Disclaimer: Ah! My Goddess is not mine. Fraggle Rock belongs to Jim Henson.
Foreword: When I first wrote "Blessings," the idea was to write a cute one-shot fic with some humor. The reviews were good, and my friend and fellow author, WillZ, kept tossing ideas back and forth and that produced "Perspective." Then more prompted "Vows." The only thing keeping it from becoming a full fledged series was an overarching theme and plot. Then, one day while talking with Will, that plot presented itself.
If you haven't read the three fics above, I recommend you do before reading this as this story takes place right on their heels. Thank you for reading. I hope you enjoy it.
Blessings: Broken Bow
Chapter 1: Lost Light
"Send him in," The Almighty replied to the intercom. He sat back in his chair and focused his eye on the door. The sight of the god who walked through it nearly broke his heart.
He was young, too damn young to walk with a cane. It was obvious he didn't bother to take care of himself, stubble ran rampant over his chin and neck, and the brown cape was weather-worn and in obvious need of cleaning. His brown hair was still short, but had much more bulk than the last time he had seen him.
The Almighty forced pity out of his mind. He knew it would be unwelcome.
"Gwydion," he said in greeting. "Thank you for coming."
He watched the god struggle to kneel, and The Almighty stopped him.
"I told you that wasn't necessary."
"My Lord," the god said tiredly. The creator of all things could smell why on the god's breath.
"Heard you started the day pretty early," he told him.
"It's not like I have duty later," Gwydion told him with just the barest hint of disdain.
"You are a god in Heaven's service," The Almighty reminded him sternly. "You are always on duty."
The god leaned painfully on his cane and grimaced, not in anger, but pain. "Yes, My Lord. How may I be of service?"
"Funny you should ask that," God told him as he stood up. "I have a job for you."
"You're joking," Gwydion told him with a laugh.
"Not in the slightest," God said with a touch of darkness.
"And what great mission waits for Gwydion?" the broken god asked.
The Almighty paused before answering. "My youngest, Skuld, has come to the age where she needs to start learning magic. She needs an instructor, and I want that instructor to be you."
"Me?" the god asked, puzzled. "There are better men than me," he whispered.
"Very few," The Almighty admitted quietly. "Her sister, Verthandi, has been teaching her up until now, but there are constraints on her schedule and quite frankly..."
"I've heard of Verthandi," the god told him. "She's one of the best..."
"In her area of expertise," God told him. "I need Skuld proficient in yours."
"I don't make it a habit of explaining myself," God told him. "This is a mission I want you to take. Now you can either gather yourself back into some semblance of the god I knew and get it done, or you can grab your bottle and get your ass out of my Heaven. Make your choice."
Gwydion sighed and rubbed his eyes. "I won't have to go to Earth, will I?"
"Now that you mention it..."
"Hey, look what I found in her room!" the little green creature cried, holding aloft a vial with a green powder in it.
"What do you suppose it does?" the other creature, this one red, asked.
"Who knows?" the green one shrugged, opening the stopper.
Before he could swallow the contents, a grey creature rushed into the garden. "Urd's coming! Everyone run!"
The group of some ten creatures started panicking and running in different directions as the goddess of love, wielding Skuld's mallet, darted into the garden and started swinging indiscriminately at the creatures.
"You better run!" she shouted at the tiny things as they retreated. "Damn hippies!"
With a snort, Urd went back inside and joined the others at the breakfast table, placing Skuld's mallet near the door and retaking her seat. The others watched her in quiet confusion. Urd just started eating her miso soup again.
"What do you have against them anyway?" Skuld finally asked.
Urd's eyebrow twitched. "Damn Fraggles," she muttered. "Constantly stealing stuff from my potions cupboard..."
Skuld saw the absolute wrath in her sister's eyes and let it drop, but Belldandy must have missed it.
"Neesan, why don't you just share with the Fraggles?" she asked.
"Why don't you just sleep with Keiichi?" Urd shot back. Keiichi spurted soup all over the table in response.
Belldandy turned deep crimson, too shocked to say anything as she regarded her sister's enraged expression.
"Um... Wow," Skuld interjected.
Urd stood up and started for the door, taking one last shot as she walked out. "Because it's your own damn business, that's why!"
"What was that?" Keiichi asked as the door slammed.
Skuld stared at the door and shrugged. "She's been acting weird since that thing with Corus. What do you think Oneesama?"
Belldandy didn't say anything, she was still beet red, staring off into nothing.
"Belldandy has gone bye-bye, Keiichi," Skuld sighed. "What do you have left?"
"I'm sure she didn't mean anything by it," Keiichi said as he adjusted his goggles and waited for Belldandy to adjust her helmet. "Like Skuld said, she's been off for awhile."
At first Belldandy didn't say anything. Mentally shrugging, Keiichi started the bike and started down the street toward Nekomi Tech. About thirty seconds passed before Belldandy spoke.
"Keiichi, do you want me to sleep with you?"
Tires screeched as the student nearly lost control of the bike. Finally bringing it to a stop, he turned to his fiancee. "I'm sorry, what?" he asked.
"Married couples sleep together, don't they?" she asked, looking down at her lap. "Is that something you would like to do?"
The temperature inside Keiichi's helmet rose about thirty degrees. "Y...y...yeah," he finally squeaked.
Belldandy smiled and clapped her hands together. "Good! Tonight then!" she declared, facing forward and waiting for the bike to move as if they had just decided on what they were having for dinner that night.
Keiichi just stared for several moments until the car behind them beeped its horn, prompting him to move. The bike started forward again.
His heart thudded in his chest, and he had to force himself to calm down.
Just settle down, he told himself. After all, she's not freaking out about it, and neither should I. We're engaged. Most engaged couples... you know...
He glanced at her and smiled. It was amazing how much things had changed since that first night in his dorm room. The student chuckled to himself. There was a time, after all, when he actually thought even thinking of the idea would cause him to be struck by lightning...
The bolt of lightning hit the front of the bike, blinding Keiichi for a moment, but instincts honed by years of racing bikes kicked in and he hit the brakes. Belldandy screamed from the side-car as he turned the bike, bringing it to a stop.
A moment after the wheels stopped moving, he hopped off and got on his knees. "I'M SORRY!" he screamed at the sky.
"Keiichi san! Are you okay?!"
He blinked spots out of his eyes. "Yeah. You?"
Still blinking, he went to check on the bike. For a moment, he thought the lightning had affected his vision more than he thought, but after a minute he was sure. There were glowing letters of some kind burned into the front fender.
"Belldandy, come take a look at this," he asked. The goddess joined him at the front of the bike and gasped.
"It's a message from The Almighty!" she said.
"I never would have guessed," Keiichi muttered. "He knows we have an email address, right?"
Belldandy's eyes moved over the letters. She shook her head in disbelief.
"What is it?" Keiichi asked, concerned.
"According to this," she said slowly. "Well... let me just read it to you. 'Belldandy, due to understandable constraints on your schedule while preparing for your approaching nuptials, I've decided the task of educating your younger sister should be appointed to another. Please prepare her for his arrival, which will be later today. The Almighty.'"
Keiichi felt a wave of relief. So he wasn't being attacked. It was purely innocent. Even so, the look on Belldandy's face was not a happy one. "Belldandy?" he asked. "That's good, isn't it?"
She looked down sadly. "I... I suppose it means I..." She gathered her voice and just said it. "It means I can't be trusted to properly educate Skuld."
Keiichi wrapped an arm around her. "I'm sure that's not what it means," he said. "I mean, if there was anyone who COULD do all the stuff you do, and prepare for a wedding AND teach Skuld to use magic, it would be you. Maybe Kami sama just thinks it shouldn't HAVE to be you."
She rested her head on her shoulder. "Thank you, Keiichi san," she whispered. "You always know how to make me feel better."
The close contact only made him think of their earlier conversation, and the boy's heart began to beat faster. He cleared his throat and stepped away. "Well, we should probably get going," he said.
Skuld stood in the center of the room somewhere between shocked and livid. Belldandy had given her the news a moment before, putting the best possible spin on it.
