Previously in the Essential Ron-ness series:

Much to Bonnie's shock and dismay, cheerleader Tara decided to dump her star athlete boyfriend and—striking a blow against the sacred 'Food Chain'—take up with the captain of the chess team. In fact, to everyone's surprise, Tara revealed that she actually plays chess herself. Who would have guessed that the bubbly blonde had a nerdy side? (Confused? See The Mad Dog Picnic for details.)

This story does not pick up where we left off. We're going back to a couple of weeks before The Mad Dog Picnic opens, and we'll see how Tara came to her decision and how things played out. Then we'll see how Bonnie decides to handle the situation. Fair warning: Kim & Ron play only minor roles in this story.

Thanks to all who read chapter 4 of The Mad Dog Picnic and especially to the reviewers: MrDrP, mattb3671, Zaratan, AtomicFire, roycereece, JimVincible, conan98002, Matri, JPMod, Amarin Rose, spectre666, momike, SHADOW DRAGON TWISTER, daywalkr82, COOL., Firestar9mm and ri100014.

As always, MrDrP provided invaluable beta services and is hereby awarded the Distinguished Reading Cross.

Disclaimer: All characters in this story are property of … um … who is it they belong to, again? I just had it a second ago … Oh, yeah—Disney.



Mating Games

(An Essential Ron-ness Story)


Tires squealing, the cherry red Lamborghini swerved to avoid the umbrella-toting English nanny pushing a pram. Then the driver slammed on the brakes and juked hard around the runaway lumber truck. He floored the throttle and twelve cylinders sang a full-throated operatic chorus as the speedometer needle climbed into triple-digit territory. Suddenly the driver saw a wall of flashing red and blue emergency lights up ahead. The road was completely blocked by a phalanx of police cruisers and SWAT vans. With no other choice, he turned hard to the left, crashed through the wooden barrier, and headed up the ramp toward the unfinished suspension bridge.

He almost made it. Unfortunately, he was just a few km/h short of the necessary speed. The sleek Italian sports car just missed clearing the gap in the roadway, plunged into the water below, bobbed back up to the surface, then was ensnared in the tentacles of a giant squid and dragged under for good.


"Dude, that was nasty," Steve Farley said.

"Eh, easy come, easy go," Kevin Guberman replied, running a hand through his straight, brown hair. "So, you want a go at this one, or you want to play something else?"

"What haven't we played yet?"

Kevin sorted through the game disks on the table in front of him. "Let's see, we still have Violent Reaction: A Piece of the Reaction, uh … Bricks of Fury: Cinder Block Party, and … oh! Mummy Havoc," Kevin said.

"I can't believe you play Mummy Havoc. That game's nothing but a blatant rip-off of Zombie Mayhem," Steve said contemptuously.

"What are you, channeling Felix Renton now?" the Middleton High chess captain asked. "I happen to like Mummy Havoc. At least you can play it with the sound turned up. Two minutes of that zombie music is about all I can take."

"Two minutes is about as long as you ever last in Mayhem," Steve riposted.

Shooting his friend an icy stare, Kevin picked up the controller and restarted the Moving Violation game. "Har de har har. Just for that I'm taking another turn, wiseacre."

"Whatever," Steve said, rising from his seat and flipping open his cell phone.

Kevin noticed this as he pondered which virtual car to drive next. He narrowed it down to the Jaguar XK roadster, in British Racing Green of course, and the Lapis Blue Metallic Porsche 911 Turbo, finally opting for the Stuttgart product. "No word from Jess?"


"Poor Stevie, his honey babysitting just two houses from here and he's stuck with nobody but his old buddy Kevin to hang out with on a Friday night. How will he ever survive?"

"Maybe the Conways'll get home soon," Steve said hopefully, looking out the window of the Gubermans' restored farmhouse.

Kevin let out a snort as he guided the Porsche up a makeshift ramp and soared through the air over a police barricade. "Don't count on it. I know those brats, Jess'll be lucky if the parents ever come home."

Steve sat down on the floor and began to do a set of crunches. "I'm so glad my frustration amuses you, at least."

"Your frustration? Puh-leeze. At least you have a girlfriend. I'm insanely jealous of you, just FYI, especially with the way you landed her."

Steve paused his exercising mid-crunch. "What are you talking about?"

"Oh, come on. Let's review. You were shorter than me when we started the school year last fall. Then you go on your incredible growth spurt, pack on the muscle, jump from the end of the JV bench to starting varsity shortstop, and suddenly all the girls are drooling over you. It was so bad I needed rain boots to walk down the halls with you. That's all fine, other than the height you worked hard for it, hooray for you. But then, while every cutie in school is ogling you, what do I have to put up with for a whole month? 'Do you think Jess would go out with me? Oh, do I dare ask her to Prom? What if she says no? I'd be so devastated.' I believe you'd still be dithering about it to this day if Bonnie freakin' Rockwaller hadn't dragged her right over to you in the caf and fixed you guys up 'cause she wanted her posse to all go with sports stars. Then you end up dancing the night away with your dream girl while I'm stuck home dodging death rays from the neighbor kids' Diablo robots."

