As a certain droopy dog used to say, hello, folks.

Going on five months without an update, now that ain't right, although my Hey Arnold fans - if there are any left - would tell you that you have nothing to complain about. Let's see, lots going on in RL: switching jobs, cleaning out the house, dealing with living on less money, going back to college (second bachelor's, this one in accounting; it seems I'm slated to be the next Burn Berman); but enough about me. Y'all want the next chapter, and if the ten reviews (one for the previous chapter), three story alerts, four favorite author and author alerts - not to mention the eleven reviews and seven favorite story and story alerts on New Hottie In Town, Kind Of - are any indication; I owe this to you. So, here it is.

But first, the latest round of reviews:

daccu65, thanks. The phrase 'not with a bang but with a whimper' comes to mind. This is mostly the end, although I do have a loose thread that will take that last chapter. And I'm glad someone noticed Junior.

kaiokken, thank you. No cliffie here, just a nice little plateau. Does that make any sense? I didn't think so either. And yeah, Kim and Tara burying the hatchet, I agree. (of course I agree; I wrote it)

Thank you, Jim. People, use the phrase 'dumb blonde' at your peril. Underestimate blondes at your peril.

Thanks, Mr. Average. You know, as many of y'all review my fics, I really should return the favor more often; which is to say that I've been reading A Stand-Up Gal and look forward to Chapter Five. I'll go into more detail on my review. Yes, Tara, well, she lived up to the title of the chapter. And as it turns out, I've delayed enough to where gas is almost back to two dollars a gallon. Who knew?

Two-for-one-thank you, acosta. Tara was indeed counting on Kim's concern for her reputation and so many other things. While the odds were in her favor on every single one of them, put all those variables together and the probability of something going wrong increased exponentially. Fortunately for all concerned, nothing did, with the possible exception of Brick's delay (I don't know where to go with that, so I'm considering that thread dropped). And we have that rarity of rarities, Kim actually apologizing. While she is polite to a fault, she has the same credo as my brother and Davy Crockett: Be sure you're right, then go ahead. Thus, she rarely believes herself to be wrong. Here, though, the evidence presented was against her and when she was confronted with it, what could she do? And oh, Futurama! Since the move from CN/AS to CC I lost track of that show, and those chiron-slashed credits, oh, the pain, the pain!

Thanks to my panda pal. Yeah, Ron forgives Kim too easily; what can we do, other than try to write something where he holds her accountable. (checks the psyche for such an idea) Nope, not happening here. Sorry. IMO Tara does a good enough job of that. And I'm working in some more fluff.

(On another subject, you seem to be in Mace Ecam's inner circle; I wouldn't mind joining his little insurgency in the Kimmunity. And I wonder if he will ever come up with the TaRon plot bunny or clone or whatever it is.) And Futurama, see above.

Thank you, SWP. Let's see, Tara explaining, check. Futurama, check. Junior, check; what can I say, it seems Tara got all the sense in the family. I have an idea or two about the body-switch thing; we'll see.

Thank you, Slade. I am winding this particular story down, but not the story arc. The TaRoniverse is alive and well, and it is strong with this one. Be on the lookout for the sequel, Cheerleader Locker Room Confessions, sometime next year (or the year after that, considering my track record).

And thanks, NaruHarem (hmm, might have to check your stories; although I might have to check Naruto first). Here's the update.

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You know, it's the strangest thing. I know I used to know how to edit these things after posting; I've done it before. Lately, though, although I got into the chapter and change it just fine, when I got back to re-reading it, nothing had changed. So I didn't get to change that last bit of the previous chapter, so I'm leading off with my re-imagining of it. Consider it a DVD alternate scene er sum junk. And away we go!

O

Chapter Ten: Saying Good Night

O

"O-kay, well, then," and here Kim hoisted her Slurpster. "...here's to Wally, who's doing a bang-up job as school president, apparently."
The Zoidbergian toast was cut short when Kim heard an aristocratic voice behind her say, "Why, thank you."
The cheer captain tempted whiplash with how fast her neck whipped around, only to be denied as she saw the door to Bueno Nacho close, in between her and whoever was leaving. She turned back to the others, almost as quickly.
Pointing toward the door, she started, "Was that--?"
Unfortunately, nobody else had been paying attention to those around them and the group had to face the fact that they would probably never know if Prince Wally had indeed been there, perhaps listening to their story of him from a ringside seat, as it were.
It took a while, but they managed to get over the surreality of it all.

