Our Greatest Comeback: Thanks to your beautiful light
Takashi ran like he had never run before, no longer paying attention to the yūrei surrounding him. He had an overwhelming hunch that clouded his mind. He desperately wanted to be wrong. Everything seemed to indicate that he wasn't.
"It can't be true! It can't be!"
In his mind, he tried to convince himself that it was all due to his fears and that everything would be okay again. But this time, everything fit together too perfectly.
Until that day, Takashi had marveled at all the miracles that had led to their love. Not only had Inari deflected the ball, but Nao herself had been so open to him from the start, despite her fears.
"Could it be because... she...". When he first talked to Inari in the balcony, Takashi couldn't believe Nao liked him. Despite that, he clung to that hope as they built a beautiful relationship together, thanks to her breaking her fears. Because she fell in love with Takashi, and that made her put her fears aside.
But what if it wasn't just that?
"Don't laugh! I heard on TV that it might rain!" Nao had said with her pink umbrella in hand on the first day.
"... when there isn’t an unexpected fierce storm. It seems like no one in the town saw these clouds coming," Shiraito had told Jun on the phone.
“Please, it can't be!”
He still had several blocks to go; he was far away. Takashi no longer cared about obstacles or his negative thoughts because that one great thought thundered with the force of a thousand storms.
"Ah, your coach told me," Nao had said to him in the infirmary after calling him 'Takashi.'
"Nao, Takashi. Takashi, Nao," Shiraito had introduced them again, only hours later.
"It's not true!" A hunch that threatened to break his heart.
But it seemed it was.
"I'm in my third year, so there's nothing to be surprised about," she had said when talking about Haruki in the stadium.
"Eh? Don't you mean second year?" Takashi had innocently asked in response.
“Nao!” Tears were on the edge of his eyelids, ready to fall.
Too many things were there. Too many signs that, mistakenly, he wanted to blame himself for eternity. So many shared moments, and he had ignored them. Because logic indicated they were impossible to see, but his fears told him they were obvious.
How didn't you realize it?
How did you never see it?
The shadows grew thicker, and one was so strong it sent Takashi to the ground.
You were never there for her.
Do you really know her?
Many flashes of Nao invaded his memory zone. Kisses, hugs, gazes... in all of them, he had seen a fearful Nao who had gradually grown. Until that night, Takashi had been happy for discovering her fears and helping her change.
You haven't discovered anything.
“Aaaahhhh!” He screamed fiercely as a yūrei stopped him, knocking him down.
“You won't get to her!”
From somewhere he couldn't pinpoint, Izanami's voice penetrated his ears as the yūrei closed in. Yūrei like him, like his friends, like the whole team had been. But that didn't matter anymore.
“Takashi! You must keep going! Takashi!”
He recognized the shouts instantly, and with all the determination he could muster, he got up and moved forward without screaming. Despite he didn’t know what to think anymore.
“Inari, a deity, pushes me to move forward. Izanami guards the underworld, Amaterasu maintains the balance of the universe, and the three deities judge souls... but Inari supports me, who I believed was the protector of Takachiho and the deity of foxes. But who also introduced herself as...
The deity of life and reincarnation.”
He opened the door to the house with such force that he swore he had taken it out of place.
“Nao!” He shouted desperately, but started to be struck by standing yūrei, passing through him like invisible arrows that hurt his soul.
“You shall not pass.” Izanami’s tetrical voice threatened to stop him.
“I didn't want to keep anything to myself anymore,” Nao had told him when she kissed him. Not the Takashi from the memory.
With slow steps, covering her face, he continued to advance. “Nao!”
“I don't want you to get on that bus,” she told him after exchanging poetry in her room.
He was close, he had to get there right away. “Nao!”
“Stop!” Izanami shouted.
“I want you to stay with me!” He remembered the white fox in her lamp, then how she cried at the river's edge.
