A/N: So...this is happening! An update! It's been an inspiring last month, hasn't it? The only other thing I'll say about this, before getting on to the good stuff, is that this story initially was inspired in part by 'Clean Sheet,' and then current sports events made me realize that there was an opportunity to pay some homages to that amazing story and to the amazing athletics on display in France.
I don't own 'Skins.' That's the tea.
"Come on; we're going to be late, and it'll be entirely your fault."
"There are—get this, Emily—ninety minutes in the game at a minimum. At least, I'm fairly certain that's right. And if we miss the first two or so, it won't be the end of the world."
Emily Fitch shook her hair, the red-and-white ribbons interwoven shimmering in the colored lights of the bar as they flashed and danced overhead to the music. "The game starts at midnight and if we don't get there before that, there'll be nowhere to stand in the pub." She took a long gulp of beer. "Why am I the only one with any sense of urgency about this?"
"Nah, I'm with ya!" Her teammate shoved through a cluster of tourists and squeezed Emily's shoulders tightly. "Who's still got drink left?"
"You are positively not finishing my drink for me," avered Katie Fitch, pulling it closer to her body as if James Cook would swipe it from her hand if held further from her hip. "Steal someone else's."
Groaning in irritation, he lunged for the pint held by a young man to Katie's immediate left. Surrendering, the owner let Cook take the glass and guzzle it sloppily; smacking his lips in delight before wiping his sleeve across his upper lip to catch excess foam. "Thanks, mate."
His victim stepped forward into Cook's personal space, patted him on the shoulder. "I am happy you enjoyed that, my friend. You do that again, I'll punch you in the face, yes?"
Cook pouted his bottom lip, appraised the taller young man. "Sure thing, Tommo. Jus' make sure'ta protect ya ear; I wouldn't want your pretty face damaged, mate."
Katie rolled her eyes, took Emily's hand and tugged her twin towards the door. "Oh, Christ's sake you two, sod off."
"I thought you weren't in a rush to leave, Kay?" Emily asked innocently.
"That was before those two decided to start acting like a pair of baboons. 'Sides, Thomas knows if he wants the night to end the night with me at his flat, he'll behave now."
Emily sighed, shook her head. "Wrapped around your finger that tightly?"
"So tightly I'm about to lose circulation. Boys are simple."
They burst into the crisp evening air, a light breeze fluttering in their faces and wiping away the stench of the club; a perfect June night. Their friend and teammate Effy Stonem floated through the opened door behind them, a distressed Three Lions shirt her begrudging way of showing support for their football-playing national team counterparts. She cocked her head to the side as they gathered off to the side of the entrance. "Katie'd know; she's been majoring in them since primary."
"A miracle I don't have a doctorate yet, honestly."
"Not quite what Bath had in mind when they founded the 'Gender Studies' department," snarked Emily under her breath
Cook and Thomas emerged in vehement discussion about the right strategy for the game as the trio of young women began walking down the lane, the twins arm in arm and Effy gliding along beside them. In their wake, Freddie and JJ trailed as forgotten as trash tossed overboard a cruise liner.
"That is not what they should do, no! No! To win they will have to have the possession and control the pace without making mistakes."
"Look, Tommo, tha's just nah what I wanna see 't'all! If you're not tryin'ta score ev'ry time you touch, wha's the point? Pace! Shooting!" Cook took off running down the sidewalk, yelling, GOOOOOOOOOOOOAAALLLLLLLLLS."
"Pace, shooting, goals. Top notch analysis there," chimed in Freddie as JJ rolled his eyes. "What'd you think, Jay?"
"I'm not an expert on football strategy by any means, but the team successfully converted 82% of their penalty kicks during qualifying while earning nearly ten set pieces a game. If you're England and want to beat Canada, who will have home field advantage I might add, it seems most prudent to try and take advantage of that extra emotion to draw some fouls, try and score from the spot or on free kicks."
Five heads whirled to face him. Emily smiled genuinely, "JJ, I think you have a career in broadcasting if you set your mind to it."
He blushed ruby, mumbled a thank you. "But I'm not sure I have the temperament for it."
"How do you mean?"
"He means, it wouldn't do in the 65th minute after an unfair call to have the announcer break into ten straight different curse words on live stream around the world."
Katie nodded in agreement; Emily frowned sympathetically at the curly-haired statistician. "Well, maybe doing the stats behind the scenes, then, so they can actually call a good game for once. My God, they can be awful."
"We're here," Effy announced quietly, nodding towards the open door of the pub, National Team banners waving in the light midnight breeze. Cook came jogging back towards them, waving them through the door. The teammates shoved their way into the bar, working in unison to clear space for the group to watch the quarterfinal game. Fans already squeezed into the pub cursed and shot the swimmers scathing looks; Cook responded in kind until they accepted that the new reality of the game would be watching from the periphery of the boisterous new arrivals. Thomas and Freddie, taking a quick round of orders via the not-quite-a-question statement of "Beer?" disappeared to the bar in order to begin the viewing properly.
