It didn't take long for Akari to reach her absolute limit of 39 crunches. Her abs ached and burned and she mentally cursed Inu for bringing that suffering upon her, even if it had been at her own request. But she was feeling a bit of a post-exercise rush that felt pretty good and this was an important step toward her goal of being healthier and stronger, so she had to admit it was a net positive.
Inu jogged ahead toward the kitchen, a rare grin on her face. "Ooh, that smells awesome!" she called out. The smell hit Akari's less sensitive nose when she got closer to the kitchen. There was a tangy, zesty scent on top of a complex blend of savory and rich aromas. She already knew Usagi was a great cook but that smell raised her expectations even higher.
Everyone else was already seated when Akari arrived at the table, making it pretty clear that the last open seat was for her. She sat on the little cushion and greeted the others, trying to find the right amount of casual and polite for the Goddess. She settled on, "Good evening, Inara-sama."
"And you as well, Akari," Inara replied with a heart-stoppingly beautiful smile.
Forget the food, that smile is all the sustenance I need, Akari thought.
Then Usagi cleared her throat and gestured at the platters of food in the center of the table. "I made lemon-pepper salmon and some baked veggies in olive oil, with crepes and ice cream for dessert." There was also a heaping bowl of steamed rice that she didn't bother to mention. She bowed slightly and added, "Please enjoy."
As everyone started dishing up food onto their plates, Inu said, "You don't normally make dessert. What's the occasion?"
Usagi raised an eyebrow and the ear on that side stuck straight up too. "Isn't it obvious? Even if Akari is human, it isn't every decade that we get a new member in our household."
"Aww, thank you, Usagi," Akari said, beaming. It felt good to be welcomed to the shrine, and it had come from someone she had thought didn't like her. All the decisions that brought her there finally started to feel like the right calls.
The wholesome moment was soon shattered as Hebi and Inu started fighting over the platter of salmon. "You already took a ton," Inu whined as she tugged on the platter. "Let everyone else get some before you go back for seconds."
Hebi refused to let go. "Everyone already has some on their plates. It's not my fault they took tiny portions."
Inu looked to Usagi with big puppy-dog eyes. "Back me up on this. You don't want Hebi eating everything, do you?"
Usagi just shrugged. "I'm just happy that Hebi likes it so much. There's plenty of other food if the salmon you got isn't enough to fill your belly." She left unsaid that all the remaining food just happened to be meat-free.
Rolling her eyes, Inu groaned, "She's got you so whipped, Usagi, it's not even funny."
Akari barely noticed the arguing. She was lost in the delicious taste of a meal that was somehow even better than its smell had lead her to expect. More than just flavor, the texture was also perfect, with the tender salmon practically dissolving on her tongue and leaving a zesty and slightly spicy echo ringing through her mouth. The vegetables appeared to be garden variety leeks, potatoes, carrots, and daikon radishes, but they were remarkably high quality, beyond anything you could get at the grocery store, and they'd been infused with rich and fragrant olive oil and a subtle blend of spices that brought out the very best the veggies had to offer.
After swallowing another bite of bliss, Akari opened her eyes to see the whole table looking at her. "What? Do I have something on my face?"
Inara let out a little chuckle. "No, you just seemed to be enjoying yourself quite thoroughly. The sounds you made were very cute."
"C-cute?!" Akari felt her cheeks grow hot. It was true that she'd lost herself for a bit there, but she hadn't realized she had made any sounds.
"Nah, not cute," Inu chimed in. "It was downright erotic. She was moaning like she was being eaten instead of the other way around."
Akari dropped her chopsticks and hid her blushing face in her hands. She peeked out between her fingers at the others, feeling like she might die of embarrassment. "D-did I really sound like that?"
Hebi answered. "You really did. It was inspiring, actually, and made me realize how much I've been taking Usagi's cooking for granted. I fancied myself a connoisseur, but I have much to re-learn."
