"Here we are, Handa. Can I trust you'll be alright?"
"Yeah, capt'n-san. I'll give it my best…!"
"That's the spirit!" Do-san smiled as he pushed Handa gently between his shoulder blades, encouraging him to move. "Remember that your training'll be different than everyone else's, so you'll have to make the most out of every second. If you ever need something, anything at all, call me and I'll help you as much as I can, though I don't think you'll need it."
"O-okay. Gotcha," Handa nodded, smiling back and trying to instil confidence to his new coach. "…Thanks for trusting me."
"Not at all. And now, go! In for the kill!"
Shinichi Handa said goodbye to Endou and headed to the entrance of the Ohisama-En.
Endou couldn't stop thinking about the conversation he had had the previous night. Shinichi Handa, even as an adult and in spite of all of his effort, had never managed to complete the technique that the young Shinichi Handa, temporary under his care, was working so hard on. He should have told him to stop trying since he would never manage to do it, but something inside him kept him from doing so: the memory of his younger self, whom he had affectionately nicknamed 'Endou-chi.'
It was shocking. They were the same person, but they could see, touch, talk to each other. They were two different people and a single one, linked by a bond that went beyond flesh or blood. The thoughts and life experiences of his young self, when they differed with his, would usually reach his mind as new memories. But, despite all, he wouldn't receive one hundred percent of what Endou-chi lived through. The rift between them was big enough for each one to have his own free will and independence in relation to the other. Ever since the worlds became one, Endou-chi had experienced countless things that Do-san could have never thought would happen, and the adult wasn't even aware of them all. It was fascinating.
Hope came back to life in the heart of that former legendary goalkeeper and, now, coach for both Raimon teams. And, then, he made his mind up.
The beast had to roar.
"I CAN'T STAND THESE COUPLE OF IMBECILES! GET THEM OUT OF MY SIGHT AT ONCE!"
"Wait, Reina-chan! Come back, please—we need you!"
"I FLATLY REFUSE TO DEAL WITH SUCH WEIRDOS! Have you even seen them?! You can't even see one's face behind so much hair, and the other one's a damn midget with a ponytail and feet the size of boats!"
"Come on, don't be like that…! I know Endou-kun's friends can seem a bit special the first time you see them, but there's no need to get up in arms."
"I'll get however I—! …Oh, God, not yet another one."
Reina Yagami, midfielder and The Genesis's second-in-command, had left the Ohisama-En's garden like a shot, chased after by a grown-up man with red hair, green eyes and dressed in a suit. A little pair of glasses with rimless frames and a shiny whistle hanging from his neck, which bounced on the man's chest with every step he took, stood out over the rest. The very moment Yagami was about to leave through the main door, she found that, at the entrance, Handa was placing his shoes with the utmost care in front of the stair that led to the rest of the house. When he looked up and saw the irate and unfriendly face of Yagami staring at him, he had to give his best and repress his survival instincts to not put his shoes back on and leave the place from where he came in without uttering a single word. Or he would have had to do it if the most absolute horror hadn't rendered useless each and every one of his motor skills.
A much more amicable face showed up above Yagami's head and offered the frightened midfielder a warm smile.
"Oh, good morning, Handa-kun. I didn't think you would arrive this early. Say, do you remember me?"
Handa blinked a couple of times before answering.
"Very good! I didn't know if you would recognise me. Well, welcome to our home. And excuse Reina-chan, she's a tad… irascible," laughed Hiroto, former member of Inazuma Japan and captain of The Genesis, as he patted Yagami's head, who immediately blushed and slapped his hand, forcing him to stop.
"Shut up, imbecile! And you, sissy, if you're staying, you could at least introduce yourself," the girl snorted, more and more irritated by the second. "My name's Reina Yagami."
Handa, still nervous, stood up and bowed quickly with his eyes closed, making it look more like a plea for his life rather than an introduction.
"My… my name's Shinichi Handa and I'm a player for Raimon! N-nice to meet you, Yagami-sama, ma'am…!"
