1Disclaimer: AMG belongs to Kodansha and Masamichi Fujisawa belongs to Pioneer. Michael Coldsmith Briggs III is based on a character created by Donald Bellisario. "Edge of Seventeen" belongs to Stevie Nicks.
Dedication: To my wife, who I've always wished would be by my side.
Ah! My Goddess!
Keiichi felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to find Megumi standing next to him, her face as somber as his own. "You okay?" she asked.
He nodded. "Yeah. It's just that she was always the cool one, you know?"
Megumi nodded as they sat down across from an ornate wooden desk in the lawyer's office. Straightening his tie, he smiled. "Like when our other aunts would get us fuzzy sweaters, and she would always get us video games or go karts." A smile broke over his sister's face.
"That's what got us into the whole auto thing," she said. "That go kart she got you when you were twelve."
He nodded. "Yeah." The coversation broke as his Aunt Kimiko's lawyer sat down in front of them. He tuned in and out as the executor of his aunt's will carved up the pieces of her life and handed them out to assembled family and friends like the head of the table at Christmas dinner. He wasn't expecting anything, didn't want anything. Looking back, his Aunt Kimiko had given him more than enough throughout his life. His thoughts drifted to Belldandy. She had offered to come to Hokkaido with him, but he had asked her to stay. If she came, Urd and Skuld would insist on coming too.
Had it been anyone else's funeral, he wouldn't mind, but the last thing he wanted was for some scheme of Skuld's or some calculation from Urd to interrupt his goodbye to Aunt Kimiko. Belldandy had understood.
He felt Megumi elbow him in the side, and his head snapped up. "Yes?" he said stupidly.
The lawyer went on. "To Keiichi, I leave from my savings the sum of 1,000,000 yen." Keiichi nodded, but the lawyer wasn't finished. "There is a stipulation," the lawyer said, bringing the will up to read the fine print. "'Keiichi,'" he read, "'You've always been a good boy even to your boring old aunt. I saw a lot of your father in you, he himself a boring man...'"
Sitting on Keiichi's other side, his father arched an eyebrow. Keiichi smiled. If his Aunt Kimiko knew he was living with three goddesses and was occasionally hunted by demons, she might feel different.
"'I leave you this money with the stipulation that you use it on a bold endeavor. Do something you wouldn't do otherwise.'"
"Something bold?" Megumi asked. "Heck, for Keiichi that means going to the store and buying a gallon of milk!"
"There's more here," the lawyer said, squinting. "'Megumi, stop teasing Kei.'"
Keiichi drfited off again as Megumi insisted on reading the will herself... only to find that the words were really in there. Something bold? he thought. On the face of it, he didn't know what that was supposed to mean. Megumi was right. Most of the time, he thought his life could use a little less excitement. Just once he'd like to just be able to sit on the futon with a rented movie with Belldandy and not worry about demons coming out of the screen or Skuld turning him into a woman or any of the hundred other things that have happened in the two years he's known them.
Not that he was complaining. It's just that he wanted more with Belldandy, and try as he might, he couldn't make things connect. Whenever he worked up the nerve to say it, something came by and deflated him.
So be bold, he thought.
"Well, what are you doing up here?"
The cat, a black and white domestic with a long tail, looked up as the woman patted his head. He was a little surprised. Usually humans didn't follow him up trees.
Sitting on a branch twenty feet off the ground, Belldandy continued to pet that cat as her mind wandered. Keiichi wasn't due back for three more days, and despite the presence of her sisters, she found herself lonely.
No, not lonely. That wasn't right.
She let a hint of a frown cross her face as she pet the feline. It wasn't something she could lock in on, something Keiichi said or did was bothering her.
She pulled her hand away. The cat bit her! Giving her an almost evil cat-grin the animal scampered off.
Turning her head, she found Urd's inverted face looking back at her, her hair cascading down toward the ground. The goddess was hanging by her knees from the branch above.
"Just couldn't help noticing you haven't been your usual bouncy self lately. Miss Keiichi?"
Belldandy smiled slightly and nodded.
"Do you ever get tired of waiting for him?" Urd asked with an evil grin. "You know, I could always spike his drink. Make him more... bold..."
Urd blinked a moment later, astonished. No blush, no rise to the bait, no innocent question about what that offer meant despite both of them knowing exactly what it meant. Nothing.
"Urd... Do you think Keiichi didn't want to introduce me to his parents?"
Urd took a breath and flipped over until she was seated next to her sister. "Okay, what brings this up?"
Belldandy looked back at her. "I'm supposed to be by his side, but he insisted that I not come along."
The older goddess shrugged. "It's a funeral. Maybe he and Megumi just wanted to deal with it alone."
Belldandy nodded. "Yes, of course you're right."
Megumi regarded Keiichi as she sucked on the straw of her big gulp. He'd been quiet since they left the lawyer's office, Megumi herself taking the initiative and bringing him to their hometown mall to cheer him up. She hadn't realized their aunt's death was affecting him so much; then again, they had been rather close. Deciding to break the ice, she put a smile on. "So, what are you going to do with the money?" she asked.
She kicked herself for her lack of tact the second she said it, but surprisingly, Keiichi responded. "I'm going to do something," he said distantly. "Something I should have done a long time ago... I'm going to show Belldandy how I feel."
Oh my God! This is it! Megumi thought excitedly.
"I'm going to buy her a kitten," Keiichi said with a firm nod. "I think she'd like that."
Megumi blinked in utter horror. Her eyes narrowed a second later. "Keiichi, if I may, I'd like to express my feelings on that idea."
She reached across the table and punched him in the jaw.
