Ichinose Kazuya considered himself a patient and peaceful man. He was always the one who would try to make peace between Aki and Domon when they were quarreling with each other. He was the one everyone liked and some of the reasons for it was his endless patience and perseverance. No matter how hard the task would be, he would always continue his training to achieve his goal. Also, when it came to the number of friends, Ichinose was the second one in the ranking - right after Endou - due to his kind and tolerant nature.
However, at this exact moment no one would have believed that since Ichinose Kazuya, the Living Statue of Peace and Tolerance was screaming at the top of his lungs in sheer fear.
‘Would you just stop, please!’ he cried as he tried to find an escape route.
It has been two days since the magician of the field has returned from America and this wasn’t exactly how he had imagined his return on the plane to Japan. The first shock was that one of his suitcases had just surprisingly gone missing, so now he had lost half of the souvenirs he
had originally planned to give to his former teammates at Inazuma Town. The second surprise awaited him in the lounge of the airport in the form a blue-haired screaming teenage girl. She immediately fell on Ichinose’s neck and haven’t let go since. Well not literally, but Ichinose almost felt like suffocating so it was almost the same. Since the day of his return Rika hasn’t let go of him more than it was necessary. Which meant that Ichinose could spend a peaceful meal with his family but got accompanied by Rika to almost everywhere else than home. He was now actually heading to the riverside to play soccer with his old teammates. Which obviously included Rika, but she really shouldn’t have escorted him all the way from his house... When he mentioned that to Rika, the girl just waved dismissively and said something along the lines of spending as much time as she can with him until he has to go back to America. And Ichinose wouldn’t have minded, really. He liked to say to himself that he actually had no problem with Rika. He actually had problem with her way of showing affection towards him. All this clinging and squealing just wasn’t his thing. And it has been going on for days now, so Ichinose felt like he was going to die right there if Rika tried to hug him again.
‘Oh Darling, I’m so glad you’re finally back! I’ve missed you so much!’ Rika said for the fifth time today with the same enthusiasm as the previous four ones.
‘Yeah, yeah, I know, but I can’t feel my arm!’ Ichinose cried in agony as he desperately tried to peel Rika off of him. He tried to ignore the dozens of prying eyes staring at them curiously. Maybe he shouldn’t have chosen the shortest way to the riverbank, which lead through a big, crowded park, but he wanted to meet his former teammates as soon as he could, so he stuck with this route .
‘Oh sorry, Darling’ Rika said apologetically as she loosed her grasp on her loved one’s right arm. ‘I’m just so happy that I finally get to spend some time with my boyfriend,’ her smile was brighter than a car’s headlights on a dark night. And that was exactly how Ichinose felt every time he was with Rika since he arrived in Japan; like he was a deer in the headlights of a truck about to crush him. Though he didn’t fully understand why.
Back when he was part of Endou’s team, Ichinose never really felt this way about her. Of course, he was annoyed by Rika’s loudness and affection-attacks but he didn’t really care back then. He just let the girl be and hoped that one day she would realise that they just weren’t meant to be.
But now - since it became clear to him that Rika won’t leave on her own - it was more than just simple annoyance. He felt exactly like in the field, when he had to make big decisions. He wanted to close this case with Rika once and for all, but he also didn’t want to distance himself from her or hurt her feelings. Because the truth was that once he got to know Rika better, Ichinose had to realise that she wasn’t so bad at all. As he got more and more used to her voice and the way of her speaking, he discovered that Rika was smart as hell. She knew a lot about tactics and positions and the pressure of being a captain. They talked about this while he was in America, through e-mails and chats. When Ichinose had received the first message from Rika asking about his wellbeing, at first, he didn’t want to reply. But his conscience told him not to be a jerk so he answered honestly; how he was worried about not being good enough for a national team or how nervous he was at the first training. And Rika always answered wholeheartedly and kept him updated with the events in Inazuma Town. Rika (just like everyone else when talking through Internet) was much more bearable via e-mail; even amusing, Ichinose risked admitting it. So, Ichinose considered Rika his friend, but nothing more.
And it was about time that Ichinose told her. He knew that this day would come and dreaded it greatly. But he had to tell her, before he went back to America. He was just… waiting for the perfect moment. Which somehow just didn’t seem to come. Ichinose knew that he didn’t have much time left before he left Rika again and having her hopes destroyed just made his stomach clench into a tight knot. Maybe he should tell her right now?
