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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!
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[x] This has to be some bird trick. Sneak up on it!

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

rawr owo xd
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[z] Clearly, this bird’s too dumb to pay attention. Pounce on it!
Easy enough.
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[x] Clearly, this bird’s too dumb to pay attention. Pounce on it!
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[x] Clearly, this bird’s too dumb to pay attention. Pounce on it!
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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.
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just imagine the lion-dog there
[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.”
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poor depressed liondog.
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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!”


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

Yay, it's back!
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[x] Away from her partner, maybe Suwako is less guarded. Stand watch and see what she does.
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[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.
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[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
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[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.
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[x] Away from her partner, maybe Suwako is less guarded. Stand watch and see what she does.

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

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

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[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.
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[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.

See no evil.
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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.
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[X] Leave the hat alone. Who cares what it sees? You’re not doing anything wrong.
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[x] Turn the hat around. Surely, if it doesn’t see anything, there’s no problem.
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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?”


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.
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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.

>Kanako will never brush out your bedhead in the morning
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[x] The night was a big blur. Frankly, she might need a minute to get started this morning.
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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.
It's a struggle to feel comfy when you're a lonely dog.
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[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.
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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.



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

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[x] Something seems to be bothering Sanae about this whole business with Kanako. Why not just ask directly?
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[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.
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[X] Maybe this isn’t a good time to press on issues. Keep it light by expressing surprise at Kanako’s cooking skill too.
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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.
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[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.
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Really cute Suwako and Aun interactions. Maybe Kanako can also be as cute? Waiting warmly for more~
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God I want to pat this dog's head
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probably only a few can do that without losing their fingers ;_;
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>tfw no gravel-for-brains cute stone doggo to hug and pet whenever life kicks you in the nuts
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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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By the time morning dawned, Aun and Miss Suwako were huddled on the floor of the little shed, solidly asleep. They hadn't closed their eyes for long by that point. Just hours prior, the pair scrambled to unload yet another load of washing, one of an uncountable many done and a similar quantity remaining, and get everything hanging to dry. The lack of sunlight wasn't even a concern; there was plenty of wind blowing through to air-dry the clothes and sheets.

What was most important was not stretching the work of laundering fabrics over days. Lion-dog and goddess alike harboured doubts, swapping dry remarks as they worked. Exhaustion proved too powerful by then for them pretend to have a sense of humour about it. Their hands disconnected from their minds, bodies taking on the automatic nature of the 'washing machine', with its ceaseless mechanical arms. Hours of toil later, even the bare notion of thought fell by the wayside. The doubts they expressed, then, were not facetious quips meant to break up the drudgery, but rather simple statements relating a truth not seen with their eyes, merely felt in their weary bones. Neither was sure what prompted them to stop working, nor did such circumstance matter a great deal. Very little mattered when they lay their heads on the hard floor, clinging to each other to ward off the night cold, and closed their eyes.

Consciousness came back to Aun in what could be termed a rush of dread, the sort of feeling one would get having a dream about plummeting to earth. Perhaps she'd even had a dream like that. The lion-dog herself was too bewildered upon waking to recall much. For that matter, discovering where she woke up took some time. The light of morning — or was it noon? — was too searing for her eyes to handle at that moment. There was little she could do but sit and try not to fall back asleep. However, once the idea occurred to her, it had a very attractive ring to her body, if not her mind as well.

The promise she'd made Miss Suwako was what dragged the lion-dog from half-consciousness. Turning over, she nudged the goddess awake, not ceasing her pestering until they were both upright, the droopy-lidded scowl of an interrupted dreamer plastered across Miss Suwako's face. Together, they surveyed the remainder of the work to be done. Though formidable, the pile of clothes and blankets had crumbled from a mountain into more of a high hill; both could literally stand on their workload, and they did so as they combed it for loose pieces to start. While this was to Miss Suwako all mere back-straining labour taken upon herself for scarcely recalled reasons, Aun saw it as a mere obstacle standing between her and her real duty. That was why she raced to pick out clothes to wash, hurrying things along over the little goddess's complaints of morning stiffness and lethargy.

Just like the preceding night, the two settled into a monotonous rhythm of sorting, loading, cleaning, waiting, unloading, drying, and repeating the whole mess as many times as needed. What Aun found curious was how unnecessary conversation was in coordinating this activity. A couple of hours into their toil, she suddenly noticed that the number of words they'd exchanged would hardly weigh much if turned to pebbles. The lack of talking was not in itself strange to Aun. What was odd was how conspicuous Miss Suwako was in her silence. Even exertions drew no sound from the goddess, as if she were doing her utmost to avoid making the least noise. This naturally led Aun to notice how Miss Suwako also hardly looked her way. She thought to ask if there was something bothering the Moriya goddess, but calling out failed to draw her attention. Some transparent film separated them, rendering them merely visible to each other, it seemed to Aun.

Bothered though she was, Aun could do naught but carry on working. The two had agreed that finishing before a whole day elapsed would require a minimum of idleness. Miss Kanako's insistence on completion was well known to both, leaving pushing through the only way out. They merely needed to keep their minds on the job at hand. That was how the lion-dog compartmentalised her feelings of unease that morning.

Somewhere between the second and third load of the day, both of them had paused sorting in favour of waiting for the current batch to finish. Additional sorting by then was effort wasted. Similar to yesterday, they slumped against the opposite wall, transfixed on the hypnotically bobbing and churning mechanical arms, the vibrations of the machine strangely calming now. Here, too, Aun noticed an absence in Miss Suwako's manner. The little goddess rocked from side to side, clasping her knees together as if trying to curl into a ball. Far from aloof and unreactive, as earlier, she appeared anxious.

Aun waited until she had rocked away to nudge herself into the goddess's space, causing her to startle when she smacked right into the lion-dog. She looked at Aun like she'd only just truly awoken. Her cheeks reddened, and she muttered something that sounded like a greeting. At last, the lion-dog thought, she was paying attention.

"If we keep at it, it'll only be a couple more," Aun said nonchalantly, trying not to betray her own nervousness. After waiting a couple of breaths, she went on. "Then I'm gonna do what I promised."

Hearing the word 'promised', Miss Suwako's upper lip twitched. "About that, girl..."

"You're absolutely right about Sanae. There's something off with her, and I need to find out what. That's why I'll watch her as close as I can. As soon as we're done with all this."

The goddess scratched her head and waved off one of the many flies that had already crept in. The way she squinted as she did so almost looked pained. "No, really, that's great. I wouldn't have it any other way. Still, erm..."

"A lion-dog never makes a promise she doesn't intend to keep." She held up a paw as if making some sort of vow.


The sound of her name coming from Miss Suwako made the lion-dog sit up rigid, the two syllables coming out probably louder than intended. Miss Suwako even frowned and apologised for shouting. Aun didn't see much point, considering she was only a little surprised, but she didn't argue, merely asking the goddess what she meant to say.

"Don't take this the wrong way or anything; I don't break promises either. But, y'know—" She stopped talking for a moment, scratching at her neck as she gathered her thoughts. The morning was not kind to her, as was clear enough by the fumbling, addled character of her words. "—I don't think we've gotta be that serious about it, 's all. Neither of us. And I know you're you, don't get me wrong. Still... maybe I was a little hasty in speaking yesterday."

Aun looked at the goddess, puzzled. Were her ears not stony and fixed in place, they would have drooped. "We already made a promise. We sealed it with a pinky swear."

"Forget it," Miss Suwako groaned, returning her attention to the 'washing machine'.

After that exchange, nothing was to be said the rest of that morning. As much as Aun wanted to draw more from Miss Suwako, there was no use trying when the little goddess became sullen. That presented, on the other hand, the opportunity for Aun to let what she had heard slowly filter through the gravel in her head.

As best she could tell, Aun thought Miss Suwako might be embarrassed about her own behaviour yesterday. She had certainly gone a bit far, first in lambasting the lion-dog for acting on her instincts, then in flagellating herself for doing so. That was a familiar pattern with Miss Suwako, the more Aun thought about it. No matter how cheerful and open the goddess portrayed herself, precious little left the safety of her chest. Sometimes, Aun entertained her own private doubts, wondering if secretive gods like the Moriya goddess could be trusted fully. Of course, trust had little to do with her job. She merely had to protect sacred ground where it existed, being a useful tool to those who occupied it.

To freer minds, such an existence would no doubt be anathema, but the assurance of carrying out her duty was something that itself created a sense of security for Aun. Having no ambiguity over her employment left no room for hesitation, after all. Nevertheless, odd doubts assailed her simple lion-dog brain at times, and she disliked it once she realised what was happening. What use was a guard who couldn't simply act as instructed? That train of thought always arrived at the bare question of what good was thought in the first place. Aun then forced herself to cease pondering upon reaching that conclusion, usually by way of throwing herself into work with extra vigour.

The next few hours from dawn consisted largely of Aun rushing to-and-fro, either sorting, drying, unloading, or loading, ceaseless in her work lest further troublesome thoughts visit. For her part, Miss Suwako followed, picking up whatever slack remained, which proved to be little. Hardly anything remained to be done, so the Moriya goddess took to the corner. Aun quickly noticed the absence of a second patter of feet but put her lagging partner in labour out of mind soon after. She had found her peak efficiency. And, for a couple of hours, she was something approaching happy.

A fortunate abundance of sun and wind polished off the rest of the pile by late afternoon. The Moriya goddess was quick to depart thereafter, excuses muttered under her breath. Aun found the assumption that she alone would handle the rest irksome, even if her capability was never in doubt. The downhill trip had been managable, albeit with a fair deal of tension. The return trip uphill was no more stable, no less tense, and all-in-all more arduous. Someone had once related a story about a man in a foreign land cursed to eternally push a boulder uphill. The fact that such an activity was meant as a corrective one rang silly to the lion-dog. To her mind, boulders were some of the nicest rocks you could ever talk to, Aun feeling a kindredness with them, their speechlessness notwithstanding. Regardless, getting the massive wad of cloth up an incline did resemble some punishment. She hoped Miss Kanako would be very thankful for her (and Miss Suwako's) efforts.

Disappointment stung no less when the Goddess Yasaka offered only bland praise, followed by ordering Aun to assist with dinner. Being reprimanded for not speaking clearly when the lion-dog muttered her acquiescence added insult to injury. She washed her hands and tied her apron while stealing furtive glances at the mountainous goddess. Nothing in Miss Kanako's manner seemed to betray anything about yesterday's exchange. If anything, she radiated a feeling of good humour, bossiness aside, lapsing into the quaint humming now familiar to Aun.

Hurriedly getting prepared after Miss Kanako noted her dawdling, Aun took her position at the cutting board. She had just secured a somewhat uncooperative cabbage when the sound of the side door drew her attention. Though prepared to possibly see Miss Suwako, the face Aun caught peeking into the kitchen was Sanae's.

The shrine maiden's green eyes bored into Aun for what felt like an eternity before she greeted Miss Kanako casually. Compared to the bored reception the lion-dog received, the goddess was quick to return the salutation, enquiring what Sanae had been up to. A vague jumble of quotidian business sufficed as an answer. Aun seized the chance to tout her triumph in finishing the laundry — to which neither deity nor living deity offered any comment. Grumbling in annoyance, she turned her attention back to chopping vegetables, leaving the two ingrates to talk among themselves.

Their chatter comprised largely of Miss Kanako recounting the provenance of the night's star ingredient. Earlier, a parcel had arrived at the house entryway along with a letter. The gist was that a certain important tengu, whom the goddess refused to name, had sent a gift by courier, along with well wishes ahead further talks. To Miss Kanako's pleasant surprise, the bundle contained a prettily wrapped fish, not all that long from the river by her estimation. At that, Sanae dryly questioned her goddess's credentials in fishmongering, but the jab merely went ignored. As if to answer Sanae's remark, Miss Kanako lifted the lid on the pot she was minding.

Steam carrying the faint aroma of whitefish and other, more aromatic elements rose out the pot. Sanae and Aun packed into a huddle to appraise the contents. The prized fish sat simmering in a clear broth, the sweet smell of fermented rice mingled with natural savouriness. For once, Sanae looked impressed at something, asking when the goddess learned to prepare something as delicate as sakamushi. Miss Kanako replied matter-of-factly that it was some centuries ago, and that the shrine maiden would do well not to view her experience in cooking lightly.

All while this exchange happened, Aun couldn't help staring at the fish steaming in sake, trying her best not to drool on Sanae's shoulder. Tender meat teased its escape from the bones, Aun wanting dearly to slurp the rich flavours from them. Just the eyes and collar would have been enough; she had learned contentment with such pieces on the uncommon occasion when Reimu had a fish to prepare.

The pot lid came back down to extinguish the view. Satisfied she had demonstrated her sensible taste, Miss Kanako declared that Sanae was to assist Aun with the side dishes. Sanae shrugged her shoulders and fell obediently into line with her goddess and the lion-dog, though a bit of muttered sauciness as she tied her apron and put her hair up into a ponytail didn't escape Aun's hearing. Left with general instructions, the pair briskly handled the remainder of the prep work, passing vegetables to be cut and shoved into a pan or bowl as needed.

Their dynamic could hardly be likened to the a-un ideal, like when the lion-dog worked with Miss Suwako, but she and Sanae made an effective enough team, a verbal reminder or a pointing finger sufficing to correct any mix-ups. Soon, they were divided between one boiling vegetables and the other dressing a raw dish. Out of the corner of her eye, Aun caught Miss Kanako watching the two of them. Something about their work amused the goddess. Aun failed to see what could be so funny, but time was not in excess for asking questions.

Soon enough, the Goddess Yasaka announced that the rice was done. Shrine maiden and lion-dog both took this as the signal to prepare the table and plating. As Aun moved to the stove, Sanae intruded to nudge her aside, claiming the lion-dog was too slow for serving. Annoyed, though in no mood to argue, she redirected her efforts to ensuring the table was in order. Everyone's chopsticks were set in the right places — aside from Miss Suwako's. Aun considered asking about the Moriya goddess, but Miss Kanako seemed to sense the unspoken question and told her to sit down. She could hardly feign surprise at the other goddess remaining uninvited.

Dinner was everything Aun had imagined. The meat did indeed slide right from the bones, all but melting on Aun's tongue. All three occupants at the table were stunned into silence by the steamed fish. The side dishes that Aun and Sanae had worked on fell to the wayside, and everyone lapsed into a rhythm of picking off bits of fish and shovelling down rice after it, chased by a sip of soup. Aun couldn't even remain indignant about her work being ignored in the face of Kanako's fish. As much as it stung to admit, she was simply outclassed; the fact that the goddess's dish was tasty did remedy that somewhat, of course. There was nothing to be done about any of it but to eat quietly and enjoy.

The noise of Sanae's chair scooting back suddenly broke the silence. Sanae didn't even mutter an excuse before retreating from the kitchen, leaving her apron hanging on her seat. The lion-dog stood up intent on following but found a hand on her shoulder. A bemused looking Miss Kanako shook her head. Unable to comprehend why she was being stopped, Aun frowned.

"Why?" she asked simply.

"It happens all the time." The Yasaka goddess sounded entirely unconcerned as she continued picking at the fish with her chopsticks, giving an appreciative hum at her own cooking.

"I have to follow her."

"It happens all the time," the goddess repeated more firmly. "There's no sense worrying. Besides, if you leave, I'm not going to stop eating this fish."

Unhappy with Miss Kanako not regarding her own shrine maiden's activity as suspicious, but also not liking the idea of leaving all of the meat to be taken by her, Aun flopped back into her seat. She pointed out the simmered vegetables sitting untouched next to Miss Kanako.

"Don't forget to eat your vegetables."

Miss Kanako chuckled and stopped to wipe her mouth before taking a bite of carrot. "My apologies. This sakamushi is so addictive. It's hard to stop once you've started."

The opportunity to have another bite was too much for Aun to pass up. Just as the goddess said, something of an attractive force pulled her chopsticks back to pinch another morsel from the bones. She similarly had to make a conscious effort to eat from the accompanying dishes, realising the self-insult of ignoring her own work.

After another bit of potato, Aun put down her chopsticks to ward off further temptation. "You're not curious at all?"

"I never said that," Miss Kanako said, stopping to swallow a mouthful. "I'm curious about many things. Do I go leaping at all of them? Of course not. I've found most things reveal themselves with time, anyhow. Patience — that's the key. Don't rush into things based on a hunch."

"Maybe I want to keep something bad from happening."

This time, Kanako set her chopsticks down as well. She fixed Aun with a look that brooked no argument. This was her final comment on the matter, and she wanted that to be clear. "Sounds to me like you've forgotten what your occupation is."

"My what?"

"Your occupation. Your job, in other words. What you do. Think a little before overstepping your bounds. Now, please, eat. No more of that." Though there was something like amusement in their delivery, some other sentiment lurked in the Goddess Yasaka's words. She didn't so much as look Aun's way as she resumed eating.

Rather than let herself sink into doubts for a second time that day, Aun took up her chopsticks to busy her hands, and at the same time busy her tongue so that her brain, such as it was, had no time to intrude. She couldn't just wait. Not in the way Miss Kanako meant. Too many other undesirable things would probably happen by the time she knew what was going on. Just long enough to share an intimate meal wasn't too long a wait. After that, she could do what she felt was right.

How anyone ever slept in the house with Miss Kanako's snoring, Aun had no idea. Thankfully, the auditory simulation of tectonic plates shifting masked her footfalls well. The lion-dog used that cover to head up the stairs, notorious for their creaking under the slightest weight, pausing at intervals when Miss Kanako went quiet. Once on the landing, she sidled up to Sanae's door and pressed her stony ear to it. No signs of life. Slowly, she turned the handle, trying not to make any noise as she nudged the door open. Just enough of a crack remained to see Sanae's bed.

Still no sign of life. Aun pushed the door open enough to poke her head into the darkened room. Squinting to see, she was sure only a messy tangle of sheets lay on the bed. A quick listen and smell confirmed that the shrine maiden couldn't be there, as suspected.

Her hunch confirmed, the lion-dog crept back down the stairs, past the living room, and out to the shoe rack to retrieve her muddied geta. She carried them to the back door, heading out the same way Sanae had gone.

Oddly, lanterns lit here and there in the distance shone through what should have been pitch black. Their glow was muted, but it was enough that someone who wanted to navigate the shrine grounds at night, like a human with their less-than-ideal night vision, would face no issue. Aun was quietly thankful to whoever lit them, her own eyes not taking in the dark very well, vexing as it was to admit to herself. Using the convenience of the dim light, she found her way over to the main path and followed it into the shrine proper.

Though she was no stranger to shrines at night, there was a certain unsettled feeling in the air to Aun. Commonplace ghosts, phantoms, and spirits of varying sorts weren't normally enough to bother her. This was more a matter of something being 'wrong'. Everywhere she looked, from the stone lanterns to the torii, the subtle sense that they had changed somehow gnawed at the back of Aun's neck like a very sturdy flea. However, when she stopped to inspect anything, nothing about it appeared different from memory. Then again, a lion-dog of gravelly brain as she was, what use was there remembering the most commonplace things? She began to wonder if she could trust her own recollections, having otherwise given no more consideration before to her environs than to the morning's breakfast.

Shaking her head, she moved along the path, trying to keep her eyes peeled for anyone else about. This was no time to be falling into idle pondering, she reminded herself. And it certainly was no time to start being afraid of the dark.

That self-rebuke quickly fled from mind as the sound of something being struck made the hairs on Aun's neck stand up — or they would have if not made of stone. A moment's panic saw her fleeing to hide behind one of the unlit stone lanterns, unable to see if she was being fired upon or in some similar peril. She sat crouched, not daring to move as the noise carried on. One strike, two strikes, three strikes. They came in groups of threes and fours, slightly irregular in their rhythm. Nothing around the lion-dog felt like it was suffering any impact. Several waves of pounding went by before she recognised that she was hearing the sound of a hammer being employed. She stood up from her hiding place, feeling silly for being startled by something so otherwise benign.

In fact, she thought, she should have known what the sound was right away. After all, Reimu's first resort once something wasn't working quite right was to 'fix' it herself, a job most directly accomplished with a blow to the offending item. This often ended in increased frustration as the red-and-white shrine maiden simply worsened the damage. The next resort was, unfortunately for Aun, to blame whomever was closest for the initial dysfunction, often the lion-dog.

Soured by her recollection of Reimu's pecadillos, Aun put that out of mind to focus on her main concern of the moment, namely seeing if she could find Sanae. The hammering had yet to cease beyond the slight pauses between blows. If anything, the frequency and intensity of the noises had increased, sounding more aggressive, the wielder perhaps agitated by whatever they were striking. The more she listened, the more Aun became curious about the mysterious hammerer. As the gravel in her brain churned a bit more, the idea that they could in fact be Sanae clicked into place.

Aun put her lion-dog ears to work attempting to triangulate the source of the noise. They led her further along the path and into a part of the shrine that was suddenly much less lit-up than the entrance. Her best estimation was that she was somewhere in the middle of the grounds, but that wasn't very helpful as far as estimations went. There was a fair chance that a wrong footfall would send her into one of the ponds. Even if she avoided disturbing the fish, the lion-dog was just as likely to crash into an unlit stone lantern and break it. Or she could stumble into one of the sacred trees — again. Any of these possible disasters would earn her a scolding from Miss Kanako once she knew.

If she knew, her feline side chimed in. Her canine side snapped back that it would hear none of such treachery, earning a shrug and a 'suit yourself' from its compliment.

Aun elected to seek a safe path, spotting a light that periodically disappeared behind the scenery, very likely another lantern off in the direction of the hammering. Careful steps made for a slow advance, and a wave of panic hit Aun after the noise subsided for what felt like several minutes. Whoever was wielding the hammer was either getting close to finishing the job or hesitating over something. Once safely on the other side of the grounds, Aun heard the banging resume from a bit further away this time. They were on the move, then.

The path was a little clearer on Aun's end of the shrine. Soon, very little illumination was necessary to notice that she was close to the main hall. A faint light shone from close to the hall, a touch brighter than any lantern. Squinting, Aun couldn't see anyone there. The most she could see was what she expected was the donation box. When she moved a few steps closer, the light winked off.

Breaking into a run, the lion-dog went on the chase. The distance between her and the main hall vanished in several instants, her footfalls heavy on the ground. Unfortunate for Aun, whoever may have been there had vanished with the light. The only lingering smell was that of the old wood of the main hall, and no sound of someone taking off into the night carried from anywhere nearby. A cold breeze blew by as if to mock Aun, nicking her skin and making her shiver. She cursed herself for not thinking to bring a coat. This was no time to linger and check things out. Without a light of her own, she could scarcely hope to see anything. Checking in on Miss Suwako sounded like the most natural thing to do at that point. Doing so proved to be a grave mistake.

Aun's knock at the grating had gone unanswered. When she tried again, an indeterminate sound of attempted speech came from inside. Miss Suwako had still not emerged. A third attempt seemed silly whilst she was freezing her horn off, so Aun took a necessary deviation from protocol by inviting herself inside. As she entered the snug hall, the sound of clicking glass sounded as she accidentally kicked a bottle that had rolled by the grating. The floor had become awash in them, all empty of their liquor. The lion-dog huffed in agitation at the little goddess for once again overindulging.

Miss Suwako herself lay not far from there in the middle of the floor. Her face was drawn into a sloppy, open smile, her tongue half-lolling out, similar to Aun's own alleged habit. Telling whether she was conscious or not proved difficult through her burbling, flushed, closed-eyed state. The fact that her arms had curled around a particularly large sake bottle, turned mouth side down, using it as an oddly-shaped body pillow, did little to remedy such confusion. Perhaps making a distinction was moot by this point, though Aun figured that an awake goddess would probably have paid more attention to her clothing. As things sat, Miss Suwako was mostly disrobed, her shirt, skirt, and other effects forming a trail across the floor, marking the history of her intoxication. Her camisole was stained half-transparent with what was likely the last trickle of liquor from the bottle she was cradling. That she was a sloppy drunk was already a well-established fact. That didn't stop Aun from furrowing her brow in disapproval at the sight.

Aun kicked the refuse of Suwako's one-woman party aside to make a seat for herself by the lit hibachi. Turning her ear out to the grating, she listened for any sign of the phantom hammering carrying on elsewhere. To her disappointment — or perhaps relief — all remained still on the shrine grounds. The lion-dog couldn't know for absolute certain, except that would require dashing to the furthest extremes of the shrine, something she was not in the least prepared to do given the temperature. The main hall was a central enough location that any sounds would reach it from a reasonable distance. Conversely, hearing nothing was a good enough sign that a source would not be forthcoming tonight. Just the sort of conclusion to make Aun cradle her head in her hands.

The clinking of shifting bottles made Aun look back. Miss Suwako was sitting upright, the goddess-sized bottle discarded next to her, gazing blearily at the lion-dog. The lack of focus in the Moriya goddess's eyes disturbed Aun. She tried scooting away slowly in hopes that Miss Suwako would fail to truly notice her. A bottle just behind batted into the hibachi, the impact sounding jarring in the tiny space. The goddess somehow leapt up from her resting place and tackled Aun within seconds, wrapping both her arms and legs around the lion-dog. Struggle though she might, Aun couldn't loose the little goddess's hold. By the time this fact truly registered, Miss Suwako had closed her eyes once more, her head leaning right into Aun's chest, muffling her soft snoring. Aun was stuck as a stony, yet warm body pillow for the rest of the night. At least, she supposed, neither of them would be cold.
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"Hey, there's always worse things you could end up smelling like."

Aun didn't look up from her work of clearing the discarded bottles. "You don't have a nose like mine."

"You got me there," Miss Suwako said, laughing weakly.

The lion-dog wouldn't say that she was mad. Even waking up smelling of sweat and liquor couldn't disturb her a whole lot, though her nose did indeed protest. Still, she had been in something of a mood from the moment she woke up still held immobile by the Goddess Moriya.

Getting the remaining bottles lined up, she finally had space on the tatami, pulling the cushions back to a more central spot. She sat down on one and gestured for Miss Suwako to join her. The goddess moved from her spot against the wall, where she'd stood most of the time, hesitant in her steps. Sitting stiffly in seiza position, she watched Aun with a wary eye.

"You're really not mad, though? Not even a little? It's okay if you are."

"I'm not," Aun replied. Try as she might to appear unaffected, her jaw was clamped tight.

Miss Suwako scratched her neck uneasily. "If you say so."

Articulating what it was she felt was difficult for Aun. Something gnawed at her from her neck up. Every part of her wanted to snap at Miss Suwako for what could have been various reasons, but she didn't feel justified. She couldn't particularly blame anyone for anything that had happened, precisely because nothing much had happened. In other words, she had accomplished nothing, something that in itself was upsetting.

Looking over at the goddess wobbling as she tried to sit rigid, Aun sighed heavily. She got up and steadied her by the shoulders. "You're worrying about the wrong person. Just sit like normal."

"Gripping a little tight there," whined Miss Suwako as she switched to her customary sitting position. Planting her bottom on the cushion, she winced a little, bending her back. She rubbed at her lower back with her knuckles. "There's where you can put some force."

Though she didn't particularly want to, Aun felt it better to just massage Miss Suwako's aching lower back than hear further complaints about it. If nothing else, the little goddess wouldn't have any reason to conveniently 'feel her age', a grating habit reserved for when she wanted to escape responsibility.

"Ah, there's a good girl. Nobody else around here cares if I'm rickety. Can you believe that? Can't even convince old Mountains of Faith to take pity." The flippant act didn't last long. She slumped over slightly, stopped by Aun holding her up by the shoulder. "Not that I could ever ask Sanae. Heck, who knows what she really thinks of me."

"Are you still a little drunk?" Aun butted into Miss Suwako's monologue.

"M-Maybe," Miss Suwako answered after a pause.

"You can't keep drinking your problems away."

The goddess wiggled in place, trying to redirect Aun's attention to her lower back. "Got a kink right in there that's really giving it to me. Put some force in."

Seeing right through the Moriya goddess's need to avoid the subject, Aun jammed her thumbs right into the indicated spot with an excess of force. The sound of something crunching rang out loudly. Miss Suwako jerked upright, only stopped from leaping by Aun's hand on her shoulder, and produced an odd pained squealing noise. There were definitely tears in her eyes when she looked back accusingly at the lion-dog.

"You said to 'put some force in'."

"Look, I'm sorry, girl! I'll talk about whatever! Just please don't do that again!"

Aun forced a smile that showed her fangs. "Then don't avoid the subject."

"I..." Miss Suwako sputtered for a moment before catching herself. "What do you want to talk about?"

"Last night. I was out trying to see if I could see what Sanae was up to. I thought I heard a noise close to here. Did you hear it?"

The little goddess squinted, thinking back. She twisted and grunted as Aun continued working the knots out of her back. "A noise, a noise... Not really ringing any— Oh, wait a minute! I did hear a noise, in fact. Scared the hell out of me for a minute, 'cause it sounded like it was right outside. Like someone pounding away with a hammer or something."

"And you didn't get up to check?"

"Yeah, yeah, I was three sheets in the wind. You know that already, so lay off," Miss Suwako balked. She grabbed at her head from a sudden twinge, looking humbled as it passed. "I deserved that. Anyway, I rolled over, looked up, and thought I saw someone out front. Couldn't see real clear, but I couldn't help thinking it was Sanae for some reason. I said, 'Sanae? That you?' Then things went real quiet for a bit. And that's all I remember."

"That's all," Aun repeated, putting more pressure into her fingers.

"No omissions, exaggerations, or anything else!"

Hearing that, the lion-dog relaxed her fingers. There was little reason to suspect Miss Suwako was trying to make excuses or mislead in any way. If anything, Aun felt she had been doing that herself. There was no one to blame but her for any failure to discover anything of substance. She would just have to make up for it by her own efforts.

Aun finished massaging Miss Suwako's back and went to fetch some water for the hungover goddess. For her part, the Moriya goddess was thankful, rubbing Aun behind her horn before asking to be left alone a while. She settled properly into her futon, significantly more hydrated than before, and drifted off into a cozy mid-day nap, the lion-dog quietly padding out to respect her wish for rest.

Stepping outside for the first time that day, Aun was suprised to discover how overcast the weather had grown. While no rain appeared imminent, she immediately understood Miss Suwako's desire for sleep, the leaden skies doing little to inspire action in the lion-dog. The idea of finding a safe spot away from the house to have a nap tickled at Aun's inner ear. There was, after all, little reason to do anything. The odd trickle of visitors that somehow maintained itself despite the shrine being largely unmanned wasn't even an issue today, the shrine grounds looking totally desolate of humans, tengu, or otherwise. If there was any good day for the shrine to be silent, one like this would probably be it.

A dull feeling of emptiness brought Aun to her more dutiful senses again. Yes, that very absence of the shrine's presence was meant to be a worry, a warning to her that things weren't right. The last thing she needed to be doing was to ignore it in favour of a nap. Chastising herself, she forced herself out of the main hall's comfortable shadow and into the dull daylight. There were always things to be done.

First up on the agenda was tracking down Sanae. Aun could scarcely imagine she ever showed her face at the house again last night or early this morning, leaving the shrine maiden largely sans alibi.

She started by checking at the house anyway in case Sanae had returned to sleep. To avoid Miss Kanako and any potential day-long assignments, the lion-dog floated up near the roof and crept around to Sanae's bedroom window to peer in. The room itself was unlit beyond a few dull sunrays through the window. Inside, the floor was littered in discarded clothes and other detritus, leaving the whole space piled up and half-hidden. Sanae's bedsheets were balled up on one corner of the bed. The curtains not being closed was enough of a hint, but that was sure enough evidence that the bed was still unoccupied. The general state of the room made it clear that Sanae had done very little recently beyond walk in, change clothes, and leave again soon after.

The next resort was to comb the shrine grounds the old-fashioned way. There had been no immediate glints of green anywhere when Aun scanned around from the main hall, ruling out the most central parts. She started from the torii and followed the paths around the inside of the furthest perimeter. Walking under the cover of some trees, Aun began to feel drowsy, having to will herself to stay awake. She soon switched to the opposite end of the shrine after no signs of life showed themselves.

Walking past the main hall once more, Aun was shocked to spot Sanae right away off near the shrine offices. The shrine maiden appeared to be sweeping for a change, her back turned as the lion-dog casually walked toward her. Aun tread carefully on the path, not wanting to crunch any leaves or twigs underfoot and give up the advantage of stealth. Avoiding leaves turned out to be next to impossible. The season had dumped so many across the footpath and elsewhere that there was essentially nowhere Aun could step without making some sound. Not wanting to waste the opportunity presented, Sanae still having somehow not noticed the incoming lion-dog, she kicked off her geta and tiptoed barefoot off of the path proper, avoiding bearing down on her steps as she did. Her stony heart began racing in excitement. If she could watch Sanae undetected, maybe she'd finally get somewhere in figuring out some of the shrine's current troubles.

That vague hope dissipated once Aun got close enough to clearly see that Sanae was standing nearly motionless. In fact, viewed from another angle, it was obvious that her eyes were closed. Irritated that she'd only caught Sanae sleeping on her feet, she moved in closer to confirm the fact. No amount of movement in her immediate vicinity disturbed the so-called living god. She swayed on her feet, steadied by the broom she was holding upright, even snoring softly.