Curious about what Usagi thought of all this, Akari risked a glance her way. The rabbit spirit was leaning back slightly, supporting herself with both hands on the floor behind her, and she was watching Akari with narrowed eyes and closed lips. Akari thought, I can't read that expression at all. Is she upset? Confused?
Then Usagi took a deep breath and said, "Thank you, Akari. You just gave me the most genuine and passionate review of my cooking I've ever received. I will strive to hit such a high mark again."
While Inu giggled at that, a surprisingly feminine sound for her, Akari grew even more embarrassed. She nodded feebly, then returned her attention to her food. She was feeling really overwhelmed and awkward and too self-conscious to enjoy the meal to the same degree as before, but it was still amazing.
After finishing dinner and an equally tasty dessert of crepes with strawberries and vanilla ice cream, Akari tried to escape back to her room. There was planning she could be doing and she was feeling more than a little socially exhausted.
"Oh no you don't," Hebi hissed as Akari attempted to follow the others into the hallway. She wrapped her tail around Akari's waist and tugged her back. "I wanted to go over my plans so far with you. Even though I took on some of the responsibilities, you're still the one in charge on this project and you need to be kept in the loop."
"Ah, of course. Sorry, Hebi."
"No need to apologize. I'm not keen on the concept of apologies. I don't care what you say as long as mistakes aren't repeated, and feeling guilty isn't always the best route to that goal."
Akari pondered that as she followed Hebi back to the now empty kitchen table. Then she said, "That's an interesting philosophy. It reminds me of something the priest at my previous shrine once told me: 'An apology without intent to change is just manipulation.'"
Hebi smiled from ear to ear, her mouth widening to a creepy degree. "Oh ho ho, as an experienced manipulator, I can confirm that that's a remarkably accurate assessment."
"Manipulator? What do you mean by that?"
Hebi ignored the question and dove into a presentation of her ideas so far. Akari was quickly inundated with plans and schemes and pages of notes, and soon forgot about her concerns. Hebi seemed to have the vast majority of the festival plans under control, but her understanding of human interests was lacking, to say the least.
"I don't think most visitors would want to see animal bones on display, even if they represent the cycle of nature on this mountain. It's just too grim for such a happy celebration," Akari explained. "And charging an entry fee to enter the grounds would sour our first impression. People would much rather pay for food and souvenirs, and even non-paying guests can help spread the word about the new shrine in town."
Hebi nodded and took down notes, then asked, "But what about my idea to sell random gift bags? This festival will be expensive and our coffers aren't bottomless, so we need something with a high profit margin to reclaim our costs."
Akari actually liked the idea of selling little bags with random shrine-related trinkets and toys inside, some of which were rarer than others. She just had a couple concerns. "The gift bags are great. Though we should probably make a poster of all the possible contents, so people understand the range and don't feel ripped off."
"Yes, of course. And we could put the most desirable, and rarest, items at the top of the poster at double the size to draw attention. Oh, and every bag could come with a ticket inside, and visitors can redeem 20 tickets for another bag! That'll get people buying even more to reach that coveted 'free' goal." Hebi was salivating at the idea and its money-making potential, but it reminded Akari of the sketchy ways some free-to-play phone games would try to extract money from their users.
Hebi's eyes narrowed menacingly. "Wait… no… There will be ten different kinds of tickets, and visitors have to redeem one of each to get a free bag. And one of the tickets will be rarer than the others!"
Akari thought, Uh oh, this is getting into some evil money-grubbing territory. I better cut this off. She said, "Um, please remember that someone has to make all those tickets and prizes. Maybe we should keep things simple for our first event."
"True, but I can whip up those tickets on my computer and have them printed in town. Double sided, of course, with a unique pattern on the back to reduce the chance of fakes."
Akari squinted. "You really think someone would try to scam us with counterfeit grab-bag tickets?"
"If the reward is desirable enough, definitely. One thing I do understand about humans is their greed."
