AMG is not mine.
Ah! My Goddess!
The Long Way 'Round
"Go your way,
I'll take the long way 'round,
I'll find my own way down,
As I should…"
Oats in the Water
735 years ago…
The goddess cooed as she pet the tiny little tea-cup pig nestled in her lap, her fingers gently rubbing the top of the animal's head and squeezing its adorable little ears. She smiled as the little thing burrowed into the folds of her light purple dress and sat there contentedly.
"Good little tea-cup pig," she cooed as she caressed the animal's fuzz. "Good little pig," she whispered.
Her hand reached under the little animal's head and cradled it.
"Good little pig," she repeated. She closed her eyes and smiled as her hand closed around the pig's head.
It started to fight a little as she made it more uncomfortable, then started to fight a lot as the goddess slowly began to twist the pig's head to the right.
Slowly… more and more…
The pig gave a muffled squeal, and she took a quick breath as her twisting hand met resistance. Then, just barely perceptible, a soft crunch.
The pig stopped moving.
She let the breath out and shivered.
There was a sound behind her, and she turned quickly, her eyes wide.
Sif stood there, the little girl's new pride and joy, her viola, clutched in her hands. She had come upstairs to show it to her sister.
The two sisters stared at each other for a moment before Sif quickly turned and started running down the stairs again.
The goddess jumped to her feet, tossing the dead tea-cup pig aside. "Sif, wait!" she cried. "Please don't tell anyone!" She chased after her little sister, leaving the dead animal behind…
… next to the other three pigs she had killed.
Urd paced the tiny bunker like a caged tiger, her eyes never leaving Sif's napping form. The blonde goddess had exhausted herself healing Mischa, something that would exhaust even a first class goddess like Belldandy and what Sif used to be. The aerospace engineer sat next to Sif, his bum leg outstretched uncomfortably.
She continued to pace, working through the hints Sif had already given her. Someone had killed her daughter, her little girl, HER GERSEMI…
And that had thrown her straight over the edge, something she only barely remembered… which, itself, was odd. She remembered it happening, but not the details, not the little things as if her subconscious mind had simply turned away from them, stuck its fingers in its ears and started humming real loud.
It nagged at her. Something inside her was telling her something else had happened. But Sif didn't seem to know about that, so for now Urd could only concentrate what she had been told.
Gersemi was gone, she had been driven nuts, and Keiichi…
She swallowed. Keiichi had been alone. For all intents and purposes, despite Sif being there to help, he had faced what had happened alone.
The goddess was suddenly gripped by guilt's cold hand. Tears threatened her as she thought of her husband, her Keiichi, forced to come to grips with his unborn daughter's death alone while simultaneously trying to deal with his wife's insanity.
Hild had told her that she had a lot of respect for Keiichi, a statement she had dismissed rather than face how troubling she found it. A lie, it had to be. And yet the more she thought about it, the more she knew Hild had been truthful. Hild respected strength, and for Keiichi to have endured everything she was hearing about now…
She loved him so much. He had never spoken about those days, never shared his pain with her, he couldn't without sending her tumbling into the abyss, without pulling those fingers from her mind's ears and forcing her eyes open.
He had dealt with it alone.
And that made her feel like shit.
Her eyes travelled down to the diamond ring on her left hand. She swallowed again and took a halting breath. She swore to herself that when this was all over, she was going to sit him down and make him talk to her about it.
This time she would be able to listen.
"Are you all right?"
She looked up and found Mischa looking at her in concern.
"Fine," she said, quickly wiping her eyes. There would be time to cry about the past later, after Keiichi was safe, Hild was gone, and these whoever-they-were's dead, gone or hiding from her so well she wouldn't even have to think on them again.
She took a step toward them and sat down on the opposite side of Sif.
"So," she began, trying to change the subject away from her. "What's the deal with you two, anyway?"
"Deal?" Mischa repeated.
"Yeah," Urd came back. "There's something going on here." She waved her finger back and forth between him and the other goddess. "Like you helping her…"
"Oh!" Mischa cried. "That! Mischa will explain."
