Mike leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “Why am I here again?” he asked William
Lounging with impossible grace on the wooden bleacher, William reached over to pat Mike’s shoulder. Mike could tell he was struggling to keep the smirk off his face. “Because,” he said, sounding almost sincere. “You need a scholarship to stay in school, and they have scholarships.” He gestured out across the gym, where a dozen other students, guys and girls, were limbering up on the blue practice mats. “And because you didn’t get any of the other scholarships you applied for.”
Mike scowled at one young guy who was sliding easily into the splits. “Thanks,” he said sarcastically. “I’d forgotten about that. Fuck,” he spat, sitting up straight only to slump backwards. “I have a 4.0,” he said to the air, like he was rehearsing a list. “I’ve gotten straight As, even in McCullough’s bastard methods class. I haven't even been hauled up by the campus cops!" Bill started sniggering at that. “Shut it, if it's not official, it doesn't count.” He sighed. “I can't ask my parents for any more money, not now.” This time, Bill's consoling pat on his shoulder was real. “I just need a break, Bill.”
William’s voice never changed from its soothing, even cadence. “Tis a competitive year, everyone's in the same boat. Well, except for this.” He gestured at the sea of hopeful. “I was talking to Gabe before, he says this is the lowest turnout ever, and he’s lost half of his squad from last year to graduation or injury. You might have a chance, even if you did give up gymnastics for the glories of the Barrington swim team. Just look enthusiastic and try to keep up.”
Mike stood up and shucked off his zip-up hoodie. “It’s fucking cheerleading, Bill,” Mike snarled. “How hard can if fucking be?”
Less than ten minutes later, he was eating his words. The two coaches, Gabe and Victoria, had them doing stretches, pushups and sit-ups to ‘warm up,’ but which had Mike gasping for air like a landed fish after just a couple of reps.
“Fucking freshman fifteen,” someone behind him bitched.
“Dude, you’re a sophomore, admit it, you just got fat,” the guy next to him hissed back. Mike ignored them and resolved that, if he was still in school next year, he was giving up cigarettes and going back to the pool. This was just embarrassing.
In front and to the left of him, a guy and a tiny girl were doing the reps like they were nothing. Mike struggled through the next rep and decided to hate them both on principle.
“Zack, man, gotta lay off the Taco Bell,” Gabe yelled across the mat. “That shit will kill you.”
“I’ll kill you, motherfucker,” a giant of a guy in the back corner of the mat shot back, breathing hard.
“Hey, remember, I’m the coach,” Gabe chortled.
Zack didn’t miss a beat in his sit-ups. “Then I’ll kill you, Coach motherfucker.”
“That’s better,” Gabe said happily, moving on to stand on some poor girl’s toes while he watched her curl up and back, over and over again.
Mike tried to ignore William’s helpful thumbs up from where he was lounging on the stands as, at last, they were allowed to get up and made to assemble on one side of the mat. “Okay,” Victoria yelled, glancing down at the clipboard she had been carrying around. “Groups of four, keep my time, front flip, straight or tuck, your choice. Then show us your best standing move, then a back tuck or bend back, then walk off the mat. Ready?”
Mike had no idea what she just said. “What?” he hissed to the guy next to him, the trim guy with the mess of curls held back by a bandana, one of the ones who hadn’t even broken a sweat during all the sit-ups.
The guy tugged him to the back of the line, never looking away from the mat. “Watch,” he said a little quickly. “And if you think you’re going to mess it up, stand at the back of the row.” Mike almost changed his mind about the guy before he added, almost as an afterthought. “That way, if you go over, you won’t take the entire formation with you.”
Mike hung back and watched as the first four lined up in a diamond formation on the mat. At the back was the big guy, Zack, and another big guy was on the left. His singlet showed off arms covered in tattoos; not what Mike was expecting to find at a cheerleading tryout. The other two spots were taken by two more guys, one solid with a beard, the other a tiny scrap of a dude with dark hair. They all seemed to know each other, joking and laughing, but as soon as Victoria blew her whistle, they snapped into formation like pros.
“Ready?” Victoria yelled. “Go!” As one, the four of them leapt up and flipped over, landing together in such perfect time they made the floor rattle. Mike blinked. “Two three and FOUR,” she bellowed, and the four men all leapt again, each doing a different acrobatic trick. The two biggest guys went into weird handsprings, and the bearded guy did a twisting half-pike flip thing. The tiny guy, however, bounded back up into the air like a cannonball, and Mike couldn’t help but be impressed. “And handspring, back tuck!” Victoria yelled. The guys again all moved in perfect synchronization. “Not too sloppy, get,” she yelled with a wave of her hand as the four guys walked off the mat. “Next!”
Mike was slightly relieved to see the next four wasn’t anywhere near as neat or proficient, and in the third group, three of the four couldn’t make a single move. One of the guys just stood there, gawping, as the other three tried awkward handstands.
“Next!” Victoria yelled, and Mike stepped onto the mat with bandana-guy and the girl who had been doing the sit-ups easily, and another girl with a megawatt smile. “Ready, and go!”
