There are so many things I can talk about when I think back on what went into The Power Trilogy. I could talk about how it reflected a dark time in my own life, and helped me come to terms with one of my demons. I could talk about how it gave me an outlet, how it kept me going through times when I wanted to give up. This story has taught me so much about writing that there's no concise way of summing it all up.

But what deserves the most attention, indeed, what needs to be addressed more than anything else, are the people that helped keep this story running. For all the fans out there that corresponded with me, for all the reviewers that praised me, for all the critics that challenged me, and for all the readers that simply read this story: you deserve part of the credit. You all helped shape this story, whether you are aware of it or not, and you turned it into something larger than even I imagined. I could write volumes on and to you all, and never come close to saying what deserves to be said. So instead, I'll use just two of the many words you've all got coming:

Thank you.

A zephyr ruffled the leaves overhead, whispering words of confidence to Kimmie Possible while she sat beneath the old tree and waited. Her knees bounced with impatience inside her ducky overalls. She had made sure her mom had washed them for today, exactly one week since she had worn them last. This time, she held her chin high, daring any of the other children on the playground to make fun of them.

Her eyes danced through the schoolyard. Laughter and play met her search, but never in the scrubby, freckled vessel that she sought. She caught the eye of that mean Bonnie girl, who gave her a nasty look before continuing her game of hopscotch. Kimmie glared back before continuing her hunt.

At long last, she saw the schoolhouse door open, and her hero appeared. The little boy was ushered out by wrinkly hands. He cast an indifferent look over his shoulder, and then looked up. Kimmie couldn't hear him across the playground, but it looked like he was talking to someone much taller than him, someone Kimmie didn't see. She had not time to wonder, though, as he began making his way across the playground. He kept talking as his eyes drifted to the ground.

Kimmie's heart thundered. She tried to stand, but her knees came down with an acute case of wobbles, rooting her to her root. Saliva fled, leaving her mouth dry and silent. The dryness spread to her throat as she tried calling to him. Only a squeak emerged. Desperate, she managed a small, trembling wave, but it failed to draw his eyes from the sod. Before she could gather voice enough to shout, 'hey,' he vanished into the crowd.

The debilitating bashfulness faded as Kimmie leaned on her knees and sniffled. Since that mean Bonnie girl had told everyone that Kimmie had cooties, nobody talked to her. Kimmie had hoped that her hero would, but now she couldn't even call out to him. He had just endured the harshest punishment known to preschool-kind—a week without recess—and she couldn't even be brave enough to yell. She didn't even know his name.

Kimmie sniffled again, and dragged a sleeve across her nose. "Pro'ly doesn't like me anyway," she told herself.

"Who doesn't like you?"

Her head snapped up to find the boy in question standing before her. Dark brown eyes stared at her as he tilted his head, watching her fumble to her feet. She tried to think of something to say to his dish-like ears. "H-hi," she said, blushing.

"Hi." His quizzical gaze fell upon the ducks marching on Kimmie's overalls, and he smiled. "I 'member you. You're that muddy girl."

Kimmie's blush worsened. "My name's Kim Possible," she said, clumsily extending a hand like she'd seen her parents do.

The tilt in his head returned as his brow furrowed. Her hand went unanswered. "Kim Popsicle?" he asked. "That's a funny name."

Apples envied the color in Kimmie's cheeks. She shook her head, and said, "Poss-ible." When his confusion continued, she blew an impatient breath and dredged up her stuttered recollection of the alphabet song. "It's easy, 'kay?, Oh—"

"Kay...Pee?" he repeated.

Spelling clearly wasn't her hero's strong point. "Close enough," Kimmie said.

His face brightened. "I'm Ron. Ron Stoppable."

Kimmie giggled. "Stoppable? Now that's funny."

"Says you, Kim Popsicles!" retorted Ronnie.

Her giggle fell quiet. Ronnie squirmed uncomfortably as she brought her face close to his, piercing him with jade opals of dazzling clarity. "Why'd you help me? You got 'n trouble, an' you don' even know me."

