On the walk back to the shrine from the festival, Inara shared the results of the audience vote. She'd been running the booth during the idol contest, so she was the only one who knew the final results.
"There were 98 votes in total," she said, working from memory because the ballot box had been packed away. "And it was a really close race."
Usagi giggled. "You love drawing this out, don't you Mistress?"
Inara nodded sagely. "Of course. It's one of the many pleasures of my life with you five. I wouldn't dare waste it."
"Agh, you're helping her draw it out even more," grumbled the spirit formerly known as Neko. She had gained the name Seshi now, even if the others didn't know it yet. They had heard the supernatural hum when the name was granted, but they had interpreted it as microphone feedback. Seshi was happy to let the misconception stand for as long as possible, since there was sure to be fallout.
"Fine, I'll put you out of your misery, Neko," Inara said. "You got 21 votes."
Seshi's eyes sparkled in delight. That meant as many as 21 new followers, 21 more steps toward her goal. Of course, it wasn't clear how many followers she would actually need to become a superior spirit, but more was always better.
"Inu got a solid 18 votes, including basically all the active, youthful types." Inara ruffled Inu's hair, an action that would have earned anyone else a tongue lashing or a fist to the jaw. "I bet if we perform at a sporting event with more of that type of attendee, you'll win in a landslide."
"What about me?" Usagi asked, literally bouncing as she walked.
"You got 20. The kids really seemed to love you." Inara winked and added, "And the young men."
Usagi's bouncing stride continued as she smiled in satisfaction.
"I'm sure I got less than them," Hebi said. Her tone wasn't pleased, but she didn't sound disappointed either. She spoke as if stating a fact of life that she had power over and no emotional attachment to.
"That's true, but you still received a respectable 15 votes. I told you some people like the mysterious girl in glasses vibe."
Giggling, Seshi added, "If only she'd also carried a pen and clipboard to get the 'stern secretary' fans."
Akari smiled but shook her head. "Nah, that would clash too much with the miko outfits. But I do feel like we could have leaned into her 'wise senpai' side more."
"I'm fine with my current aesthetic," Hebi said, pushing her fake glasses up her nose. "I'd rather not be the center of attention."
"Speaking of the center of attention…" Inara looked at Akari, and smiled proudly. The other girls faced her too, their faces expectant and slightly jealous.
"Akari got 22 votes, crowning her the most popular idol of the evening!"
"Damn," Seshi hissed, acting far more upset than she actually was. "Beaten by a single vote."
Inara nodded. "It's true. The way you were lost in your kagura dancing even after the music stopped was very endearing, especially among the Shinto devoted in the audience. They could tell how much you care."
"Congrats," Inu said with a slap on Akari's back that nearly knocked the wind out of her.
Usagi gave an energetic nod. "Yep, that was a well-earned victory."
"Hold on." Hebi stopped walking and the others came to a stop with her. They were on a small street at the edge of town now, with no one else around. "That totals to only 96 votes, Boss. You said that there were 98."
Inara's fox ears reappeared, along with a vulpine grin. "That's right. There were two write-in votes for me. I'd love to take that as a compliment, but it likely meant that my aura wasn't as locked-down as it should have been. I need to do better next time."
Seshi started walking again, saying, "Then it's a good thing your domain includes self-improvement now, huh?"
Inara nodded. "Exactly, Neko."
Akari glanced at Seshi, hoping she'd use that opportunity to mention her new name, but the cat spirit just looked away, feigning innocence.
"Neko, Akari?" Inara loomed tall in the store-room doorway.
Akari was up on a ladder, putting the empty ballot box up on a high shelf along with some other event supplies. The rented equipment had all been picked up on site by the rental company. She pushed the box to the back, then said, "Yes, Inara?"
Neko stood below, holding the ladder. "What's up?"
"Please come with me," Inara said, five tails swaying behind her. Five was her 'caring' mood, but the look on her face was stony and serious.
It reminded Akari of her mother, specifically when she had been upset with Akari's behavior. If this was about what Akari thought it was about, that association was very fitting.
"Oh, sure," Neko said with a forced smile.
The short walk to Inara's room was torture. Akari knew exactly what was coming, even if she didn't know how Inara had found out about Seshi's name and Akari's part in it.
Inara was calm and collected, until she closed the bedroom door behind her. Then the air in the room grew heavy and every hair on Akari's body stood on end. It was like being inside a bottled storm.