Mike hoped he wasn’t embarrassing himself too badly. Before last night, when William had rushed into his dorm with his evil cheerleading plan to get Mike a scholarship, Mike hadn’t so much as cartwheeled in years. At least, not while sober. Muscles screamed at the unfamiliar strain, but at least he made it over and didn’t land on his head. For his standing trick, he kept it simple, going into a handspring and then twisting hand over hand in a figure eight movement. The rush of blood to his head made him a little bit dizzy, and he barely stuck the handspring back tuck, stepping forward to stop himself from tripping over on the landing.
He stepped off the mat, feeling like an oaf. William’s cheesy two thumbs up didn’t help. Much.
His four joined the rest of the group who’d already gone through on the far side of the gym. “Hi, I’m Kevin, by the way,” the guy said, smiling at him. “And this is Nic,” he added, gesturing to the impossibly tiny girl who was almost glued to his side.
“Mike,” he said, eyes fixed on the next lot going through. As much as being a cheerleader might suck and make him a target of his friends’ teasing until the end of time, at the end of the day he needed this scholarship. There just weren't any other options left. He watched closely as the next group stepped up to go through their moves.
Kevin didn’t seem to take the hint. “First time trying out?” he asked, sounding a little nervous.
Mike nodded, arms folded, and Kevin lapsed into awkward silence.
“Okay,” Victoria yelled. “Flyers and bases, on the mat.” A few people headed over to the far corner, including the girl Kevin had introduced as Nic.
“Everyone else, take five,” Gabe bellowed after them.
Mike looked around, bewildered. Kevin tugged on his arm. “Are you a base?” He must have seen Mike’s confusion. “You’re probably better off trying for a tumbling spot then.”
As Mike knelt with the other guys by the mat, he figured Kevin might have had a point. All the guys on the mat were huge. He watched, jaw dropping, as the girls trying out let themselves be tossed about like they weighed nothing. “Holy shit,” he whispered in breathless awe as one girl was hoisted straight up and around like a yo-yo.
“I know,” Kevin said, sounding rueful. “Northeastern used to be the place to go if you were a flyer. Now, there are maybe four decent bases here. Wonder how that’s going to affect the line up?” On the mat, the girl with the killer smile stood, back to chest, with the guy with the beard. She bounced lightly in place, one, two, and three, and sailed straight up to balance with one foot cupped in his hand. Her other leg curled up behind her as she struck a pose.
Gabe clapped. “Sweet. Okay, you lot, I want you all to try a rewind with each other. Mix up your partnerships, see what you can do.” He turned and Mike rocked back as Gabe glared at the group huddled on the side of the mat. “Okay, tumblers! You’re up.”
The next hour passed in a dizzying, nauseating blur as Mike forced himself through running pass after running pass until his muscles were screaming and his stomach was a roiling ball of lactic acid. “Okay,” Victoria said, clapping her hands together. “We’ll announce the squad list 7pm tonight out front,” she yelled, pointing to the gym doors. “Anyone who doesn’t make the cut for A, you’re welcome to come to the B and pom squad tryouts tomorrow. Thank you.”
Mike staggered up the bleachers to find his shit. “How bad?” he asked William as he flopped bonelessly onto the bleaches and nearly slithered off.
“Not the worst out there,” William said, handing Mike his hoodie as he stood up. “Now, if you’ll excuse me.” Before Mike could protest, William was skipping down the tiered seating, dashing across the mat to fall into step with Gabe just before the two coaches disappeared into their office.
Mike scowled and picked up his bag. He needed some water, and maybe to throw up a little.
He glanced at the clock over the door in the lobby as he left. 4pm.
Nic looped her arm around Kevin’s as they stepped out into the late afternoon sunshine. “My double back was so sloppy,” she complained as they walked, arm in arm, down the wide, shallow steps. “And my scorpion was more a sleepy apostrophe. I totally sucked.”
Kevin smiled, used to Nic’s freakouts. “Totally,” he agreed, straight-faced, laughing as she punched him in the arm hard enough to hurt. “Ow. Okay, you're buying me dinner to make up for that. Which way was the cafeteria again?” he asked her, glancing around, trying to get his bearings on the unfamiliar campus.
“That way, I think,” Nic said. She squeezed his hand at his skeptical look. “If we get lost, we’ll just call it an adventure.”
Kevin managed a watery smile. “You know I’m all for adventures.”
They finally managed to find the student union and some cheap burgers, and they chatted about nothing, each with one eye on the clock as the minutes ticked by with excruciating slowness. By unspoken agreement, they rose at six thirty to begin the walk back to the gym.
They weren’t the only ones there early. “Hey, it’s the tiny flyer,” one of them yelled happily as Nic and Kevin slowly climbed the stairs. “I hope you get in and get to be my partner,” he added. Nic lit up under the casual praise. “Did I introduce myself before? I’m Zack, and these idiots are Spencer, Brendon, and Travis.”
Nic nodded at each in turn. “I’m Nic, and this is my best friend, Kevin,” she said by way of introduction. “Were you all on last year’s squad?”
