MISTLETOE
Kakusha Regency Ballroom
23 December - 20:12

---

"Oh, Loki-kun!" Mayura sang out. "Look what I've got!"

He glanced up at the little branch she was dangling over his head, then gave her a questioning look, one eyebrow raised. "It's mistletoe," he said.

"That's right!" she beamed. "And you know what mistletoe means, right?"

Loki sighed. "Of course I do," he said. "Couples who meet under the mistletoe are supposed to kiss."

"Exactly!" Mayura leaned down to Loki's eye level and puckered up.

But he ignored her, choosing instead to take another bite of the enormous fudge brownie he'd gotten from the dessert buffet. He chewed and swallowed, then said, "but that's not all mistletoe is, you know. Are you aware of the significance of mistletoe in the Norse mythology, Mayura?"

"Oh, not that again," she pouted. "Those stories are always so depressing."

"An arrow made of mistletoe," Loki said, "was used by..."

"Don't tell me!" Mayura straightened up and snatched the sprig away. "Loki-kun, you are such a wet blanket! I can't believe you're going on about that modly old stuff when Kotarou-kun was nice enough to invite us all to his father's Christmas party!" She gestured around at the hotel ballroom, full of men, women, and children in their holiday finery. A string quartet was playing, and people were laughing and dancing.

"Am I?" asked Loki. "What I can't believe is that somebody so interested in the mysterious doesn't want to hear about mythology."

"Mythology is all made up," Mayura told him firmly. "Not like ghosts and Egyptian tomb curses and the abominable snowman - those are real! If you're not going to be any fun," she declared, "then I'm just going to go find somebody else to talk to." She hiked up the skirts of her blue party gown. "There're tons of guys here - and you just lost your chance to be the first to kiss the belle of the ball!"

"Have it your way." Loki shrugged and went back to his brownie.

The next male friend Mayura spotted, halfway up the buffet table, was Yamino. She trotted up and held the mistletoe over her head, clearing her throat. "Oh, Yamino-kun!"

He turned around and blinked at her, mouth full to bursting. "Mmmrgl!" he said, holding up a hand to tell her to wait. It took him a moment to finish with his mouthful, then he grinned and said, "Mayura-san! Have you tried this fruitcake?" He held out a slide. "It's marvellous!"

"Er - no," said Mayura, who didn't particularly like fruitcake. "But look what I've got!" She held the mistletoe in his face.

Before he could reply, however, a woman popped up from behind the table. "You like my fruitcake?" she asked eagerly.

"I do!" said Yamino, ignoring Mayura entirely. "You must tell me your secret!"

The woman looked both ways, then leaned in to confide it to him. "It's the rum," she said. "You have to use the very best, imported directly from Jamaica!"

"Do you get it through mail order?" asked Yamino.

"How did you know?" The cook's eyes widened. "Here," she pulled out a notepad. "Let me get you the address."

Yamino hadn't even noticed the mistletoe. Mayura turned away, shoulders hunched in a sulk, and looked around the room. She could see Kotarou, hobnobbing with a bunch of older girls in tight pink gowns, but she didn't really want to ask him for a kiss... not when he kept going out of his way to point out that she was not the prettiest girl in their year of school. But there didn't appear to be anybody else she knew...

... and then she spotted a familiar face. Mr. Kakinouchi had hired a Santa Claus for the evening - the man was sitting in a corner of the room, which children lined up to sit on his knee and recieve a present. Beside him, a boy in an elf costume was handing out candy canes.. Mayura smiled and bounced over.

"Oh, Narugami-kun!" she called.

He glanced up. "Not now, Daidouji," he said, rummaging through a bag of candy. "I'm working."

Mayura huffed and turned away. "Is there even one guy here who will kiss me?" she demanded of the room in general.

"I'll kiss you," said a voice by her elbow.

She jumped, startled, then looked down and found a seven-year-old boy smiling up at her. A fringe of dark hair covered one eye, and he was dressed not in the formal clothing appropriate to the occasion, but a casual shirt and shorts, with big leather gloves on his hands.

"Oh, Ka... Kazumi-kun, isn't it?" asked Mayura. She'd met him before - he was the only friend Loki seemed to have who was near to his own age, but there was something a tiny bit unnerving about him. "I didn't know you were here," she said. He'd already kissed her; in fact, he'd done so the day he met her, explaining that he'd been staying in a country where people kissed as a greeting. It had startled and upset her at the time, and she wasn't too eager for a repeat of the incident.