O

In due time, however, Ron was holding forth with another Team Possible anecdote. Tara, still quite comfortable in his arms, had made no move to dislodge his embrace and had indeed discouraged all efforts on his part to do so. Not so the other couple; there was currently about a foot between Josh and Kim, who currently had her elbows on the table (not the best of manners there) and her head in her hands at the embarrassment. She was the only one there who was not amused.
"…and then she said that she wanted to run for class president, not class clown!"
"Ron! Why are you--?"
"And then I said, 'Suit yourself; clowns have more fun'."
Another round of laughter from three of the four people there.
"I thought it was 'blondes have more fun'; I know I do." Tara said, snuggling into the hug yet again.
"Well, then, I'm covered on both counts, aren't I?"
Yet another round of laughter, from the same three.
"Speaking as the only non-blonde here--"
Whatever the non-blonde was trying to say was drowned out by those same three, saying, whatever.

O

It had been quite a night; and now, as if to signal its end, Kim lifted the Kimmunicator to check it, for what, Ron knew not.
"Aw, Kim! You're not going to check for a mission now? Let Wade get some sleep already!"
One eyebrow rose. "Ron, it has a clock feature?" she reminded him.
"Oh yeah." he eked out as his right hand yet again exhibited a magnetic attraction to the back of his neck. The other hand was on an arm that was comfortably around the shoulders of Tara, who was feeling even more comfortable.
"Ron, we'd better be getting home; you have temple in the morning."
The words of his best friend brought the house of cards in his mind crashing down as his eyes widened, his grip on his date turning a bit stiff. They had to pay close attention to hear him whisper, "Oh, me busted!"
An impish grin came to Kim's face. "Looks like it's late service for the Stoppable family again."
"Rabbi Katz will notice it too," he groaned. "He always does."
The resident image of innocence then innocently asked a question.
"Would it be all right if I went with you?"
"What?"
"Tara," said Kim, "I know you want to spend some time with him, but, the Rocket Boosters is one thing… I didn't even know you were Jewish!"
"I'm not; I'm non-denominational - the same church your family attends, just a few times a year, no wonder you didn't know…"
"Uh--" That was a bit of a sore point with her family. With the merger of the local Lutheran and Episcopal congregations, some families of both - including the Possibles - had looked elsewhere. In the latter's case, while they had picked another church, they hadn't really settled in and were indeed little more than Christmas-and-Easter-type members anyway. But of course, she wasn't about to start sharing on one of the three subjects the discussion of which in public is generally best avoided.
Fortunately, Tara didn't seem to notice her captain's hesitancy as she herself kept speaking about that very subject, kind of. "But lately I have been looking into Eastern religions."
"I didn't know." Kim admitted.
"There's a lot about your squad you don't know." the blonde muttered under her breath. "Anyway, nothing serious, at least insofar as the religious aspects are concerned - no more than you do with your kung fu. But even I've noticed I, look pretty good in the lotus position." she allowed just a light shade of smugness to come over her features as she finished.
"No argument there."
"Ron!" It was going to take the redhead a while to get out of the habit of trying to head off whatever potentially embarrassing or otherwise inappropriate thing her best friend might be saying.
"What?"
"Moving on!" Tara interjected, turning in her putative beau's embrace to face him. "What I was trying to get at was maybe your rabbi will go easier on you if I explain why you were up so late?"
"Oh. Well, sure, you can try. I won't complain. You coming, KP?"
"Not this time, Ron." she shook her head. While she'd been to temple with the Stoppable family a number of times, she figured this time she'd be a third wheel and that Tara would very much appreciate being the only cheerleader at Ron's side in the Sabbath congregation.

