The Dark Ocean

Part 8


Rann Aridorn

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 - 9 - 10 - 11 - 12 - 13 - 14 - 15 - 16 - 17

TITLE: Shadows

AUTHOR: Rann Aridorn

DISCLAIMER: All characters having appeared in Disney's Kim Possible are the property of Disney, and are used here without permission, but with no intent for profit. All other characters are original and the property of Rann Aridorn.

SUMMARY: Drakken tries a new scheme on Shego, with unpredictable results. Now Kim is torn between what she knows is right and what she feels is right.

TYPE: Kim/Shego, Shego, No Romance

RATING: US: R / DE: 16

Notes: I held off on this awhile to make sure that the cliffhanger at the end wouldn't be left dangling. It gets resolved in part eleven, which is already done and just needs to be proofed and posted (soon).
As to the cliffhanger itself… well, all I'll say is you'll have to trust me, heh.

Words: 38923

“It's a ninja… academy?” Shego said, staring up at the gates.

“Yuh-huh,” Ron grunted under the weight of his, Shego's, and Yori's luggage. Rufus perched atop the small pile of backpacks and shoulder bags, a tiny pair of sunglasses perched on his nose and a miniature tanning reflector in his hands.

“This is the elite area of the academy, where those with exceptional skills or who have already graduated the main academy and are skilled enough to continue their training receive additional mentoring,” Yori explained brightly. “You will notice that it is separated by ten flights of steps to give the elite students additional privacy in which to train.”

“I did kinda notice. Ninja Academy… sounds like a Saturday morning cartoon series.” Shego leaned forward and put her hands on her knees, looking at Ron's red face. “You okay there, Stoppable?”

“Oh fine,” Ron wheezed out. “Think a lung collapsed about three flights of stairs ago, but I'm good!”

“That's the spirit.” Shego patted him on the head, then straightened up. “So, do we… knock?” She blinked. Despite being at least twenty feet high, made of stone, and fitted snugly into a forty foot rock wall, the doors had been opened so silently that she hadn't noticed it while she was talking to Ron. “… Oh they're -good-.”

Yori and Shego walked, and Ron staggered, into the courtyard beyond the gates. Cast partly into shadow by the high rock wall that cut the elite academy off from the one below, it was large and mostly open, though what looked like an obstacle course had been assembled in a loose ring towards the center. A man in a black gi was sitting on his heels in front of the obstacle course, his long white hair pulled into a tight ponytail. Despite his apparent age, his angular face was unlined and beardless.

Yori approached and bowed, fist pressed to her palm and head lowered. After a moment, Shego bowed as well, arms to her sides and eyes staying raised to focus on the man. Ron collapsed under the weight of the baggage.

The man opened clear, dark eyes, sweeping them across the bowing women, and over Ron who was struggling his way out of the pile. Rising to his feet, he nodded, Shego and Yori rising.

“Kokuei Yori. A graduate of our own Yamanouchi School, student of the Two Fans Style. You are well known to me.”

“To be known by you is a great honor, Master Sujigaki,” Yori murmured, bowing briefly again.

“Stoppable Ron. A ‘master’ of Tai Shing Pek Kwar, and also having attended Yamanouchi. Master Sensei spoke highly enough of you, and Yori says you have finally learned to tap into the skills that so often lay dormant. Is this true?”

“Yeah, I seem to have kinda gotten the hang of it,” Ron admitted, rubbing the back of his head. Rufus nodded energetically, then did a few martial arts moves from his perch on Ron's shoulder, along with squeaky “Hya!” sounds.

“And Rufus as well. He is also known to me.” Master Sujigaki nodded, then turned to Shego. “You, however, are not. You are here because Ron Stoppable and Kim Possible have earned the respect and gratitude of this school.”

“I'm Shego. Adept in the Claw Branch of the Ancestral Three Dragons School.”

“I see.” Sujigaki nodded slowly. “Shego is your Honor Name, then?”

“It is.” Shego nodded, while Ron gave her a curious look.

“Your Sifu no doubt felt you had earned it, then. However, this is the Shin Yamanouchi School. You will have to earn your own honor here. I will ask for your real name.”

Yori tensed, and from the way Shego's face had suddenly gone cold and stony, Ron wondered if their new sensei had just insulted Shego, or merely come extremely close.

“Sheila Go.” If the mountain air hadn't already been cold, Ron would have expected the temperature to drop just from Shego's voice.

“Very well. Today, you will be shown your rooms and allowed to rest and meditate. Tomorrow your training begins. I shall send out a student to guide you.” Without saying anything further, the black-clad man turned and walked off towards the building that seemed to be halfway sunk into the mountainside.

“I had heard that Sujigaki-sensei was a bit brusk and had high standards,” Yori said a bit lamely. “I am sure he did not intend any offense.”

“He didn't give any,” Shego said so flatly that Ron knew his earlier thought was correct. Sujigaki must have been treading the fine line of insult, and from the sound of it, quite deliberately.

“Uh, Shego, not to pry if it's private or something, but what's an Honor Name?”

“It's something you earn when you complete the student level of the martial art I trained in. If your Sifu thinks you've actually learned well, and are worthy of being known as a real student of the Three Dragons style, they give you an Honor Name. My brothers basically just copied the style of mine when we tried the hero thing because they didn't really understand it.”

“Oh. They didn't learn the fighting style?”

“It's a long story. Let it go for now, Stoppable,” Shego said with a sigh.

“Your training will be long, difficult, and dangerous.”

One would think morning PT would be below the notice of advanced ninja training. One would be wrong. Shego, Yori, and Ron were all dangling by their knees from bars, doing vertical situps. No number had been mentioned for when the situps would be completed.

“None of you are merely students. You are expected to have the skills of a ninja already… this is furthering and refining your abilities.”

Shego grunted a little as she did her fifty-eighth situp. She'd originally signed on with Drakken with the idea of not being worked overly hard too often. But as with everything in life, things hadn't quite gone as planned. So here she was, wearing a ninja gi and doing PE class at Asscrack AM.

“You will not only train in this school, but be sent on actual missions, all of which are real and necessary, and any of which could result in your death.”

Yori winced internally, though she didn't break rhythm in her own situps. She could already tell that Ron was having a hard time. He was struggling on and doing his best, as always, but she and Shego had already done twice the situps he had, and he was breathing heavier. She'd have to hope her tactic from last time, acting as if she hadn't a clue in the world he was having difficulty, would work again. At least so far they hadn't been doing anything that strained her injured shoulder too badly.

“You are free to leave at any time. However, if you do so, you will be barred forever from Yamanouchi, as well as training from any master who trained at or is part of Yamanouchi.”

Ron huffed, barely hearing Sujigaki over his own breathing or the thundering of the blood in his ears. His face was so hot that he felt like he had a fever, and he wondered if he was so flushed from the exertion or because all the blood was rushing to his head from being upside-down. He missed Master Sensei… the little old man may have required him to haul his butt out of bed early and work hard, but not this early, nor this hard, and he'd been a lot nicer about it.

Sujigaki walked out to stand in front of the three laboring students, then said, almost cheerfully, “I am not a cruel man. There will, of course, be a settling-in period. I shall not employ canes or lashes until at least a week into the training.”

By the second week, Ron was usually pulling his gi top on very carefully over red marks on his back.

He consistently passed the standard challenges and exercises set before him, but often just barely, which was not good enough for Master Sujigaki. Too, his flailing and inelegance in doing so often seemed to inspire the sensei's wrath, causing a stout switch to descend on the blonde's shoulders or across his back.

“This is ridiculous,” Shego snarled from her position in one corner of Ron's small room, her arms folded over her chest. She was leaned back against the wall, glaring in the general direction of the door. “That blowhard's been exercising our asses off, but we haven't even come close to touching anything martial arts related.”

“Everything in its own time, Go-san,” Yori said, though her tone was weary.

“And could you not call me that?” Shego's lips pulled away from her teeth a little.

A place on Yori's own back twinged. “… Forgive me, but if you recall, Sujigaki-sensei made it quite clear that neither of us were allowed to use your Honor Name either.”

Shego made a sound of frustration, but it didn't seem to be aimed at Yori. “I am so close to being out of here it's not even funny. There are a dozen other places I could bone up on my training.”

“Hey, that's okay.” Ron smiled sincerely, though tiredness and a bit of pain were obvious on his face. “I understand he gets your goat, it's not like you have to stay.”

Shego looked at Ron for long moments, then made a much louder grunt of aggravation and threw her hands in the air.

“He better at least get to some fighting soon!”

As she lay on the floor, her heightened senses clogged by the smell of her own blood, Shego made a somewhat dazed mental note that she really had to be careful what she wished for.

Rolling onto her feet and pushing herself up, she rushed in at Sujigaki again, fingers straight and stiff, and thrust them towards the back of his head, only to have the old man spin spryly to one side and look at her.

“Excellent. Usually students believe, for some reason, that once they have hit the floor, the exercise is over.”

Shego snarled, dropping into a sweeping kick. Sujigaki almost casually flipped over her head and landed on her other side, again turning to face her.

“Though in this case, I believe it is more anger that is driving you rather than common sense.”

The green-skinned woman came back up to her feet and lashed out at him with curled fingers, just barely having enough restraint not to unsheathe her real claws. He continued to bob and weave, not actually engaging her.

“That is generally the flaw of the Claw style. Its focus on quick lashes tends to reinforce rather than temper the anger of those who choose it.”

“Shut up already!” Shego snapped, curling her fingers and aiming her palm at his nose. Then she yelped as she suddenly found herself on her knees, her arm stiff above her head with her wrist twisted right to the breaking point, her other hand coming up reflexively to grip her taut arm.

“You lacked respect and focus even before the changes to your body, I can see,” Sujigaki said coolly, his voice now carrying a thread of scorn rather than the light, casual tone of before. “How your Sifu believed you worthy of an Honor Name, I do not know.”

Anger flared so brightly that for a moment, Shego felt herself plunging into the dark ocean within her, felt the thing inside uncoil and writhe in her belly. But the fury died so abruptly it was like air hissing out of her, or steam escaping from glowing metal plunged into water. Instead of the ache from her fangs and the itch in her fingers she'd been starting to feel, she felt her eyes stinging, vision blurring a little, and not with the pain in her arm.

Sujigaki abruptly threw her arm down, releasing her and turning to walk away. “Obviously I advanced your training to this phase prematurely. We will resume exercise tomorrow.”

Ron and Yori were slowly picking themselves up off the floor, the sensei's strikes having been a little more effective at making them decide to stay down. Yori walked towards Shego with a distinct limp, avoiding putting her weight on one ankle, and Ron rubbed his jaw.

Yori watched Shego slump forward to put her hands on the floor, head lowered and hair falling to hide her face. Pausing for a moment uncertainly, Yori started to reach a hand out to rest it on the other woman's back.

“Don't touch me,” Shego snapped out raggedly, making Yori draw the hand back quickly.

“Mm, Shegy okay?” Rufus squeaked, poking his head out of the pocket Ron had sewn onto the hip of his gi.

“Yeah, he didn't break anything, did he?” Ron queried, sounding concerned.

Shego shoved herself to her feet and ran from the room.

“Oh dear,” Yori sighed, shaking her head.

“Awww maaaan.”

Yori blinked, and looked to the side at Ron, who was holding up a bloody tooth with a mournful expression. She resisted the urge to either massage her temples or chirp out something like ‘It is your honor to be visited by the Tooth Fairy tonight, Stoppable-san’. Neither seemed quite appropriate.

At dinner, Yori and Ron alternated between trading worried glances and looking at the empty seat near them where Shego usually sat. Working in silent agreement, they managed to hide a bowl of rice and sneak it past the ninja kitchen guards, aided by Rufus engaging a nearby rat in a Tai Shing Pek Kwar versus Ninjutsu match as a distraction. (Apparently, the rats that survived around the school had learned a trick or two of their own.)

Standing at the door of Shego's room, the two exchanged another look, before Ron finally raised a hand to tap on the doorframe. “Hey, Shego?”

After a few minutes passed with no answer, Ron raised a hand to slide the door open, then paused and stepped aside. Yori thought that this displayed a certain growing wisdom on his part… certainly, Shego was less likely to be outraged if another girl mistakenly glimpsed her in a state of undress. (Though she rather wondered if Ron had actually learned this lesson the hard way.) Sliding the door open just enough to peek in, Yori spotted Shego sitting in one corner, legs hugged up to her and face pressed to them.

Sliding the door all the way open, Yori stepped inside, allowing Ron to follow before she slid it closed. “Please forgive our intrusion.”

“We brought you some food,” Ron announced, holding up the bowl proudly.

“Mmm, rice, yummy,” Rufus chirped, attempting to sound cheerful.

Ron continued to beam for a few moments, then sagged when there was no reaction. “Aw, c'mon, Shego, it's not that-”


Ron blinked, glancing at an equally confused Yori, before looking back at the green-skinned girl. “Huh?”

“Sheila. Or Go-san. Whatever. Take your pick.”

The two standing students exchanged a longer glance, before Yori cleared her throat. “Ah… Go-san… are you really alright?”

After a moment, the older girl's shoulders raised and fell in a small shrug, before she raised her head. Ron was glad to see that she'd cleaned her face up, at least. “He was right. About what he said. I didn't deserve my name.”

“That's not fair!” Ron blurted. “I mean, we know he's a real stickler, but c'mon!”

“What he said was right. If I'd been more focused, more in control, the way I should've been if I'd been any kind of student at all… I might not have had such a hard time when I had all this other stuff coming down on me. I might not have killed Drakken and-”

“Hey hey hey!” Ron interrupted, then trailed off awkwardly. But after a moment he moved to sit down beside her, tentatively putting a hand on her shoulder. “Listen, sometimes you make mistakes. I mean, c'mon. Eh? Eh?” Ron gestured to himself with both hands, apparently holding himself up as the prime voice of experience. “But sitting around feeling sorry and blaming yourself doesn't do anything. I mean, it feels kinda satisfying, but it doesn't fix stuff. Ya just gotta try harder or try to fix it or whatever.”

“… Maybe you're right. Still…” She sighed. “I think he really was right. Maybe I haven't earned my Honor Name. At least not yet.”

“Sometimes learning is indeed painful, Go-san,” Yori said softly. “But it is still learning.”

Nodding, Sheila looked aside at Ron. “… Thanks, Stoppable. Now gimme.” She snatched the bowl of rice out of his hands, scooping out a large chunk of it with two fingers and popping it in her mouth.

“The Ron-man knooows what he's talking about,” Ron crowed, doing a brief “it's your birthday” dance with both hands.

Shego glanced at Yori, who was giggling, and rolled her eyes. ‘Good God she's perfect for him.’

The next three weeks saw a definite change in Sheila's attitude. She grew a bit quieter, less likely to respond with quips or sarcasm to things trainers said. A brief, grudging ‘sensei’ became ‘Master Sujigaki’ or ‘Sujigaki-sensei’. When they resumed combat training several days after the first attempt, she was making an obvious effort to rein in her temper rather than let it fuel her.

However, the next three weeks saw the first red marks appear on green skin. Sujigaki seemed to have grown almost as liberal with the switch on the older student as he had previously displayed to Ron. It rarely found Yori as its mark, but Sujigaki pressed all three of them harder than ever. Though Ron's performance was improving on a marked curve and starting to lose some of its stumbling, gangling manner, and Sheila's newfound respect and dedication were both visible to any who saw, Sujigaki always had a fault to find, though words of acknowledgement or praise eluded him.

Every task set before them was judged harshly. In fact, at the moment the three of them were sitting cross-legged in a long row of students, all of them diligently sharpening kunai with stones, and Sujigaki was stalking behind, never ranging far from his two “favorite” pupils.

Yori forced herself not to wince or look over as, directly beside her, she heard the thwack of wood on cloth-covered flesh.

“Smoother. You are honing a weapon, not having a seizure with one of your video game controllers.”

“Yow, okay, okay! I mean, yes, Master Sujigaki,” Ron added contritely, ducking his head and refocusing on his work.

Yori held her breath briefly, then released it quietly when it seemed nothing else was forthcoming. Only having been trained from childhood allowed her to avoid not only wincing, but jumping as another thwack sounded from just a bit further down.

“Unless you wish to turn that kunai into a flat razor, that is not the proper angle.”

“Yes, Sujigaki-sensei,” Sheila acknowledged evenly.

Yori squinted a little as she kept her eyes focused on the throwing knife. These little scenes had become commonplace during the last month. She had no idea why, today, it was coming close to making her want to cry.

“Okay, let's see… ‘where is the nearest fire exit’?”

“Hm… [Where is nearest fire door?]” Ron replied.

“Pretty close, pretty close,” Sheila acknowledged. “But it's [where is the nearest fire exit?]”

“Ohhh, right, right.” Ron nodded, plucking up a hunk of rice with his chopsticks.

The three of them had begun a habit of sneaking their dinner out of the dining area and back to Ron's room, where Shego and Yori would give the blonde Japanese lessons while they ate.

“'The wolf runs across the plains’,” Yori murmured distractedly, having a hard time focusing on the lesson tonight, for some reason.

“[The wolf runs across the plains.]”

“Correct, Stoppable-san.”

“Mm. ‘I could eat Rufus for some decent protein.'”

“Hey!” Rufus squeaked, shaking a little fist at Shego.

“Well I'm sorry, but c'mon,” Sheila replied, making a face and holding up a thin strip of beef between her chopsticks. “I'm this close to jumping that wall and eating the first mountain goat I can catch.”

“Sorry, buddy. [I could devour protein from Rufus].” Ron blinked as Sheila almost choked on her dinner, the green-skinned girl simultaneously thumping herself on the chest and giving choked laughter. “What? Whaaaat?”

“[I could eat Rufus for some decent protein,]” Yori murmured, since Shego still seemed to be recovering. Rufus grumbled and crawled under the sleeping mat to hide in protest.

“Oh. Wha'd I say?”

“Best leave it alone, Stoppable-san.”


Sheila finally recovered and, still giggling, looked at Yori. “Your turn.”

“Ah… I cannot think of anything.”

Shrugging, the older girl looked at Ron and grinned. “Sujigaki-sensei has a tiny penis.”

Ron smirked in return, replying slowly, and carefully, “[Sujigaki-teacher has a tiny penis.]”

“Right in so many ways,” Sheila snickered.

Normally, Yori did her best to ignore her friends’ disrespectful antics, especially in private, but tonight there was just a cold feeling in her stomach, and the sour thought that commenting on the likely size of their trainer's genitalia was hardly where she would stop if she were to voice such things.

“Aw, geez,” Ron murmured suddenly.

“What's wrong?” Sheila blinked, setting her bowl aside, Yori looking over as well.

“I just noticed that my shirt was sticking to my shoulder.” Ron winced as he pulled the gi top away from his shoulder, an ugly, uneven break in the skin surrounded by reddish-brown dried blood. “Guess he hit that same spot too often, eheh.”

“Crap. That jerk.” Sheila scowled, reaching for a jar of ointment from the one shelf in the room. Both of them blinked as Yori abruptly stood up and, her movements stiff, slid the door open, walked out, and slid it closed behind her.

“Uh, did I miss something?” Ron looked at Sheila, who shrugged.

“Tense about shoulder injuries, maybe?”

Sujigaki raised his head at the tapping on his door frame. Unfolding his legs and standing, he walked over to slide the door open.

“Sujigaki-sensei, my deepest apologies for disturbing you,” Yori said, bowing quickly. Her words were tensed, rushed, nervousness plain in them though she was obviously trying to be as composed as she could.

“You have disturbed me, so you may as well come in. Close the door after you.” Sujigaki turned and walked away, waiting for the sound of the door closing to turn around and look at his student. “What drives you to visit me at this time of the evening?”

“… Sensei, with the greatest respect,” Yori began slowly. “I do not feel you are being fair to Stoppable-san and Go-san.”

“Really?” the older man replied dryly.

Yori paused, then continued after a moment, sounding far less sure of herself. “I do not mean to criticize your methods, but it seems as if… as if you might be singling them out unnecessarily.”

“You are questioning what I feel is necessary?”

The teenager's eyes widened. “I… Sujigaki-sensei, I meant… I only intended-”

“So the two gaijin,” Sujigaki said slowly, rolling the last word around in his mouth as if finding it particularly relevant. “Have sent you to plead their case because they cannot take my methods.”

Yori's face paled. “Sujigaki-sensei, that's not at all what-!”

“I am disappointed in you for not having the confidence in me to deny their whining. Obviously, my original thought, that neither of them are worthy of being here, was correct.”

Her mouth opened and closed slightly as she searched desperately for any possible respectful way to deny such a blatant falsehood. Her belief in Ron's abilities was absolutely truthful, even if she chose to gloss over his seemingly bumbling manner of carrying out his objectives. And Sheila… Shego… was an acknowledged student of another, obviously well-known school of martial arts, and was on par with Kim Possible, a girl whose skills equaled Yori's own.

“Though I cannot simply throw the foreigners out, this proves to me that I shall have to redouble my efforts to drive them away. I thank you, in the end.”

Yori stared, every single word in the dozen languages she knew having fled her mind. She felt strangely numb all over, with a sort of unpleasant, staticy tingle across her skin. She was barely aware of her fingers tightening, fingertips pressing to the base of them, until she felt the jarring all along her arm of her palm connecting with something.

She was actually rather surprised to see her arm extended in front of her, and followed it all the way to where Sujigaki's head was turned to one side, her palm pressing against his jaw. In shock, she let her arm go limp and her hand fall. Shock, dismay, and shame all flitted through her mind, but were overridden by a sort of cold satisfaction. Her career as a ninja, and possibly her life, was over. But she'd never felt that any action she'd ever taken was more deserved.

Sujigaki slowly turned his head back to look at her, dark eyes deep and unreadable, gaze unwavering.

Then, after an eternal second, he let out a puff of breath and rolled his eyes. “Well it's about time.”

Yori considered herself a very collected person, but she couldn't keep her jaw from dropping as Sujigaki actually grinned, raising a hand to rub his jaw lightly.

“By the way, you're following through just a little early. If you were hitting spot-on you'd have definitely broken it.”


Shaking his head, Sujigaki beckoned her to follow him and turned, walking over to another door and sliding it open. Yori followed him into a traditional study, but out of someone else's traditions. It was done in wood paneling, containing several cushioned armchairs, and a large oak desk with an open laptop on it.

“Have a seat,” Sujigaki said evenly, gesturing to one of the armchairs as he moved to settle into the leather chair behind the desk. “I'm not in the habit of explaining myself to students, but this is a rather unique case. I will make an exception.”

Yori nodded numbly, settling herself tentatively into the plaid chair and folding her hands in her lap, trying not to stare at the darkening mark on the white-haired man's jaw.

“I have indeed been unfair to Ron and Sheila during the past few weeks as part of the training. However, it was not because of their training, but yours.”

“Mine?” Yori echoed, feeling a little lightheaded.

“Yes. It was an effort to get through to you.”

“Their suffering was because of me…?”

Sujigaki frowned a bit. “It was not more than they could bear. And they would thank you for it if they understood, as I'm sure they will should they ever learn of it. Their lives are going to depend on you repeatedly in the next year, and likely much longer after that, and this was an extremely important lesson. I was beginning to lose hope that you would have any sort of breakthrough, and was close to ending your training here.”

