After a long day (during which Ophelia did actually eat as she was supposed to), the newly formed cheer squad was standing in front of Laslow in their gym clothes in an almost exact repeat of the tryouts, except their numbers were fewer. Laslow delivered another speech with his hands behind his back. "The fact that you're here means you weren't scared of my warnings of cheerleading being very difficult, and that's good! I do want to warn you again that I was not over-exaggerating. Please do keep in mind that going out for cheerleading means putting your body on the line. I don't want to scare you too much with that though, so let's move on to my next point. This is a point I do want to drill into your heads as best I can. I will not be satisfied unless you leave this school year living, breathing, and dying for this fact: Cheerleading is a sport. Don't you ever let anyone tell you otherwise, alright?" The squad nodded at him simultaneously and he smiled. "Good. That was rule number one."
The sole boy in the squad raised his hand and asked, "what's rule number 2, coach?"
Shifting his weight to one foot and placing his hands on his hips, Laslow said, "thanks for asking, Percy, but I was going to get to that without you helping increase the time we spend here. Rule number two is one that has been passed down in my mother's family for generations. Keep in mind that this is a very difficult sport and you will get hurt."
"I thought you said you didn't want to scare us too much with that," one of the girls asked, causing Laslow to throw his head back in frustration.
He snapped at the girl, albeit with a smile. "Yes, I know! I'm reiterating to justify rule number two! Remember, you will get hurt, and it won't all be fun and games here. However, no matter what happens, you must remember to smile." The squad exchanged looks of confusion. "I thought I'd get that reaction. See, smiling makes everything better. I've learned to smile even if you're not okay, and that can do a lot more than you expect. Even fake smiles can lift the spirit and turn themselves into real smiles. So rule number two is to always smile, even when it's difficult. Do you understand?"
Everyone nodded understanding. Ophelia and Sophie looked between each other and shrugged. Neither of them were expecting to be completely dumbfounded by their cheer coach this quickly. He continued with the plan of attack for the first cheer practice of the year, which started with a wordless motion to a table with a piece of paper sitting on it. "Now, one at a time, everyone will write their names and their sizes so I can order your uniforms. I know it would be awkward to give that information to a grown man you barely know, and that's why the paper's there. After that, you will spend the next hour getting to know each other. That's it. That's practice for the day. Once I saw so, everyone can go home."
"Excuse me sir," Sophie interjected. "But why is that practice? I know we don't have our uniforms, but that doesn't mean we can't practice."
"That is very true," Laslow admitted. "However, a key component of cheerleading is trust, and you have to get to know your squad mates before you can fully trust them. This will be one of—if not the most important practice of the year. Now get to it! I'll be in the bleachers if you have any questions." He clapped his hands together and made his way to the stands, where a hefty pile of paperwork was waiting for him.
As soon as the coach was buried in his work, the squad dispersed. Everyone was quick to fill out what they needed to on the paper and go back to socializing. Ophelia did her rounds and met everyone, but quickly found herself in a group with a specific three people. Sophie, of course, stuck by her side since they had known each other beforehand. Nina, the girl Ophelia remembered hearing skeevy comments from also stuck around them, thanks in part to the fourth member of their group. As the only male cheerleader who made it into the squad, Percy was the center of attention for a while, the swarm of girls curious as to his intentions. He was quick to explain that he was so overflowing with school spirit that cheerleading was the only sport he felt would properly reflect that. After promising everyone that he wasn't a pervert, he stuck around near Ophelia, Sophie and Nina for some reason. "I think you three seem cool," he explained plainly.
The hour passed faster than any other in the day, which became the standard for cheer practice that year, and the group of four she found herself in eventually turned out to consist of some very close friends. After every practice, Ophelia would pile into her father's car and share with him her experience for the day. Usually, it was stories of the routines she was learning, and sometimes it would be an account of missing a stunt and scraping herself somewhere. One day, she shared a particularly amusing story of Laslow and Nina getting into a very heated debate over what kind of man is more attractive. Despite the fun times she was having, Ophelia was also being pushed harder than he had been in her life up to that point. The work outs, the routines, and the exercises were tough, but once she had them down, she felt a sense of accomplishment she couldn't quite match by getting good grades or completing her personal goals.
And then there were the games.
The sports games, which were how the cheerleaders got recognition, were more of a burden than a duty to Ophelia. She liked performing for the crowd in between periods or quarters, but while the game was actually being played, the squad was relegated to sitting quite literally on the sidelines, pom-poms together on the ground and feigning interest in whatever was happening. There were two saving graces to this: watching Nina get flustered at the sweaty men touching each other (which, for Ophelia, was a gross sentence to even think), and watching the boys get distracted by the short skirts and low-cut shirts to the point of messing up a play or running into another player on accident. The second bit was so amusing that sometimes Ophelia and Sophie would make it a game to see how many players each one could distract by making faces.
