Hello, everyone! I'm back!
I know I've been away for a shamefully long time, but for that you can blame the public school system and the lack of new episodes in my favorite fandoms. So I did what any sane writer would do when the going gets tough -- get hooked on a completely new fandom while I wait for the old ones to revive. So here it is, my first ever Kim Possible story. I don't know if it's in character or out, if it's good or bad, or anything else; but it made me happy to write. The rest, dear reader, is for you to decide.
Important Stuff: In this story Kim and Ron are older, in college. I wouldn't mention it, except that I don't think it's as obvious as I'd hoped, and I couldn't find a good place to work it in. So know that they're older than canon. Also, the quotes from and references to Noyes' The Highwayman are completely gratuitous; I've just been obsessed with that poem lately.
Disclaimer: If it seems familiar, it isn't mine.
Thanks for reading, and enjoy!
The moon sat low and full just above the horizon, flooding the streets of Middleton with mercurial light. Shopfronts and windows, all locked and barred, glittered opaquely as though to shield their secrets from any prying eye; the streets, crosshatched by the shadows of trees, seemed to resemble the cobblestone boulevards of another time, and as the trees were ruffled by the cold midnight breeze, all the surfaces seemed to shimmer and blur. The streetlights blazed in pinpoints to answer the stars. The moonlight was reflected from the glaze of ice starting to form on eaves and gutters, and the January frost forming on suburban lawns lay undisturbed by footsteps.
It was a night to transcend time, to share secrets, to kiss and murder and steal. It was a night to frame stories with; the moonlight and the frost, creeping together over the somnambulant city, left behind them only the darkness of the grave and the silver of the surreal. One could almost imagine phantoms walking abroad, moaning the losses of long-ago loves, or carrying out doomed missions which they had been condemned to pursue for all eternity. It was a night to infect the human imagination, when it was all too easy to imagine a fanged face in every reflection, a moving silhouette in every shadow.
There was, in fact, a shadowy silhouette abroad in the otherwise-peaceful suburban night. An observer, if there had been an observer willing to brave the chilling snow-edged wind, might have caught sight of it slipping over fences and through backyards, worming through holes in hedges, even running full-tilt through a back alley with a barking terrier hard on its heels. Then, as if the terrier hadn't been insult enough, the mysterious shape tumbled out into the full glare of a blazing streetlight, all ninja-like mystique evaporating at once, leaving behind only an utterly unthreatening blond cowlick and an unmysterious pair of depthless dark eyes.
Ron Stoppable groaned, levering himself back onto his feet and leaning against the streetlight which had so rudely robbed him of his hard-earned sneakiness. He paused a moment to catch his breath and composure, then set off again through the bitterly cold Middleton night, this time at a much more regular walk. "I hate this," he murmured, apparently to the empty night. "I can never sneak anywhere, can I? Kim makes it look so easy!"
There was no other waking person around for miles, but a high-pitched squeak answered Ron's lament; a naked pink head poked out of his front pocket, flashing wide, sharp, shovel-bladed rodent teeth. "Huh-huh, Kim," Rufus chortled, as Ron reached down and picked him up around the middle, depositing him instead on the shoulder of the pitch-black mission shirt that still fit Ron's lean frame after several years.
"Yeah, Kim," Ron agreed, the frustration and anger gone from his voice. They walked in silence for a moment, man and rodent lost in their separate thoughts; they strolled out of the town proper and were nearly at the edge of the suburbs, where civilization gave way to unplowed fields and forests, before Ron broke the meditative calm.
He stopped on the ridge of a hill that sloped gently down into frost-gilded fields and stood with his hands in his pockets, suddenly serious, all merriment gone. "Kim," he said again, almost longingly, his breath steaming out in a glittering cloud; "Kim," he sighed, as though voicing a prayer of exquisite beauty to outmatch the stars. Rufus, riding on his shoulder with one steadying paw holding onto his protruding ear, nodded solemnly; amen. There was another beat of silence, then Ron reached up and lifted Rufus from his high perch, setting him down on the frostbitten ground.
"Listen, buddy, this is important," he said solemnly, crouched down to address the little rodent; Rufus stood on his hind legs and stiffened his spine, throwing his owner an impeccable military salute. "This is a vital mission, little buddy, the most important we've ever seen," Ron continued, his eyes stormy, his voice set in stone. "This is it, what we've been training and waiting for all these years. The ultimate sitch. And your part is the most important one of all. Are you ready?"
"Huh, yup-yup!" Rufus squealed, his narrow chest puffed out, his clawed paw still head stiffly to his forehead in a position of attention. Ron nodded approvingly, a hint of fierce pride touching his features.
"Excellent. All right, soldier, here is your mission; go back to the house and guard Kim."
Rufus wilted immediately, his paw dropping back to his side, his eyes growing wide and pleading and disappointed. His message was plain; he'd wanted to be part of the action, to go out and fight on the front lines in this ultimate sitch, to be at the forefront of the charge to triumph, and now his mission was to go back and sit in safety while his dearest friend risked his life? He looked hurt, and if the slant of his large eyes hadn't been enough, he placed a paw to his heart and squeaked distressingly.
Ron held up a hand to forestall the protests, shaking his head frantically. "No, Rufus, you don't understand!" he insisted, but the mole rat's only response was to turn away, clearly inviting his human friend to talk to the tail.
This was mutiny, the final insult; a hint of steel crept into Ron's eyes, the last traces of goofiness disappeared from his features, and he stood, raising himself to his full height, looming in the night with the fierceness of a warrior king and the determination of a Zombie Mayhem champion. He bent down and lifted the mole rat by the nape of his neck; Rufus scuffled and squealed, but he was unable to free himself as Ron dropped him onto the broad plain of his palm, raising him up so that human and rodent eyes locked across a distance of a few inches, and silent war was waged in the winter night.
Size had nothing to do with it. After a few moments Rufus wilted, not because Ron could have crushed him if he wished, but because he could see in the man's eyes that this was a matter of life and death, this really was the ultimate sitch, and it was Kim Possible, no less, who was at stake; and Rufus had seen what had happened to those unlucky few who came between Ron Stoppable and the woman he loved.
