Kim Possible stood looking up at a very big mountain and wondering just how much trouble she'd gotten herself in this time.
Shego's instructions and tips had been very helpful in allowing her to navigate the city her plane had landed in without getting kidnapped, killed, or unduly noticed. They'd even helped her get to this point, telling her what to say in conveniently phonetically-written sentences and how to react at certain points. But now, the guide was leaving with his llamas, and she was by herself at the foot of the mountain. And Shego's instructions had only two commands left:
‘Climb the mountain until you find her. Then give her this letter.’
Kim heaved a sigh, shifting the pack on her back. It contained some supplies, a bedroll, and Shego's letter to this mysterious martial arts master. It felt almost pathetically light on her shoulders.
“Well,” she said aloud after a few minutes of just staring at the problem instead of tackling it. “It's not getting climbed with me standing here.”
She trotted forward, convincing herself she should be confident. It wasn't as if this was Everest, and people climbed that. Clearly, climbing a mountain wouldn't be that big a deal… after all, she could do anything.
That night, as she bound her twisted ankle and glared out at the ground that didn't seem to have gotten all that much further away, she made a mental note to stop thinking that phrase. It seemed to inspire the world to make her work for what she was doing.
Kim stretched a hand upward, fingers searching until they found a handhold that seemed firm enough to haul herself up. Luckily, there hadn't been very much actual vertical climbing so far. She'd been able to find slighter rises or things that vaguely resembled paths for the most part, but every so often, she had to pull herself up to the next walkable area.
‘Why am I doing this, again?’ she thought in annoyance, feeling a spur of rock dig into her stomach a bit. She shifted and pulled herself up again, bracing her feet and indulging herself in a few moments of brooding. Then the memory came to her of one of Shego's rough, passionate kisses, the ones that felt like she was putting her whole body into it, and Kim's wind-chilled cheeks burned.
‘Oh yeah. That's why.’
Kim sat hugging her legs under a small rock overhang that provided a little shelter from the biting wind. She was sitting more out of sheer stubbornness than anything, out of frustration of having been on this mountain for three days and done nothing but climb and sleep. Not that she really had anything else to do but crawl into her sleeping bag and try to get a few hours of restless sleep, but sitting here being grumpy was something, so she was going to do it, dammit.
‘This is all Shego's fault,’ she groused silently.
Well, that wasn't true. She herself had been the one to decide it was her job to protect her archnemesis when she was hurt and in trouble. She'd made that choice. She'd even been the one to decide to actually be a supervillain instead of trying to smooth everything over or just disappear. Then she'd been the one to step forward and say ‘I love you’ instead of waiting longer to try and figure things out more carefully. And finally, she'd been the one who'd decided to try for this training without thinking it over more first.
‘Yup. Definitely Shego's fault.’
She squinted through the snow as it swirled around her, almost completely blotting out everything else. Her body was aching, tired… she hadn't wanted to risk sleeping last night lest she get too cold and not wake up. Kim had instead just continued to make her way up through the snow, climbing carefully when she had to, but walked where she could, even if the walkable way didn't seem to be going upward very much.
She'd been amidst the snow for what she thought were two whole days now. Her scarf was wet where it pressed against her mouth, and snow had gathered and frozen in her eyelashes. She wondered just how much longer she could go on.
As it turned out, about twelve more hours. Kim fell forward, the snow crunching hard under the impact, feeling almost more like it was hot than cold as it soaked in and found every available millimeter of bare skin, the snow already starting to cover her over.
‘Well, this is it,’ she thought with a hazy calm. ‘Sorry, everybody. Little miss “I can do anything” couldn't climb one measly mountain, so she's just gonna lay here and die. Sorry, guys. Sorry, Shego. I've got nothing left.’
She listened to the wind howl, and mused on it being the last thing she'd hear. As things faded further and got fuzzier, a shadow passed across her. She supposed it was that “getting dark” thing people talked about when they were dying.
Then she was lifting up, up, away from the burning of snow, drifting into the air. This must be what leaving your body was like.
Funny, it felt a lot like being carried over someone's shoulder.
Kim gasped and sat up abruptly, eyes wide. Her panic receded fairly quickly, and she stared around her in confusion. It looked like a room-sized natural cave had been dried out and done up as if it were a normal room, with a bed and a few chairs, even some scrolls with Asian characters on the walls, the entire place lit with dim, orange candlelight. A single wooden door with an arched top was set in one wall.
She checked herself, finding that somebody had dressed her in pajamas. Or, well, something like pajamas. They were maroon silk and Chinese style, with a high collar and loose sleeves on the shirt, and loose pants below. Her hands and feet were wrapped up, her left hand all the way up to the elbow, her right foot up past the knee. She wrinkled her nose as she raised a hand close enough to get a whiff of the bandages. ‘Smells like an old Christmas tree decorated with shrimp and a three week old jack-o-lantern instead of an angel.’
The door creaked softly and swung open, Kim looking over curiously as her apparent savior walked in, carrying what looked like a long staff or walking stick in one hand, wearing a white version of the clothes Kim was wearing, black slippers on her feet. She was a tall woman, pale as if her skin hadn't seen much sun in a long time. Her hair was cut short, dark curls that wreathed her head, though as she sat down in the chair next to Kim, the candlelight revealed faint reddish highlights. She looked like she was around Kim's mother's age, though her features were a bit more severe, as if the mountain wind had worn gentleness out of them. All the same, her dark brown eyes were warm as she picked up a bowl from the bedside table and set it in her lap.
“Looks like the lost rabbit I found in the snow is awake,” she said cheerfully, Kim eyeing what the woman was doing. There were some tins and jars on the bedside table as well as what looked like a pitcher of water, and the stranger was taking bits of what looked like herbs or dust out of them and putting them in the bowl. “Feeling alright now?”
“I guess so. Um, thank you for saving me, but where am I?”
“In my house. Well, ‘house’ in a less traditional sense than most people think of. I live here on the mountain. And since you don't look like the typical mountaineer, you must have been coming to see me.”
“Uh. Yeah. I think so.” Kim nodded, then cleared her throat. “I mean, I -was- told to climb this mountain until I found somebody, and I guess that must be you.”
“I think I found you, Snowbunny,” the pale woman corrected dryly. She picked up a pestle and began grinding the contents of the bowl, still looking at Kim. “But it looks like it all worked out to plan in any event.”
“Oh, my backpack, is it-”
“Hand first,” the older woman said firmly, pointing at Kim's right hand. Blinking, the redhead held it out, the stranger starting to unwrap it. “You had a little frostbite, but not too bad, considering. This hand was the worst, I wanted to give it one more shot of treatment.”
“Oh. Thank you.” Kim's nose wrinkled, all the same, as what she'd smelled earlier started wafting even more strongly from the bowl of ground materials. “What is that stuff?”
“Medicine. Let's leave it at that for now.” The woman finished unwrapping Kim's hand and looked it over, then nodded. She added some water to the bowl, then set a roll of bandages in it. “That needs to soak, so just give it a minute.”
“Okay. Oh… could I ask your name?”
“Well, what?” The pale woman grinned.
Kim rolled her eyes. “What's your name?”
“Why do you need to know?”
“Wha… because!” Kim stared. “I need to know what to call you!”
“You'll be told what to call me if I decide you're staying.” She smirked as Kim visibly fumed. Taking the bandages out and unrolling them, starting to re-wrap the redhead's hand, she continued cheerfully, “You're used to getting your way, aren't you?”
“Er.” Kim glanced away.
“Yeah, that's what I thought. I'm acquainted with that attitude. You can start by telling me yours, though.”
“Kim Possible.” She waited for some sign of recognition, but the older woman just snickered quietly.
“I bet there's some rather punful family motto associated with that, isn't there?”
“That's what I thought. I'm acquainted with that sort of thing, too. Theeere we go.” She finished her bandaging, and Kim flexed her hand a bit. It was a good job, she could move her hands practically normally despite being all wrapped up. “Your backpack's in the corner over there, put on the slippers at the foot of the bed first. Floor gets a bit cold, as you can imagine.”
Kim nodded and scooted forward on the bed, pushing the covers aside. She felt a little stiff and sore, but surprisingly good considering what she'd just been through. Though she wondered exactly how long she'd been recuperating. Finding the black slippers, she pulled them on and padded over to the corner, picking up the backpack and bringing it back over to the bed.
After a few seconds’ searching, she found the letter under her cleaned and folded shirt and proffered the envelope to the pale woman. She raised her dark eyebrows, but accepted it and used a thumb to open the top, pulling out the single folded sheet of paper and opening it up. Her eyes widened a little, scanning quickly over the lines, before she seemed to calm and read it over again. Kim walked around to stand in front of her, waiting.
“She gave you this personally?” the older woman asked eventually.
“And told you to come here?”
Kim nodded again.
Stymied a bit, Kim shifted nervously. “What do you mean?”
The other woman stood up, picking up her staff and leaning on it a bit. “Why are you currently standing here in front of me rather than somewhere else?”
“It… didn't say in the letter?”
“… Well, Snowbunny,” the pale woman said with a quirk at one corner of her mouth. She walked off to the side, opening a drawer and placing the letter inside. “You've come to me without even an idea of what you want to learn, it seems.”
Kim blinked, her chin jutting out as she felt a wave of defensiveness wash over her. “What do you mean? Shego said I was coming here to learn to fight…”
“Shego,” the other woman said with a droll tone in her voice, leaning against the staff she carried again. “Actually told you you were coming here to learn to… lemme guess… ‘be a badass’.”
“Well,” Kim allowed uncertainly.
“That's what I thought. You didn't come here to get knowledge. At least, not just the knowledge of how to throw a punch or kick. You came here to learn to be hard.” The traces of merriment vanished from those white features, brown eyes narrowing slightly. “People do that for a reason. Whatever that reason is, you know it. Whether you admit you know it, to others or yourself, that's another matter.”
“Look,” Kim said, her tone annoyed now, words clipped. “I just need to-”
She was interrupted as the hermit woman was just right there, in front of her, those dark eyes pinning her in place as surely as a butterfly skewered by a hatpin. She actually felt the urge to tremble a little, unable to help remembering books she'd read as a child that talked about snakes hypnotizing mice with their gaze.
“Why?” The woman's voice was low, smooth. Not demanding, not reproachful, not… anything. It was simple demand, stripped of everything.
“Because I don't know how to be true to myself anymore,” Kim answered automatically, still unable to move, though her eyes widened at her own answer.
“… Hunh.” The woman drew back ever-so-slightly, the intensity of her gaze lessening. “Why don't you know?”
“…” Kim looked down and balled her hands into fists. A million justifications flew through her mind, came to her tongue. But she was tired of lying, of putting forth a front that was… impossible. “I have to be a hero. I have to. It's part of me. But I won't be a hero on their terms anymore. I can't let them put me in a box and define me and decide how I'll be allowed to help people. And that makes me a villain.” Kim raised her head, meeting those sharp eyes, though all of a sudden, they weren't as scary anymore. “I need to know how to be both a hero and a villain.”
The pale woman was quiet for several full minutes, a little muscle in her cheek moving almost imperceptibly as her jaw worked slightly. Finally, that corner of her mouth quirked again. “I can tell you're not the sort to hand people easy problems, Snowbunny.”
“Will you teach me?” Kim asked softly, eyes beseeching.
“'Will you teach me, SIFU,'” the woman corrected in a patient tone.
Kim's own lips slowly curled into a smile. “Will you teach me… Sifu?”
“Yes, I will.” She turned and walked down the tunnel. “But first, you have to decide how you will be trained.”
“Huh?” Kim blinked, then hurried to follow after. “But, um, isn't that kind of what you do… uh, Sifu?”
“I'll teach you the moves. I'll give you the knowledge. I'll guide you to find yourself. It's my job to show you the way down the path, and make sure you learn to walk it on your own. But you have to choose the path yourself.”
Kim frowned in confusion, almost absentmindedly glancing back and forth as they followed forks in the tunnel. “Ooookay.”
“Though I will say this. You remember that saying, ‘It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, then to open your mouth and remove all doubt’?”
The redhead scowled, suspecting she was being insulted. “Yeah?”
“The part about being silent is wrong. Sometimes keeping quiet makes you look wise… like you're thinking things over, or that you know something. And hey, you might find that by not commenting on everything, you actually do think it over,” the older woman added dryly, glancing over her shoulder.
Kim could feel her cheeks color, but she couldn't exactly make a sarcastic quip in response to -that-. And as she brooded on the words while they walked, she realized that maybe her new teacher was right. She wasn't here so that she could stay ‘Kim Possible, teen cheerleader/hero’ her whole life. Maybe always having a witty comment for something wasn't necessary, especially when she was dealing with someone whose good side she needed to be on.
After a few more minutes of walking, the two entered a small, roundish room, lit by a pair of torches that cast flickering illumination over a trio of large wooden cabinets. Kim idly wondered if the torches were always kept lit, or if her sifu had just felt like lighting them up earlier in the event a new student came wandering by.
“These are the three paths. One of them will define your training. It may, in fact, define the person you are to become before you leave my house.” The older woman turned around to face Kim, expression grave again. “If you have been thinking on my advice, take it now. I'm not a rigid person by any means… tradition is only worth keeping when it's useful, and a tree with no give snaps in the wind. This is the one time I will -insist- on reverence from you. If you can't do that, I will consider your training ended now.”
“I understand,” Kim said after a moment, her voice almost a whisper.
“Maybe you do, a little. If you understand it more by the time you leave, I will consider you to have been a remarkable student indeed.” She nodded once, slowly, then crossed to the middle cabinet, slowly pulling open the doors and letting them spread.
The torchlight seemed to burst further into the room as it slid across metal and was reflected out into the small chamber, glinting off of pointed edges and smooth planes. Inside, sitting on racks, hanging on hooks, settled into small alcoves, were claws. At least a dozen different types that Kim could see. Claws that fit over each finger in interlocking joints, heavy gauntlets with wickedly pointed fingers, simple straps intended to go around the hand with long blades attached to the backs of them…
Kim stared, then turned her head to follow her teacher as the woman went to the cabinet to the right, opening it as well. Again, firelight gleamed off metal as racks of swords were revealed. Kim could name almost every type, from Claymore to ninja-to, from saber to shotel. It would have been an impressive show collection, except that Kim had the distinct impression every single one of those weapons were combat ready, if not combat experienced.
The older woman crossed to the final cabinet, and swung its doors open. No glinting firelight sparkled here, save a few dull glints here and there in the recesses of the cabinet. It almost looked, for a moment, as if the cabinet were simply full of spare wood, before Kim realized that she was looking at an even wider array of staff weapons than either other cabinet bore, perhaps simply because their nature made it easier to stack more inside.
Kim's eyes followed her teacher back to the center of the room, where the woman looked at the redhead gravely. “The claw. It is swift, decisive, and focused. It is a weapon of aggression. Its intent is to cut your enemies down, to strike them before they can strike you. It is a weapon, pure, clean, and in the proper hands, utterly precise.
