I certainly didn't believe that it would take so very long to post my next chapter (practically a year). However, real life did intervene in a major way. Now I have a son; so I take it as a more than worthwhile trade-off.

I'd like to extend special thanks to CajunBear73, RonHeartbreaker, Quathis, Isamu, Reader101w, Shyguy1, Browniestick, Mr. Wizard, Joe Stoppinghem, MrDrP, bigherb81, BlueLion, whitem, Magic Flying Spud, and froger495 for their generous reviews.

Thanks, of course, to all those who have been waiting (and haven't forgotten).

And, finally, thanks to flakeflippinsnowgypsy for her invaluably harsh criticism.


I.

Although dormant for nearly two hundred years, the volcano, as well as the andesite ridge and plateau that framed it, was avoided by almost everyone. The area's desolation was due in large part to its many unwelcoming prospects.

Nothing grew upon the vast lunarscape save for meager patches of brittle, colorless grass that encircled the occasional stagnant puddle. Viewed warily by climbers from both safety and challenge perspectives, the peak itself proved to be at once dangerous and unremarkable. Frigid, constant rain from the ubiquitous cloud cover was also a factor. Rather than a stinging sensation, the precipitation produced a gradual chill upon exposed skin that only revealed its true teeth after a few minutes' soaking. On the handful of days when the sky was not overcast, the few low-lying clouds present would hover over the volcano's peak, imparting the illusion of billowing smoke or steam.

The locally-accepted belief that the volcano's crater was pock-marked with multiple hells of various depths didn't help to lure visitors, either.

Yet it was in the mouth of this volcano that Sensei had dwelled for more than a decade. Although his deceptively rustic hovel boasted all the comforts, contemporary and otherwise, that Hirotaka could acquire for him, the old man spent most of his time outside in the elements. In the early years of his exile, he would venture on the precarious footpaths that snaked the walls of the chasm, but now he only sat by the edge of an oblong pool of water, a mere ten yards from his door. He would cast his eyes across its black surface as it rippled under the slate grey clouds. Day after day, he would track the waters for something that he expected but knew he was no longer privileged to see.

From beneath his robes, Sensei retrieved another small disc from its secret bag and slowly brought it to his lips. Removing its glittering mantle, he deftly placed the disc into his mouth. Sensei then rolled the bit of foil between thumb and index finger until it became a tiny hard ball. Once released, it dropped through space until it reached the crater's floor where it rolled along the intricate grooves of the andesite stone until it joined its fellows in a pile of dimly shimmering pills.

The distant chimes of his phone drew his attention away from the water. He was certain he had brought the device with him.

Perhaps, Rina-chan has hidden it again.

With effort, Sensei refrained from the use of dishonorable language as he heaved himself to his feet. Laboriously, he trudged the path to his dwelling, following the tinkling melody as it died upon the sterile breezes.

As they had for years, these breezes swirling within the crater stirred about the countless tiny foil bearings that littered the interior of the volcano. Thousands accumulated in pink, blue and green drifts near the chasm's walls, thousands more edged the pool, and hundreds lined the upper footpaths that the younger, fitter Sensei had once walked. However, the majority of the chocolate wrappers maintained a scattered independence, strewn across the crater's floor as random and numerous as stars.

II.

Pressing her right ear to Mariko's chest, Kim made out the faint, but steady, beating of the girl's heart. Yet she felt no sense of relief until a cacophonous snore erupted in her left ear.

Thank you, God.

The snore receded and was replaced by the unsettling wail of a samurian.

Kim turned her head and saw that the warrior who had minutes earlier knocked himself out with a blow against Justy's shield was staggering angrily to his feet.

And that Justy's shield was gone.

The samurians on either side of this assailant were still wearing the same stupefied expressions as when the Lotus Blade had obliterated their confederate. He, however, fixed his dangerous yellow eyes upon the boy's back and began to raise his cleft sword into the air.

Kim had already gotten to her feet and launched herself toward Justy before the full implications of her actions could occur to her. She had faced similar circumstances dozens of times before and managed to roll herself and her friends to safety, unscathed every time. Besides, her impulses, especially when others were in danger, had always served Kim well.

But that had been in another life. And in the half-instant before she reached Monique's injured son, she realized that things were going to go much differently this time.

The collision of sensations Kim felt when she impacted Justy's body at the same time the samurian's sword glanced her back was reminiscent of an electric shock. Not so much in its violence and intensity, although those definitely played their roles, but because she suddenly found herself somewhere else entirely from where she had been with no memory of the moments that must have fallen in between. She was lying in a shallow gulch some twenty feet downhill from the circle of warriors, intense pain radiating across her back and throbbing into her extremities.

Her suffering and disorientation were allayed by the knowledge that Justy had travelled the distance with her. And by the realization that she was actually touching him at that very moment.

Shrieks from the hill brought her attention back to the samurians. Through the falling snow, she could see two staring in their direction. Their swords slung upon their shoulders, these didn't appear ready to strike, but Kim was not about to take a wait-and-see approach.

If I can touch Justy, I can carry him.

He was still unconscious and, at first glance, didn't appear to be noticeably worse off than he had when she and Mariko had first found him minutes earlier. But as Kim got up, her eyes fell upon his right foot. Its unhealthy angle made her wince.

