Disclaimer: AMG is not mine.

Foreword: This is the conclusion to "Amants." I'd like to once again thank the AMG community here for making an author feel welcome with constructive criticism and thoughtful commentary. Just a few days before, "Broken Bow" passed 10,000 hits. I guess that means I must be doing something right.

Amants: Chapter 7

Love Your Friends

I cried, "Never gonna hold the hand of another guy!"

"Too young for him," they told her,

Waitin' for the love of a travellin soldier.

Our love will never end,

Waitin' for the soldier to come back again

Never more to be alone when the letter said,

A soldier's coming home

The Dixie Chicks - "Travellin Soldier"

888

The house was empty, something unheard of nowadays. Not a soul wandered the hallway, not even that damn, fat rat Keiichi couldn't seem to get rid of no matter how hard he tried.

No one except Belldandy, standing at the kitchen sink, doing the dishes.

She hummed as she washed a dinner plate, her hands covered in soapy water. This hum became a gasp as rough arms encircled her waist from behind.

"Keiichi!" she giggled. "I'm doing the dishes!"

The goddess closed her eyes as his lips found her neck.

"Keiichi, really," she admonished in a whisper. "My hands are soapy..."

Finally, the young goddess gave in and turned in his arms, taking his head in her hands and kissing him, getting dish soap in his hair.

Keiichi took her by the waist and lifted her up onto the counter before the two began necking again. The goddess wrapped her legs around him as they made out.

Standing nearby, Keiichi watched himself and Belldandy, his face thoroughly flushed.

Wow, he thought. I've had some pretty intense dreams about Belldandy before, but this is new...

Before he could think anymore on the subject, a voice came echoing from the next room.

"Is anyone here?"

"Belldandy!?" Keiichi cried nervously. The couple making out on the counter paid no attention to the voice.

"Keiichi?! Is that you?"

With a sense of dawning horror, Keiichi remembered what Belldandy said would be the final stage of their joining before Epiphany.

Their dreams.

He dived for the door as he heard her footsteps approach, intending to cut her off, but he was too late. Belldandy walked into the kitchen as she had every day. Of course, there wasn't a couple making out on her kitchen counter every day.

"EEP!" she squeaked, her hand going to her mouth.

"Belldandy!" Keiichi cried. "Um... I know what this looks like..."

It was impossible for Belldandy to turn a deeper shade of red without entering into a whole new spectrum of light.

"Oh," she said simply. She cleared her throat nervously. "Um... Well..." She fought for composure and finally found some semblance of it. "Perhaps we should give them some privacy," she suggested.

He cleared his throat as their dopplegangars accidentally knocked the dish rack onto the floor.

"I think that's a good idea," he said with several very quick nods.

888

Wynn shut the bedroom door behind him and proceeded into the kitchen. Two hours had passed before Hild had gotten hold of him again. Just about everyone was asleep by now. Before he could leave, he had to make sure he wasn't pursued.

Gaeriel looked up from the kitchen table as he entered. She eyed him for a moment then returned to her magazine as he opened the refrigerator.

Taking a breath, he turned to her and adopted a contrite look. "Cadet," he began softly. "I feel I owe you an apology for what happened earlier."

The valkyrie looked up and blinked. "Don't mention it," she sniffed.

"No, really," he rasped. "We're both valkyries. I understand your position. I know it can't be easy." He paused. "I'll... admit... I'm a little frightened by the possibilities. But I want you to know... that if it must be done... I'm glad it'll be another valkyrie pulling the trigger."

Gaeriel's face softened, feeling ashamed of her actions for the first time. "I am sorry," she told him. "I have not acted as well toward you as I should have."

He smiled. "I'd like to put it behind us," he told her. He held a hand out. "I offer you the hand of friendship."

Standing, she smiled at the gesture. "I accept, Lance Corporal," she told him, taking his hand in hers and pumping it.

"I'm glad," he told her with a smile. He pulled her hand to him and raised his other hand, bringing the port end of a gig stick down on her knuckles.

She looked up at him in shock as she disappeared, sucked into the portable seal, without even time to scream.