Five years ago…
Mischa, fighter pilot and hero of Soviet Union, was walking to favorite adult bookstore on not good side of town, when suddenly…
Before the pilot could continue, Sif moaned between them and opened her eyes. She rose to a sitting position and yawned. "I'm sorry," she said. "How long was I asleep?"
"Not long," Urd assured her. "But I'm glad you're back. We need a plan."
"Mischa has plan," the Russian told them. "Everyone stay here. Wait for police. Afterward, we all go and get drinks."
"Urd's pregnant, she can't have drinks," Sif noted.
"Really?" Urd asked her. "That's the only thing wrong with that plan?"
"What do you suggest instead?" Sif asked.
"First, you and me seal your friend, Ameko," Urd told her. "Then find Keiichi. Then find Hild. Then the three of you tell me everything you know about Gersemi's death."
Sif bit her lip. "Ameko is…"
"… one demon," Urd finished for her. "There's two of us here now."
"We're only second class goddesses," Sif pointed out, searching for a good argument.
"There's two second class goddesses against one, what? First class demon?" Urd argued. "Two plus two equals four, four is greater than one. There you go."
"Is good math," Mischa admitted.
Sif rose to her feet and faced Urd. "She's not … just … a demon, Urd, she's…" She faltered. "She's so much worse than that… The things she… we… did at Argadnel…"
"Keiichi, Belldandy and Skuld are out there somewhere," Urd hissed, pointing up at the trap door. "How long do you think before this demon decides it'll be easier going after them?"
"Not long," Sif admitted quietly. She took a breath. "What do you propose?"
"I seduce her, like I do Urd's attractive mother?" Mischa suggested.
"No, I don't believe that will work," Sif noted.
Before the planning could go further, the dirt walls around them began to vibrate, transmitting a voice through the ground to them.
"Sif, Urd," Ameko's voice called to them. "I have a new friend up here with whom you're familiar. Come and claim her or I'll cut her throat."
The walls stopped shaking.
The two goddesses looked at each other.
"A trick?" Urd asked her.
Sif swallowed nervously. "We can't take that chance. She means what she says. She will kill."
Urd was silent for a moment before coming to a decision. "Okay, you stay here. I'm going up."
The blonde grabbed her arm. "No," she said. "I will go."
"It's me they want," Urd argued quietly.
"Which is why you can't go," Sif countered. She released the goddess's arm and straightened her dress. "I will negotiate on your behalf."
"She could just kill you as well," Urd pointed out.
"No," Sif whispered as she began to rise to the trapdoor. "She won't kill me."
Esus shook his head in disgust and turned to Lugus. "I can't raise any of them."
The demon took a unsettled breath. "We've had equipment trouble since we got here," he reasoned. "They could be having trouble."
"Yeah," Esus agreed quietly as the two crested a small, grassy hill.
"They could be dead," the demon continued.
Esus froze in his tracks. There were so few of them left already, he didn't want to think that they may have lost more. "Then their deaths will help bring the world into Balance," he reasoned quietly.
"I'd much rather Morisato and the Bonejacker help bring the world into Balance," Lugus opined darkly.
"Yeah," Esus agreed. "That too."
"You really think he's hiding here?" Lugus asked, cocking his head toward the mass of buildings ahead.
"He spent much of his time here," Esus reasoned. "He wasn't at his place of business and we've heard nothing from Ipos. If he is not hiding here, then he has truly escaped us."
Before them the Nekomi Institute of Technology stood waiting for them.
The hug had lingered just a bit too long. Not long enough to signal trouble, just long enough to make Keiichi just the tiniest bit uncomfortable.
He awkwardly stepped away, suddenly feeling like the college freshman he had been when they first met and unsure of what to do or say when it came to the goddess. "We need to finish this," he told her, gesturing to the humvee.
"Of course," she agreed, more than a little uncomfortable herself.
"So," he began, "Where was I?"
"The sewers," she replied.
"Right," he agreed. "That was when something weird happened."
Four years ago…
He awoke to someone shaking his shoulder and opened his eyes to find Ameko's ruby-red orbs looking into them.
"Time to go," she said simply.
Keiichi blinked the sleep from his eyes and rose from his seat against the wall of the sewer. "How long did I sleep?" he asked.
"An hour," she noted.
"You let me sleep too long," he admonished her.
"The time was well spent," she told him. "I needed the bait."
