After almost half an hour of kicking the ball about, the training match wasn’t going well for Reo’s team in the slightest.
Their opponent’s midfield was too fast for them to catch, Toraichi had great positioning and Housen had minimal work to do to catch Totori who was all alone up front in attack.
The score was 3-0.
There were only a few minutes left on the clock, when Ishiguro managed to regain the ball from a throw in. and kick it up for Reo.
The young man used his chest to stop the trajectory of the ball, but his lackluster attempt at trapping it was met with a hard tackle on the ball from Housen. The ball sailed out of bounds once more, resulting in yet another throw in.
A throw-in was the only way in football to resume the game once the soccer ball sails out of play along the sidelines. The player holding the ball stands with both feet on the ground along the sideline and throws the ball back onto the field using their hands. The other players await the throw-in to recommence the game. It serves as a do-over in a way.
As the arrogant, towering defender retreated back to his position, a smirk appeared across his face.
“You could at least try, you know?”
That little mocking comment lingered, suspended in the air, as Mago, as stoic as ever, rushed to retrieve the ball.
Upon hearing those words, Reo felt a twitch in his eyebrow. Despite his best efforts to avoid ridiculing his opponents, sailing past them in a way only he could, all that tall individual could think about was Reo's supposed inferiority to him.
If only he desired, he could easily… Easily…
His performance was already poor enough. Surely, just a little flair wouldn’t mess with his bad record, right? Despite that thought briefly surfacing in his mind, it swiftly diminished into a shadow. A mere afterthought.
All he cared about now, was to show off his skills once more. And maybe have a little fun with the mighty captain, Housen in the process.
As the sun dipped below the horizon, Reo, for the first time today, raised a hand and asked for the ball. Maneuvering between the opposing midfielders, he received a slightly over-hit pass from his teammate.
But Reo didn’t mind one bit. He glued the ball perfectly to his left foot, making it drop just the way he wanted.
“Eh?” Hatate, convinced he could steal the ball off him easily due to the sheer power of the pass, stood in awe, as Reo propelled the ball forward with velocity, aiming directly at their defense.
Housen braced himself as he awaited for his opponent’s next move
Reo finally smirked back, his eyes glistening against the setting sun. For the first time today, the ball was once again an extension of him. He couldn't reach the levels he once had so quickly after his inactivity, but even in his current state, what he had in mind would be more than enough.
The dribbler advanced with short but swift steps, compelling Housen to retreat. Seizing the opportunity, Reo swiftly attacked the ball, nudging it slightly to the left.
So that’s your game!
The hungry defender thought, as he stuck his foot out to intercept.
However, Reo had no intention of following that path. With a flick of his foot, he sent the ball in the opposite direction, threading it between Housen's legs and opening up a clear path toward the goal. His movements were suddenly too fast for the young captain to follow, almost as if he had witnessed a specter glide past him.
A nutmeg dribble, as sportsmen say, occurs when the player in possession of the ball skillfully maneuvers it through the defender's legs. It's considered one of the most humiliating ways for defenders to be dribbled past. And that’s exactly what Reo had utilized.
Still smirking, Reo had already ran past Housen and in pursuit of the ball.
But Housen wasn’t about to give up just yet. Springing back into action, he attempted to block Reo’s shot to goal even if it killed him. Yet once more, his outstretched leg missed the ball entirely, and he tumbled backward without making any contact. In a deft move, Reo deflected the ball with his right foot, slipping it between Housen's legs once again.
He was now completely through on goal, with only the keeper to beat.
His mission accomplished, Reo looked up and saw the opportunity to share the glory. Totori stood in a prime position, completely unmarked. A well-timed pass would set him up for an effortless goal, a straightforward 2v1 situation against the goalkeeper.
But Reo wasn’t really all that generous. And he didn’t like sharing the glory all that much either.
So instead, he turned his attention to the gap in the keeper’s right corner. With a simple flick, Reo effortlessly guided the ball past the portiero’s outstretched arm, and it smoothly glided into the net.
A hushed silence enveloped the field, everyone momentarily fixated on Housen still on the ground, and the motionless ball nestled at the back of the goal.