Ichinose was so deep in thoughts that he didn’t realise that Rika had already moved on from the topic and was now talking about her latest recipe. He tensed again as Rika started to scream in a high-pitched voice.
‘What is it?’ Ichinose asked, as he tried to mask the annoyance in his voice.
‘I just remembered that I didn’t give you my present!’ Rika squealed.
‘Present?’ Ichinose asked confused.
‘Yes, I made you a welcome back present, and I wanted to give it to you, but I was so happy to have you back, Darling that I totally forgot it!’ she answered as she searched her pockets.
‘Oh, you really shouldn’t have…’ Ichinose started but got interrupted by Rika’s loud shout.
‘Got it!’ she said as she lifted a little box out of the pocket of her sweater, smiling triumphantly. ‘Here!’ she said it as she offered the little box to him.
Ichinose took it as carefully as if he was accepting a bomb. He stared at the pink box with the blue ribbon and he felt as if the knot in his stomach had moved up to his throat. He swallowed hard, but the lump didn’t seem to move. He slowly sat down in the grass and Rika followed him, her eyes gleaming with anticipation. He carefully opened the small package and peeked inside while his conscience kept shouting “You can’t keep doing this!” in his mind. Ichinose let out a small gasp as he lifted the small gift out of the box.
“It’s a charm,” he said in awe, as if he has never seen such an object before. He stared at it in total daze as he observed it. It was a phone charm with a small orange metal octopus on the end.
“Well, I thought that it might remind you of our first meeting…” Rika blushed a little bit as she suddenly became quieter and started fidgeting with the hem of her sweater . “You can put it on your phone or your keychain so you can always remember me when you’re in America…” she mumbled, and the end of the sentence was almost inaudible for Ichinose. He was speechless. Ichinose didn’t know what to say, though he knew that eventually he would have to say something, but he wasn’t sure he will be able to. He was in shock.
He got a gift from someone! And not just from anybody! From Rika! From the girl whom he tried so desperately to avoid and get rid of! He felt guilt crawling up his throat. How could he let this happen? How couldn’t he see what was going on? Rika really liked him! Like liked liked him. Ichinose knew that she had expressed it several times before, but he never thought that it would be anything serious. It was just Rika getting overexcited about things like she always would, wasn’t she? But does Ichinose know her well enough to draw that conclusion? And more importantly: how can he reject this girl after she gave him a present?
“Do you like it?” Rika asked, with a hint of nervousness in her tone. Her voice drew Ichinose out of his thoughts. “Because you know, at first I wanted to give you a picture of us, with a handmade frame and everything, but Touko said that it is too much for a first gift, and you always look a little bit weird on our pictures - and not in the funny weird way - so I thought that this might be more suitable and…” Rika was just babbling nonsense but she couldn’t help it. Ichinose watched in astonishment as the words rolled out of Rika’s mouth, flowing like a flooding river. How does she do that, Ichinose wondered. It’s like she doesn’t need oxygen or anything to speak.
“It’s okay,” Ichinose finally said quietly, and his voice made Rika stop immediately in mid-sentence. “I really like it.”
“You do?” Rika said, her face lighting up, and her thousand watts smile was back. “Oh, I’m so glad you like it, Darling!” she yelled in excitement and did that clingy-hugging thing. Again.
“Rika…” Ichinose groaned as he tried to catch his breath. “You’re squeezing me…”
“Yeah, right,” Rika let go of him, and Ichinose could feel his cardiovascular system working again. “Sorry.”
Ichinose looked at Rika’s happy smile and felt the guilt pressing his chest with much more force now. He should tell her. Right now. Here’s his chance. This is the worst possible moment, but it’s the only moment. After the practice, he will go and have and ice-cream with the team and after that he goes home and he can be sure that a couple of teammates will accompany him. And the next day, he’s already off, back to America so he won’t have a single minute to talk to her in private.
“Uhm… Rika… can I ask you something?” Ichinose said reluctantly as he carefully placed the charm in his pocket.
“Yes, I will gladly marry you!” Rika shouted enthusiastically.
