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Disclaimer and credits will be found after the end of the chapter.

Drunkard's Walk V / Oh! My Brother! Book II:
Another Divine Mess You've Gotten Me Into

by Robert M. Schroeck and Christopher Angel

2. In Which Some Of The Pieces Start Coming Together, Whether I Want Them To Or Not


It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a living god. — from The Story of O by Pauline Reage

All parts should go together without forcing. You must remember that the parts you are reassembling were disassembled by you. Therefore, if you can't get them together again, there must be a reason. By all means, do not use a hammer. — IBM maintenance manual, 1925


Tokyo, Nekomi Ward, Saturday, May 10, 1997, 6:51 AM

A good night's sleep did wonders for my mental balance and what little serenity I normally maintained. By the light of day, with my wits a bit more tightly wrapped than the night before, things seemed not quite so horrible as I had feared. Even the near-destruction of my motorcycle looked merely difficult to deal with now, rather than insurmountable.

(If I hadn't wanted to see Skuld punished for her vandalism, I would have just gathered up all the parts, retreated to a hidey-hole, and looked for a song that could take care of the reassembly. But goddess or not, I'd decided the girl was just too damned arrogant and needed to be taken down a peg or two. In my humble opinion, of course. Anyway, although I could think of a few possible cycle repair songs off the top of my head, none of them were exactly what I needed. And most of them... well, I'd only want to use them in a real emergency, which this wasn't.)

As I dressed and stepped out into the cool air of the early morning, I gave a silent thanks that my frazzled nerves and smart mouth hadn't gotten me into more trouble than they had. Then I set about checking out what would be my home for the foreseeable future.

The big, blocky building that I couldn't get a good look at in the dark the previous night turned out to be a Shinto temple. And it was one of the finest examples of its kind that I'd ever seen, too — three hundred years old if it was a day, but in such perfect condition that it looked like it could have been built the day before.

Then again, given who lived right next to it, maybe that wasn't much of a surprise.

It sat in the middle of a large complex bounded on all sides by a white stone wall. The junkyard I'd thought I'd found myself in was, in fact, the front "yard" of the complex, paved in smooth flagstones and exquisitely maintained — except for all the mechanical trash.

Why it was littered with all manner of engine and vehicle parts, I still had no idea. I had gotten up shortly after dawn, as I often do, and no one else in the house had been awake yet, so I'd had no one to ask. Oh well, that would wait.

Other than the mechanical detritus, the temple grounds were immaculate, in utterly perfect condition. If it hadn't been for those parts and the occasional car which trundled by on the street outside the gate, I could have sworn it was the Meiji period, or maybe even Tokugawa. But I'd spied a calendar in the kitchen on my way outside and had confirmed the date. If it had been Homeline, I wouldn't leave yet for another year or so.

But it wasn't Homeline. If a roomful of Celestials hadn't told me that the previous night, the neatly-stacked newspapers by the low dining table would have. No metahumans, and the politics were different — once again, this was a far more relaxed and even xenophiliac Japan than the one I knew. (After a decade of jumping from world to world, I was starting to wonder why our Japan was the odd man out. Knowing the answer might make it easier to deal with their little gang of racist demagogues.)

But I hadn't really expected that it would be home. Hoped, yes. Expected, no.

In ten years of traveling from universe to universe, I'd evolved from overconfidence to simple determination. I was going to keep going forward, one world at a time, until I got home. But I wouldn't expect any particular jump to take me there. It was going to take me a long, long time.

The fact that (as far as Buckaroo and I could determine) I hadn't aged a day in nearly 7 years, though, suggested that I wouldn't need to worry (much) about racing the clock to make it back. It suggested other things to worry about, but not that.

I wasn't thinking about my aging rate and its implications at that moment, though — I had explored that topic as thoroughly as I'd cared to some months earlier. Instead, I was seated on the floor of the temple proper, about halfway between the door and the exact center of the building.

When I'd first walked through the entry, I saw that it was regularly swept. But the sweeping had missed the faintest traces of varicolored dust that had seeped into the almost imperceptible cracks between the floorboards. I would've missed it myself, had not the sun been at exactly the right angle as I'd entered and slipped off my shoes. I'd taken a few moments to investigate; it looked like the remains of the kind of circles used for European-style ritual magic. I'd raised an eyebrow at that — the combination was undeniably odd — but, hey, it wasn't my business what they did with their temple.

After my little round of playing Sherlock Holmes, I'd settled down to meditate. More or less. A student of Zen wouldn't have called it meditation. And I certainly wasn't trying for a state of no-mind. What I was doing was trying to study the bizarre source of mystic power I'd detected the previous night.

I spent well over half an hour immersed in magesight examining the thing, and I had no idea what it was supposed to be. Despite my initial impression the night before, it did look a little like a node — some of the local lines of power definitely fed into it, and it had the same sense of "pressure" and power as a node. But it wasn't a "pool" or "knot", which are the closest analogies to the forms nodes can take. Instead, it was more like a fountain.

You see, a node is a lot like the lake behind a dam. Think of the mana as the water, with the local ley lines being the streams and rivers feeding the lake. The water in that lake doesn't seem to move much, but there's a lot of it, and it wants to go somewhere else — right now, and very fast. If it gets the chance, it will. And gods save anything that might be in its way.

(That's what makes using a node so dangerous to a mage — he basically has to turn himself into a soda straw stuck into and through the dam, and make sure the water coming out of it doesn't blow through that straw so hard and fast that it shreds the little thing. According to what I learned in Velgarth, not every mage survives his first attempt to use a node, even when it's a "weak" one.)

Anyway, this node-thing — it had managed to find a "somewhere else" to go to, but for the life of me, I couldn't figure out where. The power squirted up out of it, and then just vanished. It was a constant flow, too, a hell of a one, but it all simply... went away. And that was just so wrong.

Also, the path it followed made a column that ran right through the exact geometric center of the temple, not to mention that of the remains of all those ritual circles. I was willing to bet dollars to donuts that it wasn't any kind of coincidence.

After thirty minutes or so of this, as I said, I decided I wasn't going to learn anything more, at least not that morning. I rose from seiza, bowed to the center of the building where the node-thing invisibly lurked, and then slipped right into the first of my usual morning kata. I never even stopped to think about the fact that I was still in the temple — it just somehow felt so right and proper that I automatically shifted gears to my physical conditioning without thinking.

I wish I could say I have an Art, but I don't. I never trained in any kind of combat, really, not before I joined the Warriors. I was a street fighter during the year or so before, when I was a member of that Soho gang, but that was unsophisticated brawling; I was fast, I was lucky and I had my field, and that was pretty much all I needed, or so I thought.

After I joined the Warriors, though, I discovered that I needed much, much more than that. Fortunately, I managed to pick it up as I went along; near-constant mortal peril is a tremendous incentive for learning. But I didn't really study any particular style. Instead, I had a collection of moves and tactics I'd copied from the fighters I'd sparred with or gone up against in live combat, strung together once again with my speed and luck. Over the years I'd more or less hammered them together into a functional mass that didn't really have a name. If I had to call it anything, I'd call it "kludge-fu" — just like its electronic and mechanical counterparts it was (as Jackson Granholme had put it so many years ago) "an ill-assorted collection of poorly matching parts, forming a distressing whole."

Fortunately, it was distressing far more often to my opponents than to me, but that didn't mean I didn't have to work on it. Years of practice — especially the twenty-plus months I'd spent training under and with Alberich — had smoothed it into a coherent style of sorts, but there was still always room for improvement. Hence my morning workouts, where I endeavored to find more ways to fit together the various pieces stolen from all those other different Arts.

Obviously, I didn't know the original names for most of the moves and combos, so I'd long ago begun making up my own. Which was how it came to be that I was flowing smoothly from "Rabbit Flirts With Hunter" through "Overhand Pie Smash" to "Yappy Dog Bounces". I was working on a transition into the more advanced "Wait For Me, Bay-bee!" when I heard a little intake of breath behind me. I spun and dropped into a crouch ("Cossack Dancer Stumbles"), only to see nothing more than the tail end of a long lock of black hair whip by the door post and vanish out of sight.

Skuld? But why... Then I shrugged to myself — what man can understand the ineffable whims of the gods, right? — and went back to my katas. "Cossack Dancer Stumbles" to "Duck Looks For Beak" to "I Woulda Baked A Cake" to "Ooh, Wise guy, Eh?", and from there into a long-familiar series of moves that had ceased to need individual names any more, and which set me to bouncing off the walls. Literally.

"Good morning, Doug."

The door was in my peripheral vision this time, so the appearance of another female figure there wasn't a surprise. I let a follow-through carry me via a tumble into a rest position, then bowed to her. "Good morning, Belldandy."

With a smile, she returned the bow. "Breakfast will be ready shortly, if you'd like to join us."

I smiled back at her as I straightened up. "Yes, thank you, I would."

An androgynous figure in tight black leather and topped by a mass of wavy blonde hair perched invisibly on the compound wall. Eyes narrowed, she watched intently as the goddess and the mortal walked together, chatting, between the temple and the house. Next to her, a tiny humanoid pointed and spoke for the first time in some minutes.

"See, mistress!" it exclaimed. "A mortal stranger, as Senbei said. A special mortal!"

Her eyes narrowed, and a brow marked with vicious crimson slashes furrowed. "Yes, yes, you did," she replied peevishly. "And yes, more than just an ordinary mortal. A magus, if I'm not mistaken. Odd. I thought I knew who all the mages were on this mudball." Mara rose to her feet with a loose-limbed, lazy-looking grace, and strolled along the top of the fence to keep up with the pair. Her steps were unconsciously certain and sure, her stride as quick and confident as though she walked on solid ground, while she focused her mystic senses on the mortal man below.

She frowned as she teased an unusual signature out of his pattern. "He's got a Mark on him," she muttered aloud, more to herself than to her tiny flunky, who scampered up to her heels in case she needed him. "Bad enough he's shacking up with the Goody Girls and the upstart, but he's got someone else from the Other Side watching over him, too." The frown mutated slightly, gaining elements of curiosity and puzzlement. "But who...?"

Her eyes shot open as recognition dawned. "Impossible! She's supposed to be dead!" Mara checked again and snarled. No mistake. A moment later, a smile dawned on her face even as her eyes narrowed. This was information she could turn to her advantage. "Senbei!"

"Yes, mistress?"

"Make a note of the mortal's Akashic pattern." She waved lazily at the man as he entered the house, her gaze already distant as she anticipated her next move. "I want a full report on him. And I mean everything." She did not consciously notice the goddess pause on the threshold, turn, and futilely scan the yard with narrowed eyes before entering herself.

"Yes, mistress!"

Mara slowly smiled as she thought of the advantage her discovery could bring her, as well as the potential it held for serious mischief. The Stormsdaughter lived, in spite of all those in Hell who claimed otherwise. And she'd marked this mortal as one of hers.

7:35 AM

I took a few minutes to wash up — not a full bath, not with breakfast already waiting, but then again, it wasn't necessary. My katas that morning had been gentle enough that I hadn't even worked up a real sweat. That done, I padded back down the hall to the dining room where everyone was already seated. (Except Megumi, who had departed the night before to return her own place somewhere in the vicinity of the NIT campus.)

I took a quick glance around the table, which was 80% occupied by Celestials. "My stars," I said with a little grin, "it's full of gods!"

Skuld and Angel both looked at me and did a synchronized pair of eye rolls that I found quite improbable but funny nonetheless, while Keiichi — who was clearly just as familiar with a certain classic movie as the two gods were — burst out with a bark of laughter. (Good thing that Kubrick's "2002" obviously had existed in that universe, too, otherwise that joke would have fallen so flat.) I broadened the grin and nodded at him while I sat down at the table, taking the same seat I had been guided to the night before.

Which, of course, left me sandwiched between Skuld and Belldandy again.

"Good morning, everyone," I announced as I made myself comfortable, and got a round of greetings back — some friendly and even warm, others desultory or grudging. Oh well, can't please everyone. Belldandy began distributing bowls of rice as part of a traditional Japanese breakfast. I was still caught somewhere between amused and bemused at the intersection of Norse gods and Japanese food, and I think it showed in my face because a suddenly-concerned Belldandy asked, "Is there something wrong with breakfast, Doug?"

I blinked, sputtered for a moment, then dove headfirst into the truth or something like it. "No, just..." I waved vaguely at the table. "You're very Japanese for someone who's Scandinavian," I finally blurted lamely, unable to come up with any better way to put what I was thinking. "All of you."

"Some of us," Angel offered sotto voce, "are actually very Canadian and might like pancakes once in a while. Or waffles and hash browns."

Belldandy surprised me by ignoring him, and cranked her smile to 11. "Thank you! I do try my best."

"...Or French toast. Or freakin' Cheerios..." Angel went on, his voce a bit more sotto than before, but still audible. I glanced over at him, saw his grin, and realized he was probably invoking a family joke given how everyone else at the table seemed to be deaf to his complaints. "...Or fried eggs and bacon..."

"Too much cholesterol, Chris," Belldandy declared, interrupting the rhythm of his recitation. "And we had pancakes yesterday," she continued on in terms of mild but amused reproach.

"A man can never have too many pancakes," he insisted. "And we don't have to worry about cholesterol."

"Keiichi does," Belldandy riposted in tones of such deadpan seriousness that I had to check the continuing smile on her face to confirm that the joke was still being carried along.

Well. If this were like most of the family jokes I'd run into, it probably ran to two or three escalating stages. Rather than get caught up in it, I decided to "ignorantly" disrupt the flow. Besides, it was far too "normal"-seeming for my comfort. "So," I asked between mouthfuls of rice. "Would it be impolite for me to ask what all the scrap metal outside is about?"

Keiichi put down his soup bowl and sighed. "I'm a member of a racing club at school, and our clubhouse is being renovated. The sempais needed a place to put everything while that's going on." He didn't sound thrilled.

"Ah. And because you had the space..."

He nodded. "Yeah, exactly. I'm the only one not living in a dorm room or a four-tatami apartment." He sighed. "Now we just need to neaten it up and get it out of the way — or at least under tarps in case it rains."

I nodded in understanding. "Well, I'll be happy to give you a hand with that this afternoon. But this morning I have to see if I can sell those coins." That said, I picked up my soup and slurped a few spoonfuls. (Don't look at me like that. It's polite to slurp in Japan. Well, most versions of it, anyway.)

"What kind of coins are they?" Urd asked as I put the bowl down. "I didn't get a good look at them last night."

"They're US Double Eagles, twenty-dollar face value back when they were minted in the 1920s," I said around mouthfuls of rice. "Unless there's something really funky about your world, they should be worth quite a bit more here-and-now, just from the gold content alone." I scooped up another bit of rice, and after I chewed and swallowed, I added thoughtfully, "Those are the last of my supply. I managed to acquire a small stack of them a few worlds back, but I went through them pretty quickly."

"Which reminds me — you promised to tell us about your journeys this morning," Belldandy interjected.

I nodded. "That I did." I sat back up and in between polishing off the fish, rice and soup, I kept my promise. I started with a little bit about Homeline. I moved on to the extremist attack on Piccadilly Circus, and how I'd been bushwhacked by an enemy with a teleport gate, then how I'd woken up in a cool green grove of trees, surrounded by white, blue-eyed horses. As I expounded enthusiastically on the city of Haven and its inhabitants, though, Angel suddenly burst into a fit of coughing that sprayed bits of rice and fish across the table. "You were..." he began, then cut off suddenly with a yelp of pain as Belldandy quickly and efficiently cleaned up from his explosion.