"Bait?" he asked.
She nodded to his right and he turned, finding three dead bodies stacked up nearby, their faces frozen in terror. He swallowed at the sight, but he no longer felt nauseous at such a sight. It was Ameko's implication that worried him.
"So… while I was sleeping, these guys were sneaking up on me… and you let them… and then you killed them?" he worked through the process on his own.
"Yes," she confirmed, sheathing her katana at the same time telling him that the last one was killed fairly recently.
"You used me as bait?" he asked again.
"Yes," she repeated.
He let out a breath, half exasperation, half laughter. "That's a dick move, Ameko."
"It worked, did it not?" she asked defensively.
"Dick. Move," he repeated.
Her eyes narrowed at him. "When you're quite done crying about how I saved your life while you slept, it's time to move on." She started down the dark corridor again.
"Yeah, I'm coming," he said. He passed the bodies as he followed her, again noticing his lack of a reaction. He tried to have one, tried to consider it tragic or somehow wrong, but he couldn't make it happen.
What am I becoming? he asked himself. He wondered what Urd would think of him now, what Belldandy would think. The Keiichi Morisato they knew wouldn't be like… this…
"It's time to make our way back up," Ameko told him, running her fingers along a wall. She pulled the spray can from her belt and made another X in the wall. The paint disappeared inside the mortar until there was no sign it had ever been there. "I saw a stairwell not far ahead. We'll move up and start looking for the objective."
"What happens after we find this thing, anyway?" Keiichi asked her.
"Can't tell you," she said. "Not until the job is done. As long as you don't know, they can't know."
He stopped walking and waited for her to turn back to him.
"I'm not going to be a pawn, Ameko," he told her sternly. "This is my mission, remember? I want to know. I deserve to know."
She stared at him while she considered his request. "After we do our part," she told him simply, "Hild will do hers."
He swallowed at the implication of the statement.
"More than that, I'm not sure you want to know."
"Fair enough," he said. "Let's keep moving."
The two of them started up the staircase that led to the more populated parts of the castle. Keiichi was glad to leave the stench of the sewers behind, but knew that the odds of being discovered and attack went up exponentially as well.
They reached the top of the stairs and found themselves in a better-lit hallway that stretched about a hundred meters and ending with another stairwell. An entryway on the left opened to a large room with several basins the size of bathtubs and cloth baskets filled with familiar robes.
"Laundry room," Keiichi surmised as Ameko moved gracefully forward, her repeater up at a ready position. The two were passing this entryway, when they heard a crash from their right, coming from a simple door that faced the laundry room.
The two intruders instinctively ducked into the laundry room and hid on either side of the entrance, both looking back at the door from which the sounds had come.
"Leave it?" Keiichi mouthed to the soldier.
Ameko gave a quick shake of her head and lifted her repeater, stepping out from hiding and approaching the door. Keiichi followed her, careful not to make any sounds.
From behind the door came the sounds of things falling to the floor and breaking, knocks against the door as if someone were struggling.
Ameko stood in front of the door and raised her gun. She caught Keiichi's eye and nodded at the door handle. Keiichi got the message and stood next to the door, grabbing the handle and looking back at Ameko. The Bonejacker mouthed to him…
"One… two.. THREE!"
Keiichi yanked the door open, and Ameko aimed…
Confusion leapt to her eyes, and she lowered the weapon. Keiichi poked his head around the corner to get a look, and his eyes went wide.
Sitting on the floor in the middle of a closet, wearing a bucket as a hat, Sif cried back. "KEIICHI?!" Her eyes looked up and caught sight of Ameko. "You," she breathed.
Ameko turned to Keiichi. "You know this goddess?" she asked.
"Yeah," Keiichi replied.
"Good," Ameko said, turning from them both. "You deal with her."
Keiichi stepped into the closet and helped Sif to her feet. The goddess's blue eyes tracked Ameko warily as the demon soldier checked out the laundry room.
"Sif, what are you doing here?" Keiichi demanded.
Sif finally turned her attention to Keiichi and quickly covered her nose. "Keiichi… you smell…well… quite awful."
"Yeah, I've been splashing in puddles," he told her, downplaying his recent bath in an open sewer. "Now, what are you doing here? Where's Urd? Is she okay? Did you leave her alone?!"
