Trial by Flyer
In the collective history of mankind's hatred, no eyes had glared as balefully as those narrowed at the couple kissing in the middle of the dance floor. If looks could kill, hers would have struck the two teenagers dead, thwarting their transparent ploy to humiliate her in front of the entire prom. Twin opals smoldered and blackened inside of her sockets, flaring into full infernos as the couple parted to stare longingly at each other.
But Bonnie Rockwaller didn't concern herself with her record-setting frown, or her again-ex boyfriend, who was off sharing a dance with Monique What's-Her-Face. Instead, she watched her arch rival dive into the arms of the school's favorite walking joke, and choked down on her rising bile as the insufferable pair locked lips once more.
"Losers," she muttered under her breath. Her mumbled slight didn't affect the kiss in the least; Kim Possible and Ron Stoppable continued their embrace on the dance floor, oblivious to the world around them. If possible, their ignorance made her ire grow further still, trembling in her arms and churning in her stomach.
This was supposed to be her night. Hers. Brick would walk her into the dance, sweep her across the floor, and all eyes would be on her. Dress selection; makeup; hair; nails; coordination; a month's worth of work had made this night hers. And then that redheaded upstart and her loser lapdog waltzed in at the last minute, stealing the whole show. One little gesture – two hands intertwined – had made sure that the whole school would be talking about them come Monday morning. Them. Not her.
And then, an idea found Bonnie in the clutches of her green-eyed monster, an idea delicious enough to free her in one fell swoop. Anger fled from her in terror at the idea, leaving a smile to blossom slowly in its place. Without a moment wasted, she plumbed the depths of her teeny purse until she found her prize and drew it out. A compact digital camera rose in her grasp, and settled its lens on the lip-locked couple while a fiendish eye glinted at them through its viewfinder.
"You want to be the center of attention?" Bonnie murmured. Her only answer was the click of her camera. "Fine," she said. "Wish granted."
"Okay. Stay calm. Breathe deep. Keep cool. Stay cool. Don't freak. Eyes up. Hands together. Knees bent. Follow through on the backswing..."
Ron trailed off, frowning at his words. A rhythmic drumming on the table grated on his nerves. He looked down and discovered his own fingers as the culprits, dancing nervously against the tabletop. Next to them, his naked pink pet made short work of his tray of Tex-Mex delights. A Sunday lull buzzed softly around them in the Bueno Nacho, ensuring that when he embarrassed himself in the coming crucial moment, there would at least be only a handful of onlookers to witness the disaster.
"Was that advice for staying cool," he mused aloud, "Or was I just giving myself golfing tips?" Rufus offered him a brief shrug before diving bodily into a wrapped burrito. The slurping noises that followed didn't bother Ron so much, but that damnable drumming was going to drive him insane! When he remembered that he was the one doing it, he grabbed his hand and pinned it to the muddy brown table. A deep breath cleared the scowl from his face, but it did nothing for the chaos behind it.
One memory spun through Ron's head, as it had since its inception the night before. The recollection of two soft, wonderful pressed against his made his knees weak, curled his toes, scattered butterflies in his stomach, and made a mess of his thoughts. Walking Kim home, trying to sleep, waking in a daze – all he could think about was her kiss and the way she felt in his arms.
A brief thought about every other romantic endeavor he'd ever flubbed brought Ron a moment of clarity. "Something this important," he muttered, and gave a tiny, sardonic laugh. "Wonder how this one'll blow up in my face." The depressing notion stole the dance floor memory from his thoughts entirely, forcing his posture into a slump.
"How do you blow lunch with a friend?" a coy voice asked behind him, returning his wonderful memory in a whirlwind of excitement. Spry green eyes twinkled at his frantic fumbling to right himself. The girl behind those eyes felt grateful for his trademark bashfulness, which helped hide her own overwhelming terror at this innocent luncheon between 'friends.' She tugged the wrinkles out of her white crop top, smoothing its cartoon heart over her chest while the real thing thundered underneath it. "Unless, of course, you're here to deliver bad news?" she half-kidded, hiding her dread behind a porcelain smile.
Ron's eyes bugged. "PK!" he squeaked, trying to rise from the booth. He got caught against its table and fell back down. "I mean, K-Seat! Take a pee. I mean—"
Kim couldn't help but giggle. "I think I got the gist," she said, and slid into the seat opposite Ron. "And you might want to dial back on the caffeine."
Their harmonized chortle lasted a few seconds. What followed struck Kim as the most uncomfortable silence their friendship had ever suffered through. Her smile faded into a disquieted line, leaving her eyes to wander the restaurant interior to escape an identical look worming onto Ron's face. Her heart felt like it would explode if she didn't say something. If only her voice would work like it was supposed to. If only her mind would give her more than gibberish to say.
