1Disclaimer: Ah! My Goddess is not mine and I claim no rights to it.
Though cold was an intangible thing, something felt rather than touched, it seemed like she floated in it, suspended in forever on a bed of chilled darkness. The world around her was everything and nothing, and no matter how much she focused her power outward, the resulting discharge would only dissipate, not even warming the surrounding area or bringing light to the darkness.
Only the light can shine in the dark, she reminded herself.
But for the next hour, it didn't matter. By another stroke of luck, she and the Other were asleep at the same time. If she thought on it, she could lightly touch the dreams of the Other, see what she saw, live in her dream.
Tonight the dream was a memory. She was in a temple... no, a church. She recognized the architecture. And there he was, lying below her on one of the pews. It seemed much more risque than the other dreams, but she didn't mind.
If she was sly about it, she'd found she could control the dreams and did so now, reaching out and touching his face, trailing over it with her fingertips.
"Belldandy," he whispered up at her.
Her heart thudded in her chest as she ran her fingers through his thick, dark hair.
Tell me you love me, she projected.
"Tell me you love me," she heard her voice say.
She saw the boy smile. "I love you," he said.
Her heart twittered and she felt the warmth engulf her heart, spreading throughout her being.
She couldn't help herself. She launched herself at him, kissing him fiercely, but it was too much. The image wavered. The Other was waking up.
She clung at the boy's face, practically clawing at it as it faded away.
NO! NO! DON'T GO! DON'T GO!
Her eyes shot open, and she screamed. "COME BACK!" She felt the despair and rage well up in her, and a burst of godly energy exploded from her, dissipating into the dark nothingness.
The cold entered her body again, leeching the previous warmth away. She wrapped her arms around herself in a vain effort to hold onto it longer, but she knew there was no point. She was as empty now as the void around her, just as dark, just as cold.
She floated in the darkness again and made a few calculations in her head.
They were due to come for her soon. Another day at the most.
She grit her teeth and felt the hate start to boil her blood again. One more day and she would move.
Just one more day.
"Are you sure you're okay with this?"
Urd looked to the centurion, the war god, walking to her right. She had known Aramis for centuries, one of her first friends after coming to Heaven as a matter of fact. He had never had a problem reading her emotions.
She sighed, but wouldn't face him. "They do this every century," she grumbled. "And every century I have to come up with an excuse to come to Heaven that will fool Belldandy just to hear the same thing over and over again." She finally looked up at him. "Why don't they just kill her and be done with it?"
Aramis looked down at her. Tall herself, Urd stood a foot below the towering soldier. He considered her question, spoken not with scorn or anger, but pity.
"Because if they do, it validates their hypocrisy," he finally said as they reached their destination.
The hearing room was more a miniature auditorium, with a center dais surrounded by three levels of seating, separated by a layer of mirrored glass that allowed the audience to see in, but prevented whoever stood on the dais from seeing out.
Urd and Aramis were the last to arrive, but most of the seats still stood empty. Outside the glass, three gods stood arrayed around the center point, magic-conducting staffs in their hands. One of them, a god whose robes were much more ornate, stepped to the center and rested a small, wooden flute on the dais before stepping back. The gods began to chant.
Aramis leaned over to her. "If you don't want to do this..."
"What they did to her was wrong," Urd bit back. "My coming here every time reminds them of it." The fire in her eyes died a moment later. "But at the same time... She's so dangerous, Aramis. Am I wrong for thinking they're wrong or am I right for thinking it?"
He sighed. "Probably both."
The three gods finished chanting and a cloud of red smoke flew from the flute straight to the ceiling. It took several seconds before the cloud cleared enough to make out the person standing in center of the dais. Red robes fell to bare feet, wrapping up her legs and around her arms. Her chestnut hair was held back in a tight, but long pony tail.
She opened her eyes, and Urd felt an uncomfortable pang in her chest as she saw her sister's eyes looking back at her. She swallowed hard and comforted herself by repeating a simple phrase over and over in her mind.
She is not Belldandy.
She is not Belldandy.
But she is my sister...
"Verthandi," the lead god spoke. "One hundred years has past since your last hearing."
The goddess on the dais, wasn't paying attention. She reached out with her hand and saw a spark of magic power react as her fingers threatened to leave the area of the dais.
"Your crimes against Heaven include treason, sedition and murder," he god continued. "Are you willing to recant and ask The Almighty for mercy?"
