Kim and William went to bed with smiles on their faces after discovering the scene on their couch. Kim held a particularly wide grin of contentment as she drifted off to sleep while thinking about her daughter. When she peered just past William's shoulder, she had a second's thought of either waking Kimi long enough to goad her to bed, or having William carry her into her bedroom. But that thought was squelched by knowledge of the effects that the transformation through a Cross can have - let alone on someone who hadn't planned the trip. The image of Kimi in a deep, restful slumber on the couch served to leave Kim with the thought of leaving sleeping daughters lie. It also filled her with further warmth that she had been feeling throughout the time between her return to Eastgate on Saturday evening and the spectacular chain of events on Tuesday night.

With the image of Kimi back in the Flesher environment, asleep on the dark blue couch in the living room of their house, Kim's final thoughts of the horror that had taken over the lives of every member of the Hodge family were washed away by the soothing thought that now, this night - this time - this family - everything was finally back as it should be.

As if it were the answer to an unspoken request, the night's slumber was kind to the Hodges - quiet and uninterrupted. The deep sleep and welcome silence seemed to serve as a further cleansing of the nightmare from each of their minds. Kim and William awoke shortly before 10 AM, feeling fresher and more renewed than they had been in more than a month. They set about their morning, enjoying a hearty breakfast of steak and eggs, even joined at one point by Rufus, who was treated to a hard-boiled egg and half of a slice of toast.

While the night's long gift was kind to Kim and William, the repose was exceedingly magnanimous to Kimi. They understandably let the teen continue her well-earned and deserved miniature hibernation, lasting more than 13 hours.

----------

6. Aftermath (Cygnus Wings into the Clear New Dawn)

Wednesday, July 17th, 2019, 2:47 PM.

Kim and William had engaged in a few games of backgammon with Rufus on the dining room table after a lunch of turkey and cheese sandwiches, playing music from a small radio on the counter, kept low as background. Kim had excused herself to use the restroom after winning another game. She was coming down the hall to the doorway of the dining room when she first heard it--

"…m-m-mm-mmm--"

Kim stopped and slowly turned her head in the direction of the living room as two arms raised from the couch, spreading upward in a wide stretch. The sound changed slightly to accompany the motion:

"Mm-mrr-rrrrrrr…"

Kim looked back to her husband in the dining room - "It's alive," she whispered - then took a few steps into the living room.

Kimi slid her floppy hat back onto her head and moved slowly to a sitting position, lowering one foot to the floor. She turned her head in a slow arc, as if stretching the muscles in her neck, further draining her system of the sleepiness. Her face spread into a delicate smile as she caught sight of her mother, her eyes still half-closed with the remainder of sleep. "G'morning," she said quietly.

Kim let out a small snicker. "You mean good afternoon," she said.

Kimi looked to the front window rather suddenly. "Afternoon?"

"It's almost Three," said William, poking his head just past the corner.

Kimi brought a hand to her forehead, lolling her head slightly forward. "It's all about feel like I slept for a week," she uttered.

"Same week," William added. "Just the next day."

Kimi's hand slipped from her head to fall into her lap. "Ugh," she winced with a sigh. "I missed breakfast and lunch…"

"There's still time for brunch," Kim quipped. "You just name it, and I'll whip it up." She then moved to the couch, sitting on the arm and placing a hand on Kimi's shoulder. "How do you feel?" she asked. "The rest had to do you some good."

Kimi moved to rise from the couch and tested her footing, first dipping a bit at the knees, then bouncing a little on the balls of her feet; she then brought her arms slightly from her sides, shaking out her hands a bit. "Yeah," she said, slipping into a smile. "All about stable."

"That's good to hear," Kim beamed as she stood and gathered her daughter into a hug. " That's a nice thing about the side effects of a Cross. It never lasts more than a few hours…and sleep usually clears it right out." She then pulled back to arms' length. "Tell me what you feel like eating," she said. "We had steak and eggs for breakfast, and a sandwich for lunch."

Kimi thought for a second. "Scrambled eggs sounds good," she said, lightly touching her stomach, "but it might be all about hold the steak…how about some toast instead…with marmalade?"

"Done and done," Kim grinned widely.

Kimi slid one strap of her overalls off of her shoulder. "I'm all about a shower first," she said, "then I want to check my e- and v-mail." She then turned to look over her shoulder to the couch. "Where's Rufus?"

"He's been in the kitchen for most of the day," said Kim, "playing backgammon and munching on a few grapes." She then leaned to Kimi, smirking through a whisper; "he even let your father win a couple of games."

Kimi brought her hand quickly to her mouth to suppress her sudden giggle, which drew out into a "Hmmmm-hmm-hmm."

Kim was also smirking back her own chuckle. "Scrambled eggs and toast, coming right up," she said, and turned in the direction of the kitchen.

Kimi started for the hallway. She turned to look into the dining room as she reached the doorway, her mouth in a tight smirk. As she looked to the table, she saw William and the small mole rat engaged in another match, both peering over the board. They both looked up as Kimi appeared, exchanging smiles with her wrinkled-nose grin.

Kimi had advanced about three steps into the hall when she heard her father state, "Guess you're a bit off your game today, Rufus…that's three games I've won now."

Kimi stumbled a bit as she heard this, slapping at her leg to keep from bursting out laughing.

----------

In the shower, Kimi took the cascade of hot water against her skin as another kind of cleansing, distancing herself from the past month's nightmarish chronicle. She also uttered another chain of thanks under her breath to the list of people who guided her in her mission to end the nightmare.

Kimi was softly squeezing a sponge against her shoulder, letting the heat of the water flow over her, when a realization stopped her. In the short span of three weeks under Mark's tutelage, she had been transformed from a frightened, terrorized teenager into an inalterable force focused against those determined to end her mother's existence without regard to ramifications splintering from that evil, malevolent act.

It's all about everybody's calling me a hero, Kimi thought as she twisted the faucets to turn off the shower. She pulled one large towel around her, tucking it in where it overlapped at her side, and patted another over her arms and head. I still don't feel like one, though. I just wanted my mom away from Drakken and those slugs. It's nothing that anyone else wouldn't have been all about. Cap'n Mark would have done it, if it hadn't been all about that lead pact. I didn't even beat all of them…Shego was all about that shock-stick thingy. If Mom wasn't free and up to a fight when Shego dragged me into that room, it would have been all about two bodies in the alcohol. She leaned to look into the mirror over the sink and slid her hand over her head, feeling the barest hint of stubble on her scalp. Mom rescued me from Shego, she thought. It's all about she should be the hero. Kimi then chuckled a bit as she further studied her new "do". At least she's still got all her hair. Maybe I can use this as an excuse to try a new 'do, once it's all about grow back.

Kimi took a quick look around the bathroom, making sure everything was as she found it - then turned and reached for the knob, pulling the door open. "Bathroom is clear," she called into the hallway, crossing it to the door of her room.

"Good timing," came Kim's reply from the kitchen. "Your food is about two minutes behind you."

"Okay," Kimi smiled, turning the knob to open the door to her room. "I'll be all about catch up on 'e and v'."

----------

3:18 PM.

"Ho-ly-SHIZ-nek!"

The sharp cry burst from Kimi's room just as Kim had entered the hallway, carrying a plate of scrambled eggs and three slices of toast with butter and orange marmalade in one hand, and a tall glass of orange juice in the other. At the sound, she quickened her pace. "Ki?" she said. William, also having heard his daughter, rose from the dining table and started into the hallway.

Kim reached her daughter's room. "Ki?" she asked again. "What's wrong, hon?"

Kimi was dressed comfortably in a pair of black sweatpants and a light blue t-shirt, and calf-length white socks. Her head was once again topped by the floppy purple sun hat, the front of the wide brim pulled up and hooked by a snap to the crown. She looked up from her computer, her eyes wide in an expression of stupefaction. "Mom? When you and Dad got back from Cairo…was it like…all about tons of mail?"

Kim took a few seconds to mentally shake out the concern over Kimi's outcry. Her expression lightened considerably as she moved to the desk, setting down the plate and juice. "I don't think I could say it was a 'ton'," Kim started, bringing up her now-free hands in a pair of "air quotes", "but we were gone for three weeks straight. I think I had around 30 or so."

William had appeared in the doorway. "Problems with mail, Ki?"

Kim turned her head to him. "Did you have a lot of back emails waiting when we got back?"

"Well…Marcy had been sending copies of the Board minutes…and then daily reports and tips from the stock advisor…not too much beside that. It was just over 50 messages total, not counting spam, of course."

Kimi shot her parents an exasperated "Pffft," and turned back to her computer screen, tapping the down arrow a couple of times.

Kim leaned to take a peek at the screen. She suddenly stood straight, turning back to William with a wide, incredulous stare. "148 mails?" she stammered.

William echoed his wife's surprise with a "Whoa."

Kim turned back to Kimi. "…that's including spam, right?"

"All about no spam," Kimi replied. "A lot of them are from the three weeks I was gone…but a lot more came in just since the Cross thingy last night." She scrolled down the list of her inbox, looking at the delivery dates, and stopping at an item near the bottom. She reached for her mouse to click on it. "Here's one from Melfina asking for your address," she said, reaching to the organizer next to the monitor for a pen and small pad. "Cap'n Mark's cell number is on here, too." She jotted the number on the pad, then grasped her mouse, clicking on the "reply" button, moved to the keyboard and typed for a few seconds - then returned to the mouse, clicking the "send" button. "She's all about got it now."

"Let the recipe traffic commence," quipped William. Kim suddenly turned with a smirk, slapping her hand lightly against his upper arm.

Kimi tapped her way a bit up the list. Her jaw slacked a bit. "Wow," she burst as she read the list of subjects. "Danielle Bremer…Amy Shoemaker…Kathy Adams--" her head turned to her parents "--these are emails from the kids I met at a youth club while I was on the base with Cap'n Mark," she said. She returned to the screen, opening an email from Danielle with the subject, "WHAT DID U DO?" She then read the contents aloud:

"Ki!

WOWOWOWOW! kat called me about 6 30 yesterday morning and said that kim possible was on. i turned it on and watched the movie with UR mom in it, then there was a special on about cellers. i couldent believe what i saw! all those people…… and UR MOM was there! and then a cross! and then U came out of the cross! what a kewl show! so thats how melfeena (melfina?) and UR mom and all the other cellers get here?

i almost thought U werent telling us the truth about U not being a celler, then they had the interview with misty. shes kewl! she explained alot like about how U werent really a celler but got accidentally sucked into a cross. then later in the day there was a big story in the base paper about what U did to save UR mom and how the captain from egypt was training U. U should of told us! we could of totally went and helped U kick ass! U R such a kewl friend Ki there is nothing we wouldent do for U. we are all glad U R safe and back home now.

noone should ever hurt a celler not even other cellers!

write back as soon as U read this! I STILL WANNA MEET UR MOM! and now i can thanks to U!

U R STILL MY HERO!

Dani"

Kim and William chuckled slightly over the last few statements in the email. "Sounds like a whole new fan club," said William.

"Dani is all about great," Kimi said. "When I first met her, she had never met a Celler, but wanted to really bad. This youth group met on Thursday nights. Melfina came back about a week before I left. My last night at the youth club, I set it up so the group could meet Melfina. Everybody was really happy to meet her, but Dani was all about freak."

"There's been a wide range of reactions to meeting a Celler for the first time," Kim said.

Kimi burst into a sudden titter at recollection of that evening. "Heh…it was all about Dani wet herself." This was joined with laughter from Kim and William.

Kim then motioned to the plate on the desk. "Breakfast look good?" she asked.

"Yeah," said Kimi. "In fact, it's all about eat before I reply to any of these." She slid the plate in front of her, digging into her eggs and bringing a bite to her mouth. "Thanks Mom--" she said, closing her mouth around her fork. The last of "Mom" was drawn out into an appreciative squeak as she slowly withdrew the fork and dropped her hand to the desk, her eyes narrowing as her face drifted into a dreamy expression. "--mm-mmmm."

Kim broke into a wide smile. "I think I can take this to mean I no longer have to try to describe the taste of Celler food, and the vast differences to Flesher food," she said.

"If I could," Kimi said, "I'd be all about invite Cellers here just to have a big dinner every week." She picked up a slice of her toast, coated with sweet orange preserves, and took a bite. Her face then melted into a dreamy smile again. "Oorrr breakfaaast," she drew out.

"Eat up," grinned Kim. "Dinner will be a little before 8. Baked fish in lemon garlic butter, with a light pasta and green beans."

Kimi's head perked from her plate at this. "Those big cod fillets?" she asked.

"The very same."

Kimi tipped the slice of toast to her mouth again. "It's all about I'll make sure there's room," she beamed.

William slipped an arm around Kim's waist. She giggled as Kimi took another bite of the toast. "Let me know if there's anything else good in your mail…I'll go see if Melfina has sent me anything," she chuckled, "Flesher Food Girl." The two then turned to enter the hallway.

Kimi smiled wide as she finished her bite. "It's all about that's me!" she chimed toward the hall, getting laughter in response. She then turned back to her computer, sliding her mouse. "Let's see what Amy has to say…"

Kimi gave Amy's mail a short read - then returned to Dani's correspondence, formulating an answer. She then replied to Amy, and plunged into the rest of the large backlog of email - including a rather animated v-mail from her friend, Frannie, who expressed a high level of surprise upon learning of the teen's whereabouts and actions in the last month, and joy at her heroic accomplishments.

Kimi took her empty plate to the kitchen, then returned to her room and continued wading through the mail, composing responses to each. She took a break around 6, fetching a glass of iced tea and stopping at the dining room table at the request of Rufus for a couple of games of backgammon.

After the games, the two remained in the kitchen, helping Kim with the preparation of the evening meal. Having knowledge of her mother's movements and methods, Kimi anticipated various steps in coordinating the cooking process, having a bowl or plate ready or stirring a dish while Kim was at another task. Rufus had the delight of squeezing lemons for the sauce, pressing halves of the tart fruit onto a juicer on the counter and walking in a circle around the device until the juice was extracted. This brought a moment of alarm when Rufus caught a spray of lemon juice in his eye, causing him to hop around the counter, screaming with his hands over his face. After a 20-second bath under warm running water, the mole rat seemed to be back to normal, asking for a towel. He then extolled his thanks by leaping to Kimi's shoulder and peppering her cheek with kisses, causing the teen to fall into a brief spree of helpless giggling.

Around 8 O' Clock, the meal was ready, and the family assembled at the dining room table to prepare their plates. While Rufus wasn't in the mood for fish, he more than made up for it with a generous helping of the pasta, and a side of the green beans. He entertained the table by showing his talent of sucking the actual bean out of the casing without opening it, and then balancing the empty vegetable on his nose for a few seconds before letting it fall into his mouth.

The food was enjoyed by all - and while it wasn't expressed in direct words, the Hodges enjoyed something else that had been missing from their lives - the banter and flow of family. Their conversation was spirited, Kim and William each wondering aloud how they would spend the rest of the week before returning to work at Meridian the following Monday. Kimi talked about her expectations in her upcoming first semester of high school in the fall, and expressed a desire to contact a few friends of Frannie's to see about an opening on the junior varsity cheerleading squad.

After the meal, the family as a group set about the task of doing the dishes and storing the small amount of leftovers. This even employed the newest member of the Hodge family, as Rufus was given the assignment of wiping down the table and counters as they became clear of dishes, guiding a moist cloth over the various surfaces until they shone.

Even this routine daily chore became further affirmation to the Hodges that their lives truly were returning to the now-warm, reassuring embrace of the normal groove of everyday family life - little things usually taken for granted by many people, until and unless presented with the potential of losing them.

9:22 PM.

With the evening's duties completed, Kim and William repaired to the living room to spend some time relaxing on the couch in the living room, the only light being that from the stereo and the small light over the kitchen sink. Mr. and Mrs. Hodge were confident that neither they nor their marriage had suffered any lasting ill effects from the previous tumultuous month; in fact, it had done nothing but enhance the treasure of their romance, which they had never held less than close and dear, and had not wavered or waned throughout the whole of their sixteen years together.

Kimi returned to her bedroom with Rufus close behind to continue her mail odyssey, sending a reply to each of the messages sent to her. Out of the many messages, she spent extra time with the emails from the group of new friends she made at the Air base near Willow Grove, each of them relating their wonder upon learning the basic details of her mission and events surrounding and prompting it, and rejoicing that her efforts to save her mother were successful. The most amazed parts of the emails surrounded Kimi's side-trip into the Celler environment, and the scope of the broadcast event which heralded her return.

The repetition of this fact in email after email made Kimi stop for a moment, folding her arms in front of her on the desk and laying her head to the side onto them, closing her eyes to rest them after so long at the computer screen. It's all about all this attention is wearing me out, she thought. Maybe it's all about I really am a hero…but that's not what took me to Cairo. Anybody would have been all about, if it was their mom taken hostage, and had somebody like Cap'n Mark who had enough confidence to help them do it. Okay, maybe it's all about I know more Karate than a lot of people…but hell, if it hadn't been for Cap'n Mark, even I couldn't have been all about up against people with guns, no matter how much Karate I know. Those Ace-dart thingies were shiznekkin…even if I did have to use seven or eight of them on The Blob.

Kimi turned to rest her forehead against her arms. I didn't even beat Shego, she thought. My first fight with a Celler villain, and it was all about 'L column'. Mom was all about Shego-shred though…maybe that's from all the stuff on the show. She already knew Shego's fighting style. Kimi's face then slid into a quick slight smirk. Being all about fourth-degree black belt probably didn't hurt either.

