Two weeks after school started, the gym saw swarms of students going in every day to try out for a different sport. The Friday of that week saw the smallest crowd of all of them, and that was the one Kaede found herself in. As she expected, the group was primarily girls, with only two boys joining the lineup. One was Kaito, of course, but the face of Shuichi's ex was not one she expected to see. He seemed ecstatic to see her though, judging by the way he bounded over to her on sight, eyes sparkling with false wonder and ratty, greasy hair bouncing as he did. "Hey, Kaede!" He called. "What a totally unexpected surprise to see you trying out to be a cheerleader!"
Kaede rolled her eyes, just barely holding back a groan. "Is it, now?" She responded flatly.
"No," he said quickly, matching her flat, uninterested tone. "I called it from a mile away."
"Bet seeing my name on the sign-up sheet before yours helped give it away, huh?" Kaede was talking slower than usual, which was her way of getting as little conversation with this boy as possible.
"What? No..." The infuriating new voice her unwelcome visitor put on sounded sarcastic, but considering what she knew about him, it wasn't any sort of indication of what he actually meant. "I didn't even look at the sheet before I signed up. So! Change of subject, how is Shu—"
"That's enough," Kaede said, holding her hand out mere inches from his mouth. "I won't be fielding questions about your ex. Again. Let it go, Kokichi."
Suddenly, the doors to the gym came flying open, snapping everyone's attention to the new visitor. "Sorry to keep you waiting, paragons of cheer!" A peppy, older woman's voice called out. The woman who was marching into the gym had long, tousled blonde hair which bounced as she walked. She had a laptop tucked under one arm and a steaming cup of coffee in her other hand. "I can't tell you how excited I am to see so many happy faces here, today! I will be your new cheer coach for the year. You may call me Ophelia Dusk. Or Ophelia, or Mrs. Dusk. Whichever you prefer."
Kokichi scoffed at the woman's display. "You don't work here," he said confidently. "Who let you in?"
Ophelia took a sip of her coffee. "Astute observation. No, I don't work at the school, but the only teacher qualified to be cheer coach has taken the spot as the men's softball coach this year, and he couldn't be asked to handle two teams at once. Therefore, the school contacted yours truly! I think you'll find that I'm more than qualified, as I've been a cheerleader for most of my life, following in my father's footsteps and with a championship or two under my belt. Any other questions?"
Kokichi raised his hand, but nobody else did, so Ophelia grabbed a whistle from around her neck and blew it. "Excellent. Everyone, get changed into your gym clothes and wait for me to come get you. We'll be trying out in groups of three, so, ahem..." She cleared her throat and took a seat on the bleachers, setting her coffee to the side and grabbing a paper from in between the laptop's hinges. She held the sign-up sheet in front of her and continued, "Kaito Momota, Maki Harukawa, and Kaede Akamatsu, come out as soon as you are changed. Thank you!"
"Excuse me, Miss Dark," Kokichi said. "I have another question."
"No time, get moving!" Ophelia blew her whistle and the girls (and two boys) scattered, making their way to the locker rooms to get ready. Kaede changed as fast as she could, but when she left the locker room and emerged into the gym once more, both of the others were already there. Kaito waved her over, a big grin gracing his face. "Kaede, hey! This is Maki Roll."
He gestured at the shorter girl next to him, who shot daggers at him before turning her attention to Kaede. Her eyes were a striking shade of red, and her hair was pulled back into two enormous pigtails that almost went all the way down to her feet. She crossed her arms over her stomach, which brought Kaede's attention to her long-sleeved shirt that seemed out of place in that late summer afternoon. "Maki. Kaito's the only one who can call me that name, and even he risks getting castrated when he does." As she spoke, her face showed no trace of emotion, which was strange to Kaede. Didn't Kaito say this would be their fourth year on the squad? How did the squad accept someone three years in a row when she looked like she'd never smiled in her life? Still, there was something about her expression that was...arresting.
So much so that she couldn't manage to think of a response to what she said before Ophelia started speaking. "Alright, I've been told that two of you have been doing this for a while now."
"We sure have," Kaito said proudly, standing up straight as if he was in line at a boot camp. "Maki Roll here and I have been doin' this since year one."