Yori sagged back into the chair, murmuring weakly, “Sensei, perhaps you had best start from the beginning.”

The old man's mouth quirked on one side. “Indeed. The three of you came here with many lessons to learn, but each of you had one that was most important. For Ron, the lesson to learn was that he could not always simply skate by on what other people would allow. Just barely making the mark will not always cut it, especially not when other lives are on the line besides his. If he is to survive in the world he intends to live in, he must learn that overachieving is sometimes extremely important. Thus, my demand that he learn finesse, grace, and truly better himself. It is a lesson he is steadily learning.”

Yori nodded slightly, feeling some truth to that. She was beginning to wonder if her feigned ignorance of his shortcomings had actually done him any favors.

“Sheila… Shego… came here full of arrogance and more confidence than was her due. While she understood the need to better her skills on some level, she had not achieved enough humility to truly begin the work. I could have taught her techniques and skills, but they would have been like guns in the hands of the untrained. Point and shoot. Her lesson was a painful one, but she had to learn that there is still much she does not know, and that if she cannot learn to give respect when it is due, she will never grow as a person, nor will she learn to tame the beast that digs its claws into her and drives her.”

Yori gave another small nod. Ever since that night, she'd noticed other changes in the green-skinned girl. Though previously Shego had made sure to stay close to the other two, there had always been some sense of keeping her distance, of invisible bars that separated them, keeping things firmly ‘me and you’. At some point after she'd begun using her birth name, ‘me and you’ had become ‘us’. Perhaps Shego had actually learned, and allowed herself, to respect Ron and Yori as well as the sensei.

“And… my lesson?” Yori prompted quietly after pondering these revelations for a few minutes.

“Your lesson?” Sujigaki raised his slim white eyebrows. “Your problem was too much respect, rather than not enough.”

“I… I do not understand.”

“Ron already knew that authority figures deserve a certain amount of respect. He needs, and still does need, fine-tuning on giving it in the proper way, but he knows that they must still be obeyed. He even in some ways knew to listen to them, perhaps instilled by having a faith in which adult authority figures are to be sought out for guidance. Restricting himself to ‘yes, sensei’ will come in due time.

“Shego needed to learn to give this respect, and when she learned that lesson, it was learned well. But both of them know that there is a time and place where the level of respect is allowed to be relaxed.” Sujigaki laced his fingers and rested his hands on the desk. “I am well aware that I am muttered about, insulted, and mocked in private by the students. In fact, I have kept a specific ear on it, in some cases.”

Yori ducked her head and averted her eyes.

“That, however, is to be expected. It is a way to release tension and be at ease. As long as I am respected overall, enough that my lessons are taken seriously and my orders heeded, I will not worry overmuch about what is said of the size of my manhood.”

The teenager's cheeks flamed, and she gave a nervous nod.

“You, however, were unwavering in your respect. You forced it on yourself at all times. This is perhaps understandable… you studied under Master Sensei for most of your life, and a sweeter, more admirable man has likely not existed for thousands of years.” Sujigaki leaned back now, tilting his head. “What did you think, when you were assigned to investigate Shuri Ken?”

“I was honored,” Yori answered honestly. “I was very gratified that I had been chosen to track and intercept someone who had betrayed us.”

“What was his betrayal?”

Yori opened her mouth, then closed it with a blink. “I… I do not know.”

“You did not ask, and you did not look into it. You merely allowed yourself to be angry at him, and feel the honor for the task. When I heard of this, that is when I began to suspect the problem.” Sujigaki stood and walked several steps, turning to the shelves of books that lined the wall behind his desk. Plucking one down, he flipped through the pages as he continued to speak. “Some ninja clans pride themselves on unwavering, unthinking obedience. Any offense against the clan is punishable by death, without hesitation.”

Nodding, Yori watched him look through the book. Death for any offense did sound extreme, by her standards.

“We are not like that. We of the Yamanouchi hold ourselves to a higher standard. Ninja is who we are, but it is not everything we are. We are still people. Still human beings. Still fathers, brothers, sisters, friends. Any man who would, without hesitation, turn his blade on a man who he had grown up calling ‘friend’ at the order of anyone with the title of ‘sensei’ does not deserve to be called human, let alone a Yamanouchi ninja.”

Yori slumped, suddenly having gone cold. “I… I hated him for no other reason than that Master Sensei called him a ‘betrayer’. I did not even NEED to ask what he'd done, I simply hated him and wanted him dead.”

“Sometimes, Yori, authority must be questioned, or at least taken lightly. Unwavering obedience leads to stagnation and abuse of power. At best, it breeds tension and resentment. At worst, it breeds the sort of ninja devoid of true honor that serve as so many stock villains in silly movies.” Sujigaki turned, the book open in his hands. Yori saw that it actually looked like a yearbook. (Yamanouchi had evolved with the times, and the academy put out yearbooks like any high school, and had for many years.) “I am not telling you to be disobedient or unfaithful. Merely that you must temper it with natural human curiosity and even skepticism.”

“I understand.” Yori nodded. “… Thank you, Sujigaki-sensei.”

“Thank you for proving Master Sensei right about you,” Sujigaki replied. “Now. Speak nothing of this to Ron and Shego. They will learn about my true manner in due time, if it's necessary.”

“Yes, sensei.” Yori bowed her head briefly. Privately, she thought that, if she ever truly felt it necessary, she would tell them herself. Perhaps her lesson had already begun to sink in.

“You may go, student.” Sujigaki settled himself behind the desk, still looking at the yearbook.

Yori stood and bowed slightly again, turning to go. Halfway to the door, she paused and turned her head to look at him. “Sensei… if it is not presuming too much, just what did Shuri Ken do?”

Sujigaki raised his eyes, regarding her evenly for a few moments. Then he set the book on the desk and turned it, beckoning her over. Curious, she walked to the desk and scanned the old photographs, her eyes finally lighting on a familiar face, though the hair was cut short and neat, the features slightly rounder and less severe. For some reason, the man and woman on either side of him seemed vaguely familiar as well, though like all ninja she had developed a keen memory. They were like faces seen in passing through a mist, made all the more difficult to pinpoint by the fact that she hadn't even been born when these photos were taken.

“Ken of the Shuri family killed your parents, Yori.”

Her hands thumped down on the desk hard, bolstering up her knees which had suddenly become weak. She suddenly felt as if she'd run hard to her limit, her breathing coming faster, air burning through her nose and throat. Her mind went over every millimeter of the black and white photos, mentally aging features and matching them to the very few photos she'd ever seen of her parents, and the single one she actually kept, of them standing behind Master Sensei as he held her as a baby. It had been the last time the two had been in the same room with their child while alive.

She felt something coming up her throat, and wondered if she was going to throw up. No, she realized, it wasn't her dinner, it was noise. She couldn't decide if vomiting or wailing was worse, so she swallowed it down all the same. Pushing herself up, trying to firm her legs, she turned pleadingly questioning eyes on Sujigaki.

“He was your father's distant cousin, but at Yamanouchi they were more like brothers. He encouraged your father to pursue your mother, though at first she favored Ken. Years later, he loaned your father money from his family's meager fortune to buy her a ring and help pay for the wedding.”

“I was…” Yori realized her voice sounded entirely too high, like the sound of a wounded animal. She swallowed again, trying to force it back to its normal register. “… I was only told they died on a mission. Not that…”

“They were assigned to look into a Yamanouchi-trained master, who was said to be selling the secrets he had learned at the school to rich men… bored business owners, Yakuza, it apparently made no difference. When they discovered proof and stepped forward to accuse the master… Ken was already with him, and the master ordered Ken to slay them both.”

Sujigaki drew the yearbook back over to him, though Yori almost wanted to grab it back from him. The old man picked it up and gazed at the youthful faces smiling reservedly from the page.

“Whether he had already succumbed to desire for power and money, or whether he was simply blindly following the orders of a master, Ken obeyed. Inai hesitated because of his love for his friend, but Ken did not, and killed him instantly with a throwing star. Your mother fought valiantly, but Shieki was always weak against ranged weapons. Ken, perhaps realizing just what he had done, fled to America, where we would have a more difficult time pursuing and punishing him, especially considering that he chose to associate himself with other, equally powerful villains.”

Yori nodded numbly, trying to find what to say. She was drawing a blank.

“Do not be hasty or rash,” the master cautioned. “The Yamanouchi knows what this can mean to someone. Especially now that I have decided you are old enough to know what transpired. You will get your chance… until then, continue your training. Live your life. Wait until the time is right.”

“Yes, sensei,” Yori whispered. She turned to walk towards the door, the earlier tidal wave of adrenaline having passed and left her more exhausted than she'd ever been in her life.

“And Yori?”

She paused, looking over towards Sujigaki, who was sliding the book back into place.

“It's alright for you to hate him, now.”

Yori nodded again, lips thinning as she walked out through the bland, nearly empty outside room and into the night air.

Yes. It was very alright to hate him.

“Is it just me,” Sheila mused aloud as they sat in Ron's room the next night. “Or did Sujigaki replace the stick up his ass with a twig?”

“Yeah, he only hit me twice today,” Ron agreed.

“Maybe that love tap someone gave him on the jaw mellowed him out a little,” the green-skinned girl said with a snicker.

“I am sure that he deserved it,” Yori said breezily, smiling just the tiniest amount.

Both Ron and Sheila's heads snapped towards her, and they actually stared for a moment before Sheila laughed.

“She lives! She even jokes!” Still chuckling, the older girl leaned over and slapped the teenager on the shoulder. “We were starting to worry about ya, Yoyo.”

“'Yoyo’?” Yori's eyebrows tried to crawl into her scalp.

“Yeah, Stoppable was on the verge of asking what was wrong,” Sheila confirmed, pointing towards the blonde.

“Yeah, another day, two tops, of you acting all depressed and I was gonna be all ‘Hey, Yori, you okay?'”

“Hoo boy,” Rufus grunted from under the mat.

“I just… learned some news. Family news,” Yori said after a few moments’ consideration.

“Everything okay?” Ron asked, eyes concerned.

“No.” Yori's own eyes hardened, the quirk of her mouth taking on a somewhat bitter caste. “But it will be, Stoppable-san. It will be.”

“You have all done exceptionally well these past two months,” Sujigaki said.

The three students’ jaws didn't drop, but it was a very near thing. It was the first praise they'd received in those entire two months, during which they'd been told they were doing everything but well. Save for Yori, who was more surprised he was actually voicing such sentiments aloud.

“I am satisfied enough with your skills at this point to begin sending you on missions. Small ones at first, but do not let their seeming simplicity lull you. As I said when you arrived, they are still vital, and still potentially deadly.”

Sheila did her best not to snort. ‘Sounds like one of Drakken's plans, minus the vital part, and if you tack “to the planner” on the end.’

“Your first mission will take you into the mountains. There is a group of smugglers illegally excavating old family crypts, some of whom are Yamanouchi ninja. Normal law enforcement is looking for them, but has little to go on in finding them. To preserve secrecy, we can only give them gradual clues. Your job will be to carefully sabotage the grave robbers’ efforts and extend their stay by at least two weeks, allowing the official authorities to find and arrest them. You can help in assuring they are all apprehended, but you must do so without being seen or leaving any trace that ninja were at work.”

“Hai!” the trio chorused.

“Kitei will have weapons, equipment, and maps for you. There is a small house occasionally used by hunters that will be unoccupied for the length of your stay. Have a care, should your sabotage be spotted for what it is, if the house were found they would consider it an obvious source of such things.”


“Go, my ninja, and do your duty.”

“Well, ‘small’ pretty adequately describes this place,” Sheila commented dryly, half-dropping her pack on the floor and leaning it against a wall.

The hunting cabin was one room, with nothing but a counter to slightly separate the meager kitchen area and two doors other than the entrance. One led to a closet with a few abandoned items in it, the other to a small bathroom with a tub that had originally been white but now steadily faded to black at the bottom.

“Oooo, my tub looked like that once,” Ron commented as he glanced in the bathroom. “I didn't know my mom could yell that loud.”

Sheila and Yori exchanged a ‘boys’ look of exasperation, before the Japanese girl flipped open her pack. “Luckily, Kitei included some Ninja Vanish with our supplies.”

“Ninja Vanish?” Sheila asked, tone disbelieving.

“Indeed.” Yori smiled brightly and held up the black spray bottle with stereotypical slash-like white letters proclaiming the name. “Stains vanish quickly, without trace!”

“… Yuh-huh.”

Yori walked into the bathroom, and sprayed once at the very bottom of the tub, where it was blackest. The liquid hit, then started to trickle towards the drain. It left behind a pure white circle with a long, squiggly white line showing where the cleaner had passed.

“Oooo,” Ron and Rufus cooed, impressed.

“That's ridiculously amazing. Or amazingly ridiculous.” Sheila put her hands on her hips. “How does that stuff work?”

“Ancient Japanese secret,” the younger girl chirped.

“Ah. So you stole it from China,” Sheila said in a tone of comprehension, nodding solemnly.

Yori went shifty-eyed. “… Maybe.”

“So what other neat stuff have we got in here?” Ron queried, opening up his own pack and starting to go through things.

“I would imagine typical things for such a mission,” Yori called from where she was spraying Ninja Vanish liberally over the entire bathroom. “A small compliment of weapons, tools such as screwdrivers and wire cutters, smoke bombs, assorted other items that might have been available or considered useful, food, entertainment materials…”

“Boy, they're smart on how they send people out for a two week mission,” Sheila said, impressed despite herself that entertainment was considered a necessity for long missions. She paused in going through the pack she'd been carrying, then lifted out a magazine with a glossy cover. She turned it to one side and opened it, a tri-sectioned page dropping down. “… Very smart.”

“What was whoooooooooa.” Ron had leaned over to see what had gotten Shego's attention, and his jaw dropped, saucer-sized eyes fixed on the page.

“That is a very artfully-designed netting bodysuit,” Sheila commented, eyebrows raised high.

“They included bodysuits?” Yori said brightly as she emerged from the bathroom. Then she stopped and stared, before snatching the magazine out of Shego's hands. “Who put Ninjaboys in here?!”

“Probably the same considerate soul that included Ninjagirl, too,” Sheila replied cheerfully, pulling out another magazine and opening it. “Now that is one big kunai.”

Yori looked towards the other woman, starting to say something, and being interrupted by her jaw dropping. Pink slowly flooded her cheeks, until she managed to grab the second magazine away from Sheila as well. Looking back and forth for something to latch onto, she found it and whirled to face Ron, shoving the black bottle towards him. “Stoppable-san! It is your honor to complete cleaning the cabin!”

“Uh, but I-”

“It. Is. Your. Honor,” Yori clarified, leaning in and speaking between gritted teeth.

“Suddenly I'm feeling very honorable,” Ron said with a gulp, snagging the bottle and hurrying to the other side of the cabin.

Yori puffed out a sigh, then blinked and glanced down. She only had one magazine under her arm. She looked aside and found Sheila sitting with her legs folded, nose buried in the copy of Ninjagirl.

“Aaaah! Go-saaaan!” Yori grabbed for the copy, but Sheila held her at bay with a foot planted against her face, leaving the Japanese girl flailing madly.

“I'm reading it for the articles, lemmelone!”

Yori knelt in the dirt to one side of the cabin, having cleared a patch of slightly damp earth earlier and smoothed it out. She used quick, careful strokes of the kunai she was holding as she spoke.

“The camp, as we were told, is located here, at the base of a small mountain. Taller mountains surround it here and here. The site is blocked from view on this side by the forest, whose line extends to here.”

Sheila squatted more inelegantly to one side of the sketch. She'd been busy overnight since yesterday, having modified her ninja uniform to have slightly flared shoulders above the sleeves, to bare a two-inch swath of her forearms above her gloves, and cut the fingers off of them. She'd also wrapped her chest and extended the black wraps up along her throat.

Eyeing the overall look for a moment, she nodded, reaching behind her back to pull out her own kunai and add to the sketch. “Okay, helps put what I learned in perspective. They bring the trucks in along this path. From the smell, I'd guess one moves through there every couple of days. But there's a lighter smell and some different tracks, so I'm guessing they're using ORVs to spell their workers by ferrying men in and out. No ORVs there now, they must be below their full compliment.”

She pointed at the two triangles Yori had used to indicate mountains. “They're staying away from here, and from some of the rocks and boulders sitting in churned-up ground, they're probably afraid of rockslides. That means they probably occur naturally around here, good news for us.” Sheila drew the point of the kunai barely behind the treeline Yori had made. “There's not sniff one of anybody going more than a few trees in, and from the smell only to use a tree when their chemical toilets are busy or messed up.”

Ron moved to squat down on the side opposite from Shego, eyeing the diagram thoughtfully. Then he gave a decisive nod. “… Dinner's ready.”

“Ah, excellent! Stoppable-san's twist on instant curry!” Yori said happily, clapping her hands together.

“Yeah, let's eat,” Sheila agreed brusquely, rising to her feet and stalking towards the cabin.

“Ah, Go-san…?”

“Huh?” The green-skinned girl stopped, Ron walking past her and inside. Yori came up and gently touched her arm.

“Are you… alright?”

“Fine. Why do you ask?”

“You seem a little… flushed.” Yori tilted her head, lamely indicating Shego's slightly pinkened cheeks, the color odd on the pale green skin. “And you also seem a little… off, for lack of better terms.”

“M'fine.” Sheila shrugged. “I've been running around all day dodging guys and trying to gather intel, s'probably why I seem a little worked up.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I'm sure.” She shrugged off Yori's hand, turning her back pointedly on the other girl and walking into the cabin.

“… Very well.”

A veritable plague of mishaps soon began vexing the “archaeological dig”. Equipment battery lines developed frayed cables that caused hours of delay before they were discovered. Flashlight and helmet light batteries died at an alarming rate. A tree fell and blocked the trail when fresh workers were intended to come in, wasting an entire day in everyone clearing it out.

Morale certainly began to decline. There were whispers that the site was being plagued by the ghosts of the family they were disturbing.

“A most productive night,” Yori announced cheerfully as she and Ron approached the cabin. “The slow leaks in their tires should not show for days. Were you able to put the corrupting agent in their generator's gas tank?”

“Sorry, Yori, somebody was sitting right near it. If they don't suspect sabotage, they're at least getting paranoid.” Ron sighed heavily, then gave an impish grin. “So I just settled for sprinkling the ipecac from my emergency medical kit in the pot of stew that looked like it was tomorrow's breakfast.”

“Oh, Stoppable-san, you and your silly American improvisation,” Yori said with a giggle, smiling brightly at Ron as he pushed the door of the cabin open.

“Hey, what's that smell?” Ron blinked, his nose wrinkling. “What the heck did Sheila make herself for dinner?”

Yori took a few curious sniffs herself as well, the scent vaguely familiar. Then it clicked, and her eyes widened. Coughing, she whirled towards Ron. “Stoppable-san, I just realized, tonight is colder than expected! It would be your honor to retrieve wood for a fire!”

“So honored,” Ron said in a resigned tone, grabbing the sling-backpack from beside the door and traipsing out into the woods.

Yori quickly closed the door, then let out a relieved sigh. She paused for a moment to collect herself, then ventured further into the room. Sheila didn't seem to be in any of the bedrolls, and drawing closer to the bathroom allowed her to hear the faint patter of the shower. She took a longer look around. There was a matted and crumpled magazine laying near one wall, as if it had been thrown and rebounded; a closer glance revealed it to be a copy of Ninjagirl. Yori noticed more magazines laying in haphazard spots near the bedrolls and a yanked-open backpack that they must have come from, before she focused on the matter at hand. Knocking lightly on the bathroom door, she called, “Go-san? Are you alright…?”

“Fine!” Sheila shouted back snappishly, voice obviously angry, albeit muffled by the door. “Can't I get a moment's privacy in this damn place?!”

“… I ask your forgiveness,” Yori replied, rather shocked. The other woman had never spoken to her like that before, though she expected it was more typical of her before her relationship with Kim.

“Whatever,” came the muffled reply.

Yori drew away, considering for a moment, then decided that the best thing to do was to clean up and pretend that nothing had happened. It was best to try and ignore uncomfortable things like this, after all, if they weren't really hurting anything, and whatever was going on was Shego's business.

She procured a can of air freshener and sprayed it in the air liberally as she went to retrieve the thrown magazine. It was twisted and almost ripped in half, as if it had been wound between Sheila's hands in frustration. Yori carried it back towards the bag it had come from, spraying more air freshener as she went. The smell was particularly strong in the area of Shego's bedroll, which was rumpled and twisted. Blushing furiously, Yori spritzed the freshener some more, finally deciding that if she used any more the other woman's sensitive nose would make her even more irritable. Her blush worsening, she turned her attention to gathering up the other magazines.

There was one more Ninjagirl, tossed towards the nearer wall. The rest were Ninjaboys, scattered about in a haphazard fashion, as if discarded with much less frustration. Yori piled them in her arm, then paused as she noticed that one was actually laying directly on the bedroll, still open to a specific page.

Yori considered for a few moments, before nervously picking up the magazine and actually looking at the open pages. The two photos were of an American girl who had apparently been in some branch of a ninja school for a few years, according to the text scattered around in black boxes where they wouldn't get in the way. Her hair was dark red, held up out of her eyes by a black headband with a blank silver plate on the front. Her eyes were light hazel, and in both pictures were partly-lidded, adding an impish, inviting tone to her coquettish smile. In one picture she was sitting on a rock formation with her hands on her knees, which were spread wide apart, giving an excellent view of the thin line of red hair above her sex. The other showed her laying on her back on a futon in a darkened, candlelit room, arms hugged under her chest to push her large (at least by Yori's definition) breasts up and together.

Yori looked at the layout for a few moments, then down at the stack of other magazines. Ninjaboy was a Japanese magazine, and proudly featured only women that were connected, at least in some small way, to actual ninjutsu. It was technically a fetish magazine, but quite appealed to actual ninjas as well as ninja otaku. But its subject matter meant that it featured almost exclusively Asian women.

There would certainly be no other redheads in the issues that had been tossed aside.

“Oh dear,” Yori murmured, sighing.

Yori was doing her best to will Ron to stay silent as Sheila spoke. The blonde boy was certainly not one who liked to confront problems, but the slightly sunken look of Shego's cheeks and the dark circles under her eyes were apparently making him worry. They worried Yori too, frankly, but she was firmly of the belief that it was simply none of her business.

“They're all excited. Talking about making the big find. I think they've uncovered the crypt of the ninja master that started this family line, and I think they're gonna start loading up his urn, swords, stuff like that, into the truck tomorrow.”

“The latest report says that the police are very close to finding the site,” Yori murmured. “At the most, within two days.”

“Then we need to make our push tonight. Really fuck ‘em up so that they're set back.”

Yori and Ron exchanged a glance, and the teenage girl cleared her throat. “Would not more subtle methods be better, to merely delay them? After all, if the danger increases too greatly, they might flee with what they have loaded, and what they have already removed to their B site might be lost forever.”

