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Until The End Of The World

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But it is a curve each of them feels, unmistakably. It is the parabola. They must have guessed, once or twice - guessed and refused to believe - that everything, always, collectively, had been moving toward that purified shape latent in the sky, that shape of no surprise, no second chance, no return. Yet they do move forever under it, reserved for its own black-and-white bad news certainly as if it were the rainbow, and they its children. . . .
-Gravity's Rainbow, page 209

I.

Kim was still asleep.

Ron had only woken up so he could go to the bathroom. It had seemed like days since he had had that grande-sized Sprite and the super slurpster … and then the refill on the grande-sized Sprite. The realization then hit him that it had been days since he had loaded up on those copious beverages. Man, how did my bladder go the distance for so long? Ron recalled that at one point last year a single grande-sized drink and a triple overtime basketball game had been enough to overrun his body's endurance.

As he was washing his hands in Kim's bathroom (thankfully, the water supply had not been shut off … yet), Ron caught a sidewise glance at himself. Ewww. Not good.

The cuts on his face, although only a few, were quite ugly. And he didn't want to even look at the bruise over his right eye. Just thinking about it hurt. It was really strange but not only couldn't Ron remember the last time he was thirsty, he couldn't remember being hungry either. Even forcing himself to think about a Chimerito Combo, like he was doing right now, couldn't give him an appetite. For the last few days, exhaustion and pain had been so overwhelming that they had pushed everything else out. Well, not quite everything else.

He had tried not to make too much noise in the bathroom, and he had apparently been successful; Kim was still asleep. Poor Kimila! She definitely needed her rest.

He looked over his girlfriend asleep on top of her crumpled bed cover; like him, she was still wearing her standard mission gear. Although she had fared much better damage-wise on her face, the bruises on both forearms were clearly visible in the mid-afternoon light that flooded her loft. Then there was that very nasty looking cut on her mid-rift. He so wished .P. had been around to take a look at Kim. Well …, he most definitely knew where the peroxide and bandages were kept in the Possible home; he could take care of Kim. But it could wait. She so needed her rest.

With the poise of someone who just knows that he is going to goof something up no matter who careful he is, Ron gently, if haphazardly, made his way back onto Kim's bed to lie down beside her in almost the same position he had been sleeping in before. Fortunately, Ron was also blessed with the grace of someone who happens, in spite of all odds and the combined efforts of bad luck and the laws of physics, to land almost unscathed in the place he most deserved to be. In short, he tripped over her clock/radio's cord, ripped it out of the wall and did a somersault/cartwheel into the bed. The incredible soreness he had felt beforehand was very much more so now. Yet, Kim did not stir and slept peacefully on.

Good thing Rufus wasn't there. Ron might have landed on him. Rufus. I hope he and his buddies can help out. It was so strange not having his little friend with them. Yet, there was something vaguely familiar about the current setup. Here he was sleeping the afternoon away in Kim's loft … next to Kim. Weird, that had only happened once before, but the déjà vu or nostalgia or whateveryoucallit was so strong, so very strong.

Kim started to snore. Ron gently touched her cheek with his bare forearm. Warm. Not fever warm, but sleep warm. From crashing or zonking out on rides to and from missions in the past few years, Ron knew Kim still got warm when she was asleep … just like when they were kids. After drowsily wondering if the same was true for himself, Ron gave himself up to the relaxing drone of his BFGF's breathing and slowly fell asleep.

In the instant right before he lost consciousness, Ron caught a flickering sensation of remembrance that couldn't help but make him smile. Joy ballooned in his heart. It could not be kept down … the hazy red glare behind his eyelids glowed with it. He could not see it or feel it exactly or even make out what it was, but it was there. It was connected with Kim and allied with the Best Thing.

II.

Ron was still sleeping.

Kim watched her BFBF's eyeballs as they danced in REM sleep behind his eyelids. She remembered the first time she had witnessed this, back when they were five. It was the third, no, fourth, time Ron had slept over at the Possibles'. At first, Kim thought Ron was doing it on purpose. Pretending to sleep and trying to freak her out. Then, she suspected something might actually be wrong with him and shook him awake. He looked at her bleary-eyed and said what he had always said at that early stage of their friendship whenever she woke him up, "Wha-? Rufus?"

Rufus. She hoped the little guy could pull this off. Sure, he had saved them dozens of times before, but this was a massively major endeavor. A major thing for them to ask of him.

Kim turned her attentions back to her sleeping boyfriend. He was smiling. Good. After all he's been through the last few days, he deserves pleasant dreams. Then a slightly mischievous idea struck her. Hmmm. Wonder what he's dreaming about. She propped herself on her elbow and leaned her face close to his. She slightly pursed her lips and slightly grazed them against his. Sure enough, while remaining completely unconscious, he puckered his lips and gave her a warm, if slightly sloppy kiss. She moved her lips to the right and his followed accordingly. Someone else would have guessed that he was playing her, that the first kiss had woken him up, but Kim knew her Ron. His eyes were still doing that random dance behind his lids. After taking a second and then a third somnolent kiss from her BFBF, Kim finally, slowly inched her face away from his. As she did so, his head raised to follow her departing lips for a few seconds before falling back to the pillow. "Mmmm, Kimmie …" he mumbled.

As she let her head drop back to her pillow, her smile mirrored his. There was something very, very familiar about all this. And she wasn't thinking of the kisses. No, in the period of their lives that she was thinking about "kissing" was most definitely not involved.

III.

One day in the fall following their sixth birthdays, Ron came over to the Possibles' for a Friday afternoon play date and sleepover. Kim was very excited that day because the attic had finally finished being converted into a loft that, in short order, would become her bedroom. Despite its rather large size, the Possible home only had one bedroom in addition to the master bedroom. Well, that wasn't exactly true. There was another room that was originally designed as a study but Kim's father had converted it into a third bedroom for Kim shortly before her brothers were born. Originally, the study was going to become the baby room. However, once it was discovered that Anne was expecting not one but two babies, they inherited Kim's large bedroom, and she got the study.

It had been her idea to sleep in the attic. Ever since the small family had moved into the house when Kim was barely three, she had been fascinated with the attic. Although she had only just graduated from her crib to a little person bed a few months prior, a few days after the move-in Kim had somehow-her parents had never been completely sure how-managed to pull down the latch for the attic, climbed up the ladder, and made herself at home in a far corner of the storage area that amounted to little more than a crawl space. Her father's initial shock at finding her there was not mitigated by the multiple times she returned over the first few months they lived in the house. Even Anne Possible was somewhat alarmed at her daughter's propensity to arrange tea parties with her various doll and Cuddlebuddie friends among musty storage boxes and exposed sheets of fiberglass insulation. What was more, neither parent enjoyed the bedtime ventures into the attic every other night to fetch Pandaroo or some other friend who had been left up there from earlier in the day. For whatever reason, the attic was Kim Possible's favorite room in the house.

The actual work had been finished a few days earlier, but Anne Possible had forbidden her daughter from going up in the loft until the paint on the walls had finished drying and the fumes has dissipated. Kim led her best friend up the new, steadier ladder. "Led" should be interpreted as "gently nudging from behind."

Ron had been up in the attic a handful of times before, but only after serious prodding from Kim. Not only was there the parental disobedience factor (even at the age of six, Kim's camp outs in the attic were not exactly permitted by her parents—it was one of the reasons why the Possibles could never find a sitter for her) to deal with but the old rickety ladder had petrified young Ronald. Once he managed to scramble up into the dark, musty crawlspace, things hadn't improved. The first time he had been so scared that only fear of embarrassing himself in front of Kim had kept him from having a fear-induced … uh … accident. On his second visit to the attic, Ron had been unable to convince Kim that his chattering teeth had been caused by a chill in the hot-house atmosphere of the attic in early September. Once his fear became manifest and undeniable, Kim stopped asking her friend and "Rufus" to join herself and Pandaroo for crawlspace coco.

"Wow!" Ron gaped as he stepped up into the newly renovated room.

"Its great isn't it?" Kim beamed as she climbed in behind him. (Despite her mother's two-day moratorium, Kim had still managed a couple of sneak peaks at her new bedroom after the workers and painters left.)

Ron had to agree that it was very impressive. The humid, cobweb-draped, cluttered little corner of his nightmares had been replaced by a roomy, well-lit apartment-sized room. Most of the walls had been replaced by huge windows and the arched roof had been transformed into an enormous cathedral ceiling. The light shade of paint and the bluish carpet (which felt pleasantly squishy underneath his socked feet) quickly banished any memories of the dreadful place the attic had once been. And then there was the best thing of all.

"I love the new carpet smell, KP!"

Kim rolled her eyes (a habit she had only developed since knowing Ron); her friend always noticed the strangest things.

"Ron, let me show you my favorite part," she said gently leading him by the arm to the spot in the carpet that was highlighted by a rectangular shaft of light. She immediately plopped down in the rectangle and stretched out her limbs into the surrounding warmth. "Come on, Ron," she smiled, "lie down."

Ron dutifully dropped cross-legged onto the carpet in the remaining area of the rectangle and then leaned back so he too was lying on the floor. "Whoa! It's a … it's a …"

"Skylight?" Kim suggested helpfully.

"Yeah! That's it. Wow that's really neat. Nice and warm."

"Uh-huh," Kim smiled contentedly. "My daddy is going to put my bed right here."

"Sweet! You'll be able to see the stars at night and everything." Ron enthused.

"Yes we will," Kim smiled looking at Ron.

"W-we?" Ron asked nervously. "I don't know, KP, the room's real cool and all, and the stars would be really neat and everything, but I think I should probably still sleep in the den."

"Monsters?" Kim asked with a smile.

Ron nodded hesitantly and then rapidly. He couldn't understand why Kim was still smiling at him. Whenever the issue of monsters came up, she usually got pretty annoyed. Yet this time she still looked happy; in fact, she had brought the topic up in the first place.

As he did with most things, Ronald Stoppable had very peculiar notions about monsters. The fact that most of the monsters that lived under his bed and harassed him in his dreams looked to be the unholy offspring of giant reptiles and icky-colored Crayola crayons aside, the most unique aspect to Ron's monsters was their method for getting under his bed in the first place. Ron's parents never knew exactly where the idea came from (television, some ill-advised yet well-meaning relative, whatever); however, Ron believed that as long as the spot the bed was to be placed on was diligently patrolled beforehand, the monsters would be unable to make their home underneath it. In other words, someone (i.e. Ron) had to watch to make sure no monsters jumped onto the spot at the last minute (even the last second) before all four legs of the bed touched the floor, carpet whatever. Looking away, even blinking, as the last leg was placed down could be just enough time for a colony of monsters to take up residence under a kid's bed. Elliot Stoppable learned this when they first moved to Middleton as he was moving Ron's belongings in his new room. The way Ron kept staring at the open area in the room where his bed was supposed to be set down unnerved his father. When questioned, Ron revealed the reason for his vigil in far more detail than his father really needed. Regardless, Elliot humored his son, and they "worked together" to make sure the bed would be monster-free.

Unfortunately, Elliot had not communicated his son's theory to his wife. Therefore, when Barbara decided to change around the furniture in her son's room one morning while he was at pre-K, Ron was understandably horrified when he got home. It is quite likely that it was that afternoon as Ron ran happily into his bedroom that the Stoppables' neighbors (including those a few blocks away on either side) had first heard the name "Rufus." At least yelled that loudly.

Ron's unique origin theory for monsters was also the reason why his initial sleepovers with Kim had been held in the living room. Since Kim couldn't recall if anyone had been standing watch when her bed had been first placed in her room (she sincerely doubted it), it was clear, to Ron anyway, that the space underneath his best friend's bed was infested with kid-eating, scaly and icky-colored crayons.

"Remember how my bed was setup in my old room just now?" Kim smiled as Ron.

"Uh," Ron scratched his head, "lying against the wall?"

"Yep, and my daddy is going to bring it straight up here as soon as he gets home."

"So … we are going to stand watch when he does?" asked Ron hopefully.

"Ron, we are not going to move from this spot until he does," Kim stated confidently.

"Oooooh, cool," Ron nodded happily. After a few beats, he asks, "What are we going to do until then, KP?"

"Watch the sky, Ron. Watch the sky."

Ron was somewhat confused. There were not many clouds visible in the skylight. Ron had actually never tried to use his imagination to make things out of clouds, but he knew a lot of people did. Is that what Kim had in mind?

"That one looks kinda like…," Ron announced gesturing to the slice of cloud at the right side of the skylight, "a slice of cloud-colored cheese."

"Huh?" Kim asked, confused.

"Well, okay, I guess it is a cloud-shaped and cloud-colored … slice of cheese," Ron admitted.

"Oh, I see," Kim said. "Well, I guess. I really wasn't trying to see things in the clouds, Ron. There really aren't enough to do that."

"Oh," Ron said. "Well, what were you trying to do, KP?"

"I was just looking at the sky, Ron. I love looking at the sky, even more than the stars."

"Really?"

"Uh-huh. I can imagine I am somewhere else … on the other side of the world." A sideways glance at her friend confirmed Kim's suspicion that Ron might still be confused. "The sky looks the same all over the world, so when I look at it I can imagine I am seeing the sky over some other faraway place. Like Paris, or New York, or Alaska, or Mozambique."

"Mozam-what?" asked Ron.

"Mozambique. It's in Africa."

"A-africa?"

"Yeah, what's wrong, Ron?"

"Well, I don't know if I would like to go to Africa, KP. I mean, there are lions and zebras and stuff there."

"We're just pretending, Ron. Besides we'd go together. It would be okay."

"O-okay."

"Trust me."

After about twenty seconds of contented silence, Kim asked, "Ron, did you say zebras?"

"Y-y-yeah," Ron stuttered.

"You're scared of zebras? They're just striped horses, Ron."

"Oh, KP, you have no idea how mean they are."

"Huh?"

Ron then proceeded to tell Kim about his ordeal on the Jungle Safari Pleasure Adventure Cruise ride when his parents took him to the Diz-Knee Theme Park in Florida just before they moved to Middleton. The long and the short of it was that one of the zebras on the cruise had given Ron a "look." And then a hippo had sprayed him. And then one of the snakes had tried to eat him. And then he had dropped his cotton candy over the side of the boat and his mother had not let him grab it even though it didn't sink and was floating on the top of the water.

"But those zebras weren't real, Ron."

"W-what do you mean?"

"They were robot zebras. All the animals on that ride are robots."

"Oh …, really?"

"Really. Real zebras, you know the kind that you see in your imagination, don't give kids looks. Only robot zebras do," she reasoned.

"Oh, okay. Cool."

After about two minutes of silent contentment, Ron asked, "Are we in Africa yet?"

Kim could not believe that she was going to have to give imagination lessons to someone whose first friend was an invisible giant named "Rufus."

"Ron," she said patiently, "just let your eyes get lost in the sky. Just let them wander through that blueness and soon you'll be able to hear the animals. And then you'll be able to see them too."

"And smell them?"

"And smell them," Kim nodded with a tolerant smile.

Ron had to admit that the blueness of the sky was quite calming and easy to get lost in. It was such a deep blue. It reminded Ron of the blue finger paints he used to play with in kindergarten. After a few minutes of letting his eyes dance around in the sky's depths, he felt pretty sure that if he reached out and dipped his fingers in the sky they would even come back blue. In fact, Ron was just about to try it when he heard a low rumble. After focusing on the rumble for a little bit, he realized it was the purr of lion cubs. Then he could feel the warm breeze of the savannah ruffling his hair. And then he heard some nondescript chattering, like dozens of little teeth grinding in the ground beneath his back. It was very soothing, especially the chattering. Right before he nodded off, Ron thought, Wow, Kim has a really good imagination!

The sound of James Possible clattering up the ladder with part of Kim's bed woke them both. Kim couldn't recall when she had fallen asleep, but her back ached a little. Much to her and Ron's surprise they were holding hands. It must have happened while they had been napping. They both awkwardly took their hands back while, at the same time, secretly reflecting on how nice and warm the other's hand had felt.

James Possible's head appeared in the aperture in the floor. "Oh there you are!" he announced happily. "Good to see you're here, Ronald. I was wondering if you could give me a hand."

"Sure, MrDrP."

And with those words, Ron first became initiated in James Possible's overestimation of what he capable of … physically speaking. As he grew up, the tons of suitcases, crates, various pieces rocket technology flotsam, and other loads became increasingly less overwhelming to handle although the experiences were never fun. However, at age six, Ron was practically crushed underneath the box spring of Kim's twin bed as her father leveraged it up through the floor.

"Daddy!"

"Are you okay Kimmie-cub?" James Possible asked, panic-stricken that he had hurt his little girl.

"Daddy! You nearly killed Ron!" Kim huffed as she tried to lift the end of the mattress off her friend's back.

"Oh! Sorry about that, Ronald."

Ron, as was his habit, was fine. As he recuperated with a glass of water from Kim's new bathroom, James brought the remaining parts of Kim's bed into her loft. Ron was very impressed that Kim had her own private bathroom built right into her bedroom. "Wow, KP! That is so cool! You know if I had a bathroom in my bedroom I wouldn't need to wear those pull-ups every night."

"So I guess you won't have to wear them tonight?" she asked apprehensively. Sometimes Ron shared a little too much information with her … especially around her parents. Did they even make pull-ups for six-year-olds?

Kim helped her father lay out the sections of the bed frame just where she wanted them as Ron kept his eye peeled for monsters. Then both friends got down on their tummies so they could see beneath the newly constructed frame. They tried hard not to blink as James Possible placed the box spring onto the frame and then slipped Kim's mattress on top.

"Safe?" Kim asked with a smile.

"Safe," Ron nodded with a completely serious face that ever so slowly broke into a goofy smile.

Then Kim, with as much flourish as a six-year-old could muster, placed her nightlight in the outlet nearest the bed, making it, more or less, official that Ron would be sharing her room that night.

That night Kim and Ron lay in her bed, looking through stacks of Kim's picture books. Ron, however, found himself being drawn away from his pile of books and kept looking up into the skylight.

"Kim?"

"Yeah?" she asked absently, looking through a book on giant redwood trees.

"Do you really want to go to Africa?"

"Yes, I do."

"And Alaska, and New York, and Paris?"

"Uh-huh."

"Why?"

Kim closed her book and lay back on her pillow next to Ron. They were both staring into the tangle of stars framed in Kim's skylight.

"Because I want to go everywhere, Ron."

"Even there?" Ron asked pointing to the night sky.

"Sure," Kim had never given much thought to going to outer space before. But why not? "If daddy could get me a ride on one of his rockets, I don't know why I shouldn't go."

"Why would you need a rocket to go to Illinois, Kim? Couldn't you just take a plane?"

"Illinois?" Kim arched her eyebrow (another habit she picked up from being Ron's friend), "Aren't we looking at outer space, Ron?"

"Oh, I guess so. But I was imagining I was in Illinois."

"You are so strange, Ron." She smiled at him.

"Well, Kim, if the blue sky is the same all over the world, why wouldn't the night sky be too?"

"I never thought of that, Ron. You're right. I guess it is."

"Yeah, my dad played a song a few days ago about this guy in China or Chinatown or something and he was talking about how the same night sky was in Illinois where his wife lived."

Kim shook her head. She knew Ron so well. It was so like him, when giving the choice between the two, to imagine being in Illinois rather than China.

"So, KP, could … uh … could I come with you-you know, when you go everywhere?"

"If you want to," she said and then added, "we could even go to Illinois."

After a few moments of getting lost among bands of stars, Kim realized that Ron was right. Staring into the night wasn't the same as staring into clear day sky, but she could feel the pull to other places starting to surround her.

"Uh, KP," Ron asked in a small voice.

"Yes, Ron," Kim said slightly peeved. She had started to imagine she was beneath the sequoia under the stars when his question had punctured her journey.

"Oh, nevermind, KP," Ron answered quickly.

"Its okay, Ron," she hadn't meant to hurt him. "What is it?"

"Could I … could I hold your hand?" He was most definitely nervous.

"Sure, why?" she asked gently.

"Well, sometimes I get kinda scared, and I am not as brave as you are and …"

"Illinois can be a scary place?" she asked.

"Y-yeah," Ron answered.

"Of course," Kim said as she took his hand, "we'll be fine."

When James Possible checked on the kids sometime after nine, he found a sight that in later years might have bread concern, but that night only produced amusement. His daughter was holding hands with the funny little kid from down the street. They were both gone to the world, oblivious to the churning of each other's snores.

IV.

The afternoon shadows lengthened and the blue of the sky passed into amethyst. Kim absently noticed the thin sheen of blonde stubble that had formed along her boyfriend's cheeks. She might ask him to shave soon, but, then again, she might like feeling his

scruff against her cheeks.

She gently placed her hand into his large palm. Reflexively, it closed firmly around her. It made her feel a little safer.

She stared at his sleeping face for a few more minutes, trying to keep down her anxieties.

Had she made the right decision? Ron had readily agreed that it was highly unlikely anyone would look for them in Middleton. The entire tri-city area had been evacuated a week ago; all power had been shut off for the same time period. She had absently looked at her clock radio a while ago to check the time, only to be reminded of the blackout by the blank display.

Besides, with the sole exception of the little diablo incident, no villain had ever attacked them at their homes. Of course, everything about this sitch was different.

Everything. So why wouldn't this be too?

No. She shook the doubts from her. Ron and she had been in town for more than four hours. They had taken every precaution. They had biked in and had seen no one. Kim had even taken the batteries out of their Kimmunicators just to be sure no one could track them by the energy signals they gave off. That had been Wade's last piece of advice just before he shut down his entire system. Wade. Kim shook her head sadly. She hoped he was all right. When she last spoke to him, he seemed more confidant than rattled, but she could sense that in his voice too.

She tried to think positively. In three days, as per their discussion, the batteries would be back in her Kimmunicator, and she would try to reach him. By that time, he should be in a safe place and have his system, more or less, back in business. There was nothing to do between now and then but wait.

How did their lives unravel so quickly? In just two short weeks, everything had gone completely crazy. Poor Ron. Although he seemed to be maintaining his essential Ronness as well as could be expected, she knew he was blaming himself for everything. He had found the harmonica after all. But that was silly, at last count there were more triggers for their current sitch from her than from him. He just happened to trip the first one, that's all.

She squeezed his hand tightly and, his body, still sleeping, responded in kind. "We'll be fine." She whispered it twice more and forced herself to close her eyes. After a few moments of listening to her BFBF snore, Kim fell back to sleep.

Five minutes later, the nightlight that Kim had first placed in her room for Ron's benefit twelve years ago and, for whatever reason, had never been able to bring herself to remove flicked on.

V.

The churning twilight sky framed in Kim's skylight was no longer clear. The clouds had begun rolling in shortly after Kim fell asleep. The entire pane was filled with a dirty purple as the skyline reflected onto the overcast clouds. Then quickly and silently, a thin streak seemed to split the uniform murkiness of the cloud cover. The line was drawn from the bottom of the plane to almost the center and then … stopped.

Or it seemed to. In reality, the object whose vapor trial had created the "split in the sky" had only changed direction. It was still moving, oh yes, and very rapidly too. However, from their perspective-if either Kim or Ron had been awake, it would have appeared that the object was just hanging in the middle of the window. Every once in a while it would appear to twinkle. It would not be until the object was some 50 feet from the window that they would have been able to tell that it was getting closer, and, of course, by that time it would have been too late to do anything. It was moving too fast.

Even then, they wouldn't be able to see it because with the exception of the nightlight, the interior light in the refrigerator and various digital clocks for various appliances scattered about the Possible home, there was no light power in the tri-city area.

No, even if they were not asleep, everything would be in darkness once the object reached its destination.

The blackout would be almost complete when the object finally made impact with the skylight—there would be not be a single glimmer of light, only great invisible crashing.

TBC …

Chapter Text

Then there's this recent dream Slothrop is afraid of having again. … He woke begging It no—but even after waking, he was sure, he would remain sure, that It could visit him again, any time It wanted. Perhaps you know that dream too. Perhaps It has warned you never to speak Its name. If so, you know about how Slothrop'll be feeling now.

– Gravity's Rainbow, page 286-8

I.

It had taken him ten months—three months planning while he was still enjoying the "hospitality" of Global Justice and seven more of full access to his resources and materials after being "released on his own recognizance"—all eighteen hour days spent meticulously planning, inventing, deliberating, tinkering, outsourcing, perfecting etc., etc., etc. All was honed toward fulfilling a single goal: the follow-up scheme to the "Night of the Diablos," bar-none his greatest take-over-the-world master plan (so far). Unfortunately, the "Twilight of the Bunyips"-or rather the "Twilight of the Bunyip" since there was only one-had been … well … less spectacular.

Hoping not to shoot his whole wad all at once by trying to take over the entire world again, Dr. Drakken had decided to scale down and conquer only a single country. His handful of first choices from Europe proved all to be strategically and financially unfeasible. In the end, he opted for Australia because it was both a country AND a continent. If successful, the scheme would give him two continents under his belt; leaving a mere five out of his grasp.

For two years running, Drakken had "dibbs" on Antarctica. With much fanfare, he, a very annoyed Shego, and a baker's dozen of his least shiftless henchmen had planted the flag of "Drakartica" on one of the continent's least chilly outcroppings into the Indian Ocean. No one challenged his claim of sovereignty because, as Shego dryly and, as it happened, accurately stated, "Nobody knows about it." In any case, Drakken, at least in his mind, had taken over one continent. The flag proved it. Well, it had proved it. About six months after he had first planted it, a colony of penguins had encamped on "his" shore and knocked the flag pole over and … sullied … the flag.

From Kim and Ron's point of view, Drakken's comeback scheme was more than a little anticlimactic. Until the end of their junior year, Team Possible had foiled one of his schemes at least once every two weeks. And then nothing for almost a year. Although neither would admit to being apprehensive over this quiet period (puh-leeze, this was Drakken after all), the silence from Team Drakgo did make them somewhat anxious.

In the first place, they knew Drakken still possessed the Hephaestus technology he had "outsourced" from Kim's dad. True, Global Justice was prepared to send a scrambling signal (developed within two weeks of the Night of the Diablos by James Possible and Wade) across the airwaves the second any unauthorized Hephaestus activity was detected. The signal would stymie Drakken's command signals and effectively shutdown whatever he had planned. However, as Wade had informed them, there was nothing to prevent Drakken from simply changing his command signal's frequency to one not covered by the scrambler. Ron was doubtful that Drakken was smart enough to hit upon such an obvious solution and Kim was inclined to agree with him. Still, there was another factor to consider.

Shego. Even if Drakken wasn't too bright in commonsense matters, she was. It was her presence alone that made whatever whacked plan Drakken came up with at least worthy of concern. Furthermore, the kick Kim had given her arch-foe off BN HQ had hurt far more than her pride. The next time they tangled, Shego would definitely be looking for payback.

However, as bad as Shego's presence was, her absence was so much worse.

Since she had broken Drakken and herself out of prison seven months earlier, there had been no sign of her. Not a robbery, not an assault, not a random demolition, not a traffic violation, nothing. As Kim had remarked shortly after the start of their Thanksgiving vacation (when Shego's MIA status had merely reached its three-month period), "This is so not good." She had been reclining on the Possible family sofa in Ron's embrace as they watched television when she spoke these words. Neither had been talking about Shego, or even mentioning missions in general, but Ron knew intuitively to what his BFGF was referring.

An underground Shego would have been disconcerting enough if it wasn't for the dream she and Ron had shared not a week after the Night of the Diablos, back when Shego was still safely in GJ custody. In the dream Kim was alone in a pitch-black maze-like place that was filled with unseen obstacles. And the stench of rotting bananas. At the end of the dream, Shego appeared and shot Kim with her plasma blasts. At the moment both Kim and Ron awoke from the dream, the "dream Kim" had vanished. Naturally, Ron was horribly distressed for Kim, and Kim, because Ron was not there to have her back, naturally worried that Shego had already "taken care" of him before attacking her.

And although they had "exorcised" the dream a few times (which both really, really enjoyed even though Kim had had her doubts about Ron's "solution" at first), they still harbored a degree of dread as to what the dream might impart for them in the future. Kim was anxious for Ron, and Ron, of course, was anxious for Kim.

So when Drakken's "big comeback" strike finally came, Kim and Ron were more than a little disturbed by Shego's "role" in the sitch.

However, that wasn't the only thing about the sitch that Team Possible found disturbing.

II.

"Booyah! Who's da man? Who's da man!"

Kim rolled her eyes (only 45 degrees however; the current sitch didn't require the full 90), "You are, Ron. You are. Okay, it is now Rufus's turn to 'hand me my biscuit' as you so sweetly put it."

Ron tossed down the game controller to his little friend and proceeded to rip open another package of Pixie Scouts sour cream and chive flavored muffins. He then settled in, his back up against Kim's bed, to watch the naked mole rat decimate his girlfriend's player in a match of Zombie Zootsuit Ztreet Fighter even more fully than he had just done. Even with having to hop from one side of the controller to the other to perform the right key combinations for a death-grip-super-plexus, Rufus had little trouble defeating Kim every time they played.

"Ron?"

"Now, KP, this is why you always get your biscuit handed to you. Focus, Grasshopper, Focus!" He then added with a backward wolfish grin, "I do realize it is partly my fault since the Rondo is quite the distraction."

Kim, sitting crosslegged at the edge of her bed, sighed. "No, Ron, that's not what I am talking about." Here she uncrossed her legs and tapped Ron's shoulder with her bare left foot. "You promised to do my other foot."

"Oh! Sorry, Kimila! I completely forgot."

Ron sprang from the floor of Kim's loft, grabbed the bottle of nail polish from her dresser and then kneeled down in such a way that he would be properly positioned to complete his work. He shook the little bottle, unscrewed the brush, gently took Kim's foot in his hand, and then carefully began to apply the jade polish to the nail of her big toe.

Although she was supposed to be completely focused on losing her game, Kim kept taking brief glances at her boyfriend as he painted her nails. Although Ron had never been particularly good with paint (the several times he was sent home early in Kindergarten for involuntarily coating himself with finger paints leapt to Kim's mind), she had to admit he did an excellent job with her nails. He didn't have the artistic talent of a Josh Mankey (Josh doing my nails—so would never happen.), but, as was typically the case with most of his abilities, Ron's painting skills became exceptional whenever they centered on Kim.

"Kim," Ron chided gently as he began her second toe, "play the game."

"Oh, sorry," Kim blushed. How did he spot me? Oh well. Let's see, 'X' is jump and 'Y' is gouge, I think.

Ron shook his head and smiled. She might have been able to fight freaks in real life without breaking a sweat, but Kim was utterly hopeless when it came to doing the same with a control pad. He had been tutoring her on ZZZF for weeks, and she still confused which button did what. Before starting on her third toe, he glanced up her. As he watched her face go from frustration to bewilderment to momentary elation and cycle back to frustration, he couldn't get over how incredibly cute she was. Even though they had been dating for almost a full year, he still wanted to pinch himself every time the realization that Kim Possible, the Kim Possible, was his girlfriend crossed his mind. Every single time it did.

Now was definitely no exception. Here she was in a tank top and cute little sweat shorts, with her slightly unkempt hair (it was Saturday afternoon after all) in a ponytail. Absolutely adorable. And she was letting him do her nails! Although it was not the first time he had done so, it still amazed him that she trusted him with such a delicate, girly thing. The fact that he didn't find fulfilling this request strange or "girly" himself only proved that Ron wasn't like "normal" guys and that he had his priorities right where they needed to be.

"Kimmie, Ronald are you two up there?" announced James Possible's booming voice seconds before his head appeared in the loft's opening.

"Right here, Daddy," Kim smiled as she glanced away from the game for a split second to look at her father. A crunching noise from the screen immediately drew her attention back to the game where her character had just lost a limb. "Oops!" She directed an apologetic grimace toward Ron.

"Hey, MrDrP," Ron chimed without looking up from his work on Kim's fourth toe.

"How would you kids like to go out for Chinese? Anne got stuck pulling a double at the hospital again."

"Sounds great, daddy!"

"Schweet!"

"Mmm. Eggrolls!"

"Okay, the boys and I are ready to go whenever you guys are." As he descended his daughter's ladder, James Possible chuckled for two reasons. One, if anyone had told him twelve years ago that the funny looking little boy Kim had brought home a few days after she began pre-K would be doing her nails while teaching her how to play video games, he wouldn't have believed them. Second, if only twelve months ago someone had told him he would not be at least slightly upset over some boy actually doing his little girl's nails, he would have known they were crazy. However, since he and Ron had that discussion a few weeks after the junior prom, James implicitly trusted his daughter's boyfriend—no black hole threats necessary.

Well, okay, make it three reasons he chuckled. The third being that he was starting to think he was crazy because he could have sworn that he just heard Ron's naked mole rat say "eggrolls."

Beep-beep-be-beep!

"Oh, man!" Ron and Kim groaned in unison. As per usual, Ron owed Kim a soda.

"What's the sitch, Wade?" Kim asked as her tech guru's face appeared on her Kimmunicator's screen.

Wade, in a highly unusual move, paused before speaking. Typically, he just launched into whatever mission or request he had just received from Kim's site.

"Guys, Drakken's back."

III.

Kim and Ron exchanged anxious looks. This had been a long time coming. As much as they tried to tell each other and themselves that their dream from last year no longer bothered them, their hearts didn't completely agree.

Kim was the first to shake off the anxiety. "Spankin!" she said with conviction. She maintained firm eye contact with Wade and asked sarcastically, "So what fiendish plan has Drew Lipsky cooked up this time?"

"Not one hundred percent sure, but it definitely involves the Hephaestus Project. GJ has been picking up sporadic command signals coming from the Jenolan Caves in southern Australia."

"Uh, Wade," Ron asked with a note of disconcertion still in his voice, "how does GJ know for certain it's Drakken and Shego? I mean couldn't Blue Boy have sold MrDrP's stuff to some other freak?"

"No, it's Drakken." Wade rapidly typed on his keyboard, "Check out this video from a nearby convenience store's security camera taken three days ago."

Wade's image was replaced with a fuzzy, black and white film of Dr. Drakken counting out change on the counter of a mini-mart. The cashier looked particularly annoyed at the mad scientist.

"Okay, Wade," Kim said in full mission mode, "is there anything else that we know for certain about this sitch."

"Just that for the last few nights, people have been hearing 'bunyip noises'" here Wade used air quotes, "coming from the caves."

"Bunyip? What's a—," Kim began.

"SICK and WRONG!" Ron shrieked.

"Wha?" Kim turned and saw her boyfriend in the fetal position on the floor. Rufus was gently stroking his best friend's forehead. "Can I get back to you in a few minutes, Wade," Kim asked.

Wade, who couldn't have helped hearing Ron's shriek, asked, "Is Ron going to be all right?"

"That's what I need to find out. Talk to you soon."

Kim had not seen her boyfriend this freaked since she first casually mentioned monkeys after he returned from Wannaweep when they were kids. She knelt down beside him, exchanged a worried look with Rufus, and stroked his hair. "Ron? Ronnie?" No reaction. "Honey?"

She called me "Honey"!

Ron immediately blinked and came out of his fear "coma." The first thing he noticed when "coming to" was Kim's left knee a few inches from his face. He gave it a playful kiss and looked up into her eyes, his face still flush with the floor, and asked, "What's up, KP?"

"That's what I'm trying to find out." She pondered how to pose the question she needed to ask without sending him back into the void. Then she hit upon it. "What's a bunyip, Honey?"

His face violently contorted in fear, but he maintained consciousness. After righting himself and taking a few deep breaths, Ron managed, "It's a horrible monster, KP. Like some boogeyman/fire/bird/fish/blob-like thing!"

"A shape-shifter?" she asked.

"Uh-huh," Ron nodded, "and it lives in the billabog and only comes out a night. Oh man, not good, not good."

Kim was nonplussed. She thought she knew all of Ron's childhood (and otherwise) fears, but this bunyip was completely new. Why have I never heard of this? "How long have you been scared of this thing, Ron?"

"Oh man, KP, at least a month."

"A month?" Kim's eyebrow shot into "full arched mode."

"Yeah, remember when I helped Felix look after his little cousin, Tahleen? She brought over this movie called Dot and the Kangaroo."

"Go on."

"Well, it's about this little girl named Dot who gets lost in the outback, and, hey, you know she kinda reminded me of us!"

"She did?"

"Well, she had red hair and all girls with red hair remind me of you, KP."

Kim blew a stray strand of her auburn hair out of her face. "Was there anything else about her that reminded you of me?"

"Not at all. She spent most of her time crying, screaming, and running through the woods which is why she reminded me of me."

"Oh yeah, you did say she reminded you of both of us." She smiled to herself. Ron was so whack sometime. "Anyway, back to the monster."

"Oh yeah, well the kangaroo –there's a kangaroo in the movie too—"

"I figured." Kim said dryly.

"Yeah, well, she tells Dot all about the bunyip and, oh man, did I wig out. And they had this really creepy song for the thing too. 'Oh the bunyip's going to get you under the bunyip moon…'"

"Okay, Ron, I think I get the point." She turned back to the Kimmunicator, and then, suddenly realizing that she had just blown off her boyfriend, she turned back to Ron and gave him a short but sweet kiss on the cheek. "Don't worry, Honey," she whispered in his ear, "no monster will get you while I'm around."

At that moment, Ron was too fixated on the fact that Kim had called him "Honey" three times in as many minutes to care about monsters.

Kim flipped on her Kimmunicator and reconnected with Wade who was pleased to hear that everything was okay with Ron.

"Okay, guys, a bunyip is a spiritual being in Australian aboriginal mythology. It's part bird, part reptile, part element, but it can morph from one form to another."

"A shapeshifter in other words," Kim asserted cocking her eyes in Ron's direction. "I've been briefed," she explained with a smile to Wade.

"Well, you can see how nicely it fits with your father's technology."

"Afirmative," Kim said, thinking of how the little Diablo toys had so quickly morphed into gigantic killer robots. "So, basically, our theory is that Drakken is using the bunyip myth to cover up whatever he has planned."

"Well, that's what Chris thinks."

"Chris?"

"Oh yeah, he's the one that contacted the site. He's an aboriginal clan member. The Jenolan Park Service contacted him when the sounds began and scared off all the park's tourists. He and his clan chief Charlie knew right away it wasn't a real bunyip. In fact, he used air quotes when he mentioned the monster in his video message."

"Okay, I'm confused," Kim said massaging her temple. "You said that GJ picked up the Hesphaetus signals, but they didn't contact me?"

"Well, no," Wade admitted. "I guess they figured the scrambler could take care of whatever Drakken has planned. It was Chris and Charlie who requested you come in and deal with Drakken."

Kim sighed. As much as she admired Dr. Director, the ineptness of the agency she ran totally baffled and frustrated her. "Okay, Wade, we'll be ready in about ten minutes. Got a ride set up?"

"Sure thing, GJ will have a jet at your house in about fifteen."

"You rock, Wade." Kim flipped off the Kimmunicator..

"Are you guys all set?" Tim yelled from the bottom of Kim's ladder.

"Sorry, guys," Kim called out, "we're going to have to take a rain check on dinner. We're going bunyip hunting instead."

Although he was clearly nervous, the fixed smile on Ron's face clearly indicated to Kim that hunger, not fear, was Ron's biggest concern.

IV.

After a pit stop at Bueno Nacho that he had managed to convince the GJ pilot to make, Ron's hunger issues abated. However, this only gave room for his fear issues to expand and blossom. His nervousness became more and more apparent as the jet ride to Australia reached its end. Even flying in one of GJ's the state of the art jets, the flight from Middleton had still taken nearly seven hours. When they arrived at the park it was already late afternoon and the shadows were lengthening. As they reached the entrance to the caves, Ron's weirdar was going off so strongly that Kim felt that his fear was flowing into her by osmosis. Not that Kim could really blame him. Although she hadn't seen the movie he had and probably wouldn't have been scared by it even if she did, she had to admit that the Jenolan Caves were way creepy.

They rendezvoused with Chris and Charlie at the entrance of the park. Chris was a young guy in his mid-twenties while Charlie was much older, with a graying beard. Chris explained that Charlie, who unfortunately did not speak English, was a tribe elder in his clan who had much experience dealing with bunyips in the past. This revelation filled Ron with both awe and a great deal of fear because, naturally, it implied that the monsters were, indeed, real. In addition, Chris and Charlie both had much knowledge about the deeper caverns of the Jenolan Caves.

The plan was for Team Possible, guided by Chris and Charlie, to quietly infiltrate the caverns and seek out any unusual power sources (i.e. any power sources at all) emanating from within the deeper caves. To aid the clandestine nature of their approach, the park rangers had shut off the interior lighting network in the caves. The heroes would make their way in by following guide ropes located against the walls. The hope was that once they got close enough to Drakken's base of operations within the caves, Wade could hone in on Drakken's power signal and, with the airborne capabilities of the Kimmunicator, navigate the device to the power source. It would then attach itself to said source and, with the advanced scrambler program he had downloaded to it during the flight over, shut down the Hespheastus technology. If all went well, all Kim and Ron would really have to do would be to apprehend Drakken … and deal with Shego.

However, things were not going smoothly. When they arrived at then entrance to one of the main caverns, they discovered that the park service was still trying to cut off the lighting system. Or rather they were still trying to turn off a single bulb. The bare light bulb that refused to shut off was at the very entrance of the caverns, not even, specifically speaking, within the caves themselves.

The Bulb looked out of place. It looked a lot older than others further into the cave that could still be seen in the dying light of the afternoon. I reminded Ron a little of an antique bulb from the Diz-Nee Ferris Wheel of Progress ride. In any case, Kim, Ron, Chris and Charlie waited for about ten minutes as the park service rangers scratched their heads and tried to figure out why it wouldn't turn off.

Kim really thought the "issue" was pointless since it didn't look to have any apparent effect on the mission (other than delaying it), and she was just about to call Wade so he could scan the Bulb, and put an end to the dispute. However, as she flipped on the Kimmunicator and was just about to punch up Wade, she glanced at the Bulb, and … it turned off.

Immediately, her intellect told her that something was way wrong about this. Somehow Drakken had taken control of the lighting system and, in a typical display of absent-minded mad professordom, he had forgotten to turn off this one light. He was most likely watching them with some deviously-placed security scanners and had just turned off the light to quell their suspicions. Which, in pure Drakken style, had only set those suspicions off even more.

But that is not how it felt. Instead, Kim got the impression, as crazy as it seemed that the Bulb had turned off … well … apologetically. Almost as if the flipping off had been an act of volition. In short, it seemed to her that the Bulb had turned itself off.

Regardless of her admitted whacked notions, she punched up Wade anyway. He did a quick scan and could find nothing strange or singular about the Bulb, other than the fact it was indeed very, very old. Nothing pointed to a separate power source or that the light system had been hijacked in any way. Satisfied, Kim gave the all clear, and Team Possible, guided by Chris and Charlie, entered the Jenolan Caves.

Of course, Kim's suspicions had been right; Byron had voluntarily switched himself off.

V.

As they made their way into the caverns, Kim was more than a little annoyed to discover that she actually felt nervous.

"The Bunyip's partly animal …"

It was so not normal for her to get freaked out by anything, but something about those caves was certainly doing it. Maybe it was the pitch darkness they encountered in the deeper caverns? But that was silly; she had never been scared of dark places before. She had gone spelunking at least a half dozen times in the course of missions over the years. In fact, she had never really been scared of the dark ever and had started sleeping without a light when she was two! The only reason she put in that silly nightlight was for the times when Ron would sleep over.

"…and … the Bunyip's partly bird …"

Maybe it was the oppressive silence in the caves. It was a silence she could feel, like the heaviness of the heat on an extremely muggy day. To make matters worse, the steady dripping of water from the stalactites seemed to only increase the periods of silence in between the individual drops, rather than to break up the silence like it should have done. She timed the intervals at 30 seconds (at most) on the Kimmunicator, but without any such point of reference, these same periods seemed an eternity, and every time a drop came, it was always a shock and never failed to make her jump … if just a little. She so hoped no one could see how frazzled she was becoming … but then again in this darkness how could they?

"The Bunyip makes the strangest sounds …"

Then there were those aboriginal drawings that Chris and Charlie had pointed out when the party hadn't even gotten 50 yards past the main entrance. She had no idea why, but the hairs on the back of her neck stood up when Charlie explained in his Indigenous language to Chris the meaning of the drawings. Chris then related what Charlie had said to Kim and Ron in English. Unfortunately, Kim was so weirded out by the sudden flush of fear that came over her that she had missed Chris' explanation. She later thought about asking Ron if he remembered it, but, for some reason, she didn't feel like she wanted to.

This is so ferociously silly! We're in a simple cave, a ferociously large but still simple cave to find Drakken! What is wrong with me?

But maybe there was something else wrong that she couldn't place her finger on.

"That you have ever heard-"

"—Ron?" Kim whispered suddenly.

"Yeah, KP?" Ron whispered back.

"You know I love you, right?"

"Of course."

"And that, no matter what happens, what we might say to each other, or what mistakes we might make, that I will always love you no matter what?"

"You know I do, KP."

"Good." After a beat. "Because if you don't stop singing that bunyip song, I'm going to hand you your biscuit!" she hissed as quietly as she could.

"I'm sorry, KP."

She immediately regretted harshing on him. "It's okay, Ron," she said softy with an attempt at a smile that he couldn't have seen in the darkness, "I'm just freaking a little."

"Really?" was Ron's surprised reply.

She nodded slowly and then, when she recalled that he couldn't see her, whispered hurriedly, "Yeah. I don't why, but I am."

"Do you want me to walk in front, KP?"

"That's awfully sweet, but I know how nervous you must be."

"Actually, I'm not."

"Really?" she said a little louder than she should have. After her echoes died away, she asked quietly, "But you were so freaked on the flight and when we reached the entrance..."

"I know," he explained his mouth just inches from her ear, "but as soon as we got inside I started thinking about the 'Pirates of the Bermuda Triangle' ride. Walking around in this darkness is just like that moment when everything is so dark at the beginning …"

"Right before you go over the waterfall?"

"Yep, and float right through the mother ship of pirate aliens and everything goes nuts. Just thinking about it is calming me right down."

Kim wasn't sure if it was the sound of his voice, his words, or the feel and smell of his chimerito breath on the back of her neck, but she suddenly felt much more calm and self-assured.

"So, KP, I don't mind going in front if it'll make you feel better."

"No." She reached out, fumbled for, and found his loose hand and gave it a squeeze. "I think I'm fine now. Just keep whispering to me."

About ten minutes later and deeper into the cave, Kim placed the wireless headset for the Kimmunicator onto her ear, contacted Wade, and placed the larger device into her pocket. This way Wade could guide them along and they could avoid tipping off Drakken and Shego with the light the Kimmunicator produced. With everything dark as intersteller space, even the smallest bit of light could be very obvious even from a great distance. For a moment Kim worried that Shego might have suggested that this time Drakken try tracking Team Possibile's approach via the power signal her most-used gadget emitted. This was an insight Ron, when he was Zorpox, had conveyed to the henchwoman who for some reason had apparently never passed on to her employer. In none of their entanglements since "the Zorpox affair" had Drakken ever tracked them by it. Of course, there was always a first time.

Mere seconds after Wade announced that he had picked up the faintest of power signals ahead of them, a bone-piercing scream rang overhead, its echoes bouncing in every direction.

"The bunyip," Chris announced under his breath with no attempt to hide his sarcasm. Charlie, for his part, let a good-natured chuckle roll off him.

As obvious as the chicanery was for Chris and Charlie, their derisive reaction to the "bunyip's" shriek was not echoed by Team Possible.

Ron jumped and let one of his patented screams, however brief, escape his lips. However, once he heard Charlie's laughter he immediately calmed down.

The one who really freaked was Kim.

Although she did not scream, she did jump. And with that jump, her earpiece fell out and landed … somewhere … on the cave's unseen floor. When she reflexively bent down to retrieve it (only realizing after the fact that in that darkness there was no way even on her hands and knees to have a glimmer of hope of finding it), the Kimmunicator fell out of the pocket she had somehow forgotten to button. Worst of all, when she jumped, Kim momentarily let go of Ron's hand, and, once she regained her bearings and went to clasp it again, she could not find it.

Instead of simply whispering for him, Kim immediately dropped to her knees and began to frantically search for the Kimmunicator. Since Wade had Ron chipped, she knew he would be able to find him … if only she could find the Kimmunicator. Breathing heavy and scrambling across the unseen floor, Kim was trying as hard as possible not to lose her grip … or at least admit to herself that she had already lost it. Suddenly, her eyes caught the amber glow of the Kimmunicator off to her right; she lunged for it. But … missed. The glow hovered before her eyes a few feet from the ground … or what she thought was the ground. To be honest, Kim wasn't sure what was up or down anymore.

Her ability to deny what all this reminded her of was just about to break.

Then Chris, who had picked up the Kimmunicator, asked, "Is this what you were looking for, Miss Possible?"

"Y-yeah, it was. It is. Thank you."

She took the Kimmunicator and firmly placed it in her pocket. She fumbled with the button for a few seconds, but finally got it.

"Are you okay, Miss Possible?"

"S-super. No big. W-where's Ron?"

"Right here, KP," Ron could hear something funny in Kim's voice. "Are you sure you're okay?"

"Never better," she reached out for her boyfriend. After a couple of blind fumbles, her hand found his shoulder.

"Ow!" Ron gave a yelp. "Chill on the killer grip, KP!"

"Oh, sorry, Ron."

Ron had had enough. Something was definitely off with Kim. She had been acting … well … frightened ever since they entered the cave. Whether she wanted to admit it or not, she was in some sort of trouble, and he needed to step up to the plate—to make sure they completed the mission and, more importantly, make sure Kim was safe and remained so.

"Kim, I know you don't want me to go in front, but I am. You are definitely in no condi—"

"No!" Kim begged. "Don't, Ron, please!"

The plaintive note in her voice was unmistakable. They both instantly realized that her fear had nothing whatsoever to do with her own safety; she had been frightened for him all along.

"Okay, KP," Ron said with conviction. "I'll be right here behind you. Just don't squeeze so hard, okay?"

"Okay, Ron." Kim let herself laugh just a little as the tension, at least for the moment, started to ebb away.

Charlie said something in an urgent tone, and Kim and Ron waited in silence for Chris's translation.

"Guys," Chris' voice said with a heretofore unheard note of disconcertion, "look straight ahead. We may be in trouble."

"Dude, I have no idea where 'straight ahead' is any more." Ron whined.

Although her tension level had ratcheted back up again, Kim had to smile. Ron certainly had a knack for expressing, in his own way, what was exactly on her mind.

"Keep turning around, man," Chris advised, "when you see It, you'll know."

Kim and Ron, still holding onto each others hands slowly pivoted around until they saw It and knew.

Across the seemingly endless expanse of black void, pulsed a pair of pupil-less jade eyes.


TBC ...

Chapter Text

Through rain … then through dreaming glass, green with the evening. And herself in a chair, old-fashioned bonneted, looking west over the deck of Earth, inferno red at its edges … – Gravity's Rainbow, page 123

I.

Terror blossomed within Kim's heart, branched out, and then raced to every inch of her body. She was enveloped in a cold, tightly-wound sensation akin to sinking into chilly water with no hope of ever surfacing again.

That is how it felt … for about two seconds.

So not going to happen.

Squeezing Ron's left hand (not too hard but just enough so she could make out his warmth though their gloves), Kim quickly removed the Kimmunicator from its pocket with her free left hand. Immediately, she saw Wade's image gesturing frantically on the screen.

Shoot!

Since she had been using the wireless attachment, she had placed the device itself on mute. Who knew how long he had been desperately trying to contact her and had only been able to see the inside of her pocket? She clicked off the mute.

"Guys! What happened? I lost communications for five minutes! Things are starting to happen!"

"Sorry, Wade. And we see it, we know."

"The readings seem to indicate a large concentration of Hephaestus signals not too far from your location, and their source seems to moving in your direction!"

Kim noted that the "eyes" or whatever they were did seem to be growing larger ... or getting closer.

"Wade, have GJ douse this place with the scrambler signal."

Her confident and even voice could only make Ron feel more confident. As it had been with his girlfriend, the initial sight of the "eyes" had majorly freaked Ron out, but there was no way he was going to let his KP get hurt. He had stood his ground without even letting go with a single, signature scream.

"That's the problem, Kim," Wade said excitedly, "they already are. The signal doesn't seem to be able to pierce the caverns' walls."

"Wade, get the park rangers on the line and have them turn the lights back on. NOW!" After a beat. "Please and thank you."

Considering all the trouble the rangers had had with that single bulb at the entrance, Kim and Ron didn't really expect the rangers to have the lights on so quickly. Yet, the rangers came through, and in the fraction of a second, the cave was flooded with blinding light.

Once her eyes adjusted, Kim got her first good look at what had been approaching them. It had stopped about fifty yards away and was hovering in a very expansive hall in the cavern.

Kim really didn't know how to react.

She looked at Chris and Charlie. The two bunyip experts were just as non-plussed as she was. They both had confused looks in their eyes. Charlie shook his head slowly.

The silence was finally broken by Ron. He was howling with laughter.

Kim looked back at the "bunyip." It looked very, very odd. If pushed, she would have said it resembled, in some really crude, cheap, and vague sense, the cave drawings Chris and Charlie had pointed out to them earlier-of course without any of the nuances. In fact, the most distinctive thing about it was the impression it gave that it shouldn't have been three-dimensional—almost as if it might look more "natural"(if anything could be said to be natural about it) if it was two-dimensional. Because it looked uncannily like …

"A cartoon!" gasped Ron. "It looks just like the cartoon in the movie!" He was still holding onto Kim's hand, but he had fallen to his knees and was laughing so hard that he was having difficulty breathing.

"Huh?" Kim cocked an eyebrow. Ron was right; it DID look like a cartoon. Albeit, a poorly drawn one. The only thing about it that didn't seem cartoonish was the figure of Dr. Drakken, perched in a command booth of some kind smack between the two glowing "eyes" that turned out to be the creatures … well … nostrils … Kim had to guess.

Drakken did not look pleased … even less so than usual.

"Oh, man," Ron said finally regaining control. "He must have copped it straight from the movie."

"Wait!" Kim turned to Ron. "You mean Dot and the Kangaroo?"

Ron nodded.

"THAT is the thing you were so afraid of?" she said in disbelief. "Why aren't you scared of it now?"

"Well," Ron said, trying to suppress another giggle, "I guess as a cartoon it was pretty creepy but in real life it just looks silly. I mean look at it, KP! It looks like a giant polka-dotted sock with teeth!"

At that Kim started to giggle. And so did Chris. And so did Charlie. And then Ron started up again. Rufus stuck his head out of Ron's pocket, looked at the "bunyip" and started to growl angrily.

"STOP LAUGHING!" shrieked Drakken via the creature/device/whatever's sound system which sounded pathetically like a megaphone with its volume jacked up to the hilt.

"So not going to happen," Kim shot back, trying her best not fall into a full-flung giggle-fit.

"Fine!" Dr. Drakken snarled. He paused to let the "bunyip's" feedback die down and continued, "Laugh all you want Kimberly Anne! I will be the one laughing when you suffer the full force of your dear daddy's technology!" With that he pressed a button on the console before him.

The creature/device/whatever let out one of those horrible shrieks and began to rapidly change shape. Within seconds, it was no longer the silly looking polka-dot sock with teeth but had become a slightly less silly polka-dotted bird (or some non-descript and poorly represented living drawing of one). As the creature/device/whatever spread its wings through the gigantic expanses of the great hall, everyone realized that the hall wasn't as expansive as it first appeared. The thing's left wing clipped a large stalactite, and Drakken had to struggle with the controls to keep the thing from flipping over on its side.

Kim, Ron, and their guides leapt under an overhang for protection from the falling debris caused by the collision. As the dust settled, Ron remarked, "Why do I get the feeling that the only damage he's going to cause will be by accident?"

"All the more reason why we need to stop him, Ron." Kim responded. She gave Ron a conspiratorial look, "You ready to play, Rondo?"

"You got it, Kimila!"

Holding up the Kimmunicator, Kim said, "Okay, I'll grapple up the hall's south wall and try to slap this on the cartoon's back …"

"And I'll get creative!" Ron grinned happily.

Just then the "bird's" claws changed into two large … well … what looked very much like the cross-sections of a honeycomb. Each chamber, there were sixteen in each "claw" or "comb," pulsed menacingly with a green glow. Kim and Ron recognized that glow as the same that emanated from the Diablos' laser cannons from little less than a year before. Each Diablo had only had two. Now, Team Possible was staring down the barrel of thirty-two of them.

"Dude, you can't seriously be thinking of firing those things inside here!"

"I," Drakken began and held his ears as he waited for the feedback to pass, "I seriously am, Stoppable!"

"You'll cause a cave-in!" Ron shouted over the receding echoes of feedback. "Dude, I'm a 'C' student and going to culinary school in the fall and even I know that!"

"Ron, don't diss yourself," Kim scolded. "There is nothing wrong with the Florida Culinary Institute! Who cares if you're not a sooper-genius like Drakken," here Kim couldn't keep her sarcasm down, "you're going to be a world-renowned chef!"

"Number-AIEEE" Drakken yelped in pain as the feedback echoed through the hall. He continued more quietly, "Number one, it will NOT cause a cave-in, and number two, even if it does, you'll be vaporized by that time so what do you care?" Dr. Drakken pressed the very large candy-colored fire button in the console above his head, and the creature/device/whatever's claws became incandescent.

From a side niche in the cave wall, Chris whistled and motioned rapidly for Kim and Ron. They crammed themselves inside just as the hall was bathed in Drakken's laser blasts, and everything went nuts.

II.

To give him his due, Drakken was right. Whether it was foresight on his part or maybe just poor construction of the laser cannons on his part, the beams had no effect upon the limestone that made up the interior of the caves. As a result, the cavern hall did not collapse.

However, although the beams had no effect upon the limestone walls, the limestone walls definitely had an effect upon the beams. They acted like … well … if pressed, Drakken would admit like poorly positioned giant mirrors on the moon, and the beams all ricocheted back at the "bunyip." It happened so predictably that Drakken did not even really get mad.

He was protected inside the impenetrable console and merely sighed when he saw that the thirty-two death rays he had fired at Team Possible were all bouncing their way back to his location. His safety harness even kept him from banging his head when his crippled device plummeted to the cavern floor.

As he sat inside the wreck of yet another of his conquer-the-world devices, Drakken actually found himself getting impatient for Kim and Ron to come and apprehend him.

"Hello!" he bellowed through the ex-bunyip's barely functioning sound system. "A little help here!"

Ron snickered, and Rufus shook his head. Charlie said something in a tone that could be understood in any language.

"Quite right," Chris nodded at Charlie. He turned to Ron and asked, "And he's supposed to be your arch foe?"

"Dude, I could tell you about missions that make this scheme look competent." Ron picked up the Kimmunicator where Kim had placed it on a rock's edge. With a couple of deft, if still slightly awkward jumps, he made his way to the remains of the bunyip and slapped the device against its still smoldering remains.

Within seconds, the program Wade had downloaded to the device began to have an effect. The charred mass began to quiver and change shape. It let go with another rather pathetic and ill-sounding "bunyip howl" and reverted to its original form—a rather plain looking polka-dotted cylinder about the size of an SUV.

The de-Hespheastus-sizing had an immediate effect on Dr. Drakken as his command module got a little more cramped than was comfortable.

"What are you waiting for, Stoppable?" Drakken continued to bellow impatiently, "Christmas?"

His impatience was short-lived.

Kim, who had sprung to the top of the cylinder seconds after it had ceased moving, brought her foot down sharply on the skylight that doubled as the cylinder's hatch, shattering the glass and sending thousands of shards raining down on the mad scientist.

"Aaaah!" Drakken cried petulantly covering his head with his tiny hands. "Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!" Drakken hadn't been cut by any of the falling glass, but he had a chronic habit of proactively complaining about injuries he might receive.

Kim dropped through the opening she had just created. As she fell, she splayed her legs so her feet came down directly on the armrests of Drakken's command chair. She gripped the shoulders of his blue lab coat and jerked him up so he had no choice but to look her dead in the eye.

Drakken witnessed a brief flash of disappointment trace over Kim's face. It was quickly replaced with a look that chilled him. He had only seen that face once before … about a year before when he was on the roof of Bueno Nacho Headquarters ... on Stoppable.

"Where … is … Shego!" Kim demanded.

III.

As he attempted to climb up the side of the cylinder and join Kim in her apprehension of Dr. Drakken, Ron was overcome with a slightly chilly sensation that was tinged with a bitter taste of nostalgia. No sooner had he scaled halfway up Drakken's device that he hooked his belt on one of the vehicles many escape hatches' handles. As refreshing as the draft caused by the sudden loss of his pants was, it was also greatly irritating. It had been almost a year since he lost his pants in a mission. He had assumed this was because he had started working out more or less regularly since he and Kim became a couple. His waist's filling out with what amazingly appeared to be muscles rather than the unwanted remnants of snackage had duly kept his trunks securely over his hips … or so he had thought. Now he was thinking his wardrobe malfunctions were the direct result of some kind of mojo Blue Boy inadvertently gave off.

Inside the cylinder, the uncomfortable period of silence that Kim's question had elicited from Dr. Drakken was surprisingly not due to a contrived hesitation on the mad scientist's part so he could come up with a good, or at least a decent, lie. Kim could see that his hesitation was due to one thing only: fear. Whether it was a fear of Shego or of herself – Kim could not be sure.

"Spill," she growled, never breaking eye contact with him.

Drakken spilled. "I don't know where she is! Ow! That hurts! After she broke us out of prison we came here and then one day she was just gone. Unhand me! Now, that is going to leave a mark! She didn't leave a note or even say she was going out for milk or anything! Now, I demand that you stop pinching me, Kimberly Anne!"

At the very moment Kim released Drakken, Ron opened the escape hatch that had snagged his belt; the hatch opened directly on Drakken's command console, just at the mad scientist's left shoulder. Ron's sudden appearance caused the already tweaked and freaked villain to yelp and leap up in his seat. Since he was still securely strapped into the control module, Drakken was painfully snapped back into the seat.

Kim hadn't reacted to Ron's sudden appearance; she was too deep in thought.

"Ouch!" Drakken muttered petulantly as he rubbed both shoulders where the straps had just cut into them. "Now that's really going to leave marks. I mean really, Possible, you'd think you were the deranged villain bent on revenging a humiliating defeat!"

"Dude! Don't you even think about raising your voice to KP again! Nobody yells at my GF!"

The pointed if probably less-than-witty comeback Drakken was ready to fire at Ron died in his throat. "Wha-G-GF?"

Ron rolled his eyes impatiently. "GF. It means girl-"

"I know what it means, Stoppable! How much of a square do you think I am?"

"Oooo-kay, then I have no idea what your problem is, dude."

"You called her your 'GF' … as if you two were … were … dating?"

Kim snapped out of her intense reverie and, like Ron, stared opened-mouthed at Drakken.

"When did this happen?" Drakken demanded.

Kim and Ron rolled their eyes, Ron smacked his forehead and Kim blew a stray hair out of her face.

"Don't you two roll your eyes synchonistic- … in synchrona-na- at the same time at me!"

"Ron and I have been together for almost a year, Drakken," Kim explained with as much patience as she could muster.

"Yeah, what cave have you been living in?" Ron asked in exasperation.

Drakken coldly turned to Ron and spat bitterly, "This one!"

And then he started to cry. "For almost an entire year! All by myself … tinkering for hours on end … and for what … for this!" He banged his tiny fist against one of the side panels of his latest failed instrument of doom … with predictable results. "Owwie!"

"Alone? You were alone?" Ron asked incredulously. He shot Kim a puzzled look. "Shego's not here?"

"Of course, she's not here, Stoppable!" Drakken barked. "Do you actually think it would have taken me eight months to orchestrate this fiasco if she had been here to help me? It would have taken six months at most … if she hadn't successfully talked me out of it before then, that is."

Satisfied by this last pathetic fit that Drakken wasn't lying about Shego's whereabouts, Kim flipped on the Kimmunicator, gave Wade the lowdown, and arranged Drakken's "ride" with GJ.

With mild annoyance, Ron relayed a tissue to Drakken that Rufus had retrieved from Ron's pocket.

"Dude, don't take this the wrong way … I mean I appreciate, and am ferociously impressed by your efforts today and all …"

"What?" Drakken sniffed after blowing his nose so hard that he lost the tissue. "What are you talking about?"

"Well, I was wondering if you wouldn't mind calling me 'buffoon' or 'lack-wit' again."

Drakken stared at Ron thunderstruck.

"Well, now that we've actually gone through an entire mission with you using my real name," Ron continued, "I gotta tell you, it's kinda getting on my nerves."

Drakken turned away from Ron, at least as much as he could strapped down tightly in his command chair, and refused to say another word to him until Global Justice arrived.

IV.

With a GJ reconnaissance team, Kim inspected Drakken's lair deep within the caverns. All the signs seemed to back up his story. There were accommodations for maybe five people: Drakken, Shego, and three of his lazy henchmen. Only one of the rooms looked like it had been lived in recently. Although the only thing presentable about Drakken's room was the collection of Snowman Hank nick-nacks on top of a bookcase, it wasn't a cobweb haven like the other four rooms. Someone had actually slept in this room recently even if he hadn't changed the sheets since … Christmas. Everything about the room and the small lair in general seemed to indicate that a single lonely person had been living there for a long, long time. Although Kim couldn't say that she felt bad for Drakken, she had to admit that his life the last half year must have been pretty sad. The only thing she could compare it to was that lonely Friday evening junior year when Ron was with Felix and even Cousin Larry had been too busy for her. Except that it lasted six months.

In the "kitchen" there was a portable refrigerator, stuffed with dozens of frozen burritos—the kind one could buy at exorbitant prices at a mini-mart. It also contained a single carton of milk … or, to be more accurate, of yogurt. According to the label it had expired six months earlier. It was a gorchy piece of evidence, but it meshed nicely with Drakken's time line for Shego's disappearance.

More important than the physical evidence, Kim was reassured by the fact that the lair didn't register so much as a ping on her weirdness scale. She left the GJ agents to disassemble and take possession of Drakken's remaining devices and made her way back to find Ron.

When she got back to the main hall where the "battle" with Drakken's "bunyip" had taken place, she saw Ron in a fairly serious conversation with Chris and Charlie. As she walked up to the threesome from behind, she felt a great sense of pride for her BFBF. He really had had her back this time. He had been completely in sync with her frazzled emotions at the beginning of the mission. He knew when to step in and knew when to back down. Seeing him talking so confidently with Chris, and more frequently with Charlie it seemed, only made her pride in him that much stronger. Ron had never actually been "shy" per se—he was far too friendly to ever be that, but he wasn't always as confidant around world leaders, dignitaries, and the like as she had been when their missions first started. Here he was holding his own with a tribal leader.

In addition to these feelings, Kim also couldn't help thinking that Ron looked fiercely cute from behind.

She was just about to say "hello" (or, possibly just glomp on Ron) when Charlie looked straight at her and said something in his Indigenous language. For whatever reason, the same spooky tickle she had felt when the drawings at the cave's entrance had been explained raced down her back now.

"Miss Possible," Chris said upon seeing her. "We were just discussing the dream of yours, yours and Ron's, with Charlie. As a tribe elder, he has a deep connection with the Dreamtime."

No, Ron. Please don't tell me you told them about our dream!

Inexplicably, Kim felt as if she was once again in the grips of icy water.

"No, no, Chris," Ron began as he drew Kim into their circle by throwing his arm around her shoulder, "start over from the beginning. KP needs to hear the whole thing."

"So, you want me to—"Chris asked.

"Yep, pretend like we don't know what any of it means." Ron smiled at Kim who, with difficulty, returned his smile although her eyes were difficult for him to find.

Chris nodded and looked at Kim, "Dreamtime is the spiritual side of things. It contains the past, the present, and the future; once you enter it, you gain another way of seeing."

Ron added, "So it is like that now feeling you always get in dreams, everything happening at once, right Chris?"

"True, but it is not just dreams. Dreams make up a big part, but the Dreamtime is also ceremony, sacred sites, objects from different worlds. It is what we feel beyond our eyes that we know to be true."

"O-okay," Kim said.

Ron could sense something was off about Kim. Not like earlier in the evening, but something was most definitely bugging her.

"Kim," Ron said excitedly, trying to engage her in the conversation. "Chris says that Charlie nearly flipped when he heard that you and I had the same dream."

"Oh, yeah," Kim asked in a way that didn't really sound like a question.

Ron wouldn't say he was getting tweaked with Kim, but this was majorly important and she was acting like she wanted to be somewhere else. This wasn't GWA they were discussing. Chris and Charlie might be able to help them deal with the nagging fear that had been eating away at them for almost a year, why was she acting like she didn't care?

"Yeah, KP. Charlie says that we have a very strong bond …"

"Good, good. Well, we really need to be going, Ron. I mean those egg rolls won't stay warm forever …" She had starting tugging gently at his arm.

"What are you talking about, Kim? Your dad wasn't going to get us any take-out … was he?" Ron shook the momentary Chinese cuisine distraction from him, "This is really important, Kim, please let's hear them out."

Chris said something to Charlie in their Indigenous language. The older man nodded and then fixed a piercing gaze at Kim and spoke a fairly long speech, lasting maybe a couple of minutes.

Even to herself, Kim couldn't explain why she felt so uncomfortable. The last thing she wanted was to appear rude, but, at the same time, she so didn't want to stick around. It was all she could do to keep herself from getting a vice-like grip on Ron's hand and dragging him back down the tunnels to the entrance of the caverns. As Charlie spoke to (or rather at) her, all Kim wanted was to be inside the air conditioned, plush cabin on that GJ jet, snuggling with Ron and on their way home. She was definitely in the grips of the same panic that she had felt when Charlie had been explaining those drawings at the caves' entrance.

Maybe it was because she was trying so hard to control her feelings that she got confused, but for a few seconds Kim thought she caught Charlie slipping a few English words or maybe entire English phrases into what he was saying. She shot a look at Ron but didn't see any recognition in his face that he was hearing anything other than a completely alien language. And this creeped her out far more than Charlie's explanation of the paintings had.

Finally, Charlie stopped speaking, but he kept staring at her. His eyes weren't unkind, Kim reflected, but his look was far too intense for whatever he had just said to be all sweetness and light. She could hear Chris talking with Ron, but during the first minutes of their conversation, Kim was too intent on Charlie's eyes to make out what was being said.

"Whoa, man! Could you back up a little? What was that about the end of the world?" Ron asked, more than slightly anxious. His tone was enough to grab Kim's attention.

"Man," Chris said patiently, "what I said was that life moves in cycles, like a ring or a wheel. There are times of renewal and destruction. Ripples in the Dreamtime are strongest, can be felt most clearly by the Gifted, during such times. Times just before great change, just before cataclysm. That is probably why this dream came to you two when it did."

What's going on? Is he saying that Ron and I are in tune with this Dreamtime?

When Charlie spoke suddenly just seconds after she registered that thought, Kim jumped. She felt really embarrassed by being so nervous, but when Chris translated Charlie's short speech, Kim's blush, and the rest of the color in her face, drained away.

"Charlie, says that, yes, you two are among the Gifted."

"Wait a minute. Just because KP and I shared a dream-well, okay, a couple of dreams … that means that we're like all mystical and everything?"

"Man, you have already told us that you have your own mystical power."

"Yeah, but I got mystical monkey power by accident—"

"No," Chris maintained firmly, "there are no accidents. You two are most definitely within the protection of Kunapipi."

"Ah, let's pretend I don't know who that is," Ron managed. "Mainly, because I really don't."

"She is the ancestral goddess of heroes. The mother of most human beings, plants, and animals," Chris said with a smile.

"Oh, Coolio." After a brief pause to consider this, Ron continued, "but back to the dream. So, is our dream like," Ron said becoming a little nervous, "like o-our future …"

"Not exactly," Chris explained. "Things are always jumbled in a dream, but there is truth within it."

Kim's head was spinning. She leaned against Ron's arm and clutched his left hand in both of hers. Unfortunately, he was so intent on the conversation with Chris, that he didn't pick up on this subtle-but-not-too-subtle sign that she needed comfort right then, needed to be held right then.

"But, dude, dreams are not real." Ron said trying his best to not give his shared nightmare with Kim any more power than it already had. He had hoped this discussion with the aborigines would calm both Kim's and his concerns, but he was just now picking up on the fact that Chris and Charlie's insights might very well do the opposite.

"I'll show you a dream," Chris said slowly. He extended his arm in front of one of the light bulbs that was hanging nearby. His hand and arm cast a shadow. "A dream is a shadow," he explained as his arm's shadow fell over Ron's face and cast it in darkness, "of something real."

Kim started pulling at Ron, trying to pull him out of the shadow.

"Hey, KP, what's going on? What's the deal?"

"Come on, Ron," Kim whispered, "let's go." When he didn't respond immediately, she stated it louder, "Ron, let's go."

"What are you talking about? KP, this is-"

"You want to stay here? Fine. I'm leaving!"

Kim swiftly spun out of Ron's embrace and stormed out of the hall.

V.

She could hear his footsteps echoing down the caverns and could tell by those echoes that Ron was maybe twenty feet behind her; that only made her run faster.

She felt disoriented and frightened. But most of all she was furious at Ron.

Why? Why did you do that, Ron? That dream was between us, no one else needed to know. Well, I guess I told mom … but you should NEVER have told complete strangers about it! Couldn't you see how upset I was? No, you just ignored me! Just bent on making everything so much worse!

"KP! What's wrong? Wait up!"

From his yell, she could tell he was closing the gap between them.

"So not talking to you, Ron!" she yelled fiercely over her shoulder; she pumped her legs faster and disappeared around a bend in the tunnel.

She began looking for landmarks (or cavern marks) to let her know when she was getting close to the entrance, but then realized that since everything had been pitch black when they came in, she had no guideposts to let her know where the exit was. So far, this wasn't a problem since the tunnel didn't branch off, or hadn't yet. She didn't know if they had come in through one continuous tunnel or if Chris and Charlie had led them through a labyrinth of them. If the cave did fork, she didn't know what she was going to do.

For his part, Ron had been very alarmed when Kim took off down the tunnel. He hadn't seen her look so angry … so angry at him for a very long time. He would have to go back to sophomore year when he wrote that bogus story about her crushing on Brick Flagg to recall a moment when she seemed so white hot angry at him.

But … but why? What the heck did I do?

He was so intent on catching up with her that he didn't even wave good-bye to Chris and Charlie. As he started racing down the tunnel and before he caught sight of her, part of him was scared that he was going to lose her. For all he knew, Chris and Charlie had led them through a maze of these stupid tunnels.

He was just about to cry out her name and hope the echoes somehow reached her when he rounded the bend and caught a flash of her auburn hair not thirty feet ahead. He relaxed and called out to her in a hoarse, but otherwise normal, voice. When she snapped at him and kicked it into overdrive, he felt like he had been slapped in the face.

And then he got angry.

After a few moments running at top speed Kim came face-to-face with what she had been most worried about—a fork in the tunnel. She stopped, caught her breath, and quickly glanced down each one. The one on the right wasn't as well lit as the other one, but she knew that really didn't tell her anything. It was twilight when they entered the caves about an hour ago, so just because the right one was brighter didn't mean it led to an exit.

She stopped and listened for Ron's footsteps. He must have stopped or had been really far behind because she didn't hear any. After resting with her hands on her knees for a second or two, she reached into her pocket for her Kimmunicator.

Wade can get me out of here.

Just before turning the device's power on, Kim's eyes caught the ineffable dance of shadows in a lower corner of the tunnel on the left. A cool breeze could be felt coming from that tunnel and it was, apparently, having an effect on the lights that hung from the passageway's ceiling. These signs could certainly point to, although they couldn't guarantee, that this tunnel let to the entrance, led to home.

Yet, that was no longer what Kim Possible was concerned about.

The play of shadows against the limestone recalled the inside of an escape pod in a rainforest on the other side of the hemisphere. A few years back. As her eyes had adjusted to the darkness inside the pod, her anxious expectancy had given way to the closest feeling to genuine grief she had ever known. Instead of her best friend, she had found what her best friend feared most. But much worse than the monkey, what the escape pod really offered her was nothing … nothing but an irretrievable sense of loss.

Kim realized that if she kept going now, that was all that might await her down either of these tunnels.

She put the Kimmunicator back in her pocket.