The goddess, Verthandi, merely a different spelling from the name of another goddess, shook her head.
"Have you anything to say on your own behalf before you return to your seal?"
Verthandi finally put her eyes on him. "Yes, I do," she said. "Who is Keiichi Morisato?"
Urd gasped, her eyes going wide.
Impossibly, Verthandi's eyes locked onto hers. "You know him, don't you?" the red-robed woman said. "Who is he?"
"Aramis," Urd whispered. "Tell them to seal her. Now."
The centurion looked at her astonished. "Seal her?"
"Do it!" Urd ordered. "She just proved herself a hundred times more dangerous than you or any of the others thinks! Do it!"
"If you have nothing to say to your own defense, the seal will be reinstated," the lead god told her, oblivious to the danger Urd claimed.
Verthandi smiled. "A hundred years is a long time to think about things," she said. "For instance, it took most of the first sixty to figure out how to overpower this containment field."
Before the three gods could act, Verthandi slammed her hand against the containment field and began to rapidly speak the Heavenly program language. The field glowed blue, and runes floated around the woman. A moment later, there was a bright flash and an explosion that threw Urd and Aramis to the floor.
As the Norn rose to her feet, she saw Verthandi dive at the nearest staggering god and touch his forehead with her fingers. The god turned to ash on the spot, and the renegade goddess grabbed his staff, disappearing through a portal nearby.
Urd shook her head in disbelief, unable to move until she felt Aramis grab her arm.
"Come on!" he screamed at her. "We have to stop her before she finds a line out!"
Urd followed him out the door and down the hallway. They passed the remains of two other gods before they heard cries and screams telling them they were getting close.
"She's in the ops center!" Aramis cried, redoubling his speed and drawing a sword of light from his belt. Urd had to struggle to keep up with him.
As the two entered the operations center, their first sight was that of three goddesses hunched over their computer screens. But it only took a half second after that to see Verthandi rapidly typing into a terminal on the far side of the room.
Urd saw her and screamed. "Belldandy!"
The renegade looked up briefly as a blue portal opened behind her. "It's my life, Neesan," Verthandi told her coldly. "And I want it back!"
Before Urd could reply, the goddess nimbly leapt backwards into the blue pool of light and disappeared. The portal shut itself a moment later.
"Dammit!" Aramis swore, rushing to a terminal. After a bewildered moment, he turned to Urd. "Urd. Urd!" The goddess finally shook herself out of her daze and looked at him. "You're a sys op! Make this work!"
Urd ran to the terminal as Aramis heard a moan behind him. Turning, he saw a brown-haired goddess, a gash of light running across her bare stomach, lying nearby.
"Peorth!" He knelt next to the woman and examined her wound.
The goddess looked up at him. "I knew Belldandy didn't like me, but..."
"It's not Belldandy," Aramis told her as he tried to get an idea as to the extent of her injury.
Urd was shaking her head at the console. "Peorth, I need you over here."
Aramis helped the other goddess to her feet and supported her as they made their way to the control terminal. Peorth studied the screen, her eyebrows furrowing.
"Oh, she's good," she breathed.
"Just give me her location so we can go after her," Aramis told her.
"You don't understand," Peorth said, shaking her head. "She's implemented the quarantine protocol then isolated the system with a fractal encryption code that alters itself mathematically every fifteen seconds."
"Yeah, that means absolutely zip to me," Aramis said irritably.
Peorth rolled her eyes at him. "What that means is..."
"What it means," Urd cut her off in an attempt to get to the point. "Is that with the quarantine in place, all the lines from here to Earth are cut. Communication, transportation, surveillance: It's all gone. No one is going anywhere."
Peorth looked at the screen. "And no one whereever she ends up can call here for help."
In the realm of light that linked Heaven with Earth, Verthandi descended like a falling star toward her destination, the light staff stolen from her guard still gripped tightly in her hand. For four hundred years she had been confined in that dark place, tossed aside and forgotten only to be trotted out every century to appease their sense of mercy and justice.
They had taken her life away, given it to someone else, and somehow she was the criminal.
She had resigned herself to that fate, to the belief that a dark world void of any meaning or hope would be her life.
Except for the last two years. When the dreams began.
She dreamed before, of course, but mostly those were hateful, sad, vengeful dreams. She dreamed of what she would do during the next hearing, of killing them. Killing and killing and killing until one of them killed her, and then, mercifully, it would be over.