Wynn retracted the port and tossed the gig stick into the garbage pail.

Too easy, Lucky Jack told him. She deserved worse...

He silently admonished his angel. Killing Gaeriel would kill a demon in Hell. He wanted her out of the way, not dead.

Still too easy...

He took a last, quick look around before stepping out the front door into the night.

888

Peorth hugged the pillow to herself and muttered his name before her eyes finally opened. Sitting up, she tried to recall what had happened. They were kissing, and then...

She blinked. Why would he put her under?

Yawning, she stood up. She would have to ask him as soon as she found him. Checking the room, she found a folded piece of paper with her name on it lying near the pillow. She opened it and read.

Her heart turned to ice in her chest and fell into her stomach. She shook her head, unwilling to believe the words that taunted her from the simple, one page letter she held in her hand.

Peorth's mind raced as she looked at the clock. Perhaps there was still time! Still time to catch him! To stop him!

She opened the bedroom door and looked for signs of violence, wondering if he might have tried to take Frigga with him or avenge himself on Gaeriel, but there was no sign of a struggle.

The goddess paused and forced herself to calm down, to think rationally. Where would he go? Lind cut the links between realms, which meant his options were severely limited. She remembered what Gaeriel said. The Spark! It was always open! It couldn't be closed, and only its danger prevented gods and demons from using it.

But desperate gods and demons just might...

She started for the door, accidentally dropping the letter in her rush. The nearest hardline to The Spark was a few miles from here. She might still be able to stop him if she hurried!

The piece of paper floated gently to the hallway floor, coming to rest in front of an open bedroom door.

A moment later, an empty sake bottle rolled out of the room, followed shortly thereafter by a groping hand in search of it.

As Urd's fingers touched the paper, she pulled it into her room.

888

The house in their dreams was identical to the one in the waking world, they found as they stepped out onto the back patio and sat down on the steps. It was dark out, and every star was shining.

Belldandy wouldn't look at him, and Keiichi, still mortified at having his fantasies displayed to her in full 3D, wasn't sure what to say.

I've always been afraid she could see or sense that, he thought. I guess it was inevitable...

He saw her flinch a little and wondered if she could still sense his thoughts even in a dream.

Belldandy?

H...Hai? she replied.

"Look," he said out loud. "About that... I mean... Well... I don't know what to say..."

"You... You don't have to say anything," she said. Although she wasn't facing him, he could see the tips of her ears were still a deep red.

"I mean... I'm sorry," he said lamely. "I don't... You're..." He gave up, not knowing how to make this right.

"You don't have to make it right, Keiichi," she said quietly. "I..."

He blinked as he took a peek into her mind. Her emotions were roiling within her. She was very embarrassed by what happened... but not in the way he thought... She was feeling almost exactly like he...

His eyes went wide as the implications of what he sensed hit him. He cleared his throat hesitantly.

"Um... Belldandy?" he asked. "Um... Stupid question, but... er... exactly whose dream are we in?"

Her head drooped in humiliation. "Gomen nasai," she whispered. "I didn't mean to insult you."

It was the college student's turn to blush now. "You didn't," he told her, looking away from her, totally unsure now of how to act. "I... I didn't think you... well... thought of that kind of stuff... about me..."

Belldandy squirmed in embarrassment.

He laughed uncertainly. "I mean... I'm not exactly a Hollywood star!" he laughed again to accentuate the point.

She finally turned to him. "What do you mean?"

This time he was squirming. "Well... you know," he told her. "I'm short... I've got the bushy eyebrows..."

The goddess blinked.

Surely you can't possibly find me attractive! his mind blurted.

"But I do!" she cried in response to his thought.

Keiichi wasn't sure to feel puzzled or proud.

Belldandy's finger went to her lip in thought. "Your looks are very..." She paused.

Savage, the thought popped.

"Savage?" he asked, blinking.

"That's not what I meant!" she cried, waving the thought away. "I mean..."

Primitive...

"Huh?"

"This isn't going well at all," Belldandy said exasperated. "You're very... male," she finished.

He blinked, still not getting it at all.

