Academy of the Rosey Cross was his third school in as many years, and Yohji was about as excited to matriculate to this one as he had been with Our Lady of Perpetual Virginity the year before and Sheenay Military Academy the year before that. In other words, not at all, and no amount of cajoling by his clueless parents was going to change his perception. Rosey Cross was just another ugly uniform, yuppie-centric private school to add to his ever-growing list of ugly uniform, yuppie-centric private schools.
Or at least it was until they showed up.
“Oi, fresh meat.” The girl with the long, red pigtails plopped herself on his desk, black and pink plaid skirt fanning out to cover most of his unfinished homework. “What’s with the face? You look like you want to hang someone off the flagpole by their testicles.”
“Jesus, Suze, could you be more inappropriate?” The dark haired boy who’d accompanied her over gave the girl a hard shove to the shoulder. “Can’t you just comment that the guy looks emo without bringing up dicks?”
“I like dicks.” Suze crossed her legs and flashed Yohji a rather unnerving smile. “And I’m very good at bringing them up. By the way, I’m Suze. This is Ken. Who the hell are you?”
“Yohji, huh? That’s weird.”
“Yeah? You a military brat or something?”
“Just a regular brat, then?” Suze leaned back on her hands. “Your file says this is your third transfer since starting high school. To be honest, I find that kinda hot, but only if it’s because you’re one hell of a badass and not because your family keeps getting bounced around.”
Her unnerving smile glinted in the light of the classroom’s florescents. Intrigued in spite of himself, Yohji folded his arms. “How did you get into my file?”
“Oh, I have friends. It’s amazing what a freshman will do for you with the right encouragement.”
“Tipping him off to when the male cheerleaders were showering is extortion,” Ken muttered, “not encouragement.”
“Shut up, Ken. It’s my squad.”
“No, it’s our squad. And I was in that shower!”
“Boo hoo hoo. Little freshman saw your shrinky dink.” Suze waved him off and returned her attention to Yohji. “What are you doing after school today, fresh meat?”
“Uh...that math teacher Takatori is making me try out for football,” Yohji replied.
“Ew.” Suze wrinkled her nose. “Why?”
“I dunno. He said I’d be good at it. And then he said if I didn’t go, he’d make me clean the science labs for two months.”
“Tch. That asshole,” Suze hissed. “He is always stealing the good ones out from underneath me!”
Ken coughed, and Suze shot him a glare that could have cut glass.
“Anyway,” she went on, “meet us in the varsity locker room when you’re done.”
“Huh?” Yohji asked. “Why?”
“Look, don’t argue with her if you know what’s good for you,” Ken advised. “Just say yes.”
“Okay. Fine. Yes.”
“Good!” Suze hopped to the floor. “Oh, and I promise it’s not about dicks. Unless, of course, you want it to be.”
“No,” Ken yelled. “No more talking about dicks!”
The room turned to stare.
Suze twirled and flounced out of the room.
Yohji gathered up his scattered homework and wondered what the hell kind of school he’d just enrolled in.
Football ended at 5:30, and Yohji made his way to the locker room, sweaty, smelly and covered in grass. He hadn’t hated practice exactly, but he hadn’t loved it either. Especially not when coach had declared he’d make the cut and handed him a jersey and the team had decided to celebrate by dogpiling. The lead linebacker, a kid with an eyebpatch named Jay, had tackled him halfway down the field before he’d even had a chance to say a word.
And kind of painful.
“Fresh meat. You’re late.”
Yohji blinked. Suze was lying across one of the locker room benches thumbing through a copy of Teen Vogue. Behind her, Ken showered like it was no big deal.
“Uh...” Yohji began, but Suze cut him off.
“Don’t even say it,” she warned. “I’m not dating Ken. We are co-captains and nothing more. I’m so sick and tired of that rumor, it’s not even funny!”
“Yeah, um, totally not where I was going with that, but okay.” Yohji set his football helmet down. “So you...always hang out in here?”
“Suze, this is the...”
“She knows.” Ken looked at Yohji over his shoulder. “But trust me when I tell you, you’ve got nothing she hasn’t seen.”
