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The Confidence of a Striker

"We're in the final moments of the game of Kamakura Middle versus Yokohama Middle." said the announcer of the girls soccer game that was going on. It was the final moments of the game, and the score was 4-3 in Yokohama's favor. "It's Number 10, Yuki Nonomiya with the ball," yelled the announcer "she's past one defender, two, three,"

"Kei-chan!" Yuki said as she passed the ball to Keiko

"She passes to Number 11, Keiko Aizawa!"

"This is it!" thought Keiko as she slipped past the final defender

"She's one on one with the Keeper! Is this a comeback for Kamakura? She shoots!"

Keiko's shot went by the Keeper but hit the crossbar and bounced back into the game.

"It hit the bar," said the announcer "no goal."

PEEP PEEP PEEEEEEEEEEEEP

"And there's the final whistle. Yokohama wins 4-3."

"Dammit!" said Keiko as she hit the ground with her fist while the crowd cheered

"Kei-chan?" said Yuki as she tried to comfort Keiko

"Yuki, please." said Keiko as she got up and walked off the field

"Aizawa-senpai?" said a first year player that Keiko just ignored

Before Keiko realized it, she was taking a shower in the girls shower room. She always went to take a bath or shower whenever she was upset.

"Dammit, dammit, dammit!" Keiko yelled as she banged her fist on the wall "We lost again!" she turned off the shower and then went up to one of the sinks and placed her hands on either side "Why does this always happen?"

Just then, the door opened. It was Yuki Nonomiya, a black haired girl no older than Keiko, and she was still in her uniform.

"Put a towel on before you catch a cold." said Yuki as she grabbed a towel and wrapped it around Keiko, then put her hands on her shoulders "Kei-chan, I know you're upset, but it wasn't your fault."

"It was my fault." Keiko replied "This always happens."

"Darn right it does." said a red-haired girl, wearing the Number 5, who just walked in "If you had got that goal, we could've ended this in a draw instead of losing!"

"Go away, Noriko!" Yuki ordered

"Yes, Captain." Noriko said, almost sarcastically, then obliged

"Don't listen to her." Yuki told Keiko

"But she's right." Keiko replied "You realize, we only have one more match as Third Years before we have to quit to prepare for High School Entrance Exams, and this one ended, just like the last several did, in defeat."

"It's not like we're in a tournament. And you scored two of our three goals today."

"That's not the point! I admit, I have the ability to score when it doesn't matter, but when it matters most, I always mess up!"

"Kei-chan."

"Just go away, Yuki. I wanna be alone." Keiko told Yuki, and Yuki obliged

Later that evening at the Aizawa household, the very same one Kakeru lived in all his life, Keiko was in the middle of dinner with her siblings, mother and aunt Mito. Kakeru wasn't present because he was on tour with the National Soccer Team in Austria. Mito, though she was eating with them tonight, didn't live in the house anymore because she had had moved into an apartment building nearby a few years ago. Kakeru's parents, on the other hand, had moved to Nishio, Aichi a few years back.

"Dinner's as good as always, mom." said Hiroki, Keiko's eldest younger brother. He, and his twin sister, Ryo, both at age 11, and in their final year of Elementary, were sitting on either side of Keiko. Both resembled Nana with their light brown hair, which was the exact same shade as hers. Ryo looked like a miniature version of Nana and Hiroki a male version of her. Ryo had let her hair grow down her back while Hiroki kept his own hair short. Their youngest sibling, Koichi, at age 8, resembled Kakeru in miniature form. He was sitting next to Nana on the other side of the table. Keiko, the oldest at age 14, also resembled Kakeru, but in female form. Both she and Koichi had Kakeru's dark brown hair, and Keiko had grown hers to waist length. All four siblings also had the same eyes.

"Thanks, Hiroki." Nana replied

"When's Papa coming home?" Ryo asked

"Should be any day now, Ryo." Mito answered

Ryo then noticed that Keiko didn't seem to be eating "Kei-nee, are you okay?"

"I'm fine." Keiko answered, still not eating

"But, Honey, you've hardly even touched your food." said Nana "And that's your favorite fried rice."

"I'm just not hungry right now." Keiko replied as she put down her chopsticks and got up "Thanks for the meal." she walked out of the room.