Aun stood watching to see if Sanae would wake up on her own, moving in closer once it was clear she wouldn't. She was able to move right up to the dozing shrine maiden. Had Aun any sort of malicious aims, Sanae would have been a sitting duck. As things stood, the lion-dog merely observed the sleeping Sanae, struck by the resemblance between her and Miss Kanako's sleeping habits. The thought that the Yasaka goddess might also be able to sleep upright swirled through the gravel, though it was still difficult to imagine. At the very least, the two seemed to share a propensity for being hard to wake up.

Experimentally, Aun poked the shrine maiden's cheek. Sanae squirmed, her nose wrinkling and brow twitching, but she still didn't open her eyes. Trying to disturb her this way produced a similar result after trying several times. Growing impatient, Aun looked around for some other means of waking Sanae, noting the office windows, which were still shuttered.

She raised one of the shutters and found the bell visitors rang for attention sitting right where it could usually be found. Knowing her usual work, Sanae had to be hard-wired to notice its call. Licking her lips, Aun positioned her finger over the button, took a deep breath, and jammed down on it hard. The resulting ringing made Aun's tail stand up in surprise, and she put distance between herself and it to avoid further ear pain. Sanae also took notice of the sound, leaping upward from where she stood. The broom she had braced herself against fell to the ground with a clatter.

Bleary-eyed and on unsteady legs, Sanae made a beeline straight for the window, bowing deeply a the waist. Some attempt at an apology or some other formalities fell from her mouth in a mash of confused noises. When the shrine maiden raised herself back level, Aun could see her eyes were bloodshot. The sleep-deprived Sanae puzzled at Aun for a few moments before recognising that she wasn't staring at one of the faithful come to buy an amulet.

"Oh, er..."

"It's not good to be sleeping on your feet," Aun explained innocently.

Sanae said nothing, rubbing her drowsy eyes. She looked again at Aun and then looked around as if expecting someone else to be there. If Aun looked closely, there looked to be a bit of panic mingled in Sanae's visage.

Moving out from under the overhang, Sanae looked up at something on the roof, shook her head, and turned around. The lion-dog followed her as she went to retrieve her broom, Sanae's footsteps falling faster as she seemed to notice Aun. The two of them raced to be the first to get hold of the broom. Aun just managed to catch the handle before Sanae and held onto it tightly as the shrine maiden tried to wrench it from her grip.

Sanae looked at Aun blandly despite tugging with seemingly all of her strength. "Let go."

"Can I please talk to you about last night? I just want to know if—"

"Let go!" came the command again, this time shouted at a volume that startled Aun.

"Please, Sanae." Reluctantly, Aun loosened her grip. She took a couple of wary steps back in case Sanae decided to wield it; Reimu was notorious for turning brooms to makeshift weaponry in fits of temper.

A gust nearly bowled Aun over as Sanae took to the sky, still holding her broom. Aun sat watching her fly a fair distance away from the shrine and the mountain generally. Though she felt that she was more than capable of giving chase, the lion-dog wondered what good it would do in the end. If she caught up, what then? Was she prepared to fight? Or argue? After yesterday, such a thing sounded thoroughly unpalatable. She would simply be wasting energy to no purpose. That was how she justified it to herself, anyway.

Once the shrine maiden had made her escape, going somewhere out of sight, aided by the glare of the midday sun, Aun retreated back to the offices to close the shutters she'd opened. There was no sense in pouting over Sanae fleeing. The fact that it had happened at all was her own fault. However, she hoped that would only be an inconvenience at best. Eventually, Sanae would come to her senses and realise that Aun meant no harm, and maybe they could have a real conversation. Aun felt herself slam the shutter down harder than was strictly necessary, her paws trembling as she kept her grip. The anxious part of her was already calling her investigative attempts over.

The lion-dog took a deep breath, trying not to be overwhelmed by the enormity of her own errors. She didn't want to prove Reimu right. She didn't want to even give credence to words said in anger. Bracing herself against the counter, she fought the urge to hyperventilate.

Perhaps fuelled by an instinctive need to redirect her own attention, her notice fell back to the shutters and to the idea that they were open in the first place. That meant, she reasoned as well as a lion-dog could be expected reason, that Sanae had likely been doing something in the offices, needing to unlock the shutters for some reason. Now that she looked again, Aun saw the keys for them sitting outside on the counter. Trying the other set, they too were unlocked. The only times the shutters were opened were when the offices were to be opened to visitors. Having seen the grounds completely absent of visitors — and she doubted there would be any — Aun wondered just why Sanae would make such preparations.

The lights were on inside, as Aun could clearly see peering across over the counter. What she couldn't see, owing to the divider in the way, was the actual state of the offices. She remembered them being in generally good order the last time she'd been in, but that had been a good while ago. Given the state of things at the shrine generally, concerns wriggled in over how tidily affairs may or may not have been maintained since then.

Luckily, as she discovered upon checking, the door was still totally unlocked. She tutted at finding the keys slotted right in the lock. To have to worry about basic security only confirmed to Aun that things were not nearly so well as they'd appeared at first. Seeing the inside was no big relief, either. As Aun suspected, the place was a mess.

Whether the offices had been ransacked or were simply mis-kept was difficult to discern from a single look. Papers and files once kept in tidy stacks sat loose everywhere, many simply fallen to the floor and not picked up. Record books were haphazardly shoved to one side. The careful arrangement of files seemed to have been discarded in favour of some much more bizarre logic. This was no office Aun recognised. How anything approaching work could be done here, she couldn't imagine. By all appearances, the front side had been given sole focus while the back had been left in chaos.

One of the few things left in a sensible place was the most recent set of sales records. In fact, the book was held open at a page indicating a date about a week ago. Several figures were scribbled in for that day, a relatively slow one by all looks. Aun almost closed the book but decided to have a second look. Just as she'd feared, the totals had next to no relation to the written numbers. A couple of the entries had been marked through several times, and notes had been left in the margins to refer to other notes. This was bookkeeping only done to pass the most casual inspection.

Feeling a lump underneath the page, Aun turned it to find numerous small slips of paper. Further numbers and even what seemed like thick, forceful tally marks made up the majority of the contents. Mixed in were a couple of odd notes in a shaky hand.

40 safety in drawer, 20 shorted sale, how much in difference???

make amulet numbers tomorrow, too many wasted

Telling how long ago they'd been scrawled was beyond a lion-dog's expertise, but Aun's own opinion was that the notes couldn't have been from too long ago. The handwriting itself was a vague match for Sanae's. Owing to her current state, the messiness wasn't too odd, though it did concern Aun a little.Just how roughshod was the shrine maiden running herself?

Aun ran her hands between the two pages in search of any more notes. Her fingers brushed something, but it felt much longer than one of the paper scraps, and it seemed made of some rough, porous material. She pulled out a length of something cloth-like that looked stained with small rusty patches. After some staring, the obvious conclusion was that the long strip was a gauze bandage. Judging from the stains, almost certainly blood — Aun's otherwise stony stomach gave a lurch seeing it now — they'd been applied to a cut or gouge of some sort. And the only possible wearer had to be Sanae.

As she withdrew more of the bandage, a loose piece of paper slipped from between the book pages, landing at Aun's feet. Retrieving it in curiosity, Aun was shocked to find that the other side wasn't blank. In fact, something was printed on the reverse side.

Miracles! Personal blessings from Lady Kanako herself! Gather, faithful!

Even one as straightforward as the lion-dog couldn't help smiling wryly at the idea of Miss Kanako in her current state greeting visitors. The verbiage and layout suggested an advertisement, nothing particularly out of place with the Moriya Shrine's operations. With things how they were, Aun guessed it was some past event.

The thought didn't particularly strike her as significant at first, but she slowly began to feel a sense of wistfulness. Rather than the trickle of visitors on irregular days, the Moriya Shrine that Aun had known was a lively place. True, not every day was a festival, and there could be patches of boredom as well as times of feeling overwhelmed. Nevertheless, compared to the lazy, uneventful life of the Hakurei Shrine, the mountain top shrine had had a bustling character on its usual days. Events like the one advertised on the leaflet Aun held in her paw just added to that. Compared to now, when the shrine echoed with its own silence, she longed to see a day like that again and not have to think about the sorts of troubling things she did now.

Her eyes scanned the page again, Aun feeling warmly for an event she'd not even attended. When she looked down at the date, though, she was pulled into the cold present. What was being advertised was not at all a past production by the shrine. Much the opposite, the gathering had yet to even pass. In her confusion, Aun cast around for one of the desk calendars kept around in the office. She found the current year's calendar on the floor, turned to what she was sure was the current month, and looked to the current date. Her mouth fell slack in surprise: The event was set for tomorrow.

Aun felt her head swimming at the realisation. She rifled through the many papers on the desk in hopes that the leaflet was merely one of many left undistributed. No others matching it could be found. At some point, others like it had to have been handed out.

Dread set in for Aun. This whole time, she'd been ignorant of any such happening. No one had made any mention. Did they simply not see fit to keep the lion-dog appraised? Did they not trust her? Numerous such questions turned the churning gravel of Aun's brain into a maelstrom.

There was no way around it. Aun needed to confront Miss Kanako.
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Even seated at the kitchen table, the Goddess Yasaka sat towering as always. Her slitted ruby eyes regarded the leaflet and bandage passively, prodding the latter with her finger and idly toying with it, making it wiggle and slither along. The clock on the wall ticked loudly as Aun waited for her to say anything.

When Aun had brought the items to her attention, Miss Kanako had practically refused to acknowledge them. The lion-dog wasn't swayed by being given the cold shoulder and remained persistent in her nagging. Once the massive goddess had finished running along the hall with a cloth, she beckoned Aun to follow her to the kitchen, which she did immediately. She produced the articles of interest again at Miss Kanako's stern demand, setting them down on the table and having a seat adjacent. At first the goddess merely stood and looked down, her finger tapping a steady rhythm on the tabletop, but she soon took a seat as well. That had already been some minutes ago.

At length, the leaflet slid back over Aun's way. Though she looked in the lion-dog's direction, something about Miss Kanako's snake-like gaze seemed to go past her, directed at something long removed in the expanse of time and space. Her long finger coiled and uncoiled the dirty bandage around itself. Her other hand toyed with one of her earrings in a way that made Aun queasy to look at.

"This seems to match something we discussed at one point, yes," she said at last, vaguely glancing towards the paper.

"Discussed," Aun echoed, "but not actually planned."

"Those are more or less the same for us. Perhaps nothing was committed to paper as such. It was only necessary for me to keep it here, anyway." The goddess's hand momentarily ceased tugging on her earring to instead tap her temple. Reminded of her own brilliance, the corners of her mouth lifted slightly. "And it's remained safe in my memory since."

"Your memory and someone else's." Sanae's name perched at the end of Aun's tongue, but naming her now felt premature. Accusations would probably do little to convince Miss Kanako of anything at this stage.

"Of course, I can't keep exclusive hold on those ideas, much as I'd like to. But what can be done for it? Nothing, as far as I can see. Someone was quicker on the draw. Not really a loss I'd dwell on."

The lion-dog tapped where the goddess's name was prominently displayed. "You're not worried about this? Not even a little bit? People are going to come here tomorrow expecting you."

"And?" Miss Kanako asked with a very direct look at Aun. Her eyebrow was arched in a challenging way. There was only so much further room for the lion-dog to push.

Not that Aun felt she had any leverage at the moment. The one-word question was enough to stymie her for the moment. Indeed, the lion-dog started wondering what effect expectant worshippers might have. The limits of her stony brain presented themselves in a lack of imagination. The question wasn't one she could hope to answer herself; Miss Kanako never did play fair.

As she looked for a hint as to how to respond, Miss Kanako's idle fidgeting with the bandage caught her attention. She pointed to it in hopes that it would make a good distraction. "I found that in the office. It was hidden in the records."

"My, what an accounting trick." The goddess chuckled at her own joke, holding the blood-soaked strip up to display it for a squeamish Aun. "Sanae, I'd expect."

"You think so too?" Aun pressed immediately.

"I've had to help patch her up a few times. That girl's always been a bit clumsy, and she's been worse as of late. Though I'll admit I don't recall tying this one. It's a bit excessive for a little bump or bruise or cut or whatever."

"And you've never asked what she's doing?"

The Goddess Yasaka shrugged her shoulders. "What business it is of mine? As I said, Sanae's had a clumsy streak since she was a girl. If she hasn't got herself killed yet, I don't think it'll happen. Plus, she has my protection. And her own. She is technically a god, too, you know."

"I think she's up to something. She probably set up that event. People will show up tomorrow, and they'll be mad if you're not there."

"You sound so sure of yourself. Where's your proof?" Miss Kanako sat back in her seat and crossed her arms.

Aun gawped at the goddess. As far as she was concerned, the proof was right there on the table. "I don't understand."

"You don't have any proof Sanae even handed those out," the Yasaka goddess pronounced slowly, the heaviness of every syllable lending a finalty to the statement. "So there's no reason to worry. Do you understand what I mean now about forgetting your occupation? This is why you keep to what you're good at."

Miss Kanako moved to get up from her seat, but Aun was first to rise. The lion-dog had heard enough. If the goddess wasn't going to take an interest in the shrine's affairs, that was her problem. Aun wasn't going to sit by and let things happen. Protecting the shrine was what she was supposed to be good at. At least, she felt that was the case.

Stomping down the hall towards the back door, Aun didn't even look back to see Miss Kanako's reaction. She heard no footsteps or calls for her to come back. Slipping her geta back on, she put the house behind her, not intent on returning until she'd accomplished something. The same back path greeted her, this time with daylight to illuminate everything. She followed the path much as she'd done before with little idea where she meant to go. At some point, not even on the grounds proper, she stopped and sat in the sunlight.

The truth was that she had already run up against the same statue-beast limitation of a lack of imagination. No helpful ideas presented themselves for where to go or what to do. Even though the autumn sunlight was warming, Aun couldn't ignore a larger feeling of dissatisfaction. She didn't want to even acknowledge what Miss Kanako had said, nor did she want to even entertain the idea that she was right in not worrying. Nothing had been right with the shrine from the moment Aun arrived. The fact that nobody there seemed to see it made her want to thrash around in the dirt, pulling on her stony locks. Not that the urge lasted for long basking in the sun.

Once the initial wave of disbelief passed, little could truly disturb Aun in that moment. Of course, that also meant little could make an sort of impression, the lion-dog utterly bereft of the capacity to take in much of anything. She was more tired than anything, and the beaming sun did little against that desire. She moved under the shade of some trees to avoid falling asleep. Seated there in her canine-feline custom, she fell to pensive contemplation, wondering at how much more alive the shrine felt when the sun was out. All despite how quiet things were minus the sounds of birds. The shrine itself remained as reticent as ever, Aun wishing it would speak up just once to say something. She soon found herself unable to stand the silence and rose to her feet, eager to move along.

Her feet carried her back to the main hall. Despite her healthy fear of it, she had found herself spending quite a bit of time around the building lately. Unshaded by night, nothing appeared to be particularly sinister about its facade. The donation box stood ever at the ready. The shimenawa loomed as large as ever to declare the Moriya Shrine's status to all of Gensokyo. Why, then, did none of it appear 'right' to its lion-dog protector? She walked closer, strained her eyes to see if anything would suddenly change, and soon gave up when it became evident that nothing of the sort would happen.

Defeated, Aun sat in front of the donation box. While going inside to visit Miss Suwako was technically an option, that morning had been an awkward one. There was basically nowhere to go for now. The lion-dog slumped backward against the donation box, not caring about it for the moment. She hardly noticed the feeling of the wood pressed against her back.

A feeling of hairs standing up on the back of her neck made Aun's eyes snap open. She got the distinct presentiment that some voice had resonated in her ears. However, looking around, there appeared to be no one to have spoken.

At that moment, she noticed that she was lying flatter than before, unsupported by anything. The donation box sat crooked. Realising that she had unintentionally moved it, Aun sprang to her feet and tried to correct its placement. The box itself lacked any real heft that she would have expected. Then again, she had never thought to try shoving it or moving it in any way. The only real clue as to its original placement was a couple of grooves worn in the gathered dust. As Aun moved the donation box back into position, the clink of something metal hitting the ground sounded.

She looked down in time to see a nail rolling loose at her feet and bent down to pick it up. The nail was shiny, with a head impossibly flat for any she'd ever seen used around the village. Perhaps it was one from the outside, then. When Aun looked to try and ascertain where it had fallen from, the source was obvious without a second glance: the corner of the donation box.

Situated just where a look from the front side wouldn't make it obvious, the back of the top corner of the donation box had had numerous nails driven into it. Though lacking in carpentry expertise, her chief occupation being what it was, even Aun felt that the number was excessive. Many of the nail were bent and sticking half-out of the wood. Whoever had hit them had struck at an odd angle, leaving them useless for their purpose. The hammerer would had to have either been blind or working with little light to assist them.

Like the blow of the hammer, Aun was struck by the memory of the phantom hammerer. Even blind drunk, Miss Suwako hadn't been in error about the noise after all, and the lion-dog herself was neither blind nor deaf nor losing her mind. Someone had been out hammering nails into the donation box and possibly other places.

There was no time to begin checking elsewhere before the feeling of being called rang out in Aun's rock-hard skull. The plea for her attention, she realised, had come without a voice. The shrine was speaking urgently, if only for the briefest of instances to offer a warning. Aun understood immediately that she needed to leave. Looking over her shoulder, she stole away from the main hall, hurrying until she was a fair distance away, though still able to see the front of the building. When she slowed to a stop, a shape had emerged from one side of the hall. The glint of green made it obvious that it was Sanae.

For the first time in a long time, Aun had slept outdoors. The idea didn't even occur to her until after she woke up the following morning, but she found it odd to have bedded down without a roof over her head. Much of her time in her original form was nothing but standing and sleeping outside, and yet she had done more sleeping indoors once awakened. Waking up covered in dirt and leaves took on a different significance. Doing so meant that she had felt compelled to through circumstance. Thinking of it that way made Aun feel rather glum that morning.

There was little time for low moods, however. Upon rising, the buzz of arriving visitors alerted Aun to the occasion of the day. Exactly as she feared, the many faithful and otherwise were coming to gather, likely called in hopes of blessings directly from Miss Kanako. Though the traffic was thin at that moment, the dawn hours not being too far past, the lion-dog knew all too well by now that things would pick up soon enough.

A festive atmosphere pervaded among the shrine patrons climbing the stairs. Laughter and lively chatter echoed throughout the morning peak. The majority looked to be humans, though the number of tengu, kappa, and other youkai was no small one in total proportion. Few weren't smiling as they approached the torii. The gate that symbolised home and refuge to Aun was instead a promise of enrichment to these visitors. They had come to Aun's safe haven seeking to have their lot in life bettered in proportion to, as they likely viewed it, their effort expended getting there. Safety, money, health, love — they wanted nothing more than what they lacked. None harboured any doubt that they would find it here.

Slipping out of the wooded area along the outskirts of the shrine, Aun hurriedly made her way to the grounds to survey the crowd. She soon noted that no particular arrangements had been made regarding queues, and the visitors were forming into a jumbled mass every which way. Dashing to the office, and finding it still unlocked to her annoyance, she retrieved a collection of signs reserved for designating the flow of traffic. The ideal was, as Aun had experienced, to route them all from the front, around to the side path, and back to the other path leading down.

The lion-dog took a deep breath before shouting instructions at the top of her voice. At first, the various humans and youkai were merely stunned by the sound, but they soon fell into line with her commands, moving away from areas meant to be off-limits and towards the center of the grounds. Setting down signs as she went, Aun corralled the masses and coaxed them into forming a snaking queue. Once the general shape of the queue was established, the remainder of the crowd showed no resistance in lining up in an orderly fashion. Those entering being taken care of, Aun quickly started to prepare the exit line for the inevitable rush to leave.

Once the crowd control signs were in place, she returned to the office in search of the typical event banners for the front of the shrine. The fact that no decorations of any sort had been set up didn't surprise Aun. This whole event had been so stealthily prepared that making those sorts of preparations would have given the game away. To what end everything had been arranged, Aun still had no guesses. If her hunch was anywhere near correct, and she felt justified in feeling it was thus far, the wait wouldn't be long before finding out. She just had to keep the whole thing from boiling over before then.

Aun had just turned to leave the office once more when she ran into someone. Looking up, Sanae was standing in the doorway, green-tinged warnings beaming from her eyes. Before Aun could pick herself up, the shrine maiden put her foot on one of the banners.

"Just what do you think you're doing?" she demanded.

"Helping," replied Aun simply.

"Well, let me make this nice and simple for you: I don't want your help. Mind your own business and stay out of this. You understand?"

"Is Miss Kanako really going to show up?"

The question made Sanae's eye twitch. "Don't make me repeat myself. Go back to Reimu's or wherever."

Turning on her heel, Sanae briskly exited the shrine offices, not giving Aun any opening for a retort. Aun got to her feet, brushed off the mark on the banner made by Sanae's shoe, and stood watching from the doorway. The shrine maiden had already headed off into the crowd and was going towards the main hall. By all indications, she was sticking to the center of the action.

Though warned, Aun decided that she wasn't going to be intimidated. Maybe she couldn't do so directly, but this was still keeping an eye out on Sanae in a way. She just had to avoid notice for a while and be prepared for any coming disaster. The former was easy for her, considering few ever seemed to pay a lion-dog much notice. The latter was the trickier part without knowing the endgame of the gathering. At least pacifying a few annoyed humans wouldn't be too problematic.

[ ] Greet the incomers at the entrance. If nothing else, she could halt any more from coming in.
[ ] Keep an eye on the queues in the middle. Visitors could be redirected at a moment's notice.
[ ] Stake out the donation box. There was some risk of catching Sanae's attention, but something still bothered her about it.
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[x] Keep an eye on the queues in the middle. Visitors could be redirected at a moment's notice.
People watching! and i guess keep an eye on the youkai too.
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[X] Stake out the donation box. There was some risk of catching Sanae's attention, but something still bothered her about it.

Sanae's being a bad girl.
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>"Hey, there's always worse things you could end up smelling like."
Personally, I would be happy reeking of goddess and booze. True, some smell better than others but it's still a privilege.

[x] Keep an eye on the queues in the middle. Visitors could be redirected at a moment's notice.
She who controls the queues, controls the event.
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I think this man is imagining the smell.
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[x] Keep an eye on the queues in the middle. Visitors could be redirected at a moment's notice.

Its been a while since I last read this, and it struck me how much is subtly off at the Moriya shrine. It seems like whatever is going on is too big for Aun to handle on her own, but I'm not sure who she coulld get help from with Kanako being dismissive, Sanae outright disliking her, and Suwako being more and more caught up in her drinking. And who could she go to outside them? Reimu probably wouldn't listen to her, and she doesn't really know anyone else. Its going to be tough getting to the bottom of whatever is going on.
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[x] Keep an eye on the queues in the middle. Visitors could be redirected at a moment's notice.
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Yes. I'm also imagining the smell of a liondog who has spent an entire night outdoors and a Kanako who smells of old sweaters and lozenges. And, of course, the smell of a young shrine maiden who is clumsily bandaging herself and does a poor job of cleaning up the blood.
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Anon, none of these things sound pleasant to smell at all. Why would you conjure them? To what end?
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>Kanako being dismissive
Hmm, almost like she wants to... avoid talking about things?

>Sanae outright disliking her
Not quite accurate from what I see. More like she... wait a minute... wants to avoid talking about things?

>Suwako being more and more caught up in her drinking
Gasp, does she maybe want to avoid talking about things? (That seems like the core issue, yes. The drinking is just her dealing with things poorly.)

I'm noticing a pattern here. It's almost like... everyone at the shrine is really shitty at communicating or something. Hmm.
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Somehow, despite intending to include one at the end of the update, I only just noticed that I never actually put a timer there because I am a numpty.

So, that said, you've got a week to vote. And feel free to, y'know, discuss what you think is going on. Some of you seem to at least have theories; share with the class!
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[x] Keep an eye on the queues in the middle. Visitors could be redirected at a moment's notice.
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So, theories.

First off, Suwako seems to be more or less on the level. While it's clear she's not telling us everything, it seems like that's more not wanting to betray Kanako's secrets, and not actually knowing what's up with Sanae. Drinking, camping out in the main hall, and everything else seems largely her way to cope with everything else going down at the Moriya Shrine. That leaves us with Kanako and Sanae.

As of a few months ago, Kanako quit attending her planning meetings with the Tengu, stopped leaving the house, and seems to have more or less completely stopped all god-like activities. There's also all the letters she's hidden under a floorboard. The envelopes they came in she's secretly burned, and she's doing her best to hide their existence.

Between the hidden letters and the sudden change in behavior, I suspect Kanako's being blackmailed. And if Kanako's determined to hide the blackmail despite no longer being able to do any of her usual god stuff, or even set foot outside the shrine? Hypothetically, she might pretend it was all her idea in the first place, choosing a new "role" like housewife. Or stay at home mom. The point is, I suspect Kanako's odd domestic behavior is an attempt to pretend that nothing is wrong.

And then there's Sanae. She's planned the current event that's about Kanako without Kanako. Who she's also currently avoiding. She's sleep deprived and not eating properly. She's sneaking around, trying to fix things in the middle of the night.

On a more disturbing note, there's the bandage that was covered with her blood, the apron with what might have been someone else's blood, and the shrine warned us not to let Sanae see us near the donation box. And, on top of all that, near the beginning of the story, Aya mentioned that apparently people think there's two Sanae's running around.

Finally, there's the event going on right now at the Moriya Shrine. My first guess is that it's designed to force the issue with Kanako. Something incredibly obviously demanding her to perform her role as a god, right on the shrine's doorstep. To force the blackmail problem (or whatever the issue really is) out into the open. But two things don't quite fit there.

The first is Sanae flat out not wanting us anywhere near the preparations. If this is on the level, I can't see a reason why. Our presence would make it a more official looking event, make it easier to direct everyone towards Kanako, and help in calming down the crowd after the inevitable no-show.

The second oddity is Kanako's reaction. I'm certain Kanako knew the event was for real, and that it was designed to put pressure on her. Even if we assume she had no idea until we confronted her with the pamphlet, there was still time to cancel it, or maybe adjust the banners or such so it was a Suwako event. But instead she dismissed it. She made excuses, did nothing, and let it come to pass.

But with all that said, that one I think can be explained away. If we assume Kanako is being blackmailed, and can't reveal the blackmail herself, letting this happen is essentially proof that's something wrong. Proof so blatant that the other shrine residents hopefully can't ignore it. On the other hand, I have no idea what's up with Sanae. I suspect something's badly wrong on her end, and that the blackmail connects back to her in some way, but I have no idea what.

Finally, is there any chance Aunn can get help from Kasen or Marisa? It's clear that she has no chance of going to Reimu for help (or getting help from that quarter), but those are the other two people she actually knows who might help.

Suwako seems like our best bet for actual help. Kanako's behavior is a problem, but I don't think it's an immediate danger. Sanae may be trying to just force the issue, or she might be involved in something sinister.

[x] Find Suwako. If everything's on the level, she can salvage something of the shrine's reputation by having a god show up. If things aren't on the level, we'll really want a god on hand for when things blow up. Also, see if you can't get her to take a look at that donation box.
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I dunno, man, I don't think Suwako's gonna be much help. She and Aun are clearly in a weird place with each other after that argument, plus she's got the whole drunk thing going on now. Probably not all that reliable. Oh and we don't even know if she's in the hall right now.

>Kanako's being blackmailed
Kinda crazy, bro. Maybe she's just embarrassed about something. Maybe she's got a crazy stalker. Maybe some other god? Suwako probably woulda done something if it was worse than that. She even drew all over one of those letters. Seems kinda silly to do that for something as serious as blackmail. Besides, Kanako's real controlling like so the whole housewifey thing is probably just her way of having some control over something ya dig?

>bandage that was covered in her blood
Probably tools because she was clearly hitting nails with a hammer and stuff, and Kanako even said she had a clumsy streak

>what might have been someone else's blood
I dunno man, kinda sketch. Some writers love to fake you out by being all "oh that's def blood" but it ain't. Coulda been paint. We just know it might've looked like blood.

>shrine warned us not to let Sanae see us
Did it tho? Looked to me like lion pupper got the heebie jeebies and read it like a warning. Hell it coulda been trying to get her attention and be all "check the box! check the box!" we just know what she thinks she heard or felt or whatever

she even around after WaHH???

We dunno what her relationship is with the lion dogger but it's probably too hard to deal with because she's Reimu's gf wife gal pal.. Like maybe she can't help because Reimu'd get pissed.

yeah I dunno though on what Sanae's doing. It's all real sus.
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I think Suwako could be reasonably helpful here. And even if not, some help is better than no help. Though you're right that we're kinda screwed if she's not in the main hall, a few minutes to check shouldn't be a big deal.

I'm actually pretty confident in the Kanako blackmail read. What seals it for me is the way she's out and out abandoned all her previous plans, or anything that would advance the Moriya shrine. Canon-Kanako's all about that sort of thing, and I just can't imagine her willingly giving it up. I did consider the idea that this Kanako's an imposter, but if so they're pretty blatantly out of character.

Don't really know what to say on the Sanae front though. I don't think we have the info to reach a conclusion.

On a different note, can confirm Kasen is still around after WaHH. IIRC, the epilogue issue of that was basically "Arm is sealed now, things return to normal." Obviously getting her or Marisa to actually help may or may not be feasible (and it's probably too late for the current problem), but it'd be nice to know for future choices.
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>gave up on all plans, etc
Dunno she really just stopped talking to some tengu and started staying inside. We dunno though if she really stopped scheming like normal. She told the lion woof just this update something about waiting until the times right. Could be all a ruse for some reason that we can't see.

okay I wanna know how you got that because that's way outta nowhere for me.
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kanakp sus
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The imposter thing is mostly a "Kanako's not acting like Kanako" idea. I don't think it fits anything else about the situation though, so it's probably just a throwaway thought.
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>loves it when people are deferential
>hates it when people question her
seems pretty Kanakoish to me, but yeah something is wrong but it ain't her really being out-of-character as much as her just not wanting to deal with things
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Alright, that's the week past. Interesting to see some discussion. I like hearing your speculation. Seriously, gimme more!

At any rate, the winner is...

[x] Keep an eye on the queues in the middle.

See you lot on the other side of the next update. Wait warmly until then!
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the queues are brutal
Given Sanae's less than charitable treatment of her, Aun didn't believe staying near the front a wise decision. Similarly, standing timidly in the back carried little merit; what could she do besides greet the newcomers? That left the middle as the sole option. There, she could at least exert some degree of control over the queues. A change in signage and a few loudly spoken appeals was all it took to keep things orderly in most cases.

Gazing towards the front of the mass of visitors, little stood out from the middle. A notable patch of green raced to and fro without stopping. Banners went up almost where Aun could read them. While she stood watching the rows of humans, tengu, and others, Sanae was evidently busy with her last-minute preparations.

The lion-dog thought that maybe it was a missed opportunity, but she was still watching Sanae in her own way, as had been her promise. The self-reminder made her wonder if Miss Suwako was home at the moment. She could have been in the main hall, wanting nothing more than for the crowds to go away. Maybe she'd also had a rude awakening of her own, an image that made Aun smile in spite of herself.

Raised voices snatched Aun from her contemplation. She raced a few bends down to the source of the noise, finding a human man face-to-face with a wolf tengu woman, red-faced and bellowing. Though trying to look stoic, the she-wolf's ears lay flat on her head, and she leaned away from the aggressive human, offering a barbed word or two back.

Enquiring into the matter, a patron just behind the argument pointed Aun to the ground underfoot. A parcel that had clearly been a rice ball lay strewn about. Aun placed herself between the two parties, interrupting the human man's torrent of threats about shrine maidens and extermination to ask what the significance of the ruined rice ball was. The simple answer was that it had been his lunch, accidentally sent to its fate by a sweep from the she-wolf's tail. The tengu coolly granted her fault in that instance but saw little to be done about it, lacking any suitable replacement. Asked what she did have, she guardedly indicated a container of soup in her possession. From there, an equally simple suggestion that the two share was enough to humble them, their spat having been interrupted long enough to see the sillyness in their antagonism, drawing apologies from both for the disturbance.

Aun heaved a sigh of relief having caught the incident before it escalated too far. A careful look at the queue told her conditions were getting cramped. Not only were the two combatants — now chatting bashfully, Aun noted — pressed together, much of the line of bodies showed few gaps now. The lack of further flare-ups seemed like the biggest miracle likely to be seen at the shrine that day. She surveyed the current bends in the queue for some clue where some slack could be made.

That she'd stayed around to direct proved a wise choice once she moved some signs to arrange a more spaced-out queue. With the bunched up sections coaxed into shifting, even more visitors arrived from seemingly nowhere. Whole new rows sprouted up before long. The brief clear view she got of the back of the queue showed it extending down the stairs and winding back with the mountain path.

Uneasy, Aun returned to the middle of the crowd. Beyond the swarm of visitors yet to even make it past the torii, what bothered her most was that the queue hadn't seemed to move at all. The same exact faces occupied the same spots as when Aun left. Many of them looked up at her as she passed, either sharing in her unease or perhaps simply wondering what was happening. She glanced to the head of the queue. No patch of green zoomed to and fro. The lion-dog's rocky gut gave a twinge of discomfort.