They all nodded, Travis holding out his hand to show off his championship ring. “Back again for another year of torment and torture.”
“You love it!” someone laughed as they came up the steps. The voice belonged to the bouncy girl who had been next to Kevin in the audition group.
“This is Cassadee,” Spencer said, looping his arm over her shoulder and squeezing her fondly. “She and Maja are the only two flyers from the old squad trying out again this year.”
Cassadee leaned into Spencer’s embrace like a little sister demanding snuggles. “Why break up a winning partnership?” She smiled, a little wolfishly. “Spence and I took out partner stunt at Nationals last year,” she added with pride.
Kevin whistled under his breath, noticing the way Nic tensed. She’d qualified last year for partner stunt, before, well, everything. Kevin sometimes thought that Nic wanted that trophy more than a squad ring. He couldn’t blame her, really. When she got going, Nic could defy gravity. With the right partner, she could maybe even touch the sky.
Slowly, as the minutes ticked by toward the hour, more and more of the hopefuls trickled up the stairs to mingle awkwardly around the bulletin board. He plastered a smile over his nervousness, and tried to learn names and faces -- even if he didn’t make squad, Nic was a shoo-in, especially with so few flyers trying out. He’d be coming to see her, and so her friends might become his too, if he was lucky.
He winced to himself, turning away slightly so Nic couldn't read his thoughts on his face. They'd been so lucky so far, but maybe this time his luck had run out. He couldn't stay at Northeastern without this scholarship, and he couldn't just go back; he'd burned those bridges. They'd pinned all their hopes on this squad.
Stopping to think about it, that was kind of stupid.
Kevin shook his head as he spotted Mike mooching out of the shadows to lean against the wall at the edge of the group. “Hey,” Kevin said with a smile, heading over and ignoring Mike's crossed arms and fierce expression.
“Hey.” This close, Mike looked a little pale. “No news yet?”
Kevin shook his head tightly, feeling his own nerves start to bubble up again. “That’s good news, right?” He bit his lip at Mike’s disdainful expression. “Hey. Think positive.”
Just then, the door open and Victoria stepped out. “Is everyone here?” She glanced around, head bobbing slightly as she did a head count. “Good. If I call your name, stick around for five minutes, get the info pack, consent form, and scholarship information. We'll have a proper team meeting tomorrow to go over the details. Okay, our flyers are...”
Kevin found himself crossing both sets of fingers, only breathing out as “Nicole Anderson,” was read out in a clear voice. Nic squealed and hugged him before dashing over to take her packet from Gabe.
Kevin closed his eyes, feeling his stomach tighten with every name called out that wasn’t his. “Kevin Jonas.”
The ball of worry he'd felt knotting up inside his stomach melted away, and Kevin almost laughed in relief. But as he walked over, he saw a few of the old hands nudge each other, nodding toward him, and Kevin felt some of his elation evaporate. He kept the smile on his face as he accepted his own packet. Behind him, he heard Victoria say. “And Mike Carden. On to the bases.”
“Congrats,” Kevin whispered to Mike as he came to join the rest of the squad.
Mike looked too shell-shocked to do more than nod.
Mike slammed the door shut behind him.
“So, do we have a Northeastern cheerleader in our midst?” William asked, not looking up from the book he was reading.
Mike stalked over and snatched it out of William’s hands. “What did you do?” he demanded.
William was wearing his 'innocent' expression, but that had stopped working on Mike years ago. “Whatever do you mean?” he asked, trying for angelic and failing. Mike just raised an eyebrow. “I may have had a quiet word with the coaches about how much you needed this scholarship,” Bill said dismissively.
Mike snarled. “You did what? You fucker, how dare you...”
“Uh uh uh,” William said, waggling his finger. “You made the squad on your own merits. Well, mostly,” he amended. “I just gave you a little...” He waggled his hand, searching for the word. "Boost. That’s what cheerleaders do, right?” His smirk faded in the face of Mike’s glare. “Listen, Mike. You needed a scholarship to stay in school, right? I know it’s important to you that you finish this. And the NU cheerleading scholarships are sweet rides. They get to live in their own dorm building, a stipend, fees, meals. So get down off your high horse.”
Mike hated it, but Bill was right. “Whatever. Thanks,” he said gruffly.
“Don’t mention it. Now,” William said, leaning in as Mike sat down next to him. “When do we see you in the miniskirt?”
Mike hit him with his own book.
Kevin sank low in his seat as Coach Gabe and Coach Victoria strode into the room. “Consent and insurance forms,” Victoria snapped as Gabe walked around, taking and checking each form in turn. He nodded at Victoria as he tucked the last set of forms into a file. “Congratulations, you are now officially Northeastern U cheerleaders.”
Kevin smiled weakly at the cheer that went up around the room, the old hands yelling and catcalling as some of the bases stomped their feet. Victoria held up her hand, and there was instant silence. “Being a Cobra is an honour,” Gabe intoned into the hush. Next to him, one of the other new tumblers, Mike something, shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “You represent not only Northeastern, but also the long and proud tradition built by all those who came before you, including Vicky-T and myself, so,” Gabe said sharply, his pointed finger tracking around the ring of cheerleaders. “Don’t fuck it up or I will cut you.”
