Less than eight hours after the festival ended, Akari was back outside, helping the moving company pack out all the rented equipment. Inara's spell allowing humans to see the major spirits was still in effect, so they assisted as well. Inu and Usagi were at least partially motivated by the opportunity to dress up like miko and interact with humans again. Usagi liked the attention, and Inu was having fun pretending to be human.
"Be careful with that fryer," Inu scolded. "It's still full of oil and we aren't liable if you dump it on yourself."
"Yes, ma'am," a muscular young man said as he waddled past, weighed down by the heavy fryer. Inu could have helped as far as the edge of the clearing, but she really didn't want to risk any oil splashing on her miko outfit or fur. Instead, she carried a heavy box of metal fasteners so effortlessly that the worker she passed it to underestimated its weight and nearly dropped it.
On the other side of the clearing, Usagi stood on top of a partially disassembled booth to reach a lantern. Below her, two workers were watching closely. They claimed it was to catch her if she fell, but she knew they were hoping for a look up her skirt. Thanks to her skirt's length and her agility, she finished her task without giving them so much as a peek. Similarly, her outfit's kosode top couldn't hide how busty she was, but it didn't bare any cleavage.
"Sorry boys," she said with a smile as they went back to work looking disappointed. "I'm not that kind of girl, in more ways than one."
Hebi and Akari were taking their responsibilities more seriously. They made sure everything was accounted for and sent in the right direction, and handled the paperwork. Hebi was happy to wrangle all the forms and fill them in, but Akari had to sign them herself, since she actually existed in the human legal system.
The movers were quick and efficient and the entire operation was done before 11am. As the last human worker left the property, Akari took one look at her dirty hands and said, "Bath?"
The answer was instantaneous and unanimous. All four women hurried to the bathing room, with Hebi inviting Inara on the way.
"Excellent work, girls. I couldn't have asked for a better inaugural Rei-sai," Inara declared once they had all settled into the relaxing heat of the bathing pool.
"Thank you, Inara," Akari said. "I'm so glad it lived up to your expectations." She was reclining in the far corner of the pool, but she hadn't picked that spot for any particular reason.
Suddenly, Inara scowled. "Nope, nope, this will not do."
The other women glanced at each other from across the steamy water. "Huh? What won't do?" Akari asked.
"Sitting so far apart! You've just succeeded at a difficult task together, you've leaned on each other for support, you've bonded. I won't have you all spread out in the bath like you're afraid of each other."
Usagi was the first to react. "Oh, sorry, Mistress. I'll move closer."
Inara stood up and beckoned toward Inu, Hebi, and Akari. "You too, all of you. Get over here."
Nervous and holding an arm across her bare chest, Akari rose and walked closer. When she got a few feet away, Inara reached out and grabbed her shoulder with one hand, then she pulled Usagi in with the other.
"Inu, Hebi, get in here. Group hug time! No exceptions."
Before she really knew what was happening, Akari was stuffed into a five-way naked group hug, her chest pressed mostly against Inara's and Inu's, but she was touching at least a little of Usagi too.
Hebi just rolled her eyes, unfazed but unamused, while Inu grumbled under her breath. Usagi seemed okay with it, since she was in direct contact with Inara. And Akari was bright red and sputtering.
"What's wrong, Akari?" Inara asked without easing up on the hug. She still had a hand firmly on Akari's back.
"Um, I, uh, um."
"Spit it out," Inu said, annoyed.
Floundering, Akari blurted, "I don't feel comfortable touching the other girls while we're naked!"
The pressure on Akari's back vanished in an instant and the hug quickly dissolved. Then Inara sat back down in the water and said, "That's fine, we got what I wanted out of it anyway: a bit of physical camaraderie."
As Usagi and Hebi slipped out of the hug, Inu said, "Akari, you're gonna need to get over that, in order to compete in our annual mandatory household bath-wrestling competition."
Akari said, "What? Hey Hebi, is that even a real th—"
Inu interrupted, "Let's go." Then she grabbed Akari around the middle, lifted her from her feet, and dropped her in the pool butt-first. The water was deep enough to cushion her fall, but not deep enough to reach her face. A second later, Inu had both of Akari's arms hooked behind her back in some sort of wrestling hold.
Akari had never been particularly athletic and she'd definitely never learned to wrestle, so the entire thing was very one sided. She struggled for a moment then sputtered, "Uh, I yield? You win?"
While Usagi had watched with a concerned expression, Hebi and Inara just smiled and watched until Inu let Akari go and helped her back to her feet. Then Inara spoke up, "Good work, Akari. It looks like Inu has fully accepted you as a member of the family. And no, there's no such wrestling competition."
Inu flopped back into the pool, not so far away from the others this time, and said, "There would be if anyone would compete with me!"
Akari sat down next to Inara, keeping some distance from the strangely hyperactive Inu. Akari's heart was still pounding and the whole thing had been very surprising, but she supposed it had been sort of fun. And she had to admit that it hadn't seemed sexual at all. Just immature and unexpected. I guess Inu has a childish side?
To Inara's left, Usagi whispered, "Is it almost that season?"
Inara nodded. "Yeah. I'll keep an eye on her."
Dinner that night was a strange medley of leftovers from the festival, but Usagi somehow managed to make it better than the sum of its parts. She had a serious talent for cooking, to the extent that it made Akari jealous. Not that she wanted to cook that well; she wanted to do anything that well.
The mealtime conversation wandered from topic to topic, just small talk, then it fizzled out. During the empty moment, Akari decided to just go right out and ask the question that had been on her mind since the previous day.
