"We make choices. No one else can live our lives for us. And we must confront and accept the consequences of our actions." -Morpheus, the King of Dreams, "The Sandman: The Kindly Ones" -*- "Hello Lucien." Lucien looked up from a desk in a far corner of the Library of Dreams. "Ah, Corinthian, welcome. Is there something I can do for you?" The nightmare known as the Corinthian shrugged and casually readjusted his shades. "No, just here to look around." He walked over to the desk, looking at the slim book lying open on it with a curious expression on his face. "What were you reading?" Lucien looked back at the book he was reading. "It's only a fairy tale of a boy and a goddess." "You seem somber about it." Lucien nodded. He closed the book slowly, gazing at the cover: MORTAL FATES The librarian looked up at the nightmare sadly. "Not every fairy tale has an happy ending." -*- In the hall of mirrors, within the Dream Lord's castle in the Dreaming, a goddess and a mortal were meeting again for the first time. "Hello, Belldandy," said the goddess calmly. "Hello, Verthandi," replied the mortal, numb with shock. There was a terrible awkward moment of silence. Belldandy could only stare at the divinity. The goddess looked at the mortal and frowned. "You seem unwell, Belldandy." "I... I'm not feeling well," replied the mortal. "I... I don't understand. What is happening? Who are you? And... if you are the goddess... who am I?" Verthandi seemed puzzled. "You don't recall?" Belldandy shook her head. "Odd. I suppose it may have been trauma from our separation," guessed Verthandi. "Mortal shells are so very fragile." "I still don't understand what-" "You," said Verthandi, locking gazes with Belldandy, "are all that holds Keiichi dear and is held dear by him. Our kindness, our tenderness, our hopes and dreams, and most importantly, our devotion and passion for him." "Then you are..." "I am all that is devoted to being a Goddess. I am our divine birthright, our inner peace, our confidence, our devotion to the will of our Lord, our dedication to what must be done for the greater good." "But which of us is real?" asked Belldandy. "You are as real as I," Verthandi replied. "Then... I'm... mortal." Verthandi nodded. Belldandy staggered back, eyes still wide in shock and disbelief, and shook her head slowly. "Who did this to us?" asked Belldandy. "When?" "Why, we did this to ourselves." "We... we did?" "It's true," Verthandi answered in a calm voice. "When we were one, the goddess Belldandy, we had decided this was the only solution." "But... but why?" "In quite a few events, most recent amongst them the incident with the trickster Constantine, we had demonstrated that our loyalty to Keiichi was stronger than our loyalty to our heavenly duties." Verthandi took a brief moment to cast a disapproving look at Belldandy. "We had feared that the powers that be would see this and separate us from him," continued the Goddess, "and so we took steps to make sure we would not be separated from him. Thus, we kept our promise to him, that we would be with him always." Belldandy stood still, her mind churning through what her other had said, but was distracted by the sound of wings flapping through the air. A familiar voice called out. "Hey, kid, you there? You shouldn't be wanderin' around in a place like this... this here place's the raw stuff of dreams. Very dan- HOLY SHIT!" If it were possible for a bird to skid to a stop in mid-flight, Matthew did so. The raven nearly crashed into the wall, just managing to correct himself in time, landing on the floor. He looked up, staring at the two Belldandys. Verthandi arched a thin refined eyebrow at Matthew. Matthew stammered, unsure who to direct queries to. "Uh... 'cuse me, Bell, you okay?" he asked. Belldandy nodded wordlessly. Matthew blinked, and then looked at Verthandi, who met his gaze with a cool look of her own. He kept on looking at Belldandy and Verthandi, his head moving back and forth between them slowly. He thought on the situation, and wondered if Belldandy had set loose her own nemesis, like that idiot brother of Nuala's did. The lack of antlers on the new arrival's head was a good sign, at least. "Um...," said Matthew tentatively. "This yer sister or something?" "I am Verthandi." "Uh-huh," said Matthew flatly. "And you're related...?" "I am her," said Verthandi, tilting her head slightly to Belldandy, "and she is me." Matthew blinked again. "Er, what?" "Not long ago, this mortal and I were one," Verthandi said coolly. "Oh. I see. I think." "And you are?" Verthandi asked. "I'm Matthew. Matthew the Raven. Pleased to meetcha, I think. Hey, Bell, you don't look well." Belldandy slowly shook her head. "I am fine... I think." Verthandi looked at her other self doubtfully. "There is still the matter of your health. You are deteriorating abnormally, I see." Belldandy nodded, still frowning. Verthandi frowned and approached Belldandy, the goddess' eyes