Ron Stoppable stood at the front steps of Middleton High School. After all these years, he was certainly no stranger to these halls, yet as he prepared to walk down them once again as he had thousands of times before, they seemed so… unfamiliar.
Ron removed his sunglasses, pocketing them and taking a deep breath as he stepped inside. His locker assignment in hand, he quickly made his way toward the steel trap that the school had ordained he would keep his books in for the year. As he walked, he saw quite a few familiar faces. Not friendly, though quite a few did a double take as he walked by them, probably trying to confirm his identity as the blonde dork they had turned their noses up at for so many years, Ron guessed.
As per his prediction, Ron's locker refused to acknowledge the combination it had been assigned. The young blonde tugged and tugged, finally giving into frustration as the side of his fist hit in a precise spot with considerable force, a large clang and the door stuttering and shaking open rewarding his efforts. Ron didn't need to look up to know that his battle with his locker had caught a few surprised glances. He never returned a single one of them.
"Well if it isn't my favorite blonde in the whole world." One of the few friendly voices Ron still knew graced his ears, eliciting the first smile of him for the day as he turned to see a familiar dark skinned beauty.
"Hey Mon." Ron wrapped his arms around her shoulders as she returned the embrace quickly. "Good to see you again."
"You too." Monique pulled back to catch his gaze. "Especially since the rumor was that you fell off the face of the earth. Where have you been over the summer?"
For a moment, a look of shock decorated Ron's face as he scanned her face for any signs of sarcasm, or possibly even pure scorn. She doesn't know?! Kim never… figures. Grim acceptance and acknowledgement finally settled within Ron, turning the furnace within his stomach as he turned back to his locker, forcibly stuffing his books inside.
"Just fell off the face of the earth, like you said." Ron replied frankly, none of his usual humor escaped his lips. "Guess I'll have to watch my step." He tried to add lightly.
It was this that first caused Monique to notice the subtle changes that Ron had undergone. She knew it had only been a few months, but somehow, it seemed like Ron Stoppable had experienced an entire second lifetime in that time. His voice seemed to have finally come down to a much lower tenor, his hair seemed slightly longer and more care free, and his build… Now that Monique noticed, it seemed like he had transformed himself into a candidate for the next Olympic Games. His flabby clothes clung to him tightly, revealing a build that made him appear capable of breaking Brick Flag; Middleton High's very own all state quarter back in half like a twig.
But that wasn't the change that caught Monique off guard the most.
It was his eyes.
Those brown pupils that once displayed such joy and affection for all those in their path.
Those eyes seemed to carry a lifetime of experience behind them. They seemed so confident, so sure… but they lacked that care free spirit they once held.
"Ron, did something happen to you?" Monique suddenly felt herself talking to a different person than the one she had first met over Bueno Nacho and talk of wrestling so long ago.
"Nothing. Why do you ask?" Ron replied plainly, forcefully closing his locker door as he turned back to her.
"There's something… a little different about you." Monique tried to choose her words delicately, suddenly finding herself very cautious of saying the wrong thing. Ron had changed, and Monique was still trying to figure out the how, why, when and other important questions.
"Is that bad?"
"I guess it kinda depends on who you ask." Monique deflected the question anxiously even as she struggled to find a way to innocently change the topic of conversation. "Hey, I know! You're missing something. Where's Kim?"
Monique's bid to lighten the mood backfired in her face as she watched Ron's face contort for a brief second in what she almost imagined to be anger before sealing itself up completely, concealing all emotion.
"Haven't seen her." Ron replied in such a way that Monique almost imagined there to be an 'and I don't want to' hanging on the end.
"Ron?" Another voice, timid, familiar, and until recently, very friendly came from behind him.
"You didn't like it, did you?" Kim Possible asked teasingly, already knowing full well the answer to her question as she walked care freely along the side walk that ran in front of the Middleton Theatre.
"It was… ok." Ron offered pathetically to Kim's inquiry. "It wasn't too bad."
"Not that you would know. You fell asleep half way through it." Kim shot back, trying to loosen the mood. Ron had been acting weird all night. Almost tense. With the beginning of summer, Kim would have expected him to be already well under way marinating in a pool of sand, sun and fun, with a television by the side. Instead, he'd been shy with the conversation, conservative with dinner, and had even conceded to take Kim to the newest romantic comedy that she'd been wanting to see without putting up any sort of a fuss about seeing the new Fearless Ferret movie that had just come out instead. She'd been trying all night to shatter the block of ice that he seemed to be stuck in instead, but without much luck.
