The competition had begun. In less than two days, the three major spirits and Akari would convene to present their inarizushi to Inara. Then the goddess would pick a favorite and lavish love and attention on the winner. Or at least that was the hope, since Inara had no idea she had been volunteered to judge such a contest.
Akari forged ahead anyway. She stayed up late searching the internet from her phone for the best reviewed inarizushi on the northern end of Honshu island. Tokyo or anything further south was just too far away. The train ride to Tokyo would take at least four hours each way and the journey would cost well over 20,000 yen round trip, on top of the price of whatever she paid for the sushi. Inarizushi wasn't as expensive as most other sushi since it didn't contain any fish, but the best that Japan had to offer was bound to be pricey nonetheless. Akari wanted to win, but she didn't want to go broke in the process. She hadn't even received her first paycheck for this new job yet.
And speaking of jobs, Akari still had a lot of work to do for the approaching shrine grand opening and Inara's Rei-sai festival. She couldn't afford to leave the shrine for too long with all the tasks on her plate.
That was why Akari wrapped up her research just after midnight, settling on the best-reviewed sushi restaurant in Sakata, the nearest seaside city. Despite Sakata's geographical proximity to Shinjō, the mountains in between would add a lot to the travel time. She estimated the entire journey at just under four hours, restaurant visit included. That was precious time that she'd have to make up by working harder around the shrine.
As she slept, she had a surreal dream about train rides, inarizushi, and the strangest sushi chef she'd ever seen. He had the head of a fish which was disconcerting enough given his career, but the weirdest thing was how the rest of him kept shifting. He started out in a traditional black chef's coat but as she ordered her food, his body shifted into that of an octopus wearing unnecessarily erotic lace stockings on all eight legs. Then he had the body of an old man, wielding two canes just to stay standing. Then he wore a black suit and blue tie exactly like the ones her father had been dressed in at his funeral. Then the chef had Inara's body, complete with voluptuous cleavage and flowing fox tails.
Akari didn't have time to question it; even in her dream she was completely focused on her task and very much in a hurry. She paid for her sushi, stored it in a stereotypical treasure chest that was chained shut with a few too many locks, then bowed and said goodbye to the strange man. When she looked up again, she was on a train heading back through the mountains. The other passengers paid her and her treasure no mind, since they were all staring out the windows, stunned and alarmed.
Shinto spirits large and small filled the countryside, glowing brightly and lighting it up like a festival. Some were shapeless wisps, just standard minor spirits that Akari had grown used to over the years. Some were major spirits like Inu, Hebi, and Usagi, walking around in human-like forms. Others were monstrous: flying sea serpents longer than the entire train, a mountain ogre chewing on something that looked an awful lot like a human leg, and a giant red fox the size of a house, eyeing the passing train with disdain. The fox was without a doubt the most dangerous spirit out there. At a fundamental level, Akari knew that she had somehow earned that look of disdain, and she was sure that one more mistake would bring the fox god's wrath upon the train and everyone in it.
Akari awoke feeling exhausted and unsettled for reasons she couldn't quite remember. She was sorely tempted to silence her alarm and sleep in, but she had too much to do.
"Gotta get to work," she mumbled to herself as she climbed out of bed. Her hair was a tangled purple mess from tossing and turning. She still didn't have a mirror in her room, so she couldn't fix it there. She gathered some clothes and her bathroom supplies, then shuffled toward the door, still in her pajamas.
She was used to being seen by her housemates in such a disheveled state, since they kept barging into her room uninvited, but she wanted to avoid letting Inara see her like that. She peeked out the door, looked both ways and saw no one, then scampered toward the bathroom. A quick wash and some light makeup later, she was ready to face the day, and Inara.
Or not. Akari suddenly remembered something Hebi had said the night before: "Our gifts will be better received if the whole thing is a surprise. When you're around the Boss, make sure to avoid the topic rather than lie about it, since she can see through lies. If you need to talk about where you've been, use very general terms and let her imagination fill in the details."
Alright! Akari thought, trying to pump herself up. I'll keep it vague and let her assume that I'm working on festival stuff. She's been pretty hands-off so far, so I doubt she'd dig any deeper than that. And the only sneaky things I need to do today are plan my travel route and call the sushi restaurant to confirm everything. I can even do those while I'm down in Shinjō for festival stuff, just to be safe.