That feeling of her stomach attempting to turn itself to gravel didn't subside as Aun stood minding the queues for over an hour, possibly longer. The morning cold had worn off, and the sun crept over the shrine grounds, warming everything with its rays. In the same way, what had been a calm and level sentiment among the shrine-goers was beginning to come off less charitable.

Many of the waiting patrons had taken to sitting on the ground once it became apparent that no one would be moving soon. Gatherings of friends, families, and even relative strangers passed the time by chatting, taking the opportunity to enjoy some part of the outing. A mixed group of tengu and humans seemed to have found a couple of flasks of sake to share between them, engaging in impromptu revelry. A few outside that group added to the noise by breaking into song together, slapping out a rhythm on their knees and clapping in time. Some more distant clump of visitors attempted to raise the spirits of others by leading a chant expressing their adoration of the Goddess Yasaka, something that drew a nervous smile from Aun. Those that were indifferent or even enthusiastic could change their tune at any point.

Though there weren't shouts for action, some had long since felt their patience stretching thin. They were the ones who coldly looked at Aun with some silent expectation. If they weren't alone, they muttered to their companions ill-temperedly. Where those keeping their high spirits shared their enthusiasms, there were others who stood by with judgemental glares, looking close to calling for silence. Even if they didn't voice their complaints, the lion-dog could feel the ever-present electricity in the air. In every tapping foot, creased brow, grumbled curse, folded arm, and kicked rock, there was an expression of the building tension. Even the ones who weren't clearly annoyed shared it. Aun had to move away from a kappa who would not stop fidgeting in place, pacing back and forth in his tiny allotment of queue space.

Not since earlier had Aun once spotted Sanae's distant form. For some time, she'd dismissed the shrine maiden's absence as temporary, figuring that grassy spot would be back in view soon enough. Hope hadn't died easy, either. She waited, rooted to the spot, watching out for Sanae's return. When watching one spot showed no change, Aun began casting around for any sign that something was happening up front. In either case, no obvious activity showed beyond the slight rustling of restless bodies in the queue. Eventually, the lion-dog could no longer maintain the vain hope and had to admit to herself that the shrine maiden had absconded. For what reason, she could only guess.

She set to pacing back and forth next to the queue just like the kappa she'd seen earlier, no longer able to hold herself in. A time like this where things were clearly stalled, to her lion-dog mind, called for some kind of action. Nevertheless, try though she might to move herself towards one decision or the other, compelling herself to abandon her impromptu patrol proved unreasonably difficult. Her difficulty in reaching a decision was enough to make her want to leave everything to divine guidance. Which is exactly what she meant to do.

Unable to hold off thoughts of seeking the Moriya goddess's help, Aun finally did leave her post, albeit not before being stopped by a towering youkai of some description. The youkai's brows appeared to be permanently welded into a crease, judging by the furrows carved deep in his forehead, resulting in an expression that truly warranted the description 'dour'. His massive hand caught the lion-dog by the shoulder as she passed, and he spoke up in a rumble, veins showing in his brow.

"You're working here, right?" came a tense rhetorical question.

"I-I am, sir. How can I help?" Aun replied, trying her best not to yelp at the fierce creature.

The youkai squinted, surveying the same area as Aun, his scowl deepening slightly. "Line ain't moved in ages. Nothing going on up front, either."

"Not that I've seen, sir, no."

"Well, get up there and double-check. Ask what the hell's keeping 'em. Be an awful shame if someone had to kick up a ruckus." He leaned down to push his face close to Aun's, showing a slight twitch in his eye. A blast of hot breath that reeked of sake stung her eyes. "Know what I mean?"

Aun was quick to nod her understanding and concurrence, shuffling hastily away from the edgy fellow. Out of the youkai's immediate eyeshot, she broke into a run towards the main hall.

As expected, Sanae was nowhere in sight, proving Aun's indirect route taken towards the building pointless. Compared to the mix of unknowing levity and tense acceptance, broken up by the rare display of testiness, there were more outright glares of frustration showing at the head of the queue. Shouted enquiries and outright insults followed as Aun passed. Hands appeared to halt Aun's progress, their owners indignantly repeating the suggestion that she 'do something' about the situation. All Aun could do in the face of their annoyance was adopt her canine side's placid people-pleasing manner, smiling and affirming their wishes; her feline side scoffed, wishing only to bat a few of them in their deserving faces. Once she broke away from the simmering impatience, the main hall was right there.

The growing anxiety still didn't overpower Aun's sense of custom, and she stopped to knock on the grating. Her hope that Miss Suwako would be there immediately was quashed as nothing seemed to stir inside. Daylight played through the grating enough that the unobstructed part of the inside was visible. Not spotting the little goddess, Aun discarded propriety at last and entered without leave. That she was growing used to doing so bothered her, but what could be done?

"Miss Suwako? I'm sorry for intruding, but I could really use your help," Aun called into the chamber, hoping she wasn't being heard outside.

There was no verbal response, but the sound of someone shifting on the tatami gave Aun a jolt of hope. If the goddess was just hungover, she could at least deal with that. Maybe things weren't even that bad. Maybe they just hadn't heard each other over the noise outside. She rounded the corner, prepared to spot Miss Suwako sitting up on her futon. The gravel in her head spiralled in confusion upon seeing someone else.

Lying curled in a ball on the floor was Sanae. The lion-dog let out a gasp of alarm upon noticing, but her awareness was not so great as to allow her to flee. She merely stood looking at the shrine maiden, who herself lay looking at nothing in particular. No shimmer gave life to those green eyes. She had the look of someone defeated, practically dead to the world for lack of an inner spark. Save the soft rise and fall of her chest, Aun might have taken Sanae for dead. Her complexion had even dulled and gone sickly pale.

Quickly forgetting her fear of Sanae's wrath, Aun knelt down beside the motionless girl and shook her shoulder gently. Sanae let out a groaning sound that could have meant anything, still appearing lifeless until finally her eyes moved to appraise the lion-dog.

The living god swallowed before speaking, her voice surprisingly clear. "Out there, is it bad? It's bad, isn't it? It has to be."

Aun didn't know what to say in response. The need to know where Miss Suwako was stood superior as faras priorities went, and yet she couldn't bring herself to ask. She looked over her shoulder, pondering the very same question. Circumstances outside couldn't be judged 'good' by any measure; they still weren't at their worst, but that possibility loomed. Though the temptation was there to overstate and alarm Sanae into action, Aun's more dutiful instinct called for veracity.

"People are asking a lot of questions. They think something's up," the lion-dog reported.

"At least they're not calling for blood yet." Sanae's eyes fell away from Aun to stare ahead once more. She seemed to deflate, slackening as she let out a long sigh.

"We need to do something soon."

"Yes, we do. We should." The clarity of her voice gave way to murmuring. Her eyelids fell shut, loosely at first, but then tighter. She tried to shake her head, but the gesture turned more into a limpid roll against the tatami. "I don't know what, though."

"What about cancelling? Miss Kanako's not going to be there. It's the truth. Let's just tell them."

Sanae's head scraped the floor again. "Nobody can handle the truth, Aun. We can't just say that."

The leonine element of Aun snarled in response. How it wanted to laugh bitterly at the shrine maiden in that moment. Outwardly, Aun shook her head along with Sanae. "Then, I don't know what to do, too."

"It's too late, anyway."

Lifting herself up, Sanae rolled into a sitting position. Lying as she'd done had left her hair a shaggy green mess. To Aun's eye, she looked little better than a couple of days ago. The difference was that now the nervous hostility had crumbled into more of a listlessness. Her still-bloodshot eyes sagged with weariness. Despite her predicament, she gave a loopy chuckle.

"I've screwed up. There, I admitted it." Sanae raised her palms to the ceiling, flopping her arms upward in a gesture of defeat. "Now work your lion-dog magic. Protect us. Make it all better."

Even with her rocky brains, Aun could see that she was being provoked. The barb was, of course, effective. An entire gauntlet of bodies had stood between her and the main hall, some of them making similar demands in essence. To be told to 'do something' when she had no idea what course of action was warranted pricked at her like a thorn in her paw. And yet duty wouldn't let her snap and tell Sanae that she'd made her bed to be lain in. She harboured few doubts about her work, but there came times when the lion in her gave a toothy, cynical smile, and she felt herself quite stupid in that moment. Her resistance to giving in to tears or anger to soothe the pain of the day drew taut, threatening to snap at the slightest prod.

A distant memory of the temple leapt to the fore. Practise in taking a deep breath and allowing it to slow took over. She closed her eyes to block out the world. All that needed to exist was this moment. No lion, no dog, no duty, no shrine, no gods — they were all voices blurred into the great expanse of emptiness. Soon, even the distant echoes ceased to be. There was only quiet. Then, the gravel tumbled.

Aun poked her head past the partition into the offices to check if there were any more safe travel amulets. Just inside, Sanae worked frantically to cobble together new wards from what materials were available. Strictly speaking, the lion-dog was never meant to be witness of any of the attendant rituals of amulet-making, but the Moriya shrine maiden paid little heed to that. Trade secrets meant little given the prospects of lost business and, more importantly, lost face.

An armful of the little green pouches adorned with frogs flew into Aun's arms. Sanae didn't wait for the lion-dog's word of thanks before rushing back out to the counters with an armload of her own. Her words would have been drowned out by the crush of patrons, voices raised as they clambered for anything resembling the promised blessings.

Shrine maiden and lion-dog both worked at a fixed, nearly breathless pace to serve the numerous demands for charms. They plastered smiles across their faces, rattled off their sales lines, and bowed to every leaving customer before readying themselves for the next. By all objective measures, they were out of their depth having only two pairs of hands. However, with nary a moment to think to themselves, such a realisation lay out of reach. Neither would have wanted to acknowledge that truth, in any case. Thus, they continued to make transactions in volumes and at speeds far exceeding their capacities, animated only by force of will.

Sanae had been concerned at first when Aun raised the idea of misdirection by commerce. Even assuming they managed to calm the nerves of a significant portion of the crowd, the root issue still remained. There were those who wouldn't be taken in. Not to mention those who would stick around even after buying, greedily hoping for something else. Besides that, a shortage of wares to sell was certain, and the suggestion that they simply produce charms absent the added blessings of the shrine's goddesses struck her as dishonest. Aun ignored the urge to point out Sanae's own dishonesty and merely recited another lesson that had floated out of the gravel: absence of truth is no lie. The living god was struck dumb at the suggestion. Whether it was truly deviousness or a stroke of genius, she couldn't decide. In any case, that their options were limited was apparent enough.

The meaning of the lion-dog's revelation that no lie dwelled in the absence of truth was a simple one, and one that required little guile. As they sold their blessed knick-knacks, no claims were made beforehand or afterward as to who blessed them. Whether from Miss Kanako, Miss Suwako, or Sanae, the source of the blessing would make little difference to those who believed in its efficacy; to those merely hedging their bets, such details would matter even less. Any misleading was the product of self-delusion.

To Aun, this whole diversionary tactic was an expedient. The actual origin of the suggestion lay not in philosophical grounds but rather a simple need to work. As she and Sanae hurried to transact with those still hanging on to patience, scarcely an extraneous thought ran through the lion-dog's rocky head. All she could do for the moment was busy herself with serving others, more difficult matters displaced in time for however long the act could last. The leonine voice calling her cowardly ended up ferreted to a distant corner of her mind, where it soon gave up and fell into slumber. All that remained was the twisting feeling her in her gut at the overhanging atmosphere.

Sunlight flooded the grounds by the time the sales line had emptied. Sanae leaned across the counter to watch them depart, clearly tempted to lie across it. She needn't ask Aun about the state of the remainder. The lion-dog had just finished rearranging the queue, sending the hangers-on to mingle again with the stalwarts, who refused to be swayed by less than an appearance by the Goddess Yasaka. In a blunt manner that still did nothing to hide her dread, she reported on the shouts and recriminations coming from those whose patience had finally stretched too thin. Sanae smiled tensely, perhaps bitterly, hearing the news.

"I don't think we can keep this up. We need Miss Kanako or..." Aun hesitated to add anything about the Moriya goddess even in what could be called a crisis.

"We both know that's not going to happen," Sanae said with a false laugh, bracing herself on the counter.

Her nerves progressively fraying, Aun let her voice fall into a murmur. "Maybe we should just call it off."

Sanae slammed her palms into the counter, making Aun jump. Her expression had quickly changed from a tense mask of amusement to the look of one not about to be swayed by reason. A darkness in her eyes shouted that no further talk of quitting was to be entertained.

"I'll handle it myself," Sanae intoned.

"If there's something you think you can do, then let me help. I just don't—"

"Then help me with one last thing." Her statement left no room for argument, puntuated by her turning around and slamming the shutters closed.

Aun pursued Sanae into the offices. The shrine maiden was digging around the scattered collection of effects and refuse that had become of the previous organised materials, throwing things left and right in her haste.

"What are you going to do?" Aun asked.

Sanae continued her search, swearing under her breath. "Handle things. Since one of us has to. And I've got an idea. I just need to find something real quick."

"Okay, and what do I do?"

"Gather everybody at the main hall. Tell them I'll be there in a minute." She waved Aun off without looking up.

Telling from Sanae's tone that she wasn't going to be swayed from her plan, Aun offered no objection in spite of her own misgivings. She turned to leave but lingered in the doorway for a little longer.

Turning back around, she watched Sanae's increasingly frantic rifling. The mounting frustration in her huffing breath became invectives the likes Aun hadn't really heard from the normally cheery human. An empty-handed search of a cabinet ended with the shrine maiden knocking her fist loudly against the door, sending a shelf of records yet undisturbed tumbling to the floor. Sweat ran down her face. Despite her anger, there was no erasing the impression of a trapped animal. At last, she noticed Aun still standing there.


Aun looked at Sanae with pitying eyes, speaking gently to not agitate her further. "Back at the main hall, were you looking for Miss Suwako's help too?"

Sanae immediately made a face that was meant to be a fierce glare. However, a degree of force was now lacking. The shade across her eyes had diminished. Her lips parted hesitantly, seeking some reply and coming up short. She whipped around to face away from the lion-dog.

"Just go already," she spat. Papers flew into the air as she kicked them. "Quit wasting my time."
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get out of the way aun
Any relief at having cleared the mass of visitors who were satisfied with making a purchase and leaving fell away once Aun saw the remainder. The queue had somehow maintained a degree of order through the whole ordeal — and it still stretched down the stairs. If anything, despite those conducted out the back path, even more bodies had arrived in front to bolster the ranks. Only the sense to do as she was told kept Aun from despairing at this discovery.

The crowd's fury had evolved from a long-simmering annoyance to pop-eyed, shouting anger with the passing hours. As soon as Aun was in their sights, the venting was ferocious. Lunches hurtled through the air, spattering her even as she dodged. Epithets and jeers turned into a volley of their own. The insistent undercurrent of all of this activity was their unsatisfied demand to meet with the Yasaka goddess. Try as she did to address them, giving assurances in the falsely cheery manner of all public servitude, they would hear reason no more. Each screaming madman or -woman issued an ultimatum: blessings or riot.

Feline-canine fortitude wouldn't crack in the face of improvised missiles and violent words. With a minimum of emotion, the first thing she did was to call for attention. Her call was heeded with surprising rapidity, and she similarly wasted no time in relaying Sanae's general message. The terseness of the message led to many puzzled looks being exchanged. Some scepticism rose from the particularly aggrieved, demanding impossible assurances before they would believe what they were told. Others merely persisted in their vulgarity, having abandoned the pretence of being there for anything greater than causing a disruption. Aun ignored them in favour of conducting those who would listen through the head of the queue.

What had been a line of visitors rapidly dissolved into a mass gathered around the main hall. Despite their truculuence, the crowd at least recognised the authority that Aun held for the moment and let her pass through unmolested. She pushed them outwards until there was a wide semi-circle open in the very middle of the assembly. There, she waited for Sanae's entrance.

An uncomfortable number of minutes passed as the rabble shuffled about in a mixture of expectation and impatience, emitting an atmosphere of grumbles, coughs, and whispers. Aun eyed every movement closely for any signs of hostility. Feeling the same nervous energy as them, she began to pace in a circle like a caged animal. Were any of the mass to leap out at her, escape would be her first concern by that point. She didn't want to be there in the middle of the chaos, and she wished above all else that Sanae would hurry up to take her place.

Eventually, the crowd parted again. Aun saw Sanae stepping through briskly, staring straight ahead to avoid looking at any of the patrons. The shrine maiden carried in her hand one of the implements of her trade, an oonusa, a particular one that was lesser-seen in her grasp, adorned with long streamers. What significance the wand had, Aun was never quite sure. She'd been told that it had its uses in purification ceremonies, but there were supposedly other uses as well. Looking Sanae in the face, she could discern no intent. Whatever happened next was entirely of her devising, something of a chilling fact to be conscious of.

Stepping just shy of the awning over the donation box, Sanae stood facing the crowd in silence. All eyes that had been trained on Aun earlier leapt to her now. The general muttering took on a confused flavour. On the tail end of it, there also rode a silent threat. If not addressed soon to explain the absence of Miss Kanako, their fury would be re-stoked, and they wouldn't be liable for their actions. Aun couldn't help feeling her tail fall low, ready to retreat between her legs. She looked to Sanae for any explanation or any sign that she was about to do anything. Sanae looked her way and nodded.

"You can go. The rest is on me."

"What are you going to do?" Aun asked, glancing back to silently indicate the masses facing them down.

"You've done your job, so don't worry about it. Now, go on. There's nothing left for you to do." Little warmth permeated Sanae's words. There was something grave about them. She had resigned herself to some fate that Aun couldn't imagine.

Aun prepared to take to the air but looked over at Sanae one more time. "I hope you know what you're doing."

"I do."

Left with only that assurance, the lion-dog leapt up and floated over the mass of bodies. She could see passing overhead that their attention was solely on Sanae. Unsure where to go now that she was dismissed, she touched down not far from the back of the crowd, just out of their immediate reach while still close enough to monitor everything. A presentiment that Sanae was about to do something foolhardy would allow her to stray no further.

Suddenly, there was a call for attention from Sanae. The crowd's murmurs fell to a dull roar. The shrine maiden began with an apology, thanking everyone present for their patience. A few sardonic laughs carried through the gathering in response. Waiting for the moment to pass, Sanae went on to announce that Miss Kanako would, in fact, not be appearing as planned because she was not available. Everyone went silent at that. Aun could feel the growing harshness in the stares that Sanae was no doubt facing. She readied herself to charge back into the fray if need be. There was little she could probably do, but it was better than doing nothing.

Before anyone could voice their shock and dismay at the news, Sanae spoke up to say that, rather than the main god of the shrine, but as a living god herself, the duty of blessing all present would fall to her. The caveat was that, given her less developed divinity, there was no possible way of giving each and every visitor a personal boon. Instead, she would be imparting a lesser blessing to all present at the same time as recompense for their time.

Aun stood gobsmacked at the notion. One of Sanae's miracles usually took hours of preparation if it was to have any effect at all, and those typically relied on Miss Kanako or Miss Suwako granting a bit of their power to its realisation. What the shrine maiden believed herself capable of on such short notice, Aun couldn't fathom.

That was why the lion-dog, who considered herself to have seen the better part of Sanae's prowesses, shrank back in suprise at a number of green lights rising up from the middle of the crowd, its constituents gasping and marvelling at the luminescence. The lights began to spiral above the crowd like hyperactive fireflies, bathing the whole area in their glow. Then, the feeling of cool wind rushed from the center as well. Papers, hats, and various other articles sailed upwards into the air along with the lights. Having suddenly forgotten their anger, many in the crowd cried with joy, laughing and whooping at the spectacle of their belongings being held aloft by wind. In the middle of it all, Aun could just make out the streamers whipping around wildly, Sanae shaking the oonusa from side to side in a steady rhythm.

None of this resembled any ritual Aun was familiar with at the Moriya Shrine. In spite of her lethargy and frayed nerves, seeing the sparkling lights seemed to arouse a sense of hope in her. Her canine aspect revelled in the sudden excitement of the crowd. She wanted to share in their high spirits, running and leaping in celebration of the moment. This was the feeling of a festival in full swing. If streamers showered from the heavens, she would take it as a sign to abandon all duty and give in to play. She watched the surrounding sky closely, not wanting to miss a second of the dancing lights.

In an instant, the glowing orbs made a spectacular popping noise, erupting into innumerable tiny glimmers that fell to earth. An equally intense cheer burst forth from the shrine-goers as the shimmering green floated down towards them like unseasonal snow. They leapt in place, their arms outstretched, trying to reach any of the falling radiance they could. However, the light fragments ceased their descent partway and remained floating, along with the hats and other debris, to many dismayed cries.

That dismay had but an instant to express itself before there was a noticeable rumble in the air. Aun looked around in confusion, her statue-beast ears more attuned than those of humans to detecting dull noises like that. Within seconds, she determined that the reverberation was coming from the air itself. In fact, what she was hearing wasn't a mere thunder-like vibration. Shaking the atmosphere above all watching was the roar of a heavy gust, contained for only a moment by the power of a living god. Right before it all burst forth.

Brutal wind rushed in every direction. The glittering remains of the lights scattered everywhere along the air currents. Many were knocked to the ground with the force of the gusts. Cheers and shrieks arose in equal measures.

There was no time for Aun to take in the frenzied mood. A cry for attention echoed in the cavernous hollow of her rocky skull. Her tail went rigid upon realising the source. The shrine was once again speaking up. She looked around, her attention carried by a vague feeling of something being pointed out to her. Something behind her needed to be heeded, but she couldn't figure out what. All she could see was the torii a slight distance back, looming high. Faintly, a creaking groan sounded, like that of a rusted hinge being moved slowly.

Before she could determine the origin of the groaning, the sound of something battering into the ground caught her attention next. Several of the noises rang out, and Aun spotted their source quickly this time. Carried by the wind, what appeared to be tiles from one of the shrine rooftops were falling to the ground, shattering as they collided and creating a startling sound. This clearly unplanned addition to the wind's mischief didn't go unnoticed long. People in the crowd shouted upon seeing tiles rain down onto the grounds. Hurtling pieces scattered into the wind, whipping around so fast that anyone in the way was forced to take cover. Soon, those outside the immediate center of the gathering began to break away in a panic. Shouts that were previously joyous turned alarmed within moments.

For an instant, the wind paused. Noises previously drowned out in the roar stood out clearly. In particular, Aun heard the long groan again, noting an added sound of something cracking. She looked out toward the torii. Many of the visitors who had broke away had headed in that direction. Trying to follow the noise, which seemed to be growing louder, she examined the shrine gateway even more carefully. The lion-dog felt herself turning stony as soon as she spotted where the noise was coming from. Both legs of the torii had prominent cracks in them, and the entire gateway was beginning to lean away from the shrine.

She was dashing for the visitors within the gate's reach before she felt another call from the shrine blaring in her head. A sudden viscious gust ripped through from all directions, headed back towards the the gathering at the main hall. Aun dug her claws into the ground to keep herself stable as she ran, taking up the four-legged run of her animal selves, tearing chunks of stone from the ground as she fought to reach the entrance in time. The torii was tipping towards the shrine now. A gut-wrenching snapping marked its legs finally giving way. Unable to do much else in the face of the oncoming disaster, Aun shouted for everyone nearby to run towards the main hall.

The Moriya Shrine's proud gateway became splinters on its grounds. Thanks to Aun's momentary warning, no one was injured in the impact. There was, nevertheless, nothing that could be done for the torii besides getting out of its path and letting it be destroyed by its own weight. Before the large pieces could fly very far, the winds that had brought down the red varnished gateway died, returning relative calm to the shrine.

Aun stopped herself mid-stride, unsure what had actually happened. Taking in the destroyed torii was difficult at that moment, its pieces looking nothing like the landmark that had just moments before towered to announce the shrine's existence. She looked off where it had stood as she'd done that morning. Only the sky loomed there now, framed by treetops. Comfort and hope had both been dashed to pieces.

"Thank you, everyone, for coming! That is all for today! Please leave through the back path!"

As if her ears only started working then, Aun heard Sanae shouting from the top of her voice amidst confused muttering. The gathering near the main hall had long since broken into loose clumps of bodies, and most of the visitors were now obediently making an orderly retreat through the rear path. The shrine maiden continued to call for everyone to leave for the next few minutes, her voice beginning to strain towards the end. By then, the last of the day's patrons were fading into the distance.

Aun approached Sanae quietly, unable to bring herself to say anything even in her bewilderment. The grounds she crossed were scattered with pieces of broken tile, splintered wood, discarded items of clothing, and all other manner of rubbish. As she had a slow look around, places in the roofs of the buildings where tiles had indeed come loose stood out. Save those and the torii, though, the grounds seemed to have been spared many casualties. Remembering the torii's newfound absence had Aun wrestling with herself over whether its loss was a major one or not. What would either of the shrine's gods think upon learning of it? The idea felt so abstract at the moment that the lion-dog couldn't feel the panic that would have attended such thoughts.

Besides that, something of more immediate consequence presented itself to Aun: the donation box, the other symbol of the shrine, reduced to a crumbled heap underneath its awning. Sanae had similarly fallen to her knees beside it. Were it not for the oonusa still clasped in her hand, she might have simply fallen limp onto the stone tile.

Sanae wore no expression. Her eyes matched the energy of her earlier words, simply accepting what they saw in front of them. She took deep, gasping breaths, the fatigue having caught up with her. Clasping the purifying wand tightly, her hands trembled. She clearly lacked the energy to stand, much less speak. Aun's footfalls didn't even draw her notice right away. The miracle-making living god sat staring out into the wreckage of her own miracle and started to weep.

Not simple crying from sadness, Sanae's tears were the sort shed in times of exasperation, all paths taken and yet no way forward. Few actual tears fell down her cheek. Mostly, she just sobbed, her indignation at lacking the power to change things voiced in hoarse cries that often failed to make much sound at all. Watching the sight, Aun felt that she might cry, too. She dug a fang into her own lip, desperate not to join the shrine maiden's outpour of despair. Too many times recently had the lion-dog shed tears herself in the exact same way. Her claws dug into her palms. This was why she needed to be stronger, she thought.

Red-faced and sniffling even as her sobs abated, Sanae finally turned to Aun, her voice a withered rasp. "I tried. I really tried, Aun."

"You did," the lion-dog concurred, keeping her voice level. She felt her lip trembling. Both sides of her lamented that she had tried as well.

Fumbling one-handed, Sanae pulled a handkerchief from her pocket to wipe her eyes and nose. The cloth square bore a similar design to the bagged amulets they had been selling not long ago. Aun had a vague recollection of also selling kerchiefs of a similar style during one of her previous visits to the Moriya Shrine.

"You never said why you were doing this," Aun found herself saying. There was more confusion in her voice than accusation, though she might have admitted she felt Sanae had reaped what she sowed. "Why hide it from Miss Kanako and Miss Suwako?"

"I wasn't hiding anything." Sanae daubed at her eyes and gave a humourless scoff.

"You knew Miss Kanako wouldn't be there."

Sanae turned her head, making as if looking out towards the house. "Of course I did."

"Then, what were you doing?"

No will to answer the question showed in Sanae's face. Even if she'd meant to, something else had caught her attention. She sat watching something with as stony a visage as Aun's in her natural state. The only clues to her true feelings were her cheeks having gone greyish-pale again and the elevated intensity of her breathing.

Aun soon heard light footsteps on the ground a ways off. She looked up to spot an approaching figure, someone small. At first, she thought that one of the many visitors had lingered, maybe having gone into hiding somewhere. Once the figure was more present in the noon sunlight, a flash of straw blonde proved Aun's impressions wrong. Miss Suwako had emerged from nearby and was walking towards them.

Any initial relief Aun may have felt seeing the little goddess fell away when she noted a chilliness in her face. The calm, measured manner of her walking took on a disquieting feeling. Normally, the Moriya goddess was known for her bounding, almost leaping manner of propelling herself, holding her arms out like a child at play. There was no spirit of play in Miss Suwako's demeanour as she drew closer. If anything, the atmosphere around her carried a combative feel. She was prepared to discipline her shrine maiden.

A broom could only do so much good, but it was better than nothing. Aun heaved a sigh, propping the broom up against the outside wall of the shrine offices, having reached the end of what she felt possible at the moment. Heaps of rubbish, splinters, paper, and gods only knew what else stood everywhere. She'd gathered up the most insignificant bits of the mess despite there being little point. After all, large pieces of the torii remained. She had at least shoved them out of the way with her lion-dog strength.

Some ways off, in the same place they'd been for a while, Sanae and Miss Suwako sat talking. The fact that they were merely talking brought a small relief to Aun. She'd largely tuned them out and didn't notice when their 'discussion' stopped carrying all the way out to the offices.

To think of what had occurred as a 'discussion' was a rare bit of inner sarcasm on Aun's part. The true fact of the matter was that the goddess and shrine maiden had been screaming at each other for some time. Aun had said what she could in an attempt to calm things, but none of what she said reached either. If she was honest with herself, her placative words served no purpose whatsoever. They were merely a parting excuse as she left the two to quarrel. She lacked any faith in being able to stand between those two in particular to begin with.

She winced recalling Miss Suwako's cold fury. The goddess had seemed to tower over both lion-dog and shrine maiden despite her diminutive stature. From the moment she opened her mouth, she was upbraiding Sanae, calling her foolish and idiotic for holding the event. She gestured sharply to the broken torii and the collapsed donation box. To her, they were symbols of Sanae's failures. They were what having no sense wrought.

Sanae was quick to loose her own venom in spite of her god's fearsomeness. She questioned Miss Suwako as to what she was doing during the gathering. And what had she even done beforehand? By the shrine maiden's estimation, the Moriya goddess had done a total of nothing, perhaps even less. At least, Sanae asserted, she had been there to see to the general affairs of the shrine.

And on and on and back and forth things went. At first, Aun begged clemency for Sanae, despite her agreement with the goddess. Seeing that her opinions would bear no weight, she began to look for something — anything — to handle beyond the embattled pair. The disarray in the wake of the ill-fated event presented the most obvious choice.

Now that the Goddess Moriya and her shrine maiden were able to have what looked to be a normal discussion, Aun decided to return to their side. The two were speaking in hushed tones, leaning close to each other, their voices sounding equal parts irritated and resigned. Aun could see the half-squint Sanae exhibited whenever she had complaints. Similarly, Miss Suwako was toying with her braids and yanking on them to busy her hands, a clear sign that she found something disagreeable as well. By all indications, they'd abandoned each other as the subject of discussion and moved on to some more common target. Aun could very well guess what it might be, even without picking up a word or two as she drew closer.

"—fussy about the damn shoebox, too. Can you believe that? Every time I come in, she's gotta jump on me about it. That's why I started coming in the back. I bet that just made her madder, 'cause she can't chew me out for the shoebox now."

"If I so much as go near the back, she glares at me. It's my house, too!" Sanae huffed.

The blonde goddess gave a cackling laugh. "Oh, you'd love to think that, wouldn't you? Nope. Not your house. It's her house. You just live in it. And that's why I got the hell out."


"Yeah, real lucky me, living in a closet. At least you've got a room to yourself. If it's getting that bad for you, there's always room in the inner chamber."

The suggestion caused Sanae's lip to curl in disgust and even visibly cringe. She shook her head violently. "No way in hell! I'm not living in there with—"

The first to spot Aun as she came near was Miss Suwako, who promptly hushed Sanae. Aun surveyed both the goddess and Sanae. The latter cast her eyes down ashamedly, and the former seemed reluctant to say anything. To the lion-dog, what was most important was that neither came off ready to continue quarrelling. All else mattered little.

For her own part, Aun felt like offering apologies to Miss Suwako. She'd done what she could to watch Sanae, and yet the shrine grounds lay in ruins, one of its prominent symbols shattered, not to mention the donation box's demise. Feeling she was just as at fault, she bowed deeply to the goddess.

"What's that about?" Suwako asked, chuckling awkwardly.

"I did what I could to keep our promise. It just wasn't good enough. I couldn't keep Sanae out of trouble."

There was a quiet but heavy sigh from Suwako. She got up and grabbed Aun by the shoulders, lifting her out of her bow. "Were you listening to what I said before? We don't have to take it so serious. Like you said, you did what you could. Wasn't really all that much you could've done. I doubt anything'd keep her out of trouble, anyway."

The comment drew an offended scoff and a folding of the arms from Sanae, but the shrine maiden offered no direct retort. She suddenly looked far too tired to be engaging in much back-and-forth with anyone, much less Miss Suwako.

"Still," Aun protested weakly, "it's my duty to protect..."

Finishing any sentence about the shrine felt impossible to Aun. Certainly not one that involved her one true duty — which she had, regardless of Miss Suwako's sugar-coating, failed at. Her failure to do her job had resulted in real damage of all sorts. Even the small consolation that there were no injuries was no balm to the wounded pride of a lion-dog.

Miss Suwako seemed to read something of this from Aun's face, frowning worriedly as she sat back down. Her golden eyes shimmered like a disturbed puddle. Twisting her braid, she puzzled over something, licking her lips nervously.

