Oh My Goddess: Trial by Tenderness

(The following legal disclaimer and content advisory applies to the entirety of the work.)

Legalities: Oh My Goddess/Ah Megami-sama characters and plot bases copyright by Kosuke Fujishima/Kodansha Ltd. Tokyo. Sections of this story are based on Japanese original and English translations of OMG/AMS, as licensed by the author and his artistic agents for international marketing. All translations of Chinese and Japanese poetry and prose are by the author and may not be reproduced without express permission.

Idealisms: The original artwork, characters and other related intellectual properties are ideally operated by their creators, with whom it resides, contrary to common practice in the publishing industry. There is no acceptable reason for artists to assign the copyright interests in their work to an indifferent corporate entity or management by virtue of a 'common practice' which was always questionable, often improper, and is now indefensible and inappropriate.

Disclaimers: There exists no copyright on this work as I do this for a hobby. It may be freely reproduced. Any resemblance to any persons, living or deceased, occurs per accidens. The orientation of this fanfiction does not reflect the OMG/AMS 'canon'.

Caveats: Okay...if you dare yourself to read this fanfic, you will be in for a wild ride. It's lengthy, it's imaginative and drama, it's intense, it's challenging, it's all over the board, and it is written by a published writer. The reading level and content is designated at the intended literary level of a novel. This OMG adaptation deals throughout with real-life issues: drug addiction and recovery; sexual and physical abuse; mental illness challenges; and spiritual and societal alienation. Thus, the characters you know and love from OMG will be redirected into roles and situations far removed from continuity. However, a strong fidelity to continuity is interwoven in the work. The philosophy of this story approximates Dostoyevsky: one most see the dark before treasuring the light. There are occasional forays into the 'lemon' zone, but not for the sake of gratuitous sensuality but more for illustrative fan service and realism. There is an economy of mild swearing throughout.

This is a self-insertion fanfic with the avatar character developed with a significant intellectual and emotional bent. If this offends you, skip past this fic. If you read it and it still troubles you, then I would suggest that you 'fictionalize' the narrator...a technique known as author deconstruction (i.e.; "death of the author" movement in the 1970s). I needed to outpour this work...so thanks for your indulgence. TBT carefully balances self-serving disclosure with genuine narrative, including significant subplots where the avatar character doesn't even appear within the milieu of the OMG Universe that we all know and love. Drama predominates this work, so be warned. Readers have consistently emailed me to describe how some passages moved them to tears. This fic is majorly themed around the concept that we are constantly surrounded by the Divine.

Thanks for reading this far...may this bring you pleasure and escape.

Part 1: The Meeting

I could feel the pain again, the inside pain. It washed through me like an orange clawing hand ripping inside of my chest, shredding viscera and emotion with sheer bleak stance. I felt numb...so numbed by the gravity of life I had experienced in 29 years of being. What memories remained, I was despaired of. I wished they would fade away, like snow etchings melting into anonymous droplets of water on a window when spring blossoms majestically for the first time...

The despair still remained...as pawn ghosts...haunting...always following me.

I could cry for help, had I the tears.

I staggered back in my bed and reached over for my set of daily meditation books. College had become an unending daunting task. No longer was I bright with ambition and thirst for learning. Diogenes's quote about "education being the ornament of life" held no charm for me. Languor filled my waking consciousness.

3:35 am.

After looking blankly at the books, I read selections from all eleven of them, then relaxed into a cross-legged meditation posture on my waterbed and quieted my mind as I had done a thousand times before. Chimerae floated within my eyelids...and the horrible black expanse that dwelled where my feelings should had been rose up again like some horrible oil slick.

Suffocating the very life essence out of me.

Hopeless. This is what it is like...to be burnt out on life, like the final glow of a dying ember? To have jettisoned all sense of hope and ambition? I felt once more like a hollow shell. Alone...an unending emptiness that could never be poured out of my soul. Time and time again. Still hopeless.

I had been reading that manga...that one that somehow gave me hope. About a young guy who calls for fastfood delivery-and reaches a Goddess. About an awkward journey into intimacy as she and he slowly fall in love. A Goddess. She lives with her sisters in an abandoned temple in Japan. Everybody was quirky, but nice...

"This is no meditation," I thought to myself. I could not calm my inner voice. I had experienced too many platens of raw pain recently...I didn't even know if I could recognize joy if it slapped me across the face. The antidepressant medication could not let me escape the melancholia that I had found myself drifting in.

Heart Dead.

Impulsively, I started to sing music to myself. For unlike many people, I didn't just speak to myself, but my inner silent thoughts sometimes assumed the form of music: sounds for words, for I had no voice to raiment my secret feelings, making them into visibility.

The bleakness deepened...and an enigmatic fancy struck me. If a comic book character could summon a divine being, why not me? Perhaps my feelings could be a magnet for much-needed relief? I half-heartedly offered a solemn prayer.

"All the same, if it is to you, I know that you are divine and have fullness where I have emptiness.

I have sought love and truth for so long. I seek serenity and gentleness. Please. Please!"

My semi-sincere efforts shifted into desperation.

"If there is a goddess out there-if what I read in the comic could be truthful in this matrix of life-

let her come to me and pierce this veil of despondency...please make it real...please make it real!"

I could feel pangs of disconsolence fill my soul, just as I began to laugh at my stupidity. Imagine, a Goddess who would actually come to my aid. My bitter experience banged forth the awareness that almost nobody aids the depressed. There's no hope for the hopeless...

A tear arose, tracing my eyelid, as I could feel my senses willow back and forth like a grass blade in a caressing wind. Pessimism flooded my heart.

"It's only wishful thinking on my part. No one cares about me. There is no..."I heard my voice rubric its doubts.

Suddenly, my reverie broke as I heard the TV burst into sound in the living room.

A foreboding panic gripped me dusttight. On its own, the TV set was now sounding pinknoise soundrubble in my apartment. I felt an increasing sheer chill rumble up and down my spine. Could it be a burglar? Fighting back my better judgment, I walked out of my bedroom and into the living room. The TV screen was shimmering with gray static, speckling in random roils up and down the screen. Looking closer, I could make out some blobs and shapes which seemed to move in the background, obscured by the peppering images. Blinking my eyes, I thought I saw a foot, slowly moving towards the screen.

Out of the screen.

A slender foot and ankle emerged out of my TV screen like a finger stretching and poking its way out of a translucent plastic bag. Another foot, then a slender calf, and then a long shapely thigh followed it...

Backing warily away from the TV, I thought I was having another acid flashback. Not that I had dosed on LSD in the past 11 years...but I felt the heaviness that accompanied a psychedelic state of hallucination. I mentally pinched myself to see if this was real. Oblivious to my pinch of reality, a hand reached up from inside the viewscreen and grasped the edge of the TV. Then with a heave, the slender hips and narrow waist of a woman emerged.