Until the dreams changed.
She had an idea of what it was. Every so often, she and her other half were asleep at the same time. She was seeing the dreams of the other, and those dreams were of a man.
For the first time since they cast her away, there was hope.
And hope changed everything.
Verthandi was going to meet her end, but she swore she would know hope first.
Belldandy frowned and shook her head again. She could have sworn they had garlic, and yet the cupboard lacked that one ingredient she needed for dinner.
She didn't like that. It was her pride and joy to cook for Keiichi. It thrilled her to see him enjoy what she prepared, and to cook something without that one ingredient was simply unacceptable.
It was still early, barely eight in the morning, but the recipe she wanted to try took hours.
She closed the cupboard and sighed. She would simply have to go to the store.
Keiichi slept in on Saturdays, so she knew it might be possible to go and be back before he was up. She wrote a quick note anyway, leaving it on the counter where he would see it. Skuld was in her lab, engrossed in her latest project, and Urd was in Heaven, "attending to something," she had said.
Humming as she picked up her parasol, Belldandy stepped outside and down the steps toward the street, blissfully unaware that another hand was picking up the note she left and crumpling it before tossing it in the trash.
Verthandi watched Belldandy leave and fought down the rage that washed through her. Old cries of the unfairness of it all rushed through her mind, but she wasn't here for that. Instead, she used her powers to change her outfit to one that matched her double.
She studied her surroundings, let her fingers run over the kitchen counter tops and listened to the birds outside. It was beautiful. All of it.
Time was short.
She made her way down the hall until she found a sign hanging from a door that said, "Keiichi's Castle."
The goddess listened for movement on the other side and hearing nothing, slowly opened the door. Her footfalls were so soft, she might just as well have floated into his room. She saw a lump lying under a blanket in the center of the room and knelt next to it. The boy's head was barely peeking out from under the green wool blanket.
She studied his sleeping face, his bushy eyebrows, his peaceful demeanor. This was the first time she had ever seen his face clearly and not through the fog of someone else's dream. Falling forward, she rested on her elbows, her eyes never leaving his face, and watched him.
Peorth grimaced and concentrated on her work. The gash in her midsection would heal eventually, but it still hurt like hell. "The code has to have a mathematical variant to it," she said instead of answering. "It's not altering at random, it doesn't work that way. Belldandy..."
"Verthandi," Aramis corrected.
"Whatever," Peorth continued. "...must have input some formula that dictates how the individual lines of the code would change from iteration to iteration."
"Great," Urd said, concentrating on her own terminal. "That just means we have to find what mathematical change is similar in each line of the code."
"How many lines are there?" Aramis asked.
Peorth took a breath. "Six hundred and seven."
"Piece of cake, right?" Aramis asked.
Urd and Peorth looked to one another. "Not really," Urd told him.
"I still have no idea what's going on," Peorth told them bitterly as she worked. "Who is Verthandi?"
"It's a secret," Aramis told her with finality.
"It's only secret because it embarrasses them," Urd bit out. Ignoring the warning look from Aramis, the goddess turned to Peorth. "When Belldandy was a small child, she was the subject in an experiment to further purify Heavenly peoples."
"What does that mean?" Peorth asked.
Urd shrugged. "No one's perfect, not even gods and goddesses. We all have our own flaws, personality glitches, hatreds, jealousies, petty crap. The idea was that those things could be drawn out of a god until all that remained was the purity. Belldandy was already considered better than most, so she was the natural candidate."
"So..." Peorth paused and looked back and forth between Urd and Aramis. "They took a CHILD... and pulled parts of her out of her SOUL? That's barbaric!"
"Those were darker times on Earth," Aramis said. "It was thought a purer god could forge a purer world."
Urd snickered derisively. "The only problem was the 'impurities' didn't just up and vanish once they were pulled out. They coalesced into another goddess."
"Verthandi," Peorth concluded.
"'Verthandi' is just what they call her to distinguish between the two," Urd told her. "It's still Belldandy. They're the same person, Peorth. It's not like she's an evil twin or a clone or a sister. They are two halves of the same person."
"So what happened?" Peorth asked.
Urd started typing again. "Belldandy was sent off with Celestin to learn to be the next great goddess of our time. Verthandi remained here." A note of bitterness creeped into her voice. "Where they promptly ignored her."
