind Lydia, Stiles could see the smirk on her face. Coach was about to be schooled, which was cool from a 'Lydia's so brilliant she could probably teach a class on Econ at a Global Summit' perspective, but very, very bad from the 'insecure ex-alcoholic Coach looking to spread some of his misery on any hapless passer-by' perspective.
“Well, it wasn't just about warmth,” Malia continued. Finstock's head angled in their direction. Stiles gave her a tight half-smile and tilted his head in Coach's direction, trying to signal that they were on dangerous ground.
“I wanted sex,” she said. The final consonant cut the through the air like scissors, and Finstock spun, a gleeful mania in his eyes, to pounce, figuratively, upon Malia.
“Tate!” he bellowed. “Care to share your conversation with the rest of the class?”
Stiles braced himself. Malia stared up at Coach, nonplussed. “Yes,” she said. “We were talking about s—”
“—Social security,” Stiles blurted. All eyes turned on him, so he continued in a clumsy effort to give weight to the lie. “Being socially secure. And how... it's good. To be social, and secure. It's uh...essential to... survival?”
“Shut it, Stilinski,” Coach said, narrowing his eyes. “You two muskrats have done nothing but chatter all morning. It's giving me a migraine, so... shut it.”
Finstock moved to the end of the row and started up the next. Stiles relaxed, but realized it could have been so much worse. He wondered, vaguely, what blunted the sting of Finstock's rage, but he shook it off. Bigger matters in the mind of Stiles.
Still, he had to know. The not knowing was killing him. Almost literally.
He waited, drumming out the seconds with his thumb on the edge of his desk, until Finstock had returned to his desk to flip to the next slide.
Stiles leaned in. “So, what do you do... now?”
Finstock whirled, triumphant. “Muskrat One!” he shouted. “Please report to lunch detention this afternoon.” He grinned, savoring his victory. “I repeat. Lunch detention. Today. Muskrat.”
Scott met him at the door of D-Hall with half a PB&J and a banana. Stiles took them with a grateful nudge to Scott's shoulder and devoured both within the four minutes it took to travel to the locker room.
“So... what was that all about?” Scott asked.
They had no secrets. Stiles told Scott everything, always. From the moment Malia began sneaking into Stiles' room at night, to the awkward nail polish ordeal, and even the ill-fated eyeliner incident, Stiles shared all of the Malia chronicles with Scott. And, to be fair, with the last two, all parties agreed that Lydia would be the best consultant on feminine concerns, no matter how cute Scott thought Stiles looked in eye makeup.
But this was infinitely more intimate, and Stiles found it difficult to begin.
They ducked into the locker room. Scott leaned in. “Is it about sex?”
Oh, of course , Stiles thought. Werewolf Ears had overheard their conversation in Econ. It made things easier, but only a little.
“It's not about sex,” Stiles admitted. “It's... bathing?”
“Bathing,” Scott said flatly.
Stiles winced. “Shh. It sounds so – geriatric – when you say it out loud.”
“Malia doesn't like bathing ?” Scott asked.
Stiles groaned. “Shh, will you just...? It's... it's weird, all right?”
“She's, like, groomed,” Scott said.
Stiles frowned “Groomed, Scott?”
Scott gave him an apologetic look and began to change into his gear. Stiles followed suit, and for a moment the two were quiet as the rest of the team banged and pounded around them in their daily ritual of getting ready to take the field.
Stiles pulled their lacrosse sticks from the hook on the wall and passed one to Scott. “It's so strange, you know? Yet another thing we take for granted. You turn on the water. You step in. It's warm and you're alone with your thoughts and for twenty minutes, it's total peace. And then there's soap and there's lather. Lather is really good, Scott...”
“Isn't this another 'refer to Lydia' issue?” Scott asked.
Stiles shook his head. “Much as Lydia's enjoying the whole 'intro to feminine wiles' thing, I'm thinking no. Malia didn't ask for help. She just said she hates it.”
“Like, start of conversation, 'I hate bathing.'?” Scott asked.
“Pretty much,” Stiles said.
They walked a few strides down the length of the locker room before Scott gripped Stiles' arm. “But... what does she do now?” he asked.
They both gazed blankly at the corner of the room and thought it over.
“Uh, yeah...” Stiles said.
“Yeah,” Scott agreed. “No idea.” And they tumbled out with the rest, onto the field.