“No. We hit them hard and cripple them.” Sheila stabbed the kunai into one of the mountain markers. “Rockslide. We take out the truck. They're not going to risk putting that stuff in an ORV, and they've only got one there right now anyway. Just to make sure, we'll engineer a little gas leak here, where they keep the diesel for the generators. Boom. It'll get blamed on the rockslide, somehow.”

“… Go-san, this seems… very risky,” Yori said slowly.

“It's kinda big,” Ron agreed.

“Will this plan keep them from moving out on time?” Sheila said slowly and deliberately, glaring at them both. “Or won't it?”

“It seems that it will,” Yori had to admit. “But are you sure it is necessary?”

“It's not just necessary, it'll be fun,” Sheila replied with a distinctly unnerving smile, showing her fangs. “Yori, you're with me on making a rockslide. Stoppable, rat, you've got explosion duty, lucky you. Remember not to set it off until the rockslide's good and started. Got it?”

“Uh. Got it,” Ron murmured, clearly discontented. On his shoulder, Rufus grumbled in annoyance, saying several things that would have been deeply insulting to Sheila's ancestry if they'd been clearly understandable.

“Then let's get going. We've got a lot of destruction to do and only a few hours to get ready to do it.” Yanking up her kunai, Sheila tucked it into her belt as she stood and stalked away.

Yori bit her lip as Ron looked at her questioningly, but she just shook her head and hurried after Sheila. The plan was viable, if risky and excessive. And perhaps it would exorcise whatever demons were currently plaguing their partner.

Yori crouched behind the boulder, stealing glances at the other woman. Sheila was fidgeting, shifting about in place and making little sounds of frustration low in her throat every so often.

“Go-san… I do not mean to, ah, pester… but are you sure there is nothing you'd like to tell me?”

“We should've just killed all of ‘em when we got here,” Sheila grumbled.

“… Ah?” Yori blinked.

“We could have killed ‘em all, dumped ‘em in the woods, buried their stuff in a rockslide, and we'd be done by now, instead of all this stupid waiting we've had to do.”

Yori stared. From what she knew of the green-skinned woman, patience had certainly never been her strong suit before, but she was surprised by such utter bloodthirstyness. Something was definitely wrong. But how to actually broach it without being unforgivably rude?

For the moment, it seemed it was out of her hands, as Sheila glanced up at the thin sliver of moon and nodded. “Time. Let's go.” Standing, she pressed her shoulder against the stone and heaved. Yori quickly stood and found her own grip, shoving hard. The boulder shifted ponderously, then began to tilt. The girls quickly scrambled back and behind another set of stones.

The boulder tumbled downward, striking a collection of similarly-sized stones, the impact setting off the small charges tucked into crevices and sending the whole lot rumbling down the mountainside, picking up momentum and additional detritus of stones and trees as they went.

Sheila peered over the stones, smirking broadly as the rockslide leapt over the edge of one abrupt drop, several boulders actually seeming to fall out of the sky onto the truck and some of the equipment. The panic that had just been starting below kicked into fever pitch as more rocks began flooding the site, made all the more chaotic by an explosion from one side of the camp, the flames apparently reaching far enough to set off a secondary explosion from the leaking gas of the crushed truck.

“Now there is a thing of beauty,” Sheila practically purred. Slipping into a crouch, she slunk away from the rock. “C'mon, let's get back to the homestead.”

“… Yes, Go-san.”

Sheila whooped with laughter as the three of them entered the house. “Oh man! I could barely contain myself, that was some of my finest work!”

“I gotta admit, the explosion -was- pretty cool,” Ron said with a grin, Rufus making a *bwshhhh!* sound and spreading his forepaws.

Yori smiled weakly, trying to share the others’ enthusiasm. It certainly did seem that the grave robbers had been thoroughly thwarted, even if the doing of it was less subtle than she believed Sujigaki-sensei had intended.

“Mmm, yeah, was great watching them run around, screaming, wetting themselves,” Sheila cooed, then turned towards Ron. “I think after that, we ought to celebrate.”

“I'll make some REALLY special instant curry!” Ron agreed, beaming.

“No, Stoppable, was thinking of something else,” Sheila purred, starting to walk towards him.

Ron's eyes widened at a look on Sheila's face that he had, quite frankly, never really expected to see a girl turn towards him. (Well, maybe when he'd had the money and Bonnie had seen him throw it around, but even with the green girl's fangs, Bonnie had still looked more predatory.) Sheila wasn't quite licking her lips, but even to a socially inept goober, he could tell that every movement she made was screaming sex in big, neon letters with a lot of flashing exclamation points.

Yori's jaw had dropped, and she was struck dumb with shock for a moment. Of all the outcomes she'd been worrying about of Sheila's odd behavior, this certainly hadn't been one of them.

“Aw, c'mon, Stoppable, I know you've always wanted a piece,” the green-skinned girl cooed sensually as Ron backed into a wall. “We can play hero and captured villainess. Or better yet, villainess and captured hero.” She pressed against Ron's front, one hand pressing his shoulder back against the wall, the other starting to slide up his thigh.

“Whoa whoa whoa! Hey, Sheila, quit it!” Ron squirmed, then yelped as her hand cupped his crotch. “Shego, seriously, stop it!”

“Go-san!” Yori grabbed Sheila's arm and yanked it away from Ron. “Stop this!”

Shego whirled at the yank, animal-like eyes flashing, fanged grin wicked. “What, you want in on this, kitten?” She grabbed the back of Yori's neck and hauled her in, kissing her roughly, her other hand grabbing the slim rise of one of the younger girl's breasts and squeezing.

Yori yelped with pain and indignation, slapping Shego's shoulders ineffectually a few times, before remembering that she was a ninja and she didn't have to take that crap. She hooked her leg behind Shego's knee and yanked, shoving her hands against the other woman's shoulders at the same time and sending Shego slamming to her back on the floor.

Snarling, her smile vicious now, Shego leapt to her feet and hunched her shoulders, gaze fixed in predator fashion on Yori as the girl dropped back and circled to one side, having taken a fighting stance. “That's fine, we can play it rough. I like that.”

She darted forward, only to have the side of Yori's hand slam against the juncture of her shoulder and neck, staggering her briefly. The ninja fell back a bit again and circled to the side, her expression drawn and tight. Shego growled again, and actually leapt this time. Yori grabbed for her wrist and tried to throw her, but Shego twisted her body enough to unbalance her, sending them both crashing to the ground.

On the floor, superior strength quickly won out as Shego forced Yori onto her back, pinning her hands above her head, one hand pressing painfully down on both the Japanese girl's slender wrists. Smirking, Shego grabbed the front of Yori's shirt and dug in her claws, yanking hard and ripping it open, revealing the slender curves of the Japanese girl's chest. “Now, since you wanted to play rough, we can-”

Shego's announcement of just what they could do was cut off as she made a sound like a stepped-on cat, a wave of ice-cold water having splashed across her. Her hair limp and dripping, she shook herself, looking over to the side. “What the hell?!”

Ron was standing nearby, holding an empty bucket and scowling. “Figured I'd give you a chance to come to your senses.”

The older girl blinked her slit-pupiled eyes a few times, staring at him for a moment, then looking down at the prone form under her, gaze lighting on Yori's defiant face. Her eyes widened in horror, and she yanked her hand away from the other girl's wrists as if scalded, scrambling backwards until she thudded against a wall and sat there, shocked.

Yori slowly stood, one arm held across her chest, tears gathered at the corner of her eyes. She gave a muted sniffle, before she said, her voice thick, “Go-san, explain yourself.”

“I… I…” Sheila pushed her fingers into her hair, wide eyes turning to stare down at the floor, her breathing starting to come in fast, panicked pants. “I don't know, I… Jesus, Jesus Christ, I'm sorry, Yori I'm sorry, Ron, I…”

“Bruising as it might be to my ego,” Ron said slowly, setting the bucket down. “I don't figure I'm your type. Especially since your type is KP, these days.”

“Kim,” Sheila said, her voice a tight, tiny squeak. She wrapped her arms around her legs, hugging them tightly to her, starting to rock back and forth a little.

“…” Yori took a deep, shaky breath, then let it out. She dug a t-shirt out of one of the packs and, doing her best to be quick and efficient, tossed her ninja suit top and pulled the shirt on. Then she walked over towards Sheila, keeping a bit of distance. “Go-san…” She paused, then said, quietly, “Sheila.”

Sheila raised her gaze a bit, looking at Yori ashamedly.

“This is more than just… missing… Possible-san. I have only known you for a few months, but this was not you. Please tell us what's really been happening.”

“… She's my mate,” Sheila forced out in a raw whisper, starting to tremble. “I know it sounds stupid, but she is. Last week, I started… I felt like I was coming apart, aching, hurting all over. I needed her so bad, and I… I felt like I was just coming apart, unraveling completely. I couldn't keep it together, everything just frustrated me even more.”

“And so you unraveled to the point where you needed anyone,” Yori said calmly. “Not just your mate.”

Sheila gave a tiny nod, pressing her face back against her legs.

Ron cleared his throat. “Um, not to piss anyone off here, but… uh, you think maybe you were in heat?”

Yori shot Ron a look that was half anger and half bemusement. Sheila raised her head enough to stare at him, and he rubbed the back of his neck nervously.

“Well, you don't really know how your, uh… your new thing does stuff. You haven't seen KP in almost three months, which is a long time for anybody to go without seeing somebody they love. Maybe for you it's different, maybe your body actually… needs… y'know…”

“Isn't that just perfect,” Sheila murmured miserably. “You're probably right.”

Yori looked back and forth between the two, then sighed, crouching down to be closer to Sheila's eye level. “You have been making great strides towards control. While your instincts may be animal, you are still human. Perhaps what you need, as much as anything else, is to be reminded you are cared about and that others are here for you.”


“It has been a tiring night for all of us. We will get some sleep, together, and remain close to one another.”

Sheila looked back and forth between them, then averted her gaze towards the floor. “How can you trust me? How can you stand to look at me, let alone touch me, after what I tried to do?”

“I will not try to say that it was not shocking and frightening. But you did not do it intentionally. My friend had a problem, and I want to try to make sure that doesn't happen again.”

Sheila turned her head towards Ron who, though blushing, simply nodded, Rufus giving a tiny thumbs-up from his shoulder. Swallowing, she nodded. “… Okay. Let's try it.”

After a round of showers and changed clothes, the three of them began arranging the sleeping rolls, having dressed almost identically in black gi pants and t-shirts, though Ron had chosen a long-sleeved variety. After some experimentation, they found that putting all three together wasn't likely to work, but that the girls’ backs were big enough that, when zipped together, it was roomy enough for all three.

Yori scooted into her side of the bag, Shego sliding in along the middle and shifting nervously. Ron, far more edgy about this due to years of being told that touching a girl inappropriately could lead to slaps, arrest, and lawsuits, edged as far into his side of the bag as he could.

Finally, having decided they were as comfortable as they were likely to get for the moment, Yori reached over and turned down the lantern until it went out. Darkness fell in the cabin, the very faintest squares of light painted on the floor from the barely-there moon and stars.

Yori shifted onto her side and stared at where she knew the wall was, trying not to feel nervous about the warmth and light pressure of Sheila behind her. She'd said the woman was her friend, and it was true. She'd just never said it before. She wondered if Sheila even acknowledged it, or if this was just something she was doing to try and not descend into bestial madness.

She stiffened a little as the other woman rolled over to face her back, then forced herself to relax. If she said she trusted Sheila, she was going to have to actually do so. Yori was glad she'd relaxed, since the other woman's movements felt very tentative as she slid an arm across her, letting it rest carefully.

When no protest came, and more time passed without incident, Sheila gently snuggled in against Yori's back and hugged the arm around her more firmly. Yori blushed, but realized that the arm felt more protective than anything. She'd been right to trust… her friend would never hurt her if it could truly be helped.

Sheila sighed a little, closing her eyes and inhaling, feeling the gentle brush of Yori's hair against her face as she did. She hadn't let herself really get a good, deep smell of anyone since Kim had left, at times breathing shallowly just to avoid it. On some level, she'd been afraid that really getting a scent from anyone else might somehow cheapen what she'd felt when she'd really, truly taken in Kim's.

As the unique swirl of scent markers from Yori threaded their way into some place deep in her brain, though, she realized that she'd been wrong. Actually taking someone's scent mark would only increase whatever importance she gave them. And she was starting to realize that the two people in the bedroll with her were more important than she'd given them credit for.

She blinked a bit in surprise as Ron actually rolled over and scooted closer behind her, then slowly put his arm across her, resting his hand on Yori's side. She resisted the urge to chuckle. ‘He must be getting braver.’ Closing her eyes, she pondered the feel of the arm laying across her. There had been times where even covers or clothing had felt like they were restraining her, and Kim was certainly the only person she'd ever thought she'd be able to get all wrapped up in. But this just felt… safe.

Sheila slowly faded down into sleep, and her last thought before she did welled up from somewhere inside her, a deep, animal purr of contentment from the creature. ‘My pack.’

“They are packing up, but they're being awfully slow about it,” Sheila observed, peering through the binoculars at the people milling about the dig site. “Must not be able to get another truck in anytime soon.”

Yori nodded, looking over the slim line of paper with code written on it. “The police are on their way. They're setting up a sting for the truck when it does come, and they've already blockaded the path out. They'll be moving in to arrest the workers here in about two hours.”

“Are we gonna stay and help?” Ron asked.

“Master Sujigaki said we could, but I think we should stay out of things unless it seems like the police cannot handle it. It's best that we do not interfere more than necessary.”

“Oh, sure, -now- we stop interfering,” Sheila said with a wry chuckle, lowering the binoculars and standing. “Let's go ahead and pack up the stuff in the cabin, either way we're gonna be outta here in the morning, looks like.”

Yori nodded, she and Ron standing as well, the Japanese girl turning and heading for the cabin first. As the blonde started to as well, he was held back by a call of, “Hey, Ron.”

“Yeah?” Ron blinked at Sheila as she walked over to him.

“I know I've been a real bitch on wheels lately. I wanted to say sorry for that, not just last night.”

“Pfft. No big.” Ron waved a hand dismissively. “I mean, you were basically sick, right? People get all kinds of grumpy when they're sick. You should see KP with the flu!”

“Oh goody, something else to look forward to,” Sheila murmured dryly, shaking her head. “Still. I know I said we'd try to be buddies, but I didn't really know how bad I needed a buddy.” She snagged Ron by the wrist and pulled him in, hugging him. “Thanks.”

“Awww, gratuitous affection moment,” Ron muttered nervously, but put his arms around Sheila and hugged back all the same. He blinked a little as he felt her inhale deeply against his scalp. “Uh, whatcha doin’?”

“I'll explain some other time, maybe.” Sheila released him, then gave him a pat on the shoulder and pointed. “G'wan, help Yori pack up, I'll be there in a minute.”

Ron nodded, turning and trotting off towards the cabin. Sheila waited a few moments for him to be out of sight, then raised her hand and opened it to reveal Rufus, who she'd plucked out of the blonde's pocket when she hugged him. “As for you.” She eyed him suspiciously. “Were you sleeping in my hair last night?”

Rufus went shifty-eyed. “… Mebbe.”

Sheila eyed him for a few more seconds, then snickered. “Well, as long as sleeping's all you do in there, it's fine.” She leaned in and sniffed his head, causing Rufus to squeak loudly and jabber out a few seemingly incomprehensible lines at high speed. “No, I'm not smelling you to see how you'd taste.” Shego set him on her shoulder and started back towards the cabin, rolling her eyes as he continued jabbering at her. “Yes, okay, I'm -sorry- about the protein remark, but you've gotta admit that Ron's attempt to translate was funny. … My grammar was -not- off! … Are you sure? … Well, crap, I've been making that mistake since sixth grade then.”

The workman ran through the woods, breathing hard and glancing behind him repeatedly to see if the police chasing him had given up yet. Then he yelped as his foot caught something and he went sprawling. He looked around wildly as he scrambled to his feet, knowing he must have tripped over a root but not seeing anything. Hurling himself forward again, he sprinted forward, only to scream and take off running in a random direction as a large snake dropped to the ground in front of him and hissed.

It must have been his sheer panic that caused him not to notice that the tree branch was a lot lower than it had looked like it was from further off. When the police found him, he was laying on his back, his dazed state causing him to grin idiotically and displaying the prominent lack of his two front teeth.

As they cuffed him and manhandled him to his feet, a trio of black-clad figures in the branches above gave each other thumbs-up signals, and silently leapt away.

Sheila sat cross-legged in Sujigaki-sensei's sparse room, hands resting on her knees. The old man was sitting on a raised dais in front of her, his swords displayed prominently behind him.

“I do not recall mentioning explosions in your mission statement,” he said coolly.

Sheila resisted the urge to wince. She hadn't exactly been in her right mind at the time… she had a bit of a thing for wanton destruction, but she usually controlled it better, even when she'd been an out-and-out villain. At that point in the mission, however, she either needed to fuck something or blow something up, and had, in the end, gone for both. Not her finest hour. Perhaps that explained why she couldn't resist the urge to be a bit of a sarcastibitch now.

“I don't recall you actually forbidding them, either,” she pointed out in her most reasonable tone.

Sujigaki stared at her. Then he ducked his head and chuckled. If Sheila hadn't already been sitting down, it would have floored her.

“No. Obviously I will have to remember to include that in mission statements, where appropriate.” Shaking his head, Sujigaki looked at her again. “I also understand you had some other difficulties.”

Still shocked, Sheila simply nodded mutely.

“You have a great personal challenge that it's unlikely any of the rest of us can understand. It is good that you did not let it defeat you, and that you had help to fight it. I think your path to conquering the animal within has been laid out before you… in part.”

“In part?” Sheila echoed.

“I do not doubt it will be a long path, and only part of it will be walked at this school. When the time comes that it takes you from here, I will do my best to help.”

“Uh… thanks, I guess.” Sheila gave her head a quick shake. “Not to be toooo disrespectful, sensei, but what burrowed into your skull and took over your body?”

“Perhaps I've merely exchanged the twig for something smaller,” he replied thoughtfully.

Sheila choked a bit.

“It -is- a ninja academy, I will remind you.”

“Uh… right.” Clearing her throat, Sheila squared her shoulders. “So what now?”

“Training continues. Yori already knows that I am perhaps not quite as much of a ‘hardass’ as I seem. That part of it is playacting is something I reveal only to the most promising students, those who have had breakthroughs.”

“Thanks, then, I guess. Uh, sensei.”

“Though what I said before was, in part, to bring you to a realization, I do feel that you have more than earned being known by your Honor Name. You may reclaim the name Shego, if you wish.”

The green-skinned girl closed her eyes for a moment, then shook her head. “… I'll know when I'm ready. I took being a student too lightly the first time. This time, I wanna make sure that I've given it my all and really earned what comes from it.”

“As you wish. Ron's breakthrough is close in coming, I think. Until then, I ask that you not speak of this with him.”

“I guess I can do that. Does this mean that you'll stop thwacking me with that switch of yours?”

“For the most part, yes.”

“Good, because it really wasn't very effective.”

“Ah?” Sujigaki raised a single eyebrow. “The pain was not enough?”

“More that the pain was just the right amount, if you know what I mean.”

The old man stared blankly at his pupil. “I do not.”

“I liked it.”

“… You… liked it?”

“Yeah, I liked it. You're gonna have to find a spare one of those for me so I can give it to Kimmy when we hook back up.”

Sujigaki blinked.

“Though she probably won't get the hang of it as well as you right off, obviously.” Shego unfolded her legs and stood, then turned and sauntered towards the door, giving a little wave without looking back. “For an older guy, you sure know how to treat a girl, sensei.”

Sujigaki sat silently in the empty room for long moments after she'd left. A cold wind blew in from somewhere, snuffing out the candles at the edges of the dais, whereupon he slowly tilted to the side and fell over.

Ron tossed and turned, then flopped onto his back with an arm across his forehead, sighing. He'd had trouble sleeping when he first arrived, partly from being in a new place, partly from knowing he didn't have all that much time in which to sleep. But he'd learned to sleep and rise easily by the second month, and his current sleeplessness was confusing him.

He blinked and raised his head a little as he heard the barest whisper from his door sliding open and closed. He saw the faint movement of a shadow, then heard a whispered, “I'd ask if you were asleep, but I can see and hear that you're not.”

“Sheila? What's up?” Ron propped himself up on his elbow, Rufus giving a sleepy grumble from nearby.

“I can't sleep worth a damn. Don't let it go to your head, blondie, but I think I may be hooked.”

“Uh… oh! Oh, you mean…” Ron blushed, then nodded. “I guess as long as you don't get caught in here, that'd be fine.”

“Your graciousness towards the girl wanting to slip into your bed is noted,” Sheila teased, waiting for Ron to edge over on the mat before settling down in front of him. He scooted up behind her and draped his arm over, already feeling himself start to relax in a way he hadn't been able to all night.

Everything was quiet, save for the sound of two people and one naked mole rat breathing contentedly, until a soft voice cleared its throat. “I beg forgiveness for this intrusion, but…”

“C'mere, Yoyo,” Sheila murmured sleepily, reaching out to snag the shadow crouched by the bed and pulling it against her front. Yori squeaked a bit at being hauled in, then settled back against the other girl.

Weeks passed, and the other ninja quickly learned that the trio of students who had recently arrived at the same time were an inseparable unit. They trained together, ate together, and there were even rumors that they were sleeping together. (Some rumors more tawdry, elicit, and purple-prosed than others.) Sujigaki-sensei always sent the three of them on missions, and had yet to break up the group or include anyone else in it.

Some called the three codependent and snickered behind their backs that it apparently took the three of them to make up one whole ninja. These snickerings tapered off after the green-skinned one apparently heard some of it from over fifteen feet away, and dangled the wit over the edge of the defensive wall by one ankle. For some reason, when Sujigaki-sensei approached with his switch, he suddenly looked rather uncomfortable, and instead had given a lecture on how rumor-mongering and childish retaliation were traits unbefitting ninjas and adults.

The blonde one was the much-talked-about master of Tai Shing Pek Kwar, and thus rarely singled out from the trio. But there were a number of students who felt that the young Yamanouchi must be the weak link of the trio, being propped up by the other two and by Master Sensei's favoritism, since the old man had practically raised her.

It was considered a dead lock when one of the school's best, Hinsei Tsukaisute, had challenged her to a “friendly” sparring match. Tsukaisute had a half foot of height and three years of training on Yori, and the betting pool had exceptionally long odds on the younger girl.

And indeed, the match had seemed over early when Tsukaisute had used her nunchaku to wrap and throw Yori's wooden practice fans, sacrificing her own weapons to rob the younger student of hers. Yori was an accomplished ninja, but Tsukaisute had specialized in bare-hands ninjutsu for a year before choosing the nunchaku.

That Yori would mix in some Tai Shing Pek Kwar with her ninjutsu was to be expected. It was one of the establishing styles of the Yamanoichi school, and most students knew at least a little. Tsukaisute had, in fact, been chosen because she knew a fair amount herself.