"I'm very upset," Inara said, slowly. "But I want to hear the full story before I say anything I might regret."
Akari started, "I'm sorry, Inara, it was my—"
"It was my fault," Neko interrupted. "I was given a name by a passing child, and I tricked Akari into confirming it." She looked down at the floor. "I'm Seshi now."
Inara's stony expression didn't change. "Is that true, Akari?"
"Yes, it's true. I should have been more careful, especially since I knew Neko was hoping to gain followers at that event."
Neko shot a spiteful glare at Akari for outing her, but Inara just nodded and said, "I anticipated the part about followers. That was apparent from the moment she pitched the idea to me. We all gained followers today. Seshi's just have more immediate impact."
Seshi couldn't help but smile at Inara using her new name. It was final now, set in stone like one of Kasumi's statues. Seshi even pondered trying to commission a statue of herself.
"Seshi." Inara's voice was absent all joy and levity, and her gaze burned fiercely.
"Y-yes, Miss Inara?"
"You defied me, and betrayed Akari. You've lost no small amount of trust today." With each power-infused word, the decorations on the walls rattled and the lights flickered slightly.
Neko opened her mouth, planning to apologize. But Inara wasn't done yet.
"But more than angry, I am disappointed." Behind the goddess, five tails flickered and faded, split and fused. As many as nine tails writhed through the air, but they always returned to five before becoming solid.
"I'm sorry!" Neko blurted, bowing deeply.
Inara wasn't convinced. "You aren't sorry, Seshi. You would do it again." She paced around the room, her eyes lingering on the priceless artifacts that covered the walls; things she had purchased from the original artisans centuries ago. More than just art, they were filled with memories, stories that were important to her. Seeing them helped calm the fury that was burning in her heart in that moment.
Akari stepped forward. Standing up to a goddess, to her goddess, was terrifying, but she had something that needed to be said. "But can you blame her?"
Inara and Neko spun to face the human, eyes wide.
Akari summoned all the courage she could and continued. "She's pursuing her dream. As much as it hurt to be tricked by her… I'm still happy to have helped her make progress. She's come a long way since she came to our shrine, since she joined our family, and she can grow even more if we just let her. If we just believe in her."
Inara faced Akari. "That's what I was doing by allowing her into town. I let out her leash as far as I could, but apparently that wasn't enough for her."
Neko's eyes darted from one face to the other, frantic. She looked like she wanted to say something, but didn't know where to start.
Akari stood strong. "Yes, she pushed the boundaries, fought against the limits that you set. But that's how people grow, how they reach greater heights and become greater people." Akari gestured at the paintings and other art that filled the room, pieces representing the true wonder of humanity's artistic potential. "These works of art, do you think they'd exist if their artists had respected their limits? No, those artists never stopped pushing against the barriers in their lives. And then they went on to make even greater treasures than these."
Neko was lost, but Inara watched Akari intently with golden eyes.
"In fact, all these works are from early in their artists' careers. You never went back and bought their greatest works, did you? No, you wanted pieces that signified the remaining potential of humanity, not the apex or the realized goal."
"How do you know that?" Inara asked, her voice quiet yet firm.
"I don't know how I know it." Akari clutched a hand to her chest. "Maybe it's through our bond. But I know that you valued personal growth even then. The seeds for your new domain were planted long ago."
Inara was silent, so Akari added one last thing. "I think Seshi would trick me again, if it was necessary for her goal of becoming a superior spirit. And I think you would allow it to happen. The goddess of self-improvement would not stand in its way."
The room was silent for a long moment, one that seemed to stretch toward infinity like a star being pulled into a black hole. Then Inara spoke quietly, and more importantly, calmly. "I need time to process this. We'll talk tomorrow."
"Thanks, Akari. You saved my ass back there." Seshi leaned against the frame of her open bedroom door, looking relaxed and relieved.
Akari didn't meet Seshi's eyes. The reality of what had happened that day was finally settling in. The reality that she had been used.
"It still hurts, you know, being tricked like that," Akari started. "That boy didn't count as a follower, so his naming had no power and you knew it. It only had power when I said it. I thought I was your friend, but I guess I'm just a follower to be led around by the nose. To be used."
Seshi grabbed both of Akari's hands and held them tightly. "You are my friend, hell, probably my only friend. But I hurt you because I'm a shitty friend. This probably just sounds like an excuse, but I'm new at this. I've never had to weigh my desires against someone else's feelings before."
