Dinner was served shortly after the bath, since Usagi had started preparing it before taking a break to bathe. It was a simple homestyle meal of spicy vegetarian curry over rice with radish salad on the side. It was also absolutely delicious.
"Wow! Usagi, this is so good. You're an amazing cook," Akari said between heaping spoonfuls of curry. She normally tried to eat slowly so she wouldn't overeat, but this was too good. The only thing keeping her from devouring it instantly was the spiciness which seemed to build up more and more as she ate. She solved that by drinking a lot of water and went back to the excellent curry.
Across the table, which was low to the ground and surrounded by pillows to sit on rather than chairs, Usagi gave a little bow. "Thank you, Akari. I'm glad someone appreciates my hard work." As she spoke she cast a sideways glance at Inu, sitting to Akari's right.
"Hey, I appreciate it. I just need some meat in my diet," Inu said as she lifted a thin slice of beef to her mouth with chopsticks. The meat was still rather pink and rare, like it had been flash-seared at most. There was also a plate of curry in front of her, albeit with less rice. She chewed the meat and swallowed, then said, "So I whipped some up. No big deal."
On Usagi's left, Hebi had her own plate of beef and a double portion of both curry and rice. She licked her lips with a surprisingly long tongue, then said, "Thank you Usagi and Inu for preparing this meal. It's quite wonderful." Then she immediately resumed eagerly shoveling food into her mouth. Usagi hadn't been exaggerating when she'd said that Hebi loved to eat. Akari half expected Hebi's jaw to unhinge like a snake's so she could eat even faster.
Akari's mind wandered as she ate, lingering on the meat Inu had cooked. She didn't know quite how to feel about that. Inu hadn't offered Akari any beef, which made her feel left out. But she didn't want to make a big deal out of it. Usagi's curry was more than enough, and she wouldn't dare cause a scene in front of Inara.
The fox goddess was at the head of the table, kneeling demurely on an embroidered cushion several times more fancy than Akari's. Inara had been very quiet during the meal, just slowly savoring her curry with a serene and contented expression on her face. The other spirits' minor bickering hadn't bothered her yet, but Akari didn't want to test her patience.
Therefore, Akari was a bit surprised when Inara suddenly addressed her. "Say, Akari… are you ready for your work as our shrine maiden? The job will be quite demanding."
Akari set her spoon on her plate and nodded. "I am ready, Inara-sama. I've been a miko for several years now and I should be able to quickly adapt to any differences between this job and my previous one." She was actually looking forward to it, since her previous job sometimes felt like hardly more than a glamorized janitor. She'd spent more time sweeping the shrine grounds than doing anything priestess related.
Inara said, "Good, good. First, how much do you know about the various ways to operate a shrine?"
Akari thought for a moment, then said, "Quite a bit, actually. I've traveled to and studied the operations of many Shinto shrines around Japan, including the ones on Mt. Fuji that are dedicated to the goddess Sakuya-hime. Those felt like empty flattery to me, just attempts to suck up to a princess without really understanding what Sakuya-hime had accomplished or what she would want her legacy to be."
Akari bowed her head and continued, "Not that her legacy is as impressive as yours, Inara-sama. I dare say that of all the gods, you had the most influence on Shintoism and on the people of Japan. You gave my people the prosperity that brought us this far." Then Akari flinched as an elbow hit her in the right side.
Inu hissed, "You should watch your own 'empty flattery'. Miss Inara can detect lies."
"They weren't lies," Akari whispered back.
Inara's reaction supported Akari's statement. The goddess smiled broadly and said, "Thank you for the kind words, Akari. Now, since you have knowledge of shrine operations, I have a plan that I'd like your feedback on."
At that, Hebi stopped stuffing her face and watched Inara very closely, keenly interested in what might happen next.
Akari blinked in surprise. "Oh, of course. I'm happy to help in any way I can."
"I'll show you what I have so far after dinner. Please meet me in my room at nine."
"O-oh, of course!" Akari stammered. Even though she knew that they would just be reviewing a plan for the shrine, she couldn't help but think of lewd things. Usagi's words from earlier echoed through her mind: Don't turn down the Mistress's invitations.
If Akari wasn't so flustered and lost in her own thoughts, she might have noticed something important about Inara. Hebi was watching closely enough and witnessed the exact moment when one of Inara's five tails split into two, giving her six in total. And with it came a change in attitude.
The corner of Inara's mouth turned up in a mischievous grin. "May I ask why you suddenly seem flustered, my cute little Akari?"
Akari had taken a sip of water and she nearly spit it out at being called cute by such a beautiful goddess. She hastily swallowed, then answered, "It's nothing."
"Nothing?" Inara asked. "As Inu said, I can tell when someone is lying to me."
She heard that?! Akari thought. Then her eyes settled on Inara's large fox ears, which were twitching playfully. Oh, of course she'd have amazing hearing.
Akari steeled herself and said, "Um, well, I guess I was thinking of something inappropriate, about being invited to your room, and I apologize for that."
"Inappropriate? What could be inappropriate about coming to my bedroom, alone, at night?" Her voice was innocent, but the wide grin on her face was far from it. She knew exactly what Akari was flustered about. "Surely we would just work together as boss and employee on my plan for the shrine."
She leaned forward and narrowed her eyes, looking very foxlike in that moment. Foxlike and devious. "Unless that's not what your heart desires from tonight's meeting."