"This is too much like a certain anime I've seen," I observed to myself.

Fascinated, I continued to gaze in wonderment as her feet touched delicately on the ground, her dress draping over the edge of the TV screen. Pulling herself out, I saw her shoulders, covered loosely by waving platinum-blonde hair...long hair...and then I saw her light green eyes and became momentarily lost. She finished extracting herself from the TV, shuffled her dress and cape, and then looked once around the room. She turned slightly to face me.

She was on one knee, her dress flowing to the floor. She wore a shimmering green cape wrapped around her shoulders. Her dress was a sleeveless sparkle, with a long slit up one side baring her leg up to the hip. Its silky rose color was embroidered with fanciful floral designs in many shades of light blue and green. Intermingled with the flowers was some kind of writing. She straightened her cape and dress, then slowly stood up. I gasped in surprise as I noticed that she was the spitting image of Urd in the manga. For some strange reason, I snapped my fingers to see if I was alive...to hear a familiar sound in the midst of this intensity. She heard the sound and narrowed her eyes when she noticed that I was looking her over. I sensed a tingling on my skin, as if the very air was charged with electricity.

"Bizarre..." I commented obliquely at the sight.

I could feel my heart pounding in my chest like it used to when I would inject too much cocaine. Bursting with shock, I stood up shakily to my full 6' and shook the hair out of my face. This tall woman was appraising me with her eyes. She must have been 5'8 or 9", with hair down past her hips; her ravenesque beauty suggesting the stereotypical generic-type strippers my friends raved about when they went to strip clubs. Yet, there was something old and cold in her eyes. Not a dry beauty...but a beauty that could balance disarray and symmetry without the slightest effort. An 'everywhere' beauty. Her eyes were bright green, with no hint of blue or brown in the irises. Eyes that were unnatural, discordant in relation to the small trace of a smile she wore.

Suddenly, I realized my fervent wish of a few moments earlier.

"This is totally insane," I thought as I sized up the mysterious woman in my living room.

"Wh...who are you? Are y..you a goddess?" I inquired tentatively. I couldn't believe I was stuttering like a babbling idiot.

I felt so inert and clumsy.

"Hi," she interjected pertly. Her lilting voice was sweet with honey and cinnamon. She started speaking in Japanese, then stopped herself.

"Ooops," she exclaimed while rolling her eyes and covering her mouth in a carefree motion.

I replied tentatively in Japanese and asked her about her name, or if she had a meishi-an introduction card. Now she was examining me closely, as I saw her eyes sweep up and down my frame. Her smile faded. I felt like I was being scanned...as if my whole life was being pulled out of me. The sensation was overwhelming, and my knees began to fall out from under me. I gasped a moment later, realizing that I had unconsciously held my breath while she was scrutinizing me.

"Why are you so weak?" she asked bluntly.

Her question sent my blood to the Antarctic and back. Something recessed within my being suddenly came unsprung. Weak? Me? She had no idea what the word meant. I straightened up alertly; memories of all the darkness of my life's past flashing before me. I felt a raw flame of anger, and forgot everything: where I was, whom I was talking to, the absurd surrealism of the situation. Even deeper, I felt a shock of sorrow and hurt. A breadth of intangibility...yet so enmeshed with my being that it was inseparable. She was arrogant...ignoring my pain, or the fact that my weakness is my strength. Which was her loss, not mine.

"What would you know about weakness...or strength for that matter? You have them mixed up. Admitting weakness is a sign of resolve. Obviously you've missed out on this simple lesson." I replied vehemently. Her emerald eyes widened at this as her voice took on the peculiar harshness that Japanese and Chinese women assume when they undertake to chew someone out.

"I scanned you, and I saw that you were weak..so weak that you had allowed people take advantage of you. You failed to take care of yourself, out of weakness. You are so shortsighted that you have fell away from keeping your promise to yourself and others, again out of weakness. Through and through, you certainly deserve what you get: a lame, weak life of a loser."

"What? What are you talking about?" Then I remembered the childhood promise I had made, and flushed with guilt. But that was the impossible dream of naive childhood. How did she know that!

She continued inveighing me with her tirade.

"When you grew up, you lost your idealism, sacrificed the desire you had as a child to give and receive peace from everyone in your life! For a mortal, you are majorly disappointing! You think that locking yourself up in some little apartment with some little righteous 'perfect moral life' to live up to...you think that is living?

"Who are you to come here and test me? Do you think you can achieve anything by probing beyond the outer layers of my persona? How do you know what 'being' is? If you're what I think you are, then I'm the one who should be disappointed...because you can't even come close to putting my convictions on trial. But yet you try. You try because you have a senseless obligation to yourself to attempt to control everything around you, URD! I asked for help from a Goddess, and instead I get the Queen of Shrews...YOU!" I belligerently accosted.

This first meeting was quickly escalating into a war of wills.

"How DARE YOU!" she replied, rigid with anger, her arms pipe-straight at her sides as she clenched her fists. Ignoring her, I continued.

"What do you want from me? All I did was ask for a real goddess to come and maybe-just maybe-grant me one damn wish! Instead, I get you, and you start probing my character. Who the hell do you think you are? You're certainly no real goddess, just a real selfish simulacrum of a deity."

With that, my spite was exhausted. I suddenly felt like crying...like this was some cruel prank that the universe has designed, intending to torture me further. I crisply turned my back to her and walked into my bedroom. I straddled the office chair at my desk, facing the doorway.

"It's on you now," I thought. I could hear a gradual fortissimo of static-not the TV static, but something that resembled the sound of electrical static building loudly in my living room.

Urd, or whoever she was...floated...into my bedroom, fists on her hip and elbows pointing out like pincers. She was surrounded by lighting discharges, resembling a Van Der Graff electric generator. Small bolts of lighting lashed around her like a herd of angry snakes. Her lithesome body was enveloped in an aqua colored glow, which oddly struck me as resembling a Kirlian photo effect. Her expression was indignant and resentful.

"How dare you question whether or not I am a Goddess, and how dare you walk out on me!" she shouted in perfectly enunciated pissed-off English.

"DO YOU KNOW WHO AND WHAT I AM, MISTER?! I have a moment's concern for you and then you insult me. If that is not enough, then...you, the mortal, just walk out of the presence of me, the immortal! For a mortal, you are a poor excuse of humanity!" She looked upwards with frustration.

"I'm not even from the Goddess Relief Office. Errr! This is so majorly screwed up!" she growled. "For some reason this evening, my sister sensed that someone was going to make a wish. Your need for a wish, obviously. That shouldn't have happened; she isn't supposed to respond to anyone else's wishes while she's fulfilling Keiichi's wish."

