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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

4. In Which I Receive A Promise and a Threat


Ultimately a hero is a man who would argue with the gods, and so awakens devils to contest his vision. — From The Presidential Papers, by Norman Mailer

A key to the understanding of all religions is that a God's idea of a good time is a game of Snakes and Ladders with greased rungs. — From Wyrd Sisters, by Terry Pratchett

'Tis one thing to be tempted, another thing to fall. — William Shakespeare


Wednesday, May 14, 1997, 4:42 PM

"He said he's killed a god. Is that true?"

When he called for a short family conference right before dinner, it had gotten Chris confused looks from his sisters — especially when he asked Bell to cast a privacy ward around the kitchen before they talked. Explaining the angelic visitation and its demands to Urd and Belldandy relieved some of their confusion, but the rest wasn't allayed until he and Skuld both confirmed hearing Doug's disturbingly casual claim.

Urd and Bell traded looks before the elder of the sisters replied. "We don't know, 'Niichan."

He clenched his fist and took a long breath through his nose. "You don't know?"

"He's not native to our universe, Chris," Belldandy answered this time. "So he has no entries in Yggdrasil's records save for things which he's done since his arrival. We're trying to find his home universe so we can ask our counterparts there for his complete file, but that's going to take a long time, if it succeeds at all."

"And if it's something he did after he started hopping from world to world," Urd continued, "well, then, we're totally out of luck, because despite how chatty he's been about his travels, we have no idea exactly which universes he's been to."

"Joy," Chris growled. "You know what really bothers me, though? He said it like someone might say, 'I took out the trash on Monday, so it's not going to be a problem to take it out today'. Like it was something that he was so assured of doing that it was kind of boring." Chris fixed his sister with an intent gaze. "Can he possibly be that powerful?"

Urd snorted. "Honestly? I doubt it."

Belldandy didn't respond as quickly, and Chris studied her. Her expression was troubled. "Bell?"

She looked up at him. "It is hard to be sure. By himself, no, he could not defeat any one of us. Not even Skuld, if she were prepared. But... he may be able to draw on Another's strength."

Chris rubbed his eyes. "Bell, you're confusing me here. What do you mean? Is he a Soldier for an archangel or another god?"

Belldandy shook her head. "No. That much is clear. He is not empowered as a Soldier. Although he is significantly more powerful than a normal human, he has had no direct Celestial modification to his Forces."

"I'm sensing a 'but' in there, Bell."

She nodded. "But he bears a Mark of Favor upon his brow."

Chris shifted from rubbing his eyes to rubbing his temples. "Okay, now what is a Mark of Favor, other than the latest in the infinite number of things which I don't know about being a god?"

"It means a god out there somewhere is specifically watching over him, 'Niichan," Urd explained. "He's not bound to her will like a Servitor would be, and he doesn't get anything like a Soldier's Celestial upgrade, but... well... The Mark — this one, at least — basically says, 'This is one of my favorites. Mess with him at your own risk. If you break him, I break you.' It's entirely possible that his patron would funnel divine power into him if he really needed it — like, to kill another god." She laughed. "And the kicker is, he may not even know he's carrying it."

He nodded. "All right. Now, explain to me — if this Mark is such a big deal, how come I haven't noticed it in all the time he's been here?"

Urd rolled her eyes. "Because it's a Celestial mark, and most of the time you ignore your Celestial senses."

"Only because they're weird. Pardon me if I liked being a mortal. Pardon me if I like seeing the world the way I'm used to instead of as freaky day-glo streamers with metadata tags," Chris grumbled, then relented. "So, okay, then, maybe we ought to contact this patron of his and find out what the deal is?"

Belldandy's sad smile brought him up short. "That's the problem, Chris. We can't. She's missing, and has been for quite a long time."

Wednesday, May 14, 1997, 4:55 PM

I'd gotten out of Skuld's workshop as quickly as I could while still maintaining the semblance of dignified anger. I was angry, but I'd been ready to rip dignity into shreds and throw it into the wind. And there had certainly been more than enough to be angry about.

How dare they. How dare they!

Without really thinking about it, I'd headed for the temple proper, launching myself out of that careful walk and into the fastest sprint I could manage in such a short distance.

How DARE they!

I skidded to a halt on the flagstones in front of the temple steps. Something, some oddball sense of propriety, kept me from from dashing right up and into the sanctuary. Instead I stood for a moment, one hand on the smooth, red-painted wood of a column, and took a long, deep breath before slowly and quietly walking up to the open entry.

I have no idea why, in the temper I was in at that moment, I headed straight for the temple. You (and I) might think it would be last place I'd want to be at a time when I was mad at everything that smacked of the divine and celestial. It was, at that. But it was also one of the few places I could retreat to quickly where I was reasonably sure I would not already find someone, and where I could expect to have some privacy, at least for a little while.

I guess I could have dashed out into the street and lost myself in the city, but the solitude, the aloneness that I needed, would have been far longer in coming.

Hastily, I pulled off my shoes and set them down to one side of the temple's doorway, then drew my bokuto from my belt and leaned it against the wall, its tip between their toes. (It sounds like I was being calm and deliberate, but believe me, I was so worked up that my hands were shaking — it took me three tries before the bokuto would stand up instead of falling over. The only reason I was even trying to be neat was that I was doing everything I could to force myself to calm down.) Straightening back up, I took another deep breath and then stepped into the cool darkness.

Fifteen steps took me into the center of the main room, in front of the idol that stood within, right where that weird node fountained up out of the ground below. I bowed to the statue, dropped to the floor in a loose seiza, clenched my fists and finally let some of my anger out.

"That was smart, Sangnoir. Real smart," I growled to myself. "Threaten the guy who all but handed you your ass the one time you had a real fight with him. Why not threaten all the rest of them while you're at it?" But still... How dare they make that kind of demand of Megumi? How dare they put her in that kind of position?

I dropped my clenched fists into my lap and closed my eyes. The degree to which I was (still) angry was frightening me, and I realized that despite all the positives of the last week or so, my emotional state was no more improved than it had been upon my arrival. I was still off-balance, and just as being physically off-balance in a fight makes you vulnerable to the least little shove, my emotional imbalance was making me vulnerable to every little irritant. Things I would normally ignore or brush off with a laugh were instead burrowing straight under my skin and setting off my temper. And things like that ultimatum given to Megumi — that would have lit me up like a skyrocket even when I was in balance. Now? Now I was ready to start a war over it.

I needed to find my equilibrium again.

Otherwise I was going to be a danger to those around me.

The core problem, I realized as I tried to find my center, was stress — the cumulative effects of another disappointing world jump, finding myself stuck among a clan of gods, having my motorcycle essentially destroyed, looking unsuccessfully for a job to pay my fair share. Any one or two of these things were stressful enough by themselves, but I could have coped. Hell, I regularly coped with two of them every time I'd changed worlds.

But four stressors like that? I'm surprised I didn't run screaming into the night.

Add to that the fact that I really didn't appreciate Urd's come-ons. While at that point I was starting to make an exception for Belldandy and Keiichi's relationship — only starting, mind you — the idea of a god toying romantically or sexually with a human was another thing that I have major problems with. When she wasn't playing Mae West with all the innuendo and come-hithering, Urd was tolerable, even pleasant company. But her all-too-frequent flirtatious mode did nothing but raise my hackles.

And of course there was this latest thing with Megumi. Where Urd's slut game left me fuming, this development made me want to go out and kill something. Preferably something winged and harp-bearing.

So there were six separate issues that I had to cope with somehow, that I had to come to terms with before I could even begin to honestly tell myself that I was back in some semblance of emotional balance.

By the time I was finally able to slip into a real meditative state, the afternoon was over and evening had begun. Belldandy came out once, presumably to tell me dinner was ready, but before I noticed that she had been at the temple door she had already left without saying a word. I'd like to think she realized what I was doing and why it was important to me. It seems to me like the kind of thing she'd know almost instinctively, but we never spoke of it, so I don't know for sure.

All in all I spent about five hours meditating in the temple, starting more or less in twilight and eventually ending up in near-total darkness, trying to sort out my emotions and get them back on an even keel.

I didn't succeed.

Not in the sense that when I walked out of the temple somewhere around 11 PM I felt like goddess was in her kitchen and all was right in the world. Hell, no. But I had started to deal with at least the more familiar of the problems at hand — the disappointment of the world jump, and the inevitable looking for a job so I didn't starve.

The former I had had more practice in than I cared for, although it was getting harder with each failed jump. The latter, I had finally realized with no small surprise, had been made paradoxically harder by the fact that I didn't have to do it in this world. Belldandy and Keiichi's largesse had actually turned the emotional implication of the job hunt completely on its head. Because I felt that I had to find a job to prove I didn't need to depend on their generosity, I'd been pushing myself harder, earlier and growing dissatisfied with my lack of success sooner than I normally did. On that front, at least, I was stressing myself out, and having figured that out, I could take some steps to correct it.

Yeah, pop psychology, but hey, there's always a core of truth in stuff like that. Sometimes not much, but hey, you take what help you can get.

So it was that by the end of the night, I was a little closer to balance. Enough so that I could handle some of the other stuff without blowing up, at least not right away.

And among that other stuff was something I felt was pretty damned important — talking to Megumi before she made any kind of decision.

Assuming she hadn't already.

Wednesday, May 14, 1997, 11:15 PM

It had been a long time since she'd slept over at the temple, but Megumi didn't feel up to heading back to her place all alone. Not this night. Not with what she had on her mind weighing her down.

Belldandy being Belldandy, her old room (funny as it was to call it that when she'd only lived in the temple long enough to find her own place) was ready so quickly it might as well have been set up and waiting for her — right down to all the little touches that she'd always appreciated, like the bud vase and all. Megumi paused for a moment and wondered if Belldandy had simply... magicked the room ready. Somehow that possibility drained some of the "special" out of the effort the goddess had made. Then again, Belldandy never seemed to do household stuff except manually, so maybe she had set up the room without magic.

She shrugged and turned her mind back to the matter at hand. The... the angel that had talked to Chris hadn't given a deadline for her decision, but the goddesses (and Chris) had agreed that she probably didn't have more than a week or so to make up her mind.

She wasn't sure that was enough.

It was a big decision — give up her right to an independent life and be shackled to a 13-year-old girl, or lose access to and maybe even the memory of the amazing technologies she was now working with. On the one hand, being bound as a servant to a temperamental child was not how she had envisioned her college years, let alone her life. Then again, how could she give up what she was learning now, even knowing that she'd never remember it to miss it?

And then there was the torture of knowing about the power a Soldier would get — power that would let her defend herself against the things out there that preyed on ordinary people like her — but being told that she couldn't have it. Getting rid of that "might-have-been" maybe would be worth having her memory blanked.

She gave a little wordless cry of frustration at the dilemma and ground her clenched fists into her temples. There has to be some way to weigh all my options and make the best choice!

She just wished she knew what it was.

As she dropped her fists back into her lap, there was a faint knock at the door. "Megumi-san?" Doug's voice, already pitched low and soft and further muffled by the door. "You awake and decent?"

Megumi glanced down at the pajamas Belldandy had loaned her. All buttoned properly, no gaps, nothing immodest or exposed. "Come on in," she said as she unclenched her fists and folded her hands together.

The door slid open and Doug stepped in. As he turned and slid it closed behind him — only partially, she noted absently, so a passerby could see they weren't doing anything improper — she studied his lean, muscular body and smiled ruefully. Another thing she likely wouldn't have if she entered Skuld's service. The little goddess probably would not appreciate it if her servant started dating someone, not with the way she went off on "perverts" — which was to say, anyone with a normal adult's sex drive. She'd probably order Megumi to live like a nun.