O

With the conversation having hit a lull - again - and with the need for them to leave now having manifested itself beyond their ability to ignore, Tara finally shrugged out of the comfortable spot she was in to reach for her wrap.
"Well, let me just get my jacket and-- whoops!"
That last word was caused by something falling out of a pocket of the outer piece of denim. It was a book, a book that Kim recognized with some amount of distaste.
"Oh, Tara! Don't tell me you're still into this!"
"I'm not! It's just that, I haven't worn that jacket in a while." she defended.
Josh picked it up, and as he did he couldn't help but notice the title of the brightly multi-colored book.
"Animology?"
Kim was in a hurry to squelch any even morbid curiosity her date might possibly develop in the passed fad. "Completely bogus, Josh. Nothing for you to concern yourself with."
That was a bit too much of a hurry for Tara, who was shrugging herself into her jacket - with a little help from her date. "Kim!"
"What? I know what's best, for…" she trailed off embarrassingly. "oops. Sorry, Josh. I thought that--"
"You'd better not finish that sentence, Kim." Tara intoned, crossing over toward her captain and emphasizing her point with an index finger in the face.
Josh, undaunted, was still paging through the text, even taking notes on it along the way. Ron, in spite of himself. Found himself looking on in curiosity. With the way clear between him and the book, he even noticed what the owner thereof had determined herself to be based on the criteria. His shock was palpable even before he screamed out.
"Wait, you're a Red Otter? Kim, she's a Red Otter!"
"What?!?" Now the redhead found herself looking, also in spite of herself.
"And I'm a Pink Sloth; we're soul-mates!" He looked up and into the blue eyes of the girl he'd lucked out to be with. "Tara, why didn't you say anything?"
"Bonnie." she blushed. "She's a Lavender Mouse, and when Amelia found that out - and that SHE'S a Red Otter - she didn't want to have anything to do with Bonnie. I didn't want her thinking I might have similar ideas, which I don't."
"I still don't see why you're best friends with her." Kim voiced.
"I know, it's like we're complete opposites. But we have a history. Maybe not quite as far back as you and Ron, but still…" she trailed off.
Meanwhile, Josh had really been going to town on the quiz. In fact, he was coming to the end "And…"
Kim noticed, to her shock. "Josh! You're finished already? It took me all night!"
"No big, as someone I know would say." he chuckled, totaling his score. "And I got… Yellow Trout."
Kim grabbed the book. "No, way!" She was agog. So was Ron.
"Kim, the Yellow Trout is the soul-mate to the Blue Fox. YOUR soul-mate!"
"I, know!"
"Maybe there's something TO this Animology stuff."
"Maybe." Both members of Team Possible were clearly shaken by the events of the last few minutes.
But as the foursome made their way to the Bueno Nacho exit, the frosty-haired artist - bringing up the rear - frowned; he'd found the bad news to his color-animal combination.
"What? This can't be right! I didn't THINK I cared only about myself."

O

By the time the four were crossing the parking lot to Josh's car, his mood had lightened considerably. As he handed the book he'd been using back to Tara - who wasn't nearly as reluctant to accept it as she might have been five minutes before - the cumulative events of the evening came to him, and he couldn't keep a smile from his face.
The four left Bueno Nacho the same way they'd left it. Shotgun was conceded to Kim with the blond couple taking the back seat, Ron behind his best friend, Tara behind the driver.
Safely buckled in to the red convertible, he proceeded to share his thoughts with his new friends.
"This has been the best night of my life; I want to thank you guys for making this new guy feel welcome. In all of the places I've been…"
"Move around a lot, do you?" Ron called out sympathetically from the back seat.
"Oh yeah. You see, my family, they travel."
"They, 'travel'." Kim echoed.
"Yeah. We travel. My family, it's one of those who have been called gypsies, among other terms." A frown momentarily creased the frosted blond's face at the thought of some of those 'other terms'. "We have our own paving business. Good work, pulls in great money, but…"
"You don't get to put down roots, do you?" his date gently inquired.
"No. I can think of fifteen, twenty places we've been. It's rare to stay in any one place for an entire school year. So what friends I make, I don't keep." He wasn't crying, but at the moment it might not have been far away.
Kim's hand instinctively sought out and grasped his in empathy. "Oh, Josh."
"So what's been happening to me in Middleton has been completely blowing me away." Now he was getting worked up again, in a positive way. "I mean, here I am in another new school for, just a few days? A couple weeks? And I'm in with the In Crowd, as they say. Dating the head cheerleader, turning down offers from so many others, including the head cheerleader's rival and self-styled Queen Bee of the Food Chain - not that I'm after any kind of social status symbol, mind you." he hastily added.
She nodded, emphatically, with a slightly dangerous look on her face and a bordering-on-powerful squeeze of the hand. "I should hope not."
"I was expecting to, just, be ignored again, if I was lucky." he continued, almost to himself. "Just retreat into my art and my music again. My folks know I get lonely so they, indulge my hobbies. Maybe one of them will, turn into something. They want better for me than for them."
"Parents generally do." his date responded.
At this point Ron voiced his opinion. From the back seat, he placed a hand on Josh's shoulder.
"Well, Josh, wherever you go from here - and whenever - the friends you make here, you're not going to lose."
"Got that right." echoed Kim, squeezing her date's hand again.
"Amen!" Tara finished as she placed her hand on top of Ron's.
Precious seconds were afforded to tick past before Josh broke the silence.
"So, who do I drop off first?"

