"So what's left to do, Seshi?" Akari looked across the pile of freshly washed laundry they were folding, her purple eyes shining with expectation.
Green eyes blinked back. "For the laundry? I guess there's just our miko hakama after this, since we washed them separately."
"No," Akari giggled. "For your ascension to superior spirit! You've gotta be close now, right?"
"Ohh." Seshi shrugged. "Yeah, there's not much more, but I'm not sure exactly what."
Akari dropped the shirt she was folding, having found something more exciting to pursue. Seshi wasn't normally this unsure of herself. "Have you asked Inara? She might know."
Seshi nodded. "I did, and she said the same thing. She can sense I'm getting close, but she doesn't know the next step. Each spirit's journey is unique, or some bullshit like that."
Akari smiled at the return of the crass cat she knew and loved, or at least considered a friend. Then she offered, "I can take a peek forward for you with my foresight."
"No thanks," Seshi blurted. "I already owe you after the shit I pulled with my name. And the last time you used your power for me…" She trailed off, a deep frown on her face.
"Awww, Seshi feels guilty!" came a mocking voice from the doorway behind Seshi. It was Usagi, looking strangely cheerful in an oversized pink sweater, big enough to wear as a dress. Her golden hair was braided loosely down the front of her left shoulder and her rabbit ears were perked up and alert. "I never thought I'd see the day!"
"Whatcha want, Usagi?" Seshi replied. "And why're you so excited this early? Get some tail last night?"
"Just this morning, actually," Usagi answered with a wide smile. "And speaking of, Inara wants to talk to everyone."
Akari jogged toward the door and squeezed past Usagi, saying, "I bet it's about the robbery." Then Akari almost tripped over her own feet as she glanced back and caught a glimpse of Usagi's backside, literally. Bubbly round butt-cheeks stared back at Akari from beneath Usagi's fluffy bunny tail. It was holding the back of her sweater up and she wasn't wearing anything underneath.
Akari felt her own cheeks heating up. Nudity in the bath is something I've gotten used to… But in the hallway? As Akari resumed her journey down the hallway, she called back, "Put some pants on, Usagi. Or at least panties."
"We have more information about the robbery," Inara announced, reclining on a large cushion in the spacious front hall. The others sat around her in a loose semi-circle. "Last night, we were the primary suspects, but we've been cleared now."
"Why's that?" Inu asked. There were dark circles under her eyes. She'd been in dog form all night, searching the town for clues that could prove their innocence, but she hadn't found so much as a scent trail to go on.
"The timing of the thefts," Inara answered. "Apparently all the cash boxes were taken while you five were on stage and I was plainly visible in the booth."
Hebi raised the tip of her tail to get attention. "To play devil's advocate for a second, couldn't we have had someone else sneak around and steal the cash while we distracted everyone with our idol show?"
Inara smiled and nodded like Hebi's comment had been expected, or even rehearsed. They had probably discussed all these details together before the house meeting. "Of course. But there was another major detail that proved our innocence: what else was stolen."
"It wasn't just money?" Inu asked. Cash was nearly impossible to trace, even with a dog's sense of smell. If she'd known something else had been stolen, she could have been tracking that instead of wandering blindly all night.
Hebi gently rubbed her closed laptop, like a proud parent ruffling a child's hair. "I've been reading the shrine organization's message board where multiple vendors reported that some of their stock was taken. They didn't notice it until they counted their inventory later, but it's undeniable that someone was targeting Omamori charms. Over 200 were stolen in total from over a dozen vendors, including some who didn't lose any cash."
"Charms? They stole charms?" Seshi blurted. "The hell's the point of that?!"
Akari opened her mouth to defend the charms, but nothing came out. She loved Omamori, the little good luck amulets that shared her family name, but she fully understood that they weren't worth stealing. They were just simple cloth pouches with a written blessing inside, purchased more as a souvenir to support a shrine than for their subtle spiritual benefit. And nobody would trust a second-hand Omamori to actually provide that.
Akari finally found something to say, but it was just another question. "The thieves won't be able to resell them, so why go through the trouble to steal so many?"