"Keiichi," Sif began sternly, "I'm afraid I'm not sure what just happened or where 'here' is, so I'm going to need just a second before you start interrogating me."
"Is Urd okay?" he bit out.
"Urd is fine," Sif assured him. "She's with a trusted friend. Now, where are we?"
"The Argadnel Anchorage," he replied. "How did you get here?"
Sif bit her lip, half angry with Kiyoshi Takeda and half grateful beyond belief. "A wish sent me here. Keiichi… what are you doing here… with that woman?"
"Her?" Keiichi asked. "That's Am…"
"I KNOW HER NAME, KEIICHI! WHAT IS SHE DOING HERE?!"
He blinked at her in shock. He'd never heard Sif shout at anyone before.
She doesn't know, he thought, biting back the urge to snap back. "Ameko," he called out. "We're going to need a few minutes."
The soldier stepped into view and nodded, her eyes never leaving Sif, who stared right back at her in a silent fury. "I'll scout ahead," she said. "Don't wander off."
He waited until Ameko was out of earshot before he addressed Sif again.
"She's a demon," he informed her. "But she's not a bad one."
"No, Keiichi," Sif muttered. "She's much worse than you think."
She had snuck out the back of the tent, circled around so that Ameko wouldn't be able to know for sure from where she had come, and stepped into the carnival's main thoroughfare like an old western gunslinger.
At the other end of the path, standing between the Hell's Carousel and Damnation Alley, was Ameko holding a repeater to Skuld's head. The goddess was on her knees in front of the demoness, her hands and feet chained together, looking more than a little miserable and pissed off.
"You are not Urd," Ameko noted.
"Toldja," Skuld threw in.
"Are you okay, Skuld?" Sif called.
"Do I look okay?" Skuld shouted back.
"Are Keiichi and Belldandy safe?" Sif asked.
"Yes," Ameko purred. "Where are Morisato kun and Belldandy?"
Skuld glared up at her. "I have no recollection," she said snottily.
Ameko smiled in respectful bemusement before turning back to Sif. "Where is Urd?" she asked.
"She's not coming."
"See?" Skuld asked. "You owe me a coke."
"I wouldn't allow her to come," Sif added.
"That was a mistake," Ameko told her. "Her Majesty bears you no particular ill will. If Urd comes with her, the rest of you can go about your business."
"Keeping Urd safe is our business," Sif replied.
"You are aware of the dangers," Ameko parried. "There's a pile of them just outside Morisato's main gate. This one…" She nudged Skuld with her knee. "Was helping them."
Sif's face fell. "Skuld… Is this true?"
"I swear, Sif, I didn't know," Skuld told her. "Ameko told me… about how they…" She broke off. "Sif, is that… I mean, did they really…"
The blonde bit her lip and nodded. Skuld swallowed and turned away.
"This is getting us nowhere," Ameko interjected. "Every moment we delay brings Urd closer to danger. Certainly, all three of us can agree that is not what we want."
Sif nodded. "State your terms."
Ameko smiled. "We all go to Hell together."
"For the next half-hour, I told Sif everything: the Balancers, Hild, Gersemi…" Keiichi told Belldandy as he pulled a spark plug from the humvee. "It's not every day you find out you've stumbled into a murder-revenge thriller. I think she took it rather well."
Four years ago…
"I'm going to be sick," Sif confessed, her hand going to her mouth. The two were sitting in the laundry room, Keiichi explaining things while washing himself with one of the laundered robes he found and a tub of hot water. By the end of the story he had managed to make himself look… and smell… human again.
"Yeah, that's definitely going around," he told her.
She looked at him. "Keiichi… why didn't you tell me?"
"What would you have done?" he asked quietly.
"I… I don't know," she confessed. "Brought it to the Heavenly authorities, appealed to the Almighty One…"
He frowned at her. "Doesn't the term 'Almighty' imply that he already knew, Sif?"
She bit her lip. "Keiichi… even if he knew about it, he doesn't just intervene… It… It doesn't work that way."
He stood up and toweled his face off with another clean robe. "Then there wasn't a whole lot of point in telling you, was there?" he asked bitterly.
