Disclaimer: I don't own Ah! My Goddess or any of the characters therein. Please don't use without permission. Thanks again go to Davner for helping me with some conundrums I was having with this chapter, yet again. Comments and constructive criticism are always welcome. Real life's a bitch by the way, else I probably would have had this done sooner. Meh.

And now, WillZ presents:

The Goddess and the Sky

Chapter 20

That Little "Something"...

Three days.

Seventy-two hours. Most of it, non-stop. Sure, there were breaks in there and naps, but Keiichi had never before been through that, and didn't want to again, if he could help it. Thankfully nobody had been hurt when the original scaffolding had collapsed, but it had still been a key part of the set.

His mind was drifting now from lack of sleep, so he shook his head and stood up from his work station. Keiichi stretched, yawned, and took a few laps around the staging floor to try to get the blood flowing, and stave away the sleepiness he was feeling. It somewhat worked, but he still yawned a few more times before going back to his seat and his soldering.

He stared at it for several minutes, wondering just what the hell he was actually doing to the circuit. He squinted, trying to remember where he had left off, and continue from there. This should be simple - he remembered that from when he was looking at what he was repairing, but he couldn't focus on what it was exactly about it that had made it simple. Was it the capacitor/inductor loop? Maybe the transistor chip not even put in yet? Frustrated, he leaned back in his chair, rubbed his eyes with his palms, and let out a disgusted sigh.

"That didn't sound too good," A voice said behind him, making him start. He leaned back a bit more, swiveled his chair, and stared at his boss. The older man looked as tired as he felt, with dark lines showing up under his eyes, and his usually neat hair looking a bit ruffled. As he came over to Keiichi, he yawned, causing the younger man to imitate him.

"I think I need a break," Keiichi answered, staring at the circuit again, "I think I have wanted to solder this node at least twice now."

The older man nodded, looking at the wafer of silicon, and nodded again for emphasis, "I can't make heads or tails of it either. I vote we call it quits for now - we got enough of it done so they can at least start shooting again tomorrow."

"You think so?" Keiichi asked, still staring at the board.

"Yeah. Go get some shuteye in one of the lounges. The busses don't run for another few hours, so some sleep before you head home will do you good. I'm heading home, myself."

Keiichi nodded and said goodnight to his boss. He turned his chair away from the workbench and yawned yet again. At least now he could head for the dorms in a few hours and get some real sleep. It was a Saturday, as well, so he could even catch up on his homework for the missed days once he'd rested.

He sighed, got up from the chair, turned off the magnifier-light, soldering gun and multi-meter, and started to put away all the components into their assigned bins. As he did so, he remembered what it was he needed to do with the circuit, so, instead of pulling all the stuff back out again and forgetting, he wrote himself a few comments and a quick diagram on a post-it note, and placed it on the board before turning off the desk light.

The prep area was still lit enough by the dim overheads that he wouldn't kill himself, but he still moved carefully; in this dopey state, he was just as likely to trip on his own feet as on any of the loose cables strewn over the floor. Fortunately, he made it to the lounge with no incident, found the emergency blanket and pillows in the supply closet, and settled down for a bit of sleep.

For what seemed like twenty minutes. He opened his eyes, because someone was shaking him gently by the shoulder.

"Hey," a feminine voice said, "wake up. We have places to go."

He managed to keep his eyes closed, hoping the voice would go away if he feigned sleep long enough. He thought of adding in a snore, but knew that the person would see through it.

"It's not working, Grace," another female voice said, "I still think we need to get the bucket of water."

"And soak the sofa?" A third woman said, "Katie, the producer would be pissed if we ruined the furniture."

"Maybe I should just jump on him," Katie said. He felt two hands push hard on the cushion," And one, and two-"

He opened his eyes. Above him were three of the prettiest actresses he'd ever met.

Of course, he'd never really met actresses before, but it still...

"Okay," he said, "I'm awake!"

Katie smirked and crossed her arms in an "I told you so" way, but while Grace's almond eyes glared at her, the bright blue of Tricia's barely even looked Katie's way; instead, she was staring at him so intently, he felt self-conscious.

"You know what I think you need?" Tricia finally said, "You need to take us out and show us some of this city!"

Keiichi blinked at her, feeling perplexed.

"What?" He said after a moment.

"You've worked your ass off," Katie continued, "and we've been bored from being trapped in our hotel rooms, so show us some of this city of yours."

"But," Keiichi began to protest, "I don't really liv-"

"Technicalities," Katie interrupted, grabbing his blanket from him before he could think, "Up and at 'em!"

"We should let him wake up, first." Grace noted, "He'll probably want something to eat, too."

"Eh," Katie said, shrugging, "we'll just get coffee and donuts or something when we go out." She turned to look at him with a thoughtful look on her face, "Do you even have anything open for breakfast at this time?"

Keiichi's eyes went to the clock and frowned. Either he had only been asleep for two hours and it was 5:00 in the morning, or he overslept, and it was twelve hours later than that. He hoped the former, because his bus ticket expired by 4:00 p.m. He looked at the girls, and couldn't decide form either their demeanor or their wardrobe which it could be, and without windows, he was still unsure as to the truth of the matter. Fortunately, Grace gave him the answer with her reply.

"I talked to Joe, and he said the McDonald's down the street opens at 5:30." she said, looking at her watch, "So he can get a quick shower and we'll be ready to go."

"Excellent," Katie said, eyes seeming to sparkle happily, now that they had a plan, "Go grab a shower and be back here in ten."

In reply, Keiichi yawned and started to remove himself from his makeshift bed.

. . . . . . . . . . . .

The air was incredibly cold this high up.

That was almost all that Aoshima could think of, as he reached out his open window and attempted to scoop in some of the wispy cloud he was slowly steering his car through.

Even though he shivered, he could still feel anxious sweat building on his brow; if he wasn't careful, he would crash the car into the mountain they were passing by, and he and his unwitting passenger would be in a very bad situation.

Slowly, he said to himself while pressing on the brake and hoping that, like the steering and the gas pedals that had just started working in a limited capacity just recently, that it would prevent him from puncturing the unusual vessel against the jagged mountain's surface.

He turned the wheel slowly, feeling the former Ferrari slowly lurch in the direction he indicated. Watching the small cup fill with an even smaller amount of water, he pulled away from the cloud when it was about halfway full. It wasn't much, but it was the best he could risk, with such limited control of the machine.

Thankfully, the kid's bag was full of nutrition bars, so they wouldn't starve, but it was frustrating that neither his, nor the kid's cell phones still worked, no matter how close they came to civilization. Maybe the freak event that caused his car to blow up into a dirigible destroyed the phones as well? If so, it was rather odd in how it had worked. He tried to size it up in his mind.

The car still had a working air conditioning system. It also had working windows and wiper blades. Heck, even the lights worked when he turned them on!

The kid had discovered that the glove compartment and radio had worked when he was bored and messed with the knobs to the device on the second day they had been trapped up here, and now, on their fifth day, they were still getting good reception on any station they tuned into.

Aoshima was rather annoyed that the kid had a fascination for the current selection of pop tunes, but it did make the time go by a bit more pleasantly then the horrible silence they had on their first day.

Aoshima looked at the landscape carefully, hoping to see something either his father's company or the Mishima Corporation owned, so he could determine exactly where they were. From what he could tell, they were heading north to Hokkaido, but how far away they were from those offices, he wasn't sure, considering that last night had been so dark, they couldn't tell if they had been over land or water.

And then, he saw it. Lake Katsurazawa, a c-shaped lake he had been to in his teen days. If that was the case, then to the right was…

Yes! It was Mount Yubari! He had been skiing on those slopes, so he knew that if he…

He sighed. If he hadn't been able to get the car down before, what made him think that it was going to start going down now?

"What's wrong, Mister Aoshima?" The kid asked. Thankfully, the kid didn't look as bad as Toshiyuki felt, but the kid did have some signs of strain showing on his features.

"Nothing," Aoshima sighed, looking longingly at the lake, "Here. Have some water." He handed the cup to the boy, who thanked him and drank the little bit of liquid gratefully. Aoshima had to think. They had just passed two cloud-covered peaks in what seemed to be a few minutes, had just passed a lake he was familiar with about several minutes later, which meant that…

It wasn't good: With the mountain they passed probably being Mount Sapporo, and then the lake, which was about 80 kilometers away in a few minutes, it meant they were possibly stuck in a jet stream. If the balloon were to somehow deflate, they would be over the ocean when it did so.

And if the car didn't start to deflate, they were going to die up here.

