Our Greatest Comeback: Thanks to your beautiful light
Cool breeze greeted Takashi upon balcony door opening. After subtly closing it to his back and being alone with Inari, the fox deity, he sensed an unusual serenity. Meeting a deity felt more commonplace than he expected. Yet, he recognized it was far from ordinary. An encounter with a mythical deity doesn't occur every day.
"Good evening!" she playfully greeted. "Looks like someone hit the jackpot."
"What are you talking about?" With a chuckle, Takashi leaned on the balcony railing. To his left, Inari balanced on the same iron.
"Don't be modest! Inviting Nao to the festival tomorrow, that's great," Inari wagged her tail happily.
"Well... maybe," Takashi's gaze drifted to the horizon, somewhat embarrassed. Teenage emotions filled his mind – memories of hugs and touches from a girl he found beautiful, at the very least.
"Plus, you scored the winning goal today. A perfect day, one could say."
"Yeah... hey... I scored that goal because you interfered in the match, right? That's why the ball came to me like that."
Inari jumped and floated, propping on hind legs. "No, not at all. You did that all by yourself."
Takashi was surprised. "Really? But..."
"Maybe you had some luck, but these things happen. It's soccer, after all. And even if you were lucky, you did your part by overcoming your fears. Good job."
Takashi smiled ear to ear, looking back at the horizon. Truly, that confidence felt wonderful.
"Thank you. I really... have a hard time trusting my accomplishments."
"It shouldn't be like that, but it's a work in progress. Nevertheless, even though I encourage people to come together, I must interfere as little as possible with the order of the universe. It's a rule we deities have."
"Huh?" Takashi turned intrigued by the statement. "Are there really other deities besides you?"
"Of course, why do you think I'm only the deity of foxes, life, and reincarnation?"
"That makes sense," he thought, realizing the obvious. "If Inari is real, why wouldn't the rest of Shintoism be?"
"But I've already said too much, and it's too complex for you to understand. What I wanted to say is that whatever you achieve will be the result of your efforts and no one else's. You must build a better image of yourself, and let that serve as motivation to strive for an even better one. I know you can do it."
"Okay," Takashi enjoyed Inari's words like a relaxing bath or a delicious chocolate.
"Well, for the first day of your mission, I'd say it was a success. You should go back to sleep. And make sure you're ready for tomorrow. It will be a very special day for Nao."
"Huh?" Takashi was already turning towards the door when he felt something strange in that sentence. "Is it because... she's never been to a festival with someone she feels comfortable with?"
Inari, however, fell silent again. Takashi still didn't quite understand why the goddess made those pauses.
"Um... Inari?" he said, tilting his head towards her.
"Yes, that's why," Inari resumed the conversation with total normality, as if there hadn't been five seconds of silence. It seemed like a video game player with a bad connection. And yet, Takashi didn't mind much due to his own exhaustion. He yawned, looked at Inari, and withdrew.
"Okay. Good night," he said before closing the door.
"What should I wear?" Jun wondered, rummaging in his bag.
"Well, obviously your yukata, silly!" Hiroshi responded exasperatedly as Jun tossed clothes his way.
When Jun wanted to, he was a real fool. This morning was no exception.
"But... I also brought a very cool t-shirt."
"Then why did you bring the...?" Hiroshi swallowed his own anger before taking a deep breath. "Takashi! Help me with this fool!"
"Although... it's true that the yukata is cooler."
"Well, of course! Ta..."
Both stopped, looking at the balcony. There, leaning on the railing, was Takashi. Sunlight illuminated the city and mountains beyond their gaze.
"It's going to be very special for her," he thought, remembering Inari's words. "I want... to enjoy the festival with Nao. I want to be with her."
Both friends stared at him, analyzing his posture.
"He looks like Shiraito going out to smoke," exclaimed Hiroshi.
"Guys! Meeting in ten minutes!"
From the hallway, call came from Shiraito's assistants. Both lost in thought until Jun looked at his bag.
"Hm... and I still don't know what to wear."
"Oh, come on!".
"Come on, keep up the pace in the final minutes! I want to see those legs work!"
Kenjiro, an excellent captain, could be demanding at times, yet he consistently spurred his teammates to excel in matches. After all, that was the best way for them to succeed...
Picking up trash.
"Here!" Jun grabbed a can from the ground, attempting to volley it into the nearby trash bin. He missed miserably. "Damn it!"
"You’re rushing too much, not stretching your leg perfectly. Watch." Hiroshi raised the can with his foot, volleying it accurately into the bin. Even in his yukata attire, his movements bore an angelic grace.
"That's not fair. You have too much technique," Jun griped.
"I know," Hiroshi chuckled, wearing a self-satisfied grin. "I'm very..."
Hiroshi's attention was drawn to a distance where they were relocating a strength hammer game at the festival. Jun seized the chance, tossing a crumpled paper at Hiroshi's face, laughter in the air. "Goal!" he cheered.
"Hey! Get over here!" Hiroshi lifted his broom like a spear, playfully pursuing him.
