Special thanks to AtomicFire, Randy C, MrDrP, RobinofYJ, SolarinStudio for their bondiggity reviews!

Kudos to MrDrP for beta-reading a very important paragraph.

Thanks to everyone for reading and keeping up with my less-than-frequently updated fic!

This chapter dedicated with smuffy goodness to flakeflippingsnowgypsy.

Also, Molloy's fanfic recommendation is bthecatslayer's "Kim's Back." This first chapter captures the essence of Kim and Ron right out of the gate. It should prove to be quite the story. What's more, after trudging and wading through my chapter, you'll need to read something that gets right to the heart of the matter.

If you saw it on KP, it is owned by Disney. If you read it in Gravity's Rainbow and Vineland, it is the intellectual property of Thomas Ruggles Pynchon.


Slothrop, who tends to play more by superstition than strategy, is obsessed with protecting his knights—willing to lose anything else, thinking no more than a move ahead if that, he alternates between long lethargic backing and filling with bursts of idiot razzle-dazzle that have Pokler frowning, but not with worry. About the time Slothrop loses his queen, "Sa-a-a-y, waitaminute, did you say Pokler?"

Zip the man is out with a Luger as big as a house—really fast guy—with the muzzle pointing right at Slothrop's head. "You'd better leave. Only two more moves and I'd've had you anyway."

-- Gravity's Rainbow, page 576

I.

"Here," muttered a low, officious voice from somewhere in the area of Shego's waist.

She looked down to see a squat little monkey, dressed in a royal purple kimono with sleeves edged in gold.

"What?" she asked rudely.

"Here," the simian repeated rudely.

She then noticed he was holding out to her a large ball of what looked like … taffy.

"What the heck is that?" she asked with dripping disdain.

"HERE!" he ordered with blazing eyes. His voice was much more intimidating than his diminutive size.

"Okay, fine, whatever," Shego said taking the ball from his grasp.

"Eww, it's sticky," she complained as her gloved hands made contact with the substance.

"Word," the simian uttered with a smirk.

As he turned to make his exit, Shego regained her sense of self, and angrily called to him, "Hey, pal! What the heck is this?"

"Yours," she heard him call over his shoulder as he scuttled away and disappeared into the crowd.

"Great," she groused, looking the ball over. It definitely looked like taffy. Then she noticed that it wasn't a complete ball. There was a string of pulled taffy hanging, or rather stretching, off one of its sides. The string extended across the crowded room. Without really thinking about what she was doing, Shego began turning the ball over in her hands in an attempt to gather up the stray thread.

As she made her way through the crowded, darkened chamber, she finally started to wonder where she was. It seemed like a party. There was loud thudding music playing from somewhere—far too unpolished and obnoxious to be a recording; it sounded like a live performance. Absently, Shego made note to find out what the band's name might be and if they were handing out any sample CD's.

"Might want to rip this onto my mePod," Shego thought as she nodded her head to the beat. "Waitaminute, where did I leave that?"

The taffy string led her out of the room and into a hallway that was also dark and crowded. Strangely, the music didn't seem to fade once she entered the corridor and left the main room behind. Absently, she pinched off a piece of the ball and slapped it into her mouth. It was taffy. Very, very good taffy.

"Mmmmm. Gingerbread and cotton candy," Shego thought, and she popped another piece into her mouth.

The string just kept going and going. It stretched down multiple hallways which, after she had passed through a half dozen or so, began to seem to Shego as if they were arranged in a burrow or hive-like pattern. And the further she went, the deeper she felt she was going. This was most certainly not a disentanglement from, but a progressive knotting into. Some of the hallways' floors were extremely sticky and made an unappetizing "kiss" noise whenever Shego lifted her feet; other halls had extremely smooth floors that made Shego feel like she was wearing rollerblades. She had to hang onto the wall once or twice to keep from falling over in these.

The taffy ball was getting kinda heavy at this point. And just about the time when Shego started to get the sneaky suspicion that she was going in circles, tighter and tighter circles--not to mention how the dim walkways reminded her of a certain labyrinth of tunnels in Australia, the hallway opened up to a massive staircase. The staircase reminded Shego of the type she had seen in some old movie—the deep polished oak railings were complemented by deep burgundy carpeting that draped the steps. As she climbed them, she was careful not to let the taffy thread get so slack as to get stuck to the steps. The foyer at the top led to a grand balcony overlooking what appeared to be an "Old West"-style saloon.

The taffy strand braided in between the columns of the balcony's majestic railing, so Shego was able to get a good look at the goings on below her. There were various colorful groups of people and … well … other things … carousing in circles of various sizes. Music was coming from both a player piano in the saloon's far left corner and a diner-style jukebox to the right. Although neither was playing the same song, as the words from the jukebox drifted through the air they settled Into the tune from the piano. Shego caught a few of them as she pinched off yet another hunk of taffy from the now quite-cumbersome ball.

I saw her today at the inception

In her jar was an instant tan

She was playing the part of self-deception

Well, I could smell her orange-stained hands

Say it …

For whatever reason, whenever the chorus hit, which seemed to be after every verse, Shego couldn't hear the song. Either the words ran together with the murmurs of the crowd at those points, or someone turned down the volume on the jukebox or whatever, but she never caught the "catchy parts" of the song.

I decided that I'd sing her a coda

My favorite number, 'I Got No Shame'

I sang my ditty for Miss Halt

Yeah, and she said one word to me, and that was 'Lame'

I said to her …

The lines were still echoing in her ears as she followed her taffy string down another staircase. The taffy ball was so large now that she was getting her hair stuck in it.

"Ow! Okay this is getting more than a little annoying," she snarked to no one in particular. This second staircase was just as cluttered with people as every other room had been, but nobody remarked upon or even noticed her consternation. With a huff, she brushed all her hair over her left shoulder and tucked the increasingly unmanageable ball under her right. Before proceeding down the staircase, she tore off and munched another hunk of taffy.

The staircase curved around and emptied into the saloon. Barring her entrance to the fandango, however, was a very large dessert tray at the base of the stairs. And, of course, her taffy chord passed through it. Or more to the point, into it. It was a very large cart.

"Oh, you have so got to be kidding me!"

Shego bent her head and bunched up her shoulders and followed the string inside.

It was much bigger on the inside than on the outside, plenty of headroom. In fact, the pastry cart was the least crowded room Shego could remember being in for a very long time. She took the opportunity to stretch. Ample light emanated from the floor and reflected off the shiny silver carts that lined both walls from floor to ceiling. A lone dessert chef--dressed all in white with an ice cream scoop in his left hand at the ready--awaited her order. "Okay, champ," Shego said after popping the kinks out of her back, "what's good here?"

The man pleasantly gestured to the rows upon rows of trays made from chiseled crystal that were behind him and before him. They were arrayed with countess treats. "What is your pleasure, young lady?"

Smiling at the chef's address, Shego tapped her chin with a taffy-free claw-tip. "Let's see … something chocolate … with almonds, caramel, popcorn, marshmallows, grapefruit slices, gummie bears and, oh yes, I'm in the mood for something extra gooey."

With a smart turn, the man hunched over a shelf about knee level and, mere seconds later, was holding out to Shego the gooiest concoction she had ever seen. The caramel and chocolate syrup flowed like molten lava over the sides of the crystalline dessert plate. A platinum spoon appeared in her right hand as she reached for the plate with her left.

She somehow managed to devour the dessert without dropping or putting down her taffy ball. As Shego gobbled up the delicacy, she shot a couple of glances at the cart's heretofore completely black ceiling. The lights from below caught nuances in the plate's design and projected their reflections upward to produce a veritable stars cape upon cart's ceiling. Shego thought she recognized one to or two "constellations."