He didn't want that for either himself or the kid, but what could he do? If he punctured the delicate membrane, it was likely to violently implode and cause them to go hurtling towards their deaths.

Suddenly, he smelled something. It was faint at first, but as the heater kept mysteriously blowing air from machinery that shouldn't be working at all, it increased as they floated along.

"Say, Mister Aoshima," Sentaro said, inhaling the scent deeply, "Am I imagining it, or is that fresh-baked bread that I smell?"

. . . . . . . . . . . .

"You're baked," Hoshi said, slamming down his tea cup in annoyance, "Tigh is NOT a frakkin' Cylon!"

"Oh, come on!" Tamiya replied, spreading his hands on the table, "It's obvious! I mean, they plucked out his eye and EVERYTHING!

"That doesn't mean shit!" He said, getting worked up, "I call bullshit! Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit!"

"Well, then," Otaki said, after taking a sip of his tea, "Would you like to make a wager on it?"

Hoshi looked suspiciously from the tanned man to the blond one, before leaning back.

"Twenty bucks says he's not a Cylon!" Hoshi cried, reaching into his pocket and slamming the money on the table.

"DONE!" the other two said simultaneously. After a bit of fishing in their pockets, they put up their own money to the bet.

"Great!" Urd said, feeling rather annoyed with the boys, "Now with that settled, can we get down to business?"

The three men jumped as if they hadn't expected her to be here. To be honest, she really wanted to not be in this drafty clubhouse, especially since they had been up all night debating everything except what she had wanted to discuss. It was annoying that they had to first move from the dormitory to the Auto Club proper because of their stupid rules on women, then it rankled when they wouldn't discuss anything without tea.

And now she was getting pissed that they had segued to the point where they hadn't even bothered with what she had wanted to say! Sora was dozing next to her and, to her credit, the mousy girl seemed to have kept up with a majority of their chatter, until they all started going on about this show of theirs.

With their attention now on her, Urd nudged Sora, causing the girl's head to slip off her propped hand, and slide into the table with a solid "thump."

"Ow!" Sora said, rubbing her head morosely.

"As I was just saying," Urd sighed, "We need to talk to you guys about something important to the Auto Club."

"Like what?" Hoshi asked, still sounding argumentative. He crossed his arms in front of him and practically glared at Urd. It wasn't as if she had made him serve her and the rest tea.

"Like the fact that we need to know what makes guys tick," Urd said, "Such as their likes and dislikes. Don't look at me like that! Sora doesn't believe me, so we're here to get this sorted."

"And how does that affect the Club?" Tamiya asked.

"That," Urd said, "is a secret for after you tell her the answers to what I am going to ask you."

They did not look amused, but after the amount of her time they had wasted with their inane club meeting and babble, she felt that they deserved it. She ignored the little voice in her head that noted she could have reined them in better, and focused on the point she was trying to drive home to Sora.

It also didn't help that she hadn't been really acting all that normal since her brush with the anomaly; she still couldn't figure out how the hell she could see, let alone hear Mio when even Belldandy couldn't.

It wasn't time for that, though. She had to get to business, before they ran rampant again.

"First," she said, pointing to Sora, "What do you guys think of her?"

They all stared at her for a moment, then looked at the girl in question. After a moment, Otaki coughed politely.

"Honestly?" he asked.

Urd rolled her eyes. "Of course."

"Er," he fumbled, sweat starting to show on his brow, "In what context?"

"As a woman," she replied, "that you'd want to go out with, if you will."

The men looked at one another nervously, and Urd realised she phrased that wrong. Otaki opened his mouth, but Urd forestalled him.

"What I meant," Urd said, glaring at them, "was this: How womanly, or even attractive do you find Hasegawa here is?"

The men relaxed, feeling relieved until what Urd said penetrated their skulls. The look of panic on their faces showed that, to them, this was almost as bad as asking "Does this dress make me look fat?" does to any man.

"I'm serious," Urd said, trying to calm them down, "It's really, REALLY important for the honor of the Auto Club."

Mollified a little, it was actually Tamiya that spoke up this time.

"Ya see," he said, not really looking at Sora, "we always thought of her as one of the guys."

The rest nodded in agreement except Hoshi, who merely shrugged.

"What about you?" she said, pointing to the boy, "Since you were dragged here, it would be impolite to not get you in on this."

He looked at Sora, looked at Urd's boobs and face, before looking back at Sora.

"Meh," was all he said before shrugging again. Urd saw Sora flinch from the harsh criticism from the corner of her eye, and smiled inwardly. Yes, the girl was definitely going to get an education that will change her whole perspective.

"What does this prove?" Sora asked as she blushed and stood up, "I think I'm just wasting my time here."

"Sit," Urd said, using a little of her power to make it a command. The girl dripped back down to the floor, her face turning a deeper shade of red.

Ignoring the original question, Urd returned her gaze to the men.

"So," she said, crossing her arms over her expansive bosom, "what is it that you find attractive?"

"Really?" Hoshi asked, looking surprised as he gave her a thorough scan.

"Yes," Urd said firmly. She was resisting the urge to zap the boy into next week, "really."

Surprisingly, it was Otaki that started. He put up his hand as if he were in kindergarten, meekly awaiting her acknowledgement. Maybe she had put a little too much power in that command? It was something to keep in mind the next time she used that spell.

"Go ahead," she said, suppressing the urge to roll her eyes.

"Well, I don't know about anyone else," Otaki said, blushing a little as he adjusted his sunglasses, "but I like girls that are, well, girly. The frills, the dresses, the long hair. Not saying that short hair is bad, even with her new, nice haircut, but..." Urd glanced over at Sora, who looked as if she was a puppy that had just been kicked.

Tamiya followed suit by raising his hand. Urd nodded and he straightened up as he practically yelled.

"Girls need to be girls!" he blasted at the top of his lungs, "Girls are to be treated like girls! Girls need to make decisions on who-" But a punch from Otaki to his shoulder made him falter, "Er... Well..." And he shrugged, too! What's with these guys and shrugging? Urd slammed her hand on the table, making all present jump.

"Now that I have your attention again," she pointed to the funny-looking guy with the mask on his head, "You! Who is the most popular girl at this school?"

"Ma'am!" he said, sitting up straight instead of lounging on the floor, "Sayoko Mishima, Ma'am!"

"And why is that?" Urd asked, arching her eyebrow slightly.

"Because she's rich!" One of the guys in the back said. There were a few weak laughs to that.

"No. Why is she really popular?"

There was a pause, as each of the guys looked at each other in confusion. Slowly, Tamiya raised a gloved hand.

"Cause," he said, his face trying to figure out exactly what to say, "she's got that... Thing. You know, like models got."

Urd arched her eyebrow higher, and crossed her arms again, waiting for him to continue. Surprisingly, it was someone else that spoke up.

"You mean 'poise'?" Sora said in almost a whisper.

"Yeah!" Tamiya exclaimed, thumping the palm of his hand with a fist, "That!" The rest of the boys nodded, some of them looking thoughtfully at each other, as if they were reevaluating the debutante. Suddenly, one of the others in the back spoke up.

"She also dresses sharp," he said. All Urd could see of the kid that said that was the little bit of black hair poking up from behind Otaki's shoulder. Looking over at the mousey girl, he did have a point – there was only so much you can do if everything you wore made you look wrinkled and dumpy. How many of those loose-fitting sweaters did Sora own, anyway? She decided to file that away for later.

"And what else?" Urd prompted. This time, the pause was longer, because nobody seemed to figure it out. After a minute of uncomfortable silence, Urd decided to save them.

"It's her attitude," she sighed, shaking her head slowly, "Yes, she is attractive, but that and everything else you mentioned are the keys to the whole! If she didn't have any of the attitude for it, nobody would stare at her as much as they do!"

They all looked at her as if she were crazy, except for Tamiya, Otaki and the guy with the mask that Urd still couldn't remember the name of; they must have been thinking of girls they knew or were attracted to that had the same qualities. Hoshi looked at her as if she were talking out of her ass, but Urd basically ignored him; all the stories Keiichi had told her, Sora and her sister regarding his "Ricardo" or "Roberto" or whatever his online persona was called did not impress this Goddess in the least.

Sora was looking down at her hands, but whether in embarrassment or contemplation, Urd didn't know. She knew that the things she-

"Ya know," Tamiya said, looking thoughtful, "I can see that. It's like with a certain... Someone me and Den-chan know. She's got all of that, and she was very popular." Tamiya nodded sagely.

