Chapter 5: A Link to the Past (Part 2)
Thursday May 16, 201X
2:57 PM BST
Because Manchester United's penultimate game was played on a Sunday, the training session that was typical for a Wednesday practice took place on Thursday, thus the players would be given the Friday off instead of the usual Thursday. That morning training session was similar to the previous day's practice although the focus was emphasized on ball possession drills and on tactics in an 11-a-side game.
After practice, Kakeru and Nana spent around one hour doing a mixture of strength and plyometric work exercises to develop explosiveness and reactive power. Working on explosive strength with 6-8 reps of exercises, Nana performed exercises such as jumping onto a box with both feet or standing with one foot on a box before pushing herself up. Meanwhile, Kakeru used box squats and leg presses to work his own explosiveness with weights. When it came to plyometric strength, Kakeru and Nana used exercises ranging from jumping quickly off and on a box, to reactive squats.
In the middle of the afternoon, it was supposed to be the time when all healthy players already went home for the day. However, Nana said she wanted to stay a little longer for extra training of her own. While looking for her, Kakeru met injured Mexican striker Javier "Chicharito" Hernández in the fitness room doing light training under the physiotherapist's watch.
"Sorry, have you seen Nana?" Kakeru asked.
"I think I saw her going outside, on the training pitch with Scholesy." Javier replied.
Once outside, Kakeru saw Paul making short passes to Nana before she quickly released a long aerial ball at each time towards training dummies located at different locations either on the wing or up front. Each pass arrived to the dummy either into its feet-height level or at waist-height. Nana was already an excellent passer as Kakeru knew, but she obviously gained a lot more accuracy for much longer passes under Paul's guidance.
"Well done. All you need to learn now is to know when to use a long pass, a chip pass or take a long shot depending of the situation at top level. That will come with game experience." Paul said.
"Thank you, senpai." Nana replied before she noticed Kakeru watching in distance.
Kakeru then noticed that he got Paul's attention as well. "Ah! Sorry, I didn't want to interrupt."
"It's all fine, lad. Come here, I wanted to talk to both of you." Paul said before Kakeru went to him and Nana on the field. "How are you feeling?" Paul asked.
"I can't wait for Sunday. Our parents and friends will be coming to the game." Kakeru said. "How did things happen in your debut, senpai?"
"It was a long time ago, in a cup match. I scored a pair on the night. After that, the rest became history... going up the ladder, goals, wins, trophies. However, I will probably hang up my boots at the end of the season."
"Can you stay for one more season? We would love to play alongside the 'Ginger Prince' at least once." Nana asked.
"When you grow older, injuries take more time to heal... like my knee injury. There comes a moment when your body tells you to stop and I think it's the right time, no regrets. When I see you play with such flair, I have no worries for the future. Honestly, you remind a lot of me: starting as a striker and then growing into a great passer of the ball as a midfielder, defying archetypes of English football in a time when brute force was considered more important than brains and technique. That's why I took you under my wing. You will mostly face a similar challenge to the one I had to face years ago. However, what you learned will greatly help you to get through." Paul explained to Nana.
"Thanks again, senpai." Nana replied.
"What will you miss most after retiring?" Kakeru asked.
"A lot, honestly. I've been here since leaving school, but there comes a time when you need to do this for you and for your family. I already retired once before, thus I'm prepared. After all, I'll stay at the club as a coach. Meanwhile, you still have your entire careers ahead of you. Just keep things simple, always." Paul said.
"We'll do our best." Kakeru replied before Nana added with a nod.
"By the way, Nana, if you make it onto the pitch in Sunday's game, my daughter would instantly take you as a role model. She would love to see a female 'Satnav' taking over her dad a little bit." Paul said before Kakeru and Nana bid goodbye for the day and left the training ground afterwards.
Later in the early evening at the apartment in West Didsbury, Kakeru was looking for a book on a shelf at the same time Noriko was also looking for one. However, a slightly sloppy move from both made a number of books fall onto the floor.
"I'm sorry, Noriko-chan. I was clumsy." Kakeru said.
"No, it was my fault as well." Noriko replied.
As Kakeru picked up the books from the floor, he also picked up what looked to be a photo album. However, he saw a picture that was hanging loose between pages. When taking a closer look, Kakeru couldn't believe what he saw: it was a picture of a younger Noriko without glasses alongside Suguru, standing together as a couple.
As Noriko noticed that Kakeru got his hands on the picture, the latter asked the only question he had in mind: "This picture... You knew my brother?"
"I... I don't want to talk about it." Noriko replied, but Kakeru sensed nervousness in the tone of her voice.