The silver haired woman nodded. "They didn't want to think about her, they didn't want to try. She was the combined essence of Belldandy's hates, jealousies and simple bad feelings. She was prone to angry outbursts she couldn't really control. The other goddesses were afraid of her." She looked at Peorth. "She was still just a child."
"You tried," Aramis told her.
"She's still my sister, no matter what the others thought," Urd told him. "Being half..." She trailed off. "Being what I am, I thought I could help her. For awhile, I thought I was."
"So how did she end up sealed?"
"She turned," Aramis told her.
"It's not that simple," Urd bit at him. "What did they think would happen? They treated her like an enemy for so long, she started to believe it was true."
"What did she do?" Peorth asked, anxious to get to the point.
"She threw in with the demons," Aramis said. "The demons had her rig the network so that whenever a god or goddess traveled to Earth, they would appear at prearranged points where the demons could wait for them and seal them or kill them. We lost six gods before someone figured it out."
"The irony is," Urd broke in, "That the only people to ever trust her with any responsibility were the demons, and she pulled it off flawlessly."
"Something doesn't add up," Peorth said. "If she's a culmination of the negative parts of Belldandy's personality, then she still can't be evil."
"Finally, someone sees my point," Urd cried.
Peorth continued. "Belldandy didn't have any evil in her to begin with. She was born a goddess. So..."
"So Verthandi isn't evil either," Urd finished. "She's hurt, and angry and confused, but she's not a demon."
"No, she's just a treasonous killer with no sense of remorse or compassion," Aramis quipped.
Urd shot him an angry look. "She still has those things somewhere inside her. I've seen it, but if she doesn't, it's only because we made her that way." She shook her head. "What's worse is that somehow she has a link to Belldandy."
She saw him stir and slowly open his eyes, drawing on her immediately.
"Belldandy?" he asked groggily, sitting up.
Hearing him say her name, her real name, set off explosions in her heart. She smiled down at him. "Keiichi san," she greeted, her voice surprisingly gentle for a goddess who only hours ago killed six gods. "Did you sleep well?"
"Yeah," he said, scratching the back of his head. "Um... is everything okay?"
"Well, you don't usually wait at my side for me to wake up in the morning," he joked.
"I... thought I heard something," she lied. "Would you like breakfast?"
His smile widened. "Sure!"
She rose silently and stepped back into the hall to let him dress. It didn't take long to find the proper utensils and ingredients for simple miso soup, and she didn't dare try to make anything more complicated. Placing a celery stalk on the cutting board, she began to chop the vegetable into smaller pieces roughly the same size.
The closer she was to her other half, the closer their link. She found herself remembering things she hadn't done.
She saw herself and Keiichi working outside the temple, the simple, mundane tasks made worthwhile by getting to do it together.
She saw the sun shining over a group of buildings where young people walked to and fro, people waving to her and smiling, not hiding their eyes and avoiding her.
The sun was setting in the west as she and Keiichi sat atop the temple roof. "I love you," he said.
Looking down, she saw the chef's knife had cut completely through the cutting board and three inches into the counter. She felt the rage bubbling up within her.
They took it from me! It could have been mine! Should have been mine!
Her skin crackled with the power her anger was giving her.
"Fight it!" she heard Urd's voice in her mind. "Choke it back! You're better than that!"
She shut her eyes and bit her lip so hard it bled, but the wrath did begin to subside.
Her eyes locked onto the voice in a quarter second. The raven-haired girl who uttered the word took a step back in surprise.
"Are you okay?" Skuld asked her in concern.
"I'm fine," Verthandi said, effortlessly pulling the knife from the counter top. She assembled the ingredients into a pot and turned on the oven.
Skuld watched this with a skeptical eye. "Are you sure?"
"I'm making breakfast for Keiichi," Verthandi told her, locking eyes with her. "I'm busy."
"Oh," Skuld replied, hurt by her sister's dismissive tone. "I'll... I'll just be in my room."
"That's good," Verthandi said, not facing her. "You do that."
Keeping her eyes on the woman, Skuld backed into the hallway and started for her room. She passed Keiichi as he was coming out of his bedroom and grabbed his arm.
"I think... I think there's something wrong with Oneesama," she whispered.
"You think she's sick or something?"
"I don't know yet. Just be nice to her, okay?"
