Our Greatest Comeback: Thanks to your beautiful light
“Nao... she was a very fearful girl.”
The sight of Takashi, as well as Inari's, was caught by a girl dressed in pastel-colored clothes, leaning on a nearby metal railing. It was Nao, his Nao.
“Throughout her childhood and adolescence, sociability wasn't her strong suit. She found it difficult to make friends or talk to strangers, and the fear of getting hurt in every conversation or shared moment consumed her.”
Takashi recalled several instances of such behavior during their time together, as if he were searching for passages in a book. The flashes of seeing Jun near the infirmary door, startling her when he surprised her at the stadium, or when their friends followed them were as clear as day.
"And during her lonely times, she felt desolate," Inari continued. "She couldn't find something that truly passionate her or something she wanted to dedicate herself to. She wasn't athletic, and her anxiety while speaking made many things difficult. When she went for walks, she would only do three things every day: draw, write poems, and pray in my shrine. She found solace in her art, hoping that it would be her true purpose, and begged for me to help her change."
"Change..." Takashi felt as if he were seeing a reflection of his soul.
"And there was one day, while everyone was at the Obon festival, she noticed someone."
Takashi was surprised to see that the Nao in the memory was captivated by something behind her. She turned her head without hesitation.
"Ah! Just enter already!"
Behind her, someone had kicked a ball so poorly that it didn't even lift off the ground. Takashi's eyes focused on the clumsy player, an identical copy of himself, kicking the ball with disdain and self-assurance.
"On the last afternoon of the 2023 Obon Festival, the Tsuno team lost 4-0 to Nobeoka, granting them the title. You had achieved zero points, and your participation was a complete disaster. Only one goal in the first match, losing all four matches. And to top it all off, there was a big fight within the team, in which you participated timidly. That's why you ran away. You kicked the ball you found in the locker room with fury, frustrated for having missed every chance you had in the tournament but also because, as you felt, you had ruined everything with your friends."
He kicked the ball again, unable to lift it off the ground, and it timidly reached the right post.
"You felt angry, distressed, but above all, lost. But you weren't the only one feeling that way."
He observed as the player took the ball again, leaving it at a good distance from the goal and trying to calculate the free-kick. He was a true reflection of him, probably of the Takashi that ran away after the match against Takachiho. At that moment, Takashi turned back to Nao, who was observing every movement of the kicker.
"Nao had fixed her hopeful eyes on that boy, who, despite suffering and having no success, kept trying. She didn't go to talk to you, of course, as she didn't have the courage. But she did write a little senryu, which you might recognize."
Your light shines brightly.
Never give up.
"That's all she had written in her notebook at that moment..."
Takashi witnessed firsthand as the ball hit the girl in the face while she was writing, knocking her down mercilessly. She fell backward to the ground, dazed and in pain.
"When I decided to help you."
As he looked back, he saw the Takashi in the memory running towards the poor girl.
"With just a slight change in the wind, I managed to turn that seemingly unfortunate action into something that brought them together. I just had to wait for the rest to happen naturally."
"Are you okay?"
It only took a brief moment of locking eyes for Nao to flinch in fear, making the real Takashi step back.
"I-I'm sorry!" He bowed deeply to the fallen girl. "I really am!"
"No, it's okay." Nao wiped her face a couple of times before holding his gaze. "Actually, are you okay?"
The weight of concern shifted when Nao noticed the boy who had hit her. His gaze was far from the serenity and sympathy he wanted to display, filled with concentrated pain in the irritation of his eyes and tears threatening to fall.
"Something about you caught her attention," Inari said with a maternal voice. "Not physically, but much more profoundly. Can't you see how she can't take her eyes off you?"
It was true: Nao couldn't stop looking at the illusionary Takashi, directing her eyes towards him, so sorrowful yet hopeful, even though he had looked away in an attempt not to cry. And the conscious Takashi saw it—that glimmer in Nao's eyes when she looked at him.