"Idols," Mask-boy said, "and voice actresses. They're the same as Miss Mishima. It doesn't matter if they're gorgeous or plain. Both are attractive, because they have those things you pointed out."

"And they don't need 'gazongas' either," someone from the back added, "yeah, those are nice, but how many idols have you seen with a huge rack?"

Urd didn't know if she should zap him or hug him for that, but between that and what the mask guy said, it made the boys start to discuss the ideas in depth. She moved some of her silvery hair behind her left ear and smiled in satisfaction. Sora was indeed thinking about the topics - she laced her fingers together, and, elbows resting on the table, placed her thumbs against the bridge of her nose, a pose Urd had seen her take when puzzling out her homework.

"What about Grace Park, or even Katie Sackhoff?" Hoshi said aloud, causing Urd to look at the boy, "They got it as much as Tricia."

"That may be," Otaki said, "but you tell me right now, that watching Tricia walking across the floor with that walk of hers doesn't top those two, I won't believe it."

And there it was: Urd's cue to get her and Sora out of here, before they got pulled into the inanity that was the Otaku mind. I always seemed to go back to their little fixations. Urd would have thought it cute, if it wasn't so pathetic.

"Well, It's been fun, boys," She said, grabbing hold of Sora's hand as she rose, "But we have to get going. Thanks for your help." Urd had made it to the door and had it open when Otaki spoke.

"So," he began, rubbing the back of his head with a hand, "ya didn't tell us how this was important to the Auto Club."

"Oh," Urd said, shoving Sora out the door before her, "That. Well, you see, Sora's entering the Miss Nekomi Contest, and the PR might be good for the club. Hope that helps sate your curiosity for now. Bye!" She waved to the shocked group as she closed the door behind her.

. . . . . . . . . . . .


He was cleaned up as well as he possibly could get, with his three-day-old sweats and t-shirt he had worn to work. He was now full of Egg McMuffin and coffee.

He also needed to figure out where the hell to take these women that would satiate their touristy cravings.

Why don't you take them to the museum or something? Malaika's voice whispered through his mind, I bet they're really into the arts.

He hadn't heard from the angel in days, but then again, he was probably too preoccupied with work, so maybe it was better that she hadn't been around.

It wasn't that, Hon, the melodious voice said, I was so caught flatfooted with... Well, let's just say that I needed to mull over things before we made them worse.

Keiichi frowned a little. What? He asked, remembering to not say anything aloud, Why bother? I screwed up. It's over. End of story. Now I just have to wait to screw up the next one.

Kei, the angel said, Hon, you really don't have any clue about women, do you? Yes, there are setbacks, but unless you do something fatally stupid, things can get worked out.

He was doubtful, but decided to let the angel continue. Thankfully, the three women he was with were looking at something in a shop he really didn't feel comfortable going in, so he had a moment to himself. He could see Grace asking the cashier about something by pointing vigorously at it. Katie and Tricia were both making their way to the fitting rooms at the rear of the store, so he was alone for at least the next ten minutes or so.

Okay, Keiichi thought, crossing his arms and leaning against the building in a more relaxed position, I'll bite.

The problem is, Malaika said, that you need to at least make the effort. It's great that you were honest with her, but did you ever think that, by walking away the way she did, that she might have wanted you to chase her? I'm not saying it was the case, but until she either slaps you in the face with either her hand or a restraining order, you need to be a bit more proactive.

There it was again: That strange feeling of familiarity he couldn't put his finger on.

Anyway, Malaika said hurriedly, could you work on your follow-through a bit more? You know, maybe apologize to her, or bring her flowers or, hell, maybe even stand outside her window with a boom box playing some Peter Gabriel, the angel sighed. God, how I love that movie.

Keiichi didn't know what movie she meant, but hoped that, whoever did that stunt didn't get himself killed falling off a skyscraper.

Still: no matter how many boom boxes or songs from this Peter Gabriel guy were brought into play, Keiichi was completely sure the outcome would be the same; in his two decades of life, he had never gone out with anyone and, at this juncture in his life, it was becoming disheartening.

Keiichi, Mailaika sighed, you need to be more positive! Maybe with a better outlook, things will get going faster than you think!

He didn't reply. Keiichi just leaned against the building and watched as the girls finally finished their excursion into the store.

They came back talking about the place, and he assumed it was all positive, but because of how fast they talked, and because it was all in more advanced English than he knew, he barely got every other word. They were all smiling though, so he guessed that it was a positive review on the place. He just smiled politely, and let them continue.

"Keiichi?" Tricia said, gently rubbing his shoulder and causing him to start, "You okay?"

"What?" Keiichi said, slightly embarrassed, "Yeah, I'm fine."

"Really?" Tricia asked.

"Yeah," he replied, "Really." He did feel like he wanted to go home and crawl into bed, but really: Three actresses? How could anyone pass up the opportunity to play host to three lovely women like that?

So, Malaika all but purred, are you thinking with your heart or your groin when you say that?

Keiichi had been caught flat-footed, so he didn't have a reply for the angel.

If you show him women, she continued in a near sing-song, he will come! And yes, it is intended to sound dirty!

Tricia, who wasn't in on the second conversation he was having, started leading him over to the other two, and they started to head down the street to the next thing that might catch their eye.

So far, Malaika said in a thoughtful tone, it seems like they might just use you as their "mule." That is, if they just keep detouring into shops like this, at least.

Keiichi agreed. He needed to do something to change the way they were going, since each step took them closer to the main shopping "veins" of the city. If they went about 500 meters and turned a corner, they would be at the Gucci store.

Keiichi didn't want to degrade into a stereotype, but he was afraid that the ladies he was with would soon just hit all the stores and ignore any of the more interesting sights around town.

Whatever those were – he never really did anything but visit Tokyo Tower a handful of times, and even then, it was for school field trips. There were also the few adventures he had taken for supplies for work, but those were all within a five-block radius to his job and the train station. He needed something to get them away from here, but… What?

Frustrated, he shoved his hands into his pockets, and grinned. Keiichi's hand had brushed across the stiff plastic card that was his bus pass, and he knew exactly how he could keep this trip from degrading into shopping hell.

"Excuse me," he said as politely as he could, "But we're actually going to head the opposite way, towards the bus station."

. . . . . . . . . . . .

Sora was quiet as they walked back to the apartment. It was not just the fact that she had been given an eye-opener by the Norn and the Auto Club, but also the fact that she was dead tired, and wanted to get some sleep in the worst way. The sun wasn't up yet, but there was that glow that you get, that creeps up on you during the night and makes you say to yourself "Holy crap! Where did the time go?" as you try to cram every minute detail of your class's curriculum into your brain for the test that would be taken later that day.

She stifled a yawn, but when it started to build again, she just let it go; what good would it do her, anyway? She still had to go home and study, or sleep, and hope that Belldandy hadn't decided to wait up for. At that same moment, her stomach growled, angry that it had been taken away from one of Belldandy's cooked meals just for this little, pointless adventure into the male mind. Sure, the boys had brought tea cans and snacks, but they did not compare to the Norn's cooking in the slightest. If anything, it just made her stomach growl more violently than it had before.

Sora sighed in disgust. She wanted to go home and sleep and hopefully make it to her morning class with some cohesion to her thoughts, but chances are that she was going to need to waste more time just getting to the bed before she could actually sleep.

"You awake back there?" Urd asked. Sora chose not to reply, and just focus on shambling along behind the elder Norn instead. She was still rather mad at Urd's methodology, and really hoped that the Goddess would feel bad for dragging Sora out in the first place.

Urd looked at her, and all Sora did was answer with a yawn. She could see the Goddess's face screw up in an effort to forestall the contagious act, but after a full minute, gave in and yawned wider and louder than anyone Sora had ever seen.

"Gee, thanks," Urd said, glaring. Sora smiled slightly at her small revenge.

"You know," the Norn said, not looking behind her, "the boys back there really hit it on the head."

Sora would have liked to give Urd a witty comeback, but she didn't have one. Instead she gave a neutral sound, and continued their journey home.

"So, you agree," Urd nodded, taking her noncommittal response as an affirmation, "You have a lot of work cut out for you, making the grade for that competition."

There were barely a few weeks left. How the hell was she even going to do anything by that time? Even her hair had grown back some already, and Belldandy had mentioned something about a light perm, as well? She could almost hear Bell's good natured voice saying something about how it would frame her face better, or something.

"Whatever," Sora said. The Goddess turned to her suddenly, causing her to stop short before crashing into the taller woman.

