To say that Akari was exhausted would be a criminal understatement. Since leaving her apartment that morning to go on a hike, she'd been abducted by Shinto spirits, started a new job, moved into a new home, had a minor emotional breakdown about her parents, and spoke one-on-one with a literal goddess late into the night. The result was a state of mental and physical exhaustion so complete that Akari distantly wondered whether her normal energy would ever fully return.
She tried to be quiet as she shuffled to her bedroom, but the hardwood floor creaked loudly under her feet. Hopefully the other girls aren't light sleepers, Akari thought, if they even need to sleep. I really need to learn more about what it means to be a spirit…
When she reached her room, she stepped inside and closed the door behind herself, then flopped onto the bed. Her thoughts about minor and major spirits quickly faded and she fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.
An unknown amount of time later, she awoke to the sound of laughter, quiet and reserved. The room was brightly lit and a figure stood near the door.
"I didn't realize you were that much of a fan of Shintoism, to wear miko-styled pajamas." It was Hebi's silky-smooth voice, more joking and upbeat than Akari had heard before. Maybe Hebi was a morning person?
Akari rubbed her eyes and sat up on her bed. She was on top of the covers and still wearing her miko outfit from the night before, except now it was severely wrinkled. That was annoying, since it required special care to wash. "G'morning," she said through a yawn. Her mind immediately wandered, thinking it was a little weird that Hebi had come into her room without knocking. "Need something?" she asked as she gave Hebi a closer look.
The snake spirit wore a crisp white dress shirt and a black pencil skirt, and her long grey hair was done up in a tight bun. Akari half expected stiletto heels to finish the look, but Hebi was barefoot. That made sense, since it would be rude to wear shoes inside a home. Subtle makeup accented Hebi's naturally narrow eyes, making them quite striking. Overall, Akari thought Hebi looked very professional, right up until she noticed that Hebi's shirt was so thin it was nearly transparent and she wasn't wearing a bra underneath. She certainly didn't need one, since she was pretty flat, but her nipples were visible and—
"The opposite, in fact," Hebi answered with a slight grin. Akari tried to focus on that smile to keep from staring at Hebi's chest. "I heard you took on some responsibilities, and that you're on a tight schedule. Would you like my assistance?"
Akari blinked, then nodded eagerly. "Yes, I'd absolutely love that. I was planning to ask you this morning, actually."
Hebi chuckled again, a soft sound like wind blowing through reeds, or maybe a snake slithering through grass. "I must inform you that 'this morning' has long passed. You slept through both breakfast and lunch, and dinner isn't far off."
"Really?" Akari jumped up and grabbed her phone from where it was charging on top of the dresser. Sure enough, the clock said it was just after 4pm. The massive amount of work that she and Inara had planned now loomed like a stormcloud over her thoughts. "I have too much on my plate to sleep away an entire day!"
"Perhaps you truly needed that rest," Habi mused, her tail flicking idly behind her. "It wouldn't serve you well to start such a significant project in a state of exhaustion."
Akari couldn't argue with that logic, but she still wasn't enthused with the loss of so much precious time. "Thank you for offering to help me, Hebi. Can you start now?" She had barely finished her question when her stomach let out a long gurgle.
Hebi just smiled knowingly. "Perhaps you should eat first."
Akari put a hand over her stomach and went red in the face from embarrassment. "Good idea."
"Usagi kindly prepared breakfast for you, but when you seemed to need the rest, I ate it instead," Hebi explained as she and Akari entered the kitchen. "She also made lunch, which is waiting for you in the refrigerator."
Usagi was already there, working at the long white counter on the south wall. She wore a white apron over a cream-colored sweater and her golden hair was in a thick braid that hung between her shoulders. The apron seemed to have some red text on the front, but Akari couldn't make it out from this angle.
Without turning around or stopping her cooking, Usagi said, "Be grateful, Akari. Hebi would have eaten your lunch too if I hadn't stopped her."