Shooting a look back to the hill's crest, she was relieved to see that the warriors were no longer glaring down at them. Instead, the were following their comrades who were marching back into the center of the park.

Hirotaka was leading this procession, Mariko slung over his shoulder.

The sight of her best friend hanging limply in an assassin's indifferent grasp awoke something primal in Kim. She took off after them, the wayward snowflakes in her path seemingly swirling out of her way. She made a beeline for Hirotaka and got close enough to see that he'd pulled his gi's hood over his head. That was when she heard Justy's cries.

Even though the snow on the ground amounted to little more than a dusting, making a sudden stop was not easy for Kim. She skidded a dozen yards before she regained enough control to halt her momentum and turn back.

Half a football field away, Justy appeared as a thin shadow staggering against the worsening storm.

"S-Stop! Mariko!"

His yells had no effect upon Hirotaka, who plunged further into the park at the same even pace. They did, however, get the samurians' attention.

Horrified, Kim watched as the warriors stopped and turned, in unison, back toward the boy. Their yellow eyes burned visibly through the driving snow. Sliding precariously, Kim immediately started to make her way back to Justy before they could decide to charge.

"Mariko!" Justy cried once more and then collapsed. His cry when he hit the ground chilled Kim.

"I'm coming, Justy!"

Kim had yelled without thinking. But as she made her way toward him it occurred to her that if she was now able to touch him perhaps he could hear her as well. Before this thought could gain much ground, a very familiar sound broke over the park: the beating of helicopter rotors against the wind.

Swerving to a stop on one knee, Kim turned and watched as Hirotaka thrust Mariko into the cabin of a small chopper hovering just above the ground. The assassin climbed in quickly and then his eleven samurians clutched onto the landing skids as the vehicle lifted off into the night sky.

When she reached Justy, he was breathing heavily, and appeared to have lost consciousness once more. As Kim bent down to pick him up, she burst into tears. Sitting on the snow next to Justy, she tried desperately to get herself under control.

I've lost her. I've lost her. I told her I would protect her, protect them both, and I couldn't.

She had failed Mariko and Justy. Failed Mon and Felix. Failed Ron.

I've lost her.

She got to her knees but could only cry into her hands as the snow swirled about her. For a long instant or two, Kim was overcome by a vertiginous sense of isolation, detached and adrift from everyone and everything.

And then someone touched her knee.

Kim started when she looked up and saw Justy, his head raised, staring directly at her.

"It's you," he managed with the faintest of smiles.

III.

Hirotaka was ill-pleased.

The helicopter was too small. Even after dispatching the pilot, the interior was not sufficient.

He had not anticipated bringing cargo on the flight back. And the problems Mariko-chan's presence created were not limited to those of space.

That she was no longer snoring was irritating. The NotI had taken affect the instant the dart had entered her throat. Her somnolent cacophony had been so pronounced that he had calculated it would be discernible even over the sound of the helicopter's blades. Once her body had been righted, however, she became silent.

He caught himself checking her over his shoulder every few minutes.

Wedged between storage compartments at the rear of the cramped cabin, her wrists and ankles handcuffed, the former behind her back, the girl's composed features gave Hirotaka the uncanny impression that she was feigning sleep. Like she was leaning forward in her seat, at attention to catch any word he might utter.

He cursed under his breath. The NotI had always worked; she would remain unconscious for as long as he wished. This fact, however, failed to satisfy him.

Has the girl not already achieved the impossible twice tonight?

Uncertainty was as unfamiliar to Hirotaka as it was unpleasant. He was accustomed to a world where things were fixed and definite, where the effects of chance were minimal and events unfolded in an almost predestined manner. Such a calculated existence required herculean efforts to bring into being but was well worth the trouble.

The events of the past twenty minutes, however, had not been predestined, or certainly not by him. The experience had been unsettling. Even now he was finding it difficult to remain focused on his current task. He redirected his thoughts, but the subject they fell upon brought even less satisfaction.

For only the second time in his life, he had failed Sensei. A lifetime of devotion to his master coupled with the infrequency of the old man's requests since his exile made the failure almost unendurable for Hirotaka.

Discussion of Stoppable-san, Mariko-chan, or the Lotus Blade had been forbidden in Sensei's presence for over a decade. And the company the old man preferred to keep was his own. When he did summon Hirotaka, it was to fulfill menial tasks whose scope remained within the shadows of Mt. Tateyama. Nothing about these errands suggested the old man's ambitions extended beyond those of a secure retirement.

Over the past two years, Sensei had seemed to deteriorate dramatically. When they spoke, Hirotaka was unsure if Sensei fully understood the information he had given him. It had grown apparent that his master was becoming just another weary, overweight old man waiting to die.

Hirotaka had been justly struck dumb on his most recent visit when Sensei expressed his intentions of regaining both the Lotus Blade and the loyalty of Mariko-chan. His shock increased as his master revealed the details of the project. The plan was simple, honorable, and seemed assured to achieve its bold goals. It even promised retribution against the traitorous Fukushima. Within the space of a few moments, the doubts of a decade melted away.

Unfortunately, his master had interpreted Hirotaka's silence for doubt and his awe for incredulity.

"It has worked before, Hirotaka," Sensei spoke sternly. "It will work now."