"You probably think you're just going to lose right at the beginning," Urd said, a scowl growing on her face, "and with that kind of attitude, you'd be lucky to make it that far! Things take effort for them to be worthwhile!"

"I know that," Sora replied, "I-"

"You don't get it," Urd hissed, interrupting her, "you've already said to yourself that you should just call it off, and it shows! I don't even have to see the aura around you to get that!"

"Well," Sora said, frowning, "What am I expected to do? I can't go up against the empire built up by Sayoko and her little pack of followers!"

"That's exactly what I am getting at!" Urd exclaimed, "Always the 'quit while you're ahead' attitude! I don't even know why I am bothering to help you as much as I have!"

"Well, I didn't even ask you to help!" Sora shot back, "I was coming to you for help getting out of this mess!"

"Why did you need my help?" Urd asked, her eyebrows scrunching together before lifting a moment in surprise, "I see. It's about my sister, isn't it?"

Sora didn't say anything to the Norn.

"I see," Urd said again, placing one hand on her hip, and pointing an accusatory finger at her with the other, "You don't want to disappoint Belldandy! You don't have the stones to go over to her and say that you want to back out!"

The accusation annoyed Sora to no end. Why should Urd be preaching about giving up, when she hadn't even tried to "talk up" Keiichi! True, he had been seeing Sayoko somewhat, but that seemed like a temporary thing, so Keiichi should be on the market again for all she knew.

Sora was tired. She wanted to get back home, grab something quick to eat, and head off to bed, and here was Urd, lording it over her like… Like…

"Screw you, Urd," she hissed at the Goddess, unconsciously taking a defensive posture, "You're one to talk!"

Urd's eyes narrowed, "Oh, really?"

"Yes!" Sora replied, finally pointing an accusatory finger at the Norn, "You're barely able to talk to Keiichi, and yet, for all of your 'prowess' as a love goddess, all you seem to be good at is… Is simpering for him while moping at the coffee table! Have you ever tried to talk to him? Noooo! The most I have ever seen you do is give him a cordial greeting!"

"I do talk to him!" Urd protested.

"If you call 'Hi, Keiichi. Nice day, huh, Keiichi?' conversation! No wonder he doesn't say anything else to you! You give the bare minimum response to even acknowledge his existence!"

Urd's frown deepened, and the scowling Goddess placed both hands on her hips, lifted her chin to look down her nose, and looked as if she were going to throw a world of lightning down on Sora.

"Oh, hey, Keiichi!" Sora said. Almost faster than she could blink, Urd had put her hands behind her back, and was looking around for the boy. If Sora had been calmer, she would have laughed at the other woman, but instead, she pressed her attack.

"See?" she said, throwing her hands up in annoyance, "Just mentioning his name's enough to fluster you!"

"I was-" the goddess protested, but Sora cut her off. She'd had it! After the emotional rollercoaster that was the last couple days, she was so not in the mood.

"Give it up, Urd!" Sora said, exasperated, "Either do something about Keiichi, or don't. I don't care which, but this 'maybe' stuff is driving everyone nuts!"

"You're one to talk!" The Goddess replied, "Pot, Kettle!"

The comment made Sora blink. Was she waffling so badly? She must have been putting out some signal that she'd like to participate, if both Goddesses were trying to encourage her. She couldn't think of anything she had done consciously, and Bell did have that ability to see emotions as colors, so Urd might also…

Sora took a deep breath. Okay. If this was some subconscious desire, then why not try to do it properly? But first, she would need help.

"Okay," she said, "I'll enter the contest and try to win it, but if I do, you have to kiss Keiichi."

The Goddess's eyes opened wide in surprise. "What?"

"I'll enter and compete using whatever coaching you give me," Sora said, "But in return, if I win, you have to ask Keiichi on a date and kiss him."

She spit on her palm before holding out her hand. Urd looked at it as if it were a venomous creature.

Sora patiently waited as she could almost see the debate going on inside the Norn's head. She was still mad at the Norn for wasting her whole night, but still…

"Okay," Urd said, spitting on her own palm before gripping Sora's hand, "We'll do it!" With a good shake of the hand from both of them, she nodded.

"Great," Sora said, yawning, "Can we finally go home now?"

. . . . . . . . . . . .

Sayoko Mishima's day had started unlike most others – she had woken up late. The reason for waking up late was, for once in her life, she had read something that had totally engrossed her to the point that a) she lost track of time and b) she had neglected to set her alarm clock for the first time in she didn't know how many years. She yawned into the back of her hand, and looked at her wristwatch again with annoyance. How could it already be ten o'clock? It had barely been nine when she finally woke up!

Thinking some very unladylike curses to how her day was going, she took the coffee she was holding, put it on top of her car, and unlocked the door to her McLaren SLR. She got in, closed the door, and turned over the engine. After a moment of letting the car warm up, she put it into reverse, released the break…

… And watched hot coffee pour down the windshield.

"Shit!" She hissed under her breath as she stepped on the brake. She just had the supercar touched up less than a month ago! Now Sayoko was going to have to bring it to the shop again to return it back to showroom-floor perfection!

Disgusted, she released the brake and watched the cup finally roll down the windshield and onto the hood. Sayoko was tempted to get out of the car and stomp on the damned thing, but thought against it. Instead, her hand went to the windshield washer, and she continued maneuvering out of the parking spot.

Sayoko tapped an impatient finger; the light was still red and it had been at least a minute since she had pulled up to the stop line right as it switched from the cautionary amber to the prohibitory crimson. She would have run the red light, too, if it hadn't been for the cross walk attendant running in front of her right before she could punch the gas. As it was, she had barely kept from hitting the woman!

"Now," she said, tapping her finger down with emphasis.

"Now," she repeated, hoping that, in doing so, it might incite the light to actually change. She knew it probably wouldn't, but it still made her feel that her actions might affect an outcome of some sort.

"Now, dammit!" her voice was almost a snarl now. Maybe she should have gotten another coffee, especially since she hadn't moved from in front of the damned place! Hell, she could have bought coffee for the whole damned line behind her!

She closed her eyes, and took a deep breath…

… And the car behind her started to beep. Sayoko opened her eyes, and saw that the light had finally turned green!

"Finally!" she said, verbally expressing what she had been feeling. She started to move forward, right as the siren screamed from the side street.

"Oh, come on!" Sayoko cried in exasperation, her hands releasing the wheel and making a "why" gesture, "It was my turn to go!"

The siren turned out to be a police officer taking the corner, and very adroitly turning off his lights right as he finished his turn. He looked incredibly smug as he did so.

Sayoko made a mental note of the plate and squad car number, and missed her chance to go through the light once more. Maybe she would make it away from this wretched light before lunchime? She doubted it, at the rate she was currently progressing.

After yet another impatient wait, the light went green. Fortunately, the McLaren did have a good take off speed and she finally – Finally! – pulled away from the wretched time sink. She spared a quick glance at the watch, and saw that, if all goes well, she should hopefully make it in time for her second class of the day.

As she was thinking this, the flow of traffic slowed down yet again, and she came to a stop barely ten feet from the bus depot. The bus driver, in all their infinite wisdom, had decided to hedge out into traffic and clipped a car. The car's driver was standing in front of the motorized monstrosity, swearing at the bus driver, who merely bowed with a neutral look on his face. The traffic was from everyone rubbernecking at the scene.

So, she was going to be late after all. She sighed, put the car in neutral…

.. And saw Keiichi Morisato being dragged through the crowd by two blonde ladies and one dark-skinned asian woman.

"What?" she said aloud as the group passed about ten feet away from her. She could see the eagerness clear in the women's faces, but Keiichi looked as if he really wished to be somewhere else.

He also looked exhausted. Sayoko wondered why, and on impulse pulled the car forward to watch the group's progress. They were all standing next to the walkway leading towards the cultural district, and the girls all seemed to be arguing back and forth between them on which way they wanted to go. Keiichi yawned, and looked like he wanted to go back home to bed.

A car horn blared behind her, and she gave a rather unladylike gesture back. Fortunately, the traffic was thin now, so she could progress. She got to the corner, and, on impulse took the turn instead of going straight. She parked the car, got out, and tossed the keys to one of the gentlemen walking next to her car.

"I want this parked in my spot," she told the businessman, who stared at her, "and I want it done now. If I find you haven't done it by the time I get back, Mister Kawashima," she said glaring knowingly at the man who gulped in surprise, "you had better wish that my day improves drastically."