And, on the multiple screens around the establishment, the Starting XI for each country took the pitch, jogging to their respective sides of the field, England in their white kits on the right-hand side of the screen, Canada wearing their respective reds.
"See, sis, we're here in plenty of time!"
"Katie, I know you like to use this word incorrectly on a daily basis, but it is literally kickoff right now. We barely made it."
"Done?" Effy asked simply.
"Yes," the twins replied simultaneously.
"Good; cheer for our ladies, then, and have a shot." Suddenly, Emily found vodka in her hand, bewildered as to where exactly Effy produced the proffered alcohol. They clinked the small plastic containers together and downed the clear alcohol: Effy showed no reaction whatsoever; Katie rolled her eyes and cursed the distilled liquor; Emily blanched, shaking her head in distaste.
"Why do I let you buy me shots weeks before we have Worlds? If Naomi were here..."
"She'd what? Stop you from taking celebratory World Cup shots? Abscond with you for an early game snogging session in the loo? Do your shot for you?"
"Is there an option 'D'?
"I don't think Katie wants to hear what option 'D' is," Effy smirked. In the background, Canada continued to pass the ball back and forth without aggressively probing the English defensive set.
"Gross, fuck, no I don't. Never thought I'd be happy to hear Emily complaining about her girlfriend being in London for a sustainability conference, but if it's the alternative to whatever you're suggesting but not saying...complain away, Em."
"That's rich; you've been seeing Thomas on and off for over a year now and—"
"We're not seeing each other, we're—"
Canada attempted to pass it backwards in the middle of the pitch, but the defender struggled to keep her footing and lost the ball, allowing an English striker to depossess her of the ball...
Oblivious, Emily sighed enormously and responded to Katie, despite Effy tapping her on the shoulder. "'Fucking occasionally, yeah I know. By the way, do you ever come up with original thoughts or—"
...Another defender slid to block a shot, but England's player touched the ball to her right; suddenly firing a low laser back across to the left towards home and...
The pub exploded in euphoria, hundreds screaming and jumping up and down at the early goal by Taylor, a sea of white jerseys converging to celebrate on screen as Emily and Katie set aside their sibling bickering to cheer and celebrate in kind, hugging each other; Cook roared somewhere closer to the bar, leaping onto the sticky surface and pumping his fists in the air, angry joy twisting his lips into a snarl.
"Truce? Katie whispered into her sister's ear amidst the din.
Emily patted her older sister on the back of the head, smiled. "'Til the final whistle."
A bouncer shoved through the crowd, intending to pull Cook off the bar, but the swimmer hopped down of his own accord, hands raised in surrender; the bouncer gave him a stern look, but retreated to the doorway without meting out punishment. Thomas appeared next to Emily, politely tapping her on the shoulder so he could celebrate with Katie. Ceding her grasp, Emily nodded and stepped away; Effy magically produced another shot and toasted the goal, tempting the brunette twin into drinking with her.
After a few minutes of revelry, Cook, Freddie, and JJ finally maneuvered their way back to the trio of women—and Thomas—with a round of drinks in hand. On screen, England was attempting to probe down the right side of the field without success, as they sought to add to the lead. They cheers-ed, grinning massively at the exhilaration of the early goal...suddenly the rest of the bar cheered in a weak impression of the earlier goal celebration. Looking up, Emily saw the referee stalking towards a Canadian defender pleading her case, gesturing emphatically this way and that, her teammate trying to bolster her argument. A replay showed a dangerous challenge against England's midfielder, with no attempt to play the ball; the referee awarded a free kick and England began setting up a play.
"They'll just play it short, d'you reckon?" Freddie said somberly.
Emily frowned. "I'd send it in, try for a header. Maybe draw another foul?"
Thomas leaned backwards, his arms still clutching Katie possessively. "Can she curve it and take a shot? Why not just try?"
The players jostled for position in the box; the swimmers ceased speculating as England's designated player adjusted the ball, took a couple steps back, and raised her arm. She addressed the ball, sending it high on an arc towards the box...a crush of red and white jerseys stared up in shock as it overshot them...and found the forehead of the team's star defensive back sneaking in behind the entire play, unmarked, near the far post...the ball redirected towards the net and struck the crossbar—
Pandemonium consumed the pub for the second time in less than ten minutes as England's tally on screen became 2-0; beer splashed everywhere, showering them in victorious amber liquid. Emily hugged Freddie and JJ fiercely, screaming in happiness as Katie twisted around to plant a hard kiss on Thomas's lips; Cook started for the bar again, intending on reprising his role as ringmaster. Effy stood impervious to the raucous crowd, sipping her beer and smirking. Extricating herself from the two boys, Emily approached the enigmatic girl.