On the other side of the room, Cassadee leaned forward with a smile. “Love you too, Gabey.” She even blew a kiss. Kevin gasped silently.
But rather than disciplining her, Gabe just bounded over and messed up her hair. “Keep on flying, Cassy-me-dee, and I love you long time too.”
“Just stay out of his basement,” Spencer said drily as everyone laughed.
“Won’t make that mistake twice,” Brendon hooted from where he was sitting, half-draped over Zack’s back.
Kevin reacted instinctively, curling up a little, trying to make himself even smaller as the catcalling picked up a notch. “Enough,” Victoria said with a roll of her eyes, like she'd heard this all before. “Okay, we have your signatures, so now we own you. Here’s the training schedule. And no skiving -- you live in the cheer dorm now, so not only do we know where you live, but we also have keys.” She handed a stack of papers to the tall guy closest to her, and he started handing them back. “Now let’s talk about how fat you’re not going to get over the summer...” she began to lecture.
Kevin felt Nic kick him lightly in the ankles, and he looked over to grin at her as Victoria moved on to start explaining the terms of their scholarships. Their fees, books, everything paid for. Their gamble had paid off. They wouldn’t be skulking back with their tails between their legs, for this year at least.
“Jonas, Anderson, a word,” Victoria said as everyone got up to leave, joking and laughing about their plans for the remains of the summer.
“Yes, coach?” Kevin asked after the room has emptied and it was just the three of them.
She smiled tightly. “I heard you three-C kids were polite. Hope you rub off on these fuckers and not the other way around.” Her eyes narrowed at Kevin’s guarded expression, and she sighed as she perched herself elegantly on the edge of a desk. “So, given that you’re here, I’m guessing the rumours are true?” She barely waited for their curt nods. Kevin tried not to wince at the thought of what had happened becoming gossip fodder for the entire cheer circuit. “Okay, two questions. One - am I going to regret taking you two onto my team?”
Kevin glanced back at Nic. “With all due respect, coach,” she said through gritted teeth. “We’re ex- three-C. We owe them nothing now. They didn’t want us, and we didn’t want to be there. We want to be here, at Northeastern.”
Kevin didn’t miss the lightning flick of Victoria’s eyes sideways to Kevin. “We’re not going back,” he added firmly.
Victoria smiled again, a little less guarded. “Well, their loss is my gain. I saw you both stunt at the three-C homecoming. Yes,” she added, laughing a little at their shocked expressions. “I was totally spying. You guys are going to bring a tightness I think our team is lacking, and fuck knows three-C have kicked everyone’s butts in tumbling stunts at Nationals. Well,” she added wryly. “Except for last year.”
Kevin couldn’t meet her eyes. He heard her sigh again. “Anyway, second question. Where are you two living right now?”
Nic’s hand found Kevin’s. “My aunt,” she said quietly. “She lives about an hour away.”
Kevin nodded. “She’s got an enclosed porch that's big enough for camp beds, and the weather’s warm enough now that it’s okay.”
Victoria stood up. “Okay is not acceptable for Cobras,” she told them with a sharpness that belied her soft expression. “Come by the gym later on this afternoon, I’ll get you your keys for the dorm early, and clear it with Pete for you guys to be there over the summer.”
Kevin felt Nic’s fingers squeeze his own. “Thank you, coach,” he said, swallowing down his pride.
She punched him lightly on the shoulder. “You’re one of us now. We look out for our own. That’s how it works here.”
They waited until Victoria had walked out before they hugged each other. “We’re gonna make it, Kev,” Nic whispered in his ear, and for the first time in months, Kevin thought she might actually be right.
“Hey Mike!” Mike stopped, the rest of the team flowing around him, as Gabe strode down the corridor toward him. “You got a sec?”
“Sure,” Mike said, trying and failing not to feel nervous.
Gabe hustled him into an empty seminar room. “Listen, I just wanted to say welcome to the team.”
“You were actually going to be first on our A-reserve list, but they don’t have scholarships.” Mike swallowed, hard. Gabe’s expression hadn’t changed at all.
“Can I ask what made you change your mind?” he said, managing to keep his voice calm and even.
“Bill said something,” Gabe told him, and Mike felt his hands curl into fists. “He said that you don’t give up, you get mad and beat your problems into submission.” Mike blinked, knocked off his building anger by the unexpected statement. “So, let me lay it out for you. You’ve got the basic skills, but to be on the A team, your tumbling needs to go to the next level. We can teach you spotting, but you’re going to need to get fit, fast. And you need to learn to be part of a team. This team. Can you do that?”
Mike swallowed again and nodded sharply. “Yeah. Yeah, I can, and I will.”
Gabe’s smile was like a Cheshire Cat’s, slow and lazy. “Glad to hear it. Because we cut five other people who were just as good as you yesterday. Don’t make me regret picking you.” He stood and patted Mike on his shoulder. “Nice chat. Have a good break. Later, dude.” And just like that, Gabe was gone.