"I wasn't asleep!" He shot back anxiously. "I was just… I had a bug in my eye, and I was trying to deprive it of oxygen is all."
"Oh please." Kim couldn't help a bemused grin. "Didn't you try that one on Barkin one time?"
"And what was my reward for such original and creative material?" Ron posed, protesting rhetorically. "Detention. I swear he is never going to let me live down that one look."
"Is that what's got you so on edge?" Kim decided to go for the gut.
At this, Ron shot to attention, his voice spiking in volume as he noticed Kim's amused, yet scrutinizing gaze "Wha…. Me? Edge? I'm not on edge. What edge? See, I'm just standing in the middle of the side walk, not on its edge." Ron indicated to his footing even as he felt sweat begin to form around his arm pits, suddenly wondering if perhaps he should have selected something a bit more powerful than Smarty Mart brand deodorant for a night so important.
Kim wasn't fooled for a second. "Ok Ron. So spill. What's eating you?" She asked as she began walking.
Ron found himself taking in deep breaths as he readied himself, hurrying up alongside her. This was it. The big moment. More so than his bar mitzvah, this was the moment where Ron Stoppable would become a man.
'Ok,' Ron thought to himself. 'Just like you rehearsed.'
Ron collected himself before speaking again. "KP, you know that we've been buddies forever, right?"
"Friends forever." Kim replied with a contended smile.
"Right! Right, friends forever." Ron felt his breathing intensify even as he anxiously agreed; forcing his focus on his footsteps as he suddenly found himself struggling to remember words that he had practiced a thousand times again and again. "And… you know that that's important to me. And… I was just…"
"Ron." Kim brought Ron to a complete stop as she grabbed him by the arm, bringing him around and directly face to face with her. "What is wrong?" She trapped him with her gaze.
'Oh boy.' A split second of hesitation told him to abandon the whole thing right now. Forget it. It was insane. But then again, so was the idea of teenagers jetting across the world and fighting super villains. 'You can do this. You are a warrior hero in Japan, the heir to the Fearless Ferret mantle and cave and the other half a super hero team that has saved the world more times than Global Justice has been able to keep track. If you can do all these things, you can tell this girl how you feel about her!'
The conviction of Ron's inner mind, as well as the sight of Kim's crimson mane blowing freely in the summer evening breeze settled all doubts.
"KP," Ron began "I… I think I love you." The words instantly shot Kim's eyes wide, her mouth dropping open helplessly, yet Ron pressed on. "In fact I know I do. You're one of the most amazing people I've ever met. You're smart, beautiful, have one of the most amazing voices in the world and I love you. And one of the reasons I didn't tell you sooner was because I've been so scared of risking our friendship. But I don't want to be afraid any longer. And I want you to know… I love you."
Silence. Pure, agonizing, torturous, horrific, cruel silence. Kim continued to stare at him, almost expectantly, as if waiting for the proverbial punch line. But it never came. Ron found himself helpless, trapped. He had only one tool left to work with.
Leaning forward, Ron's lips aimed themselves to meet Kim's head on. For a second, an imperceptible second, hope sparked as Kim's lips seemed to press together to meet them.
But the second dashed away before Ron could appreciate it as Kim jumped back, leaving Ron feeling very alone and cold in the warm summer night.
"Ron…" Kim's voice was an almost inaudible whisper. "I… I can't… I need to go home. Please."
Ron felt his throat tighten, his heart beating a thousand times faster as he felt himself trapped in a nightmare, crueler and more terrifying than any other. "Can… do you want me to walk you home?"
"No!" Kim almost shouted even as she took a frightened step back. "No, I… I need to think."
For a second longer, the two looked at one another, both wanting, pleading for some kind of understanding from the other. Finally, Kim turned away, hiding her gaze from his completely behind her hair as she walked down the street, leaving Ron where he stood.
The shock lasted for ten minutes. Ron didn't say anything, move at all, or even think. He was oblivious to the passing of time. Finally, he slowly came to his bearings, and when he did, he immediately searched for a nearby alley where he could hurl.
"Hey Kim." Ron glanced only out of the corner of his eye, barely even acknowledging her as he pretended to fuss with his books and his stubborn locker door.
