It has been just over thirteen years, but I am finally finished with this story. When I began it, my kids were only seven and five. Now they are twenty, eighteen, ten, and seven.

I'd like to express my gratitude to CajunBear73, Isamu, Magic Flying Spud, MrDrP, Mr. Wizard, Uberscribbler, Quathis, whitem, sparrowhawk63, and the archduke for their reviews. Each of you encouraged me to push on until this mission reached its conclusion.

I'd also like to give a shout out to the shade of Cecil Taylor, whose album 'Indent' was my constant companion as I finished these last two chapters.

Thanks to everyone who read and, of course, waited so very long for this to be finished. I sincerely hope you will feel that your divine patience was, to some small degree, justified.

Finally, eternal thanks to flakeflippingsnowgypsy who, despite all evidence to the contrary, believes in my better self.


I.

Initially, there was only tenderness.

Bathed in warmth, Kim was given to a sensation akin to floating upon an ebbing tide along an immense beach. The feeling would gently yet steadily increase to the point where she lost herself between the diminishing waves and the countless grains of sand. Before disappearing beneath the shore's cool surface, she would, with great effort, flutter open her eyes. Indistinct shapes moved languidly against an infinite field of red. No matter how hard she strained, her vision refused to focus. Except for once, when for the briefest of instants, the red expanse resolved itself into what appeared to be a tangle of unfamiliar constellations in a cloudless night sky.

At first, Kim didn't even have the words to properly describe these experiences, let alone identify what they were. However, as the weeks and months passed, they began to occur more frequently and extend in duration. When she did finally solve their mystery, the reason why they had originally confounded her was obvious. So many years had gone by since she had been in such a state, that its all-too-common sensations and tell-tale cues had become utterly foreign to her.

They were dreams. And Kim took their sudden appearance as a portent that her second life was drawing inexorably to its close.

II.

At first, Kim didn't share her dreams with Mariko. Thinking about them, let alone talking about them, made her extremely anxious. Besides, she argued to herself, there was no need to make Mariko needlessly worry. What with grad school, Justy working two jobs, and the Big Development, her friend had more than enough to fret about. But, finally, Kim had to acknowledge what she had always known to be true. Keeping secrets was unfair.

"Uh-huh," Mariko nodded, a small wrinkle between her eyebrows. "So how do you know that they're dreams?"

As Kim tried to discern whether the crease between Mariko's eyes was a sign of worry or just an indicator of the inevitable brain-freeze from the milkshake her friend was drinking way too fast, she found that she didn't have a good answer for Mariko. The 'dreams' were unremarkable. Literally. There was really only the underlying feelings of warmth and calm. And the redness.

"Well, maybe, they aren't dreams." Kim frowned. "Maybe they're just … moments of unconsciousness?"

"Okay, maybe you don't dream—you just 'red out'?"

"Maybe," Kim said shaking her head. "But why is this happening now? For years and years, I've been either conscious or not here at all. Why all of a sudden would I start dozing off?"

"Got me," Mariko said, thoughtfully stirring her milkshake with a pickle spear. "Maybe you're just getting old. Bubbe takes catnaps in the middle of dinner all the time."

Kim smiled faintly. Despite her unnatural state of being (or maybe because of it), the possibility of 'getting old' had a certain appeal to it. Of course, what came after 'getting old' in the natural progression might also happen to her, too. To stave off the awakened sense of dread this thought produced, Kim placed her hand on Mariko's belly.

"Booger's been quiet today." Mariko said, removing the novel that she had splayed across the top of her baby bump for the past few minutes as they had talked.

Although Mariko and Justy had decided against finding out their baby's gender, Mariko chaffed against calling their child 'he or she', 'the baby', or, worst of all, 'it.' So, she had settled on the innocuous moniker 'Booger.' This name had initially irked Kim, but it had grown on her surprisingly quickly. As to the baby's potential real names, Mariko had been uncharacteristically tight-lipped.

"I think this kid is trying to avoid me," Kim smirked. She leaned in close to Mariko's belly and whispered, "No one can evade Kim Possible forever, Booger. Sooner or later, I'll catch you in the act." This gesture was as much for her benefit as it was for Mariko's unborn child. It had started to really bother Kim that she had never felt her friend's baby kick. In fact, she had never even been present when the child had been the slightest bit active, not once. Although not as ominous as her 'dreams,' she didn't take this as a good omen.

"Is that the last book of the term?" Kim asked trying to focus on something mundane.

"Yep, only fifty more pages or so. Then I can begin to put off writing the paper on it."

"And when is this paper due?" Kim arched an eyebrow.

"Last week."

"Of course, it was."

