"Please," Elena wheedles, "please please please, Vivian, I'm exactly what you guys need for the team."
Vivian sighs, long-suffering, because they've been having this argument since lunch started half an hour ago and Elena hasn't given up yet, and she has no intentions of doing so any time soon.
"You don't even know how to cheer," Vivian says, not unkindly. "It's a lot harder than it looks, trust me."
"I can learn," Elena insists. She's watched more than a few of the boys' school's football games – though, admittedly, she's never really paid much attention to the cheerleaders – and it doesn't look that hard. "You can teach me! You're, like, the goddess of cheerleading, you came out of the womb waving pom-poms."
Vivian gives her a look, unfazed by the blatant flattery. Elena pouts.
"Your dad will kill me," Vivian says matter-of-factly. "You know how he feels about you playing sports."
"Cheerleading doesn't count," Elena says dismissively, but when Vivian's eyes narrow and she opens her mouth around a protest Elena's heard a hundred thousand times before, she's quick to add, "in my dad's opinion, anyway, of course it's a totally valid form of competitive physical activity."
Vivian looks at her hard. It's true, though. Her dad still lets her dance, still lets her ride (always accompanied, always, but Elena tries not to mind) and cheerleading isn't that different. It's just prancing around waving pom-poms in the air, how hard can it be?
"You know we only cheer the boys' football team maybe once a term," Vivian says, eyebrows raised. "Most of the time we're cheering for our hockey team."
Elena makes an indignant noise. "I am deeply hurt that you would think so little of my motivations, Vivian," she says, mock-offended.
"Two words, Elena," Vivian says, eyebrows raised. "Gwaine. Green."
Elena doesn't blush, because she got over that stupid crush ages ago when she realised there wasn't a chance in hell of it ever happening, she did.
"Deeply hurt," Elena repeats, shaking her head. "You know how much I love sports. This is the only way I can participate. It's my chance to feel like a part of this school, finally, after years – years, Vivian – of being an outsider. Are you really going to deny me this chance?"
She bites her lip, makes her eyes go wide and mournful, and stares at Vivian. (She knows she's playing dirty, but she's so sick of just being Vivian's clumsy, useless friend, sick of no one ever seeing her.)
"That is not even fair, Gawant," Vivian scolds, but her resolve is visibly wavering and Elena only has to stare at her for another minute or so, utterly desolate, before she sighs. "Fine. I'll talk to Mithian about getting you a try-out."
Elena squeals in delight and hugs her hard, arms wrapped tight around her middle, chin resting on her shoulder. "You are my favourite," she tells Vivian earnestly, "I love you best."
Elena can feel Vivian rolling her eyes at her but she says nothing, just leans into her and kisses her cheek.
(The thing is, the thing is, there are few things in the world Elena loves more than sports. She loves the ache in her muscles and the burn in her lungs and the way she can't stop grinning when she's gasping for breath after she's pushed herself too hard. She loves the stillness she gets from solitary sports, could run for hours and ride for days, but more than that, she loves the feeling of team and that's something solitary sports will never be able to give her.
Which is why it's so gutting that she's so clumsy. She's tried every single sport she can and the longest she's lasted is three weeks, three glorious weeks before she hit herself in the face with her own hockey stick and knocked herself unconscious, nearly taking both her eyes out in the process. Her father forbade her from sports, after that.
"Oh, Ellie," he said softly, holding her tight as she wept, silent and shaking, "I'm sorry, sweetheart. But what happens if you really, really hurt yourself? What would I do then?"
Elena hadn't heard him sound like that since her mother died. She didn't even try to protest.)
True to her word, Vivian takes Elena to the next cheerleading practice, after school on Thursday. There are a couple of people Elena doesn't recognise warming up in the middle of the field, but she catches sight of Merlin Emrys from the joint boys-girls medieval history club she went to last year.
Elena is surprised, for a minute, that there's a boy on the team (two, actually; there's another boy she doesn't recognise practising lifts with a girl in her year she thinks is called Gwen) but after a minute she remembers Vivian telling her it's joint with the boys' school since there's never been a lot of demand, and she waves back when he smiles at her.
Vivian leads her over to the girl standing in the middle, stretching out her legs. She has long dark hair and a kind face, and Elena guesses this is Mithian, the captain. Vivian's talked about her before and she sounds nice, but Elena can still feel her insides curling into nervous knots.
"Hey Mithian," Vivian greets her, and Mithian looks up, smiling back at her. Her eyes widen when she catches sight of Elena hovering behind her and she straightens up, beaming her smile in Elena's direction. Mithian has a really nice smile. Some of the knots start uncurling, and Elena breathes a little easier.
"You must be Elena," Mithian says, holding out her hand for Elena to shake. It's more formal than Elena was expecting but Mithian's hands are soft and lightly calloused and her grip is firm and oddly comforting, and Elena finds she doesn't mind at all. "Vivian's talked about you so much I feel like I know you already! She said you wanted to try out for the squad?"
"Uh, yeah," Elena says, biting her lip around a smile. "If that's okay, I mean, I-"
"Of course it is," Mithian says, cutting her off before she can start babbling. Elena tries not to look too grateful. "It's not like we're inundated with requests to join; we'd be happy to have you. I'll just get the others started and hand over to Sophia so you and I can run through a few things." Her smile widens. "Warm up for me while I'm gone, okay?"
