Chapter 1: Looking for New Challenges
It was late afternoon on a sunny day in the first half of March. It was also the day before graduation for third-years at Enoshima High School. For the occasion, third-years Kakeru Aizawa, Nana "Seven" Mishima, Kaoru Matoba, Kouta Nakatsuka and Michirou Takase were squaring off against Enoshima High alumni Ryuichi Araki, Makoto Hyoudou, Ryoma Oda, Reo Kurebayashi and Coach Teppei Iwaki in a 5-a-side friendly match on the school's training ground. At this moment in time, the game was in its final stage.
"Nana-chan!" Kaoru said as he passed the ball from the wing to Nana, only for her to find Araki standing in her way.
"Bring it on, Nana-chan!" Araki said.
In a succession of quick and very agile movements, Nana performed her trademark Witch Turn to shake off Araki before playing the long ball forward. The pass was destined for a receiver dashing in full speed. "Kakeru!"
Kakeru slowed Nana's pass with a slight back-heel touch before dashing with the ball ahead of him. Makoto tried catching up Kakeru in full speed from behind while Ryoma stood up as the last obstacle between him and the goalkeeper. At the precise moment Ryoma got caught shifting his weight on his right leg while moving backwards after Kakeru seemed to shift his own body towards Ryoma's right, Kakeru slightly tapped the ball onto Ryoma's left side and then followed the ball in full speed, leaving both Ryoma and Makoto flat-footed. A couple of seconds later, Kakeru got into position and shot the ball past the goalkeeper, Reo Kurebayashi.
"Nice goal!" Nana said.
"Thanks! That was a nice pass and quite a nice feint too, Seven." Kakeru replied as he high-fived Nana before going into a mutual embrace.
"Nana-chan!" Kouta yelled as he ran to Nana. "That was gorgeo..."
Bam! Ball, red card. In just a blink of an eye, Kouta got knocked out and his head buried into the ground by Nana once again.
"I guess we can call it a day, everyone." Coach Iwaki said. "Aizawa-kun, that last run you did was reminiscent of that famous Michael Owen goal for England against Argentina in 1998."
"Really, Iwaki-sensei? I never thought about it. Michael Owen was quite a knight of his own in his best years."
"Man! You two are unbelievable; your skills are improving every day.. Nana-chan added more speed on her Witch Turn than ever and Kakeru keeps on timing his feints more effectively. You know, I can't wait to see the two of you soon at professional level with such skills." Araki said.
"Speaking of the future as a player, what's next for you, Kakeru?" Kaoru asked.
"I really don't know yet, Kaoru. I received several offers from J-League teams, but I really don't know which one to choose and sign for. However, I'm sure of one thing though: since I read that article on the late and legendary Sócrates, my dream is to follow his footsteps by becoming a doctor while playing soccer at a professional level. Since Seven and I have double experience as players and team managers, and with everything that happened in my life, specializing into sports medicine later on is also something to consider."
"Both of you got accepted at Tokyo Medical University, didn't you?" Makoto asked.
"Yes, indeed. We both worked hard to succeed and we're really happy to begin this new chapter of life in April. I also received offers from teams in the Nadeshiko League, but I haven't taken my decision on where to play next either." Nana replied.
"The path ahead won't be an easy one, that's for sure. However, if I had to bet on someone to make it through, it would be on the two of you." Ryoma said.
"And after all the titles we won together in the last 3 years against all odds, I know that nothing is impossible anymore." Takase added.
"Thank you, everyone. Either way, what really counts for both of us is that we would be allowed to play at professional level and to pursue our medical studies at the same time without being separated too far away from each other." Kakeru added before he turned his gaze at Nana, who then replied with a smile.
"Well, we hope the two of you will find the right opportunity and we know that you will succeed." Araki said.
"And always remember, all of you, that what comes first is to have fun when playing soocer. This is my last bit of advice as your teacher." Coach Iwaki added.
"We will, Iwaki-sensei." Kakeru and Nana finished.
Upon these final words, the group of friends from Enoshima High bid goodbye to each other before going back towards their respective homes. For five of them, the next day will be their last as high school students.
Later on, Kakeru and Nana took a walk home for once instead of going with their usual bike ride. On their way, Nana wanted to talk with Kakeru about what he said earlier to all his friends from Enoshima High, especially about what he said about doing everything to avoid forced separation because of academic and career choices.
"When you said earlier about wanting to make a choice in which we would both be allowed to play as professionals and to pursue our medical studies at the same time while not being separated by a great distance... did you really mean it?"
"I never had any doubt in mind when I said that." Kakeru replied.
"But what if a big European club like, let's say for example, Manchester United comes in to offer you a contract and the opportunity of a lifetime to be part of such a legendary team? What would you do if such situation presents itself somehow?" Nana asked.
"Well, I must admit that I would be very astonished at first if I receive such offer. However, you are the most important element for me to consider in any possible choice that I will make." Kakeru said before he wrapped Nana with his arms into a warm embrace.
"We were separated by thousands of miles for 3 years. I don't want to live through that ever again and I know you don't want that to happen ever again. After you came back to Japan, you became a big reason why I was able to find my confidence back. You guided me towards the light when I thought I was lost at times and you helped me in accepting what was then a new part of me."
"Well, no, er... I didn't do as much as you say. After all, you're the one who made it possible by taking those steps." Nana said as she was blushing and trying to be more modest than she should have been.