Mike got up more slowly. He paused in the doorway, watching as Victoria walked out of the meeting room. She nodded at Mike curtly as she passed, disappearing around the corner after Gabe. The sound of a door closing had him turning back in time to see two of the other new members, Kevin and that girl he was always with, Nic or something. They were walking the wrong way down the corridor, hand in hand. “Hey,” he called out after them. If Gabe wanted a team player, he’d get one. Mike would just start small first. “Exit’s this way.”
“Thanks,” Kevin said, flashing him a sweet smile as they passed. Mike followed them out, eyes fixed on the way they were holding hands. It wasn’t like the way Bill and Christine held hands, all sweet and lovey-dovey. Nic and Kevin held hands the way a drowning man held onto his rescuer.
Mike tried to ignore the little intrigued spark he felt; whatever was going on with these two, he didn't need to get in-between it. Besides, he had more important things to worry him right now.
The three of them paused at the top of the stairs outside the main doors to the building. “So, I guess I’ll see you guys when practice starts?”
“I look forward to it,” Nic said, and it didn’t sound like a platitude. Mike stayed on the stairs and watched as Kevin and Nic walked around the building and out of sight.
The air was warm, the sun bright. Mike turned his face to the heat, eyes closed for a moment, before he turned toward his dorm room to get his running shoes.
Kevin dragged the one big duffle that held everything he owned right now over the threshold of the house. He wiped his palms on his shirt as a guy about his height stepped out of a side room and walked toward him with a smile. "Hey, you must be Kevin, and Nic, right?" he said, shaking hands with both of them. "I'm Pete, I'm the spirit coordinator. Here are your keys. Victoria filled me in." Kevin looked away; he couldn't quite bear the gentle pity he was seeing in Pete's eyes right now. "Come on up, and I'll show you your rooms for the summer."
Later, after Pete had gone, and the house had once again fallen silent, Kevin drifted down the stairs to the main area. He had had a vague intention to make a sandwich or something, but the fridge was empty, cleaned out, not even cold. Kevin plugged it back in and went to sit at the table.
They'd have to make a shopping list. He sighed; first, they'd have to talk to Victoria about money. He was dreading the thought.
A part of him wished he could just get up, go back home, promise to be a good boy. But he knew he couldn't. Those bridges were well and truly burned.
He leaned back as he felt Nic's hands on his shoulders. "There's no food," he said quietly.
"We'll go grocery shopping. Another adventure," she told him.
Kevin kept his eyes closed. "I'm tired of adventures," he admitted in a whisper.
Nic kissed the top of his head. "I don't believe that. Come on." She dragged him out of his seat and out the door.
The rest of the summer passed in a exhausting blur of exercise and terrifying Youtube videos as Mike tried to prepare himself. On the day listed on his schedule from Victoria, he rode with Bill up the long, curved road toward the cheerleaders’ dorm building, fidgeting with the strap of his backpack where it was looped over his knee. “You don't have to do this,” William said, subdued after a long trip made in near silence.
Mike didn't turn away from the window. “Do you have a couple grand spare? No? Then yeah," he said, pushing his hair off his face. "I kinda do.”
Bill didn't say anything more until he pulled up outside the right dorm. On the sun-parched lawn, two kids in the B-squad were doing simple lifts and handsprings. A small gaggle of women, high ponytails switching across their backs, were bouncing up the stairs dragging heavy cases. “On the plus side,” Bill said, leaning over for a better look. “Hot roomies.”
Mike punched him on principle and got out of the car. “Thanks for the lift. I’ll give you a call later.” He stood on the curb and watched Bill drive off, feeling oddly bereft.
“Hey, newbie,” a guy called out as Mike hauled his bags over the threshold. “Glad to see you.” He clapped Mike on the shoulder hard enough to make him stumble. “I'm Travie, I'll be one of the team captains this year.”
Mike juggled his bags until he had a hand free. “Mike Carden.”
Travie’s grip was punishing as he pumped Mike’s hand. He pulled out a much-folded piece of paper out of his jeans pocket. “You're in, lessee, room five, that’s this way.” He grabbed a key off a board on his way past and tossed it to Mike. Mike almost fumbled it, but managed not to drop anything.
“Let me give you the tour,” Travie said, walking backwards. “This is the common area, TV room, reading room, that we also use for yoga. More often for yoga,” he admitted. “Kitchen,” he added, walking through an open-plan dining area and into an industrial-sized kitchen. “Rule is, you mess it, you clean it. That's everyone's,” he said, pointing to one fridge. “That's for your own stuff, but label it,” he said, pointing to a small one in the corner. “Everything unlabelled is communal. This way.” He pointed down a side passage. “Showers and shit. Girls to the right, guys to the left.” He kept walking, an easy, ground-eating stride.