"I do my best stuff when marinating," Mariko said as she took a bite out of her pickle and then let it plop back into the now-empty glass. "You should give it a try." She leaned back in the new recliner that Ron had delivered to the Rentons' apartment just a few days earlier.

"Now that I'm getting old, right?" Kim shook her head again.

Mariko abruptly leaned forward and placed her hand on Kim's shoulder. "What's wrong?"

"What do you mean?" Kim asked, swiftly doing an internal check that her 'smile' was still in full force on her face.

Mariko's cocoa eyes didn't waver.

"I'm sorry," Kim said finally. "I'm so sorry."

"About what?"

"I'm scared," Kim heard herself say.

"That you're getting old?" Mariko's hand was now wiping a tear from Kim's cheek.

"No. I mean, maybe. I don't know. I'm just worried about the dreams and maybe that they mean that I am getting old."

"Okay." The crease on Mariko's brow was definitely not due to a brain freeze.

"And. And." Kim stumbled for a moment and then her fears flowed out. "I don't know what'll happen then, or I think I know—I'll just be gone and won't ever come back and if that happens I don't know when it'll happen or how. I mean, what if I don't get to see Booger? What if I don't even get to say good-bye to you?" Kim was crying so hard that her teeth had begun to chatter.

Mariko hugged her close. "Okay," Mariko said. "Okay. Okay."

Gradually, Kim reclined onto the chair's armrest and allowed herself to fold into Mariko's sideways embrace. Moments later, Mariko began to rock the chair gently with the tips of her toes against the carpet.

As she regained herself, Kim reflected on the irony that Mariko was now five years older than she was. Or, rather, five years older than she had ever gotten to be. Their age gap and her friend's comforting gesture reminded Kim of the handful of times in her childhood when she had wished for an older sister. If she was lucky enough to continue existing for many more years, how much more might their relationship change?

"I don't want you to go." Mariko said firmly. "I won't let you."

Kim admired her friend's resolve. It even made her feel a little less anxious. And this confidence didn't falter even after Mariko went through four fistfuls of tissues to clear her own nose and dry her own tears.

Kim placed her right hand on Mariko's belly once more and felt the warmth of the new life within pulse rhythmically into her palm.

But there was still no movement.

III.

It was different this time.

The red canopy that enshrouded everything in her 'dreamscape' seemed several shades deeper to Kim. And yet, at the same time, the world was brighter; there was more 'light.' Although it was just as void of characters or setting as it ever had been, this time the dream reminded Kim of something. Something from her previous life.

The warmth of the beach sun beat through her closed eyelids as she began to fall asleep on a day during that summer after Pre-K. She could recall staying so quiet that she could hear her own pulse over the distant sounds of the surf. All that was missing to make the 'dream' a realized memory was the sound of the waves and the sound of Ron crying as he was being chased by a seagull. The sound of her pulse in the dream was so strong that it gradually crowded out everything else. It grew so loud that it sounded as if it was doubling up on itself, almost like an echo.

Kim found herself in the backseat of the Sloth. The sun coming through the windshield forced her to shadow her eyes with her hand. Slowly, she made out the shape of Mariko's head and shoulders in the driver's seat. But there was something odd about her outline. Her friend's head was bent forward and her shoulders were scrunched together.

Oh, no! Is it time?

"Mariko," Kim asked softly, so as not to startle her, "are you okay?"

"Kim!" The face Mariko showed over her shoulder beamed with excitement. "Excellent timing—you've gotta check this out!"

Her words and demeanor reasonably assured Kim that she hadn't reappeared just as Mariko was going into labor.

But, then again, she is Ron's daughter …

"Booger has never been this active. Well, shoot, he just stopped, but I am sure he's just taking a breather, let me get the partition down, so you can feel."

The partition slid down about a quarter inch and then stopped.

"Oh, no, not again!" Mariko cried.

"Didn't Wade just fix that?"

"Yeah, he did. For the fifth time in the last year. Nothing else in this car has ever broken down, but this stupid thing does all the time."

"Don't worry about it, Mariko," Kim sighed. "I'll catch Booger in the act someday."

"I know, but this just tanks. Not ten seconds ago he was doing a soccer-jujitsu combo and now nothing."

Kim eyed the partition warily. For the past few weeks, she had been plagued with the fear that when the end of her second life came, it would be at a moment when she would be unable to reach Mariko. A drawn shower curtain, a mostly closed closet door, or this stupid partition would create an impermeable boundary between her and her friend. As her final seconds ticked away, she wouldn't be able to give Mariko a final hug or even grasp her hand. The idea of being able to see her friend clearly but not able to touch her was an aching dread that Kim found herself revisiting far too often.

"I told him that he would have to turn it side wise, but, you know, how Dad is."