Yohji looked back at Suze, who pressed a finger to her lips.
Yohji decided to drop that line of inquiry.
“So,” Suze said. “Tell me you hated practice.”
Yohji rubbed the back of his sweaty neck. “Well, I didn’t love it, but...”
“But Takatori is a big, annoying, testosterone-filled windbag who gets off watching teenage boys molest each other in tight clothing?”
“No. But thanks for the nightmare fuel.”
“You’re welcome. Now, when are you going to quit?”
“Quit? Who said I was going to quit?”
“I did. And since I’m way prettier than Takatori, I win.”
“Uh, yeah. I probably should let you know up front that you’re not my type. I don’t date cheerleaders. Or anything below a C-cup.”
Suze sat up, blue eyes wide. “Keeennnn,” she whined. “Are you going to let him talk to me like that?”
“I’m not your boyfriend,” Ken reminded her. He shut off the water and grabbed a towel. “And if you don’t like it, don’t be such a narcissistic pain in the ass.”
Suze folded her arms. “I’m not narcissistic!” She glowered for a moment, then re-centered her attention on Yohji. “Okay, fine. Here’s the deal. I need a base. I have this guy Ran who is essentially too emo to function and he keeps dropping our flyers because he’s too busy brooding. We have three weeks to regionals. I refuse to have this be the one year we don’t make a national cut because we can’t hold a stupid pyramid, so I need your help. I need to dump Ran off the squad and put you in his place.”
“Why me?” Yohji asked.
“You’re the right height,” Ken replied. “In fact, you’re taller, which is even better. Also, you don’t have arms that look like twigs.”
“Hey! Ran was the best I could do on short notice,” Suze snapped.
“You mean you were the best he could do, don’t you?”
The jab echoed in the ensuing uncomfortable silence.
Suze lifted her chin. “You know, I am really over your anti-feminist slut-shaming, Ken. I’ll have you know I have not had sex outside a committed relationship, nor do I intend to. And just because we kissed that one time doesn’t give you the right to...”
“Is everything all right in here, gentleman?”
Suze was on her feet, the picture of teenage innocence, in less than a second. “Principal Crawford!” she exclaimed. “W...what are you doing here so late?”
“I had a conference.” Principal Crawford looked at each of them in turn, the lenses of his glasses catching in the dim light. “Also, what have I said about being in the boy’s locker room, Suze? You know it makes a lot of the young men at Rosey Cross uncomfortable.”
“I know, sir, but since it was just Ken...”
“But it’s not just Ken. Mr. Kudoh is here, too. Is this really the impression you want to give a new student?”
To Yohji’s disbelief, Suze actually hung her head.
“No, sir,” she murmured. “I...I apologize.”
Principal Crawford sighed. “I appreciate that, Suze, but I still need to see you in my office.”
Yohji could only stare as the stern-faced principal led the dejected cheerleader from the room.
That is, until Ken clapped a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry. She’s going to be fine.”
“I wasn’t worried,” Yohji said. “I just don’t like seeing people get busted for bullshit reasons.”
“Busted?” Ken shook his head. “Yohji, man, you’ve got a lot to learn about how things work around here.”
“What do you mean?”
“What do I mean? The first rule of attending Rosey Cross is to never take anything at face value. Especially not when it concerns Suze and Principal Crawford.”
Yohji looked at the door, then looked back at Ken. “I’m not following.”
“That’s good,” Ken said. “Because if you were, I’d probably lose a nut. Now, go get changed so we can talk cheerleading.”
In the end, pressure from Principal Crawford made it possible for Yohji to be on both teams, though Coach Takatori was far from happy, and Ran was far from complacent when he found out he’d lost his spot.
“That’s bullshit!” he yelled. “Everybody drops Sakura because she insists on bathing her legs in that stupid smelly lotion!”
“Lotion or not, you broke her arm, fractured her shin and made her chip a tooth. And I can’t have that kind of negligence on my squad.” Suze tossed her ponytail. “You’re out, Ran. Kudoh’s in. Bye.”
“YOU CAN’T CHEER WITH US. BYE.”
