Mike followed Nic and Kevin down the steps, and into one of the blocks of seating half-way up the slope of bleachers. Around them, the noise of seemingly hundreds of people chatting at once was deafening. Mike kicked his backpack under his seat, and leaned forward over Nic and Kevin’s shoulders. “Who are all these people?” he half-yelled.
Nic’s grin was toothy as she knelt on her seat to look up at him. “The competition,” she yelled back. “Spirit camp’s where we size each other up.” She began pointing out blocks of people, linked by the colours of their uniform sweatshirts. “That’s the Louisiana Tigers, and over there, the white and blue, that’s Mem-Chris – they're pretty tight, but not very original. Down in front of them, that’s the Lancer Hellcats – they've got some kick-ass tumblers. Over there,” her finger swung around to the bottom of their own bleacher. “There’s the SFA Lumberjacks, and...” her finger drooped in the air. "Oh," she exclaimed in sudden shock.
Mike leaned forward, frowning. “The grey and green, who are they.”
It was Kevin who answered. “That’s the Mouses.” His voice was unreadable, and he ducked to rummage through his backpack. “Our old squad.”
“Oh,” Mike said softly. In the short time that they’d been roommates, Mike hadn’t gotten the whole story, but he’d gotten the basics thanks to locker room gossip. Kevin had been the star of his old team, one of the competition, the one to beat. Then, he’d left his old team, right before Nationals. Mike still hadn’t heard why, and the chance to ask Kevin had never come up.
In front of him, Nic stiffened and elbowed Kevin. He looked up, and she nodded down silently. Even from behind, Mike saw Kevin's back stiffen as he saw what Nic had spotted. Mike tried to follow his eye line, and saw two young guys looking back up. The smaller one nudged his friend, and together, they deliberately turned away.
Kevin sighed, slumping like the air had been let out of him. He rubbed his face as Nic soothingly petted his arm. “Hey, it’ll be okay, they’ll come round,” she said so softly Mike could barely hear her.
Kevin shook his head. “They usually go to the camp at Mornington. Why are they here?” he all but wailed.
Mike had no idea what to say, or whether he could say anything at all. Nic and Kevin had retreated again into their own little world again, one that he didn't know how to enter.
Cassadee, Bebe, Spencer, and Brendon squished in next to Mike, dumping their stuff at their feet. “Hey guys,” Brendon said loudly to Travie, Disashi, Ryland and Maja, who had piled into the row behind. “Did you hear? We’ve got all the godsquads - Mornington cancelled their camp after their gym sprung some serious leaks.”
Bebe snorted in derision. “I heard it’s more an indoor swimming pool than a gym now.” Cass elbowed her in the ribs, hard, and nodded frantically toward Kevin. Bebe’s eyes widened even as she winced.
Mike glanced down, but Kevin was digging aimlessly through his pack, resolutely not looking at any of them. Nic was watching him like a hawk. Beside him, Spencer and Brendon began tussling over a Capri Sun. Mike looked down the rows of seating again to where Kevin’s old squad was gathered in a ragged huddle, ‘Cambio Christian College’ picked out in cursive sewn silver across the back of their hoodies.
He slouched down in his seat as loud, electronic music began blaring out of the speakers and the camp began with the camp counsellors prancing out on stage to start a routine. He watched, sinking even lower in his seat as they performed stunt after flawless stunt.
He had the very strong sense that the next four days were going to suck. A lot.
Kevin dragged his feet as the camp director called all the teams down onto the stadium floor for their first session. He was grateful but a little embarrassed how Nic had plastered herself to one side, and Mike was keeping easy step with him on the other. When Travie clapped his hands and pushed the team through to stand on almost the complete opposite side of the group from the Mouses, embarrassment started to win out.
Nic tugged on his hand. “Shh, it’ll be fine, we’ll be fine,” she whispered sternly.
“Okay,” the camp director boomed through the PA system. “I want you all to go out and introduce yourself to someone you don’t know. Shake hands.” Kevin took a deep, steadying breath, and dove into the mess of uniform colours. He spotted someone in Jaguars-yellow and made a bee-line.
“Hi, I’m Kevin,” he said, sticking out his hand. “Tumbler.”
“Tyrone. I’m a base,” the Jag replied, shaking his hand.
The camp director kept the groups moving, doing a different ice-breaker with each new introduction. Kevin passed Mike in the flow, and almost laughed at Mike’s bitter, pained expression as the voice over the PA instructed them to do a particularly silly icebreaker exercise.
Mike hadn’t believed Kevin when he’d explained what happened in the opening sessions. Kevin would almost feel sorry for him if his expression wasn’t so funny.
Kevin turned away toward the person now in front of him, and froze as he came face to face with Nick for the first time since his world had exploded. “Hey, Nicky,” Kevin said softly.
Nick’s eyes widened, and he grabbed Chelsea and hauled her with a squeal over to swap places with him. Nick looked up at the guy Chelsea had been talking to, his back firmly to Kevin.
Kevin felt his heart re-break along barely patched faultlines once again. “Hey,” Chelsea said softly, touching his forearm. “You okay?”
He tried to smile, but he knew it was wavering, his eyes filling with tears. He willed them away ruthlessly, and managed to keep his voice steady. “Fine. You look great, Chels, I love the new hair.”
