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File 160140659430.png - (0.96MB, 674x920, lion-dogue.png) [iqdb]
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Stone and more stone together made stronger stone — or so the logic went. However true it was or wasn’t, it was the sort of logic that would appeal to someone made of stone. It would easily and concisely explain why such an individual would be climbing the Youkai Mountain, otherwise lacking in ready excuses. Thinking of excuses was, after all, difficult when your brain was also made of stone.

Komano Aun, the stony lion-dog defender of sacred spots in Gensokyo, was such an individual, possessing little in the way of wit owing to her gravel-filled head. She didn’t particularly feel a need for excuses but did have a desire to be stronger. Being one rock on top of a much bigger rock, she did feel stronger in some way, though it still wasn’t enough. It would never be enough, she was sure. Otherwise, she would have been able to do something about the problems that tormented others and thus her. She couldn’t, though, and so she had taken off from the Hakurei Shrine, her tail between her legs.

Thinking it over again made Aun slow her steady ascent. Being of very little brain, thinking didn’t do her much good beyond inducing her to sigh and pine to be back at the familiar shrine, staking her usual spot near the torii. There were other places in Gensokyo where she could do the same — she was heading to one just now — but it was the inability to do so there that pained her stony lion-dog heart.

This process of thinking, slowing down, and sighing repeated for the whole sojourn up the mountain. She was so lost in her thoughts that the wolf-people who usually harangued her said very little this time. They looked at her with pity and stepped out of her way, allowing her to continue on her way with nary a comment or entreaty to leave their mountain peacefully. All of this escaped her notice, mostly. It wasn’t until she was near the bounds of the Moriya Shrine that she even saw fit to heed that she had put some distance between herself and the other shrine.

To any human visitor, a shrine’s torii would evoke the hope that either ambition, desperation, or longing bring out. However, among the emotions it would draw out, comfort wasn’t one of them. No human could feel “at home” there. A shrine was, after all, the domicile of beings largely different from themselves. That was why a visit to a shrine was for prayer. Asking the enshrined for protection, favour, or mercy was something removed from the ordinary business of being a human. To think of it in terms of the everyday was outside the realm of possibility. For Aun, it was the opposite.

Gazing on that boundary between the pure world and outside had an effect almost therapeutic to the lion-dog’s stony little heart, particularly at that moment. Where gods and Buddhas made their home was her home. It was where she was wanted, if not needed. Her tail wagged weakly at the thought. Surely, she reasoned, if not elsewhere, someone needed her here.

The Moriya Shrine was as she remembered from her last visit some months ago aside from the obvious change of the seasons. Whispers of autumn were visible in the trees, the faint yellow and red beginning to show in some leaves, others already falling and littering the grounds. Aun had crunched through numerous piles of the early jumpers on her way up, and they continued to gather in small lumps from the stairway all the way up to the donation box. Were she of a different mind, she might have dove into the leaves and began rolling and kicking them, sending them whirling into the air to be batted at as they came down.

A sigh puffed its way out of her nose. No, she certainly didn’t feel up to it right now, as fun as it would probably be.

Putting any thought of play from her mind, Aun seated herself in front of the torii, rump down and front paws out, allowing her senses to become one with the shrine’s. For a while, she reverted to her original stoniness as she conversed with the shrine. She wanted to hear its grievances if it had any. At the very least, she wanted to hear if all was well. Had visitors been coming? Had there been any disasters? Had everything been kept up as it should?

It was hard to say. Shrines and temples all had their own character. Some were very open, others required much coaxing to divulge anything. While Aun largely felt at home with the Moriya Shrine, the shrine tended to be reticent towards her. Having never had a protector like her before, it seemed to treat her like an introverted, well-mannered child greeting a stranger would, but she was patient with it and did learn something now and again. They would probably never be the best of friends, much as she would have liked that to be the case. Still, when pushed, the shrine would tell her what it felt comfortable letting on about.

This time, the shrine was queerly silent. Try though she might, Aun struggled to get any answer from it. There was something in its manner that struck her as odd. She couldn’t put her paw on it, but she thought the shrine seemed irritated about something. It was dodging any enquiry that she posed with a total lack of response. It was trying to shut her out with walls of stone, ones that did not strengthen her as she would have expected in her lion-dog logic.

Just when she pondered leaving the shrine alone, a sudden bright point along the outer perimeter jolted her back to animation. Someone was making themselves unwelcome. She was needed, in other words.

Dashing towards the source of the trouble, Aun snaked through the trees and bushes, not bothered in the least by nettles and branches nicking her rocky hide. Her nose detected a familiar scent. A bird? No, not just any old bird. This was a big bird. A tengu, then.

A patch of red atop black showed itself in the bushes as she got nearer. What was it even doing in there? It seemed to be watching something intently. Not even Aun’s footfalls, breaking twigs and crunching leaves as she raced, disturbed it from its work. The fact that it hadn’t yet raced off or attacked brought Aun to a stop.

[ ] Clearly, this bird’s too dumb to pay attention. Pounce on it!
[ ] This has to be some bird trick. Sneak up on it!
[x] This has to be some bird trick. Sneak up on it!

Aun is pure of heart and dumb of ass.
[x] This has to be some bird trick. Sneak up on it!
[x] Clearly, this bird’s too dumb to pay attention. Pounce on it!

rawr owo xd
[z] Clearly, this bird’s too dumb to pay attention. Pounce on it!
Easy enough.
[x] Clearly, this bird’s too dumb to pay attention. Pounce on it!
[x] Clearly, this bird’s too dumb to pay attention. Pounce on it!
Alright, you know what, that's a good enough number of votes with a clear majority. Calling it now for...

[x] Clearly, this bird’s too dumb to pay attention. Pounce on it!

Wait warmly.
File 160270598745.jpg - (1.81MB, 1190x1684, just imagine the lion-dog there.jpg) [iqdb]
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[x] Clearly, this bird’s too dumb to pay attention. Pounce on it!

The gravel turned over and over on itself in Aun’s head. Try as she might to comprehend what the black-headed bird was doing in the bush, nothing suggested itself. All she knew was that it hadn’t moved or even acknowledged her.

She smiled in spite of herself. Clearly, this bird was too dumb to know that you should run when a lion-dog comes bounding over to check on the situation. Poor thing, she thought. It didn’t stand a chance. However, a job was a job, and Aun’s job was to defend the shrine from any nuisance.

Winding herself up, she put all of her strength in her back legs. Then, she loosed all of that stored strength in one massive burst, kicking back to shoot herself forward, rents left torn in the soil where she stood a second ago.

Even as she rocketed closer, the bird didn’t turn to look at Aun. Further proof to Aun that she was superior in sheer ability to pay attention.

Of course, this was a naive thought on the part of a simple, gravel-headed lion-dog. To anyone observing the scene, it would have come as no surprise that Aun found herself surprised. The bird was there one moment, and then she blinked. Aun continued sailing forward, straight into the bush.

There was suddenly no bird to be found. Then, just as suddenly, Aun was on her back, touching the ground, the upper branches of the trees and the sky the only things immediately visible. She felt no impact. She hardly even noticed herself being reoriented. It was all sudden enough that she didn’t even have time to be surprised and revert to her rockier form.

She blinked again. The many questions that she had about her current situation brought the tumble of her simple feline-canine mind to a slow halt. A silence settled over the little grove. Aun had been absolutely certain she was leaping out to catch someone, a bird if she remembered correctly. No, a tengu, wasn’t it? And yet, here she was, lying on the ground without any explanation as to how she’d ended up that way. Like much of life to Aun, it was mysterious.

Some minutes passed by as Aun lay there stunned, unsure what it was she was doing or supposed to be doing. There was the vaguest sense that someone was standing close by, and someone else was walking toward the both of them. What she should do about it, though, Aun couldn’t guess. The reality that she had been swiftly and utterly thwarted in dealing with an intruder simply had no chance of occurring to her.

“Hello? Can I help you?” called a concerned sounding voice through the bushes. It was a familiar voice, but Aun’s dissociated state made it difficult to recall who it belonged to. “You really ought to come around to the front entrance if you want—”

The bushes parted at that moment, and Aun finally placed the voice: It was Sanae. The grassy-headed shrine maiden peered around with an air of suspicion, stopping when her eyes met Aun’s. On its own, Aun’s tail began to wag.

“Oh, it’s you, Aun,” Sanae said, heaving a sigh. Before she could fully soak in her relief, her eyes snapped to whoever was standing just next to Aun — something that made Aun flinch when she noticed.

“Don’t mind me. I was just passing through on business and thought I’d get some shots while I was at it,” said the tengu, a vaguely familiar black-haired woman with similarly black wings on her back, which she spread as if waving to Sanae. She had on that strange costume that tengu could be seen wearing from time to time.

A flicker of some emotion ran across Sanae’s face before she froze, cleared her throat, and stood erect to offer a curt bow to the tengu. “A pleasure to see you as always, Ms Shameimaru. Though I really would appreciate if you didn’t stalk around here.”

“You say that like I was trying to be stealthy.”

“In any case,” Sanae said somewhat sharply, though she caught herself and softened her tone, “since you’re clearly here on business, I may as well pour us some tea.”

“Maybe your adorable guard-dog can join us, too!” The tengu gestured at Aun, amusement evident on her face.

At that, Aun’s presence of mind snapped back into focus. She sat up, shaking the leaves and dirt off, and shot the tengu what she imagined was a fierce glare; in reality, it was more of a pout. “I’m a lion-dog,” she protested.

“Like I said, adorable!”

“Of course,” answered Sanae. She nodded to Aun and beckoned her to follow as she turned around, an order the lion-dog didn’t hesitate to obey with her usual gusto. If there was anything Aun needed at the moment, it was a friendly face.

Minutes later, they were all sitting on the veranda of Sanae’s house, cups of tea perched in their hands. Aun had tried to lap at hers, but her tongue was too sensitive for the hot drink, and she settled for merely letting it warm her paws. Sanae showed no interest beyond an initial polite sip, electing to absently balance it on her palm as she silently watched the tengu, Ms Shameimaru. The only sound coming through the silence was the occasional less-than-silent slurping from Ms Shameimaru, a noise that made Sanae wrinkle her face in discomfort, a fact that drew a smile from the former.

Clearly growing tired of the lack of conversation, Sanae turned to Aun. “I bet Reimu’s getting ready for autumn festivities, isn’t she? Maybe she’s as busy as me,” she said with a short, uncomfortable laugh. “Really, though, I hope she’s alright. I haven’t had time to visit lately. How is she doing these days?”

It was the sort of question Aun least wanted to have asked. She raised the still-warm tea to her lips and gave it an experimental lap, finding it hadn’t cooled very much to her poor tongue’s liking. Lacking the stalling tactic of a long drink, finding some other way of averting the conversation was pummelling the gravel in her head into sand. The sole saving grace, if any, was that Sanae wasn’t looking on expectantly for an answer; she seemed to be looking around for something.

“She’s okay,” Aun managed to say in a low voice after much thought.

Sanae’s attention immediately snapped back. “I dunno. Is she really? It didn’t seem like there was much going on last time I was around. Did she put on another exhibition or something? She was talking about something like that.”

“Something like that,” Aun repeated without much conviction.

“So, she did.”

“Sort… of?”

The lack of confidence in Aun’s voice caused Sanae to pause and stare, searching Aun over for something. After a few seconds, she leaned in close and lowered her voice. “Did she tell you to say that? It’s okay. You can tell me if she did. If she’s in trouble…”

“Reimu? In trouble?” asked Ms Shameimaru, sniggering to herself as if at some private joke.

“Reimu’s not in trouble!” Aun barked back forcefully enough to make Sanae jump backwards. Recognising that she was being a bit hysterical, her cheeks flushed. She bent over her cup of tea, hoping the steam would serve as mist to hide her face. It mostly just succeeded in making her eyes sting. “She’s not. I’m in trouble. I made her mad.”

“Oh no, how could she ever get mad at you?” Sanae was speaking with a conciliatory tone, but her eyes were wandering again. She absently reached out and stroked Aun’s sometimes-stony hair.

“I, erm… tried to help her with something but couldn’t.”

Aun leaned away from Sanae’s hand, wanting the whole conversation to end. Even if she enjoyed the petting. That didn’t mean couldn’t find the topic uncomfortable, too.

Ms Shameimaru scooted closer to the two of them with a wry grin on her face. “Oh? Reimu mad at her guard dog — pardon, lion-dog. I wonder if there’s as many crazy things going on over there. Why, I’ve heard about a thing or two at this very shrine that got people talking.”

Sanae whipped around to look right at the tengu, a tension in her otherwise smiling face. The edges of her eyes were twitching slightly. Aun had never really seen her like this. She took the opportunity to squirm away from Sanae’s reach and park on a further edge of the veranda.

“I’m not sure I know of any such talk,” the shrine maiden retorted, her voice kicking up into a wispy, genteel tone.

“Being this close to everything on the mountain? That’s almost news in and of itself. Why, I just ran into some returning visitors the other day who were dubious about the state of your roof tiles.” Ms Shameimaru touched her finger to her chin, feigning deep thought. “What was it they said? ‘Imagine them having money troubles, too,’ I believe.”

“They were quite mistaken. I assure you our finances are quite in order, and we keep our shrine in prime shape. I see to repairs personally, I’ll have you know.” Sanae broke eye contact with Ms Shameimaru to look over at something, a gesture the tengu mirrored with more subtlety.

Ms Shameimaru’s expression lost any and all pretense of not simply being a smug grin. “That’s the other thing. If you handle the upkeep all by your lonesome, then the other things I’ve heard don’t make sense. You see, a few people have been under the impression that they’ve seen a second Sanae running around here. But that doesn’t make any sense, now, does it?”

Sanae took a deep breath suddenly. For several heartbeats, she simply held it, as if unable to release it until a certain number of seconds had ticked by. She was no longer looking at Ms Shameimaru. Aun had seen that look before; it was the look of an animal being hunted. She could practically smell the fear. The shrine maiden wanted to flee.

She opened her mouth — but still didn’t speak. “And just who are these people you’re referring to?” she didn’t ask.

Before saying anything, Sanae quickly stood up, set her cup down, and gave another quick glance around, this time paying heed to neither Aun nor her tengu interlocutor. When she did finally speak up, it was in a very distracted, off-handed way. “Oh dear. I think I heard Lady Kanako calling me. Please excuse me.”

“A tengu’s ears are pretty sensitive, but I can’t say I heard anything just now,” Ms Shameimaru replied.

“It’s a… god thing. You wouldn’t get it.” Sanae didn’t even bother looking back as she hurried away. Within moments, she had retreated around the other side of the shrine offices and was out of sight to either of her guests.

Once again, the only sound that could be heard in the wake of Sanae’s departure was Ms Shameimaru loudly sipping her now-lukewarm tea. Aun sat there, unsure of what to do, considering she hadn’t even managed to drive away the intruder. What could she do? The more she tried to think about it, the more that same sense is dispiritedness settled over her. Perhaps there was nothing left for her to do. If that was the case, then there was little difference between her remaining there on the veranda and sitting out by the torii. So, there she lingered.

Glancing over at the other loiterer, Aun noticed Ms Shameimaru watching her, the smarminess of her smile turned to something resembling pity. She stared back, only giving back the flinty blankness of a lion-dog in her natural habitat.

The tengu drained her cup and set it down next to Sanae’s abandoned tea. “Reimu’s mad at you, huh.”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Aun growled.

“Just saying,” said Ms Shameimaru, holding up her hands defensively. “Seems real unfortunate.”

Aun stared down into her tea, which was now stone-cold. Lapping at it and finding it less agreeable than she’d hoped, not having any fondness for bitter things, she sighed and added it to the pair of cups sitting on the veranda. She’d only wanted to do her job. That was one of the few things that made sense. Now, it seemed like nothing made much sense.

“I don’t get it.” Aun settled back onto the veranda, sitting in her accustomed pose, albeit somewhat drooped over.

Ms Shameimaru’s pointed ears twitched in interest. “How’s that?”

“If Miss Kanako was calling Sanae, I should have been able to hear it. I didn’t hear anything. It makes no sense.”

“See, if you’d just let me get about my work, I could have maybe told you more,” the tengu jibed.

That would have drawn a look from Aun, but she had no intensity left in her at the moment. She fell limply against one of the posts. “I was doing my job. Or I think I was. Then Sanae came and made me stop. It’s all really weird.”

“If you think that’s weird, you ought to see these pictures I’ve got.”
poor depressed liondog.
File 160592310983.jpg - (234.96KB, 565x800, purdy pictures.jpg) [iqdb]
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Aun was unsure. The almost conspiratorial way the tengu had offered to let her see the pictures bothered her. It was the way dishonest people told you to trust them, and she did not trust any bird as far as she could throw them — which wasn't very far at all, considering how hard they were to catch. Not growling and baring her teeth at Ms Shameimaru felt very unnatural at that moment.

And yet, her curiosity bit at her, working away at any resistance with slow, steady nips until it was weakened. Soon, she abandoned her previous caution and moved closer.

"Has anyone ever told you that you're adorable when you scowl? It reminds me of this one guard. Too bad you can't meet her anymore. She was a hit in her day," babbled Ms Shameimaru, eyes shining with inner laughter.

Aun didn't let up in her stoniness toward the black-haired bird. Huffing impatiently, she eyed an envelope sitting perched on the edge of the tengu's knee.

The tengu shrugged as she undid the string on the envelope. "Not even a little bit of friendly chatter? A bit of petting? I'm a big petter, you know, and damn good at it, if I say so myself."

The word 'petting' was one that floated across Aun's ears tantalisingly, making her tail swing involuntarily. How long had it been since anyone had caressed her horn? Not to mention she was sure the top of her head was starting to get mossy for lack of rubbing. Maybe months had gone by. The thought stung Aun with a bitter loneliness.

However, bitter though that sting might have been, Aun still felt wary with Ms Shameimaru, unsure what her gleaming smile could mean. Though monkeys were her mortal enemy first and foremost, it was the bird that outwitted the monkey and stole its food. Once more, she met temptation with regretful silence.

The pictures emerged regardless. Still retaining her smile, as if blissfully unaware of Aun's barely-suppressed hostility, the tengu pulled out the printed photos, arranging them in a neat stack. One-by-one, she then began laying them out, like some sort of tarot reading with square cards. Aun practically held her breath as the pictures gently came to rest face-down on wood. The line never seemed to end; she counted six pictures thus far. This bird was riling her up on purpose.