"But I don't want a different teacher!" she cried. "I want you, Oneesama!" Tears flowed down the young goddess' face.
Belldandy's own composure was ready to break as well. "Skuld, I'm sure it will be fine. The Almighty chose a teacher for you himself."
The younger goddess wasn't buying it. She turned to Keiichi. "Keiichi," she growled. "I've been trying really hard to not say this lately, but..." She pointed at him. "I BLAME YOU!"
Keiichi scratched the back of his head. "Um... Sorry?"
Growling, Skuld stormed out of the room toward her lab.
"That could have gone... better," Urd remarked. "So who did The Almighty saddle her with?"
"His note didn't say," Belldandy said. "I heard Eostre is available. Maybe it's her?"
"Didn't the note say, 'he?'" Keiichi reminded her.
The goddess put her finger to her lips. "Hmmm. Zao Jun just graduated a student."
"What's he going to teach her, baking?" Urd chuckled. "Skuld isn't the domestic type."
"Oh, yeah, that's what Skuld needs to learn. Booze, sex and corn..."
Belldandy sighed. "Then I really don't know."
"Why don't you call The Almighty and ask?"
They turned to the TV to find the face of God looking back at them. The Almighty was sitting at his desk, adjusting a web cam that must have been sitting on his Imac.
"Kami sama!" Belldandy greeted with a wide smile.
"It's good to see you, Verthandi, Keiichi." He nodded in Urd's direction. "Urd."
"Kami sama," she returned just as soberly.
"I trust you got my message," he said, ignoring her and turning to Belldandy.
"Hai," she replied. She smiled cautiously as she asked. "But why didn't you just use the phone?"
He turned and gave Keiichi a knowing smile. "Just making sure you weren't... sleeping on the job."
The boy gulped.
"So who is it?" Urd asked directly.
"No one you've ever heard of, if that's what you're wondering," he told her. "And I wasn't feeling cold enough to ask Peorth to do it, if that's what some of you are afraid of."
"Then who?" Belldandy asked.
"His name is Gwydion. He has my full confidence."
That was all.
Urd waited for more. "That's it? How many other gods has he taught?"
The Almighty turned a critical eye toward her. "I wasn't aware the god I'VE chosen to educate my youngest daughter had to have references," he bit out.
A soft tone sang out from The Almighty's computer. "Oh, if you'll excuse me. I have to appear in a grilled cheese sandwich in Detroit in five minutes. Skuld will be fine. Gwydion is a fine teacher. Belldandy, please do what you can to make him comfortable."
With a final nod, his image was replaced by static.
Skuld buried her face in her pillow and sulked. She felt cheated. She had given up trying to keep her sister and Keiichi apart, mostly because of the thought that they would still have time together. Now it seemed that was being taken away from her.
Sitting up in her bed, she took a deep breath and sighed loudly, more as therapy than anything else.
She didn't want a new teacher. Belldandy was a first class goddess, one of the best in Heaven, and now Kami sama wanted to saddle her with some... some...
Her thought was interrupted by a knock at her door. "What?" she asked sulkily.
"Open the door," came a voice she had never heard before.
She blinked. "Who's there?" she asked.
"I don't have time for games," the voice called back. "Open the door."
Compelled by some unknown force, Skuld got up and opened her bedroom door. A scruffy-looking man stood there, leaning on a cane. Without waiting to be invited, he stepped inside, the tip of his cane clacking against the wood floor.
"You're Skuld?" he asked, looking at some of the smaller inventions that lined her walls.
"Yes, who are you?" she asked bitterly.
"My name is Gwydion," he answered gruffly. "I'm your new teacher." He finally turned to face her, his expression one of uncertain annoyance. "I guess you're not happy about it either."
It was all Skuld could do to keep from crying. It was bad enough to be pulled from Belldandy, but to be given to some strange god who apparently didn't even want to teach her...
"The Almighty has assigned me to whip you into shape," Gwydion told her frankly. "You're an adult, and I expect you to act like one. I'm the teacher, you're the student. I talk, you listen. I teach, you learn. Don't waste my time, and I promise I won't waste yours."
Skuld only heard about half that. She was a little shocked by what he had called her. No god or goddess had ever told her she was an adult and really meant it, yet the man's words were filled with enough threat that suddenly the recognition she had wanted seemed strange to her.
"Understand?" he asked.
She nodded, gritting her teeth and accepting her fate.
"Good," he said gruffly. "Now... I need to sit down." He leaned against the wall and shut his eyes for several moments.
"Are you okay... um... Sensei?" she asked.
He nodded. "Yeah, I'm fine. Though I suppose I should speak to your sister and whoever it is that actually owns this place."
"You mean you haven't talked to them yet?"
He smiled tightly. "Unfortunately, there's only one book of poetry in this house, and it's in the back."
"Oh, well, they're over here."
Belldandy was just about to announce dinner when Skuld and Gwydion entered the kitchen. She took the new development in stride, bowing as Keiichi and Urd entered.
Gwydion nodded in return. "Lady Belldandy," he said in greeting. "It's an honor. I've heard impressive things about you." He managed a tight smile. "I even read some of your books. They're quite good."
"Thank you, Gwydion san!" the goddess said, brightening. She gestured to Keiichi. "This is my fiancee, Keiichi."
"I've heard of you too," Gwydion told him. "So you're the mortal who went and bagged himself a goddess! Are you telling everyone, or are you trying to keep it a secret?"
Keiichi blushed. "Well, we're not advertising it," he said.
Urd stepped forward. "I'm Skuld's oldest sis..."
"I know who you are," Gwydion growled. The menace in the words brought them all up short. Urd stepped back, unsure of what to make of it. The god looked embarrassed and turned back to Belldandy. "I hate to impose on your hospitality, but..."
"We have a room set up for you," the goddess replied with a smile. "And we're just about to have dinner. Skuld, why don't you show Gwydion sensei to his room so he can get settled before dinner?"
The look on Skuld's face said she didn't like the idea one bit, but she started down the hall anyway. "This way, Sensei."
Keiichi looked to Urd and found her expression troubled. He had been meaning to talk to her anyway. This was as good a time as any.
"Urd, can I talk to you outside?"
The oldest goddess nodded quietly, not even looking at him, and followed him outside. Once the two were alone on the porch, he turned to her.
"Are you okay?" he asked.
"Huh?" Urd asked as if coming out of a trance. "Yeah, I'm fine."
Keiichi chewed the inside of his cheek. "Look, Urd," he said quietly. "I know there's been something bothering you, and I know for whatever reason you don't want to talk to Belldandy about it. I just wanted you to know, that if you need someone to listen... I mean... we're practically family now, right?"
The sentiment forced the goddess to smile. "You're sweet, Keiichi, do you know that?"
The boy scratched the back of his head. "Well, I try..."
Her smile lost some of its luster. "I'm just going through something right now. I'll be okay. But thank you for caring."
"Well, okay," he said. "Oh, Urd, can I ask a question?"
At her nod, he continued.
"What did Gwydion mean by Belldandy's books?"
Urd smiled again. "You really don't know as much about my sister as you think you do, huh?"
She fold her arms over her chest. "Belldandy is, among other things, a very prolific writer."
"Really?" The young man was surprised. No one had ever mentioned it before.
She nodded as she walked past him. "Next time I'm in Heaven, I'll bring back some of them."
"Um... Thanks," he said.
He turned and watched her walk back into the house, wishing he could have asked more questions and wondering if Urd really would be all right.
Urd shut her bedroom door and took a breath before grabbing at her left ring finger and pulling as hard as she could. Growling furiously and stamping her feet didn't seem to help either.
Finally, she collapsed on her futon, snarling and staring at her hand. How the hell was she supposed to explain this to anybody?
The wedding ring Corus gave her stared back at her.
She had tried everything she could think of. Magic, potions, even brute force. Nothing could even make the damn thing budge.
Worse was how it made her feel. She wanted no part of that demon, and with the ring somehow bonded to her it just reminded her day after day that she had actually looked him in the eye and uttered wedding v...