Feeling refreshed, she stepped out of the bathing room into the hallway and almost tripped over a pale blonde dog. "Wah, sorry Inu!"
"Watch where you're going," Inu growled as she padded off.
Akari could guess where the grumpy dog spirit was going, and what she was planning to do. Inu had admitted quite clearly that whenever she needed something from town, she stole it. Akari could only hope that Inu was planning to leave some money behind to pay for the inarizushi she swiped. She'd hate for a shop employee to get in trouble because of this little competition.
She dropped off her basket of bathroom supplies back in her room, then went to the kitchen to get some breakfast. There was a chance Usagi had cooked breakfast for everyone, but there would be leftovers in the fridge regardless.
Usagi wasn't in the kitchen. There wasn't even a lingering scent of food, so the rabbit spirit must not have cooked anything yet that morning. Akari could only assume Usagi was sneaking into town too. After all, she had needed more tofu to make Inarizushi and she had no legitimate way to obtain it.
Akari shrugged and opened the fridge. Not my problem. I'll get my inarizushi legally, and it's gonna be top-notch! The reviews said that place's inarizushi was crazy good, maybe even better than their sashimi. Feeling confident, she grabbed one of Usagi's test-run bento boxes and sat at the table to eat. Having so much pre-prepared food around the house was super convenient. Akari would miss it now that Usagi had settled on her menu for the festival.
"Good morning, Boss," came a voice from the hallway. Akari went still and listened in.
"And you, dear Hebi. What are your plans for the day?"
"Just more festival preparations. And more of the same tomorrow. I can't believe it's so close now. Only five days left."
Wait a minute… Akari thought. Did she just lie to Inara after telling us not to? Does she have a magic ability to counteract Inara's lie-detector?
Inara's smile was audible. "I know! I'm very excited, and more nervous than I've been in decades. Reprising my status, even if only partially, has me a bit on edge."
Akari's thoughts were still on Hebi's lie. Or maybe she already finished planning her inarizushi strategy last night. Then it wasn't technically a lie to say her plans were entirely festival related. Ooh, she's clever.
Hebi said, "I can help you with that later, if you'd like, Boss."
"I might just take you up on that. Thank you."
Wait, what did Hebi offer? Did I miss something?
"Good morning, Akari," Inara said as she entered the kitchen.
Akari looked up from her bento box, which she had barely touched. She'd been shamefully preoccupied with eavesdropping. Inara was alone, so Hebi must have continued down the hallway to a different room. "Good morn—" Her voice caught in her throat when she saw Inara.
She was radiant. There were no other words to describe how beautifully her red hair shone in the sunlight that streamed in through the kitchen windows, or the way her golden eyes sparkled with enthusiasm. There was also the fact that Inara wore a pale violet dressing gown so sheer it was nearly transparent. She seemed to be wearing a silk slip underneath, but it was small and didn't leave much to the imagination.
Akari tried again after the initial shock passed. "Good morning, Inara-sama. Sorry about the frog in my throat there."
Giggling, Inara pointed at the bento box and said, "That's not a nice thing to say about Usagi's cooking."
"That's not what I meant," Akari blurted, playing along with Inara's joke. Then she asked, "Have you eaten?" She gestured at her bento box. "There are several more of these in the fridge, and they're all very tasty."
"No, I haven't had breakfast yet. Are there any with inarizushi in them?"
Akari tensed up. She needed to avoid that topic, lest she mess up and spoil the surprise. "No. But you'd probably like the omelette ones."
"Ooh, that does sound good. Thanks, Kari-chan."
Kari-chan? Akari blinked vacantly and her face went red. Kari-chan!? She gave me a nickname! And it's a really cute one! She was distantly glad that Inara had already gone to get her food and wasn't watching as she flailed about in glee.
She turned and saw Inara crouching to browse the stack of plastic containers in the fridge. Her tails ran through a slit in the back of her dressing gown, and there were definitely six of them this time. They playfully flicked through the air as she searched for an omelette bento.