My mind raced as I realized that the middle of the night in Hawaii was a few hours into evening in Japan. Assuming that "Urd" came from Japan... She continued her plaint.

"Then, by some crucial screwup of the Yggdrasil Mainframe...I'm assigned to come here!

"Why are you lecturing me about your problems, Urd?" I said in deadpan voice. This only elicited a stronger display of histrionics from the ireful Goddess.

"Back home, my own sister was momentarily paralyzed with sadness when she sensed you crying out for help. I couldn't even snap her out of shock. She's not even supposed to service any more wishes, because of the last wish she had to fulfill. Ooooo...now you got me so mad I'm repeating myself." She stopped, tousled her hair and caught her breath.

"Anyway, then the Almighty Himself calls our house and tells me that I had to come here!" With a dramatic pause, she spoke sotto voce in an attempt at imitation.

"'So that you'll learn something about character, Urd,' He says. So I arrive here and immediately I could sense how you're gripped by melancholy. Using my gifts of compassion...I try to get you to cheer up by talking with me about it! Instead, you..."

"So here you are" I interrupted dryly.

"So here I am. But now I gotta wonder why I'm trifling with an ingrate like you! Instead of receiving character training, I get character assassinated by you, the weak mortal. Humph! And how in the Nine Realms did you know my name?"

I couldn't believe my ears! Urd! In my house! It was almost funny...until I noticed the scowl etched on her face. I gathered myself, trying not to look too facefallen at her admission. Urd looked like the social worker I had met with last month; she had obviously sat through too many lies and excuses...and yet still had to deal with me regarding whether or not I could eat the next month.

"I have little empathy for your so-called problems, Urd," I thought to myself. Somehow caution replaced my contentiousness and I toned down an acrid reply. I remembered all the days of my life 'stolen' from me by deep depression; the result of a disabling mental illness I live with. This I didn't want. I didn't want to feel mired in a bummer trip.

"Yeah, well, like life sucks too...sorry it didn't go as planned for you," she countered. I shifted to a more reasoned stance.

"If you are who you say you are, prove it, otherwise get out! You say you're a Goddess, so read my mind and tell me what I know about you. Show me what you're made of, if indeed you're Urd, the elder of the three Norns!"

Urd's face lit up with surprise and anger, then slowly shifted to a facial expression I guessed was mirth. She shrugged sarcastically.

"Okay, have it your way...mortal!" she said, enunciating 'mortal' with blatant condescension. She held out her hand and a meishi appeared out of nowhere, then floated up towards my face on a delicate web of static lightning.

"You can read, can't you?" she taunted.

I read it out loud: "Urd, Goddess First Class, Unlimited, Unrestricted License. Sysop for Yggdrasil System, current residence: Makuhari-Ku, Chiba Prefecture, Japan." I then reread it in Latin, Greek and Chinese, slipping in "Second Class" for "First Class" and correcting that little thing about "unlimited' and "unrestricted class".

"Huh?" she asked.

"You're pretty smart, you figure it out! It should say 'Urd, Goddess of Exaggeration,' somewhere in there, don't you think?" I answered. I reread it in Japanese with the amended the parts about class and license. Urd cocked her head in what appeared to be conceited shock, then her face flushed red.

"I am a First Class Goddess!" Urd screamed. "You hear me...a FIRST CLASS GODDESS!" My hands sprang to my ears as bone-piercing decibels concussed my brains into mush.

"I'm leaving right now!" Urd did a quick about face and started out of the room. I heard her mutter something about "that stupid mortal thinks he's cool"' as she stormed out of the room.

Suddenly, she spun around and yelled at me. "Be glad I'm leaving, because I really, really wanna do something to you that Mara would appreciate! I would fry your ass in a moment with a lightning strike, except for the fact that I might get busted by the Almighty and lose my Second Class license!"

I chuckled as her hands sprung to cover her mouth, too late to recover her mistake.

"Hmmm, I bet you wonder how I knew about your real Goddess rating, Urd? I'd even feel safe to say you don't have a clue!"

"THAT'S IT! I'm done wasting my time with you!" Urd walked into my living room. Then I heard a crash. I chased the sound, only to see my TV knocked off the stand onto the floor, with a cracked picture tube. Urd was pounding it with her head, trying to get inside of it.

"Hey, don't hurt yourself too much, oh mighty Goddess..." I started to shout sarcastically, then halted myself. Shocked by my ongoing disrespectful and bitter attitude, I checked out of the here and now of this situation...and asked myself some hard questions.

"What the hell is wrong with me? Why was I so combative? What's behind my feeling that this whole scenario is just some cosmic joke? Why am I lacking any feelings of empathy and concern for her circumstances...she seems clearly out of her expertise here! Why can't I respond with compassion? Isn't that what I would normally do? Didn't I get clean all those years ago to be of service to others...to accept others...to love others? I'm not being very kind to her!" I observed to myself. I felt out of whack. How did I get so callous and defensive all of a sudden?

"What is going on with me?" I muttered. Urd whipped around to look at me, emotions racing across her face.

"I can't leave! It won't let me! This is your fault!" she pointed at me. Something about her forceful attitude perked me into another shift of uncaring.

I mock bowed to her.

"Moi? You mean this mere mortal is preventing you from splitting?" I shrieked with laughter momentarily, then I paused for a minute and reflected how this whole situation had set my nerves on overload. I would never taunt anybody in my sane mind, because I don't believe in causing harm to others. Why do I keep being so mean to Urd? I waved my hands to get her attention-about the same time a couch flew up and blasted me in the chest, pinning me against the wall. The breath was knocked out of me, and I saw one very pissed-off Goddess, red framing her green eyes. I pushed with all of my strength and dislodged the couch, then fell to the floor. Urd looked at me with a surprised expression that seemed to say "Hey, how did you do that?"

A moment later, she put a hand to her head and scratched in a quizzical gesture. We stared at each other for what seemed like a season. Time to change tactics. Perhaps a gentlemanly apology would calm her down.

"Hey, uh Urd, I'm really sorry. I don't know what's come over me. I can't believe this is real. I know that you're probably wondering how I seem to know some things about you. Really, I wouldn't hurt you. If you wanna go, you can...I don't really want to make a wish. It wouldn't come true anyway..." I instantly felt a reluctance come over me...if I was indeed granted a wish, I could...

Once more, I remembered the depression, the incest, the years of active drug use, starving on the street for weeks at a time. Chariots of forlornness trod over my heart. Urd looked at me with an unreadable visage, then she started getting teary-eyed. While she wiped her tears on the corner of her cape, I muttered out my darkness.