"Oh, um, thank you, Usagi," Akari stammered. She didn't know exactly how to interact with Usagi. She was clearly kind and selfless, but she had a jealous streak a mile wide. Akari didn't want to offend her, especially since her cooking was utterly delicious, but Akari wasn't interested in being a doormat either.
Usagi nodded and kept chopping at something with a large knife. "It's on the top shelf, in the green container," she said calmly. Then her pitch jumped way up and she squawked, "Hebi! Don't do that!"
Hebi danced away from the counter with a big slice of raw salmon in one hand. She slid it onto her tongue, then swallowed it all in one gulp. "Mmmm, so tasty…" she moaned with a satisfied smile.
Usagi turned her head and cast Hebi a dangerous glare. "One of these days, you'll get your fingers chopped off…"
"And I'm sure you'll claim it was an accident, but we'll both know the truth."
Akari tried to ignore the strangely dark banter. The two women were like old friends who drove each other crazy but remained inseparable. She opened the sturdy and old-fashioned fridge and looked for the green container that held her leftover lunch. She was expecting a tupperware holding something simple like fried rice or stew, but it was something much better: a bento box with several compartments, each holding something different.
She pulled back the lid and beheld the most adorable bento she'd seen in her life, beyond anything her mother had made for her in elementary school. There were two little bunnies made out of rice with pickled plums for eyes, a hard-boiled egg surrounded by a nest of julienne carrots and leafy greens, and even little octopus-shaped wieners with sesame seed faces.
"Wow, this is so… so… cute!" Akari proclaimed as she stared at the food that was almost too precious to eat. She looked again at the hotdog-octopi. "But I didn't know you cooked meat, Usagi."
"I may be a vegetarian, but I don't fault others for their ways," Usagi said.
Hebi cut in, "Then why'd you make all the food look like defenseless animals? I think you're trying to guilt-trip us."
Usagi waved her knife in Hebi's direction. "As if guilt could work on you. You're shameless. I mean, look at that shirt."
Oh good, I'm not the only one that noticed her see-through shirt, Akari thought.
Hebi approached Usagi and gently pushed the raised knife to the side. "Says the girl in the tightest yoga pants on Earth. I would say that I can see the exact outline of your underwear"—Hebi tilted her head and pretended to be confused—"but you don't seem to be wearing any…"
Akari hadn't noticed that, but she definitely did now. A single glance was enough to see that Usagi had thick thighs and a plump yet firm butt, all stuffed into tight black leggings that hugged every curve. It looked great on her, and now Akari couldn't help but scan for pantylines, to see if what Hebi had said was true.
Usagi set the knife down on the counter a safe distance away, then turned around so her backside was pressed against the counter and out of sight. Then she said, "What have I said about bothering me while I'm cooking?"
Hebi made a show of looking down at Usagi's apron and reading the text there aloud, "'Bully the cook'? It seems your messages are quite contradictory."
Usagi's face flushed and she sputtered, "You bought this apron! I asked you to order me a simple apron and you got this stupid thing instead!"
Hebi pressed forward, cupping Usagi's blushing cheek with her slender fingers. "But you secretly love it, don't you?"
Usagi started to protest again, but Akari cleared her throat and said, "Um, sorry to interrupt, uh, whatever this is, but Hebi and I have work to do." Akari didn't really care to know exactly what Hebi and Usagi's relationship was and she didn't have time to waste on it anyway.
Usagi quickly turned away, deciding she'd rather hide her face than her butt. She resumed chopping with vigor and said, "Good. I also have work to do, so please leave me be." Even though she'd been acting quite bothered by Hebi's teasing, Usagi's rabbit features told a different story. Her fluffy tail wiggled side to side and her ears were angled forward, alert and quivering. At least for the normal bunnies the students had cared for at Akari's middle school, those were signs of excitement and curiosity.
Hebi honored the request and strode away, toward the kitchen table. She addressed Akari as she moved. "Do you want to start reviewing the plans now while you eat?"