carefully examining her. "We hadn't anticipated this problem." "What problem?" "Apparently, We are still linked by the smallest of threads: a touch of the divine." "Huh? What're you saying, lady? That Belldandy is still..." Matthew cawed. "... A goddess? Not quite. But neither is she completely mortal. She has the body of a mortal, but... this is most perplexing." Belldandy, who had been silently looking down at the floor for a while, slowly shook her head. "No it isn't." She raised her head to look at Verthandi. "We did keep our promise to Keiichi, after all... a Goddess to stay with him forever." Verthandi slowly nodded her head. "I see. We had not considered that. Keiichi's wish was that a goddess like us would remain with him forever. And so the separation did not go smoothly." "Is that why I've been feeling so weak?" asked Belldandy. "Probably," said Verthandi. "We share the same reservoir of power, but yours is a mere drop of it. The power is mostly mine." Verthandi tilted her head again, then slowly and gently paced around. "If your mortal shell thought itself still divine, it probably would have tried to rely on the power, and found its supply severely lacking. And that would have triggered a domino effect of deterioration." Verthandi stopped her pacing and nodded, seemingly satisfied at her own theory. "Yes, that's probably it." "Can... can you fix it?" asked Belldandy hopefully. "Yes. All we need to do is become one again," replied Verthandi. "Hey, that's great!" said Matthew. "Wonderful. Let's do it!" Belldandy exclaimed. She started to walk towards Verthandi. Verthandi regarded her dispassionately. Cool lips parted to say a single word. "No." -*- Skuld had a problem. The Yggddrasil was currently set to manual control, which meant SOMEONE had to watch over it. She couldn't set it to autonomous or semi-autonomous mode because the unbelievable witch that was Verthandi (she refused to think of her as her sister) had set the controls so that only she could authorize a mode shift. Verthandi was out at the moment. And so was Urd. And that left Skuld to look over the Yggdrasil, all by herself, the large, room-sized rows of control panels with all its flashing lights and odd beeps going off at what seemed like once every second. -beep-beep-beep- Skuld jumped up with a noise of dismay. "WAH!" She ran over to a control panel and reached for a flashing red button. -click- *sigh* -beep-beep-beep- "WAH!" -click- *sigh* This brutal pattern repeated itself again and again, running Skuld ragged and setting her nerves on edge. She could handle the job, it was just the hectic pace that she detested. WHERE was Verthandi?!?!? WHERE was Urd?!?!? -beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep- "WAAAAAAAAAAAAH!" -*- Meanwhile, in Limbo... "GET ME OUTTA HEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEERE!!!" -*- Raven and mortal stared at the goddess in shock. "I'm afraid I can't let us do that," Verthandi said. "WHAT?! Why not?!" Matthew shouted. "I'm dying!" protested Belldandy. "You can't let me die!" "Again, I truly am sorry, Belldandy. But I'm afraid that isn't in the best interests of the Heavens. The Yggdrasil is functioning far better than it ever has, at full efficiency and with no defects. Our duty is being fulfilled beyond expectations and the world as a whole benefits from it." "But... our promise to Keiichi!" "You were fated to die. What matters if it is now or 50 years hence?" Matthew flapped his wings irritably. "Hey now, lady, you're not being fair!" "Fate isn't fair," said Verthandi. "It just is." "But Keiichi..." said Belldandy weakly. "What is the sadness of one man compared to the wellfare of millions? I'm afraid our duty takes precedence over Keiichi." "Now wait a minute, lady, you can't just..." Matthew cawed. "Our fates were decided the moment we chose between duty and... love." Verthandi's face briefly narrowed at the last word. "But she's going to die!" Matthew yelled. "Unfortunate. Another unexpected effect of our separation. But the person who would choose love over duty is Belldandy. I am not she." "What about... what about our promise to Keiichi?" asked Belldandy. Verthandi blinked, then frowned. "There does seem to be a contract to fulfill." She pondered briefly, and then inclined her head. "When you leave... I will watch over him." With those words, Belldandy was stunned to silence, resigned to her doom as she realized her other did not and would not join with her again. It was over. The goddess turned her back on the mortal and once more walked towards the mirror, ignoring Matthew's protests. Her final words before disappearing into the mirror floated in the air, words of comfort that didn't comfort at all. "I'm sorry, but this is what must be." -*- In a goddess' wake, two confused souls were left. Belldandy sank slowly to her knees, holding her face in her hands. Matthew hemmed and hawed awkwardly, waiting in front of Belldandy. After