Stop it! she thought. You're only making it worse.
Thankfully, no one had noticed yet. She didn't want to tell Belldandy, and she didn't even know why. Keiichi, she knew, would help if he could, but if she couldn't remove it what hope would he have, and Skuld would only laugh at her.
She sighed and laid back in bed.
I'm his, she thought. He won in the end. Till death do us part...
"Was everything to your liking?" Belldandy asked as she cleared the table.
Gwydion nodded. "Thank you, it was delicious." As the goddess went to the kitchen, Gwydion turned to Skuld, who up to now hadn't said a word to him. "We start tomorrow," he said brusquely. "I need an idea of how much you already know. Be ready early."
The young goddess nodded dully.
"In the morning we'll see what you know, and after that we'll return to Heaven."
"What?!" Skuld cried, suddenly looking up at him in shocked dread. "I don't want to go back to Heaven! I want to stay with Oneesama!"
"First of all, young lady, you will do what I tell you to do," Gwydion told her calmly, but with an edge. "And second, it's only for a couple of days to make use of some of the facilities."
"A couple of days!?" Skuld cried again. "That's about a week down here!" She threw an accusatory look at Keiichi. "And anything can happen in a week."
Seeing the young woman's point, Urd smiled mischievously. "What a good idea! You know, I have some business upstairs too. Maybe I'll come along."
Skuld went white. Keiichi blinked as a sudden, alien thought occurred to him.
"So... Belldandy... and I... will have the house... to OURSELVES?"
"What a concept!" Urd cried, clapping her hands together in mock joy.
"I hate this," Skuld whispered with a shake of her head.
"Enough crying!" Gwydion growled. "Be ready to leave tomorrow at noon." He stood up. "In the meantime..."
"Gwydion san," Belldandy said from the kitchen. "If you like, there's a bath down the hall."
"Thank you," he said tiredly. "That sounds... wonderful."
It was never "wonderful," though. Not like it used to be, when a bath at the end of a long day felt more like heaven than Heaven itself. Now...
He disrobed and set his cane aside before carefully lowering himself into the water, biting his lip and swearing to himself that he wouldn't make a sound.
It didn't take long to break that promise as the hot water made contact with the wounds in his leg and back, and he cried out in pain. He forced his mouth shut and refused to let another sound escape.
He had hoped, once upon a time, that it would be easier, that the pain would ease or that at the very least he would get used to it, but the curse didn't work that way. The pain was his, always fresh, always foremost in his mind.
The pain and the grief, neither of which he would ever be able to let go.
Reaching for the wash cloth, he cried out again.
"Do you think we should check on him?" Skuld asked out in the hallway, listening to the painful cries from within.
"No," Urd told her quietly. "He's a big boy, and if he wanted help, he'd ask."
"You don't like him, huh?" Skuld asked.
"And you do?" Urd asked sarcastically. Skuld only shrugged in agreement. With a more serious tone, Urd answered her. "There's something very not right about him."
"Why? Because he doesn't like you?" Skuld asked. "If that's so, then there's lots of people who're 'very not right.'"
Urd gave her an acidic look. "Where's your computer?"
"In my room," Skuld told her.
"You still have that router that lets us link to Yggdrasil's network?"
"Yeah, sure," she said. "Why?"
Urd ignored her as she started for her sister's room.
It didn't take long for the computer to boot up. Urd waited as the screen said, "Applying security settings..." then "Pushing patches..." tapping the keyboard with her fingers.
Her eye drifted to her ring finger, Corus' ring sparkling at her in spite. She looked back up at the screen as the welcome page appeared.
She logged onto Heaven's intranet page and entered Gwydion's name in the search bar.
The first page listed was his bio page. With a triumphant smile, Urd clicked it.
It asked for a password.
Okay, odd, but no problem, she thought. She entered her sys op password and waited for the bio to pop up.
UNABLE TO ACCEPT PASSWORD, the message said. TO ACCESS THIS FILE, PLEASE CONTACT 1CD ADMINISTRATOR.
Urd blinked in shock. Her password was supposed to access nearly 99 percent of Yggdrasil's files, yet a simple bio for a simple god was classified.
The Combat Division? Why would Heaven's defense arm restrict access to his bio?
She leaned back in her chair and sighed.
Definitely very not right.
Keiichi yawned and stretched out on his futon, closing the thermodynamics text book he had been studying and carelessly tossing it toward his desk. He'd deal with it tomorrow. Lacing his fingers behind his head, he shut his eyes.
He heard footsteps outside his door. Opening his eyes, he saw a familiar silhouette.
"Keiichi san?" Belldandy called. "I'll be ready for bed in a few minutes, all right?"
The boy's eyes went wide. With Gwydion's arrival he had completely forgot about Belldandy's promise about tonight.
"Um... okay," he squeaked. He watched the silhouette walk off.
Ready? he asked himself. How ready? Images of Belldandy in something lacy drifted into his head.
He looked around his room. It was a complete mess. He scrambled out of his futon and started frantically tossing things into his closet before shutting the door and bracing a chair against it. He looked around the now clean room and sighed in relief.
Condoms, Morisato! his brain screamed. Remember what Urd said!? Quints?! You want quints!?
The boy tore through his desk drawers like a DEA agent with a search warrant. Once he found the box Urd had given him, he found that he needed to clean again. He began the task with a desperate urgency as he heard footsteps approach his door again.
Tearing one of the condoms from the box, he jumped under the covers and tried to look nonchalant.
There was a gentle knock, and Belldandy's voice. "Keiichi san? May I come in?"
"Yes," he whispered, then shaking himself and clearing his throat, he tried to sound suave. "Come in," he said.
The sight that met his eyes flabbergasted him. Then again, knowing Belldandy, he probably should have expected it.
The goddess was wearing a set of pink pajamas with little fluffy system bug slippers, carrying a pillow and a teddy bear.
She smiled gently and sat next to him on the futon. "I brought a pillow," she announced.
"Yes, I see that," he muttered with more than a little disappointment.
She frowned. "Is something wrong?"
He shook himself out of it. It wasn't her fault his hentai expectations were too high. He smiled. "Nope," he told her.
Her smile returned in force, and she gave him a kiss. "Good night, Keiichi san."
Belldandy should have been at peace, but she wasn't. Snuggled up to her fiancee while he snored peacefully, the goddess found herself rather troubled.
She thought it would be easy, that she would actually sleep better in Keiichi's arms, but she wasn't.
Despite what Keiichi and others might believe, Belldandy was not immune to earthly desires. She had her needs and wants too, but she had always been taught that it wasn't proper to express them to anyone but her husband.
And much as she would like to think otherwise, Keiichi was not yet her husband.
Once he was, however...
Her pulse quickened at the thought, and her hands instinctively tightened on his arm. The whole idea excited her, but also scared her a little. What if he wasn't attracted to her in that way? Urd was always the sexy, exotic sister. Belldandy had always considered herself rather plain, not as tall or "well endowed" as her older sister.
She looked over at Keiichi. When they first met, he had insisted he wasn't attractive, yet she had always found herself admiring his features. Perhaps that just proved an old adage her mother had told her.
"Men love the women they're attracted to, while women are attracted to the men they love."
No, surely he was attracted to her.
Perhaps she should...
No, that would be wrong, she told herself. That was for marriage. No matter what others might say or think.
Then again, the teachers she had in her sex education class in Heaven had all but assumed they were already intimate.
No, she thought again. Better to save it for the wedding night. After the ceremony, when they were alone...
Her pulse quickened again as she thought about it. Of course, being the proper wife, she would wait for him to make the first move, allow him to lead. And then...
"Men expect their wives to be a gentle caretaker by day and an aggressive tigress by night," her mother had told her when they had "the talk," when the elder goddess had given Belldandy her wedding dress.
A tigress? She looked at Keiichi again. She had never felt or thought of herself like that before. What did that even mean?