She self-consciously primped her sleek new bob. “Thanks.” She looked up at him, smiling sadly. “How are you? And Nic? We heard you got into the Cobras? Are they treating you okay?” Her smile wavered and then shattered, and she flung her arms around him for a brief hug. Over her shoulder, Kevin could see some of his old teammates glaring at them with furious expressions. Kevin ducked his head into her shoulder so he didn't have to see, and hugged her back. “I miss you and Nic,” she mumbled into his chest. “So much.”
“Careful,” Kevin said, trying for joking and falling flat. “That’s a hanging offense, isn’t it?”
She pulled back slowly, and didn’t deny it. “They’ll come round,” she said, not sounding convinced. “Don’t give up on them just yet.”
“They gave up on me, Chels,” Kevin said, letting go of her hand as the announcer called for them to move on. “They gave up first.” He pecked a kiss to her cheek before the press of cheerleaders separated them.
“Camp is fucking weird,” Mike declared as he walked into the communal showers for their floor.
“Careful, man,” Disashi said, spitting a mouthful of toothpaste into the sink. “We can lose points for the Spirit trophy if people hear you say that.” But he was grinning when he looked up to meet Mike's eyes in the mirror.
Mike flipped him off and dumped his washbag down on the counter. “Bite me. Seriously, learning to yell and clap?”
Spencer laughed and scrubbed his beard with a towel. “Aw, listen to the newbie pout. Dude, first full day’s tomorrow. Trust me; you’re going to be begging to go back to hand-clapping class.”
Disashi was giggling. “And by day three, you’ll want to take napping class, where they show you the correct technique for putting your head on a pillow.”
Mike scowled and grabbed a towel, heading for the showers. When he came back out, only Brendon was there, already in his PJs, brushing his teeth. “Hey,” he said through a mouthful of foam. He spat and rinsed, wiping his mouth with the corner of the towel slung around his shoulders. “How’s Kevin?”
Mike looked down so Brendon wouldn’t see his scowl in the reflection. “He’s with Nic,” he said, not quite keeping all the bitterness out of his voice. All afternoon, Kevin had moved like there was a wall around him, and Nic was the only one who could get close. Mike hadn’t seen them at all since training had ended. He had looked, but in the end had given up. Besides, he had no idea what he would say.
Their entire friendship to date had been bounded by those damn walls Kevin carried around with him. Mike didn't really know why he wanted to get past them, but he did. Desperately.
“I didn’t realize...” Brendon said softly, trailing off. He frowned, a faraway look in his eye for a moment before he caught Mike staring. “Tomorrow will be better,” Brendon said briskly, turning away. “We’ll be working in our teams again.” He spat one last time. “Night.”
“Night,” Mike said distractedly. His reflection looked befuddled, hair sticking up in all directions. He scrubbed the towel through it once before giving up and schlepping back to the room.
Kevin was back, sitting cross-legged on the covers, reading a book. He looked up as Mike came in, and Mike was relieved to see that some of the stress around Kevin’s eyes had eased, though he still looked too tired. “Hey,” Kevin said, putting his book down.
Mike took the invitation to talk. “Hey. You okay?”
Kevin grimaced. “Man, was I that bad? You’re the fifth person in an hour to ask me that.”
“Well,” Mike said as he crawled onto his bed and sat with his back to the wall. “We’re ‘family,’” he said in his best Travis impression. Kevin choked a weak laugh. “And it must have sucked, seeing your old team while wearing your new colours,” he added.
Kevin looked like he’d swallowed a lemon. “Yeah, there is that,” he said so drily that Mike had to smile. “Oh well,” he added, taking a deep breath. “Would have had to have happened sooner or later. They’re in Div 1A, too, so,” he shrugged like that explained all. “Nationals.”
“Nationals,” Mike echoed. There was nearly a whole year to go, yet it was all everyone seemed to talk about. Mike shifted uncomfortably. “Listen, tell me to shut up, but I saw you when we had to meet the other teams. What happened, to make them react like that?”
Kevin’s eyes were downcast, his expression a little bitter but mostly wistful. “I...I announced I was switching teams,” he said, smiling like he’d heard a bad joke. “And that’s just not allowed at Three-C.”
Mike felt like something had just left contrails over his head. Before he could find the words to ask, the door banged open. “Hey guys,” Ryland said, leaning in, shoving popcorn into his mouth from a bowl cradled against his chest. “We’ve taken over the TV lounge and beaten off all comers, so Star Wars marathon in five.”
Kevin leapt up and followed Ryland out. “You coming?” he asked brightly, all traces of their previous conversation erased. Mike sighed; there was that wall again. But Kevin was smiling, standing in the doorway, waiting for him.
Mike nodded as he got up and followed him back to their team.
Kevin sighed in relief as he realized, looking over the schedule, that the camp had been split into rotations. It had been hard yesterday, seeing Nick and Joe, and harder still when they pretended like he wasn’t even there.
He nodded his readiness as Brendon clapped him on the shoulder, and filed out with the other onto the practice mat. “Okay,” the camp leader said, clapping her hands. “You guys have an hour. We want you to come up with a tumble sequence that includes each of these moves.” Kevin watched, making mental notes as the leaders demonstrated eight sequences. “You can pick your own music, or none at all. What we’ll be looking for is tight, precise sequences and innovative transitions.” She clapped her hands again. “Go!”
The team went into a huddle, quickly sketching out a plan. As they lined up on either side of the mat, Kevin saw Mike looking around. Kevin hoped Mike would be able to keep up -- they’d had a couple of weeks before spirit camp to get settled on the mat, but even so, Mike was catching up on stuff the rest of the team had had years to master.