"Huh? I'm sorry."

"Exactly." Mariko paused her story, her right eyebrow arched with gentle annoyance. "You're even starting to zone out like Dad. I was just explaining how he got the recliner jammed in the front door."

"What? What happened?"

"Last night a spring broke or something—guess too many milkshakes—so, it's stuck in full recline. Dad tried to take it back to the store this morning, but got it jammed in the front door. Of course, it got stuck exactly midway up the frame, so it was too low to duck under and too high to climb over."

"I see. So, what are you going to do?"

"Well, it's not there anymore. He got it out, but now we need a new door frame—it's totally shredded."

"How did that happen?"

"He turned the Lotus Blade into a crowbar to pry the recliner out."

"Oh, Ron."

"Yeah, so we can't close the door until he finishes replacing the frame. That's what I'm doing—killing time until—OWW!"

"What's wrong?" Without thinking, Kim jumped into the front seat. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine," Mariko said, her eyes closed, her hand on the side of her belly. "It's just another Braxton Hicks', I've been having them off and on for a few days." She opened her eyes, "Everything's okay."

But everything was not okay.

Wait, how did I get here? Isn't the partition still up?

The instant this question occurred to Kim, she realized she could no longer feel the front seat beneath her. A second later, she realized she was passing through the seat as if it wasn't there. Or, rather, as if she wasn't there.

"Kim!" Mariko's voice sounded horrified. "What's going on?"

"I-I don't know!" To keep herself from sinking through the bottom of the car, Kim stretched out her arms to Mariko. That's when she realized that Mariko's horror wasn't limited to her inexplicable exit from the Sloth. Both her arms, from the shoulder to her elbows were translucent. And this transparency was steadily creeping down her arms and across her chest. She was fading. Like breath on a mirror.

Mariko grasped Kim by her still solid forearms and lifted her back into the Sloth's cab. "What? What?"

"It-it's happening!" Kim cried.

"What!?"

Kim gritted her teeth. "I'm going. I'm going away."

"No, that can't happen!"

"Can you see through me? Can you?"

Mariko bit her lip and nodded. Quickly, she tried to embrace Kim, but her arms only collided clumsily with each other as they passed through Kim's transparent chest.

Kim tried to grasp the Sloth's steering wheel with her right hand to keep herself from falling further. Although it appeared solid, her hand passed right through the wheel.

"Don't go! Stay, stay with me!" Mariko cried clutching Kim's right wrist. Thankfully, Kim's 'solid' features still connected with her friend. However, the translucence was advancing almost to her wrist.

"I can't stop it." Kim eyed her left arm quickly, only her hand was still solid. "I-I'm sorry, Honey." She looked back to her friend, but Mariko was fumbling with her v-phone. "What are you doing, Mariko?"

"Calling Dad." The phone fell from Mariko's trembling hand, bounced once on the seat, and landed in the cluster of shadows around her feet. "No! No! You have to see him one more time!"

Kim placed the remaining fingers of her left hand against her friend's damp cheek, so that the young woman's cocoa gaze met hers. "I already do, Honey. I already do."

Mariko blinked furiously to clear her pooling eyes. "This is so, so unfair."

"I know. I'm sorry." Kim said. Her left hand vanished.

"No," Mariko shook her head, "it's unfair to you."

As what remained of her right hand held tightly to her friend, Kim smiled. "No, it has been more than fair to me. I got two lifetimes. I got two best friends."

Mariko squeezed her eyes shut and murmured, "G-goodbye …"

And then the young woman uttered a word that Kim hadn't heard her friend say in years. It was a word that Kim herself had said innumerable times but one that for the longest time she never dreamed would be used to address her.

And at the instant she believed that her heart could no longer contain its riot of emotions, Kimberly Anne Possible disappeared forever.

IV.

"Sweetie, what's going on? Are you hurt? Mariko, talk to me!"

Mariko had no idea how long her father had been calling out to her. When the phone landed in the foot, it must have dialed his code. There was no telling how long he had been trying to yell over her furious misery.

What can I say?

Mariko had only told her father about Kim once. Five years earlier on Mt. Tate. And she had lied then. How could she tell him what was killing her without revealing the whole truth to him? What might that truth do to him? She groaned and wiped her chin with her right sleeve. The edges of both sleeves were soaked. Tears were trickling along the edge of the steering wheel, too.

"Mariko, are you ok!?"

No.

Mariko was in no condition whatsoever to break her father's heart. Yet, she also refused to lie to him a second time about his best friend. A small, yet noticeably growing, part of her championed the option of buying some time by 'accidentally' ending the call with her foot. But she refused do that either.