Rufus moved along Kimi's arm to her shoulder and leaned to give a hug against her cheek, uttering a tiny "G'night," and then moved to the back of the chair, leaping from it to Kimi's bed, where he curled next to her pillow.

Kimi followed the rodent's movements with a warm smile. "G'night, Rufus," she said. "I'm all about still up for a little while longer." She turned back to her computer and scanned over the list of messages, each now with a small icon next to them denoting a reply had been sent. She gave herself a small mental pat on the back at the accomplishment, then again folded her arms in front of her on the desk and laid her head upon them. Maybe the emails will be the last of Planet Fuss, she thought as she took in a long breath and let it out slowly, settling a little further onto her arms. I need to be all about black belt, like Mom…black belts don't lose fights. No more 'L' for this Swan…

Thursday, July 18th, 1:54 AM.

Kim was reclining on the couch, with the television on, the volume low. She was re-watching the recording of the televised news conference at the airport from that morning. The slight noise from her right caused her to turn in that direction to the teen in the hall - now without her floppy hat. "Hi," she said in a soft voice.

"Hi," Kimi returned.

"Can't sleep?"

"It was all about short nap after going through all that email," said Kimi. "I was going to fix some hot chocolate…want some?"

The offer brought forth by the warm familiarity of her daughter's voice spread Kim's face into a smile. "Yeah…that sounds good," she said.

Kimi returned the smile with her own wrinkled-nose version and headed into the kitchen, taking two large mugs from the tree under the cabinet. She reached into a drawer for a spoon, and then opened the cupboard for the cocoa mix. After measuring a few scoops into each mug, she opened a door for a large glass cup and took it to the refrigerator for milk, which she then placed in the microwave to heat. When the chime sounded, she retrieved the cup and poured it slowly into each of the mugs, stirring as she did so. She rinsed out the measuring cup and set it in the sink, then stirred both mugs again, making sure the mixture was completely dissolved. She set the spoon into one of the mugs, then picked them up from the counter and walked into the living room.

Kim grinned and her eyes narrowed into slightly dreamy slits at the sight of the treat her daughter held. "Mmmm," she purred as Kimi set a mug before her. "Just the smell of that is warm."

"Yeah," said Kimi, taking a seat next to her mother on the couch. She took a sip from her mug. "All about warm fuzzies for the stomach." She then looked at the television for a few seconds. "What's on?" she asked.

Kim brought her mug from the table, tilting it slightly and letting her lips gently kiss against the small bit of foam that had formed at the rim of the mug. "I started to watch a movie," she said, "but then I decided I didn't want to follow too deep a plot. This is the news conference from out at the airport this morning."

Kimi nodded slightly then turned toward the screen. The scene was a small awning under the entrance of one of the large hangars that had been used as makeshift quarters for the huge audience to the event the night before. There was a table near one side of the awning, peppered with clusters of microphones and small recorders. Mark was seated near the middle of the table, with Melfina to his right, and Misty to his left. Mark turned his head slightly to the left as reporters vied for his attention:

:Captain…Captain…Adam Merrick with GNN Global Insight. So we are to understand that this girl…Miss Kimi Hodge…as a further result of the mission you trained her for to rescue her mother from terrorists…? This act also had a factor in your actions before the United Nations Assembly earlier this week to rescind the pact that had been drawn up regarding actions of the military between environments:

:You're very, very close: Mark replied. :The Pact was drawn up to help with inter-environmental relations, in the capacity of the military of one environment acting on behalf of the other. The heroic mission that Miss Hodge engaged in had the sole function of rescuing her mother. The restrictions of the Pact limited the military from acting in this capacity. It was the unintended and…unforeseen side-results of the mission that formed a prime example as to why the Pact should have been rescinded:

A few moments passed in this manner, with both women watching the progression of the conference, slowly nursing their rich warm drinks. At one point, Kimi reached for the remote, pressing the "pause" button. She then turned her head slowly, trading glances between Kim and looking down into her cocoa. "Mom?" she asked softly, pausing for a few seconds after she had caught her mother's gaze. "Do…" she started, "do you feel like a hero…?"

Kim raised one eyebrow, her expression shifting to one of slight concern. "No," she offered warily after a few seconds, curious about the nature of her daughter's query. "…why would you ask me that, Ki?"

"Well…it's all about you rescued me from Shego," Kimi said.

Kim's shoulders drooped slightly and her expression lightened, as if some weight had been lifted from her. "Ki," she smiled, "if you hadn't broken me out of that enclosure, I wouldn't have even been able to take on Shego…in fact, that's the only part of your mission you actually got any help on. You took out ten armed men…all by yourself." Kim stopped for a second. "Are…are you saying that you don't feel like a hero?"

Kimi's glance danced slightly from side to side for a moment. "No, Mom," she said, "I don't. Heroes are all about just rush in and save people. I had a lot of…pushing--err, help…before I actually decided to go to Cairo. I had a long talk with Cap'n Mark the week before I started training for the mission…and…all about dreams and other things…"

Kim searched Kimi's eyes for a moment, looking for a sign that might help to align her daughter's present misconception. She suddenly rose from the couch, moving to the bookcase near the television and retrieving a thick book. She then returned to the couch, opening the book and leafing through a few pages.

Kimi watched as her mother fished through a few more pages. "The dictionary?" she asked.

Kim said nothing, but continued her search. She stopped on a page, scanning about halfway down and reading. "Hero," she said, her finger tracing over the line as she read aloud, "noun. A person noted for feats of courage and nobility of purpose, especially one who has risked or sacrificed his or her life." As she spoke the last of the definition, her eyes lifted from the page to Kimi, her mouth spreading into a knowing smile. "It doesn't say anything here about heroes not getting or wanting help--" she moved to take Kimi's hand "--but it does mention the part about a hero risking their life to accomplish something courageous." Kim's expression warmed even further now. "Besides…you've always been my hero, Ki…even before any of this happened."

The two sat for only a second before moving into an embrace.

Kim then slowly pulled back a bit, bringing a hand to caress her daughter's cheek. "Did I hear you say something about…dreams helping you decide…?"

Kimi froze with the remembrance of the vivid images that flooded her in the week before her call to Mark. "Yeah…a couple," she nodded slowly after a moment. "A couple nights before I called Cap'n Mark…it was all about nightmare." Her eyes shifted slowly to the table in front of her as she continued. "This building…it was all about long hallway, and a door at the end…and you kept calling my name. I ran for the door…but just before I got there…Shego came out. We got into a fight…she was all about sword on her leg…and she moved so fast. I was all about go in to save you…and then Shego--" Her mouth soured for a second, her teeth gritting, and her voice started to waver as a tear escaped onto her cheek. "I was all about sooo--mad when I saw her…she was standing between me and the door…and she was laughing, and all about 'Lesson time, Princess'. I heard you keep calling me…I wanted shredded Shego so bad…but she--she moved so fast. If she had been all about move as fast in real life…sword or not…it would have been all about over in a second…just like the dream."

Kimi then collected herself somewhat. She reached for a tissue from a box on the table and wiped her eyes as Kim reached an arm around her shoulders. "The real fight with Shego in Cairo was all about different," continued Kimi. "She tried to hit me…and she was all about slow…she was so open, I actually used an open hand. I slapped her, and she was all about recoil."

Kim's eyebrows raised along with her smile. "Ah, you caught that, too," she said. "Shego wasn't completely used to Flesher mass yet, being that it was her first time here. It takes a while, until you've done it a few times. Until then, exercises usually help, too. And, ask any Celler who's done a Cross about the first time they felt physical pain in the Flesher environment."

"Yeah," returned Kimi. "She would have been all about easy, if she didn't have that shock-stick thingy…even against my Escrima, she was all about better. Cap'n Mark and I never covered that in training."

"Mark and I talked a bit about that the day after we got back here," Kim said. "I said that I know some things about Shego's fighting style that most people didn't. Shego is a brown belt in Kempo…almost everybody in the Celler environment knows that. But she also did some studying in a fighting style called 'Bartitsu'…"

"Isn't that from England?" Kimi offered.

"Yep," grinned Kim. "Part of the style involves something called 'singlestick techniques'…partly from European fencing. The usual weapon is actually a cane or walking stick."

"The stick Shego had was shorter than that," said Kimi, "but it had a taser thingy in it…that's what knocked me out…but she was all about--"

"Swings and twirls?" Kim cut in.

The words threw Kimi's mind immediately back to the duel against the raven-haired villain, and how she scarcely moved quick enough to keep up a defense against her opponent's acrobatic weaves, spins and lunges with the charged baton. "…Yeah," she shuddered. "She was all about…like…cheerleader from Hell. I was working harder than I've ever done with the Escrima just to keep her from hitting me. I couldn't even go on offense."

"She almost used it on me," said Kim. "It was right after she dragged you into the room. At first, I thought that you were…well, never mind what I thought. I bent down to check your pulse. I caught Shego just before she was going to crown me with that baton." Kim then broke into a sudden giggle, remembering how she systematically thrashed their final foe. She reached out a hand, patting her daughter's knee. "Don't you worry, Ki," she smiled widely, "I shredded her enough for the both of us."

Kimi read her mother's expression, a grin spreading over her own face in response. "All about finer than frog's hair?" she perked.

Kim's expression instantly shifted from soft laughter to a look as if she had been slapped, her eyes widening in disbelief, staring at her daughter. "Where…" she started, "--where did you hear that phrase, Ki?"

Now Kimi froze at her mother's reaction to the phrase. Finally, after what seemed like a healthy slice of an eternity; "Angelica…said it to me, Mom."

Kim remained stunned at this second statement, even though she essentially expected it. Angelica had been the only person she had ever known to use the phrase Kimi blurted. Another few seconds passed. "You," Kim said cautiously, "…you said you had…a couple of dreams…"

Kimi nodded her head slowly, still registering her mother's expressions at reference of the Cross Agent. "…It was on the night that I finally called Cap'n Mark," Kimi began slowly. "It was a dream…only I don't know if it was a dream. She pinched me in the dream…and I really felt it. Then when I woke up, it was all about red mark where she pinched me…"

"That's happened before," Kim said. "Kind of."

"She…she said she still talks with you…"

Another nod from Kim - this time mixed with the barest hint of a smile.

"In the dream…she said that you said to…tell me hi, and that you were okay…other than the alcohol…and that when you got out, you were gonna…shred Shego finer than frog's hair. That's where I heard it." Kimi then slowly slid her gaze to the table again. "She said she couldn't tell me what to do…but…I think she was trying to...I mean, without being all about say it."

Kim sat for a second. "Angelica had always had an…unconventional way of making a point, without coming right out with--"

"--She showed me the graveyard, Mom."

Kimi's eyes remained on the table as she said it, and her statement froze her mother in mid-sentence.

There was a moment of silence between the two - Kimi's eyes still trained on the table, Kim's remaining locked on her daughter. Kimi slowly raised her head and turned to meet her mother's stare, her own eyes now glassy. "She was all about took me there in the dream," she said, remembering Angelica's words when they first came to the dark scene. "The place that no Celler can speak of…and no Flesher can dream of…where--Cellers go when they--"

She stopped for a second, interrupted as Kim had gathered her hands, holding them between her own. Kimi continued, swallowing hard and blinking, trying to fight back the tears, her azure eyes never leaving the rich emerald pools before her; "That's what made me call Cap'n Mark back. She was really trying to tell me, Mom--" Kimi talked in a constant string now, her voice beginning to melt apart before the insistent building force of her emotion. "--she was saying that n-Obody else could save you but me and she showed me the graves and an open gr-A-ve and tomb-st-ONe with--with y-your na-a-me--"

Kimi suddenly burst against Kim's shoulder, pulling her into a desperate, clutching embrace as her weeping now spilled forth, the last of her speech seized by her sobs. Kim was teary-eyed as she held tightly, swearing she could feel the torrent of emotion from her daughter tugging to lose them both in its current. "It's alright, Ki," she said, rocking softly. "I'm here…I'm not dead…I'm not going anywhere."

After a moment, Kim pulled Kimi back a bit, catching her eye. "And it's because of you that I'm not." She then drew Kimi back into a hug. "Many things have happened in the last month…some of them were…horrible. Some of them were actually good. And the good things that happened…were because of you, and what you have done. That defines 'hero' better than any dictionary could."

Now Kimi pulled back a little. She gave a small sigh, trying to smooth out the rest of her emotions. "Okay, Mom," she said, managing a wan smile, "it's all about I'm your hero…I think I can be all about live with that." Her brow then furrowed slightly. "It's just that…it's all this attention from everybody else that's hard to deal with. It's all about like, rock star…and after everything else that happened, it's…its all about almost too much…"

"It makes me remember the day I married your father," Kim said. "It was the first time a Celler had been introduced into a public situation. There were over 300 people in the church who had never seen or even heard of a Celler before that day. After that, a lot of people gave me a lot of attention, too." Kim now took her hand again. "Ki…" she started, "you have to realize…whether it was intentional or not…you've done some pretty amazing things. Things that no other Flesher could ever do…ever…and your return from the Celler environment was televised to the world. I know that's quite a bit more than 300 people…but…I think it would have been strange if you didn't receive attention and celebrity from something that big."

Kim now patted Kimi's hand and smiled. "I know it seems overwhelming," she said, "but, I think things will settle down soon enough." Kim's face then slipped into a small smirk. "Another way to think of it is getting you used to having a little attention and fame in your life. You're going to get noticed a lot anyway, once we start getting you into karate tournaments."

Kimi's eyes shot wide at this. "It's all about I want my Black Belt before I graduate high school, Mom."

Kim broke into a quick giggle. "Well, you know you have to go through your Brown Belts first…"

"Four years," Kimi said. "All about doable. I'm already all about almost there on some things. Cap'n Mark taught me a bunch of moves and said that I'm all about a First-Level Brown Belt now, more or less…and I've already had a little experience against opponents--" she slid into a semi-bashful smirk "--thanks to you…sort of."

Kim couldn't help but break into laughter while admiring her daughter's commitment. "Take a couple weeks to work out and get back into full shape," she said, "and we'll start studying."

Kimi nearly dove into her mother's arms at this. "Thanks Mom," she said onto Kim's shoulder. "Cap'n Mark is only a second-degree Black Belt. It's all about I could catch him in about six years." She then slid back and added, "I can already do a triple kick faster than he can…he said so himself."

Kim giggled again. "O-oo-kay…Bruce Ki," she punned, bringing a titter from Kimi, "but we have some other things on the schedule in the meantime." Kimi's expression shifted quizzically as Kim continued. "I got an email from Melfina earlier tonight. She and Mark are going back to Cairo for a couple of days, to take care of some things…then they're coming back on Saturday, to take us all out to a big dinner at the finest restaurant in town…'paid for by Uncle Sam,' she said."

Kimi perked into a wide-eyed smile. "Yes!" she burst. "All about lobster at D'Angelo's!" She suddenly added, "Think I could invite Frannie to be there, too?"

"Absolutely!" Kim beamed. "Melfina said that she and Mark are inviting some people along, and I talked to him about emailing Marcy and Tina to see if they wanted to come, sooo...I don't see why not."

----------

D'Angelo's was located deep in the southern section of Eastgate, in the "Old World" part of town - a physical atmosphere similar to Brookings Market Square, containing a rich mix of international culture, but without the 60's "coffee house" anti-culture the Square held. The restaurant was set on a corner, among a collection of small quaint antique shoppes, and was built to present its patrons with an old-country Italian dining experience.

The warm, inviting entry hall was coated in a rich cherry wood, with matching exposed beams lining the ceiling at intervals, and at corners of the entire restaurant. A carpet of deep red with intricate patterns covered the floor of the dining area. There was a lounge just off the entry area where people could visit and have a drink while waiting for a table. Throughout the restaurant, scones with soft lights on the walls showcased fine tapestry and paintings, and high chandeliers from the ceilings completed the atmosphere.

At the back of the restaurant, after a descent of about six steps, was the Mangiare Bene Dining Room, a separated area for large reservations and parties. Mark and Melfina had placed a call as they were in the air to Cairo on Thursday, reserving the room and giving a preliminary yet tentative guest list.

Shortly after 6:00, a group of limousines was dispatched to Eastgate Airport; out of that group, one carried Mark and Melfina to transport the Hodges to the restaurant; two more were to pick up other local guests. Three more remained in front of the terminals to escort more arriving guests.

Saturday, July 20th, 6:38 PM.

Il Ristorante D'Angelo

1806 Pierce St.

Kimi descended into the large dining room, dressed in a pair of light grey dress slacks and a medium-blue button-down shirt. Her head was adorned with a smart "Panama" style hat of a light wheat color, which she bought the previous day. While Kimi still cherished the floppy purple sun hat, which was a gift from her new Celler friends during her unintended visit, she felt that her present choice in headgear would lend a slightly less casual and more fashionable appearance for the occasion. Around her neck hung the cap from her crystal set onto a sterling necklace, the links a perfect compliment to the streaks of silver flowing through the azure cap.

Her parents followed her, Kim in tan slacks and a white blouse, William in dark charcoal slacks and a black sports jacket over a burgundy polo shirt. Like her daughter, Kim also wore the keepsake from her Cross around her neck.

Mark and Melfina then appeared at the stairway and entered the room. Mark emitted a striking presence outfitted in his full military uniform, his cap tucked lightly under one arm and a newspaper neatly folded under that, one end tucked into the cap. His other arm was engaged with that of Melfina, who was wearing the lengthened version of a "little black dress", cut rather deep in front and hanging from the shoulders, flaring below the waist to stop just below the knees. While her hair was styled to sweep back over her shoulders, it still retained a hint of the tossled abandon that was part of her usual appearance in more casual moments.