a long silence, broken only by intermittent sobs from Belldandy, Matthew started to ramble nervously. "You know... I didn't understand why a mortal would be in the Dreaming to... uh, pass on. That happens only if you're a vortex or something, and in that case, Dream would kill ya, but that's not the case, right? But if y'still a goddess... then no wonder yer in the Dreaming..." Belldandy looked up, tears still streaming down her face. "That's right... if I still have some godhood in me..." She darted to her feet, almost hopeful, and ran to a mirror. Reaching out cautiously, Belldandy closed her eyes and concentrated. She tried to feel for that sense of divinity, but there was none. How could that be? She sighed... wishing so much that she could see... And the mirror flashed. Before her eyes, a scene of tragedy unfolded. Keiichi, his face frozen in shock, looked into a room bustling with doctors and nurses. At the center of their attention was her mortal shell, still pale and unmoving. She turned away, eyes threatening to burst into tears. "Aw... I'm sorry, kid." Belldandy said nothing, only looking down at the floor with unbearable sorrow. Matthew fidgeted uncomfortably, unsure what else to say at this moment, except... "Let's get outta here, huh?" suggested Matthew. "It ain't a good idea to stay in the hall of mirrors too long." Belldandly nodded, though still staring at the ground, and the the two of them solemnly began to walk out. And then Belldandy hesitated, her eyes widening and her head rising up to stare at an unknown something in the distance. "Something calls me," she whispered. "Huh? I don't hear anything." "Can't you hear it? The sound of silence and yet of musical chorus..." Belldandy turned haunted eyes to Matthew. "The Beyond is calling me." -*- "Skuld?" The eldest of the Norns sighed, gazing at the youngest with sympathy. Skuld sat at her station but was silent for the entire time. Her eyes, red and watery, were firmly locked on the screen before her and her fists typed at the keyboard with a bit more force than neccessary. "Hey, Skuld..." Urd placed a hand gently on her sister's shoulder, then found herself wrapped in a hug as Skuld cried. "It's not fair! It's not right!" "I know, kid. I know. I'll think of someth-" The doors of the Yggdrasil opened at that moment, followed by the entrance of Verthandi. Urd and Skuld both looked at her with unwelcoming gazes. Verthandi looked at the both of them, feeling confused at the hostility. "Hello," said Verthandi uncertainly. "I'm back." Skuld removed herself from Urd's embrace, wiping the tears with her sleeve, and tried to look defiantly at Verthandi. She managed to do it for a second. And then she ran out of the room, crying again. "Was there something I missed?" asked an increasingly puzzled Verthandi. "Yeah," replied Urd angrily. "Belldandy." "Belldandy?" "Yeah, _Belldandy._ I see you two aren't back together yet." "No, I-" "WHY NOT?!" Verthandi was silent for a moment, then regained her composure and met Urd's stare. "It's the natural course of things. You should understand that more than anyone. Mortals don't live forever, it's the way of the world." "That's NOT the point!" yelled Urd. "Look, this is wrong on so many levels! Deities DON'T run around separating themselves!" "You do it all the time," noted Verthandi dryly. "You know what I mean!" "It was our decision, hers and mi-" "Yes, we've covered THAT before, thank you. But I was hoping you'd come to your senses and stop this nonsense on your own." Urd sighed and took a seat, rubbing her forehead. "You always were the wisest of us, but I guess that's changed." "My judgement isn't clouded by emotion." "No, it's clouded by a lack of it." Urd pointed a finger at Verthandi and said, "I want you to think for a moment. Think about all the problems you've taken on as Belldandy, okay? Now ask yourself how you, Verthandi, would have solved them instead. And then you tell me if it would have honestly been better your way." "I'm sure I would have come up with an adequate solution," replied Verthandi calmly. "But would it have made everyone happy?" asked Urd. "No, of course not. You don't even know the meaning of the word anymore." Verthandi seemed surprised by this, and to some small degree, shocked. "I don't know... happiness." "You can't even sympathize with Skuld, I bet. Oh, you can logically deduce why, but you really don't _understand_ it." There was a part of Verthandi, a very small part, one that was but a minute part of the whole. It had a sudden and strong urge to go for a walk. "I... I'll be back in a moment," said Verthandi. "Hey, wait! I'm not done-!" But Verthandi had already silently disappeared. "Great, just great," Urd muttered, returning to work. -*- Time is relative, and to deities this is especially so. In a matter of seconds that stretched for what seemed like hours, Verthandi wandered the world. She roamed, viewing the world as only a deity