"H-hey." Kim felt herself try to adopt a casual posture as she began clutching tightly at her books in hand, an act which, as Monique noticed, caused them to turn nearly white. Kim finally turned to notice her friend standing on the other side of Ron. "Hey Monique."
"Hey." Monique answered hesitantly as her gazed traveled back to Ron before returning to Kim, her face posing the question that her mouth wouldn't yet voice out of social courtesy.
Kim returned to Ron. "You know, cheer practices started a week ago. We missed you." She offered.
"Yeah, I bet Bonnie was really devastated." Ron replied dryly.
Kim gave a meek chuckle. "Come on. You know every good cheer squad needs a good mascot."
"I'm sure you could find some other pet to dance around for you Kim." Ron slammed his locker shut yet again as he turned away. He almost immediately regretted such harsh words, yet regret simmered behind still hot anger as he moved off towards class.
For a moment, Monique remained stunned as she turned towards Kim. Kim on the other hand, never glanced away from Ron's backside even as she hurried after him, leaving Monique to try to catch up with both.
"Ron, could you please wait up?" Kim called out, even as she struggled to hold her trembling fingers still as they clutched at her books. "Ron, I… I wanted to talk about last summer." Kim uttered in a low whisper, suddenly finding herself increasingly mindful of prying ears.
"Not really a whole lot else to say is there. I think we both made our feelings pretty clear." Ron didn't even once turn to look at her as he walked, picking up his pace. Why did biology class have to be on the other side of the school? He was so anxious to get there he didn't even mind himself making his way through D Hall.
"Ron…look I want to talk…"
"Well, well. Look who's here?"
All eyes looked up to see two teenage males standing directly in the center of D Hall. Ron instantly recognized the pair as Jake Mizen and Andrew Long. The duo had made a long and colorful history of administering their territory within D hall, especially in the past to Ron.
He never gave the pair a second glance.
"Well my, my." Jake grinned. "This does seem like an excellent way to kick off the new year."
"Darn right." Andrew agreed eagerly. "Best way to make sure people know who's in charge is to inform them early on. And how do we do that?" He turned to his partner in crime.
"By setting an example." The first cracked his knuckles in anticipation.
Ron just made his way onward, never bothering to acknowledge them, even as Kim fell back in her footing, ready to act if needed.
A rough hand grabbed Ron by the scruff of his shirt, pulling him face to face with the one known as Andrew. "And who better to start with then our favorite little runt?"
Ron's hand shot out, grabbing Andrew's wrist before he could even appreciate it, and very precisely applying pressure.
Andrew looked down at his wrist, his grin quickly fading as he felt pressure building and building around a very particular nerve cluster within his body. The pain increased exponentially with the force of Ron's grip.
"Hey. Hey! Let me go." Andrew winced with the pain even as he looked up into Ron's unflinching gaze. There was no sign of malice, no trace of anger or satisfaction in his expression as he continued to tighten his grip.
The trio of observers continued to stare in horrified shock as Ron pried the helpless hand off his shirt.
"Alright Stoppable! You win. Uncle! Uncle." Andrew cried out, the pain obviously too much for him.
Ron immediately released his grip. "Andrew. Jake. Have a nice year." And with that, he simply walked off.
Kim immediately chased after him, even as Monique noticed the time, cursing her schedule as it forced her to take another turn away from her favorite pair. As everyone else departed, Jake ran up to his partner still clinging to his wrist.
"And just what were you doing the whole time?" Andrew asked, angrily pushing Jake back into the wall as he tried to rub more feeling in his wrist.
"Ron, what was that all about?" Kim asked, almost mortified, paying the duo behind her no further mind.
"What?" He asked simply.
"That! Beating up bullies in D Hall now?"
"I defended myself KP. And don't get all self righteous on me. Those two had it coming as bad as Shego. They got off light." Ron replied frankly, still refusing to turn to her.
"Will… Ron will you just stop for a minute?" Kim continued to hurry after him. "Ron, what happened to you?"
At this, Ron finally stopped, coming about and turning at Kim. Somehow, the gaze from his face reduced the all capable super hero to a frightened little girl as his voice graveled back "Didn't you hear KP? I fell off the face of the earth. You should remember; you were there to give me a nice big push."
Neither of them ever said another word as Ron turned back, heading back to class, leaving Kim frozen where she stood, her mouth dropped.
Death Rays. Muscular enhancing rings. Pans Dimensional Vortex Inducers. Of all the devices that Kim had encountered over the years with destructive powers unparalleled, none had ever paralyzed Kim with fear so much as this one simple house hold appliance.