Ms Shameimaru's smile quickly reverted to youkai blankness as her fingers hovered over the first of the pictures. "I put myself in real danger to get this shot. When Lady Yasaka was outside, I saw her stuff something into the burnable trash."

With a flourish, she turned the photo over to reveal... garbage. There was no other way of describing it. From one corner to the other, it was a bunch of half-charred odds and ends with a pile of fresher offerings piled on top. The most Aun could say is most of it looked to be paper, envelopes of varying colours and sizes making up the majority of it. The biggest danger facing anyone there would be a paper-cut.

The lion-dog's brows shifted to form a rocky peak above her nose. All that buildup for this — a crow playing in the rubbish. Once again, she began to pity the bird's seeming lack of intelligence. Whatever else could be said, at the very least Aun wasn't the type to play in the shrine's bins. At least, not at the Hakurei Shrine. Especially not after Reimu caught her that one time.

Shaking away memories of swiftly hurled gohei, she met the now-smirking tengu with her own self-satisfied look. "So, what was so dangerous? I just see a bunch of trash."

"What made it so dangerous?" Ms Shameimaru scoffed back. "Lady Yasaka clearly didn't want anyone seeing any of it. Why else would be be tiptoeing around her own shrine just to toss something in the bin? I bet you she would have given me a real whallop if she found me there."

Seeing no change of attitude from the lion-dog, she flipped over the next picture without any pretension of suspense. This one showed a handful of envelopes held closer to the lens, the photographer’s fingers partly visible. They were still unmarked by soot. The envelope closest to the camera was open. Nothing showed inside.

“Empty,” Aun snarked.

“Yeah, sure. They were definitely empty. But!” The tengu stabbed the air with her finger. “Isn’t that strange in and of itself? Throwing out a bunch of envelopes but none of the contents with it? Lady Yasaka clearly kept whatever was inside and wanted to get rid of any evidence that it existed in the first place. It’s the simplest explanation!”

“Sure.”

Ms Shameimaru’s ears twitched. She looked like she might start getting annoyed for a split second, but she instead smiled again, much to Aun’s irritation. “Alright, so, maybe it’s all a bit circumstantial. I can’t understand not believing me. You didn’t see Lady Yasaka shuffling around, after all.”

Aun didn’t bother to look at the next overturned image for a few seconds, choosing to regard the bird with her most pitying stare. This was clearly a case of overestimation on her part; a monkey could probably outwit any bird like this one.

When she did bother to look, its composition didn’t immediately strike her as being anything significant, and yet she felt that there was something off about it. The primary subject was Miss Suwako, the other goddess of the shrine. Aun had always found it strange that the pint-sized goddess wasn’t the resident boss, considering the shrine had her name on it. She had heard a story from Sanae about some squabble between Miss Suwako and Miss Kanako a long time ago, but it proved too long and complicated for her gravelly brain and had lulled her into a nice nap on the shrine maiden’s lap. What she knew for sure was that the blonde goddess was not usually one to be out in the open. And yet, there was the torii and the sky visible in the picture behind her.

The lion-dog squinted and tried to focus her full attention on the picture. From what she could tell, Miss Suwako was suspended in air but not flying. In fact, she looked to be falling towards the earth. Her arms and legs were splayed out, her expression totally blank as she plummeted. Scanning the picture for further detail, Aun noted that the torii looked to have pieces out of its top, splinters still flying in the air as the goddess flew in a high upward arc.

“She was just sitting up there, still as can be, and then she goes and takes a flying leap,” said the tengu, drawing Aun’s attention back. Already seeing a question in the lion-dog’s eyes, she shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine as to why. I just managed to catch it happening.”

While it was all still iffy, the bird has promised weird things, and she at least delivered in this instance. Aun looked the image up and down again in hopes of discerning anything further but strained on the limits of her of already limited imagination. All she knew was that it was definitely weird.

As if doing it incidentally, Ms Shameimaru reached down without looking and flipped the next picture over, standing up and fanning her wings out. “And there’s this one, too, but you can have a peek yourself. I’ve already killed enough time here. It was fun, though. If you ever get back in Reimu’s good graces, maybe I ought to come around and play more.”

The thought broke Aun’s attention from the pictures to give a muted growl at the tengu.

“Easy there. I won’t bother you here. Too much business here as it is these days,” she explained with a hollow laugh.

Seeing that the bird was about to fly, Aun started to gather up the remaining pictures. “Here.”

“Oh, you can have those. I can’t print them since… well, that’s not something I should be talking about. Let’s just say ‘social harmony’ is a big thing with my bosses.”

“Then, why—”

“I’ve still got the negatives!” pre-empted the tengu.

At a speed Aun could barely comprehend, she moved in close. The lion-dog felt a hand caress her horn, a feeling that nearly caused her to roll over involuntarily, though it was but a brief touch. Then, she vanished into the sky with a gust of wind. Aun had no idea what ‘negatives’ even were, but it didn’t matter now that the tengu was finally gone.

Curious, she peeked at the last picture and went wide-eyed at its contents: an apron that she clearly recognised as Sanae’s covered in something dark and reddish. It had been dug out of a hole, splotches of dirt mingling with whatever substance had soaked in. Aun’s lion-dog brain tried to come up with possibilities for what the red stuff was but came up short. The sole thing that she could come up with, but didn’t want to acknowledge, was blood. Of course, it could have been from… meat from the kitchen? Such an explanation was reasonable, but it still didn’t satisfy her for some reason.

The rest of the pictures brought as little comfort as that one. Various bits of the Moriya Shrine that she recognised all showed in states of disrepair, wood split, paper ripped, and shimenawa frayed. None of it resembled the shrine she knew. If things were really like that, then maybe that explained the odd silence from the shrine earlier.

Aun got up from the veranda and went to pace around the perimeter of the shrine, an old and well-ingrained habit as a guard lion-dog. As she circled the grounds, she went over the various things she’d seen — Miss Suwako’s flying leap, Miss Kanako’s suspicious envelopes, Sanae’s blood(?)-splattered apron. Not to mention the damaged parts of the shrine architecture. Maybe there really was something to that bird’s haranguing Sanae. Maybe there really were strange things happening at the shrine.

Tentatively, she tried stopping to commune with the shrine again. Prodding only netted silence again. That was that, then, she guessed. She’d never find out any more and wouldn’t be able to help anyone yet again. The thought put a big stone-sized lump in her throat.

No, leapt in another side of her, this was a mere setback. She may have met with disaster before, but that was no reason to think it would happen every time. If she could take things a step at a time and not try to solve everything at once, why, she could probably do a lot. The important thing was sorting out for herself what was true and what wasn’t. Only then would she be able to do anything.

However, before she could put any such notion into action, her belly gave a rumble. A smell of stew had been wafting about the shrine grounds for some hours now. The sun was already heading down to the horizon, too. In other words, it was dinnertime at the Moriya Shrine.





Aun yawned and pawed at her eyes, drowsy after such a heavy meal. She’d had no idea Miss Kanako was able to cook. Which was a good thing since Sanae hadn’t been there to make dinner, a fact that had disappointed Aun greatly at first, considering her cooking was second-to-none in her lion-dog eyes. Miss Kanako assured her that she was a reasonable substitute for the shrine maiden when it came to culinary skills.

A goddess’ homey cooking wasn’t something she felt able to wrap her mind around at first. However, Miss Kanako had proven to be the one who’d cause the whole shrine to smell of stew, a simple brownish-red beef hash as luck had it. Ladled over rice, there was no other way to describe it but, well, divine. Belying the dish’s simplicity in terms of ingredients — beef, onions, mushrooms, and little else — there was a richness added to its sauce by something Aun could only just not name. It was wine of some sort, but none she could readily identify, cooked in with elements of the pan to make a fine demi-glace, which the hash had sat simmering in before Aun had shown up. Every mouthful only made her want more.

The atmosphere at table did nonetheless detract from her enjoyment of the meal. Miss Kanako seemed distracted, aside from the moments when she reprimanded the other goddess for some minor trifle. The diminutive goddess was, on the other hand, quiet and sullen the entire time, hardly even acknowledging her counterpart or Aun. The poor lion-dog was left at a loss as to what to say, and so she focused on eating her fill of the hearty fare.

“I’m not sure. She said she had business in the village. Though, that’s been a while ago now. I wonder if she got pulled into some kind of nonsense with that Hakurei girl,” was the reply from Miss Kanako when asked about Sanae’s absence after dinner.

Miss Suwako harrumphed and got up from the table, leaving her dirty dishes behind and without a word of thanks, earning an annoyed snarl from Miss Kanako. That had about summed up the atmosphere of that entire meal to Aun. To keep her mind off of that, she offered to do the dishes, which Miss Kanako accepted without any reservation, swiftly retreating from the dining room to the kotatsu; it was a bit a chilly with the onset of autumn, as evidenced by the Goddess Yasaka wearing a black sweater.

Left with only her thoughts and impressions again, Aun worked her way through the small pile of dishes with a concentration only reserved for the opportunities where she got to exercise her arms. Having her hands occupied, her mind — such as it was — began to wander back to her original pre-meal intention of finding out more about the goings-on of the Moriya Shrine. Dinner had certainly done more to prick her sense that something was off. She gripped the sponge tighter.

Now that the two goddesses were separated, this was as good a chance as any to start sniffing around. Miss Kanako had taken her station at the kotatsu, donning reading glasses to peruse a novel. Down the hall, Aun could hear Miss Suwako rummaging around through some items in the room she shared with Miss Kanako. She would be finished momentarily with the last dish.

[ ] A snug and comfy Kanako is a vulnerable Kanako. See if she lets anything slip.
[ ] Away from her partner, maybe Suwako is less guarded. Stand watch and see what she does.
[x] Away from her partner, maybe Suwako is less guarded. Stand watch and see what she does.

Yay, it's back!
[x] Away from her partner, maybe Suwako is less guarded. Stand watch and see what she does.
[x] Away from her partner, maybe Suwako is less guarded. Stand watch and see what she does.
Though I know Kanako would be an interesting option, I can't ever not vote for Suwako. Sorry, pillar-lady.
[x] A snug and comfy Kanako is a vulnerable Kanako. See if she lets anything slip.
sign me up for a goddess in a sweater
[X] Away from her partner, maybe Suwako is less guarded. Stand watch and see what she does.
I don't trust the frontman/business god to be PARTICULARLY unguarded.
[x] Away from her partner, maybe Suwako is less guarded. Stand watch and see what she does.

mlem mlem
[x] A snug and comfy Kanako is a vulnerable Kanako. See if she lets anything slip.

Comfy Kanakooooooooooooooooo
Oh, right, guess I ought to close this, considering it looks like there's a clear majority. Calling it for...

[x] Away from her partner, maybe Suwako is less guarded. Stand watch and see what she does.

I'll try not to take as long on this one.
hol up, so Awoon's just gonna ignore that there was a picture of Sanny's apron covered in DEFINITELY NOT BLOOD??

girl's head must be made of rocks
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[x] Away from her partner, maybe Suwako is less guarded. Stand watch and see what she does.

Despite the inviting coziness of the kotatsu, Aun tore herself off her path, deflected by a brief glance from Miss Kanako. It hadn’t been a particularly malicious one, but it managed to be imposing in that way she always was generally. If it had been a gesture of invitation, it was a failure. Down the hall it was, Aun decided.

Aun approached the room where Miss Kanako and Miss Suwako both bedded down and promptly realised she hadn’t planned out what she was going to do. The tiny goddess didn’t seem to be in all that great a mood earlier, so it wasn’t like she could just walk up and start talking. She hesitated at the half-open door, opting after the pause to merely widen the opening a crack and press her face against it.

Just inside, Miss Suwako was still rifling through a chest, muttering to herself in an ill-tempered way. The goddess sat bared-headed, only her blonde hair hanging down to ornament her, occasionally brushing the tatami with the odd low bob of her head. Her odd-looking hat, with its great, unblinking eyes, had fallen aside. Aun had never liked that hat very much.

She stood there for a long while, watching that hat looking over its owner. The eyes had always remained fixed, staring ahead, taking in either everything around them or nothing at all. Common sense would say that they would never move — but Sanae had a saying about that. Aun had no basis or memory, but she could swear they did move at times. Even if it was just a tiny fraction, her lion-dog eyes were made to track the slightest movements. She didn’t trust the hat one bit.

And yet, ready as she was, her lion-dog heart still went stony when the eyes moved — ever so slightly, but definitely a movement — to glance her way for a split second. At that same moment, Miss Suwako paused her rummaging to mumble to herself before continuing her search. Aun was certain the goddess had been about to look back, and yet her attention never strayed from her task. The hat didn’t make any other movements after that. Not that Aun would have noticed, since she avoided the slightest peek at it from then on.

Having found what she came for, Miss Suwako suddenly stood up. Aun darted back from the doorway as silently as she could, only just managing to press herself on the opposite wall when the fusuma slid fully open, the Moriya goddess emerging with bath effects in hand. Their eyes met right away.

The lion-dog yipped in an attempt to spew some excuse, any hope at words garbled into bestial noises that communicated little beyond her guilty conscience. She was, after all, a terrible liar at heart, even if she succeeded in the odd deception.

No trace of indignation or annoyance at being spied upon blemished Miss Suwako’s visage, nor did any particular sentiment. She merely regarded the lion-dog with her golden eyes as if she were peering through the poor statue beast. Indifferently, she tread past, her footfalls reverberating loudly off the floorboards for someone a near-equal in stature to Aun. Up the hall she moved, rolling open the door to the changing room, and in she retreated with nary a sound in her wake, Aun left fixed in place as any sentry ought to be.

With time, Aun animated again, regaining her senses after some glancing about, remembering that Miss Suwako was the target of her interest. Of course, she’d been found out, leaving very little she could do at this point, or so she reasoned. Still, she didn’t want to just give up if she was going to find out anything. For want of any better idea, the lion-dog decided that the best way to act was to not act for the moment — thus, she shifted her station to inside the changing room, right outside the bathroom door.

The view offered by the smoked glass door showed Miss Suwako still crouched on her bath stool, lethargically soaping herself up. She paused once in a while for moments at a time. During those intervals, Aun held her breath, not wanting to stick out more than necessary and arouse further suspicion from the goddess. All the while, Aun thought it strange how long she was taking. She’d known Miss Suwako to be quick but thorough when it came to pre-tub washing; she’d bathed more than a few times with the Moriya household. After getting her scrubbing done, the first in the tub (and often the last out) was her.

Recalling past bathtimes made Aun long for a hot soak as well. That longing, in turn, made her aware of how cold the autumn evenings were, causing her to shudder.

“If you’re gonna stick close, you may as well come in,” came the muffled call from within the bathroom.

Though her reserve was at a minimum owing to the cold, Aun perched herself at the door tentatively. “You’re alright with it? I can leave you alone if...”

“You’re freezing your horn off, right? No need to be shy. It’s plenty warm in here.” The Moriya goddess stopped her washing for an instant. “And I guess you can scrub my back since you’re the only one handy.”

Permission given, there was no longer any cause for Aun to hesitate. Her clothes were left in a pile on the changing room floor within seconds, and she only just managed to rein herself in from skipping into the steamy bathroom. She felt herself melting into a less stony state just being in that warm, humid air. Were it not for her spotting Miss Suwako on her stool through the steam, she might have entertained the idea of curling up and dozing off on the spot.

“There you are,” chided the blonde goddess, holding out a washcloth saturated in foam. “Hurry up and scrub me off. I’m dying for a long soak.”

Aun muttered a few apologies and got to work soaping up the Goddess Moriya’s narrow back. There was really little to cover overall, but Aun wanted to be as thorough as possible. She put her elbows into it, going at the job with more force than a human would be likely to find pleasant. To a deity, the result seemed to be more like a firm massage, going by the groans and sighs elicited from Miss Suwako. Despite her young appearances, she did complain often of the stiffness and aches of age, prone to enlisting whomever handy to pop things back into place or rub out knots. The work Aun had done was enough to make the goddess slump forward on her stool, content to let the lion-dog’s hands move her as necessary. She’d forgotten her hurry in just a couple of minutes.

Seeing an opening, Aun tried starting her questioning from something recent. “You were really quiet during dinner. Were you in a bad mood?”

“Ah, sorta?” came the mumbled reply.

Miss Suwako shifted, burying her head deeper between her arms, rolling her shoulders as the lion-dog kept working her back muscles. There was a loud crack and a pop, and she groaned with relief. “There we go. Ye gods, I needed that.”

She went quiet again for a minute or two before continuing. There was an air of resignation in her voice, as if she felt pushed to speak. “Me and Kana haven’t been seeing eye-to-eye on things. Lot of stuff happening, lot of stuff to disagree on. It’s all real complicated — and that’s just how she likes it. That woman isn’t happy until she’s struggling to keep all the balls in the air. Me, I like things simpler, slower…” She looked back at Aun, whose hands had come to stop as she listened. “You can listen and scrub at the same time, can’t you?”

“So, it’s all about Miss Kanako,” Aun pressed, moving her hands in slow circles now.

“Nah, it’s not really— I mean, she’s giving me a lot of headaches, true. You know what the big, big deal is, though? I just don’t know what’s even going through her head. That’s the real pain in my backside. She won’t explain a damn thing to me even if I ask. Then she does all this stuff and just expects me to go along with it. Like we’re not supposed to be partners.” The goddess scoffed, pressing her forehead against the tile wall like she’d lost what remaining strength she had left. “Yeah, she took over. And, yeah, I’ve sat back and let her take care of things more often than not. I can’t fight her on any of that. Doesn’t mean she can just treat me like some freeloader. It’s still my freakin’ shrine, too. You know?”

Aun nearly answered on reflex that she didn’t know, maybe hoping to shove in a follow-up question, but something told her that it was neither expected nor wanted. Trying to push for more just seemed to disquiet the Goddess Moriya further. The best she could hope for in this situation was to simply let the troubled deity talk and take anything from it she could.

Noting that the air had grown heavy, Miss Suwako sat up, forcing a little laugh. “Dunno why I’m telling you this. Not much you could do, I imagine. I bet even if you sunk your fangs into ol’ Mountains-of-Faith’s big fat ass she wouldn’t change her mind. Anyway, rinse me off, would you? I think it’s time for a soak.”