Seeing his ongoing confusion, she blushed and elaborated. "Keiichi, let me put it like this. Gods in Heaven all have perfect hair. They don't wear leather jackets. They don't ride motorcycles. It's those kind of attributes that when put together make you very... male."

Oh my goddess, Belldandy likes bad boys! his mind cried.

"That's not it either!" she cried again. "You're a very good person! A good man!"

He grinned.

"What?" she asked.

"Nothing," he replied, unable to lose his smile.

888

Metheus approached the streetlight and the two beings that stood under it. Dressed in long overcoats, their heads covered with large-brimmed hats, they stood a head taller than the rampant god. They turned at his approach.

Time to see if Hild was true to her word, he thought.

"Inquisitor," the taller of the two greeted him with a bow, his voice rumbling over the word in a dull baritone. "I am First Rajat. Our Lady Hild has sent us to act as your honor guard through The Spark. Were you pursued?"

"No," the god told him. "The only valkyrie close enough to interfere has been neutralized."

The creature, a Tannin by its size and the sound of its voice, nodded, pleased by this statement. "Then we should proceed. Two more of my clan await beyond the vortex. They will fight by our side, Inquisitor."

"Lead the way, First," Metheus instructed regally, some of the old arrogance of his demon rank returning to him almost too naturally for comfort.

Should it not be comfortable? he asked. This is what I am.

The two daemons flanked him as he stepped through the streetlamp...

888

Peorth leapt from streetlamp to streetlamp, trying to keep the directions straight in her head as she rushed after Wynn. If she could get to him before he reached the hardline, maybe she could talk some sense into him.

Tears stung her eyes as the words of his letter haunted her, unable to keep the lines from running through her head over and over again.

My dearest Peorth,

As I write this, I'm listening to you breathe as you sleep only a few feet away from me. It's a sound I missed dearly along with every other thing about you I kept close to me. And it makes what I'm doing so much harder.

She turned down a side street and came up short. At the far end of the street, Wynn and two other men were walking through a hardline portal.

The goddess dashed toward it like a shot. There was still time! Seconds dragged as the lamp post came closer and closer and then...

She was floating weightless, a dry searing heat teasing her skin. She squinted through the near unbearable light and saw just below her was a world of fire.

Peorth had entered The Spark.

888

"It's not a big deal," Keiichi told her. "It's... flattering..."

Comforting... his mind betrayed him.

Belldandy blinked. "'Comforting?'"

Keiichi came up short. "Er... I mean... It's not a big deal because everybody has those thoughts every once in awhile..."

"Do you?" she asked him point blank.

Now it was his turn to blush. Realizing he was trapped, he took a deep breath and replied.

"Yes," he said simply.

"Oh," she said, looking away in disappointment.

Good job, Keiichi, his brain taunted.

"About whom?" she asked sullenly.

He arched an eyebrow. "Um... What?" he asked, convinced he hadn't heard the question right.

She wouldn't look at him. "You said you have those same kinds of thoughts," she explained. "About whom?"

He shook his head as if trying to shake water out of his ears. "Who do you think?" he asked, convinced that he was somehow walking into a trap.

The goddess finally looked at him, a sad look on her face. "Keiichi san, I'm just curious... I don't want to make you feel bad about thinking about Sayoko san or anyone else..."

His mouth dropped. "Belldandy," he said quietly. "I meant... well... you..."

"Me?" she asked, her blush returning to her cheeks, but also a smile.

"What makes you think I wouldn't?" he asked, too curious to care about what he'd just admitted to.

"Keiichi san, you're very kind, but I know my plainness for what it is."

Is she high? he thought before he could rope it back in.

If she heard the thought, she didn't let on. "Neesan has always been the attention-getter in our family," she explained. "And that's how it should be," she hastily added. "After all, she's a goddess of love. It's only right that she be taller... tanner... and more well endowed..."

"You've got to be kidding me," Keiichi said, almost angry at what he was hearing. In response, she gave him a questioning look. "Belldandy... I mean... Has no one ever told you how gorgeous you are?"

She blushed again, her hand going to her face. "Keiichi, stop it," she said. "You don't have to..."