could. All was hers to witness, the majestic mountains, the darkest chasms, the cities swarming with people, and the small rustic towns. Verthandi witnessed moments of war, of hope, of dark human depravity and pinacles of human achievement. She felt nothing. All of God's creation before her, enough to make any mortal reel with wonder, and she hadn't felt anything. Verthandi thought back to the times when she saw these wonders as Belldandy. There were plenty of emotions she had felt then, though remembering what emotion was felt was not at all the same as feeling it. As her consciousness traveled through London, she felt a familiar aura. It smelled of brimstone and fire, clearly a minion of Hell. As she approached, she recognized it. -*- "Mara." The demoness froze in her tracks, feeling the surge of holy power emerging behind her. It was bound to be trouble, especially with the levels of power she was feeling. In fact, the power signature did feel somewhat familiar... Mara turned around slowly. "Bellda... oh." The demoness raised an eyebrow as she looked Verthandi over cautiously. "Verthandi, I presume." The goddess nodded. Mara rubbed her chin in thought. "I heard the rumors, but I didn't think they were true." "Up to something, Mara?" "Me? No, just got through having a few rounds down at the Arcadian's," she said casually, though she still regarded Verthandi warily. "Surely there's nothing wrong with that." "If that is all you were up to," replied Verthandi. Mara ignored the implied suggestion, instead looking at Verthandi contemplatively. "Then again, you're hardly in a position to stop anything I might start," Mara mused. "Even if I did." Verthandi's expression became puzzled. "Is that so?" "Don't believe me?" asked Mara. "Let's take a walk, half-goddess. I'm suddenly in a gloating mood." -*- The demoness and goddess walked through Tatington Green Park, finally settling upon a bench. Around them, the people of London walked to and fro. "Ah, a beauuuuuuutiful day, isn't it? Just perfect for a little deviltry..." "I will not permit that." "Permit? Since when did Evil have to ask Good for permission?" "You know what I mean, Mara." Mara smiled, her eyes roaming about the crowds of people around them. "What do you think I could do to them?" "That is what I'm here to see," said Verthandi. "And to stop." "Well, here's news for you. You can't stop a thing." Verthandi raised an eyebrow. "What makes you think I can't?" Mara ignored Verthandi's question, instead waving a lazy hand to the crowds around them. "What do you see, Goddess, when you look at them?" "Is there a point to this?" asked Verthandi. Mara ignored the question. "They're nobodies. Just little humans. Why are you wasting your time protecting them?" "Because it is my duty, my responsibility," said Verthandi confidently. "You really don't give a damn about them, do you? It's always duty, duty, duty." I fail to see your point," said a somewhat irritated Verthandi. "Of course you wouldn't," sneered Mara. "O-kaaaaay, let's look at the bigger picture, the whole global thing. I know it's a cliche by now, but let's go with a golden oldie: war." "What of it?" "You know how us denizens of hell like to stir things now and then, touch off a little war here and there. Just what _are_ you going to do to stop us?" "Stop the demons." "Right, you stop the demons. But conflict comes naturally to man, so what do you do once the people begin their little hate-spurned war?" Verthandi thought on this for a moment. "Kill the generals." This surprised Mara. Vethandi noticed. "The needs of the many..." Mara rolled her eyes. "Oh please, spare me the Trekkisms." "I was joking," said Verthandi flatly. "I do have a little sense of humor left." "Very little," quipped Mara. "I will find a way, given that I have the proper information on why the conflict has occurred. I am sure of it." Mara nodded. "Okay, fine, sure. I'll admit you might find a way like that. But let's take this to a more personal level." She pointed at the homeless man, huddled underneath the bench. "See him? Dead in a week." "Why?" "It's a story told lots of times over. Lost the family, lost the job, future looks bleak and the past is nothing but a reminder of what he'll never have again. The man's got no reason to live and is sinking deep into clinical depression. He's nothing but a burden on society, wouldn't you agree?" "Yes, I would." "Ah, so we agree that he's damned." "No." "Oh?" "There are homeless shelters that he could seek aid from." "Well, that solves the homeless part." "And there are always jobs somewhere." Mara's grin grew wicked. "Ah, yes, _McJobs._" "It's honest work." "Right, now you've given him a rotten job and a squalid little building to live in. But you still haven't addressed the main issue here." "I think I have. As long as he persists and keeps working hard, his fortunes are bound to turn around." "But what if he just doesn't care?" Verthandi