Disclaimer: Ah! My Goddess does not belong to me. It is the property of Kosuke Fuhishima.

Amants

Chapter 1: Love Your Enemies

Urd jumped as a firm hand snagged her wrist a moment before the first drops of amber liquid could fall from the beaker into the miso soup simmering merrily on the stovetop. Turning her head fast enough to cause her silver tresses to whip outward, she found the scowling face of the woman who was once again interfering in her efforts to get her sister's relationship moving along at a more reasonable pace. Sighing dramatically, she arched an eyebrow at the other goddess.

"Do you mind, Peorth? I'm working here."

"I've seen your work, cheri, and I'm still not impressed by it," the brunette goddess replied coldly. "How many times must I tell you? The road to love runs through the heart, not the stomach. And certainly not through their hormones." She released Urd's wrist, but snatched the potion away from her. She took a quick whiff and curled her nose up at it.

"Mon dieu! Herrig's Root extract? You'd have them rolling around on the kitchen table like a pair of sex-starved badgers!"

She quickly dumped the offending potion down the kitchen drain. Urd crossed her arms over her chest.

"Look, I'm all about the lovey dovey stuff too," Urd told her. "The flowers, the soft music, the moonlight." She gestured theatrically as she listed them. "But when you get right down to it, none of those things are going to get the ball rolling. Those two are both too shy, too old fashioned, to just break down and admit there's a physical attraction, and without a physical relationship, the emotional will stagnate."

Peorth shook her head as she ran the sink. "Who taught you Theory of Romance? If a physical relationship is rushed, the regret and doubt that springs from the act can poison the emotional and spiritual bond already in place and stunt their growth!"

"Their spiritual and emotional bond has matured to its peak!" Urd shot back. "A physical encounter will act as a catalyst that will crystalize the bond between them!"

"You are not dealing with two mortals or even two gods!" Peorth cried. "And as a goddess first class, I am ordering you to halt your meddling!"

Urd clenched her fists. "As if I'm going to just step aside and leave my sister's happiness to some old maid?"

"'Old maid?!'" Peorth shrieked. She let out some choice curses at the other goddess in French and tried to rein back her rage.

Seeing her off balance, Urd pushed her a little more. "This is a job for a love goddess who actually knows about, you know... LOVE..."

The reaction Urd got stunned the Norn. Before she knew it, Peorth was toe to toe with her, her eyes lit up with wrath, but instead of yelling, she spoke quietly, her voice rising in volume with each word.

"I received my love goddess certification from Venus herself," she hissed. "In my time as a love goddess I've inspired countless marriages and even countless more illicit affairs! I've mended broken hearts! Melted icy ones! Brought peace and tranquility to widowed souls! UNDONE THE INTEGRITY OF KINGS!"

Urd blinked at the intensity of it all as Peorth's voice rose until she was practically shouting at the other goddess.

"I've loved one god!" she hissed. "Just one! With a passion and intensity that a pill-peddling trollop like you could NEVER understand! I have seen, and felt and ENDURED more love than any three goddesses combined! So don't you EVER tell me what I know and don't know about love! It is pure and good and so help me GOD, if you sully what those two have, I will see your certification revoked and you reassigned to muse duty, inspiring HALLMARK VALENTINES DAY CARDS!"

This wasn't fun anymore. Somehow Urd crossed a line she hadn't known was there. She put her hands up and spoke quietly. "Okay... Okay... I get it. I'm sorry. Just... calm down, all right?"

Peorth blinked, and it was as if she was stirring from a bad dream. "I..." She stepped back and turned red, this time with embarrassment. She closed her eyes and took a breath.

"I knew you had buttons to push, but I guess that's the big, red, shiny one I should avoid, huh?" Urd asked, trying to inject some levity into the situation.

Peorth looked at her, meeting her eyes. When she spoke, she was calm again. "Those two deserve the chance to find love for themselves," she said, putting her teaching voice on. "Not to have it foisted on them from outside."

Urd sighed. "I think you're wrong." Peorth started to open her mouth again. "But for now, we'll play it your way."

Peorth looked away, still ashamed of her outburst. "Merci."

The Norn leaned against the counter. "You okay?"