One game that went particularly late into the night was exciting to watch, but the fact that it wore on so long balanced it out, leading to a tired and slightly irritable cheer squad. Near the end of the game, Ophelia excused herself for the restroom, and bumped into a vaguely familiar girl on the way out. The slightly startled girl brushed a strand of pink hair from her face and smiled when Ophelia apologized. "Hey, it's alright," she said happily. "So long as you take me out to dinner to make up for it."
Completely dumbfounded, Ophelia stuttered, trying to find a response, but none came. When the girl laughed a sweet laugh, she shook her head and got her wits about her. "Excuse me? Are you just hanging out outside the gym and waiting for people to bump into you so you can ask them out?"
"Tch, of course not, that was just me being a smooth operator." To illustrate her point, the girl crossed her arms and leaned against the wall. Of course, her shoulder slipped and she stumbled forward, immediately disproving her claim. Ophelia caught her and helped her back into a standing position, which earned her a look of adoration. "Um...wow, sorry. I'm just astounded by how beautiful you are."
Ophelia blushed despite herself and quickly let go of the girl's arm. "Er, thanks, but I really need to go."
She started towards the restroom, but the girl frantically cried, "wait!" When she had Ophelia's attention, the girl offered her hand. "I should introduce myself. Name's Soleil."
Ophelia took her hand and shook it, nodding. "Ophelia. Hey, where have I seen you before?" This question made her temporarily forget that her bladder felt a little bit like bursting.
"Probably, I'm Ini—coach Laslow's daughter," Soleil explained. "You've seen me around, I'm sure. And man, I wish I had seen you around."
"Er, thanks," Ophelia said. "Maybe I'll catch you later." With that, she scurried off into the restroom. Moments later, she emerged with a sigh, the sight waiting for her in front of the gymnasium doors the same sight she had just left behind. Soleil stood there pretending to be interested in the papers on the wall with her hands behind her back. "Soleil?" The girl jumped and turned back to Ophelia with a smile. "Were you waiting for me, or are you actually waiting for people to run into you so you can ask them out?"
Soleil smiled and shook her head. "No, I was waiting for you. See, I'd actually like to go out with you. Maybe we could grab a cup of coffee or something? I know quite a few good places we could go."
Ophelia forced an awkward smile. "Sorry, Soleil, but I don't actually know you well enough to go out with you. It's flattering that you think I'm so pretty though."
Soleil somehow managed to keep a smile while her face noticeably fell, but nodded understanding. "Right, I getcha. Maybe another time?"
"Maybe," Ophelia said dismissively, moving past Soleil and into the gym. "I need to get back to my squad now."
"Later!" Soleil called. The two split paths, Soleil rejoining her father in the stands and Ophelia sitting next to Sophie and asking what she missed, ready to forget this interaction entirely.
Strangely, that one incident was the start of many, as the very next school day, Ophelia looked up from her lunch to see Soleil standing next to her table expectantly. She asked, "may I take a seat?"
Ophelia shrugged wordlessly, which she knew Soleil would take as a yes. As she watched the other girl take her seat, she said, "so what brings you here?"
"I wanted to get to know you," Soleil said plainly. "You seem nice."
Ophelia smiled. So this girl could say something without being flirty. "Okay then."
What she was expecting to be a talk with the other girl about interests and whatnot turned into a very long lunch of Soleil checking girls out and talking about how attractive they all were, which got real old real fast. This became a normal affair, Sophie joining most days to relieve Ophelia of having to listen to Soleil hitting on women endlessly. On top of that, sometimes Soleil would saunter into cheer practice (never making it in until after the "cheerleading is a sport" reminder) to watch the proceedings. She would always complain about staying at school so long after it ended, but she would always shoot suggestive glances at the girls, so the reason she came wasn't exactly a mystery. This continued for months, with quickly forgotten attempts to befriend Ophelia sprinkled in every once in a while. It wasn't particularly annoying or unwelcome, but the fact that she would so quickly forget what she was trying to accomplish would get on Ophelia's nerves. It became apparent to her that she wasn't asked out because of anything other than her looks. However, they did have the occasional interesting conversation every once in a while.