blinked. "Doesn't care? Of course he'll care. Humans care, that's what they tend to do." "He doesn't. Give him a million dollars and a penthouse and he'll still feel empty inside." "I don't understand." Mara's grin gained a smirk-like quality to it. "That's the point." "You're not making sense," said Verthandi with some measure of conviction. "Oh, but I am. And the fact that you can't figure it out pretty much says it all. You're a useless half-goddess. You can't stop us, you won't even be able to tend to the world. How can you when you can't even begin to understand the mortals that crawl upon it? What I and my fellow hellspawn weave, I doubt you can undo. Might as well join your other half in oblivion." Verthandi narowed her eyes. "I see what this is now." "Oh?" "You're merely trying to lead me astray from my duty." "Am I now? Maybe I am." Mara shrugged. "Who knows? Now if you'll excuse me, I have work to do." Mara faded into nothingness, leaving Verthandi alone in the park. And somewhere inside of the goddess, the tiny thread of doubt began to grow. -*- "[I'm sorry, son. We've done all we can do. There's nothing else to do now but wait and hope.]" Alone with Belldandy once more, Keiichi tried to put the doctor's words out of his head. They weren't encouraging words at all. He wanted more than hope, he wanted assurances, he wanted a guarantee, he wanted something sure. Hope, at the moment, seemed like such a frail thing to rely on. He took her hand in his and put his heart and soul into one thought, one wish, one last request. "[Belldandy, come back. Please come back.]" The EKG monitor continued its weak beeping. Silence remained. Unseen, unheard, unnoticed, the goddess Verthandi descended from above, landing silently behind Keiichi. She regarded the scene before her with a subtle, slight amount of irritation. It didn't make much sense for her to be here, but she did have a promise to keep. And so she waited. -*- "Hey, wait up, Belldandy!" Belldandy kept walking as though she did not hear Matthew. She walked, as if constant movement could help her avoid her fate. She walked through the halls of the castle, out the gates, and wandered the dreaming without a destination in mind. "Bell? Hello? What's wrong with ya?" "I don't want to die, Matthew," she said. "I'm not ready yet. Not yet." And so she walked. Through endless fields of gold and mountains beyond the moon, through starry nights and sunny clear blue skies, past the houses of Mystery and Secrets, across the Dreaming she wandered. At last, she stopped. Before her was a familiar beach, from a better time. Belldandy sat upon a large rock and stared out into the horizon. For the first time, Matthew saw her smile. "Bell?" "Keiichi took me to this beach, you know. Looking back, it was such a nice day. Though at the time we were both too nervous to enjoy it." She sighed, though still smiling. "My sister's interference didn't help much, but she had the best intentions in mind." In the distance, a figure was walking across the sands and towards them. Belldandy looked briefly at the person, then resumed watching the setting sun and the endless tides of the ocean. The sound of the rushing waves and the circling seagulls felt soothing to her, a reminder of good days gone by. Matthew, entirely without a clue as to what he could do now, took flight and circled above her, feeling the need to stretch his wings. The seagulls didn't seem to mind it, anyway. Was it hours that passed? Days? Seconds? It seemed time didn't matter in this place. That, of course, was a misconception. Time moved on. A woman's voice spoke, moving Belldandy out of her reminiscence. "Hi there." She turned to see a waifish woman, dressed all in black with pale white skin, a silver ankh worn on a string around her neck. She was thin, with shoulder length black hair, and had a simple sort of beauty. Not sexy, not cute, just beautiful. "Hello," said Belldandy. "Nice day, isn't it?" the woman asked pleasantly. "Yes, it is," replied Belldandy. She was rather ill at ease. This was all too nice. "Mind if I have a seat here?" asked the girl, indicating the large rock upon which Belldandy was sitting. "Oh, not at all." The girl sat down on the rocks, then tore a piece of bread from a small loaf she was holding. She tossed it up in the air, where a passing seagull snapped it up. "Wanna feed the birds?" asked the girl. Belldandy shook her head. "Suit yourself." The girl tossed bit after bit of the loaf into the air, each one snatched away by a seagull flying by. Odd, thought Belldandy, that such a girl would be the embodiment and personification of Death. "Is it time?" Belldandy asked Death. "No, not yet." "Oh. I suppose it was silly of me to wander around." "No," said Death. "Not really. It was something you had to do." "I suppose." "Tell me," said Belldandy. "What is it like? In the Beyond?" Death shrugged. "That's something everyone finds out for themselves." "Oh. I see." Belldandy