And, yet, it had not worked.

Hirotaka took full responsibility for the mission's failure, yet he knew not the failure's source.

In the beginning, fortune had seemed the mission's partner. Within moments of locating the girl, he had been able to identify the true target. The first boy to approach her exhibited the traits of a mate, but this was a false lead. Fortunately, the subsequent appearance of her number one boyfriend had been exceptionally quick and propitious. And once the week's social calendar became known to Sensei, the mission seemed inordinately favored. Sensei had counseled that the night of the dance would provide the ideal frame for the plan's execution.

"Such events have only served to heighten a mission's overall success," Sensei explained. "Most beneficial."

Placing a tracking device within the target's phone had brought no challenge. Coordinating the kappa warriors to track both the boy and the girl had been effortless. There had been ample time to procure the NotI for any potential contingencies that the monkey toxin could not resolve.

The only negative in the mission's setup that Hirotaka could recall had been a few moments of inexplicable anxiousness. These had occurred when first spotting Mariko-chan from his position on the school's roof. As he had watched her cross the field, he had been overcome with a desire to rush the mission to its completion—a compulsion he had never felt on any other assignment.

Yet something deeper than anxiety was the cause for his failure. Something that he could not explain.

The landing site was quickly approaching. As he adjusted the helicopter's altitude, his eyes fell upon the mark on the back of his hand.

The abyss yawned and Hirotaka felt its ineffable pull; however, he regained control of the aircraft after only a few seconds.

IV.

Kim's elation of knowing that another person was aware of her existence passed quickly. Justy had begun to shiver.

She carefully took his hand from her knee and gently laid it upon its fellow. Giving her most confident smile, she attempted to lock eyes with him. "We're getting you out of here."

Pleased to see that her actions and words hadn't alarmed or even surprised Justy, Kim stood and swiftly tried to determine the safest way to lift him without exacerbating his injury. Glancing over her shoulder toward the gazebo, she could just make out the Sloth parked on the street. The snow was falling harder now; there was already accumulation on the vehicle's roof.

Justy gave a start when she first put her arms beneath his shoulders and knees.

"It's okay, Justy. I've got you."

Her words seemed to reassure him as he relaxed once Kim got him off the ground.

Tentatively, almost as if he were blindly feeling his way, Justy placed his right arm around her shoulders. A few seconds later he brought his left arm over, locking his hands together.

Kim started walking.

The field was already filling with snow.

He was heavier than he looked. Although she had held Ron in the same cradle-carry position many times over the years, Kim had rarely done so for extended periods. She had certainly never lugged him a hundred yards through a driving snowstorm.

However, as an unforeseen positive, Justy's weight seemed to minimize Kim's tendency to skid across the snow's surface. She still had to stay focused on every step, but she had more traction than she normally did in wintry conditions.

Every few moments, she would glance at Justy's face to give him a reassuring look. And, of course, to make sure he was still conscious. Once or twice his eyes did appear to be glazing over, but nervous second and third looks confirmed that he was still alert. Alert and gazing fixedly at her face.

A concern flickered briefly over whether Justy would keep her identity secret. There was no question that he knew who she was-he had been over to her parents' house and seen her pictures countless times over the years. This doubt dissolved quickly however.

Of course, he'll agree to call me 'Rufina.' I just need to explain it to him.

She tried to refocus on the present. There was no need to think about such issues until Justy was safe.

"We're getting there, Justy. Hang on."

Kim's arms were getting tired. Although they were already a third of the way to the car, she knew that she'd need to rest before they got there.

No big. If I need to take a break, I'll take one. A short one. Just need to cross as much distance as possible before I do.

"I never thought," Justy said softly, breaking her concentration.

"Huh? I'm sorry?"

"…you'd be this warm." He tightened his grip around her shoulder.

"Oh? Ok." Kim replied somewhat perplexed. "Well, I'm glad. Especially, on a night like this, huh?"

The storm continued to build over the next few minutes. The snow was coming down so hard that for a few long moments Kim couldn't even see the glow of the streetlights along the edge of the park, let alone the car.

"This is ridiculous!" she cried. "It's October!"

Almost as if responding to her complaint, the wind began to abate and within a minute the flakes had tapered off significantly.

With a clear view to the street, Kim judged they were approximately half-way to their destination. "Okay, I'm going to set you down now, Justy. We're just going to stop for a minute."

She began to gingerly lower his feet to the ground. "Okay, just support yourself on your left foot. Try to keep your right elevated."

Justy didn't respond, but tightened his grip on her shoulders.

"Wh-what's going on?" he asked, nervously looking about him.

"It's okay, Justy," she explained. "I need to rest my arms a minute. Lean your weight on my shoulders."

He finally put his left foot on the ground, but still seemed highly agitated and confused. And although he was following her instructions, Kim really hadn't anticipated him gripping her shoulders so rigidly.

I may need to rest my shoulders in a minute.

Awkward and uncomfortable, they stood side by side in the momentarily flake-less evening.

"Please, don't leave me." Justy whispered brokenly.

"I'm not going any-" she said turning to face him.

"I feel you, but … without the snow … it's like you're gone. Please don't go."

