The Secret Ingredient, by DoofusPrime
Notes - So I did take a short writing break, but I've been writing this story for a while. It contains some alternate pairings and a fairly large cast of characters, but as the description suggests, it also has a big focus on Kim, Ron, and their interaction. I think I could have chosen Humor, Drama, Romance, Adventure, or even Mystery for genres, so I just sort of chose two at random. In other words, unless you refuse to read anything but a certain pairing, hopefully you might like this story. Enjoy! :)
Several dozen heads were on the verge of smacking into their desks. Kim Possible's head was one of the few still standing at attention. A beefy hand hit the teacher's desk with a thundering clap, and all around the classroom, heads jerked up from their slumber fast enough to give a few unfortunate students whiplash.
"Is this lesson BORING you?"
The recently roused heads shook themselves in unison, and Steve Barkin led out a low grumble as he eyed his students. Considering his entire classroom had almost fallen asleep in the short time he was turned to the blackboard – with the exception of Kim Possible, of course – Steve knew they were lying.
But then, economics didn't really keep Steve awake either. At least not the way military history did. He brushed a little chalk dust off his hands, preparing to explain the details of his impeccable blackboard diagram to the class, when he caught the clock out of the corner of his eye. Most of the students in the room were also trying their best to look at the time without giving away the fact that they were looking at the time. Which, in its own way, was more challenging than most things you could study in a textbook.
"Alright," grumbled Steve. "I suppose you can all leave now. Have a productive weekend. And remember to study chapter 13. Next week, we will learn why Keynesian economics leads to nothing but disaster and despair!"
The classroom erupted with the clash and clatter of chairs and desks being manhandled as Steve's students gathered their notes, zipped up their backpacks, and hurried on their way to an afternoon of doing anything but homework.
Steve always thought college was far too lax compared to high school. In high school, he could rule his classes with an iron fist, but these college kids had it in their heads that non-compulsory higher education somehow made them adults. His control over them was somewhat neutered. No detentions, no hall lockers where he could pounce on unsuspecting teen victims. He even missed the school bells when he taught college classes.
He even – and it was hard to admit this, even to himself – sort of missed the juvenile delinquency that was more common in high school than college. These students were too well behaved. Vinnies and Big Mikes were not often found roaming ivy halls. The pay was better than constantly substituting for missing Middleton High School teachers, but the excitement? Definitely lacking.
"See you later Mr. Barkin," said Kim as she passed by his desk.
Barkin nodded curtly to his student - his most attentive college student, just as she had been in high school.
"Hey Possible," he said before she slipped out the door.
"Yes Mr. Barkin?"
"I'll be working the night shift at Smarty Mart tonight. You want me to say hello to Stoppable?"
Kim hesitated for a moment as the last of her classmates filtered through the classroom door behind her. Steve was surprised to see her pausing – in days gone by, Kim and Ron had been the closest of friends. Things had changed, he supposed. Growing up had a way of doing that.
"Sure," she finally said. "Tell him I said hi. And don't work too hard!"
"Remember to read that chapter," said Steve. Not that there was really any need to remind Kim Possible to do what she needed to do. But by the time Steve got the sentence out, she was already out the door.
Kim dropped her backpack on an empty table in the study hall. She took a seat and got out her textbook and laptop computer. The study hall was in the same building as her economics class with Mr. Barkin; as soon as she had gotten out, Kim decided to get an early start on her homework even though nothing was due tomorrow. Before she even sat down, she caught a whiff of something pleasant in the room. It only took a second to notice another student seated at an adjacent table and doing some studying of his own. Laying beside his notes was a half-eaten cupcake on an unfolded napkin.
Kim was surprised a cupcake could be so fragrant. As a matter of fact, counting Barkin's comment in class, smelling the cupcake was the second time in five minutes that Kim was reminded of Ron. His baking, in particular. She hadn't talked to Ron in a while now. Kim idly clicked the top of her pen as she wondered if Ron would be happy to hear Barkin mention her when he started his shift at Smarty Mart later.
"Yeah, it's pretty sweet."
Kim looked at the boy at the adjacent table.
"The cupcake," said the boy. "It's pretty awesome. I saw you licking your lips at it."
Kim laughed. "Licking my lips? Exaggerate much?"
"Well, okay, but you looked like you wanted a bite. You can totally have one if you want. I'm cool with it, yo!"
Kim blanched a little as the boy held up his half-eaten cupcake. While she was a bit hungry, she wasn't exactly keen on sharing a stranger's food. If there was one thing she had learned from college dormitories, it was that her fellow students could be a little questionable when it came to hygiene.
"Thanks, but no thanks. I have to do some work now."