Akari joined her at the table and set her adorable bento lunch down. "Sure. I can get you caught up on what Inara-sama and I covered. Are you ready?"
Hebi plucked a small notebook and pen from the back pocket of her skirt. She readied the pen and gave a curt nod. Once again, Akari was reminded of an elite and professional secretary… if she ignored that revealing shirt.
In between bites of delicious food, Akari relayed all the plans from the night before as best she could. Her memory wasn't perfect and she hadn't thought to take notes like Hebi was doing now. Thankfully, Hebi was good at spotting holes in the information and asking followup questions. And unlike the mischievous behavior she'd shown while bothering Usagi, she stayed perfectly on track. She was laser-focused on the task at hand, to the exclusion of all small talk. Her businesslike attitude was almost stifling, and Akari was happy for the excuse to take a break when she finally finished her lunch.
Akari stood up and took her bento box to the sink to wash. At some point in the last hour, Usagi had moved whatever she'd been preparing into the oven and left the room. As Akari rinsed out the container she said, "I think that's everything Inara and I planned. How did you want to divide the workload now?"
Hebi twirled her pale grey tail around one finger in thought. "Hmm, I prefer to be in control. Of planning, I mean. I'm pretty good at directing people too, for when we get to that stage."
Akari pondered that, trying not to read too much into the 'in control' thing, then she said, "Alright, for the initial stuff that needs to be done first, you can plan the festival and decide what work needs to be done around the shrine to get it ready for the public. And I can do all the phone calls and face-to-face stuff, as well as help out with the other stuff however you want."
Hebi clearly liked that idea, with the way her tail started flicking from side to side. "Excellent. I'll begin my half right away," she said, then she tore a page from her little notepad and offered it to Akari. "Here are the phone numbers you'll need for all the construction companies. I took the liberty of writing their office hours next to each. If you act quickly, you might be able to contact two of them before they close."
Unprofessionally-transparent shirt or not, Hebi made an excellent secretary. Akari was starting to believe that the monumental task of getting the shrine ready to open in just thirteen days was actually feasible. Still a terrifying amount of work, but feasible.
As Hebi started furiously writing her own plans on her pad, Akari pulled out her phone and called the first number on the sheet, a local construction company.
"Hello. I'm calling on behalf of the, uh, hold on one moment." She lowered the phone to her shoulder and whispered at Hebi, "What's the name of this shrine?"
Hebi didn't look up from her notebook. "Just call it Mori-jinsha. Inara doesn't like the old name."
That just means 'Forest Shrine'. Simple, but straightforward, Akari thought. She put her mouth to the phone again, "Sorry for the delay. I'm calling on behalf of Mori-jinsha, a Shinto shrine in the mountains south of Shinjō. I'd like to hire a work crew to repair an old mountain path so that visitors can reach the shrine."
"Mori-jinsha? Haven't heard of it," came a gruff response.
"It's new, well, newly remodeled, um, newly reopened," she stammered, earning a raised eyebrow from Hebi.
"Uh-huh," the man said. "You sound new to this. First day?"
"Second, actually," Akari said meekly.
A deep sigh came through the phone, then the man said, "Alright, what exactly do you need done?"
After a lot of back and forth, including plenty of insistence that the work really did need to be done within two weeks and that Akari really could afford to pay for that urgency, she successfully booked a visit for the next morning. The plan was for Akari to meet a contractor in town and walk him up the entire footpath so he could give a price estimate. There was no way he'd be able to see the spirit girls but she planned to keep him away from the shrine itself, just in case.
After the phone call, Akari asked Hebi, "Out of curiosity, what was the old name for this shrine?"
Hebi kept her eyes on her notepad, which now had over a dozen pages filled in with plans for the festival, including some intricate sketches of booths and costumes. She answered, "It was called Shinjō Inari-taisha, and it used to be the primary shrine to Inari in all of Japan before it closed in the 1700s. That was when Fushimi Inari-taisha in Kyoto took over and became the main one."