"Yeah," Ron said again. He scratched his head, offering up another pathetic chuckle as he looked away. When he heard her draw a long, shaky breath, his mouth leapt ahead of his brain in a panicked overdrive. "So, it's a funny thing," he began. "I got your message this morning to meet you here, and I couldn't help but think..." He laughed again, and this time Kim couldn't hear any humor in it for all its nervous tension. "I couldn't help but think that you were going to get me here, and we'd share a few courtesy laughs, and then you were gonna tell me how last night was just a mistake." His head listed back and forth as he rattled off his airy possibilities, all while Kim shrank in her seat. "You'd say that you were just feeling vulnerable, and how you'll always love me as a friend, but we could never really work out..." He trailed off, giving her an easygoing look that didn't fool Kim for a second. "Isn't that hilarious?"
"Ha. Yeah," said Kim, returning his sickly grin.
At this, Ron threw off his terrified shackles, collapsing back in his bench with the freedom of relief. Layers of fear dissolved from his body, leaving his free to offer Kim his first genuine smile of the day. "Yeah," he echoed, "Totally crazy." He felt his appetite return with gusto, and snatched the last burrito from Rufus's greedy claws.
Kim felt miniscule as she drummed her fingers on the table. "Well," she said, and bit her lip.
Ron collapsed at the waist, falling forward onto the table. Beans and cheese exploded as his face crushed his last burrito. The filling steamed on the cold table as Ron muttered, "I knew it. Totally knew it."
"What? No!" Kim snagged a stack of napkins from his tray and mopped up the burrito goop. "Ron, that's not it at all." She had to lift his head from the table to wipe his face clean. The heat of the mess made her cringe in sympathy. "Doesn't that hurt?"
An accusatory glare revealed itself beneath her napkin's touch. "Don't use my first-degree burns to change the subject," Ron told her, red-faced. When she tried to speak, he pulled away. "Look, just do it quick," he said. "If we can get the pieces on ice fast enough, medical science might be able to put my heart back together again one day."
Kim couldn't help but laugh, this time for real. She leaned forward, catching Ron's chin as he shied away. "Ron, I'm not breaking up with you," she said, swiping the last bean from his nose. "Save the ice for your face."
Ron didn't quite look convinced. "You're not," he repeated.
"No," she said, settling back into her seat. "But I do think we need to talk." When Ron's forehead slammed back against the tabletop, this time with an unfortunate mole rat caught between, Kim could feel eyes all around them turn their way in curiosity. "Ron!" she hissed, trying to pick his head up. "What is it now?"
"What else does it mean when a girl wants to talk?" he moaned into the tabletop.
Prying his head from the sticky surface, she grunted, "It means we should talk, and you should stop embarrassing us." Kim peeled Rufus from Ron's face and set him back on the table. "Look, Ron, about what happened last night..." She blushed at the memory, brushing her lips with her fingers. "And about what you said. Both of it meant a lot to me."
The dull glaze in Ron's eye vanished. "What, really? Which part?" He ignored Rufus's indignant squeak and leaned in, almost crushing his tiny buddy a second time. "It was the 'go-get-'em' speech, wasn't it? Girls flip for my pep talks."
"Nice to see you've got you confidence back," Kim said wryly, catching Rufus as he leapt from the table before Ron finished him off. Sobering, she began again, "What happened was...wow. My head is still spinning." The crazy grin that split Ron's face told her he felt the same. "I just...I want us to take things slow."
Ron squinted, trying to keep up. True to nature, he found himself baffled by Kim and her needs now that they were a couple. "Slow in what way? We've met each other's parents, and we've already slept together."
She refused to indulge him by blushing, and kept her face blank. "We've known each other since we were four," she countered, "And hunkering down for warmth on an arctic mission hardly counts as 'sleeping together.'" Leaning in, she met Ron's gaze. "Ron, there's a lot about our relationship that I don't want to lose. And I'm afraid that if we let this...this move too fast, we're going to...y'know?"
His squint continued, unhindered by her understanding look. "I'm just going to take a chance and say 'yes.' That way," he said, leaning back with a contented sigh, "I can enjoy the time between now and when what you just said blows up in my face."
Smiling uncertainly, Kim asked, "Are you serious?"
"Hard to tell, I know." Ron leaned back in, reaching out for her. The uncertainty vanished from Kim's smile as his hand took hers. "Yeah. I'm totally serious. Whatever's going on here, I like it. And it's pretty clear which one of us has any idea what the hell is going on..."
"That's a stretch," Kim said through her broadening smile.
"The point is," he said, squeezing her hand, "We'll take this the way we do everything else. You're on point, and I've got your back."
Kim felt her blush slip, creeping up her neck as she bit back a giggle. "You know, Ron," she said bashfully, "I think we could move just fast enough for some basic PDA."
Ron's tender look became a frown. "You want us to get a day-planner together? Is that the new class ring or something? That's weird."
Rolling her eyes, Kim used their intertwined hands to pull him across the table. She savored the brief confusion on his on his face, and then tasted it for herself. Her lips sipped of his too quickly for anyone around them to get a voyeuristic show, but more than long enough to plant the dazed grin that she saw as she pulled back.
"Oh," Ron said. "Cool."
Unmitigated joy floated through Middleton High School in the guise of a teenaged boy. His freckles danced atop a smile threatening to split his face in twain. Straw hair bobbing, he danced from hall to hall. The odd looks he garnered did nothing to stifle his mood. In fact, it was all he could do to not sing the words swelling in his chest: I'm Kim Possible's boyfriend, look at me!