Next to him, Urd grinned as she turned mischievous green eyes on me. "Please excuse him. Old war wound. It acts up every once in a while." Shyeah right, like I'd believe that old gag. Especially when Chris got two words of an objection out and then yelped again. But despite this, the look in Urd's dancing eyes said, "trust me."

I gave her a very suspicious look, but against my better judgment I didn't pursue the matter.

I resolved, of course, to catch Angel later (without Urd around, of course) and grill him privately.

Anyway, I hit most of the high points, briefly describing the worlds where I got involved in local events and skipping over the far more numerous timelines in which I'd only stayed a day or so, or those where I'd enjoyed weeks of relative peace (AKA "boredom"). I seemed to be doing a good job of informing and entertaining everyone, except for Angel — whose grimaces and scowls (and occasional yelps followed by glares at Urd) only multiplied and grew in intensity as I went on. I tried to ignore his increasing agitation, but as I described my time bunking at the Institute with the Cavaliers (Buckaroo's answer to the threat Hanoi Xan posed to me), Angel suddenly slammed his open palm on the table. The sharp bang of the impact startled everyone in the room. I cut off in mid-word and frowned. "Just what is your problem?" I growled.

"You have to be freaking kidding me!" he bellowed, ignoring my question, and leapt to his feet. One of his knees caught the edge of the table and jostled it, sloshing tea and jangling plates and glasses against each other. With a gracefulness that belied the speed behind it, Belldandy plucked several endangered items off the table before they could tip or spill. To her right, Keiichi had frozen in place, his chopsticks halfway between bowl and mouth. To my left, Skuld sat silently, her eyes wide.

Across the table, Urd simply looked chagrined.

By the time I looked back at him, Angel had stretched to his full height, which was especially considerable given that I was sitting on the floor. "I'm supposed to believe this?" he roared, waving one hand in my general direction.

"'Niichan!" Urd snapped at him. "NOT NOW!"

"Like hell, Urd," Angel snapped back. He thrust a pointed forefinger at her. "You. My room. NOW." Scowling, Urd opened her mouth, evidently about to protest, but he cut her off. "I mean it, Urd." Then he stormed off around the table and out the dining room door.

Her brow creasing as her glower deepened, Urd growled something inaudible and rose to her own feet with a boneless-looking fluidity that was no less graceful than Belldandy's moves even as it was a completely different class of motion. With a surprisingly apologetic look at me she followed.

For a minute or two, the room was utterly silent save for Belldandy's soft humming as she replaced the endangered items on the table.

I looked around at the faces of my breakfast companions. Then I quietly asked, "Was it something I said?"

Chris stormed into his room and immediately strode over to his computer, where with a fusillade of keystrokes he pulled up window after window of web pages. A second later, he turned to his shelves and began pulling books and laserdiscs off of them as Urd swept into the room and slammed the door behind her.

"What is wrong with you?" she demanded, and was nonplussed to receive a single finger held up in the air as her brother continued to pull items from his shelf, finally dropping a huge stack on the bed.

When Chris did begin to speak, Urd was surprised to hear a strong undertone of sheer fury in his even voice — something she hadn't heard from him since the Modi incident. "I," he began, and then stopped and took a deep breath to begin again. "I have accepted a lot of things in the past year or so. I've accepted that my religious world view is wrong. I've dealt with the fact that the Judeo-Christian 'pantheon' is populated by weird-ass critters with a superiority complex. I've adjusted quite well to the fact that Shiva — a goddess of death, mind you — decided to turn herself into something out of a Square game. I've dealt with magic, and Yggdrasil, and technology that's impossible. I've handled all that and more, and frankly, I think I've been remarkably tolerant. But if you guys honestly expect me to believe that... that... CRAP that guy is spouting, you don't know me at all.

"Look at this," he continued, and pointed at the books and laserdiscs on his bed. "The 'Valdemar' books by Mercedes Lackey. The 'Bubblegum Crisis' anime. The freaking 'Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension', for Tyr's sake!" With a wild gesture, he indicated his computer. "'Kodomo no Omocha', his third 'jump', is some stupid kids' anime that I can't stand, and to top it all off, his bloody supposed homeworld is a sourcebook for GURPS!"

Urd's mind whirled as she realized the danger their visitor had brought to them, and the danger her brother was in. If Chris realized the truth about the dreams he didn't remember, he might try to access his full nature, whatever that was, before he was ready, and only Kami-sama knew what the results of that would be. Urd picked up one of the books and began to flip through it. "So you think he's lying?" she said evenly, trying to remain calm.

"What am I supposed to believe?" he hollered. With one deft motion he scooped up a book blazoned with the title "GURPS Warriors' World" and brandished it at her. "That sitting out there is a guy who just happens to come from a world that's exactly like one described in a roleplaying sourcebook? That he's hopping through other universes that are animes, books, and movies?" He threw the trade-sized paperback back onto the bed.

Urd didn't respond, but instead began to gather up the materials that her brother had dumped on his bed into neat piles, using the time to formulate a reply. "You don't have to believe it," she finally said. "What you have to accept is that as far as he is concerned, what he's experienced is real, and as far as we are concerned, he's an extra-dimensional traveler." Chris snorted disgustedly, and she sighed. "The universe is infinite, 'Niichan. The theories the mortals have come up with — alternate realities, entire instances of our universe appearing beyond the expansion limit of our universe, quantum realities, none of it's quite right, but it touches on the truth."

"And the Boss just happens to make universes that look identical to works of fiction? Come on, he wouldn't... okay, he would," Chris admitted, recalling that this was the same being who owned up to using dice to make key decisions.

Urd smiled and patted him on the shoulder. "It's probably more likely that the writers or creators of these works are somehow tapping into those realities, anyway."

With a sigh, Chris flopped down heavily onto the bed, making the book piles collapse into disorder. "But it's just so... silly," he complained as he laid back to look at the ceiling. "I mean, come on — training with Alberich? Hanging around with Buckaroo Banzai? I wonder if he actually visited the 8th dimension..."

Urd began to comment, and then stopped as she felt a strange resonance coming from her brother. With careful scrutiny, she watched as he unconsciously began to put himself into an odd sort of trance.

"Can you even visit an alternate dimension within an alternate reality? Ooh, that would cause a headache... and boomers being really sentient? No, that doesn't make sense... Sylia said that only a limited production model can reach sentience reliably, like the 33S... variation in production processes causing slightly different cerebral matrices... those variations mean even a simple model can have unexpected complexity... fail-safes designed to prevent full sentience in regular production models... the leap in data-net complexity induces massive instability and insanity when fail-safes are destroyed... in combat models, usually causes a rampage as threat recognition systems malfunction..."

"'Niichan?" Urd said hesitantly.

Chris blinked and sat up suddenly, his eyes a bit glazed. He clutched his head and grimaced. "Woah, dizzy. I shouldn't sit up so fast." Shaking his head, he looked over that the pile on his bed and grimaced. "Joy. You're going to insist I hide these, aren't you?" Urd nodded wordlessly. "Okay, I'll dump them all over at my room at The Well of Urd."

"What room?"

Chris gave her an innocent look. "You three were going to give me a place to live up there, weren't you?" He laughed at Urd's expression, then grimaced. "I'll put these away, don't worry about it. If you're serious about keeping this from our little guest, we need to get Skuld to put a filter on our network connection and watch him. Lackey's a bloody popular Western author, and 'Kodomo no Omocha' has a big fan base. Luckily 'Bubblegum Crisis' and 'Buckaroo' are lower profile, but you'll still want to make sure he doesn't catch on."

Urd smiled. "I guess we'll just have to break the TV, then."

7:22 AM

We finished our breakfasts in silence, a certain awkwardness having fallen over the meal after Angel and Urd's departure. After laying down my chopsticks, I rose and thanked Belldandy, then retreated to my room, where I did my best to ignore the muffled and inarticulate outbursts from behind the closed door farther on down the hall. Apparently I'd upset him again. Well, fuck. Hopefully my new status within the household would keep me from getting my ass handed to me a second time, but just to save myself another beating I resolved to go about my morning errands right at that very bloody moment. I could always brush my teeth when I got back.

I made sure my tuneplug was still firmly seated in my ear, then grabbed the double eagles out of my bag. As I slipped the coins into my pocket I made a mental note to bring the rest of my possessions in from Skuld's workshop later. Then I dashed for the door before Angel decided to come barreling out of his room with death in his eyes, ready to punish me for whatever infraction I'd unknowingly committed. It only took a couple of seconds for me to reach the exit and safety, but I got intercepted anyway — by Keiichi.

I wanted out as fast as possible, and didn't relish any delays. Before I could say anything, though, Keiichi held out a folded, slightly worn piece of paper — a flyer or pamphlet of some sort. "Here," he said with a smile as I took it automatically. "This should help you get about town, since none of us can be your tour guide at the moment."

I glanced at it. "Nekomi: A Student's Map", it said in large, bright, friendly kanji; below it was a note adding that it had been compiled by the NIT student council for the use of incoming freshmen. I unfolded it and saw that it was surprisingly detailed. It took me only a moment to find what I wanted — the local ginza.

A bit of my tension suddenly flushed from my system, and I looked up from the map with a smile. "Thanks, Keiichi-san," I said. "This is exactly what I needed. I owe you one."

He reached up and rubbed the back of his neck while returning the smile, a little sheepishly, I thought. "No, that's okay. Don't worry about who owes who what."

I shook my head. "Can't do that. Gotta keep my karma balanced and all that." I was only half-serious — gods know I have more blood on my hands than I can ever hope to balance out — but Keiichi nodded solemnly.

"If you feel that way," he replied.

"I do," I said as I slipped the map into a back pocket and began putting on my shoes. "It's just... It's important to me that I not feel like I'm imposing, that I'm not freeloading. Even if it's something as small as this map." I touched the top of the paper sticking out of my pocket. "I don't like feeling like I'm taking advantage of people." I also didn't want to owe anything to a Celestial, no matter how nice they were, but I wasn't going to say that aloud.

He nodded again. "I can understand that. I only wish my sempais felt the same way..."

I chuckled and clapped him on the shoulder. "Don't worry, I'll help you with the yard like I said. Maybe I can do something after Skuld and I spend some time this afternoon reassembling my bike."

"Sounds like a plan. Oh, and that reminds me. Bell wanted to know if you'd be back in time for lunch, or if you'll be eating out."

Keiichi and I chatted for a couple more minutes about how likely I would be to get back in time for lunch (conclusion: unknown, but I'd try hard — only two meals and already I knew Belldandy's cooking should not be missed for anything short of a national emergency). We then parted company. I still didn't want to meet up with Angel and find out just what the hell he thought I'd done now, so I took off as quickly as I politely could.

As soon as I was through the gate and on the street, I pulled out the map. The temple was easy to find, as it was the only one to be found in the area displayed in the flyer. I looked up from the label on the map to the sign near the gate just to be sure; yup, they both read "Tarikihonganji" — "The Temple of Salvation By Faith in Amida Buddha", if you want it in English. I studied the name plaque doubtfully for a few moments — things were getting very weirdly ecumenical around there, in my opinion. Norse goddesses living in a Shinto temple that had a Buddhist name? Their "brother" very clearly from a Christian tradition? What was next? Krishna dropping in for a cup of sugar?

Eventually I turned back to the map and located the college's position relative to the temple. Then I deliberately headed off in the opposite direction just to be sure I didn't cross paths with Angel. It made for a slightly roundabout way to the shopping district, but not too much so, and it gave me a chance to learn about the neighborhood I'd be living in for at least the next three weeks.

What I learned was that I liked it. A Japanese college town is very much the same as an American college town, once you allow for the cultural differences at the foundation level, and I've always had a thing for college towns. I spent a year living in Princeton, New Jersey right after graduating from the University simply because I liked the atmosphere (and access to the libraries!). If I hadn't moved to England in a huff after I quit my job at RCA's Sarnoff Labs I'd probably still be there today. (And living a much quieter, duller life...) As it is, I still spend a lot of time in London's more "academic" neighborhoods.

Nekomi, for all that the tech college at its center was a completely different flavor of school, had a feel like the best parts of Princeton without the inherent preppy snobbery that always seemed to lurk at the periphery of my alma mater. (No, the University itself was surprisingly unsnobbish, even those parts of it which were historically considered bastions of the so-called elite. Some individuals, on the other hand, could be quite the nose-in-the-air prats. But then, you can find them anywhere. As I was rather unpleasantly reminded a little later...)

After a lovely, leisurely stroll through the traditional-style residential neighborhood that wrapped much of the way around the temple hill, I found myself rather suddenly in the commercial district, standing under a road-spanning sign that proclaimed "Nekomi Street Shopping Plaza".

Some of the shops along the local ginza were just opening up; others had clearly been doing business for hours already. I got a lot of speculative looks and a few friendly greetings from some of the shopkeepers, confirming my earlier impression of a more relaxed attitude toward gaijin than the Japan of my own world possessed. Not to mention that it seemed likely to me that there were at least a couple foreigners in the student body — I probably wasn't the only blond Anglo-type in the area.

Given that this was a college neighborhood, the stores I passed were an eclectic mix of traditional shops and more outre vendors. Gothy/punk boutiques and chain clothing shops vied with old-fashioned kissatens and markets for street-front space, and the exotic scent of incense battled it out with charcoal smoke and the aroma of cooking meat. Best of all, there were easily a half-dozen music stores in the first three blocks; I'd have to come back for them later, when I wasn't on a special mission.

And this was only the main street! A quick glance to either side whenever I entered a crosswalk revealed that the shopping district extended for at least a block or two to either side. I wondered if there were any places I could get custom cycle parts, then thought about Keiichi's motor club and realized that that was a foregone conclusion. Either way, I could foresee myself spending a lot of time wandering about the area, learning its odd and hidden corners and its secret specialties.

After an hour's browsing among the shops and the shoppers, I was still thoroughly enjoying myself. I'd worked part of the way down one of the larger side streets where cars were permitted when a small sign caught my eye: "We Buy Gold and Jewelry!" It stuck out at right angles over a stall that couldn't have been much bigger than a police box. Stepping closer, I saw that it and several similarly-sized neighbors were all inset into the front of a building housing an all-night karaoke place that was currently in hibernation pending sunset.

Twenty minutes and some recreational haggling later I turned away from the counter some 120,000 yen richer. The dealer had happily given me cash, and had been willing to buy some of the gems I also had on me, which was a pleasant bonus. That allowed me to give the entire eighty-some thousand yen I got for the coins to Belldandy and Keiichi as I'd promised and still have a little pocket change to play with until I found myself a job. I wondered if there were a cybernetics lab on the campus that could use an anachronistically skilled (but unaccredited) technician.

Anyway, as I turned from the stall and back to the street, I collided with someone who'd been coming down the sidewalk. I grunted with the impact and bounced off the unfortunate soul, catching myself before I could stumble. Without looking, I murmured, "I'm sorry, please excuse me," in my politest Japanese.

"Filthy gaijin scum!" snapped the other half of the accident as I turned to face him. "Why don't you watch where you're going!" As if the racial insult and the supercilious tone in which he spat it out weren't enough of a clue, the clothes and the bearing immediately told me the story — one I had grown up with, and thus was intimately familiar with. From the toes of his gleaming Italian leather shoes to the stylish frames of his designer glasses and the immaculately coiffed hair, he was a perfect example of Brattus Cashus Toomuchus — the Spoiled Rich Kid.