When she was done, she wiped her mouth and gloves upon the hot moistened toilette provided by the chef. She smiled and tossed the empty plate, spoon, and cloth into the air; all of which were caught easily by her attendant.

"Nice catch, jeeves," Shego smiled as she followed her taffy thread out of the cart.

Exiting the cart, she entered the throbbing and glowing blue penumbra of an old style television set. Although it was darker and neither the player piano nor the jukebox were playing, Shego knew she was in the same saloon she had seen from the balcony. A semi- circle of twenty people were staring directly at her, their eyes filled with blue static. Just as she was about to say something very terse to her audience, one of them motioned with his hand for Shego to move.

With automatic motion, she looked behind her and realized that she was blocking their view of an enormous television set. Careful not to break her taffy thread nor let it drag upon the floor and get encrusted with discarded peanut shells, she joined the semi-circle of tube-zombies, for a moment, just to see what was on.

Projecting from the flickering screen was a small family type room. On the right side of the room was a red couch. On the left wall, next to a brown door, another small table stood with a rotary-style telephone sitting atop it. Behind the couch was what looked to be the entrance to a dark hallway or perhaps an archway leading into an ill-lit room. A wall lamp and an ironing board filled the remaining (visible) corner of the main room. A woman wearing a pink housecoat was methodically ironing a shirt on the board. Nothing about this setup struck Shego as unusual ... except the woman.

There was something about her ... an incredibly strong aura of deja vu ... perhaps, something that told Shego she had seen this "person" before although she was dead certain that she had never seen anyone like her before. For one thing, the woman was green and not green like she herself was, but green, a deep, dark crayon-box type green. What's more, she was huge! Gigantic, colossal--at least nine feet tall. She looked like an Amazon warrior from some alien world.

Suddenly, the door opened, and a man entered. Well, okay, a male "person" entered. Even taller, but just as green as his counterpart, this person was almost completely bald with a gruff beard and a long pony tail of thick brown hair. He was wearing a blue suit. It looked as odd on his body as the woman's housecoat looked upon her.

Shego was about to ask what in the heck they were watching, when loud raucous applause, apparently from the studio audience since no one watching the television made a sound, erupted from the screen. The man just stood there in the doorway as if he was waiting for the audience to stop clapping. When they finally did, he dutifully shut the door and went directly to the couch and sat down. Then nothing happened for a quite a while. And then, quite suddenly, the man spoke.

"It was the man in the green overcoat." His voice was extremely flat, monotone, and small for coming out of such a gargantuan frame.

"More like the man in the green skin," Shego snarked. She was rudely shushed by two of her transfixed neighbors.

Then the "woman" turned toward the man. Shego noted that the whites of her eyes were actually yellow. Yellow with crimson pupils.

"There have been no calls today." Her voice was as flat and as small as her "co-star's."

However, when she spoke, there was an eruption of canned laughter from the television screen. The "live" audience with Shego, however, didn't even smile--just continued to stare in rapt mezmerization.

She watched the show for maybe another five minutes before giving up. The two giants, in turn, would say something asinine that was completely unrelated to what the other giant had said. Randomly, a laugh track would play. The big guy got off the couch twice and walked out of the door twice only to reappear a minute later each time. And without fail, his entrances were met with paralyzing recorded applause.

"This would be whack if it wasn't so stupid," Shego announced as she turned away from the screen and continued to follow her taffy trail.

Once she passed through the outer-rings of this congregation, she glanced over the heads of the haphazardly massing "others" only for her eyes to meet the most beautiful sunset she had ever seen.

The east side of the saloon had neither ceiling nor wall and opened into an early October sky overlooking a rust-ridged mountain range and darkening valleys somewhere in the lower Appalachians. As Shego pinched off another finger-length piece of taffy, she could make out just the slightest hint of cinnamon tickling her sinuses. A summer trip from Go City to Atlanta laid claim to all her sensations for the next long couple of minutes.

The sky changed to amber and then to burgundy as the evening began to reclaim it. Shego was shaken from her reverie as she spotted a chevron of "geese" flying … well … flying south, of course, but they seemed to be flying backwards. Their long necks (irregularly long necks, actually) were pointing in the opposite direction in which they were flying. For a brief instant, Shego felt like she was watching a film being run in reverse.

In an almost unbelievable instance of serendipity or perhaps random telepathy, a walker-by thrust a pair of binoculars from around his neck before Shego's eyes, giving her an enlarged and precise view of the "geese."

The basking sharks were actually flying in a forward direction. What Shego had mistaken for protracted and wavering necks were actually the fishes' ('Is it fish or fishes?' 'Both are accepted.') tails. And what had appeared, because of the sheer distance and the brunt orange glare from the setting sun, to be "the business end" of the geese turned out to be the cavernous and, for all intents and purposes, toothless yawning maws of quite possibly the ugliest thing living beneath the seven seas. As they flew, or "swam," through the amethyst twilight, Shego could see that the high autumn air--air that was presumably cinnamon apple-scented, was billowing through the shark's brine-dipped gills, gills that practically encircled their hideous heads.

Shego return the binoculars to the passer-by as he vanished behind the barber shop quartet on her right. She shielded her eyes with her hand and followed the sharks as they swam/flew into the pitch of the rapidly advancing Eastern night. All this time she continued walking across the peanut shell/cigarette butt/empty bottle strewn floor. The saloon was so jammed with others--elbow to elbow--that it was actually quite miraculous that she had been able to "walk between the raindrops" as it were and avoided tripping over anything or running into anyone--

"Do you mind?" snapped a tall man with a hawk-like nose as he drew up to avoid colliding with Shego. Even as he was holding his own rather large ball of taffy over his head, he still managed to give off an overtly-urbane, superior air that immediately brought out the black-mamba-multiple-strike-in-your-face aspect of Shego's personality.

"Hey! Watch where you're going, pal! Or is there not enough oxygen up there to get through to your brain?" True, not one of Shego's better quips, but she had been preoccupied after all.

The tall man's irate expression relaxed into one of detached bemusement. "As far as snide comments go, that one is quite below par for you, isn't it Shego?"

Having one of her zingers belittled was not something Shego had to deal with much when she worked for Drakken. In fact, she didn't believe anyone other than Princess had ever given her any trouble in that department. However, what really had Shego irritated was the familiarity with which the stranger had spoken her name.

"I don't believe we've been introduced." she fumed.

"What? Oh forgive me," the stranger spoke in an increasingly shrill condescending tone, "I had presumed that the world-famous super-villain second banana needed no introduction."

"Watch it!" Shego commanded as she raised her free clawed glove.

"Or what?" the stranger demanded in a fierce tone, "You'll flick taffy at me?"

"I'm thinking something a little more extreme," Shego smiled malevolently as she snapped her wrist.

"So sorry, it doesn't work, Shego," the stranger said, clucking his tongue and shaking his head in mock sympathy.

Shego stared blankly at the mysterious stranger's insouciant eyes. Something that wasn't yet fear, not quite, ran between her shoulders. Even without testing her energy blasts, she knew he was right.

The instant she accepted her powerlessness as fact, a wave of perplexing and horrible realities came cascading about her. Where was she? Who were all these people … people and things? And what in the heck was she doing carting around this wad of saltwater taffy?

She looked again to the stranger. His face wore an expression of easy expectation; his smile was approaching sincerity.

After a moment of silence, he asked, "Yes?"

"Where … where are we?" Shego said finally.

"Where do you think we are?"

"I don't know," she snapped, "that's why I asked!"

The stranger brushed aside her rising temper with a wave of his hand. "Think about it, Shego. Just for a minute." Then his eyes changed, grew serious. "You know. Trust what you're telling yourself right now."