Akari suspected there was a pattern to Inara's tails, but she didn't fully understand it. Normally, whenever Inara's mood was neutral, her tails were an indistinct and constantly shifting blur. But when the goddess was in a particularly singular mood, the kind that overflowed into Akari and made her feel the same way, that was when Akari could count Inara's tails. She had a theory that specific numbers corresponded to specific moods, but she hadn't seen any one number enough to know for sure. She needed to work up the nerve and ask Hebi about—
"Kari-chan? Are you ever going to actually eat that food?" Inara said as she took a seat at the table, directly across from Akari. It was a fair jab, since Akari's omelette bento was still mostly untouched.
Akari's line of thought evaporated and a smile blossomed on her face; Inara's mood had become contagious again. "Oh, silly me! I got distracted."
Inara leaned forward, her own bento already forgotten. "Ooh, what about? Anything fun?"
"Just wondering about your tails, actually," Akari admitted, surprising herself. Apparently, Inara's Playful Mood aura made it much easier to be straightforward. Also, Akari had spontaneously decided to give proper titles to each of Inara's overflowing moods. "Is there a pattern to them?"
With a coy smile, Inara said, "Maybe? Perhaps there's a secret password that will open my heart and lay all my secrets bare." Then she took a big bite of rolled omelette and took her time chewing while Akari pondered her words.
Ooookay, I guess I'm not getting a straight answer out of her right now. Akari finally scooped up a bit of her own omelette with her chopsticks and started eating. As expected of Usagi's cooking, everything was perfectly seasoned and quite delicious.
From what Akari understood, Usagi had finalized the menu for the festival: pre-made bento boxes like the ones she and Inara were eating, several kinds of fried snacks on skewers, and hand-pounded mochi. Mochi was more of a New Years tradition, but it was also associated with rabbits due to the rabbit in the moon myth, so it made sense that Usagi wanted to offer it, in a strange sort of way.
"Mmm, that was good," Inara said, standing up from the table, empty bento box in hand.
Akari squawked, "What? You're done already?" She'd zoned out for a few seconds, but that was awfully fast to eat an entire meal, especially for a ladylike goddess.
Inara put her bento box by the sink. "I was hungry, and you weren't being much of a conversation partner. You kept getting lost in thought."
Akari started to panic a little. "Sorry, Inara-sama."
Inara smiled and danced away toward the kitchen's exterior door, her wispy gown flowing. "Don't worry about it. I'm used to finding my own fun up here in the mountains. I think I'll go frolic with some wildlife. Byebye, Kari-chan!"
As Inara reached the door, she shed her already skimpy clothes in a flash, tossed them on a coat rack next to the door, then stepped outside. Akari was still reeling from the sudden nudity when there was an explosion of fog. Inara transformed into a small red fox and darted into the woods.
Akari blinked several times, murmuring, "Huh. That… happened." Then she resumed her breakfast and tried to get her thoughts off of Inara's naked butt and onto the festival preparations.
Akari had a busy day in Shinjō, running errands and speaking to shrine representatives and city officials about the festival. It felt way beyond her realm of expertise, but it was her job and she was determined to do it the best she could. If nothing else, her illogical devotion to Inara was good for keeping motivated. And despite Akari's awkward confession the other day, she refused to call it love just yet. Surely that had just been because of Inara's Emotional Aura.
Her dreams that night said otherwise. Instead of a strange sushi chef and a haunted countryside, Akari dreamed of Inara for a solid eight hours. She dreamed of her face, her captivating eyes and gorgeous hair and fur, and her inhumanly perfect features, the kind that didn't inspire any envy because they were far too good, like a photoshopped fashion magazine cover.
And she dreamed of Inara's body. Akari had no qualms with its over-perfection. The deep part of her mind that had been slowly awakening to her sexuality since middle school was bursting out in a hurry now. It clawed its way closer to the surface every time she caught a glimpse of Inara's nude form, a peek of her flawless skin and glorious figure. Akari had originally thought herself to be asexual, since she liked romance but wasn't sexually attracted to boys. Then she had briefly fallen for a classmate, a girl who proved uninterested in girls. It wasn't until her senior year that the truth had revealed itself to Akari; she could be romantically interested in both men and women but she was only sexually attracted to the female form.
