Tsukiko pressed her lips and held her breath as she watched the match. Only one more minute… this is their last chance, she thought, biting what was left of her fingernail. Come on, Taiyou-kun…
No matter how nervous she and the people with her on the bleachers were, the players were more nervous. Even so, Taiyou-kun had a determined expression on his face as he stared the ball. The boy looked inside the penalty area, observing where everyone was, waiting for the referee to blow the whistle. After a long time, the man in yellow shirt blew.
With one last deep breath, Taiyou-kun raced to the ball and lifted it inside the area. The players from both sides pushed themselves as they tried to get where it would land. But it was the goalkeeper who got to it first, jumping above everyone else and fisting the ball with both hands.
But the ball didn’t land far. The rebound ended with Teikou’s 10 just outside the area. As everyone raced towards him, he gave a little tap to the side to have a better view of the goal and kicked the ball as hard as he could.
With the scream stuck in her throat, without realizing, Tsukiko was already standing and grabbing the handrails so hard her hands were white. Come on! Come on!
But when it was about to enter, the goalkeeper jumped and stretched out his hand as far as he could and defended the ball once again.
Kobayashi-kun, just as red and breathless as everyone else, ran towards the ball and got to it first, kicking it far away from his team’s goal.
The ball fell and bounced a few times on the middle of the field, and the referee blew the whistle for the last time. There was a moment of silence and then the bleachers exploded in cheers and screams. A second later, half the players on the field did the same.
Tsukiko sat back on the hard concrete in silence, staring at nothing as the people around her applauded. She ran a hand on her face and then shook her head. Taiyou-kun… No matter how she felt, it didn’t compare to what he felt.
The boy had a blank expression as he stared the ball. The next moment, he dropped to his knees and stared at the ground, his eyes watering as he realized what happened. Even from that distance, the girl saw him grabbing the grass as the tears fell.
All the players from Teikou were the same. But even through tears, the captain cleaned the tears and dirt from his face and called everyone to greet the adversaries. Even crying his voice was strong and never faltered.
Taiyou-kun forced himself up, but his legs had no strength. The captain walked to his side and touched his shoulders. The boy looked up and him and couldn’t hold anymore, crying. Even then, he accepted the captain’s hand and they both lined up with the rest of the players. Without looking at the other team, Taiyou-kun thanked for the game in a hollowed voice and then rushed towards the locker room with the rest of Teikou’s team.
“What an amazing game,” Rika-chan said. The girl couldn’t stop smiling. “I never knew soccer could be this exciting. And Kenichi-kun looked so cool and… ah…” Her voice trailed off when she finally took her eyes from the field and saw her friend's’ expression. She looked at the floor as her smile vanished, though it still forced itself on her lips.
“It’s okay, Rika-chan,” Yui said instead of Tsukiko, who still couldn’t take her eyes off Taiyou-kun. “That’s how it is. We knew they had little chance to win, so don’t restrain yourself because of us.”
Rika-chan bit her lips, looked between them and then showed an awkward smile. “Then I’ll go talk with Kenichi-kun,” she said before leaving.
Still cheering and talking about the game, the people around them started leaving. Yui blew the air in her mouth slowly and then patted Tsukiko on the shoulder. “It happens. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. That’s how it is. Taiyou will be down for a while, so you need to cheer him up.”
“I know…” Tsukiko sighed when the boy was finally out of sight. “But he’s too stubborn to let anyone comfort him after something like this…”
After Yui and most people left, Tsukiko stayed on the bleachers, waiting for Taiyou-kun. It took a long time, but finally the first person got out of the locker room. Then, little by little, the rest of the players came out. Some were alone, others in groups of three or four. Even amongst teammates and friends, no one saying anything. They all had the same expression; utterly dejected. As the girl expected, the boy was the last one to come out.
No matter how many times I see this, it’s still hard, Tsukiko thought, watching Teikou’s students. She was never in any club officially, but she helped around whenever her friends asked her. Though she couldn’t play any official match or game, she cared for the teams, and how the players felt after a defeat always pained her. I wished I could do something…
Taiyou-kun finally looked up and saw Tsukiko on the bleachers. He met her eyes and walked towards her, his low so she couldn’t see him crying. They walked side by side without saying a word.
Tsukiko kept glancing down at him, but Taiyou-kun didn’t look up once. He wasn’t even paying attention to where he was going; his eyes were fixed on the floor. Even now she had no idea what to say. Guess this is the best I can do now, she thought, reaching down to hold his hand. He squeezed Tsukiko’s fingers.
“Hey, Taiyou-kun,” she said in a low voice. The boy showed no reaction, but she knew he was listening. “Do you wanna do something? Eat anything? My treat.”
He barely nodded, never looking up at her. Tsukiko looked up the restaurants around the area and led the silent boy. But even if she wasn’t alone, the meal as quiet. There was no conversation. Taiyou-kun didn’t want to talk, and Tsukiko couldn’t think of anything that could cheer him. It was almost like eating at home before meeting him, the girl thought after she paid the bill.