She jogs over to a blonde girl standing next to Freya, and Vivian turns to hug Elena quickly and whisper, "Good luck," into her ear, before she heads off to join them.
Elena turns around and wails silently at the sky for a few seconds before taking a deep breath and starting a warm up. Mithian jogs back over after a few minutes, just as Elena's finishing stretching out her legs.
"All warmed up?"
Elena nods and straightens up, trying and probably failing to smile back. Why did she think this would be a good idea?
"No need to be nervous," Mithian reassures her, like she can tell Elena's five seconds away from bolting. (She probably can; Elena's pretty sure she's telegraphing it hard, and she's always been terrible at hiding how she feels.) "From what Vivian's told me, I'm sure you'll be more than fine. And even if things don't go so well," she continues, in a tone that manages to be kind without edging into patronising, "you're welcome to practise with us whenever you want."
Elena's smile is much more natural this time around, and she murmurs a quiet, "Thank you," in response.
"Okay," Mithian says, "I'm going to get you to do a simple routine, just to gauge your ability. I'll do it first, and you can copy. Sound okay?"
Elena nods. Mithian turns, straightens up, then proceeds to do something with her legs that makes her do a handspring into another handspring into a handstand held for what seems like an impossibly long time into something twisty and turny that leaves her standing gracefully on two feet, facing Elena again, arms raised above her head as if in victory.
Elena just gapes at her.
"What," she manages finally, then swallows hard. "I can't do that. I just. There is no way I can do that."
Mithian laughs, but it doesn't sound mean. "Take it slowly," she says encouragingly. "Break it down, if you need to. We can work on getting you up to speed."
Elena takes a deep breath and nods. She straightens like Mithian had done, tries to copy the stance she'd held, and then attempts a handspring.
She ends up crumpled gracelessly on the ground, face red with shame.
"You okay?" Mithian asks anxiously, offering a hand to help her up. "That looked painful."
"I'm fine," Elena mutters. She can hear laughter behind her and it isn't helping the burn in her cheeks. "This, I- maybe this wasn't such a good idea."
"Elena," Mithian says softly, tightening her grip on Elena's wrist as she tries to pull away. Elena looks up, biting her lip. "Don't give up yet. I know you can do better, Vivian told me. We just need to work on your technique."
"What do you mean?" Elena asks, unsure.
"You're not bending your knees enough," Mithian says, taking her by the other arm in order to position her to her liking. "Yes, like that, that's better. And you straightened up too quickly, when you flipped. You just need a little practice. If you can get the start right, the rest of it will follow on naturally."
Elena nods, mouthing Mithian's instructions to herself. Mithian steps back and Elena holds her position for a moment before attempting the handspring again.
She doesn't end up in a heap this time, at least, but she wobbles on her feet when she lands and it's still far from graceful.
"Well done!" Mithian beams at her, unreasonably pleased considering what Elena actually managed to do. Elena flushes again. "Now do it again."
Elena can't quite bite back a groan but Mithian just laughs, shaking her head. "I know, I know, I am a cruel, awful person who delights in other people's suffering," she says, her eyes twinkling. "The others tell me so often enough."
Elena grins. She doesn't think Mithian's cruel at all, but she appreciates the gentle self-deprecation in Mithian's smile. Elena likes her already.
Taking a deep breath, she gets into position, thinks about everything Mithian told her to do, and tries to make it a reality.
It doesn't quite work, but she thinks it's marginally less terrible than before. She repeats the motions over and over, pausing to take in Mithian's suggestions and subtle alterations to the routine, until the bell rings and Mithian signals for her to stop.
"We should probably stop there," she says, "but that wasn't bad at all. Bit of a slow start, but you definitely got a lot better."
"You're just saying that," Elena mutters, her face hot. "I was awful."
"You weren't fantastic," Mithian says diplomatically, and Elena bites back a groan, "but you got a lot better. You have potential, and I know you could be. Fantastic, I mean." She grins. "Welcome to the team, Elena."
Elena's mouth drops open. "Are you serious? Oh my god, thank you, thank you so much!" She starts towards Mithian, arms outstretched, but aborts the movement when she realises that's probably over-familiar for someone she's just met.
Mithian just laughs and pulls her in for a quick hug. Elena buries her grin in Mithian's shoulder; of course Mithian would be a hug person. Elena really likes her.
The others finished a little while ago, so when Elena comes out of the changing rooms with her sports bag slung over her shoulder, Vivian's sat outside on the benches, waiting for her.
She jumps to her feet when she sees Elena. "So?" Vivian asks, biting her lip. "How'd it go?"
Elena can tell the grin spreading across her face is more than a little ridiculous, but she can't bring herself to care. "Awful," she says. "But I'm on the team!"
Vivian squeals and grabs her around the waist, lifting her and twirling her around. "Knew you'd do it," she says, grinning fit to burst. "You're one of the cool kids now, El."
"I dunno," Elena says, grinning back at her, "I think cheerleading's only cool if you're in a nineties American teen film. Or, like. Glee."
