Every town contains a Dagwood's. Regardless of how upscale, how astonishingly cultured, how universally dignified, it's assured to feature such a wretched, malodorous dive. It may not bear the legend 'Dagwood's', but, beneath whatever layers of divergent decoration and distinctive names that strive to conceal that fundamental fact, it's unquestionably one, universal institution. I'm presently struggling to suppress my revulsion as I ease into the stagnant darkness of the original, my passage beneath the decrepit, pitted, bullet-riddled banner a familiar event, occasioned by the irksome necessity to visit my contact. He's not an impoverished man, by any means, but, from the moment I made the dubious honor of his acquaintance, I've never harbored any doubts of why he favors this hellhole.

The ambiance is the equivalent of a belch beside your ear, a rattling din of drunken blathering emanating from the scarred and vomit-drenched bar and the few vaguely private booths strewn about its murky, smoke-choked misery. I step, with a distasteful scowl, over the prostrate form of a man that exudes a rancidness capable of overcoming even the musty, accumulated reek of the tavern; the heel of a boot grazes against the fringes of his tattered riding leathers, and I silently vow to replace them as surely as if they entered contact with the stagnant urine pool the operator can legally consider a bathroom. The figure behind me certainly seems as if he's been lodging within it for several hours; I barely restrain the compulsion to turn and deliver a solid kick to him as he delivers a vulgar retch, noisily disgorging whatever liquid meal of which he's partaken recently.

The stench of Dagwood's is... Olfactory rape. It's a persistent, appalling violation of one's senses, utterly unapologetic; it's a miasma that clings to every surface, permeating one's clothing and hair as surely as one's very sanity. It requires a flamethrower to remove, and approximately sixty or seventy lengthy, furious showers. I promise myself to exact a further percentage, and deliver a terse glance at the swarthy man presiding over his captive audience of bowed, semi-conscious drunks; he acknowledges me with a sharp inclination of his curiously squared head, before jerking his chin illustratively toward a booth at one of the bar's distant peripheries, cloaked in a haze of cigarette smoke. Somehow, that's a pleasant perfume by contrast with the vulgar putrescence that so many of its patrons manage to produce, and I discover myself unleashing an almost contented smile as I arrive at the bewilderingly dense concentration of that foul mist.

"Carlo." I barely raise my voice, the low, murmuring drone of the other guests maintained at politely minimal volume, presumably with sensitive regard for the fact that the bulk of them are presently in the throes of protracting hangovers. I dislike him abjectly, and I'm fairly confident that the sentiment is entirely mutual; the notion of a personal relationship, any relationship, regardless of his repellent, sidelong leers at unguarded moments, is the fabric of nightmares that inspire a desire to scour one's brain with steel wool. He's not hideous, but his disposition is as pleasantly civil as that of an articulate cockroach. He favors me with a lengthy, penetrating stare of his black eyes, accented by a prominent mop of auburn hair that appears midnight black beneath the desultory shafts of light noncommittally dribbling through the smoke, and gestures for me to be seated. I consider that to be virtually a declaration of war, but obligingly ease onto the groaning, bulging, and curiously asymmetrical Naugahyde cushion, elegantly accented with that standard of dives: interlaced black electrical tape.

"Looking good tonight." His voice is clipped, harsh; it's tinged with a foreign inflection, though it's not from any nation I'd identify with his favored 'Carlo'. "You dress up just to come see me?"

I snort, and reply with a languid roll of my eyes. I can't resist a snide comment, however. "Sure. You've got such romantic taste, I knew that I needed to dress for the occasion."

"Funny." He never smiles; I've never once glimpsed his perpetually pursed lips ease from anything but an expression of utter anxiety, much less anything so extraordinary as a grin. "You bring me what I asked?"

"Why the hell else would I even step into this armpit, Carlo?" The tiny object within my jacket's pocket was incredibly challenging to acquire, involving a task ordinarily beyond my interests, but the remuneration was irresistible. It's remarkable how laborious the slim lump of plasticine could be to secure, though it's obviously the contents that are more significant. "You intend to tell me what it is?"

"No." Typical; I'm an asset, so I'm naturally not entitled to any explanation. "You gonna hand it over, or'm I gonna need to ask less politely?" It's possible to be less polite than Carlo? That's an extraordinary revelation.

"An additional twenty-percent. Meeting you here's a chore. That, and the thirty or forty security you didn't bother to mention." I deliver levelly, maintaining as levitous a tone as I can; I'm not pleased about the throbbing bruise upon my chest, nor the scalding agony, barely contained with a substantial dosage of analgesics, boiling from a crudely-stitched laceration across my left arm.

"Security's part of the job, and this is my place. You can't hack it, you find somebody else." He delivers crossly. I assume that he is, in any event, as I haven't the slightest inkling of what an authentic emotion from him resembles. He indifferently adjusts the perspiration-stained collar of his inexpensive suit, delivering a characteristic, dull stare; he's a master of that, tormenting you with that vacuous, bovine gaze until you finally submit. I'm not eager to compromise, however. "Ten-percent." He finally offers; it's obvious that even he realizes the overt hazard that assignment represented.

"Fine with me." It is; I can't complain about a further hundred-thousand. I gently, with the utmost caution and diligence, seize the zipper of my jacket, my gloved fingers closing upon the slim steel length; I lower it with a quiet rattle of metal teeth, and gesture to an interior pocket. "May I?"

"Go ahead." A nod, and I ease a hand into the rustling lining, extricating the flash drive; I set it upon the table before me, and he sweeps it away with a deft stroke of his palm. He doesn't bother to confirm the contents, assuming that I'd never consider betraying an employer; it's a wise presumption. "Pleasure doing business. Got another one for you-"

"No." I affirm. "That was the final assignment, remember?" I can feel a column of concentrated rage beginning to rise within me, and struggle to stifle it. It's been four years of ordeal, and I'm definitely not eager for this bastard and his organization to renege upon a solemn vow; trust and reputation are reciprocal. "That was the deal- I do this, and you cancel the contract."

"Deal's changed." He's not that stupid, is he? "Emergency project; needs your touch. Thought I'd let you know, so's you can rest up and-"

"No." I reiterate, my voice briefly lurching to a shriller octave. "No." I accentuate that with a severe shake of my head, my hands slapping illustratively upon the table. "I told you, and your employers agreed."

"Times change." I can't believe it; the bastard's actually smiling, an exposure of a savagely glinting array of flawless, pearlsecent teeth. "You think you can get out that easily?"

"I know your boss, Carlo." I growl dangerously. "The old man may be a crackpot, may be a demented crank, but he never lies."

"Old man's dead." A savagely contented affirmation. "New power's running the show. This guy, right here." Dim-witted upstart; I close my eyes, unable to restrain a powerful, aching sigh.

"You can't be serious." I feel my hands clenching, a persistent, ferocious pressure seeking to spring from my fingertips.

"Dead serious." He snaps, the smile evaporating in an instant. "Dead serious." I don't care for his tone, the glare that's arisen in those miserable, dead eyes.

"You don't know what you're doing." I snarl. "And that's a ridiculously stupid choice of words." I rise, not entirely astonished when the sleek, gleaming contours of a handgun erupt into his palm, streaking from beneath the table. "Stupid."

"You got two choices, and five seconds to decide."

"We had a contract, an agreement." I'm astounded by the desperation throbbing in my chest, the raw, pulsating, acid anxiety within my stomach. It's misery itself, a sense of absolute futility at what I'd expected would be the apotheosis of this struggle. "You don't go back on your word. It was on the record." I growl.

"Like it matters." A pause. "Four seconds."

"Learn to count, assho-" I can't believe how swift he is, an eerie silence settling upon us as I vault forward, brandishing the lacerating lengths of my talons, suddenly alight with an irrepressible, emerald fury; I realize that I'm virtually deaf from the thundering report of the pistol within these narrow confines, my blades hacking through the steel, my other hand delivering a solid, face-shattering blow to my erstwhile employer. He slumps onto the seat, probably unconscious-hopefully comatose-, and I stumble away from the booth. I can feel a blazing sheet of warmth begin to flow across my abdomen, and I ease a hand into the jacket, my palm emerging with a ghastly veneer of crimson; it's virtually black, a stark, lustrous ebony, beneath the dim lighting.

The other patrons seem to be feigning ignorance, though I notice that the door has pitched open, a glaring shaft of light cast by a sodium-vapor lamp blazing a tangible portal through the noxious smoke; I've a glimpse of one of the clients, quite astonishingly, clutching a telephone. I stumble from the restaurant, my vision beginning to swim and shimmer from the wound, and collapse against the gritty, pollution-stained brick facade with a dismal sigh. The icy air caresses my cheeks, seeming to cool more miserably with every instant, and I can't resist a certain ironic smile at the inexplicable relief the distant wail of sirens represents; I conjure an image of a shock of crimson, a tender grin, a solemn, yearning kiss at parting. Desperate, longing caresses; hushed words; the glorious clash of flesh and a riotous, passion-inflamed combat. A lingering smile, at the inevitable victory; a promise manifest in an emerald gaze.

"Damn it..." I groan, realizing that the sirens don't seem to be drawing any nearer, my vision retreating into a miserable, tunneling darkness, narrowing further and further upon the black, featureless spring sky above. "I'm... I'm really, really sorry." I can't believe this. The very, very moment at which I was certain that I could embrace that release, that liberation, and the sole promise of any value to me is invalidated; the aspiration that I'd maintained, that I'd safeguarded, for four years... Destroyed.

"I..." I can't even complete my sentence, my breath seeming to hitch with one final, melodramatic breath in my chest.