She sat up, looking down at her fiancee. Suddenly inspired, she threw a leg over him and straddled the sleeping man. Keiichi didn't stir. The goddess stared down at her fiancee, his cute face and those bushy eyebrows he was always so quick to disparage but she found oddly attractive.
The goddess growled low in her throat.
NOW she felt like a tigress. Her pulse roared in her ears. It would be so easy to just lean down and kiss him, waking him to the feeling of his goddess on him. Now matter how plain she was, she doubted very much he would be able to resist...
No! Bad goddess! Bad! she chastised herself. She saw him stir below her and quickly rolled off of him, returning to her previous position, holding his arm and snuggling against him.
It would simply have to wait...
Gwydion was not pleased.
He had hoped, even dared to expect, that Skuld would at least know some of the rudimentary elements of magic. Unfortunately, what she did know she had learned reluctantly and he finally decided the best thing to do would be start from scratch.
And so he had sent the angry young woman into the house to get her things while he went to gather up a few of his own belongings.
Opening a drawer in his room, he pocketed a billfold and came up short as his other hand touched glass. The bottle resting at the bottom of the drawer was half empty, the amber liquid inside sloshing back and forth teasingly.
He took a breath and bit his lip before mustering the strength to close the drawer.
"They left already?" Urd asked, obviously miffed.
Keiichi nodded. "Yeah. Gwydion looked ticked." He winced in sympathy. "I don't think Skuld is going to have a very good day."
Belldandy smiled. "I'm sure she'll learn a lot from Gwydion. Every god and goddess has a different way of teaching. Some are harsh, and some are gentle. Some have a tight rein and..."
"... Others advocate insurrection and genocide?" Urd asked snidely.
Belldandy's face wilted. It was obvious Urd was making a dig at Belldandy through Celestin.
"That's not fair, Urd," Keiichi told her, his voice nearly a growl, but not quite.
Urd nodded, her eyes closed. "You're right, I'm sorry. I just..." She looked up at Belldandy's eyes and saw the hurt there. "I'm sorry," she said again. "Look, I'm going to head upstairs for a day or so. You... You two have fun, okay?"
"Neesan," Belldandy said quietly, her hand outstretched. "Is there something wrong? Please, just tell us. We want to help."
"Look, I told you, I don't want to talk about it," Urd said simply. "You kids have a good time. I'll be back soon."
Before they could stop her, Urd dived through the TV.
Keiichi watched her go and sighed, wrapping his arm around Belldandy. "She didn't mean it."
"I know," Belldandy told him softly. "Whatever is bothering her, she'll work out for herself. It's her way. I just hope she doesn't hurt herself in the process."
"Yeah," he said. "So... the house to ourselves." He looked around and rubbed his hands together eagerly. "We haven't had the house to ourselves in three years. What do you want to do?"
Belldandy thought for a moment. "I'm going to take a bath."
"Oh," he replied. "Okay. Well, while you do that, I'll... um... Maybe I'll catch up on some homework."
"Keiichi san," she replied quizzically. "If you do that, who's going to wash my back?" With an innocent smile, she started down the hall.
Stunned, it took Keiichi about eight seconds before he followed her.
It didn't take long for Urd to find where she was going. The headquarters for the 1st Combat Division was adjacent to Central Dogma. Though she had never been inside, it was easily recognizable, a shining silver tower with a wall surrounding it and an unguarded gate as the entry point. Four flags flew over the entrance, each representing the four regiments of avenging angels and valkyries that defended Heaven.
Walking through the gate and past a small courtyard, Urd found herself inside a museum. Weapons and armor hung behind glass cases along the walls. She was surprised to see Mjolnir hanging from the ceiling. Thor's hammer was twenty feet long with a head that weighed eight tonnes, according to the small plate on the wall.
She finally found a directory, but it was little help since it didn't list any network administrators. Finally, she decided to count on luck and just poked her head into an office.
A blonde goddess with short hair stood in the corner of a small office, her grey robes looking slightly rumpled. She was staring down at a PDA, tapping the screen with a light pen.
"Hello?" Urd asked, knocking on the door frame.
The goddess looked up for a moment. "What can I do for you?" she asked before looking down again.
"Yeah, I'm looking for the division network administrator," Urd told her.
"You found her," the other goddess admitted, taking a seat behind her desk. "What can I do for you?"
The goddess smiled, glad to know her luck was still good in some ways. "I need access to a file on the intranet, but it says I need your password to get to it, a bio."
The valkyrie started tapping on her keyboard. Lights on the monitor began to align, granting her access. As she typed, Urd noticed a badge on her right shoulder, a gold gate on a black surface with the words, "This far," written across the top and "No farther," across the bottom.
"Whose bio?" she asked.
"A god named Gwydion," Urd told her.
The typing stopped.
The other goddess turned to her. "I'm sorry, may I ask what you need it for?"
Urd was taken aback. "He's my sister's teacher," she said, a little irate at seemingly running into another bureaucratic road block. "And I have some concerns, so I'd like to see his biography and his record if that's all right with you." That last bit came out a little more snarky than she really wanted.
The other goddess smiled tightly. "And what concerns would those be?" she asked, her voice as sweet as poisoned honey.
Too far in to back out gracefully, Urd crossed her arms over her chest. "He's abrasive, insensitive, and that smell on his breath isn't Sprite, if you get my meaning."
The valkyrie stood up and leaned toward Urd, her palms flat on her desk. She looked the love goddess in the eyes, her own alight with anger. "That god saved my life," she hissed. "And the lives of a couple dozen others in this building." She looked Urd up and down. "And you're Urd, aren't you?"
The Norn blinked in surprise.
Seeing her look, the war goddess nodded. "I recognize the family resemblance," she noted.
Urd opened her mouth to speak, but the other goddess beat her to it.
"You should go," she said simply and sat down again.
As Urd walked through the museum, she kicked herself for not being more diplomatic. Now she had more questions and still no answers.
Turning, she saw a familiar hulk in a red cape coming toward her. She smiled in genuine relief. "Aramis," she breathed. "You're the first friendly face I've seen in awhile."
Puzzled, the seven foot centurion looked down at her. "You okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine. Let's get lunch."
"This is a magigraphic chamber," Gwydion told her as he limped into the dark room. "This is where we'll start."
Skuld entered the pitch black room tentatively. "What does it do?" she asked nervously.
"Your first problem," Gwydion continued, ignoring her question. "Is that part of you believes you can't use magic, that you don't have it in you."
"No I don't!" Skuld retorted angrily.
"You're a science geek!" Gwydion told her. "There's no shame in it. You've trained your brain to believe science created magic instead of the other way around. This chamber is going to show you your power by interacting with it at a quantum level and bringing your power into the visible spectrum."
Phrased scientifically, Skuld found it easier to follow. "Okay. So what do I do?"
"Just give it a minute."
Behind Skuld, the door slid shut, encasing them in darkness. A moment later, she noticed a soft, blue glow coming from somewhere. It took her a minute to realize it was coming from her. Looking down at her arms, she saw blue light flickering over her body as if it were set aflame.
She smiled at the sight. "Is this it?" she asked.
"That's it," he told her. She looked up and saw Gwydion, also encased in light, but the blue light around him clung tightly to his body without flickering. Except for several patches on his left torso and right leg which for some reason were red.
"So, why does mine look like this?" she asked.
"It's your control," he told her. "You don't have any yet. When you have the discipline, you'll be able to keep it closer, call it on demand."
She snapped her fingers and saw a small dart of the blue light race across the room and bounce off a wall. "So how do I use it?"
"That comes with studying, practice and confidence," Gwydion told her. "You have to know why magic works in order to use it. It's not all saying pretty words and granting wishes. Magic is the manipulation of the universe around you, essentially convincing it to do what you want based on your authority as a goddess. Gravity doesn't reverse itself for just anyone."
"Okay," she said, smiling more brightly as she got into it. "So what now?"
"Gwydion?" Aramis asked, poking at his food with a fork. "What do you need to know?"
Finally, someone willing to talk. Urd was convinced that there was something wrong with her sister's new teacher, something that even The Almighty was trying to hide from them.