Ron had stopped. He was so angry he didn't know what to do. Kim had run away from him. He never would have believed it, but Kim was purposely avoiding him. For a split second, he felt extremely guilty and ashamed. Although he had no idea what he had done, he knew he must have done something wrong ... something that he needed to apologize for …

But I haven't done ANYTHING! If she has a problem she should tell me about it … not run away like some little girl! FINE! If Kim wants to be that way … then … fine. Yeah … fine. Fine.

It had been almost a year since it had happened and when it had it was under entirely different circumstances. Nevertheless, Ron Stoppable began to cry.

He stopped a few minutes later when Rufus crawled up his shoulder and handed him a tissue.

"Thanks, buddy," he sniffed. "Don't want to talk about it," he said, heading off the imploring look he knew he would find if he looked in his little buddy's eyes. Rufus patted him gently on his ear. Ron blew his nose and trudged down the tunnel.

After about five minutes at this pace, Ron came to a fork in the tunnels. He knew this was going to happen. Wade still hadn't given him a Kimmunicator, so he didn't know what to do. If he chose the wrong tunnel he might get lost for hours. He chose the tunnel on the right because it was brighter. Just as he had gone maybe ten feet into it, he realized that Rufus, who had crawled back into his pocket, could probably use his keen sense of smell to determine which one led outside—after all, he had left a half-eaten naco on board the jet, and Rufus could track Tex-Mex from five miles away. Then it struck him, what if Kim went down the wrong tunnel? What if she was lost? No matter how angry he was at her or how sad she had made him, none of that mattered when her safety might be at stake.

He was just about to ask Rufus to find Kim when he heard a small voice behind him call his name. He turned.

Kim stood behind him. There appeared to be a few drying tear tracks visible on her cheeks. "I'm sorry."

Without hesitation, he quickly approached and embraced her. "What for"?

"For yelling at you, for running away, for being so the jerk."

"Its okay, Kim," he said with a faint smile. It wasn't so much that he had forgiven her for the five minutes of misery he had just undergone; rather, it was as if those minutes had been completely wiped from his memory, as if they never were.

"I can't believe that I was abandoning you. I-I was so upset that I was going to ruin everything!"

"You weren't going to ruin anything, KP."

"But I was, Ron," she said sniffling. "Thanks, Rufus," she said as she took the tissue from the naked mole rat that was leaning over to her from his perch on Ron's head. "I was so angry that I didn't remember why I was angry. I-I almost made what I was scared of the most happen …"

Ron didn't say a word; the look in his eyes simply gave her permission to go on … but only if she wanted to.

She explained in a flood of words how the sitch with Chris and Charlie had gone down from her perspective and how she had been so terribly worried when Chris' shadow had seemed to blacken out Ron's face and how fiercely stupid it was to be angry at him since he was only trying to help and because losing him was the entire reason she was scared in the first place and that she almost did lose him on purpose in the caves and had come within a hair's breath of calling Wade to help her find her way out of the caverns but then she realized this would have stranded him there and … and … At this last point, a few more tears escaped from Kim's eyes.

He brushed at the tears on her cheek with his right glove, and she, hesitantly, took up his left hand in both of hers. He had not seen her cry in almost a year, and, like his, her previous tears had been shed under much more pleasant circumstances.

Although his eyes had sparked with interest at a few points in her story that he found strange and pretty badical (especially when she mentioned that Charlie seemed to have read her mind), for the most part they maintained the same open, earnest expression that wanted nothing more than to drain all of her misery away.

"How angry and sad I must have made you!" She really was being hard on herself, but she felt that is what she deserved.

Ron raised her chin gently so that their eyes met.

When did he get taller than me?

Oh man! When did she shrink?

"Kim," Ron said, "Remember what you told me to always remember that day last spring in the park?"

"Y-yes."

"Right now, that's all I do remember." He gave her a firm hug, kissed her on the top of her head, and said, "Nowno morecrying. I'm supposed to be Dot in this relationship."

She couldn't help but laugh at that. "Yeah, I guess so. I'm the one that's running around, screaming, crying, jumping at my own shadow. But that's not fair to you anyway, Ron, you were never that bad."

"Well," Ron warned, "don't be so sure of that, I think if you saw the movie you would definitely get a Rondo vibe from her. So, if we assume that you are Dot, does that make me the kangaroo?"

"I guess so," she said drying her last tears, "I'm not really sure, though, because I haven't seen the movie."

Ron thought for a moment, "I know, it makes me the Rondoroo!"

Kim laughed again. This time harder than before. So hard that, at least for a long second or two, that day last spring in the park was all she could remember as well.

VI.

Ron had been all set to escort Kim back to the GJ jet that was hopefully still waiting for them, but Kim insisted that they go back to see Chris and Charlie.

"I was so rude to them, and, besides, you were right, we need to hear everything they have to say."

"I don't know, KP," Ron objected, "We could always get Wade to patch us through on the flight back."

"No, Ron, we should do it in person. It's the right thing to do." When he still seemed unsure, she smiled and said, "Don't worry, I'll be all right." She squeezed his hand, "Ronderoo's got Dot's back."

But when they made it back to the great hall, their guides couldn't be found. According to the pilot of the jet they came in, who was on his way out with the very last of Drakken's equipment—including his microwave and refrigerator, Charlie and Chris had vanished not long after Kim and Ron had abruptly left. The GJ agent also said that to his knowledge every other agent had already left, but he would be more than happy to give them the lift back. Besides, he explained that he was stationed at the GJ facility in Colorado Springs anyway.

Kim told the agent to go on ahead that she and Ron needed to check out one more thing, but that they would be out directly. After the agent left, Ron's confusion over what this "one more thing" might be was satisfied by two, very much appreciated, five alarm KP kisses.

As they followed Rufus toward to caverns' entrance—they had elected not to trouble Wade with directions, and Rufus was more than happy to be more than just the "tissue gopher," it became Ron's turn to apologize. "I can't believe I was so boneheaded! It didn't even occur to me until right before you left that Chris and Charlie's news might have been bad!"

"Don't beat yourself up, Ron," Kim consoled, "I should have told you I was worried."

"But that's just it, KP," Ron said gloomily, "You did. You were giving me all these hints and signals that I am JUST NOW catching. You don't deserve such a slow BF."

"Stop it, Ron," Kim said firmly, "the only person allowed to diss my BF is me. And I am usually wrong when I do"

"'Usually?'" Ron asked wryly, "how about 'always?'"

"Usually," Kim maintained with a semi-cross look.

Kim was certainly glad they had Rufus guiding them. She had had no idea Chris and Charlie had taken them through so many different tunnels on the way in. Interestingly, the naked mole rat had directed them down the tunnel on the right, the one without the cool breeze, at the first fork.

She stopped counting them once the number of forks exceeded half a dozen. She thought it was strange but that GJ agent must have hauled because he had only left the main cavern a few minutes before they did, and they had had no sign of him. Surely, they would have at least heard echoes from the wheels on the dolly he had been using.

"Okay, KP?" Ron asked when he saw the confused look on her face.

"Yeah, I'm—", Kim stopped dead in her tracks, and turned to look behind them.

"W-what is it?" Ron asked.

"I don't know. Maybe I am just tweaking a little again," Kim explained, "but I thought I just heard something."

They stood perfectly still for what seemed, to Ron anyway, an eternity but couldn't have been more than half a minute.

"I guess it's nothing," Kim said uncertainly. "Let's go."

They had only been walking for maybe thirty yards, before Kim unexpectedly took hold of Ron's hand. She smiled up at him and said, "Let's walk a little faster."

"O-okay."

After Rufus led them halfway down another tunnel, Kim paused again, and looked warily over her shoulder. Before Ron could ask, she stated flatly, "I know I heard something that time."

Ron hadn't heard anything, but he definitely smelled something. It was a burning smell, like an electrical burn. He was just about to say something about it to Kim when he heard a slight pop from far behind them.

"Did you hear that one?" she asked.

"Oh yeah," Ron nodded, "do you smell it?"

"Uh-huh, just now."

"You want to get outta here fast?" Ron asked, trying not to sound too nervous.

"Oh yeah."

They increased their grips on each other's hands and took off running. Ron shouted ahead to Rufus, "Let's hit it, buddy!"

Rufus gave them a "thumbs up" and scurried quickly down the tunnel.

Ron had just starting wondering how a rodent could possibly give a thumbs up signal, when he heard another pop, much closer to their location. He turned to Kim; she already had the Kimmunicator out of her pocket, and she was trying to raise Wade as they ran.

Ron felt Kim's grip stiffen and heard her mutter under her breath. "What?" he asked although he already had a pretty good idea what was wrong.

"Can't reach Wade. Something's blocking the signal."

"It was fine on the way in."

"I know."

"Maybe, uh, maybe GJ is still showering the place with their scrambler, and we're getting near the surface and … well, you know …"

"Could be," Kim said and gave Ron a hopeful look.

However, he could tell the hope in her eyes was for his benefit alone—he could see that she knew there was something way wrong going down.

As they rounded the corner into yet another tunnel, a very loud, very nearby pop was heard, and the lights in the tunnel they had just been in seconds before went out.

"So not good," Kim muttered. She then shot a look at Ron, who was already staring at her. "Ron, no matter what happens, do not let go of my hand, okay?"

"Wouldn't dream of it, KP," Ron managed with a smile.

Suddenly, they heard Rufus chattering wildly. Their friend was standing at yet another fork in the tunnel up ahead. He scampered to the entrance of one tunnel, paused briefly, and then scampered to the entrance of the second, and then went back to the first.

"What's going on?" Kim asked as she and Ron skidded to a halt a few feet from Rufus.

Rufus looked at Ron with a very concerned look on his face, his whiskers twitching nervously.

"I don't know," Ron said. "Something's wrong, he doesn't know which tunnel is the right one."

"Couldn't that mean that both lead outside?" Kim asked, breathing hard.

After picking up and conferring with his pet, Ron shook his head. "He doesn't know," he said, a worried edge quite audible in his voice. "He's been following the scent of the Bueno Nacho leftovers I left in the jet. And now he says that the Tex-Mex smell is so overwhelming that it seems to be coming from everywhere!"

"Shoot." Kim groused.

Without question something very sick and wrong was going on. The advancing power "outages," the Kimmunicator signal being blocked, and now the "ringer" BN trail were without question connected somehow. Kim had the distinct feeling that if they didn't choose the right tunnel right then, they would be in serious trouble. She glanced down each tunnel quickly hoping against hope that there would be something, anything to let her know which was the right tunnel. As she looked vainly down the left tunnel, the light in the tunnel they were currently in started to flicker.

Suddenly, she spotted something about twenty feet down on the left tunnel's wall.

"This one! Let's go!" She charged ahead dragging Ron with her as the lights in the fork went out.

Still holding hands, they were both running at top speed. Kim gave a quick glance as they past by the same cave drawings that Charlie had pointed out to them on their way in. "Spakin!" she breathed.

The lights in the tunnel start to flicker. Kim was about to say something to Ron when they both tripped over something. They fell at the precise instant when the tunnel went completely black.

Kim managed a half turn before she came down, and came down hard, on the cave floor. As sharp as the pains in her elbow and hip were, they were nothing compared to the terror that swept over her when she realized she was no longer holding Ron's hand. All the courage she had shorn up over the past ten or so very intense minutes vanished completely. She intuitively felt that if she couldn't reach out and hold him within the next few seconds, he would disappear forever.

She was just about to let out a heartrending cry for her best friend boy friend when her eyes were hit with a blinding light.

She blinked and shielded her eyes. A single light, not fifteen feet in front of her had crackled on suddenly. Maybe it was just that the sudden plunge into darkness had affected her vision, but Kim had the impression that it was burning much brighter than a Bulb of its size should have been. She quickly looked about her for Ron. He was on his knees not five feet behind her, shielding his own eyes from the glare. She also noticed Rufus sticking out of Ron's side pocket in the same attitude.

She got up quickly, grabbed Ron's hand, and they all charged ahead and within seconds found themselves … outside.

"Hey," called the GJ agent, standing just outside of his jet. He had apparently hooked up Drakken's microwave because he was enjoying one of the frozen burritos.

That explains the scent problem, Kim thought.

"You guys sure took a while," the pilot commented. "I had begun to think that you had gotten another ride."

They both blinked at the agent for a few moments, and then realized that the threat or whateveritwas had past. Everything seemed right with the world. Just as quickly as they had spiked inside the caverns, all of Kim and Ron's weirdar signals went dead as they took in their surroundings under the Australian stars.

Ron gathered Kim into a big hug that took her off her feet. She kissed his cheek lightly and whispered into his ear, "Be careful of my hip, honey, I think it's a little sore."

She called my 'honey!'

"Oh, sorry, KP," he said apologetically.

"No big."

"Oh man, do I need a burrito! Do you want one?"

Kim suddenly realized she was wicked hungry too. "Okay," she grinned, "put one in for me. You can have half of it."

As Ron sauntered over to the jet, Kim looked back at the entrance to the caverns and realized that the Bulb that had flickered on was the same one that had given the rangers so much trouble at the start of the mission.

Weird.

What was even weirder was what happened next. For whatever reason, Kim felt compelled to do something even though she knew it was totally nutty. Shielding her eyes form its intense light, she gave the Bulb a smile and whispered, "Thanks."

She then turned away and sprinted, as best she could, to where her BFBF was waiting for her. As the jet's door closed them inside, Kim let Ron stuff half a lukewarm instant burrito into her mouth.

Byron witnessed the supersonic jet lift off the ground and disappear safely into the night sky. He also witnessed the figure stalk out from within the inner darkness of the caverns' entrance. The figure stood beneath him a few moments, grumbling under its breath.

Although Byron was cursed to be an eternal witness with few participatory abilities to alter the multitude of wondrous, horrible, and mundane events that took place about him, he still had one ability available to him. At the moment he anticipated it would prove the most inconvenient for the dark figure enveloped in his penumbra, Byron switched himself off. The figure stumbled to its knees and cursed again.


TBC …

Chapter Text

… the low reeds singing an instant on striking porcelain (it's raining against a window somewhere, and outside on top of a sheet-metal vent on the roof: cold Boston rain) then quenched in the water … There's no calling it back. Either he lets the harp go, his silver chances of song, or he has to follow. – Gravity's Rainbow, page 63

I.

"So how'd your first melee in nearly a year with Drew go, Kimmie-cub?" James Possible asked from behind his ever-present newspaper.

Looking up from her half-touched plate of eggs, bacon, and pancakes and her half-read AP English textbook, Kim thought her father's question over. She thought it over so long, in fact, that James assumed she hadn't heard him.

"Kimmie-cub?"

"Sorry, daddy." Kim said quickly. "I'm just not really sure how to explain it."

"Well, he didn't give you any trouble, did he?"

"Drakken? Oh no. Just the usual. A completely whacked plan that self-foiled, he cried, GJ dragged him away. Oh, that reminds me, GJ believes they have confiscated the rest of your Hepheastus technology from his lair."

"Sounds like another humdinger courtesy of my daughter," James smiled as he put down his paper. His smile faded as he spied the concerned look on his daughter's face. "So why are you so down-in-the-dumps?"

"Shego."

"Did she give you any trouble?" James asked concerned.

"No, she wasn't even there."

"I see. And that's a real problem, isn't it?"

"Well, it's way weird."

"I'm sure she'll turn up sometime, Kimmie."

"That's just it, Dad. I'm scared that when she does show up it won't be connected with a take-over-the-world scheme; that it will just be personal. I just know she so wants revenge on me, and the fact that she has abandoned Drakken makes that all the more likely. I'm pretty confident I can take her, but I don't want anyone else to get hurt. I mean what if she showed up unexpectedly at graduation, or while Ron and I are at Temple, or even while we are driving down to Florida."

Kim couldn't help but notice her father's expression blanche a little when she referenced their annual visit to see Nana Possible.

"Dad, is everything okay with Nana?" Nana Possible had had to cancel her holiday trip to Middleton the previous Christmas because she had caught the flu just a week before she was scheduled to come. Everyone had seriously missed her, especially Ron, and were all relieved when she made an apparent full recovery not a week into the New Year. But maybe … there was something else wrong with her.

"Oh, yes," her father answered quickly. "She's never been better. Why do you ask?"

"Well, you made a funny face when I mentioned the trip. The trip is still on isn't it?"

"Of course," James said, "the week after you graduate. You know, since you and the boys went to the same school this year it has certainly made it a lot simpler to plan family vacations, you know?"

Kim so didn't want to be reminded of how the Tweebs were "simplifying" her Senior Year at Middleton. However, she also knew when her father was trying to deliberately change the subject. In the past his conversation shifts had frequently been used to avoid the subject of boys. Since she and Ron had been together, and the subject of "boys" had become the subject of "Ron," Kim had noticed her father's unease gradually diminish. Could it be that maybe Nana had an issue with Ron? She had seemed fine, even amped, about their relationship when the family had visited her the previous summer. So that couldn't have been it. Nevertheless, Kim was definitely picking up an old-school "boys" vibe from her father.

Before she could push the subject further with him, he was up and out of the kitchen, a pleasant if slightly tight smile on his face.

"What are you reading?" Anne Possible asked, coming in from the garage with a basket of laundry.

"Oh …," Kim said, her reverie on her father suddenly broken, "well, I am not really sure how to say it."

"What do you mean, honey?"

"I mean I don't think I can pronounce any of the words in the title," Kim explained.

Anne put down the basket of clothes in the seat her husband had just vacated and looked over the heading of the open page. "Ohhh, I remember that story!"

"Well, how do you pronounce it?" Kim asked.

Anne thought for a moment, "I don't think it is really that important if you can pronounce those names correctly. But I think you would pronounce the second word 'Uck-bar.' I read it when I was an undergrad. I liked it a lot. It is really creepy!"

"Creepy, huh?" Kim asked. "I don't know. I've read a third of the way in, and there's nothing 'creepy' about it at all. It's really rather boring."

"Don't worry," Anne smiled, "it gets real creepy before too much longer."

"Mom," Kim asked closing the book, "is there something wrong with Nana?"

"Not to my knowledge. Why do you ask?"

"Well, I just mentioned the Florida trip to Dad, and he got this funny look on his face."

"Oh, I see," Anne said unable to suppress a giggle. "Nana's fine. It is just that … well … she's apparently got a boyfriend."

"No way!" Kim smiled. "No wonder I got that uncomfortable 'boy vibe' from him." She laughed.

"Yes," Anne confirmed, "it wasn't bad enough worrying about his daughter and boys; now he has to worry about boys chasing after his mother."

After pouring herself a cup of coffee, Anne sat down across from her daughter and asked how things had gone on the mission the previous evening. Kim filled her mother in on all the details of Drakken's whacked plot, its predictable outcome, and Shego's ominous absence-but she also let her know about the … well … the sorta-fight she and Ron had had, their making up, and the rather frightening time they had getting out of the caverns.

"So, was someone blocking Wade's signal?" Anne asked.

"Not sure," Kim said with a sigh. "When I remembered that aspect of the sitch, we were halfway home, and Wade couldn't locate any signals of any kinds coming from the caverns. Of course, if someone had setup some kind of blocking mechanism they could have taken it off-line by the time I asked him to check."

Anne could see her daughter was still very preoccupied with this last element of the previous evening's mission. "If someone had been blocking the signal, and those blackouts had not been accidents, do you believe that person would be Shego?"

The momentary flash she saw in her daughter's eyes was all the confirmation Anne needed.

II.

Although both his parents agreed to let him sleep in Saturday morning because he had arrived home late (early?) from Australia the night before, Ron was still feeling kinda guilty that he had skipped Temple. To make amends, he was cruising the aisles of Smarty Mart for all the Stoppables' Seder night needs.

"Ron, I really don't think you're going to need all this matzah for one night," Felix Renton commented, as he watched his friend literally overflow the cart with packages of unleavened bread.

"I know, I know," Ron explained, "but these prices are out of control! Besides, I always stock up this time of year."

"Stock up? But I thought Passover only lasted a week."

"Well, yeah, but I don't just eat it around this time of the year. Felix, my man, you would be surprised how well matzah complements a rainbow of different cheeses. That reminds me! We need to hit the salsa aisle before we jet!"

"Matzah nachos?" Felix asked warily.

"You got it! Delicious, nutritious, and kosher-istious!"

"Kosher-istious?"

"Well, okay," Ron admitted with a shrug, "even if that was a word, they probably wouldn't be kosher."

As they reached the huge pyramid display of gefilte fish jars, Ron realized that he didn't have any more room in his cart. "Felix, uh, do you mind …"

Felix pressed a button on one of his wheelchair's control panels. Instantaneously, the back end of the chair transformed into a good-sized cart for groceries. "Load 'em up," he sighed.

III.

"If Shego is bothering you that much, maybe you should contact Global Justice and see if they can double their efforts on finding her," Anne suggested.

Kim rolled her eyes. "According to Dr. Director, Shego has been a priority target since she and Drakken escaped from prison. If they couldn't find him after seven months without my help, I so doubt they can find her."

Beep-be-bee-beep.

Kim flipped on the Kimmunicator, "Go, Wade."

Wade Load had a very pleased look on his face. "I've got really good news, Kim."

"Really?" Kim said a little taken aback. "What's up?"

"GJ caught Shego."

"Wh-what?"

"Yep, they apprehended her in the Black Sea. She was trying to purchase the rusty hull of an old luxury yacht under false pretenses."

Kim was still feeling the shockwaves of Wade's bombshell, and asked, without really thinking, "Do they know why she was doing that?"

"Well, GJ questioned her, but according to their report, she was less than forthcoming. Is it important?"

Kim shook her head and smiled. "No, of course not. Thanks for the heads up, Wade. As always, you rock!"

Anne placed a reassuring hand on her daughter's shoulder. "There. Now don't you feel better?"

"You have no idea!" Kim beamed.

"I'll bet Ron will be extremely pleased as well. When is he dropping by?"

"In a couple of hours, I think," Kim said. "When he called this morning, he said he was going to Smarty Mart for Passover supplies. He was pretty bummed that we slept through Temple."

"So what are your plans until he arrives?"

"Well, I guess I'll stretch out on the sofa and finish this story," Kim said, the relief still palpable in her voice. "All I can say is it better get creepy fairly soon. Or I might just fall asleep."

IV.

As they waited in a line that only seemed to get longer the longer they were in it, Ron complained, "I knew we should have gone in the express aisle!"

"I think we would have had a fight on our hands if we had done that, Stoppable."

"What do you mean? We only have three items."

"Correction, we have seventy-three items. Twenty-four items for each of the three different types of items we have."

"Details, details. This tanks."

"No argument here."

After a moment's silence, Ron asked, "Felix? Have you asked Tara to the prom yet?"

Felix sighed deeply. "No."

"Dude, it's less than a month away! How long are you gonna wait?"

"Ron," Felix countered patiently, "if I remember correctly, last year you asked Possible to the dance after it had already started."

"Not true," Ron asserted. "She asked me after it had already started."

"I don't know, Ron," Felix sighed, "what if … I don't know, what if she still isn't over Mankey?"

It was so odd for Ron to be in the position of helping someone else overcome the "Josh Mankey" curse that he couldn't help but smile. "I know just what you are going through, dude. But I'm telling you, everything's fine now. I'm sure she is so over her Mankey Pain."

Tara Strong had attempted to maintain her relationship with Josh Mankey after the art student had graduated last spring. Unfortunately, the long distance relationship didn't go the distance, and they had become "just friends" by Christmas. Tara had not been able to get over Josh as easily as Kim had, and, for a while there, Kim, Ron, Bonnie, and the rest of the squad had been really concerned for her. Fortunately, by the time Middleton's Varsity basketball team had finished dead last in the regional tournament, she was back to her normal perky self.

"Maybe you're right," Felix nodded, yet it was clear to Ron that his friend was nowhere nearer to asking Miss Strong out.

"I know, maybe if you ask her out on a regular date first, asking her out for the prom won't be a big deal."

"Unfortunately, that's the problem. I don't think I could even ask her for directions to class."

"Ohhh, I gotcha." Ron thought for a minute. "I know, maybe if you could skip the asking part and just hang out together it might be easier."

"Wait a minute-go out on a date with her before asking her out on the date in the first place?"

"Sure!"

"I must be missing something, Ron."

"It's so simple, Felix. Kim and I go somewhere … like the movies … and I ask you to come as my guest and Kim asks Tara to come as her guest. Bingo!"

"That could work," Felix mused, "but I don't think the movies is the right place. That is too much of a 'date thing' and I have a feeling you guys would rather enjoy the movies alone than with two spare, awkward wheels spinning between you."

"Hmm, something other than the movies …" Ron thought hard on this one-so hard that he failed to notice that the line had moved forward. Fortunately, Felix got them going before the fairly perturbed customer behind them, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Steel Toe, could take action.

"I've got it!" Ron announced. "We could invite you to Seder dinner this week!"

"That might work, but do you think Possible would want you to do that?"

"Why would Kim mind?"

"Well, Seder had been something special for you two for a long, long time, right? And this year is the first Passover dinner with you two as a couple, right?"

"Oh man, you're right. I am such an idiot!"

After a few moments of silence, Felix finally said, "Well, it's not a bad idea, Ron. Ask Kim and see what she says. If she doesn't mind, I'll do it."

"Okay," Ron brightened. "I'm sure it'll be fine. Kim would do anything for a friend, but, you're right, it would be better to be safe than sorry."

"By the way, Ron, how are things between you two?"

"Well," Ron sighed, "we kinda had a fight last night."

"Really," Felix said a little shocked. "I'm sorry to hear that. Is everything okay now?"

"Oh yeah," Ron smiled broadly, "we made up and everything. It was just that I was acting like an idiot and she said that she was behaving like a jerk and you know."

"Wow," Felix smiled, "typically couples fight because they think the other person is the jerk."

"Yeah, well," Ron trailed off.

Felix sensed there was something more to the story. However, he could also sense that Ron didn't want to talk about it. If Ron Stoppable wanted to keep mum about something, Felix knew he probably had a pretty good reason.

And, of course, there was more to the story. The reason for the fight, if traced back to its original source, had been Kim and Ron's shared nightmare from almost a year ago. And that was something only known to the two of them. And .P.

Ron hated to admit it, but their Australian mission had most definitely proven that his "dream solution"-the nightmare exorcisms he had masterminded-had failed. Well, not completely failed, the exorcisms were exceptionally and unexpectedly fun, but they certainly had not resolved their nightmare issues.

As with all things intimate between Kim and himself, Ron never breathed a word to anyone about these exorcisms. In fact, the only other person who did know about them had found out by accident. Just thinking about THAT embarrassed Ron so much that whenever he did think about it he involuntarily shuddered.

"Are you okay, Ron?"

"Wh-what?"

"You looked like you were wigging out for a second," Felix said in a bemused voice.

"Oh, that was nothing. I was just thinking about something."

"Thinking about what? Monkeys?"

"Yeeeeeeeeeeah, Monkeys! That's it! I've got to stop thinking about monkeys. Yes."

Felix shook his head. Although Ron was one of his best friends, his goofiness went beyond belief on occasion.

In any case, reenacting the nightmare with a slight casting change had certainly seemed like a good idea when Ron first thought of it. Their biggest concern in the dream was Shego, and the only villain that had ever bested Shego had been Ron … or … Zorpox … who was Ron, well kinda. So Ron's bondiggity idea had been to play out the nightmare again, but instead of meeting Shego, Kim would meet Zorpox. That way it was obvious that a) Shego hadn't taken Ron out and b) since the bad guy was him, nothing bad was going to happen to KP. It was kinda like playing "haunted house" back when they were little kids … except for the kissing at the end.

Kim thought his idea was more "odd" than "bondiggity," but she was willing to roll with it. And after they had played it out the first time, Kim agreed that it was a good idea, a very good idea—at least, that is, after she had stopped laughing. The only downside for her, and the only change she requested when they performed "the exorcism" again, was to eighty-six the music.

That first time, Ron had decided to play some spooky mood music to set the scene and had forgotten to tell Kim beforehand. To make matters worse, he had chosen-at random based solely on the "song's" name from the Possible's CD collection-a piece of music that seriously freaked her out. It was called "The Witch's Sabbath" by some dead old French dude. What freaked her out was a certain part in the "song"—it actually turned out to be classical music—that reminded her of a different piece of music she had heard in a movie that freaked her out. The movie had been The Shining. Ron had to admit, with a few jaw-poppingly boring down-times aside, it was one of the freakiest movies he had ever seen. Anyway, when the dad in the film first goes to the haunted hotel there was this really ominous music playing-the same ominous music that showed up now and again during "The Witch's Sabbath." Although Ron hadn't noticed this at the time they were "exorcising," Kim certainly had, and she was majorly tweaked with him for it. Fortunately, this one oversight on his part hadn't spoiled the evening, and he never made the mistake again.

However, his other oversight that evening almost spoiled the rest of his natural life.

They had been able to play this grown-up and, ultimately, romantically-themed game of hide-n-seek because the rest of Kim's family had been out of town that Friday night and didn't return until the next afternoon. When Kim called Ron Sunday morning and told him her mother had found the Zorpox helmet in the cushions of the couch, Ron's life had flashed before his eyes.

Although a highlight film of Kim, GWA, video games, and every type of cheese known to man was certainly not an unpleasant thing, Ron so feared it was going to be the last thing he would ever experienced. Although Anne Possible, as always, had been very understanding and-very importantly-discreet about the whole thing, it took Ron a long time to not feel embarrassed whenever he was around her. And, as has been mentioned earlier, he developed that shuddering problem whenever he remembered this blunder.

"Roooon. Ron!" Felix whispered urgently. "You're doing it again!"

"Wh-what?"

"You're starting to wig out again," Felix explained. "Personally, I don't care, but you are starting to get stares from other customers."

"Oh, my bad." Ron laughed nervously. "Monkey Temple flashbacks."

"Uh-huh." Felix knew that Ron didn't think about monkeys by accident. But, as long as they made it out of the store without security being called, he was okay in letting Ron slide.

Finally, they were at the checkout. Even counting all the matzah packages Rufus had devoured en route, the basket still seemed to be overflowing. Fortunately, with Ron, Rufus, and the robotic arms with which Felix's chair was equipped, the mountain of Seder supplies was placed on the conveyor belt without causing too much of a wait for the customers in line behind the trio.

The checkout clerk was duly impressed with Ron's unloading skills. He moved so fast that a couple of times it looked as if the matzah packages were unloading by themselves. In fact, at one point the clerk was convinced that a package had levitated from the shopping cart. Since his bagger hadn't remarked on this "flying matzah," the clerk decided to swear off energy drinks, at least for that afternoon.

Although he didn't remark upon it either, the customer with the abnormally hairy knuckles, crouching posture, and excessively large shoes midway down the line most certainly did witness it. And he was not amused.

V.

As Kim inched her way past her brothers' bedroom door in the darkness that was not quite like the darkness of a night sky, she reflected on how much she was really beginning to enjoy these exorcisms. What had first struck her as an off-the-wall and, well, silly idea a year or so ago, had become something she looked forward to every time her family left town. It was just like when she and Ron played "haunted house" when they were little. Flip off all the lights, try to sneak up and scare the other person without getting surprised first yourself. It was the one childhood game that Ron had won more than he had lost.

She tiptoed to the kitchen door; still no sign of Ron, or, Zorpox. She knelt down slowly to get a good look under the kitchen table. Ron was still a first class hider ... and pouncer. Since his inner-child was closer to the surface than was normally the case with the average person, Ron was able to channel a child's ability to hide almost anywhere – nothing seemed too outlandish for him. She would have to really be on her guard if she was going to last through the pre-arranged half-hour "dreamtime." Not that she really wanted to avoid Zorpox and "win" anyway. Still, so Potential Boy wouldn't get too big of a head, she wanted to really make him earn his five-alarm KP kisses this time.

Right before she left the kitchen, she double-checked the breadbox just to be sure he wasn't in there.

She walked past her parent's bedroom door, and, for whatever reason, she recalled how funny it was that the kitchen floor hadn't felt cold against her bare feet. She looked down and could make out the fuzzy while outline of her sneakers. Strange, she didn't remember putting those on.

Then it struck her as odd that she didn't recall the carpet fibers against her bare knees when got down to check under the television set for Ron. She looked, and, yes, she was still wearing her cheer uniform … although she didn't recall putting that on either.

As she was preparing to go down the hatch from her bedroom, she suddenly realized that she was wearing one of those ferociously ugly replacement uniforms Bonnie had finagled the squad into wearing Sophomore year. And that stupid bra was still hanging from that cheerleading trophy, and she knew she had taken it down a long, long time ago.

She found herself at the bottom of the ladder just as the music started. For a split second, she was outraged. Ron was playing the last movement of Symphony Fantastique again! He knew how the Dies Irae freaked her out!

He promised he would never do it again!

Then it hit her. Ron wouldn't break that promise.

She fumbled for the Kimmunicator. It wasn't in the back pocket of her skirt, but she always had it there a-and, wait, it was in the front pocket.

Front pocket? When did Mom sew that? She shook these questions from her head; they so didn't matter right now. She needed to contact Wade ASAP. Where was Ron? Was Shego still in GJ custody?

When the Kimmunicator flicked on, she got the answer to the second question.

Instead of Wade's bedroom, she saw the rusted railing of a ship that emptied onto a stormy sea; instead of her tech guru drinking from a fast food cup, she saw Shego grinning maliciously back at her. The vicious smile seemed to lengthen to unnatural proportions and swallow up the rest of the screen's image.

"Hello, Princess."

Kim opened her eyes. She quickly took in all the familiar features of the Possible living room, Saturday afternoon sunshine streaming through every window. Her literature book lay face down in her lap.

"Aaaargh!" Kim yelled behind clinched teeth. When is this going to stop? GJ finally captures Shego and I have another stupid nightmare!

She took the Kimmunicator out of her pocket and stared at it for a few minutes. She knew it was ridiculous. It had only been a silly dream. Yet she couldn't deny part of her wanted to call Wade to see if Shego was still in GJ custody. Another part of her desperately wanted to contact him to see where Ron was. She wrestled with these fears for a couple of very long minutes and then put the Kimmunicator back into her pocket.

It was just a dream. Nothing to worry about.

Thinking of how she had freaked out the night before made her deeply ashamed. Not only had she acted so completely random, she had also been so the jerk to Ron, not to mention their guides.

Possible, you need to get a grip. It … was … just … a … dream.

Her renewed confidence was belied when the sudden ring of the doorbell caused her to jump in her seat and let out a brief, yet quite loud, cry.

Ron burst through the door a half second later. "Are you okay, KP?" he asked urgently as he sprinted to the couch.

"I'm fine, Ron," Kim said, trying to calm him. "I just got startled by the doorbell, that's all."

That stopped Ron dead in his tracks. "Startled?" he asked, "By … the … doorbell?"

She nodded sheepishly.

"Okay, what have done with the real KP?"

"I know, I know," she said shaking her head and covering her eyes with the palms of her hands. "I am acting like so the freak."

He sat down next to her and placed a hand gently on her shoulder.

She dropped her hands, sighed, and feeling utterly stupid, confessed, "I had another nightmare."

"You did?" he asked, the gravity in his voice unmistakable.

"Y-yes." Kim immediately picked up on the change in Ron's demeanor. She looked up and could see the concern sparkle in his eyes. Charlie and Chris's words about the Dreamtime came flooding back to her. She didn't want to ask, but she knew she had to. "Did you just have one too?" she breathed.

"Well," Ron said, his mood immediately brightened, "I hope not. I just dropped Felix off at his house and drove over here."

Kim was relieved for this brief glimmer of Ronshine, but she needed to press this. This could be very, very important. "Do you remember what you dreamed last night, Ron?"

He screwed his face in thought. "Y-yeah, I was eating this enormous and tasteless burrito," he said finally. "When I woke up I found that I had been chewing on my pillowcase again."

Kim giggled. "Ron, I am such an idiot."

"Hey! Don't be dissing my girlfriend!" Ron said in mock anger. Then he grew serious, "Tell me what your nightmare was about. Same as last years'?"

She shook her head and relayed as much of the dream as she could remember. She concluded by admitting that she had been so freaked when she woke up that she almost called Wade to find out where he was.

"That would have been a big waste of time since I was just outside the door." Ron smiled. "Still, it might not be a bad idea if Wade hooked me up with a Kimmunicator, too."

She had to agree that that was a good idea. "Even if Shego is still in custody that would make me feel so much better."

"Yeah," Ron admitted. "I'd feel better too if I could always make sure you were safe a-and did you just say 'still in custody'?"

"Snap!" Kim said slapping her forehead. "I can't believe I forgot to tell you that! Yes, Wade beeped me this morning—GJ caught Shego!"

"Wow," Ron smiled. "How did that happen?"

"I know," Kim laughed, "it was quite a shock." To Kim's knowledge GJ had never caught Shego before … without Team Possible's assistance. "She was apparently trying to buy some old boat in the Black Sea—which I guess explains why she was on a ship in my dream."

"Why would she want to do that?" Ron puzzled.

"I don't know," Kim said, "it is kind of strange. Does it really matter?"

"Well, since she got caught, I guess not." Ron smiled.

"See, that is why I am so upset with myself right now. I learn that Shego is, at least temporarily, no longer a problem, and I immediately have a nightmare about her! I mean, really, what is it going to take for me to get past this?"

Ron took her hands in his, and said evenly, "You probably won't feel any better … We probably won't feel better until you face her again … and hand her her biscuit."

"Yeah," she nodded, "you're right." Hoping to change the subject to something lighter, she asked how his day had been so far. He explained about his mad purchases for the upcoming week.

"Ron," Kim said slightly rolling her eyes, "I can understand why you always get so much matzah, but why did you feel the need to buy so many jars of gefilte fish? You don't even like it! The only person who barely tolerates it is your dad. When I helped you drag up the Halloween decorations this year, I saw at least a dozen of those jars down in the basement!"

"I know, Kim, I know," Ron sighed, "but those prices …

"Were out of control, yes." She ruffled his hair and kissed him lightly on the cheek.

"KP," Ron said in an uncomfortable voice, "I do have something to ask you about Seder this year."

"Oh? What?" Kim could tell something was bothering him.

"Well," he began, "I was wondering if we could do things a little differently this year …" He explained about Felix's predicament with Tara and what his suggestion had been to break the ice between those two and if inviting them both over for Passover would be all right with her.

Her reaction was unexpected.

"That's a wonderful idea, Ron!" Kim beamed back at him. "Can I invite Monique, too? Do you think your mother would mind? Oh, maybe you could invite Zita, too!"

"You really like the idea?"

"Of course," Kim smiled, "it's supposed to be a celebration, right? As long as your parents don't mind, why shouldn't you invite all your friends?"

"Gee, I never thought of it like that before."

"And to be honest," Kim said throwing her arms around her boyfriend's neck, "I have always loved it when you speak Hebrew. Monique, Felix, and Zita didn't even live in Middleton when you had your bar mitzvah. I'd love to show off your bondiggity Seder skills to everyone."

"Wow! I didn't know you liked it that much!"

"I've always been ferociously proud of how you handled yourself at Passover, Ron," Kim said with smiling, earnest eyes, "always."

She then gave him a two-alarm KP kiss.

He enjoyed the kiss, was relieved that she had taken so well to his suggestion, but something was still troubling him.

"Is there something wrong, Ron?"

"Well, KP," Ron said, "the reason I was worried about asking you is because I thought you had wanted Passover to just be you and me, especially since it will be our first Passover since we became a couple. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad you like my idea, but I also … I don't know … "

"Still want to make it something special just for us?" Kim guessed.

Ron nodded.

"Well, Ron," Kim said taking his hands in hers, "Rufus needs the competition. He's found the afikomen the last five years running."

Ron nodded and laughed.

"But, don't worry," she continued, "It will still be special for us." She then explained that for ten years two best friends had let in Elijah, and this year those same friends would welcome in the spirit of the Prophet as a couple.

VI.

Monique had been very amped by the invitation. "Dude-boy speaks fluent Hebrew? Does he have any more secret abilities you have been keeping from the rest of us?"

"Don't even go there, Mon." Kim warned playfully.

She just knew Monique would be receptive to the idea. Unlike Tara, Monique had been able to maintain her long distance relationship with a graduating senior. Brick was only a few hours down the road at Colorado State, but they only got to see each other on the weekends. So Kim had a feeling her friend's Thursday night would be free.

Tara, however, almost threw the entire plan into chaos. She actually had already made plans to go to the movies that night … with Bonnie. However, she ventured nervously that if Kim didn't mind, she could extend the invitation to Bonnie, and she … they would definitely come. Reluctantly, but trying her best not to sound like she was being reluctant, Kim said that would be fine.

Kim had so not expected this turn of events. Although Bonnie's acid tongue seemed to have been dulled somewhat during senior year, Kim still didn't like her, and she knew the feeling was mutual. Bonnie was still caustic, snobby, and rude and never hesitated to voice her disapproval for any new cheer or routine Kim initiated with the squad. Yet, and this was of tantamount importance to Kim and the sole reason why she acquiesced to Tara's suggestion, Bonnie had not picked on Ron once during the entire year.

Although Bonnie didn't go out of her way to be friendly with him, she wasn't unfriendly either. Twice during the year, Kim had seen Bonnie openly laughing at one of her boyfriend's jokes. Furthermore, the word "loser" had not passed the brunette cheerleader's lips for a very long time. In fact, once Kim really thought about it, she realized that Bonnie hadn't said the "l" word since the end of junior year.

Of course, she would have to remind Monique not to bring up Brick. True, it had been nearly a year since Brick left Bonnie for Monique; in addition, the rumors around the cheer squad were that Bonnie's new BF, the mysterious Middleton College student, was exceptionally buff. Still, Kim knew that if anyone could harbor a grudge, it was Bonnie.

When Kim told Ron that Bonnie might be coming, he was surprised, but only concerned in as far as her presence might upset Kim. As long as she remained respectful to Ron, Kim said, truthfully, she had no real problem with Bonnie coming to Seder. If, however, she did anything to make Ron feel uncomfortable, the brunette would be so busted.

On Monday after school, Ron found an unexpected package from Wade waiting for him at home. When he tore open the package, he discovered a Kimmunicator that looked exactly like Kim's except that is was deep red instead of blue. When he tentatively flipped it on, he saw that instead of the KP logo, the splash screen held a blue and white "RS." "Badical," he whispered.

Beep-be-bee-beep.

"Whoa! My first call!" Ron's excitement was delayed somewhat when he realized he didn't know exactly which button to press to answer the call. He knew it was the large red button on Kim's Kimmunicator, but he didn't have one … the only large button he had was … blue. And that is probably it, Stoppable, dur hur!

He flicked the button and immediately, Kim's smiling face filled the screen.

"I see you got the package," she smiled.

"You asked Wade to make this, didn't you?"

She nodded. "But not just because of the reason we talked about Saturday, you really deserve one. You are so much more than a sidekick, Ron."

"This is so badical," Ron said, "you are the most bondiggity girlfriend! Wow, my own Kimmunicator."

"Well, Ron," Kim said still blushing slightly from being called 'the most bondiggity girlfriend,' "maybe we should call it something else. I made sure Wade personalized it so it would be … well … yours."

"Well, what should we call it then?" Ron asked.

"Ummm, Ron-u-ni-cator," Kim ventured.

After a second to let that sink in, they both exchanged gorchy expressions.

"How about …" Ron said deep in the thought, "the Roncom."

"Okay, Roncom it is," Kim smiled. "Why don't you use the Roncom to order us some pizza? Wade made sure to program it with all of your favorite restaurant's numbers."

Less than ten minutes later, Ron was in Kim's room awaiting the delivery of the first, but surely not the last, pizza ordered on the Roncom. He was lounging on her bed while she finished typing up a term paper proposal on her computer. Although he wished they could have the same school schedule they did junior year where they were in every class together, he was so glad he wasn't in her AP English class. The concept of a paper proposal, a paper about what you were planning on writing a paper about, was high on the sick and wrong scale and just barely under the wrongsick radar as far as Ron was concerned.

"So what is this paper about a paper about, KP?" he asked absently, still monkeying around with his new high-tech toy.

"Well, I'm still trying to figure that out. The stories we have to write it on are pretty whack. I just finished the last one yesterday," she explained over her shoulder. "I have it marked in my textbook with Mr. Wiggles."

Ron was glad that Kim still used that silly bookworm bookmark he had given her the first day of eighth grade—her first year in an advanced English class, a class without him. He idly opened the book to where it was marked.

"Toe-lone, Uck-bar, and Orbit Tetrus?" he read out-loud with uncertainty.

"Yeah," she smiled at the computer screen, "that's much better than I did. Mom said she read it when she was in college and thought it was super creepy."

"Is it?" Ron asked his interest piqued.

"So-so," Kim said. "It definitely got better towards the end."

Ron immediately flipped toward the last few pages of the story. The first couple of sentences he read made his head hurt—most of the words didn't even make sense. Just before he quickly shut the book, his eyes caught two sentences that he actually understood. However, they didn't interest him enough to convince him to continue reading.

"Such was the first intrusion of this fantastic world into the world of reality.

I am still troubled by a stroke of chance which made me the witness of the second intrusion as well."

VII.

Seder night began very successfully. Ron could not remember the last time so many people had come for the Stoppable Passover feast. Literally, he couldn't remember; he had been too young. His father's mother as well as his mother's sister and her husband had come until Ron was three. Once the Stoppable's moved to Middleton, only his Aunt Naomi and her husband came, and then only until just before his cousin Shawn had been born. Since he was almost eight, it had only been Kim. And then Kim and Rufus since he was twelve.

As anticipated, Ron's parents had been very excited to know that their little annual gathering was going to resemble more of a party this year. The fact that none of their guests were Jewish didn't matter to them. The fact that all were Ronald's friends who wanted to help him celebrate his heritage was enough. Besides, Middleton had always had a very small Jewish community; it would be nice, they thought, to have a traditional meal that actually drew a crowd.

There were only two little snags that concerned Kim. One, how to set up the seating. She knew she had to keep Bonnie and Monique separate just for safety's sake, while at the same time making sure Tara and Felix were either sitting next to or across from each other. Of course, she would so have to sit next to Ron. And then there was the wild card of Zita. Kim reasoned that 'Z' could make a good buffer between Bonnie and Mon if push came to shove. Finally, it was all worked out … even leaving an empty space at the end of the table for Elijah.

The second snag for Kim was the fact that since there were so many guests who did not understand a word of Hebrew, Ron would have to give an English version of each of the tellings. When he spoke Hebrew he was the picture of confidence, but he always seemed to falter a little whenever he had to be serious in front of a group in English—inevitably, his speech would deteriorate into Ronnish at certain points. And although he did make a few mistakes with his English version of the first telling, her fears proved groundless as it was smooth sailing from then on out.

As Ron was midway through the second telling, Kim glanced over at Mr. Stoppable. The pride and esteem in Elliot Stoppable's eyes for his only son was very evident. Kim tried to catch Ron's eye in the hope that the pride she felt for him was just as obvious in her eyes as it was in his father's.

Bonnie was very well behaved … for Bonnie. The only time she displayed any of her traditional "Bon-Bon goodness" was when everyone got up from the table to search for the afikomen. Kim overheard Bonnie whispering to Tara in exasperation that she thought "this was a just a game for little kids." However, Bonnie went through the motions of searching for the missing piece of matzah with enough half-hearted enthusiasm to mask her annoyance from most of the others.

The search lasted the typical twenty-minutes and, as was typical, the victor was Rufus. Kim had to admit that wrapped in a paper towel between the pages of one of Elliot Stoppable's books was a pretty good hiding place. But short of placing it in some air-tight (or scent-tight rather) container, Kim couldn't see that any place was clever enough to prevent Ron's pet from getting the prize. Word that the afikomen had been found traveled fast, and within five minutes everyone was back at their places at the table.

Everyone, that is, but Ron.

Kim exchanged a look with Ron's mother. They both knew where he most likely was. Barbara shook her head. "Every year I tell him and every year I explain that by telling him I am not 'playing him' when I say that I will never, EVER put it in the bathroom."

"Yes, but that only convinces him that you are playing him. Even more so," Kim said.

"I know, I know," Mrs. Stoppable sighed.

"I'll go get him," Kim offered as she got up from the table.

Sure, enough, there was a light on underneath the downstairs' bathroom's closed door. Kim knocked. "Ron, Rufus found it. You can stop searching now."

"Oh," Ron's voice said surprised. "Oh, that! Oh, okay. I'll be out in a little bit, KP."

"Are you okay in there, Ron?" Kim asked. He seemed completely indifferent to the afikomen, and that was majorly strange.

"Super. Just a little busy, that's all."

"O-okay," Kim said in a tone that she hoped conveyed her wish that Ron not go into details about what he might be "busy" with. His responding silence suggested that it had. She went back to the dining room.

While everyone was waiting for Ron, Tara and Felix started talking and, from all appearances, seemed to have hit things off. Zita and Monique, who barely knew each other, were in an animated discussion over the new GWA video game. And, Kim, well, Kim was talking with Bonnie. Sorta.

Strangely or maybe not so strangely, they were talking about Ron. While tiptoeing over past disagreements on the subject, Kim and Bonnie managed to be civil to each other as they appraised Ron's emergence from being "just the mascot" to being a key member of the Varsity cheerleading squad. Unfortunately, there were only so many times they could echo each phrases before going completely mad. Fortunately, after about twenty minutes, Ron returned to the dining room.

He had something in his hand, something silver.

"Sorry, for the wait guys," Ron said happily, "but look what I found!" he handed the small object to his father.

"Well, look at that!" Elliot Stoppable said, turning it over in his hand a few times. "A harmonica—I didn't know we had one of these."

"I don't think we do, dear." Barbara said.

Elliot flipped the harmonica over. It felt cool to the touch almost as if it had been in water recently. It looked old, but, at the same time, it sparkled. "It looks like someone carved their name into it … with a penknife or something." He examined the underside of the instrument closely and pronounced, "The initial 'T' and then 'S-sloth' … 'Slothrop.'"

"That's a way weird last name," Bonnie Rockwaller noted. Kim Possible and Ron Stoppable nodded in agreement. It was an odd last name.

"Maybe it belonged to the people who lived here before, Honey?" Elliot asked his wife.

"No," Barbara Stoppable shook her head. "The people who lived here before were the Chalfonts."

"Maybe the people before them?" Elliot ventured.

"No, dear," she shook her head again. "I remember the realtor saying that the people who lived here before the Chalfonts were also named Chalfont, a different Chalfont. I remember because I remember thinking at the time that was pretty weird."

Everyone had to agree that did sound pretty weird.

After giving a few tentative blows on the instrument, Elliot Stoppable asked his son where he had found it.

"In the toilet," Ron replied matter-of-factly.

Elliot spit the harmonica almost across the table and turned to his son with a look that was equal parts anger and shock, "DUDE!"

Ron was taken aback by his father's reaction and by the fact that he saw his father's shock mirrored to a somewhat lesser degree by everyone else in the room, even Kim.

Kim had never heard Ron's dad ever raise his voice in anger, let alone with Ron. Even though it hurt her deeply to see Ron the target of such anger, she had to admit that if ever there was an appropriate time for such anger, this was it.

Suddenly, Ron realized what the problem was. "Oh, man!" He slapped his forehead. "Don't worry, Dad." He counted out on his fingers the precautions he had taken. "Soap and water, dip in the bleach, more soap and water, another dip in the bleach, and a final rinse. Y'know," he explained, "the standard procedure."

A wave of relief flowed over the room. Yet, at the same time, everyone in the room, with the sole exception of Ron, had the same thought—"Standard procedure?"

Barbara Stoppable was still concerned. "Ron, I swear I will NEVER, EVER hide the afikomen in the bathroom. Why would you even think to look for it in the toilet?"

"Well, I wasn't, mom." Ron explained that he had been checking on the top of the medicine cabinet when he heard a strange rattling coming from, well, coming from the toilet. He had tentatively lifted the lid just as the harmonica … well … burped out of the water. "It shot out and landed in the bathtub! It was one of the totally strangest experiences of my life."

Even Kim, who knew almost all of Ron's "totally strangest experiences" first hand had to admit that a toilet shooting a musical instrument across a room definitely cracked the top five… and was a few notches right off the weirdness scale, to boot.

With a napkin, Kim tentatively reached out and picked up the harmonica. She turned it over in her hand. Something about it made her feel … odd. Not just because of where it came from either … there was something about it that made her uneasy. It gave the impression, and she couldn't explain why, of being heavier than it looked. And the name, there was something very … not right about it as well. She looked at Ron, "Maybe we should have Wade take a look at this in the morning?"

Before he could answer …

Beep-be-bee-beep.

Beep-be-bee-beep.

Simultaneously, Kim reached for the Kimmunicator, and Ron grabbed the Roncom. They fired them up instantaneously and, of course, said in unison, "What's the sitch, Wade?"

Kim whispered to Ron as they waited for Wade to answer, "Jinx, you owe me a soda."

Wade was more than a little jolted to be getting the same question from two different people on two monitors at the same time. "Ok, guys," he said slowly, "we are going to have to work out a procedure for answering your devices in turn, but that's not important right now."

"What's up, Wade?" Kim said seriously.

"I'm sorry to disrupt your evening, but we have a couple of major things going down and they are both local."

"Go on."

"One, we have a report that Professor Dementor has just broken into the Middleton Space Center."

"Not that guy with the funny accent and that stupid red flashlight?" Bonnie asked. "I thought he went to jail over a year ago!"

"Super villains rarely stay incarcerated for their full terms, Bonnie," Kim explained.

"And," Wade continued, "We just got a tip that Monkey Fist has broken into the Middleton/Tri-City Museum."

"Monkey Boy too?" Ron exclaimed.

"Any chance they are working together?" Kim asked.

"Not enough info." Wade said. "However, I wouldn't think so. Although Monkey Fist has teamed with DNAmy before … well, sorta … Prof. Dementor has always been a strict go-it-aloner."

"Well," Kim mused, "I guess we'll hit Dementor first. The Space Center is closer, and they seem to be a more dangerous combination than Monkey Fist and a museum."

"Wait, KP," Ron interrupted. "I'll take Monkey Boy. You should go ahead and take down Dementor."

"A-are you sure, Ron?" Kim asked, more than a little surprised at his suggestion.

"Yes," Ron said confidently. "He's my arch-foe, and I know I can take him." He saw the concern still brewing in his girlfriend's eyes. "Trust me."

"Okay." She answered, convinced by the look in her boyfriend's eyes as much as by the last two words he had spoken. Turning back to the Kimmunicator, she asked, "Wade, has GJ been alerted to both incidents?"

"Yep." He confirmed. "They should be in both places within thirty minutes."

"Just in time to haul the captured freaks away," Ron smiled.

"Kim," Barbara Stoppable said, "you still have that extra pair of mission clothes in Ronnie's dresser, you can use our bedroom to change."

Suddenly reminded of where they were, both members of Team Possible immediately felt super inconsiderate. Kim and Ron exchanged a glance and both began to apologize profusely for ruining everyone's evening.

"Don't give it another thought, girlfriend," Monique said. "I'll just catch a ride back with Tara and Bonnie."

"Yeah," Zita said waving her hand dismissively, "I can get Felix home no problem. You two have bad guys to stomp!"

Before Ron could run upstairs to change, Elliot stopped his son to apologize for getting so upset with him a few minutes earlier. He also wanted to tell him how proud he was for, what he deemed, was a masterful rendering of the tellings.

Within five minutes, Kim and Ron charged down the stairs and out the front door in full mission mode. Just before he hopped into his mom's car and she into her mother's minivan, they exchanged a brief hug and kiss.

"If you need help, don't hesitate to call me," she said.

"You too," he smiled.

They hugged again and then jumped into their respective vehicles and drove off in opposite directions.

About five minutes later and just as Ron killed the car's lights and rolled quietly to a stop in the Middleton/Tri-City Museum's parking lot, the Roncom went off. His heart was in his throat as he fumbled for the big blue button. Man, I hope KP's not in trouble!

Her image on the screen seemed to confirm that she was okay if a bit sad.

"Ron?" she asked.

"Yeah, KP, what's wrong?"

Depressed by the sound of her own voice, she said, "We forgot to let in Elijah."


TBC...

Chapter Text

… breaking down in a giggle as he reaches for the spot along her he knows she can't bear to be tickled in … and by now she's ticklish all over, he can grab an ankle, elbow—

But a rocket has suddenly struck. A terrific blast quite close beyond the village: the entire fabric of the air, the time, is changed—the casement window blown inward, rebounding with a wood squeak to slam again as all the house still shudders.

Their hearts pound. … Death has come in the pantry door: stands watching them, iron and patient, with a look that says try and tickle me.

-Gravity's Rainbow, pages 59-60

I.

Kim found herself staring intently at the moon far longer than she had anticipated. It was for only about thirty seconds, but considering the current sitch a half-minute of moon gazing was more time than she could afford to spend.

She was on the roof of what she had always considered her father's "office," the Middleton Space Center, poised over an open air vent. Dementor and a legion or so of his fairly competent henchmen were inside up to who knows what, and here she was hesitating to call Wade for the sitch particulars.

Well, "hesitating" wasn't the right word, but she didn't know what the right word was. It had something to do with Ron not being by her side. Something to do with concern for how his mission was going despite the confidence she had read in his eyes minutes earlier when he announced he could handle Monkey Fist alone. Something to do with the deep sense of melancholy that still had not ebbed since the moment she recalled that they had forgotten to let in Elijah. But even more than this last feeling, the moon, or rather something about the way it was hanging in the sky had entranced her attentions—had, in effect, taken her head out of the game.

It wasn't even a full moon, not exactly. It was a waning, or maybe waxing, gibbous. She was looking at it expectantly as if she was looking at a painting or a picture that she hadn't seen for a very, very long time. And she noticed that something was absent from this memory picture—specifically, something should have been framing the moon. There was nothing around it, no halo, the stars weren't even visible. Just the moon and the frigid, well "frigid" for April, night sky. The limitless confines of space extended in all directions from this seemingly fixed point as shiny as polished bone.

Realizing that she has just wasted another thirty seconds, Kim shook her head and fired up the Kimmunicator.

"Any news on our friends inside, Wade?" she asked as his image flashed on the screen.

"Kim, it seems they are actually 'beneath' rather than 'inside.'"

"Well, I am on the roof."

"No, I mean they are beneath the Space Center."

"What?"

"Yep, it appears there is a tunnel system underneath the Center's ground floor. From what I am able to pick up, it seems like the tunnels are in a cone shape that extends … well … a good ways into the earth."

"Like a bomb shelter?"

"Something like that—only much deeper."

Kim slowly shook her head, "Wade, my father has been giving me the grand tour of this place every year since I was eight, and he never mentioned this."

"Maybe that's because he doesn't know about it."

"Huh?"

"I just did a scan of the security system at the tunnels' entrance, and your father doesn't seem to have a security profile for it. As a matter of fact, none of the other top researchers or even the members of the Center's board have security profiles."

"Can you tell if the security system has been tampered with?" asked a still dubious Kim.

"Well, not that I can see. Except of course for the big hole Dementor's men blasted through the main entrance."

"Hmm," Kim muttered, "this is ferociously weird."

"I'll say."

"Can you tell what's down there? Top secret rocket components, experimental technology … aliens?"

Wade shook his head. "File cabinets. Floors and floors of them."

"Really?"

"Yep."

"Any idea what's in them?"

"Secret … stuff," Wade guessed.

"Great."

"Sorry, Kim, if it hasn't been converted to some electronic media, I have no access to it," Wade explained with a shrug.

"Thanks anyway, Wade. Where's Dementor exactly?"

"Six floors down with a baker's dozen of his henchmen."

"Super."

Suddenly, Ron's face appeared on the Kimmunicator screen, effectively splitting it in half.

"Hey, KP!" Ron said, and, once he noticed Wade, he cried out happily, "Hey, Wade!"

"Hey, Ron! How are things going?"

Something about this scene struck Kim as being overly familiar, but she couldn't say why. "How's it going, Ron? Okay?" she asked.

"Yeah, just wanting to see how things were going on your mission."

"Fine. Just about to go in. Did you already thwart Monkey Fist?"

"Nah, he hasn't given me 'the signal' yet."

"'Signal'?"

"Yeah, I try not to break up his rant until he says 'monkey' and then I bring it on."

"So he is still ranting right now?"

"I think so, let me check." Ron's face disappeared for about five seconds. "Yep, still going."

"Shouldn't you be listening to him," Kim asked slight annoyed, "he's probably outlining his latest scheme."

"What's the point, KP? It's always the same thing. Ape this, orangutan that, secret simian scepter, whatever."

"Okay, he is your arch foe," Kim allowed.

"Well, we should probably all get going … you know back to the missions," Wade interjected helpfully.

"True," Kim said.

"Good luck, guys," Wade vanished.

"Good luck, Ron … be careful."

"You too, KP."

"Love you," she smiled slightly.

"Right back at you," Ron beamed back.

The Kimmunicator screen went black. Kim successfully fought the compulsion to look at the moon one last time and jumped through the open air vent.

However, the moon, or at least her thoughts on it, pursued her inside. She wasn't obsessing over it too much. Just enough that her thoughts distracted her from the slight, yet consistent, pinging of her weirdar that had been going off since Wade first mentioned the tunnels.

II.

Ron and Rufus looked over the second floor railing of the Middleton/Tri-City Museum. It opened onto the large main display hall that made up most the building's first floor. A rocket of slightly reduced proportions, donated by the Space Center, hung overhead from cables, and the almost two-story tall skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex dominated the east side of the hall. Well, almost dominated. This night that honor belonged to the ranting figure of Monkey Fist.

The former English Lord and once and future (not to mention current) unhinged wacko was in rare form. He was hopping around on all fours in ecstatic excitement at the foot of the awesome … mind-boggling … imagination curdling presence … of an old book in a slightly under lit corner of the hall.

"It's just some stupid book under glass," Ron pronounced flatly as he removed the binoculars from his eyes. "What's got Lord Monkey Butt so amped?"

Rufus chattered urgently in his human's ear.

"No, no, buddy," Ron said reassuringly, "it's not like that ghost monkey magic book from last time. It's just a regular book … I think it's about football, actually. I think the cover said something like 'Go Dolphins.'"

Rufus did not look convinced.

Ron looked through the binoculars again, "No wait, it's a diary or a journal … by some guy named Godolphin, my bad." Ron turned his binoculars on Monkey Fist and stared intently for a few moments. Finally, he asked, "Where did he get those shoes? High tops with room for opposable toes? I'm thinking mail order."

The tirade of triumph apparently over, his former lordship gingerly approached the glass case.

To Ron, it looked like Monkey Fist was alone. There had been no sign of the monkey ninjas. In addition, Ron was sure his and Rufus' presence had not been noticed. This was going to be a quick and efficient game of smack monkey. With any luck, if Kim could quickly take down Dementor, it might not be too late to jet home and let in Elijah.

Ron moved as stealthily as possible down the stairs to the first level. As he was tiptoeing across the main hall, something small landed right in front of him. He looked up into the darkness of the upper hall. Other than the cone of the rocket-which he was standing directly underneath-he couldn't see anything out of the ordinary. When Rufus got down to examine whatever it was that had fallen, he discovered it was a medium-sized sliver of plaster, from the ceiling most likely. He shrugged up at Ron, who returned the shrug. Ron stepped over the debris and continued toward Monkey Fist.

With a small metallic device that looked not-so-surprisingly like a banana, Monkey Fist deactivated the security system on the display case and prepared to uncover the book. Just before his palms touched the glass he stopped. "Hello, Ron Stoppable," he said laconically without turning around.

"Oh man!" Ron, who was caught in mid-tiptoe not ten feet behind his arch foe, groaned.

Still not turning around, Monkey Fist said evenly, "You may have a small degree of mystical monkey power but a ninja you most certainly are not." His voice rose in pitch as he followed this observation up with a pointed dig, "I've been trying to ignore the annoying squeak of your Smarty Mart brand sneakers for the past three minutes."

"Hey," Ron cried, "the only person who gets away with dissing Smarty Mart is KP!"

"Speaking of which," Monkey Fist said, turning around and eyeing the shadows of the hall suspiciously, "where is the cheerleader?"

Ron did not appreciate the sarcastic tone in his arch foe's voice as the latter referred to his amazing girlfriend as simply a cheerleader. "She's got bigger fish to fry." Ron said with a smirk.

"Really?" Monkey Fist said with an evil smile. "So … you … are … it?"

"Don't even try to that sinister bit with me," Ron said, rolling his eyes, "I'm scared of monkeys, not freaks who want to be monkeys."

"Then what are we waiting for?" Monkey Fist hissed, crouching into a fighting stance.

"Well, to be honest," Ron continued, taking no apparent notice of Monkey Fist's defensive posture, "I was kinda waiting for you to say 'monkey' and then I was going to kick your biscuit. I kinda consider it a fight signal between us … you know … like throwing down … what's that word?"

"Throwing down the gauntlet?" Monkey Fist stated, more than a little annoyed.

"Close," Ron said, "more like throwing down the glove."

Monkey Fist rolled his eyes, "Can we just bring it already!"

"No problem, dude!" Ron said, suddenly wearing his serious face.

As they charged quickly towards each other, Monkey Fist suddenly stopped and held up his hands. Ron quickly did the same. "What's up?" Ron asked.

"You may won't to remove that before we commence" Monkey Fist said, indicating with a gesture that Ron needed to check on top of his head.

"Huh?" Ron put a hand to his head and discovered that he was still wearing his kippah. He quickly removed it and placed it in a pocket in his cargo pants. "Thanks, dude. I forgot I was wearing it."

"Don't mention it." Monkey Fist's smile actually seemed genuine, and not genuine in an insane way, either. "Where were we … you had mentioned you wanted me to say something, a particular word, before we began."

"Oh, yeah," Ron smiled, "I was waiting for you to say 'monkey.'"

"Very well," Monkey Fist smiled. Ron just caught that this smile, unlike his arch foe's previous one, did have a note of the sinister in it. "Monkey … NINJAS ATTACK!"

Suddenly, from their hiding place on top of the rocket's fuselage, two dozen monkey ninjas descended upon Ron. Before he could even fully comprehend how he had been played, he and Rufus were swallowed up in an angry, chattering, black cloud of tree-swinging, banana-munching evil.

III.

Once Kim entered the tunnels beneath the space center, her weirdar began pinging so loudly she could almost swear she heard it echo down the flickering, dusty corridors.

The front entrance to the tunnel had been false fronted by a pseudo freight elevator door. Apparently created by plasma cannon blast, there was a smoking hole in the door large enough for Kim to easily leap through. As she landed on the opposite side of the entrance, Kim was immediately seized with the notion that the reason her father and the rest of the center's current staff did not have security clearance for the tunnels was because they had not been alive when the tunnels were in operation.

Cobwebs thickly clustered the ceiling. Many of the panels in the ceiling were out of place or falling down and small showers of sparks rained down periodically from the gaps between the tiles. The sparks would bounce, scatter harmlessly, and then disappear as they hit the floor. And the dimly lit hallway smelled like … well, Kim really did not know how to characterize it … but it was not a new smell that was for sure.

As she made her way down the corridor, the light, provided by a series of fluorescent tubes hanging in various degrees of precariousness along the ceiling, seemed to get brighter or, at least, more consistent. She was able to make out more of the "character" of the tunnel. It really didn't have one.

It was just a long hallway with a just perceptible curving orientation to the left. Every twenty feet or so there was a closed portal on the right-hand wall. After each closed portal was the numeral "1" about three feet tall in pea-green paint. Kim figured that the number referred to the floor she was on, and, she assumed, she would eventually arrive at an elevator that would take her down to the sixth floor where Dementor and his men were "working." However, she was wrong about this second part. After walking for what seemed an extremely long distance, she noticed the numeral "2" painted along the right wall.

Wade said the overriding structure of the tunnels was coned shaped. Hmm. It must be one continuous tunnel and each 'floor' is really a 'level.'

Suddenly, a portal just a few feet ahead of her flew open. Unlike the "whoosh" Senior Senior Sr. appreciated with his doors, this door made something akin to the shriek of a rusty rake against a chalk board when it opened. Kim reflexively somersaulted five feet back down the tunnel, landing in a fighting stance. When no one appeared in the open doorway, she cautiously inched her way to the opening and looked inside.

She saw a hallway about twenty-feet in length that didn't look much different from the main hallway except that it was much narrower. But most of that was due to the file-cabinets that lined each wall and extended from the floor to the ceiling. Some of the drawers were open, and papers were scattered all over the floor. At the end of the hallway was another door or portal. The lights were flickering big time in this side corridor.

Maybe a short circuit caused the door to open. Why not? This entire place seems to be on its last legs.

Still, something about the door at the other end of the hall didn't feel right. She didn't necessarily want to wander down the side hallway and try her chances with whatever or whoever might be on the other side, but she didn't feel good just assuming that a harmless technical glitch had caused that door to suddenly shoot open either.

She was just about to raise Wade on the Kimmunicator to see if he could tell if anyone else was on level two when she heard something crash further down the main hallway. If one of Dementor's men had just caused that noise, she couldn't contact Wade for fear the device and her voice might tip off the bad guy. She placed the device back in her pocket, and continued gingerly down the main hallway in the direction from which the noise seemed to have come, giving the occasional glance over her shoulder just for safety's sake.

As the hallway went on, Kim began to notice that the slight curve she had noticed before was becoming far more pronounced. She also noticed a slight incline to the floor. She turned the corner and saw where several of the fluorescent lights along one side of the ceiling had collapsed and shattered.

Must have been what caused that commotion.

Whether the damage was due to age or whatever havoc Dementor and his men may have caused when they came through she could not determine with any certainty.

She instinctually turned around to face the direction where she had come. That door at the end of that open portal was still weirding her out. She took out the Kimmunicator, and just before she activated it something caused all her internal alarms to go off at once.

Super.

She wasn't sure if it was a noise she half-heard or a slight movement she had just barely caught in the dancing shadows in the tunnel behind her, but whatever it was it took her right back to the Jenolan Caves. Keeping a steel-eyed watch back up the tunnel, Kim flipped on the Kimmuncator. "Wade," she whispered, "I need you to …" only to notice that the screen was jumbled and hissing with white noise. Just like when it was being jammed. Just like the Jenolan Caves.

Shoot!

At that instant, three things happened right on top of each other. First, Kim heard the sound of a plasma cannon blast somewhere beneath her, most likely Dementor losing patience in finding whatever it was he was looking for. Next, another portal shrieked open about ten feet further down the tunnel. Finally, as Kim was reacting to the shriek she could just make out footsteps coming from behind her. Footsteps coming from the direction of the first open portal … footsteps advancing in her direction.

After a split second to regain her composure from this triple shock attack, Kim muttered, "Spanking." With her pen light she quickly checked to make certain there was no one coming out of the open passageway ahead—just a shower of sparks from the ceiling. She then pressed a button on her belt which instantaneously converted her shoes into roller skates.

Just before she pushed off down the tunnel, she turned to face the flickering shadows behind her that hid the source of her dread. She addressed the shadows, or, more correctly, the person or persons hiding within them, "You want to take me on? Fine. You'll have to wait your turn though because Dementor's first in line. But don't worry, I'll be back."

With that, Kim spun on her heel and with easy, fluid grace she roller skated down the corkscrew of the secret tunnels beneath the Middleton Space Center toward the last known location of Professor Dementor and his men.

IV.

Monkey Fist had been highly irritated earlier in the week when he had spotted Ron Stoppable in line at the Middleton Smarty Mart. The former English lord had been in a bad mood that day to begin with since he had been required to wear shoes in order to enter the store. Due to a new policy change, they had also been required whenever he had to walk through the lobby of the Middleton Mountain Lodge where he had rented a room for the past week. Although the special mail-order sneakers (with room for opposable toes) didn't exactly hurt his feet, they were very, very difficult to remove without a specially-made shoehorn. And this shoehorn had been left back in his suite at the hotel … which is why he was still wearing them in the museum that night. On top of all that, the tread on the sneakers was badly worn straight out of the box. The advert online had guaranteed the shoes would be new! In troubled him more than slightly to think someone and worn the shoes before him.

Much worse than the indignity of wearing footwear while stocking up on bananas for his horde of ninjas, Monkey Fist had been greatly distressed to see that Ron Stoppable had somehow managed to advance to a plane of Mystical Monkey Power that he himself had yet to reach. When he saw that package of matzah levitate from Stoppable's cart onto the conveyor belt, Fisk saw blood in his eyes. Not only had the undisciplined buffoon surpassed his abilities, he had the gall to use these awesome new powers to unload his groceries! If anything pointed to the fact that Ronald Stoppable was unfit to possess Mystical Monkey Power this most certainly was it.

Monkey Fist reflected upon this with a degree of satisfaction as he watched his minions literally swallow up the young man and his pet. Now where was I? Oh yes, Hugh Godolphin's Journal. Once he was in possession of this tome and had unlocked its secrets, he would be on the precipice of gaining a Power that would make Stoppable's admittedly considerable new skill look like a parlor trick. He turned with pompous satisfaction back to the exhibit case to retrieve this crucial piece to his plan for world domination. And nearly slipped when the worn tread on his simian sneakers made brief contact with a recently mopped section of the hall's floor. His former lordship angrily kicked the nearby mop bucket across the floor until it slammed to a stop against the wall.

Trapped under a pile of punching, kicking, shrieking monkey ninjas, Ron Stoppable tried desperately to find a "happy place" in his mind into which he could crawl. If this wasn't his worst nightmare come true it was only because his worst nightmare was that one with Kim and Shego that he had had a year ago. Nevertheless, this was pretty bad. Out of the corner of his eye, Ron could see that Rufus was having a measure of success with the two monkey ninjas he was fighting … but there were just too many of them. Even though Ron had made great gains over his simian phobia in the past, he was nowhere near balanced enough to handle all this fur, feet, and fury at one time. He shut his eyes tightly and screamed with abandon.

The place of sanctuary Ron was able to locate in his mind was his old tree house. Not surprisingly, Kim was there. She was wearing something that looked like a cross between her cheer uniform and … and … well … just her underwear (Bad, Ron, bad!). Regardless, he was reclining in her arms, and she was playing with his hair, trying in vain to make his perpetual cowlick lay flat for once. Then she bent over and whispered something in his ear … something he couldn't quite make out. Then he realized he couldn't hear her because he was still screaming. He stopped and mentally asked Kim to repeat what she had said. She did, but he still couldn't hear her. It was all that freakin' chimp chattering going on! He just wished it would stop for a few seconds, so he could hear Kim.

And, quite suddenly, it did stop. He opened his eyes, and he was no longer crawling with ninjas. They hadn't disappeared, no. Rather they were scattered all about him, holding their heads or rubbing aching muscles. There were about six hiding in the ribcage of the T-Rex, staring at him with wide eyes, and a couple who had somehow managed to get to the fuselage of the rocket, chattering nervously. Ron shot a questioning look at Rufus who had stopped in mid-fight with his two ninjas. All three were staring at him. Two seconds later, the ninjas wrenched themselves away from Rufus and high-tailed into the shadows. Ron scratched his head and uttered the only thing he could think of at the moment. "Huh?"

"Huh?" indeed!

It would have been bad enough if the bungler had merely demonstrated a new level of power that far exceeded Monkey Fist's expectations – scattering an entire legion of monkey ninjas to the far corners of the museum with only his thoughts was undeniably a formidable power. However, what made it unbearable was the fact the brainless simian-phobe wasn't even aware that he had done it! Such a power should only be reserved for those who knew how to wield it … who were worthy of it.

"Rufus, buddy," Ron asked, still scratching his head, "what exactly just happened?" Rufus, who had witnessed the ninjas being effortlessly tossed away from his favorite human by invisible hands, was just as perplexed.

Stepping out of the shadows with the journal under his arm, a very tweaked Monkey Fist glared at Ron and cried, "Monkey Ninjas, ATTACK!"

Reflexively, Ron went into a "monkey flinch," warily eyeing the shadows for the onslaught … that didn't come.

"Cheeky! Punky! I said attack!" Monkey Fist shouted petulantly. "Darwin …?"

Ron could hear the low chattering of the ninjas from every corner in the library, but none of them came charging out. None of them even moved. He still had no idea what had just happened to get him out of that monkey dogpile, but it started to dawn on him that they were now scared of him for some reason. As Monkey Fist continued to rant and call each of his minions by name to no avail, Ron stood up and confidently marched over to his arch foe.