"I'm here to see some old friends," the boy replied innocently. "In fact, if you don't mind, I need to borrow Narugami-san for a moment." He stepped pased her.

"I'm working," Narugami repeated, but by this time he was standing up straight, a wary expression on his face. Mayura saw his eyes flick over to his bokken, leaning in the corner behind the Santa Claus' chair.

"I'll only take a moment," said kazumi. He took Narugami's arm and firmly escorted him behind the display - leaving Mayura standing there, still unkissed.

"Well, poo to you two, as well!" she said, sticking her tongue out at them. And then, having exhausted the other options, she stalked off to catch up with Kotarou.

---

Thor's hand tightened around Mjollnir as he and Heimdall faced one another in the tiny space behind the Santa Claus display. "What is it this time?" he asked.

"Was she carrying mistletoe?" asked Heimdall, glancing back at Mayura. "That's ironic."

"What are you doing here?" Thor asked again.

"Odin's orders," said Heimdall. "I'm here for your little brother."

Thor froze. "You know?" he asked.

"Of course I do." Heimdall rolled his eye. "It's only the most obvious thing in the world. I need you to promise me that you won't interfere."

But Thor shook his head. "Odin's orders, you said?"

"Yes," said Heimdall. "Out of my hands."

"You don't have to obey him, you know. None of us do."

Heimdall eyed Thor's elf costume, with its curly-toed shoes and the jingle bell on the end of the hat. "No offense," he said, "but I'd rather not end up like you. Do you promise you'll keep out of it."

"I'm not promising you anything," said Thor. "I do what I want, not what Odin or anybody else orders."

"And that's why you're wearing a silly hat at minimum wage," Heimdall snorted.

"I earn every yet on it," Thor informed him proudly.

"Have it your way," said Heimdall. He shrugged and turned to leave. "Really I doubt there's anything you could do about it anyway."

"Watch me," Thor told him darkly.

"Oh, I do," said Heimdall. "I do."

---

"Oh, Kotarou-kun!" called Mayura, and got her first actual reaction of the evening. Her classmate looked up at the mistletoe, blinked twice, and then let out a strangled, unhappy yelp. Mayura jumped back, startled. Kotarou never lost his cool, not even for a moment... what on earth had upset him?

"Get that away from me," he ordered, pointing at the mistletoe.

"What?" Mayura looked at the sprig. "It's only mistletoe."

"I'm allergic to mistletoe," Kotarou informed her huffily, as if she ought to have known that. He stood up straight, adjusting his clothing and trying to regain his composure. "The last time I touched it, I was in the hospital for days."

"Really?" asked Mayura. "That seems like a weird thing to be allergic to."

Kotarou shrugged. "It does, doesn't it? Other than that, I've never been sick a day in my life. So take it away, please."

"Oh, no, it's okay." Mayura showed him the sprig. "See? It's just plastic."

"Pla... oh." Kotarou deflated. "Well, even so..."

"Plastic?" asked a voice by Mayura's elbow. "Well! No wonder you're not getting any kisses!"

Mayura jumped. "Kazumi-kun!" she exclaimed, looking down at the speaker. "You shouldn't sneak up like that!"

Kotarou frowned as he looked Kazumi over, casting a very disapproving eye on the newcomer's casual clothing. "Who is this?" he asked Mayura. "Was he invited."

"Higashiyama Kazumi," the boy introduced himself pleasantly. "I'm a friend of Loki's." He looked at Mayura. "I don't suppose, Mayura, that Loki has ever told you the old folktale about the mistletoe."

"He was talking about that earlier this evening," said Mayura. "But I don't want to hear it."

"I do," said Kotarou unexpectedly. "Tell it to me."

Kazumi smiled as if he were keeping a secret. "Long ago," he said, "Odin and Frigga, the King and Queen of the Norse gods, had two sons. The elder one, Thor, was a great warrior - but the younger was the one their parents loved best. His name was Baldr."

"Kotarou-kun," said Mayura, "you really don't want to listen to this. These stories always have awful endings, and..."

"If I didn't want to hear it, I would't have asked him to tell it," said Kotarou rudely. "If you don't want to listen, then nobody's making you stay. Go on, Higashiyama-kun."