Ronnie bit his lip as he looked anywhere but into her eyes. No matter where his chocolate gaze went, her round, inquisitive face was all he saw. "I 'unno," he muttered. "You looked like you needed help. Nobody likes me either, so..." Unable to escape, he let his eyes drift back to her. "Rufus said to," he added.

Kimmie Possible stared into his big brown eyes and she felt a strange, warm feeling well up in her stomach. The curious warmth flitted through the rest of her, ending with the goofy smile spread across her cherubic cheeks. "You're weird," she told him, "But I like you."

Her arms caught Ronnie too quick for him to escape, and pulled him into a hug. Ronnie yelped as her lips pressed into his cheek. He struggled to break free, and wailed, "Are you trying to kill me?"

Kim Possible
The Power of Friendship

by Cyberwraith9

Three sets of feet swung from the bumper of a parked ambulance amidst the turmoil of an invasion, shielding themselves from sheets of icy rain, and reclaiming the feeling in their innards with Styrofoam cups of steaming coffee. Emergency blankets shrouded their shoulders, doing little to ease their shivers. They watched armored agents charge in and out of the broken entrance of the Observatory with rifles at the ready and EMTs in tow, ready to find any injured individuals inside, and injure certain others as the situation called for it.

Kim knew she should be worried, but wasn't. The spick-and-span soldiers kicking up a spray of mud may have thought they were marching into the unknown, but Kim knew what they would find. Maybe it was the numbing exhaustion at her core, or the painkillers lumbering through her bloodstream, but she didn't have an ounce of worry left in her. She let her gaze drift away from the burnt-out door and stared instead at the haggard wretch rippling in the surface of her coffee. 'I'd sure hate to be you right now,' she thought at the wavering girl.

A bobbing flash of red caught Kim's attention from the blacks and golds of Ron's battle suit. She eyed the torn boots cinched in place with scavenged metal cords. A spark of realization broke the dull emerald sheen over her eyes, and she asked, "Are those...are those syntho-drone boots?"

Ron glanced down at them through his one good eye. He traded poignant looks with Josh, who sat between the partners in silent awe. The knowing, half-fearful look Josh answered him with eased Ron's dread; Josh wouldn't tell, and so Ron didn't have to. "Technically," said Ron, wriggling the borrowed boots, "I think you could call them his 'feet.' Erik was cool with it, though."

Kim made a face. "That's gross."

"Believe me," he mumbled, "It beats the alternative."

Josh decided to pipe in, no longer able to contain the wash of emotions his terrifying, exciting, horrific, spectacular ordeal had pumped into him. "You should have seen it, Kim! Ron was...was...incredible! I've never seen anything like it." With a thoughtful frown, he added, "I hardly saw any of it at all, they were moving so fast. But it was incredible!"

Cheshire delight curled Kim's lips as she stole a glance at Ron over the top of her cup. "I know," she murmured.

There was no time for Ron to wonder at her odd expression as a troupe of soldiers marched out of the Observatory. They flanked a pair of gurneys under the care of more EMTs, and guarded the way to one of the other vehicles in the convoy. Kim caught sight of blues and greens strapped to the gurneys through the gaps in their entourage before she heard the tortured voice rise up.

"Kim Possible!" Drakken's voice broke through the pounding of the rain on the ambulance roof. "You haven't heard the last from me. I'll be back. I'll be back!"

Loading them into the back of a van, the military escort broke long enough for Kim to glimpse Drakken and the unconscious Shego. He glared at her with the purest hate through his swollen mask of bruises. Were he not strapped down, Kim imagined he would have fought his way to her with every last vile breath in him. But even without the small army of soldiers on hand, or the deadly ninja sipping coffee not three feet away, the thought of Drakken attacking didn't spark the least amount of apprehension in her deadened innards. She had outgrown him.

"I'd be more worried about what happens when Shego wakes up, Blueberry," Ron hollered through a funneled hand. Drakken's incoherent ranting drew a slight laugh from the three teens before the van doors slammed closed.

