I should just say something. Akari paced around the small bedroom again. I'm sure Inara will be happy to explain.
Akari stopped and looked out the window. Beyond the shrine's clearing the trees were turning with the season, painting the mountainside a gorgeous mix of golds and reds. It was beautiful, but Akari couldn't appreciate it in her current state.
Unless she doesn't want me asking about it, like how she didn't want me talking to Neko…
She frowned and sat down on her bed. She couldn't get it out of her head, the way Inara had silenced her the other day, back when Neko had arrived. Neko had asked if Akari had a better name to give her and before Akari could even start to answer, Inara's hand was clamped over her mouth.
I just don't understand. Why would Inara do that?
No matter how many times Akari told herself it wasn't a big deal, that she should just move on, some part of her had refused to let go. She needed to know why. Akari had always been curious, always driven to learn and understand, and she didn't want to live in a house where that wasn't allowed.
She needed to ask Inara, consequences be damned. Akari jumped to her feet and started for the door. With any luck, Inara was still in the kitchen helping Usagi clean up after breakfast.
She's not a tyrant, Akari told herself, or she wouldn't bother helping out with chores, and she wouldn't show so much concern for me and my problems.
She continued down the hall, dreading every creak from the floorboards, every step that took her closer to confrontation. Maybe it was nothing, but maybe Akari was about to ask the wrong question and pull the pin from a grenade she couldn't even see. She knew she didn't understand the thoughts of gods and spirits, but she did know they could be dangerous.
"Akari, is that you?" The voice came from the kitchen, and it was Inara's. She must have heard the creaking floor, or sensed Akari's emotional turmoil. Akari couldn't keep anything from her, it seemed.
Here goes everything… "Yep, got a moment?" Akari called back, her feet carrying her forward and her nerves winding ever tighter. She rounded the corner and saw Inara sitting at the table, dressed in a red kimono and staring right at her. Usagi was nowhere to be seen.
Inara smiled and answered, "For you, dear Akari, I have as long as it takes." She patted the cushion to her right. "Please sit down."
Akari did so, but she couldn't help but bristle at how quickly control had been taken away from her. She'd come here with a mission, planning to demand an answer to the question that had been bothering her, but Inara had already flipped it around. Now Akari was powerless, just a little girl asking for help, another mortal seeking guidance from a god.
"You look frustrated. Anything I can do to help?"
Inara's voice was kind. Disarming. Akari wasn't sure she liked that. On some level, she wanted to be angry, because it was better than being sad. "I wanted to ask you something. It's been bothering me more than it probably should and I'm sick of wondering in the dark."
Inara's gorgeous golden eyes widened. "Oh, this definitely warrants a conversation then. Ask away."
Akari took a deep breath, then just went for it. "Why did you cover my mouth the other day, when we were all gathered around Neko? She asked me a question and you didn't let me answer. I didn't even know what I was going to say yet, so why did you stop me?" Despite all Akari's efforts to stay calm, emotion had seeped into her voice at the end, cracking a little. Her hands were clammy too, the way they'd always get during finals, or when she argued with her dad.
"First, I must apologize," Inara started. "I did not realize how that action would affect you, and I see now that I should have explained myself. I did have a good reason, but that doesn't make my behavior correct."
Akari nodded, not wanting to test her voice while she was so emotional. The apology had cut through her armor of anger, exposing the real problem beneath: the pain of not being trusted.
"As for your question, I covered your mouth because major spirits like Neko, Inu, Usagi, and Hebi, they don't have names, not like you and I do. 'Inu' and 'Neko' are just labels, based on their animal aspects."
Akari was completely lost. What does that have to do with anything? And how can someone just not have a name?
Inara continued, "But powerful spirits can earn a name for themselves, and become even stronger in the process. One of the requirements to earn a name is to be given it by a human follower. I was pretty sure that you didn't meet the 'follower' criteria for Neko, since you barely knew her, but I didn't want to take any chances with an unknown threat like she was at the time."
Akari took a slow breath, trying to process that. "So you stopped me from accidentally giving her a name, because it could have made her stronger?"
Inara nodded. "She's already more powerful than even Hebi, so I believe she may have reached the necessary strength to begin the transition."
"Is that how you became a goddess? You were a powerful major spirit and someone gave you a name?"
Inara smiled and gently patted Akari on the head. "That was one small part of my journey, yes. A name is what separates major spirits from superior ones. But there's quite a gap between a superior spirit and a god."
