"Alright then," Director responded cordially, in acknowledgement that she had pushed the conversation as far as she dared. She stood up. "Thank you for the microfiche. I can assure you that your part in its disappearance and subsequent recovery will not make it into any reports. And we'll get right to work on the analysis." She moved towards the door and motioned to Kim and Ron, who stood up and followed. "I'd best see you out myself. The new security systems are, as you saw, rather ornery."
She led them back down the corridor in silence.
The pneumatic tubes delivered them back to the hotel garage. After ascending to the lobby they hesitated, shaken by the conclusion of the conversation with Dr. Director. They stood by the elevator bank for a moment looking around awkwardly, each aware of the other's uncertainty.
Then Kim made a decision. Leaning in, she cupped Ron's chin and gave him a soft kiss. He blinked twice. She wrapped her arms around him and squeezed him to her. To her great relief he responded by returning the hug and holding her tight, his right hand slowly moving up and down her back. For a moment they just felt each others' warmth.
Kim could feel tears behind her eyelids – prompted by anger at Betty, concern for Ron, and fear for his reaction to the GJ director's provocation. Not wanting him to see her struggling to hold back the tears, she held Ron tighter.
Kim finally broke the clinch after opening her eyes to see a number of the hotel's clients and staff watching this odd couple by the elevator bank. She sniffed and gave her face a quick wipe.
"Listen, Ron," she said, her hands now around his waist as she looked him in the eyes. "I don't know where Betty was getting all that from. If you want to talk about it now, we can. But we don't have to. Maybe we need a break from talking. We've got the rest of the day here in Hong Kong, and I say we make the most of it. We can talk later. What do you think?"
The look of relief on Ron's face was all the answer she needed. "Okay then," she said. "I've gotta go check my face. Meet you back here in five."
Ron, lost in thought, rubbed the back of his neck as he watched her go.
They did their best to enjoy the remaining time in Hong Kong. There was the obligatory trip to The Peak, with Ron barely keeping down his breakfast as the tram pulled them up the slope at a 45 degree angle and Kim teased him about how lucky it was that Mr. Baggy Pants wasn't at the bottom. At the top they admired the view of Kowloon and Victoria Harbor, and reveled in the kitschy atmosphere of the mountaintop dining options, with their over-the-top efforts to telegraph oriental splendor. (Rufus, of course, was disappointed repeatedly at Kim and Ron's inexcusable casualness in batting around the word "cheesy.")
After descending they spent some time strolling through the downtown, window shopping at the jewelry, clothes, and sports cars. Periodically the heat and humidity would prompt them to take a break and they would find a café or coffee shop in which to sit, relax, and watch the improbably stylish residents of the city go about their business.
Despite the leisurely feeling to the day, the two were subdued. They chit-chatted about what they were seeing, or where they might go next, but other natural topics – work, their friends back in Vietnam, plans for the next week or the next vacation – didn't sustain the conversation.
This tanks, thought Ron, as he sipped a fruit juice at a café they had chosen. Kim was usually so energetic and forward-looking, always talking about big plans, whatever they might be. But today, every time he tried to lead her into conversation about anything like that, she gently redirected them back to the topic of the moment – some guy's tie, some lady's handbag, where they were, what they would do next. It was pleasant, but it wasn't really Kim.
Kim could also feel the awkwardness. Poor Ron, she thought, as she pushed back gently against his efforts to engage her. She appreciated what he was trying to do – pretend that everything was normal, that they were just newlyweds on a vacation in Hong Kong, soon to go back to work and the old routine – but everything wasn't normal. A man had just died in front of them, and now Dr. Director had introduced the horrible idea that, in some way, Ron was complicit, or even entirely to blame. Meanwhile her job was at risk, their future plans were in jeopardy, and a world which had been fundamentally predictable, if frequently bizarre, had been irreversibly knocked off its axis. She was trying not to dwell on it, not to brood, but she didn't really want to think about the future. Where once there had been a clear path to success, to family, to happiness, now there seemed to be numerous competing paths, with many dead-ending in darkness rather than opening out into light. So she did not really want to talk about the long-term; she just really wanted the sightseeing to be distraction enough for the both of them.
Realizing how melodramatic her inner monologue was getting, and catching sight of Ron eyeing her, she put on a cheerful face, pulled out the map, and drew him into a discussion of the next destination in their walking tour.