"Nee-chan's taking the loss of that match hard." said Hiroki

"She's just like your father, in more ways than I care to admit." said Nana

"Ain't that the truth." said Mito

"What's Onee-chan going to do now?" Koichi asked his siblings

"What else? Whenever she's upset, she goes to take a bath." Hiroki and Ryo said in unison

They were right. Sure enough, a half-hour later, Keiko was washing herself on a stool in the bathroom. Just as she started scrubbing her shoulders, she heard a knock on the door. "Who is it?" she asked, then her siblings walked in, all with towels around themselves. "Not now guys, I'm not in the mood." Instead of leaving, they closed the door behind them and threw their towels aside. Because they were all siblings, none of them had a problem with seeing each other naked. Hiroki and Koichi got in the tub, while Ryo took the scrub from Keiko and started to scrub her back.

"You always come here when you're upset or depressed." said Ryo, now scrubbing Keiko's back

"You guys know me too well." Keiko replied

"Come on, Nee-chan, we really don't like seeing you like this." said Hiroki, who was leaning on the edge of the tub

"I feel bad for making you three worry."

Koichi then picked up a fish shaped toy from the bottom of the tub and made his voice as deep as he could "Why are you so upset? His wise and noble Fishiness demands an answer!"

Despite being depressed, Keiko couldn't help but laugh. Even Ryo and Hiroki laughed as well.

"It's great to see you smile again." said Ryo, still scrubbing Keiko's back

"Feels good to smile again, you three always know how to cheer me up. But you guys only know the root of what's bothering me."

"Hmm?"

"I'm upset because the sort of thing that happened today happens every time we lose a match. Maybe I'm just not that very good at soccer."

"That's not true. You are amazing!" said Ryo

"No one can score goals like you can." said Hiroki "You're a thoroughbred striker, just like dad!"

"I am huh?" said Keiko as she threw a pail of water down her back. She then picked up Ryo under the armpits, put her in the tub and then got in herself "Then why is it that I have no achievements whatsoever? We've done nothing but lose for the last year, while the boys team is still on a winning streak. The entire Kamakura Middle Girls Soccer Team is a laughing stock because of me."

"Did you forget that the boys and I are soccer players as well? While you're moving on to High School, Hiroki and I are moving on to Middle School next year." said Ryo

"Ryo's right." said Hiroki "Don't worry about what's happened before, and let us pick up the slack."

"I appreciate that," said Keiko "But most likely, I will end up messing up and humiliating myself next year. Just like I always do. I'm nothing like Papa or Mama."

"Don't say that!" said Koichi

"Koichi's right." said Ryo "You can do it!"

"Do you best in High School, and then stand on the world stage with Nadeshiko Japan!" said Hiroki

"We'll be rooting for you!" said Ryo

"Oh, I love you guys!" said Keiko, breaking into her first true smile, and then pulling her siblings into a tight embrace. She was still filled with a few doubts though.

Outside the door, Nana, wearing nothing but a towel herself, was listing in on their conversation. She had planned to take a bath with Keiko herself to try and cheer her up, but now found it unnecessary. She then returned to her room.

Meanwhile, in Austria, Kakeru, Koichi Hibino, and Yusuke Saeki, were in their hotel room watching a video of Keiko's match on Kakeru's laptop, which Nana had sent him by E-mail earlier.

"I know they lost, but that's some kid you got there, Kakeru." said Yusuke when the video had finished

"You mean my eldest kid." Kakeru responded, closing the laptop

"That's right," said Hibino as he sat down on the bed "You're the father of four. And as I recall, that youngest of yours has quite a left. No wonder you named him after me."

"But Keiko's my main concern right now." said Kakeru, as he glanced out the window

"Why?" Hibino asked

"Her team lost instead of drawing, mainly because she failed to make that last shot."

"But Yokohama was really good." said Yusuke "Plus, there were some things wrong with her team as well."

"I know, Yusuke." Kakeru responded "But Keiko has an unfortunate habit of blaming these sort of things on herself." right then, Kakeru's phone rang. The caller ID showed the number 7, and Kakeru answered it "Hello, Nana."

"Hi, Kakeru." Nana said over the phone "Did you watch Keiko's match?"

"I did, she was excellent."

"Then I can get straight to it. She's pretty down on herself."

"I figured."

"Hiroki, Ryo, and Koichi managed to cheer her up, but I know she's still depressed."

"Don't worry. Tonight's our last night in Austria. Just leave it to me." Kakeru hung up and turned to the guys

"What did you mean by that?" Hibino asked, and Kakeru just smiled at them

A couple of nights later, Keiko, Hiroki, Ryo, and Koichi, met up with Yuki to practice in the park that Kakeru and Nana used to practice in so many years ago.

"We need to practice here a bit more often." said Yuki when Keiko and her siblings finally arrived

"It's dangerous to move around at night." said Keiko

"True, but Mama and Papa used to practice here every night." said Ryo as she got on top of the slide. She was going to act as Referee from that spot for the first half.