She didn't spare another look at him; Sayoko took off as quickly as she could, and found, to her relief that the girls were still there, arguing while Keiichi seemed to have disappeared. Somehow, she really needed to find out what was going on here, because seeing Keiichi caught up with three women after… She regained her composure, and casually made her way to the trio.

"…don't think he understands us as much has he wants to admit," The taller blonde said, looking dismayed as Sayoko came closer.

"What makes you think that?" the dark-skinned Asian girl asked, "He seems fine to me."

Sayoko frowned slightly. Were they just humoring him? Was this some kind of joke they were pulling on him? Maybe it was a scam. It was very possible that these foreigners were likely up to no good, especially if they had roped a kind-hearted guy like Keiichi into their schemes.

"Because," the tall one answered, "He gets the gist of a lot of it, but haven't you heard him speak? He has the concepts of English down, but not the experience using it."

The shorter blonde was going to respond, but the other stopped her. "Watch this," she said, turning to her left, "Yo, Kei!"

A head popped out from around a vendor, looking inquisitively at the woman, who cupped her hands together.

"I love you!" The woman shouted, drawing questioning looks from passersby, "I want to have sex with you! Be sure to get me two donuts!"

Sayoko gaped as the person in question merely nodded and disappeared once again.

"See?" the tall one said, emphasizing with a gesture towards the cart, "I will bet you each ten bucks he comes back with two extra donuts, and doesn't even react to the rest of it."

"You're crazy, Trish!" The dark-skinned girl said, still in shock. Sayoko could only agree. The shorter blonde laughed aloud, causing more onlookers to stare at the "crazy foreigners" before making a quick retreat.

"What?" the first said, innocently, "It's not like the paparazzi are around, Grace!"

Papparazzi. Ah. That explained a lot to Sayoko. She wondered if these women were supermodels, heirs to fortune 500 corporations or worse – actresses.

Her money was on the latter.

Sayoko approached them and was about to speak, when Keiichi started making his way towards the gaggle, causing the women to look at him. They were all smiling at him and, surprisingly, the smiles were genuine.

The problem though, was the glimmer in the eyes of the one called Trish. There was something in how she eyed the man carrying an impossible amount of junk food that set Sayoko's teeth on edge, almost as if the tall blonde was a predator about to pounce on its unsuspecting prey.

Just like a cougar. The thought almost made Sayoko's teeth grind in annoyance.

"Here he comes," Trish said with devilish delight. Sayoko felt an urge to confront the woman, but declined, merely because she hadn't been seen by the blond yet, and a flat-footed ambush was definitely not Sayoko's style.

She preferred to crush her enemies with her own feet, head-on. Yes, she would wait for the perfect opportunity to address itself; so for now, she was going to casually turn away to prevent Keiichi from recognizing her, and then…

She took out her cell phone and made it look like she was casually listening to someone on the other end, all while keeping her ears to the group. She hoped that they would stay nearby to eat their snacks, so Sayoko could get a feel for the right time to strike. It was a hard thing to do, considering how much she wanted to make the tall bitch put her own foot in her smiling, perfect mouth.

"Thanks, Kei," The one called Grace said. From her tone, Sayoko could tell the woman was at least grateful for the food, if not the one that bought them. A look out of the corner of her eye saw Keiichi give a chilled drink to the shorter blonde, who also said thanks, before taking a long sip from her straw, so she was in the clear, and thus, Sayoko turned around again.

"I appreciate the food, Kei," Trish's voice said, "It's a big improvement over that atrocious catering the producers have on retainer."

"Uh," Keiichi said, rubbing the back of his head nervously, "s-sank you." Sayoko winced mentally at the slip-up. It was unintentional, true, but it did clue in both her and the others as to how much he had really been winging it with his responses. She could almost see the grin forming on Trish's face.

"You're welcome," Trish replied. Something in the way she said it made Sayoko look over her shoulder at the woman. She had a beatific smile, and was starting to drape her arm around Keiichi in a casual manner. "So," Trish continued, her voice carrying a silken, sultry hint to it, "how about having a threesome with me and Grace? We do some freaky shit, and Katie just loves to watch!"

Suddenly the short blonde did a spit-take and began coughing to cover up her laughing. Grace's face looked as if someone had hit her in the stomach with a baseball bat or stiletto heels.

Sayoko wanted in the worst way to interject herself into this group and give them a scathing commentary on their behavior, but decided that she wouldn't let her anger dictate the slow, careful planning she knew would work to her benefit. If she jumped in now, she was going to be caught flat-footed and look like the bad guy.

She didn't want that.

The thought surprised her. Why was she trying so hard, in the first place? It wasn't like the boy was family or anything, but still…

It was probably the fact that Keiichi was from her school, and Nekomi students always tried to promote camaraderie and solidarity, especially where gaijin hussies were concerned. Yeah, that was it. She put her phone back into her purse, closed it and was suddenly grabbed by the arm and pulled into their midst.

"Hey-" she started to protest, but when she was spun around, she was face-to-face with Keiichi. Sayoko was sure the surprised look on his face was equal to hers, but at least he hadn't been caught in mid-protest and didn't look (or feel) like a fish with its mouth open.

"Anyway," Trish said, her voice gaining a level of seduction to it, "We've just met this girl, and she has come up with the most wonderful idea!"

I have? Sayoko thought, but before she could protest, Blondie started flapping her lips again. Keiichi looked from Sayoko to Trish nervously. Grace still was in shock, and Sayoko was sure that she heard Katie laughing like a braying horse – she wasn't sure because she was focused on her captor at the moment.

"She said," Trish continued, "That she would love to join in! She even mentioned we could take turns getting some anal sex from you!"

Ok. That's it! She had had enough! She was thinking of dropping the woman with a few precise strikes her karate Sensei would have been proud of, but in a burst of inspiration, she decided on another tactic.

"I think you should go first, by the way," Sayoko said calmly to Trish in perfect English, trying to keep her best winning smile on her face, "Keiichi's quite huge for a Japanese man. Really, I'm surprised he hasn't taken up any of those offers to make hand-over-fist money from his unique gift."

The three women stared at her and she blinked innocently at them, still smiling. I bet you weren't expecting that for an answer. Sayoko thought smugly to herself. Serves you right.

"Sayoko," Keiichi said in Japanese, sounding extremely nervous, "What are you doing here?"

"I was just in the area," she said simply, switching to Japanese, "and thought I'd say 'hi' to you and your… Friends."

Keiichi looked confused, "You don't know them?" he asked slowly.

The girls in question had migrated a small distance away from them, arguing between themselves. Sayoko could hear snippets of the other two girls calling Trish anything from an idiot to a more "severe" version of jerk. Sayoko smiled inwardly as they kept fighting.

"No," she said, shrugging blandly, "I have never met them before in my life."

"Ah," he said, "I… Nevermind." He sighed as he said this, looking over at the girls in dismay before continuing, "Are you sure? Tricia did mention something about borrowing six annals when you showed up."

Somehow, Sayoko kept her composure, and merely shook her head at the boy.

"That's not what she said," the debutante replied, "it is nothing for you to worry about, so just forget it." She made a dismissive gesture before continuing, "What you do have to worry about, is that your English is really inadequate for the role of… What? Translator or tour guide?" At his mumble of tour guide, she resumed her commentary, "Well, Mister Tour Guide, it seems like you're out of your scope here. Just from what you said to me now, I can almost bet you can only understand every other word, at best."

She crossed her arms, before putting one finger to her lips, tapping them with it as if in thought. The other women were still in discussions, so she put them mostly out of her mind for the moment. She did hear Trish defending herself from the others with phrases like "I didn't mean it like that." Good, Sayoko thought, she deserves to get her foot shoved all the way up her annoying horse-face. She turned back to Keiichi.

"Here's a thought," Sayoko said, pausing with her finger lightly against her lips in a pondering motion her father had used on occasion, "I could translate for you, and also make some suggestions if you get stuck with places to take them."

The surprise on his face was worth it. Whatever doubts she had about him or the situation as she had seen, they were gone now. Keiichi Morisato was a rarer person than she ever could have imagined.

He was as easy to read as an open book. Everything about him was as genuine as a person could get. True, he was blunt in how he said it, but even with polish, his words would always be as close to completely honest as society's foibles would ever allow.

She knew she had dwelt on this before, but each time she saw it in him, it was like a completely different facet of the same person. For someone with such simplistic views on things, the way they mixed together was finer and more intricate than the most detailed circuit she'd ever seen. The analogy actually made her smile a little.

"You'd really do that?" he said, surprised. Of course she'd do that! She was not going to let a predator like that have her way with- well, Sayoko didn't like Trish's attitude, and if she was the leader of this group, things could turn really ugly, regardless of one's intentions.