"You know, girl," the little goddess spoke up at last, "maybe I can't do anything about this, but I think I can help in another way. I'm going to keep my end of the bargain."

Despite her inner protests, Aun felt her tail wag slightly. "Even though I couldn't keep mine?"

"What can I say? Gods are fickle. Sometimes we ignore the deserving and help the undeserving." Miss Suwako started to shrug before catching herself. "I mean, not that I think you're undeserving. It's just... Ah, forget it. I was just trying to sound cool."

Sanae stifled a laugh at the goddess's clumsiness. Even through her heavy mood, Aun found it in her to smile stiffly. Miss Suwako scratched her neck, joining in the laugh at her expense.

"I mean it, though. I'll tell you everything, just because I like you so damned much." She stood up, reaching up to tousle Aun's stony fluff around her horn.

Taking it as a signal to leave, Sanae stood up as well. She made to leave quickly, but the Goddess Moriya caught her by the shoulder, shaking her head.

"Is there something I don't know?" the shrine maiden asked with a hint of tension in her voice.

Miss Suwako gave an equally tight smile. The two were clearly still uncomfortable around each other after that exchange. "Not as such, no. I just thought maybe you could help explain. Fill in some gaps, y'know?"

"If you say so."

"Great, then let's head inside. There's some ground to cover."

After being in the unrelenting brightness of the afternoon sun, the three of them were retreating at last into the dimness of the main hall, stepping over the remains of the donation box as they did so. Aun stood hesitantly outside the grating, looking back at what she felt was a symbol of her own failure. Coins that had fallen outside the awning shined in the sun. A crow descended from above, picking one of the shiny metal pieces up in its beak before flying away. Aun let out a low growl in the bird's wake. Her troubles had begun with a crow.

The memory of another troublesome bird sent Aun reaching into her pocket. That mysterious letter was still there, still as inscrutible as before. She turned over the paper solemnly. Were it not for it and its missing envelope, maybe none of these troubles would have happened, she thought.

"Well? Come on in and sit, girl. I just put the kettle on. We can get nice and comfortable for this."
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Well, that's it for the intro arc. It's a little underwhelming to think that it's taken me close to a year to get here, but at least I got here, I guess. Please look forward to the start of the next story arc.

I really hope you guys have been enjoying it thus far. As always, I'm open to hearing feedback and discussion. I liked the little burst of theorycrafting last time. And, on that note, I should add that the bit with Aun going to get Miss Suwako wasn't in the original plan. I worked that in after it came up. So, y'know, I do listen to these things and take them into consideration where possible.

Anyway, continue waiting warmly.
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How long it took to get here might underwhelm you, but reading through it leaves me more than whelmed enough personally, I look forward to seeing where things go from here, especially regarding what all this with Sanae and the shrine is about in a way that isn't probably really obvious foreshadowing I still likely completely missed due to having the observational capacity of a particularly matte rock.
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no miracle
>Turning back around, she watched Sanae's increasingly frantic rifling. The mounting frustration in her huffing breath became invectives the likes Aun hadn't really heard from the normally cheery human. An empty-handed search of a cabinet ended with the shrine maiden knocking her fist loudly against the door, sending a shelf of records yet undisturbed tumbling to the floor. Sweat ran down her face. Despite her anger, there was no erasing the impression of a trapped animal.
>Not simple crying from sadness, Sanae's tears were the sort shed in times of exasperation, all paths taken and yet no way forward. Few actual tears fell down her cheek. Mostly, she just sobbed, her indignation at lacking the power to change things voiced in hoarse cries that often failed to make much sound at all.
I wish to protecc this overly-proud shrine maiden and living goddess. She's been getting hurt and needing bandages as well so sounds like she could use a little help. Even if she won't admit it and will probably fight it.

Aun continues to be a really good girl, too, despite some feline failings. It'll be interesting to see just how much she can do about crows goddesses without getting shut out. At least Suwako is sometimes helpful.

I second the whelming. Also cute image.

As always, waiting warmly for more!
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your image is also cute, but less so because it doesn't have a rock in it!
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Waiting warmly to see how badly this shitstorm at Moriya's will break down.
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fix that shrine
The first thought to rattle the gravel in Komano Aun's half-awake brain was that perhaps a rock on top of a bigger rock didn't make either much stronger. While not the most novel, the thought was one that had plagued the lion-dog for the past three or four days, all without her notice. Being of stone and thus not much brain, she had thus far avoided the true realisation. The wily revelation did what it could to tumble its way into the churn, but it underestimated the thickness of a mind's defences when it was hardly a mind to begin with.

What weakened those defences at last was the decayed smell of autumn leaves. When she lay half-awake in the dawn hours, Aun couldn't escape the scent. Rolling over only spread it further, until it clung to her clothes and every inch of her besides. The smell of the season was no surprise, of course. Even less so at the Moriya Shrine, a place many mountainous denizens would gather to watch the changing colours, so prized were its particular clumps of trees. Aun herself would have delighted at the display in normal times.

What bothered the lion-dog was not the leaves themselves, their present decay, or their scent permeating her clothes. That dubious honour belonged to the simple fact, and the memory thereof, that she was now sleeping outdoors and had been for some days now. Being stony in constitution, sleeping without the protection of a roof didn't particularly inconvenience her. The gnawing part about it was that she'd been left no choice. After all, too much had happened for her to even entertain trying to bed down in the house again. She didn't feel she deserved such luxuries, anyhow.

That particular chain of associations clamped itself together over the course of those mornings, when Aun rose up from the ground, covered in dirt and leaves, and looked up to where the Moriya Shrine's torii had once stood. A brief confusion gave way to pained recollection. Though she didn't remember it as clearly as she might have claimed, some semblance of memory remained as impressions of that moment. The crack of the gate ripping from its base. The horror of seeing red lacquered wood bursting into splinters. The chill of sweat on her brow upon knowing what had happened. Whether any of these things had been truly real, they had formed an amalgam that Aun ceaselessly retread in her mind over the following days.

Facing the barren spot that morning, Aun was at her most vulnerable. The simple-but-complicated realisation about rocks and their strength found its opening then, and her gaze soon swung back, out to the path she had trodden up the mountain a week or more ago. Questions of why she'd come at all began to nip at her. The faintest shadow of Reimu fell across her memory. At that point, Aun decided that she'd had enough thinking for one morning and needed to find something to do.

Very little awaited her past the denuded shrine entryway in terms of things to handle. Plodding her way to the offices, as had become her habit, she looked around for any sign of Sanae. The shrine maiden was nowhere to be found there. A similar look about the grounds turned up signs of neither living god nor the even Moriya goddess. Their presence at the shrine had felt thin to Aun for those several days. Every time she sought them out, they weren't there. She had entertained thoughts that maybe they had simply left. To her, being essentially alone on the shrine grounds was the same thing.

Sounds of hammers, saws, and shouts rose up to refute any claim that the lion-dog was truly alone. Were they not made of stone, her ears would have lay flat in annoyance. The thing she liked least to acknowledge at the moment was the presence of the repair crews.

Who had arranged for them was entirely unclear to Aun. Separate bands of these handymen — and a quiet scattering of handywomen, mostly kappa — all seemed to converge on the shrine at once, trodding all over the place, surveying the damage from corner to corner, and holding planning meetings right in the midst of the wreckage. A tengu of some description presented himself as the ultimate overseer of the project, though whether that had been by some design or by mere circumstance was a mystery. Whatever the case, Aun viewed them with the caution that might be expected of a guardian statue-beast. The looks she drew whenever near them gave her the impression the feeling was mutual.

Today was no exception to the wariness she was greeted with. Approaching the more central parts of the shrine grounds, the majority of the labourers were gathered in their usual huddles, someone loudly calling out the day's business and reiterating their particular group's creed or somesuch. The groups soon broke up, everyone resuming the preparatory work yet unfinished. As far as Aun could see, they'd accomplished little. The large pieces of debris from the torii still lingered without having been moved, joined by all sorts of fresh debris in the form of dirt, sawdust, loose stones, leaves, and so on. The repair workers strutted about with little regard to Aun's contribution to the relative tidiness of the grounds, leaving a general mess everywhere that irked her. She ran back to the offices to fetch a broom and quickly came back to remedy the situation.

At first, no one did more than acknowledge the lion-dog furiously sweeping in their midst, kicking up clouds of dust as she did so. Pairs of eyes looked away from tasks in progress to watch her for seconds at a time, usually returning to their work when Aun stared back. Foot traffic on the scene wound its way around her, though most of the ambulatory workers showed as little regard for her space as they did to anything else. A wayward elbow or foot jostled her more than once. Rather than snap at them, Aun did her best to carry on as if she were meant to be there — which was the case, as far as she was concerned. She would have persisted for hours were it not for a small accident.

The truth of the matter was that grave injuries could have resulted were something heavier than boards involved, and Aun appreciated that fact. What she didn't appreciate was being screamed at by a kappa barely taller than her, and who she was sure she could easily have punted off the mountain with a running start. Sure, he was the one carrying those boards, and Aun would readily admit that she got right in his way, being inattentive at the time. All of the malarkey the kappa was shouting about 'safety violations' and 'codes' meant nothing to her, however. Her understanding was that he had run into her, taken a fall, and lost his grip on the boards. The human assisting him even held him back as he ranted, trying to assure his incensed co-worker that it 'wasn't that big a deal'.

At that point, another human stepped from the quietly growing audience, identifying himself as the one supervising the particular group she had interfered with. Though he spoke calmly and seemed to have a level head, being a bit old as far as Aun knew of humans, there was a sense that he really just wanted to shoo her out of the way and wouldn't say so outright. Aun stood her ground, firmly gripping her broom.

"I'm the one who guards this shrine. I'm always helping here. If anything, you guys are getting in my way," Aun argued, taking on the snarl of her leonine side, flashing her fangs none too subtly.

"Point absolutely taken, miss, but this isn't something we can negotiate. You really should leave this work to us." The supervisor scratched at his stubbly chin as if his hand were some snapping animal that he couldn't control.

"What? You're saying I'm not good enough to even help?"

He sighed and shook his head — the look of a man who knew he was in for a long day. Slowing down his speech, he tried to convey his point with his hands. "There's probably nothing for you to do. With all due respect, what do you know about construction?"

"Nothing," she admitted without flinching. Even she knew it sounded a bit pathetic to say out loud, but she tried to retain her canine-feline dignity. "You're fixing things. Is that really so hard?"

"Alright, let me put it this way: You're a guard, right? You wouldn't want anybody to get hurt on your watch. I'm going to assume that includes us."

Aun softened a little at the appeal to her normal duty. "Well, yes. I wouldn't be doing my job, otherwise."

"Our job is one where people can get hurt if we're not careful. If you don't know what you're doing, that's even more likely. You see where I'm going with this?"

"Let me help. I'll do everything by myself." Aun knocked on her half-stony hide, producing the dull thud of flesh rather than the intended hollow thud. "I'm a lion-dog. I'm made of rock, so nothing can hurt me! See?"

"That's great. But it's not you I'm concerned about, if you don't mind me saying," the headman replied, unable to suppress the pained groan of someone caught at loggerheads.

Uninterested in the human's intended meaning, Aun planted herself rump-down and paws-out in front of him, staring up at him with the unblinking focus of her most primal state. The headman gave his chin another nervous scratch, twisting his head as he looked at Aun. She had made it clear that she was not going to be moved, and he fully understood that. Mutters and a few sniggers came from the gathered labourers. Their headman glanced backward, silently warning them in an attempt to keep whatever authority he still had.

After several moments of pondering, the supervising human excused himself and retreated into the back of the site. Without their headman to be amused by, the underlings quickly dispersed to return back to their work, leaving only a few loafers who stuck near Aun. The lion-dog ignored their bantering in favour of watching the distant conversation between the human headman and the tengu who claimed to be leading everything. They both cast occasional looks in her direction, nodding slowly, almost gravely as they spoke. At last, the overseeing tengu waved off the human, and the human headman shrugged his shoulders before trotting back to meet the lion-dog.

The look in his eyes made it fairly clear what the answer had been, but Aun nevertheless faced him stoically. He gave a long sigh through his nose and massaged his temples as he mulled how to break the news.

"Our project leader understands your worries," he began after some thought, "but this is a job for experienced hands. There's too much for a total newcomer to learn before we can ensure a safe and effective job. That being the case, he was pretty firm that you can't join us. My apologies."

He offered Aun a practised bow, the sort employed by those begging favours. Aun quickly felt a jab of guilt seeing him not come out of the bow. She stood up in hopes that would make him stop, but he remained bent at the waist.

"I'll ask again. Please, leave this job to us."

"I understand," Aun said with difficulty. Any defiance she'd felt in that moment vanished under the guilt of making trouble for someone. She returned his bow with a quiet apology.

Feeling hot-faced realising the ridiculousness of her behaviour, she turned around and quickly exited the site, bound for some outer portion of the shrine's grounds. The regular array of noises resuming following her departure felt like a rebuke.

Left with nothing obvious to do, Aun plodded along the outer perimeter of the shrine. Rather than make a full circle as she'd done before, not wanting to cross where the missing torii once stood, she walked back and forth, tracing a long semi-circle. She didn't stop patrolling despite feeling tired after a short while. The need to do something of use was too urgent to stop, even if her paws complained. The trouble was knowing what could possibly be of use to anyone right now. Being warned away from the repair work had limited options so far that Aun wondered if there was truly anything she could do. However, not wanting to acknowledge such a possibility, she kept on walking like a sleepwalker.

At some point, the endless trek took its toll. Aun was forced to find somewhere to park herself for a while, choosing to retreat out of sight into the brush. There she lay for a while, trying not to think of the past few days, until she eventually fell asleep from exhaustion. When she awoke with a start, noticing her unplanned napping, the afternoon had set in. Stretching and yawning, she initially intended to resume her walk but wandered back to the main buildings, doing her utmost to avoid notice by any of the labourers.

The sight of the main hall at a distance prompted her to stop in place. Among the swirl of memories overhanging Aun from not even a week ago, one in particular was quick to revisit itself upon her.

In the aftermath of the disaster, Miss Suwako had, out of either whimsy or magnanimity, pledged to keep the promise she'd made before with Aun. With Sanae in tow, they made for the main hall in order to talk in more intimate surroundings. The lion-dog herself had lingered outside for a bit. Whether it was guilt over seeing the collapsed donation box or some other influence, she couldn't particularly recall.

She had been about to join the goddess and shrine maiden when an odd sensation halted her a moment longer. No odd sight nor any queer noise had alerted her. Instead, the simple knowledge that someone was present on the shrine's grounds had impressed itself into the gravel of her brain. There was no knowing who exactly, but they were definitely there, perhaps when they shouldn't have been. The strange thing about the sudden insight was that she was certain there was no ill-will involved; the presence simply stuck out. She hadn't the chance to pry further before the feeling left her.

Entering the main hall, she questioned Miss Suwako and Sanae on whether or not they had sensed anything. Both answered that they haven't, confused as to what Aun was talking about. She then elected to remain quiet on the subject and listen to Miss Suwako instead. All the while, though, the thought of the stranger on the grounds remained suspended somewhere in her mind's workings, to return at intervals to nag her.

Reminded of that feeling yet again, unable to simply discard it as a mere trick of the senses, Aun decided to harness this aimless time to her best attempts at locating anyone who might have been the source of it. She carried on in her wandering around the shrine, this time with the intention of finding out any lurking figures. Lacking for strategy or approach, all she could do was keep her eyes, ears, and nose alert for anything of remote interest. In practise, the lion-dog's groping about could do little but pass time.

A bit of ambling had sent her back near the repairmen's site, where she kept a careful distance. Feeling no match to that presence forthcoming, she then moved carefully through the gaps in buildings until she was a bit further away, though still not quite towards the outer grounds. She would have continued to make a circuit through the general area were it not for a noise, distant at first and then much less so as she kept walking. Near the storage building, a decent walk away from both the shrine offices and the main hall, Aun was fairly certain she heard the sound of objects being moved inside. Having not seen Miss Suwako or Sanae that day, she could only conclude some interloper was present.

Eager to surprise whatever miscreant had taken to the shrine's dusty treasures, the lion-dog slinked up against the door, trying it carefully. The door was indeed unlocked and ready to swing open. Inside, she heard footsteps carrying from one end of the small building to the other. This repeated several times until Aun was certain she knew when to expect them. Taking a deep breath, she pressed up closer to the door and swallowed nervously. She'd had no experience with robbers, in truth, only having heard stories of armed men who stole and murdered with no conscience. Even knowing that little could threaten any of the shrine's residents, she still felt a chill at the notion. Being afraid was not an option now.

Just as she'd prepared herself to push it open, the door swung inward, startling Aun. She instinctively leapt forward. An impact registered itself. A girlish yelp rang out. Both lion-dog and interloper fell to the ground. They were flailing under her weight.

Aun looked down to discover Sanae and blinked confusedly. No time to concern herself with the wheres and whyfores, she caught something falling out of her side vision. A box that had, presumably, been in Sanae's hands was now plummetting mid-air. Swiftly, the lion-dog stretched out her arms and caught the falling wooden chest, wobbling slightly before falling back on top of the still-struggling Sanae. The shrine maiden gave an exasperated groan, ceasing her flailing for the moment.

"I know you're made of rocks, but holy Kanako, you're heavy," Sanae complained.

Remembering who was underneath her, Aun scrambled to get upright again with the box still in her hands. A few moments of fumbling saw her back on her feet. "I thought you were a robber."

"Great, well, I'm not, as you can see. Now, why not help me up?"

Apologising, the lion-dog extended a paw, which Sanae grappled onto like she was trying to pull her back to the ground. Sanae hoisted herself up and brushed off her skirt. Spotting the little wooden chest Aun saved from destruction by gravity, she snatched it from the lion-dog's paws, shouldering her aside to deposit the box outside. That was when Aun noticed a modest pile of odds and ends stacked just beside the door.

"Are you cleaning up out here?" Aun asked, making way for Sanae to get back into the building.

Sanae rolled her eyes. "Is that really so surprising?"

"I just... wasn't expecting you. I wasn't expecting anyone. When I heard noises, I thought for sure it was a robber. Nobody comes out here much."

As Aun spoke, Sanae passed back and forth between the nearby shelves and doorway several times, bumping the lion-dog each time in an overly aggressive way with each pass. Several trips later, the shrine maiden emitted a snarl that made Aun jump back.

"I wouldn't be out here if I could help it. That's why Lady Kanako sent me out here to clean up. Now, would you get the hell out of my way?"

The sudden demand made Aun retreat behind the first row of shelves. She stood peering through the gaps in the contents at Sanae. Sanae turned her head as if to put the lion-dog out of mind, huffing as she set back to the task at hand.

That task seemed to largely consist of pulling things at random from the shelves, hauling them outside, and depositing them in a pile. Aun had called it 'cleaning up', but she could see little method to it like a good cleaning. One glance at the shelves in front of her set her nose to twitching, her old nemesis, dust, having settled in thick layers over everything. She felt herself on the verge of sneezing but somehow held it in despite watery eyes and a burning nose. Were things up to her, the shelves would be cleared off section-by-section and dusted with extreme prejudice.

She looked around to size up the state of the rest of the storage. Lacking windows, the only light came through the doorway, hardly illuminating the shelves immediately inside. That things were dusty, her nose had attested to well enough. What wasn't clear was what the majority of the stored goods even were, nor could Aun tell how long they had been in disuse. If she squinted in the darkness, she could just make out the shapes of boxes, though there were other shapes that could have been anything from vases to, strangely, kimono. The impression she got was of Miss Suwako's redecorated inner hall swelled to possibly treble or quadruple the volume. There was, by all indications, much work ahead of Sanae.

Sanae carried on stomping her way outside, back inside, and outside again in a continuous cycle, only stopping to find the next bit of tat to sitting out front. At first, all of this was carried out with a haste that reflected her exasperation. However, venting passions soon lessened by degrees. Sanae's footfalls sounded slower and more level. Fewer profanities slipped from Sanae's mouth until she merely went about her work in a heavy silence. On one empty-handed occasion, she came to a stop, hand tracing an empty stretch of shelf, and looked in Aun's rough direction.

"Hey, Aun," Sanae said tentatively, as if unsure the lion-dog were really there or not, "you can come out if you want."

"I was in the way," Aun countered as she walked back into the daylight.

"That's no excuse for snapping. It's my own fault I'm out here, so I shouldn't take it out on you." The shrine maiden cast her eyes down, smiling glumly. She scratched at one of her exposed shoulders. "Gotta pay the price after I screwed up."

"Miss Kanako ought to be making me clean, too."

Sanae shook her head. "You didn't do anything wrong."

"Everyone keeps saying that, but I don't believe it."

"Believe it anyway. It's only true. You're not the one who made the roof tiles fly off. Or knocked the torii down. Or smashed the donation box." Naming her crimes drew a heavy sigh from Sanae.

"I could have stopped you."

"You could have done a lot of things. That still doesn't mean it's your fault. And, anyway, that's not even why I'm being punished."

The lion-dog tilted her head slightly, looking at Sanae dubiously. "What do you mean?"

"I mean, Lady Kanako wasn't even all that mad about the damage. She didn't like it, of course, but it was the embarrassment that wound her up. Did you know some bird newspapers have been talking about what happened? Some damn journalists got in early for the scoop." Even thinking about tengu and their rumour-mongering ways made Sanae's face twist in a faintly disguised show of disgust. She looked over her shoulder as if expecting the click of a 'camera' any moment. "I think they finally stopped poking around after being told a few times. Probably more their bosses than anything. They're still hoping for something from Lady Kanako."

"Those talks." Aun shifted on her feet slightly, uncomfortable at the memory of talking with Miss Suwako in the laundry shed.

"Yeah, those talks. Guess you've heard by now, huh."

Though she technically was questioning Aun, Sanae didn't look back for confirmation or denial. Aun felt unsure how much to mention if asked, so the fact that she wasn't being pressed was a small relief. Still, the silence around Sanae retained the stifling quality of moments ago. The shrine maiden stood running her hands across the same stretch of shelf, pensive as she likely pondered her fault in the matter.

Unable to stand it for much longer, Aun broke the quiet. "If you'll let me, I want to help. All of this will take too long by yourself."

"I don't think you get the point of a punishment, Aun."

"I do get it! I just want to help. And no matter what you say, it's also my fault. If I had just—"

"For the love of Minoriko, who are you trying to make feel better? If it's me, that's not really working!" Sanae interrupted, sounding irritated now.

Aun sputtered at the rebuff. She wasn't trying to make anyone feel better. This was simply about telling the truth as she saw it. "I want to help you."

"You can't and you shouldn't, full stop. If you do, Lady Kanako will know."

"No sense arguing with rocks, especially if they're offering help," said a voice from the doorway.

Lion-dog and shrine maiden both looked up to find Miss Suwako regarding them with a look of vague amusement, though her smile was also tense. Seeing the goddess, Sanae frowned and turned away.

"Why should it even matter to you?" Sanae groused.

The paper-thin facade of cheeriness vanished from Miss Suwako's face, leaving her frowning. Her whole body leaned forward like a wilting plant. "It really shouldn't, but try telling Kana that." She reached in her sleeve, pulling out a piece of paper, unfolding it to show an uninterested Sanae. "Found that when I went to restock. Can you believe that? She's serious, too. Damn thing's sealed tight."

"Excuse me if I don't feel bad for you not being able to have a drink."

"I deserved that. Still, she says specifically to make sure you do the work, or else it'll never unseal. So, here I am," Miss Suwako said with a shrug.

The shrine maiden grumbled. "Just like Lady Kanako."

"Just like Kana, indeed."

That bit of shared enmity for Miss Kanako's way of doing things caused a shift in Sanae and Miss Suwako both. They shared a knowing look. Aun suddenly felt distant from them in a way she couldn't describe if asked. She knew herself that the Goddess Yasaka could be oppressive in her methods, but there were experiences known to the living god and her other mistress that Aun had fortune never to witness.

With time, Sanae slowly returned to her work, shifting objects to one of the empty stretches of shelf by the door. The Moriya goddess had closed the door and seated herself on the floor right in front of it, as if to bar anyone from leaving before she decided it was time. They glumly continued speaking about the shrine's chief god and their dislike of her management. That conversation slowly wound off into an anecdote by Sanae about incurring Miss Kanako's wrath in the shrine's outside world days.

Much of the context was difficult for Aun to follow, but what she did understand of the story was that Sanae had deemed her customary appearance as a shrine maiden to be unfashionable and tried to remedy that. One of the alterations included wearing makeup, something the lion-dog could scarcely fathom on the Sanae she knew, only used to her most natural face. The change did draw attention from shrine visitors that the living god considered positive overall. However, the sentiment wasn't shared in the least by Miss Kanako, who proceeded to crossly lecture Sanae on propriety and solemnity in her position right in the open. The shrine maiden's cheeks flushed as she recalled the whole incident, still indignant years afterward.

Miss Suwako soon countered with a series of different experiences along similar lines, most of them quite vague in their circumstances. Of note to Aun was the idea that Miss Kanako had threatened to mummify her partner more than once for infractions against the shrine's dignity.

"At least we don't need to have a sarcophagus ready this time, I guess," Sanae joked.

"You say that like you had one ready last time." Suwako chuckled, but there was little humour in it.

Feeling the atmosphere in the building becoming too heavy, the lion-dog broke in. "If there's really nothing I can do, then I just want to say: hang in there. I'm used to always watching, but now I'm cheering you on, too."

To Aun's annoyance, her genuine sentiment made Sanae and Miss Suwako laugh. Sanae had to quickly put down what she was carrying to avoid dropping it. Even if seeing actual levity from them was a bit of a relief, Aun failed to see the humour in her words.

"I'm sorry," Sanae apologised, seeing the lion-dog's face, "but I am happy to hear that. Really."

Miss Suwako stood up on tiptoe to drape herself over Aun, wrapping her arms around her from behind and nuzzling their cheeks together. "Look at this good girl. Wishing Sanae luck like that. Gods, I just love her."

The laughter having subsided, Sanae was quick to concur that she ought to cut down on the chatter and pour her focus into the work. She picked up the pace from there, giving her sole attention to the still-populated shelves. Soon enough, even Miss Suwako, who otherwise had nothing to do, lapsed into silently observing Sanae trotting between the shelves and the pile outside. Aun and the little goddess positioned themselves out of the way, by a corner bereft of its junk.

At first, they were left standing. Miss Suwako quickly complained about her back hurting, and they took to squatting, then soon sitting on the floor without much regard for the dust and grime. The only obvious sounds in the building most of the time were Sanae's footsteps and an array of clinks, clanks, occasional bumps, and scrapes as she tried to empty out sections of shelving. Her exact criteria for accomplishing the job were a mystery. As best Aun could work out, the strategy seemed to hinge on first getting the lightweight miscellanea outside in the heap to be sorted later. Things like dusting and general sanitation were a far-off idea at this stage. The Moriya goddess's expression showed her to be as uncomprehending of the work as Aun, something the lion-dog wasn't sure to feel relief over or not.

Though telling the time was an initial challenge for lack of windows, shifting shadows from the doorway clued anyone observant enough to the advancing afternoon. A lantern first placed outside found its way back onto the floor, at the ready for when light began to fail. The telltale oranges and purples of a late afternoon coloured whatever Aun and Miss Suwako saw from their corner seat — admittedly very little. Enough time had passed, Aun felt, that Sanae had to be making fair progress. A more careful glance up proved her wrong.
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For the couple of hours spent in relative silence, even the earliest portions of the shelves had yet to be fully cleared. Whole clumps of items sat undisturbed, as if the shrine maiden had been tackling her task at random. Aun soon noticed as well that the patter of Sanae's feet was much quieter. Despite running at first, there was a dragging quality to her movement now. She watched Sanae go by on yet another pass and caught those green eyes on her and the neighbouring goddess.

Aun pondered saying something when she felt a nudge from Miss Suwako. The little goddess nodded her head towards the door, signalling that she thought they ought to leave. Unsure why she was making the suggestion, Aun gave Miss Suwako an uneasy look, indicating Sanae with her eyes. Miss Suwako merely responded by more strongly gesturing with her hand before seizing Aun by the paw. Godly strength was too much for Aun to win out against, heavy as a statue-beast might be inherently, and she found herself pulled to her feet and out the door within seconds. She grumbled at the goddess, who simply smiled in a 'it can't be helped' fashion.

"Sorry to give you the bum's rush, but I don't think sticking around's good for either of us, much less Sanae."

"I thought watching her was your job," Aun protested weakly.

"Sure, it's my job. Kana wants me to do it. Doesn't mean it'll make things go any faster. Heck, I know you saw Sanae looking over her shoulder." Miss Suwako took a moment to watch Sanae emerge from the doorway and heading back inside after setting something down. "See? Already working a lot better without our eyes stuck to her butt."

Whilst she could see Miss Suwako's point, Aun still felt some resistance to simply allowing others to abandon assigned duties. She scratched at her stony fluff. "What do we do, then?"

"Enjoy our evening, what else? There's plenty going on around here. I bet we can find some trouble," Miss Suwako said, taking on the impish grin that indeed nearly always promised trouble.

"I think what Lady Suwako means to say is that you can trust me. I'm not about to walk off the job," called Sanae from the doorway. She side-eyed Miss Suwako and then offered Aun a reassuring smile of her own. "I've got nothing better to do, anyway. Go have some fun somewhere."

Aun returned the smile with a frown. Even if she could leave with a clear conscience, doing so wouldn't make her feel any better. Still, that she could do nothing here either was evident enough. She weakly nodded and looked to the little goddess for what to do next.

Without any indication as to what was on her mind, Miss Suwako took to the air with the lion-dog in tow. They set down in one of the lesser-used parts of the shrine. Miss Kanako had once joked that it was reserved for transplanting the whole Hakurei Shrine. The truth of the matter was that it was simply empty space occupied normally by only a scattering of trees and rocks. That usual emptiness was why Aun was surprised to see numerous tents and shacks propped up there. The Moriya goddess explained that the expectation was for the repair work to take some time, so it didn't make sense for the labourers to run back and forth from the shrine. Hence, they were camped on the grounds for the time being. Sensible or not, Aun felt unsure at the revelation.

Her feelings on the matter didn't subside as they approached the gathering of workers, the majority of which regarded the pair with curious eyes. Most were assembled at one end in tidy rows, apparently in the middle of a meal. Those that remained were either running around on some duty or another or lounging about in a post-meal daze. The scene's reminiscence to the queues of a few days ago, albeit lacking order in comparison, unnerved Aun. She wondered what it would take to set the group into a fury like the patrons from that day.

Miss Suwako, by contrast, showed no caution at all around them, making conversation with anyone close to hand. Though a few of the labourers were clearly annoyed at the goddess's chatter, most perked up from their doziness. A bit of asking around led them right to the supervisor Aun had encountered earlier. The lion-dog tensed meeting him again, and he regarded her with a stern look as they approached, but even he seemed to soften in the face of Miss Suwako. Because she kept her distance from them, Aun couldn't hear what the little goddess discussed with him, only noting that he flashed a quick thumbs-up as they concluded, turning to give a cheery wave at Aun for good measure.

"That was easy," Miss Suwako said as she pressed something into Aun's paw.

Aun looked down to find a box of matches. The packaging indicated that it was probably from the outside. At least, she felt that was the case from its indescribable design. "What are we doing here?" she finally thought to ask.

"Setting up a little party. You mind building a fire for us? Big as you can. I've gotta go sort out a few things. Just grab one of these guys if you need help."

After pointing out a good spot for a fire, the goddess promptly vanished into the workers' camp on whatever business she'd made for herself. Aun groaned, being left standing alone. Were she not sure that Miss Suwako would eventually be back, she might have quit the camp and found somewhere to bed down. Being offered a task at the time was too attractive for her to simply leave, though.

She set to work immediately, gathering up as much in the way of leaves and other burnable debris as she could find, the season offering plenty to fuel a fire. Various of the surrounding workers offered help, which she refused on the grounds that she didn't need it. She didn't want anyone else taking away from her sole duty at the moment. All of her attention went into building the biggest and best fire that she could. If there was no other way she could be of help, at the very least, she thought, she could do this.

Aun didn't know how long she'd spent building the fire once she was done. The sky had gone from a darkening mix of purple and orange to the dull blue-black of an encroaching evening. With some coaxing, the fire lit some of the initial kindling, sprang into a small fire, and then suddenly burst into a roaring blaze. The labourers around Aun cheered seeing the fire come to life. Aun allowed herself a proud smile at her work. Perhaps there were bigger, but she'd built this one herself. The shrine grounds were slowly growing colder with the autumn evening setting in, so it was a good thing she had, too.

Not long after, the Goddess Moriya made her return from wherever she'd gone, several repair workers following, all hauling with them heavy-looking sacks. The bags were filled with potatoes. Miss Suwako explained that she'd talked a few volunteers into helping gather some for roasting. Overhearing talk of roasted potatoes and passing it on, what started as a small gathering of the encamped workers soon turned into a much larger one. As luck would have it, Aun suddenly had a new job in the form of helping to roast tubers.

