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
Dedicated to the memory of
our comrade and friend,
Lisa Frankel Tomaszewski
Sorciere - Phantasia
The First Warrior To Fall
0. Here Be Dragons
Zoom in on a city.
It's a seaside city, on the outer edge of a longish island off the coast of a large continent at the western edge of a large ocean. It sprawls across a flattish plain near an almost perfectly conical volcanic peak crested with snow.
The city is Tokyo.
The time is the late 20th century.
The world, as is usually the case, is Earth.
One of them, at least.
It's a modern city typical of its time period, with tall glass buildings and highways and many, many cars. Surging tides of people flow through its streets, channeled and guided by sidewalks and traffic lights. Even at this altitude they can be seen, although not individually.
Zoom even closer, and pan.
The city is made up of neighborhoods, each with its own style and personality. Here is the downtown area, home to those tall buildings and surging tides of humanity. It's the financial heart of the city, pulsing with the traffic of billions of yen every minute. Over there, spread out around the bases of several immense tanks storing natural gas, is a quiet suburban district filled with shops and restaurants and homes. Well beyond that is a zone of palaces and government buildings.
And over here is one of several college neighborhoods. More apartments than single family homes are found here, surrounding the campus of a mid-sized institution of higher learning. It's not Toudai, not nearly as prestigious. But it's a tough school, and it turns out some of the best engineers on the island. Maybe in the Pacific basin.
Let's get a little closer to this neighborhood.
As in many other parts of the city, the plain on which it is built is far from perfectly flat. Small hills and shallow dales undulate across the plain here, and the homes and the businesses and the college are draped, sprawled or perched upon them.
Not far from the college is a tallish hill, one of the taller ones in the neighborhood. An old, old stone wall rings it, setting it off from the road below and the houses that surround it. On the top of the hill is a Shinto temple complex — one temple, priests' dwelling, outbuildings, torii, courtyards, assorted other accoutrements.
Although no longer in use as a place of worship, the temple is far from abandoned. The buildings are in immaculate condition, no overgrowth can be found, and any leaf that dares to fall upon its pristine walkways is immediately banished. The sounds of laughter, song and conversation — and the occasional small explosion — drift through the courtyard, across the wall, and to the ear of the casual passerby.
It is a home, a happy one. A man who found his heart's greatest desire lives there.
As does his heart's greatest desire.
And her sisters.
And their brother.
Beware, gentle stranger. Here be dragons.
Fortunately, though, they're usually very nice dragons.
But right now, two large, musclebound idiots are dumping the contents of a junkyard into their laps.
1. In Which I Wake Up Closer To Heaven Than I Want To Be At This Point In My Life
The gods love heroes. They also love a good laugh. Think about it. — Anonymous
When an evil god laughs, run. When a good god laughs, run quickly. — Anonymous
I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the demigodic party. — Dennis Ritchie
Tokyo, Nekomi Ward, Friday, May 9, 1997, 4:05 PM
Skuld, Norn of the Future, called by some the Raven-Haired and by others the Goddess of Technology, may be an eternal, transcendent multidimensional being, but at the moment, in this time and space, she was a thirteen-year-old girl. And like many other thirteen-year-old girls, she was known to have conflicts with her siblings.
Her eldest sister Urd, Norn of the Past, called by some Snowmane, by the boys at Nekomi Tech "one seriously hot babe" and by herself "the Cupid of Love", was a case in point. Skuld had little use for Urd. Urd, returning the favor, had little use for Skuld.
They avoided killing each other out of consideration for the middle sister of the three: Belldandy, Norn of the Present — called Verdandi by the Vikings (who were not limited to the phonemes found in modern Japanese), "Wishbringer" by the administration of the Nekomi Institute of Technology (for lack of any other family name), and "Bell-chan" by one Keiichi Morisato, who found in her his heart's greatest desire. Belldandy was one of those persons whom it was impossible to hate, whose serenity and radiant happiness filled the temple and drove out all but the most enduring and persistent thoughts of intersibling homicide.
Killing each other would also have upset their elder brother Christopher Angel, known to some as the Lord of Paradox, to others as the God of Moments, to his sisters as "Chris", and to most of the neighbors as "that godawful huge gaijin from the temple." Two young ladies of his acquaintance (with whose lives the collision of divine duty and mortal wishes had entangled his fate) called him something else: "Mine!" They then usually glared at each other for several minutes afterwards.
Chris was charged with the protection of the Norns; his entire divine nature was geared to their defense and well-being. Sororicide would have upset him greatly, and since they both cared deeply about Chris, Skuld and Urd made a great effort to keep their conflicts to a manageable level.
Oddly enough, Urd and Skuld did love each other. The apparent contradiction here is a familiar phenomenon to anyone who has ever had siblings of their own. Too much of each other, too close, too often has a less than salubrious effect on the temperaments of, say, two sisters. Still, although neither would willingly admit it, they cared for each other as strongly as they cared for their brother and their mutual other sister.
This did not mean that they had to be civil to one another, though. Witness one interaction between them, late in the afternoon of a spring day:
Skuld, a cardboard box the size of a milk crate filling her arms and almost completely blocking her field of view, stopped in front of the door to Urd's workshop/laboratory. After the fifteenth or twentieth explosion, Belldandy (reluctantly) and Keiichi (somewhat less so) had banished the eldest sister's "researches" to one of the more distant outbuildings of the temple complex. Walking all the way there from the furo with her arms full of a heavy box had done no favors for Skuld's temperament.
With an offended little "hmph!" noise, she toed the door open and stepped inside. She gave her eyes a moment to adjust to the dimmer light, then walked over to the end of Urd's worktable, where there appeared to be enough space to put down her load without having to risk actually touching anything.
"Here," Skuld announced curtly, dropping the box.
As it came to an abrupt rest on tabletop, it made the jangling, thudding sound that was somehow so characteristic of unsorted, randomly-accumulated junk.
"Thanks ever so much, squirt," Skuld's eldest sister drawled without looking up from where she carefully infused droplets from a pipette into a small glass bottle. The contents of both were clear; the result was a strawberry-pink cloud floating in the larger container. "What is it?"
"Father had me sort through the parts bin and rescue everything we could use and toss out everything that was broken or just junk. This is what's left," the young goddess sniffed.
Having emptied the pipette, Urd carefully laid it down on a white cloth. Deftly, she corked the bottle and labeled it. "What do you mean, 'what's left', brat? What would be left after you rescued the good stuff and tossed out the garbage?"
Skuld pursed her lips in distaste. "Whatever tested as a relic but doesn't seem to have a purpose or a function. I thought you could check them and maybe find out what they are. Sitting on top of the Tether ought to make it easy."
"Hmm." The white-haired goddess dipped one bronzed hand into the box and began fishing through its contents. "It all looks like trash. Why should I bother?"
"Well!" Skuld spun on her heel with a huff, long black hair spinning momentarily into a broad fan. "I thought you'd be interested. Excuse me for making a mistake!"
"Little brat," Urd muttered to herself.
"I heard that," Skuld declared with a huff, still standing with her back to Urd and her arms crossed.
Urd rolled her eyes and slid off her stool and stepped to the end of the table. She raked her fingers through the box, then lifted her hand and studied its contents: a broken cogwheel, a chunk of broomstick, half of a shattered gem. She scowled and dumped them back in with the rest. "Nothing but junk," she growled. "I've got better things to do."
"Like what?" Skuld demanded, turning around.
Urd graced her with a smile just this side of lascivious. "Like a few things you're still way too young for, yet."
"You..." Skuld began to steam, but a sudden horrendous crash interrupted her. "What was that?"
A second crash, metal upon metal and metal upon stone, even louder than the first, shook the little building and rattled its windows. The two goddesses exchanged a look, and then dashed out to the courtyard.
Tokyo, Nekomi Ward, Friday, May 9, 1997, 4:15 PM
The thunderous din outside the front of the temple hadn't really surprised anyone in the building, but it did bring them running. By the time Keiichi and Belldandy reached the site of the incident, they found Chris and Skuld already digging through a virtual mountain of vehicle parts, sorting them into piles. Nearby, Urd lounged idly on the engawa, watching them.
Picking up a headlight assembly, Chris turned it over in his hands for a moment before noticing the couple. He tucked it under his arm and waved. "Hey kids, did anyone order something from Junk-We-Be?"
Skuld poked her head up and looked around crossly. "'Niichan, did you see a... Oh, give me that!" Chris handed her the light and she put it onto the grass beside another one.
Keiichi approached slowly, his brow furrowed in thought. "I'd almost suspect Tamiya-sempai and Ootaki-sempai of entering me in another competition," he murmured, and then snapped his fingers. "Oh! The repairs to the clubhouse! They wanted to drop off some gear here..." he trailed off, looking at the pile. "I just didn't think there'd be so much." He frowned, squinted and peered at the monstrous heap. "Is that a whole car under there? Where did that come from?"
"Well," Belldandy mused, walking over to the pile and looking over it, "It looks like there should be enough for a couple of cars here." She looked over at her brother, who was turning over a black plastic object in his hands with a bewildered expression. "Chris, that's a distributor cap."
"Sheesh," Skuld snorted, and tossed a set of spark plugs over her shoulder. "How can you call yourself an engineer and not know this stuff?"
"Computer and telecom engineer, thank you," Chris said primly, "not automotive. And at least I know how to set up a decent sound system, unlike some people around here." He tossed the cap onto a pile, dusted his hands off on his pants, and then looked with disgust at the grease streaks left on them. "Well, sorry, kids, but you get to clean this up without me. I have to change now for a date, and I want to get going while we've still got some sunlight."
"Hey!" Skuld complained, brandishing a strut like a conductor's baton. "Who's going to help me with this?"
"Don't be silly," Belldandy soothed. "Keiichi and I can help you." She walked up to Chris and placed her palm on his chest to stop him. Murmuring a few words, she looked with satisfaction as the filth disappeared from his clothes. She stepped back and game him a warm smile.
"Slick," Chris said admiringly, and examined his pants. "Thanks, Bell. I need to learn that one."
"No, you don't," a voice said sternly. They all turned to look at Urd where she lounged on the porch. Standing and joining them at the edge of the junk heap, she added, "Mispronounce two words in that incantation and you summon a demon lord."
"Really?!" Keiichi demanded, eyes wide. "Maybe he better not try it then. I remember the ice cube spell. It took us two days to melt that ice."
Skuld snorted from where she was digging in the pile. "No, dummy, not really. But knowing 'Niichan and magic, he'd probably end up sterilizing Nekomi."
"Hey!" the god in question protested, "I'm not that bad! So I mixed up two words."
"Christopher." Belldandy said the name firmly, like speaking to a child. "Yes, you are."
With a dejected sigh, Chris slumped and wandered back towards the house. Urd patted him on the shoulder as he walked past her. "Don't worry, you've got your own talents." She said sympathetically, and then grinned. "So who's the date with?"
Urd's grin became positively evil. "And if Ami comes by...?"
"I'm out. God business."
"And if P-mmpf!" Urd glared at her brother as his hand clamped over her mouth.
"Don't say it," he pleaded. "If she asks, Thor's gone to storm the gates of Hell, and he's letting me hold his cloak." He dropped his hand.
Urd shook her head disgustedly. "It's not like saying her name will make her appear, moron."
"You can take those chances. I won't, thanks. She scares me." Chris turned and hotfooted it into the house. All could hear some coins and keys jingling, and he came out again a moment later. "Late. Bye-o." With that, he almost ran down the street towards the NIT campus.
A piston in each hand, Skuld blew a lock of her raven hair out of her eyes with a puff of breath and watched as he vanished in the distance. "You know, sometimes I think 'Niichan really needs to grow a sp... Oooh!" Her eyes lit up and she dropped both pistons with a matched pair of thuds. "An electronic ignition system!"
She made a lunge for the part while Keiichi chuckled quietly to himself. She'll never change, he thought. As he studied the universal joint in his hands, he glanced sidewise at Belldandy and smiled fondly. Under her influence, the parts nearest her had animated like props from a Disney movie, and were sorting themselves neatly in response to her gentle requests. He chuckled again, then turned back to the task at hand.
How quickly he had gotten used to miracles and wonders, living here with Belldandy. Just beyond the gate to the street was the mundane world, but in here... here was magic. He grimaced as he remembered that not all magic was Disney-style fun-and-games. Some of it was dangerous, and some of it was dark. And some of it was just damned inconvenient.
But if that were the price to be paid for being with Belldandy, then by the gods, Keiichi Morisato was more than willing to pay it.
"Hey, Bell-chan?" he grunted as he rolled a battered transaxle off to one side of the courtyard.
"Yes, Keiichi-kun?" Although she wasn't physically lifting and carrying as he was, a certain amount of effort and concentration was audible in her voice. It reminded him once again that magic, even the magic of the gods, was not a "get out of work free" card, but a kind of labor in its own right, whose toll simply was paid later and in different currency.
He stood up from where he'd maneuvered the transaxle against the base of the compound wall. "I've been thinking about your suggestion," he said, rubbing his hands and returning to the main junk pile. "You know, about putting a bench outside by the gate?" He glanced over the next layer to see what needed his attention.
She turned one of her glorious smiles upon him. "And what have you decided, Keiichi?"
He chuckled nervously, resisting the urge to put one grease-smeared hand behind his head. "Well, I haven't exactly decided anything, but I did a little looking around at prices, and I think, well, if we manage to stay within our budget for the next couple weeks, we could afford a simple hewn-timber bench." He looked around the yard and smiled. "The one I was looking at should go well with the architecture here."
Belldandy didn't quite clap her hands in glee, but the perceptible brightening of her smile seemed to carry with it the same feeling. "How wonderful! We'll just have to be extra-careful with all our purchases for a little while, then."
Skuld's head popped up from behind one of the larger drifts of metallic debris. "I don't know why you'd want to buy a bench when I can build one for you, easy."
"That's because they don't want it to randomly eat passers-by, brat," Urd interjected before Keiichi could come up with a diplomatic way of expressing much the same concern.
"It wouldn't eat random passers-by!" Skuld declared with a huff, then ducked back down behind the pile, which was almost as tall as she was. Belldandy and Keiichi shared a grin — hers sisterly and tolerant, his nervous — when a desultory mutter, muffled by the intervening junk, drifted their way: "It'd only eat people who deserved it."