"One night," Kazumi continued, "Baldr had a terrible nightmare. He dreamed that somebody was trying to murder him, and since the dreams of gods often foretell the future, he worried that it was an omen. He shut himself up in his room for days on end, to keep potential assassins out. Odin and Frigga grew very worried about him, and although at first he didn't want to tell them his dream, eventually they persuaded him. It frightened them, too, and so Frigga set out to make sure the dream would never come true."

There was something strange in Kazumi's voice and face; he seemed suddenly larger, and even a little bit frightening. Mayura had noticed, of course, that Loki and Kazumi rarely behaved like children, but she was used to them... or so she'd thought. Now for no apparent reason it had become creepy. There was something horribly unnatural about this little boy calmly talling a story as if he were a teacher and Mayura and Kotarou his students. She wanted to do as Kotarou had suggested and leave, but she couldn't tear her eyes off Kazumi's Mona Lisa smile.

"For many nine years," he said, "Frigga wandered all the nine worlds, from Asgard where the gods dwelt to Niflhel in the depths of the underworld, making everybody and everything in them swear an oath never to harm her son. She got promises from the sea, from the sky, from the stones and the trees, and from every living thing she could think of. From the tiniest insects to the greatest monsters, one and all gave her their word that Baldr would come to no harm."

---

Loki was the first to notice that time was slowing down. The voices around him dropped an octave, and then stopped altogether as the air became still. A fly buzzing by slowed until Loki could watch its individual wingbeats, and then froze in place above his head. He waited until the world ground to a halt, then left the plate with his brownie in midair - it could hardly fall if there were no time passing for it to fall in - and went to see what was going on.

---

"When Frigga returned to Asgard," Kazumi continued, "she brought the good news that Baldr would now be safe forever, and the gods celebrated by holding a great tournament. They all fought against Baldr, first individually and then in groups, but none of them could harm him - not with weapons made from wood, metal, and stone that Frigga had exacted promises from. They threw knives and spears that fell out of the air before they reached him. Lions and wolves lay down and whimpered at Baldr's feet. The sea parted so as not to drown him, and falling rocks floated in the air, waiting for him to pass."

"Wow, Kazumi-kun," breathed Mayura. "I didn't know you were such a storyteller!"

He glanced at her. "I thought you weren't interested."

"I wasn't," she said, "but when you tell it like that..."

"Finish the story," said Kotarou. "I know he's going to die somehow. What happened?"

---

Thor was giving a candy cane to a smiling little girl with no front teeth when she suddenly froze in front of him. Puzzled, he waved a hand in front of her face, then knocked gently on her head, but neither garnered any response. He straightened up, figuring this must be some mischief of Heimdall's, and found that the ballroom seemed to have become a hall of waxworks. The man playing Santa Claus was frozen in mid ho-ho-ho. Even the smoke of one guest's cigarette was hanging motionless in midair.

Thor's jaw clenched. Damn it, what did Heimdall think he was doing?

He dropped the candy basket and grabbed Mjollnir. Hopefully, he could break this up and get back before time started again. Preventing the end of the universe wouldn't be much of a victory if he got docked pay for running off.

---

"Well," Kazumi explained, "one of the gods, Hod, was blind, so he couldn't participate in the duels. He sat sadly off by himself, until Loki, the god of trickery and lies, came and asked him if he didn't want to join in with the others. He said, 'it does not seem right to me that you sit always on the sidelines while others make merry. Come - I have made you an arrow. If you'll let me, I will guide your hand.' Hod agreed, and the other gods watched, laughing and applauding, while Loki helped him pull his bow. The arrow flew and struck Baldr in the heart, and he fell down dead at once."

---

Yamino had been hurriedly writing down the fruitcake recipe when the woman at the buffet suddenly stopped in midsentence. He straightened up and stared, puzzled, at her frozen face.

"Er - ma'am?" he asked carefully. "Are you all right?"

"Yamino!" Loki called. "Over here."

"Loki-sama?" Yamino looked around and spotted his charge, pushing through the forest of frozen human beings. "I'm coming!" he promised, and put his pen and paper down. "So sorry," he said to the silent cook. "This will only take a moment, and I'll be right back."

---

"But how could it kill him, when everything had sworn an oath not to?" asked Kotarou.