What hadn't been expected was the other style that Yori used to effectively devastate her larger, more experienced opponent. Monkey Kung Fu countered the same from Tsukaisute, whereupon Yori would attack with quick, vicious strikes of her stiffened fingers at any opening she could find. Eventually, her ribs hurting every time she breathed and her morning meal close to coming back to visit her, Tsukaisute raised a hand to call an end to the sparring session, stepping back to try and regain her composure, resting an arm across her middle.

“What… what was that you were using?”

“Claw Branch, Ancestral Three Dragons style,” Sheila commented with dry amusement from the side of the practice mat. “A pretty spiffy variant, too.”

Yori nodded, smiling as she straightened and bowed to her opponent, who belatedly remembered her manners and did the same.

Tsukaisute frowned, turning towards the green-skinned foreigner. “That is your style, is it not?” At the other girl's nod, she continued. “But what she was using did not look like yours.”

“Of course. The branches of the Three Dragons style are almost as much philosophy as actual moves. She doesn't have claws, either weapons or her own natural ones.” Sheila held up one hand, the curved, black claws sliding out of the tips of her fingers and making a number of students take a few steps back. “So Yori, smart girl that she is, adapted what she learned from watching me and sparring with me. She learned the right way to move her arms, to evade and attack while blocking as little as possible, and to go right for the openings you see. That's the way of the Claw.”

Tsukaisute paused for a moment, then nodded and bowed to Sheila. “I and others have been… mistaken. I apologize, and thank you for the lesson.”

There had been a time, not very long ago, where she would have shoved the knife in a bit deeper and twisted good and hard. Taken that admission and run with it, used it to wring whatever humiliation she could out of the other woman, and send her off with laughter still ringing in her ears.

But that wasn't the lesson she'd learned. There was a time and place for quips and insults. It wasn't here. Sheila returned the bow in her own manner, then straightened up. “Lessons just litter the floor around here. Don't mention it.”

Yori moved to rejoin her friends, and they waited until the others had cleared out of the room before Ron whooped loudly and threw his hands up, and Sheila threw an arm around the shorter girl's neck and rumpled her hair. Rufus jumped up and down from Ron's shoulder like a pink superball, cheering squeakily.

“Way to go, Yoyo!” Sheila said with a laugh, releasing her friend after her hair was thoroughly mussed.

“I wish you would not use that nickname in public,” Yori murmured abashedly, running her hands over her hair to try and smooth it back into its normal coif.

“We'll go along with Japanese sensibilities as far as not mauling you with other people around, but don't expect too much.” Still grinning, Sheila slapped her on the shoulder. “Aren't you the little style thief! I'm damn proud of you, you realize that?”

“I'm proud of you, too!” Ron added. “You really whooped her butt!”

“Yup, butt-whoopin'!” Rufus chirped.

“It would not have been possible without all I have learned from both of you.” Yori smiled brightly, tucking her hands behind her back. “I have become stronger because of our bond… you have both taught me so much.”

“Aw, c'mon. You've learned a lot from Sheila, but you're just bein’ nice now,” Ron murmured, rubbing the back of his head.

Yori blinked, glancing at Sheila, who simply rolled her eyes. “But… Stoppable-san, that isn't true at all.”

“Yori, I know I like to act like I'm all cool and stuff, but I know I'm a goof. If it weren't for those monkey statues, I wouldn't even be here in the first place.”

Yori started to say something, but the blonde boy was already dashing off.

“Anyway, I gotta go, ‘nother obstacle course to suck at! Seeya at dinner!”

The girls stared after him, Sheila sighing and shaking her head.

“He still hasn't realized it?” Yori murmured, looking at her friend.

“I think that's what Sujigaki's waiting on,” Sheila mused. “For Ron to realize he's kind of already a badass.”

Ron tried to calm his stomach as he stared at the obstacle course. It was meaner than usual, with hammers slamming together, blades slicing past one another at intervals, a rope swing over spikes that shot up seemingly at random, and perplexingly enough, a tub full of oil.

Looking aside at the elder student overlooking the course while Sujigaki-sensei watched from a bit further off, he pointed at the course, voice rising a little hysterically. “Who comes up with this stuff anyway?!”

The student blinked, then pointed off to the side. “Ninja trap division, of course.”

Ron looked over at the small group of thin, weasely-looking ninjas, many of whom were wearing odd sort of monocle contraptions over one eye, all of whom were rubbing their hands together and cackling maniacally. He looked back at the test proctor.

“Okay, they really creep me out.”

The proctor nodded solemnly.

“Do you assign guys to that because they look that way, or do they just wind up like that after awhile?”

The proctor raised one hand and waggled it noncommittally.

“I'm gonna die, aren't I?”

“Probably. The spikes are probably poisoned, too.”

“Just checkin’.”

Rufus squealed and dived into his pocket, huddling inside and trembling.

Ron stared at the obstacle course flatly, letting his mind wander as he tended to let it before these kinds of things. He didn't want to think too hard about how badly he was about to be mangled. It drifted back to the conversation of twenty minutes earlier.

‘Learned a lot from me, yeah right. I'm just the sidekick. Yori's nice and all, but sometimes she takes that stuff too far. All I've got is the “Ron Factor”, which is probably bogus anyway. Oh, yeah, and Mystical Monkey Power I didn't earn -or- want. I can't believe I've managed to survive all the stuff I've been through with KP only to die in yet another ridiculously dangerous obstacle course at an elite ninja school.’

Ron's ego, which inflated and deflated more often than Oprah Winfrey, rolled its eyes and finally got tired of this shit. In desperation, it put in a call to a rare visitor to Ron's head, Reality. Reality took a few moments to look around its unfamiliar surroundings, commented politely on the decor, then blackjacked Ron's insecurities before punching him right between the eyes.

‘Holy crap!’ Ron's eyes widened. ‘I not only have Mystical Monkey Power, -I've survived all the stuff I've been through with KP-! And I've even survived a whole bunch of these obstacle courses! At an elite ninja school! OH HOLY CRAP I'M A NINJA!’

The course proctor reached forward, intending to give Ron a push into the course to get him started on his usual yelping, stumbling scramble through the danger. He almost fell off the platform as the blonde leapt forward before he could make contact.

Ron's momentum carried him past the first set of hammers, which slammed together just past his feet, the second set already swinging inwards. Ron landed and did a straight upward flip, bracing his hands against the tops of the hammers as they came together and propelling himself forward in another flip. As the third set swung inward, he snapped his feet out to the sides in a splits-kick, bare soles smashing through the wooden shafts and sending the hammer heads tumbling.

The teenager landed and braced a foot on one of the fallen hammers, shoving it forward and into the sweeping blades. Three of them sliced inward and cut deeply into the sides of the stout wood, but were stopped with enough room for Ron to dart along the top of the cylinder. He tumbled forward past the fourth blade, and came to his feet to smoothly spin past the other two.

He leapt up towards the rope, swinging himself along with lanky movements of his arms that swung his body up, bringing him out of the reach of even the tallest of spikes. As all of the spikes shot up under the last rope, he latched his feet around it and swung himself horizontally over them, bracing his hands on the edge of the tub and vaulting over to land with his feet on the other side. He balanced for a moment, before jumping down and over the finish line. Rufus poked his head out of Ron's pocket, giving a squeak of surprise.

The ninja trap squad looked like they'd be needing forklifts to get their jaws off the floor.

‘I did it!’ Ron thought exultantly. ‘What's more, I believed I could do it the entire time I was doing it! I really -am- a ninja!’

He blinked as Sujigaki-sensei approached, the white-haired man gazing down at him sternly.

“Meet me in my room, alone. We must talk.”

With that, he swept off, taking some of Ron's good spirits with him. But the blonde had more than enough to go around. He turned and trotted over to the test proctor, still buzzed over not only having survived, but not having looked like an idiot while he did it.

“Who da man? Huh, who da man?”

“You da man, apparently,” the proctor murmured, eyes still wide in shock.

“Hey, I gotta ask ya, what was with the big tub of oil? Was I supposed to kinda dance across it like they do in kung fu movies?”

“Uh, no, actually. We were expecting you to survive all the actually dangerous stuff, then just fall in the oil because it would be humiliating, because we noticed that happens to you a lot. And we were hoping your friends might come by to help you get out.” The older ninja looked down, tapping his index fingertips together. “And… y'know… maybe start wrestling a little.”

“Duuude, that is hot, but wrong.” Ron paused to consider for a moment, then raised a finger sagely. “Hot…” Then he pointed the finger at the proctor, shaking his head scoldingly. “… But wrong.”

The proctor hung his head.

Ron poked his head tentatively into the large, formal-looking room people usually spoke to Sujigaki-sensei in. “Um, you wanted to see me, sensei, sir?”

“Enter. Close the door.”

Wondering just what he'd done wrong now that he'd stopped looking like a buffoon during training, Ron slipped inside and closed the door after himself.

“Have a seat, Ron.”

“Uh, yessir. Sensei. Sir.” Ron dropped to the floor, folding his legs.

“You have claimed confidence on the field, you might see about claiming some in your speech.”

Ron stared rather blankly. Finally, he gave a small, “Huh?”

“Confidence is a path to many things, just as overconfidence is the downfall of them. You have only visited the extremes of these two.” Sujigaki tilted his head slightly. “In a way, you are a young man of many extremes. You have few friends, but those you do have are exceptional, and very devoted. You are either too full of yourself, or too full of doubt. You either see into what is going on with exceptional keenness, or let yourself be blind.”

“I… I guess?” Ron blinked, confused.

“Balance is one of the necessities of the way of the martial artists. When meditating, you must try not only to balance your ki, but all of your life. Balance confidence in your skills and your friends with knowledge of your true flaws and realism. Balance forthrightness with reserve, pride with humility. All things in their place.

“You have been, in many ways, a very fine student. Now, almost half a year into your stay with us, you are beginning to become the exceptional one I knew you could be.”

“… Th-… thank you, sensei,” Ron whispered, actually feeling a little choked up.

“Go now. Truly meditate. Seek your balance on at least one matter for the evening, uninterrupted by any, even your friends.

Nodding, Ron rose and, glancing back once, left the sensei's room to find a quiet place to think.

His mind never seemed more active than when he was trying to calm it. But he tried to use the confidence he knew he had… and the confidence others had shown in him… to convince himself he could do it. It helped, and thoughts of Bueno Nacho, Kim, his parents, what Rufus was doing right now, and how lucky he had been to be right up on the field when the cheerleaders did pyramids all slowly died down as he focused on one thing.


He'd tried not to think about her basically admitting she liked-him-liked-him. After all, they'd been apart for awhile after that, and a lot had changed since then. (Heck, even DNAmy had gone back to as normal as she got.) Besides, there was the repeating thought that no cute girl could truly be interested in plain old Ron Stoppable.

Except that, as he focused his thoughts on her, he realized that wasn't it at all. Yori was still interested. A thousand, a hundred thousand, tiny clues started becoming clear to him as he examined the last six months. The way she touched his hand at times, the way she always gave that little extra squeeze at the end when she snuck the occasional hug, the way she always relaxed a little more when his hand touched her side in bed. Those and other things he had either ignored or written off as his own wishful thinking or misinterpretation of innocent, friendly affection.

Yori was sweet, smart, talented, dedicated to him and his friends, and he was now utterly positive that she was crazy about him.

‘Confidence is a path to many things.’

Nodding solemnly, Ron stood and walked towards the dorms.

Yori blinked and looked up from darning a hole in her spare gi as her room door slid open, Ron standing there looking at her intently.

“Oh, Stoppable-san. We missed you at dinner tonight.”

Ron stepped in, sliding the door closed behind him. Then he pounced through the air towards Yori, who squeaked in surprise.

“Yeep! Stoppable-san!” … “Ooooo, Ron…”

Sheila blinked and looked up from her book as something caught her attention. Atop her head, Rufus made an inquiring sound.

“That sound like one of Yori's squeaks, to you?”

“Iunno,” Rufus replied, shrugging his little shoulders.

Sheila tilted her head, then blinked. “Well -that- sure as hell sounded like something.” She turned onto her hands and knees and crawled to the wall that separated her room from Yori's, putting her ear to it. After a moment, she blinked, moving her head away and looking the wall up and down as if not entirely sure it was the right one. Then she put her ear back to it. Slowly, she started to grin. “Huh, someone located his cojones and decided to put them to use.”

“Ee, naughty,” Rufus squealed, covering his ears.

Hmming, Sheila listened intently, then went wide-eyed. “Yow. Talk about your freaky monkey sex.”

“Heeeey,” Rufus cautioned, bapping her on the head with one tiny paw.

“Hey, it's been a long time for me, alright?” the green-skinned girl grumbled, leaning back from the wall to prop herself up on her hands while sitting. She rubbed her face with one hand, adding in a mutter, “At least I don't seem to be going into heat again. Notwithstanding it being set off by the likes of that, if it can happen.”

Rufus gave a tiny groan, obviously remembering the trouble that had resulted from last time.

“I'll deal. But besides only having you to snuggle tonight, I'm not gonna lose sleep -and- listen to that all night.” Sheila snagged her book and stood. “C'mon, we're gonna go sleep in Ron's room.”

“M'kay,” Rufus agreed, yawning as if the very mention of sleep made him tired.

“Yeah, you and me both,” Sheila said in a weary tone, trudging down the hall. “Lord I miss my Kimmy.”

Sheila awoke, as she usually did, due to the sound and smell of other people stirring in the hallway outside. Today, however, both sounds and smells were heavier. ‘Boys?’ She blinked, then sat up and cursed quietly. ‘Crap! I forgot, I'm in Ron's room!’ She glanced around, then swore again. ‘And he's not!’

Luckily, Sheila was likely one of the three sneakiest people in the entire ninja school, due to the daily additional practice of sneaking dinner bowls out of the cafeteria, as well as turns at sneaking them back into the kitchen later. She was starting to wish they alternated sleeping in her room or Yori's, however, so that she could get some practice at changing rooms in the middle of the night, too.

She did, however, know some of the basics. The windows, despite not opening, could actually be slid out of the walls if you tucked something into the edge in just the right place, like a kunai or your very own set of claws. Rufus tucked into her cleavage, Sheila slid out the hole in the wall and pulled the window back into place after her, then crept quickly along the edge of the building.

Managing to reenter through her own window, Sheila stepped into the hall, giving an absentminded greeting to some of the other girls, a number of whom had gotten friendlier since yesterday's sparring match. She gave weak smiles and nods to some of them as they passed, then quickly ducked into Yori's room, opening the door just enough to slide in before closing it.

“Aw, geez!” Sheila pressed a hand over her nose and mouth. The smell wasn't bad, really… in fact, it was having a very noticeable effect on her, which was why she was doing her best to mute it. “Wake up, you two!”

Yori and Ron groaned in stereo and stirred, untangling limbs and making odd little sounds at finding various places to be sticky. Then both noticed the distinct lightness of the room and sat bolt upright, staring at Sheila.

“Ron! Window!” she hissed, pointing.

Nodding wildly, Ron snatched up a kunai from Yori's selection of them and dove to the window, prying it open and starting to wriggle out.

“Ron! -Pants-!”

The blonde paused, then scurried back, yanking his gi pants on before scrambling for the window again. Then he zipped back one last time and pecked Yori on the lips before commando diving out the window.

Yori giggled, cheeks coloring as she put both hands to her chest. “Oh dear.”

“It smells like they filmed a porno in here and she blushes at a kiss,” Sheila muttered, rolling her eyes. “Would you throw something on and get your butt to the bath, please?”

“Mm-hmm,” Yori answered dreamily, standing and stretching languorously.

Sheila let her eyes linger for just a moment, before she rolled them and slipped back out the door, heading for the baths herself. ‘God, Kim, you had better be goddamn dynamite in the sack when you finally get back. I could fuck the Middleton Marauders about now.’

Sheila avoided her friends through most of the day. There was no single, simple reason. Part of it was that she didn't want to see it if they started acting all sugary sweet to each other and became insufferable like most new couples. Part of it was that she just didn't want to possibly smell the sex on them, as she was already frustrated enough. (Even if masturbation might have helped, there were very few places in the academy you could be sure didn't have a practicing student or two hanging about in the shadows.)

And part of it, she had to admit, was deathly afraid of what they had changing or being destroyed. Three months ago the creature inside her had put a name… or, really, more of an instinctual feeling, a deep emotion that she could only translate as a word… to the sense of respect, security, and caring that she got from Ron and Yori. ‘Pack’. They were her pack, her living unit, her family. Their presence and comfort was keeping her sane while she was separated from her mate.

Now, if she listened to her own instincts, the two other members of her pack were mated. The sex was more just a confirmation, really. All Ron had to do was wake up and realize that he made Yori wetter than a New England springtime and she was his for the taking.

Really, very little would change, she tried to convince herself. They'd just finally stopped beating around the bush, the same way she and Kim had eventually done after Yori got hurt.

But they weren't called irrational fears because they went away easily.

Finally, she showed up for dinner in the hall a bit late and smuggled her bowl out, heading for her room. She could smell Ron and Yori inside, so that wasn't a surprise. And they didn't seem to be having sex, so that was a bonus. Taking a deep breath, Sheila slid the door open.

Ron and Yori both looked up, seeming a bit surprised.

“Heya, Sheila. Missed ya all day, we were starting to worry that you'd gotten freaked out,” Ron commented.

“… Maybe just a little.” Sheila stepped inside and slid the door closed, before sitting down and poking at her dinner. “Stuff like this broke up the Beetles, after all.”

“The country of Japan assumes no responsibility for Yoko Ono,” Yori stated solemnly.

Sheila blinked a few times, then laughed aloud. Yori wasn't often free with the jokes, which usually made it all the more amusing when she just straight-out did one.

“Um, yeah.” Sheila smiled a bit, looking down and eating a few mouthfuls before continuing. “I guess mostly I was worried about things changing.”

Ron and Yori traded glances, and Ron shrugged. “I guess it's possible. We weren't planning on it, though.”

“Yeah, well, I've noticed that planning stuff is usually the best way to assure that it won't happen.” Sheila sighed. “It doesn't help that I miss Kim more every day, and around here I can't exactly run down to the nearest naughty bookstore and buy a battery-powered companion.”

Ron opened his mouth to ask, and Yori shook her head solemnly. Ron closed his mouth.

“So, I dunno.”

“Um, hey. Can I ask something?” Ron said after a moment.

“Well, Ron, a lot of those bookstores carry-”

“Uh, no, no. I was gonna ask, when you meditate, are you serious about it?”

Sheila blinked. “Sometimes, I guess. Usually I'm just trying to get my temper and senses under control and don't do much else.”

“Maybe you should do it to think about this stuff. Sensei made some suggestions about my meditation, and it, uh… well, it really helped.”

Yori looked at Ron and raised her eyebrows questioningly, to which he grinned sheepishly and shrugged.

“Maybe you're right.” Sheila thought it over, then nodded. Shoveling down the rest of her dinner, she set the bowl aside and stood. “I'm gonna go give it a try. I'll be back in awhile.”

Sheila sat with her legs folded lotus style, the backs of her hands on her knees, her eyes closed. She'd found an unused meditation garden through which a small stream ran, having found months ago that being inside a quiet room and trying to meditate was effectively impossible now. Instead she breathed in deeply, letting the scents of the mountain and the school drift across her consciousness, and tried to figure out what the hell she was doing.

Almost all her meditation since she'd forsaken the use of her Honor Name had focused on grasping for control. On forcing the creature into quiescence, on reining in her temper and her ego, in figuring out how giving others respect fit in with her life. Using it to consider problems in her personal life other than not going feral or not being a bitch hadn't really come up.

So she let her mind wander a little bit, running circles around the issue. But it kept coming back to something she'd been thinking about the meditation itself, worrying it like a cat trying to get its favorite toy out from under the couch.

‘Forcing the creature into quiescence.’

She hesitated, then cleared her mind and focused on that. She was usually trying to force her inner animal into a cage, so that she could ignore it as much as possible. But it was where many of the revelations she'd had were coming from. That Kim wasn't just someone she had confused feelings for, but was actually a playmate… in fact, her mate, the thing that made her whole. And that in the absence of her mate, the thing that made her whole, she needed Ron and Yori… because they weren't just her friends, they were her pack.

Maybe… just maybe… she needed to risk letting it out of its cage a little.

Taking a deep breath, Sheila did her best to center herself before looking inward. It wasn't something new to her, though long disused. Maybe because she'd gotten to dislike some of the things she found when she did. In fact, as she started to delve, she ran into some of those things and almost quit then and there.

‘How important are Ron and Yori to you?’ she asked herself bitterly.

Gritting her teeth because she knew the answer, Sheila took a few deep breaths, calming down a little before going in.

[Screw them! How dare they look at me like that! Look at THEM!]

[Why does it hurt so much when they treat me like that?]

[Please… we've been friends since elementary… why are you doing this?]

[You don't understand! None of you understand!]

[Stop being just a part-time mom! Stay or leave, PICK ONE!]

[She's… not back yet?]

[… Mom…]

[They're still doing it. Still looking at me that way. But I tried so hard! I've done so much!]

[It hurts… it hurts, why does it hurt so much…? Why can't I stand up…?]

[… The hell with this… look at them, I'm just the freak in the bandages, now…]

[I don't care. Let them all die. Let them all burn. Pay me a buck and I'd do it myself.]

[A job? From -you-? … Yeah. Sure. Why not?]

[This is pathetic. Not even worth my time. I wonder if I can get a manicure before he gets back?]

[Destroy the world, blah blah blah, sure sure.]

She actually gasped as she pulled up out of the meditative state. ‘Holy shit, when did I become so shallow? I wasn't even angsting anymore! Emo is one thing, but lord!’

Calming and centering with more difficulty this time, she plunged back in, forcing her way through the parts of her self she'd already touched on. Here it became easier, impressions and memories of Kim Possible starting to filter in. Antagonism, intrigue, exhilaration, even understanding. She hopped from impression to impression, following the path of her feelings for Kim until she found those that had the markings of that strange, indefinable feeling.

She was surprised how early the little traces were there. These were times that she'd thought she was actively trying to kill the girl, but they were still marked by it. Had she loved Kim so early? Or was it that the feeling was some formless connection, one that would have stayed formless and unknowable until they turned it into love?

‘Focus. You can't get distracted by what-ifs, you're looking for what's there, not what might've been.’

Sheila continued cruising along her memories of Kim, deciding to bypass the one where she'd identified the redhead as a playmate. No, she was pretty sure now where she'd find what she needed. And there it was, in the memory of the fight against Global Justice's elite force of assholes.

‘Mate.’ The strongest and most clearly defined instinct-word she'd encountered.

She paused and gathered herself. Cruising memories and picking them apart for clues was more a visualization of the mental discipline and searching of her feelings she was trying to exercise, of course, but it was still unnerving, touching so close to one of the times she'd lost herself. Still, she took the impression of ‘mate’, and followed the line of impressions further.

She gathered up the feelings that first memorizing Kim's scent, and later the others, had given her. She also took the instinct-word ‘pack’, turning them over, trying to figure them out.

If Sheila were forced to put a visual representation to what happened, she would have compared it to fiddling with a mystical puzzle box, suddenly solving it almost by accident, and summoning a highly unpredictable creature that might just decide to pull her to bits for fun. The creature was suddenly there, pulled up in her mind and pressing at the insides of her skull. She bent forward over her lap, trembling with the effort of both holding it back and not just slamming it back in its cage.