The moment was fortunately (in Keiichi's opinion) broken when a young woman's familiar voice called out "Hey there!" As Bell quickly dispelled her magical sorting efforts, Keiichi turned to see the front gate open. "Hi, everyone!" said a petite brown-haired girl as she slipped in and closed the gate behind her.
A timing gear still clutched in one hand, Keiichi stood up straight and watched his younger sister Megumi cross the temple yard. She was dressed for the pleasant Spring weather in a shimmering white blouse, a black silk vest and khaki slacks so crisply pressed that he could see their creases from here.
"Good afternoon, Megumi!" Belldandy greeted her with a warm smile. Behind her, the dancing auto parts quietly drifted to the ground like exhausted marathon dancers at the end of a long night.
"Hi, Bell!" Megumi chirped brightly as she strolled up to the junk heap. She paused a moment to scruffle Skuld's hair with a "Hey, kiddo!" The young goddess ostentatiously rolled her eyes and returned to her excavations.
"Yo!" called Urd lazily from where she had returned to her perch on the engawa. Megumi gave her a wave then stepped around the pile toward Keiichi with open arms. "Hey, big brother!" she declared; then she finally got a good look at him. "Urk," she said, stopping and drawing back. "You're all covered with grease." As her arms shifted from imminent embrace to "don't touch me", she shook her head. "Sorry, bro. Love you and all that, but this is a new outfit and I don't want to mess it up."
"Hey, Megumi," Keiichi said. He held up the timing gear and gave her a sly smile. "The sempais dumped a load of junk on us, and we're trying to put it in some kind of order. Come to help?"
Megumi made a face. "As if," she said. "I avoided getting dragooned for the other end of that mess, and I'm not getting involved in this end." She looked around and furrowed her brow. "Where's your jerk of a brother? Why isn't he helping?"
Belldandy didn't seem to frown, but somehow faint disapproval radiated from her. "Oniichan is on a date right now, Megumi."
"Well, isn't that convenient," Megumi snarked. "At least that means I don't have to deal with him."
Keiichi suppressed a sigh. Chris and his sister got along poorly at the best of times — only slightly better than Skuld and Urd did, and that was likely due to their somewhat more peaceful natures. It still bothered him that his sister and Belldandy's brother couldn't at least make an effort to be civil. Instead, Chris descended into an icy over-politeness, and Megumi never missed a chance to needle him. It never escalated to anything even approaching an argument, at least not in public; there had been a time or two, though, that he thought he might have just missed some private, acrimonious exchange between the two.
One of these days, he thought, I'm going to sit those two down and find out why they seem to hate each other. "Don't be like that, Megumi," he reproved her gently. "Chris was helping right up until the time he had to leave."
"Yeah!" Skuld piped up without stopping her search through the rubble. She rubbed her face, leaving a long streak of grease across one cheek. "'Niichan was the first one out here after those two morons dumped this stuff." Her eyes suddenly lit up. "Ooh!" she squealed and once more began digging furiously.
Megumi laughed once, silently and through her nose, then rolled her eyes at her brother. Keiichi suppressed another sigh and simply raised his eyebrows in as bland a manner as he could. "So," he said, trying to change the subject as subtly as possible. "What brings you by today?"
She dug into her pocket and withdrew an envelope. "Care package from Mom and Dad. Here's your share of the latest cash disbursement." Deftly avoiding any of the grease-covered parts on the ground around him, Megumi slid the envelope into her brother's free hand.
"Thanks," he said, slipping it into his own pocket.
"Have you eaten yet, Megumi?" Belldandy asked, smiling. "We're having a late dinner tonight, for obvious reasons." She gave a quick, amused glance at the piles of auto parts around her feet. "You're welcome to join us, of course. We'll be done here for the evening in just a few minutes."
Megumi dimpled. "Sure, Bell! You know I'd never turn down your cooking." She tiptoed through the minefield of metal and grease to stand next to Belldandy. "Just tell me... how can you do this and stay so clean when Big Brother is a greasy mess?"
Belldandy smiled again. "Well..." she began.
There was a clatter as Skuld dropped an armful of parts. Keiichi turned to see her standing almost on tiptoe, craning her neck rapidly left and right. She spun in place, eyes darting back and forth as if searching for something. The lowering sun stretched her shadow out across the yard.
"Skuld?" Belldandy abandoned Megumi and crossed to her sister's side. "What is it?"
"It's coming," Skuld whispered, then looked up into Belldandy's concerned face. "Oneechan, something's coming!"
"What's..." Belldandy began, then suddenly stood ramrod straight. Like Skuld, she began looking around her, searching for something she could sense but not see. "Oh my. Yes. It's coming."
"What?" Megumi asked, frowning. "What's coming?"
Keiichi felt an unpleasant tingle, reminiscent of a high school encounter with a Van de Graaf generator, ripple across his skin, and he knew that this was not something ordinary. "Belldandy!" he cried as a wind began to whip up out of nowhere.
She didn't reply. In eerie synchrony, she and Skuld turned together to stare at the dark rectangle of the temple building's entrance. Seeing where their attention was drawn, Keiichi found himself staring at the doorway, too; he wondered what, if anything, was going to come out of it. Much magic had been worked in that building, far more than he would ever be comfortable with; had its residue inadvertently attracted something?
Behind him on the engawa, where he couldn't see her, Urd suddenly unfolded herself from her drowsy sprawl and stood bolt upright. "It's here," she announced in a throaty whisper that somehow carried across the windswept courtyard.
A circle of rainbow light erupted in the center of the shadowed temple doorway. Almost before Keiichi could register its appearance, the rainbow rippled outward to ring the door frame, leaving behind it a sheet of flat, ebony black that filled the rest of the entrance. From out of that dull black surface came an unearthly howl that dopplered up the scale even as its volume grew, until it was a piercing shriek that drove Keiichi to clamp his hands over his ears even as he squeezed his eyes shut against the pain.
As the horrific crescendo hammered spikes through his head, Keiichi thought of Belldandy and his sister. He forced his eyes open and looked around. Megumi was on her knees, bent over with her head to the ground, her arms wrapped protectively around it. Belldandy and Skuld seemed unaffected; instead, they stared, seemingly dumbstruck, at the temple door.
Head pounding from the simple effort of moving his eyes, he followed their gaze just in time to see a gleaming, flame-trimmed black motorcycle burst through the shadowed doorway. A figure in grey hung limply from straps holding him onto its saddle; Keiichi couldn't tell if it were an unconscious man or a loose-limbed dummy.
As the cycle's rear tire cleared the threshold, the rainbow and black manifestation vanished, revealing the temple interior once again. At the same instant the banshee howl abruptly transformed into the whine of an unfamiliar engine, its volume far more tolerable than it had been a moment before. Keiichi's headache vanished.
Wheels spinning and its entire frame surrounded by a faint red glow, the cycle took far too long to reach the slate tiles of the courtyard; to Keiichi's experienced eye it looked more like a plane coming in for a landing than a cycle dropping to the ground as if at the end of a jump. He had no time to ponder this observation before the motorcycle, seemingly on its own, began to dodge around the heaps of auto parts Tamiya and Ootaki had scattered across the temple grounds.
Whatever controlled the bike was not up to the challenge, though. It swerved wildly to avoid a panic-stricken Skuld, and wiped out with a resounding crash. Its rider, suddenly released from the straps, flew free as if ejected from its seat. He hit the ground hard, tumbling in a welter of limply flailing limbs until he fetched up with a resounding thud against the passenger door of the small automobile half-hidden in one of the piles.
Keiichi didn't stop to think. "Belldandy!" he cried, already running to where the leather-clad figure had landed.
"I'm coming, Keiichi!" she called back, dashing along side him.
"What the heck was that?" Megumi demanded as she got back to her feet. "Where'd this motorcycle come from?" She blinked. "And who's he?"
In the top of a tree outside of the temple compound, a small, implike creature sat, looking down on the frantic activity within. It was not by chance that he was there; he often spied upon the inhabitants of the temple, and this day his attention had been drawn by an unexpected surge of magic. Expecting to find the goddesses engaged in a ritual working, he was surprised instead to witness the appearance of the motorcycle and its rider.
As the goddesses and the mortals within the temple walls fussed over the unconscious man, the imp nodded to himself. "Mistress Mara will want to know of this." He smiled to himself. "Perhaps she will reward Senbei for word of this stranger!" And with this thought, he departed, unseen by the mundane inhabitants of the city.
Skuld stood and watched pensively as Keiichi and Belldandy, with token help from Urd, carried the unconscious driver into the temple to take care of him. In one hand she held an essence flux detector she had summoned; the device bleeped disconsolately at her every second or so. Don't they care about that... that hole he came out of? she thought, a petulant glare forming on her features. There's something very wrong here.
Behind her, Megumi said something that Skuld didn't catch. "Huh? What was that?" she said, turning around.
The mortal girl was lifting the stranger's motorcycle upright, far too easily. "I said, check this out, Skuld. Have you ever seen a motorcycle like this before?" As she spoke, she wheeled it over toward the shed where she knew her brother and the others sometimes worked on their vehicles.
"Of course! I've seen all kinds of..." Skuld's indignant declaration tapered off as she took her first good look at the cycle. It screamed "movie prop" at her — streamlined fairings and almost organic-seeming cowlings that made it look more like a missile on wheels than a proper motorcycle. And the engine! "What is that?" Skuld asked.
Megumi had swung the kickstand down and was already poking at the oddly-shaped motor. She shook her head. "I don't know. It doesn't look like any kind of internal combustion engine I've ever seen. It looks more like a ... a jet engine! I mean, check it out!" She gestured along the length of the device.
Skuld leaned in and examined the engine more closely. With a shock, she realized that Megumi was right. "It's a turbine!" she said softly. "A motorcycle with a turbine engine." She ran her fingers along a smooth metal housing that hung beneath it. "And something else..."
"Really?" After setting the kickstand, Megumi crouched down next to the younger girl.
"Yeah, look!" Skuld began pointing out parts whose purposes were suddenly much clearer. "You can see the fan blades through that intake there. Here're the intercoolers — wow, strange design — and all around here, these must be the fuel injectors." As Megumi squat-walked around the bike and studied the intercoolers, Skuld slid her finger up along the fuel lines and made a discovery. "Whoa. That's weird. The fuel tank can hotswap."
"Like it could use different fuels?" Megumi asked from the other side of the bike.
"Uh-huh," Skuld replied, nodding. "And what is it made of?" She tapped a fingernail against the block, and received a dull "tok" rather than the sharp "ping" she was used to. She looked up at Megumi. "I think it's some kind of ceramic."
Megumi frowned. "Are you sure?" The younger girl was a remarkable font of technological information and aptitude, but Megumi was of the opinion that Skuld had to be wrong about a machine eventually.
"Yeah, I'm sure."
"But there's no known ceramic that can handle the heat and stress of an internal combustion engine, let alone a turbine!"
"Not down here there isn't," Skuld murmured, then frowned again. "There is now," she said. "There is something wrong here." She traced her fingers along the mysterious housing below the engine. "Very wrong." That looks like a gravity control system, she mused with a growing scowl. Who is that guy?
Taking her leave of Megumi, Skuld dashed into the house and sought out the telephone. As she had hoped, they'd put the stranger in Keiichi's room, which was as far away from the phone as one could get and still be inside the compound's living quarters. Sparing a quick glance around to make sure she was alone, she lifted the handset and dialed a long sequence of numbers that connected to no telephone on the mortal plane.
It was answered.
"Hi, Atropos, yeah, it's me. I think we might have a problem here. I need to talk to Father."
As Skuld stood hunched over the phone, her back to the entrance, she failed to notice Megumi enter. Megumi, for her part, froze at the end of the hall when she heard Skuld ask for her father. The three sisters rarely spoke of their father, and when they did they were maddeningly vague, though it was clear that they felt great warmth and love for him. This was the first time Megumi had stumbled upon one of the three actually speaking with him, and her curiosity proved far stronger than her sense of propriety. She slid behind a shoji screen and listened.
"Hello, Father," Skuld said. "I... No, the Tether is just fine. It's just that I... No, Bell's okay, and Urd's... Urd's Urd. And Niichan's just fine. I... No, Keiichi's okay, too. I... Father! You know all this already, why are you asking..."
A pause, then softer, almost contrite. "Yes, sir. I understand, Father."
Another pause. "There's a... stranger here. He came through some kind of planar gate, Father! Essence all over! The Disturbance was huge!"
Behind the shoji screen, Megumi's eyes widened, and she silently mouthed the words, "planar gate?"
Skuld fumed through another brief silence. "That's what I want to know! Is he a danger?"
A moment later, her voice shifted from strident to contrite. "I'm sorry, Father, I didn't mean to shout at you. I'm just worried about Belldandy and... about Belldandy. What if he's some kind of exotic ploy by the Other Side?"
"What do you mean, I'll just have to find that out for myself? Father! Father, don't hang up on me! Fa... Oh, poo."
Skuld hung up the receiver with unnecessary roughness and Megumi slid silently back out of the hallway. The conversation hadn't sounded quite like what Megumi'd been expecting, and she wanted to think about it.
Location Unknown, Date Unknown, Time Unknown
As I have previously mentioned in these chronicles, I am subject to unconsciousness when I make a transition from universe to universe. The jump out of Holland Township was no exception.
This time was one of the more comfortable awakenings. Soft, warm bed — a definite novelty where my arrivals were concerned. I drifted for a little while between unconsciousness and consciousness, enjoying the comfort. But I soon realized that there were people nearby, and that discovery prodded me from my gentle haze into full awakening.
That was a mistake. As soon as I threw off enough of my drowsiness I realized I ached all over. Uh-uh. Rotten landing this time. Without opening my eyes I did a quick inventory of my parts. Nothing seemed broken, as far as I could tell, but other than that, I felt like someone had stuffed me in a cement mixer and turned the sucker on. Still, it was just pain — ultimately ignorable. Meanwhile, it was time to see just where I was.