Kim took a slow look around the dining room as she passed along the wide, lengthened table down the center. "We've eaten at D'Angelo's before," she said, "but never down here. This is just beautiful." She then turned to Mark and Melfina. "Thanks so much for this, you two, but…you didn't have to spoil us…"

"The surroundings are…quite exquisite," said Melfina as her gaze lingered over one of the paintings, "yet it is not the environment of the restaurant, but being surrounded by friends made and others related to and allied in the effort to rescue you that shall make this a night to fondly remember."

Mark gave his wife a gentle friendly nudge. "The lobster won't hurt much, either," he quipped. The group laughed at this.

Melfina turned to Mark, giving a small snicker as she lightly thudded her fist against his upper arm. "I think it might be you who is spoiled," she smirked, "by the caliber of my cooking. It is…how would it be put…'so not military food'." Kim broke into a chuckle at the comment.

Kimi burst into laughter. "It's all sooo not about the shingle." Melfina reiterated this with a knowing grin of her own. Kimi then turned to Mark. "Speaking of military," she asked, making a motion to the large man's uniform, "how come you're all about full dressiness?"

"There was some last-minute business on base before we left Cairo," Mark said. "We had a nap in the evening there…and by the time I woke up, it was so close to our flight time, I just stayed in uniform." Mark then noticed that Kimi was holding her gaze a little longer. "What is it, Ki?"

Kimi continued to look over the royal-blue jacket with a slightly puzzled expression. "I...don't know," she said. "I've seen your uniform before, but in this light…it's all about there's something different, Cap'n Mark."

Both Mark and Melfina spread into grins. "Oh," burst Mark, bringing his hand up. "It might be these." He tapped a finger near the top of his shoulder. Where two silver Captain's bars had adorned either side, the epaulets of his jacket were each now sporting a single circular leaf-shaped insignia in gold. "There was a ceremony yesterday at the base…" he started.

"For his level of service and commitment to not only train you for your mission," Melfina continued, "but also his work in presenting the motion to the United Nations to rescind the Cross-environment Pact--" she now looked up to him, her face spreading into a proud smile. "Mark has received a commendation."

"A promotion, actually," said Mark, his face adopting a slight grin of pride as he slid the cap from beneath his arm, still clutching the paper, and showed Kimi a matching insignia in the center of the crown. "You might have to change my nickname a little, Ki," he smiled. "It's not 'Cap'n Mark' any more…but 'Major Mark'."

Kim and William's eyes brightened at the revelation, Kim clapping her hands. "Mark, that's wonderful!" she perked.

"Congratulations…Major," William offered with a grin, shaking Mark's hand.

Kimi looked up to meet Mark's eyes. "I…might miss 'Cap'n Mark'," she said of the moniker she gave him the night of her mother's disappearance in Cairo, "…but from the night I met you…it's all about you've always been a major to me…a major diamond--" she then moved to hug the tall officer. "Major Diamond Mark," she finished.

The motion coupled with her husband's wide grin, caused Melfina to break into a drawn-out "Awwwww," clasping her hands at her chest, then turning to Kim. "Kimi herself is a jewel," she said.

"We've always thought so," Kim chimed.

6:45 PM.

A light voice caused Melfina to turn to the doorway:

"…Is this the dinner for-- oh, hi Mr. & Mrs. H…where's--?"

Kimi peeked from behind Mark's torso at the sound - then suddenly burst into a quick, shrill shriek, breaking it just long enough to turn quickly back to the large Major. "Allabout'scuseme! --ee-eEEEE!" she blurted - then raced around him in the direction of the rather tall, slender blonde-haired girl who was now standing at the bottom of the stairway. At the sight of Kimi, the girl broke into a similar outcry and rushed into the room from the stairs. The squeals continued until both girls met at a midway point between the table and the stairway, their arms wrapping tightly around one another in a twirling, jumping embrace.

Melfina's look of surprise was squelched by Kim. "Best friend," she grinned.

"All-about-oh-no…you…DIDN'T!" Frannie burst. "You did NOT just walk out of the window at the Mall!"

"I had to!" Kimi returned excitedly. "It's all about where else can I get a steady supply of Bitz from hockey on Saturdays?" The two girls burst into laughter at this, again hugging tightly.

"You were really all about in the Celler enviro!" perked Frannie. "I thought it was, like…all about only true Cellers could…"

Kimi quickly made the motion of patting over the pockets in her slacks and blouse, then turned to Kim. "Mom? Did you bring any Clue Bees? I'm all about out--" she suddenly turned back to Frannie, wrapping an arm around her head and pulling it to her, rubbing the heel of her other hand over the top of her friend's scalp "--and The Fra' is all about forgot I have Celler skin and eyes!"

Frannie squirmed to escape Kimi's teasing. "Hey!" she giggled. "Let up, Strawberry Terry…or next time I'll be all about lick your head!"

Kim now approached the pair, laughing herself. "Easy there, Ki," she chuckled, placing a hand on the teen's arm. "We left all the bad guys back in Cairo, remember?."

"Oh, it's all about I owed her this, Mom," Kimi smirked as she released the slender blonde girl. "for licking my belly button in v-mail the weekend before I left." This stopped Kim's laughter, her expression changing to a slight daze of disbelief, one eyebrow raising. "What?" perked Kimi. "I have the whole thing saved at home!"

Frannie now burst into helpless laughter, doubling slightly, holding her midsection. "Y-hou sa-ha-haved I-hi-hi-hi-iit," she managed through her snickering. "I knew you liked it!" The two then placed an arm warmly over each other's shoulders. "Mom and I watched the conference thingy on TV the other day," Frannie said. "When she first found out you were all about save your mom, she was all about like, happy Mom tears…the more she watched, the more amazed she was about what happened. For a while, she was all about thought you were like…secret agent or something. Misty was all about neat--" Frannie's face now slid into a smirk. She leaned a bit closer to Kimi "--and I think Mom is all about crush on Cap'n Mark." The teens fell into giggles at this.

Frannie made a motion to Kimi's shoulder, sliding her fingers under the delicate chain along her neck to gather the cap. "'Nekkin' sparkle, Ki," she remarked.

"It's all about the cap from my crystal thingy when I crossed," Kimi beamed. "Misty saved it. Now it's all about no more begging Mom to wear hers," she tittered.

"Which she never did get to wear," Kim added quickly, bringing chuckles from the group. "I think now she might understand why."

Kimi then guided her friend back to the group. "This is my best diamond friend, Frannie McGinnis," she said. She swept her hand to her left. "This is Cap'n-- uhh, Major Mark…"

The dainty blonde reached out her hand, which was swallowed in Mark's large mitt. "How do you do, Frannie," he smiled.

A small squeak sprang from Frannie as Mark turned, her eyes wide as she looked upward to take in the 6'7" frame before her. "Hii-ii, Mar--ma-me--" she stammered through a smile. "--me…yikes," she breathed with a quick glance to Kimi.

Kimi let out a quick snicker at her friend. "All about maintain, Fra," she grinned. "Say it with me now…'Maarrk'…"

Frannie's eyes returned to the tall officer. "Maarrk," she droned, as if on command.

"It's okay, Frannie," Mark flashed through a wider smile. "It happens quite a bit."

"I--I'm sorry," Frannie managed. "I just--" she flashed a look to Kimi. "Now I see why Mom was all about--"

"'Frannie', Melfina smiled, offering her hand. "Short for…Francis? Francesca?"

"Frannie, allow me to introduce my wife, Melfina," said Mark.

Frannie recovered a bit, shifting her hand to take that of the Celler to Mark's left. "H-hi," she said. "…It's short for Francesca."

"'Francesca," Melfina repeated. "It means, 'A free woman'…"

Frannie had a rather puzzled expression at this. "She's all about names," Kimi offered. "She does that with everybody."

Frannie perked back to Melfina. "You have to meet my mom and tell her that," she grinned. "Maybe it'll get me out of some chores."

This was immediately topped with laughter from Kimi, Kim and William. "But Frannie," William said, "now that we're back home, I thought you'd be eager to continue with your work toward being a trained housemaid at our place!" Frannie giggled a bit, rolling her eyes, while Kimi fell into chuckles as she remembered the incident in which her father originally proposed the idea.

Mark had moved to the far end of the table. "We should start thinking about seating arrangements," he said, removing a chair from near a corner of the table and sliding it around to the end. "There will be more people coming soon." He then pulled the chair from the table. "Ki, you should sit at the head of the table--" he motioned to the seats just to the left of the chair he moved as he placed his cap and newspaper on the table in front of seats on the other side "--Kim and William, sit here. Frannie, you want to sit next to them? Melfina and I will take the two seats opposite--"

6:51 PM.

A voice from the stairs caused everyone to turn in that direction: "I'll sit on the other side of Melfina…she doesn't throw napkins."

The group broke into wide smiles as the smallish brunette, dressed in a navy-blue pantsuit and a silver blouse, crossed the bottom two stairs and entered the room. Kim was first to greet her with a warm hug.

"Beautiful as always," Misty smiled as they parted. She then took a quick look over the room. "So is this place," she said. "Everyone else is on the way?"

"Marcy should be here shortly," said Kim. "She just had to check in at Lupes restaurant."

"There are other people coming in by helicopter from the air base," Mark added. "Their Scramship flight was supposed to be about a half-hour behind ours."

Misty moved to give Mark a quick hug. "They didn't come with you?"

"There were a few problems with scheduling," Mark said. "We weren't able to get everyone there in time for the same flight we took…we actually could have all taken a flight 15 minutes after the one we did take, but there would have been a clearance problem with some of the guests, because of other people already on that flight. It'll work out, though. I got a call during the flight telling me that everyone was assembled shortly after we left." He took a glance at his watch. "In fact, if everything is going according to the schedule I was given, they should already be at the airport by now, and on the way here."

Misty moved to give Melfina a hug, then pulled back to arm's length, taking in her outfit. "Lookin' snazzy, Kiddo," she said.

Melfina blushed slightly, then did a soft twirl, brushing her hand over one side of her hair. "I felt like the occasion justified my…dressing up a little," she said, looking down over her dress, then back to Misty. "My choice of attire…it is not appropriate?"

"It's fantastic," perked Misty. "It's just that…I guess I'm not used to seeing you out of the skirt and suspenders thing."

"Yes, well…" Melfina started, "while the outfit you mention has become a sort of…trademark as it were, I feel that tonight celebrates more than one return. Just as with Kimi, I too have been returned to this environment, and to those whom I love…hence…" she finished by sweeping her hands downward over the fabric of her dress along her hips, as if accentuating the statement.

Kim interjected with a grin, "And you know, black goes with everything…"

6:54 PM.

"I'll second that," came from the stairs.

"Marcy…! Tina!" Kim chimed, walking from the table to give her friend a hug.

Marcy was outfitted in a black three-quarter-length skirt, topped by a gray blouse. "Ropas negras are a big part of my wardrobe," she said as Kim turned to hug Tina, who was in black slacks and a burgundy blouse. "It does go with everything."

"It is an exceptional compliment to brunette hair," Melfina cooed, flourishing her dress again.

A smile crossed Tina's face at hearing this. "Girlfriend, you better know that's right," she purred slyly, bringing laughter from everyone.

Mark indicated a seat to the left of Frannie's, and smiled to Marcy and Tina while continuing his motion along the table. "I was thinking of having family and local friends on this side…and others would fill the remaining seats."

Kim turned to Marcy. "I know Lupe is at the restaurant," she said, "but…no Valencia or Trujillo?"

"That…was kind of my doing," Mark said to Kim. "The restrictions on funding the dinner allowed only the people directly or closely involved with investigating Kim's abduction, or the training and support of Kimi and her mission, be invited." Mark then stood and addressed the other people present in the room. "I'm sorry if you're thinking that might have excluded someone you wanted to see here…but…I actually had to do a bit of begging to the higher-ups in Cairo to have the dinner at all."

Marcy gained a puzzled expression at this. "Then," she said, motioning to Tina and Frannie, "…I'm not really sure…how we were able to come. I'm honored that I got an invite, as I'm sure Tina and Frannie are, too, but…none of the three of us really had anything to do with Kimi's mission."

Mark broke into a smile. "I also mentioned support," he said. "Of all people, that certainly includes you three." He then raised his arm in Marcy and Tina's direction. "Two of the closest long-time friends of the entire Hodge family--" he then swept his hand to Frannie "--and the best friend of Ki herself." Mark then turned to Kimi. "Have you told your friend how much weight her words carried with you in your training?"

Now it was Frannie's turn to appear perplexed, until Kimi explained, "It's all about the saying you use when you talk about my workouts," she said.

Frannie's brow lowered slightly in puzzlement as she thought for a few seconds - then her head raised to Kimi. "…'Shred the Wind'?" she asked.

"That's the one," said Mark.

"There were a couple of…rough parts in my training," Kimi said. "I didn't know if I could get through or not…but when I remembered your saying, it was all about flying colors. Helped me to do a triple-kick faster than Ca--err, Major Mark had ever seen. It also got me to be all about break three seconds in the Speed Test."

Frannie suddenly perked into a smirk. "Alright then," she said smugly, "since you're using that…from now on, it's all about only one Bit from me when I lose at hockey!" She finished by crossing her arms, still with the smirk on her face.

Now Kimi slid into a smirk. "That's okay," she said. "It's all about I'll just have to play more games to get more Bitz."

7:01 PM.

"Will there be arugula and radicchio salad with our lobster here?"

The sudden voice shot everyone's head in the direction of the stairs with the exception of Mark, who just brought his head back slowly, eyes closing and a smile spreading over his face. "Caarrolle…"

Kimi shot from her chair with an even broader smile, moving quickly toward the stairway. "Carole! Craig!" she burst, wrapping her arms around the blonde-haired woman.

"Hey Ki!" Carole perked, returning the hug, "Welcome back." She made note of Kimi's hat. "You look great."

Kimi pulled back to arm's length, taking in Carole's outfit of a full-length skirt of a dark green satin fabric and a white sleeveless button-down blouse. A sly smirk crossed her face. "Still all about wearing green," she snickered the last in a playful hiss, "…'She-go'?"

At utterance of the word "She-go," Kim's head flashed in Kimi's direction and she sprang from her chair, her arms tightened and her fists clenched even before she was fully to her feet.

"Kim…" said Mark, raising his hand in a calming motion, "Carole was part of the staff that trained Kimi…there were several times she…dressed like Shego, to help Kimi with the image."

Kim relaxed as if the air had been let out of her, and her expression melted into a sheepish grin, her cheeks reddening slightly. "Hehe…sorry."

Carole, Craig and Kimi now approached the table. "It sure didn't help her against me," Kimi smirked.

Mark stood and motioned his hand in the trio's direction. "Everyone, these are two of my longtime friends and coworkers…this is Second Lieutenant Carole Coleman…and my right-hand man and sometime protege, Lieutenant Craig Ettinger."

Kim moved around the table as Melfina gave Carole and Craig a hug. "It is delightful that you could both be here tonight," she smiled.

Kim now stood before Carole. "Hi," she said, extending her hand, still with a bit of embarrassment on her face. "I'm Kim Possible-Hodge."

Carole took Kim's hand readily into both of hers. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Kim," she smiled. "I wanted to meet you when you first got to the base on Saturday…but I know things were still happening pretty fast."

"Pleased to meet you," Kim returned, "…and…sorry about the 'Shego' thing…I guess the name is still a bit of a…"

"I understand," said Carole. "I'm just glad that the sessions I dressed up in helped Kimi…and even though I'm a red belt like she is, I was no match for her. I think she can attribute part of that to her live-in instructor."

Kim blushed again. "I had to advance a couple of belts myself just to keep ahead of her," she said. "She said she wants to make her black belt before she gets out of school--"

"Will make black belt," Kimi interjected.

Kim gave a quick titter, then turned to Craig, shaking his hand. "How do you do, Craig."

"Hi there, Kim," Craig smiled, returning the handshake, then motioning to Kimi. "'Liquid Murder' with a black belt," he said, shaking his head slightly, his cheeks puffed from an exhale of astonishment.

Kim raised an eyebrow. "…'Liquid Murder'?" she repeated.

"My nickname for Kimi's style in Karate," Craig smirked.

Frannie perked at this. "Shred the Wind, Crack the Sky," she grinned, which brought chuckles from the entire group.

Kim then turned, sweeping an arm to the table. "This is my husband, William," she said, smiling.

William rose to his feet, reaching across the table. "How do you do," he said, shaking first Carole's hand, then Craig's.

"This is Kimi's best friend, Frannie McGinnis--" Kim continued. Frannie also rose and shook hands with the pair, then moved to shake Misty's hand.

"--and two of the family's best friends, Marcy Alvarez-Delgado, and Tina Drexel." Each of them rose and greeted Carole and Craig in a similar fashion.

7:06 PM.

A blonde-and blue streak raced down the stairs and toward Kim, uttering a long drawn-out squeal of joy. She stopped, nearly tackling Kim with a tight hug, her brilliant blonde ponytail swaying to and fro as they rocked back and forth. "Ohhhhh, you're home, you're home, you're home, you're home!" she repeated through a run of joyous tears.

"Hiii, Donna!" Kim burst, embracing the blonde woman. "I didn't know if you were coming or not," she added with a giggle, "…and yes, I'm home."

"Hey Donna, Ben," Mark said, turning in his seat to shake Ben's hand. "I thought you two came in on the same flight with Carole and Craig."

