A medium sized dog with a long fluffy tail and pale blonde fur jogged ahead through the forest. Akari tried to keep up, but the path was faint and fraught with branches at inconvenient heights. Judging by the occasional hoofprints in the sandy soil and other signs of passage, the trail had been established by wild deer that were closer to the dog's height than Akari's.
"Inu! Wait up!" Akari panted as she came to a stop. She brushed a clump of loose hair back over her ear and tried to catch her breath.
Inu glared back at Akari, but she honored the request. She looked a bit like an Akita or Shiba Inu breed, with puffy cheeks, a round muzzle, and a short fluffy coat. But instead of a curled tail, hers was straight. Her eyes were also surprisingly expressive, letting Akari know just how little she liked her.
Akari had expected a snarky reply, but it seemed that Inu couldn't speak in her animal form. Between heavy breaths, Akari asked, "How much farther is it?"
Inu sat on her haunches and lifted her front paws. She held them out about a foot apart, then narrowed the gap to just two inches. It was a rudimentary form of communication, but Akari got the meaning.
"Oh thank the kami," Akari gasped. Then she said, "I am not looking forward to making this hike with my dresser, or my TV, or… Damn, I have a lot of stuff…"
Inu just rolled her eyes and waited until Akari was ready to move again, then she took off at a jog down the trail.
As Inu had indicated, their destination wasn't much farther. The entire trip was less than half a mile, but the winding path and constant changes in elevation made it feel longer. The trail emerged into a clearing next to a plain dirt road. A small shed, barely larger than an outhouse, stood alone in the field. A tiny wooden dresser and a futon mattress were stacked next to it.
"I guess the movers put the rest of my stuff inside?"
Inu nodded, then disappeared around the side of the structure. She returned with a ring of keys in her mouth, which she dropped at Akari's feet. Attached to the ring was a bright red charm with the symbol for happiness embroidered on it, as well as Akari's apartment keys and one small silver key she didn't recognize, likely the key to the shed.
Akari grabbed the keys, less slobbery than she'd expected but not entirely dry, and approached the building. She used the unfamiliar key to open the door and looked in. Nearly a dozen heavy-duty black trash bags were piled inside, along with a couple cardboard boxes and a small flat-screen TV. Judging by the bags' inconsistent shapes, they were each filled with unsorted clothes and other random belongings.
"Ugh, this is going to take a while," Akari groaned. She cast a hopeful glance at Inu. "If there's something you can carry, I'd really appreciate the help." When the dog's disinterested expression didn't budge, Akari added in a sweet voice, "I'd owe you a favor…" As soon as the words left her lips, she realized that she must look absolutely insane to any outside observer. Talking to a pet dog is one thing, but bargaining with it is another.
Inu tilted her head from side to side as if debating the merits of helping Akari, then she padded forward and grabbed a bag in her mouth and pulled it free of the pile in the shed. She went back for another of similar size and weight and put it next to the first. With her nose, she prodded the tied-off tops of the bags until Akari got the message.
Akari tied the two bags together as solidly as possible then stepped back. "Like that?"
Inu answered by slipping her muzzle under the knot and crawling between the bags until they were positioned across her back like saddlebags. Then she stood up and started walking away, towards the path.
"Oh, wait up!" Akari called out. She locked up the shed, then grabbed her futon and awkwardly hoisted it onto her back. She was used to dragging the futon around her bedroom to store it in the closet each morning, but actually carrying the thing was another matter. It was heavy and floppy enough to be unpredictable and very inconvenient.
Then Akari started the first of five exhausting trips through the forest to the shrine.
"Anything you want, if it's in my power, it's yours," Akari panted. She was sprawled on her bare futon with her sock-covered feet sticking off the end. With Inu and Usagi's help, all of her belongings had made it into the bedroom, but nothing had been unpacked yet.
Inu, now in her human form and clothed in grey jogging shorts and a sports bra, stepped back a few feet, then said, "Before that, you need to clean up. You smell awful."
"I feel awful too, but I agree that I should take a bath." Akari sat up and looked around the room. Even with all the black bags strewn about, it felt open and spacious compared to her previous bedroom. In that way at the very least, this was an upgrade over her previous life.
Then she asked, "Where'd Usagi go?" Despite the rabbit's passive-aggressive jab earlier, she really had come through and helped move Akari's belongings inside.
"I think she just left to start dinner. Why?"
"I was going to ask her if she wants to join us in the bath."
Inu raised one ear. "Us?"
"Don't you want to wash up too? I'm not saying you smell bad or anything, but you probably worked up a sweat, especially with how many bags you carried for me." Akari smiled her best smile. "Thanks again for that."
"Don't read too much into it. I just did it for that favor you promised." With that, Inu turned and left the room. As her tail disappeared around the corner, she added, "I'll get Usagi."