"Belldandy!" he cried in amazement. "Haven't you noticed how every head on campus turns toward you when you walk into the quad?"

"Of course!" she said happily. "We're all friends!"

"You've won Miss Nekomi Tech two years in a row!"

She blinked. "Hai... I thought my answers in the Q and A portion served me ver..."

He took her by the shoulders and looked into her eyes. "Belldandy! You're beautiful!" he cried. "I mean I'd..." He choked off the idea before he could finish, but his mind once again betrayed him.

... cut off my left hand to touch you!

Belldandy was purple at this point, stunned by the statement.

Keiichi froze, unable to believe what he was saying.

Turning her eyes away demurely, she whispered. "You needn't do so."

888

At their altitude, the heat from The Spark was scorching, but bearable. The hardline that led to the Demon Realm was still an hour away, and they would have to watch for dark matter fragments and quantum singularities. Realm 0 was not known for being hospitable to strangers.

Metheus tried not to think of what he was leaving behind. That was Wynn's life, and he was not Wynn. Thinking of it should be like thinking of a fictional character he read about once upon a time. It would be easier that way.

"My Lord, we are followed," one of the daemons told him.

He turned and could faintly see a speck in the distance behind him. The rampant didn't need a close-up to know who it was.

"Peorth," he whispered. He took a breath and made a hard call. "First, delay her, but she is not to be harmed."

Rajat nodded. "Continue on, Inquisitor," he rumbled. "We shall buy your escape with our lives if need be."

"As you should," Metheus reminded him with a touch of his old arrogance.

The Tannin bowed and turned toward the approaching dot in the sky.

888

I have to go. I don't know what I am anymore, but I'm no god. Hild told me I was more like her, and maybe she's right. The one thing I do know is that I'm not what I used to be, and if I stay with you, I'm only going to keep hurting you, and I have no desire to cause you anymore pain than I already have.

Peorth searched the burning sky ahead of her. In the distance, she could make out five shadows against the orange sky. It had to be them. She flew toward them as fast as she could. There was still time! If she could get him away from the demons, convince him he was wrong...

One of the shadows stopped and turned toward her, and hope leapt forward in her heart. It must be him!

There was a flash of green light, and a ball of verdant energy shot toward her!

She gasped and dived downward, the sinister bright ball missing her by inches. Catching a better look she saw what it was, a tracking immobilization spell. If it hit her, she would freeze like a park statue...

And if it happened here, she'd fall right into The Spark.

888

"Um... What?" Keiichi asked in a whisper, now painfully aware that he was still holding the goddess by the shoulders.

Belldandy still wouldn't meet his gaze. "Keiichi san, you said you'd cut off your hand to touch me," she said plainly as if she were explaining something to a dim child. "You don't have to do that... if you want to touch me."

He swallowed painfully. "Belldandy," he whispered.

Reaching up, she placed her hands on his arms and finally looked at him. "Is it... Is it wrong to feel like that?" she asked.

"No," he said quietly. "I guess not... I mean... We love each other, right?"

"Hai," she said softly, leaning in.

"And we've been together for awhile..."

"Hai," she whispered breathlessly, leaning closer, close enough for him to feel her breath on his face.

Keiichi's heart was beating like a jackhammer at this point. "And it's not like we haven't kissed before, so..." He broke off as he felt Belldandy's fingertips on his cheek. "Um... Belldandy..."

This is it! We're going in! his mind announced. None of Urd's potions to screw things up! No Skuld to interrupt! Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines...

He leaned forward, praying that he wouldn't do something stupid at the last second like sneeze or pass out. He didn't want this to be bad for Belldandy. Of course it wouldn't be. They loved each other, right? This was natural, right? It was meant to be, right? Right? RIGHT?!

"Keiichi san?" she whispered.

"Yeah?" he replied.

"Please stop thinking so loudly and kiss me," she urged.

He closed that last few inches and caught her lips with his own. She sighed against his lips and held him tightly as his arms wrapped around her.

"Belldandy?" he whispered as the parted for a moment.

"Hai?"

"Well... This might sound silly," he said as she rested her head against his chest. "But... Well... Are you really you or are you a dream?"