"We did," Ben replied. "We just stopped for a few to look at some of the artwork in the lobby of the restaurant."

The joy continued as Marcy rose from the table, racing around the end to also take Donna into a hug. "I'm so glad to see you," she perked. "It's been ages!"

Tina left her seat to hug the blonde-haired man who was accompanying Donna. "Hey Ben!"
"Tina!" Ben grinned. "I haven't seen you since the last time! You look the same as then, too!" Tina burst into a quick giggle, continuing to hug Ben.

Kim moved near Tina. "Save me some of that man to hug," she chuckled. Tina flashed a smile, then took a step to the side and Kim took Ben into her own embrace.

"I'm glad you're safe," Ben said. "I knew that Mark would do what it took to get you home."

"Even if it took Kimi to get around the military restrictions," beamed Kim.

At this, Donna turned and gathered Kimi quickly into her arms. "Welcome home to you too, Sweetie," she said. "It shouldn't surprise me that you turned out to be the amazing hero you are…but it does anyway."

Kimi slowly backed to arm's length at this, and her eyes became slightly glassy. "Thanks, Aunt Donna," she sighed, "but…I've been telling people…it wasn't all about hero. I just did it to bring Mom home--" she motioned toward the table "--'cause Cap'n Mark couldn't. Heroes are all about do things nobody else will…" Kimi then turned toward Kim. "…and I think that almost anyone would be all about do everything they could to save their mom." She then turned back to Donna, her eyes scanning those of everyone along the way. "That's what I did," she finished. "That's all I did. I brought Mom home. All not about a hero."

Donna slid into a slight smirk, and her eyes narrowed at the teen. "Wellll…welcome home anyway," she said, then again taking Kimi into a hug, adding, "and you're still amazing."

Kimi slid into a grin. "Okay…I'll take that one," she said, breaking Donna into a chuckle. They parted, and Kimi turned to Mark, who was behind her at the table. "We eating soon?" she asked. "It's all about I'm ready for lobster."

7:11 PM.

Mark glanced at his watch. "Shouldn't be much longer," he said. "There's only one more group we're waiting--" he was stopped in mid-sentence by a trio of squeals descending the stairs. "--or not," he finished.

Kimi turned her head to the sound, then back to Mark. "The guys from the youth club!" she perked.

Mark grinned. "Melfina sent invites to the group," he said. "I didn't think you'd mind much."

"The only stipulation was that the troupe arrive back on base before midnight tonight," Mefina added, smirking. "And so they shall."

The squeals were led by a petite blonde girl of slight build who immediately ran from the stairs to throw her arms around Kimi, one hand holding a tightly-rolled newspaper in her clutching embrace. "You're incredible even if you're not really a Celler," Dani blurted.

While Kimi burst into laughter at Dani's unexpected comment, the hugging pair were joined by a slightly heavy girl and a taller, more slender girl of Asian descent, both with long spills of dark hair. Both extended their arms, engaging in the embrace. "Hi Ki!" Amy burst.

"Incredible isn't the word," Kat said, wrapping her arms about the girls. "Un-be-lievable is the word!"

"Ki, the thing on TV was just…that was just…wow," said Amy.

"All about space travel," Kimi smiled, "but, I'm glad I got through it okay--" she slid her Panama hat from her head "--well, almost okay," she said as the eyes of the three girls widened at the sight of her lack of hair. "But hey," Kimi smirked, "it's all about summer."

Three boys had followed the girls from the stairs, led by a tall boy with brown hair and eyes. "I got the whole thing on disc," Jason said. "It gave me a chance to show Kat how to work her MD burner to make copies for everyone else. I even added the news conference on there the day after."

It's a good thing for lasers," Amy added. "I think I've watched your Cross about a hundred times already. I would have worn out a tape by now."

The remaining two boys now advanced to offer their own hugs. "You're like a super-crimefighter," Patrick beamed. "Villainy doesn't stand a chance against someone like you. The only things you need now are a cape and a mask."

Gregory now came forward, embracing the teen. "A mask would just hide all that intrinsic Celleresque beauty," he said. He then patted Kimi's shoulder. "Keep the cape though," he added, "especially if it matches your eyes like that exquisite necklace!"

Melfina now stood and began to escort the newest arrivals to chairs at the table. Kimi moved to the other side of the table, asking that her mother join her. The two stopped behind Dani as she placed the roll of papers on the table. Kimi tapped the blonde on the shoulder. "Hey Dani," she said, "I kind of promised you this, I think. Mom, this is one of my friends from the Air base, Danielle Bremer."

Dani slowly stood and turned from her chair, her eyes full of wonder as Kim took her hand. "I saw your movie. You're--" she stammered, "--you're amazing…and it's not just because you're a Celler either."

Kim gave a quick titter, shaking Dani's hand. "Hehe, hi, Dani. I'm glad you like the movie," she said.

Dani took Kim's hand into both of hers, then moved to give her a hug, quickly turning over her shoulder to Amy, who was sitting next to her. "I didn't freak this time," she whispered.

Kimi couldn't help but to fall into a chuckle. "Until just about a week ago, Dani had never met a Celler," she said, "but Melfina and I, we were all about change that."

"You changed a lot of things," said Dani. "So you were really on the base working on your Karate to take on all those bad guys who had your mom," she said, "but I didn't understand why you couldn't tell us until after the story came out in the base paper." She then brandished the rolled papers she had brought, unfurling them over the table in front of her. "I brought a copy that comes out on Thursdays…if you want it," she said, holding up a newspaper slightly smaller than standard size. On the front page was a large article, with the headline:

"USAF Investigator Trains Teen To Fight Terrorists, Circumventing Pact Restrictions"

Dani then made a motion to the table. "Amy got a copy of the USAToday. I brought it."

Mark slid the paper he had brought from under his cap. "That's what I brought, too," he said, standing and unfolding the paper. "I think it's a little more accurate on the actual story and the mission itself, rather than just the military angle." He then brought his hands up, straightening out the paper, and slowly turned in an arc. As the paper came into their view, each of the people seated widened their eyes in amazement as they read the headline sprawled across the front:

"Teen Hero Saves Parent from Captors; Then Defies Laws of Physics"

"It even has supporting articles in the section that explain the existence and background of Cellers," Mark said, "and goes into more detail about Ki's Cross the other night. It also has an article about the motion at the UN last Sunday."

"It's also all about has that word all over it," Kimi muttered in a slightly disgusted tone.

Kim turned to her daughter. "Still with the hero issues?" she asked. "I thought we cleared that up the other night."

Melfina caught Kimi's attention as she and Kim returned to their seats, reaching across the corner of the table to place her hand on the teen's forearm as she sat. "Even after the scope of the feats you have accomplished, you do not feel yourself a hero?" she asked.

Kimi now fidgeted a little. "I…I don't know," she said softly. "I think it might be…all about the word 'hero'. It feels like…the more I hear it attached to me, the more uncomfortable I get. I didn't go into Cairo to be all about hero. I went into Cairo to save my Mom…my family."

One by one, the other people seated at the table turned toward Kimi as she continued. "There were other people who could have been all about save Mom…but because of things…mainly that lead pact that's gone now…they couldn't go in." Kimi's face now fell a bit toward the table. "I had the most to lose if nobody tried to save Mom…I would have lost Mom and Dad…and everybody else who ever liked Mom's show would be all about lose her, too…" She then motioned to Marcy, sweeping slowly to Tina, and her friends from the youth club. "Even people who are all about work with her…and wanted to meet her." Her eyes then returned to Melfina for a moment, then sank again to the table. "I'm not a hero…I'm not special…I'm just…me."

Melfina's eyes were filled with warmth as Kimi spoke, her hand still touching to her forearm. "Kimi," she started, "although I can probably state with confidence that you have gained knowledge of the definition of 'hero' since your return…I am not quite as sure you are aware of the true meaning of the term."

Melfina then motioned to Mark to switch seats with her, gathering the teen's hand into both of hers as she sat down next to her. "Kimi…to me, a hero should be someone of impeccable moral character. This you already had, even before your mission…learned and sharpened for years through the physical and mental rigors of your Karate studies. To me, a hero should be someone who has achieved great things for the improvement of mankind. This you have already done…with your arrival into this world. You are the first offspring of an inter-environmental union. Even with your birth, you had made travels that no one else has."

Everyone at the table was now riveted to the scene unfolding between the Celler and the young woman across the table from her. "To me," continued Melfina, "a hero should be a role model, and have a far-reaching influence throughout society. Their accomplishments should be substantial and long lasting, and should benefit society. This was what you accomplished with your mission to Cairo." She then leaned a little closer to Kimi, holding her hands a bit more warmly. "Kimi…with your mission, you showed the world the depth of the bond between you and your mother, and the depth of your love for her…a love that even came before your own safety to rescue her. You also showed the world the depth of your love for Cellers, with your agreement to reveal to the world your return from their environment into this one…the same process by which all Cellers arrive here. That event…the Fall of Cynicism…your act was the catalyst which will benefit society…two societies."

Melfina's face now spread into a smile. "While it is true that this mission and the celebrity of your televised Cross has thrust you into a spotlight which may seem a bit…harsh to you…it did not bring about your 'hero' status. Kimi--" she paused, smiling wider and starting again, more warmth edging into the tone of her voice "--Ki…it is the things I have just listed which denote someone as a 'hero'…and these things did not just come to you within the last month…you have had them all along. Even if the events of the previous month had never happened, you would still be a hero on this night." With this, Melfina rose from her chair and moved to take Kimi into her arms, their faces close. "From your first step on this journey that is your life…you have always been the hero of myself, and many others--" she finished by drawing the teen into a warm embrace "--and for me, Kimi…a hero forever more shall you be."

At that moment, with Melfina's sage soliloquy of advice to Kimi, an ages-old saying came to light for the people in the Mangiare Bene Dining Room:

There was not a dry eye among them.

Dani reached to the table for a napkin to dab at her eyes. "Th--that was the most beautiful thing I think I've ever heard," she said softly.

Amy's hand moved to rest on Dani's other hand. "Me--too, D," she half-sobbed. "M--me too."

Marcy also reached for her napkin. "Absolutamente hermoso," she sniffled.

Misty smiled widely. "If that's not articulation, then I don't know what…"

Kat's hand found that of Jason's, clutching warmly. "That tears it," she said. "You need to use your geek powers to turn me into a Celler."

"Melfina pulled back from Kimi, looking into her eyes, her expression melting back into a warm smile. "I believe it was you who sang to me the praises of the cuisine in this restaurant," she said, "particularly the lobster."

"Yeah!" perked Kimi. "All about. Even better than what we had at the Air base."

Mark turned his head and raised a hand to catch the attention of a waiter near the stairs, who started over to the table. "Hope everybody's in the mood for steak and lobster," he said. His statement was met by a wave of "Yeah!" spreading over the table. The waiter smiled as he moved to each of the guests to note how they wished their steak be prepared. When he was sure he had contacted everyone at the table about their meal, he went back to the stairs, and up into the main part of the restaurant to the kitchen, where a team of chefs set about preparing the food.

While waiting for their meals, Kimi was prompted by several of the guests to recount some of the experiences which comprised her last 30-some days, beginning with the sensations from the multi-mach flight on the Scramjet to Cairo, and events surrounding it, including their meeting with the ill-fated Ramsi Al-Kalesh on the ship. Kimi recalled the incident after their arrival at the airport, where her longtime difficulty of her emotions struggling for release in place of her actions could have caused an even bigger scene than what transpired when Khalid bin Azrul grabbed her on the walkway. Kimi went into detail about Kim's disappearance, and the arrival of the lab team from the nearby Air Force base, led by "Cap'n Mark" - whom Kimi had by now come to regard as her own personal yardstick of the definition of "hero."

Kimi told of her three-week training schedule, with emphasis on acquainting herself with the concept of using firearms. She told of her work during the sessions in the gym, including the sterling work with her feet in the assessments, impressing Mark and the rest of the gym with a triple-kick which dropped two opponents simultaneously. She also recalled the moniker Craig had handed her after that initial session - "Liquid Murder." With a bit of augmentation and backup from Carole, Kimi retold of her first match against the blonde woman armed with a five-foot Jo staff, and the frightening, intense incident after Kimi had been struck by the wooden weapon.

Kimi also recounted what she came to realize was the highest test of her skills throughout the three weeks leading up to her mission - Mark's Speed Test. She explained her building frustration over the three little lights on the dark red wall of the room behind the glass, and how she felt as if they were almost taunting her to break the three-second barrier Mark had set before her. A wide grin slipped onto Kimi's face as she told of the day she burst through the barrier - her resolve fostered anew at that moment by Frannie's innocent and amusing phrase coined to describe the teen's abilities in and dedication to her martial arts - "Shred the Wind."

The guests at the table were absorbed in rapt attention as Kimi began the story of her mission to rescue her mother, and its various high points and pitfalls. She took the table for a reminiscent roller coaster ride as she brought forth memories of her encounters with each of the guards in the Al-Hakim mosque on that night. Kimi's regularly full-of-life azure eyes glinted even more with emotions recalled as she told of her battles with the guard outside the mosque who inquired about what she falsely presented as an injury to her hand; the incident in the small office with Moqtar Aziz and Hamid - the seven-foot "Blob" who required so many of the Acepromazine darts to bring down; the man who surprised Kimi during a moment when her sidearm was empty, and threatened her with her own Escrima; and the attack by Khalid bin Azrul which ultimately sealed his fate.

So enthralled were the people at the table with Kimi's tale, most seemed to barely notice as the waiter returned to the dining room, accompanied by several other wait staff and several carts brought down a ramp parallel to the stairs, each brimming with plates of succulent, steaming food. The waiter who had taken the orders coordinated each of the dishes to their rightful recipients.

As the food arrived, Kimi began telling of the most dangerous and most surreal parts of her mission - the freeing of Kim, the battle with Shego, and the twist of her unexpected draw into the Resonance Conduit through the portal meant to send Shego and Doctor Drakken back to the Celler environment.

8:11 PM.

"C'mon, D," Amy insisted, "try your lobster. It's out of this world!"

Dani took several double-takes onto her plate, acknowledging the shellfish, then a quick glance to her left to her friend. "I will, I will, just--just a second," she said - then threw her gaze back to the head of the table. "Ki, what happened when you got sucked into the portal?" she asked. "What was it like?"

Kimi shifted her eyes slightly upward in thought as she spent a second recollecting the event of her passage into the Resonance stream. "All about mega-sci-fi," she replied. "After I threw the crystal at the wall of the cell Mom had been in, it was all about liquid mirror…then it turned into outer space. The whole room was all about the Sun and wind and rumbles, just like the Cross thingy the other night. When I finished the incantation--" Kimi paused again, looking slightly down and to the side as the sensations flooded back to her. "--the whole room was like, all about explode. It…happened so fast. My legs went numb, and I thought I would have to brace for a fall…but I didn't. I was like…all about float. The wind and the light was all about come out of the portal…but it pulled me in. My arms went numb…then I got light-headed…and then all of me felt light…it was all about feather…like I was drifting away. It all got fuzzy for a few seconds…then…I started to feel again…all about cold! Then it was all about, like, felt like I jumped off a chair or something…and--" Kimi threw up her hands, spreading out her fingers. "--poof…all about Cellerland."

Dani's eyes steadily widened as Kimi recalled her first passage through the Resonance Conduit. As she finished, Dani's expression brightened for a second - then slid into a slightly glum frown. "I wish there was some way I could go visit Cellers," she sighed. Then her head lifted, her eyes suddenly flashing to the Cross Agent seated to the right of Mark. "Wait--" she said, perking a finger in Misty's direction, her tone a mix of innocent inquisitiveness and a slightly desperate plea, "--you're not a Celler…you're a Flesher…how can you do it and nobody else can?"

At first, Misty shot the young blonde a disbelieving stare at the unprecedented question. There was a short moment between the two where they locked eyes; and the others at the table were at a loss for words after Dani's sudden statement - yet nearly all of them had, at one time or another since meeting the smallish brunette, presented themselves with the same query in some form.

The table remained silent, and all eyes were on Misty as her expression softened into a small smile. She rose from the table, slowly making her way around it as she spoke. "33 years…" she started, "…for 33 years, Cellers have been making the journey from their environment to this one, and bringing joy to the lives of Fleshers…" She now moved to behind Frannie's chair, which was just to the right of Dani's, and placed a hand on the girl's shoulder. "--and in all that time…in all the Crosses that have happened…nobody has ever approached any Cross Agent with that question…until tonight."

Dani followed the motion of the woman as she spoke, and turned in her chair as Misty slowly moved to a semi-crouching position, their eyes still locked to one another's. "But actually," Misty continued, "that's not the first time the question has ever been asked…and the answer…is actually how Cross Agents came to be." Misty now trained her gaze deep into Dani's face. "You called me a Flesher--" her expression widened into one of a knowing smile, and a hint of some sort of relief. "Well…you're only half right, Sweetie," she said.

The people who had known Misty the longest - Kim and Melfina - were dumbfounded by the Cross Agent's revelation, their mouths slack. The statement also caught Mark's further attention. He sat up straighter in his chair, leaning toward the table in Misty's direction.

"But--" Dani stammered. "--but…I thought Kimi was the first, umm…mix…between Celler and Flesher."

"She is," said Misty. "She's the first mix by nature…not by genetics experiment."

It was then that Misty realized she had the wide-eyed, open-mouthed attention of everyone in the room.

