“Please please please Cocona!”
Cocona huffed and crossed her arms. “Nope. No way.”
“But but… we need you!” Papika whined
“Find someone else!”
“Cocona~ there’s no-one else! I want you!”
Then Cocona made the mistake of actually looking at her girlfriend. She had the kind of puppy-dog eyes that’d make a golden retriever jealous.
“Pleaaaaase?” Papiko whimpered.
It was probably the most pathetic thing Cocona had seen, at least since the last time Papika had tried to convince her of something.
“I’m in terrible shape, though!”
“You’ll be great! Just try it!”
“I’ll have to get up so early!”
“It’ll be fun! Even more time together~”
“I haven’t played since high school!”
“It’s like a bike, you’ll remember for sure!”
“I don’t think I have anything to wear...”
“It’s not so fancy. You can just borrow some shorts from me.”
It was no use. Papika couldn’t be reasoned with once she got an idea in her head. At this point, Cocona’s best hope was just to ride it out and hope she got bored.
“Fiiine. When do we start?”
“Tomorrow, six AM!”
“… I changed my mind.”
“Nope! You’re coming with me!”
Cocona’s life was a series of trials. But of course she loved Papika more than anything. She told herself that repeatedly as she set their alarm clock, and even more so when it went off far too few hours later.
“Alright, everyone, listen up. My name is Doctor Salt, but you will all refer to me as ‘coach.’ I expect you all to give 110% percent on the field at all times. You will be on time for practice, rain or shine, and you will get results. I am here to train you, and you are here to listen. If you don’t think you can stick to this rigorous training schedule, I suggest you leave now.”
Cocona stood to leave, and Papika pulled her back down.
Salt glared at her, then continued his ‘pep talk.’
“This will be a hard road, folks. Five-on-Five soccer is faster and tougher than association. You will need to give it your all if you wish for the Flip Flappers to prevail this season!”
A pink haired person sitting in front of Salt cheered enthusiastically.
Cocona leaned toward Papika. “Is this guy for real? What kind of chuuni-”
“Something to share with the team?” Salt boomed, interrupting her.
Cocona rolled her eyes. “Uh, yes, sir. What kind of name is ‘Flip Flappers?’”
“It is your team name, Miss…”
“Miss Cocona. I expect you to respect it, or take a hike.”
She looked around herself. “This is five-on-five soccer, right?”
“That is correct.”
“And you don’t play, do you?”
“Of course not! A coach’s duty is that of a sculptor, crafting something hewn in the rock into the brilliance of the sun.”
“… right. So, if I’m counting correctly, there are only five players here?”
“What’s your point, Miss Cocona?”
“If I leave, you don’t have a team, do you?”
“BE THAT AS AT MAY,” he boomed, but was quickly cut off by a woman with long black hair.
“Thank you for the speech, Salt! Now, why don’t we go about and do introductions and start practising?”
Her name turned out to be “Sayuri,” and the pink-haired excitable one was “Hidaka.” The weird kid she hadn’t noticed behind them mumbled their name, but Papika just called them “Bu-chan.”
The drills the first day were pretty easy, and Cocona got back into the groove pretty quickly. Cones were run around, laps were completed, balls were passed.
It definitely felt awkward at first. All of Papika’s pep talk about riding a bike didn’t seem to be coming true; she felt incredibly awkward. She missed the passes, tripped over the cones, and then as the ultimate insult, tripped over a stray ball and ended up flat on her back.
It didn’t hurt much, at least not physically. But as she lay on the grass, dew soaking through her t-shirt, she was ready to call it quits. She was tired, sore, and frustrated.
Then Papika appeared in her vision, face full of concern.
“Cocona! Are you okay?”
“‘m fine. Just… resting.”
“We gotta keep practising, though! Salt says we need to do more drills before we can scrimmage!”
“Just… five more minutes.”
Cocona laid her head back down on the grass. It was definitely going to have dirt in it, but the damage was done, so why worry about it?
Papika extended a hand, and Cocona grabbed it almost automatically. Then she was back on her feet and had no excuse not to run another few laps around the field.