"AAAAUGH!" Keichi cried, holding his jaw. "Auggghh! God! Wh...Why would you do that?! Auuggghhh!"
Megumi pressed her wounded knuckles against her big gulp, allowing the remaining ice to soothe them. "I really don't get you, Kei chan," she said. "All year you complain about what you would do if you just had the money. Now, here you are, with that exact opportunity to something great and life-changing presented to you by our dear dead aunt, and the very best you can do is a kitten?"
"Aaaaaaauuuuuughhh!" Keiichi was still complaining.
"Look, I know it seems harsh, but try to look at it from my perspective. As a woman, I naturally empathize more with Belldandy's feelings than I do yours." Megumi broke for a sip from her big gulp. "As a result, I know she, just like everyone else around you, is waiting for you to do something."
"Something like what?" Keiichi asked.
"ANYTHING!" Megumi cried. "You know what your problems is?" she asked, pointing an accusing finger at him. "You are so hung up about everything being perfect before you move that you never get anything done! And Belldandy is NOT going to wait forever!"
"Wait for what?"
"AUGH!" Megumi cried.
"You're starting to sound like Urd," Keiichi said, holding his own drink to his jaw.
"Look, I'll admit it, when you first knew each other the slow approach was the way to go," Megumi explained diplomatically. "But don't you think this bus needs a little gas to get where it's going?"
"What do you suggest?"
"If I have to tell you, it doesn't mean anything." With that, Megumi stood up. "I'm going to go see what's new at Megagamers. If I catch you in that pet store, I'll beat your ass!" With that, she stormed off, leaving Keiichi alone.
He sighed. He'd done it again. He'd wussed out at the last second like he always did. "Kitten?" he asked himself. "What's THAT all about? What the hell is wrong with me?" He put his face in his hands.
He knew what he wanted to say. What he was going to say right up to the last second. "I'm going to buy her a ring," he said to himself, as if proving that he could. "A ring. Not a kitten. Not a monkey. A ring. For the love of god, Keiichi, just go to Greenberg's, it's right there across the food court for the love of Christ, and buy a damn ring!"
"What if they're out of rings?" a tiny voice asked in his head.
"You know what?" he replied to it. "I hate you." Standing up, steeling himself for battle, he marched toward Greenbergs.
"I can't believe you bought a ring," Megumi said, shaking her head in wonder but her eyes remaining locked on the half-carat, marquis cut rock on the ring in front of her. "Kinda small, isn't it?"
"I'm on a budget," Keiichi retorted, closing the ring's box. "Besides, it's ten times the size of a ring I could afford without the inheritance."
"Okay, okay!" Megumi said dismissively, dropping the matter. "So... how are you going to do it?"
"Do it?" Keiichi asked. He tapped the box in thought. "I'm starting to think I shouldn't yet."
"What?! Are you stupid!?"
"Look, there's a bigger issue here," he explained. "Let's face it, our relationship isn't exactly 'normal.' A m...mmm... m..."
"The word is 'marriage,' Kei kun," Megumi said darkly.
"Right," he said. "It can have far-reaching consequences not only on our world, but in hers."
Keiichi pocketed the ring. "Before I do anything, I need to make sure I'm not going to get hit with a bolt of lightning just for suggesting the idea."
Megumi thought on this for a moment, then tentatively took a step away from Keiichi.
"Oh, gee, thanks," Keiichi told her.
"Well, what are you going to do then?" she asked. "It's not like you can go the old fashioned route and ask her father's permission."
Keiichi arched an eyebrow.
The radio sitting next to the sink was set to the oldies station, but Belldandy was tuning in and out to it as she washed the dishes. Normally, Keiichi would stand next to her and dry while she washed. It just didn't seem right to let them air dry.
She pushed a scrub brush into a glass as a familiar song played. Without realizing it, her hips started moving to the beat.
"And the days go by... like a strand... in the wind..." she whispered along, getting louder as she lost herself in the melody.
Finally, she broke down and just started singing into the brush like a microphone.
"But the moment! That I first laid... Eyes... On... Him... All alone on the edge of seventeen!"
Spinning, she squeaked as Urd's smiling eyes greeted her. Urd grinned at catching her sister like this for a moment, then snatched the brush from her.
"Just like the white-winged dove..." she sang.
"Sings a song... sounds like she's singing!" Belldandy joined in.
Standing in the kitchen doorway, Skuld and Banpei looked on. The youngest goddess shook her head as if to expel fatigue, yet opening her eyes to the same sight.
"I'm sorry," she said. "This is beyond comment."
Oblivious, Belldandy and Urd continued their duet, even through the phone ringing. Eager for an excuse to get away from the scene, Skuld ran to answer it.
"Moshi moshi!" she announced.
"Skuld? It's Keiichi."
The goddess' face turned sour. "Oh," she said deadpan.
"Hey, is Belldandy there?" he asked.
"Well suddenly... there was no one left standing in the hall!" Skuld heard from the kitchen.
"She's... busy," she finally decided on.
Skuld couldn't keep her disdain for Keiichi from squelching her curiosity. "Why? Is something wrong?"
"No," she heard over the line. "I just need... Well... If I wanted to talk to... you know... Him... How would I do it?"
"The Almighty?!" Skuld asked incredulously.
"Yeah. I need to ask him something."
Skuld looked down at the phone. The word "Almighty" was listed number three on the speed dial, just under the Chinese food place and the pizza delivery guy. She grinned evilly. "Well, it's not that easy, you know," she said knowledgeably. "You can't just dial his area code and have him pick up."
"So what do I have to do?" he asked.
Oh, this is too good, she thought.