"You'll be all right." My vision is blank, a mottled smear of blackness, but I suppose that's what I'd expect from the life that I've led; a few noble deeds as of recently probably can't compensate. "Somebody called us; if they hadn't, I don't think that we'd be talking right now." It's a gentle, pleasant tone, almost exaggeratedly convivial. It's disrupted by my gasping intake of breath. "What's your name? Stay awake, please." It's not a plea so much as it is an irate command; I unleash a quiet groan at the lancing puncture of something into my arm.

"Go... Go 'way." I mutter, a bit irritated that my eternity is being interrupted by such vapid blather.

"You're awake. Good." A statement of fact. "How're her vitals? She looks pale."

"GSW'll do that." A deep baritone from my right, directly beside the miserable, throbbing ache in my arm. "Strong, all things considered, but I think there's some internal trauma." I feel a sudden, nightmare pressure upon my chest, and I unleash a silent scream of anguish at the abrupt onset of an unbelievable pain. "Blood pressure's still falling, even with compress."

"Okay. Tell'm to expect a high-priority patient, and get the police out here." I whimper pathetically as I feel myself being shifted, my darkness-tinged sight pitching and warping as I've hefted onto an unyielding mattress of some sort, borne into the blinding confines of a clanking steel prison. There's a sudden, jolting pressure upon my jaws; they're wrenched open, a suffocating anxiety piercing into my throat, every trace of the foul city air supplanted by an arid chill that pools of its own accord into my lungs.

"You're gonna be all right, 'kay? Just hang on. You'll be fine." A light, languorous stroke of slick, oddly untextured fingers upon my hand. In a more hushed tone, "Does she look green to you?" Darkness.

Sight and sense return in a momentous, buffeting blur of images, sounds, and sensations, each warring with a frightful, brutal demand for my attention; I can barely manage the slightest measure of coherent focus upon what surrounds me. The continual, level bleat of machines; the dull ache upon my arm; the persistent, throbbing agony within my chest, muted by a shroud of liquid heat. My eyes achieve an ephemeral grasp upon the gentle fluttering of a curtain, the open window granting entry to a lazily-drifting breeze that drifts across my blazing skin. A sullen, inescapable void, and I surface again at the height of the evening; my sight dissolves again. Whenever I blink, it seems, a further eternity advances. I'm certain, in that bleary, twilit interim of wakefulness, however, that there's a presence beside me; I've the sense that I can occasionally discern a voice, lilting and gentle, however incomprehensible its words.

"You really, really need to wake up soon. Please." It's so familiar, even beyond the misty screen that seems to separate me from reality. "Please."

"Let me sleep." It emerges as an unintelligible gurgle, but it seems to inspire an absolutely irrepressible swell of elation from my guest; I can feel her spring upon me for a brief instant, before easing away with what's obviously a guilty laugh.

"You're awake! God, you- you really are." A palpable relief; I can barely conjure the slightest sense of what the voice is, but it's impossible to associate it with anything but a molten delight, an absolutely wondrous comfort and delight. It's... It feels as if it's love, pulsing in my breast, raking at every nerve. "Can't you speak?"

"She's still recovering. You're going to need to respect visiting hours." It's not the signature, icy command of what I'd associate with a doctor; it's achingly tender, albeit nevertheless forceful.

"Mom, I... I mean..." A quiet sigh, and what seems to be a brief, harsh sniffle. "Are you sure?"

"They're letting you stand guard, aren't they, outside?"

"I- I requested it, so, yeah." A quiet clatter of feet. "Um, could you... Could you just give us a few moments?" Achingly anxious, somehow.

"You don't need to be shy." That's accompanied by a tender laugh. "Really."

"I... I guess so." I'm yearning to unleash a gasp of delight as I feel a familiar warmth across my cheek, the delicate brush of full lips, slightly damp. I'm enveloped by a subtle scent, natural and feminine. "Please, wake up soon."

"She'll be fine. Trust me." That unrecognizable, but familiar, voice again. "Come on, honey; you really need to get back to your post, don't you? You don't want to be unemployed when she wakes up, right?"

"I guess so." A palpable dejectedness, followed by the low click of heels upon linoleum; the door opens quietly, and groans closed.

"So, you're the one?" It seems almost ironic, a wry humor manifest in the voice. "I don't know if I should be more pissed off with you for making my daughter cry that often, or the fact that you let yourself nearly die."

"Huh?" Another incoherent groan.

"I know that you're out of it, but I'm sure that you can hear me." A low sigh as the speaker settles upon the seat beside me. "She told us a lot, so don't be timid when you wake up. You'll be in protective custody, courtesy of whatever happened that my daughter isn't allowed to tell me about; of course, she volunteered us. I guess being a superhero, even a retired one, makes you the standby for it." A brief silence.

"I'm just going to talk, seeing as you're not that vocal today." A chuckle. "It was sort of difficult for us to believe, and she kept it in for a long time, but it was just obvious that something was wrong when she started crying almost every evening, especially after her missions." Why is she confiding this to me? "So, don't think that you need to be reserved about it; tell her how you feel." I can visualize a suitably savage smile. "Or I'll mistake potassium chloride for sodium chloride. You know what that means, right?" The chart rattles. "'Miss Go', huh? Just what the hell is your name, anyway?" I can't reply; there's a sustained, agonizing muteness, disrupted solely by the continual, rhythmic pulse of the electronics.

"So, I'm going to go out on rounds, and I'll see you again soon. Remember what I told you." The door clicks closed, and I blink into that familiar blackness again.

"... And so, he told me, 'I need to get some snackage, but I'll be back to check on her after I'm done.' Can you believe that? Who still talks like that four years after high school?" A gentle laugh, of an effortlessly mellifluous beauty. "He probably bored you to death, didn't he, playing a videogame? I'm sure he told you whenever he got a new high score." A contemplative silence, disrupted by the quiet groan of some form of plasticine fabric beneath her weight. "Still, it was nice of him to visit, wasn't it? I mean, he didn't even want to talk to me for awhile when I told him, but... He understands. And there's that nice girl from college that he's dating."

I'm a bit startled that my awakening isn't an almost transcendent, messianic resurrection, arising from the depths of a deathly torpor at once into the light; it's an excruciating, arduous effort to even force open my eyes. I realize that my mouth seems to have been basted in arid filth, and my first word is, appropriately, "Water." Perhaps it's not of the drama or romantic splendor that I'd hoped, but basic, visceral needs somehow manage to well above even those extraordinary desires.

"Oh, my god. You're awake. You're really awake. Really!" An exhilarated chirping. I can perceive the sullen gurgle of water decanted from a jug, the glass suddenly thrust before me, the slim arc of a straw rising from its rim; I twine my anhydrous lips around it, suctioning what seems to be the most wondrous ambrosia I could ever possibly imagine. It's crisp, icy, bathing my throat in a liquid relief; I feel as if a tangible tide of vigor is sloshing through me, restoring wakefulness to every nerve, reviving me in the most astounding manner.

"I am." My tone is hoarse, slightly dull, but it's rife with wonderment. I'm alive. It's suddenly occurred to me that I've been taking it for granted in my shifting, unsteady consciousness, but it strikes me with an intensity rivaled only the sudden, hellish onset of cringing agony in my chest. "Ow..."

"You're... You're hurt." My mind has finally focused itself, and I can recognize her voice with a conscious awareness that sends a delirious, spiraling explosion of concentrated joy through me. I smile, torturously, but with an earnest bliss; I don't even notice the melancholy tone. "Do... Do you know who I am?" She looms before my sight, and I'm taken aback; I barely do. It's been a year-and-a-half, an absolutely excruciating, hellish eighteen months of separation, and her transformation has been incredible. She's more adult, her features more elegantly streamlined, gracefully defined, naturally gorgeous; her lips are fuller, accented by a subtle rouge, and she's adorned with a pair of... Glasses? They're slim, frameless, perched upon the slender bridge of her nose.

"Kim?" There's no uncertainty of whom she is; it's simply a matter of utter astonishment that I'm here, that she's here; that we're together. That I'm collapsed upon an uncomfortable hospital bed, probably indecently clad in some gauzy gown, while she, bespectacled and bewildering mature, gazes down into my eyes. My gaze drifts lower, and I notice the deep navy coloration of her clothing; my face falls at the badge.

"I'm- I'm so glad that you remember me." It seems oddly pathetic, and I can't even recall the shield pinned to her blouse as she throws her arms around me, her voice intense with a brittle, quivering emotion. "I'm so glad. I was worried that, that you might've forgotten me... Forgotten everything..." I feel an instant dampness upon my throat as she buries herself against me; I barely register the rising pain from being tugged into her arms, and I struggle to wrap one of my own around her, the other encumbered by the intravenous. "I was so scared." Her words are whispered with a harsh, damp tone as she pants shallowly, struggling to resist the sobs that I can feel within her chest, even through the solid mass of the body armor.

"It hasn't been that long." I manage, and force an exaggerated levity into my voice. "Princess."

"I've- I've really missed that. God, it..." She swallows, and eases away; she folds the spectacles within one palm as she plucks them from before her eyes, brushing away the tears with the back of her hand. "I nearly had a heart attack when they called me in to be the one to take the GSW report." Of course, they're obligated to contact the police, aren't they? It's been a blessing, though. "What happened?"

"I got shot." I offer wryly, and she shakes her head, delivering a gentle swat to my shoulder. Her hand rustles against the fragile fabric, and I realize how exposed I somehow feel.

"That's not what I meant." A pause. "Well, it is, but... Why? If you were in town, why didn't you come to see me?" Those words escape her mouth before she obviously intended to speak them; the widening of her eyes, and the trembling of her lips confirms that. "I... I mean-"

"It's all right." I owe her an explanation. "I told you that I have responsibilities, right?" She nods, her crimson locks bound into a lengthy tail that subtly jolts with the movement. She's been allowing it to lengthen since we made love, since we began that aching, torturous, irregular relationship; since I remarked upon how I love it, that she shouldn't trim it. Unbidden, images of that scarlet silk enveloping us as we writhe, flow, and sway together well into my mind.