Shego steeled herself. Closed her eyes for a moment and then absently adjusted her hold on the ball of taffy. "We're in Hell, right?"

The stranger guffawed so violently that he almost dropped his taffy. "I have obviously overestimated you," he managed after a period of giggles in which Shego's anger was becoming visible to and felt by everyone within a ten yard radius.

"Is that all your rudimentary imagination is capable of? Hell?"

"Where ARE we?" Shego growled.

"Forget it," the mysterious stranger said with a dismissive huff, "you're going to have to just figure it out for yourself."

Shego started walking toward the man--energy blasts or no, she knew she could make him tell her without too much effort.

"No, no, no, no," he said wagging his finger at her as he tried to untangle his string of taffy from the hair of a gymnast who had just twirled between them. "You do not want to do that," he said patting part of his loose strand into his taffy clump.

"Why not?" Shego demanded as she tried to untangle her own thread from the spinning athlete.

"Because," the stranger said, moving away, "you don't want to exert yourself before the dance."

"Dance? What are you talking about?"

"You'll see," he smiled thinly. He then added, gesturing beyond his shoulder to the Appalachian night that was now humid with plump stars, "Unless, of course, some yahoo hollers 'Freebird,' and then we'll all become the Brown Mountain Lights."

"Huh?" Shego asked as she finally freed her candy chew from the gymnast's hair and leotard. However, the stranger had vanished into the crowd.

As the light continued to fade, Shego found it more and more difficult to follow the trail of her taffy string. For one thing, it seemed like there were suddenly dozens of other people trying to unwind their own strings. A handful of these people crawled through the empty orchestra pit located adjacent to the large mirrored saloon bar. Then she saw an older gentleman make his entrance through a pastry trolley not much different from the one she herself had passed through.

Wait … is that the same one?

Then there were the people who clamored through the windows on the saloon's opposite wall (windows through which, strangely, blinding blue day-lit sky poured), using their taffy threads as make-shift spelunking tethers.

Shego languidly followed her string for the next ten minutes or so. People moved out of her way as she milled about, walking in larger and then smaller concentric circles. She no longer pinched bite-sized chunks from her increasingly unbalanced orb; the thought of eating anything made her sick. The memory of the pastry cart delicacy she had inhaled earlier felt like a terrible nightmare; she shrunk against her thoughts.

"Shego-san!" an ebullient voice announced from somewhere behind her.

She warily looked over her shoulder to see a teenager in a schoolgirl uniform shouldering her way through the crowd.

"Yeah?" Shego assented with little enthusiasm.

The girl halted before Shego and then formally bowed. As she did so, she murmured, "It is a great honor to meet you."

"Fan-tastic," Shego said, rolling her eyes, "and who are you supposed to be?"

The girl rose from her bow and started to speak, but then stopped. And then the light in her eyes faded. She nervously looked to either side of her. Finally, after what seemed like a very awkward eternity to Shego, the girl admitted, "I am unsure. I do not know how to explain it, but I do not remember."

Great! Someone who knows even less than I do!

"Well, what do you want?" Shego asked with some energy. "Can't you see I'm a little busy here?" she said, indicating the large taffy ball she was holding in both hands.

"Yes, I see," the girl said, her enthusiasm returning. "I am deeply honored to finally make you're acquaintance."

"Yeah, you already …," Shego began dryly and then got an odd feeling about the girl, "said … that."

For whatever reason, she felt intuitively that there was something definitely not right, even dangerous, about the teen. In fact, she sensed that behind all her fangirl effervescence, the girl had a specific design in the works; there was calculation behind her glazing eyes.

Perhaps I'm being played here.

Shego continued to nod at the young woman's ramblings, but paid careful attention to her hands' movements and the directions her eyes seemed to be darting every minute or so.

Physically, there was nothing particularly unusual about the girl. She was extremely attractive, apparently athletic, and she, at least, projected a non-threatening demeanor. Shego's eyes kept orbiting back to the crimson hair band the girl wore in her jet black hair. She also noticed that the girl, continually, refused to look her in the eye.

As monotonous as the girl's chatter had become, there was something else to it. It was almost as if she was speaking in code. As if she were speaking her true words somehow between the words that were passing her lips. Almost as if she was attempting to hypnotize Shego--no, no, that wasn't it. Almost as if she were pleading with her to understand what it was she really meant, what she actually wanted to say.

Whatever that was, Shego didn't have a clue.

Then the girl made a cryptic remark. "I have succeeded where you have repeatedly failed." Then, after a beat, the girl said, "I have succeeded where you have repeatedly failed." However, this time it was spoken in a flat lifeless tone that made Shego feel as if there were ants crawling all over her.

As coolly as she could, Shego looked into the girl's eyes, eyes that were now fixed rigidly upon hers. "You don't say?" She thought about asking Ms. Freaky-Two-Shoes what she was talking about, but then realized she didn't care … or care to know what that was.

"And it was done with Honor," the girl continued as her face split into a genuinely frightening grin. "And Love." Then her almond-shaped eyes began to bleed.

For a long minute, neither said anything. Shego was so startled by what was happening to the girl that she didn't know what to do. For her part, the girl seemed to have been mesmerized by her own words … or by the memories of what they imparted.

"Uh … yeah … great," Shego managed finally as she started, as surreptitiously as possible, to inch away from the girl.

Snapping out of her, apparently, blissful delirium, the schoolgirl asked, "Shego-san, may I trouble you with a question?"

Regarding the girl with mounting alarm, Shego tried to appear as nonchalant as she could. "Sure, kid, shoot."

The blood was trickling down both of the girl's cheeks; the streams meeting at a point beneath her chin.

"Have you been through the shame yet?"

"What?" The question caused the hairs on the back of the villainess's neck to perk up.

"The shame, Shego-san," the girl said matter-of-factly. "It is one of the many stages we are to pass through here. I have been told it is one of the most difficult ones. However, the level beyond it is supposed to be challenging as well. It concerns the 'Nature of Freedom.'"

"Kid," Shego spoke slowly, so as not to offend or upset her companion, "I'm not saying that you don't know what you're talking about, but I don't know what you're talking about."

"Forgive me, Shego-san," the girl bowed apologetically. When she returned to a standing position, the tracks of her crimson tears had splintered and spread like tributaries, like veins on the underside of a leaf, or like spider-webs across her face.

In a moment of casual, irrational observation, Shego noted how the blood on the girl's face matched perfectly with the color of her hair band.

"The 'Nature of Freedom' concerns whether any action of ours is truly our own or if we only do what They want us to do, regardless of what we believe."

"Who are They?" Shego asked, trying hard not to look like she was trying hard not to look at the girl's splattered face.

"Ahh," the girl nodded at Shego's reply knowingly, "I see you are what they call an 'old hand' at this game." She paused and then continued, "However, it is the shame that troubles me. I don't … don't believe that I … have any."

"Okay, fine, whatever," Shego said, slinking back into the crowd, "well, good luck with that. Let me know how it works out."

As the schoolgirl with the bleary-eyes and dangerous grin faded, just as innocence fades, back into the darkening crowd, a tune enveloped the saloon. The orchestra pit, which only minutes before had been vacant, was now filled with musicians performing the stirring, if somewhat lifeless, air.

Displeased, Shego looked about her as individuals from the crowd began to pair off and dance in small circles on the floor. She thought back upon the words of the mysterious stranger and slowly accepted the appalling fact that all he had said was true.

As the tune rose higher and higher, the notes bounced among the crystals of the half dozen candelabras that were now being lit. On the other side of the saloon, where there was no ceiling, the notes floated out into the crisp mountain air and, presumably, bounced among the stars.