As he spoke, points of anxiety were evident in his eyes-eyes that were not looking in her direction. Rather they were searching the night for where, she now realized, he assumed and hoped she might be.

"I'm right here." The deflated tone of her own voice depressed Kim. Although he undoubtedly could touch and feel her, all he had seen of her was a shadow—the 'negative space' outlined by the storm. It was also painfully clear that he hadn't heard a word she'd spoken.

"I need your help, please," he said weakly. "I need to save her."

Kim placed her left hand over his right and gave it a determined squeeze. "We will, Justy." When she looked him in the face, she thought she saw a smile briefly trace his lips. But his eyes quickly dimmed.

"She … she said I was brave," he managed before an abrupt spasm of shudders and tears caused his teeth to clinch together.

Kim hugged him until he was still. With the back of her hand, she gently brushed the tears from his cheeks. Only then did she realize that she had been crying too.

"Come on, Justy," she said finally, "let's go get Mariko." She carefully lifted his compliant form into the air and started once again across the glistening field that was empty of all sound save for their breathing.

V.

The mission's objective had changed from assassination to kidnapping.

Hirotaka had counted on Time and Death being his accomplices, but now they were his enemies. As his hypersonic craft became airborne, he felt no sense of safety or relief. Once Stoppable-san realized his daughter was missing, it would not be long before his suspicions turned toward Japan. And then what little advantage he currently possessed would quickly slip away.

In addition to everything else, the Chosen One had powerful friends. Team Possible was a force Hirotaka had been careful to give a wide berth in the past. Masters of a technology that far surpassed Hirotaka's considerable acumen; there was little doubt they possessed aircraft that could outrace his. The instant they became involved, any head start he had gained would rapidly shrink to nothing.

He turned his thoughts back to his "cargo." Mesmerized by the NotI, securely strapped to a seat in the jet's rear compartment, and flanked on four sides by dormant Warriors who would spring into action at the slightest sign from her, Mariko-chan posed no threat. Reclining her seat had also produced the much-missed snoring. Yet she continued to trouble him.

He had dumped the girl's phone at the park, and, prior to taking her onboard the jet, he had performed a quick search on her person for any other tracking-enabled devices. However, he now realized, it was possible that she, herself, was a homing device. That she might be "chipped."

With effort, Hirotaka restrained his growing sense of frustration.

One point in Sensei's plan had given Hirotaka pause. Weeks after the boy's assassination, Hirotaka was to appear unannounced at Mariko-chan door. He would have revealed Fukashima as her consort's killer and patiently explained how the former acolyte of Monkey Fist desired to end the Chosen One's line by murdering both her and her beloved. He would have then informed Mariko-chan that it had been her powers, her mystic inheritance, that had allowed her to escape and that it was now her duty to redeem her lover and to reclaim her rightful legacy.

Even if ideal circumstances could be attained, Hirotaka had doubted that Stoppable-san would allow his daughter to become Sensei's student once again. And, he believed, there were no conditions under which the Chosen One would permit his daughter to take part in an assassination.

He had voiced these concerns, and Sensei had responded without hesitation or trace of rebuke.

"When the time is right, you will bring her here. Mariko-chan and I must speak privately." The old man had then raised his heavy-lidded eyes. "And if your mission should prove unsuccessful, you must bring her here immediately."

The look in Sensei's eyes had been so startling that Hirotaka had only felt vaguely insulted by his master's implication that he might fail to eliminate his target and then only minutes later when he was no longer in the old man's presence.

Now that he had failed and was delivering Stoppable-san's daughter to Sensei weeks prior to schedule, what would be the final outcome of the old man's plans?

What look would the old man's eyes hold for him, especially, if the captive he was delivering to his master was actually the means of his downfall?

VI.

As she readjusted her hold on Justy, it occurred to Kim that not only was he the first person other than Mariko that she had come into contact with since she died; Justy was also the first guy. Yet the experience of holding Justy, who was roughly the same size as a high-school-aged Ron, in a position that she frequently had held Ron didn't remind her of him.

Holding their son was not generating nostalgic flashes of Monique or Felix either.

Curiously, Kim found herself thinking about her father.

Was Dad the last guy I touched? Is that why?

But, no, she was certain Ron had been the last. She remembered kissing his cheek in his doorway before hurrying off to the park. In fact, as she replayed that morning's events, she became pretty sure that she hadn't had any physical contact with her father. Not even a pat on the shoulder. He had been reading the paper and they had exchanged salutatory mumbles as she grabbed a bagel and headed out the door.

It was snowing heavier now. Looking up through the dark branches of the trees, she watched the silver and dark flakes descend about her. Kim needed to stay on her game. She blinked away the tears, tried futilely not to think about the regret their final parting had surely caused her father, and with renewed concentration made her way down the incline to where the Sloth waited.

Justy groaned.

He was not looking well. In just the few minutes since they had rested, his eyes had grown bleary. And the thin layer of snow had accumulated on his cheeks indicated that he was no longer brushing the flakes from his face.

"Almost there, Justy."

He closed his eyes.

"Come on, Justy," Kim cried, jostling him in her arms, "you need to stay awake!"

Even more than keeping him awake, keeping the snow off of Justy seemed vitally important to Kim, but she didn't want to put him down and delay getting to the Sloth to accomplish it.