After a quick splash with some frigid water, the tiny goddess scrambled up from her stool without much concern for modesty and dashed for the hot water. The massive tub, constructed to accommodate someone of Miss Kanako’s stature, swallowed her whole, sighs of bliss turned to burbling as she disappeared below the waterline for a moment. It reminded Aun a bit of baths at the Hakurei Shrine, though the tub there could hardly even be called a tub. And Reimu often griped if the two of them got in at the same time.

Putting the thought out of her mind, the lion-dog scrubbed herself quickly but thoroughly and rinsed with the same ice-cold water. Though it chilled her, thoughts of the Hakurei Shrine had shifted her body back into its natural stoniness, heedless of cold or much other sensation. Not even the pleasantly boiling bath could do much to soften her when she at last slipped in.

The now rosy-faced goddess sat up from her lounging position, casting an eye across the steam at Aun. She was smiling, though it was an awkward smile at best. “You look like you need a soak worse than me. What’s bothering you? Call it a trade.”

Aun settled into the bath without a word at first. There wasn’t much to say, she felt. It wasn’t as if a simple blessing or whatever would solve her problems. Even if it did, so what? That wouldn’t make it any easier to change her greater failings. She sighed, making bubbles on the surface of the bath.

Sinking up to her horn in the bath, she slowly felt the warmth of the water seep in, saturating the gravel in her head until it was silt on a riverbed. She couldn’t completely wash all of the bad things away, but it was at least a start. Once she felt the need for air creeping back in, she surfaced to find that Miss Suwako was now sitting next to her, waiting patiently.

“Better?” she asked.

“A little bit,” Aun admitted quietly.

“Whenever you feel like talking. Not that I’m hurrying you. I don’t mind a good long bath.” The goddess winked at Aun. There was a mischief in her golden eyes that hinted at a character that matched her girlish face.

Thankful for Miss Suwako’s understanding, Aun took her time to get around to talking. Once she’d cast off her moody exterior, there was something disarming about the Moriya goddess. The lion-dog had only intended to give a similarly terse and vague summation of things, but she found herself adding in a comment or two about how she already missed baths with Reimu.

“Tough one to deal with, that Hakurei girl. In many ways.” Miss Suwako chuckled to herself and turned to hang her arms over the edge of the tub. “Of course, I bet Sanae’d say the same of me.”

Aun tilted her head curiously at the mention of Sanae. “How’s that?”

“Hard to really explain. It’s just… well, we’ve never had a whole lot of time together. Like I said, I left a lot of shrine stuff in Kana’s hands, and didn’t show my face a whole lot. So, it’s not like Sanae’d ever met me until much later. She knew I was there, but that’s different from having a face-to-face conversation. Makes things a little, well, complicated.”

“Even though the three of you eat dinner together?”

That drew a laugh from the Moriya goddess. “Not as often as you’d think. Hell, it’s weird enough that Kana’s been doing a lot of the cooking.”

The conversation trailed off into the diminutive goddess trying her best not to compliment her counterpart’s culinary skills. Despite whatever complaints she had about Miss Kanako, the degree of intimacy between her and Miss Suwako was clear to Aun. Disagreements would never be enough to break their bond, in any case. Still, something was bothering the smaller goddess, and she wasn’t going to simply give it up over some light chit-chat in the bath. Aun silently added the goddess to her running mental list of things to keep at over the long term.

It wasn’t until they had decided that they’d boiled long enough that the subject of conversation turned to something more pertinent. Miss Suwako suddenly turned to Aun after standing up in the bath.

“Really, though, I wish I could look after Sanae, but I think you’ll have to do it. Girl’s got something going on, and I wouldn’t have any luck getting a word out of her about it. Keep an eye on her, would you?”

After recovering from her surprise, Aun nodded firmly. “Of course.”

“That’s a good girl.” The goddess stroked Aun’s head playfully, laughing as she hauled herself back onto the tile floor.

When they finally emerged from the bathroom, soggy but at ease, the hour had grown late with no sign of Sanae still. Miss Kanako had fallen asleep at the kotatsu, her glasses hanging askew on her face, an open book pushed half-off the table’s edge. Her partner found the sight amusing but agreed that it was probably best to just leave her alone. In a clearly changed mood, she decided a post-bath drink was in order, a proposal Aun didn’t share any enthusiasm for. Yawning, she bid Miss Suwako good night and padded down the hall.

As she headed towards Sanae’s room, her habitual place to bed down when staying around the Moriya Shrine, the open door of the goddess’ bedroom drew Aun’s eye once more. That accursed hat was still sitting there, its eyes blankly staring at the closet. Aun’s lip instinctively curled at the hat, but she quickly came to the realisation that neither deity was around. If she wanted, the inquisitive lion-dog had the freedom to root around as she pleased. There was only the matter of a pair of eyes.

[ ] Turn the hat around. Surely, if it doesn’t see anything, there’s no problem.
[ ] Leave the hat alone. Who cares what it sees? You’re not doing anything wrong.
[ ] Maybe it’d be best to just go to bed. There’s other things to do tomorrow.
[x] Turn the hat around. Surely, if it doesn’t see anything, there’s no problem.

creepy
[x] Leave the hat alone. Who cares what it sees? You’re not doing anything wrong.
I'd say pee on it to mark it as your own and thus destroy its power but I doubt suwakers would be happy about the smell.
[x] Turn the hat around. Surely, if it doesn’t see anything, there’s no problem.
[x] Turn the hat around. Surely, if it doesn’t see anything, there’s no problem.

See no evil.
I know there's a majority right now, buuuuuut I would kinda like there to be more votes generally, so I'm gonna give this a few more days before closing. Please speak now or forever hold your peace.
[X] Leave the hat alone. Who cares what it sees? You’re not doing anything wrong.
[x] Turn the hat around. Surely, if it doesn’t see anything, there’s no problem.
Right, I should probably close this out now. Calling it for...

[x] Turn the hat around. Surely, if it doesn’t see anything, there’s no problem.
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[x] Turn the hat around. Surely, if it doesn’t see anything, there’s no problem.

Why in Gensokyo did a hat have eyes on it in the first place? What would it ever even look at? As far as Aun was concerned, not her. She picked the creepy hat up, took a look around, and pointed its eyes at the nearest wall.

Turning her attention to the room itself, things looked more or less as Aun remembered. Miss Kanako’s side of the room was bare, while Miss Suwako had her futon perpetually laid out, sheets splayed every which way. With the night going on, the open futon looked inviting — and Aun had spent fathomless time curled up in it, often right against the little goddess. Aun shook the memories of cozy rest away. Sleep could wait until after a rummage.

The overall bareness of the room gave few viable targets. Recalling the hat’s eyes being fixed on the closet, that seemed as fine a place to look for Aun. She grasped the door, listening out for anyone coming, and slid it open. Dust immediately tickled the inside of her lion-dog nose. Whether it was reliable or not for all else was questionable, but dust it could very well detect.

Too late to stop herself, Aun sneezed. The noise seemed to reverberate in the air long after it had passed. Aun seized up in place, still holding the closet door by the frame. It felt like the house had gone silent. She strained her stony ears in hopes of catching a hint of movement in the hall. Nothing. Then, relief when she noted the sound of snoring, followed by someone giggling to themselves in the kitchen, most likely Miss Suwako. She wasn’t caught yet.

Returning to the work at hand, the lion-dog thrust her head into the closet, careful not to puncture the wall with her horn. There was really little to see, unfortunately. This was both because it was dark in the room, and darker still in the closet, and because the contents consisted of Miss Kanako’s neatly stowed futon and a few chests of drawers. A void where the chest Miss Suwako had dragged out normally sat looked to be the only stand-out. Inspecting the others kicked up more dust, much to Aun’s displeasure. There was nothing to be seen in any of them besides clothes and some accessories, anyway. It was obvious nothing had seen much use anytime recently. Grumbling, Aun quit the closet.

A second look around was when something that had earlier escaped notice made itself apparent to the lion-dog: namely, the thickness of the dust that had settled over everything. The decorative alcove, otherwise barren, made her recoil when she swiped her finger along the wood and pulled it back coated in grime. Her feline side shuddered. Would it have killed either of the goddesses — or Sanae, for that matter — to open the shouji and beat the dust out every once in a while? Setting aside difficult questions about the mortality of deities, Aun was certain anyone sensible would prefer to keep where they bedded down reasonably tidy.

As she felt dismay at the uncleanliness, her canine side announced that it was still in the room. Her nose sniffed the air, resisting the urge to sneeze many more times. Through the smell of dirt and stale air, something had prodded at Aun’s sense of reason, tentative as it often was. It was an absence. Between lingering scents of wood, linen, and all else, something that had been there many times before was not speaking up for itself. Her nose led her to the chest sitting out in the open. Traces of Miss Suwako hovered in the air around it. They were much fainter anywhere away from there, almost absent.

Any trace of the Moriya goddess vanished beyond the small area she’d occupied just hours earlier. Furthermore, no hint of the Goddess Yasaka’s scent was detectable, either. It was, to Aun’s reckoning, as if neither of them had been in the room much, if at all. The thought struck Aun as odd, considering this was their room. Not long ago, she had even slept in this very room between the pair; Sanae had also joined at intervals, much to Aun’s warm recollection.

Nearly lulled to sleep by the very memory, Aun made another sweep of the room. There had to be some mistake here. Maybe her nose was off. Maybe the damned dust had hindered her sense of smell. Sniff though she might, nothing struck her as matching either goddess. That is, until she stepped closer to the other end of the room.

Miss Kanako’s scent hung heavy around the edges of the tatami on her side. On the upper side of the mat, the smell was faint. The only thing Aun could think was that it was coming from somewhere underneath. She reached to turn one of the mats up but hesitated. If someone came in and saw the tatami upended, what would they say? Nothing positive, she was sure. And yet, she had had to know.

“Forgive me, Miss Kanako. Miss Suwako,” Aun muttered, hoping neither would actually hear her.

The lion-dog carefully turned up the tatami by the edge, pulling it away to lay at rest against the fusuma. With the mat out of the way, the scent she was chasing was at its strongest. The dimness of the room made it hard to locate the source exactly, but Aun could sense a dark spot in the floorboards, as if something was missing. When she felt around, her hunch proved true. A rectangular space had been hollowed out in the floorboards. The first thing her paws felt upon hesitantly reaching in — it was dark, after all — was paper.

Numerous sheaves of paper had been crammed into the hidden compartment. Her stony heart beating a little quicker, Aun reached both hands in and pulled out an armful of the contents, unloading them onto the floor with a look over her shoulder. Quietly, she slid the shouji open for some outdoor light. Unfolded, though the contents weren’t entirely legible to Aun, it was clear that these were letters. She instinctively felt of her pockets, where the photos from that tengu were stashed. These had to be the ones. They smelled entirely of Miss Kanako, so there was nothing else they could be.

Squint and strain her eyes though she might, the lion-dog found it hard to make out anything on the page when she tried reading one of the letters. The most she could tell was that the writing wasn’t particularly skilled, the characters rendered in a simple hand reminiscent of a practise book. Aun thought it not unlike what she was capable of; sure, things might have ended up a bit shaky and crooked in her case, but it was more or less the same. Flipping to yet another page, lines of red ink criss-crossed the paper, clearly an addition after the fact. A bit more scrutiny showed a crude drawing on top of the writing. Intrigued and confused, Aun leaned closer to the shouji to get more light.

The sound of footsteps from the kitchen interrupted any chance for her learn more. They were definitely headed her way. In a panic, Aun shoved the letters back into their hiding place, not even mindful of whether they’d been open or folded before. Getting the tatami back down seemed a simple task — until she discovered that putting it down backwards made the seams not align correctly.

With every thudding step on the floor, Aun’s lion-dog brain raced through the possibilities of what would happen if she got caught. Would she get yelled at? Would she get thrown out? Would she get denied snacks? Something worse?

After a few anxiety-filled moments of resetting the tatami, the floor was now back to normal, the shouji closed, and… a letter still clasped in Aun’s paw.

“Aun! A-A-A-A-A-u-u-u-u-u-n!” sang Miss Suwako voice through the fusuma. “I’m comin’ in!”

Time was up. Aun crammed the letter into her pocket next to the photos and tried to take a spot in the room that wouldn’t look suspicious. Nearly leaping, she sprang over the open closet just as the fusuma glided open.

“Hey, there, Aun! Y’wanna— Watcha doing in there?”

The Goddess Moriya stood staring at Aun, slightly wobbling on her feet. Though the darkness of the room covered it up, Aun was pretty sure Miss Suwako’s cheeks were rosy as ever.

“I’m just…” Aun peeked into the closet. “I was looking for an extra futon? I couldn’t, um, find one.”

Eyes wandering away from Aun, Miss Suwako surveyed the room, her face puckering. “Awful dus’y in ‘ere. Y’move something ‘round?”

“N-No.”

Miss Suwako’s focus snapped right back to Aun. For a good while, she stood there, looking at the lion-dog with same vacant look as her hat. Aun fidgeted. She practically held her breath, not wanting to give anything away.

After a time, the goddess tilted on her feet abruptly, catching herself before she fell over, laughing. “Whoops, forgot wha’ I’s saying. There i’nt any extra futon. Sanae stopped sleepin’. In here, I mean. So no need.”

“Oh.” Aun glanced at the closet again and then at the empty expanse of tatami in the middle of the room.

“Y’can use mine. ‘s cool.” Miss Suwako pointed to the messy futon. Half-turning away to leave, she stopped herself. “Oh, wait, right, I’s gonna ask. Aun, y’wanna drink wi’mme? This place’s a pit. We can go ‘round by the shrine.”

“Um, no thanks. I’m just going to bed now,” Aun responded tentatively, nodding to the same futon.

“Aw. Well, y’change your mind, come by th’ shrine.”

Her offer declined, the Moriya goddess trudged from the room, shutting the fusuma behind her, her steps slightly straighter than moments ago. Aun heard one of the outer doors open and shut slowly, and then there was quiet in the house, save Miss Kanako’s faint snoring.

Things having calmed down, Aun let out a yawn. She had no appetite for further exploring at the moment. The day had been more eventful than she would have liked, albeit also less fruitful than she would have hoped. Her ever taxed lion-dog brain had reached its limit, the gravel no longer churning as it should, fight though she may to purchase a few seconds more of contemplation. Strength fleeing her, she groped around for a place to settle, found an agreeable spot, and curled up. Her eyes sealed themselves shut in short order, and she floated along into unconsciousness like a pebble in a stream. The rest of the night would have passed in blissful unawareness were it not for a noise sometime later.

The first thing Aun became aware of was a pair of thudding sounds, followed closely by more of them in succession. Being drawn back into sleep with the rest of her, her stone ears couldn’t seem to relay much beyond the fact that there were noises. They didn’t alarm her as such. In fact, some remote part of her otherwise sleeping brain told her there was nothing to worry about. This was normal. They were just footsteps. Whose? Well, that didn’t particularly matter.

Still, fleeting traces of consciousness lingered in Aun for some moments. It felt as though it was still the middle of the night, so no one should have been up — least of all, herself. Sitting up, she tried to focus her eyes but found sleep and darkness too powerful a pair to overcome. All she had to rely on was her nose. Right before she slipped back into oblivion, it told her that Miss Kanako was somewhere near. That was enough for now, the rest of her decided. The darkness behind her eyelids grew deeper.





Sunlight filtered through the shouji. Aun blinked when she found herself awake again, unsure where she was at first. Some part of her had been expecting to wake up next to Reimu like always. Seeing that wasn’t the case, she pawed at whatever recent memory in reach connected her with the room she was in. Rolling over, she spotted Miss Suwako’s hat, its eyes trained on the fusuma. She immediately leapt from her resting place and walked out of the room.

Out in the hall, the first noise of the morning that Aun heard was someone humming in the kitchen. She found it hard to believe at first, but there was no one else around with a voice that rich and low. The source of the tuneless melody was none other than Miss Kanako.

In all her time around the Moriya Shrine, Aun had never known the Yasaka goddess to be much of a singer, or one for music generally. More than once, she’d witnessed her snapping at Miss Suwako for carrying on in song, the latter clearly doing it to annoy her partner, something that vexed the taller goddess even more since it drew laughter from Sanae as well. Even the faint sound of Sanae playing a tune on the ‘stereo’ in her room tended to draw complaints; her ears could be oddly sensitive in some respects. In Aun’s lion-dog eyes, she was always serious, always intense, and very often prone to losing her temper at displays of frivolity. This often left her lost as to how best to deal with Miss Kanako.

Left alone with the Goddess Yasaka, she often found herself fleeing before attentions fell to her. The few times escape proved impossible, she rarely expressed anything but the willingness to do as she was told. As a strategy, it worked well enough. Miss Kanako was never displeased at servility. The downside was that it made for exhausting days, as the towering goddess could be quite the taskmaster, ready to issue orders as soon as she saw anyone empty-handed. Faintly, she hoped that Sanae or Miss Suwako would be there in the kitchen too. Either of those two would at the very least calm her nerves, and they kept Miss Kanako’s fangs sheathed more often than not.

No such luck, as it turned out when she peeked her head around the corner. Miss Kanako stood at the sink, washing rice, clad in a purple apron Aun had never seen before. In fact, she was fairly certain she’d never seen Miss Kanako’s hair covered in a kerchief like that, either. Despite all of her mental associations with the goddess, seeing her like that put Aun strangely at peace. These were all signs of normalcy, something fiercely lacking in both the Yasaka goddess most of the time and Aun’s life as of late. Her guard weakened, Aun stepped into the kitchen proper.

“Good morning, Miss Kanako,” Aun called out in a wavering voice.

The greeting prompted the goddess to look back at Aun. As usual, she was wearing a stern face. “Speak up. You need to speak with more energy in the morning. Come on, again.”

“G-Good morning, Miss Kanako!”

“There’s a proper greeting.”

Before Aun could question her about Miss Suwako or Sanae’s whereabouts, Miss Kanako strode over to her, startling the lion-dog, and looked at her more closely. Aun felt herself turn stony as the Yasaka goddess ran her snake-like eyes over her.

“I suppose you bedded down in our room?” The goddess’s face betrayed no idea of what she was thinking, as usual.

“Sorry. I didn’t know I wasn’t—”

“What’s that? I told you, don’t mutter.”