The tall, green-eyed baseball star reddened. "Hey, gimme a break. I spent a lot of years as the shrimpiest kid in our grade. It was a big adjustment. Besides, we're not just talking about some run-of-the-mill high school hottie, this is J–"

"Jess, I know, I know. 'Jess is an angel, Jess is a goddess, Jess is sooo pretty, yada yada yada.' Heard it for years."

"You're one to talk, the way you've been crushing on Tara since forever. You should just bite the bullet and ask her out sometime. She goes out with all sorts of guys, not just jocks."

"Yeah, all sorts of good-looking guys, not scrawny chess nerds. Let's be real here, I've got no shot with a girl like Tara. Not in this universe."

"C'mon Kev," Steve said, getting to his feet. "You've got a lot going for you. Besides, if Kim Possible can date Stoppable, who knows what Tara might do?"

Kevin's Porsche nimbly wove its way through the slow-moving school buses, but could not avoid clipping the back of the ambulance, wiping out the patient on the gurney in the process, and going into a spin. Before he could recover, the high-performance coupe plowed into a gasoline tanker and erupted into a seven-story high plume of flame.


"Thanks for the advice, Dear Abby," Kevin said, "but I'd rather do my crashing and burning in here, where it doesn't hurt."

He stood up, stretched his slender, five-foot-five-and-a-half frame to its full height, and tossed the wireless game controller to Steve.

"Here you go, slugger. Work off your frustrations by heaving cinderblocks at street thugs for a while. I'm going to see if anyone's logged into the chess room on the Middleton teen site lately. We so need some new blood on the team next year."

"Goodnight, Jason," Tara Monroe said frostily. She didn't bother waiting to see how long it would take for the basketball star to get the hint this time; she opened the car door herself, climbed out into the rain and ran into her home.

"Mom? Dad? Anybody home?" No answer.

After getting herself a glass of milk from the kitchen, the normally perky, blue-eyed, platinum blonde cheerleader trudged wearily up the stairs to her bedroom.

She was tired of it. Yet another date with Jason, and as usual he had taken her someplace where he knew he'd find buddies to talk sports with all evening. Her task was to just sit there as an ornament, a living symbol of the place on the Food Chain his looks and athletic prowess had earned him. Then when it finally came down to just the two of them, he expected her to give him some 'action' like it was his due.

As if.

She wished she had someone to talk to, but couldn't think of anyone to call. Bonnie was traveling to her dad's, and anyway she was so not the person to call about this ish. She'd start out making sympathetic noises, but somehow she'd end up defending Jason and the Food Chain, and Tara would hang up feeling like her complaints were totally unreasonable.

Her other best friend and fellow blonde on the cheer squad, Jessica Sundstrum, she knew was babysitting tonight—and if by some chance that ended early she'd hook up with Steve and disappear right into the Hottie Zone. Tara smiled, she could hardly blame her friend, the girl had certainly hit it big in the boyfriend lottery. No question, Steve was a prize: sweet, smart, drop-dead gorgeous and not a bit full of himself. Not to mention totally nuts about Jess.

Kim was definitely out, she'd seen that strange hover jet descending slowly toward the Possibles' neighborhood and knew that Kim was likely half a world away by now, doing something heroic. With her BF by her side.

He was a prize too, in his own unique way.

Tara didn't think any of her other friends would understand why she had a problem. Dating a tall, hunky sports star like Jason Morgan was supposed to be a high school girl's dream. That was what the Food Chain was all about.

If only Grandpa was around. She wistfully recalled the hours she'd spent sitting across the chessboard from him, talking about anything and everything under the sun. He'd taught her so much without ever seeming to lecture or anything, and what had she done in return? Stopped playing chess with him because it wasn't 'cool.' Pretty girls who wanted to be cheerleaders and hang out with cute boys just didn't do things that might weird the boys out. And without the chess, the conversations seemed to happen less and less often. Grandpa had seemed to start aging at a rapid pace soon after, and she couldn't help wondering if she had contributed to that.

And then he was gone.