Then Kim recalled something Ron had said sophomore year. His comment had irritated her at the time, but it now gave her an idea. A decidedly nutty, Ronnish idea, but it was worth a try.

Kim paused and tilted back her head. She snapped it forward quickly, sending her cascading hair across Justy's face. Shaking her head from side to side, she tried brushing the snow from his cheeks with the ends of her hair. Unfortunately, when she flipped her hair back and looked, the flakes hadn't budged. She draped her hair over him twice more before remembering the obvious.

Her hair, like the rest of her body, had never had an impact on objects, even those as ephemeral and small as snowflakes.

So so stupid.

As she dejectedly turned her face, a strand of her hair went up his nose, causing Justy to sneeze. Although it almost made her drop him, it also scattered most of the snow from his face and hair. And woke him up.

"Excuse me," he said, rubbing his nose with the back of his wrist.

"Bless you," she replied with relief, trudging ahead as the storm once again intensified. Justy's voice and reactions had seemed normal, so Kim shelved her concussion fears. At least for the moment.

A knot of perplexity formed between Justy's eyes as he looked about him, but it only lasted for a few seconds. Once a momentary gust of snow enveloped them, he seemed perfectly calm. His eyes focused on the space around Kim's head for the length of the gust's duration, and he kept them there after it had passed.

"I wish I knew who you were," he said finally.

"I wish I could tell you," she replied.

His statement mooted any chance that he recognized her as Kim Possible or even believed her to be Rufina. The realization brought a mixed sensation of relief and melancholy. Looking ahead, she saw they were only a handful of yards from the Sloth. But the footing was getting tricky again; she needed to stay focused.

The sudden warmth of Justy's tentative fingertips against her left cheek startled her. Kim glanced down at him and saw her surprise reflected in his expression. It was at that instant she realized the pins-and-needles sensation that had always colored any interaction between them was not there, and had not been since the moment she had shielded him from the samurian's attack.

W-what does that mean?

But her thought was suspended when Justy turned his hand and softly touched her cheek with the back of his fingers. And, once again, Kim was reminded of her father.

She slipped, and they crashed against the pavement.

VII.

His craft skirted beneath the lower boundary of the stratosphere; Hirotaka would traverse the ocean and arrive at Mt. Tateyama within a handful of hours.

Even after setting aside his concerns about Stoppable-san and other potential pursuers, his thoughts could find no calming center. He kept returning to Mariko-chan's actions in the park. Specifically, her detection of the kappa warriors.

"'They are known only to their master,'" he said thinly. Hirotaka was quoting their previous master, restating the words as if to make a long-held damaged truth wholly true once again.

One month earlier he had sat motionless for a day and a half upon the floor of a squalid flat in Oita. He was awaiting the return of its occupant, a dishonored yakuza. Outside his responsibilities to Sensei, Hirotaka's his talents were in high demand, and contract assignments such as this one kept him far from idle.

Inert and silent, Hirotaka had scarcely observed the rise and fall of noises from the street or the shifting beams of sunlight upon the wall opposite the apartment's blinded window as the hours bled into each other. He had been attuned only to the sounds that would announce the entry of the target. Yet when the expected noises finally echoed through the small room, he had not given the slightest sign of having heard them.

Hirotaka remained so still, in fact, that the yakuza did not initially notice him plainly sitting in the open among the sparse furnishings. However, within a few minutes the man became aware that something was wrong. He inspected the shadowed corners of his room and then peaked between the closed blinds and nervously watched pedestrians on the street below for several minutes. At length, the man left the window and approached his door. For a few moments it was unclear whether he was examining its lock or was considering leaving.

Finally, the yakuza sighed and a semblance of relief cascaded down his person as he walked back into the center of his room. When he began to inspect the parched fronds on his potted plant, the man caught sight of Hirotaka's motionless form mere inches away.

Hirotaka had allowed the target two seconds of surprise before he signaled the kappas with a slight shift of his gaze. They had been shadowing the victim throughout the city for days and had entered the apartment with him unnoticed. Their dozen blades erupted from the man's chest, mouth, genitals, elsewhere. With disinterest, Hirotaka observed his minions retract their swords. The target collapsed to the floor, shivered and then ceased.

In that metropolis of half a million, the kappa warriors had gone unseen and unheard. They had also been cloaked for several days as they stalked Mariko-chan and her consort across Middleton.

They are only known to their master.

There was only one exception: if a person made physical contact with a kappa, that specific warrior's cloak would dissolve and it would become known to the person thereafter. Or for as brief a time as the person lived.

It was conceivable that Mariko-chan may have collided with one or two warriors within the gazebo and, therefore, would have been able to defend herself against these same warriors later and even to defeat one.

Yet after she defeated the one, she seemed to know where they all were.

Indeed, it seemed as if she knew they were there when she was still in the gazebo. Initially, he had assumed that her improbable escape attempt from the structure had been caused by some careless mistake he had unknowingly committed.

In fact all of her actions from the instant he had trained the pipe upon her lover's neck formed a chain of impossibilities for which there only seemed to be one explanation.

The Lotus Blade.

And that answer was unacceptable.

He had chosen The Path, assumed responsibility for the warriors and taken possession of the NotI specifically because their magic fell outside the blade's providence. She and her father had been blind and deaf to the warriors on Yamanouchi. She was currently under the sway of the potion at this very instant.