"Good morning," he said instead, tipping an imaginary hat to a gaggle of giggling girls. "Hello!" he called to a burly sack of muscle growing at his exuberance. "See you for the noon swirlie? Bon-diggity!" Ron grasped the straps of his backpack and swooned, spinning through the hall in an erratic path that sent other students scattering. Closing his eyes, he pirouetted into a solid wall of a man. Addled instinct led him to lean on the tall figure and tilt his chin up as he opened his eyes. "Hey-dee-ho, Mister B. How's the weather up there?"
Steve Barkin glared down at his headache personified, feeling that familiar throb tense at his temples. His lantern jaw clenched as a beetle brow overshadowed his eyes. "Stoppable," Barkin growled, "If you're trying to resign from the proud ranks of manhood, there are easier ways of doing it. Ways that don't involve dancing like a brain-damaged caribou."
"Not today," said Ron, laughing. He elbowed Barkin, making the enormous man's eyes go wide with astonishment. "Haven't you ever felt like dancing?"
Regaining his composure, Barkin redoubled his scowl. He pulled Ron from his chest and placed him firmly at an acceptable distance away. "There are only three times in a man's life when he may dance, Stoppable," he lectured the goofy blond. Ticking the choices on his fingers, he said, "At his wedding, at his daughter's wedding, and after a touchdown. So unless your secret lovechild just became engaged, or I've been grossly underestimating your athletic ability, you need to man up."
Astonishingly enough, Barkin's threat was dismissed with another laugh. "Can't help myself, Mister B." Twirling away, Ron called back, "I've got a girlfriend!"
"You're dancing on thin ice, mister!" Barkin bellowed after him.
Ron hardly heard the threat above his own heartbeat. A familiar locker lay just steps in front of him, with its door opened to block his view of the lithe figure leaned inside of it. He could see her capri-clad legs and shapely bottom beneath the edge of the locker door, and felt his heart leap into overdrive. Taking a moment, Ron funneled a deep breath through his chest, and tried (unsuccessfully) to tame the mess atop his head. Then, puffed with glass courage, he sauntered around the open door and draped himself against the locker adjacent. "And the very best of mornings to you, Miss Kimberly Anne," he sang.
"I'm not so sure about this, Kim," Wade's voice floated out of Kim's locker. Kim stared in at the computer monitor, wearing a sobering mask. From the looks of things, she hadn't noticed Ron's arrival. "I mean, there are serious ethical ramifications," continued Wade.
Kim's sculpted brows dropped like stones. "Wade," she said through clenched teeth, "Barring all the other things I've done, I just spent my Prom weekend stopping kids' meal toys from rampaging across the planet. I think I've earned a trip into an ethical gray area!"
The good mood on Ron's face drained away as Kim continued to ignore him. "Since when do we keep score on world saving?" asked Wade.
A piece of paper flapped in Kim's hand, waving too fast for Ron to see. Her face coiled into a scowl as she shook the paper at her computer monitor. "You never had a problem hacking for justice before, Wade."
"Um, yeah. For 'justice.' Which this isn't." Sidling over, Ron glimpsed Wade's sour face over Kim's shoulder. The boy genius wore a stubborn look culled from years of working with Kim. "Besides, I hack mainframes and government files, not personal emails."
The rising volume of their voices set Ron's ragged nerves on edge as he leapt into mission mode. He leaned in and touched Kim's shoulder. "KP, what's the sitch?"
Kim stiffened and spun at Ron, startled out of her argument. "Ron!" she cried, and slammed her locker shut. Wade's protest fell short as the computer shut off automatically inside. Stumbling back, Kim whisked the crumpled paper behind her back. "Hey," she said, smiling uneasily. "Hi, Ron. I, um, didn't see you there." When Ron stepped toward her, she backpedaled again.
"Yeah," said Ron, shuffling back before Kim broke and ran. "Must've been hard to hear me through all the shouting."
"Shouting?" Kim looked around, cringing at the curious gazes around her that fled from her notice. In a forced hush, she said, "Oh. Shouting." The crinkle in her clenched fist sounded deafening in her reddened ears.
Ron felt his focus slipping as Kim's hair sashayed around her shoulders. "What's with the memo? Cuts in the Team Possible pants budget? I'd be angry too."
His fingers circled around Kim, much to her chagrin. Kim had to fight an urge to retreat as she felt Ron tug on her clutched secret. "The paper," he said, leaning dangerously close. Minty brushed breath rolled across Kim's face, spilling out of his wry grin. "This paper. The paper that..." He frowned, tugging harder. The paper stayed put. "...that you're pretty attached to."
Tortured defeat wrung Kim's face as she let Ron pull the paper from her grasp. "Ron," she moaned, cringing harder at his unsuspecting smile, "It's nothing. Honest. You shouldn't—"
But Ron wasn't listening. His carefree expression trickled away as he unfurled the sheet. A hazy image of him and Kim at the Prom sat in the middle of the page; the photogenic pair stood lip-locked in the middle of the dance floor. That alone would have been fine, but the text sandwiching the picture set Ron's teeth audibly on edge:
How Long Can It Last?