Stiles played horribly. Even worse than his normal horrible. He'd go to block a shot, and images of naked Malia frolicking in rainwater flooded his brain. Someone would send him a pass, and again, naked twirling Malia, glistening with raindrops under wisps of starlight. It was a mercy when Ramirez plowed into him, knocking the breath from his lungs, and landing him on the bench with an ice pack to his head. From that vantage point, Stiles watched the blurry shapes of Scott and Kira pummel shot after shot into the goal, but after about 37 seconds, his mind returned to rain-slicked Malia running through the forest, her hair flying out behind her.
Which was better than lacrosse in every way, ever.
That evening, Stiles straggled into the kitchen to find a note from his Dad:
Gone out for a bit. Don't worry – not work-related. Leftovers in the fridge.
Stiles pondered the note. “Not work-related? Okay.” He went to the fridge, browsed his options, and settled on a Hot Pocket instead of the leftover fare. In his opinion, tuna casserole was at best a one day deal.
Stiles scarfed the Hot Pocket at the kitchen sink while he scrolled through the messages on his phone – three from Scott asking if Stiles was okay after the collision with Ramirez, one from Lydia about meeting later on to go over History notes, and one from Kira, which read, “Look! I made a chicken *^*”
And none from Malia.
Maybe that was best , Stiles thought as he licked pepperoni grease from his thumb. Maybe she'd seen him get smacked by Ramirez and finally decided the non-Nogitsune Stiles was too lame to talk to. Maybe he was way more interesting when he was possessed by an ancient trickster demon. And maybe she didn't want him now that she had warmth and friends and a home and hotter guys who were better at lacrosse who would be less awkward when having conversations about bathing ...
As Stiles climbed the stairs, he heard the familiar scrape of his window opening. He held his breath, hoping that it was Malia, but knowing too well that it could be a whole pandemonium of monsters sliding into his bedroom, so he grabbed the baseball bat outside his door, just in case.
And it was Malia. Looking lost, and a little hurt.
“What? What is it?” he asked, setting that bat beside the other bat inside his room.
“You left,” she said.
He tapped the purple spot on his temple, then wished he hadn't. “Possibly concussed,” he said.
She sniffed him. “You're not mad.”
“Mad? No. Why would I be mad?”
“You had detention.”
“Totally me,” Stiles said, stepping closer. “ I couldn't drop it. Me. Okay? Not you. I just, I wanted to know, you know, but it was obviously stupid and could've wait until a more appropriate time, and I'm... rambling.”
She stepped closer, too. “Your Dad's not home.”
“No,” Stiles said. “He went out. Not sure where. There's food?”
“My Dad made food,” Malia said. “Spaghetti. It was...not good. Noodles are weird. I remember liking them when I was little. Now they just remind me of eating hair.”
Stiles cringed and stuck out his tongue. “And I'll never eat spaghetti again.”
“Not that I've eaten hair,” Malia went on. “Just, you know, fur.”
Stiles raised his brows, even though it hurt, with the bruise and all. She was just so damned cute...
“What?” she said, suddenly alert.
“Uhhhm...” He felt his eyes widen. Sometimes he thought she and Scott could read his thoughts, and wouldn't that be a whole crazy train of laughs? But no, he remembered. She sensed his pulse, and it was definitely up. “How are things, with your Dad?” he said, trying to divert her attention from his pounding, traitorous heartbeat.
“He doesn't understand,” Malia said. She closed the distance between them and lay her head on his shoulder. He brought his arms around her, breathed in the earthy scent of her hair, and again his brain burst with thoughts of her in the rain...
Couldn't go there. So, he started talking again. “Yeah, I've spent a lot of time trying to reconcile the facts about your Dad,” he said. “On the one hand, yes, he was happy to have you back after you lived in the wild for eight years. On the other, he sent you Eichen House when you couldn't adjust to sleeping in a human bed or eating human food. Saying he doesn't understand is maybe the under-est of understatements.”
“You understand,” she said.
He tightened his embrace and felt her curl into it. Since that first night with Scott in the woods, the number of things Stiles did not understand quadrupled and continued, over the course of two years, to mount exponentially. His recent experience with the Nogitsune decimated nearly everything he had known, reducing the things he understood to a laughable new low.
But she was right. This he did understand.
“You don't like the shower, do you?” he asked.
