A/N: Still alive.

Chapter 18: The deal

Godou turned off the tap and knew something was wrong. The Hostess was never quiet, even when it was closed. Not unless there was nobody inside at all.

May liked to hum while she cooked. The waitresses were always eager to exchange whatever gossip they heard. The jingling of coins being counted, the rattling of cutlery in the drawers, the clinking of one glass hitting another—these simple sounds reminded Godou of the peaceful life he led. When there was nothing to be heard, he knew that peace was disturbed.

He was alone in the kitchen; May had gone to the bar to ask Mama Mia something. There was a knock on the kitchen door, and then Mama Mia poked her head through. "Godou, Freya is here to see you."

Godou put the pot he was washing down. Freya? What did the Queen of Orario want with him?

He wiped his hands and made his way out, his mind recalling his previous interactions with the goddess. None of them had been particularly pleasant; even the incident where she'd given him a Grimoire left a sour taste in his mouth.

May was standing outside the door. She flicked his side with her cat-tail.

"What did you do this time, Godou?" she hissed.

"I don't know," he whispered back.

His fellow chef harrumphed and nudged her head toward the group of people sitting in the middle of the Hostess. Well, only one person was sitting.

Ottar, as tall as ever, stood at the front, the sword strapped to his back nearly touching the ceiling. The rest seemed to be Pallums based on their height, but the masks and hooded cloaks they wore stopped Godou from learning anything more about them.

The lone person sitting peeled off their hood. Long, luscious silvery hair spilled out as Freya offered him a smile. "Hello, Kusanagi Godou. Won't you come and join this goddess for a drink?"

"I don't drink," Godou said, as politely as he could. And certainly not with you.

"You don't? I wonder what Loki sees in you. Still, I want to talk to you, drinks or not."

Godou looked at the others. They seemed more curious than irritated. Their work might have been interrupted, but this was Freya—her appearance anywhere on the streets of Orario could spark a weeks' worth of rumours.

"It won't take long, will it?" Godou asked.

"No. Not unless you want it to," Freya said, arching an eyebrow at him.

Godou was familiar with her tricks. He shut down her divine charm the moment it invaded him.

"Stop that," Godou said. "Just get straight to the point."

"As brusque as ever, aren't you?" Freya said. "I'd like to talk with you alone. Mia, if you and your girls could give us a few moments of privacy, I'd be very thankful. The rest of you, leave."

Ottar grunted and led the hooded adventurers out. Godou was about to object to chasing the Hostess's staff out of their own restaurant, but Mama Mia did exactly as she was told, literally pulling Syr out by the ear while the rest of the Hostess' crew followed.

"Did you know, Kusanagi Godou, I'm technically your boss as well?" Freya began. "I'm a co-owner of this place. When Mia retired and decided to set up a tavern, I didn't want her to spend her entire life savings on what might have been a failed business venture, so I chipped in."

"I see," Godou said. He understood what Freya was saying easily enough, but he didn't know why she was telling him this. Was she going to pull rank on him? Make him join an expedition of her own after Loki's success? Godou would rather resign from the Hostess if that were the case.

"Don't look so suspicious, Godou. I'm only telling you this because you seem to have a very bad impression of me."

"I wonder why," Godou said. Then he narrowed his eyes at her. "You're not trying to pull something funny while Loki's out of town, are you?"

Freya tilted her head at him. "My, Godou. You must really have a terrible opinion of me, if you think I'm so opportunistic. This has nothing to do with Loki. It barely has anything to do with you, in fact."

"Then?"

"Bell Cranel," Freya said. "This has everything to do with Bell Cranel."

Bell? What was Freya talking about? Bell was in Hestia's Familia.

"I want you to stay away from Bell Cranel," Freya said. "To never interfere with his life anymore."

Godou frowned. "I've never—"

"Not yet. But you are beginning to. Bell Cranel looks up to you. Right now, you are his inspiration. It used to be Ais Wallenstein, but I don't know what you've said to him… but it was enough. Tell me, Kusanagi Godou, do you want someone like Bell Cranel to turn into someone like you? Someone satisfied with cleaning and cooking for the rest of his life?"

"I…" Godou clenched his fists. Bell was still young. He had a lifetime ahead of him, with aspirations and hopes. Godou didn't want any of that go to waste. "No, I don't."

"Good, we agree," Freya said. "You watched his battle with the Minotaur, didn't you? What do you think?"

"He has… potential," Godou said. A tremendous amount of it, but he didn't want to say that to Freya. He could see, just from her face, that she was fishing for that line. The flash of lust on her face had been brief, but noticeable.