He exhaled as he stepped onto the mat, arms outstretched as he moved into the first pass. Gabe had put him in the front line with Brendon and Ashlee with one instruction: “floor it.”
Brendon was beaming as he tumbled past at high speed. Kevin laughed as he flipped onto his finish spot on the far end of the mat and looked over the rest of the stunt. Mike, Ian, and Surez were in the second row, going slower. Kevin grinned as Mike finished with a round off, panting hard but smiling, flushed with his own success. When he looked up, Kevin waggled his eyebrows and made Mike laugh.
There was a whoop from Gabe, and everyone turned to watch as Zack threw Nic into a reverse Superman. Kevin had to clap as he put he delicately back onto the mat. Some of her hair had escaped it’s pony tail, and thin dark strands were lashed across her flushed cheeks. She bounced on her toes, the mat making her spring extra-high, as she turned and flung her arms as far as they would reach around Zack.
Zack’s hand wrapped around her back easily as he hugged her in return, squeezing her tight. “Nice!” Gabe called out, clapping his hands. “Great work everyone, let’s make it excellent! Again!”
Every muscle in his body was aching by the time the official programme ended for the day. Kevin stayed where he was on the edge of the mat, too tired to move as everyone else staggered out of the gym, heading back to the dorms. All day, he’d been able to focus just on the moves, but now, he was once again hyper-aware that, somewhere close by, Nick and Joe were together and pretending he no longer existed.
“Hey,” Mike said, dropping to lie in a heap on the mat beside him. “You weren’t joking about this, were you?”
“I always joke. I’m hi-larious,” Kevin drawled back, earning himself a poke in the thigh. “You did good today.”
“Oh, was that a joke too?” Mike said, stretching along the mat until his back arched. Kevin felt his mouth go dry as he saw the thin sliver of toned stomach appear in the gap between Mike’s shirt and shorts. He looked away, staring at his own bony and bruised knees. “Thanks, by the way," Mike added. "I may still be the worst in the team, but at least I wasn’t a complete embarrassment today.”
Kevin grinned, and said nothing.
“Oh fuck you,” Mike said, laughing as he rolled over to hit him in the arm. “This is about that fucking stag tuck, isn’t it? I maintain that the human body just isn’t meant to bend like that, and you and Brendon are freaks of nature.”
Kevin couldn’t let that pass. He rolled and pounced, pinning Mike to the ground and tickling him. A part of his brain was screaming ‘warning, warning,’ but it was good to just laugh and wrestle and be normal again.
“Uncle! Mercy!” Mike cried through his laughter as he flailed under Kevin. The movement made Kevin realize suddenly how they must look.
He jumped to his feet, cheeks burning, before he embarrassed himself. “Come on,” he said, holding out his hand as Mike lay there, staring owlishly up at him. “Let’s work on your tucks.”
Mike’s hand was warm and strong in his as he let Kevin pull him to his feet.
Mike sat with the rest of the squad, pressing a melting ice pack into his shoulder, wondering if he should just quit before Gabe threw him off the team. Though it’d be kind of embarrassing, even for him, to lose his scholarship before the school year even officially began.
So he swore, so what? His shoulder had felt like it had almost been wrenched out of its socket, what was he supposed to do?
The rest of the team were scowling at him. Even Nic looked upset, though she’d tried not to let it show.
Mike shuffled on his seat as the camp director tapped the microphone. “Was it really that bad?” he asked the only person who’d sit next to him.
Kevin was nervously lacing his fingers together on his knees. “We’re cheerleaders, Mike,” he whispered under the noise of the closing ceremony. “You could break both your legs out there and you’d still be expected to smile and wave.” He snorted. “Heck, a girl once broke her back at a college game, and kept cheering.”
“You’re shitting me,” Mike said flatly.
Kevin shook his head, and Mike knew he was telling the truth. “It’s part of the competition. Who has the best game face, the best spirit,” he said slowly. “It’s the biggest award of the camp.”
Mike started to get a sinking feeling in his gut. “How big?”
Kevin didn’t look up from where his fingers were twisting together. “Paid bid to Nationals,” he whispered. Mike gasped and cursed -- that was thousands of dollars, no wonder everyone was so pissed. “Sorry,” Kevin said, wincing. “I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want you to be even more stressed out about your stunting than you already were. Sorry.”
Mike clenched his fists, trying to get his temper under control. His wrenched shoulder twinged painfully with the movement. “I wish you’d told me,” he said quietly, mentally trying to figure out how to make tuition without the scholarship.
Kevin sighed. “The Cobras took out Nationals last year, so that’s automatic qualification,” he said like someone looking desperately for the bright side. “And there’s still the bid video to get the free ride, or fundraising.” He looked up, finally, and Mike winced at how pale and somber he looked. “Oh, here,” he tsked, taking the icepack and pressing it firmly right into the sorest spot. “Come on,” he coaxed, hand strong and gentle where he was holding Mike’s arm. “Not winning spirit just means no express route. Nationals isn’t in danger.”
Mike tried to remember Kevin’s words as Cambio Christian College took out ‘Most Spirited.’ The little guy who had freaked Kevin out was smiling tightly as he accepted the trophy. Out of the corner of his eye, Mike saw Kevin’s hands twitch, then still. He stood up as soon as the announcer closed the camp, ready to run and hide and lick his wounds.