"How dare you?!" she hissed at him, startling him. "How dare you say such a thing to me?! As if I don't love Urd as well?!" She turned away from him. "Perhaps nothing would have come from telling me," she relented. "But I was still entitled to know!"
"Maybe," he whispered with a sigh. "I don't know… maybe… Maybe I was afraid that if you knew… if Heaven knew… they wouldn't… they wouldn't let me and Hild do this. I don't know."
"Keiichi san," she whispered fearfully. "You came here to commit murder." His angry eyes swung toward her, and she continued. "Maybe you don't acknowledge such a thing yourself, but that's what I hear in your voice."
He grit his teeth. "I'm not here to kill anyone…"
"This has nothing to do with revenge!" he snapped.
"Then what is it about?!" she cried.
He bit his lip and pointed down the hall toward the staircase that led up into the tower. "It's about them," he hissed. "It's about a group of people who think they can just destroy people's lives and no one will ever do anything about it! Someone has to call them on it! Someone has to make sure they can't do it to anyone else! Someone has to, Sif!"
She looked at him sadly, slowly shaking her head. "This won't bring her back," she whispered. "It won't make Urd whole again. It won't give you back what you've lost."
"Maybe not," he agreed quietly. "But it's the next best thing."
"If you think that, then you are truly lost!" she cried, jumping to her feet, tears in her eyes. "Keiichi, please! Abandon this quest! Go home and hug Urd and rebuild your lives!"
"I can't," he told her. "I can't help Urd, Sif. I can't… I can't undo what they did to her. And I can't bring back Gersemi. Ever since that day, my life has been defined by the things I can't do. This…this I can do."
Sif shook her head angrily. "If Urd were here…"
"If Urd were here, you and I would be trying to keep her from leveling the place," he cut her off.
"Fine," Sif granted him the point.
"If Belldandy were here, she wouldn't be able to even look at you," she replied.
His eyes turned cold, and Sif realized she had pushed too far. He took a step toward her and leaned in until their faces were inches apart.
"Go home, Sif," he told her cruelly.
They both turned to the voice that had interrupted their argument. Ameko stood at the entrance to the laundry room, her arms folded over her chest and her weapon slung across her back.
"Why not?" Keiichi demanded.
"The same artifact that keeps people from coming here, keeps them from leaving," Ameko informed him. "Unfortunately, she's here until the end of this."
"Shit," he hissed, turning away.
Sif glared at her. "You seem awfully sure of things," Sif told her. "How do I know that any of this is even true? For all I know, you and Hild are manipulating Keiichi for some other purpose."
"Simple," Ameko told her. "I'm here."
"And so what?" Sif countered.
Ameko spoke to her as if lecturing a child. "Deploying a person such as myself on a mission outside of the Demon Realm is a violation of the Valhalla Accords," she stated. She turned to Keiichi to explain. "The Accords are what ended the Second War Against God and instituted the Doublet System, of which I understand you are already familiar. Hild is risking open warfare with Heaven for this mission. Do you think she would do such a thing on a whim?"
Sif stared at her, working the implications out for herself.
"Young goddess," Ameko began again, "Welcome to the war."
Sif took a deep breath as Ameko ended her proposal. It made so much sense, and yet the source of this plan, Hild, Ameko, made her so automatically suspicious of it the very idea of agreeing was alien to her.
And yet, when examined the cold light of day, it seemed like an ideal solution.
She was so used to treating Hild as an enemy that it never occurred to her that, in this situation, they were natural allies.
Keiichi understands that, she thought. True, Keiichi had been willing to join with Hild and avenge Urd, and even now she was willing to bet that Keiichi, were he here now, would be nodding his head in agreement.
Ameko sensed the trail of her thoughts and pushed a little harder. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."
Sif squared her shoulders. "I will bring your proposal to Urd," she said. "Let Skuld go… as a show of good faith."
"No," Ameko answered flatly. "My show of good faith was killing those Balancers…" She smiled down at Skuld, "And not our little pig here." She raised her eyes back to Sif's and found utter horror filling them. "Speak with Urd," she ordered.
She turned and pulled the chain that held Skuld, forcing the other goddess to follow.
"Do you think I'll just let you leave?!" Sif called after her.