"Private Rufus," Ron barked, and the mole rat felt himself straightening up almost instinctively, saluting with even more fierceness, as though to apologize for his former mutiny. "You have been given your assignment, and you will carry it out. This is war, soldier, and I will not have insubordination in the ranks! Do you understand?"
"Sir, yes, sir!" Rufus squealed, the fanatical fires of devotion kindling in his tiny heart. He loved Ron, and he loved Kim, and this was bigger than any glory or reward. This was war.
"That's more like it," Ron growled approvingly, and lowered Rufus gently to the ground again before straightening up and continuing issuing orders from his exalted height. "You will return to the home base and guard Kim with your life. You will protect her from all villains, vandals, and other threats. You will fulfill your duty as a solder, you will not try to contact me, and most importantly, you will not tell Kim about this mission. Private Rufus! Do you understand?"
"Sir, yes, sir!"
"Good." Ron's eyes softened, the spring-coiled tension went out of his frame, and he was his lanky, lazy self again. "I know it's hard, Rufus, but you can't come with me this time," he said gently, looking out across the field and up at the vaulted sky. "It's too risky. There's no other way; I have to do this alone, and someone has to watch out for Kim while I'm gone. Okay?" He knelt down again, running his finger over Rufus' bald skull, stroking him gently. The little rodent nodded, but twittered unhappily and reached up, grabbing Ron's finger and pulling it into a tight embrace. "I know, little guy, I know," Ron sighed, "But this is too important to take chances." He gently pulled his finger free and stood up, throwing a salute which Rufus quickly returned. "Go home and wait for me," he ordered; but instead of scampering off as he had expected, Rufus stretched out in the grass, feigning sleep, then poked his head up and rubbed his eyes, as though waking. He leaped back to his feet and started chattering urgently, questioningly, asking for orders.
"If Kim wakes up?" Ron paused, obviously contemplating catastrophes that hadn't previously crossed his mind. Finally he shrugged, his expression turning gloomy, clouded. "Do what you can. It won't really matter. If I'm not back by the time Kim wakes up, then all of this will have been for nothing."
Rufus wilted again, his very whiskers drooping at the thought, but Ron snapped his fingers, bringing the mole rat's attention back to the matter at hand. "I trust you to handle any unexpected setbacks, soldier. Now! Atten-shun!"
"Hup!" Rufus snapped to attention again, spine straight and whiskers stiff with pride in his duty and his commanding officer.
Rufus whirled around, facing back into the Middleton suburbs, and at Ron's signal started to march, awkward and animated on two legs, his tiny footsteps cracking the forming frost like the barest patter of raindrops in the silence. Then he was gone, and Ron stood on the starlit hill alone.
He stood for a moment, watching the minute shadow as it gave up walking, and scampered back through the golden puddle of a streetlight; then, when he was satisfied that his orders were being carried out, he slipped his hand into his pocket, pulling out a well-worn and lovingly-repaired blue handheld computer. He thumbed the button in the center, grinning down at the lean, potentially-handsome adolescent face that appeared on the screen, staring back at him in apparent shock.
"Ron?" Wade's voice, just starting to deepen with the onslaught of puberty, echoed tinnily through thumbtack speakers. "How did you get this frequency? I thought we were using the new Ronunicator."
"We were," Ron agreed, "but then I decided that it was better to go old school on this mission. It just… seemed right, you know?"
"Yeah," Wade agreed, already slipping into mission-mode, "I know." He leaned out of the frame for a frantic moment, typing something on some unseen monitor, and then swung back into view, stony-faced and grim, ready for anything. Anything is possible. "Your ride's coming in for a landing right now, Ron," he said solemnly, and sure enough the faint velvety whine of hypersonic engines was starting to echo in the night. "I'll lose you once you get up in the air; this old machine wasn't built to handle those kinds of speeds. It screws up the transmission. Anything last-minute info?"
"I sent Rufus back to the house to guard Kim," Ron told the screen, noticing already the faint fuzzes of static at the edges of Wade's face as the radiation of the approaching engines started to scramble the signal. "I'm in this one alone. Wish me luck, dude."
"Good luck, Ron," Wade answered immediately, knowing he had only seconds of ungarbled dialogue left. "You'll need it." He held up a fist to the screen, a gesture of solidarity. "You're bugged and wired, all mic'd and camera'd up. I'm here for you, man." The screen hissed, fizzled, and went black; Ron sighed and slipped it back into his pocket as the hypersonic jet descended from the stars like an avenging angel, sleek and black as pitch, billowing the grass and trees around it with the force currents from its turbines. It came to a feather-light landing in the fields beyond the sprawl of Middleton; Ron paused only a moment before starting towards it, his hand wrapped around the old Kimmunicator in his pocket, his thoughts following Rufus back through the midnight streets towards Kim.
Kim. It was all for Kim. He was going into the abyss, where all men fear to tread, all and only for Kim.
He climbed into the cargo hold of the top-secret military jet, steeling himself for battle; he was armed with a grappling gun, a plan drawn out in stick figures, several million dollars' worth of state-of-the-art surveillance technology, his charm, his good looks, and his luck.
He only hoped it would be enough.
The roar of departing jet engines faded into Kim Possible's dreams.
… and the moon was a ghostly galleon tossed on cloudy seas…
She stirred slightly, unwilling to be dragged from the demulcent depths of sleep, trying to stay mired in the dark hollows of her dreams. She dug her fingers into her pillow as though fighting for purchase in her own unconsciousness, and had almost managed to drift off again when a cold gust of wind blew across her bare shoulders, sending ice down her nerves and jerking her all of the rest of the way into wakefulness. She groaned something that might have been a curse, squeezing her eyes tight shut mostly out of spite; but the brush of snow-edged cold came again and she was forced to move, twisting to pull the blankets up over her shoulders, reaching out blindly for the warmth of her boyfriend beside her –
-- and finding nothing. Her hands beat ineffectually at empty air and rumpled sheets, just blank white space where the warm solid bulk of Ron should have been. She opened her eyes, squinting into the glare of the moonlight streaming in through the open window, and sure enough the other half of the bed was empty (achingly, disappointingly empty); Kim made a half-muffled noise that might have been a growl, because she was tired and cold and she desperately wanted Ron to be there and be close and be warm, and she wasn't awake enough to think far beyond that.
