Akari stood in the middle of her bedroom with her arms raised triumphantly over her head. A smartphone was clutched in her right hand, and its screen displayed an email that she'd been eagerly awaiting for three days.
The email was frustratingly sparse, but it was better than nothing. It confirmed that the sculptor who called herself Kasumi was indeed open for commissions. It also mentioned that she was rather picky in which jobs she took on, so she wanted to speak over the phone before agreeing to anything.
The message ended with, "I'll call you at 8am to talk specifics. Kasumi."
Akari's triumphant pose turned into a stretch, and then into a yawn. She'd just woken up and was still a bit out of it. She wasn't even sure what time it was. She checked her phone to find out.
"Oh no." It was 7:56.
She scrambled to find her notebook, which had fallen halfway under her bed, then squeezed it in both hands and tried to calm herself. She needed to be alert and coherent when Kasumi called. Inara had been truly enamored with Kasumi's art and Akari didn't want to endanger the commission by messing up an important detail or rudely yawning at the wrong time.
Akari started toward the kitchen to get some coffee, then thought better of it. I don't know how long this call will take, and I can't afford to take a bathroom break in the middle of it.
Finally, she took a deep breath and sat down on her bed. I've got this. I just need to wait for her to call.
She'd just finished the thought and the clock on her phone screen had barely ticked over to 8:00 when Akari's phone flared to life, vibrating and playing her Shinto-bells ringtone a bit too loudly for how close she was to it.
Akari almost dropped the phone in surprise, then recovered and answered, "Akari Mamori here with the Mori-jinsha Shrine. How may I help you?"
"This is about the sculpture request. I have some concerns," the voice on the phone said in a dreary, almost weepy tone.
"Kasumi! Thank you for your call. Tell me your concerns and I'm sure we can work through them," Akari responded, trying to stay cheerful and professional. And once she thought about it, she realized she sounded a lot like her mom.
"Well, the first is this timeline. Two months would be tough for two sculptures."
"Oh, that was just a rough starting point," Akari countered. "We don't actually have a hard deadline, so you can definitely take longer if you need."
"Hmm, I guess I'm not coming across clearly. I can definitely do it in that time, if I have a little extra… motivation." Her dreary tone of voice lightened slightly at the end, like the sun peeking through overcast clouds.
Akari blinked in silence for a moment. Huh? I guess she wants more money for an earlier delivery? And she seems to prefer that over a later deadline. So Akari said, "Alright. I can arrange for a bonus for early delivery, if that's acceptable to you."
"Hmm, good. Now my next problem: recognition. I'm an up and coming artist and my work speaks for itself. I'm sure you agree?"
Akari found herself nodding her head, even though no one could see her. "Of course! Your sculptures are absolutely lovely."
Kasumi's voice went dark. "But that's not good enough. It's one thing for my work to speak for itself. It's another for it to speak my name."
Akari opened her mouth to reply and realized she had no idea what to say. This woman wasn't making sense. "I, uh. Sorry, but I don't understand."
"I need credit, writ large across plaques beneath both statues. Some particularly old-fashioned shrines take issue with this little request, and I do hope you aren't like them…"
"Ohhh, I understand," Akari said. Then, "And I believe that will be no trouble. I'd be happy to display your name so that others know who sculpted our majestic statues."
"Good," Kasumi said flatly, like she'd expected nothing less than complete compliance. "Now for my final concern." She paused long enough for Akari to fear the call had been dropped, then continued, "I prefer handshakes over passing glances, formal contracts over back-alley exchanges, and committed relationships over one-night stands."
"Uh." Akari was completely and utterly lost. She had never been the best at following leaps of logic or unraveling cryptic messages, and Kasumi had just dropped one hell of a cryptic message. Do I ask for her to explain herself? Is this a test? If I admit that I'm confused, will I blow it for the shrine, for Inara?
Thankfully, Kasumi elaborated without additional prompting. "New business deals are stressful. Conversations like this one, making new contacts, building a rapport, they're all very taxing. I'd much rather have… a sponsor. A patron of the arts who is committed to financing my future endeavors."
"Ah, okay." Akari was still confused. The metaphors had been translated into something more literal, but she still had no idea what to do with it.
"So how about it?" Kasumi asked.
Reluctantly, Akari was forced to ask, "How about what?"
Kasumi let out a long and weary sigh, like it physically pained her to have to explain herself. Then she said, "I want future business from you, the promise of additional commissions. It's only fair that if you like my work, I should be your first thought when you desire more."