“We lost,” Taiyou-kun mumbled, squeezing Tsukiko’s hand. “We gave all we had, and still couldn’t beat him…”
“Yes,” she said, looking down at him. If it were anyone else, I’d try to say in a gentler way. “But it was amazing. No one expected you guys would put so much pressure on our school. Everyone on the bleachers was impressed.”
“They were?” He sounded a bit better hearing that.
“Yes. Everyone was saying if Kobayashi-kun wasn’t on the team, Teikou would’ve won.”
“Yeah, they’re right. He’s so good,” Taiyou-kun said in a hard and low whisper.
“So you don’t need to beat yourself down. There’s always next time,” Tsukiko went on, happy he was speaking on his own. “There’s the winter tournament, and I’m sure Kobayashi-kun won’t be playing because of the high school exams.”
It was almost unnoticeable, but Tsukiko felt the boy’s hand trembling as he lessened the grip on his hand. A light rain started falling from the darkening sky. “No wonder you like him…”
“Ah, damn. I forgot my umbrella.” She looked up and realized it wasn’t a light rain. The weather report said it was only 20% chance of raining, she complained. “Huh? Did you say anything, Taiyou-kun?”
“I said Kobayashi is too good,” he said, his voice cold. “You’re right. We might have a chance next in the winter cup if he’s not playing. I mean, he so great, right? I, we couldn’t do anything against him. Even though we tried so hard, he’s better than us… than…”
Tsukiko felt a pang in her heart and squeezed his hand. The rain became heavier and they were soaked in few seconds, but she ignored it. What she couldn’t ignore was the boy in front of her. “Don’t say that, Taiyou-kun. It’s not like that.”
“It is like that. He won, we lost. He goes to the semifinals and my team won’t ever play together again…” He started crying. The rains drowned his voice, but she still could hear him.
“It’s not true. You two are just different.” Tsukiko quickly tried to think of anything to lift Taiyou-kun’ spirit. “You shouldn’t compare yourself to him. I mean, he’s older and has been playing longer and everyone agrees that he’s a genius… and…”
“Better than me…”
Taiyou-kun never seemed so hurt. Not even when Kobayashi-kun made fun of him. Tsukiko grabbed his face and forced him to look at her. His hollowed eyes scared her. “It’s not like that,” she said firmly.
“Yeah, it is. He’s better and he won.” He pushed her hands away and averted his eyes when the tears started falling. “That’s why you like him.”
His words stayed in the air for a long time. The rain became stronger, but they stood where they were.
“What are you talking about?” Tsukiko barely whispered, holding back her own tears. Why is he saying this? “I never liked Kobayashi-kun.”
“Never?” Tsukiko opened her mouth, but then bit her lips and kept quiet, averting her eyes. Taiyou-kun raised his head. “So it’s true…”
“Who said that I liked him?”
“He did. That day when we study together. He told me when you weren’t listening. And it’s true. You like him because he’s better than me…”
“I did like him. But that was before. I don’t like him anymore.” She waited, but when Taiyou-kun said nothing, the started crying. “So you’d rather believe in him and not me… I never thought you’d be like this…”
Tsukiko ran away from him. She waited for him to call her back, but when she heard nothing, she cried even more.
How can he say those things? I never thought he’d be so mean. Just because he lost the game, she cleaned her tears, but it made no difference. I know I shouldn’t have mentioned Kobayashi-kun, but still… how could he be that mean?
“Aozora?” a voice called Tsukiko. “What are you doing in this rain?”
She ran a hand on her face before looking around. Kobayashi-kun stood a few meters from her with an umbrella and a bag from the nearby convenience store. “Kobayashi-kun…” Tsukiko tried speaking, but the tears fell again.
“What’s wrong?” The boy came closer, putting the umbrella over her head. “You’re all soaked. You’ll get sick if you don’t change clothes right away. Come to my house. It’s around the corner.”
Tsukiko vaguely nodded her head. Kobayashi-kun walked to her side to make sure the umbrella protected her entirely and led her to his house.
“Wait here,” he said. He left her at the entrance while he ran inside. He came back a few seconds later with two towels, handing one to the girl and drying himself with the other.
“Thank you,” Tsukiko said in a low voice, accepting the towel. She dried her hair and herself as best as she could. When she gave the towel, back, she was cold and shivering.
“Come Aozora. You’ll catch a cold if you don’t change clothes. And it’s best if you warmed up first with a bath,” Kobayashi-kun eyed her with a worried expression. “I’ll lend you my little sister’s clothes. Don’t worry. She won’t get mad, but I hope you don’t think they’re too childish for you. Ah, and don’t mention I said her clothes are childish. She’ll nag me,” he said with a smile.
With her mind still vague, she nodded and let him lead to the bathroom. When she was alone, she undressed, placed her clothes on the hamper and started washing herself. She immersed on the hot-tub and the warm water felt like an embrace. Before she knew, the tears started falling again. Above her cries, she heard the door opening.