“That rascal…” Gonda snickered. “He did it…”
Totori cheered, making his way to his friend and teammate in visible uncontained excitement.
“What a goal! How the heck did you do that?! How did you drop Housen?!”
“He dropped… Housen…” Hatate, who was watching in awe, cracked a small smile. “Seriously… what the hell?”
“Beginners luck I guess.” Reo turned around, as Gonda blew the whistle and everybody moved to gather round. Reo’s goal was the last play of the mock match.
But what a last play it was.
As Housen got up, he made a point of not looking at Reo. He wasn’t angry, nor agitated. His facade displayed no sign of such emotions. He merely looked and moved on.
❖ ⚽ ❖
“Training is over. We’ll run a few laps around the field and call it a day. Don’t forget the match against Kame Hama in three days.” Gonda spoke as everybody gave a silent nod.
Finally. It was over. Reo thought. No more need to play along.
“But before that, shouldn’t we announce… you know what?”
“Ah, of course.” Gonda nodded along with his daughter’s comment, and cleared his throat. “Yuusaki Reo. We’re short on attacking midfielders, so… you’re in.”
“Eh?” Reo stood limp for a moment, looking at Gonda. His jaw was just about ready to touch the floor. “R-R-Really?”
“Sure, what did you think?!” Gonda almost laughed. “Let’s all welcome our newest member to our very own, Hinami Pirates.”
Without much delay, the team started to clap, the decibels gradually rising with each passing second.
But… But Reo had done whatever he had to, in order to show he wasn’t cut out for it! That last dribbling session wasn’t all that fancy either! It could have just been pure luck…
Reo gulped, at the sound of the cheers surrounding him.
“YOSHAAAA TIMES TWO!” Totori cheered, “I knew you’d get in! I told you! It was fate!”
“Oh, yeah. Newest guy gets to sort out the scattered equipment.” Gonda waved nonchalantly, placing a cigarette between his parted lips. “Knock yourself out, newbie.”
❖ ⚽ ❖
“Sort out the equipment they said… Gather the loose balls they said…”
A few minutes after everyone vacated the football pitch and left Reo behind, the young man begrudgingly muttered to himself while half-heartedly collecting the scattered training equipment.
“Sheesh, they didn’t even take care of their water bottles.”
Seated on the grass, Reo began arranging the empty bottles on a sports drink carrier—the kind carried by assistants or helpers to facilitate player rehydration during breaks or halftime.
How the hell did I wind up here, doing all this work?
Was all Reo could think of, as he moved his hands about absentmindedly. But most importantly, why am I playing football again?
He had thought he’d quit for sure. That all of that was behind him. If that were really true, then why is he here now?
He thought of going back and talking to coach Gonda about it. Time and again. But in the end he couldn’t quite master the courage for that. What would his excuse be? I don’t want to play anymore? I’m not interested? I have a terminal heart condition and—
Right as Reo’s thoughts were just about ready to consume him, a familiar, clear voice reminiscent of a soft bell rung out. A silhouette appeared, and with it, the aroma of something sweet was carried over by the breeze.
“Tsukimi… san?” Reo questioned.
It was Shuna, her blue eyes shining bright as always. Despite her cool aura, she seemed rather easy to get along with. However, there were moments when her gaze seemed strangely distant, leaving the person she was conversing with in a delicate balance between being friendly and going too far.
“You can call me Shuna. Everybody in the team does so, anyway.”
With a small smile, the coach assistant crouched down near Reo, and started picking up some loose training cones from the ground.
“Okay, then Shuna… What are you doing?”
“Me? Just helping a newbie out.” Nonchalantly, she gave her reply.
“Is that allowed?”
“I’m the coach’s daughter, so yeah.”
As Reo turned to stare at her, he silently realized how charming she was all over again. Her lashes were long, and her eyes big and round. She had a great figure even while wearing a simple tracksuit.
Heck, what was wrong with him?
Reo snapped out of his trance.
“So, how come you’re the coach’s assistant?”
“What do you mean… how come?”
“Well, I don’t wanna sound conceited, but I’ve rarely seen women interested in football coaching. Especially high school grade.”
“Huh, so you’re saying women can’t do football, or this and that, yeah?”
“Wait, no! I didn’t say that.”