"What have you got?" Urd asked eagerly.
Aramis shrugged. "He's a good guy."
He took a few bites from his lunch, acting as if that were the end of the conversation. Urd glared at him. She and Aramis were childhood friends, but she swore that wouldn't stop her from taking a swing at him if she didn't get the answers she wanted.
"And?" she asked dangerously.
The look on his face told her what she already knew. Not only was there something wrong with Gwydion, it was something no one in the Combat Division wanted to talk about.
"We don't discuss it," he told her quietly.
"Why not?" she demanded.
"Look," he said, sitting back in his chair. "The Division is different from the rest of Heaven. It has its own rules, unofficial rules, but rules nonetheless. And one of those is that you don't air the Divisions' dirty laundry to outsiders."
"Aramis, all I know is that this guy is teaching my little sister and when I asked that goddess about him, she suddenly got belligerent!"
He eyed her for a moment. "Blonde, grey robes, about your height?"
"Yeah," she replied, puzzled again.
"That was Yazlyn," he sighed. "And you couldn't have picked a worse person to go to for answers."
"Why?" she asked, aware she was being lured off track by this new mystery, but piqued nonetheless.
"She and Gwydion came up together," he told her. "And she hates demons. Moreso than normal, I mean. You have to have more than a little anger in you to do this job, but she absolutely hates demons and anything to do with them."
"But I'm not a..." Urd came up short as she remembered her conversation with the valkyrie.
"I recognize the family resemblance."
"She knows about me?" she asked, shocked to whispers.
She shook her head and grimaced, determined to get back on topic. If some strange goddess wanted to be a bigot, that was her business.
"What about Gwydion?" she demanded again. Aramis gave her a look as if he was about to dodge her again, so she pressed. "She's teaching my SISTER, Aramis."
He sighed and thought for several moments, taking a drink from his water glass before speaking again. "He lost a student," he told her quietly. "A few years ago. Her name was Gaeriel. We went to school together." His eyes and voice became wistful as she spoke. "She was the most beautiful goddess I'd ever seen. And brilliant too. Everyone knew she was destined for great things. She could have done anything she wanted."
"So what happened?"
"She and Gwydion... were close," he said dodgily. "Now, I don't want to give you the wrong idea. I don't think there was anything inappropriate about their relationship, but it was obvious he saw her as more than his student and she saw him as more than her teacher. It was to the extent that when the time came for her to choose a role, she followed him into the Division."
She waited for him to go on. "Well, then what?"
His voice saddened the more he spoke. "There was a mission... in the Roundtable." He paused and looked up at her. "Do you know what that is?"
"Yeah," she replied. "It's some sort of buffer area between Heaven and the demon realm."
"The normal rules don't apply there," he explained. "There are strict rules in the other realms about when and under what circumstances you can kill a god or a demon. In the Roundtable they just don't apply. We don't know why." He paused again and resumed his story. "Anyway, there was supposed to be some kind of gathering of demons there. Lind thought it might be a probe, a reconnaissance in force, we call it. She sent forty Gatekeepers to engage them and drive them out of the Roundtable." He took another drink and looked her in the eye. "There were FOUR survivors."
That last statement floored Urd. Pound for pound, one valkyrie or avenging angel was worth about five demons in a one-to-one fight. A force that could take out thirty-six of them must have been immense.
"How?" Urd asked, her disbelief written across her face.
Aramis looked uncomfortable, as if he didn't really want to talk about the next part. "Hild was there," he said quietly. Urd felt her heart plunge into her stomach. "No one knew until it was too late. From what I heard, they lost half their force in the first sixty seconds, including their captain. Gwydion took command and ordered a retreat. They spent the next seven hours dragging their wounded, getting sniped at until they could find a line out."
He took another drink.
"Gwydion... got caught," he whispered. His face turned angry. "In honor of his capture, she blessed him with a special gift," he bit out. "After she was done crushing his body over the course of three days, she cursed him."
Urd stared at him, listening to Aramis lay out the crimes of her mother in horrified fascination.
"She cursed Gwydion so that the injuries he sustained would never fully heal, and the pain he felt when he first got them will never ebb." He paused and took a drink of water. "The Double A's found him floating in the Roundtable a few days later."
Urd took a moment to digest this. "And Gaeriel?" she asked quietly.
"She didn't make it," he whispered. "She was three days out of training. She wasn't ready. They say Gwydion was just too overconfident, put her in his squad anyway. And she paid the price for it. A lot of guys who knew Gaeriel think maybe he got what he deserved."
Urd sat back in her chair, almost physically exhausted just from hearing the story.
"Since then, Gwydion's never been able to bring himself to teach anyone," Aramis said. "He fell into a bottle and never climbed out. It doesn't dull the pain from his curse, but I guess it's better than nothing."
Urd leaned back and digested this. Finally, after several moments, she stood up. "Thanks, Aramis," she said, turning to go.
"Oh, by the way," he said. "Congratulations."
He pointed at her hand, and Urd rushed to cover the ring. "I'm jealous," he joked. "You and Troubador finally get back together or did you find a mortal like your sister?"
"You're an ass, Aramis!" she spat before storming out.
"What did I do?" the puzzled centurion asked himself.
"What did you expect?" Gwydion asked her as he led his young pupil deeper into the cavernous library of Heaven. "That I would take you to some kind of magical shopping district to pick up a wand, a broom and some damn bird and then you'd be all set for magic?" He snorted. "Real magic is a disciplined field. The majority of your time learning about magic will be done here, in the library, reading. You have to learn WHY magic works the way it does..."
He broke off as a blonde woman noticed him and approached. The first hint of a smile spread over his face. "Yazlyn," he greeted her.
The blonde's expression was the exact opposite of the one she had offered Urd not long ago. Skuld, used to the beauty of Belldandy and Urd, found the goddess almost plain, but a fire in the woman's eyes prevented her from being forgettable.
"Gwydion, it's good to see you," she remarked. She looked down at Skuld. "Is this your new student?"
"Heard about that, did you?" he asked.
"Second-hand," she noted dryly. She bowed to Skuld and smiled. "How do you do? My name is Yazlyn. I knew this grumpy old bulldog back when he was just an irritable puppy."
"And still the unprofessional smart-ass that keeps silver off your shoulders, I see," Gwydion growled, only half meaning it. He turned his comments back to Skuld. "Yazlyn here was in my unit in Division."
"Which sucks now that you're gone, by the way," she noted with a roll of her eyes. "It's just not the same."
"You were in the Combat Division?" Skuld asked in awe.
"I did some time there," he admitted almost reluctantly. "But it was a long time ago."
"Don't let him fool you," Yazlyn told her. "If you bug him enough, he'll even tell you a moderately interesting story."
"I'll have her bug you for less interesting ones," he shot back, wincing.
"How long have you been on your feet today?" Yazlyn asked, all business.
"Most of the day," he said, waving her concern aside.
"Sit down," she ordered. "I'll take your pupil to get her books."
"Like you know wha..."
"'Elements of Metamagical Communication' by Eostre, 'Fire: Sources and Conjuring' by Huitzilopochtli, 'Mercy in the Next Age,' by Belldandy and 'The Rain' by Ambisagrus, if I remember correctly."
Gwydion grumbled. "You forgot Gao Yao's 'Gods and Justice,'"
"No, I didn't. You just didn't used to use his work."
The god didn't argue, he collapsed into a nearby padded chair and closed his eyes. "Whatever you say, Yazlyn."
"Sensei, are you all right?" Skuld asked, genuinely concerned.
"Come on," Yazlyn prompted, starting for the book shelves. "He'll be all right."
Skuld followed, throwing another worried look at the god wincing in the chair. "Is he all right?" she asked.
"He's fine," Yazlyn said quickly, not facing Skuld as she said it. "Now, let's see..." She examined the bookshelves, which seemed to go on forever and were at least eighty feet high. A few gods and goddesses floated at different heights, searching for the right books.
The valkyrie handed her books as she found them; most were at eye level or lower, coincidentally. Skuld looked at the cover of the latest and blinked.
