Erika doesn't know how long Ouzou's been coming to her games, because it's the middle of the season when she happens to look up into the bleachers and past her parents' proud smiles for once. She's just skimming the crowd, a brief moment before she heads back into the field for the second half, and she sees Ouzou sitting there. She can't read his expression from this distance, but her heart is pounding as she lopes back onto the field. It takes Yukiko calling her name and punching her in the shoulder to get Erika's head back where it should be.
When the game ends 5-2, Erika looks up into the bleachers again, but Ouzou is gone. She dismisses the entire incident; she can always ask him about it the next time they play.
But she starts looking for him, after that. Even with Kota in Spain, she's not sure she'll ever get used to seeing the Furuyas apart, but Ouzou is there alone for most of the games. For a few, Ryuuji is there as well, his usual smirk firmly fixed on his face and his school uniform tightly buttoned. And each time she tries to find either Furuya afterwards, they're gone. And the more she sees Ouzou there, the more she wants to know, wants to talk to him afterwards. Wants to hear him praise her game in that offhanded way that tells her how sincere he is. The more she sees him there, the more she misses playing soccer with him.
She complains about it to Reika, because Reika understands. Erika found out a month ago that Reika and Kota have been emailing regularly, and that Kota's been acting as an unofficial coach for Reika's team because he keeps offering unsolicited advice on videos of Reika's games. She also found out that Reika had kept it a secret because she knew Erika's emails to Aoto had never gotten more than a polite one-liner in response. It's okay, because after the first few months Erika didn't feel that giddy delight thinking of Aoto anymore, but Reika still cared enough to not tell. Reika's the best friend Erika's ever had; she's sweet and kind and always tries to help.
And Reika knows firsthand about the Furuya triplets and how annoying they can be, besides being a great listener. "Well, you can ask him this weekend," Reika says finally. "I'm fairly sure they'll be there. But, no, I haven't seen him… Our games aren't very exciting, I'm afraid. We're not New Tokyo FC."
"Augh," Erika says, half into a pillow, then again more clearly when Reika makes an inquiring noise. "I want to kick a soccer ball right into his face. It's been ages since I wanted to kick a soccer ball into his face!" She gets distracted by the thought that maybe she should try. It's not as though he wouldn't be able to move away in time, and it would be really satisfying to make him react. "He just keeps running away!"
"Maybe he thinks you don't want to talk to him?" Reika suggests, but she doesn't sound like she believes that.
"It's not like we don't talk ever," Erika grumbles. "Just not after my games! I just want to know why he's there, that's all." She hesitates. "Maybe I should go to one of his matches? He couldn't avoid me there." The thought of sitting around watching a bunch of sweaty people grapple and throw each other around isn't really appealing. "Ugh."
"Or you could ask Ryuuji."
It's a sign of how frustrated Erika is that she actually considers that before shaking her head violently. "No. No way. He wouldn't tell me anything, you know that." She lets out a final, frustrated huff and turns the topic to Reika's new team. Even though Erika' got her own team full of other girls now, hearing about Reika's always makes something warm expand in her chest. They're all like Reika, coming in without any experience or knowledge, just because it's fun. Erika loves to hear about them.
There's one more game before the Saturday meetup, and Ouzou is there again. Erika pushes herself as hard as she can, playing so smoothly she'd feel like she were floating if it weren't for the impact of her feet on the pitch. As soon as the game is over, as soon as she can break away, Erika dashes up the bleachers in what she's sure is record time. But he's already nowhere to be seen, and she doesn't know what direction to run in. Her teammates look confused when she stalks back to them, panting and scowling despite the goals she made, but she doesn't tell them what's going on. She doesn't feel like trying to explain the Furuyas to outsiders.
When it finally catches up to her that she thinks of her own team as outsiders, she stops short, right in the middle of the sidewalk on the way home. They're her team, and she loves them. They're not the Momoyama Predators, but Erika still fits.
But, she realizes, no team is ever going to be the Momoyama Predators. The thought of trying to explain how important the Predators were-- are-- just makes her cringe. She doesn't know if the Takatou Erika before the Momoyama Predators would have been good enough to join New Tokyo FC. The Predators gave her confidence in herself and her tactics and the determination to try harder and grow.
She never would have met Shimizu Misaki without the Momoyama Predators.