Enter by email at the day. When they split, you win big!
A moment of unbearable silence crawled by as Kim watched her new beau process the odd paper with their portrait. She bit her lip as he turned it left and right, studying it from every angle through a confused expression. "I don't get it. Is this some kind of prank?"
Kim's face collapsed into her hand, aghast with his density. "Ron, it's a pool!" With her free hand, Kim pointed down the hall opposite the one from which Ron had entered. Exact copies of the flyer Ron held littered the walls and lockers, giving Middleton High panoramic evidence of the teens' budding relationship. As Ron followed Kim's finger, he saw scattered strings of their classmates gathered around the flyers. They cast furtive glances at the pair, whispering as they tried to stare without appearing to stare. Kim reddened at the attention, throwing a challenging look down the hall. "The whole school's trying to guess when we're going to break up."
Ron's tilted expression turned to their audience as Kim's glare cowed the crowd into dispersal. "What a weird thing to bet on," he said, glancing back at the flyer. With a small smile, he added, "Choice picture, though." As Kim's smoldering glare swung onto him, he dropped his smirk for a serious look. "I mean, who would do such a heinous thing?"
"Who else?" snapped Kim. She snatched the paper from his hands and crushed it in her fist. "Bee Stonewall my butt. Ooh," she hissed, slamming the paper wad into her locker door, "When I get my hands on that smug little shutterbug, I am going to feed her that camera."
"Amp down, KP," Ron said. In fourteen years of friendship, Ron had never before been afraid of Kim's infrequent temper. He didn't like the feeling. "So Bonnie's up to her old tricks. No big." He slipped behind Kim as she leaned on her locker, and clasped her by the shoulders, kneading the iron knots in her neck. "You're above that, right?"
Kim deflated beneath his hands, letting her pent-up breath whistle through her teeth. "Are you always going to be this annoyingly supportive as a boyfriend?" she asked him in a wry voice.
"Anything's possible," she heard whispered in her ear. Hot breath tickled her neck as Kim felt Ron leaning in toward her cheek. Panic swelled in her heart as she felt a thousand laughing eyes bearing down on them, and she spun away from his gentle grasp. Ron's pucker hung on his face, unspent, as a disappointed look pooled around it.
Flustered, Kim backed away, rubbing her neck. "Hey, um," she stammered, "We should probably keep that to a minimum. Don't need to give Mister Barkin any more excuses to give you detention, right?"
Ron, who didn't give two flips about Barkin or his yellow slips, offered her a dull nod. "Sure thing," he said, and watched her go without another word. Once she'd disappeared around the corner, he turned the other way and walked to class on leaden feet that had suddenly forgotten how to dance.
Three hours of class and one tray of inedible food later, Kim still felt those piercing eyes all around her. She walked through the lunchroom, holding her head high as if to keep it above the sea of attention in which she found herself adrift. All day, she had listened to whispered guesses as to when she'd 'wake up' that would end abruptly whenever she walked by. Her brow throbbed from all her glaring, which Kim had abandoned halfway through the morning. But worst of all, the tender memory of Ron's lips on the Prom dance floor now burned with the poison of Bonnie's cruel ploy.
Naturally, Steve Barkin didn't tolerate any unauthorized leaflet campaigns. So he did the one thing guaranteed to make sure that everyone in the school saw the flyer: he banned it outright. Thirty seconds after he did, the leaflets became contraband, circulating in school bags and between periods. Kim swore she had even caught sight of it in the teacher's lounge as she passed its open door.
So now, as she ran the gauntlet of lunch tables, she kept her eyes locked on her usual table and the friend waiting for her there. "I took a quick straw poll," Kim snapped, and tossed her lunch tray onto the table. "This is easily in the lead for Worst Day Ever." She sighed and slid onto her seat, opposite from an enormous smile that braved the flames of her bad mood. Tweaked, she scowled at the smile and said, "What?"
Monique grinned and twisted a lock of her hair. "October Tenth, Twenty Fifty-Three," she said.
With growing grin, Monique said, "That's the day I picked. I figure it'll be the day Ron's rotten luck catches up to him. Just had a feeling. Oh, but that's plenty of time for grandkids," she added quickly.
Kim blinked, and blinked again. "You didn't."
"Hey," said Monique, shrugging, "I was playing a hunch. There's a lot of good money out there. Why not take it from the less cerebrally gifted?"
"Monique, this is Def Con Three serious." Kim's fork prodded a questionable growth on her tray. Lucky for her, no appetite remained in her stress-addled innards. She abandoned her fork upright in something resembling mashed potatoes with a sigh, and collapsed onto folded arms. "Yesterday, I was walking on sunshine. Today...dump city. Talk about unfair to the nth degree."
A sliver of guilt burst Monique's bubble. "So how's Ron taking it?" she asked.
Kim glanced up from her pity party with a startled look. "Ron?" Truthfully, she'd shied away from Ron's presence all morning, if only to avoid the stifled giggles that now followed them everywhere. Though she was no stranger to the spotlight, Kim didn't care to be laughed at by the same people that had cheered for them less than forty-eight hours ago. "I don't know," she admitted. "He seemed to think it was funny."