He nodded and walked into the kitchen, unsure of what he would find. He saw Verthandi put a bowl of soup on the table and sit on the other end. Immediately he knew Skuld was right. Something was up. It's not that he was greedy, but Belldandy never made just soup. Usually he had to find excuses not to eat the massive spread she would make.
He sat down in front of the bowl and smiled at her. Verthandi rested her chin in her hands, elbows on the table and watched him eat.
In between bites, he would look up at her only to find her smile remained fixed. "So," he said, trying to make conversation. "What's your plan for today?"
"Keiichi san, take me out," she asked immediately.
He blinked. "Eh?"
"Anywhere," she said quickly, as if rushed. "I just want to be with you today. We can go anywhere you like."
He nodded. "Okay. Belldandy, are you feeling okay?"
She moved next to him and reached out, touching his face with her hands. Tears welled up in her eyes. "Just be with me. Just for a little while."
He nodded again. "Okay. Let me get my stuff."
She smiled as he left the table.
"What's going on?" Skuld asked as Keiichi emerged from his room with his motorcycle helmet.
"Oh, Belldandy and I are going out for awhile."
She followed him into the living room. "You're what? Didn't I tell you she wasn't feeling well?"
"She asked," he said with a shrug. "Maybe getting out of the house is what she needs."
"Oh no you don't!" Skuld cried, pulling a Skuld Bomb from her shirt. "Planning on taking advantage of Oneesama when she's ill is low even for you, Keiichi!"
She felt someone grab her wrist and pull her around. The young goddess suddenly found herself staring into the pale blue eyes of her sister, and they were not happy.
"Stop it," Verthandi hissed at her.
It was the scariest sound Skuld had ever heard her sister make. She swallowed in fear. "Oneesama..."
"You leave him alone," Verthandi hissed quietly. "Do you hear me?" The goddess was shaking ever so slightly in anger. "Don't you EVER think of hurting him!"
Skuld could only nod quickly.
"Now go to your room and don't come out," Verthandi ordered quietly.
The younger goddess rushed from the room as her older sister rose to her feet. Keiichi watched her in frank concern.
"Maybe we should stay in," he said.
"No!" she said in panic. "Keiichi san, she..." She looked away and covered her face with her hands. "I'm sorry," she finally said. "I... I just..."
Keiichi walked up to her and at his unspoken invitation, she fell into his arms, burying her face into his chest and crying.
Unsure of where to place his hands, the young man finally started to rub her upper back. "It's okay," he said. "Whatever it is, it's okay. I'll help you."
Verthandi held him tighter.
"How much longer?" Aramis asked.
"Another couple of hours at least," Urd told him. "What did The Almighty say?"
"You, me, three other centurions are going to go after her," he told her. "Our orders are to capture her... alive."
Urd wasn't sure how she felt about that.
"You've always supported her," Aramis said, seeing the look on her face. "And you're the only one who advocates killing her."
"You don't understand," Urd told him softly. "My sister... by that I mean Belldandy... walks around in a constant state of optimism. Whatever problems there are in the world, she knows in her heart they can be fixed. She believes the best about everyone and every thing."
She trailed off for a moment.
"Verthandi," she began again slowly. "Hurts... every moment of every day." She looked up at the war god, her eyes wet with sympathy. "Her heart HURTS, Aramis. It doesn't stop. Where Belldandy feels the joy around her, Verthandi can only feel the sadness. It eats at her. In her mind, no good can ever come from the next few moments of her life."
The god looked down at her, a pang of sympathy going out to his quarry.
"Killing her would be a blessing," Urd finished.
Keiichi brought the bike to a stop and turned it off. Pulling off his helmet, he dismounted and watched the goddess unsteadily climb from the sidecar.
"I'm sorry," he told her. "I just have to pick something up from the club house."
She wasn't paying attention. Verthandi was looking around the campus wide eyed. The place she had seen in her dreams wasn't as crowded as she thought, it being a Saturday, but seeing it in person made her smile.
"So... I'll be right back," Keiichi finished. He put his helmet on the handlebars and walked into the Auto Club clubhouse.
The goddess turned to see a tall man in glasses smiling unctuously at her as he approached. She didn't know the man's name, but could only assume her other half knew him. Something about the way he looked at her triggered something in her mind, made her guarded.
This man wants to take advantage of me.
"How are you?" Toshiyuki Aoshima asked as he adjusted his glasses. "I was just thinking about you, and here you are!"
"I'm well," Verthandi said icily. "You may go now."