Kazumi smiled. "Do you know how mistletoe grows?" he asked. "It doesn't come in a bush like holly. It's a parasite - it attaches itself to another tree and strangles it. There was a sprig of it by the gates of Asgard, but Frigga had overlooked it because she thought it was a part of the tree it was growing in." He held out a gloved hand. "The mistletoe was angry and insulted about having been so ignored, and so it grew thorny and poisonous. And Loki made Hod's arrow out of that mistletoe."

He opened his hand to reveal a leaf and a berry. Before Mayura's astonished eyes, this tiny bit of a plant began growing - but not into a bush. Instead, it grew into a long straight shaft; an arrow, with fat white berries hanging below the wooden point, and waxy green leaves for the fletching. Heimdall grinned and held the arrow out, offering it to Kotarou, who stared at it in mesmerized horror. In spite of him, he found himself reaching to take the arrow, hand trembling as he...

"Stop, Kazumi-kun!" Mayura exclaimed. "I think we're all going to be kidnapped by aliens!"

Loki and Yamino pushed through the frozen crowd, with Narugami not far behind them, and stopped short at what they saw. There was Heimdall, holding the weapon that had killed Baldr, while Kotarou reached for it as if hypnotized... but Heimdall was looking at Mayura.

"Excuse me?" he asked.

"Look!" She pointed to the crowd. "While you were telling your story, everybody stopped! This is what happens when aliens come to take people away - they freeze everybody else in the room so that nobody will see! We're going to be floated out through the roof any second!"

Loki sighed and shook his head. "Mayura..." he began.

"Oh, I wish I'd brought my camera," said Mayura. "I wonder if they'll tie us to tables and take blood samples."

"Not now, Mayura." Loki stepped past her to face Heimdall.

"It's usually the greys that kidnap people," said Mayura, having apparently assumed the role of Abduction Tour Guide. "They're the short kind with the big black eyes. There's no need to be scared, because they just do their experiments and let us go... although they might probe us in the..."

"Mayura!" Loki and Heimdall said in unison, "Shut up!"

She closed her mouth, shocked.

Loki took a deep breath and spoke more gently. "We're not being kidnapped by aliens, Mayura," he said. "But I think it would be a good idea if you just..."

He was cut off by Kotarou's screaming.

Conversation ceased, and all eyes turned on Mayura's classmate. He was kneeling on the floor, clutching at his chest as if he were having a heart attack. His eyes were closed and his teeth clenched in pain... and was that blood sopaking into the front of his shirt?

"Shouldn't somebody help him?" Mayura asked anxiously. "Kotarou-kun? Kotarou-kun, are you..." she started to kneel next to him.

"Don't!" Loki grabbed her. "Don't touch him - you'll make it worse."

And perhaps he was right. Whatever had caused Kotarou's fit, it seemed to pass quickly. He remained motionless on hands and knees for a moment, gasping for breath, then slowly sat up. The others stood back and watched as he struggled to his feet. He stared at his hands as if he'd never seen them before, then looked up at his friends as if they were the aliens.

"Kotarou-kun?" asked Mayura. "Are you okay?"

He looked at her with sudden comprehension... and she had to take a step back. There was something in his face that she'd never seen before. She couldn't have described what it was. Kotarou had always acted like his rich father made him better than everybody else, but now he looked at her as if she was lower than dirt. He sniffed, to tell her that she was not worth his time. And then, he turned his gaze to Loki.

"Welcome back," said Loki, in his most sardonic voice. "I've been wondering what was taking you so long."

Kotarou snorted. "Who do you think you're fooling this time?" he asked.

"Fooling?" Loki said innocently. "What would make you think I'm fooling anybody, Baldr?"

"Hiding behind the face of a child!" Kotarou sneered. "Do you think that will keep me from killing you?"

"Oh, this?" Loki glancd down and shrugged. "Mayura likes me better this way. It has nothing to do with you."

Mayura blinked. "Um..." she said. "Loki-kun?"

But he held up a hand. "I want you to go home, Mayura," he said.

"But..." she glanced around at the frozen partygoers.

"No buts," said Loki. "Leave. I'll explain later."

"No," Mayura decided. "No, I'm not leaving. What's going on? What do you mean, I like you better this way?"

"Not now," Loki repeated.

"Yeah, not now," Kotarou said in a mocking voice. "Loki-kun and I have a fight to finish. He cheated the last time."