“Yo, Carden, Jonas, get your asses over here,” Travie said, waving them over. Mike crept in closer, wanting to be anywhere but there. “Okay, listen up. Most of you have been here before, this is just our wakeup call. We’re still finding our fit as a new team, and now we know what the competition is packing. We’ve still got our entry, and we’ve got four months to get our shit together for bid.” He looked around the group, and Mike was a little startled to see Travie look him right in the eye. “But I’m real happy with camp. I think we’ve got the kind of kickass talent to get us another Nationals. All in, fuckers.” He jabbed his hands forward, fingers of his right fanning out over the curve of his left. “Cobras Never Die!”
Mike chanted along with the others, still disorientated by the rapid change in attitude. He nodded blankly as the rest of the team filed past, several asking about his shoulder. Finally, it was just him and Travie. “Kevin told me you didn’t know what exactly the ‘cheer’ part of ‘cheerleading’ meant,” he said, sounding more amused than pissed. “We can work on that.”
Mike nodded quickly. “Won’t happen again, Travie.”
Travis beamed at him. “Of course it won’t, 'cos we’re gonna remind you of this every day for the next year.” He laughed as Mike groaned. “Come on, get your shit. Time for the best part of camp.” He winked. “The after-camp pool party.”
Kevin held onto his untouched bottle of beer, and let his feet drift in the crystal blue water of the pool. A few of the flyer/base pairs from some of the other teams were playing some kind of game in the shallows, making the water ripple slightly as they splashed about. Over in the other, shallower pool, a few girls were kicking up splashes of water as they danced to the music the DJ was playing, and another team were hazing their newbies with some kind of conga line while wearing garbage bags and nothing else. But up here at the deep end, in the shadow of the modest rockery feature, all was quiet.
Kevin watched the party for a little while, smiling as he saw Nic laughing and chatting to some of the other flyers. As he watched, Zack swapped her empty bottle for a fresh drink, but he seemed to be keeping an eye on her, so Kevin wasn’t too worried.
Besides, Nic had been sneaking out to clubs since she was old enough to use her fake ID. Even if some of the stories they had been told about the post-camp pool party were true, Nic was probably going to be fine.
Kevin wasn’t so sure about himself.
“Hey,” a girl giggled at him as she walked by with a couple of her friends, all tanned legs, long hair, and tiny bikinis. Kevin absently nodded his own greeting as they passed him by, swishing his feet through the water some more.
“Not in the party mood?” Kevin looked up and smiled more easily as Mike emerged from the shadows. “Is this a private mope, or can anyone join in?”
“I’m not moping,” Kevin protested, even as he shuffled along the edge of the pool to make room. “I’m...contemplating.”
Mike’s laugh turned into a hiss of pain as he put too much weight on his injured shoulder. “I’m okay,” he said before Kevin could ask. “It’ll be fine in a day or two, just gotta not swear about it until then.”
“You’re a big boy, I’m sure you’ll manage,” Kevin teased, splashing a little water up at Mike.
He sputtered as he tried to bat the droplets away. “Oh, feeling the love, Jonas, feeling the love.” They sat in comfortable silence for a little while, watching the party. “I take it you’re not a big partier?”
Kevin shrugged. “I guess, maybe, I don’t know. I never really went out much, at my last school.”
“Three-C, right?” Mike remembered. “Yeah, they don’t seem like the kegger crowd.”
Kevin bit back a laugh. “Definitely not a kegger crowd. More abstinence and Sunday services.”
Mike glanced instinctively at his watch - 1:03am. “Well, it’s Sunday morning and you’re at a party with a beer in your hand,” he said, nodding to the untouched drink. “Congratulations, you’ve officially fallen in with us sinners.”
Kevin made a choking noise. “My father would be so proud,” he said, more bitterly than he intended as he reached out and tapped his bottle lightly against Mike’s in a toast. He took a swig, grimacing at the warm, bitter taste. Mike laughed, and Kevin poked him. “Shut up,” he muttered. He watched as Mike took a drink of his own beer. “Are you taking something for your shoulder?” he asked worriedly.
Mike rolled his eyes fondly. “Don’t worry, I’m not mixing my meds or operating heavy machinery.” He studied Kevin for a moment. “You really need to learn how to relax and have fun, Kevin.”
“Do I?” Kevin asked sarcastically.
Mike smiled, and Kevin felt his heart skip a beat. “You do. Luckily, I am an expert and am willing to share my vast knowledge.” He put aside his beer, and Kevin instinctively copied him. “The first thing you need to learn is to let go and live in the moment.”
Kevin laughed. He wasn’t ready when Mike pushed him into the water, but instinct took over and he grabbed Mike as he flailed, pulling him in too.
Mike surfaced, spluttering and laughing. Kevin tread water, still a little stunned. Mike spit a thin stream of water at him, and Kevin sculled backwards out of range, laughing. Mike nodded down toward the shallow end, where Maja and Cassadee were laughing and splashing everyone else from their perches on top of Travis and Spencer’s shoulders. “I saw we can take them. What do you reckon?”
Mike swam with graceful speed toward the shadows. Kevin grinned as he hummed the Jaws theme and paddled after him.
Mike wondered when exhausted had become his default state. Ever since they’d gotten back from spirit camp, he felt like all he’d been doing was playing catch-up. He bolted across the common room, stealing a piece of toast off Nic’s plate. Her cry of “you owe me a poptart for that, Carden,” followed him down the hall as he raced out of the house and took the steps two at a time.
He was so very, very late.
The professor scowled at him as he slipped through the back door of the lecture room, and Mike slouched down into his seat and dug out his notepad. A nine am class after a late-night stunt practice was his new definition of torture.