She looked up at him. "Either way, I'm with you tonight," she told him.

He closed his eyes as she kissed him again. I guess I'll just have to ask tomorrow morning...

888

Peorth flew as fast as a goddess possibly could as the immobilization spell raced after her. She had tried to outfly it, to outmaneuver it, but it was following her relentlessly, gaining a little bit more every time she turned. At this point she had two choices: She could try more of the same and watch it creep after her, or she could dive.

For the past thousand years, I was forced to keep myself from thinking of you. Thinking of home could have compromised me. So I put all my thoughts of you, all of my memories of us together inside a little locked box in my head. I couldn't open it, see your face, smell your hair, but I could look at that box and know what was inside and know it was all worth it.

The problem with diving was that if she got too close to The Spark, the heat would burn her essence away, and once she went lower, it would cost valuable seconds to climb again.

She turned sharply and watched the green ball of light turn with her. The spell was only six or seven meters from her now.

Just as she was about to give up and try diving toward the inferno below, several bolts of light reached out and tore through the immobilization spell, dispersing it.

Peorth blinked and looked around, searching for the source.

"Oi! Peorth!" she heard from behind her.

Her eyes went wide in shocked relief. "Urd!" she cried.

The other love goddess was flying toward her. "You're doing the right thing!" Urd shouted at her. "When a love goddess shees the man she wants, she rreachez out and takesh him!" She hiccuped.

Peorth blinked. "Mon dieu!" she cried in alarm. "You've been drinking!"

Urd looked insulted. "So what?!" she cried. "A goddessh can fight just ash well when she's drunk!"

She accentuated this remark by spinning suddenly and launching several bolts of lightning toward the four shadowy figures flying toward them. The daemons scattered as they tried to evade the blasts.

"Go after your man!" Urd told her. "I can take these ashholes!" With that, Urd flew right toward the daemons as they attempted to regroup.

Peorth saw the last shadow still moving away and flew toward him.

All I wanted was to come home to you. All I wanted was to pick up where we left off, but that's impossible now. I've discovered the soldier's terrible secret: that to defend his home, he becomes estranged from it; in defending his values, he must contravene them; in defending civilized peace, he must immerse himself in uncivilized violence. I have become the monster I once fought so hard to protect you from.

She willed herself to go faster. There was still time! She could still fix this!

The goddess could make out more details now. It was definitely him. She could almost reach out and touch him.

At the very last second, he rolled onto his back and snagged her wrists in his hands. Twisting around he tossed her up and away from him. It took a moment, but she recovered, floating to a stop in front of him.

"Wynn!" she cried. "Don't do this!"

"Go home, Peorth," he told her, the love in his voice gone. "This is the way it has to be."

"No it doesn't!" she replied, shaking her head. "I can help you! I can fix you! I promise!"

"There's no going back," he told her. "This is what I am." Peorth started to open her mouth to protest, but he cut her off. "Peorth, do not make me choose between you and my queen," he warned. "I'm not sure who would win out at this point."

The statement floored her. "Cheri," she whispered.

"There's nothing for you here," he said, turning from her. "Time for you to go."

The dismissal left her dumbstruck. She watched as he started to float away.

I can't say for certain when it happened, can't point to where Wynn ended and Metheus began, but I do know that the god you knew and loved died long ago, and in his place stood a demon who dreamed of having what had belonged to another.

Steeling herself, she leapt toward him, smashing into him at full speed! Turning, he snarled and wrapped his hands around her throat.

She gasped as she fought for air, her eyes looking into his and seeing not the gentle pool of blue she remembered, but a harsh and violent sea.

Something dark obscured him for a moment as... something... emerged from him. Looking up, she saw the creature from her dream, hissing at her in rage. The goddess wept deep in her heart as she recognized the creature's grey eyes as those belonging to Lucky Jack.

Fighting for breath, she reached up and took his head in her hands. His fingers sinking deeper into her throat, she mouthed three words...

"Angel, come forth..."