Where was Kazumi, Mayura suddenly wondered. While they were all watching Kotarou, he seemed to have disappeared.

"I cheated?" asked Loki. "I'm not the one whose mommy made all the swords promise not to hurt him. I just levelled the playing field a bit. That's what I do, you know," he added, sounding bored. "That's what tricksters are for. Somebody has to knock the gods off their high horses now and then."

"Shut up," said Kotarou through his teeth. "Are you going to give me the satisfaction of a fight, or do I have to cut you down where you are?"

Yamino came up and put his hands on Mayura's shoulders. "Mayura-san," he said, "I really think we should back up a little. This isn't going to be very pretty..."

Loki shrugged. "I don't like fighting," he said. "There are much betters ways to get what you want. But if you insist."

Mayura didn't see what happened then. It was as if she blinked, and the world changed while her eyes were closed. One moment they were in the brightly-lit ballroom full of happy - if time-frozen - partygoers, with Loki and Kotarou glaring at each other. The next, they were on a mist-shrouded plateau surrounded by mountain peaks. The air was icy-cold and moonlight sparkled on a few patches of half-melted snow that remained among short, dry grasses and a few half-starved pine and holly bushes. Yamino was still standing behind her, and Narugami was across from them, bokken in hand. In between was Kotarou, holding a long spear and facing the beautiful European boy who'd comforted Mayura while Loki had been missing. The one who'd told her he was a god.

"Much better," said Kotarou.

The red-haired boy raised Loki's scythe. "Then let's get on with it."

"Ladies first," Kotarou sneered.

Mayura almost couldn't make herself watch. Only the realization that she was right in the middle of the biggest, creepiest mystery she'd ever encountered kept her from covering her face as the two boys swung at each other. For a moment, she was certain that Kotarou's spear would take his opponent's head off. Then the scythe darted out, and the spear was caught in the curve of it.

Kotarou laughed. "You're fast!"

"It helps in my line of work," the red-haired boy said. He twisted the scythe, pulling the weapons out of the way, and kicked Kotarou in the stomach. The shorter boy went flying, but somehow managed to turn in midair like a cat and land on his feet.

"That was fun," he said. "Now, let's take this seriously."

Their weapons clashed again, sending sparks. Mayura was frozen, unable to think or speak as she watched them. She'd seen fencing in movies, but this was nothing like that. Actors fought with the goal of clashing their swords together as loudly and impressively as possible. These two were faster and fiercer, aiming not for the other's weapon but for his head, his legs, his hands. The parries were not for show but for survival.

Kotarou twirled the spear over his head, showing off his handling of it. "Do you know what this is, Loki?" he asked. "My father gave it to me!"

"Gungnir!" said the red-haired boy. "You never could fight your own fights, could you, Baldr?" He gave his opponent a very Loki-like wink, and Mayura remembered the first time she'd seen him - she'd tought he'd reminded her of somebody, but hadn't been able to think who it was. How had she managed to miss it? He and Loki could have been brothers. In fact, give Loki ten or twelve years to grow up, and they could have been twins.

"I hope you aren't giving me a lecture on hypocrisy!" said Baldr.

"Why not?" asked Loki. "You'd be the first to call me the expert!"

This wasn't possible. They were moving too fast, jumping too high. Not even in movies had Mayura ever seen anyone move like that. It would have looked fake if it hadn't been happening before her eyes. Baldr used the spear like a sword, slashing and thrusting with the foot-long metal tip of it, and then like a staff, blocking and parrying with the haft. Loki caught his opponent's neck in the curve of the scythe and twisted in a way that ought to have left Baldr's head lying on the ground several feet away, but Baldr somehow ducked out of it and spun away, laughing. Loki snarled at him, like some animal, then found an opening and swung the hook of the scythe into Baldr's stomach.

"Got you!" he exclaimed. Mayura covered her eyes. No matter how mysterious this was, she couldn't, simply couldn't, watch Kotarou be impaled.

But he wasn't. Instead of cutting him in half, the scythe broke.

Mayura looked up again in fascinated horror. The pieces of the weapon flew out of Loki's hands and fell with a metallic clatter onto the rocks. And while he stared at this in shock, Baldr laughed and swiped at him with the butt end of the spear, knocking Loki's legs out from underneath him.