"No," he spoke aloud. "It is impossible."

The rhythmic flash of a light on the control panel broke his concentration.

How long had the message alert been on? It was most certainly from Sensei. How would he explain what had happened?

"'They are known only to their master.'" Saying these words aloud once more seemed to embolden Hirotaka. Or, at least, it gave him the momentary courage needed to listen to Sensei's message.

These words had been spoken by the kappas' original master some fifteen years earlier on the night Hirotaka had chosen The Path.

In fact, Hirotaka was only speaking the first part of the mantra. The final words of The Destroyer's statement—and the dead-eluded his memory.

VIII.

Kim hastily maneuvered Justy's limp fingers underneath the door handle. Nothing happened.

"Come on, come on." She slid his fingertips from left to right along the underside of the handle. Nothing.

She removed his hand and then put it back under the handle. Nothing again.

Sitting on the curb with Justy's head cradled in her lap, Kim was attempting to unlock the Sloth's door with his fingerprints. He was unconscious but breathing regularly. She tried not to look at the fresh cut on his forehead.

Kim pressed her face against the Sloth's door and looked into the handle's small recess. Once she blocked out the streetlight's glare with her cupped hand, the blue lights from the one-touch security sensors became clearly visible. It was operative.

What if Wade forgot to add Justy's prints? What if Mariko forgot to remind Wade to add them?

Then she would have to carry him to the nearest house. Surely, someone would help. If only she could make his presence known to them. If only anyone was even home.

"It's going to work this time," she muttered defiantly. She raised his hand and let the blue lights scan his right fingers once again. Nothing.

"Wait!" She was trying to open the driver's side door. Maybe the sensors for this door were only keyed to the prints of his left hand.

When his left fingers did, thankfully, unlock the door, Kim was so determined to get Justy into the Sloth as quickly as possible that she didn't even take the time to breathe a sigh of relief. Trying to lift him from the street, she failed to take into account the arc of the door as it gently, automatically, swept open. As a result, she nearly banged his head right into it.

Locking her arms beneath his shoulders and across his chest, Kim dragged Justy around the door as the wind began to pick up again. Arduously, she climbed inside and pulled him up and into the driver's seat. Crawling onto the passenger side, she leaned across his body and pulled his legs into the car. Placing her left hand over his, Kim struggled to pull the door shut against the building brace of the wind. Finally, the interior lights flashed off as the door closed and caught.

The darkness within the car seemed to only intensify the sense of isolation that the howling wind created as it buffeted the car's exterior. Justy shivered. Kim took Justy's thumb and pressed it against the ignition; the Sloth's engine churned. Manipulating his fingers, she switched the heat on full blast and pointed all the vents toward him. Only when his trembling ceased, and she had re-checked that his breathing was steady and even, did she finally permit herself a fistful of incriminating tears.

Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!

When she had slipped outside, Justy's forehead had cracked against the curb. At the very least, it had knocked him unconscious for the second time that night and given him a nasty gash above his left eye. And at the worst, who knew? She had already been trying to keep him awake because of concerns about a possible head injury. Yet in the end, she, not the assassin and his phantom warriors, was responsible for sending Justy into the abyss.

"Pull it together, Possible."

Self-pity was not doing Justy any good. However, it was difficult to stay focused and positive. Apart from keeping him warm, Kim didn't know what else she could do. Although assistance would only be minutes away once Ron or Monique realized the kids were missing, how long would that take? And could Justy wait that long?

Taking Justy's right hand, Kim switched on the Sloth's hazard lights. Someone driving by might stop. Once they discovered him, they would certainly take Justy to the hospital. And she could always use Justy's hand to honk the horn, too. She had him turn on the wipers at max spread to clear the windshield and sat and waited.

After a few minutes, the snow stopped falling, but the wind was still going full force. Save for the small white cyclones blowing down the street, the town seemed deserted.

Glancing at Justy's wan features compelled Kim to grab his hand only to discover that she was already holding it. She couldn't quite remember when that had happened.

The crazy notion of driving him to the hospital herself took a few minutes to shake off. Although she figured she could manage the steering, she doubted she could manipulate his feet on the pedals with any real control. A car accident was so the last thing Justy needed.

Kim looked among the control panels for some feature that might help the situation. Unfortunately, most of the high-tech tools and gadgets Wade and the Tweebs had installed over the years required a degree of control equal to or even greater than what was required to drive the car. The risks they posed outweighed whatever help they promised.

The cut on Justy's head looked bad, but it had stopped bleeding at least. Giving his hand a squeeze, Kim leaned over and kissed his wound.

Although she performed the gesture without reflection, the act sparked multiple jumbled thoughts in her consciousness. For starters, she realized it was the first time she had kissed anyone other than Mariko since she'd been killed.

Ron had been the last. Before that? Mom? No, she had been working that morning.

Following hard on these questions was the fact that since her death, Justy had been the only person other than Mariko to have kissed her. Or attempted to anyway.

Kim's memories adjusted to the darkness of her old bedroom, and the details from that night seven years earlier flooded her thoughts. The crowded bed, her sister reading Snow White at its foot. The story had been the inspiration for the kiss. Because Mariko thought the story was true, and that a kiss could really bring someone back to life.