Yagami showed a faint smile. She didn't like that reserved attitude, but that "Yagami-sama" thing sure was nice. At least, the pushover in front of him knew his place and how to treat her if he wanted to keep his life. And, at least, he didn't look as weird as his teammates.
"I guess it's my turn," the adult said unhurriedly and with a bit of happiness in his voice, smiling as he noticed Yagami was calming down. "You may call me Hiroto Kira."
Handa scowled slightly and tilted his head: something was off. Hiroto, who noticed the disconcert that his words had caused, let out a small guffaw and explained himself:
"I'm sorry—I should have supposed that would seem odd to you. My name was Hiroto Kiyama when I was your age, but Father adopted me and turned me into his legitimate son, so I inherited his surname as well."
"Say it all: his surname, his favour and his whole multinational. Lucky bastard."
Handa nodded. He wasn't sure he had got it right, but that was enough to get the gist of it.
"Well, you came here to train, didn't you?" Hiroto said, smiling kindly. "Let's go, then. Are you coming or are you staying, Reina-chan?"
"Stop calling me… t-that, cretin! Just being a couple centimetres taller than before doesn't give you the right to take such liberties!"
"I'm sorry, Yagami," Hiroto smiled as he patted her shoulders instead. "But the question is still there."
"…I guess I'll stay," she replied dryly. "I'm curious about what this guy here can do. Worst case scenario, I'll have a good laugh."
Shinichi Handa, for the better or the worse, had already mastered the fine art of taking nasty comments of that kind.
"Ah… Hello, Handa-kun… I didn't know you were coming; that's great…"
The three Raimon players who had been sent to the Ohisama-En met up and greeted each other happily. Jin Kageno and Ayumu Shourinji had arrived there the day before, but they had barely managed to practise at all due to Yagami's short temper, who was the main person in charge of supervising their training.
"Okay, I'll give you one last chance, you incompetent bunch," Yagami growled. "You'd better meet my expectations!"
A happy laughter resounded inside the big orphanage. Suddenly, a young Hiroto Kiyama showed up at the garden, still laughing.
"Don't be so harsh to them, Reina—it takes time to get used to your style."
"You shut up, Hiroto! It's Mamoru-kun who insisted on having them go through an intensive training!"
"I know, I know, but everything has its limit. Come on, let's take it easy."
"…Whatever. Hey, you, insects! Start warming up at once!"
All three Raimon players obeyed without question and began to warm up, moving around the whole garden. A simple sign from Yagami was enough to tell them to get away from there and leave the three coaches alone.
"Well, fill me in," Kiyama asked. "How are they doing?"
"The long-haired freak and the shrimp are a couple of knuckleheads," Yagami snorted. "Seeing the others, the new one will follow the same route, I assume."
"Don't get so worked up, Reina-chan," Kira laughed, Kiyama's adult self. "They're great players, but they have a very… Raimon style. If we want to teach them anything, we'll have to loosen them up a bit."
"I ain't working as a babysitter, mark my words!"
"Come on, come on, Reina, don't be like that," Kiyama smiled. "I swear we'll let you leave if you can't take it anymore. But make an effort, okay?"
Kiyama moved closer to the girl and kissed her cheek, making the young girl's face turn bright red all of a sudden and forcing her to push the boy away in fear. Kira laughed as he looked at them.
"Y-you're a pair of pigs…"
After everything that had happened between that couple, Reina had become much softer. Too soft for her own taste.
"Okay, guys! Let's start by taking a look at your hissatsus. Shourinji, Kageno, you're first. Hiroto, Yagami-chan, try to stop them. Handa, just observe and don't say a word. The objective is for Shourinji and Kageno to get with the ball where I am. Are you ready?"
All five of them nodded and got set. Shourin faced Yagami as Kageno did the same with Kiyama. About 10 metres away from their rivals, the Raimon players hurled towards the former players of The Genesis as soon as Kira blew his whistle. Shourin and Kiyama had the soccer balls, because the work of a defender is to steal the ball and a midfielder's is, above all, to hold on to it in front of the rival's attacks.
