Our Greatest Comeback: Thanks to your beautiful light
"Fools! We lost two valuable points in the most foolish way possible."
Nobody in the locker room wanted to listen to Shiraito's post-match talk, but they had to. After all, he was right.
"I told you many times. 2-0 is the most deceptive result in football!" he exclaimed, squinting his eyes oddly. "You fell asleep, and we paid the price."
The team was overwhelmed by their relentless pace since the beginning of the match. Hyuga's impressive resilience provided an edge in the second half. Now, both sides had one point apiece from the draw, mirroring Takachiho and Kadogawa. Solely Nobeoka stood at zero points, inevitably set to change.
"Kato! You need to practice maintaining the offside line more," he said, pointing at the tall defender, and did the same with the rest. "Sasaki! Stretch with confidence; the ball won't bite! Yoshida! They got past you too easily because you didn't want to risk committing a foul. Ueda!"
"Yes?" Takashi flinched, but he was the only one who responded. The coach scrutinized him briefly, then reached a decision.
"Tomorrow, you'll train solitary goal finishing. It's incredible that not a single shot went between the posts," he said, softening his stance, crossing his arms. "The rest didn't make major mistakes, but there's still a lot to improve. For all."
Shiraito glanced at Kenjiro, igniting his fury. Disagreement persisted.
"Anyway, pack up everything and go to the hotel. We'll meet again for dinner."
The locker room hushed. A lone comedian cracked jokes, and others discussed specific plays from the match, albeit a minority. The atmosphere was grim. To varying degrees, everyone felt that they had let an important victory slip away. Takashi included.
"Don't be discouraged," Jun nudged him, anticipating his mood. "We all made mistakes that cost us the win."
"Maybe. But at least you scored a goal," Takashi mused gloomily, dismissing the comment's potential solace. "I didn't contribute anything remarkable."
"That doesn't mean you won't."
Takashi warmly smiled at Jun, contrasting his own mood. "It's the least I can do," he thought. He must be burning with frustration inside.
And his words held truth. An uncontrollable fury surged within Jun, desperate for release. He ached to pummel a punching bag ceaselessly, until pain and frustration vanished like wind-blown smoke. The helplessness and the inability to impact, devoured him akin to an unrelenting fire in his chest.
Furthermore, Hiroshi quietly kept his thoughts and belongings on the other side of Takashi. His demeanor seemed enveloped in a dark cloud, a shadow that darkened his spirit. For someone struggling to find their place, to stand out and be considered special, soccer stood as a unique opportunity to forge their identity. But now, he felt that his efforts were in vain.
"Well, there are still three games left. This is just the beginning," Hiroshi said, not fully convinced.
"Yeah," Takashi said as he closed his backpack. "I'll go ahead, I'll shower first."
"Huh? That's not fair!" Jun complained.
Takashi hurriedly left the stadium, comforted by the joke but still frustrated. Despite having already showered in the locker room, a bath was always comforting.
If he followed the street where that girl stood, it was a mere six blocks to the hotel. That girl...
Nao stood there.
"Whoa!" Takashi jumped back. "Nao!"
At the sound of her name, Nao shivered, averting her gaze for a brief moment.
"Hi, h-how is everyone?" she inquired, struggling to meet his eyes.
"Honestly, not great. But we'll push forward," Takashi exhaled, responding earnestly.
"Oh, I understand..."
A brief silence ensued, during which Takashi's gaze fixed on the ground as he lost himself in thought.
"And you? How are you?"
The blend of resolve in her tone and the gentleness in her manner caused a momentary pause.
"Well..." he began to reply, only to be cut off by Nao.
"You're very frustrated, aren't you?"
Takashi was taken aback. "She's really good at reading people," he thought, although it was quite evident.
"I understand... Do you want to talk about it?"
Takashi was caught off guard once more by her directness. "I can't. She won't comprehend. Why does she insist?" Despite his reservations, Nao radiated genuine care. She appeared sincerely concerned. But no, he couldn't.
"Oh, don't worry," he replied before nervously laughing. "Are you waiting for someone?"
Nao flinched, a tiny whimper escaping her lips. With each flinch, her demeanor seemed to shrink.
"Well… actually... I was waiting for you. I thought I could keep you company… after the match."
Nao's speech hesitations deepened Takashi's astonishment. "Of course. Even she thought I played poorly. And that's why I can't open up to her... right?"
Takashi considered amid astonishment and warmth, and due to her persistence, he eventually agreed.
"Well... I would love that, Nao. Thank you very much," he smiled at her with all the tenderness his post-match situation allowed. A match that, by the way, appeared forgotten.
"Oh, great!" Nao's enthusiasm shone through.
This response allowed Takashi to see what Nao had in her hands as he moved forward.
"Why do you have... an umbrella?"
“A pink umbrella. On the day with the lowest rain chance in a century,” he thought.
"Oh! It's just that..."
Takashi's laughter interrupted Nao. Her cheeks reddened deeply as he laughed. And indeed, only a few clouds dotted the mountain range surrounding Takachiho.
"Don't laugh! I heard on TV that it might rain!"
"Haha! Unbelievable! The weather guy should quit!"
"You're a goof, Takashi!" Nao playfully tapped him with the umbrella's end.
"Sorry, sorry... but that really cheered me up. Thanks, Nao."
As if her flushed cheeks weren't enough, Nao's face seemed to redden more potently. Still, she appeared calmer and more composed than before, no nervous fidgeting in sight.
"I'm glad you feel better," she smiled. "So... would you come with me somewhere?"
He glanced down the street toward the hotel. Showering and being with his teammates felt instinctual.
"If you're not up for it, it's fine. No worries," Takashi detected a tone shift in Nao, despite her faint smile.
"She waited here for me. I can't just leave her. Besides, I haven't asked her about what happened to her in the game yet." Suddenly, Takashi knew his plan.
"Alright. I'll follow you."
The response made the local girl smile even warmer, revitalized.
"Great. Follow me, Takashi."
"I'm telling you, my favorite song on the album is... huh?"
Jun halted his talk of rock when, upon reaching the street, he spotted a familiar silhouette departing from the stadium. Hiroshi began peering in the same direction, equally taken aback, before asking.
"Oh, is that the girl who got hit by the ball?" Hiroshi chimed in.
"Well..." Jun squinted his eyes to get a better look. "Oh, yes, it's her! Don't tell me..."
Jun's face lit up with amazement and excitement for his friend. Hiroshi's expression remained consistently neutral.
"So what? We can ask him later..."
"We're following them."
Jun looped his arm tightly around Hiroshi's neck, him reacting alertly and incredulously at the suggestion. It was one of the rare times he displayed emotion.
"Let's go! It'll distract us for a while."
"No! I want to go rest!"
Hiroshi struggled to break free from Jun's grip, but it was futile. His bad temper was no match for Jun's athletic physique that could hold him effortlessly.
"What? Are you going to go to sleep when you could witness the story of the century?"
"What are you talking about?" Hiroshi continued his unsuccessful struggle. "What if we get caught?"
"We won't. Let's be quiet. Come on, I'll give you my natto tomorrow for breakfast."
Hiroshi ceased his struggle and started weighing the situation. His expression, a mix of annoyance and amusement, was that of a true tsundere.
"You really have no remedy, huh?" Hiroshi commented, incredulous and amused, knowing Jun always found ways to surprise him.
Jun shamelessly nodded, enjoying Hiroshi's reaction before they started following them. Both walked cautiously, a blend of excitement and uncertainty guiding their steps.