Ameko stopped and turned back to her for a moment. "It wouldn't be the first time, Sif." She yanked the chain again. "Come, little pig."
Sif stood there, tears in her eyes. She forced herself to wait until Ameko and Skuld were out of view before turning and heading back to Desdemona's tent.
Esus sighed in resignation as he overlooked the campus from the top of the administration building. "This place is huge," he said. "You have no idea how to narrow this down?" he asked his companion.
"No," Lugus told him. "Perhaps we should split up?"
The god growled in response. "No choice, I guess." He thought on it another moment anyway and nodded. "Check the south side. I'll go north. If you find them, don't engage. Call me."
Lugus nodded and turned, a strong leap taking him to the math complex next door. Esus watched him go and turned north…
Toward the Auto Club.
"How does Sif know Ameko?" Belldandy asked suddenly.
Keiichi lowered the gas can he had been using to fill the Puma and turned to her. "I was kind of hoping you wouldn't catch onto that," he told her.
"So she does know her," Belldandy concluded.
He nodded. "Sif doesn't like to talk about it… won't even acknowledge it except to say that… that she was 'sick.'"
The color drained from Belldandy's face as she suddenly realized who Ameko was. Throughout their long friendship, throughout the story of her friend's relationship with Keiichi and Urd, Sif had seldom spoke of her, but she had mentioned her before… more than once.
"Ameko is Sif's sister," she breathed.
Keiichi nodded. "That's how I was able to go to Argadnel without the System Force intervening," he told her. "Ameko isn't a demon. She's a fallen goddess. A…a… there's a term for it…"
"Rampant," Belldandy supplied.
He nodded. "As long as she was with me, the System Force was satisfied."
Belldandy, shocked by this new revelation sat down on a crate. "Oh, Sif," she breathed.
Keiichi seemed reluctant to share more of Sif's secret… and what was undoubtedly considered a private matter for his friend, but now that it was out, he decided Belldandy needed to know.
"She has a…" He tried to find a way to word it humanely. "…compulsion… to kill." Belldandy looked up at him, aghast. "It gives her pleasure… like a drug. That's what Sif meant when she said she was sick. Apparently… when they were younger… she couldn't help herself."
"And now?" Belldandy asked.
"Now she has a job that gives her an outlet," Keiichi told her.
"Almighty in Heaven," she gasped. Her eyes went to Keiichi, and for the first time the man saw genuine anger in them. "That is the woman hunting Skuld?! And you didn't tell me?!"
"I told you Skuld didn't know what she was getting into," Keiichi replied sadly.
Belldandy shot to her feet. "We have to help her," she resolved. "We must leave. Now!"
"We're just about ready," Keiichi agreed. He started for the driver's side door, but his hand froze on the handle.
"What is it?" Belldandy asked.
He blinked, his mind working through the steps that his revelation about Ameko had finally revealed to him… staring him in the face all this time.
"A goddess by my side," he whispered. He looked up at her. "You."
"Me?" she asked.
"You kissed me," he whispered.
"Hai," she replied sadly. "I will not volunteer that to Neesan, but…"
"No," he cut her off. "You kissed me! And nothing happened!"
Belldandy's heart fell into her stomach as she caught his meaning.
He looked up at her. "That's why she let you go," he told her. "Because Urd and I can't be separated unless another goddess takes her place."
Keiichi took a breath. "That there's nothing keeping her from taking Urd away. She could already be gone."
Esus froze as something, a presence, tickled the back of his consciousness. Instinctively, he crouched down and looked from side to side, trying to get a better idea of his location. A sign nearby told him that to reach the Dean's office he should turn left, but if he was going to the Auto Club, he should turn right.
His eyes followed the sign's arrow to the right. The presence was down that way. Lifting his repeater, he started down the path. He was rewarded as the sense grew stronger and a large garage door met him.
Keiichi was turning the ignition key in the Puma, willing it to turn over and start. The revelation that he had missed what should have been an obvious part of Hild's plan filled him with self-loathing and anger. He knew what a scheming bitch the CEO of the Demon Realm could be, and Belldandy's true purpose here had gone right over his head.