Well, that was definitely one strike against swearing herself to Skuld.

Doug turned back around. "Hi," he said.

She raised an eyebrow. "Hi."

He smiled sheepishly. "Um, look. I'm sorry I stormed out of the shop this afternoon. I should have stayed and given you a valid alternative point of view."

Megumi shrugged. "Nah, that's okay."

"No, I mean it." He ran a hand through his close-cropped hair. "You needed an advocate there, someone who would argue the, the... mortal side of things before you got pressured into anything." He leaned forward a little and studied her, as if he could tell something about her decision just by looking. Oddly, his eyes seemed to lose focus for a moment. "You, um, haven't been pressured into anything yet, have you?"

She shook her head. "No. They figure I've got at least until the middle of next week to think it over."

"Good, good." Doug seemed to relax a bit. "I just wanted to let you know that if you, you know, decide to tell that angel — and Angel — to stuff it, I'll stand by you. Cover your back if necessary."

"Um." Megumi was touched. That was no insignificant gesture. "Thank you. And if I decide otherwise?"

He blinked in surprise, as if he could not and had not even imagined that she might find the offer attractive. "Uh... of course I'd support whatever decision you make."

"But you'd prefer if I chose not to swear myself into Skuld's service?" She tilted her head and studied him.

Doug ran a hand through his hair and smiled boyishly. "Guilty," he admitted. "<You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice>," he then said in English, clearly quoting something by the rhythm of his speech.

"<If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.
You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill;
I will choose a path that's clear —
I will choose Free Will.>"

He shrugged. "That would be my choice. There's only one god — goddess, really — that I trust enough to swear any service to..." A shadow of a frown flickered across his face. "...And I've already sworn an oath to her of purely temporal duty. The goddesses, and Chris — they don't seem too bad to me, but if there's one thing the gods are really, really good at, it's deceiving mortals for their own purposes."

Megumi frowned. "You think they're lying to me?"

He grimaced, then shook his head. "I'm not sure. I don't see any evidence of deceit, but I'm anything but infallible. Just... treat it like you're buying a used car from a shady dealer. Ask questions. Don't assume they're going to be completely up front about everything — particularly important things. Expect that you won't be told anything you don't think to ask about." He grinned again, suddenly. "Mind you, I'm biased. I just don't like gods, on general principles."

A burst of near-hysterical laughter threatened to bubble up out of her. "Fair enough. I'll keep your advice in mind."

Doug nodded and reached behind himself for the door handle. "That's all I can ask. Good night, Megumi-san, and good luck with your decision."

"Good night, Doug-san," she said inclining her head in lieu of a real bow, "and thanks."

He paused on the threshold, threw another grin her way, and said, "No problem." Then he was through and the door slid shut behind him, leaving her alone again with her dilemma.

And a few more things to think about.

Thursday, May 15, 1997, 11:48 AM

If all the stress keeping me off my emotional balance weren't bad enough, I had the unfortunate privilege, late the next morning, of getting caught between Chris' two ... well, I never did get a good idea what to call them. "Girlfriends" wasn't quite the right word. "Paramours" implies more intimacy than their body language and verbal denials allowed for. "Steady dates" sounds too high-schoolish. "Harem" would have gotten me killed, very slowly. "Bookends" might have been the most accurate — they seemed to automatically gravitate to the opposite sides of everything, both physically and metaphorically.

Whatever. All I know is that they were hooked up with him through a combination of honest attraction and divine fuck-up that could have had me laughing for even longer than the story of Chris' apotheosis did, if it hadn't been so twisted. As a result, Police Girl and Buffy Coed — Ami and Rachel — seemed destined to oppose and orbit each other as well as Chris.

I didn't learn that right away. Oh, no. I had to make a mistake first. I had to ask them about it.

It was almost lunchtime the day after the angel-related unpleasantness. I was still keeping myself more or less separate from the rest of the house's inhabitants, if only to spare them (and me) the effects of my somewhat-more-controlled-but-still-hair-trigger temper. That meant I'd taken over the temple building proper as my personal domain again.

I'd seen Megumi to the gate earlier that morning, and not long after that watched from a distance as Skuld headed off toward the NIT campus by herself. Chris apparently had no morning classes on Thursdays, though, and I had not yet seen him by the time I ensconced myself in my temporary retreat for the morning.

I spent several hours performing kata — empty-handed, at first, to warm up, and then once I was limber and ready, while wielding a bokuto. During the latter, I did my best to integrate what Chris had been showing me into a coherent whole. The fact that he had begun by working me in a single style to begin with helped me a great deal. I found, however, that I missed making up my own names for the stances, positions and moves. Somehow terms like "hasso hidari gamae", "chudan-no-kame" and "jodan-no-kame morote uchi kiri otashi kudashi", as descriptive as they were in Japanese, seemed far less interesting to me than coming up with something of my own like "Strike of the Wild Mallard", "The Scarlet Pumpernickel Parry" or, best of all, "The Hassan Chop".

Dull or not, though, I worked on those new moves all morning, both singly and in combinations. I concentrated on burning them deep into muscle memory, to make them as automatic as my unarmed combat moves have become. It wouldn't happen all in one morning, not by a long shot, but the key to the process was repetition. And the sooner you start, the sooner it's accomplished. I only stopped when Chris's bookends showed up and I realized that I was hungry.

I heard them before I saw them, but then again, most of the neighborhood could probably have said the same. They were engaged in a calm and dignified discussion of important issues of the day.

No, wait, that was somebody else. These two were all but screaming at each other at the tops of their lungs just outside the gates to the complex, which did nothing to mitigate their volume that I could detect. Even so, I had no idea what they were actually arguing about. Long before they'd gotten within earshot the two of them had already devolved into sniping at each other.

The rather shrill exchange jolted me out of the state of intense focus into which I'd slipped, and reminded me that it was close to lunch time. As I started to debate with myself over how comfortable it would be for me to eat with the "family", I slid my bokuto into my belt and grabbed the towel I'd brought in with me. I didn't really need it, but I wiped down my brow anyway and then draped it around my shoulders.

The two girls were just entering the compound when I stepped out of the temple. I was the only person in the yard at that moment other than them, and I watched as they crossed the flagstones so absorbed in their argument that they were completely unaware of my presence. From what I overheard, they were bickering about which of them was the better match for Chris, and it had already degenerated well past the "so there!" and "I know you are but what am I?" level of debate. They weren't more than halfway across the yard when I grimaced at the irritating stridency of their voices and decided that I'd had more than I could take.

Taking advantage of their inattention, I blended speed and stealth to slip up behind them unnoticed. Staying just out of arm's reach I asked, very loudly and obnoxiously, "Just what the hell is it with you two?"

The two of them both jumped and emitted a very satisfying pair of nicely harmonized shrieks. As they whirled to look at me, I smirked at them.

"You!" Police Girl — Ami — snarled. Although the jeans and light sweater she wore were anything but a police uniform, she still radiated "cop". For a moment I was grateful that we were in Japan — if she'd been an American police officer, she probably would have been going for her gun. (Not that under most circumstances I needed to worry about a mere handgun, but I wasn't wearing my armor, and if my field didn't deflect it, taking a bullet would hurt like a sonuvabitch. But like I said, no gun, so no concern.) As it was, her hands just twitched slightly.

Rachel's hands didn't just twitch. "You jerk!" she yelled as she lunged forward and tried to slap me. There was a solid "crack!", but it wasn't from flesh-on-flesh — my field had decided to act like a force wall and hard-stopped the blow a good 15 or 20 centimeters from my face. She cried out in pain and cradled her right hand in her left.

I grimaced. "You shouldn't have tried that," I said. "Here, let me look." I reached out and took her hand; she yanked it back, but not before I managed a quick cursory examination by both touch and magesight.

"Hey, don't touch her!" Ami shouted, a bit too late.

I ignored her and looked Rachel in the eyes. "Your hand is okay, you haven't broken anything, but it probably hurts something nasty. You might want to put some ice on it."

She nodded, then growled, "What was that I hit?"

I sighed and went for the Reader's Digest version. "My body generates a kind of force field. I can suppress it if I need to touch something, but it's on all the time otherwise."

Rachel gaped. "Your body what?"

Ami's anger seemed to evaporate as she studied me, head tilted to one side. "Isn't that awfully inconvenient?"

I raised an eyebrow at her, impressed. She was quick on the uptake. "You have no idea."

Rachel held her hand close to her body and flexed it slightly, wincing as she did so, but visibly fighting through the pain to form a fist repeatedly. "Not too bad," she muttered, "I've had worse. Lucky me — Coach might've cut me from the team if I couldn't play this weekend."

"Team?" I asked.

"Schoolgirl here plays soccer," Ami piped up, and smirked wickedly. "Maybe I'll visit Chris in the stands..." she mused.

Rachel bestowed a fiery glare on the other woman. "You little..."

I decided to derail them before they got into it again. "What is it with you two, anyway?" I asked, repeating my earlier question. "I've seen love triangles before, but this is ridiculous."

"None of your business!" Rachel snapped, without moving her head.

"None at all," I agreed smoothly. "But I'm curious. I mean, I heard the comedy that resulted in him getting to be a god, so what's the deal? Is he that hot a catch?"

It was Rachel's turn to smirk, a disturbing expression when combined with her angry glare. "The slut here decided that since she'd done all the scummy guys, she had to go after the decent ones, and started with mine."

Ami snarled, and with visible effort controlled herself and turned to me. I could see in her eyes that the shot had hit its mark, but she didn't show it in her voice. "If you must know," she said in a carefully even tone, "I was the recipient of a wish. Christopher happened to be the one to give it to me. At the time he found me, I was distraught due to a failed relationship."

I had one of those sinking feelings. I knew where this was going, yet I had to ask anyway. "And things didn't go well?"

"They went great for her," Rachel sniped, clearly irritated at Ami not rising to the bait.

"Chris, being the caring person he is, decided that my wish was second to my emotional well-being," she continued. I noticed with some amusement that she was telling all this with the emotionally-detached tone that police officers the world over use when giving after-action reports. "Near the end of our conversation, I was quite taken with his concern, as he was a damn sight more genuine than any of the assholes I had dated up until then." She took a deep breath in an effort to regain her detachment. "In the moment, I wished 'for a chance at a guy like you'."

Sometimes I hate it when I'm right. "And the closest guy like Chris," I said in a pained voice as I pinched the bridge of my nose, "was Chris." Whoever was behind the wish-granting mechanism, I was certain, had to be a closet sadist. Or a practical joker. Or both. (In other words, a god. Of course.)

"The operative word here, though," Rachel drawled, "being chance."

I could feel my temper rising. "So you two are stuck like this until that momzer makes his choice?" I hissed, and stopped as both of them burst into laughter.

"Chris has no choice," Rachel said. "We do. We can leave this whenever we like. He has to give us our chance until one of us gives up or he falls for one of us."

My eyes widened, "'Falls' as in..."

"True, one-hundred percent, just like Belldandy and Keiichi, absolute love," Ami finished.

Well, that was a bit to swallow. I looked over the two of them, and had to ask. "Okaaay, that's... weird. But why don't you quit, then?"

They both got a sort of resigned look on their faces. Ami looked at Rachel, who sighed and said, "Because one of us is his true love, and we don't know which."

"Did Urd tell you that?" I demanded, thinking I'd be able to warn them about her shenanigans. "Because..."

Rachel shook her head. "No, Belldandy did." Well, that sort of shut me up.

"I'm... sorry I asked," I said. I was. I felt like I had intruded in something almost tragic. "So do you guys have any clue? There's got to be some way you can figure it out. I mean personality-wise, physically..."