One day, as they were walking through the halls together, they passed several members of the basketball team wearing their jerseys, as they were asked to do on school days that had games take place after hours. Soleil elbowed Ophelia and asked her if she was ready to cheer that evening, to which she responded by laughing and flipping her hair over her shoulder. "Of course, I'm always ready to perform!"
"Cool, that's cool," Soleil responded. "So hey Ophelia, I have a question for you."
"Yeah? What's that?"
"Why doesn't the school allow the cheerleaders to wear their uniforms on game days like the other guys? You girls—and Percy—will have something to do after school too." Soleil tilted her head at the mention of the sole male cheerleader, as if mentioning him was a chore.
Ophelia shrugged. "I couldn't tell you. Maybe it's because our outfits are so skimpy, it would distract perverts like you," she playfully snapped at Soleil, staring her down in faux anger.
Soleil barked a laugh and scratched the back of her head. "Heh, I guess you have a point. I know I'd get distracted by the...special detail about game days."
"Special detail?" Ophelia asked. The tone with which Soleil said those words was worrying. "I don't know what you mean."
Soleil winked and flashed her a cheesy grin. "Of course you don't," she said sarcastically. "Ah, good move." She headed off to class wearing that grin, leaving Ophelia to wonder what the hell she meant.
These strange instances only multiplied as the school year went on, but Ophelia was starting to warm up to Soleil, if only a little bit. Maybe it was because she was the coach's daughter, or maybe it was because she felt obligated to parallel a friendship she knew her father had been experiencing when he was her age. Whatever it was, it never became quite enough to accept Soleil's requests for a date. She remained undeterred though, which was charming, if a little annoying.
And then the second semester snuck up on the squad. Just as fast as Soleil had started attending practice as an observer, she stopped showing up entirely a month or so into the semester. This wasn't mysterious or worrying, as Laslow explained it succinctly as soon as someone brought it up. "She's stopped attending practice, because we need to be without distractions for the next two months."
"Two months?" Ophelia asked. "What's happening in two months?"
Laslow looked to the male cheerleader with an expectant gaze. "I'll let Percy explain it, since he seems fired up about it."
Before he could even finish his sentence, Percy jumped forward. "The cheer competition! The one we've haven't won for the last ten years!"
"Precisely," Laslow said. "We need to bring our A game to the competition, so all distractions are gone from practice until we've gone to the competition."
"Why's it so important?" One of the freshmen asked.
Percy was happy to jump in with an explanation. "Because our biggest rival, Hoshido High, has always been the team to knock us out of the competition. We can't stand for insults like that anymore."
Laslow agreed once more and clapped his hands together. "That said, everyone, let's get to work. And remember:"
The next part was said by everyone in the gym at once. "Cheerleading is a sport!"
The stakes were high, and practice became intense, with more focus, more injuries, and less of one particular member. Unfortunately, one of the members of the squad was a senior, and that meant the spring semester brought many days that she couldn't attend practice due to other commitments. Percy bemoaned this, claiming her absence would be the final factor determining their loss at the quickly approaching competition. "Don't think like that," Laslow would always assure him. "Remember to smile!"
Sure, it was easy to keep the smile up at practice, but going home meant the stress of homework and the uncertainty of the very important competition fast approaching. The night before, Ophelia locked herself in her room, sitting on her bed and mentally going over the routines they were going to perform in mere hours. Her thoughts were interrupted by the loud knocking at her door. "Ophelia, my sweet, may I come in?"
"You're welcome to, father," she called.
The door slid open and he stepped in, one hand behind his back and a warm smile on his face. "So, the competition's tomorrow, right?" Ophelia nodded as he sat on the bed next to her, still hiding one hand from her. "You nervous?" The answer to that came in the form of a pointed look that made him laugh. "I thought so. That is why I'm in here, after all."
"Any advice?" She asked, turning to face him properly. "I mean, you won all your cheer competitions, right?"
Owain laughed, his smile looking forced. "About that..."
His daughter gasped and covered her mouth. "You didn't? You only won one or two?" Another shake of his head almost made her faint. "What are you saying?"
"Our cheer squad...never won a comp, Ophelia," Owain admitted sheepishly.
"Why not?" She demanded.
"See, Inigo and I didn't always get along," Owain explained. When he was met with a blank stare, he laughed. "Sorry, coach Laslow and I wouldn't agree on how every routine was meant to go, and since our team wasn't perfectly in sync, we could never make it to the top."
"Oh gods, so the pressure's really on..." Ophelia fell backwards onto her bed and stared at the ceiling, feeling a little bit like crying. How could she win such an important event when her father couldn't even do it?