Shourin, being smaller and faster, met with Yagami before Kageno did with Kiyama. As soon as he had the girl close by, Shourin placed his feet on the ball and, with a quick, circular motion, made it spin at high speed, raising a cloud of dust in the shape of a whirlwind.
"Tatsumaki Senpuu V2~!" The little Shourin shouted as he saw how Yagami flew off backwards. Without losing a single second, Shourin kept on running forwards, now free of mark.
Motivated by his teammate's success, Kageno began to run faster towards Kiyama. As soon as he caught up with him, Kageno began to spin around his rival, who couldn't even follow him with his eyes.
"Coil Turn Kai…!" Kageno exclaimed, raising his voice a bit more than usual. That shout was the ultimate warning: as soon as he was done naming his hissatsu, Kageno spun round right next to Kiyama, making him lose his balance and thus stealing the ball from him with the utmost ease. The same way his friend did before, Kageno kept on running forwards. When they both got to where Kira was standing, the match was terminated.
"Splendid!" Kira congratulated them, clapping happily. "Your techniques are looking great. What do you think, guys?"
Kiyama scratched the nape of his neck as he tried to look for the appropriate word to describe Kageno's performance. Yagami was much more incisive and curt.
"They're not totally bad, but I can't believe they call Raimon 'the best team in the country' if these are their players and these have been their best techniques."
Kageno was crestfallen, but Shourin's cheerful and happy-go-lucky attitude saved him from depression.
"We managed to pass through both of you, though!" The little player exclaimed, unable to understand such a harsh judgement.
"Because we didn't even try to confront you with our own techniques. Hey, 'Kira,' let us show these two what a real hissatsu is."
Kira nodded and ordered Shourin and Kageno to go back to where they were standing before. Nonetheless, The Genesis's players switched their places. Kira made a sign and the match restarted.
Once again, the first one to face his rival was Shourin and, once again, he created a whirlwind by making the ball between his feet spin. But, this time, his opponent counterattacked. Kiyama raised his right arm and summoned a humongous planet over his hand.
Kiyama threw the immense land mass over Shourin. Not only was the whirlwind smashed, but Shourin had to pull back quickly to avoid getting crushed against the ground. Kiyama made the most out of that to grab the ball with the utmost calm and walk away.
Kageno, although scared after seeing such a technique, didn't back out. He got ready to steal the ball away from his rival, but, as he spun around Yagami, she jumped with the ball and kicked it from above.
"Learn who's boss here! Meteor Shower V3!"
After hitting it, the ball turned into blazing meteorites that fell on Kageno and hit him harshly. Kageno's hissatsu was completely nullified by the sudden attack from above. Much like her partner, Yagami managed to walk past Kageno easily, without him being able to do as much as smell the ball.
Handa was terrified. Despite all of their training, Kageno and Shourin had been overcome smoothly. Kiyama and Yagami had wiped the floor with them and they hadn't even had to try hard to do so. Handa had always considered Kageno and Shourin to be great players despite the little recognition they had had with regard to the world cup, and he tried to keep up with them and improve whenever they did.
But all of that didn't matter now. Kageno and Shourin were lying on the floor, knocked down. They could barely move and, meanwhile, the old members of The Genesis weren't even short on breath. They never stood a chance against such power.
What could he do, then?
"Enough. They're hopeless," Yagami finally proclaimed while looking at Kiyama. "God, they couldn't even bear a simple Meteor Shower! It's not even my best technique!"
"…That wasn't our limit either!"
Yagami scowled and looked back. To her surprise, Shourin was slowly standing up from the ground, with one of the most serious expressions he had ever seen on him. Likewise, Kageno began to get on his feet too, ready to keep on fighting.
"We haven't said… our last word…!"
Yagami turned around and faced away from the tireless players.