Kim opened up her laptop and lined up the textbook neatly beside it. It was time to put aside the distractions of her past, as well as distractions in the form of baked goods, and focus on some economics. Unfortunately, at the exact same time that she made this declaration to herself, Kim was once again distracted - this time by her laptop.
Kim's computer was not just any old laptop. Any time she took it out in the middle of class, it never failed to get a few oohs and aahs from classmates. Mainly from the girls, but some guys were impressed as well. Monique had modified the laptop with her own special style and given it to Kim as a present for her last birthday. The laptop was decorated in a pattern of fabrics that gave it a sort of patchwork aesthetic, and on its top, a pocket-like flap could be opened up that contained extra loose-leaf paper and a few pens. It was a little bulkier than the average laptop, but Kim was more than willing to sacrifice a little backpack space for a some extra personality in her school supplies.
Once again, Kim forced herself to focus on her homework. She opened a new document on her word processor, and was about to begin typing when her cell phone rang. Clearly, her plan to put a dent in her homework before it piled up later that week was not working out the way she had hoped.
"Hello?" she asked, fishing the phone out of her backpack and flipping it open. She was glad it hadn't gone off in Mr. Barkin's class.
"Hey Kim, what's up?"
Kim recognized the voice instantly, but Monique also had her own special ring whenever she called. A ring with a bit of a saucy latin rhythm, actually. "I'm just getting started on a little homework," she said.
"Homework? Girl, what are you doing homework for?"
"I've heard it's what people do in college sometimes. You should try it sometime!"
A light laugh came from the other end of the line.
"Where are you? You should come do your homework over here instead."
Kim considered the option. While tempting, she knew it was not in her best interest. "Why do I get the feeling I won't be getting much work done if I did that?" she asked teasingly.
The other end of the line was silent, and Kim felt a strange but familiar sensation – the sensation that she knew exactly what Monique looked like at that moment. Even though she couldn't see it, Kim was fairly certain that Monique was giving her the puppy dog pout. Not only was it unfair, but as far as Kim was concerned, it was a weapon that Monique had shamelessly stolen from her.
"Don't give me that," she said.
"What? Don't give you what, Kim?"
Kim sighed. It was amazing how Monique could be so persuasive without really saying anything.
The sugary, cupcakey smell returned to Kim as she thought about joining Monique instead of starting her homework in the study hall. She looked over at the boy at the adjacent table again, and while he seemed to be making an effort not to look back, Kim got the impression that his cupcake-sharing enthusiasm had been replaced by a bit of annoyance that Kim's cell phone conversation was interrupting his study session.
"Alright," said Kim as she felt the last vestiges of her resistance slip away. "I'll be over there in a few minutes."
A whoop came from the other end of the line, loud enough to make the boy at the other table give a start of surprise and almost drop his cupcake as he tried to take a bite. Kim gave him an apologetic look, closed her custom laptop, and put it back in her backpack along with her class notes as she left the study hall.
It was a good thing that Monique was usually just as studious as she was, even if Monique herself didn't believe it was true – otherwise Kim might never get anything done when she was faced with Monique's charms and distractions. She enjoyed attending Upperton University, but having someone like Monique around made going to Upperton a great experience instead of just a good one. Kim had chosen to go to Upperton after visiting schools overseas and deciding she wanted to be closer to home; while the choice hadn't helped things with Ron in the end, finding out that Monique was going to the same school had been an unexpected gift in more ways than one.
Ron Stoppable eyed the customer who had just come up to the desk. She was a frumpy-looking woman in a polka dot dress, and from the looks of it, she was a little confused. Ron couldn't blame her. Smarty Mart's exotic animals section was a confusing place for anyone who had not spent years in the company of a creature as exotic as a naked mole rat. It was no wonder this poor lost woman was seeking his wisdom.
"Excuse me young man, but I was looking for-"
Ron interrupted the woman as he motioned to the pimple-faced teen beside him. Jenkins, who had been watching Ron play a bout of Zombie Mayhem on the console system set up behind the help desk, snapped to attention.
"Please help this woman with whatever she needs."
Jenkins got out from behind the counter and led the woman along as she repeated her question. As the two of them receded into the depths of an exotic animals aisle, their conversation lost in the shrieks and chatters of caged creatures, Ron sat back and cracked his knuckles in satisfaction before returning to his console game. Another customer satisfied.
Ron sat in the center of a customer service kiosk set up in the middle of Smarty Mart's exotic animals department, cocooned in a circle of help desks. Playing on a console game during work hours would normally be a major infraction, but fortunately for Ron, he was the manager. Floor manager for the exotic animals section, technically. But the other store managers were all on sick leave after being incapacitated by said exotic animals, with the exception of Ron's arch nemesis, Davis, the night and weekend manager. When Davis wasn't around, Ron was the sole floor manager of the Middleton Smarty Mart branch.
And the manager got to make the rules.