With a flash of light, Gorgeous Rose emerged from her back and darted forward. Lucky Jack snarled and braced himself for an attack, but was shocked still when the angel suddenly grabbed him and kissed him full on the lips.

Metheus gasped as the two angels merged into one amalgamation of darkness and light. His hands loosened, and Peorth breathed deep as she closed her eyes and embraced him.

They began to fall.

Peorth saw all of it, every moment of a thousand years as their souls, minds and bodies mixed. She could feel his spirit within him, crying, weeping at what it had become and the despair that came with knowing it could never go back to being what it once was. It noticed her, flung itself into her spirit's arms, sobbing, begging her for comfort, for forgiveness.

She shushed it gently, offering it as much love as she could, but there was so much wrong with it, so much of it out of place, corrupted, wrong...

It wanted to go home. It wanted to go home so badly it ached. It just wanted to go home...

Why couldn't it just go home?!

Peorth held Metheus tightly and whispered. "You're home... You're home..."

They continued to fall toward the fires below.

888

"PANDA SMASH!" Urd cried as her fist smashed into the Tannin, sending it flying off into space.

Urd watched as the last wounded daemon flew off in retreat and clapped the dust off her hands.

"Nothing like a good fight to burn the alcohol out," she noted with a smile. She looked around and blinked. She couldn't see them.

"Peorth?" she called out. "Peorth! Where are you?! I can't see you! Peorth?!"

888

The heat from The Spark was starting to hurt now, but Peorth didn't care. She held him as they fell.

"Peorth!" she heard. "Peorth, I can't see you! Where are you?!"

She gathered her thoughts for a mental send and sent a message to the Norn's mind. "It's okay, Urd," she whispered, tears in her eyes. "Just let us go. Let us go..."

Her clothes were starting to blacken from the heat, her skin turning red.

I now know for certain who I am, but I'll be damned if I know the point. I cannot ignore what I am, cannot turn my back on my nature. So instead, I choose to embrace it. I am what I am and no more. So I will return to Hell, serve my queen to the best of my ability and try to forget the lover I leave behind.

She squeezed him tightly.

Her eyes shot open as she suddenly lurched to a stop. Metheus continued falling, breaking their link.

No! her mind gasped, reaching out to him.

She looked up and found a severely sunburned Urd pulling her up by the leg. Peorth fought for a moment, trying to get back to him, but she couldn't even see him through The Spark's corona now.

Good bye, Peorth. Je'taime.

I love you.

Metheus

"Wynn," she croaked, reaching down for him.

The heat started to subside, and Urd leaned down to get a better hold, taking her by the arm and releasing her leg.

"Come on," Urd urged softly. "I know. I know you didn't want to lose him again. I'm sorry."

Peorth curled up into a ball and started to cry, her mind clutching to those final few moments she had with him.

888

The link broken, Lucky Jack had hidden himself within his host again, leaving Metheus to fall toward the Spark alone. He fell with his right side facing downward, the scars on his face taking most of the heat damage, further disfiguring him, but he didn't care. In a few moments, it would be over.

Or so he had thought before he slowed to a stop.

Someone clucked their tongue at him.

"Metheus... Bubalah, what am I going to do with you?"

He rolled onto his back and found Hild floating above him, not at all put off by the heat of The Spark's corona.

Metheus sighed, not sure whether to be pleased or not.

"Come along," Hild told him with a grin as they floated upward. "Tomorrow is another day!"

888

Keiichi cautiously entered the kitchen and found Belldandy there, humming as she expertly worked on this morning's breakfast.

"Good morning, Keiichi san!" she said, not turning to him, but sensing his presence.

"Good morning," he returned with a smile of his own. He wasn't quite sure what to say next. After all, he wasn't one hundred percent sure that what happened last night was real... given that it was a dream to begin with. Was it really Belldandy or had it just been...

Placing the bowl on the counter, she turned, dried her hands on a towel and gave him a quick kiss. "I was there, and it was real," she assured him with a smile.

He turned red. "Oh!" he said lamely. "That's... good."

"Hai!" she replied. "Very good!"

She leaned toward him and lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "Perhaps tonight... in the waking world this time?"

His heart beat faster, and hers accelerated to catch up.