"What difference would it make anyway? My life isn't worth it. Find someone else to help. Please. You can go. Just go!" Urd looked sadly at me for a moment, then her expression changed to disbelief, as if she felt like I was insane for denying a wish.

"If she only knew," I thought with lingering melancholy. Then her face softened up for the first time since she arrived, and she looked at me with eyes still watery with tears. She smiled engagingly.

"You really should make a wish, y' know. That's why I'm here, Cevn! It would be a wasted trip if I came to you and you didn't take advantage of this opportunity," Something old and wise misted over her eyes. "Besides, only special, deserving people get to make a wish. I wouldn't be here if the Ultimate Force had other plans for you. It's okay," she counseled assuringly.

"But if you don't make a wish...I'll lose face in front of the Almighty...and then I'LL KILL YOU!" she shouted with a half-threatening, half-warning smile.

"Well, that's really reassuring. Wish or die!" I coolly replied.

"Hey, I was just kidding!" Urd teased. "Remember, you're the mortal here!" In my mind, I wished it was the other way around.

"Oops, I better not say that!" I said softly. I mentally winced; what would Urd do if I wished her to become a mortal?

"Urd, you are really lucky I didn't say out loud the wish I just had in my head!" She looked at me suspiciously, then with impatience. My ribcage felt crackly as I slowly slid down the wall into a seated position, literally under the gun. I gasped as the physicality of my injury asserted itself. Urd looked at me in rapt apologence. Suddenly, the gravity of the situation impressed itself in my tired mind.

"I must have one wish I wanted to be granted to me," I meditated.

"Hurry up!" she prompted.

"Hey, it's my wish...I don't want to use it impulsively! So don't rush me!"

"Okay...here, lemme suggest some wishes," Urd offered. I looked up and saw visions projected into the air: financial success, sports fame, babes, Nobel Prize, Hollywood sex symbol, etc. But they all were appetitive wishes..hollow wispy things of no real value. Upon reflection, I realized that I wanted something that centered on me but was actually of benefit to the whole cosmic circus of reality. Just like I had promised myself in childhood.

I looked at Urd's green eyes, seeing beauty, coquettishness, wisdom, calm...

"That's it!" I said out loud. In a detached voice that didn't seem to be mine, I heard the words:

"My wish is to be serene...to be the balance. I want to be the axis of serenity

and balance which provides relief for all existence!"

"WHAT!? What kind of wish is that?" she said with a shrug. "That's total nonsense! You're not going to wish for money, power, class, a beautiful goddess like me? Even Keiichi had more sense than you did, at least he wished for Bell..."

Suddenly she fainted for a split-second. Rather, she seemed to float off into a trance. Her green eyes sparkled to a bright green-white, and the small plectrum-shaped triangle above the arch of her nose glowed luminously. She floated upwards; suspended about two feet off the ground with her legs and arms hanging limply in the air.

"Just like in the anime video," I thought.

Then all the stuff in my apartment started floating upwards, slowly circling her. Gimcrackery in a vortex. It was more like the movie Poltergeist than the anime video. Strangely, I expected music; something like a celestial choir out of a Vangelis album. Instead an industrial-strength humming arose; subharmonic tones bouncing off an octave's worth of discordances.

I felt all the energy pent up by my fear, frustration and desire sap out of me like the last sucking sound of water circling down the drain. The instinctive fear of death gripped me...my last heroin overdose ranged clear in my memory. My vision went gray, then hazy, then black as all the cacophony faded from my hearing...I felt like the floor was reaching out to smother me...

I felt a slapping on my face. Suddenly a splash of icy water shocked me into wakefulness. My whole body felt...different. I sensed a dull pain suffusing my being. Urd was kneeling next to me with a pan in her hand dripping water. It was getting light in my apartment, another dawn in Hawaii.

"Get up! We have to go" she urged.

"Uh huh, go where?" I said weakly between spins of my head.

"Go back!"

"What do you mean, Urd?" She read my thoughts.

"Yes, I have to go back, and you do too. The Almighty just called here and said that your wish was granted. Then He said that you would have to go back with me for 'reasons that will become obvious later.'" Urd pulled urgently on my arm, and hauled me up into a sitting position as I wondered how something could call on my disconnected phone. It was difficult making ends meet on the pittance that constitutes disability insurance income.

I tried to stand up, my legs felt like they weren't there, just rubbery balancy, so I leaned on her.

"Now's not the time to get fresh, honey!" she winked at me. A violent surge of panic gripped me as I sprang away from her and started to warily back myself into a corner.

"Don't do that! Are you a vampire, that you have to leave by sunrise?" I said mindlessly, defensively. Urd looked at me with a intently curious expression. My body felt ethereal, like it was at once weightless and yet solid. I was surprised by the lack of response from my body, as well as Urd's change in demeanor from dead serious to casual carefree curious.

"How are we supposed to get there", I asked. "Will you flip the bill for a one-way airfare tix from Hawaii to Japan?"

"No, you baka...er idiot!" she corrected herself. "We'll go back the way I came, through the TV!"

"I thought your sister was supposed to be the dense one. Haven't you realized that I have been conversing with you in Nihongo the whole time? You don't need to translate for me! And by the way...not to bring up small details, but you broke the TV!" Then I almost lost consciousness again and Urd shook me. My eyes itched red.

"What is wrong with you, honey?" Urd looked at me with concern.

"Don't call me 'honey'!" I mumbled back to her, again unsteady on my feet.

"We'd better get you going. By the way, don't worry about the TV. Where you're going to, we have several you can watch."

My body and mind felt separated, like they did when I used to shoot various narcotics. But that was many years ago. For eleven years, I had been totally drug free...nothing, no cigarettes, caffeine, alcohol. What was with this body rush I was feeling?

Urd dragged me by the arm towards TV and with a push, sent me into it. I fully expected a crash once my head would hit the shattered tube. Instead I felt a jelly-like sensation as I suddenly fell in, almost thoughtlessly. It was like diving into a pool. What I saw was indescribable. There was an incredible onslaught of synesthetic effects as all sorts of media rushed by me, rushed into me, rushed through me. I felt like David Bowman in 2001 when he entered the monolith...but what I was experiencing was far more intense than anything Kubrick had cooked up. I looked down to see my body and saw nothing. I became overwrought with fright. I heard Urd's voice inside of my mind, exhorting me to relax. I felt motionless, yet something assured me that I was moving.

"How do I know where to get off?" I shouted desperately with my thoughts.

"I think you already know how to do that, boy!" Urd flippantly replied. "Just follow me, I will go first and then pull you through, since you don't know which gate to take."

After a timeless moment, I felt a pull and glimpsed an inverted TV screen showing a futon-matted room. "This must be it!" I thought and then I heard and felt a pop!