Monkey Fist was getting manically agitated – one thing he could not accept was his troops being scared of Stoppable. The only thing that kept them under his command was fear; if they came to fear Stoppable what was to stop them from joining him? "Darwin, I demand you come out of there right now!" he screamed at one of the little monkeys curled and shivering within the T-Rex's ribs. It was too close to call whether the small ninja was more scared of Ron or of his deranged master.

Since his back was towards him, Ron simply walked up to Monkey Fist and snatched the journal from underneath his shoulder then carelessly tossed it across the floor. "Okay, dude," he said with menace as he spun his arch foe around to face him. "You are so going to pay for that cheerleader crack! Time for some smack monkey!"

The look of shock on Monkey Fist's face quickly turned to one of deranged resolve as he took up one of the foundational stances of Tai Xing Pek War.

Ron immediately took up a fighter's stance as well. And started hooting like a chimp.

Monkey Fist screamed, and, in a quite surprising move, spun quickly around and sent a flying kick into the leg of the T-Rex. The dinosaur's femur shot out of place, and the entire skeleton started to teeter.

Milliseconds before the gigantic skeleton collapsed in a billowing cloud of dust and fossilized grit on top of him, Ron observed, "I am so going to feel this in the morning."

V.

As Kim quietly rolled to a stop at the bottom of the Space Center's subterranean fortress, her thoughts kept going back to whatever or whoever was waiting for her between levels one and two. Once she had sped away on her skates, her senses immediately relaxed. Although she had no concrete proof to justify it, she was certain that the person or persons had not followed her further down the tunnel. Even so, the identity of this menace still plagued her.

The feeling was exactly the same as it had been in Australia. And like then, her gut told her there only one possible suspect: Shego. However, she knew that it wasn't Shego. The woman she was more and more coming to realize was her true nemesis (Drakken should be her sidekick!) had been in Global Justice's custody since Saturday morning. Wade had a twenty-four hour monitor on GJ's system and was set to alert Kim the second anything (an escape or even something just odd) was reported in regards to the green-skinned villainess. Sure, the Kimmunicator was being jammed, but it had only been minutes since she had been on the roof. Even if Shego could have broken out of her cell the second Wade signed off and, somehow, instantaneously got into the cockpit of a supersonic jet and rushed over to the Space Center at top-speed, it was literally impossible she could have arrived in the two minutes that was required if she was going to somehow get the jump on Kim in the tunnels. No, it was most likely one of Dementor's henchmen left up there as a guard or something.

Besides, even if by some miracle it was Shego, Kim wasn't all that concerned. Her main concern had always been with Ron's safety, and since she was alone that was so not the drama. Then again … if it was Shego, couldn't she just as easily have gone over to the museum a-and …?

It isn't Shego, so it doesn't matter anyway. Not at all. Nope. Head in the game, Possible!

She pressed the button on her belt, and her skates became sneakers again. At the blind end of the tunnel there was a single portal; on the walls on either side of the door were painted the numbers six in that same icky green color. And there was even a green six on the portal itself.

Kim was just considering how she would be able to open the portal without drawing any attention. It was a safe bet this door was just as rusted as the others and would emit that ear-piercing shriek when it opened. Just then, she heard the low humming of a plasma cannon … real close … and getting louder.

A split second before the portal and the adjoining walk exploded outward, Kim intuited what was about to happen, hit the floor, and just managed to cover her head with her arms. A few moments later, she raised her head to discover that she was covered in a chalky layer of debris and the portal and wall were gone. Since the plasma blast had vaporized most of the building material it made contact with, Kim was extremely filthy but not hurt.

"I zaid keep looking! It has to be zomewhere!" came the unmistakable high-pitched scream of Prof. Dementor.

"Someone really needs to take an anger management class." Kim grumbled as she rose and advanced to the opening as surreptitiously as possible. As she made her way to the opening, Kim could make out through the dust and smoke Prof. Dementor angrily tossing the just-fired plasma cannon at a very ripped, yet cowed, henchman.

Using the "debris cloud" as cover, Kim made her way into The Room and skirted around the edge of the surprisingly expansive hall and hid behind the nearest piece of cover she could find, a file cabinet.

The Room was oddly shaped. It reminded her of an amphitheater or an ant lion's den. It was a series of concentric circles or "rings," each level or ring had a somewhat smaller circumference than the one just above it. The ring on which she was hiding served as a platform for about two dozen very large file cabinets, each equipped with ten drawers. Dementor's men were busily opening and shutting each drawer, rummaging very quickly through the contents. The ring below this level held an arrangement of couches and chairs that reminded Kim of Nana's furniture in Florida somewhat. The smaller ring below that contained a large table with a topographical map of the world on its surface. Although she had seen maps from right around the time she was born that displayed the Soviet Union and East and West Germany, she could not make sense of the nations on this map. Several of the nations (including the United States) seemed segmented by color into different nation-states that she did not recognize. Tellingly, Dementor chose the map as his pacing station as he kept tabs on all his men's activities and continued to bark orders.

Wade's remark earlier that the tunnel structure was shaped like a cone suddenly came back to Kim.

A cone … a rocket cone. And this is the point.

No sooner did she think "rocket" that Kim saw one. Well, a picture of one at least. The ring above her and Dementor's men was only a ring of wall space adorned with various pictures. The one that immediately caught her eye was of a rocket in a forest. It looked like an older rocket-and not just because it was a black and white photo. She had been around enough of her father's blueprints and rocket models to realize that the one in this picture was definitely old old school. Then there was another picture of what looked like a fuzzy close-up of an octopus, and another of a man in an army uniform but the image's face, unfortunately, had been wiped clean by an errant, or not-so-errant, plasma blast. Then there was a picture of a white-haired girl that made Kim do a double take. There was something awfully familiar about her strange face, but the hair style was very bizarre, and her clothing (what there was of it) seemed, much like the style of the rocket, to be very old school. The rest of the dozen pictures or so were of dogs.

Dogs in kennels. For whatever reason, these pictures disturbed Kim very much. It wasn't that the dogs in the pictures were disturbing to look at, well, not exactly. However, looking at the pictures made her very uncomfortable.

As she drew her attention back to Dementor and the workings of his men, she noticed there was, well, a pattern, to how they were opening the drawers, checking the files, and then closing the drawers. It was almost as if they were working to a beat. After a minute of observing this, Kim realized there was a beat. In fact, there was music. She heard a horn and then a piano. She was just about convinced she was hearing things when the large henchman with the plasma gun stopped what he was doing, stepped toward the center of the room and started to sing.

The Villainous Life

Lead Henchman with Plasma Cannon

Ordinary professors lead ordinary lives,

Get the grants and sweep the lab,

Teach the courses and look exhausted.

Ordinary geniuses have ordinary lives,

Clean the test tubes and light the burners

And try to deal with facts-

Prof. Dementor, screaming

I will punish you all if zose files are not found immediately!

Lead Henchman with Plasma Cannon

Ours attacks!

At this point, from nowhere the sound of a full orchestra kicked in.

QUINTET of Supporting Henchmen

Unpack the weapons, la la la,

Pack up the weapons, la la la,

Unpack the weapons, la la la,

Hi-ho, the villainous life!

Henchman 1

Dusting the lair, la la la,

Henchman 2

Testing the trap doors, la la la,

Henchman 3

Feeding the dachshunds, la la la,

QUINTET

Hi-ho, the villainous life!

Smash through the skylight, la la la,

Attend the trade show, la la la,

Which town is this one, la la la,

Hi-ho, the villainous life!

Kim couldn't believe her eyes but suddenly all the henchman were wearing suits with tails and top hats. Even Dementor was wearing a top hat; it almost made him look a normal height. And he was twirling a pretty snappy looking cane too!

QUINTET

Scientists to ransom, la la la,

Nations to blackmail, la la la,

Evil commissions, la la la,

Hi-ho, the villainous life!

Henchman 1

Continual jet lag,

QUINTET

La la la,

Henchman 2

Malfunctioning deathtraps,

QUINTET

La la la,

Henchman 3

Pie-eating contests,

QUINTET

La la la,

Hi-ho, the villainous life.

Suddenly, Dementor took the spotlight. Yes, an actual spotlight appeared in the middle of the room, and he strode confidently into it.

Dementor

Pack up zee weapons, la la la,

Unpack zee weapons, la la la,

Professor zurviving, la la la,

Leading zee villainous life.

Dusting zee lair, la la la,

Spanking Drew Lipsky, la la la,

Which one was zhat one, la la la,

Hi-ho, zee villainous life.

Kim could never be sure about this last part, but as the song/routine/dance number reached its peak, for a second she thought a mirror ball had also descended from the ceiling.

Dementor and QUINTET

Bring on zee world, la la la,

Take down zee world, la la la,

Bring on zee world, la la la,

Hi-ho, zee villainous...

Dementor

Liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiife!

Just as suddenly and surreally as it began, it was over. The lights returned to normal, Dementor and his men's outfits returned to normal and everyone returned to their previous dispositions as if nothing extraordinary had occurred.

Kim shook her head. That couldn't have just happened! True, she had had some Passover wine earlier in the evening, but it had never effected her like this before.

Kim shocked stupor would have lasted several minutes "post-cabaret" if one of Dementor's goons, who had continued working during "the number" hadn't yelled out triumphantly, "Professor, here it is!"

Kim's senses were all on alert as she watched the henchman remove a silver strongbox from one of the middle drawers in a cabinet maybe five down the line from her. Dementor rushed to the man's side and roughly undid the clasp on the box's front and opened the lid. From her position, Kim couldn't see inside the box, but she could hear papers rustling. Dementor was mumbling to himself as he went through the box's contents as if he were checking things off on a mental list.

"Yes, YES! It is all here!" He smiled and made a gesture to a nearby henchman, who immediately picked up the diminutive villain and stood him on his shoulders. "My loyal henchmen, today is zee dawn of zee Age of Dementor! Zhis is zee first key to TOTAL … VORLD … DOMINATION!"

After removing her fingers from her ears (Are Dementor's rants getting more deafening or is it just me?), Kim launched herself to the top of the nearest file cabinet. Even though he was standing on the shoulders of a six foot plus henchman, Dementor was still dwarfed by Kim. "Ya' know," she said coolly, "my dad doesn't really get down here that often, but I really don't think he'd be too amped about you stealing office supplies."

"Kim … POSSIBLE!"

Kim winced at the pitch of Dementor's yell. Doi! It's not like there are any other redheaded teenagers that ambush you on a regular basis.

"What happened to you?" Dementor asked in a genuinely puzzled tone.

Kim looked down at herself. She was still covered in white, gritty debris from the wall Dementor had destroyed.

"Someone," she said, her eyebrow fully arched, "threw a little tantrum."

Never one to take "little" jokes lightly, Dementor looked furiously around at his henchmen. "Are you men just going to sit zhere and let her banter ALL DAY! GET HER! GET HER!"

Dementor's henchmen were in every regard superior to the goons Drakken usually employed. Stronger, quicker, and smarter, they could beat Drakken's men any day of the week. Of course, the fact that "Drew's Crew" was next to worthless didn't really say too much about Dementor's men. Certainly, not as far as Kim was concerned.

Just before the henchman with the plasma cannon opened fire, Kim sprung from the cabinet onto Dementor's shoulders. This accomplished two things at once. One, the goon with the gun, who as suggested before was more intelligent than your average hired thug, couldn't fire at Kim again without hitting his boss too. Two, it allowed Kim to grab the strong box away from Dementor.

"Yoink!" she said with wicked glee as she snatched the box from Dementor's grasp and launched herself across the room from his wobbling shoulders. On the way down, she grabbed the rather modest chandelier that gave the room light, and used her momentum to swing about the ceiling in a long arc to avoid the plasma blasts that almost instantly surrounded her. In mid-flight Kim was able to discern with one hundred percent certainty that Dementor's man wasn't a half bad shot and that the chandelier was most definitely not a mirror ball.

"Don't hit zee box! You IDIOT! Don' hit ZEE BOX!" Dementor ranted.

When Kim alighted on top of a file cabinet on the opposite side of the room, she immediately activated her roller skates. She barreled across the tops of the cabinets, making quick little jumps in the small gaps between them. Her speed, coupled with the henchman's adjusted aim helped her outdistanced these plasma shots by a good five feet each time. The multiple blasts quickly decimated the pictures, a few cabinets, and a good section of the room's rear wall producing a great amount of floating dust and smoke.

The other henchmen, who had been trying to look busy for the most part while their colleague fired his gun at Kim, were suddenly engulfed in a smog of incinerated files and paneling. Kim deactivated her skates and jumped to the floor. Quickly putting on a pair of goggles Wade had designed especially for use in burning buildings (to rescue children and pets), Kim was able to weed her way through the dust storm without accidentally bumping into Dementor or any of his men. She only made one stop, and that was to take away the plasma gun from the one henchman and shatter its muzzle with a karate kick.

She was just feet from the entrance when she slipped on something.

"Whooooo-ah!" Why was she moving backwards as she was trying desperately to move forwards? She looked down and noticed she was skidding around on Dementor's cane.

His CANE!

She landed on her tailbone and then kept moving backwards until her back came to a hard stop against something. After a moment, she tried to stand up only to bang her head against something. "Oww! Jeeze!" She wasn't sure which end of her hurt more.

"Vell, vell, vell!" Dementor said quietly (at least for him), "looks like our little thief had a little spill, ya?"

"Thief?" Kim asked annoyed. "I've explained that sitch to you how many times, Dementor? Drakken was behind all that. Are you ever going to let that go?"

Professor Dementor stepped through the rapidly dispersing clouds of dust. "I'll let it go WHEN I GET MY TRANSPORTULATOR BACK!"

"Oww! Could you not yell everything all the time? My head hurts enough as it is."

"No problem, Kim Possible." Dementor said in a genuinely quiet voice. "I am not such a bad guy. You see, you take from me, but I still give you zomething."

Kim looked down as a small metal sphere rolled next to her left hand and burst open in a brief plume of blue smoke.

That so better not have been what I think it was.

When she tried to move again, she found that thanks to the bondo ball her back was stuck to whatever it was she had landed against."Oh, Maaaaaaan!" she groused.

Kim looked up fully expecting to see Dementor's gloating face inches from hers highlighted by that way stupid villain light. If Bonnie was ever right about anything …

Instead, he was crawling on the ground some five feet away, frantically stuffing papers back into the strongbox. She must have dropped it when she fell. Glancing around, Kim noticed that some of the paper had actually landed near her. Making sure that none of the henchmen saw her do it, she quickly stretched out her right leg and snagged a folded, yellowed piece of paper with the tip of her sneaker. She dragged it back toward her and stashed the paper into a cargo pocket. She also had time to realize where she was. She was right above the point of the rocket, underneath that huge map/table in the center of the room.

Seconds later, Kim thought the jig was up as Dementor strode over to her and started to search her pockets.

"Hey!" she protested.

Dementor ignored her and retrieved what he had been looking for … the Kimmunicator.

"Take it," Kim said nonchalantly. "It doesn't work anyway."

"You actually expect me to fall for ZHAT!" Dementor scoffed.

"It's being jammed, Professor Brainiac." Kim replied coolly.

"Jammed? By who?"

"By you … I … thought …" Kim said, regretting she had brought up the subject.

"I am not jamming zhis device, Kim Possible. But zhat is a GOOD IDEA! I'll remember ZHAT ONE."

Way to go, Possible.

"You know, Miss Possible, I think zhat boyfriend of yours is starting to rub off on you."

"Don't … DISS … RON!" Kim hissed with a gleam in her eye that actually made Dementor pause.

After a beat. "Fine. Let us go my loyal henchmen!" Dementor tossed the Kimmunicator across the room and prepared to leave with his prize. As they left the room, Dementor turned back and cried, no doubt as loudly as he could, "ADIOS, KIM POSSIBLE, FAREWELL, ALDVEDASIGN, GOODBYE!"

Although her ears were ringing, her body ached in at least three different places, she had failed in her mission, and she was now stuck for who knew how long in a room hundreds of feet below the earth's surface, Kim's mind was otherwise occupied. She couldn't help wondering how Ron was making out and wishing that when she had gotten hit with the bondo ball it had been him and not this stupid table that had gotten her back.

VI.

Ron's body ached in at least three places. As the dust settled around him, he was aware of three things. One was pain. Two, he was jammed in between something and couldn't move. Three, Rufus was all right. He knew this because he could hear his little buddy chattering and asking him if he was all right from inside his pocket. Ron tried moving his arms again and realized that he was pinioned in such a way that he couldn't reach the Roncom in his left pocket or Rufus in his right. Rufus must have been trapped in the pocket too.

Where am I?

Ron blinked a few times and shook his head to clear his vision. When he saw where he was, he screamed. Which is a natural enough reaction when one finds oneself inside the closed jaws of a T-Rex.

Somehow Ron had managed to get stuck between a gap in the teeth of the T-Rex's skull. Although he would have admitted he was seriously lucky not to have been critically wounded when the skeleton crashed about him, he still thought his current sitch royally tanked. Especially when he realized that Monkey Fisk was striding confidently up to him with a smirking glimmer in his eyes.

Fisk leaned his face in extremely close to Ron's and smiled a deep, malevolent grin. Something about this scene seemed very familiar although his former lordship couldn't say why.

"Dude!" Ron snapped, "Personal space!"

Monkey Fist did not move. He clucked his tongue, shook his head, and said "What a disappointment you must be to your parents."

"Huh?" Ron was too confused to be insulted or hurt by Monkey Fist's statement … at least right then.

"Someone needs to get his priorities straight," Monkey Fist explained.

"Priorities!" Ron cried, "Who are you to talk to me about priorities? You're a Whack Freak who steals stuff!"

"Precisely," his arch foe hissed. "I am an Evil Genius bent on world domination, and I have just stolen, successfully I might add, something that is key to my plan.

"You, on the other hand," Monkey Fist sneered, "are a good Jewish boy playing at being a hero when he should be at home celebrating Passover!"

Ron was too shocked and outraged to speak. Yet his eyes and serious face did much to convey his thoughts at that moment. Dude! You so did not go there!

"Between the two of us," the simian-phile concluded, "I am the one who has his priorities straight." He turned briskly around, marched over to the journal, and plucked it from the floor.

He began summoning the monkey ninjas who were already starting to hesitantly emerge from their hiding places. "Come along my heroic warriors," he chided with cruel sarcasm. "The Pretender can't harm you any longer."

All Ron could do was stew and feel miserable. He had failed in his mission. He had failed Kim. He had failed himself. And although he knew he should not give Monkey Fist's words any credence, a small part of him felt like he had failed his parents too. For the first time since he and KP had been going out, Ron Stoppable felt like he had nuthin'.

Just before leaving the main hall, as an afterthought, Monkey Fist arrogantly decided to cross The Line once more. "Come along," he continued to chide his minions, "like The Pretender's little cheerleader squeeze always says, 'Let's ace this place.'"

That was it! There was no way Ron was going to let Monkey Butt walk out of there triumphant AND zing Kim with a parting shot. He didn't know what he was going to do, but the anger felt like it was shooting from his pores.

Suddenly, the mop bucket that Monkey Fist had kicked against the wall minutes earlier rocketed across the floor and into the former lordship knocking him to the ground. He cursed and tried to get up, but the poor traction on his shoes combined with the just spilt water from the bucket to make him fall down again. This time, he dropped the journal open-faced into the expanding puddle of dirty mop water.

"NOOOOOO!" He desperately picked up the book and tried fanning the pages. Anything to keep the ink that was already running and bleeding between the pages from getting worse.

Ron had no idea what had just happened, but it was starting to dawn on him that he had somehow been responsible for the badical scene he had just witnessed.

The sudden resurgence of Ron's power had an immediate affect upon the monkey ninjas. En mass, they all leapt back on top of the cone of the rocket. This was a bad thing because the supports for the rocket had been in disrepair for some time. The strain caused that night by the numerous times all twenty-four monkey ninjas had been resting on the rocket combined with this deteriorating support issue. To whit, the supports holding the cone in place gave way. As the cone swayed down—for the moment the rear of the rocket was still being anchored to the ceiling … for the moment—the monkey ninjas chattered in terror, Fisk and Ron looked up in horror, and the support beams for the cone ripped from the ceiling causing the sprinkler system to malfunction and shower everything in the main hall.

"NOOOOOO!" Monkey Fist screamed again as his pilfered journal was again doused with water. He raced to the exit clutching it under his arm, his army of ninjas scurrying after him.

Although his arch nemesis' woes did amp Ron a little, the fact that the rocket was now swinging like a pendulum over his head took the shine off this small victory. When he heard the creaking of what he knew must have been the rocket's remaining supports, he closed his eyes tightly.

Until he was four, only one word would have come to Ron Stoppable at such a moment, and that word was "Rufus." Now, however, he breathed the word that had come to be both its equivalent and much more: "Kim."

VII.

Kim's brief reverie on her boyfriend was interrupted when the lights in the room suddenly went out.

Great! What next!

Low, dim lights cut through the darkness. Emergency lights, Kim assumed.

Ok, this tanks just a little.

The silence was suddenly broken by a scratchy pre-recorded announcement. "Security has been breached. Red alert! Security has been breached."

"Doi!" Kim angrily yelled, "Where were you an hour ago?"

"Emergency Lockdown Commencing," the voice continued.

Uh-oh.

A low rumble followed by a high-pitched whine drew Kim's attention to the entrance of the room. Some five feet inside from where the door had been, prior to Dementor's little fit, a thick sheet of metal was slowly sliding into place to effectively close off the room from the rest of the complex. Although its movement began at a crawl, Kim discerned that its momentum was accelerating.

She had to get out of there and quickly. Her mind raced. The Kimmunicator, even if she could get to it, was probably still being jammed, so Wade's security hacking skills wasn't an option. She quickly did a mental inventory of the gadgets still at her disposal. She had her laser eyeliner—so she could cut herself free from the table. This wasn't ideal because the part of the table bonded to her back would hamper her mobility, mobility she was going to need if she was to get out in time. Besides, she wasn't sure she cut herself completely free in time.

Then she remembered she had on the mission gear she had kept at Ron's house—the same gear that had been enhanced by Rufus after his mind had been temporarily enhanced by Project Phoebus. Kim suddenly knew what to try. It was a long shot and if it didn't work she knew she could end up stuck in more ways than one.

She glanced at the security wall; it was most definitely picking up momentum. Kim turned her right hand around so it was facing her, closed her eyes and pressed the tiny button on her right glove.

SPLURT!

She was enveloped in a mass of practically impenetrable goop. She just hoped it was impenetrable enough to break Dementor's bonding field. She leaned forward and quickly found that she could lean forward—it had worked! She flashed out the laser eyeliner, sliced her way out of the goop balloon, and crawled out from beneath the table.

"Two minutes to complete security lockdown," the pre-recorded voice droned.

Kim shot a look at the metal wall, there was maybe five feet of squeeze space left before it sealed off the room. "Two minutes—sha!" She activated her roller skates and then pressed another button on her belt to ignite their rocket feature. As she sped toward the rapidly shrinking open space, she bent down and snatched the Kimmunicator from the floor. She righted herself and made it through the gap with at least six inches to spare.

"So not the drama!" She smiled as she zoomed up the corkscrew tunnel to level number five.

"Whoa!" She had to swerve to the far left of the tunnel to miss colliding with another security wall that had almost sealed off the tunnel at the borderline between levels five and six.

Apparently, the recording's two minute warning meant for the entire complex not just the tip of the cone.

"One minute thirty seconds to complete security lockdown."

Okay, this is kinda the drama.

As Kim rocketed up the hallway she found she had to maneuver around all kinds of debris—fluorescent bulbs, fallen ceiling tiles, rogue file cabinets. Some of these obstacles she did not remember from when she had skated down the tunnel not twenty minutes earlier. For a split-second she thought of the evil prescience near the top of the complex. Was it still waiting for her? Had it created all these new obstacles?

She made it through the security wall between five and four fairly easily—a good three inches of extra room when she passed through. However, what worried her was the knowledge that the upper levels were much longer than the lower ones. Would she have enough time to get through them all?

"One minute to complete security lockdown."

"Come on!" Kim yelled, "That was so not thirty seconds!"

Almost in angry response to her doubting its calculations, the recording broke in again, "One minute skip one minute to skip one minute to com- skip one skip one skip …"

Great! This system is so old it uses a record player for its pre-recorded announcements! Kim would have loved to reminisce over the first record player she had ever seen—at Ron's house a few weeks after they met. It was one of the few things he had been able to demonstrate to her. He had looked so proud and happy showing her how it worked. However, she had falling light fixtures and rolling, yes, rolling, file cabinets to avoid. However, she wasn't able to push Ron completely from her mind. What she was doing was very much like one of his video games after all. Except that it was a lot easier … and a lot more fun.

That said, skirting the boundary between four and three had been a little too close for comfort. At this rate, there was no way she would be able to cross the final wall in time. She really wished she had the rocket boosters from Ron's scooter at that moment. The extra boost Rufus had ignited had really come in handy on Diablo night. Then it occurred to Kim that maybe she did have boosters. This was the Rufus-enhanced mission suit after all. Indeed, there was a third button on her belt for the skate apparatus that she knew wasn't on any of her others. She held her breath and pressed it.

Well, here goes noth-iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing!

Kim found herself speeding up the hallway so fast that she could barely see. She swerved to avoid a cabinet that was coming up too fast for her to dodge and found that she was, briefly, skating on the wall. Kim would have screamed if her speed hadn't made opening her mouth nearly impossible. She made it through the boundary between levels three and two with yards of room to spare, and she had the security wall between levels two and one in sight almost before she was ready. As she passed through it, again with so much room it wasn't even an issue, something happened. She heard a 'conk' and her speed abruptly started to diminish. She pressed the third skate button again, but nothing happened. Oh no! she thought, I must be running out of fuel. The boost speed ate it up too quickly!

She puttered to a stop somewhere in the middle of level one.

"Security lockdown in ten seconds," droned the recording.

"Oh, shut up!" Kim muttered as she switched back to sneaker mode and started running as fast as she could. As she rounded the next curve, she saw the final security wall had less than five feet of space left before it sealed completely. She charged ahead as fast as she had ever run.

"Security lockdown in five seconds."

Four feet. Three feet. Two feet. One foot.

Kim leaped through the air, and twisting her body sideways, she just barely made it through at the last possible fraction of a second. Almost. "Ahhh!" Kim looked down to see her left foot had got caught in the closing wall. She quickly kicked her foot out of the shoe just the wall squished the shoe flat.

Kim gasped and sat on the floor trying to catch her breath. Then she heard it, the hum of helicopter rotors, coming from the roof. There might still have been a chance to catch Dementor. Ignoring her body's multiple complaints, Kim got up and dashed to the roof. Normally, rushing up four flights of stairs after running 100 yards at top speed and leaping past a bone-crunching security wall at the last possible second would have been a bit much to ask even of Kim Possible. However, doing this while wearing only one shoe was also highly annoying.

As she burst through a door on the roof, she looked and saw that down a row of similar doors, one of Dementor's helicopters was just now taking off. Ignoring the cramps that were just beginning to cry out in her calves and the bite of the roof's gravel on her bare left foot, Kim began running in the direction of the fleeing villain.

One of the doors along the row snapped open and smashed into Kim's face.

She landed hard on her tailbone for the second time in a night. She reflexively checked her stinging face with her right hand. The glove came back bloody. Her vision was still blurring from the contact with the door, but she immediately recognized the figure that emerged from behind the open door.

The plasma blast surged over Kim, and she collapsed against the roof. As she succumbed to unconsciousness, her final thoughts, surprisingly enough, were not about Shego. Rather, they were about the moon.

Before she closed her eyes, the moon was in the center of Kim's line of vision, and the dispersing green plume of Shego's blast framed it and completed the picture Kim had been trying to puzzle out when she had stood on the roof earlier in the evening. It was a scene from a movie she had not watched in about a decade. In fact, it was the last image from the Ten Commandments that she had seen before Ron had begged her to turn the movie off. As Kim closed her eyes, the image burned in negative on the back of her eyelids was of the descending talons of the Angel of Death.


TBC

Chapter Text

"Does it make any difference?" Godolphin said. "If it were only a hallucination, it was not what I saw or believed I saw that in the end is important. It is what I thought. What truth I came to."

-V., page 206

I.

Shego was furious.

The hum of her employer's engines was telling her it was time to go and as annoying as that was, it wasn't the reason she was furious.

She glared down at the fallen figure of her archenemy. Long ago she had disregarded that nonsense about Drakken being Princess's arch-foe. Puh-leeze, Drakken is Stoppable's equal if he's anyone's. Princess is mine.

At that moment, Kim Possible was in every sense hers.

For the better part of the last year, Shego had been anticipating just this moment or a moment very much like it. There was no way Princess was going to get away with kicking her into that command signal tower on top of Bueno Nacho Headquarters. She was going to pay and pay dearly … all Shego needed was to wait for the right moment.

A moment just like this one.

Her nemesis lay utterly vulnerable before her. Unconscious. Helpless. Defeated.

And yet, Shego was doing … nothing.

Even with her employer honking the proverbial horn, there was plenty of time for Shego to finish Princess off for good. Or, at the very least, mess her up really, really bad. Just fifteen seconds and few flicks of the wrist, and the green-hued villainess could have sent a barrage of high-intensity plasma blasts into Kim's body that would have guaranteed the cheerleader would be graduating from high school in absentia from a hospital bed.

As it was, the direct blast she had given Possible would leave the Princess feeling very, very ill for the next day or so, and that was if the fall hadn't also given her a concussion. Still, one blast shouldn't have satisfied Shego, and it didn't. However, the fact remained that she still wasn't doing anything more to hurt Kim.

If the reason for Shego's hesitancy had merely been because it wasn't sporting, that would have been one thing. Certainly, Shego would have preferred destroying Kim Possible when they were both at the top of their game. Give or take a dirty play on Shego's part, it would be so much more gratifying for her if the teen hero went down swinging. Instead, she was out cold. No, if it were simply a matter of professional pride that prevented Shego from finishing off Kim at this moment, she would not have been so enraged.

However, that wasn't the reason.

The reason that Shego could not bring herself to do away with Kim on the roof of the Space Center, the reason she was so furious, was because she felt … pity for her.

Seeing Kim's body splayed out on the roof, blood still flowing quite freely from her obviously broken nose, Shego couldn't get around the fact of how young her enemy was. Unconscious, without the confidence and brash attitude to spare, Possible on that roof appeared to be what she truly was: a not-quite-eighteen-year-old girl.

From the tips of her now-slightly singed split ends to the just-flaking pink polish on the toes of her bare left foot, Kim Possible was a kid. And no matter how evil Shego claimed to be, she couldn't take the life of some kid … at least not under these circumstances.

A bad conscience means at least you have one.

The discovery that this remembered line from a half-recalled song applied to her, made Shego livid. She rudely dug into Kim's cargo pocket. Ignoring the paper her fingers first encountered, Shego wrenched the Kimmunicator from the pocket, slammed it against the roof, and crushed it beneath her heel. Her animosity still not sated, Shego ignited her hands and fired off blasts from both fists that bounced spectacularly, if harmlessly, across and off the roof of the Center. She stalked away from and then back toward Kim's prone form, bared her teeth, and hissed, "Don't even dream it is over between you and me, Pumpkin!"

Then, just as she was turning away to heed the drumming of her employer's turbos, Shego muttered just above a whisper, "but we're even."

After the noise and lights of the retreating engines died away, all that could be heard on the roof were Kim's staccato breaths, and all that could be seen was the faint orange glow of her eyes as they danced meaningfully behind her eyelids.

II.

Although he was trapped in Ron's pocket and couldn't see what was going on, Rufus knew something was dreadfully wrong—all remaining four senses told him so.

First of all, Rufus could feel the water that was bleeding through the lining of the pocket. This was water from the sprinkler system that had burst to life when the cone of the rocket had ripped from the ceiling, but, of course, Rufus didn't know that. In any case, the unscheduled appearance of water was never a good sign. Second, Rufus could hear the chattering of Ron's teeth and beyond that noise he could make out a very disturbing creaking and breaking sounds from somewhere high above. Rufus' sense of smell only reinforced his suspicion that his human was overly frightened by something; Ron was sweating profusely. Even if his species hadn't been gifted with preternatural olfactory sensitivity, there was no way Rufus could misread this sign. Nothing else reeked quite like "fear sweat." As for his sense of taste … well, okay, only three of his remaining four senses clued him in on the dire nature of their predicament.

Ron was in the same situation as Rufus in that he was unable to see what was going on. Of course, Ron was in this position by choice. After watching the rocket's cone swing over his head twice, Ron was unable to take anymore and shut his eyes tightly. He only wished that he could have shut his ears too. The creaking of the fuselage's support rods definitely did not bode well for him.

Inside his happy place, the tree house with an almost barely-dressed Kim, things weren't so happy. Instead of being in Kim's loving and soothing embrace, Ron was pacing the floor in agitation, every few seconds swiping away another fresh layer of worry sweat from his brow. Kim was doing her best to calm him down.

"It'll be okay, Ron. Sit down next to me. So not the drama!"

"Easy for you to say," Ron said a little harsher than he intended, "you don't have a two-ton rocket ready to cave your head in!"

Completely ignoring his snappish tone, Kim asked calmly, "Don't I?"

That stopped Ron in mid-pace. "Huh? What do you mean?"

"Well," Kim reasoned, "I am inside this tree house that is inside your head, right?"

"Y-yeah," Ron conceded.

"The same head you are so worried about getting crushed by the rocket, right? A rocket, by the way, that is only a model of a rocket. I am so sure that it doesn't weigh two tons."

"I-I guess," Ron managed, "but I'm sure it weighs enough to squash this tree house and us, and the REAL ME like a bug."

"True," Kim smiled, "but, my point is that since I am also in this tree house that is inside your head that is below a way heavy model rocket, shouldn't I be worried too?"

"Sure," Ron said, starting to grasp her point.

"But I'm not, am I?"

"No. I guess not."

"Do you know why?" Kim asked with a warm smile.

Ron shook his head.

Kim patted the space on the couch to the left of her bent knees. "Sit down, and I'll whisper it to you."

Still more than a trifle nervous, Ron, with difficulty, eased down beside Kim on the couch. As soon as he had, his barely-dressed girlfriend swept him up in a tight embrace.

"Because," she whispered, "I know you'll save us, that's why."

"Kim," Ron said testily as he inclined out of her embrace. "Maybe you haven't been keeping current lately, but I'm trapped inside a dinosaur head here. I'm stuck; I can't even move! There's no way I'm going to save us. It's impossible!"

"Nothing," Kim said, stern for the first time, "is impossible, Ron."

"Yeah," Ron muttered, "for a Possible! But I'm not a Possible, Kim. I'm a Stoppable. Face it, we're doomed!"

Kim leaned over to her boyfriend. "You can do it, Ron. You can save us. I know you can," she said with confidence.

"How can you be so sure?" Ron said gloomily. Although he didn't feel like admitting it, Kim's tone was making him feel better about himself, if only slightly.

Kim gave Ron a mischievous look, cupped her hand over his ear and whispered to him, "Because … Stoppables … are unstoppable, that's why." Then she kissed his ear.

The warmth from her kiss flowed and surged over Ron's entire body. It soothed him, bathing him in warmth. More than just warm, it was making him hot. Glowing hot. Seriously. His body began glowing with this heat so brightly that he had to close his eyes.

The second the "dream Ron" closed his eyes, the real Ron opened his. What he saw almost made his slightly peeled peepers pop out of his head. The rocket, ripped free from its remaining supports, was hanging in mid-air, surrounded by a faint, though distinct, bluish glow. It was floating some fifteen feet away from him, perpendicular to the floor. Among the many thoughts that stumbled through Ron's mind at this moment was this one: "Gee, if that crashed right now, I'd be completely fine."

Right then, the rocket crashed to the ground. With an ear-splitting cacophony of smashing metal and shattering wood, the cone sunk some ten feet below the floor of the hall. However, the rocket continued to stand straight up and down; it did not sway, and it did not fall. Ron was completely fine.

"Wow," Ron breathed. "I'd probably say that deserves a booyah, but I'm not really sure what that was."

Well, Ron was fine, but Rufus was not. The little guy was understandably upset by the sudden crashing sounds. Not only that, but Ron could feel that his little friend was starting to shiver from the sprinkler system's continual downpour. If Ron couldn't manage to squeeze his way out of the T-Rex's jaws soon, Rufus was bound to catch a cold or something worse.

Almost immediately, Ron noticed that something had changed. He was no longer being drenched by a shower of artificial rain, and the echo of the falling drops was different. At first he thought his newly revealed "unstoppableness" was once again saving the day.

Then he noticed the umbrella being held over his head. And then he noticed the less-than-expressive black-clad figure standing next to him holding the umbrella.

"As usual, your timing is badical, dude," Ron said with dripping sarcasm. "You wouldn't happen to have ninja jaws of life to go along with the ninja umbrella, would you?" As usual, the ninja from the Y.A.A. (Yamanouchi Alumni Association) said nothing.

Through the indoor downpour, Ron could just make out another black-clad figure approaching him from the opposite side of the hall. As the figure's lithe form came into focus, there was no way Ron could mistake who it was. When it was three feet from him, the figure removed its soaking hood. "Stoppable-san," Yori said in the deferential tone the young ninja always used whenever she was delivering Ron an assignment from Sensei, "your bravery and power are urgently needed by the Yamanouchi School."

That's Yori all over. Polite as can be whenever she wants me to do something.

Ron was too busy rolling his eyes to catch the unique words "power" and "urgently" that Yori had seamlessly placed into her accustomed salutation.

III.

Kim had no idea how long she had been staring at the moon. A few minutes. A few hours. Days even.

The fact that the moon was the only thing she was certain of didn't concern her either. The questions of where she was or how she was didn't seem all that important. Only the moon was vital.

She could just discern a face from its craters, depressions, ridges and other imperfections. The ghostly visage that slowly became apparent was not much different than the face she had found time and again as a little girl. The only change was that this time, the face had no mouth.

This moon was on a field of complete black; there were no stars rounding its cradle out. But that was changing.

In small bursts, somewhat like the sudden surges of flame in a stoked fireplace and, at the same instant, like the slowly fading ghost image of recently erupted fireworks, nests of stars sprang into view around the moon. These nests, at first isolated fields of light, grew, blossomed, and merged before her eyes into an intricate mosaic of star points that finally overshadowed and dwarfed the light of the moon.

Pleasantly if indifferently, Kim watched the birth of the new star clusters. They would spark bright orange and red only to cool to blue and fade within the larger constellation of clusters. Her gaze absently traced the source of the flaming new arrivals and came upon the high floating sparks of a roaring fire. Her eyes languidly followed the sparks until they blended into the dancing flames of a small bonfire. The bonfire that she was sitting beside.

Through the flames, Kim saw that she was not alone. Sitting cross-legged on a rock directly opposite her in the glowing circle was Charlie.

He looked a lot different than when she had last seen him in the Jenolan Caves. Instead of modern dress, he was … well … he was naked. And his body and face were resplendent with ceremonial paint, etched in complex and meaningful designs. The whiteness of the paint against his ebony skin was quite stark and impressive. But it was his eyes that really got her attention. There was no escaping them.

She was breathlessly calm. When recalling this moment later, she would admit that she was in a trance of some kind. However, it could not be misconstrued that she was under a spell, a spell that she had been placed under by Charlie. Even if it were true that she was acting under a spell, so was he. They were equals within the halo of this fire. There was no power dynamic between them. He was simply asking her questions, and she was just as simply answering them.

"Where is your clan?" he asked in a language she understood as well as English.

When she did not respond, Charlie outstretched his left arm and said " Sunrise." He then reached out his right hand and uttered, "Sunset."

" Sunrise," Kim said.

"Who are you?" he asked, his voice managing to sound both faraway as well as echo within her head.

Kim slowly shook her head. It was not to say that she didn't know the answer. Rather, her gesture implied that Charlie was asking the wrong question.

He nodded, seeming to understand. After a pause, he began again. "Are you an Owl?"

Kim shook her head and mouthed, "No."

"Are you a Snake?" Charlie asked with a little more confidence in his voice.

Again, Kim shook her head from side to side.

"Are you Human?"

Without hesitation, Kim Possible said, "No."

"Are you," Charlie began hesitantly and then continued with a flash of hope in his eyes, "Wandjina?"

"Yes," Kim said and nodded.

IV.

"Uh, that's really, uh, great. But, Yori, could you and your peep help me outta this first?" Ron asked, gesturing, as best he could with both arms pinioned between T-Rex jaws, to indicate his current predicament.

"But, of course, Stoppable-san," Yori said earnestly. She and a third masked ninja, who suddenly appeared at Ron' left elbow, worked to lift the fossilized upper jaw so Ron could step out to safety. The ninja with the umbrella remained silent but kept a quicksilver pace with Ron's movements so the latter would not get wet.

As soon as his right arm was free, Ron began fishing for the Roncom. Rufus hopped out of his left pocket and vigorously shook the water from his still chilled skin.

"Stoppable-san—" Yori began.

Ron abruptly, though not completely rudely, held his left palm a few inches from the young ninja's face, "In a sec, Yori, gotta check on Kim." Before he could even attempt to dial up his girlfriend, Wade's concerned face appeared on the device's screen.

"Ron, where have you been? I have been trying to raise you for almost ten minutes!"

"Got stuck in a dinosaur's mouth, Wade, so don't want to go into details right now, how's Kim?"

"That's what I've been trying to reach you about, Ron."

Ron's stomach plummeted to his ankles with every word Wade spoke. "Wh-what?" Ron began in an ashen and powerless tone, and then he exploded a half-second later, "TELL ME!"

Ignoring the outburst was to Wade's credit but his non-reaction only made Ron more agitated. "I haven't been able to reach her for about half an hour. It looks like the Kimmunicator is being—"

"Jammed," Ron stated woodenly.

"Y-yeah." Wade nodded.

"I'm on my way, Wade," Ron said resolutely as he flipped off the device and started to run to the nearest exit. Rufus bounded after him

"Stoppable-san, please wait!" Yori called out as she raced to keep up with him.

"Yori!" Ron practically yelled, "I so don't have time for this! Kim could be in desperate trouble!"

"Please, Stoppable-san, you could make much better time in our chopper," Yori pleaded.

Ron paused, "Huh? You guys are offering me … a ride?" he was completely taken aback. Yori and her peeps had never freely given him anything.

"It would be my honor," Yori said, her eyes and voice filled with concern.

Once the black-clad chopper was airborne, Ron brought Wade back up on the Roncom. "Dude, if I get really angry, please understand that I am not tweaking on you."

"It's cool, Ron." Wade said with a smile.

"Cool. So where's the cavalry already!" Ron cried. "I thought GJ was supposed to be at both locales in twenty minutes … almost a freaking hour ago!"

"I know, Ron," Wade said, "I've called them several times in the last half hour. They keep telling me that they'll be there as soon as they can."

"Who've you been talking to?"

"The head dispatcher for North Amer—" Wade began.

"Get Betty on the line, NOW," Ron demanded. Ever since Global Justice's head officer Dr. "Betty" Director had helmed the ill-fated "Ron Factor" research project, she and Ron had been on good terms. When she got a taste of his cooking some months later, they had been on a friendly first-name basis.

Yori looked over at Ron. In the three years she had known him, she had never seen him so upset. She wanted to place a comforting hand on his shoulder, but she worried it might be misinterpreted. She checked the chopper's guidance system over the pilot's shoulder and saw that the Space Center would be over the next rise.

"What's taking so long, Wade?" Ron demanded.

"Sorry, Ron," Wade said as his fingers flew across his keyboard, "she's not picking up. I've tried her private line, her cell, desk phone, hoverjet comm-no answer. Nothing."

Ron didn't respond; he just closed his eyes for a moment. Suddenly, they flew open. "Wade, can you see if Shego is still in GJ custody,"

"She is, Ron," Wade said confidently. "Kim asked me to keep a 24 hour watch on Shego's status and to let her know the second anything changed. Nothing has."

"Can you check again, anyway?" Ron asked.

Normally, Wade would have reassured his friend that a double check was unnecessary, but he knew Ron needed to be humored at such a tense moment. A few seconds later, he had the answer. "She's still there. Locked up tight."

Ron sighed, but the visible relief that washed over his features didn't last long. They were over the Space Center now. He didn't want to think about what he might find once they landed. And, at the same time, he wanted to jump out of the helicopter that second, hit the roof running and cry out Kim's name until his voice gave out.

As the pilot was selecting a place to land, Yori saw something, and, trying not to alarm Ron, surreptitiously instructed the pilot to land a little closer to the north edge of the Center's roof.

When they set down, Ron leapt out but immediately froze. He didn't know where he should go. There were so many places to look … he wanted to be in all of them immediately. He was snapped out of his paralysis when he felt Yori snatch up his hand. She was dragging him off to the left.

"Huh? What's going on?" he asked.

"Stoppable-san," Yori said as calmly as she could, "she is in this direction; I saw her."

Less than ten seconds later, they were standing over Kim's body. For what seemed like forever, neither said anything. Then Rufus, who had just poked his head out of Ron's pocket, saw Kim and the streak of blood on her face. He started to cry.

Ron broke. He collapsed to his knees and wailed soundlessly into his hands.

V.

Yori failed in her initial attempts to calm Ron. Like a newborn infant, he was crying tearlessly trying in vain to fill his lungs. Only when she repeated for the third time that Kim was still breathing, that she had, in fact, been breathing all along, did Ron regain any sense of composure.

"Go to her," Yori urged him, "Hold her hand, talk to her. But try not to move her," she urged. "We do not know what is wrong and do not wish to make her situation worse." She quickly picked up the Roncom from where he had dropped it and managed to get Wade on the screen.

"Yori?" Wade asked surprised.

"Load-san," Yori began as calmly as she could, "We need medical services. Possible-san is hurt, unconscious." She looked over quickly at Kim, "a broken nose and probably a concussion."

"O-okay," Wade replied, slightly shaken, "I'm on it." After a few keystrokes, he announced, "paramedics will be there in a few minutes. Hang on, guys."

"Thank you," Yori smiled as she turned her attention back to Ron and Kim.

Ron had removed Kim's right glove and was holding her bare hand tightly in both of his. He was also whispering something to her that Yori couldn't and, for honorable reasons, didn't want to make out.

The best he could, Ron was trying to tell Kim about how she had saved him back in the museum. Although he knew it must have sounded forced, he was doing his best to inject his voice with as much Ronshine as he was able.

He was so focused on being there for her that Ron didn't notice, although Yori certainly did, the lights behind Kim's eyes fluttering on.

VI.

"What is it you wish?" Charlie asked her.

Without hesitation, Kim Possible said, "Ron." And she vanished.

VII.

To state without explanation that the last person Kim wanted to see when she opened her eyes was Yori would seem excessively cruel. And although true, the statement wasn't cruel, excessive or otherwise, if one knew the explanation behind it.

Over the past year, Kim's residual "jelling feelings" toward Yori had gradually faded away. Not only did she have utter confidence in Ron's fidelity, Kim also realized that Yori was not the type of person that would tempt boys away from their girlfriends. In a word, Kim had learned that Yori was honorable, and not merely in the sense that all ninjas from Yamanouchi were "honorable," that is, during banking (or ninja) hours alone.

During the past year, Kim had assisted with four of Ron's Yamanouchi-themed missions, fighting side-by-side Yori in two of them. Although Kim would not necessarily call them friends (she so couldn't see them hanging out together; apart from her ninja training, Kim really didn't know much about Yori, let alone what she liked to do for fun), she had come to trust and respect her.

The reason Yori was the last person Kim wanted to see when she opened her eyes was because if the ninja was alone that could only mean she was delivering bad news, bad news about Ron. Please, please don't tell me Shego double-backed a-and got Ron too!

"Possible-san!" Yori said with relief as their eyes met.

Before Kim could respond, she heard the voice she so desperately wanted to hear (if maybe not so loudly—Ron was still just inches away from her ear). "Kim!"

Wincing slightly at the welcomed cry, Kim quickly turned to its source and exclaimed happily, "Ron! You're okay!"

She attempted to raise herself on her elbow, and he attempted to scoop her up in his arms. It didn't work out as well as either had hoped.

"Ow! Ow! Oww!" Kim said behind clenched teeth (though she managed to maintain her relieved smile).

Ron froze, holding her in the early stages of the fireman drape, her knees beneath his left arm, her back supported by his right. The way he was crouching, she was only two inches from the ground. "Okay, KP, what should I do?" Ron didn't want to budge an inch in any direction if it was going to hurt his girlfriend. Of course, if he could help it, he also didn't want to stay in this awkward position for long.

"Ron, this is silly, I'll just stand up." Kim said as confidently as the soreness that was spiking all over her body would allow. She had never been hit directly with one of Shego's plasma blasts before; at least, not one that was ratcheted up to such a high level of intensity. The residual effects of the blast made Kim feel like there were ants crawling all over her—something akin to the pins-and-needles sensation whenever her foot fell asleep. Great, I'm one big foot. Despite the disorienting sensations, she attempted to stand up on her own.

"Possible-san, don't!" Yori urged. "You shouldn't move until medical attention arrives!"

"Yori," Kim began, "you didn't need to call anyone. It is so not the—" before being interrupted by what at least felt like the worst brain-freeze in the history of humanity. "Whoah! Ok, m-maybe this is the drama!" She gave a little laugh, but both Ron and Yori saw Kim flash a very white shade of pale. "Could you lower me back down, honey? Slowly."

Ron, concern quickly overtaking his features, nodded, and gently lowered Kim back down to the roof.

Rufus inched toward Kim's head and gave her a soft, barely perceptible, pat on her cheek.

"Hey, little guy," Kim said quietly, "I'm glad to see you, too." She then looked at Ron and said in the same quiet voice, "I'm thirsty, honey. Could you get me something to drink?"

Ron gave a nervous glance to Yori. She nodded, signaled into the roof's darkness, and within ten seconds a black-clad ninja (the pilot ninja, the umbrella ninja, another ninja?) appeared with a small plastic cup of water. He handed it to Ron, who knelt down and gave it to Kim.

"Please," she said before taking her first sip which rapidly evolved into three big gulps that completely emptied the cup, "and thank you."

About that time the emergency team arrived. Kim was feeling so woozy and thirsty and sore all over that she barely responded when she was gently lifted into the gurney by two attendants. She was only vaguely aware of the fuss Ron was making over her with them. She absently thought how awfully sweet it was of him to look after her for what was nothing more serious than her "being a big foot."

Yori and Rufus' impression of Ron's "attention" wasn't so rosy however. They could see he was being so the jerk.

"Dude, you drop that stretcher and you are so going to feel the business end of some smack-monkey-fu!" he snapped at one of the attendants. The reason for the outburst? One of Kim's guardrails failed to lock and had harmless collapsed near her arm.

"Stoppable-san!" Yori admonished him, "Please, let them take care of her."

Ron seethed and almost started harshing on Yori when he caught himself short. "Sorry, Yori," he said, "I-I'm just …"

"There is no need for an explanation, Stoppable-san," Yori said, "You just need to relax. Let them take care of Possible-san." She reached out and touched his shoulder. As she had hoped, he didn't misinterpret the gesture; he half-turned and placed his hand over hers.

"Thanks, Yori," he sighed. "You've been badical tonight."

One of the attendants approached and informed them that Kim was being taken to Middleton General that instant and asked if one of them would like to ride in the ambulance with her. Yori smiled and gestured for Ron to go; her message from Sensei, though vitally important, could wait an hour or so.

As she watched Ron walk toward Kim, Yori was not surprised to see that one of the paramedics had, apparently, wiped the thin streak of blood from her face. It was something she had felt compelled to do herself the moment they found her, but Yori had refrained until it could be determined how injured Kim was. She had subsequently forgotten about it in all the excitement once Kim came to. That said, the young ninja was surprised to see that Kim's nose no longer appeared to be as seriously damaged as it initially had. Perhaps it was the angle she was viewing her at, but, to Yori, Kim's nose looked perfectly fine now.

Then she recalled the strange phenomenon she had witness just before Kim had come to. She made a mental note to ask Sensei if such a thing might be related to Stoppable-san's impending quest.

Ron held Kim's right hand gingerly in his. As they entered the freight elevator (the real one) on the Center's roof, she looked up at him and smiled, but she had a foggy look in her eyes.

"Thanks, Ron," she said, "it's so silly of me. If I could just find my shoe, I wouldn't be such a big foot."

"Huh?" Ron asked. He had absently noticed her left shoe was missing earlier, but what was she talking about? When she only continued to smile up at him, he asked one of the medics if she was already on some kinda powerful medication.

"Just a saline solution," the attendant replied indicating the IV drip he was at that moment attaching to an arm on the gurney. "She's very dehydrated."

Ron started seething once more. That meant that Kim was so thirsty or sick or whatever that she was hallucinating. He didn't know what Prof. Dementor had done, but he was going to pay. Pay big.

"Shorts is so going to have his biscuit handed to him," Ron announced angrily as the elevator doors opened onto the Center's lobby.

"Shorts?" The attendant Ron had harshed on earlier asked.

"Professor Dementor," Ron explained hotly, "or De-mense or whatever the shrimp wants to call himself. He did this to her!"

He was snapped out of his mini-fit by Kim's right hand that he suddenly found gripping his forearm.

For a few seconds the fog in her eyes lifted, "No, Ron."

"What is it, KP?"

"Dementor didn't attack me. It was Shego."

Ron was speechless. Part of him thought, or wanted to think, this was just another one of Kim's hallucinations, but he knew it wasn't.

Kim was feeling verrry sleep and thirsty and very "footish," but through this swirling fog of gorchy feelings, she thought she saw, just for a second, her boyfriend's brown eyes changing color.

VIII.

Anne Possible followed the ambulance into the Middleton General parking lot as it arrived with Kim and Ron. She had been at home enjoying a rare peaceful night since her husband and the boys were at another rocket conference in Colorado Springs. Wade's emergency call, made immediately after he contacted the emergency operator, had drastically changed her plans for the evening.

She contacted James and the twins during the tension-filled ride to what she normally thought of as her office. James said they would be on the road to Middleton in less than five minutes.

When she met Kim and Ron in the ER, Anne met a fairly strange scene. Although her daughter was in the stretcher looking extremely pale, she, at least, had a smile upon her face. Ron, who didn't seem aware of his girlfriend's beaming glances, was the one who looked truly ill.

While Anne was allowed to observe all the tests being run on her daughter, Ron spent an agonizing hour in the waiting room. When Anne came out and sat down beside him twenty minutes into his wait, he could not even look at her.

"Is s-she going to be all right?" he asked, staring at the gloves he was holding in his hands.

"Yes, I believe so. We're-they're still running some tests though. But she is looking better than earlier, Ron, much better," she answered. To her, Kim seemed mildly disoriented—not unusual for someone who had been knocked unconscious. She had already grilled Wade for all the details on Kim's "accident," so she knew Ron was as much in the dark as everyone else. Besides, Ron seemed both very depressed and very agitated at that moment; now would not have been the time to prod him into talking about the incident.

To her questions concerning how he was doing, Ron would only answer by nodding languidly at his lap. She shot a concerned look at Rufus, who was sitting on his shoulder, but the naked mole rat could only shrug in reply.

As she stepped away to check back on her daughter, it occurred to Anne that the gloves Ron was clutching were Kim's.

When she came back a little over a half hour later to let him know that Kim had been moved to a private room on the second floor, he still refused to look at her. To her question if he would like to come see Kim, Ron could only sniffle a response. She gently led him by the hand out of the waiting room, into and out of the elevator, and down the hall to Kim's room. He didn't say a word the entire time.

Kim was already sleeping.

Anne explained that she had been given a slight sedative, another saline drip and a rash of tests. The CT scan showed that she had suffered a very slight concussion but nothing too dangerous to keep her from sleeping. She had also been excessively dehydrated. As Anne ticked off each of these procedural facts and symptoms, she repeated, almost like a refrain or a mantra that Kim was going to be okay and that there was nothing Ron needed to worry about. However, by the way Ron was gripping the guardrail on Kim's bed, Anne suspected that he wasn't listening to her.

She is so pale.

Kim's mission gear had been removed and stuffed into a plastic "patient belongings" bag provided by the hospital and placed in a chair by her bed. Either she had not been completely tucked in or she had been tossing in her sleep because her right leg was not under the sheet. The hospital gown she was wearing was split so her leg was exposed from just above her knee down to her foot. Ron noticed a faint blue vein that ran from the side of her knee, crossed her calf and disappeared behind her ankle.

So pale.

Ron's vision blurred as the tears began falling. Although he had nearly had a nervous breakdown when he first saw Kim lying on the roof, these were the first tears Ron had cried since their fight in the Jenolan Caves.

Anne instinctively walked behind Ron and placed her hands on his trembling shoulders. Like every other member of the Possible clan, she had seen Ron cry … frequently. However, she could also tell regular "Ronnish" tears (which she had noticed came less frequently now that he was dating her daughter) from the tears that indicated he had a broken heart. She had heard them, no, felt them,nearly twelve years earlier when her daughter had skinned her knee, and she felt them now.

"I-I'm sorry." Ron managed. He couldn't believe he was crying in front of Kim's mom. Although he had done it several times in the past, he so didn't want to do it now. But the harder he tried to stop, the more tears fell. They were painful and made the back of his mouth ache. But they wouldn't stop.

"It's okay, Ron," Anne said uselessly. She remembered that nothing she or Kim had said that day twelve years earlier had been able to sooth him. She searched her memory desperately to try and recall what had calmed him. All she could remember was that it had happened very suddenly.

"I failed," he gasped between sobs.

"No," she said in a firm voice. "No," she repeated sternly. She gently turned him around to face her. He still refused to look her in the eyes. "You did not fail, Ron. Wade told me you had been on separate missions; there was nothing you could have done."

"But that was my idea!" he cried, the tears still streaming. "She wanted to take them one at a time, but I insisted we go it alone!"

"Ron," Anne said, trying her best to catch his eye, "Kimmie wouldn't have agreed if she didn't believe it was a good idea. I'm sure if she had any reservations, she had them about your safety, not hers."

Ron didn't say anything in response. His sobs were much quieter, but they showed no sign of stopping. Anne was at a loss; the only thing she knew for certain was that if Ron kept up like this much longer she was-just as she had that day twelve years earlier, going to find it difficult to keep from crying herself. If she could only get him to look at her, perhaps then she could reach him.

"D-do you remember our nightmare?" Ron asked suddenly as he wiped his nose on his sleeve.

"I believe so," Anne said, "the one that inspired your little dress-up game?"

Ron's eyes shot up in horrified embarrassment.

Gotcha.

Ron reddened and tried to look away, but Anne quickly placed a gentle hand to his cheek so he couldn't turn his head. Immediately, she noticed something was wrong with his eyes. Both the pupils and the whites looked funny. They reminded her of Tim's eyes from that previous autumn. The twins had caught a terrible flu, far worse than the one they had caught a few years back. Tim, especially, had had a terrible time because one of his symptoms had been a wretched cough. On the second day he stayed home from school, he had coughed so often and so violently that he had burst blood vessels in his eyes. Perhaps Ron had been crying so hard that the same thing had happened to him …?

"Y-yeah," Ron acknowledged, looking extremely uncomfortable.

Hate to do this to you, Ron. But I'd much rather you were mortified than heartbroken.

"So, you feel like it came true tonight?" Anne asked cautiously.

"It did, MrsDrP. It did, and I failed." Ron successfully sagged out of her reach and turned away from her. "I was supposed to have her back, and I failed."

"That's not true, Ron. You have her back now. If things were switched around and you had gotten hurt, Kim would be feeling the same way you are feeling right now," Anne explained, "and, you know what? She would be just as wrong."

Ron didn't say anything, but he had stopped crying.

Anne continued. "You both need to cut yourselves some slack in the responsibility department. Neither of you can be in two places at once, no one can."

Ron surprised her by objecting to this obvious point. "Kim can."

Hoo boy! Someone has heard James say the family motto once too often.

Ron turned around and began explaining how Kim had saved him back in the museum. He seemed more relaxed, looking her casually in the eyes. Fortunately, Ron was careful to leave out the detail that her daughter had been wearing next-to-nothing in the tree house at the time of the "rescue."

Anne was terribly distressed to hear about the dinosaur head and the rocket. As incredibly bizarre as the circumstances were, she had learned to get past the details with Kim and Ron's missions and focus instead on what was crucial about them. As he told his story about his happy place and Kim's role in his "rescue," Anne, not the first time, was struck by the innately weird sweetness (sweet weirdness?) that defined Ron's personality. However, what struck her more than his words were his eyes. They looked progressively worse … and it had only been a few moments since she had last seen them. Although she felt she was finally reaching him emotionally, her concern for his apparent physical problem was beginning to get the upper hand.

Just as Ron was about to tell her the truly amazing part about the story, she held up her hand and stopped him cold. "Sorry, Ron," she explained, "I-I need to take a look at your eye."

"Huh? O-Okay. What's wrong, .P?"

"I'm not sure …" She took a penlight from her purse and shined it in his left and then his right eye. Anne always kept a small cache of medical tools on her person—with twin sons who were always performing combustible experiments and a daughter who fought super villains, it made good sense.

What she saw in the left eye was something she couldn't explain. Although her background was not ophthalmology, Anne knew, she so knew, that what she was seeing could not be found documented in any medical journal. Ron's pupil was swirling … or at least it appeared to be.

"Ron," she said trying to hold the edge from her voice, "can you see out of your left eye?"

He covered his right eye with his hand (Ron had never learned to wink his right eye although Kim had been successful in teaching him how to wink the left when they were six). "Sure, no problems. What's wrong?"

"No change in your vision at all?"

"N-no."

From his tone Anne knew she was losing him. He was slowly but surely crawling back into his emotional shell as well as growing fearful about whatever might be wrong with his eye. As she inspected the phenomenon in the eye, she off-handedly tried to soothe his unfounded guilt over Kim by saying, "Ron … about Kim. The only person you should be blaming is this Professor Dementor person."

"No, MrsDrP," Ron cried, dropping his hand from his right eye, "it wasn't him. It was Shego! That's why I'm … I-I let that nightmare come true!"

Anne cried out in shock. Partly, this was because of the Shego bombshell; mostly, however, it was because Ron's right eye was swirling now too.

"Yeah," Ron continued, "Kim was just wrong about the nightmare. It is so like her to see it as being about someone else being hurt, but we both dreamed that Shego was going to hurt her. And that's just what happened. And I let it happen!" He started crying once again.

Anne quickly regained her composure. "Ron," she said gripping his shoulders, "you have to stop blaming yourself. Kim may have been wrong about the dream, but you are wrong about this. And," the edge in her voice unmistakable, "you have to let me look in your eyes again."

"What's going on?" Ron said his tears subsiding for the moment.

Anne peered at them from behind the penlight. What she was seeing was pure madness. Both pupils resembled kaleidoscopes as seen from behind a wall of billowing gasses. "I … don't … know …"

The sudden knock on the door made them both jump.

"Possible-san? Stoppable-san?" Yori called as she slowly opened the slightly ajar door of the room. When she saw Ron and Kim's mother, she bowed and said apologetically, "Excuse me, the nurse directed me to this room. I only wanted to see how Possible-san was doing."

"She's doing fine, Yori," Anne managed. She was still very shaken by what was happening to Ron's eyes, but she tried to give the impression that nothing was wrong.

"It has begun." Yori uttered with assurance.

"Excuse me?" Anne answered.

"Just as Sensei foresaw," Yori continued.

Anne and Ron both realized at the same instant that the ninja was staring intently at him.

"I-it?" Ron asked. "You mean …" he pointed to his eyes with both hands.

Yori nodded. "It is what Monkey Fist was seeking in the journals of Godolphin-san."

"It?" Anne echoed Ron.

Yori nodded once more. "It is pulling you, Stoppable-san. The quest has begun."

"Ah, Yori," Ron said as calmly as he could, "if you don't say what 'it' is exactly … well, I can't speak for MrsDrP, but I know I am going to start freaking out."

"Vheissu." The young ninja spoke the alien term with satisfaction, but, tellingly, without even the hint of a smile.


TBC …

Chapter Text

All anyone knows about you is that you keep showing up.

-Gravity's Rainbow, page 325

I.

While various crucial and tension-packed dramas played themselves out to resolution (or dissolution) around the world, not the least of which occurring ten feet from her hospital bed, Kim Possible slept through the remaining hours of Seder night.

Towards the onset of consciousness, Kim had a dream. It wasn't the only dream she had that night; in fact, her periods of REM-sleep were quite frequent and robust as she recuperated from Shego's ambush. However, the last dream was the one she remembered.

She was in Ron's tree house, but the tree house wasn't in his backyard … not all the time, that is. For the better part of the dream it seemed to be inside the tornado at the beginning of The Wizard of Oz. Kim was staring out one of the side windows, watching cows, rowboats, and chicken coops fly by. She had begun to nervously chew on the end of her pigtail when she realized that she hadn't done that since she was four-years-old. Then she realized that she was four-years-old.

It started to rain. It was a very peculiar rain however. The drops seemed jagged and they glowed just before they hit the roof of the tree house (as is the case with many dreams, Kim remained inside the house but could simultaneously see what was going on outside from an entirely different point of view). After watching these prickly raindrops fall for some time, Kim noticed that each was making a small rumbling sound when it struck the roof. Then she realized what the raindrops really were-small lightning bolts.

Although she was very much her seventeen-year-old self locked inside a toddler's body, the aspect of it raining lightning proved a bit unnerving for Kim, no matter her age. She had begun twirling her left pigtail as she gnawed on her right. She also started playing one of the standard "dream games" experienced dreamers practice when they first catch the subtle intimations that a dream is about to cross over into nightmare territory. To whit, Kim focused her perceptions onto the background details of the dream that up to this point she had ignored. She noticed cartoonish whistles and beeps coming from somewhere behind her in the tree house. Since these seemed promising, she followed them.

She came upon the wide back of a large white couch that was reminiscent of the one the Stoppables had in their living room before Ron had a fruit juice catastrophe sometime during third grade. Speaking of whom, Kim could just discern the top of her best friend/boyfriend's cowlick over the back edge of the couch. Just as she realized the noises were coming from the other side of the couch, she had almost completely pushed the steady rumble of the rainbolts from her perceptions.

"KP?" Ron called out in his seventeen-year-old voice.

Her relief was immediate. "Ron!" she called out in her little girl voice as she raced around the corner of the couch. Reaching the corner took longer than it should have, but she soon found herself sitting next to Ron on the extremely comfy couch.

Although he was talking in dreamspeak and she couldn't isolate the individual words, Ron's voice was very comforting, and the tornado, rainbolts, flying chicken coops, etc. were almost a memory. Ron was very intent on the video game flashing in bright colors and even brighter noises a few feet away on the television screen. Kim realized then that unlike the game, the rest of her dream was in black and white. She normally dreamed in color … dream, dream? … waitaminute am I dreaming? And, at that instant, Ron, who up to that point had his face turned to the set, looked back at her. His eyes had no whites; they were all pupil, and his pupils were filled with rainbolts and funneling night. Thick tar-like tears flooded down his cheeks.

Okay, so far the dream played out according to the standard nightmare script. With swirling menace on all sides, the dreamer sought comfort and rescue from someone she loved and trusted who just happened to appear at just the right moment. As she caught her breath and the fear began to ebb from her heart, the twist ending struck. The source of comfort was, all along, an agent of the forces of darkness. (Ron had frequently experienced these scenarios during his childhood night terrors. A pack of child-eating reptilian Crayola crayons at his heels, he would jump into the sheltering arms of his mother only to discover … she had somewhat scaly skin and was wearing a sweater whose weave design looked remarkably like the stripe-pattern found on the wrapper of a certain brand of crayon …. Aaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhh!)

But that was not how Kim's dream played out.

"Are you okay, KP?" Ron asked urgently, looking down at her trembling four-year-old form. His eyes were still filled with storms, and the night was still streaming down his cheeks … yet … his voice was warm and kind. Despite his apparent alliance with the foreboding elements outside the tree house, she still felt love and comfort flowing from him.

She nodded in response to his question, smiled, and inched back to his side.

"Good." He smiled, absently wiping the drops of void from face. "Wanna play a game?"

She nodded enthusiastically and found the controller (which looked remarkably like a shoe) in her small hand

He showed her which buttons (shoelace eyeholes) were used to make her video character jump and kick. "See, look, KP, your guy can jump and kick!"

"Yeah!" she smiled and echoed him, "Jump, kick, jump kick!"

Although she retained her seventeen-year-old mind and all her memories, Kim found herself acting her physical age as she sat next to Ron. Likewise, although Ron remained her best friend and the person she had given her heart to, in this tree house he was taking on aspects of a big brother figure for her. Strange, this didn't seem out of place. In fact, it struck Kim as quite familiar … like a buried or sleeping. Although she didn't recall having an imaginary friend, like Ron had with Rufus, perhaps she had. And maybe this forgotten friend had been an older brother. Maybe.

They exchanged the controller so often that Kim easily forgot who was playing. However, it was clear they were winning and winning big.

"Booyah!" Ron yelled as the guy on the screen jumped and kicked.

"Booyah!" Kim echoed in her toddler voice. It felt so good to see him happy. Happy for her, and proud of her, too.

The rainbolts glowed in Ron's eyes as he announced that they had just gotten the "all time top score in the universe" for this particular game. He told Kim to enter her name in the score list. Although the letters she entered were not in English at first, they flashed into letters she could read once she was finished.

Kim Stoppable.

It only seemed fair to Kim that they should share the credit. Besides, she liked that name.

Ron smiled broadly and gave her small shoulders a gentle, friendly hug. Some of his tar-like tears got on her shirt.

"Oh man!" Ron moaned as another name, also written in dream letters, bumped "Kim Stoppable" from the top slot. "That guy always beats me!" Ron explained. "And he never even plays! It vexes me so."

Kim smiled at Ron being so … so Ronnish. But then a tiny spark of dread formed in her stomach as she watched the dream letters in the new name begin to shift and change. The fear grew and blossomed across her entire body as the letters unspooled into their English equivalents.

T. Slothrop.

And that's when Kim woke up.

II.

"Oh man!" Kim moaned as she blinked open her eyes. She mumbled somewhat incoherently, "I wish just for once this week … I could dream a normal whacked out dream that didn't seem to have some … hidden meaning to it!"

"What do you mean, Kimmie," asked Anne, visibly pleased that her daughter was finally awake.

"Huh?" asked Kim. "Oh, just that strange name on that harmonica Ron found in the toilet." She yawned, stretching her arms and legs. Every inch of her ached, but the pain in her back trumped all her other minor complaints.

Anne didn't respond. She assumed "the harmonica in the toilet" was just another product of Kim's subconscious.

"Mom," Kim said, "why am I in the hospital?" She was just beginning to take in her surroundings. "Surely, a little fight with Shego doesn't merit all this."

"You don't remember being brought here," Anne asked, concern beginning to furrow her brow.

"No. Well, maybe … a little." Kim frowned as she tried to piece together all the disjointed memories from the previous evening. "Y-Yori … found me on the roof and Ron—Ron!" Kim tossed the sheet off her body and prepared to heave herself out of the bed.

"You are not going anywhere, young lady," Anne said firmly as she placed her hands on her daughter's shoulders.

"Is he okay?" Kim asked excitedly.

"He's …," Anne hesitated, "he's just fine."

"Why did you hesitate?" Kim asked directly.

"Ron and I agreed he should be the one to tell you."

"Okay, that is so not making me feel better."

"Kim," Anne sighed, "let me put it this way. Of the two of you, you are the one that should be in the hospital. Satisfied?"

"Somewhat," Kim said in a tone that implied the opposite. However, the reading on her panic meter was back down to normal. "Still, it is ferociously stupid for me to be in this bed. I've gotten blasted by Shego in the past, and it has always been no big."

"This time it was big, Kim." Seeing that her daughter was not going to be placated by this statement (Kim was agitatedly tapping her left foot against the mattress while her fingers were drumming her left knee), Anne asked, "What time is it?"

"Huh?"

"What time do you suppose it is, Kim?"

"Umm," Kim thought for a moment. The ache in her back and in her leg muscles told her she had probably been asleep for a good while. If she and Ron had left for their missions around nine and she had, to be generous, arrived at the hospital at midnight (although she knew it couldn't have been that late), then she had been asleep for nine hours perhaps. Then … "Nine, nine-thirty," she guessed.

"Try three-thirty in the afternoon, Kim," her mother said flatly. "I watched you fall asleep in the ER last night just before ten thirty. You have been sleeping for more than seventeen hours."

Kim gasped.

"You suffered a very mild concussion, but it was still a concussion. You were dangerously dehydrated and very, very disoriented when you got here. Every few minutes you would announce that you were a big foot."

I feel disoriented now. More incongruous memories came flooding back. She remembered saying that nonsense about being a foot. Yori's very concerned face. The prickly sensation of Shego's blast. The feel of the blood running down her cheek. And Ron … he had looked so incredibly sad and miserable with worry.

She then noticed the IV in the hinge of her right arm. That's probably why Mom was so intent on keeping me from bursting out of here just now. I could have ripped that out of my arm. She then glanced down at her arms and legs.

"Oh my gosh!" she exclaimed. "How much fluid did they give me? Ten gallons worth? I'm puffed out like a marshmallow!"

Anne allowed herself a smile. "I'm sure I can get a nurse to take that out of your arm in a few minutes."

"And then I can get out of here?" Kim asked impatiently.

"That is for Dr. Jones to say." Anne replied absently.

"Mom," Kim said mildly tweaked, "I'm sure your word would be more than good enough. You are one of the top docs on the staff."

"I don't think you'd want me taking responsibility," Anne replied sharply. "If I had my way, you'd stay in that bed until at least Monday morning."

Kim was taken aback by the forcefulness of her mother's response. And she sensed that an extended hospital stay had nothing to do with the current state of her health.

"I know you, Kim," Anne continued in a calmer voice. "You can't wait to radio someone to fly you halfway across the world so you can dish out some payback to Shego."

Kim shook her head sadly. "No, Mom, I just wanted to see Ron." Although her mother's face reflected regret, Kim wasn't about to let her apologize. "But you are right, Mom. I still shouldn't have tried to bolt out of here just now. I wasn't awake two seconds, and I was already in mission mode … even if it was just to see Ron. I'm sorry."

"I'm sorry, too, Kim." Anne began. Anticipating that her daughter was going to interrupt her, she said, "Let me explain. This is the first time that you have ever ended up in the hospital because of a mission, so I am … not handling this quite right. Part of me, the part that wants to keep you in this room all weekend, never wants to see you put on that mission uniform ever again."

Kim was so shocked that for the first time since she had been awake her mouth went dry.

"Of course," her mother continued, "the rest of me knows that I can't do that to you. Even if I don't take into account how important what you do is to the rest of the world, the fact is that it is vitally important to you. It has become a large part of who you are. To keep you from it would be …," Anne shot a smile at Kim, "sick and wrong. Although my protective instincts are screaming that I should do just that, I know I couldn't do it to you."

Kim gave her mother a small smile.

"That said I do have a request to make of both you and Ron."

"Okay."

"I do not want you two to ever do solo missions again. I know you both have done it in the past, but I think last night proved that you two do much better as a team. And, I think, you both would feel better knowing that you had each other's back at all times."

Her daughter's smile and nod told Anne that, as she had suspected and hoped, Kim had been thinking along those very same lines.

"Here," Anne smiled as she placed a Kimmunicator on the bed, "Wade sent this around dawn. Call Ron."

"Thanks, Mom," Kim said serious, but still smiling.

"I just hope he's up."

"What? He should be just getting home from school," Kim said with a worried expression, "unless today is Saturday and not Friday like I thought."

"No," Anne laughed, "it is Friday. He didn't go to school. He stayed up until six this morning in that chair, holding your hand the entire time. Then your father took a watch until noon. That's how Pandaroo and your mePod got here."

"Dad was here?" Kim asked, paying her favorite plush and her mp3 player no mind. "But he and the tweebs were at the big rocket conference—"

"Kim, do you really believe the people who love you could just go on about their day's schedule as if nothing had happened?"

"Well, it's not that," Kim admitted, "it's just that I didn't want to cause such a fuss. Ron is doing so well in school this semester and the tweebs were so amped about the conference, and Dad was —"

"They love you, Kim. It's no big."

"Okay," Kim laughed, "I think there should be a limit to how many times you can quote me back to myself … at least in a single hour."

"Call Ron," Anne smiled as she stepped to the door.