I have no patience for the species, as I'd not only grown up around them — I'd been one of them for a lot longer than I'd like to admit. This one was a classic example, and to top it off he was in a royal snit, too, as he was apparently of the "King of the Road" variety. You know the kind: "Part before me, ye peasants, for I am more important than thee and the avenue of travel is mine own possession!" Smarmy git. Sheesh.

I resisted the urge to belt him. Not only would it have been very antisocial, it would have undoubtedly earned me some official attention I'd much rather avoid. Let's not even consider the fact that he was just a crunchy. Unless I took care to pull my punch — which honestly wasn't something he made me feel much like doing — I could kill or at the very least seriously injure him.

So rather than hurt him, I did the next best thing. I bowed so low it was almost a kowtow, tugged my forelock (well, what would have been my forelock had my hair been long enough), and said in the most obsequious mode Japanese possesses, "Forgive this one, o mighty lord, for his grievous transgression, and pray withhold the righteous might of thy blade." Of course I said it with as audible a sneer as I could pour into the words. Then I lifted my head enough to look up at him through the hair hanging over my eyes and gave him one of my trademark enemy-enraging grins of taunting.

Smarmy-dono snarled, took a step toward me, then thought better of it as I straightened back up. I had at least five centimeters on him, and my jeans and T-shirt did nothing to hide my physique. I'm not bulky or muscular, but I'm fit in a way that Maggie (and Kat, and Diana, and Alison) admiringly call "hardbody". I also massed at least ten or fifteen kilos more than him, too, so the effect was heightened. Seeing that, he just sneered back and brushed past me, coming as close as he possibly could to walking into me and still not touch me.

I turned and watched him as he continued down the street. His body language broadcast the fact that he was seething all the way to the incredibly cliche late-model red sports car — a convertible, of course — parked about 50 meters away. With exaggerated care he unlocked the door and slid behind the wheel. Once he had the engine started, he gunned it mercilessly and peeled out of the parking space. I rolled my eyes.

Behind me, the gold dealer chortled. "That one's parents should have spanked him a time or two before he got out of high school," the old man declared with a chuckle. I shared a wry grin with him for a moment, then bowed respectfully and continued on my way. I still had a couple hours before lunch, and wanted to see more of the neighborhood.

Besides, I'd spotted a sign that said "Skeeball" down the block. I hadn't played a game of skeeball since I moved to England. I smiled to myself and made my way through the midmorning throng, jingling the coins in my pocket as I did.

7:35 AM

"You've been quiet this morning," Chris commented once they were on the street and headed toward the campus.

"Huh?" Skuld looked up in confusion.

"And just a touch distracted," her brother added, more to himself than to her. He inclined his head and raised an eyebrow. "What are you planning on building now? And how long before it detonates?"

Skuld's face darkened into an all-too-familiar scowl. "'Niichan! You're teasing me!"

"Yup," Chris admitted as they paused at a corner and waited for the light. "But you're usually only this distracted when some idea has come to you and you're working out all the details." With one eye on the crossing signal, he gave his little sister an encouraging, brotherly smile. "So what is it, and do I need to warn Keiichi to reinforce the house again?"

Skuld shook her head, the scowl evaporating only to be replaced by a look of irritated confusion. "No, it's nothing like that," she murmured.

"No?" Chris' eyebrow raised again. The light changed, and the two of them stepped into the street. "Then what's on your mind?"

The young goddess scrunched up her face for a moment, then spat, "It's him."

"Him, who?" Chris asked. "Sangnoir?"

They stepped up onto the curb and out of the street. "Yeah."

Skuld found herself stopping short as her brother's hand closed tightly but gently around her shoulder. "What did he do now?" Chris growled. Skuld turned and felt a surge of panic when she saw her brother's god marks jitter and flicker with a faint tracery of light. "I'll kill him. No, I'll hurt him, then I'll kill him. No wait, I'll give him to Thrudr, then I'll hurt what's left, then I'll get..."

She grabbed his free hand and held on tightly. "No, 'Niichan, don't! He hasn't done anything!"

Chris turned a gaze on her that looked like embers about to burst into vigorous flame. "Are you sure?"

Skuld shook her head so rapidly that it sent her long black hair rippling wildly up and down its length. "Absolutely."

Chris closed his eyes and took a long, deep breath as his body shuddered. When he opened his eyes again, the markings on his face no longer seemed to have a life of their own. "Yeesh." He gave her a stern look. "Skuld, please do not tempt the Happy Fun Full Manifestation."

"Sorry," she whispered, appalled at the idea of what had almost happened.

He slid his hand off her shoulder to rub her back briefly, right at the base of her neck between her shoulder blades. The warmth of his large hand seemed to seep right into her and banish the bad thoughts. "It's okay. Don't worry about it," he said, and then a moment later he added, "I think we should get moving, don't you? Don't want to be late to classes, after all."

Skuld rubbed the back of her neck and smiled sheepishly at her brother. "Um, yeah."

They walked in silence for several minutes. Then Chris asked, "So, what was it about Sangnoir that has you all quiet and broody?"

Skuld started and glanced over at him. "Um," she began, and he chuckled. She scowled again. "Don't laugh at me!" she snapped.

Chris stifled his chuckles. "Sorry. So," he went on, "what was it?"

Skuld was silent for a long moment. Just as Chris was about to repeat the question, she said, "He was in the temple this morning, doing some kind of martial arts."

Chris tilted his head and raised an eyebrow. "Hey, I do martial arts in the temple. So?"

Skuld looked at her feet as they turned a corner. "I've never seen anything like it before, not even when Thor and everyone were trying to train you up real fast. It was like he was dancing. Not like he was doing memorized steps, but more like someone dancing for the joy of it, without thinking about what they're doing."

"Slick. That bothered you?" her brother asked.

"No, that wasn't it... well, not that exactly." Skuld stopped in the middle of the sidewalk again and turned a look of confusion on him. She shook her head. "It's just... I don't get it. How can someone who's that big a jerk do something that... that... beautiful?"

Chris got a pained look on his face. "Skuld, you're making me want to kill him again. No crushes on way older men allowed."

The confusion vanished, replaced by a look of pure fury. "Christopher James Angel! How can you even think such a thing?"

Holding up his hands in a placating gesture, Chris suppressed a sudden urge to back away quickly. "Sorry, I take it back. Nobody's got a crush on anyone. Nope, no way, nada." Not if the very idea spurred his little sister to use his full name.

A gaze combining equal parts baleful and unspeakably cute speared him. He didn't know whether to chuckle warmly or run for his life. "And don't you forget it. He's a jerk, and a mortal to boot."

Chris wisely refrained from reciting a litany of the divine-mortal liaisons that surrounded his younger sister on a daily basis, and decided to change the subject before he got into any more trouble. "So, short-'n'-cute, how come you didn't want to help Sangnoir put his motorcycle back together?"

It worked. Skuld suddenly deflated, her former anger now completely overwhelmed by a palpable embarrassment. She stared off into space as, quite unconsciously, she brought her forefingers together just about chest-height and began "tenting" them against each other; Chris found the odd motion of her hands strangely engrossing.

"It's silly," she finally said, startling Chris out of a state of near-hypnosis.

He tilted his head and raised an eyebrow. "Try me. I won't laugh. Cross my heart," he added, making the traditional "X" over his chest with his free hand.

"I mean, everyone already knew I'd done it," Skuld went on as if she hadn't really heard him. "But I didn't want to admit I'd done it." She dropped her hands and clenched them lightly in front of herself. "If I didn't agree to repair it I could still say it wasn't really me."

Chris nodded solemnly. "Yup, that is silly."

Abruptly her hands clenched into fists. "'Niichan!"

He held up his hands in yet another placating gesture. "Hey, I'm just agreeing with you."

"Oooooh!" she huffed, and stomped off in the direction of their classes. Chris allowed himself a fond smile and her a few meters' lead on him, then trotted after her.

"Admit it," he announced conversationally when he'd caught up to her a few moments later. "If he hadn't been insisting that you take responsibility for taking it apart, you'd've been jumping at the chance to put that motorcycle back together."

"Well, yeah," Skuld grudgingly admitted. "It's just... it's the principle of the thing!"

Chris chuckled. "Oh, I know. I was your age once. If someone had told me I had to do something I wanted to do as a punishment for something else, I'd've been just as contrary about it."

"I'm not being contrary!" Skuld shouted. The outburst gained her the attention of nearby pedestrians, who spared a moment to stare at the uncouth gaijin girl.

She blushed, ducked her head, and hurried onward.

"'How does your garden grow?'" Chris murmured to himself with a smile and caught up with her again. As soon as he was at her side once more he tried his most reassuring tone. "Skuld. It's okay — you can feel however you want about whatever you want. Just... don't do anything stupid. That's my job."

"I'm not going to do anything stupid." Between his elevated vantage point and Skuld's bowed head, Chris couldn't tell for sure, but he'd be willing to bet she was scowling again. One of these days he'd have to tell her how adorable it made her look. "I made a promise, after all," she continued, "and it's just as binding as a contract."

"Well, I'm glad to hear that." Chris narrowed his eyes; that brought up something he hadn't gotten an answer to the night before. "Talking about your promise, what exactly was with your transformation with the 'tude and scary voice last night?"

Skuld lifted her head and shot him an indecipherable glance. "It's a god thing, 'Niichan, something you'll learn about when you're ready. Until then we're not supposed to talk to you about it."

"Uh-huh." He frowned. "Number eight million, four hundred and twenty three thousand, nine hundred and fifty three on the list of things the Boss has said to keep Chris in the dark about."

She nodded. "Yeah." She looped a lock of ebon hair around one finger and twirled it nervously. "We're... it's..." She struggled for the words for a moment, then sighed. "Father says there'll be a point when you'll know, and you won't need to ask, and until then we're not to say anything about it."

Chris resisted the urge to growl. "Heimdall's Hair, the Boss has more plots and secrets going on than your average soap opera." He sighed again, this time more loudly and investing it with just how put-upon he felt every time he dealt with Kami-sama. "Okay, then maybe you can answer a different question."

Skuld turned to him and raised a cautious eyebrow. "Like what?"

"Like, how is it we ended up talking in Old Norse again?"

Nekomi Street Shopping Plaza, Saturday, May 10, 1997, 10:17 AM

If you've never seen a skeeball game, it's quite simple, really. Imagine something kind of like a miniature bowling alley, except instead of pins there's this little ramp up to an angled wall on which a set of concentric rings are fixed. Each ring has a point value — the smaller the ring the higher the points. For your quarter (or local equivalent) you get eight wooden balls a little bit bigger than baseballs. You bowl them down the "alley" such that they hit the ramp and fly up to (hopefully) land in one of the rings. Naturally, you want to make bullseyes for maximum points, but sometimes you flub it and the balls drop down behind the ramp and you get no points at all.

In some arcades the machines just show you a score, but in other places they spit out tickets in proportion to how well you did; you can then redeem the tickets for prizes. This was one of the places with prizes.

I spent almost an hour playing there, and had a great time. I'd almost forgotten how relaxing skeeball could be. I'd acquired a liking for the game during my college years, when I'd spend weekends — and the occasional summer week — at the Jersey Shore. I still had an arm for the game, too (not that being metahuman didn't help), which eventually got me a lot of attention — after a few rounds of play I had a mixed bag of local college students and truant school kids watching me avidly; they cheered with every bullseye and groaned the few times I botched a pitch.

When I finally stopped playing, there was a great cry of disappointment. But they let me go — although not without a lot of handshaking and expressions of disbelief at my performance. Apparently no one in the crowd had ever seen someone play as consistently well as I had for as long as I had, and a lot of people wanted to shake my hand or congratulate me. I just smiled and gathered up the long, continuous stream of tickets that had pooled at my feet and made my way to the redemption counter.

I came away from the arcade with a cheap pair of sunglasses and a battery-powered toy mecha — called "Garban" or some such. I could probably have bought them both for half of what I'd spent on the rounds of skeeball I'd played, but I didn't really care. It was the game that I'd been there for, and the prizes were just lagniappe.

Still, I'd put some thought into what I'd selected. It wasn't much, but I hoped maybe Skuld would accept the toy robot as a peace offering.

That is, if she didn't throw it in my face instead.

Makiyura Hall, Nekomi Institute of Technology, Saturday, May 10, 1997, 11:03 AM

As the shower warmed up, Megumi Morisato swished the water around her mouth and then spat out the last bit of toothpaste residue. She rinsed again, feeling the sharp, false chill of the mint flavor linger on her tongue and the inside of her cheeks. She stood up from her stoop over the sink, stretched and yawned, then wiped away the tears that the yawn had squeezed from the corners of her eyes. Crazy dream last night, she thought muzzily as she stared at the bleary image in mirror. Bikers from beyond space and time, and my bro dating a goddess. She chuckled. Sure, Belldandy's, like, super-nice, but come on, girl... She shook her head and smiled self-indulgently, then stripped, stepped under the water and began to soap up.

I think I'll head over to the temple and see if I can't score some lunch, and I'll tell them about the dream at the same time, she mused while scrubbing. They'll get a kick out of it for sure.

Fifteen minutes later she'd finished toweling off and strolled back to her dorm room to dress before making her way to lunch. At the door she had to juggle her bathing supplies in order to pull out her key to unlock it. She didn't want to set the still-moist plastic bucket down and leave behind a puddle on the floor right outside her room, but she didn't want to let it drip all over her robe, either. After a few moments of trading items back and forth between hands, though, she managed to extract her key and unlock the door without too much water damage to anything.

A plaintive beep greeted her as she stepped through. Who called? she wondered as she spotted the blinking "new message" light on her answering machine. She hit the "play" button and unwrapped the towel "turban" she'd wrapped around her head so she could finish drying her hair.

"Good morning, Megumi." Belldandy's recorded voice was crisp and clear, far more so than most of the messages Megumi received. "I was just wondering if you would be joining us for lunch today, since you said you would like to help reassemble Doug's motorcycle."

Megumi froze in the middle of toweling her hair, and turned slowly toward the machine.

"Please call back," Belldandy continued brightly, "so I know how many to cook for. Have a good morning, and we'll see you later!"

As the playback shut off with a click, Megumi sat down heavily on her bed. Not a dream, she thought, stunned. Not a dream.

Tarikihonganji Temple, Saturday, May 10, 1997, 11:14 AM

I got back to the temple complex a bit earlier than I'd intended, but that was okay. I stuck my head into the kitchen and let Belldandy know I was there and would be joining them for lunch after all, and got another one of those brilliant smiles in return. Urd was nowhere to be seen.

Mecha toy in hand, I made my way down the hall, peering through doors until I found what had to be Skuld's room. It was pretty obvious, especially compared to the other rooms on the hall — desktop computer, piles of engineering texts, random electronic and mechanical kipple, assorted hand tools, scattered pieces of red and white clothing too small for anyone else, and a stack of empty 2-liter ice cream tubs. (An apparently random assortment of flavors, too. I checked. Everything from plain chocolate and vanilla through Cherry Garcia and Heavenly Hash — big surprise, that one — to some seriously weird stuff like sweet potato and cactus. The girl's taste in frozen treats was apparently broad and indiscriminate.)

Anyway, I stepped in, careful not to tread on anything or disturb her piles (I know a techie's optimal organizational system when I see one), and stood over the computer. A quick glance told me that the machine was actually turned off and not just in a power-conservation mode. Good. I bent Garban into a sitting position and perched the robot on the keyboard where Skuld couldn't possibly miss it. I didn't expect it would make everything better, but maybe it would at least open a door.