Their hollow mirth fell silent as Doctor Director appeared in the entryway, leading another team out of the Observatory. Rumpled business casual stood out among the stark GJ uniforms, sagging in the downpour. The former hostages spread out at their rescuers' commands to the waiting arms of relief teams. One pair stood out from the rest of the shell-shocked civilians with their tiny smiles. Gangly teens flanked them, one to each parent, speaking in excited tones.

Kim leapt from the bumper, tossing aside her blanket and beverage. Her leaden body didn't feel an inch of the distance; one minute, she was sitting, and the next, she was collapsing into the arms of her family. They came together in a single, sobbing hug, too happy to care about the rain, or the armed soldiers, or their injuries.

"I'm so glad you're all right," Kim said into her father's shoulder.

His hand ran through her soaked tangle of hair, holding her close. "That's our line, Kimmie-Cub," he said, and kissed the top of her head.

Gentle hands lifted Kim's head away from Mister Possible's embrace. Kim hissed as her mother examined the bruises on her face with a stern, detached expression. "You'll need X-rays," the matronly surgeon noted. "These could be fractures."


Taking her daughter's hand, Missus Possible watched her daughter wince. "Not broken. Could be a hyperextension. We should—"

"Mom!" Kim snatched her mother's hands away and drew them into her own. The businesslike expression on Missus Possible's face sobered into an unreadable wall as Kim squeezed their fingers together. "Mom," the teen said with wavering eyes, "I'm so sorry. I am so, so sorry."

Missus Possible froze. Mother and daughter stood together in absolute silence while their men gave each other confused looks. Guilt dawned in Missus Possible's expression to mirror Kim's. Her professionalism cracked as she sobbed, "My poor baby!" and crushed her daughter to her breast, where both of them could cry openly.

"Figures," said Jim, snorting. "We did all the real work."

"Yeah, she just had to play with Shego, as usual," Tim grumbled. Both he and his brother lost their grump as Mister Possible caught them by the shoulders and pulled them close, laughing a father's laugh.

A world away, Josh felt the pull of the emotional scene. It appealed to the artist in him, calling him forward for a closer look. He rose, transfixed, but a finger caught him by the belt loop and pulled him back. "Nu-uh," said Ron, shaking his head. "That's RSVP right there. Reserved Strictly For Possibles." The joy and tears traded amongst his second family tempted Ron too. Like Josh, he wanted more than anything to be the one holding Kim. But he wasn't, and he wouldn't be.

Josh didn't fight him. Nor did he bother to hide his disappointment. "That's RSFP," he said.

"I just got punched in the face a lot. Shut up." Ron squinted through the dispersing crowd to the third wave working their way out the charred opening. Another pair of gurneys led the way, carrying two still figures that yanked Ron out of his seat faster than Josh could follow. Hobbling through the mud, Ron ignored the edgy honor guard and the fussy EMTs, and flanked the gurney with the friendly face twisted with pain. "Monique!"

"Sir, please," the EMT pushing he pleaded, speeding up to make it through the rain as quickly as possible, "She's suffered a compound fracture of the humerus."

Dizzy eyes squinted up at him, struggling to focus through the water pooling in their sockets. "Hear that, handsome?" she croaked. "Don't bother being funny. I won't get it until they fix my humor-whatsit."

Ron limped alongside her gurney, trying his best to keep up. Monique was bandaged, blanketed, and clearly drugged. "Mon, you're gonna be fine," he said, trying to break through her medicated haze. "We'll have you back on your feet in no time. Be a shame if I lost my dance partner, right?"

As unworthy as the thought was, Ron couldn't help but think it: Monique had no business being there. She had only come at his and Kim's request as backup. What they affectionately dubbed 'part-time help' had gotten her seriously hurt, all because he was no longer enough help for Kim. If he had only—

"Hey, Ron," Monique said, derailing his train of thought. Her good arm slipped from beneath the blankets, clutching a mass of shattered purple plastic and circuitry boards. The mess fell into Ron's grasp by force, shoved there by Monique with the last of her strength. She muttered, "I'm gonna need a new Monunicator."

Ron's steps waned. He watched the gurney wheel off toward one of the waiting ambulances, and he squeezed the remains. "I'll see what Wade can whip up," he called.