“Yes!” yelped the lion-dog. The volume she was capable of under distress shocked even her sometimes. She lowered her voice a little. “I’m sorry if I wasn’t supposed to. I was really tired.”

Miss Kanako laid one of her massive hands on Aun’s head, breaking into a smile. She let out a low, reverberating laugh that sounded oddly — to Aun’s ear — like a titter of amusement. “Oh, don’t be silly. Nothing to apologise over. I just wondered how you must have slept in a big, empty room. And your hair is a mess, by the way.”

Tutting to herself, the goddess smoothed down Aun’s hair, which the lion-dog only just noticed really was a mess. Strands of stony green fluff bent this way and that, her normally compact curls unrolled into a tangle. Miss Kanako’s hands were warm and worked the hair with a deftness that Aun would never have expected considering their size. It was a strangely motherly act for someone like the Yasaka goddess, who was more of a boss than anything to everyone else. Aun was unsure how to feel about it, though it soothed whatever constituted nerves for someone of her rocky constitution.

“Well?” Miss Kanako prompted, drawing her hand away when she was done.

Aun stared back, tilting her head a little. “Well?” she repeated.

“I was asking about last night. With no one else in the room, I imagine you had the pick of the spots. How did you sleep by yourself, hmm?” The goddess laid a finger under the lion-dog’s chin, scratching it gingerly.

[ ] Sleep had been a little difficult. She crawled around and eventually did get comfortable. She’s rested and ready to take on the day, though.
[ ] Sleep had come in fits and starts. At least sometimes there were comfy dreams. She’s a little dozy, but she’s been worse.
[ ] The night was a big blur. Frankly, she might need a minute to get started this morning.
[x] Sleep had been a little difficult. She crawled around and eventually did get comfortable. She’s rested and ready to take on the day, though.

>Kanako will never brush out your bedhead in the morning
[x] The night was a big blur. Frankly, she might need a minute to get started this morning.
[x] Sleep had been a little difficult. She crawled around and eventually did get comfortable. She’s rested and ready to take on the day, though.
It's a struggle to feel comfy when you're a lonely dog.
[x] Sleep had come in fits and starts. At least sometimes there were comfy dreams. She’s a little dozy, but she’s been worse.

Can't imagine sleeping well with a hat staring at you all the time, even if it was turned around.
In the interest of moving on, I'm going to go ahead and close the votes. The winner is...

[x] Sleep had been a little difficult. She crawled around and eventually did get comfortable. She’s rested and ready to take on the day, though.

By the way, how many of my readers are on the Discord? I gave some advance notice of closing the votes there, but I'm sure I missed someone. Let me know if you're not there. I'll try to give a warning post here as well if I'm missing too many folks.
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[x] Sleep had been a little difficult. She crawled around and eventually did get comfortable. She’s rested and ready to take on the day, though.

Casting back to her night alone, Aun found it very hard to answer the question. What had happened wasn’t particularly out of the ordinary. In fact, beyond the exploration that she would keep to herself for the moment, it was a totally normal night. What made replying to Miss Kanako so difficult for the lion-dog wasn’t as much what happened as where she had settled.

Sleep didn’t come to her right away when she lay down. Numerous times, she found herself half-awake, unable to quite curl herself into a position that felt comfortable. In one, the darkness of the closet felt too close. In another, she was pressed right against the fusuma. One left her feeling too hot, another too cold. All the while, her sense of being alone in the room was alive and well. Her custom — or maybe it was instinct — as a lion-dog to be curled up next to someone made such absences all the more prominent. Ironically, she felt unguarded.

After being disturbed footsteps in the night, Aun’s nose had informed her that Miss Kanako was somewhere nearby. Though that fact would have alerted her if she were more awake, at that time, it lulled her back towards sleep. Half-asleep, she groped around the tatami, searching for the spot that would offer her comfort. A short crawl later, her strength left her and she curled up, unconsciousness swallowing her like a fish engulfing a pebble adrift in the current.

The Yasaka goddess’s scent felt closer than before. Swathed in a sense of safety, the snug lion-dog fell into dreams about being held tightly in a pair of strong arms. Whose arms, it was hard to say. Few that Aun could remember had held her with such strength. Those dreams felt as if they had actually happened before, echoes of a not-so-distant past. How strange, then, that she had no clear recollection now.

When the morning dawned, Aun was shocked to find that her ultimate resting place was on Miss Kanako’s side of the room. Her face had been pressed against the edge of the tatami, where the smell of the goddess emitted thanks to the hidden cache of letters underneath. While the futon had been stored away, she had essentially been sleeping in Miss Kanako’s spot, somewhere she probably wouldn’t have knowingly crawled to.

Standing there in the kitchen, looking into the goddess’s slit eyes, Aun suddenly found it very hard to hold her gaze. She was largely unknown to shyness, as that would require an awareness usually lacking in a lion-dog such as herself. However, admitting the circumstances in which she’d slept aloud felt impossible. The Miss Kanako she knew would have no sense of humour about it. The one lightly caressing her chin with one finger was an unknown that the lion-dog was uncertain about testing.

“Something the matter?” queried the goddess. One of the strong hands that had been caressing Aun’s head moved to steady her by the shoulder.

There was much that was the matter, but Aun was desperate to not let it show in her face. Looking up at Miss Kanako again, she flashed an unsteady smile. “I was just… thinking about something. When I used to sleep between you and Miss Suwako. And Sanae would come in a lot, too.”

Whether it was at the mention of her partner or Sanae, the Yasaka goddess’s own smile grew fainter as Aun pronounced their names. Her hand withdrew from Aun’s shoulder and moved to her cheek, the warmth of her palm prompting the lion-dog to automatically nuzzle it.

The red beads appraised her closely again, hardly bothering to blink. It was the sort of thing that would have given Aun cause to tremble. After all, being looked at by Miss Kanako was akin to being stared at by a coiled snake, ready to strike at the slightest show of hesitation. Oddly, though, like the palm Aun nestled her cheek into, the goddess’s gaze was warmer, gentler in a way that she’d not had occasion to see. What surprised the lion-dog even more was the clear wistfulness mingled in with the warmth.

“Miss Kanako?”

“It’s nothing. Just thinking, too.” Miss Kanako glanced up at the clock on the wall. Brought from her pensive state by the time, she retreated towards the sink. “Look at me standing here. Can’t be wasting time.”

After a pause to finish washing the rice, the goddess smiled back at Aun. “Care to help with breakfast?”

“Oh, of course!” Aun replied without hesitation, her tail wagging.

“Better you than anyone else,” she heard Miss Kanako say to herself as she went to wash up. Though its delivery was cheerful, there was a certain weightiness in how it was muttered into the air. However, Aun chose to ignore that for the moment. Chances to be of help to anyone had been precious as of late.

Things to help with largely consisted of chopping vegetables and grinding sesame while Miss Kanako handled the rest. Though it was a tad piddly by Aun’s reckoning, she was far from afraid of employing her lion-dog strength and durability. Not that it made knife knicks any less painful. Beyond the occasional slip of the knife, prompting Aun to apply another bandage each time, it was a fairly uneventful bout of cooking. Miss Kanako stayed silent for much of the time before slipping back into quiet humming. Not that Aun minded. Peace was preferable to all alternatives.

As the goddess started blanching some spinach, she suddenly asked Aun about Reimu and business at the Hakurei Shrine. The question itself was mere innocent prying as far as the lion-dog could detect, and she felt no compunction to avoid answering. Months had passed since last anyone on the mountain had heard anything, of course. Even with tengu swirling around, letting others know of rumours and goings-on regardless of whether or not they’d lend an ear, news was often slow to bounce from the human side of Gensokyo to the youkai side. Relations between the shrines, too, was an odd situation to Aun. She thought of the two sides as something akin to neighbours, but Reimu differed greatly in opinion, particularly when the Moriya Shrine prospered. As far as she could tell, Miss Kanako seemed to consider Reimu’s shrine a friendly port of call no matter what the circumstance.

Midway through talking about recent circumstances, reluctance did colour her voice. Perhaps picking up on this, the Yasaka goddess shifted the conversation towards an anecdote about an encounter with a tengu merchant peddling eggs. The lightheartedness of the goddess’s recollections — to say nothing of the ordinariness of its subject matter — brought to mind any one of the village wives often seen congregating in open spaces. In contrast, Reimu was hardly one for conversation in the best of times, much less with a lion-dog, and what little she said tended towards complaints, often about the other on-and-off inhabitants of the shrine. It was strange for things to feel so, well, normal around Miss Kanako, but Aun felt thankful in that moment, and carried on about her work industrious as ever.





The thought that things might not be as they should would have stayed far away from Aun’s mind if the day continued like that. What started to strain the walls of her happy bubble was when Miss Kanako asked her to check on the morning’s pickles in the ‘refrigerator’. Poking her head into the mysterious cold box, she was absorbed in the coolness of it and the seemingly endless bounty inside. Outside things like these had been no end of wonder to the lion-dog, though she seldom trusted them; Sanae was usually the one to handle things like that. Lacking any idea what to look for beyond ‘a box’, she nosed around the various shelves, coming across things that could have fit the description but weren’t at all the target. The discovery that gave her most pause was a plate covered in thin film.

Tucked into a prominent spot was a dish full of last night’s stew and some rice, which wasn’t surprising in and of itself — though Aun would have been interested anyway. What caught her eye was a square of paper shoved partially under the clear wrapping. She plucked up the paper and unfolded it. The first line of the note was addressed to Sanae.

“Are you having trouble finding the pickles?” came Miss Kanako’s voice from straight above the lion-dog.

Caught unawares, Aun started. The note slipped from her hand and fluttered to the floor. She reached for it but the massive goddess had already stretched her arm out. Miss Kanako wore a conflicted expression as she retrieved the paper, tucking it back into the dish and pulling out the pickles.

“Sorry,” Aun said quietly.

The Goddess Yasaka took a sharp breath, clearly intending to say something, but she strode past Aun instead, shaking her head. At whom, it was unclear. For a time, she stood quiet, absently examining the pickles. After tasting them, adding salt, and resealing them, she turned to Aun.

“She was out very late. No supper, I expect,” she announced, regaining some of the prior softness in her manner.

“Who, Sanae?” If Aun’s ears were more mobile, they would have stood up. Her tail sufficed as an expression of her surprise. “I never saw her at all.”

“It would have been past the break of dawn. Though I can’t be entirely sure. Goodness knows when that girl comes and goes these days.”

Aun looked towards the stairs. For Sanae to have gone up those creaky things without waking her, she must have gotten more comfy than she’d expected. “I hope she’s alright.”

“She’ll probably be in bed until late noon, knowing her.” Kanako shrugged her shoulders, giving a tight smile that only just hid a note of annoyance. “It’d be nice if she were up and around to help with chores every once in a while.”

“What do you think she’s doing?” Aun asked off-handedly.

“I can’t even guess. Can’t say it’s my business, either. As long as the shrine doesn’t fall down.”

The remark struck Aun as oddly cavalier, especially for anyone with Miss Kanako’s normal disposition. Perhaps sensing doubt in the lion-dog’s gaze, Miss Kanako waved off her concerns and went to taste the miso soup again, reporting that breakfast was ready. No further discussion of Sanae would be entertained. That much was clear to Aun.

Compared to the liveliness that accompanied making the meal, breakfast at the Moriya’s table was a muted affair. Most of Miss Kanako’s attention was directed at her food, leaving scarcely any room for conversation. The times Aun found the courage to say something, her words seemed to disappear into a void, never quite reaching the goddess’s ears. When Miss Kanako did hear what Aun said, her reply hardly matched the candor of the conversation, veering off towards innocuous tittle-tattle. A handful of instances were enough for the lion-dog, stony in resolve as she was, to lose her patience. Giving up, she ate her breakfast in a silence that twinned Miss Kanako’s.

After helping to clean up, Aun quickly excused herself with the half-truth that she was concerned with the state she’d left the room. Greeting her with its vacant, beaming stare was Miss Suwako’s hat. Aun’s stone fluff stood up in rocky bristles. She’d only just forgotten about the damned thing, and here it was to remind her. She took a very distracted moment to tidy the room before carrying the piece of cursed headwear — at arm’s length — down the hall.

Miss Kanako’s reaction to the devil hat was much more blasé. She shook her head, muttering something, and fetched a glass of water.

“The main hall at the shrine,” ordered the goddess tersely, putting the glass in the already confused lion-dog’s hand. There was a bit of the old intensity in her eyes.

“Why the water, though? Am I supposed to give that to…” Aun hesitated to even name Miss Suwako directly.

“Go and see. You’ll know soon enough.”

Evidently through talking, Miss Kanako knelt back down and went on scrubbing the kitchen floor, not offering a second look at the bewildered lion-dog. That was it, then, she figured. Time to do as she was told and go check the main hall.





In general, shrines were a place of comfort to Aun. They were, after all, as much her ‘home’ as anywhere could be home to a statue-beast. Every part of a shrine was like the various rooms of a house to an average human, and she inhabited them with the same level of familiarity. The sole exception was the main hall.

Even one as attuned to the pure world as her paused at the idea of entering a sacred place’s inner sanctum. To do for most would be to tempt the wrath of the enshrined gods. Any usual intruder probably wouldn’t have the same sense of trespass as Aun, though. Being within reach of the go-shintai, part of the resident god’s own essence housed within, could be unbearable to someone able to feel the vibrations of a deity’s presence. To the lion-dog, the feeling was one of someone looking deep inside her, straight through both stone and spirit. For that reason, the donation box was as close as she dared get to the main hall under normal circumstances.

However, standing near the Moriya Shrine’s main hall, there was a feeling of negative space in the air that made Aun look around to confirm she had the right building. There was the donation box. There were the shimenawa. There was the grating that signalled the impure to keep their distance. All the usual trademarks of the main hall, in other words. And yet nothing in particular registered to Aun’s sacred beast-statue senses. Just like when she tried communing with the shrine.

“H-Hello?” she called into the grating, her voice breaking with nervousness.

Nothing stirred within the void. Aun looked around and, seeing that she wasn’t being observed, pressed closer to the grating. The inside of the hall wasn’t quite pitch dark, but spotting anything was more than could be asked of a lion-dog’s eyes, squint though she might. Unaware of anything to be found, she began to doubt whether Miss Kanako’s command hadn’t been some sort of joke beyond her comprehension. Gods could certainly be like that. Just in case, she rattled the grating, expecting that to be the end of that.

A faint sound, like that of someone turning over, came from the inner hall, followed by what Aun could only parse as a sleepy murmur. Someone was home after all. In fact, upon a second look, she also detected the wavering light of a dying candle.

She raised her voice a little. “Hello? Sorry, but I’m coming in.”

Not waiting for a response, Aun left her shoes by the grating and headed inside the inner sanctum. Immediately, she saw the nearly burnt-out candle sitting on the floor. Someone was lying curled in a ball next to it. Aun’s nosed stung suddenly from a strong stench of alcohol. There were a number of empty sake bottles littering the place. Feeling a little indignant about the building being used for such irreverent purposes, she bent down and shook the presumably sleeping intruder.

“Excuse me. Do you know where you are? This is no place to be sleeping, much less drinking.” She paused and looked over her shoulder. “I really shouldn’t even be here, either.”

“Alright, I’m up,” was the mumbled reply, mingled with further indeterminate growls and moans. They were either a woman with a rough voice or a young boy. Aun hoped it wasn’t the latter, but she’d seen what some of the village kids could get up to. All the more reason to scold them, she figured.

All thoughts of lecturing the drowsy trespasser vanished when they sat up. Even in the dim light, Aun could see that it was Miss Suwako.

“Oh, hey, Aun. G’morning.” She stopped to clear her throat, her voice sounding scratchy with the gunk of a rough morning after. “Or whatever time it is,” she added as an after-thought.

“A bit late, but it’s still morning.”

The little goddess fell backwards, shielding her eyes from any light. “That’d do it.”

“Were you up late, too? Miss Kanako said Sanae didn’t come in until dawn. She’ll probably be asleep all day.”

“Sounds like a good plan to me.” Miss Suwako tried to roll over but found the strength in her arms lacking, flopping woozily on the ground. Giving up, she settled for staring up at Aun. “So, what brings you out here? Get comfy. It’s not much of a place, but it’s mine.”

“How much did you have to drink?” Aun asked, giving another look at the mess of bottles. Not losing count after a dozen proved too difficult for her lion-dog brain. It was too many, in any case.

The question drew a laugh from the Moriya goddess. “A whole lot. Lost track a while back. Can’t say it’s all out yet. Probably have to remedy that in a bit, if you know what I mean.” She paused and laughed again, although it was more awkward laughter. “The, uh, normal way, not the yucky way, I mean. At least, I hope not.”

The lion-dog wasn’t all that sure what Miss Suwako meant, but she felt she ought to prop the goddess up just in case. After some complaining from the hungover goddess, she coaxed Miss Suwako into sitting upright, though she wobbled a bit in any case.

“Well, thanks for worrying about me, I guess,” the Goddess Moriya said with some embarrassment. Her eyes fell to the glass of water that Aun still held. “That for me, by the way?”

Aun handed the water to Miss Suwako. Even if it wasn’t, she clearly needed it. “Miss Kanako told me to bring it out here. I didn’t know you’d be here, though.”

Miss Suwako groaned as soon as she’d drained the glass. “Good old Kana, using others to shame me. At least that part of her hasn’t changed. Real sorry it had to be you. You’re the one I’d least have wanted to catch me like this.”

In all honesty, Aun wished she hadn’t caught Miss Suwako in her present condition, either. If nothing else, she wouldn’t have had to expose herself to the boozy atmosphere of the inner hall at that moment. Of course, there was the matter of Miss Suwako’s general disordered manner, which was only made worse by drink and gods knew what else. Even someone with gravel for a brain could tell it was as far from natural as it was pitiful.

Sitting down next to the goddess, if only to keep her upright, Aun stared down at her feet, not really wanting to look at Miss Suwako. “Do you do this all the time?”

“The drinking? Not as much as Kana would have you believe, I bet.”

“I mean sleeping out here. How can you stand it? This place is so dirty. And I’m surprised you didn’t freeze sleeping out here all night.” Even being her stony self, Aun found herself trembling a little, having gone out underdressed for the season.