Vivian draws in a shocked gasp, eyes exaggeratedly wide. "Heathen," she whispers, and Elena cracks up, leaning into Vivian's side.
Nothing really changes after Elena joins the cheerleading team. She doesn't suddenly become popular and none of the boys next door fall at her feet and beg her to go out with them because this is England and no one really cares if you can wave a pom-pom around. (Though Elena is rapidly realising there is far, far more to cheerleading than she ever thought. She totally gets why Vivian always gets so angry about it being reduced to just that, now.)
What changes is this: for the first time in her life, Elena has friends who are not Vivian.
It's actually really strange, and not always in a good way. Vivian's known her basically since they were born because their dads were friends, and Vivian is awesome and doesn't care about stupid things like how you look or how you dress, the way effortlessly gorgeous people are able to, or tiny insignificant details like an inability to walk five yards without tripping over your own feet, so it was sort of inevitable that they were going to be best friends for life. Vivian knows everything about her, pretty much; Elena has no secrets from Vivian and she knows Vivian tells her everything too. That kind of comfortableness is something she's got used to.
The rest of the cheerleaders, though... Elena only vaguely knew Merlin, and the rest of them she didn't know at all. They're mostly all friendly, that isn't it, it's just kind of weird to be able to talk to all these different people who don't know her inside out. It's... strange, having to explain things she never had to before because Vivian was there for it all, but she's getting used to it, and she's finding that she actually really likes it, likes being able to call all these people her friends and not have to worry that they only think of her as that weirdkid who somehow managed to convince one of the most popular girls in school to be her best friend.
Sophia's the only one who isn't especially friendly, and she doesn't really talk to anyone, so Elena doesn't take it personally. Freya also mostly only talks to Merlin, but she smiles at Elena a lot and talks back willingly enough when Elena starts conversations with her, so. Elyan, the other boy on the team, is apparently Gwen's brother, and going out with one of the guys on the football team who isn't Gwaine. Elena thinks it might be Percival. Or maybe Leon. Or maybe both of them? She keeps hearing different things, and she isn't quite comfortable enough with Elyan to actually ask. He does seem nice, even if he's the most likely to snigger when Elena messes something up during practice, which she does with humiliating frequency. Gwen always elbows him in the ribs and smiles apologetically at her, though; she's one of the sweetest people Elena's ever met, and Elena kind of wishes they were better friends.
And then there's Mithian, who's two years older than all of them but never holds that over them, never pretends not to see Elena waving at her when they pass in the corridor because it's uncool to be a sixth former and be friends with Year Elevens. She always works them hard, especially Elena, but never without endless encouragement and enough patience to put a saint to shame.
In short, it's kind of the best thing that's ever happened to Elena.
...and then they have their first match.
Their first proper match of the year, as well as Elena's first match with them ever, is just after half term. The hockey team's playing another girls' school, but they're playing at home so the cheerleaders don't have to go anywhere, for which Elena is incredibly grateful. She's pretty sure the minibus ride over would only worsen her nerves.
"You'll be fine," Vivian assures her for the hundredth time as they're changing into their uniforms. The tight skirt and shirt flatters Vivian's body more, Elena's pretty sure, but Elena kind of likes the deep blue colour on herself. She focuses on it as she takes deep breaths: in, out, in, out.
"But what if I-" Elena begins. Before she can end that sentence with any number of atrocities she hasn't even begun to imagine yet, Vivian holds up a hand.
"I am going to say this once and only once," she says, "because I love you a lot but there is only so much I am willing to stroke your ego. You don't give yourself enough credit, okay? You're really, really good at this. No," Vivian says firmly, when Elena starts to protest, "you are. You're still clumsy and you fuck up sometimes but so do the rest of us, and anyway, that doesn't change the fact that you are good at this. You have no idea how jealous I am of your natural flair for sport, El, how easily you just pick stuff up. Besides," she continues, smirking a little, "Mithian wouldn't let you on today if she thought you couldn't do it."
"Okay," Elena says, after a minute. "Okay, I- sorry."
Vivian just sighs and pulls Elena into a hug, resting her chin on Elena's shoulder, and doesn't let go until Mithian calls them out onto the pitch.
The hockey team is warming up when they get out there. Mithian had them do that already, so they hang back for a bit, talking about the upcoming match.
Well, the others talk about the match. Elena mostly tries not to hyperventilate.
One of the hockey players jogs over to them just as the other team arrives, her long blonde plait swinging behind her head. As she gets closer, Elena's eyes go wide. She recognises her from her brief stint on the team: it's Isolde, the captain.
"Hi!" Isolde says, beaming at all of them. "I just wanted to say thank you for supporting us today, we really appreciate it."
"Oh really?" Mithian says, eyebrow arched. "You mock us because you love us, is that it?"
"That is exactly it," Isolde declares, and Mithian laughs. "I hear you managed to seduce another poor girl to the dark side."
"She came willingly, I'll have you know," Mithian retorts, but even Elena can tell she's only pretending to be offended.
Mithian nods towards Elena, and Vivian nudges her forward. Isolde frowns.
"Hey, I know you," she says slowly. "You tried out for the hockey team last year, right?"