"Mom?" Kim asked.

"Yes?"

"We don't have any ancestors from Australia, do we?"

"Ah, no," her mother responded, puzzled. "Why do you ask?"

"It's nothing," Kim said, her voice troubled. "Just a dream I had."

"Do you want to talk about it?"

"No, not now." Kim said with a frown. "Maybe later."

"Okay," Anne said as left the room to give her daughter some privacy.

When Kim dialed up the Roncom, she only saw a black screen. When she nervously called out to Ron, she heard a crash and a distressed squeak from Rufus. Just at the moment when she was really starting to get nervous, Ron's face appeared on the screen, his bed comfortor hanging on both shoulders like a cape. The disoriented expression on his face immediately disappeared. "KP! You're awake!"

"So are you, I see. Are you okay?" What her mother had said or rather not said about Ron's health was still troubling her.

"Bondiggity now!" Ron smiled broadly.

Kim smiled with bemusement mixed with a smidgen of regret. She really hadn't wanted to disturb him. "You can go back to sleep if you want to, honey."

"What? And miss my honey in one of those stylish and somewhat revealing hospital gowns? Nuh-uh! I'll be there directly!"

"Okay, you goof," she grinned, "I love you."

"And you know I love you, KP. Bye!"

Even though there were serious matters that should have been weighing on her that moment—not the least of which being why Ron had been wearing sunglasses while he was sleeping in his darkened bedroom, Kim couldn't hold back the surge of good feelings that she suddenly felt. Part of it was anticipation of her apparently perfectly healthy boyfriend arriving shortly, part of it was still relief that last night's tension-filled mission was over regardless of its outcome, and part of the reason was because the weight of her mother's words about her father, Ron, and the tweebs were just starting to make themselves felt. She picked up Pandaroo and gave him the type of intense hug that usually only four-year-olds gave their stuffed animals. She then snatched her mePod from the desk and fired up one of her favorite "Ronsongs."

It was a song she had first heard from one of Elliot Stoppable's old tapes that he had bequeathed to his son shortly after receiving Ron's uncle's CD player and collection. Although her musical tastes were predominately colored by "flavor of the week" pop bands, there was a core of songs that she always loved and played over and over whenever the appropriate mood hit. This little country song was one of them. Ever since last year's prom, she had been playing Lucinda William's "Passionate Kisses" whenever she needed some Ronshine and her best friend/boyfriend couldn't be there.

As she was singing along, not caring in the least if she hit the high notes or not, one of the lyrics reminded her of the previous night's mission with Dementor. Maybe it was just thought association with the line "pens that won't run out of ink," but Kim reached over to the chair next to the bed and swung up her patient's belonging bag. Shestarted rustling through the pockets of her cargo pants for the piece of paper that she had managed to snag from Dementor. When she at first couldn't find it, she was worried that Shego might have taken it (Is she working with Dementor now? That would be so whack! I would actually feel kinda sorry for Drakken.). In the end, she found the folded yellowed piece of paper at the bottom of the bag where it had apparently fallen.

Still singing the song (she had it on repeat), Kim unfolded the paper without ceremony and glanced over it. It was a map, or maybe a picture of a map, of London, England. There was a random pattern of stars placed all over the map with poorly written dates next to each. The handwriting looked almost as bad as Ron's. Then she noticed that the bottom edge of the paper had a line of type. She read the words over as the first chorus of the song kicked in once more.

When she reached the last word, Kim Possible, for only the second time in her life (the first being when she was kissed by Roachie), fainted.

III.

Sensei was concerned and displeased.

He was pleased to hear that Monkey Fist had only been partially successful in obtaining Godolphan-san's journal. Without a legible copy of the late English captain's notes on the location of Vheissu, Monkey Fist might very well search fruitlessly for years. However, even with the insanely obsessive former British Lord not an active threat, the need was still great for Stoppable-san to reach the sacred place with much due haste.

The window of opportunity was shrinking quickly.

Sensei had just learned from Yori that Possible-san would not be fully recovered for at least a few days. This was most unfortunate. In addition to the sorrow he felt upon learning that Kim was in the hospital, Sensei also knew that Stoppable-san would not want to commit to such an arduous journey without his partner. However, time might not look kindly on such a delay, and the success or failure of the quest might come down to something as simple as a shift in the wind or in the passing of a few days. As much as it pained him to do so, Sensei requested that Yori inform his young protégé that he would have to begin his journey without Possible-san.

To avoid detection by Monkey Fist's impressive network of spies (the treacherous Fukushima, after all, had been one of the school's top students), Sensei was communicating with Yori via unorthodox means.

Sensei ("madfloatyfu") bid Yori ("paintballrulz") farewell and prepared to disconnect from the IH (Instant Holla) network and return to the writing of his blog. Just before he did so, a chime informed him that a new IH friend had just logged on.

Sensei's eyebrows raised in surprise and interest. He had not conversed with "charlieowl" for some time.

IV.

Under any other conditions, Ron would have fainted.

Kim had just uttered the words, "Ron, we need to talk." Words that he had feared, off and on, since she had told him that she like liked Walter Nelson back in sixth grade. After the first couple of weeks since they became a couple, his anxious anticipation of these words of doom had gradually ebbed away. In fact, his uncertainly about their relationship had been sponged away by the growing feelings that he could not mistake flowing between himself and Kim. So, in part, that was why the words, when he did hear them, did not lay him flat against the hospital room linoleum—they came completely out of left field.

Add to that the fact that these words followed an exceptionally passionate kiss from his BFGF, the socially accepted context for these words (i.e. as a prelude to "Welcome to Dumpsville, Chump! Population: You.") didn't even make sense.

However, the real reason Ron managed to weather Kim's statement with little fuss was because he was so concerned for her that he barely heard them. Although she had seemed her normal vibrant self on the Roncom not twenty minutes earlier, she now seemed almost as pale as she had when he had seen her in that bed the night before. The small furrow in her brow and the recent teeth marks in her lower lip told him something was troubling her, something big. I hope MrsDrP didn't forget and let it slip about my eyes! Self-consciously, he checked to make sure his shades were still in place.

"What is it, Kim? What can I do to help?"

She took his hand and smiled despite herself. How he had matured over the past year. After the words "We need to talk" had left her mouth, she had reflexively wished them back when she realized just what they might have suggested to him. But it was no big. No anxiety attack, no hyperventilation, just concern for her.

She looked him dead in the eye … or dead in the sunglass lens. "Do you remember what you were dreaming when I woke you just now?"

"Hmm," Ron scratched. "Not sure, but I know it was about you."

She gave his hand a pleasant squeeze, "Think, Ron. It may be important."

"Let me think, let me think," he said pressing the palm of his hand to his forehead, nearly knocking the glasses off. "I believe it had to do with a video game actually."

"Go on."

"Not much else there," Ron began, "Wait! I remember you saying 'Booyah' at one point … but your voice was d-different."

"Different how?" Kim wanted Ron to confirm her suspicion that they had yet again shared a dream, but she didn't want to give him any hints.

"Y-younger, I think—wait! You had pigtails!" Ron announced. He smiled as his hands edged toward her hair. Over the course of the last eleven months, Kim had learned to recognize this sign.

"No, no, no. No flippy, Ron!" she said flatly, taking his wrists in her hands.

"Aww, but you were sooo cuuuuuute!" Ron cooed in a babyish voice.

"Head in the game, Ron. Can you remember anything else? How did it end?"

Even though his eyes were hidden behind the shades, she could tell by the slight up and down wiggle of his ears that he was thinking pretty intently.

"Oh, we won the top score in the universe!" Ron exclaimed happily. "It was some lame game where all the guy did was jump and kick." This comment got him a frown from Kim.

"Is that is?" she prodded. "Nothing else?"

"No! Wait!" Ron said as an angry furrow creased his brow. "Some dude topped our score, and he wasn't even playing!"

"What was his name, Ron?" Kim asked breathlessly.

"It vexed me so!" Ron pouted.

"The name, Ron, please."

"Oh, it was something really … weird … it was … oh man … it was," Ron was twisting himself into knots. It was very evident that the name was just eluding him on the very edge of his memory.

"T. Slothrop," Kim breathed.

"Nah, that wasn't it," Ron said dismissively. "I'd remember something that whacked! But that is close, Kimbo." A moment of somewhat tense silence passed. "Aha!" Ron exclaimed with a snap of his fingers, "It was T. Sloproth." After a beat, "That was a really good guess, Kim."

Kim just stared at her boyfriend with a look that was perfectly balanced between tweakdom and bemusement.

Then the incredible clairvoyance of Kim's "guess" dawned on him. "No way! We had the same dream again!"

She nodded. "It was 'Slothrop,' Ron," Kim said firmly. "Just like on the harmonica you found last night."

"Huh?" Ron asked, as he removed the said instrument from his cargo pants' pocket. "On this? I really don't think I would use the word 'found,' Kim. I mean, the toilet shot it at me." He flipped it over, and his jaw dropped. "Dude! No way! Sloproth!"

Kim snatched the harmonica from his grasp and showed him the name while she read it out loud. "Sloth-rop, Ron! Not Slop-roth. Sloth-as-in-pink-sloth, rop, Ron!" With an exasperated sigh, Kim flung herself back onto her pillows.

After a moment, Ron edged onto the mattress and gently placed his hand on Kim's shoulder.

Staring at the ceiling, Kim said softly, "Sorry, Ron."

"Pshaw, Kimila," Ron said with a careless wave of his hand. "I'm down with it. You've had a very rough week."

She placed her hand over his and looked at him with a smile. "We both have."

"Yeah, I guess so." Ron thought uneasily about the news he still had to break to Kim. "Anyway, I can completely understand that with everything else, you didn't need something this freaky to happen."

"Oh Ron," she sighed, "If it were only just that, but it is so much worse than 'freaky.'"

"What do mean, KP?"

She then proceeded to tell him about her mission. The secret complex underneath the Space Center, the flickering tunnels, the paranoid feeling (which proved true) of being stalked, Dementor's cabaret, the hair-raising escape, and the final ambush. As he listened, Ron went through a gamut of emotions, but, in the end, his feelings became ensconced into two main camps: extreme concern/anger and extreme freaked-outedness(?).

"Freaked-outedness?" asked Kim, arching an eyebrow.

Ron nodded.

"Well, it's not a word, but you're right. That's how it felt to me, too."

"I can' believe it, KP! What is GJ's deal? They said Shego was still locked up!"

"Lower your voice, Ron. Please don't yell."

"Sorry, Kim," Ron spoke softly. "But I am flipping out here!" he yelled. "I mean, what are they good for if …"

"We'll deal with it, Ron." Kim said trying to calm him down. "But I still need to tell you the beyond freaky part of the mission."

That stopped Ron in mid-rant. "You mean it gets weirder than getting clocked by Shego while she's still behind bars hundreds of miles away?"

"Oh, yeah."

"What is it?"

Kim handed Ron a piece of yellowed paper from the nightstand next to the bed. "This is the paper I snuck past Dementor."

The trepidation with which she gave it channeled into him as Ron took the paper. He knew that whatever had the power to freak out the bravest person he knew would definitely freak him out as well. He unfolded it and looked over the map slowly. Finally, he said, "Man, this handwriting is terrible. It looks like mine."

"Look at the bottom, Ron," Kim urged.

Ron then saw the neatly typed caption in the lower right-hand corner. As was his habit whenever he read anything (a habit BTW that never failed to drive Bonnie Rockwaller insane whenever they happened to be sitting next to each other during a math test—she dreaded word problems especially for this reason), Ron read the line aloud. "V-2 impacts reference map of ACHTUNG clerk Lt. Tyrone Slothrop."

They exchanged worried expressions.

"We need to call Wade." Ron said simply.

"Yeah."

V.

Yori sighed as she got up from Elliot Stoppables' computer. Although she was bound by honor to deliver Sensei's words to her friend, she regretted it. She had seen how upset Stoppable-san had been on the roof the night before. The prospect of being separated from Possible-san for (possibly) weeks would be intolerable to him. That was bad enough but informing him he would have to leave her side prior to her recovery?

Yori strongly suspected Stopple-san would flatly refuse to go on the quest. She had no idea what she would do if that were to happen. She certainly could not force him to go. In addition to the fact that one of the primary prerequisites for the Vheissu Pilgrim was his willingness to go on the quest in the first place, Stoppable-san was her friend; force was out of the question.

What made her feel even worse was that his parents had already been so gracious to her. She had bunked on their couch overnight. As omnipresent as the Yamanouchi alumni seemed at times, not every service was at their disposal in every corner of the globe. As of yet, a last minute hotel accommodations ninja was not secured for the tri-city area.

However, Elliot and Barbara knew she was one of Ron and Kim's "mission-related friends," and, considering the circumstances of Kim's attack and Ron's desire to stay by her bedside, Barbara had no objection to Yori sleeping in Ron's room. Provided, that is, she wasn't bothered by the faint yet slightly repugnant smell of over-ripe fruit she had never been able eradicate from her son's bed sheets.

Yori had politely refused their generous offer and opted for the couch. As for communicating with Sensei, she would have felt much less imposing upon the Stoppables if she could have used Ron's pc. However, the computer in Ron's room didn't have the required RAM to run IH (or indeed to maintain a decent dial-up internet connection), so, instead, she had to ask Mrs. Stoppable if it would be okay to use her husband's computer.

They had opened their home to her, and this was the thanks they would get?

It was honorable what she was doing. The quest was honorable, and Stoppable-san's part in it was crucial. No, honor wasn't the issue. Yori simply felt ferociously lame in accepting her friend and his family's hospitality only to turn around and deliver him a message from which he could derive no happiness.

She was so preoccupied by the potential unpleasant fallout of making the request that she neglected to terminate the IH connection on the computer.

Unfortunately, she was already out of earshot when the program chimed, announcing Sensei's sudden return to the message board.

VI.

Wade had just scanned the map via the Roncom's view screen. The thirteen-year-old genius rapidly typed on his keyboard for a few moments and announced, "It's a map of the V-2 rocket blasts up until mid-December, 1944. All the points correspond perfectly with the holographic map I just downloaded from British Intelligence."

"The V-2? Weren't they the 'buzz-bombs'?" Kim asked.

"Close," Wade replied. "That was the V-1. It wasn't really anything more than a bomb strapped to a radio controlled model airplane. The V-2s were the first rocket bombs. The first ballistic missiles."

Two things reverberated unpleasantly through Kim as Wade spoke. One, although the events they were discussing happened some sixty years in the past, the idea that Dementor, or any of her arch-foes, would be involved with a weapon that had actually caused real damage, had really hurt and killed people was very unsettling. Her mind reflexively labeled the sitch as "sick and wrong," but the tried-and-true phrase seemed very inappropriate, useless, in fact, in this context.

Second, for as long as she could remember, rockets had always occupied a positive sphere in her life. They were her father's passion. Even prior to her first Rocket Booster outing, Kim could recall visiting the Middle Space Center. Of course, Kim knew that rockets were used for more than just Space Exploration. NORAD, after all, was just a few hours down the road from Middleton. However, she had been able to successfully keep that fact suppressed for the simple reason that those types of rockets were not the ones her father designed or was interested in. Now, however, she couldn't deny the destructive aspects of rockets—that's what these V-2s were all about. For a moment her mind caught a snatch of one of her earliest memories: screaming and running down the Center's hallways at age three, playing an impromptu hide-and-seek game with her father.

"Wade," Kim said urgently, "do you have an image of a V-2?"

"Sure thing, Kim," Wade said just before his image was replaced with a black and white photo of the said rocket.

"Bingo." Kim said evenly. "That looks exactly like the rocket in the picture in that conference room below the Center." She paused. "What does ACHTUNG mean?"

"Isn't that German for 'halt' or 'attention' or something?" Ron asked.

"I-I think so." Kim said uneasily. For some strange reason, Kim was feeling very uncomfortable with Ron referring to Germany. Well, okay, it wasn't for a strange reason. It was for a very obvious reason. Although she and Ron had been to Germany many times on missions and had a healthy number of connections and friends that were German, the Germans they were discussing now were from sixty years ago. They were Nazis.

"In this case it is also an acronym," Wade explained. "Allied Clearing House, Technical Units, North Germany. It was a small subdivision of Allied Intelligence during the last years of the war. I guess the Allies were just being funny with the name."

"So, this Slothrop worked as a clerk for Allied Intelligence?" Kim asked.

"That's what the text at the bottom of the map seems to indicate, but without the entire file that Dementor took we can only assume that."

"I guess a clerk with Allied Intelligence might be keeping track of enemy rocket attacks."

"Seems plausible." Wade said. "But anyone reading the newspaper in London at the time would have the same information. Why would a map like this be important enough to keep in some top secret file?"

Kim thought for a moment. "What about the dates on the map, Wade? Do they correspond with impact dates?"

"Let me check. Ugh! This handwriting looks like Ron's"

"Okay, okay!" Ron groused. "I'm working on it. Jeeze! Why did Killigan have to launch his Miniature Golf Course of Doom on elective sign-up day! What did I ever deserve to get stuck taking calligraphy? It's tanking my GPA!"

"It's not tanking you GPA, Ron," Kim consoled, "besides I don't think the Culinary Institute will really care if you only make the 'gentleman's C' in that class."

"Actually, Kim," Wade said after deciphering the dates, "they are a little off."

"How much?"

"It varies. Sometimes only by a few days, sometimes by more than a week."

"Maybe this Tyrone just wasn't keeping an accurate track … assuming it's his map."

Wade shook his head. "What's strange, Kim, is that the dates on the map fall before the rockets hit, not after."

"Whoah! You don't think he was a double agent, do you?" Kim exclaimed.

"Come again?"

"You know, getting a tip from the enemy beforehand of where they were targeting the rockets," Kim explained, "so he would know where not to be when they landed." Realizing that theory didn't exactly wash, she suggested, "Or maybe, just maybe, he was a good guy. A code breaker listening in to their secret broadcasts, and he got everything right but the launch dates?"

"Kim," Wade said, "that isn't possible. There's no way he could have known beforehand where the rockets were going to land."

"What do you mean? Why not?"

"Well," Wade explained, "because you couldn't really target the V-2s. The Germans pointed them in the general direction of London, but no one knew where they were going to land. Their guidance system … well … they didn't have one."

"So they weren't 'smart bombs,'" Ron said, slowly comprehending, "they were more like 'Ronbombs.'"

"Ron! Stop dissing yourself. That is so not funny!" Kim said visibly upset.

"Sorry, KP. Just trying to lighten the mood. I'm getting these major stress vibes from you."

Kim's stern look melted a little. This was twice in the same hour she had taken his head off for nothing. Her eyes tried to convey her remorse, but it was hard to tell if their message was delivered since he was still wearing those shades. Why is he wearing those again?

"So, Wade," Kim said, still looking at Ron, "what do you think the dates mean?"

"To be honest, Kim, I don't know."

Every once in a great while, Wade would not have all the answers. Sometimes this proved to be a big deal, sometimes not. This time felt like so the former.

"Something about this feels funny, guys," Kim said voicing her unease.

"And not 'funny ha-ha,' either," Ron added.

"No, honey," she shook her head in agreement, "'funny awful.'"

VII.

Dressed in her school uniform, Yori exited the Stoppable home and headed toward the hospital to deliver her message. Barbara Stoppable had offered to drive her, but the young ninja had politely refused explaining that it would be her honor to walk.

Barbara had wondered what "honor" had to do with walking five miles unnecessarily.

Yori, for entirely different reasons, was thinking the exact same thing. Was she doing the right thing? True, she was fulfilling Sensei's wishes, but would they bring about the honorable end everyone, Sensei included, sought? Her feelings of friendship for Stoppable-san and Possible-san aside, what honor could come from delivering this message if it resulted in Stoppable-san refusing the quest entirely? In the past when she had reservations about one of Sensei's choices, she had buried her doubts and carried on regardless. Every time, an honorable resolution had been reached. This time, however, Yori did not find her doubts that easy to quiet.

About five minutes after Yori had left the house; Barbara walked into the study and noticed the computer was still on. The screen displayed an instant messenger style window with a definite "street cred" (as her son would put it) interface. Apparently, someone named "madfloatyfu" was trying to contact someone else named "paintballrulz." She only glanced at a few lines of the internet-eze before shutting down the program and computer. She had a dinner meeting with her company's board of directors in less than half and hour and didn't have time to dawdle.

Although he was a half of a mile away from her, Global Justice Special Agent Will Du could see Yori quite plainly with his GJ spec binoculars. This special vision tool was only issued to top agents and could pinpoint a fly landing on a naco from five miles away.

"There's our subject. Yori Morituri: one of Yamanouchi's top students."

"I've never seen her," his colleague said laconically.

Du handed his fellow top agent the binoculars.

"She's cute. I bet a top GJ agent and a top ninja school student would make a nice couple."

"Don't be ludicrous. She's a child," Du said tersely.

"According to the file on her, she's seventeen. Same age as Possible," countered his colleague.

"Precisely," replied Du flatly. "As I stated, a child."

"They're not much younger than you, junior."

"Why much you continually try to irk me?" Du snapped.

"Don't blame me. You're the one who's so easily irkable."

Du seethed. This was far from the first time that particular observation had made been at his expense.

Although they were two miles away from them, Agents Pi and Chi could make out the two GJ agents perfectly well with their WEE spec binoculars. These special vision tools were issued to any agents of Worldwide Evil Empire who had yet to be "seated" by Gemini. The binoculars could pinpoint a fly-on-the-wall-cam on a naco from five point one miles away.

"There they are," Agents Pi and Chi said in unison.

After a brief pause, Agent Chi said, "Jinx."

"Come again?" Agent Pi requested.

"You heard me." Agent Chi said laconically.

"Yes, I did." Agent Pi conceded. "You said 'jinx.' What did you mean by that?"

After some deliberation, Agent Chi said, "I believe you owe me a soda."

"Why?" Agent Pi asked.

"It's the 'jinx rule,'" Agent Chi said after a few moments of intense introspection.

Agent Pi removed the binoculars from his eyes. During the entire heated exchange, both agents had continued to keep diligent watch over their targets. He regarded Agent Chi gravely for a minute or two. Then he went back to watching Agent Du and the other GJ agent.

"Okay," Agent Pi said.

VIII.

Team Possible's investigation of the Slothrop mystery had been briefly interrupted when a nurse had entered the room to remove Kim's IV. After the nurse left the room, he popped his head back in the door to mention that Dr. Jones would be in to see Kim in a few minutes.

"I wonder how long it's going to take me to get back to normal," Kim fussed, examining her bloated forearms and legs.

"You seem fine now, Kim," Ron smiled, "you haven't addressed yourself as Kim Footable the entire time I've been here. Not once."

"Very funny," Kim muttered, "you know that's not what I'm talking about—look how chubby I am!"

"Oh, Kimila," Ron said, throwing a hug around her shoulders, "that just means there's more—"

"—of me to love, yes, I know, Ron." She gave his left shoulder a playful swat. It was a silly and corny thing to say, but Kim really appreciated it because, like everything else silly or corny Ron said, he really meant it. "Okay, Cornball, back to business."

Ron punched Wade back up on the Roncom. Before they interrupted their call, Kim had asked Wade to dig up everything he could find about Tyrone Slothrop.

"Okay, Wade," Kim said with a serious smile, "enlighten me on Tyrone Slothrop."

"Sorry, Kim."

"What do you mean?" Kim said nonplussed.

"I couldn't find anything," Wade cried, obviously more than a little disappointed with his results.

"Nothing? You checked—"

"Everywhere, everything!"

"All known and unknown resources," Kim asked her concern mounting.

"Yes and yes," Wade said shaking his head.

"How can you check unknown resources," Ron asked, "doesn't that mean that you would know that they were there in the first place to check? And if you did know how could you call them 'unknown'?"

"It's … complicated." Wade explained.

Kim smiled uneasily. "Could you verify that he was at least a member of ACTHUNG?"

"No, they show no record of him. Neither does any of branch of the military. No medical records, no school records, no parking tickets, no mailing lists, nothing. I can't even locate a birth certificate, Kim."

"What about searches on a 'T. Slothrop' or just 'Slothrop'?"

"Well, a little here and there, but nothing useful."

"Anything could be useful, Wade." Kim said hopefully. "Spill."

"Well, there was a Slothrop Textile Mill in Springfield, Massachusetts. It went out of business in 1954. And that is the only piece of information that I can find within a twenty-year range on either side of the dates on the map."

"Well, what about—Ron, honey, could you stop playing that harmonica," Kim said, her attention wandering between what Wade was saying and Ron's noodling on the harp. OMG! I can't believe he is actually putting that in his mouth! 'Standard procedure' or no, he is so not kissing me again until he brushes his teeth. "Wade, what about information outside of that range?"

"Not much, and what I did find I sincerely don't think will be helpful."

"Hey, Wade," Ron said suddenly, "anything about harmonicas?"

The stunned look on Wade's face was difficult for either Kim or Ron to read.

"Yeah, Wade," Kim explained, "this really bizarre thing happened last night during Seder. While we were looking for the afikomen, this harmonica," she gestured to the instrument Ron was holding, "shot out of the toilet at Ron and—"

Wade blinked out of his stupor. "Wait a minute! The toilet? The harmonica you just told him to stop playing?" Team Possible's tech guru looked like his hurl meter was going to go off the chart.

"Don't worry, Wade, it's cool," Ron reassured him.

Wade cocked a knowing look at Ron and asked, "Standard procedure?"

Ron nodded and gave Wade a thumbs up.

Wade was visibly relieved, but then his face went into the blank look it had earlier.

"Anyway," Kim continued, "on the bottom of the harmonica was inscribed 'T. Sloproth.'"

Wade blinked. Twice. "That is the single most whacked-out story I have ever heard."

Kim nodded. "I know. It makes things like 'rogue golfers' and 'genetically mutated monkey-men' sound normal."

Wade resumed his blank stare.

After a moment, Kim asked, "Wade, are you okay?"

"Yeah. No. I don't know." Wade took a sip of his soda and seemed to regain some degree of composure. "Uh, Ron, your suggestion about the harmonicas is right on the money."

"Score!" Ron gave a little victory jump that nearly knocked off his glasses.

"Guys, there are two leads involving a 'T. Slothrop' outside the twenty-year range, and they both have to do with harmonicas."

"Talk to me, Wade," Kim urged in full mission mode.

"Well, in late 1969 there was an obscure album released by an obscure short-lived band. The band and the record were both called The Fool. The harmonica playing was credited to 'T. Slothrop, a friend.'"

"Do you have sound clips? Maybe jpegs of the record's cover—like maybe a band photo?" Kim asked.

"Unfortunately, no, Kim. Like I said, they were very, very obscure. Only about two dozen copies were ever pressed. Band broke up and was never heard from again."

"Guys," Ron said, "what was the name of the band again?"

"The Fool, Ron," Wade said.

"My dad's got that record."

"NO WAY!" Kim and Wade said at the same time.

"Jinx, you owe me a soda, Wade."

"Sure, I'll get right on that, Kim." Wade said somewhat miffed. "Next time I see you guys."

"Well, I guess that solves that problem," Kim said happily to Ron, "once I ace this place, we'll just raid your father's LP collection."

"Wade, didn't you said there was another hit?" Ron asked.

"Yeah, Ron, and I do have an mp3 for that. A year before The Fool came out, another band, Billy Boy Grunt and the Hawks, recorded an underground record, and a 'T. Slothrop' is credited as the harmonica player on one of the songs."

"'Billy Boy Grunt?'" Kim asked dryly, eyebrow fully arched. "That sounds spankin."

"Well, what are you waiting for, Wade," Ron enthused, "give us a beat, let's see how our man Tyrone can blow!"

"The song is called 'Teenage Prayer,'" Wade explained as the music began playing through the Roncom's mini-speakers. Ron jacked the volume up.

The poor quality of the recording was clearly evident from the first note. The ramshackle melody and playing didn't endear the song to Kim either. "'Underground' is right," Kim said. "It sounds like it was recorded in someone's basement."

"Actually, it was." Wade said before taking another sip of soda.

Ron hopped off the mattress and started dancing to the music. Garage or "basement" quality aside, it was obvious he was enjoying the music.

Kim winced as the singing began. "That must be 'Billy Boy Grunt,'" she snarked, "well, it certainly is an aptly chosen name."

About a half minute in, Ron began singing along with the slightly whiny vocalist. The fact that he could anticipate the lyrics for a song he had never heard before was no mystery. The so-called lyrics consisted mostly of two lines repeated over and over again.

Take a look at me, baby

I'm your teenage prayer

If the amateur nature of the song wasn't patent enough, one of the other musicians started mocking the singer by echoing his lines in a deep pseudo-baritone voice. It seemed to Kim that this "background singer" was trying to make the lead singer crack up.

Ron pranced toward the bed and offered Kim his arm as his sang along with the inane song.

She only shook her head and smiled away his invitation to dance. This is the stupidest song I have ever heard. I am so not dancing to it.

Then something happened. Whether it was because the musicians got into the flow of the melody, or the singer started singing less monotonous lyrics (probably thought up on the fly), the song seemed to get better. It was still incredibly goofy, but Kim found herself tapping her foot to the beat.

Ron dropped to one knee and in mock seriousness started serenading her. He kept his right hand extended out to her; in his left he had the harmonica at the ready for when "T. Slothrop" made his appearance. As of yet, there had been no harmonica playing.

Kim found herself clapping to the beat and laughing as Ron got further into the song. Even while wearing his shades, she could tell he was wagging his eyebrows wolfishly at her.

Oh, what the heck?

Kim took Ron's hand and hopped off the mattress. Other than some residual aches in her back and joints, she felt surprisingly well.

Their dance, as it was, began as a simple swaying to the song's approximate beat. Even though Kim had not broken anything and, once she had unburdened herself of the "Slothrop freakiness" to her BFBF, seemed emotionally fine, Ron was determined to be gentle with her. It had been his M.O. since he walked in the door. In addition to hiding his "new look" behind his shades and keeping the bad news about his mission and his upcoming quest on the Q.T. until he was sure she could handle them, he had turned his Ronshine on brighter than he had actually felt. The two forced jokes that had backfired on him demonstrated that this course of action had not been completely successful. He felt pretty lame for keeping anything from KP, even for a short time; soon he would have to let her know everything. Maybe after this dance.

However, there was one thing he was determined to keep from her. Forever if he had to. Since he learned that Shego had been the attacker, he had found himself thinking about her in ways he had never thought about anyone before.

As must be manifestly obvious by now, Ron Stoppable was a very sweet, gentle guy. He was the type of person who didn't even like using the word "kill" when talking about how Middleton was going to defeat an upcoming opponent in basketball or even when referring to the number of the undead he had blasted in his latest game of Zombie Mayhem. However, when he thought of the green hued villainess now, Ron discovered the "k word" popping into his mind so effortlessly that it frightened him. Even though he didn't feel exactly guilty for having these thoughts and feelings, Ron fervently prayed they would just fade away.

The song was really picking up now. Kim couldn't help but smile as her BFBF gently rolled her into a tango step. She laughed as he slowly twirled her a few moments later. However, she groused when a second, quicker twist caused her hospital gown to twirl open. "Please, Ron, that door is not shut all the way!"

As "Teenage Prayer" rambled to its close, it seemed like an entirely different song. True, it was still incredibly silly and the performance was decidedly slipshod. The background "singer" even managed to get the lead to crack up when he started droning on about being a "teenage bear." However, there was definitely a palpable energy to the song's climax that made the two teens, momentarily, forget that they were in a hospital room. At its close the musicians attempted a poorly timed and teeth-grindingly off-key rousing chorus. Kim and Ron joined in. Ron was more successful in keeping pace with the song because he wasn't laughing as hard as she was. As a final flourish, Ron dipped his BFGF as the song ended. Low. So low in fact that his shades slipped off the end of his nose and fell from his face.

They landed with a light smack against the bridge of Kim's nose. She righted herself as he released her. Still laughing she turned away from him and bent down to retrieve them. As she plucked the glasses from the floor, she said, "You know, I don't think there was any harmonica in that song." As she turned around to face him again, Kim asked, "Why are you wearing these things any—"

She had her answer.

Although Kim was startled by what she saw, the jolt wasn't as serious as one might have expected. After all, it wasn't the first time that day she had seen tornados in Ron's eyes.

IX.

Yori was in the main elevator for the wing of Middleton Memorial where Possible-san was staying. She was headed back down to the lobby.

Her mind was awash with confusion, consternation, and the promise of new possibilities. She had never felt so conflicted before.

Minutes earlier she had been walking resolutely down the hallway toward where she knew she would fine Stoppable-san, Possible-san's room. Even with her doubts regarding its merits and the chances for its success, she was going to fulfill Sensei's request. As she neared the room, she heard music. Then she heard laughter. When she was only a few doors away, she realized that Possible-san's door was halfway open.

Through the open space, she could see Stoppable-san and Possible-san dancing about the room.

Yori immediately turned back the way she came. Apart from her sense of propriety, this was not the time to broach Sensei's request. Or, as Possible-san might say, so not the time.

As she rode down the elevator, Yori pondered the new information the brief glance had given her. Although Stoppable-san had exclaimed excitedly that Possible-san was awake as he rushed from the house an hour or so earlier, Yori had not expected her to be up and about and in such good spirits in such a remarkably short period of time. Perhaps the time frame for Possible-san's recovery had been misstated. Perhaps she might be able to accompany Stoppable-san on the quest after all. Their laughter, too, had said much. It cemented the young ninja's doubts as to whether the Pilgrim would be undertaking his quest without his partner.

On the other hand, a part of Yori couldn't believe that she was doing what she was doing. Certainly, she had felt doubts concerning some of Sensei's previous decries or judgments. However, Yori had never failed to complete one of his requests. Even though she was only going to ask for a delay in the task's fulfillment and had, what she felt were, substantial reasons for this course of action, she couldn't deny that she was also, even to a small degree, disobeying her mentor.

It was this nagging doubt that caused Yori to not immediately recognize the odd silence once she stepped out of the Hospital. Then she saw him. Standing twenty feet up the tree and bush edged path to the main parking lot, was a monkey ninja.

They regarded each other solemnly, bowed, and immediately took up fighting stances.

"Darwin-san," Yori spoke with a smile, "it is my honor to be your opponent once more."

Suddenly, the hedges erupted with wild chattering. Within seconds, two-dozen monkey ninjas lined both sides of the pathway. Darwin quit his fighting stance and stepped aside to make room for Monkey Fist who confidently stepped onto the path and toward Yori.

"So, Miss Morituri," the deranged former English lord sneered, "it is my honor to capture you once again."

Caught offguard but not frightened, Yori quickly took assessment of her surroundings. With the exception of the hospital's entrance some fifteen feet behind her, she was surrounded. She began to carefully edge her way toward the door while at the same time not altering her fighter's stance.

"I congratulate you, Monkey Fist," Yori smiled, "on your elegant choice of footwear."

"Yes, they are lovely aren't they?" Monkey Fist took a second to admire his sleek new running shoes. "They were delivered just this morning to the hotel. Excellent tread and the fit—perfect. I hardly notice I'm wearing them."

Yori figured she was only some seven feet from the door now, but she maintained eye contact with Fisk.

"It's surprising sometimes what lovely things money can buy." Monkey Fist continued.

Only three feet from the entrance, Yori was suddenly distracted by two large black forms that materialized directly behind her. Her surprise turned to relief when she recognized them as two Yamanouchi alumni from the Upperton area.

When she shot a look at Monkey Fist, she was confused to see that he was still nonchalantly examining his new footwear.

Suddenly, the Yamanouchi ninjas gripped Yori's arms and forced them painfully behind her back.

"I discovered, quite recently, that one of the loveliest things money can buy," Monkey Fist continued, his face now twisted into a demonic smile, "is Yamanouchi honor."


TBC …

A/N: The last name I selected for Yori is NOT Japanese. "Morituri" is actually Latin for "We who are about to die"; it only sounds Japanese to people like me who didn't know any better. It is the last name of the only Japanese character in GR, a member of the Imperial Navy that didn't have what it took to be a Kamikaze pilot. In other words, his last name was one of Pynchon's little jokes. However, I wanted him to be Yori's grandfather, so I figured "what the heck?" and used it anyway.

Chapter Text

Where it was darkest and smelled the worst, Pokler found a woman lying, a random woman. He sat for half an hour holding her bone hand. She was breathing. Before he left, he took off his gold wedding ring and put it on the woman's thin finger, curling her hand to keep it from sliding off. If she lived, the ring would be good for a few meals, or a blanket, or a night indoors, or a ride home …

-Gravity's Rainbow, page 433

I.

Kim Possible tried not to keep anything from her BFBF, but there was one thing she hoped he would never find out about. While he was on a week's vacation with his family a few months before the end of sixth grade, she had been suspended from school for two days.

Because of this suspension she was not allowed to sit in the Honors Row at graduation from Middleton Elementary, even though she had all A's. Ron had been greatly disappointed that his friend wasn't going to be sitting with the rest of the "brilliant bunch," especially since he thought she was smarter than the rest of them put together. The fact that Bonnie did get to sit in this special row only upset him more.

"No big, Ron," Kim smiled, laying a consoling hand on his robed shoulder.

Although they weren't decked out in full cap and gowns like the "brilliant bunch," the rest of the graduating sixth graders were given robes and brightly colored tassels they got to wear over their shoulders. The robes were of uniform size, but the tassels were not. Since they were handed out in a rather haphazard fashion, this resulted in some kids wearing robes that didn't come down to their knees at the same time they had extra long tassels they invariably tripped over as they walked up on stage to receive their graduation certificates.

"Who wants to sit up there on stage in front of everybody in those silly caps and get gawked at for the entire ceremony anyway?" she added.

"Well," Ron said hesitantly, "I thought you did."

Kim smiled uneasily, but quickly recovered her cheerful demeanor. "You have to sit in alphabetical order up there. Chances are I'd would ended up next to Bonnie. 'Rockwaller' comes right after 'Possible.' There isn't any 'Q kid' in our class. That so wasn't going to happen." She slung a friendly arm around his neck, "Besides, I wanted to sit next to you."

At that, they both smiled and blushed. Although for different reasons.

Ron blushed because he was so embarrassed/proud that his best friend thought enough about him to forego something she really wanted (she had been talking about the Honor Row off and on since fourth grade) just to be with him.

Kim blushed because she had just told her best friend a lie. The fact that the reason she wasn't sitting in the Honor Row was because of him didn't make her feel any less guilty.

But she couldn't tell him the truth. She knew that he would feel terrible and blame himself. And Ron didn't deserve that.

It was all her fault.

II.

Kim slowly removed her hand from her mouth. It had reflexively shot there to cover her gasp a few seconds earlier when she first saw Ron's eyes. With this same hand, she was gingerly reaching out for Ron's face; a strange look flashed across her large eyes.

"Okay, Kim, I-I know you have questions," Ron began hesitantly. He had wanted to tell her everything first, (maybe have her sit down with a cool drink maybe even cook her one of his desserts first or would that have been just trying to buy more time – culinary procrastination?) and then take off his glasses. She didn't scream like MrsDrP, at least. What is she doing? I, uh, …

As Ron was struggling desperately to find the right words to begin his incredible explanation, Kim's hand steadily moved closer to his cheek. Once the warmth of her fingertips touched the coolness of his skin, Ron let out a sigh that released the air out of the tension-filled balloon that was his heart. Okay, here goes …

Before he could speak, she asked in a calm yet concerned voice, "Does it hurt?"

"Huh?"

"Your eyes." She said. "What's happening to them-does it hurt, Ron?"

He was so not expecting that to be her first question. "Uh, no, KP, not at all." Then, a little more relaxed, he added, "It doesn't even bother my sight. Everything looks normal to me."

"Good," Kim said with a slight smile. "I was worried." She continued to gaze into them, the furrow between her own eyes that had been there since her discovery slowly fading away. To Kim, Ron's eyes looked as if they were liquid prisms. Dancing spyros of colorful mosaic surfacing and then sinking back into a moving fractal sea of fluid light. Amethyst, vermillion, the color of an African sunset that she could not name and yet couldn't forget. "Th-they're beautiful," she managed finally.

"Huh? You really think so?" Ron had definitely not expected this reaction. "You're not liked totally freaked out about this?" he said, animatedly pointing to his eyes to make sure they were talking about the same things.

"Well," Kim said, slightly embarrassed, "it is ferociously strange, Ron. I know I should be weirded out by your eyes, but that's not the feeling they give me." She shrugged, "I-I don't know how to explain it."

Ron shook his head and smiled. How did I ever end up with such a wonderful, understanding …

Suddenly, Kim's look turned firm, "But that doesn't mean you don't have some splainin' to do, Ron."

"Uh, sure, KP," Ron nodded with a nervous chuckle. "But I first need to tell you about my mission."

They both sat on the edge of her bed, and Ron related his adventure. Kim was decidedly more alarmed by the details of Ron's perilous mission than she had been by his lustrous, tricked-out eyeballs. The thought of her BFBF caged in a dinosaur skull while a rocket hung like a Sword of Damocles' over his head was unendurable. But it wasn't just the sitch—she had been with him when he had been in predicaments just as harrowing. However, THAT was the problem-this time she hadn't been with him. There was nothing she could have done to help him because she didn't even know it was happening.

Mom's right. There is NO WAY I am letting you out of my sight on our next mission.

Anguish rapidly turned to bemusement when Ron began to explain about his safe place and her role in it. She couldn't help giggling.

Ron looked hurt. "Kim, it's not funny. This is really important. I'm trying to explain how you saved me."

"I'm not laughing at you, Ron." Kim said, putting a hand on his shoulder. "I just thought it was cute that you would put me in your safe place. And, well, okay, I was laughing at what you had me wearing," she smiled. Then she blinked, "Waitaminute-how I saved you?"

"Uh-huh," Ron nodded. "You'll see."

He then described the levitating rocket and how it seemed to obey his commands. As he related this part he realized that this power must have also been involved when the monkey ninjas had suddenly been launched from his body earlier in this mission.

"Ron," Kim breathed as she shook her head, "that's incredible. Is it connected with … you know … your eyes?"

"Well, that and you, KP."

She rolled her eyes, "That's sweet, Ron, but this power, whatever it is, is all you."

"Nuh-uh," Ron stated firmly.

"Ron," Kim said looking directly into his eyes (strange how quickly she had gotten used to what they had become-even stranger was how she seemed to just know where his pupils were even though she couldn't see them), "you do realize that I wasn't really inside your head, don't you?"

"That's where you're wrong, Kim," Ron said.

Before the exasperated sigh could escape her lips, Ron held up his hand and said, "Let me explain, KP. No, I don't really believe you, you know, you you were inside my head. If you were, I wouldn't have to tell you about my mission, you'd know it already. But there is a part of you that is inside me. As long as I can remember whenever I've needed courage to do something or felt alone or the bullies in D hall were tormenting me, and, of course, that entire summer at Wannaweep, I have always gone to that part of you inside of me. And it, or 'you,' have always helped. It's like that corny love song my father used to listen to when I was kid, "you're the biggest part of me." Well, that's kinda how it is. Maybe it's just my thoughts about you, my memories, or feelings of who you are but they are real. And … they talk … I guess."

He was silent for a moment, and then said, "Nah, you're right, Kim, that is kinda silly, isn't it?"

"Not at all, Ron," Kim said just before she leaned in and gave him a kiss.

As he had been explaining, his words ignited a memory from a mission a few years back that Kim had forgotten. This was strange because the mission was very unique. Instead of fighting Drakken and Shego, she and Ron had been up against Shego and Senior Senior Junior. What's more, they had been trying to protect a cookie recipe—although Team Possible had been involved with some fairly nutty cases involving protecting some fairly oddball items and inventions, this mission's quarry seemed especially silly.

However, the most memorable aspect of the mission was that it was one of the few times when Shego had almost been successful in killing Kim. Sinking into cookie dough inside a giant mixing bowl without the use of her grappling hair dryer, Kim had come seconds away from death when Shego gleefully switched on the mixer. The silliness of being killed by a cookie mixer was only outweighed by the horrific pain such a death would have involved. However, at the last moment, a vision of Ron had appeared to her and given her the advice she needed to escape and defeat Shego. Although it hadn't really been Ron but a memory of him that had saved her, there was no way Kim couldn't credit him with getting her out of that sitch.

She understood exactly what he was saying.

When their lips unlocked and Ron had come back down to earth (Were his eyes glowing there for a second?). She silenced his questioning look by saying, "No, Ron, I'm the one who was being silly. It makes perfect sense."

Ron then began talking about Vheissu and his quest. Well, kinda. He was explaining it the best he could remember. According to Yori, Vheissu was the one place on the world's surface where the raiment of existence was stripped away revealing the true nature of the planet's Being …

"Wait … did you just say 'raiment'?" Kim interrupted.

"Uh … I think so," Ron said uncertainly.

"What does that mean exactly?" It wasn't often that Ron used words (at least non-Ronnish ones) that Kim didn't know.

"I'm not sure, KP; Yori used it. I think it's kinda like a simulacrum." Ron explained.

"Huh?" Kim was going to ask Ron if he was feeling okay when it occurred to her that she might be the one feeling not so hot.

At this point, Rufus stuck his head out of Ron's pocket, yawned, and made a beeline for Kim's lap. After exchanging pleasantries with the smallest member of Team Possible and beginning to scratch Rufus at the place that would have been just behind his ears if he had any, Kim turned her puzzled expression back to Ron.

"Anyways, Kim," Ron said waving away her confusion with a 'clearing the air' gesture with both hands, "the important thing is that Vheissu is where the Lotus Blade came from."

"Really? So this place is like the capital of Mystical Monkey Power?"

"N-no, not exactly," Ron said rubbing the back of his neck. "I mean the MM to the Pizzle is part of the reason why I am The Chosen One … but it isn't the whole deal."

"Waitaminute, you're 'The Chosen One'?"

"Yep," Ron nodded, "that's what the funky eyes mean. Vheissu is calling me. If it was just a MMP thing, Rufus' eyes would be funky too."

"Why else is it 'calling' you?" Kim couldn't hide the fact that she found the entire situation of a mystical place psychically requesting her boyfriend's presence mildly disturbing.

"Yori said that Sensei believes it is because I am pure of heart—"

"I can see that," Kim smiled. Then she added, "And I would guess that's why it is not calling Monkey Fist."

"Kimilia shoots and scores." Ron nodded.

A nurse walking past the open door was more than a little startled by Ron's eyes. Fortunately, Ron noticed his look, and before the man could complete his double-take Ron had put his shades back on.

"You were going to say something else." Kim stated as she and Ron craned their necks to make sure the nurse had continued to walk down the hallway.

"Oh yeah, Sensei seems to believe I have some other spiritual connection-something that might even be better than the Monkey Power."

"No kidding? What?"

Ron shook his head, "Sensei didn't tell Yori that."

After a brief silence, Kim said, "Okay, I think I'm following most of this. Did Yori tell you where Vheissu is?"

"No. No one knows where it is."

"Not even Sensei?"

"Nope, the only person who did know was that guy Godolphin."

"Which is why Monkey Fist wanted his journal—"

"Which was eighty-sixed by The Ronman!" Ron announced triumphantly. "In a roundabout way," he qualified a little less certainly.

Kim scratched behind Rufus' left "ear" for a few moments, silent in thought. "Okay," she said finally, "I have two questions. I understand that Vheissu is 'calling' but how does that help you find it if no one knows where it is. Two, what are you supposed to do once you get there."

"Don't know. And don't know." Ron said reaching over to scratch behind his pet's right "ear."

"Hoo boy." Kim and Rufus said in unison.

"Jinx!" Kim announced happily. The irritated look she got from mole rat jerked her back to reality. "Well, okay, I guess you don't have to owe me a soda, Rufus."

"Oh boy," Ron said suddenly. "I just remembered another part of our dream. Way freaky."

"The eyes?" Kim asked knowingly.

"Uh-huh," Ron said shaking his head, "I have no idea what that was about."

After checking to make sure no one was in the doorway, Kim snatched the glasses from Ron's head and said, "Dur hur! You think?"

"Huh?" Ron asked completely nonplussed.

"So not the mystery! It's obviously connected with what's happening with your eyes, Ron."

"I don't understand what my eyes have to do with it."

Kim's weirdar immediately went off. Did he just emphasize 'my' …? "Ron," she began firmly although trepidation crept in as she continued, "your eyes were swirling in the dream and they're swirling now."

"No, no, KP," Ron said gravely, "in my dream your eyes were the ones that were freaky."

Kim's mouth immediately went dry. "H-how?" she managed.

"They were completely black," Ron answered, "and it looked like it was … raining … inside them." He could tell this news was a disturbing surprise for her and swiftly placed a consoling hand on her bare left knee. Unfortunately, he still had more to tell her.

"And, even though you were smiling and laughing, you were crying the entire time. And your tears …"

"Yeah?" Kim asked.

"They were like … a mixture of rain and lightning … uh …"

"Rainbolts." They said together.

Although this was his big chance, Ron couldn't bring himself to disturb Kim's stunned silence by uttering "Jinx."

III.

Yori had no idea what Monkey Fist had planned for her. She knew what he wanted from her, but she also knew he wasn't stupid. Unlike her former colleagues from Upperton, he must have been aware she wouldn't betray the trust of Sensei or her friends.

Immediately after the ninjas had bound her wrists and ankles tightly, Monkey Fist had placed a blindfold over her eyes. Although his distressingly gleeful eyes had been the last things she saw, Yori did not regret her deliberate refusal to break her cold stare at the former British lord. She was only seventeen and currently a kidnapping victim, but Yori was a warrior above all things. Warriors never looked away-even if that meant having to endure the malicious and fantastically demented gloating of what Possible-san might term "a complete whack."

Once the blindfold was in place, she had been tossed over one of her former colleague's shoulders and carried for about five minutes due south. At that point, she was taken aboard a vehicle of some kind. Although the chatter of Darwin-san and the other Monkey Ninja's ceased at this point, his occasional chuckles let Yori know that Monkey Fist was also aboard. She was placed rather roughly in a surprisingly comfy seat. A few seconds later she sensed the vehicle leave the ground and speed off, extremely fast in a west by southwest direction.

Apart from the dishonorable Yamanouchi alumni, whom she could sense were on either side of her, and Monkey Fist who she could hear (and smell) a few feet away from her, Yori sensed there was one more person, in addition to the aircraft's pilot, on board. There was something about this person that seemed very familiar. However, Yori could not determine precisely what gave her that impression.

After flying in silence for a few moments, Yori was able to calculate the exact direction and speed the aircraft was going.

"Ms. Morituri," Monkey Fist's voice smugly asked, "Do have any idea where you are being taken?"

Yori gave a slight bow in the direction of Monkey Fist's voice. "It all depends on when this craft's elevation drops and at what degree, Monkey Fist." To the puzzled silence that followed this announcement, Yori continued, "If it dips within the next five minutes by ten degrees or more, our destination will be somewhere in the San Fernando Valley. If it does not drop, I would hazard that you have a more tropical location in mind."

The pregnant silence that followed seemed to last an eternity.

"Don't just stand there, idiots!" Monkey Fist hissed. "Give her the shot."

Following a slight prick on her left forearm, the darkness of the blindfold deepened around Yori. The darkness continued to spread until if muffled all five of her senses.

IV.

After a reasonably thorough examination, Dr. Jones said that Kim could go home as soon as she wanted with the caveat that she take things easy for the next week or so.

Ron made a face after the doctor made his recommendation. Since when has Kim taken anything 'easy'?

Ron and Rufus stepped out of the room for a moment to let Kim change out of her gown and into the spare clothes her father had brought her that morning. When they came back in, Kim, dressed in khaki shorts and a t-shirt, was sitting cross-legged in the chair beside the bed (the same chair he had kept watch in the night before); she was already on the Kimmunicator.

"Calling The Flan, KP?"

She nodded. "If there is anyone who may know more than Wade, it's Justine."

Justine Flanner, as Wade would freely admit, was the most genuinely brilliant person Team Possible knew. Although she had been in Kim and Ron's science class Sophomore year, her orbit had drastically changed in the two years since the science fair. Although Mr. Barkin may not have been pleased with Justine's invention, MIT was. When she officially premiered the KCR (Kinomatic Continuum Disruptor) at the Institute a few weeks after the science fair, the head of the school's premier Physics Department was sure of two things. One, Justine's admittance to the school on a full scholarship after completing only two years of high school was a "done deal." Two, if he wasn't careful, she might have his job by the end of the next spring semester.

Although that didn't happen, Justine did have her PhD in Physics by the end of the next spring semester (what should have been the end of her "freshman" year).

After college, she had landed a high profile and high paying job with Yoyodyne Corporation. Within weeks, however, she had resigned her position. Fortunately, in a serendipitous chain of events, she had been almost immediately offered the post of department head at San Narcisco University's Physics Department. Since Yoyodyne's headquarters were located in San Narcisco, Justine hadn't even needed to move.

Although Kim considered Justine a friend; she didn't feel they were exceptionally close friends. Justine was never that close with anyone. The plain fact of the matter was that "people" just weren't one of Justine's main concerns, or so it seemed.

Kim punched in Justine's number. "I hope she's still in her office. It is Friday afternoon."

After a half ring, Justine's office phone picked up. "Flanner. What do you want?" Although Kim couldn't see her face, she could see her face. No doubt Justine had answered the phone with the same look of dour intelligence that she always wore.

"Hi, Justine, this is Kim."

Silence.

"Possible," Kim added helpfully.

"Oh, Kim!" Justine said in a very cheerful voice. "Just a second, let me clear the room!"

Huh?

"Okay, guys," Justine was saying in a sharp voice. "This meeting will reconvene tomorrow afternoon, same time."

"Oh, no, no, Justine. I didn't want to disturb anything," Kim said quickly. Does she have me on speakerphone?

"It's nothing, Kim, just a faculty meeting. They'll get over it."

In the background, Kim distinctly heard a few somebodies muttering and then, a few seconds later, someone slammed a door.

"Are you sure this is okay, Justine?" Kim asked.

"Of course, Kim. Why wouldn't it be?"

"Well, isn't tomorrow Saturday?"

"I believe so, yes." Justine replied absently. "What's up?"

"Well, I have a question to ask."

"Is it something Mr. Load didn't know?" Kim distinctly heard a smile in Justine's voice.

Although Wade had already conceded that Justine was somewhat smarter than he in some things, Justine still relished an opportunity to relive what she (secretly) believed to be her greatest triumph—earning Wade's (qualified) admission of her superior brilliance.

"Uh, y-yeah," Kim said. The competition between the two made her feel uneasy, and she hated being put in the middle. Even though there was no way she would ever side with anyone against Wade, she didn't want to hurt Justine's feelings either.

The fact of the matter was, as Wade himself had admitted, if the information they needed had never been transferred to electronic media, there was no way his superhuman hacking skills could help. Justine, on the other hand, was very "old school" about where she gathered her information—she read books. Many, many books. She had actually begun reading early, at the age of four … months. During the summer between seventh and eighth grades, Justine had, on a dare, read every volume in the Tri-City Library … twice. In addition to her prodigious reading and comprehension skills, Miss Flanner also possessed a photoscopic memory. If there was any unclassified non-electronic information on " ," Justine would know it.

"Go ahead, shoot."

"Well, have you ever heard of a 'T. Slothrop'?"

There was a pause. Then Justine asked, "Tyrone Slothrop?"

"Yes," Kim said with a smile.

"Indeed I have."

"Spankin'!" Kim enthused. She gave a thumbs up signal to Ron who was rapidly (and unenthusiastically) scrolling through all 901 channels on the room's television set; thoughtfully, he had the sound muted.

"Yes, but I'd rather not discuss it over the phone," Justine said quickly. "Is it okay if we talk in person?"

"S-sure, I guess," Kim tried hard to hide the disappointment in her voice. She had so hoped to get her research on Slothrop done as soon as possible. Although specifics about Ron's quest were still forthcoming from Yori, she so wanted to tie up this mystery before she set out with Ron for Vheissu. "When would you like to meet?"

"Half an hour sound good?" Justine asked quickly.

"Uh," Kim began, "Justine, I am like 900 miles away from you."

"No problem, Possible," Justine said dismissively, "I'll have my jet pick you up. Where are you?"

"You have a jet?" Kim asked. She knew Justine had a plum job at the university, but her own personal jet?

"Yes," Justine explained sounding somewhat exasperated, "the Yoyodyne CRM-114 experimental hover jet; it was a signing bonus when I first took their job. Fortunately, a legal loophole allowed me to hang onto it after I resigned."

"Well, that's cool. You must know some pretty great lawyers."

"Well," Justine sighed, "I still have yet to get around to actually taking the bar exam, but I'd say I was a pretty fair counselor, yes."

Without going into the reasons for why she was there, Kim told Justine she was at the hospital. Justine said her pilot could pick her up on the roof.

"My pilot will meet you in about fifteen minutes." As was her custom, Justine hung up without a parting salutation.

"What did she say, KP?" Ron asked, turning from the television with obvious disgust for whatever he had just been watching.

"She knows who Tyrone Slothrop is, but she wants to tell me in person. She's having her jet pick me up on the hospital's roof in about fifteen." Kim sighed and looked at the time displayed on the Kimmunicator's console. "San Narcisco is an hour behind, so I guess I'll have them drop me back off at your house at … seven, seven-thirty?"

Although he had put his shades back on, Kim could see Ron was concerned about something. "Aren't you forgetting something, KP?"

"Oh, yeah. I'm sorry. I guess we should meet at Bueno Nacho. I'm sure we can discuss her news and the Vheissu mission over dinner. I'll just have them drop me off there."

"No, no, Kim," Ron said, "I mean you're not really thinking of going on this mission alone are you?"

"It's not a mission, Ron," Kim said with a slight roll of her eyes.

"It's mission related," Ron stated. He was not smiling.

"Ron, I am just going to have a chat with Justine."

"About a mission." He was in full serious face mode.

"Overreact much?" Kim said. Her temper started to flair. It wasn't enough that her mother had contemplated forbidding her going on missions altogether; now Ron, the person who was supposed to trust her more than anyone else in the world, felt she needed her hand held just to go have a talk with someone. Sure, that someone was almost a thousand miles away, but they were only going to talk.

Ron did not back down. "Since we are discussing this in the hospital room where you ended up because you were smacked down by Shego who is still at large by the way, I don't think I am overreacting enough!" His tone had gotten sharper and his voice louder with each word.

"Don't yell at me, Ron!" Kim seethed.

This was so not the way to convince Kim to change her mind about anything. And Ron usually knew that. However, his emotions were still so riled because of everything that had gone down in the last twenty-four hours that he had momentarily forgotten. But he remembered soon enough.

"I'm sorry, Kim," Ron said, his posture immediately wilting. "I-I didn't mean to yell, but you don't know what it was like."

She was still amped, but Ron's shift in tone had already started to dull the edge in Kim's temper. "How what was like?"

"Finding you on that roof last night." Ron said, looking away. He took off his shades and rubbed his eyes absently with his right hand. "When I saw you laying there with … with blood all over your face …"

Oh Ron. Kim suddenly realized that although she knew what had happened to her the previous evening she did not yet fully understand it. Especially, from the point of view of those who cared about her. The memory of Ron looking down at her as the emergency crew wheeled her gurney into the Space Center's elevator came racing back to her. Without question, his face at that moment was one of the loneliest sights she could remember seeing. Great job, Possible! I am so the jerk.

However, before she could say anything, Ron dropped to his knees and began pleading with her, "I won't yell, I won't do anything you don't want me to, KP, just please, please let me come."

At first Kim was going to laugh. Begging to "come along" on his knees was such a typically silly Ronnish thing to do, but when she saw his eyes (again, she wasn't sure how she knew where his pupils were, but she did), she read true desperation there.

"Get up, Ron," Kim said gently. "Of course, you can come." She took his hands in hers and helped him up. "I'm sorry. You are right—this is mission related. I let my natural Kimness get the better of me, didn't I?"

"I like your natural Kimness, KP," Ron said with the beginnings of a smile, "just not when it's pointed at me." After they shared a brief chuckle, he continued in a defeated melancholy voice, "I feel like I let you down last night, KP—"

"You did no such thing, Ron," Kim shushed him with a kiss. It wasn't a five alarm KP kiss, or even a single alarm one. It was a simple soft and warm kiss, and just what they both needed. After it was over, Kim could see that he felt better, but she still caught a glimmer of residual guilt floating amongst the nebulous mosaics in Ron's eyes.

V.

Yori was starting to come around. The blackness of unconsciousness melted away into the blackness of the cloth that was still fastened tightly about her head. Gradually, her other senses returned. She was seated in another chair, a colder and far less comfy one. The ropes that had been tied about her wrists and ankles had been replaced by metal restraints. She could also detect a faint but distinct moldy stench in the air. It was a reasonable guess that she was somewhere underground. Then the voices started to fade in; whether this was because the two individuals were coming nearer to her or because the effects of the drug were wearing off, she couldn't be sure.

One of the voices definitely belonged to Monkey Fist. As for the other, Yori couldn't identify him, but he was using less-than-honorable language. Profusely.

"We could just as expletive deleted easily use the expletive deleted sodium amytal!"

Monkey Fist sighed. "As I explained before, she cannot remember any of this happened."

"If you'd expletive deleted take my advice that issue wouldn't even be on the expletive deleted table."

Silence.

"I have already explained I do not operate that way." Monkey Fist said in slow deliberate voice.

"Ha! You expletive deleted super villains! You're all expletive deleted alike. You act like you're evil incarnate when in fact you're nothing but a bunch of sentimental expletive deleted.

A short silence followed.

"Okay, your expletive deleted lordship, if she isn't going to remember anything anyway, why did you bring her expletive deleted here blindfolded?"

An awkward silence followed this astute observation.

"Keeping her in the dark increases the evil mystique."

"Yeah, whatever." Monkey Fist's colleague laughed.

This not-so-lively conversation was interrupted by the sudden whoosh of an automatic doorway (the doorway opening?) somewhere to Yori's far right.

"H-hello?" called a tentative voice that she seemed to remember.

"About expletive deleted time, Lipsky!"

"Well, I got kinda lost. This complex is really enormous, and whoever designed the hallways … well, what I mean to say is that I know a really good interior decorator who specializes in Lair Design, I'm sure I could 'hook you up' with a deal of some sort."

"Shut the expletive deleted up and get this expletive deleted contraption of yours running." As violent as the words were, Yori could not mistake the laidback tone in which they were spoken.

"Drakken," Monkey Fist said in warm voice, "good to see you again."

Of course, Drakken-san!

"You too, Monkey Fist, what's the plan? Who's she?"

"The subject for your brain tap machine, Drakken."

"You do remember how to run the expletive deleted thing, don't you, Lipsky?"

"Well, it should all come back to me once-I mean, Yes. Yes, sir."

"Wonderful, just expletive deleted wonderful," the third person laughed bitterly.

Yori could make out the echo of boots clicking against a hard floor … they grew softer. Then the unknown person spoke again off in the distance to her right. "I'll leave you two expletive deleted bleeding hearts to your evil ways. Just remember, if she dies and we don't get that expletive deleted information, you both will be in deep expletive deleted expletive deletedhyphenated expletive deleted."

There was a whoosh from the doors again.

"Talk about Mr. Potty Mouth," Drakken said.

"You don't know the half of it," Monkey Fist sighed.

"Monkey Fist and Drakken-san," Yori said confidently, "I do not know what you have planned, but you will not break my code of honor through torture. I shall not tell you anything."

"Hey," Drakken objected, "'san' means 'Mister.' I am a doctor thank you very much."

"No, Drakken," Monkey Fist sighed, "'san' can denote 'doctor' as well."

"Really?"

Ignoring Drakken, Monkey Fist addressed Yori. "I am well aware of the strength of your resolve, Miss Morituri. That is why the good doctor is with us."

For the first time since she had been captured, Yori felt the intimations of fear growing within her.

"You see," Monkey Fist continued, "his brain tapping machine will reveal all your inner-most secrets to me without any effort on your part. And, as a guarantee that my plan will be successful, the device causes a brief period of amnesia to its subject. Not only will I have all your secrets, but you will be unable to warn the Pretender or Sensei or Possible because you will not remember that it even happened."

"Stoppable-san is not the Pretender," Yori shot back, "he is The Chosen One."

"Whatever." Monkey Fist said dismissively.

"Ahhh, Monkey Fist, I've got a bit of bad news. It isn't turning on, heh-heh."

A wave of relief washed over Yori. Even though she knew she wouldn't be at fault or lose honor if the Vheissu information was taken from her via evil technology, the safety of her friends and the success of Stoppable-san's mission were tantamount.

"Is it plugged in, Drakken?" Monkey Fist asked dryly.

"Oops, my bad." Yori could hear Drakken-san fumbling with something. "Say, why is she blindfolded? The mind tapper-"

"Yes, I know, Drakken," Monkey Fist sighed.

Yori's heart sank as the whining hum from the brain tap machine filled her ears.

"You see, Yori," Monkey Fist, mere inches from her face, gloated "all honor has a price, even yours." Before she could protest, he continued, "Actually, in comparison to the honor of your Upperton friends, yours will be relatively cheap. Their price ran into five figures whereas yours will only be an electricity bill that isn't even in my name."

As Monkey Fist's laughter blended with the steady humming of Drakken-san's device, Yori tried to keep from panicking. She focused her mind. All her thoughts bent upon the one thing in the world she most wished she had possession of at that very moment: a fully loaded paintball gun aimed at a paper target taped to Monkey Fist's butt.

VI.

The Yoyodyne CRM-114 was the most lavish private jet Team Possible had ever been on. It was much fancier than Nakasumi's and more tricked out than Britina's. There was even a hot tub on the plane! However, it didn't look as if it had ever been used. Knowing Justine as Kim did, this wasn't surprising.

Despite the plush decadence, Kim felt somewhat uneasy about riding in the jet. Although it did belong to Justine, she didn't feel exactly good about using something made by Yoyodyne. About five years earlier, the Corporation had attempted to buy the Middleton Space Center. James Possible had been fairly tense for a period of three months before the deal finally fell through. The prospects of either his position being eliminated in the buy-out or being forced to work on ballistic designs for the multinational defense contractor were both disagreeable to him. Although if given the choice, Kim's dad would have preferred the second alternative so he could continue to support his family, there was no way he would have felt comfortable designing weapons.

"Man this is a smooth ride, KP!" Ron said appreciatively.

"I suppose." Kim groused.

"It kinda reminds me of the GJ's hover jets, only way faster."

After a few moments when all that could be heard was the sound of Rufus devouring a piece of Munster deep inside his pocket, Ron asked, "Speaking of which, when are we going to talk to Betty about the Shego situation?"

"Right now, Ron," Kim said with resolve. "Thanks for reminding me."

She flipped on the Kimmunicator and punched up Wade. When she told him she wanted to speak with Doctor Director as soon as possible, he had a surprise for her.

"Kim, I tried reaching her early this morning, and she is actually on temporary leave."

"Really?" Kim was more than a little taken back. She had never known Doctor Director to take a vacation. In the past, she had been available twenty-four hours a day. Kim had actually started to believe that the woman never left GJ headquarters, even to sleep. "Any idea when she'll be back?" She asked. Wade shook his head. "So who is running GJ while she's gone?"

"Yeah," Ron chimed in, "Who's Betty's point man?"

"Funny you should say that, Ron," Wade smiled, "her replacement is named Pointsman. Dr. Ned Pointsman."

"Patch us through to him, Wade," Kim said, "please and thank you."

Wade was replaced with a screen shot of Kim's logo for about ten seconds, and then the image of an extremely elderly man appeared. Dressed in a slightly unkempt GJ uniform with lily-white hair flowing down to his shoulders, the man look genuinely astonished to see Kim. His eyes, greatly magnified by the thick bottle-green glasses he was wearing, nervously shuttled from left to right. It was clear that Wade had not announced her call, or, perhaps, Dr. Pointsman had just not expected her to be connected so quickly.

"Who is she?" Dr. Pointsman asked, raising his left eyebrow in concern. "How did she find me?"

The awkward silence that followed his words was finally broken by Kim. "Good afternoon, Dr. Pointsman, I am Kim Possible, so sorry to have disturbed you like this, but I needed to speak to you for a moment."

Dr. Pointsman did not respond immediately, only shifted uneasily in his chair. His eyes were rolling about so frenetically that following them was starting to make Kim feel a little ill.

"She knows who I am …" Pointsman said his voice growing cold.

Ron gave Kim a concerned look. She returned it and was seconds away from disconnecting the call.

"Don't just sit there, idiot, talk to her," Pointsman said to no one either Kim or Ron could see. The doctor suddenly snapped into a relaxed posture and said in a voice that attempted to sound easy-going, "Hello, there, my young miss, and what can I do for you, dear?"

"Oh, hello," Kim began uneasily. "I'm Kim Possible, and if this is a bad time Dr. Pointsman, I can call back later."

"Nonsense, my dear. I was just experiencing a little … uh … eccentricity there. You know you are getting old when you get caught talking to yourself in public and don't care. Ha ha ha ha ha."

"Ha ha," Kim politely laughed, "I guess that's something for me to look forward to."

"Possible?" Dr. Pointsman exclaimed. "What an interesting last name! How do you spell it?"

"Uh, like the word, 'possible.'" Kim said. She had never had someone ask how to spell her last name before. It was an unusual last name to be sure, but everyone knew how to spell it.

It wasn't clear that Pointsman had heard her because he had been shuffling through the papers on his desk when she answered his question, as if he was looking for something. He apparently found it because he said suddenly, "A-ha! There's the little rascal!" He held up a pencil he had found beneath a stack of papers and then turned over one of the rather official looking documents on his desk. He seemed poised to start writing.

"How do you spell it?" he asked finally in a tone of disproportionate enthusiasm.

"Uh," Kim said very uncomfortably, "P-o-s-s-i-b-l-e."

"…s-s-i-b-l-e," Pointsman echoed her as he scrawled. "Hey!" he announced as he finished, "you spell it just like the word 'possible!'"

"Y-yeah," she smiled with a forced laugh.

"Well, how can I help you, Miss Possible?" he said with a wide smile that revealed the whitest teeth Kim could ever remember seeing.

Slowly and patiently Kim explained who she was and her prior relationship with both GJ and Dr. Director. Finally, she went into the sitch with Shego. Pointsman was busy writing the entire time she was speaking. Despite his frequent interruptions and requests for her to repeat herself, Kim remained the picture of politeness. Kim always tried to be nice and doubled her efforts with Dr. Pointsman. Although it was obvious he was extremely old, she had the distinct feeling that there was also something genuinely wrong with him.

"Well, Miss Possible, I will definitely look into this." Pointsman smiled that ghostly white smile of his.

"Thanks," Kim smiled back.

Pointsman didn't respond; he just kept smiling. Kim was just about to say something when his eyes starting roaming again. He asked behind clenched teeth, "I-is she gone yet?"

Kim flipped off the Kimmunicator, and buried her face in her hands.

"What a whack!" Ron exclaimed.

"Fantastic!" Kim said. "Dr. Director goes on vacation, and the person GJ picks to replace her is COMPLETELY insane! No wonder Shego got loose and no one knows about it."

The jet began to decelerate. Just then they hit an air pocket that nearly tossed Kim and Ron from their seats. Ron reflexively grabbed for Kim before she could fall. Although she would have caught herself before she had fallen (and the fall wouldn't have hurt her anyway), she smiled and kissed Ron on the nose. "My hero."

"No big." He smiled in return.

"We must be nearing San Narcisco." Kim looked out the side window. Sure enough, she could just make out the city. It was somewhat smaller than Middleton. What little she knew about it suggested that if it weren't for Yoyodyne, the city would be nothing more than a speck on the map, if it would exist at all. This first view of the city did nothing to disprove that conjecture.

The Yoyodyne headquarters/production complex was truly awesome. Not so much because of its design-it looked like a rather plain warehouse/corporate structure with no distinctive features. Except, of course, for its size. It was humongous. It was larger than the city! In fact, its giant horseshoe shape practically encircled the city.

Something about this setup struck Kim as sick and wrong. She was so relieved that her father had escaped working for such a company.

VII.

"What did you say!" Kim demanded.

Every head turned to the thunderous sound of Kim's voice.

Bonnie who had been silent for the past minute anyway, gestured to Tara to hush. She needn't have. The only sound was that of everyone's breathing and the anxious silence of Kim's demand being ignored.

Walter Nelson, standing at her side, had never before heard Kim speak with vehemence; she was always so quiet and politely awkward around him. Even Arnie Custer, just walking by at the time, who had been on the receiving end of Kim's anger in the past couldn't remember her ever being so livid and … well … scary. The kid who had been complacently listening, yet (thankfully for him) not laughing, at the joke being told by the target of Kim's wrath almost wet his pants.

In fact the only person who wasn't impressed by Kim's anger was the person at whom it was aimed: Patrick Marvey.

"What does it matter to you?" he asked, his voice soaked in insolence. Before she could speak, Patrick answered his own question. "Oh yeah, I get it, Braceface here is best buds with Stoppable."

Walter knew he needed to say something. Although Kim wasn't officially his girlfriend and Patrick was the worst bully at Middleton elementary, he instinctively knew that doing nothing, like he was doing right now, was wrong. "Uh, Pat, you can't talk to her—"

"Stuff it, Tin Teeth!" Patrick barked at Walter without breaking eye contact with Kim.

Paying this exchange no mind whatsoever, Kim demanded of Patrick once more, "What … did … you … say!"

With a shrug, Patrick proceeded to repeat the reprehensible punch line of the abhorrent joke he had foisted on the luckless listener with the weakening bladder.

Before he had gotten two words into it, Patrick found himself sitting on the ground some three feet away from where he had been standing seconds before. His eyes were watering, his sinuses were ringing inside his head, and his nose was a veritable fountain of blood.

He shot a frenzied look (equal measure outrage and shock) at Kim. And nearly got a kick in the teeth. Only Walter and Arnie pulling Kim back at the last second kept Patrick from needed serious dental surgery. Realizing that he was very much over his head, Patrick retreated by scooting back in the dust on his rear. Anything to get away from Kim's churning legs.

Everyone who witnessed the incident was stunned. In those first few moments, Kim was rage personified. There was lightning streaking out of her eyes and down the lengths of her arms and legs.

The first person to speak was Tara. Glancing off to her left, she caught sight of their teacher Miss Harlowe racing in their direction. "Oh my gosh! Here comes the teacher," she breathed to Bonnie. Although she had no idea what had started it and Kim was most definitely the aggressor at this point in the fight, Tara just knew there had to be a good explanation for Kim's behavior, and she certainly didn't want to see her friend get into trouble. When she turned to ask Bonnie what they should do, she realized Bonnie was no longer standing beside her.

Bonnie had run over to assist Walter and Arnie-who were rapidly losing ground, in keeping Kim from inflicting more damage upon Patrick Marvey. The latter had stood up at this point and was angrily taunting Kim to "finish" what she had started, that is, if she "were man enough." Not the most tactful person, Patrick was able to eliminate any notion that he was a completely innocent victim, in Miss Harlowe's mind at least, when he proceeded to unleash of torrent of profanity directed at both Kim and herself just as she reached the scene.

Twenty minutes later, Kim found herself waiting outside Mrs. Barkin's office door. It wasn't the first time she had been there. In fact, the seat she was in had been nicknamed "Kim's seat" by the office staff. However, her past visits to the vice principal's office had been to speak about fundraisers she was organizing, extracurricular activities she was suggesting, or about volunteer groups she was founding. This was the first time she was going to the vice principal's office because she was in trouble.

Her father had been called and she was waiting for his arrival too.

Kim knew she should feel completely miserable. Not only was she in deep, deep trouble, she had completely tarnished her image as a good girl with a passion for helping others. Not to mention what Walter must have thought of her now. To top it all off, she was also in pain. The knuckles on her right hand still ached from when she had slugged Patrick. In addition to that, her knees still stung from the antiseptic the school nurse had just administered—Miss Harlowe and Walter and Arnie and Bonnie had all had to drag Kim away on her knees when Patrick began taunting her again mere seconds after Miss Harlowe had finally been able to calm Kim down.

So Kim knew there were plenty of reasons for her to feel miserable right then. However, there wasn't any room inside her for misery; all she felt was anger.

However, the anger melted away to despair when she thought of how Ron would react. Sure, he wouldn't be back from his family vacation until the following Tuesday, but there was no way he wouldn't hear about it. Without question, news of her fight was running up and down the halls at lightening speed.