For a moment, Urd thought the older goddess was going to open up, but a moment later the shield of dignity and haughtiness came crashing down again. "I'm right as rain, cheri." With that, she turned on her heel and walked out of the kitchen.

Urd took a breath, unsure of what had just happened. She had seen Peorth get emotional before, of course, but this time she was positively livid. It was more than questioning the goddess' professional abilities, it was as if Urd had questioned the disposition of Peorth's soul.

The Norn liked pushing buttons to get a reaction out of people, but even she knew there were some lines you just shouldn't cross.

She made a note not to cross that one again.

888

Peorth's feet came to rest on the temple roof as she floated downward and immediately sat down, her gaze cast at the temple grounds below. The sun had set an hour ago, and the stars were beginning to come out in force. Sighing, she looked up at them.

She regretted losing her temper so completely with Urd. A part of it, she knew, was her own failings in this task. Peorth considered herself an utter professional, not only doing what was necessary to get the job done, but doing it in the best possible way for the best possible outcome, and while progress had been made with Keiichi and Belldandy, it was the bare minimum and only a fraction of what she had hoped to accomplish.

The other part, she knew, was what Urd had said.

Of all the disciplines a goddess could enter, love was the most complex and difficult. Death was easy, fertility almost fun. War unpleasant but crucial. And love...

With the development of love potions, everyone and their mother thought they were a love goddess. And then to claim that Peorth didn't...

She snorted. As if Urd would know what real love was.

Then again, if Peorth was such an expert, why then did she keep failing?

She gave the problem some hard, honest thought. When she first arrived, she did what any professional would and sought out research materials that would let her understand courtship in Japan. Unfortunately, she found out too late that romance manga wasn't a firm basis on which to make her assumptions. She realized that now.

Perhaps her mistake was making the assumption that gods and mortals were so different in this area. Urd was right. Their emotional and spiritual relationship was very solid, but it was waiting for something before it could proceed further.

And it wasn't just Keiichi to blame here either. Belldandy was perfectly content to wait for him to make the next move. She, after all, had eternity. Keiichi did not.

Time to draw on experience, not research, she thought.

She tapped her foot against the roof and laid back, looking up at the stars. What had worked on her? She had to really think to remember it all, it had been so long ago, and she had been such a different person, nothing near the mature and worldly goddess she now was.

Flattery had always been nice, but inconsequential.

Gifts had merely informed her of what she already had known.

No, she knew what it was. It had been upon the realization that no one in Heaven knew her better and no one him. When fear of embarrassment had given way to the comfort of knowing that no matter what happened, he'd be there for her.

No, it was not the physical that needed work, nor the emotional or the spiritual. It was the mental.

The thought led her to memories that made her quiver slightly. She smiled.

No, Urd, you couldn't possibly understand...

The elder Norn was making the mistake of thinking that physical love was the height of lovemaking. It wasn't, and Peorth knew from experience.

She closed her eyes and exhaled slowly, hoping she could draw out the memories, the times when her angel and his would embrace and meld, linking their thoughts together as one. Urd, who only recently called forth her angel and whose last boyfriend had no angel himself, couldn't possibly know the feeling of knowing your lover's every thought, of feeling your paramour's own love for you refracted, reflected and magnified in your mind's eye.

There was no greater expression of love than that. She felt a flash of pity that Keiichi and Belldandy would never know that feeling, for if there was ever a couple in history that deserved to know that love, it was them.

Her eyes opened, and she whimpered quietly as the memories pulled away.

But she had her idea.

Rising to her feet, she bid the stars adieu and hopped down off the roof.

888

The puny mortals stood in various lines in the cavern below, each waiting anxiously, unsure of what would happen to them once they reached the front, but he knew.

He knew that a demon clerk would look over their paperwork and then, in a bored, unsympathetic voice, tell them that they were in the wrong line and that they would have to go to the back of the next one and wait. At which point the process would repeat itself over and over.

Metheus had to give Hild credit. Modeling Hell's reception area after the modern day DMV did more to sap the hope and will out of the newly damned than any lake of fire or spear-wielding devil.

He turned away from the window, his one good eye finding the doorway as it opened for Hild's "guest." The patch he wore didn't hide the burn scars over the rest of the right side of his face, but it spared others the sight of his missing eye.