Akari knew that Fushimi Inari-taisha was one of the biggest Shinto shrines in the world, and it was famous for having literal thousands of red torii arches and numerous fox statues. She had never visited it because Kyoto was so far away from Shinjō, but it was at the very top of her wish list.
Cautiously, she asked, "So what does Inara think of the Kyoto shrine?"
Hebi glanced up at her, looking a bit like a displeased librarian who was sick of answering stupid questions; the only thing missing was a pair of half-rim reading glasses. She explained, "Imagine you used to have a different name, career, and identity that you weren't particularly proud of, and you've worked really hard to distance yourself from it. Then imagine that people built a giant shrine to that identity and threw massive parties in its honor even after you repeatedly asked them to stop. Yeah… the Boss is not a fan."
"Oh, okay…" Akari frowned. I should have been able to figure that out myself, after what Inara told me last night. On top of feeling a bit dumb, she felt bad for repeatedly distracting Hebi from her own work. Akari stood up and said, "I'll be in my bedroom for the other call."
Hebi was once again laser focused on her task. "Mmhm," was her only response.
"Wow, you're alive," Inu said from the doorway. She wore knee-length shorts and a sleeveless blue basketball jersey, complete with the number 04 on the chest. Akari was pleased to see a sensible black sports bra underneath the jersey, having seen more than enough of Hebi's nipples for one day.
Conveniently, Akari had just finished her final phone call for the day, so Inu's intrusion wasn't interrupting anything. "Yes, I'm alive. What of it?" Her reply came out harsher than she intended, which she blamed on Inu barging in unannounced. What is with people walking into my bedroom today? Akari thought. I thought it was understood that a closed bedroom door means 'Knock before entering', but maybe I'm taking too much for granted.
Inu shrugged. "Nothing. It's nice to see you can handle such a hard day. I suppose oversleeping is a better coping mechanism than most."
Was that a compliment? If so, now might be the best time to ask… "Um, I want to start working out. I heard from Inara that you're a bit of a fitness expert. Do you think, maybe—"
"Yeah, sure," Inu interrupted.
Akari assumed the worst and frowned as she said, "Oh, okay…" She paused. "Wait, you said yes?"
Inu rolled her eyes. "Yes I said yes. Working out alone sucks and the others always flake on me or wimp out." Her orange eyes stared Akari down. "You won't wimp out, right?"
Akari swallowed. "Um, I'm only human, so I might not be able to keep up with you, but I am serious about this." She waved a hand at the furniture that she had painstakingly carried through the forest. "After yesterday, I realized I really want to be stronger."
Then Akari had a flashback of how fit Inu had looked in the bath the previous night, particularly her chiseled abs. She broke eye contact and added, "…And I'd like a firm stomach."
Inu's ears perked up and she gave a firm nod. "Alright, then we'll start you on a regiment of crunches, planks, and other core exercises. With some light weight training for your arms and legs and jogging for cardio. Well-rounded fitness is ideal."
"Wow, I guess I came to the right woman," Akari said, a little surprised by Inu's enthusiastic response.
"You did indeed. Now, since there's a little time before dinner, let's see how many crunches you can do. I need to learn your limits."
"What, right now?"
"Yes, right now," Inu said with annoyance in her voice. She dropped to the floor, bent her knees, and put her hands behind her head. "Get on your butt and start crunching. I'll race you to fifty."
"Wah! Uh, okay!" Akari yelped, then she joined Inu on the floor. Akari imitated her form, then began. At ten crunches, she was feeling the burn. At 20, she started to really struggle and her form suffered. She barely managed number 28 before flopping backwards onto the floor, panting. She rolled her head to the side to see Inu still going strong and quietly counting aloud.
"Sixty-five, sixty-six…" Then without slowing down, she barked, "Come on, Akari, I know you can do more! You promised you wouldn't wimp out."
"Sorry!" Akari said as she forced her elbows toward her knees yet again. She couldn't help but be motivated by Inu's enthusiasm, but there was no way she could match that girl's stamina. And she knew her muscles would be regretting it later.