Shuna laughed. It was a clear soothing sound. It brought a slight flutter to his heart, and a smile on his face. Relax, I’m only joking… To answer your question, maybe it’s because…” Shuna rose from her position, and stretched her arms. Her silhouette was perfectly outlined by the setting sun as Reo raised his head to look.
“I love Hinami. And I love the team too. I’ve had since I was a little girl. But I think most of all… I like football itself.”
Her words were simple, but Reo felt them strike his heart like an arrow. Her tone was soft, but betrayed many more emotions than a deep conversation ever would. She was genuine. And she loved football.
The same sport that had broken Reo’s heart.
“I… see.” Reo rose too, carrying the water bottles in the tray. “Then how come you don’t… play, yourself?”
“Well, that’s… different.”
“It is?” Reo couldn’t help but question. Perhaps you didn’t have to play a sport to love it with all your heart…
“Yep. And we’re all done here, so let’s bring those back around the storage room.” Shuna nonchalantly waved, as she pointed down a shed-like structure around the stadium’s fence.
The entire stadium surpassed the scale of a typical high school football pitch, bearing visible signs of wear on its black and white seats. Despite this, it exuded a grandeur reminiscent of Latin American football venues. The stands curved around the pitch in a 360-degree angle, encircling the grounds in black and white. Strangely, there were no seats behind the goals, only small steps, likely to encourage as many fans as possible to gather and cheer on Hinami. Above the central stands, a small roof provided shelter and supported high-powered floodlights. The stadium itself seemed to stretch outwards and up to the sky, like a coliseum.
Reo remembered seeing another training ground out back, a little ways behind the school, and he couldn’t help but wonder why they weren’t training there instead.
He was actually rather curious. As Shuna walked ahead, Reo began.
“The stadium does look a little old, but… why’s it so big?”
Shuna laughed for a moment, “What do you mean why? You’d probably lose your marbles when you see it packed to the brim.”
“A full house?”
Reo looked around in silent awe. There were at least 7 thousand seats, excluding the non-seated areas.
“Yep. Almost 80% of the island population gathers to watch Hinami play, after all.”
Again Reo was silent. It really was that big a deal for them, huh?
“Is that why we train here? To prepare for the match?”
“Heh, you noticed?” Shuna smiled, “It is true. My father said you get used to the pressure of these big, towering stands if you constantly train here. That way you can be more focused during actual games.”
“That makes sense.”
Reo nodded to himself. Coach Gonda really had thought it through.
When the storing was done and over with, Shuna clapped her hands together.
“Yosh…” She smiled a little, before turning to the visibly exhausted young man.
“Oh, before I forget…”
Without hesitation, she retrieved a thin rubber band from her tracksuit pocket, approximately the size of her hand, and handed it over to Reo.
“Ah…” He examined it curiously. “A band?”
“It’s a hairband, genius.” Shuna motioned with her hands as if she was putting on a similar imaginary one.
Reo wrapped it around his fingers and cocked his head. “What gives?”
“Well, you’ve got these super gloomy long curtains, so I thought they’d get in the way during games.” Shuna shuffled a little. “And it would be a waste to cut them, since they kind of suit you.”
“They suit me, huh?” Reo raised a brow, but Shuna didn’t flinch, instead responding with a cheeky smirk.
“I just called you gloomy.”
“I see.” Reo pocketed the accessory, and grinned. “Well I’d say these tracksuits suit you too, Shuna.”
“Hah? What’s that all about?” Shuna was taken slightly aback.
“Nowhere in particular, just saw my chance to give you a compliment and took it.”
“I see…” Shuna folded her arms behind her back. Her expression didn’t waver, instead her grin was as aloof as it gets. “Pretty bold, hitting on me on your first day, newbie.”
Despite her words, Reo felt a certain playfulness in her eye.
“…And what would I need to do to earn that right?”
“I don’t know, maybe score on Saturday, and I may give you some points.” Shuna smirked before turning around in one clean twirl.
“Is that all? I’ll get a hat trick, then.”
“In your dreams!”
Sharing a final laugh, Shuna started walking back towards the school. Well, not before tossing a pair of keys to the newest member of the team.
