"So," says Malaya, drawing out the 'o' ominously. Vincent frowns down at his packing checklist and glances toward the kitchen. She is leaning in the living room doorway, casually braiding her hair over her shoulder, fresh from the shower. "You and Eli are going camping?"
Vincent looks at his sister, looks at the camping gear he has spread across the coffee table and the entire living room floor, and then gives her a pointed stare.
He considers leaving it there, his point made, but he adds, "Yes."
He has been cataloguing equipment for the past hour, sitting amid neatly-ordered rows — hiking pack, tarps, rope, duct tape, solar-powered lanterns, spare hiking boots and sneakers, work gloves, compass, two headlamps, flashlight, extra batteries, hunting knife, charcoal water filter, portable camping stove and cans of propane, biodegradable soap, trash and recycling bags, firestarter, trail mix, protein bars, sleeping bag, field notebook and pencils.
Mal has walked by no less than four times, talking to their mom, grabbing a snack, going out for a run, and fetching a huge pallet of canning supplies from the basement for their dad's latest jam experiment.
She definitely doesn't need to ask if he and Elias are going camping.
He eyes her suspiciously.
She looks innocent, but there's a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. "Just the two of you?"
"It's a two-person tent," Vincent says flatly.
Elias has already promised, with a few "haha!"s thrown in over text message, that he won't invite Ginger this time. 'You're planning to invite someone else instead?' Vincent had texted back, and Elias responded with rows of laughing emojis, somehow (1) understanding that Vincent was being dry and (2) finding it funny.
'No,' Elias had texted back with a :) smiley.
Vincent clutched his phone and internally debated the potential significance of an old-school smiley face for longer than he'd like to admit.
"You're not bringing your tent?" Mal asks.
Vincent busies his hands with checking the strength of the flashlight and headlamp beams. The headlamps have been sitting in the basement for more than a year, since there were way too many supernatural crises this summer to even think about a leisurely camping trip. He definitely needs to confirm that the batteries and the bulbs are still okay. "Eli's carrying the tent and I'm carrying the food supplies," he says. "It's efficient."
"Uh huh." Malaya is still smiling but she doesn't say anything about Elias's werewolf strength and how easy it would be to add a second tent to the list; just pads around the back of the sofa, bare feet nimbly hopping from bare space to bare space, careful not to step on any of Vincent's supplies. She climbs into the armchair and curls up, hands raised to wind her wet braid up into a coil on the back of her head. "How long are you guys going for?"
Finally, a non-leading question. "Two nights."
She leans over the side of the chair and peers down at the nearest row of items. "Do you have marshmallows on your list?"
"—No." It's a good idea. A clear omission. Vincent reaches for his list and adds s'mores supplies under the food subcategory. "I'm going downtown later to pick up groceries for the trip if you want anything."
Mal has bobby pins between her lips, sticking out of her mouth like strange, skinny teeth as she works on pinning her hair up. "If I come, can I drive?"
It's the casualness of the question that stops Vincent in his tracks. Malaya didn't even think about it — just absently volunteered to drive a car and step into a busy grocery store that will be packed with people picking up supplies for college town Labor Day barbecues. Both would have been unthinkable for Malaya just six months ago and now here she is: the successful alpha of a pack officially recognized by the Michigan Werewolf Council, shopping retail, driving, and even carefully starting to talk about applying to college.
Malaya's hands go still in her hair. "What?" she asks, muffled by pins. Vincent wasn't aware that his face had done anything, but Malaya is eyeballing him like it did. Maybe his expression got away from him, or maybe it's some weird werewolf thing where she can smell him coming to a realization.
"It's — churva," he says, unable to find the words in English. Or in Tagalog, for that matter. Mal tilts her head inquisitively at him. It's funny: she makes the same gesture when she wolfs out. The same mannerisms Vincent has known all his life, but on a body much taller and much furrier than he's used to. “It's a big deal, Mal, everything you’re doing.”
Malaya smiles, slow and warm, and the bobby pins fall out of her mouth. "Thanks Vince," she says, smile tempering to something a little more cautious as she picks the pins out of her lap. "I'm trying."