Rachel snorted and Ami giggled and said, "I'm pretty sure he finds us both physically attractive." She made a point at looking down at her ample chest and then over at Rachel's similarly substantial assets.

I rolled my eyes and said wryly, "Nice to know even gods have their own little quirks...."

Midair, 513 Meters Above Nekomi Institute of Technology, Thursday, May 15, 1997, 3:21 PM

This is beneath me. Mara growled as she reflected on the effort she had made over the past few days. No demon first class should have had to do their own research like this!

Not that she'd had much choice, given the absolutely useless dossier she'd received on Sangnoir. But it still galled. That she had actually dispatched Senbei to do most of the work and had not personally performed all that much of it herself did not matter to her; the very need had offended Mara. A proper demon should not have to work hard to find a handle with which to corrupt a mortal, mage or not — they were all so marvelously, easily corruptible without work! Well, save for a few hardcases, but they hardly mattered, and besides, they were for the home office to worry about, not her.

Whether or not it was beneath her dignity, though, didn't matter. She had her handle — she had several, actually. Whatever his relationship with the goddesses and the whelp was, it was tenuous at best. If the last couple of days had been any indication, he was prone to erupt in anger at them, particularly at Pair-o'-Ducks. (She grinned to herself. No need to accord any respect to a trumped-up mortal, now, was there?) The recent conversation between Duck-boy and the Kyriotate had indirectly triggered a spasm of rage in Sangnoir, and if there was one thing, Mara could always make use of, it was good old-fashioned Wrath. Nothing like one of the seven deadlies to bring a mortal around to my side.

But it wasn't just wrath she would use. Senbei had noted that Sangnoir wore no wedding ring. Mara had confirmed it with her own surveillance. And Sangnoir was a fit, handsome fellow clearly in the early years of a vigorous middle age. Such men always had strong sex drives, and Sangnoir would be no exception, not in his state of health and fitness. He was not sating his carnal hungers with any of the goddesses, that much was obvious — Belldandy was taken, Skuld was both too young and too prudish, and although she had briefly been worried about Urd, Senbei had reported that Sangnoir reacted to the eldest sister's flirtations with irritation rather than interest. And that little mortal chit who flitted in and out of the temple didn't even merit an appraising glance from him. Still, the whole leather-and-motorcycle thing and the martial arts practically screamed "I must prove my virility!" She'd seen it thousands of times before, though the Japanese tended to be a bit less obvious about it than Americans.

She nearly laughed. It's so simple it's almost not a challenge. It was obvious to Mara that while Sangnoir needed to prove his manhood like any other human male his age, he was selective about it. He was a sophisticated, worldly man looking for a real woman — and that was her "handle". She would be that woman. Lust first — she would lure him, seduce him, toy with him and, once she'd reduced him to a panting animal, make him her personal plaything. Then she would exploit that delicious wrath of his to turn him against the Goody Gang, use it and the sex to corrupt him bit by bit until heart and soul he belonged to her... and then his power would serve Hell.

It was simple and direct — a classic temptation and fall. How could it fail? Not to mention that if he were any good in bed it would be a nice little bonus for her. You can seduce only so many salarymen before they start getting boring. At the very least, he would have some novelty value. And if he actually were skilled as a lover, she just might keep him as a pet. Her nominal superiors in Hell's bureaucracy might not like it — especially that prick Garnash — but screw them. She was a Demon First Class on special assignment under Hild; she was entitled to skim a little off the top for herself.

Mara was looking forward to this. It had been a long time since she'd enjoyed a straight seduction without ping-pong involved. What to wear, what to wear? she mused with a private little smile.

Nekomi Ginza, Saturday, May 17, 1997, 11:32 AM

By Saturday morning I'd calmed down sufficiently to be able to work on the bike again. I was still concerned about Megumi's upcoming decision, but I wasn't bubbling over with outrage and anger about it.

Still, it was a bit difficult for me to hold my temper. It wasn't helped by the tension I thought I could feel between Skuld and Megumi as the three of us began the laborious (and sweltering) task of blending and alloying that bronze-colored metal of Skuld's, then extruding it into the tubes that would form the new frame of my bike. (Or would that be the frame of my new bike? I still haven't decided whether Skuld dramatically upgraded or outright replaced my motorcycle...)

Anyway, tensions were high in Skuld's workshop. She and Megumi had this unspoken communication going on between them — Megumi kept looking at Skuld like she wanted something, and Skuld kept frowning. Unlike earlier in the week when they had been constantly chattering with each other over their plans and Skuld's graphic tablet, they now barely said more than a few words at a time to each other, and those were only the barest minimum necessary to coordinate the tasks they were doing.

In between my share of the work, I kept glancing at the two of them. Megumi seemed very determined about something, and Skuld was oddly... well, nervous wasn't exactly the right word, but something about Megumi's determination seemed to unnerve her. I got the distinct impression that they wanted to have one of those significant conversations, but wouldn't as long as I were there.

Anyway, they were so consumed by their personal subtext that neither said very much to me, either. Which was okay as far as I was concerned, because I was feeling very snarky that morning, and I was practically chewing on my tongue to keep from mouthing off. Normally I wouldn't have restrained myself, but then again this was my bike we were working on, and the last thing I wanted was one or both of them going in a snit over something I said and abandoning the job.

Of course, the effort of watching my mouth for so long put an unbearable strain on my legendary patience, so as quickly as I could I made the excuse that I had just remembered a part I needed to go buy. Then I got the hell out of Dodge. Between the tension and the focus they had on their metallurgy, the two of them barely acknowledged my departure from the shop. I wondered just what ground was going to be covered now that I was no longer there to inhibit either of them.

I'll find out soon enough, I'm sure, I mused as I stealthed my way back into the house and my room, avoiding any of the other residents who might still be around. There, I changed out of the sweaty jeans and T-shirt I'd been working in. I dashed into the furo room, sluiced myself off with the hand-held showerhead, then ran back to my room to dress again, this time in better jeans and an NIT Motor Club polo shirt that Belldandy had given me a few days earlier.

I cast a longing glance at my helmet, thinking of the things I might want to do if I happened to come across a flock of ravens. (Excuse me, an "unkindness" of ravens, though I was determined that any unkindnesses that day would be mine.) I decided to leave it behind, though; it would be too conspicuous to walk around with a helmet either in hand or on my head, and besides, I should wait until Megumi had made a decision one way or another before I ambushed any Celestials.

That decided, I stealthed back out of the house, took a long curving detour around and away from Skuld's shop, and slipped out of the front gate.

Fifteen minutes later I was on the Nekomi ginza. I hadn't exactly lied when I said that I'd needed a part for the bike. That package of spare control cables could easily have waited for another week or more, but they did make for a good (and true) reason for me to get out of the temple. And so as not to make a liar out of myself, I went right away down a side street off the main shopping drag to one of the little hole-in-the-wall parts shops that Keiichi had introduced me to a few days earlier. I grabbed the cables that I needed, then spent another quarter hour or so just browsing before I made my way back to the register and paid for my purchase.

As I opened the shop door, my eye was caught by a colorful flier on the bulletin board at the entrance advertising a robot-battle tournament. That piqued my interest (though not enough to actually make me pause), and I kept reading as I stepped through the door, out onto the sidewalk, and into somebody. Being completely distracted, I was knocked off-balance and was already falling before I could catch myself, so I did the only thing I could and turned it into a tumble. A bit of a twist as I rolled over my shoulder and I popped back up on my feet.

Behind me I heard a feminine voice cursing a blue streak, and I turned around to see a young woman firmly planted on her butt in the middle of the sidewalk. A huge waterfall of blonde curls hid her head and most of her upper body from my view, but did nothing to block some of the most colorful profanity I'd heard in quite a while, in a surprising assortment of languages.

"Are you all right, miss?" I asked as I leaned down and held out a hand. The profanity cut off and the curls tilted back to reveal a pair of expensive sunglasses and the top of a tight blue dress. The lips below the sunglasses broke into a shy but friendly smile.

"Are you okay?" she asked. Her voice was throaty and just a bit raspy, reminding me a little of Joan Jett. A faint hint of perfume reached my nose, and I recognized it — Chanel #5 was one of Maggie's favorites. "I should have been watching where I was going. I hope you're all right." She took my hand and I hoisted her to her feet.

Standing up she turned out to be taller than I expected, even taking the lion's mane of hair and her high-heeled shoes into account; my best guess put her at about my own height. The effect was further exaggerated by a long, lean build that was athletic and almost boyish — a small-breasted, hardbody look that reminded me a little of a girlfriend I'd had in my college years. (Veronica had easily been a head and a half shorter than this woman, though.)

It was all wrapped in a little blue shirt-styled dress that despite its simple lines and button-down front seemed a bit fancy for midday on the street in a college town. But as if to counter that hint of stuffiness, an aggressively casual white leather belt draped itself around her hips, she carried a big funky purse covered in giant sequins, and had brightly-colored plastic bangles on both wrists with a matching necklace. The combined effect was kind of bohemian, in a pleasantly understated way.

She was definitely a Westerner, but as I've noted before, there was a small but visible Anglo contingent among the NIT student body.

"Well, I..." I started to answer, but that's as far as I got.

"I am so sorry, I just wasn't looking where I was going." She held out a hand. "Marie."

"Doug." I took her hand and shook it. She had a firm grasp. Her grip tightened for a moment, and I would have sworn that she was about to try the old "who can squeeze harder" game of one-upmanship that guys sometimes play. But almost as soon as I felt it, the squeeze relaxed into a more comfortable, but still quite sincere, grip.

"Nice to meet you, Doug." She flashed me a full-on Hollywood smile, with teeth that were just a bit too perfect to be anything but expensive dental work, that still managed to have a "just folks" friendliness about it. "Let me buy you a coffee or something as an apology." She released my hand.

"Oh, that's not necessary!" I declared. "I'm perfectly..."

She shook her head. "No, I insist. It's the least I can do." Then, before I could object further, she slid her arm through mine. I had just enough presence of mind to suppress my field there so it wouldn't do something nasty to her or her clothes before she dragged me across the street to a kissaten.

Half an hour later we were both on our second coffees.

Marie seemed to be surprisingly good company, but then, by that point I was more than a little starved for the companionship of normal human beings. (No, I don't count the psycho motorhead twins Ootaki and Tamiya; I never sought them out and actively avoided them any time they visited the temple. I found them both extremely annoying. And Megumi and Keiichi — well, too much proximity to the goddesses, although Megumi was far better in that regard.)

Anyway, Marie was easy to talk to, and just as easy to listen to as she rambled on about the peccadilloes of the NIT students she knew — "no shit, there I was" stories that at times drifted almost into shaggy dog territory. In between her anecdotes, I had found myself relaxing and telling her quite a lot of my life story — at least as much of it as I dared tell anyone outside the temple.

She wasn't all sweetness and light, though — as if the blue streak she'd cursed while sitting on the sidewalk hadn't been enough indication. When she took off those expensive shades of hers she had revealed a pair of deep blue eyes that took on a mischievous, almost malicious, cast as she recounted the more embarrassing of her little stories. The obvious pleasure she took in some of the worst of those accounts bothered me a bit — as nice as she had seemed at first, she clearly had a nasty streak.

Just to complicate matters, at the same time as I sussing out all the quirks of her character, she had begun coming on to me. Nothing too blatant at first, mostly body language. Then the body language started getting more direct — toying with the buttons on her dress, twisting in her chair to show off her legs where I could see them, a shift in her posture that made the most of her modest endowment up top, and suddenly there was a pressing need for her to keep her red-painted fingernails at or near her mouth; when she stirred a little extra cream into her coffee with a finger and then lasciviously licked it clean I started wondering just what was going through her head. She was putting on a hell of a production for someone she'd just met. I mean, I've been told I'm a good-looking guy, but I'm not that good-looking. Women do not just... well, it was suspicious, okay?