"Inara, may I ask about your tails? Specifically how they correspond to your moods."
The room was silent. The other girls watched Inara very closely, waiting to hear her answer.
Inara gave a cryptic smile. "You figured it out? Or did someone tell you?"
Usagi glanced away as Akari answered, "A bit of both. I don't know much though. Just that your eight-tail mode is innocent and six-tail is wild and mischievous. And um, there's a three-tail too." She broke eye contact, blushing at the thought of Inara all tied up.
Inara said, "Oh, you've seen some others, but perhaps you didn't notice."
Hebi nodded in agreement and added, "Five seems to be the one most fond of you, Akari."
Inara took a sip of water, then said, "It's true. When I'm in that mindset, I just want to hold Akari and keep her warm and safe."
Still blushing but for a different reason now, Akari asked, "So why do you have different personalities? Is it part of being a god?"
"No, it isn't something other gods have, as far as I know. But it is related. After living so long, my whims started to get a bit out of hand. As a way of keeping them under control, I split them into different tails. It makes my emotions easier to manage, like how it's easier to carry a dozen eggs in a carton than by hand."
This was very different than anything Akari had encountered before. Even media portrayals of multiple-personalities weren't like what Inara described. Rubbing her temple, Akari said, "Huh, okay. So what does each tail represent?"
Inara shook her head, looking apologetic. "Part of managing my emotions is knowing when to hold back or let things go. I can't really engage in this conversation any further. Feel free to talk amongst each other, though." With that, she stood up and left the room in a hurry. Her tails were all blurred together and impossible to count.
Akari felt panic creeping up. She looked to the others for help. "Um, did I upset her?"
Usagi shook her head. "No, it's like she said: she just needs to avoid some topics to keep from getting worked up. She's good at knowing her limits by now, so don't worry about her."
Inu looked very curious. She asked, "So what are all her tails? I guess I knew there was a pattern, but I never cared beyond a couple specific numbers."
Hebi smiled and sat up tall, like a teacher about to give a lecture. "I can answer that. In order from lowest number of tails to highest: Curious, Dominant, Submissive, Fertile, Motherly, Wild, Passionate, and Innocent. I believe they are all qualities that she desires for herself: her personal ideals."
As Hebi spoke, Akari was frantically ticking off the words on her fingers. She stopped at the fifth finger, then said, "Wait, so the one that likes me is 'Motherly'?" If Inara just sees me as a daughter, then I'll never get the kind of love I want. Wait, what kind of love do I even want?
Usagi rubbed her chin and said, "I think 'Caring' is a better name than 'Motherly'. That's the mode that likes to tend the vegetable garden, cares for hurt animals, and wants us all to be happy."
Hebi nodded vigorously. "Ah, good point. That is certainly more accurate."
"That's only eight," Inu blurted. "What's her nine-tail form?"
Hebi looked to Usagi, who went quiet. "Usagi, are you up for telling them?"
"Yeah," Usagi said. "I only ever saw it once, and only from a distance, so I don't know everything."
Akari found herself curious too. She said, "That's okay. Please tell us what you know."
Usagi took a deep breath, then started, "It was within my first couple decades here. A man was visiting from afar, someone Inara knew from before my time. But he looked young, so maybe he was a god in disguise. I don't know for sure. I invited him into the main hall. While Inara greeted him, I ran off to get tea. I was returning, still too far down the hallway to hear everything, when it happened."
"He said something about her past and she wilted, like a puppet whose strings were cut, profoundly disappointed. Then she rose up, bigger than before, all nine tails glowing with light and power. She was radiant, as bright as the sun. And terrifying. She loomed over him and said something. I couldn't hear her words, but I felt their meaning. He wasn't welcome here anymore."
Usagi paused to calm her breathing and build her resolve, then she continued, "He refused to leave. He wanted her to agree to something before he would go. She became something else then, a monster in every way except appearance. Her body was unchanged, but the being inside it was not the Inara I knew. It was something cosmic, beyond this reality. She whispered something and the man went pale. She glared at him and he cowered. She roared and he ceased to be."
"He died?" Akari asked, her voice barely a whisper.
"He disappeared. Vanished without a trace. She said later that she'd only sent him away, banished him to the spirit realm. I believe that if he was a god, he could return. But if he wasn't, then it was a fate as final as death." Usagi took a slow breath, then added one last thing, "I never want to see Inara like that again."
"Oh." Akari didn't know what else to say. Inu was similarly silent.
Hebi finally broke the silence. "I also don't want to see the Boss in that state, and I believe that Inara doesn't want that to happen either. Over the years, I've formed a theory that she fractured herself into nine pieces, nine competing ideals, in order to track each of their needs. And if those needs aren't being met in a balanced fashion, her nine-tailed form takes over as a last-ditch effort. And from there, she's just one wrong move from the other Inara, the monster, the terrible Goddess of Disaster."
Inu let out a small whine, her unusual energy from earlier in the day sapped away. "So what should we do?" she asked.
Hebi shrugged and forced a smile. "Same thing we always do: try to make her happy. Spend time with her, fulfill her needs, be her friend, her lover, her family. Be happy, be true, accept her love and give love back. That's all we can do, and all she wants us to do."
Akari clenched her fist and gave a nod. "I'll do it." She looked to the others, meeting their eyes until they said the same. No matter what it took, no matter their interpersonal conflicts, they were all unified on this. They were all on the same team, because they all loved Inara.