"OWW!" Mariko clutched her lower stomach. The Braxton Hicks contractions had continued steadily the past few minutes, but she had been so distracted by Kim's … departure, that she had barely registered them. This last one she noticed. It was followed almost immediately by another. "OWW! Oh man, that hurts."

She tried adjusting her position in the seat and discovered that it was wet, too. She had never cried so much in her life. It was a wonder the windows hadn't fogged up.

Waitaminute.

She felt the front of the seat again.

"Oh my God. Dad! Dad! My water broke!"

There was no response.

"Dad are you still there?" Mariko looked between her feet and discovered her v-phone, the screen completely black, beneath her left heel. "Seriously?!"

Fortunately, Mariko's foot was equally adept at intentionally powering on her phone as it was with inadvertently powering it off. She was pretty sure that she could dial her dad's code if she could get her shoe off, but this proved to be unnecessary. When the device's screen finally came on, Ron's face was already filling it.

"What's going on?" he yelled.

"W-water's broke." Mariko sighed between contractions.

"Oh, okay," her father replied in a much-less-frazzled tone that somehow managed to sound even more panicked than his cry just seconds before. "On my way." The call ended.

He was back a second later. "I love you, Sweetie."

"I love you too, Dad," she smiled. "Call Justy okay?"

"You got it," and he was gone again.

Even if she hadn't told her dad earlier that she was going to be chilling by the park, he would have been able to track her position by the chip Wade had installed in the Sloth. He'd be there in minutes; Mariko just needed to breathe and remain calm.

She stared at the cloudless sky through the windshield and found that her thoughts couldn't latch onto anything. This was a good thing.

Breathe. Focus on being unfocused. Breathe.

A flash of red in the rearview mirror unfortunately caught her attention. The book she still hadn't finished lay crumbled in the backseat. Mariko instantly lost whatever control she had been struggling to maintain.

The tears returned, but they were furious and bitter. She wanted nothing so much as to grab the book, rip out its pages, shred each one, and then ball all the pieces tightly into her palms until they vanished and were nothing.

She had almost finished the novel the night before. In fact, she was on the second-to-the-last page. However, as she read the final paragraph, she was inexplicably filled with anger. The main character was dying and to stave off the fear of his immanent mortality, he imagined himself among a brotherhood of 'sleeping' mythical figures.

The world is full of sleepers waiting for their moment of return: Arthur sleeps in Avalon, Barbarossa in his cave. Finn MacCool lies in the Irish hillsides and the Worm Ouroboros on the bed of the Sundering Sea. Australia's ancestors, the Wandjina, take their ease underground, and somewhere, in a tangle of thorns, a beauty in a glass coffin awaits a prince's kiss.

She had shut the book and hurled it across the room. Her action had been so violent that it caused the recliner to rock and almost tip over. Although she was able to keep it from falling over, it made a loud 'thwap' noise when she got up to retrieve the book. And from that moment, it was stuck in a full reclined position.

Mariko was at a loss as to why those lines so infuriated her. That is, until she forced herself to think about them.

Weeks before, she had promised her overwrought best friend that she wouldn't let her go, that she wouldn't let her disappear. It was a pledge she knew she couldn't keep. Lame, childish words that had no more chance of succeeding than the useless scheme she had dreamed up when she was five of having Justy kiss Kim 'back to life.'

Last night's anger was borne from the deep anxiety that she wouldn't be able to save her friend. The rage she felt now was because that fear had come true. And the rage was not directed at some book, but at herself.

The contractions weren't so painful now, but they were becoming more regular. And Booger was back. There weren't any more gymnastics, only a steady tap-tap-tap just above Mariko's navel. Her left hand automatically stroked the spot, and the tapping intensified. As it did so, a feeling of warmth spread across her chest. She lifted her hand from her belly and the baby's motion went back to a gentle, even rhythm. Mariko placed her hand back on the spot, the tapping increased as before, and the feeling of warmth returned, but stronger. She continued to play this 'game' with her unborn child until she heard her father's gentle rap on the Sloth's window.

"Okay, sweetie?" he asked. "Much pain?"

"Not bad," she replied.

"Coolio. When I saw that you were smiling to yourself, I knew it couldn't be too bad."

He was right. Mariko was smiling. She immediately felt bad for doing so, but, as soon as she put her hand back against her baby's "drumming," this guilt faded away.

In fact, during the ride to the hospital, whenever any distressing thought or unpleasant emotion threatened to overwhelm her, Mariko found that placing her hand over Booger put her almost completely at ease.

Almost. There was still one uncomfortable thought that Mariko couldn't chase away, even with Booger's help.

Had Kim passed without hearing Mariko call her "Mom"?


Author's Note: The passage that gets Mariko so upset is from The Moor's Last Sigh by Sir Salman Rushdie