“Lock up and hand these to my father. I got some business to attend to.”
“W-what?” Reo fumbled as he caught them in midair. But she’d see him at home, right?
For a brief moment Reo produced a sigh. Why was he even hitting on her like that? It wasn’t like he was that type of guy.
❖ ⚽ ❖
As Reo walked down the empty hallway of the school’s interior, posters lining the walls, as well as newspaper articles came into view. With every new step he took towards his new coach’s office, Reo reaffirmed how football crazy this town must be.
But Reo wasn’t of the same mind.
His peculiar interest in Shuna, may have given him a reason to stay in the team, but he was still unsure of how to proceed. He was undoubtedly interested in her, and his two newest friends were a part of the same team too, yet…
His past memories wouldn’t dare go to sleep. Reo feared for the moment he would step onto a pitch full of expectations again. Full of responsibilities and hopes.
What if he failed again? Never mind his crushed dreams… What if he wasn’t enough even for Hinami, right here, right now?
With a gulp, he knocked on the coach’s door, and was soon given permission to enter.
“Reo-kun?” Gonda raised a brow, his feet propped up on a chair, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. The room, resembling more of a shed than an office, was cluttered with ashtrays full of cigarette butts. Amidst the chaos, a sparkly clean object stood out – a shiny whiteboard with the layout of a football pitch. Magnetic dots, representing players, were arranged on the board. It was a game tactics board, the ultimate tool for any aspiring coach. Gonda had several, with some lining the wall on the far end.
“I’m here to—“
“Wait, don’t tell me.”
Gonda raised a hand and cut Reo off, putting out his cigarette in the process.
“You wanna quit don’t you?”
The air around them seemed to stand still as Gonda spoke those words to the young man. Reo gulped, trying to comprehend his words. Was he that obvious during training? And if he was, why was he accepted into the team in the first place?
“You thought I wouldn’t notice?”
“Notice what… coach Gonda?”
Gonda rose from his seat and laughed heartily, almost as if he were joking. But soon, his expression turned serious again.
“Who you are.”
A silence longer, and heavier than the previous one ensued. Reo’s eyes widened in a mere second, and his heart began beating harder than ever.
“Jyutani Reo, right? The young football prodigy that played his heart out at the U-14s tournament…”
“But… how did you know? I wasn’t that big a deal to have talk of me all the way here…?” Reo was simply flabbergasted, and his tone of voice diminished with each new word.
“Well that’s because I was there, at the U14s tournament. Watching from the stands. Your movements today made me sure of it.”
This couldn’t be. Reo had come all the way out to some random island, certain that nobody would have even heard of him… And not even was he dragged into a football crazy team, but his coach even—
“You got sick of it, and quit. After that injury you—“
“Don’t talk like you know me, Gonda-san!”
Reo couldn’t help but raise his voice. He didn’t need patronization or sympathy.
“Hey, calm down, I’m not your enemy.” Gonda sat back down at his chair, and folded his arms. “I won’t tell anyone about your past. It doesn’t matter to anyone here.”
Reo released a breath he didn’t know he was holding.
There was no way a but wasn’t coming.
“…I won’t let you quit, either.”
“Eh?” Once again, Reo stood awestruck.
“You’re going to play for Hinami Pirates. At least for a little while.”
“At least for a little while? But how long is—“
“Until you regain what you lost.”
“What does that even mean…?” Reo clenched his fists, his heart a storm of anger, resignation and maybe a little curiosity.
“It means you’re going to keep playing football, whether you like it or not.”
“That is if you don’t want me to spill the beans to everyone.”
Reo lowered his gaze, and clenched his jaw. He was being manipulated, blackmailed but there was nothing he could do about it. All he had to do, was just play…
“I see how it is.”
“Well…” Gonda lit another cigarette and stretched. A smile stretched over his face. A gentle and subtle grin. “For what it’s worth, you’ll soon realize that playing for Hinami isn’t exactly bad. We have a huge fan base after all. Play well and you’ll realize how that feels like.”
With a final laugh and a flick of his wrist, he motioned to the door.
Silently, Reo moved to the door, before coming to a halt at the threshold.
“And Reo-kun… trust me, try and enjoy it a little.”