"Yeah," she said simply, "sure." She waved the whole thing away with a dismissive gesture and sighed, "besides, with the day I am having, I won't even make it to my final lecture."

Keiichi merely nodded in sympathy. From the look of his normally tousled hair looking as if complete bedlam had happened to it, and the deep dark rings under his eyes, he must have been pulling what she has heard her father's workers call an "emergency shift" that must have lasted at least three days. Just looking at his sorry state made Sayoko want to yawn again.

"Thanks," the boy said, but she was only half-paying attention. The committee seemed to be coming to some sort of head – the passers-by very pointedly ignored the yelling, gesturing women in the middle of the walkway.

"I said I didn't mean it that way!" Trish was saying, throwing her hands up in a definitely-exaggerated gesture of exasperation.

"And you think that's going to make it all better?" Grace said, her arms crossed in front of her breasts, "You think he'd be happy to discover exactly what you said to him?"

"And more importantly," Katie said, absently gesturing with her cup, "what would you do if he thought you were serious?"

"Hey!" Sayoko yelled in English over to the girls, who looked at her almost in unison. She pointed a thumb in a casual way to the still-bewildered college student.

"Keiichi said he's in!" She was turned enough away from him to add in a wink that only the women could see. Each of them had the most shocking look of astonishment on their faces.

"Sayoko-san?" Keiichi asked, confused, "What am I in?"

"Just smile and give them a big 'thumbs up' gesture for me, okay?" She said through her smile, "The Americans love that."

Obediently, Keiichi turned to the women, and gave them his biggest confident smile, and put both thumbs up. Almost at the same time, Sayoko's smile turned into as big and goofy as a smile as she could manage and imitated the gesture. The women stood still, looking completely nonplussed.

Point, Sayoko. She thought to herself as she put her hands down and her features returned to natural. Flawless victory.

"Um," Keiichi said, still looking a bit confounded, "What was that about?"

"Victory," Sayoko breathed, some of the smile still lingering on her face.

"I don't get it," the boy said.

She patted his cheek softly, "That's okay," Sayoko answered as she walk past him to the women, "nobody's perfect."

. . . . . . . . . . . .

Why wasn't anything perfect? Sora had anticipated to be back home by now, and yet, here she was, warming herself in Urd's makeshift laboratory in the shed a mere ten meters from real warmth and sleep. True, it was getting warmer each day, but days like this made her wish that the jet streams or whatever urged the warmer temperatures towards Nekomi would do so post haste.

"I think we should get a game plan together," Urd said. Sora merely yawned, and the Goddess, stuck in one of her "can do" modes, took the action as an affirmative.

"We should set up a meeting," the Goddess continued, half pacing, half fretting with everything in her makeshift workspace, "Get people together and come up with some good ideas. You know, brainstorm."

Sora shrugged before staring at the door with yearning. Bed was calling to her, and she just- WHERE THE HELL DID URD GET THAT WHITEBOARD FROM?

Her brain blinked along with her eyes – How the hell did that just materialize like that? It was almost as if the Norn had a secret pocket dimension to keep playthings in!

Sora must have said something aloud, because the Norn had stopped in her attempt to remove the cap of the whiteboard marker to look apologetically at her.

"Oh, sorry." Urd shrugged, absently pushing one of her ash-white hairs from her face, "I had to shrink a few things for space in here. Thought you knew – how else could I make room for my lovely kotatsu?"

Sora looked at the huge table with dismay. Did that mean that, at any given time, the thing could shrink up with her underneath it? She edged herself out of the warming, cloth-ringed table with dismay.

Urd turned back to her whiteboard, and from what Sora could see, the woman was just throwing up random charts, flowchart symbols and what looked to be a Wheatstone bridge, if Sora's electronic circuits knowledge was still good.

"Now, what we need to do," the Norn said, tapping the chart with the now-capped marker, "is take effect of our synergy to maximize the overall return, heretofore known as you kicking ass at the Miss Nekomi pageant."

"What?" Sora asked, but, to her dismay, Urd seemed to be gathering steam quickly.

"First thing we need to do," the Norn went on, tapping at the Wheatstone bridge diagram for added emphasis again, "is datamine for trendsetting values, so we can maximize our gains while reducing our losses." She then drew a few lines connecting the chart to a small stick figure in the corner, with Sora wondering how the two even related to each other, "We can correlate this quotient with our average means to pull a profit from all departments."

Sora blinked, and was going to say something, but Urd superseded her with a raised finger.

"There will be time for questions at the end of this presentation." The Goddess noted, and turned back to her chart. She wiped out the chart, made the arch that had connected it to the stick figure have multiple colors, and shoved an eight-legged stick-figure horse on the apex.

An eight-legged horse? Where had the woman's twisted mind pulled that from? Maybe the white-haired woman was starting to lose it? Was it sleep deprivation on Urd's part or hers? She didn't know. Sora decided to dwell on it later, if she even remembered, that is.

"Now, we'll try to synergize our workflow, and come to a consensus," Urd said, now doodling a pie chart that looked too similar to Pac-Man. As if reading her thoughts, Urd started coloring the larger piece in with yellow, "and then we'll formulate a better algorithm with the results through various pivot tables and comparisons, therein."

Sora rubbed her eyes by snaking two fingers under her glasses and looked at the chart again. It was indeed Pac-man! Urd had even colored in an eye! Frowning, Sora stood up, cutting Urd off in mid-thought.

"I'm done." she said, yawning, "I'm going to bed before any of this starts making sense."

"But it does make sense!" Urd protested. Sora just frowned, opened the door, and slammed it behind her as loudly as she could.

It was hellishly early in the morning and, considering that she hadn't eaten since lunch yesterday, the exhaustion and lack of sustenance were fraying her thin.

"Fine!" Urd's muffled voice came through the door, "You go and get sleep! I'll do all the real work while you lay on your sorry ass!"

"Okay!" Sora yelled in reply, saying it over her shoulder, "Thanks! I'm counting on you!"

She yawned again, stopping before her door to get the long, drawn out process a chance to peter out. Once she could close her mouth and open her eyes again, she turned the doorknob and let herself in.

"I'm home," she said, mindful not to yell in case Bell hadn't waited up for her return. As she pushed the door further inward, she saw Belldandy was still at the kitchen table, but her head was resting on her arms. The Goddess was dressed in her light blue pajamas, and, Sora could see, that the unruly bangs that stuck out at Bell's forehead had draped themselves over onto her arm. Near the top of the Norn's head were two carefully-wrapped plates. Sora smiled, and, upon seeing the food, her stomach growled as if it were a living beast.

Sora went into the closet and pulled out one of the blankets from under the folded-up futon. As she came out of the closet, she flicked the blanket open, went over to Bell and wrapped it around her shoulders. On impulse, Sora tenderly brushed the rebellious hair back into place, and unconsciously gave the Goddess a soft kiss on the cheek before taking her plate to the microwave for heating. She looked at the note she really hadn't noticed taped to the side, and read it.

"Tamiya said this was your favorite," the note said, "I hope you enjoy it if I'm not up by the time you get home. - Love, Belldandy"

She opened the covering, and blushed. She was going to kill Tamiya in a very slow, painful way the next time she saw him. Well, maybe not kill him, but possibly offer him a piece of chocolate laxative as if it were a chocolate bar would be better. Yes. Especially since she knew the real meaning Tamiya was getting at with the fish tacos that adorned Sora's plate.

Well, food was food, and knowing Belldandy, she had outdone herself yet again. She could bet that they would be just as good nuked as they were fresh. Her mouth watered as she thought of it. With care, she timed the tacos to heat on medium for a minute and a half to get them warm and keep the tortilla shells from getting rubbery.

The microwave dinged and she opened the door, taking the food out with anticipation. As she sat at the table, she looked over again at the Goddess, her wife, and smiled in appreciation.

Sora ate the food quickly before spreading out the futon to sleep. She sighed as she noticed that the time was now 10:45. If she really wanted to, she could make it to her second class of the day.

"Screw it," she said, breaking free from the ingrained responsibility her culture had ingrained in her at an early age, "It wouldn't do myself or anyone else any good to go and sleep through the class. I'm done for the day."

She folded back the covers and went over to wake Bell up enough to put her in the bed. After some gentle coercion, the Norn allowed herself to be led to the bed. Sora pulled the covers over them, put her arm around Belldandy, and finally drifted off to sleep.

. . . . . . . . . . . .