O

After no small amount of discussion - including comparing curfews and reviewing the logistics of the different possible combinations of people - it was decided that Josh would drop off the ladies -Kim, then Tara - and then Ron. He got the short end of the deal, but someone was going to.
A few minutes later they were in the Possible driveway. As was his duty as a gentleman and her date, Josh got out and walked around to let Kim out; she objected, but Ron was able to talk her into going along with it. As Josh was about to walk her to the door, she whispered in his ear that she needed to have a word with Tara in private. Dashing around to the appropriate door, she opened it and repeated her intent to her fellow cheerleader. Curious in a neutral way, the platinum blonde excused herself from the guys, got out, and followed her captain a few yards away.
"So, Tara?"
"Yes?"
"About what happened in the ladies room…"
She'd been hoping the redhead would forget about that incident, but inwardly, she had known better. Sucking in a sudden breath, she glanced back to the car in spite of herself, as if in fear the guys might somehow be overhearing, distance notwithstanding. "Wh- wh- What about it?"
Emerald eyes fixed azure ones. "Bonnie knows, doesn't she?"
Confusion now. "What?"
"She overheard what you were saying, that you wanted Josh to go with me instead of her?"
"Oh. Yeah." She herself had forgotten that aspect of the 'conversation', and for good reason; she'd have somewhat to answer for with her best friend before the night was out.
"You're going to talk to her later tonight." the captain continued.
"Well, sure, she's my best friend."
"What are you going to say to her?"
"The truth." she replied without hesitation.
That caught Kim off-guard, so that she didn't have time for her mind to ripen to incredulity before spitting out the next word. "What?"
"That's the kind of relationship we have." the platinum blonde earnestly explained. "We don't see eye to eye on too much. I mean, each of us does things the other doesn't agree with. But we don't lie to each other; we're completely honest. When it's just us, just her and me, straight all the way." She tried to illustrate the point by holding joined hands to elbow height, then moving them apart in a straight line to her sides, still at elbow height, palms down. "That's the foundation of our relationship, of our friendship. Neither of us is going to change that. We trust each other implicitly, and neither one of us is going to betray that trust. We might go behind the back - like I did tonight, kind of," she ruefully admitted, irises moving toward the side. "- but, afterwards it's always about full disclosure."
"She won't like it." Kim cautioned.
"Probably not." Tara agreed. "But she'll like it even less if she finds out I lied to her. And she will find out, these things always get out."
"How do you think she'll take it?"
"Not very well, but…" her breath started to labor, "we're ALWAYS honest with each other. However we feel about each other, however Bonnie and I feel about each other - we don't lie." she emphasized. "Not about anything."
Kim was floored; she wasn't sure if even she and Ron were that honest with each other, and the thought of the Queen of Mean herself having such a friendship, well...
"Well, good luck. If you want to talk to someone afterwards, you know how to get in touch with me."
"I might do that." the blue-eyed beauty turned to go back to the car, then hesitated. "She's really not that bad a person, not when she's not, getting all caught up in the Food Chain stuff, posturing vis-à-vis you and all. No offense."
"None taken."
Every other word now, she hesitated. "There's, a lot about her you don't know. Best friend stuff, things I can't reveal. She's…" she trailed off in seeming frustration at how to explain without betraying the brunette.
"Tara?"
Shaking her head, she tried to explain anyway. "I, I can't really say anything, it's just that… never mind."
"Okay."
Going ambulatory again, Tara started back to the car, Josh noticing and moving toward them as if to relieve her at Kim's side, to escort his date to her door of course. "Good night, Kim."
Turning to the house, the redhead hesitated. "See you Monday?"
The blonde stopped. "Right, the Space Center. I, I'll go to Ron's, and then we'll come over together. What time?" she turned partially back toward her captain as she inquired.
"Bright and early, just like you're going to school."
"Okay, see you then." And without another word she again started in the direction of Josh's red convertible, and this time she didn't stop until she was there.
"I'm looking forward to it." Kim responded under her breath. By then, Josh was there, offering her a hand, literally. She placed hers in his, and he escorted her the rest of the way to her house.