Though far from the intimate fun with the shrine's residents she held such fond memories of, roasting potatoes for the camp had a charm of its own for the lion-dog. Even tengu and kappa were nowhere as capable of dealing with the work of burying and unburying the potatoes in the leaves without getting singed. With her rocky hide, though it was by no means comfortable to be licked by flames, Aun could do much of the work bare-pawed. Her dexterity in this job earned her endless praise from those around her; few were brave enough to try petting her, but Aun was satisfied with a pat on the back.

Those attentions trailed off once the potatoes were distributed and the eager feasters returned to their comrades. Liquor had made its appearance as well to accompany the roasted snacks. Everywhere, the labourers ate, drank, broke into song, and generally celebrated amidst the glow of the fire. What had been a mere camp for them became the grounds for festivities. The vibe was one that buoyed Aun's spirits for a little while. However, that lift didn't last for long.

As everyone carried on, Aun was content to sit near the fire, minding that it didn't suddenly die out. There was, on the whole, not much else to do now that the others were fed and probably drunk. She looked around for any sign of Miss Suwako but didn't find her. The lion-dog huffed. Had the little goddess ever been around when she was wanted? Not in Aun's experience. Left alone with her lingering thoughts, she found herself even less cheerful than before.

More time passed before she felt a hand stroking the top of her head with a little more force than necessary. She didn't have to look up to know that Miss Suwako was there.

"Bit of a waste to sit all by your lonesome over here," the goddess warbled. A smell of drink wafted thickly around her like she'd been doused in it. Despite her well-pickled state, her petting was at least still tolerable to Aun.

The lion-dog chucked another wad of sticks into the fire without looking at Miss Suwako. "I'm fine. Somebody has to keep the fire going. Might as well be me."

"Heh, if you say so. I think I'd rather be partying."

"Don't let me stop you."

"Nah. Nobody stopping me but me." Miss Suwako laughed at her own drunken attempt at joking before winding her arms around the lion-dog's shoulders. "C'mon, girl, don't you wanna have a little fun too?"

"I've got a job to do," Aun harrumphed.

"And it's still not making you any happier, huh."

Aun said nothing, unsure whether to take the remark as a question or some sort of jab. Knowing the Moriya goddess, it was probably both. Regardless, she didn't know what to say in reponse.

Miss Suwako lowered her voice, sounding much more muted. "Hey, what's wrong? And don't say nothing's wrong. Can't say that at all when you're looking all sad over here. C'mon, out with it, girl. What's on your mind?"

[ ] The past echoed with too many memories of being called useless.
[ ] The present looked too broken to be fixed.
[ ] The future appeared dimmer and colder than the evening.
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[x] The future appeared dimmer and colder than the evening.
It's always darkest before the dawn. Don't think Suwako will be very good at cheering up Aunn no matter what wins. Was curious about the past and the memories on the off chance that Suwako shares something about her past as well. Not sure where it'll go so I'll stick to the future because there's always hope.

More importantly, I want to pet the liondog and tell her that it'll be alright and that she's a very good girl.
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[X] The past echoed with too many memories of being called useless.
I want Suwako to reassure lion doggo that she's anything but what big bad Raymoo says.

Aside from that I think either past or future are good options to give Aun a confidence boost here.
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Guess who continues to be a dummy who forgets to set timers?

Since I'd like to start on the next update soon-ish, you've got until 00:00 (UTC-5) on 17 July. Get moving if you plan on voting.
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>Miss Suwako stood up on tiptoe to drape herself over Aun, wrapping her arms around her from behind and nuzzling their cheeks together. "Look at this good girl. Wishing Sanae luck like that. Gods, I just love her."


[ x] The present looked too broken to be fixed.
Yesterday is gone, tomorrow might be good, but "today" is what really crushes your spirits.
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[X] The future appeared dimmer and colder than the evening.
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[x] The past echoed with too many memories of being called useless.
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Leaving the vote open for a few more hours because I'd like a clear plurality. Next vote for either of the leaders snipes it.
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[X] The future appeared dimmer and colder than the evening

Guess I'lll go for the future then
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Cool, that's it. The winner is...

[x] The future appeared dimmer and colder than the evening.

Please wait warmly even though Aun's wait will be less so.
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[x] The future appeared dimmer and colder than the evening.

The fire Aun had felt so proud of smouldered ever closer to its extinction. She contemplated feeding the starving flame, but the effort felt tremendous. A few sticks to sustain it a little longer, and then what? One or two would become three or four, then five or six, and further seven and many, many more. She would exhaust herself feeding the little blaze for the sole sake of her leonine pride. The more she considered the twigs lying at her feet, the more the whole exercise felt pointless. The blasted fire would persist in its demands until it could persist no more.

Were she less rocky in the skull, the lion-dog would have smirked bitterly, the metaphor for her life pursuits laid plainly before her. Miss Suwako would have had less of a reason to ask and likely would have simply left Aun alone. In actuality, Aun's gravelly brain had long stilled, now more a pond than a whirlpool. All she could see was that the fire was fated to die. The cold and darkness of an autumn night bit felt all the more palpable. This reality shouldn't have troubled her in normal circumstance, except the stillness of her mind allowed more determined thoughts to burrow their way through the gravel.

In many ways, shrines and temples could be just like the fire in front of Aun. She, as guardian, saw to it that the sacred grounds she inhabited thrived by ensuring things remained in order. Once starved of trust, faith, and stability, there was no hope. The housed deities would fade away; the structures would crack and break; and the lion-dog would be forced to abandon her home. Whilst she'd been spared that horror as far back as she could remember, the possibility always remained. That remote chance in and of itself didn't bother Aun as much as being unable to conceive of how to handle such a disaster. There was nothing to say that such failures wouldn't follow her to another home. Besides, Gensokyo's restricted size meant few places for a guardian statue-beast in the first instance.

Even with the little warmth Miss Suwako provided lying drunkenly on her, Aun found herself feeling cold and stony at the idea of being without a place to fulfill her purpose. She looked to the little goddess on her shoulder, who gave a tight-lipped smile upon being noticed. Aun felt too lost in the dread of uncertainty to answer any queries about her well-being. When she conveyed this to Miss Suwako in faltering terms, the goddess nodded in understanding but couldn't hide a troubled look in her eyes.

"Sorry," Aun murmured.

Miss Suwako rebutted the apology by nuzzling her face into the lion-dog's mane and squeezing her tighter, almost protectively. "It's fine. We've all got stuff to figure out. Stuff's complicated."

"Complicated." Aun rolled the word around on her tongue. The word was certainly an apt one, though it ill suited as an encapsulation of everything wrong at the moment. Resigned to being unable to convey her meaning, she puffed a long sigh out her nose. "Really complicated."

At that, the Moriya goddess unlinked herself from Aun and stood up on unsteady legs. She began shuffling away quietly but stopped all of a sudden, looking back without her prior smile. "I've got nothing but time now. Anything you wanna talk about, come find me. In the main hall, okay? Just lemme know."

The lion-dog nodded her understanding, and Miss Suwako went stumbling on, falling over passed out workers and other obstacles as she fled the dying fire. Soon, Aun couldn't see her at all in the gloom. Turning back to the flame and seeing it smouldering, she pitched in the handful of sticks by her feet, stood up, and left the encampment for somewhere she could be more alone than she already felt.

Over a week elapsed from the commencement of repair work on the shrine. Aun spent those days in something of a stasis, standing at the periphery of all activity, unable to take part but similarly unable to simply go away. The various crews that had seemed idle in the early stages, largely talking over plans and making vague preparations, set themselves to work at a slow but steady pace, their exertions showing clearer results with each passing day. Even without a lion-dog, this amalgam of human and youkai effort showed itself at least capable of starting to renew the shrine's damaged facade. Observing them unnoticed from a safe distance made Aun restless.

That need to act loomed over Aun even in waking a few days after the party at the camp. She was up and prowling the shrine, spending nary a second to ponder much of anything as she had in mornings past. The ponds were always her first destination. In her restlessness, she'd taken on a project of sorts — there was no exact aim in it, so it could probably be more accurately considered a pastime. Strolling near the rocky pools, the lion-dog had suddenly recalled a story related by Reimu. The Hakurei maiden claimed to have met a girl who was amazingly skilled at stacking rocks at a dry riverbed on the way over to Hell. What purpose stacking rocks served was anyone's guess. To Aun, that part didn't matter. She merely felt an affinity to the task. Therefore, she began constructing her own miniature tower.

What awaited her that particular morning was not a tower, but rather some hundreds of rocks and stones littering where she'd chosen to house what had been a growing structure. A small, messy pile that formed the base remained, the sole testament to the hours she had invested. Surveying the destruction, Aun couldn't find it within herself to have any sort of reaction. In a way, she'd expected this. Whether some wild animal or an idle labourer ambling around in boredom, someone or something would inevitably see to it that the rocks met the ground again; the thought of pushing over the tower and starting anew occurred to her as well. Seeing her work brought to naught still stung.

Shunting previously beloved diversions aside, the next best choice was to visit the storage building yet again. Seeing Sanae hard at work — always from a careful distance — nourished the lion-dog's spirits. If nothing else, she was at least making sure the work got done, a task Miss Suwako had thus far failed to put the flimsiest effort towards. Thinking along those lines, approaching the storage building excited Aun in the same way her canine side felt seeing a hand primed for petting. She hurried over, breaking into a four-legged run. She slid to a stop at her usual observation point within eyeshot of the building. Her heart soon sunk upon a closer look.

Moving in closer confirmed what she already suspected: the piles of junk were no longer out front. Worse, inspecting the door showed it was not only not open, but also the massive padlock that normally secured it was installed. Aun uselessly tried the door, the lock keeping it from pivoting more than a minute fraction. She pressed her ear to the door and was greeted by silence. The thought then occurred to her that Sanae could have simply locked up and gone home to sleep for once. She had overheard the shrine maiden's groans and complaints about the hard floor inside, so perhaps she was yet to drop by. Buoying herself with that thought, Aun waited a short distance away in hopes of spotting an approaching glint of green.

The better part of an hour passed before Aun's patience waned. This was the longest she'd seen the storage left idle in the morning hours. She wondered if Sanae had decided it too much trouble after all and cast aside her prescribed duties. The only other obvious explanation was that the living god had overslept, something she was far from unknown to do. With an annoyed huff, Aun set out for the house. She would drag Sanae back to work if she had to, and that would be her useful deed for the day.

Only when she got within sight of the house did the prior aversion come back. That Miss Kanako could be lying in wait, eager to vent her frustrations on even a poor lion-dog, made Aun stop at the entryway. Listening carefully, she caught no sign of anyone moving about. In fact, similar to the storage, there was a stillness in the air strongly suggesting no one was there at all.

Concerned, she poked her head inside, only to find the entryway covered in a thick layer of dust. Cobwebs blanketed the shoe box. Patches of dirt sat where dirty shoes had been placed, never cleaned up after. The dusty staleness of the air made Aun cough and her nose burn with trying not to sneeze uncontrollably. She called out an experimental greeting just to see if she received an answer. None came. Even trying a louder call brought no response.

Aun moved further into the house, too curious now by the obvious state of neglect to leave. Everywhere she looked, signs of life were absent. The first footprints showing in the wooden floor inside were hers, dust having grown so thick on the boards that she could trace her own path through it. Looking at her dirtied sock, both feline and canine sides of her cringed. Things got no better as she proceeded past the entrance and towards the kitchen. In fact, they got far worse.

For starters, the sink was no longer a sink as much as a hole crammed full to bursting with dirty dishes. Someone had run water to partially cover them and let it sit for ages, leading to a sour smell that the lion-dog wrinkled her nose at. Additionally, hints of an even fouler smell crept from around the 'refridgerator'. Aun hesitantly opened the cold-box, only to be hit right in the face by the odours of various rotted things, making her eyes water and sting. Produce, leftovers, and other less identifiable things had all expired some time ago. The majority had become slime of a sickly array of colours that leaned greenish. What was left in something resembling a useable state fared little better, often wilted, wet, or simply ugly to look at. A disaster, Aun summed it up to herself.

The intolerable condition of the kitchen drove her immediately toward the living room without a second thought. Whatever her mood, there was no reason for Miss Kanako to neglect things this badly. Aun would see to it that she heard some very loud complaints. At least, that was the intention until she saw the fusuma shut.

In the short time the lion-dog had been around the Moriya Shrine lately, she'd not once seen the fusuma leading into the living room completely closed as they were now. Slightly incensed, Aun took hold of the handle, intent on throwing it open in a shock-and-awe manoeuvre. She breathed deeply in full preparation. There was no telling how the goddess might react. The lion-dog's fingers tensed against the handle. The door itself was sitting quite solidly in the track, not moved by a gentle tug. Shutting her eyes and mentally counting to three, she put her strength into her arm to give a solid pull.

When she opened her eyes, the fusuma were still closed. She confusedly tugged on the door in an effort to move it, but it neither rattled nor gave any sign of the slightest movement, holding in place like a solid stone wall. A few more tries at opening the fusuma, including trying the other door, ended with the same result. Aun stared bewildered at the sealed doors. Her frustration rising at being shut out, her paw balled into a tight fist.

A heavy blow did nothing, either. Bang and bang though she might, the lion-dog couldn't even make the fusuma wiggle in their track. Odder yet, the impact scarcely made a sound, as if she were merely tapping the door rather than slamming her fist into it. A pained throbbing in Aun's knuckles warned her against further tests of their durability.

Totally unsure what to make of the situation, Aun examined the cracks of the doors. Light was definitely passing through as it would have done normally. If she pressed her face against the door and tried to look through the gap, the smallest hint of purple showed itself at a distance. Miss Kanako was inside. When Aun tried calling for the goddess, there was no stirring inside. She raised the volume of her voice until she was shouting. Still, the visible figure didn't heed the call.

Knocking against the door one last time in frustration, Aun at last gave up on trying to get the Goddess Yasaka's attention. Miss Kanako clearly didn't wish to see or speak with anyone. Decrying the whole situation as childish, the lion-dog stomped her way back into the kitchen to try her hand at cleaning.

The incessant ticking of the wall clock pursued Aun through the hours as she tried to bring the Moriya kitchen back to some level of tidyness. Her main focus for much of that time was trying to exorcise the smell of expired foodstuffs, a battle hard fought given nasty leakages in the 'refridgerator'. Clearing the obviously bad items proved only so effective, and the lion-dog's nose was assaulted time after time by new and novel miasmas chasing down the next bit of filth. The 'refridgerator' alone must have accounted for a good few hours. She bemoaned the deepening shadows through the window, not even being finished. Aware of a grumbling in her stomach despite the smells, she hurriedly threw together all of the spoilage to haul outside.

Rushing to the back of the house, Aun was caught unawares by the back door sliding open and someone nearly walking into her, making her take a leap backward. Sanae stood in the doorway looking equally caught off-guard, albeit less equipped for acrobatics. She greeted the lion-dog uneasily before squeezing aside to allow her to exit. When Aun returned empty-handed, Sanae was seated at the kitchen table, stretching herself out on the tabletop. The shrine maiden looked up red-faced upon noticing Aun's return, excusing herself by saying that work had 'done a number on her back'; Miss Suwako curiously always made comments about Sanae probably having a hurting back, something Aun never quite got the fascination with. Aun remembered the long wait earlier and quizzed Sanae about the padlocked door. To her surprise, the rearranging work was, Sanae reported, complete for all intents and purposes, the last few bits set into place early that morning. The relieved glow on her face warded the lion-dog from pursuing further questions for the moment.

Sanae was quick to ask in return if Aun was planning on making dinner that night. The normally patient statue-beast, her nerves frayed, immediately blanched at the question.

Those who ever encountered her knew Aun as a positive individual, keeping a forward-looking attitude even in trying times. She could be tested in many ways, and she could certainly lose her temper when she felt wronged, but everyone considered her limits difficult to reach. Seldom would anyone witness her complaining in the face of an issue. Any such qualms remained close to her canine-feline chest, swallowed in favour of dealing with the present.

The living god was, then, surprised when Aun not only didn't answer her question in the affirmative, but also answered it with a string of laments about the state of the house. The entryway, the hall, the kitchen — none of it was acceptable. Despite her efforts, the kitchen could hardly be called ready for use, a point the lion-dog underscored with a disgusted look at the 'refridgerator'. The thought of cooking dinner couldn't have been further from her rocky mind. Sanae took all of this in with an awkward smile. Glancing around and agreeing that the kitchen could stand more cleaning, she offered a hand in remedying the problem.

Little remained to get the Moriya kitchen to baseline useability, in truth. With Sanae pitching in, Aun was relieved to find that she'd been further along than first believed, and the speed at which they were able to finish was by no means a crawl. Together, they reduced the pile of dishes to a minuscule load of trouble cases, cleared the dust clinging to everything, and chased out any lingering foul smells. Where Aun had initially despaired that there was nothing left to make a meal with, Sanae was quick to pick out a selection of items still edible. She left the lion-dog with a suggestion for a simple simmered dish and disappeared into the now-unsealed pantry in search of 'a life-saving treasure', in her words.

Setting to work simmering vegetables, Aun quickly forgot the tension she'd felt just prior. She even began to hum to herself as Miss Kanako had done. Looking up to see Sanae giving an amused look, she stopped to puzzle at the shrine maiden, who shook her head and said it was nothing. With a dramatic gesture, complete with her own fanfare, Sanae held out two brightly coloured sticks for Aun to see, presumably her 'life-saving treasure', explaining that they were both miso soup. The lion-dog blinked in non-comprehension. She asked how miso soup could be made from weird looking sticks like that, to pitying looks from the former outsider.

The answer was slightly more mundane than Aun expected, albeit still intriguing. Both of the sticks tore open at the top as if made of paper, the contents a light-coloured powder with bits of green mixed in. Sanae brought a small pot of water to a light simmer next to Aun's own dish and poured the powder in. With a gentle stir, the water turned cloudy, darkening until it was a creamy shade of yellow. Aun's tail gave a jump and then a soft wag as she recognised the unmistakeable aromas of miso and dashi coming from the liquid. The green part soon changed from dull papery squares into bits of wakame seaweed. As if she'd performed a (much more successful and less destructive) miracle, Sanae smirked in a self-impressed way. This was, she announced, one of the true marvels of outside technology, and a 'lifesaver when travelling overseas' in addition.

Dodging questions about how such a thing was possible, Sanae put some rice on and waved Aun off, telling her to sit down and rest her paws. The lion-dog obeyed without even a token protest, eager to have a moment of reprieve. Soon enough, Sanae announced that the rice was done and took the opportunity to dish up the food, setting out Aun's share before her own. They then said their obligatory words of thanks and tucked in once the shrine maiden had seated herself.

Although neither would have sniffed too hard at a meal, inclined to fill their bellies however necessary, Aun and Sanae exchanged a look after the first couple of bites. The sense of being underwhelmed was plainly exposed on their faces. The simmered vegetables were fine enough, and the 'magical' miso soup tasted as either might expect. Even the heated leftovers of an unknown age could be called tolerable. That all said, the whole arrangement added up to an incongruous hodgepodge that couldn't compare to the many carefully prepared lunches and dinners coming out of the Moriya kitchen for the past while, most of them by the Goddess Yasaka's hand. Aun looked at the sealed fusuma for the first time in hours and let out a small sigh. The significance wasn't lost on Sanae, who listlessly stirred her chopsticks through the gritty miso soup with a frown.

Things would likely have remained in dull silence had the back door not come sliding open yet again, the other goddess of the household poking her head sneakily around the corner to look in on the kitchen. Miss Suwako greeted the shrine maiden and lion-dog with an oblivious cheerfulness that prompted another shared look between the latter two. Enquiries about Sanae's work met with an ineffectual shrug, followed by the casual revelation that she'd just finished. Hearing this, the little goddess pumped her fist as if she'd been the one to accomplish something. Sanae peevishly asked if Miss Suwako was so eager for a drink, to which the goddess plainly answered that she was, much to her shrine maiden's annoyance.

"More importantly, something smells good. Is there any for me?" the Moriya goddess asked.

"I don't know. What do you think, Aun? It's not like we made much." Sanae looked to Aun with a smirk, side-eyeing Miss Suwako. "Probably not enough to share with anyone who didn't help out, wouldn't you say?"

Aun looked at both Sanae and Miss Suwako. Telling if this was some kind of impish humour on Sanae's part or her venting frustrations on the little goddess was difficult. With Sanae's temperament, either possibility was likely. Looking at her half-finished meal, the lion-dog wasn't so sure she wanted more, anyway. She set down her chopsticks and pushed out her chair.

"I wasn't very hungry," she told Sanae.

"Wait, seriously? You went to all that trouble. Are you all right?" Sanae's expression faded into one of concern. She made to get up, as if she were about to feel Aun's forehead for fever, but Aun waved her off.

"Not hungry," the lion-dog repeated as she retreated to the sink. "That's all."

Scratching her head and grumbling, Sanae shrugged at Miss Suwako. "Well, you heard her. Guess there is enough after all. Lucky for you."

Miss Suwako gave a little cheer, squeezed Aun from behind, and wasted no time in helping herself to anything left, which amounted to a typical Moriya goddess-sized portion. The few sounds made in the kitchen for the next couple of minutes were her shovelling food into her mouth greedily. "You're a dear, Aun, you are. I'll make it up to you sometime. Good veggies, by the way. Who did those?"

Sanae silently indicated the lion-dog. Aun stood reticent, not wanting to highlight her own work but not denying it either.

"That so? Good work, girl. I nearly thought it was some of Kana's leftovers." Miss Suwako popped a few more bits of vegetable into her mouth and chewed happily, following it with bites of rice. Struck by a thought, she swallowed suddenly. "By the way, any luck on the fusuma? Half-expected to see Ol' Sourface herself by now," she asked the shrine maiden.

Sanae shook her head with resignation. "No good. I checked not long ago. They still won't budge. I expect she'll be in there a while yet. Just like the last time."

"You're saying she's done this before?" Aun interjected from the sink.

"A few times. Usually happens when something really embarrasses her. Up and locks herself in somewhere and won't come out for a long while," Miss Suwako answered for Sanae.

The shrine maiden nodded as if to back up what the goddess said. She sat with her head propped on one elbow, idly tapping her nails on the tabletop. "You could almost call it a bad habit of hers at this point. Not that I've seen it that much."

"Oh, you ain't seen half of Kana's bad habits!"

From there, Miss Suwako began to rattle off a litany of the Goddess Yasaka's faults, much to Sanae's enthusiasm. The goddess and living god became engrossed in their discussion that Aun felt no place for herself to say much. At any rate, she felt uncomfortable with the subject, using the opportunity to try to tune the chatting pair out and get started on washing dishes.

Though able to busy her paws, Aun couldn't totally draw her mind away from the present conversation. She glanced on occasion at Sanae and Miss Suwako talking, sure they were paying her no mind. The cheerful, energetic way in which they continued to bring up Miss Kanako's failings reminded her of when she'd come back to find them having a similar discussion in the wreckage of Sanae's supposed miracle. They'd shared the same sort of energy then, almost scrambling to talk over one another. While it was better than the quarrel that proceeded, the fact that it took making a common enemy of the shrine's chief god gave Aun a knotty feeling in her chest. That twisting, tangled feeling hadn't lessened at all in the week-and-change since.

Aun soon left the dishes for later and excused herself to little notice. Heading out the back door, she resumed the aimless patrol route that had become routine over the days. If nothing else, she needed space from the complicated relations between the shrine's residents. A more worried part of her, the canine, couldn't help seeing it as less about 'complications' and more about outright worsening.

Finding her way back to the pond that served as her dry riverbed, the lion-dog decided to start anew on her rock stacking. She poured her focus into gathering and finding the right place for the numerous stones and pebbles. Her mind averted from its usual workings for once, the gravel churned silently as she worked, things she hadn't given much attention to bobbing closer to the surface. In particular, returning to that day had brought forward an unexamined recollection. Aun felt it important, and yet she didn't know where to begin addressing it.

Things had been quiet in the main hall after Aun had made comment about a presence on the shrine grounds. Miss Suwako sat lost in thought, muttering to herself in hopes of arranging her thoughts, and Sanae waited with an impatient look on her face. As she prepared herself, the goddess was interrupted by the kettle on the brazier and stopped to prepare three cups of tea, though all three sat untouched. Building anticipation made Aun's tail flit nervously left and right. Eventually, Sanae gave a soft cough and wondered aloud about some business that needed taking care of. Sighing, Miss Suwako opined that she was hurrying to the point. Finding the best place to start was the clear difficulty.

After another pause, the little goddess asked Aun if she still had 'that thing' to hand. Aun had no inkling what Miss Suwako was referring to but searched her pockets anyway, pulling out the defaced letter and showing it to the goddess. Miss Suwako took the letter happily and unfurled it for Aun and Sanae to see. The shrine maiden looked at the letter with the mild interest.

"Haven't seen that one before," Sanae mused.

Aun's attention snapped to Sanae. "You knew about the letters too?"

"They'd have been hard to ignore, stacking up hundreds-thick in the living room at one point."

"Until we started asking questions," Miss Suwako cut in.

"I never cared all that much. I was just tired of the clutter." Sanae rolled her green eyes and shook her head. "Plus the fact that she never put away the damned kotatsu."

The Moriya goddess gave a doubting hum. She narrowed her eyes, smiling tauntingly at Sanae as she leaned in close. "I remember a certain someone asking her fair share of questions."

"Curiosity is the first step to discovery," Sanae retorted, pointedly looking away.

Not following much of the conversation up to then, Aun raised her paw to call attention. "What does this have to do with what Miss Kanako doesn't want anyone knowing?"

Miss Suwako ceased her horseplay, sitting back on her zabuton and taking off her hat to scratch her head. Hemming and hawing, she glanced at the now fairly crumpled letter again. "See, this is why it was hard to find a good place to start. There wasn't really a start to it. Those letters just kind of... well, happened."

"Sometime last year," Sanae jumped to speak over the fumbling goddess, "early on, one of us noticed that Lady Kanako had a number of letters sitting around. They looked like they'd been barely touched. It wasn't like we really thought much about it at the time. It was just odd. She doesn't spend much time writing letters, and we don't get much in the way of post up here."

"Wasn't there a literacy campaign for the village? Guess that didn't take real well after all." The Goddess Moriya sniggered to herself, only for Sanae to shoot her an annoyed glare.

"As I was saying, we didn't think a whole lot of it — until they piled up. That's when we both started asking. She tried to brush us off at first, but we kept at it. That probably would have been the end of it if someone hadn't decided to read one of those letters in front of her." Sanae didn't indicate who she was talking about, but the tone of her voice made it clear enough.

The conversation proceeded like this in fits and starts, neither Sanae nor Miss Suwako quite able to find their way toward the main point. Whenever Aun pressed them for clarification, they would retrace their steps in an attempt to return to the topic, only to diverge before divulging more specifics of what they knew. To the lion-dog, the goddess and living god seemed to be dancing around each other. One was waiting for the other to say something, and neither could decide who would be the one to say it. After minutes of the back-and-forth, Aun decided that her usual patience was wearing thin and interrupted to bluntly ask what it was they wanted to talk about. Sheepishly, Miss Suwako apologised for her roundaboutness and did her utmost to be as direct in explaining the situation as possible.

The essence of things gleaned from the two was as such: They had learned of Miss Kanako possessing a number of letters of unknown provenance. Her curiosity getting the better of her, Miss Suwako had peeked at the contents of a few, finding them all to be from the same sender, saying roughly the same thing every time. The sender was, in Sanae's turn of phrase, intent on 'pursuing' Miss Kanako. The little goddess confronted her partner about the matter, reading off one of the letters in front of her, something that resulted in a fierce argument and Miss Kanako shutting herself up for some days. Following that incident, the letters seemingly disappeared, likely into the hiding place Aun discovered, and the Yasaka goddess began spending less time outside the house. Since then, Miss Kanako had taken to handling a majority of the housework and was, in Sanae's estimation, probably spending most of her time and energy trying to make sure no one found any further letters. Neither had made any gesture towards asking further information since then. The sender was still unknown.
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Though she hadn't noticed it the previous day, by the time she woke up the day after discovering Kanako locked inside the living room, Aun was already pondering again on the question of who wrote those letters and why they would have such an effect on the Goddess Yasaka. Miss Suwako and Sanae's combined explanation had been, all in all, too circumspect for the lion-dog's rocky brain.

For starters, what was all this business about someone 'pursuing' Miss Kanako? Sanae had fumbled trying to put that point in words, and Miss Suwako had merely affirmed it before moving on, leaving the lion-dog befuddled. If someone was sending her letters, then there was clearly no need to look for Miss Kanako; they had to already know where she was. Even discounting that, she wasn't a hard goddess to find, given her stature and often booming voice. Every tengu on the mountain could probably hear her on a clear day if she spoke up. Besides, the Moriya Shrine was famous enough and the roads to it as accessible as ever nowadays — barring the occasional wolf issues.

Furthermore, what of the contents of those letters? Asking had gained her no answers on that point. Both Sanae and Miss Suwako said that they couldn't recall specifics. If they were to be believed, then what was written in them was so commonplace as to be forgettable. There was nothing about what they said that struck Aun as deceptive, granted, but accepting such an answer to her curiosity was difficult for an underinformed lion-dog.

All in all, Aun had the feeling that she was very much missing something. The whole time that she was stacking rocks and patrolling that morning, she was stretching the limits of her already limited imagination trying to think of what she didn't know. The only conclusion she could come to was that, still lacking for details, she would have to read the letters and find out for herself.

Her patrol route took her at length back to the house. Still uneasy returning, she stole past the entryway, careful of the boards under her paws as she endeavoured not to make a sound. Nobody seemed to be in the kitchen or the hallway. She stopped at the living room fusuma to find them still shut. Tugging gently at first and then harder, they proved to still be immovable. Miss Kanako wouldn't likely be making her way out anytime soon. Heaving a relieved sigh, Aun continued down the hall to another set of fusuma that hadn't been opened in a while.

The two goddesses' room was as dingy as ever, if not slightly worse than last time. She nearly took a tumble upon stepping inside, Miss Suwako's futon still set out in its customary place, sheets messily splayed everywhere. Righting herself, Aun grumbled under her breath, gathered up the bedclothes, wadded them into a ball, and pitched them to one side. A stinging nose from the dust already irritated her. Things were also too dark for Aun's liking despite the morning sunlight. Pulling open the shouji partway, fresh air and light came into the room for the first time since either occupant had bothered doing so. Relieved, Aun breathed in a lungful of the mountain air and returned to her purposeful search.

She didn't even need to follow her nose this time. The spot where she'd made the fateful discovery was clear enough in her memory that she went straight to the relevant tatami mat and disturbed it by its edges, keeping a close watch outside to be sure no one saw her.

The darkness of the crevice that hid the letters still intimidated Aun. Not even the daylight from outside could make it look anything less like a dark, gaping hole leading down into the unknown. Feeling her chest tighten in anticipation, the lion-dog knelt on the floor and edged her way slowly to the lip of the compartment, not daring to look down into it. She perched her paws just at the edge but hesitated to go any further. Once more, a glance over her shoulder and another outside showed no one observing. Taking a deep breath, she fastened her eyes tightly shut. Her open paw lowered into the dark hole, Aun's whole body trembling slightly as she reached in, the lion-dog prepared to retreat immediately if met with anything unexpected.

Feeling nothing but air, she closed her paw in an effort to grasp anything in reach. However, even wiggling around, there was still nothing to be found. The same thing happened when she reached a little deeper, and again going deeper still. Eventually, the hole had swallowed her arm up to the elbow without any sign of anything. Pushing a bit further, her palm hit something that puzzled her for a moment. Her fingertips were grazing something that felt like wood. In fact, no matter which way she twisted, the touch of wood panelling was all she could find. Overcome with the need to know what she was touching, Aun opened her eyes and leaned over to peek inside the compartment. She let out a gasp when she finally saw through the darkness.

In truth, the hiding-hole was fairly shallow. The deep abyss that Aun had seen was merely a product of her canine side's anxious temper. Looking straight into it, she could see that the dimness of the inside was imagined, and the wooden panelling that made up the walls of the compartment showed clearly in the sunlight. She could even see the bottom. That was, of course, the exact problem: Miss Kanako's letter storage space was now barren.

Aun sat stunned. Of all things she could have expected, this was unaccountable. She vainly touched the bottom a few more times, as if in hopes of turning up some invisible letters. The gravel in her head went topsy-turvy as she tried to make sense of it. Soon, the lion-dog felt the strength draining from her limbs. She lay on her side on the tatami, staring dumbstruck at the fusuma to one side. The unexpectedness of the situation had, in a sense, knocked the wind out of her. Setbacks were becoming a familiar assailant as of late, and yet this one seemed to hit the hardest yet. At length, she let her eyelids drift shut and fell unconscious, unable to the think for the moment.

In the midst of her impromptu mid-morning doze, an exchange with Miss Kanako resurfaced from the lion-dog's memory. The mountainous goddess had oppressed her with the dread persistence that long grated on others. Unable to bear it at length, Aun let fly an accusation in response. The exact words were a muddle of sound lost in her unconscious mind. By contrast, Miss Kanako's expression remained vivid. Her eyes widened instantaneously and her cheeks lost their colour, left pale momentarily before blooming a glowing carmine. Her lips quivered as she groped for a reply. Rarely unprepared to speak her mind, she had been struck dumb in a flight of panic, a sympathetic reaction for Aun and yet also one she'd admittedly savoured somewhat in that moment. What hadn't stood out before, coming into focus upon further recollection, was where the goddess's eyes were looking.