The demonic advisor had wondered who this guest was all day. All he knew was that Hild had been positively ecstatic all morning ever since receiving word that this guest had been "recovered" in Realm 202, The Hedge.

His eye quickly glanced at Hild as she sat on her throne, waiting in barely suppressed glee as two members of her Elite Guard brought the guest into the throne room. What Metheus saw when he glanced back took him by surprise. This certainly was unexpected.

Being dragged between two of the shadow-like guards was Frigga herself, wife to The Almighty and a goddess of the highest choir. The auburn-haired goddess looked like she had seen better days. Her white dress was torn in several places and she was missing an earring, but it didn't appear that she was permanently damaged. He wondered how many Hellriders had been lost in the battle to subdue her. Frigga was not known for meekness.

He grunted in appreciation. No wonder Hild had been so happy. If there was a goddess in Heaven Hild hated purely, it was her romantic rival.

As if on cue, the arch demon rose from her throne and clapped her hands together. "Frigga! How wonderful it is for you to come visit! It's so good to see you!"

The goddess raised her head as if just noticing the other woman for the first time. "Hild," she said weakly but with brass, difficult to do in Hild's presence, particularly when one's powers had been stripped as Frigga's had been. "Thou lookst well for a woman of yon obvious years."

Hild stepped down toward her, laughing gamely at the comment. "Oh, Frigga! You're such a kidder!" She held out an outstretched palm and a bolt of black lightning encompassed Frigga's body, causing the goddess to scream in agony. The demoness smiled ruthlessly as she poured hellfire into her rival.

Finally, Hild stopped and sighed dramatically. "And how is my lover?" she asked.

Frigga took several deep breaths as she recovered. Finally able to raise her head again, she answered.

"Thoroughly satisfied in every way," she bit out.

Metheus winced sympathetically.

Frigga's screams echoed throughout the throne room and down into the reception area. Two hours later, it ended with Hild yawning and stretching theatrically.

"Administering all this justice makes me so sleepy," she told Frigga, who was writhing painfully on the floor below her. "I'd like to keep you around so we can continue this later, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to seal you away until my daughter's father decides how badly he wants you back."

Frigga didn't answer, having finally, mercifully passed out.

Hild nodded to the Elites. "Take her to the sealing chamber."

"Your Majesty, if I may?" Metheus asked.

Surprised at the request, Hild turned to him and placed her hand on her hip. "You have a better idea, Metheus? I do hope it's the best idea ever, because you know how much I hate being questioned."

"It only occurred to me, Majesty, that this is the first time we've had a goddess of such high rank here," he replied. "She is, after all, a seer, and the only goddess allowed to sit on Hlidskjalf. She knows a great deal of beneficial information that might be gleaned from a proper interrogation."

"I considered it," Hild told him. "However, from what I know of her..." she punctuated this with a kick to the goddess' abdomen. "... I believe she is an unsuitable candidate for such an interrogation."

Metheus arched an eyebrow. "I would have thought you would relish the challenge," he remarked.

"I prefer better odds," Hild told him frostily.

"Ah," Metheus replied, stepping closer until he was standing over the goddess, looking down at her appreciatively. "I merely thought you would enjoy the process of breaking her down." He raised his head and looked at the queen. "But you're probably right. I doubt even you, with all your skill and power, would ever be able to extract anything of use from a head as thick as hers."

Hild's eyes narrowed at this, but Metheus continued.

"She should be sealed immediately." He made a gesture to the two Elites, who approached the goddess.

"Metheus, wait," Hild ordered suddenly. "Perhaps you're right. And I have been looking for a new hobby since I finished that jigsaw puzzle..."

The advisor waited as he watched Hild toss the idea around in her mind. Finally, the queen spoke again.

"We will take what she knows. Prepare her for interrogation."

Metheus bowed low. "I shall see to it myself, Your Majesty."

He watched Hild and the two Elites walk out of the throne room, leaving him alone with the godly queen.

888

Thunder cracked overhead as a bolt of lightning illuminated the children's playground in the park that sat a quarter-mile from the temple. The wide, open area was exactly what she needed, and she nodded in satisfaction. The final piece was complete.

