Our Greatest Comeback: Thanks to your beautiful light
"I told you they’d find us!" Hiroshi's anger was a novelty, breaking his usual stoicism.
"If you hadn't pushed me, nothing would have happened!" Jun retorted, pointing at him with his index finger.
The four of them sought shelter under a store's awning. There, Takashi observed, still in shock. He couldn't believe they'd been followed; his face was crimson.
"They saw us... they saw that..."
Nao, however, fared worse. Upon noticing they were being trailed, she instinctively hid behind Takashi, glancing over his shoulder at the duo of friends. Nervously, Nao's face brushed against Takashi's neck, warming his cheeks and ears like volcanoes.
"What are you doing here, you idiots?" Takashi's annoyance was palpable.
Both stopped arguing and looked ahead.
"We're sorry!" they bowed to them.
Nao trembled behind Takashi, her grip on his shoulder tightening.
"Well, there's no helping it," Takashi stepped aside. Nao's grip heightened, but he scarcely noticed. "I think you already know her. Nao, these are Jun and Hiroshi."
Nao's gaze shifted too quickly, her posture slouching.
"Nice to meet you properly," Jun stepped forward, taking a few steps ahead. "Are you feeling better?"
"Ah... well... yes," Nao nodded, closing her eyes.
"Again?" Takashi wondered at her recursive nerves.
"That's good. And where were you headed?"
"Well...” Her words faltered. “I wanted to show him a place."
"Oh, I see."
"We're sorry for interrupting," Hiroshi added, grabbing his sociable friend's arm. "We should leave you alone. Although... with this rain, I don't think we can go back."
The water had already formed a slippery layer on the asphalt, and the storm showed no signs of abating. It would be a big problem to return that way.
"So..." the three boys turned to the shy Nao. "D-do you want to come? We're quite close to the place."
Jun and Hiroshi blushed, Takashi even more so. Nao's shy demeanor was truly endearing.
"All right," Jun blurted shamelessly. "Let's run!"
"Huh? Are you sure?" Takashi asked.
“Of course. Where is it?"
"Huh? Y-you have to turn right, then left, and then it's five blocks away," Nao tried to explain shyly using her fingers.
"Great! Are you ready?"
Jun positioned at the awning's edge, feeling the rain on his face. Hiroshi followed suit, slightly excited. And Takashi had an idea.
"Shall we?" he extended his hand toward her.
Nao hesitated, but then smiled, nodded, and took his hand. Takashi felt that soft sensation again, wishing it could linger forever.
"Let's go!" Jun shouted, dashing out.
Jun and Hiroshi sprinted ahead at full speed, shouting loudly to motivate themselves. Behind them, Takashi trotted under the umbrella, waiting for Nao, who wasn't as quick.
"Hiroshi, I'm going to beat you! And I won't give you my natto tomorrow!" Jun accelerated even further.
"Huh?! Cheater!" Hiroshi also picked up the pace.
On the contrary, Takashi laughed heartily. Negative thoughts vanished, replaced by a radiant smile that dazzled Nao. Like a cascade, her laughter joined theirs, also captivating Takashi.
"Her laughter is so sweet. How lovely," he murmured, immersed in a novel sensation.
The few blocks between the rice fields seemed ephemeral as they reveled in the rain. First, Jun and Hiroshi arrived in a technical tie that forced Jun to give his natto to his friend. He would have done it anyway. And then, Nao and Takashi arrived.
"Is it here, right?" Jun asked, looking up.
"Yes. Let's enter," Nao encouraged.
Takashi observed the entrance, surprised to find himself there. A massive torii gate stood, leading to a path cocooned by trees. As they strolled along it, Takashi noted statues with offerings, portraying a fox with a red scarf standing imposingly. Lush trees shielded them from the rain, casting a serene and hushed ambiance. "A shrine," Takashi realized. "Is this where she wanted to take me?"
"This is the shrine of Inari, the protector of Takachiho," Nao explained, the boys awestruck by the impressive vista. "Also known as the deity of foxes, life, and reincarnation."
After some brief moments, they reached the shrine's heart, a petite wooden edifice adorned with rice paper, featuring a Japanese-style gabled roof.
"Follow me," Nao instructed, composed yet resolute.
Nao approached calmly, leaving her shoes and umbrella at the entrance. The three boys silently followed suit, depositing their backpacks. Upon entering, they encountered a water basin with a ladle. Nao used it, first pouring water over her left hand, then her right, and finally into her mouth.
"How complicated," Jun said before Hiroshi elbowed him, indicating for him to be quiet.
"The shrine invites you to purify yourselves before entering. Please, do it," Nao imparted with great solemnity.