It didn't occur to her to worry or be scared; over the twenty years she had known him she had gotten used to Ron's midnight snacking, and the last time she'd gotten angry and shouted at him for abandoning her in the middle of the night, he'd whipped out one of his infernal calculators (she swore he had a stash hidden somewhere) and deduced, by the light of the open fridge, the odds of him being in the kitchen versus him being kidnapped, beaten, captured or otherwise in danger. The odds, though higher than normal, had still been reassuringly low, and for him that had been the end of the matter.
Besides, she could hear Rufus chattering somewhere nearby, and if Rufus was around and unperturbed that meant Ron was safe. With a disappointed sigh and a mental promise to get back at him in the morning, Kim rolled over, pulled the blanket tighter around herself against the icy winter night, and drifted back to sleep.
She didn't see Rufus slipping in from the darkened hallway, climbing up the bedpost and leaping to the windowsill, from whence he firmly shut and latched the window, locking the worst of the midnight chill from the room. From there he retired to the desk in the corner of the room, muttering under his breath about keys and locks and grappling hooks and other unintelligible rodent things. When several minutes passed and Kim didn't stir again, he dared take his eyes off her sleeping form long enough to look out into the gaze of the jealous moon; his little rodent imagination painted jet planes winging across it. "Be careful," he whimpered, but only silence answered him. He sighed once, and then he simply sat like some guardian gargoyle, straddling the border between the danger of the outside world and the flimsy fragility of Kim Possible's dreams.
This is it. Life or death. Now or never, or forever. The ultimate sitch.
Ron ran his hand over the parachute harness one last time, tugging at buckles, cinching a loose strap, testing ties and gathering his nerves. The interior of the jet flickered and shuddered with low lightning-flash swamp-light, as the industrial-strength wires cut in and out with the ebb and surge of the turbine roar. His feet were firmly planted on the sheet metal that formed the floor, but even so, he imagined he could feel the vast reaches of rushing empty space down beneath him, and nothing but a pair of paper wings, a bell of striped cloth, between himself and a plummeting oblivion…
Breathe. Parachute-jumping was nothing, he'd done it a hundred gazillion times before, to the point where parachute-jumping to high school had been almost easier than taking the bus, and definitely easier than riding his rickety, tremor-wracked wreck of a scooter.
A smile touched his face at the thought, and there was a warm golden moment of memory – the scooter, and old Middleton High, the Mad Dog costume and the college applications and the first few months of Kim as his girlfriend, when kissing her had been like a blast of voltage to the brain and he spent most of his days in a delirious daze (the wonder and daze was still there, he'd just learned to function through it now). Then one of the light bulbs above his head shorted out with a particularly violent snap, and the brief burst of sparks shocked him back to himself (pun intended). The shadows of top-secret crates and canisters leaped and shivered at him from the ill-lit corners of the cargo hold, and he ran his hands over the straps of the parachute again, nervously, fighting down the faint sickness that came with the thought of falling and falling and falling and the parachute not opening in time…
His paranoid delusions were cut short by a rumbling, grating voice from the cockpit, like stones crashing together over the loudspeaker, like the grinding of gears: "Approaching drop point, Mr. Stoppable. Prepare to jump." There was a moment of deafening noise, indeterminate clanking, and then the voice returned, growling, "Good luck; all of us at the base are pulling for you," and then the great metal door slid back and Ron was falling, falling, plummeting and tumbling through the endless reaches of empty space.
Thankfully the parachute opened when he pulled the cord; there was a single suspended breathless moment, as the billows of cloth filled out and jerked him out of his plummeting freefall, when Ron hung motionless above the blooming myriad lights of the city spread out below him, red and green and gold like a handful of luminous sand spread out on the dark waters, like a mirror distortion of the stars.
Then he was falling again, albeit less violently, and his whole mind was taken up by the cold of the upper atmosphere, the pressure of the harness, and the delicate business of picking out one rooftop from the light-hazy thousands, steering the great lumbering resistance of his parachute towards that one tiny square of darkness in the vast kaleidoscope of lights.
He drifted down, deafened by the rush of the falling miles and the wind in his ears, watching the single target rooftop growing larger and larger and rushing up to meet him, until he could feel the tips of his toes just grazing the asphalt on its surface; the parachute was starting to collapse in on itself, and it was with a certain regret that he hit the button on his chest that released it, leaving it to drift off into the night like some grand dandelion seed as he dropped to the asphalt, bruised his knees, and forced his momentum into a sideways roll. He ended up flat on his back, panting from the adrenaline and the exertion, staring up at the stars; he stayed like that until the pain in his knees subsided and he was sure there were no machine guns or enemy ninjas after him, at which point he gingerly raised himself to his feet, and started furtively towards the trap door on the rooftop's far side.
The light pollution from the city made all hazy; he moved across the roof in a half-crouch, his fingertips dragging on the asphalt until he could feel the telltale grooves of the trapdoor even through the thick black fabric of his gloves. He knelt beside the hidden entrance, pausing just long enough to slip the Kimmunicator out of his pocket and whisper, "Super-stealth mode, Wade; I'm going in," then he levered the trapdoor up from its moorings, dropped down into its depths (like a black hole with the implication of infinite space), and let the portal slam shut behind him.
While Ron crept through dusty hallways and catacomb-airducts, and while Kim slept, blissfully unaware, other forces were stirring. Wade Load, sitting in his bedroom with every chip and computer in the world at his fingertips, surrounded by his dead monitors like tombstones rubbed black by time and weather, was working frantically.
He tapped a myriad of messages, called up faces and files on various screens, studied them intently for a moment, then banished them back to the overload-oblivion from which they'd come. He kept strings of data spinning on feedback loops, repeating two hundred times a second, calibrating them carefully to vibrate in synch; he ran probability checks, satellite detection, security short-cuts on a dozen different bandwidths. He was the careful conductor of what amounted to an electronic symphony; and in the middle of it all, projected huge onto the blank wall in the place of honor, was a basic green-lined floor plan, with a blinking red dot weaving and wandering through it.
The dot was labeled with a large R, and every time it passed a crossroads several dotted lines darted out like inquisitive serpents, chasing possible and probable paths. All the while the red circle wound its way closer and closer to the goal; in the upper left-hand corner, a heavily guarded room containing a dubloon-golden X. In the lower left-hand corner, the screen flashed the legend, CODE NAME: ULTIMATE SITCH.