She knelt down in the sandbox and dug a small, shallow hole with her hands. Reaching into the small bag she had brought with her, she placed two brown roots in the bottom of the hole before pulling the stopper on a vial containing a red, fizzing potion. She dumped the entire vial into hole and then pulled the stopper on another vial, pouring a viscous, blue chemical after the red.

Adding a few more ingredients, she finally covered them with sand and set about drawing runes into the sand around it. There was another crack of thunder followed by a flash of lightning, but this time it cast a shadow over Peorth.

She looked up and found Urd standing on the other side of the sandbox, grinning down at her.

"And may I ask what the great goddess first class is doing now?" Urd began, folding her arms over her chest. "Or do I even need to ask seeing as you 'borrowed' dentien root from my cupboard? As there's only one real use for it..."

"You already know what I'm doing then," Peorth sighed as she carved a few more runes into the sand. "What of it?"

"I just find it ironic considering not three hours ago you were giving me the third degree over the same thing."

"It's not the same thing," Peorth told her, rising to her feet.

Urd arched an eyebrow. "It's sneaky, underhanded, violates their privacy, and I want in," she finished.

Peorth was taken aback at the statement. "Excusez-moi?"

"Are you kidding?" Urd asked. "I'm kicking myself for not thinking of it earlier."

The other goddess grinned. "Very well. Help me sing the chorus."

Lightning lit up the playground as Peorth and Urd stood on opposite sides of the sandbox. The two goddesses lifted their hands into the air and closed their eyes. Softly and slowly, Peorth began to sing in Heaven's program language, her voice rising with each line.

Urd listened for her cue, and as Peorth trailed off at the end of the first stanza, she began to sing as well, allowing her power to flow into her voice.

After several minutes of singing, when their voices had risen to a crescendo, a bolt of lightning reached down from the heavens and struck the center of the sandbox.

Peorth and Urd stood there for several moments, their eyes closed and their hands outstretched. Finally, Peorth opened one eye and looked down, seeing the scorched earth and glass in the sandbox.

"Exquis," she whispered with a smile. Kneeling down, she pushed aside burnt sand and shards of glass until she found what she sought. Lying at the bottom of the hole she dug were four small blocks of tofu.

"Four?" Urd asked.

Peorth shrugged. "It's been years since I had to use a spell like this. I wanted to make sure I had enough."

"You realize, of course, they'll be incredibly pissed," Urd warned her.

"Oui, but they'll thank me later," Peorth replied, putting the tofu in a small, plastic bag. "Let's go before the rain comes."

888

Metheus eyed the queen carefully as he pulled a small, red pill from his pocket. He gave it another moment to go over the plan again before he knelt next to her.

Frigga was starting to come around. He reached out and took her chin in his hand, holding her jaw open and shoving the pill into her throat. The queen sputtered and fought him, but he held firm.

"Swallow it!" he ordered firmly. He clamped her mouth shut until the thrashing woman complied, then pulled her roughly to her feet.

Frigga coughed violently. "What manner of filth has thou poisoned me with, demon?!" she demanded.

He pulled her roughly out the door and started down the dimly lit hallway.

"What did thou give me?!" she demanded again.

"It's an astral dissipator," he growled quietly. "It'll make it harder for Nidhogg to track you."

"Nidhogg? What are you..."

Before she could finish, Metheus pushed her against the wall and slapped her cruelly with the back of his hand. The goddess fell to the floor, stunned as two Elites marched by them, paying them no mind at all.

"You will speak when spoken to!" Metheus' coarse voice announced. She felt his hands grab her and pull her bodily to her feet as if she weighed no more than a newborn. Her back burned painfully as he pushed her against the wall, his lips descending to her ear.

"I can offer you only the slimmest of chances of escape," he whispered, "But only if you shut up and play along."

Grabbing her roughly by the back of the neck, he pushed her down the hall. The queen's mind swam with confusion. Why would a demon, any demon, offer her escape from this place in defiance of Hild? A trap. It must be a trap.

"I shalt not play a fool for your liege," she growled at him. "Now will I assist in my own torture."

Theatrically as possible, she went limp, falling to the floor.

Metheus blinked in astonishment. "Enough," he growled. "Get up!" he hissed at her.