They each used the ladle, feeling the chill of the water on their hands and lips. Prepared, they proceeded to the offering area. There, a bell stood, and at the center, the statue of Inari, the town's guardian deity. Nao wasted no time in ringing the bell.
"I wanted to bring Takashi here... well... so that you could all have good luck… for your games."
Takashi felt warmed by her words. "Now I understand. She just wanted to help me." He felt like hugging her, but respectfully refrained.
The four clapped and prayed, eyes shut. "I wish for health and prosperity for my family," Jun implored. "I wish to be surprised by life and find my path," Hiroshi pleaded."
"I wish that everything..." he pondered, ‘starts to improve.’ Yet, Takashi devised a more profound aspiration:
"I wish to change in order to change others."
Takashi looked at Nao, unable to decipher her prayer. However, he once again noticed her teary-eyed smile upon finishing.
"Good," Nao said. "Now let's make the offering."
"Huh? Seriously?" Jun asked.
"You didn't bring any money?"
Silence ensued; wallets weren't typical matchday companions.
"No choice then. I'll cover for you today if you promise to come back and make your own offerings."
"Thank you so much!" they smiled as Nao placed four 10-yen coins into a small box.
"So, Nao, you're a religious person," Takashi noted.
"Ah, just a bit. My family can be very traditional, so I'm accustomed since I was little."
"But it's a good thing you are. Now I feel like we'll have better luck tomorrow," Takashi said lightly.
"Of course! I feel like we're going to score three goals each," Jun expressed his enthusiasm.
"That's a bit much, but I like that spirit," Hiroshi added.
While exiting the structure, Jun's phone rang, forcing him to answer.
"Nakamura!" Coach Shiraito's voice echoed in the little forest. "Where have you three been?"
"We took for a walk. We'll be right back."
"Come back here! You can go for a walk tomorrow when there isn't an unexpected fierce storm. It seems like no one in the town saw these clouds coming."
"Okay, see you," Jun hung up. "Well, another race?"
And indeed, they all left the shrine and started running. Takashi tried to secure his belongings when he noticed a problem.
"I forgot my backpack at the shrine! I'll be right back!"
Nao's cries couldn't deter him from retrieving his backpack from the entrance of the little edifice.
He halted, hearing a rustle in the trees. A fox, distinct with its orange fur and pointed ears, stared at him, then vanished into the forest.
"Wow," Takashi marveled before rejoining his companions.
Finally, the four of them arrived safely at the inn.
"Alright, see you tomorrow!"
Nao bid them farewell, and Takashi noticed she was shivering due to the cold weather. Jun and Hiroshi had entered the building when he decided to act.
He promptly removed his jacket, offering it to Nao.
"Huh? I-it's not necessary, I'm fine."
"No problem, you can give it back to me tomorrow. I hope it keeps you warm on your way back home."
Nao put it on very slowly while Takashi rushed into the building.
"Takashi... thanks for joining me. That place means a lot to me," Nao smiled, wearing the burgundy and yellow jacket.
Takashi felt that warmth again. "A special place... and she wanted to share it with me to make me feel better." In that whirlpool of emotions, he darted into the hotel, excited.
He pivoted, Nao catching his broad smile. The match was insignificant by now. "Thanks for cheering me up today! See you tomorrow!"
Nao's blush was evident, her cheeks tinted red—a color that suited her well, he thought.
And after a bath and a nourishing dinner, his first day in Takachiho concluded.
Takashi opened his eyes, his gaze fixed on the plain ceiling of the shadowed room. He had emerged from a dream—or so it felt, but in truth, sleep had eluded him. He looked to the sides. Jun and Hiroshi were fast asleep in their futons, exhausted after a strenuous day of physical activity.
He, however, felt the need to step out onto the small balcony. The cool night breeze brushed against him, and he beheld a tranquil Takachiho enveloped by the mountain range that protected it. The early moon peeked shyly behind lingering storm clouds.
"What a day, huh? And to think I could use my jacket right now," Takashi pondered in the stillness of the night, embracing the touch of nature.
Nao in a blue yukata.
A white animal.
Once again, they recurred.
"Is everything really going to be okay? I don't want to let anyone down, but... it doesn't seem easy," Takashi confided, leaning against the balcony railing.
After surveying the horizon, hoping for insight, a faint sound near the curtains diverted his attention rightward.
The white animal.
Once again, the image of that creature appeared. Its details crystallized, and the former room backdrop morphed into the very balcony he occupied.
“Huh,” he interjected.
Takashi looked straight ahead, analyzing the image in his mind...
In his mind...
Takashi slowly turned to his right. Once again, he saw the small white fox.
He didn't think, he saw.
"Are you having trouble sleeping, Takashi?" the fox said, floating up with its legs pointed toward him.