Our Greatest Comeback: Thanks to your beautiful light
Takashi lifted his eyes from the ground, astonished, and met Inari once again. Her gaze was fixed on the imposing judge, as if challenging him. ‘I want to make a new contract,’ she had said.
"You can't," Enma Dai-O said firmly, "you know you have nothing left to offer."
"Of course, I do," Inari firmly contradicted. "Amaterasu won't take away my powers for all eternity, and you know it."
"Do you think Izanami will fear you even if you regain them? She just humiliated you," Enma Dai-O retorted.
"She won't, but there's something that Izanami desires more than anything in the universe – revenge on me."
“Revenge…” Takashi didn't understand half of what they were talking about, but the stern expression on Enma Dai-O's face and the apparent concern of Kannon indicated it was significant.
"Are you willing?" Enma Dai-O asked, turning his gaze toward the other deities. “Once I arrange the contract, there's no turning back."
"Yes," she said softly. "If I save them, I'll be able to use my power to protect people. If I don't save them... it means I wouldn't be able to protect anyone anyway."
Enma Dai-O paused to analyze the situation, as if something in Inari’s speech had made him change his mind.
"What do you think?" Enma Dai-O turned his gaze toward the other deities.
Ten-Tei pondered for a moment. "I believe she has learned a valuable lesson and truly wants to save her proteges. So be it."
"I agree," added Kannon. "It's Inari's chance to make amends."
"Amends," Takashi whispered. He turned his gaze to Inari, still focused on the deities for some moments before she finally turned her fluffy body to face him. Those coal-colored eyes, unlike Nao's gem-like ones, didn't reveal anything, which frightened him even more.
"Very well, then..."
Enma Dai-O's strict eyes closed slowly, maintaining his regal appearance. The other deities seemed to comprehend the situation, unlike Takashi, who instinctively clenched his fists. ‘Revenge on me.’ Among those strange words, Takashi felt like he had grasped a tiny piece of what was happening.
"Inari, the deity of foxes, life, and reincarnation," Enma Dai-O said as he opened his eyes. "Izanami has agreed to form a new contract with you. Takashi Ueda."
A chill ran down the young man's body as the judge directed his heavy gaze toward him.
"We've heard your speech before," Ten-Tei continued. "It wasn't enough for us to allow you to return; we need to maintain the balance of things. However, we could see both your growth and what you still lack."
"What I... lack?"
"Naturally. Do you think Nao would like to hear that you would sacrifice yourself for her?"
"Yes," Takashi thought, before remembering when he saw her falling and how terrified he was. "No."
"You still show your fears, and that's normal," Kannon said compassionately. "But what stands out, even more, is how much you care for Nao and how much you truly love her."
Takashi parted his lips, his cheeks regaining the color they had lost while mixing with his first small smile in the room. "So that's what it is."
"Inari will guide you to Izanami's realm, the underworld, although she no longer has the power to defend you," Enma Dai-O continued. "There, when Izanami presents herself to you, you will challenge her. You will wager Inari's divinity and your soul to also save Nao's. It will be an all-or-nothing test."
"The divinity of..." Takashi turned his head to the fox, which remained expressionless as always. "Inari..."
Slowly, the fluffy fox turned its gaze. "You've taken so many steps here... it's time for you to show what you can do."
Takashi's heart skipped a beat upon hearing the challenge, knowing he could die and condemn humanity if the deity of life ceased protecting them. "But... why am I not hesitating so much now? My fears..."
In his chest, he felt something much stronger than the absence of his fears, or at least his usual ones. Something that made him smile incredulously, forgetting everything he had felt a moment ago. "Ah, I understand now. This is more than just caring for someone, isn't it?"
Perhaps it was at that moment when it clicked, his chest clenching and relaxing continuously. "I still couldn't tell her. And I'd give anything to be able to look her in the eyes and do it."
"Alright," he nodded without hesitation.
"You will face three trials," Ten-Tei spoke again. "For each trial you complete, if you manage to do so, you will be shown a part of the story you don't know."
Takashi felt as helpless as a nutshell in the sea amid all the talk, but he had already made a decision – he would face whatever was necessary.
"You will face them alone, and I hope you're prepared. You won't like what you're going to see there."
"Why is that?"
"Because, Takashi Ueda, the world in which Izanami will place you for the challenge will be a world filled with your fears and Nao's. The trials will force you to confront your greatest life frights. You'll understand what I mean."
"Takashi, my son," Kannon finally spoke in her soothing voice. "In your journey, you must search within your heart to find your bravery, compassion, and love. You must finally understand that the power to achieve it is within you to reach Nao."
Takashi's skin fully regained its natural color as the words dispelled the cold.
"Thank you," he smiled. "I promise I will."
"Me?" the fox tilted its head at Enma Dai-O's severe voice.
"If you attempt to deviate from the trials or help Takashi reach the girl before time, Izanami will retain you both. Especially you, as you're defenseless."
"I know that perfectly," Inari asserted. "Shall we go, Takashi?"
"Thank you very much," Takashi made a quick bow to the deities before following Inari.
Once their backs were turned to the deities, he saw Inari waiting for him in the same place where they had arrived.
"This... what you did..."
"When you prayed to me during Obon, you became one of my proteges, just like Nao," she sat on her hindquarters. "And if I'm willing to risk something so significant for you, it's because I know what kind of person you are, and I know you have the strength to overcome your fears for her."
"I need to know you trust me," she paused, sitting back on her hindquarters. "I know you're scared, Takashi. But you must let me be your beacon once again. Can you trust me?"
Inari looks determined.
In his mind, that scene appeared. Inari, against a white background, determined.
"Once again, you're trying to tell me something, huh? Just like all those times."
"It's alright. I trust you."
Takashi's hand felt the soft fur as he caressed Inari's head, easing his nerves.
"Thank you. And I trust you too," the fox replied.
"Inari, do you think we can make it out?"
"I'll get you out of here, no matter what. After all, it's my fault you're here."
Before he could respond, stunned by the sudden comment, everything around them began to grow darker. Perhaps it was because of that or perhaps not, but Takashi felt himself falling to the ground.
His eyes once again revealed a beautiful yet cold sky.
He didn't need to finish the question when he saw Inari by his side, with a small football field in the background. They had returned to Takachiho, but a Takachiho whose sun didn't warm and where the streets held more shadows than happiness. Because that wasn't Takachiho; it was Izanami's underworld.