"If thou wants me, thine arms can drag me," she replied, snootily turning her nose up at him.

Grabbing her again, he pushed her against the wall. "Listen!" he hissed, "And try to understand! That dissipator will keep you off Nidhogg's screens, but that will not keep them from finding us the old fashioned way if we do not hurry! Hild's wrath will be terrible, and she will gladly give up two demons to the Doublet System if it means she gets the entertainment of torturing us both to death!"

"Two?" Frigga whispered in confusion. "Who are you?"

He checked the hallway in both directions before answering. "The sun, the sister of the moon, of the south... Her right hand cast over Heaven's rim; No knowledge she had where her home should be..."

Frigga, her eyes wide, finished. "The moon knew not what might was his; The stars knew not where their stations were!"

His blue eye locked onto hers, and she released an incredulous breath. "You're one of The Seven," she breathed. "You're all supposed to be dead."

"Three of us survived," he whispered. "And soon there will only be two if you do not move!"

Taking her by the back of the neck again, he pushed her forward down the hall. This time, Frigga obeyed.

888

Peorth shook her head dismissively as Urd dialed the cell phone. "There is no way this is going to work, cheri."

"It'll work," Urd replied. "What's she doing now?"

Peorth poked her head into the kitchen and saw Belldandy setting the table. "She just put the soup out."

"Perfect!" Urd hit 'send' and waited. A moment later, the phone in the hall started ringing.

"Coming!" Belldandy called out. They watched as she walked by them, then rushed into the kitchen.

"Moshi moshi!" Belldandy said into the phone. "Hello? Are you there?"

"Come on! We only have a few seconds!" Peorth cried as she mixed one of the tofu cubes into the soup bowl sitting where Keiichi usually sat.

"Relax," Urd told her, doing the same with Belldandy's plate. "I've seen her stand there and talk to a dead line for forty-five minutes."

"CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW?!" they heard Belldandy shouting into the phone. "I think we might have a bad connection!"

"You're kidding me, right?" Peorth asked with an arched eyebrow.

Urd finished mixing the tofu and crossed her arms over her chest. Her lips moved as if she was speaking, and it took Peorth a moment to realize she was mouthing the same words she was hearing Belldandy say down the hall.

"Are you taking a nap?" Urd mouthed. "It is a lovely day just to relax inside on a comfy futon. Ah! Perhaps after we're done talking I'll take a nap myself! Perhaps after the laundry..."

Peorth shook her head. "Mon dieu," she whispered.

"Hey," they heard from the other door as Keiichi entered. "Is breakfast ready?"

"Have a wonderful day! I really enjoyed talking to you!" They heard the phone hang up and Belldandy reentered the kitchen.

Urd threw a look to Peorth that said, "Watch this," and turned to Belldandy.

"Who was that?"

Belldandy smiled. "I have no idea!"

Peorth's head was starting to hurt. She sat down and watched Belldandy and Keiichi go through their daily ritual.

"Here you go! I hope you like it!"

"It's delicious!"

"Really?! I'm so happy!"

It's like they've been married for twenty years, Peorth thought. Heh, no wonder they're not having sex...

She watched as they both finished off their soup. Peorth wasn't sure what to expect. For all she knew there'd be flashes of light and The Almighty would appear on a cloud of glory. Instead, Keiichi excused himself and went to get ready for class while Belldandy cleared the table.

She'd have to keep a close eye on them today.

888

The klaxon echoed throughout every hall in Hell. Metheus looked at the ceiling and cursed. "They're onto us. Quickly now!"

They had managed to get to an area of Hell that was sparsely populated, which only meant that it would take minutes and not seconds for them to be discovered.

"ALL QRF TO THE SOUTH END IMMEDIATELY!" a voice echoed through the caverns.

"This way!" Metheus led her into an open cavern.

"How do we escape?" she asked quickly as they huddled down into a dark corner.

Metheus searched the hall with his good eye. "Two halls over is a hardline nexus. We can cut through Realm Zero and get back to Heaven."

"The Spark is dangerous," she cautioned.