As was the peculiar way she would try to reach for one of my hands while we were talking, only to have her hand drift away from its target. She didn't seem aware of it as it happened, but the discovery that she wasn't holding my hand when she'd clearly intended it would trigger a momentary frown of confusion. Then she'd try again, only to find her hand curled around her silverware, or the salt shaker, or her coffee cup instead.

After watching this happen a few times in a row, I had something of an epiphany. I carefully and deliberately suppressed my field around my right hand, and sure enough, the next time she reached for me she was able to latch right on. It started as a friendly touch, but then she began caressing the back of my hand with her fingertips.

I didn't let my expression betray my thoughts, but that sealed it for me. If my field didn't want her to touch me and was actively deflecting her — and doing it subtly to boot — then there had to be something seriously wrong here.

There were only two questions then: just how wrong, and how should I get away?

Having reached this new plateau of success, Marie's efforts intensified. Under the pretense of showing me some photos in her wallet, she scooted her chair around the table so that we could lean over the pictures together, hip-to-hip, shoulder-to-shoulder, and head-to-head. I have to admit her hair smelled great — I'm a sucker for certain herbal scents like lavender, a fact which my wife knows and exploits ruthlessly — and Marie's lion's mane of curls smelt of something not-quite-floral that blended almost perfectly with the Chanel #5 that drifted up to my nose from her modest decolletage.

The photos, I should note, were almost entirely of her in various socially-acceptable states of undress and were accompanied by mildly suggestive commentary, punctuated by excessively cute "aren't I naughty?" winks and smiles: "My first boyfriend took that when we went to the beach, that one was after a particularly wild party..." and so on.

How obvious can you possibly get? I thought with no small amount of growing disgust.

I really should have pulled away from Marie right then, but I was far too curious about her intentions and motivations. So I let myself be drawn in further, with the intention of springing away from her once I had my answers. I kept my center though, and did not let myself get so distracted by her efforts that I forgot why I was letting her get close.

I don't have infinite patience, though. At the end of my second cup of joe, and with Marie's foot stroking its way up and down my left calf, I was on the verge of losing my cool. I had to do something, because I was getting nothing from this. So the next time a server came through behind us, I shifted my leg back and, with a silent apology to the poor girl, I stuck my heel out just far enough to catch her foot.

With a yelp of surprise, the server pitched forward, sending the tray of drinks she'd been carrying flying through the air. As she fell forward onto hands and knees, I faked a clumsy scramble back and to the side. I let myself trip and sprawl on the floor next to my now-overturned chair and well out of the way of the shower of iced tea that arced over Marie's head. It mostly missed her, to my surprise — judging from the trajectories of the glasses, her hair should have been soaked. Instead, the worst she had was a hand-sized stain on the hem of her skirt.

Something else to wonder about.

For my part, I was watching Marie's face from my seat on the floor in an elaborately false state of surprise. As soon as she realized what was going on, an absolutely out-of-proportion rage blazed across her face, a rage that under other circumstances I might have called murderous. It was gone as quickly as it had come, though — Marie clamped down on it almost instantly and schooled her features into an expression of shock and surprise as false as my own. She leapt out of her chair with a little shriek as I climbed to my feet and helped the server back to her own.

I turned to her once the server and a busboy were busy cleaning up the mess I'd caused. "Oh, you got tea on your dress!" I pointed out unnecessarily.

Marie glanced down and once again there was a flicker of that anger, this time accompanied by a literal growl, a sound like something a wild animal might make. "I'll be right back," she snapped out coldly, turned on her heel, and strode to the restrooms.

I righted my chair, sat back down in it, and then dug through my pocket to find the cash to leave a very generous tip for the waitress. Then I slipped into magesight and waited.

I didn't have to wait long. Barely a minute after she'd gone in, Marie slinked back out. Her anger was gone, replaced with the playful/seductive face she'd been wearing through most of our little encounter. And her dress was not only clean, but perfectly dry, as if it had never been stained at all.

But that wasn't what really grabbed my attention.

No, two other things caught my eye. The first was the two slashes of violent red that slanted up her forehead from just above the bridge of her nose to just below her hairline, forming a broken, blood-colored "V". They'd been hidden from me in normal sight, but in magesight they all but glowed, just like the rounded blue marks on the goddesses' faces did.

Which led to the second thing I noticed as she made her way back with a hip-swinging strut that I'm sure was supposed to be alluring and inviting. In the golden core of her aura were three writhing bands of color — red, blue and green — twisted around themselves in a triple helix.

She was a Celestial.

I should have known.

Fury consumed me.

In the darkened, unoccupied confines of Urd's laboratory, a rhythmic scratching could be heard in the silence of the room, first softly, then louder and louder. Had there been an observer present, he would have quickly discovered that the scratching emanated from the old and stained wooden box that still rested on one end of an otherwise clean and uncluttered worktable. As the scratching continued, the box began to shake as though something inside wanted out but was not quite strong enough to climb out on its own.

Releasing magesight, I held onto my temper with the tattered edges of my fraying control. I will not attack a Celestial in a coffee shop. I will not endanger innocents. I will not attack a Celestial in a coffee shop. I will not get my ass kicked in public... I chanted to myself in an improvised mantra that I hoped would help me keep a tight rein on my anger.

"There," Marie — almost certainly not her name — chirped brightly. "All better." She slid back into her seat.

I nodded, not trusting myself to say anything.

"Now," she continued, leaning toward me again, "after that, I'd really like to get out of here." She tried to run a finger down my arm, only to find herself running it along the tabletop instead. "Want to come back to my place? I'll make us both lunch, and after..." She trailed off in such a way as to let my imagination supply all the suggestive implications. Which it did. Only not the way she clearly wanted.

I did my best to keep my voice light and friendly. "What did you have in mind?"

"Ooooh, just a little private time," she cooed, her eyes half-closed in a sultry stare. "A little this and that, you know?"

I knew. Odd that she chose a Japanese idiom rather than being as direct about it as she was with the rest of her act. I made a show of looking her up and down as I thought about it. She all but leered at me.

"Thank you, but no," I said, as gently as I could. No need to start off confrontational, no matter how angry I was.

"Aw, c'mon." As she tried to wheedle me, Marie put on a playful smile. That smile flickered away for a moment when she tried to caress my hand and found her own once again diverted. "It'll be fun. You'll have a great time."

"Sorry." I tried polite one more time. "While the offer is tempting..." (yeah, right) "...I'm a married man."

"You're... you're married?" She sat up straight, a look of mixed surprise and annoyance on her face as her eyes flicked to my ringless left hand and back again.

Hadn't known that about me, huh, sweetheart? "Yes. I'm married," I repeated. Then I leaned in to her and lowered my voice a notch. "And you're a Celestial."

The surprise faded away to leave nothing but annoyance; and from the narrowing of her eyes and the creasing of her brow, it was obvious that annoyance was rapidly becoming anger. Still, she tried to bluff. "I'm a what? You must be mistaken. I'm..."

"<I know you've deceived me, now here's a surprise,>" I interrupted her, singing softly in English, "<I know that you have, 'cause there's magic in my eyes.> I know exactly what you are, 'Marie', if not who." I let an edge born of my own anger slide into my voice. "Now, you've been good company for the last half hour or so, and I've really enjoyed our conversation, for the most part. And if you'd been a mortal, I wouldn't mind continuing our acquaintance, although still not to the degree that you were intimating." I carefully finished my coffee, then picked up my bag of cables and stood up; meanwhile, she merely sat there, staring at me in apparent stunned outrage. "But you're not a mortal. And I'm sure you have no real interest in really getting to know me either. All you wanted was to catch me up for your own game." I shook my head. "I'm not going to play."

My belongings in hand, I stepped around the table towards the door of the kissaten. I paused at the other side, even with Marie, putting us side-by-side but facing different directions. I did not look down at her; I doubt she looked up at me. "I am a married man," I repeated in a low growl. "I am faithful to my wife. And I do not need or want some Celestial slut trying to make me break my oaths for her momentary pleasure." I paused to take a long, slow breath. "Do not come near me again. Or you will regret it."

And with that I left the kissaten.

After a few minutes, the shaking and scratching faded, leaving the laboratory silent and still once more.

The growl that filled the small restaurant started out soft, but grew in intensity until none of the customers could avoid hearing it. They had no idea, though, where it came from, until the coffee cup exploded into shards from the force of Mara's grip. Then those closest to her table scrambled to get away from her.

She didn't notice.

She didn't notice how everyone in the kissaten cleared from her path when she launched herself to her feet and turned toward the door, unconcerned by the mortals watching her as her carefully-designed outfit evaporated to reveal her usual black leather.

Mara flung herself through the door and out onto the sidewalk and screamed, "Sangnoir! You're a dead man! Do you hear me? A dead man!" Then she hurled herself into the sky, heedless of the witnesses on the street.

Tarikihonganji Temple Complex, Saturday, May 17, 1997, 12:20 PM

Belldandy paused in washing the lunch dishes and frowned. Faintly in the distance, but growing closer, she could sense a cloud of outrage and fury of a strength she rarely encountered in the mortal world. Without taking her otherworldly senses off the approaching emotional disturbance, she carefully finished the task at hand, drying and stowing each plate and glass. Stepping out into the yard, she turned slowly in place, still clutching the dish towel she had been drying with. Eyes closed, she reached out, seeking the direction from which the disturbance came, and focusing more of her Celestial attention on it.

As it closed the distance between them, Belldandy's all but ever-present smile dimmed noticeably. It was Doug. She had hoped that his escape into the city at large would have helped alleviate his emotional turmoil, but it seemed that hope had been vain. She shook her head sadly. There was so much that troubled and disturbed him — if only she'd been a better hostess and helped him find the serenity he needed so badly. Unaware of what she was doing, she twisted the towel between her hands so tightly that it began to creak and drip moisture which gathered into a pool between her slippered toes. Blinking back the sting of threatened tears, she shook her head again. She had failed him.

To her Celestial senses, Doug's fury was like an approaching thunderhead, dark with threatened violence, and she stood helplessly as it swept implacably up to the temple gate. For a long moment it hovered just outside, and she could imagine Doug standing there, one hand on the gate's latch, taking deep breaths to calm himself before he forced himself to step back into what he must view as enemy territory. So intently had she been imagining the scene that when the gate did finally open, the sound of the iron latch slamming back was so unexpected and surprising that she started visibly.

Doug stepped in, and even to her mundane sight his anger was blazoned across his face, visible plainly despite his equally obvious effort to hide it. He closed the gate behind himself, and stood for a moment with his back to her, head bowed and resting against the painted wood. Then he straightened, turned around, and spied her for the first time.

"Belldandy-san," he said, not quite calling out although his voice carried clearly across the empty yard. His tone was flat, with neither hostility nor friendliness in it, completely at odds with the turmoil she could sense.

"Doug-san," she replied, controlling her voice lest it betray her own emotional state. As he crossed the yard, she took a breath and added, "Something is troubling you?"

To her surprise, the question seemed to douse some of his anger. He studied her unblinkingly for the best part of a minute before answering, though. "Yes," he said at last. "I just encountered one of your kind on the shopping street." His eyes bored into hers. "She tried to seduce me."

The towel fell at her feet as she raised one hand to her mouth. "Seduce you?"

He nodded, then one corner of his mouth quirked upward, just a bit. "She failed."

"Who was it?" Chris asked unexpectedly from the door behind her. Surprised, she glanced back to see her brother quickly flash her a self-satisfied smile before stepping out onto the engawa to stand at her side.