Keiichi couldn't believe his luck - he still couldn't decide if it was good or not, especially because the four girls trailing him seemed to have built a rapport with each other, with him as the lynchpin of it all.

It happened not too long after Sayoko offered to assist him with translations. From what he knew, she should have been the one giving the tour, since she had lived in this area all her life, and she would "nudge" him to points of interest in Japanese while (from what he could tell, that is) telling the three actresses that he had suggested it. Why she insisted that he be the one designated for this job, he didn't know, and that was just as unsettling as this new alliance.

Keiichi also didn't like the fact that, once Sayoko had arrived, the level of English had gone up what seemed a thousand-fold . Maybe he was still dopey from the lack of sleep, but now instead of really understanding about half of what was being said, there were times it felt like all he could hear was "a," "the," "or" and, of course "and."

In other words: Keiichi felt left out of this whole ordeal that he had been dragged into.

He still wanted to go to the dorm, and crawl back under his covers, just like he had been doing when Otaki had barged in, pulled him out from under the covers, and told him his work needed him pronto. But if he had been there, he'd still be sulking after what he termed "the incident", and then he wouldn't have met up with Sayoko now, no matter how worse for wear he was. He mentally brushed it off and tried to think of just how to actually use this opportunity to apologize to Sayoko and possibly...

Jeez, Kei, Malaika scoffed, with how long it takes you to move, even the freakin' snails on that tree over there will have had coitus uninterruptus a few dozen times before you even walk over to her!

I'm trying! He thought, trying to keep the frustration from showing on his face. Malaika merely snorted in a derisive way.

Trying to turn old and gray before you make a move, you mean! the angel countered, If that were me, I'd have marked you off into the dreaded "friends" column about a half an hour ago!

Kei sighed, hoping that the foursome beside him talking about the current landmark would not be paying attention at the moment. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Katie pull out her cell phone, lean over the fence, and snap a picture of something that he couldn't quite see.

I just had an awesome idea. Malakia said, her voice hinting at the smile Keiichi pictured on her, You should go put your hand on her ass.

What? Keiichi almost said aloud. Fortunately, all four women were looking at the thing Katie had taken a picture of, so he was safe. He regained his composure . I like my hand. And my life outside of prison, thank you very much.

Party pooper, Malaika said, sounding sulky, But what I was getting at, she continued in a more somber voice, is that you need to - I mean really - take some risks now and then. From what I've heard, you're a racer, so think of it the same way.

True. he replied, mulling it over, But you know that slow and steady wins the race, right?

Yeah? she countered, Try telling that to guys like Mario Andretti or... Or.. That other guy. The one at Ferrari. You know: The Stig.

You mean Michael Schumacher Keiichi said absently, and he's not the Stig. Wait. How do you know about the Stig or me liking racing in the first place?

Er, Malaika said, sounding flustered, Well, I'm an angel! We know this stuff! It's our job to know things like that! And now you're just avoiding the real subject here! Are you going to grab her ass or not?

No, Keiichi reaffirmed.

How about at least putting an arm around her waist? You could use it like you were subtly directing her to the next spot on the tour.

No, he replied again, If I did that, I know she'd either kick me in the crotch, slap me, or do both multiple times. No.

Heaven above! the angel agonized Okay. I got it. How about putting a hand across her shoulder? Surely you can pull that off with no problem?

Keiichi thought about it. It was a possibility. The foursome was still in a semicircle, only now each of them were taking photos with their cell phones. Whatever it was must be really interesting, so why hadn't they bothered to wave him over. As if on cue, Sayoko looked up, and realized they had completely left him out of the loop. She waved anxiously for him to join them, and he acquiesced. He tried looking over their shoulders, but even stopped over as they were, the four were still taller than he was. Keiichi tried edging to the sides, but foliage prevented him from seeing what held their attention.

"Excuse me," Keiichi said, and moved closer to the right side of Sayoko. He tentatively reached up his right arm, and put it around her gently to her left shoulder, "Sorry for the inconvenience."

Smooooth, Malaika scoffed What next, "Cassanova?" a peck on the cheek for your wedding night?

Keiichi ignored her, and looked at the point of interest. It turned out to be a several kittens around their mother cat, all nursing and, from what Keiichi remembered of his friend's feline having offspring, just born very recently.

"Aren't they adorable?" Grace said. Keiichi made a noncommittal sound. He didn't want to get attached; in an area with such high volumes of traffic, they wouldn't last more than a week, if they and their mother were lucky.

"I just want to take them home," Katie said, sounding as if she were gushing over them. After watching Katie's part as Starbuck, it still surprised him when the "tough-as-nails" jock pilot did something, well, girly, "But the hotel and customs won't let me, I bet."

"You know," Sayoko said, opening up her flip-phone, "I'm going to take them. Excuse me." She drifted off a distance, gently breaking her contact with Keiichi. Pity that, but it did give him a chance to get a better view of the kittens than just what he could see from his original odd-man-out position. Three of them were solid black, and the other two had coloring like their mother: A mottled black and orange that made them look like part of the landscape. He wondered how the women had even found the animals in the first place.

Awww, Malaika said, sounding as if she were gushing herself, They are sooo cute! Can I have one? No. Wait. Get one of the cute bundles of fur for me, so you can be my proxy! Yes, that would work wonderfully!

No, Kei thought, I live in a dorm. The rules state no pets of any kind. Sorry.

Oh, poo. Malaika said. He knew she was sulking but it was the truth: No animals or friends sleeping over or even visiting family! Already, he's seen several dorm members being forced to go to a hotel for such stupid rules. Who made the rules for the dorm, anyway? After Hoshi's arrival and a few "incidents" where rules had been bent, he was starting to suspect that there were more to the rules than meets the eye.

Maybe I can force Hoshi out by using his allergies against him. Keiichi thought, then dispelled the idea before it could come to a plan. Knowing his luck, it would get him punted from the place instead of its intended victim. Just then, Sayoko returned, looking triumphant.

"Someone will be along very shortly," she declaimed proudly, "one of my staff is nearby and will bring them to my apartment in short order. This was met with approval from the actresses, who started suggesting names while taking a few more pictures of the felines for good measure.

I bet you're still wondering how they can get along so well after such a rocky start, Malaika said. Keiichi started to nod, but caught himself and sent her an affirmative. The thing to remember, dear boy, is that they are women. One minute they will be at each others' throats, and the next, the best of friends... under the right circumstances. You, my friend, seem to be the unlucky "right circumstance" to these ladies.

Yeah, Keiichi thought dismally, I already figured that out.

No, you haven't. the angel replied, This is much more than just a common friend or foe: This is about plots. The game, as they say, is afoot.

He knew that Malaika was just trying to get him to rise to the bait, but this time, he wasn't going to bite. Keiichi ignored her as he focused again on the debutante, who, as he looked at him, looked quickly away, back to the kittens and their mother. He just shrugged, folded his arms, and leaned against the back of a bench.

She gave you a look, Malaika said in a syrupy voice. Keiichi just rolled his eyes. He expected her to say more, but probably guessed that his response would be the same, so she dropped it. He knew she was still there; he could almost feel her looking through his eyes, trying to focus them onto the little balls of fuzz.

Katie said something to Sayoko that Keiichi couldn't hear, and Sayoko laughed softly. It was a wonderful sound to him - gentle yet rich at the same time. She repeated the question back to him, and he absently replied back with something.

Really? Malaika said, disbelieving, You? Not hungry? I can barely hear you in here sometimes from the sound of your stomach groaning so much. As if on cue, his stomach made a horrific noise, and he blushed. Thankfully, the girls had been distracted as several men came over with pet carriers, carefully making their way to the mother cat and her kittens.

"I think we should go now," Keiichi said to Sayoko. She nodded after a cursory inspection of the setup and the crowd it was starting to draw before relaying his suggestion to the rest of the group. They all agreed, leaving the men to do their work.

It's always a production with that one. Malaika stated, I hope you are really, really sure about this.

About what? He asked. The angel chuckled softly.

About going out with her, Malaika replied simply, because from here on, it's going to get a lot more interesting.

Keiichi couldn't reply; he had none that wouldn't sound either lame or egotistical, so he just didn't say anything. Right now, there really was nothing going on between them, and from what happened previously, he wasn't sure that she would even want to continue from where they had so abruptly left off.

The angel chuckled again, but that changed nothing: He was still out of the loop between his forced-upon charges and the girl that walked away from him.

And he was tired. He stifled a yawn and ran his hand through his unruly mop of black hair.