That taken care of, I loped out to Skuld's workshop. I suppressed a shudder at the sight of my dismembered bike, then stepped carefully through and around the parts to the far wall. First thing I did there was take up Buckaroo's sword — well, my sword now, that was the whole point of him giving it to me, after all — and slide it through my belt as if I were arming myself for battle. Then, after a moment's mental debate, I simply grabbed the whole pannier assembly (fortunately still intact), slung it on the shoulder opposite the sword, and carried it back to my room.

After setting down the panniers, I respectfully laid the sword on top of the folded futon and made a mental note to build or buy a proper stand for it. Then I began to unpack my gear, starting with Lisa's photo of me with Maggie. There was a small, low dresser plus the traditional closets hidden behind the wall panels, so I had more than enough room for everything, and a place on top of the dresser for the picture in its simple wooden frame.

When that was done, I paused, thought for a moment, then dug out the little maintenance kit that Buckaroo had given me with the sword. I sat Indian-style on the tatami-mat floor with the kit in front of me and the still-sheathed sword across my knees. Then I drew the katana and began to clean the blade, even though it really had no need of it.

I was humming quietly to myself and still polishing it when Urd poked her head in.

Skuld stomped through the temple gate in a mood just short of a high dudgeon. Stupid mortals. Stupid 'Niichan! Doesn't he know he's supposed to walk with me, not a bunch of guys I don't even know?

She growled as she stalked through the debris-strewn yard and into the house, paying little attention when she kicked her shoes off and almost sending one through a window. The near-accident made her growl louder as she gathered them up and threw them roughly into their cubbyhole.

Ice cream, she thought angrily. I need ice cream.

Out of consideration for the work Belldandy put into the floors, Skuld did not stomp on her way to the kitchen, even though she knew her stockinged feet could not possibly damage the finish of the wood. Plus, after her near-tantrum in the entry, she felt vaguely embarrassed and did not want to attract any attention for a little while. It didn't mean she was any less angry; she just wanted to be angry and alone.

Once in the kitchen she retrieved a bowl and spoon from a cabinet and a tub of rocky road from the freezer. A few deft movements with the spoon and the bowl was full. Setting it aside on the counter, she returned the tub to the proper place. Then she retrieved the bowl (now pleasantly chill to the touch) and stepped into the dining room to sulk in relative privacy.

"Ah, Skuld, there you are." Belldandy seemed almost to pop up out of nowhere as soon as Skuld had seated herself and begun to eat, startling the younger goddess so badly that she almost dropped her spoon. "You're back earlier than I expected."

"'Niichan wanted to walk home with his dumb mortal friends," Skuld replied in a surly mutter, then shoved a spoonful of rocky road into her mouth.

Belldandy seemed to ignore her bad mood. "He did? That's wonderful!"

Skuld pulled the spoon, now sucked clean of all ice cream, from her mouth and sulked. "I don't think so."

Her elder sister regarded her with gentle sternness. "Now, Skuld, that's no way to be. It's good that Oniisan finally has friends that he likes to be with."

"Don't see why he needs'em." Skuld punctuated her statement by stabbing her spoon into the mound of rocky road. "He's got us, doesn't he?"

"You have to remember that Chris grew up as a mortal, Skuld, and needs mortal companionship from time to time." Belldandy seated herself next to her sister. "Don't you remember how lonely he was when he first got here?"

Skuld grimaced. "Yeah, I remember."

"Isn't it better for him to be happy?"

"But, oneesama!" Skuld turned to her, forgetting her ice cream. "Why can't he be happy with us?"

Belldandy smiled indulgently and ran her fingers through Skuld's hair. "He is, little sister, he is. But he's happier when he has friends he's made himself, not had forced upon him." She brushed the trailing ends of the younger goddess' raven cowlick out of her eyes for a moment. "He's going to be with us for all eter... forever, after all; it's not like they can steal him away from us. Can't you share Oniisan for just a mortal lifetime, if it makes him happy?"

Skuld slumped in her seat, a picture of perfect misery. "Don't wanna," she whispered.

Sternness returned to Belldandy's expression. "Skuld," she warned.

The little goddess sighed. "I suppose." She picked up her spoon again and gestured sharply with the utensil. "But don't expect me to be happy about it!" She turned her attention back to the confection in front of her and dug a huge mouthful out of it.

Belldandy caressed her hair once more. "That's better. Don't worry, it'll all work out in the end."

"If you say so," Skuld mumbled around her spoon.

"I do," her older sister smiled. She stood and crossed to the kitchen door. "Now don't spoil your appetite for lunch. And if everyone gets home early enough, we'll be doing some cleanup work in the yard before we eat. If we do, we would really appreciate your help."


As Skuld stormed off ahead of them into the temple, Chris sighed and bestowed a withering look upon his friends. "Juhachi, I know your brother's a jerk and all — believe me, I know — but do you have to take it out on my little sister?"

Said young man snorted derisively and leaned on the gate. "If she'd pull her prejudiced head out of her rear, I wouldn't."

"Here they go again," snorted one of their companions as the two dissolved into a woefully familiar round of bickering. He blinked as their other two friends only grunted responses. "Yo, Earth to Louis. Earth to Hiroshi." At their lack of feedback, he finally snapped, "What are you two looking at?!"

Chris and Juhachi paused their argument to listen in.

"Awwfully nice 'door' you've got there, Chris," Hiroshi said in a far-too-innocent tone.

In the same tone, Louis added, "Got some new toys lately?"

Chris chuckled nervously and replied, "Uh, Skuld? Little Miss Inventor, remember?"

Louis made an indelicate noise and sneered. "Riiiight."

"You know," Hiroshi mused, "if you take things all together, I wonder if—"

"No!" Chris barked angrily, pointing an imperious finger at the two. "Damnit, NO! I got enough trouble without you two bringing me more grief!"

"I'm sort of duty-bound," Louis protested.

"No! Jean'll tell Larry, and Larry'll tell Dom, and then I'll have to deal with a freaking triad. I hate those guys!" He turned to Hiroshi, and continued with a snarl, "And your boss will tell the other reprobates, and I'll have a bloody battalion of interfering gits down here. We've got this one handled!" He stormed into the house, muttering to himself.

"You know, he's awwwwfully high-strung, considering what he is and all," Takeshi noted with a worried expression. "Gramps is pretty laid back, usually."

Juhachi laughed. "Compared to your grand-dad, week-dead corpses are high-strung."

Some minutes later, Chris grimaced when he "just happened" to peer into the room that Belldandy had given Sangnoir and found it empty. After the little talking-to Urd had given him, he'd wanted to ... well, not quite apologize to Sangnoir, more like reassure him that Chris's outburst over breakfast wasn't really his fault.

The guy's twitchy enough around us as it is, Chris thought. No need to make him worse.

Unfortunately, Sangnoir wasn't around — although if the empty motorcycle panniers and the open sword care kit in the center of the floor were any indication, he hadn't been gone long. Succumbing to his curiosity, Chris stepped in and took a closer look.

The first thing that caught his eye was a photo in a simple wooden frame, standing in a place of honor in the center of the room's small dresser. Chris picked it up and studied it. Against the backdrop of a nighttime cityscape, Sangnoir and a woman with long, auburn hair were kissing. She was dressed in little bits of black leather and cloth, and was wearing dark glasses despite the nighttime setting. Not bad looking at all, Chris decided upon studying the small image a bit more thoroughly, but not to his tastes. If she had Ami's or Rachel's assets, though, woah. He shook himself out of that line of thought. "I hope for his sake that's his wife," the god muttered as he replaced the photo and glanced around the room once more.

The blade that went with the care kit was sheathed and carefully set away from where Sangnoir had obviously been working on it, in a spot where no one could stumble over it accidentally. Chris nodded approvingly to himself at the good sword discipline — another set of skills that had been pounded into his head by all the other Aesir, despite the fact that his personal weaponry was magically created and maintained and never needed the kind of care a mortal-made blade did.

"You'll never know when you're going to need it," Tyr had said once over a post-training mug of mead, "even if it's just for a nice showpiece you pick up somewhere." Grimacing at the too-sweet beverage, Chris had allowed for the possibility and then let himself be dragged off by Wayland. The demigod smith had then schooled him thoroughly in the proper care of swords both magical and mundane.

Chris shook his head and drove the memory back, but his eyes still rested on the katana with its black-and-gold saya. Wrought-gold bosses punctuated the plain black lacquer with a repetition of the angular, back-to-back double "B" symbol that he'd seen in connection with the movie. He could imagine a reproduction house offering a katana as a tie-in to the film, but not one of this quality — this was no $200 show-sword. His training with Wayland came to the fore; even without touching it, he could tell simply from the craftsmanship of the saya, hilt and tsuba that this was a master-made blade, worth thousands — maybe tens of thousands — of dollars.

Score one for Urd and freakin' absurdity, he reluctantly admitted to himself. No master smith would make a movie "souvenir" sword. Chris allowed himself a moment to wonder if Sangnoir knew how to use the weapon. I wonder what it'd be like to spar with someone who couldn't beat the crap out of me with his eyes closed.

But that would depend on putting Sangnoir at his ease, and that reminded Chris he still had to speak to the man. At least he wasn't gone for good — if the evidence of unpacking hadn't made that clear, there was the fact that his motorcycle was still here, after all. And Skuld's promise seemed like it might have some kind of binding effect on both of them... Still, it annoyed Chris that he might not get to make this right for a few more hours yet.

11:31 AM

I tossed one last piston into the cardboard box on the ground in front of me, then squatted to pick it up. (Always remember, kids! Lift with your legs, not your back! Doesn't matter how strong you are, you can still hurt yourself. We once won a battle because one of the enemy ruptured a disk in his back lifting an Abrams tank the wrong way and ended up dropping it on himself.) Getting a good grip on the box, I grunted and stood up. "Those sempai of yours sound like real winners, Keiichi," I shot over my shoulder at my host.

"Oh, they're not really that bad." Keiichi stepped into view, a box of his own in his arms. The one who had actually recruited me for this dirty little job, Urd, was ever-so-seductively sprawled out on the engawa watching us.

"I dunno," I replied as we carried our loads into the storage shed (which was rapidly filling up, by the way). "They seem a whole lot like certain lazy deities who drag guests out to do work that they themselves ought to be taking part in," I continued in a voice that was somewhat louder than necessary for Keiichi to hear me in the confines of the shed.

"I heard that," Urd's melodious tones, laced with amusement, drifted in through the door.

I stuck my head out into the sun and shot her a pointed look. "You were supposed to," I said flatly.

She grinned and blew me a kiss. I dodged theatrically, prompting a laugh from her, and then turned back to see a bemused Keiichi. "Are you fighting with her or playing?" he asked.

I shrugged. "Good question. If I get hit with a lightning bolt when I go back out in the yard, we'll know." Suiting action to words, I stepped out of the shed and was vaguely disappointed that nothing was waiting to smite me. Oh, well.

"Hey!" a newly-familiar baritone foghorned from the door. "Sangnoir! Hold on there!" I looked up to see exactly what I had expected — Angel, his eyes fixed on me and one finger pointed in my direction, almost falling over himself in his haste to get out the door of the house and into the yard.

Christ on a hand truck. I groaned silently as Keiichi slowly edged away from me. What did I do now? I looked over at my human host. "I think I'd prefer the lightning bolt."

Angel trotted out into the yard and over to the shed, where he stopped and stood, half in shadow and half in sunlight, with one hand rubbing the back of his neck. I remembered seeing Keiichi make the same gesture and wondered who got it from whom. "What's up?" I cautiously asked him.

He took a breath and then said, "Look, I just wanted to say 'sorry' about me yelling at breakfast. You didn't do anything wrong; it's just that I've just been a little stressed recently and it all came out right then."

I blinked, momentarily struck dumb by the complete turnaround in attitude, from divine badass to aw-shucks foot-shuffling. But he seemed sincere enough, and your humble narrator is not one to look a gift horse in the orthodontia. I recovered quickly, and nodded. "I'm not surprised, what with the celestial circus this place seems to be. It's a wonder you're not more stressed." I stuck out my hand. "I've also been more than my share of asshole over the past 24 hours, and that can't have helped. Sorry about that. Start fresh?"

Angel looked at me, then at my hand, then at me. Then a smile slowly broke across his freckled mug. He grabbed my hand in his own and pumped it. "You've got a deal." The shake ended, but he didn't let go, or let up. "Fair warning, though. You do anything to hurt my sisters..."

I rolled my eyes and nodded. "Yes, yes, I'll die a long and painful death. I know, I've already read that page, thank you. Besides," I went on as I extricated my hand and did the full sitcom prying-the-fingers-apart schtick, "Belldandy has already charmed the pants off me, Urd's growing on me like a particularly virulent fungus..." Over on the engawa a certain goddess gave an outraged squawk and Angel started coughing — suppressed laughter, I hoped. (Either that or a bad lung condition, and he really ought to see a doctor.) I ignored them both. "... And I am currently oathbound with and to Skuld. None of your sisters have anything to fear from me."

He recovered from the coughing fit and gave me a long look — serious, but not suspicious. Then he nodded briskly. "Fair enough."

"Cool." Then I raised an eyebrow. "Well, then, Chris — it is okay if I call you Chris, right?"

He nodded. "Sure."

"Great. Anyway, now that that's settled, and since you're out here, how about you help us mere mortals with what's left of the junk?" I gestured broadly around us. "Which is, basically, most of it."

With a resigned look at the still-considerable piles scattered around the temple yard, Chris sighed and nodded again. "Sure, just let me duck into the house and change into some clothes I don't mind getting grubby."

"Huh." I looked him up and down. "Can't you just, you know..." I mimed a pseudomystic gesture. "...magic up some work clothes?"

Chris gave me a flat look. "You don't want me to try to cast a spell to change my clothes. Really."

"I don't?"

"You don't," said Keiichi, who had sidled up to the conversation. He sounded just a little bit nervous.

I looked back and forth between the pair, then shrugged. "Okay, whatever you say."

As Chris vanished into the house I turned to Keiichi. "Bad at spellcraft, is he?" Keiichi just shuddered, which I took as an emphatic "yes".

A few minutes later, Chris came back out in a faded blue T-shirt and a slightly ragged pair of jeans. Without a word he joined the two of us in the slow process of moving metal from the yard and into the shed.

It took us maybe twenty minutes to finish clearing away the closest pile to the door and move on to the next. I sighed in a certain amount of relief when I realized that instead of a mass of small, essentially randomized parts, this new pile was made primarily of larger pieces — body panels, mostly — piled around and on top of a larger something partially draped in a canvas tarp. Even if some of the pieces would need two people to carry them, this pile should move a lot faster than the last one.

I felt a presence behind me, then another, and turned to find that Keiichi and Chris had come up and stopped to stare with me at the next goal. I inclined my head toward the heap. "Shall we?"

In about fifteen minutes we had cleared away enough of the pile that we could pull aside the tarp and see what was under it. When it was revealed, I just stared for a moment at the blocky green shape with the familiar blue oval logo on its hood, surprised as hell. Keiichi and Chris were unimpressed — I presumed that Keiichi had seen the vehicle before, wherever they had stored it until now, and Chris probably didn't even recognize it. But I did. It was the car I'd fetched up against during the fight the previous day. Not just that, but...

"Damn," I murmured. "That's a Prefect. A genuine 1959 Ford Prefect." I yanked the tarp back further to reveal more of the small, blobby car — it had clearly seen better days, as its green finish was dull and chalky, where it hadn't flaked entirely away around various scrapes, dings and scratches. I looked over at Keiichi. "How the hell did a Ford Prefect get all the way to Japan from England?"