This wasn't some thinking entity she could communicate with, it was a part of herself. She had to figure out how to get the information she needed from it without letting it be in control. It was her deep instincts, her animal self, and she needed to figure out how getting knowledge from that part of herself worked.

Though maybe she should have done that before she brought it to the surface.

Breathing a bit shallowly, she centered enough to hold onto her focus, then tried something. The creature seemed to do okay with conveying very basic concepts that her conscious mind did its best to translate. Rather than trying to ‘question’ it about Ron and Yori, she effectively cleared her mind, then tried to put her concept of them out there… essentially, feed it what her mind understood as the most basic part of thinking about them.


Sheila let out a shallow breath. Okay. Maybe this could work. The instinct resonated through her. The concept-thinking might take some getting used to, but this might actually be something she could practice.

She tried again, putting her concept of Kim ‘on the table’, as it were.


The instinct was stronger, clearer. But then, it had been there longer.

Okay. She was doing good. Time to try something new. She tried putting both the concept of Yori and Ron, as well as Kim, out at the same time.


There, the resonance was stronger that time. That made sense… it would be rather odd for Kim to be her mate and -not- considered part of her pack, she supposed. After a moment's consideration, she tried adding herself to the mix.


The instinct-word was so strong it almost broke her concentration. Sheila took a few quick, deep breaths, then let them slow. Okay. The creature considered them all a pack, and was probably a little annoyed they weren't all together. She could relate. (Which, again, made sense.)

She had one more trick she wanted to try to add to the repertoire. This time, she put the thoughts of all four out, but tried to strengthen the impression of Kim, to put it ‘first’.


Sheila felt bemusement pass through her conscious mind. She'd always known she had a tiny bit of a submissive streak, the thing with Sujigaki's switch had proven that. And she had been urging Kim to take the lead, naturally falling into the sidekick role to her as she had for Drakken. Maybe she really was more comfortable in the passenger seat. For confirmation, she dropped Kim back a little and strengthened her self-impression.

|Alpha Bitch.|

‘Sweet talker,’ Sheila thought wryly. Rearranging again, she put Yori in the lead.


‘Uh-oh. Ron's the girl.’

Over the next half hour, she tried various shell games, putting out impressions of Yori and Ron and various events. It was a little bit of trial and error, learning how her inner animal would respond. Sometimes it spit out a string of instincts so long, varied, and unknown that trying to put it into words was like babbling, though often her emotional reaction to this was still informative. It was also mentally exhausting, and she felt completely drained as she began trying to calm the beast and get it to settle back down inside her.

Before she put it away completely, however, she considered, wondering if she really wanted to know what its response would be. But finally, she cleared off the other “pieces”, and just left the concept of herself out for it to identify. It responded, almost wearily, then sank back into darkness.

She smiled.

Ron and Yori looked up anxiously as the door of the room slid open.

“Hey, Sheila. You okay?”


The duo blinked as the grinning, green-skinned woman stepped inside and sat down in her usual spot.

“My name's Shego. Try and remember it, okay?”

“Well if you're just gonna change it again in another six months, I don't know if we should bother,” Ron teased, starting to smile himself.

“Your meditations went well, then?” Yori asked.

“I guess. God I'm exhausted.” Shego flopped out on her bed, pulling the pillow up under her, then looking at her friends from it. “But I found out a lot about why my instincts were making me so nervous. I mean, part of it's good old ‘my friends are sleeping together’, but there's more.”

“Go on,” Yori pressed gently.

“Part of it is that it's not only an uncertain outcome, but that it makes me feel insecure in my position. You… okay, let me back up.” Shego sat up, rubbing her head a bit. “I've had two revelations in the past six months that I haven't talked with anyone about. I need to get ‘uncertainty breeds uncertainty’ made into a motivational poster or something.”

“Oooo, that'd be a good one,” Ron agreed, smiling again and nodding. “Like with a kitten and a puppy staring at each other or something.”

Yori gave him an extremely gooey look, and Shego rolled her eyes so hard it hurt a little.

“Aaaanyway. The first is that I don't really consider Kim my girlfriend. She's my mate. It's a much deeper connection than… I don't really know how to explain it, it's just a lot deeper and stronger than I think most people ever really go.”

“You did mention this to us, before, in the cabin,” Yori pointed out.

“Yeah, but not what that really meant. The other is that you two are my pack. When you rallied around me while I was falling apart, you cemented your friendship to me in the same way my love for Kim was cemented. It goes just as deep as that does. It's like family now, the move-Heaven-and-Earth-to-get-them-back kind of family.”

Ron ducked his head, perhaps thinking of the distance between himself and his own parents. He wondered if they even really missed him that much. Yori closed her eyes, thinking of the bond that had never had a chance to grow between herself and her parents.

“But it's also a deeper instinct that makes me worried. The inner animal sees you two as the Betas of the pack, while Kim and I are the Alphas. Betas usually aren't allowed to mate, in a lot of animal groups.”

Yori laughed nervously. “I will try not to be insulted.”

“Sorry. Iiiii can't really control this thing,” Shego answered, a bit sheepishly. “But that's a kind of weak thought anyway. To be honest, it's a sort of selfish thing that's driving a lot of it… basically, my need to feel reassured of my current standing with my pack.”


“Have you ever thought about the way we sleep?”

Ron blushed a bit, and Yori did as well, but she seemed more composed.

“Sometimes. But not often. It seemed to… work for us, so I did not question it overmuch.”

“Basically, it's the way I reassure myself of the pack's function. I sleep with my arms around you, Yori, because I instinctively see you as the youngest and most vulnerable member of the pack. I've known you the least amount of time, and my connection to you was made when you got hurt. I want to protect you directly, not only because I feel like you need it, but because it makes me feel more secure in my own power.”

Yori blinked, but after a moment nodded.

“Ron sleeps on the other side of me and puts his arm over me and on you for a couple of reasons. First, he's male… even though his personality means he's rated the lowest in rank of the pack-”


“-that still counts for something. Also, I've seen what he can do on different occasions. My instincts know that he's capable of caring not only for himself, but for other packmembers as well. Including the Alpha.”

“You are the Alpha?” Yori asked.

“No. Kim is. That's probably partly why he got the protector role, he's been doing so for Kim for a long time. While I'm protecting you directly, Ron's still helping to do it, but I'm okay with him protecting me at the same time.”

“But it's not like we discussed this, or you were the only one who decided how we'd do it,” Ron pointed out. “How'd we all wind up so comfy that way if it was your instincts?”

“Everyone's got an inner animal, Ron. Mine's just more awake and insistent than most,” Shego replied dryly. “Yori probably felt pretty vulnerable after being hurt so bad… despite knowing she's strong and independent consciously, instinctively she probably wanted to be protected and made to feel welcome in her new group. And you're a guy, the protective instinct towards girls isn't too far under the surface.”

“Huh.” Ron considered for a few moments, then asked, “Where does Rufus fit in?”

Shego blinked, opened her mouth, then closed it. After a second, she said, sheepishly, “I… didn't really think to include him in the meditation. I was more focused on the whole thing with you guys.”

Rufus, who had been curled up on a book, gave Shego a long look, then stood up and, with rather catlike wounded dignity, marched into a cave made out of a pillow.

Shego rubbed the back of her neck. “Geez. How far have I come that I feel bad for hurting a naked mole rat's feelings?”

“So you're afraid that things will change now?” Yori asked, trying to move things back on topic.

“Yeah. That you two will want to be by yourselves at night. Or even that you might just want to change positions, to where Ron is in the middle protecting Yori, and I'm on either side. That would make me feel… less empowered, like my role was being usurped or minimized.” Shego waved her hands a bit. “Listen, this is all my crap. You two are kind of obviously crazy in love, if things do change, I'll find a way to cope. I learned a lot meditating like this, I'll figure out some way to make it work for me.”

Yori looked thoughtful, then said, quietly, “I need a few minutes to think.”

“Um, yeah. That seems like a good idea,” Ron added.

Shego nodded, then flopped back onto the bed. After a moment, she rested a hand near the other pillow, wiggling a finger and murmuring, “Sorry.”

After a few seconds, a tiny pink paw emerged and rested on her fingertip.

“I can only speak for myself,” Yori started slowly, after awhile. “But though I do indeed have very deep feelings for Ron, sleeping as we do brings me a sort of contentment that I have sorely needed. I…” She shook her head. “I will speak of it another night, soon. But all I know is that without the two of you, my nights would be filled with restlessness and nightmares. Instead I feel… loved. And cherished.”

“Yeah. It wasn't until recently that I felt like I was honestly more than just a tagalong,” Ron said quietly. “You guys make me feel happy. And welcome, and needed, and all that junk. Yori and I can find our own time, and maybe every so often, just for a night, we'll be by ourselves. But most of the time… I'd rather things stay as they are.”

Shego nodded slowly, sitting up. “Okay. … Okay then.” She bit her lower lip, then held her arms out, eyes shining. “Guys, dammit, c'mere.”

Yori and Ron pressed to her sides, hugging her tightly, and Shego held them as close as she could, pressing her face into their hair, letting her tears soak into strands of honey yellow and raven black, and soaking in the scent of them both together, letting it mingle with her own and the soft little scent of the tiny thing hugging her hip.

‘The hell with green skin and eyes and fangs and all that crap. I'll never feel like a freak again.’

More weeks rolled into months, training into missions, and missions into training.

“My ninja, are you ready for another mission?”


“Excellent.” Sujigaki-sensei strolled easily over to Shego, holding out a packet. “Your plane tickets and additional travel needs. Kitei will have some luggage for you.”

Shego opened the packet in businesslike fashion, noting the passports and other ID, then blinking as she read the destination. “… Hawaii?”

“Three weeks. The cards each have a reasonable amount of money on them, and I'm sure that you have your own resources you can tap, if need be. Consider yourselves on vacation.”

Shego traded slack-jawed looks with her partners, then just looked back at Sujigaki, waiting.

“You are all two months from leaving us. In a year, your skills have developed and grown to the point that keeping you at the school would serve no purpose but to turn a bladed edge into a razor edge, and there is such a thing as cutting too keenly. After that, you must seek your development elsewhere, though there are ideas and suggestions for you all.”

The old man tucked his hands behind his back, gaze sweeping over the three. “You have all become very dear to me, as hard as that may be to believe. I am not a kind man nor a demonstrative man, to this I will admit. This is my one grand gesture. Take these three weeks to truly enjoy yourselves. Revel in the connection you have with one another, truly live and enjoy life. You may find scarce chance to do so in the years to come. When you return, you will have a week to prepare for your final, and most dangerous, mission from our school.”

Shego nodded slowly. “Thank you, Sujigaki-sensei. Before we go, though, there's just one thing.”


Nodding again, Shego stepped forward and threw her arms around the instructor, hugging him.

“Mmph!” Looking quite embarrassed, Sujigaki started to dust himself off as Shego stepped away, only to have Ron seize him for a hug as well.

“Aw, c'mere, grampa!”

“Grampa! Really!” the mentor huffed, scowling at Ron as he stepped back. At least he could count on certain people to have restraint.

“Thank you so much,” Yori murmured, stepping forward to hug the dumbfounded martial arts master as well, before the trio turned and headed to pick up their supplies.

“You're gonna turn into a total hug addict, Shego.”

“Aw, shaddup.”

Shego stood on the balcony of the hotel, wearing a shiny green bikini that rode high on her hips and cupped her chest snugly, a sparkly translucent green sarong wrapped lightly around her middle. She was really going to have to compliment Kitei on his taste, one of these days.

The room situation wasn't bad either. The hotel was out-and-out luxurious, the rooms a joined suite. One side of the suite had a smaller bed, but Ron and Yori were basically only intending to use that for “playing”, anyway. As usual they'd be spending their nights with Shego, who had appropriated the larger and more luxurious side of the suite for herself.

‘I guess I really have come a long way,’ she mused, looking out over the ocean. The view was different than it had been in Havana, obviously, but it still reminded her enough of the last time she'd been with Kim to ache a little.

‘Wonder where you are now, Kimmy? Heh. Probably freezing your ass off. You better make sure to keep enough of it on for me, though, I happen to like that ass.’ She smiled wanly, tapping a nail against the balcony railing. ‘I miss you. I can't believe I sent you away. I can't believe I still won't see you for another whole year. Without Yori and Ron, I'd be lost.’

The smile faded into a frown. ‘… Am I going to be so dependent on them for the rest of my life? I know I'm different now, but that can't be healthy for any of us, can it?’ Her first, instinctive response was that it was fine, but she shook her head. ‘No. If you can't survive out of the pack, how can you keep the pack strong? I have to figure this out.’

Her troubled musings were interrupted by a brief knock at the door that directly preceded Ron walking in, wearing a pair of exceptionally loud swim trunks and a white tanktop.

“Yori and I were gonna take a walk along the boardwalk outside the hotel and look for a place to eat dinner. You wanna come?”

The question almost seemed rhetorical. When did those two go much of anywhere anymore that she -didn't- want to come? She almost considered saying no just to indulge her sudden bout of depression, then scolded herself. ‘What are you gonna do, sit in the room all night, mope, and make them worry about what's wrong with you? You're supposed to be vacationing, not whining!’

“Sure,” she answered, padding barefoot into the room proper and stepping into the sandals that matched the bikini.

Ron headed for the door to put on his own sandals, and Yori walked in, wearing a much more modest white-rimmed black bikini top that came up and attached to a choker-type collar, and a pair of short, powder blue jogging shorts, a white sun visor settled on her head.

“Hm, I was kind of hoping to see you in something itsy-bitsy,” Shego teased, grinning and walking over, giving Yori's sides a small squeeze to make her squeak.

“There are a few like that in there,” Yori admitted, cheeks coloring. “But also this more modest one, I assume for walking about like we intend.”

Shego paused, and glanced over at her bag. Kitei had included a black and green one piece that was remarkably close to the swimsuit she'd typically worn even when at private resorts. She supposed that, between her more basic animal outlook and the confidence being part of the pack gave her, a lot of body modesty had gone by the wayside.

“Anyway, let's go.” Ron snagged Yori's hand, heading out the door, Shego trotting along at his other side, tucking a pair of sunglasses into place over her eyes.

The weather was, of course, gorgeous. The daily rain shower had been earlier that day, and the boardwalk was already dry again. It was populated, but not crowded, by a wide assortment of tourists with a broad age range and style of clothes, from semi-formal clothes for nicer restaurants to beachwear like the trio.

Shego could feel the eyes on her, even when she didn't see heads turning. When she'd been younger, she would have been depressed or annoyed that they might have been staring at her skin. When she got older, she would have convinced herself they were all just looking because she was so damn hot.

Now, she really didn't care all that much. She had green skin and she -was- damn hot, so let them look for whatever reason they wanted to.

They stopped occasionally to window-shop or actually browse. Ron, to no one's great surprise, had a love of witty t-shirts and tacky souvenirs that knew no bounds, and Shego and Yori had to convince him to buy them closer to the end of the trip, when he'd found everything else he wanted, though Shego wound up being the voice of reason all by herself at one point. (Yori fell in love with a rack of cute animals and trinkets made out of seashells, and Shego had to almost drag her out of the store to keep her from buying the lot.)

They eventually wandered off the main boardwalk, no destination in mind, just waiting for the exact right spot to hit them. At one point, Shego glanced over her shoulder, then tapped Ron on the shoulder. “You guys wait here for a minute, okay?”

“Uh, sure.” Ron nodded, watching Shego wander back towards some stores they'd passed without paying much attention to. He looked over at Yori, who shrugged a bit.

Eventually, Shego returned, carrying a glossy black plastic bag with a logo proclaiming ‘Island Nights’ on it, and fell in beside the other two without a word, this time at Yori's side.

“Find something you wanted?” Ron asked innocently, smiling.

“Ohhhh yeah,” Shego replied, grinning broadly.

“Battery-powered companion?” Yori murmured quietly to the other girl, cheeks coloring a bit.

“Mm-hm. And I bought him some friends so he won't get lonely, too,” Shego whispered back cheerfully, patting the sack as if it contained a new pet.

Eventually, they settled on a beachfront restaurant that wasn't too tourist-trappy, and was just far enough off of the well-traveled areas that they could be seated with an ocean view right away. They had the section practically to themselves, the wooden planking and railing the only things separating them from the sand.

Ron and Yori talked between themselves about what they'd have, while Shego scanned the menu for what wouldn't taste like a boiled tire to her. She was acquainted enough with her new palate by now to know that anything that had the word “seared” was probably not a good idea, and “blackened” and “charred” were right out.

Finally, she settled on a sampler platter of chilled shrimp and fish that was described as “tender and white” with sauce, and was thus unlikely to have been cooked within an inch of its existence.

Though being out with her friends was making her feel a bit better, vaguely brooding thoughts still brushed across Shego's mind. She was fairly quiet right up until dinner arrived, and Yori chose that moment to ask her why.

“Just… thinking about some stuff, I guess.” Shego plucked a shrimp from the glass it was settled on the edge of, slicing her fang through the top of it to sheer neatly through the firm flesh. “But speaking of morose thoughts, you never did tell us about those family matters of yours.”

“Oh, yeah, hey, did that ever work out?” Ron asked, blinking.

“I…” Yori stared down at her plate, poking a fork at the grilled tuna. “I am not sure it is exactly appropriate vacation conversation. Or dinner conversation.”

“Best get it out of the way, then.” Shego shrugged. “Yori, we're supposed to be enjoying being close to each other without worrying about anyone else or letting what will come next month ruin it for us. So talk to us.”

Yori's gaze wandered out towards the water, resting there for a long time, before wandering back to her plate. She took a few bites, chewing each one slowly, the other two silent, waiting.

“I was raised, for the most part, in the Yamanouchi school,” she began quietly after a time. “I had a few distant relatives who were there, who cared for me and at times took me home with them for various holidays and such, but in great part I was raised by Master Sensei. My parents, both Yamanouchi ninjas, died on a mission when I was a baby.

“The manner of their death was never discussed with me. It was always simply that they had died on a mission… I had always assumed that it was some sort of accident. That they had fallen or been in a car wreck or something of that nature. It was not until eight months ago that Sujigaki-sensei told me the truth… that my parents were killed by the man who was supposed to be my father's best friend.”

“Son of a,” Shego breathed, her claws suddenly unsheathing and slicing the shrimp tail she was holding into confetti. Cursing quietly, she wiped off her hand and forced herself to pull them back in and calm down.

“Ken Shuri… the ninja who was part of the group that attacked all of you… was that man. I do not yet know exactly why he did this… his true motive is unclear. What I do know is that he betrayed not only Yamanouchi… but my parents, personally.”

Shego and Ron were both staring at their plates. Ron's expression was almost blank as he searched for something that came even close to feeling adequate to say. Shego was holding back a thousand promises of revenge, the urge to state that they'd get on a plane right now to go find him and kill him. Yori had waited eight months to even tell them this, she obviously felt it could wait awhile longer.

“Yori, what're you gonna do?” Ron finally asked, voice soft.

“I will do as Sujigaki-sensei suggested,” Yori replied, injecting some ease and even cheerfulness into her tone. “I will continue to live my life and wait for the proper day to deal with it. That day is not today, or for the next three weeks, so I will not worry about it.”

Ron nodded, then leaned over and kissed her cheek. Shego took one of her hands, raising it and ducking her head to rub her cheek against the back a little.

“Thank you. My friends…” Yori ducked her own head a little, blushing. “… My pack.”

Though the mood wasn't actually heavy, the rest of dinner was still a quiet affair. They strolled back to the hotel without speaking or stopping to browse. Somehow, though, as they rode the elevator up to their floor, the mood lifted a little, as if they were being raised away from the shadows that had drifted over the evening.

“So, uh, I was thinking… before we actually go to bed, that Yori and I might take a little time to…” Ron trailed off, grinning and tilting his head towards the door to the other side of the suite.

“Yeah, yeah. Go ahead, ya crazy kids.” Shego grinned and waved a hand.

“You gonna be okay?”

“Oh yeah. I'll find something to watch on TV. Maybe introduce myself to some new acquaintences,” Shego said breezily. Yori gave a quiet snrk, covering her mouth with one hand.

“Y'mean go down to the bar or something?” Ron asked, blinking.

Shego raised her eyebrows. ‘Now isn't that an interesting mental image.’ “Not really. Don't mind me, I'll be here when you guys are ready to crash.”

Eventually, Shego showered and flopped into bed, pulling the covers over herself. Her thoughts of earlier that day were still on her mind… even moreso after Yori's revelation, and her reaction to it.

‘What am I going to do, follow them around and fight all their battles for them? Sure, that might make sense in the animal way, but we're still humans… we'd all start resenting each other for that, eventually.’

She continued worrying at the problem almost absentmindedly until she heard the door open, Ron and Yori padding into the room on bare feet, Ron wearing loose pajama pants and a t-shirt, Yori in boxer shorts and a tanktop.

“About time,” Shego teased, sitting up.

Ron blinked, drawing to a halt. “Uh, Shego… you know that you're, uh… y'know… you've got no… ah…”

“The term I think you're looking for is ‘naked’,” Shego said dryly. “And I can put something on if you want. Doesn't matter that much to me.” She shrugged. “But I wasn't planning on throwing stuff at you this time. We've been sleeping in the same bed and sharing almost every waking moment for nearly a year now. At this point I figured clothes were mostly in case we had to scatter in a hurry… recall what that's like, lover boy?”

Ron blushed brightly. “Er, well, I dunno…” He trailed off, staring as Yori bent over to push down and step out of her boxers, then pulled the tanktop off and dropped it before heading for one side of the bed. “… Guess that answers that.” Shrugging lightly himself, he unbuttoned the pajama bottoms and started wriggling out of them.

Shego wrapped her arms around Yori and snuggled up contentedly, closing her eyes. She wasn't really worried about temptation. Her higher brain function thought they were both attractive… Ron had turned his rather scrawny frame into whipcord muscle that gave him good definition, his shoulders had broadened some, and his hair fell to the tops of his shoulders, giving him a fair bit of that strong pretty-boy look she liked. And though being attracted to women… or at least admitting it to herself… was newer, Yori was definitely hot, too. She hadn't actually changed that much, keeping her hair styled the same, still the same height and build, but she was sleek and slender and well-formed, as if her entire body had been designed to run your hands from the tops of her feet up to her cheeks.

But in this frame of reference, there was nothing sexual about the nudity. It was just one more layer stripped away from her pack being close. As Ron settled into his place on the other side of her, she let her turbulent thoughts disperse and fall away. Though she did have one last, almost confused thought before she settled completely into sleep.

It had been a long time since she had dreamt of her dark ocean.

“I think, after this next mission… we're going to have to split up for awhile.”

“Split up?” Yori blinked, sounding dismayed.

The girls were sitting on the beach, both attired in string bikinis today. A bit further forward, Ron was sculpting a massive sandcastle, currently carefully carving out turrets with a plastic shovel. Rufus, who had arrived late by Ninja Post to avoid problems with customs, had taken up sentry duty atop an already completed turret, jabbing a toothpick about as if it were a pike.