Akari decided to trust Hebi on that and focus on what the prizes would be, and who would make them. "For the prizes, were you thinking standard shrine fare, like charms and fortunes?"
"For the bulk of them, yes. The special prizes could coupons that can be redeemed for carved figures, like those wooden foxes I made."
"You made those?"
Hebi ignored the question. "Oh, and the top prize could be a miko outfit. You said you made yours yourself, right? If someone actually wins that one, we'll get their measurements and you can make a set for them."
"Hmm, that's a lot of work… but I did have fun sewing mine. I'd just need to borrow a sewing machine again." Akari frowned. "But what if the winner is a guy? I doubt he'd want to dress as a miko and I don't know much about other clothes like kannushi robes."
Hebi smiled. "Just ask him for his wife or girlfriend's measurements."
Akari was reminded of her conversation with Inara about sexualized shrine maidens. "Oh, right. That prize will probably be more popular among guys that girls…" She had mixed feelings about that. On one hand, Akari thought shrine maidens were cute and she liked how she looked in the outfit, but on the other hand, she was a shrine maiden herself and it was kind of unpleasant to be objectified.
Hebi put a hand on Akari's shoulder. "Don't worry. We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone who's a creep about it, and I'll think of an alternative prize for people that aren't into the miko thing." She withdrew the hand and held her chin in thought. "Maybe I can get Inara to bless a fox statue or two. She's still a bit reluctant to engage in anything too reminiscent of Inari Okami."
Then Hebi hopped to her feet. "In any case, I've got a lot of revisions to make to my plans. Let's check in again after lunch tomorrow."
"Sure. Thanks again for handling so much of this work, Hebi. You've been a lifesaver."
"You're quite welcome, Akari. I haven't had this much fun since I discovered the internet."
"Finally, some time to myself," Akari said to her empty bedroom. She did enjoy being around her new housemates, but she needed some downtime too. She pulled out her notebook and reviewed her restoration and festival plans. The most urgent action item was calling the equipment rental place to reserve all the booths for the festival. Oh, and she'd need to rent a portable toilet for the guests, and figure out how to transport all that stuff into the clearing around the shrine…
Akari sighed, put her pen down, and turned to look at Inu, who was standing by the door. "Please use my name."
"Sorry, Akari. I'm not used to talking to humans, and they usually just call me 'dog' or 'puppy' when I'm in town, so I thought that's how they talk to each other."
Internally, Akari ranted, That's because they think you're a normal dog and they don't know your name! That's totally different than when you— Whatever, it's not worth getting stressed about… "So, what did you need?"
"I was going to start my evening exercises and I figured I should invite you. Nothing too heavy, since we just ate."
A short battle was waged between the part of Akari that wanted alone time and the part that wanted to get fit and sexy. Fitness was victorious. After all, the first days of a new routine were crucial and she couldn't afford to be lazy if she wanted to develop good habits. "Sure, and thank you for the invite. What's the plan?"
"I was thinking pushups to failure, followed by squats and lunges."
"To failure?" Akari asked, afraid of the answer.
"Muscle growth happens when you push your limits, so we're gonna do push ups until we literally can't do another one. It's great!"
Akari had doubts about its greatness, and they were soon confirmed. The workout was miserable and exhausting and a little painful, and Akari felt so weak compared to Inu. The dog spirit seemed to have bottomless stamina, and surprising upper-body strength. But after Akari reached 'failure' on the final exercise, Inu said a magical phrase that improved Akari's mood instantly.
"Let's hit the bath. Nothing like hot water to soothe sore muscles."
"That sounds wonderful," Akari said, breathing hard as she wobbled toward her dresser to get a change of clothes. "I'll meet you there."
In the soaking pool, Inara slid up to Akari's side and announced, "Usagi already touched on this earlier, but I'd like to formally welcome Akari to our little family. We're happy to have you here." Then she pulled Akari into a very naked and very busty hug.