Not that Ron really liked the job all that much. He thought about his stroke of good luck as he conked out another zombie in his game. A promotion to management was a bit of a pay raise – although pay raises at Smarty Mart tended to be just behind the inflation rate - and sometimes it was nice to order around subordinates. But the more time Ron spent in Smarty Mart, the more he was realizing that retail was not his passion. He felt listless, unfulfilled. It went a long way towards explaining why he was playing games on the clock instead of doing any real work. That, and the release of Zombie Mayhem VI was a momentous event which Ron was still in the process of enjoying.
The sound of Steve Barkin's voice sent the controller flying from Ron's hands. He cowered in terror as his former high school teacher strode towards him, appearing out of an aisle as if he had materialized right in the middle of the store. Ron was expecting to get an earful for shirking his job duties until he remembered something important: he was the manager. Barkin was not.
"Hey Mr. Barkin!" said Ron. His terror was gone, but he still felt a little flustered. Even when Barkin was just giving him a regular greeting, he sounded vaguely angry.
"I apologize," said Mr. Barkin as he glanced down at his watch, "but it looks like I'm two minutes late. You'll have to dock my pay. Long day at Upperton, you see."
"It's all good, Mr. B. I'll let it slide."
"Possible says hello, by the way."
Ron nodded awkwardly. "Uh - how is she doing?" he asked.
"She's doing well, as always. Acing all her tests. She seems to be attending class on time now that's she's in college as well – she must have cut down on her missions. Anyway," asked Barkin after a moment of silence, "is there anything to do for tonight's shift?"
"Nope. It's pretty empty around here tonight. I sent Jenkins off to help some lady a minute ago, but that's about all the action I've seen in a couple of hours."
"Other than zombie action, I see," said Barkin as he peered over the counter at Ron's console screen, exhaling in a disdainful way. Ron didn't know exhaling could sound disdainful, but Mr. Barkin had just demonstrated it could.
"Yeah. Other than that."
Steve looked around at Smarty Mart's exotic animals aisles surrounding the customer service kiosk. It was definitely on the empty side tonight. Not that a whole lot of people came to the Smarty Mart for discount animal purchases – Steve always maintained that it was not a cost-effective department, but those nitwits in upper management never listened to him. They appointed one his students to management over him, after all. That had happened a few months ago, and he could still feel the sting.
Steve watched his former student and current manager plugging away at the game. Although he secretly had a certain fondness for Stoppable, much of the time the boy got on his nerves, and tonight Steve thought he would be happier by himself. Maybe he could convince Stoppable to leave early and let him take over for the night. He could try his hand at managerial duties, sit in the de facto manager's seat that Ron always used in the kiosk – and judging by the faint scream that just came out of the monitor lizard aisle, Steve assumed that Jenkins would need the first aid kit in a moment.
"Excuse me, Stoppable," said Barkin. "I'm going to go check on Jenkins."
Ron nodded as he continued playing his game, glad that his former teacher was willing to investigate. He found himself thinking about Kim, a little surprised to hear a casual hello from her relayed through Mr. Barkin. He knew that Mr. Barkin was teaching at Upperton, and that Kim even had a class with him this semester, but he still hadn't heard anything from her in a while, even indirectly.
Ron was even more surprised by the possibility that she was no longer going on missions anymore. At least not according to Mr. Barkin. He hadn't gone on any missions with her since the breakup, but he had always assumed Kim was continuing them on her own, or maybe with backup from Global Justice. It seemed hard to believe. Kim Possible, no longer saving the world? He supposed things changed sometimes. Maybe the college really had sucked her into its sweet, seductive lifestyle.
Ron noticed Mr. Barkin return from his trip into the twisted recesses of the exotic animals section, sporting a couple of fresh slashes across his suit sleeves. His tie was dislodged from his suit and hung loosely from his neck, rumpled and a little torn on the end.
"Is Jenkins alright?"
"Yeah, that kid'll be fine," said Barkin. "The monitor lizards broke out, but I phoned the on-site paramedics. He should be up and back to work in a few days."
Ron frowned. Apparently he had been lost in his game a little longer than he thought. It was a good thing the monitor lizards hadn't leaped over into his kiosk while he was distracted.
"You know," said Steve, "It is getting pretty late, and I know we both have another shift tomorrow. If you wanted to, you could leave a bit early and make sure you get a good night's sleep."
Ron looked up from his game, the tip of his tongue still poking out of his mouth and his brow still furrowed in concentration. It took a moment for him to return to the mundane, lacking-in-the-undead reality of Smarty Mart.
"What was that?" he asked as he looked around the store. "Who would run things if I'm gone? I thought Davis has tonight off," said Ron with a shudder of distaste at the thought of the other floor manager.