Urd had fallen out backwards on to the floor, falling on her back with arms and legs akimbo. I fell face forward right on top of her. It was just a second, but the briefest moment is enough to discharge a lifetime's worth of panic.

"What are you doing? Get off of me!" I heard her exclaim with frustration.

In a split second my consciousness returned. I was lying on top of Urd, inches from her face, resting on her chest with my hips between her legs. In a flash, I realized that she and I were in a blatantly sexual position.

"No!" I screamed, inside and outwards into the air. I rolled off of her, feeling the world collapse on me. I remembered the years of sexual abuse. I remembered all crushing pangs of loneliness. I sensed a huge burden of embarrassment rushing at me. Disgust, fear, lust, anger, hurt...PANIC! My body became so rigid with anxiety that the breath hushed out of me...

...Looking for the doorway frantically, can't find it, I am so horrible, there it is, gotta get on my feet, starting to run, crashing into the walls, bumped into someone, gotta get out of here, finding another door, sliding it open, running out into the cool air, hyperventilating, running by someone else, tree...rock...rock! gotta sit down...gasping for breath, white panic all over me...I'm so disgusting...it's so disgusting and horrid...

Stopit...disgusting...stopit...stopitstopitstopit STOP IT!

I collapsed on the rock. Crossing my legs, I attempted to regain my breath, but my lungs had ideas of their own. I fought back the sheer panic as I felt the first sobs rock my body. Huddling in a compact little ball, I knew I would be dry-heave crying in a few minutes.

Inside the house, Urd sat up and straightened her hair and dress. Running her hands through her hair, she thought about what just happened.

"Wow! What is up with him? All he did was fall on me, and he acted scared out of his wits! He jumped off of me like a frightened cat and took off. And I'm the beautiful Goddess...like, there's no reason for him to be scared, like I wouldn't hurt him, like... No! He's not some guy that's into men, I would have known that right away!" She sat tailor-style, wondering why he reacted so strongly. Of course, she had chided him, after all, he was laying right on top of her.

"But it wasn't like I bit his head off or something..."

"Urd?" Urd looked up to see her sister, Belldandy, leaning over her, a look of concern clearly expressed on her gentle face. "Urd, are you all right?" Belldandy was dressed in a spring kimono. Urd knew that the call from the Almighty had caught her by surprise too, as she was dressed so formally.

"Huh? Oh...Belldandy! You wouldn't believe what just happened. And I thought Keiichi was a shy guy! Where is he?" she asked frantically.

"Who?" Belldandy asked, frowning slightly at Urd's mention of Keiichi's renowned hesitancy.

"The guy that came with me. The guy the Almighty told me to see. I don't even know his name! Wait...his name is Cevn, that's right. Where is he?"

The door slid open all the way with a crash.

"Who was that man who went running out of here! Urd, did you bring him here? There's enough trouble already with Keiichi here, let alone some other guy! I suppose he's your new boyfriend or something..."

"As if you would know what a boyfriend is, Skuld!"

Belldandy saw the excited look on Skuld's face, a mixture of fear and anger. The last thing she wanted was another outburst of sibling rivalry between these two. Not now. Not with the...new guest? It was obvious that this had something to do with the Almighty's call to Urd. She wanted to find out more about it. Her older sister looked like she was ready to bolt.

"Urd, tell us what happened?"

"Yeah, Big Sister, explain yourself!" Skuld said with asperity.

A rumbling sound in the distance grew louder, indicating that Keiichi was returning from school on his motorbike. Belldandy felt a flush of relief now that her Keiichi-san was home. He would know what to do!

Urd started in on her story.

"I went to where the source was, and saw this wild-looking gaijin with long dark blonde and black hair. He looked kinda like Ootaki-san. He was utterly depressed and sad, so I tried to cheer him up. But he got mad at me, canya believe it! Then he didn't believe I was a Goddess and the next minute he wishes that he was the...lemme remember...oh yeah, like he wished he was the center of serenity and balance or something like that." Belldandy felt a sudden sense of-something-at Urd's statement about his wish.

"There's something very profound about that wish," she thought. Skuld looked at Urd with a grimace.

"So you had to bring him here," the youngest Goddess exclaimed with a hint of spite.

"I had no choice! The Lord called right after he made his wish and told me I had to bring him here, pronto! So I transported him here through the MatterStream, using my usual medium of a TV set. At least I didn't have to take him through a TimeStream or something. As it is, he's going to be pretty sick! It would've really sucked if his stupid wish had involved time travel..."she said, dialoguing with herself, oblivious to the presence of her sisters.

Belldandy and Skuld both gave a start when Urd mentioned His name.

"The Almighty called again! Urd, what exactly did He say?" the two sisters excitedly asked. Urd told them about the instructions to bring their new guest to their temple home, for "reasons that will become apparent", then she told them that the guy had blacked out after receiving his wish.

"What!" Belldandy interjected. "There has never, never, been an incident like that in all the years of the Relief Office! How very strange and unusual!"

"That's what you get when you send a Sysop to do the job of a First Class Goddess!" Skuld interjected sardonically.

Belldandy and Urd both shouted, "Skuld, shut up!" Belldandy looked at her two sisters and spoke in a grave tone.

"This is expressly serious if the Almighty is directly involved. Skuld, you need to stop teasing Urd for the moment. Urd has been blessed with a direct task from the Almighty, not to mention that there are some very unique circumstances with this new person. We must try and find out who he is. Fate has brought him here to us. We can't afford to be fighting right now!" Urd rolled her eyes as her younger sister put on the 'sensible Goddess' routine one more time. Skuld snickered out loud.

"Yes, before Banpei or the Ninjettes find him first!" Skuld excitedly remarked. She gleefully envisioned her robot companion and servant beating a strange man with a metal bo rod. Then she remembered how the Almighty was directly involved in this affair. Several unpleasant scenarios crossed her mind.

"Whooaa, we better find him right away! They'll think he's an intruder!" Skuld noted fretfully. Urd visibly squirmed at this intimation. Her oldest sister's agitation brought a grin to Skuld's face.

"Brat!" Urd thought before another wave of desperation gripped her.

"Oh great!" Urd shouted self-piteously. "If they find him first, this whole thing will be screwed up. They'll kill him while trying to 'defend' the household! And then I'll be on the Almighty's shit list for blowing this special assignment!"

The three Goddesses ran out of the house, almost mowing over Keiichi.

"Hey, Belldandy-chan, no kiss for me?" He noticed the look of anxiety on her face as she darted by, and then he saw Urd and Skuld's anxious looks as well.

"What's going on? Is Mara here?" he guessed. Belldandy stopped, turned and motioned Keiichi to come along with them.