The boy frowned at the statement. "You may be popular," he grumbled. "But that doesn't mean you can talk down to ME."
"I'm popular," Verthandi whispered, faint tendrils of anger working their way up her spine. "Of course I am," she growled. "I'm Belldandy, a goddess of sweetness and light, love and happiness. How can I not be popular?"
"Getting kind of a big head, aren't you?" Aoshima asked. He smiled. "Maybe big enough to realize you can do better than Morisato?" He reached out and took her hand.
She looked down at her hand, encased in the mortal boy's own. Her eyes traveled up his arm to his face, that slimy, self-absorbed face.
She looked down at his arm again and whispered, "Break."
He screamed as the upper bone in his arm snapped. The boy fell to his knees, cradling his arm, but before he could cry for help, Verthandi was on him, pushing him face down into the grass, smothering him in the verdant life she was admiring a few moments before.
"You don't touch me!" she hissed. "NO ONE touches me! NO ONE!" She continued to push. "No one but him! No one but Keiichi! Do you understand?! You touch me again, and I'll kill you!"
Aoshima was nodding his head and blubbering into the dirt, desperately trying to escape. He felt Verthandi's breath on his ear as she lowered herself to him.
"Now RUN!" she hissed.
He felt the weight of her body ease off of him, and Aoshima bolted away like a shot, not looking back, just running as fast as he could.
Verthandi watched him run. How dare he? HOW DARE HE?!
No one touches her, she vowed. No one ever again. She would never be touched by anyone not of her choosing ever again.
"Sorry about that."
She whirled around and found Keiichi walking up to her, a small box, probably a motorcycle part, in his hand. "If I didn't pick this up for Megumi, she'd be really mad. Ready to go?"
Verthandi smiled and reached out, taking his hand.
Belldandy hummed happily as she reentered the house, a shopping bag full of produce in each hand. Walking into the kitchen, she started unpacking groceries.
Turning, her smile fell. "Skuld?"
Skuld looked at her carefully from the hallway. "I... I just wanted to say I'm sorry about the way I acted this morning."
Belldandy felt frank concern wash over her at her sister's tone and expression. Skuld looked positively miserable. "Skuld, are you okay?!"
Her sister ran up and threw herself into the goddess' arms. "Don't be mad at me anymore! Please!" Skuld begged.
"I'm not mad at you! What happened?!" Belldandy asked fearfully.
Skuld looked up at her, tears in her eyes. "You... you yelled at me... for wanting to Skuld Bomb Keiichi... I... I wasn't really going to hurt him. You know that."
"Of course I do! But what... What do you mean I yelled at you?"
The young goddess blinked up at her. "But... you..."
As Skuld struggled for words, the freezer started to vibrate. Belldandy looked up and saw the freezer door burst open and ice crystals quickly form in the kitchen, coalescing into a tall man.
Before she could finish, the man pointed a finger at her and shot her full in the chest with a beam of blue light. With a surprised cry, Belldandy flew across the kitchen and found herself pinned to the wall by the force of the god's magic.
"ONEESAMA!" Skuld reached into her shirt and pulled a Skuld Bomb, only to have it plucked out of her hand a moment later by someone behind her. Turning quickly, her jaw dropped. "URD?!"
The tall goddess ignored her, walking over to where Belldandy stood trapped.
Two other gods joined them in the kitchen, watching Belldandy warily. Urd regarded Belldandy for a moment, then spoke. "I had a job as a waitress once," she said, an edge of steel in her voice. "Which restaurant did I work in?"
Belldandy blinked. "Anna Millers."
Belldandy decided to suspend belief and just answer. "Your license was suspended."
Urd regarded her for a moment. She had no idea how strong the link between Verthandi and Belldandy was, what details the psychotic half might know, but she couldn't keep her sister pinned to the wall like a butterfly in a case all day.
"I guess you're okay," she said finally.
Belldandy felt the magic energy release and landed gracefully on her feet. Aramis gave her a sheepish look. "My apologies, Belldandy sama. There was no way to be sure."
"Be sure of what?!" Skuld cried. "What is going on here?!"
"Neesan, where is Keiichi? What is all this?"
"When was the last time either of you saw Keiichi?" Urd asked, ignoring their questions.
Skuld replied first. "He left with Oneesama two hours ago. She was acting really weird."
Belldandy looked down at her shocked. "But... that's not true! I've been at the market getting groceries for tonight! I haven't seen Keiichi all morning!"