“Ah, that.” The goddess set the glass down and hugged her knees, pressing herself harder against Aun. No smell of drink clung to her in spite of her well-pickled state. The autumn chill also made the warm touch of her soft skin not unwelcome. “I’ll admit it, yeah. Haven’t slept in the house in a while now.”

“So, neither of you have slept in that room, then.”

Sighing, Miss Suwako wrapped her arms around Aun’s shoulders, draping herself over the lion-dog. Their cheeks touched, warming one another’s faces. “Look at you, smart girl. Though I guess it was pretty obvious, wasn’t it? Spends all day cleaning the damn house, and it’s still dusty in there. Couldn’t believe it, myself.”

Numerous questions floated in the churning gravel of Aun’s lion-dog head. In that moment, embraced by the little goddess in the cold, pondering the faint pinprick of candlelight remaining, she found it hard to voice any of them. She elected to merely sit there, letting herself be warmed by Miss Suwako.

After some time, Miss Suwako unlatched herself from Aun. She took the hat from Aun’s other hand, putting it on as she stood up unsteadily. “If you wanna know why, spend some time with Kana. Meanwhile, I gotta go see a man about a dog.” She chuckled. “Sorry, lion-dog.”

Not wanting to be left in the darkness and filth, Aun stood up and followed. Outside, Miss Suwako was hurrying off towards the lake behind the shrine. She stopped and turned back toward Aun.

“Oh, and thanks for the water!” the Goddess Moriya called out before taking off flying.

“You’re welcome,” Aun said quietly, bowing even though the goddess had rapidly disappeared from sight. It was only proper.

Heaving a heavy sigh, Aun looked back at the main hall. To think she had been so wary. Granted, she had been witness to something unpleasant, but that was different from anything she’d have expected. In more ways than one, it was a letdown. She headed back inside, intent on putting things in some kind of order.

Quietly, she was thankful just doing that would likely take some time. There was nothing else in particular to do, and Aun wasn’t sure she felt like going straight back to Miss Kanako. Difficult matters such as these took time for anyone to process, much less a lion-dog of very little brain.
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The actual work of picking up in the main hall hadn’t taken much time, so she whiled away the rest of the morning idly wandering the shrine grounds. Owing to the day being overcast, judging the time of day was difficult, but Aun guessed it was sometime past noon by the time she grew tired of endless pacing. It was too chilly for her to carry on, anyway. Gathering up the autumn leaves that were still piled everywhere, she built a small fire in the yard. The satisfaction of a job well done washed over as she sat down, and she enjoyed toasting her paws to get the chill out. All the while, she wished she had some sweet potatoes to roast.

Memories of past autumns at the Moriya Shrine brought out an involuntary smile from her. They had made full-on bonfires on those occasions. Normally not one to help with mundane business, Miss Suwako would be in high spirits helping to build the fire, starting leaf fights with Aun and trying to wrestle her to the ground. Sanae would return from somewhere at the bottom of the mountain with a sackload of sweet potatoes. Asked where they were from, she always answered with a wink and shushing finger to her lips. Even Miss Kanako would be less snappy and serious; she was possibly the most enlivened of them, considering a single bite of roasted tuber netted a rare smile.

Lost in imagining the fragrance of roasted sweet potatoes, Aun felt her lion-dog belly call for attention, breaking her from the relative bliss of memory. Present reality, as she ascertained by looking around, was a much more solitary place. Neither Sanae, Miss Suwako, nor Miss Kanako had passed into her field of vision for some time. The sky had cleared and darkened. Overriding the phantom smell of potatoes past, the temptation of something fried loosed the lion-dog from her spot and guided her back to the house for dinner.

A humming Miss Kanako greeted her as if nothing was amiss and told her to get ready for dinner. On the way back from washing up, Aun took a detour to look in on Sanae. Knocking on the door received no answer. When she peeked inside, there was no trace of the shrine maiden. Inquiries to the Yasaka goddess about her whereabouts only got an unconcerned shrug in return. The lion-dog didn’t even bother bringing up Miss Suwako. It looked like it would be just the two of them dining in silence again.

Mid-dinner, the goddess spoke up. She asked again how Aun had slept and, hearing an abbreviated version of Aun’s previous account, suddenly offered a place by the kotatsu. After all, she asserted, it had to be difficult to sleep alone in a dark and filthy room. Though Aun demurred initially, she was eventually forced to accept the arrangement. Miss Kanako was simply too insistent — that is, stubborn, as she was wont to be — to continue refusing. Once dinner was done, the Goddess Yasaka happily made a space for Aun between stacks of books and documents.

Too tired to care after a bath, Aun accepted a suspiciously Miss Suwako-sized pair of pyjamas from Miss Kanako and settled into the kotatsu with the larger goddess. She had to admit that it was comfortable.

The following morning proved to be as difficult an awakening as the one previous. In the fog of morning doziness, Aun wondered if her stone was slowly transforming into lead. That seemed to be about the only reasonable explanation to her lion-dog sensibilities.

Looking over and seeing Miss Kanako in the kitchen then reminded her of other possibilities: namely, being disturbed in the night by sudden movements. She was certain that Miss Kanako had risen in the dead of night. What she had done and for what reason was beyond speculation at the moment. All Aun knew was that her sleep was fitful afterwards, which went a long way in explaining how she felt this morning. Not that she was going to rule out covert alchemy, even at this stage.

Miss Kanako’s morning greeting carried a note of surprise once Aun had managed to haul herself out of the toasty kotatsu and into the annoyingly frigid rest of the house. That was when Aun discovered that it was, in fact, not morning at all.

“It was regretful that you missed breakfast, but I couldn’t stand disturbing you. You looked so snug.” She was smiling again, much to Aun’s mild annoyance. “I tried waking you anyway, and nothing really worked, so I just left things at that.”

“Is that so?” Aun’s tail went limp, her spirits sinking from having missed yet another meal.

Seeing Aun’s sunken expression, Miss Kanako gave a little laugh. She held up a half-peeled potato from the sink. “Now, now, don’t frown. You’re up just in time to help with lunch! You like curry, don’t you?”

“Curry!” The word came out in an enraptured gasp. How long had it even been since Aun had heard it mentioned, much less tasted it? Her tail betrayed her sympathies before the rest of her, shaking left-right with renewed vigour.

“We’ll be having a bit of a late lunch, but it’ll be worth it. And two pairs of hand will make the work that much quicker!”

Catching Miss Kanako’s drift, Aun dashed back and forth getting herself ready, finally putting on her own apron and head-wrap to join the cooking goddess. With the promise of curry driving her, she put her all into washing, peeling, and chopping the small mountain of vegetables placed out for her. The excitement was enough to make her forget the troubles of yesterday. Even Reimu failed to cast a pale over her thoughts, only the vague notion that the red-white shrine maiden would probably complain about the amount of work needed for curry making her snicker for a brief moment.





That enthusiasm carried Aun until all of the prep work was done and the curry was ready to simmer. Resting their feet, Miss Kanako and Aun sat down at the table, nothing left to do for the moment. Sipping tea and eating rice crackers, they spoke at some length about the last time Aun had been around for curry. In the midst of this recollection, Aun suddenly realised that she hadn’t seen Sanae all that morning. She wondered aloud if she should try and wake the shrine maiden, seeing as their lunch wouldn’t be that far off now. Miss Kanako let out an exclamation of surprise and stood up, running to the ‘refrigerator’.

“How can I be so forgetful? Honestly!” she chided herself.

“What’s the matter?” Aun asked with some hesitation.

“I made a bento for Sanae but forgot to give it to her before she left.” The goddess showed off the carefully-packed box, a set of chopsticks tied to the top. No note was attached this time, as far as Aun could see.

Before Aun could remark about not knowing Sanae was already up and around, she found herself pressed into delivering the packed lunch in Miss Kanako’s stead. Offering no further instruction, the Yasaka goddess hurried the lion-dog out the door, slamming it behind her. So much for resting her feet, she thought.

A quick circuit around the shrine buildings turned up no sign of Sanae, much to Aun’s consternation. In any normal circumstance, she would have likely been either sweeping out front or in the shrine offices. The piles of leaves made it clear that no sweeping had happened, and the offices were locked up tight. Grumbling, the lion-dog went as far as the lake in search of Sanae. It was no use.

Frustrated, she made her way back to the main hall to catch her breath. After some time waiting on the steps, Aun heard a voice behind her.

“Oh, hey there. Were you waiting for me? Sorry about that. Had some business elsewhere.” It was the Moriya goddess, in a much more sober and less disheveled state.

Aun held up the bento. “I can’t find Sanae.”

Seeing the lunchbox, Miss Suwako made a face that made it clear she was trying not to laugh. “Ah, Kana’s got you put to work again. Poor girl.”

“Have you see her? Sanae, I mean.”

“Matter of fact, I ran into her around the shrine offices a while ago. She didn’t have a whole lot to say to me.” The little goddess’s face was more serious now. “I’d watch yourself, if I was you. I can tell she’s not sleeping much. That’s liable to make her real snappy. She was clearly in a bad mood when I saw her. Got Kana’s temper in a lot of ways, y’know?”

The idea of Sanae being ‘snappy’ wasn’t entirely out of the question. Aun had never directly been in her line of fire, but she had definitely seen parallels between the shrine maiden’s general disposition and that of the shrine’s principal deity. She could be more forgiving of error, sure. However, that didn’t mean she was ever one to suffer fools. More than one disrespectful shrine visitor had found themselves flung into the foothills by ‘miraculous’ gusts of wind.

Thanking Miss Suwako for the warning, Aun returned to her search. The shrine offices seemed to be the only lead to go off of, even though they had been shut up when Aun last checked. Taking a more circuitous route, she went between the various buildings. The vague and absurd hope that Sanae might turn up in one of the spaces made it, to Aun’s mind, a worthwhile deviation. In the back of her mind, she had already given up hope in finding Sanae and was trying to find some excuse to give Miss Kanako. It would need to be a decent one, or else she’d likely be sent right back out.

A sound brought Aun to a stop near a darkened section between two buildings. At first, she’d taken it to be the snorting of a wild hog from the forest. Listening again, she strained to locate the exact source. Someone was snoring.

As best the lion-dog’s stone ears could make out, the noise was definitely coming from the darkness between buildings. On her guard, she approached in hopes of spotting whoever it was. She could swear she saw an outline of someone rolling over on the ground.

While she stepped closer, the noise vanished all of a sudden. She looked around in bewilderment. The sleeping figure’s outline was gone, too. Leaves crunched behind her. She whipped into an about-face in terror. Were it not for a quick dodge, Aun would have run horn-first into Sanae.

The two stood there staring at each other for a few moments. Sanae looked a mess, her hair loose, flowing every which way, and showing split ends all over. Her eyes had the prominent puffiness of sleep deprivation. She seemed to be regarding Aun with the same degree of surprise, resulting in a wide-eyed look. While she wouldn’t quite be mistaken for a mountain hag, the likeness wasn’t lost on Aun.

“Sanae?”

“Aun.”

Aun heaved a sigh. “You scared me, sneaking up on me like that. I’ve been looking for you.”

“Oh.” Sanae cleared her throat, standing up straight and smoothing her wild mane down with little success. “Alright, you found me. Now what?”

Sensing a tension in Sanae’s manner, Aun immediately held up the bento. Sanae stared at the offering as if she suspected foul play. She started to reach for it but stopped herself in place, regarding Aun with a wary look.

“Lady Kanako put you up to this, didn’t she?” she asked, hand frozen mid-air.

The question made Aun want to sigh again. It seemed everyone was asking that lately. “She told me to deliver this. She forgot earlier.”

Sanae scratched her head, grumbling to herself. Her eyes didn’t leave the lunchbox. It was clear that she wanted to take it. After some consideration, she gave in and accepted the bento.

Opening the box, she scrutinised the contents closely, sniffing and prodding them as if she expected there to be something living inside. Aun found the degree of suspicion strange. After all, Miss Kanako’s cooking was delicious. And yet, Sanae acted as if it might be poisoned or booby-trapped.

“Is something wrong?” the lion-dog queried.

Closing the box, Sanae offered an awkward smile. “It’s… nothing. You just didn’t have to do this. Really.”

“But Miss Kanako insisted. I didn’t have a choice.” Aun pouted. “She pushed me out the door before I could say anything.”

“Sounds like Lady Kanako, alright,” the shrine maiden said with a stiff chuckle. Turning suddenly, she began walking toward the shrine offices. “I can’t blame you, I guess. Here, let’s go have a sit together. You can have half.”

Aun was reluctant for a split second, then her stomach reminded her that she’d been deprived of breakfast by her late rising. Needing no further convincing, she followed Sanae. The two perched by the doors of the office.

Handing Aun the lid, Sanae piled the bento’s contents on. Aun wanted to object, but hunger was getting the better of her. The various bits of fried meatballs, stir-fried burdock, and other staples made her mouth water. Just waiting for Sanae to finish doling it out was getting to be longer than she could stand. By the time the shrine maiden was done heaping on food, more than half of the side dishes sat on the lid, along with a mound of mushroom rice. She handed the chopsticks off to Aun, insisting she was fine eating with her hands.

Aun gawped at her portion, her tail swinging rapturously. “Are you sure I can have all of this?”

“I’m sure Lady Kanako means well, but I don’t eat nearly this much,” Sanae replied. She picked up a piece of potato and stared at it before taking a measured bite, making a complicated face. “It is pretty good, though. I’ll give her that.”

[ ] Maybe this isn’t a good time to press on issues. Keep it light by expressing surprise at Kanako’s cooking skill too.
[ ] Something seems to be bothering Sanae about this whole business with Kanako. Why not just ask directly?
[x] Something seems to be bothering Sanae about this whole business with Kanako. Why not just ask directly?
Lion-dogs ain't got no tact
[x] Something seems to be bothering Sanae about this whole business with Kanako. Why not just ask directly?

suspicious
[x] Something seems to be bothering Sanae about this whole business with Kanako. Why not just ask directly?
[x] Something seems to be bothering Sanae about this whole business with Kanako. Why not just ask directly?

She probably wants to run away from home, or is planning to.
[X] Maybe this isn’t a good time to press on issues. Keep it light by expressing surprise at Kanako’s cooking skill too.
>>31648
I didn't even read that. Not official == don't care.

Anyway, a week's long enough for this. Votes are closed. The winner by a landslide is...

[x] Something seems to be bothering Sanae about this whole business with Kanako. Why not just ask directly?

Imagine tempting fate this hard.
File 161583521011.png - (363.97KB, 767x812, lion-doggo noms.png) [iqdb]
31651
[x] Something seems to be bothering Sanae about this whole business with Kanako. Why not just ask directly?

Miss Suwako once said that Sanae was a ‘living god’ because she had the ability to call miracles. Being a lion-dog with a lion-dog’s gravelly brain, Aun merely smiled and nodded at the time. Understanding wasn’t her job; that was guarding. Nevertheless, such a pronouncement would mingle in the gravel like bits of some foreign sand, unable to be completely lost from her mind. On rare occasions, that grit dislodged and filtered out into her awareness.

Contemplating a mound of food piled on a bento box lid, Aun had one of those moments of sudden recollection. Her gaze naturally wandered to Sanae. The lion-dog felt that she now understood Miss Suwako’s words without any intuition as to why. All she knew was that she’d witnessed no greater miracle than the feast before her.

And yet Sanae did not seem to share the sentiment. Listlessly, she poked and prodded the side dishes, picking up the occasional morsel for a measured bite. While nothing elicited a disgusted grimace, she still appeared hesitant. As Aun shoveled through her portion with glee, Sanae took fewer and fewer bites, until she merely stared at her food with an absent look. At last, she rested the bento in her lap and did not touch it any further.

“Is yours not good?” Aun asked through a mouthful of mushroom rice.

Sanae pondered something before looking away as if checking the small path that ran out in front of the office. “It’s fine. Really, I’m just not all that hungry. I have too small an appetite to begin with.”

There was a fib if Aun had ever heard one. Of the Moriya Shrine’s habitual residents, Sanae was easily the most inclined to feasting. At dinnertime, her rice bowl contained no less than a miniature mountain, and it would be emptied and refilled at least once. Miss Suwako wholeheartedly approved of Sanae’s intake, saying with an odd leer that the shrine maiden would grow as big as Miss Kanako eating as she did. Height-wise, Aun reckoned Sanae outstripped Reimu, her witch friend, and much of the village already; there seemed to her little point in growing much taller.

“And Lady Kanako really shouldn’t bother. She knows better than…” Sanae added in a mutter that would have been too quiet for anyone without a lion-dog’s ears, trailing off into incoherence as she stifled a yawn.

“Sorry if this sounds a little rude,” Aun began, tearing her attention away from the bento, “but you’re kind of off today. Are you sure everything’s okay? You were acting like something was up the other day, too.”

Sanae regarded the lion-dog with a tense smile. Unlike the day before yesterday, it was an instantaneous reaction. “I’m… not sure I know what you’re talking about.”

“Well, for one thing, you didn’t look like you wanted to take the bento. And then you gave me more than half of it. And you’ve said a couple of things about Miss Kanako already. I dunno. Sure sounds like something’s bothering you. Maybe about Miss Kanako?”

The shrine maiden went wide-eyed at the accusation, re-adopting the haggard vagrant look from earlier, the stiff grin she wore adding to her already somewhat disturbing appearance. One corner of her mouth twitched. It was hard to say if she was merely shocked at Aun’s forward statement, or if she was perhaps about to start shouting.

“There’s nothing going on between me and Lady Kanako,” she said by and by, shaking her head. “We’re as friendly as ever. Maybe a little too friendly, even, but—”

Aun smiled back, her feline side feeling like she was staring down a cornered rodent. “Avoiding her isn’t very friendly.”

“I’m not avoiding her,” Sanae asserted, forcing a laugh that lost intensity midway through, leaving her less a smile, “though I probably haven’t been very friendly, true. I can’t help it. You’d avoid her too if you were me.”

Setting the lunchbox on the ground, Sanae leaned back to look up into the sky for a few moments. She heaved a heavy sigh before looking straight at Aun. “In all the time you’ve known me, have I ever said anything about my home back outside Gensokyo?”

Aun shook her head. To her recollection, the topic had never come up, and it was a little odd that it hadn’t, now that she thought of it. Comparing Gensokyo and the outside was otherwise a common line of conversation for the shrine maiden. The frequency of such comparisons was enough sometimes to make Aun think Sanae really wanted to be back outside.