Wade leaned back from a hysterical bout of typing on one of his monitors, hitting the last key a bit harder than necessary, so that its clack rang out like a bell, signaling triumph. He leaned back in his chair for a moment, satisfied, before casting a glance at the large screen and swiveling around to face yet another computer. There was work to be done.
His nimble fingers, thin and calloused from years of computer-coaxing, darted out and entered rapid-fire codes, one after the other, like firework-explosions. "Ron?" he said aloud, his voice echoing strangely in the empty, angular room. "Can you hear me?"
He waited a moment, while undifferentiated static burst and crackled over an audio feed; then the white noise dissolved into a stage-whispered "Roger that," and Wade nodded, satisfied. He cut the audio feed with a slashing movement of the fingers like a guillotine falling, and then swung around to face yet another computer, which he likewise fed on passwords and parentheses until it obliged him with an image; the dark headlight-swept ceiling of a silent house. He hit a button and a loud ringing split the silence of the picture, projected through the speakers of the camera he was looking through, then caught in its microphones and echoed back to him, second- or third-hand vibrations…
The picture he was looking at suddenly tilted at a sharp angle, flashing away from the ceiling, framing instead the sleepy-eyed, dark-skinned face of Wade's secret weapon.
"Wade?" Monique's voice sounded blurry, bleary, and more than a little angry. "What the hell are you doing hijacking my cell phone at two in the morning?" There was a moment's pause and then the voice kicked in again, less angry and more panicked; "Is Kim okay? Is there some kind of mission going on? What's the sitch?"
"Relax, Monique! Kim's fine." Wade hesitated, unsure of how to phrase the situation in a way that wouldn't get him killed, but at his silence he saw Monique's eyes beginning to flash fury again and knew that he was probably going to get killed any way he put it. "Listen. Remember the mission you and Ron and I were talking about a few days ago? The one that Kim couldn't know about under any circumstances?" Receiving only a blank look and blank speakers, he tried again. "The one you wanted to kill him for, remember? The Ultimate Sitch?"
"The Ultimate… have you and Ron been hitting the zombie-smasher video games again? I swear, you –" the tirade stopped mid-word as something clicked in the depths of Monique's sleep-fogged brain. Wade watched with a sort of uneasy satisfaction as her eyes widened, the angle of the camera changing as she stood hastily, every Best Friend instinct shrilling and screaming inside of her skull. "Ron!" she gasped, sounding terrified and exhilarated all at once, as though she wasn't sure whether to scream or strangle someone but could put off the decision until later. "You let Ron go in there by himself? I told him, I made you both swear you wouldn't even consider it without backup! Without me! You let him go on your stupid 'Ultimate Sitch' thing without me?"
"Well, actually, that's what I wanted to talk to you about," Wade interrupted, unable to keep the smugness from his voice (he was in control of everything, he was the puppet-master, the mastermind, he overlooked nothing). "Your part's coming up soon. Ron's almost into the inner sanctum; once he's past security I'll patch you through. Don't let us down now, Monique," Wade chortled, the edge of tension and mission-madness suppressed by the sheer wicked glee he could feel her radiating even across the miles. "You're our secret weapon. The Ultimate Sitch is in your hands."
Ron crept through the dusky, dusty passages with infinite care, at a speed befitting nothing faster than a wounded tortoise. The sham sneakiness he had been practicing in the Middleton midnight, the ninja-like gamboling around and darting from shadow to shadow, was all behind him now; this was the real thing, and he couldn't let any sidekick antics interfere. He moved like a stalking panther (or so he liked to think), setting each foot down so carefully that even the dust on the floor was barely disturbed; there was no light whatsoever, so he was forced to navigate by one hand pressed against the nearest wall, the floor plan he'd tried his best to memorize, and when both of those methods failed there was always the helpful little gnat-voice in his ear.
"Still with me, Ron?" Wade's voice buzzed, and Ron had to bite his tongue to keep from laughing as the microphone vibrated, tickling his ear. "You're almost there. In about five more steps you should be able to make a left turn. Take it." He did, and found himself in a well of darkness exactly the same as all the other darknesses he'd passed through. But Wade had never let him down before, and the both knew how crucial this was, and Ron was reassured by the clipped, professional tone to Wade's voice; this was mission-mode. The directions continued, as Ron wound his way ever deeper into the long-abandoned maze.
Finally he arrived at a patch of darkness that seemed different than all the rest; it took him a moment to realize that it was lighter, the pitch-black relieved to a weary gray, which meant there was some sort of light source up ahead. His breath caught in his throat at the thought, and he almost panicked, but Wade was back in his ear again, steady and calm; "This is it, Ron, we're almost there. There's an open door at the end of the next hallway, and that's where the light's coming from. There's a booby trap just around the corner, and if you go plunging into it the light will blind you, so wait here for a minute until your eyes adjust." Ron inched his head around the corner, easing his line of sight past the soot-darkened wall, until the golden portal was well within his vision and his eyes had stopped stinging from the brilliance that radiated from within. "Ready?" Wade whispered.
Ron reached up to his collar, feeling for the tiny microphone which was fitted there, nested just under his chin. "Ready," he affirmed, his own voice at a whisper, or below. He couldn't see or even hear anything, but in his head he pictured Wade's nod, the young genius' grimace of determination.
"All right, then," came the confirmation, right on cue. "I've got the sensors on a loop, and there'll be a three-second window for you to get by without setting the lasers off. Just make a run for it on my mark."
"Lasers?" Ron yelped, but the countdown had already started, as irrevocable and vital as any doomsday self-explosive.
"Three… two… one… go!" And then there was no choice, Ron barreled out from behind the corner at full tilt, arms clasped over his head, eyes squeezed tight shut as he fairly flew, with all the speed of an all-star high-school runningback and habitual laser-bait. He dashed down the hallway with terror snapping at his heels, all goals and dignity forgotten as the lasers started shooting up like geysers and knife-blades, only a step behind; he threw himself forward, waving his arms and screaming (because some things never change).
He didn't even notice that the hallway had ended until he tripped over the threshold and went sprawling, skidding into an explosion of light and mirrors, with the lasers forming an ever-vigilant blood-red tangleweed thicket at his back.