"You're doing better than trying."
Her face is alight with her smile. "I'm guessing it's a yes for driving, then?" she teases.
"Yeah." Vincent shrugs one shoulder. "I like being chauffeured."
"Ooh, you think you're fancy now." Malaya fits the last few pins into her braided bun and gives it a satisfied pat.
"I am a fancy man," he agrees, deadpan, and she shouts a laugh.
They smile at each other.
"I'm glad you and Eli are going to have some fun before classes start again," Malaya tells him. There's knowing warmth in her eyes — the kind that makes Vincent flush and feel a little cornered when Joy teases him about the shadow who followed him to class all spring, as much as he loves Joy, but when it comes from Malaya, he feels only fondness and brotherly exasperation. "This summer was stressful."
"Seriously," he agrees. "No more rogue werewolf packs or magical invasive vine species."
"Of course the part you remember is that they were invasive species," Malaya says fondly.
"Black swallow-wort is a serious problem," he insists. "The roots are toxic to mammals and the plants harm insect larvae. Who knows what the magic did to it."
For a while when Vincent was in middle school, Mal kind of glazed over when he started talking about plants or ecology, but to be fair she'd been a teenager at the time. She listens now — doesn't always remember the scientific names of plant species or hawk feather banding patterns, but knows exactly what he's talking about.
Malaya nods, clearly understanding, and says, "Only Connie," with a sigh. After a second, she brightens. "You could ask Eli — his mom's a werewolf landscaper, after all. Sara might have some idea."
Vincent adds it to his mental list of things to talk to Eli about if his brain has a panic-freeze this weekend. He doesn't think he's going to need the list — he and Eli have never lacked for things to talk about. They've always had good conversations. He just feels better for having a list ready.
It's all really new still, even if it's been simmering for a while now. Elias has never been shy about the way he looks at Vincent. At first it wasn't a big deal — kind of distantly flattering, if Vincent really thought about it, but not in a way that affected his life in any meaningful way or inspired any unexpected rushes of feeling. But ever since Elias started trailing Vincent to his classes and meeting him for lunch; playing catch on the school practice fields until the ball was a white blur in the twilight; studying together and pretending they didn't flush when they caught each other's eye across Marisa and Marin's dining room table...
They've been dancing around it for months, and it's different now. Vincent knows that. He's not sure if Elias knows it yet, but from the tenor of her questioning, Malaya definitely does.
Are you attracted to guys? Malaya asked him months ago, and the answer was (well, eventually, after he thought about it for a while and asked Eli some questions) yes. Vincent likes people, even if fellow classmates who don't know him well would probably be surprised to hear it. He'd never really thought about it before Mal asked, not in depth, but he’d give dating a try under the right conditions, he thinks, and he knows gender won’t be a consideration for him when he does. Kindness, the way that someone treats Vincent's family, if they listen well and they’re willing to learn from mistakes — that's what matters to him.
Vincent has learned a lot about himself this summer.
Also about werewolves, but the personal growth has been (mostly) more enjoyable.
He likes awkward jokes, it turns out, and self-deprecating humor — though he wishes for Elias's sake that his didn't have such a kernel of painful insecurity at its core. He likes long legs and a devastating smile and sideburns that grow into fluffy muttonchops after transforming. He doesn't know what's going to happen on this camping trip, but he'd liked the cute way that Elias nearly tripped over himself when Vincent proposed it, and the sheer joy that had radiated from Elias when he agreed to the plan, practically dancing around Vincent with excitement on the campus path.
Oh — Mal had said something about asking Elias or Sara Ross about the effects of magic on plants. Vincent glances up to find his sister hiding a smile. "That's a good idea," he says, and her smile only broadens as she rises from the armchair.
She walks toward the kitchen, carefully picking her way through his supplies again. "Let me know when you're ready to go later?"
"Oo," he agrees absently. He glances at the list in his lap.
"And if you want to talk about anything else," Malaya says, a smile in her voice, and when she reaches out, Vincent magnanimously lets her ruffle his hair and doesn't bat her hands away.
"I will," he promises, and he gives a tiny, pleased smile down at his list.