“Because I don’t really miss it all that much. I mean, I left it all behind. My mum, my dad, my friends — basically everyone I ever knew. It was a hard decision to make. That didn’t stop me. If I hadn’t come, I’d have regretted it my entire life. And I’m really lucky, you know? To be here, and…”

“And?” the lion-dog prompted.

Sanae’s expression the same incongruous gentleness as Miss Kanako’s. “And to have Lady Kanako and Lady Suwako as my gods. Without them, I’d just be another powerless little human. But, see, that’s different from having parents. I have a mother who isn’t here, and I’m fine with that. She gave me her blessing to come to Gensokyo. I don’t need another mum in my life now.” She tutted, clutching at her face and rubbing her weary eyes. “Sorry, I’m rambling. I’m probably not making a lot of sense.”

Aun was unsure how to answer that. Indeed, she was a bit dumbfounded. Her understanding always placed Miss Kanako as something like Sanae’s mother, though she knew they weren’t related. Though, as she thought on it, they never had been particularly close in a familial sort of way. Sanae could be deferential to the Goddess Yasaka, and Miss Kanako could in turn be protective of her shrine maiden, but theirs was a relationship somewhere between family and master and underling. Besides that, Miss Kanako usually left Sanae to her work, only stepping in to give orders whenever something obliged correction. The only occasions the Moriya Shrine’s residents truly came together for were meals and bedtime. The more she thought about it, the stranger Aun found Miss Kanako’s recent preoccupation with home matters.

Looking down at the bento again, another thought countered Aun’s impression: Was that really so bad? She had found the goddess’s newfound domestic persona refreshing after the initial oddity. Plus, her stir-fried burdock was a thing to be marvelled at.

Just as Aun thought to tell Sanae as such, Sanae stood up quickly. “I’m sorry. Forget everything. Seriously, don’t tell Lady Kanako or anyone what I said.”

“I won’t,” Aun promised immediately, “but where are you going?”

“There’s something I’ve gotta take care of. If Lady Kanako asks, I probably won’t be back for dinner.”

Aun wanted to keep Sanae there, but the desire to not needlessly waste food won out, leaving her to merely watch as the shrine maiden took to the skies. Her feline aspect suddenly felt dunked in cold water, having not got as solid a grasp on Sanae as she’d hoped. Luckily, her canine side was there to make the best of the lunch she’d been left. After all, if Sanae didn’t want it, why not eat it? Miss Kanako would probably have wanted that, she reasoned.

Her chopsticks remained in constant motion for some time. The gravel in her head mimicked the ceaseless activity, her thoughts remaining on Miss Kanako. Yes, the mountainous goddess’s cooking was formidable. And, yes, a bit of housework was no harm to anyone. On the other hand, what of the sudden rift with Miss Suwako? The seeming lack of concern over Sanae staying out? The dusty, unused room?

Guided by the last thought, Aun reached into her pocket. Sitting nearly forgotten next to that crow’s pictures was a now half-crumpled sheet of paper. The faintly lingering scent of Miss Kanako reminded her of its provenance: one of the hidden letters she’d carelessly grabbed. Having clear light for once, she decided to chance examining it.

Fortune did not favour the lion-dog beyond that; no legible contents remained on the paper. Not to say that the page was blank. On the contrary, thick, intense lines of red ink ran all over its surface. Shadows of some other writing in a darker ink showed in splotches beneath the red. Someone had, perhaps angrily, rendered all else unreadable. What was left to see was mostly a set of crude drawings, the meaning of which Aun couldn’t discern from a casual glance. Turning the paper into various orientations proved of little help. However, when she held it out in front of her, something did come into focus. A message scrawled in a bold hand stood out as if hidden in plain sight.

Kana, you dumbass!

The rudeness of the message made Aun frown, to say nothing of defacing a letter likely meant for someone else. Then again, judging from the form of address, the speaker could only be someone close to Miss Kanako. Aun would need to figure out who that could be and have a talk. Perhaps after dinner, she resolved, remembering the curry that was no doubt already simmering away.

Stowing away the letter, she took up her chopsticks again and stowed the remainder of her share of the bento in her stomach, followed by what Sanae had left. The lunchbox had not contained all that much, in truth, but it felt like an indulgent meal to Aun. Sitting there in the warm autumn daylight, sated for the moment, post-meal drowsiness threatened to overtake her. She shook off the pleasant idea of a nap, quickly tidied up, and made back for the house. Miss Kanako would no doubt be expecting to hear back by now.





The Yasaka goddess’s reaction to the news that Sanae didn’t want her bento was a markedly dull one. Not even Aun’s admission that she’d been the one to dispose of it drew more than slight chiding. As promised, the lion-dog offered nothing of Sanae’s thoughts to Miss Kanako. The story given when questioned was that the shrine maiden had left after refusing the bento. Though this was in effect lying by omission, Aun felt it was enough of the truth to not warrant calling it a lie per se. The goddess was satisfied in any case, and saw fit to apportion Aun other work soon thereafter.

From then until dinner, the day melted into a blur of repetitive work, much of it just outside the house. As soon as Aun finished spreading water on the ground outside or tidying the shoe rack, Miss Kanako called out some other bit of housekeeping left undone. All the while, smells of spice, meat, and vegetable blended into a tempting aroma that made Aun long for a quicker day. There was little else to do but put her all into the work, something she was all but sculpted for.

When she put thoughts of curry out of mind, Aun’s paws took to whatever task necessary, moving as if directed by some purpose well outside of Aun’s control. Within, her mind was as a rock rolling downhill, headed in one direction, the only purpose to propel herself forward. That was how it always was with Aun. Even Reimu, ever critical, had admitted once that the lion-dog was made for work — though Aun couldn’t be sure if it was a complimentary judgement or not. However appraised, work was its own reward to her, and she rarely asked any recompense.

The reward for her efforts in this case was a plate of curry ladled over steaming hot rice, which Aun and the Yasaka goddess both relished. In a surprising show, Miss Suwako soon made an appearance to join them, though she had nothing much to say. Miss Kanako similarly spent the meal refusing to acknowledge that the neighbouring seat was occupied. If either goddess said a word, the other would cease speaking for some time, leaving a heaviness in the air. For her part, Aun didn’t let the strained atmosphere between the two deities dampen her enjoyment of the curry. She had worked too hard throughout the day for every spoonful of the warming sustenance to be anything but another blessing.

Of course, the Moriya goddess’s presence did bring Aun’s thoughts back to earlier matters, particularly the letter. Out of anyone at the shrine, Miss Suwako had been the most receptive to talk about the goings-on there. She pondered making some light conversation with her, but Miss Kanako edged out any chance, dominating the table with her own (mostly one-sided) commentary on the day’s happenings. Feeling obliged, Aun mostly nodded along and agreed with whatever was said. Miss Suwako was much less charitable; her default reaction to anything seemed to be a roll of the eyes. Mid-way through conversation, the smaller goddess announced that she was finished and departed with little ceremony. That was the signal for Aun and Miss Kanako to finish their meal in silence.

Aun was quick to volunteer to take care of the dishes once they were done, something Miss Kanako gratefully assented to with only token protestation. Swapping her apron for the now familiar black sweater, the goddess took up her customary seat at the kotatsu, put on a pair of reading glasses, and resumed one of her many books in progress. Thanks to the steady stream of work earlier, their intended late lunch had become something of a late dinner, faint moonlight illuminating the shrine grounds by the time Aun began scrubbing dishes. The lion-dog watched Miss Kanako as she slowly worked, responding to a couple of queries that she was still going strong. It wasn’t so very long before the goddess could evidently keep her concentration on her book no longer.

Yawning and stretching, Miss Kanako bid Aun a good night and lay back at the kotatsu. The same snoring that she’d rapidly become familiar with soon became the background music to Aun finishing up the washing. The last dish set aside, Aun put out the lights and quietly made for the entryway. One last wary look back was all she took, in case the Yasaka goddess suddenly woke up.

When she approached the grating behind the donation box, Aun felt the same trepidation as the day before, unsure what might meet her this time. A light just brighter than a dim candle glowed from inside. She heard faint chatter, the hushed voice of Miss Suwako talking to someone, though to whom it was impossible to tell. The lion-dog called out, begging permission to enter, and was curtly answered after a pause. The Goddess Moriya appeared behind the grating to greet Aun with a great deal more cheer than earlier, practically pulling her inside.

No trace lingered of anyone else in the small room. Aun eyed the still-shut inner chamber quizzically. She’d never paid it much attention the last couple of times she’d visited.

Seeing where the lion-dog’s eyes lay, Miss Suwako made a cross of denial with her fingers. “Gods and shrine maidens only. Trespassers will be cursed.”

“I heard you talking to someone,” Aun said to excuse her curiosity.

“Mm-hmm, well, never you mind who. Let’s you and I chat, instead! Come, come!”

The little goddess pulled a well-worn zabuton from a dark corner, setting it down alongside its twin near the box lantern she’d set out. Aun took a seat at her bidding, and Miss Suwako plopped down on the other cushion, legs splayed, like a rowdy child free of school. A grimace made it clear that it was not a wise move at her age.

Glancing about, Aun noted the new odds and ends lining the edges of the room. Just when she’d tidied up, the goddess saw fit to add back clutter. “You’ve been in the storage.”

“Ah, you noticed,” Miss Suwako said with a laugh, crossing her legs and rocking in place. “We’ve got all this stuff. I thought: Why not? Might as well use it. ‘specially since I don’t see things changing much soon.”

“How’s that?”

“Just a feeling I’ve got. Kind of like this damned cold. Can’t ignore it. It’s enough to make me want to hibernate.” The goddess hugged herself, giving a little shiver.

Groaning as she got up from her seat, Miss Suwako dragged over a charcoal brazier that had already been lit. A dirty cast-iron kettle steamed away on top. Spotting it the same time as Aun, the Moriya goddess went to the opposite corner of the room to rummage for something. A search through some chests of drawers netted a pair of tea cups and a fairly new looking packet of tea.

“Only decent I put out some tea. You being a guest and all,” she said, heeding Aun’s curious glance.

“Please, I can get get it.”

“Oh, sit, girl!” Miss Suwako waved one of her oversized sleeves at the lion-dog. “I’m not so old I can’t do this. Not yet, anyway.”

Though her leonine side bristled, Aun sat obediently as the Moriya goddess made the tea and poured her a cup. Before she could have a sip, Miss Suwako reached in her sleeve to pull out a suspiciously familiar parcel. Inside was a few rice crackers. Aun was fairly certain they’d been sitting in the kitchen before.

Between loud crunches, Miss Suwako chuckled and sipped her tea. “Poor girl. I bet Kana had you going all day, didn’t she? Always such a taskmaster.”

“I can’t complain.” Aun reached for a rice cracker but stopped herself. “What else did you take from the house?”

“So you noticed!” the goddess said with a peal of laughter, making a mess of her tea. Wiping her mouth with an oddly familiar dark purple handkerchief, she set her cup down and leaned nearer the hibachi. “Not much. Nothing Kana will have an aneurysm over. I just needed a few essentials. To make the place a bit more homey, y’know?”

“It is more comfortable than last time.”

“You’ve got yourself to thank for that. You popping in those last couple of times got me thinking.”

“I wonder if she’ll miss that.” The lion-dog pointed her horn at the brazier.

“With the kotatsu to park Her Mountainship under? You tell me. Once the day’s done, she’ll never move from there. I watched her for a whole night one time. Honest!”

That was true enough, as Aun had witnessed. However, admit it or not, she couldn’t bring herself to like what Miss Suwako was doing. “Won’t you just go back?”

“Maybe I like it out here,” the Goddess Moriya retorted, scooting even closer to the hibachi.

Aun fell silent. This wasn’t what she came to talk about. Still, her sentiment was genuine. If Miss Suwako were to get back to the house and stay there, perhaps there was a chance things could be made a little bit better. Relations between the two goddesses couldn’t remain frigid like that in perpetuity, could they?

As if to fill the silence, Miss Suwako took another rice cracker, put it in her mouth, and broke it in half with an echoing crunch, almost seeming to enjoy the discomfort it caused Aun. There was that sort of nasty side to her, too. If there were buttons to press, she would be all too eager to press them. Aun could easily imagine Miss Kanako being as much put out with her partner as the little goddess was with her. The mind boggled imagining the sort of disagreement they must have had. Or if it was even a single instance.

Rising to her feet slowly, the Moriya goddess padded over to one side and came back with a chest of drawers. Not much inspection was required for Aun to note a similarity to the one Miss Suwako was digging through the other night. The goddess opened a drawer, producing a well-worn comb, the sort of thing that would be a family treasure for some village family. She handled it with a practised grip not unlike a shamisen player holding a pick.

Miss Suwako set her hat aside to undo her hair, letting the wheat-coloured locks cascade over her shoulders. Aun had somehow not noticed before, but the goddess’s hair had grown long since the last time she’d been around. Hidden under a hat and often tied up, her blonde tresses were hard to appreciate in most circumstances. Such a shame, too, Aun felt, as they shone in a captivating way under soft lighting. She dared not admit it aloud, but she longed to touch the Moriya goddess’s hair and feel the silkiness of those threads on her paws. On any other occasion, such a desire may well have been granted.

Aun sat watching the comb running the whole length of what were normally the little goddess’s braids. Miss Suwako took her time, running over and over through the same length of hair, seemingly insensible to all else. Once she was done with one side, her eye fell on Aun again.

“By the way, I went to get something out of mine and Kana’s room after dinner. Did you notice?” Miss Suwako asked with a wry smile. She rapped a knuckle on the chest of drawers. “I wanted this thing. It sure was strange, though. When I went looking, it looked like someone had been picking through those chests. Stuff out of place, y’know. And there wasn’t a lot of dust on anything. You wouldn’t happen to know anything, would you?”

The lion-dog’s tail sprang to attention at the accusation. She cursed her lack of care when doing her rifling. Averting her eyes, her voice fell into a murmur. “I might.”

The Goddess Moriya said nothing, merely continuing to smile at Aun knowingly as she started combing the other side. Seeing that there were no doubt further questions coming, Aun reached into her pocket and found the letter, placing it down on the floor between herself and Miss Suwako. The latter made a sound of intrigue and ceased combing to hold the leaf of paper up to the light. Seeing its contents drew a dry laugh from the goddess’s throat.

“You are a little detective, aren’t you? Let me guess how you found it.” She leaned in suddenly, touching the tip of Aun’s snout.

“It was the only other smell there,” Aun said, fidgeting at the touch of Miss Suwako’s fingertip. Few would ever dare try such a thing if they wanted to keep their fingers; the little goddess was one of very few exceptions.

Chuckling, Miss Suwako withdrew her finger, taking another look at the letter. Something about the drawings amused her, making her laugh even more until she was laughing out loud. Minutes went by before she was calm enough to speak again, wiping her eyes.

“Ah, I forgot about that. Of all the ones to find. You have some wonderful luck, you know that? You could have got some boring old letter, but you struck treasure instead.”

Aun stared at the goddess. “You mean—”

“Yeah, I admit it. Nobody else who could’ve, let’s face it.” The Moriya goddess shrugged her shoulders. Setting the comb down, she started to tie her hair back up. “What I would’ve given to see the look on Kana’s face. I bet she blew her top. Even when she plays the sweet little housewife, she’s still got her temper. Don’t let her fool you one minute.”

“That’s awfully rude,” Aun remarked, pointing out the defacement.

“If you think that’s bad, you wouldn’t want to hear some of the stuff we’ve said to each other’s faces!”

Feeling that the conversation was becoming a futile effort, Aun contemplated leaving. What had she hoped to even do here? As if sensing Aun’s thoughts, Miss Suwako’s expression become more sober. She finished tying up her hair and made another cup of tea for Aun. The lion-dog didn’t touch it for a good while, but she felt that letting it go cold was a waste and eventually gave in.

The little goddess puffed her cheeks out childishly once Aun was willing to look her way again. “I’m sorry, okay! Sheesh. I know I can be a bit of a jerk. But you also know I don’t mean you any harm, right? Not my big ol’ lion-pupper.”

“Then talk to me honestly.” Aun spoke with the high-and-mighty rumble of her feline side. Even though terms of endearment pricked at her stony heart, she needed to put her paw down somewhere.

“You know you’re making a pretty big ask, there, right? Gods and being straightforward go together like… well, we don’t go together real well, is what I’m saying. You ought to know that, girl.”

“I do know that,” the lion-dog groaned, not wanting to admit that she’d nearly forgotten. Taking back the letter, she looked it over again. Miss Suwako’s vandalism was rather funny if she set aside her feelings about the two goddess’s relationship. “I just want to know what this said. Why would Miss Kanako hide these and burn the envelopes?”

“She was doing that? Huh. Figured they just came like that.”

“Please answer my question.”

Miss Suwako sat quiet for a while. Aun would have repeated her question, but she noticed the goddess shaking her head. “I really can’t, girl. Even if I could do something about it — and I could, don’t get me wrong — it’s still Kana’s problem. She wants to have her secrets? Fine. We’ll see how long it all holds up. Until then, it’s not for you or me to bother with.”

“Then, why did you do that?” Aun demanded.

“Look, I don’t know. You’re really asking some hard stuff, here.” The Moriya goddess was the one to groan this time, holding her head like it hurt. “Believe you me, I get put out with Kana, and sometimes I don’t deal with it all that well. Even gods get impatient. No, especially gods.”

Within a split second, Aun had vaulted to her feet and was opening the grating. The job was made slightly difficult by her hands shaking; she could have easily torn through, but even an angered lion-dog wanted to keep order. Miss Suwako came running, at first to stop her, and then to solemnly help her leave.

The night air had turned biting. The lion-dog stepped out of the main hall, shivering and hesitating to step further than the donation box in spite of the short walk back to the house.

There was a weak tug on Aun’s sleeve. “Come on, girl. I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean anything by any of it. Let’s just put all that aside and stay by the fire, huh? You can sleep here if you want. I’ve got plenty of—”

“You know, Miss Suwako, lion-dogs can get impatient, too,” said Aun frostily. Her quivering jaw somewhat lessened the impact of her words. “Just because we’re made of rocks doesn’t mean we’ll just take everything.”

Hugging herself, Aun stepped out into the autumn chill. She felt her whole body turning stony, and she wanted nothing more than a hot bath. If nothing else, it would help her wind down after this frustrating day. She didn’t make it far before Miss Suwako called out again.