About this time, James Possible appeared at her side. He was aghast at how she looked. With her skinned knees, red eyes, and tangled hair, she looked like she had been on the receiving end of a fight, not the instigator of it, as the vice principal had informed him over the phone. He had been shocked at the news, yet was prepared to be "hard but fair" if Kim did turn out to be the one at fault. However, as he looked at her listlessly sitting in that chair, there was no way anyone could convince him that his Kimmie-cub was the bad guy.

"Kimmie-cub!"

"Hi, daddy," she said without looking at him.

"Kim," her father said trying to suppress his mounting anger, "what did that boy do to you?"

"He didn't do anything to me, daddy. He said something … something awful, and I tried to kill him. It's my fault." Then she sighed and looked up at him, "I'm sorry for disappointing you, daddy."

James was, as could be expected, quite surprised by Kim's admission of guilt. Not the least because his daughter had said so matter-of-factly that she tired to kill someone.

Mrs. Barkin appeared from around the corner. She greeted Kim's father and asked if he and Kimberly could both come into her office. Mrs. Barkin was known as one of the sweetest and most lenient school figures in the Middleton school system and most of her students adored her. Today, however, she gave the impression of being all business.

After all three had been seated, Mrs. Barkin got right to the point. "Dr. Possible as you know, Kimberly was in a fight today with another sixth grade student. The student, Patrick Marvey, and his mother are both in another office where I have just heard their side of events. They are claiming that the fight was an unprovoked attack by Kimberly. And, although I find that difficult to believe," she said quickly to mitigate James Possible's angry reaction to that accusation, "all accounts of the fight do indicate that the only punches thrown were made by your daughter."

Mrs. Barkin turned her attention to Kim, who had heretofore remained motionless and silent in her seat. "Kimberly, let me upfront with you. There is no, I repeat, no, justification for hitting or attacking another student. We are all very fortunate that Patrick's nose was not broken and that he didn't suffer a serious injury. Be that as it may, what you did today could be considered grounds for expulsion."

Although it was clear she was listening, Kim gave no reaction.

"Kim, I have known you since Kindergarten, and you have always been one the best students and kindest children at this school. On the other hand, I have only known Patrick Marvey for the past six months when he transferred here from California, and I have known him to be one of the meanest children I have ever come across. He has been in my office several times; in fact, I still have to speak with him about the vile language he used with Miss Harlowe today. I do not believe it was an unprovoked attack, but in order to support my opinion and justify the lighter penalty I am prepared to give you, I need to know your side of the story. Kim, why did you hit Patrick?"

Kim didn't say anything, just kept looking at the untied laces of her sneakers.

James Possible gestured to Mrs. Barkin with his eyes, and she nodded in return.

"Kimmie-cub," he said softly. "Can you tell me why? Please, Kim, look at me."

When she looked up at him, he was shocked by what he saw. Tears were pooling in her eyes. She had never, to his knowledge, cried in public before.

"Daddy," she said clearly and evenly, tears flowing from both eyes, "he told a … a joke about the Holocaust." She turned her face back to her lap.

As James Possible placed a consoling hand on his daughter's shoulder, Mrs. Barkin leaned across her desk with a tissue box and offered him one to give to Kim. She said, "Dr. Possible, I think we both now know why your daughter swung at Mr. Marvey.

"Again, there is no justification for what Kimberly did, but, in my book, there is a significant difference between a provoked and an unprovoked fight. It is clear to me that Kimberly was provoked. She will still have to be punished; I think two days suspension is fair. Unfortunately," Mrs. Barkin sighed, "this also means that Kimberly will not be able to sit in the Honor Row at graduation."

"I understand," Dr. Possible said. "Kim?" he asked quietly. She nodded her slumped shoulders. "We understand, Mrs. Barkin," he said.

"I imagine Kimberly is not feeling well enough for class. You may take her home if you would like."

Dr. Possible thanked the principal as he lead Kimberly from her office. Once they were gone, Mrs. Barking got up and left her office. She turned down the hall toward the unused office where Patrick and his mother were impatiently waiting. Mrs. Barkin walked past that office door and toward Miss Harlowe's classroom. She needed to speak to a few students.

Twenty minutes later, she entered the room where Patrick and his mother restlessly waited. Mrs. Barkin noticed that in the interim Patrick had managed to snap all twelve pencils on the desk in two. The bandage on his nose reminded her of the one Jack Nicholson's character in Chinatown had worn for the better part of that movie. Aside from the ugly bandage, the young man bore no resemblance to the movie superstar… other than the intense meanness in his eyes. As she sat down, she asked, "Mr. Marvey, can you think of any reason why Miss Possible would have hit you?"

"Yeah," he snapped, "she's crazy."

Ignoring his outburst, Mrs. Barkin continued, "Miss Possible says the reason was because you told a joke."

"A joke?" Mrs. Marvey asked in disbelief.

"Yes, a joke about the Holocaust."

"She's a liar!" mother and son cried in unison.

"Here we go again!" Mrs. Marvey said shaking her head in disgust

"Again?" Mrs. Barkin asked.

Talking more to herself than answering Mrs. Barkin's question, Mrs. Marvey said, "It never fails, every time my son is attacked, the bullies claim he's a racist or an anti-Semite!"

"Mrs. Marvey," Mrs. Barkin said to interrupt what she suspected was going to be a long rant on the former's part, "I spoke with some of Kim's classmates who witnessed the fight and got confirmation that your son did tell such a joke."

"Confirmation from whom?" Mrs. Marvey demanded. "All you have to do is ask if my son said something anti-Semitic, and his victimizers come out of the woodwork."

"No," Mrs. Barkin explained patiently. "I just asked the handful of students who witnessed the fight what they remembered about it. And one person volunteered that your son had told a joke about the Holocaust."

"Who? That braceface Nelson?" Patrick scoffed. "Everyone knows he's her boyfriend."

"No," Mrs. Barkin said. "It wasn't Walter. He couldn't remember what you said."

"Strong? That little blonde mouse will say anything you tell her to," Patrick spat.

"No," Mrs. Barkin said. "Tara didn't remember hearing anything before Kim hit you."

"Then who?"

"Bonnie." Mrs. Barkin stated flatly. "Miss Rockwaller recalled the joke in detail."

Patrick's mouth hung open. He knew he was sunk. Every student from the third grade up knew that Bonnie and Kim were bitter rivals. If she was willing to confirm Kim's story, he didn't have a leg to stand on.

As much as Mrs. Barkin despised anti-Semitism and racism in general, she knew she couldn't give Patrick the same punishment as Kim. Although a two-day suspension seemed the least she could do to the loathsome little brat, there was no way she could justify equating the punishment for telling a repulsive joke with that of a violent physical attack. Reluctantly, she was going to give Patrick a one-day suspension.

Fortunately, Patrick provided her with an out. Once he realized that he was truly out of luck, he uttered, very loudly, a curse word. It was only a single word, but it was one the more serious ones. After the blush receded from her cheeks, Mrs. Barkin pronounced, "Two days suspension."

Of course, he never served the two days. Once Mr. Marvey, Sr. learned how Middleton Elementary was "persecuting" his son, he had Patrick immediately pulled from the school and hired the first of many private tutors for the boy. Patrick rarely ventured from his house after that, and the family moved away from Middleton two years later.

Much more serious than the two-day suspension or her ban from the Honor Row, Kim was worried that Ron would find out what happened and blame himself. However, when she asked her classmates to keep it quiet, Kim was pleasantly surprised to discover how many good friends she had. Everyone she asked promised to never mention to Ron what they had seen or heard about her fight with Patrick. And, miracle of miracles, the only person she didn't ask, Bonnie, never uttered a word either.

When Ron had concernedly asked about her knees, Kim explained that Mrs. Mahoney's cat had once again gotten stuck in a tree. This was only a half-lie. Tabby had, indeed, gotten stuck in another tree; her rescue just wasn't the cause for Kim's injuries.

Six years later, the truth behind why she wasn't sitting with the "brilliant bunch" at elementary graduation remained the one secret (the one lie) she was determined to keep from Ron.

VIII.

"Sweet! KP, check out The Flan's digs!" Ron marveled as they walked through the hallway of San Narcisco University's Physics Department.

Kim had to agree. The place was very impressive. The previous fall she had gone to several interviews at various universities across the country, and she had never seen an academic building quite as lavish as the one Justine's pilot had dropped them off at. Heck, she had never seen a university administrative building look so swank. With its high ceiling cradled with pink marble arches, redwood paneling and potted palms (real trees, not artificial), it looked more like the inside of an exclusive resort or the headquarters of a multinational corporation than the departmental offices in a small liberal arts school. As they walked to the end of the hall, Ron and Kim noticed portraits of previous benefactors of the school, placed in what appeared to be solid gold frames.

Kim was just about to knock on the imposing door, displaying the gold nameplate "Justin Flanner, M.D., Phd., and MBA Physics Department Head" at the hallway's blind end, when Ron started gesturing to her franticly.

"No way," Ron squealed. "Yes," squeaked Rufus from his owner's shoulder. "Check this out, KP!" He was some five feet back down the hall gesticulating to a portrait of a balding man whose expression was as bland and innocent as a cabbage. Below the portrait was a gold plate, bearing the name "Wendell Maas" and designating him as a "Valued Friend of the University."

"Okay," Kim said with a "so-what" gesture.

"Kim," Ron said in disbelief, "Wendell Maas. The Wendell Maas."

"Still drawing a blank here, Ron."

"Wendell 'Mucho' Maas!" Ron said on the edge of exasperation.

"Hmmm. Okay," Kim admitted, "that does sound familiar."

"Mucho Maas was the owner of the very first Beuno Nacho!"

"Oh really!" Kim said. "That is pretty cool."

"'Pretty cool?' It Hurricane Rocks, Kim!" Ron cried. "Maybe Justine knows him and can score us some free B&N, or maybe even introduce us to him? Whatdoyouthink?"

Kim smiled, "We'll see, Ron. First I need to ask her about T.S." Although nothing indicated that she should not speak Tyrone Slothrop's full name out loud in public (after all, no one seemed to know who he was), she found herself reflexively coding the name, even in an empty hallway.

She knocked on Justine's door, and a few seconds later it swung open. Justine came out, smiled the biggest smile either Kim or Ron had ever seen on her, and hugged Kim. "Possible!" she cried happily. After a few seconds, it became obvious Justine had no intention of releasing Kim any time in the near future. Kim had been so shocked by this unexpected outpouring of emotion that she had neglected to return the hug. This was apparently what Justine was waiting for.

Kim returned the hug and said, trying not to sound as awkward as she felt, "I've really missed you too, Justine."

Justine released her and beamed, beamed, at her. Kim never recalled seeing her so happy, even when they first fired up the KCR to thwart Drakken's dino-thingie.

Justine's expression immediately reverted to her normal, dispassionate slightly-perturbed look when she saw Ron waving hello a few feet behind Kim. "Oh, I see you brought Stoppable along as well."

"How ya doin' Flan?" Ron asked cheerfully.

Justine extended her hand and gave Ron's a firm shake. "Splendid. Yourself?"

"This place is pretty Badical, Flan!" Ron said with smile.

"Yes, yes," Justine said with slight disinterest, "it is quite neato, keen, and the rest of it. Do you mind if I speak with Kim alone?"

To an outsider, Justine might appear to be one of the ruder people Team Possible had ever worked with; however, that would be misunderstanding her character. In fact, when compared to how she usually treated him, her reaction to Ron was almost as effusive as her greeting to Kim had been.

"Cool," Ron said uneasily. "Is it okay if you leave the door open a crack?"

"Why?"

"Well, I want Kim to be able to hear me scream if something happens and I need her to rescue me," he said rubbing his neck.

Oh Ron. Kim knew that Ron really wanted to make sure she was okay—that Shego wouldn't suddenly burst in upon them after Justine closed the door. As paranoid as she believed he was being, she did appreciate the steps he was taking to look out for her and the ruse he was employing so as not to cast doubts on her abilities to defend herself.

"Certainly." As Justine made to shut the door to a crack, Ron made another request.

"Is it okay if Rufus and I play hacky-sac while we wait out here in the hall?"

Justine looked down the hallway filled with various plaques, awards and pricey gifts that various corporate sponsors had made to the department over the years. "Knock yourselves out," she said flatly.

Justine's office was huge. There were giant bookcases that extended from the floor to the row of small rectangular windows that edged the ceiling. Her desk was equally impressive with a surface made from that same pink marble from the hallway. As Kim sat in one of three chairs positioned in front of the desk, she reflected on how extremely generous the school's backers must be. Her future professors at the University of Miami lived in broom closets by comparison.

Despite Justine's demeanor of utmost confidence, she looked, to Kim, like just another seventeen-year-old girl when seated behind that fantastically imposing desk.

Perhaps that's why Justine was so amped to see me. It must be really lonely here. Being at the top of the game so young … it must almost be like she skipped growing up.

"Okay," Justine said pleasantly. "How can I help?"

Kim returned her smile and leaned toward Justine's desk, "Who is Tyrone Slothrop?"

"I have no idea," Justine grinned.

Kim's face fell. After a moment she managed, "O…kay."

"It is one of the mysteries I have never been ever to solve," Justine explained as a wave of giddiness overtook her. She got herself back under control, and then said as if she was about to show Kim a diamond engagement ring a fiancée had just given her, "Let me show you what I have."

Justine stood up and took a black hardcover from the bookcase, walked around her desk, and handed the book to Kim.

The plain-typed title read Next Year in Zwolfkinder: A Memoir, and it was by someone named Franz Pokler.

"Check out the index, page 534." Justine advised. As Kim flipped to the page, Justine directed, "Look for Slothrop."

Kim's eyes fell upon the entry in question: "Slothrop, Tyrone 288." She quickly turned to page two hundred and eighty-eight. Even if the book didn't say who Slothrop was, maybe it would give a clue that might help.

However, when she got to where page two hundred and eighty-eight should have been, it wasn't there. The book jumped from page 287 to 289. Literally. Page 287 was the back of 289, and the flow of text from the bottom of 287 was seamless onto the top of page 289. It read perfectly from one page to the next. Assuming that the pages had simply been mis-numbered, Kim scanned 289 for any reference to Slothrop. There was none.

Just as she was about to scan page 287, Justine announced, "Don't bother, Kim. It isn't there. I have read this book from cover to cover, and there is no mention of a Tyrone Slothrop anywhere. And it isn't just this copy, either. I have a dozen other copies and each is exactly the same—no page 288. Two hundred eighty-seven and two hundred eighty-nine are smack up against each other in every copy. Plus, you may not have noticed, but he is the only reference for that page. No other item in the index references it. Apparently, 288 is all about Slothrop, whoever he is."

"The publisher?" Kim asked hopefully, flipping to the front.

"Swanlake Press of London. They went out of business in 1956." Justine said. "You have no idea how many hours I have wasted on this mystery, Kim. Ever since I came across the book in the Tri-City library five years ago, it has been buzzing in the back of my mind. Since it is obvious you have never come across this book before, may I ask how you stumbled upon Tyrone Slothrop?"

Kim took the map from her hip pocket and handed it to Justine.

As Justine looked fervently over it, her eyes flashed with excitement. "Brilliant! Where did you get this?"

"Well, it's part of an ongoing mission," Kim began.

"And you don't want to reveal your sources. I can respect that." Justine said quickly.

"But the important thing is," Kim started, "that the dates—"

"All fall before the rockets actually hit. Yes, I noticed." Justine said absently. It was at times such as this that Kim felt completely inadequate around Justine and her sponge-like memory for facts. It was obvious she knew the correct dates for the V-2 rocket impacts as well as she knew her own name.

"So," Kim asked fearing she was going to sound incredibly stupid, "do you suppose there is a connection with this map and Franz Pokler?"

Justine scooted back onto the top of her desk. "Kim, he was one of the designers of the V-2."

"Really?" Kim said her interest definitely piqued.

"Yes," Justine continued, "I highly recommend the book by the way. The moral complexities of pursuing scientific truths while at the same time building destructive weapons. Fascinating. At least it was when I was thirteen."

"I can bet." Kim said conversationally, "I can only imagine how complex things would have become for my dad if Yoyodyne had ever bought the Middleton Space Center."

"Well, I would say things should already be complex for him."

"What do you mean?" Kim said shooting Justine a look. "The Space Center's rocket research is exploration-based, none of it is for defense or weapons."

"Kim," Justine said as if she were explaining something to a five-year-old, "all rocket research and development is at its core defense and weapons research and development."

Harsher than she meant to sound, Kim asked, "What do mean by that?"

"Kim, all modern rocket technology stems from the V-2." Justine said matter-of-factly. "All the rocket scientists whose knowledge fueled the Space Race on both sides of the Iron Curtain in the 1950s and '60s? Where do you think they came from? They were all V-2 scientists that we and the Soviets captured after V-E Day."

"You mean," Kim breathed, "the technology that got us to the moon was-"

"Nazi technology, yes. You trace back all the technology your father and every other rocket scientist in the world bases their work on, and it takes you right back to Nordhausen where the V-2 was developed."

Kim wasn't looking at Justine now. She was looking at her lap, trying desperately to fight the wave of nausea that was flowing over her. The knowledge that her father, even tangentially, was working with Nazi technology was earth-shattering.

"The worst part of the story of course," Justine continued in that same matter of fact voice, "is that most of the real muscle work on the rockets was provided by slave labor from Dora."

"Dora?" Kim asked, trying to maintain control.

"The concentration camp."

"What?" Kim felt like she was going to faint before she could throw up.

"Unfortunately, yes. Although some historians have argued that it wasn't as bad as Dachau or Auschwitz, 'bad' is obviously a relative term when you're talking about death camps."

Those horrible names ("Auschwitz," "Dachau" and now "Dora") were swimming around in her head, and try as she might Kim could not sever the mental ties they all now had to the Middleton Space Center. She felt as if she was trapped in a nightmare.

"On this desk, I have a picture of some of the survivors of Dora and underneath there is a quote from a retired Belgium army officer that goes, 'Everything that is now in space had its origins here.' Very, very powerful. Would you like to see it?"

Kim had never wanted to disappear from a place so much in her life. Where was Drakken and his brain tapping machine when it was needed?, a voice in her head tried to joke. The joke didn't work.

"Are you all right, Kim?" Justine asked. She had just now realized that her friend was in distress.

Kim nodded her head weakly. As she stared at her lap, trying to control her breathing, Kim's vision blurred, and she knew she had started to cry.

"Are you all right, Kim?" Justine repeated.

Again Kim nodded to indicate that she was.

She was not.


TBC ...

Chapter Text

"Their anxiety is the same as my father's, what is coming to be my own, and perhaps in a few weeks what will be the anxiety of everyone living in a world none of us wants to see lit into holocaust."

-V., page 193-194

I.

A slight shudder fanned out from Kim's shoulders. She quickly stashed her copy of The Diary of a Young Girl under her pillow as Ron came clambering up the stairs to her loft. She didn't know if his English class was going to be reading it later in the year, but her seventh grade honors class had been assigned it the second week of school.

"Hey, KP, what's up!" he smiled happily.

"O-oh, nothing, Ron. Just reading some stupid book." Smooth move, Possible. Why did I say that?

"What book?" he asked.

"I don't know." Why in the world did I say that?

"You don't know?" Ron was more than a little confused by her statement.

"Well, I can't remember; it is really bad. So, do you wanna play video games with Jim and Tim?"

"Uh, s-sure, KP." He said really confused now. "A-are you going to play too?"

"Of course!" She smiled a little too briskly. "Let's go!"

After being soundly trounced by Ron and her brothers at every video game the terrible twosome owned, Kim sat down to enjoy pizza night with Ron and her fam. As she watched Ron tear into his third helping, Kim started seriously reflecting on why she had been so uncomfortable with Ron knowing that she was reading that book. And why had she lied to him about it?

She didn't really know. The problem was ferociously silly and terrible at the same time. Obviously, Ron knew about The Holocaust; so it wasn't like she was protecting him. Still, she didn't want to upset him, and maybe seeing the book would do that. But it went further than that.

The Holocaust was something she could do nothing about and that was what really bothered her. Something horrible had been done to her best friend. Even if it had not literally happened to him, in a way it had. She wished she knew what to do. She wished she could talk to him about it, but that would mean bringing the subject up in the first place. And for the girl who could do anything that was something she just didn't believe she could do.

II.

Justine had no idea what was wrong with Kim.

One minute they had been amicably chatting about Nazi technology, and the next moment she looked, Kim was in a slough of despond. She was … well … she was crying. Only a little, but still. Apart from nodding, Kim didn't respond when Justine asked her twice if she was all right. When Justine asked Kim if she needed a glass of water, Kim merely nodded again; Justine wasn't even sure if she had understood the question.

As Justine walked quickly to the kitchenette side of her office to fill a glass for Kim, she couldn't help rolling her eyes and clucking her tongue at her friend. This, she reminded herself ruefully, is why I keep personal interactions to a bare minimum. Even with her best friend, a simple conversation could be a minefield. That was the problem with people; they were just so unpredictable.

After turning off the faucet, Justine was jolted by a loud crash coming from the outer hallway. A half second later, she heard Ron call out "Sorry, Justine!" as he ran past the crack in the office door. As his voice faded away, she distinctly heard him chiding his pet, "Come on, Rufus! Be the hackey sac! Be the hackey sac!"

Another example of Kim's unpredictability, Justine mused to herself. Whatever does she see in Stoppable?

Stoppable.

Justine Flanner smacked herself loudly on the forehead. Justine! You complete and utter moron!

She rushed back over to Kim, hurriedly and carelessly sliding the glass of water across the surface of her desk.

"Kim? Kim?" she asked plaintively.

Kim had stopped crying, and she even replied-"Yeah." But her entire demeanor conveyed listlessness and misery.

Justine realized she had done something tactless and subsequently horrible to her friend, but she couldn't take what she said back. For the first reason, what she had said had been the truth. For the second reason, even if she did lie and tell Kim everything she had told her was all a mistake, it would never work because she was a horrendous liar. Justine had to stick to the truth; it was what she was good at. In fact, the closest she ever came to lying was her semi-conscious habit of selecting what part of the truth to tell and what parts to leave out. And then it hit Justine that that was exactly what she had done to Kim.

Her solution was simple; however, she would need to do more than just tell more of the truth to repair what she had done. Justine knew she was going to have to swallow her pride and do the single hardest thing for her to do. She had only done it twice before, and it had stung her to the core both times. However, Kim was worth it. After all, if she couldn't admit her mistakes to her best friend, what kind of best friend was she?

"I'm wrong, Kim." Justine said with resolve.

"Huh?" Even as miserable as Kim felt, there was no way she couldn't be arrested, at least momentarily, by Justine Flanner claiming to have been mistaken about anything. Let alone mistaken about something that had pierced her worldview so deeply.

"I said, 'I'm wrong, Kim.'" Justine was personally floored by how easily she was able to admit her error the second time.

Once Justine's words sunk in, Kim immediately intuited what she believed her hyper-educated friend was attempting to do. Accordingly, she shot up a skeptical eyebrow.

"Well, okay, I'm not wrong, wrong," Justine admitted, "but I didn't give you the entire story." She hopped back onto her desk, her hip just missing the glass of water she had haphazardly placed there. "And you deserve that, Kim. Do you need a tissue?"

"Please and thank you," Kim replied. She was more than a little wary of what Justine was about to tell her. Did she really want to know any more? She could tell Justine meant well, but then again she hadn't meant ill when she ripped her life apart a few minutes earlier.

In one fluid motion, Justine twisted around, snatched a tissue from the box on the other side of her desk, knocked the water glass over into her lap with her elbow as she turned back around, and deftly handed Kim the tissue.

"You see, Kim," Justine began, completely oblivious to Kim's reaction to the water spill and apparently completely oblivious to the water spill itself, "I have the tendency to oversimplify things. I like things being certain. Black and white. No gray areas." The water from the glass had pooled in Justine's lap and was now flowing over her knees and cascading to the floor. "You understand, Kim, cut and dried."

"Justine," Kim said starting to rise out of her chair, her unused tissue at the ready to help dry Justine off.

"No, no, please, Kim," Justine said politely but firmly, "I need to say this." She gestured for Kim to sit back down. "The scientists who developed the V-2 didn't start out as … wow, that is really cold … as evil. In fact, they were a lot like your father in the beginning."

The mention of her father focused Kim's full attention back onto what Justine was saying. "How do you mean?"

"They weren't interested in rockets for destructive purposes. Many, like your father, may have had dreams of space exploration—Oberth's book had just come out after all, many just wanted to see what rockets could do and how they worked, but all of them had an intense interest in them. Something akin to love, I guess. They were very much inspired by the success of Goddard in Massachusetts." Realizing that she was losing her focus, Justine continued, "Anyway, they did most of their work at rocket club meetings in their spare time. Pooling extra money from their full-time jobs or, if they were lucky, some local organization might sponsor them for a little while. This was in the twenties and early thirties when life in Germany was pretty miserable for everyone. It was a way to escape that, I suppose. A way to find happiness."

Kim nodded.

"You can imagine the sea change when the government approached these clubs. Overnight, they had access to more funds than they ever imagined. They could now conduct experiments and build the types of rockets that they assumed would always be out of their reach. Even better, they could quit the full time jobs they hated; rockets would be their job."

Kim thought she knew where Justine was going with this. A faint smile formed briefly on her lips. "Like you and all this?" she asked, indicating the office with her eyes.

Justine said nothing for a few moments. Finally, she said somewhat cryptically, "Well, I'll come to that.

"I can't say that if most of them had known where it all would lead that they would have refused when the government approached them. Would they have been shocked to learn that their projects would be used to kill people? I'd say yes. Would most have said no? That I can't say. I do know, however, that at least one of them deeply regretted where his love of rockets took him."

"The guy who wrote that book?" Kim asked.

"Yes. But by the time the field shifted to weaponry, it was really too late for Pokler. He—"

"Justine," Kim said, raising a hand (which still held the unused tissue); "I know where you're going with this. And, unfortunately, even if he was sorry later, you can't tell me that he wasn't responsible for his actions. You can always say 'no.' If he built the rockets, if he was complicit with the … the camp, then he's guilty. Maybe not directly evil, but he helped it along."

Kim was trying extremely hard, and had been ever since Justine had first mentioned Dora, not to think about Ron. Although she had not yet had the mental image of her best friend boyfriend in one of the hideous camps, the very idea of having such a nightmarish image was rapidly becoming the elephant in the room for Kim.

"But, Kim," Justine said sadly. "Franz couldn't say no. They already had his wife and daughter."

III.

Not long after Ron knocked Wendell "Mucho" Mass' portrait from the wall, he and Rufus decided to give up their hackey sac game. Fortunately, there was no damage to the picture and it took Ron only a few seconds to re-hang the picture and Rufus a few more to straighten it perfectly.

The game had been a bummer anyway. To get any kind of rhythm going, you needed at least three players. He wished Kim had been free to play. Fondly, he remembered the hackey sac games they used to play with MrsDrP (when she was free) the summer before middle school. Along with cheerleading, Kim Possible was world-class at playing hackey sac. Actually, now that Ron thought about it, those games might have helped Kim hone some of the badical moves she utilized in her legendary cheerleading tryout and their first mission at Paisley's mansion.

Momentarily, Ron toyed with the idea of asking his girlfriend and Justine to join him and Rufus after they finished their Slothrop discussion. The image of The Flan playing hackey sac, however, was beyond even his powers of imagination.

So, instead, he and Rufus decided to play fetch. After a few moments, Rufus got somewhat bored with trying to catch the small rubber ball just so he could retrieve it to his human. And, to be honest, Ron thought staying put and tossing the little rubber ball so his pet could chase after and return it to him tanked just a bit. So they traded places which seemed to satisfy them both.

Rufus had long ago perfected his one-paw-head–butt-tail-swipe-serve. Tossing the hackey sac into the air with his right paw, Rufus would leap off the ground with his hind legs to butt the ball even higher with his forehead. By the time the ball fell from this height to the appropriate level, Rufus had properly readied his tail and twisted his body so as to get the optimum force to smack the ball at least one hundred times his body's length. Standing just outside the crack in Justine's door so as to take note of any unexpected noises (i.e. Shego blasting through one of the office's walls), the naked mole rat attempted to slam the hackey sac as far down the long hallway as possible. Ron stood toward the opposite end of the hall ready to catch it.

After only a couple of tosses, Ron became rather pooped having to run the greater length of the hall to return the small ball to his pet. Subsequently, the game of fetch was abandoned for a much more fun game of catch. Although Ron's tosses back to Rufus didn't clear the same uninterrupted distances as his pet's did, they were good enough to get the ball back to Rufus with only a single bounce (or two).

Ron was doing a pretty fair job so long as Rufus didn't seriously whack it. However when the naked rodent did, Ron would have to retreat to the far end of the hall by the elevators. This was problematic because with only the dying sunlight filtering through the high windows at that end of the hall to provide light, Ron easily lost sight of the incoming ball and would have to scramble for it amongst the shadows. This, of course, broke up the tempo of their game and mildly irritated Rufus.

"Doi!" Ron announced, shaking his head in disbelief. Checking around to make one hundred percent sure the hallway was deserted, he removed his shades. "Much, much better!" Without the sunglasses, the hallway didn't look so dark to Ron. Although Rufus was not as accustomed to Ron's eyes as Kim was, the mole rat was willing to deal with the weirdness if it meant he wouldn't have to hold back and could whack the ball as far as he wanted.

A couple of more swipes of his tail and Rufus was almost launching the ball clear to the elevator itself. Ron made a diving catch that almost resulted in a head on collision with the elevator doors. "Booyah!" he announced as he threw the ball back to his pet. The hallway was pretty long and Ron wondered if once they got back to Middleton he shouldn't take Rufus to the football field and see exactly how much distance Rufus could get behind a really solid swish of his tail. Emboldened by his human's encouragement, Rufus let fly with another titanic swipe. Ron ran under the projectile like he was a center fielder try to make a last ditch effort to stop a pop fly that suddenly had the makings of a home run. Heedlessly tracking the ball with his glowing eyes, Ron would have come to a very painful stop against the elevator if, at the last possible second, the doors hadn't, quite unexpectedly, opened.

This resulted in a not-so-painful collision with the rear wall of the elevator itself. However, Ron had come up with the hackey sac and that was the most important thing. At least it seemed like the most important thing until Ron started to wonder, still catching his breath on the floor of the elevator, why the doors had opened so suddenly in the first place. There wasn't anyone inside (and thankfully so, considering his shades were still hanging in the neck of his jersey leaving his tricked out eyes for anyone to see). However, the hackey sac and his fairly impressive catch of it ceased to have any importance for Ron when the elevator doors suddenly closed and the lights inside went out.

IV.

"A million bureaucrats are diligently plotting death and some of them even know it," Justine quoted from memory. Strangely, Justine could not recall whom she was quoting or from which book she had read the words. This was quite alarming to Justine since, to her photoscopic memory, this was the first time she had not been able to recall a source. However, she was able to momentarily stifle her concern since her friend's mental and emotional well being continued to be her main objective.

After a bit of uneasy silence, Kim finally asked, "O-kay? I'm majorly confused here."

"Well," Justine said, "that's the reason I couldn't work for Yoyodyne."

"It was really that sinister?" Kim prodded, happier more than ever that her father didn't work for them.

"Not at all," Justine said with measured intent, "that was why it was so sinister."

Why do I always get a headache when I talk to her? Kim thought as she massaged her temples.

From previous conversations with Kim, Justine could read this sign. She got up from her desk and walked back to the kitchenette to refill the glass and to get a couple of pain relievers for Kim. The entire front of her formal business skirt was soaked, but Justine paid it no mind.

"Everything was so incredibly benign" Justine explained as she refilled the glass. "It was incredibly, incredibly dull there."

Kim ironically wondered how truly dull Yoyodyne could be for someone who read Advanced Statistics textbooks for laughs.

"I am not one to put much faith in intuition," Justine said returning with the glass and Kim's pills. "In fact, before that first week at Yoyodyne, I would have told you that intuition didn't exist."

"But something about the place made your weirder go off?" Kim hazarded after finishing off the water.

"Indeed." Justine nodded. "I definitely had the," Justine struggled for the correct word but disappointedly settled on a hackneyed one, "feeling that everyone there could be working on something diabolical and never even have a clue. That's what I was alluding to with that quote. Whether I knew it or not, and certainly I would have been one of the few who did, my work would eventually be used for evil in that place. Whether it was intentional evil or not did not matter. My work would sooner or later be used to destroy something or to kill someone. And that," she said with cold resolve, "was not going to happen.

"So even though they were offering me funding that could outdistance my ambitions for a considerable time, I rejected it. And I must tell you, Kim, I don't regret slumming," Justine said, without a hint of irony, gestured to her opulent office, "not at all. I knew I had to get out when I could. Pokler didn't have that option."

Filtering out as much extemporaneous detail as she could, Justine summarized Franz Pokler's unhappy marriage to his wife Leni. She informed Kim of the latter's unsafe political affiliations and her intimations of what the government had planned for her husband's rocket work. Then she talked about the birth of their only daughter Ilse, and how one cold morning Pokler discovered Leni had left him and taken the little girl with her. Pokler threw himself blindly into his work with the type of frenzied resolve that, after a while, indicated to his superiors at Peenemunde that he had no real loyalty to anything … the rocket … the Reich … anything. Which is why They decided to bring him back into the fold.

"One day when he was coming back from work in the propulsion department," Justine continued, "he found a young girl waiting for him in his cubical."

"Ilse?" Kim asked.

Justine hesitated to respond, but nodded. "She told him that she and her mother were in a re-education camp, but that They wanted her to visit him."

Kim visibly shuddered at the mention of the camp.

"Pokler was so naïve," Justine shook her head, "that he actually believed people were educated at these camps, that the government—They, would know what would be best for his daughter. Still, he knew that her visit was some kind of warning. Or a bribe to keep him in line. After a week she disappeared as suddenly as she had arrived. All that he found was a note in her handwriting saying that They wanted her back and that she hoped They would let her see him again."

"Did ... did she return?" Kim asked hopefully but with a growing taste of discomfort that she couldn't shake.

Justine paused as if she were debating how to break some horrible news to Kim. Finally, she said, "Ilse was there the next year, and Pokler took her to Zwolfkinder, a kind of German Dizneeland. It was an amusement park where children ran things. If you were an adult you would get in trouble if you were caught wandering about without your child."

Justine and Kim exchanged weak smiles.

"Pokler took … Ilse every August to Zwolfkinder even into the last years of the war when things were going very badly in Germany, and no one should have been getting furloughs. Pokler was still going on his family vacation in 1944." Justine stopped telling her story and stayed quiet as if she was unsure if she should continue.

"Justine," Kim said finally, "The title of his book obviously refers to his daughter and these trips, and if you don't want to tell me how it ends, it's okay. I can guess that she dies."

"No, Kim," Justine said sadly, "that's not why I'm hesitating. I have been holding back on something about Pokler's story that I wasn't sure you needed to hear, but I think now that you do."

"What?" Kim asked. Did it just get darker in here?

"Pokler," Justine said slowly, "had serious doubts that the girl was actually his daughter."

"What?" Kim said, the color draining from her face.

"Or even," Justine continued, "that 'Ilse' was in fact the same girl he saw from one year to the next."

"Oh my God," Kim breathed.

"By the last trip to Zwolfkinder in 1944," Justine said, "he was almost one hundred percent sure that 'Ilse' had been a series of girls from the camps that had been 'recruited' or forced to play his daughter. In exchange, the girls got a week's reprieve from the camps, Pokler got his 'daughter' for a week, and They got their rocket expert for another year."

Justine paused her story. She got up and turned the desk lamp on. Its weak light did little to stymie the encroaching shadows as sunset took the last few orange rays from the office. "Pokler on that last trip got the girl to admit that she was from the Dora camp and that—"

"Please stop, Justine," Kim said, "Don't tell me any more."

After a moment of silence, Kim explained, "Justine I fight evil on a regular basis. During the second semester of my Sophomore year, I was stopping a take-over-the-world scheme twice a week. But I have to tell you, the evil you're talking about … it is beyond me. This They you keep referring to make the villains I fight look like harmless clowns."

"Kim," Justine said, placing her hand gently on her friend's shoulder, "I believe you do need to hear the rest."

V.

Ron didn't even have a chance to mutter "This does not bode well for the Ronster," before the lights came back on … or at least they seemed to come back on. In actuality, the absolute blackness of the car was pierced by two shafts of light. Ron was not able to discern this distinction because the two beams of light were, of course, emanating from his eyes. Every place he looked was illuminated, so why wouldn't he assume that the lights had come back on?

Unknowingly armed with this personal light source, Ron jumped to his feet and ran to the elevator's control panel and rapidly pressed the "Open" button. Although the lights had come back on, he remained none too pleased to be trapped inside the elevator. Why won't the buttons light up? Why would the lights work and not the buttons? Oh man!

Then Ron heard the grinding of a motor from somewhere far below him. Not good. Then he felt the elevator start to descend. Even though the control panel was not getting any power the elevator was headed down. Ron decided that the term "weirdar" failed to apply to the current situation. Instead, his "sick-and-wrongdar" started pinging frantically.

However, before Ron had been carried a half-floor down (and just before he was going to launch into a bloodcurdling cry to Kim and Rufus for help), the elevator, with a cacophony of loose-nut-and-bolt type noises, came to an abrupt halt. The doors flew open.

Standing anxiously at the elevator's entrance with a piece of electric wiring caught between his buckteeth was Rufus.

Scurrying down the hallway at top speed from the second he saw the elevator mysteriously open, the naked mole rat had reached the doors only a few seconds after they and the darkness within the car had swallowed up his human. Rufus had clambered up the waste can beneath the button console just as he heard the elevator car begin its descent. He had furiously hacked through the buttons and wiring and had successfully shorted out the mechanism. A few mild electrical shocks aside (which Rufus was practically immune to anyway because of his species' high tolerance to pain), the rescue attempt had been a complete success and had left him barely out of breath.

However, once Rufus realized that his human's already freaky-looking eyes had been apparently replaced by high-beam flashlights, he fainted.

"Rufus!" Ron cried as he scrambled from the elevator and scoped up his pet. His cry immediately woke up Rufus who instantly noticed that Ron's eyes had gone back to normal … or at least to what normal had meant for the past day. Seeing Rufus was okay, Ron decided to put as much distance between them and the elevator as he could.

"Buddy, did it just get darker in here?" Ron asked, not realizing his "high-beams" had switched off.

Ron looked back over his at the empty elevator. Sure, maybe it was just malfunctioning, but everything told him that he had been two seconds away from being captured by unseen forces. Monkey Fist? Dementor? Who knew? Maybe even Shego.

"Shego!" Ron uttered the name in horror.

Ron started racing down the hall as fast as he could. What if the elevator was just a way for Shego to get me out of the way so she could get Kim? Fortunately, Rufus had intuited Ron's sudden concern and, scampering down the hallway and peaking around Justine's door, had been able to calm Ron's fears with a simple 'thumbs up' before Ron was even halfway to Justine's office.

Ron sighed with relief and stood resting, his hands on his knees. It suddenly hit him how tired he was. Sure, he had slept most of the day, but it had been a fitful sleep full of half-remembered night-terrors and periods of waking up in uncomfortable positions. In fact, the only restful part that he could remember was during that dream near the end when Kim's eyes were raining and lightening. Despite the Ronshine he had exuded for Kim and Rufus' benefit, the fact was his nerves had been on a knife's edge all day, and he was emotionally spent. With any luck he would get a decent rest once they got back to Middleton. Heck, he wasn't even hungry; that alone screamed he was exhausted. Well, that and the fact he had just started hallucinating.

Out of the corner of his right eye, Ron thought he saw something strange in the portrait next to him on the wall.. There was a house perched upon the shoulder of the college booster in the picture. What struck Ron as odd about this was not the fact that there appeared to be a house on someone's shoulder (in kindergarten he had drawn a picture of his father with an attic window, draped with friendly periwinkle curtains, in the middle of his forehead). Rather, what was odd was the house, unlike the rest of the portrait, was three-dimensional.

Blinking his eyes and vigorously shaking his head, Ron continued walking toward Justine's office. He decided catch would be replaced by a game of paper-rock-scissors with Rufus as they waited for Kim to come out. In the fading orange light of sunset, the hallway was taking on a seriously spooky quality. There were lamps between each portrait that were turned on, but their feeble light didn't seem to be effective upon the gathering shadows. Something about the light and the portraits reminded Ron of a part in the "Villainous Villa" ride his parents had taken him on during the ill-fated second trip to Diznee in sixth grade.

Oh man! These cobwebs must be fierce! Ron shook his head again and even gave his forehead a few mild smacks. That silly 3-D house was now resting on the bad weave of another rich guy in another picture. He shook his head once again, laughed nervously and kept walking. In the next portrait, sure enough, there was that same house. This time it was balanced between the shoulders of some rich couple.

Ron stopped and gave the house a hard look. "House" really wasn't the right word. It looked like a cross between a fort and a castle, actually. Something between one of Prince Walley's guest houses and that Darcy guy's crib in the movie he had taken Kim to see on their second date about a year ago. Three stories, stone walls, dozens of black windows. At each of the house's four corners there was a small tower. Definitely, does not scream "cozy." Ron jogged his head back and forth and up and down. His perspective on the house changed just as if, yeah, as if it was really there sitting inside the painting.

Oh man, maybe I do need to get something to eat. Low blood sugar can do whack things to a man, I guess.

Just as he was about to tear his eyes away from the picture and continue down the darkening hallway, the light in one of the house's four small gables turned on.

"Rufus!" Ron hissed, his blood running cold.

The naked mole rat hurried over quickly to see what was wrong.

"Check it out!"

Rufus looked sideways at his human. Ron was pointing animatedly to a blank spot in one of the portraits. Rufus scratched his little head and squeaked, "Wha? Huh?"

"Don't you see it?" Ron breathed. "The house."

Rufus was still getting used to his human's new eyes. When he glanced at where Ron was pointing, he saw nothing unusual, and he chattered a response reflecting this. To be completely honest, Rufus was really starting to worry about Ron. He hoped there was nothing wrong with his human that couldn't be fixed with cheese and maybe a naco.

Ron peered into the house's window. As he did so, he thought he heard Rufus chatter again. "What is it, Rufus?" he asked absently.

Rufus, who had not said anything, shot him a perplexed look.

Ron kept looking intently into that small lit window. The chattering was getting louder. What's Rufus' deal? Briefly, a shadow fell across part of the window and retreated back into the "room." No! I didn't just see that!

His heart was pounding in his ears as he inched closer to the painting. This made no sense at all. Not just the possibility that there was someone in that little room but that Ron was inching closer to the house and not running away screaming. For some reason, however, Rufus' chatter was calming him down, taking the edge off his fear. The nondescript chattering, like dozens of little teeth grinding in the ground around him, was actually quite soothing and strangely … familiar.

Rufus silently watched with trepidation as Ron slowly stretched out his hand toward the surface of the portrait. The little guy's eyes bugged out when Ron's fingers breached the canvass and seemed to slip inside the painting.

"Badical!" Ron breathed as he felt his bare fingers touch the contours of the small house. The stone walls were gritty beneath his touch. The chattering was getting louder and louder. Paradoxically, Ron felt more and more at ease. He cautiously yet firmly gripped the house and began, ever so gingerly, to lift it up and out of the painting.

Rufus' valiantly fought off the urge to faint (Twice in five minutes? Nuh uh!) as Ron slowly took a miniature castle from the painting.

The chattering had become quite omnipresent by this point, and Ron absently realized there was no way his pet alone could account for all the noise. However, his focus was rooted to the small house he held in the palm of his hand. Now that he could see above it as well, he noticed an open courtyard in the center.

At the moment the soothing chatter abruptly ceased, small lights began flickering on the first story. And then Ron heard the voices.

Very familiar voices.

With mounting anxiety, Ron swallowed hard and glanced into the first floor windows. Walking from one darkened room to another, holding a miniature flashlight was his girlfriend … followed closely behind by a miniature him.

"Eeep!" Startled, Ron jumped sending the house spiraling into the air. Quickly recovering himself, Ron managed to snatch the house before it could hit the floor. "KP!" Ron yelled as he quickly righted the house (he had caught it upside down) and feverishly began searching for his Lilliputian BFGF inside the house's bottom story. Fortunately, she and his tiny counterpart were still casing the lower rooms as if nothing catastrophic had just happened. With a sigh of relief, Ron cautiously walked back toward the portrait and gently placed the house back inside where it had been, resting between the donors' shoulders. Once he took his hand back out of the painting, the house vanished. He tested his hand against the surface of the picture. It had become solid once more.

"That-that's so not right," he said glancing at Rufus. The naked mole rat couldn't offer any solace, only return his human's worried look.

VI.

"May I?"

Kim realized Justine was gesturing to the copy of Next Year in Zwolfkinder in her lap that she had forgotten was there. She offered up the book to Justine. Justine hopped back onto her desk, indifferent to the puddle she sat in, and opened to a page about two-thirds of the way through the book.

"This is from the last trip to Zwolfkinder." Justine began. Seeing Kim's dour expression, she said in a comforting tone, "Trust me, Kim. This will help."

In all of Kim's dealings with Justine, she could not recall her ever using a comforting tone with anyone. It was surprising for Kim then to discover that Justine was quite good at being consoling.

"Okay," Kim nodded.

Justine read.

We hardly talked this time. She was brooding, her head down and her hair was hooding her face. Was this the time of her life, or did she resent being under orders to spend time with a dull and aging engineer at some place she'd outgrown years ago?

"You don't really want to be here, do you?" I asked her as we sat beside a polluted stream to throw bread to the ducks.

"It's here or the camp," she said flatly. She wouldn't look at me. "I don't really want to be anywhere. I don't care."

"Ilse." I said uselessly.

"Do you like it here? Do you want to be back under your mountain, Franz?"

She had slipped. She had called me Franz, not Papi.

In that moment when I almost lost control, I committed my solitary act of courage. I quit the game.

"If you don't want to come back next year," which was ludicrous—what did "next year" even mean to our country by that time, "you don't have to. It would be better if you didn't."

She knew immediately what I had done. She didn't say anything or move for what seemed an eternity. Then she pulled one knee up, rested her forehead there and said quietly, "I'll come back."

"You?" I asked. I was on the verge of tears. I am still not sure if I was asking her if she would really come or if it would be her, this Ilse, that would be coming back.

"Yes, really."

Then I did lose control. I started to cry so hard that I shuddered violently. She took my hands in hers. Somewhere behind us an accordion played and the handful of children running through the ruins of that park shouted to each other.

Our last summer ended.

When I got back to Mittelwerke I tried, and kept trying, to get into the Dora camp and find her. Weismann "His SS superior," Justine explained. no longer frightened me. The SS guards were always courteous, understanding, and impossible to get past.

Justine stopped and closed the book. "There's another part I was going to read. Our troops were only miles away and everyone was evacuating. He snuck over to the camp to find Ilse-"

"But she was already dead," Kim interrupted in a depressed voice, staring at her lap.

"No," Justine said quickly, "she wasn't there, but what he did find …" she trailed off and looked at the cover of the book. Finally, she said, "It is terribly powerful, but," here she gave Kim's forlorn figure an embarrassed smile, "it might be best if you didn't hear that part."

Kim was quiet for what seemed, to both of them, a very long time although it was maybe half a minute. "I know the point you are trying to make, Justine. This Pokler was obviously a victim of circumstance. A decent man who may have even been heroic in a way, but the fact is he still profited by thetechnology his supervisors used for evil. He still came over here and gained wealth and glory from the same designs that years earlier he had helped develop to kill people."

"But, Kim," Justine said shaking her head, "he didn't."

"What do you mean?"

"Sure, he was 'liberated' by Operation Paperclip wholesale like all the other V-2 scientists the army could get a hold of and given a scot-free citizenship in the U.S. Most of the scientists were, as you can imagine, reticent," Justine said with sarcasm, "to bring up the topic of Dora. Especially after the horrors of the Nazi camps became widely known. Most never mentioned it. When pressed, many claimed they never knew about it, and some even denied that things were that bad in the camp."

This last statement drew a look from Kim that could melt steel.

"Pokler wasn't one of these." Justine continued. "In fact, after he got his citizenship, he wouldn't shut up about Dora. Kim, he actually called up newspapers prepared to give them their big scoop of the year!"

That produced the first real smile from Kim that Justine had noticed since she had arrived.

"Needless to say, the government wasn't any keener on linking these scientists to the camps than the scientists themselves were. Pokler was warned, a couple of times. Finally, he was given the ultimatum that if he didn't stay quiet he could forget about any future career with rockets."

"He didn't shut up, did he?" Kim asked with a satisfied smile.

"No, he did not." Justine said with the same smile. "He taught Physics at community colleges for the rest of his life." She paused and mused, "If he had kept his mouth shut, there is no doubt he would have been working for NASA during the Mercury and the Apollo missions.

"He sacrificed his dream of rockets and exploration …" Justine began.

"To do the right thing." Kim smiled.

Although she hadn't thought so at the time, Kim's world had been so uncomplicated twenty minutes earlier. And even though at first the new complexities Justine had introduced had shaken her foundational beliefs in what was Good and what was Evil, she know realized that the ideals of Good and Heroism still existed. The world seemed a much more difficult place now. Yet, she was buoyed by her fervent belief in the possibility of good people doing the right thing. People like Justine, like her father, and like a flawed yet ultimately heroic man she had never met.

"May I borrow that book, Justine?"

"Are you sure, Kim," Justine asked incredulously.

"Yes," Kim said with resolve.

"You can have it. Remember I have a dozen copies at home."

They smiled in silence. In that silence Kim reflected on how little she knew about Justine. Kim was pleasantly amused when she reflected that Justine was weird (if in a different way than Ron was), but (like Ron to a certain extent) had a big heart …even if she kept it hidden most of the time. Justine was definitely an iceberg in many respects, what other surprises lay hidden beneath her cold surface?

Suddenly, Justine smacked herself in the forehead with her open palm … loudly. "Moron!" she laughed. Her laughter was … peculiar yet familiar … actually peculiarly familiar. Kim couldn't help noting the similarities between Justine's laugh and ... well… Rufus' laugh.

Okay, so wasn't expecting that. "Are you okay, Justine?" Kim asked.

"Why didn't I ever think of doing that before?" Justine continued laughing.

"Slap yourself in the forehead?" Kim asked with a giggle, trying her best to go along with Justine's mood.

"Don't be ludicrous, Kim," Justine said flatly. Within seconds, Justine had gone back to what Ron had coined "Full Flan Mode."

But she softened her tone a few seconds later with a laugh/snort. "Actually, I just realized an investigative avenue I never thought of trying. It is so obvious! Pokler's nephew! Pokler adopted his sister's son after she was killed in 1945 and brought him to the U.S. If Pokler told anyone about Slothrop, it would be him."

"Great!" Kim enthused, "Do you know where he lives?"

"Actually, Kim," Justine smiled, "I believe you already know him."

"Huh?"

"Dr. Kramer, your father's colleague at the Middleton Space Center."

"Oh, yeah." Kim answered uncomfortably as she remembered her one and only meeting with the anecdote-driven scientist. She reddened as she recalled the not-so-polite estimation of his "goat butter story" she had given while under the influence of Drakken's truth ray the year before. "We have, uh, met." Spankin.'

"KP!"

Kim was halfway to the door before Justine had even fully registered Ron's desperate scream.

VII.

Kim flung Justine's office door open and tore into the hallway. The momentary tightening of her heart eased as her eyes found Ron. He was standing near one of those gold-framed portraits and seemed safe. Waitaminute, he doesn't look too good.

"Ron, what is it?" she said walking up to him and reaching for his hand. Ron didn't respond at first, just kept staring at the portrait. She glanced at the nameplate. It read "Mr. Pierce Inverarity and his wife Oepida. Longtime Friends of San Narcisco Community College, 1965."

"Kim? Stoppable?" Justine called as she stood in her office's doorway.

"Quick, Ron!" Kim whispered urgently, "put on your glasses.

"Huh?—Oh, yeah! Right." Ron fumbled for his shades as he purposely kept himself facing the Inveraritys, so Justine wouldn't catch a look at his eyes.

"What is it, Ron? What's wrong?" Kim asked again. He looks sooo pale.

He took a couple of deep breath before answering. "Kim, I just got a call."

"A call? From Wade?"

"No," he shook his head slightly, "from Vheissu."

As Kim tried to process this jarring statement, she heard Justine ask with a mixture of piqued curiosity and latent dismissal, "What's Vheissu?"

"It-it's kind of an emergency," Kim said quickly. "I think we are going to have to jet. Can you contact your pilot?"

"Uh, yes, I can do that," Justine said as she flipped open her cell phone.

"Are you okay, honey?" Kim asked Ron. She could tell he was really wigged out. What did he mean that he 'got a call'?

"Kinda freaked, KP," Ron said, "but I think I'm okay."

"Sure?"

"I'm always okay when you call me 'honey,'" he managed to smile.

She returned his smile and was about to give him a consoling kiss when Justine spoke.

"Done. They'll be here in five minutes." She was back in "Full Flan Mode." Without waiting for a response, she turned and walked swiftly back to her office. She had just reached the door when she heard Kim call out to her.

"I'm sorry we have to leave so suddenly." Kim said walking toward Justine. "But I did want to say thank you."

Justine turned to face her and said, "Okay." She looked unsure of herself. This was an unusual look for Justine, and it did not suit her.

Kim waved 'goodbye' and turned to leave. Then she turned back around and gave a very startled Justine a light hug around her shoulders. "Thanks."

"N-no problem." Justine stammered. And then she wrapped Kim in a surging hug.

The hug was more intense and lasted longer than Kim thought was appropriate for the situation, but it was still a nice hug.

When Justine released her, Kim was surprised to see a few tears on Justine's cheeks. Before Kim could ask what was wrong, Justine whispered, "You're my best friend, Kim. I'll miss you."

Kim was stunned. Obviously, she didn't feel the same way about Justine. Ron was her best friend, and until today she would not have numbered Justine even among her really good friends. On the other hand, she could understand why Justine might see her in such a light. The image of Justine, still a few years shy of twenty, sitting all alone behind that huge marble desk in that enormous office came back to her. Then the rather powerful hug and warm greeting she had given Kim earlier. And the enthusiastic salutation Justine had given when she realized it was Kim Possible who was calling her. The pieces were starting to slip into place. Kim so hoped it was because of her mild concussion that she had missed all these obvious signs.

Nevertheless, Justine wasn't Kim's best friend. Yet she had shown Kim a side of herself that afternoon that most people had not seen, had never suspected, before. Although Kim couldn't say they were best friends, she was speaking honestly when she told Justine, "I'll miss you, too."

Just then the sound of the descending hover jet's engines rattled the windows. It was time to go.

"Let's do something soon." Kim said pleasantly as she turned and started to go. "I'll call you later tonight."

Justine smiled awkwardly, that is, genuinely. "I'll be here late."

"KP, let's take the stairs," Ron said in a nervous voice.

"Huh? Why?"

"Stoppable's right," Justine called from her doorway. "Don't use the elevator." Solemnly, the head of San Narcisco University's Physics Department and more-likely-than-not future Nobel Prize candidate explained, "It's haunted."

VIII.

Not even the herds of reindeer scattered along the tundra or among the densely woven pine and cedar forests that surrounded the Stony Tunguska River knew something had gone wrong.

Mild June morning in Siberia, but something strange was floating on the air. Nothing really, nothing that would be picked by the usual senses. It was somewhat akin to that slightly electrically charged sensation just before the first snows in early September. Something that could be easily missed unless one was watching for it.

Yori was watching for it. She knew what was coming. How could she not? She had been here once before … after it had happened.

And then it came.

A missile of phosphorescent blue light soundlessly appeared in the clear sky. Nearly one thousand miles long, this trail of light split the sky into two. As the light bore down upon the river basin, a sound like the crackle of static electricity spliced with the thunder of artillery fire filled the ears of every animal for five hundred miles in all directions. Them seven miles above the earth's surface, it exploded.

The initial shockwave of the explosion flattened two thousand square miles of forest instantaneously. Trees were stripped of their limbs, trunks snapped or shattered by the immense weight of the air. Seconds later, the air's extreme temperature caused the vast area to erupt into a blazing holocaust.

Yori stood amid the flames unharmed. When the second shockwave passed over her, she didn't even flinch even though the same shockwave caused the Trans-Siberian Railroad to shutter on its rails some six hundred miles behind her.

Passively, she took everything in. The fifty-mile high mushroom cloud that blotted out the sun on that otherwise clear morning. The "downpour" of dust, tree limbs, animals, and stones that lasted for almost fifteen minutes. Finally, after the storm had ceased, the smoke from the blazing forests was carried level with the horizon down toward the Himalayas. The horrendous heat had risen and burned away layers of the upper atmosphere. Yori watched as clouds of frozen dust particles, almost aquamarine in color, floated languidly against a vermilion sky that stretched across the gables of the known heavens.

"Young apprentice, do you know why I have brought you to this place?" the elderly voice asked gravely.

"Yes, Master Sensei," came Yori's steady reply. She was only twelve, still in her lighter-colored novice uniform. She knew it was a great honor to have been selected to make this annual pilgrimage with Sensei. To her knowledge, no one had ever had such an honor. And here she was attaining such an unprecedented right in only her first year at Yamanouchi. "It is because of Vheissu."

"This is unfortunate yet true," Sensei said in a voice that threatened to break the rigid formal tone it always possessed. "The explosion that occurred here many, many years ago was terrible and great. Millions of trees and thousands of animals perished. Thankfully, fate decreed the holocaust fell upon a place uninhabited by humanity."

"Master Sensei, how strong was this explosion," Yori asked taking in the miles of downed trees that radiated in all directions from the spot where they stood.

"Enough, my dear apprentice," Sensei said, for the first time Yori could recall, with a note of hesitation, "to equal one thousand times the strength of the Hiroshima explosion."

Yori Morituri's heart caught in her throat, but she successfully, she believed, hid her shocked reaction from her mentor. Her father's father, the not-so-honorable Ensign Morituri of the Imperial Navy had been raised in the city of Hiroshima prior to the Second World War.

"You can imagine, apprentice," Sensei continued gravely, "what might happen if such an explosion were to occur over a city the size of London, or New York, or Tokyo."

"Master Sensei," Yori said, maintaining the steadiness of her voice in light of such a horrible contemplation, "that must never occur."

"I am glad to hear the resolve in your voice, Yori," Sensei stated. It was the first time in the nine months she had known him that he had addressed her by name. "You may have wondered why you had been invited to this place when I never have brought a guest on such a trip before."

"Yes, Master Sensei. I did wonder."

"The reason is because I have selected you, Yori, to be the Guardian of the Chosen One." Sensei explained. "When Vheissu calls this individual, someone whose identity has yet to be revealed to me, it will be your duty to make sure he reaches Vheissu. You must vouchsafe his journey and make certain that no evil Pretender reaches it before he can. Otherwise, another holocaust such as this" he said sadly surveying the decades' old devastation about them, "may occur."

"It will be my honor," Yori replied without hesitation.

Sensei allowed himself a brief smile. He was very pleased with his pupil's enthusiasm. He knew of the Morituri family's previous "flirtation" with dishonor some fifty years earlier. He had also perceived correctly this young girl's desire to prevent such dishonor from spreading and even, if possible, to reverse its course and regain the honor her family's name deserved. He knew she would make a fine and honorable Guardian.

"I am in your debt, Morituri-san," Sensei said as he bowed to her.

Yori was stunned. Why was her Master genuflecting  to her? She was not worthy. She made to prevent him from completing his bow.

"No, Morituri-san," Sensei said. His voice, although kind, froze her in place. "The honor is mine. It is my belief that you will succeed where a previous Guardian," here Master Sensei's voice hesitated and even, very slightly, cracked, "had failed."

In response, Yori stood rigid and, as she had accepted her destiny, accepted her honor.

The vibrations from the final shockwaves had passed, and the remaining heat had evaporated into the final bluish dust clouds overhead.

Yori adjusted her goggles, checked that her Hopper was fully stocked, and that her tank of CO2 was filled to capacity. She aimed her marker at what had been, prior to the explosion, the tree-line. And she waited.

All was silence. The type of silence that always descends immediately after a devastating event … or prefigures one.

The incidental grumblings of the legions of Yamanouchi ninjas-outfitted exactly like Yori-that were positioned behind her disturbed the uneasy peace of the moment. She held up her hand with authority. The mumblings stopped.

Then she saw the first one.

The monkey ninja, adorned with slightly smaller versions of the same paintball equipment Yori and her troops were equipped with (slightly anachronistic considering this is supposed to be 1908), stealthily crept through the burnt taiga. He was about 50 yards away when Yori eliminated him with a direct hit to the chest. The monkey ninja looked at the pink splotch on his uniform, bore his teeth at her, and sat down.

At that moment, three thousand monkey ninjas sprung from their various hiding places among the undergrowth, bogs, and dead trees and charged helter-skelter toward the Yamanouchi side, firing their markers with abandon.

With a calm, subtle and reserved gesture, Yori signaled for her troops to advance. Then with an enraged scream she led them pell-mell into the fray, firing as she went.

This is what Yori lived for: dodging oncoming paintballs with sublime ninjitsu moves that were the products of both innate talent and rigorous training, precision firing that had been honed by three years worth of Saturdays at target practice, the adrenaline rush that her own anxiety gave her and that subsequently drove her onward to excel. And, of course, the music.

The thrashing guitars were immediately recognizable and there was no mistaking the "all meat no filler" backbeat provided by the drums. Yet she didn't have her mePod with her, and the some of the words were … different than what she remembered. Regardless, she sang along with the lyrics as one of her favorite early American-style Punk Rock anthems blared overhead like a soundtrack for the epic battle.

Hey ho, let's go Hey ho, let's go Hey ho, let's go Hey ho, let's go

They're forming in straight line They're going through a tight wind

The chimps are losing their minds The Vheissu Bop

Yori curved her body so as to dodge three oncoming balls, and with her marker effortlessly nailed each of her attackers in their retreating rear ends.

They're bananas in the back seat They're generating atomic heat

Pulsating to the back beat The Vheissu Bop

She landed a perfectly placed chop between the eyes of a monkey ninja who appeared suddenly at her left elbow. His counterpart at her right knee was just about to fire his marker when her foot connected to his head. She tucked and rolled beneath an advancing vanguard of six monkeys and tagged them all in the back once she righted herself. (Funny how you never have to reload your Hopper in dreams, eh?)

Hey ho, let's go Shoot'em in the back now What they want, I don't know

They're all reved up and ready to go

POP!

Whoah! Someone took those lyrics a little too literally.

Yori craned her neck and saw, yes, she had a large pink splat mark right between her shoulder blades. She had been eliminated. She looked furiously at the hooded Yamanouchi ninja with the raised marker standing right behind her. She then noticed that ALL of her troops were wearing hoods, and they all had their markers trained directly at her. She surveyed the field the spread out before her and every monkey ninja was standing perfectly still, all their markers pointed at her as well.

Seen from above, her position seemed utterly hopelessly. Even the monkey and Yamanouchi ninjas who had been eliminated earlier in the fighting were back on their feet, markers loaded and ready to fly. Even so, Yori knew that she still had the advantage, she knew that every treacherous alumni and evil simian to the person (or primate) was scared of her. Her steely gaze and resolute posture did not flinch. Not a muscle moved on the vast tundra. All was silent and still.

The crackle in the air overhead followed by an overpowering smell of ozone heralded its return.

Monkey ninjas went chattering for the northwest horizon while the army of Yamanouchi ninjas retreated to the southeast, leaving Yori standing directly beneath the oncoming pillar of light.

She raised her unblinking eyes to the heavens, carefully took aim at the object within the beam of light with the marker. The odds were ridiculously against her surviving. There would be no second chance. There was no Tunguska. There was only Yori and the Vheissu Fireball.

At the moment she let fly, she released a defiant scream so piercing that … it woke her up.

There was indeed a blue beam pressing down upon her. It was the same blue laser that she remembered had effectively knocked her unconscious some time ago. She had no idea how much time had passed. It was hitting the spot just above the bridge of her nose and was causing a terrifically annoying sensation of pins and needles to pulsate across the surface of her head. She slowly turned her eyes to the right and discovered that she was able to pivot her head in that direction as well … if only slightly. The chin restraint on her was tight, but not completely restrictive.

She saw a desk and an empty lab chair. She recalled Drakken-san sitting in it prior to the machine being activated upon her. On his desk was a computer terminal that displayed in very large characters "45." This changed to "46" seconds later and then proceeded to "47" after that. With each incremental number change, Yori felt the pins and needles getting pricklier and the overall sensation penetrating deeper into her head.

She had to get out of there.

She was still clamped into the same chair as earlier. By craning her neck as far as she could, she noticed that the restraint on her left hand wasn't as tight as it was on her right. She pinched the fingers on this hand as tightly together as she could and tried to squeeze her wrist through the manacle. Almost … it made it halfway out. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and tried once more with all her might. The pain of the metal against her bare wrist was quick, sharp, stabbing.

But it was out! She half-noticed that blood was trickling down the edge of her free wrist as she reached out and slapped the small laser cannon (and thus the beam) away from her head. The prickly sensation immediately dissipated, and her head began to clear. She undid the chin restraint (had Drakken-san even locked it?), unfastened her right wrist, and finally both ankles within seconds.

It will be my honor to 'ace this place.'

At that moment, the automatic doors in the far left corner of the dirt-floored lab swished open. Yori dove to her knees behind a nearby crate.

She didn't move. The silence ticked on for an eternity.

"Expletive deleted great! DRAKKEN! Where in the expletive deleted is she?"

"S-she's gone?" Drakken's voice asked.

Hey ho let's go, indeed

IX.

It was only a half-flight of stairs to the roof. Kim led Ron up the steps double-quick. Although she was primarily concerned with getting him somewhere where they could discuss his experience, she was also preoccupied with the copy of Pokler's book under her left arm. Would Ron notice it? Would she be able to confidently tell Ron everything she had learned from Justine?

As Kim stepped from the stairwell onto the roof, the orange glare of the sunset practically blinded her. At that moment, the setting sun was positioned in just the right (wrong?) place. Fortunately, Ron was still wearing his shades and subsequently was able to lead her toward the hover jet until her eyes adjusted. Once she blinked them clear and looked off toward the east side of the building, she stopped dead still. Ron, still holding her hand and walking toward the hover jet, nearly lost his balance.

"Whoah! What's up KP?" he said turning. Her posture screamed "mission mode."

Immediately, she relaxed, stood on tiptoes, and answered his question with a slight kiss just above the freckles on his right cheek. "I'll tell you in a minute," she whispered.

For his part, Ron was puzzled but pleased.

The second the hatch to the jet closed, Kim got Wade on the Kimmunicator.

"Wade, do you have a lock on our coordinates?"

"Sure do, Kim, what's up?"

"There are two W.E.E. agents on the roof of this building. Can you get a fix on them?"

"W.E.E. agents!" Ron exclaimed.

Kim nodded.

"The security system for San Narcisco is pretty extensive; there's a camera on the roof, I'll see if I can piggy back the system and get a look at the agents." Wade said, typing furiously.

"That's why I kissed you, Ron," Kim explained with a smile.

"A-as a distraction?" Ron asked.

They both had good chuckle at that.

"Well, yes," Kim said, "but also to thank you for insisting on accompanying me on this mission." She gave him a knowing smile.

"Okay, I've got them." Wade announced.

"Who are they?" Kim asked.

"Agents Chi and Pi, I believe." Wade said as he maneuvered the camera so he could read the Greek letters on their jumpsuits.

"Chi and Pi?" Ron asked. "What, are we being stalked by Starbucks?"

Kim gave her boyfriend a one-quarter roll of her eyes. "What are they doing Wade?"

"Leaving, actually," Wade said. "Maybe this security camera makes a lot of noise when it pivots. Something most definitely tipped them off."

Kim was about to say something when the revving of the hover jet's engines came on at full force and they became airborne. Kim shot an annoyed look in the direction of the cockpit and then continued. "Wade, can you check W.E.E. transmissions, find out what their up to?"

Wade smiled, "I recall their system is pretty easy to hack. I'll get right on it. Oh, and Kim, I do have a newsflash for you."

"Shoot." Kim said as she settled down in the roomy passenger couch next to Ron. Reflexively, Ron threw his arm around his girlfriend and snuggled next to her.

Wade, for his part, tried to ignore what he saw as incipient mushiness on the part of his two friends. "Okay guys, Shego's been recaptured by GJ."

"As if that's supposed to make us feel any safer!" Ron snapped.

"I just report them, Ron." Wade said. "According to GJ's files, she was picked up about an hour ago in a stolen aircraft flying over Montana. She was apparently headed for the Canadian border."

"Wade," Kim interjected, "what was she doing when they seized her last week? Trying to buy a boat, right?"

"I believe so."

"Just a strange feeling here Wade," Kim continued, "but what was the name of the boat."

"I'll check," Wade said with a flurry of typing. "That's weird."

"What?"

"The-the record of Saturday's arrest has been changed. It now says they picked her up in Iquitos, Peru trying to hijack a rubber shipment."

"Huh?

"I know. It doesn't make any sense, Kim. Hold on, I have a hard copy of the original report here somewhere."

As Wade shuffled through a stack of papers piled precariously over one of his five computer monitors, Kim and Ron exchanged looks. "You know, KP," Ron said in an exhausted voice, "my weirder has been going off so often lately that I don't remember what normal feels like."

She squeezed the hand that he had draped over her shoulder and sighed. And I still haven't told him about Justine's info and he hasn't told me about his 'call' yet either.

"The Anubis." Wade read aloud.

"Waitaminute!" Ron cried, visibly upset. "Wasn't that the funky amulet thingie that Jackie Oakes used to turn into The Jakel?"

"I don't think they're related, Ron," Wade said.

"How many villains are we going to have to deal with in a single week?!" Ron was yelling now.

"Anubis is also the Egyptian god of the dead, Ron," Wade explained patiently. "I think the owner of the boat just had a twisted sense of humor."

"Sorry, Wade," Kim said. "It's been a real rough day." Casting a worried look at Ron, she asked Wade, "You haven't heard anything from Sensei or Yori have you?"

"Nothing, Kim."

"Well, I guess we'll hop off, Wade." Kim said, indicating with her eyes that Ron needed her attention at the moment. "I'll give you the Slothrop dish from Justine a little later."

"Ok, talk to you guys later." The Kimmunicator's screen went blank.

"Ron?" Kim asked gently. "Are you okay?"

He was turned away her, his head in his hands, his elbows on his knees. He shook his head.

"Is there anything I can do?" She asked placing her hand just behind his left ear and beginning to massage it.

He shook his head no again, and she withdrew her hand. "Well, KP you could keep doing that. It felt nice."

She smiled slightly and began massaging where his head curved into his neck just behind his ear. After a few silent minutes, she could tell he was a lot less tense. Then she realized she was, in effect, doing the same thing she and Ron had been doing to Rufus earlier in the hospital room.

When she explained this to Ron, he said breezily, "Rufus has always been a trend setter, KP."

"Perhaps, but if you start stomping your foot, I'm stopping."

"No fair!" he laughed.

"Feeling better?"

"A little."

"Good enough to talk?"

"I guess." He leaned back into the couch, took a few deep breaths, placed his hand on her bare knee, and related his adventure in the elevator.

"Despite what Justine says, that elevator is not haunted." Kim said firmly. "You're right, Ron. I think you were two seconds away from being captured. Maybe that's what those two W.E.E. agents were doing there."

"That doesn't make any sense, KP. The Ron Factor is so last season. Heck, it's last last season!"

"Maybe the Ron Factor isn't what they're interested in." Kim said as she meaningfully lifted her boyfriend's shades.

"Vheissu?" Ron asked. "Man! It's not enough that Monkey Butt is after it, but now we have to worry the Worldwide Empress of Evil, too?"

"Empire, Ron." Kim said dryly.

"I know that Kim," Ron said weakly. "I was just trying to be funny. But even that is making me tired."

"Do you want to tell me about your 'call'?"

"Can we wait on that?" he answered gloomily. "I am just so tired, KP. Would it be all right if I slept until we got back to Middleton?"

"Sure, I guess." Kim had never seen Ron so worn out before. "Do you want me to tell the pilot to drop us off at Bueno Nacho?"

"Nahh," Ron said drowsily, "I'm not really hungry. Have him drop us off at home."

Kim was so surprised by his rejection of Bueno Nacho that she forgot to ask him which home he meant. He was so comfortable and so often at her house, it really was like he had two homes. However, when she thought to ask him which house, he was already snoring. She continued to rub him behind his ear. He still had his hand on her knee. It felt warm and very soothing. She watched his chest move in time with his snores for a few minutes. Glancing at his face, she caught sight in the space behind his shades of the faint orange glow that his eyes made against his lids. They were dancing meaningfully in REM sleep. I guess that's why he was wearing the sunglasses in bed this afternoon. The glow probably kept Rufus awake.

As quietly as she could, Kim dialed Justine's office on the Kimmunicator. Ron was a profoundly deep sleeper, but she still wanted to be as quiet as she could. It rang and continued to ring. Although she had only contacted Justine a few times on her office line, she had always picked up on the first ring. Then Justine's "Full Flan" styled message came on. Kim left her a brief message saying she was sorry she had missed her. Strange. I thought she said she was going stay at the office late.

She was about the flip off the Kimmunicator when she remembered.

"Wade?" Kim whispered.

"Why are you whispering?" Wade whispered in reply.

"Ron's sleeping, and I don't want to wake him."

"Ok, what do you need?"

Kim took a deep breath. "Wade, do you know what a Wandjina is?"

Wade frowned. "How do you spell it, Kim?"

Kim spelled it out for him. How do I know how to spell it? She anxiously waited as he typed in a search request.

"It's an aboriginal creation god. They are gods of rain, lightning, and thunder."

"Okay," Kim took a short breath, "are there cave paintings of these gods?"

"Well, Kim, they actually are cave paintings." Wade explained.

"What? I don't follow."

"The aboriginals believe that the cave paintings contain the actual spirits of the Wandjina. Eons ago, the spirits came to rest inside the rock wall, leaving their image on the surface. The aboriginals reverence the spirits by repainting the images once they begin to fade."

Here goes. "Wade, are there any Wandjina in the Jenolan Caves?"

Wade typed rapidly on his keyboard, paused, and then shook his head 'no.'

Whew! The cave painting that Chris and Charlie had pointed out at the entrance of the Jenolan Caves had been weighing heavily on Kim's mind ever since she had seen it. Even more so since her vision from the night before.

"As a matter of fact," Wade explained, "most of the Wandjina are located on the exact opposite side of the continent."

Even better.

"Well," Wade said in surprise, still looking at his screen. "That's pretty funny."

"What?" Kim asked carelessly.

"The region where the best known Wandjani paintings are located is the Kimberley region."

"YOU ARE SO FREAKING KIDDING ME!" Kim cried.

"Uh, no," Wade said quite surprised. "Of course …" he said double-checking his results, "they spell it differently. It ends 'l-e-y' rather than like your name."

"Wh-what's going on, KP," Ron said with a yawn. "Did you say something?"

"Go back to sleep, Ron," Kim managed in a semi-consoling voice. "I'm just talking to Wade."

"What's wrong, Kim?" Wade asked in a half-whisper.

"I'm not really sure, Wade," Kim said rubbing her right temple. "It-it's just that … well, although I have only been awake for maybe five hours, this has been one of the longest days of my life."

"Well," Wade said, "if you need anything else or even want to talk about whatever it is, let me know, okay." His concern for her was palpable.

"Thanks, Wade," she said apologetically, "you rock as always." She flipped off the Kimmunicator.

Kim didn't want to think. About her vision. About her dreams. About anything. All she wanted to do was watch her best friend boyfriend sleep and maybe catch a few minutes of rest herself. But she doubted that would happen; they would be reaching Middleton shortly.

Beep-be-be-beep.

"Great," Kim groused, "what now?"

She turned on the Kimmunicator and saw her father.

"Daddy?!" A wave of complicated emotions washed over Kim. She wanted to tell him everything she had learned from Justine in one breath. To tell him how happy she was he tried to make rockets seem fun when she was kid. How sorry she was for being bored during most of the Rocket Booster visits he organized. And how proud she was of his moral stance to only work with exploration missions—scrimping for funding from one project to the next while defense-oriented projects always had an overabundance of monies at their disposal.

"Where are you Kimmie?" he asked. He seemed concerned about something.