Inara smiled and clapped her hands. "Exactly! There's a chance it was a red-herring to throw off pursuers, but there's another possibility as well…" One fluffy tail flicked excitedly behind her as she spoke; she was deep in her curious mood.
"Which is?" Inu asked sharply. Her sense of justice and her frustration at being accused had worn away her last remaining patience.
"The thief needed the blessed charms just as much, if not more, than the money they stole. The cash might have been the red-herring!"
"Ooookay? What good does that info do us?" Seshi asked.
A vulpine grin eclipsed Inara's features. "That depends on whether you consider extra responsibility to be a good thing."
Inu was past her limit. She tugged on her own ears and shouted, "Agh! Spit it out already, Miss Inara!"
"Sorry, I guess this is more stressful than fun for you. I'll make it simple and clear: I believe the thief is another spirit, one who needs the spiritual power inside those charms for some reason. And since this is beyond what the human police can handle, it falls to us to do something about it."
"Oh." Inu blinked, hovering between relief and frustration. She had no idea if the stress was finally over, or just beginning.
Then Inara turned to Seshi and smiled. "If you're looking for a way to boost your connection to your followers, you could take this on."
The cat spirit blinked lazily. "Me? And how would that help me exactly?"
"Many of the people who saw you on stage, the people who voted for you, your new followers… they're the same shrine-keepers who were victimized, or they're regular visitors to those shrines. Helping them, even in ways they never realize, will strengthen your bond and pave the way toward your ascendance."
That got Seshi's attention. "I'm on it!"
Inara clapped her hands again. "Great! Let me know if there's anything I can do to help. The residents of Shinjō are my people too."
Seshi scooted surreptitiously over to Inu's side. Then she asked in her sweetest voice, "After you get some sleep, wanna help me track down this no-good robber? I could use your talents, and we've got new leads that need followin'."
Inu narrowed her eyes and regarded Seshi for a long moment. Then she answered. "Only if Akari comes along to keep you in line."
Seshi held a hand to her chest, offended. "You wound me, Inu. But I'd appreciate Akari's help as well, including her power." She met Akari's eyes and added, "If you feel comfortable with using it, of course."
"Uh, sure," Akari answered. She was honestly more hung up on the fact that Seshi and Inu would be working together. I hope they don't bicker too much…
"What in the world are you wearing?!"
The shorter woman, with wide azure eyes and pale sky-blue hair, looked down at herself, then back up at her friend. "Uh, a winter coat, obviously." The silver coat was big and puffy, with sleeves so long they completely covered her hands.
"With that skirt? It looks like you're naked from the waist down! You'll draw way too much attention," retorted the taller woman. In contrast, she was wearing a long forest green skirt and layered long-sleeve shirts in shades of orange, along with a loose slate-grey knit cap. She looked very well put together, like she'd just walked out of a catalogue for fall fashion. Considering the entire outfit had been on a mannequin before she'd swiped it from the display, it very well may have been assembled straight from a corporate catalogue.
"You know I don't have any longer skirts, Shika. I like 'em short."
"Then wear some pants!" Shika shouted.
"Calm down. Your ears are starting to show."
Shika's hands snapped to the sides of her head, where tufts of white had started to peek through her short cinnamon-brown hair. "Nezumi! I thought the charms were supposed to handle this."
Nezumi flopped back down into her computer chair, since they weren't going anywhere with Shika in that state. "The charms can only support you. You have to do the rest, and that means keeping a clear head. I can always send Emily-chan instead. I've boosted her range and lifting power considerably, though battery life has taken a hit."
"A drone flying around with wads of cash is even more conspicuous than my ears or your skirt."
"I guess that's true." Nezumi leaned back and crossed her legs, revealing a whole lot of thigh and a glimpse of black panties beneath her blue miniskirt. She really didn't understand everyone's obsession with modesty. As long as you're warm enough, what does it matter how much skin you show?
Shika let out an exasperated sigh. Her furry ears had become completely visible, extending over six inches from the side of her head. "Can you not flash me right now, Nezu? I'm trying to calm down."
