The Jinsha-mori Shrine's reputation was growing. A few more people showed up to the latest weekly service, and more and more people were making the short trek to the shrine on a daily basis as part of their hairei, or personal worship.
But that meant more cleanup work for Akari. People tracked in dirt and filled the garbage bins, which had to be emptied by someone. She was okay with the work of course, but it took up a noticeable chunk of her day, on top of shrine promotion, commissioning art with Inara, and various other duties.
Akari was sweeping the first of autumn's leaves from the stone steps, lost in thought about how beautiful Inara had looked that morning and how much the other humans were missing out by being unable to see her, when someone called out behind her.
"Hey, want a hand?"
Akari turned and was surprised to see Neko in full miko regalia. She wouldn't be visible to any human visitors without Inara's visibility spell or her own abilities that were on lockdown, so it was odd that she'd bothered to dress up.
Maybe she just likes how she looks in the outfit? Akari thought. It does suit her, and her cat ears and tails make it feel very 'anime' Then she said, "Uh, sure. Thanks, Neko."
"So, whatcha need?" Neko asked, her tone of voice just as casual as ever.
Akari gestured at the wide stone steps, which had collected a fair number of orange-red leaves in the corners. "Well, these leaves need to be gathered up, and I was planning to sweep the path from town after that."
Neko nodded and grabbed a broom from the little utility cart where Akari stored her cleaning tools. "Can't help ya with the path, since I'm a prisoner of the grounds and all, but I got you up here. Go on and get that path before it gets dark."
"Thanks!" Akari started to leave, then froze. Wait. This isn't like Neko at all. Why would she be so helpful all the sudden?
Akari turned back and said, "Let me guess. You're trying to win my approval as a human follower to help you earn a name?"
Neko smiled and said, "Ding, ding, ding, we got a winner!" Then she sprang to Akari's side and wrapped one arm around her shoulders in an overly familiar way.
With her other arm, Neko gestured out at the trees that ringed the shrine clearing, indicating the world beyond. "Girl, everyone's got motivations, but it doesn't make them bad people. And irregardless of mine, I really do wanna be your friend and I don't mean you a lick of harm."
Something about that first part rang true with Akari. She thought about her relationships with others, and the motivations involved. She became friends with Hanako specifically to fix her memories, a problem that Akari felt partially responsible for. And Akari spent time working out with Inu primarily to get fit and stay healthy, but she had to admit she enjoyed looking at Inu's physique. When it came to Inara, Akari wanted her love and approval, perhaps romance, and while she was being brutally honest with herself, maybe even sex. And in all those cases, Akari tried to pull her own weight and be useful to the other person in return.
Akari almost gasped aloud as she realized that the relationships where she didn't want or provide something, the ones that weren't transactional, the ones with Usagi and Hebi… those were the ones she had the most difficulty with. She had no idea what those two were thinking or what they wanted, and she didn't really want anything from them either.
Neko read her expression and grinned. "You see it, don'tcha?" Then she started to sing, "Everybody's looking for something… Some of them want to use you. Some of them want to get used by you."
Akari thought Neko's singing voice was actually really pretty, even though she didn't recognize the song. She also thought Neko was a bit off-target because those lyrics didn't quite match Akari's revelation.
Neko stopped singing and returned to her normal tone. "And while I'm dishing the free advice: be careful around people that act like they don't want anything from you."
Akari shot a glare at her. "And around people who lie about what they want?"
Neko stepped back, both hands raised, palms out. "Be honest with yourself. Do you really think I'm lying about what I'm after? I want a name, it ain't secret."
Akari shook her head. "No. I believe you. But that doesn't mean I should just go along with whatever you say. I need to decide whether it's worth it for me."
"Ooh, I like your spunk. And girl, I totally agree." Neko danced away, broom in hand, then called back, "I think you and I are going to be great friends."
The conversation with Neko stuck in Akari's head the rest of the afternoon. Was it okay to want things from other people, to expect some amount of give and take? Or did that cheapen the relationship? And what on Earth did Usagi and Hebi want from Akari, if anything?
She was so lost in thought that she almost bumped into Inu in the hallway. "Oh, sorry, Inu."
"No problem. I take it Usagi's making dinner?"
"Huh?" Akari said.
"You just came from the kitchen, right?"
"Oh! Sorry, I wasn't really paying attention. Lost in thought."
"Nevermind. I can smell it from here. Ramen tonight."
Suddenly, Akari blurted, "Want to work out before dinner? Or just talk?"
Inu tilted her head questioningly for a moment, then shrugged and said, "Sure. Wanna spot me on the weights? I need to work my arms today."