"Seven... if you weren't there at that crucial time in my life, I know I wouldn't be near the level I am now. Nothing of this would have been possible without you. I almost quit playing soccer by forgetting why I loved it in the first place and by forgetting our promise from our childhood days, remember. And because of the long way we made together since then, I am willing to put what's best for the two of us above anything else."
"Kakeru... Thank you." Nana replied before she locked her lips on Kakeru's lips. Both teenagers shared their longest kiss as neither wanted to let go of the other even though they already officially became a couple some time ago. Since the two met again more than 4 years ago, they realized how much they needed one another as well as how much it would be very difficult for them to go without one another.
After a few minutes, Nana broke the kiss realizing how they still have to get back home. "Kakeru, we have to get back home. It will be a big day tomorrow."
"Right. Shall we?" Kakeru replied as he offered his right arm for Nana to grab, which she did before both continued the walk with their arms locked together like true couples do. A few minutes later, Kakeru and Nana arrived at the Mishimas' house; it was time for both lovers to part ways for the night.
"Kakeru, I'll come and pick you up early in the morning. We'll need to be ready for the Graduation ceremony."
"See you tomorrow, then."
"See you tomorrow, Kakeru." Nana replied before both lovers gave each other a small kiss. Then Kakeru waved her goodbye and got back on his way home in the early evening.
Minutes later, Kakeru finally got home just in time for the usual family supper.
"Finally, the big day is coming tomorrow." Mrs. Aizawa said.
"I know, Mom. It's hard to believe how the last 3 years flew by so quickly. It still feels as if I entered Enoshima High alongside Seven for the first time just yesterday." Kakeru said.
"Speaking of Seven, I am surprised you didn't take this last night as a high school student to stay with Seven, doing naughty lovey-dovey things." Mito teased Kakeru on his relationship with Nana as usual.
Kakeru spat out his drink when he heard Mito's remark. "Mi-Mito, what are you saying?!"
"C'mon, Kakeru. It's not like you need to hide us the fact that both of you are doing things that are normal for couples in love to do, including those lovey-dovey things." Mito continued teasing.
"Mito! Will you shut up already?" Kakeru's face was getting crimson red. "You haven't stopped teasing me since Seven came back in the neighborhood more than 4 years ago."
"Pfff! Some things haven't changed in the last few years indeed." Mrs. Aizawa said between chuckles.
"Not you too again, Mom!" Kakeru exclaimed in despair before turning back to Mito. "Seriously, Mito, you are already 15. Isn't it about time you start being interested in people of the opposite gender too?"
"Me? If I were to find a man for myself, it would be a real man. The boys who hang around with me are mostly a bunch of shy sissies if not total jerks. Don't count me on that soon; I'm not in a hurry either."
"On a topic diverging from this very passionate argument, have you made up your mind on what to do next as a soccer player?" M. Aizawa asked.
"Not yet, Dad. I like the offer from the Yokohama F. Marinos since they are closer to home, but the Kashima Antlers and the Urawa Red Diamonds also made excellent offers too. Did other teams outside of Japan make offers?"
"A German club going by the name of VfL Wolfsburg and Spanish club Espanyol, Shunsuke Nakamura's former team, also gave us phone calls earlier today. However, none of them was able to guarantee that nothing would hinder your medical studies or Nana's without separating the two of you." Mrs. Aizawa replied.
"I see. So I guess my choice will stand among the 3 J-League teams from the Greater Tokyo area. After all, I would not have done well in a foreign country that speaks a language different from English."
"Don't worry, Kakeru. It's better for you and Nana-chan to get those medical studies done first, and earn something that would help both of you for sure after you put an end to your respective playing careers in many years from now. After all, bigger clubs can still knock at your door if you maintain high levels by the time you reach 24 years of age and graduate from medical school."
"You're right, Dad. I shouldn't be worrying about that at all. I will move forward and make sure to succeed once again."
"That's my boy!"
A couple of hours later, Kakeru entered Suguru's room, which was kept intact ever since the latter's death in the same tragic accident that also almost cost Kakeru's life. Inside that room, Kakeru remembered all the memories of his past, from the ones when he, Suguru and Nana were playing together as elementary school kids to the more recent ones with Enoshima High School in which he led the team to several titles against all odds.
"Well, Nii-chan. I finally did it. After tomorrow, high school will be in the past, and I look forward for a new challenge." Kakeru said as he looked at Suguru's picture, as if he was talking to him.
"After I heard about the heart transplant, I read several medical books and my interest in medicine started growing little by little. When I read about the story of the late Sócrates on how he succeeded both as a player and a doctor, I then knew what I wanted to do and I'm glad to have Seven joining me in this new adventure."
Then Kakeru paused for a few seconds before he continued talking.
"However for some reason, I still feel there's something lacking in this new challenge. Perhaps you know what it is and yet I have to find out. Either way, I will take one step at the time as I did in the last few years and I won't run away at all. Thank you, always, for this amazing gift and good night, Nii-chan."
Finally, Kakeru went back to his room for a good night of sleep ahead of Graduation Day. Later in the night and while being asleep, Kakeru suddenly heard a thud before it was followed seconds later by the same kind of sound, which was getting louder every time. At first, he thought it was only Suguru's heart beating strong before he noticed that the sound was different. Before Kakeru would know it, what was about to happen next would be beyond anything he ever expected.