"You expect me to recognize any of you on sight?" Doug spat. "She was playing at being a human. She engineered a little 'accident' on the sidewalk, then the Celestial slut dragged me into a kissaten as an 'apology'." His brow darkened at the memory. "Then she tried to convince me to go to bed with her. And none too subtly, either."

Fingers still held to her lips, Belldandy turned to her brother. "Could it have been Peorth?"

Chris shuddered visibly, which got a raised eyebrow from Doug. "It sounds like her style." He looked at the older man. "Did she use any French endearments, or any other words in French, for that matter?"

Doug shook his head, his anger momentarily derailed by the oddness of the question. "No. None at all."

"Thank the Boss for small favors."

By this time the discussion in the yard had gained the attention of everyone else in the house. Keiichi appeared at her side, and as she slid under his comforting arm Belldandy felt oddly reassured. Urd and Skuld flanked Chris on the other side from her, while Megumi lurked in the doorway, curious but apart.

"What's going on?" Urd asked.

Doug's eyes blazed as he glanced at her. "I ran into one of you Celestials on the street about an hour ago. She tried to seduce me."

"Who?" Skuld demanded.

"Hell if I know," Doug snarled. "She called herself 'Marie,' but unless the Blessed Virgin makes a habit of walking the streets and picking up strange men, I'm betting that it's not her real name."

Urd tried to hold it in, but her cheeks puffed out and she let loose a burst of laughter. Skuld growled and kicked her ankle. "Ow! Cut it out, brat!"

"It's not funny," the smallest of the three goddesses spat at her eldest sister, then turned back to Doug. "Well, what did she look like?"

"Does it matter?" Doug asked angrily. "You people can shapeshift, after all." Then he frowned. "Unless that's one of those restrictions you told me about, Belldandy?"

She nodded. "It is. Whoever she was, we should be able to recognize her from your description."

"Weird." He shook his head then looked back up. "Okay, fairly straightforward. Blonde hair, a big curly mane of it. Blue eyes. Fair skin. Her face was roundish without looking fat. About 170 or so centimeters tall. Athletic build, nice legs, almost but not quite flat-chested. Pretty in a kind of tomboyish way." He frowned again. "Oh, yeah, and she had these two marks on her forehead, right above the bridge of her nose — bright red slashes that looked like a 'V'." He traced them on his own forehead with the tip of one finger.

"Mara..." Keiichi breathed.

"What?" A shriek cut across the temple yard and echoed off the walls.

Their heads swiveled to look at Megumi, who had stepped out onto the engawa. Her hands were clenched into fists, and a look of mixed fury and terror filled her eyes. "That bitch is back?" she hissed.

Urd nodded gravely. "Sounds like it."

Belldandy lifted her chin. "We will deal with her. Just as we always have."

"Hold on, hold on, hold on," Doug demanded, holding up his hands in a "stop" gesture. "So who's this Mara?"

"The androgynous wonder!" Chris said in semi-amused derision. "I'm surprised you could even tell she was a woman. She must have put the butch clothes back into her closet."

"'Androgynous'?" Doug raised an eyebrow. "Not from where I was sitting." He scrunched his face up in thought for a second. "Then again, I've met your girlfriends. If that's what you like in female figures, I can see how you might think that," he added with a touch of snark in his voice.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Chris demanded.

"Chris! Doug!" Belldandy cried out in mild exasperation. She turned her attention back fully to Doug. "Mara's a... well, she's a demon."

"A demon?" Doug's bantering tone vanished as his entire, focused attention suddenly snapped to her. The rage surrounding him, which had all but completely receded during the conversation, was suddenly back in a great, roiling wave. Belldandy almost flinched at the impact of it upon her senses — it was, if anything, even stronger than it had been when he arrived.

"Yes," Urd replied. "She's given us some trouble in the past."

"Some trouble?" Megumi repeated, her voice shrill with emotion. "Some? She turned me into a car! She took over my body! She had me thinking I was crazy for months!" She raised one fist as if to batter something or someone with it. "Where is she?"

Doug shrugged. "I left her in Yoshida's on the canal street. I doubt she's still there, though," he added as Megumi surged forward, only to be grabbed by Chris and a panicked-looking Keiichi.

"Calm down," Chris admonished her. "What do you think you're going to do, scratch her eyes out?"

"Yeah, Megumi," Keiichi added in gentler tones. "You can't go up against a demon all by yourself!"

"I don't care!" Megumi spat. "She's completely fucked with my life! I owe that bitch!" A wide-eyed Skuld took a step away from her.

"Ah, for Fnord's sake grow up, why don't you?" Chris muttered.

Megumi snarled at him and wrenched her arm free from his grasp. "I wouldn't expect you to understand, Mister-Oooh-I-Get-To-Be-A-God! You don't have to be afraid of someone like that any more. But those of us who are still mere mortals are a little vulnerable." She stuck her face in his. "You remember 'vulnerable'? As in weak, as in unable to defend yourself, as in an easy target for monsters like that?"

Chris closed his eyes and wiped spittle from his face. "I remember not even knowing about these things. I have no more liking for Mara than you." Rubbing his hand on his pants, he opened his eyes and studied her for a moment. "Look, if you really want revenge, I take requests. I always like the 'rain of holy water' trick."

Megumi held his eyes with her own, angry gaze. "Will it hurt her?"

"Well it stings like you wouldn't believe..." Chris suppressed the urge to rub the back of his neck. "But it really only ticks her off."

She stared at him wordlessly for several moments, a look of utter disbelief in her eyes. "Not. Good. Enough," she finally replied, spitting out each word separately.

"Well, what the fnord do you want, then?" Chris demanded. "I can't do more than that, as much as I want to. I'm not allowed."

"I want her to hurt," Megumi hissed in a vicious whisper that still managed to slice across the yard.

"Megumi..." Keiichi breathed.

She paid him no mind, and kept on going. "I want her to scream. I want her life as wrecked as mine was." Her eyes seemed to light up with inspiration, and she whirled from Chris to face Belldandy, whipping out her hand at the same time to end up pointing at the goddess. "I wish that Mara would get everything she deserves!"

There was a moment of silence.

"Nice try," said Urd. "But that only works if you're given a wish. You can't just shout one out at us and expect it to be granted automatically. We're not genies after all."

"Damn." Megumi scowled and lowered her arm. "In that case, I guess I'll have to do this the old-fashioned way."

"The old-fashioned way?" Keiichi echoed, sharing a worried look with Belldandy.

"Yeah." Megumi nodded, a determined look in her eye. "There are a couple of swords around here. I'll just borrow one, and then..."

"Oh, for gods' sake, will you just quit it?" Doug suddenly bellowed. As silence swept the yard, he closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose with his fingertips. He stayed that way for a few moments.

Then he looked back up at Megumi, who seemed frozen in a position of threatened violence. "Sorry, Megumi-san," he said soberly, "I'm a bit touchy myself right now. Look, yes, you were possessed, yes, you were turned into a car. But in both cases you clearly got better." He peered at her, his eyes seeming to lose focus for a moment. "A lot better. Most possession victims suffer years of psychological disturbances, until the traces of the demon's hold fade from their souls completely." Leaning forward, he narrowed his still-unfocused eyes. "Your soul has no traces whatsoever."

His eyes refocused and he glanced at Belldandy, who (Megumi noticed) nodded infinitesimally.

"Wait a second," the mortal girl said as the implications of his comments occurred to her. "You can see my soul?"

Chris tilted his head as he studied at the two mortals, one eyebrow raised inquisitively.

Doug shrugged. "In a broad sense, yes. Part of my magegift. But I'm not really adept at it — I can only see the big things. Living or dead. Wounds in body and mind. Whether or not you're a mage. Some of the metagifts. Celestial natures and taints. Stuff like that." He gave her a sheepish look. "You want real detail, you want someone like my friend Joe, who's a properly-trained wizard. He can look at your aura and tell you what color panties your mother was wearing the day you were conceived."

Megumi blushed at the thought.

"Pervert," Skuld snapped.

Doug's head whipped around to her. "I beg your pardon?"

Skuld scowled at him briefly, then a thought struck her. "That's how you knew we were goddesses when you first woke up here."

He stared at her for a moment. "Yes," he replied simply. Then he shook his head as if to clear it, and turned back to Megumi. "But that's not the point. The point is, whatever Mara did to you, it's over and done with, and other than maybe a few nightmares and bad memories it's had no lasting effect on you. Be grateful," he intoned slowly and clearly, his anger surging back into the forefront. "It could have been a lot worse." He grit his teeth. "And believe me, there is a whole lot worse than what you suffered."

Doug took a deep breath. "Now, if you all will excuse me, I believe I'm going to go look for someplace where I can be very, very alone for a while."

And with that he forced his way through them and hopped up on the engawa. Belldandy made a small noise of objection when he strode through the door without showing any intention of removing his shoes, but Keiichi laid his hand on her wrist and shook his head.

Chris turned back from the door and fixed his gaze once more on Megumi. "Well..." he began, only to be interrupted by the sound of the door. Doug had come back out of the house, wearing his helmet and fastening its chin strap.

He looked at everyone looking at him, then nodded toward Belldandy. "My apologies, Belldandy-san," he said, his voice surprisingly unmuffled by the enclosing helmet, "but it's likely that I'll miss dinner tonight."

Then he slid open a panel on the right side of the helmet, tapped his fingers on whatever had been hidden beneath it, and shot off into the sky like a human rocket.

As he vanished into the clouds above, Megumi gaped in wonder. Then she remembered where she was, and why. Giving a poisonous glare to everyone else, even her brother, Megumi hmph'ed, then turned and stalked into the house.

After the door slammed behind the girl, Chris eyed Belldandy. "I suppose you're going to tell me that this will all work out."

"Oh, I'm certain it will," she replied with a knowing smile, and then swept gracefully back into the house herself. Skuld trotted after her almost immediately, and Urd followed close behind after wordlessly patting her brother on the shoulder.

Chris stood staring at the door through which they'd all gone, and shook his head disbelievingly. "There's got to be something more to this god business than anyone's told me. I just know it." He glanced up at the sky, not really expecting to see anything. "That guy's got a temper like a junkyard dog," he murmured to no one in particular. "It's going to get him in trouble one of these days."

Some minutes later, Chris strode into the kitchen and seated himself at the table in the center of the room. Belldandy acknowledged him with a nod but did not break the rhythm of her cooking. Uncharacteristically, both Skuld and Urd were here as well — Urd slouched against a counter and Skuld perched on a stool next to her. Keiichi sat at the table across from him, frowning and rubbing his eyes, and sighing every few seconds. Chris' lips tightened. I can guess how you feel, guy, and I don't envy you a bit.

In a soft voice he said, "Family conference time again." Glancing across the table, he added, "I'm sorry, Keiichi, but I need to speak with my sisters alone, please. Maybe you could check on Megumi and make sure she's not about to do anything fatally stupid?"

Keiichi drew a deep breath and dropped his hands to the tabletop, then nodded. "Yeah, maybe I should." Pushing back his chair, he stood, then walked around the table. He paused at the range to peck Belldandy on the cheek, which earned him a brief but brilliant smile, and then wordlessly left the room.

"Privacy wards again, please, someone?" Chris asked in the same soft tones.

Urd pushed off from the counter and stood straight. "I'll do it." She closed her eyes and stretched out her hands at waist height. "<Spirits of hearth and home,>" she intoned in Old Norse, "<Guard this room from prying eyes and listening ears. Let none but us within know what is spoken here. By my divine power, so mote it be.>" A ripple of faint blue light spread out from her fingertips until it impacted the walls, where it washed up and down to meet itself overhead and under their feet. "Done," she added unnecessarily.

"Wow, nothing blew up," Skuld snarked.

"Stuff it, brat," Urd muttered.