"Come on," he growled at the humvee again. "Come on, you piece of shit. Start…"
Standing near the driver's side door, Belldandy's head suddenly turned to the garage door in front of them. Her eyes bored through it as if searching for something.
"Keiichi san," she said.
"I've almost got it," he replied in frustration.
"Keiichi san," she said again. "Hurry."
"I mean it!" she returned anxiously.
He looked up at her and found her staring at the door, crossing her arms over her chest as if to cast a spell.
"Shit," he growled and tried the engine again.
Esus took a breath and raised the repeater to a ready position. He could hear movement on the other side of the door, and he stepped closer to try to make out what it was.
Suddenly, there was a deep rumble that he could feel in his chest. The growling animalistic sound froze him to the spot for a crucial second, and then before he could react, something came crashing through the door before him.
He swung his repeater up as the pink behemoth smashed into him!
In the Puma's driver seat, Keiichi growled. "How's my bumper taste, asshole?!" he called to the Balancer.
He swung the wheel to the left as a hand reached up from the front grill and found purchase on the hood. From the passenger seat, Belldandy gave a squeal of alarm, and Keiichi turned the wheel again, taking the Puma over the well-manicured landscape of Nekomi Tech, off-roading across campus as if he were in a Dakar Rally.
He saw the Balancer's head peak over the hood and his other hand, this one holding a weapon he found familiar, landed on the hood next to the other. Keiichi hit the gas and took the Puma over a berm, trying to dislodge their hitchhiker.
Esus held on for dear life and tried to raise the repeater for a clear shot, but every time he tried, the mortal would swing the wheel again, forcing him to grab on. He could have jumped clear, but then he would lose them. He tried again, and lost his balance as the Puma rushed forward in a sudden burst of acceleration. The repeater fell from his hand, clacked against the hood and wedged itself in a crevice where the hood met the windshield.
He settled for trying to get a better handhold as the driver took the ridiculous vehicle through a jump over a sidewalk and across a street into a park.
Keiichi grit his teeth and Belldandy cried out again. This wasn't going to work, he thought. He found something approximating a straightaway in the trees and hit the gas, waiting… waiting…
The Balancer on his hood lifted his hand to get a better hold.
Keiichi slammed on the brakes, practically standing on them, and the god in the windshield lost his hold.
Esus flew backward, striking the trunk of a tree and falling to the ground in a daze.
Keiichi sat there for a moment, staring at him. Next to him, Belldandy watched him, waiting for him, to throw the vehicle in reverse so they could get away and find Skuld, Sif and Urd.
She watched as the man changed gears, putting the Puma into park. Without a word, he threw his shoulder against the door and hopped out of the humvee. He took a couple of steps forward and stopped, his head turning and his gaze falling on the weapon still lodged in the Puma's windshield wiper. Reaching out, he grabbed the repeater and pulled it to him, starting toward the god again.
"Keiichi," she gasped, jumping out of the vehicle.
He walked forward, the god's weapon held in front of him. His fingers curled around the grip as if trying to find some way to make it comfortable.
The Balancer was beginning to come around, rolling to his left as if trying to rise to his feet. Keiichi stalked toward him without a word. When he finally reached the god, he stopped and raised the gun.
Esus saw him standing over him and held his hands in front of him. "Wait!" he gasped, still somewhat dazed and trying to gather his senses.
"Shut up," Keiichi growled. He swallowed and in haled a deep breath as his rage began to take hold of him. "Shut up," he said again. "You do exactly as I tell you or your Balancer buddies will be scooping you off the ground with spoons."
"Think this through," Esus told him quietly, trying not to provoke the mortal. "You're a mortal. If you use that weapon, you'll die too."
"Maybe," Keiichi told him. He raised the gun and swallowed again. "But it wouldn't be the first time."
Esus tensed below him and bit his lip. Before either of them could make the next move, a gentle hand fell on top of the repeater.
"Keiichi san," Belldandy whispered next to him. "It's okay. Let it go. He's not going anywhere."
The mortal wouldn't avert his hate-filled gaze from the Balancer laying meekly below him.
"He's right," Belldandy continued softly. "If you shoot him, you won't be of any use to Urd. Let me have the gun. It will be all right. I promise."