Urd looked to Aramis. "Now she has a hostage," the war god told her quietly.
"Hostage?!" Belldandy cried. "Who?! Keiichi?! Neesan, what's going on!? Is Keiichi in danger?! Tell me!"
Urd made a quick decision. She took her sister by the shoulders and looked her dead in the eye. "Belldandy, I want you and Skuld to stay here with Phobos and Deimos. Do you understand?"
"If Keiichi's in trouble, I want to..."
"Keiichi won't be in trouble if you stay here," Urd told her gently. She put on a smile for her sister's benefit. "Please."
"Urd," Aramis cut in. "You're in..." He paused, not wanting to say Verthandi's name in their present company. "You're in this woman's head better than any of us. What do you think she'll do now?"
Urd released Belldandy and tried to put her thoughts together. The fact that she took Keiichi and didn't wait for Belldandy to return to kill her struck her as odd, but perhaps the link was the explanation.
"She's gorging," she told him. "She's been sealed for four hundred years. If you were imprisoned that long, what would you do? All of the things you've thought about doing for four hundred years."
"And what are those things for her?"
Urd was rushed, but took a moment to think about the question, trying to relive her time with her other sister in the space of a few seconds. She took Keiichi with her...
Or did Keiichi take her?
She turned to Belldandy. "Belldandy, where would Keiichi take you if he wanted to cheer you up? If he knew you weren't yourself?"
Belldandy half blushed. "Well... He knows I like the pier. The one where the ferries dock."
Urd looked to Aramis, who shrugged. "As good a place as any."
It was not, in Verthandi's eyes, "as good a place as any."
It was, in fact, the absolute best place of all.
"It's beautiful," she breathed, looking out at the water from the ferry's observation deck.
Standing next to her, Keiichi silently congratulated himself. He knew this was Belldandy's favorite place. Perhaps this would do the trick.
For her part, Verthandi was breathing deep, inhaling the sea air, listening to the seagulls as the circled above. It was perfect, absolutely perfect.
"I know you're not feeling well today," Keiichi told her. "I hope this helps."
She turned to look at him. "Tell me why you love me," she demanded point blank.
The question hit Keiichi like a truck. "Wha...wha... what?"
"What is it about me that you love?" Verthandi pressed him. "Is it my body? My eyes? My hair?" She stepped close to him, nearly pressing herself against him.
"It's... It's not like that!" he cried, blushing furiously.
"You don't like my body?" she quizzed him.
"I like your body!" he replied defensively. "You have a great body!" His words only made him blush brighter.
"I need to know," she said quietly. "What is it about the goddess Belldandy that you love?"
"Well... It's... It's everything," he said finally, unsure of what the "right" thing to say was. "I mean... I guess I love you because you're you."
"And what if... What if I was still me... but different?" Verthandi asked him, taking his hands in hers. "If I acted differently or..." She fumbled with words but couldn't find them.
She felt his fingers on her cheek and looked up at him.
"You are Belldandy," he said quietly. "Nothing can change that."
She wiped a tear away. "Tell me you love me," she begged.
He didn't know what was wrong with her today, magic potion, message from Heaven, who knew? All he knew is that the answer for it seemed to be something he could give her easily enough.
"I love you, Belldandy."
Leaning up, the renegade goddess brushed her lips against his and kissed him deeply, grabbing onto the small core of positive emotions she still had left and letting it fly free for one wonderful moment. For that moment, she was whole.
She was Belldandy again.
When she finally released him, he was completely red. She basked in the moment, knowing it was about to end.
"Keiichi san," she said quietly. "I saw an ice cream stand in the park. Would you go get me a snow cone?"
"Uh... Yeah, sure." he said, a little confused. "I'll... I'll just be right back."
He turned slowly to go.
The boy turned back to her. "I love you." Tears were pouring down her face. "No matter what anyone ever says about me. I love you."
"Belldandy, are you..."
"I'm fine. Please."
He nodded and walked away.
She watched until he was out of sight and turned her attention to the goddess standing in the shadows nearby. "You can come out now, Neesan. He's gone." She turned back to the water and gazed out over it.
Urd stepped forward warily. "Belldandy," she said. "It's over. You have to come with me."
Verthandi looked down at her reflection in the water. "You're the only one other than him to call me by my real name," she told her. "To look at me and not see a freak."