Ichinose’s face turned red, and he started to gesticulate with his arms dismissively. “N-No, I wasn’t going to ask that! Where did that come from, Rika? I want to ask something more serious.”
“What’s more serious than marriage?” she asked part jokingly, part surprised.
“Love,” Ichinose answered staring at the grass in front of him. “Rika… do you… love me?”
“Well, of course I love you, Darling, why would you even question this?” Rika answered with puzzlement in her voice.
Ichinose sighed. Well, there’s no turning back now, so the best he could do is to continue this conversation.
‘And… how do you know you love me?’ Ichinose asked reluctantly.
‘What a silly question, Darling!’ Rika asked with a giggle. Ichinose almost failed to catch it, but he could swear that he heard some agitation in her voice. ‘Why do you ask such strange questions? Are you feeling alright?’ She asked worriedly and put a hand on Ichinose’s forehead. ‘Hmm… you’re temperature seems normal to me…’
‘I’m fine,’ Ichinose answered with a little annoyance in his voice. ‘Just answer the question, please.’
‘Well, you simply just know it. You just feel it, here ,’ she sing-sang and dramatically placed a hand on her chest.
‘Oh,’ Ichinose expected something like this from Rika. He simply sighed again. ‘Okay, then answer this: how do you know that I love you?’
Rika seemed to seriously think about the answer. ‘Well, I guess it’s the same way around. I just feel it,’ she shrugged but the motion seemed a little ragged to Ichinose.
‘Are you sure?’ Ichinose asked, raising a brow.
‘Of course I’m sure!’ she exclaimed. ‘You ate my cooking, therefore our souls have been linked. We are soulmates now, Darling, and you should know that too,’ she scoffed.
‘Oh really?’ Ichinose crossed his arms in front of his chest. ‘If we’re so soulmates then tell me what my favourite animal is,’ he said challengingly. He looked in Rika’s eyes and was shocked to see a glimpse of fear in them. What happened? Did he scare her? But Rika quickly blinked, and any sign of anxiety was gone.
‘Cats,’ she said confidently.
‘Wrong,’ Ichinose answered. ‘I’ve always been a dog person,’ he said, but he didn’t let Rika reply and asked the next question. ‘Favourite season?’
‘Spring’ Rika answered determined.
‘More like summer,’ he answered. ‘Favourite colour?’ he bombed her with another question.
‘Blue’ she answered but she seemed to lose confidence.
‘It’s green!’ Ichinose groaned in frustration. ‘You see, that’s what I’m talking about! You know nothing about me! ’
‘Tch…’ Rika scoffed but didn’t look him in the eye. ‘Who cares for such mundane things like favourite animals when we have a destiny together!’
‘Rika, you can’t just excuse everything saying that it’s destiny !’ Ichinose drew quotation marks as he spoke to emphasise his words.
‘I’m not excusing anything!’ she stomped.
‘Okay, Rika, are you, one hundred billion-million sure we are soulmates?’ Ichinose asked with seriousness in his voice.
Rika hesitated. Just for a second, but it was enough for him.
‘See?’ he pointed out.
‘Why are you so mean to me?’ Rika burst out. ‘All I did was love you, and now you’re saying that all these months, damn, these two years were for nothing?’
‘Rika, did I ever say to you that we’re dating?’ Ichinose asked slowly as he felt that his throat was getting drier and drier. He swallowed hard. This was all his fault. He let things slip out of his hands. Two years… dear God, for two whole years he had been misleading Rika without even realising it! Whenever Rika told him that she loved him or something so affectionate, he just smiled sheepishly and brushed it off. He thought she would grow it out, but oh how mistaken he was! He, of all people misread Rika so badly! She opened up to him, told him everything, and even though they only saw each other like thrice a year, he took advantage of her. Because Ichinose liked having someone waiting for him in Japan. The thought that he was welcomed back here gave him such reassurance. Because a year had passed, and even though they exchanged letters with Aki, he had only seen her two times out of the six times he visited Inazuma Town. And that hurt Ichinose’s feelings. The thought that Aki simply let him go, and she started a new life working as a coach, forgetting all about Ichinose, hurt him so much. Without Aki, he had no one to go home to. But Rika always waited for him at the airport (he could never get used to that, she always scared him in the first ten seconds of their meetings), and the feeling that he is loved and wanted back here made his chest warm. Ichinose just realised that he somehow liked Rika. Not in the way Rika liked him but in a different way. He saw Rika as a friend and maybe… just maybe… it felt good to come home to her.