The red beads had appeared to be darting about at random, only their lack of focus on the lion-dog sticking out. However, when Aun examined her memory closer, there was one direction that Miss Kanako's line of sight pointed most often in her nervousness: towards the hallway. Upon making this realisation, Aun's eyes snapped open.

Groggy and finding the daylight hard to bear, the lion-dog pawed listlessly at the floor in an effort to right herself. The realisation that it was no longer morning and in fact already evening prompted her to grouse aloud to herself. To have worked herself up to the point of collapsing was, in her view, an embarrassment. Nonetheless, spotting the empty compartment normally hidden under the tatami reminded her of the even more painful truth. The letters were now gone and she was none the wiser to their contents. Pulling herself to her feet, Aun plodded out to the hall in search of a drink of water, feeling at risk of cracking having lain in the sun so long. A smell alerted her to someone cooking in the kitchen as she drew near.

Peering around the corner, Aun caught sight of a grassy-coloured ponytail and the back of a purple-tinged apron that didn't suit its wearer. She rubbed her eyes and quietly greeted Sanae, slipping around her to find a drinking glass to fill. Sanae looked over her shoulder with a beaming smile. Her returning greeting came out loud enough to startle Aun, almost causing the lion-dog to drop her glass of water mid-sip. With an excess of good humour, the shrine maiden enquired as to Aun's nap, having guessed Aun appeared lost in a post-sleep fog. After some spluttering to give a noncommittal answer, Aun redirected the topic to the time of day and the attending mealtime. Sanae informed Aun with no small amount of pleasure in her voice that she'd seen fit to prepare the evening's dinner. She was quick to push the lion-dog to have a seat before the latter could form any other questions.

Dinner was at least more agreeable an affair than the previous night. Just prior, Sanae had, so she said, returned from a trip to replenish the emptied cold-box. Accordingly, every dish tasted as fresh as the comprising ingredients. Aun found herself eating with much more gusto than she'd have expected despite not feeling very hungry only moments ago. As she worked her way through the meal, taking seconds to Sanae's delight, the thought that she had most looked forward to the shrine maiden's cooking on first arriving returned. To find out that Miss Kanako, by no means a stranger to the kitchen but not often one to spend much time cooking either, could be just as formidible had been no small surprise for the lion-dog. Aun's gaze wandered between the table and the general direction of the living room. No place had been set for anyone but herself and Sanae. The two absences drew Aun back into herself, and she could no longer ignore what had already weighed on her taxed lion-dog mind.

Up to then, the meal had seen its fair share of conversation, albeit more on Sanae's part than Aun's. The shrine maiden eagerly discussed the goings-on around the repair sites. To hear her tell it, she had even convinced a foreman to allow her to assist in some of the work; a number of messily applied bandages attested to some attempt, at least. Asked off-handedly what her interest was, Sanae shot off into a torrent of unintelligible blather about hobbies of hers. The most Aun could glean from half-listening was that the living god's pastimes included things related to building, something that had proven risky to her person by all accounts, though her enthusiasm remained single-minded even the face of such realities. Whatever the case, a lion-dog's attention seldom stayed on such impenetrable matters for long. She gradually lapsed into silence and retread the thoughts that led her to consider with a heavy heart the seats that would have normally been occupied by the shrine's gods.

Hearing her name called loudly brought Aun from her pensivity. She looked up to find Sanae regarding her with questioning eyes, the chipperness in her manner replaced by concern. A lion-dog's humility told Aun to downplay such concerns. When Aun started to talk about something more innocuous, Sanae was quick to interrupt, repeating her question as if Aun hadn't heard. There was a forcefulness in her forest-coloured eyes as she stared down the lion-dog, a message that she wouldn't simply give in if brushed away. Miss Suwako, Aun realised, had a point about the living god's resemblence to Miss Kanako. She almost wanted to laugh for reasons she herself didn't know.

Setting down her chopsticks, Aun sat with her paws in her lap, pondering the table in front of her. She felt as if she might tip forwards into her half-eaten meal. "I've been thinking. About a lot of things."

"I'm listening," said the shrine maiden enigmatically.

"A lot of it's about... about..." The lion-dog swivelled her head to point her horn unambiguously in the direction of the sealed fusuma.

Sanae gave a hum of curiosity that was also tinged with understanding, if not agreement. There was the clatter of chopsticks being abandoned on the tabletop and the screech of a chair being pulled out. She walked around to Aun's end of the table, putting a hand on her shoulder, and bent down near her ear.

"Let's go upstairs," Sanae suggested in a low voice.

"To your room? Are you sure? We could talk right here. If you want."

The shrine maiden's fingers gently lifted Aun's head by her chin. She wore a slightly tense smile. "I'm sure. Tell me, are you comfortable sitting there?"

Aun thought a moment before shaking her head. All else equal, discussing someone in what would normally be earshot didn't sit well on a lion-dog's conscience. She rose to her feet in silence, following close behind Sanae as they ascended the stairs, both doing their utmost not to make a sound despite there being no need for such precaution.

Seeing Sanae's room well-lit for once was simultaneously a relief and an odd feeling for Aun. She looked about at the mess of clothes, old publications, and countless other articles left scattered about like a terrifying gust had blown through that part of the house alone. Some part of Aun didn't doubt that the living god had at one time or another caused just that to happen in a fit of temper. As she was now, Sanae gazed placidly out from her own open window, playing with her grassy hair as she stood watching something far off. Despite the distance, sounds of repair work carried from the shrine grounds to the house. The faintest hint of an unconscious smile played across her lips, and the lion-dog's ears caught a low, melodic giggle as Sanae shut the window.

"Something funny?" Aun ventured.

"Nothing. Just a bit of work today." Sanae drew the curtains, turning from the window. "More importantly, let's you and I talk, shall we?"

The shrine maiden retrieved a pair of zabuton and seated herself on one, offering the other to Aun. Seeing Sanae sitting primly and calm as she did was striking to Aun after so many of the previous week's encounters. There was none of the haggard, sleepless look about her, either. Compared to the shrine's other residents, when she was at her best, Sanae carried with her a natural grace hard to find elsewhere in Gensokyo. The closest comparison Aun could make was the important-looking young miss in the village; Reimu was perpetually unimpressed with her, seemingly over some dissatisfaction with a book she'd written.

"Shame I've no tea or anything to offer. Well, no matter. You've something on your mind about Lady Kanako, or so I'm led to believe. What might that be?"

Taking a seat herself, Aun sat pondering how best to express herself. Indeed, what was on her mind? The past day or better had been spent concerning herself with the goddess, yet now she couldn't come to any clear conclusion as to what was chief amongst those concerns. Her tail sagged with the weight she felt upon herself.

As the lion-dog opened her mouth to speak, she was interrupted by Sanae's arms wrapping around her midsection and pulling her closer. Unsure what Sanae was doing, she squirmed in the shrine maiden's grasp, but doing so made little difference. Aun found herself deposited in Sanae's lap, the back of her head cushioned by Sanae's chest. Sanae's arms remained wrapped around her reassuringly. She looked up to see the shrine maiden quietly smiling down at her. Right away, her shoulders relaxed and lost the tension she'd not noticed building up.

So many months had gone by since last meeting, and the days most recent so chaotic, the custom of occupying Sanae's lap had all but left Aun's mind. Through what had to be a miracle, the solid, stony lion-dog lost all weight in her being when planted there, her soft fluff sparing Sanae the weight of a statue on her legs. Whether met by thunder, snakes, spiders, deer, bitter gourds, or any other thing that Aun feared, her favoured seat reassured and calmed her.

Nestling into Sanae's lap, the lion-dog resumed thinking. "I'm not sure where to start."

"Whatever comes to mind first. All else will follow eventually," Sanae suggested with an encouraging pat on the head.

"Well, first, can you promise me something?"

"Anything!" Sanae laughed softly but quickly cleared her throat. "Erm, almost anything, I mean. As long as it's reasonable."

Aun drew in a deep breath and shut her eyes. Her body tensed, the whole of her fighting putting the thought into words. "Please don't be mad at Miss Kanako. I didn't want to say anything. I was afraid that you and Miss Suwako would... I dunno, stop getting along with her. And I don't want that."

She felt Sanae taking a breath in response. However, nothing came out right away. Sanae seemed to be trembling, perhaps out of some emotion Aun didn't want to confront. Curious nevertheless, Aun turned her head to look back at the shrine maiden, opening one eye. To Aun's confusion, Sanae's cheeks were puffed out. Then, she suddenly squeezed the lion-dog tight.

"You silly girl!" was the sole thing Sanae could manage to say between fits of laughter, bracing herself against the struggling Aun.

"Both of you spend a lot of time talking about her! About how you're tired of her doing this and that!" Aun protested.

Some minutes passed before Sanae could contain herself. She heaved a little sigh as if she'd just been through the most fun, but exhausting, experience in her recent days. Leaning on the lion-dog, Sanae smothered her in caresses, resting her chin on top of Aun's head.

"Lady Suwako and I are just that: tired of the nonsense. That doesn't mean we've any ill-feeling for Lady Kanako. We just wish she'd be more rational and do her job. Things aren't exactly well-run around here as of late. I'm sure you've noticed?"

"Yeah," Aun admitted.

"In any case, don't worry about that. I can say, speaking for myself, that I still love Lady Kanako regardless." There was a curious hesitation in Sanae's voice as she spoke, but she left no time for Aun to consider it very deeply. "Now, onto you. Tell me what you wanted to say. All worries aside, yes?"

Calling to mind the primary thoughts bothering her, Aun tried to speak with conviction, even if she was grasping for the first thing to come to mind. "You're right about stuff not being run well. That's the thing I've been thinking about the most. And it's why... I want to do what I can to help Miss Kanako."

"Is that right? Tell me, then, what is it that you think you can do?" Sanae's hand came to a stop on Aun's head and remained noticeably still.

"That's what I'm working on. I still don't know, and I want to figure it out. But you guys told me about her and those letters, right? How she started acting strange and all that. I'm just thinking—"

"—there's a connection. You're likely right about that," Sanae interrupted. Despite agreeing with Aun, there was the sense that she was quietly resisting the line of conversation for some reason. "You're also not the first to consider it. In fact, both Lady Suwako and I are fairly sure of it, given all else. That's not the problem, of course. The problem is that we don't know what can be done for it."

"I don't know yet, but I want to figure it out." The words were firmer, steadier for Aun as they came out. She was more convinced of herself now. The lion side of her stirred.

"How? There's too much that only Lady Kanako knows, and she's not likely to give any of it up. Of all of us, she hides the deepest secrets. We don't know even know who sent those letters, much less what they're thinking or doing." The shrine maiden sounded as if she wanted to add something else but had stopped herself.

Aun whipped around to face Sanae. "About that..."

Having lost all hesitation, Aun recounted her curiosity regarding the contents of the letters and the shocking discovery in the goddesses' disused room. The revelation that the cache was gone visibly surprised Sanae.

"That's quite unfortunate. I wonder how that could have happened," said Sanae, screwing her face up in thought. "Although, just thinking out loud, none of us were here just after she locked herself in. I suppose it's always possible she took that opportunity to get rid of them then."

"There has to be something else. You and Miss Suwako made it sound like she had hundreds of letters. I know I didn't find that many."

Sanae lapsed into silence for a moment to consider something. Absently, she played with the snake charm ornamenting her hair. "Yes, she did. Easily hundreds by that point. In fact, besides the ones in Lady Kanako and Lady Suwako's room, I recall at least one other hiding place. Though I'm not certain in my memory of it."

"Please," Aun begged, "can you take me to them?"

"I just said that my memory of it is uncertain, so I'm afraid I can't." The shrine maiden tried to smile at Aun reassuringly, though there was a distance in her eyes. "If you really want, though, I can try whatever possible to find them again. That would be of help, yes?"

With as much intensity as she could muster, Aun leapt off of Sanae's lap and bowed, bumping her horn on the floor as she did. "Yes, please!"

"Mind, I can't make any promises. I'll simply do what I can."

Having said all she wanted to on the subject, Sanae rose from her seat and walked slowly to the door of her room. She was preoccupied with dinner now, mentioning that she'd left something simmering. Without looking back to see if Aun was following, she made her way back downstairs. Aun could swear that she heard Sanae mutter something before she left, though she couldn't make it out. Whatever she said, there'd been clear doubt in her voice.
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Days had passed since Sanae had made her promise to Aun. To the lion-dog, already questionable at best in her grasp on time, days may as well have been decades. The autumnal chill having set in quite insistently in the mountains only worsened matters. Standing shivering in the mornings, Aun wanted nothing more than to dive under the kotatsu. Unfortunately, Miss Kanako would be the only one occupying it for the foreseeable future, not to mention the only one capable of opening the door to the living room. When she thought of the atmosphere of the house, going back there sounded less appealing to Aun; she hadn't been in all the time since last she was there. The only thing that would get her back would be Sanae leading her back.

To her surprise, the shrine maiden was leading her somewhere suddenly, albeit with no indication where, and with a sunniness of disposition that felt at odds with the urgency of her striding walk, dragging Aun along by her paw. She had caught the lion-dog entirely unawares as she continued her slow, plodding patrol route right near the major repair sites. There was barely any time for Aun to notice the overfull sack in Sanae's hand before they were sailing off to the edge of the grounds at on-foot speeds that felt exceedingly uncommon most days. This lion-dog-napping had been so swift and sudden that the only sounds Aun managed in her rush to vent the questions bubbling through the gravel in her head were the yips and mewls of a confused statue-beast.

They pulled to a halt in front of the storage building Sanae had just spent the greater part of a week cleaning as punishment. Nearly falling over as they came to an abrupt stop, the first thing Aun thought was that the shrine maiden looked slightly tanned in patches, not to mention her arms looked a bit more muscular than the lion-dog could recall. She also had even more bandages tied on, though smaller ones than before, not to mention more expertly tied.

Easily the most surprising fact to notice about Sanae was her clothing. Though shrine maidens in Gensokyo were all known to wear tubular sleeves on their forearms, seeing the Moriya Shrine's own wearing anything totally without sleeves was a strange sight. Besides the somewhat chilly weather, something about it seemed a bit off to the lion-dog's sensibilities; Sanae simply didn't show off that much skin. The sight of overalls was in general a new one to Aun.

"Did you forget your coat?" Aun asked simply as Sanae fished for a key in her pockets.

"Don't need one," Sanae replied off-handedly, pausing when she finally retrieved the key from an entirely different pocket to unlock the door, "especially not when running about as I've been doing. Anyway, in you get."

The darkness inside the storage building still seemed looming to Aun. That it was getting into the latter part of the afternoon didn't help matters, the grey skies having swallowed up the sunlight. Heedless, Sanae planted a hand between the lion-dog's shoulders and pushed her with a force entirely unexpected. Aun could do naught but walk into the gloom, cringing at the return of dust, not to mention at least one big spider web that hadn't been there before; she glanced about nervously for its occupant and found it nowhere visible. Shadow settled over everything when the door shut behind them. For a few moment, all the lion-dog could focus on was the sound of Sanae fumbling around for something on a nearby shelf and the combined smells of sweat, dust, and the age of the building's contents.

A light suddenly flicked to life, followed by another. Soon, the surroundings were illuminated by a pair of lanterns, which Sanae squatted on the floor next to, gesturing for Aun to join her. Though dubious of the living god's intentions in dragging her into a dark building, the lion-dog obediently did as directed.

Sanae didn't say anything at first, looking over her shoulder at the doorway as if expecting someone to come through it at any moment. Only when she was satisfied that something or another wasn't about to happen, she nodded to herself, pulled the overstuffed bag over in front of her, and held it open to display the contents to Aun, a conspiratorial grin splitting her face.

Lamplight offered paltry visibility as far as colour and even shape, but the lion-dog's nose could detect a variety of vegetables lining the sack, moisture and dirt still clinging to them. Spring onions and potatoes were the first noticeable things, followed by carrots, daikon, and burdock. A slightly bitter smell of greens, perhaps mizuna or something of the sort, mingled with the rest. All of it together brought to mind for Aun a greengrocer's. In fact, some trace memories bubbled up of smells from the village. How long had it been since she'd been now? Possibly a month or better, she figured, feeling a sudden pang. A hot senbei from the nice old man who ran the shop sounded good.

"You were off at the village earlier?" she ventured.

"And give myself away? I should think not. You know how fast talk spreads around." Sanae waggled her finger. "I got someone else to do it for me. A couple of someones, really. Nice tengu boys who can get a job done quickly and discreetly."

The mention of tengu drew an unconscious huff from Aun. She'd still not forgiven that bird. "That seems like a lot."

"You think so? There's even more back at the house. This was just the last load. I've been hauling stuff over all day. Easier said than done when there are always eyes watching."

The mention of eyes watching made Aun glance around somewhat alarmed. On occasion, Reimu had groused about similar things, though Aun had never noticed anyone around who wasn't usually. That she hadn't sniffed out anyone was equally confusing as it was unnerving. Strangely, her look of unease drew a laugh from the living god.

"Oh, nothing to worry that much about. It's just hard to prepare surprises like what I've got in store." Sanae's smile could hardly be contained. In fact, she was so pleased about something that, despite her best efforts, she couldn't even supress a fit of ecstatic giggling. "I can't believe I didn't think of something like this sooner."

Only a split second later, she whipped the bag of produce back behind her and leaned in excitedly, leaving Aun no time to ask what she meant. "You know the whole story of the Ama-no-iwato, right? You have to know. So, Lady Kanako is our Lady Amaterasu. Back then, they had a whole party to make noise and make her curious. Well, there's no point having a party in the house; who would we invite anyway? I was just about giving up on the whole thing when I hit upon the most delicious idea."

"Hold on," Aun interrupted, raising her paw, "Miss Kanako isn't in a cave, though. And it's only dark in here."

"Speaking figuratively. Of course, she's in the living room, not a cave. Try to keep up. Anyhow, the simplicity of it is the real genius part. What's the most festive thing you can think of? Something that doesn't need loads of people, but everyone still gets excited. Go on, have a guess."

The lion-dog thought as hard as was possible for a gravel-brained statue beast to think. As would be expected, nothing in particular came to mind. She looked to Sanae, shaking her head and shrugging. The shrine maiden's smile took on a smirking quality.

"Give up already? Come on, I'm giving you all the chances I can. Well, if you're not going to answer, I'll spoil it: it's a hot-pot! A hot-pot! Isn't that just brilliant?" Sanae blathered, hardly bothering to acknowledge Aun at that point.

"How is that going to get Miss Kanako out of the living room?" the lion-dog managed to ask before Sanae could go on.

"That's the brilliant thing! Just like the charivari got Lady Amaterasu's attention and made her peek her head out, we're going to grab Lady Kanako by her nostrils. I guarantee you, once the smell of our hot-pot cooking wafts through, she'll forget everything else and come walking out. We won't even have to dirty our hands fighting to pull her out. And if that doesn't do it alone, we'll be having so much fun, she's sure to get curious. It's even better than the gods' old plan! Genius, if I say so myself!"

As far as a lion-dog could be facile with logic, Aun supposed that it all lined up — or, at least, she was willing to trust that it did somehow. She could, at the very least, imagine herself being led out of hiding by the smells of a hot-pot. Memories of cold months past spent adding meat, vegetables, and tofu to broth and devouring the wonderful confluence of flavours made her rocky stomach grumble. She would have readily agreed with Sanae, eager to get to work, were it not for an unnameable feeling that something wasn't quite right.

Recollections of the days prior crowded out the lion-dog's more bestial instincts. Whilst getting Miss Kanako from her seclusion was certainly a net positive, how would things change after that? When she had made her declaration to help the goddess and the shrine, Aun had envisioned taking some sort of steps to make everyone stop behaving so strangely. A hot-pot would only solve a momentary problem. To truly resolve things, an understanding of the deeper problem was needed. That was why Aun had asked Sanae to find more hidden letters.

The lack of an immediate response to her self-praise drew a grumble from the shrine maiden. She crossed her arms, looking expectantly at the lion-dog. "Well, maybe 'genius' is overstating things a little, but I don't see any contributions from you."

Aun shook her head. "I just wanted to ask about the letters."

"Letters?" Being asked about something removed from her original train of thought, Sanae squinted. "Ah, yes, there was something about that. You asked me about those, I believe."

"Did you find any?"

Finding herself at last in the moment, the living god pursed her lips. "I did come across a small stash in a corner of the pantry."

"And you brought them? Can I see them, please? You promised," was Aun's instantaneous singled-minded reaction to the news, absent all consideration of other circumstance. In her sudden excitement, she pawed at Sanae like a pup shown a treat, forcing the shrine maiden to vainly keep her at arm's length.

"Really, Aun, it's nothing to get that worked up about. We can talk about this la—" A backward misstep sent Sanae sent her falling against one of the dusty shelves with a cry of alarm, Aun falling right on top of her.

After the dust settled and the shock of the impact passed, the two of them were left sprawled on the floor, the living god struggling to push the much heavier lion-dog off, breathing made much harder by her weight. Aun took the hint quickly and rolled off of Sanae, who quickly shot her a displeased look. The lion-dog simpered under the glowering she was receiving, knowing she was entirely at fault, though none of her prior enthusiasm was dampened yet. She looked at Sanae with hopes that the letters would be produced sooner rather than later.

The disgruntled looking Sanae picked herself off the ground, dusted herself off, and searched her pockets once more. Several pieces of paper folded into a now familiar square shape were the haul. Sanae pushed them at Aun with a brusque 'here', and the lion-dog received them with a meek word of thanks and a nod.

"Make it quick, please. We're wasting time here. I'd like to get back to the house and get started pretty soon, or else we'll probably be at it all night," Sanae cautioned, leaning against the wall with her arms crossed.

Aun answered with a sheepish affirmative, wasting no further time in unfolding one of the missives. The handwriting was definitely the same stiff, practise-book-like form as the others. Looking at the note in her paw felt little different from the last time she'd done so. Even the relative spacing of the letters into a handful of sparse lines seemed to be largely consistent. The difference was that there were no smears and doodles in red ink to blot out the writing this time, nor did darkness prevent her from reading. Recovering some of her prior exhiliration, Aun swallowed, feeling her stony heart wanting to leap around in her breast.

Slightly weak with her letters, getting her mouth around the letters took a few attempts, sounding them out from memory as she tended to do. The writer used words in a way Aun found odd. Some of the characters were more complicated than she was familiar with, as well. She ultimately had to enlist Sanae's help to decipher a few wayward snippets that totally escaped her, the shrine maiden's outsider knowledge giving her an edge over many less educated Gensokyans.

After finishing once, the lion-dog found herself starting anew. The first reading had left her as unenlightened as when she began. That the letter's author was expressing some sort of admiration for Miss Kanako was clear. What that precisely meant was the bigger question for Aun. The phrasing dipped into figurative expressions that she puzzled at hopelessly. Running over and over the prose, there was naught she could do to understand the writer's intentions for the Goddess Yasaka. In the end, she was forced to throw her paws up, looking to Sanae for further clarification.

"I still don't get it," Aun admitted with a slight whimper.

Sanae took the letter back, glancing at it offhandedly. Scanning a particular part, she rolled her eyes very obviously and tucked the note back away with its brethren. "What is there to get? They're all basically love letters. I believe Lady Suwako even mentioned that."

"Well, erm, I... don't know what any of that means."

"It's right in the name. I'd think it'd be obvious." A thought struck Sanae and she paused a moment to reconsider something. "Right, I guess English words don't carry over much. Simply put, it's a letter where the person confesses to fancying someone. So, whoever wrote this clearly fancies Lady Kanako. Simple enough, right?"

Aun didn't answer. The silence between her and Sanae was long enough that Sanae raised an eyebrow. A deeper confusion washed over Sanae's expression until she was regarding the lion-dog with eyes of clear puzzlement, like Aun had just grown another head spontaneously. After some time, she shook her head slowly.

"Seriously?" The shrine maiden let out a long sigh and shook her head with more force, whipping her hair about. "You're kidding me. I have to... No. No, I don't have to. Not right now. There are much more important matters to worry about."

Having made a clear conclusion, Sanae stepped past Aun to gather the heavy sack, offering the dumbstruck lion-dog no opening to ask further questions. She threw open the door with an impatient look back a Aun. No wish to be dragged along again, the lion-dog walked willingly alongside the living god at something of a distance. Her confusion would have to wait until later to address.

There had been no exaggeration when Sanae said she'd spent the day hauling loads of ingredients to the house. Aun gawped at the piles of potatoes, cabbages, and other vegetables sitting inert in matching sacks on the floor. She hardly imagined the fields of Gensokyo could produce enough produce to make up the volume she was seeing, divine help aside. Even setting that aside, the cost had to have been far beyond the means of a typical villager, much less someone like Reimu, who frittered away much of her paltry holdings on crackers and tea over proper food in any case.

"Cutting costs on a special occasion? Poppycock! We've got to go all-out. Nothing less will draw Lady Kanako's attention. That's how offerings work, you know," was Sanae's answer when the lion-dog raised concerns about the shrine's coffers. As far as she was concerned, what they had was the bare minimum for her brilliant plan.

The brilliance thereof was something Aun was unsure she could appreciate very deeply. The shrine maiden spent much of the time as they cleaned, peeled, chopped, soaked, and blanched vegetables to appraise her own thinking. To hear her tell it, making a hot-pot to lure out the mountainous goddess couldn't be anything less than inspired genius. Perhaps, she entertained, some degree of divine guidance could have assisted, but it was ultimately her synthesis that crafted the plan. Moreover, the pièce de résistance was yet to be revealed. No amount of pressing from Aun would get her comment further, Sanae insisting that it was meant to be the crowning jewel of the entire escapade.

Left in the dark, all the lion-dog could think of whilst the prep work continued on, a good couple of hours gone by in the process, was how badly she wanted a bite of potato and meat. Curiously, she had yet to sight any meat, nor had Sanae once commented on it. Both lion and dog sides of her became agitated out of fear that perhaps there would be none. Checking the 'refridgerator' was cold comfort there, no sign of the desired protein. There was certainly tofu and konnyaku but no meat. Thwarted so quickly, Aun was baffled, left to stare at the parboiling greens in front of her. She desperately wanted to quiz Sanae on whether or not there would be meat. Thus far, the best she could hope for was more of the living god expounding on her overwhelming brain power. When she was quieter, the smirk that hadn't left her lips in all the time the two of them worked made it clear she was of no mind to answer questions posed.

Sanae had disappeared into the pantry to find the requisite cast-iron vessel for the hot-pot. Left with little instruction, Aun sat watching the dashi that was fast coming to a low simmer. Her rumination nearly ruined a few ingredients, drawing rebuke from Sanae, so she was focused solely on making sure the broth didn't boil. That focus was so deep that it took some minutes for her to notice that someone was knocking on the back door. Whoever was calling, they were persistent in trying to get attention, hitting the doorframe in a steady rhythm that never ceased. The lion-dog was caught in a quandry. Sanae had yet to show any sign of reappearing from the pantry, and Aun herself was unwilling to pull away from the precious broth. She cast a look down to the open pantry door.

"Sanae! Someone's at the door!" she called as loud as she dared, unsure it was wise to let the caller overhear.

The shrine maiden didn't answer from below. Neither did the knocking pause. Aun looked helplessly between the entrance to the kitchen and the pantry stairs.

Uneasily, Aun raised her voice further. "Someone's knocking!"

Panic stung the lion-dog when she heard the sound at the back door cease. Their visitor was no doubt about to simply leave, figuring no one was home. At just the same moment, bubbles were already forming under the konbu in the pot. Aun glanced toward the hallway leading out back. If she was going to answer the door, it was now or never. A few seconds too late and the broth would overheat. Taking a deep breath, Aun took a heavy step towards the hall.

The sudden sound of footsteps charging across the kitchen floor stayed the lion-dog. Someone just missed knocking into her in their mad scramble, and she caught a flash of green retreating towards the back door.

"Coming!" carried Sanae's voice over shuffling feet. The sound of the back door sliding open followed soon after. "Ah, good, you came just in time!"

Aun cut out the flame, fishing out the kelp and leaving the broth to settle whilst she went to see what was going on. Peering around the corner, she saw Sanae talking with a stern-faced wolf tengu. The wolf offered little in the way of words, mostly nodding and answering in gruff affirmatives when questioned by Sanae over some matters. He was holding in his hands a large bundle of something wrapped in a cloth, eyeing it closely as Sanae peeled it open to examine the contents, a fang showing as he licked his lips. The shrine maiden concluded her appraisal of the wolf's wares and allowed him to rearrange things, taking a part of the parcel for himself, turning to leave with their deal concluded.

"Your share, as agreed. Thank you for your hard work. I'll certainly call on you again," she said with a polite bow to the parting wolf, who returned the bow before vanishing in an instant.

Shutting the door, Sanae returned to the kitchen with the sizeable parcel in tow, looking almost ready to burst out into a tune at any moment. Aun was quick to ask what it contained, to which Sanae answered that it was the 'secret weapon' that would make her entire plan possible. A word of caution to the lion-dog, she slowly unrolled the bundle, careful not to let any of it show until it was almost entirely unwrapped. What was exposed at last was a considerable portion of unrecogniseable dark pink meat. The wolf, or so Aun guessed, had beautifully rendered it into thin slivers, arranging it into a careful block such that all of the slices retained a semblence of their original form. Aun could sympathise with the wolf now, licking her own chops at the sight of so much meat.

Sanae flashed a broad grin at the enraptured lion-dog, a gleam of self-satisfaction in her eyes. "And this is where the real genius comes in. Tell me, what do you think this meat is? I'll give you a hint: it's not pork, chicken, or beef."

"It's none of those?" returned Aun with some surprise. She looked at the meat carefully. From the look and smell, there wasn't much she could determine. Truthfully, all meat looked about the same to her. Whether pink or red or white, she failed to distinguish until tasting it. "Then, is it... some kind of fish?"

"Bzzzt! Dead wrong. Do I have to reveal the answer again? Well, I suppose there's no helping it. It's deer meat."

"Is that so? I've never tasted deer before." Aun marvelled at the pile of new, novel meat in front of her. She couldn't guess what it might be like, but any sort of meat would do at this point. Her rocky stomach agreed with a low grumble.

"I can't suppose you would have done, living at Reimu's," Sanae remarked, shrugging and shaking her head pityingly. Much talk circulated of the red-white shrine maiden's financial means, or lack thereof, though little of it came nearest the truth; whilst Aun felt like protesting the idea that Reimu was too destitute for meat, she knew well the scant room for indulgences at the little shrine. "In any case, don't think that either of us are getting much of it. This is largely for Lady Kanako. An offering, remember?"

A little deflated at that news, Aun frowned, lion and dog both protesting impotently. There was point past which an offering was more like just hogging everything. Still, she swallowed her disappointment since it was, in some fashion, to help the shrine. "Is it that special?" she idly wondered aloud.

"And that's the meat of the matter." Sanae set the requisite pot on the gas burner with a loud clang, her face practically glowing with the force of a blue flame. "Many in this area forget how rich the forests are with deer. There's long been a culture of hunting, even when there were prohibitions against meat consumption. The reason for this was because of gods like Lady Kanako. She would permit the hunting of meat so people in these otherwise poor regions could survive. Can you guess why?"

"It'd be hard to run a shrine if no one could survive." The guessing games were growing a little tiring, so the lion-dog simply went about the business of arranging the vegetables and broth in the pot. At least those would be available in plentiful amounts.

"Besides the obvious! It's because one of the things Lady Kanako likes most is deer meat. Something like that was common sense around these parts for centuries. It's only been recently that humans have forgotten. Imagine, something they used to give as tribute all the time, and now it's barely offered anymore. Can you think of anything that would stir Lady Kanako's emotions more effectively? Do you see now? There's no way this can fail to extract her from her self-made cave. It's foolproof!"

With a burst of enthusiasm, Sanae twisted the knob on the 'gas burner', a flurry of clicking preceding flames springing up under the pot. The sheen of self-satisfaction on her face had reached glistering levels, and she let out a contented sigh seeing the fruits of her and the lion-dog's labour assembled and waiting to start simmering. "Sometimes I can't believe how clever the simplest notions can be. A good thing I still listen to Lady Suwako's ramblings, too. Even she can let something juicy slip once in a while."

"You mean, it was Miss Suwako's idea?" asked Aun, half-interested from growing hunger. The pot was bubbling softly, the fragrance of cabbage, mushrooms, and onions carrying along with that of the broth they were now slowly flavouring. The lion-dog could hardly tear her eyes away from the hot-pot.

Sanae harrumphed. "I'll grant you that she might have mentioned it first. However, it was still my idea in the end. Besides, I'm the one who's actually done it, and that's what really counts."