I opened my eyes to find that I was on a futon or mat in a room that looked vaguely 20th-century Japanese in style, to judge from the fixtures I could spy. I was also the center of attention for a small crowd. Three beautiful women, all apparently in their twenties — two Euro, one Asian; one of the Euros was heavily tanned, almost nut-brown, with white hair, and the other had ivory skin and an ankle-length sheaf of honey-blonde locks. Oh, and the Asian woman was noticeably shorter than the other two. One girl in her early teens, Euro, cute, with a peaches-and-cream complexion and her own waterfall of jet-black hair. And an Asian guy, just barely taller than the Asian woman; the two bore a strong resemblance to each other, just as the three Euros did despite their wildly varying skin and hair colors. The Euros also all had odd facial marks, maybe tattoos, and I wondered briefly what that might imply.
The range of expressions directed at me would have been amusing had I not been the target — an assortment that started with unabashed concern on the ivory-skinned Euro woman, through a devil-may-care grin on the tanned one, to the girl's intense and obvious suspicion. The Asian woman and guy both simply looked confused, with overtones of worry.
I'm used to provoking a wide variety of reactions from people, but this was ridiculous. I mean, I'd been unconscious the entire time I'd been here so far. I hadn't had the chance to do anything obnoxious yet.
"<Um, good morning?>" I croaked in English.
One of the Euro women, the sweet-faced beauty with the improbably-long honey-blonde hair, leaned over me and brushed her fingertips along my forehead. The touch left a lingering tingle that was strangely pleasant. "<Late afternoon, actually,>" she replied with a gentle smile. Her voice was as sweet as her looks; her bell-like tones were strangely familiar. "<Are you all right? You appeared to be unconscious when you, um, arrived, but we couldn't find anything really wrong with you.>"
"<You mean other than the bruises?>" She nodded and I smiled at her. Then I groaned as I propped myself up into a sitting position. "<Thank you for your concern. It's a side effect of my, um, mode of travel. Please don't worry yourself about it.>"
At this point the guy said, in Japanese, "Belldandy, who is he? Is he a..." He glanced at the Asian woman. "Can you tell, um, what side he's on?"
The Asian woman frowned. "Oniichan! What's that supposed to mean?"
I raised my eyebrows. I had to agree with her; that was an odd question. "I am Douglas Sangnoir, sir," I replied in the same language, "also called 'Loon' and 'Looney Toons'. This may be hard for you to believe, but I am a traveler from another universe, lost and trying to find my way home. As for the side I am on, well," I grinned — disarmingly, I hoped, "I am a professional good guy."
That having been said, my intuition — or maybe my danger sense — tugged at the back of my mind, and I dropped into magesight almost instinctively. The Asians were normal humans, but the Euro women and the girl...
Immediately forgetting my aches and pains, I leapt out of the futon and knelt at the feet of the "woman" called "Belldandy". "Forgive me, Holy Ones, for invading this your sanctuary," I said as quickly as I could. "With your leave I will gather my belongings and depart, and upon my soul I swear that I shall disturb you no further."
I stayed there, kneeling, with my head bowed for what seemed like a small eternity. While I'm there waiting, let me explain something for those who don't already know it: I do not like dealing with gods. I've cajoled, bargained and fought with a handful of Powers. Some of them have screwed me over but good. A couple more hold markers for favors done for me. I've killed at least one being that claimed to be a deity. And back home, I work for a genuine, bona fide avatar of a goddess. But I hate dealing with gods. Gods scare the piss out of me. A more terrifying combination of utter caprice and world-shattering power I have never come across, and that includes the Fae and the Elder Ones.
And at that moment I was stuck in a small room with three of Them.
There was a long moment of silence, then "Belldandy" said softly, "Keiichi, Megumi, could we speak privately with Sangnoir-san, please?"
"Bell-chan...?" began the Asian guy. I lifted my head just high enough that I could watch what was going on.
She turned to look at him, a surprisingly human expression of concern in her eyes. "Please? We'll be quite fine. I'll explain later."
He swallowed nervously. "O...okay, if you're sure you'll be all right." Poor kid probably had no idea what she was, if he was worried for her safety around me. He grabbed the Asian girl's hand and dragged her out of the room, closing the door behind them.
At the same time, the Euro girl and the platinum blonde stepped over to stand on either side of "Belldandy". And stared at me. The girl snarled at me, too.
"Urd, Skuld, be nice," "Belldandy" said.
Urd? Skuld? I thought, then ran "Belldandy" backwards through Japanese phonetics to get... "Verdandi? Shit!" I blurted and leapt backwards, coming to rest pressed against an outer wall. "You're the Three!"
"Kei! What is going on here?" Megumi demanded in a whisper as Keiichi drew the door shut tightly. "Who is he? What did he mean, 'holy ones'? What is going on?"
"Ssh!" he hissed, his ear to the door. Just because Bell-chan said they were safe doesn't mean I'm not going to make sure.
Megumi watched for a moment, then shrugged and joined him.
"You're the Three!" came clearly through the thin door, and Megumi saw her brother's eyes widen.
Verdandi slowly nodded. "Yes, but not entirely. We are... aspects of Them."
I kept my back to that wall and looked around for my helmet. I spotted it on a table near the door in the far wall. Damn. "Avatars?" I replied, almost as an afterthought. Well, the Norns were supposed to be a set of hags in black robes, after all, not two twenty-something beauty queens and a snarling bundle of early-teen cuteness.
"You can't tell?" the white-haired one — Urd? — asked with a smirk and a shake of her hips. The girl shot her a venomous look.
I studied them carefully. "So, what do you bitches want with me now? It wasn't enough that I had to free an entire sentient race for you last time, you have to interfere in my search for home again?"
Yeah, that's me. A high-performance mouth: grovel to insult in 6.5 seconds.
They exchanged looks of shock and surprise, but I was wary — if there's one thing gods are good it, it's deceiving mortals. "It wasn't us. We didn't do anything," Skuld growled.
"We don't want anything, either, buster," Urd added, a frown crossing her face as she stabbed a forefinger toward me.
"And at this time, and in this place, power of that scale is not available to us," Verdandi said softly.
"Father forbids it," Skuld amended.
"Father?" I asked. This was getting more than a little odd...
Verdandi nodded. "Our Father, who is in Heaven."
"'Harold be thy name,'" I muttered, mostly from force of habit, and got three sets of very strange looks. "What are you talking about? You're Fate, for god's... for Pete's sake. The other gods are supposed to be subject to your weaving!" I bellowed at them.
Keiichi grabbed his sister's arm and dragged her away from the door. "Um, c'mon, Megumi, we shouldn't be listening to this."
Megumi tore her arm from his grasp. "Like hell. What does he mean, 'the other gods are subject to their weaving'?" She glared at her older brother with an intensity that made him cringe. "You know, a lot of strange things that I thought were just my imagination or worse are starting to make sense."
"In this time and place," Verdandi said quietly, "we are charged to answer to Another."
"Office politics, huh?" I sneered. "Must be a major comeuppance for you three. Took a big fall, did you?"
There was a swish of wind, and my reflexes took over. A moment later, I found myself holding the shaft of something that looked like a croquet mallet by way of Star Trek. Its head was mere centimeters from mine, and Skuld throttled its handle in a double-fisted deathgrip. "We didn't Fall!" she shouted as she tried to free her weapon from my grasp. "No one Fell!"
I inclined my head toward her as I looked at the other two. "Discipline problem, eh?" Then a thought struck me. "Those two you sent out of the room. Do they know what kind of creatures you are? Or are they living in danger and ignorance?"
"Megumi's just visiting," Urd said off-handedly. "And Keiichi is Bell's..."
"Keiichi is my love," whispered Verdandi.
This shocked me so much I let go of the mallet, and Skuld promptly nailed me in the foot with it.
When I got done yelping and jumping around, I relieved the kid of her hammer and turned back to Verdandi. "Your what?"
"My love," she repeated, almost too softly for me to hear.
I blinked at her, then shook my head. "You know, that's... that's..." I was going to say something like "pathetic", or maybe "disgusting". We'd had quite enough of that stuff with the Olympians, after all; with all the other damage that they do to the world, deities should not play with human hearts. Plus, the relative power levels made it pretty damn likely that it wasn't exactly the most equitable of relationships. Poor guy. Talk about being pussy-whipped. But my danger sense chose that moment to smack me on the back of the head, and I realized that insulting a god-human relationship to the involved god's face was probably not the wisest course of action.
Okay, now those who know me and the Warriors will say, "Hey, you never had a problem with Hexe dating men." Well, for all that Hexe is bossy, dominant, pushy and a deity, she is also one of the most human beings I have ever known. When I see her with a guy, I don't see a monstrous, alien creature of immense power manipulating some poor schlmazel for its own amusement. I see a woman with a guy. Say what you will about her abrasive and overbearing personality, Hexe is a woman first, and a deity second. And in my experience, that was unique. I had no reason to believe Verdandi's relationship with Keiichi Morisato was anything but a sadistic and/or exploitative dalliance for her.
Anyway, it was at that moment that a shriek erupted from the other side of the door to save me from my own mouth. "Belldandy is WHO?"
I raised an eyebrow. "I take it she didn't know?"
"THE JERK, TOO?"
Urd smirked. "Nope," she said as Verdandi pursed her lips and Skuld's eyes grew large.
"DOES THAT MEAN..." came from the hallway, then Megumi's voice dropped to an outraged mumble.
"I think," I said, suppressing an urge to sing-song, "that somebody's in trouble."
The door burst open, and Megumi stormed back into the room, dragging her brother by the collar behind her. "Where's this Mara character?" she roared, and all three goddesses jumped, then as one turned to look at her. "Turn me into a car, will she? Possess my body, will she? When I get my hands on her, she'll be one dead..." She jabbed a finger at Urd. "You! How could you let me think that was just a dream, that it was my imagination? Do you know what it's done to my self-image?" She whirled on Skuld, who eeped. "And you, you're just as bad. You can't believe what it felt like to think I was crazy because of all the strange crap that goes on around here because of you four!"
"Why aren't you yelling at Belldandy?" Urd muttered, but Megumi evidently heard her.
The mortal girl suddenly dropped completely out of rage and into utter embarrassment. "I couldn't!" she replied, doing some odd, rhythmic twiddling thing with the tips of her forefingers. "She's so nice, I'd just feel so guilty afterwards."
I hazarded a glance at the divinity in question, who simply smiled a beatific smile. Uh-huh.
"Why aren't you yelling at Keiichi, then?" Skuld grumbled. "He hid it from... eep!" Skuld interrupted herself when I grabbed her collar and yanked her up for a nose-to-nose conference.
"Did Keiichi have a choice?" I demanded.
"We never really told him not to..." she breathed. I wasn't satisfied.
"Did you sit Megumi down and let her know what was going on?" I demanded.
"No," she squeaked.
"Then don't start throwing blame at other people, kid. It's not polite. Apologize to the man." Yes, I knew I was giving orders to the avatar of a goddess. No, I really didn't care, because my foot was still hurting and I was feeling just a bit peevish towards her. I shook her gently, just a little. "Apologize," I repeated, adding a little menace to my voice for effect.
Tokyo, Nekomi Ginza, Friday, May 9, 1997, 5:26 PM
Chris was having one of those feelings, and it was ruining his date. It wasn't fair to Rachel, or to him for that matter, but he honestly couldn't help feeling that the other shoe was going to drop, and it was probably going to land on him.
Like a one tonne weight.
The little voice in his head that was insisting that he was not only right for thinking so, but that he really should have known better than to try in the first place, wasn't helping much, either.
Growling a mental "shut up" to his more cynical (and, he was ruefully willing to admit, probably wiser) side, Chris gave his utmost effort to enjoying the walk, the scenery of the ginza, and the company, who had been downright forward (for her) in slipping her hand into his earlier.
Chris was feeling somewhat proud of himself by the time they had walked another block. Not only had he actually started to enjoy himself, he had managed to resist his techie urges and not drag Rachel into every single computer and game store they passed. He was somewhat more proud of himself for not groaning every time Rachel considered stopping in an athletics or clothing store — or for being too eager when she stopped for a good 30 seconds considering the swimsuit shop.
As they crossed the street toward the movie theatre, Chris felt Rachel's hand tighten almost painfully in his, and heard a little growl from her throat. He followed her angry glare to its target, and sighed.
Sending another mental "shut up" to the voice in his head that was gleefully singing "I told you so", he extricated his hand from Rachel's and shook it to restore the blood flow. "Hi, Ami," he said resignedly. "Would it be bad of me to ask what brought you here?" He looked the policewoman up and down, and wry smirk formed on his face. "In uniform, no less?"
"Oh, nothing," she replied sweetly, and twirled her baton. "Just taking a break from writing tickets and directing traffic."
"Ami," Chris said sternly, "isn't your assigned area about forty blocks from here?"
The growl in Rachel's throat had finally worked itself around to speech. "Fine," she said icily. "Why don't you just finish the date with her then, Chris?"
"Now wait a sec-"
"Don't be silly," Ami interrupted. "I just came by to say hello, that's all."
"Oh, so I'm silly, am I?" Rachel snarled.
Chris began to sweat. "That's not..."
"Will you settle down, schoolgirl? Can't I check up on my investment?"
"SCHOOLGIRL? I don't have to take that from a wannabe cop-ette!"
"Oh Lord," Chris swore under his breath, not really caring about the trouble he'd get in. "Here we go." He looked up into the sunset-washed sky and scowled slightly. "You know, guys, Urd, Skuld, and Bell really don't need your help screwing up my love life, they've got it more or less handled."
"Well at least I'm not teasing him like a frigid BITCH!" Ami snapped.
"HEY!" Chris roared, and the two women turned to him, shocked. "If you two want to fight, fine, but: One, keep it clean; and two, leave me out of it. It's not my fault we're stuck like this, and unless you want me to—" He broke off suddenly, and his face paled.
The women watched in bewilderment as a blank look came upon Chris' face. His hair lightened to a tan as his skin became almost ivory. His god-marks, which they had been convinced were mere tattoos, began to glow visibly in the fading daylight; his rectangular forehead mark slowly bent and warped until it was two vertical lines bracketing a shorter one. "Skuld," he whispered, and then disappeared.
"What happened?" Rachel whispered. "Where did he go?"
Ami bestowed a withering glare on Rachel. "Don't you ever listen? He's supposed to protect his sisters. I'm betting the brat's in trouble."
"Serves her right," Rachel muttered to herself, and sighed. "There goes the date."