"Have you seen a guy on the temple grounds?" she asked. Keiichi looked serious for a moment, considering whether Bell-chan meant an intruder or a guest. Being adept at reading her facial emotions, he noted that she was apprehensive, not fearful.

"C'mon, I'll help you find him", Keiichi hurriedly assured her. Belldandy sighed a breath of relief and wrapped her arms around him and kissed him on the lips while both Urd and Skuld watched, astonished that once more their sister seemed to drop everything for a kiss from her beloved. Once more, Keiichi had sensed her anxiety and offered to help. Urd and Skuld both looked at her affectionate display with open disgust and impatience.

"C'mon you two...the 'intruder'...remember?" Urd shouted.

After combing the south grounds, they started north when they saw a slender young man leaning against a shelf of rocks under a tree. He looked like he had fallen asleep hugging the rocks.

"Oh great...another weirdo we have to deal with!" Keiichi muttered to himself.

"There he is!" Urd shouted with relief.

"I wonder why Banpei didn't find him?" Skuld added.

I glanced up and saw three women and a young Japanese guy walking up to me. I held my breath. My whole world had collapsed in a flash. I wanted to tell them to leave me alone...just like most of the world had done to me. One more case of abandonment. I knew I was in Japan. The whole ambience of the place was different. The hototogisu...the Japanese cuckoos...were calling in the distance, and a floral scent permeated the courtyard. I recalled my history, and noted that the buildings were both Buddhist and Shinto in design, probably from the Minamoto or Fujiwara Shogunate. I should have been breathtaken with the beauty of the place. But panic and hurt will always smother away any appreciation of beauty. I loosened my grip on the rock shelf.

The four talked amongst themselves for a moment, and then a 21-year-old looking Japanese guy walked towards me. He had a kind, innocent face, with spiky medium-length hair and soft brown eyes. He was short, about 5'4 or 5", with a slender frame. He was dressed like a typical student in a pair of jeans, T-shirt and a designer black and white racing jacket, probably leather. He slowly set down the motorcycle helmet he was carrying. He was a little tentative, but seemed to be forcing a disarming smile to his face as he slowly walked closer to me.

"Hi, I'm Morisato Keiichi."

"Hi, I'm Cevn. Nice to meet you. Sorry I don't have a meishi." I looked dejectedly back down at the ground. I wanted to assume an air of social inquisitiveness, but then I realized that I was talking to a comic book character, somehow transformed to real life. The improbability of all of this left me tongue-tied.

"Did you just get here? You seem pretty upset, sitting next to that rock. Why don't you come over and join us?" he invited. I climbed off the rock and bowed deeply to him. I heard tittering and giggling from the women and girl. Keiichi waved them down.

"We aren't that formal in Japan anymore, even in the boonies here in Chiba. Are you okay? You look really shook up. I guess spending time with Urd does that to a lot of guys," he said with a broad, friendly smile. If this was the Keiichi I knew from the manga, then he was acting the part to perfection. I felt myself warm up to this guy a little. He was a real charmer and it was no wonder that Belldandy had fallen for him.

"I'm sorry Keiichi, I've only visited Japan for school-related stuff and I've only studied six years of college Japanese." He smiled warily at this. Japanese smiles are so unreadable. Honne to tatamae. Was he acting out of real intention, or just out of principle?

"No, it's not anything to do with Urd, Keiichi, it's me. I'm really, really stressed out to the max. This is totally freaky. I was home in Hawaii just a little while ago, now I'm here, wherever here is. How are you?"

Keiichi talked briefly about his mood and motioned for the women to come forward. I noted that he felt somewhat protective of them, especially Belldandy. He put his hand in Belldandy's and introduced her to me, then pointed out Skuld, who eyed me warily.

I looked at Belldandy and noticed how benign her countenance seemed. All three sisters were beautiful in their own way. Belldandy looked far more enchanting in real life than in the manga; she was especially charming in her formal kimono. There was an intensity to her eyes that was otherworldly. I almost felt humored by the fact that Keiichi felt that I was a threat to him and Belldandy.

"No, one thing I have never done or will ever do is get between a couple. No man or woman deserves to feel the sting of that kind of loss and betrayal," I thought to myself. I tried to signal to him with my eyes.

"No, my new friend Keiichi, I will never cause you or Belldandy any worry," I promised to myself.

Skuld, on the other hand, looked like a caged wolf. She was dressed in a long ponchette cape, open in the front, with a short dress on underneath. Her legs were narrow, and her feet were enclosed in white boots, folded at the top, with blue circles on each foot. She looked like a 12-year-old girl on the cusp of adolescence. Her hair was very long, resembling that of the courtly ladies of feudal Japan. I imagined her to be a young version of Komachi; passionate, inventive, spiritual and sensitive to the urgings of her heart.

But there was the faculties of my imagination, and then there was the reality of Skuld...who was viewing me with distrust. I looked again at Belldandy and saw a glint of sadness in her eyes. She seemed to be 'scanning' me just like Urd did earlier. She visibly shuddered when she was finished.

I turned my attention to Skuld and asked her where Banpei was. She looked shocked, then fearful. I immediately regretted my attempt at familiarity.

"She doesn't know that I have foreknowledge of her world, due to the manga," I reminded myself. Nobody is comfortable around clairvoyance. She stepped partway behind Urd and Belldandy, then peered out from between them charily. Just a slight motion, but clearly indicative of her suspicious feelings. She reminded me of a deer; all that power and grace held in potential by a seemingly timid demeanor. I knew that this first meeting would shape how she viewed me, so I tried to balance my introduction to her somewhere between addressing a girl and a young woman.

"Skuld, your fame at constructing mechas is known even in Hawaii, where I live. I just wondered if I could get a first hand look at your handiwork?" I said in a flattering soft voice. She seemed confused, then she decided to let her guard down for a moment. Suddenly, she looked back at me and caught my eye. After several seconds of eye contact, she seemed to take measure of me. Skuld started shaking for a moment, then averted her eyes and dipped her head away. I felt like I had done something to upset her.

"I'll get Banpei," she quietly said, and then turned and walked off. Bell and Urd exchanged a "what was that all about?" glance between them. Urd broke the silence with an invitation for all concerned to come inside after I got to 'meet' Banpei. Her remarks prompted me to wonder, "How do I 'meet' a robot?" I looked at the corner of the temple compound that Skuld had scurried around, waiting for her to return.

Skuld returned soon with Banpei in tow. The mecha looked like something out of a Hollywood sci-fi film. Only it really moved. My curiosity was aroused by this technological marvel that Skuld had created. But Banpei didn't recognize me at all.

"Here he is." she announced. "Say hi to Cevn-san, Banpei."


"That's odd. He's supposed to recognize all humans, godd..."