Akari had mostly forgotten her awkward confession the other day, blaming it on Inara's magical aura, but now those feelings returned in force. Inara's bosom was like a warm blanket, wrapping Akari's entire existence in comfort and love. Akari felt like she could live out the rest of her days in that embrace and die happy and fulfilled. She loved Inara, and it seemed foolish to deny that fact.
A few feet away on Inara's other side, Usagi was visibly jealous, alternating between glaring daggers at Akari and looking longingly up at Inara. Inu and Hebi both watched with rapt interest, wondering not if Usagi would lash out, but how.
But before she could, Inara's tails swept out and grabbed Usagi like a massive hand, then pulled her into the hug. "Sorry to leave you out, my little jelly-bun." Usagi's face flushed pure red at the silly nickname, but Akari didn't notice. She was too focused on the wonderfully unexpected sensation of Usagi's soft and sizable breasts pressed up against her own. Inara had a truly remarkable figure, but her chest seemed almost small compared to Usagi's. Akari wasn't romantically interested in Usagi, but she couldn't deny her physical appeal…
After the dangerously erotic hug ended and Usagi returned to her own seat, Inara patted Usagi on the head in a somewhat condescending way and added, "You need to stop getting so jealous, considering how open the relationships are around here."
Feeling a little self-conscious about her own breasts, Akari slouched deeper in the water to hide. But she was very curious about something. "Um, sorry if this is too personal, but what are the relationships here?"
Before anyone could answer, Inara got a very mischievous expression on her face. She held up a hand and said, "No one answer that. Akari, what do you think they are?"
"Um, I think that you have something, um… intimate, with Usagi, but she also has some sort of relationship with Hebi? I feel like there might be more, but that's all I've seen."
Inu crossed her arms and watched stoically while Hebi let out a little chuckle.
Inara smiled broadly. "If that's all you've seen, Usagi must look like quite the hypocrite, to be the only one in two relationships and the only one getting jealous all the time."
"Mistress!" Usagi whined. "Please don't confuse the situation!"
Inara patted her on the head again and explained, "Usagi is just a very caring and sensitive person who can't help but feel jealousy when a new person joins the household. She did it when Inu joined too, even when nothing romantic was occurring between Inu and I."
"So you're not in a relationship with Inu?" Akari asked.
"I can neither confirm nor deny that," Inara said with an intense look. "You'll have to wait until the others get more comfortable with your presence to learn about any other relationships that might be present. After all, you're brand new here and I wouldn't dare share information they aren't comfortable sharing themselves."
Then she smiled, "But it sounds like you've been spending time with both Inu and Hebi. That's great to hear. You just need to get to know Usagi as well and everything will go much smoother around here. As fun as it is to have a lively household, I can't have you girls at each other's throats when we're trying to open the shrine to the public in under two weeks."
"What?!" Inu and Usagi blurted at the same time. It was the first they had heard of the plan. Their shock was understandable after decades of peace and isolation on this mountain far removed from humanity.
Inara put her hands up, palms outward. "Don't look at me. Akari and Hebi are the ones planning it."
Akari started to panic. She'd been thrown under the metaphorical bus. Was I supposed to tell them? I guess I just assumed they already knew, but apparently I was wrong.
To Akari's great relief, Hebi stepped in. She pressed her tail to her upper chest, gave a small bow, and said, "It's true that we plan to open the shrine to the public via a festival on September 10th, and it's my fault for not communicating that to you. I was so wrapped up in the planning that I failed to get you two up to speed. I assure you that everything is under control and I can give you a full run down in the morning, including any tasks Akari and I could use your assistance with."
Akari relaxed and melted into the hot water. Thank goodness she fielded that for me. I do not want to make enemies of Inu and Usagi right now. The warm embrace of the water reminded her of Inara's bosom, and soon she was lost in a daydream full of squishable marshmallows and fluffy fox tails.