"Bell Cranel has just become the fastest adventurer to Level Up. His journey is only beginning. A path full of opportunities and trials lay ahead of him. We wouldn't want that to be cut short by someone who has already walked and completed his own path, do we?"

Godou frowned. "I wouldn't do that."

Freya rolled her eyes. "The strongest mortal in Orario, serving fried pork chops and washing dishes for a living. Hates stepping into the Dungeon. What kind of message do you think you're sending to Bell?"

He didn't want to admit Freya had a point. "Why do you care about Bell, anyway? He's not in your Familia."

"I keep an eye out for any talented adventurer," Freya said. "And make sure they have the opportunities to realize their potential."

"The Grimoire…" Godou said.

"Yes. Back then, I was still choosing between you and Bell. So, I had you make the choice for me. You made the right one, Kusanagi Godou. I'm still curious about you, but unlike Loki, I know not to drift too close to a flame that might burn me. You can relax, I won't try to steal you away from Loki."

An alarming thought hit Godou. Would Freya really? He couldn't count the possibility out. She seemed like the kind of God who would do such a thing.

"I'll make you a deal, Lady Freya. I'll stay away from Bell Cranel on one condition."

"And what is that?" Freya asked.

"That you swear never to get in the way of Bell and Hestia."

Freya looked at him with wide, blinking eyes. Then she smiled. "I may have misjudged you, Kusanagi Godou. I think I can manage that."

XxXxXxXxX

Godou knew something was wrong when the door to the Hostess slammed open. They weren't even open yet.

"Oi! Is Kusanagi Godou in?"

Twice, in one day?

This time it was Syr who popped her head into the kitchen. "Godou, Tsubaki and Lady Hephaistos are here to see you."

Next to him, May frowned. "What do all these goddesses suddenly want with you?"

"I don't know. I'm just as annoyed as you are. Sorry May, looks like I have to leave these onions to you."

Like he expected, May looked displeased, and Godou took his cue to leave when she began slicing into his share of the onions with slightly more force than necessary.

At the door, Syr smirked. "Look at all these goddesses lining up now that Loki's gone, Godou. I wonder what she'll do if she finds out."

"She won't find out, right Syr?" Godou said, smiling at her. "Because if she does, Mama Mia's going to find out you've been chucking your punishments to Bell Cranel."

Syr paled and dashed into the kitchen, no doubt to complain to May.

"Oi, Godou! Over here!" Tsubaki waved to him.

There was another woman with her. With red shoulder-length hair and an eyepatch, Godou vaguely recognized Hephaistos, his mind drifting back to his first few days in Orario, the only other time he'd met the goddess.

He wondered why they were here. The Hephaistos Familia were regulars of another tavern. Something to do with the Expedition? When had he drawn the attention of Tsubaki—

Of course. Ascalon. Lancelot. Ame no Murakumo no Tsurugi. Tsubaki had seen all of them. Loki had made her promise not to tell anyone but… Tsubaki was a blacksmith, and Hephaistos was the blacksmith.

"Lady Hephaistos, Tsubaki," Godou greeted, going closer. "We're closed, unfortunately."

"That's not a problem," Tsubaki said, pulling a chair out for him. "We're not here to eat or drink anything."

He sighed and took a seat. That was precisely Godou's definition of a problem.

"We won't take long," Hephaistos said to him. "I just came here to thank you."

Godou blinked. "What for?"

"For keeping Tsubaki safe in the Expedition. She won't tell me the details, but it sounds as if you saved her life."

"He sure did," Tsubaki said, winking at him. "Remember when you used that thing to defeat that other thing when we were at that place? I thought we were toast for sure!"

Godou could only assume she was referring to the incident with Ascalon and the Three-Headed-Dragon. He smiled—Tsubaki had kept her word after all. "Yes, I remember that."

Then he turned to Hephaistos. The goddess was holding a knife, still in its cover, and presenting it to him like it was a gift.

"What's this?" he asked.

"A token of my appreciation. It's nothing too fancy, just a simple knife I made with the surplus of materials we got from the Expedition."

Godou accepted it. Hephaistos was right. It did look simple, and it probably hadn't taken her more than two days to make. The only thing that differentiated it from other run-of-the-mill daggers was the personal seal of Hephaistos on it. Godou wasn't up to date with adventurer supplies and equipment, but he knew that anything personally hand-crafted by the blacksmith God was worth more than the average adventurer's yearly wages.

"Thank you," he said.

Hephaistos shrugged. "You saved Tsubaki's life. It's the least I could have done."