Akari knew basically nothing about weightlifting. Well, she knew that spotting meant watching someone else lift weights, probably so you could catch the bar if they dropped it. "Um, alright. You'll just need to tell me what to do."
Then after an awkward pause, Akari added, "We have weights here?"
"I do," Inu answered. "In my room. You didn't know? You can use them whenever you want. Just ask."
"Oh, thanks, Inu," Akari said as she followed the sporty spirit back to her bedroom.
Akari had never been inside Inu's room before. It was quite plain, except for two posters of soccer players and a huge bookcase filled to the brim with sports manga. A weight bench sat in the center of the room where it would be obnoxiously inconvenient to anyone trying to use the room for anything else. But Akari guessed that the room didn't get much other use; Inu preferred to be outside over staying indoors.
Inu wasted no time explaining how to spot, then got right to work. She confidently piled weights on the bar, laid down flat on the bench, and started lifting. The movement was smooth, almost effortless, despite the fact she was bench-pressing more than Akari weighed. Akari just stood by, nervous and attentive, trying to be a good spotter.
Then Inu spoke, "Thanks again, for finding my old name. I don't know how I expected it to feel, but this is… nice. I feel like I have a past again, and it's connecting me to something bigger, but it's not holding me back either."
"Oh?" Akari said, surprised. She didn't want to say more and risk messing up Inu's remarkably open state.
"Yeah. And it's got me thinking about whether I want a real name, a superior-spirit name. And would it be Michi, or something else?"
"I still think Michi is an adorable name."
"But adorable isn't really my style, is it?" Inu said, then she gave a final push and put the bar back in the cradle.
Akari shrugged. "Anyone can be adorable sometimes."
Inu slid out from under the bar, sat up, and took a deep drink from her water bottle. Then she said, "And what about right now? Am I adorable?"
Akari looked her over. Inu was sweaty and flushed, and her platinum blonde hair was somehow both frizzy and limp at the same time, with her furry ears blending into it. Her skin was practically glowing in the afternoon sunlight that streamed through the open west-facing windows. She looked tired, content, and completely comfortable in her skin. And very, very Inu.
Without thinking, Akari said, "No, right now you're sexy."
Inu blinked twice and her ears perked up. Then she looked away, suddenly shy. "Uh, thanks."
Akari looked down at her feet, embarrassed. "Sorry. That was weird."
Inu quickly recovered. "It's fine. Want to go next?"
"Huh?" Akari had no idea what she meant. Well, she could take some guesses based on the 'sexy' topic, but they were probably wrong.
"Want to lift? I'll spot you. Since you've never done this before, we'll start with just the bar until you get the form down."
"Oh, of course. Sure," Akari said, feeling foolish.
She laid down on the bench and looked up. The shape of Inu's chest loomed above her, and Akari was thankful that Inu's shirt was tight around the stomach so she wasn't staring straight up at the underside of a bra. But, the shirt was tight enough that the blue color of Inu's sports bra showed through the light-grey material.
Thankfully, Inu was a good fitness instructor and helped Akari into a comfortable flow that had no room for getting distracted by Inu's body. The workout felt good, and cleared her mind too, making it easier to work through her inner thoughts.
After a lot of consideration, Akari decided to embrace the reality that people want things from each other. Most relationships are give-and-take, she thought, and that's okay. I'll try to find out what other people want, and try to fulfill it. It should strengthen my relationships, and make them into something I can understand.
In between sets of twelve reps, she thought, Usagi did apologize for being mean, so maybe she wants something from me now. I'll have to talk to her after dinner. But I'll hold off on Hebi. She's always plotting something, so she probably won't be open about her motivations.
She stared at the ceiling as she resumed. Or maybe not? She's treated me very fairly, after all, and she does want stuff from me, but it all happens to fall within my job duties, like the art commission stuff. Speaking of, I need to check if Kasumi replied to my email.
Inu held out her hands to tell Akari to stop. "That's good for now. Don't push yourself too hard on your first time."
"Thanks, Inu. I really needed that. Same time tomorrow?"
Inu shook her head. "No, your arms'll be too sore for weights tomorrow. Better to change it up. How about cardio outdoors in the morning? I can always use a jogging partner."
Akari smiled. "You've got it."
The esteemed woodcarver Izuka Tetsuhiro only accepted calls between 7pm and 9pm on weekdays, so Akari had made sure to finish eating dinner quickly. She jumped to her feet, thanked Usagi for the delicious ramen, and dashed off to her room. There, she'd have the peace and quiet necessary to work through whatever strange demands Tetsuhiro made of her.