Finding a change of clothes in all those unsorted bags took longer than expected and Akari was the last to arrive in the bathing room. She stowed her clean outfit in a cubby near the door, then stripped out of the sweaty clothes she'd been wearing through the entire day's craziness.
Akari was no stranger to public bathhouses and she found that being naked with her new roommates in the room was tolerable, as long as she didn't think about it too much. Without looking directly at the other women in the room, Akari told herself, It's just like bathing with the old ladies at the local bathhouse. Nothing strange or sexual about it.
In addition to the big pool for soaking away the day's worries, large enough for two people to stretch out and not touch toes, the room had several handheld faucets along one wall, each with a small bucket of toiletries. Akari sat on a stool near one of the faucets to wash herself before soaking, as was customary. She was reaching for the dial to turn on the water when she heard a voice.
"No greeting, miss Akari?"
Akari turned around slowly, terrified at what she knew she'd find. Her gaze passed over Inu, who was slouched chin-deep in the water, then over Usagi and her enviable breasts that bobbed at the water's surface. Then she saw Inara, the goddess, the impossibly gorgeous fox-woman with perfect curves and piercing eyes that were currently focused on Akari.
"Oh, Goddess Inara, I'm so sorry!" Akari babbled. "I didn't realize you were joining us and I was so focused on washing since I'm trying to keep my mind off of all the naked bodies and—"
Akari was interrupted by a girlish giggle so out of place she had to do a double take. It had been Inara's, and it didn't fit with Akari's 'royal and distant' impression of the goddess. Inara waved a hand and said, "It's fine. Relax, little one. Relaxation is the purpose of this room after all. Well, in addition to cleaning, which I'll let you get back to."
Feeling hot in the cheeks, Akari said, "Thank you. Please excuse me."
Then she tried to wash up while there was a powerful deity just ten feet away and watching. Needless to say, focusing on the task at hand was difficult. After what felt like an hour of painful awkwardness but was actually closer to five minutes of adorable clumsiness, she finished washing her hair and her body. Now she just needed to get into the water, the same pool that a goddess and two other beautiful women were lounging in, all fully naked.
Akari steeled her nerves, watched her step on the wet tile, and somehow managed to get into the water without incident. As the gentle heat permeated her, she felt the tension in her muscles start to melt away. But the peace didn't last long.
Inara stood up, flashing Akari with a full view of her naked and frankly flawless body. Her hips were wide and her figure was soft, with just enough definition to suggest some strong musculature beneath her perfectly smooth and pale skin. And even though Akari tried not to look, she couldn't help but notice a neat patch of fluff between Inara's legs, the same vivid orange as Inara's five tails.
Wait, five tails? Akari thought. How many did she have before?
Then Inara walked across the shallow pool and sat down right next to Akari. She tossed her long, flowing hair over the short, tiled wall behind her, then said, "I heard you're all moved in? I hope it went smoothly."
Akari turned to make eye contact, but she failed. Her eyes lingered over Inara's voluptuous chest and the little pool of water that was nestled within her cleavage. Her breasts are so big! Well, not as big as Usagi's massive melons, but still larger than mine and most Japanese women's. I'd guess D cups?
She shook that line of thought out of her head, then said, "Uh, yes. It went very smoothly, thanks to Inu and Usagi. Inu helped out a lot, even while she was in her dog form."
Inara smiled. It was glorious and radiant and Akari felt positively blessed to have witnessed it. Then she said, "Inu is quite cute as a dog, isn't she? I wish she'd take that form more often."
From across the pool, a blushing Inu said, "Changing is really inconvenient, okay?"
"Huh? How so?" Akari asked. The concept of being able to magically transform was so wondrous and exciting and she couldn't imagine a reason not to use it all the time. Well, unless it was physically painful, like werewolf transformations in the horror movies…
"We leave all our clothes behind when we transform," Inu explained, her tone unenthused, "so we're naked when we change back."
Usagi nodded and for once her ears didn't bobble with the motion because they were weighed down with water, hanging to her shoulders along with her wet hair. She said, "Yeah, but Hebi seems to like that part of it. She likes to transform into a snake and back as a faster way to get undressed. For such a hard worker, she can be so lazy sometimes."
"Um, Usagi…" Akari started, clasping her hands together. "Since you're already undressed and it wouldn't be any more inconvenient… could you maybe transform and show me your rabbit form?"
"Sure," Usagi answered instantly, then she lifted herself out of the water and sat down on the tiled bath wall.
Damn, they're even bigger than I thought, Akari marveled, eyes wide and staring. The models in fashion magazines never had breasts like that. Maybe the women in the lewd photo books the boys brought to school, but she'd never gotten a good look.
Then there was an explosion of dense fog and Usagi's human form vanished from sight. The fog dissipated quickly and left a small white rabbit in its place, just under 12 inches from pink-button-nose to fluffy-puffball-tail. Her long ears were just as damp as they'd been before the transformation, but the rest of her looked pretty dry. She hopped along the edge of the pool for a bit, then leapt into Inara's waiting arms.