He felt her intake of breath. “It's so small. And… confined.”
He could tell she was proud of finding that word. A new one for her. A human word.
“But the one at Eichen House was—”
“—Bigger. More open.” she said. “And, you were there.”
Stiles' mouth quirked into a smile. “Well, I'm here now,” he said.
Once Stiles got the shower running, he stepped around Malia and pulled two extra fluffy towels – thank you, fabric softener – from the linen closet and stacked them on the counter. Then he stood facing her, hands on his hips, while around them billowed soft clouds of steam.
“So,” he said, gesturing to the tub. “Clothing optional.”
“I have seen you naked,” she pointed out.
“I'm well aware and likewise,” he said. “But this time, totally your call.”
She reached for him, pulled the hem of his jersey, and peeled it over his head.
“Okay, then,” he said, and repeated the procedure with her shirt.
She tugged the drawstring of his gym shorts. He unbuttoned her jeans. His pulse hammered in his ears and he wondered, wildly, how Scott and Kira could ever manage anything when it was hard enough maintaining control as a human.
Then they were down to underpants. The mist formed a net of sparkling droplets in her hair, and it was distracting because he wanted to touch her but he didn't want to rush through this. In Eichen House, there had been no time. When she slipped in at night to be with him, it was always dark, so this full light of evening action complete with fumbling the clasp of her bra was a whole new level of exciting. Not nearly as fantastic as the result of getting it undone. And then they were standing there, young and naked and willfully exposed.
“So,” he said, nodding. “You wanna?”
She bit her lip. “Yeah.”
He stepped into the shower spray, letting it run all over his hair and his shoulders and into his eyes. Then he held out his hand. She hesitated, drew a breath, and accepted.
The shower closed in around them, reducing the world to a 8x3 foot space filled with the muffled sound of their breathing and the patter of the spray. Stiles smoothed his hands over her hair now, brushing it from her troubled eyes.
“I don't...” she growled. “I can't... breathe.”
“It's okay, it's okay,” he soothed. “You don't have to stay—”
“—I want to stay,” she snapped.
“—People do this,” she bit out, her eyes welling with tears. “It's normal. People do this every day.”
She put her hands over her eyes. “Can we stop? Stiles, can we—”
“—Of course,” he said, shutting off the shower. He pushed open the curtain, grabbed a towel, and wrapped it around her. “It's okay,” he whispered, rubbing the water from her skin. “It's okay.”
“It's stupid,” she said.
“Why do you say that? What's stupid?”
Malia rolled her eyes. “I should be able to do this .”
Stiles wrapped his own towel around his shoulders. “Why? Because someone along the course of human evolution said, 'Instead of splashing in pond water, people are going to bathe in tiny cubicles inside a house where they can control the temperature of the water and the, I dunno, pressure of the spray?'”
Malia gave him a wan smile. “When you say it that way, it sounds perfectly reasonable.”
“Yeah?” He grinned back.
“Way more reasonable than waiting for a rainstorm.”
“Sure, or being committed to a psych ward,” he said.
“Or that,” Malia agreed.
“Or jumping in a cold lake full of snakes or piranha.”
“There are no piranha in California.”
He placed his hands on her shoulders. “There aren't supposed to be wolves or fireflies either, but behold, it's Beacon Hills...”
“So that's what you used to do?” he asked. “You'd wait for the rain?”
That smile again. “I'd dance in it,” she said.
“Wild coyote girl, dancing in the rain.” He traced his thumb along her collarbone, then brought his eyes to hers. “I think I'd like to see that.”
Malia stepped around him. He watched her, curious, as she and dropped first her towel and then his to the floor. “I'm ready to try again,” she said and turned the shower dial back on.
She took his hand and was still for a long time while the warm water coursed over their skin.
“See. It's not so bad,” he said. “You should try the lather.”
She caught his gaze and said, “I'd like to try something else.”
After, they lay on his bed, wrapped in towels but with the windows open to feel the delicate spring air on their exposed skin.
Stiles checked his phone. “11 p.m., and no Dad,” he grumbled.
Malia propped on her elbow. “Is he responding?”
“Yeah, with this,” he said, tilting the phone to her. The message read: Still okay. Don't Worry. Don't wait up.
Malia smirked. “Is your Dad on a date?”
“My Dad?” Stiles sputtered. “Huh, no. My Dad is the Sheriff of this town. He sheriffs. He does not date.”