Ran glared. And fumed. And then stripped off his letter sweater and slammed it on the ground.
And Yohji did not inch behind Ken as he stormed by. Not even a little bit.
Because that would be totally unmanly.
“Okay, so. Squad, this is Yohji.” Suze smiled brightly as Ran’s dust cleared. “Yohji these are the Rosey Cross Rebel Cheerleaders. Say hello, everyone.”
The squad waved, a sea of shimmering pompoms.
Yohji waved back lamely.
“So Yohji is going to practice with us on Tuesdays and Thursdays,” Suze went on, “and play football Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. We’re going to get him up to speed as fast as we can, but just keep in mind that this is his first time and he’s going to need a little coaching. So if you don’t feel like he’s ready for something, say so.”
A small girl in what looked like a purple wig raised her hand. “Who’s going to be his partner since Sakura’s out?”
“I’m going to move Birmadette into Sakura’s position, and take her spot with Ken. Toni can do the floor work as a solo.”
“Uh, you’re not a flyer,” Ken said, and Suze turned on him with what Yohji was realizing was her patented Shut-Up-Ken Glare.
“Are you calling me fat, Ken?”
There was a not-so-quiet gasp from the other girls present. Purple girl even whimpered.
“What I think of your ass has nothing to do with the fact that you haven’t stunted since you were a freshman,” Ken returned. “Or did you conveniently forget that the reason we put Sakura on the squad was because she was shorter than you and could go higher?”
Suze stalked right up into Ken’s personal space. “Did you forget that now there is no Sakura? And we cannot have a lopsided pyramid?”
Nose to nose, the two captains stared each other down.
Ken blinked first.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought.” Suze turned to the squad. “Line up,” she commanded. “We’re running the routine from the top. Yohji, Birmadette, you watch.”
“Suze...” Ken tried, but Suze wasn’t listening.
“Line up, people. You are wasting my time!”
Suze stomped to the front of the group. Birmadette, a slender, pretty brunette, touched Yohji’s arm and moved him off to the side.
“Why do I have a feeling this is going to end badly?” Yohji asked when they were out of earshot.
“Because it is,” Birmadette replied. “Because there is no reasoning with Suze when she’s like this. At her best, she’s a little bit arrogant and a whole lot bitchy, but a really good cheerleader. At her worst, she’s an absolute tyrant.”
“Ready?” Suze yelled. “Okay!”
The field burst to life. Pink and black skirts twirled and bodies bounded into positions that made Yohji a little bit queasy. Ken, at the head of the small group of boys, threw a gymnastic combination that was nothing short of dizzying, and then stopped on a dime to catch Suze as she flipped backwards.
But when he went to lift her, everything went wrong.
It was hard to see exactly what happened. And it was hard to place blame for that reason. All Yohji knew was that Ken was off-center, and Suze didn’t quite get her balance. From there, it was all a blur because he was running, arms outstretched just like Coach Takatori had taught him. He could see Suze, red ponytail a bright streak against the blue sky, skirt billowing out from around her slender legs. And when he hit the ground, he could feel the warm weight of her cradled against his chest.
They rolled twice, coming to rest a few feet from the back row.
And then, all hell broke loose.
“Ho ma gawd!” A high-pitched voice ripped though the shock. “Ho ma gawd, the new guy just saved Suze!”
“Omigosh Suze, are you all right?”
“Omigosh new guy, if you hadn’t been here, Suze would have died!”
Yohji groaned, eeking his arm out from underneath Suze. “My name is Yohji,” he mumbled. “Is that so hard to remember?”
“Omigosh that was unbelievable. Suze, are you sure you’re okay?”
Oddly, Suze didn’t respond. Not verbally, anyway. Instead, she pushed away from Yohji and got to her feet, brushing the dust from her uniform.
“I need to go to the ladies room,” she said. “Ken, take over until I get back.”
Yohji struggled into a sitting position. “Hey,” he said. But Suze had already turned and started to walk away.
“Hey,” he said again, but still no response.
Yohji got up. “Hey, uh, Ken, I just remembered. I promised Coach I’d pick up my away uniform this afternoon, so uh...I’m gonna go do that, is that cool?”