"You said that you had something to do; you've been telling me that since... Since then, every time that we meet." An anxious swallow. "I..."

"I know." I interrupt. I don't blame her; she probably began to suspect that it was a lie, a convenient rationale for eternally deferring this day, my 'rehabilitation'.

"I believed you. Believe you." She lies for my sake, and I take hold her her hand; it's trembling, as I realize that mine is, from the unfettered emotions beginning to career through me.

"I've finished it. I... I mean, I came here to finish it. It's just, the agreement went south, and he apparently didn't care what arrangement we had."

"You mean, Viktor Prokozh?" I blink vacantly at that. "The- the guy at the bar- the one whose jaw, nose, and skull you broke. He's... He's not really in working order, but everyone says that he's the one that shot you."

"He's dead?" I feel a sickening lurch of my stomach at that; I'm not that enthusiastic about the notion of murdering anyone, and less so about the ensuing trial.

"No. I mean... He just has his jaw wired closed, and he looks like he head-butted a freight train." A vibrant, rapturous smile. "But, uh, he'll be going away for about a thousand years. It seems like his colleagues weren't so enthusiastic about what he'd done, so they're turning in exchange for clemency- they're blaming him for just about everything short of the Kennedy assassination, and the FBI's pretty much shrugged their shoulders and said, 'fine.'"

"Good." His compatriots aren't precisely noble humanitarians, but I respect them; I'd entrusted myself to them, to their assurances of liberty.

"So, does this have to do with what you needed to do?" Her smile diminishes, the wattage dimming to an approximation of the original bulb of the Tiffany lamp that I 'appropriated' for one of my safe-houses.

"Yeah." I nod. "I... They owned me, basically." Her smile evaporates entirely. "Not- not like that." I clarify immediately. "I mean, when I was starting out, I needed representation; they connected me with clients, with assignments, and I owed them a certain amount for my contract whenever they renewed it. The last one was thirty-million, and this job was the final one; I'd already arranged it with the Old Man."

"Vladimir Brezhinski?" I'm astonished by what she's discovered.

"Yes." I scowl. "I know that he's not precisely the world's greatest citizen, but he treated me well, so..."

"I won't say anything." She nods; I can see her eyes clouding, her lips trembling. This isn't precisely the grand, romantic reunion about which we'd fantasized, the majestic transition to a perfect happily-ever-after. "I'm sorry."

"It's all right. You need to know." Her head bobs again in another affirmative nod. "It... It's a weird coincidence that it's often been here- on the industrial outskirts, anyway." I sigh. "That horrible little dive." There's no comment; she simply studies me with a solemn smile. "So, that bastard, Carlo... Viktor, I suppose... He reneged, pulled a gun, and shot me before I put out his lights." My grasp tightens upon her hand. "I was going to come to take back my claim ticket," her smile returns with that brilliant, vibrant exuberance that sends a glorious eruption of joy spiraling through me, "Afterward. I was going to sweep you away. Really. We're never going to need to work again, that's for certain; we can just have a perpetual honeymoon."

"I like my job, odd as it sounds." I'm not entirely enthusiastic about that. "Don't worry," she cajoles, "There's no possibility of my arresting you, unless you'd like to play with the handcuffs." I chuckle at that. "You don't have a record; not any longer. That was something that I extracted from a good friend."

"That fat kid?" She can't stifle her laughter at that. My own smile returns with a flourish at that glorious swell of giggling, however swiftly she restrains it.

"That's mean. Geeze." A light swat at my shoulder rapidly becomes the delicate drift of her fingertips along my cheek; I ease into it, that caress, however slight, positively electrifying. "He's... He's filled out."

"They have him in a tank at SeaWorld?" Another giggle, though it's rather perfunctory; my snide comment is, as well, our eyes locked. I realize that I'm beginning to suffocate, my breath hitching intractably in my chest. I'm hopelessly transfixed by her, by her beauty, savoring the tender warmth of her palm upon my skin. "I missed you." Any sparring over her portly computer expert's proportions is forgotten.

"I know." I can't believe it: my vision is beginning to cloud, a shimmering mist of tears welling before my eyes. I can't restrain it; I feel the first excruciating bead trickle along my cheek, and I desperately hope, somehow, that she doesn't notice.

"I thought that I was going to die." I confess, blinking in a ferocious approximation of some psychotic Morse code, struggling to force away the tears. She doesn't answer for a moment, her lips drawn taut.

"So did I." She finally replies, her tone thick, low, anguished. "I... I didn't want to say that, even think it, before you woke up, before you were okay; I was sure that even, even," she draws a deep, trembling breath, "Even thinking about it would..." She trails off, her eyes darting briefly to the gown clinging to my chest, falling precisely upon the point at which I felt the scalding trail of the bullet's entry, followed by that hellish numbness. "But, I... I had these horrible dreams. Seeing you dead, seeing me dead, just- it... I started to think about that my greatest regret; it- it would be not hearing..." She trails off again, plucking away her spectacles; she tosses them upon the bed beside me, clamping a hand upon her eyes.

"I know." It was mine, as well; no matter how hellish, I could contemplate death if I heard it even once from her, if I could say that even once. Why can't I say it, at this very instant?

"So, I mean..." She draws near to me, her lips delicately ghosting across mine; it's the most incredible kiss I've ever experienced, even beyond that first embrace. It's chaste, an almost imperceptible caress, but it's magical. "Will you come home with me?"

"Huh?" Why didn't she ask?

"I mean, my mom says that- that you're okay now. It'll hurt, but there's no reason for you to stay at the hospital, and... Well, you heal faster than anyone that she's seen, and that's incredible." A brief pause, Kim's fingertips languidly gliding to my collarbone. "That is, will you come home with me? I mean, it might be weird, 'cause I still live with my parents... I, um, I've just been too busy to look for a place, with my job and all." She's babbling, and I silence her with a desperately forced grin.

"Can't bear to be away from mommy and daddy, huh, Pumpkin?" I love the brief flare of authentic combativeness that rises into her gaze for a moment. "I'd love it." Love... "They, um... Do they-"

"They know. Yeah. Uh, everybody does, honestly." A slightly awkward smile, her reddened eyes darting skyward in that sweetly self-conscious manner that I've seen so often.

"I was sure that I'd heard. I think your mom threatened to give me a heart attack if I broke your heart." She begins to laugh, a wracking and slightly raw chuckle.

"She'd do it, too." Her hand returns to mine, grasping it desperately. "You really will? You'll come back with me?"

"Only if I get to stay in your room." I insist, and she nods.

"I'm... I mean, I haven't told them the lurid details, but I think they know that I'm not an innocent little maiden. And, um, I'm a big girl." She is; I can't believe that she's grown further, a powerful and beauteous presence in her uniform, regardless of my visceral hatred for the police.

"Who still has stuffed animals on her bed?" Another laugh.

"They keep me company." It's a slightly petulant retort.

"That's my job, isn't it?" I'm struggling to maintain the cadence of our banter; I don't mention my own self-recriminating thought that I've been failing miserably at that most precious responsibility.

"You're just lucky I don't want to fire you." An excessively languid, airy remark. "Your attendance record's been just awful."

"I'll be there everyday, Kim." I speak her name as I did that afternoon, entombed within the elevator shaft. "Every second of every day."

"You promise?" There's no longer any trace of strained humor. "Do you promise?"

"I do." I vow; I don't hesitate for even the briefest of instants. I expect the straining tension within her features to relax; it doesn't.

"Why were you gone for so long? Why didn't you call me?" Her eyes darken, her lips trembling as she speaks. "I... I'm sorry. I- I just, I was so afraid, and then I was so relieved, but I can't forget how hard it was. I didn't even hear from you- it's been eighteen months. It's five-hundred-and-forty-nine days, actually; I've been counting every one, waiting for something. For you to just fall out of the sky onto me, to sweep me away, to..." She draws a shuddering intake of breath. "To even call."

"I'm sorry." I am; I haven't any reply to that. There's no excuse that seems even remotely satisfactory. "I'm sorry."

"I know that- that you were busy with everything, with making sure that we could have a life together, but... Do you even know what's happened to me lately?" Obviously, I don't. I should be angry at the accusation, but I can only muster a forlorn shake of my head.

"I was surprised to see you." I whisper. "With the uniform, and... And your glasses."

"I signed up with the police because it wasn't working being... Being me. When you're a teenage super-heroine, I mean, it's exciting, I guess; the reality after you graduate from that, when they think you're old enough to really fight... It's not exciting. It's not fun. I guess that you noticed that I wasn't in the news any longer."

"I don't watch television." I reply with a shrug.

"Oh." A pause. "Anyway, they fast-tracked me through training, seeing how, you know, famous I was; it was just learning procedure."

"Why the police, though?" I'm baffled and a bit horrified by that; it's totally antithetical to my sense of reality.

"Because I didn't want to give up on helping people, no matter how naïve I'm sure that sounds." She peers deeply into my eyes, her gaze unwavering. "You noticed that I wasn't clashing with any of the supervillains, right, after awhile?"

"That one with that damn Scalar Weapon was one of the last." I nod. "It was sort of weird to just... Sweep in and meet you as you, without all of the battle." She quirks an inquisitive eyebrow. "Not that it wasn't amazing, though; better than amazing." A brittle smile.

"How have they been, anyway?" It seems an oddly affectionate question.

"I think they were staying in the market simply for a good fight with a certain heroine; they got bored, and most of them were bought out by the multinationals." I manage a quiet laugh at that. "You've seen the advertisements for the Blueberry, right? That's Drakken's- he thought that blue was better than black, and that every PDA needs a snide AI to assail you with caustic advice." A beat. "I should've asked for royalties with that one."