But none of this mattered since he was too much of a coward to tell Rika that he only liked her as a friend and now everything was screwed up. He screwed it up actually, and he wished that he could just teleport out of this already embarrassing situation. But he couldn’t. It’s time to face the music, look into Rika’s eyes and tell her the truth. He reluctantly did so, only to find a wide-eyed Rika staring at him with a fearful expression.
‘What are you implying?’ her voice was higher than normal by two octaves at least.
‘What I’m saying is that we are not dating, Rika!’ Ichinose averted his gaze from her now, unable to look at her. ‘We never were. It’s just…’ Ichinose sighed and ran a hand through his hair. ‘You were so damn persistent, and I never dared to say no…’ Ichinose looked up from the grass afraid of Rika’s reaction. But Rika wasn’t facing him anymore. She turned her back to him, and Ichinose couldn’t see her expression.
‘Uhm… Rika?’ he asked and tapped the blue-haired striker on the shoulder. Rika flinched at the touch and turned her head towards Ichinose. Her eyes were full of tears. Ichinose felt like his circulation just stopped.
Before he landed in Japan, he played out a hundred scenarios in his head about how this talk would go. Each and every one of them included Rika crying in the end. But Ichinose always imagined Rika as a loud crier. He always thought she would sob uglily with trembling shoulders to the verge of suffocation. But Rika didn’t make a scene. She cried so silently that Ichinose didn’t notice it! Another thing he guessed wrong about Rika…
‘I’m sorry…’ he mumbled.
‘Yeah, this makes me feel much better now, thanks,’ Rika huffed ironically and wiped her tears away with the hem of her sweater.
‘Okay, I deserved this,’ Ichinose replied. Rika started to stare at a bench across the park with a stubborn expression on her face. She avoided Ichinose’s gaze. They sat there like that in silence for at least five minutes when Ichinose finally dared to speak again.
‘So, you’re not gonna lash out at me?’ he asked sheepishly. He was expecting her to do that too.
Rika sighed and buried her face in her hands. ‘I guess I’m still in the state of shock. I think I could use a blanket…’ she murmured in her hands.
‘Here, have my jacket,’ Ichinose said and handed his jacket to her.
‘How chivalrous…’ Rika murmured, her voice dripping from sarcasm as she put on the jacket.
“Are you alright?” Ichinose asked with real concern in his voice.
“You just dumped me. Take a guess,’ Rika snorted.
Now it was Ichinose’s turn to bury his face in his hands.
“Why?” Rika asked suddenly. Ichinose lifted his face but still avoided Rika’s eyes.
“Because we are not compatible, Rika. We are too different. And we live on the other side of the planet, far from each other. This wouldn’t have worked in the first place. Damn, we barely even know each other!”
“No, not that,” she waved her hand dismissively. “Why have you kept leading me on? Why not just tell to my face at the beginning? Would’ve saved a lot of trouble for you…”
“I…” Ichinose scratched the back of his neck. “Honestly don’t know… I didn’t wanna lose you, I guess...”
“Ichinose Kazuya, I advise you to make up your mind and quickly,” Rika crossed her arms. “Because playing with a girl’s heart like that is simply cruel!”
“I-I didn’t mean it like that!” he answered slightly flustered. “I meant that even though I don’t like you that way, I still consider you a good friend. I was afraid of losing our friendship... Guess it doesn’t matter since I screwed up anyway.”
“Yeah, you did.” Rika answered in a cold tone. She stared far away for a minute then shook her head. “But I’m not all innocent either. I admit, I was too much at times. It’s just that…” Rika stopped in mid sentence not sure whether to continue or not.
“I was so afraid of history.”
“Huh?” Ichinose asked absolutely confused now.
“That it’ll repeat itself,”Rika said and placed her chin in her hands and sighed. “Guess I could say I’m my mother’s daughter. Can’t even keep a guy…” she laughed bitterly. “It’s just that, y’know, I had this ideal image in my mind about love. When I was six, my mom told me about my father. However, she spoke so highly of him like he wasn’t some douchebag who left us!” Rika rolled her eyes. “She would talk about how they met, fell in love, yada-yada. I guess she needed to get this off her chest somehow. And in that exact moment I swore to myself that if I ever found this so wonderful thing called love, I wouldn’t make the same mistake my mother did. If I find love, I’ll never let it go” she sighed. “But I guess I went a little overboard with it.”