“I’ll leave the clothes here,” Kobayashi-kun said through the glass partition to the bath area and left in a hurry.
He heard me crying, Tsukiko vaguely thought as she got out of the water. She dried herself with a new towel and went to the entrance of the bathroom. The clothes Kobayashi-kun left on the counter were a simple t-shirt with a bear print and a blue short. Underneath it was set of pink underwear. With her face reddening, Tsukiko put on the clothes minus the bra—it was too small for her—and left the bathroom.
Kobayashi-kun was waiting on one of the rooms, but when he heard the door, he quickly went to the corridor. He looked her from head to toe and smile. “I’m glad the clothes don’t look childish on you, but you can’t stay like this,” he said, looking at her hair. Tsukiko ran a hand and realized it was still very wet. “Come here.”
The boy led her to a different room than the one he was waiting before. When he opened the door, Tsukiko widened her eyes and let out a weak chuckled before she realized it. “It’s a lot more girly than anyone would’ve imagined,” she said.
“Hey, you finally smiled,” Kobayashi-kun said, his own smile broadening. “I was starting to get worried. But I wished you didn’t make fun of me.”
“You can’t blame me,” she said, eyeing the room. She knew the pink and filled with posters from idols groups could only be his sister’s room.
“It’s my sister. And anyway, all I want is this,” he said, picking up the pink hairdryer with stickers. He noticed Tsukiko looking at the stickers “My sister is not exactly careful. Look.” He pulled one sticker that hid a scratch. “If mom founds out she almost broke another, she’ll kill Hibiki.”
That got another chuckled from Tsukiko. From what Yui said, Kobayashi-kun’ little sister was indeed clumsy. “Then I won’t mention she almost ruined all these year’s notebooks with the literature club’s stories for this year’s school festival.”
“How she almost accomplished such deed?”
“She was carrying them to get more copies when she tripped by herself and almost dropped everything in a bucket of water people were using to clean the hallway.”
“It’s just like here.” Kobayashi-kun laughed. “Anyway, enough with my clumsy little sister. Sit here so I can dry your hair.”
She did as told, sitting with his back to him on the bed. As the warm air dried her hair and head, Tsukiko couldn’t help but cry again. Kobayashi-kun noticed her above the noise from the dryer, but asked nothing. She was grateful for that. There was no way she could talk about Taiyou-kun now. Not to him. Especially not to him.
“All done,” he said after a while.
Tsukiko ran a hand over her hair. Not only it was completely dry, it was combed and there was even a braid instead of the usual side ponytail she uses. “When you did this? You’re very good at this.”
“You’re so spaced out you didn’t hear me asking. And regarding why I’m good at this…” the boy blushed and scratched his cheek. “Don’t tell this to anyone, ‘cause I’ll deny in order to maintain my reputation. But my sisters force me to do this and now…
“They force you?”
“I will never admit, but I ended up liking it,” he said, looking away with his face even redder.
Tsukiko let out a laugh. “That’s too unexpected. I’d never suspect that the ace from the soccer club is this good and braiding.”
Despite his embarrassment, the boy smiled. “Well, unfortunately the ace grew up with three older sisters and two youngers.”
“I knew you had sisters, but I never knew your family was so big,” Tsukiko said with a hint of envy in her voice. “It must be nice.”
“You’d never say that if you spend a day in this household.” The boy shook his head, his expression serious.
“I don’t know. I always wanted a brother or a sister. I think it’d be fun.”
“You say that because you don’t have one. And besides, isn’t Fuyuzora kinda like your little brother?”
Tsukiko eyes watered at once.
“Sorry,” Kobayashi-kun mumbled apologetically. “I knew something happened between you two and I still opened my big mouth.”
“How did you know?” she asked, managing to hold her tears.
“When I left the locked room, I saw you waiting for him. But then a few hours later, I find you crying in the rain. After today, there’s no way he’d be okay, so I knew something must’ve happened.” Tsukiko knew Kobayashi-kun was talking about the match, but, for the first time since the girl knew the boy, he wasn’t bragging about the sport. “I may be too weird coming from me, but I know how he feels.”
“You do?” Tsukiko lifted her head and stared at the boy.
“Yeah, when we lost at nationals, we… I…” he scratched his head. “Losing is hard, but it’s part of the game. The worst part is that one defeat means it’s over. Fuyuzora will play again next championship, but it won’t be the same. The third years will have to stop playing and the time he spent months with will change. It’s… hard. We all work hard towards something, but one day it’s gone.”
This time Tsukiko let out the tears. Kobayashi-kun wrapped his arms around her shoulder. I can’t believe I didn’t realize this, Tsukiko thought. I ignored Taiyou-kun’ feelings…
“But even so, Fuyuzora is an idiot for making you cry,” Kobayashi-kun whispered. “I’d never make you cry.”
Tsukiko turned around to face him, but had no idea what to say.
“Aozora… no, Tsukiko,” he whispered and lifted her head gently so he could look into her eyes. She back. “I like you,” he said and then leaned in to kiss her.
With her head blank, Tsukiko kissed him back.