"We have to come back for the next game! This is our good luck pub."
Effy arched an eyebrow. "Assuming much, Fitch?"
"Told you we'd be back," taunted Emily, one hand waving a beer can triumphantly, the other clasping Naomi's hand tightly. Her cocky smile faded as Effy narrowed her eyes.
"We're going to be in so much trouble with Darrick at morning practice, guys," JJ groused as he sipped a tonic water.
"It's the semifinals of the World Cup, Jay. He should have just canceled practice. Not our fault that Canada is so many time zones behind us," Freddie said by way of justification for their conduct on a Wednesday night.
"We're going to literally die in the morning, but it'll so be worth it," Katie avowed, ignoring the angry glare Emily directed at her for misusing the adverb yet again.
The contest—pitting England against Japan—began quietly, the anxious energy in the pub subsiding quickly as both sides came out tentative; the urgency and excitement of the first fifteen minutes of the quarterfinals game seemed to belong in a different tournament entirely. As the first half progressed with few chances for either squad, the group broke apart in pursuit of a booth, or drinks, or drinks to carry back to a booth; or to just disappear as Cook and a female fan seemed to do twenty minutes into the match. Emily, Naomi, and Effy remained standing in the crowd just in front of the bar, standing three abreast with the blonde in the center.
"Six months," Effy finally said, clearly not paying any attention to the game despite staring right at the English midfielder in her white kit take a throw-in.
"What?" Naomi feigned ignorance, keeping her gaze on the game too.
"Figure things out yet?"
"I..." She trailed off, glancing askance at Emily. "Why are you bringing this up now?"
"Because: captive audience, important to discuss before going off to fucking Russia for worlds, don't want there to be a repeat of Shanghai."
"Way to really give me a vote of confidence, there, Ef; thanks," Emily spat past her girlfriend. "For your information, this is a far healthier thing than whatever you want to call that 'relationship,' and both of us are focusing on qualifying and medaling and...why are you laughing?"
"Effy doesn't laugh; she shakes lightly while smirking," Naomi observed with a smirk. "But if she did laugh, she'd be doing it because she knows damn well you're in the right headspace, Ems, but wants to make sure I'm not obsessing over fixing us and doing so to the point where I fuck it up again. Do I have that right so far?"
"I didn't say anything of the sort," argued Effy cheekily.
"Uh huh. Well, I also don't appreciate her assumption that I'm not the problem here; Naomi was the one who mended the first injury in Doha and professed her love for me, unless you had absolutely nothing to do with that." Pausing for dramatic effect—and watching as England sailed a shot well over the goal—Emily waited for Effy to shrug noncommittally. "Exactly. Point being, there's no timetable on me telling Naomi I...saying it because we're both committed to balance and not ruining this."
On the broadcast, England jostled a Japanese striker to the ground, eliciting a yellow card and a controversial penalty kick. The bar groaned as one at the poor decision-making and officiating; Freddie and JJ joined the chorus of jeers from a booth on the side of the pub. Effy shook her head (at the game or at her, Emily could not tell).
"Emily, I don't need to know you said it because it's written all over your face already. I just know Naomi is body language-illiterate and wanted to clarify things for her." Effy headed towards the bar as Japan netted the penalty kick to take the lead and Naomi yelled obscenities at her in protest.
The younger Fitch squeezed their hands. "Hey, Naoms...please look at me?"
"...swear sometimes I'll fucking push her over the gorge and, what?"
"Effy means well, I think, but she doesn't get to dictate us, okay?"
Naomi searched Emily's eyes as she tugged at her bottom lip. "Manifesting it in words matters, though."
"Yeah. And so does making sure that when I do, it counts. Let's just watch the game, forget about Effy, and definitely not think about what new torture Coach has lying in wait tomorrow."
"You know, it's not going to be easy in Kazan; we haven't had a major competition since we started dating again, and Russia's not exactly..."
"I know, Naomi; I do. I reckon we should approach just like you told that reporter you'd approach Doha."
"Are you really going to quote my own words back to me to win an argument?"
"Are we arguing?"
Naomi shrugged. "I wasn't trying to, just pointing out that while you can definitely rest easy I won't be caught snogging Cook in the locker rooms while you're racing, there may be other distractions. It'd be shit if one or both of us didn't qualify for Rio."
"Or if something happened between us," offered Emily with a hint of incredulity. "I feel like we're going in circles. Swimming isn't everything."
"—Which is why you two need more drinks!" interrupted Cook as he forced pints into their hands while staring at the game. England lofted a corner kick into play, where it was controlled...play became muddled and England's striker hit the turf. The swimmer barked, aggravated, "Hey! Hey, that's a bloody foul...thank fooking Christ! Penalty, yeah!"