"Dangerous" was an understatement. The Spark, the burning remnants of the Big Bang from which The Almighty had forged all other realms, was fraught with peril as pieces of existence and nonexistence, matter and antimatter, swirled through a maelstrom of ether around a massive ball of fire. Icarus was not a human who flew too close to the sun. He had, in fact, been a god who made the mistake of coming too close to the spark. The Flame of Everything had consumed him before he even felt the heat.

"It's the fastest way," Metheus told her.

She nodded. "Very well." Leaning back against the wall, she closed her eyes, grateful for a moment's rest. She opened them a moment later and regarded him. "How long have you been down here?"

"Centuries," he told her. "I have not seen the sky since..." He looked lost for a moment. "I... I'm not sure. I don't even know what century it is in Heaven."

"It is the Fourth Age," she told him. "The Age of Reclamation."

He released a breath. "I've missed out," he said.

"Will the others be endangered by your helping me?" she asked.

He shook his head. "No, we don't speak or interact. It's best that way. No presumption of guilt by association will befall them."

Standing up, he offered her his hand. "We must go now. Their search will soon bring them here."

888

"Almost ready?" Keiichi asked, hefting his motorcycle helmet with one hand and his keys with the other.

"Almost," Belldandy replied. She was standing in the middle of the living room, her finger to her lip in thought.

Where is it? she thought to herself. I left that binder right over here last night...

"It's on the kitchen counter," Keiichi called from the front door.

Belldandy snapped her fingers. "Of course! Thank you, Keiichi san!"

She was halfway to the front door with her homework when she stopped. How did he know?

"Know what?" he asked.

She blinked at him. He blinked back.

Belldandy smiled. "It's nothing. I'm ready."

The two started for the Beemer parked on the east side of the house. Keiichi looked up at the sky and smiled.

It's such a beautiful day, he thought. Too beautiful to spend in a classroom. We should ditch today...

"What should we do instead?" Belldandy asked quizzically from behind him.

"Huh?" he asked, turning.

She blinked at him. "You said we should skip class today. It's not very responsible, but you're right, it is beautiful out..."

"I didn't say that," he said.

"Yes, you did."

No, I didn't!

Yes, you did!

They came up short as they both realized that neither of their lips moved for the last part of that exchange.

What the hell?!

"Keiichi san! Language!"

"I didn't say anything!"

He raised a hand. "Okay... Let's just think this through calmly. I know you can read my emotions. Is it possible that maybe you're just reading my mind a little better today?"

"I don't think so," she replied. "Besides, it seems to be you too. Try reading my mind." She closed her eyes and thought of something.

Keiichi looked at her and could swear she was talking, but her lips weren't moving. "We're having udon tonight for dinner so we have to stop at the store on the way home," he said.

Belldandy gasped and covered her mouth with her hand.

"Oh my goddess!" he gasped. "I can read minds!"

He turned as Skuld skipped out onto the porch.

"Oi! Skuld!"

She turned to them. "Yeah?"

He stared at her and concentrated. Skuld's eyes narrowed.

"Stop staring at me, pervo!" she cried and ran back into the house.

"Anything?" Belldandy asked.

"No, not a thing!" he replied.

How did this happen? he thought.

"I don't know," Belldandy answered.

He wasn't sure who thought of it first, but the name appeared in their both heads almost simultaneously.

"URD!"

888

"Now why do you automatically assume that I've done something?" Urd asked innocently as she leaned back and settled in to watch the latest episode of Winter Storm. Standing off to the side, Keiichi and Belldandy gave her accusing looks.

"Because ninety percent of the time when something like this happens it's because you've done something to cause it," Keiichi answered her.

Urd smiled. "Can't fault your math, but it wasn't me this time."

Liar!

"Keiichi san, it's not nice to jump to conclusions," Belldandy replied to the thought. She turned to Urd. "Neesan, if you say you didn't do it, then I'll believe you, but you don't look at all surprised, which means that you do know who did."

"That would be me."

They turned as one and found Peorth standing in the doorway.

Belldandy blinked in confusion. "But why, Peorth san? What can be gained by Keiichi and I reading each other's thoughts?"

"Oh, that's just the beginning, cheri," Peorth told her. "I've given you both a mental wavelength modifier. Over the next three days your brainwave patterns will come closer and closer into synch until finally they will overlap and..." She gestured theatrically then sighed. "Epiphany."