"Both of you, stop it now," Chris growled. "We have more important matters to deal with."

Turning from the range, Belldandy nodded. "Mara."

"Right." Chris looked around the room. "And she's decided to target our oh-so-delightful house guest." He studied his sisters. "What are we going to do about it?"

"'We', 'Niichan?" Skuld asked.

Chris fixed her with a look. "Don't give me that. Yeah, we could sic the Judgmenters on her and get rid of two problems at once, but you know as well as I do that while Mara's a pain in the rear, she's our pain in the rear."

His sisters exchanged looks, then Urd nodded. "Agreed. At the very least, we don't let anyone who isn't Aesir..."

"Or Vanir!" Skuld interjected, and Urd nodded again.

"Or Vanir interfere," she finished.

Chris scowled. "I was thinking of making the circle a little tighter. Otherwise, we have to deal with 'help' from real winners like Modi."

Belldandy checked on a covered saucepan, then turned back to the discussion. "You mean limit it to just us."

"Yeah." Chris looked over at her. "I mean, we've dealt with her by ourselves before. It's not like we need any other help."

His middle sister nodded slowly. "True enough."

"Then is that much settled?" Chris asked. "This is a family matter, and it stays within family?"

At his words his sisters shared another look, this one impenetrable to him. But he didn't need an interpreter to guess at the secret message that had just passed between them. The one thing they all seem to agree upon, all the time, he mused, is me. They're probably worried about me facing off with Mara again. "Look," he said, "if you're concerned about me going up against her, don't be. I can handle myself just fine."

Another set of cryptic glances were exchanged. "No, that's not it," Belldandy then replied. "We have every faith in your ability, Chris."

"Right!" Skuld declared, as Urd just smiled and nodded.

"Uh-huh," he breathed.

"And we agree," Belldandy continued. "This... will stay within the family."

"Good." Chris sat up a little straighter. "Okay, now that we've got that settled, what are we going to actually do?"

"Well, there's the temple warding..." Urd began, and Belldandy returned to her cooking with a small, secret smile. All would turn out well, she was sure of it.

Saturday, May 17, 1997, 11:22 PM

Propelled by the almost limitless flood of power that "I Am A Pioneer" triggered in me, I launched myself into the sky over Nekomi. Having nowhere in mind to go but "away", I just let myself accelerate until I went supersonic, leaving behind only the "crack" of a sonic boom and a misty ring of water vapor in my wake.

I kept going until I reached the edge of space. Which is a misnomer, because there is no edge, really — there's just a gradual change in the proportion of air to no-air. But at the speed I was going there came a point where one moment the sky was blue, and the next it was black speckled with diamond stars. And that's when I stopped.

For five minutes and seven seconds, "Pioneer" would make me a living spacecraft and the single fastest thing in the solar system, barring any alien starships that might have been lurking about. (And boy, I must have given them a shock if they were there.) I'd made it to hard vacuum in less than 50 seconds.

So I had some time to linger, there in the utter silence. Well, utter except for the song.

The faintest touch of "Pioneer"'s power kept me in position, floating high above sunlit Japan. Below and to my left, Eurasia faded away into twilight and beyond that into night; to my right, the Pacific and the clouds above it sparkled with brilliant daylight. I idly spotted a tropical storm spinning itself into existence north of New Zealand.

There were a few differences from Homeline, I noticed. The artificial island of Novy Moskva was missing from the North Pacific. The Korean peninsula still had its original size and shape. And there was no sign of the Dreamtime Singularity at the center of Australia.

It was so different. It was so beautiful. It was...

It was no use. I couldn't think up there. It was just too damned distracting.

I cut the tiny bit of thrust I'd been using to hold myself steady relative to the earth below, and allowed gravity to take over.

I let myself plummet down into the atmosphere, accelerating and driving myself down far faster than terminal velocity. I reveled in the growing roar of the freezing wind and the sensation of "roller-coaster stomach", until the vista below me began to change visibly from moment to moment. Thanks to "Pioneer", I didn't have to worry about air friction, not that I was actually going fast enough to need to.

But I did have to worry about impact trauma, so somewhere about the time I could make out the larger individual buildings, I caught myself, turning my powerdive into a simple hover over Nekomi. I still had a couple minutes left on the song according the timer in my HUD. But where to go with it? Where could I think in peace? I rotated slowly in place, taking in the vista of the Kanto Plain below me, and suddenly my choice was obvious.

I accelerated almost instantly and beelined for downtown Tokyo, which wasn't all that far away — Nekomi was a commuter suburb of the city proper, and on a clear day the skyline of one was visible on the horizon from the other. I kept my speed subsonic, but I still made it to Minato-ku in much less than a minute. Once there I headed for the most obvious landmark, and settled myself down on the very top of the Tokyo Tower to sit, think and stew.

Mainly about this Mara character.

I'd thought life was sucking bad enough already, being stuck sharing a house with four gods. But now I apparently had a demon after me. That pushed having to live with a small pantheon way down my list of "things I hate about my life".

Yes, I dislike gods. Mainly on principle, but it's a principle based on thorough observation and experience. Gods are parasites, symbiotes at best.

But demons are sadistic predators. And for that reason I utterly hate and loathe demons.

Finding out one had tried to seduce me... well, that boded so ill for Mama Sangnoir's favorite son that I'd had to recalibrate twice to get it to stop pegging the top end of the "Sucks To Be You" meter. Megumi's outburst about Mara had distracted me from it for a little while, but the moment nothing else was on my mind, there it was, waving a red flag and grinning gleefully.

I needed a plan to deal with her.

I spent the rest of the day thinking on that subject. And then, as the sun set and the lights of the city came on, much of the evening. And as I thought, my mood grew darker and darker as my mind ran wild amongst all that troubled me. I'm not normally one for pessimism, but no matter from what angle I considered my situation, the only conclusion I could come up with was that I was trapped. Caught between a demon who was out to do me some kind of harm, although whether spiritual or physical (or both) I couldn't yet tell, and the band of deities with whom I was forced to live.

And I still hadn't found a goddamned job yet.

And I missed my wife. It had been ten years since I had last held her — the real her — in my arms. Ten years! I was sorely tempted to break the oath I'd sworn to myself in Megatokyo and call up her simulacrum once again, if only to just look at her. I resisted the urge, though — not through any strength of will, but because I was afraid of just how much it would hurt to have to let her go again at the end of the song and acknowledge that it wasn't real, no matter how much I wanted it to be otherwise.

Even so, I spent at least an hour staring at the lights of the traffic far below me and the empty office buildings all around me, weighing the longing against the hurt and wondering just which would be worse, in the long run.

I couldn't decide.

I finally returned to the temple sometime fairly close to midnight. I deliberately waited until I was sure everyone would be asleep, simply to reduce the confrontation factor. I'm not sure if I were embarrassed about my behavior, or simply trying to avoid a repeat blow-up, but either way the last thing I wanted was to run into any of the house's residents before I reached the room where I was staying. So I remained, sitting on the roof of the topmost section of Tokyo Tower as the chill wind played around me, until only the gibbous moon and a few office windows cast any light on me. Then I stood and whispered a few words to my helmet.

I'd been living at the temple long enough that I felt confident "Homeward Bound" would recognize it as a valid destination. I was right, but only just barely — I felt a hesitation at first when I started the song, as if my notional "inner wizard" weren't quite sure where I wanted to go. But a moment later the darkened cityscape surrounding the top of the Tokyo Tower flickered out of existence around me, to be replaced by the street and sidewalk right outside the temple gate.

Yee-hah. Home again, home again, jiggity-jig. I cut off Simon and Garfunkel, then went inside.

I felt an odd tingle as I entered the gate. It took a moment for me to recognize it as my magesenses' reaction to some variety of warding. There'd been some minor protections on the grounds already, things I'd never have noticed without going into magesight and looking specifically for them, but now they were a couple of orders of magnitude more powerful than they had been when I'd left. I nodded approvingly to myself. With a demon on the loose that was a damned good idea.

Looking at the house, its every window dark and its form barely limned by the faint ambient city light that crept over the enclosing wall, I had a momentary sensation that I was looking at a collapsing ruin rather than a well-kept home. My dark mood seized on that, feeding itself upon it and growing darker still even though the weird feeling vanished as I crossed the courtyard to the front door.

Leaving my shoes in a cubby in the foyer like any good resident of a Japanese home (and unlike the last time I'd come in through the door), I padded down the hallway, using every iota of my skill to be silent and unnoticed — which was actually a bit of an accomplishment given the house's generous supply of nightingale flooring. I didn't go as far as reciting "I am one with the walls, I am one with the walls" in my head, but if it would have helped, I'd've done that, too.

My sneaking was made just a little harder by the thin wedge of light that, contrary to my expectations, spilled out of one of the bedroom doors. Still, that let me navigate the hallway with less trouble and personal injury than I'd expected, and when I passed by the room Megumi had used the night before, I could easily see that the door was open and that it was unoccupied. Evidently Mara being on the prowl again hadn't scared Megumi into permanently retreating to the temple for protection; I just hoped she hadn't gotten so mad that she'd marched out to confront the demon all by her lonesome.

A moment's careful and nearly noiseless movement took me up to the room that was still lit — Skuld's. Its sliding door was barely open, just a crack a couple centimeters wide — enough to send a mix of yellow incandescent light and bluish monitor glow streaming out into the hallway. Curious about what she could be up to at that late hour, I ghosted up to the door and peered through the opening with one eye.

Skuld sat motionless in front of her supercharged PC, her back to me and surrounded by stacks of empty ice cream cartons — no two apparently of the same flavor, as far as I could tell. She held yet another carton in her left hand, and a spoon in her right, but her attention was fixed entirely upon the screen in front of her and neither hand seemed about to move.

The system's screen displayed what at first I thought was a particularly complicated screen-saver. Against a flat, velvet-black background an intricate, three-dimensional construct of glowing lines floated, its multicolored form slowly rolling and spinning in space. Some of the lines were doubled, with what appeared to be writing between them; others were actually series of dots or dashes rather than solid lines. Some rotated within the structure, others were stationary relative to the rest. Central to the entire design was a broad band that girded its fellows like an equator. Six smaller circles, also doubled-and-inscribed, punctuated it at regular intervals, and a seventh floated, co-planar with them, at the exact center of the entire thing.

I had no idea what it was, but if I'd been asked at that moment to describe it, I probably would have said it looked like a Seal of Solomon as laid out by M.C. Escher and Buckminster Fuller, with helpful kibitzing by Kernighan, Ritchie and Linus Torvalds.

I wouldn't have been far off, either.

Then again, hindsight is twenty-twenty, as they say.


Whatever the hell the image was, it was bloody gorgeous as well as twisty-complex in a way that led the eye through a roller coaster's worth of loop-the-loops and switchbacks. As it spun and rolled, the big central circle faded in and out of visibility; when it could be seen, glowing pulses of light flowed out of it and into the other elements. I watched, fascinated, as the flickering of glowing light switched from being apparently random to a clear pattern, flooding out of the center of the design in, well, waves is the best word for it. These waves rippled outward through the lines and arcs of the figure, eventually flowing into and brightly illuminating three of the six subcircles — every other one.

Then it sputtered and went black, as if it had run out of power. Or maybe blown a fuse, now that I think of it. And just as though the light that had been coursing through it were the only thing holding it together, the darkened structure collapsed in on itself. Skuld said something that sounded nasty in a language I didn't recognize, and threw her spoon across the room.

After her statue-like stillness over the few minutes I'd been watching, the motion surprised me; I flinched involuntarily, and stepped back on one of the "nightingale" floorboards I'd taken such pains to avoid. For a split second I hoped the clatter of metal against plaster and wood might have camouflaged the telltale "squeak!", but no such luck. Skuld whirled and stared right at me.

