"And you handled the meeting with Tetsuhiro?" Inara asked. She was seated at the kitchen table, looking unusually frazzled for a goddess. Her hair was a mess, and there were dark patches under her eyes.
Hebi nodded. "Yes, Boss. I texted and emailed him from Akari's phone, claiming she lost her voice due to a cold and needed to postpone the meeting."
"But did he reply? I heard he loathes digital communication."
"He did. We're rescheduled for Thursday, if she's recovered by then."
"She'll be up and about the day after tomorrow," Inara said with conviction. "I've seen it in a vision." Then she slumped forward and cradled her head in her hands. "I understand now, what she must have gone through in her visions last night. I'm honestly surprised she'll be recovered from it so soon. She's such a strong girl."
"I'm so damn sorry," Neko said suddenly, in an unfamiliar apologetic tone. She looked just as bad as Inara; Neko had been awake since she brought an unconscious Akari in from the cold, yowling for help until the whole house was awake. "I put her up to it."
"It's not your fault, Neko." Inara patted her on the shoulder. "You couldn't have known. But I should have."
Hebi set her clipboard down with a CLACK. "What we could or should have done doesn't matter right now. We need to move forward." Then she tried to stand up, but the process was slow and laborious.
"Pfft, you look so pregnant, Hebi. It's hilarious."
It was true. The snake-spirit's stomach was visibly round, and not just like a normal pregnancy. It was more like a late term pregnancy… with twins. It was all the food Usagi had made for her. She'd actually eaten it all.
"I'm glad you find it amusing," Hebi replied calmly. "It also means all that food will be put to use. I won't need to eat for several days."
"Need to eat?" Neko scoffed. "Do any of us actually need to eat? I just like the taste."
Hebi's narrow eyes stared daggers down at Neko. "Usagi, Inu, and I do, at least a little. Our spiritual power isn't enough to sustain us alone."
"Oh. Sorry." Neko squirmed on her cushion. "I didn't realize. So how'd you all get by before Akari joined up?"
Inara answered, "Foraging and gardening mostly. We ordered food online sometimes, and they all just spent more time in animal form. Lower energy use."
Neko looked quite concerned. "Are Usagi and Inu going to need to do that now? We're awful low on food at the moment."
It was Hebi who answered. "We have enough non-perishables for one day, and I can order food online." Then she shuffled toward the door, her bulging stomach leading the way. "But thank you for your concern."
After Hebi left, Neko turned toward Inara and started, "So, I know this ain't the greatest time, but Akari and I had an idea and I'd like to run it by ya, maybe get your approval."
"And when did you two have this idea?"
Neko looked down at her hands, which were clenched in her lap. "Right before she passed out."
"Hmm, okay. Go on…"
After her conversation with Neko, which included some very loose and noncommittal planning for how the shrine might participate in Aki Matsuri, Inara had a date with Usagi. At first the word 'date' seemed an inaccurate description for their much needed conversation, but she did plan to spend the afternoon with Usagi alone, doing whatever Usagi wished. Put that way, it seemed exactly like a date after all.
"She doesn't need constant monitoring," Inara said from Akari's doorway. "She's just asleep, not on life support."
Usagi looked up from her seat by the bed. "I know, but I feel guilty. I've been so hung up on myself that I didn't even realize what happened to her. She'll wake up, right?"
"By tomorrow afternoon, if my own visions are to be believed."
Usagi relaxed and put a hand on Akari's arm. It was warm through the blanket. "Good."
"You have quite the motherly side, Usagi. I admire that."
Usagi's face went pink. "I'd be a terrible mother. I haven't interacted with a child in years, and the last one I encountered tried to trap me in a cage made of twigs."
"Want to fix that?" Inara asked.
"Want to go see the city, together? Maybe you'll see a kid that doesn't try to capture you."
Usagi blinked in confusion. "What brought this on?"
"I'm just throwing out ideas. I want to spend the day with you. What would you like to do?"
"Is going to the city really an option? In human form?"
"It is. I need to practice controlling my aura and my new foresight, particularly around people." Inara didn't reveal why she needed to practice being around humans. She wanted to understand her limits before she was willing to commit to Neko's festival plans.
Usagi was quiet for a long moment, a look of deep thought on her face. Then she said, "Then I'd like to go shopping. With you."
"That sounds delightful. Shall we get ready now?"