"Um," Elena squeaks. Isolde remembers her. How does Isolde remember her? "Yeah, I did, um-"
"She was the one who hit herself in the face with the hockey stick," Vivian pipes up, helpful as ever, and Elena glares at her.
"Yes, thank you, Vivian," she mutters, but Isolde just laughs.
"I remember," she says, "you were really good. It was a shame you couldn't keep on playing."
"Oh," Elena says. There's a grin spreading across her face and something warm curling around her chest. "I, um, thank you, I-"
"Isolde!" yells Ms Annis, the hockey coach. "Stop flirting and get back over here, we've got a match to win!"
Elena's face flames, but Isolde just rolls her eyes. "It was lovely meeting you again, Elena," she says, as she turns to leave. "Good luck out there."
"You too!" Elena calls after her, rocking back on her heels. She can't stop grinning, and she has no idea why, but her chest is still all warm and happy.
"Are you okay?" Vivian asks, cocking her head. "You look kind of... huh."
"Nothing," Vivian says, after a beat. "Come on, the match is going to start in a few minutes."
Mithian even approaches her in the changing rooms after the match to congratulate her on her performance. "I was so proud of you out there," she tells her, beaming. "You did so well for your first time."
"Told you," Vivian mutters, nudging Elena in the ribs. Elena hopes her blush isn't as fierce as it feels.
Mithian grins at them both. "Morgause is having a party to celebrate," she informs them. "It's a tradition, first match of the year, and we're invited as well. Do you want to come, Elena?"
"Um," Elena says, glancing at Vivian.
"It's not that kind of party," Vivian assures her, hitching her bag up on her shoulder, "there won't even be alcohol. Well. Much. Well, you won't have to drink any of it?"
"Oh, it's not that," Elena says quickly, "I just-" She doesn't want to say that her dad doesn't even know she's on the cheerleading squad, thinks she just came tonight to support Vivian, and he's expecting her back in half an hour.
"My dad," she says instead, "he, um, he probably wouldn't approve."
And Elena kind wants to die because wow, that really wasn't any better, but Mithian just gives her a sympathetic look.
"Shame," she says. "I totally get over-protective family, though, it's fine."
"You could just tell him you're coming over to mine," Vivian suggests. "Come on, El, you have to come."
Elena bites her lip. Mithian smiles at her, and Elena might be imagining things but she looks kind of hopeful. Any remaining resolve she might have melts away.
"Okay," Elena says, and then, "Oomph," because both Mithian and Vivian have tackled her into a hug, squeezing her tight from both sides.
"Hey, sweetheart," he says when he picks up. "How was the match?"
"Really good," Elena says, grinning. "Our team won, and they're going to one of the girls' houses to celebrate."
"Oh," her dad says, sounding thoughtful. "Are you- do you want to go with them?"
"Uh," Elena says, and stares. "What?"
"I mean, you're sixteen this year," he continues, like this is reasonable, like this is something he would say. "I trust you to look after yourself and not do anything silly, and I know you'd rather spend the evening with Vivian than your old dad."
"Not true," she insists, because in all honesty, yeah, she really does love spending time with her dad. "But, yeah, it would be nice, if, um, if you didn't mind."
"Not at all," her dad says. "Eleven o'clock curfew still stands, though."
"Of course," Elena says, grinning. "Thanks, Dad."
She's still grinning when she hangs up, just as the group of them stop in front of what must be Morgause's house.
Vivian gives her a strange look. "My dad said I could go to the party," Elena explains, and Vivian's eyebrows go up. "Apparently I'm old enough to look after myself."
"Wow," Vivian says, shaking her head. "Who is he and what has he done with Godwyn Gawant?"
Laughing, Elena follows her inside. They all seem to be assembling in the living room. Elena follows Vivian and Mithian in, curling up next to her in front of the sofa Merlin and Freya have already claimed.
Nimueh passes Elena the bottle when she sits down and she takes it, after glancing at Vivian, who just rolls her eyes. Shrugging, Elena takes a swig. She's had alcohol before, and it doesn't taste bad, exactly, so she takes another before passing it to Vivian.
Elena settles back against the chair, smiling up at Freya when she nudges her with her foot in acknowledgement. It's oddly comforting to just sit there, soaking up the sound of other people around her talking and laughing. She's not used to not feeling terribly lonely surrounded by other people. It's... really nice, honestly, and she relaxes into the feeling, her eyes fluttering shut.
She's jolted back into awareness an interminable amount of time later by an outraged Mithian saying, loudly, "You take that back, Isolde."
Her eyes are narrowed and she's swaying on her feet and she's considerably more drunk than Elena feels she really ought to be, given that they only got here – Elena glances at the clock – just over an hour ago. Elena bites her lip, holding in a giggle. She'd never have pegged Mithian as a lightweight, but it makes odd sort of sense.
"Make me," Isolde says, smirking. "Give me one way in which cheerleading qualifies as an actual sport."
"Excuse me," Mithian says, her words slurring only a little. "I'll have you know cheerleading is incredibly athletic and, and challenging, and beautiful," she pronounces, brandishing the bottle she's holding to emphasise her point. "The simple beauty of a coh- cohesh- routine is something you plebeians will never be able to understand."