Their day finally ended at the Temple Street night market, where they pushed through the crowds to wander among the stalls and kiosks. They admired the vast range of goods for sale – cheap men's clothes, bootleg CDs and DVDs by the thousands, knockoff Kitty-Kat Hello watches, and a thousand other products – but, knowing they could get similar in Vietnam, negotiated for fun over only a few items.
Meanwhile, Ron took it as a personal challenge to sample as many of the food stalls as he could. Perfectly at home pointing and gesturing, he worked his way through a vast smorgasbord of fish balls, mushroom skewers wrapped in beef, deep fried squid, and endless varieties of dumplings. Kim sampled a bit here and there, but mostly just observed in awe her husband's herculean dining efforts, and drew reassurance from the fact that, if nothing else, he still had a traditional Stoppabilian appetite. The press and murmur of the crowds combined with the muggy air and the smoke from dozens of grills to make the young couple feel like they were being infused with the atmosphere of the city.
Finally, sated with street food, soaked through from the humidity, and yawning so much they could barely see, let alone speak, they retreated to the hotel and their room.
Ron paused to gently place Rufus in his improvised burrow in a drawer, and dumped his pockets on the dresser. Something sticking out of his wallet caught his eye. Stefan Abt's business card. He looked at it for a moment, then tucked it back in and turned to face Kim.
Still in her street clothes, she was stretched out on the bed. He lay down next to her, feeling the chill of the air conditioning as it blew across his damp clothes and hair. The smell of Hong Kong clung to them, a not unpleasant mix of smoke, sweat, and garlic.
Ron turned his head to the right and regarded Kim's profile. So beautiful, he thought, admiring her perfect skin, the slightly upturned nose, the red hair, still stunning despite being rather frizzy from the humidity.
He also noted the dark circles under her eyes and some fine stress lines around the corner of her mouth.
Kim felt his eyes on her and turned to face him. She took in the playful eyebrows, the freckles still faintly visible on his cheeks, the blonde stubble lining his jaw. She also observed a concerned look in his warm brown eyes.
"Well, whaddaya think?" he asked, by way of an opening move. King's Gambit, he thought to himself. He wasn't sure he really wanted to talk, anyway – he'd always found it easier to just put the scary stuff aside, if given the choice – but Betty's comments earlier had really shaken him, and he didn't think he could avoid it either. Plus, he wanted to know what Kim thought.
"About what?" she replied.
King's Gambit declined! Dang!
"Oh, I don't know…. You know, stuff."
"Stuff?" She raised an eyebrow and smiled.
Boo-yah. The Dodo Gambit, for disarming your opponent. "Yeah, you know. It's been quite a couple of days. Yapsby…Barkin… the Ambo…last night…Betty today." Me. I want to know what you're thinking about me.
Kim turned her head back to the ceiling and sighed, then rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands.
"I don't know, Ron," she replied, speaking in the direction of the ceiling. "I guess I've been avoiding talking about it because if we talk about it we might have to decide to do something about it, and I'm not sure I'm ready for that."
She turned her head to look at him again. Noticing his perplexed expression, she reached over with her hand and gently played with his hair a few times, smoothing down his cowlick and stroking the back of his head.
"I feel all mixed up inside. All the plans we made suddenly seem so…fragile." Turning onto her back again, she put both hands behind her head. "Even if you forget about Yapsby…and I doubt we ever will, well, there are so many questions. Let's start with the obvious one. What if I can't stay in the Foreign Service? I mean, an Ambassador nearly got killed because an old foe of ours – a pretty minor one, really, may God forgive me for speaking ill of the dead – decided to come after us. I'm a walking security risk. And even if we say, ok, no big deal, I'll get another job, what if I can'thave a normal job? Who's going to hire me if supervillains keep threatening to turn my coworkers into hamburger?"
Ron, just slightly paralyzed by Kim's suddenly opening up in this way, listened and watched. At this point she seemed to be talking to herself more than anything.
"Okay, yeah, GJ would love to have me," she went on. "Fine. Not what I want to do, but at least it's something. I just never really saw myself as going into law enforcement. I mean, do I have to be an Olympic gymnast just because I was a standout cheerleader in high school?
"And that's just the stuff about me! What about you?" She rolled onto her back and began talking to the ceiling again. "Just because Yapsby dies all of a sudden you're some kind of – I don't know what! What does she think you should have done? Is your monkey power supposed to be all-knowing and just independently direct itself to save a guy from his own monster spiders? I mean, the fact that we even have to have this discussion just makes me so mad at Betty. I know that you're a good soul, Ron. A complicated one," and she looked back at him, "with mystical powers of life and death, to be sure – but not someone who stands by and lets people die."