“The sword. Though it offers many variations and themes, it too is swift and decisive. Its cutting edge strikes and cuts, and its flat turns away the attacks of your foes. But do not be fooled by its defensive capabilities… the sword is still a seeker of blood and an ender of life, and if its flat offers protection, it is only to yourself.
“The staff. Blunt. Unassuming. But in the right hands, it is a quick and agile tool, one that can dance as easily as either of the others. It offers as much protection as it does offense, but you will find few who can shrug off its strikes. Though it may seem less powerful, more geared towards protecting yourself and others, never forget that it is as much a weapon as the claw or sword.
“Choose. There will be no reconsideration after the fact, no waffling. The weapon will define you as much as anything else. It will affect your decisions in ways you can only vaguely understand at this time, but part of you already knows.”
Kim closed her eyes for a moment and took a breath, then opened them again. Her gaze passed over the claws gleaming in their cabinet with barely a pause, before she looked at the swords, then turned her head back towards the staff cabinet. She looked back and forth several times, a tiny line appearing in the center of her forehead as she focused in as much as possible.
Finally, slowly, she turned and walked to the left, focusing her eyes on the smooth lengths of wood and a sparse few made of tarnished metal, starting to lift her hand.
“Think before you do.”
Her teacher's voice paused her hand, still raised, though Kim didn't look back.
“You told me you want to be both hero and villain. A hero with no restrictions but the ones you place on yourself. You want to protect people, and that is what a hero does. But don't think that picking the dull weapon will hold you back from crossing the line you're wondering if you'll cross.”
The pale woman's eyes narrowed slightly, soft voice filling the little cavern. “You can take a life with one of those. But it won't be quite the little dart of the hand it would be with the others. You'll feel it. You'll hear the bone crush, you'll watch the pain spread. They won't just be gone in one quick stroke… they'll have time for a last thought, a last look.”
Kim's fingers curled in, fingertips pressing to her palm.
“If you're picking the staff because it's safe, remind yourself that these are all weapons. They were all made to do damage to another living creature. They have their own ways, their own… personality… but don't choose it because you think it will keep you from going somewhere you don't want to go. The only thing that can do that is the person holding it, you.”
Finally, Kim's hand moved forward, latching around a smooth wooden staff and drawing it forth. It was a bit heavy in her hands… just a little too heavy, though she thought it likely that would change as time passed. It was black lacquer, and drawing it out of the cabinet gave it enough light for the glossy finish to gleam softly. She set her other hand on it, letting them find places to feel comfortable.
“You've chosen your path. Now let's see if you can take the first step without stumbling.”
Kim stumbled. A lot, at first. She'd had some experience with weapons, especially ones as basic as the staff, but she'd never met anyone that was as expert in the use of any weapon as her new teacher was with the quarterstaff. Even the lighter balsa-wood ones they used for practice seemed to strike like tree-trunks in her sifu's hands.
“The Branches of the Three Ancestral Dragon Style are as much philosophy as any set of moves,” the older woman explained one day as the two of them went through a slow kata side by side, Kim glad that her bruises were getting a chance to rest for the moment. “That is, in part, why it's called Ancestral. Teaching someone one of the Branches is like having a child… you impart your own gifts, give your own knowledge, but what the result is will not be exactly the same as the original.”
“Then why do the moves at all?” Kim asked as they both pivoted and swung the staffs around, extended end raised. “Why not just learn the philosophy?”
“The core moves -are- the philosophy.” The teacher thrust the tip of her staff forward, Kim doing the same a half heartbeat later. Then she swung it up in a slow spin over her head before tucking it in against her side. “Each Branch has its own set of techniques that are taught as the most basic of the basic. Anyone who learned them could theoretically be said to know the style, but that leaves out all the other teaching, philosophy, and development that is part of learning from our art.”
Kim was silent for a bit, focusing on following the movements. They'd done this kata once before, but her sifu talked every time they did one, so she had to focus not only on the words, but what she was doing. Though it slowed learning just a little, it reminded her a bit of chatting with Shego as they fought.
“So that's why Shego told me it would take two years,” the redhead said eventually, snapping the staff downward in synch with the older woman.
“Right. I could teach you the core of the Staff Branch and drill you in some more complicated moves and have you out of here in a month. But it wouldn't really teach you anything. I'd just be handing you another gadget for your armory.”
“I knew I shouldn't have told you about the hair dryer.”
Her sifu chuckled, and Kim smiled.
Between training sessions, which began early and were held often, Kim was free to wander her teacher's home. Sometimes she did so by herself, though at first it was usually with the older woman as a guide. There was a system of the way the torches were mounted and some faint markings on the rock that helped her find her way around, giving her a vague idea of where she was and what direction she was going.
(She still hadn't figured out the thing about the torches being lit. She kept meaning to ask, but couldn't find a good way to work it into a conversation.)
The maze of caverns and caves really did resemble a house in many ways. It was dry, if rather cool, and there were no stalagmites or stalactites jutting through the “rooms” or “hallways” to reinforce the idea of what it was. There were several rooms near each other filled with neatly-arranged bookshelves, forming what was actually a fairly impressive library. There was another room filled with scrolls, more rooms full of weaponry, an entire set of corridors that was effectively a museum with rooms full of strange knickknacks and art treasures, and what appeared to be a shrine or two.
Too, her sifu was actually fairly pleasant to spend time with. She was unrelenting with her lessons, demanding nothing less than total success from Kim and driving her until she got it, but even in that she was often good-natured and ready with a joke or quip. Outside of it, she was ready and willing to sit and talk for hours on a variety of subjects, and Kim was starting to develop interests in art and literature that she'd always taken lightly before.
Though she was beginning to wonder when she'd start learning to be “hard”, as Shego had said. The training was definitely good, and she thought she was coming along well. And she could tell she was learning a few lessons outside of the martial arts. But when was her sifu going to teach her how to be tough?
Kim stood in the center of the training room, shifting the practice staff and looking around in mild confusion. She knew she wasn't early… despite not having seen the sun in awhile, she'd developed a sense of the proper time from how long candles had been burning and other little hints.
When her sifu walked in, she started to ask why the other woman had been late, then quickly brought her staff up to block the bokken that was swung at her head. Yelping in surprise as she continued to block strikes, Kim backed up, focusing on not letting the hard wooden sword get through her defenses, thinking that it was likely to hurt a bit more than the blunt practice staff.
Then she saw an opening and dropped below a swing from the side, spinning the staff around to bring it against the back of the other woman's knees, knocking her legs out from under her. Her sifu hit the floor with an oof, then laughed.
Kim blinked, stepping back and letting the pale woman hop to her feet, resting the bokken against her shoulder. “Care to explain?”
“You didn't waste time demanding to know what I was doing or what I was doing it, instead you knew you needed to defend yourself and wait for an opening. A lot less dangerous to ask me those questions when you don't have a weapon coming at you, huh?”
“Well, yeah.” Kim frowned a little. “That's what you've been teaching me, to defend and find the right time to strike.”
“Did I ever say anything about not asking questions?”
Kim opened her mouth to respond, then closed it. She thought for a moment and blinked. “No. I guess… I was actually…” She stared.
“Looking for the opening to ask them?” The pale woman chuckled, tapping the bokken on her shoulder. “As you should. It's as applicable to conversation or, say, relationships as it is to fighting.”
Kim nodded, turning the idea over in her head.
“In any event, it's been a good two months. Your form has progressed nicely, and you're starting to learn some of your other lessons as well. Time to change things up.” The teacher gave the wooden sword a small toss, letting it twirl once and catching it again. “We're switching to sword versus staff for awhile.”
Several days later, Kim sat on her bed, dabbing at one of her new bruises with a concoction she'd learned to make sometime in the first few weeks of training. “So you know all three branches?”
“I started out learning the Staff Branch, and began learning the other Branches when I attained the rank of Master.” The pale woman was sitting in a nearby chair, drawing idle, invisible designs on the floor with the tip of the bokken. “Eventually I was declared to be a Teacher, the only one of my generation so far.”
“How many Three Dragons practitioners are there, anyway?” Kim asked, tossing the used cloth in the small, empty washbin across the room.
“There are four Teachers, which is the highest rank there is. One of my grandfather's generation, two of my father's, and me. As for Adepts and Students, there are probably around 200, a few dozen of which I've trained myself.”
“So the ranks are Student, Adept, Master, and Teacher,” Kim mused, glancing upward.
Kim blinked, looking back at her. “Initiate?”
“Someone who's begun learning, but you can't tell if they're serious about it yet.”
The redhead's face fell a little. “I'm an Initiate, aren't I?”
“'Fraid so, Snowbunny. Sorry. You're coming along nicely, though. I may have to start looking for a Student present for you soon, I think.”
Kim smiled a little. “So what happens at each rank?”
“Well, at Initiate, you just begin learning. When you become a Student, you're acknowledged as being bound to your sifu. Basically, I'd be able to go to other members of the Three Dragons and introduce you as ‘My pupil, Kim’, which is intended to be an honor for both of us.”
“That sounds nice.”
“As an Adept, you're acknowledged as having a thorough command of your Branch. You've internalized its philosophy, it's become reflex to you. You're given an Honor Name by your sifu… a special name that signifies something. It can be a reminder to humility, an inspiration to confidence, or just something neat or significant to that particular person or sifu.”
Kim nodded, wondering if she'd ever progress to that level. She wasn't in the habit of doubting herself, but she was beginning to worry that overconfidence would one day be the death of her, and was trying to be more realistic nowadays.
“An Honor Name is a big deal… some people forsake the use of their birth name for it, believing their Honor Name to be the one they've earned or that truly fits them. As for a Master, it's someone that's gained such proficiency with their chosen Branch that they could overcome an Adept of either of the other two. When you become a Master, you can begin learning the other two Branches, and eventually become a Teacher.”
The redhead nodded again, then let herself fall to one side, her head impacting on the pillow, eyes closing.
“… You okay, Snowbunny?” The older woman stood and walked over to the bed, gently resting the backs of her fingers against Kim's forehead. “You seem kind of down. You haven't been writing in your journal or wandering around the galleries.”
“I'm fine.” Kim opened her eyes and forced a smile. “You're just kinda tough with that sword. It's tiring.”
Silent for a few moments, the teacher eventually nodded, giving Kim a pat on the side of the head. “Night, kiddo.”
“Night, Sifu,” Kim murmured, turning onto her other side.
Training against the sword continued. Sometimes the type of sword would change… fencing foils, wooden bastard swords, each had their own unique traits that kept Kim on her toes. What almost knocked her off of them came a month into the new training.
“This is the last day for some time that we'll hold lessons in English,” her Sifu announced as they paused between sparring engagements.
Kim stared at her. “What?”
“Shortly, I will switch to speaking Japanese. I will continue to speak Japanese and nothing else for two weeks. Whereupon I will switch to Mandarin. Then Spanish. Then something else. Every two weeks, I will use one of the languages I know, and nothing else. When using Spanish, I will tell you the next few I intend to use.” She smiled thinly. “Which won't do you much good if you can't understand me, I suppose.”
“But… but…!” Kim spluttered.
But the other woman had said a few words she didn't recognize, then was coming at her. The heavy wooden longsword crashed into Kim's staff, jarring it with the power of the strike and knocking the redhead off balance. Her teacher rapped the flat of the wooden sword on Kim's hands in quick succession, making her yelp and drop the practice staff to the floor with a clatter.
With a few more unintelligible words, Kim's sifu walked past her and out the door.
Kim clasped her hands behind her back, pacing back and forth and scowling down at the floor. This was ridiculous! Two weeks of being given lessons in a language she didn't know?! By the time she started learning some of it, that damned woman would be changing to something else. Actually learning anything else would slow to a crawl, or be ruined completely. It was totally unfair!
‘Yes, but that's because it's a challenge.’
Kim blinked and came to a halt, then frowned, brow furrowing just a little, as she pursued that thought.
‘If something's challenging you, it's usually not being fair. It's not a race if everyone's got exactly equal ability and conditions and everything else… it's just a run.’
She sat down in a chair and folded her arms over her chest, resentment burning in her. Maybe the other woman was tired of teaching her, intentionally trying to sink her by presenting her a challenge that would be nearly impossible to overcome. Then she took a few deep breaths, trying to make herself calm down.
‘No, she wouldn't do that. She's challenging you because she thinks you can rise to the challenge. But how? Even if she thinks I can do it, whether I actually CAN learn Japanese so fast just from listening to her is doubtful.’
She mulled that one over. She was missing something here, she could tell. Something she hadn't grasped, some part of the challenge she was missing. A race might not have been fair, but you still didn't take a sprinter and tell him to run a race across sharp rocks with no shoes.
‘C'mon, Possible! You're always bragging about being the daughter of a brain surgeon and a rocket scientist! Put some of those intelligence genes to use!’
Kim tapped a foot, turning the problem over some more, then stilled her foot as realization stole over her. Her brain… that was what she was supposed to be using.
‘You've been using it to react to situations, come up with ways to get yourself out of trouble or respond when you needed to, figure out what's going on. But you're not -using- it!’
Rising to her feet, Kim hurried out of the room and through the winding corridors, deeper into the caverns until she arrived at the series of them that housed the library. She ducked into one room, scanning titles hurriedly, then made a sound of annoyance and hurried to the next room. Here, after a few moments’ searching, she found an entire section on languages.
Grinning, Kim started pulling down several books on Japanese and stacking them in her arm. ‘Anything's possible for a Possible. As long as she has prep time.’
The pale woman walked into the training room, finding Kim already waiting for her, staff raised and a serious expression on her face. Nodding, the teacher walked over and raised her bokken. “[Are you ready to begin today's lesson?]”
Kim was silent for a few moments, before giving a curt nod. “[Ready.]”
Slowly, the sifu grinned. “[How much did you learn, Snowbunny?]”
The redhead didn't respond immediately, but eventually grinned a bit in return. “[Some.]”
“[Some is good. Some is an excellent starting point. Let's begin.]”
Kim and her sifu sat in the little cavern that served as their dining room. The pale woman glanced at the redhead every so often, expression a little troubled. The silence being broken only by chopsticks hitting bowls was starting to get to her.
“So, have you already started on Russian?” she asked finally, still using Mandarin, the current language.
“Yes.” Kim didn't look up, just continuing to poke at her stir-fry. “I'm doing okay.”
‘That seems doubtful.’ “Good, good,” was all she said aloud in response, though. “You want to talk about anything? Good practice to finish off your Mandarin.”
“No thanks. I'm tired.” Kim set her chopsticks across the bowl and stood, walking out of the room as if she had no particular destination in mind.
“…” The older woman stared after her, then looked at Kim's half-full bowl. She sighed a little, shaking her head. ‘Not good.’
Later, she passed by Kim's room and paused at a sound from within. She stopped and leaned closer, listening more carefully.