"That may be so," Isolde says, looking like she's trying very hard not to laugh. "But can you hit a puck into the back of the net from twenty feet? I think not."
"The problem with you people," Mithian says, waving the bottle in a way that is probably supposed to indicate the hockey players, "is you have such a narrow... narrow view of sport. It's like. It's all goals and achief- goals, and running around getting sweaty and stuff. But sport is so much more than that," Mithian insists, so earnest the entire room just collapses into helpless giggles, even the cheerleaders. "What?" Mithian demands, indignant. "What? I do not appreciate being mocked!"
"No one's mocking you, Mithian," Gwen says kindly, biting her lip hard. "Of course you're right, you make a very good point."
Isolde snorts. Mithian's eyes narrow.
"Isolde's mocking me," she declares, still sort of glaring at the other girl. "Isolde is besmirching the good name of my team."
Isolde raises an eyebrow. "Maybe you should defend your honour," she suggests. "I challenge you, Mithian Nemeth, to a duel."
"What kind of duel?" Mithian asks suspiciously.
"Mario Kart tournament," Isolde says. "Best of five. Cheerleaders versus hockey players."
"Done," Mithian says instantly. "Name your champions."
Isolde makes a thoughtful noise. "Morgana, Nimueh, Ragnell, Morgause and... me," she finishes. "Unless anyone else has a burning desire to play?"
The rest of her team shake their heads. Mithian spins on her heel, eyeing her own team.
"Gwen, Elyan, Sophia, Freya and Elena," she decides, and Elena's eyes go wide as her traitorous excuse for a best friend pushes her up onto her feet.
"You really don't want me," Elena says hastily, "I don't even play video games, seriously, I-"
"You can do it," Mithian says, her voice softer but still kind of loud. "I know you can, Elena."
"I-" Elena starts, but Mithian's giving her this look, so serious and trusting and hopeful Elena doesn't know what to do. "Okay," she says weakly. "I'll do my best."
Mithian cheers and throws her arms around her, staggering into a hug. Elena holds on tight, keeping her upright. "Win this for me," she whispers, except it's the drunken kind of stage whispering that's really not that quiet at all. "I believe in you, Elena."
"Oh, Elena," Morgana says dramatically, clutching at her bosom, and everyone cracks up.
Mithian's face goes as red as Elena's feels. "Shut up," she says grandly, though the effect is kind of ruined by the fact that Elena's still mostly holding her up. "You are just jealous that you don't have someone as awesome as Elena on your team."
"Of course," Morgause drawls. "That's why we should be jealous."
Elena frowns, but before she can ask what that's supposed to mean, Mithian's disentangling herself from Elena's grip and pushing her towards the Wii.
"No more talking," she declares. "Now is not the time for talking, now is the time for beating Isolde into submission."
"I'm sure you'd enjoy that," Isolde replies, with what can only be called a leer. Mithian's cheeks turn pink.
"No more talking," she repeats, more firmly this time. "Go."
Gwen and Morgana go first. Elena sticks close to Gwen to watch so she can figure out how exactly you're supposed to play. Mithian's curled up next to her, leaning into Elena's side. She nudges a mostly empty pizza box towards Elena and Elena frowns, wondering when it appeared, but it must've been after she drifted off. She gives Mithian a grateful smile before taking one of the last slices and turning back to the screen.
Morgana wins, but only just. Gwen's little creature thing (Elena thinks it's called Yoshi? It's green and looks like it's supposed to be some kind of dinosaur and she is so picking it when it's her turn, it is adorable) crosses the finishing line barely two seconds after Morgana's. Gwen nods at Morgana in graceful recognition of her defeat. Morgana rolls her eyes and pulls her into a quick hug before they sprawl together on one of the sofas, relinquishing their controllers to Elyan and Nimueh.
Nimueh trounces him, leaving him in the dust, but Sophia snatches a win from Ragnell at the last second and Freya comes out of nowhere on the last lap and rockets ahead of Morgause across the finishing line, so by the time it's Elena and Isolde's turn, they're neck and neck.
"Great," Elena mutters, staring at the controller she's suddenly holding like it could take control of the game for her. "This isn't nerve-wracking at all or anything."
Mithian rests her forehead against Elena's for a moment. Elena tries not to notice how close their faces are, how she can count every last one of her eyelashes.
"It's okay if you don't win," Mithian says, serious for the first time all evening. She's actually whispering, as well; Elena doesn't think any of the others can hear them. "It's just a game, honestly, it doesn't matter."
"It matters to you," Elena says, and forces herself to smile. "I'll do my best."
Mithian grins back at her and moves away, far enough away that Elena is free to move but close enough that Elena can still feel her, warmth along Elena's side and down her thigh. Breathing heavily, she forces herself to be calm as the countdown to the race starts.
She shoots ahead faster than she expected but so does Isolde, and she does something tricksy that puts her miles in the lead. Elena tears her gaze away from Isolde's screen and focuses on her own, dodging the computer-controlled players as carefully as she can and pulling steadily ahead until they're on the third lap and Isolde's the only one in front of her. Holding her breath, Elena pulls out the shell she's been sitting on for an entire lap and watches as it blows Isolde up. Isolde swears, loudly, and Elena can't hold back a giggle as she pulls in front, keeping position until she sails across the finishing line.
