by Mitsui Matsuri (蜜井茉莉)
illustrated by redplasticglass
First week of November, the previous year
Ise wiped sweat and tears from his face, ignoring the sidelong glances. A mud-splattered young man slumped against a brightly animated ad probably wasn’t too uncommon a sight in Yokohama — but he wasn’t drunk (yet), or homeless (yet), or completely heartbroken (soon, but he would recover).
The big red 5-0 on the scoreboard still bled in his mind. He focused on the blue of the sky behind it, wide and unfettered and entirely unlike him.
Pointed leather shoes tapped gently into his line of vision. Ise, startled, looked up into the face of a middle-aged woman, who favoured him with a cool smile. Her eyes were as black as her skin was pale, and something in the way she carried herself — as if everything that bound her to mortal earth was merely incidental — marked her as alien. Gaijin.
“You are your own agent, so I presume I’m not approaching you out of turn,” she said without preamble or any hint of uncertainty, her hands as calm and still as winter ponds. “I’m Okimoto Yuka. How would you like to come to Takasaki and play for my football club?”
He might have laughed. Or cried, a little.
Last week of April
I really hated you at first. You looked like a fucking farmboy with yakuza-wannabe tattoos. A defender they found in some kick-around game in the boondocks. How was I to know you played in England before the piddling club who grabbed you when you came back? Shut up, I know they’re not pid– you just make me–
You were carved out of earth and rock. But when you’re on the pitch, in the air– god. I could l-love you.
(there is a pause, and raspy breathing)
I want to break up.
Laugh and I’ll kick the ball into your pretty face, fuckhead.
Sorry. I don’t mean that. I don’t know what I mean.
Okay, fine, I do know what I mean. Don’t rub it in.
Second week of February
“The most important thing was to build his confidence,” van Bruggen said, gesturing expansively. Below them, on the pitch, his assistant — a dapper, slender man by the unlikely name of Momotami — led the players in dribbling practice. “Ise’s a rare one. Responsibility kills many a player, but I’ll wager it makes him blossom.”
Okimoto tilted her head, watching their movements. Next to the Dutchman’s tall, solid frame, she looked like a black-clad cat poised for a kill.
“And the rest, what about them?”
“Arakawa Eijiro as vice-captain, certainly. He’s the fire, as you predicted.” He shifted minutely, and nodded towards the goalkeeper. “Shoda may expect to make captain, but no, no. He doesn’t connect with the youngsters.”
“He was a one-man defence in the old Cannons for too long.” Okimoto crossed her legs and leaned back in her seat. “Do what you will with him. When I rebuilt this club, I threw out hierarchy and seniority — Shoda will have to earn his place just like the others.”
The coach pressed his lips against a laugh, pretending to consult his watch. Okimoto lifted her eyebrows at him, pointedly indicating that she wasn’t in the least bit fooled.
He did grin, this time, and changed the subject. They spoke in English, dispensing with all courtesies except affection. “So, the Barça match, this weekend?”
“Yes, and with my son. One day, your wife will murder us for turning her children into football addicts.”
“Only because Rie is a Real fan.” He turned his attention back to the training pitch, a frown slashed between his fair brows. “We’re still very weak in midfield. Too young. Too inexperienced. Except for Arakawa and James Ogata, if I had a choice I’d kick them back to reserves.”
“Fair, will be better when I’m through with them. But still not at least as good as our defence, and that’s a problem if we intend to play an offensive game this season.”
Okimoto sighed. “Very well. You will have to make do until the next transfer season, and we will both hope Ise Takeshi’s potential doesn’t wither.”
“You’re an atheist, Willem.”
First week of January
He doesn’t really remember much of the two winters he spent in England, beyond mud and rain. And Auguste’s warm bed, and his mother’s sobs crackling through the phone (“I know it’s unfair, Takeshi, but please come home”) on an October night.
Ise remembers the sky best, wide and tipped with smoke or covered with a somber procession of clouds. He doesn’t understand why some of his teammates look up at the sky and heave disappointed sighs — don’t you get it, he wants to ask. This is freedom. Right here.