Mariko was gone, perhaps forever; her prince was the one in a deathlike sleep. And a kiss from a dead girl couldn't do anything.

"The phone!" Kim nearly smacked herself in the forehead with Justy's hand.

Even if he couldn't speak, the person on the other end of the connection would clearly be able to see that Justy was in trouble.

Kim pulled Justy's hand to the console, but as she tried to decide whom to call, she accidentally brushed his finger against its screen, and it began dialing the most recent number. Although Wade would have been the most expedient choice, the caller id flash for "Dad's Pick-me-up Truck" filled Kim with a tangible sense of relief.

However, her hopes steadily declined as the phone continued to ring. The dull tone of the rings only seemed to heighten the silent intervals between them.

"This had better be important, M," Bonnie's cross voice pierced the silence. "It's just me, and you know I hate using car phones."

"Doctor … Rockwaller?" Justy's asked sluggishly. He strained to open his eyes and tried to lift his head but quickly let it fall back against the headrest.

"Justy?!" Bonnie's sternness evaporated. Her face grew large on the screen as she tried to look the injured boy over through the small screen. "Oh my God! What happened? Where's Mariko?"

"They … they took her," he managed. "I couldn't-"

"What? Who?" Bonnie shook her head. "Never mind. Tell me where you are." Bonnie's voice had grown firm, controlled. "Justy, where?"

"The, the park."

"That's twenty minutes across town," Bonnie muttered. "Just hang on," she nodded emphatically to Justy. "I'll be there in five," she announced and promptly hung up.

During the ninety seconds or so that the call lasted, Kim had felt strangely absent. It was almost as if she had been watching Justy and Bonnie's conversation unfold from a great distance or even on television. She was definitely relieved with the direction the call had taken—who better to answer the phone but a doctor-but Kim also felt a sense of deep isolation that she hadn't been aware of prior to the call. She wondered if this feeling might indicate she would be "blacking out" in the next few moments. She spent the next minute in anxious abeyance, fearfully wondering what she might discover when she did return.

"Thank you."

Justy's exhausted voice brought Kim back to the moment. He sounded so out of it to her. With his injuries, it was little wonder that he would think the conversation with Bonnie was still going on. She just hoped his discombobulation didn't portent any serious damage.

Hurry, Bonnie, hurry.

"Thank you," he repeated in the same weak, listless tone. "I never could have made that call."

At the instant Kim realized Justy was actually addressing her, he gave her fingers, which were still clutching his right hand, a firm squeeze.

He was looking, if not seeing, in her direction, and his expression came as close to approaching serenity or contentment as anyone could have hoped for under the circumstances.

She leaned across him and gently kissed his forehead again. It was meant to bring him comfort and perhaps a little strength as he waited for his rescue. But, for an instant, Kim felt as if she were back in her parent's kitchen on the morning of her last day and was comforted, too.

The headlights of Ron's truck illuminated the whole of the Sloth's windshield in a blinding glare. Bonnie had been as good as her word.

IX.

Sensei's watery eyes continued staring into the dead screen several minutes after the void had swallowed Hirotaka's image.

"Why did you not complete the mission?"

Sensei had asked this question some minutes earlier, but the only response the ninja had managed was a pitiable bow. He asked it again of the empty screen. The response this time, although less indolent, was no more satisfying. He closed the v-phone and placed it roughly on the floor.

By the ninja's own admission, Mariko-chan had not seen him. Once she was under the NotI's spell, he could have killed the boy without complication.

Additional elaborations would have been needed, true, and the Kappa Warriors would, perhaps, need to be kept out of Mariko-chan's presence for the foreseeable future.

Still the mission would have been complete.

Evidence could just as easily be shifted against the traitor Fukushima whether the girl witnessed her consort's murder first-hand or woke up to discover his corpse.

The task is now more difficult. The heir of the Chosen One will not be easily swayed back onto the Honor Path with an unbroken heart.

Sensei's disappointment in Hirotaka aside, what truly bothered him was the explanation the ninja had given. Upon hearing it, the old man had felt as if he was sinking through the floor. Although brief, the sensation was overwhelming and its resonances clouded the remainder of the call and were still being felt.

Sensei was well acquainted with shock, and this was not it. There was a certainty with shock, a solidity upon which one could rest his spoiled ambitions and hang his remorse. Shock was fact, not mystery.

Some mysteries were easily explained. For a period of some weeks the previous year, Sensei had kept discovering his v-phone lying in odd places in the dwelling, spots he knew he had never left the device. He soon realized that Rina-chan had been sneaking inside when he was gone and rifling through his possessions. In fact, he had walked in on the girl as she was hiding the phone within a stack of dirty bowls. He had come inches from snatching the traitor up by her hair when she inexplicably evaded his grasp and ran from the dwelling.

However, the mystery Sensei now confronted was different, porous. Its only definitive trait was its corrosive nature, the certainty that more, much more would be taken before any firm ground could be regained. What made the mystery unendurable, however, was how it harkened back to the previous time Hirotaka had failed him.

A clouded moment of falling shadows and blue light in a pagoda, a moment that heralded a decade of loss.