“Because we've all gotta be useful to Kim in our own ways. I can't rely on her, or you guys, to be the only things to keep me steady. I can't just… appease my creature by giving it what it wants all the time.” Shego dusted sand off the sole of her foot, focusing on that so she wouldn't have to look at Yori. “I need to figure out how to really live with it. Use it. Whatever. And you guys need to figure out your own role. And have your own time.”

Yori stared, then scowled out at the ocean, her voice shaking a little with hurt. “It is not only you who has come to rely on the pack.”

“I didn't say it was!” Shego snapped back, anger flaring. Then she took a deep breath. “Wait. Let's… not get angry, okay?” She reached a hand out, resting it on the other woman's upper arm. Yori almost shrugged it off, but didn't put that much effort into the attempt. “Yori, I started to understand when you told me about what Shuri did. Because I wanted to kill him for you. Not help you kill him, or kill him for justice, or any of that. I wanted to do it because he hurt you and that made me hate him. That's normal, but… I can't let that kind of thing override human thought.”

“The thought that he is mine to kill,” Yori said, suddenly sounding tired of things.

“Actually, yeah.” Shego nodded. “… The more I come to not only care about the pack, but to rely on it and need it, the more I see things in those terms. Eventually I'd just look at you as my Beta, someone I was driven to protect and defend… not as your own person.”

Yori didn't respond for several minutes, rubbing her thumb along her calf and continuing to stare out at the ocean. Finally, she sighed and nodded. “Perhaps… you are correct. You have made me feel safe and welcome, but I would not wish for something so… domineering.”

“So I have to figure out how this whole thing works. How to be part of the pack, as well as a lone wolf or whatever, as well as a human being.”

Yori gave another small nod. “Yes. I understand. At least… my head does.”

“Your heart will catch up,” Shego said in a resigned tone.

“I suppose.” Yori flicked a grain of sand off her knee. “You wish me to explain to Ron, then?”

“You'd know how better, I think. He's my buddy, but he's your lover.”

“I love you as well,” Yori said softly.

“But you're not in love with me,” Shego clarified, grinning.

“No,” the other girl agreed readily, and sincerely. She leaned in, pecking Shego on the cheek. “But I still do love you.”

“I love you too, Yoyo.” Shego ruffled her friend's hair, then kissed her on the forehead. Then, grinning wickedly, she threw herself on the Japanese girl. “Hug addict!”

“Ack!” Yori flailed, squeaking. “No, stop! No tickling! Eeeee!”

Ron glanced up, then yelped and dove away as Shego and Yori, both laughing and shouting protests as they wrestled, rolled by and steamrollered his sandcastle. He leapt to his feet and gazed wistfully after them as they wound up on the edge of the tide.

“Dude, that would be so hot if it weren't so destructive.”

Rufus popped his head out of a small pile of sand and spit out a mouthful of it. “Bleh!”

“Mexico?” Ron said with a blink.

Shego nodded, tapping the map she'd set out on the table of the balcony. “There's plenty of dense jungle to run around in, which should suit my needs for this plan just fine. When I'm ready, I can make my way across the border, pick up my stuff in whatever border town I can find a trustworthy locker in, and make my way to Houston or Corpus Christi or someplace. From there I can fly to someplace near the city where Kim and I set up to meet at the end of her two years of training. You guys know the place, right?”

Ron and Yori both nodded. Then Ron grinned a little. “I think you just want an excuse to take an even longer vacation.”

Shego smiled and shrugged, bare breasts jiggling slightly with the motion. “Hey, I might have a margarita or two, it could happen.”

Yori and Ron were both dressed for another night of wandering the boardwalk, while Shego was clad in nothing but a black bikini bottom, having decided to reveal her current plan before they left for the evening.

“Aren't you afraid you'll get lost?” Ron asked after perusing the map for a moment.

Shego shrugged again, cultivating a look of seeming unconcerned. She didn't want to tell Ron that getting “lost” was actually part of the idea.

“Are you sure you do not wish to come with us tonight?” Yori queried. “We might wind up going to a luau.”

“Ooo, sudden movements and fire, sounds fun, but I'll pass.” Shego smiled as she said it, though, taking the sting out of the rejection. “Nah, we've all got that volcano tour tomorrow, and you guys need to go and irritate people with your New Couple-ishness.”

“Alright. Seeya later!”

Yori and Ron waved and turned to go, Rufus turning backwards on Ron's shoulder as well, before starting his own little rendition of “Aloha Oe” and waggling his grass-skirted hips.

Shego chuckled at the rodent's antics as the door closed, then headed inside, flopping down on her stomach on the bed, then reaching over to the nightstand to snag the Pay-Per-View guide. “Well looks like it's you, me, and your cousin the remote control again tonight, Buzzy.”

“Think we'll ever come back?”

This time, the three of them were sitting on the beach together, hand-in-hand as the sun went down.

“Maybe.” Shego sighed a little. “Over the years, I've seen a lot of sunsets in a lot of ritzy places people call paradise. I think this is the second one that ever mattered.”

Neither Ron nor Yori had to ask which the first one had been.

“I was always big on the whole vacation thing, as a real villain. It's one of the things I told myself I wouldn't get to have as a hero, and that I loved it so much that there was no way I'd give it up.”

“But you didn't really?” Ron asked.

“Ron, is masturbating comparable to making love to Yori?”

Both Ron and Yori started at that, blushing and looking, for a moment, as if they weren't sure whether to be insulted. But after a moment, Ron nodded a little. “I… guess I see what you mean.”

“Physically satisfying, emotionally empty,” Yori murmured.

“Exactly.” Shego flicked some sand with one finger. “Not all of those vacations and spa visits and expensive drinks compare to one kiss from Kim. Hell, for that matter, they don't compare to sitting here now, with you guys.”

The trio went silent for awhile just watching the sun seem to sink into the ocean, the colors growing darker and more intense the less of the bright circle that was left.

“Will we be villains?” Yori finally asked. There was no fear or disgust in her voice at the thought… just curiosity. “Or will we be heroes? When the time comes, when our training is done, when Possible-san returns to lead us.”

“… I dunno,” Ron said quietly. “I really dunno.”

“Both. Neither.” Shego shrugged a little. “I think we'll be whatever Kim has become.”

Whether the others thought it was odd that they were devoted enough to their pack to dedicate themselves to the leadership of an Alpha they had not seen in almost a year, and would not see for another year still, they didn't mention it. They just went silent again, watching the sun set, committing it to memory.

Rufus began dancing across the sand in front of them, squeaking out another verse of “Aloha Oe” in mournful, heartfelt tones, until Shego set a seashell on his head and made him trip.

“You have ‘recuperated’ from your vacation then, my ninja?”


“Good. You will need your discipline and focus.” Sujigaki-sensei's eyes narrowed. “Full ninja have already been sent on this mission… and died. When I suggested sending some of my students, my sanity was openly questioned. However, you are a unique group.”

‘That's one word for us,’ Shego thought wryly.

“A man I believe you are familiar with, Jack Hench, has made a deal with a large company in Japan.” Sujigaki held a folder out to Shego, who accepted it and began flipping through. “As you can see, these are villains of the highest sort. Their facilities in this building are ready to begin producing human clones, capable of fighting and killing almost immediately upon emerging from their gestation chambers. If Jack Hench were to begin effectively selling these clones, then villains who had previously limited themselves to bumbling, ineffectual goons would suddenly have power over deadly, powerful, obedient warriors of evil.”

Shego glanced up at her teacher, then nodded slightly. Drakken with such an army wouldn't have been much more of a threat than he had ever been… she'd begun to think, in the year since his death, that he had most likely subconsciously not wanted to succeed. (And guys like Killigan and Monkey Fist seemed almost more into the world domination scheme because they were bored and needed something to do.) But men like Gemini or Dr. Dementor with an effective, amoral army? She didn't really want to think about that. Some willy-nilly destruction in the name of a plot was one thing, slaughter was another.

“Destroy it,” Sujigaki ordered, his voice cold and threaded with deep feeling. “Use the computer virus in the packs Kitei will give you to wipe their database. Destroy the lab and the building. Leave nothing for them to rebuild from.”

“Hai!” the three of them snapped back, giving quick, sharp nods of their heads.

Shego sat in the hotel room, black-painted lips turned down in a thoughtful frown as she looked over the building plans. Behind her, Yori was braiding her hair, a few hairpins tucked between her lips.

“What about pretending to be employees?” Ron suggested as he flipped through surveillance photos of people entering the building.

“Too chancy. Even made up, you and I would be too noticeable… Yamanouchi's good, but it doesn't quite have Mission Undoable masks, and there's no other way your features would pass for Japanese, not to mention that they might figure they'd have noticed a woman taller than most of the men here before.” Shego tapped her heel against the edge of the table as she thought. “Besides, a company that dirty, they're probably on a first-name basis with half the counterfeiters in the city.”

“Th’ roof?” Yori mumbled around the hairpins.

“See: not Mission Undoable argument. They'd definitely notice a helicopter or us trying to parachute in, and it's the tallest building around. Hell, if we were just going to blow the lab, that's one thing, but Sujigaki specifically said he wanted the whole building done. We're going to have to place charges to cause an implosion, and that's not something we can do in a couple of minutes. We're talking an hour minimum, even at best speed.”

“Why the whole building, anyway?” Ron asked curiously.

Shego paused, glancing up at Yori, who gave her a sort of helpless look in return. Shego cleared her throat, trying to keep her tone gentle. “Because they sequester the scientists who created this project on the twenty-first floor, Ron.”

The blonde stopped what he was doing, then slowly set the photos down, raising his head to stair at Shego. “… Huh?”

“Ron, we're supposed to make sure that this project can absolutely not be recreated at all,” Shego explained, while Yori focused completely on the task of winding the other girl's thick hair into one long braid. “And if those scientists are around, they can do it again, even if it's slow.”

“You're talking about killing them. Killing people.”

Shego tapped a finger against the diagram she'd been looking at a few times, wondering if she should continue being honest. But even if he hadn't been pack, he'd have deserved to know. “Twenty-seven people, probably. Nineteen scientists and eight guards. That's if you don't count whatever clones they're growing.”

“Twe-twenty…?! Shego! Don't you even understand what you're saying?! Yori!”

Yori tucked one last pin into the braid, diligently not looking at Ron.

“… Oh God, you agree with her.” Ron's eyes went wide. “What's wrong with you two?! How can you talk about it so easily?”

Shego frowned and looked away. “It's not that it's… easy… Ron, it's just that it's what needs to be done. I've killed in the past… unintentionally and on purpose. Maybe someday when I decide to get a little drunk, I'll tell you about it. But these aren't kidnapped brainiacs and clueless night watchmen we're talking about here. They're people that know full well what they're doing… genetics specialists selling their craft, highly trained mercenaries. Considering what they'd do if we didn't stop them…”

She trailed off, sneaking a glance at Ron, hurt by the shock and horror in his gaze. He looked up at Yori, voice trembling a little. “What about you? Is there anything you'd like to tell me?”

“I… Ron…” Yori whispered, tears gathering at the corners of her eyes.

Ron stared at her, then stood and let the photos slide to the table. He looked back and forth between the girls, then half-ran towards the door.

“Ron!” Yori called, her voice tight.

“I can't be in here right now!” he shouted back, slamming the door after himself.

Shego winced a little at the slam. “… That could've gone better.”

Ron stormed along the streets, avoiding bumping into anyone easily despite the crowds, and the fact that the rain sheeting down from the sky had most of the people running for cover. The blonde boy was, however, slowing down. The further he got away from the hotel, the less energy it felt like he had, until finally he slumped down to sit on a stone bench that bridged the opening of an alleyway, slumping forward and resting his hands in his lap.

He'd been living with monsters.

‘Oh, that's just great.’ The part of him that spoke up was so clear that he could almost visualize the tiny, long-haired, gi-clad Ron on one shoulder. ‘They're the two people who probably love and care about you most in the world, and when things get a little tough you start calling them monsters.’

‘Did you see how casual they were about it?!’ the Ron on his other shoulder replied, with neatly-trimmed locks and clad in cargo pants and black shirt. ‘It didn't seem like it even bothered them!’

‘Yori looked pretty bothered. But maybe that was because you treated her like crap.’

The actual Ron winced a little. Point for ninja!him.

‘She didn't think maybe mentioning she'd -killed people- before was something I deserved to know?’ mission!Ron shot back.

‘Maybe she didn't know you'd flip the hell out over it! Not to mention that you never asked in the first place. She's a ninja, wiseguy, those swords aren't just for destroying robots and deflecting laser blasts.’

‘DON'T YOU DARE BRING THE ADOLESCENT RADIOACTIVE NINJUTSU WOMBATS INTO THIS!’ mission!Ron shouted, clambering up atop Ron's head and shaking his fist at ninja!Ron.

‘Look, the point is, they're -exactly- the same people they were yesterday, last night, and this morning,’ ninja!Ron replied, sweeping his hands apart in a cards-on-the-table gesture. ‘Now we know something about them we didn't. It doesn't change who they are.’

‘Yes it does! It makes them willing to kill!’ Mission!Ron thumped down amidst Ron's hair and sat cross-legged with his arms folded over her chest. ‘Maybe I could deal with the fact they've done it before, but they want to do it again! Twenty-seven people, are you really cool with that?!’

‘…’ Ninja!Ron looked down and tapped his chin a bit. ‘… Uuuummm…’

‘Yuh-huh, yuh-huh, see?!’ mission!Ron exclaimed, pointing down at his counterpart.

Ron blinked and both figments of his imagination disappeared as someone sat down next to him. He looked over, then scowled and focused his gaze straight ahead again.

Shego leaned back on her hands, trying to ignore the fact that she was soaked to the skin and still being rained on. At least the wind wasn't blowing and it wasn't thundering. If she'd had to hold this conversation at a shout, she might have seriously considered not bothering.

Eventually, she said, “If you want to sit this one out, we can do that. It'll be hard, but Yori and I will manage somehow.”

“What if I don't want you to do it at all?” Ron queried in a bitter tone.

Shego looked at him for long moments, then away and down the street. “That's… not going to happen, Ron. Sorry.”

“So, what, some ninja master tells you to run off and slaughter people so you just do it?” he snapped, turning his head long enough to give her a glare before looking ahead again.

She stared at him, then leaned forward, resting her forearms atop her thighs and lacing her fingers together. “Okay. Maybe first we need to talk about why this gets to you so bad.”

“Gets to me? GETS TO ME?!” Ron shouted almost hysterically, throwing his hands in the air with a small splatter of water from his sleeves. “You are talking about murder! It's supposed to get to you, too!”

“Let's just -table- all the words like ‘murder’ and ‘slaughter’ for now,” Shego replied coolly, anger starting to edge into her tone. “And focus more on ‘killing’. Okay? Let's start there.”

“There's not a difference,” Ron grumbled, folding his arms and hunching his shoulders.

“Oh really? A cop shoots some guy with a gun to a hostage's head. Is that murder?”

“I… well, no, it isn't, but-”

“Some psycho breaks into somebody's house and threatens them with a knife, and somebody puts two bullets through them, is that slaughter?”

“I… but that's… I don't think so, but I-”

“Absolutes don't work too well in the real world, Ron.” Shego ran a hand along her sopping forehead, glad that at least she didn't have bangs to hang down over her eyes now.

“We're not cops,” Ron murmured. “And these people aren't in our house.”

“Yeah, they are, Ron! That's the whole goddamn point, they're in our house! They're in everybody's house!” Shego snapped back, stabbing a finger to her palm. “They're where we all live because they're in the world!”

“Who made it our responsibility? Who gave us the right?” he demanded, his own voice gaining strength.

“Sujigaki made it our responsibility! The Yamanouchi made it our responsibility! -I- am -making it- MY responsibility!” Shego stood up and stepped in front of him, pointing down the skyline towards the tall building silhouetted through the rain, its warning lights blinking. “If you had any morals, you'd make it your responsibility too!”

“Morals?!” Ron shot to his feet, almost nose-to-nose with her, fists clenched. “How is killing twenty-seven people moral?!”

“How is letting what they'd spawn kill thousands moral!”

Ron shrank back a little. “… That's…”

“Not fair? No, it's not. It's not fair of them to put us in the situation of either killing them or letting them do their thing. But that's what it's come to.” Shego rested her hands on her hips, tone gentling a little. “You've got to think, Ron. It's stupid to be weighing human life, but we're talking about twenty-seven people versus thousands, maybe millions. We do this now, or some supervillain who isn't content with ‘first Middleton, THEN the world’ is going to have an army of obedient clones with skills on the level of a fully-trained ninja. You've never seen anything like that, and do you really want to?”

“There was the time Drakken cloned Bonnie,” Ron grumbled a bit sulkily, looking off to the side.

“She wasn't a bloodthirsty, throat cutting…” Shego trailed off, then amended herself. “She didn't have ninja skills, it's not the same thing.”

“I know. I guess.” Ron sank wearily onto the bench, then looked forlornly up at Shego. “There -has- to be another way. Some other option besides killing them.”

Shego looked at him for a minute or two, then folded her arms over her chest. “Look, I really, honestly wish there were. But it's the only way to end this. If we evacuate them, they're set back by a couple of years, we're eventually gonna be right back here doing the same thing again with a lower chance of success. Even if we took them to the cops and the company didn't just buy their way out or break them out, that's just delaying the problem more and not solving it… they get out and they try again, all we've done is make it someone else's problem.”

“And it's our problem,” Ron murmured.

“Yeah, it is. And we can either smack it on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper and say ‘no’ while we pretend that might actually do something this time, or we can actually do something about it.”

“Put it to sleep, you mean?”

“… Well, okay, the puppy analogy really did bite me on the ass there,” Shego said with a sigh. “Listen, we've got two weeks to plan every detail of this. I think we can safely take tonight and tomorrow if we need it to talk about this. But can we at least do it back in the room, where it's dry?”

Ron said nothing, but he eventually nodded.

He barely glanced at Yori as he accepted the towel from her. Her sorrow-stricken face and crying-reddened eyes filled him with a guilt so profound that he wondered if it was too much for a Jew and starting to lean into Catholic area. But he couldn't find it in him to say that he was sorry. Not just yet.

Ron settled into a chair in the corner of the room, peeling off his wet shirt and rubbing at his hair morosely with the towel. Shego stripped out of her clothes and pulled on a fluffy blue bathrobe that looked out of place on her, especially with the more severe look the pulled-back hair and braid lent. She settled in at the table, looking over the material on the building, probably just needing something to keep occupied with.

A clock ticked at one end of the room, the sharp-seeming clack the only sound breaking the silence. Normally, Gackt's voice would be swimming out of speakers, as Tuesdays were usually Yori's night to pick the music when they had a chance to listen to some.

“You can't fix it.”

Shego's head lifted, and Yori's turned, both of them looking over at Ron questioningly. He was sitting slumped forward again, the towel draped around his neck.

“Pretty much anything else… you can find some way to make it okay again. When you kill somebody, they stay dead. Forever. There's no more chances for them, and you can't make it better if you were wrong.”

Shego looked down again. She could have argued with that. A couple of ways to do so actually came to mind. But she found herself not really wanting to. Especially considering what had happened a year ago.

“Okay… that's fair, I guess,” she said slowly. “That's a good reason.” She took a deep breath, then gestured to the photos and diagrams littering the table. “That's why you wouldn't want to do it unless you were sure. In this case… the evidence is all here. And what I told you before still stands.”

“How can I decide who should live or who should die, with any evidence?” Ron trembled a little. “I'm not God. I don't want to be.”

“… No,” Shego allowed quietly. “But you're human. And you're a good person.”

“'All that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing’,” Yori whispered.

Ron was silent again for a few moments, before he muttered, “That's just rhetoric.”

“But in this case, it's right.” Shego leaned back in her chair, propping one arm up on the back of it. “If we hedge around, then eventually those clones will hit the bad guy market, and people are going to die. If we do nothing, evil triumphs. Not in some vague, philosophical way, but marching down the streets of Washington and Middleton and every other -ton out there.”

“I would… feel responsible for the deaths they caused,” Yori spoke up, her voice still a whisper. “Because I had a chance here and now to end it and I did not.”

“But you wouldn't have killed them!” Ron said desperately, raising his head and staring at Yori pleadingly. “The clones would have, the supervillains would have!”

“It would not matter,” Yori replied, her tone almost despairing. “I could have stopped it and did not. It would be as if I saw a chance to pull someone from the path of a speeding car and did not. Though the car may have been the one to kill them, I made the choice to allow it to.”

Ron opened his mouth a little, then closed it, shoulders slumping again. Somehow, Shego thought he was probably feeling the same way she had when this new conversation had begun.

“I need to think about this,” he finally whispered, rubbing his upper arm.

“Okay. That's fine. You probably should. It's not a decision anybody should take lightly.” ‘Or without forethought,’ she added silently to herself, dark thoughts pressing in briefly. But she just shook her head. “But don't feel bad if Yori and I keep planning. This has to be done, it's just your choice on whether you approve, help, or whatever.”

Ron nodded a little, then stood and walked over to Yori, his bangs casting his eyes into shadow. She'd been straightening up some things from the pack, and paused for a moment as she felt him approach, but didn't turn. After a moment, his arms went around her waist, and she let her hands fall still again.

“… I'm sorry,” he whispered. “I got upset, but I shouldn't have treated you like that.”

“… It is your honor to admit you are wrong,” Yori replied, forcing cheer through the tears in her voice, resting her hands on top of his. “… I should have found some way to tell you,” she added after a moment, coming closer to crying.

“I didn't ask. I didn't wanna know.” Ron rested his head against hers, sighing. “It… I wish it didn't change anything about how I looked at you. It feels like it does. Maybe I just need… to get used to it.” He squeezed her gently. “But I still love you.”

“… As much as you did before?” she asked, sniffling.

Ron was silent for a moment, then kissed her cheek. “I love you more every second of every day.”

“Oh Ron!” Yori sobbed, whirling around and throwing her arms around his neck, pressing her face to his shoulder.

Shego refocused on the building diagram, shoving her palm across each eye once. ‘Dammit. One more year.’

“Okay. I wanna help.”

Shego looked up at Ron, then nodded slowly. “Okay.” She nudged a chair out from the table with her foot. “Siddown and start thinking of ideas.”

Ron nodded, settling down in the chair across from Yori, starting to shuffle through photos and blueprints. Shego just watched him for a few minutes, before curiosity got the better of her.

“What made up your mind? Meditation or something?”

“…” Ron glanced at her, then down again. “I talked to God about it.”

“Oh.” Shego blinked. She'd known, vaguely, that Ron was Jewish, having even seen his Rabbi at one point in passing, and heard the man give Ron some advice. She'd never known whether he actually had faith or prayed. “… Wha'd he say?”

“Um. It's not like that,” Ron murmured, blushing a little and pretending to focus on his work.

“… What is it like?” she asked, curious.

“It's more like… you pray for awhile, and you start kind of feeling things… getting ideas or whatever.”

Didn't sound exactly divine, she thought personally. In fact it sounded vaguely like her attempts at communion with her inner beast. Still. Maybe it worked for him.

“So you got a feeling that God was okay with you doing this?”