"'s still a stupid name," she mumbled, falling unconscious.

Shaking his head, Ron stuffed the busted device into his suit, and vowed to stop underestimating his friends. As he did, a brisk hand clapped him on the shoulder, turning him around. He stood eyes-to-eye with Doctor Director as she addressed him from the safety of a black poncho, wearing a smile far too large to conceive of in the wake of everything that had happened. "The little Possibles went on and on about how she helped them take out Duff Killigan. From what I hear, she has good instincts."

"What happened to Killigan?" asked Ron.

The devil in question rolled by on the second gurney, moaning softly through his drug-induced sleep. A large red stain marred his white sheet where his knee would have been. Even unconscious, he looked to be in tremendous pain.

"Cut him off at the knee, so to speak," the Doctor clipped. "That's a shame, really. They say the golf game is all in the legs. Wouldn't know. I don't get the chance to play."

Normally the source of the tasteless jokes, Ron found he couldn't stomach them at the moment. He didn't even smile. "Booyah," he uttered tonelessly.

She nodded, and threw an arm around his shoulder. The miniscule addition of weight nearly toppled Ron from his shaky perch atop gelatin legs. "This city owes you a tremendous debt, Stoppable. You and your team." She led him back toward the heart of the convoy, where the majority of the rescue effort buzzed in its cleanup of the battle site. "If you need anything, anything at all, I want you calling Global Justice first."

Limp, swinging red caught Ron's eye amidst the drab black hive, drawing his gaze back to the Possibles' reunion. Close by, he watched Josh watch Kim. All of a sudden, the rain felt colder than he could stand. "I could use a ride out of here," he told Doctor Director.

The spymaster nodded. "We'll have all of you out of here as soon as we can—"

"No. Right now. Just me." Turning away, Ron said to himself, "I think it's time I bowed out."

Doctor Director gave him an odd look. In the end, though, she didn't question him, and instead called for one of her subordinates. As Ron followed the man in black to a waiting SUV, he fought the temptation to turn around. He climbed in and slammed the passenger door closed, dripped a small ocean all over its leather interior, and never saw the flashing green distress that watched while he pulled away and drove back down the mountain.

"So, how's the arm?"

Wade smiled up from the confines of his tiny screen. The Kimmunicator sat atop the dresser in Kim's old room, keeping its camera angled at the ceiling while Kim struggled into her shirt. The bulky cast at her elbow fought her every step of the way.

It had been two days since the fight at the Observatory. Two days, and Kim had yet to catch her breath. Two days spent, first in the hospital, and then recovering at home, kept under house arrest by motherly worry. Two days without perilous missions, romantic drama, deadly combat, or exhaustive globetrotting. Another minute of peace, and Kim was certain she would lose her mind.

Popping her head through the gaps in her old green tank top, Kim sighed. "Entombed," she groused, knocking the cast against the dresser. Its solid clunk rattled Wade's image. "I have to keep the cast on for another three weeks. If I'm a good girl," she said in a sing-song voice, "I get to upgrade to a sling."

He chuckled. "You sound thrilled," he said.

"What about you?" Kim asked, clasping her jeans one-handed. Secure in her clothes, she picked up the Kimmunicator and tried returning his smile. "You're back online even quicker than I thought."

Wade's smile doubled, making up for Kim and her lackluster efforts. "You aren't the only one who's collected favors over the years," he said with dancing eyebrows. Then his expression sobered. "So, you're okay?"

She shrugged. The gesture woke a battalion of twinges within her body and ordered them on a forced march. It took more effort than she'd have liked to hide the pain behind another smile. "Okay, I guess. Recovery's just part of the job. I'll just have to take it easy for a while." With an empty chuckle, she added, "Maybe that makes it the hardest part of the job."

Silence rang through his pointed stare. "Are you okay," he repeated slowly.

Kim blinked and sagged. Her legs struck the bed, and she fell back onto its downy sheets, staring back at Wade. Quiet overtook her, outside and within. She relived the week in vivid detail, all in the blink of her trembling eye.