What seemed like hours later, Salt finally blew on his whistle, signalling them all to finish up their stations and pack it in. Cocona felt sore in places she didn’t even know she had and was looking forward to a long hot shower. No longer than two hours. Three tops.
“You all need to work much harder,” Salt told them. “It’s not going to get any easier.”
Cocona couldn’t help making a face at the retreating coach. Papika saw it and giggled. Salt stopped, like he might turn around, but Cocona didn’t wait to see if he would.
“Let’s go home,” she told her girlfriend, joining their hands.
“Can we get doughnuts on the way? I’m starving!”
“But we got doughnuts on the way here!”
“Exactly! They were delicious!”
Then the puppy dog eyes came back out, so of course they got doughnuts again. Papika was right, they were very good.
Papika wouldn’t stop chattering excitedly on the car ride home either.
“Don’t you think Salt is so smart? He knows all these plays, and he makes sure everything’s perfect!”
“I’m not so sure that’s a good thing…”
“And Bu-chan is so incredibly flexible! He’s so small, but he covers the entire goal so well! I can’t get anything past him.”
“And Sayuri is so patient with me! I love how gentle she is when we’re stretching, and she always smiles at everyone!”
One of the many, many reasons Cocona had fallen for Papika was her unyielding optimism and happiness. It was almost impossible to be glum around her, even when one was tired, sore, and possibly suffering from donut-induced heartburn. By the time the two of them arrived home, Cocona almost wasn’t ready to quit the team.
“Whaaat? You can’t quit!”
“Look, I said I’d try it, right? I did, I didn’t like it, I wasn’t good at it, and honestly Hidaka kinda weirds me out.”
“But… but we’d only be four. That’s not enough!”
“You’d find someone else.”
“I don’t want someone else! I want my Cocona! I want you by my side as we ride the wave to victory!”
“That’s pretty ambitious for this early in the season.”
“Plus, if we win the tournament, we all get a pizza party!”
“Um, we’re adults? We can get pizza whenever we want. We had pizza for dinner last night.”
“But it’s not a party!!”
Cocona sighed. “Is this really about the pizza?”
“M-maybe not. I like… I like spending time with Cocona. I like doing things with you.”
“We do lots of things together! We’re barely ever apart!”
“But it’s not the same. I want to play with you! I want to share the field with you!”
“Does it really mean that much to you?”
Papika nodded fiercely. No puppy dog eyes here, just determination. In some ways that was even worse.
“Okay, one more day.”
But Papika still wasn’t satisfied. “The practising is boring, so it’s no wonder you don’t like it. It’s so repetitive and same-y.”
“Those all mean the same thing,” Cocona mumbled.
Papika ignored her.
“I didn’t like soccer until I played a game. You gotta feel the crowd and stare the opponents down!”
“How much of a crowd do these matches actually get?”
“That’s not important! But the field… it's full of possibilities! We can do anything we want out there if we put our minds to it!”
That was probably a little excessive for a game where you weren’t even allowed to use your hands, but that kind of exaggeration was part of what Cocona loved about her girlfriend. Sometimes it was a little aggravating to make every little thing seem like the world rested on it, but that passion was amazing. Papika kept her from complacency, from the kind of depression she was so easily susceptible to.
“Okay, okay, you’ve convinced me.”
“One game. I can’t promise more than that, okay?”
“It doesn’t matter. After one game, you won’t want to quit.”
Papika was irritatingly correct, it turned out. Cocona had to be practically dragged to the next few morning workouts with the Flip Flappers. She didn’t feel like she was actually improving at all, even though Sayuri insisted she was. Probably everyone was just being polite. What choice did they have?
But then the day of the first match came, and everything changed.
Salt paced purposefully on the sidelines as they did their normal warm-up stretches. And in place of what Cocona had assumed would be a rousing pre-game speech, he simply nodded stiffly.
“You know what you need to do.”
What a weirdo.