"But I have. The deal was that I could leave whenever I wanted to, and I can't stand any longer this pathetic attempt of making us believe you're any good for anything beyond warming up a bench."
"Are you really leaving, Reina-chan?" Kira asked with a serious expression.
"No. I'll invest my valuable time on something that is really worth it."
A single look from the girl burnt to ashes all right of reply from the boys. Nonetheless, to everyone's surprise, she grabbed Handa by his arm and tugged at him.
"You, sissy, whatever your name is! You're coming with me!"
Shinichi's expression mixed horror and confusion in equal shares. What did she want from him… and why did she look so angry?
"Did… I do something bad, Yagami-sama…?"
Yagami showed a faint smile when she heard that name again.
"Not yet. But I'm sick of dealing with your useless teammates. You're coming with me—I'll train you."
Shinichi turned his eyes towards the two Hirotos. They both shrugged, helpless: when Yagami made a decision, there was no way to change her mind. Shourin and Kageno were clearly upset about not being able to show the violent girl what they were really capable of, but they bit their tongues and decided to wait for now.
When he found himself unsupported by the rest, Shinichi gave up.
Yagami leant over Raimon's scared midfielder. The Genesis's vice-captain had forced Handa to get into the house and to sit down next to her by the kotatsu at the living room. Curious, she inspected the boy from head to toes. Shinichi didn't just feel observed, but terribly uncomfortable too.
"…Anything wrong…?" Handa managed to ask. Yagami shrugged.
"I was wondering why Mamoru-kun was so interested in you and in having me train you personally."
"…W-what? The capt'n… asked you to do that?"
"Uh-huh," Yagami nodded. "After your new coach called, Mamoru-kun gave me a call in private. He asked me to take care of you alone and to keep it a secret."
"…So that's why you left Kageno-kun and Shourin-kun in the lurch?"
"Pretty much. Though, honestly, it wasn't difficult to find an excuse to get the hell out of there."
"I can't say I'm okay with how you treated them, but… I didn't know the capt'n and you were such close friends, Yagami-sama…"
Yagami squinted in a menacing way and threw a death stare at Shinichi.
"…That's none of your business."
The boy was shaking like a leaf.
"I-I'm sorry, I… I didn't know that you… but it struck me as odd and, w-well, I…! P-please forgive me!"
"…Repeat your name."
"Your name. Now."
"A-ah… H-Handa. Shinichi Handa," the boy nodded as he gulped.
"I knew it rang a bell. So you're that guy Mamoru-kun's always talking about, huh…"
"…He… told you about me…?"
"You bet," Yagami sighed, rolling her eyes. "Whenever he's late, that idiot always comes with that stupid excuse of, 'sorry, I was with Shin-shin,'" she said, mimicking Endou's voice in a scornful way. "I hadn't realised it was you because he simply called you 'Handa' on the phone. But, duh! What a disappointment. Judging by what he always said about you, you looked like a moderately interesting player, but I can see that, as usual, that idiot was exaggerating. You're nothing but yet another average weakling."
Shinichi's self-esteem plummeted to the floor for the umpteenth time during the last few days. He already knew he wasn't especially good, but he had started to believe that he actually had something to offer to the team. He must had been wrong.
"Shinichi is no weakling!"
Shinichi turned around. He had been told that a new Raimon manager would be waiting for them at the Ohisama-En, but he could have never imagined that. He couldn't get over the shock of seeing that silhouette again. It had been a long time, but she hadn't changed one bit.
It was her.
Tsukushi Ootani, fifteen years old. Former classmate of Shinichi, Mamoru and the rest during their first and second years, who had gone abroad soon after the FFI ended.
Ootani had always been a very popular girl. Her sweet face and her angelic smile dazzled all the boys and, every day, a new pretender would show up and ask the young girl to date him. Or, failing that, one of her many admirers would leave a love letter on her desk or in her locker where he confessed all of his feelings for her. Nonetheless, with the utmost delicacy, Ootani would reject each and every one of those proposals, generally very shallow and banal.