She started to reach for the doorknob, then hesitated. This girl wasn't her daughter or necessarily her friend. She was her student. There were some boundaries that shouldn't necessarily be crossed. Kim might wind up feeling humiliated, or as if her privacy had been violated. She might have wanted to be strong and work through it on her own. There were a hundred thousand perfectly good reasons to not go in there, and instead just let the girl get through it on her own.
A sob carried through the door.
She pushed the door open and walked over to sit on the edge of the bed. Kim was laying on her stomach, the pillow pulled forward and her face pressed into it. As the older woman rested her hand on the redhead's back, Kim raised her head, staring at her with reddened eyes.
Then Kim wrapped her arms around her teacher's middle, hauling herself close and bawling.
“Sssshhh. Sssshhh.” The pale woman rubbed the teenager's back gently, giving her the occasional squeeze. “It's okay. It'll be okay.”
“I guess I haven't learned to be hard.”
Sifu looked up from her pint of ice cream, blinking. The two of them were sitting on the floor in the kitchen, leaning back against the counters. Both had a small carton of ice cream they'd been working their way through for the past twenty minutes, once Kim had eventually cried herself out.
“Snowbunny, you're a teenage girl who's really away from home for the first time and hasn't talked to anybody she loves in over four months. There's only so tough you can be.”
Kim poked at her Rocky Road a bit, finally looking up. “-Am- I becoming tough?”
“You mean, is all this worth it?” Sifu took a deep breath, then shrugged. “I've got a lot to teach you, lessons I intend. I can't guarantee you'll be tough at the end, or at least tough the way you think you're going to. You'll have learned a lot, and you'll have changed.” She lifted the spoonful of mint ripple to her mouth, sucking on it for a few moments rather than just gulping it down, then set the spoon in the carton. “Do you think that's part of what you're worried about?”
“Changing? … Maybe.” Kim leaned her head back, staring up at the ceiling and the candlelight illuminating it. “I used to really like who I was. And there's so much that becoming someone different might compliment. I don't know that I'm any closer to understanding what I first asked about.”
“How to be a hero without restrictions? I'm hoping that will come with time.”
Kim rolled her head to look at Sifu, smiling a bit wanly. “Hoping?”
“There are no guarantees, Snowbunny. Like I told you early on, this is like parenthood. I can teach you, mold you, but what you become through it is up to you.”
The redhead looked at the other woman for a long time, and finally ventured a hunch that had been rolling around in her head for awhile. “Speaking of parenthood, what was Shego like as a little girl?”
Sifu's spoon paused halfway to her mouth, then completed its course, the pale woman swallowing before answering wryly, “Nosy, like someone else I know.”
“Heh. I suppose that's not fair. You probably deserve to know.” Sifu stirred her ice cream a bit, before adding, “After all, you're the one that's in love with her.
The redhead's jaw dropped. “You've been reading my journal!”
“Hardly.” Sifu pointed her spoon at Kim and waggled it. “You're hardly the only person here with deductive capabilities, missy.”
“Is it really so obvious?” Kim murmured.
“We didn't part on the best of terms. If Shego sent you to me, and was asking me for favors, there was a short list of possibilities. The fact that you whispered her name a few times tonight while you were crying kind of cinched which one.”
“Oh. I didn't even realize.” Kim averted her eyes in embarrassment.
“No, you'd been holding it in for awhile. You can be strong without constantly being a rock. Taking some time to feel stuff you'd been hardening yourself to before is something you need to do sometimes.”
“Mm… can people really just… schedule their emotions?”
“It's more like micromanagement, I guess, but you can learn to. The whole ‘fight now, mourn later’ thing.”
Kim mulled that over for a bit, before venturing, again, “Really, would you tell me some more about her?”
“Shego? I suppose.”
“You… said you parted on bad terms. Why?”
“There wasn't any one reason. There was a topmost one, but there were a number.” Sifu took a deep breath, then let it out. “I began training her seriously when she was around eleven… she was already dealing with the changes the meteorite caused, and I thought it would help.
“I… made mistakes. I let my love for my daughter blind me to her faults as a student. I made allowances for her where I shouldn't have. Her anger and frustration at what had happened to her and the way people treated her fed off of the natural antagonism of the Claw Branch, and her temper got worse rather than more focused. I should have seen that and done something about it. Instead I just convinced myself it was her unique style and let it go.”
Sifu stirred her ice cream again, staring into the carton. “She learned the lessons she wanted to and discarded others, and I allowed her to. The last straw came a bit after I promoted her to Adept.”
Kim just listened and waited. That was a lesson she'd learned well… she didn't always have to say something.
“You see, as the only Teacher of my generation, I felt it was my responsibility to make sure I had plenty of students. So often I'd be away from home for long periods of time, sometimes three months at once. It was hard on me, and on the family, but I'd convinced myself it was necessary. I think Shego thought that once she became an Adept, things would change, that I'd stay and focus on her from then on, maybe start training the others.”
“I can understand. A little,” Kim said quietly.
“You probably can, with what your parents do.” Sifu smiled wanly, then continued. “When I returned from my latest training trip visiting students, we had a huge fight. It culminated in Shego saying that if I couldn't stay, I shouldn't be there at all.” The older woman trailed off, tapping her spoon against the cardboard of the ice cream carton, her voice quiet. “I was hurt enough and stupid enough to listen to her. I left and haven't seen my children or husband face-to-face since.”
“… Why?” Kim's voice, too, was quiet. “Why didn't you go back when you realized you'd made a mistake?”
“It was too hard by then. I lost myself in training others and expanding my own skills. By the time I realized I'd been foolish and checked on them, Shego had already left her brothers and was starting her career as a villain. Team Go was broken up and my oldest sons had apparently moved on. I just thought coming back into their lives would stir up the old pain. The most I could muster my courage to do was start corresponding with my youngest through letters.”
Kim just let that sit for awhile, both of them eating their ice cream in silence. Eventually, though, she asked, “You said she's an Adept. So is Shego her Honor Name?”
Sifu grinned. “Now -that- is a much cheerier story, and one of those ‘mom gets to embarrass her kid’ stories, too.”
The redhead started grinning just a tad wickedly. “Do tell.”
“When Shego's little brothers were born, she was -very- serious about being a big sister. The very first time she got to come in and see them, she walked up and announced, serious as a board meeting, ‘Hello, I'm your big sister, Sheila Go.'”
Kim snrked so hard she almost shoved her spoon down her throat.
“Alllll the time, it was, ‘I'm your big sister, Sheila Go. I expect you to learn my name.’ and so on, all just solemn as all get-out. Of course, babies can't manage that any better than they can actually say ‘mother’ and ‘father’. Those boys’ first word was ‘She'go!’.”
Kim started laughing, putting a hand to her head. “Oh my GOD! We've all been calling her the equivalent of ‘Bubba'!”
“Which came dangerously close to being Herman's childhood nickname because of her, by the way.”
Which just made Kim start laughing harder.
Sifu's smile turned a little wistful, dark brown eyes gazing at something far away. “I picked it for her Honor Name because I wanted her to remember where she came from. I wanted to remind her of good times and family. … I suppose I failed.”
Kim's laughter faded slowly, expression growing a bit more serious as she laid a hand over one of her teacher's. “I don't think that's true. And I don't think she hates you and wants you to stay away.”
“… Really?” Now it was Sifu's turn to sound like the unsure, hurting child.
“She made that name hers. It's all she goes by, it's… who she is. And you gave it to her. If she was that angry… if it didn't mean anything… she'd have thrown it away. A lot of villains do that… the names their parents gave them stop having any meaning, and they pick one themselves. Shego kept the one you gave her to honor her.”
Kim squeezed the older woman's hand gently. “People say things they don't mean when they're hurting. When she said that to you, she wasn't telling you to leave… she was begging you to stay.”
“… I know.” Sifu nodded once. “And I didn't have the courage to. … Kim, I understand if, after hearing this, you don't want to continue training with me. If you don't trust me to have the courage and patience to see you through it, after finding out I didn't have the courage and patience to be a proper wife and mother. One of the other Teachers could take over, you wouldn't lose much time…”
“I won't accept training from anybody but you.”
Sifu blinked. “Kim?”
“I've been missing everyone, especially Shego, until I thought it would break me. Now… it doesn't hurt so much. Knowing that I've got someone here who was such a big part of her life, and so important to her… it makes it easier. I didn't get a chance to really, truly get to know her before I had to leave.” Kim smiled. “Now… I can make a good start.”
… Yeah.” Sifu smiled, pulling Kim to her side and hugging her. “We'll make an excellent start, Snowbunny.”
“It's been six months. Your defense is excellent against staff and sword. Your Japanese is excellent, as is your Spanish, Mandarin, French, and your Cantonese is coming along very well.” Sifu paused for a moment, then added, “And I like your new haircut.”
Kim grinned broadly, her hair now cut as short as her teacher's, its curl a little more subdued than hers, mostly causing it to edge around her ears and around her forehead. “Thanks.” She didn't intend to keep the length, but wanted it more utilitarian for the time being.
“I suppose you realize what the next logical step would be, but I've been pondering just skipping right over it.”
“Claw Branch?” Kim prompted, grinning more broadly.
“I think we could easily assume your defense against it will be more than adequate. After all, you're working towards Adept, not Master. At least at the moment.”
Kim nodded, then blinked. “Wait… you mean…?”
“Congratulations, Kim.” Sifu grinned, holding out her hands, a thin bracelet formed of three intertwined bands, each one a slender Chinese dragon holding a differently-colored gem, the one on one end holding a black ball curled in its tail, the middle with a red one in its jaws, the third with a green held in one hand. “You're a Student.”
Kim took the bracelet, gazing at it for long moments, then bowed, partly to hide the fact that she was tearing up. When she felt a little more composed, she straightened up and fastened it around her right wrist. It fit perfectly.
“This is an heirloom of our school, Kim. When I was considering your Student gift, I saw this and realized it was the right size. I knew it was a sign… that you were special. The last student I'll ever teach.”
The redhead blinked. “The last? Really?”
“All of my other students have either gone as far as I can take them or as far as they're capable of going. Some of the Adepts will become Masters, and some of those Masters may even become Teachers themselves someday. I may still lend my knowledge, I may even still teach… but you'll be the last one I ever truly call student.”
“I don't know whether to be honored or saddened,” Kim murmured.
“Maybe a little of both. Nothing ever said you can't mingle emotions.” Sifu smiled, then shifted her feet on the mat. “Now. Enough being maudlin. We won't spend long on teaching you to defend against Claw Branch, since you no doubt have it pretty much down. You'll need to adapt to the differences of doing it with the staff, but you'll do well. Let's begin…”
It was almost like old times.
Sifu used a set of hard wooden claws that covered her fingers and the backs of her hands, and Kim was reminded so strongly of Shego that she almost fell back into her old habit of quipping constantly through the battle. She learned quickly that it was a bad idea, though. Though blocking the swipes and slashes was much easier with the staff than just dodging them or having to use her hands and arms, it also meant that she had to be much more careful about leaving any opening… the claws could divert and plunge into weak spots much faster than another staff or a sword.
But as she began finding the old familiar rhythms, she started finding the right spots to insert a quick comment or jibe. These were occasionally almost as effective at creating a moment of laxness or a tiny opening to press her advantage as actually attacking would have been, though Kim sometimes thought that Sifu was exaggerating the taunts’ effects.
All the same, it felt like her focus and care was paying off. When after several weeks Sifu changed back to the staff and resumed their sparring, she found it much easier to apply herself, and the lessons she'd learned against the other weapons. She was quickly learning that if she held fast and defended, eventually she'd spot a chance to attack opening up as if by magic.
She was doing so well that, after a week, Sifu announced that the practice weapons would be put away. Kim now began using the heavier black-lacquered staff she'd originally chosen and had since only used for katas. As expected, it now moved far more lightly in her hands… a lucky thing, since the strikes from Sifu's staff fell like sledgehammer blows.
Sifu was as relentless as she had ever been. Kim's bruises were fewer this time around, but heavier. And when the time came to change to swords, real blades were used. More than once Kim was taught a new mixture of medicine to make so that she could tend the shallow cuts or small pierce marks that indicated that her defense was still far from perfected.
Drawing in on her ninth month, she'd passed through all three Branches again, and still had a few lingering marks and tiny scars to show for it. Still, she thought she'd done exceptionally well, which was why she was confused that Sifu seemed to be growing a little tense and quiet lately.
Something was up, and it seemed likely to come crashing back down quite soon.
“Good. I think you've grasped everything of these lessons,” Sifu said, tone distant, as she began unfastening the clawed gauntlets she was wearing. “We'll be ready to move on to something new soon.”
“'Soon’?” Kim queried. “Not tomorrow?”
The older woman was silent as she put the gauntlets away, and spent a few moments tidying up the training room's weapons cabinet, though it was already immaculately-tended.
“Sifu, what's wrong,” Kim pressed gently. “Please tell me.”
“… I'm a little afraid, Kim.” Sighing, Sifu turned around to face the redhead. “I've become very fond of you. I'm afraid I won't have the strength to go through with the next part of the training. The part that's supposed to start to really…” She trailed off, running a thumb along the flat of a sword's blade, before finally finishing, “Make you tough. Make you hard.”
“It's that bad?” Kim asked curiously.
“… Yes. There's a fair possibility you might die.” Sifu turned around and folded her arms over her chest, expression grim. “It's not something every Teacher will ask of every Student. It's entirely possible for someone to become an Adept without undergoing this part of the training.”
“What about Master?” Kim's tone said she already suspected the answer.
“No. Every Master has undergone this part of the training.”
Sifu took a deep breath, then nodded. “Yes. She underwent the first part without my permission, on her own. She was probably right to… with the way I was too close to her, letting my feelings interfere with her training, I would have interrupted the rite before it was done. By the school rules, she would have had to begin again or stop where she was in the training. Once she had undergone the first rite, I couldn't deny her the completion of the others.”
“I'll do it.” Kim firmed her jaw. “I -can- do it.”
“I know you can. I know you'll do your damnedest.” Sifu smiled sadly, tilting her head a bit. “I'm just worried that I'll try and yank you out of there if I get too worried.”
The redhead considered that for a minute, then nodded firmly. “Then I guess it's a test for both of us.”
“… The greatest honor of a teacher is to learn from the student,” Sifu murmured, then nodded. “Alright. Get some sleep tonight. It may be the last time for awhile you do.”
Despite her confidence the previous day, Kim felt distinct butterflies in her stomach as she followed the silent and somewhat morose older woman down deeper into the system of caverns than she'd ever been. Even the torchlight seemed dimmer here, the mountain above seeming to press down harder on her awareness.
Eventually, they arrived at the end of a hallway, at a door that looked more like it belonged on a submarine than deep in a cave. Sifu unhooked a lock at one side of the door, then twisted the round handle and swung the door open.