Akari understood that at least. She said, "I see. Well, my boss is the final judge of any commissioned artwork, but knowing her, I'm sure that once she sees your work in person, she'll want more." Akari took a moment to collect herself and to channel Hebi, then said, "If we're satisfied with your results, of which I have little doubt, then I can promise that when the shrine is in the market for future sculpture work, you will be our first and only consideration."
"Good," Kasumi said, finally sounding somewhat happy. "Now let's get down to the details of the sculpture. Your email was very detailed about the style, but I need more information about the intended pose. These foxes are to be looking at each other, yes?"
"Yes, just a slight glance is enough. The intent is to make them feel connected. The more mundane fox desires to become the magical one, and the magical one is looking back at her past self with encouragement and pride."
Kasumi hummed in thought. "Hmm, yes. I can see it now. But they are both looking mostly forward? And they'll be flanking the stone steps of a shrine? Can you send me a picture of where they'll be placed?"
Akari hopped to her feet. "That's correct, and I absolutely can get that for you. Would you like it right now? I can pause the call and take a photo without hanging up. I think."
"Sure, if it's that convenient. You're already at the shrine?"
Their call had started to feel like a conversation instead of a power struggle, and Akari much preferred it this way. She answered, "Yes, I actually live here. I'm a live-in caretaker, among other things."
"Ah, okay. Well, go ahead and get that photo. I'll stay on the line."
"Will do. Be right back."
As Akari poked around with her phone's interface, trying to get to the camera without hanging up, she thought, What an interesting woman. She seemed really harsh and needy at first, but I guess she's just looking out for herself. After all, if she doesn't make sure she gets enough money and recognition, no one else will.
Taking the photo of the front steps required hanging up after all, but Kasumi wasn't bothered. Akari sent the photo and called back, and the rest of the call was just confirming all the terms and setting up future check ins. Kasumi seemed really organized, and she planned things far in advance. She even offered to send out periodic status updates, complete with photos of her progress. Akari leapt at the opportunity, knowing that Inara would enjoy seeing the artwork come together.
I think I lucked out with her, Akari thought. Or maybe my expectations were just too low, for both Kasumi and Tetsuhiro…
I think I messed up, Akari thought.
She had promised Tetsuhiro a photo of Inara's likeness, and she needed to get it to him today. But that was before she learned that Inara couldn't be photographed. The goddess could easily make herself visible to normal humans, but it turned out that her ability acted upon human perceptions, and didn't affect cameras.
"Yeah, it's a real bother," Inara said as she munched on some strange lollipop. The writing on the package was in a language Akari didn't recognize, and there were unpleasantly jagged shapes inside the translucent red candy.
"It's one of the reasons I pulled back from humanity. Just a couple photographs of a floating kimono and the whole city starts freaking out. That's also when I started conjuring my own clothes. It took a long time to get the look and feel right, but now the worst case scenario is a photo with some empty space in it."
Inara paused to wave the stick of red-dyed sugar at Akari. "Want one? They're from this weird snack subscription service I found online. The crickets are pretty tasty, and add a nice crunch."
Akari shook her head vigorously, thinking, Apparently 'wild' Inara is also rather adventurous. Or very in touch with her animal side. This is the same Inara that stripped down, turned into a fox, and ran off through the forest.
Inara tilted her head and asked, "So why'd you want a photo of me anyway? To stare at on your nightstand? Usagi already asked for that and had to settle for a drawing."
Akari had glimpsed a ray of hope. "A drawing? Who drew it?"
"Hebi, of course," Inara mumbled over the sucker in her mouth. "She's a pretty decent artist. No pro, but only because she doesn't want to be. If it was her passion, I'm sure she'd eventually reach the same level as Kasumi and Tetsuhiro."
Akari seized the chance. Inara had even set up the perfect transition for her. "Tetsuhiro wants images of you to reference for his carving. Would you be willing to pose while Hebi makes a couple sketches?"
Inara smiled, and it was gorgeous despite the bump of candy in her left cheek and the paper stick poking out between her lips. "Sure. But Hebi's busier than me, so you should arrange the time with her." Then one of Inara's six tails vanished and she added, "And it would be a good opportunity for you and her to grow closer. I've seen how you two interact and it's far too stuffy and one-sided. She's more than just your supervisor, you know?"
Akari nodded. "Of course. I'll make sure to do that."
A melodic laugh echoed from Inara's lips. "And the same goes for you and I, Kari-chan. I'd love for you to be more casual around me. I'm your roommate, your friend, your…" She trailed off and raised one eyebrow, inviting Akari to finish the sentence.
Behind Inara, five tails had been swaying like rice stalks in a breeze, but another one faded away, leaving just four. She'd just shifted into 'fertile' mode, adding some suggestive context to her previous statement.