"Which it is."
Scowling, Kim continued, "He...Well, I haven't seen much of him today. I've been spending too much time—"
"Ducking and covering?" asked Monique, cracking the top of her soda can.
Kim nodded. "It's probably better, anyway. I mean, what do I say to him after all this?"
Monique glanced over Kim's head as she took a sip from her can. "I can tell you in a minute," she said.
Kim followed Monique's pointed nod, turning around. She fell out of her chair when she spotted Ron collecting the last of his lunch from the Cafeteria Lady. Something about the day's dubious cuisine sparked an argument between them, buying Kim another few seconds.
"Mon, I can't face him right now. I just...I can't!" she moaned.
A strange look curdled Monique's smile. "Yeah, cute new beaus are the worst," she said, rolling her eyes. "You poor devil."
Kim's head popped over the rim of the table long enough to give Monique a withering glare. "Just keep quiet," she hissed, and vanished beneath the tabletop. "And keep his eyes above the equator," she added.
Monique tugged the v-neck of her shirt. "Like that's ever been a problem," she said, smirking. Her lips curled further as she watched Ron abandon his argument and approach. He adopted a look of confusion as he slid into the seat next to Kim's. "Hey there, Romeo," she greeted him. "What's the buzz?"
"All about me and Kim, apparently," he said. Looking left and right, he asked, "Wasn't she just here?"
A pinch plucked Monique's thigh. Stifling a wince, she said, "Kim? Nope. Haven't seen her."
Ron glanced at the tray next to his. "So whose lunch is that?"
Monique cursed under her breath as she felt Kim pinch her again. "Oh, 'that' Kim. Right, she...went to the bathroom. Cafeteria food gave her the runs." This time, Kim pinched hard on Monique's inner thigh. Monique fought to keep a straight face as she lashed out with her foot, connecting with something soft that squeaked. At Ron's odd look, she shrugged and rocked back and forth. "Heh. Chair's uneven."
A pink blob scampered from Ron's pocket as he shrugged back. While Rufus sniffed at Ron's tray, Ron poked at Kim's abandoned lunch. "Guess it wouldn't matter. Kim's head's been in Bonnieville all day thanks to those stupid flyers." He leaned an elbow on the lunch table, stirring patterns into Kim's potatoes with her fork while Rufus devoured the edible portions of his lunch.
Uncharacteristic gloom slumped his freckles, banishing the smile from Monique's face. She forgot her own game for a moment, and said, "Why the sour look, sweet stuff? Somebody steal your taco?"
"Huh?" Ron shook off his funk, glancing back up. "Sorry," he said, returning to his idle food art. "Just a little distracted myself. Kim's been pretty sans-Ron lately."
"She's just freaked out about the flyers," Monique said, sending bitter thoughts down at the redhead sheltered beneath their table. Resisting the urge to kick again, she said, "Give her some space, and I'm sure she'll be Kimming again in no time."
"I dunno," he said with another shrug. "At the dance, and yesterday, she was all different. Really different," he added with a dreamy look. But it couldn't hold out against his miserable mood, which reclaimed his face all too quickly. "Today, it's like none of it ever happened. Heck, I might not believe it happened myself if I didn't see it pasted all over the walls."
Monique didn't like where he was headed. "I don't follow," she said, playing dumb in the hope that she was wrong. "I saw you two at the Prom. Smooth, by the way."
"Thanks," he mumbled. "But I... KP was feeling vulnerable after that whole syntho-drone hoo-hah. And I think she..." Hesitating a moment, Ron looked away and blurted, "Maybe I'm just a rebound."
The shocking admission struck Monique dumb. She sat there in silence while a cry from beneath the table answered for her with, "WHAT?"
Looking back up, Ron said, "Well, sure. I may be pretty, Mon, but I'm not stupid...ish." Sighing, he leaned back, swinging his feet precariously close to a secret. "I've heard Pastor Bonnie's sermon on the dangers of dating low on the Food Chain. What if she's right?"
Monique shook her head. "You two knuckleheads deserve each other," she muttered.
"I said you shouldn't let Bonnie play you," Monique said, feeling like a broken record player. "I don't know who you were looking at last Saturday, but my eyes were on a bombshell redhead, and her eyes were right here." She jabbed a pair of fingers at Ron's forlorn eyes, and widened them with her brazen tone: "You just need to cowboy up and tell Kim how she's making you feel." When his surprise became an unspoken question, she amended, "About the flyers, I mean. You already told her the other stuff."
The rapid change-up on Ron's face settled back to glum defeat. "Even if you're right," he said, "It isn't just Bonnie. Everybody's laughing behind her back because she kissed me." All those cheering faces floating in Ron's memory set his teeth on edge. Every one of them had turned on Kim at the drop of Bonnie's hat. "I mean, I'm no stranger to laughter in crowd form, but I don't think KP's used to it." Frowning, he added, "I don't like it."
"So what're you going to do?" asked Monique.
Ron's eyes fell to the table. "I guess I'm gonna break up with her."
Monique's jaw fell as shock robbed her of her voice again. But that didn't stop the tabletop from crying, "WHAT?" again.