“Rika,” Ichinose placed a hand on the blue-haired forward’s shoulder and looked her in the eye. “You don’t need a love interest to live a happy life. I know that you concluded the opposite from your mother’s speech, but trust me: you can be happy without a boyfriend. But even if we put this fact aside: honestly, you’re smart and talented and an amazing player. You can find a boyfriend for each and every one of your fingers if you want to.”
“Tch… You’re the one to talk…” Rika shook her head disapprovingly but her tone seemed to be kinder now. “You know it would take you just a word, and Aki-san would gladly fall into your arms.”
“Wh-what are you even talking about?” Ichinose stammered, and his ears turned red.
“Ichinose Kazuya, don’t you dare lie to me!” Rika snapped. “You like her, don’t you?” she asked, in a much more serious tone now. “Like that ,” she mocked his way of saying the word.
“Uhm… maybe? A little?” Ichinose tried.
“Then go and get her,” Rika sighed tiredly, her eyes emotionlessly scanning the landscape in front of her. “I need some time to think anyway.”
“Maybe I can help you think?” Ichinose asked sheepishly.
“Huh. You're the main reason I need time to think,” Rika said and continued to stare into the void. Ichinose didn’t move, and followed Rika’s example. However, after three minutes or so he started speaking again:
“So, what are we thinking about?”
“You, of course!” Rika rolled her eyes and chuckled but then shook her head. “Look, since you apologised I feel like I should do the same. I’m sorry for being such an annoying girlfriend, even though apparently we had never even dated.”
“It’s okay. I guess we’re even now,” Ichinose smiled slightly.
“It’s just that I’ve never been the loner type, y’know? I was always surrounded by friends. Back at my school, I had a big squad, and we were really good friends. I remember when I started to play football, the boys in my class would always call me names and make fun of me, telling me that I’ll never play as well as a boy. And then my squad stood up for me. They told the boys that football isn’t just for boys, and that they were playing football too. But of course, that was a lie. And then the boys wanted to check out our practice so we had to fake a whole football team, and that’s how everything started. But that’s another story,” Rika smiled sweetly as she recalled the memory. “But when I joined your team everything changed. There weren’t many girls to make friends with, in the first place. Natsumi was so busy and stuck-up to care about another girl joining Raimon, Haruna was too timid to initiate a friendship, and Aki seemed to avoid me on purpose - not like I would blame her!” she scoffed. “As for the team; almost all of you guys felt rather uncomfortable in my presence thanks to that small scene in Osaka. Even Endou gave me the cold shoulder! Touko specifically hated me at first, I remember. So, all I had was you, Dar… uhm… Ichinose to hang out with and discuss everything with. And that’s why I was so clingy. Because I was afraid if I lose you I won’t have anybody to talk to.”
“So, it seems to me that you only needed a friend?” Ichinose scratched his neck, deep in thoughts.
“I guess,” Rika shrugged.
“I think I can manage that,” Ichinose smiled slightly.
“Hmm?” Rika asked.
“Being your friend” he grinned.
Rika’s eyes widened at this statement. “I… I think I can manage that too,” she replied finally with a hint of suspicion in her voice.
“How about we start all over?” Ichinose suggested.
“I like the sound of that,” Rika agreed.
“Ichinose Kazuya, the magician of the field,” Ichinose suddenly said and stuck out his hand. “Nice to meet ya!”
“Urabe Rika, the greatest chef and forward in all Osaka,” Rika seconded and shook his hand. “The pleasure’s mine!”
“Now that we’ve properly introduced ourselves, may I invite you to come and see a match of mine?” Ichinose asked with mischief in his eyes.
“Isn’t this a little bit straightforward, Ichinose-san? We’ve only just met!”Rika played along. “Well fine, I’ll join you. Only on one condition!”
“What would it be?”
“I get to play too!”
“Well of course. As you wish Rika-san!” Ichinose replied as they got up from the grass and continued their journey to the riverbank, giggling and laughing at each other.