The class finally let out an hour later. Mike blinked at the mess of incomprehensible notes and realised he hadn't heard a word of it. He jammed his notepad into his bag, and let the flow of students carry him toward the Union. Bill was lounging in one the overstuffed chairs under the window, reading a paper. He barely looked up as Mike dropped his pack on the table, and slumped down next to him. “You look like a man in need of coffee.”
Mike made a pitiful noise.
“I’ll have my usual latte, thank you, Michael.”
Mike stared at him.
They both jumped as someone dropped a tray on the table next to him. “You are a slack bastard,” Sisky told Bill, handing him a take-out cup. “And you just look pathetic,” he told Mike. “Is living in a house full of gorgeous cheerleaders getting you down?”
Mike was too busy clutching his cup to argue. “You’re a lifesaver, Siskybiz.”
William finally lowered his paper. “What? No sarcastic retort? No biting remark?” He peered closer. “You do look peaky,” he said, actually sounding almost concerned.
Mike sipped his coffee and let his head fall back, eyes closed. He had an hour until next class, he could nap until then, surely. They were in a public place, so the odds of Sisky and Bill writing on his forehead in permanent marker were low.
He jerked away, almost spilling his coffee, as he felt gentle fingers lifting up the sleeve of his t-shirt. “That’s a big bruise,” Bill said, and all teasing was gone now.
Mike made a face. He’d forgotten about it, but now that Bill reminded him, it had started to throb again. “I fucked up a stag tuck. Kevin tried to catch me, but I still hit pretty hard.” He scowled into his cup. “Just when I thought I was getting that fucker down, too.”
Bill looked to Sisky. “Did that make sense to you?”
Sisky made a whistling noise as he waved his hand slowly over his head.
Mike shook his head and stood up. “Cheerleading shit,” he said.
William rolled his eyes. “Oh of course.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Mike asked hotly.
Bill leaned back and put his feet up on the table. “It means," he said gently. "That all you seem capable of talking about is cheerleading, cheerleading, Kevin, how little sleep you’ve had, and more cheerleading. That’s all.”
Mike laughed bitterly. “Bill, I get up, go to the gym, go to class, go to practice, and then go to bed. That is my life now, excuse me if it’s not glamorous enough for you.”
“Aww,” Sisky cooed. “Is living in a house full of pretty, athletic women getting you down?” Mike raised one eyebrow pointedly. “Oh, sorry. Pretty men, too.” This time, it was William who gave him a pointed look. “So I’m told. Hey, I’m secure, shut up, this is about Mike right?” he said quickly.
Mike snorted a laugh. “Guys,” he said tiredly. “Even if I had the time to date, I sure as fuck don’t have the energy. And as for the house, well...” Thinking of the house reminded him of something, and he sighed as he reached for his bag. “Listen, I’ve gotta go, but I’ll see you later.”
“Go where?” Bill asked.
Mike slung his pack over his good arm. “I need to go to the store before class. See you.”
Later, Nic bounded up to him on the mat, her dark pony tail bobbing behind her. She sprung up, hands balanced lightly on his shoulders, as she pecked a kiss to his cheek. “Thank you for my pop tarts,” she said, giggling as she skipped back to Zack. A few people were watching, but they shook their heads and turned back to their tasks.
Mike smiled a little to himself as he went back to his stretches.
Kevin was sitting, propped up against his headboard, struggling to stay focused on the textbook on his lap, when the door banged open, and Nic came canonballing in. Kevin threw out his arms for balance as Nic landed, making the old mattress bounce and sway.
“KevinKevinKevin!” Nic babbled at high speed as she crawled up and threw herself against him, hugging him tightly.
“Nic, Nic, Nic,” he parroted back at her, dropping his book to hug her back. She was almost vibrating, and Kevin nudged her to get her attention. “What’s going on?”
Nic sat back, and her face was aglow. “Zack asked me if I wanted to go in with him in a partner stunt bid! Isn’t that awesome!”
Kevin relaxed, and beamed back at her. “That is awesome,” he reassured her. Nic was so excited she was bouncing up and down slightly on the spot. “You guys are amazing, you’ll totally get a bid.”
Worry clouded Nic’s face. “You think so? Oh, honey, I really, really want this.”
Kevin gathered her up into his arms. “I know, I know,” he soothed her. “And I think that this is your year.”
Nic settled herself more comfortably on his lap. “Our year,” she corrected gently. “I really think we have a chance to take out both partner stunt and coed 1A. Is that stupid?”
Kevin rested his temple against the side of her head gently. “No. I don’t think it is.” He hadn’t said it out loud, but tumbling with the Cobras felt better, even after just a few months of training, than it ever had in a couple of years with the Mouses. He didn’t have to overthink his moves, or worry, or hold back. All he had to do was let go and fly.
Nic was studying him like she could read his mind. “You seem better here,” she told him in a secretive whisper. “Happier.”
Kevin thought about it for a second. “I think I am.” He smiled at her. “I mean, it hurts, so bad, not to be able to go home, that Nick and Joe won’t even look at me. But at the same time,” he shrugged, struggling to find the right words.
But he and Nic hadn’t been best friends since playgroup for nothing. “It’s a weight off,” she said, and it wasn't a question.
“Yeah,” he agreed. “No more secrets.”
Nic hugged him again as the door opened, spilling bright light in from the hallway across Kevin's bed. “Oh, hey,” Mike stuttered, frozen in the doorway, sounding flustered as he saw them both on the bed. “I can come back...”