Although she didn't know the words, Shego found her mouth moving along with the tune. The voices that breathed the lyrics seemed to be radiating from the dancing couples, yet all their lips were stilled.

Every day a little dread

In the glass, in the eyes,

In the voices, in the shadows,

In the hallways, in the creamed pies

Couples--suddenly in period costumes from turn of the twentieth century America--twirled about Shego. The ladies' gowns, rustling against the dance floor, gradually becoming ringed by the empty peanut shells that got caught in their sheer taffeta, creating a rough syncopation that somehow enriched and deepened the acoustics of the orchestra.

Every day a little doubt

In the sole and in the skull,

Every stutter in every head

(And you don't know what it's about)

Brings a perfect little dread.

As she adjusted her grasp on her lump of taffy, she realized that she was wearing taffeta as well. Her form-fitting jumpsuit somehow had been transformed into a multi-layered, frilly nightmare of pear and myrtle. Her shock at this sudden change of wardrobe was outweighed by the nausea it produced. She blinked the tears from her eyes (she was literally on the cusp of dry heaving). When they cleared, she noticed the dancers were closing in on her--or at least they appeared to be. At the very least, they were beginning to orbit her in interconnecting ellipses as if they were satellites and she was their planet … or their black hole.

As the song started again, another voice--firmer, bolder--joined in on every alternating line. It was a voice Shego found familiar. Unfortunately, like an obscure scent that triggers a wave of intense memories, it was hard for her to pin down whose voice it was.

Every day a little dread

Every day a little dread

In the glass, in the eyes,

On the plates and in the pies,

In the voices, in the shadows,

In the fishes, in the skies,

In the hives, in the burrows

In the cake, in the marshmallows

Shego was mentally noting how the familiar voice had kinda pushed and then broke the rhythm of the melody with that last line when, to her horror, she recognized the voice.

It was, of course, hers.

The dancing couples, who during the last few moments had started to crowd in upon Shego to the point that she toyed with the idea of socking a pair of them with her taffy when her intense glares failed to make their point, began to glide away from her. As they did so, a darkened figure appeared, standing stock-still before the orchestra pit. In a less-than-subtle touch, a spotlight was suddenly flashed upon the person. It didn't illuminate him so much as make his already vaguely visible features look sinister or hilarious, depending on one's prerogatives. Since the beam originated from the ceiling-less side of the saloon, Shego wondered absently if the moon was the source for the limelight.

The figure approached her as the next verse began. With the same horror and disgust she had felt for the gown, the villainess realized she was now singing a duet. A smarmy, saccharine duet with the approaching figure.

Every day a little doubt

Every day a little more dies

In the sole and in the skull.

In the glares and in the lies.

Every stutter in every head,

(And you have no idea what its about)

Brings a perfect little dread.

The mysterious figure hit an excruciating flat note on the last word of the last line just as the penumbra of his spotlight reached the edge of Shego's gown. A second later, he stepped forward from its protective glare and outstretched his arms to enfold her shoulders in an all-encompassing (and very likely inescapable) embrace.

"FREEBIRD!" Shego yelled at the top of her lungs as she hurled her wad of taffy straight into his middle. He collapsed to the floor.

Several members of the crowd were already extending lit lighters, matches, and flipped open cell phones to the stars as Shego spun around and dashed into the shadows. The mesmerizing power of her song request was total and covered her escape from the saloon.

She never looked back. She was only intent on ripping that hideous dress from her body [as she had hoped (prayed?), her jumpsuit did lie beneath it and clambering back down the twisting burrow-like hallways until she found the exit--that originating rabbit-hole that she knew very well might never have existed at all.

II.

"What's happening, KP?"

"Care to be more specific," Kim said, arching her eyebrow.

"No," he sighed, nodding his head in assent to her so valid point.

"Sorry," she smiled. She went to place the Roncom into her pocket only to discover the Kimmunicator was already there. She gave him his device.

"Oh yeah," he said, accepting it. Instead of placing it in his pocket, Ron just stared at its empty display. "Thanks."

They had just ended an abbreviated call with Wade concerning the mysterious appearance and then disappearance of Charlie. Wade had no contact information for the Bunyip expert and no way of determining whether he was still in Australia or just down the block at the Cow n' Chow.

Kim still hadn't told Ron about her dream, and she wasn't sure how to go about it. So much, so ridiculously much had happened in the last twenty-four hours that she didn't know whether the dream would overload her BFBF's brain or whether he would take it, like he had taken everything since her quick recovery from Shego's attack, in typical laid-back Ronnish stride. And, of course, just considering this question had given her the answer.

"Ron, my dream …" she began.

"Kim! Ron!" James Possible yelled up the entrance of her loft.

Ron instinctually started rubbing the back of his neck. Despite all the assurances to the contrary, Ron still got inexplicably nervous whenever Kim's father "caught" him in her loft ... at least in the months since he and she had started dating.

"Yes, dad?" Kim hollered as she stood up from the corner of her bed.

"Did you still want to speak to Dr. Kramer?" James asked as his head appeared at the top of the ladder.

"Oh, right! Sorry, dad," Kim said, slapping her forehead in irritation. Just after Dr. Kramer arrived, she had overheard him ask her dad if he could borrow their phone to call someone in Upperton. Apparently, his call was over. "I didn't keep him waiting too long, did I?"

"I don't think so, Kimmie Cub," James smiled. "But," he continued in a lower voice, "Considering the length of most of his answers ... you might want to ask him as soon as you can."

"Right, right," Kim nodded.

Her father's head disappeared.

"Well, ..." Kim began.

"Oh, and Ron?" James said poking his head up through the hatch again.

"Yes, MrDrP?"

"I think Mr. Barkin wants to talk to you."

"Mr. Barkin?!" Kim and Ron said in unison.

After a moment of uneasy silence, James Possible asked, "Uh, Kimmiecub, isn't this where you say 'jinx?'"

"Dad," Kim sighed, "I am so beyond caring about soda right now …"

"Jinx!"

A Ronnish shrug answered Kim's annoyed look.

"Hey, how often does this fall in my favor, KP?" Ron explained. He then added, making her smile, "Momma didn't raise no fool, yup, yup."

III.

"You sure you're not in my third period Remedial Physics class?"

"No, Barkin-san," Yori replied politely. "I regret that I am not in any of your classes."

"Hmm," Mr. Barkin replied gruffly, eyeing the young woman suspiciously. Sure, she seemed polite and well-mannered, but she had also admitted to being the party responsible for the "music" that was currently assaulting the teacher's eardrums. Definitely, not a good sign.

"You haven't logged any hours in detention have you?" Barkin pursued. "You look familiar, and I never forget a face."

"No, Barkin-san," Yori said pleasantly, "I do not even attend Middleton High. I did visit once last year when Stoppable-san and Possible-san helped rescue Sensei."

"Fine," Mr. Barkin said gruffly. He tapped his knee and looked about the room aimlessly. And then attempted to wind his digital watch. Anything to avoid confronting the teen's well-intentioned expression. The fact of the matter was Mr. Barkin was very uncomfortable around teenagers who … well, who behaved themselves. Without unruly behavior, slacking off, or punk hand gestures, teenagers offered him no challenge. Without challenge, he felt lost. In short, well-behaved, model kids threatened him. The bow Yori had given Mr. Barkin when they were introduced minutes earlier had felt like a punch to the gut.

"Oh, Possible, Stoppable," he said in relief as the two teens entered the living room.