"Ron and I are flying back to Middleton, right now. Is everything all right?"

"Well," he hesitated. "I was hoping you could come home as soon as possible. Ronald can come too."

Beep-be-be-beep. The Roncom went off. Although the alert wasn't that loud and sounded identical to the Kimmunicator's, Ron was instantaneously wide-awake and fumbling in his pockets for the device. "What's the sitch?" he asked as he flipped it on. He shot a look at Kim, "Hey, that feels pretty cool to say, KP."

"I'm sorry, Daddy," Kim said returning her attention to her father, "is there anything wrong?"

"Sensei?" Ron asked in amazement.

Sensei's calling Ron on the Roncom? This is so big! How did he get the number?

"Kim, it's about your mother," James Possible said.

"There's nothing wrong with her is there?" Kim asked, alarmed.

"Oh, no, no," her father said quickly. "She's fine; it's nothing like that."

"Well, what's the sitch?" There was an aching in Kim's stomach that threatened to spread to the rest of her body.

James Possible sighed. "The hospital's board asked her to resign today."

"What?!"

Her father nodded. "She'll explain it to you."

"Kim?" Ron asked over her shoulder urgently.

"Okay, Dad, I'll-we'll be there as soon as we can." She turned off the Kimmuncator and turned to Ron. "The hospital's firing my mom!"

"No! Wha-? Why?" Ron said flabbergasted.

"Don't know," Kim said quietly. "Dad wants me—I mean us-home as soon as possible."

"It may just have to be you, Kim," Ron said with obvious difficulty.

"Why? What's going on? What did Sensei say?"

"Yori's been kidnapped."


A/N: The quote Justine gives at the start of section IV. is also from GR. I apologize for this blatant flirtation with Po-Mo meta-fiction technique, but the line felt right.

Credit must go to the first chapter of Surendra Verma's The Mystery of the Tunguska Fireball. Section could not have been written without it.

The italicized segment in section VI. is my paraphrasing of page 430 of GR. So I offer my humble apologies to Thomas Pynchon.

I also owe Salman Rushdie an apology. The fifty-first paragraph in section VIII. is an allusion to a pivotal section of his novel Shalimar the Clown.

I also owe apologies to The Ramones for butchering the lyrics to "Blitzkrieg Bop."

Chapter Text

There were unconfirmed reports of incidents high above the planetary surface that no one talked about in any but the most careful euphemisms. The list of passengers who arrived was not always identical to the list of those who'd departed. Something was happening, in between, up there.

-Vineland, page 61

I.

Wade was more than a little disappointed. All of the W.E.E. systems he could hack into (which were, in fact, ALL of them) had absolutely nothing cooking about Kim and Ron. Even his trump card—the blog/forum website outside of W.E.E.'s internal server where agents secretly went to e-tantrum about Gemini's less-than-exemplary people management skills, proved devoid of anything remotely related or interesting.

On the positive side, his contact at the Allied Intelligence Archives had turned up something of interest concerning Tyrone Slothrop. Although official records still could not verify that Slothrop had been employed by ACHTUNG or had even been enlisted in the Army, the contact did dig up hard evidence that Slothrop had, in fact, been in London at the time of the V2 rocket attacks. A series of letters (okay, two) placed Slothrop in a hospital ward in December of 1944. Wade's contact IH'ed him that he would be faxing the letters over shortly.

As he swiveled in his chair to check on the fax, Wade's eye just happened to catch the monitor on his far-right. It was still channeling the feed from the security camera on the San Narcisco University rooftop. Despite the blackness of the night and the long shadows cast by the security light positioned directly in front of the camera's line of sight, Wade caught some movement in the frame.

He cocked an eye at the monitor and, with a few quick keystrokes, maneuvered the camera so he could get a better look at the whatever-it-was that was continuing to move in the shadows.

It lay hidden in the shadows of a utility door on the far right of the roof. A utility door that Wade, just at that second, realized had not been open earlier. As he attempted to lighten the image so he could "see past" these shadows, Wade began feeling the first on-rush of anxiety.

Please, don't be what I think you are.

As the screen lightened, he realized, to his chagrin, that once again he was correct.

"Shoot! Why am I always right?"

Wade immediately contacted the San Narcisco PD and, almost as instantly, tried to radio Kim.

II.

"Kim, you need to be with your mother!" Ron protested.

"Ron, I am sure Mom will understand. This is a mission and-" Kim said as she started dialing her home number on the Kimmunicator.

Ron placed his hand on the device to prevent her from finishing the call.

"Ron." She was not pleased. "What are you doing?" She never questioned the obvious unless she was getting tweaked.

"Your mom needs you, Kim," Ron said with determination. "You know she wouldn't have had your dad call unless it was way serious."

"Ron, we don't know that Mom asked him to. More than likely, he did it on his own. That's why I am going to talk to her. She will so understand."

"Kim …" Ron began, not as forcefully as before but the tone still radiated his seriousness. Although unspoken, the fact that he loved Anne Possible was quite obvious. At the very least, Kim's mom was a big part of the reason why Ron had always felt so comfortable in the Possibles' home.

"Ron, let me explain three things to you," Kim began forcefully. "One, Mom will understand that this is important. This is a kidnapping; I am not just leaving her side to help the Pixies make their muffin quota."

"Two," the heated tone in her voice was leveling off, "Mom is the one who lay down the law this morning about us not leaving each other's side during missions. Furthermore, you were so right this afternoon about this mission. I am so glad you insisted to come, and even though nothing happened I'm glad that you had my back."

"And three—" here Kim paused as her mind briefly flashed to the memory of Yori on the Space Center's roof standing over her, concern evident in her almond eyes—"and most importantly, Yori is my friend too. I need to help you do this."

Ron had known where she going with the first two reasons, and he knew that she was right too. However, he had been surprised by her third reason. It wasn't like he believed she was still jelling over Yori; he just assumed there would always be some distance between them. But Yori had surprised him the night before when she went out of her way to help Kim. Why should he be surprised if Kim would return the favor?

"Besides," Kim said holding up the Kimmunicator, "I can always talk to Mom on the way to wherever we're going." She smiled seeing that she had indeed silenced her BFBF's concerns, and then she frowned. "Where are we going?"

"Don't know." Ron replied shaking his head. "Sensei said Yori headed over to the hospital to see us early this afternoon, and that was the last he heard from her. He called one of his ninja peeps in Lowerton to check on her, and the dude found her hair band and signs of a struggle outside the parking lot." Then Ron's expression darkened, "Dude also found a few banana peels nearby."

"I'll ring up Wade." Kim said with concern. "See if the pilot is okay with an extended trip to parts unknown." Kim felt Justine wouldn't mind if they borrowed her jet for a little longer, but the man piloting the plane might have a family expecting him back in Southern California for dinner. The pilot had been borderline friendly on the flight in, but had kept the cockpit door closed the entire ride home.

Kim gave Ron's slightly concerned look a reassuring smile, "Don't worry, I'll still call Mom. Besides we have to stop by the house anyway—neither of us have any mission gear."

III.

Although Wade wouldn't know the man's identity for certain until San Narcisco's finest could arrive and untie him, he was certain that the figure wriggling angrily on the rooftop was Justine's pilot.

The fact that he couldn't get through to the Kimmunicator also did not bode well for his friends.

IV.

Why can't I reach Wade?

Just as Kim was noticing, by the Kimmunicator's (still-working clock), that they should have arrived in Middleton ten minutes earlier, Ron burst back into the cabin from the cockpit; his face was as white as she had ever seen it.

"Kim, there's no one flying this plane!"

V.

Even though his mind tapping subject had escaped, Drakken, with his preternaturally bad timing, chose that moment to make a small stand. "Do you mind not using that language around me?" Drakken said as forcefully as he could. "At least not so much."

"Well, excuse the expletive deleted out of me!" the young man retorted.

"You use that one word in particular so much that it doesn't even mean anything any more. I wonder if you even realize how often you say it." Drakken, whether he knew it or not, was channeling his mother, Mrs. Lipsky, full bore. Also, whether he knew it or not, he was mere seconds away from a quick and painful death.

"Lipsky," the young man responded in a disturbingly calm voice, "there are only two times when I don't use that word. One, when I am asleep. Two, when I am about to shoot someone."

"Uhhhh," Drakken said, wringing his tiny hands nervously, "should I be concerned because you haven't used it in the last three sentences? Heh-heh. I mean is this an example of time number two?"

"Well, I won't say whether my clean language is a threat exactly," the young man said, unsnapping the gun holster strapped to the belt he wore askance on his very ample waist, "but if I were you, I'd take it as one."

"Okay," Drakken smiled nervously, "zipping up." Drakken backed away slowly.

However, before Drakken had made five steps, the man, with incredible spped, drew his revolver and fired the gun … behind his own back.

The bullet lodged into the stone wall near the lab's entrance … two inches above Yori's head.

Both Drakken and Yori were frozen in shock. The moment of violence had happened within the space of a breath. Slowly and casually, the man turned to face Yori. "Hello there." he said with a suppressed yawn. He continued in the same languid, and, Yori noticed, profanity-free tone, "In case you are wondering, that was a warning shot. In fact the only reason why blood isn't running like ribbons through that pretty black hair of yours is because according to Lipsky's monitor over there, we still need 52 percent of your brain."

Yori felt very uncomfortable and not only because a recently fired gun was being pointed at her. The man's eyes, especially the way they had yet to blink, disturbed her almost as much as the weapon and his words did.

"Of course, that doesn't mean I can't shoot you somewhere else, so you won't go running off again." He gave her an easy-going, closed-mouth smile and lowered the barrel of the gun so it was level with her right thigh.

Swoosh. The doors to the lab opened and Monkey Fist, a security passcard in his hand, walked unawares between Yori and the armed psychopath. Fisk stopped cold as he realized he was directly in the sights of a cocked pistol. Considering where its low aim was directed on his person, the look Monkey Fist gave the young man was a remarkably calm one.

Yori snatched the passcard from Monkey Fist and leapt through the portal just as the doors swished close.

"Expletive deleted!" the man screamed as he fired his revolver harmlessly into the air.

Well, almost harmlessly.

A second later, Drakken screamed and clutched his head as a shower of stony debris from the lab's ceiling sprinkled his head.

VI.

"WHAT?!" Kim yelled.

Before Ron had a chance to repeat himself, his girlfriend had already passed him, running at top speed toward the cockpit.

Sure enough, it was completely empty. A cursory glance at the gauges, including the one for fuel and the altimeter, gave the impression that everything was running smoothly regardless. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, except, of course, for the fact there was no one flying the plane. For a half-second, Kim entertained the optimistic notion that since this was an experimental plane perhaps it didn't need a pilot and had been programmed with their destination's coordinates and would land safely in the next few minutes.

Before even she had the chance to burst this happy thought's bubble, the plane did it for her. Suddenly, it pitched back, throwing her to the back of the cockpit. Only by grabbing the doorframe at the last second did Kim avoid tumbling back down to the cabin.

"I didn't touch anything!" Ron screamed from somewhere behind her.

After keeping this climbing trajectory for almost two minutes, the plane finally leveled off. Kim immediately jumped into the pilot's chair. Again, she glanced over the gauges and controls. Tentatively, she pressed the rudder pedals and gave the stick a couple of modest turns clockwise and counter-clockwise. The plane did not react at all.

Ron, out of breath, came into the cockpit and managed a semi-confident rendition of his BFGF's catchphrase, "What's the sitch?"

"The plane's being remotely controlled." She said succinctly. "It won't respond to any manual commands."

"Do you know how we can, ya know, break the command signal?" he asked as he collapsed into the co-pilot's seat.

"I have no idea," she said with a helpless smile.

"I'll punch up Wade," Ron said as he began fishing in his pocket for the Roncom.

"I think we're being jammed again," Kim said gently. "I tried to raise him just before you discovered there was no pilot."

"Just like in the caves back in Australia?" he asked.

"'Fraid so."

"Badical." He announced.

It was very strange, but Ron wasn't that scared. Actually, taking everything that had happened to him in the last twenty-four hours into consideration, this moment was one of the least frightening ones. And the reason, of course, was because Kim was by his side. For one thing, she seemed utterly confident even though she didn't know what to do. This fearlessness in his best friend had always made him feel safe, especially when they were in situations that seemed impossible even for her. Secondly, he knew he didn't have to worry about her safety. Even though all signs indicated that bad things were going to happen quite soon (maybe even another encounter with Shego), the fact that he was in a position, however dubious, to look out for his girlfriend made a world of difference. It was a strange combination of feelings, but Ron felt equally good about being both the potential rescuer and the one who might potentially need to be rescued.

"So, I didn't know you had mad flying skills too, KP." Ron said casually.

"I don't. I just figured I'd give the things I've seen on TV a try," she said briskly. It was obvious that, despite the seriousness of their sitch, she was still feeling pretty good as well. "Hey!" she said suddenly. "Maybe you can figure this out! You have always been way better at things with joysticks and buttons than me. Maybe if you treat this cockpit as one big video game?"

Ron gave the co-pilot controls a once over and then a twice over. "Sorry, KP," he said shaking his head. "If it doesn't have an 'Option' choice or a 'Y' button, I'm completely lost."

"What about Rufus?" Kim asked hopefully. "He's a mechanical genius, and I bet his teeth could chew through the console way easy. Maybe he can find and then override the control device!"

"Great!" Ron said starting to get out of his seat, "I'll go wake up the little—Eeep!" Ron fell back in his seat and pointed out the cockpit window to Kim's left.

With the almost full moon backlighting the night sky, it was quite easy to see what had Ron so excited. As Kim turned to look, a shadow fell across the window, her face, and the plane itself. Her eyes went wide.

Descending from a giant cumulous cloud to their jet's left and outlined by the moon was the largest plane she had ever seen. It was at least three times the size of a 747. It was completely black, and as it swung in parallel with their small plane, she noticed that there were no lights emanating from any of its windows (if it had any). Not even from where the cockpit should have been.

Trying to regain his composure, Ron managed to say, "That would be so cool, if it wasn't coming to get us."

VII.

Before Yori even got halfway down the first corridor, the complex's alarms erupted. Their whining was fairly piercing, but Yori knew she had to stay focused, couldn't be distracted by anything. Her little escape maneuver back in the lab might have bought her a ten second head start, maybe. And she definitely wanted to put as much distance between herself and that overweight psychopath as she could.

She remembered Drakken-san mentioning that the complex was immense. That wasn't very promising for an escape attempt. Even worse, everything about the corridors (she had just waived the passcard to enter a second passageway) screamed state of the art. There was little doubt that their security system came equipped with a monitoring video component. They probably knew exactly where she was. On the other hand, there was definitely what Stoppable-san would describe as a "low rent" element to the complex as well. Random construction raw materials leaned against the walls (two-by-fours, boxes of nails, carpet tacks, etc.) and, just as the lab's had, every corridor (she had just entered her third) had a dirt floor.

The alarm successfully blocked out all sound, so Yori had no idea if she was being followed. The charging of feet through the dirt wouldn't have been as loud as on linoleum or a steel floor, true, but her ninja training would have been able to discern such sounds through dust. The knowledge that she couldn't tell if she was being followed pushed her adrenaline level even higher. Of course, Yori knew she could always glance over her shoulder, but that would likely bring no good at all.

Suddenly, the corridor branched into two separate hallways. Yori hesitated but then took the one on the left because the foot tracks, which littered all the previous corridors' floors, seemed somewhat less in that one. If she traveled tunnels that were not used as frequently, she stood a better chance of not running into anyone. She followed this same procedure for the next three tunnel branches: left portal, right portal, and then a left. Fifty feet down the final corridor there was a door, she flashed her pass card and immediately knew she had taken a wrong tunnel somewhere along the way.

She stared at the figure that was revealed by the opening portal and breathed his name (not than she or he could hear it over the sirens).

"Darwin-san."

VIII.

Wade was trying every avenue at his disposal to locate the plane his friends were on. Since the Kimmunicator was being effectively jammed, he couldn't trace them using that. In addition, he was unable to pick up any signal from Ron's chip. (Wade had not placed a tracking device in the Roncom specifically because it would have been redundant. One day, he would have to break down and tell his friend about that microchip in his body. It was not going to be an easy thing to do … and he didn't relish explaining how he had got it there in the first place.)

Wade decided to tap into the spy satellite system operated by Global Justice. Calculating from the plane's trajectory at the last time he had communicated with Kim and provided there had not been a sharp deviation from their flight path, satellite two (SAT-2), positioned in a geostatic orbit over Kenosha, Wisconsin should have been able to locate them.

After entering a flurry of code-breaking commands (that he could type in his sleep), Wade was inside the system and effectively controlling SAT-2. Within moments, he had the small plane in view. Its path, direction-wise, hadn't changed a degree, but it was at a much higher altitude. As he was focusing in to get a better picture, a very large object entered his view from the left; it had descended from a cloud Kim and Ron's plane had just flown by. The object looked the size of a Las Vegas hotel—at least twice the size of the largest plane Wade had ever seen! As he tried to get a better look at this ominous new aircraft, the satellite signal went to static.

"Huh?" Wade was more than a little confused. Either the satellite had gone down or someone was deliberating jamming him. But to jam him they would have to know he was already hacking into them. And, no one at Global Justice was that good.

And why would they hack me anyway?

Although Wade had heard Kim and Ron use the phrase quite frequently in the past, it was only at that moment that Wade finally understood what having one's "weirdar" go off really meant.

IX.

Before Darwin could get properly into a fighter's stance (he had even forgotten to put down his banana), the monkey ninja's head felt the full force of Yori's right foot. Two seconds later, he lay sprawled senseless on the floor some feet away. The combination of his reflexes and the force of her strike resulted in the half-eaten banana being launched from its peel and landing directly onto a small table some fifteen feet deep into the room where two other monkey ninja's were playing "Go Fish."

Plucky and Santayana were not pleased to have their game interrupted. When they looked up to see Yori in the doorway above their fallen comrade, they became even angrier. Baring their teeth menacingly, they sprung at Yori. They were chattering wildly as well, but the shrieking alarms pretty much neutralized the effect of their battle cries.

Yori snatched up the only weapon she had available, her left shoe, and spun it like a throwing star at Plucky, nailing the advancing warrior between the eyes. He dropped like a sack of bananas to the dirt floor.

Unfortunately, Santayana was on top of her before she could remove her right shoe. She batted him away with a swift left-handed blow. After he righted himself, he began circling Yori in a fighting stance. He was slightly bigger, if slower, than the other two. Regardless, not someone to trifle with.

She mirrored his movements. This was not how she had wanted things to proceed. She didn't have time for a standoff; she needed to move and quickly too. She pivoted her stance and started circling the simian counter-clockwise so she wouldn't have her back to the door if nothing else.

Where were all the guards, henchmen, and other monkey ninjas? Apart from these three and the three villains in the lab, the place seemed deserted. It also struck her that the monkey ninjas had been very surprised to see her—why weren't they mobilizing to recapture her? Maybe the security system for this complex really wasn't "all that" after all.


"I thought this complex was supposed to be all that!" Drakken screamed to Potty Mouth over the blaring of the alarms.

The man just stared at him coldly.

"ALL THAT!" Drakken repeated louder. He was not pleased when he noted the dilapidated state of the security system. Half of the security system was either offline or had yet to be installed—still in boxes even. It reminded Drakken of … well … of one of his lairs. "I thought you said this complex was top of the line! TOP OF THE LINE!" Fully under the impression the man was ignoring him, Drakken continued ranting.

Potty Mouth spun in his chair back to the control console and typed a few commands. The alarms ceased.

"SLIPSHOD, I tell you!" Drakken continued to rant not noticing the sudden absence of the sirens. "SLIP…shod, heh-heh." Well, not immediately anyway.

"I couldn't hear you." The man asked in a very, very calm voice. "Do you remind repeating what you were saying?"

"Well, uh, yes … I was just pointing out that perhaps the security system might be more effective if," as Drakken spoke, the man unsnapped his gun holster, "… yes … if … you could broadcast a message that the captive had … you know … escaped," Drakken continued as the man languidly removed the pistol from the holster, "and that this wasn't just another" Drakken stopped suddenly as the man slammed the revolver down loudly upon the console, the barrel of the gun pointed in Drakken's direction, "… system malfunction."

Drakken said nothing, just nervously twitched and twined his small fingers together.

"Nah," the man said shaking his head good-naturedly, "that's not what you said.

"If I am not mistaken," he continued, "you were apologizing for forgetting where in that cavernous tunic of yours you had placed the spare copy of the pass card. If you recall, that left the three of us locked in here for three entire minutes while the captive got away. Until, that is, you finally discovered the pass card under your foot." As he spoke, his fingers performed a mock jig on the console's surface in the general vicinity of his gun's trigger.

"Gentlemen," Monkey announced, examining something on the dirt floor, "am I correct that it is just the three of us and my monkey minions in this center?" He was looking intently at something near the edge of the lab's portal.

"Must I repeat every expletive deleted thing I tell you two expletive deleted idiots?" Potty Mouth exploded, turning his attention, much to Dr. Drakken's relief, to Monkey Fist. "My team is still down on the lower level expletive deleted monitoring that expletive deletedexpletive deleted. But, yeah, for all intents and expletive deleted purposes, you, me, Mr. Huckleberry here and your expletive deleted apes are it."

Monkey Fist resisted the urge to explain that his troops were not "apes."

Drakken, wisely, only thought, "That's Dr. Huckleberry, thank you very much."

"Excellent," Monkey Fist smiled, "she will be very easy to find then." He looked down at the very distinctive footprints that Yori's ninja-style saddle shoes had made in the lab's dirt floor and up along the corridor. Even from a distance, they were easily distinguishable from the other marks upon the floor.

X.

"Amp down, Ron," Kim said placing a reassuring hand on his shoulder.

"Ah … what … ah … do … ah … you …ah … mean," Ron managed between deep, open-mouthed breaths.

"You're hyperventilating, Ron," Kim said assuredly.

"Ah … really?" Ron asked.

"Yes," Kim nodded, "I think there is some bottled water in the mini fridge in the cabin, grab one for yourself while you get Rufus."

"O-oh, okay," Ron walked unsurely out of the cockpit, not two seconds later, he shot his head back in. "Do you want me to grab you one too, KP?"

"Please and thank you," she smiled. After his head disappeared, she swiveled in the pilot's chair and looked out the window to face the black monstrosity that was now flying level with their small jet. Nothing about this sitch was good, but it was puzzling too.

What are they waiting for?

True, the plane was gigantic and ominous, but apart from its size there didn't seem to be much to it. She couldn't make out any weapons, bomb bay doors, or anything else visible that was sinister about it. It appeared to be just a fantastically large plane.

Then again it was night; even with a full moon, there could be a lot of obvious armaments she just couldn't see.

Ron returned with two bottles of water and the still-yawning Rufus. He tossed Kim one of the bottles and then settled his pet down upon the control console. "Okay, buddy, we need you to take a look around. If there is a control device thingie, take it out."

His pet nodded.

"You can be invasive," Ron continued, "just not, you know, with anything that might make the plane stop working and crash."

Rufus gave his human a slightly exasperated sigh.

Kim read the label on the bottle and gave an approving nod.

Rufus readied his buckteeth and proceeded to try to chew through the metal plates of the console.

"Tunguska Springs," she said unscrewing the cap.

"Top of the line, KP." Ron smiled. "The Flan really knows how to travel in style."

"I don't know if I should really be drinking this. I'm still over-hydrated." Kim groused lowering the bottle from her mouth without drinking. "I mean, seriously, look at my legs!"

"If you insist," Ron said wagging his eyebrows wolfishly at her as he struggled with the cap on his own bottle of water. "Can't get enough of your bondigity gams!"

Kim shook her head and rolled her eyes as she lifted the bottle back to her lips. Kim reflected on how surprisingly laid back she was. How relaxing it was to be back in a potentially dire situation with her boyfriend by her side.

"Owowowowowow!" Rufus exclaimed suddenly. He was gently massaging his enormous front teeth with his tiny hands.

"Are you okay, buddy?" Ron exclaimed. "Oh man, the metal is too hard for his teeth to break through."

"I'm sorry, Rufus," Kim said, "Here, have some of my water."

Rufus thankfully took the bottle from Kim and begin to chug down a few naked mole rat sized "sips."

"Well, what do we do now," Ron asked as he finally succeeded in unscrewing his bottle.

"I'm not sure," Kim admitted. "Okay, let's review the sitch—"

Thump.

Both Kim and Ron's eyes were drawn to the cockpit's floor were Rufus had collapsed and was now snoring soundly next to Kim's knocked over water bottle that was quickly emptying its contents across the cockpit's floor.

Ron swiftly picked Rufus up and listened to the little guy's chest. He was fine, just knocked out soundly. Ron gently placed him into his cargo pocket. Ron screwed the top back on his bottle. Tightly.

"Did you?" he asked Kim.

She shook her head 'no.'

"You were saying, KP?" Ron prompted.

"Yeah, I don't believe they want to kill us."

"Yeah, they would have put flesh-eating acid or something in the bottles instead of knock-out drugs." Ron agreed.

"Or they would have just crashed the plane." Kim suggested.

"Oh, yeah. That too."

"But I have no idea what it is that they do have planned." Kim said. "They just seem to be sitting there. Are they waiting for something?"

"You know, KP, I was thinking about that Star Conflicts movie, you know the first one, well, not Chapter One, but the first one? Where that big ship sucks the tiny one into it's ... uh ...belly?"

"I was just looking at that plane, Ron," Kim said shaking her head, "and there isn't any thing odd about that plane's," here she slightly rolled her eyes, "belly."

"Well, what's that?" Ron said gesturing out of the window behind her.

"What?"

There was something extending from the side of the larger plane toward the side of their jet. No, make that four somethings. They looked like robotic arms, even equipped with hands at the end. Each one looked like it was snaking out to grasp the smaller plane.

"This is so not good." Kim and Ron said in unison.

Neither one thought about jinxing the other. Ron didn't because he was too frightened. Kim didn't because any soda on board that she might win from Ron would most likely be drugged as well.

XI.

Santayana suddenly charged Yori. Yori evaded the his flying attack by crouching to one knee at the last possible second.

As soon as Santayana landed he did a black flip and surprised Yori by forcing his feet into her still turned back. She was forced face first into the dirt floor. Other than being covered in red dust and having the wind knocked out of her, she was okay.

Honorably, Santayana held off his attack. He stood, in a fighting stance near Darwin's still unconscious form, patiently waiting for his opponent to right herself.

"You have been training, Santayana-san," she said she got to her feet. "You are much swifter then when we previously met."

They exchanged bows.

Suddenly, the piercing alarms ceased. Both combatants shook their heads and sighed with relief. They exchanged relieved smiles.

Then Santayana charged. Unfortunately, in his swiftness, he neglected to notice he was standing a half step away from the banana peel in Darwin's unconscious hand. A combination of the viscous properties of the peel with the lack of friction in the dirt floor caused the monkey warrior to fall forwards, not backwards. He landed on his head and was out cold.

Yori sighed and bowed to her fallen opponent. "Perhaps I was mistaken. You seem as swift as when we previously met. Once again, it is your honor to defeat yourself, Santayana-san."

Breaking out of her bow, Yori rushed over to the room's entrance and plucked up her left shoe. She ran deeper into the corridor as she struggled to put it on. She hoped that her fallen enemies had been, at least in theory, guarding something while they were playing cards … with any luck, an exit.


"Ok, is everybody expletive deletedclear on what they're supposed to do?"

Literally, the question seemed to concern both Monkey Fist and Drakken, but, in reality, it was only addressed to Drakken.

"I stay here, baby sit the machine, and wait for you to return." Drakken sighed.

"And …?"

"I don't touch anything." Drakken said in a small voice.

"Wrong! You don't touch a expletive deleted thing!"

Drakken nodded sheepishly. He had never missed Shego so much. Sure, she was ill-tempered, lippy, and caustic, but with a certain flair, a certain charm, a little wit. Potty Mouth was just a bully.

"C'mon, Fisk!" the man bellowed still eyeing Drakken darkly. Finally, he turned and followed Monkey Fist up the corridor.

As they made their way up this first hallway, Monkey Fist became more than a little unnerved by the other man's disturbing habit of tracing the path of Yori's footprints with an imaginary line that extend from the barrel of the readied revolver he held in his fully extended right arm.

XII.

Kim and Ron were each looking out of a small cabin window on either side of their jet's cabin door. The four robotic "arms" had attached themselves to the four corners of the door. Once this had been accomplished, the arms lost their serpent-like flexibility and had become rigid and taunt.

When the first "arm" had made contact with the plane ahead of the others, Kim had rushed from the cockpit to inspect it and any resulting damage to the plane. The sight of his girlfriend, or anyone for that matter, leaping from a pilot's chair and rushing to the back of a plane while the plane was still in flight had given Ron a slight, yet powerful, panic attack. He had started hyperventilating again and reflexively grabbed for his bottle of Tunguska Springs.

"Ron! Are you coming to look at this or what?" Kim asked from the cabin.

"Ah … yeah … ah … just … ah … second … KP."

"Put down the water bottle, Ron." Her voice dictated sternly from the rear of the plane.

"Oh man!" Ron mumbled, smacking himself on the forehead.

"And don't hit yourself!" Kim chided.

Ron reached Kim, who was peering out the window of the cabin door just as the other three "arms" hit.

There was a sudden surge of electricity that briefly flowed over the cabin door. Kim screamed as she received the brunt of a shock that knocked her back a few feet.

"KP!" Ron said in alarm.

"Snap!" she groused, shaking the residual tingling sensation from her hands. "I'm okay, Ron. Stings a bit, but I'm fine. Ow!"

Ron immediately felt better after glancing in his girlfriend's eyes. Not only was she uninjured, she was getting majorly tweaked. That always made Ron more confident (so long as she wasn't tweaked at him).

They stayed away from the door after that and were silently studying the arms from their respective windows. For a good five minutes nothing else happened.

"What do you think, KP?"

"They're planning to board us." Kim said evenly.

"Who's 'they'? Dementor, Shego, Drakken, Monkey Fist, the Seniors, the Beebees?"

"Your guess is as good as mine, Ron. The only major freak I think we can rule out is Frugal Lucre."

"I don't know, Kim." Ron said in an earnest voice, "That thing might be a rental. Some companies give sweet deals if you make return drop offs before Saturday morning."

She gave him a semi-annoyed look. "Seriously, Ron, I have a bad feeling that this is somebody new."

"Well, after these newbies board us what do you think … uh, will happen?" Ron asked as confidently as he could.

"They'll kidnap us." She said flatly. "Take us aboard The Unfriendly Skies over there, detatch from our plane and then let it crash. That way, they'll have us, and everyone will think we're dead."

At that very moment, a clear plastic material started extending from numerous points all along the four "arms." Within a few moments it became clear that the material was webbing together, forming a clear tube, or temporary passageway, between the two aircraft.

"Y-you Blue Foxes think you know everything," Ron tried to joke.

"Not everything, Ron," Kim said turning from the window to face him. With concern showing in her voice and eyes, she admitted, "I have no idea how we're going to get out of this."

XIII.

Yori made her way to the rear of the room. There were two doors. There were more footprints before the one on the left, so she immediately when to the one on the right, waved the pass card, and stepped through the opening door.

Less then a minute later, the right doorway opened again. Yori stood with her back to the opening. She was walking backwards, carefully stepping back into her own footprints. Once she made it to back into the anteroom so she was facing both doorways, she gingerly stepped out of her saddle shoes, and, as lightly as possible, placed her stocking-encased feet on the floor. She picked up her shoes, waved the pass card in front on the left door, and, in one gigantic step entered that doorway instead.

On a mission earlier in the year, Ron had told her about a "super freaky" American horror movie called The Shining. Intrigued, Yori had watched the film not too much later.

I must remember to thank Stoppable-san for recommending that movie.

Yori ruefully acknowledged that she also owed a debt to the one Drakken referred to as Potty Mouth. She may not have hit upon her ruse if his foul language hadn't reminded her so vividly of Jack Nicholson's in that same film.


Monkey Fist had initially planned on leading the search, but when it became obvious that his associate was not going to put away his gun, he decided that hanging back might be more … prudent. Especially since his associate was not being particularly prudent with the said weapon.

"I really don't expletive deleted like this, Fisk," he grumbled. "Corridor after expletive deleted corridor, she's taking us expletive deleted closer to The Chamber!"

"That is a most disturbing coincidence," Monkey Fist acknowledged.

"Coincidence, my expletive deleted! She knows, she expletive deleted knows!" Potty Mouth objected, turning around and gesticulating, a little too carelessly for Monkey Fist's tastes, with the gun.

As they made their way through another portal, Monkey Fist tried to reason away the young man's mounting paranoia. "If she has never been here before how would she know how to find it? Or even that it exists?"

"That IS a good question, Fisk. How would she know about it?" he retorted in an even, calm tone.

Although Monkey Fist's goal had been to calm the young man, he did not like this relaxed voice. "Are you suggesting that I would have informed her? You cannot be serious!" he said with unbridled indignation.

"Do you think Huckleberry did?" the other man countered.

"I doubt Drakken even understands what's in there in the first place."

"Fine. Expletive deleted fine!" Potty Mouth spat as he headed through the next set of doors.

Loping behind on his genetically altered hands and feet, the former Lord Fisk could only shake his head and mutter underneath his breath, "Hopelessly and utterly deranged."


Making her way down a flight of stairs, Yori thought, more than once, about turning around. When she had awakened in the lab, she had instinctively felt that she was a few stories, at least, beneath the surface of the earth. And now she was going another level deeper into the earth—surely, this was not the correct path to an exit.

As she was hesitating she heard a sound coming from below. Instead of forcing her decision to return back the way she came, the sound compelled her to continue further.

At the foot of the stairwell, there was yet another door. The floor was also concrete, not dirt. The coolness of its surface bled through her stockings into her feet. She was about to put her shoes back on when she heard a very perplexing noise coming from behind the door.

She stealthily crept into the shadows and waited a few moments. When nothing happened, she carefully approached the door, took a strategic stance and waived the pass card.

Thankfully, the noise produced by the opening of the door was drowned out by the cacophonous wall of sound that came flooding out once it was open. As carefully as … well … as a ninja, Yori made her way through the door and surreptitiously looked upon the noisy and immense room that it revealed.

Two things immediately caught her eye. At the opposite end of the gigantic hanger, the equally immense hanger door opened unguarded onto a desert floor and a star-filled night sky. Two, between her current position and freedom, floating midway between the hanger's floor and ceiling, was the most frightening thing Yori Morituri had ever seen.

XIV.

"Kim."

"Hmm?" Kim was looking intently out the window at the tunnel that was rapidly taking shape between the two planes.

"That sounded a lot like 'I've got nothing.'"

"What?" she quickly turned to face him.

"What you just said. It sounds like you're giving up." Ron said in a determined voice.

"Oh, nonono, Ron! When they come over, they are still going to feel all 16 kinds of kung fu."

"But …" he prodded, serious face in full force.

"I don't know, Ron," she said with a sigh. "We don't have our gear, Wade's being jammed, even Rufus is out of commission and …" she explained, not looking at him.

"Kim," Ron maintained in a level voice. "You can do this. You can save us."

"I guess I need to make a trip to that tree house of yours, huh?" she laughed weakly as she looked back at him. When their eyes met, her words caught in her throat.

His eyes were back to normal. She had had no idea how accustomed she had grown to his kaleidoscopic eyes, but suddenly seeing his "plain" cocoa eyes proved to be quite the jolt for Kim.

"You can do anything, Kim." He said this as a matter of fact. Then the edges of his pupils, ever so gradually, began to break down and swirl again.

"You're right, Ron." She smiled. There's got to be something I can do. She headed back to the cockpit.

"Should I just keep watch," he called after her.

"See if you can do something to slow down our guests," she chimed back.

Ron felt pretty amped because he knew he had just given his BFGF a confidence boost she sorely needed. Energetically, he looked around the cabin for something that might deter whoever or whatever was coming down that tube from Monstro, the killer plane. He immediately seized on the thought of blocking the cabin door and tried to lift the couch he had been sleeping on earlier.

Inside the cockpit, Kim had found a toolbox and was on her knees trying to see if she could pry open the bottom of the control console to locate the control device. She could hear Ron straining and loudly grumbling from the cabin.

"Stupid couch!" Ron said as he reared back to kick the apparently un-budge-able piece of furniture.

"Ron," Kim called out loudly, "what're you doing?"

"I was going to stack all the furniture against the door—you know, buy us a little time," he answered out of breath.

"Ron, they bolt down the furniture on planes."

"Oh … yeah."

And doesn't the cabin door open out anyway? She thought but was too kind to say out loud.

Her luck wasn't going any better. There was a panel beneath the console that definitely looked out of place, like it had been put there quite recently—but it had been welded fast on all sides. Her tools were useless.

If only we could reach Wade!

XV.

Yori found it very difficult to draw her eyes away from the floating monstrosity that filled a third of the immense hanger. Fortunately, a flurry of very loud voices below her brought her out of her mesmerized daze. In a flash, she hid behind a stack of large canisters just to the right of the door.

She tried hard to focus upon both the details of the hanger and the snippets of conversation that floated up from the floor below. However, she was distracted by an odd smell that seemed to be emanating from the canisters. It was a warm, dank smell. A smell that seemed completely foreign to her … seemed. If it reminded her of anything, it was of nightmares. She had never come across the stuff among the daytime coordinates of her life, still, down here, back here in the warm dark, among ancient, dusty shadows in a building she had never been before she felt that she could speak its name if given the time, the time for her voice to unlock its foul and permeating secret.

Yori shook her head and then held her nose. If she were going to escape, she would have to stay focused.


Monkey Fist was loathed to admit it, but there might have been something to his cohort's paranoia. At every possible fork in the path, Yori had chosen the portal that led her closer and closer to The Chamber. As they followed her tracks to the entrance of The Antechamber (what Potty Mouth had dubbed The Monkey House), Monkey Fist had a sinking suspicion of what the opened portal would reveal.

All three monkey ninjas, who were still massaging the wounded parts of their bodies, cowered in fear when they saw the look in their master's eyes. A few seconds into The Stare, and Darwin scurried to the table and hastily starting packing away their cards.

"Playing 'Go Fish' again, I see? You are my three champions and this is what I get!" he screamed, kicking one of Darwin's uneaten bananas across the room.

Ignoring the "apes" and their monkey lord, Potty Mouth rushed to the back of the room. Sure enough, the young ninja's tracks led him right to the final two doorways. He seethed when he saw that her tracks went straight into The Chamber.

"Expletive deleted!" he bellowed as he waived the pass card and rushed headlong into the room on the right.


"How are your experiments progressing?" one of the voices below her scoffed.

"Well, I think he might like one or two of our findings," another voice responded with some indignation.

"Like?!" a third voice broke in acidly, "what does he ever like?"

A small chorus of other voices laughed bitterly in answer to this question.

Still holding her nose, Yori surveyed the hanger. She was on a catwalk that inched along the walls of the hanger in a rough U-shape whose center point was the door through which she had come. Each of the "arms" of the "U" ended in a long staircase that seemed to bottom out directly in front of the open hanger door. As long as she didn't do something foolish, she should be able to sneak out of the complex without too much trouble. The voices below seemed pretty engaged in their fruitless bickering—at least engaged enough not to notice a ninja making a quick exit. Of course, once she was outside the complex, she had no idea what her next move would be.

Deciding that she wasn't going to learn anything of value from the bicker-fest below, she started to make her way across the catwalk. She was still holding her shoes in her left hand. For a second she had considered putting her shoes back on but then realized that they might make too much noise against the metal beneath her feet, especially if she had to run at any point in her escape.

As she crept out from behind the canisters, she released her nose. She had not gone five feet before her ears caught a voice from below that froze her in her tracks.

"Seriously, dude, this Hephaestus stuff is heavy, man, no joke, seriously!"

"Ed Lispky-san!" Yori exclaimed under her breath.

"I thought your cousin developed it, Ed. How complicated could it be."

"No, man, Cousin Drew didn't develop it! He just jacked it from some other science dude and fine-tuned it, seriously."

"Didn't Drakken give you those notes of his on the technology?"

"Sure did, but, dude, his notebook is like thicker than my high school yearbook, seriously. And his handwriting is smaller and sloppier than mine even!"

"You went to high school?" one of the voices asked incredulously.

"For a year."

There was a pause in the conversation.

"Seriously."

How did Drakken and Lipsky-san manage to again steal Possible-san's technology?

Like most of the citizens of the world, Yori had been quite relieved a week earlier when it was announced that in addition to capturing Drakken, Team Possible had helped GJ confiscate all the remaining rogue elements of the pilfered Hephaestus Project.

"Of course, Ed, the most crucial point right now," a rather sober voice interjected, "the most vital thing is whether or not that technology can bond with Imipolex G."

Before Yori could begin to puzzle out what any of this might mean, her ears registered the shrieking of monkeys.

She turned and, to her horror, saw Darwin, Plucky, Santayana and Monkey Fist charging across the catwalk toward her. More distressing than this was the sight of the young loutish man entering the hanger behind them.

He had a broad, lazy, sinister smile on his lips. And twirling around the index finger of his right hand was a revolver.

XVI.

"So," Kim began, "do you want the 'good news' or the 'bad news' first?"

Ron, sitting in the co-pilot's chair, in an effort to focus on the bright side of things and not let his mounting nervousness overtake him, had been focusing on his girlfriend's extremely attractive legs and seemed, at first glance, to not be listening.

"Ron?" Kim said, tweaked when she started to realize what he was doing.

"The bad news, Kim," Ron said seriously as his eyes locked with hers.

"Well," Kim said in a deflated tone, "unless we can somehow get Wade's assistance, I'm not going to be able to break the control signal."

"The good news?" he asked hopefully.

"I know that I can so fly this plane," she said with resolve. When she had been unable to break open the mismatched panel beneath the console, Kim had focused on familiarizing herself with the instruments, gauges, and controls of the plane. Given her extreme brightness and the surging confidence Ron had given her, the plane didn't seem like more than she could handle … if she got the chance to handle it.

"Of course," she continued," that depends on …"

"The bad news." Ron sighed. He looked out Kim's window and blew a stray hair out of his eye. "Oh man, here we go."

Kim turned and looked. Sure enough, a small cabin door had opened on the side of the larger plane, piercing its black surface with an oval of eerie red light. Who lights the interior of their plane with puce bulbs? The color of the light made the plane's cabin door look like a small wound in its side. The light was momentarily blocked as a shadowy figured passed out of the door and made its way into the passage tube. Then another and another and another.

"Well," Kim said readying her fists, "are you ready for some smack monkey my Mystical Monkey BF?" She smiled at Ron. As dismal as the sitch was, she always enjoyed engaging villains with her BFBF at her side.

Ron gave her a few monkey hoots and kung fu poses. "Right with you, KP!" He smiled back as confidently as he could under the circumstances.

They kissed briefly and then walked back into the cabin hand in hand. They positioned themselves in front of the cabin door and waited for their "guests."

"Ron," Kim asked, "do you think your new powers might be able to help?"

"Maybe, KP. I just wish I could turn them on whenever I wanted—they just seem to come and go. I mean, I couldn't even move the couch earlier." He sounded really depressed.

"I guess we'll see." She said and gave him a smile and a reassuring wink.

"All things considered, KP," Ron said in as breezy a tone as he could muster "I would really like to have Yori's marker right now."

"Marker?" She asked quizzical.

"Paint-ball gun," he explained.

Kim arched a surprised eyebrow and exclaimed, "Yori is into paintball?"

"Oh, you have no idea, KP!" Ron enthused. "She is like the grand master champion paintballer in all of Japan!"

"Really?" Kim was definitely surprised by this news. She had never given much thought to what Yori's hobbies might be, but paintball was certainly not one she would have imagined in a million years of the polite, soft-spoken ninja.

"Yeah, a few Yamanouchi missions back … I'm not sure how the subject came up, but she started talking about it and she couldn't stop –for like hours! She's got mad paintball fu skills."

"Wow, I never would have guessed!"

"Oh, that's nothing," Ron continued, "You should hear her go on about punk rock!"

"What!"

Their conversation on their mutual and, to their knowledge, still kidnapped friend was interrupted by the sound of metal clanking against metal from the outer side of the cabin door.

"Do you want me to get that, KP?" Ron asked with a goofy smile.

"I'm thinking not so much," Kim answered.

They gave each other an "are-you-ready" smile and got into fighting stances.

Beep-be-bee-beep.

The Roncom went off.


TBC ...

Chapter Text

Prairie tried bringing her hair forward in long bangs, brushing the rest down in front of her shoulders, the surest way she knew, her eyes now burning so blue through the fringes and shadows, to creep herself out, no matter what time of day or night, by imagining that what she saw was her mother's ghost. And that if she looked half a second too long, it would begin to blink while her own eyes stayed wide open, its lips would start to move, and then speak to her stuff she was sure she'd rather not hear...

-Vineland, pages 98-99

I.

Bonnie Rockwaller drove her practically new Mini Cooper through the darkened streets of her labyrinthine subdivision. She was talking on the phone to Tara, applying nail polish to her ring finger on her left hand, and trying with equal parts ennui and disgust to find something decent to listen to on her MP3 player. Fortunately, her cell phone was Bluetooth compatible which freed her left and right hands to perform their more pressing tasks unencumbered.

She steered by pressing the top of her right knee against the base of the wheel. If there was one thing Bonnie was more accomplished at than cheerleading and snarking, it was driving. Even when a squirrel darted out a mere ten feet in front of her headlights, Bonnie was able to seamlessly avoid hitting it without missing a beat in her conversation or botching the stroke on her nail.

The car was "practically new" because it had been a semi-Christmas/semi-Graduation gift. That is, it was meant to be her Graduation gift, but she received it on Christmas because there was no way Bonnie was going to ride the bus her entire Senior year at Middleton. The first three months of school had been literally unbearable as the posh cheerleader found herself squished between pimply fourteen-year-old boys every weekday morning.

In her Sophomore and Junior years, she had either gotten rides with Brick or, once she had received her license, driven his car. Although his teammates had congratulated him on getting Rockwaller to "chauffer" him around; the star quarterback knew better – it had been Bonnie's decision to drive, and more or less, it had become Bonnie's car. Now that he was at Colorado State (and dating that Club Banana chick), his sporty pickup was no longer an option. Connie and Lonnie had their cars at their respective colleges, and Mr. Rockwaller was avoiding buying his youngest daughter a car for some reason. Most likely, the reason was because they hated each other.

Bonnie's mother, Daryl Louise, had offered her daughter use of her car. It had been an offer her mother could easily make since she was a stay-at-home divorcee who spent most of her time spending the amply alimony she got bi-weekly from her ex-husband. She had had an excellent lawyer. However, there was no way Bonnie would be seen dead driving her mother's 1984 Trans Am. Sure, she had thought the care was "the boss" when she was five, but, c'mon, rilly.

Instead, her mom parlayed her alimony into the Mini and was able to cut a deal, so the car would arrive at Christmastime before the end of her dear "Bon-Bon's" first semester. Although she hated displaying any emotion (public or otherwise) with her mother, even Bonnie couldn't resist hugging her mom in the driveway when she saw the silver little car Christmas Eve. And she couldn't help voicing her agreement when her mother asked if the car was not "totally boss."

As she effortlessly pulled into her driveway, Bonnie ended her conversation with Tara. Her best friend was going on a date with that Renton kid she had met the previous evening at the Stoppable's house. Tara had explained they were going to do the typical "dinner-and-movie" routine. They had originally planned on visiting Possible in the hospital first, but Tara learned when she called for Kim's room number that the teen hero had already been discharged.

"Probably on another date-mission with Ron," Bonnie had offered in an only slightly-acidic voice. Even though she had developed a measure of respect over the past year for the most famous couple at Middleton High (and even acknowledged her respect for Ron to his face the previous Spring), she still could not bring herself to envision the two of them making out or … worse.

Some things are just too weird to think about.

She had even played with the idea of visiting Kim herself earlier in the day. Bonnie had been quite jolted upon first hearing the news that Kim was in the ER. True, she still never gave the redhead's missions much thought (even after having been on one); yet, Kim had never been hurt – much less ended up in the hospital - as a result of her "hero" duties before. When she overheard from the Club Banana Chick late in the day that Kim was fine and expected to be fully recovered in a few days, Bonnie had ruefully acknowledged that she was much relieved to hear the news.

Could it be that I … well … kinda don't hate Kim Possible …I mean, really hate hate her …anymore?

This was the thought she was mulling over as she fished her keys from her purse and went to unlock her front door.

There was a little green post-it on the knocker. It was flapping in the wind that Bonnie had just noticed was picking up quite fiercely. It read in her mother's handwriting: "Gone Shopping."

Frozen cardboard pizza again! Thanks a ton, mom!

Her mother was out blowing her alimony in some overpriced boutique a time zone away in Southern California … without her. One of the few things Bonnie could stand doing with her mother was shopping. She even tolerated being called "Bon-Bon" in public on these trips. And it really irked Bonnie to no end when her mother left on these excursions without her.

As she crumpled the note and tossed it derisively into her purse, Bonnie gave the sky a glance. The enormous cumulous clouds that were swiftly moving across the moon-lit sky made her pause, if however briefly, before she entered her darkened home. For some reason, they made her think of a scene from that old space ship movie … at the point in the film just before the giant spaceship descends onto the top of a mountain.

II.

Keeping a very agitated eye upon the psychopath with the gun, Yori steeled herself to fight off the advancing monkey ninjas and their simian-obsessed sensei. Even though fear had begun to bubble and percolate at Yori's extremities, her years of training, her combat experiences, and her instincts all screamed that turning and running would be so not the right move. Self-control would be key to any successful fight resolution and (hopefully) escape attempt. And nothing gave the appearance (at least) of self-control than keeping her feet firmly planted when by all rights she should have been high-tailing it across the catwalk toward the open hanger doors.

Darwin was the first to reach her. And as he leapt in the air, his feet and front paws extended threateningly, Yori quickly flashed out her left shoe and brandished it menacingly. Without warning, Darwin desperately clutched at the catwalk's railing with his tail-this sudden movement resulted in the monkey ninja spiraling out of control-his former martial grace being reduced to a clutching and screeching tangle of fur and clattering ninja paraphernalia as he looped around the railing by his tail, banged his head against the base of the catwalk and tumbled toward the floor below.

"Dude! Get this ape out of my hair! Seriously, Curious George is messing up my do! No one monkeys with the mullet! Seriously!" The almost immediate tirade from Motor Ed satisfied Yori that Darwin's thirty-foot plunge had been somewhat broken.

Plucky was Yori's next opponent. Trying to redeem his somewhat limited role from the previous battle, Plucky approached her warily. In a classic fighter's stance, the smallest of the three monkey ninjas locked eyes with Yori and slowly began circling her. Since Plucky displayed no fear of Yori's footwear, she was obliged to follow the tiny ninja's lead. Still, she kept a peripheral glance on the approaching third ninja and Lord Fiske. They would reach her in half a minute maybe less; she would have to act fast. The sound of whistling drew her attention to the hanger's opposite wall. The tune was a peppy one, very familiar and for those reasons all the more disconcerting. Potty Mouth was whistling the pleasant air as he meandered down the opposite catwalk—obviously, so he could get a cleaner shot at her.

At the moment that Yori recognized the tune as the theme song for the classic early American-situation comedy "The Andy Griffith Show," Plucky menacingly bore his small milk-white teeth at her. Yori rolled her eyes, unceremoniously snatched up the tiny ninja with one hand, leaned over the railing, and, carefully aiming him so he would land in the wide orbit of Ed Lipsky's hair, dropped him over the side.

As she prepared to take on the lumbering, yet not entirely graceless, form of Santayana, a horrified shriek from the floor below let Yori know that her aim had been true.


"What is going on up there?" one of the scientists asked, peering up to see a young girl easily eluding the clumsy movements of what appeared to be an orangutan haphazardly dressed in a ninja costume.

"Uh, Dr. Freeman?" asked another scientist who was desperately trying to untangle Plucky from Motor Ed's mullet. "A little help over here?"

"Watch the mullet, watch the mullet! Seriously, the little guy's hands and feet are pulling my locks at the roots! Oww! Seriously, that hurts!" Apart from the stench of the scientist's motor oil/after shave, Darwin had been able to escape relatively unscathed from Motor Ed's hairdo. Plucky, with his diminutive size, had not been so fortunate and was effectively lost in the acres of strategically shorn blonde hair.

"Oh, yes, certainly! On my way." Dr. Freeman replied, advancing toward his fellow scientists while keeping an eye on the lopsided battle taking place right over their heads. Once he reached the mullet-ed researcher's side, Dr. Freeman immediately deduced what the problem was. The small monkey was none too happy about being yanked at and, subsequently, was taking a defensive stance by hanging on with all his might to anything his feet and hands could grip-i.e. Motor Ed's hair. "Why don't you tickle him?"

The question stopped Motor Ed and the other scientist cold. "Dude," Motor Ed managed evenly, "if EITHER one of you tries to tickle me, you WILL be sorry. Seriously."

"No, no," Dr. Freeman smiled, "not you. The monkey." To demonstrate, he gently put his hand among the tangled rat's nest that used to be Ed's well-groomed mullet. Within seconds, he was able to locate Plucky, and he proceeded to tickle him. The ninja's torturing shrieks instantly became giggles, and the erstwhile monkey leaped free of Motor Ed's frizzled mane and landed in Freeman's waiting arms. "See, wasn't that easy?"

Motor Ed was relieved but tried his best not to return Freeman's good humor. "All I know, dude, is that I better not have nits," he groused, eyeing his split ends with much disfavor.

"Well, I'm sure our friend here will be more than happy to pick them out and eat them for you," Dr. Freeman asserted.

Both Plucky and Motor Ed gave the scientist the "hairy eyeball" for that comment.

"Dude, I have had enough monkeys in my hair today to last me a lifetime, seriously," Motor Ed said struggling to work his hands through his impossibly tangled hair. "NEVER liked 'em. Seriously! My dad took me to Palisades Park when I was kid, that organ grinder's little monkey dude gave me a look I'll never for-AAAAAAA!" Just as Motor Ed was about to open up about a deep-seated childhood memory that, given a properly selected therapy group, may very well have resulted in a bonding moment with Ron Stoppable, he was cut short by Santayana landing on his head.

Dr. Freedman, who was developing a great fondness for Plucky (the feeling was mutual; the scientist apparently had a sixth sense for finding the location behind the ninja's left ear that screamed out to be scratched), again turned his attention to the catwalk above his head. "What in the world is going on up there?" he asked with genuine interest.


Motor Ed's third cry in as many minutes let Yori know that her final monkey ninja opponent was also unharmed by his fall.

Their sensei, however, would not be so easily vanquished. Lord Monkey Fist rose from his simian lope and stood at his full height as he approached Yori. His eyes were as cold and as focused as hers.

Again, she did not flinch. Everything about the combatants' postures indicated that a showdown to remember was imminent. Only a mere five feet separated them when their zen-mask-like expressions simultaneously broke into looks of distaste.

"He is not whistling, THAT, is he?" Monkey Fist spat.

"Regretfully, it appears so." Yori said as she eyed the gun-toting lunatic on the opposite catwalk. "The theme for the 1970's American television series 'Kung Fu', correct?"

"Indeed." Monkey Fist sighed. "Shall we?"

"One moment, I beg," Yori said as she placed her shoes, which had been gripped in her right hand, on the catwalk and out of the way.

"I feel honored, Miss Morituri," Monkey Fist said sarcastically, "you deem me worthy enough to put down your sandals. What ever do you have them off for anyway?"

A sharp right kick to the jaw was his answer. Monkey Fist shook his head, and cracked his jaw back into place.

"If we could pare the banter down to a minimum," Yori explained pleasantly with a short bow, "I would be most grateful. I am in a hurry."

"Fine," Monkey Fist grimaced, "bring it."

Releasing a sudden barrage of punches and kicks, Monkey Fist was able to back Yori down the catwalk a good ten feet. Although they weren't connecting, his attacks definitely had the young ninja on the defensive. That is, until her unexpected leg sweep put him on his biscuit.

For someone who spent the better part of three hours a day sitting in the lotus position on a straw matt cultivating "serenity time," Fiske consistently had trouble keeping his cool in a fight. And this bout with Yori was no exception. After he got back to his feet, she was able to anticipate and parry each of his moves. He soon found himself being backed down the catwalk by her attacks. As more of his attacks failed to connect and more of hers succeeded to, he became angrier and angrier. Why am I always being bested by teenagers? A different strategy was required.

"Miss Morituri," Monkey Fist began after successfully blocking one of her charges, "it really would be in your best interest to surrender now."

The stink eye she gave him was for his breaking the banter moratorium; she didn't even register what he had said.

He blocked another charge and wheedled in another line. "You do realize what is going to happen if you defeat me."

"'Leave It to Beaver'?" Yori asked.

"Pardon me?" Monkey Fist stumbled, his concentration broken. Then he realized that Potty Mouth had, indeed, switched tunes again. "No, no, it's 'My Three Sons.'"

"Ah, yes," Yori concurred, "Fred MacMurray-san."

"Indeed," Monkey Fist said before launching a flying kick that Yori easily dodged.

"Your colleague seems well versed in classic American television," she said conversationally as Monkey Fist, once again, picked himself off the catwalk.

Her calm tone only angered him more. "Yes, I believe he was home schooled by cable tv," he said before attempting a sudden leg sweep of his own.

She deftly dodged his move and countered with a flurry of kicks that drove the former British Lord back to the catwalk, gasping for breath.

It was now or never. "He is going to shoot you if I fail!" Monkey Fist said matter-of-factly.

That did give Yori pause.

Still sitting upon the catwalk, Monkey Fist gave Yori the full weight of his unblinking eyes, a look he hoped conveyed sincerity. "If you surrender now, I will guarantee that he will not harm you. Once we have what we need, you will leave without further damage to your person." He pointed to the nasty wound on her wrist. "Is it worth it, Yori?" He gestured with a look at the armed youth across the hanger, who had, once again, begun humming another tune. "This thing your sensei deigns as 'honor' … is it worth your leg? Is it worth your life?"

For the first time Yori seemed puzzled.

Monkey Fist smiled.


Dr. Freeman and his new friend Plucky had been following Yori and Monkey Fist's fight intently. "What are they saying?" he asked out loud to no one in particular. Plucky assumed the scientist had been asking him and shrugged his shoulders. Suddenly, something off to the right caught both of their attentions. "What is going on down here?"


Yori dropped her fighting stance as well as her defenses. She looked across warily at Potty Mouth and then extended her arm to Monkey Fist. As she gripped his hand, she gave him the full weight of her eyes, a look that betrayed only sincerity. "I do not know."

"Do not know what, Yori?" Monkey Fist smiled as he began to climb from the floor.

"This tune." Yori explained.

"Oh, that." Monkey Fist said. He thought a moment and smiled. "I believe it is from 'Family Affair.'" He got to his feet, their hands still joined. "Before your time I believe."

"Ah, yes," Yori smiled. "Ben Keith-san and Sebastian Cabot-san."

They exchanged smiles. Monkey Fist noticed that Yori had yet to release her grip on his wrist.

"They were all before my time, Monkey Fist," Yori explained, "as was Honor." She tightened her grip on the former Lord's wrist, and using his own weight against him pivoted on her right foot and swung him into the small pyramid of empty canisters off to their left.

With the cacophony of the empty cans still in her ears, Yori turned and fixed Potty Mouth's eyes with the same unflinching stare she had given all her previous opponents. She walked toward the railing and positioned herself so that her right leg, the one he had cocked his pistol at less than an hour earlier, was clearly visible (and in his sights) between the railings' bars.

She was unsure whether he could hear her over the noises from below or over his own tone-deaf whistling; therefore, she clearly and defiantly mouthed to him a single word: "Bring."

III.

The Middleton Space Center was located on the outskirts of town, not technically within the city limits in fact. Although the tri-city area had sprawled in every direction since 1985, the year when ground was first broken for the Center, Colorado's only space exploration complex was still a good five miles away from the nearest private home or business. Apart from the occasional late working rocket scientist, the place was pretty deserted on a Friday evening.

This Friday evening it was completely deserted.

The Center was equipped with a state of the art surveillance system which was being directly monitored by several law enforcement agencies (local, state and federal) as well as to the omnipresent systems of a Mr. Wade Load twenty-four hours a day on the odd chance anything unusual were to occur (such as the unscheduled visit of Prof. Dementor the previous evening). However, they provided no protection this night.

It happened in less than thirty seconds. In the short space of time it took for the cumulus clouds, that Bonnie Rockwaller had noticed earlier, to sweep across the face of the moon, things were utterly, irrevocably changed. One instant all the systems were online; the next they were ... gone.

The tremor was a mild one. In fact, the only "after shock" - the rattling of a handful of dishes in the Reager household, the nearest household to the Center - was only noticed by Mr. and Mrs. Reager who subsequently blamed it on their son Ron's impromptu "piano lesson" to drown out the sound of the" American Star-maker" television show his younger sister was watching.

The only person who was in the position to determine what had just happened, Wade Load, was otherwise occupied at the time that whatever occurred did occur.

The arc that gravity compels the moon to trace upon the night sky and the ever-inflating arc of human technology have different points of origin and termination. However, the mind must remain alert and the eyes must be wide open during the moments when these two arcs cross. For then, monsters are seen.

However, that was the problem this Friday evening. No one was watching.

Besides, the moon was behind those clouds anyway.

IV.

Potty Mouth had stopped whistling. The main reason was because it was impossible to whistle while smiling malevolently from ear to ear. He picked his target, steadied his aim, gave Yori's iron stare one final dismissive glance, and pulled the trigger.

Although she was maintaining her stare, Yori, in the seconds before the gun was fired, had already begun the mental preparations for the pain that she knew would be coming. She had never been shot before; she didn't know what it would feel like, but she had to do whatever she could. Bullet wound or no, escape would remain her goal.

However, Yori had not expected what happened when the gun was fired. She was taken completely and utterly by surprise. Like dried sand in a child's fist, all her ninjistu training and mental exercises crumbled in the face of the terror that confronted her. She reflexively covered her eyes with her hands and dropped to her knees.

"Lipsky! You stupid expletive deletedexpletive deletedexpletive deletedexpletive deleted!"

In a less-than-thought-out bid to revenge his mullet on the perceived source of the "monkey dudes," Ed Lipsky had fired up "DIPP" (Diprotodon Integrated Proteus Prototype) and maneuvered it toward Yori. Although it produced the initial desired effect-its sudden appearance momentarily scared her witless, it also provided her with an excellent shield from Potty Mouth's gunfire. The bullet bounced harmlessly off the back of "DIPP's" hull.

Potty Mouth's violent curses quickly brought Yori back to herself. She turned her face from the horrific monstrosity that was floating a few yards beyond the rails, scooped up her shoes and prepared to take off as fast as she could across the catwalk.

"What is your problem, dude? Seriously!" Unlike his blue-skinned cousin, Motor Ed was not one to back down from a fight with a bully.

"Problem? Yeah, I got a problem! I got a big expletive deleted problem with any expletive deleted brain-damaged expletive deleted expletive deleted-"

"Dude," Motor Ed interrupted, "do you realize how un-educated that language makes you sound? I mean, seriously, you sound like you did nothing but watch cable TV as a kid. Seriously."

Potty Mouth calmed down quite suddenly. Well, at least, he seemed calm.

"Seriously, dude, my mullet looks like it went through the spin cycle with a weed-whacker, seriously! And you don't see me using that language! Anger management might be what you need, seriously. I mean it didn't help me, but I only went to a couple of sessions because of the court order, but I was never as hyped-up as you, dude, seriously."

To say that Potty Mouth was ignoring everything that Motor Ed was saying would not be exactly correct. Certainly, he was not considering curbing his profanity or taking an anger management course; however, he was considering something. The chubby "baby fat" features of his face were lined in thought as if he were weighing the pros and cons for a specific decision or course of action.

"Seriously, dude, does your mother know you talk like that?"

At the mention of his mother, Potty Mouth's body language shifted drastically, and his face took on a different look. The decision had been made.

Despite his high-forehead and ample cheeks, Potty Mouth looked very much like Harrison Ford at that moment. Specifically, he looked like Harrison Ford from a particular scene in the first Indiana Jones movie. He had the same look in his eyes and around his mouth as Ford did in the moment right before he shot the sword-wielding black turbaned assassin in the market place. As Motor Ed continued to rant about his mullet and Potty Mouth's language and anger management classes and his mullet and Potty Mouth's mother and his mullet and whateverelse he was complaining about, Potty Mouth laconically aimed his revolver directly at Ed's forehead and cocked the hammer back and-WHAP!

The gun fell to the catwalk and fired, but the errant bullet harmlessly bounced off the enormous back of the DIPP. As Potty Mouth held his throbbing right hand, he noticed a sandal shoe lying beside his gun. As he shot an angry look to the place where he had last seen Yori, her other shoe struck him right between the eyes. The foul-tongued lunatic fell to the catwalk like a sack of bricks … well, a sack of bricks and marshmallows.

Yori had no time to rest; however, as the DIPP extended one of its serpentine arms toward her, its fingers morphing into laser cannons. She sprinted down the catwalk, making a mental note that either Ed Lispky had been blind to the good deed she had just performed or that he was not too honorable himself.

The first plasma blast missed her by only a few feet, but the shock waves tossed her violently into the air. Only by employing a last second duck and tumble combination that would have made Kim or any other member of the Mad Dog cheer squad proud, did Yori escape serious injury. Just as she wobbled to her feet, a second blast from the DIPP incinerated a main support for the catwalk sending the far end of the section she was standing upon crashing to the hanger floor.

As she tumbled down the steep incline toward the rapidly approaching concrete floor, Yori reached out and managed to painfully wrench a hold into the metal grillwork of the catwalk. She jerked to a stop. She could tell that at least one of her fingers was broken; she blinked back a few tears and tried to gauge what her next move might be.

Just as she realized that the catwalk touched down a mere ten feet from hanger door and freedom, she heard the unmistakable sound (she had heard it twice quite recently, so she pretty much had it down) of the DIPP's plasma cannon powering up to fire. Without looking to see where the hideous monstrosity was located, Yori unhooked her fingers (two were broken) from the grill work and allowed herself to slide toward the hanger floor.

Motor Ed was tracking Yori with just about pinpoint precision. The DIPP's guidance system, unlike most state of the art technology, really was so user friendly that it was essentially fool-proof or, in this case, Lipsky-proof. He had the DIPP's left claw/cannon aimed directly at the point where Yori's slide would end.

"Sayonara, ninja chick," Motor Ed crowed, "seriously." He pulled the trigger.

In what was becoming a trend for that lair that day, nothing happened when the weapon's trigger was squeezed. "What the-what's happening, dude, seriously?" he muttered as he looked over the controller.

"Indeed," Dr. Freeman said sternly a few feet behind Ed, "what is happening here? From what I can see, someone who is technically only a contract worker is, among other things, destroying company property."

Ed spun around to see Dr. Freeman holding an unplugged extension cord in his hand. Ed didn't need to be told that the plug was to the DIPP's main power source.

"Dude, are you seriously whacked!" Motor Ed hollered. "She's getting away, seriously!" Ed began walking menacingly toward Dr. Freeman. The good doctor did not even have time to interpret Ed's actions as threatening ones because the formerly mullet-ed mad scientist was swiftly attacked by Freeman's new friend, Plucky.

By this time, Yori had already run out of the hanger and into the night.

V.

Wade was getting pretty desperate. He had already contacted a friend at NORAD, and their advanced system couldn't pick up anything in the general location where Wade had last located Kim and Ron's plane. Apart from some commercial airliners, that airspace had apparently been quiet for hours. The fact that whoever was behind the controls of that grande-sized black jet could also effectively fake out the systems of both Global Justice and the North American Aerospace Defense Command did not bode well.

All he could do was continue to try getting through to the Kimmunicator.

Nothing.

Again, nothing.

Suddenly, Wade heard the standard Beep-be-bee-beep alert that indicated someone was making a call to Kim's site. He gave his monitor an annoyed glance and went to try the Kimmunicator again.

Wade slowly turned back around as he realized that he recognized the IP address that had momentarily flashed on the screen when the hit came through.

Unless the blue-skinned villain had "outsourced" a new IP address, Kim's site was receiving a hit from Dr. Drakken.

VI.

Cupping the index and ring fingers of her left hand protectively in her right, Yori made her way through the dunes just outside the penumbra formed by the hanger's lights. It reminded her of trudging through the snow drifts outside of Yamanouchi's walls when she was six. The desert night was cool, not as cool as a Yamanouchi evening, but the desert breeze was pleasantly refreshing, not hot as she had expected.

She almost stumbled against an unseen rock, but managed to steady herself. A few steps later, she did fall. The heat of the day was still radiating from the sand, but it was fortunately very soft. Since she had been holding her injured hand against her chest, the impact did not acerbate her injuries. She was so very tired. The strenuous work-out she had been giving her body for the better part of the last hour suddenly made itself known in her muscles and joints. Even the nasty tear along her wrist came alive with pain. A small part of Yori counseled her to stay where she was, to let the warmth and pleasant feel of the sand against her skin lull her into a healing rest. Or a deep sleep.

Yori shook this notion violently from her and began struggling to her feet. However, she immediately dropped back down again. Voices were approaching, but not from the direction of the hanger. They were in front of her.

She remained completely motionless. Figures began fading into view. There were three men dressed in white, tall and impressively built. As they got closer, Yori realized each was carrying a stack of boxes. Just then she noticed a fourth figure behind the first three. This figure was excessively short and was wearing a strange helmet on his head. Whereas the others were weighed down with dozens of flat boxes, the final man only had one in his arms.

She didn't breathe as the four marched past some ten feet downhill (or down-dune) from where she lay. As they did, a familiar smell wafted by on the cool breeze. Just as Yori recognized the smell, the fourth man flipped opened his box and in a motion that managed to somehow be both refined and crude at the same time, crammed a slice of pizza into his mouth.

"Blech!" he spat out the large bite he had taken. "Didn't I zay NO pepperoni?! I HATE ze peppeRONI! Doesn't anyone LISTEN ANYMORE?!"

Dementor-san!

As Yori's eyes followed the ranting figure until he and his henchmen were out of sight, her mind struggled to come to grips with the dire implications his sudden appearance made manifest.

It didn't make any sense.

Drakken and Motor Ed were cousins, so that made sense. Even Monkey Fist had been known to team up with other villains on occasion. He and Duff Killigan had embarked on a joint scheme to turn Yamanouchi into a Monkey Ninja school and miniature golf course just that past September (Team Possible had been summoned by Sensei to assist in the villains' defeat). But to everyone's knowledge, Prof. Dementor had NEVER partnered with anyone. And Yori did not feel it was too likely that he and his henchmen were just delivering pizza.

Stoppable-san would say this does not bode well.

When Yori judged that the four men were out of earshot, she struggled to her feet and as quickly and carefully as she could made it down the dunes to where the sands were flatter, to where Dementor and his men had passed. The almost full-moon gave Yori enough light to discern their tracks and she followed them out into the wilderness.

Obviously, there wasn't a pizzeria out in the middle of the desert; the villains must have just come back from some sort of transport. Perhaps, she could stowaway on or even commandeer a hoverjet. In any case, it wouldn't take long for Prof. Dementor and his men to discover the chaos in the hanger and learn of her escape. On foot, she was only delaying the inevitable. Yori needed a vehicle of some kind.

She sighed as she saw the lights of one of Dementor's hovercrafts, followed by the roar of its engines, speed off into the night sky. Then, in the direction from where the hoverjet had taken off, she caught the pale outlines of a small parking lot of some sort. In the lot there was a truck with very, very large wheels.

Even with her years of ninja training, climbing into the cab of what she correctly assumed was Motor Ed's monster truck was no easy trick with an injured hand. However, there was nothing to hotwiring the vehicle one-handed. Especially, since Motor Ed left the keys in the ignition. Before starting the truck, Yori briefly reflected on how impractical an escape vehicle it was going to be. Unwieldy, gas-guzzling, conspicuous. It would be so easy to spot from the air. But, there was no choice, was there? She started the engine.

"If… I… leave… here… to..morrrrrrrrr..row" the speakers began croaking out, at top volume, a classic rock tune from 1970's American Top Forty radio.

No! There are limits!

Yori immediately flipped off the radio and turned her head in disgust as she winced against the fading strains of the song. As she did, she noticed another ... vehicle parked in the spot adjacent to Motor Ed's monster truck.

Drakken-san's hovercraft!

In less than twenty seconds, Yori was sitting behind the main console of Drakken's so-called "funky-fresh-flying-car." Since they had been designed so even a Lipsky could manipulate them with relative ease, it took Yori only a few minutes to figure out how to work the craft's controls. As an added bonus, it appeared Drakken had modified the steering mechanism so flying could be achieved one-handed (the other hand being employed in the wielding of any number of weapons on board). To make things even easier, Drew Lipsky, as his cousin had done with those to his truck, had left the hovercraft's keys in the ignition.

She maneuvered the hovercraft off the surface of the small parking lot and sped into the night.

Even though she had the ship's tracking system up and the screen displayed no airborne traffic in a fifty mile radius, Yori caught herself checking over her shoulder every few minutes. She was still coming down from the adrenaline rush the escape had given her, and she realized the sooner she spoke with a friend, the calmer, the better, she would feel. Besides, she had urgent information to pass on. The hovercraft was equipped with a plethora of sophisticated communication tools, not the least of which being an onboard cell phone and a laptop with satellite internet services.

She didn't dare try to raise Sensei. Her recent capture had proven how insecure Yamanouchi's communication systems could be. It was quite possible that the school was riddled with Fukasamas, traitors and spies willing to do Monkey Fist's bidding for "cash on the honor." Yori shuddered when she considered that it was quite likely that spies had broken in on her IH conversation with Sensei that morning.

There was only one communications system that she knew to be completely secure: the one run by Wade Load. Even if she was transmitting from Drakken's equipment, she felt confident that Team Possible's system would filter out any spy programming. Unfortunately, due perhaps to her still-churning emotions or even an after-effect of the braintap machine, she couldn't recall the number for the Kimmunicator. Nor the Roncom. But she did remember the address for Team Possible's website.

VII.

Wade hesitantly answered the alert he was getting from Drakken's IP address. He remembered the address from a mission a few years back when he had contacted the mad scientist to assist his friends, Shego, and her family against Aviarius. Wade never forgot an IP.

What little faith he had left in Global Justice was sorely tested by the fact that Drakken, evidently, had escaped their custody undetected. What was worse, he felt sure the scientist was just calling to gloat over the capture of his friends. As unlikely as he found it that Drakken was solely responsible for their current sitch, he had little doubt that the call was somehow related to it. Still, perhaps he could trick Drakken into giving up some clues as to where Kim and Ron were going to be taken.

That shouldn't be too hard.

The twelve-year-old super genius were pretty floored when he answered the alert and found himself looking directly into the dark, almond-shaped eyes of Yori Morituri. And since the crush he had developed on the older girl (over the course of the two missions she had assisted Team Possible with in the past year) was, he felt at least, pretty obvious, he was a little embarrassed too. He had been able to hide his surprise the night before when she made the emergency call from the Roncom on the roof of the Space Center (it wasn't that big a surprise to see her since Monkey Fist had been involved), but from Drakken's hovercraft? Wade was more than a little flustered.

"Y-yori!?"

"Load-san," she smiled, but her eyes were all business. "I need to speak to Stoppable-san or Possible-san immediately."

"Wh-what," Wade said, trying to regain his composure and more than a little relieved that the one photo he had of Yori was taped to the edge of the very monitor screen they were now conversing on, and thus out of her line of sight, "what are you doing in Drakken's hovercraft?"

"A very long story, I fear. Load-san, please could you patch me over to either Possible-san or Stoppable-san."

Brought back to his friends' peril by Yori's second request to speak to them, Wade sighed. "I wish I could, Yori." He then explained the little he knew of their current predicament and how all his efforts to reach them had proved futile.

She frowned as she listened to his story. Then she cocked an eyebrow, "Did you try calling Stoppable-san's device?"

Wade blinked twice. He hadn't. Opening up a communications window just below Yori's image on his computer screen, Wade began typing rapidly. "The Roncom does operate on a slightly different frequency. If whoever is jamming the Kimmunicator doesn't know about it-ohmygosh, it's ringing!" He beamed at her. "Yori, you're a genius!"

"Coming from you, Load-san, that is quite the compliment," she smiled back.