He lay on the floor, panting heavily, blinking against the glare of the room he'd found himself in; light pulsed from a dazzling chandelier dangling from the ceiling like a miniature sun, and from there was reflected off of every surface, glinting back like a thousand needles. The room seemed to be coated and shellacked in liquid glass, or else paved with pointed shards of crystal; but before Ron could determine any more than that a huge shadow fell across him where he lay supine on the floor, and all the light was blotted out.
"Ah, Mr. Stoppable." The voice belonging to the owner of the shadow was smooth, suave, and menacing, like the hissing of a serpent. "I am so thrilled to see that you have finally arrived. And here I was so afraid you were going to miss our little… appointment."
Ron's mind went blank for a moment, frozen in fear; but then the thought for Kim exploded into his consciousness like a sunburst and he could think again, could feel the aching of his ribs as he panted for breath, could feel the cold, hard tile of the floor he was laying on pressing up into his spine; and, pressing into his leg, the sharp-edged weight of something in his left pocket. Blinking the stinging brilliance out of his eyes, he managed to push himself into a less vulnerable position, staring up into the face of the man whose shadow still engulfed him.
It was a patrician face, thin and pale and utterly bored, the ghostly whiteness of the skin offset by the sable suit he wore, almost the same shade as the shadow he cast. Ron stared directly into the man's beady rodent eyes, his gaze never wavering as he reached into his pocket and pulled out the shape which had been digging into him; he thrust it forward without looking down, trying to send ESP messages of confidence and danger. For Kim. "Here," he managed, breathless but still somewhat defiant. "I brought you what you asked for. Now give me what you promised me."
"Oh, dear," the man sighed, taking a step away and turning his silk-clad back to Ron, giving the latter time to scramble to his feet. "I do find it so vulgar to talk of business so bluntly, and so early in the meeting. We shall observe the proper procedure." He turned back to face his young challenger, thin lips pulled back over thick, equine teeth. "I really am so glad you arrived when you did," he observed dryly, now looking with mild interest at the lasers which formed a humming honeycomb through the hallway beyond the door. "A few more seconds and you would have been late… in more ways than one."
His laughter, dry and rasping and magnified in an acoustic cocoon of priceless crystals, would have put any supervillain to shame.
"One kiss, my bonny sweetheart, I'm after a prize to-night,
But I shall be back with the yellow gold before the morning light…"
Kim woke with a start, her lips already parting to scream, the frigid touch of fear already gilding her heart.
She sat bolt upright, blinking wildly in the mercurial moonlight, shaking her fiery hair out of her eyes in hopes that it would dislodge the dream that still lingered inside her mind (that horrible, horrible dream!). She reached out for Ron but he still wasn't there, the other side of the bed was still empty and she bit down on her bottom lip to keep herself from screaming with frustration and fear. She was trying very hard not to start shaking, the dream was repeating itself with a cyclical pulse inside her head, and she needed to pull Ron close, to touch him and kiss him and reassure herself that he was all right, that it wasn't real, it could never be real…
A startled squeak pierced her attention, and she looked up just in time to catch the tip of a pink tail whisking into the shadows beneath the desk. "Rufus!" she called, relieved; the naked mole rat was a sign of normalcy (which was an issue in and of itself, but she could deal with that later). There was no response from under the desk, so she called again, louder and more insistent, leaning down over the side of the bed in an effort to see into the shadows where the rodent had disappeared; finally, after a few hesitant moments the bald pink head emerged, looking unduly apprehensive.
Kim breathed a sigh of relief and righted herself, sitting up cross-legged on the bed and pushing the blanket away, hoping that the cold on her bare skin would help to wake her up a little more, put her beyond the reach of the dream's unreality. "Rufus, come up here," she called, patting the mattress beside her in invitation; muttering something that might have been trepidation, the rodent obeyed, scrambling up the bedpost to stand on his hind legs looking up at her, like some kind of sentinel.
"I had this terrible dream," Kim told him, holding out her hand to him expectantly; he squeaked agreeably and climbed into her fingers, nestling into the warmth of her palm. She cupped him gently in her hands as she spoke, running her fingers over his spine in a gentle stroking motion. "I was standing at the window of some old inn or something, and Ron came to see me, but he was on a horse and all done up in some Shakespearean noble's costume… oh, no," she groaned, as something fell into place in the depths of her brain. "The Highwayman. I knew I shouldn't have volunteered to do a thesis on that poem; it's even getting into my dreams." She sighed, scratching Rufus' bald skull just behind his ears, turning her head to gaze vaguely out the window at the cloudless skies. "Watch for me by moonlight," she murmured, more to herself than to her rodent companion, who was chattering happily under her caresses, all anxiety forgotten. "I'll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way…"
She sighed, turning her attention from the snowy moon back to the naked mole rat cradled in her palms. "Where is Ron, anyway?" she asked, seemingly casual, but there was an element of sharpness underneath the words that made Rufus look up, his wide dark eyes suddenly terrified. "He's been away an awful long time for just a midnight snack." Kim turned her narrowed green gaze on Rufus, who immediately jumped up onto his hind legs and mimed eating, stuffing his little rodent face with imaginary cheese, and punctuating the performance with frantic nods and gestures of confirmation. His message was plain; that Ron was just having a midnight snack, that was all, all was well, he would be back any minute now and it would be best if Kim just went back to sleep and forgot the whole thing.
"Is that so?" she asked slyly, the sharpness more pronounced now (she'd long ago stopped thinking about the fact that she could understand every word the naked mole rat said, even though he couldn't speak). She dropped Rufus gently back onto the mattress and stood up, stretching and stepping casually in the direction of the dark doorway that led to the hall beyond. "I think I'll just go down into the kitchen and see for myself, then." She managed two deliberate steps in the direction of the doorway before Rufus, standing horrified with his eyes wide and mouth agape, darted forward. He took a running leap from the bed and skidded to a stop between Kim and the doorway, waving frantically with both paws, chittering like a maniac, trying to convey that that was really not a good idea and nothing at all was wrong and it would be best for everyone if Kim would just let the matter drop.