His gaze snapped back up to Monique. "You coming down with something?" he asked. "You sound a little off."
Giving the under-table another kick, Monique said, "What are you talking about? Dump Kim?"
"I don't want her to be a social pariah. Kim's not a lone wolf like me. She's a social creature," Ron insisted. He leaned back and put on a brave face, flashing Monique a dime store smile. "Least I got to see what it was like for a couple of days, right?"
Ron slid back from the table as Monique found her voice again. "Hey, hold on a minute. Where are you going?" she said.
He picked up his tray, mole rat and all, and swept away. "No time like the present, right? Do it quick, like a Band-Aid."
Monique watched him disappear into the crowd before she could stop him. Several glances from the tables around her followed Ron, accompanied by snickering that curled her hands into fists. "Such a pair of drama queens, I swear," she muttered. Scooting back from the table, she peered down at the shadowy floor. "Well? Are you coming out of there?" she shot.
Kim sat curled by Monique's feet, holding her knees to her chest. Her face nested in her legs, hidden beneath a messy mound of red. "I think I'm gonna stay down here," she said into her capris. "At least I'll look as tall as I feel."
"You looked pretty sloppy out there, K."
Kim felt her toes curl against the locker room floor as her hands compacted into trembling, whitened hammers. She kept her eyes locked on her locker, avoiding the smug look she knew waited behind her. A dozen retorts crouched on her sharp tongue, held at bay by the uproarious grinding of her own teeth. All of cheer practice, Kim had held her temper in check; what cruel god asked her to do the same after practice as well?
"Guess I've been a little distracted, B," Kim replied without turning around. She peeled away her sticky cheer top, shaking her hair free as it rolled out of the collar. The act of undressing gave Kim a moment to catch her breath in deep, slow draws, allowing the color to drain back into her knuckles. "In case you didn't notice, she added testily, loosening her skirt, "There's a smear campaign against me and Ron."
The serpentine smile on Bonnie's lips slithered with delight as she shucked her cheer uniform. "What," she asked with an air of innocence, "That harmless little joke?" Trading her sports bra for a more daring model, she said, "I'm sure someone's just having a little fun, that's all."
Both rivals could feel their teammates' growing interest in the back-to-back face-off. It irritated Kim to know that Bonnie was still getting the attention she desired, and that Kim as only making it worse by indulging Bonnie's snide little comments. But her mouth, unsatisfied by her maturity's desire for the high road, raged its own war. "Seems kind of pathetic," countered Kim. Sliding into her blouse, she said sightlessly, "I mean, somebody must be pretty bored and lonely to go to all that effort."
The sound of seething rewarded Kim's pettiness as her ears popped out the blouse's collar. "Huh. That's actually the word that came to mind when I saw the flyer, Kim." With diminished smugness, Bonnie glanced back and said, "Pathetic."
"Really," remarked Kim. Her icy tone masked the lake of lava she felt rising in her stomach.
Dressed and composed, Bonnie watched Kim slide into her jeans. "Oh, don't get me wrong. I'm sure Ron has his own special...charms," she said, indulging in a silent gag. "The two of you even look a little cute together." Another pause. Another stealthy gag. "But come on," she said, adopting a faux-concerned look as Kim finally glanced back, "You don't really think this is going to last, do you?"
Kim stuck her nose in the air as he swept her uniform into her locker. "I don't know if it will or won't, Bonnie," she answered honestly. "I just don't see why it should be everybody else's business."
Seated several lockers down, Tara finished lacing her shoes with a masked look of disgust. She'd listened to Bonnie poke and prod Kim about those flyers all through practice, and had more than her fill of it by now. It disappointed her to see Kim caving in to Bonnie's challenge, even though she couldn't believe Kim had lasted so long.
Keeping her back to the bickering pair, Tara hefted her gym bag and strode out of the locker room at a quick pace. Once out the door, she almost collided with the last person she expected to see. "Ron?"
Ron stumbled back, breaking his anxious pacing in front of the girls' locker room. "Tara! Hey," he said, rubbing the back of his neck. He looked around in the uncomfortable quiet that followed, and then said, "Look, I know I've said this before, but I have a totally good reason for hanging outside of the locker room."
Tara couldn't help but titter. "I'm sure," she said, believing him for once. The fretful look on his face soon banished her good humor. A question sat perched on her lips, but his hangdog expression answered it before she could ask. She swallowed a platitude, and instead offered him a consoling smile. "You look a little rough."
"Bad day," he muttered, coming back with a waxy grin. "About to get worse. How 'bout you?"
She didn't answer. Instead, she momentarily pushed aside her blossoming romance with Josh Mankey, and recalled the things about Ron that had tickled her fancy. There were more than she'd remembered, as well as a few new ones that his new girlfriend undoubtedly drew out of him. "Meeting Josh and the gang for a movie. I'd better jet." As she stepped around him, she paused and turned back. "I didn't enter the pool, Ron."
"Oh. Thanks?" Ron said, confused.
"I just thought you should know," she said. Glancing back at the door, Tara added, "You might not want to be here when they get out."