"Yeah," he whispered back, his mouth suddenly dry. "That would be..."

She gave him another kiss. "Wonderful?" she prompted.

"Yeah," he said again stupidly. "Um... But before that... Well... We have about an hour. How do you want to do this?"

The goddess took his hand and looked into his eyes. "Somewhere we can enjoy it."

Stepping away, she went back to the counter and picked up the cutting board. Taking it to the garbage can, she started to scrape the discarded vegetables from the soup into it, but paused.

"Eh?" she asked, reaching down. "Keiichi san, did you throw away a flash drive?"

888

Peorth sat in Wynn's room, holding his blanket close to her and staring off into nothingness. Urd had brought the weeping goddess home, healed her burns and bundled her up in her room. Early that morning, though, she had wandered into her lover's room, searching for some remnant of him, something she could cling to.

She had been fully prepared to go with him, to die with him in The Spark. It wouldn't have mattered because they would have been together. That's the way it was supposed to be. Lovers were supposed to die together!

The goddess squeezed the blanket harder, not even looking up as the door opened and Urd and Frigga stepped inside.

They waited for a moment, wondering if she'd acknowledge them, but she never did.

"See?" Urd whispered. "She's been like this since we got back."

The godly queen stepped forward and sat on the futon next to Peorth as Urd watched, unsure of exactly what to do, but instinctively understanding that Frigga would know. Frigga placed her hand on Peorth's shoulder and watched as the other goddess looked up at her with tear-filled eyes.

"I'll never love anyone," Peorth whispered, fresh tears welling up in her eyes. "I'll never love anyone again!" she cried, shaking her head.

Frigga looked on her with sympathetic eyes, reaching out to pull her close. "Shhhh," she shushed. "It's all right."

Sobbing, Peorth hugged her and broke down in her arms. Frigga let her cry, knowing that no words would bring comfort to her now.

888

Holding hands, Keiichi and Belldandy entered the goddess' room and sat down on her futon. When Gaeriel had popped out of the flash seal, she was out for blood. Fortunately, Urd had emerged from Peorth's room and explained the events from the night before. Gaeriel was convinced it was some kind of trick and demanded to interrogate Peorth.

At which point Urd shoved her back into the flash seal.

Do you think Urd will get into trouble? No. She'll give the seal to Moder. She'll deliver it to Lind. But maybe... Shhh, Keiichi, trust Neesan.

Epiphany was only minutes away, and their thoughts had become so close it couldn't really be called conversation anymore. Simply shared thoughts. Their heartbeats had synchronized, and somehow it felt wrong to not hold hands, to not share some kind of physical contact.

They laid down on their sides, facing one another, their hands held between them as they looked at each other.

I'm starting to feel a little weird. Don't worry, I'm here. It'll be wonderful. Are you sure? Hai. We'll be one.

He swallowed nervously.

Peorth told me that this was like when gods and goddesses make love. Hai. It's the blending of the physical, mental and spiritual. I love you. I love you too...

He looked into her eyes and could see his reflection in them. It took him a moment to realize, however, that he wasn't seeing his reflection, but seeing himself through her eyes. He blinked as he started to see things in his mind, not so much memories but ways of looking at things, looking at the world as Belldandy did, through the lens of her mind and heart. He felt her grip on his hand tighten and knew she was going through the same thing.

Suddenly, it was if their lives were spread out before them, and they saw how all the pieces, all the moments and choices, fit together, how many different events had to occur in order for this one moment to happen. There was no way to go back and change one thing to alter their lives, because every choice they had made, no matter how minuscule, had moved them closer and closer to being together.

They were one in the same, and of course it was natural for it to be that way. It was supposed to be that way.

They just knew.

You're beautiful, both heard from the other, both in their voice and the other's.

He opened his eyes and found Belldandy staring back at him, wide-eyed. Gasping for breath, he blinked rapidly.

"Keiichi san?" she whispered. "Are you all right?"

Yeah, he sent. He blinked as he realized she couldn't hear him and he couldn't hear her in his mind. "Yeah," he added vocally. "It's just... Wow..."