O

Josh had been leaning against his car, waiting for just such an occasion, giving his date some space yet ready to act the part of a gentleman at a moment's notice. When it became clear that the girls were parting for sure this time, he stood and started fast-walking to catch up to his date before she reached her front door.
Ron was there too, leaning against the fiberglass body next to him, his eyes part on his best friend, part on his putative girlfriend (although maybe even that was pushing things), also ready to act the part of a gentleman and open the door for her.
As the blonde approached, he did just that. With a flourish, he invited her back into her seat, graciously; and she accepted, graciously, demurely settling into her seat and reaching for the seat belt as he closed the door. By the time she'd finished buckling in, he was settling himself in his seat next to her and starting the process she was finishing; he'd made good time around the back of the car.

O

As he finished buckling in, she shifted her focus to him, curiosity rising.
"So, what were you two talking about?"
"Nothing."
"Nothing? As in…?"
"As in nothing."
She didn't believe it. "What is it with guys, that they can be right next to each other and not even say two words to each other?"
He groaned, having preferred to stay away from the subject of gender. "Yeah, it's true; we guys are like that sometimes. You know, KP never believed it either when I'd tell he- ow!"
Her hand had found its way into his, and she squeezed it a bit forcefully at this last bit of conversation as a sour look crossed her face. Ron was suddenly reminded of the strength to be found in a cheerleader's hands.
"Um, Tara, a bit tight there!"
She kept looking straight ahead at the headrest in front of her as she responded to him. "Yes, it is." Then she squeezed even tighter, for a split second, before letting go.
By the time he recovered from the surprise, she had decided on a course of pragmatism tinged with compassion and a little affection. His cluelessness was not exactly unknown around Middleton, and it was obvious that even for a boy, he didn't understand girls. So, someone had to explain things to him if he was ever going to know. The blonde elected herself for the job. As her date finished recovering, she held up her other hand to forestall his question or questions.
"Ron."
"Yes, Tara?"
"There's some things you're going to have to understand if you're going to have any success at dating. Me, or any other girl." she added the last bit ruefully at the thought of him dating someone else. She sighed, swallowed, and then plunged ahead. "Look, there's some things you just don't do on a date, and it's obvious that you don't really know about some of them."
"So I WAS doing something wrong!"
"Well, not until just now. That bit with the soda was an accident, could've happened to anyone. But just now, you really stepped in it."
Mentally, he was trying to search for a clue, as his face attested. "What did I do?"
"Settle back and listen, and I'll try to explain."

O

"Ron, you'll find I'm very understanding, as girls go. For that reason, I'm giving you a pass on your violating one of the top rules of dating."
"What did I do?" he repeated.
"You mentioned Kim."
"KP? What does she have to do with anything?"
"Nothing, and that's exactly the point. Ron, I get how things are with you and Kim. You're best friends. You save the world together. You've known each other since you were four. All very well and good. But Ron, there's a time and place for everything, and a date with one girl is not the time or the place to be even thinking - much less talking - about another girl, even if she happens to be your best friend." she finished, then pondered that last bit before deciding to emphasize it a little bit. "Especially if she happens to be your best friend.
"You see, Ron, there's a fragile streak that runs through those who date, or at least some of us. Those of us who dare to put ourselves out there like to maintain at least the illusion that the heart's not going to eventually be broken."
"What?"
"When you're on a date with a girl, she wants for you to think about, talk about, and pay attention to, only her. That means that talk about any other girl - and Kim fits into that category too, Ron - is off-limits. And especially no comparisons! Like just now, I didn't believe something, and you said that Kim doesn't believe it either; that's a no-no. Are you following me, Ron?"
"Yeah, I, I think so. I'm just not used to thinking of KP as a girl. I mean, I know she's a girl, sure, but, I just don't think of her like that."
"I know, Ron, and that's another reason I'm going easy on you. You'll just have to learn that your best friend - who just happens to be a girl - is not a suitable topic for dating conversation, no matter how innocuous."
"Innocuous?"
"Innocent."
"Oh. Those school words always throw me."