"What did you say, Kakeru?" Nana said as she came in.
"Look at this picture, Seven." Kakeru replied as he handed Nana the picture.
"It's Suguru-san on the photo. When did you meet him?"
"No... I won't say." Noriko was on the verge of tears.
"Please, tell us. We are asking this as your friends, Noriko-chan." Nana asked.
"I don't want it. STOP THIS! I don't want to think about him nor endure the pain of his death ever again!" Noriko shouted as she fell on her knees and started sobbing with her hands on her face.
Almost immediately, Kakeru went down on his knees to comfort Noriko with a careful embrace. "You are not the only one who's still feeling the pain of losing him. I was involved in the same accident that cost his life and I should have died on that day too... if it wasn't for his 'last pass.'" Kakeru said.
"His last pass?" Noriko asked, still with tears in her eyes.
Kakeru moved back a little and then flipped his shirt to show his chest. When Noriko saw the scar on Kakeru's chest, she immediately recognized the type of scar: "A... A heart transplant?"
"Yes, Noriko-chan. Nii-chan was the donor of this heart when he could no longer be saved while I was on the verge of death. When I was told that he died, I took it badly for a while. When I was told the truth behind the heart transplant months later, I was lost. However, remembering an old childhood promise was the reason why I moved forward even though I will be reminded of the accident with this scar for the rest of my life." Kakeru explained before he put his shirt back on.
"He's right, Noriko-chan. I'm sure Suguru-san meant a lot to you. Please tell us what happened; it's the best way to overcome your grief." Nana added.
Noriko wiped her tears and took a deep breath before she began. "It was over 5 years ago..."
Flashback, over 5 years ago, late October
The boys' soccer team from Kamakura Middle School was playing against the boys from Daiichi Junior High School on the day. Kamakura and Daiichi were tied at 2-2 late in the game, and 13-year-old Suguru was trying one last attack for the win. Trying to stop him was Daiichi's defender, Satoshi Matsuzaka.
"You won't get past me this time, Aizawa!" Satoshi said.
However, Suguru made a feint and then slipped by Satoshi. In a reflex movement, Satoshi extended his right leg in an attempt to take the ball away from Suguru. However, the U-15 Japan representative leapt with the ball over the tackle. After Suguru got through, Satoshi fell very awkwardly on the ground and then Suguru scored the 3-2 goal for Kamakura. Meanwhile, 13-year-old Noriko was watching from the bench as Daiichi's manager and saw Satoshi holding his right knee.
"Coach!" Noriko signaled the injury problem to the coach, who then sent her and the team doctor on the pitch to assess the injury. Satoshi was in a bunch of pain as he was examined by the doctor.
"Hell! What happened?" Satoshi asked.
"You overextended you knee while tackling, Satoshi-san." Noriko said to Satoshi as she gave him water to drink before she turned to the doctor. "How bad is it, Doc?"
"He'll need a MRI scan, but I'm afraid he did his ACL (anterior cruciate ligament)." the doctor said.
"What does that mean?" Satoshi asked.
"That means you have to go to the hospital ASAP." Noriko said.
"No! NO! We can't let them beat us now, not after this. Doc, please give me a spray or something now!" Satoshi shouted as he grabbed the doctor's hand.
"Listen to me! Damaging your ACL means months of recovery. Seriously, do you want to lose everything now and not walk ever again? Don't you want to live to fight another day?" Noriko shouted trying to knock some sense into Satoshi's head.
Finally, Satoshi conceded defeat and was stretchered off quickly. In distance, Suguru watched the whole scene.
Later after the game, Noriko was sitting alone in the empty stadium as both teams already left. She kept remembering how she had to raise her voice on Satoshi in order to prevent something reckless from happening. Suddenly, someone called for her.
"Hey, you there." Suguru said as he stood by the nearest exit.
"You are... Suguru Aizawa, right?"
"Yes. Since you know my name, may I ask what is yours?" Suguru asked before he walked towards her.
"Noriko... Noriko Catherine Lewis."
"Half-American?" Suguru asked as he noticed some of her Caucasian traits.
"No. I'm half-British, from my father."
"I see. You know: you did the right thing with Matsuzaka-san earlier. He's been one of my strongest opponents for some time, but he's sometimes too determined to win at all costs." Suguru said.
"i know; he's reckless." Noriko replied.
"However, I was very surprised that you managed to hold your ground against him. Very few people of his age, especially a girl, would stand up to him."
"I was scared of him, Aizawa-san. But I told him the facts because nothing matters more to me than a player's well-being and the long term when it comes to injuries."