Seshi let Akari's fingers slip through hers, then she dropped to her knees. She bent forward until her forehead touched the hallway floor, a bow so exaggerated Akari had only seen it on TV.
"I'm sorry, Akari."
Seeing someone prostrating like that was too embarrassing for Akari. "It's okay…"
Neko sat back up, but stayed on her knees. "No, it isn't. You said that I'd betray you again if I had to, and maybe that's true. But I don't want it to be. I don't want to be cold-hearted and self-centered. I don't want to be a piece of shit like that, even if that's what it takes to become a superior spirit."
"Now I definitely don't believe you," Akari said, half-joking. "You'd give up your only dream that easily?"
Seshi's green eyes shined with a rare level of seriousness. "No, I'd find another way, a way to get there without hurting my friends."
Akari was torn. She wanted to believe her. She wanted to believe that Seshi had seen the error of her ways, that she had learned, that she wanted to improve. But Akari couldn't trust her completely, not so soon after being tricked like that, while the sting of betrayal was so fresh in her memory.
Well, when you can't trust something 100%, but you still want to take the chance… Akari thought. Then she held out her hands. "It's a gamble, but I'll believe you. I accept your apology."
Letting out a sigh of relief, Seshi took the offered hands and rose to her feet. Then she pulled Akari close and wrapped her in a tight hug. "Thank you, Akari, for everything. Especially for believing in me."
The moment was suddenly ruined when Seshi pushed Akari to arms' length. Her cheeks were pink and her eyes downcast as she quickly said, "Sorry, but you smell really good and I felt your boobs squish against mine and I haven't had a lay in a long time and I need to stop before I say something raunchy."
"O-oh. Okay," Akari stammered. This was a side of Seshi she'd never seen before. Lewd? Yes. Flirty? Always. But restrained? Never.
Then Akari smiled. She took it as proof that Seshi was changing, and that she truly cared about Akari. "Want me to tell the others about your new name?"
Seshi shook her head. "It should be me. And it should be a good distraction from my stupid horniness." Then she stepped around Akari and headed for the kitchen, mumbling, "Inu probably heard everything already…"
Meanwhile, less than a city block from where Mori Musume had performed at the festival, down near the Masugata River that ran through the center of Shinjō, two women spoke in a cluttered room with concrete walls.
"I'm telling you, they weren't human!" said the smaller woman, who had pale sky-blue hair in a short A-line cut. She wore surprisingly little clothing, just a blue tank-top and matching boy-short panties. Her bare feet paced frantically across scraps of mismatched carpet.
"Uh-huh," said the other woman, a thin and leggy brunette with a short pigtail hairstyle and an elegant pink sleeveless dress. She was reclining sideways in a tattered brown loveseat with her feet kicked up, showing off strappy magenta high heels. They were just one of over a dozen pairs of expensive shoes stored in the small room. "Then what were they? Ghosts?" She was clearly joking, but she couldn't hide the shiver that ran up her spine at the thought.
"I don't know yet. But I'm pretty sure their ears and tails were real." She grabbed a smartphone from a pile of pilfered electronics and flopped into a pristine gaming chair, by far the nicest piece of furniture in the room. "I wish I had set up one of my cell-cams before their show, to see if those ears show up on recordings."
"And then I'd get to see their performance!" the other woman said. "I'm bummed I couldn't make it."
"You didn't miss much. And you were doing something more important anyway." With that, she nodded toward a black duffle bag in the corner, zipped tight and filled with something blocky.
The tall girl frowned at the bag. "I don't like taking things people actually need."
"They'll be fine, Shika. Insurance exists for exactly this sort of thing."
"If you say so…"
Hebi looked up from her laptop as Seshi entered the kitchen. "Good timing, Neko, I was about to call a house meeting."
"Uh, the name's Seshi now."
Inu leapt to her feet. "Aha! I knew it!"
Hebi grabbed Inu by the back of the shirt and pulled her back down onto her cushion. "This isn't the time for that. This is serious." She turned to face the cat spirit, then seamlessly switched to the new name. "Seshi, can you go get Akari? Usagi's already fetching Inara."
"Yeah. Not sure Inara's going to join though. She's in an odd mood because of my name thing."
Hebi's piercing gaze didn't waver. "She'll join for this. A bunch of stalls at the festival were robbed, and since we're so new, we are the primary suspects."