There was a moment of silence during which I could see the anger boil up in her at the same time I was flooded with embarrassment of a depth to match the blackness of my mood. Then she shrieked "You jerk!" and catapulted herself out of her seat before the monitor. I scrambled backwards until I was pressed up against the opposite wall, expecting that polo mallet of hers to manifest from wherever the hell she kept it. But she just stopped at the threshold, yelled "Keep out!" and slammed the door shut.

I stayed pressed against the wall for a few more moments, long enough for Urd and Belldandy to peer out of their rooms at the source of the disturbance. Shame — completely undeserved but shame nonetheless — replaced my embarrassment, and I stood. "It's not what it seems," I stammered, then gathered myself sufficiently to bow and add, "I apologize for the disturbance."

Belldandy gave me what I thought was an amused but understanding smile before retreating back into her room, but Urd winked and grinned lasciviously as she wagged a finger at me. She opened her mouth as though to say something, then studied my face and seemed to think better of it. The grin vanished, replaced a more genuine, rather tired-seeming smile. "Welcome back," she said without a trace of her usual playfulness. "We were worried about you."

I returned the smile without actually feeling it. "Thanks." A breath later I added, "I'm okay. Mostly." I was lying through my teeth, of course.

Urd nodded. "Good." She knew I was lying, and that I knew she knew. Neither of us said anything about it. She made an elaborate show of looking me over for a moment more. "You should get some sleep, though."

"Yeah," I said as I headed for my room. "I will. Sorry to wake you. G'night."

"Good night," she said, then returned to her own room.

It wasn't until I was ensconced in my futon some minutes later that I realized that the design on Skuld's monitor had been in three colors — three colors that I knew well: the very same shades of red, green and blue that made up the triple helix in the core of a Celestial's aura.

Now that can't be a coincidence, I mused, my arms folded under my head as I stared at the ceiling, dimly lit by the distant street lamp filtering in through the open window. After all the emotion of the day, after all the hours on top of the tower, I finally felt drained enough to think calmly and clearly, and I welcomed it. But what the hell does it mean? What the hell was Skuld doing?

"And what the hell am I doing?" I muttered to myself. Looking back on the day I was filled with disgust and dismay — both at what had happened, and how I had reacted to it. No matter what I told myself, my control was still fraying, and having an oversexed demoness target me hadn't helped at all. And I just couldn't shake the mental image of Maggie "looking" at me with that set of her mouth that meant she was disappointed in me. Not that I could blame her — I was disappointed in me. Events were spiraling wildly out of control and taking me with them, and I couldn't pull myself together enough to shake loose.

I sat up in my futon and pulled my blanket up to wrap it around my shoulders as the chill miasma of despair which I had staved off all day finally crept up on me in the dark. Maybe it was time to give up. For almost a decade I'd been searching for a way home — a sane person would have called it quits long ago. Maybe I should, too. It wasn't a bad world — well, other than for the Celestials wandering about in human (and other) bodies, and the demon out to get me. I could make my way to States, set myself up with a new identity, and go native. I could give up all the stress, all the agony. Give in and let go. I didn't have to care as much as I did. If I really wanted, I could use what I knew and start a high-tech company, make myself a billionaire in ten years or less.

I could try to be happy.

All I had to do was give up any hope of ever seeing my home, my wife and my blood-companions again.

Gods, it almost seemed like it might be worth it, there in the dark.

Belldandy was hardly surprised at the very awake-sounding "come in" she received in response to her oh-so-gentle knock on Doug's door. She had felt Doug's deteriorating mood all the way in her own room, and had felt compelled to see if she could help. She took a breath, then slid the door open to step inside.

Doug was, as she had already known, still awake. The near-darkness within the room surprised her; she had expected from sound of his voice that he would have some manner of light on, but such was not the case. Instead, he sat Indian-style in a black slash of shadow; the blanket wrapped around him made him look even more like a stereotyped Old West figure.

"I'm sorry if I disturbed you," she said in a low voice as she closed the door behind her, although she knew it was unnecessary.

From under the blanket one hand emerged and made a dismissive wave. "Not a problem, Belldandy-san. I was already awake, as you can see."

Belldandy blinked, then nodded. His voice was dull, flat — the energy and enthusiasm, the fire she had come to associate with him was completely missing from it. She immediately realized why, and wanted nothing more than to sweep across the room, gather him up in her arms and reassure him that all would be well. Against her better judgment she stifled the urge. His pride — and his suspicion — would not allow him to accept that kind of comfort from her. And in the wake of Mara's attempted seduction, the physical contact alone might well trigger anything from a deeper withdrawal to another explosion of rage.

So instead of comforting him as her instincts demanded she should, Belldandy pressed herself back against the door, carefully placing as much distance between the two of them as she could within the confines of the tiny room. "I just wanted to let you know, Doug-san — there are few things more important to me than Keiichi, but one of them is the free will of mortals."

After a few seconds of unexpected silence, the shadowed silhouette softly murmured, "You'll forgive me if I have some doubt about that."

Belldandy weighed her next few words carefully. It took no special insight, no divine perception to realize that his spirit was at low ebb, perhaps the lowest it had ever been. It would take very little — a badly-chosen phrase, the wrong word at the wrong moment — to send him once again into another fit of anger. In the final analysis, though, there was only one thing she could say.

"Why?" she asked as non-confrontationally as she could.

"Why?" he echoed. "Why?" He chuckled mirthlessly and huddled deeper into his bit of shadow. "You're a piece of work, Belldandy, you know that? After seven years of being jerked around, of being thrown from world to world regardless of my desires, how can I not distrust you? Your incarnations in Megatokyo blackmailed me into doing their dirty work for them, and when I'd accomplished what they wanted — something they could have done themselves with an eyeblink — they threw me into a world that was anything but the one I wanted. I freed an entire race for them! They could have sent me home," he snarled, the pain in his voice palpable to her. "But they didn't. What more did I need to do for them?"

Belldandy couldn't find anything to say to that.

In his cloak of shadow, Doug drew in a long breath with a hiss that sounded like it might break into a sob. "It's been ten years. Ten years! Dammitall, when Hexe disappeared into the upper planes we rescued her in a matter of weeks! Why is it so much longer for me?" There was movement in the shadow and suddenly she could see his eyes. "Just tell me why!" he demanded, and this time it was a sob, one that broke her heart. "Why are you doing this to me? Why can't I go home?"

Without a thought, Belldandy threw all her earlier caution to the winds. She crossed the room in flash and wrapped her arms around him. To her shock and surprise, he not only let her, but he clutched at her like a child reaching for its mother. This close, even in the shadow, she could see the sparkle of tears on his cheeks. She held him tightly, and began to croon wordless sounds of comfort.

"Why?" he repeated, his voice a hoarse gasp. "Why?"

Belldandy held him, silently rocking him in her arms until his breathing began to even out again. "I don't know," she finally whispered to him. "In this place, in this avatar, I am not omniscient. Far too much of the mortal world has been a surprise and a puzzle to me. But I can tell you this." She drew back a little, and took his tear-soaked face between her hands. "I have faith that there is a purpose to your travels, that they will end, and that when they do end you will not be bereft of all that you love."

She felt more than saw him shake his head. "I wish I could believe that," he whispered back, his voice uneven with emotion. "I wish I could believe you."

"Believe this, then," she said, and released him. Sitting back on her heels, she took his right hand and held it, palm upwards, in her left. Then she lifted her right to her lips and with her teeth nipped the corner of her thumb just hard enough to draw blood. She held it out over his hand, and let a single drop fall into his palm. Then she clasped his hand in her own, trapping and smearing the droplet between their palms.

Catching his eyes with her own, she softly said, "In the name of the All-Father, and in the sight of Var the Beloved, Goddess of Contracts, I, Belldandy, Norn of the Present, Avatar of the Mother, Goddess of Fidelity and the Now, do promise you that I will never knowingly speak falsehood to you, nor shall I ever speak truth to you with intent to mislead. This I swear to you on my blood, for now and all time."

As she spoke the final words, there was a flash of white light between their clasped hands and she felt the Ultimate Force accept and seal her oath — the sensation that Chris had more than once described to her as feeling like a great switch being thrown, but which she had always felt was more like a door being unbolted and flung open. Doug clearly felt it as well, for she saw his eyes widen in shock as she released his hand.

"You... you..." he stammered, staring at his palm, where no trace remained of the blood.

Belldandy nodded slowly. "Yes."

He lifted bewildered eyes to her. "I know what a blood-oath means in Norse culture. You'd bind yourself to me like that, just so I will believe you?"

"Yes." She took his face between her hands again. "You need something to believe in," she said gently, "and since I always speak the truth anyway, it is no great hardship," she added with a slight smile.

Doug took her hands in his, lowered them, and clung to them while he searched her face. In the faint light of the darkened room, Belldandy was relieved and overjoyed to see something like respect — and hope — dawn in his eyes. He raised her hands to his lips and kissed them; then he released his hold on her and shuffled back on the futon far enough to get to his knees and bow deeply to her. "This unworthy one thanks you for your boon," he said with exquisite formality before straightening back up.

She inclined her head in acknowledgement, then said, "Now, as I said before, the free will of mortals is one of the few things in this world more important to me than Keiichi."

Doug blinked, and appeared to be considering that in light of her oath. "It is?" he finally asked.

She nodded again. "It is. And because it is, I wanted to tell you that whatever must be done in regards to Megumi, rest assured that I will not allow her to be deprived of her free will in this matter." She paused before adding, "I know this is a concern of yours."

He didn't answer right away, but instead studied her for what seemed like several minutes. "Yes, it is. How?"

She allowed herself a small smile in the darkness. "I will arrange a compromise that will satisfy both Judgment's representative and you." At the rise of his eyebrows her smile grew wider. "That's not as difficult as you might think. That aspect of Father is not so inflexible as He sometimes appears, and while I have no formal relationship with the members and leaders of the Choir, I do still have some influence with His servants."

Even in the dim light coming through the window, she could see him grin, albeit a bit weakly. "Why am I not surprised? It's always the quiet ones you have to look out for," he muttered, and in spite of herself she giggled.

"And there are some benefits to being a favorite daughter," she added mischievously. "I don't take advantage of them nearly as much as I could."

Doug managed a weak bark of laughter, a pleasant contrast to his earlier sobs. "Oh, Belldandy, I'd call you evil for that, except you might take it the wrong way."

Encouraged by the improvement in his mood, however slight, Belldandy graced him with a sly smile. "Don't be so sure, Doug-san. I know a compliment when I hear one." She winked. "And how can you be certain that I am not?"

"You are messing with my head," he declared with a mock pout. "Stop it."

She just laughed, more pleased than she would admit that he felt well enough to banter with her. "I suppose I would be a poor hostess if I left you so badly confused, so I shall adopt my most innocent face and deny that I ever said such a thing."

He couldn't help it; he smiled. "Ah, yes. That'll do it. I feel more reassured now."

Belldandy inclined her head, still smiling herself. "I'm glad to hear it." She reached behind herself for the door to slide it open again, stopping only to add, "And Doug? Even though Chris doesn't like Megumi very much, know that he'd never stand for her being treated unfairly, either. It is in his nature as much as it is in mine — he will guard her free will, just as I will defend it. She will be safe."

In the shadow, Doug nodded slowly. "Good. I hope you won't mind if I still want to put my two cents' worth in, though."

She shook her head. "Of course not. That is your nature, after all."

A snort sounded in the dark. "I suppose you're right." There was a brief pause, then he quietly called out, "Belldandy-san? Thank you. For helping with the Megumi thing. And... and for your promise."