The bar responded a moment later, roaring in vindication as England's bench gathered nervously, knowing the weight of the next few moments and how crucial they were to the country's hopes of playing in the final. The coach pointed at the center middie, indicating she should take the PK. Silence descended over the pub; despite the tenuous nature of their conversation, Emily found Naomi's hand grasping hers in solidarity. The goalkeeper bounced back and forth...England's player took two steps...and buried the shot in the back of the net.
Emily twisted, leaning up to kiss Naomi in celebration as beer and spirits spilled on them. They separated, Emily hovering just away from the blonde's lips. She stared directly into piercing blue eyes from centimeters away. "We're more important than a swim meet, say it."
"More important than every meet," Naomi promised, kissing Emily again. She withdrew. "Well, except maybe Rio...I mean it is the Olympics."
Emily rolled her eyes. "Thanks for the reassurance." Nevertheless, she felt herself smiling, the feeling that despite Effy trying to force their hand, this was still on their terms lifting her emotions just as much as the positive momentum in the game.
The last few minutes of the first half passed; they retreated to the boys' booth during halftime and spent the majority of the second half watching from its secure confines. When, fifteen minutes into the second portion of the game, England sent a daring ball off the crossbar, Katie dropped her head into her hands and screamed in frustration. Freddie and Cook stood up, storming around the room in irritation at the bad luck. Then, even as they pouted, England regained control and took another shot: the Japanese goalkeeper diverted it with a diving play, and suddenly Effy was stalking towards the bar to calm her nerves with vodka...only to need a second one as, two minutes later, a corner kick was headed just wide. Naomi released Emily's knee from a death grip; she joined Effy at the bar for a shot.
"What was that, earlier? Why are you trying to force Emily's hand?"
"Because she was ready before you were, Naomi, and will be ready long after, if you're not careful. We've been friends for a long time—"
"Were friends, then weren't, now we are again," clarified Naomi with a cheeky grin. "But keep going."
"Fact. And during the 'weren't,' was Shanghai. Last spring, she came close to that low again...and now we're all on edge with Kazan and practice and just finishing exams and...reminding both of you what is at stake needed to be done. Now, are you taking a shot with me, or not?"
As the game wore on, the trepidation and nervousness continued to build, lingering around the wooden beams along the ceiling and fogging the pub's windows. JJ began reciting mathematics proofs to himself in a low voice as the game neared the ninetieth minute and stoppage time. Naomi stood, brooding, in a corner as Emily wrapped her hand around an empty pint glass at the table. Katie and Thomas stood in a crowd near the draught handles, conspiring to will England to a late goal, or at least extend to extra time and future chances to win. The fourth official waved a sign indicating three minutes of stoppage time. Emily pushed the pint away, peeked at Naomi, whose worried return look nearly broke Emily's heart, and stood to cross the pub to join her girlfriend for the end of the game...it looked certain that there would be another thirty minutes of play to determine who would face the United States in the final, and Emily wanted to celebrate with Naomi if they could finish the game on a high note...
Suddenly Japan gained possession and pushed down the right side of the field. The winger found space and, desperate to create danger before stoppage time ended, sent a centering pass across the field, low, not enough pace on it to do anything but make England's defender knock it away for a throw-in or corner kick...
The ball deflected back towards England's own net, and Emily froze, alone, in the crowd. The other fans held their breath as the ball took an interminable route towards the top corner of the net...the goalkeeper lunged to ward off disaster...and could barely graze the ball with her fingertips. The ball thudded to the ground beyond that accusatory white line, and the center back lay helplessly on her stomach, watching the ball roll into the netting for an own goal.
The pub—filled with cheers and exaltations for the previous ninety-one minutes—settled into an eerie silence. Emily tore her eyes away from the disbelieving celebration of the Japanese team as they realized that the game was over and they'd escaped in the most unlikely way imaginable; she found Naomi's eyes mirroring her own: demoralized, powerless against the emotions of a game being played on a different continent, that they held no direct influence on, but that incited a feeling of otherworldly superstition in their actions' impact on the outcome.
An own goal. In stoppage time. How is this even possible?! Effy stood, slid through the crowd and disappeared into the night; Emily remained rooted in the middle of the pub as the early morning minutes slid by. What...?
Katie and Thomas materialized at her side; she hugged her sister limply, an ominous weight enveloping her to counteract her sister's reassurance: if the soccer team could be so beset by misfortune in the semifinals of the World Cup, what did that mean for their efforts in Kazan? There couldn't be a correlation—JJ would tell her it was mathematically unlikely, scientifically impossible. But watching eleven white jersey-clad women collapse in defeat across the pitch, Emily felt the pub tipping away from her, inclining away and ripping cold logic away in an icy tide of despair.
Seeking refuge, Emily craned her neck to look past Katie at Naomi in the corner, and found her girlfriend gone from her sight.