"Please call me Suguru, Noriko-chan." Suguru corrected before he continued. "You should really become a sports medicine physician."
"You think so, Suguru-san?"
"Of course. Knowing those medical terms, putting the player's well-being above all and thinking long term... you have what it takes to become a great sports doctor." Suguru talked with enthusiasm about her career prospect.
Noriko blushed at Suguru's remark. "Well... Dr. Noriko Lewis, sports medicine Ph.D... That would sound nice. I guess I inherited my mother's passion for medicine."
"From what I've seen about the way you cheered on the touchline, I can tell you are passionate about football too." Suguru said.
"That's from my dad. I was born and raised in Manchester until we all moved to Japan when I was 7." Noriko said before she shifted the subject of the conversation. "By the way, Suguru-san, you really made everything look so easy while remaining unfazed out there; people are right to call you a genius."
Suguru remained silent for a few seconds before he went on. "Truth is: life isn't that easy with the 'genius' tag. People think of me as the Savior of Japanese football and I receive as much attention as a top professional player would get. But deep down, pressure, stress and nightmares are killing me. There are times I wish I could shout out loud and ask them to stop."
"Perhaps you should shout." Noriko said.
"I'm not sure they would understand."
"They should. No one becomes a superstar only because he's a prodigy. Superstars also have excellent teammates with assigned roles to support them and an excellent coach to lead them. You aren't different from any other player; you should remind them of that fact." Noriko told Suguru.
"You really are something, Noriko-chan. It's the first time I feel comfortable telling such secrets to someone around my age, especially to a girl." Suguru said as he moved closer to Noriko.
"Well... You're quite a down to Earth guy. Deep down, I always admired you and I really enjoy talking to you." Noriko was also moving towards Suguru, almost unconsciously.
"I'm really glad I stayed behind to meet you." Suguru's face was getting closer to Noriko's.
"Same for me." Noriko replied.
At the time, Suguru saw in Noriko the only person of his age group who could understand him as much as he wished for. At the moment their lips were about to meet, Suguru backed off. "Sorry, we're moving too fast."
"Why? I don't mind you asking me out." Noriko asked.
"It's just that it isn't the right time yet. You'll have to work hard to enter medical school. Meanwhile, I'll have to work hard to deal with pressure before I can become a great footballer. I really don't want to risk taking you down in my crazy life just yet. I also have a younger brother who needs my help to get his confidence back. Perhaps in a few years down the road, when our dreams will be within reaching distance, then it might be the right time to think about us.
"You promise we'll see each other again at that time?" Noriko asked.
"In one way or another, we'll see each other again. I promise." Suguru replied.
"In that case, I promise you that I'll enter medical school to become a sports doctor." Noriko said.
"I know you will. Just keep the spirit, Noriko-chan."
"I saw a photo booth at the train station. Do you want to take a picture of us?" Noriko asked.
"I'd be happy to." Suguru replied as he followed Noriko.
"It was the only time I saw him in person. After taking that picture, we embraced each other and parted ways." Noriko finished telling her story.
"It was only a couple of weeks short of his 14th birthday." Kakeru said as he realized the time when the story happened.
"Did you keep in touch with him?" Nana asked.
"We exchanged e-mails, including this picture that I scanned. He confided to me about how he needed a counselor to help with his problems. At the same time, he wrote me on how much he missed me, but also promised not to stray off his path." Noriko replied.
"How did you take the news when he... passed away?" Kakeru asked.
"I was devastated and I thought of giving up everything... until I remembered how highly he thought of me in becoming a sports physician. I would have had more regrets if I didn't keep my promise to him. Then I kept working harder and enlisted myself into girls-only Kamakura Jogakuin High School. Although I enjoyed my time as manager for the basketball team, I put my studies above anything else. Because I never wanted to feel that pain again, I avoided boys since... until I met you, Kakeru."
"Me?" Kakeru asked.
"When I first met you on the plane to England, my heart felt that familiar presence. And when I learned about your name, I became instantly interested in you. However, I quickly discovered how you and Nana-chan were made for each other. Hence, I decided to not push my feelings beyond friendship. After everything that was just said, I now understand why I was attracted to you when we first met, Kakeru. I'm sorry for not telling you this before. Because of that, I only continued suffering alone; I'm such a terrible friend." Noriko said.
"No, Noriko-chan. You're not." Kakeru replied
"You don't have to suffer anymore. If you were a bad friend, I wouldn't be willing to carry your burden like I want to do now while you follow your dream." Kakeru added.