The phone continued to ring without mercy, without pity for Kim's plight. Her parents were at work, the tweebs out working on their newest project. There was no one else in the house. No one to cover for her. No one to lie for her.
Even as the answering machine took over, Kim heard the phone hang up. For a few seconds, merciful silence. Then, right on cue, the phone rang again. Kim hadn't looked once at the caller ID since it had started ringing. She didn't need to. She knew who was calling.
Same person who had been calling for the last five days. But she couldn't face him. So she remained glued to her bed as the phone continued to howl for attention, a howl that continued unheeded.
The school bell finally rang, announcing sweet, sweet freedom to all those trapped within the walls of the building.
Ron could never remember being so relieved to hear its harmonic chime. He rushed straight for his locker, retrieving the necessary books and quickly closing it as he made his way out.
He managed to make it out the front door and down the steps before the very sound he had been trying to escape caught him in the act.
Ron felt his feet grind to a halt in the student parking lot. He cursed his luck even as he reached into his jacket pocket, grabbing his shades and raising them over his eyes before turning around.
"Hey KP." Ron replied passively even as she rushed after him, finally coming to a halt a few long, long feet away from him.
"I…you're not coming to cheer practice?" She asked apprehensively. She still felt sick to her stomach with guilt, but as much as it hurt, she just couldn't bring herself to cut right to the chase. So she dodged the issue with small talk.
"Not really feeling that whole Mad Dog spirit you know." Ron's face was solid granite. No anger, no sympathy, his emotions all kept perfectly in check. Kim had never, in all their years together as friends, seen him like this and it sent a shiver up her spine. "I'll work out my routine at home. If anyone asks, you can just tell them I went home sick."
"Ron, please stay." Kim tried to reach through his glasses, tried to pierce them with her gaze. But they remained unflinching shields against her probes. "We could talk after practice."
"About what?" He shot back expectantly.
"About… we could talk." Kim offered meekly.
"Yeah I remember what happened the last time we 'talked'. I got the silent treatment." Ron's voice never rose once, but it cut deep.
"Ron…" Kim felt herself take a step toward him, reaching out to him. When he didn't move, she took another. Still precious inches closer.
"Kim, are you coming or not?"
Bonnie Rockwaller's voice cracked the air, causing both to look back at the school to see the brunette cheerleader standing expectantly with her hands at her hips.
"You know, believe it or not, some of us do have lives to get to!"
"Bonnie, one minute." Kim replied through gritted teeth.
"I said, one minute!" Kim was a half second away from showing Bonnie a wrath that would have made Shego cringe. However, when Kim turned around to plead again with Ron, she found herself standing alone in the parking lot with nary a blonde hair in sight.
Two long, agonizing weeks.
Two cruel, horrific, torturous, brutal, terrible weeks.
Two weeks had been more than long enough.
This thought drove Kim's anxious fingers across the familiar number sequence on her phone. She would not trust phone memory. She would dial in the number personally, she would call, she would hear his voice again and then… and then…
Ok that part hadn't quite been ironed out fully. But at least she would finally talk to him again. At least she could finally take the first step towards making up to him for all the missed calls, the flimsy excuses, the unreturned messages.
At least she could finally stop acting like some stupid five year old.
Each ring seemed to grab Kim's heart and squeeze tighter and tighter. The sound of the receiver on the other end finally picking up nearly made her lose her breath.
"Kimberly?" The voice of Mrs. Stoppable caught Kim in the act, keeping her semi grounded for a few seconds longer.
"Oh, hi Mrs. Stoppable. Is Ron there?"
Mrs. Stoppable seemed caught off guard by the question. "Uhh, why no, he isn't Kim."
"Well, do you know when he'll be back?" She poked hopefully.
"Kimmie, Ron won't be back till the end of the summer. Didn't he tell you?"
Kim felt her high hopes dash away from her like air rushing out of a balloon, leaving her deflated and gimpy as she sat on her bed in her loft. "No. I guess he forgot."
"Ron decided to spend the summer in Japan at that school where he went for that exchange program. They offered him a free summer session, but he turned them down at first. Then all of the sudden, he decided to accept at the last minute. I thought for sure he would have told you." The maternal Stoppable insisted apologetically.
Kim felt her breathing stop, her vision blur. "I think he tried. I probably just wasn't listening."