“No, it’s okay,” Nic told him, swinging her leg up and over to slip gracefully onto her feet. “I was just claiming my congratulatory cuddles,” she said, beaming. “And now I have practice, I’ll see you both later.” She patted Mike’s chest as she slipped past him.
“Fly, my pretty,” Kevin cackled after her. Her laughter echoed down the hall.
Mike carefully closed the door after her. “Listen, man,” he said, sounding strained. He didn't meet Kevin's eye. “If you want the room, just, I don’t know, put a sock on the handle or something.”
Kevin frowned, confused for a moment. “Oh,” he said, realization dawning. He began to laugh awkwardly. “Dude, she’s just my best friend. Nothing more, I swear.”
“Okay, whatever,” Mike said, not looking very convinced. He walked over to his desk and began pulling book after book out of his bag.
Kevin resettled himself, shuffling back up against the headboard, stretching his legs out. “Are you doing the library weight-lifting scheme or something?” he asked to break the sudden tension in the room.
Mike scowled and ran his fingers through his hair, making it stand up on end. “Who assigns a research essay in the first half of semester?”
“Sadists,” Kevin told him, standing up. He walked over and stood beside Mike, their arms brushing as he read the spines. “Man, rather you than me.”
Mike slung an arm around Kevin and hugged him in. He had no idea why, except that it felt like the thing to do. “Your concern is overwhelming, Jonas,” he said sarcastically, messing up Kevin’s hair to coverup his sudden awkwardness.
Kevin felt himself freeze, and the moment turned fragile. “That’s me,” he said, sounding strained. “Mr. Compassion. I want a snack, do you want a snack, I’m going to go get some snacks.” He beat a hasty retreat, feeling Mike staring at him in confusion.
Kevin closed their door carefully, and walked across the hall to brace himself against the far wall. “He’s your roommate,” he told himself. “You’re just lonely, and he’s nice, and it’s all in your head.” After repeating that several times until he could almost believe it, he took a deep breath, pasted a suitable smile on his face, and went downstairs to raid the kitchen.
Mike pulled on his uniform shirt, and scowled at his reflection. Travie clipped him upside the head as he passed behind Mike. “Smile, fucker,” he said sternly, moving on before Mike could retaliate.
A few lockers down, Brendon was bouncing on his toes. “Are you nervous?” he asked, a big smile on his face.
Mike slammed his locker closed. “Should I be?” he snapped, hating that Brendon was probably right.
“Depends,” Spencer said from where he was sitting on the bench, double-tying his shoelaces. “Are you planning on faceplanting in the mud in front of ten thousand screaming football fans?”
Mike felt his stomach twist. “I fucking hate you, Smith,” he said bluntly. On top of the idea of people he knew seeing him out there, he now had that to worry about too.
Brendon burst out into peals of laughter. “Don’t worry, Mikey,” he cooed, linking his arm with Mike’s. “They applaud extra-loud when we crash.” The entire room burst out into laughter.
Gabe walked in, clapping his hands for attention, a clipboard tucked under his arm. “Okay you fuckers, come on.” Mike fell in behind Ian as they walked out into the tunnel that led onto the field. The girls were already there, legs looking long and tanned under their tiny pleated skirts.
“Who chose purple and grey as the squad colours?” he asked, feeling a sudden craving for a grape soda.
Cassadee nudged him in the arm as she wound her way over to Spencer. “Gabe did, so act like you like it,” she said with a grin.
Mike dutifully shut his mouth as Gabe hollered at them to put in. He reached in, resting one hand on Kevin’s shoulder for balance as their fingertips formed a messy ring. “Cobras never die! Cobras gonna fly!” they all chanted together, breaking the circle.
Walking out onto the field for the first time was a bizarre experience. The team paused just under the overhang, waiting for the signal. “Everyone,” Travie called out. “Smile like you mean it! Ready, go!”
Like a switch had been flipped, the team ran forward, whooping and cheering. Some even starting doing simple running flips and tumbles. Mike just ran, focusing on keeping pace with the team and not tripping over his own feet or something. They formed up into rows in front of their section of the stadium, and Mike looked up the tier, head tilting backwards to take it all in.
Kevin knocked his knuckles against Mike’s wrist. “You okay?” he said under the noise of the rest of the team whooping it up.
Mike nodded desperately as Travie yelled at them to get into position for the first stunt.
The grass was slick underfoot, and it was easier for him just to concentrate on not fucking up in front of everyone. The cheering from the stands got louder as they ran simple but flashy passes. Brendon started running around, weaving between the bases as they lifted their flyers into Awesomes and Scorpions. Travie yelled at him, but he was laughing as he did so, and Brendon cackled gleefully as he skipped and tossed a spinning tumble sequence that landed him neatly back where he should be right on the beat.
The siren sounded and the team hunkered down on the sidelines, the girls scooping up their plastic pom-poms, as the two football teams lumbered onto the field. Mike knelt between Kevin and Nic, laughing as Nic playfully snapped her pom-poms at him. “Now for the boring bit,” she said with an eyeroll as the ref blew his whistle.
Mike had only had a passing interest in college football; it was mainly just something he and his dad talked about when they had nothing more to say to each other. He’d only been to one game before, sitting way up in the nose-bleed seats. Watching at ground level was way better. He found, despite himself, that he was getting into it, clapping and cheering with the rest of the squad when their side made a pass or scored a touch-down.
“What do we want? Touch-Down! When do we want it? Now!” Ashlee started yelling, leading the group in the cheer. Behind him, Dallon jabbed Mike in-between his shoulderblades.