It's that precious feeling she brings with her to the game in the park that Saturday. Ouzou and Ryuuji are there, talking to Shou, and for once Erika ignores Shou and stalks right up to Ouzou to jab a finger in the center of his chest. "You!" she growls. "What do you think you're doing?"
Ouzou, because he's a Furuya, gives her an innocent look and says, cool as anything, "We were just talking. Is that a problem?"
Erika, because she is mature and grown-up, doesn't go through with her initial plan to kick the ball at his face. Instead, she jabs him again. "You keep coming to my games!" she says. "And then running off afterwards!"
Ouzou's expression flickers for a moment, so quick that she might have imagined it. "It's not as though I have time for soccer anymore," he says, which is ridiculous, because Erika's seen him watching her games.
"Oh, no," Ryuuji says, his voice oozing interest, "I'm curious, too. Why have you been doing that, Ouzou-kun?"
Erika whirls on him. "Don't you even start," she warns. "I saw you there, too."
Ryuuji smiles at her. "I was there to support my brother in his time of need," he says. Erika's eyes narrow, and Ryuuji shrugs. "But your games aren't terrible. Most of the time."
That's as close to a compliment as Ryuuji is going to get right now, Erika thinks, and she turns back on Ouzou just as Shou barges into the conversation with his usual lack of social graces. "Wait, what's going on? They've been coming to your games? Why? I never see them at my games!"
Ouzou snorts, and Kageura looks up from where he's sitting on the bench to say in his quiet, unreadable tone, "They watch. Sometimes."
Well, at least it isn't just Erika. But before she can relax, Ryuuji shakes his head. "Oh, but not nearly as often. Isn't that right, Kageura-kun?"
"I wouldn't know," Kageura says.
Ouzou and Ryuuji stare at each other for a while after that before Ryuuji sighs and shakes his head. "Um," Reika says hesitantly. "Maybe we should just play soccer?"
It's on the tip of Erika's tongue to protest that confronting Ouzou was Reika's idea in the first place-- though Reika probably meant pulling him aside quietly instead of barging right in like Shou-- but something else occurs to her. "Okay," Erika says, putting her hands on her hips and looking right at Ouzou. "I challenge you!"
Ouzou's eyes widen at that. "To a soccer game? Seriously?"
For a moment, Erika's resolve wavers; it's been a year since Ouzou and Ryuuji played competitively, and they're nowhere near as good without Kota, but they're always going to be the Furuyas. The triplets are a legend. Then she reminds herself that she's faced down fully grown professional players and gives him her best evil grin. "What, are you scared? If I win, you tell me why you don't want to talk about it. That's really suspicious, you know."
Ouzou scowls. "And what do I get if I win? Ryuuji, if you say anything…"
Erika hadn't actually thought that far. What does she have to offer Ouzou? She's not going to stop asking him; if he'd just answered right away, it wouldn't be a big deal, but he's made it one by acting skittish. She's not going to leave it alone no matter what. "I'll buy you dinner at Shou's restaurant." And then, thinking of her meager funds, she adds hastily, "Just you! Not whoever's on your team." She glares around at the others, daring them to get any ideas.
"Actually, speaking of Ouzou-kun's team," Ryuuji puts in, "I'm feeling a bit tired. I have an exam tomorrow, after all; I should really sit this one out."
Erika's spine stiffens at the realization: he wants her to win. Furuya Ryuuji wants her to win against his brother, so he's giving her an advantage. But she doesn't want that. She just talked herself out of being intimidated, and she doesn't want to win by being treated like she's weak. She's had enough of people treating her like that to last a lifetime. "No," she snaps, "you're on his team."
"But I find myself so very uninterested by the thought of winning Ouzou-kun a dinner that I myself cannot partake in."
Erika glares at him. "I don't care if you're interested or not. Nobody's going easy on me."
"I'll be on your team, Erika-chan!" Shou says immediately. "Let's find out what secrets Ouzou-kun is keeping."
"Um, excuse me." Reika's voice is quiet, but she sounds determined. "Maybe the two of you could play one on one? That way, nobody will have to do anything they don't want to…" She gives Erika an apologetic glance, but Erika beams. That's a great idea; that way, she doesn't have to worry about anyone not playing their hardest.