sighed and continued looking at the eternal sunset. "It was a nice life, I guess." "No regrets?" asked Death. "Some," admitted Belldandy. "I wish I had married Keiichi..." "You two do seem to be a good match," said Death. "You've met him?" asked Belldandy. "I meet everyone," said Death pleasantly. "Oh. That's right." Belldandy smiled warmly once more. "Yes, I really do think we were perfect together." Death nodded, listening attentively. "I think ... I could have lived with being mortal," said Belldandy. "If only things had been done right, I really think we could have had a happily ever after." "Being mortal does have its perks," said Death. "You've been one before?" asked Belldandy, somewhat surprised. Death nodded. "It's all so exhilirating and frightening and fun at the same time." "Yes, it is," agreed Belldandy. Belldandy looked out at the sea for a long time, sitting companionably with Death. Quietly, Death began humming a tune. Belldandy looked over at her, puzzled. Death looked back. "Not familiar with this song, are you?" Belldandy shook her head. Death began to sing, in a low soft voice. o/~ I see trees of green, red roses too... I see them bloom for me and you... And I think to myself, what a wonderful world. I see skies of blue and clouds of white, The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night, And I think to myself, what a wonderful world. The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky Are also on the faces of people going by. I see friends shaking hands, saying how do you do They're really saying 'I love you...' I hear babies crying, I watch them grow... They'll learn much more than I'll never know... And I think to myself, what a wonderful world... Yes, I think to myself, what a wonderful world... o/~ Tears ran down Belldandy's face while Death quietly sang. When Death had finished, Belldandy shook her head. "I'm sorry... I just don't want to go." Death ran a hand through her hair, sighing. "I know. Nobody does. They always say there's more they could have done, things they need to do. "Your term is at an end, Belldandy. That's all there is." -*- It was, by Verthandi's standards, a waste of time. She did not mean that in a harsh way, though. There was nothing she could do for her other, or for Keiichi. And neither of them could sense her presence either. The world, Belldandy and Keiichi included, would be better served by Verthandi attending to her duty. Still, a promise was a promise, and Belldandy's time was coming soon. Looking back, Verthandi didn't see why she even bothered agreeing with Belldandy. It was Belldandy's promise to keep, not hers. Verthandi glanced at Keiichi, then at her other, and to Keiichi once more. Was the boy that special to have torn her in two like this? With a subtle, almost undetectable change, the EKG meter slowed, showing Belldandy's life signs fading by a bit. Keiichi finally broke into uncontrollable sobs, clutching Belldandy's hand desperately as if it would make a difference. He called out her name, asked God for another chance, anything, anything at all for just a little more time. Verthandi was beginning to be disturbed by the scene before her. There was something... undefinable nagging at her core. It was, however, easily ignored. Belldandy's heartbeat sank further, a weak blip on a screen. Keiichi sobbed and whispered in her ear, pleading for her to hold on, to come back to him. "Sorry, Keiichi," said Verthandi, even though she knew he would not hear her. "This is the way it must be." The telltale rise and fall of Belldandy's chest slowed further, her heartbeat fading. Fading. Fading. Gone. Keiichi put his head to Belldandy's chest, weeping as though his heart would break, if it hadn't already. All the joyful tomorrows, all the shared memories... Verthandi turned away from the scene, wiping a single tear from her eyes. She paused. A tear? -*- It was over. She could feel it slip away, her last connections to the mortal world severed. Belldandy sighed, a tone of resignation. "All right." She looked back at the sea, a soft smile. "I do hope I have left the world a far better place than when I entered." Death stood up, standing before Belldandy. From above, Matthew flew down, thinking something was up. "It's time." Belldandy nodded. She looked to Death, but found herself squinting as the sun's rays blinded her. Matthew lowered his head. "Hey, kid... look, uh... good luck. I'm... really sorry." In a low whisper, Belldandy said, "I know. Thank you, Matthew... and goodbye." Death's voice came from the sunlight. "Belldandy? "Give me your hand." The mortal closed her eyes, and reached out with her hand... A hand took hers. It was cool and strong and firm... And then Matthew was alone on the beach. -*- None had entered the room where Keiichi watched over Belldandy. There was something about the scene, something that made interrupting it seem almost sacriligious. It seemed like such an inappropriate