He can run forever, under that sky.
Mateus Agano meets him at Takasaki’s main train station, where Honshu’s lines converge and spread out again. He hugs his once and future teammate, glad beyond measure for Mateus’ cheerful warmth and expressive grins, and they walk arm-in-arm into the freezing streets.
“I can’t believe you accepted Okimoto-san’s offer,” Ise says over a beer. “I thought… you said…”
“What’s true today doesn’t have to be true tomorrow. Yeah, I said I was gonna keep playing for our last club.” Beads glittered in Mateus’ shoulder-length hair. “Things always change, you know?
“I moved here from Brazil when I was ten. Left school when I was sixteen to follow in my parents’ footsteps on the factory floor. Got scouted a year later, never looked back. Doesn’t look like I’ll ever stop moving.”
He wags a finger at Ise. “Point is, my friend, you just gotta grab on when chances come your way. Célia’s one in a million. I’m not gonna let go just ‘cos it’s not the done thing for a man to follow his girl when she ups and moves to another city for her dreams.
“So I gotta start over from the bottom of J2. So what? They need me here. Célia needs me here. Boom! Fate.”
Ise stares down at the stained table. “I’m not sure what I’m doing here.”
“Takeshi.” Mateus’ gaze is kind, and he pats Ise’s hand. “You’re here to play football, man.”
Last week of February
Takasaki was a city of music and art, home to a disappointing football club that somehow managed to hang on to its most ardent fans, who sat through loss after loss with resigned loyalty. Now they hung on to every whisper of news from the club with anticipation, waiting with equal hope and fear for the start of the Division 2 season.
Célia came to training one morning with an entourage of painters, who sat on the edges of the grass pitch with charcoal and pencils. Against expectations, she chose Kaneyama Daijun, Mateus’ strike partner, as her subject. The finished painting rendered him in white and blazing reds, running towards black-painted goalposts.
(Kaneyama forgot to be angry for all of five minutes when he saw the painting. His smile at Célia was soft and tentative, and in it Ise saw the boy he could’ve been if zainichi was just a word.)
Ise’s favourite, though, was a sketch of him and Arakawa. It would later hang in the Takasaki Cannons head office, and showed him standing behind Arakawa, who had his hands in his pockets. Behind them their teammates goofed about, enjoying the clear, crisp morning. Their faces were indistinct, but the Ise in the small painting was obviously smiling, relaxed.
It was the day after van Bruggen announced the captaincy.
Second week of January
“Arakawa Eijiro. So you’re our new centre back.”
He ignores the implied challenge — for god’s sakes, your worth is in your fucking feet, not in your fists, he hears his old coach rant — and shakes Arakawa’s hand.
“Yeah, I heard.” Arakawa is at least an inch taller than him, lanky and brown-eyed; with an eye-catching mop of dark, wavy hair streaked in blond. Ise’s hand itches to run through his own short-cropped hair, feeling a little self-conscious.
Arakawa’s eyes are curious but dismissive, flicking over Ise with studied boredom, and Ise’s self-consciousness melts into anger.
“Excuse me,” he says firmly, drawing himself up to stand like the man he once was, and turns away to meet another teammate.
He feels Arakawa’s startled gaze on his back all through training.
First week of March
When Ise closes his eyes, he can still hear the rhyming chants and jeers, the loud whistling of spectators urging the ref to blow the bloody whistle. Here he runs with the desperate hope of Cannons’ fans at his back, with Shoda’s bitterness and the impossible demands he sets for himself, and Kihara’s hawk-like grimness at his side.
Far ahead, Arakawa drives forward with the crackling intensity of a flash fire. Half their midfielders have fallen apart, he realises with despair, with only Ogata’s steady presence keeping the inexperienced players alive. He shouts at them to fight on, picking up on the steady hoarsening of van Bruggen’s voice as he bellows from the edge of the technical area.
Kaneyama’s expression is angry and closed, still smarting from the yellow card picked up barely five minutes earlier. He’s getting impatient, Ise thinks, and makes a mental note to separate Kaneyama from the midfielders later.