"Oh no, that's not what I was trying to do!" Owain scrambled to save his point, grabbing Ophelia's wrist and pulling her back into a sitting position. "I came here to help you out!" When asked how, he rolled up his sleeve and pointed at the mark on his skin. "Remember our birthmark?" Ophelia nodded and shifted her own shoulder towards her father. Her current tank top didn't have any sleeves to roll up, so it was easily visible. "Right, have I ever told you that our mark is the mark of champions?"
Ophelia nodded. "Yeah, your uncle has it, your cousin has it, and we have it."
"Very good," Owain confirmed with a nod. "And you also remember that your grandmother did not have such a mark?" Another nod from his daughter. "Well, she wanted to be blessed with the power of our family, so she had this fashioned." He held out the hand that was behind his back and opened it to reveal a necklace, bearing a silver charm in the shape of the mark on their shoulders. "Wear this to your competition, and you'll have double the strength you have now."
Ophelia took the charm and inspected it closely. "It's beautiful...are you sure you want me to have it?"
Owain gave his daughter a thumb's up. "Absolutely. My mother gave it to me when I was ready, and now it's time for me to pass it on to you." He placed a hand on Ophelia's cheek and looked closely at her face. "You remind me more of your grandmother every day. And now it's time to go and make us proud."
"But what if we lose again?" Ophelia asked. "Apparently Hoshido High is really good."
Owain shook his head quickly. "No, Ophelia. You will make us proud no matter how well you do. As long as you give it your all."
Now Ophelia really was crying. "Thank you, father!" She cried, throwing herself into his arms. They embraced for a moment before Owain asked her a very serious question.
"Now, what's your ultimate move named?"
"Oh right!" Ophelia pulled back and held a hand in front of her face like her father liked to do so much. "My ultimate move has affectionately been called Odin Dark's Triple Back Handspring Supreme!"
Owain nodded sagely, absorbing the name. "Good good, but it could use some work."
"Next year, I'll have an even better one," she promised without missing a beat.
"That's my daughter!" With a laugh, Owain took a stand and made his way to the bedroom door. "You'll do great tomorrow. I wish I could come to watch, but alas, work beckons. You know I'll be there in spirit, of course."
"Of course," Ophelia confirmed. Once she was alone again, she gazed at the charm with renewed confidence. She could do this. She was all ready for the competition tomorrow, and there was nothing at all she was forgetting.
That is, there wasn't until moments later when she realized she was forgetting something very important. "I need to shower! I can't be all stinky!" After rushing to the bathroom with a change of clothes in hand, she took a deep breath and got ready for a nice, relaxing shower.
Of course, being as single-minded as she was, she spent the shower practicing the routine, miming the arm movements she would have to make the next day. Of course, it wasn't as easy, considering the lack of a certain type of support while in the shower, but she figured doing the routine while dealing with her breasts bouncing uncomfortably would help her be more proficient when she didn't have to deal with that. Watching the warm water splash at the walls around her was almost as fun as actually doing the movements, but something she failed to take into consideration was soon biting her in the ass.
Or, more specifically, her hand, as one particularly grandiose movement lead to her smacking her hand against the tile wall. She recoiled in pain, squealing a bit. After making sure it didn't bruise, she shook her head at herself, deciding to wrap up her shower without any further silliness. Once she was out and all wrapped up in the necessary towels, she decided to check her phone, which of course she had brought with her. Nestled in between a few unimportant notifications from mobile games was a text message from one of her few friends from off the squad. Inside was a short, sweet good luck wish from Soleil, complete with a heart emoticon and a flower emoji.
She tapped out a thanks and set her phone aside to get herself dressed (she elected not to share the fact that she was naked for obvious reasons). She hadn't even reached for her clothes before her phone vibrated, receiving another text. This one was a follow-up from Soleil, providing additional encouragement. Ophelia nodded at the phone, impressed at how quickly she'd gotten a reply. When she pointed that out, Soleil responded again immediately with, "yeah, my fast fingers are a thing of wonder," punctuated with a winking face.
"Oh my gods," Ophelia laughed, blushing and stashing her phone until she was fully dressed again.
The next day dawned, the early morning sunrise seeing a nervous but excited cheer squad piling into a van just outside Nohr High School. One bright side to this competition was that it got them out of school for the day, and nobody was complaining about that. As they settled in, Laslow stood outside the van, tapping his foot impatiently.
"What're we waiting for?" Nina asked, looking around the parking lot littered with cars.
"My daughter." Laslow muttered the words as if saying them would make her magically appear, but he had no such luck.
This answer confused everyone in the van. As they looked between each other, Sophie asked, "wait, what? She's not on the squad."