Kim followed her inside, then looked around. This cave was unfurnished, even with candles or a torch, just bare stone and much more jagged, less welcoming walls. Looking around, Kim could dimly see in the torchlight from the hall a few holes in the ceiling about the size of her fist, in some cases a bit larger. At the very top of the ceiling, in a rise almost like a shallow dome, was a round grate, the darkness between the bars about the same size as the holes. There was a similar grate in the center of the floor.
She was starting to get a very bad feeling about this room.
Sifu turned around to face her, expression grim. “For the next month, this room will be your home. You will not leave it for any reason. It will be up to you to figure out how to survive, and how to grow from it.”
Kim wasn't sure that she'd ever heard anything so terrifying in her life.
But after a minute, she nodded. “… Yes, Sifu.”
Nodding in return, Sifu turned and walked back out into the hallway. The hinges of the door creaked quietly as it began to close.
“See you in thirty days,” Sifu said softly, just before the door clanged shut, a clank ringing through the bare stone room as the lock was fastened.
And Kim was left alone in the darkness.
After awhile, what felt like hours, Kim realized she could see a little. There was some light coming in through the grating up at the top. She couldn't get a very good view from any place she stood, but at her best guess it went a very long way up through the rock to make a sort of air tube. Thus the grating, to keep her from figuring out some way to climb out.
Kim began pacing back and forth, and only a few meditation exercises kept her intense thinking from turning into panic. Panic, just like losing concentration and leaving an opening in her defenses, would get her hurt or killed. This was another part of the training, another challenge. She just had to figure out how.
‘Maybe it's a challenge to escape!’ she thought, turning towards the door and walking over. She could barely even see its outline in the dim light, let alone any details. After a few moments, she shook her head. ‘No, it wouldn't have made her this nervous if that were all it was.’
She brooded on that, then thought hopefully, ‘Maybe that was just an act! Like her severity with the language thing! She didn't want to hand me the answer!’
Then she wilted. ‘No. She wouldn't use talking about Shego to trick me. I know Sifu better than that. She wouldn't have worried about Shego doing this if it were something as simple as figuring a way out of a tightly-locked room.’
For a month. She'd be locked in here for a month, in the dark, with no one to talk to, nothing to do, and… nothing to eat. She quailed, her breakfast rather abruptly trying to abandon her despite the fact that she suddenly needed it more than ever. She'd starve! Or, worse and much faster, dehydrate!
Clenching her fists, she quickly started counting backwards from ten in every language she now knew. She wouldn't panic. She -would not- panic. If she died, she'd die calm and composed.
‘This is a challenge. Not a death sentence. I just don't have all the information about the challenge yet, that's all. I'll figure it out.’
The light got as bright as if a single wan candle in the middle of the day, for what Kim guessed was about twenty minutes. Then it began to fade again, little by little. Clearly, she had a very narrow window of workable light, not that she had anything to use it to work on.
She spent the day pacing or, when she could force herself to be calm enough, sitting and conserving her energy. She considered everything she could, and again and again was forced to abandon trying to plan. The purpose of the top grate seemed plain, to allow in air, though whether the light was on purpose or just a by-product of its main function was unclear. She was betting on purpose, because it seemed unlikely that a chamber so deliberately constructed would be built without thought to such things.
But the other holes, and the grate at the bottom, she couldn't figure out. She'd tried to look down the grate, but the light simply wasn't strong enough. It might have been covering nothing but a four inch depression in the floor and she wouldn't have known any more than if it was a tunnel to the center of the Earth. Likewise the holes in the ceiling, which she had even less ability to investigate.
Eventually, the light faded completely, and Kim was left as completely in the dark as she had been when she first walked into the room. This time, she had to count down from twenty in every language, twice, to keep from panicking.
After an interminable time in the dark, she heard a soft dripping sound and lifted her head. Water? It sounded like a leaking faucet.
Then the drip turned into a steady splash, like a waterfall, and Kim leapt to her feet as it felt like a puddle had touched her slippers. She turned her head back and forth wildly, trying to determine where the sound was coming from. There seemed to be more than one source…
Her blood ran cold, sending a shiver through her entire body. The holes in the ceiling. The room was flooding.
There was no helping it now. She fled towards the end of the room where she thought the door had been, her running steps splashing through the water gathered on the floor. Desperately searching hands found the metal, and she pounded against it, crying for help, for Sifu to let her out.
No answer came. The door didn't open. There wasn't even a reassuring shout.
Kim thumped the underside of her fists against the door, lowering her head and squeezing her eyes shut, tears running down her cheeks. ‘Don't panic don't panic don't panic…’
The water was already up past her ankles and the room seemed to be flooding even faster. All the same, Kim stayed still, forcing her breathing to deepen and steady. The water seemed warm… maybe wherever it was kept was heated. Deeper in the mountain, maybe? Yes, that seemed likely. There was a sort of mediciney smell to it, almost like salt but not. Mineral water, heated by geothermal energy. Hey, maybe this was just a really weird health resort…
Kim laughed for a few seconds, then made herself stop when she realized how hysterical she sounded. She sloshed back towards the center of the room, water steadily moving up past her knees. ‘Don't panic, don't panic…’
She let herself go a bit slack as the water started to rise up to her shoulders, and as it rose higher shifted her arms, lifting herself just a little off her feet. Soon she was treading water as the chamber filled, concentrating on keeping her head up. The water had to stop soon, it had to stop soon, it had to stop. Then her face bumped against stone and water closed in over it.
Kim had never come closer to dying than at that moment. Every part of her mind screamed, and it was only some deep instinct that kept her from doing so aloud and expending all her air in one last muffled cry of terror. She scrambled and thrashed for a moment, then began hurriedly moving along, hands darting back and forth across the stony ceiling.
Her fingertips touched metal, and she grabbed on, twisting and grabbing another bar with her other hand and hauling herself forward. Her face broke into the shallow dome beneath the grate with a loud gasp, and she shuddered with relief and lingering fear as she filled her lungs.
It took her long minutes to steady her breathing and relax her arms enough that she wasn't putting unnecessary strain on them. Something told her that she was going to have to hold on for quite awhile.
She blinked water out of her lashes, staring up along the long, thin tunnel as steam rose from the water's surface and into the night air. From this distance, she could actually see the end, and faintly make out a few stars. It felt like looking up at the normal, real world from Hell.
‘A month in Hell. That's what this is,’ Kim thought dismally. ‘I guess there was no other way for me to be tough.’
Kim spent the night miserably hanging onto the grating, at times relaxing her grip as much as she dared when her arms got too tired. She tasted the water and though it wasn't pleasant, it didn't taste salty, so she decided to risk drinking it. The water hitting her stomach reminded her that her last meal had been many hours ago, and not really intended to last all this time.
She watched the moon pass slowly across the tiny circle of sky she was allowed to see, and for some reason, that alone almost made her start crying. Maybe it demonstrated just how far away she was from everything familiar and known. She hadn't been outside and seen the moon in months, and now she was only allowed to see it once she'd been cast into the deepest dungeon she could imagine.
Eventually, her morose thoughts faded into a sort of numbness, and she simply stared at the moon until it was out of sight.
As the sky began to grow the faintest bit lighter, there was a grinding sound from below, and the water level slowly dropped. Kim swam away from the grate a bit, and treaded water tiredly until she was standing on the floor, waiting until the grate in the floor gave a last gurgle that showed the water was gone to fall to her knees and sit back on her heels, arms dangling at her sides.
She was exhausted. Her arms ached and burned, and she was soaked. Though the room wasn't overly cold, she could already feel her wet clothes starting to leech heat from her body.
Kim wanted more than anything to just fall on her side and pass out. Instead she forced herself to move, peeling out of her shirt and letting it drop to the floor, then staggering to her feet and shoving her pants and panties down, stepping out of them and her slippers, then taking a few shuffling steps away. She paused, then pulled off her equally soaked sports bra and threw it over with the rest. Taking a few deep breaths, she pushed herself into motion and started doing jumping-jacks.
She did basic exercises until she felt warm, and until she was fairly sure some of the moisture on her skin was sweat. Then she sat down, slumped onto her side, and slid into a sleep so deep that it was beyond any fearful nightmares that might have visited.
When she woke up, the light looked like it was at its strongest. Kim sat up and tried out her arms and legs with a few stretches. She was sore, but the stiffness seemed more from sleeping on the ground than anything else. Her arms had it the worst, of course, but she was glad she'd forced herself to exercise the night before.
She picked her clothes up and found them still sodden. She stared at them for awhile, then glanced up at the grate above, grinning wryly. Well, it wasn't like she had anyone to be embarrassed of, in here. It wasn't too cold… she'd be fine, as long as she didn't keep something cold and wet next to her skin.
Kim sat back down and hugged her legs, resisting the urge to lean back against the wall. She just rested her chin on her knees and watched the far wall slowly get dimmer.
Now she knew part of the mystery. Sometime early in the night, the chamber would flood. Which explained how she was supposed to avoid dehydration. Apparently part of the challenge was to just endure the nightly gauntlet.
But it didn't explain a lot of other things. Like how she was supposed to eat. Or how a sheer endurance challenge was supposed to make her tougher. Physically, this seemed like it would only weaken her.
And so, she waited. Waited for the room to go dark, and for the water to begin rushing in.
That night, as she clung to the grating and watched the night sky, short hair plastered against her head, warm water surrounding her naked body, she wondered if she was really going to survive this. Or, after weeks of it, if she'd even want to.
In the morning, she found that her clothes were plastered against the drain in the floor. The pants and shirt had caught against the edges and in the grating. The bra and panties were gone.
‘What would Mom say about me going around without underwear?’ Kim thought wryly as she picked the garments up and tried to squeeze as much water out of them as she could, futile thought it was. Tonight she'd have to try tying them around her waist or something to avoid losing them. She might not be able to actually wear them during the day, but she'd be embarrassed if Sifu had to walk her to her room naked at the end of the month.
That night, something slippery and scaly brushed against her leg.
Kim screamed and yanked herself up against the grate, then stared down into the water, eyes wild. She couldn't see a thing, just steam rising up off of the surface. She screamed again as it brushed her hip, and this time she felt a little rush of water and touch of a tail. She let out a breath, forcing herself to calm down and think about what had just happened.
Fish. There were fish in the water.
That was one more question answered. But it asked a new one… just how was she supposed to catch them?
She pondered the problem through the next day and night. Several more fish came up to inspect her, and she had the sneaking suspicion one had tried a nibble before her movement had scared it off. But nothing came to mind, and she scowled as she felt hunger gnawing dully at her. She had to think…
On the morning of the fifth day, she was surprised by an unexpected bit of good fortune. One of the fish had gotten caught in her shirt where it was tied around her waist. She was able to take a pretty good look at it, the light seemed to be getting a little brighter every day. It wasn't like the subterranean fish she'd seen on some documentaries, at least… it was long, a very pale blue, and it flapped weakly in her hands as she held it by the head and tail.
She stared at it for half a minute before she tore into its side with her teeth. Before, she'd never wanted to watch Ron's cooking shows where they used live fish or crabs… it always made her feel uncomfortable to see them get hacked up. But after four days with nothing but warm mineral water to sustain her, she didn't really have a problem ripping the fish's flesh off its bones with her teeth while it flapped against her face.
When she'd found all the meat on it she could, she stared at the bones for a few moments before dumping them through the drain grate. She was a little disturbed by what she'd just done, but far less so than she would have expected to. When it came down to rather literally being between a fish and her, she found she wasn't too concerned about the fish not having a happy last few moments.
Kim felt a lot better after her meal. She'd never thought what amounted to a few mouthfuls of fish could seem so filling or give her the same energy buzz she might have gotten from a soda before. Maybe that was a sign that she'd been worse off than she thought.
She considered her situation carefully. She could try covering the grate with clothing to form a sort of net for the fish… but that might stop it up, and she'd be left with a partially-filled cave and eventually drown.
Considering her options carefully, Kim came to one conclusion. She'd have to catch them herself.
She tried to avoid looking directly at the moon that night, letting her eyes adjust. She'd realized that the reason she'd been able to see better was that her eyes had been adjusting to the dimness. So she closed her eyes, waited… and then dove.
Opening her eyes in the water stung a little, but she could see. Not much. The distant moonlight illuminated the water enough for her to make out some vague shapes. Some of which were moving.
Time to go fishing.
She tried several different ways. Swimming after them with her shirt and grabbing for them with it like a net slowed her swimming too much. She caught a few, enough to keep her energy up. She finally resolved to practice her swimming with what energy she could muster.
After a week, she was catching them with her hands.
As Kim began to be able to catch fish fairly reliably, she started pondering what to do with her days. She was tired of sitting and moping, and quite frankly, bored.
Eventually, she decided to just do what she could. She talked to herself… not incessantly, mostly trying to keep her languages in practice, saying something in French and then repeating it in Japanese. Eventually she started repeating things she wanted to put down in her journal about her experience when she got out.
Too, she started improvising. She realized she could wind her clothes up and, with a bit of careful balancing, keep them mostly dry, tucking them up past the grate and letting them sit through the night. As long as she remembered to take them back down before the water started draining, and keep them aloft as it did, they were dry enough that her body heat finished working the dampness out of them in minutes.
Just that, the act of wearing clothes and being a tiny bit warmer, helped her mood immensely. She even began going through katas again. She couldn't do her staff maneuvers, but she could refresh the other martial arts she'd learned, and at times neglected, over the years.
Her Mantis Style was rusty, and she was a little ashamed at that. She wondered if Hirotaka had been going easy on her, or if she'd just let it get disused and moldy since then. (Of course, he'd also come out on top in that, so maybe she wasn't rusty after all. Maybe he was just better than her.)
Some nights, she would catch a fish or two and set them with her clothes, then just look up at the sky as she clutched the grate, staring up at the moon as it was slowly eaten away to a shadow of itself.
‘Are you out there, Shego? Are you looking up at the sky, too? Are you thinking of me?’
She began to refine her meditation techniques, too, learning to shut herself off from the tiny little world of the room and turn everything inward. Keeping in mind Sifu's words about philosophy, she considered what she had learned of the Staff Branch.
Her meditation eventually became so deep that it was almost as if she really was doing the maneuvers. The Staff Branch found its power in defending until the perfect time to strike came. Of being resolute and holding your ground until you could make your move.
She began to see times in her life where this had worked for her, and where failing to do so had scuttled her. Of course, there were a lot of times where she wasn't sure if she'd been right or wrong… whether she'd seen the opening and taken it, or just struck early and left herself open.
Mostly, she spent a lot of time thinking about telling Shego she loved her.
She thought about that anyway. It was a warm and welcome thought in her otherwise grim days. Just because she'd learned to live in the cell didn't make it fun. She wondered if she'd been right to come out and say that it was love when she hadn't been sure, she'd just… felt… it. Or convinced herself she had.
Maybe, in the end, it didn't matter.