Ron traded mechanical goodbyes with Tara as she left, staring at the mysterious and foreboding door. Voices belonging to Tara's 'they' rose to breach the barrier, teasing Ron with snatches of their argument. Unable to resist, he tiptoed to the locker room door and pressed his ear to its cool, cracking paint.
"Maybe girls whose boyfriends just dumped them shouldn't be passing judgment on other people's boyfriends," Kim snapped. She yanked a sweaty duffle bag from her locker, struggling with its strap as it caught on the inside lock. Her red face flushed full crimson with frustration, and she yanked again.
Bonnie smirked. "No need to get huffy, Kim," she insisted in a breezy tone. "I just think you could do better on the rebound market, that's all."
The thin line of patience keeping Kim's anger in check cracked as her innards froze solid. "What did you say?" she asked coolly.
"What?" Bonnie asked with a shrug. "I'm just saying, you—"
The rest of her veiled insult rushed out of her amidst a grunt as Bonnie caught a bulging duffle bag in the stomach. She staggered back with the blow, falling against the row of lockers behind her. Before she could muster breath for a squeak, a pair of hands slammed into the lockers with a deafening clang, bracketing her head.
Kim's face shuffled into focus mere inches from Bonnie's lolling eyes. "Congratulations," Kim snarled. "I've been fighting megalomaniacs since I was in braces, but you're the first person to ever really piss me off."
"Get off, freak!" shouted Bonnie. She tried shoving Kim off, and found herself powerless against iron muscles tempered with rage. When she tried to rise, Kim's lightning hands shoved her back against the lockers, jarring the bravado out of her. The rest of the cheer squad watched with wide eyes and slacken jaws as their captain cornered Bonnie with a predatory look. "You can't do this to me!" squawked Bonnie.
"You know what, Bonnie?" Kim said loud enough for the rest of her team to hear. "Go ahead and play your stupid little games. I'm done letting you play me." She glanced back at the terrified girls, and added, "And I'm done being laughed at." Bonnie tried escaping in Kim's moment of distraction, but the echoing clap of Kim's fist on the lockers stopped her in her tracks. "Ron isn't a rebound. He isn't a placeholder. Ron is my boyfriend."
"Shut it," snapped Kim. Bonnie's jaw clicked shut. "I don't care what any of you think. The only one here even remotely qualified to judge Ron as a boyfriend is me, and I happen to think he's doing just fine. Say whatever you want about me," Kim announced, "But if I hear you say one thing – One. Thing. – about Ron..." Narrowing her eyes, she said, "Then you and I will have a problem."
Bonnie swallowed, gasping for a voice. "I'm not afraid of you," she stammered.
"Why? Because we're already rivals?" A frightening smile crept beneath Kim's smoldering scowl. "You want to find out what being Kim Possible's enemy is like? Try me," she dared. Bonnie said nothing, swallowing a retort in the face of the slumbering giant she'd awakened. Kim stepped back, allowing Bonnie to scramble a safe distance away. "Next time anyone feels like pulling another stunt like this," she said to the entire room, "Just remember; you'll be messing with my boyfriend." Her frightening smile widened, bearing its canines. "And that would be pretty high on the Stupid Scale."
The door fell open as Ron tumbled in, wailing and bouncing onto the floor. His loud entrance shocked Kim's gawkers into a frenzy. They shrieked and covered themselves, retreating deeper into the locker room's showers, leaving Kim and Bonnie to stare at the intruder picking himself off the floor. Kim's anger subsided, replaced by blushing horror as she realized what Ron had just overheard.
"Heh. Ladies," Ron said, giving them a nervous nod. He let his gaze wander, unable to look Kim in the eye. "This is a lot cleaner than I imagined."
Kim's duffle bashed him in the head, launched by Bonnie's hand. "Ron Stoppable, you perverted loser!" she yowled as Ron fell to the floor. "Get out of here!"
Kim shoved Bonnie hard, knocking her aside, and strode to Ron's aid. "Are you okay?" she asked, helping him up. "Did...did you hear...?"
True to form, Ron shook the hit off without effort. He clasped Kim's hand and allowed her to draw him up. "Yes," he said. Then, blushing, he admitted, "...and yes. Did...I mean, you meant it, right?"
Deep, dark insecurity glistened in Ron's eyes, fanning the spark of shame burning in Kim's stomach. Her eyes plumbed the rest of him, searching for the answer somewhere in a face she knew better than hers. Everything between them had happened so fast that she didn't know how to act around Ron anymore. She still felt unsure of herself, and of them. But returning to Ron's eyes, Kim found something beneath his uncertainty. Its beauty, its loyalty, and its purity stole her breath away.
Kim brushed Ron's face with her fingertips, leaning in close. With no words to offer him, she pursed her lips and brought them to his. Her hand cupped his chin, keeping him close, as tough she feared he would disappear. She needn't have worried; an arm slid around her waist, pressing her close with a clammy hand against her back. When their kiss broke and her eyes fluttered open, she found no doubt remaining between the crinkled lines of his smile.
Sweeping Kim to his side with one hand, Ron fished his pocket with the other. "Hey, Bon-Bon," he said, "Can I enter your pool, too?" A crumpled bill emerged, clasped in his fingers. He waggled the bill in her face and said, "Put me down for the day after you get a clue."