"You're serious?" She gapes at that. "I guess I never gave any thought to what Drakanada Corp was."

"Do I need to be worried about the badge?" I finally ask.

"No." A wry smile. "Not unless you don't like handcuffs, anyway." Another subdued laugh from both of us.

"And the glasses?" She replaces them before her limpid eyes, delicately accenting her features; they're attractive, suggesting a faint fragility that seems so enticing.

"My eyes started to give out about a year ago. I'm not exactly blind, but I'm a bit myopic. It was getting difficult to distinguish targets on the range; I realized that I needed them when I took out a little girl and her poodle instead of the knife-wielding silhouette."

"They're cute. I really like them." I do; she flushes a bit at that, her smile returning with a renewed strength.

"I'm glad."

"So... Your family knows?" I can't avoid broaching this topic any longer.

"Yeah. I mean, ever since that day, I've been really, really sad whenever we're apart; it's been hell to see you, and then just return to reality." She draws a rather agonized breath. "My parents aren't stupid; Ron's not, either, dense as he is." She coughs briefly, a sudden punctuation to that sentence. "Anyway, they... They just wouldn't let it go, and I didn't think that I could take another day of just trying not to cry too loud in my room, which I guess didn't matter. I think that they heard it from the basement." She delivers that with a miserably forced smile, but I feel as if she's plunged a blade into my heart. "So, I told them. I... I was amazed how accepting they were, especially seeing how you sort of tried to kill my mom and me once."

"It was half-hearted, at most." I tease feebly.

"They just said, 'You're our little girl, and we accept you, even if there's no accounting for taste.' Or, something to that effect." A brief, barking laugh, as her eyes continue to water. "My friends were all fine with it, too; I was amazed when Wade said that he won the bet on whether there was something there."

"And the dumb blonde... I mean, Ron?" I correct myself with a guilty smile.

"A little harder." An emphatic nod. "A lot harder, actually. He didn't want to talk to me for a few weeks. It's not that I'm gay, though." She clarifies rather vigorously. "It's that... It's that he had this vision of us since we were little kids about being together, getting married, no matter how much we drifted away from any romance. He'd always taken it for granted." A solemn smile. "Maybe I had, too, no matter what my desires really were. But, after a bit, he just showed up one afternoon with a Queso Supremo... Um, don't ask." I nod silently. "He told me that we were just like the cheese and the meat."

"Um..." I manage a suitably baffled expression.

"That's- that's what I thought, too." A tender smile. "He said, 'they can't mix, but that doesn't mean that they're not both important to each other.' It was... Weird, but sweet; he asked me to forgive him, and I did. And he sat beside me for about an hour while I told him everything; he even held me when I was sobbing." I can't believe the acid misery within my stomach at that, the notion of being unable to comfort her. "And, um, I guess that you're the tortilla, 'cause the cheese sticks to that like glue."

"That's good. I guess." She draws near to me again, and I envelop her with the one arm not presently immobilized by the intravenous. "And, I'll always be wrapped around you." I suppose that I feel a bit competitive, injecting my own addition to the bizarre tortilla metaphor. I feel her tremble with a quiet laugh against me; I savor the wondrous, delicate scent of her hair, rich with a perfume of apples.

"I like that." She whispers, her breath a glorious, sultry heat against my throat. "I'd almost forgotten what this feels like. You're so warm." Her hands fasten upon the small of my back; I've wrenched myself into a seated position, despite the persistent pain of my wound. I suppose that I have recuperated rather remarkably. "And sweet."

"Only for you." It was intended to be an affirmation of my otherwise universal badassitude, but her reply, and my own thoughts, supply another interpretation.

"I'm so glad." Another quiet murmur. "Um, as weird as it sounds, I don't think I'll be able to bring you home today." A vaguely guilty confession.

"Huh?" I blink, and it occurs to me that we're no longer alone; it's definitely fortunate that I've retired, injury or not, given that my love's embrace... God, how I adore that... Can bar me from noticing an interloper.

"My little girl has a job to do." It's her mother; that's immediately obvious. The resemblance is abundantly evident, despite the seemingly obligatory, starched ivory labcoat, and the greater maturity of her features. A bobbed mane of deep crimson curves beneath her chin, and she's less physically impressive than her daughter, but there's no question of their relation. "That's fine, though, right? It'll give us a few hours to chat- woman-to-woman." There's a mildly ominous quality to that, but it's not as if I can refuse.

"I'm really sorry. They're- they're not letting me off completely today, but I persuaded my sergeant to allow me to go home early. About seven-thirty." I haven't the slightest inkling of what the time is at present, so the significance of 'late' and 'early' is lost upon me. "I'm sorry."

"It's all right." I reassure her, my gaze flickering briefly to her mother again. "It's- it's a pleasure to meet you."

"When you're not trying to finish me off with my daughter?" My face falls at that dreadful remark, though it's followed by an immediate swell of laughter from her. "It's okay. That was a fun afternoon, actually; a great mother-daughter day. I can see why she likes you." I manage an awkward smile, and Kim's so kind as to take pity upon me, interrupting before her mother can manage to transform my complexion to burgundy.

"Mom, that's not fair." I can feel her suppressed laughter against me. "Be nice to her."

"You know it's a mother's responsibility to make her daughter's partner as uncomfortable as possible." Another wicked quirk of her lips. "She's just lucky that your dad's not coming home until later tonight- I'm sure that he'd want to give her the full family welcome. Maybe he'd even break out the albums." Somehow, that seems more enticing than I ever would have imagined. "What should I call you, Miss Go?" I realize that she's addressing me.

"I, um..." I haven't precisely a name; I'm amused by the assumed surname. "I guess that you could call me Tabula Rasa, for all that's happened." A rather noncommittal musing.

"That's sort of awkward. What about Shego, like always?" Kim offers, and I agree with a brief nod.

"Okay." Her mother seems a bit dubious, but it's not as if she supplied any alternative. "Shego. Is that Japanese?"

"It's a bad pun, but I think I left real my name somewhere near Albuquerque." A wan smile.

"You can call me Anne." A beat. "Because that's my name. That sounded melodramatic, didn't it?"

"Okay, mom." Kim interrupts with a quiet giggle. "D'you think that you can give us a few minutes alone, before you bring her home?"

"I'm not carrying her over the threshold- that's your job, daughter of mine." Anne announces over her shoulder as she glides through the portal into the clamorous corridor beyond, the startling din subsumed again by utter silence as the door wheezes closed.

"So, that's my mom... She's-"

"She's your mom. It's obvious; and it's really, really obvious that she cares for you, that she's as uncomfortable as I am, and that she'll try to imagine that we're just holding hands when we're alone together." She rolls her eyes at that, a ridiculously elaborate, ostentatiously snide pivot of those lovely emerald orbs.

"What makes you think you're getting more than that, after you kept me waiting for so long?" Mentioning the time, my abandonment of her, galls upon my spirit like a rasp, but I manage a confident smirk, nonetheless.

"Because, I know you can't resist, Princess." Finally, at long last, I kiss her; her cheek blazes beneath my palm as I clasp it with the utmost, aching tenderness, lifting my lips to her own. They're sublimely supple, yielding, utterly magnificent; I feel them part, the slick heat of her tongue instantly easing out to greet mine. I can feel the passion swell at once, that utterly overpowering welter of ferocious, electric bliss, and I'm upon the brink of simply wresting away the intravenous before I register the agonizing loss of that tantalizing touch; those lovely, ruby curves twist into a thoroughly wicked smile, her eyes glimmering savagely.

"Uh-uh, Pumpkin." I gape at her appropriation of that, her emulation of my voice. "You're gonna have to wait 'till this evening. Then, if I feel charitable, I might let you see what you've been missing." An anguished groan, and I feel as if I'll simply dissolve beneath her gaze; she favors me with a playful brush of her tongue along her lips, and I'm overcome by a yearning to leap from the hospital bed and bind her to it with surgical tubing, gleefully demonstrating precisely why I'm the dominant one. At this instant, however, I obligingly tremble, feeling my flesh alight between my thighs, though I do confront her with a thoroughly predatory smile that yields a wondrously gratifying swell of crimson into her cheeks. "I'm... I'm gonna have to go now, okay?"

It's not, but I manage an encouraging smile, lifting my palm in a slightly tentative wave. "All right." I love you. Why the hell can't my lips form those words? For what reason am I so anxious?

"I'll return soon, okay? It's already four, so... A few more hours." I'm finally afforded an opportunity to admire her as she departs, backpedaling until her rather impressively full rear jolts against the faux-wood grain of the door, eliciting an adorable squeak. Even with the stout layer of armor and the rather masculine contours of the navy-hued uniform, her physique is absolutely incredible, and nothing can conceal the ample contours of her hips, the magnificent swell of her buttocks in slight relief against the fabric as she finally, regretfully, turns to depart.

I can't dwell upon that for any length of time, the door squeaking open again to grant her mother entry, sauntering to my bedside with a rapid chatter of her heels upon the linoleum; she's certainly less stealthy than her daughter, as well. "So... Shego." An excruciating eternity passes before any further words manage to wrench themselves from her lips. "Are you feeling well today?"

"I'm awake." That seems virtually miraculous, considering the interminable spans of oblivion, interrupted by occasional, blinking suggestions of reality.

"That's good. You're not on any painkillers, aside from ibuprofen. Do you hurt?" She's settled beside me with a quiet sigh, studiously inspecting me; her gaze seems less abstract and clinical than merely a physician's.