The referee blew his whistle, signalling the start of the match. The Snow Monsters took their place on the opposite side of the field. Because they had so few people Cocona hadn’t ever actually played a proper scrimmage, and she was nervous. If any of them got injured they’d have to forfeit, they didn’t have any substitutes.
She and Papika were the two forwards, and she looked at her partner for guidance. If Papika was nervous, she certainly wasn’t showing it. She grinned at Cocona and waved of all things. What a completely ridiculous woman. But there was no time for admiration, any second now the referee would…
And they were off. The other team took initial possession of the ball, but Papika deftly stole it back. She kicked it to Cocona, who was only momentarily confused and recovered in time to dribble it forward. She dodged around their defenders, passed back to Cocona, who caught it on a knee, shot it towards the goal and…
The gargantuan goalie caught it. They caught it with both hands, tossing it halfway down the field towards their own forwards. Sayuri and Hidaka were waiting, though, and they didn’t even get to make a shot.
Cocona was running on instinct at this point. She’d played the game before, and her feet basically worked themselves. The dribbles, the crossovers, the passes, all of them felt like she’d been doing them all her life.
The plays all blurred together. The two teams were evenly matched, and the volleys went back and forth. Cocona had made a few shots on goal, but not with any real hope — she simply wanted to tire the opposing goalie out, hoping they’d eventually make a mistake.
They began to work out a rhythm. Hidaka was better at long passes, so they’d steal the ball or get it from Sayuri. Cocona or Papika would grab the pass, most of the time, and steal it back if they missed. They’d pass back and forward a few times, take a half-hearted shot on the goal, and wait for the cycle to repeat.
Cocona knew that they couldn’t just keep doing the same thing and hoping for a different result. Sure, they were wearing their opponents down, but they weren’t exactly superhuman themselves. One of them needed to make a serious play.
The whistle blew, mercifully, for half-time.
While most of the team chugged Gatorade and water, Salt sulked on the sidelines.
“Shouldn’t you be trying to inspire us?” Cocona asked him.
“Would it make you play harder?” he retorted.
“Then why bother?”
Papika was chipper, at least.
“Are you having fun?” she asked.
“I… Yeah, I think I am.”
The grin would’ve been unbearable if it wasn’t so cute on her. And then Papika gave her a peck on the cheek, and Cocona practically melted.
“Noo, not in front of the team,” she complained.
“Will it make you play harder?” Papika asked.
“It… It just might.”
Then Papika leaned in close, whispering: “Wait till you see what you’ll get if we win.”
Cocona shivered. That was the kind of motivation she could work with. She finished up the bottle of highlighter-orange liquid and stood up.
“Let’s do this!” she exclaimed.
Papika was right there with her, but the rest of the team looked a little worse for wear. Bu-chan looked like they were about to fall apart, and Hidaka’s smile had gone from “wild” to “potentially homicidal.” Cocona decided to give them a very wide berth during the game.
When the whistle blew for a return to play, the only consolation was that the other team was probably equally tired. As long as they didn’t let up, they could probably… wait. Who were all those new people on the field?
Ah. The other team had made substitutions. One of the forwards and one of the defenders had been replaced, and they looked bigger than the players they’d replaced.
This couldn’t possibly go well.
There was no time to come up with a new plan, and it likely wouldn’t have made a difference. Papika wasn’t really the “plan” type, and besides Sayuri the rest of the team probably wasn’t either. The whistle blew, and they were off.
Papika managed to take possession of the ball quickly, but one of the Monsters stole it from her quickly. Sayuri intercepted a long kick down the field, but the opposing forwards were on her before she could get it back to Cocona or Papika. Another impressive kick sent the ball sailing for the goal. Bu-chan dived for the ball and caught it, a long kick sending it deep into enemy territory. But it was intercepted again.
The volley continued for several minutes. But this wasn’t like the rhythm from the first half of the game. The Flip Flappers were exhausted, and the Monsters had fresh blood. It was really only a matter of time before someone slipped up.