"Well," she began, "First, you have to..." She looked around for inspiration and found a picture of a mountain decorating the month of January on their wall calendar. "You have to climb to the top of the highest mountain you can find."
"Uh huh," she confirmed. "One that's high enough so he can hear you. Then, when you get to the summit, you have to scream his name eighteen times while spinning around in a circle."
"Skuld, are you..."
"Look, I didn't say it was easy!" she bit at him, trying desperately to keep her amusement from flavoring the irritation she deliberately put into her voice. "If it was easy for mortals to talk to the Almighty, everyone would do it, right?"
"I... guess," he said.
"Right! Well, good luck with the mountain thing. We'll see you when you get back. Ciao!"
Before he could reply, she hung up.
When Belldandy and Urd found her in the hallway, they were just as puzzled of her rolling on the floor laughing as she was of their impromptu karaoke.
"So what did she say?" Megumi pressed him from outside the phone booth.
"I don't know the first thing about rock climbing," Keiichi muttered, ignoring his sister's question.
"Skuld said I have climb to the top of a mountain and call to him."
"How big of a mountain?"
"Really big, I guess," Keiichi replied with a shrug. "I guess Hotakadake is big enough..."
"This time of year?!" Megumi remarked in shock. "They say it's like Mt. Hood only with more snow!"
He sighed. "I'm going to need some help with this."
Megumi blinked. "Look, Kei chan, I'll go with you if that's what you want, but I don't know the first thing about mountain climbing and neither do you."
He actually smiled. "No, Megumi chan, this is something I have to do alone... and yet I can't do it alone. I need a guide."
Megumi thought for a few moments. Suddenly her eyes lit up. "I think I know someone... and it should only cost you a bottle of sake." She grinned evilly.
Keiichi took a breath as he caught on. "No, no way!" he said. "There's got to be someone else!"
"Do you think he's still teaching?" Megumi asked, ignoring his protests.
"He climbs, yeah, but he takes it too far," Keiichi complained.
Megumi grabbed his arm and started dragging him toward the escalator, muttering an old tune as she walked.
"'Oh, don't ever fall in love with a mountain man! Your heart's left in a valley as he climbs again!'"
"Hmph! Darn kids."
The gruff, middle-aged man sitting at the desk at the front of the classroom lit another cigarette before grading another essay, this one on the historical significance of anime. He had decided to let their young minds be creative and choose whatever historical topic they wanted, expecting topics such as the Meiji Restoration and the continuing influence of the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Japanese culture. Instead, he got video games, anime and card games.
Sighing, he reached into the second drawer of his desk and pulled out a bottle. Before the cap was half off, however, there was a knock on his door.
Quickly shoving the bottle away, he turned toward the sound. "Come in!"
"Mr. Fujisawa?" a bright, enthusiastic voice called as two figures entered.
"Miss Morisato," Masamichi Fujisawa greeted with a smile. "And Mr. Morisato. What are you two kids doing here?"
Megumi bowed to him, nudging Keiichi to follow her example. "My brother needs some expert advice, and we immediately thought of you!"
"What kind of advice?" he asked, pausing to take a drag on his lucky.
Megumi nudged Keiichi, and the young man stepped forward. He didn't dance around it, instead opting for the direct approach. "I need to climb to the summit of Mt. Hotakadake."
"Well, that should be easy enough," Fujisawa said. "You have a few months until the spring thaw, and that should be plenty of time to get ready."
"No, I need to go now."
Fujisawa blinked in shock. "Now?! Do you know how much snow they get on that mountain, kid?!"
Keiichi took a fortifying breath. "I need to go now."
"Look, I'm as avid a climber as anyone, but..."
"Fujisawa sensei," Keiichi broke in, "I wish I could tell you I have a perfectly logical explanation for this, but I really don't." He bit his lip. "It's just something I have to do."
"It's for a girl," Megumi interjected with a roll of her eyes. "Can't you just give him some pointers or something?" Megumi asked softly.
Fujisawa thought for a long moment. "Hotakadake in winter," he muttered. Suddenly he began to laugh. "All RIGHT!" he finally cried in odd excitement. "When do we leave?!"
"Look, if I can't talk you out of it, you think I'm going to let you go up there alone?" Fujisawa told him with a grin. "I'm going with you!"
Belldandy heard the commotion at the front door and rushed down the hall. As she turned the corner into the main hallway, she smiled.
"Keiichi san! Welcome ho..."
She broke off as Keiichi failed to appear. Megumi stood there with a half-sheepish look on her face. "Hey, Belldandy," she said with a wave.
Standing off to the side, Skuld and Urd watched, both wanting to see where this new development would go.
Belldandy's smile fell back into place. "Megumi san, is everything all right? How was your trip?"
Urd and Skuld looked to Megumi.
The coed scratched the back of her head, the apparent Morisato response to questions they didn't want to answer. "Everything's fine. Keiichi is staying in Hokkaido for a bit longer, though. He said to tell you everything is fine and he'll be home in a few days."
The goddesses looked to Belldandy again.
"Oh, is he having fun with old friends?"
Back to Megumi.
Megumi laughed nervously. "You could say that. He... um... had a few things he had to take care of, that's all."
Back to Belldandy.
"I see!" the goddess said with a smile. "You must be tired. Would you like to stay for dinner?"
The heads swung back to Megumi.
"Oh, no! I have a lot of unpacking to do. I'll see you later! Bye!" Turning, she hurried out the door.
Belldandy's smile didn't waver until Megumi was on her moped and down the street.
"Keiichi's in trouble," she said instantly. Turning she started toward the bathroom.
Urd fell into step beside her. "How do you know?"