Keiichi hastily interrupted her, "heh heh...he's not perfect, Skuld, that's why we love him so much! Let's not worry about his job here so much, huh?"

I looked at the cold eyes of the automaton, and tried to introduce myself.

"Hey, Banpei, it's only me! My name is Cevn-san. I'm okay. I'm not going to cause any trouble. Really. You're an intensely techy-looking robot, you know." This felt so ridiculous...I was actually addressing a robot. I felt like saying "number 5 alive" in a pseudo-Hindi voice. A moment later, I could have sworn that I saw a robotic smile emerge on Banpei's face. Then his eyes lit up, and he executed a curt bow to me. I bowed back to him.

"Hey guys, what's up?" I saw a young college student in a softball uniform bounding up to the crowd.

"Must be Megumi, if truth is as strange as fiction," I thought.

She excitedly ran up, seeing her brother and the three sisters in the north courtyard. She had 'something must be up' written all over her face. She slowed down when she saw me, then shyly joined the four standing in front of me.

"Hi, I'm Morisato Megumi!" she said with a sunny smile.

As I introduced myself and bowed slightly back to her, I noticed how forward she was, not waiting for her older brother to introduce her. For every bit as shy and introspective as Keiichi was, Megumi in contrast seemed to be assertive and sociable. I felt grateful for her, that she could be so trusting so quickly.

"Self-confidence is something you could teach your older brother," I silently mused. Not to mention that she was cute...in a pert sort of way. Her brown eyes were warming to the sight, and her mouth was small, almost in a moue, as the French would say. Her short-cropped hair was silky smooth, and she had tastefully used a color conditioner to cast it in a medium brown color with a hint of red. I joined the four and we retired into the house.

"So, the three sisters and their mortal keeper have a new guest in the house. Why didn't their attack robot notice him? For that matter, why didn't it notice me?" Mara spoke softly to herself, perched on top of a tree. For years, her ambition was to wreck havoc on the Goddesses, as she was a Demoness First Class. She was dressed in a fantastic outfit that she knew would arouse both fear and lust at the same time. She was in her stealth mode, which meant that she was manifested as a deformed mini-Mara, about 15cm tall.

Yet she was drawn to this newcomer in some strange way. Yes, he was only a mortal, but there seemed to be an air about him that was at once comforting and familiar. It was almost like he has some Demonic blood in him.

"Impossible!" she thought. Yet, Mara almost enjoyed seeing the different reactions the Goddesses had to his pain. Urd didn't seem to notice it at all. Belldandy was visibly shaken, and Skuld vacillated between sympathy and terror.

"This will be very interesting, maybe even fun!" Mara reflected.

"Those guys have never dealt with something like this mortal. All the humans they associate with have experienced fairly normal lives. This new mortal 'friend' of theirs has felt some real tragedy. It's as if he had been visited several times by the Demon Grief Office. The stench of sorrow and pain he carries is strong! If I could only amplify that pain in some way, the Goddesses wouldn't be able to escape it. They would be exposed to it all day, and then they would have to feel it along with him because of their divine sense of empathy. They would be miserable! And they couldn't turn him away, because that would be so out-of-style for little Miss Perfect and her sisters, not to mention that gullible Morisato!"

Mara chuckled evilly to herself, snapped her fingers and reappeared on the light fixture overlooking the dinner table.

Belldandy was in the kitchen when she heard the "Hssst" from the cupboard. She knew immediately who it was and smiled. She hadn't seen Kodama or her two Ninja sisters in a week. They had been on a "training mission" to sharpen their martial skills. Every couple of months, the three would visit her, bow down and ask for forgiveness so that they could leave for a week to train. She admired their dedication and humility; she also valued their company when Urd, Skuld, or even Keiichi and Megumi got to be too much.

"Mistress, we're back from our mission!" All three female Ninjas bowed their respects. Then they leapt down onto the counter. They seemed especially anxious to tell her something. Senrigan was a picture of anxiety. Senrigan was the first to speak up. "Mistress, we saw something very unusual in the courtyard today. We think Mara is here. Something that looked like a miniature Mara was sitting in a tree this afternoon!"

Belldandy gave a start at that. She had felt a disturbance in the "force", as it were, and what Senrigan has just said confirmed her fear.

"If Mara is here, that could mean trouble. Please be vigilant for all of our sakes, dear Senrigan!"

"Kodama has something she wants to tell you," Senrigan added.

A chagrined Kodama bowed deeply and started to describe her experience that afternoon.

"Mistress, upon returning home, I decided to forgo the ritual weapon cleaning and walk around the temple compound. I saw a strange-looking gaijin sitting on a rock. He looked so heavy-hearted, but yet threatening as well. So I thought he was an intruder. Not thinking of anything other than the protection of the house, I attacked him."

"What did I tell you about the sacredness of life, Kodama?" Belldandy gently pointed out. She already knew that Kodama hadn't hurt the new visitor in any way, but a remonstration was forthcoming...Kodama had been reckless, it seemed.

"But Mistress, that's the point. He acted like I wasn't even there. He didn't defend himself. Nothing I could do would hurt him. I tried to spear him, I threw dozens of shurikans at him, I cut him with my sai knifes, I gassed him, I sliced at him with my Katana...to no effect! The weapons just went through him, and the gas didn't faze him. It was like he was ghost, or had no body. I'm afraid I failed in the defense of your home!" she finished with a deep sense of embarrassment.

Belldandy frowned at this. She reassured Kodama that she didn't fail defending the house in any way whatsoever. Kodama was visibly relieved at this bestowal of forgiveness on the part of her mistress, and remained in audience to Belldandy with her sister ninja. As for herself, she felt somewhat safe with this new guest, who was still a stranger, but yet seemed to possess great pain and dignity that was somehow combined. But this news made him out to be something other than human.

"Thanks for your vigilance, Kodama. Our new guest may seem to be a threat, but I know in my heart that he isn't. Treat him with the same respect you would treat our other guests," Belldandy instructed.

The three Ninjas left quietly after assenting to this request, Hikari stopping momentarily and turned to say something.

"He sure is a cool-looking guy, though, isn't he!" Belldandy smiled at her, then started to gather the serving dishes for the evening meal.

"Can I help you with anything?"

She turned to see Cevn in the kitchen doorway, his offer of assistance coming as a surprise. It was very fine and nice that Keiichi simply expected her to cook and serve meals for him...she really appreciated his admiration of her cooking skills. She knew deep down that it was not a 'woman in the kitchen' thing with him. Keiichi may be many things, but he is definitely not a male chauvinist. Besides, she was more than happy doing this for him, among other things...but this request caught her sideways.

"How kind!" she thought as she politely refused.

"No, Cevn-san. Just sit down and wait for dinner."