"Epiphany," Keiichi repeated in puzzlement. "Which means what, exactly?"

Belldandy was silent, her hand over her mouth in realization. "You didn't!" she finally cried.

Peorth grinned. "I did!"

"What does that mean?" Keiichi asked again.

Before he thought to look at Belldandy's thoughts for an explanation, the middle Norn was running from the living room and down the hall. They heard a door slam, and Urd sighed.

"I guess I should probably talk to her," Urd told them climbing to her feet.

"What the heck is going on here?!" Keiichi demanded as Urd left the room.

Turning, he found Peorth's face a bare inch from his own. "Epiphany," she said quietly. "When, in one single moment, everything there is to know, you will know. Thoughts, feelings, memories, dreams, all will be laid bare. Bashful walls and shields of shyness will be cast aside. You will, in essence, for one brief moment, become one."

Keiichi took a step back. The speech sounded so grave and important, it took him a moment to realize he still had no idea what she was talking about.

"So, basically, I can read Belldandy's thoughts and she can read mine," he concluded.

"At this introductory stage... yes," Peorth replied.

"And you did this why again?"

"Keiichi, ma cher," she began, wrapping an arm around his shoulder. "Tell me, what kept you from telling Belldandy you loved her?"

He came up short. It had only been three weeks since the night Peorth had trained him to say it, motivating him like it was some kind of prize fight.

Peorth smiled. When she spoke, her words came out silkily. "Because you are afraid of rejection, but not only that, you are afraid of losing standing in her eyes. All men and women are afraid of this. You keep thoughts secret to yourself, afraid of what the other would say if they could see them." She took a step back. "I bet you've played that scene out in your mind for two years before you finally said it."

He found it difficult to argue with that. As the full implications of what Peorth was saying finally sunk in, the college student started to turn deeper and deeper shades of red.

"So... she'll be able to see all my..."

She nodded. "And you'll see hers and everything will be out in the open!" she declared. "Then you can move away from all of that nonsense and get on with simply being together."

"Oh, goddess," he breathed in horror. "That's... You... How..."

Peorth waved dismissively. "No need to thank me..."

Ice clutched his chest as his mouth opened and closed in horror of what Peorth had done.

"What have you done?" he gasped.

She arched an eyebrow. "I've saved you years of fumbling around in the dark and asking yourself, 'should I or shouldn't I?'" she said. "You will know one another better than any other couple on Earth. Besides, it's not like it's forever."

"That's not the point," he growled.

"Non? You love her. She loves you. Most couples would move to another stage of their relationship, but you and her... languish... in a kind of purgatory of feelings. She intimidates you, and you puzzle her. Now, she will understand you better, and you will see your intimidation is just foolish fear."

He rubbed his temples. "I think I preferred Urd's love potions," he muttered. He blinked as he felt Peorth take his face in her hands. A moment later, he was looking deep into her eyes.

"Keiichi, do you know what it's like when a god and goddess make love?"

The way she said it made his heart beat faster. "No," he replied stupidly.

"When we make love, our angels, our higher selves, emerge and meld," she whispered. "When that happens, everything we are, every thought and feeling, combine together. We become one entity, a product of our purest emotions. It's like being wrapped in a warm blanket with the person you love. It's you and them and nothing else. There's no outside, no world, no Creation. Just you and them and your feelings, a purity of shared emotion. There is nothing like it on this Earth. You might hate me forever for what I've done, and you're welcome to, but what I have given you is probably the greatest gift you will ever receive."

When she stepped back, it was like a spell had been broken. He blinked, coming fully to himself again. When he was finally able to focus on her again, he saw her hand on her face, wiping away a tear.

"Um... Are you okay?" he asked.

She smiled. "Oui. In a way, I'm jealous." The goddess cast her eyes downward for a moment before locking with his again. "I've long since given up any hope of having that kind of experience again. Have fun."

Turning, she stepped out of the room. It was another full minute before Keiichi remembered he was supposed to be mad at her.

888

"Look, this is a good thing!" Urd told her. Pacing back and forth before her, Belldandy didn't answer. "I don't get why you're acting like this."

"It wasn't right, Neesan," Belldandy snapped. "It's a violation..."