"Because Megumi has never lied to me before today," she answered. She opened the bathroom door, the closest mirror, but Urd's hand shut it before the goddess could walk through.
"And that translates to 'Keiichi is in trouble?'" Urd's expression was dubious.
"It's just a feeling," Belldandy told her. "Something's not right."
Skuld watched her two sisters raptly, not sure what to think or say on the matter.
"Belldandy, I think you're wrong."
The youngest goddess nearly fell over. Urd had said and done a lot of things in the past, but had never said that.
The older goddess continued. "I think you're looking for reasons to go to him. I don't think anything Megumi said implied some kind of danger. Doing something foolish? Maybe. Is he up to something? Definitely," she said with a wry grin. "But he's a big boy, and if he wanted to you to run to him, he wouldn't have sent Megumi here to lie to you."
Belldandy digested this for several hard seconds. Finally, Urd went on.
"You have to trust him."
"I do trust Keiichi," Belldandy told her. "And you're right."
Urd, unwilling to let the conversation become too serious, smiled. "Besides, if you go to him now, we'll have no fun trying to get the story out of him when he comes back."
But only a little.
Keiichi took another sip of hot chocolate and looked up at the news program playing on the television hanging from the ceiling of the lodge. It was all bad news. A weather front was moving in, making an already scary prospect even worse. He knew things were even worse than he thought when he saw Fujisawa enter the lounge with a disgusted look on his face.
Collapsing in a chair across the table from him, the history teacher tossed his knit cap down in defeat. "I give up!" he exclaimed. "Not one local guide would agree to take us for what money we have left. Not one!"
Keiichi gave the TV another look and sighed. "I guess we can't blame them."
"No adventurous spirit, that's what the problem is," Fujisawa snorted. He looked up at the college student a moment later. "Look, kid," he began quietly. "If it were summer, no problem. If the weather was even okay for winter, I'd probably just take you up myself. But with that front moving in and no local guide, it really would be too dangerous."
Keiichi nodded. "I understand."
"We can just come back some other time!" Fujisawa said, trying to put some cheer into his voice.
The younger man shook his head. "No, Mr. Fujisawa. You don't understand." He pulled a small locket from under his shirt, something he had bought at the same jeweler where he bought Belldandy's ring, which hung from the same chain. "I only have enough money left to pay for a guide and get home again. And even if I did have the money, you know how much it took for me to work myself into a state to even do this?" He opened the locket. A picture of Belldandy smiled from the left half while an old picture of his Aunt Kimiko looked at him from the right.
He looked at Fujisawa intently. "If I don't do this now, I never will."
"Sounds like you need a guide."
Startled out of their conversation, the two looked up to see an older, foreign-looking man standing next to their table. For a moment, Keiichi didn't believe what he saw. The man looked like he had come straight out of a television show. Dressed all in white, the man didn't look exactly old, but seasoned. He wore glasses, the left lens of which was blacked out in place of what Keiichi could only assume was an eyepatch.
"I'm sorry, friend," Fujisawa said gamely. "I didn't notice you there."
The man offered his hand to Keiichi. "I don't mean to intrude. I couldn't help but overhear. Michael Coldsmith-Briggs the Third."
Keiichi shook the man's hand. "I'm Keiichi Morisato and this is my old history teacher, Masamichi Fujisawa."
"And yes, we could certainly use a guide," Fujisawa told him. "Unfortunately, with that weather moving in..."
"Yes," Briggs threw a glance at the television. "It is a bit daunting, isn't it? Still, not impossible by any stretch of the imagination." His one, blue eye fell on Keiichi. "How much were you offering those other guides?"
The faintest hint of a thought of low-balling Briggs flashed through the student's mind, but he dismissed it just as quickly. Something about this man told Keiichi lying was useless. "Thirty thousand."
"I see. No wonder you're having no luck." Briggs leaned back in his chair. "I take it this is important to you."
"Yes," Keiichi told him. "It's something I have to do."
Briggs nodded. "Very well." He rose to his feet. "Meet me down here tomorrow morning at four and outfit for a three day trip. I expect to be paid on our return."
"Well... Thanks!" Fujisawa blurted, obvious surprise in his voice. "Do you know this mountain well?"
Briggs smiled. "Mr. Fujisawa, you could say me and this mountain grew up together."
Most of the first day had been easy, almost like a hike on a nature trail, and Keiichi was convinced it wouldn't be as hard as he had thought. Now, three thousand feet up, with the "path" becoming more and more vertical and the weather moving in, Keiichi was rapidly changing his opinion. The wind howled at him, deafening him to all other things, and he was now firmly convinced that he would never be warm again.
Ahead of him, all but invisible in his white parka, Briggs led the way. Fujisawa brought up the rear, keeping the college student between them. On flat ground in good weather, one had to try to hide to be lost in view. Up here in the snow, one could get lost by taking three steps off the trail.
Keiichi stopped for a moment, his hands gripping the red rope connecting the climbers like a life line. Up ahead, Briggs hacked at something with his ice axe.
Briggs turned and offered his hand. "Come on!"
Taking the man's hand, Keiichi hoisted himself over an embankment. Rising to his feet, he was foolish enough to let the rope go for an instant to pat the snow off.
Then he slipped on the ice covered rock he was standing on.
Crying out, he started sliding down the other side. Through the whirling snow, he could just barely make out that the rock he was sliding on ended a few feet ahead.
He was going over.
Belldandy gasped, dropping her chopsticks and forcing the other two goddesses to look to her in concern. The goddess' hand covered her mouth.
"Belldandy?" Urd asked.
She dropped her hand a moment later. "Excuse me," she said quietly. "Something just..."
Silence followed, and only the ticking of the clock in the hallway filled the void.