"Yes!" Mithian cheers, grabbing Elena and squeezing the breath right out of her. "I knew you could do it!"
"Thank you," Elena gasps out, and Mithian lets go with a sheepish grin.
"Consider your team's honour defended," Isolde says, holding her hand out to Elena. Elena shakes it, and Isolde grins. "Well done," she adds, "you deserved that. You sure you've never played before?" Elena shakes her head. Isolde whistles. "That's it," she says, passing back the controller. "You and me, rematch. That must have been a fluke."
"It wasn't," Mithian says, and the smile she gives Elena is so fond Elena has to duck her head, suddenly shy. "Elena is clearly just that awesome."
Isolde rolls her eyes and it's obviously just a joke, Elena isn't that stupid, but it makes something in her chest feel warm anyway.
"Rematch," Elena agrees, turning back to Isolde.
She's never had more fun in her entire life. She wishes she didn't have to go.
"Where are you going?" Mithian asks, clinging to Elena when she starts to move away.
"I have to go home," she says, adding a heartfelt, "Sorry, I'm so sorry," when Mithian looks heartbroken. She's considerably more drunk than she was earlier, but they're all on a more equal footing now. "Curfew," Elena says, sadly. "I have to get home by eleven and it'll take me at least half an hour to walk."
Elena thinks Mithian actually pouts. She feels awful.
"I'm sorry," she repeats, "but I really have to go. My dad-"
"It's fine," Mithian says, with great dignity. "I understand. I'm sure we'll survive without you."
Someone snorts. It sounds a lot like Morgana.
"I don't doubt it," Elena says gravely. "I'm sure you'll barely even notice I'm gone."
The same someone snorts again. Elena doesn't blame them. Mithian's about a million times cooler than her; the thought that she'd miss having someone like Elena around is pretty laughable.
Mithian steps hugs Elena quickly, nodding at her once before sitting down carefully. This prompts basically everyone else in the room to hug her as well, and by the time Elena's managed to get to the door to see herself out, she's only got fifteen minutes to get home.
She's pretty definitely sure she doesn't mind, though. She grins the entire way home, and the cold night air does a lot to sober her up, so it's probably not just the alcohol.
It starts on the way over from school, light pattering on the windows of the minibus. By the time they're parking in front of St Barts, it's verging on torrential, so heavy that every last one of them gets drenched running over to the pitch where the match is being held.
"Fantastic," Morgause mutters. They're sheltering under the trees until the match is officially supposed to start.
"Bit of rain never hurt anyone," Mithian says cheerfully, and Morgause rolls her eyes.
"That's not what I'm worried about," she says, looking pointedly at the muddy, waterlogged ground.
"We've played and won in much worse," Isolde chuckles. "Although," she adds, glancing at Mithian, "I'm not sure I can say the same for you lot."
"We'll be fine," Mithian assures her. "Bit of mud never hurt anyone either."
"It will if you slip and fall and break something," Isolde warns.
"We'll be careful," Mithian says firmly. "It's not the first time we've had to cheer in the rain."
Elena eyes the ground, wary. She's pretty much guaranteed to fall over anyway, but the mud is really not going to help. She sends up a silent prayer to anyone who might be listening that she doesn't fall over and break her neck.
Someone upstairs must really, really hate her. Elena doesn't break her neck, but she falls over not once but four times, twice in a row when she slips over as Mithian helps her up, dragging her down with her into the mud.
"I am so sorry," Elena gasps, struggling back to her feet. "Oh my god, I just, I am so unbelievably sorry."
"It's fine," Mithian says, flashing her a reassuring smile as she swipes the back of her hand across her mud-streaked face. There's mud in her gorgeous dark hair and all over her usually pristine outfit. Elena kind of wants to cry. It is most definitely not fine. "Maybe you should sit out the rest of the match?"
Elena swallows hard. Mithian's lips are twisted into something sympathetic and kind, and Elena can't hold her gaze for more than a few seconds.
"Yeah," she says quietly. "I- yeah, okay."
Vivian glances over her shoulder at her as she trudges back over to the trees, a questioning look on her face, but Elena just shakes her head and turns away. She leans against the bark of the biggest tree and stares fixedly at the pitch until she feels the heat of Vivian's gaze leave her skin.
Elena barely notices the match end, too busy wallowing in her own self-pity – why is she so clumsy, why – and only jolts when she hears Mithian calling her name. From the sound of her voice, she's been doing it for a while.
"Sorry," she mumbles, ducking out from under the trees to join her. It stopped raining a while ago, but Mithian is still soaked through, her hair sticking to her head, her shirt practically see-through. Elena glances away, feeling the now-familiar burn in her cheeks.
"Hey, no, it's okay," Mithian says, her voice soft and sincere. "I'm sorry. I just didn't want you to hurt yourself, or-" She cuts herself off, but she doesn't have to say it.
Elena smiles weakly at her and allows herself to be lead inside. Everyone's changing already when they get in, cheerleaders and hockey players crammed into the space because there's a club using the other changing room.