Laslow didn't answer, but Soleil was happy to when she finally appeared and hopped into the van. "I get to go because I'm daddy's little angel," she bragged. "And I couldn't pass up missing school to see a bunch of pretty girls surrounding me."
The van lurched off, headed for the destination: an amusement park that sat in the small town nestled at the halfway point between Nohr and Hoshido's schools, which had apparently been the site of the competition ever since its inception so many years ago. When they finally made it into the town that housed the park, Laslow motioned toward the windshield. "New cheerleaders, say hello to the small town of Valla. You'll pretty much only ever come here for the amusement park, but it's a nice place to look at as we pass through, I suppose."
The girls who had been to the park before nodded agreement while the ones that hadn't examined their new surroundings curiously. The only other guy in the car after the coach did neither of those things, staring into space intently. "Er, Percy?" Ophelia asked. "You okay?"
Percy nodded. "I'm fine, I'm just psyching myself up. I'm gonna need all the luck I can get today."
Ophelia scoffed and put a hand on his shoulder. "Oh, please. This isn't about luck, it's about pure skill!"
"It's a little bit of luck," Percy insisted.
Disagreeing but not wishing to push the subject, Ophelia shrugged and left him to his own thoughts. Moments later, the van was pulling into the parking lot and the girls (and Percy) were piling out. As soon as they were back on their feet, Soleil approached Ophelia. "So, is that new?" She asked, reaching for Ophelia's necklace.
As she took a hold of it and leaned in to get a better look at it, Ophelia nodded. "New for me, yeah. It's a charm from my family that awakens my inner skill."
"Cool," Soleil nodded. "You won't need it." After receiving a questioning look, she smiled cheekily. "All you need to awaken your skill is a smooch from Soleil!"
Ophelia's unamused response was simple. "Okay, you can let go of the necklace now."
Soleil did, but before she could move her hand back to her side, Ophelia did it for her. "What? I wasn't gonna steal it."
"Stealing wasn't what I was worried about," Ophelia said. Soleil understood what she meant when she motioned at her chest area.
"What? You insult me. As if I would do that without express permission." She feigned anger by crossing her arms.
Ophelia shrugged. "Better safe than sorry."
Before Soleil could respond, Laslow interjected in his coach voice. "Alright girls and Percy, go crazy, but be sure to meet at the front gates at one thirty exactly. Break!"
So the Nohr squad scattered, Soleil, Ophelia, Nina, Sophie and Percy sticking together, mostly so they could remind each other to stay on time. The nerves were getting to all of them (except Soleil), but that didn't stop them from enjoying the time they had to ride some rides and grab a snack or two. Along the way, Percy decided he was going to try playing a few of the parlor games sitting in the middle of the park, despite everyone insisting they were all rigged. He tried out four of the games, and walked away with four grand prizes, causing his companions jaws to all drop. "Heh, guess I'm just really good, huh?"
"How the hell are we gonna get all this back?" Nina asked, holding the giant yellow cartoon character he had won at his first stop. He shrugged, adjusting the yellow and blue cyclops he had won at the final venue.
"Gods, share some of that luck, will ya?" Sophie asked. "I wouldn't be able to win one of those to save my life."
Soleil laughed in agreement. "Yeah, one time I lost one of those crane games that say you win every time."
"You must be a descendant of some legendary hero," Ophelia suggested. "It's the only explanation."
Percy smiled. "Well, yeah, I am. My pops is the most legendary of them all to me."
The response he got was a resounding, "awww!"
Unfortunately, the entire day wasn't fun and games. Soon after Percy's winning streak, the group of five ran into trouble in the form of four girls and a guy sporting a red cheer uniform. Percy's spirits dropped at the sight of them, and they happened to see the group as well.
The lone boy in that group held his hands behind his head and stepped forward with a smug grin. "Well, well, well, if it isn't NHS sqaud."
The girl at his side with flowing red hair giggled and evaluated the group. "Yep, you look new to the squad."
The pink-haired girl at his side looked them over with stars in her eyes—oh wait, those were her actual eyes. "Opposing cheer squad. They look like complete losers. We've first place for sure."
The orange-haired boy looked off into the distance, as if counting something and then nodded at the girl. He held his hands in front of him and snapped a few times, and the girls in the group followed suit as if they were at a poetry jam and not an amusement park.
"Big talk for such a small girl," Percy snapped. "What's your position on the team? Stepping stone?"