She switched gears and continued, "In any case, it's best to be careful with names around Neko. If she asks for a name again, please turn her down."
Akari nodded vigorously. "I'll do that."
Inara started to stand. "Now, if I've relieved your immediate concerns, I can tell you more of my story another time. For now, I need to have a chat with our new housemate. Someone left black hair all over our clean clothes this morning; I think Neko likes napping in cat form on the fresh laundry."
Akari truly did feel better. Inara had a good reason for what she had done, and she hadn't meant any harm by it. And she really was a kind person. Now Akari just felt guilty for being so upset in the first place. She bowed her head and said, "That's fine. Thank you for hearing me out, and I'm sorry for assuming the worst."
A serious expression settled on Inara's face. "I don't fault you for that. My biggest regret in my long life was the opposite: not seeing the signs, not suspecting until it was too late. A piece of advice: open your heart, but never close your eyes."
With that, Inara turned away and left the room. She had exactly five tails, meaning she was in her 'caring' mode, but they drooped nearly to the floor.
Akari was supposed to be training the other girls for an upcoming Shinto ritual, but Neko had flaked out. Neko was still reluctant to help around the house, or even spend time with the others. And in the case of this ritual training, it really took the wind out of Akari's sails. Why bother teaching the complex routine to three of them if she'd just have to do it all again for Neko?
But since they're gathered anyway…
Akari started, "So I heard that major spirits can earn a name of their own, and it makes them stronger." She sat down on the shrine's front steps. "Are you girls working toward that?
Inu and Usagi both looked to Hebi expectantly. As the oldest and strongest of them, it made sense that she'd be pursuing a name.
Hebi joined Akari on the steps, using her long tail to brush her skirt forward before sitting down. Even in a miko outfit, she still managed to look businesslike. "I do want a name," she answered, "and I used to be very determined to get one, but I'm no longer in any hurry."
"Huh? Why not?" Akari asked.
Hebi shrugged. "I'm not into progress for progress's sake, and growing stronger would add more complications to my life. I like things, including my place in them, as they are now."
Unprompted, Usagi answered next. "It'd be nice to have a name someday, but I don't like the human follower requirement." A smug smile crossed her face, one that Akari had seen before. "I don't care about the opinions of humans."
Akari felt personally attacked, and slightly offended. But it did explain some of Usagi's past rudeness. If she's biased against humans, does that make her racist? Mortalist? In any case, Akari wasn't going to take that lying down. Since joining the shrine, she'd learned the hard way that Usagi could be quite a brat, but only until someone stood up to her.
"Inara cares about human opinions, and that's what matters," Akari quipped, aiming for Usagi's known weakness: she looked up to Inara even more than Akari did. Then Akari quickly redirected the conversation to deny Usagi the satisfaction of a retort. "What about you, Inu? Do you want a name?"
Without a word, Inu turned and started walking away.
"Wait! What's wrong, Inu?" Akari called out.
"She's just grumpy," Usagi explained. "And she doesn't like this topic." Then she ran after Inu and put an arm around her, pulling her close. They talked quietly for several seconds, then they both returned. For all her pettiness, Usagi was good at connecting with others. It reminded Akari of the socialite girls from high school who seemed mean at first but could sweet-talk and fit in with anyone.
Inu sat down on the ground, unconcerned about getting her hakama skirt dirty. Then she grumbled, "Usagi thinks I should talk about this, to work through my issues. I think she's been spending too much time around motherly-mode Inara."
"And?" Usagi prodded.
"And the reason I'm upset is because I already had a name. It was given to me by my master when I was a normal dog. I don't want another one."
Akari was intrigued. The whole concept of a pet dog ascending to a major spirit was really exciting, like something out of a folktale. "Ooh, what was your name?"
"I don't remember," Inu growled. Then she stood up and barked, "So much for feeling better, Usagi," and stomped off. Before anyone could react, she'd rounded the corner of the shrine and disappeared from sight.
Akari slumped against the stairs. "I feel terrible. I didn't mean to upset her."
"It's fine," Hebi said. "You couldn't have known. Since names are sacred to spirits, they get stripped away when a soul makes the transition to being a spirit. No spirit can remember their previous name, and someday Inu will have to come to terms with that."
Akari was already deep in thought. I wonder if I can find out what Inu's name used to be… She lived just 30 years ago, so there might be records from vet visits or pet registration. If I use my dad's civil servant connections, I should be able to get that info. I just need to figure out who Inu's owner was…
"Neko, are you in there?" Akari was pretty sure Neko was indeed in her bedroom, but getting her to come out was the hard part. Neko had been so unpredictable lately, happily socializing one day, then retreating to her room and refusing to talk the next.