Amongst all the boys, there was one in concrete who saw her in a different way. While everyone else thought of her as a cute and kind girl—except Endou and Someoka, of course, who only had eyes for soccer—, she was much more for him. In his eyes, Ootani was intelligent, funny, a person to trust and rely on. And, even though he thought of himself as being weak when it came to that kind of subjects and imagined that he was just exaggerating, Shinichi Handa would have sworn over and over that he was absolutely in love with her. And, nonetheless, he never said a word.
Ootani was very social and she would often approach any of her classmates to greet and talk to them. Handa, Someoka and Endou, who used to be together, smiled at her whenever she asked them how things were going. The eternal soccer freaks, cheerful as usual, would tell the girl about all of the ups and downs of their soccer club, but Handa would usually stay quiet and let their friends talk on his behalf. As usual.
On those occasions, Ootani would usually look for him afterwards, when he wasn't with the boys. 'You're very quiet today,' the girl would tell him. Handa would laugh nervously and nod, adding that he was usually like that and to please excuse him. She would smile and tell him that she didn't mind, that she liked it when each person was the way they should be. And, in private, Ootani would easily manage to do what many people greatly struggled with: make the shy and silent Shinichi Handa talk. He enjoyed being with her, and she seemed very happy to talk to him, much like she did with everyone. Ootani enjoyed knowing her friends, but she wouldn't usually talk about herself. Handa, on the other hand, was dying to know how she really was.
Once, Handa plucked up the courage and asked her why she would reject every boy who was after her. The girl shrugged and, blushing slightly, she simply said that she was waiting for a different boy. The ethereal answer took away all of his strength to make any other personal questions.
'A girl like her wouldn't match someone like me,' he would think. 'She's too good for me and, also, the other boys would be mad at me if we were together,' he would repeat to himself. And, then, in front of the whole class, she said she was leaving. The United States were calling for her. She would study at a prestigious school and would work hard to achieve her dreams, which she never revealed to anyone. Then, and only then, when Handa found himself between the devil and the deep blue sea, he tried.
Desperately, he wrote a letter. Simple and ordinary, just like him. He asked her to come to Raimon's soccer club in the afternoon, when everyone would have already gone back home. Ootani, however, wouldn't usually pay any attention to those invitations. That was why Handa was so surprised when he saw that the girl turned up to the appointment at the agreed time and place.
'Handa, I'm here,' she said as she approached him. The boy's heart began to beat violently and blood rushed to his head. He was a bundle of nerves and he couldn't think clearly.
He was stuttering, hesitating, shaking. Words seemed to not be able to come out of his mouth. Ootani, with love and delicacy, closed her eyes and placed her hand on the boy's chest to feel his heart clearly; a heart that, at that moment, Handa would have sworn that was beating for her. She caressed the scared midfielder's face, got close to him and, with a tender and melancholy voice, she slipped in an 'it was you from the beginning' in his ear.
The boy couldn't react. Tears began to roll down his cheeks and a stupid and unsettled smile appeared on his lips as he learnt that his feelings were returned. He got a lump in his throat. With his mouth open, he was breathing heavily. Ootani gave him a light kiss on the ear and tried to walk away, but she couldn't: as if he were a spring, Handa wrapped his arms around the girl's body as soon as he felt her lips on his skin and he pressed her against him with strength and resolution. He buried his face on her shoulder and let his tears wet her uniform. She returned the hug carefully and kept on kissing the ear of whom she had been waiting for for so long.
After a few minutes had passed, Handa finally managed to let go of Ootani. She looked in his eyes, but he could do nothing but look away. She begged him to gaze at her one last time. And, before saying goodbye for the last time, before leaving his life and staying as a mere memory in his mind, Ootani told him something. Something that, until that precise moment, Handa had forgotten.