"Whoa." Monique's eyes froze wide, much to the torment of Kim, as she finished recounting her story. "Kinda brutal, don't you think girlfriend?"
"Are you trying to make me feel worse than I already do?" Kim groaned as her head, propped by her hands and arms, suddenly fell into the counter with a loud thud. Neither seemed to notice.
"Well, what has he said about it?"
"Nothing. He won't talk to me." Kim replied in spite of her face still being buried in the Beuno Nacho table booth.
"Really? You sure?" Monique probed.
"Yes!" Kim's head rose from the table to face Monique in sincere desperation.
"Cause the day a guy won't talk to the girl of his dreams is the day…"
"Monique!" Kim pleaded with one word.
"Kim, you two have been best friends since forever. A friendship like that doesn't just vanish over night, not something like what you two have. You may have to make an effort, but I gotta believe Ron is as dying inside to talk to you as you are to talk to him. So I gotta ask, just how hard have you been trying?"
Monique's question drove its intended steak through Kim's heart, leaving her defeated as she dropped her head back into the table.
"I… I'm not even sure what to say to him anymore. I miss him so much, but I still don't know how to handle the whole 'he loves me' thing."
"Well," Monique offered "you could start be figuring out if you love him."
"Monique, that's not the issue here!" Kim tried to deflect.
"Indulge me." She replied simply.
"Mon, he's my best friend!" Kim shot back up fast enough to almost make Monique dizzy.
"So? Gives you two a good place to start."
"But it could totally ruin our friendship."
"I'm sure not as much as a whole summer with the two of you avoiding each other." Monique shot back passively.
"Monique!" Kim pleaded for mercy from her friend.
"Kim, you haven't even answered my question yet. Do you love him?"
"I don't know. I mean, we've been best friends since forever like you said." Although Kim was never aware of it, Monique watched as a faint smile began to appear and grow along the sides of Kim's face. "He always makes me laugh no matter how lousy my day's been, and he listens to me go on and on about everything… and he is such a good cook!"
"No doubt." Monique just grinned as Kim went on, her voice rising as if it was slowly being raised to the clouds.
"We do everything together. He's practically a member of the family, Nana expects him over every year for Christmas. And he's always there for me when I need him… and he is kinda cute…" Kim never saw the intense blush leave its mark on her face, but Monique saw it clear and bright.
"Plus, you jell whenever a cute girl has the hots for him." Monique tried to slip a fast one.
"I do not jell!" Kim's voice went from soft clouds to burning flames.
"Kim, if I have to mention 'She-who-we-agreed-not-to-mention-ever-again' I will." Monique stated flatly.
Thoughts of Yori, of the way her eyes never seemed to leave Ron, the way she laughed at his humor, of the way the proud and fierce warrior so timidly giggled when she kissed his cheek danced in Kim's mind, turning a fierce furnace in Kim's stomach. Just the thought of the young ninja trying to steal her Ron…her Ron from her made Kim all the more… pensive.
Kim suddenly caught herself shamefully in the midst of her jealous anger.
"Ok, point." Kim admittedly timidly.
"Look Kim, we can do this the long way, or we can do this the quick way."
Kim needed only a moment to consider Monique's vague proposal. The idea of spending all afternoon with Monique and away from Ron settled the matter promptly. "What's the quick way?"
"I ask you a question. Either 'yes' or 'no' or it will only have two choices. Without thinking, you answer the first thing that pops into your mind." Monique explained simply.
Kim rolled her eyes at the proposition. "Monique, this is so 'cliché psychology'. Didn't they do this in an episode of 'Pals'?"
"You said you wanted the quick way." Monique reminded.
Kim huffed for a second longer. "Ok, go."
"Club Banana or Smarty Mart?"
"Eww. Club Banana." Kim answered flatly.
"Nachos or pizza."
"Does this outfit make me look fat?" Monique referred to the clothing she had on.
"Not at all."
Monique seemed satisfied, causing her to pause for a second in the questioning before asking "Who's worse, Bonnie or Shego?"
"Bonnie." Kim's eyes shot wide as she heard her own answer. Her arch nemesis on the cheer leading squad was actually worse than her arch foe who'd shot plasma blasts and had tried to kill her and Ron over the past couple of years? Kim could hardly believe her own proclamation.
Monique noted the shock in Kim's face. "Now we're getting somewhere" she added eagerly before beginning again. "Who's cuter, Josh or Brick?"