The blonde girl in the group, who was definitely taller than Percy, stepped forward, a playful smile on her lips, but venom in her voice when she said, "She's a higher rank than you are, I'm sure. It's not hard to be higher than the bottom of the pyramid." As she said this, her hand played with the highlight in her hair.
This was when Soleil stepped in, hands up in a conciliatory gesture. "Now now, save it for the comp, okay, ladies? And Percy."
"Why aren't you in uniform?" The redhead asked in a condescending tone. "Are you too sick to compete?"
"Not part of the squad, thank you very much," Soleil explained. "Step off."
After the squad shared a laugh, a girl with green hair spoke up for the first time. "Maybe she's right, guys. Don't wanna get all riled up before the competition and end up messing up."
"Good point, Midori," the boy said. "We should leave the Nohrian scum alone."
"Come on, you only agree with her because she's your cousin," the redhead scoffed. "But yeah, let's not waste our energy on them."
"Good idea, for both sides," Soleil said. "Don't waste your energy on them. They just want to distract you."
"Yeah, you're right," Nina nodded. "That boy wasn't even that cute. Like, seriously? Orange hair?"
The fragment of the squad did their best to have fun, despite the unpleasant encounter, and they did pretty well, all things considered. When the afternoon came, though, it was time to get serious. Soleil wished them all luck and disappeared back into the park to ride another roller coaster or two, and Laslow greeted them with a smile. After the entire squad had their pre-show huddle and reaffirmed that cheerleading was, in fact, a sport, they got to work.
The competition wore on, the entire multitude of schools that attended showing off their best routines and maneuvers with exciting, upbeat soundtracks and loud proclamations of school spirit. Nohr and Hoshido, as per the usual, quickly ascended the ranks, surprising no one.
Then came the final performance. Hoshido got to perform first, doing a slower paced cheer set to a melancholy soundtrack obviously influenced by Japanese culture. Percy watched the performance with hate in his eyes—but a smile on his face, as per Laslow's rule.
When it was time for Nohr to step up to the stage, every feeling, both negative and positive, came rushing to Ophelia all at once. It was so overwhelming looking out at the crowd that it came full circle, and she felt nothing. The only thing that was real to her at that time was their routine, and how they had to execute it perfectly. All was going well, until the senior on the squad took a misstep. She stepped early by only a moment, but surely it was enough to catch a judge's eyes. Ophelia didn't think too much about it, because she was focused solely on her own performance, feeling the mark on her shoulder growing heavy, as if it were a weight to work under.
Then, she herself screwed up. During the grandiose final gesture, she flashed back to the shower last night, where she had slammed her hand against the tile. She flinched, her hand withdrawing and her movement slowing as if the wall was still there. She finished the routine with a wide smile and heavy breathing like everyone else around her, but on the inside, she was berating herself for making such a stupid blunder.
After the routine wrapped up, the Nohr and Hoshido squads took the stage, staring out at the crowd as the judges announced the winners. Coach Laslow and the coach of the Hosido side—a man with scruffy green hair—stood in front of their respective squads to receive the trophy on behalf of the team. Everyone on the Nohr squad had high hopes except for Ophelia, who knew for sure that she had blown it for her team. Sensing the tension in the air, Laslow turned back during the end-of-competition speech and whispered, "remember, keep smiling," to whoever could hear it. The encouragement fell on deaf ears, as the moment he finished saying the words, the huge golden trophy was presented to Hoshido's coach.
Ophelia wanted to faint on the spot.
The Hoshido squad cheered, jeered and gloated, but nothing could make the soul-crushing disappointment worse than the feeling that she had almost singlehandedly cost her squad the competition. The urge to break down into loud, ugly sobs on that stage was almost too strong to fight, but she managed to keep herself together.
At least, until she got to the van again, which is when she cried into the giant stuffed dragon Percy had won, her friends consoling her. "Hey now," the senior who had misstepped earlier said, a hand on her shoulder. "I'm the one who screwed up the approach, it's my fault."
Ophelia sniffled and shook her head. "Yeah, but we could have won despite that. I just kinda...screwed up! What will my dad think?"
From the driver's seat, Laslow spoke up at last. "Your father will be incredibly proud of you for making it to second place in your first ever cheer competition. Don't sell yourself short."
Ophelia sighed, knowing that Laslow was right but not wishing to acknowledge that. "I think I just need to be alone with my thoughts," she mumbled at last, causing everyone to back off for the rest of the car ride home. She buried her face in the stuffed animal again, thoughts racing about the day. That stupid pink-haired girl had probably already written twelve haikus about her win, but Ophelia had nothing to show for all her effort. Her worries started to ease when she felt a hand start slowly stroking her hair. The soothing, quiet gesture was probably the best thing she could have been given at that moment, but she didn't dare risk investigating for fear of ending the relaxing, intimate moment she was having with whoever it was.