But Kim was having none of that. "Where's Ron?" she demanded, trying to sound menacing (but unable to hide the edge of fear in her voice). "Rufus? What are you not telling me? What's going on?" The rodent did not answer; he couldn't. He only stood, head and whiskers drooping, the very picture of resignation, misery, and helplessness; Kim shot him a warning look, I'll deal with you later, before whirling around and snatching up the sleek sky-blue handheld computer on the bedside table. She hit the button in the center perhaps a little harder than necessary, but sure enough there was Wade, staring distractedly at something outside her field of vision, looking upset (but not as upset as he would be if she didn't get some answers, and soon).
"Wade!" she barked, and the young genius jumped, startled, and whirled around to face her with an expression of shock on his face that immediately gave way to guilt and terror.
"Kim!" he exclaimed, rather nervously, trying desperately to avoid meeting her gaze as his eyes flicked continually back to whatever it was she had dragged him away from. "Listen, this really isn't a great time, all the police frequencies are quiet, if I could just call you back in an hour or so –"
"Wade, Ron's missing." The young genius flinched, and Kim pounced, sensing a dangerous secret. "You have him chipped, I know you do, you have since seventh grade. I don't know where he is, Wade, he could have been kidnapped, he could be in trouble! Can you find him for me?"
Wade hesitated for a split-second, but it was long enough for all of Kim's suspicions to solidify into a hard knot of ice in her chest. "Wade," she growled, fighting down the panic that sprung more from the memories of the dream than from reality, "Wade, tell me what's going on right now. My boyfriend's gone, I have lots of dangerous enemies, and I am not in the mood for games right now, so tell me where he is!"
There was another moment of hesitation, then the mask of uncertainty on Wade's face hardened into a somewhat regretful determination. "I'm sorry, Kim," he said firmly, but with genuine sadness, "I can't."
"You can't? What do you mean, you can't? Is he okay?" Kim could hear her own voice rising into hysteria, but she didn't care about looking strong right now; she had had too many nightmares about this, too many sleepless nights and now all of them were coming true. "Wade, tell me he's okay!"
"He's fine, Kim," Wade answered, but she didn't trust the robotic rote-learning tone of his voice. "I've got him under all kinds of surveillance, and there's backup waiting to go in after him if anything happens." That was a lie; Wade got nervous and fidgety when he lied, and as he spoke he toyed endlessly with the mouse, flicking the cursor aimlessly back and forth. Finally he let it drop and looked up, staring straight into her eyes, his steely resolve palpable. "Just trust me, Kim. He's fine, he's doing something he needs to do, and I can't tell you where he is, okay? I'll call you back in the morning." He turned away from the screen, and behind his head Kim managed to catch a glimpse of a huge green floor plan, with a red dot and golden X together in a central room; then there was a burst of static and the Kimmunicator went dead.
"All right, that's it," Kim growled, slamming the useless machine down on the desk, turning her fiery glare on Rufus, who retreated hastily to cower against the wall. "You and I are going to have a little talk," she announced, stalking across the room and throwing open her closet, pulling out her old mission clothes. "Then, we're going to find Ron." Almost as an afterthought, she reached out and picked up the Kimmunicator again, dialing the buttons with the speed of long practice; a dial tone crackled into the cold night air, and she was speaking almost before it stopped. "Jim! Tim!" she snapped, pulling the violet mission shirt over her head. "Do you have that transatlantic rocket-thing ready yet?"
"Hoosha," came the sleepy reply. Kim reached down and snatched Rufus up from the floor, grabbing the Kimmunicator with the other hand as she headed for the window and the glare of the jealous moon. "Good," she told the bleary twin faces peering back at her out of the screen. "I'm going to need a ride."
Ron stood in the center of the crystal catacomb, staring wide-eyed at the fruit of all his efforts, the goal he'd waited so long to reach. The jet-black attaché case, so sleek and refined it looked like it should have had wings or wheels, sat motionless on what appeared to be desk made entirely of glass; in a room full of refracted reflections, it absorbed light, as though it contained a black hole rather than any earthly item. It seemed to breathe mystery and menace from every pore. What you promised me, he'd demanded; this was all he'd been promised, and more.
"I trust you will be satisfied," the black-suited man told him from the other side of the table, his eyes half-lidded but piercing, his teeth displayed in a wolfish grin. "We always strive to satisfy our customers, Mr. Stoppable." Ron only stood motionless, his breath coming shallowly, his heart speeding up to wild hypersonic rates. His host noted his inertia and gestured with one pale, long-fingered hand. "Please, open the case. I believe you will find what you came for inside."
Tremblingly, reverently, Ron reached out and popped open the golden locks; they gave way easily, well-oiled and silent, and the lid of the case sprang upward almost without needing his touch, as though it had been waiting, coiled on springs.
"Wow," he breathed, staring wide-eyed at the contents of the case, nestled on a pad of black velvet. He might easily have been hypnotized by the sight of his greatest desire so close at hand, the mission might well have been lost at that first moment of surprise and recognition, but before he had a chance to lose himself there was the voice in his ear again, jolting him back to reality – only it wasn't Wade's voice this time at all.
"Hey, Ron, it's Monique," came the chirping from the earpiece; the surprise was enough to make Ron blink, and that broke the case's hypnotic spell, and he nodded in recognition of Monique's presence even though she couldn't see it. "Wade patched me through," she explained; Ron nodded again, then flushed with embarrassment and murmured "Gotcha" into the mic at his chin.
"Okay, Ron, lemme take a look," Monique commanded, and Ron nodded again before obediently guiding the camera in his watch to point into the case's black-hole interior. For a long moment there was only silence and static over the earpiece; then came a low whistle, and Monique's voice again, sounding just as dazzled as he felt. "Damn, boy, I'm impressed!" she said admiringly, and Ron couldn't help but puff out his chest a little with pride (much to the annoyance of the sable-suited man, who was still watching with half-closed eyes).
Then the moment passed, and Monique was all business again. "Okay, Ron, you have to choose carefully," she instructed, and Ron struggled to focus, bringing his scattered thoughts into line. "This is really important. Have you thought about it at all before today?"
"I hate this," Ron muttered glumly into his microphone. "It's like the red-wire blue-wire problem all over again." Two glints of light in the attaché case; one could spell success, the other failure. One would be triumph, the other one would be calamity. One would mean an eternity of perfect bliss, and the other a terrible fate beyond imagining… but the question was, which one?