Tara did something then that she hadn't done in a long time. She reached under her bed and pulled out The Box. She brushed off some dust, set the box on the bed and just looked at it for a while. It was made of sturdy cardboard and was square, about eighteen inches on each side and about five inches deep. She couldn't remember what it had originally held, she could try peeling back the paper covering the box's lid and maybe see, but she'd never do that. That paper was the medium for the drawing of the castle he'd designed for her. A wonderful, whimsical fairy-tale castle, drawn just for her by an architect who in his time had designed some of the most notable structures west of the Mississippi. Towers and dormers, cornices and gargoyles, balconies and bay windows everywhere. And of course, there was a beautiful princess, with luxurious, long platinum blonde hair. She wasn't where you might expect to find her, high up in one of the tower windows, waiting for a prince to come. No, she was standing outside her open front door, ready to greet everyone who passed by and invite them in for tea and cookies, or maybe fire up her rainbow-colored hot-air balloon and fly off on some adventure with them.

Carefully she lifted the lid off and set it aside. Inside the box there were photos. The first showed a proudly beaming man in his late sixties holding a tiny blonde infant. Then more snapshots of the same pair as the baby grew into a pretty, young girl. She lingered over the most recent shot of them playing chess, the man a still vigorous eighty and the girl about eleven, noting the look of deep concentration on the girl's face.

There were two photos of the man that didn't include the young girl. They dated from a time before she'd come along. One was a formal portrait of the man and his bride, Tara's grandmother, who'd died a couple of years before Tara was born. She was looking directly into the camera lens and straight through it toward the future through the same eyes Tara saw in her mirror every day. He was looking at her as if she embodied the brightest future he could possibly have imagined.

The last photo was the oldest, a creased, sepia-toned pic showing the man as a boyishly handsome Army Air Corps second lieutenant standing in front of his airplane.

Next came the two boxes within The Box. She removed them both, setting the larger wooden one aside for the moment and focusing on the smaller. An oblong box, like from a jewelry store, hinged on one side. Tara opened it and looked at the object inside. It was a medal, cast of bronze in the form of a cross with four arms all the same length. They started out narrow in the middle and got wider at the ends, and there was a four-bladed airplane propeller superimposed over them. The bronze cross hung from a short length of blue ribbon with two wide white stripes near the edges and a third, which had a slightly narrower red stripe on it, down the center. The Army had awarded Grandpa the medal for something he'd done a long time ago in World War Two, but he'd never told her the story.

The Box was almost empty now. Tara removed the final object, a wooden chessboard. This she placed on her desk, turning it so the row closest to her had a dark square on the left and a light one on the right. Then she opened the wooden box and one by one took out the thirty-two chessmen, carefully setting each one on its assigned home square.

When the board was set up, she picked up the white king. She turned it over and peeled back a bit of the circle of green felt on the base. Hidden under the felt was a shiny penny, minted in the year of Tara's birth. Grandpa had carved these chessmen by hand for her, made the board as well, and he'd put pennies under the felt on all of them.

All but the white queen; she got a dime. She was special.

Tara put the king back in place, and then she reached over him and pushed the pawn in front of him ahead two squares.

Then she sat back and started to cry.

She cried for just a little while, then she put everything back into The Box and started to put it back under the bed. She paused, then decided to open it again and took out the chessboard and the men. She thought she'd keep them handy.

It was time to make a few changes.

Just a few. Tara mostly liked her life. She loved being a cheerleader; her friends on the squad were great. Sure, Bonnie could be a little bossy … okay, extremely bossy. But Tara figured that was partly her own fault. If Bonnie's 'advice' doesn't work for you, make your own decision. If she doesn't like it, that's her problem. That's what Grandpa would have said.

Tara also enjoyed being popular and dating lots of boys. Boys were so … different. It was fun to be around them, to flirt with them, dance with them, even kiss them.

What had to go from her life was the whole 'Food Chain' thing. That wasn't the way to choose who to hang with. Kim had figured that out, and she now had a wonderful BF who adored and supported her. Tara had … Jason.

At least until the next time I see him.

She looked at her chessboard again, and thought it would be nice to find a friend she could play with once in a while. But where? Sure, there was a chess club at school, but that was weeks away, and cheerleading would certainly interfere with the meetings.

Wasn't there something about online chess at the Middleton teen web site? She thought she remembered seeing a poster about that at the school last spring. She and Bonnie had probably stuck a Prom poster over it when they were on dance committee.

She went into her mom's home office and popped the lid of her laptop, waking it from standby mode. The web browser was already open, with the site for Mom's real estate office loaded. She scrolled down and found a link to the Middleton community home page, which led her to the teen site.

Aha! There it was, under the 'Game Room' menu. All right! Not bad for a 'ditzy blonde.'

She clicked the link, and found herself at a 'Choose your Screen Name and Avatar' page. What should she call herself in here? How about that nickname Grandpa used to have for her when she was little? The one from his drawing tool thingie that he used when he drew her castle? Yeah, that would work. And an avatar … she scrolled through the selection of images. Ah, what could be better: a chess piece. And it was even a white queen!

She selected it, and then clicked to continue into the chess room.