“Yell, newbie,” he said, clapping along. “It’s good practice!” Mike swung his elbow back, and Dallon laughed as he fell into Spencer trying to dodge it. Spencer shoved him back upright with a laugh.
The crowd grew restless as, late in the first half, the sky started to grumble. Beyond the glow of the floodlights, Mike could just make out clouds rolling in, bringing with them the threat of an unseasonably early storm.
The first drops started to fall as the siren blared again, signalling the start of half-time. “No flying if it starts to pour,” Travie ordered as they filed out onto the field. Mike felt goosebumps rise up his arms as a cold, wet gust of air blew across the field. Along the row, Greta jumped on the spot as Ashlee rubbed her arms, her pom-poms rustling.
“Ready!” Maja yelled. “Let’s go!”
The clouds opened on cue, water pouring out of the sky as they began their spirit routine. “No flying,” Travie yelled again as Brendon went skidding on the wet grass. He bounced up, laughing.
“Slip n’ slide,” he hollered, taking a running start and skidding across the pitch. He bounded up, mud on his hands. Greta squealed with delight as he reached for her, leading her across the front of their section in a dance that was half-waltz, half-seizure.
After that, madness took over. Mike laughed as Kevin looked at him, and together they rolled into the cartwheel to handspring routine they used to warm up. Bebe giggled and dropped easily into a bendback between them, flipping up into a handspring as they came down. The stands were emptying as the spectators sought shelter from the rainstorm, but still the squad cheered.
When the siren signalled the start of the second half, Mike wasn’t the only one with muddy hands and knees. The squad piled together in a clump rather than kneel in their neat rows, seeking warmth from each other as the rain passed, leaving the air colder than before.
The game ended in a loss, but Travie didn’t seem to mind as he led the squad back into the locker rooms under the stadium. “That was so much fun!” Cassadee chirped as she wrung water out of her hair.
Mike was cold, wet, and muddy. But as Nic hugged him from the side, headbutting his arm, and Brendon held up a mud-covered hand for a high-five, he secretly had to agree.
Kevin looked up as the heavy bass beat started thumping down through the building. "Already?" he asked no-one in particular.
Alex smirked as he straightened his skinny tie and checked his hair in the mirror. "The Cobras post-first game bash is a time-honoured tradition."
"Meaning," Spencer said from where he was sitting on the bench. "Gabe started it when he was squad captain, and there's no way he's going to let us drop it now." He stood and basketed his dirty towel in the hamper. "Hurry up, you don't want to miss this," he told Kevin as Alex opened the door.
Kevin nodded agreeably, waiting until the door closed behind them before he turned and headed for the showers. The room was steamy and damp after twenty-plus showers, but Kevin didn't mind being the last in. The water was still hot, and there was no-one else around.
He had tried, really tried, not to let David and Doug's flung insults get to him, but every time Kevin went into the shared showers, he still heard their voices in his head, sneering, angry, accusing him of looking. Of being a pervert.
The mud had mostly dried on his skin, flaking and cracking along the creases. Kevin scrubbed at it until his skin was pink, the dirt spiralling between his feet and into the drain. He froze, soap a mess of lather in his hands, as he heard the door open, a cold gust of air blowing against his legs. "Hey," Mike said casually, taking another showerhead halfway down. "I thought you'd already be at the party?"
Kevin kept his eyes firmly on the tiles, those old recriminations echoing through his head, as Mike tossed his towel over one of the low partitions and turned the taps. "Uh, just needed to get all this mud off first," he said, blindly groping for his shampoo. He needed to get cleaned up and get out of here without looking.
That was important. Especially because it was Mike, naked under the steam just a few feet away. Mike who was his friend, nothing more. He chanted it like a mantra in his head as his nails raked quickly over his scalp, the shampoo dribbling down, stinging his eyes. Kevin shoved his head under the stream, the spray pounding against his skin and filling his ears.
"Hey," Mike said, making Kevin flinch. "Do you think people would be cool if I called Bill and some of my friends over?"
Kevin pushed his wet hair back and tried not to let his emotion show on his face. "I...I think it's just an open house thing," he stuttered out, keeping his eyes firmly looking at anything but Mike. "So it should be okay." He twisted off the taps. "I'll see you upstairs."
"Later," Mike said. Despite himself, Kevin glanced over, just for a second. But in that second he saw acres of dark skin, smooth across the gentle curve of Mike's back and down to his ass. Mike's hair was wet, slicked back, his eyes closed as he turned his face to the spray.
Kevin wrenched himself around, firmly trying to remind himself that Mike was off limits. Mike was his friend, and Kevin suspected he was seeing someone anyway. "Later," he mumbled and beat a hasty retreat.
Mike slid down off the railing that ringed the front porch as he spied Bill’s lanky frame leading the way up the front path. “Hey,” he called out, coming to stand at the top of the steps, raising his voice to be heard over the noise of the party inside.
“Dude,” Sisky said, all but skipping up the steps. “You got us invited to a party full of cheerleaders,” he all but drooled. “You are the bestest friend ever.”
Mike cuffed him over the ear and pushed him toward the open door. “Don’t embarrass me,” he ordered gruffly.
He lost sight of Sisky pretty quickly. He saw Butcher in between the crowds of people, chatting with Travie and comparing ink, and Michael Guy had acquired a small group of girls from the pom squad who were cooing over his accent. He figured Sisky could stay lost for a little while.
