Our Greatest Comeback: Thanks to your beautiful light
"What's going on?" he asked, taken by surprise.
Nineteen people in the hallway rose as they spotted Takashi's arrival. Specifically, sixteen players and three coaching staff members. In other words, the entire Tsuno team was present.
Clarity came to his mind as he realized he had taken a step back. "I can't run anymore. Come and say what you wanted to say." He reversed his steps, and by the time he was three paces from the group, everyone was standing, prepared to listen.
"I...," he furrowed his brow, stiffening like a stone, leaning forward with downcast eyes. "I'm sorry!"
Silence engulfed the room; no one stirred. The prickling sensation in Takashi's chest threatened to resurface, but he mentally brushed it away and pressed on.
"I'm so sorry for everything that happened today!" His shouts could have been heard from every room. "I'm sorry for my lack of focus! I'm sorry for the missed goal! But above all..."
"I hate you!"
The locker room tension surged back.
"I'm really sorry for my behavior! I was foolish to think that blaming you for my actions would change anything or that hurting you could solve my problems! Please!"
Takashi opened his eyes, feeling the remnants of anguish at the back of his mind. "Ah... Am I going to cry again?"
"I truly appreciate all the support you give me. And I want it to continue that way. I want..."
Moments before tears welled in his eyes, footsteps resounded in the hallway. He lifted his gaze and spotted Shiraito's shoes before him. An impassive expression hid concern in his eyes, and a swift glance at the team made him realized they mirrored the tension. Unexpectedly, a gentle tap landed on Takashi's forehead.
"Ouch!” “I deserve that," he thought.
Perhaps that self-critical thought yielded a positive impact as the deserving sentiment intertwined with the gentle caress in his hair. He raised his eyes softly, resisting the downward push of the gesture loaded with complicity and comfort.
"Why did you run like that? We were really worried about you."
"I’m... sorry," Takashi loosened up due to the paternal gesture of the coach.
"Listen," the hand lifted his head, aligning their gaze. "Tomorrow, you'll collect all the training equipment alone! Any objections?"
Shiraito had discovered a suitable excuse to reduce his workload, similar to a commander assigning menial tasks to subordinates. However, Takashi understood it was the appropriate course of action.
Shiraito contemplated for a few moments, sustaining the eye contact. "Then, it's settled. It's not with me that you need to talk."
Shiraito's step aside granted Kenjiro space before the newcomer. His expression, as always, was solemn and inscrutable, maintained for several silent seconds.
"You know how I feel about winning, right?"
Takashi recalled his aspiration to triumph in the National Tournament and his ambition of becoming a professional footballer.
"I remember. That's why..."
"Very well," the captain interjected before another apology could surface. "Because we also know how you feel."
Takashi's heart skipped a beat, yet he was enfolded in a tight embrace before he could pose any questions.
"Don't be surprised, dummy!" Hiroshi's deep voice was unmistakable. "It's normal to have fears like that!"
"Alright, alright!" Takashi pulled away. "But... why is everyone here?"
"We brought them for you, Takashi. We discussed it as a team and agreed. These things happen, right, guys?"
The team cheered in unison. "Yes!"
"Do you feel better?" Hiroshi inquired once more.
"Yes, thanks," Takashi replied, still bewildered.
"You're welcome. Later, you can leave me a nice comment on my manga as thanks."
Hiroshi didn't address Takashi's question. Explanations could wait.
"Although, to be honest, it was this big guy's idea to talk to the team. He got emotional talking about you."
To Takashi's right, he noticed Jun towering over him, approaching slowly until he was very close.
Takashi couldn't speak. Darkness enveloped him as Jun's tight hug covered his shoulder.
"I know," his softened tone contrasted with his locker room shouts. "Hey, remember how to play cards?"
Jun stroked Takashi's hair, relieved at his back. "Then we'll have to stay up all night playing."
A smile bloomed on Takashi's face after a brief moment of uncertainty. Everything was alright.
"Of course not. We have an important match tomorrow."
Laughter erupted before the hug ended, and they faced each other amid teammates' teasing remarks as expressions of affection.
"A match where I know you'll give it your all," Jun extended his fist, not for a fight this time but in a friendly gesture. "What do you say? Shall we give the spectators one last show of the rabbit and the fox?"
"No way," Takashi burst into laughter again. "Quit with those nicknames."
Takashi poised his right fist to bump, then halted. He glanced left and mirrored the gesture. “And the crow.”
Jun's chuckle resonated, always amused by the nickname. To a surprised Hiroshi, he extended his right fist as well.
“If you guys want," Hiroshi shrugged, extending both fists to form a triangular bump.
"Well, as the coach, I should say something. Attention!"
The boys quickly settled throughout the room, and Shiraito cleared his throat to continue.
"Remember our initial expectations? We were laughed at for fighting Kadogawa for the last place. They called it the 'relegation derby.'"
A murmuring laughter repeated among the players, eliciting a smile from Shiraito.
"That's why what we've achieved so far is incredible. And I want you to know that as a coach, I'm very proud of all of you."
"Give us more free time, then!"
"And takoyaki for dinner!"
Remarks from Jun and Hiroshi sparked loud laughter among the group, including Takashi. Joy pulsed in his heart for the joke, a feeling he'd feared losing. "What geniuses," he thought anew.
"What I want to tell you, you idiots... is that no matter what happens tomorrow, you did a good job. Even if Takachiho wins his match, or if Nobeoka defeats us, it won't change anything. Some of you won't be here next year," melancholy awakened in some of the third-year boys, including Kenjiro, "and many others will come in your place. But the team you've formed... is admirable. And I want you to hold onto that memory. Whatever happens tomorrow, we'll all be together until the end."
"Yes!" they all chorused, a tear forming on Shiraito's cheek.
"Well, let's cheer!" one collaborator raised his arms.
"Huh?! There's no need for that!"
"Of course there is, come on, let's go!"
Shiraito's two collaborators were like his most energetic counterparts. Together for years, they formed both a working unit and a family. This might explain why Shiraito perfectly grasped Jun's need to talk to Takashi.
"Alright, here we go! One!"
Takashi glanced right; Jun smiled.
"That I should give up? Ha, better luck next time," he thought.
Takashi shifted left; Hiroshi smiled.
“I would never abandon the people I love the most.”
"Let's go, Tsuno!"
Her cellphone buzzed in the still night, resting by the futon.
Nao, already in pajamas, noticed the vibration and picked up her phone before settling into bed. Seeing the new notification, a sense of satisfaction replaced her nerves with a gentle smile. The message was from Takashi:
"I told you everything would be fine, silly." Nao made several mistakes while typing the short message, filled with emotion:
Nao's smile broadened, reflecting her joy from the good news. She stared at her phone, lost in thought for moments. Everything was turning out better than expected.
"All those prayers worked. Thank you, Inari, for bringing Takashi into my life."
After a whispered gratitude to her city's protector, she settled on the futon, feeling a comforting peace.
Inari, on the other hand, didn't appear that night. She didn't believe it was necessary.