"That's it," Keiichi murmured, dropping his hand to his side, "I'm done."

What? Malaika said, her tone similar to that of someone whose mind had been adrift, Keiichi I-

I said "I'm done," he repeated thinking it this time, I'm tired and hungry and... He sighed absently rubbing his hand through his hair again.

Suddenly, he felt a gentle hand on his shoulder. He turned around and was shocked to see concern on Sayoko's face.

"Are you okay?" she asked, not taking her hand off his shoulder. It was a soft, sensation, yet it sent tingles down his spine. He tried to smile reassuringly. Sayoko still looked skeptical, but at least she wasn't going to argue with him.

"Yeah," Keiichi answered, "Just a little tired." As if to emphasize the point, he yawned, covering his mouth. "Sorry." he said sheepishly, feeling his cheeks heat. Sayoko frowned a little.

"You sure?" Sayoko said, the frown deepening slightly, "If you want to, we can cut this short."

His mind raced. A moment ago, he felt as if he wanted to just leave and now...

Now he felt that desire drain away, because he finally realized what it was that was upsetting him: It was the games. Keiichi didn't need them; they were draining him not only in mind but in spirit, and he'd had enough.

"Yeah," he repeated, "really, but if it'll make you feel better, we should get something to eat. It's lunchtime, and I'm starting to get hungry."

Sayoko smiled, removing her hand from his shoulder. To his surprise, she took him by the hand and led him over to the actresses. He felt his cheeks redden.

"I think," she said, not letting go of his hand, "that sounds like a wonderful idea."

. . . . . . . . . . . .

Urd stared at her whiteboard through squinted eyes. There was something.. "Off" about the equations and one of the charts, but she couldn't be sure what. She took the capped blue whiteboard marker and tapped at the crude image of Sleipnir in thought. Maybe the rainbow bridge, or the eight-legged horse was the problem? No. She was sure that they made the connection between chart and equation perfectly. She would have to check with Baldr, and see what he thought about the situation.

"I guess I could reverse the polarities," Urd said, pushing a long strand of silver-white hair from her face, "and make the lightning and its victim pull UP into the sky instead of down..." But would that work? Would making Sora win by default of being the only remaining contestant fix the problem? For that, she'd have to speak to the Almighty and-

Oh, thank GOD! A voice reverberated in her head, breaking her thought process, I thought that... that HELL would never end! The voice, of course was that elusive angel of Keiichi's. She had feared that she had scared the poor thing off, but it seems that something else had happened since they last spoke.

"What happened?" Urd said aloud, "you sound as if you've been tortured and released by a demon."

Might as well have been, Mio said. She took a few audible breaths before continuing, That boy... If I hadn't been there, he would have been crushed, electrocuted, drowned and, quite possibly shot.

"Again," Urd asked, feeling annoyed with the angel, "what happened?"

First, Mio said, sobbing as she slowly emerged through the door, there was that stupid scaffolding. I mean, how did they manage not to kill anyone with so many loose bolts? Then there was the pool of water they use for some kind of machine tank. And then...

Urd stared at the angel. Was she making this up? People aren't usually that clumsy.

It's not that he's clumsy, Mio said, fanning herself with a hand before straightening her long, black hair, it's the fact that the whole freaking universe seems to be out to kill him! I mean, how the hell does a bowling ball fall from a thirty-story building right into the exact place to start a chain reaction which eventually cut that specific power line, and made it start falling right into said pool he just happened to be standing in the middle of?

Urd blinked "Really?" she said, dumbfounded.

Really! The reply was emphasized by Mio rubbing her eyes with the palms of her hands. Upon looking closer, Urd could see her eyes were bloodshot, as if she had been crying. But that's not the important thing! What's really important is that they've taken him against his will!

"What?" Urd said, startled, "Who?"

Who else? Mio cried, tears forming in her eyes, threatening to brim over onto his cheek, Him!

"Ah," Urd said, nodding in understanding, "Now, who're 'they' again?"

Argh! The angel exclaimed, You're hopeless! Get your sister over here! She's more competent than you are!

"It still didn't answer my question!" Urd snapped "How the Hel can I help you if I don't know how to?"

This seemed to mollify the angel, and her shoulder slumped a bit. When she looked up, Urd could swear that she could feel the anger rolling off Mio in waves.

Harlots. Mio said, scowling, Western harlots! They took him after he's had no sleep for three straight days! You have to help him!

Harlots? What in the world would anyone want from Keiichi in the first place? He was average, and boring, and too straight-laced for his own good. Seriously, what would anyone want him for? It's not like his deep, brown eyes would swallow you in their profound depths, or those strong, muscular arms would...

Okay. Maybe Mio did have a point, but that didn't mean that she could trust Mio. The angel had already proved to be annoying, so what if this was some kind of prank to make Urd miserable by playing off her interest in Keiichi? She was sure that the angel still had it out for her for their first meeting.

"So," Urd bagan slowly, "About these women-"

Harlots! Mio repeated, with gusto, a congress of whores!

"Yeah, yeah," she sighed, waving her hand in a dismissive way, "whatever. Whores. harlots, Jezebels of the modern era. Better?"

Yeah, the agel replied, once again sounding mollified.

"Well," Urd began again, "these harlots; why should I be so concerned about them? I'm not his babysitter. He's a big boy that can take care of himself."

You think so? Mio said acerbically, You'd feel differently about that if you'd seen and done all I've had to do, just to keep his sorry ass in one piece!

Urd couldn't comment - the angel was right; she had been with Keiichi, ever since he was a child, whereas Urd had known him scant weeks. If anyone's word could be taken for fact, it was definitely Mio's.

But was she just pulling Urd's chain? The Norn scrutinized the ethereal being, and saw the worry lines and nervous way Mio was looking and fidgeting. The way the angel was now idly drifting in the shack, and the little nervous ticks, which were so hard to fake without training, seemed genuine to the Goddess.

The thing that sold it, though, were the held-back tears, and the look on the angel's face. Mio was exhausted, and part of her expression carried that, punctuated by the look of someone that's been through a high level of stress until very recently.

"Okay," Urd said, leaning back and crossing her arms to stare at the angel, "Tell me calmly what's going on, and I'll help you if I can."

. . . . . . . . . . . .


Somewhere in Hokkaido...

Tow people are in hospital beds. One is a man, the other is a young boy. They are hooked up to intravenous drips of a saline solution to help get them rehydrated properly. The boy is sound asleep and snoring.

AOSHIMA: Thank god he's finally asleep. Hasn't shut up in forever.

Just then, a young woman comes into the room. She is wearing jeans, a white shirt and a denim jacket with the cuffs slightly rolled up. Her hair is short but feminine in cut, and has a generous smile for the man in the hospital bed.

MEGUMI: So, are you ever going to get to bed?

AOSHIMA: Can't sleep. I've been up for so long the past couple days, I am running on adrenaline.

MEGUMI (Walking over, and sitting on the edge of the bed): Still, you need to rest. Doc said that your body's stressed, and it won't get better until you get a good night's sleep or two.

AOSHIMA (Shaking head): Doesn't quite work that way with me. You'd know if you ever met my family.

MEGUMI (Crossing arms): Okay then, so you feel like at least talking to someone about what happened to you up there?

AOSHIMA (Looking away): There's nothing to talk about. I was filling up the car balloon we were going to donate to a fair, I sat in it and stupidly nodded off. When I came to, Sentaro had been hanging on the rope for hours, and I pulled him up. He was trying to be a hero and it backfired on him.

MEGUMI: That's not what I meant! I mean, how did you guys really get up there and how did you survive for so long?

AOSHIMA (Shrugging): The kid had power bars and some candy. We got water from the few low-lying clouds we went through. It was actually all the kid's idea.

MEGUMI: Uh, huh. and you did nothing at all?

AOSHIMA: All I did was sit there looking like an idiot.

MEGUMI: Sentaro says different.

AOSHIMA shrugs.

MEGUMI (Uncrossing her arms, and leans closer to AOSHIMA): Come on. Tell me. After all, I did save your asses from those seagulls that were attacking the balloon car.

AOSHIMA (Hesitating a moment, before looking at MEGUMI): You promise that you'll tell none of this to anyone? I lived through it, and I still don't believe it myself! Just agree to tell everyone else the story you already know, and I'll talk.

MEGUMI (Deep intake of breath) I promise, as long as it's not covering up a murder or something.

AOSHIMA (Nodding assent): Okay. Now, it all happened a week ago when I was leaving one of my favorite restaurants in my brand new Ferrari...