He shook his head. "In all honesty, she wouldn't have needed saving if I hadn't been there. It's my fault the Expedition was so dangerous in the first place." The Black Monster Rex only appeared because of him, after all.

The dagger in his hand grew heavier as Hephaistos' lone eye trailed up and down his body. He wondered if she would ask for it back. It would be in bad taste on the goddess' part, but Godou didn't think he deserved something as valuable as this, given the trouble he'd caused the Expedition anyway. He was more than willing to return it.

"You really are perfect for Loki, aren't you?" Hephaistos said.

"Huh?" was Godou's intelligent reply.

"As someone that consistently likes making trouble for others, it's only natural she'd pick a partner who enjoys blaming himself for everything bad that happens around him."

"I don't—"

"But what do I know?" Hephaistos said, standing up. "I'm just a blacksmith goddesses. I came here to give you my thanks, not to critique your masochistic life choices."

"I'm not—"

"Tsubaki, I'll be waiting outside. See ya, Kusanagi Godou. I won't mind, by the way, if you only use that knife to chop up vegetables and meat. That's what I made it for, anyway."

Godou was speechless as Hephaistos left.

"Did...did I make her mad?" Godou asked Tsubaki.

"Nah. She's just in a rush to return to her forge. She doesn't like dragging out conversations any longer than they need to be." The Hephaistos Familia captain stood up as well. "But yeah, that's all we came here to do. Sorry to interrupt your work, but Hephaistos didn't want to drop by when you had actual customers to serve."

"Tsubaki," Godou called, before she left. "Thanks for keeping everything you saw a secret, even from your own goddess."

She waved him off dismissively. "You saved my life, Kusanagi Godou. Keeping your secrets is the least I can do. Though..." her gaze dropped to the knife and she grinned, "you can thank me for that. My goddess wanted to make you a sword at first, but, well...you got no need for one, do you?"

Godou chuckled. "No, I don't."

XxXxXxXxX

Much to Godou's relief, normality resumed with Hephaistos' visit. Armed with his new divine kitchen knife, Godou tackled life one dish at a time, just the way he liked it. The Expedition hadn't affected his kitchen skills. He and May were still able to work in tandem to fill the stomachs of the Hostess' customers. Slowly but surely, his life fell back into the rhythm of a simple chef.

When news reached him that another Black Goliath had spawned in the Dungeon, Godou's first reaction was relief—it wasn't his fault this time!

But when he heard Bell Cranel had played an instrumental part in defeating it, he was reminded of his deal with Freya. He remembered when Bell was a nobody. Now, the newly-christened Little Rookie was making waves in Orario's adventurer circles. He was advancing at a pace nobody, not even Godou, thought possible, but Godou found his mind occupied by Freya instead.

Information on Freya was scarce. The goddess kept to herself most of the time, isolating herself in her residence at the top of Babel Tower. Godou only knew that she chose the most talented and promising adventurers to be in her Familia.

He couldn't help but dwell on what Freya had said about helping adventurers realize their potential. What did that mean, especially when Bell wasn't even in her Familia? She'd orchestrated the whole Grimoire incident, could there have been more?

His knife stopped just millimetres above the slab of pork. The Minotaur!

Ottar had been there, right when and where Bell was fighting it. The Minotaur had no business in being in such a high Floor in the first place! And the result? Bell had broken Ais' record for the fastest Level Up. The whole thing stank of a scheme.

He cursed silently. He should have realized this sooner. Was the Black Goliath this time another event planned by Freya to push Bell to his limits?

Freya was toying with lives here. He'd always been wary of Freya and now he knew why. She was ruthless, the kind of God that stopped at nothing to achieve their goal, and even if Freya's goal sounded noble, Godou refused to agree with her 'ends-justify-the-means' approach. Still, not all was lost. At the very least, Freya wouldn't get in the way of Bell and Hestia, but that was assuming Freya could be trusted in the first place.

If she wasn't and she ever crossed a line... well... his grip around his knife tightened. Godou had agreed not to go near Bell. He hadn't said anything from staying away from Freya herself.

May walked into the kitchen, mumbling something under her breath, and shaking Godou out of his thoughts.

"What did you say, May?" he asked.

"Nothing," May said, putting on her apron. "I just realized that we've been getting a lot of Apollo Familia customers recently."

XxXxXxXxX

A/N: Favs, follows, reviews, likes, PMs are always welcome and are the best form of encouragement!

Also, my Pokemon Fanfic (my secondary, stress-relief fic) is steadily picking up steam, so if you're even mildly interested in Pokemon and haven't read it yet, give "Alola, Galar!" a go, please!