After a few seconds of silence, Akari knocked again. "Inara sent me. I promise I won't take more than a few minutes of your time." Annoyed, she added, "You can't hide from all your responsibilities by sleeping."
"Whaddaya want?" Neko finally answered, but the door remained closed.
"I need to get your measurements. It'll be quick, I promise."
"Why do you need 'em?"
"I need to make you a miko outfit, remember? So you can help out as a shrine maiden. We talked about this already."
"And why should I help with that shit?"
Akari's jaw clenched. She hated when Neko got like this, answering every question with another question. She was just like a bratty teenager. Well, someone has to be the adult in this conversation… Akari answered, "Because you promised, as a condition for living here and not getting starved into a minor spirit."
Akari found it a little terrifying, actually, how if a major spirit didn't get enough energy they regressed into a minor spirit. Faceless and mindless, those wisps were closer to bugs than to people, and there was no returning from it. It was a one-way trip, a temporary and terrifying detour along the way to the afterlife. Akari felt bad using it as a threat, but she'd been left with little choice.
The door opened. "Come in, and make it quick."
Akari stepped inside, already pulling measuring tape from her pocket. Then she froze. She wasn't sure what she'd expected of Neko's bedroom, but it definitely wasn't this. The walls were covered in glow-in-the-dark stickers shaped like stars and planets, but the room was otherwise barren. There was a pile of blankets in one corner that functioned as Neko's bed and a small stereo sat on the floor in the middle of the room, with a stack of tiny plastic discs next to it. Akari thought the discs were called MiniDiscs, but she didn't know anything else about them because they were from before her time.
"You like music?" Akari asked, trying to start a conversation.
"Yes." Neko didn't bother to elaborate. Then she waved a hand in a 'hurry up' motion. "Get on with it already."
"Ah, sorry. Can you lift your arms, please?"
Neko did so. She was wearing a plain black t-shirt and shorts, and her hair was in a messy ponytail, like she'd just woken up. As Akari approached with the measuring tape held out, the shirt and shorts disappeared entirely, startling her.
"Tryin' to help," Neko said, standing there in lacy black lingerie that didn't match the clothes she'd just been wearing at all. Apparently, she had been allowed to keep her fake-clothes ability, at least within shrine grounds, but Inara had insisted that her miko uniform needed to be real.
Akari couldn't help but blush. "Uh, thanks," she mumbled as she tried to focus on getting the measurements. Neko really was beautiful, and that lingerie was pretty sexy, the kind of thing Akari would never wear. She was also pretty sure Neko was messing with her on purpose.
Neko grinned. "Oh ho, you're into girls?"
"Yeah, what of it?" Akari said, feeling defensive.
"Nothing wrong with that. Just makin' conversation. I'm into guys and girls."
Akari relaxed and returned to the task at hand. She noted Neko's waist measurement in her phone and moved to the next. "I guess I'm kind of the same. I dated a boy for a while, and I like Inara now."
Neko scoffed. "That's it? Two people? We ain't the same."
"Huh? What do you mean?"
"I'll just say I've been with a lot of people, and I never stay with the same one for long. Most of them couldn't handle a second night, but I move on even if they can. I always spot some hot new thing to sleep with."
"Oh. I'm the opposite. My heart belongs to one person at a time."
Neko nodded. "Ah, you're monotonous."
"You mean monogamous?"
Neko grinned at her own joke. "That too."
As Akari was measuring Neko's bust, the bra beneath the measuring tape disappeared, as did Neko's panties. Akari looked up at Neko's face instead.
"That's not actually helpful," Akari said. "I designed the outfit to be worn with a bra."
"Wasn't meant to be," Neko answered. "Just testing your monogamy. You ever wanna roll in the hay, just say the word. I know Inara doesn't want me tipping the scales with magic anymore, but for a snack as tasty as you, I'm willin' to play fair. And I'd make it worth your while…"
Akari still remembered Hanako's descriptions of her time with Neko. "Crazy and amazing," she had said. But Akari wasn't interested. She wanted romance more than sex, and her heart was only set on Inara. By focusing on that thought, Akari ignored the naked body before her and said, "No thank you. Can you bring the bra back so I can finish up?"
Neko didn't seem offended. She magicked up a new bra, leopard print with a matching thong, and said, "The offer stands."