'Handa… No, Shinichi. Shinichi… I know you will never realise this unless someone tells you, but you are worth so, so much. Please, always remember it. If you ever have to remember me, if I ever come back to your thoughts, remember that I have always believed and I will always believe in you, wherever I am and whatever happens. You're incredible, Shinichi. Different. That's why it's you and no one else. Shinichi… All I want is for you to eventually discover who you are. Do it for me. If you really feel something for me or you have ever… Be a Shinichi that you yourself can be proud of and whom I can be proud of too.'
Handa tried to whisper the girl's name, but she stepped forwards and stole his first kiss, shutting him up. It barely lasted a second, he hardly managed to feel it or enjoy it, but it was already much more than he could have ever expected.
Tsukushi turned around and disappeared in the evening light, without ever letting Handa release that 'I love you' that he was zealously keeping in his heart.
"B-b-but what are y-you doing here…?!" Shinichi yelled, stuttering constantly as he talked.
"What? You know her?" Yagami asked, crossing her arms.
"Of course he knows me! Shinichi and I were classmates long ago! Right, Shinichi?"
Shinichi, looking like he had seen a ghost, nodded as best as he could.
"Whatever," Yagami sighed with a wry face. "Are you done with what you had to do, Ootani?"
"The question here is whether you're done picking on poor Shinichi!" Raimon's former student scolded her. "Haven't you seen him play yet or what? I'm sure he could teach you a thing or two!"
"…If you say so. Okay, Handa," Yagami said, fixing her eyes on the boy, "tell me what that 'project' Mamoru-kun told me about is."
Shinichi gulped and tried to straighten up.
"I… I want to develop a new hissatsu!" He said, trying to look as serious and calm as he could.
"…Uh-huh. And how's it going?"
"W-well… They taught me how to summon penguins, although truth is that what I want is—"
"Wait, wait. What do you mean, 'taught you how to summon penguins'?" She asked.
"E-err, well, you see, they taught me how to whistle and stuff and…"
Yagami crossed her arms again and snorted.
"Tell me, 'Shin-shin': what are you planning, exactly?"
"I'd like to summon, eh, well… p-pandas…"
"And what keeps you from doing so?" Yagami inquired, arching an eyebrow. "You can summon, right?"
"Well, yeah, but… I can only summon penguins…"
"…In other words: you've only learnt how to summon penguins. Only and exclusively penguins."
Shinichi nodded. Yagami massaged her brow, trying to calm down.
"…What a bunch of incompetents. They taught you how to summon a concrete animal when you should have learnt how to summon in general. Now I understand why Mamoru-kun asked me to train you myself. For the love of Father Seijirou, why am I always lumbered with this kind of crap?!"
"Then, will you help me, Yagami-sama…?" Shinichi asked.
"…I've got no choice. And, going back to the previous subject, are you done with what you were doing, Ootani?"
"Certainly! Everything is ready for Shinichi to train peacefully and in optimum conditions!"
"Very well, then," Yagami said, and she stood up. "Come on, 'Shin-shin.' If you're only going to be here for two days, we'll have to train hard or you won't achieve absolutely anything. If I were you, I'd get ready."
Shinichi was already crying inside.
Ootani brought the master and her pupil to a park not far away from the orphanage. Bottles and a couple of lunchboxes rested on a nearby bench, waiting patiently for someone to make good use of their content.
"This park…" Yagami began. "Mamoru-kun used to bring me here to play soccer together. How did you find it, Ootani?"
"Endou himself told me about it. He said we would be fine here."
"…At least I know how to make it here no problem," Yagami said as she cleared her throat. "Okay, wait here—I have to go get ready."
Without saying another word nor waiting for any kind of good-bye, Yagami began to walk towards the Ohisama-En.
They were alone.
"You're still the same, Shinichi," Ootani smiled.
"Don't be silly," she interrupted, placing her index finger on Handa's lips. "You know you can call me by my name!"
"I… I can't…" He said, averting his eyes and avoiding all contact with the girl. "Ootani-chan, you… you shouldn't be here…! What 'bout the United States…? What 'bout your dreams…?"