Urd regarded her half sister for a moment, then nudged Skuld with her elbow. Skuld nudged back, prompting Urd to elbow her harder.
"Ow! What is it, you jerk?!" Skuld asked harshly.
Urd glared daggers at her. "Wasn't there something you wanted to ask Belldandy?" she prompted viciously.
"Huh? Oh! Yeah!" the young goddess said, finally catching on. "Oneesan, I got a coupon for the new spa that opened up in town! Would you like to go?"
Belldandy opened her mouth to decline, but Urd beat her to it.
"I think that's a wonderful idea!" she said, clapping her hands together in mock delight. "I think it's just what the doctor ordered."
"But, what if Keiichi..."
"I'll take a message!" Urd told her.
"McInverse is on the way home," Urd preemptively countered.
"And what if..."
"We'll live," Urd said dangerously. "Go to the spa."
Belldandy's shoulders wilted in defeat. "Hai." She mustered a smile and faced them again. "Hai," she said with more feeling.
Keiichi swung from side to side like a clock pendulum, about a thousand feet of frozen air waited beneath his feet. It was hard to breathe, and a moment later he knew why. Looking up, he saw Briggs' fingers around the chain holding his locket and ring. The other hand held the ice axe, the blade three inches into the boulder, anchoring them.
"Don't let go!" Keiichi gasped with difficulty.
Briggs' eye found his. "I will NOT... let you go," he told him.
A few moments later, Fujisawa slid up to them on his stomach and grabbed the college student's hand, hauling him to safety.
It was just in the nick of time. The moment his teacher's hand grabbed his, the chain holding the locket broke.
"And now to weather!" the perky news lady announced just as Megumi was turning on the used television that sat on her kitchen counter. The coed hummed to herself as she searched the bottom of her fridge for a cold soda, only half paying attention to the weatherman.
"And it looks like another beautiful, but brisk day in Nekomi..." he was saying. Megumi lifted her drink in a toast and downed it. "However it looks like bad news for those die hard skiers and climbers up at Hotakadake..."
Megumi's ears perked up as she turned the volume up. The weather guy continued.
"An unexpected weather system has moved in dumping a lot of snow and severe winds up on the mountain. A weather advisory is in effect, and park rangers are warning people not to attempt to go up the mountain..."
The young woman's butt found the nearest chair, sensing that her legs were going a bit rubbery.
A mountain? Something he had to do? Dammit, why did she have to go and support him like that? She should have just dragged him to Belldandy's room, opened the door, shoved him inside and not let either one of them out until they were engaged.
Her brother was a short man, and as such there were times when he felt he had to go and prove himself. Of course, usually she or at least Belldandy were there to help him. Now...
My brother's life is in the hands of God and a man who spends twenty percent of his day in a bottle, she thought. And I helped put him there.
Huddled in a shallow cave, but out of the wind's fury, the three rested. It had been a close call, and Keiichi was obviously shaken by it. His hands quaked ever so slightly inside his thick gloves.
Briggs regarded the boy for a few moments. He reached out, offering the locket and ring. "Here," he said. "You almost lost this."
He took it gratefully. "Thank you."
"I take it that ring's for her," Briggs prompted.
"She must be a lucky girl," he offered.
Keiichi snorted. "Lucky?" he asked. He shook his head. "I'm the lucky one." He shivered, rubbing his shoulders. "She gives so much of herself so freely." He shook his head again and seemed to sink inward. "She's worth a thousand of me."
"Oh, come on, kid," Fujisawa said cheerfully. "You're being too hard on yourself. I don't see any other kids up here doing... well.. Whatever it is you feel you have to do... for their girlfriends, huh?"
Briggs sat back and opened a small foil package. Taking his gloves off, he shook the hand warmers and stuck them in his gloves again. His attention focused on his hands, he addressed Keiichi again. "One of my middle daughters, Verthandi, feels like that about her boyfriend," he said.
"Ver...Ver..." Keiichi tried, but the whimsical and obviously foreign name was incredibly difficult for him to pronounce.
"Verthandi," Briggs said with a smile. "She thinks he's done so much for her that she'll never be able to repay him for it. But you know what? It's not about who's worth more or who does more for whom. It's about making each other happy. As long as you do that, you'll be okay." He pointed at the locket. "I'm sure Kimiko would agree."
Keiichi nodded, feeling a little better.
"He's right, you know," Fujisawa said quietly. Turning, Keiichi found the older man taking a drag on a cigarette. "Sometimes you just have to go for it. I had the chance, but I couldn't make myself do it." He shrugged. "So she left. And not a day goes by now that I don't wish I'd just... run into her somewhere so I can say everything I wanted to say then." He put the smoke down and turned to Keiichi. "Look, kid, no matter how this turns out, you have to just work up some nerve and do it!"
The wind seemed to pause. Briggs nodded to the cave entrance. "We should keep going. I'll see if there's a place to hammer a new piton."
As he started out, Fujisawa and Keiichi gathered their things, but something made the young man pause.
How did Briggs know his aunt's name?
Belldandy smiled the entire trip, but mostly because Skuld was trying so hard to make her, and the goddess didn't want to disappoint her sister. The spa had been soothing, but she still couldn't get Keiichi out of her head.
He's so cold, she thought, shivering in sympathy. She didn't know why, how or where, but she knew wherever he was, he was freezing.
As the two walked up to the shrine, they paused for a step upon finding Megumi standing next to the front door.
She waved weakly at the two and tried to smile. "Hi."
"Megumi san," Belldandy greeted. "Is everything okay?"
"Yeah, I just..." She looked at Skuld. "Can I talk to you for a second?"