"Excellent," Ophelia said. "And Kaede, how about you?"
Kaede cleared her throat. "Well, I've never done this, but I'd be more than happy to give it a try if you'll let me!" She held up her hands, clenched into fists to show her determination.
Ophelia's expression lit up. "I like your spirit! Your voice makes me want to listen closely, and your determined face makes me want to follow you wherever you may lead."
"You got all that from one sentence?" Kaede asked, looking at Ophelia like she had two heads.
"What about my one sentence?" Kaito asked. "I'm pretty sure I said two, even."
Ophelia turned her gaze to Kaito. "Yeah, you have bravado too, but Kaede's voice has a certain… je ne sais quoi."
"What the hell does that mean?"
Maki elbowed him in the side. "I don't know what," she said flatly. "Don't ask stupid questions."
"Wow, Mrs. Dusk must be real smart to know something that Maki doesn't," Kaito mused, unaffected by the elbow digging into his ribs.
Ophelia giggled. "I feel a lot of chemistry between you three. I like it. Now, I have one more question for Maki." She took a drink of her coffee, and when it went down, she continued, "where's that cheerleader spirit? You know, the irresistible smile and loud, proud voice that's meant to put the audience under your spell. You seem rather...dour for someone who's been doing this for so long."
Instead of answering, Maki turned on her heels and started walking away from the coach and those in line next to her. "Uh, Maki?" Kaede asked.
Kaito hushed her by holding a hand up. "Sh, just watch."
Maki reached the large double doors to the gym before turning around. After taking a deep breath, she broke out into a sprint. Kaede didn't even know how to describe the stunts Maki did in the next ten seconds, but she watched her do them so intently, she didn't even realize she was holding her breath until it was over. After several flips, tumbles and jumps, she landed near where Kaede and Kaito were standing with one arm held straight above her head and one stretched out to the side.
Ophelia's jaw dropped. "Oh. My. God. That was absolutely incredible!"
"The other coach decided Maki Roll didn't need to smile with talent like that," Kaito explained. "And besides, I'm plenty energetic and spirited for the both of us!"
"I'd be inclined to agree!" Ophelia said. "Okay, well you can sit this next part out then, Maki. Kaede, Kaito, are there any stunts you know that you can show me?"
Immediately after Ophelia stopped talking, Kaito stepped forward. "My turn," he said. "I won't let you show me up that easily, Maki Roll."
"You'll do the rest yourself, dumbass," Maki said, strolling to the bleachers and taking a seat next to Ophelia.
"Alright, Kaito, let's see it!" Ophelia watched Kaito intently as he made his way to the center of the gym. He did some tricks of his own, and while it was still nothing Kaede could do, it was nowhere near as impressive as Maki's display, and he got winded quickly.
"There," he gasped once he was done. "Did that...do anything for ya?"
Ophelia gave him a smile and a thumb's up, which he returned eagerly. "Very good, Kaito. Alright, Kaede, is there anything you can show me?"
Kaede could feel her face heat up. "Uh, nothing I haven't known since I was a kid. I could do a somersault or something."
"Hey, this isn't a competition," Ophelia assured her. "Anything you can do is fine. I need to know where I'm starting with everyone."
"Right." Kaede waited until Kaito sat down on the opposite side of Ophelia as Maki and took a deep breath. She was anxious, but not about the fact that three vastly superior cheerleaders were watching her. Her mind briefly flashed through all the ways what she was about to do could hurt her hands or wrists, but she soldiered past it and did what she had said she could.
Two or three somersaults and a sloppy partial cartwheel later, and Ophelia was satisfied with what she'd seen. "Alright, good. You seem nervous when you start, so we'll have to start there."
"Does...does that mean I'm in?" Kaede asked nervously. "I didn't think I'd made that good of an impression."
Ophelia laughed as though there was a joke Kaede wasn't in on. "Would you like to know a secret? There aren't enough people trying out for me to deny anyone without a really good reason," she explained, tapping the sign-up sheet with the back of her hand. "So, unless you had hurt yourself doing that, you were gonna get in no matter what."
Kaede wasn't sure whether this information made her feel better about her situation or worse. "O-oh."