Steve's security guard finally ran out of cinder blocks to hurl at the throng of street thugs, and was overcome.


He stood up and stretched, then looked over at Kevin, who was suddenly staring intently at the computer screen. "All yours, Kev."

"Go again if you want," Kevin said as he began typing. "Someone new just came into the chess room."

T-square: Hello? Anyone in here?

Cap'n K: Hey, T-square, welcome to the chess room. Looking for a game?

T-square: Sure.

They began to play the online chess applet.

Steve crossed to the window and peered through the rain toward the road. As he watched, the headlights of a car came into view. Anticipation burned brightly for a moment, but alas! He watched, disappointed, as the car passed the Conways' driveway and continued down the street.

He did a set of push-ups, then sat down to play the video game again. After a few minutes, though, he grew bored. He quit the game and, after checking out the window again, peeked over Kevin's shoulder to watch the chess match.

"So who's your new player?"

"Don't know. Says he's in our grade at school. Not that good, but there's potential. I'm already up a knight and two pawns."

Kevin sat up straighter and his eyes widened as T-square's latest move appeared.

"Oh, you fool, that's gonna cost you! Your queen is mine!" He snickered evilly.

Just then, Steve's cell signaled an incoming text message.

c u in 2

Steve stepped out onto the farmhouse's full-width porch. The rain had mostly stopped, and a crescent moon was peeking through a break in the thick clouds. A minute later Jessica emerged from the Conways' house and waved to him. He watched as she declined Mr. Conway's offer of a ride home and dashed the short distance to the farmhouse on long, athletic legs. She bounded up the steps to the porch, flung herself into her boyfriend's arms, and gave him a kiss that nearly straightened out his dark, curly hair.

"Auggghhh!" she groaned after they stopped for breath. "Remind me never to sit for those little terrors again! No amount of money is worth it."

Steve ran his fingers through her silken tresses. "Kevin told me the kids were brats."

"Well, I wish he'd told me before I agreed to the stupid job." She drew her hottie in for another long smooch.

"Ahhh, I think I'm beginning to recover," the svelte blonde murmured. "So, big boy, I've got an hour before I have to be home, how about we go someplace a little more private?"

Steve looked into her sapphire blue eyes and grinned. "I'm likin' the way you think, babe. Let's just go tell Kevin I'm leaving."

He moved to go back in the house, but Jess stopped him. "Wait, maybe we should stay and hang out with Kevin for a while? I know he kinda resents me for taking so much of your time lately."

"Nah, Kev's cool, he just got a new online chess buddy tonight. Though if you really want to do something for him, fix him up with one of your friends. You think Tara would go out with him?"

Jessica pursed her lips thoughtfully. "Tara? I don't know," she said. "I think she's getting tired of Jason, but I don't really see Kevin as her type. I might try him with Liz, she's so petite and pretty. Or Hope. Oh! Would Hope's 'rents ever love it if she brought Kevin home! Honor student, son of two doctors, aiming for med school himself, they'd be mailing out wedding invitations." The freckled blonde then grinned wryly. "'Course, knowing Hope, that probably means she wouldn't go for him …"

"Well, Kevin might go for Hope or Liz, but he's had a huge crush on Tara for a long time. He's like me: got it bad for a blonde."

The couple went into the house and found Kevin in deep absorption at the computer.

"Kev, Jess is here. We're taking off."

Kevin's gaze didn't waver. "Okay. See ya."

"So, you beat the new kid yet?"

"No," Kevin said. "Dude nearly skunked me. If I'd taken that queen, he'd've mated me in two. As it is he snagged my bishop. I've got him on the run now, though."

"Okay, see you tomorrow," Steve said.

"Bye, Kev," Jess added.

The two teens left.

Kevin's opponent was resourceful, keeping his attacks at bay for quite some time, but in the end, the chess captain's black pieces were able to pin down the white forces. With checkmate inevitable, T-square resigned.

T-square: Congratulations, Cap'n K.

Cap'n K: Thanks, you played well.

T-square: Thanks, that was fun. I haven't played in such a long time.

Cap'n K: Really? You didn't seem rusty at all. That queen trap nearly caught me.

T-square: Thanks. My grandpa used to get me with those all the time.

Cap'n K: You ever think about joining the team next year?

T-square: I don't know, that'd be hard. I already have an extracurric that takes up all my afternoons.

Kevin wondered what that could be. A sports team? Marching band?

Cap'n K: Bummer, we could sure use you, could probably take fourth board right away, maybe move up to third or even second by the end of the year.

T-square: I don't know. I hope we can do this again sometime, though. I really enjoyed it.

Cap'n K: Sure thing, dude. I'm here most every day.

T-square: Maybe tomorrow, then? Oh, and btw, Cap'n K, I'm no dude. I'm a girl.

to be continued ...