Akari's cheeks turned as red as Inara's candy, and she jumped to her feet. "I'll try to do that too," she blurted. Then she left the room in a hurry, her thoughts a tangled jumble of competing desires and doubt. She wanted Inara, and wanted to be wanted by Inara. But that was as far as she'd gotten. When confronted with the possibility of a physical relationship with a goddess, Akari could only flee.
By the time Hebi wrapped up whatever it was she'd been working on and emerged from her workshop, Akari had calmed down. She waved Hebi over to the table, and said, "Thanks for making time for me."
"No problem. What do you need, Akari?"
"Three things, actually. One of them is time sensitive, so I'd like to start with that one, if that's alright."
Hebi flopped onto a cushion, crossed her legs, and curled her tail around herself. She looked both comfortable and professional. Then she said, "Sure thing, and no need to be so formal."
Right, Inara even told me to be more casual with her, Akari thought. Then she said, "Ah, right. Well, I wanted a favor from you to help with the woodcarving commission. The artist wants a photo of Inara-sama to reference, but I just found out that won't work. Can you sketch her in a couple different poses for him?"
"Yeah, no problem. I actually already have a few sketches of her, but they're nudes and probably don't have the expressions you'd want." As Akari blushed at the mental image, Hebi continued, "But the Boss should be okay with posing for some new ones. I can get on that after lunch, if that's soon enough for you."
"That'd be wonderful!" Akari cheered. "I just need them before my 7pm call with Tetsuhiro."
"Oh, she went with Izuka Tetsuhiro, huh? I thought she might like his style." Then Hebi raised the tip of her tail and waved it dismissively. "But I'm getting off track. What were the other things you wanted to talk about?"
"Well, Inara said something that I think you'd want to know. She said she would like the shrine to represent personal growth, and she wanted that theme to come through in the stone foxes we're commissioning."
Hebi's narrow eyes widened in surprise, giving Akari her first good look at them. They were a pale grey, just like her scales. "Now that is something. A goddess expanding her domain is a rare and momentous occasion. And personal growth, huh? I guess that's been a thing around the shrine lately, and it's definitely something humans are interested in. Self-help books always seem to sell, even when they're complete bunk without any substance."
Hebi seemed genuinely annoyed by that topic, but she quickly calmed and said, "But I digress. I can work with this. If the Boss wants to add personal growth to her domain, we'll add it to our public-facing messaging, mention it at shrine events, and make it a core part of the shrine's identity. For now, keep working as normal, and I'll get you a new weekend service plan later on once things are more settled."
Akari blinked. "You're really going to go that far, off of a single thing Inara said? She could have just been musing."
Hebi shook her head. "I know her, and she would never say something like that about the shrine's purpose unless she was sure. And this is wonderful news. I had been worrying that she'd stay within her old domains, which would invite conflict with Inari shrines. But if she's expanding her influence, or even just shifting her focus, then I'm happy."
After that, the conversation sputtered out. Akari was silent, so Hebi asked, "Wasn't there a third thing?"
Akari fidgeted with her skirt beneath the table. "Uh, yeah. But I'm having trouble deciding how to start." She took a deep breath, then said, "I want to be a better friend to you, Hebi, but I don't know what you want from me."
It was Hebi's turn to blink in surprise. Then she said, "I'm happy with what we already have. I'm not a social person, so the amount of friendly interaction we already get is enough for me. Is there something you're expecting from me that I'm not providing?"
Shaking her head, Akari answered, "No, nothing like that. It's just…"
Hebi waited patiently for Akari to continue.
Akari leaned back and stared at the ceiling. "I guess I'm just no good at relationships. I don't know what I should and shouldn't do, and I always feel like I'm letting people down. I want to get closer to you, but I don't know how."
"First," Hebi said, the tip of her tail counting off 'one', "I'm terrible at relationships. I shouldn't be giving you advice at all, but since it's about me, I guess I'll try my best." She added the index finger of her right hand next to her tail. "Second, relationships don't all have to be active things. Sometimes the right fit is a passive relationship where you're just available when the other person needs you and vice versa. If you trust that they'll be there when it counts, you don't always need constant interaction."
Then Hebi smiled and raised another finger. "And third, it makes me very happy that you care about our friendship this much. I'll try to improve our relationship from my side. If we both try, even clumsily, I'm sure we'll meet somewhere in the middle."
Akari felt a rush of warm emotion and wanted to reach out and hug Hebi, but she was pretty sure Hebi wasn't a hugger. She settled for saying, "Sounds like a plan. Thanks so much for always being there for me. You're a good friend."
Hebi chuckled at that. "Don't get carried away. I'm not even sure I'm a good person. And, thank you too."