“What if it is a date?”
Stiles rolled onto his back to stare at the ceiling. Malia took his phone and slid it onto the bedside table.
“If it's a date... I guess I'll have to have a talk with him. This is Beacon Hills. She could be a darach or a harpy. She may even be a vampire. Do we have vampires? Are those real?”
Malia raised her shoulders.
“Besides, he's too old to date.”
“He's, what, forty-six?” she asked.
“Forty-seven,” Stiles said.
Malia rolled onto her back and lay her head against Stiles' shoulder.
“Maybe he needs social security?”
He chuckled. “He's not that old...”
“In class today, you said it's good to be socially secure,” she said. “You said it's essential to survival.”
“But that's not what Social Security is, really. I was just...” He trailed off until the words died on his lips.
A few seconds lapsed before Malia moved to look at his face. “Stiles?”
He had to blink back his tears. “But that is social security, isn't it? What it should be? Everyone gives to the whole to protect the ones we love. We all look out for each other.”
Malia said, “Like... you helping me with the shower?”
“And the nail polish,” Stiles added.
“And the eyeliner—”
“—about which we promised we'd never speak,” Stiles put in.
“And the fact that we've both done things,” Malia said. Now it was her turn to trail off.
Stiles brushed his fingers over her cool, damp hair. He swallowed hard before trying to speak.
“I haven't talked about it yet, and they haven't asked,” he said. “I mean, I'm never alone, you know? They check in with me all the time. Daily. Scratch that: Hourly. But they haven't mentioned it; not a word. They don't ask any questions. So I don't feel alone, but... I feel—”
“—Separate?” she guessed.
He nodded. “Isolated. Yeah. That's how it is with you, isn't it?”
“Stiles, I... I don't know how to human,” Malia said. “I'm trying, but my bed is too soft, and shaving my legs is just dumb, and cooked food tastes so weird. I feel like a fraud, like, all the time. Really I'm afraid that if they see who I truly am, then they won't want me around anymore.”
“They won't do that,” Stiles said. “Malia, I can promise, they won't...”
“It used to not matter,” Malia said. “It was easier when it didn't matter.”
“But I think it's better that it does,” Stiles said.
“Are you sure?”
Stiles sat up quickly so that he could see her face. “Yes,” he said. “Absolutely, yes. Look, Allison is dead because of me—”
“—Not you, Stiles—”
He twitched his hand dismissively. “But I was there. I gave the monster form. It used my body, and she died.”
“Like my Mom and my sister,” Malia said.
“We were powerless and alone,” he said. “We remember the things we did. Things that left the people we love dead. Yet they forgive us. They choose us . The pack makes us secure.” He thought for a while, his thoughts turning over and over in his head. All the various axis points reaching for connections then clicking into place. “I guess,” he said at last, “I guess I just want to make sure we all feel that way.”
“Safe,” Malia whispered.
“Protected,” he agreed.
Malia laced her fingers in his. “All of us,” she said.
They fell silent then, warm in each other's quiet thoughts. They drifted to sleep and didn't wake again until 3 a. m., when Stiles briefly opened his eyes to find that someone had pulled the duvet over their bare shoulders and shut the window against the chilly night.
Stilinski held up the coffee carafe. “Want another?” he asked.
“I should say no, but... I'd really love some more.”
He felt like an idiot, grinning the way he was. He poured her a cup, and then refilled his own.
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Sure,” she said. She sipped, and he took a moment to appreciate that she drank it scalding and black. A woman after his own heart.
“Does it bother you, that they're so young and all... entwined up there?” he asked.
She set down her cup and considered. “I think it should,” she said. “More than it does, anyway. But... they've been through so much, and they're being careful. They are being careful, right?”
Stilinski held his breath before admitting, “Stiles has bought condoms. Boxes of them.”
She gave him a thin smile. “Then it doesn't bother me. When it was Scott and Allison...” Her voice broke on the name, the way it did for all of them. She shook her head and went on. “She was his first love. You remember how that is.”
He cleared his throat. “Painfully.”
Melissa nodded as if to say, I share that pain. “I suppose I'm glad they were there for each other, when they had the chance.”
“Well said,” Stilinski said.
Melissa gave him what he could only interpret as a sly look. She said, “Maybe then it's good advice for us, too.”