"Who's scarier, Drakken or Barkin?"
"Is red your favorite color?"
"Do you love Ron?"
"You're sending me back?" Ron had to ask twice, a delicate mixture of hurt and shock in his voice.
"Stoppable-San, since your arrival at Yamanouchi, you have exceeded even my expectations. You have made tremendous strides, and I sense that you have yet to achieve but the smallest fraction of your true potential."
"Why do I sense a 'but' coming. There's always a 'but' after good stuff." Ron proclaimed in frustration.
"However," Sensei added, eliciting a slight groan of defeat from Ron, a sly grin concealed beneath his beard "you have not come here for true study. Rather, I sense it is for refuge from that which troubles you."
"Well, look. If I say I'm here to study, and I study, then it's really all just semantics isn't it?" Ron already knew where this speech was going and he was not looking forward to its inevitable conclusion.
"Conquering one's enemy is simplicity. Conquering one's fears and doubts is far more difficult and a far greater triumph."
Ron's face fell, his long hair blowing in the wind. "There's nothing left for me to conquer back home Sensei. I've already lost."
"One can never know defeat as long as one fights on. Only by failing to blow does the wind not turn the waves of the ocean."
"That was either Confucius or Bruce Lee." Ron observed.
"If it is truly your intention to make a life for yourself here at Yamanouchi, then you must first shed all traces of your old life instead of merely fleeing from it. It is for this reason that I have already arranged for you to return home by the beginning of their school year."
"Sensei please, don't make me go back there. There's nothing left for me there." Ron pleaded even as he dropped his head, trying to banish the thought of fire hair and emerald eyes from his mind.
"Conquer the demons of your past Stoppable-san. Then, if you truly wish to embrace a future at Yamanouchi, you may do so."
Ron sat at the edge of his bed for what seemed like an eternity, his eyes hanging on a picture of him and Kim that he held in his hands. He had removed the picture from its post on his nightstand with the intention of throwing it away. Yet as his hand had hovered over the trash can, something had held him in place.
He found himself pushing against himself, trying to find a way to rid himself of the picture, yet the picture held him prisoner. Even when she wasn't here, Kim Possible could trap him in any fashion she desired with her eyes. Ron continued to stare at the picture, the two of them obviously laughing with not a care in the world. Like all the pictures of them, Ron could remember exactly when and where this one was taken.
The Middleton Day Fair. Just the two of them hanging out together, no parents, no Monique, no Felix, no one but him and her, cramming themselves into a picture booth, trying to fit just one more thing together before their time was up.
Why had he come back here? He couldn't remember anymore. Was it to prove something to himself? Was it so that he could try again; take another shot at an impossible dream? Was it just so that he could punish himself for having been so stupid in the first place?
Ron's fingers positioned themselves at the edges of the picture, ready to tear it, but something held him. He couldn't force the necessary power through his hands to oblige his mind. He just continued to stare at the picture of them… of her.
The phone popped the bubble of self-defeat and gloom that encircled Ron Stoppable. He reached over to pick it up, and felt the blood in his body refuse to run for a single second as he heard the voice on the other side of the line.
"Meet me at the playground. Ten minutes." Ron couldn't actually hear the voice. It didn't matter. He knew who it was.
The setting sun glared down from the sky directly into Ron's face, his sunglasses proving to be a major let down even as he watched the sky paint red. He tried to focus on the serene surroundings as a way of calming his mind, a meditation technique that he had learned over the summer. Instead, the thought of a fire red sky brought back to mind the very thoughts that he had hoped to escape through meditation in the first place.
Ron thought about approaching the swing set and sitting down, but for some reason, his legs felt like standing. For some reason, he had the distinct feeling that this wasn't going to take long.
"You know, for as long as we've been sneaking up on the bad guys, I can still spot you coming from a half a mile away." Ron spoke to the figure behind him.
"You and my mom. Shego, I can get the drop on no problem. But you…" Kim let her sentence hang.
"Shego hasn't memorized your entire perfume library." Ron took a moment to take in the scent. "Ocean's Tears, right?"
"Lucky guess." Kim smirked as Ron turned around to face her, his eyes still shielded by his shades.
"That's what you get for sneaking down wind." Ron retorted smugly.
"Know it all."
For a moment, the two were able to smile contently at one another as a great weight was simultaneously lifted from them both. But the moment quickly passed as Kim took a step forward, her hands rising to remove Ron's shades, prompting him to retreat a step back.