"Oh?" Urd asked, arms folded over her chest. "As I recall, you've never had any problem looking into Keiichi's thoughts and feelings when it suited you. Now that the shoe is on the other foot and the playing field is level, now it's a violation?"

"What you and Peorth have done goes far beyond empathy or telepathy," Belldandy told her.

"I still don't see why this is such a big deal to you," Urd replied. "I expected Keiichi to be the one to lose his mind, not you."

Tired of pacing, Belldandy sat down in the corner. "He'll see everything," she whispered.

"So?"

Belldandy gave her and stern look. "Perhaps I didn't want him to see everything... just yet."

The elder Norn arched an eyebrow. "Oh? Don't tell me my darling little sister has a dirty secret?"

Belldandy didn't answer. Instead, she looked into her sister's eyes. "Please reverse this, Neesan. I... I beg you..." She cast her eyes downward.

Urd blinked in honest surprise. Her sister never begged anyone for anything. She felt a twinge of guilt. "I'm sorry, Belldandy, but there's no way to reverse the process. The only thing to do is wait it out."

The younger sister closed her eyes. "He'll see everything," she whispered.

888

They were too exposed, and he hated it. The path they were on was carved into the side of a cliff that ran around the edge of a deep canyon. Turning to his right, he could see the same path on the other side of the chasm a hundred meters away. Below them, almost a mile down, a pool of magma bubbled gloomily.

"How much farther?" Frigga asked him.

"Not far," he replied. The path widened ahead of them with a passageway leading left, deeper into the cliff. It was just as they were approaching it that a black-clad demon second class stepped out.

It was a chance encounter, and the one second surprised pause probably saved their lives. Metheus' hand shot to his belt and came up with a one-gig flash drive. The demon recovered and started for the soulblade on his belt. Before he could free it, Metheus leapt forward and grabbed him, stabbing the USB jack downward onto the demon's forehead.

The demon screamed as electricity arced around him, sucking him into the flash seal. A moment later, the gig-stick fell to the stone floor with a clack.

"Do you think anyone heard that?" Frigga asked as he retrieved the stick.

Before he could answer, a bolt of blue light struck the wall between them.

Metheus caught sight of a Hellrider on the far side of the chasm, firing as it rushed down the path that would circle around to them. Lifting an arm, he channeled some energy through his finger and blew a chunk out of the wall ahead of the demon, forcing it to pause and duck. The last thing Metheus wanted was to kill any of them. The Doublet System would take its vengeance by killing an equal number of gods in Heaven.

The Hellrider fired back, not caring too much about the implications of their deaths.

"Into that chamber!" he ordered Frigga, nodding at the door from which the demon had emerged. "There should be..."

He was cut off as one of the Hellrider's demonic blasts cut through him, entering his right side and exiting through the other side of his body. Without a sound, Metheus fell to the floor.

"Metheus!" Frigga cried, rushing toward him. Kneeling down, she took him by the shoulders and started to drag him. His eyes were half closed as he drifted in and out of consciousness.

"Leave," he gasped painfully.

"I will not," she declared imperiously as she continued to drag him toward the door. Before she could take another step, however, another bolt of energy slammed into her right shoulder, spinning her around and knocking her to the floor.

She lay there gasping in pain for a moment. The blast had gone straight through her shoulder. Biting back tears, she summoned her strength and pushed herself back up. She could see the Hellrider still rushing around the chasm toward them. Screaming with every movement of her wounded arm, she grabbed onto Metheus' body and pulled him toward the door.

Three large, red crystals stood on pedestals on the far wall. They had made it to the hard line nexus.

Metheus took a pained breath and managed to point to the center crystal. "That one leads to Realm Zero," he gasped.

Frigga thought for a moment and shook her head. "You'd never survive a trip through The Spark," she told him. "What about this one?" she asked, pointing to the crystal on their right.

He swallowed and struggled to stay conscious. "Earth," he breathed.

The goddess made a note to thank a luck goddess next time she happened on one. Her daughters were on Earth. She could get Metheus to help.

"We'll have... to use your travel medium," Metheus croaked. "Quickly."

She leaned down and grabbed Metheus' hand with her good arm, then reached out and touched the crystal with the other.

When the Hellrider entered the room, they were already gone.

To Be Continued...