"Oneesama wrote this?"
"Hmm?" Yazlyn asked. She saw the cover. "So Belldandy's your sister, huh?" she asked. "Yeah. It's okay. Kind of outside my area, but it's good stuff to know. That's the first volume. We need to find the second."
"It's so much," Skuld said quietly.
The other goddess turned to her, a look of sympathetic understanding peeking through the tough facade. "Hey," she said. "It's nothing. You'll eat through this stuff before you can blink." She turned to pull another tome off the shelf. "And you have a great teacher too. If you want to go to Division, he's the one to learn from. He taught Lind too, years ago."
"Division?" Skuld asked. "What do you mean?"
Yazlyn looked at her again. "Well, you're going to Combat, right?"
"No!" Skuld replied, bordering on horrified.
The older goddess blinked. "Oh. I'm sorry, I just assumed. That's what Gwydion specializes in."
"Gwydion is a war mage."
Urd added another book to the basket and walked toward the nonfiction section. She had managed to get all the way to the television, ready to leave Heaven, when she remembered her promise to Keiichi to pick up some of Belldandy's books. She had already picked up some of her fictional work, some she was sure would give Keiichi some very interesting things to think on, but she wanted to get a copy of 'Mercy in the Next Age.' It was considered her sister's best and most insightful work, and Urd wanted to subtly let Keiichi know that Belldandy knew about more than pies and housework.
She found the second volume and reached up to grab it when her fingers met those of another. Following those fingers to their source, she grimaced as she saw Yazlyn standing there, a look of equal disgust on her face.
"Yazlyn, right?" Urd asked. "I didn't get a chance to get your name last time before you threw me out of your office in a fit of bitchiness."
The valkyrie smiled sweetly. "Urd, you must be in the wrong section. All the books with the pretty pictures in them are in fiction."
Skuld watched the two in uncomfortable awe. "Um... You two... know each other?" she asked.
Neither goddess removed their hand from the book. "Do you mind?" Urd asked.
"Actually, yeah," Yazlyn told her. "Skuld needs this book."
"Well, it's going to the same house, so you can let go now."
"I think it would be better to let her have it," the valkyrie argued.
"I think you're both acting like children!"
They both turned as Gwydion reached up and wrenched the book from them both, depositing it in Skuld's basket and turning toward the girl. "Go check those out," he ordered. Skuld rushed to the front desk. Once she was out of earshot, he turned back to the other two goddesses.
"That girl is at an age and a point in her education where strong role models are important," he told them. "I was hoping that both of you could be that. One thing I do NOT want her picking up is that goddesses with differences quarrel like school children."
Yazlyn cleared her throat. "Well... Now that I feel stupid, I think I should go." She gave a short bow to Gwydion. "Old man," she said in goodbye.
"Try getting promoted for a change," he grunted back as she walked off. "And you," he said, turning to Urd. "There's something I want to tell you."
Urd braced herself and prepared to counterattack. She had taken all she was going to take from one bigot today, she wasn't about to let Gwydion slide.
The attack, however, never came. Instead, Gwydion, a sheepish look on his face, seemed to struggle to meet her gaze. "I... wanted to apologize to you... for how I behaved today. When I snapped at you, I mean."
Urd blinked in surprise, but said nothing.
"You... look a lot like someone I'm not fond of," he explained quietly. "You didn't deserve that, and I'm sorry."
"Don't mention it," she said quietly, not quite sure what else to say.
"Well, I'll see you back at the temple, then," he said, turning and limping off.
Urd took a breath. Everything she had learned today seemed to conflict with the things she was witnessing for herself. All she knew was that things were the way they were, and she wasn't in any position to change it.
Picking up her basket, she started for the desk.
The lights were out when Urd climbed out of the Morisato TV set, just past midnight according to the clock on the wall. She stopped suddenly and made more of an effort to silence her movements when she saw Keiichi and Belldandy on the futon nearby, asleep in each other's arms. A quick look at an empty VHS case told her the two had fallen asleep watching a movie together.
She regarded them for several moments, kneeling next to her sister and studying her face. Once again, for reasons she couldn't comprehend, she felt a flash of anger toward her more fortunate sister. Quickly standing, she turned off the TV and walked silently to her room.
Her eyes found light coming from under the door of the guest room, telling her that Skuld and Gwydion had already returned, though she found it odd that anyone would still be up at this hour.
Entering her room and dumping the bag of books she had brought with her on her bookshelf, she started to undress for bed, the results of her trip a mixed bag that left her thoroughly unsatisfied.
Flopping onto her futon, she took a sour breath and rolled onto her side. The goddess closed her eyes and hoped sleep would bring answers.
Warm arms encircled her from behind as a warm and familiar presence spooned against her. Sighing, she trailed her finger up the man's arms, ending at calloused hands that somehow retained gentleness in spite of it.
She felt warm breath on the back of her ear and reveled in the closeness of it. Finding his hand, she squeezed it.
Don't ever leave, she thought.
"Don't worry, I won't!" Corus whispered back.
She woke up screaming, and without thinking, pointed up and...
"You accidentally blew a hole in the roof?" Skuld asked, looking up at the damage.
Above their heads, a charred hole six feet across let in the morning light. Keiichi scratched the back of his head and sighed. "I'll go get some tools."
"I'll help," Urd told him quietly, thoroughly miserable. She started after Keiichi.
Belldandy watched her sister in frank concern. "Neesan, why don't you let Keiichi handle this?" she offered. "Why don't you and I go into town for a bit?"
Urd stopped in her tracks, but refused to look back at her sister. "Leave me alone," she said quietly. She didn't see the hurt in Belldandy's face as she walked off.
"Oneesama," Skuld whispered.
"It's all right, Skuld," Belldandy whispered. "You have a lesson today, don't you?"
"Hai," the young goddess replied, starting out of the room herself.
The sound of hammering was too distant to really be a distraction, yet Skuld's concern about what prompted that hammering caused her thoughts to wander even as Gwydion was talking. It finally took a poke to her forehead with the man's cane to get her to snap back to reality.
"I'm sorry, Sensei?" she asked foolishly.
He growled. "Am I wasting my morning, Skuld?" he asked.
"No, Sensei," she replied sheepishly.
"Good, as I was saying," he continued. He gestured to a rather large boulder that sat in the rock garden at the east side of the temple. "Now that you know you have magic, it's time to use it. And we will start with reversing gravo-metric fields. Levitation," he told her.
Skuld looked at the boulder with trepidation. She had failed enough times with a small stone to realize this was going to be futile effort.
"Sensei," she began nervously. "Shouldn't I try with something smaller?"
"Why?" he asked.
"Well... because it's a boulder?" she replied. "Probably weighs about a half ton?"
"Won't that make it harder to lift?"
"If you were our young mortal friend and reduced to dragging the boulder into the air against its will, then yes," he replied. "But you don't have that problem. Remember, a goddess' power comes from her authority over the universe. Just tell the boulder to float."
Skuld was unconvinced. "Just tell it?" she repeated. She turned to the rock and thrust her arms into the air. "Up boulder! Up!"
She received a poke from his cane for insolence.
"Remember the blue light?" he asked, kneeling with great difficulty to look at her eye to eye. At her nod, he continued. "Project it. Touch the boulder with it. Use that to tell the rock what you want it to do. Your magic isn't a force, it's a conduit of your will."
He stepped back, and Skuld took a breath, turning to the boulder. Extending her hand, she projected her thoughts toward the rock, trying to see the blue flame in her mind's eye. As she did, she wondered if this was really how it was supposed to be. Just think at something and it ans-
"Yes?" she heard in her mind. She gasped inwardly, nearly losing her concentration, but held on.
"My name is Skuld," she projected.
"And?" she heard in her mind.
"And... well... could you float in the air, please?"
"And I'm going to do that because...?"
Skuld wasn't sure what to say.
"I was napping, you know," the boulder pointed out in irritation.
She gathered herself, remembering what Gwydion had said about her authority as a goddess. Closing her eyes again, she asserted more of her will into the link.