Misty slowly rose from her crouch, addressing the rest of the table. "I think some of you know by now, the first recorded Cross was in 1986," she said, "but…the Celler environment was known about before that…way before." She now turned to Mark. "Remember your history?" she asked. "Remember the first 'talkie' cartoons? 'Steamboat Willie' with Mickey Mouse in 1928? Those 'cartoons' were actually grainy transmissions, and were part of first contacts with the Celler environment, and the first proof that it existed. About 10 years after that, work was begun by scientists, both Flesher and Celler alike, to find a way to link the two environments. It was shortly after that that the government got involved…they said that such a concept as exposure of the existence of the Celler environment could be 'more than the public could readily accept'…and they initiated the public perception that Cellers were 'drawn' of ink and paint. They figured it would be easier on people that way."

Misty then began to walk slowly toward the head of the table. "In the 1960's," she continued, "research was begun to figure out if there was a way to travel between environments." Her expression now fell a bit. "I'd like to say that the experiments done back then were…successful and safe…but…" her eyes now fell to the floor "…the early attempts resulted in loss of life…from both environments."

Misty stopped near the corner of the table, where her hand found Mark's shoulder as she continued. "Research found that the key to travel between environments," she said, "lay in dealing with the various forms of radiation present in the spatial portal we now know as the Resonance Conduit, because it was exposed to unfiltered solar energy, and radiation from the Van Allen Belt. They determined, through experiments, that frequencies had to be enacted to…stabilize the forces in the Conduit, and apply the third-dimension properties necessary for a Celler to transport to this environment. They found that the critical element in this process…was silver. The same silver that's present in nearly every mirror. That's why a mirror has to be a part of every Cross to the Flesher environment."

Misty now started to walk slowly along the side of the table past Carole, Craig, Donna and Ben. "Research also found that because of the radiation involved, the internal organs of a Flesher couldn't survive a trip through the Conduit…that's when genetics got into the picture. They worked on establishing and incorporating the frequencies into the crystals, which made travel through the Conduit safe enough for Cellers. After that…they figured out that if this was going to happen at all, there had to be people in place to introduce Cellers to the concept…to…smooth the process. That's when they started on a project to…create…someone who could survive a trip from the Flesher to Celler environments. I--" Misty stopped for a few seconds - then brought up her arms, spreading her hands out in a sort of presentation pose. "You're looking at part of the result of that project," she said. "I am the second of three initial Flesher-Celler 'hybrids'…after Angelica, and before Kathy."

Misty began to make her way along the other side of the table past the line of now gaping expressions of astonishment, back toward Dani. "The three of us were all…'born'…in late 1969. The first part of our lives were spent in research and training…everything our scientists here had learned…and in the beginning of 1986…we traveled to the Celler environment…to talk to Cellers about coming here. Backed by their scientists, we laid everything out in front of them…and in early February of that year…the first recorded Cross took place. The rest, as they say, is history," she finished with a smile.

Jason's raised his hand from his lap. "Um, Misty?" he asked. "I have a question about what you've just told us…which already just seems incredible to me…but given the extensive education needed to become a scientist…it seems to me that you would have to have been working on things like Calculus and physics…from a very early age. I don't mean to sound disrespectful, but…it just doesn't add up to me--"

He was cut off and uttered a quick, hushed "Ow" at Kat, who had pinched his arm in response to the nature of his question; in fact, other people at the table shot looks first to Jason for his query - which seemed a bit presumptuous even to them - then to Misty, wondering the nature of her reaction to it.

The Cross Agent's response was merely to widen her smile a little - then motion her hand back up the table. "Mark…how long have you known me?" she asked the tall officer. "How long have we worked together?"

Mark thought for only a second. "Since our first meeting, getting together about CENAP? It has to be about eight years now."

Misty then turned her attention slightly. "Melfina? Kim? How long have you known us Cross Agents?"

Kim shifted her eyes in thought. "For as long as I can remember," she said. "Since just before my series started, in 2002."

"I think my experience only exceeds that by about four years," Melfina added.

Misty turned back to Jason, flashing another smile and wiggling her eyebrows slightly - then back to the other end of the table. "Kim…tell about something from your childhood."

Kim's expression changed at this, now appearing a bit perplexed. "Ummm," she paused for a second, "…Cellers don't really have 'childhoods'…at least not what Fleshers would call childhoods."

Misty looked to Jason. "How old do I look?" she asked.

Jason studied the Cross Agent for a short moment. "I'd say…late twenties…mid thirties at the most."

Misty again turned toward the head of the table. "And in all the years you three have known me…have I changed or aged very much?" Mark, Melfina and Kim all responded in the negative to this.

Misty now turned back to Jason. "The hybrid project, in addition to physical Celler properties, also gave us some of their physics," she said. "In other words…the first three Cross Agents…heck, every Cross Agent…hits the ground running, as far as life is concerned." She brought up her arms again. "I started out in 1969, looking pretty much like I do now." She then moved a bit closer to the tall boy, her smile continuing. "Cellers age very slowly…and so do Cross Agents." Misty then straightened to stand. "Actually," she smirked, "I'm celebrating my 50th birthday later this year." Her smirk grew into a wide grin as Jason smiled at the explanation, nodding his head slightly.

Misty turned as Dani took her hand. "But…you have…Flesher skin," the young girl said. "You're…warm, like a Celler…but your skin feels the same as mine, pretty much. How do you--?"

Misty brought her hand up, taking Dani's into both of hers, and turning toward Kim and Melfina. "Have you ever seen a Cross Agent actually go into or come out of the Resonance Conduit during a Cross?" Both women answered in the negative. "When a Cross Agent comes into or leaves the Celler environment, where does it always happen?"
"That would be inside the Cross Agent Central Office," replied Melfina. "It is in downtown Celtaja, the principal city." Kim nodded in agreement.

Misty now slowly turned back toward Dani, addressing the group as she went. "That's because that's the only place in the Celler environment that has the equipment to apply, or wash off, the silver electrostatic bath we have to be coated with in order to survive a trip through the Resonance Conduit," she said. "That's the only thing that protects our Flesher skin." She then crouched again in front of Dani. "I'm exactly the opposite of the way Ki is," she said, patting the top of her chest lightly. "Flesher outsides…Celler insides. That's the key they found to travel between environments. Flesher organs can't stand up to the radiation in the Conduit…except for Ki, because of the shield of her Celler skin…but for some reason, Celler internals aren't affected." Misty now stood, turning back toward Kimi. "In fact, Ki can use that same silver bath, if she wants to take another trip back to the Celler environment in the future, without having to have her hair all burned off again."

"Diamond!" Kimi perked, sliding her Panama hat from her head. "It's all about keep my 'do next time!" The table erupted into chuckles.

8:26 PM.

Misty's head suddenly turned to the stairs as a trio of men arrived at it. She turned back to Dani and Jason with a warm smile. "I hope I've answered most of your questions for now," she grinned, "but right now, there are some other people here." She finished, turning to Mark and pointing back toward the stairs. Mark flashed his gaze in the direction of the stairs - then rose quickly, grabbing his cap and setting it in place on his head as he stood, facing the stairway.

Everyone at the table was now drawn to the stairway as the trio of men descended the stairs in unison, all in full military dress; one carrying a case slightly larger than an attaché; another holding a four-foot staff with an American flag draped from it.

Misty returned quickly to her seat as the men entered the dining room. "This is going to be cool," she whispered, leaning to Carole.

As the men approached the head of the table, they stopped in front of Mark, arranged side-by-side. The man at the farthest right took a step forward, leaning to set the case on the table where Mark had been sitting, then straightening before Mark and bringing his hand up in a salute. "Detail ready for presentation, Sir," he said.

Mark returned the salute smartly. "You have the floor. Carry on, Lieutenant," he said, and returned to his seat, removing his cap.

The Lieutenant now produced a card from the pocket of his jacket and read. "Would Ms. Kim Possible-Hodge and Ms.--" He paused for a short second, reading the pronunciation key scrawled below the her first name "--Kimi Hodge please rise and stand here in front of me."

Kimi shot a look first to her mother - then to William. William smiled, bringing his hands up slightly in an "I-don't-know" motion - then a slight motion urging Kimi to her feet as Kim moved to stand. The two walked around the table, stopping about three feet in front of the man, Kimi standing to the right of her mother.

The man reached out his hand to Kim first, shaking it. "You are Kim?" he asked, receiving a nod - then to his left in the same motion. "And you are Kimi?" Another nod. "Good Evening," he said. "I am Lieutenant Pearson, United States Air Force." He then reached to the case on the table, and Mark placed a hand at the back of it as the Lieutenant opened it, bringing a few sheets of paper from it and returning to Kim and Kimi, straightening again and beginning to read from one of the papers:

"Ms. Hodge…Ms. Possible-Hodge…excellence has its own reward, not only to those who strive for it but also to the society which encourages it. You are individuals who have used your freedom, and have actively fought in its defense, to achieve extraordinary excellence. Your outstanding accomplishments have made our lives better and set stirring examples for others to follow."

The Lieutenant turned slightly to his left, to Kimi. "Ms. Kimi Angelina Hodge," he continued, reading from the paper, "On the night of Saturday, July 13th, 2019, after a condensed and accelerated intense training schedule headed by Major Mark Broderson, you embarked on a mission and engaged in combat not only with up to ten armed men, but two combatants of Celler origin, disregarding the safety of your own life to effect the rescue of Kimberly Possible-Hodge. Your courage, endurance and excellent execution of this mission contributed to the saving of Ms. Possible-Hodge's life, and was a striking example of the results of determination of this caliber."

He then shuffled to another paper, turning to Kim: "Ms. Kimberly Ann Possible-Hodge," he read, "after returning to safety, you entered into a project, coordinating with Major Broderson and Ms. Misty Visione of the Cross Agents, to televise and expose to the world the first public Crossing, without direct regard to your own safety as a result of exposure to the elements present in such an event, or their possible effects. Your bravery in the actions of the night of Tuesday, July 16th, 2019, which has since been referred to by many as 'The Fall of Cynicism,' shall stand as one of the major links in building the strong, permanent bridge between two societies."

The Lieutenant now shuffled to a third sheet of paper. "This sheet is a direct communication from the Office of the President of the United States, who unfortunately could not attend this evening." He was briefly stopped as a wave of soft gasps swept the table. He then continued. "These are his words. 'The citations you are about to receive are the highest civilian honor that our country can bestow. What the Olympic Gold Medal is to athletes…what the Congressional Medal of Honor is to the military…this citation is to the private United States citizen. This is given to those who have risen to pinnacles of achievement. It is a recognition of their accomplishments, hard work, and dedication for humanity, and for the heart. These recipients have touched all our lives with their contributions, strengthening the fabric of our society…and societies beyond.

"'These are people who refused to take the easy way out…and the rest of us will surely be better for it. They are people who knew the risks and the overwhelming effort that would be required to reach the goals in their tasks…but were undeterred. They are people who set standards…and refused to compromise those standards. And they are people who were not afraid to travel in unexplored territories to achieve and realize their goals'."

The man without the flagstaff, behind and to the right of the Lieutenant, moved to the case on the table to remove a case nearly a foot square from it, made of a rich walnut. He faced the Lieutenant and opened the case. The inside was lined in a white satin material, on which sat a pendant about two inches across, suspended on a ribbon of deep blue edged in white. The pendant was a brilliant white five-sided star set on a red pentagon. Between each of the star's points sat a gold eagle. In the center of the star was a disc of blue, edged with gold and filled with a collection of thirteen gold stars. The Lieutenant took the ribbon from the case and turned back to the two women. "On behalf and on the authority of President Chandler D. Morrison--" he turned to Kimi, spreading the ribbon open as he raised his arms "--I hereby present each of you with the highest award a civilian can receive…the Presidential Medal of Freedom."

The room was as silent as a church, save for the collective intakes of breath at the last of the Lieutenant's speech. The eyes of both women were wide and bright as the ribbon emerged from the box, the pendant twisting and gleaming in the light from the crystal chandeliers overhead. As Kimi had yet to re-don her hat, she merely bent her head forward slightly as the Lieutenant slid the ribbon over it and onto her neck, retreating slowly to let the pendant settle onto her chest. The Lieutenant then turned back to the man behind him, who had retrieved the other case and opened it. Kim reached to gather her hair as the Lieutenant turned to her and performed the same action he had to her daughter, sliding the ribbon over her head.

Kimi gathered the pendant in her palm, turning it up to look. "A shiny diamond from the President," she said softly.

Her statement was punctuated by a sudden clapping to her left. Marcy and Misty had burst into applause nearly simultaneously, Marcy rising from her chair, her wide smile turned to catch a sudden tear of joy. Misty also moved to stand, smiling.

Kat rose to her feet, joining in the applause. "Aww, that's just the deep-blue bang, Ki!" she blurted as the rest of the table also stood, engaging in the ovation.

Lieutenant Pearson moved to shake Kim and Kimi's hand to complete the ceremony. Mark reached for his cap and walked next to Kim, turning to the men, who saluted. Mark returned the salute. As he did, the Lieutenant again took Kim into another handshake. "I'd like to offer my personal thanks for what you two have done," he said, turning to also shake Kimi's hand. "I have a cousin back on the West Coast who is getting married to a Celler next month…he and I both express our thanks."

"You're very welcome," returned Kim, smiling. "I'm glad everything we did turned out so well."

"Me too," said Pearson. "I had been kind of following Ms. Kimi's training on the Air base. My buddy is one of the trainers she worked with." He then turned to Kimi. "He was actually one of the men you took down on the first day with a triple kick. He says your nickname…'Liquid Murder'…is well-earned," he finished with a chuckle.

Mark now took Pearson's hand. "Well done, Lieutenant," he said. "Very moving ceremony."

Pearson returned the handshake. "Thank you Major," he said. "My buddy and the rest of the karate club wanted to pass along congratulations to Ms. Kimi and yourself for everything you two have done in the last month…and they're really looking forward to next month. They said it'll be exciting to have a second-degree black belt in the club."

"Tell them I'm looking very much forward to it myself," replied Mark. He then shifted to his right as he caught sight of Kimi giving him a slightly suspicious, slightly puzzled sideways glance. He turned to the teen. "That…was kind of my last little surprise for tonight, Ki," he grinned. "Tonight, we're flying back to Cairo West…and we're spending about the next month…umm…"

Mark turned his head quickly as Melfina suddenly perked from her chair to stand next to him, slipping her arm around his. "Packing!" she beamed to Kimi.

Mark turned back to Kimi and nodded, still with a grin. "After the ceremony, I put in my papers," he said, bringing his hand to cradle Melfina's, "and on 15 August…we'll be transferring Stateside, to be stationed at the 111th, in Willow Grove."

At this news, Kimi's eyes returned to saucers, and her mouth dropped open to match. "All about FOR REAL?" She exploded to her left, wrapping her arms around Mark hard enough to bring an "Oof" from him through his laughter.

Dani burst to her left, hugging Amy. "Melfina's moving to the base!" she said excitedly.

Kim reached for Melfina, and the two locked into an embrace. "Now in addition to email, we shall be less than an hour by plane from being face-to-face," Melfina chimed.

Kimi turned her head from Mark's chest in Kat's direction, a huge grin on her face. "It's all about now this is the deep-blue bang!" she said.

As the group returned to their seats, more hugs and congratulations were exchanged, spreading around the table. After their meal, the table engaged in conversation for about another hour, even joined by the men who had come to make the medal presentations to Kim and Kimi.

At the close of the evening, Kim, William and Kimi went outside to form a short, mobile receiving line. They wandered about the groups assembled outside the restaurant, spending time thanking their friends for the wonderful evening, and bidding each of them a good night as they returned to their limousines for the ride to the airport, and then planes to their destinations. As a result of a quick impromptu conference with her parents, Kimi worked out a schedule to spend time with the group from the youth club every other weekend, either traveling to the Air base, or inviting some of them to spend the weekend at her house.

On the short trip home from the restaurant, Kim and Kimi reiterated their joy and excitement at the news of Mark and Melfina returning to live in the United States, so relatively close. This announcement, coupled with the warmth of the evening's gathering, further served to foster the feeling among each of the Hodges that after the ordeal of mental hell that had been the previous month, the things that were closest to them - life, family, friends and heart - these things were close to them again, and showering them in the warmth that closeness brought into each of their lives. Kimi then engaged in a discussion with Mark about her plans to advance in Kempo, even jokingly challenging him to a match once she achieved black belt status.

----------

One more event of return remained for Kim and William, which occurred on the following Monday, the 22nd - the return to their positions at Meridian Insurance. Marcy had called the day before and offered to drive them both to work, but instead of the usual destination of the underground parking garage, Marcy swung into the large circular driveway of the south entrance of the building, where they were greeted by the entire 1300-member workforce. The welcome was on a par with that given for any popular singer or celebrity, with people screaming their names and shouting their praises through the cheering as Kim and William emerged from Marcy's car and accompanied her on the walkway to the glass doors of the south lobby. As they ascended the walkway, they were lavished in a shower of rose petals of different colors, chosen for the morning; peach, for appreciation and optimism of the future; yellow, for gladness, happiness and pure joy; and white - the "flower of light" - to represent love stronger than death, and to highlight the other colors.

Inside the lobby, the three were welcomed by the other members of the Board of Regents, headed by a very glad Cheryl Carter. There were heartfelt hugs exchanged through the entire group at the return of the Hodges, and each of the Regent members expressed their specific accolades and respect to Kim, not only for her safe return but also for her accomplishments after it. The group led the Hodges to the elevators, and to the conference room, where there was a short procedure to return to William full control of his assets in the company, and of his duties on the Board of Regents. This was punctuated with a round of applause from the other Board members.