VIII.

Both Kim and Ron's eyes fixed on Ron's right pocket where the Roncom was beeping. After half a tic, Ron frantically put both hands into his cargo pocket and dug out the device. "Please, be Wade, please, be Wade," Ron whispered in a voice only half as frantic as his hands.

There was an ominous scraping sounding against the cabin door that drew Kim's attention back to their impending visitors. She got back into her fighting stance, keeping an eye on Ron's progress. Another loud scrape was heard. "Just a sec!" Ron barked to the door, "We gotta answer the phone!"

"Wade!" Ron erupted as his friend's face filled the screen. "Thank you, thank you, thank you!"

With a look of intense relief, Wade shook his head, "Thank Yori. I never would have thought of trying the Roncom otherwise."

"Yori!" Kim and Ron both exclaimed. A testament to both the direness of their sitch and their intense confusion, neither thought to jinx the other. "I guess she wasn't kidnapped by Monkey Fist." Kim said to Ron.

"Monkey Fist?" Wade asked, "I don't know. I think she just escaped from Drakken; she's flying his hovercraft."

"DRAKKEN!" Kim exploded. "GJ let him get away!? What in the world is that idiot Pointsman's problem?!"

"Uh, Kim," Ron said with deadpan delivery, "I believe we need to focus on the problem at hand."

If her boyfriend's statement didn't fully bring Kim back to the present sitch, a third sharp noise against the cabin door, followed by the tentative turning of the latch handle, certainly did.

Knowing that his girlfriend's ability to communicate complex ... stuff ... under pressure far exceeded his, Ron tossed the communications device to her, "Talk to Wade, Kim. I'll stall our friends."

As Kim briefly outlined the sitch to Wade, Ron snatched a couple of bottles of Tunguska Springs from the fridge and jammed one of them between the latch handle and the edge of the cabin door. In addition to its rich mineral and sparkling properties, the "top shelf" spring water brand also came in glass, rather than a plastic, bottles.

"Do you think you could find your way around this plane's systems in like ... uh ... five minutes ago?" Kim asked Wade. "From what I know it is a one-of-kind proto-type plane."

"No problem, Kim," Wade smiled, "Justine sent me its schematics when she first got it."

"Spankin!"

"Uh, dudes," Ron said to the visitors behind the door, "this is kinda a bad time. Important conference call going on. Could you come back in ... say ... five minutes?"

His answer was the bottle breaking as the strain on the latch handle was temporarily relaxed and then rudely doubled. Without hesitation, Ron shoved the second bottle in its place.

"Just hook the Roncom in an input jack, and I'll take over, Kim," Wade said confidently. "There should be one located on the co-pilot's console if I remember correctly."

"Ron," Kim said, assertiveness starting to filter back into her voice, "can you hold them off for a few minutes?"

Ron gave her a thumbs up. "Three more bottles left, KP. After that, Rufus and I ... uh," he patted the unconscious member of the team in his left cargo pocket, "well, ... I'll get creative."

She returned his smile and dashed for the cockpit.

IX.

Her call to Wade interrupted by the pressing needs of Team Possible, Yori felt that she still needed something to help calm her down. As her eyes wandered from the tracking system display (which was fortunately still picking up no other aircraft) to the incredibly cluttered floor of Drakken's craft, she spied what looked like a mePod among the jetsam. Placing the hovercraft on auto pilot, she picked up the device and checked to see if it still had any battery life. It did. Scrolling through the library, she smiled deeply.

Shego-san's I would imagine.

She inserted the ear buds, selected the song she wanted (no, needed) to hear, and reengaged the manual controls. As the first notes reached Yori's ears, she felt a thousand times better. The first step to recovering from her ordeal would be to chase the memory of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Freebird" from her mind.

Twenty-twenty-twenty four hours to go I wanna be sedated Nothin' to do and no where to go-o-oh I wanna be sedated

As Yori sang along with the lyrics to one of her favorite songs, she couldn't help being mildly amused by the synchronicity of some of the lyrics to her day's "adventure."

I can't control my fingers I can't control my brain Oh no no no no no

She needed to have her fingers looked at by a medical professional, but she didn't feel safe stopping off at whatever hospital she flew over next. That and she needed desperately to speak with Ron and Kim once Wade was able to help them escape. She was very certain that he would be successful. These two thoughts dovetailed and led to the inescapable conclusion of where her destination should be.

Possible-san's house.

X.

The input jack was easily found. As Wade was diligently circumventing and then attempting to disrupt the foreign control signals blocking the plane's manual controls, Kim kept shooting worried glances back to the cabin. Then she heard a shrill noise followed by quieter, but no less shrill, noises.

"Ron, are you okay?" she hollered.

"Bottle's still holding, Kimbo!" he shouted back. "I'm just chillin' back here."

"What were those horrible noises?"

"Oh!" He paused. "I was just laying down a beat on Sloproth's har-mon-i-kie."

"It's Slothrop, you goof!"

"Oh, my bad," he hollered back, "How are you guys doin'?"

"Fine!" she yelled back, somewhat boosted by Ron's laid back tone. She was still concerned about him though. When she had glanced at the "visitors" making their way down the tubing earlier, she believed they were armed. With what, she had no clue. "Wade thinks he can block their signal in about a minute."

"Coolio!" came Ron's reply.

"Actually, about fifteen more seconds," Wade said as he typed.

"So, Wade," Kim asked as she gripped the plane's joystick that she knew she would be using very, very soon, "did Justine say why she sent you the schematics for this plane?"

"Sure didn't, Kim," Wade answered without looking up from his monitor.

"Maybe she was flirting with you," Kim ventured. She didn't know why she said that. Maybe a little nervousness over Ron, maybe to pass the time, maybe whoknows. But it was the first time Kim had ever brought up the subject of "girls" with Wade before. When he was ten, the subject probably would have only made him shake his head, but now that he was twelve ... in any case, she could see that she had embarrassed him. She was about to apologize when Ron's tone-deaf noodling on the harmonica momentarily broker her concentration.

Wade glanced quickly at the photo of Yori on his monitor and then back at Kim. Why did she say THAT right now?

"Uh, I've broken through, Kim." Wade said trying to make himself heard over Ron's nervous playing, "What would you like me to do first?"

The sound of the shattering of the second bottle of Tunguska Springs was followed by a few instants of disquieting silence punctuated by an ominous thump. Kim was just about to leave the controls and sprint to the cabin when she heard the sound of the cabin door swinging open. Before her heart could start beating again, Ron called out, "Kim, we may have a problem."

XI.

"Problem" was … an interesting … word to choose. Although it was true, it didn't quite encapsulate the sitch.

Sitting on his rear where he had landed after somehow slipping on the third bottle of Tunguska Springs when he went to replace the broken one in the door, Ron was looking down the "barrels" of three taser-like weapons being held by three black-clad goons … or henchmen … or aliens … or synthodrones … or whatever that had climbed down from Monstro through that saranwrapped tube and had just forced open Justine's cabin door.

Like "dumb luck," sometimes "dumb skills" ran out.

After alerting Kim to the "problem," Ron did the only thing he could think of … he grabbed Slothrop's harmonica from the floor where he had dropped it and began blowing wildly.

Although not the sharpest tool in the shed, Ron's desperate ploy was based on proven trial and error … well, sorta proven.

As he had watched the "guests" through the side window trying to breach his makeshift lock, he had nervously begun blowing on Slothrop's harp. The goon closest to the door was trying to force the latch, the one right behind was, it seemed, talking on a small communications device, and the third one in line was looking directly at Ron and making ominous gestures in his direction.

Then Ron noticed the freak nearest the door clutching at his ears, at the same moment the second one was shaking his device as if it wasn't working, and the third … well … he was still making threatening gestures. A second later, things had returned to "normal"; the first two were back as before. A few seconds after that, the first one was clutching his ears and the second was having signal problems again. Then it occurred to Ron that what was bugging them might just be his harmonica playing. It didn't seem to be happening all the time-perhaps only certain notes did the trick. In any case, he didn't quite understand why it was only the first couple of goons that seemed effected.

Maybe they're the only one's close enough to hear it?

So when the second bottle broke and Ron made a beeline for the latch and reached down for the third bottle that his foot had already found and landed rudely on his tailbone just as the door opened, the harp was truly his last best hope. The first couple of notes did nothing, the first goon advanced menacingly and brandished his blue-flared tazer like he was rearing back to hit a fast ball.

Then … as Ron inhaled deeply as he braced for the shock he knew was coming, the ungodly off-key note produced by the harmonica not only killed the power to the weapon, it made all three visitors now inside the cabin (the rest were still waiting in queue back in the tube) clutch their gloved hands to their ears.

Or to the places where their ears should have been.

As the note died away however, all four goons in the cabin (well, three and half, the fourth was only half-way through the door) were suddenly wearing colorfully stripped vests of the barbershop quartet variety, straw top hats and white slacks over their black jumpsuits. Vest colors varied from goon to goon and seemed to radiate from one to the other as they swayed to the melody provided by their voices. Instead of their tazers, they were now carrying shiny bamboo canes with exaggerated hooked ends. The most disquieting aspect of their new appearance was the fact that they were still wearing masks that were made of the same material as the rest of their jumpsuits. Dark goggles sewn into the masks completely hid their eyes and there were no opening for their nostrils or, creepiest of all, mouths as far as Ron could tell. This "alien" featurelessness contrasted with the technicolor kitsch of their new dress (not to mention how instantaneous the change had been) was bar-none the third strangest sight Ron had ever beheld.

Then they began to sing.

Where Their Ears Should Have Been

(1st goon, tenor):

Like a shark without a dorsal fin

Lost ice bucket at a motor inn

A seed-less loaf of rye bread

Are the places on their heads

Where their ears should have been

(4th goon sticking his head through the door, bass):

Shouuuuuuuuuuuld have been!

(2nd and 3rd goon, inside voices):

No bacon on your last potato skin

Bungee jumping with your Siamese Twin

(1st goon, tenor):

A rogue rocket's launching site

Like stars on a cloudy night

Where their ears should have been

(4th goon, bass):

Shouuuuuuuuuuuld have been!

Ron was so fascinated/bewildered/horrified by this impromptu musical number (especially by the way black fabric over the goons' mouths would billow out slightly when they were singing) that he forgot to play Slothrop's harp. He also didn't notice, at least not at first, when the first goon went to gently nudge Ron in the chest with his long-handled cane. As he did so, it turned back into a tazer.

The pain of the resulting shock was … quite intense. As the rivers of molten pain enveloped Ron's body, he noticed in passing, from one intense wave of sensation to another, that the hats, vests, canes, whathaveyous had all vanished as if they had never been. If he had had the sense to make a metaphor for what he felt, he most likely would have said it was as if his blood had been replaced with five-alarm Diablo sauce.

Just as he was about to pass out from pain exhaustion (as if he needed a reason), he glanced at the doorway that led back to the cockpit, and half-saw Kim. That is, he only saw half of her because the fog of unconsciousness had already closed one of his eyes. He saw the muscles in her legs (for this was the half of her he could still see) tense up and knew that she was preparing to lay all 16 kings of kung fu on his attackers.

His last conscious thought before closing his eyes and giving into the seductive whisper of oblivion was the vision of his best friend girlfriend lying beside him enduring the same ridiculous pain he was now suffering.

XII.

Then something within Ron refused that, made a different choice, and at the moment his heart broke, his eyes opened.

XIII.

Ron sat bolt upright and watched with a mixture of rage and wonderment as the four goons, now outlined in a blue haze, levitated off the cabin floor and got stuffed through the door. For a second there, it looked like there was going to be a "goon plug," but they managed to squeeze (or get squeezed) through the opening and were thrown against the handful of other "guests" still waiting behind in the tube. Then the haze shifted to the cabin door which slammed closed. The haze vanished.

Ron exhaled deeply into Slothrop's harp (which miraculous had stayed in his mouth this entire time) producing something akin to an air raid siren crossed with a kazoo, and he fell back.

Kim was at his side before his back could hit the floor. She had his upper body cradled in her arms, her eyes brimming with concern. "R-Ron, are you okay?"

"Hzzzz Dzzzz Lzzzzzz" Ron replied before realizing that the strange metallic taste in his mouth was coming from the harmonica. He pushed it out of his mouth with his tongue and tried again. "H-how do I look?"

She smiled at his question. Despite the bags under his eyes and his pale skin color, he obviously wasn't feeling too bad. "Really, really tired." She tried, in vain, to brush down his ever-present cow-lick, "But still a hottie."

"Y-yeah," Ron swallowed, "that's about how I feel. C-cept, the hottie part." He offered a weak smile and then his kaleidoscopic eyes turned serious. "Are y-you okay, Kim? They didn't hurt you, did th-they?"

She smiled and shook her head. "Thanks to your badical powers, I don't think they even noticed me." She kissed his forehead. "That was the blue halo you told me about, huh?"

"Y-yep." He nodded.

"Kim! What's going on?" Wade's voice echoed from the cabin.

Kim turned in the direction of Wade's call, but before she could even formulate a response, she felt Ron's weight shift out of her arms.

"C'mon, KP!" Ron smiled weakly as he wobbled to his knees and tried to stand. "You've got some flying to do."

He still looked so dead tired, but he seemed far more agile than she expected, and the playful glint in his eye was genuine, not just show. Even as she tried to think up a reason for why he should lay down on one of the cabin couches, she found herself helping him to his feet and actually following him back in to the cockpit. "Ron! I think it is a ferociously bad idea for you to do anything, but rest right now," Kim tried to argue.

He teetered slightly and reached out for her hand, "But, KP, I'm all about ferociously bad ideas!"

Being careful not to accidentally sit on his unconscious pet, Ron slumped/collapsed into the co-pilot's chair. Kim dropped into the captain's chair. "Ok, Wade, talk to me," she asserted as she adjusted her grip on the joystick.

Wade couldn't help noticing Ron's rather haggard state. "Is Ron okay?"

Ron gave Wade a wary thumbs up in response.

"He's tired, but … okay," Kim said giving her boyfriend a pleasant if concerned look. He looked to be a few seconds away from nodding off, and she was absently wondering what his forehead was going to smack against once he did and what she could do to cushion the blow.

"Okay, Kim, I can get your plane's hull to emit an electrical charge strong enough to break the umbilical's connection."

"Spanking," she smiled, and then the smile vanished. She quickly checked her side window and confirmed her suspicion that the handful of "visitors" were still in the tunnel. In fact, they seemed to be having some mini-conference not too far from the smaller plane's cabin door. "Wait, Wade."

"What's the problem, Kim?" The tech guru asked in mid-key stroke.

"Those goons are still inside the tube. What's going to happen once it detaches?"

"I … uh," Wade hesitated.

"They'll fall, won't they?" Kim asked, knowing she was right.

"Probably, yeah," Wade nodded grimly.

"We've got to get them out of there first. Is there anything you can do?"

"Well," Wade hesitated, "if I could leapfrog onto their plane's system, maybe I could …"

Suddenly, a slightly annoying beeping permeated the cockpit. By the time Kim had located the flashing display on her console that was tied to the alert, Wade was giving her the bad news. "You're low on fuel, Kim."

"Oh great," Ron said looking out the side window in a drowsy voice, "more peeps."

Sure enough, a half dozen or so reinforcements were making their way down the umbilical to join their friends at the jet's door.

"Kim," Wade said in a depressed voice, "it is going to take a while to break into their system … it-it's like nothing I've ever seen."

"Spanking," Kim groused.

"Kim," Wade said in an even more despairing tone, "maybe we should …"

Immediately intuiting what her young friend was afraid of suggesting, Kim resolutely shook her head. "No, Wade. Do not zap the tube. That is so not going to happen."

"Kim," Wade reasoned, "you don't have much fuel left, and they are going to try to board you again … what choice do you have?"

"Wade, I said no."

"Kim, if they do kidnap you guys, I have no way of knowing if I will be able to trace you. The Roncom was a fluke; once you're on their plane … I-I may not …"

"We are not going to kill anyone, Wade." Kim said sternly.

"Well, what are we going to do?"

Kim's shoulders sagged, "I-I don't know."

Although he had appeared quite comatose during his friends' exchange, Ron had been listening very intently. He suddenly heaved himself out of his chair and began stumbling toward the cabin. "Don't worry, guys … the Ronman's … on the case."

"Ron!" Kim said leaping to her feet. "You are in no-"

She was stopped short by the serene look in her BFBF's eyes. "It'll be okay, KP," he said with a half-yawn. "You need to stay up here and fly this tub." He smiled and then continued through the cockpit door. She was so over whatever tricks his eyes were going to play that she had barely noticed that the serene stare he had given her was with eyeballs that were completely white.

She sighed and sat back down in the pilot's chair, her eyes closed. Then, for some inexplicable reason, she felt a surge of, well, of confidence. It was as if she knew everything was going to somehow work out all right.

She opened her eyes and favored Wade with an assured smile. "Ron'll take care of it."

Kim chalked up Wade's glassy-eyed reaction as disbelief that a half-asleep Ron could somehow talk ten goons into peacefully retreating back up the umbilical into that monster black jet.

In reality, Wade's look of shock had nothing to do with his opinion of Ron's abilities or Kim's suddenly optimistic attitude. He was taken aback because when Kim opened her eyes, they were completely white.

XIV.

Bonnie felt old. Really, really old.

Her eighteenth birthday was only a week away, but the high school cheerleader felt like the best years of her life were already over.

Of course, she had felt just like this when she was five, too.

It was a Friday night, and she was home alone. Lonnie and Connie were at college and wouldn't be home for Spring Break for another week; her mother was off on one of her "sudden shopping trips" to the West Coast. Bonnie had the house to herself until Saturday morning.

It wasn't the first time, either, that Bonnie was homebound on a Friday evening; it had been happening quite a lot recently. This was so not supposed to be happening; she was a Senior-and a popular Senior! Heck a Senior who had been sitting at the Senior Table in the Caf since she was a Junior! Instead of the high school social ladder queen she, in fact, was, Bonnie felt like a shy thirteen-year-old junior high school girl with fuzzy legs who couldn't get a boy to call her on a dare. And she had NEVER been that girl!

Bonnie would die of embarrassment if Kim Possible ever found out how relieved she had been when Kim had asked if her to come to Ron's Seder. It was the first "party" she had been to in weeks. And even though it had been fun … kinda, it had still been very awkward because Brick's new girlfriend, that Club Banana girl, had been there. To make matters worse, Tara had clicked with that Renton kid and made date plans with him. Bonnie had been so hoping that Tara would have been able to help her get through another lonely Friday night.

Then again, Bonnie had been starting to feel a slight twinge of guilt about making Tara "baby-sit" her every weekend. After Tara and Josh had broken up, Bonnie had easily been able to convince her life-long friend that she needed a break from the date scene and to get some "girls'-only time"—just the two of them. However, as the months went by, Tara found herself breaking dates with boys she kinda liked just so she could keep her Fridays open for Bonnie. The previous evening at Stoppable's house, Bonnie had seen how Tara's hands had been constantly in motion whenever she spoke to Renton or whenever he spoke to her. Bonnie could not ask Tara to break a date with that boy and still call herself a friend.

Restless and sad, Bonnie collapsed into her recliner and turned on her computer. She brought up the internet and her pre-set preferences filled the screen. There was a window for her homepage—her recently created page, a browser window for the official website for Eighteen Magazine, and a small window for her Instant Holla messenger.

She immediately deleted all the new messages on her myplace page. Apart from the somewhat formal and not overly chatty "welcome" messages she had received from about half of the girls on the cheer squad who also had pages, the only messages she had received in her site's two week existence were indecent proposals from lurkers and pervs. For the fraction of a second, she contemplated adding a journal entry, but quickly shut down the window with disgust.

As if anyone would read it anyway.

As she sat in a funk, Bonnie realized that she would never want anyone reading what she truly felt like writing at that moment.

She wanted to write about how much she missed her step-father. Or, at least, the person she had believed until she was five was going to be her step-father.

Mr. Paul Rockwaller was an excessively cold, shallow, and brittle person. When Bonnie was three, he had emotionally abandoned his wife and three daughters for a designer jeans model who, for a brief period, also "wrote" a line of best-selling cookbooks. The model/chef's specialty being the creation of over one hundred dishes that included both calamari and caramel in their list of ingredients. Although the woman's career (and relationship with her father) drifted into obscurity, Bonnie could still remember the woman's oeuvre because Paul Rockwaller had carelessly/callously given a copy of one of these cookbooks to her mother as a Christmas present not too long after he destroyed his family.

Bonnie could never understand why her mother kept that cookbook, but she did—right between Betty Crocker and Better Homes and Gardens.

It was right after this first Christmas without a father that Bonnie fell in love for the first time. She was in love with her mother's friend. "Foomi," as she called him, was a handsome, slightly stocky Asian man who began meeting Bonnie's mother for lunch every Tuesday. Since Bonnie was only three and her mother preferred having her little angel with her at all times (and distrusted day care centers), these Tuesday lunches were always for three.

"Foomi" always tried making little Bonnie laugh. Sometimes he succeeded. This was not an easy task; Bonnie had always been a quiet, reserved and especially "thoughtful" little kid who almost never smiled. But she would smile whenever he called her "Bon-Bon." Bonnie's memory was especially fuzzy on this point because she could never be sure if her mother or "Foomi" had been the one to hit upon the nickname first.

A month or so before Bonnie was to start Kindergarten, she had mentioned "mommy's boyfriend" in front of Connie. When Connie, who was still quite stuck on Paul Rockwaller as a father at the time, had demanded to know who Bonnie was talking about, Bonnie realized that she had a private source of knowledge that her "brainy" sister didn't. She had smugly described to her older sibling the man she had been having Tuesday lunch with for the past few years.

"HIM?" Connie spat. "That is her lawyer, little girl, not her boyfriend." Connie then ran off giggling to share Bonnie's "stupidity" with Lonnie.

Red-faced and so angry that she couldn't stop crying, Bonnie decided right then and there to never go to lunch with her mother and "her lawyer" ever again. From then on she also started resenting her mother anytime "Bon-Bon" passed her mom's lips.

Bonnie's mom was somewhat surprised when Bonnie said she would rather visit Tara's house that next Tuesday than go to lunch.

"Okay," she relented, "but Foomi's going to miss you, Bon-Bon."

"I don't care."

A few Tuesdays later, Bonnie started Kindergarten. She learned by accident a few years later that her mother's "lawyer lunches" had stopped soon after she started school.

Bonnie sighed at these memories. She had to do something, or her Friday was going to become one long pity party.

As if on signal, her IH interface chirped. She scrolled expectantly through the message window but didn't recognize the userid of the person who had just alerted her.

Who in the heck is 'charlieowl'? Probably another myplace perv. Ick!

Then she read the message. I was quite simple. "Answer your phone."

One second later, the phone rang. Bonnie checked the caller id; it was from her mother.

XV.

Ron staggered to the cabin door where the familiar tell-tale scraping could be heard coming from the opposite side. As he rested his head against the cabin door, he thought really hard and tried to recall how he had called his badical powers the last time.

Oh yeah …

He wasn't up to getting shocked again. "Oh man, this tanks … I can't let KP down." A flash of silver from the floor caught his attention. He opened his eyes as wide as he could, they were so heavy they almost felt stuck together, and realized the silver was Sloproth's harmonica.

Well, why not …

Bending down to pick up the harp was more difficult than he had anticipated, and he almost lost his balance. When he regained his footing and turned back to the door, it was already open, and two goons were pointing tazers at him. With much more exasperation than panic, Ron began blowing into the instrument as hurriedly as he could.

Strangely, the notes didn't come out in the same staccato cacophony as earlier. In fact, they came out in a fairly coherent melody. Instead of reaching for the places where their ears should have been, the goons backed off a little … almost as if they were expecting something to happen … like for a song to kick in.

Back in the cockpit, Kim thought she heard the faint tinkling of piano keys. Just as she was trying to decide whether to call to Ron to see how he was doing or to ask Wade if he could hear music too, the pounding of the keyboard became very evident-so much so that she could feel the vibrations in the air flow up and down the handles of the joystick. The alert and quizzical look that Wade shot her made it plain that she wasn't going mad and that he was hearing it too.

"What's going on up there, Kim?" Wade said, hoping that if Kim did have an answer to that question it would encompass both the music and her tricked-out eyes—which were seriously freaking him out. Then an accordion kicked in.

Did the lights just dim in here?

"Kim, did the lights just down in there?" Wade asked. "And is that an accordion I hear?"

Before Kim could say that she so didn't have a clue as to what was happening, she and Wade both heard singing. Ron was singing!

The tune was something of a power ballad, but not so flashy, more soulful with a deep earthy sound to it. Certainly not something one would expect to be the B-side to the "Naked Mole Rap," but Ron was definitely selling the rather odd and obscure lyrics.

Never Let Go

Well, ring the bell backwards and bury the axe
Fall down on your knees in the dirt
I'm tied to the mast between water and wind
Believe me, you'll never get hurt

As the words flowed from his tongue and echoed throughout the plane, Ron got the distinct feeling that he was NOT being controlled or possessed or anything freaky like that—rather the singing began like a tickle in his throat and the words were being teased out of him. It was almost as if they were words he had meant to say (or sing) at earlier points in his life but couldn't locate quickly enough in the messy romper room that was his mind. Now, he was finding them.

Of course, none of that meant that he had any idea what was going on. But it was fun. After he sang his stanza, he found the harmonica at his lips, and began to blow with abandon.

Although the harmonica continued the more or less coherent melody that he had produced before he started singing, it also had a much bigger sound, a much bigger oomph to it. Yet, at the same time, it was gracefully echoing the waltzing melody of the unseen accordion.

The song's effect on the goons outside the door was predictable. Not only did they cover their ears, they also started, if only slightly, backing up in the umbilical.

And then something else started happening. But before Ron could get a fix on what that something was he heard Kim singing! She was taking up the song from where he had left off.

Now the ring's in the pawnshop, the rain's in the hole
Down at the Five Points I stand
I'll lose everything

Like Ron, Kim did not feel like somebody's puppet as she sang. Instead she felt like the music was unlocking something that had been sleeping inside her for a long time. As her voice found the words (or the words found her voice?), she realized that although she and Ron had both sung in public before (heck, she had even sung to Rufus), they had never sung a song together.

Can that be right?!

But the regret stirred by this fact was wiped away as Ron's voice joined hers on the verse's closing line.

But I won't let go of your hand

The effect of this impromptu duet upon Wade was predictable. As he frantically mopped up the spewed soda from his keyboard, he happened to notice some strange signals on his monitor. He had broken into Justine's plane's radar, and there were several small blips that suddenly appeared and were converging on the plane. As he tried to discern what they might be, he could hear Ron beginning the second verse.

Now, Peter denied and Judas betrayed
I'll pay with the roll of the drum
And the wind will tell the turn from the wheel
And the watchman's making his rounds

Now, with this verse a certain gravity and depth started to creep into Ron's normally upbeat tenor. The words reminded him of things he had done that weren't so cool. Things like championing Prince Wally against Kim for class president back in Sophomore Year. And then there were the things he had done that were really terrible (at least to him) … choosing a stupid video game over his best friend in sixth grade. As he sang the last two lines, he shifted his gaze from the cringing goons in the doorway and looked remorsefully down the passage that led to the cockpit.

Well, you leave me hanging by the skin of my teeth
I've only got one leg to stand
You can send me to hell
But I'll never let go of your hand

Kim's lyrics seemed to confirm Ron's anxieties of unworthiness, but not the way she sang them. Instead, the steady stream of tones poured from her with unmistakable forgiveness and a touch of bite that belied her natural Kimness. And there was nothing but reassuring determination in her voice as she sang the closing line solo.

Now, I must make my best of the only way home
Marley deals only in stones
I'm lost on the midway, I'm reckless in your eyes
Just give me a couple more throws

Embolden by his girlfriend's performance, Ron sang his round with confidence and bravado—he even went so far as to attempt, quite successfully too, some bondiggity new dance moves (sampled, to some extent, from practically every Peanuts' character in that scene from the "Charlie Brown Christmas Special"). His dancing only increased in bondiggity-ness (sp?) as Kim's warm, rich voice took over for the second half of the verse.

I'll dare you to dine with the cross-legged knights
Dare me to jump and I will
I might fall from grace

As powerful, moving, and (especially) inexplicable as this duet between his two friends was, Wade was only giving it about a third of his attention. He was much more concerned with the cluster of dozens of small radar blips that was now encircling their plane. He was just about to try and interrupt their performance when Kim and Ron sang the last two lines together (and, yes, Kim, for only the second time in her life, hit the high note).

But I'll never let go of your hand
I'll never let go of your hand

And as they were still singing the last notes, half a dozen spheres of ball lightning entered their plane.

This had three immediate effects: one, both Kim and Ron's hair frizzed out (although it didn't stop their song), two, Rufus woke up in Ron's pocket (and, yes, the dozen or so hairs scattered across his little pink frame also frizzed out), and three, the ten or so goons trembling in nervous befuddlement in the umbilical turned and ran back up the way they had come.

The ball lighting within the plane converged into one rather larger sphere right in front of Ron and, bowling ball-like, rolled up the umbilical after the retreating goons. As soon as the dimmed lights came back up to full strength and the last notes of the song had died off, Ron rushed to the open cabin door, shut it, and locked it securely. He watched through the porthole as the giant glowing orb chased the goons back into their plane. The second he saw their cabin door shut-all traces of Monstro's red internal glow extinguished, he yelled out to Kim, "We're clear, KP! Tell Wade to punch it!"

"You heard him, Wade," Kim smiled, completely oblivious the giant auburn fuzzball that her hair had become, "let's rock!"

Saving his initial question as to why Kim's green irises had returned (not to mention the multitude of other questions about what had just happened) for later, Wade activated the electric shield around Justine's plane. Immediately, a whitish glow encased the plane and the umbilical detached and dropped away. They were free.

Ron watched as the "bowling ball" sailed through the descending tube's walls, split into its original six spheres and joined the dozens of others that were now, apparently, harassing the large black jet. Indeed, the sight of the foo fighters (as Slothrop's generation would have called them) buzzing around Monstro was pretty badical. Yet, he needed to get back to Kim.

As Ron dropped into the co-pilot's seat, and their eyes met, the look Kim gave Ron filled his heart to the point that it almost hurt.

"Thanks," she smiled.

"For what, KP?"

"For saving us, Potential Mystical Monkey Boy," she said with conviction as she punched in the coordinates for Middleton, CO into the console and confidently maneuvered the plane away from the black jet.

"That wasn't me, KP." Ron said with a shrug.

"It so was, Ron," Kim said.

"Nuh-uh," Ron insisted.

"Ron," Kim said patiently as she got the feel for the plane's controls, "if that wasn't a funky mystical experience, I don't know what one is."

"Oh, I know that, KP," Ron said, "I just don't think it was my funky mystical experience."

Kim shot his rainbow-hued eyes a perplexed look.

"Hate to interrupt, guys," Wade said, "but I actually have some good news."

"Go, Wade," Kim said still pondering Ron's statement.

"I don't know how this happened," Wade explained, "but it appears that you guys now have more fuel than you did five minutes ago—a-and, OKAY, I CAN'T TAKE IT ANYMORE!"

Kim and Ron both stared at their exasperated friend's image on the Roncom.

"First it was Kim's eyes that were screwy," Wade ranted, "why do Ron's now look like a kaleidoscope?!"

Kim didn't know where to begin to explain a-and-"What do you mean my eyes were screwy, Wade?"

"Yeah, and what's up with your hair, KP?" Ron asked as he noticed his girlfriend's new do.

"Huh?" She hesitated and then shook her head and tried to focus back on the task at hand. "Guys, can we hold off on the freakiness for a bit, I am trying to fly a plane for the first time here."

Rufus, who had been listening intently to his humans' confusing conversation, decided it might be best to curl back up in Ron's pocket and sleep until their plane landed.

XVI.

"Mom!" Bonnie practically screamed; the index finger of her left hand jammed into her ear so she could hear her mother through the static on the cell phone in her right hand.

"Bon-Bon static my car hiss airport static thirty minutes static"

For all the extravagance of her mother's lifestyle (the shopping in Southern California, the two week-long vacations in the Pacific Rim each year, etc. etc.), there was a "cheapskate" slant to her personality that Bonnie found really quite befuddling. For instance, why did she insist on keeping her decades' old cell service with CheapSat Technologies? No one else in the family had service with them. Could the prices really be that good? And what did it matter-the coverage was horrible! And it had always been horrible. Especially at night when it was practically non-existent. And, of course, this was the time when her mother suddenly had an urgent message for Bonnie.

This mental diatribe against her mother's telecommunication peculiarities was suddenly halted when Bonnie distinctly caught her mother saying a word that she had not heard out loud in the last ten years … except in her dreams.

"Mom!" Bonnie screamed, this time no 'practically' about it, "What did you say? I didn't catch the last word!"

Only static and the feedback echo of her own voice answered her. Her mother's call was lost.

Did she really just say that?

Since she had last heard the word, Bonnie had convinced herself that it had been just another of her mother's lies of convenience-another half-repressed word from an unhappy childhood. The name for a place that had no name, a refuge meant to calm the crying of children in the night. But her mother had just spoken it. A single word snatched from a fading phrase of other words, it had rung with the same sense of urgency as the rest of her mother's conversation.

Bonnie flipped her cell closed, gathered her purse from her bed, and found the spare keys to her mother's car hanging from a hook next to the microwave in the kitchen. As she shut herself inside her mother's car and started it, she breathed the word aloud again for the first time in over a decade. And even though her voice was drowned out by the sound of the Trans Am's revving engine, the movements of her mouth and tongue as they formed the word brought back a flood of memories that made the hair on the back of Bonnie's head stand on end.

"Vheissu."


TBC ...

A/N: The seventh paragraph of Section III was heavily influenced by the Robinson Jeffers' poem "Diagram."

Section XI is an allusion (aka a verbatim rip-off) from a line on page 521 of Sir Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses.

"Freebird" written by Allen Collins and Ronnie Van Zant.

"I Wanna Be Sedated" written by Joey Ramone.

"Never Let Go" composed by the husband and wife songwriting team of Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan.

Chapter Text

"If you're good boys," DL beamed, "I'll sing you the story of my life." She came sauntering up to the mike in front of the reassembled Vomitones, having with kunoichi deftness removed an Uzi from its owner's sheath - "Hi, handsome, mind if I borrow this?" - to use as a prop, and, twirling it like a six-gun in a movie, taking time steps and shaking her hair around, sang, to the band's accompaniment,

Just a floo-zy with-an U-Uzi ...

Just a girlie, with-a-gun ...

When I could have been a mo-del,

And I should have been a nu-un ...

Vineland, page 104

I.

Kim was majorly, majorly tweaked. As the flight wore on and her confidence grew in her very first flying attempt, her degree of tweak-hood grew exponentially. She was upset about so many things: W.E.E.'s (she assumed) attempted hijacking of their plane, Dr. Drakken's escape from GJ's custody, Yori's kidnapping by the former, Shego's escape from GJ's custody, the complete and utter incompetence of the latter, her incompetence at letting both Dementor escape and Shego blindside her the previous evening, Middleton Hospital's inexplicable termination of her mother's position, Justine's apparent disappearance, and, on the very last burner but still simmering, the fact that she and Ron had forgotten to open the door for the Prophet Elijah.

Of course, if she had known , she would probably have also been pretty unhappy about resembling a dyed-red Q-tip.

Conversely, Ron was actually quite relieved, if not content, about the sitch—specifically because his BFGF was tweaked. For one thing, she was not tweaked at him which was always a good thing. Second, a tweaked Kim was a confident Kim, and he so much preferred seeing her like that than how she had looked for most the day (and most def preferred it to how she had looked the night before-unconscious in that hospital room).

"Wade," Kim said punching up the Roncom, which she had more or less subconsciously adopted as her own, "I need you to try Justine's home number. I'm worried."

"Ok."

After a tense half minute, Wade shook his head on the screen. "Sorry, Kim, no answer. Do you want me to contact GJ?"

"So not!" Kim spat tersely. "Contact the San Narcisco PD."

Wade hesitated and then nodded. "Will do, Kim. I'll let you know what they can find out." The screen went black.

Kim began chewing her bottom lip. If W.E.E. had waylaid Justine's pilot why wouldn't the evil organization have decided to kidnap her too? The more she thought about the sitch, the more uncomfortable it made her. There was no doubt in her mind that the hijacking had been related to their investigation into Slothrop. Was Dementor in league with W.E.E. … and Shego … and … and who knew who else? The Kimmunicator was probably being tapped, and they (whoever "they" encompassed) had probably known from the outset that she was coming out to the coast to talk about Slothrop with Justine. And now Justine was in trouble. W.E.E. probably had Justine's office wired. Had they talked about anything that could endanger others? She couldn't remember ...

Kim let out an exasperated sigh. As she did so, she saw Ron's rainbow-hued eyes flash slightly in her direction. She did not read this as a new wrinkle in the mystical strangeness that had taken possession of her boyfriend; she just saw it for what it was—he was giving her a funny look.

"What?" she asked impatiently.

"Nothing, KP," Ron said pleasantly with a smile.

"Ron, you just gave me a look," Kim said turning to face him, "what's up?"

Ron leaned over as if he was going to whisper something to her, and, at the last second, kissed her just above her ear. A little too loudly.

"Hey!" Kim said in irritated voice. "Not so loud." But she was smiling, too.

"Sorry." Ron continued in the same pleasant tone.

"What was that for?" Kim asked finally.

"Because you rock," Ron stated.

"Really?" Kim asked, her mood beginning to thaw.

"Uh-huh," Ron nodded. "But you should probably apologize to Wade," he affirmed in a serious voice.

"Huh?"

"You were way rude to him, KP," Ron nodded.

"Was I?" Kim hesitated. "No, I wasn't."

"Kim, you sounded like you were talking to Will Du."

Kim sighed. "Okay, maybe I am a little upset. I'm just worried about Justine."

"I know," Ron nodded. "That's why you rock."

The Roncom chirped. Kim reached for the device, took a deep preparatory breath, and answered it with a relaxed tone that sounded only slightly forced. "Talk to me, Wade."

"Kim, the San Narcisco police said they're on their way to Justine's apartment—"

"Cool—"

"Sgt. Brock said that she would send a car over."

"Great." Kim smiled.

"I also called the University's Public Safety department to see if maybe they could check out her office."

"Good thinking," Kim interjected.

"Sgt. Vond said that she'd have someone check it out."

"You rock, Wade," Kim smiled and then said, "Sorry for snapping your head off earlier."

"Don't worry about it, Kim, bad hair days can be rough."

"Huh?"

"Well—" Wade said quickly, "I believe you're coming up on the Middleton Airport, I'll contact the tower for you guys, bye!"

"Waitaminute—", Kim said as Wade's image vanished. She turned and found Ron with an extremely broad grin on his face.

"Remember your new do, KP?"

She vaguely recalled Ron mentioning something about her hair not too long after they escaped from the black jet. Gingerly, she reached for the compact mirror in her shorts' pocket, but stopped.

"Maybe I should land this thing first?" she asked tentatively.

"Probably a good idea," Ron nodded.

Rubbing his eyes, Rufus popped his head out of Ron's pocket, looked at Kim and nodded emphatically. "Uh-huh!"

Kim figured if the bald member of the team was willing to weigh-in on the matter, her hair must have been especially gorchtacular.

II.

Dr. Drakken had sat quietly in corner of the lab for nearly an hour. True, he had stewed and ranted (silently) about being bossed around by a teenager, but he had still followed that teenager's orders to the letter. Although it certainly wasn't going anywhere, he was keeping a (mostly) careful watch over his own brain-tapping machine.

What was it about teenagers? He had been bullied by them when he was one himself, and now it was still happening. Possible and (even) Stoppable had been giving him abuse and attitude for almost four years. Of course, they had never threatened his life, and their lippiness had never been pointedly demeaning. The foul-mouthed punk who now gave him his orders, however, was definitely in another class.

"Oh great!"

He had to go to the bathroom. And the nearest bathroom was out the door, through the first tunnel, and then fifty yards to the left of the next tunnel. Even a genius like himself couldn't come up with a way to empty his bladder in a room some hundred yards away and still keep and eye on the brain-tapper. If only he still had those cloning tubes. But wouldn't that mean that there would be two bladders to empty?

His cloning days had been heady days! Like now, he had been without Shego, but he had been running his own show then. True, his cloning scheme had not worked out exactly as planned, but he had enjoyed the confidence, the freedom, the wild abandon of letting his evil imagination run wild without any sarcastic sounding board to dampen his spirits. Ahhh, that great afternoon tooling around Middleton incognito … in that Mr. Potty truck.

Drakken crossed his legs. And then re-crossed them. And then started to hop in place. Not much, but a little.

"Grrrrrr! Are they NEVER coming back?"

He started hopping more in place. A lot. And Drakken reminded himself to try not to think about waterfalls or running faucets or ... or ... and realized that that wasn't working.

"Oh, forget this!" Drakken announced as he ran to the lab's doorway. But he stopped in his tracks as he recalled the gun being pointed at him only an hour earlier. Drakken had looked down the barrel of a variety of weapons (not to mention all ten of Shego's fingers) in his life, but nothing compared to looking down the sights of an ordinary gun. It had terrified him, the memory terrified him still, and, yet, it, at the same moment, made him want to go to the bathroom all the more. If only that punk and Monkey Fist would return-then he could finally get some relief!

The sudden swishing open of the door almost initiated a literal wave of relief to wash over Drakken. Fortunately, that did not happen.

"LIP-" Potty Mouth began. However, before he could begin the torrent of profanity-laced abuse against the blue-hued scientist for the arrogant idiocy of his cousin and his own careless idiocy of leaving the keys in his hovercraft which both allowed the prisoner to escape, Drakken had run past him (as well as Lord Fisk and Prof. Dementor) and out the door.

Drakken's departure was too astounding to be genuinely infuriating. In fact, Potty Mouth was so dumbfounded that he found himself using language he was unaccustomed to.

"Where the heck is he going?" he asked turning to Fisk.

The former British Lord and self-proclaimed genetically-altered affront to both science and evolution immediately recognized the signature hop in the mad scientist's retreating form. Dryly, he answered his hot-tempered employer, "To answer The Call of Nature."

III.

Bonnie was majorly tweaked, and her mood was quickly souring even further. She had been idling before the terminal entrance to the Middleton Airport for twenty minutes. If her mother didn't show up in the next couple of minutes, there was a definite possibility that she was going to become majorly, majorly tweaked.

Drumming her fingers against the cracking leather of the steering wheel, Bonnie realized that, in a way, being so tweaked was good. At least she wasn't frightened any more. The eerie anticipation that had been swarming in her stomach ever since hearing her mother say that wordhad gradually been overpowered and consumed by her growing anger at having to be seen in public in her mother's incredibly lame car. Of course, Bonnie could consoled herself that it was highly unlikely that anyone she knew (or cared to know) would also be at the airport on a Friday night.

She had been wrong.

Not two minutes after this consoling thought eased her mind, she was startled by a gentle rap on her window.

"Bonnie?" asked a concerned voice.

"Hope!" Bonnie practically yelled at her fellow squad member. She had completely forgotten that Hope had mentioned earlier that day in school that her family was leaving on a visit to India that weekend.

"A-are you okay, Bonnie?" the Tamil girl asked, moderately startled by Bonnie's extremely startled reaction. She then asked the important question, "What happened to your Mini?"

"It's FINE, just fine," Bonnie stammered, "I just, you know, wanted to ... to," she then shook he head in dismay. "Okay, I can't come up with anything ... so I'll just tell you the truth."

"Oh, all right," Hope replied, not quite sure how to respond.

"I'm here to pick up my mom," Bonnie said looking nervously over the other girl's shoulder. The fact was Hope and she were on pretty good (if slightly indifferent) terms, and Bonnie knew that she could keep a secret and wasn't catty like ... well, like herself. No, the problem with Hope wasn't Hope, it was with Bobby, her hottie older brother-the older brother that Bonnie secretly had a crush on (well, not so secret-everyone seemed to know about it ... well, everybody except Bobby). "And she insisted I bring her car, but please, please, please make sure your brother doesn't see me in this piece of-"

"Whoah!" exclaimed Bobby, who suddenly appeared at his sister's elbow. "I think I saw this car on TV Trash Heap the other night!" He smiled good-naturedly at Bonnie. Then he grew serious and asked the important question, "Does it talk?"

Bonnie buried her burning face in both hands and mumbled absently, "It used to."

Fortunately, Bonnie was spared any further tortuous small talk when Hope and Bobby's father called them over to help cart luggage out of their mini-van.

Bonnie could still feel the embarrassment-enhanced pulse beating in her temples as she exchanged farewells with her crush and his sister. Once she was alone again, she banged her head against the steering wheel.

"Mom!" Bonnie spat with virulence. Could this get any worse?

When she raised her head from the steering wheel and looked toward the terminal for any sign of her mother, Bonnie immediately brought it back down so quickly that it actually hurt as it smacked against the cracking leather. Standing not fifteen feet from her mother's Trans Am was the second-to-last person she wanted to see: Ron Stoppable. Which meant, of course, that the very last person she wanted to see was definitely nearby.

IV.

Ron offered to buy Kim a hat in the airport gift shop. She declined his offer for two reasons: one, she would rather he save his money and take her out to Chez Couteaux once this entire sitch was over and two, there wasn't a hat big enough. Besides, Kim sincerely doubted she would even need the hat. Really, what were the chances she'd bump into someone from school at the airport on a Friday night?

Her first landing had been so the drama ... at least, her first aborted approach had been so the drama. However, things had gone extremely smooth on their second and final approach. In fact, things had been so stress-free that Ron had actually slept through it. Then again, he had slept through most of the first one, too.

Her first landing attempt had included something of the edginess she had felt when she first spring-boarded to the top of the cheering pyramid. She had been on the Middleton Middle Mongoose junior varsity squad back in seventh grade. Of course, if she had messed up then, she probably would have only ended up with a sprained ankle and some wounded pride. Besides, her anxiety at the time had more to do with the fact that she was the only member of the squad with fuzzy knees (MrsDrP strictly forbid Kim from shaving her legs until she was thirteen) and the belief that somehow everyone in the stands would somehow know this fact and laugh at her regardless of whether she completed the routine or not. Needless to say, this had not happened, and her performance had completely floored the crowd-just as Ron told her it would.

This memory had been playing over in Kim's mind as she followed Wade's landing instructions on the first go around. Just as her concern over her fuzzy legs had provided the mental distraction she needed to complete that difficult routine in front of a full auditorium that first time, the memory of the importance of that long ago distraction (as well as Ron's confidence in her at the time) was, ironically, giving her the focus she needed to complete the complex task of landing an experimental state-of-the-art aircraft. At about the time Kim was beginning to think that maybe she was thinking a little too much ... the cockpit erupted in sirens and flashing lights.

Ron shifted in the co-pilot's chair and mumbled in a sleepy voice, "Kim, could you walk Mariko to the bus today?"

Kim and Wade exchanged quizzical looks. Then Kim got back in the game. "Wade, talk to me; what's going on?"

"Unidentified aircraft at seven o'clock!" Wade spoke quickly. "PULL UP!" he yelled.

Kim took evasive action and, almost immediately, the sirens and the flashing lights ceased.

"That was too close," Wade said shaking his head at one of his monitors.

"Where did it come from?" Kim said, her heartbeat slowly ebbing back to normal.

"No idea," Wade said. "We're lucky Justine's on-board system picked it up when it did. I'm plugged directly into the Middleton tower, and it's showing nothing."

"Can Justine's system track it?" Kim asked.

Wade checked the monitor that was linked with Justine's systems. "Very odd," he said after a moment.

"Wade," Kim said in an annoyed voice, "I am so tired of odd."

"Well, either it landed or vanished into thin air," Wade grumbled. "Whatever it was." He shrugged. It was obvious to Kim that Wade was as irritated as she was with the mysteries that seemed to be piling up faster than they could count them.

Kim's second approach was uneventful and her first landing was as smooth as glass. When they finally taxied to a stop, she shook Ron by his shoulder. "C'mon, Ron," she smiled, "Mariko's gonna miss her bus."

"Who?" Ron asked, making a face and blinking open his kaleidoscopic eyes.

She briefly explained his somnolent announcement from moments earlier.

He favored her with a shrug and a goofy grin. "Don't know, KP. Guess I was dreaming about one of our kids."

Her cheeks reddened slightly, and then she kissed his forehead as she replaced his shades. "Cute. Very cute, mister."

As they were making their way out of the plane, Kim felt the top of her hair brush against the top of the cabin's door. Instantly she took the compact from her shorts' pocket to examine the damage. "Oh, no."

"It's not that big a deal, KP." Ron said lamely.

"What did you say, Ron?" Kim erupted. "Not a ... BIG deal? It is nothing but BIG! My hair wasn't even this bad when Dementor had Bonnie and me strapped to the kinetic modulator last year!" For the briefest moment, the notion of Bonnie seeing her like she was flashed through Kim's mind. She shuddered, and shook the terrible thought from her as they entered the terminal. Fortunately, it was mostly deserted.

Kim nonchalantly eyed the handful of passengers and pilots that were making their way from the gates. Were any of them coming from the mysterious aircraft that had almost collided with Justine's plane? Fortunately, none of these strangers suspected they were under observation because they were too busy gawking at Kim's hair and listening to the crackle of static electricity every time her feet made contact with the carpeted floor.

In an irony that was certainly not lost on the two teens, Wade was having difficulty finding them a ride to Kim's house.

"If we needed to get to Greenland, Wade would have something set up five minutes before we even asked," Ron groused, "but when we just need a ride across town we get nada!"

"Maybe we should just call a cab," Kim said, trying in vain to push her hair flat. Finally, they reached the tiled floor of the airport's main causeway. Although her hair remained as poofy as ever, Kim no longer felt like she was going to start shooting sparks from her eyelashes.

"Ooooh, no," Ron breathed as they exited the main entrance.

"What?" Kim asked, not looking up from the Roncom as she located the number for the Middleton Yellow Cab service.

"Maybe you should go back and get that hat anyway," Ron said nervously as he turned and tried to foist a handful of bills and coupons into her left hand.

"Ron!" Kim had located the number but Ron's sudden movement had caused her to flip the device off before she could call. As she looked up in exasperation, Kim caught sight of Bonnie Rockwaller sitting in a car not fifteen feet to their right. "I'll get the blue one," Kim nodded quickly, "the blue hat was nice, nice and big."

As she turned to go back inside the terminal, Rob suddenly grabbed her elbow.

"Wait, KP."

"What is it, Ron?" From his tone, she instinctively knew that something was up, something far more serious than Bonnie seeing her bad hair.

"I-I don't know," Ron said, nervously. "I feel … weird. I'll explain later."

She so wished he wasn't wearing those glasses. She had become very accustomed to his new eyes and felt she could read what he was thinking, what he was feeling, if she could only see them. Regardless, there was no way she wasn't going to follow his lead on whatever this new sitch was.

"What should we do?" she asked.

"Get out of here," Ron said firmly, "like now."

"You mean, get a ride with Bonnie?" Kim asked with some hesitation.

"Yup, yup," Ron said in a voice that managed to be both Ronnish and deadly serious.

"Okay." Kim nodded. "Let's go."

As they got within ten feet of Bonnie's car, something inexplicable happened. Bonnie vanished. One second she had been in the driver's seat and the next ... she was gone. Kim wasn't sure if Ron's anxiety/weirdar/whathaveyou was contagious or just coming very much true, but, for the fraction of a second, she was genuinely frightened. First Justine, now Bonnie! Is the entire world going crazy?!

"What's up, Bon-bon?" Ron asked the empty seat good-naturedly. Strangely, it seemed as if all the tension had drained out of him despite, or maybe because of, Bonnie's disappearance.

Bonnie inched back up into the seat, but refused to look at them. She sighed, "Hello, Stoppable. Kim."

"Oh, hi, Bonnie," Kim said, extremely relieved that her fears had been misplaced and that Bonnie had merely been slumped in her seat. "Could you give us a ride back to my house?"

"Uh," Bonnie hesitated. She looked the pair over with distrusting/confused eyes. "I'm waiting to pick up my mom, but, yeah, I guess I could."

"Thanks," Kim smiled, "we owe you a favor."

Bonnie grunted, still eyeing Kim as if she didn't quite trust her or her boyfriend for some reason.

"When does your mom's flight arrive?" Kim asked, as she and Ron walked to the passenger side. She was relieved but also highly suspicious of why Bonnie had not yet snarked upon her hair.

"I don't know," Bonnie grumbled. "Why? Are you in a hurry?" she asked unpleasantly.

As Kim went to open the door, Ron commented appreciatively, "Hey, Bonnie! Like the wheels! Didn't I see this on TV Trash Heap?"

"YES!" Bonnie screamed. "It's my mother's car, okay! Could you two keep your snide comments to yourselves?!"

Kim had only just registered that they weren't getting in Bonnie's sleek little Mini when her fellow cheerleader exploded in rage at her boyfriend.

As was his nature, Ron took the sudden tirade in stride. "No, no, I really like it, Bon-bon," he smiled completely serious and genuine, "I just wanted to know if it can talk ..."

"Not anymore," Bonnie's mother answered pleasantly from the back seat.

As a careless afterthought or perhaps a clumsy justification for Mrs. Rockwaller's sudden impossible appearance, the driver's side door (which was the only conceivable way that she could have entered the vehicle since the passenger side was blocked by Kim and Ron) opened by itself and then quickly shut.

V.

Dr. Kramer, nephew of Franz Pokler and inheritor of his love for rocket propulsion, pulled his sedan into the darkened driveway that led to his modest home on the north side of Upperton. After leaving the Space Center around six, he had joined Steve Barkin for a meal at Chez Couteaux. The two had met online at a Jayne Austin chat board some months back and formed a fast friendship based on their mutual appreciation of the novelist's work. Dr. Kramer had, at one point, suggested starting a book club that might meet every third weekend to discuss the books with other Austin-philes in the Middleton area. Barkin had been reticent to move on the idea, however, because, unlike meeting one on one in restaurant to discuss the Miss Austin's works with another man, founding a book club seemed, well, "fruity."

Dr. Kramer's wife was visiting relatives in Vienna (the one in Georgia) all week, so he had the house all to himself for the weekend.

The strangely darkened house.

The Kramers' house lights were triggered by remotes that the couple kept in the glove boxes of their cars. For some reason, Dr. Kramer's didn't appear to be working this night. He pressed the button a few times-nothing. He considered the possibility that the power was out. The particular suburb where he lived was spread out and mostly rural; in fact, the realtor had tried to convince Dr. Kramer that "the woodsy, hill and dale affair" might remind "Herr Doctor" of his "Bavarian childhood." Dr. Kramer politely informed the realtor that he had spent most of his childhood in the States.

Dr. Kramer had decided to buy the house anyway.

In any case, the important aspect of the neighborhood on this night was that his nearest neighbor was a good five hundred yards back down a winding road. So far back down the road that he couldn't tell if their house lights were on from his driveway, and he couldn't recall having seen them on the ride up. As further evidence for the blackout theory, Dr. Kramer realized that the light for his doorbell was not lit.

And then it was.

As he tried to figure out if his eyes were playing tricks on him, the lights edging the drive and in the house came on. Hesitantly, he shut off the car's engine and opened his door. For whatever reason, he believed he would have felt more at ease if the power had remained off. He shook this discomfort form him and casually walked up the drive to his front door. Quite suddenly, he heard a rustling in the trees that lined his walk. Turning quickly, he caught sight of a large owl alighting onto a branch some five yards away.

Owls weren't uncommon in the neighborhood. Several nights coming home late from the Space Center, Dr. Kramer had seen them flying in the path of his headlights as he neared his house. Yet, this owl seemed different. A little larger perhaps. And the bird was staring at him. Dr. Kramer returned the stare for about half a minute. Finally, he shook his head and continued up his walk. When he did, the owl immediately took flight and landed in the branches of the small cherry tree to the side of the Kramers' front door. Although the weight of the bird caused the tree to sway somewhat violently, the owl seemed completely composed and at ease even as it rocked back and forth. More importantly, it kept its eyes fixed with Dr. Kramer's.

Tentatively, Dr. Kramer made his way up to his door. He was keeping to the side of the walk away from the bird. He wasn't scared exactly, but he also didn't know what the owl had planned, what it might do. Part of him wanted to go back to the car and wait for the owl to leave, but he was tired and wanted to get inside.

As he fished in his pocket for his house keys, the owl let go of the branch and fluttered down to the Kramers' welcome matt. There was no questioning the fact now: the bird was looking straight at him.

They stared at each other for a good minute or two. Then Dr. Kramer experienced something that he couldn't quite define-a sensation that fell within the fuzzy middle ground between a thought and a physical pain. Whatever its source or nature, the message behind the feeling was unmistakable: "Beat it, Jackson."

Kramer gave the owl a confused, yet clear-eyed, nod and then jogged back to his car. He started it and backed out his driveway quickly. It wasn't too hurried a retreat, but his tires did squeal and he turned onto his street and went back the way he had come.

As his taillights disappeared around the bend, all the lights in and around the home (including the doorbell's) went out. A few minutes later the front door opened. The owl looked up at the dark figure that exited the house. As it had done with Dr. Kramer, the owl did not break eye contact with the person hidden in the shadows.

That is until it took flight to avoid the green blasts of plasma that were suddenly being hurled its way.

VI.

"Mother!" Bonnie yelled, turning around in her seat so quickly that she nearly strangled herself in the shoulder strap of the seat-belt.

"Yes, sweetheart," her mother asked pleasantly. Her face wore an expression as bland and inscrutable as a head of cabbage.

"WHERE did you come from?" Bonnie sputtered.

"From California, Sugar Drop, don't you remember?" Mrs. Rockwaller then went on to explain in a voice that suggested that she was perhaps doubting her own words, "We spoke on the phone just a half hour ago about it, and I left you note on the front door. Did you get the note?"

"Yes, yes, yes," Bonnie said shaking her head angrily, "but I meant how did you get in the car?"

"Why, through the door?" she said, gesturing. "Are you feeling okay, Bon-bon?"

Kim was quite relieved to hear the peeved anxiousness in Bonnie's voice. It underscored that something strange was indeed going on and that she wasn't just going crazy. However, Bonnie's aggravation also made her nervous because ... well ... what exactly WAS going on? She looked to Ron to gauge his reaction to Mrs. Rockwaller's sudden appearance, but he was already wriggling his way into the back seat. Once he buckled himself in, he looked back at her questioning glance. However, his expression was almost as unreadable as Mrs. Rockwaller's. Those shades didn't help. Finally, Kim sat in the front passenger seat and shut the door.

Bonnie, in the meantime, had continued to stare at her mother, perhaps hoping to make her break. It wasn't working. "Fine!" Bonnie cried to her mother's imperturbable face. She twisted back around, revved the car's engine, and with a terse "Whatever!" shifted into gear just as Kim locked her belt into place.

As they sped away from the terminal, Bonnie's mother said, quite loudly, "Kimberley, I, uh, well, I think what you've done with your hair is very, uh, interesting, but I don't believe it is the most flattering style for your figure."

Kim immediately reddened. She didn't even need to look to know that the full glare of Bonnie's eyes were upon her and that the brunette was finally registering the hideousness branching out in all directions from her head. She had known the other girl for almost seven years and could read the tale-tell silence right before a vicious Rockwaller barb was hurled.

So she was all the more surprised when it came.

"Yeah, Kim, what's up with that?" Bonnie asked absently.

"Believe me, dear," Mrs. Rockwaller continued to Kim, "you want your hair to draw attention to you, to your best features, and that style only draws attention to itself, I have a friend who works at the salon at Upperton Mall-"

"Mom," Bonnie groused, "just leave her alone."

Okay, Kim thought, being defended by Bonnie is, all things considered, still one of the stranger things that has happened today.

Kim turned to face Bonnie's mother, who was, of course, still talking. The older woman was almost invisible in the shadows of the back seat. The only things Kim could clearly make out were the faded white glow of her teeth and the sparkle of her rhinestone-studded glasses. How old was Bonnie's mother anyway? Kim knew that Bonnie was the baby of her family and had two sisters already almost out of college. Kim had assumed, on the one time she had thought about it-the school ski trip sophomore year, that Bonnie's mom was five years or so older than her parents. However, at this moment, Kim felt that original estimation wasn't quite right. On the one hand, Mrs. Rockwaller seemed much older, at least a few decades older than her parents. And then also, for some reason Kim couldn't pin down, she also seemed to be much younger, to be, in fact, not much older than Shego.

"Not trying to be cruel or anything, dear," Mrs. Rockwaller continued talking at Kim, "as my old friend Lobelia used to say, 'I'm just trying to help.' She always had the best eye for details, but I find that most cross dressers know what makes a woman look her best, don't you? Anywho, if you don't mind my asking, why did you decide to go with this particular look?"

"Well," Kim began tentatively since she had not been listening to everything Bonnie's mother had been saying, "it really wasn't planned exactly, Mrs. Rockwaller."

"Dearheart, Dearheart, Dearheart," the older woman interrupted, "please call me DL. 'Mrs. Rockwaller' is Bon-bon's grandmother. Call me DL!"

"Okay," Kim said, feeling the intense bad vibes flowing from the driver seat to all points in the known universe, "DL. It was sort of an accident ... uh, turbulence during our flight." Kim didn't want to lie to Bonnie's mother, but, at the same time, she wanted to be guarded in her answers. There was no reason to involve Bonnie or her mom in this sitch. But then again, was the very fact that they were giving Ron and herself a ride involving them? At least enough in the eyes of whoeveritwas Ron felt had been watching them at the airport?

"An accident," DL breathed, "Really? Did your plane get struck by lightening, get attacked by aliens, have an in-flight hijacking?"

Ron, who had up to this point maintained a silent (Ron silent? That was so unlike him.) and stoney demeanor, involuntarily turned his head toward Bonnie's mom as the words "in-flight hijacking" left her lips. His reaction did not go unnoticed.

"THAT's what I thought it was," DL announced cheerfully, slapping Ron on the knee. "You kids weren't flying Kahuna Airlines, by any chance? No, I guess not, they haven't been in business for decades, maybe another flight-by-night-excuse the pun-airline?"

"Uh," Kim stammered, completely confused, floored, and alarmed by Mrs. Rockwaller's prescience of their in-flight adventure as well as by her befuddling trains of thought, "no, we flew on a private jet."

"Really?" DL said thoughtfully and then she paused. Briefly. "You know I have never heard of them ever taking a private jet before, usually it's just on the small airliners. The fly-by-night jobs-again, excuse the pun-who don't pay up the protection money every year. I mean, it happens fairly regularly with them, of course."

"Mother," Bonnie interrupted incredulously, "WHAT are you talking about?"

"Sugar Drop," her mom said with a floor-to-ceiling eye roll, "I'm talking about what we've been talking about-what happened to Ronald and Kimberly. One of the Black Fleet tried to kidnap them and whoosh them away to wherever it is that they take people when they whoosh them. You know, I can't get over them coming after a private jet, I mean, it goes against their entire m.o. Do you kids have any enemies?"

"You could say that," Kim managed to say once the clouds of confusion had parted enough for her to realize that Bonnie's mother was asking her a question and to register what that question actually was. Kim's head was reeling. This woman whom she had only met once, no, twice, in her life and had barely ever given a thought to was uttering the most unbelievable things in the most casual and, at the same time, most sure-handed tone.

"Mother, could you please mind your own business," Bonnie said glaring into the rearview mirror. "It is so obvious you don't know what you're talking about! I mean, The Black Fleet! You are so making that up!"

"I am sorry, Bon-bon," her mother said condescendingly as she pat her daughter on the head (Bonnie's knuckles on the steering wheel went white at this gesture), "but mother does know what she is talking about. An old friend of mine had the very same thing happen to him, and it was on Kahuna Airlines."

"Why have I never heard about this then?" Bonnie snapped. "And who is this friend anyway?"

"Oh, it was Foomi, Angel Cake," her mother replied carelessly. "You remember, Foomi, don't you?"

"Yes." Bonnie said quietly.

For the last few minutes Kim had felt like Ron and she had been intruding on a private conversation which was kinda odd since the conversation had been more or less about them. The dejected tone in Bonnie's voice when her mother brought up her old friend gave more than enough credence to that feeling. Like she had when first meeting Connie and Lonnie, Kim found herself feeling very sorry for Bonnie. Her one-word answer had been so weary-sounding that if they had been alone, Kim would have felt compelled to give her rival a hug.

"Sure enough, a Big Black Jet swoops in line with them, and suddenly there are six or so armed scuba-gear wearing goons leafing through the passengers," Mrs. Rockwaller rattled on. "And, yep, they were coming for him! As well as a few others. Would have gotten him too, but the piano player on the flight chased them away by playing high B flats over and over again, did you kids do the same sort of thing? "

Kim was completely knocked off balance. She had been focusing on Bonnie's slumping shoulders and gradually alarming inattention to the road when her mother's last statement reached her ears. "Y-yes," she said dumbfounded, turning to face Bonnie's mother, "Ron started playing his harmonica and th-that helped chase them away." She shot an astounded look to her boyfriend. Although she couldn't see his eyes, his body language (he was nervously spinning the very harmonica over and over in the palm of his hand) suggested he was just as shocked as she was.

When she turned back to face Bonnie, Kim found her rival giving her one of the strangest faces she could remember seeing.

It was equal parts disgust and shock. The disgust was for Kim "siding" with her mother by validating her outrageous story and the shock was because that validation meant that everything her mother had been saying (all those ludicrous things) was true-that it was all real!

"That's must have been before I met him, then," Mrs. Rockwaller continued to prattle, "that's right, it was on a flight to America, I remember now. And, besides, we didn't meet until the summer I was kidnapped, taken to Japan, and sold into white slavery."

"WHAT!?" screamed both girls in unison.

"Well, yes, dears," DL explained, "of course, I was actually rented more than sold, I guess you would say. Lobelia was one of my co-auctionettes and-I did mention that she was actually a boy, didn't I? Anyway, what she said at the time was that I didn't know the word picky until I went through one of those things, and, boy, was she ever right!" Here, DL gave a light, warm chuckle. "Anyway, that's how I ended up meeting Foomi and giving him the Vibrating Palm."

"SHUT up! Shut UP! SHUT UP!" Bonnie screamed, pumping the breaks to accentuate each word as the car came to a jolting stop at a red traffic signal. She put the car in park, jacked up the emergency break, and spun around in her seat to face her mother, fire shooting from her flashing eyes and fingernails. "Do you even hear what you are saying!? How can you say things like this in front of my friends! How can you talk about this as if it's normal! You act as if being someone's sex slave was like being in the pixie scouts!"

"I was NEVER anyone's sex slave, sweetie," DL stated calmly if firmly. "It was, well, complicated."

"And that you gave Foomi something called the Vibrating Palm?" Bonnie spat, not listening. She looked like she was going to cry. "Y-you're disgusting!"

"It's not what you think, dear," her mother said in a reassuring voice. She placed her hand gently on her daughter's shoulder. It was rudely brushed away.

The blowing of a car horn behind them made Kim and Ron jump in their seats. The light had turned green, and their car was blocking traffic.

Bonnie vigorously, violently, rolled down her window and screamed at the driver behind them-"Go around, idiot! Mind your own business!"

"It's not what you think, dear," her mother repeated when Bonnie brought her head back into the car.

"Yeah, right!" Bonnie yelled.

"Sugar Drop," DL said in a voice that managed to be both soothing and dangerous, "trust me, it is not what you believe it is. I assure you, it is much, much worse."

The Roncom chirped.

Bonnie slowly turned back in her seat, took off the break, put the car back in gear, and, despite the fact that the light had turned back to red, drove through the empty intersection.

Ron handed the device to Kim from the backseat. "Kim, Wade wants to speak to you."

"Oh, okay," Kim said distractedly, taking the device. "T-talk to me, Wade."

"Are you okay, Kim?" Wade asked.

"Yeah, fine. What's up?"

"Well, there's no sign of Justine at either the university or her apartment, but the police say that they need to wait at least twenty-four hours before they can file a missing person's report. So should I go ahead and contact GJ?"

"Justine?" Bonnie asked with something akin to relief (relief at having the focus of the universe shift from her mother, if only momentarily) coming into her voice. "Justine Flanner?"

"Yes, Bonnie," Kim said, "Ron and I had to go speak to her; it was her plane that was almost hijacked."

"Kim?" Wade asked. "What should I do? Should I give GJ a call or should we wait the 24?"

"I-I'll call Pointsman, Wade. Thanks."

"Okay, if you say so, Kim. I'm sorry." The screen went black.

Kim sighed deeply. But before the sigh could completely leave her body, she felt a warm, reassuring touch on her shoulder. She turned, fully expecting Ron's hand, but it was Bonnie's mother-DL's hand. Kim, for the first time that night, gave Bonnie's mother a good, long look. She noticed a few blonde roots showing amid DL's mouse-brown poodle-esque hairdo. Kim looked into the older woman's eyes that were shining back at her through the darkened shadows of the car. Although the skin around them was wrinkled, the eyes themselves were effervescent. They counter-pointed, to an almost comical degree, the rhinestones that encircled them; yet their effect upon Kim was strangely soothing. "Your friend will be okay, dear." DL said as she patted her shoulder. "Trust me."

Suddenly, the car came to a lurching stop. They were at Kim's house.

Kim forcibly pulled her eyes away from DL's. Bonnie was fuming behind the driver's seat but was saying nothing. Kim heard herself say "Thanks for the ride." and then she mechanically opened the door and stepped out. The semi-daze she was in was broken by the welcoming feel of Ron's arm about her shoulder. It felt like she had been separated from him for a long, long time even though they had been riding in the same car together and had been separated (if that was the word) by maybe five feet and for no longer than ten minutes.

As they walked around the car to the Possible driveway, Kim turned to give Bonnie an earnest look of consolation. She knew what it was like to be embarrassed by one's parents. And even though her most excruciating moments of parental public embarrassment (the sky trip Sophomore year) had been orchestrated by Bonnie, the ordeal DL had just put Bonnie through was of such epic proportions that there was no way anyone could not feel sorry for the cheerleader.

"You know, dear," DL said at Kim's elbow, "you should really take my card." Kim's first impression upon seeing the woman explicably at her elbow was not the mystery of how she had gotten there (there had been no convenient car door slamming this time); rather, Kim was surprised at how short the woman was. DL was digging through her purse with purpose.

"Mrs. Rockwaller," Kim began.

"DL, DL," the older woman reminded her.

"DL, sorry," Kim said, "you really don't need to bother, I don't plan on keeping this, uh, style..."

"Oh, no, dear," DL shook her head at her purse, "it's not for your hair. The card's for something more ... more relevant."

Kim turned to Ron but he was no longer walking beside her. This was very strange because she hadn't notice the absence of his arm on her shoulder-in fact, it kinda felt like it was still there.

Ron was talking to Bonnie through the driver side window. Kim could hear Bonnie's anguished pleas quite clearly.

"Ron! You guys can't leave me with her! She's gone stark raving mad! Let's all go to the movies or Buena Nacho or whatever!"

Kim didn't catch her boyfriend's response because DL was talking to her again. "Here, dear" she said flashing a small iridescent business card in her hand. Kim looked at the strange object. It didn't feel like it was laminated or made of plastic, and it certainly wasn't paper. It looked almost like those "hologram" soccer cards her brothers used to get from cereal boxes. It changed colors and its design pattern when she flipped it over in her hand. However, these changes were not because of any discernible cues from the street lamp or the moon's light.

The card read: Takeshi Fumimota, ADJUSTMENTS.

As she read the card and the last name played along her tongue, she looked up at DL. "Fumimota? Foomi?"

DL didn't reply to her question. Instead, she explained, "I know there isn't a phone number right now, but it will be there when you need it to be."

"Huh? I-I don't understand, DL."

"You will, dear, you will. Anyway, you kids have a good night; Bon-bon and I have gotta run-tah!" And she was gone.

The Trans Am's engine revved, a little reluctantly Kim thought, and Bonnie and her mother disappeared into the night.

Ron jogged back up to Kim's side and placed his arm around her shoulder again (although the warmth didn't feel as if it had ever left). As he did so, he made an appreciative whistle. "Man! Poor, Bon-bon!"

"No kidding!"

"Yeah, I guess I would be pretty freaked too if I learned right out of the blue that my mom was a ninja."

"What!? NO WAY!" Kim cried. "DL is a ninja?"

"So way, KP." Ron said with certainty. "Even if she hadn't come outta that Vanishing Stance in the back seat," he nodded, "she was giving off kunoichi vibes the entire time!"

"Whoah, waitaminute!" Kim said placing her hands to her face. When was this crazy day going to end? "Vanishing Stance? I-is that how she suddenly appeared out of nowhere?"

"Uh-huh."

"A-and what are kun-kunoichi-"

"Ninja chicks," Ron explained, "I get those vibes whenever I'm around Yori, and they were bouncing all around the inside of that car-I mean grande sized vibes, the entire ride. Right, Rufus?"

Rufus poked his bald head out of Ron's pocket and nodded with assurance. "You betcha!"

Although the idea of Ron getting any kind of vibes from Yori instantly sent Kim into jelling mode, she was able to push these irrational feelings to the back-burner without much effort. Her immediate question of why Ron hadn't picked up any of these ninjette vibes Sophomore year on the ski trip DL had co-chaperoned with Kim's parents was easily answered by the fact that Ron hadn't yet been to Yamnouchi at that time.

"Wow, the Vibrating Palm!" Ron said in awe.

"Yeah, what is that exactly, Ron?"

"KP, it's like one of the top ninja moves," Ron explained with the same admiration he expressed for the Bricks of Fury series (well, not the musical), "I mean it is right up there with the Enraged Sparrow, the Hidden Foot, a-and the Nosepicking of Death!"

"The Nosepicking of Death," she asked, eyebrow fully arched.

"Mock all you want, Kim," Ron said defensively, "but these are moves that only the top ninjas know. And if Bonnie's mom could give some guy the Vibrating Palm then she must be one of the best of the best!"

"Okay, amp down, ninja boy," Kim said raising her hands, "I believe you, but what exactly does the Vibrating Palm do to somebody?"

"Well," he said rubbing the back of his neck nervously, "I-I don't know. I'm not a top ninja yet."

She gave his shoulder a consoling pat. "But you are sure that DL is one, right? Hmm. How did Bonnie find out? It didn't sound like she thought the Vibrating Palm was a ninja move."

"Oh, she didn't," Ron said casually, "I told her."

"You did?"

"Yeah," Ron explained calmly, "she thought her mother was going crazy." He shrugged, "I thought it would make her feel better to know her mother was a top-flight ninja and not just some nut-job."

"Did she take the news well?" Kim asked with apprehension.

"Yeah, I guess so." Ron said, his attention obviously wandering. He grew suddenly tense as they reached Kim's front door.

"What is it, Ron?"

"I'm getting those ninja chick vibes again, KP."

"Yori?"

"M-maybe, "Ron stammered, "why do you think it's her, KP?"

"Well," Kim said pointing off to the left, "isn't that one of Drakken's hovercars in my parents' front yard?"

Ron looked and, sure enough, there one was, parked in the grass. Thoughtfully, it had been landed so as not to crush Mrs. Possible's flower beds.

"Wade said that Yori called him from one after she escaped, didn't he?" she continued.

"Uh, yeah, I guess," Ron asked semi (as opposed to non) plussed.

You may not be a top ninja yet, Ron, Kim thought, but you still look awfully cute right now. She stood on her tiptoes to plant a smooch upon her befuddled boyfriend's cheek.

However, they were interrupted by a terrible, hideous sound coming from inside the Possible home.

VII.

Kim and Ron entered the house in full mission mode. Despite Ron's kunoichi vibes and Yori's acquisition of one of Drakken's hovercars, there was always the chance, however slim, that Dr. Drakken himself was also inside-that hideous racket could have been indicative of any of a half dozen of his monstrous doomsday devices.

The notion that they were perhaps walking straight into a trap flashed across Kim's mind, but if her family and possibly Yori were in danger that was a risk they were prepared to take.

However, what they discovered could NOT have been prepared for; in fact, the scene defied and surpassed any expectations they might have had ... even in their wildest dreams.

The hideous noise turned out to be "music" blaring at top volume from James Possible's state of the art sound system. Something about the song seemed vaguely familiar to Kim, but it was almost unrecognizable (and certainly unlisten-able) in the current version. Whoever the woman was who was singing, she could NOT sing. And the band seemed to be purposely distorting the original melody just to make noise.