Unsure of what might happen, Urd stepped a little closer. "You're my sister," she said in a way that implied that should explain it all.
The renegade looked out at the water, refusing to face her. "You were always there for me," she said. "You knew I was different even when I tried to pretend I wasn't, but you never treated me any differently. It wasn't until they turned me down for my license and the job at the Goddess Relief Office that I really knew... I could never be her. I was so angry." She shook her head. "It was the only part of me that was really mine. I thought they had ruined me, that I would never be able to feel love, that they had sucked all of that out of me and left me a hate-filled monster."
Urd listened sympathetically as her sister babbled.
"I was going to kill as many gods and goddesses as I could for that," she confessed quietly. "I wanted to hurt you all they way you hurt me. I wanted you to feel this constant, inexorable despair. I wanted you to feel like the sun would never again rise, that you would never feel warmth in your bodies again. I wanted you to HURT!"
Her hands tightened on the railing, bending the steel with her rage and pain.
"But then, one night as I was sealed away, I saw his face in my dreams," she said, her tone changing. "And he was there every night, comforting me." She finally looked up at Urd. "And I was warm again. I needed to know, face to face, if I could love him."
"And you can," Urd told her.
Verthandi nodded. "And I can. It's over." She took a breath. "You have two options, Neesan. You can try to take me alive, and I will fight harder than you have ever seen me fight. Maybe I'll kill you and maybe I won't, but I guarantee you I will leave this city in flames."
"And option two?" Urd asked quietly.
Tears ran down the goddess' cheeks. "Just end it. Let it end now, while I'm still warm, while I can still feel his lips on mine."
Urd wiped a tear away. "Sister, I..."
"You've always helped me, Neesan. I need you to help me one more time." She gripped the railing tightly and looked out at the water. "No speeches," she begged. "No prayers."
She closed her eyes.
Urd choked back a sob, stepped behind her and planted her lips on the back of her sister's head, kissing her softly. "You deserved so much better," she sobbed.
Then, she gently touched the back of Verthandi's neck.
The renegade crumpled to the ground and started to sublimate, her essence literally evaporating away until only a light gray haze remained, carried away by the meeting of the wind from the mountain and the breeze off the water.
Urd stood there for several moments, choking back tears. Suddenly, she turned to her right and saw Keiichi there, two snowcones in his hands and his face a mask of complete sadness.
She wiped tears away. "You saw?" she asked.
"Yeah," he whispered.
The goddess leaned on the railing and found the hand prints where Verthandi had literally squeezed the steel under her hands. She let her hand rest on the spot as she cried.
"Belldandy can never know," she told him. She was trying desperately to collect herself. "You know how emotional she gets."
She felt rather than saw Keiichi walk up and stand next to her. Before she knew it, he was wrapping his arms around her.
Rather than push away, Urd fell into the hug and cried.
"You can't tell me anything about it?" Belldandy asked him. "But you're all right, right?"
The two sat on the porch, looking out at the stars.
"Yeah, I'm all right," he said distantly.
"Urd won't say anything either," the goddess told him. "Just that she didn't want to talk about it. She's hurt, though. I wish I knew why."
Keiichi looked up at the stars and wondered if the other Belldandy was up there. Where ever she was, he hoped she was warm.
"And you can't say anything?" Belldandy probed gently.
Keiichi looked at her and smiled. "Just... that I love you too."
"The Almighty was initially displeased with the outcome," Aramis told Urd as he sat next to her on her bed. "But I think I managed to convince him that it was the best way."
"Thank you, Aramis," she said softly. "She really was a different person in the end."
"Do you think it might have lasted?" he asked.
She shook her head. "No, and even she knew it. All she wanted to was to do was see if it was possible for her to love someone else."
"I'm very sorry," the war god told her.
"Yeah, me too," Urd said.
"They were going to toss this out," he said, pulling something from a satchel on his belt. "I convinced them to let me take it. I thought you might want it."
Urd reached out and took the simple wooden flute from him. She looked up at him. "Thank you."
"If you need to talk," he began.
"No. No, I'll be fine." She smiled and saw his uncertain nod in response. He put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed before saying goodbye and quietly leaving her room.
She stood up and closed the door behind him. Turning, she lifted the flute to her lips and blew softly. No melody emerged, just the rasp of air rubbing against wood, a sad sound.
She squeezed the flute with both hands and shut her eyes as gentle sobs racked her body.