Kim thought further. "Meanwhile, as my career tanks…you could have a career. You had a lot of opportunities. But I dragged you off to southeast Asia for this job, and your reward for that is flipping burgers at the Embassy caf and being accused by the head of Global Justice of … manslaughter."
Ron's paralysis ended abruptly when he decided he'd heard enough. "Okay, that's it. To paraphrase a very wise man I know, this pity fiesta is over."
Kim smiled slightly, but Ron was rolling on.
"First of all, sure, we've had a run of bad luck, with villains – including ones we were pretty sure were literally petrified and permanently entombed in mystical monkey temples – cropping up every time we turn around. But our luck's gotta change. We don't have to stay involved in the Drakken thing – GJ can handle it. Or not. Maybe there'll be more baddies, and we'll defeat 'em – like we always do – and maybe, even so, you can stay with State. Or maybe they kick you out. Fine. We'll burn that bridge when we come to it."
"I'll admit, what Betty said freaked me out. I'm still trying to grasp it. But I've never been totally in control of the monkey powers. Which, by the way, Betty, don't let me tell the future, or help me just guess that the guy who's threatening to have his giant spiders eat me is about to get caught…"
He couldn't help himself, but as the words were about to form on his lips, he smiled slightly at the metaphor he had innocently chosen…. Oh my god, he thought, Kim's going to think I'm some kind of monster. He tried to control the smile but failed.
"Get caught in his own web," finished Kim. She, too, was smiling.
Suddenly the two of them erupted into laughter as the pent-up tension of the day, and their state of utter exhaustion, came together. For a few minutes they were shaking on the bed in hooting paroxysms of guilty, shameful, soul-cleansing laughter.
"Oh my god," Kim gasped when she could breathe again. "We are terrible, terrible people. I'm so on the bus to hell."
"Well then," replied Ron, "I'm driving."
They laughed a little more.
He thought of the business card he'd been looking at earlier.
"Oh, and by the way, I could still have a career, thank you very much. Just the other day, at the reception for Mr. B., some hotel guy from Hanoi offered me a job. A good one, too. So, just because I choose -"
"What?" Kim suddenly sat up and stared at Ron. "You got a job offer?"
"Well, you don't have to act so surprised," Ron said, a slightly hurt expression on his face. "You're not the only one with a worldwide reputation, I guess. Besides, you don't have to worry, I wasn't going to take it, I only-"
"You should take it," Kim said, determinedly.
"-wanted you to…what? You…I…enh?" Ron drew back slightly, and sat up. "You want me to take it? What part of 'it's in Hanoi' didn't you get?"
"Ron! This is huge! I mean, it makes perfect sense! Listen, my career – gosh, listen to me, 'my career,' like I have a career – is probably in the toilet, or could wind up there any day. And you've got an opportunity right here in Vietnam to pursue yours? Well, one of us at least ought to have at least some form of employment, don't you think? Fine, you'd be in Hanoi. We've done it before, during college, and it's not like working couples don't commute between Middleton and Go City, or DC and New York. We don't have kids, or even a pet, so it could totally work."
Ron stared at her, agape, trying to wrap his brain around what she was proposing. Commuting?
Kim didn't pause. Now she was up on her knees on the bed, looking into the middle distance as she spun out the idea. "It could really work out! I'll do the best I can in Saigon to impress – and I'll be able to work really long hours and be super productive. Meanwhile, you can get back into the chef game in Hanoi! We'll be with each other on the weekends." She turned back to him and smiled broadly. "It's so not the drama."
Ron was astonished by the change in Kim's demeanor. The dour look and anxious tone had vanished entirely, and suddenly she was all energy and enthusiasm.
"Been a long time since I've heard you say that, KP," he said, smiling back. "There's been a lot of drama lately."
"I know, Ron! So maybe this is just what we need to get things moving again. If it doesn't work out – if we don't like it – we can always switch it up, or figure something else out. But why shouldn't we give it a try?"
Ron thought about it, and mentally ran through his misgivings. He did not like the idea of being away from Kim again, after all the years apart when she was in France and he in England. Particularly with Drakken and Shego on the warpath.
Also, he was freaked out by the implications of Betty's take on his monkey power.
He couldn't be entirely sure she was entirely wrong.