She'd already prepared a detailed plan for the ranma commission. It would be just over eight feet wide, due to the wide main-hall doors, and it would depict local mountains, trees, and wildlife, with Inara at the center as a majestic forest goddess who just happens to be a nine-tailed fox. It would also be double-sided, so that visitors passing under it to enter the shrine would be greeted by a smiling and welcoming Inara, and those exiting would see a more reserved goddess, wishing them safe travels home.
Akari took a deep breath, double-checked that all her notes were within arm's reach, then sat down on her bed and called Tetsuhiro. As the phone rang, she wondered what sort of man he would be. The article online made him out to be a terror, but he clearly had remarkable passion and skill, and no one was all bad.
*CRUNCH* *CHOMP* "Yesh? Hello?"
"Hello, am I speaking to Izuka Tetsuhiro?"
"Thash me. Whasha want? I'm eating dinner," he said, his void deep and gravely, and his mouth full of food.
"My name is Akari Mamori. I'd like to commission you, on behalf of the Mori-jinsha Shrine in Shinjō."
The phone was silent for a second, presumably while Tetsuhiro swallowed, then he clearly said, "I'm listening, and you have good timing, girl. Was running low on work."
Akari bristled at the 'girl' comment, which had no place in a professional conversation, but she doubted that would be the worst she'd face in this process, so she pressed on without letting her irritation show. "The shrine would like to commission you to carve a large ranma for our main entrance, depicting local nature and the likeness of our deity, a woman with fox ears and tails."
"Nice, a big one. Gonna cost you a pretty penny."
Akari maintained her professional approach, since Tetsuhiro didn't seem put off by it despite his very different style. "The shrine has a budget dedicated to art, and I believe we can afford your rates. If I send you the specifics, can you give an estimate of the total cost?"
"I don't do written communication. Just tell me what you want, and I'll tell you what it'll run ya."
"Of course. One moment." Akari opened her notebook, then read off all the specifics she'd wisely documented in advance, "We'd like a warm-colored wood, 2510 by 635 by 60 millimeters, double-sided with a different pose and expression for the goddess, but the same silhouette. The other details, local trees and wildlife on a mountain background, can remain the same on both sides. The goddess should be front and center, in a loose kimono that exudes femininity. She has pointed fox ears and nine bushy fox tails."
She paused for breath and he cut in, "Damn, girl. You got your shit together. Good stuff. People come to me with nothing but dreams bouncing around their empty skulls, then write articles about how I'm the unprofessional one. Sorry, keep going. My gears are turning already."
"Thank you, sir," Akari said, feeling an immense sense of relief. This is going well! Then she continued, "On the exterior-facing side, we'd like the goddess to appear friendly and welcoming, with a kind expression on her face. On the interior, she should be more reserved and slightly sorrowful as her guests leave and she wishes them safe travels and hopes for a future visit."
"Oof, that's gonna be a tough one. I ain't the best at conjuring up facial expressions, nor likenesses, since those ain't part of most ranmas. But I can work from a reference. Can you send me some photos of the person you want this 'goddess' to look like, making those faces?"
"Of course, I'll get right on that after this call. Do you need any additional information before you can give an estimate?"
"Eh, I guess I could use some specifics about the trees and wildlife. You said you're in Shinjō? I've never been there."
"Of course, sir," Akari said, then she read off a list of local wildlife and tree species, from fox and shika deer to maple and elm. "Include those in whatever combination you feel conjures a feeling of harmony in nature and prosperity. Some other feelings to convey in the piece include curiosity, a balance of power, growth, love, wilderness, passion, innocence, and divinity."
"Nice, nice. This shrine of yours has quite the specific vibe, and I like it. I'm hoping you can handle this price tag though. What's two million yen do for you? Most of that's from the size of this thing. Finding timber that large that's been properly dried and won't crack is going to be tricky, and pricy."
Akari winced. That was the price of a new economy car, albeit a barebones model. But it was also well under half of the budget. "That's acceptable. I look forward to working with you. How would you like to proceed from here?"
"Get those photos and email them to me, then call me back tomorrow the same time. Dinner's the only time I'm not carving."
"Will do. Thank you so much."
"Nah, thank you for your business and professionalism. Talk to you later," he said, then he hung up the phone.
Wow, that wasn't so bad at all. Either I got lucky with my timing, or he's not nearly as bad as the internet made him out to be. Now if only Kasumi would reply back. Her website says she only takes commissions by email and that she's open, but it's been two days now…