"Mr. Barkin," Kim said with a hurried smile and then got down to business. "Before you jump all over Ron for not being in class today …"

"Oh, no, Possible," Mr. Barkin said, waving away her concern. "I wanted to speak to Stoppable about something else. Actually, I stopped to see Dr. Kramer. I only learned from speaking with Miss Morituri that Stoppable was even here."

"Dr. Kramer?" Kim asked.

"Well," Barkin began uncomfortably and got increasingly more so as he spoke, "I was in the neighborhood, and saw his car in your drive and decided to stop by so I could … return … something to him."

"Something?" Ron asked.

"Stoppable," Barkin barked, "why are you wearing sunglasses indoors? As a matter of fact," Barkin said with rising and visible disciplinarian's glee, "why are you wearing sunglasses indoors at night?"

"Uh …" Ron began.

"Don't tell me," Barkin smirked, "let me guess. 'When you're cool the sun shines on you twenty-four hours a day'?"

"Well, I guess," Ron nodded, "but that isn't the reason I have them."

"Stoppable," Barkin said in a suddenly relaxed tone (well, "relaxed" for Barkin), "Let's you and me have a little chat."

Kim gave Ron a reassuring look before he reluctantly walked toward his teacher/Pixie Scout leader.

"Dad," Kim asked into the foyer, "where is Dr. Kramer?"

"I believe he's waiting for you in my den, Kim."

"Thanks," Kim said as she walked toward the den's half open door. Although she was eager to hear anything Dr. Kramer's uncle might have told him about Slothrop, she was also uneasy about the meeting. It wasn't because of the rocket scientist's reputation for telling long-winded stories. In fact, Kim hoped this foible might suggest that the scientist also had a prodigiously good memory. No, it was because she still felt so guilty, truth ray or no, about how she had behaved around him the first time they met.

As Kim was entering her father's den, Mr. Barkin was leading Stoppable into the Possible's kitchen.

"Dr. Possible, ma'am, do you mind if I speak to Ronald alone for a minute or two?" Barkin asked Ann.

"Not at all," she smiled as she took a long-neck beer from the fridge. She waltzed and then skipped past them toward the living room.

Ron did a double-take. Did MrsDrP just dance by with a beer bottle?

"Oh, and, ma'am, could you possibly ask Miss Morituri to turn down the stereo a touch?" Barkin asked.

"Not at all," Anne smiled broadly.

Mr. Barkin was not sure he had heard Kim's mother correctly. Had she really refused to turn down that godforsaken noise? As he heard the volume noticeably crank up, he realized that he had indeed heard her correctly. He shot Ron a dark look.

"What?" Ron complained. "What did I do?"

"I think you're having a bad influence on this family, Stoppable."

"Is that what you wanted to talk to me about?" Ron said, outraged.

"Actually, no," Barkin said in a lower, even tone. Ron could always tell Barkin was being serious when he flipped off the bluster. And the bluster was definitely off now.

"What is it Mr. B?" He asked.

Mr. Barkin leaned in and half-whispered into the teen's ear, "Stoppable, what do you know about Tyrone Slothrop?"

IV.

When Kim entered the den, she found Dr. Kramer sitting in a chair before her father's desk. He was looking at a book balanced loosely on his knees.

Before she could speak, he looked up and smiled at her. She returned the smile, thanked him for waiting for her, closed the door against the raucous music drumming through the air from the living room, and sat down behind her father's desk.

He nodded and smiled. And said nothing.

"Dr. Kramer," Kim began, "Thanks for taking this time to speak to me."

His smile continued. And he said nothing.

"Well," Kim started haltingly, "what I wanted to ask you actually has to do with your uncle."

His smile shrunk somewhat. And he said nothing.

"Specifically," Kim said after clearing her throat, "I was wondering if he had ever told you … or, I guess, maybe mentioned someone he met during the War … an American soldier named Slothrop."

The smile vanished. Dr. Kramer looked back down at his book, furrowed his brow and frowned pensively.

Finally, after what seemed an eternity to Kim, he said, "Yes."

However, he drew out the word to an almost ridiculous extent, almost as if he were second guessing or, maybe, double-checking it against his memory as he spoke. When he finally let go of the word, he sounded like a snake. And then he was silent again.

For someone who had said so much about his great-grandfather's goat butter a little over a year ago that Kim had to stuff a pillow in her mouth to keep from telling him to shut up, Dr. Kramer was being especially frugal with his words.

"Actually," he began finally.

"Yes?"

"It was after the war."

She waited for him to continue, but he didn't.

Kim wanted to say something to prompt him further, but didn't know how to do it without sounding rude. Fortunately, she didn't have to.

"It was at Zwolfkinder," Dr. Kramer explained, looking up from his lap.

Kim had only first learned of the place's existence a few hours earlier, yet the powerful emotions and events that were connected with it were reflected upon her face.

Dr. Kramer immediately came to life when he noticed her reaction. "Have you heard of it?" he asked happily.

She nodded and, unintentionally, opened Dr. Kramer's floodgates.

"Oh, it was a wonderful place, back in its prime, much like the amusement parks in this country, but with a very particular difference--it was run by children! Yes, yes, yes, there were children policemen, children hotel workers, sanitation workers, vendors, security guards, even the mayor of the town in the center of the park was a child--can you imagine? My parents took me there one, two, three times, and every time I told them I wanted to come and stay and work there myself. I wanted, particularly, to work in the Antarctic panorama with the penguins. Oh, the penguins are my most favorite animal. A bird that can't fly, as a child I could never imagine such a thing. Like the dodo bird, but still alive--I mean in the world, at Zwolfkinder, of course, they weren't alive but stuffed, but there they were separated from me by only a thin sheet of glass. But it wasn't just the penguins, I really loved the exhibit itself. Especially, the screen at the far back, behind the trees made of pipe-cleaners and the mountains of papier-mâché, a small camera would show an image on that screen of the aurora borealis lopping over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and … well, I guess you see what I mean."

"Y-yes," Kim said sheepishly, "yes, I do."

"I kept begging my parents if I could work for the summer, two weeks even." He shook his head good-humoredly, "But they were always, 'Next year Werner, next year.' And I was always like, 'Too many "next years" and I'll be too old!'"

"Did you ever get to work there?" Kim asked.

"No," Dr. Kramer said simply. He looked at the clear surface of James' desk, "No, that did not happen."

Kim cursed herself silently. Of course it didn't happen, Possible. How could I be so insensitive!

"But," Dr. Kramer said in warm voice, "that is where Uncle Franz lived for a few months after the war ended--before we were reunited. He had a makeshift cot in the basement of the Town Hall. He and Frieda had the entire place to themselves."

"Frieda? Who's Frieda?" Kim asked.

"Oh," Dr. Kramer chuckled. "Frieda was a sow--a pig that he befriended on his journey across the back country to the sea. She was kind of a pet, his only friend for a good long time."

"Wow," Kim said with genuine interest, "that's ... that's pretty wild. Why did he go there?"

"He was waiting for someone," Dr. Kramer explained vaguely.

Ilse. Oh no. Shut up, Possible! Shut up!

Fortunately, Dr. Kramer did not allow Kim time to wallow in self-loathing but continued his story. "Then at one point, maybe two weeks after he had been there, Frieda just disappeared, was gone for days. And then one day this strange American shows up with her."

"Slothrop?" Kim asked. "Did he bring Frieda back?"

Smiling and nodding, Dr. Kramer explained, "Actually, Slothrop claimed that Frieda brought him."

Kim smiled back. Definitely more interesting than goat butter. "What happened?" She settled back into her father's chair, looking forward to a lengthy story.

"My uncle offered him a cup of coffee; they played a game of chess. He spent the night, slept on the floor next to Frieda, and then left the next morning. My uncle never saw him again."