Still, he had to admit that he was eager to do something with the culinary skills he had invested in for all those years – and he was simply relieved to see Kim excited and positive about something, after her mood of the last few days. The last thing he wanted to do now was bring her back down.
"Well, okay then, KP." He looked at her very seriously. "If you really thing this is a good idea, then I'm game too. Why don't we sleep on it, and if you're still all for it in the morning – then we'll do it. Take our chances and just see what happens…."
Kim smiled widely and hugged him, then sniffed, wrinkling her nose at the eau d'Hong Kong that clung to them. "Eww. We stink."
Ron sniffed the air theatrically. "Actually, KP, I'm fresh as roses. You stink."
He never saw the pillow coming.
Ron woke up suddenly, though it was still dark in the room. A quick exploration with a leg and an arm revealed that Kim was, once again, not in the bed. He glanced over at the clock and groaned. Barely 3am.
They had gone to sleep actually in a pretty good mood, after a rip-roaring pillow fight, a good scrub, and some quality time cuddling. It was clear that Kim hadn't felt like anything more serious than that, so they had just spooned a while and drifted off to sleep together. Ron's last thought before sleep took him was him wondering whether they would sleep through the night.
He lay in the bed quietly for a moment. Were those voices? Yes, definitely. Kim's, loud and clear coming from the balcony, and another voice, quieter. He got out of bed and walked over to the balcony.
"Monique, c'mon, you're my friend, back me up here."
"Just 'cuz I'm your friend doesn't mean I'm your yes-girl!"
Ron pushed the curtain aside slightly and peeked out. Kim was sitting on one of the balcony chairs, her tiny laptop in front of her, chatting with Monique.
"You really think it's a bad idea?" Kim asked.
Ron slowly let the curtain slide back into place but continued to stand there, listening. I shouldn't be doing this. This is how husbands get in trouble.
"I don't know, Kim! It just seems like a lot of weird stuff is going on, and this is the moment you choose to split up Team Possible?"
"Split up Team Possible?" Kim made a "pshaw" noise. "What are you talking about? He's just a short plane ride away. It's not like he's moving to, I don't know, Norway or something."
"Yeah," said Monique, "but he might as well be if something nasty goes down. But forget about that - you guys are basically newlyweds but you're going to be apart most of the time! That won't be a lot of fun."
"C'mon, Monique, be reasonable. We're not going to be in Vietnam forever, maybe not very long at this rate, if they kick me out for being a trouble magnet. In the meantime Ron can follow his own dream for a while. What's wrong with that?"
There was a pause. Ron could imagine Monique cocking her eyebrow and giving Kim a skeptical look.
"And what about what Dr. Director said?"
"Well, what about it?" Kim sounded exasperated.
"What do you mean, 'what about it'? Don't mess around here, Kim. What do you think?"
There was a long pause.
Ron held his breath.
"I…I don't know, Mon. I mean, I know that Ron would never ever willingly hurt someone, really. That's just not who he is. And still…"
Ron was sure Kim could hear the pounding of his heart during the ensuing silence.
"There so much about his powers I just don't understand. Don't get me wrong, I think Betty's insinuations are a load of BS. But nobody - including Ron - really knows just what's going on under the hood. I haven't figured out what to do about it." She paused. "Sometimes I wonder if maybe Ron needs to go back to Yamanouchi for a while, see what he can discover about himself."
"I did what I did during high school and college - the world-saving, I mean - because I had the skills and it seemed like the right thing to do. But it wasn't some kind of heavy mystical destiny. Ron…Ron's got ancient idol-given monkey powers, a magic sword, and a little sister who is herself a mystical creature. What if he's the one with the destiny?"
Ron could hear Monique sigh. "Girl, that is definitely some heavy shit you're dealing with right now…. Ok, ok, I still don't think it's the best idea you've ever had, but if any lovebirds could handle a long-distance commute, it's you two. Now, I've gotta get back to work. Hugs to the Monkey Boy, and don't wait so long to call next time, ok?"
Ron quietly crept back to the bed while Kim said goodbye. He pretended to be asleep when she crawled in next to him.
This time he drifted off fairly quickly.
Which didn't make it any less painful to suddenly be woken by the Kimmunicator's familiar four-tone beep.
Ron rolled over and looked at Kim, who groaned as she reached for the nightstand. She activated the Kimmunicator and immediately Wade's holographically generated features appeared in mid-air over the device.
"Gemini is in Hong Kong."