"We ready to start?" Hiroki asked as he pulled on his Goalkeeper's Gloves and took his place where the Goal was going to be. He was the Goalkeeper on the Kamakura Elementary Boys Soccer Team, and was going to be Goalkeeper tonight.

"Okay, me and Koichi against Yuki for the first half, then Ryo and Koichi switch for the second half." said Keiko

"As usual." said Yuki, who then started dribbling the ball toward the goal spot.

Before she could get to the goal, Koichi intercepted and stole the ball easily. He then passed it to Keiko.

"Oh no you don't," said Yuki as she blocked Keiko's way. Keiko then passed the ball back to Koichi, who then took a shot at the goal with his left leg.

Like Kakeru said, Koichi's left was pretty powerful, almost like a cannon, but Hiroki dived and managed to save it. "No matter how many times I see you shoot like that, I never get used to it." said Hiroki as he got up again

"Thank you, Onii-chan." Koichi responded

"Two on one's not exactly fair." said Yuki

"But the way you play on the field, you're easily worth two people." said Keiko as Hiroki prepared to kick the ball back into play.

"We ready to resume?" Hiroki asked and the girls and Koichi nodded. Hiroki kicked the ball into play and Keiko aimed to receive it, but before she could, someone jumped out of nowhere and took possession of the ball like a pro.

"What in the world...?" Yuki asked as the person dribbled a few feet, stopped, and turned around. He was wearing a grey alien mask. "Who's this guy?"

"How would we know?" Keiko responded. The person beckoned Keiko to come at him. "So that's how you wanna play?" Keiko ran at him and tried to take the ball, but the person wouldn't let her anywhere near it "Who is this guy?" Keiko thought as she tried desperately to get the ball "What footwork. Is he anyone I know?" Keiko backed away to try and run at the person and take the ball with a feint, but the person ran at her too. Keiko tried to take the ball from him, but when she looked down for the ball "It disappeared!?" Keiko looked around for the ball, but the person passed her and suddenly the ball reappeared behind her as well. The person then made a long-shot at the goal. Hiroki tried to save it, but the shot went past him easily.

"What the heck was that?" Hiroki asked as the ball bounced off the wall behind him

"Who is this person?" Ryo asked from atop her slide

"You've still got a lot of work to do." said the person. Even with his voice muffled because of the mask, Keiko had no trouble recognizing it.

"That voice. Is it...?" the person pulled off the mask. It was Kakeru "Papa?"

"Dad?" said Hiroki, who got to his feet again

"Aizawa-san?" said Yuki

"Daddy!" said Koichi who then grabbed his leg in welcome "You're home!"

"I thought I recognized those moves." said Ryo

"It's great to see all of you again." said Kakeru as he ruffled Koichi's hair in greeting "That was some left you got there, Koichi. And it's nice to see you too, Yuki-chan. Ryo, come down here please." Ryo slid down the slide, and joined Koichi next to their father. Hiroki retrieved the ball and threw it to Kakeru, who gave it a header right back to Keiko. Keiko stopped it with her foot when it landed, but did not send it back.

"Come on, Onee-chan." said Koichi, who just let go of Kakeru's leg "Give Daddy a good one!" Instead of running back at Kakeru into play, Keiko just gave him a sad face, sent a weak pass to him and sat down on a swing.

"Not going to play anymore?" Kakeru asked

"So I can embarrass myself in front of you again? Thanks, but I'll pass." Keiko responded

"You four keep playing, Keiko and I need to talk." Kekeru told the kids. While they resumed play, Kakeru then sat down on the swing next to Keiko "Your mother recorded your match and then E-mailed it to me."

"Disappointed in me?" Keiko inquired

"Quite the opposite. I was really impressed." Kakeru responded

"You say that now, but the reality is I was trash."

"That's not true. You cleared two goals and scored two goals." Kakeru told her "You pulled of some amazing plays."

"But I should've made that last shot! A draw would've been better than a loss. It always happens, I mess up when it matters most. I can't take it anymore, so recently, I've been thinking about quitting." Keiko told Kakeru

There was a pause then "So you're just gonna run away?" Kakeru asked

"Huh?"

"'Thinking about quitting'. I never thought I'd actually hear my own daughter say those words. To me, quitting is no different than running away."

"It's not that I'm running away, it's just that I don't wanna..."

"Drag the team down?" Kakeru concluded

"Yes. But how'd you figure that out?" Keiko asked

"Because when I was your age, I felt the same way you do now. Unsure of myself, doubtful of my abilities. That was mostly because when I was in Elementary, I severely injured a teammate with my left kick." Kakeru told Keiko

"Injured?"

"It left his ligament permanently torn. Ironically, the recovery from it led to develop is signature weapon, the 'Cannon Free Kick'."