"You forgot, didn't you?" he jeered. "After all that, Loki, you forgot! You can't hurt me with your weapon - it promised!" He laughed a horrible mocking laugh and raised his spear to drive it into Loki's heart.

"NO!" shrieked Mayura. She twisted herself out of Yamino's grip and dived between the two boys, holding her arms out to shield her friend. "Kotarou-kun! Don't! Please!"

He stopped cold - but not on her account. Narugami was behind him, twisting Baldr's free arm up behind his back.

"That's enough," said Narugami.

Baldr squirmed, but could not break Narugami's grip. He glanced back, then down at Mayura kneeling in front of him. "Stay out of this, mortals," he snarled. "You have no business interfering in the affairs of the gods!"

Narugami smirked. "That's all right," he said. "It took me a while to recognize you, too. But if you don't know me, you'll know this." He lowered his bokken to where Baldr could see it. "Mjollnir isn't wood or stone. It was forged by the dwarves out of the very bones of Ymir. And it answers to nobody but me."

Baldr's eyes widened. "Nii-san?"

Thor twisted his brother's arm harder. "Heimdall told me not to interfere," he said, "but I'm not about to let my little brother kill my best friend. Don't drag this out, Baldr. I have to get back to work."

"All I want is revenge," said Baldr. "You'll let him murder me, but I'm not allowed to return the favour?"

Loki got up and gently pushed Mayura out of his way. "If it's revenge you want, you've got the wrong god," he said. "You're looking for Hod."

"Don't be ridiculous," snapped Baldr. "Hod couldn't even see!"

"Which is why he asked me for help," said Loki calmly, brushing off his red jacket. "I thought it sounded like an interesting challenge, but it was Hod's idea."

"And why am I supposed to believe that Hod would have wanted to kill me?" Baldr asked.

"Nana," said Loki.

Mayura felt as if she were drowning in her own incomprehension. Hod and Loki and Baldr - those were names from the story Kazumi had been telling. But who was Nana? And how could Kotarou and Narugami be brothers... they didn't look alike. Kotarou's parents spoiled him silly while Narugami lived on his own and had, come to think of it, never even mentioned a mother or father. Mayura had always assumed that they were dead...

And there were no such things as gods.

"Nana?" asked Baldr.

"Hod and Nana were in love," said Loki.

Baldr turned purple. "Liar!" he hissed, struggling against Thor's grip. "Nana threw herself on my pyre!"

"Out of horror at what Hod had done, not out of love for you!" said Thor. "She couldn't stand the idea that the man she loved had become a murderer!"

"Why are you taking his side?" Baldr demanded.

"It's not a side!" Thor snarled back, "it's the truth! And if you kill him now, you're only doing exactly what Odin wants you to do! You've never understood that, have you? You've never noticed the way he arranges things to turn out the way he wants!"

"Shut up!" said Baldr.

"He's been trying to have Loki killed for months," said Thor. "He saved you for last because you've always been his favourite, but he's still using you. Just like he uses everybody and everything else. We are toys to him, Baldr."

"Shut up!" Baldr finally dragged his arm out of his brother's hand and turned around to face him. "You've always been jealous that Father loved me best!"

"And you've always been such a self-obsessed meathead that you can't see what's happening in front of your face!" Thor shot back. "Look at this! Look at us! Does any of this matter now? Look where we are! We are stuck in the mortal world, on this little island on the arse end of Midgard, and you're just..."

"That's his fault!" Baldr pointed an accusing finger at Loki.

"Stop it," Mayura heard herself plead.

No-one heard her.

"No, that's Odin's fault," said Thor. "He abandoned us both, centuries ago. Why should we take any part in his plans after he threw us to the wolves?"

"Stop it!" Mayura repeated, louder. "Please, everybody just stop... just stop it!"

The assembled gods - Loki, Thor, Baldr, and Jormungandr Midgarsorm - stopped their shouting, and turned to look at her.

She hung her head. "Please," she whimpered, "don't fight. This isn't a fun mystery, and I want to go home." She covered her face in the desperate effort not to cry. This couldn't possibly be happening. Any moment now, she was going to wake up in bed and find that this had all been a horrible nightmare inspired by too many of Loki's depressing European folktales. There were some places were mysteries simply didn't belong, and she would much rather have had friends and classmates - Loki and Yamino, Narugami and Kotarou - than all the mysteries in the world.