"Only a bit." Another dull reply; I can't believe how torturously uncomfortable this is. My eyes drift from hers, the piercing emerald magnificence of her daughter's, across the spare furnishings of the chamber; a television is mounted upon a pivoting fixture from the ceiling, and the window is sealed today, the curtains drawn to reveal an azure sky, streaked with wispy shreds of clouds.

"That's good." Again. "You know, I'm absolutely amazed that you recovered that quickly. I mean, I don't precisely know what your... What your powers, I guess, are, but that's just incredible." She plucks at an illusory bit of dust upon her utterly flawless labcoat, and seems to be struggling to avoid the inevitable. An uncomfortable, tormented silence sets upon us again, until she interrupts it with a rather startling, "Do you love my daughter?"

"H-huh?" I stammer, my vacuously drifting mind snapping immediately to the present.

"You heard me, Miss Go. Shego." She leans toward me, her eyes astonishingly intense. Her lips are pursed, and she seems to be awaiting my reply.

"Yes." I know that there's never been any doubt, but I've never affirmed it so directly to anyone; it seems bizarre that it would be to my lover's mother.

"I'm... I'm glad." She was evidently preparing for a lengthy, admonishing tirade, deflating a bit. "You- you can understand my misgivings, right, about all of this?" I haven't any immediate answer. "Not- not because you're both women. It's because you're, I mean..."

"A criminal?" I offer laconically.

"Exactly." A sigh of relief, as if that renders the implication any more savory to me. "I'm sorry. That- that came out wrong. It's just, with everything, I was so worried about my little girl getting hurt- she cries just about every night. I knew that something was wrong; that's why she finally told us."

"I'm the one who should be sorry." I finally manage, my gaze snapping from the drifting cirrus to what I can only hope- the epiphany strikes me with a glorious, gleeful intensity, the final acknowledgment of every furtive fantasy- is my future mother-in-law.

"That- that raises you a few notches higher, Shego." An approving nod, and a slight, quirking smile. "You truly love her?"

"Yes, I do. More than anything." My lips part in an absolutely luminous smile at that.

"Have you told her?"

"Not yet." I reply, perplexed with myself at that.

"You've told me, but not her?" She seems equally as bewildered.

"It's... We know; we both know. We can both feel it, Missus-"

"Call me 'Anne'. Please." She urges.

"We can both feel it, Anne. It's just, with everything, I've been afraid." I brush my fingers through the ragged, unkempt mass of my hair, wincing at the abrupt spurt of pain as one digit snags upon a particularly tenacious knot. "I know it's stupid, but I've been terrified. I've always thought that we shouldn't yet, that we should wait until we're finally settled, until everything's over." I'm explaining this as if she's even the slightest inkling of to what I'm referring.

"You mean, your responsibilities?" I'm taken aback at that; I suppose that I should've expected it, however. "We're her parents- she can't lie to us for more than a few hours of interrogation." A wry grin. "So, she told us everything- that you were doing what needed to be done to escape whatever life you lived. I won't judge you for it."

"But, you didn't believe it, did you?" She nods, though she's the dignity to appear a bit guilty.

"Not often. I was afraid that you were just leading her on. You... You two have been intimate, right?" It's such an antiquated phrasing, but I love the sense that it conjures, the tender union of mind, heart, and body.

"We have." It's not quite as uncomfortable as I would've envisioned: merely five or six of my facial capillaries have burst. I'm a bit astonished that the sole reply is a rather earnest nod, and a growing smile.

"We didn't ask her that, but it was obvious. She loves you, you know." I muster a smile of my own at that.

"I do." I can't believe the wondrous sense of utter ecstasy that invokes, for that certainty to be confirmed again.

"You two... You haven't been together for eighteen months. Isn't that right?" I nod, scowling a bit at the nauseating sensation of my grimy, unwashed hair rustling against the nape of my neck.

"Try to keep it down if we're in the house." I blink, my lips parting in a desperate struggle to conjure the proper words, and simply blink again. "I mean it. The walls aren't exactly like tissue paper, but they're not cast-iron, either."

"O-okay." I finally conjure a suitably tortured whisper. I can't believe the all-consuming veil of almost adolescent shyness that settles upon me.

"So, no real ground rules. We're both adults; she is, too." Anne rises with in fluid, languid arc of graceful motion; it's obvious from where Kim's acrobatic prowess stems. "I know you'll be taking her away from us eventually; probably soon, seeing as you're unemployed and you actually have the time to find a house." She lifts a finger in rather theatrical emphasis. "Oh, right. One final point- I wasn't joking about the potassium chloride thing." A decidedly savage grin.

"I know. You don't need to remind me; losing your daughter would be worse than whatever you could do."

"I'm glad to hear that." A milder smile, her features softening. "I guess the threatening mother-bear speech is over. Would you like to go home?"

"Desperately." I groan in affirmation, unleashing a croaking series of quiet sighs as I begin to shift from the mattress.

"Just what the hell do you think you're doing?" She's beside me in an instant, her hands latching upon my shoulders, pressing me with a startling, virtual irresistible, strength upon the rustling bedding.

"Geeze." I snap, settling upon the bed again with a petulant scowl. "First, you threaten to kill me, then you say we're going home, and now with the Florence Nightingale routine again? Make up your mind." I can't resist the compulsion to rather childishly fold my arms across my chest, wincing at the spike of agony as the IV decides to resist.

"That's why. God, you're sort of cranky today, aren't you?" A wry laugh; I realize that I am, and that, with a certain mortifyingly savage abruptness, my stomach has decided to begin complaining, as well.

"Well, I tend to get that way when I haven't eaten for... How long has it been?" I draw a sudden, harsh intake of breath as she extricates the intravenous without warning, merely arresting my arm with her thoroughly improbable strength.

"Five days." That's hellishly disorienting, isn't it? I've no conception of time as it is, overcome with the sense of having enjoyed a brief, languorous nap; five days is unbelievable. "You're nearly comatose from the anaesthetic, then the painkillers, and now you're just totally fine, awake and raring to go." I'm not certain if it's a sense of awe or annoyance at how odd it is.

"Stasis?" I offer with a smile as she begins disconnecting the impressively unobtrusive spider's web of cables spooling from me, monitoring a broad and probably essential assortment of vital activities. I can't resist a lurching jolt of fear, that icy sensation of a marching band tromping across your grave, at the level, shrill tone of the EKG's blaring bleat upon its disconnection. It's silenced in an instant, fortuitously not triggering any alarms. "Uh..."

"Sorry." An apologetic shrug. "I guess I was sort of distracted. Uh, this is probably going to be embarrassing, but..." She gestures beneath the sheet cloaking my legs, and I unleash a miserable whimper. Lovely- my lover's mother will be the first to see that, presumably, since my awakening.

"Fine." I sigh, closing my eyes and visualizing various congenial images- Kim's smile, Carlo's head disintegrating beneath my fist, Doctor Drakken advertising his stupid Blueberry with another rap performance- as I feel a slight friction, and a triumphant rattle of that hellish thing into a medical bin.

"There. Now, you can get up." A curiously theatrical pause. "Princess."

"Hey!" What the hell? "She even told you that?"

"No- I have an excellent memory, actually. Honestly, after seeing you two, I had my own thoughts." A needling grin, her emerald eyes alighting with an obvious mischief. "You weren't very subtle, even then- I felt sort of left out, honestly. You don't think I'm as pretty as my daughter?" It's almost inexplicably bizarre, and curiously familiar; Anne clasps her palms before her chest, canting her face and leveling me with what I could only liken to Kim's patented puppy eyes.

"Well, uh, I mean-"

"Don't worry." That expression vanishes in a moment, and she waves her hands dismissively. "We couldn't save your clothing, but Kim brought something for you." She explains as she strides upon her clicking heels to a well-concealed closet, heaving open the doors with a quiet sigh of effort; she returns with... Green. Pure, radiant emerald, striated with prominent seams of black. I blink bemusedly, my eyes goggling as I'm finally afforded the opportunity to inspect them more thoroughly. It's an elastic top, lengthy sleeves terminating slightly above the wrists, and a similarly patterned pair of trousers; the resemblance to my suit is uncanny.

"This..."

"She thought you'd like it." And I do; it's a bit surreal for my standard bodysuit to be cloned in taut, rather silken synthetic fabric, but I definitely can't disapprove. "So, I'll give you a few minutes. You can stand, right?"

"I'll see." It's remarkably little effort to ease my feet upon the frigid tiles, a hissing intake of breath the sole frailty that I'm willing to expose to Anne's studious observation, unfolding from the mattress with the utmost grace that I can manage. I'm presently an intoxicated hippopotamus beside my ordinary deftness, but it's definitely more than ample to persuade her that I don't require any further hospitalization; I can't resist the urge to pirouette victoriously, positively overwhelmed by the sense of liberty offered by my flight from that damn intravenous and the attached machinery.

"Before you start dancing, you, uh... Might want to tie your gown." I halt in mid-pivot, my flesh presently in the midst of a dramatic and improbable transformation from its signature color to an astonishing crimson. I should probably have noticed the peculiar ventilation offered by the fragile garment, though my immediate priority is instantly clamping my palms upon my rear, lurching toward the nearest available wall and fervently wishing that one of my abilities was simply to dissolve into it. "Don't be embarrassed. I've seen you naked, Shego; I'm a doctor." I notice a mild tinge of vermillion upon her cheeks; that doesn't precisely encourage me, particularly as her lips shift into ever more impressively warped contortions.

"It's okay." I deliver with a self-conscious sigh, and she obligingly bursts into a fit of laughter. It's that form of exaggerated, bowel-bursting, outlandish guffawing that's absolutely mortifying when you're the recipient of it; she folds against the antiseptic, whitewashed wall beside her, virtually weeping from what I can't even begin to imagine. "What the hell's so funny?"