It was then that Cheryl mentioned to William that, because of the incident in June, Dick Pavelka had involuntarily abandoned his post on the Board - permanently - and discussion would be initiated in the fall about a candidate to fill his vacated position. Cheryl also said that, in the interim since the incident, Dick had signed papers waiving any legal action taken against either William or Meridian for any actions stemming from that day in the conference room. There was then a moment of jocularity mixed into the atmosphere as Marcy half-jokingly nudged Kim, telling her not to "leave town suddenly before the fall, just in case her name should appear on the list of candidates," which brought laughter from the group.

After a hug from Marcy and a kiss from her husband, Kim was off to the elevators and to the second floor to her office in Processing. The rest of the employees had entered the building in the interim, and when Kim walked through the large glass doors of the department, she was greeted with another celebration. As she continued onto the work floor, she was greeted by Tina Drexel who presented a series of large cakes, all with artwork of Kim and Kimi in icing, and various expressions of joy and thanks on cards signed by the employees.

At home, Kimi set about further acquainting Rufus with the workings of the house and various appliances. During the morning she was challenged by the small rodent to several games of backgammon, in which Rufus emerged the winner by a small margin. For lunch, Kimi invited Frannie over to make soup and sandwiches, and to introduce her to her new Celler pet and companion. Frannie and Rufus hit it off famously, with a running joke of sorts which spread throughout the afternoon - on several instances, one would sneak up on the other, blurting "Cheese!" in their ear - and Kimi would roll about laughing at the hilarity that would ensue after each of these "sneak attacks."

As she settled in for sleep that night, Kimi felt awash in a feeling that had been interrupted by the nightmare in Cairo - optimism of the future. She thought about plans and opportunities that were again beginning to present themselves to her; and looked forward to new plans that were opening to her, including the continuation of her experience and belt ranking in Kempo, and her first semester as a freshman at Eastgate High. Kimi planned on facing and embracing - even celebrating - these upcoming events in her life with every bit of the bubbly, effervescent "Ki" that was now again present.

----------

Tuesday, August 6th, 2019

Kim had left work early on this afternoon to meet her daughter at the dojo, where they furthered work on ramping Kimi back into her usual level of workout, focusing on increasing her range of movement after her odyssey into the Resonance Conduit the month before. After the workout session, Kim called William at work, telling him that Kimi expressed a wish to dine on a meal from the Knick Knack Chick Shack, which William agreed to pick up when he left the office. As chance would have it, their travels brought them to the house within a few seconds of each other.

5:14 PM.

Rufus was curled upon the large overstuffed chair next to the bookcase near the front foyer when he heard noises at the door - first the faint jingling of keys, then the click of the lock opening - and finally a small "thump." The rodent sprang to the back of the chair just as Kimi nudged the door open with her knee, her hands full of a couple of Knick Knack bags of various sizes. At the sight of the naked mole rat, Kimi suddenly hoisted the bags aloft in a direction away from the chair. "Ah-ah-ah," she scolded, "it's all about wait until it's time, Rufus."

Kim let out a small titter as she came through the door. She was also holding a bag from the fast-food establishment. "I still can't get over how much Rufus likes chicken," she said, turning slightly to steady the door with her foot while William removed his keys from the lock. "The only thing he seems to like better than those Bitz things is food from Lupes restaurant," she said.

Kimi turned to glance to Rufus, smirking in her mother's direction. "Well, they are Flesher Chick'n Bitz," she grinned, "but yeah, it's all about no Bit is safe with Rufus around…not even the Bitz I win from him and Frannie in Bitz hockey." The last of Kimi's words were peppered with giggles as Rufus interjected his editorial, setting his hands to his hips and huffing out a "Hey!" in response. "Don't worry," Kimi snickered, "it's all about you'll get better as you play more."

William was next through the door holding an attaché, which he had set on the porch to unlock the door. He set the attaché on the floor next to the chair Rufus was perched on and turned more of his attention to the small box in his other hand, which contained three drinks. He turned and nudged the inside door closed with his hip, then turned back to Kim, tilting his head slightly first to the couch, then in the direction of the kitchen. "In here or out there?" he asked.

"In here," Kimi immediately answered from the doorway to the kitchen. Rufus again punctuated Kimi's statement, jumping to the cushion of the chair and blurting "Yeah!" with his eyes wide.

Kim and William traded smiles at this. William moved to set the drinks on the coffee table. "I'll check the mail while you two sort things out," he said. "I'll come get my plate when it's ready." Kim headed for the kitchen with her bags as William walked to the front door, giving Rufus a small pat on the head as he passed the chair. He stopped at the front door, reaching into the small pass door to the side and removing a small collection of white mail chips. He returned to the living room and sat at the couch. He was joined by Rufus as he reached for the mail reader on the coffee table, passing the chips to the rodent, who happily hopped to the rear of the device, opening a compartment and placing the chips into the tray, then closing the compartment. He then went around to read the screen of the reader along with William as the device scanned and sorted the day's mail.

In the kitchen, Kim and Kimi set about sorting appropriate rations of Chick'n Bitz onto paper plates, with a smaller plate for Rufus. Kim then brought a container of potato wedges from the bag while Kimi fished through another for small containers of chipotle dipping sauce, and a separate container of "Honey Cheddar" cheese dipping sauce for Rufus.

Kim placed a small arrangement of the breaded wedges onto the smaller plate. "You know, Ki…" she started, "I'm wondering about Rufus and his love for chicken. Maybe we might have to think about having him eat in another room of the house while we're eating…you know, for the safety of our own meals."

"It's okay, Mom," Kimi replied. "It's all about Rufus knows his manners at the table. The only time he's all about nuts on Bitz is during games of Bitz hockey. We're busy playing the game…and the other Bitz are all about just sitting there…unguarded. But at dinner, especially with family, he's all about--"

William's voice from the living room interrupted Kimi. "Ki? You've got some mail."

Kimi set a plate onto the counter at this, trading a quick look with her mother. "Who's it from?" she called into the living room.

A second's pause - then, "It's from the high school. Do you know a...Danette Callahan--?"

At mention of the name, Kimi's expression burst wide open. "She's--all about Frannie's friend--" she blurted to Kim "--and captain of the Junior Varsity cheer squad!" With this, she bolted from the kitchen, racing to land on the couch next to William and sliding the mail reader to face her, moving the cursor over the mail addressed to her and pressing the "read" key. A video window opened on the screen containing a rather perky brunette girl, who waved a quick greeting.

:Hi there Kimi. I'm Danette Callahan, captain of the Eastgate Eagles Junior Varsity Cheer Squad. We received your application about two weeks ago and looked it over…and I'm sending this mail to say, congratulations on being accepted to be in the Junior Varsity Eagle Squad for the 2019-2020--:

The transmission was interrupted as Kimi stabbed the "pause" key and erupted into a high-pitched squeal. She burst to her left, throwing her arms tightly around William. "I'm gonna be an Eagle!" she blurted, bouncing on the couch in her father's arms. "It's all about I'm an Eagle!" she continued, exploding from the couch and nearly tackling Kim, who had come from the kitchen at the commotion, standing in the doorway. "MOM!" Kimi shrieked, twirling the two of them as she continued the hug. "I'm an Eagle! It's all about I'm on the squad! It's all about cheerleader!"

Upon hearing the news, Kim joined in her daughter's revelry. "Ohhh, Ki, that's great!" she beamed, bringing Kimi to arm's length. "When do you start?"

Kimi opened her mouth to start - "It's in--" she halted suddenly, staring into Kim's eyes for a second. "--I don't know!" she finished, sending Kim into laughter. Kimi returned quickly to the couch, hitting the "pause" key again. The message continued.

:You are asked to come to Eastgate High this Saturday, the 10th, at 8 in the morning, where you'll be introduced to the other members of the squad, and go through a few basic cheers and moves…although from reading of your Karate experience on your application and from what I've been told by Frannie McGinnis, I don't think the moves will be any problem for you: Danette now held up a skirt and blouse. :You'll also be measured for your uniform on that day. Again, congrats on being chosen to be in the Eagle Squad, and I'll see you this Saturday. Bring your Eagle spirit: The girl then launched into a short cheer, clapping her hands together and kicking a leg high into the air. :Fly High, Eagles: she finished, and the video window closed as the message came to an end.

William turned to Kimi. "Go back through that message again," he said. "Go to the part where she holds up the uniform." Kimi pressed buttons to play the video again, searching through it to the passage William had mentioned, then pressing the "pause" button as the brunette in the message held up the skirt and midriff-length blouse. Both were a vivid shade of medium blue, with the word "Eastgate" sprawled across the front of the blouse in a yellowish-gold cursive script, and the silhouette of an eagle in red across that. William motioned Kim to into the living room to look at the screen. "Look familiar?" he grinned.

Kim leaned in to look - then straightened with a bit of a gasp at the image on the screen.

Kimi's head turned to her mother at the sound. "What? Those are the school colors for Eastgate High."

Kim's expression now slid into a knowing smirk. "Apparently you might need a bit of a refresher course," she grinned. "Except for no red on the edges, those are the exact colors for the cheerleading outfits we wore on the show, for Middleton High."

Kimi looked back to the screen, where she made the connection - then felt the warm hand on her shoulder. "Looks like the legacy continues," smirked Kim.

Kimi looked first to her father, then back to her mother with a proud, growing smile. "It's all about runs in the family," she said.

----------

The meeting on Saturday morning was positive and festive, with Kimi feeling instantly comfortable in the new environment of high school, which can potentially be initially intimidating. Both the girls returning to the cheer squad and those accepted into the fold this year formed an instant rapport with one another. After measurements for uniforms, the newly-formed squad entered into a short session of the basics of formation and acrobatics.

As with most of the major ventures in her life, Kimi embraced and dove headlong into the sport of cheerleading, even lending her knowledge and instruction in Karate to integrate the physics and safety involved into flight and tumbling during cheers. She also acted in the capacity of a "spotter" at practices during some of the more risky routines.

The Eagle Squad's first public appearance was on Friday night, the 6th of September, during the opening game of Eastgate's football team against their conference rivals from the next town, the Braeburn Bulls. Many supporters made a show of force, including many people from Meridian, who had children both in the field of play and on the sidelines. Along with Kim and William, Marcy and Tina attended the game, accompanied by Frannie, who harbored a secret crush on one of the Eagles' running backs.

While Kim and William held little interest for the sport, they still lent their backing to the football team, cheering scores and long plays. But their primary interest was still their daughter who, even though sporting barely long enough hair to be considered a "crewcut," still looked quite fetching in her cheerleader's outfit, springing into cartwheels and handsprings along the sidelines as she spurred on rallies from the crowd. William captured many pictures during the halftime show, where the cheer squad had center stage. At several times during the game, a few students would filter down from the stands and talk with Kimi, having recognized her from the television broadcast of her Cross - some even asking for her autograph. On the whole, the night was positive for nearly everyone, save for the Eagles football team, who succumbed to a fumble during the closing minutes of the fourth quarter, and lost to the Bulls by the margin of a last-second field goal, 17-14.

As the school year progressed, so did Kimi's development; the end of the first semester was highlighted with Kimi joining the Honor Roll. There were students who often looked to Kimi for mentoring in selected subjects, particularly mathematics. Even with the readiness and ability to help others aside, her friendliness and effervescent nature was causing Kimi to grow in popularity among the students and faculty of Eastgate High.

Along with her intellectual development, Kimi's physical appearance also reflected the beginning of her transition into womanhood. By the end of her freshman year, her hair had returned, grown to a length of nearly six inches - and Kimi celebrated the event by visiting a hair salon, stating, "It's all about get my 'do back." Kimi adopted nearly the same hairstyle she had before her venture in Cairo - returning to the "crewcut" style in back, forming a "V" point at the base of her neck, increasing in length as it swept upward over the crown of her head, ending in a spill of proud auburn hanging over her left eye, when she didn't sweep it to the side. Kimi's figure also changed a bit since her early teens, mainly as a result of the physical regimens of cheerleading and Karate. It blessed her with a slightly fuller, yet still smooth and streamlined physique. The years of high school also found Kimi growing to within a half-inch of her mother's five-foot seven-inch frame.

While her weekday was full and, for the most part predictable as to schedule, her progression toward her goals always kept Kimi interested and absorbed. Her day usually began with a cheerleading session in the gym before school. She nearly always made a point to complete any homework or research assignments during her lunch or study periods; she tried to keep her evenings relatively free to spend time with family or friends. The weekends were usually spent engaging in activities with members of the youth club at the Air base in Willow Grove, either on base or entertaining Amy, Dani and Kat in her home for "sleepovers," sometimes joined by Frannie. Transportation for the weekly events was usually arranged through favors called in by Mark, who often made the journey with Melfina on the weekends when the girls stayed in Eastgate, spending evenings out with Kim and William, or enjoying a night of activities at their home. After moving to the base, Melfina furthered friendships with several members of the troupe, even being mentored by Kat in the finer points of backgammon.

In addition to fostering the sprit of being an Eagle, Kimi also paid attention to further strengthening the span of the Steel Swan's wings that still beat within her. After school on nights that no sports or rally functions were scheduled, Kimi turned her focus to her Karate, spending time at the dojo to work out or otherwise study requirements needed to achieve her next belt. Through the assistance of the same person who taught her the technique of "speed striking," Kimi furthered her knowledge base in the areas of weapons training, including advancing her level of Escrima experience to that of a black belt, and work with a Jo staff - the same weapon she encountered against Carole during her training on the Air base. On a lark, Kimi delved into the techniques of the more fearsome tools - a sword, a pair of sai, and even touched on the art of Nunchaku-Do - the wielding of twin sticks linked by a chain or cord, swung and hurled around one's body. She also spent extensive time in learning and performing the new strike and block sequences required to advance through the ranks.

As they had from the moment she entered the realm of Kempo Karate at age seven, the intensity and diligence of Kimi's efforts soon bore fruit. In the spring of 2020, during the second semester of her freshman year in high school, Kimi graduated into her First Level Brown belt. It was a mere 10 months after that, shortly before Christmas of her sophomore year, that she received her Second Level Brown belt. This left Kimi a total of two-and-a-half years to work and study to reach the pinnacle goal she had worked toward for more than half of her life--

--to become a Black Belt in the art of Ryukyu Kempo Karate before her graduation from high school.

----------

Merely two weeks after the ceremony at the dojo where she received the dark brown belt accented with black stripes at the ends, Kimi began work on the beginning of her most arduous journey in Kempo. Her first priority was research. She asked the sensei of their dojo to mail her a sheet listing the requirements necessary to achieve this top ranking.

Tuesday, January 5th, 2021

3:22 PM.

Tina walked into Kim's office waving a thin folder, which she set onto her desk. Kim looked up from a stack of papers she was going through as the folder landed on her desk. "Hey Tina. Daily reports early again?" she asked.

Tina smiled as her hand left the folder. "They were actually done before 3," she said. "I was just giving them a look over before I sent them off."

Kim reached across the desk, sliding the folder in front of her, and opening it, leafing through a couple of pages. She then adopted her own smile. "Wow," she said. "Rita's been doing the reports for only what, three weeks? She's really fallen into her calling, I think."

"I told her something to that effect when she gave me the reports," said Tina. "Other than taking a day or two to get used to the formatting, she's just breezed right through them without any real problems at all. I think her accounting classes at night are helping out there."

Kim looked at another page of the reports. "If she keeps up this caliber of results, I'm sending a note to the higher-ups. I think they'd be happy to kick in some sort of tuition assistance for her."

"If she catches on to other things this quick," added Tina, "we might have a new zone supervisor in the making."

Kim grinned wider at Tina. "Not a bad idea," she said. "You might put some hooks out and see how many she--"

Kim's statement was cut short by a quick trio of chirps from her desk phone. She turned slightly to her right and pressed a button. "Yes?"

The voice of Aileen, Kim's secretary, came over the phone's conference speaker. :Kim, it's your daughter on Four. She…sounds a bit upset:

At this, Kim and Tina exchanged a quick expression of puzzlement, Kim's tinged with a hint of concern. "Thanks, Aileen," said Kim, reaching for the handset, pressing a button, and bringing the receiver to her ear. "Hi, Ki," she said. "What's going--"

The sharp "MOM?" that burst through the earpiece was even loud enough for Tina to hear on the other side of the desk as Kim pulled the handset away from her face for a second. "Ki--what's wrong?"

The agitated, slightly frantic voice through the phone continued. "I just got the mail," Kimi said, her voice wavering. "I got the list of requirements I asked Sensei Ryan to send me…" her voice then trailed off into a sob. "--I'm done, Mom."

Kim's eyes shifted first to the phone - then to Tina moving toward the doorway, waving her hand slightly and mouthing the words, "We'll talk later." Kim's attention turned back to the phone. "What do you mean, 'done'?"

"Y--you know what's on the test," Kimi said. "You took it. Sensei Ryan even gave you the test years ago…"

"Ki," said Kim, "I don't have the test here in front of me. I haven't seen it since I took it. Shoot me a copy of it from the mail reader."

There were a few seconds of sharp taps on a keypad - then, "Gone," Kimi said. "I just wish you would have told me before I got this."

A shard of exasperation crept into Kim's tone. "Okay, Ki," she said, "just chill for a second until I get the email…then we'll go through this." She turned to her right and tilted a glass panel up from the desk, tapping on another panel in front of it with a keyboard overlay. She cradled the phone on her shoulder as she opened her mail program and selected an item which appeared on the list. "Okay," she said, scanning over the document, "I've got it here…Ki…I just don't see anything that you shouldn't be able--"

"The first line," Kimi interrupted, "look at the first line!"