"Mayura," said a voice.

She sniffed and looked up, and there was Loki - her Loki, the strange little boy who inexplicably ran a detective agency - holding out his hand. Mayura took it, and Loki and Yamino pulled her to her feet. They were back in the ballroom, surrounded by talking, laughing people who didn't seem to have noticed that anything strange had happened. Narugami, in his ridiculous elf costume, and Kotarou, in his suit and tie, were glaring daggers at each other, but the only weapon in evidence was Narugami's familiar, harmless bokken.

"Yamino-san!" a woman's voice called. "Where'd you go?"

"Sorry, Miss!" Yamino said. "I'll be right back! I..." he glanced down at Loki for permission.

"Go ahead and get your recipe, Yamino," Loki said. "I think I'll take Mayura home."

"What?" asked Kotarou.

"Good night, Baldr," said Loki. "I'm sure I'll see you again soon."

"Wait!" said Kotarou, unable to believe his eyes and ears. "That's it? Your little girlfriend bursts into tears and you think you can just call everything off?"

"Mayura is not a part of this," said Loki firmly. "She never was, and it's not fair of us to drag her into it."

"Since when do you care?" Kotarou asked. "You're just looking for an out because you know you can't..."

Narugami put a hand on Kotarou's shoulder. "No," he said. "Loki is right. Daidouji should go home. And I," he added, "have to get back to work."

"Now wait a minute," Kotarou protested.

"Mr. Inoue and I will be at the Murakimi Shopping Centre tomorrow," said Narugami. "Main floor atrium. There's a big setup with stuffed reindeer and all that, you can't miss it. My break is from one-thirty to two. If you want to talk about this, we can do it then."

"But..." said Kotarou.

"I'll show up, too," said Loki.

"You have to promise not to smash up the place, though," Narugami added warningly. "I don't need to lose my job over this."

"Indeed," said Loki. "I'd much prefer to sit down and discuss this like civilized people."

"Now, listen here..." Kotarou said.

"The fight is over for tonight, Baldr," said Narugami. "I have to go." He hefted his bokken onto his shoulder, and set off to rejoin the Santa Claus.

Kotarou snorted. "I can't help but note," he said, "that Kakinouchi Kotarou is the son of the richest man in town, while Narugami Tooru has to scrape for every yen. Looks like even in exile, Father still likes me better."

"Looks that way," Narugami agreed calmly. He did not look back as he walked away.

"Good night, Baldr," said Loki. "You've been outvoted." He took Mayura's hand and firmly led her towards the door.

---

Mayura didn't talk to him as he got her coat and hailed a taxi for her. What could she have said? Where could she have even begun trying to figure out what had just happened? How could any of this possibly make sense? Besides... as long as she didn't talk about it, she could imagine it had all been in her head. If they started discussing it, if Loki agreed that it had actually happened, that would make it irretrievably real.

She climbed into the taxi, and he got in next to her - without a word of complaint, she noticed, about his carsickness - and took her hand. "Mayura?" he asked. "Are you all right?"

Mayura shook her head... and then found she couldn't stop herself anymore. "Loki-kun," she said, "who are you?"

"I told you," he replied. "I'm a god. Myself and Thor, Baldr, Frejr, Freja, and Heimdall. We are all gods."

"I don't believe in gods," said Mayura.

"I'm afraid we exist whether you believe in us or not," said Loki. "But I'm sorry you got involved in all of this. If... if you'd rather forget, I can arrange that. You can forget that any of this ever happened."

"No," said Mayura. "I don't want to forget." She wasn't sure why not, but she knew that she didn't.

"I didn't think you would," he said. "But I need to warn you, in that case: now that Baldr's been awakened, I probably won't be able to stay here much longer. I'm sorry."

"It's all right," said Mayura. She'd somehow suspected, really, that he would end up having to go. "Loki-kun?" she asked.

"Yes, Mayura?"

"Tell me about it. I want to know."

Loki looked straight ahead as the taxi drove off. "It's not a fun mystery, Mayura," he said. "It's about the beginning and end of the world."

She nodded. "I know. Tell me anyway."

"Very well," Loki sighed. "We'll go back to my house. When Yamino arrives, he can make tea, and then you'd best call your father and tell him you'll be home late. The story of the universe takes a while to tell."