Then, seemingly at random, everything came together. Bu-chan’s throw wasn’t intercepted immediately, Hidaka managed to head it towards Papika. The Monsters, not expecting this, had left their forwards on the wrong side of the field. Papika made a pass to Cocona, and then everything just clicked. Nobody could stop her as she dribbled, fancy footwork dodging past the two defenders. She saw Papika out of the corner of her eye, but she knew she had a shot.
Everything seemed to happen in slow motion. The defenders were sprinting towards her, fast as she could. The opposing goalie’s eyes widened. Her foot came down carefully, gracefully, striking the ball perfectly on the arch of her foot. It flew through the air, and Cocona held her breath. The goalie dived… and the ball sailed over them and into the goal.
Papika tackled her into a hug, almost knocked the wind out of her.
“You were amazing! I knew you could do it! You’re so talented! This is so amazing!”
“I’m so glad you came to play with us!”
Papika felt nice and soft, and Cocona would’ve been happy to just stay in her embrace. She’d scored a goal, that should’ve been plenty. But a cough from the referee reminded her that they weren’t the only ones here, and she quickly smoothed out her jersey.
She was hoping everything would get easier now, since they only had to worry about defence. She fell back along with Papika, trying to put more bodies between the Monsters and their goal. They didn’t spend as much effort trying to drive the ball down the field, instead making sure their passes were solid.
But nothing’s ever that easy. Their opponents, backed into a corner, came out swinging. Not literally, of course, this wasn’t hockey, but their plays grew increasingly aggressive. The game had started off low stakes, almost friendly, but suddenly it felt like a real competition. Cocona found balls stolen from her where she could’ve easily dribbled past previously. And that was to say nothing of how physical things had gotten.
There were several shots on goal, and only Bu-chan’s impressive aerial reach kept their lead intact. They seemed to be able to hover in front of the ball, knocking it out of the way no matter where it ended up. But they were clearly tiring and looking all the worse for wear.
A quick glance at the make-shift score-board by the sidelines showed there were ten minutes still left in the game. Cocona couldn’t help but wish she was spending them home with Paprika, listening to Tegan and Sara or watching cat videos. You could fit a lot of cat videos into ten minutes.
But Cocona wasn’t one to do things halfway. She kept her eyes on the ball, and so she saw exactly what happened.
Papika had just taken a pass from Sayuri and was dribbling down the field. Out of nowhere, one of the smaller Monsters came fell into a sliding tackle, headed straight for the ball. Unfortunately for him, he missed the ball. Unfortunately for Papika, he didn’t miss her ankle.
She fell over with a surprised gasp, and Cocona was running to her even before the referee’s whistle halted play.
“Are you alright?” she asked frantically.
“I’m fine. It’s just a little tumble,” Papika replied.
But as she tried to get to her feet, she winced.
“Take it easy. There’s no rush.”
The referee and Sayuri were walking over as well. Sayuri was an EMT or something, which made her the closest thing they had to a medical professional.
“Ssh, I’m here. It’s okay.”
Papika tried to get up again and sucked air in through her teeth. “Oww.”
“Try to keep your weight off it,” Cocona advised.
“That’s probably a good idea,” Sayuri chimed in. “Let me take a look.”
She pulled out a little first aid kid and started unwrapping a bandage.
“Does this hurt?” Sayuri poked the ankle.
She turned to the referee. “It’s just a sprain, I think. But she should stay off it for the rest of the game.”
The ref nodded. “Okay, make a substitution.”
“Umm… we don’t have any substitutes.”
“Ah. Well, that’s unfortunate.”
Papika jumped up. “I’m okay, I can keep playing!”
But her grimace told a different story, and everyone could tell.
“It’s just a game,” Cocona told her gently. “It’s okay.”
“If you play on it now, you’ll just make your injury worse,” Sayuri added. “You could be out for the whole season.”
Papika pouted, but eventually let her shoulders slump and nodded. “Okay.”
The ref blew their whistle. “Victory - Snow Monsters, by forfeit. Good game, everyone!”
It was difficult to see behind his glasses, but it seemed like Salt was sulking even more than usual. Cocona just rolled her eyes. She and Sayuri helped Papika to the waiting car and headed home. They got extra doughnuts.