Shou, on the other hand, looks disappointed, because he is seriously the nosiest guy Erika's ever met. "Aww, but what if he only tells her? I want to know, too!"
"Perhaps you could challenge Ouzou-kun yourself later, Shou-kun," Ryuuji suggests, smooth as ever. "But I do like that idea. Ouzou-kun keeps hogging Kageura-kun all to himself when they play."
Kageura snorts what might be a laugh, then glances at Erika and walks up to her. He still towers over all of them, and Erika tenses despite herself at his approach. "What now?"
Kageura just hesitates, glances back at Ouzou, then claps her on the shoulder. It's light and awkward, like he hasn't forgotten that she's a girl but doesn't know what else to do. "Kick his ass," he says, which makes Erika laugh because he still sounds so serious. Then he walks off without a backwards glance as Ryuuji claims Shou for his partner.
Ouzou is watching them all with a bemused expression on his face. He rakes a hand through his hair; it's shorter now, and Erika still hasn't gotten used to that, but it's nice to have a way to tell him apart from Ryuuji that can't be removed with a few moments of restyling. "Well, that was annoying," he mutters.
Erika grins at him. She wants to find out what he's hiding, of course, but the simple thought of challenging him is making her blood race, too. She's never done this before, hasn't ever faced Ouzou head-on like Kageura does. And she's got Kageura's blessing to challenge his rival; that feels good. Ouzou might have been to all her games, might know all of her tricks, but she's been practicing more than him, and she's faster. And she knows him as well. She's going to give the best fight she can.
It's been a while since she played one on one, never against Ouzou, and she finds herself grinning throughout it. She might not be a Furuya, but she and Ouzou used to work together like a machine. Playing against him like this, finding his limits and testing them, makes her feel like she's overflowing with life. After she scores her first goal against him, she sees his eyes narrow, his smirk change into something predatory, and it's like sparks going off in her chest. She throws everything she has into it. She's a challenge. He sees her. It's intense, being on the receiving end of his focus and attention, but she basks in it.
By the time Ouzou makes his winning goal, they're both soaked with sweat and panting for breath, and Erika can't even be sad that she lost. All she feels is that joy warming her from the inside out. She braces herself on her knees and tries to catch her breath. It would be easier if she could stop laughing.
"Well, isn't that a shame," Ryuuji says, and Erika realizes that the other match ended long enough ago that the others been watching. "Congratulations, Ouzou-kun. I do hope you'll enjoy your dinner alone together."
Erika's laughter stops. She's heard plenty of innuendos directed at her and Shou for being friends, for spending time together. But that's from people who didn't understand soccer and what it meant to her. And Ryuuji is teasing Ouzou. About her. She looks over at Ouzou to see him staring at the ground, panting. It doesn't look like he heard.
"Awwwwww," Shou whines. "I really wanted to know what was going on. Say, Ouzou-kun, do you think I could reserve a challenge?"
"No," Kageura and Erika say in unison. She glances over at him, and he shrugs. "Unlike Takatou," Kageura continues, "you're a hundred years too early to take him on."
"But Ouzou-kun might get another date out of it," Ryuuji interjects, and that's not really subtle at all. Erika winces and glances over at Ouzou.
"Shut it," Ouzou says, then sighs and straightens. He might have won the game, but the self-deprecating half-smile on his face makes it look like he's just lost. "Who'd want to date Shou, anyway?"
The words hang in the air, and Erika can't breathe for a moment. That, she thinks, is the answer she was playing so hard for. And everyone else knows it, too.
"Here," Reika murmurs, breaking the silence as she presses a water bottle into Erika's hands.
"Thanks." Erika drinks it down. She's never really considered any of the Furuyas like that, not that she remembers. They were always too closely knit for anyone to get in the middle, and none of them had eyes like Aoto's. But that fierce joy is still singing through her veins, and when she closes her eyes she can see Ouzou staring at her with that smile on his face, moving with her as she tries to get past.
Maybe he doesn't have Aoto's eyes, but the thought of him kissing her is making her glad that she's too overheated by the game to blush.
She looks over at him and smiles; she wants it to be confident, but she thinks it comes out more shy than anything. She's never gone on a date before, not for real, and she's never spoken to Ouzou alone before. But she wants to try.
He grins back at her, his face softening, and they just stand there, looking at each other, while their friends start talking again.