He went and got himself a beer from the cooler, and leaned up against the wall where he could see both the common room and the dining room, just people-watching as he drank. “So,” Bill said, materializing out of the crowd, two fresh bottles dangling easily from his fingers. He handed one to Mike as he twirled to lean gracefully against the wall beside him. “These seem like nice, wholesome folk.” Out of the crowd, there was a whoop and some cheering, followed by someone who sounded suspiciously like Spencer yelling “BRENDON!”
Bill didn’t even blink. “Sporting and athletic types,” he added as Brendon raced past and out the door, a soaking wet Spencer hot on his heels.
“They’re good guys,” Mike agreed, grinning into his beer.
“Where’s Kevin?” Bill asked suddenly, and Mike spluttered, trying to swallow his mouthful too quickly.
“What?” he asked, suddenly wary.
“Your room mate. Kevin. Which one is he?”
Mike glanced around. He finally spotted Kevin, sitting next to Nic as she listened to Zack tell a story that seemed to involve a lot of exaggerated hand waving. “There,” he said, nodding.
“The big guy or the curly-haired cutie?”
Mike gave him a baleful look. “The curly-haired guy.”
“Who is cute,” Bill agreed, staring. Mike elbowed him in the ribs, hard. “I can see the attraction, in an elfish kind of way.”
Mike stared at him. “What are you on about?” he asked flatly, not looking Bill in the eye.
Bill put his beer down and turned to face Mike directly, resting his hands on Mike’s shoulders like a flyer about to load in. “Mike, I've know you a long time. I know you, and I know how you get.” He peered down into Mike's eyes. “You like the guy.”
Mike pulled out of Bill’s grasp and turned away, raising his bottle to his lips. He could feel Bill still staring at him. “He’s just a friend, he’s my room mate. He’s helping me with my tumbling so I can stay on the squad and keep my scholarship. Of course I probably mention him a few times.”
Bill laughed softly as he picked up his drink again. “More than a few,” he muttered. "I know it's been a while," Bill added quietly. "And I know your last breakup sucked, but he sounds nice." Mike pretended not to hear him over the sound of the party. Bill sighed and fell silent. They stood in silence, side by side, finishing their drinks as they watched the room.
If Mike only watched Kevin, well, Bill didn’t need to know.
And neither did Kevin.
The stars were bright overhead, and Kevin wondered briefly what his father would say if he knew Kevin was up at three am, helping his roommate pour his drunk friend into the backseat of someone's car. “Come on, Siskybiz,” Mike said, not looking exactly stable on his feet himself. “Just a little bit further.”
Sisky was part-octopus. Kevin grunted as Sisky tightened the hold he hand around Kevin’s neck. “You’re arright,” Sisky slurred. “And you,” he added, leaning into Mike who huffed and tried to carry the dead weight. “You’re awesome as always. I’m glad you d-d-dated my brother, even,” Sisky hiccuped. “Even if it was a trainwreck. Coz otherwise we might not be friends. Though it’d be great to h-h-have you as a brother-in-law.” He burst out laughing at nothing as they caught him before he fell again. Kevin grit his teeth as he hoisted Sisky back onto his feet, mind whirring even as he helped Sisky stagger on down the path.
Bill opened the back door of the car that was waiting. “You okay to drive?” Mike asked.
Bill pointed over the roof of the car. “Michael Guy is sober, and he assures me he’s now got the hang of driving on the correct side of the road.”
“Wrong side of the road,” Michael shot back in the tone of one who had had this argument a hundred times before.
Bill pretended not to hear him. “We’ve got young Adam from here. Night, guys,” he said, giving a little wave that was too jaunty for the hour.
Kevin and Mike stood and watched the car’s rear lights pull away and disappear into the night. “Come on,” Mike said, stifling a yawn. “I’m exhausted.” They turned and began to walk back up the path.
Kevin licked his lips. “Mike,” he asked carefully. “What did Sisky mean, you and his brother?”
Mike laughed softly. “Oh man, many, many, many years ago, someone set me up on a date with Sisky’s big brother. We lasted maybe two dates, but we’re still good friends, so I guess it was a win all up.” He stretched, rolling his neck, before finally noticing that Kevin was no longer beside him. He turned, stilling as he took in Kevin’s stunned silence. Mike watched him a moment, trying to see his expression in the dim light. “Is that...I mean, I know some...is that a problem?” he finally asked, defiant as the silence stretched out.
Kevin shook his head suddenly as he realized what Mike was asking. “No, no,” he said, too quickly. He walked past Mike and sat down on the bottom step, pulling his knees loosely to his chest. “It’s just....”
Mike sat down beside him slowly, seemingly taking it as a good sign when Kevin didn’t flinch away. “Sorry I didn’t tell you, I honestly didn’t think it’d be a big deal. It’s...”
“I’m gay,” Kevin whispered, cutting him off. The truth poured out of him in a torrent of words. “And I told my parents, and they threw me out of the house and cut me off, and my old team hated me for it, and that’s why I’m here now, I'm not welcome back home, they said I was an abomination unto God and a disgrace, and I miss them so much even though they hate me and only Nic stood by me and we came here for a fresh start and, and…” he sniffed hard, cutting himself off before he started bawling.
There was a long silence where all Kevin could hear was them breathing. “That sucks,” Mike whispered at last. “I’m sorry.” His arm slid slowly around Kevin’s shoulders, giving him plenty of time to pull away.
It had been too long since anyone other than Nicole had touched him with care. Kevin twisted and burrowed into the embrace as Mike tightened his grip and held on.
They sat there like that for a very long time before, by silent agreement, they rose and went inside.