“Aun, hold on.”

Hearing the goddess use her name for once was a minor surprise. “What?”

“If you’re gonna go, fine. Just… don’t say anything to Kana, okay? She really wants to believe no one knows. Nobody knows what she’d do. Not even me. Serious about that.”

“I won’t,” the lion-dog replied curtly after a pause, and then kept on walking. A stiff breeze blew through, making her shiver even harder. Hard and flinty as her heart was, she couldn’t stop herself from making promises she would be true to.
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Not hearing the door opening, Miss Kanako gave a start as she turned around and saw Aun standing in the kitchen. Not that Aun had meant to sneak up on her. She had simply been silent most of the day, saying very little to the goddess, moving about with little indication of her presence. In a change from the past couple of days, she went about her self-appointed guard duties for the better part of the morning. She found an appropriate point near the torii and did not move for hours, paying no mind to that day’s somewhat overcast skies. Only the faint grumbling of her stomach served to remind her that lunch had passed her by.

Time blowing past seemed to be a running theme for Aun that day. Once again, she’d woken up late, this time Miss Kanako having made a later breakfast almost in anticipation. A concerned Miss Kanako prodded the lion-dog sometime afterward on what she intended to do. She had merely been following behind the Yasaka goddess dumbly, lending a silent hand with things where she could. Upon being questioned, Aun could scarcely reply. Nothing came to mind, there being little she truly wanted to do. When a noncommittal answer didn’t suffice, she was forced to think for a while. That was how her most primal statue-beast pastime became the default.

Even having missed a meal, the idea that she’d come in late didn’t quite register to Aun. The Goddess Yasaka was still busy as ever with her sweeping and polishing, like she’d hardly moved an inch since the lion-dog left. Nothing else felt different, for that matter. In some ways, that static feeling caused Aun to doubt time entirely. However, Miss Kanako was quick to remind her of time’s absoluteness via the wall clock.

Some fussing aside, Miss Kanako was happy enough to ‘reheat some leftovers’ for Aun, an exercise that, in practise, saw the goddess preparing new dishes to supplement the rest. The resemblance of her lunch to the bento from yesterday made Aun smile and shake her head before digging in. The Yasaka goddess pulled up a chair to watch the lion-dog eat in silence. Aun paid little heed to Miss Kanako and said nothing, only holding up her rice bowl wordlessly when asking for seconds. Though ate with little energy, the majority disappeared within a few minutes, leaving a mostly desolate tabletop. Seeing her cooking appreciated, the goddess gave a quiet laugh as she cleared away the dishes.

Miss Kanako sat back down soon after and began questioning Aun. At first, the questions were fairly innocuous — how she’d slept, how she was finding the weather, and so on. However, a severity in the Goddess Yasaka’s expression, somehow never disturbing her otherwise tranquil smile, made it apparent that she was probing. A brush-off answer wasn’t enough; she wanted to hear Aun’s thoughts in full detail. When an elaborated response still didn’t satisfy, chiding followed. Simple questions demanded plain and direct answers, she asserted.

This was the overbearing Goddess Yasaka familiar to all. Loathe to admit it, the lion-dog felt she was beginning to see what Miss Suwako meant. Coming to the point of being overwhelmed, Aun countered with a simple question of her own: What had Miss Kanako been doing late last night?

Bewilderment was the towering goddess’s reaction. She claimed to have no idea what Aun was even referring to. When Aun clarified, saying that she’d been disturbed in the night by Miss Kanako moving around, no immediate answer or denial came. The Yasaka goddess clicked her nails on the tabletop in anxious contemplation. Her cheeks were uncharacteristically reddened, her snake-like eyes looking anywhere except at Aun, making it clearer that she was pressed into embarrassed silence. This was dangerous territory, then, as Aun understood; Miss Kanako was prone to lashing at out at the mere notion of injury to her dignity. Nevertheless, refusing to give up the point on principle, the lion-dog pressed once more.

All of a sudden, the goddess stood up to her full mountainous height. Aun drew back from the sudden movement, but Miss Kanako made no threatening moves. She merely disappeared around a corner and was gone for some time. Rustling carried clearly to Aun’s ears from all corners of the house. All the while, Aun sat patiently, anxious herself at what might be next. She checked the clock. Maybe ten or twenty minutes had passed. Or was that four or five? A clock was as foreign a machine as a ‘refrigerator’ to her. The sound of fidgety movement carried on nonstop.

Heavy, plodding steps announced Miss Kanako’s return. Aun stood up to meet her. Upon stepping out into the hallway, she caught sight of a mountain of fabric being toted by a barely-visible pair of legs. The goddess craned her neck around the load, looking right at Aun. She had, in fact, forgotten that there was laundry to be done.

Aun swallowed. No guesses were necessary to know who was expected to handle it.





The exact story of the little shed behind the shrine proper was a mystery to Aun, as many things were to one of her rocky brains. Despite having more than a passing familiarity with it, why it had been built in the first place was always something that scratched at her mind. In fact, she had asked Miss Suwako, Miss Kanako, and Sanae each for an explanation at one time or another.

Sanae hardly knew when the shed had been built or by whom, much less why. Her general recollection was of looking out and seeing dirt clouds one day, followed by a completed building the next. For all she knew, it served a single purpose, and she was satisfied in knowing only that much. Not that she ever spent much time around it.

Miss Suwako would never supply a straight answer. One time, the little building had manifested in the middle of the night. Another time, a tengu had ‘accidentally’ dropped it. As for its intended purpose, the stories were similarly nonsense, ranging from the operating base of ‘secret organisations’ to a place for ‘certain individuals from the outside’ to store ‘inconvenient money’. Even the lion-dog, gullible as she could be, knew such tales couldn’t stand up to basic scrutiny. Besides, the little goddess never spent much time around it either.

In contrast to the others, Miss Kanako was so forthcoming that Aun was overloaded with information. Once she had started from the shed’s inception, tracking the history from initial discussions to planning, no degree of granularity was spared in explicating the rest. Time stood still as the flow of chatter from the massive goddess swelled to rival one of the heavenly falls, Aun’s ears’ desire to function washed downstream within minutes. The gravel in her head eroded into fine sand and she comprehended not a syllable. After recovering her faculties, Aun learned from Miss Suwako that her partner seldom spent much time around the shed either.

What Aun knew for sure was that the shed stood a long walk downhill, almost into the woods behind the shrine. The downhill part of the equation, she was painfully aware of, fighting to keep herself balanced as she carried an enormous load of laundry down from the shrine. While she could easily have rolled it to the bottom as a wad of clothes and sheets, that was no proper way of handling things. She couldn’t be so sure Miss Kanako wasn’t watching from somewhere not too far off, besides. The shrine’s newfound reticence proved inconvenient in the most awful ways sometimes.

Too bad that she wasn’t Miss Suwako, the lion-dog lamented. The little goddess could probably just ask the mountain for help — if indeed she even need ask. Instead, Aun was tasked by the larger goddess, quite forcefully and with no recourse, with hauling the laundry all the way out. To salt an already smarting wound, she was told not to return until every last article was washed and dried. The weight of the load easily figured to weeks of unattended washing, to say nothing of the numerous odours it gave off. Aun could already see the job taking her well into the next day if she worked efficiently. In other words, even tomorrow wasn’t likely.

The walk itself wasn’t necessarily a problem. If anything, Aun appreciated a chance to challenge her own strength and balance, lacking as they often were. She even enjoyed the trip out behind the shrine for its ambiance. A long walk through rocks, bushes, and low-lying trees, breathing the mountain air, taking in the sounds of birdsong and the rush of water from somewhere far off, was respite for a harried lion-dog. What troubled her was what awaited once she reached her destination.

Even simple machinery wasn’t her friend in the best of times. If work could be done solely by the force of her paws and what precious power was available to her lion-dog head, Aun would avoid tools and aids of any sort. Brooms and rakes were one thing, of course. At worst, a mishap could find them broken, as she possessed little in the way of manual dexterity. Reimu had scolded her on several occasions for similar accidents, though never severely; the broken items were replaced easily and cheaply enough. Hoes, shovels, picks, sickles, and other more destructive tools gave her further pause. While she faced no harm herself, being of stone, the lion-dog feared for the safety of others should such implements be pressed into her paws. Outside machines were a whole other matter entirely.

To say Aun was baffled by outside gadgets would be an understatement. Their very nature was confusing enough. How could some of them move seemingly on their own? Why did they tend to make unearthly noises? What advantage did they provide over doing things by paw? If these were essential to human life outside, as Sanae and the rest claimed on occasion, outsiders had to be pitiful creatures. Perhaps they’d more need of a good, trusty lion-dog than anyone in Gensokyo. Not that Aun knew of any way out, nor did she particularly like the idea of setting foot in such a strange world.

As with most things she didn’t understand, Aun held a fairly deep mistrust of these non-living-but-somehow-alive things. In the first instance, no spirit resided in them whatsoever. They weren’t even worthy of becoming tsukumogami, which was a shame on some level. Tsukumogami were at least personable. Indeed, she could feel a degree of kinship with the tool-spirits, having an in-built purpose herself. These outside monstrosities — and they were monstrous in every way to a lion-dog — felt as far away from her as she was from humans, all despite the relative closeness of rock and metal, as many were prone to be made of.

The little shack was home to what the Moriya residents termed merely, in what Aun took as facetiousness, the ‘washing machine’. Washing it did to some degree, yes. However, the devilish box’s true primary function seemed geared more towards torturing lion-dogs in the worst fashion. From the very start, it never failed to startle Aun whenever she approached by emitting a burst of chirping that vaguely resembled music, uttering a greeting in a voice from beyond the boundary of life and death, and holding its foul maw open to receive its workload. If it ended there, Aun could begrudgingly tolerate the blasted thing, but it also required twisting ‘dials’ and pressing ‘buttons’ to effect some kind of change in its behaviour. This set of operations was opaque to degrees she found absurd. One incorrect move and nothing would work. Worse, she could possibly cause it damage through little fault of her own. That was something, she was reassured by Miss Suwako and Sanae, that would bring Miss Kanako’s wrath down upon her quickly.

The lion-dog’s steps felt leaden all of a sudden as she continued toward the bottom of the hill. Without Sanae’s help, Aun would have never tamed the beast so many times. If only the shrine maiden weren’t in such an odd state these days, she opined. She wouldn’t be forced to make do on her own, and the job would go by so much faster. Even just having someone to talk to would make things a little better.

Just as she found the path at the bottom, a deluge of crow calls made her aware of a number of the birds scattering every which way. She thought little of them at first, but another wave of crows came rushing out from off towards the lake. Figuring it was worth investigation, she deviated from the path and headed in that direction. Not even Miss Kanako could blame her if she prevented some mischief from being visited upon the shrine.

Hurrying down the path proved difficult with her current armload. Luckily, the crows continued to fly off in droves from the same direction. After a struggle down a sudden steep drop, Aun found herself closer to the lake, heading into one of the thick groves that concealed much of the surroundings. The sound of cawing grew louder as she continued on. She was even sure she heard the sound of something whistling through the air. A loud thud registered and even more crows flew off. Clouds of dust hung heavy in the direction she was headed.

The dust still lingered in the air, obscuring Aun’s vision even when she was sure she’d arrived. Everything was a haze of brown and flashes of black as crows sped past. All of a sudden, the thudding stopped for a moment.

The air began to clear gradually. As Aun strained her eyes to see anything, she became aware of an enormous gathering of crows. Despite what seemed to be dozens upon dozens fleeing, there were even more occupying the clearing she’d come to. The birds paid her no attention as she approached. Their focus was entirely on the middle of the enormous circle they formed.

In the center, through the overwhelming black, Aun saw gold. Miss Suwako stood in the midst of the murder, their beaks open and wings raised aggressively towards her. The distance made it hard to tell, but she looked devoid of any expression. The sight disturbed Aun in a way she couldn’t explain. She wanted to call out to Miss Suwako but couldn’t. All she could do at the moment was watch the little goddess be menaced by countless crows, awestruck by their numbers.

The Moriya goddess looked Aun’s way for a split second, then bent down to pick up a rock, and hauled her arm back. Aiming into the murder, she loosed the stone. The brief sound of the missile sailing through the air was loud it enough that it sounded to Aun as if it were passing right by. Its flight was too quick for most of the crows to preemptively retreat. They went sprawling from the impact, cawing in alarm as clods of dirt rose up underneath them.

Whole sections of the circle peeled away. After the initial shock had worn off, the crows began to close ranks, filling the empty spaces in the circle where possible. Some of those that had flown off came circling back to rejoin the group. There looked to be no end to them.

Forgetting the laundry for the moment, the lion-dog threw down the load and ran forward on four legs. A thunderous, echoing roar ripped itself from her throat. Growling and snarling, she now saw each and every bit of black feather as part of a threat. She charged this way and that, leaping after crows in flight, tearing rents in the ground with every stride. The sole thing running through Aun’s mind was to rid the area of intruders. Everything blurred into a mess of feathers, dirt, claws, cawing, dashing, and chasing.

Aun panted. Lying on her back, she was completely worn down in the aftermath of her crow-scaring. One of her geta had fallen off somewhere, and she vaguely noticed that her clothes were covered in dirt. Her throat felt scratchy, too. All in all, she was a mess. And yet, she smiled in satisfaction, knowing that she’d likely prevented some form of trouble.

Amid straggling crows taking off, footsteps fell near where Aun lay, and a shadow loomed over her. Miss Suwako stood looking down at her, notably more expressive than before; for some reason, her eyebrows were furrowed in displeasure.

“If you hadn’t noticed, I didn’t need any help,” the little goddess grumbled.

Aun tried to sit up but found herself lacking in strength. Left on her back, she merely stared up at Miss Suwako. “But there were so many of them.”

“Think about it for two seconds, you lunk. Does a goddess with power over the earth itself seriously need help with some birds? The answer is, no, she doesn’t!”

“They wanted to attack you,” Aun muttered in her defence.

“So what! Nothing would have happened if they did.” The Goddess Moriya tore at her braids. She was trembling now, her face red with building frustration. “I was blowing off steam, okay? They cheesed me off; I riled them up; and then you chased them away. Congratulations, dumb dog! Guess who’s still about to explode?”

The lion-dog didn’t dare answer or correct the misplaced insult. A part of her still hadn’t forgotten last night’s conversation and was liable itself to burst.





“Look, for the hundredth time, I had no right to act like that. That’s it, right? Please tell me that’s it.” Miss Suwako’s apologies were bordering on pleading now. She looked about ready to throw off whatever remained of her godly pride and kowtow before Aun.

The lion half of Aun felt pleased enough, but the dog half wanted her favourite goddess to stop. They’d had no need to quarrel in the first place — if what they were doing could even be called a quarrel. Sure, there were some remaining frustrations after their late night talk, and Miss Suwako had been awfully mean over a simple mistake. Still, Aun felt they had both taken this whole thing a bit far.

Some time before, after regaining some of her strength, she’d sat there while Miss Suwako glared at her, neither saying anything for the longest time. There was nothing Aun felt she could say, and she refused to speak anyway.

Caught at an impasse, the only thing Aun could think to do was to revert to her stonier nature. Any feelings spurring her towards hasty words or actions had to be avoided, so she allowed herself to turn cold inside. Numbed to everything, she sat as she was sculpted to sit. Should any words be spoken, they would merely be heard. Should the goddess lay hands on her, only the impact would remain. Though Aun disliked returning to this state, it was an oddly comfortable one.

The Moriya goddess stared Aun in the face with naked aggression. She knew full well the type of gesture she was making, and she dared Aun to take some action in response. This was no doubt the sort of stance she took when clashing with Miss Kanako. Lurking in the darkness of the goddess’s golden eyes, the lion-dog could see a deeply wedged anger, an injury that never went away, the sort of thing the aeons did nothing to erase. In other words, Aun herself could hardly be considered the true subject of that anger. She was merely staring it down, threatened with being next on the receiving end. How many others over how many centuries had been in her position, Aun couldn’t guess. Within the depths of her rocky self, she merely wished never to be enlightened as to the full nature of that wrath.

That thought sparked a rare recollection of the Mishaguji. Miss Suwako refused to speak of them, and Aun had only ever heard much in confidential whispers from Sanae. They represented a much more vindictive side of the Moriya goddess, one willing to inflict horrendous curses upon the misfortunate. Though inured to its influence, Aun was aware of a creeping fear in her own mind of that otherwise unknown threat. The idea of numerous snake-like curses erupting from nowhere would have made a more fleshy lion-dog break down into hysterics.

Trapped inside herself, Aun merely accepted Miss Suwako’s anger passively. She sat perfectly still as the goddess shuffled closer. They sat within an arm’s length of each other, still exchanging not a single word. Slowly, Aun hardly noticing through her suppressed nervousness, the little goddess raised her hand, reaching out towards the lion-dog. Aun now regretted becoming stone. Nothing could make her act now, even when what she desperately wished was to shrink back. Her eyes locked on the goddess’s hand hovering inches from her face. The distance away from herself that Aun felt initially had shrunk, just as Miss Suwako had closed the gap between them.

The Moriya goddess’s hand hovered next to Aun’s cheek. There was a hesitation that she now noticed in Miss Suwako’s manner. She refocused on her face. Her severe facade had lost much of its true force, the scowl more of a frown now. Her eyes were wet, almost dewy, ready to spill over at the slightest provocation. Contrary to the ferocity buried deep underneath, she looked like less of a goddess and more of a fragile young girl, something to be handled with the most delicate hands lest she fall apart. She and Aun both shared a look of confusion. They were both lost, unsure how they should handle this world.

“Aun?” queried Miss Suwako weakly.

Aun blinked for what felt like the first time in an eternity. Her jaw was no longer of stone, but her mouth couldn’t form any words to respond. She settled for nodding.

“Maybe you don’t want to talk to me. Maybe you don’t want to hear a damn word from me. But I’m still gonna tell you one thing. I won’t feel any better, otherwise.” Miss Suwako took a deep breath and held it for several moments. “I was wrong, okay? I was wrong for a lot of reasons.”

Lightly, she pressed her palm against Aun’s cheek, not quite committing to a full touch. When she felt assured Aun wouldn’t bite, the full weight of the Goddess Moriya’s little hand, minuscule in truth but weighty in the lion-dog’s mind, rested motionless on the side of her face. “Seriously, you were right to be mad. I’m admitting that right here.”