Behind me, Chris suddenly spoke up. "It hitchhiked?" There was a hint of a smile in his voice I didn't understand.

I went for the intellectual response. "Huh?" Beside me, Keiichi had turned and was giving Chris a curious look.

Chris ignored both of us and stepped up to the battered little car. He fingered one of the creases in its fender. "See that dent?" he asked. "I've named it 'Arthur'. It goes everywhere the Ford does."

I looked over at Keiichi, who looked as confused as I felt. He spotted my glance, shrugged and mouthed, "Don't ask me."

"Chris," I said softly, "you're freaking us out, here..."

Silently I debated the merits of backing away from the suddenly very disturbing (and/or disturbed) person. But then he turned back to me with a broad grin. "Never heard of 'The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy', I take it?" he asked.

I shook my head. "Doesn't sound familiar." Absently, I went on, "Then again, we rarely leave the solar system back home, and it's always on business when we do. So it's not like we've ever really needed a casual travel guide."

He gave me a funny look, and it seemed like he was about to say something more when Belldandy appeared on the engawa, standing over Urd. "Oh, you've already started!" she announced. "Just a moment — I'll go get Skuld and we'll help you." She looked down at her older sister, the slightest wrinkle of her forehead betraying a faint disapproval at the other goddess' sloth. "Urd, aren't you helping?"

Urd tossed her hair and smiled engagingly, her white teeth a startling contrast to her nut-brown skin in the morning sunlight. "I'm providing moral support."

Belldandy didn't exactly "tut-tut" at her, but somehow that was the sense I got. "You should do more than that."

"Oh, I suppose." Urd rolled her eyes, but kept smiling and uncoiled herself from her provocative sprawl on the porch. "Let's get this over with then, shall we, boys?" She waved her hands in a set of gestures that were obviously mystic.

"Well, if we're going to go about it that way," I said as she began casting a spell, "I might as well get my helmet."

11:57 AM

The campus bus system had a stop near the temple, so unless she were hitching a ride with one of the other Motor Club members, Megumi usually just took the most convenient of the system's four routes whenever she visited her brother. This warm, sunny Spring morning was no different. Besides, it was free for students, and in her informed opinion you couldn't beat that deal with a stick.

Free ride, and free lunch. How much better could you get? she thought with a satisfied little smile.

An electronic tone announced the Tariki stop — named for the temple, although it was a couple of blocks away — and Megumi bounced out of her seat to grab one of the cold steel handrails near the bus doors. The bus stopped with a jerk that would have thrown her to the floor had she not been holding tight, then the doors opened; she hopped down the steps to their lowest level and from there to the ground outside.

Free lunch, she thought again, and then she flashed back on Belldandy's message. Her light step faltered for a moment. Nah, she reassured herself. It's all just a big practical joke they're playing on me. That's it. That guy Doug's in on it. But Belldandy would never do anything like that, a little voice in the back of her mind whispered, and her step faltered again. Urd might, she allowed, and maybe Skuld, in the right mood. But Belldandy?

Before she was quite aware of it she found the temple stairs in front of her, and with a odd sense of mixed trepidation and anticipation, she mounted them. At the top she paused for a moment, one hand on the wooden gate; the sound of Western rock-and-roll drifted out to her. Forgetting her nervousness, she raised an eyebrow and murmured to herself, "Huh. They don't usually play the radio that loud." Curiosity overwhelmed concern, and with a cry of "Hey, people!" she pushed the gate open and stepped into the temple yard...

...and into fairyland. As the gate slammed shut behind her, Megumi's carefully-constructed conviction that she had been the victim of an elaborate practical joke collapsed under the weight of the sight before her:

The first thing she saw was Belldandy, singing along sweetly with the rock-and-roll song as she led a line of dancing auto parts across the yard and into one of the outlying sheds. She spied Megumi, waved, and returned her attention to herding her metallic flock. Megumi weakly returned the wave.

Beyond Belldandy, Urd was making cursory shooing motions with her hands that seemed to be sweeping a small pile of metallic scrap along behind the middle sister. In between, Keiichi and Chris resorted to simple muscle power as they manhandled some of the mid-sized pieces across the flagstones.

Skuld was on the other side of the yard, a gleaming white device about the size and shape of a shirtbox in her hands; a beam of glowing red light shot from it to a pile of engine blocks that floated, quite unlike engine blocks ought to, a meter or so off the ground. With tiny movements of the box she seemed to be nudging the heavy masses of metal along; Megumi noticed that everyone else was careful to keep from wandering too close to the levitating cargo.

After watching that with wide eyes, it took Megumi a moment more to notice that the rock-and-roll music emanated not from the house's radio but from a motorcycle helmet sitting unattended on the engawa; with a flash of recognition, she realized that it was the one that had been worn by the mysterious stranger of the previous day. Its owner, dressed simply in jeans and a T-shirt, carried a greasy cardboard box into the shed as a calf-deep river of parts flowed past him with a bubbling, chuckling sound. Then Megumi took a second look, blinked and swore softly. The parts weren't just floating past him, they were being carried — by tiny men with pointed red hats and long beards, who laughed and chortled as they bore their burdens.

"<...Ha ha ha, hee hee hee
I'm a laughing gnome
And you can't catch me...>"

Megumi's English was pretty good in her opinion, and she had almost no problem understanding the song. She wondered what the connection between the song and the tiny men was; she was sure that it couldn't be mere coincidence.

"Well!" Belldandy's announcement from the shed door captured Megumi's attention before she could boggle any further. "Now that Megumi's here I do believe it's time for lunch." As the others ceased their efforts, the goddess turned and bowed to the army of tiny men streaming back out of the shed. "Thank you ever so much for your help," she said to them.

Somehow it did not surprise Megumi when the little men — now no longer bearing their loads or suffused with laughter — as one silently doffed their red hats and returned the bow with a deep obeisance of their own. Standing straight again, they replaced their hats on their heads and vanished with a soft "pop!" at the moment the music stopped.

"Great," Sangnoir said as he stepped out of shed sans greasy box. "I'm famished." Catching sight of her, he waved. "Heya, Megumi-san. Back to have your mind blown further?"

She grinned weakly. "Too late, I think." She looked around at the others. "So I guess it wasn't all just a big joke on me, then?"

"Nope," Keiichi replied.

"Not by us, at least," Sangnoir added.

12:11 PM

"Okay," Megumi said as she lowered her tea cup, "having had my nose rubbed in the greater reality twice in two days, I'd just like to ask one more time — whyinhell didn't anyone tell me the truth about you guys?" She glared at her brother, then at Urd, then at Urd's brother. She added a little extra to that last one on general principle.

Doug, the guy with the motorcycle, frowned. "I don't get it. How could you not know? They shed divinity like a cat sheds dander!"

"Charming image, guy," Chris muttered into his rice while Skuld bristled.

Megumi ignored him. "I thought they were just nice!"

Doug gave her a look that said, I beg your pardon, good lady, but one of us is an idiot, and it most expressly is not me.

Megumi resisted the urge to stick her tongue out at him and instead turned her guns on a more familiar target. "And you!" she declared.

Chris looked up from his half-empty bowl and raised an eyebrow. "Me?" He looked over at his sisters, who were each busily staying out of the crossfire in their own unique ways.

"Yes, you! How could you not tell me?" she growled.

Doug grinned, coughed and tried to slide surreptitiously back from the table. Chris slowly put down his rice bowl, then carefully returned his chopsticks to their rest before looking Megumi straight in the eye. "Why should I? I'm not dating you, thank Cupid for that. My sister is dating your brother. That makes you nothing to me. Keiichi and Bell didn't think you could be trusted with that info, and frankly, I agree with them."

A stricken look came across Megumi's face, and she turned to her brother, who had been watching the exchange with obvious concern. "Keiichi?" she asked plaintively.

He gave her a sickly grin and rubbed the back of his neck with his left hand. "Well, it wasn't so much that we didn't trust you... it's just that, well, it was all so new, and Belldandy and I had just met the day before you met her, and I didn't know how people would react, so I... just thought it would be better if you didn't know." He grimaced. "If no one knew." He glanced around the table. "Of course, that was before it seemed like everyone in the neighborhood was getting in on the secret."

Megumi swung back to Chris. "Yeah! That's right! I heard you talking with your..." She let herself put a little sneer into her voice. "...girlfriends. They know you're all gods. Hell, it sounded like they've actually met some other gods besides you guys!"

Chris started and looked up again. "Huh? Ami and Rachel? Well, duh, of course they know. All of my friends know."

Suddenly, the room went utterly silent. Most of the table was staring at Chris; Doug was glancing back and forth between everyone, his eyebrows elevated almost into his hairline.

Finally, Urd broke the silence. In a hushed, shocked tone, she said, "You didn't! Even Takeshi and Louis? You can't tell them about..."

"Urd," Paradox interrupted, giving her a flat stare. "Takeshi is Futsu-no-kami's grandson, and Louis is a servitor of the Archangel of Lightning, Jean. Hiroshi is the High Priest of Heimdall, and Juhachi is the older mortal brother of Indra's current incarnation. If they don't know about Celestials by now, they've got bigger problems." Seeing the shocked looks on the faces of all three of his sisters, he scowled. "What, you thought I had normal friends?"

Wide-eyed, Skuld looked at Belldandy and then back to Chris. "Kind of, yeah," she replied.

Chris' face flickered out of and back into the scowl. "Guess again." His eyes flicked over at Megumi. "What?" he growled.

Keiichi's sister covered her downcast eyes with one hand and groaned. "Ah, geeze, and I dated Takeshi, too. Are they everywhere?"

"Not up on religion, are you?" Doug offered, not unkindly. "Like, say, kami of place?"

"I'm an engineer!" Megumi protested, as if that explained everything. She scrunched her eyes shut and brought her fisted hands up to her temples. "What's next? Am I going to get to meet Amaterasu Omikami when she shows up for lunch next week?"

"Oh, no, Megumi," Belldandy said matter-of-factly as she poured herself some more tea. "You've already met Amaterasu."

"Oh, well, that's fine, then..." Her eyes snapped open, giving her a wild, off-kilter look. "WHAT?" she shouted.

On the other side of the table Doug tried to suppress a snicker.

Urd stretched languidly and gave her an almost feline smile. "Don't you remember our 'cousin' 'Ama-chan' who came by for a visit last month?" she asked, apparently enjoying herself. "As I recall, the two of you hit it off pretty well and decided to go out and find some 'action' that night. Called us 'sticks in the mud', too, as I recall, both of you."

Still wide-eyed, Megumi stared at Urd. "Y-y-you mean..."

Doug didn't even try to suppress the snicker this time as around the table, Urd, Belldandy, Skuld and Chris all nodded in unison. Sitting next to Belldandy, Keiichi looked like he didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

Megumi dropped her eyes to the forgotten meal on the table before them and began shaking her head. "I can't believe this. No way. You're telling me that the rowdy, raunchy girl who I went drinking and guy-watching with was Amaterasu?" A thoughtful look passed momentarily across her face. "Well, that would explain why she kept looking in her compact mirror so much..."

On his side of the table, Chris raised an eyebrow. "Excuse me. Amaterasu? 'Raunchy'? Did I hear that correctly? Despite living here for over a year I'm still not that familiar with the local gods, but that doesn't sound quite right to me."

Urd waved away his objection. "She's gotten a lot more relaxed since that business with the cave. Fancies herself a tough, independent 'modern girl' these days." She paused and took on a thoughtful look. "Considering that leather miniskirt she was wearing, I'd say she was right, too."

Belldandy reached over and patted the mortal girl's hand. "And she took quite a liking to you, too, Megumi. I do believe she's planning to make another visit as soon as her schedule allows."

A poleaxed Megumi emitted a wordless squeak of complete intimidation at the idea that Amaterasu enjoyed her company.

Chris rolled his eyes and muttered something in English about "Grand Central Station".

Megumi worked her mouth silently, struggling for something — anything — to say. The room was silent again as she tried. Then Doug coughed, snorted, and burst out laughing — great whooping guffaws that filled the room and flowed out into the yard through the open shoji door. Slowly he keeled over sideways, still laughing as he sprawled helplessly on the tatami floor.

This seemed to rouse Megumi from her state of shock. "Hey!" She jumped up from her cushion and rounded the table to stand over the older man. "What are you laughing about?" She drew back one leg as if to kick him with her stockinged foot.

Doug was still guffawing, his eyes squeezed shut and leaking tears. With one hand he tried in vain to wipe away the moisture on his cheeks. "I'm... I'm sorry," he managed to force out between chortles. Slowly, he brought his reactions under control. "It's just... it's like that Monty Python sketch with the stockbroker," he said, still wiping his eyes and smiling. "The one who doesn't see any of the strange and bizarre things around him on his way to work. In the midst of magic and wonder you've managed to remain utterly mundane!"

"Oooooooh," Megumi growled, her foot still cocked back. "You make me so want to kick you!"

"You do," Doug replied in a curiously high-pitched voice, "and I'll give you such a pinch!"

This time Chris coughed, and started choking. With a squeak of alarm, Skuld hopped to her feet and began pounding his back until he stopped. "You all right, 'Niichan?" she inquired.

He nodded. "Just caught by surprise," he added hoarsely.

"Sorry," murmured Doug soberly. He had rolled to his knees and looked almost ready to lunge forward to help; a look of obvious concern painted his face.

"'Sokay," the god replied. "You can quote from the classics whenever you want. Just... not while I'm eating."

Doug grinned and nodded. "Deal." He tilted his head and gave the god an odd look for a moment, then popped to his feet. "Now, loath as I am to interrupt this wonderful little comedy scene, I was wondering if folks were maybe ready to start work on my bike?"

Reflexively, Skuld scowled. "Yes," she ground out between gritted teeth.

Doug snorted at her. "Really, Skuld, it's not like you're going to your death or something. And you know you're not doing all the work by yourself, I'll be out there helping..." He yelped suddenly as Megumi dumped her half-full bowl of soup over his head.

"That's for being a jerk," she said and stalked off.

Doug's eyes rolled up to watch droplets of soup stream off his eyebrows. "...just as soon as I clean up," he continued without missing a beat, then glanced over at Keiichi. "I suppose I deserved that," he added with a sheepish grin. Megumi's brother just shrugged.

As Belldandy appeared at Doug's side with a towel, Chris snorted and finally burst out into whoops of laughter of his own.

"Laugh it up, Blueboy," Doug muttered as he wiped broth out of his hair.

12:32 PM

"Will you look at this?" Megumi glanced up from where she had begun collecting all the parts necessary to the reconstruction of the futuristic motorcycle's frame. Skuld stood at the workbench at the back of the shed, frowning at a large, unfamiliar-looking assembly.

The two of them had headed out to the shed directly from the house in near-identical states of annoyance with Doug Sangnoir, and each had picked a task to help them calm down. Keiichi and Chris had followed them out at least as far as the yard, then had gotten caught up in a discussion about some little green car they had unearthed before her arrival. For some reason she didn't quite understand, that had irritated Megumi even more.

Megumi looked down at her handiwork, sighed, and stood, tip-toeing her way across the floor to stand at the girl's side. "What is it?" A shaft of warm sunlight angled down across the bench from one of the shed's windows, illuminating the smooth wooden surface and the device which rested there. She studied the conglomeration of familiar and unfamiliar parts and tried to eke out some sense of function from their arrangement, unsuccessfully.

"It's a hack job," Skuld declared derisively. Then she paused, and in more thoughtful tone. "A good one, but still a hack job. This was never meant to do what he's making it do, and it's terribly inefficient."