Ophelia seemed to pick up on her conflicted feelings, because she set her computer next to her, laid the sign-up sheet on the keyboard, and put her coffee down next to it before springing up off the bleacher. "But don't fear!" she declared, bounding to Kaede. She grabbed the younger girl's hands in her own and held them up in front of her. "I love your energy and natural enthusiasm! I can tell just from this short, chance meeting that you have what it takes to become a stand-out crowd favorite!"
Hearing Ophelia so enthusiastic perked Kaede up, and she couldn't help but return the excited sentiment. "Right! Thank you. I'll do my best." She looked to Kaito and Maki next; the former was hanging onto Ophelia's every word and the latter seemed to have checked out, staring into the middle distance blankly. "And I look forward to getting to know you guys!"
Kaito returned her smile with one of his own. "Likewise!"
Maki seemed to snap back into reality and she scanned Kaede with her eyes before nodding silently back at her.
Kaede was a bit thrown off by that reaction. Had Maki really zoned out, or was she just unsure about letting someone so inexperienced into her squad with her? It wasn't worth agonizing over, she knew, but something about that brooding, dark-haired girl just captured Kaede's attention.
"Alright, now you three are free to go," Ophelia said, letting Kaede's hands go and moving to her computer. She grabbed three pieces of paper out from under the sign-up sheet and gave one to each student. "This will tell you when the first day of practice is and what to bring. Don't be late, my fledgling stars!"
Kaede and Kaito shot back with, "Yes, ma'am!" but Maki merely took the paper and silently made herself scarce.
Kaede grabbed her stuff from the locker room, not even bothering to change back into what she'd worn to school that day.
She was still having a hard time believing what had just happened, but she was past the point of turning back now, so whether it was a good idea or not, she was entrenched in this impulse decision for the rest of the school year.
The next day, she recounted the tale to Shuichi over lunch. He seemed to be following her just fine until she made a passing reference to the big, stupid head of hair she'd been standing next to during try outs. "Wait, who did you say this was again?" He asked, one hand grasping the brim of his hat and lifting it slightly.
"Kaito Momota? Why?"
Shuichi's reaction was immediate, and before Kaede had even finished saying his name he had yanked his hat back down over his eyes and was blushing wildly. "You're on the cheer squad with Kaito?"
"Er, yeah," Kaede said. "He said this would be his fourth year doing it."
"Oh, god." Shuichi looked around nervously, as if saying his name would summon him to the table. "Hey, Kaede, do you think..."
He trailed off and started to stutter. Kaede brought his attention back to her by tapping on the table impatiently. "What? Use your words, Shuichi!"
Shuichi took a deep breath and mumbled, "Do you think you could get his number for me?"
Kaede's eyes went wide as his behavior clicked in her head. "Oh, I see. You have a little crush on Kaito, don't you?"
"Maybe," he stuttered, looking away in shame.
"Wait, how do you even know him?"
"He's been in at least one of my classes every year," Shuichi explained. "He's...not the sharpest tool in the shed, but there's just something about him...I've never worked up the courage to talk to him so...maybe you can help me out!"
Kaede crossed her arms and puffed out her cheeks. "Hey now, I'm not going to be playing matchmaker for you, mister!" Shuichi flinched back at her words and her expression softened. "But once I get to know him, maybe I can help you out a bit."
Shuichi breathed a sigh of relief. "Whew. Thanks, Kaede. Maybe, if you're there, I can go to a game to watch you guys or something. I could talk to him then, probably."
Kaede bit her lip, slouching forward slightly. "Yeah, I'm not so sure that's a good idea. See, someone...else signed up for the squad, too."
Her tone put Shuichi on edge. "Who…?"
She traced her finger along the table, wishing she didn't have to say what she was about to. "Kokichi's there."
Shuichi groaned and rolled his eyes. "Ugh, of course he is. I wonder if he saw your name and signed up to get close to me again."
Kaede shrugged. "That was my first thought too, but who knows. I'll just ignore him the best I can."
"That's always the best option with Kokichi," Shuichi laughed. "Anyway, I'm glad everything went well. You will be careful, right?"