"I don't believe you!" Ami exclaimed. "The kid's in big trouble, and no one deserves that. Come on, schoolgirl, we've got to get to the temple!" She checked her watch and winced. "The chief is going to kill me," she moaned.
"Pity," Rachel said as she began to run down the street, leaving Ami behind. "And don't call me that!"
Tokyo, Nekomi Ward, Friday, May 9, 1997, 5:27 PM
One of Skuld's hands darted for a pocket, and I grabbed for it with my free arm as she brought it back out. In her grip was something which looked like a chrome baseball that had visited a plumbers' and electricians' convention. At the time I didn't know why she'd even use one, but it was a safe bet that it was a grenade of some sort. Her tiny hand was wrapped around it; my much larger hand, still in its leather glove, was wrapped firmly around hers. "Uh-uh, kid. No toys. Or do you want to take your sisters out with me?"
She considered this for a moment, then shook her head. "Very good. Now apologize to the nice man."
"I'm sorry, Keiichi," she forced out between gritted teeth. The gentleman in question just laughed nervously. Megumi simply stared with huge eyes.
"Now that wasn't so hard, was it?" Watching her carefully, I released her hand, and she slipped the whatever-it-was back into her pocket. When both of her hands were visible again, I lowered her back to the ground — but I didn't let go of her now somewhat-wrinkled collar yet.
I put her down just in time to see the other two goddesses with glowing balls of light hovering between their palms. Urd glared angrily, but Verdandi simply looked... concerned. "Are those for me?" I asked mockingly with one of my special "oh, please attack me, do" smiles.
"No," said Verdandi as the light in front of her simply vanished and she folded her hands around each other.
Then I felt a prick at the side of my neck. Somewhere starboard of me, just out of my peripheral vision, a male voice — an angry male voice — rasped, "Let go of her. Now."
Even as I felt a moment of odd deja vu — I'd been on the other end of this kind of conversation a couple of hundred times — I was sorting very, very quickly through all my options. Slowly I turned my head and smiled politely at the nice man — the nice huge man — the nice huge god, my mage-sight told me — with the arm-mounted pigsticker and the blue-green armor.
Then I spoiled the effect by saying, "And whomsoever art thou, in thy cast-iron tuxedo?" I gave the armor a second look. "I take it that Navajo turquoise plate mail is 'in' this season?"
Chris scowled at the man as he made his smart-ass remark, and flicked his eyes over Skuld's form to make sure she was uninjured. Admirable, but it was the kind of lapse his opponent was looking for, as he threw Skuld at Chris. What the... hey!
At the same time, he batted the sword arm out the way and hooked Chris' leg with his foot, and the three of them fell to the floor. Instead of falling like Chris and his sister did, though, the guy rolled into a handstand and flipped over the tangle, and went running out the door.
Okay, I'm impressed. That was a bloody work of ART, Chris reflected. Combination of at least three different martial arts, there, and the guy was smart enough to dump us in such a way that we'd be tangled up, speaking of which... "SKULD, GO LIMP!" he barked, and marveled at how once in her life she actually listened to him.
Without Skuld's struggling to interfere with him, Chris managed to get to his feet in a couple of moments. "Okay," he growled, "I'm going after that guy." As Belldandy and Urd began to speak, he overrode them. "STAY HERE."
Going into no time and running out the door, Chris felt the power of the Full Manifestation, which had been hovering on the point of activation the whole time, subside. Okay, smart guy. You clearly didn't want to hurt me or Skuld, because you could have done either. Fair enough, I won't hurt you... much.
Behind him, he was pretty sure he heard Urd mutter, "Thor and his stupid training."
As they gently hit the floor I rolled over the tangled heap of god and goddess into a one-handed handstand that took me back to my feet free of unpleasant encumbrances like pointed swords. Before Blueboy and the Brat could untangle themselves, I snagged my helmet off the table. Then I shot out the door while rattling off a quick thanks for the hospitality to Verdandi and Urd. My intent was to get to my bike and get the hell out of Dodge. I didn't care where I was going to go; I'd worry about that once I was in the air and accelerating at as many Gs as I could stand in any random direction that took me away from these... creatures.
My helmet was fortunately still turned on and in combat mode, so I didn't have to wait for it to boot or anything. I just shoved it on my head as I made a dash for the first visible exit, combat-hyping as I went. I'd just managed to get the chin strap buckled when I burst out into the early part of an evening's twilight. I stopped short on a porch to peer around, looking for my cycle in the fading light and growing shadows. "Ah, hell," I muttered when I made out the irregular shapes scattered across the ground in front of me. "I'm in a goddamned junkyard."
Then something blew through my field to hit me in the back, and I went flying into the middle of the scrap heaps.
Just like it's supposed to, the polykev absorbed almost all of the blow. I rolled with the rest of it, taking advantage of the momentum it had imparted and letting it carry me almost all the way to what had to be a perimeter wall. Right before I hit, I twisted slightly and popped back up to my feet facing the way I'd come from, feeling the faintest heat on my face as my armor radiated away the energy it had absorbed.
There he was. The Turquoise Titan was standing on the porch of a very traditional-looking Japanese house that seemed quite out of place amidst all the heaps of rusted and greasy metal. His feet were spread almost a meter apart and his face bore a hideous scowl. His armor was... interesting, a weird mix of medieval and high-tech. His sword arm — and I was surprised to realize that the sword really did seem to be an integral part of the armor — was swung back almost behind him, and his shield arm was forward as if he'd just thrown a punch with it. He probably had — that impact had felt more like a shield bash than a thwarted blade thrust.
I was lucky he'd decided just to bash me. The shield — it was more of a buckler, really, attached to his arm at or near his wrist — was vaguely teardrop-shaped, with its own sharp, wicked point sticking out over his clenched fist. Damn, I remember thinking at that moment. Alberich would have loved to have seen the style this guy uses. Can you fight Florentine with a pointed buckler for your main-gauche?
He sure looks mad, I continued to myself, changing mental tracks. But what the hell, might as well try to reason with him first. I raised my hands slowly in what I hoped was a non-threatening manner. "Look, Lancelot," I called out. "I don't want a fight. I just want to..."
I didn't get a chance to finish because the next thing I knew, Blueboy had blipped from the porch 30 meters away to right in front of my face. The moment I realized what he'd done, I threw myself to the side — just in time to avoid a vicious swing of that sword.
"Teleporter, eh?" I muttered to myself as I let the roll carry me back to my feet again. Well, I had a counter to that. "System, 'Freeze Frame'. Play!" I got ready to invoke a freeze first chance I got. Nothing like a good old-fashioned timestop to screw over a teleporter with.
Except it didn't work as I'd expected.
"<I could see it was a rough-cut Tuesday
Slow-motion weekdays stare me down...>"
The moment that the J. Geils Band kicked in, there was this hideous, gut-wrenching jolt unlike anything I'd ever felt when using the song before. Panicked, I looked around. It'd gone right into a timestop without waiting for me to invoke one. That wasn't supposed to happen.
Timestops are weird to begin with. Everything takes on a bluish cast — in this case even deeper than the combination of my combat hype and the fading twilight had already given it. Sound is faintly muted, as though you're wearing earmuffs. Moving objects, well, they're the first obvious thing people think about when they hear "timestop". Looking around, I spotted a couple birds on the wing hanging motionless in midair, silhouetted against the setting sun; the goddesses and their mortal dupes were halted in mid-dash as they all tried to pile Keystone Kops-style through the narrow doorway I'd run through. Just like it was supposed to, everything around me had frozen in place — no wind, no sound, no movement.
Everything, that is, except for the very large, very angry, very unfrozen god with the armor and the sword.
And that wasn't supposed to happen, either.
"<...There were no defects to be found
Snapshot image froze without a sound...>"
"Shit!" I swore under my breath, and ran at him. There was a source of mystical power nearby, I realized as I prepared to spring. I could sense it, even without magesight. Not the most powerful one I'd ever encountered, no, but close, very close. Almost close enough to touch. And very focused, constrained even. Strange. Maybe he was using that, somehow, to sync up with my timestop.
Pity I wouldn't get a chance to investigate it. However this fight went, I wouldn't be hanging around.
I leapt, spun, and laid my bootheel across the side of his helm. The impact made a muffled, metallic thud in the preternatural quiet, and his head snapped to one side; his body followed as he went into a half-spin that ended with him dropped to one knee.
Next thing I know, the colors are shifted back to normal, the goddesses and the girl are shrieking, the short guy with them is yelling, and Blueboy is staggering backwards with a growl. Something had yanked both of us back out of timestop.
Rat bastard, that hurt! Chris thought as his brains stopped spinning. This guy hits hard enough to impress Magni.
Snarling, Chris looked around to where his opponent had gone. A portion of his mind noted that things seemed weird — there was a bluish tinge to the world, which was suddenly in shadow. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a couple birds frozen in mid-air.
A time-stop, Chris realized. This guy can mimic what I do. Not good. Most emphatically not good. He ran through his options mentally: his full manifestation had abandoned him when Skuld was out of danger, which meant a lot of his advantages had left him, and this guy's ability to copy his time-stop power stole his biggest remaining one.
I'm going to have to actually win this fight on skill. With a mental shrug, Chris jumped at his opponent. That's why I get paid the big bucks. Wait... do I get paid?
Damn. That kick would have knocked anything mortal for a loop. I should have realized that he'd be at least as tough as Hexe.
I never could beat Hexe one-on-one, not even with every dirty trick and low blow in my arsenal.
With a thought I invoked another freeze. That same gut-wrenching jolt hit me again, and once more it was Blueboy and me in the Land That Time Forgot. I dropped and tried a legsweep on him. As he leaped over it, I said, "Just what is your problem? All I wanted was for the kid to apologize to the guy." I took the followthrough of the sweep and let it carry me into a roll along the ground just in time to avoid getting speared by that blade of his. I kicked upwards and knocked his arm away long enough to kippup back to my feet.
Just in time to get smashed in the head by the shield on his other arm. The guy may have been the size of Broot, but he moved like Maggie, dammit. I went tumbling across the yard again, my head ringing like the temple bell that I nearly fetched up against from all the various auto parts I hit along the way. The light had changed when he hit me, and I realized we were back in real time again. Double dammit.
"Oh, like I'm supposed to believe that," he sneered as I rolled.
Buddy, I thought blearily, the state you're in right now, you'd say I was lying if I told you you were tall... Another wrench hit me, but this time I didn't notice any changes in the light. What the... I didn't do that...
"SHIT!" I yelled as my reflexes took over. My opponent could fly, too, dammit! He'd taken to the air and shot across the compound at me. I barely got out of the way in time — he came at me sword-tip first, and with an impressive "thud!" the blade drove into one of the heavy wooden posts supporting the bell shelter, burying itself like a 9-penny fired from a nail gun.
Jolt and we were back in real time. The rapid transitions back and forth were starting to make me queasy — and that takes some doing, let me tell you. I had to come up with something to put this guy down fast so I could get on my bike and get the hell away from this madhouse. It occurred to me that this bozo had one weak point that Hexe didn't. While he tugged on his sword blade to free it, I turned around and delivered the most devastating blow I could think of at that moment.
As the audience shrieked at us in outrage, my steel-toed boot met his metal codpiece.
So I don't fight by Marquess of Queensbury rules. Or even Marquess of Doonesbury rules. Sue me. I fight to win, dammit.
Let me tell you, neither one of us was happy in the moments immediately after that kick. But at least I could start stumbling through the twilit yard toward a lumpy shape that looked like it could be my cycle.
One of the advantages of being a god, Chris reflected at that moment, was that a kick in the crotch was not nearly as crippling as it might once have been. Plus, he was prepared. Early on his training, during one of the free-for-alls that the other gods had insisted were the best way to get him up to speed, Sif had pretended to cozy up to him and then kneed him in the groin. His reaction — mostly leftover reflex from being a mortal — had cost him that fight and earned him a lot of ribbing from Thor.
Shortly after the humiliation, he had to endure yet another lecture from Tyr, this one on the physical differences between gods and mortals — even male ones. Chris then worked with one of the dwarven armourers to have his groin armor rebuilt to eliminate any future problems along those lines. It wouldn't stop everything, but the plate and padding diverted most of the force of impact away from sensitive areas. He'd drawn the line at putting spikes on it like Njord had suggested, though. Okay, he had a point, he snarled angrily as he dispelled his blade. He looked around. Now where'd that stinking rat bast... aha!
It took only three quick steps to catch up to the limping man in leather. Chris grabbed him by the collar. "You know, sparky," he said conversationally, "that wasn't nice, and pretty damn low." Then he threw the guy as hard as he could into the compound wall.
The impact knocked the wind completely out of me, and I dropped to the ground belly first, ending up with my nose buried in a pile of timing chains. As I levered myself back up onto hands and knees, all I could think of was, Who is this guy? The dark hair didn't suggest any of the Norse pantheon, and none of them had freckles, last I knew. Besides, they tended to be built like bears, while this guy was more like a tree: tall, slender, sturdy without a huge amount of bulk.
Even so, he was easily big enough to be Thor or Heimdall. But Thor didn't use swords, and by all accounts he was bearded. And Heimdall... I seemed to remember something about gold teeth, which this guy didn't have either. Both eyes, not Odin. Both hands, not Tyr. And Loki should still be tied to a rock enjoying the Viking version of Chinese water torture. I couldn't think of any of the other Aesir or Vanir before he was charging me again. At least his temper said "Norse" in great big capital letters...
Not that it mattered. He was a god. Bad news, any way I looked at it.
Well, "Freeze Frame" wasn't helping me any here. Might as well go on a full offensive, since I seemed to have no other choice if I wanted to get away from here under my own power and direction. I needed to come up with something to stop this guy. Maybe I could knock him out with one of my really big guns.
"System," I muttered. "'Lightning's Hand.' Play." With the change in songs the flow of energies released, then embraced me again. I let the lightning out enough to cloak me in the usual sheet of rolling, crackling blue-white sparks. Then I cocked my my fist back, filling it with enough loose, angry electrons that the skin of my hand buzzed, and set myself to receive his charge. "Come'n'get it, god-boy," I called out.
"Don't call me 'god-boy,' pipsqueak!" he snarled as his sword rippled back into existence around his arm.
"That's quite enough!" a throaty, melodious female voice declared from the side. There was a flash of light and a thunderous blast, and everything went black.