Totally uninterested in debating the finer points of attribution, the lion-dog uttered a quiet apology, opting to quietly watch the hot-pot taking form. Sanae was quick to recover her prior attitude after the tiny scratch dealt by Aun's question. In between ordering Aun to fetch this or that, which the hungry statue-beast was finding harder and harder to do, she continued to solicit praise for her clever thinking. Eventually, all Aun could do was verbally acknowledge whatever Sanae said in hopes that it was good enough to please. Her stony ears had long ceased to hear much over the grinding call of her gullet. The addition of the meat only heightened the wanting.

Aun had heard a satisfied appraisal of the hot-pot and a proclamation that it was now ready. Taking that as a signal, she pulled out her chair, planted herself down, and reached for her chopsticks. She'd barely raised her eating implements when Sanae grabbed her by the wrist sharply, snapping that she was inviting divine punishment with her haste. Annoyed, the lion-dog complained that her hunger pangs had grown intolerable, unable to fight the demands of the lion and the pleas of the dog much longer.

Hauled away from the hot-pot, Sanae directed Aun to settle herself in front of the living room fusuma in a dogeza position. The two of them quickly took their places flanking the doors, bowing as low as possible by Sanae's direction. Torturous smells continued wafting over as they sat still for what could just as well have been hours as minutes to the lion-dog. She tried asking the living god what they were waiting on, but the only answer she received was a command to be quiet. Maintaining the kowtowing position was immensely uncomfortable even to paws and knees made of stone. The only small comfort came when Sanae took a deep breath and began a low chant of words Aun could hardly begin to distinguish. This carried on for several minutes further, accompanied by several repetitions of clapping and bowing led by the shrine maiden, until it came to a stop. Then, Sanae began to speak in a quailing voice, head still lowered.

"Goddess Yasaka, I, daughter of the shrine, bring before you a gift. May it please you to appear before us and partake, that you may sate yourself on our meagre tribute."

After a few silent moments, Aun risked raising her head to look at the fusuma for any sign of movement. A quick sideways glance showed that Sanae had done the same, and they regarded each other with equally nervous looks. Thus far, no sound or sensation had heralded a response to their call. The living room remained shut tightly as ever. The loudest sound to be heard was the call of the bubbling hot-pot from the kitchen. Two sets of grumbling reached Aun's ears. Sanae hastily ordered that they both resume their bowing, and she repeated a similar entreaty to Miss Kanako, sounding more strained with the attempt.

"Damn it," Sanae muttered crossly after another fruitless check of the doors. "I knew I ought to have brought the bells."

The lion-dog sat up with a heavy sigh. "It doesn't matter at this point, does it? She's not going to come out. Let's just eat."

"If all you care about is your stomach, then be quiet." Sanae didn't even bother looking at Aun. Despite her frustration, the strongest note in her expression was still one of worry.

"I'm sorry."

"No, don't be. You've just done as asked. If anyone should be sorry, it's me for pushing you into this whole mess." The shrine maiden stared down at her lap, gripping the hem of her skirt. "I just didn't know anyone else who would go along with it. Besides, I'd hoped—"

A sudden noise startled both Aun and Sanae. They turned to look at the living room doors to see that the light visible through the crack had grown brighter, one door having slid open the slightest bit. As if rusted, the worn track made it impossible for the old fusuma to open silently. When it continued moving, the door rattled the whole way along its path. An arm clad in a black sleeve was soon visible. The rest of the figure emerged from behind the other door as it too slid open. Miss Kanako stood there, calm but expressionless, gazing out at the two offering-bearers. The snake had emerged at last from its hiding place.
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The Yasaka goddess regarded her shrine maiden with an unwavering stare as she ate. No trace of sentiment had coloured her divine visage in the whole time she'd been out of hiding. She hardly blinked, the red, slitted beads of her eyes trained pointedly on Sanae, the cause of her embarrassment, nor did she seem to be breathing half the time. Seeing her in that state made Aun feel like fleeing the table. What kept her in place was the occasional sideward look from the goddess, as if she knew precisely that it was her gaze alone that pinned down a lion-dog. Despite the warmth of the hot-pot, the atmosphere of the kitchen felt as chilly as the autumn weather outside.

Though she'd shown no visible reaction, the newly unhidden Miss Kanako was quick to bid Sanae and Aun to serve her after a quick look into the kitchen. Hastily, the two had somehow, without any words exchanged, coordinated serving the waiting goddess with a generous bowl, Aun ladling out the piping hot food and Sanae ceremoniously offering it, head bowed. Miss Kanako's chopsticks carried a thin strip of the deer meat to her mouth, and she paused for an instant as soon as she tasted it. The two stood watching, on the edge of panic not knowing if the goddess was displeased or not. A few tense seconds later, she began to chew slowly, carefully savouring the taste of the meat. When she swallowed at last, despite her unchanged expression, a sparkle played across her red eyes. She drank some of the broth, then took a few more bites after that. Soon enough, she held out the empty bowl, silently asking for a second serving.

Careful not to say a word, the lion-dog and shrine maiden stood by watching the hungry goddess devour bowl after bowl of the hot-pot. The numerous vegetables they'd spent time preparing went in to replenish the pot when it inevitably dipped low, Miss Kanako's appetite showing no signs of subsiding soon. More pertinently to Aun's interest, the meat that had been plentiful to start was reduced by a fair amount by the time the next few rounds were consumed. Despite the forbidding atmosphere, hunger had long since become unbearable for the lion-dog, and she was on the verge of asking Miss Kanako if she could eat as well, come what may. She was half-poised to start speaking when Sanae returned with a flask of sake for the goddess, which was received gladly.

The drink improved Miss Kanako's mood after a few attentively filled cupfuls. She slowed her pace to enjoy her food more, though she still showed no signs of being sated soon. Sanae had just fetched a freshly warmed flask when the goddess suddenly spoke up.

"This is all fine and well with the attentive service, but what good's sake drunk alone? I'm no Moriya. Come, join me. Take your fill. You must be starved by now."

Neither lion-dog nor living god dawdled in finding their seats. They alternated in serving each other with much gusto, taking as much as they could fit in their bowls, only exercising care in how much meat they took. Despite looking occupied with her food and drink, neither could ignore the feeling that Miss Kanako watched them closely around her favoured offering. Regardless of how scanty a serving of meat they got, the hot-pot was what they needed to thaw the chill. Aun and Sanae regarded each other with thin smiles, the distinct feeling that they'd just barely managed to survive an ordeal shared between them. Even the otherwise blank-faced Goddess Yasaka seemed to be wearing a smile watching the pair have their first bites of food in hours.

The warmer feeling around the table still seemed to preclude any discussion, all three of them saying little as they ate. Also precluded was any refusal of drink, the Yasaka goddess insistently pouring libations for Aun and Sanae, who reluctantly downed their cups when so bestowed. Sanae was quickest, despite her best attempts to appear otherwise, to succumb to tipsiness, fumbling slightly when refilling Miss Kanako's bowl. The goddess gave a low chuckle and forgave the blunder on the condition that Sanae fetch her more drink. Sanae hastily bowed and retreated from the table, walking slightly askew as she did.

When she came back, Sanae stood beside the table, not sitting down, something clearly playing at her mind. Aun wanted to ask what was wrong but couldn't find the words regardless of the preference for silence around the table. Miss Kanako also appeared to notice, regaining a bit of seriousness in her manner.

"Sit. We can't have you stumbling around." She gestured for the shrine maiden to have a seat, which she did promptly. "You look like you have something to say, besides. Well? Speak. I'm now in a mood to listen."

Sanae sat up straight and took a deep breath. Her first attempt at speaking quickly failed, her voice breaking before she could get a word out. Clearing her throat, she took a drink and tried to steady herself. Her face showed a relative calm, but Aun could practically smell fear from her through the alcohol. "I would just like to say," Sanae began, finding her words slowly, each one sharp and clearly defined despite how quietly she spoke, "that I cannot begin to ask forgiveness for all I've done."

"Then, don't," Miss Kanako answered simply.

Both Aun and Sanae looked at the goddess in some shock. She had certainly some reason to be angry before. Nevertheless, to be so casually cutting in response to a sincere attempt at apologising was hard to fathom. Sanae sputtered, trying to form a follow-up.

"Whatever do you mean, Lady Kanako? I do want your forgiveness if that is indeed possible. Had I not wanted it, I wouldn't have made you this offering." The shrine maiden gestured to the hot-pot, still heaped with meat.

Miss Kanako visibly frowned. "When I said I was in a mood to listen, I'd expected something far less trite. If you want to beg forgiveness, do it some other time. Your prodding will do you no favours, and I know that you know that well enough. You are, after all, my shrine maiden. You should know that I expect neither ceremony nor craftiness from you. Or has pride made you forget so quickly?"

Sanae shrank in her seat, her head falling until she failed to look at her goddess. She shook her head slowly. "No, Lady Kanako, as you say. I have forgotten my place."

"See to it that you remember in future." The goddess was looking directly at Sanae, even if the latter wasn't acknowledging the fact.

"Yes, Lady Kanako," Sanae replied even quieter, gripping her chopsticks tightly.

"I'm glad we have an understanding. Now, be a dear and serve me more. More meat this time, if you please. It's positively addictive."

The fusuma rolled quietly shut, leaving Sanae and Aun alone in the kitchen again, a slight knock against the end of the track to add a finality to the goddess's parting words about not wanting to be disturbed for the duration. Living god and lion-dog looked at each other for the briefest of moments. Even if the sliding doors remained unsealed and moveable, a silent agreement formed in the interval of that glance that neither would so much as brush against them for the remainder of the day.

Sanae was the first to make a sound, a heavy, breathless sigh. The gasping quality of it made Aun aware that she was also holding her breath for some reason, and she followed Sanae's lead, a hint of pup's whine at the end. As if groping in the dark, Sanae wobbled about on shuffling feet. Her eyes didn't seem fixed on any one thing in particular as she laid hands on the first thing in reach, a broom. They continued to stare off all while she started to sweep up the various vegetable peelings that littered the floor. Aun couldn't intuit why, but she too felt a sudden need to busy her hands. She fell to taking a dish at a time from the table.

There was a perfunctory attempt made at cleaning up the kitchen. Even fastidious as she was, Aun couldn't bring herself to do very much, however. The problem was Sanae. The limpid way the shrine maiden slapped at a dish for minutes on end before laying it aside still dirty said it all. Soon, all she was doing was steadying herself over the sink. Seeing Sanae in that state, the lion-dog's tail drooped, and she quietly set aside a dish she herself had spent altogether too long polishing. Wordlessly, she crept from the kitchen, down the hallway, and out the back door. Anything was better than the heavy atmosphere that had settled over the kitchen, even worse than the dust that had overtaken everything not long ago.

The proceeding hours saw little thought from the already normally hollow-headed lion-dog. There was nothing she cared to think about. Of course, there was much she could ponder, but there was no way she was allowing herself to revisit that for now. Aun was so empty of thought that she hardly realised, having planted down in front of her half-finished stone tower, that the whole structure had fallen apart at her feet, and she had spent an entire span of unaccounted time placing the same rock down on the newly bare base.

Only the shade of a deeper evening broke Aun from her trance. Wearily, she trod from the mess of stones littering the ground back to the house. Why she was even heading in that direction, she hardly recalled or cared.

A look around found Sanae mid-disrobing in the changing room. At first, she didn't even acknowledge the door opening and Aun walking inside. All at once, the shrine maiden took a deep breath, her cheeks flushing as she scowled at the intruder. Aun stood dumbly looking at the blood-flushed human, unaware what sort of offence she may have committed.

"Is that fun?" Sanae asked tartly, frozen in place with her brassiere undone and held up only by her hands tugging the straps up.

"Is what fun?" Aun mirrored.

"Staring at me getting naked. I don't find it very fun from my end." Keeping tight hold on her brassiere straps, she pointed at the lion-dog. "At least get undressed yourself if you're coming in."

Uncomprehending of Sanae's sudden bashfulness, considering they'd seen each other sans clothing numerous times, Aun chose not to answer the question and instead did as suggested. Her own costume was easy to remove, and she was stood stark naked as Sanae had just got around to unfastening her skirt.

Sanae glanced over at the disrobed lion-dog and rolled her eyes, pointing at the bathroom door. "Just go on ahead. I'll be a minute."

Suddenly feeling awkward, Aun padded quietly into the steaming bathroom and sat herself down on a stool. She'd the faintest notion that Sanae might not actually want her there. For all the times they'd shared a bath, she'd simply assumed it was fine to walk in. Now, she wasn't so sure she herself wanted to be there.

She'd started to scrub herself slowly when the door opened again and Sanae walked in, placidly sliding past the lion-dog to have a seat on a stool neighbouring. Aun looked over to say something, but the shrine maiden was already busy washing, not paying any attention to anything but the mirror in front of her. Her pace seemed leisurely, though definitely more vigorous than Aun's weak scrubbing. The bright pink spots where she dug into her arms looked painful, and yet the lion-dog couldn't look away. Thoroughly, almost mechanically, the washcloth moved with a force that reddened even the more tanned parts of Sanae, from her face down to the tips of her toes. The only real show of expression from her was a brief grimace as she rinsed off with a splash of cold water.

A brief couple of minutes passed before Aun realised that Sanae had already moved to the tub. She hurriedly finished washing herself, hardly noticing the chill of the water when rinsing, and made for the hot water to soak.

Slipping into the tub, she noticed that the shrine maiden seemed to be watching her. There was no indication of what Sanae could be thinking, merely a cloudy expression, her jade-tinged eyes lacking their normal vibrancy. Aun leaned against the side of the tub, closing her eyes as she soaked. Though she wouldn't admit it to herself, the way Sanae was looking at her bothered her. The awareness that she was being stared at made her open her eyes again not too long after. Sanae was indeed still staring. Unsure how to react, Aun watched the shrine maiden in return.

"I was a fool, of course," Sanae said unprompted. "That's what you want to hear, right? That's probably what you're thinking."

"I wasn't thinking that at all!" Aun objected, the echo in the bath making her grimace. She lowered her voice. "I was just thinking... it was good to see Miss Kanako more, erm, normal?"

"You don't have to lie to make me feel better. I know full well it was ridiculous to expect things to change even if I got her out. I didn't even really expect that to work as well as it did." The shrine maiden sighed, sinking further into the water until she was burbling. Any further and she would have drowned herself.

"At least we got her out."

Sanae unsubmerged herself just enough to respond. "Yes, well, I had no plan if we didn't manage. We would have been stuck eating all that food ourselves. I don't even want to imagine it. It was all a stupid bet, if you think about it."

Aun said nothing. Even if she hadn't the first idea what Sanae meant to do in the first place, they had certainly managed to extract Miss Kanako from her hiding place. Whether or not it was due to smart planning, the lion-dog felt she ought to be satisfied with that much.

Granted — a pebble of thought rolled out of the slow churn — the goddess had retreated back in just as quickly, even if it seemed like it would only be for the duration. Also troubling was the matter of her demeanour, imperious and very Miss Kanako-like at first but reverting to the now familiar matron after concluding words with Sanae. Viewing things like that, there really was little resolved yet. Aun could, as far as a lion-dog was able, imagine that the mountainous goddess would return to the usual routine of housekeeping soon, still unlikely to set foot outside and mind shrine matters. Things had merely been reset to square one.

Where did that leave them, then? Aun mirrored Sanae in half-sinking, fatigue from the long day soaking in along with the heat of the bath. If the trouble with Miss Kanako hadn't been moved forward, then it was incumbent on her to try some other approach. Of course, the lion-dog had hardly a pawhold anywhere. At most, she knew the letters were important somehow. The exact reason still puzzled her rocky animal brain. Still, she couldn't just sit back and do nothing.

"The repair guys probably could have helped us," she concluded with a tiny bit of her usual cheer.

"Maybe. Lady Kanako's a light eater compared to some. One of those wolfs I talk to has a sister who's something of a legendary glutton around the mountain, and she's no slouch herself. If anything, we'd have been in trouble with them." Thinking on it, Sanae laughed. What started as a quiet chuckle turned into giggling. She wiped her eyes with a relieved sigh once the fit passed. "Dear, dear. I guess I'm still a little tipsy. Getting in this bath probably didn't help. All the same, it's funny. I zeroed in on things so much, such a simple thing didn't even occur to me. I'm a little jealous, honestly. You're smarter than me in that respect."

"I'm not very smart. I'm just a lion-dog."

"Then, my middle school teachers were right all along: I'm dumber than a rock!"

As Sanae erupted into another fit of giddiness, Aun sat further puzzled. Rocks may have had little to say, but that didn't mean they couldn't see the world around them. She grumbled to herself. There were some things about the way humans viewed things she would probably never get.

Sanae hardly bothered with the lights, opting to switch on a small lamp to one side before flopping down on the bed, now beyond caring about putting on her pyjamas or doing much of anything, by all indications. For a moment, Aun wasn't sure she hadn't fallen straight asleep. She opened her eyes a moment later to stare up at the ceiling. Her focus didn't stray from looking straight upward even as the lion-dog's weight shifted the bed next to her.

Neither said anything for the longest time. Aun wasn't sure what she even could say. The shrine maiden seemed to have little zest left in her after the relatively disappointing outcome of her hot-pot plan. No matter how much Aun tried to press on the successes, Sanae would hear none of it. That was how their bath together had ended up equally silent. There had been no real discussion as she trailed Sanae up the stairs and into her room. Some part of Aun felt like she ought to leave her alone, but an equal proportion felt much the opposite. Thus, she sat there watching the living god, who could have passed for some kind of doll with how litle she moved, only the slight rise and fall of her chest giving away that she was still animated in some fashion.

After some time, Sanae stretched out her arm, looking at Aun, a gesture she hadn't seen in a while, much to her surprise. Without a word, she lay down next to the shrine maiden and put her arm across her in a loose embrace. The outstretched arm closed around her tightly, pulling them close enough together that Aun could feel Sanae's heartbeat and hear her soft breathing. She shifted, rolling over, and looped her other arm around the lion-dog. Some habits died hard, Aun found herself thinking.

The lion-dog recalled times when Miss Suwako had teased Sanae about her inability to sleep without clutching a stuffed animal. Aun hadn't seen anything wrong with the idea, having no concept of 'maturity' as it applied to humans. Jokingly, the little goddess had suggested that Aun serve as a replacement until Sanae outgrew the habit. While the jab provoked a grousing reaction from Sanae, Aun gave her full assent without any reservation. Thus, despite some reluctance on the shrine maiden's part, the pair had become used to sleeping in their current arrangement for some time. If anything, once Sanae had seemingly grown weary of the ritual, the following nights without some warmth pressed against her were lonely ones for Aun.

That had, incidentally, been part of how Aun and the Moriya Shrine's three gods had ended up all sleeping together on a few occasions. To hear the Moriya goddess explain it, she, Miss Kanako, and Sanae had all slept in the same room from the time Sanae started living at the shrine until some time after coming to Gensokyo. Sanae bashfully objected, claiming that it had only been until 'the middle of middle school'. Uninterested in their differences of opinion, Miss Kanako simply said that Sanae and Aun were welcome to sleep between her and her partner, as households that slept separately were rare up to only a couple of generations ago by her reckoning, a comment that drew childish remarks from Miss Suwako about married couples and their relatives. Regardless of her teasing, Miss Suwako remarked on one later occasion that she'd felt nostalgic about those times sleeping together, and she was glad to have Sanae joining them once again. Even the outwardly reluctant Sanae couldn't disagree.

Thinking of how things had changed between then and the present moment, Aun felt a pang of an unexplainable loneliness. The Moriya household she remembered had seemed so close, even with their clashing personalities. Intimidating as she could be, the Yasaka goddess was the central pillar of the shrine, someone they could ill do without. Now, despite her more honeyed disposition, there were invisible walls separating her from the rest. Being in her presence was not unlike trying to speak with the shrine — no matter how undeniable the presence, to a heart like Aun's, it may well have been an absence most times.

Aun squeezed tighter on the shrine maiden. "Sanae?"

There was a groggy response, muffled in Sanae's pillow. She shifted slightly. "Yes?"

"You said the person who wrote those letters 'fancies' Miss Kanako."

"Yes?" Sanae repeated after a slight pause.

"Do you think that's why Miss Kanako's..." The lion-dog couldn't really find the words for the goddess's current condition. "Well, how she is now? I don't really understand very well. What's that even supposed to mean?"

"You're asking some pretty hard questions for this late."

Aun grumbled. "It's not like I got any chances earlier."

"I know, I know. It's my fault for pushing so hard," Sanae replied with a note of resignation. "Can't be helped now."

"I can't help asking now, either."

The shrine maiden unloosed one arm from around Aun and rolled onto her back, making a sound of annoyance. "You say that like it demands an answer. Good luck. I don't know what you want me to say. You want me to explain to you the concept of love? Something most humans have trouble understanding? I'm no Greek guy sitting around talking about truth and society and all that."

"I don't know what you're talking about. I just need to know." Aun let go of Sanae, rolling onto her back as well. The bed was too narrow to accommodate the two of them, so the lion-dog was hanging off the edge. "I feel like it's important to helping Miss Kanako."

"And? I can't answer what I can't answer, Aun. Especially not when I'm tired and just want to go to sleep."

Aun sat up and looked directly down at the living god, who refused to even make eye contact, staring up at the ceiling once more. "Then, when?"

"If you're going to keep pestering me, then..."

There was no ending to Sanae's retort. She simply let the words float in the air before shutting her mouth and her eyes, vocalising her irritation with a quiet scoff. Without an answer, there was nothing for Aun to hang onto. The lion-dog was simply being shut out once again.

Aun was thinking of curling up on the floor when a noise came from below, Sanae's eyes snapping open quickly. The shrine maiden sat up and shuffled past Aun, getting to her feet unsteadily.

"What's going on?" Aun asked.

"Lady Suwako's in. She'll be expecting me to pour her drinks." Sanae stopped to shake her head as she hastily threw on some clothes. She sounded weary about the whole exercise but also helpless to extract herself from it. "She gets used to something and suddenly she's unreasonable about it."

"Do you know when you'll be done?"

"No, I don't. So, don't wait up for me. Feel free to sleep on the bed."

With that, Sanae disappeared down the stairs, leaving Aun alone in her room. Aun fell back on the bed with a thud, disappointed and a bit upset that Sanae had left her so quickly. She had been proving difficult to talk to lately, and no amount of being punished for her mistakes by Miss Kanako had changed that. Venting her frustration, Aun rolled around on the bed. That didn't matters much, in the end. A bit of flailing and rolling only served to help her body remember how fatigued it was, leaving her mind still in a tempest. Giving up, she lay her head on Sanae's pillow, immediately finding it difficult to move when she did. All she could do was wait.

Minutes went by without any sign of a return from Sanae. Straining her ears did Aun no good in trying to decipher what was going on. If anything, there was a noticeable absence of noise from the kitchen. She thought about getting up to go down and check.

The thought passed after a second when she shifted to roll over and found that her body felt as if it were dropped into a pond, a stone left to watch the fishes. Trying to think, too, felt like the sloshing of wet gravel. Any care about living gods and tipsy goddesses would have to have to come back tomorrow. The lion-dog fell back completely on the futon, rolling on her back and shutting her heavy eyelids. That hot-pot was weighing her down too much now to remain conscious any longer.

She did faintly hope that Sanae might be there when she woke up, though. There were still questions to be answered.

When she rose, the lion-dog was annoyed to find Sanae nowhere in sight nor in earshot. There wasn't even a trace of Sanae's scent about save what remained around her room. The kitchen remained in something of a mess, a few more dishes added to the pile testifying to its being used anyway. Sanae had evidently made a customary breakfast of egg, meat, toast, and coffee before running off. How she could even fit anything like that after last night's overindulgence, the lion-dog had trouble imagining. Her own gullet still felt overstretched and unsettled, though breakfast didn't necessarily sound bad. Thinking better of it, she opted to hold out for lunch and did what she could to tackle the mess.

Getting back to her patrol route was rough for Aun. Despite a long sleep, she didn't feel rested. Long stretches of the night had been spent awake, thinking about the impending feeling of the Moriya Shrine's collapse. A real fear overtook her as she lay motionless in the lamplight. Started awaked, all she could think of was how she needed to get Miss Kanako back to normal as soon as possible. If she didn't, nothing would ever change, and everyone at the shrine would drift apart completely. And yet, how would she accomplish such a feat? She was a simple lion-dog, unable to think of anything more complicated than her next meal. There were too many things she didn't know, too many she didn't understand. Overcome by the dread and panic, strength fled Aun and she fell to unconsciousness.

The panic having passed, she was more clear-headed, though equally as lacking in clues about what to do. The letters remained the most promising avenue, and she still needed an explanation as to how their contents, a relatively bland series of proclamations, could have such an effect on the Goddess Yasaka. Sanae had been insistent that she couldn't be the one to explain, but something about her resistance felt suspect. Rather than being unable, she was merely unwilling for some reason. If Aun could figure out some way around that barrier, maybe there was a chance at having her questions answered.

In the middle of her patrolling, Aun stopped to look at the main hall. From what she recalled, Sanae had said she learned of Miss Kanako's fondness for deer from the other goddess. That implied to her that the two of them had likely been discussing various matters recently, including the hot-pot plan. Perhaps the location of those other letters came from Miss Suwako as well, Aun considered. If that was the case, then the two of them could have even talked about them at some point. Miss Suwako could very well have seen the same letters as Aun and Sanae and known the sort of contents within. That would mean she could explain just as well as Sanae — assuming she was at all willing.

There were two courses of action as Aun saw it: either hound Sanae or try to elicit something from Suwako. Neither looked to be an easy choice, especially when she remembered how vaguely they'd talked before. That was when they were together, though. If she were alone with them, maybe things would change. She had to hold on to some hope. Sanae could be stubborn, but she had a breaking point, even if she could fly off the handle. Miss Suwako was something of a natural instigator, meddler, and all-around trickster who would do anything she could to avoid talking about things, but she did have a soft spot for the lion-dog through all of it.

Aun could feel that she would have success with either. The question was simply one of gumption. She just needed to make up her mind, stay her course, and be the immovable rock she was meant to be.

[ ] For all her stubbornness, Sanae wouldn't work herself to death to spite anyone, even a lion-dog.
[ ] Goddesses of Miss Suwako's calibre didn't know absolutely everything about everything.
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[x] For all her stubbornness, Sanae wouldn't work herself to death to spite anyone, even a lion-dog.

I want to sleep in the Moriya pile
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Venison sounds good. And, boy, do I envy that lion-dog for spending comfy nights embraced by a cute shrine maiden.

[x] For all her stubbornness, Sanae wouldn't work herself to death to spite anyone, even a lion-dog.

I wouldn't underestimate the power of spite but I do want to see what she's hiding. Sorry, froggy.
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Is Kanako gregnant?
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[X] Goddesses of Miss Suwako's calibre didn't know absolutely everything about everything.
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[x] Ask Miss Suwako whether anyone has ever "pursued" her.

There is no way this can possibly go wrong.
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Going to jump out in front and clarify that I'm counting this as a vote for the latter option. Just in case that influences anyone's decisions, since that would make a tie.

And just for everyone's edification: I will take all votes into consideration where possible — even the options that don't win. That said, I do need a majority to make a decision. Figured I'd take this opportunity to comment on that whilst we're getting things going again.
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She had to have been knocked up by someone or else Sanae wouldn't exist.

[X] Goddesses of Miss Suwako's calibre didn't know absolutely everything about everything.
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Nah, that's suwako. Sanae is descended from the line of Moriya.
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uhhhh not real sure where this question is even coming from??

not sure what fanon you're pulling from but Kanako ain't Sanae's mum, plus like the other anon said it's the froggy that's her ancestor, not the snake
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I know it's not been that long since I posted, so it might seem a little hasty, but I'm a bit antsy to get going on the next update. That said, I'm pretty sure more than five of you were reading based on reactions on the Discord. If you intend on voting and haven't done so, please let me know now, and give me an idea how much time you need. Otherwise, I will assume no further votes are forthcoming and close them within the next couple of days. Speak now or forever hold your peace.
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How did you know? I was just assuming that the Suwako vote was going to win now.

[x]Goddesses of Miss Suwako's calibre didn't know absolutely everything about everything.

I'm pretty interested on what a fellow goddess has to say on the matter of love and stuff and Suwako may be one of the few people that'd understand Kanako's uuh thingy ma bob.

So I'll be voting for her, will await your next update with glee.
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Look at it this way: Even if you're simply adding one more onto the pile for a winning vote, it's still a chance to speak your piece. It's generally better to vote than not, so don't hesitate about doing so even when there's a clear majority, especially as I will take any interesting comments into account if they offer ideas, regardless of which option they pertain to.
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"Thank you Aunn, you really helped the shrine come together."
"You really are A Lion Dog Among Gods."
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Right, then. By an unambiguous majority, the winner is...

[x] Goddesses of Miss Suwako's calibre didn't know absolutely everything about everything.

A little surprised but not really. Time to hippity hop to it, I guess.
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[x] Goddesses of Miss Suwako's calibre didn't know absolutely everything about everything.

Intractability was one of the few constants as far as the Moriya Shrine's resident shrine maiden went, and Aun would never deny that fact. Even one with as rocky a head and heart as her could sometimes be dumbstruck by Sanae's manner of digging in her heels on matters both large and small. If she examined herself closely enough, the lion-dog would probably find that she had crumbled before that stubbornness most times than she would ever admit, a matter the lion side of her would growl at her over. What else could she do? She didn't want to arouse Sanae's temper — and, more importantly, she didn't want Sanae to ever come to dislike her.

This tension followed the lion-dog around as she sought out the living god. No matter how important it was to discuss Miss Kanako, a reluctance to actually find Sanae sat in Aun's otherwise empty gullet like she'd managed to swallow something heavier than herself. Her footsteps around the work sites were soft, her presence hardly noticeable to anyone as she avoided interrupting any ongoing work. Attempts at calling out to known faces came out strained and muted. As Aun shuffled around, unable to bring herself to speak to anyone, the wish to leave competed heavily with the wish to help the shrine. A few minutes more and it would perhaps win out.

To her slight dismay, her conflicting wishes seemingly drew attention she'd failed to capture at first. A cheerful kappa woman had taken notice of Aun, calling her over persistently until she heeded, a scratch behind her horn the galling — but appreciated — reward for her obedience. Having exchanged few words with the lion-dog prior, the kappa somehow recognised her as Sanae's acquaintance. She quickly launched into chatter about the shrine maiden, mostly praising her adroitness at building and her helpfulness around the sites. Aun eventually found an opening to interrupt and ask whether she had seen Sanae around that day. Pursing her lips, Sanae's kappa admirer opined that she wasn't around at all that day as far as she knew. At that, Aun bowed curtly and excused herself from the conversation on the pretext of asking one of the supervising tengu passing nearby. Mention of a superior sent the chatty kappa away with her helmet pushed down to hide her face as she fled back to work, stopping just a brief moment to say that she would find Aun and let her know if Sanae turned up.

The truth of the matter was that the lion-dog reviled giving the crows any attention at all, but she had said it in the spur of the moment, thus she was bound to her word. Luckily, the particular overseer around this time was the bland-faced one who neither particularly liked nor disliked Aun, preferring to merely be rid of her as quickly as reasonable, which typically meant pointing her straight to Sanae if she came asking. He greeted her with little enthusiasm, though he did raise an eyebrow quizzically upon looking directly down at her.

Aun swiftly explained that she was only looking for the shrine maiden. The supervisor, possessed of a beard not unlike the images of hermits, scratched ponderously at his chin before shaking his head. He, too, avowed no knowledge of Sanae being around that day. His parting suggestion was for Aun before turning and leaving was to check with the other sites.

Check the other sites the lion-dog did, albeit with little thoroughness, turning up no sign of the suddenly elusive shrine maiden. A few questions posed to whomever was most convenient netted the same picture of circumstances. Despite her haphazard effort, the sun was sitting high by the time Aun had run around to all possible repair sites, a sign to retire for the moment that she heeded seeing various labourers starting to take their breaks, a time she didn't care to intrude upon.

She concluded by making a retreat back to the house. If she was lucky, she reasoned as a slight consolation to her feelings of having wasted time, she might run into Sanae there, anyway. That thought carried her up the stairs to check the living god's room. No such luck, however. The room was unoccupied yet again with no indication as to where the occupant might be spending her time. Aun had suspected as such, and yet she still heaved a sigh. She sincerely wished she knew now where Sanae was. Hoping the shrine maiden wasn't getting into trouble, she busied herself straightening up the messily arranged futon, the padding and sheets having been left in something of a twisted wad, her own tossing and turning partly to blame.

The scrunch of paper being wadded up stopped her in the middle of smoothing down the futon. She looked around for any possible source of the noise. An experimental pat on the mattress gave off another rustle. Aun gripped the futon and flipped it upward in one hasty jerk. Sitting right under where she and Sanae had lain, several crumpled sheaves of paper greeted the lion-dog. At a single glance, she thought that they were, if not the exact same ones, similar to the stack of letters Sanae had shown her yesterday. She picked up one and confirmed that the same practise-book hand covered them in words whose precise meaning escaped her. The stiff lines of the characters seemed to be mocking her. To show them, she threw the futon down on top of them, leaving them buried until they were uncovered next. Doing this felt silly even to Aun, but she didn't know how else to deal with her frustration at the moment. None of it changed that she was still confused.