Mateus chests down Arakawa’s pass with a smooth twist, a grin permanently attached to his face. His footwork makes fools out of the opposing players harrying him, and the flick that sends the ball flying to Kaneyama is as assured as Mateus’ faith.
Against all pronouncements but that of van Bruggen’s, they win their first pre-season friendly of the year.
Later, in the showers, Arakawa kisses him for the first time.
Last week of January
“We should have a theme song or something,” Takizawa said, waving his beer.
Shoda snorted and noogied him, making Takizawa squawk indignantly. At 20 years of age and only 1.68 metres tall, he was the baby of the team, beloved of even their shaggy-haired, perpetually grumpy goalkeeper.
“The drink’s gone to your head. You old enough to graduate from juice, Haru-chan?”
“Stop calling me that or I’ll bite your–”
“Jeez, Shoda, leave him alone. We need his face for the teenage girls.”
“Fuck off, Ogata. Nobody cares if he’s pretty — he’s a damn good defender and that’s what counts.”
There was a long silence. Finally, Takizawa ventured, cautiously, “Wow, Shoda, that’s almost… sweet.”
“What the fuck. No!”
Arakawa rolled his eyes. “Drink up, children. We can’t do this anymore when this place is done, so make the most of it.”
They looked around at the half-finished VIP lounge — the stadium’s latest addition, after a full overhaul of the sports medicine centre. There was a manic gleam in their coach’s eyes these days, accompanied by occasional mentions of “therapists” and “finally, a real training regime.”
(Yoshihara, one of their defenders, drew a cartoon of van Bruggen as a mad scientist. It made their coach laugh, just before he put them through yet another punishing training session.)
“Do you think we’ll make it?” Takizawa asked, wistfully.
“It’ll take time.” Ise grinned, his hazel eyes crinkling at the corners. “But we’ll get there. This season, let’s focus on promotion to J1.”
Arakawa gave him a strange look, not quite disbelieving. “You’re an optimist.”
“I cry like everyone else. Then I pick myself up and keep going,” Ise said, tilting his head back to look at Arakawa. “If that’s optimism, then so be it.”
Mateus, hitherto silent as he fiddled with his guitar, laughed and cut in with, “That’s the least of his talents — he’s never gonna admit it, but Takeshi’s a good singer too.”
“Hey, man, you got yourself an adoring crowd here.”
“Yes, sing for us!” Arakawa looked amused — at Ise’s expense — but his smile was without malice. “Something appropriate.”
Ise sighed and took the proferred guitar.
First week of February
“I still don’t understand you,” Arakawa said abruptly, closing his locker door with a bang.
Ise focused on the seams of his jacket, unfolding it in his lap. Arakawa was standing too close, enough that he could smell Arakawa’s pine-scented soap and see the rough weave of Arakawa’s jeans. It probably cost a fair amount — Arakawa took pains with his appearance, and splashed his money away on products Ise didn’t even know existed.
Arakawa sat down beside him on the bench, shattering Ise’s hopes that silence would make him leave.
“You can sing in Swedish. You talk about total football with our coach in English, and obscure Australian bands with Ogata. You have tattoos, but you’ve never even had a speeding ticket. That’s not normal. Not by a long shot, and don’t you fucking dare give me that innocent look.
“What the hell did you do in England, change out of your Japanese skin?”
Ise’s breath caught in his throat.
“No,” he said. “But I had three years to do everything I couldn’t here.”
Arakawa deflated abruptly. “You shouldn’t have come back.”
He rested his arm lightly against Arakawa’s — he was allowed this weakness, surely — and said, “I made my choice. What happened, happened.”
“Is it really that good, over there?”
“Some of it, not all. I like the sky.”
Second week of March
“First match of the season in three days,” Arakawa said. They sat side-by-side on Ise’s narrow bed, studiously not looking at each other.
“I’m not a girl.” Ise sighed. “You don’t need to sweet-talk me into sex.”