"Wait, are you talking about Koichi Hibino? Our Koichi's namesake?" Keiko asked

"I am. And our Koichi has a killer left as well."

"Hibino-san should be proud to have your youngest child named after him." said Keiko

"I'll tell him you said that, back to my story. The trauma from that incident, combined with the guilt I felt toward it, left me unable to use my left leg in a game. As a result, I was unable to score a single goal throughout my entire first year of Middle School, and they dubbed me 'Mr. No-Goal'. So I switched to being the manager in my second year."

"So you were running away."

"I didn't realize it at first, but that's what your uncle Suguru told me."

"Uncle Suguru? I thought he died in an accident?"

"I'm getting to that. Shortly before your uncle died, he, being the captain at the time, let me play on the field with him one last time. I still failed to score any goals. And then, shortly after, he died in that accident."

"Did Uncle Suguru's death traumatize you back into soccer?" Keiko asked

"When I first told you about how Suguru died in that accident, I left out a few details." there was a pause, then Kakeru told her "I was in that accident as well." Keiko's eyes widened with surprise at this "A metal pipe had pierced my heart, and damaged it beyond medical repair. When your uncle was declared brain dead, I was on the brink of death as well."

"But how did you survive?" Keiko inquired, surprised that she was even in existence

"A heart transplant. And your uncle was the donor of that heart. To this day, his heartbeat is what keeps me alive."

"I don't believe it." said Keiko, still shocked at this revelation

"Believe it. I didn't find out about the transplant until I was released from the hospital. It was your mother that told me about it actually."

"Why are you telling me all this now?" Keiko asked

"I'm not finished. When I learned about the transplant, and the donor being my brother, I took a look at the last entry of his diary. It told of a wonderful dream he had had."

"What was it?" Keiko inquired

"He and I were playing at the World Cup together. And then right then and there, I remembered a promise he, your mother, and I made when we were children: To wear the national blue uniform, and play and win at the World Cup together. And I felt deep remorse for having forgotten that promise. After that, I decided that I would 'Never run away again'. And look at me now, I'm one of the top adult male players in Japan."

"So why are you telling me all this now?" Keiko repeated

"Because," Kakeru said as he got up from the swing "as I told you already, I used to feel the same way you do now. And as I recall, you made your siblings a similar promise. Remember?"

Keiko remembered a chilly winter sunset almost three years ago. She played soccer with her parents and siblings in this park, and, after saying that she would play in the World Cup like her parents, Ryo asked if they could go to the World Cup too, and Keiko had said it was a promise.

"Am I wrong?" Kakeru asked

"No, I remember." Keiko said after a pause "But how can I live up to that if I can't even win a match?"

"That's a lot of pressure to put on yourself at such a young age." Kakeru told her

"I know, and I don't want to quit, but if I can't win, how can I...."

"Keiko!" Kakeru interrupted "There's a lot more to soccer than just winning. What did I always teach you is the most important thing?" Keiko tried to remember it, but couldn't seem to "Let me give you a hint. You play soccer because you like it, right?"

"Of course, I love it! It's fun, it's... it's fun?"

"There you have it." said Kakeru happily "The most important thing when playing soccer is having fun. Having fun also allows you to be confident in your abilities. When you have fun playing, there's nothing that can go wrong."

Keiko took a look over at Yuki and her siblings, who were still playing. The looks on their faces told her that they were having fun more than anything. With these words of soccer wisdom in mind, Keiko felt truly happy again for the first time in a really long time.

"Thank you, Papa." Keiko said through tears and a smile

"One more thing. Having fun while playing soccer, is why I want you to enroll in your mother's, and my, Alma mater, Enoshima High School. Even though they aim to win, they put a lot of emphasis on having fun at the same time."

"Then, Enoshima High will be my High School." Keiko declared

""That's my girl." said Kakeru grabbing Keiko's hand and pulling her to her feet "Now let's go play with them."

"Should we?"

"What's the matter? Don't have the confidence to play against your old man?"

"Oh Papa."

They then joined the others in playing, and they all had a lot of fun that night.

Two weeks later, with her father's advice in mind, Keiko led her team to their first victory in a very long time. 5-4 in Kamakura's favor, with Keiko having scored the winning goal. When February came around the following year, Keiko and her siblings, all having been born in the same month ironically, had their birthdays. And in March, though Koichi, now 9 years old, was continuing his education at Kamakura Elementary, Hiroki and Ryo, both now 12 years old, graduated and were due to start at Kamakura Middle. As for Keiko, now 15 years old, she graduated from Kamakura Middle, and was on her way to Enoshima High School.

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