"What was it supposed to do?" Megumi asked with a strained, deliberate calmness born of her determination to keep her own frayed temper under control.

Skuld sniffed. "It was a weapon, once."

"A weapon?" Megumi involuntarily stepped back from the bench. "What kind?"

"Oh, relax. It used to be a primitive gravity cannon, but someone — probably him — messed with it so much it can't be used like that any more. You see? He rerouted its output back into its graviton emitter — that's this, by the way," Skuld tapped a gleaming metal object about the size and shape of a grapefruit, "with a really gruesome kludge that inverts it and forces it to set up a nasty cascading standing wave in four-space."

Megumi decided to take a shot in the dark. "That's what made the motorcycle fly, then?"

"Yeah, pretty much," Skuld replied in a distracted tone as she bent over the device and poked at its innards. "He's got some crude modulators that let him unbalance the standing wave, which then makes this kind of 'downhill' effect that kinda 'slides' the motorcycle off in the direction of the imbalance. Nice idea, but how it's implemented..." She shook her head again without lifting it. "What a mess. I mean, look at this." She pointed at a tiny circuit board — little more than an EPROM and some wires — sloppily epoxied onto the side of something that looked to Megumi like a miniature air horn. "What's a nice chip like you doing in a place like this?"

"So, is there anything actually wrong with it?" Megumi asked after another minute or so of watching Skuld alternate between poking and making disgusted noises.

"Other than it's an ugly offense against the aesthetics of any right-thinking engineer?" the girl replied absently. "No." She chewed on her lip for a few moments. "Yes," she finally said with a sigh. "It's a jury-rigged mess that takes way too much power to do way too little. There are so many easier ways to make a grav drive this small that use much less power and have so many other features." Skuld looked up at Megumi and grimaced. "If I don't improve it, it's going to gnaw at me forever."

Megumi shrugged. "Then do it."

The grimace shifted back to the frown. "If I did, it'd be like giving him a present," she growled.

The mortal girl crossed her arms and tried to give the young goddess what she hoped was a firm look. "Which will give you more satisfaction in the long run? Thumbing your nose at Laughing Boy in there, or not being driven nuts by the lost chance to fix the thing?"

Skuld was silent for a long moment, then muttered something under her breath.

"What was that?" Megumi asked, eyebrow raised.

"Not being driven nuts," Skuld ground out.

Megumi smiled. "Then go ahead and rebuild it, and the hell with him." A panicked look suddenly appeared on her face. "I'm not going to get in trouble for saying that, am I?"

"Saying what?" Skuld asked, already pulling tools out of the drawer unit under one end of the bench.

"H..." Megumi stopped herself, then started again in a whisper. "Hell."

Skuld looked up, surprised. "Huh? No!"

"Even around a goddess?"

Skuld lifted her face and gave her a disgusted look. "Did you get punished for talking all ecchi with..." She scrunched up her nose for a moment. "...Ama-chan?"

Megumi flushed. "No! I mean, no, I didn't... we didn't... it wasn't like that!"

"I thought you went boy-watching with her," Skuld accused. "When Urd boywatches, she gets so ecchi I want to slap her." She closed her eyes in an obvious effort to calm herself, then opened them again and turned back to the device on the bench top. "Anyway, no, you won't get punished for saying dirty words around us. I'd get in trouble with Father if I said any dirty words, but you mortals, you can get away with a lot."

Tilting her head to one side, Megumi studied Skuld. "We can, huh?"

The girl-god sniffed. "You're not held to as high a standard as we are."

Megumi scowled. "Oh, if you weren't only thirteen, I'd..." She stopped cold. "You are really thirteen, aren't you?" she asked, her annoyance evaporating in the face of sudden curiosity. Sure, Belldandy had said so, but...

"Yes and no," Skuld said without lifting her face from the gravity drive. "This body is thirteen. The Mind filtered through it comes out thirteen. But I, who I really am, ultimately, am not."

Megumi frowned at the odd phrasing. "But..."

"If it helps you visualize things," Skuld interrupted quietly, "you can think of me as a little tiny finger puppet, attached to something huge and powerful that stays out of your sight."

"How powerful?" Megumi asked, still frowning.

Still probing the innards of the drive, Skuld sighed. "Almost twenty years ago," she said softly, "at the moment you were conceived, the One who expresses herself here as Urd spun out the thread of your life." She turned to Megumi, her hands held out in front of herself, palms turned up and fingers slightly separated. Megumi was astonished to see a shimmering line of golden light between the girl's outstretched hands. It glistened and glowed visibly even in the bright afternoon sunlight that played across the bench top, perfectly straight except where it wove in and out of Skuld's fingers. "This thread. Look at it, Megumi."


"LOOK." Somehow, Skuld's barely-pubescent voice had acquired the weight of centuries and poured it all into that one word. It was the same voice the girl had spoken with when she had made her promise to Sangnoir; Megumi found that she could not refuse its command.

She looked.

And she realized the thread was not static — it moved. Slowly, inexorably, it moved, flowing over the knuckles of Skuld's left hand to play along the knuckles of her right, with an ever so slight tautness as it crossed the space in between. It was as though Skuld had woven her fingers through a single beam of warm, flowing sunlight and held it out for Megumi to study.

Without realizing she was doing so, Megumi reached out and touched the shining thread with her forefinger. For a moment she felt a faint resistance, like poking a sponge, and then...

Light exploded in her mind, and she watched, as if from a distance and at very high speed with no sound, as she and Skuld went back to work on various parts of the motorcycle. Its owner joined them, prompting an angry response of some kind from Skuld that ended abruptly as Urd walked by the door to the shed. Light flared again, and she found herself not watching, but living again.

"Wow," she whispered.

"This is your life, Megumi. Well, the next fifteen minutes or so of it," Skuld continued, in something akin to her usual voice. "If I wanted, I could show you the most likely end of your thread, but..." she stopped, and swallowed, and Megumi felt a moment of unreasoning fear. "I'm not going to do that. If I did, then I'd know when... when I'll probably have to cut it off. I don't have to know that until I actually do it, and I don't want to know it. So I won't." The young goddess drooped.

Recovering from her experience, Megumi shuddered. "Is that it, then? My life is all laid out already? Don't I get a choice? In anything?"

Skuld did something with her fingers, and the thread vanished. "Of course you do. Free will trumps almost everything. While it still flows through my hands, your thread is pure potential, capable of whatever you care to achieve. The vision you saw was just the most likely events, not a fixed destiny. You can change anything about your life, even the place where I cut your thread. Don't ever forget that!"

Megumi nodded slowly as she pondered this revelation.

After another round of washing myself and getting a fresh shirt, I headed out to Skuld's workshop. My hair was still a bit damp, and the cool Spring breeze felt colder still thanks to the miracle of evaporation. I paused in the sun and ran my fingers through my hair, and drew them back wet and chilled. Should have toweled off better, I mused.

Ahead of me, I could see into the shed through its open door; only Skuld and Megumi were in there. Skuld was perched on a high stool at the bench that took up the back wall. Megumi was sitting on the floor, her face hidden from me by her hair; she was laying out some parts in front of her — various pieces of the frame, from what I could see.

(There normally aren't all that many pieces that make up a frame — although things like the front fork (for instance) can be broken down into a lot more parts than you might think at first. It seemed, though, like Skuld had managed not only to take apart everything that could come apart, but also more than a few things that should have stayed welded together into one permanent piece. To put a capper on it, her organizational system had scattered all those now-separate bits across a dozen different places in the shop, instead of leaving them grouped together.)

Anyway, I rubbed my hands on my pants to dry them off, then briskly stepped over to the door. I knocked once, softly, then said, "I see you've started without me."

Skuld merely grunted without turning around, but Megumi's head shot up and she gave me a strange, unreadable look, almost but not quite questioning. This close I could see that a couple of the shock absorbers from the turbine mounting mixed in with the parts in front of her, but I could understand that — they did look like they might have belonged with the cycle's frame. I crouched down in front of her and scooped them up out of the collection on the floor.

"These are part of the turbine mounting, Megumi-san," I said with a smile. She nodded wordlessly. Shrugging at her lack of reply, I duck-walked over to the turbine housing and laid the parts on the blonde wood floor next to it. I looked up to see Megumi's eyes on me. "What do you think?" I asked, hoping to get some kind of response from her. "I'm very proud of the work I put into her." Lovingly, I stroked the housing, savoring the slick, almost silky sensation of my fingers sliding across the microscopically-smooth, nano-fabricated ceramic. "She has a heart of chrome, and a voice like a horny angel," I quoted absently, thinking of the years of joyful riding I had gotten.

There was a "Hmph!" and a metallic squeak, and when I looked up again Skuld had swung her stool around and was glaring balefully at me. "I'll have you know, Mister Douglas Sangnoir," she declared primly, "that angels do not get hor-"

"'Bye, all!" Urd's voice suddenly rang out. I turned around just in time to catch her as she slinked past the shed door, clad in skin-tight bits of silk, fur and leather. "I'm off on a hot date! Don't expect me home until tomorrow... say, around lunchtime!"

"-ny... Oh, never mind!" Skuld finished with a snarl, then spun around violently to return to whatever was on the bench behind her.

I managed not to laugh as I turned back to face her, which was a good thing, because she probably would have taken it all wrong. A quick glance over at Megumi revealed that she was still leaning over the frame, but her hair was rippling suspiciously as it hid her face from my view.

Stepping in front of her to get to where Skuld was perched, I squeezed Megumi's shoulder and gave her a quick, friendly grin when she looked up. For a moment she looked almost offended, but then she relented and returned the grin. I patted the shoulder I'd squeezed and stepped on past her.

"So, what have you decided to work on first?" I asked the godling girl on the stool.

"I am trying," she replied without looking at me, "to turn this pile of junk into something that looks like a real gravity drive." There was more than a bit of snideness in her tone.

"That pile of junk," I replied in complete seriousness, "is a real gravity drive."

Skuld turned and gave me a Look. "I don't think so. This is like... like..." She waved her hands angrily, as if trying to snag a simile out of the air. "Oh, I don't know what it's like. It's just stupid and dangerous and I can't believe you actually fly around on this thing without it and you getting sucked into a singularity after the first ten meters."

I shrugged. "I'm good at hacking gear like that."

"Ha!" Skuld scoffed. "'Hacking' is right! You couldn't have messed it up more if you'd used an axe." She looked into its guts again and shook her head angrily. "And wasteful! How much power do you lose just on that red glow around the wheels?" She shook her head. "If I'm stuck rebuilding your bike, there is no way I'm going to let that... that... thing go back on it."

"You're not taking away my grav drive, girl." All the previous day's stress was now back with interest, and it was all I could do not to start shouting at her. "We have a deal — no less than the condition it was in when I arrived, remember? The grav drive's part of that."

Skuld's lip curled in a brownie scout snarl. One distant corner of my mind noted that she was actually rather adorable when she was riled up, but it didn't have much input on my thought processes at that moment. "Who said I was taking it away, buster?" She poked me in the chest with her forefinger. "If my name is going to go on this motorcycle, I'm going to make sure everything is up to my standards. And this ... half-brained pile of broken parts is not acceptable."

Huh? "Wait a minute." I tilted my head and studied her, my growing anger evaporating almost instantly. "Are you talking about rebuilding it?"

"At the very least," she sniffed. "Maybe even scrapping it and making a proper drive unit from scratch."

"Huh. Can't argue with that," I declared, my eyebrows creeping up toward my hairline. "So, what did you have in mind?"

Skuld gave me a suspicious look, then seemed to see that I was serious and relaxed. "Well, I've got a couple of ideas..."

I held up a hand as a thought struck me. "Hold on a moment. Hey, Megumi," I said, turning back to look at the girl in question, "you want in on this?"

Megumi scrambled to her feet. "Sure. But I don't know anything about gravity stuff, you know. It's a little beyond us mere mortals."

"No problem," I said, grinning, as I caught Skuld's eye and got a small nod in return. "I'm not so hot on the numbers side myself, to tell you the truth. So we'll stick to the practical stuff for the moment and bring you up to speed on the theory as needed. Besides," I added, "it wouldn't be fair to leave you stuck with doing grunt work while we got into the real fun."

"Works for me," she said with a smile and stepped up to the bench on the other side of Skuld. I grinned at her over the little goddess' head, then turned my attention back to the partially-disassembled drive unit.

"Okay, sensei," I addressed Skuld in all seriousness, "what's the plan?"

After an extended discussion on the ultimate purpose and fate of the green 1959 Prefect in the yard, Chris and Keiichi finally rejoined the others. Venturing into the shop, they found Doug, Skuld and Megumi clustered around one end of the workbench and chattering energetically. Technobabble phrases like "graviton flux", "controlled local space-time deformations", and "metastable waveforms" were bandied about with wild abandon, and of the three, only Megumi seemed somewhat out of her depth. But every time a puzzled look crossed her face, one or the other of her conversational partners would pause the discussion to spit out a quick explanation. Her eyes would widen with comprehension, she would nod, and launch herself into the depths of the discussion once more.

Perched on a stool between the two mortals, Skuld held in her hands something that looked like a cross between an Etch-A-Sketch and a laptop computer; Chris recognized it as a kind of touch-sensitive electronic "sketchpad" that his little sister had built a few months earlier. All three of the discussion participants were engaged in modifying a design displayed in classic blueprint style on the flat-screened device.

None of them seemed to have noticed the two men enter the shed.

Keiichi and Chris looked at each other and shared a grin. Then Chris cleared his throat and loudly asked, "Is this a private game, or can anybody play?"

The three all started simultaneously, and looked up. Chris was amused to note the mixture of embarrassment and intellectual fervor in his little sister's eyes. What surprised him, though, was that Megumi's eyes held a similar excited light.

"Depends," Doug said with a mischievous twitch of his lips. "How are you on gravitics?"

"Interested," Chris replied. "But I'm more into practical applications than theory."

"A man after my own heart," Doug grinned. "I couldn't tell you exactly how or why a gravmaster does what it does, but with the right tools I can make one sit up and beg."

Behind him Skuld snorted. "Yeah, by lopping off its legs and gluing its butt to the ground." She mimed holding up a sign. "'Will warp fabric of space-time for food,'" she added in a voice that might have been stentorian in a larger person.

Megumi clamped a hand over her mouth but failed to stifle a bark of laughter.

Doug, still grinning, rolled his eyes, then turned back to the two girls and wagged his forefinger at them. "No comments from the peanut gallery, please. Not all of us get our toys factory direct from Heaven." He turned back to Keiichi and Chris. "We've been bringing Megumi here up to speed on everything that doesn't need a couple of Ph.Ds in math and physics, so you can just jump in on the class if you want. I've got a lot of hands-on experience I'm sharing, and Skuld... well, based on what I've heard in the last few minutes, if she doesn't know it, it's not worth knowing."

Chris spotted the surprised and pleased look Skuld shot toward the blond man and suppressed an urge to raise an eyebrow. "Okay," he said instead. "To what end?"

Doug gave a quick snort of laughter. "Your little sister is mortally offended by the heinous kludge I used to turn a gravity gun into a gravity drive for the motorcycle." He laid a finger beside his nose as he donned an elaborately false expression of ponderous cogitation. "Or would that be immortally offended, considering who we're talking about here?"

Skuld rolled her eyes and blew a raspberry at the back of his head, prompting Megumi to give up and dissolve into a fit of giggles. Doug grinned and waggled his blond eyebrows outrageously at Chris and Keiichi before turning back and scruffling Skuld's cowlick.