Ophelia had just drifted to sleep when the van pulled up to the school. Once everyone had gotten out and grabbed their stuff, they each took turns giving Ophelia a hug, which she appreciated almost as much as the person playing with her hair earlier. When Percy pulled away from the hug, he grabbed the tear-stained stuffed dragon and handed it off to Ophelia. "Here, keep it," he said.
"What? No, I can't..."
"Hey, don't sweat it," Percy said with a smile. "I won four of these things, surely you can have one."
"Thanks," Ophelia smiled, taking the dragon and patting its head. "But I can't take it without letting you name it."
Percy put a hand to his chin and stroked it thoughtfully. "How about Ace?"
"Works for me," Ophelia nodded.
"Good," Percy replied. "See you on Monday!"
"Thanks, see ya."
Once Percy had left, Ophelia was alone, having received hugs from everyone. Now for the hardest part: facing her father and breaking the news to him. Fortunately, that didn't turn out to be very difficult at all. The moment she climbed in to the car, he looked to her with a sympathetic smile. "So, what's the damage?" He asked quietly.
Ophelia raised an eyebrow at him. "Wha...how did you know we lost?" She asked as she put her seatbelt on and tossed Ace into the back seat.
She felt grateful that her father hadn't started driving yet, because he held his hand in front of his face dramatically and put on a knowing smirk. "Your father is a master of deduction, my dear," he bragged.
A moment of silence passed. "...What?"
Finally, Owain shrugged, chuckling to himself. "It was kind of obvious, considering everyone was hugging you."
They shared a laugh as he shifted into drive and left the school's parking lot. He asked again, and Ophelia told him about the senior missing her step and then herself flinching at the end. "It was humiliating," she finished.
"Hey, don't blame yourself," Owain assured her. "Even if you did do perfectly, there's no telling whether you would have won or not. I hear Hoshido High is really good, so who knows how it would have gone."
"I guess," Ophelia admitted. "I just feel awful."
"Understood," her father nodded.
After a moment of Owain talking about driving (considering she was very close to having her permit), she changed the subject. "Hey dad, why haven't I met coach Laslow's daughter before?"
The car lurched, Owain getting caught off guard by the question. "Er, why do you ask?"
Ophelia absentmindedly fiddled with her necklace as she said, "well, you've told me all about how you and him are such good friends, but I had no idea he even had a daughter until I met her last semester. She's even my age!"
Owain sighed. "Heh, I guess you're right," he admitted. "You see, as friends grow older, they tend to, uh, drift apart, physically and mentally. We haven't talked much since the two of you were born, because life would get in the way."
Ophelia wasn't convinced. "But all these years? That's such a long time to never talk to him."
"I didn't say I never talk to him," Owain said quickly.
"Still, is there more to it than that?" Ophelia asked.
Owain feigned a knowing laugh. "Don't you worry, my dear. You will understand when you grow older."
Knowing she wouldn't get anything else out of her father, Ophelia shrugged. He quickly changed the subject by asking to hear about the amusement park and the story behind Ace, the new dragon occupying the back seat. When he heard the story of Percy winning four games in a row, he spent the next solid few minutes laughing, doing his best to stay on the road while dying of laughter. "What a guy!" He finally cried, clutching his stomach with one hand and the wheel with the other. "Why did he give the dragon to you?"
Ophelia turned back to look at the dragon, sitting on the seat limply. "Ace helped me work through my tears on the ride back to the school," she explained. "Percy felt like we bonded enough that he couldn't bear to take him from me."
Owain nodded, eyes on the road. "What a nice boy. Did anything else happen?"
Before anything else, Ophelia thanked her lucky stars that Owain hadn't pushed the Percy subject to the point that most parents like to, but she didn't dwell on it, because she had gotten to the point in the story that held the encounter with the other cheer squad. After the brief interruption of getting home and heading inside the house, Owain listened intently, nodding whenever his daughter paused to signify that she still had his attention. His first question once it was over was, "did the girl with the red hair happen to give you her name, perchance?"
Ophelia shook her head. "No, why?"
"No reason," Owain said quickly. "Regardless, I'm glad you had a good day before the competition itself. Try to remember that, okay?"
"I can try," Ophelia promised, propping Ace up on her bed.
"Good. I'll see you later, my sweet," Owain said, heading for her door. "Oh, one more thing."
He put on a cheesy grin when he asked, "is this Percy boy more than just your friend, or...?"