O

If you had asked either Tara or Ron - or Josh - at what point in that conversation he had reached his car, stepped inside, and / or secured himself in the driver's seat and shifted the vehicle out of park and into heading for the Gardner house; none of the three of them could have said for certain. The blond couple was deep in conversation to the extent they didn't notice what was going on in front of them, and the other blond was trying not to listen.
While he was making a concerted effort to give his passengers some privacy, Josh couldn't help overhearing the occasional word or phrase. He found himself nodding at a point now and again, and had to stop himself from offering a few words of his own.
And he was really trying to give them some privacy as Ron walked Tara to her door. He didn't even leave the car. That said, he couldn't help noticing that Ron floated back.
Or rather that was the general idea somewhere in the young man's mind, behind the fog. The grin on Josh's face was soon laced with a smattering of confusion and concern as he noticed that while his fellow blond was heading in the right direction - generally - his aim was off by quite a bit. In fact, as he gave an impromptu presentation of the human version of the plant known as the Wandering Jew, it became increasingly clear that Ron probably didn't even know what ZIP Code he was in. Not that he would have known that anyway, but you get the idea.
Motivated into action as he saw the fellow approaching the curb, Josh finally exited the car and bolted toward young Stoppable. Seizing him by the upper arms, he managed to bring him to a standstill.
"Ron!"
That one didn't work, as nothing came out of the guy's mouth but a small spool of drool. Dabbing at the stuff with a handy handkerchief, Josh tried again, with a shake.
"Ron! Ron?"
"Hmm?"
"Are you all right, man?"
"Hmm? Oh, it's all right; I'll take the lawn to the barber next week, then to the bakery for a quick trim of bear claws."
"What?!"
This was his first exposure to the wacky wonderland that was Ron's brain under the influence, as it were; and the frosty-haired artist wasn't sure he was ready for any more of such. Tightening his grip, he shook him again. "Ron!"
"Huh? Josh?" That brought him out of it.
"I said are you all right?"
"Oh. Yeah, I'm perfectly fine."
He let out a breath he didn't know he'd been holding. "Good. I was wondering if I'd have to try to find Brick or some other jock to give you a belt and snap you out of it."
"Belt? No, I didn't need one, didn't lose my pants once tonight!" Well, maybe he wasn't quite completely out of the fog, although it was close enough to his normal state to pass a cursory inspection.
"Huh? Never mind, I don't want to know." Josh changed his mind as a scene from that news story he'd seen on Kim on TV flashed through his mind, a scene of Ron losing his pants. Josh found himself giving thanks that Ron wore boxers. *Wouldn't want him to flash Kim in anything less*, he thought.
Releasing one arm, but getting a better grip with the other, Josh turned to walk Ron back to the car. "Come on, Ron. Let's go home."
"Yeah." was all that came out of the other blond's mouth as he had mentally almost completely cleared the daze the pretty little blue-eyed blonde had put him in. As the two of them approached the convertible, Ron's hand went out to grasp the handle of the back door.
Josh noticed. "Not this time, Ron; you're up front with me."
"Really?"
"Yeah. The ladies are gone, so you call shotgun."
"Coolio!" Now under his own power, Ron opened the appropriate door and set about securing himself in the passenger seat as Josh walked around to do the same in the driver's seat.
A vague whiff of Kim's normal scent making an impression on his senses, a question occurred to Ron as they got back on the road.
"Wait, who says I'm dense?!?" he yelled to the world.