"Urd, was that really necessary?" Belldandy remonstrated softly as her elder sister lowered her hands.
"Yes," Urd declared flatly. "Any more testosterone in the air, and I would've needed to shave tomorrow morning." She glanced toward either end of the temple yard, where the two combatants had been flung by the force of her levinbolt; not surprisingly, each had landed in a pile of auto parts. "They're still moving," she said with a sigh. "You and Keiichi ... and Megumi," she added as an afterthought, "should probably go hold our guest down. Skuld and I will take care of 'Niichan."
Belldandy nodded. "Very well."
Urd strode off toward Chris; Skuld trotted after her, a not-unfamiliar scowl darkening her face. "If he hurt 'Niichan..." the younger goddess growled, letting the threat trail off uncompleted as she glanced over her shoulder toward the other end of the courtyard.
"'Niichan's a big boy," Urd replied calmly. "He can take a lot."
Skuld's deepening scowl was evident in her voice. "I don't care. That jerk's a mortal and he was slinging around enough magic to..." The two stopped, having reached their brother.
"Softer, Skuld. My head's still ringing," Chris groaned. "Who lobbed the powerbolt at us?"
"Me!" Urd replied brightly.
Chris reached up slowly and rubbed his eyes. "Thank you ever so much. We are going to have a little talk about this later, you understand?"
She shrugged. "Hey, it stopped the fight."
"Whatever." Chris tried to push himself up off the ground, failed, tried again, and failed again. "Ouch."
Skuld gave an exasperated sigh. "Here, 'Niichan," she said, holding out a hand.
With an aggrieved look on his face, Chris took the offered hand. As Skuld pulled, he pushed, and with a grunt of effort from both of them he was back on his feet again amidst a clatter of falling debris. With a thought he dismissed his armor. "Okay, so, who was he?" he asked his sisters. Looking around the courtyard, he added, "And where is he?"
"C'mon," Urd replied, holding out her hand. "I'll tell you what we know."
"Are you okay, 'Niichan?" Skuld asked anxiously.
Chris took a moment to assess himself. "Yeah, I think so. Just a few aches and pains. Nothing that a couple of days in the furo wouldn't fix."
Skuld nodded absently. "All right. I've got something I want to check into out here, then. I'll be inside in a little bit."
"Fair enough." He looked at Urd. "Okay, let's go. And start from the beginning."
"Well, it wasn't long after you left on your date..." Urd began as the two headed for the house.
Skuld watched them go inside, then glanced at the storage shed where Keiichi kept his various bikes, and where they had parked Sangnoir's strange, intriguing motorcycle. A smile broke across her face as a most uncharitable thought occurred to her, something petty, unkind and completely unworthy of a young goddess. But it would be so satisfying. Still smiling, she headed for the shed, practically skipping with a smug delight. "Now where did I put my toolkit?" she sing-songed to herself.
"I've got a question for you, Urd," Chris said with elaborate casualness once Urd reached the point where she'd thrown the levinbolt. They had reached the house and now stood near the step-stone which led up to the engawa. "Have you ever considered the concept of 'subtlety?'"
"Have you ever considered the concept of 'ask first, fight later?'" she retorted primly. "What possessed you to try and slaughter that guy, anyway?"
"I wasn't going to kill him," he said sourly. "Only maim him, a little." He visibly winced at the flat look his eldest sister gave him. "It's not my fault! That little Full Manifestation dealie that got dumped in my head was saying 'Skuld in danger,' so I fly over here and what do I see but Skuld being menaced in what looked a hostage situation. I did what I thought was appropriate."
Urd gave a skeptical snort. "And then after she was out of danger, you decide to go after the guy. What is it with you? You did the same thing to Mara!"
"I'm supposed to just let bad guys run away and come back to fight another day? When exactly did our life become a cheesy comic book?"
Urd smirked a little as she glanced toward the gate. "I'd say yours has been one for a while." With a nod of her head, she indicated the two women running across the yard towards the house.
"Crud," Chris muttered. "Think I can pretend he killed me?"
Location Unknown, Date Unknown, Time Unknown ... Again
Consciousness returned to me rather suddenly, but I didn't open my eyes right away. "<'From my heart and from my hand,'>" I whispered when I remembered what had happened, "<'why don't people understand my intentions?'>"
"Ah, Sangnoir-san, you're awake. Good."
I opened my eyes. Hm. This ceiling looks familiar.
I was once again sprawled on the same futon in the same room where I had awakened earlier. How much earlier I had no idea; all I could tell was that it was now completely dark out, thanks to a view of a window through the door. No helmet again — and this time it wasn't even in the room. Damn. I was also once more the center of attention. This go-round it was just Verdandi and the two mortals — Keiichi and Megumi, if I recalled correctly. They both looked like they were each clamping down on about a million questions that threatened to spill out of them.
"Okay," I rasped. "Not that I'm complaining or anything, but how come I'm not dead?"
Verdandi made a little moue with her lips. "Don't be silly. We wouldn't let that happen. Besides, while Oniichan can be a bit overprotective at times, he would not kill indiscriminately."
"Coulda fooled me," I growled. I could still feel every hit I took from him, even where the polykev intercepted most of the force. Then I finished parsing what she'd said. "'Oniichan'?" I asked, turning my head to look directly at her. "Since when have the Norns had an older brother? How can the Norns have an older brother?"
Verdandi just smiled blandly at me. "If you want, you may use the furo," she said without even acknowledging my question. "Then, if you're hungry, and I'm sure you must be, I'll have a little something waiting for you in the dining room. Keiichi," she turned to the guy. "Why don't you show Sangnoir-san to the bath?"
One hand went behind his head and he laughed nervously. "Are you sure, Bell-chan?" he asked. I could see the barest traces of an "are you out of your fucking mind?" expression in his eyes, but it was almost completely buried in what I could tell on sight was an absolute and complete trust.
Megumi was a little less trusting, and it showed. As she opened her mouth for what was likely to be another prize rant, I sighed as loudly as I could. "I promise I'll behave, Keiichi-san," I said as I levered myself back up to a sitting position. The girl shuffled backwards ten or twenty centimeters on her knees, but Verdandi and Keiichi stayed put. Poor kid. She tried to hide it, but she was scared out of her wits, and not just of me, I'd wager. I gave a knowing look to Verdandi. "If there is any oath I could swear, be it Norse or Japanese..."
"Don't be silly," she repeated with a brilliant smile. "You don't need to swear any oaths." She favored Keiichi with a look that almost convinced me that she did love him the way a human woman would. "Please, Keiichi? I'm quite certain Sangnoir-san is no threat."
"I'll do my best to be a proper guest," I offered. "This time," I added with an apologetic little smile.
Megumi stared with her mouth open, looking at each of the three of us in turn.
Keiichi still had his doubts, I could see that. But he nodded and stood. "Sangnoir-san?"
"Right." I managed to get to my feet with only one little grunt of pain (oh, okay, maybe not that little), then spent a moment or two rolling my head and working my back, listening to and feeling each pop and crack. "Okay," I announced when I was done with that. "Lead on, MacDuff."
"This way," he said, giving me a funny look and gesturing me through the door. I stepped out into the hall, and waited for him to follow and close the sliding panel behind us. Damn, but I towered over this guy. I mean, he was no midget, but hell, even Crystal was taller than he was; I easily had a head and a half on him.
When he turned back to me I bowed as best I could in the narrow passage. "Please accept my apology for disturbing the wa of the house, Keiichi-san," I offered in my most formal Japanese. (Well, except for the honorific. He struck me as the kind of guy who'd be uncomfortable with "-sama", let alone "-dono".) A hallway wasn't the proper place for this kind of thing, but I felt that it was more important to do it now, rather than wait.
Keiichi just rubbed the back of his head with one hand and laughed nervously. "It's okay, really," he said. "C'mon, the furo's this way." He began to lead me down the hall.
"Thanks." My boots made dull thuds on the polished wood floor. As soon as I could I'd have to take them off and get into a pair of house slippers.
He glanced back at me. "You'll need some bathing supplies, right?"
I nodded. "Yes, please."
"No problem, we've got spares you can use." He smiled wryly. "We get a lot of guests — expected and not." We stopped by a partly-open door, beyond which I could see a tiled floor. "Here we are," he said unnecessarily.
I pushed the door open and saw the changing room. At its far end another door held a sign that read "available". I nodded to myself, then glanced back at my host. "Thank you, Keiichi-san."
He grimaced. "Just 'Keiichi', okay?"
I grinned back at him. "Okay, then. Just 'Keiichi' it is. And I'm just 'Doug' to my friends."
"Thanks... Doug." He smiled, still a little nervously I thought, and waved in the general direction of the changing room. "You'll find a couple unmarked sets of supplies in there; just take one. We always keep a few around for the odd visitor."
"Okay," I said and stepped inside. "Heaven knows I'm certainly odd." The thudding from my boots changed timbre noticeably, and echoed. I really shouldn't wear them in here, either, I thought.
Keiichi held out a hand. "Oh," he said rather tentatively. "One thing."
I glanced back at him over my shoulder. "Yes?"
He screwed up his face as if at a distasteful memory. "I think Skuld's out in the yard, but... just in case..."
I raised an eyebrow. "Just in case?"
He nodded. "If the water in the tub starts swirling or bubbling, get out fast." He grimaced again. "It's less painful that way."
Slowly I turned. "Say what?"
After her brother and the stranger had vanished down the hallway, Megumi swallowed nervously and turned to the ... being ... seated next to her. "Buh..." she began, then stopped, licked her lips and swallowed. "Belldandy-sama..."
Warm brown eyes, crinkled at the corners with a smile, turned on her. "We'll have none of that now, Megumi."
Megumi dropped forward in the lowest bow she could make — or she would have, if Belldandy had not stopped her with a finger on the point of the girl's chin. "But..."
"Nothing has changed, Megumi," Belldandy said softly, her everpresent smile driving the growing panic from the girl's heart. "We are still the same people we were this morning, and the day before, and the day before that. Urd is still Urd, Skuld is still Skuld, Chris is still Chris, and I am still..." She blushed prettily. "I am still your brother's girlfriend. All that is different is that you now know a little more about us."
"Really?" Megumi whispered as she let Belldandy guide her back into a sitting position.
"Really," Belldandy reassured her.
Megumi shook her head. "You seem so... well, not normal, none of you are normal, but so... 'human'."
Belldandy's eyebrows crept up. "What would you expect?"
The girl shrugged. "I don't know. A Viking goddess? Three meters tall in fur and leather, with a huge double-bitted axe? Wild hair streaming in the wind as you scream war cries?" She grinned sheepishly.
"We don't do that kind of thing any more," the goddess sniffed primly. "In fact, we hardly ever did that kind of thing at all, and even then it was more Skuld than Urd or I who dressed like that."
Megumi's eyes grew wide. "You're kidding! Skuld?"
"Well, she is the leader of the Valkyries," Belldandy said matter-of-factly.
"She's on sabbatical until she grows up again."
"Again?" Megumi blurted, then waved her hands. "No, no, I don't think I want to know. At least not right now. I think I'm suffering from information overload." She closed her eyes, shook her head, then opened them again. "One thing I still don't understand."
"Only one?" Bell asked with an amused little smile.
Megumi frowned at her with mock annoyance. "Well, one out of many. How did my big brother, the nerd-king of Nekomi, end up living with three, count'em, three Viking goddesses and their big brother?"
"Well," Belldandy replied, "that is a bit of a story. Why don't we go into the kitchen and I'll tell you over some tea while I get dinner ready." She stood, and held out her hand to the girl. Megumi took it and got to her own feet.
"Sure," she said. Tea would be perfect. It was good to find something normal to latch onto.
Chris sighed breathily as his two erstwhile girlfriends ran up to him. He noted with a bit of irritation that neither was particularly winded after doing a run that would have killed him. "Hi, girls," he said weakly.
"HI?!" Rachel demanded. "You disappear in the middle of our date to go save the brat and all you can say is 'hi'?" She blinked as both Chris and Ami gave her a perplexed look. "What?"
Shaking her head, Ami muttered "Whatever," and looked Chris over. He watched with chagrin as her critical eye noticed his more disheveled state and the slight bruise forming on his temple. "Did you win?"
"Oh, don't be silly," snapped Rachel. "Of course he won, didn't you?"
"Oh, really? It's not like they kill each other, you know. He could have lost."
"If Chris had lost would he be here now?"
"THAT'S IT! I'm not dealing with this now!" Chris roared. He stormed into the house, grumbling to himself.
"See what you did?" the women both snarled at each other, and rushed to follow the god.
As she walked toward the house, Ami stopped to check out the strange, futuristic motorcycle that was parked by one of the outbuildings. She always found the NIT Motor Club's efforts interesting from a professional standpoint, and this one was particularly bizarre. With a chuckle, she looked over the bike, noting that Keiichi was lucky he had a goddess on his side. This one looked to be deadly.
Ami's good humor left her when she noticed its license plate. New Jersey? 1986? That plate's ten years old, but it looks brand new. That doesn't make sense... Frowning over the anomaly, she broke into a trot so she could catch back up with Rachel and Chris, hardly registering the appearance of a grinning Skuld, a small toolbox in hand.
The bath made all the difference in the world. I'd already felt vaguely grimy after my transit between universes. (Probably psychosomatic, but even if it were, it was still an unpleasant sensation.) Adding the sweat and dirt from the fight on top of that just made it worse. So when given the opportunity to scrub, I leapt at the chance. I followed that with a positively sybaritic soak in the furo, which did wonders for my various aches and pains. I still needed a good healing, but that would wait until I retrieved my helmet. Should probably alert the Celestials before I did it, too — they probably wouldn't take kindly to unexpected magic worked in their vicinity.
"<Gods,>" I muttered to myself as I sank into the steaming water. "<Why does it always have to be gods?>"
I lost track of time in the bath, but the water was still warm when I decided I'd soaked enough. After I dried off and stepped back into the changing room, I found that the clothes I'd been wearing — boots, leathers, polykev, socks, underwear and all — were gone. That would have panicked me had it not been for the fact that someone had retrieved a complete set of my civvies from one of the panniers of my bike and had laid them out neatly. I supposed someone was trying to figure out how to clean my leathers; I wondered if they'd notice that everything else was wash-and-wear.