conclusion to Keiichi. A girl like Belldandy deserved a death more... more... the words were impossible to find. Belldandy was the kind of person whose death was inconcievable, the kind of person that was supposed to live forever. And she was, too. Even though she'd passed away minutes ago, he still held her hand, still laid his head on her shoulder. But nothing lasts forever. "[Goodbye.]" He kissed her, once, on her forehead, then took one last longing look at her. Still beautiful, even after death. Her diamond-shaped forehead marking was back, too. That was odd. Belldandy opened her eyes and smiled. "[Hi.]" Keiichi fell back in shock, tumbling over his chair, almost banging his head on the floor. The last sight he saw was Belldandy putting her hands to her mouth, and the last word he heard was her exclaiming his name... "[Keiichi!]" -*- Belldandy kneeled next to Keiichi, propping his head up against the wall. For a moment, she'd thought herself gone, but things were often not what they seemed... Belldandy quietly brushed back a stray strand of Keiichi's hair. She sighed, remembering the crossing into the Beyond, and a single question... -*- "Why?" Verthandi asked. Belldandy looked down at herself. One minute she had been reaching for Death's hand, and then the next she knew, there was a bright glow, and a warm hand took hers... She blinked, noticing that Verthandi's hand was holding hers tightly, knuckles almost white with pressure. Quietly, Belldandy lifted her chin up, to look into Verthandi's coldly dispassionate eyes. All around them, there was nothing to be seen. There was an absence of light, of dark, of anything. "What... what are we doing here? Where is Death? And why what?" "I feel that we need to discuss a few things before you leave," said the Goddess. "There are... matters that concern me. Death graciously gave me the opportunity to talk with you... alone." Unsure of what to make of the situation, the mortal regarded the goddess with a puzzled look, before slowly smiling sadly. "You saw Keiichi, didn't you?" The goddess remained quiet for a time. And then... breaking the silence... "Yes." The goddess slowly closed her eyes and then opened them once again to look at the mortal. "I fear... there may have been a mistake," said the goddess. "And I feel you are needed to rectify this." "Mistake?" asked the mortal. "Through the millenia that we have served, there has always been a sense of balance. Urd was mindful of the lessons of the past, I held my vision over the here and now, and Skuld had her eyes cast to the future." The goddess frowned and looked away to nothing in particular (for in Limbo, that is all that is to be seen). "I'd like to think we did our duty and did it well." "I'm inclined to agree," said the mortal. "And with the more... unstable elements removed from the divine elements... I had assumed that our duty would be carried out even better." "It would seem so," conceded Belldandy. "But lately I have realized that this may be a compromise of balance. What is justice without compassion? What is logic without feelings? How can we serve mankind if we do not have humanity? Without them, we would be incomplete. But I do not understand... though I feel I am at the very edge of doing so. I can't make that final connection. Why?" Belldandy looked at her other with a puzzled expression. "Why...?" "Why did we do this to ourselves?" asked Verthandi. "Why? I look to the past for answers, but I cannot make sense of it. Not without the true feelings of those moments. Not without you." Verthandi reached out to touch Belldandy's hand. With that touch, Belldandy's mind was flooded with a sense of order, purpose, reason, and faith. With that touch, Verthandi's mind was drowned in a sea of hope, despair, confusion, and love. And then the world faded away... -*- It was dark. Very dark. Through the darkness, she could see the night sky and hear the rustling of trees in the wind. Where am I? After a while, her vision adjusted to the darkness. She realized this was, in fact, her room at the temple. I'm... back? She found herself walking through the darkened corridors, though she wasn't controlling her movements at all. This is... a memory. I see. She found herself at Keiichi's door, silently opening it and slipping inside. She stood by Keiichi's bedside and knelt beside him, stroking his hair gently. I remember now. I remember thinking how beautiful he is, how my life changed the day I met him, and how I would never, ever leave his side. She gave him a gentle, light kiss on the forehead, then left the room. After a few more minutes of wandering, she found herself outside, standing by the tree in the courtyard. I looked up at the stars and wondered why it was that love between mortals and deities were never easy and so often fated to disaster. The Yggdrasil told me of the possible futures. It told me of the risks. I had shown my loyalty to Keiichi over all else, more