O

In due time, the red convertible pulled into the Stoppables' driveway. The front passenger door opened, and a certain blond exited, walked around the back of the car, sidled past the side to the open driver's side window, and leaned in.
"Well, Ron," came from the window, "it's been quite a night."
"Sure has. I'm glad that I was wrong about you."
An eyebrow lowered from the driver. "Oh?"
"Yeah, I take back every bad thing I was thinking about you before."
Only a trace of negative vibes could be found in the confusion on Josh's face, and that was only if you looked for it. "Thanks, I guess."
"You're welcome." Then, in a moment of lucidity - they seemed to be happening more often now with Tara in his life - Ron reviewed what he'd just said. "Oh! N, not that I was really thinking anything bad about you, Josh. Just--"
"What?" The negativity had passed, but he was still confused and wanting clarification.
The trademark Ron Stoppable right-hand-to-the-back-of-the-neck tic again manifested itself. "Oh, just a bit of artistic prejudice, you know, head-in-the-clouds stuff, that sort of thing."
"Really." Now he was putting an effort to keep the negativity from returning.
Ron's hand kept rubbing. "Yeah, and you don't want to know about my Mankey-monkey conspiracy."
A smile of good-humored tolerance was now on the artist's face. "I'll, take your word for it."
"Thanks. And I, I apologize, for--"
"Forget it."
"Heh-heh, consider it forgotten." the tousle-haired blond muttered under his breath, low enough to not be heard distinctively at that distance. Then, trying to change the subject, Ron asked, "So, Josh, about tomorrow, wanna come with?"
Josh hadn't even thought about expecting that one. "Tomorrow? You, you mean, to, to temple?"
"Sure! Well, I was thinking, you and KP, we could make it a foursome again."
While Kim had already made clear her intention to not accompany Ron this Sabbath - no doubt to avoid crowding Tara's style with her best friend - Ron thought the redhead might change her mind if her crush-and-more decided to come.
That was not to be, however. "Naw, I, I can't, I, I'm trying to put a band together and, we're auditioning some guys tomorrow."
That got Ron's attention. "You, you have a band?"
"Yeah, garage band, you know, rock and roll sort of stuff, some jazz..." Then a thought struck the frosty-haired artist. "Why, you, you play?"
Ron's smile cracked a bit wider at that. "What, me, play an instrument?"
"I'm thinking, 'no'?"
"Josh, the only thing I can play is a video game controller."
"What about singing?"
"Tried that; it wasn't pretty. Reading from the Torah at my bar mitzvah was enough for me."
"Okay, what about Kim?"
"KP? Well, she has a pretty good voice, just a thing about the high notes." Ron caught himself just a bit too late, then leaned closer to Josh as if to minimize anyone overhearing, despite no one being within yards of them, "But, um, if she knows that I told anyone..."
"Don't worry, I've already forgotten it."
"You have? I said that KP--"
A hand went up. "Ron, I remember it; I just didn't hear it, from you."
"Huh?"
A chuckle or two managed to escape. "Never mind."
Still trying to figure out what his fellow blond was talking about, Ron stood from his leaning position. He was about to give up and head for the house when Josh spoke up.
"So, we're cool now."
Another "Huh?" was the response.
"About that stuff about me, that you were wrong about?"
"Oh! Oh, that! Oh, oh, yeah, yeah…" Apparently he had to think about it. "Yeah, I'm totally cool, like that, I'm, I'm fine with y-, you, you're all right." Then his expression briefly darkened to the 'serious face'. "Just make sure that Kim stays happy."
If Josh gulped, he was masking it very well. "No problem."
"Oh, and Josh, a little tip? I'm still not giving out any spoilers as to what kind of reception you can expect from her fam, but you might not want to mention the arts and music stuff in front of Mr. Dr. P; the guy has a thing about, 'show folk'."
Now traces of nervousness could be seen on the frosty-haired artist's face. "Good to know, thanks."
He again turned to leave when Josh called after him again. "And I guess you don't need any advice on how to treat Tara."
Apparently that triggered a memory or two, because when Ron again faced Josh, he had a smitten look on his face.
"I mean, I didn't look, but at her house? You floated back to the car; I had to get out and stop you from wandering out into the street!"
Ron's brow briefly clouded, briefly, that is. "Really? I don't remember." Then his mien assumed its previous position, and the rest of his body apparently followed suit, because there he went again.