Esus watched as Keiichi, his eyes never breaking from the Balancer, released the gun and stepped back. Belldandy stood between them and let out a sigh of relief…
Then turned back to Esus and raised the repeater in an awkward two-handed grip. The god flinched at the sudden turn of events.
"You are a Balancer, are you not?" she asked, her voice as gentle as if she were asking him about his love life.
He nodded. "That's right."
Her eyes narrowed ever so slightly. "Keiichi san will ask you questions," she told him. "You will answer them honestly. If you do this, I promise you will not be harmed."
"You're Belldandy, right?" Esus asked, slowly rising to his feet, his hands still up and trying desperately to look nonthreatening. When she didn't answer, he took it as an affirmative. "I've heard of you," he went on. He shook his head slowly. "I can't believe that a goddess as gentle-hearted as you could ever kill an una…"
He jumped as an energy bolt flew over his shoulder and cut the tree behind him in half, its trunk falling to the ground behind him. His wide eyes flew back to her.
"You are trying to harm Keiichi san," Belldandy informed him quietly. "And my sister… and my nephew. Whatever preconceived notions you hold for me… I suggest you reappraise them… quickly."
"Do what Keiichi san tells you," Belldandy continued. "And I promise you will not be harmed."
Sif crawled under the tent flap and stood up again inside Desdemona's fortune telling tent. In the short time since their conference ended, Sif had been trying to find an argument that would warm Urd to the idea of a truce with Hild. So far, she had had very little luck.
She wondered what Urd would say when she brought it up. Instead of trying to come up with a good pitch for it, she tried to come up with counterarguments to what Urd would say. In her opinion, it was the only good option left to them.
The goddess opened the trapdoor and leapt down into the hidden room. Rising to her feet, she looked around and found Mischa standing there, looking very concerned. Desdemona floated in the corner, looking pensive, and Urd…
She looked around the room before her puzzled eyes found Mischa again.
"I am sorry, Sif," Mischa said quietly. "She would not stay."
Sif felt a ball of ice fall into her stomach and she visibly deflated.
"Oh, Urd," she whispered.
The humvee's doors slammed shut, and Keiichi rested his hands on the steering wheel. Belldandy had placed the Balancer, Esus, in a temporary seal and put him in the back seat, leaving the two of them alone.
Belldandy's eyes searched his face, swallowing at how gaunt and haunted it looked.
"Thank you," he whispered to her. "For stopping me."
"I didn't have to," she told him. When he turned his gaze to her, she went on. "I knew you wouldn't. But there was no reason for him to know that."
He searched her eyes, wondering if she really believed that. She had once told him that she trusted everything he said. Maybe she just assumed he wouldn't shoot him, or maybe she suspected he would but was willing to assume, now that it was over, that he wouldn't have.
She reached out and took his hand, squeezing it. The goddess felt him squeeze back before releasing and going to the Puma's ignition. With a turn, the giant vehicle rumbled to life.
Ameko pushed Skuld down to her knees in front of her as they entered the temple and Hild approached. She offered her sovereign a thin smile.
"Good news, Your Majesty," she reported.
Hild studied her for a moment with cold eyes… then slapped her across the face.
Ameko stood there in utter shock, the heat of her queen's slap spreading across her body.
Hild's gaze bored into her.
"My daughter has escaped," she told the soldier tightly. "Right… from under you…"
She turned and walked out of the room. Skuld sat on the floor and watched Ameko, unsure of what the Bonejacker would do now.
Ameko rose to her full height and turned, starting for the door, She paused a moment to pick up a rifle larger than her usual repeater from the table where she had placed it earlier that day and checked the action.
"Where are you going?" Skuld asked her.
"The mission isn't over until Urd is found," Ameko told her bitterly. She started for the door again.
"Do you really want to help her?" Skuld called.
"Do you?!" Skuld yelled at her back.
The Bonejacker turned to her. "That's the mission," she replied quietly.
Skuld searched the other woman's eyes for duplicity. "Then take me with you. I'll help you."
Ameko gave a snort and turned to leave.
"They know me," Skuld tried again, causing Ameko to pause once again. "I can take you to their base."
The Bonejacker turned to her. "Well, well, Little Pig," she whispered. "Perhaps you will be useful after all."