Arakawa jumped, as if scalded. “Shut up, I’ve never done this before, okay? Just– let me do things the way I’m used to.”
For a long moment, Ise wondered whether a smack to the head would be a turn-off — and reluctantly decided against the idea. With another sigh, he stilled Arakawa’s fidgeting hands, holding them between his.
“I’m not into pain through stupidity–”
“–and I know you… don’t usually do this. Trust me.”
Arakawa’s glare turned pouty. “This really isn’t anything like my fantasies.”
“It’s better.” He sealed the promise with a kiss, feeling an electric surge down his spine at Arakawa’s eager response.
Arakawa kissed him like a man who’d thrown off all his shackles, determined to run as far and hard as he could. Buttons and cloth, scraps Ise would find for weeks later, tore under enthusiastic fingers. Arakawa was grinning like a madman by the time they were finally skin-to-skin, curved around each other.
Ise rolled Arakawa to his back and slid down Arakawa’s body, kissing dips and bumps with equal fervour. Arakawa’s thighs tensed and quivered, but fell open obligingly when Ise licked his cock lightly; his heels digging into the hard mattress as Ise’s hot mouth slid down the hard length and sucked, sweet and unhurried.
“I can’t believe…” Arakawa started, the rest of his words strangled off with a moan.
Ise sat up, not entirely without regret, wiping his mouth. More of that later, he thought. For now: he asked, a little unsteadily, “Do you want to fuck me?”
Arakawa’s eyes rounded. “Can you– never mind. Yes.”
Straddling Arakawa’s thighs, he showed Arakawa how to stretch him, gasping as he fucked himself on the long, elegant fingers. Ise made short work of the lube and condom, racing against the distraction of Arakawa’s curious, wandering hands.
“Please don’t ask me if I’m ready,” Arakawa groaned.
“I won’t,” he managed to breathe out, and sank down on Arakawa, slow.
First week of April
Ise wakes up to Arakawa’s sleepy grumble, when Arakawa spends the night, and kicks him out of bed so they can get to training on time. They try not to be obvious. He thinks Mateus suspects anyway, and dreads questions he can see coming on the horizon.
For now, Mateus gracefully distracts the others when they arrive slightly late and together.
He has another long conversation with Okimoto exactly once since November. She pours him tea — a concession he suspects she does not often make — and they sit facing each other in her brand-new office.
“I trust Willem to give me as much information as I need, so I won’t ask how you are settling in.” Her mouth curves in a faint smile. “Nevertheless. Congratulations — winning streaks are as much hard work as they are luck, and you have proven your worth several times over.”
“Thank you,” he says, accepting the cup of tea with a bow.
Her eyebrows quirk. “I have never cared for propriety, but I suppose there are some things too ingrained in us to discard, no matter how far we run.”
“But I didn’t call you here to tell you to dispense with etiquette.” She slides a copy of the J.League newsletter across the table to Ise, flicking it open to a feature on the Takasaki Cannons. “You were quite prominently pictured.”
He reads it in silence, trying not to cringe at the scatter of hackneyed phrases.
“They love you,” Okimoto says without inflection. “You are a story of second chances: a man who comes home under a cloud just as he makes his breakthrough in Europe, and subsequently fails to live up to his promise. Until he transforms a club languishing at the bottom of J2.”
Her eyes shift knowingly to the exact spot on his upper left arm marked by a barbed wire tattoo, always carefully hidden off the training pitch. Ise doesn’t flinch.
“Even the suggestion that you may be a reformed character — ah, how they adore it. That is how they will sell your image, and how I will sell you should I need to.”
“Is this a warning?” he asks, careful not to sound threatening.
“No, not the way you think.” Okimoto’s black hair slides across her shoulders, catching the spring sunlight. “This is so you will have an inkling of what is to come, and so you will keep in mind the reason you are here: football.
“That is all I require from you, and for as long as I am here I will protect you and your team.”
Ise thinks of the blue, blue sky, and takes a leap of faith, and says, “I believe you. And… there’s something I need to tell you.”