She smiled. "It was my first time," she admitted.

"I know," he said, smiling back. "Mine too."

"And I'm so happy it was with you," she whispered.

"Me too," he told her. "So... I guess it's over, huh?"

"Hai," she agreed, a touch of sadness in her voice.

He chuckled, and she gave him a questioning look, a little annoyed that she couldn't just take the answer from his mind anymore.

"It just occurred to me," he said. "No matter what else happens between us, I'm never going to know any woman better than you."

She sidled closer to him. "Do you want to know a woman better than me?"

He smiled. "Can't you tell for yourself?"

"Keiichi san!" she pouted. "Don't tease!"

He laughed again.

"What now?" she asked.

"I was just... I mean look at us," he told her. "Three days ago, I'd be fidgeting and nervous, and you'd..."

"Be puzzled," she supplied.

"Yeah," he said. "Now..." He squeezed her hand. "Now, I can't imagine being any other way."

She scooted closer and wrapped her arm around him, offering him a kiss. "Of course," she whispered. "We're lovers now. It's only natural."

"Lovers," he repeated. "I like the way that sounds."

888

Peorth wiped her eyes as she pulled away from Frigga after more than an hour of crying into the older goddess's shoulder.

"Merci," she whispered.

"Child, I know it seems dark now, but give it time and your spirit will brighten again."

Urd had retaken her place just inside the door.

"Merci, Madame Frigga," Peorth said again, regaining some of her composure. "I appreciate your concern for me."

"I'll be returning to Heaven soon," Frigga told her. "Do you have a message for Freya?"

Peorth shook her head. "I think I'll be returning myself soon."

"You shouldn't go yet," Urd spoke up from the door.

Peorth looked up at her, and Frigga hid a look of intense discomfort.

Urd smiled. "You should take some time, Peorth. Rest your spirit. You're among friends here. There's no work to be done here. Just take it easy for awhile."

"Urd is quite right," Frigga agreed, putting on a smile. "I will talk to Freya, see to it that she gives you some time off. She will listen to me, I'm sure." She stood up. "In the meantime, rest for a time, child."

"Oui," Peorth agreed, looking back down at the futon. Squeezing the blanket again, she laid down as the other two goddesses left the room. Closing her eyes, she breathed deep and relished the remaining scent of him.

Frigga waited until they were down the hall and out of earshot before speaking again.

"The Almighty help you, Urd," she muttered.

Urd stopped and gave Frigga a firm look. "You'd rather Lind and Gaeriel meet her at the gate?" she asked, tossing the flash drive to her stepmother. "Gaeriel's in there and looking for a fight. Do me a favor and don't let her loose before you get to Heaven."

Frigga shook her head. "It's not right," she told her. "That poor girl has been through enough."

"And I don't want her to go through more!" Urd shot back. "She melded with him, Frigga!" she hissed. "And you know as well as I do that a piece of the other always remains. If she shows up in Heaven now, and Lind gets even a little suspicious..."

Frigga took a breath and nodded. "Do you really think she retained an infected piece of him?"

"I don't know," Urd admitted. "But if she did... then it's only a matter of time."

The queen looked back down the hall toward Peorth's room. "I owe that god my life," she reminded her. "If helping Peorth can help repay that debt, then you have my silence."

888

Peorth stared up at the ceiling, but in her mind she was working diligently as she brought up every memory she had of him over the last few days. She relived the shock of first seeing him lying on their dinner table, felt his heartbeat under her ear as she rested across his chest waiting for him to wake up, and felt the renewed fire of passion at kissing him again for the first time in a thousand years.

She held each memory like holding a photo in her hands, allowing herself a moment to enjoy each one, before placing it in a box inside her head.

Their conversation on the roof...

Holding him in the bath...

Embracing him in his room as they plotted their escape...

His last letter to her...

Their last embrace...

One by one, she gently placed each moment in time into the box. Then, summoning all the strength that remained in her heart, she willed herself to close the box and lock it just as he had done with his memories of her.

Perhaps, one day... she thought. One day, I'll be able to open it again.

Until that day, though, she would do her best to forget.

Until that day...