Anyway, I got dressed in the provided clothes (jeans, crew socks, and my Hong Kong Cavaliers 1985 "War of the Worlds" tour T-shirt) and poked my head back out into the hall. Empty. No guard, not even one of the mortals trying to look innocuous. The sound of conversation and clinking dishes drifted down from one end of the corridor, accompanied by the most marvelous scent — dinner, unless I missed my guess. My stomach growled, and I realized that it had been at least eight hours and maybe more since Pinky and Reno had treated me to my "condemned man's last meal" (as Pinky'd put it) at the White Manna in Hackensack.
I considered the possibility that this might be the lure for some fiendishly subtle trap, then decided I was being ridiculous. With four Celestials in the house, I was either a guest or dead meat, and they didn't have to play games to make me the latter. Some gods would, for the sadistic fun of it, but from what I could remember about this particular expression of the Three, the Norns weren't that type. Then again, these weren't exactly the Norns I was familiar with. And, I reminded myself with a certain amount of trepidation, I knew absolutely nothing about "Big Brother".
Then I chided myself for being excessively paranoid, and stepped into the hallway — where I stopped short. From the threshold of the changing room, I could easily see the source of the enticing odors — a very typical Japanese family/dining room at the end of the hall. Through its doorway I could spy the low dining table, along with some of the occupants, who hadn't yet noticed me.
The first person I spotted was Captain Turquoise (now in civvies, too), who looked distinctly uncomfortable in seiza on the far side of the table from the door (and, thus, me). He was flanked by two new folks, a pair of young women who appeared to be in their twenties and who occupied almost all of his attention. Hm. More mortal auxiliaries. They must have shown up while I was in the bath, I mused. I raised an eyebrow when I realized one was a cop of some variety, in full uniform. The other looked more like Buffy Coed.
Surprisingly, the big guy looked like he would rather have been anywhere but in between two nubile young Asian girls intent on fussing over him. Of course, the fact that each was glaring daggers at the other might have had something to do with it.
"Are you sure you're alright?" the college girl asked.
"Look, I'm fine," he insisted.
The cop poked him in the ribs, and was obviously nonplussed at the wince she got. "Uh-huh. And those ribs aren't bruised, and that bump on your head is makeup."
"I'm fine," he repeated. "Big tough Aesir, remember? Taking this stuff's in my job description."
The girls exchanged a flat look, and Police Girl quietly stabbed a bruise on his temple with her finger. He yelped and recoiled.
"You've been talking to that idiot Thor again," the coed growled. "Why do you listen to those dunderheaded gods?" From somewhere out of my line of sight I heard a shocked gasp, followed by a reassuring murmur.
Holding a protective hand to his head, "Big Brother" objected, "Hey, they're the pros, last I checked." He waved off their protests and added, "I'll be okay in a day or two. Part of the package is fast healing. Look, trust me."
Miss Coed gave him a flat look. "Fine," she said evenly. "You owe me a movie, since we missed the one today."
"Mercenary, aren't you?" the cop muttered wryly, almost too softly for me to hear from my distant vantage point. She looked over at someone hidden from me, and called, "Belldandy, can I borrow the phone?"
I heard a faint noise that I assume was some manner of assent, because she stood gracefully, explaining to the big guy and the college girl, "I need to report in."
"She's gonna be in trouble," "Big Brother" sang softly as the cop stepped out of view. Then he turned his attention back to the girl with him. "Okay, Rachel, a movie. We'll figure it out later. I've got something big to deal with here." So the coed was named "Rachel". Okay.
Rachel opened her mouth to protest, but then shut it with a click in the face of his sincerity. "Fine," she said shortly, and stood on her tiptoes and hissed him on the cheek. "Let me know how it goes, God-boy." She smiled at the wince that elicited.
I chuckled when I heard that. It must be a popular nickname for him. "I hate it when they call me that," he muttered, and I grinned. Yeah, it was a popular nickname, all right.
I must have missed something at that point, because God-boy had turned back in the direction the police girl had vanished, a concerned expression on his face. "Everything all right?" he asked.
I heard a faint goodbye, and the second girl came back into view. Bewildered, she said, "Chris, the license plate on that motorcycle... it doesn't exist. Did it belong to whoever you fought?" Okay, two things to remember. God-boy is named Chris, and Police Girl is really on the ball.
"Yes..." Chris said slowly, and then clamped his hand over her mouth and brought his face close to hers. "Oh no, you don't," he said urgently. "This is god business, Ami. I mean it." He pulled his hand away. "You understand?" Okay, Police Girl is Ami. I was busy making mental notes, just in case.
"Okay," she grudgingly agreed, and then with a impish grin, grabbed his head and kissed him firmly. "Gotcha," she gloated, releasing him.
"GAH!" Chris blurted, stumbling back. "Can't you kiss like normal people?!"
"Where's the fun in that?" Checking her watch, Ami winced. "Eek, I'm in trouble. Bye!" With that, she ran out of the room and down the hall. She didn't even give me a look as she passed by.
"Women," Chris muttered in mock (or maybe not-so-mock, it was hard to tell) exasperation, and then looked amused. "'Dunderheaded gods?'"
Rachel was still sitting at the table, aiming a murderous glare at Chris. "Well, they are, most of them. Can you say 'Modi'?"
Chris actually growled. "Don't remind me."
Well. There's obviously a hell of a story there, I thought. Pity I'm not going to stick around to hear it. Another thought struck me. Interesting. They're talking as though he's not a god himself. Weird.
"Anyway," Rachel went on, rising to her feet, "It's pretty clear the evening's shot."
"But..." he tried to object.
She shook her head. "Nope. You're not going to leave your sisters alone in the temple while Blondie is still around." "Blondie?" I thought. Well, I've been called worse. Rachel went on. "And while I really like hanging out with them, it's not what I had in mind for my night tonight." She shrugged, a little sadly I thought. "And I do have some studying I need to do..."
"If you really think you have to..." Chris replied weakly.
"Yeah. But, hey, it's not like we're never going out again." She stepped over to the big guy and gave him a very slow and gentle kiss goodnight, probably in a deliberate counterpoint to Ami's rather vigorous farewell just a minute earlier. "See you tomorrow?"
"Sure," Chris breathed. She hugged him with one arm, then turned and left the room herself. Not being in quite as much of a hurry, she noticed me standing in the furo doorway. She shot me the same murderous glance she had graced God-boy with, and then passed by with a sniff. I simply smiled and bowed, after-you-my-dear-Alphonse'ing her towards the exit the other girl had used.
When I stood up straight again, Verdandi was laying a heaping platter on the table and at the same time looking straight at me. "Sangnoir-san," she sang out, making Chris jump with surprise. "I see you've finished your bath. Please come on in." Between the mouth-watering scent of the food and the invitation I figured I didn't have a choice, and headed on into the dining room as Chris awkwardly seated himself back behind the far end of the table.
As it so happened, Chris and Verdandi were not the only persons in the room. Seated to my left as I entered were Megumi, who still looked a little shell-shocked, and Urd. On the right were Keiichi (who was just putting away what looked like a textbook of some variety) and an unoccupied cushion. A quiescent but gently steaming rice cooker sat on the floor adjacent to the latter.
Skuld was missing, but there were two additional, unused cushion/seats at the side of the table nearest me, catty-corner from the empty one next to Keiichi.
Somehow, in the moments when my attention had been on Rachel in the hall, the table had gone from virtually empty to loaded. On it were now one of those pump Thermos carafe things and what looked to be the single most ornate Japanese dinner I'd ever seen outside of a state function. This was "a little something"? Yeesh.
Verdandi seated herself on the cushion by Keiichi. "We've kept dinner waiting for you and Skuld." She patted the empty cushion closest to her, around the corner of the table. "Please sit down and join us."
"Um," I managed, and glanced around the table. Both mortals still looked nervous, although for his part, Keiichi did seem a bit more relaxed than Megumi. Urd caught my glance, smiled slyly, and gave me a "come-hither" look that would have made Mae West hang up her feathered hat for good. I resisted the urge to answer her with a snarl. Wedged behind the table at his end, "Oniichan" just loomed and glowered at me, especially after he caught sight of Urd's performance.
I rolled my eyes and sighed, then dug out my rusty diplomatic skills again. "Lady Verdandi, please. My presence clearly disturbs the harmony of the house. There is no need to honor me with a place at the table. If it please you, I would rather take my motorcycle and leave."
"Nonsense, Sangnoir-san. You will join us for dinner." I swear, that pleasant smile never left her lips or her eyes, but there was steel in her voice. I knew that steel, too — my mother and grandmother both had it, that "eat your peas or else, young man" tone that brooked no argument. I sighed again. Oh, well, time to look into the abyss and all that.
"Thank you," I said to Verdandi and took the seat I'd been directed to, dropping smoothly into the kneeling/seated posture that obviously gave the big guy some problems. He glowered some more. I smiled sweetly at him.
Completely ignoring the wordless byplay between him and me, Verdandi continued blithely on. "Oh, and you haven't been introduced properly to Oniichan. Sangnoir-san, this is our elder brother, Christopher Angel, the God of Moments." She gave a sprightly gesture towards him.
Uh, right. I didn't need a degree in Applied Theology to notice the obvious and totally unlikely collision of two completely incompatible religious traditions inherent in his full name. Shoving the disturbing questions it raised to one side, I grinned weakly. "Um, hi. Douglas Q. Sangnoir, Colonel, UNMPFWA, UK, M.O.U.S.E..." No one laughed. Oh, well. "Sorry about the, um, the kick in the, um, you know..."
"Consider it forgotten," Angel grated in a slow, forced tone that sounded like stone scraping on stone.
Uh, yeah, buddy. It'd be more convincing if you didn't sound like you're about to leap across the table and throttle me. I suppressed a third, heartfelt, sigh. With luck, I'd be on my motorcycle and gone within the hour, leaving this nest of gods and goofballs behind me for good.
While I was counting the minutes until my liberation, I heard the sound of a door down the hallway behind me. Unless this was someone else new, it had to be Skuld.
"Hiiiii!" a familiar, high-pitched voice echoed up the hallway to us. I was right, it was the kid. Stockinged footsteps padded their way up the hall as I kept myself from turning around to watch her approach. "Ooh, dinner."
"We've just been waiting for you, Skuld," Verdandi said with an indulgent smile. "Come sit down."
"Okay, let me get washed up first." Skuld stepped into my field of view and held up a pair of greasy hands for inspection. "I was just working in my shop." She gave the table a smile almost as brilliant as her sister's, then scampered out, practically skipping. A happy little hum trailed after her.
I raised my eyebrows. That was a big difference from the dour, angry little girl I'd initially encountered. "Well, she's certainly cheerful now," I murmured to the table at large. "What changed?"
Nobody offered me an answer.
Skuld's mood noticeably darkened when she returned to the dining room and realized that the only available place was next to Mama Sangnoir's favorite son. She flounced down onto the cushion with a dismissive sniff and turned up her nose at me. The disdain on her face soon slipped away, though, and a smug little self-satisfied smile began to play around her lips.
Now that we were all seated, dinner could be served. As Verdandi began filling and distributing rice bowls, I surreptitiously studied the godling girl to my left. Much as I disliked deities, I had to admit to myself I had been a bit out of line with her. I suppressed a sigh as I realized that I should offer her an apology, if only so that we could part on non-hostile terms when dinner was over. Same thing applied to Angel — the last thing I needed was a pair of deities with grudges at my back.
By this point, all the courses had been passed out, and dinner was about to formally begin. The chorus of "Itadakimasu" around the table was a strange, surreal moment — I'd expected it of the two Japanese, and I joined in because I knew I was supposed to, but to hear the three Norsewomen and Angel — well, it was just odd for a second.
The oddness extended itself when I realized that dinner was indeed entirely Japanese food, with not even so much as a lingonberry or a lutefisk in sight. This made me wonder who had prepared the feast in front of us. Megumi was a guest, according to what I'd heard earlier; Keiichi looked like the kind of guy who'd happily live on cafeteria food, cup ramen, and take-out; and Angel did not strike me as the chefly type. I seriously doubted that either of Angel's bookend girls had anything to do with it, especially since they'd been fawning over him the entire time I'd been watching them. And Verdandi was smilingly parceling out the servings, which was almost always the job of the hostess/cook in a traditional Japanese household.
I tried to wrap my mind around the idea that one of the Three could be playing Little Miss Homemaker — happily — and failed utterly. I tried again and almost sprained something. So I gave up and dug in with the others.
It was easily one of the best meals I'd ever eaten.
Dinner being dinner, and people being people, there was a babble of talk around and across the table. Personally, I sat quietly, concentrating on keeping my meal from transmuting into something inedible as it entered my field one bite at a time. That aside, I thoroughly enjoyed dinner, and tried to keep as low a profile as I could while I tuned into the different conversational threads.
I quickly learned that Rachel and Ami were apparently in a to-the-death competition for Angel. As I chased down the last of my salad's ginger dressing Angel recounted the tale of the evening's interrupted date. All through the story, Angel sat there with a classic hang-dog "Why me, Lord?" look on his face. Well, if that were his karma I could certainly understand the peevish mood he'd been in when we met earlier. No doubt he had the frequent urge to slap both girls silly and had decided to use me as a target instead, rather than ruin his chances with either.
Megumi, true to my earlier impression of her ignorance of matters here, was busily firing off The Big Questions about Life, The Universe, and Everything at all four of the Celestials. Most of these were deflected with varying levels of grace. Several others — including a few I thought would have been on the "classified" list — were answered, sometimes in excruciating detail. Naturally, I took mental notes. (In particular I promised myself that I would look up a place called "The Heart of Darkest Chocolate" if by some unlikely chance I ever found myself in Asgard. I haven't had a decent malted milk since I moved to England.)
Keiichi interjected a few comments of his own into this exchange. From what he said — and what he didn't — I gathered that he had physically visited some variety of Heaven at least once. Since he didn't have the look of a Jewish patriarch about him, I found this rather remarkable, and wondered again about his relationship with Verdandi. Living mortals and the Celestial Realms normally mix about as well as mortals and the lands of the Fae — which is to say, make sure your next of kin know where you're going, and that your life insurance premiums are paid up.