"My name is Skuld, Goddess Second Class, Limited License," she told it. "And I wasn't asking you. I was telling you."
She heard irate grumbling in her mind. "Very well, holiness," it told her. "I meant no offense. You should have just said you were a goddess. Very well, then. How high?"
"Um... two meters will be good."
Her eyes snapped open as the boulder in front of her rumbled to life and rose exactly two meters into the air and hung there.
"Oh... Oh my gosh," she whispered. "I did it."
"That you did," Gwydion whispered beside her.
"I did it? I did it! I DID IT!" she screamed. Her connection broken, the boulder fell to the ground with a crash. Skuld didn't care. "I DID IT! I DID IT! I DID IT!"
Caught up in giddiness, she flung herself at Gwydion, wrapping her arms around him and squeezing tightly. "I DID IT!" she squealed again.
She heard her teacher cry out in anguish, and suddenly she was on the ground, having been bodily thrown off the man. Looking up, she saw the man on one knee, panting heavily, his eyes shut painfully.
"Sensei?! Are you okay?!"
He reached up with his hand, telling her to stay back as he panted, waiting for the pain to subside enough for him to function again.
"You did..." he swallowed painfully. "You did well, Skuld," he told her. "Just... Now... Go practice that... Use smaller objects... Just..."
She nodded quickly, having no earthly idea what was going on or what she had done. Did she do this? Did she somehow use her powers to hurt him? Surely she hadn't squeezed him that hard...
Taking a few tentative steps backward, she finally turned and started for the other side of the house.
Pain had a color.
It wasn't something that could be described as a mixture of different hues, but Gwydion knew it well as he saw it behind his eyes any time anything other than the most gentle of touches brushed the areas affected by his curse. It blinded him, paralyzed him, drove out his ability to think. So much an effect it had on his concentration that he wouldn't be able to summon Broken Bow now if his life depended on it.
If he was mortal, he'd be retching, crying or begging to die. Being a god in Heaven's service, he did what any other avenging angel would do. He endured.
It's so hard to endure.
Finally, he found his cane and pushed himself to his feet. He let out a long breath and collected himself, wiping away tears before walking slowly back to the house.
The knife's blade glistened in the soft light given off by the lamp in her room. Urd regarded the slim blade for a moment, honestly trying to figure out if she really meant to do what she was considering.
It was razor sharp and slim enough to fit between her fingers easily enough. One quick slice and the ring would be gone. The problem was, so would her finger.
Take a breath, Urd, she thought. Can't you see how stupid this is?
She put the knife down and buried her face in her hands. She couldn't keep doing this, and she didn't want to face Belldandy with it. With everything else, she just couldn't take the pity.
As a second class goddess, she couldn't remove it. She needed a first class.
Gathering her courage, she stood up and walked out of her room.
The door slid aside, and Urd wondered again if this was the right thing to do. It was late, after all. She assumed he'd be asleep, but he answered so quickly she knew he had been awake.
Gwydion's eyes carried dark rings around them. He looked hurt and exhausted.
"Urd?" he asked tiredly.
"I need your help," she said plainly, bracing herself for any kind of response she could imagine.
Gwydion regarded her for a moment, then nodded. "Come inside," he said, making way for her.
She stepped in and took a look around. It was obvious she had interrupted a bender. A half-full bottle of Johnny Walker sat next to an empty one on a small desk lit by a tiny lamp. Lying next to them was a small pile of gold coins, all different sizes and colorfully adorned.
The teacher rubbed his eyes and gestured to a chair. She took it gratefully, folding her hands in her lap, her right covering her left.
"You look like you need a drink," he noted dryly, pouring a shot and handing it to her.
She took it and quickly drained it, feeling the amber liquid burn all the way down her throat. He nodded at her and sat down at the desk, pouring himself a shot before getting down to business.
"What can I do for you?" he asked. For a man who must have been drinking for the last several hours, Urd found he was surprisingly lucid.
She held out her left hand.
Gwydion looked at the ring. "Nice," he told her, lifting his glass. "Congratulations."
"I want it gone," she whispered angrily.
He looked at the ring without touching it. "I assume you are somehow incapable of removing said bauble?"
She nodded. "It's cursed or something. I can't get it off no matter what spell or potion I try."
The teacher turned to one of his travel bags and removed a pair of thin gloves, not quite plastic. The material had the consistency of soap bubbles. Pulling them on, he gently took her hand and touched the ring, examining it closely.
"Hmm," he grunted. "Get this from a demon?" he asked.
"What's that supposed to mean?!" she retorted irritably, feeling stupid a second later.
"I'll take that as a yes," he replied, not bothering to look up. "Hmm. Looks to me like a third level spiritbond. What do you think, Bow?"
Urd watched as an angel slowly emerged from Gwydion's back, but it was unlike any angel she had seen before. Its left wing was broken and bent back at an unnatural angle and three inflamed-looking scars covered a shut left eye. The right eye, a deep sea-green, looked down at the ring curiously before nodding at Gwydion. A moment later, the angel returned to its perch within the teacher's soul.
He nodded. "Excellent," he said. He looked up at her. "Does Belldandy brush her hair in the morning?"
"Um... Yeah," Urd replied, unsure about the sudden turn in the conversation.
"Good. Stay here," he told her. Rising, he walked out of the room, leaving her there alone.
Urd took a breath and fidgeted nervously, feeling like a woman waiting for a doctor in an exam room. Looking for something to occupy her thoughts, she stood up and poured herself another shot. Downing it, her eyes found the gold coins lying on the desk.
She let her fingers sift through the pile. Each coin was decorated differently, some stamped with different dates or symbols. All but one.
A simple gold coin about the size of a silver dollar sat at the top of the pile, completely unadorned but smooth as if handled often. She picked it up and found her eye drawn to the light reflecting off it.
"I chose you, you know," she heard a woman's voice enter her head. She blinked as a woman's face appeared behind her eyes. It took a moment, but the image cleared and Urd could see her clearly in her mind's eye. She was by far the most beautiful woman she had ever seen. Long blonde hair flowed down the woman's back like a waterfall of gold while green eyes laughed merrily at her. For the first time in a very long time, Urd found herself self conscious.
"Did I ever tell you that?" the voice continued. "Father let me choose any instructor I wanted. Well, you know how anal retentive I can be. I did my homework. Just like you, the other instructors were intelligent and powerful and kind... But there was something about you, one thing that separated you from the others..."
The woman's face regarded her coyly. "Can you guess?"
After a few moments, the woman looked down at her feet. "Well, I'm not going to tell you. I'll let you figure it out."
And suddenly, she was gone. Urd blinked and dropped the coin back on the desk.
And not a moment too soon. A second later, Gwydion reentered the room, carrying Belldandy's hair brush. Urd quickly retook her seat, embarrassed at being caught rifling through his room. If Gwydion saw, he gave no sign.
"Give me your hand," he ordered as he sat down and pulled two hairs from the brush. He took her slender fingers in his own again as he started to explain, putting on his "teaching voice."
"There's a charm on this ring," he said. "And its one mission is to remain on Urd's hand forever. Very powerful charm, but like most demonic spells, it's all power and no finesse." He tied one of the hairs around her wrist and the other around the end of her middle finger. "Now, then," he said. Closing his eyes, he chanted in the Heavenly program language.
Her hand from one hair to the other shrank slightly and took on a more pale skin tone. It took a moment, but Urd realized what was happening. Her hand was turning into her sister's.
"And... there!" Gwydion announced, holding up the ring.
"That's it?" Urd asked, amazed that it had been so easy.
"That's it," he confirmed. "You want this back?"
"No!" Urd replied, pulling the hairs off her arm and watching her hand go back to normal. "You should destroy that. There's some kind of spell on it linking it to a demon named Corus. He's been... appearing to me..."
"Oh no he hasn't," Gwydion said, tossing the ring into a trash can.
"I think I would know!" Urd said, folding her arms over her chest and glaring darkly.
He poured another shot as he regarded her. "Urd, the only charm on this ring is the spiritbond. That's it."