"Of course." They both looked at Skuld.
Skuld didn't move.
The two continued to look at her.
"Oh, fine!" Skuld bit out, and walked off.
"Would you like to go for a walk?" Belldandy asked.
For the first few minutes, the two just walked aimlessly. Belldandy wasn't in the habit of pressing people. If someone had something to say, they would say it, and if they didn't, they wouldn't and it wasn't any of her business.
Finally, however, Megumi spoke up. "Look, I know you know Kei chan is up to something," she admitted. "I can't tell you what, I promised, but..." She stopped and turned, looking the goddess, her would-be sister in law, in the eye. "Kei chan has told me a lot about you... more than other people, I guess you would say."
Belldandy said nothing. She had never made any effort to hide what she was and had always found Keiichi's insistence that she not use her powers in public as rather puzzling.
Megumi's stride seemed to break. "I guess... Do you..." Finally, she decided to just come out and say it. "Do you answer prayers?"
This took Belldandy aback. "Well, it depends," she answered. "Technically, it's not my place. That's reserved for the Almighty, but part of what we do is see that those prayers get to the right place."
Megumi nodded. "Then I have a prayer," she said. "I'd like you to make sure it... well... gets to the right place."
Belldandy smiled. "Of course." Finally, a problem she could handle.
Megumi looked her right in the eye. "Now, I have to tell you, this is totally irrational."
Belldandy nodded and waited for her to continue.
"I want to pray for Kei chan's safety."
Keiichi didn't think the wind could blow any harder, but the mountain proved him wrong again. Grunting through his scarf, he pulled himself up the line again. Looking up, he found Briggs offering him a hand up. He took it and soon found himself on a solid rock ledge. Briggs turned and helped Fujisawa up then took Keiichi aside and put his mouth near his ear, shouting to be heard over the wind.
"The summit is just up there," he said, pointing.
Somehow, Fujisawa heard him. "Then let's get going!"
"No," Keiichi said suddenly. "I have to do this last part alone."
He could see Fujisawa blinking behind his goggles. "But why?"
"Because that's just the way it's done," Briggs told him with a smile. He turned to Keiichi again. "Go on ahead. We'll be here when you get back."
Keiichi nodded and started up the final slope.
Megumi suddenly found herself yanked into a bedroom. Crying out as she hit the futon, she heard the door slide shut behind her. Looking up, she found Urd glaring down at her.
"All right," the goddess said, trying valiantly to hang on to her sense of calm. "Throughout this entire stupid episode, I've been the voice of reason in this house." She put her hands on her hips and glared even more intensely. "Have you any idea how big a stretch that is for me?!"
"I told Belldandy that Keiichi is probably doing something stupid, but it's probably safe. I just about had her believing it. Then you had to go and ask for that stupid prayer, and now I can't even get her to answer her door!"
Megumi looked sheepish. "You don't think she went after him, do you?"
"No," Urd said, crossing her arms over her chest. "I know she hasn't because I can hear her crying through the door. She wants to trust that Keiichi knows what he's doing, but she's never been in a situation where she thought he was in trouble but couldn't do anything about it."
Megumi felt positively awful. "I didn't mean for that..."
"I know," Urd told her, her expression softening. "But if I'm going to keep telling her that everything is okay, I need to know what he's really doing."
The young woman sighed. "Okay, but you CANNOT tell Belldandy... Or Skuld for that matter."
After five straight minutes of knocking, Belldandy finally dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief and answered the door. She nearly took a step back in shock. Urd was standing there with the biggest grin she had ever seen her sister wear. The goddess was actually bouncing up and down in barely suppressed glee.
"Everything's okay," Urd leaked out through her smile. It was like watching a nearly bursting dam trying to only let a few drops of water out. Afraid to release any more, Urd turned and skipped down the hall.
Keiichi hauled himself over the final ledge and climbed to his feet. Surprisingly, the wind and snow had stopped and for the first time since this trip began, the mountain was peaceful. Sparing only a second to admire the view, he turned toward the center of the narrow plateau. Removing his scarf and lowering his hood, he braced himself.
Raising his arms, he started to spin around in a circle.
"KAMI SAMA! KAMI SAMA! KAMI SAMA! KAMI SAMA!..."
He repeated the name eighteen times just as Skuld said, then collapsed in the middle of a fierce dizzy spell.
Shaking his head, he stood up and waited... and waited.
"I knew it," he breathed.
"Can I help you?" he heard behind him.
Skuld didn't sense the attack coming. One second she was working on her latest invention, the next she was pinned to the wall by two strong arms. Shrieking, she looked up to see Urd glaring into her eyes.
"What did you tell Keiichi?" Urd demanded. She had come down off her high from hearing what Megumi said, meaning it was time for a little payback.
"Nothing!" Skuld cried immediately.
"So you DIDN'T tell him he had to climb to the top of the highest mountain he could find to talk to the Almighty?"
Skuld's face went ashen. "He's not really doing that, is he?!" she asked horrified. "It was only a joke!"
Urd bared her teeth. "Skuld, I mean this as your sister and as someone who doesn't wish you any PARTICULAR harm," she said menacingly. "But if that boy comes down off that mountain in any more than ONE piece, you are in for an eternity of hurt."
Skuld started to get angry now. "Oh yeah!" she cried. "And what are YOU going to do, huh?! I didn't MEAN for him to actually do it!"
Urd shook her head. "You don't get it, do you?" she asked incredulously. "I'm not going to do anything. I won't have to. For reasons you're not going to understand for another millenia, Belldandy is in love with Keiichi. And if Keiichi gets hurt after doing something you told him to do..."
"BUT I DIDN'T..."