"It's- it's-" she's gasping, struggling to manage even a single breath. "It's just, you- you're this badass," another dubious intake of air; I'm beginning to hope that she passes out from it. "You're this badass supervillain, and- and you're my daughter's girlfriend, and... I just saw your butt hanging out of a hospital gown." A momentary, composed pause, before she begins cackling again.

"That's... That's really, really hilarious." I deadpan, restraining myself from doing something that I'm certain I'd eventually regret, if afforded sufficient time for reflection in a convent, to my lover's mother. "May I please dress? Alone." That's emphasized with what I can only hope is a suitably grave, leaden severity; she can barely restrain her giggling for a moment to nod, a chattering cadence of laughter echoing from behind her until the door finally closes. "Smartass." I sigh, stripping away that accursed gown, simply casting it with no uncertain aggravation to the floor, deliberately, petulantly, away from the indicated bin.

The arctic, arid iciness of the chamber caresses my bare skin, and I shiver at the sensation of every inch of my flesh rippling with a tingling chill. I instantly lunge upon the clothing that Anne deposited upon the mattress, seeking out- appropriately- a midnight black pair of panties. I ease into them, a bit impressed at how superbly Kim selected them- though I ponder rather lewdly that she should be. The bra follows, another flawless fit upon the swell of my breasts. The shirt galls a bit upon my injury, though there's, quite miraculously, merely the most infinitesimal suggestion of any wound whatsoever, a subtle puckering of my skin the sole indication of the bullet that virtually claimed my life. I'm a bit impressed, despite myself, at the swiftness of my recovery; I suppose that a virtual coma for five days afforded me ample opportunity to mend without interruption.

My body protests a bit as I twist myself to tug on the trousers; I can't resist a roll of my eyes in Kim's stead at how snugly they cling to every contour. The banality of a simple pair of black socks follows, and I notice that my boots- flawlessly cleansed of every trace of filth absorbed from Dagwood's- are at the base of the closet. I finally avail myself of the opportunity to admire myself in the full-length vanity mirror mounted upon its door, and I can't resist an appreciative whistle; I'm rather sexy, matted hair and hell-warmed-over appearance notwithstanding. I definitely relish the sight of how beautifully accentuated my body's elegant curves are: the abundant rise of my chest beneath the clasping embrace of the elastic shirt, shot with a flawless parody of my own suit's pattern, sharply plunging to the slim curvature of my abdomen, swelling again at my hips and thighs. It's sleek, athletic, and I definitely couldn't be mistaken for the average listless housewife.

A low, level series of raps at the door, and I shout a noncommittal, "Come in." Anne enters with the quiet groan of hinges, and leans with a certain exaggerated lassitude against the door frame.

"You definitely haven't had three kids, my friend." I turn with a smirk, that restoration of my customary colors, even if not the clothing itself, ushering in a renewed tide of that spirit that I'd feared had trickled away with my blood.

"Maybe someday, when I'm ready to settle down and grow old." A shake of her head, cinnabar locks rustling around her remarkably youthful features; I'm rather amazed that she's a twenty-two-year-old daughter.

"You want to walk home, Miss Shego?"

"Shego's fine, actually." I smile, striding with a vibrant swell of confidence toward her, swiftly recovering from a sudden failure of my knees for a brief instant. "So, where're we, anyway?"

"Middleton General. I'm usually a brain surgeon here, but my daughter forced me to look after a certain retired ne'er-do-well."

"Has it been worth it?" That was more serious than I'd hoped.

"You saw Kim's face, didn't you? I think that answers your question." We emerge into the corridor, my brief imprisonment drifting away into the distance as we stroll through the glaringly-lit hall, careening orderlies, physicians, nurses, and the occasional errant patient conjuring a remarkable similarity to a medical pinball machine. I grunt, resisting the visceral urge to retaliate with a few streaks of plasma as a few disoriented staffers collide with me; I notice Anne's grin immediately at that.

"What?"

"I think you're already learning." It's an approving remark.

"Learning about what?" A sidelong glance.

"To be a bit more civil. Or, are you just trying to impress me?"

"Neither. I'm just not strong enough to take on the entire hospital without suffering a scratch." Another characteristic, airy laugh from Anne. She's so similar to Kim, it's almost excruciating; my eyes scour the walls and cluttered station desks in search of a clock, a computer, anything to signify the progress of time. "What time is it?"

"Four-thirty." She announces, following a brief glance at her watch.

"Oh." I allow a few eternal seconds to pass before asking, pointedly, "What time is it now?"

"I know you can't wait, and I know this is weird, but be patient. Come on; maybe it'll be fun to finally see the castle where you and my beautiful daughter will be staying while I pretend that she's just four and you're having a sleepover." She cajoles.

"I know. I'm sorry, Anne." I nevertheless avail myself of a glance at a clock that's indecently exposed itself upon the wall above the bank of elevators, the gleaming doors hissing open and closed with a languorous, unhurried regularity, a trickle of patients in varying states of dress seeping through the portals.

"Don't worry about it." She jabs at the call switch, a delicate crimson gleam setting the icon in relief. Another lifetime progresses before the lustrous panels part, admitting us to a steel compartment reeking of disinfectant; a slim finger daintily prods a key marked 'L', and we descend, at last. "You don't mind if I ask you something, do you?"

"Am I going to regret saying, 'yes'?"

"Maybe." No jocular smile or laughter. A prolonged silence amidst the contemplative murmur of the elevator, before I finally nod in agreement. "Have you always had feelings for Kim?"

"For a long time." I'm amazed that I don't hesitate for even an instant. "She's beautiful."

"That was it?" Her voice is neutral, but I can sense the accusation.

"Well, at first. Still, it was weird- we fought, and fought, but I just felt closer and closer to her. I felt like she understood me, even if it was as an enemy." I've never explained this to anyone in such coherent terms, not even Kim, though I've little doubt that she understands it as well as I. "No one ever has, not even my family; so it was just sort of inevitable, I think. I really started hoping that she'd foil one of my employers' stupid schemes, just so I could see her."

"That's sweet, in an odd way." It is. The elevator decelerates with a quiet grinding of its brakes, and halts with merely the mildest jolt; we step off into a corridor beside a spacious lobby, its spare but comfortable furnishings luminously accentuated by the vast envelopment of windows, the sun blazing through the flawlessly-honed panes.

"That's when I knew that I was in love- when the thought of a paycheck was less important than seeing her. When I actually wanted to pull my punches." I speak intermittently, Anne waylaid by salutations of, 'Doctor Possible,' at random intervals along the fairly brief distance to the revolving doors. I draw a deep, rapturous gasp of the crisp spring air, the mild, tingling chill seeping into my lungs tempered by the blissful caress of the sun. I gaze into the azure vastness of the sky, that fathomless expanse beneath which I've toiled and struggled upon every continent, but I don't believe that I've ever quite grasped the limitlessly vast liberty that it represents. It's a euphoria born of my sudden release from the onerous burdens that I've shouldered for... Longer than I'd quite care to admit, but I hope that it doesn't vanish.

"This is it." I glance down at what seems a rolling mid-life crisis, a streamlined, sleekly-curved, wheeled rocket, adorned with a gleaming Maraschino cherry-red veneer. "What? Expecting something a little more reserved?"

"Something that doesn't make me think that you have a nineteen-year-old girlfriend from a a strip club, actually." She gracefully ignores that jab, unlatching the door and tugging it open, exposing the supple leather upholstery that lusciously envelops every contour as I ease upon it. "Still mocking?"

"It's amazing, I admit." The engine thrums to life with a shuddering power that I can feel, with a certain tingling excitement, rippling through the vehicle. I anxiously don my seatbelt, violating my own norm of embracing the dangerous life when it lurches from its slot, tossing me against the seat-back as if I'm enjoying a visit to one of NASA's human centrifuges; it levels at approximately twenty miles-per-hour above any sane limit as it barrels from the lot, swaying with a fluid and expert grace along the languidly rolling meadows that separate the hospital from the town. It's a staggering departure from the seedy, pollution-smeared industrial sector, the lush, verdant greenery a bit overwhelming as I stare drowsily at a few vapidly gnawing cows. One, I'm certain, greets us with a contented moo, a few shreds of cud tumbling from its jaws. "I've never seen this area before. At least, not like this."

"It's peaceful, isn't it?" I turn to her; she's peering ahead, a mild smile quirking her lips. I'm a bit astonished that she hasn't donned a dashing fuchsia scarf and leather gloves, but I don't offer that opinion; I'm a bit startled by her distant expression. It's curiously familiar; a glance at the the vanity mirror suspended above the dash confirms that it's mine. "You know, I'm not a total square." That phrasing begs to differ. "Kim's dad and I had a lot of adventures before she was born; they weren't always safe. That's why we moved here."

"Oh?"

"Yeah." A slightly wistful softening of her features. "We volunteered a lot abroad- MSF, development projects. Dangerous and stupid, given how young we were, but we weren't exactly that wise then. I learned I was pregnant when we were huddling in some Congolese hut, wondering if the thunder was from the lightning or bullets."

"That's-"

"Not really what you were expecting, right? I'm just trying to reassure you that there's life after adventure."

"I don't think that you really need to, to be honest." I return to the countryside, gradually resolving into the scattered development of Middleton proper, the town rising forth with rather an unobtrusive pleasantness. A smattering of errant houses becomes subdivisions, dense clusters of generic residences nestled amidst remarkably resilient nature. The road veers sharply away from the congregated homes, rising along the gradual, lengthy slope of a hill, finally cresting with a glimpse of a thoroughly spectacular estate. It's not a vast McMansion, by any means, but it's impressively large, studded with an ample abundance of peculiar parabolic dishes and other communications equipment; it seems as if NORAD's invaded suburbia. The engine halts with a fluid gurgle, and utter silence engulfs us, until she interrupts it.