Kaede flashed her best friend a toothy grin. "Of course!" She felt a little like Kaito with that level of enthusiasm, but she wasn't going to say it out loud now that she knew how Shuichi felt about the guy.
From then, it briefly became a waiting game. Cheerleading didn't start right away, so the squad didn't convene again for another month or so. On the fated day, Kaede walked into the gym to see most of the squad already present on the bleachers, and one Kaito Momota waving at her frantically. "Hey, Kaede! Come take a seat over here! I saved ya one right in between me and Maki Roll."
Several faces Kaede recognized and a few she didn't turned to look at either her or Kaito, but she shrugged off their stares and took a seat like he'd asked. She had decided in the interim that if Shuichi wanted her to help him get with this guy, she was going to make sure she approved of him first, and what better way than spending time with him at practice? She also wanted to get to know Maki a bit better, too, but that was for a more selfish reason. Once she was sat in between them, she asked the first thing that came to mind, which happened to be a question directly related to Shuichi's current intent. "So, how close are you two, if you don't mind me asking?"
"Now why'd you go and ask that so out of the blue?" Kaito shot back.
Kaede shrugged and looked to Maki on her left, who seemed like she wasn't even paying attention. "I dunno, I just see you two around each other a lot, so naturally I was curious."
Kaito didn't think twice about it, puffing his chest out proudly. "Maki Roll and I have known each other for years now. We're basically siblings at this point."
"Don't get your hopes up," Maki said, a warning tone in her voice. "I don't think you're Kaito's type."
Kaito laughed, reaching behind Kaede to playfully punch Maki in the shoulder. "Maybe not, but maybe she's your type, eh Maki?"
In response, Maki's eyes glazed over with murderous intent and she glared at Kaito. "Do you want to die?"
Kaede's jaw dropped at that exchange. "Oh. I didn't think that idea would be so offensive."
Kaito didn't seem phased by his old friend's harsh words or the hurt in his new friend's voice. "Oh, don't worry. Maki Roll always says stuff like that, even when she agrees with me. It's part of her charm!"
Kaede certainly didn't feel very charmed. "Well, if you say so." She shook her head, eager to change the subject. "Anyway, I have a best friend like that too, actually."
"Oh yeah?" Kaito seemed fully on board with the change in direction. "Got a sidekick of your own, eh?"
Kaede shrugged. "I don't know if I would call him a sidekick, but..."
"Oh, I know who you're talking about!"
And suddenly, there went the conversation. Kokichi had come bounding over as if he was waiting on pins and needles for Shuichi to be brought up. "You shouldn't get too interested in her bff, Kaito. He's like, tragically straight. So not tubular."
Kaede was annoyed at Kokichi, but she couldn't help but snort and burst into laughter at those words. "He most certainly is not," she promised. "Just because he doesn't like you doesn't mean a thing."
Kaito watched the proceedings, stroking his silly beard. "I get the feeling there's some sort of history between you two."
"You catch on quick," Maki said flatly.
Kokichi grinned wide and nodded quickly. "Oh yeah. Kaede and I go, like, way back dude."
"We don't," Kaede said. "And why are you talking like some sort of surfer dude?"
Kokichi's expression glazed over as if he was lost in thought. He put a finger to his chin and tilted his head to the side. "Sorry, this guy just seems so stupid, I thought talking like that would be the only way for him to understand me."
Kaito's brow furrowed and he shot a glare at Kokichi. "Oi! Don't talk about me like I'm not here!"
"Oh no, it's sentient." Kokichi seemed disappointed as he scurried away, probably to bug someone else for the time being.
"Sorry about him," Kaede said. "He's always been that obnoxious."
Maki spoke directly to Kaede for what seemed like the first time. "I don't even know his name and I wish he was dead."
Kaede smiled sheepishly. "Yeah, he's a handful. Imagine what I felt when he was dating my best friend."
"He wouldn't survive the night," Maki shot back, fixating her murderous glare squarely on Kokichi's back.
That was when Ophelia came into the gym, striding in like she was skipping through a field of flowers. "Good afternoon, current and future cheer stars! Are we ready to begin the journey to our destinies? Everyone, line up!"