"Oh," Kim said disappointed. She had certainly hoped for more. At the very least, she had expected Dr. Kramer to … well … expound a little. "Do you know if they talked about … anything ... like, maybe, during their game?"

"Probably," the scientist mused, "but my uncle never mentioned it."

"Oh."

Then she had a thought. If Dr. Kramer had somehow retained a very detailed physical description of the missing soldier (provided, of course, that his uncle had given him one in the first place), that might prove helpful information for Wade to use in some way … although Kim had no idea what that way might be. She knew it was a long shot, based on more than one dubious assumption, but she asked anyway. "Your uncle didn't happen to mention what Slothrop looked like, did he?"

To her surprise, Dr. Kramer started laughing. Excessively so.

"I'm very sorry, Miss Possible!" he said as he tried to catch his breath. "Forgive me!" When he got himself back under control, he explained, "I am not as good a storyteller as my uncle." Here, he smiled warmly, "As you well know, my stories do not always have points." He brushed aside her shamefaced objections to this statement and continued, "Uncle Franz's anecdotes always had points."

Despite his reassuring gesture, Kim felt two inches tall. Blurting out that someone's stories were "pointless snorefests" was not the sort of memory she could live down easily.

"And the entire point of my uncle telling me about Slothrop," Dr. Kramer enthused, "was because of how he looked."

"Really?"

Dr. Kramer nodded with an impish grin.

"So, what … did he look like?" Kim asked with the beginnings of a smile.

"No idea." Dr. Kramer said with a straight face.

Aaaargh!! First Justine and now Dr. Kramer? Won't anyone give me a straight answer about this guy?! Are there any straight answers about him?

"Ooookay," Kim managed as politely as she could.

"He couldn't tell, Miss Possible," the scientist smiled, "for, you see, the entire time Slothrop was with my uncle, he was wearing a costume."

"A … costume?"

"Yes. He was dressed like a pig."

V.

"Pig?" Ron asked with a cocked eyebrow. "Are you playing me?"

"No, Stoppable," Mr. Barkin sighed. "I am not. My commanding officer," and, here, Ron could see that Mr. Barkin was forcing out his words with a great deal of difficulty, "was Petty Officer First Class," visible shiver on Mr. B's part here, "Pig Bodine."

"Whack name," Ron commented.

"Whack, but apt," Mr. Barkin nodded solemnly. He ran his right hand over his face. "Those years on the USS John E. Badass were the longest of my life. I was never happier to get back on dry land."

"Waitaminute, Mr. B," Ron said scratching his head, "you were in the Navy?"

"Of course, I was in the Navy, Stoppable! What do you think I've been talking about for the last five minutes!?"

"Well, uh, I always thought you were in the Marines."

"Where exactly is it written that a person can't serve in two arms of this fine land's military, Stoppable?"

"Uh, uh, I don't know."

"Exactly!"

After a moment of uneasy silence (well, relative silence--"Rudy Can't Fail" by The Clash was thundering in from the living room), Barkin said evenly, "You know, Stoppable, there is a widely-held opinion by peaceniks, punks, and other troublemakers that if someone stays in the armed services long enough, they'll get promoted even if they don't deserve it."

Ron didn't know what to say, so he nodded.

"Well," Barkin continued, "I can tell you from my experience while serving to protect the rights of all those nay-sayers, that their opinion is without question, irrefutably, one hundred percent accurate."

"Huh?" Ron managed, completely floored.

"Well, at least in the Navy when I was serving it was true," Barkin qualified. "POFC Bodine was living proof." Barkin's resigned mood was suddenly punctured by rage and he brought his fist down upon the Possible's kitchen table. "Sweet Mother of Pearl! During my time serving under him, the man went AWOL ... TWICE!"

"Are, you okay, Mr. B?" Ron asked. "Do you need something to eat? To drink? I-I don't think MrsDrP took the last beer." When Ron reflected upon this last statement, he couldn't help but shake his head. This has been the most whacked-out day!

"And he had the most obscene laugh!" Barkin continued, oblivious to Ron's offers. "Just thinking about it gives me the shakes." And, apparently, Mr. Barkin started thinking that moment about his former CO's laugh because he started going into mild convulsions.

"Mr. B! Hello! Mr. B!" Ron yelled, "STOP thinking about it!"

Like flipping off a switch, Steve Barkin stop twitching. "Thanks, Stoppable." He sighed deeply. "Sometimes demons from the past are hard to control." Then the edge returned to his eyes, and he glared at Ron. "Which brings us back to Slothrop."

"Y-yeah?"

"Why are you and Possible looking for this character?" he demanded.

Ron immediately sunk into his chair and started rubbing the back of his neck. "Well," he began and then stopped. "Waitaminute, Mr. B,! Cut us some slack! We don't even know who this guy is!" Then after beat. "Do you know who this guy is?"

"Not really, no," the teacher admitted.

Great! Does ANYBODY know!?

"What I do know," Mr. Barkin explained, "is that Pig Bodine knew him. They were best buddies back in World War II, and Bodine held him in the highest regard--and that spells nothing but trouble, Stoppable."

"What do you know about him, Mr. B?" Ron asked.

"I don't think it's a good idea for me to tell you."

"Why not?"

"Because I don't want to sully your sense of morality. You may be a punk, Stoppable, but you're a good kid."

"Thanks," Ron smiled, "I ... think." After a pause, Ron pleaded, "Can you tell me anything, Mr. B? It is majorly important that KP and I know as much as we can."

"Well," Barkin said dubiously. "Maybe, you should tell me first why you're looking for him."

Ron began rattling off about the harmonica that he had found Seder night.

"Uh, do I really need to hear this, Stoppable?"

So then Ron skipped ahead to Professor Dementor and the Middleton Space Center. Even before he got a third of the way into the story Kim had told him, Mr. Barkin stopped him. "Okay, so it's another 'save-the-world' thing, correct?"

"Uh-huh." Ron affirmed. "I mean, uh-huh, sir."

Barkin rolled his eyes and then said, "Okay, fine. Well, to put it as delicately as I can, Bodine and this Slothrop character were involved in black market activities after VE day. They were heavily involved in ... well ... selling ... well ..."

"Bootleg designer clothes ... like the Fashionistas?"

"Yeah," Barkin nodded, "they did a little of that, but that's not what I am talking about."

"Then what are you talking about?"

"Hmmm. Let's just say they were involved with 'pharmaceuticals for non-medicinal purposes.' Get my drift?"

Ron nodded.

"Really?" Barkin asked.

"Uh, no, actually, I don't know what you're saying at all." Ron admitted.

"Good. The point being, not the kind of thing I wanted to see you and Possible mixed up with."

"Mr. Barkin," Ron interrupted, "how did you even know we were looking for him?"

"Your punk-rock loving friend told me."

"Yori?!"

"Affirmative. After we were introduced it became clear from certain things she said that honor was a principle she cherished. I volunteered that I also valued honor and had served honorably in this great nation's military. She then explained that the three of you had been just discussing another American service man. When I asked her what his name was, well, you can imagine how disturbed I was when she let Slothrop's name fall."

That made sense to Ron. He had been so shocked by the coincidences with Yori's grandfather and the Anubis (Man, how whacked is that?) that he had only told her about the harmonica and hadn't gotten to the part about how Slothrop was somehow mixed in with Dementor and Shego and, wow, Ron wasn't sure he could even explain all the connections to himself.

"The last thing I would want is to see you kids get tangled up into that kind of world." Barkin continued.

Ron smiled, "You really care about what happens to KP and me, huh?"

"Affirmative."

Barkin and Ron's eyes locked for two seconds, and then they both looked away. Barkin examined the cuff of his shirt and Ron tunelessly whistled--both of them trying to occupy themselves with anything and everything until the moment of awkweird sincerity could pass.