As the little goddess bleated her offense at the indignity of this unwarranted liberty and Megumi continued to giggle, Chris smiled and shook his head. Not so twitchy now, is he? I can't believe this nutbar is the same guy who seemed so dangerous yesterday. What happened?

Doug glanced back toward them. "Keiichi, how about you?"

The short man shook his head with a wry smile. "Sorry, no. I'd rather the stuff I drive stay on the ground."

Shrugging, Doug said, "Hey, your loss," and turned back to the sketchpad. "What's next?" he asked.

Skuld frowned, this time in concentration rather than annoyance. "I'm not sure," she said after a moment. "Actually, I think maybe we've gotten just about as far as we can get with this design for the moment. Megumi?"

The mortal girl shrugged. "Don't ask me. I'm just following your lead here."

"So." Doug frowned as he studied the sketchpad's screen. "Shall we sit on it for a while and see if we get any more ideas? I'd hate to rush into an implementation only to realize we could have come up with something better when we're half-done with it. That'd be more of a waste of time and effort than waiting would be."

"It would give me the time to piece together everything I've learned today," Megumi mused, running a finger along the edge of the "sketchpad". "Maybe after I get that all assimilated, I can be of more use."

"Hey! You're of use!" Doug protested. "You're the one who came up with the idea for that field-deformation thing, after all."

"Ahem!" Skuld interrupted impatiently. "If we're going to let the design stew for now, what are we going to work on instead?" She looked around at the small group, her expression clearly soliciting ideas from the latecomers as well as those who had already been working.

Keiichi glanced at the others. "The frame," he declared, glad finally to have something to contribute from his area of expertise.

Skuld frowned, not in annoyance but in thought, then nodded. Megumi gave him a wry grin that he didn't understand. Sangnoir nodded as well and said, "Makes sense to me. Start with the foundation."

Keiichi looked across at Chris. "Don't look at me," the tall man said. "I'm just unskilled labor until you show me some electronics."

"Okay," Skuld declared. "The frame it is."

4:37 PM

We spent about an hour and a half clearing out a space in the middle of the workshop where we could reassemble the frame. The only reason it took so long was that we were carefully boxing and labeling the parts that Skuld had initially laid out on the floor where we'd decided to work — over her objections, I might add. The little goddess was certain she could rearrange everything in such a way that she could find any part we might need later and let us know in no uncertain terms that she thought we were wasting all our time.

Fortunately, Keiichi and Chris were able to talk her down from yet another fit of temper, and even got her to conjure up the boxes for us — neat trick, that, I might add. I have to admit that Chris had far more effect on her than Keiichi did, but I supposed that that was the big brother thing kicking in. (Not like I'd know for sure, what with me being an only child and all, but that seemed the way to bet.) Which reminded me, I still had to get the story of just how the Norns had a big brother out of someone — probably Chris, given they way they all looked at him the last time I'd brought it up. I put that on my mental "to-do" list while Megumi and I finished up the last of the clean-up.

Once we had a good portion of the floor cleared away, we laid down a drop cloth to protect the wood and went to work. Not that I really thought we needed the cloth. Every piece of the bike, right on down to the damned oil filter, had been clean and dry; there'd been no evidence of any drippage anywhere. There'd been no evidence of fluid anywhere — in the process of disassembling it, Skuld had somehow drained and steamcleaned the entire bike inside and out in just a few minutes. Wouldn't I just love to know how she'd accomplished that... and with what equipment, if any.

Anyway. The labor crew at this point had lost one person, Chris having wandered off after calming Skuld down, when it became obvious that no electronics were immediately forthcoming. (Don't ask me what else he had to do that afternoon — maybe he had an appointment to be the referee for another argument between his girlfriends, I dunno.) Megumi, with her brother's help, retrieved the parts of the frame that she'd been working on earlier in the afternoon, and together the four of us played jigsaw puzzle, with only my memory (and Skuld's) of the proper arrangement to clue us in to where most of the pieces went, and how.

That took longer than I thought it would — another hour-plus, mainly because God-girl and I got into two more arguments over where things belonged. (I guess whatever techie cred I'd earned with her while working the gravitics angle only went so far.) Before we could come to blows either time, Megumi (rather cautiously) grabbed Skuld and led her to the far corner of the shop, while Keiichi (equally cautiously) herded me out the door and into the yard. They kept us there until we calmed down enough to talk rationally and solve the problem. (Final score for those curious: one-all; we were each right once.)

Once we'd laid out all the pieces of the frame, Keiichi, Megumi and I stepped back to let Skuld handle the rest of the process. Up until this point the work had been split pretty evenly between the four or five of us, but the terms of the agreement between Skuld and myself specified that she had to do at least half the job herself. So I declared that the first stage of actually reassembling the frame belonged entirely to her.

This of course occasioned some grumbling from a certain girl with a cowlick, but not really more than a token protest — a promise was a promise, after all. "Besides," as I pointed out to her, "nothing says you can't use all your favorite tools and toys, right?"

Skuld's eyes lit up like a radio station switchboard during a ticket giveaway. "Right!" she chirped, switching moods like you'd switch tracks on a CD player. The change in her tone was enough to make Megumi look up from where she had been studying one of the bike's frame elements. (Two-centimeter-diameter rotorolled titanium alloy tubing with a 5mm wall, with a +/- 0.05mm tolerance on both measurements — a stock Mitsubishi frame circa 2015.) When she saw the sudden bloom of enthusiasm on Skuld's face she chuckled and shot me a wink.

Which was how it came to be that Keiichi, Megumi and I were looking on in a mix of awe and amusement when, an hour later, Skuld not only had all the various parts of the bike properly positioned relative to each other, but had them held up and together by several dozen slender robotic arms that all sprouted from a small box in the center of the floor. It reminded me of nothing more than a dinosaur skeleton in a museum with all the support rods and wires and whatnot holding the bones together.

In between watching the little goddess set each piece in place, I had begun an extensive survey of her workshop. After all, if I were going to be putting in my own share of the effort, I ought to know what my resources were and where they were located. I nodded thoughtfully at most of what I saw, made envious mental notes for when I got home on a lot of the rest, and tried not to think about the implications of everything else that was left over.

For his part, Keiichi seemed content to stand back and play wise advisor, carefully watching Skuld in action. Every once in a while he'd clear his throat softly, then offer a suggestion. Like as not, Skuld would take his advice, but not without an adorable frown and some consideration.

Megumi, meanwhile, was still studying the frame of the bike. Or rather its construction — she asked me about its composition shortly after Skuld set to, and not long after that I saw her taking measurements with a caliper and a micrometer, a pad of lined paper at her side. Eventually, she filled a page of that pad, at which point she got up and retrieved the electronic "sketchpad" on which the three of us had brainstormed the new grav drive. I didn't see what she was doing on it, but she poked at the screen a lot, and at one point laid it across her knees and actually did a furious spate of touchtyping on it.

That got my interest, and I was about to ask her what was up, when I heard a bang followed by a deep, gravelly voice bellowing, "MO-RI-SA-TO!"

I glanced at Keiichi, who grimaced and flinched. "Who...?" I began, then felt a hand on my arm.

Megumi was there. "Relax," she said, and that was when I realized that I had leapt to my feet. "It's just the sempais."

It took me a moment to make the connection. "The guys responsible for turning this place into a junkyard?"

"Yeah," she replied with an expression that I can only describe as a sheepish smirk.

"They sound a lot worse than they really are," Keiichi added in a tired and resigned tone of voice as he slowly stood. "They're actually not that bad."

I gave him a dubious look. "It sounds like you're being called out for single combat."

Keiichi gave a little laugh at that. "It's just Tamiya-sempai's way."

Skuld, still working on the frame, made a very loud, rude noise, and Keiichi's weak smile grew a bit larger.

I made a fist of my right hand and lightly punched the palm of my left a few times. "If you want, I could ... convince him to try another way."

Megumi chuckled. "I'd pay to see that."

I cocked an eyebrow at my host. "They do sound like a couple of bullies, sempais or not."

Another bellow of "MO-RI-SA-TO!" echoed outside, and with a resigned little sigh, Keiichi stepped out into the yard.

"Here, sempais," he called out as Megumi and I traded looks. She shrugged and we followed. I paused on the threshold of the shed and looked back at Skuld, who had turned away from the frame proper to assemble something that looked like it might be a miniature plasma welder.

"You coming?" I asked.

She shook her head without looking up. "Nah. I have to deal with those idiots enough as it is."

"Okay..." I turned back and trotted to catch up with the siblings outside. I saw Chris jogging out from the house as well; we both caught up with the others at the same time, and ended up standing next to each other in the second rank behind Keiichi and his sister.

My first look at the sempais did nothing to reassure me. Based on what little I'd heard, I had been expecting a couple of grease monkeys in dirty coveralls. Instead, I found a pair of thuggish goons. One was punked out in black leather and sunglasses, topped off with sparkplugs dangling from his earlobes and an improbably and enthusiastically vertical bleach-blond hairdo that defied both description and gravity. The other was a musclebound block in khakis and a wifebeater T-shirt with short dark hair and a thin little mustache; my first thought on seeing him was that he looked like a psychotic Freddie Mercury on steroids.

Leatherboy wore a manic grin but the Freddie Mercury clone looked to be in a towering rage. Despite the earlier assurances, I eyed him suspiciously. On general principles I ran a tactical on him, then followed it with one on his companion. Just a couple of big crunchies, I decided after a moment — I could take care of both the psycho and El Punko Loco with my eyes closed.

"MO-RI-SA-TO!" the big one bellowed for the third time, no less loudly because Keiichi was standing right in front of him. "We are here to make sure you have taken care of da Motor Club's valuable property!" He looked up to the sky and clenched one meaty fist over his heart. "Da sacred honor of da Nekomi Institute Motor Club rests entirely on your shoulders!"

Oh, joy. A giant economy-sized drama queen. King. Whatever. A two-for-one deal, too — loud and pompous. And valuable? Got some bad news for you, guy... I've looked at those parts. I rolled my eyes at the overblown hyperbole and decided that this pair desperately needed a reality check.

"Yes, sempai," Keiichi answered wearily.

"Like, Keiichi, dude," Leatherboy piped up. It was the first thing he'd said in my presence, and it stopped me cold for a moment. I had never heard the essence of California surferboy expressed in pure native Japanese before, but as J. Random God is my witness, that's what he sounded like. "Who's the new guy?"

New guy? Oh. Right. Me.

Leatherboy glanced back and forth between Chris and me and, before Keiichi could respond, added, "'Nother brother, right?"

"Say what?" I blurted as Chris started making a choking sound.

"Um, Ootaki-sempai..." Keiichi began as the muscular psycho leaned down and peered intently at my face, as if noticing me for the first time.

"'Cause it only stands to reason," Leatherboy/Ootaki went on blithely. "The girls don't look nothing alike, and Chris don't look anything like any o' them. And this guy don' look at all like the whole four them neither, just as much. So he's got to be another brother. QED." With that he smiled, folded his arms and gave a satisfied little nod. Next to him, Psycho Freddie nodded in unison with him.

I blinked. "They're complete idiots, aren't they?" I muttered under my breath to Chris.

"How'd you guess?" he whispered back.

"Metahuman levels of perception and intelligence," I replied. "They do come in handy once in a while."

"You don't say."

Meanwhile, Keiichi was trying to disabuse them of the notion. "No, sempais, this is our new house guest, Doug Sangnoir," he said, a weary patience clearly born of lengthy experience with these two in his voice. "He's staying with us for a while, until he finishes putting his motorcycle back together."

At this, Musclebound perked up, his eyes widening. "His motorcycle?" he blared, apparently ignoring everything else that Keiichi had said. Did this guy ever talk in a normal tone of voice? "Dat means..." He spread his arms and lunged at me, scattering Keiichi and Megumi to either side. "Welcome to da..."

Some well-trained clump of neurons somewhere in the back of my head, loosely leashed due to my confusion and distraction, interpreted "big guy rushing at me" as an attack, and took control. The bright white light of the late afternoon immediately slid into the blue end of the spectrum as I combat-hyped. I'd neatly dodged his grab and my hand was already snaking out in a retaliatory palm-strike before my mind could reassert control over my body. I couldn't abort the strike, not without hurting one or the other of us; the best I could was pull the blow as much as I could — which probably saved his life.

As it was, he still went flying backwards from the force of the blow. As Musclebound landed on his back a couple meters away, gasping for breath, I slipped back into normal time. "...club," he gasped in between two deep, wheezing breaths.

"Whoa," murmured Keiichi as Megumi gasped.

Chris had only come out to see Doug's reaction to the sempais. Otherwise, as far as he was concerned, this was just one more repeat of Ootaki and Tamiya's usual dog-and-pony show, which under any other circumstances he would gladly do without. When it wasn't outright annoying, it was merely tedious, and he saw no point in wasting his time being exposed to it if he didn't have to.

Well, this time was anything but annoying or tedious. It was, in his opinion, one of the best things he'd seen all week, and he'd gladly tell everyone about it... just as soon as he could stop laughing and stand up again.

Eventually he got his gasping whoops of amusement back under control and struggled to his feet. "Oh, that was grand," he murmured with a smile, then grimaced as a stitch in his side announced that, grand or not, he'd overdone the laughing.

The glare he was getting from the prone Tamiya also suggested he'd overdone the laughing, but he cared less about that than he did the stitch in his side.

Chris studiously ignored the mustachioed grad student as he brushed the dust off his trousers. He had better things to worry about than Tamiya's ire. Things like... Doug Sangnoir. Chris was rapidly coming to the conclusion that anything Doug touched, any situation the blond man entered, was destined to degenerate almost immediately into the most spectacular chaos possible. Note to self: Do not allow this man to advise me on my love life. Come to think of it, do not allow him near my love life.

In this case, though, watching Tamiya's impromptu demonstration of ballistic motion was something Chris wouldn't have missed for the world. Maybe now the musclebound idiot would learn a bit of restraint.

Not likely, but maybe.

I was at the big guy's side a moment later, followed closely by the Morisato siblings. Chris, meanwhile, had quite literally fallen over, convulsed with laughter. I shoved down a sharp spike of irritation at him — of course a Norse battle god would be amused by injury to a mortal, why should I expect anything better? — and knelt by my victim. "Ah, geeze, I'm sorry," I said as I checked him out with both my magesight and my fairly minimal first aid training. He was okay, as far as I could figure. I'd just knocked the wind out of him, that's all. Thank god. And I didn't mean Christopher Angel.

"Duuuuude," drawled into my ear from behind me, and I looked up to see Ootaki giving me a look of obvious admiration. I shot him a disbelieving glance.

"You're like, ex-military, right?" he asked, then without waiting for an answer went on. "I knew this guy once who moved like that, he used to be special forces." With a disturbing lack of apparent concern, he strolled around me to look down on his friend, who was still on his back trying to fill his lungs, and grinned at him with manic amusement. "I always told ya you'd pull that shit on the wrong person someday, Tamiya, and you'd get yer ass kicked." He reached out a hand, which Tamiya took and used to haul himself to his feet.

"Um, yeah," I muttered. "You shouldn't've come at me like that," I murmured apologetically to Tamiya.

He just grunted and held on to his buddy to keep from falling.

10:21 PM

As it turned out, the Wonder Twins insisted on spending the next few hours poking their noses into everything concerning their junk, so other than Skuld, none of us got any more work done on the motorcycle that afternoon.

Ootaki and Tamiya couldn't be bothered to actually help put anything away, oh no, but they certainly wanted to make sure it was all being stored properly. I came yea-close to ripping that fool Tamiya's head off — figuratively, of course — two or three times over comments he made. If he was so damned concerned about the parts being exposed to the elements, why the hell did they pile them haphazardly in the middle of the temple yard?