Being a good hostess, Verdandi tried to draw me in to the conversation several times. Pleading fatigue, I declined to offer anything more than polite small talk, though, since I was unwilling to derail Megumi's interrogation and thus lose the chance to pick up more intelligence about the Celestials and their purpose here.
Of which I derived nothing that made any sense. Angel was here because the Three were. Urd and Skuld were here because Verdandi was. And Verdandi was here, if I were to believe what she and Keiichi told Megumi, because Keiichi had wished for her. Yeah, wished, like in a fairy tale. If it weren't the goofiest disinformation program I'd ever encountered, it was a far goofier truth than I could imagine. Or believe.
Dinner ended with Verdandi handing out dessert: small servings of ice cream. Well, small for everyone but Skuld, who got what looked to be two or three liters of rocky road in a bowl the size of a batting helmet. I nibbled my way through my ice cream as I watched her emulate the Tasmanian Devil, and fought back the urge to shake my head. My mind may have been saying "monstrous thing capable of snuffing entire galaxies on a whim," but my eyes were saying "cute if bratty little girl".
My eyes were winning, dammit.
For all that they were Celestials, the four seemed very human. Almost too human. It had to be some kind of sadistic game.
As impatient as I was, I waited calmly for the "official" conclusion of the meal. I almost got comfortable, almost forgot what surrounded me, in the midst of a dinner conversation that eventually drifted off arcane topics and back into more mundane ones: classes, clubs, a friend's attempt at her own small business. Once I completed my dessert I faded in and out, nearly drowsing.
I think I might have forgotten entirely that I was in enemy territory, had it not been for the clatter of silverware and crockery to my left that jerked me back to full awareness. Skuld had finished demolishing her confection, and almost as though she were personally offended at the empty bowl had thrown her spoon down into it. Verdandi gave her a concerned look, and I got the impression that she might have said something had the others not taken it as a sign that dinner was over.
As everyone else stretched and moved away from the table, I stood, stepped back, and bowed toward Verdandi with a polite "Gochisousama." When I straightened up, she was gracing me with a brilliant smile. "Thank you for your hospitality," I went on, "but I must beg your leave to depart."
Verdandi's smile faded infinitesimally. "If you must, Sangnoir-san..."
"I'm afraid so," I replied, surprising myself by half-regretting that I was leaving. "I just need my uniform and helmet back, please. Then I'll take my motorcycle and go."
Behind me and to my left, I heard a faint "Uh-oh." I wasn't the only one to hear it, since everyone in the room was now staring at Skuld. Slowly I turned to look at her.
"What's that supposed to mean?" I asked with a calm that belied the sudden premonition of doom which gripped me.
Skuld had tried to weasel out of it, but Verdandi would have none of that. Firm without being harsh, or even loud, she had simply asked that Skuld tell us. Instead of speaking, though, the little goddess had silently led us to an outbuilding — her workshop, according to Keiichi. Flashlight in hand, she drooped her way across the night-shadowed and junk-strewn yard like a man on his way to his execution. At the door to her shop, Skuld took the handle firmly in her grasp, then paused and murmured a quiet apology.
Then she threw open the broad door and hit a switch just inside, revealing what would have been a remarkably sophisticated workshop for a human girl of her age. (Hell, it would have been remarkably sophisticated for me.) Bright light illuminated the shed interior, shining down from several industrial fluorescent fixtures overhead. A workbench — white Formica from the looks of it, and spotless — ran the length of the back wall. About half its surface was taken up by an assortment of equipment that ranged from the expected (timing light, vise, drill press) to the strange and outright bizarre (oscilloscope, stereo microscope and something that looked like the bastard child of a rice cooker and a particle accelerator). The other half was taken up by Urd, who promptly perched herself upon it.
The bench was supported by two cabinets filled with drawers, and under it were a big trash can and what appeared to be a small refrigerator. A tall, wheeled stool was shoved off to one side.
Every hand-held tool known to man and then some were neatly arrayed on hooks, rings and pegs along both side walls, sorted by both size and function. Tall, locker-like cabinets painted brilliant white lined the wall in which the door opened. The floor was unfinished wood, scuffed a bit but like the bench it was spotless. The whole place had a clean, crisp smell with just the barest hints of oil and gasoline and ... ozone? in the air. And scattered across the floor and the workbench were enough parts to build an entire motorcycle.
My motorcycle, in fact.
At my first reaction, Skuld snatched up a ratchet driver and clutched it protectively in front of her like some kind of charm as she stood in the middle of what had once been an exquisitely hand-crafted vehicle. Now the only pieces left that were bigger than a breadbox were the panniers and the frame. And — thank goodness — Buckaroo's second-best sword, carefully laid to one side. "I just meant to mess with it a bit, to get back at you," she said, a little defensively. "Over-tighten the brake calipers, or maybe restrict the fuel line so you'd stall out. But then I got interested in some of the systems, and I guess I got a little carried away..." She trailed off sheepishly.
"My bike!" I was not yet ready to listen to explanations. Behind me, the peanut gallery streamed into the shedlike building, making it seem even smaller than it actually was.
"I feel for you, guy. You should see what she did once to my computer," Angel muttered in obvious sympathetic tones. In my anger, I hadn't noticed that he had stepped up to my side, putting us shoulder-to-shoulder. Well, shoulder-to-chest, at least. His presence towering over me contributed a lot to the sense of shrinking space.
"My... bike," I whispered, dropping to my knees amidst the scattered parts. Months of work building it, all the way back in MegaTokyo. Years of faithful use through gods knew how many timelines. Weeks more redesigning and improving it with Rawhide's help and Buckaroo's occasional input back in the last world I'd visited.
"I mean, I can get taking the parts out," Angel announced from over my shoulder. I barely noticed.
My motorcycle lay in a thousand pieces scattered across the bare wood floor of the shed. The only way it could have been disassembled so thoroughly in so short a time must have damaged at least some of its non-monomer parts — parts that it might well be impossible to replace in this universe. Impossible unless they had a GENOM nanofac or a Black Lectroid autoshop handy, but I doubted I'd find either in this world.
"Hey, I've even taken apart drives in my spare time," Angel continued without really waiting for a response from me.
Skuld tried to dig a toe into the floor and studied her ratchet driver intently. "You had that really interesting gravity drive on it! And the ceramic turbine! And the bits that looked almost organic! And there were traces of magic all over it!" she protested.
"I can almost get her unsoldering some of the chips off the board. But how did she split PCB layers, anyway? Or open up the CPU casing?"
"Chris, quiet," said Verdandi. A blandly forgiving expression on her face, she stepped up to her younger sister and laid a hand on her shoulder.
"It's destroyed," I said softly. I looked up at the... the... thing that looked like a little girl. "Why?" I asked. "I only shook you a little bit and made you apologize. Did you really have to destroy my bike to get even?" I picked up the closest piece — the headlight — and studied it. "All the time and work and joy I put into it — gone forever." I looked back up at her. "Congratulations, girl. The only way you could have hurt me more would be to let Godzilla here kill me." I gestured with my head towards Angel, who was still hovering over me.
"Hey!" protested that worthy.
"It's not destroyed," Skuld declared with a pout. "I was very careful about taking it apart. Nothing's broken at all." There was an almost imperceptible pause. "I think," she added in a nearly inaudible voice before scowling at me once more. "After all, it's no fun if you can't put it back together again."
I lifted my eyes from the headlight and looked at her flatly. "It can be reassembled?"
Her scowl deepened. "I just said that, didn't I?"
I carefully put down the headlight and stood, saying, "Then you and I have a little project, chibikko."
"Project?" Skuld blinked, then returned to her furious scowl. "Hey! Don't call me 'chibikko'!"
"Remember that one," Angel muttered to Urd. "She hates 'chibikko.'"
"Yeah, a project, chibikko." I jabbed a finger at her. "You are going to put my bike back together. And I am going to watch you every minute it takes, to make sure you do it right — no cutting corners, no leaving things out."
"No way!" she shouted at me. "It's your bike, you put it back together!"
"Listen to me, you little brat," I growled, losing some of my self-control and reaching for her. I wanted to pick her up and shake some sense into her — again! — but before I could do more than raise my hands I felt a large, unfriendly grip clamp onto the back of my neck. Right. Angel. Oh, fuck. I went limp and prepared for pain.
"Chris, that's unnecessary," Verdandi said mildly. After a couple of seconds, the pressure released and the hand lifted. Verdandi then repositioned herself precisely half-way between Skuld and me. She smiled at the big man behind me, then laid one hand on the brat's shoulder and the other on my forearm. "I believe you've more than adequately made your point, Sangnoir-san," she said in a tone that all but oozed peace and serenity.
There was no reproach in it at all, but suddenly I felt more than a little ashamed. I was a guest, after all, and I had been treated well. They needn't have brought me in and cared for me after my fight with Angel; they would have been justified in just dumping me at the curb with a note reading "Go away!" pinned to my chest. But they hadn't done that; instead they tended me, and let me bathe, and fed me. Even though Skuld had vandalized my bike, I had no call to start acting like a complete asshole to her and to my hosts.
I closed my eyes and took a long, deep breath before opening them again. "You're quite right, Verdandi-sama. I'm out of line. It's just..." It's just that I fear and hate all gods but one, and four of you are surrounding me, and one of you has just demolished one of the few possessions I can carry with me from world to world, and another of you clearly wants to kill me, and dammitall I just want to make it home and why can't I, dammit, why can't I? Instead of letting all of that spill out, I took another long, deep breath and fought back the sob that threatened to emerge in its stead.
When I thought I could trust my own voice not to crack or tremble, I continued, "I apologize for my behavior, Verdandi-sama." I bowed respectfully to her, then stood up straight again and caught Skuld's eyes with mine. "But I mean it — I need my motorcycle intact."
Off to the side, I caught the motion out of the corner of my eye as Verdandi nodded. "I understand," she said simply. "Skuld?"
"What?" the girl grunted petulantly.
"You will help Sangnoir-san reassemble his motorcycle." Verdandi's tone was quiet and reasonable — and once again held that steel.
"But, onee-sama..." Skuld whined.
"No, Skuld," the elder goddess interrupted. "You took it apart, it is only proper that you help repair it."
"Not just help," I added, a little bit of my anger coming back. "I want her to do the lion's share of the work." I looked over at Verdandi. "As penance."
If looks could maim, the one that Skuld shot me would have left me in a basket.
"Skuld," Verdandi said levelly, "I think you should promise Sangnoir-san that you will do as he asks."
Something about that innocuous little suggestion seemed to shock Skuld completely out of her snit. Her eyes went wide and she dropped the ratchet driver, which landed on the wooden floor with a dull thud. Behind me, Angel went "Huh!" From where she was perched on the counter, Urd made a sound that was something like, "oho!", a strange little hint of a smile playing on her lips.
"Belldandy?" Skuld whispered, disbelief evident in her tone.
"A promise, imouto-chan," Verdandi repeated.
I looked around. Keiichi was just as wide-eyed as Skuld; Megumi was merely confused. I returned my attention to Verdandi, who was patiently but determinedly waiting on her sister. "Okay," I muttered, mostly to myself, "what am I missing here?"
"Bell," Angel rumbled from over my shoulder, "are you telling her to do what I think you're telling her?" He sounded vaguely amused.
Verdandi ignored him. "Skuld?"
I glanced at the girl, and only with difficulty kept my own eyes from widening and my mouth from falling open. The little goddess was actually trembling. It was obvious that this was not just a two-bit, forget-it-when-it's-convenient promise that Verdandi was talking about. From the way Angel and Skuld were reacting, this was Something Else entirely.
Verdandi and Skuld exchanged gazes for a long, long moment, Skuld stunned and nervous-looking, Verdandi calm, almost placid. It didn't look like a war of wills, but evidently it was, because suddenly Skuld tore her eyes away and her shoulders slumped. "All right, onee-sama," she whispered.
Then she straightened up, drawing back together a little of the rambunctious spirit she had possessed earlier, and settled her eyes on me — eyes that suddenly were no longer those of a thirteen-year-old girl, but those of the Celestial I had come to call "The Child". If I hadn't realized before then that this was something more than a simple agreement between us, I would have figured it out when I saw that.
"Once again you try to compel Us," she said in a voice that rang heavily with tones that did not come from her vocal cords, tones that made it seem as if two people were speaking, not one. "Very well, Douglas Quincy Sangnoir. What do you want My avatar to promise?"
Over my shoulder I heard Angel quietly whisper, "Okay, who the Fnord is that and what did she do with my little sister?"
He's a god and he doesn't know? flickered through my mind before the matter at hand took back my full attention.
Mama didn't raise no fool. (Well, not in the sense of being stupid; it was sometimes appropriate in terms of a job title. But anyway.) Whatever I requested at this point would be binding, like a wish from a genie. And just like a wish, it probably would be interpreted as literally as possible. I nodded to her, and took a moment to organize my thoughts.
"I want her to do a significant share of the work," I said, addressing my comment to Verdandi, who seemed to have taken on the role of impartial arbitrator. "Not all, but a goodly amount. What do you think would be fair?"
Verdandi gave this some consideration. She looked at the merger of Skuld and Child, who nodded fractionally at some unspoken communication. Then she tilted her head to one side slightly. "Would you agree to half?" she asked.
I nodded. "That's fine with me." Then I turned my attention back to Skuld/Child. I fought the impulse to get all high-magic formal in my language, and instead phrased things as plainly as I could.
"Okay. This is what I want you to promise. That you'll honestly and sincerely work with me to restore my motorcycle to nothing less than the operating condition it was in when you took it apart, and that you will contribute no less than fifty percent of the labor necessary to do so. You also promise to abide by my decision as to what counts as its proper operating condition, and to follow my instructions as necessary to get it there. You further promise that you won't indulge in sabotage or other petty revenge against me via the motorcycle, especially after all the repairs are completed."
To the side, I was sure I heard Urd snort and mutter, "He knows her."
Skuld/Child was looking thoughtful as I got to the end of that. I knew I was leaving a bunch of holes in the promise, but I was only asking for what was fair and equitable, no more. Besides, I could handle attacks on my person, but the bike was very much something that I didn't want to risk. Just to sweeten the deal, though, and maybe earn some goodwill, I threw in a little quid-pro-quo. "Your promise, by the way, is contingent upon my own, made right now, not to jerk you around or make your job harder than it has to be." I nodded at Verdandi. "Your sister decides if I've broken my word on that. If I have, then you're freed from your promise. And finally I reserve the right to release you from your promise at my whim. Agreed?"