She squirmed in her seat. "That can't be right," she breathed.
He poured her one more and handed it to her. "Something you would like to talk about?" he asked.
She downed the shot in one go. "No," she said quickly.
"Ah," he replied, shrugging before sipping at his own drink. "I remember him," he said, leaning back in his chair. "Big guy, bald, flair for the dramatic."
"Sounds like him," she said darkly, handing the glass back to him.
He refilled it and handed it back. "So what's the occasion?" she asked, trying to change the subject.
Gwydion shook his head. "No occasion," he said quietly. "It lets me sleep."
"Because of your curse?" she asked.
He didn't ask how she knew, he merely nodded. "Mostly," he told her. "Mostly." Now, with the crisis resolved, his speech was slurring just a little as he made an effort to relax.
"I think your girlfriend blames me," Urd said with a sheepish chuckle. "She's given me nothing but grief since I met her."
"She and Gaeriel were close," Gwydion muttered, his eyelids getting heavier. "If she hates demons for anything, it's that. I think she's forgiven me, but she'll never forget."
Urd looked down at her glass. "Forgiven you?"
He looked over at her, and for the first time Urd noticed just how exhausted he was, straddling the ragged edge of sleep. "I killed her," he said. "She died because of me." He turned away from her. "I educated her, trained her, sponsored her into Division..." She heard a quick influx of breath or a sob, she couldn't be sure which. "Watched her die in my arms..."
Urd turned away, suddenly feeling that she had done wrong by bringing the subject up. She drained her glass and stood up. "I'll let you sleep," she said quietly.
He didn't look at her. His head lolled to one side, having finally, mercifully, passed out.
The goddess quietly tip-toed out of his room, sliding the door shut behind her.
Gwydion's brand wasn't like sake, and Urd was feeling sloshed by the time she got to her room. Unwilling to go to sleep just yet, she pulled the cap off a bottle of sake and took a swig, collapsing into her futon as she did so.
"I don't know, what do you think?" she asked aloud after another long swig. Looking up, she saw the usually peaceful face of her angel looking back at her, her eyes swirling in a caricature of inebriation. World of Elegance shrugged and hiccuped.
Urd snorted. "Lightweight."
She had been so cruel to Belldandy over the last few weeks. A lot of it was stress, she knew. Being stalked from beyond the abyss by a demon she tricked into marrying her would do that to a girl. But that wasn't all of it.
Urd, unofficial goddess of love, the nearly universally acknowledged "sexy sister," was jealous.
She sighed. She wasn't jealous of Belldandy having Keiichi, but of what Keiichi represented. Only Keiichi would put up with the last three years of potions, plots, demons and practical jokes for the sake of a girl. Only Keiichi would think to ask Urd if he could help. Only Keiichi would try so hard to learn about Belldandy.
Urd had heard a lot of mortals opine that Keiichi and Belldandy's story was about a boy who found the perfect girlfriend. Urd would venture to say that it was a story about a goddess who found the perfect boyfriend.
And what would be her fate? Would she live with her sister and her new husband after they were married? Would she be that spinster that the loving newlywed couple couldn't get rid of no matter how hard they tried?
Or would she return to Heaven, go home every night to their dark, cold house, open a bottle of sake and silently hate her sister for being lucky enough to find a man like Keiichi Morisato?
She chuckled and groaned. "Maybe I can move in with Frigga," she noted. Her stepmother would love that.
Flopping back on the futon, she felt the sake bottle roll from her fingers as her eyes drifted shut.
"Do you know what you need?"
She lifted her head and squeezed her eyes shut for a moment as her soggy mind tried to make sense of it. Belldandy was sitting at her worktable wearing a leather catsuit. A whip hung at her belt and a pair of neko ears sat atop her head.
"Huh?" Urd asked.
Belldandy grinned devilishly at her. "Do you know what you need?" she asked again. She spun around in her chair. "You, my dear, lonesome sister, need a man. If only for ten minutes."
"That is an oversimplification of a very complex problem and you know it!" Urd heard from the other side of the room.
She turned her head and shook it. "Peorth?"
The dark-haired goddess was standing in the corner of her room, near her potions shelf, covered from head to toe in a nun's habit. "What she needs, is spiritual fulfillment."
"The only fulfillment she needs is the physical kind," Belldandy retorted, standing up and approaching her sister. "Isn't that right, dear sister?" she asked. "How long has it been since a man has shown that kind of interest in you? Not counting Keiichi, of course, who managed to spurn your childish advances."
She felt gentle hands on her face and turned to see Peorth kneeling next to her. "You're hurt," Peorth told her gently. "Your sister's engagement and this episode with Corus have both wounded you and thrown into stark contrast what your life lacks."
"And it is nothing that a good fling won't fix!" Belldandy argued. "Get up, pack a bag, grab your vacuum, then walk out the front door and fly off to Tahiti! Lay on the beach, pick up some nice twenty-something year old with great guns and a Porsche and you will see how quickly these doldrums will pass!"
"A spiritual hole cannot be filled with booze and sex!" Peorth snapped at her.
"And it cannot be filled with pity and empty platitudes!" Belldandy retorted.
"Wait, wait, wait!" Urd cried, her fingers going to her temples. "It sounds like you..." She pointed at Peorth. "...want me to go on some kind of spiritual journey, and you..." She pointed at Belldandy. "...want me to hook up with Aoshima."
"Oh, Heavens no!" Belldandy and Peorth cried.
"Okay, so how do I fill this hole?" she asked. Seeing Belldandy start to open her mouth, she quickly added. "The spiritual one!"
Seeing her side starting to win out, Peorth took Urd's hands in her own. "You're lonely. That's nothing to be ashamed of. If you feel that's something your life lacks, then seek it out. There are many gods out there who seek a strong, caring goddess to fill the emptiness in their lives just as you wish to fill the emptiness in yours."
"Aramis flies a Firebolt," Belldandy inserted in a sing-song voice.
Peorth rolled her eyes. "Despite what my trampy colleague here suggests, you should not base your search on appearances or material possessions. You're jealous of your sister: look at what she based her search on. She found love at the ass end of the Japanese university system living in a one-room dorm making slave wages by fixing mopeds on the weekends." She squeezed Urd's hands to accentuate her next point. "And she has never been happier."
"I'm not going out with one of Keiichi's bum friends," Urd stated pointedly.
Peorth smiled. "Of course not. You're not looking of any of a million men, you're looking for someone for you. Someone who possesses something the others lack."
"Which is?" Urd asked.
The goddess released her hands and stood up. "I'll let you figure it out."
Urd's eyes snapped open, the sunlight pouring into her room causing her to flinch. It was morning. Of the trampy Belldandy and nunnish Peorth, there was no sign.
"Johnny Walker is definitely no friend of mine," she muttered.
She was about to roll over and go back to sleep when she heard the sound of glass clinking nearby. Quickly turning over again, she saw several small creatures working together to carry a beaker out of her room. The goddess leapt to her feet.
As the Fraggles dashed off screaming in different directions, Skuld and Gwydion walked by her door and looked inside.
"Can't you just leave those poor creatures alone?!" Skuld chastised her.
Urd growled as she replaced the beaker on her workbench. "What are you doing up so early?" she shot back.
"It's two o'clock in the afternoon," Skuld replied with an arched eyebrow. "And you've been drinking again."
"Skuld, leave Urd alone," Gwydion said, coming to the goddess' defense. "She had a busy night."
"I bet," Skuld huffed. Without another word, she started for the door.
Gwydion and Urd stood there for a moment, silently regarding one another.
"Thanks," she said. "For last night."
"Don't mention it," he replied.
"I owe you. Really," she pressed. "I was really... Well..."
Neither spoke for a moment. Gwydion turned to leave. "You don't owe me anything, Urd. I was happy to help."
With that, he stepped out of the room. Urd listened to the sound of his cane striking the hardwood floor as we walked toward the front door.
She sighed and sat down at her workbench. "No, I do owe you," she whispered. "And I'm going to pay you back."
The goddess grinned evilly. "I promise."