"Is it okay that I'm still scared?" she asked. The fright haunting those words twisted her stomach. "I mean, we won, right? So why am I still afraid?"

"You almost died," Wade reminded her. "Drakken threw everything he could at you. That's gotta be freak-out-worthy."

A snide, nasally voice whispered in her ear. Kim could feel his fetid breath molest her lobe as he taunted her. Every haunting word he had said still resonated like crystal in her mind. She remembered the helplessness she had felt, and then realized that much of it was with her still.

"In a way, I think Drakken was right," Kim mused aloud. "He knew me so well, he was able to play me like a pro. I wasn't 'The Girl Who Can Do Anything' anymore. I was just Kim. When he realized that, he almost won." Looking at Wade, she said with a smile, "He just couldn't take away all the strength you guys give me."

Wade didn't answer right away. He sat there, considering Kim's face in deep, serious thought. When he did speak, it was in a low tone devoid of his trademark joviality. "Kim, hands down, you are the bravest person I know."

"Flatterer," she said with a smirk.

"But you're still just a person. And if you think leaning on us makes you weaker, or more beatable, you're wrong. Me, Ron, Monique, your brothers..." He struggled with the words. "We do this with you because we believe in you, not because we think you need us. And if we can help in any way..."

The faces of those who believed in her flashed by, ending with the one person she had missed more than any over the last two days as Kim rose from the bed. Nips and tugs left over from her trials rose with her, overpowered by a new imperative. "I've got to sign off, Wade," she said. "There's something I have to do."

He nodded, satisfied. Kim couldn't be certain, but she thought she saw something hidden behind his smile. "You know where to find me," he said before winking out.

Kim started to put the device back in her pocket. As she caught sight of herself in the mirror, the flash of powder blue gave her pause. Terrible weight clutched her one good arm while she watched her reflection heft its burden. She left the Kimmunicator on her dresser without another moment's hesitation. Bereft of its weight, Kim glided down the stairs, feather-light.

Arrhythmic pounding pulled Kim from her beeline toward the front door. She followed the din back into the kitchen and poked her head in. A giggle crawled up her throat as she watched her father wrestle a new cabinet onto the wall. Jim and Tim stood behind him with hammers at the ready and matching expressions of uncertainty. Behind them, Missus Possible tried coaching her husband from behind a set of directions.

"I'm heading out," Kim said. Mister Possible's only reply was to groan s he balanced the cabinet atop his head and shoved it into place. With an entreating look, she asked, "Are you sure I can't help? You look—"

Her father's sharp grunt answered. "'No heavy lifting' means no heavy lifting, Kimmie-Cub. You go on out and have some safe, non-strenuous fun."

"Yeah, Gimpy," Tim taunted her. "Go on."

"We got things here, Gimpy," said Jim.

Kim gave them a sisterly look that they ate up, and then watched them rush forward to catch their father and his wobbling load. She grabbed her mother's eye and asked a wordless question.

"I'm sure you have somewhere better to be, Kim," Missus Possible said. "Go ahead."

That knowing smile she gave Kim, so similar to Wade's, made Kim touch her face and wonder if they saw something she didn't. She backed down the hall, wiping her expression clear with her pal. But her blank face fell prey to surprise when she opened the front door to leave.

"Oh. Hi." Josh Mankey shifted nervously at the threshold of her home. His knuckles lowered, no longer needing to knock, and twisted at his side instead. Frosted locks dipped into his face as he bobbed his head, and said, "How are you?"

Speech fled from Kim at an alarming rate. "Good," she said with the last of her voice. A heavy feeling poured into her stomach.

He swept a hand through his perfect hair, and smiled a perfect smile. "Great. I stopped by to see how you were doing...and to talk."

The leaden lump inside of her grew. "Josh—"

Always a gentleman, Josh nevertheless held up a hand. "Please. I've put a lot of thought into this." A chuckle pulled his weak smile apart. "If I don't get through this now, I don't think I ever will." With a deep breath, he began, "Back in high school, I didn't really get this 'hero' thing you do. I thought it was cool, don't get me wrong. But...It was intimidating, you know? I wasn't just dating the most popular girl in school. I was with a national icon!"