"At that moment, Nao could understand how you felt, even though she didn't know who you were or why you felt that way. Because she saw in your eyes the same feeling she had experienced so many times. She saw someone carrying their burden alone and silently, suffering because of it."
"Yes..." Takashi made the same gesture with his forearm and turned around. "I'm sorry, have a nice day."
"Do you want to talk about it?"
The reconnection of their gazes formed a bridge for them to exchange compassion and nervousness.
"Ah!" Nao closed her eyes in fright for a moment. "N-Never… mind."
But even if they didn't realize it, that bridge was already too strong and conveyed too much warmth for their fears to break it.
"And in her eyes, Takashi, is where you also found what you needed at that moment: compassion."
"Can I?" The memory Takashi asked her timidly.
The girl blushed as she still held his gaze, to his surprise, before nodding shyly. "I..."
"Huh?" His racing heart made him alert to every little movement the girl made.
Takashi's eyes opened a bit wider, as if thinking "What a lovely name," and his cheeks blushed slightly, accompanying the smile. "Takashi. Nice to meet you, Nao."
Dazzled, the actual Takashi felt an urge to simply go and embrace that girl. Perhaps he was confused because he also wanted to embrace his double with compassion.
"Nao reacted fearfully at first when you hit her. But..."
Reality distorted again, and now they were much closer, yet still at some distance.
"So, you're from around here?" The boy asked.
"Yes. And you're from Tsuno, right?" she replied with a smile.
“Her smile softened as she was dazzled by his sweetness. That's how you told her about the tournament and how badly it went for you. About the fight that broke out in the locker room hours before and how you still suffered with soccer, even though you loved it. Gradually, she also opened up about her life, how she feared talking to people, and how much she loved drawing and writing poetry. She even showed you that senryu, to which you returned a radiant smile.”
They were both laughing a lot, and Takashi sensed a hint of tenderness as he remembered so many shared moments with her—the ones he truly remembered.
"And before she realized it, Nao had been talking to a stranger as if she had known him all her life. And she wasn't the only one doing so. Did you see yourself?"
Takashi was captivated by his counterpart, whose smile was as radiant as it was enchanting, showing his happiness with every word.
"Perhaps that's why both of you steered the conversation towards the festival that night, like a wish from the depths of your hearts about to come true."
"Uh...” Nao had joined her hands, her voice so faint that Takashi had trouble hearing her. “This night will be the last night of the festival. Would you like to go with me?"
Takashi took a few seconds to respond, blushing and eager. "Yes, I'd love to."
Receiving the kindness of her smile, Nao mirrored the gesture, which resembled those they shared when they were together.
"Life seemed to smile at you after that encounter, and that night, if everything had gone well, who knows what could have happened?"
As soon as Inari finished her prophetic explanation, the illusion faded, and Takashi was once again left alone with the fox in that deserted park with more questions than before.
"When did this happen? And..."
He suddenly had to cover his ears when a screeching sound assaulted him. The cold wind on his arms made him realize that "she" had returned.
"I almost had you there, little Takashi." Izanami laughed in front of him for several seconds.
"But you didn't."
Izanami looked puzzled as Takashi stood up, his gaze determined and serious toward the deity.
"I said I was determined to keep my promise, so you'll have to do better than this," he said with a courage that surprised him.
"Ooh, alright. You won for now, but remember, I know all your fears, including the fear of losing hope. Be careful!" The maniacal laughter preceded her new disappearance.
"She truly is unbearable, huh?" Inari remained calm. "Alright, the second place you have to go is the hill near the festival. That place where..."
"Where we had our first kiss," he completed.
"That'll be the second trial: reaching that place. Are you ready?"
Takashi sighed, staring intently at a path that was starting to be filled with yūrei. He was still dazed by the memory and Izanami's appearance, but his mind was only wandering around one question. "Why didn't I stay by her side?"
He didn't even give Inari time to encourage him before he ran off, determined, to start the second trial.