Usagi leapt to her feet and sprinted right past Inara. She stopped in the hall and added, "I'll get dressed. Do I need a hat for my ears?"
"That would make it easier on me. Supporting your human form outside the grounds and making it visible are rather easy, but hiding your ears requires conscious effort. I can do it while you're in stores, though."
"In stores…" Usagi's eyes glimmered with excitement. "Oh, Inara, thank you!" she shouted back as she scurried away.
Inara needed to get ready herself, but she spent a moment at Akari's bedside, smiling down at her sleeping face. She looked peaceful, despite the circumstances that put her there. "We'll all get through this," Inara whispered. She kissed Akari on the forehead. "Together."
Usagi bounced on her toes, unable to contain her energy. "You're sure about this?"
Inara smiled. "I am."
"What about their cameras? Like the security cameras in the stores?"
"You'll appear as a normal human. I won't appear at all. I'll leave handling merchandise and money to you, if that's alright."
"Absolutely." Usagi hooked her arm through Inara's and started down the forest path. The rabbit spirit was wearing a long black skirt and a peach-colored sweater that was tight under the bust, showing off her sizable chest without exposing any skin to the chilly fall air. A soft tan beanie hid her ears, and her puffball of a tail was held flat under her sweater and skirt band.
Inara had conjured up an outfit of tight grey leggings and a puffy blue and white jacket that was surprisingly short, leaving a band of visible skin just above her pants' high waistline. She didn't wear a hat and didn't need one: hiding her own ears and tails from mortal eyes had become trivial after so many years.
"So where'd you see that outfit, Mistre— I mean, Miss Inara?" Saying 'Mistress' in public was a surefire way to attract more attention than they wanted and she needed to break the habit, at least for today.
"An article about winter fashion. It said that so-called 'snow bunnies', or young women who hang out at ski resorts, like to dress like this around the lodge. And I can see why; it's very comfortable and striking." Inara smiled mischievously. "I thought the 'bunny' part was fitting for a date with you."
Usagi looked down, watching her step on the trail's many stairs. "It looks very good on you."
"You look gorgeous today, as usual," Inara replied, and the reaction was instant. Usagi's cheeks flushed red and she nearly tripped over her own feet. "That sweater is going to win some fans today."
"It's not that special. I'm not that special."
"And I'm not making that up. I saw it happen in a vision, while testing my new powers. Watch for the human couple walking their pet dog."
"Oh. Uh, okay…"
Sure enough, before they'd even reached the shopping district, the two women were attracting attention. Men in suits waiting for the bus all turned their heads in unison, and a group of four high school girls gawked and whispered.
"Think they're celebrities?"
"Out here? Unlikely. Probably wealthy tourists though."
"They're early for the ski season."
"But they got the look down. I want a sweater like that."
"You don't have the tits to pull it off."
The whole time, Inara watched Usagi's expression and she was happy to see the satisfaction there. Deep down, Usagi craved attention, making her life of isolation at the shrine less than ideal.
Then a dog's barking broke the mood. Up ahead on the sidewalk, a man and a woman in their mid-twenties were walking a small brown dog who had become very alarmed about something. It whined and pulled and barked until the woman scooped it up in her arms.
"Sorry about that," she called out as she stepped off the path to let Inara and Usagi through. The man with her followed, but froze partway, staring at Usagi's chest.
Usagi's eyes snapped back to the woman, expecting a look of jealousy there, but it was something different.
She wore a pleased look, like a wine connoisseur tasting a fine vintage. She nodded at her partner and he smiled back. It seemed they shared a particular interest, and Usagi had what they wanted. With visible effort, the woman tore her eyes from Usagi's breasts and met her eyes. Then winked.
The moment would have been a huge victory for Usagi's ego, except that small dog was yapping nervously the whole time. Animals had a way of sensing the supernatural, especially the presence of animal spirits. Thankfully Inara had some tricks of her own. As she passed by, she let out a gentle Shhhh sound and the dog immediately quieted.
"It's okay," she whispered. "We won't harm your family. You're a good protector, aren't you, Chousuke?"
Before the couple could puzzle out how she had figured out their dog's name without getting a good look at his collar, Usagi and Inara had moved on.
"See? You've got fans, and an open offer, if I'm not mistaken about that wink."
"I could never take them up on it…"
"But?" Inara prodded.
"But it's nice to know people like my appearance."
Inara giggled. "'Like' seems a little weak a description for that. They're still watching you."