“Not… quite.” Ron shifted a little in his chair, and finally looked up at her, glancing briefly at Yori. “It was more like I got the sense that He had sent me you two.”

‘Now that's one thing I -never- expected to be called,’ Shego thought, realizing she was grinning like an idiot. ‘A Godsend.’

“I may not have been the best Jew in the world, but I'm thankful for my faith for at least two things. One of ‘em is that it bolstered up my… well, my faith in you guys.”

“Awwww,” Shego murmured, giggling. Then she coughed and slapped her own cheeks a few times, getting herself under control. “Ahem. What was the other thing?”

“Circumcision,” Yori answered distractedly, before Ron could say anything.

Ron's head thumped solidly to the table, before he leapt to his feet and stared at her, cheeks blazing. “YORI!”

Yori blinked, and looked up from the zoom photo of a side entrance. Then she realized what she'd said, and her cheeks colored faintly. “… Well, -I- like it.”

Shego was laughing so hard that she barely noticed when she fell out of her chair.

“Look, there's no way to just plain sneak in or assault the building from outside,” Shego said in frustration, head propped up on one hand. “Security's too heavy during the daytime, not to mention the casualty increase and decreased chance of total success that would cause, and at night the thing's locked up like an iVeggie trying to run a videogame.”

“What about hacking the security system somehow?” Ron put forth, waving a photo of one of the outer door security panels. “Make it just let us in?”

“No way, I can use the Moogle search engine and do email, but that's about all the computer use I've ever bothered to learn well,” Shego muttered, before looking over at Yori.

“Only the standard electronic security and computer classes at Yamanouchi,” the Japanese girl replied to the unasked question, shaking her head. “I could likely break a password on a laptop or write a fair virus, but nothing that could get us through the sort of security on those doors.”

“The system's probably a bit weaker on the inside, of course.” Shego picked up the much-handled building schematic, flipping through a few pages and pointing out an auxiliary security control console. “But if we could get to the inside, we wouldn't be -having- this problem. We can't even send Yori in through an air duct or something, these guys are actually smart about that… the ducts have special metal grids welded into them that run along the entire lengths.”

Ron blinked. “What? Is that all?”

Shego gave him a flat look, then replied, “'Whit, id dat aww?’ Isn't that ENOUGH?”

Ron rolled his eyes. “How big are the openings in the grid?”

“About two inches by two inches. And c'mon, Yori's slender-”

“Thank you.”

“-but that's a little too tight a squeeze even for her.”

Ron grinned smugly, then lifted one open hand, palm up.

“Tada!” Rufus chirped, throwing his arms apart dramatically.

Shego stared. Then slapped a hand to her forehead and drew it down her face. “You mean we've had a miniature supergenius ninja with us the entire time and -I forgot about him-?!”

“Never forget about the Ru-man,” Ron scolded cheerfully.

“Uh-huh, uh-huh.” Rufus folded his arms and nodded.

“This could definitely work,” Yori agreed in a steadily more hopeful tone. “If Rufus can get inside, we have many options for penetrating their defenses!”

“Yeah. Yeah, okay.” Shego's frustrated expression turned into a wolfish grin, her fangs bared. “Let's get ready to penetrate these suckers and penetrate ‘em hard.”

Ron's expression went flat. “… You went to the bad place for that one.”

“Uh-HUH,” Rufus agreed, nodding firmly.

The remaining week and a half was spent in intense observation, learning the variations in routines of the guards on the night watch, doing practice runs on certain parts of their plan elsewhere in the city, and training to get their times on the practice runs where they needed to be.

Their deadline for the mission fast approached, and evening found the trio gearing up. Ron had taken to wearing a looser, more gi-style ninja uniform, finding that it made his Monkey Kung Fu a bit easier. (Though he hadn't had that problem in awhile, he'd still taken several extra precautions about possibly loosing his pants.) Yori's own ninja costume was almost unaltered, save that she'd changed to gloves with tiny barbs on the end, to aid in her version of Shego's Claw Branch style. Shego had continued altering hers along the same lines as their first mission, making it even more imposing, the top layer like an flare-shouldered vest over the tight, long-sleeved undershirt, the black wrappings climbing her throat, gloves leaving her fingers and black-lacquered nails bare, the cut making her normal fingernails look almost as imposing as her actual claws would have been if unsheathed.

“Ron?” Shego said quietly, as the blonde hefted a coil of black rope onto his shoulder.

“Huh? What is it?”

“Are you still sure?” Shego tilted her head a little. “Because you have to be absolutely, positively sure before we leave this room. You can't make the decision to be sure out there, where deciding could make you hesitate. You have to decide in here.”

Ron started to answer, then stayed silent. He took a few deep breaths, then nodded. “Okay. I'm sure.”

Shego felt a little better that he'd actually had to think about it. It meant he probably wasn't just telling her what she wanted to hear.

“Okay. Let's get to work.”

Ron and Yori nodded, pulling on their hoods and heading for the window. Shego didn't bother… anyone that couldn't point out the green-skinned, cat-eyed woman they'd seen didn't really require a mask to fool.

They crouched on the rooftop of the nearest tall building, remaining in the shadows, Yori watching the rooftop guard through binoculars. As he reached a certain part of the roof, she gave a quick nod and sharp gesture of her hand, Shego and Ron hurrying out and setting the launcher in place. With a quiet *whoomp* of compressed air, it shot the grappling hook across the distance, trailing black rope, until the padded sides struck the rooftop gravel. Using the quickest, quietest movements they'd found for pulling the hook through gravel, Ron secured the hook at the edge, then drew back into the shadows to secure it, giving Shego the “go” motion.

Ron had been fastest up the rope, but carrying equipment had slowed him down, and some of it would be necessary on the roof and easier to move to the secondary position from there. Shego, second-fastest, hadn't been slowed at all by the extra weight, just her less monkey-ish style of ropeclimbing. Grabbing the cord, she dropped to climb it from a dangling position, quickly hauling herself across the hundred story plus drop.

She swung up over the edge of the roof just as the guard was circling around. As expected. Shego ducked forward and circled a bit to one side, and all he saw was a brief flash of black and pale green, turning towards where he'd seen movement. Then Shego grabbed his head from behind and opened up his throat with her thumb-claw.

Shego let him drop amidst a shower of his own blood, snagging his radio off his belt as he fell and hurrying across the roof, now more convinced than ever that she would have to go off on her own and get the beast under control. The act of killing, the smell of blood, both had excited her in a way that she wished would make her stomach twist unpleasantly. Instead it had tightened almost hungrily, her brain flooding her with even more sensory information, until she could actually taste the blood she had smelled so clearly, seen in full, brilliant color despite the darkness, watched arch into the air red and rich and fragrant.

She knelt down for a moment in front of the vent exhaust, pressing the back of her hand to her nose and mouth and giving a short cough, then wiping the palm across her lips. ‘Crap. I should've expected this. Focus, damn you, focus!’ Taking a deep breath, Shego dropped a small equipment bag on the ground beside her, pulling out a curved piece of plastic with a strap and a large speaker on the inside curve.

The device would fit snugly over the radio's speaker and activation button. Activated by sound and programmed to recognize certain phrases, it would press the button and respond with sound samples they'd made from their surveillance, as well as blocking other sounds from the roof if they had to come back by and make a bit of noise. Hopefully, no one would notice the guard was dead until it was way too late.

‘Maybe it is a little bit like Mission Undoable,’ she thought, trying to use jokes to distract herself from the feral excitement coursing through her veins and exciting parts of her that she really didn't need excited while on a ninja mission. Tying a thin cord through part of the grating covering the grid-containing vent, reducing the holes to a quarter of an inch by a quarter of an inch, she pulled out the cutting torch and carefully sliced through several of the thin bars on either side. Quickly turning the torch off and setting it aside, she lifted the cord and the piece of grating away, revealing a single exposed grid pathway.

Nodding, Shego replaced the cutting torch in the bag, and pulled out a naked mole rat. She set Rufus on the grating, the little pink creature wearing a tiny bandolier, one side of which supported a flash drive memory stick, the other a torch-rated cigarette lighter. Shego gave him a thumbs-up, and he saluted before diving down the duct.

Shego hurried back over to the grappling hook, making sure it was secure, then waved towards the other building. Not waiting to see if her partners would start, merely trusting that they would, she unhooked two shorter coils of rope from her belt and began tying them to the hook. When she was done, she tossed them over the side.

Ron and Yori climbed up the rope, Yori first and Ron following behind. This was a part of the mission where the practice sessions had been very, very approximate. It was also one of those parts that could screw the entire mission, besides making them very very dead.

They got a fair way up the rope and arrived at four dark purple marks and a red mark on the rope, the red a fair distance behind the others. Yori settled her hands into place on the first set of purple marks, and Ron took the second. Then, letting himself dangle with one hand, he pulled a tanto from his belt with the other. Yori glanced over her shoulder and nodded.

Ron sliced through the red mark.

Gravity seized them with a vengeance, trying to yank them down and instead sending them swinging towards the building at remarkable speed, Ron quickly dropping the knife and grabbing back hold of the rope. The building was coming up fast, and they could only have faith that their measurements would be right, that the marks would put them on metal rather than glass.

Any normal person attempting to swing in such a manner from one building to another and catch themselves on their feet would almost certainly have shattered their legs, then probably dropped and died. Luckily, Ron and Yori were ninja, and their lightly-padded boots made the barest thump against the metal of the building as they came to a stop above and below the fifty-first story window.

On the street far below, a teenage boy peered out of an alleyway at an office lady making her way home from a late night of catching up on memos. Smirking, he slipped out of the alley and pulled out his pocket knife, flicking the small blade open and starting to approach her.

There was a strange whistling sound, and then something shot past his eyes and made an even stranger *SHKNG* noise, though it didn't seem to have alerted the office lady, who was still walking away. He blinked at the sight of drifting bits of white thread, then let his eyes skew downwards.

A straight, black ninja knife had what he guessed was about half its blade imbedded in the concrete of the sidewalk directly between the toes of his shoes. He stared at it for a moment, then rolled his eyes upwards.

There was a hole in the brim of his baseball cap.

He turned and ran for home. He had to get up early in the morning if he was going to give high school another shot.

High above, Ron and Yori each seized on one of the ropes dangling beside the first one and transferred themselves over to it, carefully walking their way upwards to rest just below the sixtieth story window, edging away so that their ropes were at an angle. Soon they were joined by Shego, who had done a bit of careful rappelling and wall-walking of her own to join them. She settled into position, all three of them drawing up the excess rope behind them, before the green-skinned ninja checked her watch, the only one of the three with acute enough night vision to see it without risking a light.

The mission, and probably their lives, depended on Rufus doing his job within the next three minutes. There would be no way for him to signal them when it came time to make the next move… they would simply have to make it and trust that he had succeeded.

Rufus scurried through the grid-blocked air ducts, intent on his goal. He'd always been exceptionally smart for a small rodent, different from his brothers and sisters, and he had occasionally pondered whether some higher power, such as fate or God, had guided Ron to choose him from amidst the others. Especially considering that he was pretty sure most naked mole rats didn't understand concepts like fate or God.

Over the years, he'd been through a number of experiences that had increased his intelligence and humanlike qualities. Though the effects of the intelligence ray had eventually faded, for the most part, and he wouldn't be charting new quasars any time soon, he was still intelligent enough to memorize the duct layout and understand what he needed to do with the computer system.

He was also intelligent enough to realize how much his friends were depending on him, and just what it would mean if he let down his pack.

Naked mole rats didn't really have the concept of pack. They had colonies in the wild, but those were almost more like insect colonies, with a queen and “drones”. Rufus’ own experience with his kind, being born in captivity, had been a little closer to the typical human's, as far as he could tell. More like a family unit. But he'd been removed to Ron's home… his home… when very young, and had seen very little of what the “normal” family unit was like. Ron and, to a certain extent Kim had been his family.

The pack was different. He knew that he was minimized and sometimes even forgotten, and that hurt a little. But he knew that it was because he simply couldn't hold up to the same level of interaction the others did. He couldn't have long conversations about the way he felt or the things he'd done, at least not that they could understand. (Oddly enough, Shego was now better at that than Ron.) He couldn't really hold them when they felt bad, or participate in the mating parts of their interaction.

But he knew he was a vital part of the pack all the same. The gestures the others made to him were heartfelt, sincere. They didn't talk down to him, but to him. Shego gave him the same teasing and support she gave Ron or Yori, and that meant all the more to him because of her standing. That she'd given him such a vital role in the mission just confirmed his feeling. The others of the pack might as well have been walking a tightrope across a pit of spikes, with Rufus holding the rope.

He was very proud to be such a trusted Gamma.

Arriving at a grate, Rufus peered out and recognized the layout of the auxiliary security room from the blueprints Shego had shown him. Unslinging the lighter, he detached the small cord from it and tied one section of the grate to another, before pressing the button to activate the tiny blue flame. Luckily, the security-minded designers had apparently felt that air ducts no human could possibly crawl through had been enough security in that department.

The little square of grid dropped a little and was caught by the cord, and Rufus quickly hauled it up back inside the duct so that it wouldn't dangle in plain sight. He took a careful peek through the hole to confirm the location of the camera, then waited for it to swing away the utmost. Then he dropped through, swinging monkey-bars style along the grate, until he could drop down onto the security panel, where he'd be hidden from the camera's view by the rise of the monitor portion.

He spent a few seconds enabling the station's USB ports, then unslung the flash drive and plugged it in. As the computer scanned the device to register it, Yori's computer virus was activated. It had five fairly simple functions… fairly simple if you could get it directly into the computer, like this one was being done. First, it briefly disconnected the station from the network. Then, it located a certain part of the registry, made a simple change, and inserted the copy. The Yamanouchi database virus was uploaded next, programmed to worm its way into the company network and find the backups, resting there and destroying them as soon as they were accessed. It reactivated the connection and sent out a signal to update the others from its registry. And finally, it burned out the flash drive, meaning that by the time the computer actually started to realize what it was, it then decided there was nothing there at all.

Bringing up the network login, Rufus input his brand new superadministrator login and password, and accessed the security systems permissions. Unfortunately, he couldn't simply turn off the security system. Someone would surely notice that, and they wanted to avoid that as long as possible. Instead, he started inputting a string of commands, making sure that the rest of the system would register the window security system on the sixtieth floor as on no matter what. Then he turned it off.

Shego checked her watch, then nodded to the other two. Ron and Yori sidled in, Ron opening one of Shego's equipment packs and taking out the needed device, hooking the suction cup up to the window, Yori unhooking a smaller suction cup from it and putting it in place higher up, making sure the connecting straps were taut. Shego slid the cutter out, and between the three of them they slid it in its circle. Pressing on one side of it caused the glass to swivel, the top and bottom still just barely held in place by being the exact size of the hole.

Even now, they couldn't know if Rufus had actually succeeded, or if they'd merely set off a silent alarm. They'd simply have to continue on as if everything were going to plan.

Ron and Yori slipped inside first, Shego following after, turning to grab the ropes; Ron pressed the remote to cause the ring on the end of the hook to detach, and Shego quickly hauled the ropes up and in. Yori grabbed the back side of the pane with another suction cup, and Ron snagged the cutter and its strap and pulled it off. Shego attached more suction cups, and the girls turned the circle back into place, holding it there while Ron sprayed a special adhesive all around it. The girls detached the suction cups, waited a few seconds, then the three of them wiped the window down. It seemed as whole as ever, and when the guard checked the room, unless he decided for some reason to walk over and look at the window from a few inches away, he'd never notice something was wrong.

They quickly stashed the equipment they no longer needed in trash cans and under the desk, then slid out of the office and silently split up. They'd meet up only when it was time to move to the next floor.

Rufus continued his delicate little play with the security system. Diverting and shutting down security systems, and then back on shortly after the rest of the team was meant to have moved on; any longer, and someone might have noticed something was up with the system.

It was a stressful task at best. At any time, if the rest of the pack fell behind in their schedule, turning the security back on in their area could have alerted the guards to their presence and had them calling for backup and storming the floor. If they failed to keep to the plan, or he did, it would all come crashing down around their heads.

Well, he'd just have to keep to plan.

Floor by floor, they placed strategic explosives. They hid some as well as they could, but for most, they were counting on the order of their placement keeping guard patrols from coming anywhere near the bombs until it was time to set them off.

Barely keeping to schedule, they arrived at their last stop… the 101st floor, where the actual cloning equipment was being constructed and tested. The trio settled outside the sliding door, waiting. If Rufus had gotten into the system as they'd hoped he was capable of doing, he'd be able to open the door for them remotely. If not…

Within fifteen seconds of the appointed time, the pad beside the door beeped and turned green, the door sliding open.

“Way to go, Rufus,” Ron whispered, grinning beneath his mask.

Shego prowled forward, eyes scanning across the room for any movement. Yori followed, her sword out and held at the ready, Ron's hands raised. Not spotting anything immediately, Shego set down the bag with the last of the explosives, these with thermite loaded into them to make sure that everything it hit would be burned through.

Scowling, Shego gestured for Ron and Yori to get to work, while she prowled further into the room. Something was up. The smells in the room were mixed, strange, full of oils and metal and something bitter and burning down the back of her throat. Something wasn't right here.

Rufus finished up his final preparations, then leapt down from the console and scampered out the door, which had popped open for him with the opening of the electronic lock. He had to rejoin the rest of the team… especially if he planned on getting out of the building before it imploded in on itself.

Shego snarled, teeth bared, as she stared at a piece of very bad news. She unsheathed her calls, raising her voice to call, “Guys!”

Ron and Yori came running, both stopping as they saw the open gestation tank, green fluid dripping down on side and into a puddle of it on the floor.

“Oh this is bad,” Ron murmured.

“Perhaps it was removed earlier to be dissected or some such thing,” Yori suggested quietly.

“Fat chance.” Shego swept her gaze back and forth again. “… I can smell her…”

Whether prompted by Shego's comment or just very well-timed, there was a sudden burst of raucous laughter from above them. Shego took a step back and looked up, spotting a catwalk that spanned the point where the 101st story should have become the 102nd, but instead had a tall ceiling housing more tubes and cabling. Standing in the center of it was a tall, curvaceous Japanese woman clad in a maroon ninja gi, her auburn hair tied back in a loose ponytail, a tanto strapped behind her back. She had her head thrown back, the back of one hand to her mouth as she cackled.

“Just figures. They let one out and it's psycho,” Shego growled, running forward and leaping up to rebound off of a huge metal cylinder, calling back a curt, “Finish setting the charges!” Then her flight carried her high enough to grab the railing of the catwalk and yank, hauling herself over it to land in a crouch on the sturdy metal grating. She stood and gave her head a toss, braid swaying like a writhing snake for a moment. Her lips pulled back from her fangs as she snarled quietly at the clone.

“Mm.” The cloned ninja smiled almost sultrily at Shego, giving her ponytail a toss with one hand, then settling into a fighting stance. “Ready?” she cooed in a sickeningly sweet voice. “Fight!”

Shego darted forward, but was surprised at the clone's speed as she charged as well, quickly aborting her run and ducking her head to the side, the other woman's fist almost brushing her ear as it passed. ‘Damn! They're not just skilled, they're enhanced!’ She continued dodging punches, then ducked as a spinkick came straight at her head. She came out of the duck putting her momentum behind an uppercut, slamming it into the clone's chin and knocking her backwards.

Ron and Yori darted about the room, setting the charges as quickly as possible, trying not to be distracted by the fact that their leader was taking on a dangerous, unfamiliar opponent fifteen feet above them.

The clone hit the catwalk on her back and rolled into a flip, landing on her feet in a low crouch, still smiling maniacally as she leapt back in, slamming her palms into Shego's stomach. The green-skinned woman staggered back, grunting loudly at the force of the blow, and taking another step back as a punch turned her head to one side. She whirled away from the followup punch and threw a green-glowing backhand at the clone, who wisely backed off to avoid it.

Growling angrily, Shego launched herself at the auburn-haired woman, slashing with her lit up claws, forcing the clone to stay on the defensive. Feral delight filled her as the clone was forced to block and her claws cut through cloth and skin, leaving long, clean slashmarks across both her opponent's forearms.

She didn't even see the kick coming. It snapped straight up from the clone's full standing position, as if she'd suddenly done the vertical splits. It slammed into the underside of Shego's chin and lifted her into the air, and the clone quickly followed it up with a spinkick that sent the green-skinned ninja hurtling down and to the side. She crashed through a thin network of cables that snapped under her speed and weight, sparks flying through the air around her. She slammed into the floor in the center of a ring of tall cylindrical generators, her body still shuddering from the electric charge.

“Shego!” Ron yelled, starting forward, only to have Yori grab his arm.

“We have to place the last charges at the top of the room! If we don't use the time she's buying us, saving her won't do any good!”

Gritting his teeth, Ron nodded and ran to a nearby ladder, tucking the final bomb into his belt before starting to climb.

Shego pushed herself up on one hand, gritting her teeth, feeling blood trickle from between them and down her lip. Then she shoved hard with the hand to roll to the side, just as the clone's foot slammed to the ground where her head had been. She twisted into a sweeping kick, the clone avoiding part of it but still stumbling back, giving Shego the room to get to her feet. Huffing, the green-skinned woman settled into her fighting stance, glaring hatefully with her catlike eyes.

“Round two?” the clone cooed, raising her fists. She came in fast again, but this time Shego held her ground, dodging the punch and slamming her knee into the other woman's side. The clone lurched a bit to the side, then threw a savage punch at Shego's face, knocking her back as well.

‘Doesn't she fucking feel pain?!’ Shego yowled in her mind, digging her feet in and holding her ground again as the clone charged her. This time when the punch came in, Shego grabbed her wrist, taking vicious satisfaction in the smell of burnt skin as her glowing fingers squeezed. She yanked the wrist forward and down, pulling the clone off-balance, then slammed her fist into the clone's head relentlessly, not caring where she hit or how she hit, just intending to do some real damage and make her -stay down-.

Then the wrist she was gripping shifted, a hand grabbing her own wrist, and she was suddenly on the floor with her back belatedly sending her messages of how much it hurt. She dodged a fist aimed at her own face and twisted to her feet, then quickly blocked another punch that was coming in fast and furious.

A large, bleeding bruise marked one side of the clone's face, and Shego would have otherwise been glad to see that she'd finally knocked that smarmy smile off of her enemy's mug. But actually getting angry seemed to be fueling the clone's power and speed, and the punches and kicks were coming with such blistering fury that Shego's only option was to try and soak some of the damage.

The clone threw another one of those double palm punches with her wrists together, and the strength behind it actually broke through Shego's block, forcing her forearms apart and allowing the other woman's hands to slam into her chest. Shego was lifted off her feet again and hurled back, slamming into the generator with such force that the metal bent and electrical leads were knocked from their moorings. Power exploded from the device and knocked Shego forward again, smashing her to the ground.


Shego twitched, dragging her claws against the floor as she tried to force herself to move, to get up. She knew that instinct-word well. But the creature wasn't urging her to get up and fight on. It didn't understand cheerleading.

It wanted to fight.