No one notices Elena and Mithian coming in, which is probably a good thing because Elena feels like she's been punched in the gut all over again. There're mostly-naked girls everywhere and it feels like Elena's face is on fire and she has no idea where to look and it's just, it's just too much to take on top of everything. She grabs her clothes and forces her gaze down and slips off quietly to the showers before anyone can notice she's gone.
Once there, she locks herself in a cubicle and strips down and turns on the shower and tries, very valiantly, not to cry. She doesn't manage to hold out long, though, because she's essentially screwed and she has no idea what to do about it. There's acknowledging that other girls are objectively attractive and there's the desperate intense crazy feeling of want that just curled around her chest and squeezed all the air out of her lungs.
Elena just. She just doesn't know what to do. All she knows is that she is completely and totally gay.
(Or. Well. Maybe not completely since she's pretty sure she'd still like to kiss Gwaine Green if he ever deigned to notice she exists? But. But she would also really, really like to kiss girls. It's a little terrifying how much.)
She sags back against the wall, closing her eyes against the water pouring down her face, mingling with the tears still falling on her cheeks.
And then she freezes. Just audible over the sound of the rushing water, there's the indistinguishable sound of footsteps. The footsteps come closer, closer, and then there's a knock on the cubicle door and Mithian's saying, "Elena? Is that you in there?"
"Uh, yeah," Elena calls out hurriedly, wiping at her eyes as she gets to her feet and turns off the shower. "Yeah, I- one sec."
She dries herself quickly before slipping back into her uniform, pulling her jumper over her still-damp head. Her face probably isn't as blotchy as it should be, given the shower, so she takes a deep breath and pushes the door open with only a tiny pit of dread in her gut.
"Hey," Mithian says, offering her a hesitant smile. "I was just tidying up and I thought I heard-"
"I'm fine," Elena says quietly. "Sorry, I didn't realise you were still here. I should go."
Mithian catches her arm and Elena flinches, can't help it. She doesn't meet Mithian's eyes. "Elena?" Mithian says uncertainly. "Is this about what happened during the match? Did you hurt yourself? Did someone say something to you?"
"I'm fine," Elena stresses, but her voice breaks somewhere in the middle and suddenly there are tears pricking her eyes and Elena can't cry in front of Mithian, she can't.
"No, hey," Mithian says, brow creasing in concern. She steps forward and wraps her arms around Elena, squeezing tight, and that's just it for Elena. The dam breaks behind her eyes and she starts sobbing into Mithian's shoulder, hard and messy and awful.
"Shh, it's okay," Mithian soothes, pulling them both down to sit on the benches. Elena clings tighter, because Mithian is warm and soft and so unreservedly kind Elena doesn't know what to do with it.
Elena pulls back, after a minute, knotting her hands in her lap and looking anywhere but at Mithian's face.
"It's stupid," she says eventually. Out of the corner of her eye she sees Mithian open her mouth, only to close it a few moments later like she's thought better of it. "I can't, I just-"
"You don't have to tell me," Mithian says, soft and calm. "But if it's upset you this much you should probably talk to someone about it."
Elena looks at her. Mithian still looks so gentle and understanding and kind, like she actually cares, like Elena isn't just a stupid kid she accidentally saddled herself with.
"I'm gay," Elena blurts out. "Probably."
There's this pause, an awful heart-wrenching pause where Elena is certain Mithian is going to, to slap her or yell at her or tell her she's disgusting or something.
Mithian doesn't do any of those things, of course she doesn't. (Elena instantly feels terrible for thinking that she would, even for just a moment.) Mithian reaches out and touches Elena's hand, fingers wrapping around her wrist and says, softly, "Do you want to talk about it?"
And Elena finds that she does, that she needs to tell someone about this.
She tells Mithian about her stupid crush on Gwaine Green, how the twisty feelings in her gut when she sees him are almost identical to the ones she gets when Isolde smiles at her. She tells Mithian about thinking girls are just as pretty as boys, sometimes prettier, about freaking out earlier in the changing room because she couldn't handle it.
"And I know it's stupid," Elena says, glancing down at where her hands are twisting around themselves in her lap. "My dad will still love me, I know he will, and Vivian- my friends," she corrects herself, voice a little stronger, "my friends won't care. And- and maybe other people will, and maybe it'll suck, but... but it could be worse, right? Other people, I mean, other people have it much worse, so it's stupid, it's stupid to care so much. Isn't it?" Elena exhales, slowly. "I don't know."
Sometime during Elena's word vomit Mithian must have tangled her fingers with Elena's, because when she's done Mithian squeezes her hand. It should be more awkward than it is, Elena thinks, and squeezes back gratefully.
"It isn't stupid," Mithian says, low and so fierce Elena glances at her in surprise. Mithian's frowning at her, an intensity to her eyes Elena's never seen before, not even during particularly trying cheers. "Trust me, I- I get it. This is a big deal, and maybe it shouldn't be but it is. Just because you have it better than someone else doesn't mean you have less right to be scared than them."
"Okay," Elena says, uncertainly. "Okay, I- thank you."
"I mean, my parents weren't very understanding when I came out," Mithian continues, and Elena's mouth drops open.