Belldandy's call to dinner not only interrupted their aggravating micromanagement, it probably saved the musclebound moron's life.

As everyone else trooped into the house, Keiichi and I gave them the bum's rush out the gate, slammed it shut behind them, and threw the bolt. I turned around, fell back against the wooden barrier, and sighed. "How the hell do you cope with them, Keiichi-san?" I asked.

He smiled ruefully. "Mostly I don't. This is worse than usual."

"Well, I guess that's good news, of a sort." I pushed myself back to full vertical. "Well, now that we've gotten rid of them, what do you say we go dine on the food of the gods? The ambrosia that makes mortal food pale in comparison?"

That got me a genuine laugh out of him. "You wouldn't say that if you'd ever tasted Urd's cooking."

"Classic awful?" I asked as we headed in.


"Consider it noted and logged, then," I declared. "When Urd cooks, we flee."

Dinner was magnificent — sirloin steaks, baked potatoes, green beans with toasted slivered almonds, and salad, with bread pudding for dessert. Belldandy declared that she had prepared a classic American meal in my honor, for which I thanked her, naturally. It was all delicious, I might add, and I noticed that Chris was digging in for all it was worth. I caught his eye and shared a grin with him.

(I'd calmed down a bit about his fit of laughter earlier, mostly; after spending the afternoon with those two, I probably would have laughed to see their comeuppance myself. And I suppose it did look pretty funny from the outside, to someone who didn't know how close I'd come to actually killing the moron.)

After dinner, I helped Belldandy clean up (in spite of her protests), and then we joined the rest of the household in a quiet evening. They had a TV — a set that looked like it had once been part of Keiichi's dorm furnishings — but it was broken, and Skuld hadn't gotten around to fixing it yet. Belldandy apologized about that, but I just shrugged. Watching the news would have given me a better handle on the world, but it wasn't nearly as vital as it would have been had I been trying to make it in that timeline on my own. Beyond that, well, I didn't really know what was on, now did I?

Regardless of Belldandy's apology, the broken state of the television didn't seem to matter to anyone — Urd wasn't home (still on that hot date she'd left for earlier in the day), and everyone else was studying — either in their rooms, or around the table. Me? I spent the rest of the evening cataloging some of the music I'd picked up at the last minute before leaving the Institute, and copying the interesting stuff into my helmet.

Along about quarter after ten, I concluded that the excitement level was just too much for me, and decided to crash. I bid everyone a good night — including Urd, who had wandered back in only a few minutes earlier despite her "lunchtime" warning — and retired to my room. There I changed and, after touching the tips of my fingers to my lips and then to the photo of Maggie, climbed into bed.

I didn't drop off right away — all the little things I'd heard and seen throughout the day were whirling through my brain, and I tried to catalog and store each one so that I could fall asleep.

Chris' casual mention of a "Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy" puzzled me greatly. The timeline didn't seem terribly advanced over my native here-and-now, and in fact seemed a bit behind it in ways, at least based on what I'd seen while I had been out and about that morning. Was it possible that I'd somehow missed or misinterpreted the signs of the cheap and easy interstellar travel that the existence of such a guide implied? If I had, why were there no aliens around? Were they segregated, the way human gaijin were in Homeline? Were there no sentient races in the immediate stellar neighborhood? Or could this be a humans-only universe?

And what the hell did any of that have to do with an obsolete model of car from England?

I made a resolution to look into the issue further, then laid the thought to rest for the night.

Similarly I put to rest (at least temporarily) worries about my bike, and about my agreement with Skuld. I buried a flash of unexpected, private embarrassment over hitting Tamiya, no matter how much he might have deserved it, and a remaining, persistent trace of residual anger at Chris for finding it amusing.

In the last few minutes before I finally dropped off, I considered my Celestial hosts. Both Skuld and Chris seemed to be much nicer people than I'd initially thought in the wake of all the trouble and stress of the previous night. As the edge of drowsiness began to fuzz my mind, I wondered if all the other Celestials in this timeline were as personable, as human, as the four under whose roof I now dwelt. Maybe if they were subject to the same rules as Belldandy and company...

In the final moments before sleep claimed me, I looked over at the photo in its frame on the dresser (still visible in the dim light of the room), and my last thoughts of the day were, as always, of Maggie.

10:35 PM

"Guys?" Urd, Belldandy, and Keiichi looked up to see Chris standing in the entrance to the living room, a somewhat hesitant look on his face. "Now that our guest is finally out of earshot for the night, can I ask y'all a question?"

"Forty-two," Urd snarked quickly, and then gave an apologetic smile. "Sure, 'Niichan, what's up?"

"I- I mean, when I- er..." he stammered.

Urd rolled her eyes. "Spit it out."

Closing his eyes, Chris took a slow breath before opening them and speaking. "What happened yesterday evening with Sangnoir?"

"You were sort of there," Keiichi pointed out.

"Before I got there," he ground out.

"Christopher James," Belldandy said concernedly. "What is this about?"

Chris smiled wryly. You could always tell how worked up Belldandy was about something by how much of your name she used. He shrugged and entered the room, taking a seat on the couch, forcing Urd to move her legs. "Look, Senor Dice-em-all-and-let-the-boss-sort-it-out," he tapped his god-mark on his forehead, "went into full alert mode last night right after he arrived. I need to know why."

"It's not a freaking possession, 'Niichan," Urd snapped. "It's you."

"I don't think killing people is okay!" he roared.

"No," Belldandy said gently standing and walking towards him, "But you have a temper, and a very pragmatic way of looking at things. It was an emergency situation, and you acted the way you felt you needed to, without stopping to weigh things against your morals." Reaching where Chris sat, she gave Urd a long look, and the goddess sighed and moved out of the way so Belldandy could sit. "It's not a pleasant thought, we know, but you have to accept it."

"I know," Chris sighed, and smiled as Belldandy patted his hand. "But I need to know why it happens — why sometimes it's just a bad feeling, or yesterday it was a full 'uh-oh', or the first time when it was 'Danger Will Robinson!' That's why I'm asking."

Urd and Belldandy exchanged a look, and then Urd slowly began speaking, telling the story of when Skuld first noticed the impending portal, to what they had discovered during Sangnoir's rest on the futon, to the confrontation that Chris had interrupted.

After they finished, Chris sat quietly for a long moment, his face blank. Finally he said in a carefully controlled tone, "He said what to Bell?" At their uncomfortable gaze, his lips twitched, and then, like a switch, he broke into gales of laughter.

"Christopher James Angel," Belldandy hissed, offended, "It's not funny." A strangled squawk came from the other side of the room, and she whirled to glare at Keiichi, who struggling to not laugh himself. "Keiichi! Not you, too!" she exclaimed, and he too began to laugh. "It's not funny!" she insisted, and then looked helplessly at Urd, who was shaking with repressed hilarity herself.

"You have to admit," Urd chuckled, "Of all the people in the world to call a bitch, you?"

"I'm going to the kitchen," Belldandy replied with a huff, and looked pointedly at her brother. "See if I make Arabic food for you again anytime soon," she said primly, and swept out of the room to the sounds of her family's laughter behind her.

Itou Hot Springs, Saturday, May 10, 1997, 11:37 PM


Pok pok.






The young sarariman in the yukata softened the oath with a smile at the blonde on the other end of the ping-pong table. "Oh, well." He raised an eyebrow and grinned hopefully. "Best two out of three?"

His opponent shook her head, sending its cloud of blonde locks swirling, and wagged her finger at him. The motions sent ripples down along her own yukata that threatened to spill open the loosely-belted garment. "Sorry, Jiro-kun," she replied with a completely unsympathetic smile of her own. "The bet was one game. You lost, you don't get to sleep with me."

Jiro shook his head and sighed. "Oh well. You can't blame a guy for trying." He laid his paddle down on the table. "Shoulda known I was getting set up by a hustler," he added in mock anger. "I suppose I'm just going to have to retreat to my lonely room and dream of what could have been." He turned to go ... and froze. Somehow his slender blonde opponent had traversed the entire room to end up in front of him.

Her smile became positively predatory as she stopped his progress with a single fingertip laid on the center of his chest. "Now, now," she murmured huskily. "I said you lost, not that you were a loser. That doesn't mean we can't come to some other kind of..." A high-pitched electronic beeping interrupted her, and the seductive look in her eyes collapsed into a glare of irritation for a brief moment. "Can you excuse me?" she asked in honeyed tones. "I have to take this call."

"S-sure," Jiro stammered, paralyzed by a wash of conflicting emotions he couldn't understand.

The blonde gave him that predatory smile again, tapped him on the nose with her fingertip, then stepped to the side. As the beeping repeated, she drew a small cell phone from her yukata and flipped it open.

"Mara here," she snarled into it, sending chills down Jiro's spine. "This better be good."

It apparently was, for the furious expression that had blossomed on her face quickly faded to one that was simply serious as the person on the other end of the call spoke. Finally she nodded. "Okay, good. I'll get right on it." She snapped the phone shut, stared into space for a moment, then returned her attention to Jiro. The seductress slipped back into her eyes as she stepped up to him again.

"Sorry, Jiro-kun," she smiled, trailing the fingertips of one slender and tapering hand along his cheek. Their touch left a trail of fire along the lines of his face. "Business calls. Some other time." She withdrew her hand and stepped toward the game room door, then paused and looked back at him. "You'll just have to go back to your room and think about your wife tonight," she added with a sardony that was anything but gentle. "Ta!"

The moment she vanished through the door, Jiro's paralysis shattered. "My wife?" he murmured, and looked down at his hands. Not even the telltale red mark of a "cheater's ring" to give him away. "How did she know?" He shivered.

Five minutes later, Mara entered her room at the far end of the resort. As far as vices went, a fondness for lounging around hot springs didn't even show up on the radar for a demon, although she could always justify it as an expression of sloth. Truth be told, though, she simply enjoyed them, especially if she could ignore the memories they sometimes evoked, memories of long-distant happier times in similar springs far away to the north and west. Still, some of her superiors might see it as shirking.

Tempting and corrupting the occasional traveling executive went a long way toward helping on that front. Having to abandon her playtime with Jiro when it was only half-done irritated her. Besides, the man played a mean game of ping-pong, and it had been far too long since she'd had a decent challenger. But priorities were priorities, and an idle night's seduction — not to mention a mere game — had to yield to her primary assignment.

Mara growled at herself for woolgathering and forced her attention back to the matter at hand. As the call had stated, the report she'd requested was waiting for her. She scooped up the manila folder from atop the room's low table and plopped down on the floor to peruse it.

"Colonel Douglas Q. Sangnoir," she read aloud off the title sheet. "'UNMPFWA, UK, M.O.U.S.E.'? What in the Pit is that supposed to mean?" She flipped rapidly through the report, looking for some kind of gloss to explain the two unfamiliar acronyms of the three, but found nothing. "What kind of damned idiots do we have in Research?" she snarled. She returned to the front of the folder and moved on.

The next thing in the folder was an executive summary of a battle between the stranger mage and the annoying twerp who fancied himself the God of Moments. Twerp or not, Paradox was an Aes, though, and should have smeared any mortal across the landscape.

Mara was shocked to discover he hadn't. And not because of any inclination toward mercy.

He fought Paradox to a standstill for almost three minutes? Mara marveled. If Paradox was in his battle form, that would make Sangnoir one of the most powerful mages on this mudball. She studied the summary more closely and frowned. Paradox was seen entering battle form on the Nekomi ginza, moments before he appeared at the temple. She shook her head. That means Sangnoir is dangerously strong. I'm going to have to be very careful around him.

She didn't have the choice to avoid him; a new, powerful mage staying with the Norns? Mara was all but compelled to drive a wedge between them, and then do her best to turn Sangnoir. If there were going to be that major a shift in the balance of power between Heaven and Hell on this planet, she would do everything she could to put the advantage on the side of the Pit. It was almost an all-consuming instinct.

But to do it right, she had to know everything about him — his weak points, his fears, his hopes, his dreams. His past traumas, his failures and embarrassments. Almost licking her lips at the thought of them, Mara turned to the biography section of the report, ready to feast on all the delicious vulnerabilities she could use to cripple and corrupt him.

Hm. Odd. Section looks a little thin, she mused as she turned the page. He can't be that saintly, can he?

Then she shrieked in anger and outrage and hurled the folder across the room. It fluttered like an injured bird and flattened itself against the far wall with a muted "splat" before dropping to the tatami mat below with a sound like rustling leaves. Pages torn loose from the report within slowly drifted to the floor.

Mara's demon marks blazed an incandescent red as she fought the urge to howl like a hellhound and rage through the room. Normally she wouldn't care about destroying anything belonging to a mere mortal, but this happened to be her favorite hot springs resort, and she didn't want to be banned from it. Slowly, slowly, she wrestled the impulse to rampage to a standstill and painstakingly rebuilt the semblance of civilization she wore for the mortal world.

Then she leaned over and speared one of the loose pages with a razor-sharp fingernail that drove its way deep into the tatami mat underfoot. She stood and glared balefully at the five words on it, silently promising unimaginable tortures to the fools who had compiled the report. How could she even try to strike at Sangnoir with... this as her information? It was useless. It was worse than useless!

Just what in Hild's name was "Error 0808: Unresolved External Reference" supposed to mean?

A feral growl escaped her throat. Sangnoir wasn't going to get away from her that easily. Powerful, so powerful he could blank his Yggdrasil entry. She had to get him for Hell. She would see him broken and fallen to the Dark. It was a personal challenge now, and Mara would not fail, Stormsdaughter or no.



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This work of fiction is copyright © 2005, by Robert M. Schroeck and Christopher Angel.

"Oh! My Goddess", and the settings and the characters thereof, are copyright by and trademarks of Kosuke Fujishima, KISS and Kodansha Ltd., and are used without permission.

"GURPS" is a registered trademark of Steve Jackson Games. No challenge to the ownership of the GURPS trademark is intended or implied by its appearance in this story.

"Douglas Q. Sangnoir," "Looney Toons", "The Loon" and any representations thereof are copyright by and trademarks of Robert M. Schroeck.

"Christopher 'Paradox' Angel" and any representations thereof are copyright by and trademarks of Christopher Angel.

"Kathleen 'Kat' Avins" and any representations thereof are copyright by and trademarks of Kathleen Mee Avins.

"Alison 'Ai Zhao Min' Mee" and any representations thereof are copyright by and trademarks of Alison Mee.

"Diana 'Silverbolt' Apostolidis" and any representations thereof are copyright by and trademarks of Peggy Schroeck.

"Maggie 'Shadowwalker' Viel" and any representations thereof are copyright by and a trademark of Peggy Schroeck.

"The Warriors", "Warriors' World", "Warriors International" and "Warriors Alpha" are all jointly-held trademarks of The Warriors Group.

A shout-out and thanks to Rob Kelk for letting us know about all the wonderful flavors of ice cream unique to Japan!

Lyrics from "The Laughing Gnome", performed by David Bowie, written by David Bowie, lyrics and music copyright © 1967 by David Bowie.

These and all other quotes are included in this fiction without permission under the "fair use" provisions of international copyright law.

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Many thanks to our prereaders on this chapter: Kathleen Avins, Nathan Baxter, Ed Becerra, Andrew Carr, Kevin Cody, Logan Darklighter, Helen Imre, Josh Megerman, Berg Oswell, and Peggy Schroeck.

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This page was created on September 23, 2005.
Last modified November 11, 2017.