Akari's ears burned and she was sure her face was beet red. Additionally, Inara's magnetic attraction was in full effect, pulling Akari's eyes and thoughts to her. A single glance at Inara's perfect lips had Akari daydreaming about what it would be like to be kissed by them, and one peek at the deep plunging cleavage of Inara's kimono sent her spiraling into even lewder fantasies. She wanted Inara's touch, her approval, her attention. No, she needed them, like a drowning woman needed air.
Akari tore her eyes from the goddess and reclaimed a bit of her self-control, but it didn't change what she felt. The immediacy faded, but there was no doubt that her feelings remained the same. Her attraction may have been magnified by Inara's strange ability, but it had formed 100% naturally. Every interaction with Inara had left Akari impressed and happy, eager to experience more. Everything she learned about the goddess just made her want to learn even more. Akari didn't know whether to frown or smile as she thought, Oh no, I think I'm falling head over heels for her.
"Akari?" Inara asked when Akari was slow to respond. "Please share your thoughts with me."
Meanwhile, Hebi's attention had returned to her food and Inu seemed content to watch Akari's struggles with a look of smug amusement. Usagi was once again staring daggers at Akari, and Inara's hold on Akari's senses was the only thing keeping her from noticing Usagi's venom. The look in Usagi's eyes, full of fire and jealousy, only intensified when Akari spoke next. She was too truthful for her own good.
"I'm falling for you, Inara-sama, even though it will only complicate things around here and I'm sure you'd never return the—"
"Thank you, Akari," Inara interrupted. The conniving glint in her eyes faded and a bit of her motherly side returned, albeit briefly. "I appreciate the sentiment." Then her foxy smirk reappeared and she said, "But let's table that subject for another night."
Akari was confused. How do you react to that? I just confessed and that was her response? She definitely didn't turn me down, but I wouldn't call that returning the feeling either. For the rest of dinner her thoughts worked in circles, asking questions that she couldn't answer about her feelings for Inara, Inara's feelings for her, and the relationship between Usagi and Inara that she'd just intruded on like an oblivious idiot skipping through a minefield.
Everyone else remained quiet as well. Hebi looked disappointed at not hearing the specifics of Inara's plan, or perhaps at not being included in the upcoming meeting about it. She ate quickly and left the table first. Inu and Inara happily ate their meals at a steady pace while Usagi alternated between sulking and glaring at Akari until everyone else finished eating and she could clean up.
Hebi was waiting in the hallway when Inara finally left the dining room. "It looks like you're enjoying Akari's attention," Hebi said, her voice low and neutral.
Inara fluttered her eyelashes and her six tails wiggled like a pouncing cat's. "I'm just strengthening our connection so I can keep her in check. It wouldn't do to push her away when I have plans for her later."
Hebi stepped closer and stood tall, looming over the goddess. There was a sparkle in her narrow eyes; she was in her element. "If you say so, Boss, but I think we both know that when it comes to planning, I'm better."
Then her long, smooth tail slid along Inara's throat, intimate and menacing. "It's been a while since our last appointment. When you're back on three, you know where to find me." Then she turned away, her tail trailing along Inara's chin until the very tip flicked tantalizingly over her lips.
Inara shivered and three of her tails grew faint and transparent for a moment, then they reappeared in full. Wearing her mischievous grin once again, Inara scampered off to her bedroom, plotting a scheme of some sort.
Usagi watched from the kitchen as Inara passed by. She counted Inara's six tails, then frowned and went back to cleaning.
There was some time before the meeting with Inara at nine, so Akari spent it unpacking her belongings and trying to think of a way to fix her relationship with Usagi. She had thanked Usagi again for cooking and offered to help clean up as a bit of an olive branch, but Usagi predictably declined.
As Akari unpacked, she made an unpleasant discovery: the movers had mixed Akari's dirty laundry in with her clean clothes when they bagged everything up. With a sigh, she decided to do laundry first thing in the morning, if she could figure out how. Usagi's tour hadn't mentioned a washing machine and she wasn't comfortable asking Usagi for help while she was so clearly unhappy.
Do they even have a washing machine? Akari wondered. I haven't hand-washed clothes in years, since that time all our appliances got repossessed.
That had been the first sign of Akari's father's desperation. He'd hidden the full cost of his medical treatment from her, leading her to believe everything was okay. For the first year of his cancer treatment, Akari had lived a normal middle-class life, until they were suddenly broke and struggling to keep food on the table. After that, he'd been forced to sell their house, the only home she'd ever known, the warm and reliable place filled with memories of her mother.
Once the sale went through, they moved into a tiny apartment with cheap rent and managed to reclaim a little of their previous standard of living. But her father was still on expensive medication, still visiting the hospital nearly every week, still growing weaker from the cancer and the chemotherapy. Still dying.
A tear fell onto the clothes Akari was sorting. She'd loved him then and she still did, but she hated the decisions he had made. They'd cried together when they found out he had cancer and they decided to fight it for as long as it was treatable. But when he learned it was terminal, he didn't tell Akari. And against doctor recommendations, he decided to fight the cancer. He fought it with everything he had until there was nothing left but debt. When he died and left Akari alone, she had no money for college, no valuable job skills, and a dead-end job that barely paid the rent.
More tears followed as emotion overcame her attempts to stay logical and disconnected from her pain. Mom… I want to remember him fondly, like you. But he destroyed my future. Couldn't he see that? Did he see it and just not care?
Akari buried her face in a blouse, a pale blue one that her mother used to wear. "I miss you, Mom. And I wish I missed him."