O

Again, Josh found himself having to leave the convertible to wrangle Ron, this time hustling him to the door of his own house - Ron's house, that is. He knocked on the door.
Maybe ten seconds elapsed before the door opened; if one were to guess that Ron's father was waiting up for him in the living room, one wouldn't miss it by much.
"Ronald, do you have any idea what ti-- Oh, hello." Mr. Stoppable broke off as he noticed the other young man in the doorway.
"Hey." Josh responded, sticking out a hand toward the elder Stoppable. "I'm Josh Mankey; I was Kim's date tonight? Ron and his date rode back with us."
His action was reciprocated. "Dean Stoppable." And, handshake!
Josh continued to play the expositor. "Oh, Tara will explain what happened tonight when she comes over in the morning; she'll be going to temple with you."
That surprised the actuary. "Well, we'll be glad to have her… Ronald?" he broke off again, as again Ron's feet started to move, this time on auto-pilot to his room.
Josh explained. "I, I wouldn't try to get anything out of him tonight. It's been a good night for him."
"Apparently so." he mused.
His work there done, Josh started to step away from the porch. "Well I, I gotta jet, gotta get home, you know."
Mr. S's hand went up in a wave. "Safe driving, Josh. It was nice to meet you."
"Likewise, and good night, Mr. Stoppable." he finished as the door closed between them.
"Good night, Josh." was the reply to the door.
As he turned to the stairs - which his son had already ascended to the midpoint - he could see that he would indeed get no information out of the young man that night.
Well, I guess he did have a good night. I look forward to hearing about it. He thought - with a chuckle - as he turned off the living room lights and made certain all doors were locked.
Passing the just-closed door to his son's room, the actuary was alone with his thoughts. As he approached the door to the room he and his wife shared, said thoughts took a turn.
Wonder what Barbara will say. Then he smiled. Probably something along the lines of her boy becoming a man, again, again.
The smile flickered a little, as he was uncertain about that last 'again'.

O

On the other side of the door, young Ronald might have been hovering around fifth or sixth heaven. Sighing as he finally pushed off of leaning on the slab of wood with a knob on it, he set about getting ready for bed. The long-practiced tradition didn't really need to be thought about, which was a good thing since his brain was on auto-pilot.
Rufus, still at the computer, noticed his human's entrance, of course; and called out a 'Hi!' to him, which went unnoticed by the boy. The mole rat did notice, however, and a debate ensued within the little guy as to whether to shake Ron out of it. It was decided to forgo action until more information was collected, which necessitated watching him for a bit longer. And if no further information was forthcoming, at least there would be the certainty of entertainment.
And as his whiskers twitched, he was indeed entertained.

Ron's routine finished, he sat on the side of his bed for a minute or two. As he slowly moved into a sleeping position, he touched himself - no, not in that way!

He started with the ears, noticing as never before what handy handholds they made. Hands then drifted forward, across his cheeks. Finally the upper appendages finished the journey at about the same time their body did, lightly touching that which covered and crowned the mouth, the lips.

As Rufus - never taking his eyes off of his boy - alit onto the pillow at his usual sleeping position beside said boy, while he might not have seen the even-goofier-than-usual grin, sharp ears did pick up four dreamy words.

"She called me Ronnie-poo!"

O

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And so we close this opening segment in the TaRoniverse story arc, except for just one more. Yes, folks, this 'just one more' will really be the last one; I might have been acquainted with Columbo, but I never really saw a whole episode, so no more of that 'one more thing' stuff. Next from me will be the going-on-three-years update on The Brainy Saga - yes, TBS fans - if there are any of you left - the next chapter is forthcoming. I just needed to see a certain episode of Homicide, and it's coming up, I think. In the KP-verse, I have some other stuff I'm working on: the aforementioned Cheerleader Locker Room Confessions, Pain King's My Boy! (a backstory for Monique), more stuff in the TaRoniverse (what happens when Monique gets into the mix? or Zita? or Felix?), some canon stuff starting with Homecoming, things from far into the future, maybe I'll use a character or two from someone else, you never know. Then there's my All Grown Up fics; I'll need to do some revising if I'm going to continue them, and I intend to do that as well. Of course I'll have to fit all this in with work, college homework (CALCULUS! ARRGH! Maybe I should look up the Tweebs for tutoring), piano practicing, voice practicing, preparing lessons for Sunday School, not to mention trying to make sense of what's on my collection of hundreds of video tapes and trying to get likes together, a Herculean job in itself. Well, I'll keep trying to fit writing in among the rest of it all. In the meantime and beyond, online, on e-mail (now on Cable One but still taking e-mail on AOL), and on AIM, I'm Nftnat.