"Anything I could do to you would pale in comparison." Urd released her.
The horrifying truth of it hit Skuld like one of Banpei's rockets. Her face went pale. It wasn't as if Belldandy would blast her or seal her into a CD. It would be worse.
She'd tell her she was disappointed in her, then promptly never speak to Skuld again.
"I have to make a phone call," she breathed in panic. Urd followed as she ran to the phone. Picking up the receiver, she jabbed the third button down on the speed dial repeatedly.
"Come on! Come on!" she whispered fearfully. Finally, she heard the other end pick up. "Kami sama!" she exclaimed in relief. "I have..."
"You've reached the office of your Lord and Savior," a recorded message began. "I'm not in right now, but if you leave your name, religious affiliation and your prayer or a brief message, I'll get right bac..."
Skuld hung up in shock.
"What did he say?" Urd prompted.
"I got his machine," Skuld whispered in disbelief.
Urd blinked in shock. "Wait... Are you saying the Almighty is AWAY FROM HIS DESK?!"
"What could he possibly be doing?" Skuld wondered.
"Briggs san?" Keiichi asked. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to keep you and Mr. Fujisawa waiting. I..."
"You know," Briggs said, striding up to Keiichi. "I should apologize to you. That spinning around thing... I should have said something, but... I just wanted to see if you would actually do it."
Keiichi blinked. "You mean..."
Briggs smiled. "My youngest sure is a pisser, isn't she?"
The boy paled. "Kami sama?"
"You look cold," Briggs told him. "Let's continue this in my office."
Before Keiichi could say anything, he found himself in a spartan office with a window overlooking... well... he wasn't really sure. It looked like a city, only green and beautiful.
I'm looking at Heaven, he thought. Belldandy had told him about Heaven, but he wasn't sure he'd ever see it.
Briggs, now dressed in a white suit and a panama hat, gestured to a nearby chair before hanging his hat on a hook and sitting behind an ornate wood desk. An Apple I-Mac sat off to the side of the desktop while another side held a very detailed globe spinning lazily in the air. It took Keiichi a second to realize that it wasn't A globe, it was THE globe.
"Keiichi, do you know why you're here?" Briggs/God asked him.
Still overcome with shock, it took Keiichi several moments to reacquire the ability to speak. While he waited, Briggs/God hit a glowing button on his phone.
"Kami sama!" Keiichi heard Skuld's voice cry from the machine. "I need to talk to you about something awful I did! I..."
Briggs/God hit the erase button. "I think we're already on top of that issue," he said nonchalantly. He turned back to the mortal boy.
Keiichi took a deep breath. "Kami sama... I... I..."
Briggs/God sat back and laced his fingers together, gazing at the boy with his one eye.
Calm down, Keiichi! he thought to himself. Taking a deep breath, he looked up at Briggs/God. He's Belldandy's father, he said. That's who you're here to talk to. Not the creator of all things. Just keep it simple...
"Kami sama," He began again. "I want to ask Belldandy to marry me!" he blurted.
Briggs/God looked nonplussed. "And?" he asked.
This threw Keiichi off whatever meager stride he had. "And?"
"And what are you doing here?" Briggs/God asked him. "Shouldn't you be having this conversation with Verthandi?"
Now Keiichi was absolutely lost. "Um... I'm sorry," he apologized hesitantly. "Is Ver...Ver..." he gave up. "Is she Belldandy's mother or..."
Briggs/God gave him a cheshire cat smile. "'Verthandi' is Belldandy's given name," he told him. "She goes by 'Belldandy' when she deals with Asian cultures because it's easier for them to pronounce. And I'm still waiting for an answer. Shouldn't you be having this conversation with Verthandi?"
Keiichi stood up and went to the window. "I need a minute," he said in exasperation.
"Of course," Briggs/God told him gamely. "Would you care for something to drink? I could ask Peorth to..."
"No, thank you, Kami sama," he said quickly.
"Son," Briggs/God began again. "I don't think you really know why you're here."
"No!" Keiichi told him, spinning to face him. "I want to marry Belldandy, and I want your blessing... your permission... to..."
"And will my saying it make it so?" Briggs/God asked in amusement. He stood up and circled the desk, sitting on the edge in a manner more casual than Keiichi would have thought God would descend to. "Keiichi, there are certain universal truths out there. One of them being that all things will invariably take the path of least resistance."
Keiichi sat back down. "I don't understand," he admitted.
Briggs/God smiled down at him. "Keiichi, you climbed up a dangerous mountain in winter to speak to the creator of all things... because it was easier to do that than look Belldandy in the eye and pop the question."
The boy felt a ball of ice form in his stomach.
"You're desperately in love with my daughter," he told Keiichi point blank. "You're also a good man, something in desperately short supply," he added gruffly, almost in self reproach. "But my daughter's hand is hers to give alone."
"I don't know," Keiichi admitted. "Maybe... deep inside... I thought if I had your blessing it would mean Belldandy would say yes... and..."
"And if I didn't, it meant she was going to say no?" Briggs/God asked. "You wanted a hint before you worked up the nerve to do the REALLY hard part?"
Keiichi collapsed back into his chair. "Am I really that pathetic?" he asked.
Briggs/God smiled again. "You're asking if it's somehow abnormal for a man to be afraid of being rejected by a woman he's deeply in love with? Particularly when that woman is as powerful a being as Verthandi?"
Keiichi regarded the ring hanging around his neck.