'The most popular?' she thought, bewildered by this sudden confession.

"But seeing you and Ron fight made it all click," said Josh, tapping his head. "I get it now. Back in high school, I made a mistake, but now...I want to be on-board with everything. Kim the beauty," he said, taking the hand of her good arm. Then he took her casted arm, and added, "And Kim the hero."

Kim looked down at their hands. "I don't know what to say," she admitted.

"I finally feel like I'm ready to be a part of your world, Kim," Josh said. He squeezed her hands. "And I want you to be a part of mine."

"Josh, that..." Kim dragged her eyes back up to his. The hopeful twinkle she found there struck her to the core, threatening to turn her knees to jelly. She grasped his shoulders to keep upright, and gasped when his hands slid onto her waist. "That was everything I ever wanted to hear from you." With a mirthful smile, she said, "I think you just made most of my girlhood dreams come true."

The humor left her face as Josh's eyes swallowed her whole. Staring into his expectant expression, Kim knew what to do. With a silent prayer for forgiveness, she closed her eyes, leaned forward, and pressed her lips to his.

Her heart fluttered as he began kissing her back, running his smooth fingers across the small of her back. A rhapsody of bliss played the pain from Kim's body. She leaned into his taught fighter's build. Her hands ran up his neck to caress the freckles on his cheeks, and tease the edge of his messy blond hair. As she pulled away, her opening eyes half-expected to stare back into deep brown wells, even as she gazed into Josh's baby blues.

"But when I kiss you," she said through an apologetic smile, "It isn't your lips I feel."

"So there he was, totally melting all over my feet," said Ron, stretching out in his earthen seat and propping his enormous new shoes atop a root. The leafy canopy bathed him in shade while a bright sun baked the empty lot. "So I say to all the snot leakin' out of him, I say, 'You're not so pretty now, asshole. Better clean yourself up, 'cause I'm not gonna.'"

Ron treated himself to a luxurious stretch and a yawn. He scratched at his face, careful of the great purple ring around his eye. Every move he made set his ribs aflame, which made his inherent laziness a momentary asset. The hardest part was ignoring the itch of his taped chest. Then again, it helped keep his mind off 'other' problems.

Patting the root at his elbow, he said, "I don't know why I haven't done this sooner. You're a really good listener."

"I'll say."

The friendly voice snapped Ron's head around to the sidewalk at the edge of the empty lot. A dazzling beacon framed in bouncing red shone upon him, a beautiful light that brought him to his feet without pain or pause. His red jersey snagged on the trunk, causing him to stumble as she approached.

Smiling warmly, Kim helped him free of the trunk and brushed his shirt clean. Ron's face burned at her touch—gentle enough to leave his smaller bruises silent, wise enough to leave his larger pains alone—and helped her straighten himself out. "KP," he said, stepping back from her hands. "You okay?"

Kim looked him up and down. "Getting better," she said. "How about you?"

"I can see out of this eye again," he said, rolling his gaze around as if to prove it so. His eyes wandered everywhere else, but Kim's face was all he saw. None of her dark bruises remained from their epic battle; she had make-up on, and he knew it couldn't be for his benefit. Through all their adventures, Kim had never been bashful about her appearance, least of all around him. She wouldn't start for his benefit. "See well enough to notice your Nearly Nude there, anyway," he said.

Kim brushed the foundation on her face. She looked away to hide from Ron's probing gaze, lest it snatch a secret from her eyes. "How's Rufus?" she asked.

His eyes relented, and his hand tugged at the flap on his cargo pocket. Snoring escaped its confines as he checked on a slumbering pink puddle. "Doing what he does best." Without the slightest change in tone, he asked, "Is Josh all right?"

Once more, she fled his gaze. "He's okay."

They stood there a moment, each looking down at the other's feet. If Kim noticed anything different, she didn't voice it. After a spell, they looked up at each other, wearing identical smirks. "Did we cover all the meaningless chitchat?" asked Ron.