Lethargically, she made her way back downstairs. Nowhere obvious remained for her to check; she had even made a quick stop at the main hall whilst heading back to the house, finding neither Sanae nor even Miss Suwako available. Even so, the lion-dog felt too restless to simply laze about. She tread past the living room heading towards the back door and was caught by surprise when she heard the fusuma sliding open behind her. Miss Kanako, a deep purple sweater on this time, strode out after Aun.

"I thought I'd heard someone about. You wouldn't happen to have seen Sanae, would you?" the Yasaka goddess asked, removing her reading glasses.

Aun looked up with some surprise and shook her head. Feeling somewhat self-conscious with the goddess addressing her, she bowed as if in apology. "I sort of wanted to ask you the same question."

"Is that so? Blast." Miss Kanako clamped her front teeth onto the end of one arm of her glasses. Despite everything Aun would expect, she had no fangs to speak of, a fact that confused the lion-dog a little, though the thought was lost in the gravel at the moment. Clicking her tongue, she swung the glasses around idly by the arm. "She's gone missing again, that girl. A bad habit of hers as of late. I wanted to tell her I'd been too harsh, but perhaps I was right to be."

"Actually, I also haven't seen, erm..." Aun raced to add, the Goddess Yasaka's slitted eyes being trained on her making getting the words out a challenge suddenly, "well, Miss Suwako, you know."

Elaboration failed Aun as soon as she'd spoken the name of Miss Kanako's partner. The larger goddess made no comment aloud, though her previously soft and woolgathering expression appeared sharper at the mention. She made a turn on her heel, the motion reminiscent of some traditional dance alongside her crisp strides over to the cold-box. A carefully made-up package, tied in a furoshiki and again with a string, sat in her hands when she returned to Aun.

"I remembered it just now. Really, I'd hoped Sanae might do me the kindness, but I suppose not. You'll not mind, will you? Just over to the lake out back."

"Who's it for?" Aun blinked, hardly noticing the parcel being pressed into her paws and herself being steered to the back door by her shoulder.

"There's a dear. I'll be starting on dinner, so don't feel hurried," was Miss Kanako's soft reply, punctuated with a smile that was difficult to read for Aun. The door shut behind Aun before she could think to ask the recipient again.

The lion-dog blinked again. Once the gravel had sloshed just the right way, the realisation hit her all at once that she'd been pushed out of the house yet again. She looked down at the parcel dutifully held in her paws and frowned at it, blaming it for her ejection, then nodding to it as if in apology for her rashness. There was no use in thinking ill of Miss Kanako's no doubt tasty food. No breakfast or lunch to occupy it, Aun's belly gave a pitiable groan of hunger. She set out quickly in the direction of the lake before she was tempted to tear open the bundle for herself.

One of the lesser explored parts of the shrine and its surrounding environs for Aun was the lake situated in the rear, technically off the shrine grounds proper though still somehow a place where the shrine's presence reached. Of the three gods, Miss Kanako seemed least apt to approach it, Miss Suwako the most, and Sanae somewhere in between. There was, to hear Sanae tell it, reason to believe that the Moriya goddess still derived some power from it, though what that meant in reality was anyone's guess.

Had Aun not been running on an empty stomach, not to mention fixated on various crises, real and imagined, that faced the shrine, she might have remembered the minuscule goddess's fondness for the shores of the lake. She might have even recalled a particular spot Miss Suwako called her favourite and went straight there instead of circling the lake aimlessly. She might have been spared an eruption of dejection and frustration as her unfocused search yielded no one obvious. She may have even taken to the sky instead to hasten the search if nothing else. Then again, none of these would have led her to Miss Suwako.

She happened upon a fishing pole resting on some rocks. The line was cast out in the water, a red and white marker bobbing in the waves to indicate about where the hook might be dangling. Aun felt another twinge from her normally rocky stomach. Fish grilled on a fire, salted lightly, preferably big ones with loads of fat, sounded tempting at the moment. Of course, a trace memory rolled into the depths of the gravel pool to interject, there weren't any of such fish in this lake. All that she'd seen caught — her clumsy paws were unsuited to the finer points of fishing — were not especially sizeable, the biggest specimens still small even in Miss Suwako's hands.

Drawn by curiosity, Aun picked up the fishing pole with only some trepidation. The line lost much of its slack, leaving the marker dangling out of the water uselessly. She tried bobbing the pole up and down after some recollection of doing similar before. Everything about the motion felt alien. The lion-dog remembered being taught at least the basics of the fishing pole, except now she found none of the wisdom handy. About the only morsel she could recall in full was Miss Suwako telling her that fishing was about patience. Then again, the Moriya goddess was fond of repeating that line whenever she herself wasn't happy with the catch.

"Not a blessed lake," she had said with a hollow laugh one time, eyeing the recent, paltry haul. "Wouldn't be mine if it was, after all."

The remark had confused Aun, just as most of Miss Suwako's sayings did. That was how things went with deities most of the time. Even those sisters at the bottom of the mountain, unpretentious as they were otherwise, could speak in riddles to a lion-dog's wit. Like it or not, she had to accept that gods were gods and she was — if they were enshrined — their guard, their acquaintance forever on the surface of things. Still, whilst she didn't understand fully, the notion pained Aun's normally stony heart. How could she ever hope to protect anyone like that? Could no one trust her any further than as a decoration?

"You've got a bite."

Aun started at the voice. At some point, the Goddess Moriya had appeared beside her. She pointed at the fishing pole, the line being dragged under the churn of the lake. Instantly remembering some tidbit of advice, Aun tugged the pole upwards in an attempt at hooking the biting fish. The attempt lacked control and brought the fishless line and hook jumping out of the water.

"Welp. Guess I wasn't supposed to get that one." Setting down a flask of sake on the shore next to her, Miss Suwako squatted in lieu of sitting, no particular spot available for settling down. Her hat was pulled a bit lower on account of the sun, so Aun couldn't see more than her mouth and nose. She made a noise somewhere between a sigh and groan. "Nah, wasn't meant to. That's why I walked off. Thanks, by the way."

Looking over, the lion-dog saw Miss Suwako had the parcel from Miss Kanako. The pole in her hands reminded her that she'd set it down, something that made her feel foolish for getting lost in her thoughts; there would be some explaining to do if the parcel wasn't meant for the little goddess.

"Guess Kana sent you for this, huh? Real nice of her. Guess she really is back. Would've been nice if she'd come herself, but I guess that's asking a bit much. Ah well. Good on the two of you for getting her out. Sanae tried to make it sound like all her work, but I know you helped. You always help," Miss Suwako chattered as she unwrapped the package piece by piece. Inside was an array of food to accompany drink, the earthware jug next to the goddess the obvious 'main dish'.

"I didn't do that much. Sanae told me what to do," Aun protested. Feeling her reluctance towards accepting praise likely to provoke teasing, she changed the subject abruptly. "I actually came out looking for Sanae. Have you seen her today?"

Miss Suwako chewed thoughtfully whilst regarding the lake with a mute expression. Washing the bite down with a pull from the flask, she sat down on the ground, stretching her legs out, not minding the dirt and sand dirtying her skirt. "Sanae, huh? That girl. I'd say she's 'that age', but that doesn't mean much for her. Wonder if she's even capable of growing up now. Sometimes I wonder if we should've brought her here. Not that I had a lot of say in it. Nobody ever had a reason to care what I think. Especially not Kana."

"I was hoping to talk to her about something. Have you seen her?" the lion-dog repeated, unsure what to make of the little goddess's rambling.

"Nah, not today. Been real cheeky with me a lot recently, too. Never wants to talk unless she wants something. I get that she's busy and all, helping those construction boys out, but I don't wanna drink alone all the time. Girl's got nerve, burying her head in work like that. Enough to make an old gal wanna... wanna..." The thought failing to catch with repetition, she rolled her hand in the air as if to say 'You know the rest,' though Aun didn't. There was a light slur to Miss Suwako's words. She removed her hat quickly to fan herself with it. Aun hadn't noticed before, but the telltale flush of alcohol already showed in the goddess's full cheeks.

Uncomfortable knowing the little goddess was on her way to being soused, the lion-dog tried to excuse herself and turned to leave. A hard pinch on her thigh stopped her and brought a yelp from her. Miss Suwako puckered her lips and widened her eyes in a way she likely believed was a pleading face, though it honestly looked grotesque to Aun. "Don't leave me too! Have a sit so we can talk. You got something on your mind, right? A certain somebody said so last night. Forget that old goofbrain. I can listen to my ol' lion-pupper any day! C'mon!"

The lion-dog looked down at the seated Miss Suwako. Though she was acting silly as usual, there was a loneliness in her eyes, pleading for Aun not to go even more than her words did. That look made Aun's chest twinge, and she obeyed the little goddess's request. She truthfully didn't know what to do but figured she could at least stay around a while; when Sanae didn't want to be found, there was no sense in looking.

The Goddess Moriya scooted closer as Aun sat down, putting them almost shoulder-to-shoulder. They'd sat like that not so long ago in the laundry shed. That time, too, Miss Suwako had professed her loneliness, leaning on Aun. Thinking back made the lion-dog wonder if she'd simply been that way all along, sometimes more able to put on a braver face than others. The idea that the goddess could be spending her nights crying herself asleep drew her eyes back to Miss Suwako, who regarded her with a shy smile. Their shoulders touched. Aun shivered a little, Miss Suwako's skin chilly from being outside even longer than her.

"Should I build a fire?" Aun asked.

The little goddess patted her skirt for something, slipped her hand in her pocket, and retrieved the same book of matches from before. Setting down her flask, she tenderly folded both hands around Aun's paw, pressing the matches into her palm. "That would be lovely."

Gathering up materials and getting the fire took some time, during which Miss Suwako sat hugging her knees, rocking unsteadily whenever her feet weren't touching earth. The food and even her sake sat untouched all whilst the lion-dog worked. The occasional light breeze spurred Aun into working faster whenever it grazed her skin, cursing herself for ever believing her rocky nature alone would fend off the cold. When at last they had a small fire to huddle by, Aun nearly fell over with relief sitting back down. Miss Suwako offered up some of the food her partner had sent, which the lion-dog accepted after her til then ignored gullet cut in to interrupt her polite refusals. Aun treasured every bite of the otherwise light and unfilling fare until there was nothing left but it container and wrappings.

When offered the flask of sake as a chaser, Aun shook her head hard, drawing a smile from Miss Suwako. "Oh, right. Heard Kana made the two of you knock one back with her. Ain't having the best day lately, are you? Poor girl."

"I guess not," Aun answered vaguely, not wanting to think to much about it. Neither Reimu nor all the trouble Sanae had caused lately ranked highly on matters to ruminate on. Only thing hadn't really left her mind, even if it had sometimes sunk a bit further into the gravel. "Hey, since we're talking, can you tell me what Sanae means when she says whoever wrote those letters 'fancies' Miss Kanako? She said it had to do with love, but... I guess I don't really understand."

The little goddess hummed with thought. She turned to stare off at the lake vacantly, her head falling sideways onto her shoulder like she could no longer bear its weight, sitting like that long enough that Aun feared she might have lost the train of thought. Coming to some conclusion, she reached up uneasily to scratch at her straw-coloured hair. The mixture of a sigh and a chuckle creaked from her mouth.

"Sometimes, girl, I dunno if I understand. Not just love, but a lot of things. When I say me and Kana have been through some years, I mean centuries and centuries. And I'm willing to admit that all us gods have our secrets. Still, you'd think knowing someone that long would let you in on some pain-in-the-heinie things that they do. Real stuff, not just little things that annoy you. Imagine thinking you've known someone for so long. You've seen them through a lot of times, good, bad, and otherwise. You know all their little habits. You know what they like to eat for breakfast. How they like their clothes folded. Stuff like that. Know what I mean?"

Miss Suwako swivveled to look at Aun in search of a response. Aun sought her own recollection of those sorts of things. She at least felt she had an idea of a certain person's inner workings — at least, until she drove the lion-dog off. Aun's head fell forward in a heavy nod. The Moriya goddess in turn nodded to herself several times in silent agreement, though to what wasn't obvious.

"What does that have to do with love, though?" Aun asked when the goddess didn't go on.

"A lot of things. Never mind that, though. Lemme ask you something: You think you love me?"

The lion-dog looked at Miss Suwako uncomprehendingly. She seriously tried to consider the question and what it could mean, but it was as mysterious as anything else the goddess threw out. "I think I do?"

"No thinking about it. You either do or you don't, girl. Love's a real thing like that. Yes, no — s'always gotta be one or the other. No in-between. You're hearing what I'm saying, right? Come on and tell me if you love me, girl." Though she was still smiling in that cryptic way she did, nothing in the little goddess's voice sounded amused or lighthearted. She leaned over until she was almost nose-to-cheek with Aun, the smell of sake suddenly stinging the lion-dog's nostrils.

"You've been drinking too much."

"No avoiding the question. Love or no love. Which is it? Give it to me straight." Miss Suwako slung an arm around the lion-dog's shoulders to keep herself steady. Her arms were evidently trembling. All of a sudden, her expression looked more tired than anything. "Oh, and I won't get mad or sad or anything if you say no. Just so you know."

"I do love you."

"Yay!" Miss Suwako gave the lion-dog a brief squeeze around the shoulders and tried to reach up to pat her head. She fumbled, nearly falling over in the process, so she settled for resting her other hand on Aun's arm. "That's what I like about you. So simple. Don't gotta play any games. I love you, too."

"I still don't understand. If it's that simple, then why does someone have to send a bunch of letters to Miss Kanako? And why is she so... something about it?"

"Okay, okay. I was sorta messing with you, but I'll get serious now. This is all gonna sound a little weird, but bear with me," Miss Suwako said with a soft chuckle, still holding onto Aun.

"You're going to answer my question, though, right?"

The Moriya goddess grumbled. "That's why you gotta answer mine. Honest."


"So, do you feel like kissing me? You love me, right?"

Feeling as if she was being toyed with still, Aun sighed. "You smell too much like alcohol. No, I don't want to kiss you."

"Aw. Don't wanna see me naked either?"

"What?" The lion-dog shook her head, already totally lost. "Why? We get baths together enough."

"Don't wanna take my clothes off and touch me in places? Don't want me to do the same to you?"

Aun tried to imagine what either of those questions could possibly mean. The idea of needing to take someone's clothes off to touch them was a strange one to her stony ears. She wondered if it wasn't just some nonsense thought up by a drunken goddess. "No. I love you, Miss Suwako, but I don't want to do any of that. I don't get what this has to do with love or Miss Kanako. You're not just joking around, are you?"

"Guess I'd be a little worried if you said yes," Miss Suwako responded, pushing herself off of the lion-dog to sit a bit more upright on her own. "And, well, that's just love between a man and a woman. It's a little different than with you and me. It's a lot more complicated, and there's a lot of... howzit? Lotta dancing around. In the end, they just wanna get naked and touch each other a lot, but they can't just say that. Can you just imagine? An old maid like Kana getting busy. Plenty there for some guy to paw over. Good luck to him, though.

"You know Kana's never once so much as made kissy faces at a man? At least, not as far as I've seen. It's more the opposite. I saw her turn down plenty of guys. Some ones with real promise, too, and even looks to boot, not just hard sells with personality issues and bad hygiene. Made me wonder if she even likes 'em. Sent a couple of nice gals her way — found out she definitely wasn't biting there either. Should've seen her face the one time. I thought about telling her I did it. I really did, but I didn't want to eat onbashira for breakfast. She's gotta be broken down there. Gates are all sealed up or something. That's the only way I can figure it."

Pausing her rambling, which seemed to be getting more heated as she continued along, the goddess at last reached for the neglected flask to take a quick drink, followed by a longer drink after a brief consideration. She wiped her mouth on her sleeve and looked to Aun with a broad smirk.

"Ah, this feels pretty good, just getting stuff off my chest. Look, I'm gonna keep saying some stuff that's not gonna make a lot of sense to you. Just listen, alright? Guys and gals like to touch each other. Feels really good, you know? Don't gotta be in love to do that, but it helps. It's better if it's someone you at least like. I dunno if all women really wanna do it for love, but I can tell you all men do. Spend all goddamned day thinking about nothing else, some of them. That's the funniest part about this whole thing.

"Some horny bastard wants a handful of those mountains of faith? Good luck, bud. Guess who knows Kana best." She jabbed a finger up to her own face, not even leaving a gap for an answer. "That's right, me! I can tell you with absolute certainty she ain't going for it. She's colder than a yuki-onna swimming in the Arctic. Won't even bat an eye at him. Little shit's been doing nothing but sending little love notes. Bet he knows he ain't got a chance. He's a fool, that's what he is. Wasting his fool-headed time chasing a broad who's never gonna give it up. Don't believe me? Just you wait.

"I can just see him now. Thinks he's gonna swoop in and have Kana all sparkly-eyed for him. Probably some puny little village twerp. Wouldn't know romance if it smacked him in his dumb bumpkin face. He'll roll up all 'Oh, Kanako, I love you!', and then you know what'll happen? She's gonna give him a big ol' glare like this." The goddess's face puckered like she'd popped a particularly sour umeboshi in her mouth. Aun supposed it was supposed to be an imitation of Miss Kanako, but the resemblence was far from the mark. "Probably won't even answer him. He'll ask her if she loves him, and she'll just do that. Hell, if he's annoying enough, maybe she'll smash him with a pillar. I'd love to see it happen. Flatten him like a bug, make him pop—"

"That's horrible!" Aun interrupted, alarmed at the imagery Miss Suwako was trying to paint. "Just because he wants to... touch her? She should just say no if she doesn't want that. There's no need to..."

Something of an irritated sigh blew from Miss Suwako's nostrils, and she shrugged her shoulders, rolling her eyes. "Okay, fine, maybe she won't. But she'll definitely make him feel bad. Maybe tell him off. He'll go down the mountain sniffling and sobbing like a baby. I've seen it happen so many times. They think they're all tough until they step up to Kana."

"It's still horrible. But Miss Kanako wouldn't do that." The lion-dog bit her lip, not at all confident in what she was arguing. Red beads and coiled snakes loomed close in her memory. "I know she can be kind of strict, but she's not like that."

"Oh, yeah? Who's the one who knows her best here? Sorry, lion-doggy, but you ain't been around nearly long enough to know squat. You're cute, though, so I forgive you," retorted the goddess in a sudden honeyed tone, pawing at Aun's head in a sloppy attempt at petting her, making the lion-dog grimace in annoyance.

Peeling Miss Suwako's hand off of her scalp, Aun sat up on her knees to put herself higher than the little goddess, looking at her with stony seriousness. "Even if she is like that, that doesn't mean it should happen to the person who—" the next word came out with an awkwardness that matched the lion-dog's unfamiliarity with it, "—fancies her. She should tell him no. Why hasn't she?"
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The Goddess Moriya turned her head, trying to match the lion-dog's gaze and faltering. Her eyes lowered until she was staring into the fire. The previously self-satisfied look on her face withered into something like a stone lying dashed to pebbles on the mountain path. Like before, what would have appeared a youthful visage carried the air of someone worn beyond age, cheeks no longer rosy, eyes no longer shimmering. The tiny bud-like lips fell open and slack. Miss Suwako grasped for words and found none, looking much like any fished hauled onto the shores she sat on.

Slowly, she shook her head. Strength seemed to be failing her from how she was trembling. Aun pre-emptively pressed against the goddess in hopes of keeping her upright, holding onto her shoulders. In the lion-dog's hands, she felt apt to crumble at the slightest breeze.

"Well," Miss Suwako forced out at length, her voice brittle, "that's what I was kinda getting at. You think you know somebody, and they just... do the strangest stuff. The Kana I know wouldn't hide from anyone. That's why it's all so weird. I've been trying make sense of it ever since. Except I can't."

"So, you don't know?" Aun asked quietly to avoid sounding as disappointed as she did.

"No, Aun, I don't know. I'm sorry."

Why the lion-dog expected matters to be that straightforward was, upon further consideration, a mystery even to herself. Even one with as rocky a head as hers had some sense of cause and effect; she knew Miss Kanako not taking care of a problem was either from a lack of will or an inability to do so. That didn't stop her from taking what warmth she could from even the smallest embers of hope. With those sparks erased, the sting of the wind registered more clearly. Aun shivered and drew herself lower to the ground in search of the actual fire.

Watching the flame alongside the now mute Moriya goddess, she struggled for a next step. This wasn't usually her territory. Usually, it was one of Miss Suwako, Miss Kanako, or Sanae who would take on the complicated issues, assuring the lion-dog that she need not worry. She just needed to sit when sitting was necessary and patrol when patrolling was necessary.

A stray consideration came to Aun and she spoke up once more. "What about telling him? If Miss Kanako can't do it, then..."

"Can't," was Miss Suwako's surprisingly quick and clear reply.

"What do you mean? Somebody has to warn him."


Aun looked up to meet Miss Suwako's eyes trained on her. The two of them were clearly of different minds, but neither wanted to be the one to make that clear to the other.

"Why not?" the lion-dog pressed.

The little goddess was the one to break eye-contact first, heaving a long sigh and clutching at her head like it pained her. "I ain't seen the guy. Not once. Don't even know how his little notes get here. Far as I know, they just show up. S'gotta be a human, but I really don't know. I'm getting a little tired of thinking about it, honestly."

"Then we need to find him."

"Did you not just hear me? I said I'm tired of thinking about it. That means I don't even want to talk about it anymore." Miss Suwako let herself fall backwards onto the grassier part of the shore, curling up so that she was lying sideways. She reached for her hat to cover her face, signing her official retirement from the conversation. "Go shake down some of those construction guys. Maybe the little shit's camping out with them. Otherwise, dunno. Good luck. Lemme know when you turn up anything — if you do. Meanwhile, I'm gonna lay here a while. Can't say I feel real good."

Being dismissed so quickly and finally annoyed the lion-dog. She sat still next to the motionless goddess, the lion crowing about the pitifulness of the goddess. Even with the dog opining in opposition, Aun felt herself agreeing with the feline for the moment, poking her lip with a fang. "Really sorry to bother you. I'll go report back to Miss Kanako now."

"Thanks for coming. Appreciate the grub, even if I wasn't hungry," slurred the little goddess from underneath her hat.

"Feel better soon."

The hollow well-wishing provoked an equally hollow laugh. "Sure thing. Be right as rain. Back at it. Just gimme a few."

As she tread away, empty lunch box and furoshiki in hand, Aun thought she heard Miss Suwako carrying on faintly. She could have strained her ears to hear, but what was the point? Just as the little goddess had grown tired of their conversation, the lion-dog's sympathy remained only in scant measures. To admit that left a bitter taste in her mouth.

Memories of the previous night's drinking made her grimace. Alcohol was abominable.

In the wake of her talk with the Moriya goddess, the churn of the gravel in the lion-dog's mind was slow but intense. Her walk back to the house slowed, then meandered, tracing back and forth through the woods behind the shrine. Vague awareness of being watched tickled the edges of Aun's eyes; not being watched was impossible anywhere on the mountain, the shrine excepted. She searched the area for any sign of a crow or a wolf observing but predictably couldn't spot anyone. That she could tell they were there at all was no small miracle, though she was ignorant of that fact. All she knew was that tengu were irritating creatures.

She settled on wandering even further, as if to spite the watchful eyes. If they were going to keep staring from afar, they could look all they wanted. They weren't going to see anything interesting. She cracked a wry smile at the thought of some wolf complaining of how bored they were, maybe yawning and falling asleep.

Soon, the lion-dog had wandered so far off the trail that she couldn't be entirely sure she knew where she was anymore. So seldom did she ever stray where the tree cover was too thick to see the shrine. Being unable to see the shrine would normally have alarmed its nominal guardian, and yet she wasn't panicked at the moment. If anything, she felt something like relief. The shrine still existed very strongly in her mind — she could feel it faintly from afar — but the weight it represented on her heart and mind was, temporarily, held aloft. Not that there was any comfort in it. Rather, there was merely a minute measure of space, normally occupied by the things most immediately troubled a lion-dog, newly freed to take on other considerations.

Most of those were the newer dimensions of the word 'love' heretofore unknown to her. Her sensibilities as one of stone didn't grant much imagination, and the thought that someone wanted to kiss and touch the Moriya Shrine's chief god in some particular way fell far into a realm of ideas and experiences outside conception. Some part of her wanted to call it a lie or a fanciful misunderstanding.

She fished out the now crinkled and folded letter that she'd kept for herself. The lines were still cryptic as ever. She had seen poetic verse, and the terseness of the writing recalled those other examples. Strangely, the writer never said outright that they 'loved' Miss Kanako. Re-reading the lines, nevertheless, Aun could get a sense that they wanted to say as such. Every line of every character carried a deliberateness and focus of purpose, having previously merely resembled a practise book's didactic hand. The brush that traced them had been wielded with an intensity that showed in the ebony lines.

Suddenly, Aun felt awkward having read the correspondence. Whatever nuisance the writer represented, they clearly held a strength of sentiment that couldn't be denied. They dearly wanted something. To be denied would surely throw them into despair, a feeling Aun knew all too well lately and didn't wish on another. If someone out there was marching to their own destruction, she had to turn them around and guide them back home.

As she was re-stowing the letter, another sensation of someone's presence struck her. She turned around to see if there really was some tengu trailing her. All she caught sight of was endless trees. No obvious scent stuck out, nor did any suspicious noise emanate from anywhere. The pressentiment was a faint one, and the lion-dog realised that it was also familiar. Even removed as she was from them, the Moriya Shrine's grounds projected themselves onto her mind.

Amongst a number of others present, a minuscule speck lingered in the outer boundaries of the shrine, somewhere difficult to pinpoint, lost in noise, but there all the same. Aun knew it as the same intruding presence from before, the one she felt before entering the main hall to talk with Miss Suwako and Sanae. Like wispy smoke from a burnt-out candle, only the faintest trace of them remained detectable for long before they were gone again. The shrine once more drifted into a vacuous silence.

Aun stopped to look around her once more. The landscape, whilst not as deeply ingrained into her feet as the parts nearest the shrine, looked less intimidating now. Even without a clear view, she felt clearly where the shrine was, looking in its direction through the brush and treetops. She took off in that direction. Whether that was because of instinct or merely a sudden motivation, she neither knew nor cared. She needed to track that one grain down. Even if it was lost in all the rest, somehow she would drag it out of hiding. This particular sentiment carried her a long way through the tangle of the woods. Unfortunately, such feeling alone couldn't take a directionally-challenged lion-dog all the way.

She found herself lacking confidence in her bearing some ways across. Continuing the same way seemed foolish, and yet that was all she could think to do. The trees carried on with no end. Her path travelled downhill for a time and then back uphill for as long. Sudden dips impeding progress bent the trail in unpredictable ways. That Aun had followed a massive circle faintly occurred to her, though what that meant precisely she couldn't yet ascertain. All she knew was that the shrine had to be nearer. Even if its presence didn't deign to speak up, the spirit of the main hall stood by as a focal point for all the world. Every step was simply part of its pull on her. Leonine derision and canine fretting be damned, the lion-dog needed to believe in something.

Emerging through the trees into the repair crews' camp bewildered Aun in the same way a sleepwalker might start wide-eyed and gawping into consciousness. The looks she received after suddenly bursting from the bushes were similarly surprised, the shock quickly abating once the various crewmen realised who the newcomer was. Amid equal measures of grumbling, laughter, admonitions, and confusion, the lion-dog meekly stepped past the gathered repair workers with muttered apologies. By the looks of things, dinner was underway in the camp, the smell of cooking rice and some kind of stew as strong a reminder as the sight of the darkened sky above. Hours had disappeared with Aun's wandering. She heaved a sigh. So much for belief.

She would have trod her way from the camp with her tail drooping low had a hand on her shoulder not stopped her. The kappa woman from before greeted Aun with a loud hello and a beaming smile. A small commotion had apparently distracted some of the camp, namely that of a sudden appearance from the woods, and she had been one of the crowd gathering for a gawk at the situation. Aun grimaced, drawing a laugh and a slap on the shoulder from the kappa, who ensured her that it was 'a nice break' from the monotony. More pertinently, her appearance had been a serendipitious coincidence, as the kappa meant to deliver on her earlier promise. Unbothered by Aun's look of confusion, remembering no promises of any sort, she tugged the lion-dog along by her paw insistently, urging her to hurry.

A tent stood removed from the others, actually enclosed unlike most. Sanae's kappa acquaintance nudged Aun into the entrance, where a makeshift desk had been set up, manned by a weary-faced wolf tengu in a white jacket, whose ears flattened as she eyed the lion-dog. She immediately growled a demand to know what Aun was doing about as a clear outsider and what possible injury she could have that needed attention. As Aun sputtered in panic, the kappa gave a loud laugh, calling such an inquisition typical of their doctor, explaining to the unamused wolf that Aun needed to visit 'the one from this afternoon'. The camp doctor spat a number of complaints about outsiders, late visitors, rules, kappa, and the Moriya Shrine itself before finally calling a bemused wolf idling nearby to guide them past and leaving her post. Aun's concerned question about the doctor was met with assurances that it was a normal occurrence.

The two of them were guided swiftly by the thankfully less aggrieved wolf past a number of partitions until they came to one in particular. Drawing the curtain and ushering them inside, the nurse bowed and left them with only a minor warning to keep their voices down. The partition was a simple enclosure consisting of curtains and a bed. On the bed was someone Aun hadn't expected to see so soon. She looked to the kappa, who gave a quiet chuckle and a quick scratch behind Aun's horn. Whatever the promise was, the lion-dog felt she had certainly delivered, albeit in a way she wasn't sure how to feel about.

Sanae was sitting seiza on the bed. A handwritten sign sat balanced on her lap, reading: 'I bothered the doctor with trivial nonsense again. Do not speak to me or offer me anything.' She regarded her visitors with a pained look, her cheeks reddening. Still chuckling to herself, the kappa excused herself with a wave to Sanae, saying her work was done for the day.

"What happened?" Aun asked once they were left alone.

At first, Sanae acted as if she hadn't heard, huffing and looking deflated soon after. "The sign's right there. I only have to hold it up for all of Gensokyo to see. Every time I come in, at that."

Aun scanned the sign again. Coming to no conclusion, she shrugged. "That still means nothing to me."

"Basically, the doctor here thinks she's really busy when she isn't. Never mind the nurse doing most of the work without complaining." The shrine maiden carefully held the sign up as she showed off an expertly bandaged arm, far better work than the sloppy work Aun remembered. "She's at least good at these. Makes it worth a bit of... this. Though it does get tiresome on the legs after a while."

"Wouldn't it be better to learn how to do them right?"

"Sure, but I don't have the time for that right now," the living god replied as if Aun had said something totally ridiculous.

The lion-dog wasn't sure how to respond to that. Few rotations of the gravel were needed before she decided that it wasn't worth worrying over, a simple product of Sanae's usual stubbornness. If it was something urgent, that would become evident in some way, preferably soon.

No obvious place to sit, Aun planted her rump on the floor directly across from Sanae, taking on her native pose. Sanae opted to merely stare straight ahead of her at the white curtain. The way she slowly rocked side-to-side, her legs twitching as she shifted, made it clear the discomfort of sitting seiza for what sounded to be hours. Aun recalled stories of Miss Kanako admonishing her shrine maiden for her inability to do so, considering it a shameful mark of 'modern youth', finding every excuse to drill the poor girl in the necessary poise and endurance. Sometimes Miss Suwako had pinched the exhausted Sanae's smarting legs as a jape, something Aun could imagine her still doing given half the chance. Perhaps, the lion-dog considered, the lot of a shrine maiden was a much harder one than hers.

Remembering what brought her to the camp in the first place, she cleared her throat. "So, when are you getting out? I was hoping we could talk."

"Hard to say. Normally, she lets me go about dinnertime. I wouldn't be surprised if it was more like dawn this time. The good doctor was in a pretty foul mood."

"That could be a while. Maybe we could talk now?" Aun looked around for any sign of life besides the shrine maiden and herself. The most she could hear was the carrying on of life outside the tent. Stinging smells of disinfectant and a hint of blood were also bothering her nose.

"Can't it wait?" Sanae asked wearily.

The lion-dog shut her eyes and exhaled a long, ragged breath that hardly conveyed the extent to which she wished the discussion couldn't be postponed. Still, if the wait was to be til dawn, then til dawn she would wait.
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Glad to see this is still continuing!
>Don't wanna take my clothes off and touch me in places? Don't want me to do the same to you?
>Guys and gals like to touch each other. Feels really good, you know?
Ah, if only a kind goddess would provide a hands-on demonstration of the phenomenon.

>Sanae hurt yet again
Wrestling youkai, such as werewolves, into submission or self-harm?

>purple sweater and glasses
>vast mountains of faith
Poor villager fell victim to milf fever.
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I want to be clumsily groped by a drunk Suwako
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>Glad to see this is still continuing!
If it won't, I'll give word. Does warm my so-called heart that someone cares enough to say something, though, so thanks for that.

>Wrestling youkai [...] or self-harm?
Well, I suppose continuing to do things despite knowing that you're likely to get injured does sort of constitute self-harm, broadly speaking.

>milf fever
But, anon, how can you be a MILF when you've never been a mother?

No groping, only petting. On your head. With the hair. The top one.
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