Ophelia slammed her hand down on Ace, her face flushing immediately. "Dad! I was happy you weren't saying things like that!"
After having a laugh, Owain left her alone to her thoughts, finally allowing her to collect herself after the tumultuous day. Now, she was ready to forget all about her blunder and put the competition behind her.
Monday came, and Ophelia had no such luck. She walked the halls of the school, that one arm movement festering in the back of her mind like an unwelcome, unwashed guest. No matter how hard she tried to push it out of her thoughts, it would come back, the guilt nagging at her endlessly and ruining her entire week before it could even really begin. Finally, lunch arrived and Soleil could immediately tell that something was wrong, which she asked about at the first chance she had.
Ophelia sighed in response, her shoulders slumping forward. "I'm still thinking about how I fucked up that routine."
"What? Really?" Soleil asked. "You're still hung up on that?"
Ophelia nodded slowly. "You would be too."
Soleil smirked and held her hands behind her head. "Nah, I don't dwell on unimportant things like that."
"Unimportant?" Ophelia repeated as if she had just been insulted. "How is that unimportant?"
Soleil shrugged and said, "it's just a cheerleading competition. It's not like it's a big time sports game or something."
Ophelia straightened up and looked at Soleil incredulously. "Excuse me? A cheer competition is kind of the biggest time sports game of cheerleading."
Soleil pursed her lips, shrugging as she said, "yeah, but it's not like cheerleading's actually a sport or anything."
Ophelia didn't remember her exact thought process, but it was something along the lines of, "I'm going to punch a bitch," except with more profanity littered about. What she said was, "do you want to run that one by me again?"
"Cheerleading's not actually a sport," Soleil repeated as if she wasn't going against the one thing that Laslow said every single day.
Ophelia wanted to make good on her mental promise to punch a bitch, but instead, she placed a hand on Soleil's shoulder as gently as she could manage. "How do you get along with your father with an attitude like that?"
"I just don't say it to him," Soleil said. "But I'm pretty sure he just says that so nobody feels bad that they're taking it too seriously.
"Incredible," Ophelia muttered. "I can't believe you."
"What?" Soleil seemed oblivious to her transgression, which only made Ophelia angrier.
"Of course cheerleading's a sport!"
"Is not," Soleil insisted. "It's just girls dressing up in skimpy outfits to make the boys playing games wanna show off."
Ophelia raised an eyebrow at her companion. "Oh really? So you're saying it's easy?"
"Probably easier than any actual sport, yeah," Soleil answered.
Ophelia crossed her arms disapprovingly and shot a glare at Soleil. "Alright, you know what? If you think it's so easy, why don't you try it?"
"Wha—me?" Soleil stuttered.
Ophelia nodded. "Well, the only way you'll be convinced that cheerleading's a sport is by learning it firsthand, so you should go out for it next year."
Soleil held her hands up innocently. "No no no, I never said I could do it, just that it was easy."
"If it's so easy, you should be able to do it," Ophelia reasoned. "Unless you want to admit that it is a sport after all."
"No thank you," Soleil said quickly. "It's not a sport."
"You're not allowed to say that until you've tried it for yourself!" Ophelia snapped, losing her patience.
"Fine, maybe I will," Soleil said, sensing the hostility and wishing to make it less harsh. "Why are you so insistent on this?"
"So I can be right and you can prove yourself wrong," Ophelia said plainly. "Glad to hear that I'll have another squad mate next year."
Soleil put on a concerned look. "Hold on there, we can't just force me to join the cheer squad all willy-nilly. What's in it for me?" The conversation came to a screeching halt, Ophelia unable to think of anything she could possibly offer to make it a fair trade. When she couldn't think of anything, Soleil put on a dreadfully familiar smile and crossed her arms smugly. "Here's an idea. I'll join the cheer squad on one condition: you go on a date with me."
Ophelia gasped, suddenly remembering all the attempts Soleil had made to ask her out before. It had been months, so she figured Soleil had given up! Her first instinct was to say no, but she was so close to getting Soleil to join the cheer squad, so she sighed and held out her hand. "Shake on it."
"So is that a yes?" Soleil asked.
"Yes," Ophelia sighed again.
Soleil pumped her fist in the air and joyously shouted, "yeah! Finally, mission accomplished!"
"You better not brag about this to anyone," Ophelia warned her. "I'm only doing this to get you on the squad."
Soleil shrugged. "That works for me."
The two girls shook hands, solidifying the deal, and Ophelia left the lunch room that day hoping that she hadn't made a terrible, terrible mistake.