"Ron…" Kim stopped him with her voice as her hands delicately grabbed the sides of his sunglasses, discarding them and leaving his eyes plain for the world to see.
Those eyes. They seemed to wince away from the open world. Without anger or the shades to conceal it, there was a great fear within them. They paused Kim before she spoke.
"I wanted to talk. About last summer." The words hung in the air for agonizing moments, their implication freezing Ron's innards as Kim took a cautious step towards him, her voice almost terrified, steadied by all her will and determination. "You were trying to tell me something last summer and I was too scared to listen. I want to hear it again."
No! Don't! Ron's fears, his insecurities, every nightmare and gnawing horror within his stomach suddenly jumped at attention. His aura of emotional invulnerability completely shattered, he felt his nervous sweat venting out of every pore available. Lie to her! Take it back! You screwed things up with her once; don't make the mistake of doing it again by telling her about your dumb feelings! You're getting a second chance at the best thing in your life, don't you dare throw it away!
"Look, KP, I didn't mean… I just was trying…" Ron couldn't go through with it. As he stared into those flawless green eyes, the thought of those warm eyes turning cold on him again was simply more than he could bear.
"Ron… look at me." Kim stopped him from finishing his thought, refusing to listen to the flimsy, meaningless excuse that Ron was a split second from giving. Instead, she pulled him another precious foot step closer, trapping him in her gaze. "Look me in the eyes Ron. Tell me you don't love me."
Do it! Say it! She'll never love you, just say whatever it takes to put things back the…
"I love you." Ron heard the words burn their way out of his mouth, filling his stomach with ash, his heart practically aching as he found himself trapped with the unavoidable truth. "I love you KP. I have for what feels like so long now."
Kim felt her throat constrict. She almost couldn't breath. In a way, she had hoped that he wouldn't say it. But he had. She had demanded the truth, and she had gotten it. Now, she was going to live with it.
"You never said anything before last summer." Kim offered softly, before her voice fell ever further "although I suppose I can't blame you, not after what I did."
"I understand KP." Ron felt his throat go dry. He longed for the ability to disappear, to vanish into thin air, never to reappear, like dust carried away in the wind. "It's cool if you don't want to hang out with me anymore. I know it makes things awkwierd."
"No!" Kim actually felt a strength resurge through her voice. "It's not cool. You are my best friend Ron. I let myself forget that for three months and they were the worst three months of my life! I don't want to lose your friendship over anything, not even this."
Ron felt himself choke down another lump in his throat. The dreaded 'Let's-Just-Be-Friends' speech. He was all too familiar with it. He could do this. He told himself so over and over again. It wasn't like this was the first time he'd heard this speech after all. Anything to see her smile again, to see her happy again. If this was what she wanted, then he could live with it. He'd go down without a fight.
He felt Kim fall into his arms, her hair wafting in the air, tickling his nostrils, the smell filling Ron's being as he held Kim tightly.
"I don't ever want to lose what we have Ron. You are my best friend and you have been since forever. Whatever else we are… or aren't, I want us always to be that too. Promise me that we'll never lose that."
"Never." It came so naturally to him. He knew it was what she wanted to hear. And that was all that mattered.
For a long moment, the two friends didn't say anything, as they continued to hold each other. Ron tried to force down the beating in his chest, relieved as he finally felt it settle.
"So, how was your summer?" Ron finally asked, as casually as if the two had just sat down at Bueno Nacho to catch up.
"Lousy." Kim felt a smile crack her features as she pulled herself back to look Ron in the eyes. She had missed those eyes so much. "Besides, I don't really want to talk about summer. I need to talk to you about something else."
"Is Bonnie giving you trouble again?"
Kim cracked a second smile. Bonnie Rockwaller couldn't be further from her mind.
"Do you love Ron?"
The question quieted Kim into thought. A lump formed in her throat as she tried to decide the answer.
"No thinking!" Monique's voice shot up in volume as she repeated the question: "Do you love Ron?"
"Well, do you mean like a brother or like…" Kim tried to stall.
"Just answer the question, do you love Ron?" Monique asked anxiously, leaning over to raise her question directly into Kim's ear.
Kim shot back a little in the booth as she tried to cover her ears. 'I can't answer this wrong. This will change everything.' She thought to herself.
"No stalling, don't think. Just answer! Do you love Ron?" Monique continued to press on.