than once. Because of that, I may be forced to leave his side, promise or not. I would not allow that. I would leave it all behind for Keiichi, I really would. But... But... what of my duties to the Yggdrasil, and my sisters? It wouldn't be fair to my sisters to leave, and I think that the powers that be would not take kindly to it. Disaster was sure to follow in that path. Oh... If only I was a mortal. If only... Belldandy's eyes widened with realization. Yes, it could be done. Urd creates duplicates of herself all the time. Belldandy did it as well, except... this would be far more different than before, and on a more ambitious scale. To divide one's soul... Belldandy stared up at the crescent moon, her mind buzzing with possibilities. Am I overreacting? Perhaps if I resume my duties, partially, I could still be with Keiichi. Perhaps, once all the commotion of the First of the Fallen's failed scheme died down, all would return to normal. Perhaps not. Mortals and deities did sometimes unite and live a wonderful life. But for every example of a happy ending, there were a dozen tales of tragedy and woe. The odds are against me. I have to act first. She removed the power limiters she wore on her ears, taking away the barrier between herself and the full might of her powers. Belldandy began an incantation and the mark on her forehead began to shine brightly, altering to become a symbol of full power. She hovered above ground for a moment, with the wind whipping around her and a brilliant azure light blazing from her goddess mark. And then she blurred. Belldandy collapsed to the ground, feeling drained of all energy and fading into unconsciousness. I... what... what's happening... Belldandy landed on the ground easily, standing tall and confident, and radiant with power. She looked down at herself, her other, and thought for a moment. Two of us. Two Belldandys. No. That is not fitting. Belldandy is a name, an image, a creation of reconfiguration, a goddess with a mortal heart. That is not me. I am what I once was, and will forever be. Verthandi. Belldandy, dazed and confused, opened her eyes. She found herself gazing directly into someone else's eyes... but so much like her own. "What... wha..." Verthandi waved an arm. Belldandy disappeared quietly, without sound or light, and found herself once more in her room. There was something hovering on the edge of her mind, but everything was a blur now. She was too tired to focus, too tired to think. A moment later, she fell asleep. -*- The Goddess quietly released the mortal, her hands trembling. "... we loved Keiichi very much, didn't we, that we would do this to ourselves? Torn between duty and... love..." Verthandi whispered. "Do you understand now?" Belldandy murmured. "Yes. I cannot let you go." "... why not?" "Because then I would die." "But _I_ would die." "No. You are the better part of me," said the goddess. "The one who can watch the comets fly across the sky... and admire the beauty of its inner workings... instead of seeing a simple ball of ice..." "Balance," said Belldandy, "seems to be the key in all things. Do you think... we may lose Keiichi because of this?" "We can always talk to our Father," said Verthandi. "He is more open-minded these days. I'm sure things will work for the best. I have faith." The two looked at each other in silence, lost in the moment of realization and catharsis. "Well, are we done now?" a voice whispered from the void, as Death materialized, her arms crossed. The mortal and the goddess slowly raised their heads to look at Death of the Endless. "Oh, don't give me that look! We both know perfectly well why I am here, don't we?" Death said. Verthandi slowly nodded. "... Yes. Here ends... a point of view." There was a moment of silence, as Death merely smiled enigmatically. "Well," said Verthandi at last. "Shall we?" The mortal Belldandy smiled and nodded, as she took a step towards the goddess Verthandi, reaching out her hands... And the goddess held her arms open, and drew the mortal close... And there was a flash of a silver ankh. -*- Belldandy bowed her head, and smiled softly to herself, cradling Keiichi in her lap. She was herself once again, one whole being... No. She remained one half of one person. And her other half, her true other half... She opened her eyes to look at Keiichi. Slowly Keiichi blinked his eyes open. Belldandy smiled, looking at Keiichi's face. Verthandi was right. Without humanity... Without love... She was incomplete. Keiichi dazedly rubbed his head. "[Oooo... what was...]" He looked up into Belldandy's smiling face. "[Belldandy!]" "[Keiichi...]" Belldandy whispered, as she took him into her arms. "[Belldandy, I... I...]" Keiichi stammered. Belldandy placed a finger on his lips. "[Shh... I know, Keiichi,]" Belldandy smiled, as she leaned in to kiss him... -= end part 3 =- "Yes, I think to myself, what a wonderful world." - Louis Armstrong, "What a Wonderful World"