She inclined her head again. "I only do what I must to be true to who and what I am, Doug-san. Even so, it is my pleasure." She slid the door open without turning around.

"Nevertheless," Doug said from his nest of shadow, "thank you. Good night, Belldandy."

"Good night, Doug," she echoed and slipped back out into the hall. And in the moment before she closed the door, Belldandy glared at the two overly-inquisitive ravens peering through the window over his head.

Keiichi met her at the door to her room. "Is Doug-san all right?" he asked sleepily.

Belldandy smiled. "He will be."

I was short on sleep the next morning, but that was only because I'd started late and still got up in time for breakfast with the others. I didn't quite stumble my way to the table, but I was more than a little groggy until I got through my first two cups of tea. I was halfway through eating before I woke up enough to realize that we were having pancakes, scrambled eggs and Taylor Ham. I looked up and realized that Belldandy was watching me. She smiled and nodded when she saw me looking at her; after a moment, I smiled and nodded back.

"I'm sorry I yelled at you last night," Skuld murmured a little while later while passing me the maple syrup.

"Don't worry about it," I said quietly. "I shouldn't have looked into your room." I soaked my pancakes with the syrup. "How about we both say 'never again' and call it even?"

Skuld gave this a moment's thought, then nodded once, sharply. "Deal."

We shook hands on it, and just for a moment grinned at each other. Around us, the morning conversation ebbed and flowed through its usual swirl of topics, and I felt something inside me relax that I hadn't realized had been clenched like a fist all that time. Yeah, I still had a demon after me. Yeah, I was still worried and angry about a few things. But unlike all the previous mornings, that tiny core of fear and worry about my housemates just wasn't there. For the first time in weeks I started to feel... comfortable.

I liked it.

Monday, May 19, 1997, 7:41 AM

When he spotted the small crowd on the corner, Chris placed a hand on Skuld's shoulder. "Why don't you go on ahead while I talk to the guys?" he said softly.

Skuld glanced between him and the band of his friends waiting for them halfway down the block. "You sure?" she asked. Now that she knew that they all had Celestial connections, she couldn't summon up the same disdain she'd had for them before. All she could feel now was a strange, puzzling sadness, a feeling of not-rightness that wasn't exactly bad in and of itself, but hinted that things could be so much better. For a moment she let herself entertain the notion that maybe Chris would be happier if he had a few mortal friends. Maybe. Then she shook her head and dismissed the thought. Ridiculous.

"Yeah, I'm sure." He hadn't looked down at all, hadn't seen her headshake, which Skuld was glad of; that meant she wouldn't have to explain it. She wished he had looked down, though. She wanted to see his eyes, because the tone of his voice worried her.

But until they got to the corner and his friends he didn't look at her, and he didn't say anything more. Not until he scruffled her hair and told her again to go on without him. Impulsively, Skuld dropped her book bag and hugged him, then picked it up and ran off down the street toward their classes.

After Skuld was out of earshot, Chris turned to his friends. "Morning, guys."

A chorus of too-bright, too-cheery greetings answered him. Chris narrowed his eyes and studied the group. Juhachi leaned ostentatiously against a tree that was really too small to support his weight, his arms crossed over his chest. Hiroshi and Takeshi had been roughhousing a bit as Chris walked up, and were now standing straight and panting a little from their exertions through their too-broad grins. Louis was off to one side with a used car salesman smile on his face.

Movement overhead caught his eye, and Chris looked up. His eyes narrowed when he realized that there were several ravens in the tree over Juhachi's head.

"Okay," he ground out in a tone just above a growl. "What is it?" As if I don't already know...

"What's what?" Louis asked with far too much innocence in his voice.

"Oh, for the love of..." Juhachi growled as he pushed off the sapling to stand upright. "The word's going around," he said, melodramatically looking up at the ravens, "that your... lodger had a run-in with a demon yesterday." Overhead, one of the ravens cawed derisively. "You shut your beak," Juhachi added with a poisonous glance upwards. "You're not helping."

Chris was surprised at just how calm he felt. "Yeah. Doug had a run-in with Mara. So's just about every other mortal who's met my sisters. So?"

"So..." Hiroshi said, sliding out of the half-Nelson Takeshi had tried on him. "What'd she do to him? Possess him? Offer him a wish? Turn him into a tape deck?"

Chris's face twisted into a sour expression despite trying to control it. "She tried to seduce him."

"Right," Takeshi laughed. "Miss Butch-and-Bitchy tried to vamp a mortal. Sure. Tell me another one."

"No, it's true, she did try." Chris smiled thinly. From this, at least, he could take a little satisfaction. "Didn't say she succeeded. He caught her at it, told her off, and walked out on her."

Louis whistled. "Oh, I'll bet that put her in a good mood."

Takeshi nodded. "Yeah, that's all we need — a pissed-off demon roaming the neighborhood. Talk about Hell having no fury..." He tilted his head to the side as he caught Chris' eye. "Do you want any help... dealing with her?"

"Oh, yeah," Louis exclaimed. "I owe her for a little run-in we had about six months back, actually."

"No," Chris growled. He noted absently that he'd been doing a lot more growling since Doug had blasted into their lives, and was pretty sure he didn't like it. "Let me make this very, very clear," he added in a low, slow voice that cut through the chatter and stilled even the ravens in the sapling. "Mara is our concern. My sisters and I will take care of it. We do not need anyone else's help. We do not want anyone else's help. We will not appreciate attempts to help us anyway. And by 'help' I mean 'meddling interference'." He speared the closest raven with a baleful look. "And that goes double for you lot, got it?"

The raven silently studied him for a long, long moment, then let out a single, desultory caw.

Chris snapped, "Good," then turned his gaze on Louis. "And I'm not going to have any more breakfast surprises from you, right?"

Louis spread his hands and shook his head. "Nope. I'm not duty-bound to do anything here if someone else is claiming the privilege."

"Good," Chris repeated. "Then let's get a move on, or we'll be late." He spun on his heel, and without looking to see if he would be followed, stalked off down the street toward the campus.

The four friends traded worried looks, then took off after him.

Monday, May 19, 1997, 7:54 AM

It had been two days already, but Mara still wanted to rip something to shreds.

Preferably Sangnoir.

She didn't allow herself the indulgence for several reasons. The first was that it was wasteful. Angry as she was at the effrontery of that mortal worm, killing him outright would defeat her purposes. He would not suffer as he should, in her opinion, and she would lose any chance to corrupt him and damn his soul.

The second was that the bastard was hiding behind a set of freshly-reinforced wards powerful enough to shock her ass all the way to Osaka should she try to breach them.

So for the moment Mara had to satisfy herself with hovering high above — and to one side of, lest those wards get touchy — the temple complex. There she floated, sitting Indian-style on thin air and thinking dark, terrible thoughts about what she was going to do to Sangnoir when she got her hands on him again.

It's one thing to get turned down, she fumed as she glared balefully at the buildings a thousand feet below her. But no mortal gets away with threatening me. Stay away from him? The hell with seducing him now!

First thing I need is something to crack those wards so I can get in there. And once I do...

Far below, she could see figures crossing the warded compound, going from building to building. Mara had no problem at all picking out Sangnoir, even at this altitude — the power in him shone like a spotlight to her Celestial senses when compared to the pathetic worms whose homes surrounded the temple. She stretched out one hand and pointed at the tiny, distant figure. "You had your chance, Sangnoir," she declared to the chill wind that whistled around her and whipped her blonde curls into a frenzy. "This could have been fun and easy for both of us. Now it's no more Miss Nice Demon.

"No mortal gets away with defying me," Mara sneered. "I'm going to take you down hard and break you completely. You'll be begging for death when I'm done with you." She snapped her fingers. "Senbei!"

The golden-haired homunculus in black leather appeared before her with a loud pop. "Senbei is here, Mistress," he said, bowing in mid-air.

"The mage," she said, waving toward the distant figure of Sangnoir. "Watch him. Study him. I want to know what his weaknesses are." She fixed eyes burning with power upon the imp. "Your last efforts along these lines were insufficient. See to it that you do not miss anything this time. I need to know everything about him." Mara extended one stiletto-like fingernail and trailed it across the bare skin of Senbei's tiny face, leaving a thread of blood behind it. "Failure will be severely punished. Got it?"

Eyes wide, Senbei swallowed nervously and held himself motionless until she drew back her hand. "Yes, Mistress. Senbei understands. Senbei will not disappoint Mistress."

Mara gave a dismissive wave. "Go then," she said as she turned her attention back to the temple below. Senbei vanished with another loud pop.

Once again alone, her expression of gleeful malevolence slowly faded away, leaving behind a face devoid of any expression save for a weariness that stole the flash of anger from her eyes. Silently she watched as, far below, Skuld dashed back and forth across the temple grounds, Belldandy hung washing on a line, and Urd stretched out in the sun. Her hand twitched, as if she wanted to reach out again, but would not let herself.

Then she whirled away from the sight with a snarl and vanished in a gout of flame.

Monday, May 19, 1997, 3:24 PM

Chris stepped out of Skuld's workshop with the results of his little project firmly gripped in one hand. In the other, he held the tools he needed to add the finishing touches.

He glanced around the yard at his sisters as they made use of the warm spring afternoon. They'd put in a hard couple days of ward-building, and were taking a well-deserved rest. He shook his head and smiled. Or, in Belldandy's case, limiting herself to low-impact chores.

And he was about to put the finishing touch on their work.

Chris grinned to himself. What use is a big strong wall without its own 'keep out' sign? He glanced down at the sign in his hand. Not a bad piece of work if he did say so himself, with big bold red letters meticulously hand-painted on a crisp white background. They were Romaji, but then, it only made sense, such as it was, in English. He kept grinning, imagining Doug's reaction when the older man spotted the sign, and imagining Mara's reaction as well. I'd pay to see that, he thought with a tiny chuckle.

He stepped through the gate and closed it behind him. Then, using the hammer and the small brass nails he'd brought out with him, carefully affixed the sign in the center of the door at eye level, where anyone entering the yard through the gateway had no choice but see it. Chris stepped back, smiled an evil smile at his handiwork, then went back inside to enjoy the remainder of the afternoon with his sisters and his future brother-in-law.

"Now, that's odd," said the elderly gentleman who had paused in his walk outside the temple gates, bathed in the reddening light of the setting sun.

"What is?" asked his equally elderly companion. She turned to look at whatever had drawn his attention.

"This sign," he said. "You read English better than I do, my dear. Shouldn't that be the English word for 'dog' there?"

She leaned forward, adjusting her glasses, and studied the sign. Finally, she nodded. "I do believe you're correct, dear. Whoever made this sign badly misspelled it." She slowly straightened up and looked over at her companion. "Should we let them know?"

He thought for a moment. "I'm sure someone has told them already. But if it's still there tomorrow, we can knock and see if anyone's home."

She nodded again. "All right."

He held out an arm. "Shall we?" She smiled at him and took it, and together they walked on, leaving behind the small sign which read, "Beware of Doug".



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This work of fiction is copyright © 2007, 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.

"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.

"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.

Lyrics from "Free Will" recorded by Rush, written by Neil Peart, copyright © 1980, Mercury/Polygram.

Lyrics from "I Can See For Miles" recorded by the Who, written by Pete Townshend, copyright © 1967, TRO-Essex Music, Inc. (ASCAP).

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

For a full explanation of the references and hidden tidbits in this story, see the Drunkard's Walk V Concordance at:


Other chapters of this story can be found at:


"Oh! My Brother!" can be found at:


The Drunkard's Walk discussion forums are open for those who wish to trade thoughts and comments with other readers, as well as with the authors:


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.

C&C gratefully accepted.

This page was created on February 28, 2007.
Last modified November 11, 2017.