'I miss him' Kim tried thinking over Monique's insistent repetition of the question. 'I love being around him…'
"You're thinking! Stop thinking and just answer the question, do you love Ron? Yes or no?" Monique began snapping her fingers near to Kim's ear, keeping her from focusing.
"I… I…" Kim tried to think over Monique's wrath, closing her eyes in a vain attempt to escape her burning gaze.
"Yes or no. It's not a trick question. Just answer, do you love him or not. Yes or no. Do you love R…"
"YES! I love him! I love Ron!! God, yes. Yes!" Kim finally shouted in frustration, even as the realization left her looking at Monique wide-eyed.
Monique sat back in the booth with a satisfied look on her face. "I should really charge by the hour."
"So what do you need to talk to me about?" Ron felt a tremendous relief at being able to talk to Kim as if nothing had happened.
For Kim, relief was nowhere to be found as every one of her internal organs tied themselves into knots, leaving her helpless and unable to speak. She finally found herself in the exact same spot that Ron had put himself in three months ago and where he had been honest, she was choking.
She couldn't speak. She was seconds away from hyperventilating.
Instead, she grabbed the back of Ron's head and brought his lips directly into hers, latching onto them with all her fear and longing, brushing her hand longingly through his blonde hair as she kissed him with all the passion she could.
Ron fought for a second to separate them, a question dancing on his lips. Eventually, the question became lost. In an instant, the suit of armor that he had worn his whole life rusted and withered away, leaving him completely helpless and vulnerable as he found himself kissing her back on instinct. Up became down, left became right; Ron felt dizzy as his entire world seemed to spin and turn all around him, steadied only by the feel of her lips as they pressed with need into his.
When they finally parted, Kim still couldn't bring herself to face him. In shame, maintaining her hold on him, she plunged her face into his jersey, her voice a kind of ratty whisper.
"I wish I really could do anything Ron. I wish I could go back and take back this entire last summer, because I was scared. I was scared, and I was blind and I was so, so, so stupid. I was so scared of losing your friendship that I almost lost something I couldn't even see I already wanted, and I wish I could take it all back."
Ron could only half hear her words. The other half of him was still spinning. In the end, it was the feel of her trembling body still in his arms that brought him back.
"But I can't." Kim thought she felt the jersey beneath her begin to grow wet. She didn't care. "So here goes nothing."
Kim felt herself tighten her grip on Ron until her knuckles went white. She didn't let up once.
"I think I love you Ron Stoppable. In fact, I know I do. And the reason I didn't tell you sooner was because I didn't want to lose what we already had… what we have. I was so awful to you this summer and if you still want to be just friends, I'll understand. But I love you. I love you so much."
Every one of Ron's words from last summer echoed in her mind as clearly as if he spoken them mere seconds ago. The sound of Ron's thunderous heartbeat echoed in Kim's ears, until finally she pulled herself back to look in his eyes.
Pure disbelief stared Kim in the face, haunting her, tormenting her, probing her for any signs that this was just another of the hundreds of fantasies, dreams and imagined scenarios his brain had constructed of this moment.
Finally, Ron managed to force out the words "Could you bear with me for one second?"
He had to do that again. Dream or no dream, he was going for the gold. Pressing his lips to Kim's as he took her by the waist, he found no resistance, no hesitation, only desire and longing as hungry as his own. He felt her fingers run gently down the side of his face, her hair blowing across the side of his cheeks, her heart beating thunderously through her chest exactly in pace with his own… so much at once and yet he took in every detail of it, kissing her passionately until the two finally began to return to earth.
"Uh… Ron." Kim's whisper carried a hint of anxiousness to it as they slowly parted.
"Yeah KP." Ron felt a slight bead of sweat roll down his forehead as a secondary thought wondered if he hadn't pushed his luck too far.
"You're hand is grabbing my butt."
Ron looked down to realize that his hand had indeed reached down and grabbed Kim by the rear.
"Whoops. Sorry." Ron felt a fierce blush burn across his face as he tried to move his hand, but instead felt it held in place by a soft, familiar grip.
"I wasn't complaining." Ron's surprise was only compounded on when he felt Kim's hand reach for his butt, grabbing in kind.
"We're going kinda fast here, aren't we?" This had to be a dream. Ron was convinced now more than ever.
"I've got three months to make up for. So if there's no objections…" Kim left her sentence to hang in the air as she tiptoed to meet Ron yet again.