The ragtag cheer squad got into a line in the center of the gym as Ophelia started calling attendance. Most of them were new names to Kaede, but a couple stood out. Like when Ophelia called for one Miu Iruma.
"Yeah yeah, I'm here," the crass voice Kaede recognized from a few classes called out. She wondered what it was that brought Miu to cheerleading, but she came to the conclusion that they were in the same boat and decided that deduction was good enough for her.
The next familiar name was Tsumugi Shirogane, who Kaede had done a couple of projects with and knew decently well. After getting everyone accounted for, Ophelia struck an odd pose in front of the group. "Alright everyone, get your stretches in! While you do that, I'll come around and collect your sizing information so I know what kind of uniforms to order."
"We're still getting uniforms despite not being a proper team or anything?" Kaede asked.
"Well, of course," Ophelia said, putting a hand on her hip. "Just because you aren't going to be making waves in competitions doesn't mean you don't need to look fabulous while you're performing."
Kokichi raised his hand. "Do I need to tell you my size?"
"Yes, Kokichi," Ophelia said, her tone reminding Kaede of one of those television shows for toddlers. "I know you fully intend to be the mascot, but we can't have you getting lost in a suit that's too big."
Kokichi was silent for a long moment. "Right. I was kinda thinking about making my own."
Ophelia seemed caught off guard by that statement. "Uh, huh. Well, even if you do have the means to make a mascot costume, which I doubt, I would rather you wear one that's professionally made."
"You also still have to stretch," Ophelia said, delivering her line like it was the final blow in a sword fight. "Now get to it!"
Kaede stuck by Kaito and Maki while the team stretched. Kaito didn't seem to mind, but Maki seemed slightly annoyed. Even after Kaede explained that she would rather not deal with the way Miu liked to talk to her, Maki seemed like she would rather be dealing with Kokichi.
It most likely wasn't the case, but Kaede couldn't shake that possibility from her mind. However, any anxiety she gave herself from overthinking that disappeared entirely when Ophelia approached her. Well, it didn't disappear, but rather was replaced by a different flavor of anxiety. She blushed and mumbled her size to her coach, shooting glances around to make sure nobody was listening to her divulge just how much bigger she was than most of her squad mates. Ophelia seemed to pick up on this immediately. "There's nothing to be ashamed of, dear," she assured her. "By the time I'm done with you, we'll all be family here. The kind of family that loves each other unconditionally, not the kind that jeers at each other about things out of their control."
Kaede appreciated the sentiment, but after Ophelia left, she could feel her anxiety spike again when Kaito shot her a confused glance. "Everything okay, Kaede?" He asked.
She felt a lump forming in her throat. She didn't want to get too into her body image issues with a relative stranger, but it turned out she didn't need to. Maki softly punched him in the side, causing him to recoil and fall into a coughing fit. "Idiot," she snapped. "Learn to read the room and maybe you'll know next time that you don't need to go sticking your nose places it doesn't belong."
Kaito didn't seem to get it, but regardless, he shook his head. "Alright. Sorry, Maki Roll."
Maki sighed, burying her face in one hand. "Don't apologize to me, stupid."
"O-oh, right! Sorry, Kaede." Kaito put his arms to his sides and bowed his head to fully get the point across.
"It's alright," she responded, giving a sheepish giggle.
It seemed like a miracle that Miu had made it through the entire first day of practice without making fun of anybody's body, but once in the locker room afterward, it became clear that it wasn't a stroke of luck by any means. Kaede had taken her gym shirt off and was reaching for the one she'd worn to school when she heard Miu's voice behind her. "Oh hey, almost didn't see ya there, Kaede."
Kaede cringed at the sound of the other girl's voice. "Hi Miu," she said. She knew replying with vitriol right away would end poorly, but that didn't mean she was going to turn around and face the bitch in question.
"What brings you all the way to cheerleading?" Miu asked, feigning deep interest. "Is it the same reason I need to do some kind of sport this year?"
"Probably," Kaede said quickly.
Miu barked a haughty, self-congratulatory laugh. "Well, that's what you get for refusing to work out for once in your life. You get resigned to doing something you won't even be any good at!"