Kim shifted toward the top of the document. "'Small Circle Principles'? That just deals with strike points and--"

"The FIRST line, Mom!"

"That is the first line under Theories. That should be one of the first things for you to focus on."

"Three…and a half…years," Kimi growled through the phone. "The list of requirements starts with the line, 'Minimum three-and-a-half years of training'. I don't have three-and-a-half years. Even if I studied double-time in the summers, it wouldn't be enough--"

"Ki," Kim sighed, "I know you're putting yourself on a tight schedule to do this…but is it absolutely necessary for you to become a Black Belt before you get out of high school?"

"Yes, it is, Mom," Kimi returned. "After my senior year, it's all about get into college. I won't have the same resources I do now. I won't have the same dojo, much less a live-in instructor. College will be all about enough Planet Stress without having to worry about this test, too."

Kim studied the document for a moment, reading down the list of prerequisites. Her face suddenly brightened into a sly smile. "I know that this seems like a lot of stuff, Ki," she said. "But you can do it. You've already done a lot of it. Look at the list of katas. These are all techniques you covered in the test for your Second Brown belt. Five Swords…Seven Swords…The list of Taikyoku…Shodan, Nidan, Sandan, Yondan, Godan…you've been through all that…even the additional katas under that…even the Kusanku Empty Hands kata. The only thing you'll need are some additional self-defense techniques in each of those." She then went further down the list. "Look at the weapons requirements…it's all Bo techniques. With the work you've been doing with Zach on the Jo, it should just be a slight shift to cover those…and all your work with Escrima…you're already at a black-belt level on those. That should make the cane techniques you need easy to pick up. Your weapons training alone could shave up to a year off the requirement."

Kim now slipped into a softer tone. "Ki…I wish I could give you the test…but I can't…that can only be given by the grand master of the dojo…that's Sensei Ryan." Kim then turned to a digital Rolodex on her desk. "Tell you what," she said. "Let's call Sensei Ryan when I get home, and we'll see what all you already have covered on this list. That will give you the rest of the time to learn and polish the other things."

"I need to ask him about this other thing," Kimi said, her tone now only slightly softened. "The assistant instructor certification. Sounds like I'm going to have to be all about teach people, too."

"Well, it won't be by yourself," Kim beamed, "but I can help you that far. I can give you your assistant certification. With a whole school who knows and likes you, not to mention an entire dojo full of people who know of your abilities in Karate, finding a few students who would want to train under you shouldn't be any problem. The main thing you should start working on, when you get started on this, should be the additional things we just talked about. I'll print this out, and cross off the things that shouldn't concern you right now. We'll go over it tonight. In the meantime…you have to get rid of some of that negative energy--" she punctuated the last with a bit of a smirk into the phone "--you know how your emotions can cloud your judgement…" she drew out.

Kim could hear the long exhale, telling her that her logic had been stronger than her daughter's emotion. "It's all about I'll be down in the workout room, beating things up until you get home," Kimi sighed.

Kim's smile widened even further now. "Now that sounds more like my future Black Belt daughter," she said, pressing a key to print out the document Kimi had sent. "See you about 5, Hon." She hung up the phone and turned to the other corner of her desk, where a sheet of paper was sliding out of a small printer. She took the paper and turned, setting it on the desk in front of her and picking up a pen, going down the list of items and adding commentary beside them. "Let's see, three-and-a-half years, we'll work that out with Sensei Ryan…40 hours of training since last promotion…in two years? Uh, yeah…no big," she chuckled. "Assistant instructor cert…again, no big…"

----------

As the sophomore year slid toward summer vacation, Kimi also slid into more focused work on her Karate. Even her year-end grades reflected this shift; while her marks were still well above average, nowhere near failing in any subject, the decline was enough for Kimi to slip from the ranks of the Honor Roll in the second semester. There was a bit of concern from Kim and William, as this was the first instance of Kimi's aspirations in the martial arts edging out education as her primary focus. Yet the slip in her grades was not quite enough at this point to be seen by them as a stumbling block that might preclude her academic potential. Kimi also assured them that this was but a momentary shift in balance, and that before the start of her junior year, she would reestablish her equilibrium, as she put it, "between Ryukyu and 'Rithmetic'."

That summer brought with it the usual heated atmosphere - but also carried the heat of Kimi's intensity in her Karate studies. After a short week's respite following the dismissal from school, Kimi dove into her training, some days spending nearly eight hours at the dojo, balancing between learning and applying techniques on the floor and research in the dojo's small library. Various evenings would find Kimi deep into the books, where she gained a general understanding of the history of martial arts - how they first came to be just that - forms of art - before being developed into systems of self-defense.

It was also through this research that Kimi grasped the then ironically relevant principle of Yin and Yang - the Chinese Theory of Balance in Life. The revelation so amazed Kimi that from that night forward, she sought to apply the theory to her everyday life; weighing things against one another and choosing the action that would continue her along her journey, while still maintaining the "balance" of the slowly increasing weight she was placing on herself.

By the nearing of the end of summer, Kimi had done a good amount of the work her mother had pointed out to her when they went over the sheet from the dojo. She had made the adjustments to apply her Jo staff training to the longer Bo staff. She also had gained control of the requirements in working with a single stick or cane, the Cane Anyo, adopting from her proficiency with Escrima.

True to her word to her parents, having completed a summer of pride of workmanship in her Kempo studies, Kimi applied her learned methods of Yin and Yang to the studies of her junior year in high school. In addition to focusing her intellect into the higher math classes of Trigonometry and Beginning Calculus, and a class in Civics, Kimi continued in her extracurricular activities, joining the Varsity Cheer Squad as a high-ranking member. Several times during the fall, "weekends" were extended for members of the youth club as Mark and Melfina flew with them to join in Friday night festivities at Eastgate Eagle football games. The football season was mostly generous to the Eagles this year, as they were elevated into the State playoff, where they fell only moments short of a state championship, bested by a sudden kickoff return for a touchdown by the Braeburn Bulls, who claimed the title with a 27-21 win.

Over the week-long "Spring Break" vacation in early April, Kimi also took a break from convention, and spent four evenings with Kim at the dojo, where she received her official Assistant Instructor Certification at the end of the week. Kim lent an especially good note to the ceremony, telling her daughter that the techniques she had to display to earn the certification could be looked at as a "dress rehearsal" for the rigors of her Black Belt test.

This wasn't the main thought that hit Kimi at that moment. The thing that was foremost in her mind right then was how many people she would have to recruit to train under her over the summer months, so she could acquire the minimum of 20 hours of teaching called for on the list from the dojo.

The answer came to her before the end of the school year. Zach, her weapons trainer, had channeled three new students entering the dojo to enroll in preliminary classes under Kimi. Meanwhile, Kimi added to that effort, talking to the Cheer Squad and telling them of the balance of energy the martial art would lend them in their cheerleading routines. Three girls from the squad signed up the week before the end of school. Kimi even used her "sales pitch" to gather William into entering the classes she and her mother had begged of him for so long.

Throughout the summer, two nights a week, Kimi would guide her seven new charges in the ways and theories of Kempo Karate. Before the initial course was completed, one of the students had dropped from the class, citing time constraints with his new job. This did little to tarnish the product of the class's effort. By the end of the summer, Kimi now had six seasoned students; two had climbed into their second belt - and even William was now the proud owner of an Orange Belt from the Seito Kemmei Kai Dojo of Martial Arts.

It also gave Kimi an accumulated 24 hours of teaching credit.

Kimi now had a total of nine months - her senior year - to complete the training to attain her Black Belt.

While her class load was lighter in her senior year, having easily fulfilled credit requirements, the first few months of Kimi's final year in high school were a bit of a blur, smattered with success and setback. The Eagles football team had their best season start in over ten years, dealing a scathing 42-14 shellacking to the Curtisville Tigers.

During halftime activities of the following game, a missed landing during an acrobatic routine caused Kimi to suffer a severely sprained ankle. In addition to missing the next several games, Kimi was also largely sidelined from her Karate training while the injury healed. The lowered level of physical activity sank Kimi into a bit of a funk through the fall - until a movement started by fellow members of the Cheer Squad served to reverse her mood. They began with routines during rallies and distributing "spirit flyers" through the school which contained a phrase, inspired by Kimi's adopted Karate nickname - "Eagles and Swans Soar Together." The movement carried into the spirit of the football team, who opened each successive game after Kimi's injury by joining hands in a large huddle on the sidelines and erupting with the cry, "For Ki!" The art department of the school even made stickers for the effort, worn on the players' helmets with the silhouette of a swan and "Ki" beside it in bold lettering.

The campaign had a dramatic effect, both on Kimi's spirit and that of the school. Each day she would go to school, first on crutches early on, then eventually graduating to walking with the help of a cane, people would greet her with words of support and offers of help, carrying books and other tasks. While Kimi normally declined help, she didn't mind the assistance in her period of reduced mobility. During her rehabilitation, the coach of the football team offered the help of the athletic department, giving Kimi full access to machines that allowed her to strengthen her ankle and retain her range of motion.

Kimi's return to the Cheer Squad came in mid-November, as the Eagles entered into regional playoffs in their home stadium against the Hyson Hill Mavericks. As the squad ran onto the field, Kimi launched into a series of handsprings which she continued to the center of the field, ending in a triple twist and landing in a split, surrounded by her fellow cheerleaders. The response from the stands was almost deafening in its welcome-back admiration. Halftime brought a sparkling performance by the Cheer Squad, much to the delight of the crowd. The fervor of the squad and the fans also spilled over into the spirit of the team, as they were victorious over the Mavericks by a score of 35-24. This event propelled the Eagles once again into the State Championship Game in Allentown the week after Thanksgiving, pitted against their longtime rivals, the Braeburn Bulls, who wrenched the title from them the year before.

The two-week buildup to the game was the most intense in the state's history of high-school football. Attacks between the schools never escalated to the physical level, but the amount of "trash talk" kept tempers fueled. Several times during the two-week period would find students from one school traveling to the "turf" of the other, delivering their thoughts and messages about the upcoming contest. One morning greeted Eastgate students with a five-foot papier-mâché sculpture of a well-cooked Thanksgiving turkey bearing the head of a bald eagle on the front lawn of the school, with "Eagle - It's What's For Dinner" scrawled across the side of the large carcass. Eastgate responded with its own version of mudslinging, launching a multimedia campaign designed by the art department. The message was a simple one, silkscreened onto t-shirts and printed on magnetic signs that on many days found their way onto cars around the town of Braeburn; "All Your End Zone Are Belong To Us" in bold black letters over the Eastgate Eagle logo. Being a devout art student as well as a member of the yearbook committee, Frannie lent her own contribution, marketing t-shirts in the school store with the slogan, "Hindsight is 20/20. Eagle Sight is 2022." The back of each shirt displayed the image of the Bulls' logo on the side of a milk carton.

The evening of November 29th brought a crowd of over 10,000 to the stadium in Allentown. To say the atmosphere surrounding the game was electrically charged would have been a gross understatement, with both sides nearly in a frenzy in support of their respective teams. From the opening kickoff, the game was a fierce and heated battle, with key players from both teams suffering injuries. The score at halftime favored the Bulls, 17-14. The halftime activities included a performance by a five-member "speed drill band" from Braeburn; and a routine by the Eagle Cheer Squad which featured Kimi, who had changed before halftime into the black silk gi given to her three years ago by Tina. She performed an intense sequence combining cheerleading acrobatics with moves from her Karate, ending in a flying spinning kick into a Styrofoam likeness of the Braeburn mascot, which drew raucous cheers from the stands.

The second half of the game was a scorefest and just as intense as the first, with more injuries sustained on both sides. The score stagnated at the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Bulls holding a slim lead, 45-42. The fourth quarter played out as a stalemated defensive battle until with about four minutes remaining. The Bulls were nearing the end of a long drive deep into Eastgate territory and stood poised to add to their score, when a dramatic interception near the goal line produced a long runback by the Eagles, and they scored a touchdown on the succeeding play. They held the margin until the gun sounded, and captured the State Championship title, by the score of 49-45.

The celebration after the Eagles' victory was frantic, nearly intoxicating; yet it held a mix for Kimi. Even though the second half of the school year remained, Kimi had decided that this game would also mark an end to her short-but-lively cheerleading career. The time taken to recover from her injury had, in her opinion, set her back too far in her Karate agenda to continue to afford extracurricular activities such as cheerleading. In a meeting the Monday morning following the game, the rest of the Cheer Squad understood the nature of Kimi's decision, yet reluctantly agreed with her departure and said they would miss her contributions to the Squad.

----------

Part of the dojo's requirements to achieve Black Belt status included the submission of a "Black Belt Essay," in which the applicant is asked to explain what being a Black Belt means to them, and what effects Karate, and the concept of martial arts in general, had on other aspects in their lives.

Kimi went up against this challenge during the "Winter Solstice" vacation at the end of the year. In the week between the Christmas and New Year's holidays, Kimi all but sequestered herself in her bedroom, poring over books and her feelings. At the end of the week, she had hammered out a ten-page composition in which she told of the harmony between mind and body that her years of training had brought her. She likened this harmony to a sort of "symphony" of balance which flowed through interaction with her surroundings, and also within herself. Kimi also said that this harmony of control gave her tremendous confidence in her abilities and accomplishments - which in turn produced an inner serenity of peace and tranquility.

Kimi continued, going into some detail of the incident four years prior involving her mother's abduction, and her mission to rescue her, encompassing the additional Karate training she received under Mark during the three weeks at the Air base. She chose to close the essay by paraphrasing something that Melfina had said to her just a week before that mission - something which stuck with her from that day forward:

"Anger is the wind which blows out the light of reason. Keep the light of your knowledge and power focused and it will guide you through any dark shadow."

Kimi started her final semester of high school with more than enough credits needed to graduate with honors. Her "game plan" was to continue only the requisite classes, dropping the rest of her elective courses. This left her afternoons free shortly after lunch, which she spent at the dojo until Kim came to either pick her up or spend some time into the early evenings, going over techniques. It was after about two months of this schedule that Kimi gave a target date that she would be ready to run the gauntlet that lay before her in Kempo Karate:

Kimi's last official day of training would be on Friday, March 31st - the week before Spring Vacation. On the following Tuesday, April 4th, Kimi would go before a four-person panel made up of Sensei Ryan and three other black belt students of the dojo.

The training was complete.

The polishing was complete.

The Steel Swan had made the climb to the plateau and was now set to make her bid to earn wings of shimmering ebony.

----------

Tuesday, April 4th, 2023

Kim had taken the day off from work to accompany her daughter for the day. Kimi had asked that Kim inquire about being part of the panel to judge her - but Kim felt, as did Sensei Ryan, that having a parent on the panel might be viewed as "stacking the deck" in Kimi's favor. Kim was confident that her daughter had a firm enough grasp of the knowledge and ability needed to meet the requirements of the test.

Kimi had been asked to report for an 8:00 AM start to the test. She and Kim arrived a little over a half-hour before that, where they went through stretching and limbering routines, and over any last-minute questions that Kimi might have. Promptly at 8:00, a series of people emerged into the room, all wearing white uniforms. Sensei Ryan led the line, carrying a small notebook, and was followed by three other men, all current Black Belts in the school. They walked across the floor and sank to their knees, siting near the wall, facing the floor. Directly after them were four other people, two of them also wearing Black Belts. These four were chosen to be Kimi's uke - simulated opponents when Kimi would be asked to demonstrate her bunkai, or interpretation of moves within the various techniques, or katas.

Sensei Ryan leaned to the man next to him; that man then rose and walked to the corner of the room, where Kim and Kimi were. "Sensei is ready," he said.

Kim turned to her daughter with a warm smile. "You're ready, too," she beamed.

Kimi looked first to the man; then to the rest of the panel, assembled across the room; and finally to her mother. Her face slipped into the barest smile. "You know? Today…I feel ready," she said. She then squared to Kim, standing straight with her arms at her sides - and bowed deeply in her direction.

Kim smiled widely and mirrored the action, bowing to Kimi. She then straightened. "Call me when you get done," she said. Her smile then became a bit sly, with a hint of parental pride crossing her expression as she reached to her gym bag, pulling out a collection of papers and slipping them under the brown belt around the waist of Kimi's gi. She finished by giving the knot at the front a tiny tug of confidence. "Keep your light focused, Ki," she said.

Kimi responded to this with her now-trademark wrinkled-nose smirk. She then turned and followed the man to the panel, where he returned to his place on the floor. Kimi continued a few more steps until she was standing in front of the four men.

Kim stepped through the door leading out of the room, turning to leave the door open slightly for a moment, watching her daughter as she bowed to the panel. "Good Morning, Student Kimi," Sensei Ryan said with a tinge of authority in his tone, opening his notebook. "I see you have met your other requirements, including the hours of teaching and training. You are ready to begin your testing, yes?"

Kimi stood straight and rigid before the panel, her hands at her sides. She shook them out, and nodded once. "Yes…I am, Sensei Ryan."

The instructor then motioned to the papers tucked under Kimi's belt. "You have completed your essay, yes?"

Kimi removed the papers and took one step forward to hand them to the instructor. "Yes I have, Sensei Ryan," she said, returning to her previous position.

The Sensei slid the papers into the back of his notebook. "Good," he said. "Then we shall begin the testing. Student Kimi…tell us the principle behind Ryukyu Kempo Karate."