"He does, but I'm well versed in the ways of management, Stoppable," said Steve. "I'll hold the fort while you're gone and make sure the store gets closed up properly. Don't you worry about it."
Ron thought over his employee's proposition. It was true that he was getting bored sitting around the store; this console was no match for his system at home, after all, and being interrupted by a customer just when you were trying to escape beaten eaten alive by zombies was no fun.. And he did have to get up again for more work in the morning. Unlike some of those college students, Ron had to work for a living.
"Well, if you're sure you can handle it..."
"Are you kidding me, Stoppable? I was BORN for this!"
Ron eyed Barkin suspiciously. Something was not right.
"Wait a minute, you've been calling me Stoppable."
Steve coughed nervously. "I mean, I was born for this, sir. It won't be a problem!"
Ron nodded. That was much better.
"In that case, I guess I'll see you tomorrow," he said as he shut off his game and left the kiosk to Barkin.
On the way to the employee room, Ron stopped in front of a puddle of water lying in the middle of one of the exotic animals aisles. Either water or animal urine, he couldn't tell which. Ron used his Mystical Monkey Power to levitate himself temporarily over the puddle, landing safely on the other side. He would clean it up, but his shift was technically done since Mr. Barkin had taken over for him, and he knew Barkin would find the puddle in about thirty seconds, seeing as the man patrolled the store constantly.
Ron clocked out in the employee lounge room and thought about taking a Naco from his stash in the refrigerator to eat at home, but he decided it would be better to get a fresh meal from Bueno Nacho itself instead of reheating one. Rufus would appreciate that more, too.
He left the store's back entrance, which led into the small employee parking lot, and got on his trusty scooter. The Smarty Mart was understaffed, and a lone streetlight perched over the employee lot cast its glow over a handful of cars parked here and there. Ron struggled to get his scooter's ailing engine up and running, and his thoughts turned to Kim as he began to drive.
Kim's life had certainly taken an unexpected path if she wasn't doing missions anymore. Ron thought it was even more jarring than her current relationship. Then again, Ron wondered if he had ever really expected to be where he was now. He couldn't remember if he was expecting anything in particular after graduation. His worries about his future with Kim had come true. He had never tried to hone his Mystical Monkey Power at Yamanouchi. Would the Ron of three years ago be surprised if he found his older self still working Smarty Mart?
Ron wasn't sure. But there was something sad about the thought that, if what Mr. Barkin had said really was true, he and Kim were now both out of the mission business for good.
It did not take a look at the security cameras to know that something had just exploded in the warehouse.
Assad Sacke, the operations manager based at the Middleton warehouse in question, was startled right out of his chair. He had been propping his feet up against a desk in the second-story manager's office, but the thundering sound coming from outside the room had startled him enough to make him lose his balance. He went toppling onto the floor as his swiveling chair swiveled right out from under him.
Before he had even gotten up, Assad knew that this would not be a good evening.
"What's going on?" he yelled nervously as he raced out of the manager's office and down a flight of metal stairs to reach the warehouse floor. Several workers were backing away from a cloud of smoke obscuring the loading dock door. Assad reached the ground level just in time to see several burly figures step out from the smoke and into the warehouse. They were clad from head to toe in black ninja gear – or perhaps it was special ops gear. Assad couldn't be sure. Their outfits gave them the curious appearance of having materialized from the smoke itself.
"Sir!" yelled a nearby guard. "We have intruders!"
Assad was fairly sure the guard should have been outside of the loading dock door, guarding the warehouse's back entrance, but judging by a quick glance at the break area he could see that all the guards had been inside playing cards. He sighed at very obvious intruder warning as the guard was knocked out by a punch from one of the black-clad assailants.
"Fight back!" he shouted, but it was clearly no use. Whoever these people were, they seemed to know what they were doing.
Several of the black-clad figures gathered around the Containment Chambers in the center of the warehouse and lifted up the first of the chambers between them, carrying it out of the still-smoking hole in the loading dock door. Assad was supposed to be overseeing the packing process for the Containment Chambers, but a cursory look told him that no one in the warehouse had been doing much work that night. Counting himself. Fortunately, at least in this case, his poor management meant that the thieves – whoever they were – would not be getting away with much.
This minor break did not do much to reassure Assad when he caught sight of a particularly large man approaching him. A pair of steely eyes glared at him through the holes of a black face mask. Just before Assad's face met with the man's fist and his mind took a temporary break from consciousness, a brief thought ran through his head:
Oh boy. The bosses are going to be angry. One of them, anyway.
Notes - That's it for the first chapter, hope you liked it! As always, reviews are appreciated. I'll be interested in seeing if some of my regular readers still have an interest in this, or what new readers might be into it. I will most likely update this twice a week, although it might pick up even more once the whole story is finished (It is fully outlined and mostly written right now, but not done yet). Put it on alerts if you want to keep up.