That was what she thought that night as she watched the sliver of moon cross the sky, her face pressed to the grate, lifting her body a little more out of the warm mineral water. It didn't matter whether she and Shego had really been truly in love at that moment. Because once she got out of this room, once she completed her training and met back up with the others, Shego and she were going to have to get to know each other all over again.
It would have been two years. Two years away from each other, learning, growing, and changing. They wouldn't have to work past hostility and not seeing each other. They'd see each other every day, sit down to dinner together. (A naco had never sounded so good.) If they hadn't been the right kind of in love before, they'd fall in love all over again.
Kim believed that. She really, truly felt it deep down inside her. Shego and she would have a unique opportunity… the chance to fall in love all over again. And it was going to be magnificent.
She finished her exercises, then pulled on the mildly damp clothes and sat down, leaning back against the wall, leaning her head against it and closing her eyes. She let her mind wander, skipping across various things. Images of Ron, her mother, her father, brothers, Shego, all briefly swam across her consciousness as she prepared to settle down and sleep, to find the energy to hold herself up and live for another night.
Then she heard a clank, and raised her head, blinking. The door swang open, and she shaded her eyes a little at the torchlight, and the figure standing silhouetted in it.
“Month's up. Let's get you into bed.”
The touch of another human being after a month of solitude was an experience in itself. Kim found herself very aware of Sifu's smell and feel and presence as the taller woman supported her slightly. It was almost more the emotional toll of being out that made her weak than physical exhaustion, though there was some of that too.
Sifu leaned Kim into the bed, halfway laying bent over it, and tugged the redhead's pants off before rolling her onto her back and undoing the shirt clasps. Kim let herself be undressed like a sleepy child, knowing that she could have done it herself, but not really having the necessary motivation. Sifu hauled her up and fully into bed, then pulled the covers over her.
“Just rest, for as long as you like. I'll wake you up in awhile to feed you something.”
Kim gave a small nod. She felt like she was sinking into the bed, and let herself sink down into darkness.
Kim spent the next several days readjusting to normal food and the regular level of light inside Sifu's home. Though she hadn't become necessarily weak, her body had learned to function on less food, and most of her body fat was simply gone. It began to come back a little as she ate, but somehow she thought she'd probably keep some of the rangier, lankier look it had given her.
“So. How was it?” Sifu asked eventually. She'd been rather quiet, keeping her voice gentle and speaking mostly of trivial things. This was the first time she'd actually spoken of what Kim had just gone through rather than dealing with the aftermath.
“…” Kim set the bowl of soup she was eating in her lap, staring down at the noodles drifting in it. “It was Hell. And I think the weirdest thing was that I learned that I could live in Hell.”
Sifu nodded slightly. “It's a harder lesson to live with than you may realize, at first. Knowing your will to live is strong enough to continue under those kinds of circumstances.”
“Not just live. Function. Keep thinking, hoping, exercising, training. I didn't just… stay alive in there. I kept going. Without anything from my life except what I kept inside me.” Kim stared at the soup for a few moments more, before raising the bowl to her lips and taking a drink from it.
“It's an experience that you'll need time to understand. You're about recovered, I think. I'll give you a week to think about your experience, and just to feel a little normal again.”
Kim nodded once, then looked at her teacher. “Then what?”
“Then… you're going outside.”
It had been ten months since Kim had truly felt the wind on her face. She found it colder than she remembered, settling in against her exposed skin like a numbing film. The day was clear, still, the small plateau outside the entrance to Sifu's home covered in only a few inches of lightly-packed snow.
“Just a few minutes, today,” Sifu commented as she leaned on her staff nearby. “It'll take you awhile before your eyes can go back and forth easily. And it can be a little scary at first.”
Kim just nodded, not trying to deny it. The entire world seemed spread before her, and it had never seemed so huge and wide. And bright, too. Even through the shaded goggles she was wearing, the early morning sun seemed to shoot right into her head and ache a little.
She pulled off a glove and looked at her hand, and grinned a little beneath her scarf. She wasn't quite as pale as Sifu, but she definitely looked like she should be shopping at Warm Thredz instead of Club Banana. Heh. Goth Possible. There was an amusing thought.
“C'mon inside. We're starting this one slow,” Sifu said, turning to walk back inside.
Kim nodded and moved to follow, but stopped in the doorway and turned, looking out over the land stretching far below. ‘Shego… you're somewhere out there. And eventually, I'm going to be with you again.’
The next few weeks saw Kim not only reacclimating to the light, but learning to stand against the mountain's harsh elements. She once again learned how relentless Sifu could be with her lessons, and was plunged into a survival test that would have cowed elite armed forces trainees.
But this time, Kim never stopped moving forward. She didn't hesitate as she was ordered to climb cliffs, survive nights during blizzards, and explore dangerous, rocky areas. She examined each situation for what she needed to do and did so, without stopping for things like feeling sorry for herself, wondering why she was being told to do so, or what it would benefit her.
She had faith. She had faith that these were challenges being presented to her. It wasn't about fair or unfair, right or wrong, or even winning or losing. It was about being challenged and overcoming it.
As long as she never gave up, all things were possible.
Slowly, day by day, the outside of the mountain became her home as the inside of it had. Sifu at her side, she could leap amongst the rocks as if her body had been built to do so rather than just having learned it. They even began to spar amongst the cliffs and peaks, and steadily, Kim learned not only joy in the experience, but in the challenge itself.
Kim knew she was getting better. She wasn't just managing, she wasn't just getting by or overcoming. She was learning and becoming better. She'd always believed that somehow, the greatness was inside of her already, her birthright, and she just needed to find out how to apply it. But now she knew that she was earning every accomplishment, bettering herself with them.
It felt better than she ever could have imagined. If her month in the room had been Hell, it had been because it was the time she needed to serve before being allowed into Heaven.
“No, seriously, close your eyes,” Sifu said in a cheerful tone, nudging Kim into her seat at the table.
“Okay, okay!” Kim replied, laughing and going so far as to cover her eyes with both hands. Then she edged her fingers apart a little, making Sifu thwack her on the forehead. Kim laughed and covered up again.
“Alright… now,” Sifu announced soon after.
Kim uncovered her eyes, then blinked in surprise at the white-frosted cake with a single candle in the middle. Smiling, she looked up at the other woman. “What's this for?”
“Well, we didn't celebrate your birthday, so here. It's been exactly one year since I told you to call me Sifu.” Sifu smiled, ruffling Kim's hair, which was steadily growing out from its shorter cut. “So blow out the candle, and we'll have some cake. Even got you a present.”
Kim beamed, then leaned forward, inhaling. Then she stopped, slowly raising her head and looking off, as if through the wall. Her lips parted, as if to say a name, before she closed them. A tear slid down her cheek.
“Kim?” Sifu moved around the table, concern on her face as she touched the teenager's shoulder. “Kim, what's wrong?”
“I… I don't know,” Kim replied, a catch in her voice. She laughed nervously, wiping the tears out of her eyes. “Just that all of a sudden, I got a feeling like something really bad had happened somewhere.”
“Are you okay?” Sifu's voice was gentle.
“Yeah! Yeah, I'm fine.” Kim forced herself to beam again, trying to shake off the feeling of dread that had settled in the pit of her stomach. She'd crush it under cake, though, or get stuffed trying.
Kim's gift was in her room, sitting on her bed in brown paper wrapping. Untying the string, she pushed the paper out, then blinked and held up the shirt inside between her hands. It was designed like an old pilot's jacket, with a flap that went across the front and over the main buttons to fasten and give an extra layer of protection. It was black with white trim, the buttons shiny silver. Setting it aside, she sifted through the other contents.
“I dunno if it's your style, but it's good for a starting place. Keeps wind and rain out quite well,” Sifu commented, grinning. “And you'll have chances to find your own style this year.”
“Chances?” Kim looked over her shoulder at Sifu curiously.
“It's true that your training was to last two years, and that you wouldn't leave me in that time. And you're not. But there's only so much you can learn on this mountain. The rest is going to be learned in streets, alleys, and dark places that people, not nature, have created.”
“… Oh.” Kim set the shirt down on the bed, smoothing it out, trying to focus on the rest. There were some nice pants, still black. She wondered if she'd look a little morbid in them, with her skin still being rather pale.
“You wanted to learn how to be a hero. A hero without restrictions. Society needs heroes, mountains don't.” Sifu rested a hand on Kim's arm.
“I guess… I don't know. It seems a little strange to think about being back down there.”
“Where everyone would be a phone call away? Where you could hop a plane and be in her arms inside of two days?” Sifu said dryly, shaking her head. “Believe me, I know.”
“… How long… has it been?” Kim turned towards the other woman. “For you, I mean.”
“Since I left the mountain? Only a few months. I did a quick supply run while you were taking your challenge. I was feeling a little weak, so I took it out of my own hands,” Sifu admitted, tone bemused. “But as for really visiting a city? A little over a year. I do drop in every so often, check up on my correspondence, send some more out. Check up on major world events, all that.”
“You're not a very good hermit,” Kim teased.
Kim looked around as she and Sifu walked along the back streets. It was so strange to be back among… well, civilization. She'd been so focused on her training and missing individuals that she hadn't even thought much about the details. Still, it was less culture shock than it could have been… it wasn't her culture, after all.
She followed Sifu through a doorway hung with a curtain covering the top half, peering into the smoky little restaurant.
“Ah! Miss!” A wrinkled little woman smiled brightly as she spotted Sifu.
Sifu smiled and nodded to her, settling down at a table, Kim sitting down across from her. The old woman bustled up to the table.
“Jao, this is my student, Kim.”
The old woman eyed Kim warily, then said, in slow and thickly-accented English, “Hello, student Kim.”
“It's very nice to meet you,” Kim replied in Cantonese, bowing her head slightly.
Jao warmed perceptibly, and looked back at Sifu. “I get you some food and your mail, yes?”
“Thank you.” Sifu nodded, grinning, and the little woman trundled off again.
“They keep your mail for you?” Kim asked curiously.
“I own part of this restaurant. Jao's grandson was one of my students, Sword Branch. If you weren't taken, I'd introduce you, he's pretty cute.”
Kim grinned a little wanly, resisting the urge to look around for a telephone. It wasn't as if she knew the Yamanouchi school's number anyway, or even if Shego was still there.
Eventually Jao came back, setting down some bowls with distinctly Chinese dishes in them, as well as a large bundle of correspondence in front of Sifu. The old woman watched Kim for a moment, then nodded approvingly when the redhead simply dug in without even bothering to ask what she was eating.
Sifu sorted through her mail as Kim ate, opening envelopes here and there, setting larger packets aside. She opened one envelope and read over the letter, then snorted softly and held a Polaroid out to Kim. “Here.”
Kim blinked, then took the picture and looked at it. Two familiar identical boys were standing, looking rather dapper in tuxedos, and grinning at the camera, an equally identical blonde girl beside each of them, though one blonde was wearing a green dress and the other blue. Laughing, Kim passed the picture back. “Wego at a school dance?”
“Wendell and Wesley, yes,” Sifu replied, grinning fondly. “I've been keeping some contact with them, at least.”
Kim smiled, wondering if her own brothers had started to think about girls yet. The smile turned a little rueful as she thought of all that her parents would go through with -that- little development. Maybe she was better off being halfway around the world.
Sifu gave a little sound of surprise, picking up an envelope and examining the Japanese lettering on the front. “This is someone I haven't heard from in awhile. And there are several from him.”
“Hmm?” Kim slurped up a piece of eel, blinking curiously.
“Friend of my grandfather's, I knew him when I was younger.” Sifu opened up the first letter, starting to read. Partway through the first page, she blinked, then seemed to be reading much more intently.
“Good news? Bad news?” Kim queried.
“News,” Sifu confirmed absentmindedly.
Kim eventually finished off several more portions of food, then just sipped tea as she waited for Sifu to finish. Finally the dark-haired woman leaned back in her chair, smiling softly and pressing the last of the letters from her old friend to her chest.
“You almost look like you got a love note,” Kim teased.
“Even better. Much better.” Sifu shook her head, still smiling, then set the letters carefully aside in a pile. “It's a little personal, but you'll probably hear about it eventually. Just not from me.”
“You're so forthcoming,” Kim said dryly, sipping her tea.
“Sorry.” Sifu grinned, then picked up a soft packet and examined the postmark.
“More stuff from old friends?”
“Mm, if the lingerie store counts as an old friend.”
Kim almost choked on her tea.
“Yes, people as old as I am like to dress up sexy sometimes, too. I know you must be horrified.” Chuckling, Sifu set that package aside as well.
“Who would you wear it for?” Kim teased in return, though her voice was still a bit hoarse from trying to breathe a liquid.
“Myself,” Sifu replied, a bit bemused. “Sometimes I like to remind myself that just because I could be called a hermit doesn't mean I've turned into an eighty-year-old harridan.”
“Ah.” Kim thumped her chest a few times.
“Well, the rest of this can wait, I think,” Sifu announced after a bit more sorting. She pushed the lot into a bag and tossed it over her shoulder, save the one stack of letters which she tucked into her sleeve. “I'll show you the apartment where we'll be staying, then we're going out.”
“Out?” Kim queried, standing and picking up her staff from where she'd leaned it against a wall.
“Ever been to a bar, Kim?”
Kim had, in fact, never been to a bar. As she sat and tried not to cough at the much more noxious smoke tinting the air, she wasn't entirely sure she'd been to one now, so much as a shack where alcohol was dispensed. The smoke filling this place was thicker and headier, and burned the back of Kim's throat, making her want to breathe as shallowly as possible. She didn't even want to think about what the murky stuff filling her chipped glass was, let alone drink it.
“Nice place, huh?” Sifu said cheerfully, raising her own glass.
“I see where Shego got her sense of humor from more clearly than ever,” Kim muttered in reply, tapping the side of her glass as if curious to see whether the booze would sizzle the table if sloshed.
“Oh, then you're gonna love this one.” Sifu took a long drink, then made a show of spluttering, before shouting loudly in Japanese, “Whose mother do you have to rape to get a decent cup of sake?!”
The entire place went silent. The clink of someone setting a glass down was loud enough to sound like a gunshot.
The rictus of a sheepish grin on her face, Kim slowly turned her head to look towards the rest of the bar. Every eye in the place was on them. If they hadn't actually understood what the other woman had said, they'd understood the disparaging tone, the word “sake”, and that the language was Japanese.
Sifu just smiled serenely as chairs started to be pushed out, scowling men approaching the table. Switching back to Chinese, she tilted her head towards the angry patrons. “Take care of this, would you, Snowbunny?”
Kim only had time to shoot her teacher an aggravated look before the fight was on. A fist came at her head, and she snatched her staff from the wall, blocking the strike on the wood and hearing the man yelp at the solid strike of wood on flesh and bone. The redhead kicked her chair over backwards to drop below a haymaker coming at her face, rolling and coming up to one knee.