"You did a ballsy thing, son," Briggs/God told him. "Kimiko said you had it in you. That's why I wanted to see it close up. And to give you the opportunity to do something you felt you had to do. I can't say for sure what she would say, but I would ask you to consider this. When you first made your wish, you asked for a goddess 'LIKE' Verthandi to always be by your side. There are currently six hundred and fourteen first class goddesses holding unlimited licenses. At any time, Verthandi could have turned that task over to another, but she didn't. She wouldn't, and she won't."
Keiichi was speechless.
"Because that was HER wish for herself," Briggs/God finished.
"What should I do now?"
Briggs/God shrugged. "You had a plan, didn't you? Follow it."
Keiichi looked up at him in near disbelief. "You mean..."
"You have my blessing," Briggs/God told him, offering his hand. "But that doesn't mean the hard part's over. It's entirely up to her whether or not she wants you. But if she does, then I'd be proud to welcome you to the family."
"Thank you, Kami sama!" Keiichi cried, shaking the hand firmly.
"It's not going to be easy, you know," the Almighty told him. "Even if she does say yes, you're in for anything but a normal life."
The boy nodded. "I know."
God smiled. "Good. Well, in that case, I'll send you back to the summit, and..."
"Kami sama, one more thing?"
Briggs/God sighed. "ANOTHER wish, Keiichi?" he asked in mock annoyance. "Taking care of your wishes and requests is becoming a bureaucratic nightmare for us up here."
"It's not for me, Kami sama!" Keiichi cried. "But... I was wondering if you could do something for Mr. Fujisawa..."
"Well, another adventure comes to a close," Fujisawa said, raising his cup of sake and taking a long belt. He signaled the bartender for a refill a moment later.
Keiichi, drinking tea, smiled and fingered the ring that hung around his neck, trying to decide the best way to do it. They still had about twenty minutes before they had to be at the gate for their flight home.
"That Briggs guy was okay... for a foreigner," Fujisawa told him. "Didn't talk a lot on the way down, but it was pretty nice of him to refuse payment, huh?"
Keiichi nodded. "He called it a wedding gift, but to expect more."
"Did you invite him to the wedding?"
Keiichi bit his lip. "I will... if Belldandy says yes."
The teacher slapped him on the back. "Have a little faith, kid! Everyone seems to think it's a sure thing but you!"
The boy smiled. "Maybe."
Fujisawa tossed a few bills on the bar and stood up. "We should go. You don't want to miss that flight." He turned to start for the door and grunted in shock as someone bumped into him, the collision knocking both of them to the floor.
"Oh, jeez, I..."
"Oh, excuse me," a woman's voice begged. "I... Masamichi?"
Fujisawa, his butt still planted firmly to the floor, looked at the violet-haired woman sitting across from him. "M...M...Miz Mishtal?!"
The teacher was on his feet in half a second, offering the woman his hand. "What are you doing here?" he asked.
She smiled as he helped her up. "Our plane had mechanical problems so we had to divert here. I can't believe it, running into you like this..."
"Yeah, I... Well..." A color with nothing to do with alcohol rose to his cheeks. "It's just that..."
He jumped as he felt Keiichi's hand slap his shoulder. "Mr. Fujisawa, why don't I go ahead, and you catch the next flight?"
For a moment, Fujisawa looked like he was going to protest, but at the sight of the woman's smile, his face softened. "Yeah, kid, I think I will." He offered Keiichi his hand. "Good luck, okay? I want to hear how it went."
The two shook hands. "You too. Thank you, Mr. Fujisawa... for everything."
"Hell, kid, it was my pleasure! See you at the wedding."
"And now for continuing coverage of the weather conditions on Mt. Hotakadake, local reporter Trisha Takanawa continues with 'Death at Five Thousand Feet.'" Scary music followed the pronouncement followed by video images of avalanches and people falling into crevices.
Watching the news program, Skuld's mouth hung open, her jaw pulled down by the weight of her own despair. "What have I done?" she squeaked. "Oneesama's going to kill me..."
"Who's going to kill you?" Belldandy asked, her head appearing through the door.
"Oneesama!" Skuld cried in surprise, searching for the remote.
"Thank you, Diane," the reporter greeted. "As conditions on Mt. Hotakadake worsen, government rescue teams are on standby to render assistance to any climbers who need it, but most experienced guides here say they would most likely be used to pull frozen bodies from the mountainside..."
Skuld squeaked under her breath in despair.
"Ara ara," Belldandy whispered sympathetically. "Those poor people. Their families must be worried sick."
Skuld only nodded in agreement, tears flowing down her face. "Oneesama, I..."
Before she could continue, the door slid open, and Urd was standing there... bouncing. She grinned broadly. "Belldandy, Keiichi's coming up the street." Her face looked like it was about to shatter trying to contain the smile.
Belldandy's face lit up. "Keiichi san's back!? That's wonderful!"
"Oh, thank you, Kami sama!" Skuld cried, burying her face in her hands.
"Wow, Skuld," Urd said. "You look almost happier than Belldandy at the news."
Their sister, however, was already walking outside to greet him.
Keiichi's heart thudded in his chest so hard it hurt. He had removed the ring from the chain around his neck and replaced it in the box so he could do this right. The locket still hung from around his neck.
He paused at the top of the steps.
I can't do this, he thought. I need time to...
The thought evaporated from his mind as he saw Belldandy emerge from the house and stop on the top of the front step.
She smiled. "Keiichi san..."
He started forward again.
Skuld appeared in the doorway. "Keiichi, I..." She came up short as Urd grabbed the back of her shirt. "Hey!"
"Shhh!" Urd whispered. "It's about to get interesting."
Keiichi ignored them both. He climbed the steps and took the puzzled goddess' hand. All thoughts of the speech he had planned flew away and all that was left was the box in his hand.
Dropping to one knee, he opened it...