Inara cradled Usagi against her bosom and said, "You're adorable as always, Usagi." The behavior added more fuel to Akari's theory that the two spirits were in a sexual relationship, but it also felt somewhat motherly, so maybe not.
A squeaky voice answered, "Thank you, Mistress Inara."
"You can talk in your animal forms?!" Akari blurted. "I assumed you couldn't after Inu refused to answer my questions while we were getting my stuff."
Usagi answered in her cute and high-pitched voice, "I think she doesn't like the way her voice sounds." She glanced at Inu with her wide brown eyes and asked, "Is that right?"
Inu shot a scowl at the bunny. "That's none of your business." Then she rose to her feet and climbed out of the bath. "I've got work to do. Seeya at dinner."
Inu turned and left, her wet tail hanging down over her firm butt. Akari could see how amazingly fit and toned Inu's entire body was, and she wondered if Inu worked out. But if spirits' bodies are reflections of their souls like Usagi said, then maybe working out would be pointless? Or maybe it goes both ways and exercise strengthens their souls too?
Akari clenched her fists and nodded firmly. If she does work out, then I should ask to join her next time. We're living together now and I want to get more friendly with her. Then she thought back to all the times she'd stopped to catch her breath while moving in. And I could use the exercise…
"What's got you all fired up, Akari?" Inara asked.
"Um, I was just thinking of asking Inu to work out with me. I don't think she likes me very much, so I wanted to bond with her."
Inara waved a hand dismissively, still petting Usagi with the other. "I think that's a fine idea to try, but don't take it too hard if she declines. She's just slow to open up to people."
Then she fixed Akari with an inescapable gaze. "On another topic, you seemed to have a lot of questions for me. I can't remember everything you rattled off, but I'm willing to answer a few for you now."
"Oh, okay." Akari swallowed and scrambled to think of the questions she most wanted answered. Obviously she was curious about all sorts of things, but she'd surely have time to learn all the little details over time. After all, she was going to be living with Inara for the foreseeable future. Wow, I really am living with a goddess. Hell, I'm currently bathing with her, and she's utterly gorgeous.
Not the time for that! she chastised herself. I need to think of good questions. She spent a moment thinking, then said, "I greatly respect everything you've done for Shintoism, Japan, and Shinjō. As the goddess of harvests, fertility, and many other things, your historical legacy is truly impressive. So I am really curious: why are you going by the name Inara instead of Inari?"
Inara's soft and motherly smile faded. She gently placed Usagi on the edge of the tub, then turned back to face Akari. With sadness in her voice, she answered, "That's a very long story, too long for the bath. I might tell you the whole thing another time, but for now I'll just say that even the gods change… and I am no longer the same woman as the one history calls Inari Okami."
Akari wilted. She'd just put her boss, a powerful supernatural being, in a bad mood. "Oh, I'm sorry…"
There was a soft WHUMPH sound as Usagi turned back into her human form, then a splash as she lowered herself back into the tub. She didn't seem bothered by the change in mood, possibly because she and Inara were just that close. Akari got the impression that they knew each other's personalities and quirks better than most people knew themselves.
Inara smiled. "Don't worry about it. Surely you have other questions for me?"
The smile was infectious. "Oh, yes! Do you have an animal form like the other girls?"
"Actually, I have a different skill with a lot more flexibility; I can transform into basically anything I want. But I have taken the form of a fox from time to time."
"Oh, wow! And can humans see you when you're transformed?"
"They can, but their attention will be subconsciously drawn to me, which makes it hard to keep a low profile."
Akari looked down at her thighs, shimmering under the steaming hot water. "Is that another one of your powers? Because I think it's been affecting me too…"
"It is, and I can't turn it off completely. I apologize for any trouble it causes you."
Akari shook her head. "It's not trouble and I don't dislike it. It's just… different." The best way she could think to describe the sensation was the interaction between a magnet and a compass; the closer she was to Inara, the harder it was to focus on anything else. It didn't change what she felt about Inara, but it amplified the feelings.
"That's good to hear," Inara said. Then she put an arm around Akari's shoulders and gave her a comforting squeeze. The act wasn't sexual, but it wasn't chaste either. It was the kind of casual intimacy that came naturally to someone who just didn't worry about what other people thought. "I'm happy you decided to stay here with us, Akari."
"Oh, that's great, um, because I'm really looking forward to, uh, living here with you. And the other girls, too," Akari rambled, trying to ignore the warm flesh against her own. She was also quite puzzled by the huge difference between this motherly Inara and the regal and imposing Inara she'd met earlier in the day. "I hope that I can keep you that happy." She waved her hands frantically and clarified, "Through my work as a shrine maiden, I mean."
Across the pool, Usagi crossed her arms over her chest and glared. Akari didn't notice, but if she had she would have flinched at the powerful jealousy condensed in that glare.