Kaede's brow furrowed and she turned around to face Miu. Her retort caught in her throat when she saw that Miu wasn't wearing anything at all on her top half.
"What? Distracted by my perfect tits?" Miu taunted, cupping her breasts in her hands to show them off. "Aren't they so much bigger and perkier than yours?"
Psychological warfare. Very shrewd, Iruma.
Finally, Kaede gathered herself enough to speak, looking Miu in the eyes when she said, "Don't make fun of me for not doing sports when you haven't done them either, Miu. You know what they say about glass houses."
Miu scoffed, putting her hands on her hips and puffing her chest out distractingly—er, proudly. "Don't pretend we're anywhere near the same situation, Kae-dumb," she huffed. "I haven't done any sports credits because I need my gorgeous brains to stay intact. You've avoided it because you're just fa—"
"Don't you say it!" Kaede snapped, stomping her foot on the ground. "I swear, Miu, leave me alone this year, okay? I have enough on my plate and I'm sure you do, too."
Miu snorted. "Yeah, I'm sure you have plenty on your fuckin' plate, piggy!"
In the blink of an eye, Maki had put herself in between the girls. "That's quite enough," she said, intent to kill dripping from her every word. Kaede was looking at Maki's back, but the face she was wearing must have been intense, because Miu immediately shrank back. "We're going to be on the same squad all year, and if you spend all of it hating each other, it will only go by slower. Plus, if you annoy me too much more, I'll kill you."
Miu screeched, sweat pouring down her face and hands moving to her cheeks. "I-I'm sorry, I swear I won't do it again!"
"You better not," Maki said, crossing her arms. "Now go put a shirt on, you slut."
Miu made a noise somewhere between a cry of fear and a moan of pleasure before leaving Maki and Kaede alone. Maki shook her head and turned back to Kaede. "She's always like that, isn't she?"
"More or less," Kaede said with a sigh. "Usually that's enough to reel her in for a couple hours, though. Honestly, I think she gets off to it."
"Fucking weirdo." Maki shrugged and started making her way back to her belongings.
"Thanks for stepping in for me, Maki," Kaede said before putting her shirt back on. "I know you probably didn't do it for me specifically, but I appreciate it nonetheless."
"I did it to keep things civil on the squad," Maki admitted. "Last year, we had a nasty spat between two girls who were dating at the beginning of the year and went through a breakup, and I swear if I have to put up with half of that again, I'll kill someone. Probably Kaito."
Kaede laughed. "Well, still."
Her next thought was cut off when Maki said, "But also...you shouldn't feel ashamed of your body."
Kaede was caught completely off guard. "Wh-what?"
"I've been doing this for four years now, and I've seen every type of body come through this locker room," Maki explained. "And yours is...er, what I mean to say is you're…never mind. I'm going to tell the coach to watch out for Miu." She spun around on her heel and quickly made herself scarce; but on her way out, Kaede could have sworn she caught a glimpse of a blush on the other girl's face.
She spent the rest of her time in that room trying to decipher what Maki was trying to say, but she got distracted by Tsumugi sidling up to her on their way out. "Fancy seeing you here, Kaede," she said, which was her usual greeting.
"How was your break, Tsumugi?" Kaede asked, giving the other girl a quick hug before picking up her stuff and setting out for the door.
"It wasn't anything special," Tsumugi mused. "Just a plain, boring break as usual."
"I feel you there," Kaede said with a laugh. "I'm looking forward to being on the cheer squad with you, though! What made you sign up?"
Tsumugi's expression lit up, which told Kaede it probably had something to do with anime. "Oh! See, over the break I got into this anime where the main protagonist is a cheerleader, so I thought, what better way to get prepared for my next cosplay than doing actual cheerleading?"
"That's dedication," Kaede said. "We'll try to have some fun despite Miu."
"Well, if that cute girl was anything to go by, she might be easier to deal with than usual," Tsumugi said. "Who was she? You two seemed close."
"We did?" Kaede asked. "Er, that's Maki. She seems nice. Honestly I've only known her since tryouts, so we're not that close."
Tsumugi hummed in thought. "Well, regardless, I think you two have the potential to become close."
Something she said earlier suddenly occurred to Kaede. "Wait, did you call Maki cute?"