"I'll take that as a no," Monique sighed in his ear. "You and Wade and Felix, so obsessed with your video games you never think about anything else! You're just lucky you've got me around to do your thinking for you." There was a ruminative pause, then Monique commanded, "Show me again, and let me get a closer look this time." Ron obeyed; he had never prayed before, but he felt somehow that this moment was delicate and vital and there were a thousand crossroad paths branching from it like a spiderweb, and all he could do was pray to whatever deity was listening to help him pick the right one…
"All right," Monique announced, "I've got it. You definitely need to pick –"
There was an explosion of static over the end of her sentence, a high whine of feedback that stabbed like a needle into Ron's brain and made him clap his hands over his ears, instinctively, then Monique was gone and Wade was back, shouting, screaming; "Ron! Ron, you've got to get out of there! Code red! Code red! Kim's coming!"
"What!" Ron yelped, leaping backwards away from the case as though afraid to be caught red-handed. "Kim's coming? Kim's coming! How could Kim be coming? It was your job to make sure Kim didn't come!"
"It's not my fault!" Wade wailed. "She woke up and you weren't there, so of course she called me! I didn't tell her anything, but she had Rufus there with her and she had that look in her eye, the same one she had when she tied her brothers up that one time and made them promise not to tamper with her car anymore!"
"And Rufus'll crack under pressure," Ron said grimly, already shooting calculating glances at the crystal-studded walls, looking for weak points, structural flaws, any sort of ventilation ducts or hidden entrances. The black-suited man's eyes were open all the way now – he obviously understood that there had been some kind of emergency – but he didn't move, or even shut the attaché case. He only stood, waiting, while Ron backed up and then stepped closer again, gripped by indecision.
"How long do we have?" Ron snapped, locking his gaze onto the case again and staring at it as though hoping he could save the situation with sheer willpower.
"Not that long," Wade answered grimly, and Ron could hear Monique shrieking in the background. "I've detected the heat signature of Jim and Tim's hypersonic rocket, and it's heading your way. Two minutes, maybe less. You've got to make a decision, Ron, it doesn't matter, just grab one –"
Monique burst in with a crackle of static, shouting Wade down. "No! Ron, don't listen to him! You need –"
"The one on the left!" they chorused together, and Ron barely had time to reach out and grab it before the wall behind him exploded.
Kim swung into the newly-torn gaping hole in the building's side, landing catlike on the floor of the room inside, all obscured by the billowing blast of smoke. There was a long heartbeat of silence and darkness as she waited, coiled into a fighting crouch, every nerve singing with adrenaline, ears ringing with the clattering of falling debris; then the smoke cleared, ruffled and torn by the cold clear wind from the outside, and all the anger drained out of her at the sight that met her eyes.
Glass cases lined the walls of the room, row upon row, and in each one nestled one sharp, gleaming shard of some rare jewel or crystal. Each one had a small spotlight trained upon it, and the rows of lights combined with the glow from the central chandelier created the impression of endless glittering, the mirror reflection of a geode carried on into eternity. In the center of the room was a desk or a table; it appeared to be made entirely of glass, but the explosion hadn't even cracked it. Sitting on the table, open and gaping, was a sleek black attaché case of the spy variety. Something inside of it glittered, but Kim glanced over it without a second look, being more interested in the sight of her boyfriend, sprawled out on his back on the floor, one fist tightly clenched and his clothes and hair all stained with dust.
"Ron?" she asked, surprised and ashamed of how quiet and rasping her voice sounded (he wasn't moving, there was something definitely wrong about how motionless he was); but then he stirred, and groaned, and pushed himself up onto his elbows, glancing at the newly-created doorway with an expression of horrified panic.
He pushed himself up further, struggling to his feet, shaking the glass-and-crystal dust out of his hair with a long-suffering groan. "That is not fair!" he shouted, pointing accusingly at Kim with his right hand (his left was still curled into a fist at his side).
Kim almost took a step back, surprised at his vehemence, but the cold brush of wind at her back reminded her of the twenty-story drop that gaped behind her. "What's not fair?" she asked, bewildered; yes, maybe she'd been a little hasty in blowing the wall apart, but she'd been worried about him and it certainly wasn't grounds for such an attack –
"You! You're not fair! I had a plan!" He was less angry than sullen, his shoulders slumped, his feet dragging on the floor like a little kid whose game has been ruined. "I had a really good plan! I thought it all out, and I even wrote it down, look!" He reached into one pocket and pulled out a folded-up sheet of paper, waved it frantically in front of him a few times, then tossed it away before Kim could make out what was written on it. "This was my big mission! The Ultimate Sitch! But then you had to burst in all kung-fu and capable and now it's all ruined." He stuffed his hands in his pockets and scowled at the floor, his cowlick flopping down over his eyes, and Kim wasn't quite sure whether or not to laugh.
"Wait a minute," she interjected, crossing her arms over her chest and pushing the urge to laugh to the back of her mind. "I am not the one who snuck out in the middle of the night without telling anyone, or the one who roped Wade into some kind of wacky mission! What kind of supervillain's lair is this, anyway? I don't see any lasers or weapons or anything!"
"Ah, there is an explanation for that," came a low, mirthful voice from the forgotten smoke-clogged shadows. "That it is because this is not a supervillain's lair."
The smooth, cultured voice hit both Kim and Ron like a bolt of lightning; they both whirled around to face it, years of battle-instincts kicking into gear. The black-suited man, who had blended effortlessly into the shadows when the wall had burst open, now stepped forward again, his hands clasped behind his back, a faint salesman's smile on his patrician face. "Miss Possible," he intoned, giving Kim a slight bow, "I am honored to make your acquaintance. And may I be the first to welcome you to Diamond Emporium, Inc., New York division."
"What?" Kim stared blankly at the man for a few seconds before turning her eyes on Ron, her glare sharp as any dagger. "This is your huge mission? You got me all freaked out over some late Christmas gifts or something?"