"I think so."

"Right. You want to get to brass tacks?"

Kim nodded. "Brass tacks," she echoed. Dread seeped into her heart, festering as the merry creases in Ron's face smoothed out, and the curl of his lips straightened. "So, what's the plan?" she asked as casually as she could, masking the wounds her own words knifed into her. "Still plan on leaving?"

"Not right away," he said, fighting to hold his gaze with hers. "Not forever." Hands in pockets, he said, "I just need some time away to clear my head."

'Worst liar on the planet,' thought Kim, giving silent thanks for it. "Do I get my five minutes?"

Ron couldn't quite smother his cringe. Spreading his arms, he said, "You've got me now."

Leaves rustled overhead as Kim bit back the thousand prefabricated words she had spun in her mind since last she stood beneath that very tree. Realizing what she had didn't prepare her for this moment. Endless planning and scripting dried up in her mouth, leaving it chalky. In the end, all Kim could say was, "Ron, I'm in love."

A sardonic laugh snorted out Ron's nose. "That falls squarely into the 'No Duh' category."

Kim shook her head. "It's not that simple. It can't be," she insisted. "I didn't understand it myself. In a lot of ways, I still don't." Her heart pounded faster at his furrowing brow. The rush of blood lent haste to her words. "At first, I tried to ignore it. Then I tried to control it. But now..."

"How long have you known?" Ron murmured. His eyes trailed back to the ground.

Cotton coated her tongue. "Almost a year," she said, and then, "Maybe longer."

'Humph. 'We grew apart' my fabulous fanny,' he thought.

"Ron, you and I will always be tighter than tight. You know that." Kim bit her lip again, this time out of fear. She could feel the young man before her slipping away without his moving an inch. All she wanted was to reach for him. But she couldn't. Not yet. "And we've been through so much together."

The ugliest smile Kim had ever seen ghosted across Ron's face. "No offense, KP," he said, "But this has to be about the dumbest 'Let's Be Friends' speech in recorded history."

Kim couldn't help but snicker along with him. Brushing a lock of hair from her face, she said, "It's important, Ron, because I have to betray you." Watching the wind sweep out of his sails helped make her smile real. "Part of the reason I've been so afraid of my own feelings is because I didn't want things between us to change."

Every last ounce of humor abandoned Ron, leaving him alone, afraid, and defenseless. He shrunk before Kim's eyes, losing every wall and layer that composed his mask—the thing he let the world laugh at so he could laugh with them—fell away. In a small, trembling voice, he told her, "Things have already changed."

"That's right," she whispered back. "Things are so different now. And this will only change them more. But I have to give it a chance. I have to give 'him' a chance." Bending low, she dipped her face into his view, and said, "I know you understand, Ron. Because you were willing to risk our friendship because of how you feel about me. Right?"

A universe of longing came into being and snuffed out in Ron's stunned silence. He lifted his chin as Kim straightened. She trapped his eyes wit hers, holding the rest of him by proxy. Ron wanted to laugh her question away, to say whatever it would take to make things the way they were.

"It's hard, KP," he said instead. "Seeing you every day, being with you, wanting...more."

The quiver in his voice shattered Kim's heart. "You never said anything before last week," she said. Her clenching throat made it difficult to speak.

Another smile crossed his features, a real smile that surprised Kim. "That's even harder, isn't it? I mean, how do I tell you all that without making it sound like I have some kind of grandfather clause on you? I don't want to guilt you and I don't want to inherit you."

The world around her blurred out in a wave of heat. She watched him vanish into a salty smear, and said, "What do you want now?"

Ron watched tears trail down. For a moment, he thought he might cry as well. But seeing her there, trembling, hanging on his every word out of a great, nameless fear, he felt a sudden calm settle over his soul. Strength returned to his voice as he said, "I know the score now, Kim. Guys like me don't end up with people like you. I just want you to be happy.

Without a sound, the two friends stepped together, desperate for each other's arms. Kim wrapped around his neck and cried into his shoulder, squeezing even tighter as she felt his arms around her waist. His soft skin grew slick with her tears as she breathed deep of his scent and drew strength from his soul.