"Wait," Elena blurts out, startled. "You're-"
"Lesbian," Mithian fills in, looking just as confused as Elena feels. "You- you didn't know?" Elena shakes her head. "How did you not know? It was all over the school a couple of years ago."
"Oh," Elena says in a small voice. "I- sorry, I never heard about it."
"Don't apologise," Mithian says, huffing a laugh. "I'm kind of... relieved, actually. It's not exactly a secret, but I don't go around telling people, y'know? Because even though I know it doesn't matter, other people think it does. And dealing with that- well." She smiles again, but there's nothing remotely happy about it this time. "I get it. Just- that's what I meant to say."
Elena sits still for a second, two, before she wraps her arms around Mithian and holds on tight. Mithian's a little stiff at first but she hugs back, relaxing gradually into the touch. She detaches them after a minute, twisting so they're sat next to each other, touching all along one side. Mithian's still got one arm around Elena, holding her close, and Elena lets her head tip onto Mithian's shoulder, Mithian's own resting gently on top.
"When did you come out? Elena asks, once they're settled. She feels Mithian tense, just a little, but she relaxes just as quickly.
"We were talking about you," Mithian says gently. Her fingers have crept up Elena's arm and tangled in her hair, twisting the strands around and around.
"I'm boring, though," Elena says, continuing quickly before Mithian protests, "and besides, I'd like to know. If you'd like to tell me, I mean."
Mithian's silent for so long Elena doesn't think she's going to speak at all, and she's gearing up to change the subject when Mithian says, abruptly, "I was fourteen." She's quiet for another minute. "My parents said I would grow out of it but, hey, I haven't yet."
Elena looks up at her and Mithian looks like she's trying to smile, mouth twisting up at the corners, but something's gone wrong at her eyes. Elena doesn't know what to do. When her dad's upset she makes him tea and hugs him and listens to him rant. Or cry, sometimes, if he's remembering her mother. And with Vivian... no, actually, she does pretty much the same thing, just with less tea. Maybe she does know what to do after all.
Biting her lip, Elena leans up and kisses Mithian's cheek, wrapping her arms around Mithian's neck. "You're so brave," she whispers, and Mithian shivers. "I could never do that."
"You told me," Mithian points out, but her voice is weak. She squirms, a little, and Elena reluctantly lets her go. "It's- that's important, the first person you, uh. Tell."
"But you told everyone," Elena says, and Mithian looks away. "That- I can't even imagine how hard that must have been."
Mithian looks back at her, swallowing hard. "Elena," she says, her voice soft, and it's only then that Elena realises how close their faces are.
"Oh," she says, her face flushing pink. She doesn't move. "I, um, sorry about that."
"Don't," Mithian says, "it's not your fault I-" She breaks off, making a frustrated noise. "I'm trying not to want to kiss you right now," she continues, staring hard at the wall behind Elena's head, "but I'm not having much luck. I'm sorry, Elena."
Elena's eyes go so wide it feels like they might pop out of her skull. "Why are you sorry?" she asks, more breathless than she means to be.
"Because," Mithian says firmly, still not quite looking at her, "you just came out to me and you're emotionally vulnerable and I'm two years older than you and it wouldn't be gentlewomanly of me and-" She looks up, and there's something painfully vulnerable about the set of her eyes, the wry twist of her lips. "I like you a lot, if you hadn't noticed."
"I hadn't," Elena says, faintly.
Mithian smiles, so sad it makes something in Elena's chest hurt. "I'm sorry," she repeats. "I shouldn't have said anything, I- I should go, sorry."
"Mithian," Elena says, biting her lip, and before she can talk herself out of it she leans forward and kisses her.
Mithian makes a soft noise against her mouth, but she doesn't push Elena away. Encouraged, Elena tilts her head to make the angle less awkward and bites Mithian's lip gently the way Vivian told her to, once (admittedly they were talking about guys then, but Elena's pretty sure the practicalities aren't that different) and Mithian makes a noise again. This one is lower and makes Elena feel shivery all over.
"Yep," Elena says as she sits back, kind of dazed, "definitely into girls."
Something dark flashes across Mithian's face, something Elena doesn't recognise. "Great," Mithian says flatly. "Glad I could clear that up for you."
Elena's brow furrows. "No, wait, that's not-"
"It's fine," Mithian says, rising to her feet with that effortless grace Elena still envies. "Don't worry about it."
"Mithian," Elena says again, and thinks about Vivian telling her she doesn't give herself enough credit, about Mithian saying she's brave.
Mithian stops, but she doesn't turn around. "Yes?" she says, so, so quietly.
Elena touches Mithian's arm, curls her fingers around Mithian's elbow. Mithian still doesn't move, but she's so tense it feels like she might snap. Elena moves, standing in front of her, and realises for the first time that she's taller than Mithian, has to look down at her to look her in the eyes.
"Hi," she says, with a tentative smile.
"Hello," Mithian says, her voice unsteady, but that's definitely a smile on her face. Elena can't help it, her face nearly splits with relief and joy and hope, and when Mithian laughs it's as giddy as Elena feels.
"I like you a lot as well," Elena says, still grinning, "if you hadn't noticed."
"I hadn't," Mithian teases, and then they're both laughing, leaning into each other, holding each other up.