"We're here." As if it required any acknowledgment. I open my own door, not eager to establish a precedent of dependence, motivated by politeness or otherwise, and emerge into the slightly cooler pre-dusk stillness of their drive. I'm serenaded by the penetrating, staccato chirp of birds, a low, mournful song arising in reply, developing into a spectacular disharmonious chorus of loquacious wildlife.

"It's wonderful." I marvel at it, the concentrated serenity of this home, separated from everything; from the havoc and congestion of blazing, sand-caked Dubai; from the grimy misery of a Cairo safehouse; from the hideous, malodorous wretchedness of Dagwood's. It feels as if it's another world entirely. I clamp my palm upon my mouth at the eruption of what promises to be a lengthy, ostentatiously drowsy yawn, my eyes watering a bit from the dimming, slanted sun.

"Thank you." She eases beside me; both of us stare at the facade, the banks of windows, the angle of the symmetrically-shingled roof. "It'll be a little lonely without her, I think." There's an undeniable sorrow in her voice, though she's nonetheless smiling.

"I'm sorry." I am, a bit; but our lives are finally beginning.

"Don't be. She can't stay at home forever; I knew that, eventually, someone on a white stallion would be sweeping her away." A wry chuckle. "I just didn't expect that it would be a villainess wanted in sixty countries."

"Ninety, actually." I quip. "Not any longer, though, courtesy of... Wade, right? The fat kid?" A roll of her eyes.

"He's slimmed down a little."

"That wasn't very nice, was it?" I can't resist a laugh at her barely-suppressed smile.

"No."

"Not be rude, but... Do you mind if I shower? I feel really, really awful." I gesture to my hair, presently a nightmare entanglement of arid black fibers.

"Please, do." A teasingly exaggerated wave of her hand. "You smell a little ripe."

"I guess no one volunteered to give me a sponge-bath."

"Like Kim'd allow that. No, no one even touched you, except for her, and she's not exactly allowed to do that." We enter, and I'm surrounded by a remarkable measure of warmly suburban opulence, essentially what I'd expected from the family; an abundance of rich wooden paneling, a spectacular profusion of tastefully costly electronics, and several items that would seem more appropriate for the International Space Station, curiously littered across the foyer. "Upstairs, second door on the right. I'll be here if you need anything; Kim's room is in the attic." I'm alone, rather blessedly; I gather that the awkwardness was wearing upon Anne, as well.

My footfalls thump hollowly upon the staircase, and I ascend into a carpeted corridor, decorated in a manner indistinguishable from the lower floor; I'm awed by the tiny, obviously treasured family trinkets recessed within arched indentations. Photographs, a few clay figurines that obviously stem from an incredibly unsuccessful flirtation with pottery, and even a macaroni character that's vaguely recognizable- courtesy of its substantial, exaggerated stomach- as her father. It doesn't inspire the twinge of regret that I often feel when confronted with such sentimentality; it's an urge to allow myself that joy in the future, to craft those forms of permanent memories that don't rely upon a dollar balance in my accounts. I can't even berate myself for obviously becoming soft, swayed by tender sentiment and not a harsh, brittle cynicism; I'll probably be knitting doilies soon, or weeping at sappy films.

"Nah." I can't foresee that; I don't have the patience for knitting, and bland chick tripe annoys me. I'm glad that I haven't totally divested myself of that edge, grinning with a rather overt dementia as I enter the bathroom, noticing a terrycloth towel and washcloth set prominently beside one of the porcelain basins set within an elegant, white marble sink. If I were still a thief, and of pettier aspirations, I'd consider this home to be a bonanza; as it is, it inspires a certain desire to present them with a suitably persuasive offer. I shed my clothing as swiftly as I can manage, not particularly wishing for the hospital's antiseptic taint to permeate the fabric, and lunge into the shower, clutching that wondrously dense, plush washcloth.

The water cascades across my skin in a beautifully scalding torrent, every individual, blazing rivulet scouring away the accumulated filth of the preceding days; it seems as if the doubts that I've been forcing myself to entertain are dissolving with the grime and soil, melding with the tiny, murky tracts that gurgle away into a sullen oblivion through the drain. In the midst of the sultry caress of the water, a fine mist beginning to boil through the crisp chill of the chamber, I'm certain that I can feel her touch; we've showered together so often. Regardless of the haste, it's never been a tortured, guilty, and bitter parting; it's been a blessed, final moment of intimacy, relishing the languid, playful stroke of fingertips, the teasing caress of lips, the brush of hair, sleek and silken with a liquid heat.

I luxuriate in it, permitting my mind to wander to those hours- even that one sublime day, twenty-four hours of absolute rapture in Brazil- together; I never believed that anything could hope to compare with the initial, quivering thrill of our first embrace, that surging, swollen passion, and I never envisioned that any grief could hope to rival the agony of our parting. I rediscovered, again and again, with each encounter how ridiculous that notion was; even with the familiarity of that touch, the certainty of the heart-rending separation, it was never tiresome or stale. It wasn't like any of my other relationships, a blaze of passion and the cooling embers of boredom; it's a continual, searing heat that refuses to be stilled, and I love it. The soap is scented faintly of jasmine, feminine and refined, and I massage it into every inch of my skin; the shampoo is perfumed with that wondrous apple blossom scent, and I churn it into a froth as I knead it into my hair, wishing that I could enjoy her most diligent ministrations. As it is, it's arduous in the extreme, aching muscles and the throbbing pain within my chest protesting with any extension of my arms, but I finally manage to wash that immense raven fall again, and again, and once again, for proper measure, until I'm satisfied that it's truly redolent of her fragrance.

I'm flushed, panting quietly from the scalding heat that's begun to sap what little strength remains within me, as I emerge from the shower, tearing aside the curtain and stumbling again into the shivering chill of the bathroom. Marble may be gorgeous, but it's definitely not conducive to warmth, I reflect, as I swaddle myself in the towel, seizing my clothing and harnessing my considerable stealth and agility to negotiate toward the unfurled ladder that grants access to Kim's bedroom, my feet slapping damply upon the bare wood as I emerge into what's truly a feminine paradise. It's precisely as I'd visualized it, her favored plush animals greeting me upon the pink bedsheets, their less charmed brethren joining an ample profusion of photographs and mementos upon her shelves, dresser, and bedstand. I flop onto the mattress, relishing the abundantly cushioned softness, and gaze up at the ceiling, visualizing for a moment her evenings, alone and pining, as mine have been.

I can't bear to ponder that at any length, pulling myself into a seated position and beginning to comb in swift, tugging strokes, ignoring the screaming agony of the knots, through my hair; I'm determined to be as beautiful for her as I can manage, given the limited notice. I stand before the mirror, skin imbued with that curious, faint emerald hue, in such contrast to my surroundings, tinged a pale salmon with the gathering dusk. The sun has begun its inexorable descent, the vibrant saffron radiance of the day supplanted with a spiraling gradient of muted golds, reds, and oranges, transitioning to a gloriously regal violet along its deepest fringes. It casts peculiar shadows, and I realize that I should never have allowed so many sunsets to pass, responsibilities or not, without her; the brush clatters, abandoned, to the dresser, and I shrug into the clothing again, perched upon her mattress. I'm the one waiting, now, and it's not quite so pleasant; I can feel the tears, hot and scalding with regret and guilt, upon my cheeks, curling upon the bed and taking hold of some odd panda-kangaroo beast that's scented so strongly with that unmistakably unique fragrance of her. I'm asleep, tumbling into a sullen blackness, before I even realize it.

I'm absolutely certain that I awaken at impossible moments, in utterly inconceivable circumstances; with an all-consuming delight in the midst of the elevator shaft, a tender smile gracing her features; with an irritable scowl as I'm certain that I can perceive, with nightmare realism, the rustling abrasiveness of the sheets upon that dismal cot; amidst the bleating dissonance of the hospital machines. None of them are true, however, but I feel my heart lurch at every one, even the soaring elation of her face looming above mine, the delicate caress of her hands upon my skin; they're the past, moments trodden over in my struggle for anything resembling a future, and I can't bear the notion of reverting to them, of the whole of this being an excruciatingly beauteous fantasy. If I awaken alone, pondering another day of solitude, with the awareness that everything has been a torrid, elaborate product of my pining imagination, I'll step into a volcano; I can be certain that there will be one conveniently at hand.

The worst, however, is what strikes me as I drift deeper, more inflexibly into that slumber. I'm afflicted with the capacity for lucid dreaming, a constant, gnawing awareness of the fusion of reality and surreality; it's a torment, my mind never truly resting, my thoughts never allowed to wander into anything but a vaguely bizarre rendition of the truth. I can feel myself bleed, the helpless torment of my rent nerves and shattered flesh, and I know, at that moment, that there's no ambulance; help will never arrive, my hopes and yearnings for a future sluicing into the grimy gutter beneath me, so near to a resolution. I'm certain that I can feel my heart slow, even as my soul screams out in utter agony, begging, pleading to awaken again, for anything, anyone, to just rescue me from this. For a kiss that I feel upon my forehead; for a touch that seethes electrically through me, cascading across every inch of my skin, even in the midst of what I realize, at last, is merely an anxious nightmare, the black suffering withering away to a sallow and unreal gray.

I surface, panting, from the suffocating hell, discovering that I'm awash in utter darkness, a subtle thickening of shadow directly before me resolving into what I've craved for what feels an infinity of eternities. The chamber is cloaked in deep, murky gradients of hazy violets and navy, fading into blackness as the lingering vestiges of the sun struggle to trickle above the horizon; my eyes adjust swiftly, and I lunge upon her, ignoring the cringing pain that rushes from my wound. Her reply is a quiet squeak, overbalancing, both of us again upon the plush surface of the bedding.