She could let it take over again. Let it attack and kill the clone. But once it did, would it care about completing the mission? About making sure Ron and Yori and Rufus got out safely? It might. It did care about the pack, after all. … Or it might just keep forcing its way on and attack until it died, too far gone into the fight side of fight or flight to consider the other.

‘Not today,’ she growled silently. ‘Today, I'm living or dying through my own accord.’

She shoved on her hands and with her feet with all her might, launching herself up and forward as the clone came in to finish the job, her palm impacting the auburn-haired woman's jaw with jarring force. The clone was thrown, slamming into the opposite power generator with similarly spectacular results. Shego reveled in the light show for a heartbeat, before leaping up and rebound-jumping off the top of one of the other generators, landing on the floor and clutching her side, blood-pink teeth gritted and bared.

“Shego!” Ron slid down the sides of the ladder and ran over to her, eyes wide. “I'm sorry! I wanted to help, but-!”

“You did just what I wanted you to and told you to,” Shego answered tightly, more because of the pain shooting through her body like acid through her veins than anything. “We don't have much time, they have to have noticed by now.” She glanced aside at Yori as she joined them. “Start the countdown, let's get out of here.”

Yori nodded grimly, taking out a small remote and pressing the single button. The panel above it lit up with a glowing orange sixty, which became fifty-nine. Yori tossed the remote, then tucked an arm around Shego and hefted her a bit, Ron doing the same on the other side. The green-skinned woman wanted to protest, but she didn't want to hold them up for the sake of her pride.

“What about Rufus?” Ron asked as they hurried down the stairs to the 100th floor.

“He knows the exit point, that's probably where he's waiting for us,” Shego grunted.

The three of them practically staggered into the hallway of the 100th floor, alarms now blaring and pulsing red lights filling the hallway. Yori snatched something from her belt and threw it, the small explosives striking the edges of the large floor-to-ceiling window and smashing them, sending the rest of the pane tumbling forward into the abyss.

“He's not here,” Ron cried, looking back and forth desperately.

“We've only got about thirty seconds left,” Shego noted, frowning. “You two swing over, I'll wait for him a little longer.”

The younger ninja hesitated, then nodded, taking out their grapple launchers. These were compact devices the size of a large remote control with a vertical bar at one end to grip, not the improvised devices Kim and Ron had used in a time gone by. Ron was mostly glad that they had pretty much permanently done away with pantsing him.

Both fired their grapples at the edge of the rooftop they'd begun the night on, gripped tightly with both hands, and leapt out into the night. Gravity caught them and swung them down, and it was Ron's turn to throw the minibombs as they hurtled at one of the windows. The bombs’ impact turned it into an opaque shield of cracks that burst into millions of harmlessly dull pieces as the two of them crashed through it and rolled across the carpeted floor.

Shego waited, ticking off the seconds in her head. When her mental clock reached ten, she growled. “Dammit, Rufus!” Reluctantly pulling out her own launcher, she aimed it down at the edge of the roof.

A foot smashed upward into her hand, making her yowl with pain, the launcher hurtling out the window and disappearing into the night. Shego whirled to face the clone and dodged a punch, noting the fact that the clone looked a good deal more singed and bloody than she thought she looked herself.

The clone's eyes had emptied of the sadistic glee they'd held before. There was just a sort of mindless rage in the glassy orbs, her barely-formed mind broken and holding onto one last, simple directive, to kill the thing that had hurt her.

Shego dodged and blocked desperately, mind racing as it ticked down each second. She might have a chance if she could get the damn clone off of her, but the moment she just tried to make a break for it one of those punches or kicks would get through and whether she was killed or just staggered, it would be over. She was already dead.

Then a streak of pink shot through the air, and the clone screamed. Shego's eyes widened at the sight of Rufus clawing and biting at the auburn-haired woman's face, the clone slapping and flailing at her own head, not enough rational thought left to stop panicking and realize she could just grab the thing attacking her and throw it away. Shego's gaze snapped to the open window. Rufus had given her the opening.

“C'mon… c'mon!” Ron called, staring up at the pulsing red square of a window opening.

His stomach dropped as the first thunderous boom and gout of dust signaled the explosions on the lowest level starting, flashes going upwards preceding more booms and explosions of smoke and debris. They hadn't bombed every floor, they'd only needed enough of an implosion to make sure it wouldn't destroy any other buildings.

“No!” Yori and Ron screamed in unison as the building began to drop and crumble. Then they were sent staggering back as the shockwave hit them, cracking and splintering more windows, sending the dangling grapple lines shooting back up into the air like strings in a hard breeze. The two of them shaded their eyes against the dust, staring despairingly at the crumbling office building.

Then Shego seemed to fly from the open window, her black-clad form followed by a huge gout of flames as the thermite explosions set off the generators in the floor above, fire shooting from the windows for four floors in either direction like the breath of a dragon. Shego almost seemed to be riding the fire, as if it were pushing her forward by the soles of her feet, her body stretched as far as it would go, as if keeping herself hurtling forward by sheer strength of will alone.

Shego clamped her teeth together until it hurt, feeling the heat of the fire all over her body, even pain in her feet. She stretched a hand out in front of her, fingers spread as if to grab hold of a star and keep herself aloft, arm trembling as all her instincts told her that if she just stretched a little more…

As if by some deific benefactor's own hand, the line of the grappling hook was lifted up until it almost touched her palm. She snapped her arm down, fingers wrapping tightly around the braided cord, squeezing until she could feel every individual thread digging into her skin.

Time suddenly seemed to catch up with her and she was dropping fast, her arm yanked hard and something popping loudly as she dropped. Shego screamed as her hand slid along the high-test line, smoke pouring up as her glove was burned away by the friction, the smell of burning cloth almost instantly joined by a sickly hot copper smell.

The grapple line brought itself back flush with the side of the building, and Shego was swung into the room by the momentum and sent upward by it curving around the edge of the window. She smashed into the acoustic tiles on the ceiling and the light impact was enough to make her let go of the line. She dropped to her side hard on the floor, coughing and panting through her sore throat, her injured hand flopped out in front of her on the floor, the other pressed to her chest. The very end of her braid was smoldering like the tip of a cigarette.

“Oh God! Shego!” Ron rushed to her and fell to his knees at her side, Yori crouching and trying to look over her injuries, but seeming to not know where to start. “Shego! Say something!”

Shego coughed a few times, then raised her head enough to look at her own body. She winced a little, then turned the hand at her chest a bit and opened it.

“… You okay?” she whispered hoarsely.

Rufus uncovered his head, peeking one eye open, then nodded woozily. “Uh-huh.”

“Heh. You were late.” Shego let her head rest against the carpet, grinning.

“Rufus,” Ron whispered, smiling, his eyes shining. He blinked a few times, trying to keep the tears from actually falling, then blinked again in confusion. “Hey, what've you got?”

“Ta-da!” Rufus chirped, holding up a sleek silver flash drive.

Shego was propped up in bed enough that she could look around at everyone in the room. She was wrapped so thoroughly in bandages that she “Seriously? He did that?”

“Yup, all the files they were using to program ninjutsu into the clones.” Ron smiled broadly, rubbing Rufus’ back as the mole rat rested in his lap. “That's why he was late, he figured that was too big an opportunity to pass up.”

“A very… acceptable decision,” Sujigaki-sensei commented from where he stood at the foot of Shego's bed. He held up the flash drive and wagged it a bit. “Thorough documentation of a rival ninja clan's style. It is quite the coup. Perhaps I have neglected a member of your group who has also been developing well. It was a very… ninjaly risk to take, Rufus.”

“Awshucks,” the rodent replied bashfully, waving a paw.

“You have proved me right about all of you in more ways than I even knew that I was expecting. Though you did not come through uninjured, you are all alive, and you succeeded beyond all expectations, not only completing a mission that experienced ninja could not, but bringing back an unexpected treasure.” Sujigaki secreted the flash drive away, then tucked his hands into his sleeves. He let his dark eyes slowly drift around the room, from Shego laying in bed, to Yori sitting beside her and mixing up more medicine, to Ron and Rufus sitting in a chair a bit away, watching both girls fondly. “So I hope you understand the seriousness of what I am about to ask.”

The team looked at him curiously, Rufus tilting his head and chirruping softly.

“Disregard what I said before. Stay. Continue your training to its ultimate. Or venture out only to learn more, and return. Become our new direction and new blood. Train to lead the Yamanouchi.”

Yori actually sat back as if struck, her eyes wide. Ron and Rufus’ jaws dropped.

“… You're serious,” Shego said in quiet wonder.

“Invariably and unwaveringly. When Kim Possible has completed her own training, bring her back here. She would no doubt be an invaluable addition to your eventual leadership. Let her find her direction and purpose at the head of a new generation of ninja molded in the images of all of you.”

Shego was silent, turning her head to look at the window across the room, and out at the small garden that the medical wing was built around. Birds sang happily, and the waterfall fountain made of round, flat stones burbled pleasantly.

She pictured walking through that garden, passing by the rooms, checking on students. Then moving out into the elite academy, which had undergone a hundred little improvements she'd barely realized she'd thought of making. Walking past rows of students in the courtyard, one side training in Tai Shing Pek Kwar while the other swept through the movements of Claw Branch.

She imagined descending the steps, walking past younger faces that gazed longingly up at the higher gates and in awe and respect at her. Through the main academy, looking at teenagers so serious and diligent about their training. A word here, a suggestion there, a joke to lighten things up, maybe just a mild rebuke or two. No switch, though, that was for private time.

Walking past younger and younger faces, seriousness and solemnity giving way to raised voices and laughter, flashy katas intended to impress becoming joyful running and shouts accusing one another of being it. And finally, that well-loved face framed by red hair, that beloved body clad in elegantly-cut black, a smile on her face and laughter in her voice as she knelt, hugging close little redheaded and raven-haired forms from a year-forgotten dream.

Shego swallowed hard past the lump in her throat, her eyes suddenly brimming with tears.

“No,” she whispered in a tight, hoarse voice.

Sujigaki gazed evenly at her for long moments, his expression betraying nothing. When he spoke, his voice was even, calm. “You are certain?”

“No,” she repeated, voice still thick with emotion. She shook her head a little. “… Maybe one day. I… never even knew I wanted it until you offered it to me.” She smiled sadly, a blink dislodging two tears to run down her cheeks. “That seems to happen to me a lot. But I know I'm not ready to start on that path yet. You told me a while back that you knew the one I was on… I still am. I have a lot to learn… about myself, and I guess about the woman I love, when I can finally be with her again.

“Maybe someday, I'll be the right person to lead the Yamanouchi. I'm not now. I don't even know for certain what I am now… animal or human. And I have a long way to go to find out who I want to be beyond that. I know now that I'm Shego… for real and for certain. But just who Shego is, or even if Shego still has a long way to go before she finishes becoming someone… I don't know that yet. And until I do, I can't even start thinking of the level of responsibility you want to give me. … I'm sorry.”

Sujigaki was silent, simply looking at her. Then he shifted his gaze to Yori.

“The Yamanouchi is my home,” she said immediately, her voice soft. “But these people are now my family. If forced to, I would forsake all else for them. My path is theirs. Shego's must part from ours for the next year… but after that, I intend to walk beside them always.”

As Sujigaki turned his head towards Ron, the blonde was already shaking his head.

“… Sorry, sensei. It's not even a matter of loyalty anymore. It's as much a matter of faith.”

“Very well,” Sujigaki whispered. “You have given me answers that no true teacher could argue against. You seem… very good at that.” He smiled a little. “I can only hope that your path does, eventually, lead you back to us. If for nothing else, than to visit an old man who will miss you.”

And, before anyone could hug him, he slipped out of the room like a shadow fleeing the sunrise.

Having finally removed the last of her bandages earlier that day, Shego sat at the top of the stairs just outside the gates of the elite academy. She wore jeans and a black turtleneck sweater, a blue denim jacket worn over it, a duffle bag pressed up against her back where it rested on the ground behind her. Ron sat on one side of her, Yori on the other, both still dressed in their ninja garb.

“So. A year, huh?”

“Yeah.” Shego's mouth quirked up on one side. “A year of running around dirty, hot jungles filled with biting insects and who-knows-what diseases, not to mention probably not getting a single wink of sleep. I can hardly wait to start.”

Ron looked down, rubbing his palm along the top of his thigh. He wanted to ask her again not to go, but they'd been over this a dozen times since Hawaii. He didn't want to cheapen these last minutes by starting it again.

“What about you guys?”

“Sujigaki-sensei mentioned sending us on a long-term mission, if we were willing,” Yori said, gazing off down the mountain. “That it would perhaps give us some additional focus while we broadened our skills. I believe he said something about Hong Kong.”

“Sounds fun. Any thoughts so far?”

Yori nodded, still not looking away from the view. “I had been thinking of broadening my computer skills… perhaps learning to build ‘gadgets’. Rufus is fair at these things, but I wish to become expert. Our group needs someone to be, it seems.”

“Yeah. Guess so. How ‘bout you, Ron?”

“I dunno. Guess I hadn't thought about it much. Maybe sharpen my brain some, heh. I always feel a little left out when you guys are getting heavy into plans and stuff and I don't always have much to offer.”

“Sounds like a good idea, too. Got some books I can recommend.”

“Oh yeah?”

Yori let the short conversation turn into so much noise beside her, fighting not to let her head droop.


She fought the urge to wince or sniffle at the nickname. She forced her voice to be even… perhaps a little too even, as she answered, “Yes?”

“Yoyo. Please look at me.”

Yori's expression tightened. She thought about just saying no, but couldn't think of a way to do so that wouldn't just make it worse. She slowly turned her head, meeting Shego's strange and beautiful green eyes, saw the concern and hurt on her face.

“Oh I will miss you so much!” Yori cried, throwing her arms around Shego and pressing her face to the other girl's shoulder.

Shego blinked in surprise, then looked back and forth helplessly as Ron hugged her from the other side. “Aw, geez, guys, don't feed the hug addict,” she protested weakly.

That only made Yori cry even harder, and Ron start sniffling as well. Rufus, hugging the side of her head, bawled.

“Stop it… c'mon, stop it,” Shego whimpered, tears starting to slip down her own cheeks, until she sobbed quietly and squeezed the two against her.

It should have been extremely embarrassing for three grown ninja to sit in front of their academy and have a crying jag over how much they were going to miss each other. Somehow, it wasn't.

Shego looked at the airport terminal through the tinted lenses of her sunglasses, letting her thoughts wander as she waited for her plane. Most people didn't give a first glance, let alone a second, to the flat-chested, pale white girl in baggy clothes and her hair wrapped in a teacher-like bun slouched in the plastic seat. Her iPea was getting more looks than she was. (She'd missed a lot in the last year. The O Boyz had disbanded, had solo careers, reunited, and made two albums since she'd last had access to file sharing.)

She hadn't done much to disguise her features besides her eyes when in Hawaii, and even that was more to avoid people making a scene by getting freaked out than to hide her identity. Hawaii was such a busy vacation spot that she'd felt using the fake passport had been plenty. If she didn't make trouble, it was unlikely she'd show up on the radar. And besides, she doubted that even Global Justice or its nasty little hit squad wanted to take on the Yamanouchi, if it even knew of them. That Shuri bitch certainly wouldn't.

But now she was on her own, and definitely didn't want to be followed. She hadn't expected to feel so vulnerable without Ron and Yori, and the disguise made it a little better, as if it were a shield against a real world that felt a little alien now. It was as if she hadn't done more than pass through it on a walk to the store in the last year. A vacation in Hawaii and brief steps into the area where they were on a mission didn't exactly count as staying connected.

She also had to admit to feeling a bit lost. For the first time in a year, she was following no one's rudder but her own. There was no time limit before she was to return for her next mission, no set of instructions. The only thing keeping her on agenda was her. If she wanted to, she could just toss her plans and go do whatever she wanted.

‘Yeah, like what? Your favorite spa? We've been through this. Why not just take your bag in the bathroom, get out Buzzy, and have a quick one? It'd be cheaper and waste less time.’

Shego grinned at the thought, which was almost silly and naughty enough to be tempting. But that was definitely the long and short of it. Why waste time and money on something she'd only superficially enjoy, when she'd known what she needed to do for months?

‘I don't really want to,’ she realized after a few minutes. ‘I'm just not used to being in charge of myself and nobody else.’

No orders to follow. And no orders to give. For the first time in about fourteen months she was neither submissive nor dominant in a pecking order. Nobody else to force her to focus by giving orders, nobody else to force her to focus by needing orders.

‘Yeah, I definitely need to learn to do this. I've gotta be functional outside the pack if I'm gonna live inside it.’ She settled in a bit more, trying to convince herself she felt better after coming to that realization.

After all, it wasn't -really- like she was trying to protect her ability to function if everyone abandoned her…

Shego stood naked in the “cabin” that was really more of a large motel room. Not larger as in nicer, but larger as in about three feet wider on each side. She peered in the mirror, making the sort of funny faces people tended to when they were trying to make sure they were getting all of the makeup off.

To be honest, she probably could have walked into El Retrete green, stark naked, and wearing a thong made of actual neon, and it wouldn't have made a difference. Even if one of its residents made the very long drive to the nearest, not much bigger town, such tales would have probably been written off as another binge brought on by a fresh delivery of beer to the little general store. Next week it'd be Bigfoot in an evening gown.

El Retrete served her purposes well enough, though. The people were too inured to boredom and not thinking much to get overly curious. When she'd asked about someplace she could stow some stuff long-term, they'd directed her to some concrete garages for rent without giving the barest sign that they even wondered why.

She'd paid for a year in advance, and the guy hadn't even batted an eye, just handed her a battered plastic ‘Rented’ placard to put on the door of her unit. He'd made some halfhearted noises about his stuff being fine when she'd shown up with a shiny new padlock for the door, but even that hadn't gotten much reaction. She'd most likely be able to show up twenty years from now and find the storage garage undisturbed, a faded plastic sign hanging at an angle from the sheet metal door.

Deciding she'd gotten the last of the dark tan makeup off, she tossed the makeup removal pad in the trash. The cheap jeans and the matching white cotton t-shirt and white cotton panties went in the trash as well, and Shego pulled the sole remaining items out of the cheap plastic-weave backpack.

One was a skintight black bodysuit that zipped up the front. It was tighter and more formfitting than her old green and black one, but then she wasn't really wearing this one for looks. Though she had to admit, as she turned back and forth in front of the bathroom mirror, she did look damn fine. The material hugged up against her buttocks individually, and did the same for her breasts. She might have to get another one of these things next year. Maybe be wearing it when Kim came in the door.

Grinning, Shego pulled on her utilitarian black boots and fastened the clasps. Reaching into the closet, she unhung the long black coat inside and pulled it on doing up the buttons. It was less for the night chill or for appearances than it was for keeping her ride from getting ideas because of the bodysuit.

Tossing the backpack in the trash as well, Shego hauled out the bag and tied it closed, then set her room key on the countertop and turned off the lights before heading out into the night.

She tossed the trash bag into a ditch that contained a handful of similar ones as she strolled out of town, not that it took long. Her destination was a long, flat bit of dusty, barren land about five miles distant that made quite a decent airstrip, if you weren't picky.

The small plane landed as she was walking up. Excellent timing. She spoke to the pilot a bit in Spanish, making a few politely cheerful and profane references to their common associate, before she hauled herself into the little prop job and settled into her seat.

It was an old tourist plane that had, in its lifetime, run everything from air tours to ferry service to, Shego suspected, a bit of drug and immigrant smuggling here and there. None of her business… unless she was told it was her business next year.

However, it was one of its other previous, tourist-focused trades that she was interested in.

They flew in short hops, in some places flying low and far out of their way to avoid both radar and border guards. They stopped in a few places to refuel, sometimes at an actual airstrip, sometimes by a guy running out to the plane with trolley of plastic gas cans. After many hours and a few slapped hands that had been wandering a little too close to her thigh, they were finally approaching Shego's destination.

“{Is that it?}” she asked, pointing ahead towards the middle of the greenery spread out below them.

“{Yes, that's it there,}” he agreed readily.

Nodding, Shego tossed an extra fifty dollars in his lap as a tip, then stood and made her way to the back of the plane. She'd been planning to tip a hundred, if the horny bastard hadn't tried to grab her leg a second time.

Shrugging out of the coat and abandoning it on the floor of the plane, Shego picked up the black pack from the floor and began fastening it on, tightening it across her chest and fastening the straps between her legs.

“Okay!” the pilot called back, waving a hand.

Shego nodded, pulling on a pair of goggles and then moving to the plane's side door, using one hand to open it and holding on with the other as wind suddenly grabbed at her and whistled by, her braid whipped to the side and flapping like a windsock.

She waited one second, two, getting her breathing timed. Then she jumped.

Like the last time she'd parachuted, on a mission, she found it both more terrifying and exhilarating than before the change. Being totally unconnected to anything and essentially completely out of control frightened her, and the sensory information was so intense as to be almost painful. But the added intensity of the sensations also made the experience all the more of a rush, the flood of adrenaline and endorphins sharper and clearer than they had been before.

She counted down her fall, then pulled the cord. The silk exploded out of her pack, filling out and yanking her upwards with a jerk, making the arm she'd pulled out of socket two weeks ago twinge just a little. She grabbed the guide handles and glanced up at the chute, trying to make out whether the logo actually said ‘Adventure Humping’ or if it was really ‘Adventure Jumping’, as made more sense.

That's when she noticed the unraveling cords on one side of the chute.

Sabotage? she wondered with an odd calm as she tried to get more of a controlled descent out of the chute before it came apart on her. No, more likely just bad maintenance. She should have gone a little more upscale, no reason to take the first thing that came to mind just because it was a brief part of her plans.

As the cords snapped and she was sent plummeting downward in a spin, the lopsided parachute flapping wildly above her like a banner, she admonished herself for not checking or, better yet, packing her own parachute. She'd let herself get distracted by thoughts of what she had been doing and was going to do, and lost track of what she should be doing right then. Bad mistake.

The world came crashing back to her from its strange distance as she hurtled through the canopy of tree limbs, the sound of smacking leaves and snapping branches as loud as an explosion. She was twisting and turning as if she'd been caught in a tornado, branches sending her deflecting off them and careening into others, often bringing a fresh burst of pain, either dull impact or sharp piercing.

Shego fell free and dangled for a moment be the remaining side of her parachute, before that side of the harness gave up the fight and tore free, dropping her to the ground with a jarring thud. She twitched a little, feeling a dull pressure around her stomach. She looked down and noticed there was a bloody tree branch on top of her. She managed to raise a hand and push it away, only to shudder as it hurt to move.

Some of that earlier detachment returning, she realized that the tree branch wasn't actually on her, it was through her. It had been shoved through her stomach, probably through the back, and was jutting up towards her chest.

She also realized she was going to die.

Shego dropped her hand back to the ground, staring up at the white, red, and green parachute dangling from the rumpled and disturbed tree branches. Her breath was coming in quick little pants, a wet feeling building in her mouth along with the taste of blood.

‘Kim,’ she thought faintly, an unfelt breeze brushing one of the high branches aside enough just enough to let a tiny ray of sunlight shine down on her.

Then the light faded from Shego's eyes. Her body relaxed, and she lay still.

-End Part Eight

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