Our Greatest Comeback: Thanks to your beautiful light
He opened his eyes suddenly as a metallic crash overwhelmed his ears. Takashi's limbs jerked, scattering the futon he was lying on while an intense shiver ran through his body.
"Takashi! Wake up!"
He stared at the figure holding his arms, shaking him vigorously. Shivers turned to burns on his skin, unnoticed as his brain struggled to comprehend.
"Nao entered my room? Alone?"
"Quick!" Any fantasy Takashi might have had vanished with her words. "You fell asleep, the match begins in five minutes!"
Takashi rubbed his eyes and yawned, baffled for a moment.
He leapt up, dashing like a gazelle to collect his gear. "Sportswear! Boots! Jacket! What more, what more?"
After scanning the room in all directions, with the swift glance of a midfielder, he grabbed his phone and dashed out to the hallway, backpack slung over his shoulder.
"Everyone is already in the locker rooms!" Nao followed closely, running at a good pace.
"Why didn't you tell me earlier?" The question wasn't filled with anger, but with hopelessness.
"I can't miss the match. I can't let them down again. Not after they gave me another chance..."
As he passed through the dining room, a mandatory stop due to the construction of the inn, thoughts halted like his running. Nineteen people sat there, awaiting him.
"Nice pajamas, foxy!" Yoshida shouted before everyone burst into laughter, applause, and cheers.
Takashi glanced at the kitchen's wall clock—it was a quarter to eight in the morning, about seven hours before the match. When he turned, even some inn staff were chuckling at his blue and white striped cotton attire and unkempt hair.
Stunned, Takashi followed Nao with his gaze as she headed to the team and took a seat.
"This will teach you not to worry the team," she remarked before joining the laughter.
Takashi fixed eyes on her briefly. "She's beautiful." Repeating it wasn't enough. Normally, he'd feel embarrassment followed by disbelief that he deserved someone so sweet. Yet, her affection quelled those emotions in him.
"Ha..." He looked down, embarrassed, before bursting into laughter as well.
"I'll cherish this trip forever." Unlike the prior day, the atmosphere brimmed with cheer.
At breakfast, naturally, because when they went out to practice, it transformed into a real battlefield.
"Last minutes, give it your all! Ueda, execute those runs! Kenjiro, decide quicker! Sasaki! Stand properly!" Shiraito was left befuddled when Sasaki tilted his hip, his head lowered, wearing a gloomy expression. "No, you fool! Guard the far post!"
Those twenty minutes of a reduced match were enough to push the coach's nerves beyond the healthy limit. Shiraito countered this by clicking his tongue repeatedly, attempting to shift his focus.
"Nao! Bring water to Kato!"
From Shiraito's right, Nao darted forth, holding a bottle she tossed toward the defender after calling his name. Now, Nao genuinely assisted in their training; Despite her enjoyment the prior day, the team needed to be focused.
"Daisuke! What do you know about Nobeoka?"
The young assistant approached with a tablet, displaying notes.
"They're a strong team, adept at aerial play and set-pieces. They're serious about it. We even know from social media that they trained in a country house for a week."
“Darn it," he clenched his fist in frustration. "They live in a country..."
His collaborators had grown accustomed to Shiraito's enigmatic, nearly delirious remarks. They often bet on how long until he'd be in a nursing home. Daisuke always said two years. "Yes," he simply nodded. " Anyway, how will we confront them?"
"We’ll do nothing this time."
"Eh?" Daisuke thought he was wrong, and they should have taken him there immediately.
That wasn't Shiraito's typical response. They anticipated him suggesting a set play or positional shifts, not such a terse reply.
"The opponent is too strong to use any tricks. I have taught them everything I could, now it's up to them."
Daisuke, however, fell silent. Shiraito might be a bit crazy but he possessed unmatched knowledge of the sport. A football crazy, he was remarkably astute. He loved everything about "the beautiful game," even being a referee in training sessions. That's why he made an exaggerated gesture as he blew his whistle, signaling the end.
"Alright! That's a wrap! Gather here!"
The players assembled around Shiraito, with Takashi—previously one of the farthest—jogging over when he noticed Nao at his side.
"Good session," Nao affectionately ruffled Takashi's damp hair.
"Thank you. It will be a tough match today."
The boy momentarily startled himself. His mind buzzed with match thoughts, yet he set them aside upon spotting Nao's concerned gaze. No surprise he'd prioritize Nao over all else.
Nao's silence confirmed that something was amiss. Takashi noticed her fingers fidgeting delicately, as if in a struggle. "I want to talk."
Finally, when they were close, Nao raised her head.
"I want to address the team. You know, since they consider me their lucky charm... I thought it could boost their spirits. Please, don't get upset!"
"Not getting uspet? Wait... are you saying that because you think it might make me jealous?" Takashi found that notion amusing. He instinctively placed his hand on Nao's shoulder while grinning broadly. "No worries, it's fine. Don't think about me."
"It's not just that," the word 'just' elicited another chuckle from Takashi. "It's just... Do you think I'll do well?"
"Ah, that was it all about."
