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it takes all that I got (not to fuck this up)

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Mal’s hair glitters in the sunlight. It’s been doing this longer than Coyote can remember, since they were toddlers running around the backyard under his mom’s watchful eye. (There’s a reason all the kids trust Frankie so implicitly, she’s always been there for them, more than any of the other parents.) It’s not like Coyote has some weird thing for blondes, after all Brianna has blonde hair and she’s literally the scariest person he’s ever met, plus his first girlfriend had a jet black bob, the next had dark brown hair in a bouncy afro, and even his first crush in 3rd grade had pigtails the shade of maple syrup.

So this thing that happens, the way he kind of can’t breathe when the sun hits Mal’s hair the right way, it’s not actually about her hair. It can’t be. But if it’s not about the color, light and bouncy and bright, if he’s never lingered on Brianna while she sits in a sunlit corner (because that’s Brianna, ew) even though she and her sister have basically the same hair, then he’s not sure what’s going on. Summer’s always been Coyote’s favorite season, he loves the long days and no school (working as a teacher now totally has its perks) just as much as he did as a child. His memory of summers back when he was a kid are a messy, perfect combination of summer camps and water fights and road trips and fighting with Bud about popsicles and of course, weeks at the beach house.

His mom and Grace didn’t get along then, it was long before they realized how much they need each other, but other than their occasional arguments he only remembers the beach house being fun. His dad laughing in a way he doesn’t normally, chortling next to Robert in the living room, his mom walking the length of the beach every day, sneaking snacks when Grace wasn’t in the kitchen, and playing with the other kids. Brianna’s always loved control, wanted to be in charge of what games they played, but back before any of them hit middle school she’d been so much softer, quicker to smile and less convinced of her own defectiveness. Bud lets the world weigh heavy on his shoulders now, but back then he’d had the loudest laugh out of any of them, never the first to charge into the ocean but always the one to have the most fun by the end.

And Mal.

It’s funny how they work in pairs, Bud and Brianna running on exactly the same wavelength, firing jokes and challenges and laughter back and forth at each other with equal vigor. They run each other ragged, that’s what his parents always said when they didn’t think the kids could hear, the smile behind their eyes that Coyote’s always been able to see, Bri and Bud can make a mountain out of any molehill.

And then him and Mal, the opposites of their siblings, giggling in the sand or searching for beach glass or splitting up their dinners so no one has to eat something they really hate. (Mal eats his spinach for a whole summer once, until Robert finally catches on.) Mal is still sweet, still kind in a way that no one else he’s ever met is, but when they were both eight and sunburned, skin on their noses peeling, she never cared what other people thought of her.

Coyote thinks that’s just a part of knowing people for your whole life, part of growing up is watching your friends learn to pack parts of themselves away, but Bud’s careful eyes and Brianna’s sharp tongue don’t make him sad the way Mal’s tight shoulders do. Somehow his best friend learned how to put everyone else’s needs first, how to do exactly what her family expects, and it’s not that he knows her best, Mal has other friends and a sister and at one point a husband, but he’s not sure if anyone else knows her the way he does.

He’s not sure if anyone else can see the panic that flares in her eyes.

Coyote knows he’s different now too, that his life has twisted and turned and scraped his sides up in a way that his parents never would have wished for him, but he’s okay now, he’s on the other side and working to stay well every day. He loves his friends, his brother and the girls they were lucky enough to grow up with. Even if they aren’t quite as carefree as they were in elementary school, he’s pretty sure they all need each other, that they made one another who they are. Him, his mostly-awesome brother, smart Brianna, and strong, sweet, kind Mal with her pretty, pretty hair. The past few years have been wild, most for their moms but really for all of them. They’re stronger for it, closer and happier and better at talking about their feelings.

Sometimes, regularly, Coyote still feels guilty about his time in the before, before he got sober and back when he hurt so many of the people he loves most. The guilt is normal, doesn’t mean he’s not a valuable part of this family, just means he’s made mistakes like everyone else. And while he knows that the incomplete memory is something like a blessing, he kind of wishes he remembered the big stuff. The stuff with Mal. Deep down he’s not surprised, like out of all the weird stuff he’s done that makes the most sense, that he’d show up and start talking about Mal. None of it’s a lie.

But he doesn’t talk about that stuff, hasn’t since sophomore year when Mal got her first boyfriend and Coyote felt sick for the whole day. He loves Mal, sure, and loving someone means wanting them to be happy. Loving someone means keeping some things to yourself and building a life that makes you happy too. Luckily, Mal forgives. Luckily, he knows how to apologize. Luckily, they still make each other smile.

In all this aftermath their families are caught up in, dads getting married and moms getting happier, he and Bud and Brianna and Mal all remember how much they need each other and he ends up with his new house on Mal’s parking strip. It shouldn’t make sense, should be weird in the wake of her recent divorce and their less-than-neat history, but it’s not. It’s really not.

Instead, he helps pack lunches for the kids, they all ride to school together (which is weirdly reminiscent of their 4th grade carpool, even if they’re both adults and he’s a teacher now) and she invites him in for dinner multiple times a week, smiles as he tells the kids stories and loads the dishwasher just the way she likes. They’re years past the big reveal, sometimes their lives still all feel in flux (or maybe things are just always happening) but in Mal’s kitchen, bright and large enough for multiple people, he thinks they might be pretty safe here, pretty stable. Like they’re building something good.

It’s all this that leads them back to the beach house, which is so much happier now, with their moms grinning at each other and dads holding hands and Barry nodding seriously while Alison explains her toenail situation on the couch. Bud and Brianna are debating something they read in the New Yorker or potentially what makes a good dog name over by the kitchen island, Mal’s kids are scuffling out on the porch, and in the middle of everything, he and Mal are sitting next to each other by the window, her forehead crinkled as he describes a recent tuba fiasco. All the people they love in this room, people they don’t live with, and they still want to talk to each other.

And the sun is streaming through the windows, warming patches of the couch and flickering against the glasses on the front half of the table, and shining through Mal’s hair like she’s actually the angel people said she was as a child. Coyote feels his eyes going soft, the warm buzz that Mal’s glowing hair always sends through his stomach building. God. She’s wonderful. (He’d dragged her to see Tangled when it came out, even though they were fully adults, because she looks just like you!) Mal’s eyes meet his, and they smile. No words necessary. She gets it.