"So," Ron said finally, "you can't tell me anything else, Mr. B? I wouldn't ask, but, y'know, the world might need saving and all."

Mr. Barkin sat deep in thought and then said, "Well, I don't know if this will be helpful, but Bodine rarely referred to Slothrop by the name his parents gave him. More often than not, he called him by a nickname."

"What was that, Mr. B?"

Displeased, "Mr. B," the long-time hater of nicknames pronounced, "Rocketman."

VI.

"I don't expect this story has been too helpful, has it?" Dr. Kramer smiled.

"Dr. Kramer," Kim said, "any information in this sitch is helpful." After a beat, she admitted with a sheepish smile, "But, yeah, I'm not … sure … how."

Dr. Kramer laughed and then asked, "Do you happen to have the time, Miss Possible? I don't see a clock."

"Yes," Kim stood up and fished the Kimmunicator out of her pocket. As she did so, the strange card DL Rockwaller had given her slipped unseen onto the den's floor. She read the time from the device's main menu screen.

"Hmmm," Dr. Kramer paused. "I hate imposing, but do you think James would mind if I made another call?"

"Certainly not."

"It is long distance. Vienna." He then hastily added, "Not Austria, Georgia. Just nationwide."

"Oh, I'm sure it'll be fine."

"I would, of course, call from my brother-in-law's, but she is used to me calling at a specific time, and she may be getting worried."

"Actually," Kim said, "you can use the Kimmunicator."

"Really?"

"No big," Kim smiled, "talk as long as you want." She held out the device to him.

"Well," Dr. Kramer hesitated, "could you show me how to use it? I'm good with propulsion systems, but these handheld devices ..."

"Of course!"

As Kim flipped to the cellular module, she noticed the cover of the novel balanced spine-up on his right knee.

"Southanger Abbey?!" she exclaimed happily. "Is it any good?"

"Excellent," Dr. Kramer beamed. "Do you like Miss Austin's novels?"

"Jayne Austin is so like my favorite author," Kim enthused. "But I've only read two of her novels for class. I'd love to read more, but I just don't have the time."

"Well, if you ever do get the time, you may want to join Steve and I at Chez Couteaux. We meet and talk about her work every other week."

"Oh that would be so great!" Then Kim paused. "Steve?"

"Steve Barkin, yes."

"Really?" Kim asked cocking an eyebrow.

"Yes," Dr. Kramer, nodded, "In fact, Steve stopped by so he could return this book to me. I left it at the restaurant tonight."

Kim smiled at the thought of Mr. Barkin, Dr. Kramer, and herself sitting at a table in the fancy restaurant perusing and expounding upon Miss Austin's novels. Perhaps she would join them ... well, maybe in the summer after she graduated. She so couldn't see herself and Mr. Barkin discussing books in their spare time while she was still his student.

"Oh, Miss Possible ..."

"Yes?"

"I hope you still aren't feeling bad about the last time I visited."

"Uh ..."

"Because, I actually would like to thank you."

"Thank me?" For calling you a pointless snoremeister?

"Yes, when I told my wife about it later that evening, she wanted to send you a fruit basket."

"I-I'm sorry," Kim managed after a moment. "I don't think I understand." Kim had never even considered the distinct possibility that Dr. Kramer (not to mention Dr. Cook and Dr. Harris) would have told his wife the horrible things she had said to him.

"Oh, it is nothing to be embarrassed about," Dr. Kramer said with concern.

From his statement and the flush feeling on her cheeks, Kim knew her face was as red as her hair.

"My wife told me that she wished someone had told me years ago," Dr. Kramer said with a chuckle. "I had no idea I had been boring so many people for so many years."

"But-but," Kim said quickly, "I was so rude to you!"

"Miss Possible," Dr. Kramer said, holding up her Kimmunicator in his raised hand, "however it happened, I am glad it finally did." Then he laughed again, "It's a good thing I didn't tell the goat cheese story, even I think that story is too long. Who knows what that truth ray would have gotten you to say if I had decided to tell that."

"Did you say goat cheese?" Kim asked with the beginnings of a smile.

"Yes. I am personally fascinated by the process, but, thanks to you, I now realize that it is a story with very limited appeal."

"Actually, Dr. Kramer," Kim said, "I believe I know someone who would be very interested to hear it."

"Really?" Dr. Kramer said cocking his own eyebrow.

"Uh-huh," she nodded, "if you'd like, I can introduce you to him before you leave."

"Well, I would be very pleased meet him."

She turned to go and then stopped.

"Dr. Kramer?"

"Yes?"

"The person your uncle was waiting for …"

"No," he said simply. "She never showed up."

Kim sighed. "I'm sorry to hear that."

"Miss Possible--Kim," Dr. Kramer said with a sad smile, "it was 1945. I don't believe there was anyone on any of the sides fighting that didn't lose someone they cared about that year."

As she shut the den's door to give Dr. Kramer his privacy as well as to insulate his call from the raucous music still bleeding from the stereo in the living room, Kim heard an even louder noise thundering from overhead.

VII.

"Sounds like an F-15 Eagle," Mr. Barkin announced with obvious admiration as he scanned the foyer's ceiling. He looked as if he were scanning the "pop-corned" stucco for traces of the aforementioned fighter jet.

Dropping his hands from his ears as the din drifted off, Ron said, "Huh? Were you in the Air Force, too?"

Mr. Barkin gave the teen a dirty look.

"Flying awfully low, isn't he?" Kim said as she ran to meet them at the base of the stairs.

"I'd say so," Mr. Barkin said as his admiration turned to concern.

"KP!" Ron said excitedly, "You'll never guess--Mr. B knows Slothrop!"

"Wh-what?!" Kim said understandably flabbergasted.

"Back up there, Stoppable!" Mr. Barkin yelled. "I know of him," the educator corrected. "I never met the man ... fortunately." Mr. Barkin then proceeded, with a few interruptions from Ron, to explain to Kim his knowledge of Tyrone Slothrop. "I'm not sure if any of that will help you kids."

"Well, it does give us another contact to try," Kim said with a pleased nod.

"It does?" Mr. Barkin asked, confused.

"Pig Bodine," Kim explained, "I'll see if Wade can track him down."

"Uh," Mr. Barkin said nervously, "I don't know if that is such a wise idea."

"Why not? They were good friends, right? Who would be a better person to ask?"

"Well, if you are dead set on it just do me one favor, Possible."

"Sure ... what?"

"Don't tell him you know me!" Mr. Barkin said in visible distress. "You don't know where I live! You've never taken one of my classes! You've never even heard of me!"

"O-okay," Kim said edging slightly away from her excitable teacher.

"So, Kim," Ron asked in complete obliviousness to Mr. Barkin's breakdown, "What dirt did Dr. Kramer have on Slothrop?"

"Not as much as you and Barkin, Ron," Kim said. She then explained what little the scientist had been able to tell her.

Needless to say, Mr. Barkin was more than a little surprised to find that his bibliophile friend also had dealings with this mysterious and unsavory character.

Neither Kim nor Barkin felt the need to underline the semi-amusing coincidence that these two connections were related--in their own quirky ways--to the word "pig."

They didn't have to.

"Wow!" Ron exclaimed, "Did you notice that both of those leads are related to pigs in some way? What are odds?" Then it occurred to Ron that he and Kim had never stopped by Bueno Nacho as they had planned because the ride back from Justine's had turned into a disaster film. As a matter of fact, he now realized that he had not had anything to eat for over twelve hours. "KP, I'm hungry."

"Stoppable, do you ever think of anything else?" Mr, Barkin sighed.