"Not quite," the black-suited man interjected, the faint smile on his face growing more pronounced. "Mr. Stoppable contacted me some time ago and expressed a wish to look at some of our… higher-priced items. Of course, I offered to turn off the security systems for our meeting, but he insisted that I leave them fully operational. We always try to satisfy our customers, even in their choice of… ambiance. This is quite a remarkable young man, Miss Possible, if I may say so myself," he added, his grin growing a bit wider. "He bypassed security systems that the most accomplished thieves have not foiled… his plan, or what he has divulged to me of it, is quite a remarkable one. And might I suggest," he continued, turning to face Ron now with a broadside wink, "that it should not be given up on just yet?"
"What the hell is going on here?" Kim demanded, sounding unsure of herself, growing more thoroughly confused with every passing minute. The black-suited man – some sort of salesman or manager, she was sure, if what he was saying was true – only offered her a beatific smile. She turned to Ron, hoping to get some clue at least from his eyes (which always gave his secrets away like an open book), but he looked dazed and just as confused as she was. Then, as the full import of the manager's words sank in, the sullenness and confusion faded from his face, to be replaced by a sort of dreamy wonderment and ecstatic hope that didn't do much to elevate Kim's frustration.
"Ron?" she asked, hesitantly, sensing the currents of something much bigger and weirder moving beneath the surface of this already-weird situation. "Ron, what are you thinking?"
He grinned fit to burst and said simply, "Turn around, K.P., and I'll show you."
Kim shrugged, finally gave in to the weirdness she could not understand, and obeyed.
Dawn was breaking over the city.
Through the gaping jagged-edged hole she could see the whole panorama of the lightening sky spread out before her, the city painted in the first blush of powder-pale blue that preceded the sun, subduing the green and red and yellow lights of humanity, making the whole bustling sprawl look like nothing so much as the still reflection in a pond at dusk, all gentled and smoothed by chromatic mist.
Then the sun itself actually touched the far horizon, spreading and streaking the sky with tints of pink and violet and amber and umber and gold. The windows of the city sent up sharp white reflections in answer, and the waking blush of dawn crept up over the sky until the whole scene formed a symphony of color that blasted Kim's mind clean of thought as she watched, enchanted, entranced.
Suddenly there were strong arms wrapped around her waist, another body pressed up against hers; she almost jumped, startled, but Ron's strong embrace held her steady, his chin resting on her shoulder, his voice gentle in her ear (she realized suddenly that it was his touch, not the sight of the city at dawn, which had suddenly taken her breath away).
"I really did have a plan, you know," he near-whispered, his voice low and rich and sonorous, vibrating through her bones, his warm breath on her neck making her shiver more than the cold morning ever could. "It was all supposed to be a surprise. This was supposed to be my big solo mission, the most important one I've ever been on, the Ultimate Sitch; but this was only the first phase. You were supposed to stay home, and then in a week or two I would have implemented phase two. We were supposed to go out to dinner at some fancy restaurant, and then go to some perfect romantic place that would be as beautiful as you are, and there would be music playing just like in the movies. But you just had to burst in and spoil everything, didn't you?" The anger was gone from his voice, and instead he sounded as though he was almost laughing. "This isn't nearly as beautiful as you are," he continued, nodding towards the sunrise, "but it will have to do."
With that the strong supporting grip of his arms around her waist disappeared, and the pressure of his body vanished; immediately Kim shut her eyes and bit her lip, trying to quell the ache of longing that he always left in the wake of his touch.
A moment later she felt his hands on her shoulders, his big clumsy puppy-paw hands, turning her around back into the crystal room. She opened her eyes again, bewildered; only to see Ron, standing with his hands in his pockets, grinning with such unexpected emotion, such complete tenderness and utter love, that it immediately derailed any coherent thought (hadn't he been angry just a minute ago? And now the way he was looking at her, that smile…).
He pulled his left hand out of his pocket, holding it out in front of him, still curled up into a fist. "Here goes, then," he sighed, still smiling but getting nervous now, starting to fidget. "The biggest mission ever. The Ultimate Sitch." Then, looking straight into her eyes, he went down on one knee and opened his hand, revealing a diamond in his palm that glinted with the light of the morning sun. "Kimberly Anne Possible," he asked simply, "will you marry me?"
Kim stood frozen for a moment, mind blasted blank, reeling with shock. Of all the things she'd expected, all the nefarious plots or stupid pranks or any other possible combination of events, this – with him down on one knee, on one knee, it was preposterous, it was absurd –
Then reality caught up with her and she burst out laughing, laughing through the tears welling up in her eyes, laughing at the wonderful absurdity of it all. "Of course I will," she cried, still laughing; then Ron was on his feet, sliding the ring onto her finger where it gleamed like the very moon itself, and then she was in his arms, kissing him fiercely, then burying her face in his shirt and sobbing and laughing by turns.
Kim and Ron were so absorbed in each other that neither one saw Rufus slipping into the room from the hallway, dashing across the debris-scattered floor until he reached the Kimmunicator, which was lying up against the wall, having flown from Ron's pocket when the explosion had knocked him over. Chattering excitedly, Rufus hit the button in the center of the device and wedged himself under it, lifting it until it could catch sight of the newly-engaged couple standing on the edge of open space, framed by the dawning day.
Wade Load, in a bedroom thousands of miles away, leaned back in his chair and laced his hands behind his head, utterly content. "Mission accomplished," he announced to the silent room; Rufus, who caught the pronouncement over the Kimmunicator's speakers, nodded and squeaked in agreement. Both were silent for a moment, contemplating this sweeping, epic love which they had helped to bring about; then Wade switched his computer off, and Rufus quietly deserted the room, pausing only to throw his uncaring commanding officer a brisk salute.
"Mission accomplished," the black-suited man murmured to himself, before discreetly fading into the shadows. Then there were only Kim and Ron, shaking with laughter and emotion and sheer joy, tangled up in each other endlessly, with the new-minted sunlight flooding all around them like a spotlight, like a hallelujah chorus, like a happy ending.
It was going to be a beautiful day.
...which, after all, is just one more beginning.
prothalamion, n.: A song in celebration of a marriage.
Wow. That was long. But was it good? I await your judgment with bated breath. I know I'm no good at the bet-you-didn't-see-this-coming sort of thing, but I can never resist trying my hand at it. So what do you think? I'm dying to know!
Reviews make me a happy turtle,
Your Humble Narrator.