I returned to the dining area and noticed how expansive the temple-cum-household was. There was a long hallway leading to the Japanese-style bathroom. There were five large rooms on each side, formerly priest quarters. The three Goddesses all slept in a room on the right side of the hallway, adjacent to the living room. Then each sister had a 'hobby room' for herself: Skuld Labs, Urd's Castle and Belldandy's Room. Megumi's bedroom was last in the row of rooms, right next to the bathroom at the end of the hallway.

Directly across the hallway from the Goddess's bedroom was Keiichi's bedroom, with "Keiichi's Shop" next to it, across from "Belldandy's Room". The middle of the five rooms was a storage room/study room. Next to it was a utility room, then an empty room at the end of the hallway. The hallway opened up into the middle of the house, where the general living room was. This obviously used to be the zendo or central meditation room; right now it was filled with futons, tatami mats, zabutons, small writing tables and various vehicle parts. On one side of the central living room was the genkin; the entrance had a closet on each side for coats and such. On the opposite side of the central living room from the hallway was a dining room and adjoining kitchen. The kitchen was decorous, with bright walls and a tiled floor replete with floral designs. The kitchen wrapped around a storeroom in an 'L' shape. At the far end of the living was a short hallway with a sliding shoji door at the end that opened up into a sunny end room, with large windows facing east. The left hand side of the short hallway opened up to the kitchen, while across the hallway was a large tea room with a plaque that read, "All-n-Everything Tea Room". The sun room was expansive, filled with large plants and soft lounge chairs. The whole building had a wooden deck wrapped around it; a veranda or gallery of sorts. This should have been heavily worn by walking priests, but was strangely unused-looking. In fact, the whole temple had a refreshing novelty, mixed in with the ancient age of the environs. It had to be at least 700 years old.

"782 years old" an unexpected voice said in my head.

How did I know that? And where did that voice come from? It was if some precedently hidden part of my brain had suddenly opened up to me with a whole new realm of knowledge. "But this is impossible, there was no way anyone could know something like that!" I remarked to myself in astonishment. Yet, I did feel some satisfaction that my earlier guess about which Shogunate it was built during was confirmed.

"This place is 782 years old," I said with veneration.

"What? Oh by the way, this came in the mail for you!" Megumi cheerfully sat down across from me at the table and handed me a medium-sized package.

"Someone must have known that you would be here, it's addressed to you," she added.

"Ehhh?" Several startled voices chimed in.

"How would anyone know that?" I remarked. I looked at the package, and there was my name in Katakana and Romanji.

"Why don't you open it?" Urd urged me as Belldandy walked in to the dining room and announced dinner was ready. The package was forgotten as my olfactory senses reeled with the wafting aroma of her cooking. I ate a healthy portion, but strangely felt like there was nothing going down. I resisted a temptation to eat too much, since I was a guest here. I watched my...what do I call them?

"My new friends?" I wondered. Skuld was touchy about her food, occasionally eyeing Keiichi and her sister suspiciously. Urd ate a little food, but seemed to gulp down cup after cup of sake. Megumi ate with gusto and Keiichi relished his food slowly, sometimes feeding a bite to Belldandy with his chopstix.

After the main course, Skuld proceeded to the refrigerator and raided it, returning with a whole carton of ice cream mochi, which she tore into like a starving POW. Urd retired to her room, and I heard the TV loudly start up. Keiichi and Belldandy gazed into each other's eyes and talked quietly. Megumi retired to the living room and started reading a textbook. Suddenly, I felt like an intruder. Each person had a well-established routine that they settled into for the evening, and I was not part of it.

"Ahem!" I politely interrupted the two lovers.

"Hey, I'm really feeling exhausted. Thanks for the wonderful dinner, Belldandy. Is there a place where I can sleep? I won't bother you for more than a few days, then I can get my own place. Do you know what the rental situations are like here?"

I immediately felt hopeless as I realized that I had no money. Maybe I could find out how to get into my savings account back on the Islands and wire some money to myself...all 70USD of it.

Keiichi and Belldandy both flushed with embarrassment.

"We're..uh..sorry, we forgot that you...ur...that we had someone new...uh." It was funny seeing how awkward this was for them, yet I felt disconcerted. I knew far more about them than they did about me-if what I read in the manga was true. So far it had been. But the manga portrayed these two as paragons of politeness, and it would be rude to ignore a guest. Tonight, they were strangely out of character. Or was it that reality and comic-book fantasy were two different realms? Belldandy looked up at me with a calming expression.

"Ohhhh. We were just discussing which room you could use, Cevn-san. I'm sorry, we have a really big event coming up in our lives in a couple weeks, and we're a little apprehensive about it." I felt the sincerity of Keiichi's apology and explanation, and cursed myself for my insensitivity.

"After all, these people have lives too," I reminded myself. Once more, my past was ruining my present; this time, my sensitivity to situations resembling abandonment had reared up, when actually there was no big deal to get upset about.

"You can sleep on the room at the end of the hallway next to the bathroom, on the 'Men's dorm' side", Keiichi cheerfully replied. He seemed somewhat more comfortable around me than before. I half expected him to be frustrated with another boarder at his house. I hadn't even discussed money stuff with him, either! Suddenly I felt embarrassed!

"Here, I'll show you where it is," he said as he stood up and motioned me to join him in the hallway. On the way to my temporary lodgings, Keiichi confided that it was nice to have another guy staying here with him for a while. He was 'estrogened out' as he put it. His sister and the three sisters were wonderful to live with, but he missed the camaraderie of the men's dorm at N.I.T. It must have taxed him considerably, but he maintained a cheerful outlook. I envied him. Living with three Goddesses and a charming sister. Must be worth all the trouble.

He slid open the door to my room and apologized again. After he left, I arranged my futon, blanket and pillow. I had completely forgotten about the package I got in the mail. In a day full of mysteries, here was one more!

I carefully opened the package and saw that it contained a plain cardboard box, with something solid and bulky in it. I untaped the box, pulled off the top and saw an unusual-looking tome. It appeared ancient to the eye, but exuded a newish sort of smell, as if it had just come off the press. The worked leather and wood cover was very ornate, with gold and silver finery. The binding was gilded. What struck me was the language on the cover. I have studied a number of languages and had encountered many more, but I had never seen any writing, pictographs, hieroglyphs or whatever that even faintly resembled what I held in my hands. Also, the book was tightly bound shut by a heavy strap had some kind of lock on it, partly obscuring the title on the cover. I looked at a swirly "word?/character?" on the cover and suddenly became lightheaded. It felt like my head was rising from my shoulders, as would a helium-filled balloon released by accident, and my consciousness started to leak away. I remember dropping the book and falling to the futon on the floor, watching the ceiling swirl and fade...