"Yeah? And?" Tsumugi said. "Just because I spend most of my time watching anime and making cosplays for those anime doesn't mean I don't know a cute real-life girl when I see one."
Kaede laughed. "I suppose you're right."
"Don't worry," Tsumugi assured her. "I won't try to make a move on her or anything. You're free to go for it."
Kaede's face started to heat up at the prospect. "Oh, heh, I dunno about that..."
Tsumugi shrugged. "Well, good luck either way. I'll see you later, Kaede!"
The girls parted ways after that, a new seed of an idea planted in Kaede's mind. It wasn't much, and Kaede didn't even truly realize it was there, but the ball was already rolling, and nobody could have predicted where it was going to go.
The very next time the squad got together for practice, Miu was noticeably keeping her distance from Maki, which Kaede took as her cue to spend more time with her and Kaito. However, the notable part of that practice was instead Ophelia establishing the ground rules. They were mostly the standard fare, which didn't surprise anyone, but her last two points seemed oddly topical with what Maki had mentioned. "So I heard there was some drama on the squad last year," Ophelia said. "This year, we're not going to be dealing with that. If you have a trouble with anyone else, just bring them to me and we'll all deal with it like a big, happy, dysfunctional family. I don't want any bad blood between us getting in the way of our routines."
"Sounds fair, coach," Kokichi said, his hands cupped behind his head. "Can I call you Teach?"
Ophelia paused and looked at Kokichi like he'd suddenly grown ten feet taller. "...No."
"Final rule!" Ophelia bounced back suddenly, startling Kaito slightly. "There will be no romantic relationships between any two members of the squad."
This caught Kaede off guard. "What?" She asked, raising an eyebrow.
"As a squad, we must be a well-oiled machine, and any components getting romantically involved would throw everything off," Ophelia explained. "I won't be having it."
Tsumugi put her finger to her chin and hummed. "I would argue that that would make us function better, wouldn't it?"
"Someone will be a little better oiled than others, if you catch my drift," Miu said, congratulating herself for her remark with a loud cackle.
Ophelia seemed to ignore them both, instead opting to continue with, "Romance can be thrilling, I know, but I don't need anyone getting distracted in the middle of a routine and flubbing it because they couldn't keep themselves focused on the task at hand." She crossed her arms and nodded firmly. "If I discover two people on the squad are dating, they will be kicked off and any relevant credits they may get this year will be nullified. No ifs, ands, or buts! Now let's get started, everyone. Ten warmup laps!"
Kaede wasn't a huge fan of the warmup laps due to the fact that she got winded faster than most of the others and was left in their dust for the most part. However, watching Maki outrun everyone without breaking a sweat wasn't so bad when Kaito seemed to have the same amount of endurance as her. At about the same time Maki lapped them the third time, she decided to ask him about it. "Oh, that's nothin' worth worryin' about," Kaito said, huffing and puffing in between words. "I had a rest...respite..."
"Respiratory?" Kaede supplied.
"I had a lung thing when I was a kid. It's mostly gone now, but..." Kaito paused to hack a cough into his fist. "It pretty much meant I can't breathe right for the rest of my life."
Kaede decided to let him ignoring her slide, mostly because she didn't think he understood the word she had said. "And yet you still decided to do cheerleading?"
"Of course," Kaito said. "I always believed that you should never let your physical condition hold you back from your dreams!"
"Your dream is to be a cheerleader?" Kaede was starting to feel like this exchange was raising more questions than it was answering.
Kaito laughed, shaking his head. "No. I'm here 'cuz Maki would be alone otherwise."
"You're not making any sense," Kaede said. "Maki wants to be a cheerleader professionally?"
"Who said anythin' about that?" Kaito asked. "I don't know why she zeroed in on this, but she's really damn good at it, so it worked out."
"I'm a million shades of confused right now," Kaede said, feeling more out of breath than she was before. "So neither of you want to be professional cheerleaders, but you did it because Maki wanted to?"
"Yes," Kaito said with a nod.
"Then what was all that about not letting physical defects getting in the way of your dreams?"
Kaito suddenly seemed very concerned. "Um..."