"You're frisky tonight." A gentle murmur as I bury myself against her, savoring the softness of her chest, pliant and yielding beneath my nuzzling cheek.

"I... I really, really missed you." I whisper hoarsely. "I'm sorry."

"Uh, for missing me?" She seems a bit bemused, her fingertips delightfully beginning to glide through my hair.

"For not being here for you. For- for everything. For making you cry like I was tonight, wishing that we weren't apart. It- it was so stupid. I should've just tossed away everything, and-"

"We're together now, right?" She silences me with a kiss upon my lips once she extricates my face from the dreamily wondrous valley of her breasts. "Right?"

"Right." I sniffle a bit, marveling at how uncharacteristic this is, how odd that I should be the one to break down, to be so emotional, so fragile; I suppose that I've simply been conserving this for the moment at which I could afford to be. In retrospect, I wish that I'd released it as gradually, naturally, as Kim had; I don't love the sensation of my entire brain imploding, my heart erupting, and my soul struggling to gush from every pore.

"I... I don't think I've ever seen you like this." She's as baffled as I am; I don't blame her.

"You might be seeing this for awhile." I manage with a fragile laugh, and we part for a brief instant while she rises to toggle a lamp upon the bedstand, blinding me with a radiant luminosity tinged pink by the frilled fuchsia shade. I can finally admire her fully again; I notice that she's yet to remove her uniform, though the body armor has vanished, along with the bewildering sight of the gun-belt slung around her trim waist. It's a deep azure, a peculiar clash with her pale complexion and vermillion hair; noticing my gaze, she pirouettes, concluding the swaying pivot by tumbling beside me upon the bed.

"Surprised again?"

"I can't get over seeing you like that. I mean, a cop? Really?" Any distraction from the simmering guilt, the self-recrimination, I'll embrace.

"What?" She smirks, and I lift a hand to her shoulder, toying with an epaulet upon the starched uniform.

"Officer Possible?" That elicits an immediate laugh, and she buries her face for a moment within her palms, shaking her head with an exaggerated vigor.

"God, don't say that. It's so embarrassing, especially with how you feel about the police."

"I think it's cute. Maybe I should join up." I offer with a grin; she manages to conjure the focus to deliver a raspberry, her tongue flicking from between her gloriously full lips. "Officer Go?"

"Well, I think you'd need another name first." A somber quirk of her lips; she draws nearer to me, her fingers interlacing with mine. "And I love the name you have."

"There's also the whole being green thing." Another gentle chuckle; I notice that her eyes are remarkably dark, intense, behind the transparent layer of her spectacles. "That could cause problems. And I love my name, because that's what you've always called me."

"Yeah." She swallows, and words cease to be of any meaning as we finally kiss, alone and without restraint. It's the natural union of hearts, our mouths meshing, limbs intertwining, a spontaneous, wondrous joining of our lives and love. It feels as if an eternity's been compressed into an instant, savoring the gentle, yielding splendor of her lips, parting and closing as we shift and sway together, finally separating at the instant I'm certain that my lungs will burst. "Wow."

"Wow." I echo, with absolutely no trace of snideness; I can't imagine a more apt encapsulation of that. "I missed that so much."

"So did I." It's almost awkward, however natural this feels, the realization that there's no time limit; that there will be no need for hurried, boiling kisses, for intense, quivering touches while we struggle against the inexorable march of the clock's hands. I was afraid that it was the excitement, the forbidden and wanton thrill of that bounded relationship, that was sustaining us; with a moment to pause, to reflect, to admire her, I realize that's stupid. I smile, luminously, and she cocks her head inquisitively, managing a breathless, 'What?'

"Tell me." She whines theatrically when I don't answer, devoured by her eyes.

"You always defy every expectation." I whisper, and she quirks an eyebrow a bit perplexedly.

"Oh?"

"You're a cop; you told your parents, your friends about us, and everything's totally cool; you make my heart soar just looking into your eyes." Her smile widens, her eyes softening at those words. "I just realized that eternity started the second that you walked in the door. I can finally tell you something that I've been wanting to for ages." She leans near to me again, and I allow my arms to envelop her waist, tugging her against me; I can feel her heart pulsate through the fabric separating us, my own riotously pummeling against my breast as if it's struggling to escape. "I love you." I'd never realized what speaking those words actually meant; I feel a stream of tears begin to seep from my eyes, my body ablaze, my chest tightening as if I'm beginning to implode upon myself.

"I love you. I love you so much." The tension relaxes, and the most unbelievable joy rushes through me; the fireworks, the bewildering, blazing rapture that I'd once dismissed as hyperbole and cliché, are real, instantly manifest at those words.

"I should have told you sooner." She stifles any further neurosis with another kiss, and another, and another, until I'm panting and breathless.

"You'll tell me again, and again, and again; say it until you're hoarse and you can't speak anymore. You'll make up for that eventually. And I'll do the same." A beat. "I love you."

"I love you, too." That exchange inspires a brief spurt of almost hysterically relieved laughter. "I love you. I love you." I kiss her, finally, without the restraint born of fear or anxiety; everything that I've suppressed boils into being with it, rising to the surface with a magnificent need that transcends any mere lust. We're tugging at one another's clothing in the midst of blazing gazes and lingering kisses, feeling those few, tangible barriers tumble away while my eyes remain locked with hers.

She's gorgeous, more incredible than I can even recall, the elegant, sculpted arches of her body; the graceful, willowy curve of her throat, flowing to the full, feminine shapeliness of her chest; the delicate roundedness of her stomach, honed with a fine muscularity; the flare of her hips, tapering to sleek, lengthy legs. I realize, quite suddenly, that her shoulders are engulfed in a majestic curtain of impossible cinnabar glory, silken and beauteous, that unfolds as she tugs away the ribbon binding the enormity of her mane into that signature tail. This is reserved solely for me, and I feel it surround us as she rises atop me; our fingers interlace again, our bodies intertwining, as we had that transcendent afternoon, feeling my soul rise and bond with hers.

We're together, united completely, as I feel that supreme heat rushing through me; it's beyond anything that I've ever savored in her arms, more than I imagined possible, bathing us in a supernatural glow as we meld. It's almost incomprehensible, imperceptible, brief flickers of her flushed cheeks, her parted lips, her heaving chest as we sway and rock, a breathless, heady dance that concludes with us struggling for air, the sun long since having retired from the sky, a lustrous, shimmering moon casting a quicksilver sheen upon the floor when she clicks closed the lamp with a lazy extension of her arm. I can feel our skin, slick with cooling sweat, with a clarity and intensity that I've never registered; the damp silk of our hair; the bruised, plush majesty of our lips in that continual, fervent embrace.

"Wow." I'm the one who offers that description, and she agrees with a quiet laugh. "It... It feels like we never have before."

"It has been eighteen months." A muted laugh, and I lightly swat at the voluptuous curve of her lovely rear.

"That's not what I meant." She's atop me, despite the mild, prickling pain that I can effortlessly ignore, nestling rapturously against the abundant swell of my chest; I notice, now, with a certain curious envy, that she's larger than I am. "It's... Every time that we have, it's as if it's that time again, in the elevator; that uniqueness, that unbelievable, breathless joy, that spontaneity... I mean, it's like being a virgin again, every time."

"I know." She agrees with a smile, her lips perceptibly shifting against my skin; it elicits a gentle shiver from me. "I just wanted to say that... And, well, it made you say one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard. It's like that for me, too."

"I'm glad." I sigh, a deep, swollen intake of breath that I release in a languid, lengthy stream that hisses quietly from between my lips. Suddenly, unaccountably, I laugh; it's a quiet, gentle giggle, and she glances up at me with drowsy eyes.

"What is it?" She's genuinely confused.

"Just... What your mother told me today. That she'd pretend that we're just having a sleepover." She rolls her eyes at that.

"She said that, huh?" A subtle shake of her head. "That's sort of embarrassing."

"I think it's sweet. I mean, I don't think that anyone's ever been this kind to me, death-threats notwithstanding." An mock-accusatory narrowing her Kim's eyes. "Aside from you, of course. Obviously."

"I know." A beat. "Death-threats?"

"Like I said- sweet ones, telling me that she'll be sure that I suffer a very, very unpleasant demise if I ever break your heart." I allow my fingers to embed themselves in the luxuriant abundance of Kim's rich, lustrous locks, and she unleashes a gleeful sigh as I begin to comb cautiously, tenderly through them.

"What did you tell her?"

"That losing you would be a fate worse than death; that it would be a relief to die if I weren't with you." I can't believe how joyous those tragic words seem; I deliver them without thought or hesitation, absolutely elated at how completely comfortable I am with this love.

"Good." A luminous smile. "But I know that's just hypothetical." A pause. "And I don't want to talk about that at all. Ever again- because we're gonna live forever."

"I can agree to that." She nestles against me again; I love it, however I regret the loss of her gaze for the moment. A lengthy span of comfortable silence ensues, savoring the quiet intake of her breath, the gentle rustle of every exhalation upon my skin; I finally shatter it. "Do you think I should start looking for a house for us?"

"I do." She returns her eyes to their unfaltering focus upon my own. "Where else are we going to spend eternity? Not here- I want to be able to make love without having to be afraid of my parents hearing it. Or hearing them enjoying themselves." I nod my agreement, and, smiling beatifically, she demands, "Say it again."

"I love you." I feel my smile widening impossibly at that.

"Again."

"I love you."

"And I love you. Don't ever forget that." She orders.

"Like I ever could." I kiss her, unhurriedly, tenderly. "Say it again, though."

"I love you. Forever."

"Do you promise?"

"Believe me." A quirking smile. "For the record."