Mike struggled to keep all his gear together and moving. “Down here we have pain central, otherwise known as our gym and practice area,” Travie said nonchalantly, waving through a set of double doors at the cavernous, sun-drenched space. “Come on,” he said, taking one of Mike's bags off him. “Time to go up.” They ascended a narrow staircase to the second floor. Travis walked Mike past a long series of doors to the last in the hall. “Room five, corner room, lucky fucker,” Travie said, knocking curtly before pushing the door open without waiting. He waved Mike in. “That key opens the main door, the gym door, the locker room door and this door, so don't fucking lose it. First team dinner tonight, be downstairs by six thirty. Later, dude.” With a wave, Travie left Mike standing alone in the middle of the room, surrounded by his baggage.
He blinked, finally catching up with himself. The room was larger than his old dorm, and one side was already clearly occupied – the bed neatly made, books on the desk, a coat hanging on a hangar looped over the closet door handle.
His room mate, whoever it was, looked like he’d been moved in a while. Odd -- he thought everyone started at the same time.
He looked up as the door opened. His eyes widened as he saw the guy from try-outs standing there in nothing but a white towel, his curls damp and springy around his face. He was carrying a wash bag, his other hand holding the towel securely around his waist. “Oh, hi,” he said brightly, tossing his wash bag on his bed. “You're Mike, right? I’m Kevin, we met at try-outs?” he said, his voice lifting, making the statement into a question. Mike nodded in vague recognition as he tried to keep his eyes on Kevin's face. Kevin smiled as he reached out, and Mike shook his hand on instinct. “I just picked a bed, is that okay?”
“That’s fine,” Mike said faintly, struggling to find something to blame for why he was staring at Kevin’s chest. Kevin wasn’t a big guy, but every muscle was toned and defined. A summer spent in training seemed like nowhere near enough, now.
Kevin unselfconsciously pulled a sweatshirt over his head, and Mike turned away, busying himself with lugging his bags toward the other bed as the towel hit the floor. When he let himself look up again, Kevin was grabbing a book out of the pile on his desk. “I’ll let you get settled. See you at dinner.”
Mike breathed out heavily through his nose as Kevin closed the door behind him.
Nic bounded down the stairs and across the beaten rug to throw herself across Kevin’s lap. Kevin lifted his book clear but never lost his place as she sprawled over him, arms and legs akimbo. He just let the book drop back onto her belly and kept reading.
Nic waited patiently until he’d finished the passage and put his bookmark in. “Have you met your roomie?” she asked, kicking her legs idly in the air.
“Mike, that guy who tried out with us, do you remember? I left him unpacking. You?”
She smiled and arched her back until her hair was pooling on the floor. “Cassadee. She was on the squad last year, she seems nice.” She giggled as Kevin lightly tickled her belly. She squirmed and rolled and twisted until she was sitting up in his lap, arms around his neck. “This is going to be a good move for us, Kev, I can feel it.”
Kevin smiled back and kissed her cheek. Now that there were people in the house, it didn't seem so lonely. “All I can feel right now is your bony butt," he teased her. "Go eat a cheeseburger, woman.”
She laughed, squealing as he swatted her lightly, and scampered off toward the growing noise coming from the dining room.
Kevin followed more slowly, unused to this many people in the house after a summer with just a handful of residents. The squad didn’t live together at three-C, and even when they got together to celebrate something, they were never this loud. Kevin edged into the room, skirting the perimeter and staying just slightly beyond the center of the noise.
Nic spotted him from where she was standing, leaning against the table next to Zack. She waved him over, but Kevin shook his head. She scowled at him, but Kevin ducked away.
It was just a lot of people to take in all at once, that’s all. He just needed a moment.
He sensed someone coming to stand beside him, and turned to find Mike looking a little shell-shocked. “Things calm down after O-week, right?” he asked.
“I hope so,” Kevin said, so fervently that Mike barked a short laugh. “I’ve always heard Northeastern was a bit of...well, this, but...” he trailed off, hating how stupid he was sounding.
Mike frowned. “Wait, this is your first year on the squad? I thought...”
“I transferred,” Kevin said quickly. “This is my first year with the Cobras, but not my first as a college cheerleader.”
Mike was looking around. “This is my first everything cheerleading. I only tried out so I could get a scholarship and stay at Northeastern” He turned to Kevin. “So, maybe, given we’re gonna be roomies, you could tell me if I’m doing something stupid.”
Kevin smiled brightly. “Only if you don’t laugh when I’m still getting lost in week six.”
Mike stuck out his hand. “You be my cheerleading guide, I’ll be your NEU guide. Deal?”
Kevin wasn’t feeling quite as tense as he has been by the time Travie banged his fist on the table and climbed onto his chair. “Welcome, Cobras new and old. I’m Travie, and I’ll be your co-captain along with the ever-charming Maja Ivarrson,” he gestured to a gorgeous blonde to his left, who sketched a little bow, her pinkies sticking up as she held out an imaginary skirt. Kevin had to smile at the performance as Travie continued. “We will be your favouritest bigs in the family. And believe me, we will become family. We will live together, train together, work together...”
“Get drunk together!” someone yelled from the other side of the room to a round of laughter.