Kaede let out an exasperated laugh. "Kaito, I kind of want to throttle you right now."
"Hey, you're starting to sound a lot like Maki!"
Once the whole squad was done running laps, Ophelia called them to congregate again. "I hate to keep us from practice for so long, but I have exciting news!"
"Does it have anything to do with the huge box on the bleachers behind you?" Kokichi asked.
Ophelia flashed a toothy grin. "No, but it does have to do with the giant box on the bleachers behind me!" She spun around on her heel, grabbed the box, and spun until she was facing the squad again. She dropped the box on the ground, letting the flaps open to reveal a bunch of fabric wrapped in plastic. "Your uniforms arrived today! I won't make you try them on today, but these are going to be what you wear to practice from now on, okay? Your names are all written on them, so please come take them when practice is over."
Practice proceeded from there, but it quickly became apparent that two people just weren't on the same level as anyone else. Kaede and Miu clearly lagged behind the others, and even Kokichi was running circles around them, barking crude, playful insults at Miu as he went. About halfway through, Kaede fell to a crouch, wrapped her arms around her knees and buried her face in them. "Ugh, I'm so sorry, coach!" She cried. "I'm such a failure."
Ophelia bounded over, the action itself shedding a little bit of enthusiasm to Kaede. "Oh, don't be like that, my dear," she said. "All you need is a little extra coaching."
Kaede looked up to see an outstretched hand hovering near her face. "Are you willing to do that for me?"
Ophelia's smile seemed to light up the gym. "Of course!" After she helped Kaede to her feet, she nodded towards Miu. "Miu, you come over here too. Maki, Kaito, you show some of the newbies some basic moves. I'll be over here if you need me."
She received two very different reactions from those two, but didn't pay them any mind. Kaede was kind of dreading having to be alone with Miu and Ophelia, but the former didn't seem interested in starting a fuss. She figured it was because she was in the same boat and didn't want to risk losing her chance to graduate to some stupid drama.
Practice wound to a close and the girls (and Kaito) all gathered around the box to distribute the uniforms. Kokichi took some convincing, but nothing drove the point home quite like Ophelia launching his uniform at him at what looked like mach speed, sending him sprawling to the ground in an explosion of plastic and fabric.
In the locker room, Kaede was approached again, but this time by someone who didn't mean so much harm. "Kaede."
Kaede turned to see Maki standing there, already completely changed into her normal clothes. "You know, if I had a nickel for every time someone tried to talk to me while I was in my bra in this locker room, I'd have two nickels. Which isn't a lot, but it's weird that it's happened twice already."
Maki shook her head vigorously, but Kaede could have sworn she saw a blush start to spread on her cheeks. "Kaito and I were talking, and he wanted me to extend an invitation to you."
"Don't parrot me," Maki snapped. She seemed to notice Kaede shrinking back and shook her head again, expression softening as she continued, "Kaito wants us to help you out."
That seemed like Kaito, but there was a certain bizarre quality to Maki saying those words. "Wait, really? Why me?"
Maki shrugged, looking off into the middle distance. "He would have told me to ask Miu too, but frankly, she scares him."
Kaede's face broke out into a wide smile. "Hah! Okay, now I believe you."
"So?" The other girl crossed her arms to tell Kaede she was in kind of a hurry.
"I think I'd like that," Kaede said.
Maki uncrossed her arms and reached into her pocket. From it, she produced a small scrap of paper. "These are our numbers. Text Kaito to set it up."
Kaede took the paper and scanned her eyes across the names and corresponding numbers scrawled across it. "Cool, I will!"
"I don't know why he insisted I give you both of our phone numbers, but I guess it might come in handy." Maki shrugged and turned her back to Kaede. "See you later."
"Right. Thanks, Maki! And tell Kaito I said thanks, too." Maki wasn't three footsteps away before Kaede had whipped out her phone and started adding the numbers to her contacts. "Shuichi will be so excited," she giggled to herself. She had to text him right away and see if maybe she could get away with bringing Shuichi as her plus one. She couldn't put her finger on why, but she was equally excited to get Maki's number for some reason. She'd have to text her once they got to know each other better.
But first, she probably needed to put a shirt back on…