“Yeah, fine. Go.” Ken waved him off. “All right, squad. Let’s move on to the new cheers. Formation 6!”
Yohji heard the squad shuffle into position as he broke into a jog. Suze was far enough ahead now that he had to sprint a little to catch up, but he made sure to maintain a respectful distance until they entered the school building. And once there, he unabashedly followed her into the girl’s locker room, shutting the door behind them in order not to attract unwanted attention.
Suze didn’t answer him. Arms folded and head down she faced the end of a row of lockers and refused to even turn his way.
“Suze, c’mon. Don’t ignore me. I’m trying to help. You’re not hurt, are you? If you are, I’m sorry...”
“Don’t apologize.” There was something strange about her voice. “You didn’t do anything wrong, so there is nothing to apologize for.”
“Shut up, Yohji!” Suze looked at him over her shoulder. Her eyes were rimmed with red and there was a smear of dirt on her cheek. “I said you didn’t do anything wrong, so shut up!”
“Okay, okay.” Yohji came a little closer. “You’re not hurt?”
“No. I’m fine.”
“You sure about that?”
Suze glared at him again, but this time, Yohji was ready. Without giving her a chance to resume yelling, he deployed his best countermeasure- the Awesome Kudoh Snuggle-Hug. Because no girl in any kind of state of emotional upset had ever been able to resist the Kudoh Snuggle-Hug.
Suze proved to be no exception.
“He did it on purpose!” Suze buried her face in his chest, shoulders quivering with embarrassment and rage. “He dropped me on purpose to make me look bad!”
“No, he didn’t.” Yohji stroked her hair. “I promise you he didn’t. You didn’t see how fucking scared he looked when you started going over backwards.”
“He wasn’t scared. He hates me. They all hate me!”
“No, they don’t. They’re afraid of you, but they don’t hate you.”
“Am not.” Digging deep into his bag of mantricks, Yohji kissed the top of her head. “I don’t lie about stuff like that. It’s too important. And besides, who could hate someone like you? You’re gorgeous and passionate and super badass. What’s not to love?”
Suze pulled back, wiping her eyes. She didn’t smile even though Yohji did, and for a moment, he thought maybe complimenting her had been the wrong way to go.
“You’re full of shit,” she sniffed. “Don’t think I don’t know that you’re totally pulling this out of your ass.”
“Yeah well that...that might actually be true, but doesn’t change the fact that they don’t hate you, Suze. Or that you’re cute. Especially when your nose is all red.”
“You tell anyone you saw me cry and I’ll kill you.” Suze tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear. “I don’t cry. Ever.”
“My lips are sealed,” Yohji promised.
“They better be.” Suze straightened her uniform. “And you better get your ass back out on that field. You aren’t going to learn anything sitting in the locker room, you know.”
“Wow. Jeeze. You’re welcome. Call me any time, okay?”
Suze tossed her hair and put her hands on her hips. “I’m sorry, wasn’t it just yesterday you were telling me how I wasn’t your type? And how you don’t date anything under a C-cup?”
“Well, yeah but what does that have to do...”
“Everything. Also, you copped a hell of a feel when you caught me, playboy, so sexytime is now over. Proxy-action with these B’s is all you’re getting.”
Yohji tried again to defend himself, but Suze was having none.
“And another thing,” she continued, “I’m well aware that I’m hot. I have at least six boys a day come up to me and try to get in my pants, so next time when you’re trying to make me feel better, come up with something more original.”
“But I was...”
“Shut up, Yohji. You’re getting on my nerves. And we’ve wasted enough time as it is. Now, get back on the field and go learn something. Don’t make me regret fighting to get you on my squad!”
Yohji opened his mouth. Closed it. Opened it again, but then thought the better of speaking. Instead, he turned with a small smile and went over to the door. The whole time, Suze watched him, blue eyes bright and sharp against his back. She was going to make sure he knew she meant business. And she was going to make sure he never forgot that they were on the same team.
And as he walked back to the practice fields, Yohji decided maybe life at Rosey Cross wasn’t going to be so bad after all.