Aun still had no response.

“I’m fully admitting that I was wrong and you were right. And I’m sorry. You hear me? I’m sorry. I know that doesn’t instantly make things better, but I have to say it.”

The hand on Aun’s cheek slid up to caress her stony ear, slipping behind it. Where the stone became flesh, the lion-dog felt fingers lightly scratching. Her tail swung slowly. No one had scratched her there in what felt like ages.

Miss Suwako let out a long sigh, removing her hand. “That’s not what you wanna hear, is it? Tell me what it is, then. Or do you want me to just guess? I’ll guess if that’s what you want.”

Thus began the hundred apologies — though who knew how many it really was, since Aun did not keep count. Miss Suwako searched for some statement she felt Aun would accept, repeating herself constantly. Why exactly she did this was difficult for the lion-dog to comprehend. Perhaps she was merely venting her own feeling on the matter. It was just as possible that she was engaging in some form of self-flagellation, a thought that troubled Aun.

Each attempt at an apology ran the gamut of emotions. One would start very somber, suddenly grow in intensity until the goddess was nearly shouting, and then end with a joke. Others would merely putter along as a mere recitation of words. As she continued, Miss Suwako seemed to sound more and more desperate for acknowledgment, gritting her teeth as she thought harder what to say. Aun thought to simply let her get it out of her system at first, but it felt more and more pointless as the exercise went on. Finally finding her voice, she tried speaking up and was ignored. The goddess was tuning her out, so focused on her penitence that she couldn’t hear when she was forgiven.

Hearing the latest apology and deciding it enough, Aun cleared her throat loudly, startling Miss Suwako. “I forgive you.”

“For last night, too?” the goddess asked after some contemplation.

“For last night, too. Now, let’s stop with that.” Aun rose to her feet at last, having rested enough to recover. Her two sides were conflicted on whether her newfound dirt-caked state was atrocious or delightful. She tried to pat it off, nevertheless, though to not much avail.

Remembering the abandoned laundry, she looked around and spotted it some distance off. When she went to retrieve it, she found Miss Suwako already hoisting it up with her godly strength, giving Aun a shy grin. The lion-dog shook her head.

“That’s my job. Don’t worry about it.”

Miss Suwako shook her head in turn. “I wanna help.”

“I can handle it just fine.” Aun tried to grab for the load but was thwarted by the goddess holding it away. She let out an exasperated puff of air, puttering her lips.

“Sure, if you wanna take all night and then some.”

The little goddess had Aun there, she had to admit. Left to her own devices, there was no telling how long it would actually take her to wash and dry everything. She’d already estimated she’d be realistically done tomorrow, but that was before this little diversion. In deference to Miss Suwako’s wisdom, Aun nodded her acquiescence and took hold of one side of the load. Beaming, the goddess gave a little cheer. She started to carry it up the path before Aun was even ready to move, forcing her to give chase.

Together, then, they hauled the titanic mound of linens, dailywear, and unmentionables back the way Aun had come and off to the little shed. They didn’t need to say a word to each other the whole time, choosing to stay quiet and focus on the task at hand. As they continued on, Aun was struck by the thought that she’d never really seen Miss Suwako exert herself like this. She couldn’t helped feeling touched by the notion that the little goddess was now striving for her sake. Whether or not it was true, the idea invigorated her. She gripped her end of the pile with renewed strength, driving the two of them forward with an urgency not normally reserved for doing washing. They both cheered, laughing and whooping as they raced to their goal.

They reached the shed in what felt like seconds rather than minutes. Careful not to spill the laundry everywhere, they deposited the load on the ground just outside. Aun paused to wipe her brow and survey the work ahead. Despite her optimism on the trip, she was facing an indistinguishable mass, its beginning and end difficult to make out now that she had a moment to ponder.

Just as she felt pre-emptive fatigue setting in, a slap between her shoulderblades made Aun stand up rigid. Miss Suwako cackled.

“C’mon, daylight’s wasting. Let’s just separate out what we can and worry about the rest later!”

“I never thought I’d see you excited to do laundry,” Aun said, trying to rub her smarting back but unable to reach. Luckily, the Moriya goddess was kind enough to lend a hand.

“The laundry? Nah, I’m not excited about that. I just want to do something with my favourite lion-dog!”

Miss Suwako suddenly switched to trying to ruffle Aun’s stony curls, settling on giving the top of her head a good rub when that proved difficult. Though she should have been a bit annoyed, Aun found it hard to care when a loving pair of hands was hitting the spot just behind her horn. Disappointingly, it only lasted but a moment before Miss Suwako nudged the lion-dog and gestured towards a small fraction of the pile that she’d began sorting.

They quickly got to work determining which pieces needed attention first, deciding without discussion to prioritise bulkier things that would take longer to dry. With the heavier bits taken out, that piece of the load rapidly shrunk, leaving a much smaller pile of clothes and odds and ends. What had looked insurmountable at first became much more manageable, to Aun’s eyes. She found herself smiling as they continued to work. The work itself still wasn’t that enjoyable, but having a second pair of hands really made things less painful. Besides, even drudgery was a chance to be useful, and those were moments Aun had to treasure more and more recently.
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Even precious moments did have their less pleasant parts. In Aun’s case, Miss Suwako had regained some of her impish humour and refused to handle the ‘washing machine’ for Aun, forcing her to deal with it herself. After watching the lion-dog fret with the ‘knobs’ and ‘buttons’ for a while, she took to shouting hints that Aun scarcely comprehended. Aun’s hands fumbled to follow what she was being told, and the result was one of the diabolical box’s mechanical arms waggling in a threatening way, forcing Aun to retreat.

Shrugging and shaking her head, the Goddess Moriya finally took over and wrangled the unruly machine. In a smooth sequence of manipulations, which irritated the lion-dog faintly after her trials, she stopped the gadget’s small rampage, made the correct settings, and started it on its intended task of washing some blasted clothes.

Aun took to the opposite corner of the shed, slumping against the wall and hugging her knees. To be made a fool of yet again erased some prior sentiment that she and the little goddess were on better terms. Sure, Miss Suwako probably meant nothing by it, but it was still a jerk move. She sat underneath the cloud of her own displeasure, its thundering only drowned out in her mind by the vibrations and clunking of the ‘washing machine’. The thing always made a racket, its arms churning the laundry about as it shook and sprayed jets of water like it was performing some kind of party trick. It really was monstrous, she thought.

“This seat taken?” Miss Suwako asked as she flopped down next to Aun uninvited.

Aun wouldn’t look the goddess’s way, burying her face into her knees. “Go ahead.”

“Come on, don’t be mad. It was just a little fun.” Miss Suwako flung her hat to one side after removing it. Chuckling softly at the piece of headwear landing on the handle-end of a broom, she leaned on Aun. “Besides, you can’t be scared of it forever. It’s weird but it’s still a washing machine. It cleans clothes. Nothing scary about that.”

“With all due respect, that’s easy for you to say. You came from the outside,” Aun huffed.

The goddess wrapped an arm around Aun’s shoulder, something she didn’t resist, and pointed at the machine with the other. “That thing would be weird outside, too. Washing machines don’t have arms out there. Those turtles came up with that. Gave me a good laugh when I first saw it. Hand them a perfectly good design, and they insist on adding junk like that.”

“The kappa?” Aun had very little opinion of the kappa, having only met one of their number directly at the Hakurei Shrine. She’d seen them embedded in some tengu operations here and there on the mountain, and knew they tended to congregate downriver, but that was about it. According to Reimu, they were ‘weirdos who made useless toys’.

“Yeah, them. You know they built the ropeway? I mean, there had to be some tengu directing them, but still.”

The mention of the ropeway perked Aun’s ears up — inasmuch as they could be perked up. “Oh, I forgot about that. Things were really busy when it opened. All those humans. Reimu was really mad about it for a while. She started talking about wanting one too.”

“Sounds like the Hakurei, alright,” Miss Suwako said with a laugh.

“It was really hard on me. She wanted me to find out everything about yours.” Aun let out a weary sigh just thinking back to that time. “As if I could do that.”

“Well, thanks for standing up for us, girl.” The goddess gave Aun’s head a ruffle.

The lion dog leaned into Miss Suwako’s hand, hoping for more attention. This time, she was rewarded with a gentle rub behind her horn. “Mmh. It wasn’t like there was anything I could do, anyway. I still haven’t even seen the thing myself.”

“Me neither, girl. Me neither.” Pulling her hand away and wrapping her other arm around the lion-dog, Miss Suwako sounded wistful now.

“Really? Not even a test ride? Sanae said she and Miss Kanako—”

“That was just her the one time after bugging the turtles. The time with Kana was an engineering test. They wanted to see what kind of weight it could handle. Made her furious when she found out.”

Thinking about it, Aun could only imagine. Even she would be a bit miffed if it were her. Not that it wasn’t slightly amusing. “So, why haven’t you ridden?”

“I just haven’t,” Miss Suwako muttered with a noncommittal shrug.

“But you want to,” Aun guessed.

“If I could, yeah.” The Moriya goddess gave an irritated huff, then nestled her face into Aun’s stony mane. “Can’t even fly down.”

The lion dog felt Miss Suwako’s breath quickening against her neck. By all indications, the conversation was already brushing against a sore spot for the goddess. Which meant she ought to keep pressing, as her instincts directed.

“That’s why you were venting earlier, isn’t it? With the crows and everything,” she wondered aloud.

Miss Suwako hastily pulled her face from Aun’s neck and her arms from around her shoulders, flopping against the wall next to the lion-dog. When Aun finally looked her way, she could see that the little goddess was wearing a muted expression, sitting with her arms and legs limply spread out. She resembled a marionette laid to rest, having played its role and now allowed to simply be the lifeless wood it was previously. Memories of Reimu looking much the same sifted through the gravel of Aun’s mind. Things were not going the goddess’s way.

Sitting quietly as they did, their attention was soon directed to the ‘washing machine’, its splashing and clanking the most commanding presence in the shed. It served as a reminder that their work had really just begun. The purples and oranges of evening were already starting to show themselves outside. There was still much time to be filled.

“I know gods have trouble with straight answers,” Aun said once she’d tired of watching the mechanical arms churning, “but things will never get better if you keep everything quiet.”

Miss Suwako gave a heavy sigh. “I knew you’d turn that one back on me. You are a clever girl, you know that? Nobody ever gives you enough credit.”

“As long as I can help someone.” The words came out quietly but with a conviction that gave them weight. Just hearing herself say it out loud gave Aun a vigour she rarely felt. If there was nothing else she believed, it was that.

The sentiment apparently struck Miss Suwako as more humorous than awe-inspiring, to the lion-dog’s chagrin. The little goddess chuckled with as much energy as she could muster in her current state of mind, not the gleeful laughter of a girl at play but that of a weary woman with frayed nerves. Seeing Aun’s peevish face in response, she stifled herself somewhat, though she still continued laughing for a while.

“I’m serious,” said Aun quietly.

“Sorry,” Miss Suwako said when she’d calmed down, wiping away a tear.

Aun gazed the goddess right in the eyes. “No more apologies. Just answers, please.”

“Sure, I’ll tell you what I can. Still a lot I can’t, though, alright?” Miss Suwako steadied herself with a deep breath. Even Aun could see that she was reluctant to speak, but she’d been pressed too hard to back off now. Ready, she nodded. “For a lot of reasons, we’ve been talking with the tengu lately. You may have heard about that little agreement we made some years back. Well, the idea came down to hold a summit about that. Nothing super serious, mind you, but still some pretty big and ceremonial kinda stuff. And me and Kana figure we can slip a few things past to sweeten things for us. A few changes to things, little more give-and-take on their end. That sorta thing.

“You gotta understand, of course, that this has been months back. Probably more like a year — year-and-a-half, in fact — since they started in. Dunno what’s going on with them, but they’ve got some politics going on at the minute. Any rate, Kana was the most gung-ho about everything to begin with. She wanted to set up all these talks way in advance, and she had some kind of scheme in her head. Like always. And, of course, it was all ‘need-to-know basis’ — meaning nobody but her needed to know.” The Moriya goddess paused to roll her eyes at her partner’s secretiveness. The ease with which she performed the gesture gave Aun the impression that it was a very practised one, probably employed regularly.

“So, starting a few months ago,” Miss Suwako continued, “Kana starts up and not wanting to leave the house at all. For any reason. I mean, have you ever heard of an agoraphobic goddess since Lil’ Miss Sunshine herself? Well, guess how that worked out with all those talks she scheduled. Give you a hint: it didn’t. Know why? Because I had to be the one to sit in at all of ‘em. Every last one of those hours-long snorefests! All without a clue what the hell Kana was angling for in the first place! I have to go in and basically get chewed-out for hours because I don’t know what we’re there to talk about. Can you believe that?”

Struck by the oddness of something, Aun spoke up. “Hold on, wouldn’t they have just cancelled? There’s nothing for you talk about without Miss Kanako, right?”

“That would make sense, yes. However, these are tengu we’re dealing with. Nothing they do ever makes a lot of sense. And besides that…” The goddess look away and sat pondering how best to continue for longer than Aun expected. When she’d decided something, she cleared her throat and went on. “I can’t say a lot about that. Very secret tengu stuff, you see. Let’s just say super important things are involved. The important thing to know is that they can’t just pull out now. Believe me, girl, I wish they would. It’d save me a lot of heartache.”

“And you had one of those meetings today, and that was why you were upset?” Aun asked.

Miss Suwako gave an awkward laugh. “Not exactly. It was a couple of days ago. I just kind of… erm, didn’t quite get over it? It’s not like I went looking for a bunch of crows. I just saw them, remembered everything, and got a bit of a bug up my butt.” She cradled her face in her hands. Her face was red, try as she might to hide it. “You know, you’re putting me in an embarrassing spot, making me admit this stuff out loud.”

“Okay, just one more thing: Why is Miss Kanako acting like that? You said last night that she wants to believe no one knows something. This and that are connected, aren’t they?”

At that, the little goddess went silent again, failing to look at Aun. Compared to the defiant refusal to speak from last night, she merely looked lost as to how to answer. Though she felt much of the same frustration from earlier returning, Aun also understood somewhat the feeling of not knowing how to express one’s troubles. Even so, something needed to be said, or else nothing would ever change.

“If you can’t say why, can you at least tell me why you can’t?”

“Look, girl,” Miss Suwako said with resigned sigh, “the reason is there is no reason. I just think it’s Kana’s mess. She made it; she should clean it up. At least, that’s how it should work in theory. I really don’t know. Maybe she’ll just keep on like this forever. Maybe there’s nothing I can do, either.”

“Can the shrine survive like that?” Aun pursued, trying to hold back the severity creeping into her voice.

The Goddess Moriya threw her head back against the wall, slumping further against it. She looked at Aun with a helplessness unexpected of a deity. “I doubt it. I hate to admit that, but we can’t do much ourselves, me and Sanae. Well, Sanae can do plenty by herself. She’s just… well, I don’t know what’s up with her. That’s the thing that kills me. I’m kind of alone here now.”

Unable to harden herself against such words, Aun threw her arms around the little goddess, pulling her tight. Miss Suwako’s defeated face reminded her of herself nights ago. Sitting at the bottom of the Hakurei Shrine’s stairs, the feeling of being alone struck her to the core of her stony heart. Nobody should ever have felt the way she did.

The goddess patted the lion-dog on the back and ran her fingers through her curls. Though Miss Suwako didn’t shed a tear, Aun could feel ragged breathing on her shoulder. They shared their grief without further need of words. What was there that either could do? Neither had an answer for themselves or each other. They could only share a quiet solidarity in their feeling of powerlessness. Sitting in the darkening shed, the cold of autumn evening creeping in slowly, Aun and Miss Suwako were adrift in a world of their own. At least they were there together, Aun thought. She dared not admit it out loud, but knowing that she wasn’t the only one experiencing the same sort of solitude lent her some small degree of courage.

“Hey, Aun? Make me a promise, girl, and I’ll make you one,” Miss Suwako said after a while, pulling out of the embrace.

Aun nodded. “Anything to help.”

The goddess looked Aun up and down in an appraising way. Making some new determination, she nodded back. “I want you to promise me you’ll look out for Sanae. Follow her around if you have to, watch her from afar. Just keep her in your sights. Find out what sort of trouble she’s in. You do that, and I’ll tell you what I know about Kana if things get worse with the shrine. Only if the shrine goes to pieces, though, you understand?”

“Do you really think things will go that far?”

“Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. Now, deal?” The Moriya goddess offered her pinky finger, fully expecting to make the traditional gesture.

“Swallow a thousand needles?”

“Ten-thousand. Same for you.”

Aun winced at the idea, but she couldn’t doubt the sincerity of the goddess. She wrapped her little finger around Miss Suwako’s to seal the promise. “I promise. And I’ll hold you to yours. Even the needles.”

The two held a stern look into each other’s eyes for a long moment. However, the forced tension soon became too much to bear, and they burst into laughter. Soon thereafter, Miss Suwako noted that the ‘washing machine’ was done with the first load. They got up from the floor and scrambled to get the next one ready. There was still so much to do, and the evening darkness had started settling in. Any more dawdling and they’d be working by moonlight — though they would be in any case.

Aun threw herself into the work with renewed energy. Beyond this drudgery, she had a purpose now. Besides that, she could think of worse things than needles that Reimu had made her swallow. Not that a lion-dog would ever intentionally break a promise.
File 161584000285.jpg - (115.94KB, 1000x1000, froggy goddess.jpg) [iqdb]
31654
Really cute Suwako and Aun interactions. Maybe Kanako can also be as cute? Waiting warmly for more~
God I want to pat this dog's head
>>31655
probably only a few can do that without losing their fingers ;_;
>tfw no gravel-for-brains cute stone doggo to hug and pet whenever life kicks you in the nuts
>>31655
>>31657
*lion-dog(go)

>>31654
>kanakp
>cute

Not likely in the nearest future, but probably in the next story arc.

Speaking of which, not really making any kind of announcement, but I guess I'd like to note that I'm trying to plan the next arc and it's kind of difficult. Gradual progress is being made, of course. Just, y'know, it is slightly delaying work on the next update.

Thanks for the kind words, though. I, too, pine for a life of petting lion-dogs.
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