Our Greatest Comeback: Thanks to your beautiful light
He woke up with a start as the bus sharply turned, his body hitting the wide window. His rapid breathing made him aware of the cold air conditioning inside. Ascending a steep hill, a collection of trees surrounded them, likely around eight in the morning.
"Hey! Respect your space!" Jun shouted, sitting next to him.
Takashi took a hard elbow jab to his shoulder, jolting him awake.
"I-I'm sorry, Jun" he said, covering himself with his hands from where the blow came.
"Please, Takashi. Can't you sleep peacefully?" complained his nearest seatmate as he sat back up.
The bus was squat and wide, an oddly shaped vehicle with a high roof. Rows of three seats lined the left side, while a narrow aisle ran alongside. Morning light dimmed the cabin through the blue curtains, and only the front windshield offered a view. Silence reigned, with most of the roughly twenty passengers asleep.
"What happened?" Despite the complaint, Jun seemed concerned.
Takashi never took his eyes off him for a second, trying to come back to reality.
"Did the bus start to tip over?" he asked, to the bewildered look of his friend, who couldn't believe it.
"Huh? Of course not. It just took a sharp left turn. You probably hit the window," Jun flashed a warm smile at his friend, who wasn't entirely convinced. He still had his arms on alert, like a frightened kitten.
"Really?" he asked incredulously.
Immediately, Jun burst into laughter and reached out his arm towards him. Takashi closed his eyes.
"You must have had one of those crazy dreams," Jun said, stroking his head, further tousling his jet-black hair. "But nothing really happened. Right, Hiroshi?"
Jun nudged a hooded companion snoozing in the aisle seat. The young man stirred slowly.
"Shut up, idiot," Hiroshi responded drowsily. "Let me rest."
"You see?" Jun said after letting out a laugh. "There's no way someone can keep sleeping when the bus they're on loses control."
"Oh... I see."
Takashi felt reassured by the undeniable evidence of reality, yet a lingering unease remained. Nightmares would often disrupt his sleep, known to his close friends who would soothe him when they occurred.
"But this one felt too real," he thought. Typically, Takashi's dreams comprised hazy, fragmented, and bizarre scenes. Sometimes he couldn't even recall them. This time was different. He felt the bus suddenly drifting, and everyone was screaming in terror. Heavy banging and cries for help echoed from all around as a haunting emptiness filled the air. They were falling, and then he woke up. That's all he remembered, without even being able to see through the bus windows.
That and... something white. Not in the bus, but somewhere else before. He couldn't remember it clearly, but he swore it was a furry animal. He had petted it, remembering a hand on the white fur. It was his hand... right?
Takashi raised his eyes from the floor to Jun, who regarded him with his deep brown gaze.
"Well, of course, I'm nervous again. I focus too much on silly things," he thought to himself.
"Yes. Honestly... I don't want to mess it up again. I worked hard throughout the year, but none of it will matter if I don't do it well. And... if I can't play at all, I..."
Before he could spiral further into self-criticism, Jun interjected.
"Relax. You're the only center forward we have, and the coach has a lot of faith in you. You'll do fine."
"The problem isn't him. The problem is you guys," he replied disheartened.
"I believe in you," Jun looked at him decisively, smiling with his natural warmth. "And this dumbass here does, too," he gestured towards Hiroshi, who had fallen back asleep. "You just have to play well and make everyone else believe it too."
Takashi felt his mind easing, as if receiving a gentle caress.
"Then I'll do my best," Takashi said, smiling for the first time.
If anyone could shift Takashi's mood easily, it was Jun. A ray of sunshine, he'd smile when Takashi needed it. If he was down, hurt, or troubled, Jun would notice and counter with jokes, challenges or games. In a sense, Jun was Takashi's anchor.
Yet, it seemed like Jun couldn't fully understand him. He was diligent and outgoing, among the top soccer talents in Tsuno, perhaps all of Miyazaki. Seeing this, Takashi had a great dilemma in his mind, wondering why Jun had such an easy and settled life, and at the same time, how they ended up being friends. Yet, beneath any discomfort, the truth remained: Takashi cherished their friendship deeply. Despite inner turmoil, he was genuinely content to have Jun and Hiroshi as friends.
Takashi felt comforted by that thought, but he was still somewhat restless about the upcoming challenge.
"Do you think we'll do better this year?" he asked, looking at the ceiling with a wavered smile.
Jun made the same gesture and leaned back against the seat.
“Well, improving upon last year isn't a tall order. We managed just a single point out of twelve. A frustrating end to junior high school," he chuckled, though Takashi sensed a subdued note. "But I believe we're in a stronger position this time. Plus, we might secure Tsuno's first qualification for the high school nationals, right in our freshman year.
"That would be amazing, right?" Takashi got excited.
"Definitely. If only we don't make the same mistakes again... just that..."
Takashi noticed the deflation in his friend's cheerful tone. Now, Jun was looking at the floor intently, with narrowed and thoughtful eyes. Takashi knew him well enough to recognize his feelings.
"What happened, happened. There's nothing we can do to change it. But now we have a great opportunity."
Jun looked up at Takashi, who displayed so much happiness that he seemed like a different person from the one who woke up suddenly.
That was Jun's "human" side. He would get very sad and frustrated when things didn't go as he wanted, behavior that escalated during the tournament the previous year. The pair formed the team's attacking duo, alongside Hiroshi, and in the prior edition, their errors had caused defeat. As Takashi embraced sorrow, Jun manifested it as anger. Takashi knew he wasn't alone in struggles, offering some solace.
It comforted him to know he wasn't alone. That the others were also going through a tough time. And for that reason, he also wanted to be there for his friends.
"Let's give it our all, Jun," Takashi extended his fist.
The brown-haired boy was moved by his friend's gesture, and he huffed as he realized his frustration.
"We will, Taka," he responded, imitating his friend and fist-bumping him.
That was the most important thing for Takashi. With strange dreams or not, he was willing to give his best. "This had to be the year," he thought.
The atmosphere returned to silence as the bus continued its journey. When Takashi looked out the window, he spotted a town hidden among the mountains.
"I won't scream at you if you don't finish my crosses well, but you'll owe me 100 yen for every missed goal," Jun teased, turning to face his friend with a smirk.
"What?! No way!"
"Come on, come on, let's bet!" Jun playfully wrapped his arm around Takashi's neck.
"Let go of me!"
The bet never materialized. It might have been the easiest money Jun would have ever made in his life. And surely the easiest they would have during their stay in Takachiho.