He opened her room's door violently, screaming the girl's name one last time. Creepy black shadows tried to obstruct his view, but in the center, with her back to him and her head down, was she, for who knows how long. In a single motion, she turned and lifted her eyes, which filled with hope and added a sparkle to her clear skin. She was the Nao he had seen at Inari's shrine, but it was more than that.
Because she was the Nao of the shrine, and she was also his Nao, the one he wanted to have by his side forever.
“You won’t leave!”
Despite Inari’s warning, Nao extended a hand towards him, becoming unprotected just before the unearthly voice of Izanami resonated in the room. The girl lost control of her body after Izanami seemed to disappear into her.
“Nao!” Inari yelled with a new emotion: desperation.
Takashi jumped forward, and before touching the ground, he saw Nao lose the sparkle in her eyes little by little. With every passing moment, he felt his heart shatter, although it was only a second until he caught Nao's fall. Only then did he realize that there were no shadows left.
Her lavender scent, her warm and soft skin, her radiant aura. She still seemed taller, but that definitely was Nao.
Or she was at that moment, as Takashi began to see her skin becoming translucent.
He wasn't seeing visions born from his fear; her contours were indeed becoming ethereal and her blue yukata was fading, as if Nao was only an echo of what she had been, a person dissolving.
“No! Nao!” Takashi squealed, high-pitched.
“Izanami, this wasn't in the contract!” Inari screamed, not seeing the spectral figure.
Hugging her didn't stop her warmth from gradually disappearing, nor did it prevent Takashi's eyes from filling with anguish once more. He didn't want to close his eyes, because, with each blink, they seemed farther apart.
“Please!” he cried out in agony.
You didn't succeed.
“Don't leave me again!” his sobbing voice started to cut off.
“Nao...” Inari pushed her forehead against hers, trying to awaken her.
“Nao, please!” He couldn't avoid closing his eyes.
Takashi tried to hold onto her with greater force, but his desperation found no response except the tightening of his throat and the compression of his chest. It hurt, but what hurt even more was watching Nao being torn away from his life forever.
And at a certain moment, he no longer felt Nao in his arms.
“No!” His pain resonated in the surroundings. “Na...”
Nao wasn't there. But not because she had gone forever, not yet. The setting had changed one last time, and now the illusion Nao was on a cliff by the side of the road the bus had taken. Takashi recognized it: it was the location of the fatal accident. Inari walked beside him again, sitting solemnly.
“Just as I just did by offering my divinity, in special cases, deities can make contracts among ourselves to obtain something we desire.” Her voice reflected that she had no strength left to speak. Even deities seemed capable of being moved. “Like a bet, for you to understand. The only way to fix what had happened and bring back Nao's smile and that of those involved.”
He stopped thinking that Nao was leaving, praying that his hunch wouldn't come true. Nao was crouched beside the memorial of the accident, not taking her gaze off it. A bouquet of fresh burgundy and yellow hydrangeas, Tsuno's colors, lay beside her.
“Always so smiley,” Nao said as she tried to contain her grief while looking at his picture. She couldn't. “Dummy.”
She clenched the necklace Takashi had given her tightly and painfully, tears falling to the ground, as a last action before standing up... and getting pushed by an orange fox into the void.
Once again, Takashi was transported to the riverside, witnessing how the girl fell. With every meter down, Takashi's eyes opened wider. The hunch was becoming real, as Inari gradually cut off her voice.
“Naturally, Izanami wouldn't want to make a contract without gaining something in return. And I knew what she could want more than anything else. A soul devoted to me, one who trusted wholeheartedly that I would help, and who was particularly linked to one of the deceased.”
A soul that, at that moment, tightened the necklace in her hand and held it before her closed and fearful eyes.
Once again, the scene shifted.
They were at Inari's shrine.
“As you may know, the Obon festival is celebrated for people to connect with their departed loved ones. So, during my proteges' Obon... I decided to make a contract.”
In that forest, besides Takashi's consciousness, there were two more souls.
With tears in his eyes and heart, Takashi confirmed his hunch was true.
“I'm Inari, deity of foxes, life, and reincarnation. Nice to meet you, Nao.”