Being around Inara had confirmed that truth so solidly it was like a beacon in Akari's mind, a flashing neon sign that read, 'This is what you want. This is what you need!' She didn't mean to fight it, but accepting herself was hard enough already, especially after all her and her father's screwups. But now, with Inara around and constantly reinforcing her desire, Akari couldn't deny it anymore.
She awoke feeling refreshed and more than a little aroused. Annoyingly so, in fact. She pushed those feelings away and focused on the day ahead of her. On top of the inarizushi reveal at dinner, the work for the festival never seemed to end. Her train to Sakata departed at noon, and she had to make a few phone calls before that.
Akari was sitting at the kitchen table, nibbling on another premade bento box, holding her phone to her ear, and trying to be patient. She'd been on hold with the booth rental company for nearly 15 minutes and she was getting bored.
Then Hebi slipped into the room, glancing around suspiciously. She met Akari's eyes, then jogged over and crouched next to her. "Hey, got a second?" she whispered.
Akari shrugged, still holding the phone against her cheek. "I'm on hold, so I guess so."
"Good. Can you do me a huge favor and retrieve a package from the shed? It's probably only about ten pounds, but that's way more than I can manage on my own."
Oh right, she probably can't carry things in her snake form. Which I still haven't seen, now that I think about it. But that wasn't important. The real issue was whether to help Hebi with something that was clearly related to the contest. The pack certainly contained inarizushi that Hebi ordered online with rush shipping.
"Sure, I can get it," Akari answered. Hebi had been downright nice to her, at least compared to Inu and Usagi, and Akari was pretty confident that her inarizushi from a high-end sushi restaurant was going to be better than whatever Hebi bought online. "Is it there now?"
Hebi's face remained neutral but her tail was wiggling with happiness. "Yep. Just arrived. Can you meet me at the workshop door? I've got a mini-fridge in there."
"You got i—" Akari cut off as the boring hold music coming from her phone finally stopped. She lifted a finger at Hebi to say, 'one moment', then spoke into the phone, "Hello? Yes I'm still here."
Hebi nodded and slipped away, satisfied that Akari would go fetch the package after she finished her phone call.
Akari did indeed retrieve the package for Hebi as soon as possible. The box was actually a styrofoam cooler to keep the food inside from spoiling in the summer heat. It wasn't very heavy, but the shape and size would have made it hard for Inu to carry in her dog form, and impossible for Hebi.
It was early enough for the mountainside to still be cool and calm, with only the sound of birdsong competing with the crunch of her shoes on dirt and leaves. By the time she got back to the shrine, Akari was feeling calm and alert. Sometimes a nature walk is exactly what you need, she thought as she knocked on the back door that lead directly into the workshop.
The door opened just slightly, then something lashed out, wrapped around Akari's arm, and pulled her and her prize inside.
"Good. Seems that you weren't seen. Normally, no one would think anything of it, but that package stands out and could get people asking questions…" Hebi took the box from Akari and set it on a workbench near a mini-fridge. She opened the fridge, took out a few cans of soda to make room, and carefully placed her inarizushi inside. Akari didn't get a good look at them, but they seemed to be professional-grade, made by a sushi chef somewhere and express delivered.
Akari opened her mouth, planning to ask about the soda just to fill the silence, but she was interrupted by a very unexpected hug. Hebi held her tight in both arms, with her tail wrapped around Akari's waist. It was surprisingly comforting, as long as she didn't think too much about what big snakes did after coiling around their prey.
"Thank you, Akari. My plan really hinged on you getting that package for me, and you could have easily said no."
Akari's cheeks grew warm. "It's nothing, really. It's the least I could do after all your help. And not just with the festival. You were the only one who was consistently nice to me."
Hebi stepped out of the hug, her tail unwrapping in a smooth motion. "I'll give you another bit of help, some advice: someone who's strangely nice to you could just want something from you. Don't confuse manipulation for kindness."
Akari blinked. Did she just admit she's only using me? Or is this her way of saying that for once she isn't using me?
Then Hebi gently slapped Akari on the back with her tail and left the room, saying, "I've got some touch-ups to do on Inara's figurine copies. See you at dinner, and may the best inarizushi win."
Akari shrugged and left the workshop as well. Whether Hebi's behavior was manipulation or not, she'd take it over open hostility any day.