"Nao," Takashi looked around, ensuring everyone's attention was on Shiraito. Then, he planted a quick peck on Nao's lips, making her blush intensely. It seemed like she had been the one running to her limit, given how red her face had become.
"If you stumble, I'll take off my shirt and dance in front of everyone!" Takashi's jest added to Nao's confusion. Between the unexpected kiss and his light-hearted remark, she couldn't fully grasp the situation.
"How am I supposed to react to that?" Nao exclaimed.
"Don't react," Takashi left Nao bewildered, turning back towards her and trotting backwards. "Just think less and talk to him!"
Takashi joined his teammates, exchanging words with Jun and Hiroshi while the blazing flame approached Shiraito. Takashi noticed her whispering something inaudible to the coach before Shiraito shifted his gaze toward him and stepped forward.
"Alright, everyone! Pay attention! Our beloved Nao has a few words to share before today's match."
The team burst into applause and cheers for Nao, who was dressed in her customary pastel attire. She timidly took the spotlight among the bench group. Comments were made about her being their lucky charm and how she'd guide them to victory.
"Well..." Nao straightened up when she locked eyes with Takashi. Subconsciously, she sought his gaze—it offered her security. That feeling intensified when he winked, helping soothe her nerves. She took a deep breath, ready to speak.
"Th-thank you all for considering me a good luck charm. Honestly, I'm not sure how much luck I can bring, but I'm really happy to have helped you. You know..."
Nao briefly glanced down at the tips of her feet, gathering strength.
"You know… maybe you've seen me be really shy sometimes, or even seeming like I don't want to talk much with all of you. I want you to know that it's not your fault; it's just how I am. But…” Kindness illuminated her face. “A few days ago, I surprised myself by agreeing to sit with you on the bench. Since that day, little by little… I've been changing. That wouldn't have happened before, let alone giving a speech like this. So, thank you all for what you've done for me."
During her brief pause, Nao noticed a small smile on Hiroshi's face, which she couldn't fully comprehend.
"I don't know much about football, honestly, but I do feel that all of you are amazing, and that's why I know you can do it this time... Ah!"
Nao groaned as the players' confusion grew, hastening her gestures.
"Let’s go Tsuno!"
As promised, Takashi interrupted the confusion, not by dancing, but by waving his arms in the air. Everyone remembered the cheer Shiraito had taught them, showing his enthusiasm for South American football.
"Let’s go Tsuno! Let’s go Tsuno!"
With each repetition, the phrase boosted the happiness in Nao's heart. She was achieving it, step by step.
"All right! Looks like she did my job. Great training, now head to the locker rooms and get ready! Ueda, you collect everything!"
"Yes!" Takashi stood straight like a soldier before rushing off, his teammates already walking away.
Nao's voice caught Takashi's attention, and he spun around. He gave her a big smile, both tender and energetic.
"Great speech, Nao! Congratulations!"
The excitement reached her eyes, her heart almost bursting. She didn't just see Takashi as someone she liked, but as someone who had helped her grow. Shiraito's gentle pat on her back, a grand compliment, only briefly distracted her from watching the boy run happily towards the goal to fetch some cones.
"That was a wonderful speech, Nao."
"Those were such kind words."
Around the benches, only three people now lingered: Jun, the first speaker, Hiroshi next, and Nao.
"Thank you, guys. Oh, I'm glad everything is okay with Takashi. You scared me yesterday."
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Jun rubbed his head. "Ah, and we're happy for you. Yes, we know what happened at the festival."
Nao could have easily competed in a blushing competition and would have stunningly won with her quick and rosy reaction. "E-E-Eh?! Don't say it like that!"
"I'm sorry, Jun is an idiot sometimes," that idiot laughed uncontrollably, knowing Nao's reaction. Hiroshi's mischievous smile didn't fade either. "But seriously, we should be the ones thanking you. Since Takashi met you, he hasn't stopped smiling and overflowing with joy. He seems like a different person from the one who entered Takachiho. Thank you for that."
With a joy-filled heart and cheeks blushing like ornaments, Nao beamed. Not nervous, but her chest warmed as if she could melt a glacier.
Yet, she swiftly lowered her gaze.
"I should thank you too."
Nao made a pause, showing the boys her brown hair only.
"Takashi's fortunate to have such friends who are always there for him," she started speaking slowly and softly. "And, as you might know... I deeply care for Takashi. I never imagined feeling this way. When I see his smile, I want to cherish him forever. When he reaches out to touch me or caress me, I wish those moments never end. When I look into his eyes, I wish time would stand still. I'm really going to miss him. So, please..."
Both boys listened, tenderness filling them as Nao spoke. Their souls' fire threatened to engulf them, fueled by summer heat, but it was that same heat that intensified their doubts when Nao looked up with teary eyes.
"Take care of Takashi... and take care of yourselves," she urged.
A sense of unease crept in, even from fearful Nao. Too much anguish lay beneath for a mere request. But what could they do? The human heart was incredible at times.
"Alright," Hiroshi smiled. "For us to take care of each other. And for good luck," he extended his fist, just like Jun.
Nao, on her part, held back the tears and smiled weakly.
The three of them bumped fists, immersed in that plea for luck. It was a good thing they did.
They were going to need it.