Large mouse-like ears popped into existence on Nezumi's head as she dropped her own disguise. Then they twitched excitedly. "Ooh, wanna bang? Maybe that will help you relax."
Shika turned away. "No. It took forever to get all these charms to hang nicely under my clothes."
"That's why I picked a coat with big pockets," Nezumi offered unhelpfully.
"Shush. I'm trying to focus."
It took a couple minutes of slow breathing, but Shika eventually got her deer features to retract. Then she waved to Nezumi and said, "Come on. Let's just get this over with. Maybe no one will think too hard about the pantless girl in the giant silver coat."
Nezumi hopped to her feet and her ears vanished, along with the slender tail that had been pinned between her back and the chair. "Alright! Operation Shop Like a Human is on!"
"Do you smell something, Michi?" Akari asked. It felt strange to use Inu's previous name from her past life, but they had agreed that calling her dog form 'Inu' in public was too weird, especially if someone recognized Akari and Seshi from the idol performance. Two young idols walking a dog with the same name as one of their group members was not a good look.
"Yeah, didja catch the robber's scent?" Seshi chirped far too happily. She was wearing a tight-fitting jogging outfit, with striking purple lines up the side of her black elastic pants. A light jacket over her sports bra was just enough warmth for the gorgeous fall weather.
The blonde dog stopped and shot Seshi a seething glare, then continued forward. She had indeed caught a scent trail that matched the charms Akari had purchased from a local shrine, but it led off the paved pathway and down into the ravine. There was a dirt trail there, mostly hidden by shrubs but easily traversable.
There was another scent as well, much stronger than the charms. And after so many years in the mountains, Inu knew it very well; wild deer must have used this trail regularly.
Inu also knew that if she could smell the deer, they had already caught her scent and fled. Deer had an even stronger sense of smell than dogs, and any deer who lived this close to humanity would have learned to avoid dogs.
Inu sniffed at the air, ignoring the deer scent for now and focusing on the charms again. She started down the dirt trail, earning confused responses from her companions.
"Down there?" Akari peered down the path, hoping her windbreaker jacket and running pants would protect her arms and legs from all the branches.
"If I expected to be climbing around in a ditch, I would've worn boots," Seshi said. She glanced around to make sure they weren't being observed, then went ahead and switched her conjured tennis shoes for a pair of hiking boots. "Much better."
Akari wanted to scold Seshi for using her powers in public, but there was no time: Inu had already snuffled off down the trail. "Wait for us!", she called out as she followed Inu. Akari had to make do with her jogging shoes, but at least the trail was smooth and dry.
The path made a sharp left and followed the creek for about a block, then went underneath a bridge. After everyone's eyes adjusted to the darkness, they saw dirt, trash, some graffiti on the bridge supports, and a sturdy-looking steel door set into the concrete wall. It appeared to be storage or maintenance access for a storm drain, but any signage had been worn away or covered in graffiti.
While Inu continued on ahead, checking if the scent trail continued out the other side of the bridge, Seshi stopped at the door. She grabbed the handle and tried it, but it didn't budge. "Locked." She frowned. "And I never learned to lockpick or conjure keys. My sex appeal was always enough to get me inside."
Inu quickly turned around and padded back to her friends. A very faint scent had continued that direction but the bulk of it was under this bridge. She sniffed up to the door. No, the scent was behind that door. She also caught a dozen other familiar smells wafting out from inside: food, perfume, cleaning supplies, and more.
Seshi's human ears and nose twitched in an oddly catlike way and she said, "I feel a spiritual presence around here, and not just the stolen charms. Inara was right that the thief is another spirit."
"Okay. So now what do we do?" Akari asked. "Break in? Do a stake out?"
Suddenly, Inu was barking, and not in a friendly way. Akari and Seshi looked where she was facing and saw two women standing on the dirt trail about thirty feet away, arms full of shopping bags.
Everything was still for a long moment, then the shorter of the two strangers turned and shouted up at her companion, "What the hell, Shika! You should have noticed their scent!"
The taller one dropped the slice of pizza she'd been eating, which had been completely monopolizing her sense of smell. It landed top-side down in the dirt with a splat. "Sorry."