This got me raised eyebrows, from both Skuld and Verdandi. I suppressed a smile as I toted up one point for my side. After coming off like an angry jerk all evening, it was past time to show that I could be reasonable, too.
"Very well," Skuld/Child grudgingly agreed. Apparently the idea of any promise to me at all still rankled on her. "As witnessed in this place and time by my divine sisters and brother, I so promise."
At moment she said the words the marks on her face flashed a brilliant blue-white light, and I... felt something, something like a giant lock latching, or a huge light switch flipping — a vast, solid click that reverberated along the pathways of my mage senses. It was the first time I had ever gotten a tactile sensation from my metagift without using a song — a mage touch instead of the mage sight I was used to.
When I looked back at Skuld after that, she was herself again — just herself.
"How come my transformation just turns me into a killing machine, and hers turns her into that?" Angel muttered.
"Different thing. Later, Chris," Urd murmured.
I suppressed a laugh. The elder brother of the Norns sounded like a complete newbie at the god game, which both tickled my sense of humor and intrigued me no end. How could he register as a god to my magesight and yet have no knowledge of the transcendent overself that was the very definition of a god? It was almost as though he thought that the minuscule timeshares of the Three's attention that inhabited these avatars were all that they were.
Something really weird was happening here.
Back to the matter at hand, though. I looked around at all the pieces, and realized for the first time that, as haphazard as it looked at first glance, Skuld seemed to have laid them out in some organized manner. It wasn't the way I would have done it, and frankly, I didn't quite grasp the basis on which she'd done some of it, but I could see patterns in the way the parts had been distributed. Maybe things weren't as bad as I'd first thought.
Even so, it still wasn't going to be a quick job. I glanced around the workshop, trying to guesstimate how long it would take to get the bike back together, tested and working. I frowned; it was harder to figure than you might think — the only time the bike had ever been in this state was when I had been building it, all those years ago, and the original assembly time had been dictated by the combination of my budget and the speed with which I could design and fab up custom parts in the Ganbare and IDEC nanofacs.
Verdandi evidently saw my frown and misinterpreted it, for she laid her hand on my arm again. "Sangnoir-san, is there a problem?"
I roused myself from the near-fugue I'd entered and shook my head. "Oh, no, I'm just trying to figure out how long this will take."
"Ah." She tilted her head and looked at her younger sister. "Skuld, what would you say?"
The girl's face took on a look of thoughtful consideration that she held for some seconds as she surveyed the room in exactly the same way I had. "Two weeks, maybe three," she finally replied. "Longer if we have to find or make new parts." She very carefully did not look at me.
Sorry, kid, but I think that's a bit optimistic. "This is a hand-built custom mod based on a 2015 Mitsubishi Nightblade frame from another universe entirely," I said as calmly and softly as I could manage. "Most of the engine components are individual giant molecules that were built atom-by-single-atom in a nanofabrication tank. It was finished with an electrically-sensitive paint that probably won't be invented here until the early twenty-first century." Behind me, I heard someone whistle. "It took me over half a year to build it."
"Okay," Skuld grudgingly admitted. "Maybe a little more than three weeks." I rolled my eyes.
Keiichi stepped up for the first time since we'd all entered the shed. "Sangnoir-san, if you'll have me I'd be happy help out with the reassembly," he offered without hesitation, and then shot me a sheepish grin. "Have to admit I'm really interested in learning what I can from your bike."
"Me, too," his sister added. "No way I'm going to miss out on this kind of opportunity."
"Sure," I said, returning Keiichi's grin and sharing it with Megumi. "The more the merrier, as long as Skuld here still does half the work herself." I decided I liked this guy, and I hoped for his sake that Verdandi really wasn't jerking him around for her own jollies. His sister seemed like a good egg, too, under all the shock of the day's revelations.
I looked over at Angel. "You going in, too?"
He grinned and shook his head. "I'm not a gearhead like the rest of this gang — I'm a computer geek."
I grinned back at him. "You'll probably want to take a look at my autopilot, then." I smirked. "That is, unless you're not interested in checking out some early-21st century silicon."
He gave me a half-lidded stare. "Slick. We'll talk."
Hearing that, the middle Norn laughed and nodded once more. "Very well. How long with Keiichi and Megumi's help, Skuld?"
Yet another scowl flitted across Skuld's face before she returned to the thoughtful expression. "It should make it quicker, I think, but I don't know how much. It depends on a lot of variables."
"Either way, at least a few weeks. Fair enough," I said. "We'll start on it first thing in the morning?"
Skuld shook her head. "Can't. I've got classes."
I raised an eyebrow. "You go to school?"
"I go to college," she snapped at me. "Nekomi Tech, like 'Niichan and Keiichi and Megumi."
"Well, pardon me!" I said with only the faintest sarcasm. "After lunch, then?"
Slowly, Skuld nodded. "Yeah. That'd work."
"Well, then," her sister continued. "Everything's settled."
"Everything except where I'm crashing tonight," I said. Stepping around Skuld, I picked my way through the pieces of my motorcycle to reach the panniers. For a moment, I considered the sword, but decided that it would have to wait; taking it in hand now, even by the saya, might still be seen as a threat, despite the new armistice.
I turned back to the panniers, and popped open the one that would have normally been hanging on the rear of the bike. From it I pulled out the prepacked overnight bag that I had stashed in there for just this purpose, and let the lid drop shut with a muffled thump. With a rip of velcro I opened a side pocket on the bag and pulled out a clear plastic packet holding a pair of weathered gold coins, just to make sure it was still there.
I turned back to my audience — two mortals, four gods. "Would any of you know where there's a jeweler or coin shop where I could sell these for some local currency? And if there's a hotel or boarding house nearby?"
Keiichi and Verdandi exchanged a look that was heavy with private meaning. "You don't need to do that," he said a moment later.
"We'll be happy to put you up for as long as is needed," Verdandi chimed in. "After all, we're responsible for your situation."
"But...!" Skuld sputtered, and from her perch on the workbench, Urd chuckled.
"Besides," Keiichi continued, tag-team style. "It's too late — all the stores are closed. You won't be able to find someone to buy those until tomorrow morning at the earliest."
Verdandi nodded. "You would have to stay here tonight anyway, or else be out on the street. You wouldn't want that, would you?" There it was again! That tone my mother and grandmother had. Dammit.
"Well, no," I admitted reluctantly.
"And we do owe it to you to make up partly for Skuld's... prank." She was turning it on full-force, now, and had added a brilliant "aren't we all friends here?" smile to the mix.
I looked up over my shoulder at Angel, half-hoping the Turquoise Terror would make some kind of objection on the grounds that I was a threat to their precious bodily fluids or something, but he merely grinned with resigned amusement and shook his head at me. "If Belldandy's okay with it, I'm not going to argue," said he.
Okay, I know when I've had enough. But I wasn't going to take charity. Especially not from gods. I had enough claims on my soul as it was.
"I'm not a freeloader," I declared firmly. "I'll pay rent for the space I take here, and I'll contribute to the household budget." I held up the coins in their zip-seal bag. "This'll be my first payment, soon as I can sell'em."
Verdandi and Keiichi traded another look, this one pleased. "I think that's fair enough," he said, turning back to me.
I allowed myself a smile. "I'll help out around the house, too, if you want, when I'm not working on the bike."
"Oh, that's not necessary," Verdandi declared with a dismissive wave.
"Maybe, maybe not. We'll see." I looked back and forth between them, then glanced at the others to see if there were any objections beyond Skuld's. None. Cool. "Then we have a deal?"
"We have a deal," Keiichi said confidently.
And that was that. Freed from all the attention and drama, Skuld eagerly scampered out the door, tugging Angel along behind her with a deathgrip on his arm. In a moment they had vanished into the dark, followed by a sauntering and smirking Urd.
Overnight bag in hand, I tiptoed around my motorcycle's parts until I stood once more in the middle of the floor. I stopped for a moment, looked around at Skuld's handiwork again, and sighed.
"Something wrong, Sangnoir-san?"
I looked up. Verdandi stood at the door, alone. While I had been giving in to my maudlin moment, Keiichi and Megumi had apparently left as well, leaving us the last two in the shed.
"Yes," I said. "No. I don't know." I made a face at my own indecisiveness, and picked my way through the rest of the floor to stand beside the goddess. "Usually my first night in a new universe has a little less in the way of emotional upheaval."
She made a wordless "I see" noise as we stepped out into the yard. As I reached back into the shed to shut off the light, she asked, "Have you had many? First nights, that is?"
With a click the light went off, and we were plunged into a near-darkness alleviated only by starlight and the warm yellow windows of the house fifty meters or so away. "More than I'd like, Verdandi-sama," I replied. As we waited for our vision to adjust, I groped for the shed door and shut it. The sound of its latch catching was almost inaudible amidst the chirps of nighttime insects and the distant rumble of traffic. "I'll tell the whole story over breakfast tomorrow, if you like, but the short version is, I'm lost, terribly lost, and I'm trying to find my way home. I've been trying for the best part of a decade, and failing." I blinked back a sudden stinging in my eyes and added, "But you would know that, wouldn't you?"
"Actually, no." Evidently her eyes had already adapted to the darkness; she slid her arm through mine and began to lead me back toward the house. "I know what you must think, but we operate in this world and those like it under very strict rules, quite unlike the ones you're used to, I'm sure. Most of our power is sealed away, and yes, that includes reading minds and even the more limited forms of omniscience. Without going to Yggdrasil for a report on you, I know nothing more than you decide to tell me, save that my overself has had some dealings with you in the past."
"That's for sure," I muttered. Then I stopped short. "'Going to Yggdrasil for a report'?" I parroted. "Yggdrasil the world tree?"
I sensed, rather than saw, the smile. "Once, yes. Now, it's... well... think of it as Heaven's Mainframe."
"Huh." I turned that concept over in my head. "I guess things really do work differently in this universe. I suppose I'd better check my assumptions at the door, eh, Verdandi-sama?"
She actually giggled. "It would certainly help. And please, Sangnoir-san," she added, "just call me Belldandy. While the respect is flattering, it's not at all necessary."
Slowly I nodded. "All right." Then, despite the sick sense of foreboding I had, I added, as I had with Keiichi earlier, "But only if you call me Doug. All my friends do."
Belldandy favored me with that gob-smacking smile of hers again, visible even in the faint light from the house. "Certainly, Doug. Now come on in. We have to set up your room."
I returned the smile as best I could, despite my fears. "In just a couple minutes, please, Belldandy-san. I think I'd like to take a few moments to look at the stars before I go in, if you don't mind."
"Not at all." She disengaged her arm, and then squeezed my hand. "Take your time."
"Thank you," I said. She smiled again, and went into the house. I turned around and walked back out into the middle of the yard. I made my way through the drifts and piles of junk, which I took a moment to survey and puzzle over. I still hadn't gotten an explanation for that yet.
When I was far enough, I turned around and studied the house, which at this hour was defined more by the light that shone through its windows and doors than by the shape of its roof and walls. Figures moved within, silhouetted mostly — the little community of enigmas and curiosities into which I had found myself inserted. Dangerous enigmas and curiosities, I reminded myself, one of whom I was now bound to by means and reasons I didn't entirely understand.
I concentrated for a moment and slipped into magesight. Now the patterns of light and darkness were vastly different. The buildings around me glowed with the power that they had absorbed over time from their inhabitants, but that light was nothing compared to the six within. Mortal and divine souls alike blazed with golden fire to my inner sight, with only the triple helix of colors at their hearts to distinguish the immortals. And not far away, in the center of the largest building in the yard, was the mysterious source of power. I took a moment to study it. The building itself was little more than a blocky shadow in the night; by contrast, the mysterious construct of mystic energy within it was easily distinguishable, if not classifiable. More than a ley line, but not a node, not by any definition I knew. It was something completely out of my experience. I knew I'd have to look into it, but not tonight. I had, at the very least, two or three weeks. I had time.
I found that I didn't want to lie to Belldandy, not even by accident, so I slipped back out of magesight and looked up at the sky. I spent a few minutes trying to make out familiar constellations and the fainter stars against the light-wash of the community that presumably existed outside the walls of the compound. I tried as well to come to terms with my situation.
Well. I had shelter. And the company of ... people ... among whom I didn't have to hide my identity, origin or metatalents. But I didn't have the freedom to leave, not if I wanted my cycle back in one piece any time soon. Skuld's promise held me here as much as it obligated her to help me.
It wasn't the worst position I could be in, not by a long shot. Hell, I could have come out in a place worse than MegaTokyo. Or I could have come out in an alley somewhere, gotten rolled and left for dead while I was still unconscious from the worldjump. Or both. Yeah, there were a lot worse possibilities, but I still resented the fact that, for the moment, I'd been deprived of my ability to decide my own course.
I turned back to the bright squares of light that revealed the house, and thought about it, and realized that so much could have gone wrong it was a surprise that events had turned out as well as they had. I could take some comfort in that, and in the fact that I was, well, if not entirely welcome, at least not unwelcome.
Maybe it wasn't my first choice, but it would do for now.
END OF CHAPTER ONE
This work of fiction is copyright © 2004, 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.
"Broot" and any representations thereof are copyright by and trademarks of Joseph Q. Avins.
"Crystal" and any representations thereof are copyright by and trademarks of Kathleen Mee Avins.
"Helene 'Wetter Hexe' Diedmeier" and any representations thereof are copyright by and trademarks of Helen Imre.
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Lyrics from "Freeze-Frame", recorded by the J. Geils Band, composed by Seth Justman and Peter Wolf, copyright © 1981, EMI/Capital.
These and all other quotes are included in this fiction without permission under the "fair use" provisions of international copyright law.
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Many thanks to our prereaders on this chapter: Kathleen Avins, Nathan Baxter, Ed Becerra, Andrew Carr, Kevin Cody, Logan Darklighter, Helen Imre, Josh Megerman, Berg Oswell, and Peggy Schroeck.
Special thanks to Logan "Foxboy" Goodhue, who came up with the title for this tale. Show your appreciation for his creativity by reading his excellent story, "I Was A Teenage Dummy Plug".
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