Another man charged her with a switchblade, and she snapped the staff to one time to strike hard against his wrist, making him drop it. Then she thrust the staff forward, the end of it impacting right between his eyes and toppling him like a chopped tree. She spun up into a jump and kicked her first assailant in the head to put him out of the fight, swinging her staff in the opposite direction and putting down another one who'd picked up a chair.
Unfortunately, a good portion of those who hadn't bestirred themselves due to the original insult were, for some reason, now deciding to get involved because an actual fight was going on. They also seemed to have forgotten it wasn't the pretty white redhead who had started the whole thing.
Kim twisted and jabbed the middle of her staff into one man's stomach, then snapped it upwards and under his chin as he bent over, knocking him backwards. She spun the staff over her head to force some of the crowd back. Outwardly, she was calm and composed, ready to take on all comers. Inside, a Kim that looked a lot like a Powerpuff Girl had tears streaming down her cheeks while wailing ‘Sifuuuuuuuu!’
One guy charged in with a buddy close on his heels and to one side, and Kim swept the staff low, striking his knee and dropping him to one side, his friend tripping over him. Kim hopped back to avoid either of them falling on her, and oofed loudly as someone delivered a jab to her back. She shoved her staff to jut over one shoulder and spun, feeling it impact, and completed the move by spinning the staff and slamming it against the man's lowered shoulder and neck, putting him down.
Her back being open was starting to be a problem, she realized, as someone tackled her from the other side, knocking her to the ground and sending the staff skittering just out of reach to rest just out of reach. Kim actually felt more bemused than anything as the man doing his best to keep her pinned started grabbing at her pants. Here she was beating the crap out of everybody, and this guy's first impulse was still to try and rape her. She might have been shocked or terrified at some point before, now it was almost funny. Some guys…
Kim kept her focus and reached a hand out, stretching towards her staff… and picking up a pewter mug that was closer. She swung it back and against where she assumed his face was, and was rewarded by a loud yelp and a less loud crunch. She really hoped that broken nose wasn't bleeding all over her. Still, the mug seemed to be intact, so she slammed it home again, and this time got a louder thud, a breaking sound, and a drop of more weight on her.
She rolled to the side to push him off of her and grab her staff, then leapt up, twirling it in a wide arc, the ends impacting lightly and staggering some of the remaining attackers. Kim settled in her stance, shifting a little so that a table was behind her, making it harder to come at her from there but still giving her the clearance she needed for her swings.
“Okay. Let's get this done,” she challenged, glaring around at the looming bar patrons.
A few minutes later, Kim leaned against her staff, trying to catch her breath. She was one of only four things still upright in the bar, the other three being Sifu still calmly sipping her drink and a young couple at the bar who looked like they'd been doing a bit of slumming.
“Wow! That was like something out of Rocket Lo!” the guy cried enthusiastically, giving Kim a thumbs-up.
“Super cool!” his girlfriend chirped in English.
“Heh… heh… th-thanks,” Kim murmured, pushing her bangs up reflexively, though they weren't quite long enough to get in her eyes yet.
“Let us buy your drinks, American girl!” The guy reached behind the unmanned bar and picked up a bottle of beer, setting it on the bartop. “That was the best thing I've ever seen!”
Kim huffed softly, then straightened up and walked over to the bar, picking up the bottle and eyeing it. ‘Well, maybe I have earned it…’
For some reason, that was the first thing Kim remembered as she regained consciousness the next morning, her head feeling as if it had a half dozen little Sifus bashing on it with quarterstaffs. She kept her eyes closed, pressing her face into the pillow and groaning, wondering what exactly she'd earned.
The very last thing she could remember was leaving a third bar, leaning between her two new best friends in the world and laughing a -lot-. After that, there was something about seeing pretty colors and wanting to go inside some place and…
Kim hissed as a hand gently stroked down the side of her neck and over her shoulder, bringing with it a little burst of almost fiery pain and a slow cold-hot burn like muscle rub. There was a pause, and the process repeated, Kim slumping a little and huffing into the pillow. It actually didn't feel that bad, and this time it continued on down the back of her shoulder all the way to the bottom of her shoulderblade. Really, it was kind of relaxing, and…
… and whose hand was that?
The redhead's eyes shot open, and she sat up, looking around wildly. Which didn't do much good, as her head immediately delivered retribution for various sins, such as sudden movement and being exposed to light. Squeaking miserably, Kim forced her eyes closed and pressed her hands to her head.
“Yeah, that wasn't such a good idea,” a wry voice commented.
“Sifu?” Kim whimpered, trying to force her eyes open.
“Give it a minute.”
Kim managed to force her eyes open, Sifu slowly coming into focus sitting on the side of the bed. Kim glanced down at herself, seeing that she was completely naked. “Uh…” Looking back up at the other woman, Kim's aching brow furrowed. “What happened last night?”
“Well, let's see.” Sifu tapped her chin, rolling her eyes thoughtfully. “Shall I begin after the seventh beer, or when you told that pretty young lady you wanted to suck on her cute pussy while her boyfriend banged you from behind?”
Kim's jaw dropped.
“Because, really, that's some of the cleanest stuff from around that point.”
The redhead put both hands to her face, groaning. Oh God. Alcohol apparently turned her into a complete and utter dirty girl. She tried to focus past the throbbing in her head to see if she was sore anywhere else. Surely she'd be able to tell if she'd actually had sex! ‘If you'd cheated on Shego, you mean?’
“Oh noooooo,” she wailed softly.
“Hey, hey, calm down.” Sifu wiped her hand off on a towel before rubbing Kim's upper arm. “Nothing happened, unless it happened between the time I went to the bathroom and came back out to find them trying to pick you up off the floor. Still fully clothed, so that seems unlikely.”
Kim stilled for a moment, then let out a long, relieved breath. “Oh man. I'm never gonna drink again.”
“Until next time,” Sifu said with a chuckle, dipping her hand back into the small bowl on her lap.
“I'm surprised you're not yelling at me,” Kim whispered, setting her hands back in her lap.
“I was a young woman back in town after her first round of training once, too, Snowbunny. I'll trust you to learn your own lessons from this.” Sifu gave her an amused look, then raised her hand to slide it down the side of Kim's neck again.
Kim hissed softly at the feeling. “What is that, anyway?”
“Just a little something to help avoid infection.”
“Infection?” Kim blinked. “Did I get wounded last night?”
“Well, there was blood involved, yes.” Sifu tilted her head towards the vanity, atop which was a three-way mirror.
Kim glanced towards the vanity, then tenderly got to her feet, her head still swimming a bit. Padding over, Kim forced her eyes to focus, looking at her reflection and the side of her neck Sifu had been applying the rub to. The first thought to pop into her mind was ‘Mom's gonna kill me.’
A black Chinese dragon was tattooed on the side of her neck, its head right at the top and just under the start of her jaw. Its upper hands were parted as if gripping onto the nape of her neck, and she was guessing that it continued down behind her from the look of it. With a bit of twisting and turning, she got a look at the back of her shoulder and saw that it did indeed come down to about the bottom of her shoulderblade, its tail wrapped around a ball.
“Oh geeeez,” she groaned, putting a hand to her head. “Sifu, why didn't you stop me?!”
“Mm. Part of learning from your experiences is suffering some of the slings and arrows of them. You could probably get it removed if you really wanted to, anyway.”
Kim turned a flat expression on the other woman. “You were drunk too, weren't you?”
“Just a little,” Sifu admitted without shame, holding up her finger and thumb barely apart. Then she grinned cheerfully. “Wanna see my new one?”
The redhead considered that briefly, then shook her head a little. “Not now.”
“Wanna see the one I got when I was your age?”
Kim pondered the fact that Sifu probably hadn't been “just a little” inebriated that time. “Not in the least.”
“Liar.” Sifu laughed a bit, then walked over and set the bowl down on the vanity. “Here. The place looked pretty clean, but I'd still use this for a few days. Ask me for help if you can't reach.”
“Okay. Thanks.” Kim put a hand to her head again, leaning against the vanity. “Lord. Don't tell me getting drunk was one of my rites of passage…”
“An unofficial one. The official one was defending yourself against opponents very serious about harming you.”
“You're very good at inspiring that.”
“Like you said, Snowbunny, Shego had to get it from someplace.”
And thus began Kim's lessons on how to get around in the low places of society.
At first accompanied by Sifu, Kim learned how to venture into the alleyways and dens of vice that littered the poor parts of the city, and to find the connections there she might find herself in need of. Then, when Sifu left her to make her way in the city on her own, Kim had to learn her way on the connections that Sifu had made for her… or forge new ones.
One of the things Kim learned was that helping the helpless didn't always mean just finding her way to those able to ask for help. Nor were the helpless always the innocent and upright of society. Hookers being beaten by johns and abused by their pimps needed help as much as anybody. And she learned that retribution for good acts didn't always come from flamboyant supervillains as one entire Triad marked her for death, and she had to deal with their members attacking her any time they saw her.
Eventually, after one such attack ended with Kim holed up in one of her new streetwalking friends’ apartment bandaging a shallow stab wound in her shoulder, she taught herself a valuable new lesson, one she'd practiced before but hadn't really understood fully.
That when you've got a problem that keeps turning up, go to the source of it.
No more reacting, no more waiting for the problem to be shoved in her face. Kim fought her way through every Triad member in the leader's favorite hangout, smashing the hookahs and destroying the gaming tables until she got to the leader. With her staff at his throat, she'd informed him in no uncertain terms that she was perfectly willing to let him walk away from it if he'd call off the hit on her.
After considering the various implications for a few seconds, the Triad leader had agreed to leave Kim in peace, and she'd walked out without so much as a domino being thrown at her in anger.
Unfortunately, the three detectives she'd knocked out and the Chief of Police's broken wrist that she'd caused in the course of breaking up the place weren't so easily forgiven.
And so, one police raid on her crash room later, Kim began the fifth month of her stay in the city in prison.
Two months later, Kim was led to the yard and towards the front gates, her hands shackled in front of her. She'd assumed much of the lean look she'd had when she'd first come out of the flooding chamber, but her eyes were harder… little lenses of emerald hiding herself from the viewers.
Sifu stood at the front gates, one hand on her hip, the other resting down at her side. She eyed Kim as she approached, then smiled. “How you doing, Snowbunny?”
Kim shrugged. “Eh. Can't complain, I guess.”
“Sure.” The redhead grinned brightly. “There was tons to do. All sorts of interesting people to meet.”
“Everything still intact?” Sifu asked a bit more quietly, smile fading for a moment.
Kim's own smile only grew wider, and she looked to the side at a group of convicts gathered around muttering to each other. She gave a little jerk of her shoulder towards them, and both convicts and guards flinched and took a half-step away, though the guards’ hands grabbed for their clubs.
“I'll take that as a yes,” Sifu said, her own smile returning full force. “Ready to get out of here?”
“I -was- getting a little bored,” Kim confided, shrugging. “I'd always heard good stuff about prison libraries, but they don't even have one here.”
“American prisons, maybe.” Sifu gestured to one of the guards, and he tentatively moved forward, unlocking Kim's shackles. The teenager raised her hands and rubbed her wrists, nodding her thanks to the guard, then walking towards the gates, Sifu turning and leading the way.
“Thank God,” one of the convicts in the yard muttered.
“Yes, I pity the outside world. They're locked out there with that redheaded devil.”
“So. Really, how was it?”
Kim shrugged a little. It was the first time in a few months she'd worn new, clean clothes, and the first time in two she'd had an actual hot meal. It wasn't as much of a novelty as the first time, though. “It was… tough.”
“That's not very forthcoming.”
“Well. I just dunno, Sifu.” Kim shrugged, picking up her teacup and sipping from it. “Like I said, it was tough. And there was a lot on the line… if I'd gotten sloppy, I'd have wound up beaten, raped, probably dead. But in a lot of ways, it wasn't as much like Hell as the pit was.”
“Tell me why,” Sifu pressed quietly.
“In prison, the enemies were all around me. I could see them, fight them, keep my resolve up against them. The consequences for failure were concrete, I knew what would happen. It was easier to hold strong against that… even overcome it so that they learned to be afraid of me instead.” Kim leaned back, cupping both hands around the cup, eyeing the tea. “In the pit… well, the enemies were all up here.” She raised a hand, tapping a finger against her forehead. “I could never be sure if what I was doing was fighting them or helping them. I didn't know what would happen if I lost or gave up… maybe nothing, maybe gone insane, maybe given up and died. And the pit didn't care… I could survive it, live in it, but it was never going to be intimidated.”
Sifu nodded slowly. “So. Do you think you're badass, now?”
Kim smirked a bit grimly. “Sifu, at one point I made a grown man cry just by staring at him. I think I qualify.”
“Think you can stop being hard…?”
Kim started to answer, then stopped and considered. After a few minutes, she nodded. “Yes. I know I can. If I'd gone through all that before the training, maybe not. I might have let it eat me up and change me irreversibly. But in the year I spent with you, and in the month I spent in the pit, I got to know Kim Possible pretty well. I learned to keep the outside tough and impenetrable, but what's inside isn't going to change that much.”
Sifu smiled broadly. “Good. Excellent.”
Kim smiled back, feeling a little relieved herself. She'd worried the same thing herself, at times, but sitting here at the table with Sifu, it was easy to settle back into the old comfort, the same warmth and happiness she'd come to expect from time with her teacher. She was still herself, and now she knew that there was little enough in the world that could ever break her and change that.
“So, what next, Sifu? I'm ready to get started. Kind of eager, it really did get kind of boring in there.”
“Slow down there, slugger. No need to get too buried in things. You get a week off to reflect and regain your strength, just like last time.”
“Alright.” Kim nodded, not really wanting to argue the point. But after a few moments, she ventured, “There was one thing I was curious about.”
“Was this one of the rites?”
“Yes. After a fashion. One of the rites is to spend a period beset on all sides by enemies with no real respite or rest. When you got yourself arrested, I figured that was the best opportunity to undergo it. I figured you'd have plenty of time to undergo the rite by the time I got all the necessary bribes and paperwork done to get you out.”
Kim nodded, considering that. Then she frowned a little. “So what was Shego's version of this rite?”
“Well, she went to public school while green and a foot and a half taller than most of the other kids. I figured that about covered it.”
Kim winced. “Ouch, damn. I'm glad I just had to go to jail.”
Kim fidgeted in her seat on the plane, glancing around. She felt very high-profile here, despite the fact that she was just another white chick on a plane two-thirds full of Americans and Europeans. (And was traveling under the alias Kim Mince anyway.) She didn't even know that Global Justice was still bothering to look for her after a year and a half, but she was still a little nervous.
“Relax,” Sifu chided gently. She was wearing a white formal shirt and black slacks… it was the most casual Kim had ever seen her, and it was rather weird. “You're gonna be miserable if you're like that for the whole flight.”
“So what exactly are we going to France to learn, anyway?” Kim asked, propping her chin up in one hand and trying to stop fidgeting.
“You've learned to be hard. And you've learned a lot of lessons about being a hero, too, I think.”