Laughter rang in Kim's lips as Ron dropped his money at Bonnie's feet. "He's dorky," she sang, leading Ron toward the door with an arm around him. Ron thoughtfully stooped and slung her bag over his shoulder, giving Kim a moment to toss a smile over her shoulder and say, "But quite the gentleman."
They pushed through the door, leaving Bonnie to fume alone. Kim reveled in the little thrill she felt when Ron's arm tightened around her. "That was some tongue-lashing you gave Bonnie. You have quite the mouth on you when the situation calls for it," Ron said. "I never knew that about you."
"Maybe you don't know me as well as you think," Kim countered. "Fourteen years isn't so long, you know. Besides," she added, "Bonnie only got half of what she deserved for messing with my man."
Ron mulled it over. "Your man? I like the sound of that."
"I thought you might," she said. "But you won't when you pick me up tonight."
Frowning, he asked, "What's tonight?"
"There will be no hand-holding," decreed the pillar of Possible paternal power, waggling his finger at a mass of frightened freckles. "You will not kiss my daughter, hug my daughter, or engage in physical contact of any kind. You will open doors for her, help her over puddles, pay for her meal, and offer your jacket if the movie theater is cold. Under no circumstances are you to touch her, her clothes, her purse, or anything loosely affiliated with her or things that resemble her, including, but not limited to, photographs and reflections."
Ron stood in the Possibles' entryway, quaking on the very spot from which Erik had charmed Kim's family just two nights before. His sports coat and slacks dampened with terror sweat while Mister Possible paced the width of the hall, trapping him against the door. "Doctor P..." he began.
"Not finished," barked Mister Possible, snapping around with upraised finger. "Curfew is at ten o'clock. Not ten-fifteen, not ten-oh-five, and certainly not ten o'clock and three seconds." Raising his watch next to his face, he repeated, "Ten. You will bring her home promptly, happy, and safe...and untouched."
"Oh, leave the boy alone, Jamie," Missus Possible called from the top of the stairs. She leaned against the wall, looking down at her men with a smirk. Ron caught sight of her secretive wink, and offered back a grateful look that broadened her smile. "He didn't come here for a lecture," she said, stepping to one side. "He came for this."
A sultry leg slid around the corner, quickly followed by its twin. They carried high above them a slice of heaven glazed in a short black dress. Bountiful red ribbon danced around her shoulders as she glided down the steps and brandished a smile that rocked Ron to his core. "Hey, handsome," she purred, grabbing hold of Ron's arm before he fell over. Mister Possible visibly steamed, until Kim stuck her tongue out and said, "Take a pill, Dad. I'm touching him."
Missus Possible was only steps behind her daughter. She took her husband by the elbow, pulled him to one side, and said, "What your father means to say is that we love you both, and we hope you have a wonderful, villain-free time." She kissed them each atop their heads and shooed them out the door with one arm, placating her husband with the other. Her iron grasp remained on his arm as they waved the teens out the door. "Have fun, you two."
A giggle crossed between the pair as the front door closed behind them. They strolled into the crisp night air with light hearts and butterfly'd stomachs, only vaguely aware of their path down the sidewalk. Instead, their attentions drifted to one another as their laughter waned. Kim's hooded eyes sparkled beneath streetlights as she noticed Ron's stare. "What?" she asked.
Ron considered her for a moment in silent awe. Then, he snuck his arm up her back and around her coifed hair, and gave her neck a pinch. She yelped and jumped, and then rubbed the nape of her neck as she shot him a dirty glare. "Nope," Ron said brightly, "No Moodulator."
An irritated look flitted across her face before she traded it for a more mischievous smile. Her lightning hand poked Ron hard in the ribs, making him echo her yelp as he stumbled. "Nope," she said, aping his coy tone, "No syntho-drone."
They laughed again, feeling some of their butterflies flutter away as they resumed their walk down the street. "Personally, I think this is weird enough without the mission stuff," he said. Then, flustered, he added, "Good-weird. Good-weird, not awk-weird."
Her smile grew. "Oh," she said, snapping her fingers. Kim stopped and opened her purse, rifling through it briefly beneath his curious gaze. Her hands cupped a tiny flower folded from paper, pierced by a safety pin. As Kim lifted it higher, Ron recognized what she had folded it from. "I made you a boutonniere," she said, grinning from ear to ear.
"'Booyah' on the use of origami for vengeance," Ron quipped as Kim pinned the repurposed flyer to his lapel. "So," he asked, resuming their pace once more, "Does this mean we're going steady?"
An impish gleam lit Kim's eyes as she collapsed against Ron's side. Her arms snared his elbow, clutching it like a possessive vice. "Well," she drawled, "I'd hate for anyone to win Bonnie's stupid pool. I guess I can keep you around for a little while. Just on a trial basis, of course," she added with somber tone and sober face.
Ron laughed and drew her close. "Nice to see you keeping your perspective about all this," he said.
Leaning on Ron's arm, Kim kept a tiny smile all to herself. "I've got my priorities straight," she assured him, resting her head on his shoulder.