“After dinner,” Travie said consolingly. “We’re not having a repeat of your freshman year, Urie.” There was more laughter. Mike and Kevin smiled nervously at each other. “Anyway, food’s up in fifteen, but before that, I want you to introduce yourselves around.” He winked. “There will be a test later.” He was pulled off his chair amid groans, and the noise level in the room started to climb again.
Mike sighed. “Time to mingle.”
“Onwards,” Kevin said, pasting a cheerleader’s smile onto his face.
Side by side, they plunged into the crowd.
“Hit the floor,” Gabe yelled, sounding pissed off. Mike helped Nic up from where she had gone sprawling before dropping to give five pushups with the rest of the guys on the squad.
Nic was limping off the mat as he staggered to his feet once more. As she sat down, foot elevated so Victoria could ice it, Mike ran his fingers through his hair in frustration and walked in a tight circle, trying to blow off the jittery energy under his skin, as the team reformed to move onto learning their next stunt. Zack scowled at him as he walked past.
He deserved it. It was because of him that Nic had hit the mat three times already today. Gabe’s rule -- that every time a flyer drops, everyone does five pushups - had seemed a joke at first.
Mike was very rapidly changing his mind. He scowled, angry with himself for feeling so tired and worn out, angry that, because he was so slow learning moves, Nic was hurt. Like she could hear what he was thinking, Nic looked up and smiled at him, but it was a weak version of her normal happy grin.
Gabe clapped his hands. “Sloppy, babies, sloppy. Line up, we’re gonna finish with some fast passes.”
Mike went sprawling on his first attempt, tumbling over onto his ass. He picked himself off and tried to walk it off as, on the mat, only two of the next five stuck their passes. Gabe clucked his tongue as he called training to a halt. “This?” he said, waving to the mat as the team all collapsed on the floor. “Is not a championship team. You’ve gotta lift your game before spirit camp, or else you’re gonna be a big fucking embarrassment to the Great Cobra.” With that, he strode out of the room.
Mike nodded as Spencer clapped him on the shoulder in passing. “We all have bad days, dude. Just gotta shake it off.”
Brendon grinned pitifully as he leaned against Spencer’s side. “We’ll get it before camp. I believe.”
“I want to believe,” Mike grumbled, and Brendon’s smile brightened a little.
“Oh, Spence, Spence, let’s do an X-Files marathon! I’ve got the DVDs.” Spence and Brendon staggered off toward the locker room, bickering about Mulder and Scully.
Mike dawdled, watching them all go, before he dumped his hoodie back onto his gym bag and walked back onto the floor.
He was gonna get this.
Taking a deep breath, Mike started his run-up.
“Stop fussing, Kevin,” Nic said, flapping her hands at him. “It’s just wrenched, not even a proper sprain. Ice, rest, I’ll be fine.” She held up a thick book. “I’m just going to lie here til dinner, okay? So, go find someone else to bother.” She laughed as Kevin darted forward to plump her pillows one last time before Cassadee chased him out of their room.
Kevin went out into the hall and down the stairs to his own room and found it empty. Mike hadn’t come back yet. Kevin frowned; he’d been one of the last into the showers. So where was Mike?
With nothing better to do, Kevin drifted downstairs, past the kitchens which smelled of food that didn’t make him homesick, and through the common room where the X-Files theme was blaring from the TV. Someone had made popcorn despite dinner being less than an hour away.
There was no sign of Mike.
Kevin headed up the corridor, wondering if maybe Mike was grabbing some sunshine. He slowed as he heard something hit the mat in the gym. Sliding through the barely-there gap between the double doors, he crept in.
Mike was sprawled on the ground, facing away from the door. Kevin slid into a shadow and watched as Mike grunted to himself as he hauled himself back onto his feet. Stretching up until his spine popped, Mike swung his arms, shaking out his fingers. Kevin knew the signs of someone trying to psyche themselves up. Mike took a running start, throwing himself into a forward tumble that fell apart before he was even halfway through. He landed hard and stayed down, winded, gasping for air.
“Are you okay?” Kevin asked, instinctively stepping onto the mat. The blue material was soft and springy under his bare feet.
Mike looked up at him before letting his head fall back onto the mat with a muted thump. “I can’t do this.”
Kevin kicked him, a light jab of his toes. “Can’t is the enemy of done,” he recited automatically. Mike scowled up at him, and Kevin sighed, extending his hand. “You can't let your brain get in the way of your body,” he explained patiently. “Don’t get into your head. Otherwise you’ll freeze every time.”
“Easy for you to say,” Mike grumbled, sounding pissy and frustrated. “You can do this.”
“Yeah,” Kevin agreed. “And didn’t we say that you’d help me with Northeastern if I helped you cheer? Well, let me help you cheer.” He held Mike’s gaze until Mike nodded curtly. “Okay, show me what you’ve got.”
He watched and tried not to wince as Mike flailed and fell to the mat, hard. “You need to get tighter. That’s the heart of stunting, tumbling and even the pyramids.” He poked Mike’s belly and made a face. “You’ve got good arm and leg strength, but your core is a mess.” He nodded. “You ever tried Pilates?”