Kim smiled a bit sheepishly, looking out the window. She'd never thought she'd be the sort to have a friend who ran a cathouse and opium den, but she'd actually teared up a little when saying goodbye to the little old woman and her girls. They might have technically been criminals, but they'd seen Kim through some tough times, sheltered and helped her when she needed it. She'd freed them from the Triad goons demanding protection money out of gratitude for their favors to her, not the other way around. She certainly had learned that heroism didn't mean just helping only the law-abiding or those that had to ask for it.
“Now comes the time to learn the knowledge you'll find invaluable. Among other things, how to be soft.”
Kim blinked, looking over at Sifu. “How to be soft?”
“You were raised amidst the middle people, Kim, and you've learned to make your way among the low people. Now you need to learn to mingle with the upper crust.”
The redhead frowned. “Seems a little dangerous, considering that I need to keep a low profile.”
“It's easier to get lost amongst the elite of society than you'd think. But living the high life will give you access to a lot of other skills you'll find invaluable.”
Kim nodded slowly. Part of her was screaming that she could get those skills anytime, but that she hadn't seen the woman she loved in a year and a half, but she quashed it. Shego wasn't even expecting her for another six months, Kim would probably wind up just sitting around waiting fruitlessly anyway.
Kim stood on the balcony of her very posh hotel room, nervously smoothing out the front of the red and gold Chinese dress she was wearing. It was not only something that Sifu had picked up for her before they left, but had the requisite high collar to hide her tattoo. She'd felt strange looking in the mirror earlier, like her face clashed with the dress… her cheekbones were still a little prominent after her stint in the prison, and her hair was still a little short.
Sifu walked into the room, wearing a black and silver version of the same dress. Kim had gotten a lot of her color back in the last six months, and Sifu had gotten some as well, but the black silk and its gleaming silver dragons still made her pale skin almost glow, short hair allowed to curl artfully around the edges of her forehead and in back.
“Here.” Sifu proffered a flute of champagne to Kim, and the redhead took it, clinking it against the older woman's own when it was proffered. “To Paris.”
“It's pretty,” Kim admitted, turning to look out at the skyline and sipping the drink. “But not as much as I always dreamed. I never really got a chance to look around before, but it's so… cramped. And there are people begging all over the place, and the street vendors-”
“Are complete in-your-face assholes, I know,” Sifu completed for her dryly. “The reality never quite lives up to the dream. But it's still a very nice city. You'll probably like London better when we visit next month.”
Kim looked down at the amber liquid in her glass, watching the bubbles rise and pop on the surface.
“Something wrong?” Sifu asked gently, stepping closer and looking down at Kim.
“No, it's just…” Kim shook her head a little. “It's like a dream, a tour of Europe. Learning to be an upper-class lady, all that other stuff you've mentioned… all of it makes it seem like a fantasy vacation.”
“And I'm not the person you'd like to be on it with?” Sifu asked, smiling a little.
“Sifu, I don't even want to think about not getting to see you every day when this is all over,” Kim confided, smiling sadly herself. “But it really is kind of like a dream honeymoon.”
Sifu nodded, putting an arm around Kim's shoulders and hugging her close, then kissing her forehead. “I know, sweetie. I miss her too.”
Kim sighed, resting her head on Sifu's shoulder. “I bet.”
“Here. Drink up,” Sifu said after a few minutes of silence, draining off the rest of her own champagne flute. “We have a party to attend.”
“So am I going to learn your real name tonight?” Kim asked, grinning now as she stepped away and took a longer sip of her drink.
“Sorry, Snowbunny, I go by an alias in these circles, too.” Sifu winked. “Anastasia Maximoff.”
Kim made a face. “Oh come on. That sounds like something out of a bad adventure novel.”
“Yeah, and the highbrows eat it up.”
‘The highbrows eat a lot of things up,’ Kim thought as she tried not to make a lot of faces or spit out the chewy thing she was trying to eat. She knew it was a delicacy, and that she was having a distinctly Ron-like response to it, but somehow she just couldn't get over the fact that the thing in her mouth was a snail.
“Anastasia daaaaaarling!” an overly-coifed woman cooed as she swept up towards the both of them, clasping her hands. “Oh you're back from the Orient, and just look at what you've found there to wear! It's so lovely, dear, who's the designer?”
“You would not believe it, darling, but I actually got this in a tiny little shop without so much as a sign over the door,” Sifu replied in cultured French, much different than the easygoing, offhanded way she spoke in pretty much every language. “The cab driver recommended it, and I was halfway afraid he was going to drop me off in some opium den!”
“Oh -my-!” the new arrival gasped, putting a hand to her thoroughly-enhanced cleavage. (Kim wasn't sure whether the dress and undergarments were doing all the enhancing, or if surgery had helped things along.)
“But really, you wouldn't believe it, this darling little man in there could whip you up an exact replica of anything you showed him in a magazine. I think half of the knockoffs you'll be seeing at the theater this season must come from him and his friends!”
Both older women laughed, while Kim gave a somewhat strained smile. ‘Oh God, this is going to be worse than either prison -or- the pit.’
“Oh and just who is -this-?” the woman finally asked, giving Kim a cultured smile.
“My new daughter-in-law, Kimberly,” Sifu said easily, turning towards Kim and gesturing her forwards to show her off. Kim stepped forward, trying not to shoot her teacher a dirty look for her jibe.
“Oh MY!” The aristocrat cooed, looking Kim up and down. “Such a sassy-looking little thing!”
‘Did I just get hit on?’ Kim thought, resisting the urge to snicker.
“So which one of Anastasia's boys did you wind up landing, dear?”
Kim stared for a moment, then beamed beatifically, schooling her own French into a more rolling, smooth tone. “The most gorgeous one, of course!”
That earned her a delighted laugh, and Sifu shot her an intensely amused glance, which Kim responded to with a quick wink.
And so began Kim's lessons in high society.
She learned to add just the proper amount of affectation to her various languages so that they seemed schooled without it seeming faked. She gained a thorough knowledge of fine wine and food, and how to tell an “in” designer dress from an “out” one. (Learning that Club Banana was not the height of true fashion was a little damaging, but she'd cope. She'd long since gotten over being a Label Snob, after wearing the same set of label-less clothes for months on end.) She learned when it was best to stay silent, when to cluck her tongue, and just how much dissenting opinion would keep the conversation moving.
That was surprising enough, just how much she could glean from the supposedly shallow gossiping of the bored debutants and idle rich. As Sifu taught her to filter and translate, Kim began to learn surprising amounts about just what was going on in politics, world trade, and at times organized crime and other such things.
One night, unwinding from a long after-opera party, Kim stretched out on the Victorian fainting couch in the shared living room of her suite and Sifu's, wearing a lacy bra and panties in a color of green that had been custom-woven to match her eyes. She draped an arm down over the arm of the couch, the rim of her wine glass lightly clasped in her fingertips.
“So did Shego ever do this with you?”
Sifu was sitting in a chair near the balcony door, sprawled a bit and going over a letter from one of her students. She too was stripped down to her underwear, a sleek black satin combo that went beyond proving what she'd said to Kim earlier… parent-aged people not only wore sexy stuff, they could wear it exceptionally well.
“This? No. Shego passed her rites, I gave her her Honor Name, and shortly after that…”
Kim nodded a little, then tilted her head. “So I've passed all my rites?”
“Yes. I could certainly elevate you to Adept now, if I wanted to. You did what a lot of people labor at for well over a decade in a year and a half, nothing to sneeze at.” Sifu set the letter aside, then ran a hand through her hair. “I thought I'd go ahead and wait until you were finished, and ready to leave, though. I was hoping it could be my last big gift to you.”
Laughing, Kim shook her head. “Sifu, you gave the world Shego. For me, that's the gift that keeps on giving.”
“Well, good, nice to know those nineteen hours of labor benefited you so well,” Sifu said with a chuckle, standing and stretching, then meandering over to sit on the floor, leaning back against the front of Kim's couch. “Enjoyed your time in Paris?”
“Mm-hmm.” Kim sipped from her glass, sighing a little. “It's going to be hard to get used to not having wine every night when I go back home.”
“You'll manage. You'll never hear it in these parts, but a lot of the California vintages are just as good or better than French. You've got enough of a baseline now to learn to judge those for yourself, though.”
Kim raised her glass in a small toast of acknowledgement, smiling.
“Tomorrow we leave for London. We'll be doing a lot less parties, but there are a lot of other things we can learn since it's a bit of a hub for traveling easily through various parts of Europe.”
Kim rolled onto her back, resting the wine glass on her stomach and holding it there with both hands. “You know, though, I'd been wondering something… that woman Felicity, the one we met the first night and has been going to all the same parties…”
“Ah, her. What about her?”
“I know that she's had about eight husbands and three kids, but I couldn't help thinking when she called me ‘sassy-looking’…”
“Oh, she wants to fuck your brains out, no doubt,” Sifu supplied immediately, raising an eyebrow. “At one point I thought I'd have to post guards outside the door and windows.”
Kim snorted softly. Then started laughing, quietly at first, then hard enough that she had to take the wine glass off her stomach and hold it with one hand while the other covered her eyes. Sifu joined in, the two of them laughing until they were just too tired to anymore.
The next months saw Kim learning more on the “dream vacation” than she had in the year and a half previous, even if the lessons weren't quite so profound. Besides furthering her knowledge of theater, art, and high society, she learned a great number of other more direct skills.
From various sources Sifu led her to, Kim learned to pilot planes, helicopters, and even jet fighters. From former KGB agents she learned to defuse all manner of bombs from simple TNT with timers to nuclear warheads. There, too, she learned about the philosophy and psychiatry of interrogation, though she refused the offers to teach her the more thorough physical techniques. If she ever found herself needing those, she told herself, she'd know she'd gone too far.
She learned refinements to skills she'd picked up earlier… to the techniques of forging signatures and faking passports she learned of the more upper-scale techniques like creating false security cards and drivers’ licenses from all over the world. She expanded on her repertoire of shifting her accent as part of her disguise and infiltration training, a dozen different people teaching her how to make herself effectively look and sound like someone different.
Of course, her previous studies of the theater helped. Creating a false identity required a certain amount of getting inside the fake person's head, mentally living as them through various events to figure out what they'd need and how they'd react so she wouldn't be caught off guard. Method acting, she learned, could be an extremely valuable tool.
Kim stood on another balcony and looked out at yet another set of beautiful scenery, musing that this was probably the last time she'd do so for quite awhile, and wondering just why Sifu had chosen this particular stop.
“Amsterdam?” Kim glanced over her shoulder at the other woman. “I don't really get it, unless we're just gonna party for the last month.”
“Despite your manner when you've got a few drinks in you, I didn't figure you for big on Amsterdam's sort of partying,” Sifu teased, joining the redhead on the balcony. “Besides, I've already taught you methods for dealing with and counteracting drugs that might be used in interrogations… the recreational kind aren't that different.”
Kim nodded a little. “So why here?”
“It was the easiest place to meet a friend of mine to teach you the last important step in what you want to do.” Sifu smiled, leaning back against the balcony railing. “You've learned to be hard, you've learned to be a hero with no limits but your own. This will not only teach you some more valuable skills, but add a final layer to the strength of will and knowledge you'll need to carry it out.”
“I see.” Kim nodded slowly, then glanced at the other woman curiously. “So while I'm meeting this friend of yours, what will you be doing?”
“Getting high as a kite,” Sifu answered solemnly.
Laughing, the pale woman patted Kim on the shoulder and headed back inside. “I keep telling you, Snowbunny, old people like to have fun too.”
Kim stared up at the villa, still rather confused. True, some of her previous trainers had lavish residences as well despite their sometimes quite illicit trades or former professions, but Kim was still wondering just what sort of person would be in such a nice house and find it easiest to visit Amsterdam.
“She's here all the way from Las Vegas to see you, Snowbunny,” Sifu pressed lightly. “So go on in and see her.”
Nodding slowly, Kim walked up the steps and rang the doorbell. A moment later, a very pretty girl a few years older than her opened the door. The girl was wearing an almost stereotypical French maid's outfit, though the skirt was tight rather than floofed out.
“Ah, yes, I was told to expect you,” the girl said, bowing her head and gesturing further into the house. “Please, do come in, the Mistress is waiting for you.”
Kim raised an eyebrow and tossed a last suspicious glance at Sifu, before walking in. She waited for the maid to close the door and then lead her down the hall. The girl knocked at a large white door, waiting for the call of “Enter!” to open it and elegantly wave Kim inside.
The redhead stepped into the room, which appeared to be a very nicely-done study, the predominant colors cream and white. A large set of doors looked out on a small but perfectly-tended garden. A sleek, dark desk was situated just in front of the garden doors, backlighting the woman sitting at it.
She seemed a few years younger than Kim's own mother, and very pretty… not drop-dead gorgeous, but somehow she exuded a commanding presence that kept Kim's eyes focused on her and unable to leave. Her hair was a rich brown color, almost glowing in the morning light behind her. She was wearing a black top that left her arms and shoulders bare and hugged up gently against her body, but somehow avoided seeming lascivious or just for show.
“Ah, Kimberly. Please, have a seat.” The woman gestured to one of the chairs in front of the desk. “I understand you've had quite a long journey to see me.”
Kim nodded slowly, moving to almost tentatively take a seat in one of the chairs. She had never been in the habit of being sent to the Principal's office, but this felt remarkably like that… as if she wanted to hunch forward and protect herself from the massive sense of authority, despite having done nothing wrong.
“You may call me Lady Clover. Did your teacher explain to you exactly why you are here?”
Kim shook her head, staying silent.
“No, I thought not. It might have lessened some of the impact.” Lady Clover stood and circled the desk, moving to stand directly in front of Kim. The redhead looked up at her, feeling more and more nervous. “She explained many things to me, things you had learned and why you were learning them. You learned about the psychology of interrogation in Russia, didn't you? About the aspects of establishing dominance and control over the subject.”
Again, Kim nodded mutely.
“But you haven't learned to live such philosophy. How it applies to your daily life.”
Lady Clover leaned forward, her hand raising up and moving along the line of Kim's forehead, just barely not touching, following the line of her hair up and back. Kim was reminded very powerfully of that feeling she'd had long ago when she first met Sifu, of a mouse hypnotized by a snake's gaze. Then Lady Clover's fingers slid into her hair and pulled her head back firmly, Kim's eyes widening and fingers gripping the arms of her chair.
Lady Clover leaned down, words a low, firm whisper against Kim's ear. “If you do not claim dominance over yourself, someone else can, Kimberly. They will step in, take over, and you will find yourself toppled before you know what is happening.”
The older woman suddenly released her and stepped back, and Kim gasped as if coming up for air, forcing her grip to relax. “What are you… how did…?!”
“I saw it as soon as you walked in. Wariness. You've learned to defend yourself, if necessary close yourself off, to keep others from attacking or getting in.” Lady Clover folded her arms, still gazing evenly at Kim. “But because you let wariness and defense reign, because you were on guard for an obvious attack, you were not prepared for someone to overcome you with their personality.”