The boys enjoyed themselves as they cleared trash from the streets of Takachiho. It was a custom for teams to assist the town during festivals, a gesture of gratitude for the support they received in those five days, bringing joy to the community.
"Great work!" An elderly neighbor approached the group with a large tray. "Here, enjoy some salmon onigiri."
"Wow! Thanks!" the seventeen players exclaimed as they accepted the snacks.
Takashi was present among them, although he remained relatively quiet. While he chuckled at their banter, a sense of detachment seemed to envelop him.
"Thank you!" Takashi flashed a smile at the woman before shifting away.
He spun around, caught by Jun's light-hearted shout.
"Hey, what do you think of the onigiri? It's very kind of them to give us food," Takashi said.
"Is everything alright?" His friend brushed past the question.
"Huh? Well..." Takashi looked away, mustering a faint smile.
"Nervous about seeing Nao?" Hiroshi's remark elicited a blush from Takashi, their gazes locking.
“He's astute," Takashi mused, acknowledging the growing recognition of his emotional state. And indeed, Takashi had confided in them about everything. After all, they were two of the people he trusted the most.
"You know I do, right?"
"Oh, Takashi," Jun playfully ruffled his hair again, evoking a scene from a few days prior. "Relax. Just focus on having a good time and enjoying the festival."
"Okay," Takashi replied, ducking away from the hair tousling and maintaining his brilliant smile.
"Do you like her?"
Both were taken aback when Hiroshi posed the question in a serious tone. What added to the peculiarity was Hiroshi's grave expression while scrutinizing Takashi, an atypical gravity for their camaraderie. It was as though he had an uncanny ability to detect his most somber moments.
"Do you at least know her well? Given the time we've spent here, not really."
Hiroshi was right. Much about Nao remained a mystery to Takashi, their conversations having skirted significant depths. Ironically, Takashi had gleaned more about Nao from Inari than from the girl herself.
"It's... complicated," Takashi realized he couldn't divulge his knowledge about Inari, though part of him wished to. His clearly appeared disheartened, but Hiroshi's reassuring touch on his shoulder eased the tension.
"I'm sorry, I don't want to discourage you. It's just that I don't want my friend to have his heart broken or something. And that's why I don't want you to make the foolish mistake of falling for someone who could disappoint you."
Despite his reserved nature, Hiroshi could be very insightful when discussing emotions. Perhaps that was precisely why he did it.
"Oh, Hiroshi, a true romantic," Jun teased, slinging his arm around the crow.
"Let me go, you dummy!" Hiroshi's attempt to break free fell short once again.
"But he's right. We're here to support you in everything, but you should be careful."
"What am I feeling?" It wasn't an easy question, and his lack of experience with girls didn't help. Takashi wasn't sure, but there was definitely something. Something... that led him to voice his thoughts.
"Well... the truth is, I don't really understand what I'm feeling. Many things are happening so fast these days, things I'm not used to. But..."
Takashi believed he could sense the warmth he felt when Nao spoke to him, as if she were right there, encouraging him. The same warmth enveloped him during discussions with his friends and while conversing with Inari about his feelings. He realized that thoughts of her occupied his mind, and he increasingly yearned for her presence.
"I really want to try. I promise I'll take care of myself, but I want to find out what I feel for Nao."
Jun and Hiroshi looked at their friend seriously, pondering his words, until Hiroshi spoke.
"Then we support you," he said with confidence.
"Make her very happy, alright? And be happy yourself," Jun encouraged him.
Warmth rekindled within Takashi's chest, a fervor so profound that it drew a smile. This time, however, it was distinct. The source wasn't solely his sentiment for Nao; it encompassed his affection for his friends. "I'm really... so glad to have you. Thank you for always looking out for me," he concluded with a smile.
"Alright, stop dawdling and let us cover for you with the cleaning," Hiroshi chided. "Have you seen the time?"
"Huh?" Takashi checked his phone, indicating noon—the time he was supposed to meet Nao. "Ah, damn it! I'm gonna be..."
Once again, Takashi comprehended their intention. His eyes welled up. A part of him, the lingering insecurity, suggested he wasn't deserving of such great friends.
"See you later, guys!" With those words, he dashed off, Jun and Hiroshi exchanging knowing smiles.
Takashi swiftly finished his onigiri and darted through the bustling streets of a jubilant Takachiho. His mind raced to assemble the pieces of his emotions.
"What am I feeling for Nao?" Memories of the recent days spun through his mind, filling him with fluttering excitement, rendering the world more vibrant. He summoned images of her radiant smile, her captivating eyes, and her infectious laughter. With her, he felt a tranquility as if he was good enough. As if, amid setbacks, he was valuable. As if...
Before he could succumb to another self-doubt, a familiar voice snapped him back. Without fully realizing, he found himself at the festival's onset, greeted by someone awaiting him. He turned to the side, spotting...
Nao in a blue yukata.
Takashi, despite his initial flustering, managed a self-assured smile. "So, this is what you've been trying to tell me all this time, Inari."
Without hesitation, he waved at Nao and closed the distance between them. His feelings for her remained unclear, but he was resolute to explore them throughout the upcoming festival.