Mike rolled his eyes as he sat up, his legs curling underneath him. “My mom does Pilates.”
Kevin smirked. “Then your mom is probably a better cheerleader than you are at the moment,” he goaded, and was rewarded with an angry, determined look. “I do a floor set every morning, and there’s a Pilates room in the gym on campus. We can go together, if you like, and I’ll show you.”
Mike nodded, his frustration seeping back into his expression. Kevin helped him to his feet again. “In the meantime, let’s break down the move.” He gestured for Mike to follow him to the corner of the mat. “This will feel weird and look stupid,” he warned. “But no-one’s watching. Follow me.” He began doing a series of runs and skips across the floor, corner to corner to corner, mimicking the muscle movements of a tumbling takeoff. He had to fight his body from curling into an actual pass -- that was the last thing Mike needed from him right now. Mike followed like an awkward fledgling, but after a few minutes he began to find his rhythm.
“Keep going,” Kevin called as he fell back to watch Mike more closely, adjusting his stride for a few more passes. “Okay, now do this,” he said, demonstrating a forward roll across the floor. “Get use to making your body curl up.” Mike sighed but didn’t protest as Kevin had him rolling across the floor until he was dizzy. “Faster,” Kevin yelled. “Faster, faster.” With each pass, Mike was on the ground for an ever-briefer fraction of a second. “Bounce it.”
And Mike did a forward flip. He stopped, stunned. “Keep going!” Kevin yelled, laughing as he chased Mike around the mat. Mike took off, whooping as he did three more flips in a row before losing his balance on the fourth, his feet slipping out from under him as he fell onto his butt, hard enough to make the mat bounce.
Kevin giggled and cartwheeled over to land lightly on his knees next to Mike. “We’ll make a tumbler out of you yet, Carden,” he said, lying back with his knees tucked up neatly under him.
“One small flip for man,” Mike joked as he let himself flop down on the mat, his body parallel to Kevin. “Thanks,” he added more softly, reaching over to tap his knuckles lightly against Kevin's.
“No problem,” Kevin brushed it off with a smile.
They lay there in silence for a minute, getting their breath back. “Hey, Kevin,” Mike said at last. “Why’d you transfer to the Cobras? I mean, you’re really good at this, so why’d you...?”
Kevin felt his smile slip, and fought to hold onto it. “I...I changed schools. But...” he veered away from the sudden looming spectre of his parents. “Scholarship, man, same as you.”
There was a weighty pause. Kevin held his breath. “Come on,” Mike said, getting up and holding out his hand to help Kevin to his feet. “I smell food.”
Kevin forced himself to relax as he followed Mike out of the gym.
If Mike heard one more pom-pom joke, someone was going to die. He could probably plead justifiable homicide.
The common room was mostly empty, though Mike could hear Disashi and Maja bickering happily about nothing in the kitchen. He tuned them out and slung himself into the low sofa jammed up under the window, wiggling until his feet were dangling over the armrest. He briefly contemplated smothering himself with a pillow before he settled on just clutching it to his chest.
"Hey." Mike opened one eye to glance at Kevin as he came and sat primly on the edge of one of the armchairs. "You okay?" he asked Mike with real concern.
"Nothing that having an alibi and a shotgun wouldn't fix," Mike said, closing his eye again. "And maybe a good place to hide a body."
"Please, just not under your bed, the smell would get appalling," Kevin joked, and Mike had to laugh.
He held up two fingers. "Scouts honour, no corpses in the room." Kevin nodded, and Mike smiled, feeling better already. He twisted uncomfortably as he felt his phone start to vibrate. Wiggling, he managed to tug it out of his pocket.
Bill's stupid face was smiling at him from the screen. "Hey, fucker," he snapped without too much heat. "Nah, just talking to my friend Kevin... yeah my room-mate, I think I mentioned....” He nodded an apology to Kevin as he got up, and took the conversation out into the corridor. “Anyway, do you feel like being a reasonable human being now?" He glanced up as he saw Kevin cross the hall into the kitchen.
Kevin was still there, though Disashi and Maja had vanished, when Mike came through the archway that linked the common to the kitchen. "Yeah, yeah," he said into the phone, laughing. "Declarations of love and adoration alone are not enough to save you now! Yeah, okay, see you then. Bye." Mike cut the call and nodded at Kevin. "Sorry about that," he apologised, waving the phone in the air before pocketing it.
Kevin's smile didn't quite reach his eyes. "That's cool. I was just gonna…" he gestured toward the stairs.
Mike nodded, feeling a little uneasy all of a sudden. He swallowed hard and tried to hold onto his good mood. "I'm going out, if you want the room to yourself," he offered as he went over and wiped his name off the meal board.
"Not coming back for dinner?" Kevin asked, his voice sounding strained.
Mike smiled and shook his head. Now that Bill had decided to listen to reason, they had an actual shot of finishing that song tonight. "Nah, probably won't be back late. I'll try not to wake you. See you later."
Kevin's soft "Bye" followed Mike down the hall as he headed for the door.