The old man stood motionless, considering the few pathways left open to him. One by one they blinked out like flames in a vast cavern until only one remained lit, the one he least wanted to travel down. With the frayed cuffs of his robe, he wiped his eyes clear and looked toward the kusarigama displayed upon the wall. He sighed.

As experience had borne out, a broken heart was the ideal motivator. The only emotion that challenged it for prominence and, on some occasions, superseded it was love of family. Familial passion, after all, had been the cause of the Chosen One's revolt. Therefore, there was a chance that this same door could swing the other way to bring his daughter back into the fold.

Killing Stoppable-san was not a viable option. Not for the least reason that Sensei doubted Hirotaka could accomplish such a mission. And death, perhaps, wouldn't be necessary.

At least not a new death.

Of the few items that Sensei insisted Hirotaka retrieve from his personal chambers at Yamanouchi, the kusarigma had been the most vital. The ninja must have interpreted the weapon's value, the old man reasoned, to be merely sentimental in nature. The sheer length of the sickle-headed staff-two meters, a full meter longer than a traditional kusarigama—made it rather impractical for someone of Sensei's stature to wield. However, sentiment did not play any role in its inherent value.

Sensei clapped his palms together sharply, but nothing happened. He repeated the motion, and this time the dwelling's artificial lighting dimmed accordingly. Midday sunlight from the doorway jumbled shadows about his person, and he approached the low table positioned directly under the kusarigama.

As he lit the candles standing on opposite sides of the table, Sensei reflected with some sadness on the length of time that had passed since he had last performed these gestures. However, this wistfulness was quickly dispersed when he recalled that the ceremony had last been observed for Rina-chan's benefit.

Hirotaka had informed him that the girl had been adopted by an American family and had recently opened up her own dojo. In Middleton. The same town that Fukushima, the other great traitor, was now pursuing a career in law.

Their shadows, recognizable even when his back was turned, suddenly appeared in his doorway, but he did not deign to turn and face their mocking expressions. These betrayers would soon face justice.

Although he had been prepared for the kusarigama's extreme weight, it still proved cumbersome as he lifted it from its supports. So much so that its sickle nearly knocked over one of the candlesticks before he could bring it safely to the table's surface. After a minute to regain his breath, Sensei unscrewed the weighted cap at the staff's base and placed it on the table. Gingerly, he inserted his fingers into the hollowed center of the cylinder and carefully extracted the tightly wound scrolls hidden within. With intense concentration, he unrolled the brittle and discolored documents and spread them across the floor.

The duty of transcribing the registry onto new scrolls and burning the old was a practice Sensei had neglected during the years of exile. Since the Yamanouchi he had known had ceased to exist, the tradition seemed pointless. The scrolls had ceased to be living documents; there were no more names to add. Yellowing with age became their sole purpose.

As he smoothed the top leaf flat with his hand, his eyes disdainfully tripped over the names near the bottom—the names of initiates like Rina-chan who had betrayed their sense of Honor. Although most had not abandoned the school like she, they had all abandoned him and, hence, Honor by continuing their education at the feet of the usurper Yamamoto-san.

Sensei's mood improved as his eyes scanned the honorable names closer to the top of the sheet. The old man grew wistful as he traced his finger across the scroll, following the history of favorite pupils. Near the far edge of the sheet were listed the dates of their Initiations. It went without saying that these were successful Initiations. Those students who failed were not listed—their names as forgotten as their unmarked graves. From left to right, the scroll cataloged their progress: milestones in their formative training, their finals, missions completed, and all the honorable sacrifices they contributed in the lamentably few years most of his prodigies had lived.

What Sensei had decided to do was unprecedented, and parts of him were still fighting strongly against it.

"Why did you not complete the mission?" he bitterly asked the v-phone across the floor. The same insufferable bow was his answer.

To impart any of the information inscribed in the registry to another living soul, even a successor, was strictly forbidden. Tradition allowed masters only to reveal the fact of the scrolls' existence and their secret location to the chosen acolyte—preferably just prior to the master's death.

Yet, he was preparing to show these very sheets to an individual who was not presently even a ninja.

Yet, if he did not take such a drastic step, there could be no successor. Only the intercession of the Lotus Blade could reclaim Yamanouchi now. Otherwise, Honor and the true traditions of the school would not survive his death.

The more Sensei thought on it, the less the reservations claimed him, and the more confident he became that the remaining path was the correct one.

There was a simplicity and elegance to the plan. Sensei found it especially fitting because it permitted Yori, from beyond the grave, a chance to serve Honor one more time.

Once Mariko-chan saw the registry, the girl's love and pride for her mother would prove sufficient to right her destiny.

Mariko-chan could not spurn such a triumph-filled legacy.

As he raised yet another chocolate to his lips and rolled its wrapper into yet another tight ball, Sensei experienced, however briefly, a moment of serenity.

The girl will trace her own destiny in the footsteps of her mother.

He carelessly dropped it. The glittering mote fell through the darkening air until it reached the earth where, compelled by both gravity and the slant to the floor's igneous surface, it joined its fellows in a dingy heap of refuse in the corner.

The honored footsteps of the kunoichi who had defeated Kim Possible.


To be continued

Note: The tone of the Kim/Justy scenes was greatly influenced by the song "By Your Side" by Beechwood Sparks.