Instead of looking back, Usagi lowered her head to hide her reddening cheeks and picked up the pace.
"Only one guest in the changing rooms at a time, please."
"Huh?" Usagi blinked at the cashier over her armful of clothes. Though she and Inara had entered the shop together, Inara wasn't anywhere near the changing rooms. She was walking the aisles and making sure to not touch anything, since she was invisible to the security cameras.
The woman at the register continued, "Sorry, I've been telling that to everyone. We've had a lot of shoplifting lately so corporate Loss Prevention keeps adding policies."
"Oh, okay. No problem," Usagi said. "Is there an item limit?"
"Not yet," she answered, clearly less than happy with the company's decisions thus far. "Go ahead."
Usagi tried on a half-dozen outfits worth of clothes, but three of the tops were too tight around the chest and one skirt didn't fit her wide hips. All together, she was still able to assemble two outfits that she was really happy with.
"Miss Inara?" Usagi emerged from the room, holding the two top candidates up for Inara to see. "Which do you prefer?"
"Let's get them both," Inara answered immediately.
"Yep. I owe you at least that much."
The cashier watched their exchange with curiosity, no doubt wondering what the two women's relationship was.
Things got a lot clearer when Inara dipped down and briefly kissed Usagi on the lips. The other woman blushed and looked away, then mumbled her way through the rest of the transaction. Public displays of affection were quite rare in Japan, and homosexual ones were completely unheard of.
After that, they hit two more clothes shops, a low-end jewelry store that catered to teens and twenty-somethings, and a specialty spice shop to get some seasonings for future meals. Inara kept her physical affection more subdued and avoided causing any more scenes until…
"Ooh, I'd love to do a proper bra fitting, if that's alright." Usagi was already heading into a lingerie store.
Inara had stopped just outside the door. "Sure. But I'll wait out here."
"Why?" Usagi frowned. She was carrying the money and could certainly manage on her own, but she'd been excited to see what kind of lingerie Inara liked.
"You can't see them since they're hidden, but I'm bouncing between two and four tails right now. Keeping my aura in check is taking my all, and lingerie shopping with you would definitely be too much."
A grin flooded across Usagi's face. Two-tailed Inara was 'dominant' and four was 'fertile'. The combination sounded amazing. "Ooh, alright. I'll be quick. Then do you want to head home and put my purchases to use?"
Inara closed her eyes and took a long, slow breath. "Sure. And I'll actually be waiting over there, in that empty park." She pointed down the street, at a bench next to two vending machines. "The other lingerie shoppers' lewd feelings are too strong from here."
While Inara sought shelter from her own moods and the thoughts of all the humans around, Usagi had the first proper bra fitting of her life.
"Looks like you're a G70," the clerk announced after she finished measuring Usagi's sizable chest. "Not a common size, so you may have the best luck ordering things online. If you shop internationally, look for 32F or 32DDD. Sorry for all the confusing numbers and letters. I'll write it down for you."
"Do you have anything that size in stock?" Usagi asked. She had just learned that she'd been wearing a full cup size lower than ideal for years, and she was excited to finally experience the comfort of a proper fit.
"Hmm, I believe so." The woman, who had gorgeous long black hair that reminded Usagi of a cascading stream, led the way to the very end of an aisle. "Looks like we have nude and standard black, both pretty utilitarian. Good for daily wear. Nothing in the intimate space though." Then she shook her head. "Actually that's incorrect. We have some really risque bras that are adjustable to that size, since they have barely any material."
"I'll take one of each," Usagi said with conviction. "Nude, black, and whichever of the skimpy ones is most popular. Oh, and some matching panties for the skimpy one."
"You… don't want to try them on first?"
Usagi smiled. "I'm in a bit of a hurry. My mistress is waiting outside."
"Oh?" The woman blinked. "Oh. Okay. Meet me at the register. I'll have those right out."
"Hey, Inu?" Neko asked. She'd just returned from checking in on Akari, who was still sleeping deeply.
"Yeah?" Inu was drenched in sweat and panting heavily. She'd been working out furiously all day, only taking breaks for protein-shakes and carbs.
"Any idea where Usagi and Inara went?"
"On a date."
"Nah, I saw them get back, arms full of shopping bags. I meant, 'Where're they now?'"
"The next part of their date. They're in Inara's room. I don't expect to see them again today."
"Oh." Neko grinned ear to ear. "Nice."