Kimi gave a quick single nod. "Ryukyu Kempo Karate-Do is a well-rounded martial art of self-defense which combines techniques of empty hands, and of weapons, and other techniques that enable one to disarm and disable an opponent, Sensei."

The instructor nodded once in return. "Give us examples of how Ryukyu Kempo differs from other forms of Karate," he said.

Kimi again nodded once. "Ryukyu offers the arts of Tuite, which is a grappling technique, and the Kyosho Jitsu, which is a technique of striking selected anatomical points to disable the opponent beyond his ability to retaliate, Sensei."

Kim let the door slowly close, and turned for the front door, letting a closed-mouth "Hm-hm-hm" chuckle escape. "It's sooo all about lock," she grinned.

----------

Kimi's test spanned the next five hours, in which she was asked to explain her interpretation, or bunkai, of each of the techniques she had learned in the last two-and-a-half years, then demonstrate each of them against different opponents, sometimes several times, displaying different defenses within the same technique. She also went into the requirements with each of the weapons - the Bo staff and the Cane Anyo techniques.

Kimi contacted Kim's cell shortly after One O'Clock, where Kim had spent the morning at the Mall with Marcy and Tina. She arrived at the dojo about 1:30 to pick up her daughter - who seemed a bit weary from the rigors of the test - but was still upbeat about her efforts. Kim told her that they were expected to be present before that evening's class to learn the result of Kimi's test.

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6:17 PM.

Seito Kemmei Kai Dojo of Martial Arts

8122 Allegheny Avenue

Kim and Kimi arrived, both in their white uniforms. They stopped just inside the front doors, Kim motioning to her daughter to take a seat near the front desk. "I have to go in first," she said. "They want all the Black Belts present and in place before you enter."

Kimi nodded slowly to her mother and sank into one of the chairs. "See you in a few," Kim said, turning toward the doors to the large classroom, opening one and slipping inside.

As the door closed, Kimi could swear the faint ticking of the wall clock was hammering against her skull. The five minutes that she waited in the chair felt to her like the passing of eons. All these years of work, she thought. It all comes down to just a few hours in front of the Sensei…and then a minute in front of every Black Belt in the house…all to hear basically 'yes' or 'no.'

The girl who had come from the classroom had spoken Kimi's name twice, and actually had to tap her on the shoulder to capture her attention. "Sensei says to come in," she smiled.

Kimi still had a distant, distracted expression as she stood, nodding to the girl, who then turned and walked back through the doors. Kimi remained for a few seconds - then began one of the longest walks of her life. Her mind swirled into a maelstrom of thoughts as she neared the double doors. Okay Ki this is all about it be a Swan be all about graceful whether you got it or you didn't be a Steel Swan be graceful and find out why you didn't get it if you didn't get it focus Ki focus oh why couldn't Mom have been on the panel this morni--

Kimi opened the door to the Final Passage of the Gauntlet.

Two rows of 11 people - the 22 current Black Belts enrolled at the dojo - were assembled. Each row was facing the other, arms straight down in front of them, fists together below their waists. A Corridor of Black Belts. At the end of the corridor stood Sensei Ryan, his own hands crossed in front of him.

Holy Shiznek on a brick.

Kimi tried to give herself a quick mental shake, erasing any emotion or reaction from her face - then started to walk through the Corridor. Look at them all lined up all about show of force…Black force I wonder how many of them didn't get their first Black on the first try--hell with that how many of them had to fight people with guns and an evil Celler biznek with a twirly shocky stick thingy all about shut up Ki that had nothing to do with this just focus focus you nailed all your katas and the Bo was good--

Kimi now passed in front of her mother, whose hair was gathered back into a thick ponytail. Kim was third from the end on Kimi's left, four students and Sensei Ryan above her in the dojo in seniority and belt ranking. As she passed, both fought the urge to alter their gaze - Kim's eyes locked on the man across the Corridor from her; Kimi's trained on the impressive stature of Sensei Ryan as she continued her approach.

Techniques and sequences now flooded into Kimi's mind as she took the last few steps to stand before the instructor. Nailed the Sanchin got the Chinto nailed the Passai got all the Taikyoku katas even the Nidan yep yep nailed that step behind out, 1st flat hand pull, down punch, knife hand, elbow no noooooooo NO Ki it's down punch THEN elbow THEN knife hand but that's how I did it right? Shizz-NEK I can't REMEMBER how I did it--

Sensei Ryan now moved his hands to his sides and spoke. "This morning, Student Kimi went before a panel of her peers in a test to advance her rank in Kempo Karate--"

Just get to the bad parts Sensei Ryan I know you're all about liked the essay oh why couldn't the rest of the test be all about as easy as writing about Planet Slug Shred just tell me how I'm all about muff the Taikyoku Nidan I know it but it's all about backwards upstairs here--

"--Student Kimi was tested on 14 katas, three Bo techniques, her empty hand and Cane Anyos, and her Taiji Quan Chen 38 form--"

Just tell me where I missed I already know the rest I can be here in the morning to start work on it I still have the first part of the summer to--

"--and this evening, the dojo will note--"

Nidan! Just all about get on with the miss!--

"--that Student Kimi has graduated to Shodan Black Belt in Ryukyu Kempo Karate."

You gotta be shi--! Shiznek on a stick! I did it! All about Black Belt!

Kimi's head suddenly cleared with the impact of the instructor's statement. Her vision became just as clear, shifting from the distant gaze to the sharp image of Sensei Ryan standing before her, his arms moving forward, his hands holding the folded 2-inch wide belt of brushed ebony cotton canvas.

Kimi didn't even feel her hands loosening the knot of her Second Level Brown Belt and slipping it from around her waist. Her eyes were locked on those of the smiling Sensei Ryan as he presented her with her new belt, which she slid through the loops of her gi, then brought the ends around again, doubling the belt. Sensei Ryan then reached forward and looped one end through twice, fixing it into a traditional knot, which he then gave a firm tug to tighten it.

It's all about official now, Kimi thought as she bowed to the instructor. I am a Black-Belted Swan of Steel.

The instructor then placed his hands at Kimi's shoulders, turning her to face the rows of her now-fellow Black Belts. "Fellow Dan," he said in an authoritative voice, "please join me in welcoming the newest Black Belt to the Sieto Kemmei Kai Dojo." With this, the 22 people turned in unison, now facing Kimi. "Salute--" the Sensei barked "--Shodan-Ki!"

The Corridor now spoke as if one; "Shodan-Ki--" They then brought up their arms, elbows out, left hand curling over right fist - the first position of the Kempo Salute - and bowed. As they raised, they thrust their fists forward, blurting, "--Kiai!"

Kimi brought up her hands in the same position and bowed to the assemblage. "Kiai!" she burst in response through a wide smile.

As the lineup broke apart, Kim was the first to reach Kimi, taking her into a tight hug. "You did it!" she beamed through tears of joy, "ohhh, I'm so happy for you, Ki!"

"I was all about worried about the Taikyoku Nidan," Kimi said. "It kept coming up backwards in my head…I thought I missed it in the test."

Sensei Ryan now joined the group as they congratulated Kimi. "You actually performed the Nidan well," he said. "The place where you might need to apply yourself just a bit more would be in the Kusanku kata. You should work on that a bit before you think about advancing to your Second Dan. But I will say this…do not worry as much now. The Kusanku is one of the more difficult katas to attain in achieving Dan ranking."

Kimi's eyebrows now furrowed a bit. "I'm…not sure that will be right away, Sensei Ryan," she said. "I'm thinking about trying to get into college this fall…and…I don't know how far away the college will be."

Sensei Ryan broke into a wide smile. "Ahh," he grinned. "Shodan-Ki also wishes to build her mind. The principles of Yin and Yang are serving well to balance you. Do not worry…you shall always be a member in good standing at the Sieto Kemmei Kai Dojo, for when you wish to continue your Karate. You should receive your certificate in the mail in a day or two." The instructor now turned to the other students. "For those of you wishing to read it, Student Kimi's essay will be on display in the lobby for the rest of the month, as we do with the essays of all Dan who successfully complete their testing."

Kim placed an arm around her daughter. "C'mon, Shodan Swan," she giggled, "I have a little surprise for you."

The handshakes and hugs of congratulation continued as Kim and Kimi made their way to the doors of the classroom. Kim ducked through the doors first, sticking her head through and giving a quick nod. Kimi followed her - and stopped short, her eyes widening.

In the lobby of the school, standing near the front desk was William, with a wide smile and open arms - and he wasn't alone in his welcome. To his right stood Mark, Melfina and Marcy, also with warm smiles. "Now there's a shining Swan if I ever saw one," quipped Mark.

"Dad! Major Mark!" Kimi burst, moving quickly to throw her arms first around her father, then the tall officer. "What are you guys doing here? I mean, it's all about great that you're here, but…what if I was…all about not make the test?"

"Oh, that was already in the bag," Mark grinned. "Kim called us earlier this afternoon, after she talked to the instructor of the dojo. She just told us what time to be here."

Kimi instantly shot her gaze to Kim. "Y-you knew?" she stammered.

"Knew, but couldn't share," smiled Kim. "Standard condition of the dojo. Only the Sensei who administers the test can inform the student of the result…and that only happens at the ceremony. It was actually all I could do to keep from telling you on the way over tonight…I knew you were going crazy until Sensei Ryan handed you the belt."

"Not the best word," Kimi sighed, "but yeah, all about crazy."

William reached to a chair for a large bag. "I brought you both a change of clothes," he said.

Kimi gave her father a suspicious look until Kim spoke up, nudging her arm. "You didn't think we would go out to dinner dressed like this, did you?" she smirked, motioning her hands across her uniform.

"Well….no," Kimi started. She then looked over her shoulder to the front doors. "Umm…can I…do something before I change? It's all about get something out of the system. It'll just take a second."

Kim shifted into a somewhat puzzled expression. "Uhh…sure, Ki," she said, slightly hesitantly. "Go ahead."

Kimi's face spread into a wide grin, the bridge of her nose wrinkling slightly. "Thanks, Mom," she said. "Be right back." She then turned for the front doors as the others watched. Kimi walked a few feet away from the doors onto the front entrance - then turned toward the Eastgate skyline, setting herself rigidly. "My name is Kimi Angelina Hodge," she said, her voice rising as she continued, "but after today, call me 'Ki Possible'--" she then shot her arms high into the air, fists clenched as her voice built into a yell of proud release "--'cause I can do ANYTHING!"

----------

The final two months of Kimi's high school life held such a difference, compared to those leading up to her Black Belt test. Even in the face of her approaching finals, the contrast in workload alone left Kimi in nearly a giddy state most of the time, laughing out loud at the slightest bit of humor and bringing life and light to anyone she came in contact with.

Kimi's graduation ceremony was in the first week of June, a few days after her last day of school. While she did graduate with honors, her packed schedule in her final year precluded her from making a bid for Valedictorian of her class. The graduation was a grand affair held in the Eastgate Civic Center, for over 250 seniors from Eastgate High. Her parents had taken a few pictures of Kimi in her royal blue robe before they left the house, but continued to capture moments from the ceremony, especially as Kimi walked onto the stage to accept her diploma, and the expression of pride on her face when she shifted the gold tassle of her mortarboard from one side to the other.

At the final moment of commencement, the seniors rose as a group, shouting, "Fly high!" and hurling their mortarboards into the air while cheering. Kimi was one of the students who chose to instead hold onto her headpiece, wanting it as an undamaged keepsake. The seniors milled about on the floor of the Civic Center for about an hour afterward, trading signings in yearbooks, meeting parents and discussing their plans for the future.

A few days after this, Kimi and Frannie embarked on a project researching colleges and universities in Pennsylvania and surrounding states, and mailing off letters to respective offices to initiate the applications process.

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Wednesday, June 28th, 2023

5:31 PM.

Frannie picked up a napkin from the coffee table, turning to call into the kitchen. "Thanks for the pizza, Mrs. H," she said.

"Not at all, Frannie," Kim said from the counter. "Wednesday is usually Pizza Night here anyway." Her face now slid into a smirk. "Besides…I thought it might be good to get you two used to things like this. By the way, we're having Ramen tomorrow night…"

"Mom is all about sooo funny," Kimi sighed as Frannie fell back to the couch in laughter.

Kimi set her slice of pizza onto a plate and turned her attention to the mail reader in front of her as she wiped her hand. She then tapped Frannie the arm, motioning to the screen. "See this one?" she said, pointing to an item in the list of that day's mail chips. "I've never seen that icon before…it's addressed to me, but it doesn't look very…college-y."

Frannie looked at her friend, her mouth pursing into a smirk. "Umm, isn't the word, 'collegiate'?" she snickered.

Kimi's head shot to her right, her left hand reaching for her plate. "No, Frannie Frat," she spat in mock exasperation, "the word is 'pizza crust earrings'."

Frannie burst into giggles. She pointed to the screen. "…Open it?"

Kimi turned back to the mail reader, choosing the item she had pointed out, and began reading as the document opened onto the screen. "Whoa…" she drew out as she read the heading. "U.S. Department of Education…all about official…" She reached for a slice of pizza as she continued to read - then dropped the slice onto the plate, her eyes widening as her jaw slowly dropped.

"Ki, what is--" Frannie started.

She was cut off as Kimi suddenly launched into a series of quick, shrill shrieks, one hand grabbing her friend's knee, the other flapping in the air in front of her.

"Ki?"

Kimi continued shrieking, bursting from the couch and running into the hall, nearly colliding with Kim, who had come quickly from the kitchen at the noise. "Ki…?" was all that Kim managed as the streak raced by her. She turned to Frannie. "What happened?" she asked.

"I--I don't know, Mrs. H," said Frannie. "She opened this mail…then she just…went off." Frannie turned to lean to the mail reader for a few seconds. "Oh…my God," she breathed.

"Frannie, what?" Kim asked, more incredulously.

"Read this," Frannie said excitedly, pointing to the mail reader. "It's from the Federal government. It says that they're paying to send her to Penn State University on a full scholarship."

"Full ride!" Kimi blurted from the hallway. She was coming from her bedroom, carrying a folder displaying the deep Royal blue and white colors of the school. "Look at the size of their Liberal Arts Department," she said, entering the living room. "Over 700 Majors! The campus is only about 100 miles north of here…I could be home every weekend if I wanted." She handed Frannie the folder to look over, and clutched her hands to her chest. "I'll be able to study exactly what I want to go into," she grinned widely.

Kim looked at her daughter. "Sounds like you already have a career path planned," she said.

"Oh yeah," Kimi beamed. "And actually…I think I have Major Mark to thank for that…in a way--" she caught sight of her mother's sudden expression "--and no, Mom, it's not in the military." Frannie couldn't help but giggle at this.

Kim's face now spread into a smile. "Well," she said, placing a hand on Kimi's shoulder, "guess we're about to see a Swan turn into a Nittany Lion." The three of them burst into laughter, joining into hugs.

Kimi set about initiating the paperwork to accept the offer from the government. Since her continuing education was paid for, Kimi's parents gladly lent their help to Frannie's mother in funding to send her with Kimi to the campus. Kimi and Frannie arranged to share a dorm room on the campus of the college. Kimi already felt "at home," being recognized by several people from the televised events four years ago. Kimi had little trouble forming friendships on campus - especially among the 13 Cellers who had gained acceptance into courses - including Monique, who happily joined the two girls in their living quarters.

Kimi entered an undergraduate program at the college, choosing the major of Criminal Law, with a minor in research and investigative techniques. Her time was further occupied, brought about through the prompting of Monique, by also entering into an internship program in the newly-formed Sociology Department course of Inter-Environmental Interaction Studies.

Kimi's first semester was briefly interrupted by an invitation to a ceremony that neither she nor her mother would think of missing.

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Monday, September 18th, 2023, 11:07 AM.

1st Avenue and E. 46th St.

Eastern Manhattan, New York City, NY

In front of the United Nations General Assembly Building

Kimi's hand searched for her mother's, clasping warmly as the two women continued their gaze upward. "Ever think you'd see this, Mom?" she asked.

Kim started, "I--" then stopped to dab the tip of her finger against a tear that had formed in the corner of one eye. "I…well," she continued, "I had my wishes…just like everybody else. But I mostly thought that this…had to happen…eventually."

Kim and Kimi were part of a large assemblage who had gathered in front of the uniquely-shaped building. Their gaze centered on the top of a flagpole --

A newly-erected, 192nd flagpole - now proudly flying a flag consisting of a large circular field of bright yellow, framed by a series of orangish-brown rings.

The official flag of the Celler environment.

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Love is born with lightning bolts

Electro-magnetic force

Burning skin and fireworks

A storm on a raging course

Like a force of nature

Love can fade with the stars at dawn

Sometimes it takes all your strength

Just to keep holding on

At the speed of love

A radiance that travels

At the speed of love

My heart goes out to you

Love is born with solar flares

From two magnetic poles

It moves towards a higher plane

Where two halves make two wholes

Like a force of nature

Love shines in many forms

One night we are bathed in light

One day carried away in the storms

At the speed of love

Nothing changes faster

Than the speed of love

My heart goes out to you

At the speed of love

A radiance that travels

At the speed of love

My heart goes out to you

Rush

"The Speed of Love"

From the album, "Counterparts"

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I wish to express my deep gratitude and thanks to the readers who sent their kind words of support, strength and encouragement. They were truly the winds which filled my sails and helped me continue through the storms which racked my life during the writing of this final installment of the Celler Series.

- Author

Gleam Surge

End