"I will always be there for you," whispered Kim. "It doesn't matter what happens. You're my go-to guy."

Ron pressed his face into her waves of ginger. With a kiss to the top of her head, he said, "I know." The strawberry scent revived something in Ron that he knew he could no longer carry. Against every impulse, he pulled her away, offering her an encouraging look. "Feel better?" he asked.

Kim laughed, and mopped her eyes with the back of her hand. "Much," she said.

He dragged his shirt collar across his neck while Kim composed herself. The tears still in her eyes made them sparkle, like jade caught in morning dew, keeping a last, lingering shred of longing alive in him. It burned in his stomach, where he doubted it would ever go away. He hoped it wouldn't. "So," he asked, "Have you talked to him yet?"

"Not yet," she said, sniffling.

Rubbing the back of his neck, Ron forced himself to say, "You should probably strike while the iron's hot. Heh. Before he loses interest."

Kim grinned. "Yeah."

Ron stumbled back and caught Kim against his chest as she leapt into his arms. His question became lost in her lips, which found his with a passionate need. Shock froze his body, leaving Kim to kiss away the numbness in his mouth. The hunger and fervor in her touch blew through all his resistance. He was helpless.

His body took over, kissing back on instinct, as his mind tried to sort out what was happening. Dream and reality ran together and swirled in his eyes. He clamped them shut, ignored them, and grasped Kim by the waist. Real or unreal, if this never happened again, he wanted to remember everything: the softness of her lips, the gentle caress of her fingertips, the way her hair tickled his nose. Ron kissed her as she kissed him, with desperation and desire too great to contain any longer.

They parted with a gasp, hearts hammering. Ron staggered back and clutched at his hair to quell the spinning of his head. Kim's fearful fingers dug into his shoulder to keep him close. The moment her breath returned, she pressed herself to his chest and spoke in a ghost of her strong voice.

"I don't want to guilt you," she whispered into his ratty red jersey. "And I don't want to inherit you. If you feel like you have to go, then go." She felt him try to step back, and hooked her good arm around his neck. Squeezing her eyes shut, she said, "But if you still want me, I'm yours. I love you, Ron."


"I love you so much," she said, feeling his jersey soak beneath her face. "And I was so stupid, and I wouldn't blame you one bit if you left. But I love you. I love you," she murmured. As she pulled away, she blinked the tears free from her vision, letting them roll forgotten down her smirking cheeks as she gazed up into his silent shock. "Was that weird?"

Ron's lips flapped. His voice followed several seconds later. "Kinda. Kinda really," he stammered.

"Bad weird?" she breathed.

Terror squeezed Kim's chest like a vise. She couldn't breathe. The world came crashing down around her. And then Ron brought it back with a single touch.

Ron wiped Kim's tears away with his thumb, leaving a smile in their wake. The shock hadn't left his face. He probed her eyes, waiting for some sign that this wasn't real. "It's me?" he said at last.

With a sniff and a laugh, Kim said, "It's you. It's been you for a long time, Ron."

"Okay, now I'm confused." Ron's hands encircled her waist, drawing Kim close. She rested her weary head on his chest, listening to the beat of his racing heart. "We're best friends," he said aloud. "Only, we're in love, too."

"Pretty much," said Kim. She felt a stirring lift the weight from her innards. An irrepressible smile lit her face as she felt her butterflies return and swarm through her stomach.

His brow creased, and he hummed thoughtfully, drawing a sniffled giggle from Kim. "Except we've both felt pretty much the same for a while now."

"Yeah," she said, nuzzling her cheek into his shoulder.

Ron looked down, taking Kim's eyes into his. There was no more doubt between them. Those limpid pools of green filled him with warmth that swept his aches and fears away. His heart slowed. His mind cleared. Staring into Kim as she stared back into him, he felt a great sense of peace flow out of her and touch every part of him. But his mouth couldn't leave well enough alone. "So I don't get it," he said. "How is it gonna be any different?"

Kim leaned in on her tiptoes and showed him.

The End