"He's right, Noriko-chan. You made it this far because you kept your promise just as we kept our own promise with Suguru-san. We are friends and we will achieve our dreams together." Nana said.
"You guys..." Noriko wasn't sure how to reply.
"I believe we were somehow meant to meet each other... because Nii-chan would have done everything to keep his promise. In a way, he just did." Kakeru added.
Then Kakeru wrapped his arms around Noriko's shoulders while she rested her head on his chest, listening to the beating sound of what was once Suguru's heart. "Welcome home... Suguru-san." Noriko whispered as she shed a few tears. Meanwhile, Nana also joined the embrace as a reminder of her friendship with Noriko.
"It's in big part because of your cheerfulness that we are confident enough to take on the upcoming challenge, Noriko-chan. We'd be more than happy to repay you this." Nana said.
"You don't have to be bound to the past anymore. This is your dream; it has always been yours. Live it and enjoy life. I'm sure he would have told you that." Kakeru added.
"I know... Thank you, guys." Noriko finished and then found her smile back as her long suffering finally came to an end.
Later that night, Kakeru couldn't sleep at all. While browsing folders on the screen of his own laptop and sitting alone in the living room, he suddenly noticed a folder named "Reserves highlights" and clicked on it. Inside the folder were highlights of the Manchester United Under-21s, known as the Reserves. After Kakeru clicked on each video, he saw himself doing several successful feints and scoring great goals. Nana was also seen wearing her familiar number 7 on the back of her shirt. She successfully performed her signature Witch Turn against taller opponents and made very accurate through passes to a striker or long balls to an unmarked teammate on the wing.
In the most recent video, Kakeru took the defenders out with a feint in full acceleration and blasting the ball into the net. The commentator described the goal as reminiscent of Michael Owen's goals, which reminded Kakeru of what Coach Iwaki said. That same commentator also compared bits of Nana's overall play with Paul Scholes' technical giftedness. At the end of that game, Kakeru ended up scoring a hat-trick while Nana scored a goal and 3 assists. That was dated 3 days before Sir Alex called them up with the first team.
'So that's how good we are now? I never thought I reached such heights just over 4 years after I wanted to stop playing. You really had a gift for seeing how far potential can lead anyone, Nii-chan.' Kakeru thought.
Then Kakeru felt a hand on his left shoulder and a soft voice asking him: "Kakeru?"
It was Nana, wearing a large version of the Enoshima team shirt as her sleepwear. Right away, Kakeru apologized and turned off his laptop's speakers. "I'm sorry, Seven. I didn't want to wake you up."
"It's OK. I couldn't fall asleep either." Nana replied. "Watching highlights?"
"Yeah. Watching those videos and remembering what Noriko-chan said... I realize how much Nii-chan was influential in different ways. For me, he introduced this beautiful game to me and taught me how to enjoy it. For you, I'm sure he inspired you in some way. Am I right?"
"Uh-huh. It's in part because of him that I chose to convert myself from striker to a midfielder, so that I'd be able to have a better vision of the whole game and to make that killer pass to you." Nana replied.
Kakeru smiled at Nana's last phrase. "He also saw Noriko-chan's strong commitment towards the well-being of the players as a catalyst for a future career in sports medicine. Sometimes, I wonder how a single person could change our fates altogether before fate would lead the three of us here." Kakeru said.
"Fate can't be explained. But in the end, it was a great twist. Here we are, with our respective dreams finally within our grasp, surrounded by people who will always believe in us. There's no other place I'd like to be right now." Nana said as she hugged Kakeru from behind and kissed him on the cheek.
"There's no other place I'd like to be either, Seven... Just like the first time I saw you wearing only this shirt, asking me to take you to the stars."
Kakeru stood up to face Nana and wrapped his arms around her into a careful embrace before she hugged him back. Then Kakeru cupped Nana's left cheek with his right hand before she leaned forward to kiss him and he then let his lips sink into the kiss. Lasting a few minutes, the kiss was deep and passionate. The passion got more intense as he started planting kisses down Nana's neck and put his left hand on her waist. Before Kakeru could go any lower, Nana stopped him.
"We should continue this elsewhere and close the door behind us. I don't want to wake Noriko-chan up." Nana said when she broke the kiss.
"OK." Kakeru finished before he and Nana tiptoed to their bedroom, and then shut the door. Meanwhile, Noriko heard the earlier conversation through her own bedroom's door. She was smiling at the thought of how her friends are really happy together and how her pain was finally swept away, thanks to them.
'Good night, you lovebirds.' Noriko thought.