But it was what they saw that totally stopped Team Possible in their tracks.

Jumping from couch cushion to couch cushion, shouting along with the song at the tops of their voices, were Yori and Kim's mother!Only upon a second look did Kim realize that Yori had what looked like a cast on her left hand.

"People try to put us down!" Anne Possible cried. She was almost as off-key as the singer was.

"Talkin' 'bout my generation!" Yori growled along with the background "singers."

"Just because we g-g-g-get around!" Anne yelled as she leaped from the couch and landed in the center of the room, both arms raised above her head.

Then both women faced each and delivered the next line in unison, devilish glee in their eyes and voices: "Well, I don't need their expletive deletedexpletive deleted!"

"MOTHER!" Kim yelled in disbelief. She had never heard either of her parents use such language before-it was unthinkable that her mother would say such wordslet alone sing/yell them ... and with someone she barely knew, no less!

Although Kim got their attention, her angry, shocked tone was completely lost on Yori and Anne. Both women were overjoyed to see the two teens.

"Kimmie!" Anne cried her arms outstretched to her daughter.

"Possible-san! Stoppable-san!" Yori yelled, her eyes sparkling.

As Kim's mother swallowed her daughter in a welcoming embrace, Yori hopped from one end of the couch to the other, leapt to the floor right in front of the stereo and turned down its volume to a tolerable level. She then hurried back and gave Kim a hug just as Anne was giving Ron one.

"Load-san called to tell us you two had escaped unscathed." Yori explained. "I knew he would do you honor, " she beamed.

"Oh, I was so worried about you two!" Anne smiled. "When Wade gave us the good news, we just had to blow off some steam."

"Oh, okay," Kim said, trying to get her bearings for what seemed the dozenth time in a very, very long day, "that's cool, I guess. But what in the word are you listening to?"

"Why Patti Smith, Possible-san," Yori said, confusion and even a little hurt in her voice. She looked at Anne with concern.

"Don't worry, Yori," Anne said dismissively, "Kimmie's not really into punk rock."

"That's putting in mildly," Kim said with a roll of her eyes. She had heard of Patti Smith and even listened to one or two of her songs (although not this one). Josh has really liked her and tried to get Kim into her as well. That was just one of the early signs that she and Josh were so not meant to be. But the slightly disappointed look in Yori's eyes kept her from relaying this fact.

"And what is your opinion upon punk rock, Stoppable-san," Yori asked with concern.

"Well," Ron said, thinking real hard about the question. "It definitely has a good beat … to break things to, I guess."

"Kimberly, Ronald." James Possible's booming voice resounded from the kitchen's doorway. "May I speak with you two?" He did not look pleased.

Ron involuntarily gulped and fumbled for Kim's hand. They gave Yori and Anne weak smiles and walked toward the imposing, disappointed figure.

His look softened, however, once they got within a few feet. "Listen, kids," he explained, "I know you couldn't help getting almost kidnapped and all that jazz, but this (here, he Indicated with a reproachful look toward Anne and Yori) is the reason why I wanted you two to come home as soon as possible." He sighed. "When your friend showed up a half hour ago, I thought everything was going to be all right. It did your mother a world of good to prepare that cast."

"Yeah, MrDrP," Ron interrupted, "what's up with Yori's hand."

"I think she broke a couple of fingers, Ron, I'm not sure. But, I never would have guessed that she loved punk music, too."

"What's the story on that, Dad?" Kim asked.

"That's my point, Kimmie-cub," her father continued. "Whenever your mother gets seriously depressed, she reverts back to her punk days-we have tried to keep that hidden from you and the boys for years. And your friend just acerbated that entire situation."

"Mom w-was a punk rocker?" Kim asked incredulously.

"When we first met, you bet she was," James said shaking his head wearily. "At the time we first starting going out, she was practically stalking this one ... artist." He said the last word with obvious distaste. Then, with obvious difficulty, he uttered the reprobate's name: "Iggy Pop."

"Excellent idea, James!" Anne chirped. "Yori, do you have Raw Power loaded on that device?"

Kim's father's face went ghostly white. When Yori replied after a cursory search of the mePod's files that the album in question was, indeed, available for everyone's listening honor, his face turned … well … a whiter shade of pale.

As the thundering cacophany of the album's first song inundated all of their eardrums, Kim began to suspect her father's hatred of "show people" had originated with this Iggy Pop person.

"I didn't think we even had any punk music, dad." Kim said, as her father shephered the two teen heroes into the kitchen.

"We don't," James shook his head. "I was just worried that you mother going to start downloading it before long, but then your friend shows up with one of those mePod things jam-packed with all your mother's golden oldies."

"So how is mom doing?" Kim said loudly over the music whose volume had pursued them into the next room.

"Well, I guess it could be worse," her father admitted, "she does seem happy … I guess." He then spotted Ron inadvertently tapping his feet along with "Search and Destroy," the song that was currently playing. "Stop it, Ronald." he ordered.

Just then Yori ran into the kitchen, her face flushed with excitement. "Possible-san! You're mother just told me you were named for Smith-san's beautiful song! How wonderful! What an honor!"

"What song?" Kim asked, more than a little surprised.

"Why, 'Kimberly,' Possible-san," Yori explained, somewhat disappointed that her friend had not known.

"Really?" Kim turned her shocked face to her father.

James Possible nodded sadly. But then added firmly, "Don't worry, Kimmie-cub, you were only partially named for that song."

VIII.

Nine-teen-year-old James Possible found himself staring again at the sky.

This wasn't that unusual on the face of it. In fact, James had spent a good part of his young life staring into the night sky, with or without a telescope, distinguishing the stars from the planets and, most importantly, dreaming of how to get to them. What was odd about his gazing upon the sky today was that it was during the daytime.

Of course, this was well in keeping with his reason for being in Australia in the first place. Skylab's orbit had finally lost its integrity and was due to reenter the Earth's atmosphere sometime within the next few days. Although nothing was certain, most scientists had projected the station's reentry footprint would extend over most of Western Australia. The timeframe for the reentry, however, was a little more sketchy-it might happen just as easily in the daytime as it might at night. True, the burning path of reentry would be much more spectacular during the evening, but it should still be visible during the day.

No, what was strange about James looking into the blue sky was the fact that he wasn't looking for the falling Skylab. He was actually taking in the beauty of the sunny July (winter, south of the equator) afternoon sky in the Mitchell Rivers National Park in Northern Australia.

The few cirrus clouds only emphasized how deep the blue of the ethereal grounding was. It was incredibly silly and irrational but James felt that if he raised his fingers over his head and waved them high in the air, his fingertips might come back with a bluish tinge to them. The color of the sky was that incredible. Taken with brilliant greens of the palm trees that edged "his" piece of sky, not to mention the deep red of the gorge walls that surrounded him, and James had to admit this was the most beautiful place he had ever seen ... on Earth.

James Possible had never been much interested in terrestrial beauty. He'd choose an astronomy textbook over an art survey book or a "Natural Wonders" coffee table book no questions asked, Jackson. He had long held the conviction that there was no place on Earth that could hold a candle, in terms of sheer beauty, to the Horsehead Nebula. Today, he wasn't so certain that was true.

It was very, very peculiar, but James definitely felt connected with this strange and alien land. And he had the clear impression that the Kimberley region was a place he wouldn't mind visiting again someday. It was a place he might actually entertain see himself calling home. That is, if it had not been for all the crocodiles.

"But they're fresh water crocodiles, James," Steve Silver, his friend, fellow student, and de facto guide, had explained. "They don't attack or stalk people. The saltwater crocs are the ones you worry about."

"Steve, don't take this the wrong way, and it's not that I don't trust your judgment, but-"

"But, you don't trust my judgment," Steve said with a chuckle.

James laughed. One thing he really liked about his friend, unlike most of his colleagues in the astronomy department, was that Steve was very laid back. Well, part of the reason for this was because he  wasn't  in the astronomy department-he wasn't a scientist at all, in fact. Majoring in religion with a minor in art history, Steve had, at first glance, seemed to be the odd man out when the "Skylab Walkabout" had first been proposed. Most of the group was made up of either astronomy majors, like James and his friends Lee Chen and Drew Lipsky (although James wasn't really sure that he liked Drew all that much) or students from other science fields. However, the group had been very fortunate that Steve had volunteered to come along-he was the only member who knew a thing about the Australian Outback. He had come over, in fact, to do some personal research in the religious traditions of the Aborigines and wasn't too terribly interested in Skylab. Still, James wasn't going to take anyone's word that crocodiles (freshwater versions or no) weren't dangerous.

Everyone else in the "Skylab" group was actually hundreds of miles to the south, in and around Perth (where most of the projections predicted the station would fall). Few of the experts felt that the Kimberley region would see any debris from the errant space station. So it was actually something of a risk for James to venture up to the region with Steve for a few days' trip. However, he had felt compelled to go.

For the first reason, his assigned roommate in Perth, the aforementioned Drew Lipsky, was driving him nuts. The guy whined and complained about everything! Although he had considered Drew one of his friends at the end of the school year (his freshman year at college), going on this extended trip with the man not only revealed aspects of his character that James didn't like, it also got him thinking about things from earlier that had rubbed him the wrong way, too. Like how Lipsky had fawned over the visiting rep from Yoyodyne. That scene had actually made James feel queasy-Drew had actually hugged the man! And the more he thought about it, the more he realized that Drew seemed consumed with a desire to succeed at any cost. Some of the shortcuts he had proposed for their end of the term project together (shortcuts James had vetoed) were not only unethical, they were quite ... well ... mad.

"Hope you don't miss it," Steve said, abruptly disturbing the peaceful silence.

"Miss what?" James asked coming out of his reverie. "Oh, that!" he said realizing. "Don't worry about it. It won't fall for a few more days. Besides, I'm sure Chen and Lipsky will give me the scoop and all the details if it does. Chen might even save me a chunk of smoldering debris."

Steve chuckled at James' apparently unconscious exclusion of Drew from that last sentence. Although Silver had known Possible from a few liberal arts classes they had taken in the Spring semester together, he had not met Lipsky until coming on the trip. From the very first moment, he had him pegged as someone from whom not to buy a watch.

"So if you're not looking for Skylab," Steve asked, genuinely interested, "what are you looking at?"

"I don't know exactly," James said with a shrug. "I guess, I don't know, I just find this place really, really ... beautiful."

After a moment when they both silently listened to the insects buzzing in the undergrowth, Steve said, "Good. I hoped you'd feel that way."

"Actually," James confided, "I guess I am still thinking about those cave drawings at Bradshaw Rock this morning."

"Ahh, the Wandjini," Steve smiled. "Pretty impressive, huh?"

"Oh yeah, I've never been one for art, but, man oh man, those were … something."

That morning, just after dawn, James had walked from their campsite to the Mertens Creek and seen the drawings that adorned the rock walls on the other side. Initially, he had thought of wading into the water to get a closer look, but had thought better of it when he remembered the crocodiles. Finally, however, he found the haunting eyes of the Wandjini too compelling NOT to inspect closer and had waded across anyway-well, at least halfway. Despite a few moments when James mistook the far-off splash of a rock falling into the creek for the advance of a hungry croc, the journey had been well worth it. The Wandjini had, indeed, been something.

"You just like them because they look like astronauts." Steve sighed.

James rolled his eyes. "Come on, you know I don't buy that  Chariots of the Gods  nonsense."

"Well, don't get too attached to them," Steve warned half-seriously, "you may get more than you bargained for." He then proceeded to explain the mythological basis for the Wandjini and how the rock drawings James had been so fascinated with that morning were not portraits or artistic representations of the ancient gods, but the gods themselves whose spirits were embedded in the rock and also dwelling in the pools of water that covered all of the Kimberley region. And that, sometimes, if one wasn't too careful, or, perhaps, if one was lucky they might ...

"Are you saying I might get possessed by one?" James asked astonished.

"Oh, no, no," Steve assured him, "nothing that harsh. It would be more like they would hitch a ride home with you. You know, sorta like the hitchhiking ghosts at the end of the Cursed Condo ride at Dizneeland."

"So," James said smiling at the patent absurdity of it all, "if I stared too long at a Wandjina, his spirit might leap out of the painting and ..."

"Get reborn as one of your kids? Yeah." Steve nodded. "And their spirits don't leap out of the rock, James. They leap out of small pools of water. You know, like the ones you're surrounded by right now."

"That's crazy, Steve," James protested as he stepped from the center of a ring of small pools. "I don't even have a girlfriend. I don't think I have to worry too much about having a Wandjina kid or any kids for a long, long time."

"Well," Steve explained, "their spirits can stay inside a father's body for a long, long ..." and then he let the matter drop. James had stopped being amused.

However, Steve did give voice to one more reassuring thought. "Anyway, I don't think it's something to  worry  about. Having a Wandjina for a kid would actually be pretty cool."

James hit the hay pretty early that evening. When he awoke, he found Steve looking forlornly down at him. "I'm sorry, James." he said.

Skylab had reentered the atmosphere the previous evening … and on the southern side of the continent. Steve had heard all about it when he turned on their short-wave radio a half hour earlier.

Drew Lipsky had been among the first to see the reentry. He had been the member on watch and had made no few enemies on the team by being so enthralled (or single-minded) about the spectacle that he failed to wake anyone else. The very reason James had wanted to come to Australia had been lost. And, to a large degree, it had been because he had ventured with Steve Silver to the Kimberley Region.

He was disappointed. Yet James Possible also couldn't shake the feeling that somehow, despite the fact that he had missed out on the sole reason for his journey, he had gotten much more out of the trip than he had expected (and certainly he had made out better than Drew Lipsky did).

IX.

"Kimmie-cub," her father asked as a sudden flush of deadly seriousness took possession of his features.

"Yes, daddy?" she asked with raising trepidation.

"What in the world happened to your hair?"

"Okay! That's it!" Kim announced. "I'm taking a shower." She tossed Ron the Roncom. "Could you call Pointsman about Justine, honey?"

"You got it, KP!"

"Not that I think GJ will do any good, but it's all we have left," she said turning from the room.

"Wait! Possible-san!" Yori called. "There is much I need to tell you."

"You know," Kim said, giving her boyfriend a warm look, "you can tell Ron. He can make any decisions or calls that need to be made. I'll only be fifteen minutes. You guys can fill me in on the sitch then."

Ron, practically glowing (and not just from his eyes) from the vote of confidence, gave his BFGF a broad smile and a thumbs up.

As Kim made it into her loft, she wondered if she should have warned Ron not to mention Slothrop to Yori. The mysterious individual was such a dangerous person to know (or at least know of), and she so didn't want anything to happen Yori. Then Kim realized how silly that fear was. Yori had just single-handedly escaped from Monkey Fist and Drakken (Boy! That was a freakish combo). She was one "ninja chick" who knew how to handle herself.

When Kim went to close the blinds, so she could change for her shower, she spied a rather large and odd-looking owl sitting in the tree outside her window. She stared at him for a few moments and then closed the blinds. After a quick shower, a cursory glance in her bathroom's mirror told her that her hair was normal once more. She came back into her room and toweled off. Absently, she noticed the razor scar above her right knee. It had been almost a year, and it was still visible.

How much had changed in that year, how many changes had she undergone herself. She remembered when such a superficial blemish might have irked her to no end-now it just reminded her of a very special day. The day when she knew, truly knew, that Ron loved her. After dressing, she opened the blinds. She had half expected to see the owl still perched in the tree, but he was gone.

As she turned from the window, she caught out of the corner of her eye a figure standing in her parent's front yard. She caught her breath.

Standing beneath her window, looking fixedly up into her eyes was Charlie. Her vision from the night before-the fire, the stars, the moon, Wandjina-all came rushing back to her. She stepped quickly from the window and dashed down to the first floor, touching only every other step.

Ron and Yori were waiting for her at the base of the steps, both pale as ghosts.

"Ron!" she began.

"Kim, you've got to listen to this," Ron said firmly.

"And you've got to listen to this-" Kim interrupted.

"Yori was kidnapped by Monkey Fist, Drakken, Motor Ed, and Dementor."

"Ohmygosh! That's, that's crazy! They're ALL working together?" Then Kim got her head back in her game. She needed to tell Ron about Charlie and about her dream (she couldn't believe she had not gotten around to that yet). "But, Ron, I NEED to tell you-"

"But there's more, Kim" Ron interrupted.

"Please, Ron, I need to tell you something first!"

"It's about Slothrop."

That stopped her cold.

"What about him?"

"My grandfather knew him, Possible-san." Yori said.

"Wh-what?"

"My not-so-honorable ancestor met Tyrone Slothrop shortly after the Allies triumphed in Europe in 1945. They met on a cruise ship, a very dishonorable ship."

Kim could feel the ground giving way beneath her. Although she didn't know which direction this was headed, she knew.

"The ship was called the Anubis."

Before Kim could react to this bombshell, the doorbell rang. All three teens jumped with a start.

"He's here." Kim said with finality.

"Who's here?"

"Charlie."

"The bunyip guy?" Ron asked.

"Yes! This is what I've been trying to tell you, Ron. I just saw him looking up at me through my bedroom window!"

"Why would he be doing that?" Ron said in alarm.

The doorbell rang a second time.

"Well, there's something I've been meaning to tell you all day, but I didn't get the chance ..." Kim could see nervousness in Ron's shifting eyes. She knew he was reflecting the anxiety that he was reading in hers. "Why didn't I tell him sooner?" Kim thought lamely.

Suddenly, Kim was interrupted by the sound of the front door swinging open, and her father welcoming in the unexpected visitor.

"Dr. Kramer! What a pleasant surprise!"


TBC …


A/N: Apologies to UltimateNacoTopping for mooching off his Take-the-kids-to-school-dreamspeak gag from "Confessions of a Little Black Dress."

Chapter Text

Slothrop, who tends to play more by superstition than strategy, is obsessed with protecting his knights—willing to lose anything else, thinking no more than a move ahead if that, he alternates between long lethargic backing and filling with bursts of idiot razzle-dazzle that have Pokler frowning, but not with worry. About the time Slothrop loses his queen, "Sa-a-a-y, waitaminute, did you say Pokler?"

Zip the man is out with a Luger as big as a house—really fast guy—with the muzzle pointing right at Slothrop's head. "You'd better leave. Only two more moves and I'd've had you anyway."

Gravity's Rainbow, page 576

I.

"Here," muttered a low, officious voice from somewhere in the area of Shego's waist.

She looked down to see a squat little monkey, dressed in a royal purple kimono with sleeves edged in gold.

"What?" she asked rudely.

"Here," the simian repeated rudely.

She then noticed he was holding out to her a large ball of what looked like … taffy.

"What the heck is that?" she asked with dripping disdain.

"HERE!" he ordered with blazing eyes. His voice was much more intimidating than his diminutive size.

"Okay, fine, whatever," Shego said taking the ball from his grasp.

"Eww, it's sticky," she complained as her gloved hands made contact with the substance.

"Word," the simian uttered with a smirk.

As he turned to make his exit, Shego regained her sense of self, and angrily called to him, "Hey, pal! What the heck is this?"

"Yours," she heard him call over his shoulder as he scuttled away and disappeared into the crowd.

"Great," she groused, looking the ball over. It definitely looked like taffy. Then she noticed that it wasn't a complete ball. There was a string of pulled taffy hanging, or rather stretching, off one of its sides. The string extended across the crowded room. Without really thinking about what she was doing, Shego began turning the ball over in her hands in an attempt to gather up the stray thread.

As she made her way through the crowded, darkened chamber, she finally started to wonder where she was. It seemed like a party. There was loud thudding music playing from somewhere—far too unpolished and obnoxious to be a recording; it sounded like a live performance. Absently, Shego made note to find out what the band's name might be and if they were handing out any sample CD's.

"Might want to rip this onto my mePod," Shego thought as she nodded her head to the beat. "Waitaminute, where did I leave that?"

The taffy string led her out of the room and into a hallway that was also dark and crowded. Strangely, the music didn't seem to fade once she entered the corridor and left the main room behind. Absently, she pinched off a piece of the ball and slapped it into her mouth. It was taffy. Very, very good taffy.

"Mmmmm. Gingerbread and cotton candy," Shego thought, and she popped another piece into her mouth.

The string just kept going and going. It stretched down multiple hallways which, after she had passed through a half dozen or so, began to seem to Shego as if they were arranged in a burrow or hive-like pattern. And the further she went, the deeper she felt she was going. This was most certainly not a disentanglement from, but a progressive knotting into. Some of the hallways' floors were extremely sticky and made an unappetizing "kiss" noise whenever Shego lifted her feet; other halls had extremely smooth floors that made Shego feel like she was wearing rollerblades. She had to hang onto the wall once or twice to keep from falling over in these.

The taffy ball was getting kinda heavy at this point. And just about the time when Shego started to get the sneaky suspicion that she was going in circles, tighter and tighter circles-not to mention how the dim walkways reminded her of a certain labyrinth of tunnels in Australia, the hallway opened up to a massive staircase. The staircase reminded Shego of the type she had seen in some old movie—the deep polished oak railings were complemented by deep burgundy carpeting that draped the steps. As she climbed them, she was careful not to let the taffy thread get so slack as to get stuck to the steps. The foyer at the top led to a grand balcony overlooking what appeared to be an "Old West"-style saloon.

The taffy strand braided in between the columns of the balcony's majestic railing, so Shego was able to get a good look at the goings on below her. There were various colorful groups of people and … well … other things … carousing in circles of various sizes. Music was coming from both a player piano in the saloon's far left corner and a diner-style jukebox to the right. Although neither was playing the same song, as the words from the jukebox drifted through the air they settled Into the tune from the piano. Shego caught a few of them as she pinched off yet another hunk of taffy from the now quite-cumbersome ball.

I saw her today at the inception

In her jar was an instant tan

She was playing the part of self-deception

Well, I could smell her orange-stained hands

Say it …

For whatever reason, whenever the chorus hit, which seemed to be after every verse, Shego couldn't hear the song. Either the words ran together with the murmurs of the crowd at those points, or someone turned down the volume on the jukebox or whatever, but she never caught the "catchy parts" of the song.

I decided that I'd sing her a coda

My favorite number, 'I Got No Shame'

I sang my ditty for Miss Halt

Yeah, and she said one word to me, and that was 'Lame'

I said to her …

The lines were still echoing in her ears as she followed her taffy string down another staircase. The taffy ball was so large now that she was getting her hair stuck in it.

"Ow! Okay this is getting more than a little annoying," she snarked to no one in particular. This second staircase was just as cluttered with people as every other room had been, but nobody remarked upon or even noticed her consternation. With a huff, she brushed all her hair over her left shoulder and tucked the increasingly unmanageable ball under her right. Before proceeding down the staircase, she tore off and munched another hunk of taffy.

The staircase curved around and emptied into the saloon. Barring her entrance to the fandango, however, was a very large dessert tray at the base of the stairs. And, of course, her taffy chord passed through it. Or more to the point, into it. It was a very large cart.

"Oh, you have so got to be kidding me!"

Shego bent her head and bunched up her shoulders and followed the string inside.

It was much bigger on the inside than on the outside, plenty of headroom. In fact, the pastry cart was the least crowded room Shego could remember being in for a very long time. She took the opportunity to stretch. Ample light emanated from the floor and reflected off the shiny silver carts that lined both walls from floor to ceiling. A lone dessert chef-dressed all in white with an ice cream scoop in his left hand at the ready-awaited her order. "Okay, champ," Shego said after popping the kinks out of her back, "what's good here?"

The man pleasantly gestured to the rows upon rows of trays made from chiseled crystal that were behind him and before him. They were arrayed with countess treats. "What is your pleasure, young lady?"

Smiling at the chef's address, Shego tapped her chin with a taffy-free claw-tip. "Let's see … something chocolate … with almonds, caramel, popcorn, marshmallows, grapefruit slices, gummie bears and, oh yes, I'm in the mood for something extra gooey."

With a smart turn, the man hunched over a shelf about knee level and, mere seconds later, was holding out to Shego the gooiest concoction she had ever seen. The caramel and chocolate syrup flowed like molten lava over the sides of the crystalline dessert plate. A platinum spoon appeared in her right hand as she reached for the plate with her left.

She somehow managed to devour the dessert without dropping or putting down her taffy ball. As Shego gobbled up the delicacy, she shot a couple of glances at the cart's heretofore completely black ceiling. The lights from below caught nuances in the plate's design and projected their reflections upward to produce a veritable stars cape upon cart's ceiling. Shego thought she recognized one to or two "constellations."

When she was done, she wiped her mouth and gloves upon the hot moistened toilette provided by the chef. She smiled and tossed the empty plate, spoon, and cloth into the air; all of which were caught easily by her attendant.

"Nice catch, jeeves," Shego smiled as she followed her taffy thread out of the cart.

Exiting the cart, she entered the throbbing and glowing blue penumbra of an old style television set. Although it was darker and neither the player piano nor the jukebox were playing, Shego knew she was in the same saloon she had seen from the balcony. A semi- circle of twenty people were staring directly at her, their eyes filled with blue static. Just as she was about to say something very terse to her audience, one of them motioned with his hand for Shego to move.

With automatic motion, she looked behind her and realized that she was blocking their view of an enormous television set. Careful not to break her taffy thread nor let it drag upon the floor and get encrusted with discarded peanut shells, she joined the semi-circle of tube-zombies, for a moment, just to see what was on.

Projecting from the flickering screen was a small family type room. On the right side of the room was a red couch. On the left wall, next to a brown door, another small table stood with a rotary-style telephone sitting atop it. Behind the couch was what looked to be the entrance to a dark hallway or perhaps an archway leading into an ill-lit room. A wall lamp and an ironing board filled the remaining (visible) corner of the main room. A woman wearing a pink housecoat was methodically ironing a shirt on the board. Nothing about this setup struck Shego as unusual ... except the woman.

There was something about her ... an incredibly strong aura of deja vu ... perhaps, something that told Shego she had seen this "person" before although she was dead certain that she had never seen anyone like her before. For one thing, the woman was green and not green like she herself was, but green, a deep, dark crayon-box type green. What's more, she was huge! Gigantic, colossal-at least nine feet tall. She looked like an Amazon warrior from some alien world.

Suddenly, the door opened, and a man entered. Well, okay, a male "person" entered. Even taller, but just as green as his counterpart, this person was almost completely bald with a gruff beard and a long pony tail of thick brown hair. He was wearing a blue suit. It looked as odd on his body as the woman's housecoat looked upon her.

Shego was about to ask what in the heck they were watching, when loud raucous applause, apparently from the studio audience since no one watching the television made a sound, erupted from the screen. The man just stood there in the doorway as if he was waiting for the audience to stop clapping. When they finally did, he dutifully shut the door and went directly to the couch and sat down. Then nothing happened for a quite a while. And then, quite suddenly, the man spoke.

"It was the man in the green overcoat." His voice was extremely flat, monotone, and small for coming out of such a gargantuan frame.

"More like the man in the green skin," Shego snarked. She was rudely shushed by two of her transfixed neighbors.

Then the "woman" turned toward the man. Shego noted that the whites of her eyes were actually yellow. Yellow with crimson pupils.

"There have been no calls today." Her voice was as flat and as small as her "co-star's."

However, when she spoke, there was an eruption of canned laughter from the television screen. The "live" audience with Shego, however, didn't even smile-just continued to stare in rapt mezmerization.

She watched the show for maybe another five minutes before giving up. The two giants, in turn, would say something asinine that was completely unrelated to what the other giant had said. Randomly, a laugh track would play. The big guy got off the couch twice and walked out of the door twice only to reappear a minute later each time. And without fail, his entrances were met with paralyzing recorded applause.

"This would be whack if it wasn't so stupid," Shego announced as she turned away from the screen and continued to follow her taffy trail.

Once she passed through the outer-rings of this congregation, she glanced over the heads of the haphazardly massing "others" only for her eyes to meet the most beautiful sunset she had ever seen.

The east side of the saloon had neither ceiling nor wall and opened into an early October sky overlooking a rust-ridged mountain range and darkening valleys somewhere in the lower Appalachians. As Shego pinched off another finger-length piece of taffy, she could make out just the slightest hint of cinnamon tickling her sinuses. A summer trip from Go City to Atlanta laid claim to all her sensations for the next long couple of minutes.

The sky changed to amber and then to burgundy as the evening began to reclaim it. Shego was shaken from her reverie as she spotted a chevron of "geese" flying … well … flying south, of course, but they seemed to be flying backwards. Their long necks (irregularly long necks, actually) were pointing in the opposite direction in which they were flying. For a brief instant, Shego felt like she was watching a film being run in reverse.

In an almost unbelievable instance of serendipity or perhaps random telepathy, a walker-by thrust a pair of binoculars from around his neck before Shego's eyes, giving her an enlarged and precise view of the "geese."

The basking sharks were actually flying in a forward direction. What Shego had mistaken for protracted and wavering necks were actually the fishes' ('Is it fish or fishes?' 'Both are accepted.') tails. And what had appeared, because of the sheer distance and the brunt orange glare from the setting sun, to be "the business end" of the geese turned out to be the cavernous and, for all intents and purposes, toothless yawning maws of quite possibly the ugliest thing living beneath the seven seas. As they flew, or "swam," through the amethyst twilight, Shego could see that the high autumn air-air that was presumably cinnamon apple-scented, was billowing through the shark's brine-dipped gills, gills that practically encircled their hideous heads.

Shego return the binoculars to the passer-by as he vanished behind the barber shop quartet on her right. She shielded her eyes with her hand and followed the sharks as they swam/flew into the pitch of the rapidly advancing Eastern night. All this time she continued walking across the peanut shell/cigarette butt/empty bottle strewn floor. The saloon was so jammed with others-elbow to elbow-that it was actually quite miraculous that she had been able to "walk between the raindrops" as it were and avoided tripping over anything or running into anyone-

"Do you mind?" snapped a tall man with a hawk-like nose as he drew up to avoid colliding with Shego. Even as he was holding his own rather large ball of taffy over his head, he still managed to give off an overtly-urbane, superior air that immediately brought out the black-mamba-multiple-strike-in-your-face aspect of Shego's personality.

"Hey! Watch where you're going, pal! Or is there not enough oxygen up there to get through to your brain?" True, not one of Shego's better quips, but she had been preoccupied after all.

The tall man's irate expression relaxed into one of detached bemusement. "As far as snide comments go, that one is quite below par for you, isn't it Shego?"

Having one of her zingers belittled was not something Shego had to deal with much when she worked for Drakken. In fact, she didn't believe anyone other than Princess had ever given her any trouble in that department. However, what really had Shego irritated was the familiarity with which the stranger had spoken her name.

"I don't believe we've been introduced." she fumed.

"What? Oh forgive me," the stranger spoke in an increasingly shrill condescending tone, "I had presumed that the world-famous super-villain second banana needed no introduction."

"Watch it!" Shego commanded as she raised her free clawed glove.

"Or what?" the stranger demanded in a fierce tone, "You'll flick taffy at me?"

"I'm thinking something a little more extreme," Shego smiled malevolently as she snapped her wrist.

"So sorry, it doesn't work, Shego," the stranger said, clucking his tongue and shaking his head in mock sympathy.

Shego stared blankly at the mysterious stranger's insouciant eyes. Something that wasn't yet fear, not quite, ran between her shoulders. Even without testing her energy blasts, she knew he was right.

The instant she accepted her powerlessness as fact, a wave of perplexing and horrible realities came cascading about her. Where was she? Who were all these people … people and things? And what in the heck was she doing carting around this wad of saltwater taffy?

She looked again to the stranger. His face wore an expression of easy expectation; his smile was approaching sincerity.

After a moment of silence, he asked, "Yes?"

"Where … where are we?" Shego said finally.

"Where do you think we are?"

"I don't know," she snapped, "that's why I asked!"

The stranger brushed aside her rising temper with a wave of his hand. "Think about it, Shego. Just for a minute." Then his eyes changed, grew serious. "You know. Trust what you're telling yourself right now."

Shego steeled herself. Closed her eyes for a moment and then absently adjusted her hold on the ball of taffy. "We're in Hell, right?"

The stranger guffawed so violently that he almost dropped his taffy. "I have obviously overestimated you," he managed after a period of giggles in which Shego's anger was becoming visible to and felt by everyone within a ten yard radius.

"Is that all your rudimentary imagination is capable of? Hell?"

"Where ARE we?" Shego growled.

"Forget it," the mysterious stranger said with a dismissive huff, "you're going to have to just figure it out for yourself."

Shego started walking toward the man-energy blasts or no, she knew she could make him tell her without too much effort.

"No, no, no, no," he said wagging his finger at her as he tried to untangle his string of taffy from the hair of a gymnast who had just twirled between them. "You do not want to do that," he said patting part of his loose strand into his taffy clump.

"Why not?" Shego demanded as she tried to untangle her own thread from the spinning athlete.

"Because," the stranger said, moving away, "you don't want to exert yourself before the dance."

"Dance? What are you talking about?"

"You'll see," he smiled thinly. He then added, gesturing beyond his shoulder to the Appalachian night that was now humid with plump stars, "Unless, of course, some yahoo hollers 'Freebird,' and then we'll all become the Brown Mountain Lights."

"Huh?" Shego asked as she finally freed her candy chew from the gymnast's hair and leotard. However, the stranger had vanished into the crowd.

As the light continued to fade, Shego found it more and more difficult to follow the trail of her taffy string. For one thing, it seemed like there were suddenly dozens of other people trying to unwind their own strings. A handful of these people crawled through the empty orchestra pit located adjacent to the large mirrored saloon bar. Then she saw an older gentleman make his entrance through a pastry trolley not much different from the one she herself had passed through.

Wait …  is  that the same one?

Then there were the people who clamored through the windows on the saloon's opposite wall (windows through which, strangely, blinding blue day-lit sky poured), using their taffy threads as make-shift spelunking tethers.

Shego languidly followed her string for the next ten minutes or so. People moved out of her way as she milled about, walking in larger and then smaller concentric circles. She no longer pinched bite-sized chunks from her increasingly unbalanced orb; the thought of eating anything made her sick. The memory of the pastry cart delicacy she had inhaled earlier felt like a terrible nightmare; she shrunk against her thoughts.

"Shego-san!" an ebullient voice announced from somewhere behind her.

She warily looked over her shoulder to see a teenager in a schoolgirl uniform shouldering her way through the crowd.

"Yeah?" Shego assented with little enthusiasm.

The girl halted before Shego and then formally bowed. As she did so, she murmured, "It is a great honor to meet you."

"Fan-tastic," Shego said, rolling her eyes, "and who are you supposed to be?"

The girl rose from her bow and started to speak, but then stopped. And then the light in her eyes faded. She nervously looked to either side of her. Finally, after what seemed like a very awkward eternity to Shego, the girl admitted, "I am unsure. I do not know how to explain it, but I do not remember."

Great! Someone who knows even less than I do!

"Well, what do you want?" Shego asked with some energy. "Can't you see I'm a little busy here?" she said, indicating the large taffy ball she was holding in both hands.

"Yes, I see," the girl said, her enthusiasm returning. "I am deeply honored to finally make you're acquaintance."

"Yeah, you already …," Shego began dryly and then got an odd feeling about the girl, "said … that."

For whatever reason, she felt intuitively that there was something definitely not right, even dangerous, about the teen. In fact, she sensed that behind all her fangirl effervescence, the girl had a specific design in the works; there was calculation behind her glazing eyes.

Perhaps I'm being played here.

Shego continued to nod at the young woman's ramblings, but paid careful attention to her hands' movements and the directions her eyes seemed to be darting every minute or so.

Physically, there was nothing particularly unusual about the girl. She was extremely attractive, apparently athletic, and she, at least, projected a non-threatening demeanor. Shego's eyes kept orbiting back to the crimson hair band the girl wore in her jet black hair. She also noticed that the girl, continually, refused to look her in the eye.

As monotonous as the girl's chatter had become, there was something else to it. It was almost as if she was speaking in code. As if she were speaking her true words somehow between the words that were passing her lips. Almost as if she was attempting to hypnotize Shego-no, no, that wasn't it. Almost as if she were pleading with her to understand what it was she really meant, what she actually wanted to say.

Whatever that was, Shego didn't have a clue.

Then the girl made a cryptic remark. "I have succeeded where you have repeatedly failed." Then, after a beat, the girl said, "I have succeeded where you have repeatedly failed." However, this time it was spoken in a flat lifeless tone that made Shego feel as if there were ants crawling all over her.

As coolly as she could, Shego looked into the girl's eyes, eyes that were now fixed rigidly upon hers. "You don't say?" She thought about asking Ms. Freaky-Two-Shoes what she was talking about, but then realized she didn't care … or care to know what that was.

"And it was done with Honor," the girl continued as her face split into a genuinely frightening grin. "And Love." Then her almond-shaped eyes began to bleed.

For a long minute, neither said anything. Shego was so startled by what was happening to the girl that she didn't know what to do. For her part, the girl seemed to have been mesmerized by her own words … or by the memories of what they imparted.

"Uh … yeah … great," Shego managed finally as she started, as surreptitiously as possible, to inch away from the girl.

Snapping out of her, apparently, blissful delirium, the schoolgirl asked, "Shego-san, may I trouble you with a question?"

Regarding the girl with mounting alarm, Shego tried to appear as nonchalant as she could. "Sure, kid, shoot."

The blood was trickling down both of the girl's cheeks; the streams meeting at a point beneath her chin.

"Have you been through the shame yet?"

"What?" The question caused the hairs on the back of the villainess's neck to perk up.

"The shame, Shego-san," the girl said matter-of-factly. "It is one of the many stages we are to pass through here. I have been told it is one of the most difficult ones. However, the level beyond it is supposed to be challenging as well. It concerns the 'Nature of Freedom.'"

"Kid," Shego spoke slowly, so as not to offend or upset her companion, "I'm not saying that you don't know what you're talking about, but I don't know what you're talking about."

"Forgive me, Shego-san," the girl bowed apologetically. When she returned to a standing position, the tracks of her crimson tears had splintered and spread like tributaries, like veins on the underside of a leaf, or like spider-webs across her face.

In a moment of casual, irrational observation, Shego noted how the blood on the girl's face matched perfectly with the color of her hair band.

"The 'Nature of Freedom' concerns whether any action of ours is truly our own or if we only do what They want us to do, regardless of what we believe."

"Who are They?" Shego asked, trying hard not to look like she was trying hard not to look at the girl's splattered face.

"Ahh," the girl nodded at Shego's reply knowingly, "I see you are what they call an 'old hand' at this game." She paused and then continued, "However, it is the shame that troubles me. I don't … don't believe that I … have any."

"Okay, fine, whatever," Shego said, slinking back into the crowd, "well, good luck with that. Let me know how it works out."

As the schoolgirl with the bleary-eyes and dangerous grin faded, just as innocence fades, back into the darkening crowd, a tune enveloped the saloon. The orchestra pit, which only minutes before had been vacant, was now filled with musicians performing the stirring, if somewhat lifeless, air.

Displeased, Shego looked about her as individuals from the crowd began to pair off and dance in small circles on the floor. She thought back upon the words of the mysterious stranger and slowly accepted the appalling fact that all he had said was true.

As the tune rose higher and higher, the notes bounced among the crystals of the half dozen candelabras that were now being lit. On the other side of the saloon, where there was no ceiling, the notes floated out into the crisp mountain air and, presumably, bounced among the stars.

Although she didn't know the words, Shego found her mouth moving along with the tune. The voices that breathed the lyrics seemed to be radiating from the dancing couples, yet all their lips were stilled.

Every day a little dread

In the glass, in the eyes,

In the voices, in the shadows,

In the hallways, in the creamed pies

Couples-suddenly in period costumes from turn of the twentieth century America-twirled about Shego. The ladies' gowns, rustling against the dance floor, gradually becoming ringed by the empty peanut shells that got caught in their sheer taffeta, creating a rough syncopation that somehow enriched and deepened the acoustics of the orchestra.

Every day a little doubt

In the sole and in the skull,

Every stutter in every head

(And you don't know what it's about)

Brings a perfect little dread.

As she adjusted her grasp on her lump of taffy, she realized that she was wearing taffeta as well. Her form-fitting jumpsuit somehow had been transformed into a multi-layered, frilly nightmare of pear and myrtle. Her shock at this sudden change of wardrobe was outweighed by the nausea it produced. She blinked the tears from her eyes (she was literally on the cusp of dry heaving). When they cleared, she noticed the dancers were closing in on her-or at least they appeared to be. At the very least, they were beginning to orbit her in interconnecting ellipses as if they were satellites and she was their planet … or their black hole.

As the song started again, another voice-firmer, bolder-joined in on every alternating line. It was a voice Shego found familiar. Unfortunately, like an obscure scent that triggers a wave of intense memories, it was hard for her to pin down whose voice it was.

Every day a little dread

Every day a little dread

In the glass, in the eyes,

On the plates and in the pies,

In the voices, in the shadows,

In the fishes, in the skies,

In the hives, in the burrows

In the cake, in the marshmallows

Shego was mentally noting how the familiar voice had kinda pushed and then broke the rhythm of the melody with that last line when, to her horror, she recognized the voice.

It was, of course, hers.

The dancing couples, who during the last few moments had started to crowd in upon Shego to the point that she toyed with the idea of socking a pair of them with her taffy when her intense glares failed to make their point, began to glide away from her. As they did so, a darkened figure appeared, standing stock-still before the orchestra pit. In a less-than-subtle touch, a spotlight was suddenly flashed upon the person. It didn't illuminate him so much as make his already vaguely visible features look sinister or hilarious, depending on one's prerogatives. Since the beam originated from the ceiling-less side of the saloon, Shego wondered absently if the moon was the source for the limelight.

The figure approached her as the next verse began. With the same horror and disgust she had felt for the gown, the villainess realized she was now singing a duet. A smarmy, saccharine duet with the approaching figure.

Every day a little doubt

Every day a little more dies

In the sole and in the skull.

In the glares and in the lies.

Every stutter in every head,

(And you have no idea what its about)

Brings a perfect little dread.

The mysterious figure hit an excruciating flat note on the last word of the last line just as the penumbra of his spotlight reached the edge of Shego's gown. A second later, he stepped forward from its protective glare and outstretched his arms to enfold her shoulders in an all-encompassing (and very likely inescapable) embrace.

"FREEBIRD!" Shego yelled at the top of her lungs as she hurled her wad of taffy straight into his middle. He collapsed to the floor.

Several members of the crowd were already extending lit lighters, matches, and flipped open cell phones to the stars as Shego spun around and dashed into the shadows. The mesmerizing power of her song request was total and covered her escape from the saloon.

She never looked back. She was only intent on ripping that hideous dress from her body [as she had hoped (prayed?), her jumpsuit did lie beneath it and clambering back down the twisting burrow-like hallways until she found the exit-that originating rabbit-hole that she knew very well might never have existed at all.

II.

"What's happening, KP?"

"Care to be more specific," Kim said, arching her eyebrow.

"No," he sighed, nodding his head in assent to her so valid point.

"Sorry," she smiled. She went to place the Roncom into her pocket only to discover the Kimmunicator was already there. She gave him his device.

"Oh yeah," he said, accepting it. Instead of placing it in his pocket, Ron just stared at its empty display. "Thanks."

They had just ended an abbreviated call with Wade concerning the mysterious appearance and then disappearance of Charlie. Wade had no contact information for the Bunyip expert and no way of determining whether he was still in Australia or just down the block at the Cow n' Chow.

Kim still hadn't told Ron about her dream, and she wasn't sure how to go about it. So much, so ridiculously much had happened in the last twenty-four hours that she didn't know whether the dream would overload her BFBF's brain or whether he would take it, like he had taken everything since her quick recovery from Shego's attack, in typical laid-back Ronnish stride. And, of course, just considering this question had given her the answer.

"Ron, my dream …" she began.

"Kim! Ron!" James Possible yelled up the entrance of her loft.

Ron instinctually started rubbing the back of his neck. Despite all the assurances to the contrary, Ron still got inexplicably nervous whenever Kim's father "caught" him in her loft ... at least in the months since he and she had started dating.

"Yes, dad?" Kim hollered as she stood up from the corner of her bed.

"Did you still want to speak to Dr. Kramer?" James asked as his head appeared at the top of the ladder.

"Oh, right! Sorry, dad," Kim said, slapping her forehead in irritation. Just after Dr. Kramer arrived, she had overheard him ask her dad if he could borrow their phone to call someone in Upperton. Apparently, his call was over. "I didn't keep him waiting too long, did I?"

"I don't think so, Kimmie Cub," James smiled. "But," he continued in a lower voice, "Considering the length of most of his answers ... you might want to ask him as soon as you can."

"Right, right," Kim nodded.

Her father's head disappeared.

"Well, ..." Kim began.

"Oh, and Ron?" James said poking his head up through the hatch again.

"Yes, MrDrP?"

"I think Mr. Barkin wants to talk to you."

"Mr. Barkin?!" Kim and Ron said in unison.

After a moment of uneasy silence, James Possible asked, "Uh, Kimmiecub, isn't this where you say 'jinx?'"

"Dad," Kim sighed, "I am so beyond caring about soda right now …"

"Jinx!"

A Ronnish shrug answered Kim's annoyed look.

"Hey, how often does this fall in my favor, KP?" Ron explained. He then added, making her smile, "Momma didn't raise no fool, yup, yup."

III.

"You sure you're not in my third period Remedial Physics class?"

"No, Barkin-san," Yori replied politely. "I regret that I am not in any of your classes."

"Hmm," Mr. Barkin replied gruffly, eyeing the young woman suspiciously. Sure, she seemed polite and well-mannered, but she had also admitted to being the party responsible for the "music" that was currently assaulting the teacher's eardrums. Definitely, not a good sign.

"You haven't logged any hours in detention have you?" Barkin pursued. "You look familiar, and I never forget a face."

"No, Barkin-san," Yori said pleasantly, "I do not even attend Middleton High. I did visit once last year when Stoppable-san and Possible-san helped rescue Sensei."

"Fine," Mr. Barkin said gruffly. He tapped his knee and looked about the room aimlessly. And then attempted to wind his digital watch. Anything to avoid confronting the teen's well-intentioned expression. The fact of the matter was Mr. Barkin was very uncomfortable around teenagers who … well, who behaved themselves. Without unruly behavior, slacking off, or punk hand gestures, teenagers offered him no challenge. Without challenge, he felt lost. In short, well-behaved, model kids threatened him. The bow Yori had given Mr. Barkin when they were introduced minutes earlier had felt like a punch to the gut.

"Oh, Possible, Stoppable," he said in relief as the two teens entered the living room.

"Mr. Barkin," Kim said with a hurried smile and then got down to business. "Before you jump all over Ron for not being in class today …"

"Oh, no, Possible," Mr. Barkin said, waving away her concern. "I wanted to speak to Stoppable about something else. Actually, I stopped to see Dr. Kramer. I only learned from speaking with Miss Morituri that Stoppable was even here."

"Dr. Kramer?" Kim asked.

"Well," Barkin began uncomfortably and got increasingly more so as he spoke, "I was in the neighborhood, and saw his car in your drive and decided to stop by so I could … return … something to him."

"Something?" Ron asked.

"Stoppable," Barkin barked, "why are you wearing sunglasses indoors? As a matter of fact," Barkin said with rising and visible disciplinarian's glee, "why are you wearing sunglasses indoors at night?"

"Uh …" Ron began.

"Don't tell me," Barkin smirked, "let me guess. 'When you're cool the sun shines on you twenty-four hours a day'?"

"Well, I guess," Ron nodded, "but that isn't the reason I have them."

"Stoppable," Barkin said in a suddenly relaxed tone (well, "relaxed" for Barkin), "Let's you and me have a little chat."

Kim gave Ron a reassuring look before he reluctantly walked toward his teacher/Pixie Scout leader.

"Dad," Kim asked into the foyer, "where is Dr. Kramer?"

"I believe he's waiting for you in my den, Kim."

"Thanks," Kim said as she walked toward the den's half open door. Although she was eager to hear anything Dr. Kramer's uncle might have told him about Slothrop, she was also uneasy about the meeting. It wasn't because of the rocket scientist's reputation for telling long-winded stories. In fact, Kim hoped this foible might suggest that the scientist also had a prodigiously good memory. No, it was because she still felt so guilty, truth ray or no, about how she had behaved around him the first time they met.

As Kim was entering her father's den, Mr. Barkin was leading Stoppable into the Possible's kitchen.

"Dr. Possible, ma'am, do you mind if I speak to Ronald alone for a minute or two?" Barkin asked Ann.

"Not at all," she smiled as she took a long-neck beer from the fridge. She waltzed and then skipped past them toward the living room.

Ron did a double-take. Did MrsDrP just dance by with a beer bottle?

"Oh, and, ma'am, could you possibly ask Miss Morituri to turn down the stereo a touch?" Barkin asked.

"Not at all," Anne smiled broadly.

Mr. Barkin was not sure he had heard Kim's mother correctly. Had she really refused to turn down that godforsaken noise? As he heard the volume noticeably crank up, he realized that he had indeed heard her correctly. He shot Ron a dark look.

"What?" Ron complained. "What did I do?"

"I think you're having a bad influence on this family, Stoppable."

"Is that what you wanted to talk to me about?" Ron said, outraged.

"Actually, no," Barkin said in a lower, even tone. Ron could always tell Barkin was being serious when he flipped off the bluster. And the bluster was definitely off now.

"What is it Mr. B?" He asked.

Mr. Barkin leaned in and half-whispered into the teen's ear, "Stoppable, what do you know about Tyrone Slothrop?"

IV.

When Kim entered the den, she found Dr. Kramer sitting in a chair before her father's desk. He was looking at a book balanced loosely on his knees.

Before she could speak, he looked up and smiled at her. She returned the smile, thanked him for waiting for her, closed the door against the raucous music drumming through the air from the living room, and sat down behind her father's desk.

He nodded and smiled. And said nothing.

"Dr. Kramer," Kim began, "Thanks for taking this time to speak to me."

His smile continued. And he said nothing.

"Well," Kim started haltingly, "what I wanted to ask you actually has to do with your uncle."

His smile shrunk somewhat. And he said nothing.

"Specifically," Kim said after clearing her throat, "I was wondering if he had ever told you … or, I guess, maybe mentioned someone he met during the War … an American soldier named Slothrop."

The smile vanished. Dr. Kramer looked back down at his book, furrowed his brow and frowned pensively.

Finally, after what seemed an eternity to Kim, he said, "Yes."

However, he drew out the word to an almost ridiculous extent, almost as if he were second guessing or, maybe, double-checking it against his memory as he spoke. When he finally let go of the word, he sounded like a snake. And then he was silent again.

For someone who had said so much about his great-grandfather's goat butter a little over a year ago that Kim had to stuff a pillow in her mouth to keep from telling him to shut up, Dr. Kramer was being especially frugal with his words.

"Actually," he began finally.

"Yes?"

"It was after the war."

She waited for him to continue, but he didn't.

Kim wanted to say something to prompt him further, but didn't know how to do it without sounding rude. Fortunately, she didn't have to.

"It was at Zwolfkinder," Dr. Kramer explained, looking up from his lap.

Kim had only first learned of the place's existence a few hours earlier, yet the powerful emotions and events that were connected with it were reflected upon her face.

Dr. Kramer immediately came to life when he noticed her reaction. "Have you heard of it?" he asked happily.

She nodded and, unintentionally, opened Dr. Kramer's floodgates.

"Oh, it was a wonderful place, back in its prime, much like the amusement parks in this country, but with a very particular difference-it was run by children! Yes, yes, yes, there were children policemen, children hotel workers, sanitation workers, vendors, security guards, even the mayor of the town in the center of the park was a child-can you imagine? My parents took me there one, two, three times, and every time I told them I wanted to come and stay and work there myself. I wanted, particularly, to work in the Antarctic panorama with the penguins. Oh, the penguins are my most favorite animal. A bird that can't fly, as a child I could never imagine such a thing. Like the dodo bird, but still alive-I mean in the world, at Zwolfkinder, of course, they weren't alive but stuffed, but there they were separated from me by only a thin sheet of glass. But it wasn't just the penguins, I really loved the exhibit itself. Especially, the screen at the far back, behind the trees made of pipe-cleaners and the mountains of papier-mâché, a small camera would show an image on that screen of the aurora borealis lopping over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and … well, I guess you see what I mean."

"Y-yes," Kim said sheepishly, "yes, I do."

"I kept begging my parents if I could work for the summer, two weeks even." He shook his head good-humoredly, "But they were always, 'Next year Werner, next year.' And I was always like, 'Too many "next years" and I'll be too old!'"

"Did you ever get to work there?" Kim asked.

"No," Dr. Kramer said simply. He looked at the clear surface of James' desk, "No, that did not happen."

Kim cursed herself silently. Of course it didn't happen, Possible. How could I be so insensitive!

"But," Dr. Kramer said in warm voice, "that is where Uncle Franz lived for a few months after the war ended-before we were reunited. He had a makeshift cot in the basement of the Town Hall. He and Frieda had the entire place to themselves."

"Frieda? Who's Frieda?" Kim asked.

"Oh," Dr. Kramer chuckled. "Frieda was a sow-a pig that he befriended on his journey across the back country to the sea. She was kind of a pet, his only friend for a good long time."

"Wow," Kim said with genuine interest, "that's ... that's pretty wild. Why did he go there?"

"He was waiting for someone," Dr. Kramer explained vaguely.

Ilse. Oh no. Shut up, Possible! Shut up!

Fortunately, Dr. Kramer did not allow Kim time to wallow in self-loathing but continued his story. "Then at one point, maybe two weeks after he had been there, Frieda just disappeared, was gone for days. And then one day this strange American shows up with her."

"Slothrop?" Kim asked. "Did he bring Frieda back?"

Smiling and nodding, Dr. Kramer explained, "Actually, Slothrop claimed that Frieda brought him."

Kim smiled back. Definitely more interesting than goat butter. "What happened?" She settled back into her father's chair, looking forward to a lengthy story.

"My uncle offered him a cup of coffee; they played a game of chess. He spent the night, slept on the floor next to Frieda, and then left the next morning. My uncle never saw him again."

"Oh," Kim said disappointed. She had certainly hoped for more. At the very least, she had expected Dr. Kramer to … well … expound a little. "Do you know if they talked about … anything ... like, maybe, during their game?"

"Probably," the scientist mused, "but my uncle never mentioned it."

"Oh."

Then she had a thought. If Dr. Kramer had somehow retained a very detailed physical description of the missing soldier (provided, of course, that his uncle had given him one in the first place), that might prove helpful information for Wade to use in some way … although Kim had no idea what that way might be. She knew it was a long shot, based on more than one dubious assumption, but she asked anyway. "Your uncle didn't happen to mention what Slothrop looked like, did he?"

To her surprise, Dr. Kramer started laughing. Excessively so.

"I'm very sorry, Miss Possible!" he said as he tried to catch his breath. "Forgive me!" When he got himself back under control, he explained, "I am not as good a storyteller as my uncle." Here, he smiled warmly, "As you well know, my stories do not always have points." He brushed aside her shamefaced objections to this statement and continued, "Uncle Franz's anecdotes always had points."

Despite his reassuring gesture, Kim felt two inches tall. Blurting out that someone's stories were "pointless snorefests" was not the sort of memory she could live down easily.

"And the entire point of my uncle telling me about Slothrop," Dr. Kramer enthused, "was because of how he looked."

"Really?"

Dr. Kramer nodded with an impish grin.

"So, what … did he look like?" Kim asked with the beginnings of a smile.

"No idea." Dr. Kramer said with a straight face.

Aaaargh! First Justine and now Dr. Kramer? Won't anyone give me a straight answer about this guy?! Are there any straight answers about him?

"Ooookay," Kim managed as politely as she could.

"He couldn't tell, Miss Possible," the scientist smiled, "for, you see, the entire time Slothrop was with my uncle, he was wearing a costume."

"A … costume?"

"Yes. He was dressed like a pig."

V.

"Pig?" Ron asked with a cocked eyebrow. "Are you playing me?"

"No, Stoppable," Mr. Barkin sighed. "I am not. My commanding officer," and, here, Ron could see that Mr. Barkin was forcing out his words with a great deal of difficulty, "was Petty Officer First Class," visible shiver on Mr. B's part here, "Pig Bodine."

"Whack name," Ron commented.

"Whack, but apt," Mr. Barkin nodded solemnly. He ran his right hand over his face. "Those years on the USS John E. Badass were the longest of my life. I was never happier to get back on dry land."

"Waitaminute, Mr. B," Ron said scratching his head, "you were in the Navy?"

"Of course, I was in the Navy, Stoppable! What do you think I've been talking about for the last five minutes!?"

"Well, uh, I always thought you were in the Marines."

"Where exactly is it written that a person can't serve in two arms of this fine land's military, Stoppable?"

"Uh, uh, I don't know."

"Exactly!"

After a moment of uneasy silence (well, relative silence-"Rudy Can't Fail" by The Clash was thundering in from the living room), Barkin said evenly, "You know, Stoppable, there is a widely-held opinion by peaceniks, punks, and other troublemakers that if someone stays in the armed services long enough, they'll get promoted even if they don't deserve it."

Ron didn't know what to say, so he nodded.

"Well," Barkin continued, "I can tell you from my experience while serving to protect the rights of all those nay-sayers, that their opinion is without question, irrefutably, one hundred percent accurate."

"Huh?" Ron managed, completely floored.

"Well, at least in the Navy when I was serving it was true," Barkin qualified. "POFC Bodine was living proof." Barkin's resigned mood was suddenly punctured by rage and he brought his fist down upon the Possible's kitchen table. "Sweet Mother of Pearl! During my time serving under him, the man went AWOL ... TWICE!"

"Are, you okay, Mr. B?" Ron asked. "Do you need something to eat? To drink? I-I don't think MrsDrP took the last beer." When Ron reflected upon this last statement, he couldn't help but shake his head. This has been the most whacked-out day!

"And he had the most obscene laugh!" Barkin continued, oblivious to Ron's offers. "Just thinking about it gives me the shakes." And, apparently, Mr. Barkin started thinking that moment about his former CO's laugh because he started going into mild convulsions.

"Mr. B! Hello! Mr. B!" Ron yelled, "STOP thinking about it!"

Like flipping off a switch, Steve Barkin stop twitching. "Thanks, Stoppable." He sighed deeply. "Sometimes demons from the past are hard to control." Then the edge returned to his eyes, and he glared at Ron. "Which brings us back to Slothrop."

"Y-yeah?"

"Why are you and Possible looking for this character?" he demanded.

Ron immediately sunk into his chair and started rubbing the back of his neck. "Well," he began and then stopped. "Waitaminute, Mr. B,! Cut us some slack! We don't even know who this guy is!" Then after beat. "Do you know who this guy is?"

"Not really, no," the teacher admitted.

Great! Does ANYBODY know!?

"What I do know," Mr. Barkin explained, "is that Pig Bodine knew him. They were best buddies back in World War II, and Bodine held him in the highest regard-and that spells nothing but trouble, Stoppable."

"What do you know about him, Mr. B?" Ron asked.

"I don't think it's a good idea for me to tell you."

"Why not?"

"Because I don't want to sully your sense of morality. You may be a punk, Stoppable, but you're a good kid."

"Thanks," Ron smiled, "I ... think." After a pause, Ron pleaded, "Can you tell me anything, Mr. B? It is majorly important that KP and I know as much as we can."

"Well," Barkin said dubiously. "Maybe, you should tell me first why you're looking for him."

Ron began rattling off about the harmonica that he had found Seder night.

"Uh, do I really need to hear this, Stoppable?"

So then Ron skipped ahead to Professor Dementor and the Middleton Space Center. Even before he got a third of the way into the story Kim had told him, Mr. Barkin stopped him. "Okay, so it's another 'save-the-world' thing, correct?"

"Uh-huh." Ron affirmed. "I mean, uh-huh, sir."

Barkin rolled his eyes and then said, "Okay, fine. Well, to put it as delicately as I can, Bodine and this Slothrop character were involved in black market activities after VE day. They were heavily involved in ... well ... selling ... well ..."

"Bootleg designer clothes ... like the Fashionistas?"

"Yeah," Barkin nodded, "they did a little of that, but that's not what I am talking about."

"Then what are you talking about?"

"Hmmm. Let's just say they were involved with 'pharmaceuticals for non-medicinal purposes.' Get my drift?"

Ron nodded.

"Really?" Barkin asked.

"Uh, no, actually, I don't know what you're saying at all." Ron admitted.

"Good. The point being, not the kind of thing I wanted to see you and Possible mixed up with."

"Mr. Barkin," Ron interrupted, "how did you even know we were looking for him?"

"Your punk-rock loving friend told me."

"Yori?!"

"Affirmative. After we were introduced it became clear from certain things she said that honor was a principle she cherished. I volunteered that I also valued honor and had served honorably in this great nation's military. She then explained that the three of you had been just discussing another American service man. When I asked her what his name was, well, you can imagine how disturbed I was when she let Slothrop's name fall."

That made sense to Ron. He had been so shocked by the coincidences with Yori's grandfather and the Anubis (Man, how whacked is that?) that he had only told her about the harmonica and hadn't gotten to the part about how Slothrop was somehow mixed in with Dementor and Shego and, wow, Ron wasn't sure he could even explain all the connections to himself.

"The last thing I would want is to see you kids get tangled up into that kind of world." Barkin continued.

Ron smiled, "You really care about what happens to KP and me, huh?"

"Affirmative."

Barkin and Ron's eyes locked for two seconds, and then they both looked away. Barkin examined the cuff of his shirt and Ron tunelessly whistled-both of them trying to occupy themselves with anything and everything until the moment of awkweird sincerity could pass.

"So," Ron said finally, "you can't tell me anything else, Mr. B? I wouldn't ask, but, y'know, the world might need saving and all."

Mr. Barkin sat deep in thought and then said, "Well, I don't know if this will be helpful, but Bodine rarely referred to Slothrop by the name his parents gave him. More often than not, he called him by a nickname."

"What was that, Mr. B?"

Displeased, "Mr. B," the long-time hater of nicknames pronounced, "Rocketman."

VI.

"I don't expect this story has been too helpful, has it?" Dr. Kramer smiled.

"Dr. Kramer," Kim said, "any information in this sitch is helpful." After a beat, she admitted with a sheepish smile, "But, yeah, I'm not … sure … how."

Dr. Kramer laughed and then asked, "Do you happen to have the time, Miss Possible? I don't see a clock."

"Yes," Kim stood up and fished the Kimmunicator out of her pocket. As she did so, the strange card DL Rockwaller had given her slipped unseen onto the den's floor. She read the time from the device's main menu screen.

"Hmmm," Dr. Kramer paused. "I hate imposing, but do you think James would mind if I made another call?"

"Certainly not."

"It is long distance. Vienna." He then hastily added, "Not Austria, Georgia. Just nationwide."

"Oh, I'm sure it'll be fine."

"I would, of course, call from my brother-in-law's, but she is used to me calling at a specific time, and she may be getting worried."

"Actually," Kim said, "you can use the Kimmunicator."

"Really?"

"No big," Kim smiled, "talk as long as you want." She held out the device to him.

"Well," Dr. Kramer hesitated, "could you show me how to use it? I'm good with propulsion systems, but these handheld devices ..."

"Of course!"

As Kim flipped to the cellular module, she noticed the cover of the novel balanced spine-up on his right knee.

"Southanger Abbey?!" she exclaimed happily. "Is it any good?"

"Excellent," Dr. Kramer beamed. "Do you like Miss Austin's novels?"

"Jayne Austin is so like my favorite author," Kim enthused. "But I've only read two of her novels for class. I'd love to read more, but I just don't have the time."

"Well, if you ever do get the time, you may want to join Steve and I at Chez Couteaux. We meet and talk about her work every other week."

"Oh that would be so great!" Then Kim paused. "Steve?"

"Steve Barkin, yes."

"Really?" Kim asked cocking an eyebrow.

"Yes," Dr. Kramer, nodded, "In fact, Steve stopped by so he could return this book to me. I left it at the restaurant tonight."

Kim smiled at the thought of Mr. Barkin, Dr. Kramer, and herself sitting at a table in the fancy restaurant perusing and expounding upon Miss Austin's novels. Perhaps she would join them ... well, maybe in the summer after she graduated. She so couldn't see herself and Mr. Barkin discussing books in their spare time while she was still his student.

"Oh, Miss Possible ..."

"Yes?"

"I hope you still aren't feeling bad about the last time I visited."

"Uh ..."

"Because, I actually would like to thank you."

"Thank me?" For calling you a pointless snoremeister?

"Yes, when I told my wife about it later that evening, she wanted to send you a fruit basket."

"I-I'm sorry," Kim managed after a moment. "I don't think I understand." Kim had never even considered the distinct possibility that Dr. Kramer (not to mention Dr. Cook and Dr. Harris) would have told his wife the horrible things she had said to him.

"Oh, it is nothing to be embarrassed about," Dr. Kramer said with concern.

From his statement and the flush feeling on her cheeks, Kim knew her face was as red as her hair.

"My wife told me that she wished someone had told me years ago," Dr. Kramer said with a chuckle. "I had no idea I had been boring so many people for so many years."

"But-but," Kim said quickly, "I was so rude to you!"

"Miss Possible," Dr. Kramer said, holding up her Kimmunicator in his raised hand, "however it happened, I am glad it finally did." Then he laughed again, "It's a good thing I didn't tell the goat cheese story, even I think that story is too long. Who knows what that truth ray would have gotten you to say if I had decided to tell that."

"Did you say goat cheese?" Kim asked with the beginnings of a smile.

"Yes. I am personally fascinated by the process, but, thanks to you, I now realize that it is a story with very limited appeal."

"Actually, Dr. Kramer," Kim said, "I believe I know someone who would be very interested to hear it."

"Really?" Dr. Kramer said cocking his own eyebrow.

"Uh-huh," she nodded, "if you'd like, I can introduce you to him before you leave."

"Well, I would be very pleased meet him."

She turned to go and then stopped.

"Dr. Kramer?"

"Yes?"

"The person your uncle was waiting for …"

"No," he said simply. "She never showed up."

Kim sighed. "I'm sorry to hear that."

"Miss Possible-Kim," Dr. Kramer said with a sad smile, "it was 1945. I don't believe there was anyone on any of the sides fighting that didn't lose someone they cared about that year."

As she shut the den's door to give Dr. Kramer his privacy as well as to insulate his call from the raucous music still bleeding from the stereo in the living room, Kim heard an even louder noise thundering from overhead.

VII.

"Sounds like an F-15 Eagle," Mr. Barkin announced with obvious admiration as he scanned the foyer's ceiling. He looked as if he were scanning the "pop-corned" stucco for traces of the aforementioned fighter jet.

Dropping his hands from his ears as the din drifted off, Ron said, "Huh? Were you in the Air Force, too?"

Mr. Barkin gave the teen a dirty look.

"Flying awfully low, isn't he?" Kim said as she ran to meet them at the base of the stairs.

"I'd say so," Mr. Barkin said as his admiration turned to concern.

"KP!" Ron said excitedly, "You'll never guess-Mr. B knows Slothrop!"

"Wh-what?!" Kim said understandably flabbergasted.

"Back up there, Stoppable!" Mr. Barkin yelled. "I know of him," the educator corrected. "I never met the man ... fortunately." Mr. Barkin then proceeded, with a few interruptions from Ron, to explain to Kim his knowledge of Tyrone Slothrop. "I'm not sure if any of that will help you kids."

"Well, it does give us another contact to try," Kim said with a pleased nod.

"It does?" Mr. Barkin asked, confused.

"Pig Bodine," Kim explained, "I'll see if Wade can track him down."

"Uh," Mr. Barkin said nervously, "I don't know if that is such a wise idea."

"Why not? They were good friends, right? Who would be a better person to ask?"

"Well, if you are dead set on it just do me one favor, Possible."

"Sure ... what?"

"Don't tell him you know me!" Mr. Barkin said in visible distress. "You don't know where I live! You've never taken one of my classes! You've never even heard of me!"

"O-okay," Kim said edging slightly away from her excitable teacher.

"So, Kim," Ron asked in complete obliviousness to Mr. Barkin's breakdown, "What dirt did Dr. Kramer have on Slothrop?"

"Not as much as you and Barkin, Ron," Kim said. She then explained what little the scientist had been able to tell her.

Needless to say, Mr. Barkin was more than a little surprised to find that his bibliophile friend also had dealings with this mysterious and unsavory character.

Neither Kim nor Barkin felt the need to underline the semi-amusing coincidence that these two connections were related-in their own quirky ways-to the word "pig."

They didn't have to.

"Wow!" Ron exclaimed, "Did you notice that both of those leads are related to pigs in some way? What are odds?" Then it occurred to Ron that he and Kim had never stopped by Bueno Nacho as they had planned because the ride back from Justine's had turned into a disaster film. As a matter of fact, he now realized that he had not had anything to eat for over twelve hours. "KP, I'm hungry."

"Stoppable, do you ever think of anything else?" Mr, Barkin sighed.

"Well, maybe we can order a pizza, Ron," Kim said patting her BFBF's shoulder. She knew he had been through a lot and was more than entitled to a little whining. "It is getting kinda late, and I so don't want to go out again."

"It is that, Possible," Mr. Barkin agreed. "Give your folks and your polite if musically-challenged friend my regards. I should probably be going anyway, I've blocked Dr. Kramer in."

At the mention of the doctor's name, Kim reflexively turned her head in the direction of the den. The door was ajar, and the light from the desk lamp was spilling out through the open space. For some reason this made Kim feel very, very uncomfortable. Without a word, she slowly walked toward the open doorway and peered inside. "Dr. Kramer?" she called.

Everything was as she had left it minutes before … except that the scientist was no longer there.

Something about the empty room ... the way the lamp light played amongst the shadows on the various bookcases and along the surface of her father's desk seriously creeped her out. Nevertheless, she stepped inside and walked toward the chair Dr. Kramer had been sitting in. On the seat was his copy of Southanger Abbey. Kim reached out gingerly and picked up the book. She couldn't explain it, but there was something about the novel that filled her with both unease and melancholy at the same time. She looked about the room and was just about to futilely call the doctor's name once more when another name entered her thoughts. Justine.

"SWEET MOTHER OF PEARL!" she heard Mr. Barkin scream from the foyer.

VIII.

"What's going on?" Kim cried as she sprinted through the den's door.

'HIS EYES!" Barkin exclaimed pointing frenziedly at Ron's swirling peepers.

Kim released a tension-filled sigh.

Ron rolled his eyes (it still perplexed Kim that she could still know these things about her BFBF's eyes in their condition) as he replaced his sunglasses. "C'mon, Mr. B, these are so yesterday-you need to get current."

"It's okay," Kim reassured Mr. Barkin, "we're ... well, we're handling it." Then her voice turned deadly-serious, "I don't know where Doctor Kramer is."

"Don't tell me he left his book again," Barkin said in exasperation.

Eyeing the cover, Ron laughed, "Dr. Kramer reads Jayne Austin?"

"So do I," Mr. Barkin said icily.

"You read Jayne Austin?" Ron was laughing with youthful abandon now.

"So do I, Ron," Kim rejoined in a frosty voice of her own.

"Okay, shutting up," Ron acquiesced.

"Guys," Kim said returning to the issue at hand, "I'm serious; he's gone."

"Possible, don't worry about it." Mr. Barkin said dismissively.

"Mr. B," Ron said, receiving his girlfriend's weirdar signals crystal clear, "is his car still in the drive?"

The normally goofy teen's serious tone was enough to get Barkin to walk over and look out the window. "Affirmative. Remember? I'm blocking him in."

The toilet in the bathroom under the stairs flushed. And then a faucet could be heard running.

"See, nothing to worry about," Mr. Barkin said good-humoredly. "Possible, you should probably get some rest. Weren't you in the hospital a little over six hours ago?"

"I suppose you're right, Mr. Barkin," Kim conceded in a relaxed voice.

Then the bathroom door opened and out stepped Yori. She was somewhat non-plussed that there were three sets of eyes (well, two sets and a set of shades) staring at her as she exited the bathroom.

"Yori," Kim said in full mission mode, "could you go with Ron and check the living room and the kitchen for Dr. Kramer? Mr. Barkin and I will check the rest of the first floor and, if necessary, check the second."

"Certainly, Possibl-san," Yori bowed, "it will be my honor."

"C'mon, Yori," Ron called, "I'll explain on the way."

Reluctantly, Mr. Barkin followed Kim. "Possible, stop treating this as a four-alarm emergency. He'll turn up in less than a minute, I guarantee."

Five minutes later and Mr. Barkin had not only lost his bet, he was also starting to get nervous himself.

Anne Possible turned off the music and put down her beer and joined the search. James and the Tweebs searched the upstairs bedrooms.

There was no sign of the doctor. And when a second fighter jet flew over the house, Kim nearly jumped out of her skin. It had been an extremely long and crazy day and this final mysterious disappearance was fraying her last remaining nerves. As the roar of the plane's afterburners faded into the sound of seven people calling for Dr. Kramer throughout the house, Kim desperately reached in her pocket for the Kimmunicator ... which, of course, was not there.

She had given it to the missing scientist.

IX.

"Ron!" Kim called as she charged down the stairs.

"What is it, KP?" Ron hollered back. "Did you find him?"

She shook her head as they met at the base of the stairs. "Contact Wade. Have him track the Kimmunicator."

"The Kimmunicator?"

"I gave it to Dr. Kramer before he vanished," she explained hurriedly.

Less than ninety seconds later, Team Possible's tech guru was scratching his head. Never a good sign.

"I don't understand it, Kim. I am scanning the entire greater Middleton tri-city area, and your Kimmunicator simply isn't there."

"Maybe it's turned off," Ron offered.

"Would that make a difference, Wade?" Kim asked hopefully.

He shook his head. "Sorry, guys. I can trakc it whether it is flipped on or not. I can perform a state-wide scan in less than five seconds and a world scan in thirty minutes if you'd like. Nope, nothing in the state."

"Please and thank you," Kim said with mounting dread.

"SWEET MOTHER OF PEARL!" Mr. Barkin screamed from somewhere on the first floor.

Kim and Ron, like the rest of the household, made a beeline for the source of the yell: the living room.

Mr. Barkin was staring speechless at the television screen. Some five feet before the set, sitting cross-legged and silent on the floor, was James Possible. When Anne entered, she instinctively sat down next to her husband and put her arm around his shoulder. Even the Tweebs were silent.

After thirty seconds of shocked, universal silence passed, Kim flipped on the Roncom. "Wade, are you seeing what's on TV?"

"Yes, Kim. I was just going to beep you."

"It is as bad as it looks," she whispered out of deference to her father.

Wade nodded sadly. "Yes, the Center has been completely destroyed."

"How?" Kim said, trying not to tear up.

Ron threw an arm around her shoulder.

"Don't know," Wade admitted. "Let me scan the satellite images from the TV feed."

As they awaited their friend's analysis, Kim and Ron watched Yori approach James Possible, bow deeply, and give her condolences.

"Okay, guys," Wade said with trepidation. "I found something. But you're not to like it."

"Wiping a tear from the lashes of her right eye, Kim said in a determined voice, "Sitch me, Wade."

"Okay." Wade's image was replaced by the satellite feed. A superimposed diagram highlighted the edges of the giant crater that had replaced the facility where her father had worked the greater part of her life.

"Yori," Ron called urgently.

As she came over, Ron gestured for her to look at the Roncom's screen. "Vheissu ...?" he asked.

Wordlessly, the ninja shook her head. Finally, she said, "I'm sorry, Stoppable-san. I do not know what this is."

Beneath the military helicopters that were swarming at the screen's edges and the scrambling fighter jets that split the image every few seconds, was Wade's enhanced outline of the crater. An outline that, for all the world, seemed to be in the shape of some gigantic animal's footprint.

Kim handed the Roncom to her BFBF and slowly approached her father. She knelt next to him, and, as she had one day long ago when she was seven-the day after her grandfather had passed, Kim kissed his pale cheek and fiercely embraced him.


A/N: Apologies must be made to the following artists for the manipulation of their works in the opening section of this chapter:

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards for their song "You Can't Always Get What You Want"

David Lynch for his short film/sitcom Rabbits

MrDrP for use of a character from his story "Final"

Stephen Sondheim for his song "Every Day a Little Death"

Also, see wikipedia to learn more about the Brown Mountain Lights a super freaky unexplained phenomenon from my home state of North Carolina.