Kim rubbed her hand along the tattooed side of her neck and under her jaw, trying to calm her racing heart. She was sweating, despite feeling just a little cold. “You… you actually kept me from even thinking of fighting back physically.”
“Because in your mind, I had already established my dominance. You reacted as if I had already conquered you… and it was all the easier because I did it here, amidst gentle colors and warm sunlight.”
The redhead swallowed audibly, then nodded. “If someone tried to do that to me out there…”
“Yes. And so you understand why this is important.” Lady Clover finally smiled, and Kim was surprised at how warm and normal it felt. “Don't feel bad. I make people feel submissive for a living. A very good living.”
“I see.” Kim let out a long breath. “You're very good at it.”
“Mm, yes, I know.”
“So that's why I'm here? To learn to be a… uh…”
“You're here to learn empowerment and living as if no one can dominate you… unless you allow them to.” Lady Clover's eyes twinkled. “I can't speak of how things might be in private between you and your teacher's daughter.”
Kim flushed. “Um.”
“You're also here to learn escape techniques, while you're on the other lessons. I'm quite skilled at binding someone, but in the course of my learning I also learned the tricks to slipping such bonds. I will teach them to you… and hopefully through learning how to keep from being restrained physically, you will learn to keep from being restrained mentally.” Lady Clover sat back down behind her desk. “You've apparently learned great inner strength, and now it's time to let that inner strength show on the outside.”
“You walk as if you're drawn in on yourself. Holding yourself ready.” Lady Clover walked back and forth slowly. She was dressed as befitted her profession today, wearing a black leather corset and sleek black leather panties, as well as tall, glossy black boots and gloves. She tapped a riding crop against her palm. “No doubt you learned this in the streets and in prison. While your acting training would allow you to dismiss it with effort, you must learn to eliminate it entirely.”
Lady Clover slowly circled Kim, nudging here and poking there with the riding crop, making her lift her chin slightly, raise her shoulders more. “You are a highly skilled martial artist. You have learned to dominate others with your weapon or your attacks. You do not need to walk as if expecting an attack, because you will always be ready. This will allow you to dominate with your body language and personality.”
Kim gave a single nod, doing her best not to fidget as the tip of the riding crop slid across her cheek.
“Your teacher picked out this style of clothing, I believe? It's a good start. While good body language is a start, clothing is always an additional piece of the puzzle. This emphasizes your shoulders and the black allows your hair and eyes to seem all the more striking.” Lady Clover plucked at the shoulder of Kim's shirt with her gloved fingers. “Theatricality can play an invaluable part in comporting yourself as an imposing and dominating presence.”
“So you're going to give me fashion tips?” Kim queried, smiling a bit.
“Possibly, Kimberly. However, not until you've learned to get out of…” Lady Clover held up one hand, then opened her fingers, allowing the handcuffs to drop and swing by one link hooked around her thumb. “These.”
As her training under Lady Clover progressed, Kim was reminded of Sifu's teachings more than once. That while there were certain “core moves”, being a dominating presence was as much philosophy as anything else.
Kim had to learn to internalize her feelings of readiness for danger and power over her environment to the point that they became external as well. As Lady Clover pointed things out, she realized small mannerisms she hadn't noticed she'd picked up. That she walked with her shoulders loose and hands slightly raised, that her walk was a bit slow and careful. Though these were valuable for defending herself, to a powerful personality they screamed that she was wary and feeling like she needed to guard herself against harm.
She learned to channel her feelings of empowerment into her movements. To walk with her shoulders even and firm, to move with smooth, steady motions, and to almost stride from place to place rather than just walk. As she learned more of what it was to be dominant, these became natural motions, things she simply did rather than tried to do.
She also learned to slip out of handcuffs with ease, how best to try and get out of shackles, how to defeat leather bindings, and how to free herself from ropes.
One morning she walked into Lady Clover's office, smirking a bit. Lady Clover had mentioned that they were going to be doing more escape exercises today, and she'd been doing so well that she simply didn't see what else the dominatrix could throw at her.
“Good morning, Kimberly,” Lady Clover said politely, nodding. “Strip.”
Kim blinked, then nodded and began peeling out of her clothing in quick, efficient movements. (This, too, had been part of her training. “When captured, your captors may take your clothing, trying to make you powerless in more ways than one. Some people, when stripped, are naked and vulnerable. You must learn to simply be nude.”) Various exercises had been conducted in the buff, helping Kim to get over various feelings of shyness and embarrassment, though Sifu's relaxed attitude towards clothing when in private throughout their Europe trip had already begun that.
Once she'd undressed, Kim stood with her hands clasped lightly behind her back, watching Lady Clover expectantly. The older woman came around the desk and moved behind Kim, nudging her hands to get them where she wanted them, then beginning to bind her hands.
“I know that tie,” Kim said after a few moments. “Pretty complicated, but we covered it already.”
“Indeed we did,” Lady Clover agreed easily.
Kim raised an eyebrow, but didn't comment as Lady Heather finished the knot on the rope and moved back around and over to the desk. Then the brunette picked up a vividly purple pair of panties. “However, we did not cover them while you were wearing these.”
The redhead started to inquire why panties would make any difference, then saw the thin cable coming from near the crotch of them. She followed it to what looked distinctly like a battery pack, and what looked like a color-coded remote control sitting on the desk. Kim's eyes widened.
“You must still learn to deal with such things amidst distraction,” Lady Clover said serenely, starting to walk towards Kim. “And it was this or the shock collar.”
Kim swallowed. “Couldn't we do the shock collar instead?”
“Next week, Kimberly. Next week.”
That night as she sat at dinner with Sifu, Kim kept her eyes fixed firmly on her food. Mostly so that she wouldn't see the grin on her teacher's face.
“Has that blush faded any at all since this morning?” Sifu asked, chuckling.
“A little,” Kim muttered, hunching her shoulders a bit. She knew she could probably make Sifu stop if she'd collect herself and externalize dominance, but often she just didn't have the heart to do so with Sifu. The other woman had been teasing her too long to discard such an innate part of their relationship.
“So I'm guessing she didn't start you with the shock collar.”
“You've done very well in your time with me.” Lady Clover smiled at Kim. “If you didn't feel you had a higher calling, I would be very tempted to ask you to stay on and learn more of the fine points of my trade.”
Kim smiled and shook her head. “Sorry. I think Shego might have a few things to say about that.”
Lady Clover nodded, walking over to Kim and resting her hands on the redhead's shoulders. “Love is one of those things that is tricky to navigate, no matter how much you empower yourself. I've had my own fair share of ups and downs with it, so I wish you good luck. And I hope you both like this.” She turned briefly to the side, then held out a white clothing box.
“Are these those theatrical clothes you mentioned before?” Kim asked curiously, taking the box and peering at it quizzically.
“Absolutely. But these are more for between Shego and yourself.”
“… Oh.” Kim slowly grinned, the light in her eyes positively wicked. “I see. Thank you, Lady Clover.”
“Good fortune, dear. And have fun.”
Kim stood in front of the mirror that night, looking at herself thoughtfully, wondering how all the changes had happened without her really taking stock of them.
Her hair was close to the same length it had been when she'd began, and she'd gone back to styling it much the same, though just a little sleeker, not concentrating on getting so much body out of it. Her face had lost a little of its round, gentle look, a few more angles in it much as Sifu had. She'd grown some, and her body too had become just a little bit more angular, its definition and curves from muscle rather than any lingering layer of fat. Though despite that, her breasts had grown some, she was pleased to note. She wasn't going to be measuring up to Shego, it looked like, but she'd just keep convincing herself that Shego's chest had gotten some benefits out of being meteor-enhanced.
“If you're through preening in front of the mirror,” Sifu called from the other room. “Get dressed and come out here, there's something I have to tell you!”
“Okay!” Kim called back, quickly pulling on her clothes and hurrying into the other room, still buttoning up her shirt.
Sifu was waiting for her, standing and looking rather solemn, hands clasped behind her back. Kim blinked, then quickly finished with the buttons and moved over to stand in front of her.
“Kim Possible. You've come a long way since the day I carried you into my house, far away from this place.” Sifu gazed down at her, voice just as solemn as her manner. “In the past two years, you have grown from a lost rabbit who did not know her path into a strong and confident woman ready to make her way in the world. By tradition and by your own worthiness, I accord you the rank of Adept in the Staff Branch of the Ancestral Three Dragons school. Do you accept this?”
Kim nodded, her own expression having become equally solemn. “I do.”
“Then the time has come for me to name you, for you have grown from infant to adult in this art.” Sifu lowered her eyes a little. “I have thought a long time on your Honor Name.”
‘I wonder if she'll make it “Snowbunny”?’ Kim thought in bemusement, keeping the grin she felt from touching her lips.
Sifu lifted her gaze, her own solemnity unchanged. “I name you Chione. More than one beautiful female from Greek myth was named so… including the nymph-goddess of winter. You were born to this art in the snow and grew into it upon the mountain, and so you are named.”
Kim inhaled slightly. She hadn't been expecting anything like that at all, but was immensely touched. She'd been named after a goddess…?
“But beware. For there was another Chione… one who became vain in her beauty. So prideful and boastful did she become that Artemis struck her dead with an arrow. I give you this name as both honor and reminder… honor that you conquered the mountain to be born again, and reminder that too much pride may go before a fall.”
Kim nodded slowly. “… I understand. Thank you.”
Sifu smiled slowly, raising her hands to put them on Kim's upper arms. “Chione… Kim. You've been an amazing student to me, and I sense the rightness of it that you were my last. I have faith that you will take what I have taught you and make the world a better place with it.”
The redhead swallowed past the lump in her throat, hot wetness pressing around her eyes. “Th… thank you, Sifu.”
“I can't imagine anyone else I'd want to stick by Shego's side for the rest of her life. But I want you to know that no matter what happens between her and you, that you will -always- be like a daughter to me in my heart.” With that, she drew Kim in and hugged her tightly.
‘Thank you’ just didn't seem to cover it for that one. So Kim settled for hugging her back and crying against her shoulder.
In the morning when Kim awoke, Sifu was gone, leaving nothing but a note and a small bag. Kim sat down on the edge of the other woman's bed and unfolded the note, reading it over, her heart heavy. It felt like the day after Christmas, when all the presents had been opened, the family hugged and gone, and the decorations merely a reminder that it wouldn't happen again until next year. Except this time she didn't know if Christmas would ever come again.
I thought it best not to drag our goodbyes out anymore. It was hard for me, and you know I have a bad habit of ducking out on things that are emotionally tough. But I had another reason this time.
I knew you'd ask me to go back with you and see Shego again. And now I know that I do need to rebuild those bridges. Now's not the right time, though. I hurt my family badly, and Shego most of all… I need to start slow and work my way up to it. There's a letter for her in the bag, please give it to her. I'm hoping it's the first step.
Other than that, I made sure to leave plenty of money and some passports I already faked up for you. You are, of course, free to take anything and everything you want that's in your room… it's yours, after all. I expect my daughter's waiting to see you again, and since I miss you already, I can only imagine how anxious she is.
Your former Sifu’
Kim read the note through several times, then finally grinned and folded it up. ‘Bitch. Wouldn't even tell me your name at the last.’
Kim walked through the airport, pondering at the different way she felt as she did. With the way her looks had changed, with the confidence she'd learned from Lady Clover, people treated her differently, reacted to her differently. Before, even when she'd been Kim Possible, the famous world-saving girl, people had still reacted to her like a child, a teenage girl.
Now they didn't see a world-saver, they just saw an adult.
She'd pulled her hair back into a low ponytail and dressed in a tight white turtleneck, then black leather jacket, and black slacks, with a pair of slim sunglasses over her eyes. For all those around her knew, she was just another bottle-redhead on her way back to the States after a long weekend of indulging in legal drugs before heading back to the office.
She bought a paper and sat down in the gate to read it. Nothing new from the last six months, really. Politicians were griping at other politicians. Every movie not shot in black-and-white and following the principles of Dadaism was a pile of crap. Bio-engineering stock was on the slow rise after its year-long slump when one of the big firms’ buildings had mysteriously collapsed in Japan.
Kim skimmed over the financial news, pleased that several of the stocks she'd invested in under Sifu's guidance were doing well, then tucked the paper under her arm and stood as they began calling her plane for boarding.
Thoughts of Shego filled the long flight back. Would she already be back when Kim got there, waiting? Or would Kim have to wait awhile, maybe have time to… prepare? She smiled, blushing just a little and feeling a pleasant tingle at the thought of Lady Clover's gift tucked deep inside her carry-on.
She arrived and rented a car with a different fake identity, one she'd done a bit of bare construction on, intending it to be a throwaway for just this purpose. Climbing into the car, she set out on her long drive. As Shego had said two years ago, it was better to fly into a city at least five hours from their destination to throw off any easy tracking.
Kim pulled into Seattle late at night, the radio warbling some little AM station she'd picked up an hour ago and just never bothered shutting off. Rain sleeted against her windshield, and she was grateful to the rental company for keeping the wipers in good condition. It almost made her feel bad about what she was going to do to the car.
She pulled into a dim, covered parking garage a handful of blocks from her final destination, and left the car locked but with keys in the ignition, setting off down the sidewalk with an umbrella held low over her head. Hopefully, by morning the car would be being hacked into a few hundred pieces at a local chop shop, obliterating the evidence of Kim's city of destination if there really was anyone still searching for her.
Eventually, she arrived and looked up at the five-story warehouse. It actually belonged to her father, having once housed some of his various experiments for storage. Kim's mother had volunteered it when they'd discussed meeting places, and Wade had agreed to obliterate the connections between it and Kim's parents as one of his last helpful acts. Within a week, everyone that had last parted two years ago should find themselves at exactly this address to regroup and consider where to go from here.
Kim went around to the side of the building, punching in the first code on the small lock-pad to unlock the door, then punching in a second one to turn off the security system. She stepped inside and shook out her umbrella, gazing around the first floor. It was almost completely open, showing nothing but brick pillars and unused space, with a few scattered bits of detritus and equipment with tarps thrown over it the only evidence it had ever been occupied. Along one side were a pair of large steel doors, the side that led to the street. ‘Guess we could use this for a garage if we ever get something to drive.’
Deciding against the elevator, unsure of what shape it would be in, she climbed the stairs at one end of the first floor, using the key her mother had given her to unlock the door that led into what had been a sort of office area. She passed through a front office that, to judge from the lessened amount of dust and the way some of the run-down furniture was arranged, had actually seen some activity recently. Her hopes rising, Kim pushed open the door to the inner room, starting to call a greeting.
It died on her lips at what she saw inside. Her blood ran cold in her veins, skin actually getting goosebumps from the feeling. Her eyes widened in shock and horror at what she was seeing, her hand clenching on the doorknob. It just couldn't be…!
-End of Part Nine