"Haven't you realised it yet?" The girl asked, frowning slightly and staring at him. "You're my biggest dream."
Handa couldn't stand it. It had taken a lot of effort to forget Ootani. He didn't miss her anymore; he didn't cry because of her at night; she didn't appear in his dreams no more. He was smiling afresh and he had found the affection of another girl. Another girl.
Yes, another girl. It wasn't just his battle against Ootani's memory anymore. It was also Touko, the girl who had taken him out of the darkness and brought him back to the world. The girl he protected over everything else, whom he didn't want to get involved in any of his problems just so he wouldn't make her suffer too.
"Ootani-chan… Why did you come back…?"
"It's Endou's doing. You told him, right?"
"…Yeah. You know the capt'n: he can't see anyone suffering without asking about it."
"Suffering…? Oh, Shinichi, I'm so sorry…!"
"…No, don't apologise. It's… it's probably my fault, as it always is. I'll be okay. Now… leave, please. I… I couldn't bear having you close after what happened, and… Touko-chan…"
"…She's your girlfriend, right? Endou told me about that too," she smiled. "Shinichi… I didn't come back because I want to take you away from her, far from it. I came back because Endou told me you had problems. I want to help you! Because my dream isn't to turn you into my partner or anything of the sort—my dream is for you to be the best Shinichi you can possibly be! You're still very important to me; you were and will always be my best friend, even though you didn't know it or you didn't want to see it. I could only be myself with you and, even if it didn't seem like it, I told you more about myself than I ever told anyone else. You're very important to me. And, if I can help you, I'll move heaven and earth so your dreams can come true!"
"Are you really here… just for me…?"
The girl ran to the bench where she had previously placed the food. From behind one of the lunchboxes, Tsukushi took a notebook out. She quickly went back next to Shinichi and handed it to him with a smile.
Shinichi inspected the notebook without saying a single word. It was clearly very worn out, and the English word "NOTEBOOK" was written on the cover with print letters. At the bottom, over a line of dots placed on the right side of a little "By," Shinichi saw a name written in poorly drawn Japanese characters.
"Kazuya… Ichinose…" He read with difficulty. "K-Kazuya Ichinose!"
Shinichi stared at Tsukushi, who smiled.
"When I told him I was coming over to help you, he insisted on giving this to you. He thinks about all of you a lot and he wanted to do his best to lend you a hand. We study together in the United States, you know? He's and incredible and brilliant boy."
Shinichi was perplexed. Not just Tsukushi, but Ichinose, his old friend and former teammate, was worried about him and was doing everything he could to help him from so far away. Raimon's midfielder was about to burst out crying.
Shinichi ran his fingers through the rugged cover of the notebook, feeling the familiar warmth that it emitted. His thumb looked for the edge.
Tsukushi placed her hand over his and stopped it. They looked at each other and she shook her head.
Shinichi nodded. Tsukushi smiled.
"Tsukushi-chan, I… T-thank you. You still worry so much about me…"
"You still haven't seen it all," she said. "Shinichi, I've seen your matches on TV. I studied hard while I was abroad and I've learnt a lot about soccer, all so I could help you. Also, I know how you play and what your style is. That's why I've spent so much time getting something ready so you can be even better. Shinichi… Would you like to learn the hissatsu that I designed for you myself?"
"Of… of course!" Shinichi smiled, mesmerized. Few people had ever worried about him to that extent.
"Well, you seem to be in better spirits now," Yagami said all of a sudden. She had got changed and came back wearing an orange soccer uniform. "Are you ready to train?"
"Yeah…!" Handa replied with much more energy than usual.
"Wow, such an abrupt change. I don't know what the hell you did, Ootani, but I hope it works for something. Okay, sissy, start warming up."
Handa nodded and began to stretch his muscles out. Ootani smiled in relief.
Somewhere, two very different Mamorus showed two smiles that looked exactly the same because of reasons none of them could understand.