"Well, maybe we can order a pizza, Ron," Kim said patting her BFBF's shoulder. She knew he had been through a lot and was more than entitled to a little whining. "It is getting kinda late, and I so don't want to go out again."

"It is that, Possible," Mr. Barkin agreed. "Give your folks and your polite if musically-challenged friend my regards. I should probably be going anyway, I've blocked Dr. Kramer in."

At the mention of the doctor's name, Kim reflexively turned her head in the direction of the den. The door was ajar, and the light from the desk lamp was spilling out through the open space. For some reason this made Kim feel very, very uncomfortable. Without a word, she slowly walked toward the open doorway and peered inside. "Dr. Kramer?" she called.

Everything was as she had left it minutes before … except that the scientist was no longer there.

Something about the empty room ... the way the lamp light played amongst the shadows on the various bookcases and along the surface of her father's desk seriously creeped her out. Nevertheless, she stepped inside and walked toward the chair Dr. Kramer had been sitting in. On the seat was his copy of Southanger Abbey. Kim reached out gingerly and picked up the book. She couldn't explain it, but there was something about the novel that filled her with both unease and melancholy at the same time. She looked about the room and was just about to futilely call the doctor's name once more when another name entered her thoughts. Justine.

"SWEET MOTHER OF PEARL!" she heard Mr. Barkin scream from the foyer.

VIII.

"What's going on?" Kim cried as she sprinted through the den's door.

'HIS EYES!" Barkin exclaimed pointing frenziedly at Ron's swirling peepers.

Kim released a tension-filled sigh.

Ron rolled his eyes (it still perplexed Kim that she could still know these things about her BFBF's eyes in their condition) as he replaced his sunglasses. "C'mon, Mr. B, these are so yesterday--you need to get current."

"It's okay," Kim reassured Mr. Barkin, "we're ... well, we're handling it." Then her voice turned deadly-serious, "I don't know where Doctor Kramer is."

"Don't tell me he left his book again," Barkin said in exasperation.

Eyeing the cover, Ron laughed, "Dr. Kramer reads Jayne Austin?"

"So do I," Mr. Barkin said icily.

"You read Jayne Austin?" Ron was laughing with youthful abandon now.

"So do I, Ron," Kim rejoined in a frosty voice of her own.

"Okay, shutting up," Ron acquiesced.

"Guys," Kim said returning to the issue at hand, "I'm serious; he's gone."

"Possible, don't worry about it." Mr. Barkin said dismissively.

"Mr. B," Ron said, receiving his girlfriend's weirdar signals crystal clear, "is his car still in the drive?"

The normally goofy teen's serious tone was enough to get Barkin to walk over and look out the window. "Affirmative. Remember? I'm blocking him in."

The toilet in the bathroom under the stairs flushed. And then a faucet could be heard running.

"See, nothing to worry about," Mr. Barkin said good-humoredly. "Possible, you should probably get some rest. Weren't you in the hospital a little over six hours ago?"

"I suppose you're right, Mr. Barkin," Kim conceded in a relaxed voice.

Then the bathroom door opened and out stepped Yori. She was somewhat non-plussed that there were three sets of eyes (well, two sets and a set of shades) staring at her as she exited the bathroom.

"Yori," Kim said in full mission mode, "could you go with Ron and check the living room and the kitchen for Dr. Kramer? Mr. Barkin and I will check the rest of the first floor and, if necessary, check the second."

"Certainly, Possibl-san," Yori bowed, "it will be my honor."

"C'mon, Yori," Ron called, "I'll explain on the way."

Reluctantly, Mr. Barkin followed Kim. "Possible, stop treating this as a four-alarm emergency. He'll turn up in less than a minute, I guarantee."

Five minutes later and Mr. Barkin had not only lost his bet, he was also starting to get nervous himself.

Anne Possible turned off the music and put down her beer and joined the search. James and the Tweebs searched the upstairs bedrooms.

There was no sign of the doctor. And when a second fighter jet flew over the house, Kim nearly jumped out of her skin. It had been an extremely long and crazy day and this final mysterious disappearance was fraying her last remaining nerves. As the roar of the plane's afterburners faded into the sound of seven people calling for Dr. Kramer throughout the house, Kim desperately reached in her pocket for the Kimmunicator ... which, of course, was not there.

She had given it to the missing scientist.

IX.

"Ron!" Kim called as she charged down the stairs.

"What is it, KP?" Ron hollered back. "Did you find him?"

She shook her head as they met at the base of the stairs. "Contact Wade. Have him track the Kimmunicator."

"The Kimmunicator?"

"I gave it to Dr. Kramer before he vanished," she explained hurriedly.

Less than ninety seconds later, Team Possible's tech guru was scratching his head. Never a good sign.

"I don't understand it, Kim. I am scanning the entire greater Middleton tri-city area, and your Kimmunicator simply isn't there."

"Maybe it's turned off," Ron offered.

"Would that make a difference, Wade?" Kim asked hopefully.

He shook his head. "Sorry, guys. I can trakc it whether it is flipped on or not. I can perform a state-wide scan in less than five seconds and a world scan in thirty minutes if you'd like. Nope, nothing in the state."

"Please and thank you," Kim said with mounting dread.

"SWEET MOTHER OF PEARL!" Mr. Barkin screamed from somewhere on the first floor.

Kim and Ron, like the rest of the household, made a beeline for the source of the yell: the living room.

Mr. Barkin was staring speechless at the television screen. Some five feet before the set, sitting cross-legged and silent on the floor, was James Possible. When Anne entered, she instinctively sat down next to her husband and put her arm around his shoulder. Even the Tweebs were silent.

After thirty seconds of shocked, universal silence passed, Kim flipped on the Roncom. "Wade, are you seeing what's on TV?"

"Yes, Kim. I was just going to beep you."

"It is as bad as it looks," she whispered out of deference to her father.

Wade nodded sadly. "Yes, the Center has been completely destroyed."

"How?" Kim said, trying not to tear up.

Ron threw an arm around her shoulder.

"Don't know," Wade admitted. "Let me scan the satellite images from the TV feed."

As they awaited their friend's analysis, Kim and Ron watched Yori approach James Possible, bow deeply, and give her condolences.

"Okay, guys," Wade said with trepidation. "I found something. But you're not to like it."

"Wiping a tear from the lashes of her right eye, Kim said in a determined voice, "Sitch me, Wade."

"Okay." Wade's image was replaced by the satellite feed. A superimposed diagram highlighted the edges of the giant crater that had replaced the facility where her father had worked the greater part of her life.

"Yori," Ron called urgently.

As she came over, Ron gestured for her to look at the Roncom's screen. "Vheissu ...?" he asked.

Wordlessly, the ninja shook her head. Finally, she said, "I'm sorry, Stoppable-san. I do not know what this is."

Beneath the military helicopters that were swarming at the screen's edges and the scrambling fighter jets that split the image every few seconds, was Wade's enhanced outline of the crater. An outline that, for all the world, seemed to be in the shape of some gigantic animal's footprint.

Kim handed the Roncom to her BFBF and slowly approached her father. She knelt next to him, and, as she had one day long ago when she was seven--the day after her grandfather had passed, Kim kissed his pale cheek and fiercely embraced him.


A/N: Apologies must be made to the following artists for the manipulation of their works in the opening section of this chapter:

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards for their song "You Can't Always Get What You Want"

David Lynch for his short film/sitcom Rabbits

MrDrP for use of a character from his story "Final"

Stephen Sondheim for his song "Every Day a Little Death"

Also, see wikipedia to learn more about the Brown Mountain Lights a super freaky unexplained phenomenon from my home state of North Carolina.