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Shilo

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"If you are captain of a shipwreck / I'll be first mate to your shame" – Neil Diamond

I.

Elliot Stoppable owned every Neil Diamond 8-track that had ever been made. He had inherited the collection, as well as the 8-track player, from his older brother Eugene when the elder Stoppable brother upgraded to a cassette tape deck and re-purchased Mr. Diamond's entire catalog in the new media format. Ten years later, Elliot inherited the tape deck as well as all his older brother's tapes when Eugene upgraded to compact discs.

The running joke in the extended Stoppable family was that Elliot believed that every new piece of technology (video tapes, cable television, Crystal Pepsi) was just a fad with which he needn't concern himself. Although that was true, it was only half of the story. The other part was that Elliot knew that he would eventually get his brother's hand-me-downs (with the exception of cable TV and, ugh, Crystal Pepsi), so it was fairly pointless to purchase them himself.

When Elliot received his older brother's cassette player and tape collection, he passed on the 8-track and the cartridges to Ron, who at the time was all of three years old. Ron loved the player and cartridges not only for the music but because of their size and shape, the cartridges could double as spaceships when he was playing Star Wars with his imaginary friend Rufus.

When he was listening to the cartridges, Ron would wear the oversized headphones that came with the system. The headphones were so big, in fact, that the seemed to double Ron's head size when he had them on. Although his uncle's 8-track collection was not exclusively made-up of Mr. Diamond's work, young Ron found himself gravitating to his albums.

His favorite Neil Diamond song was "Shilo" because from his first listen, Ron was convinced that the song was somehow about him. The singer was a lonely boy who had an imaginary friend. Interestingly, the imaginary friend happened to be a girl. Although that wasn't true for Rufus, Ron still liked the song. Later, when he became best friends with Kim Possible, the song took on new significance. Although she was not imaginary, like the character in the song, she certainly was a "young girl with fire." As much as the song reminded him of his best friend, Ron couldn't help feeling a little sad when he heard it because Rufus was no longer playing as big a role in his life as when he had first heard it.

As it often happened with 8-track technology, there was a glitch in this particular cartridge. Just before the song reached the third verse, the track switched to the next song. So until the fateful day he received his Uncle Eugene's cassette deck and collection of cassettes, Ron never knew how the song ended.

II.

When he was eleven, Ron Stoppable went to a doctor's appointment that would greatly affect the course of his life and cast a shadow over his friendship with Kim Possible for many years to come. The significant event had nothing whatsoever to do with Ron's medical condition at the time. In fact, it wasn't even his appointment.

Bribed with a meal from Bueno Nacho, Ron had been persuaded by his mother to come to one of her annual checkups. Little did Ron suspect that following the doctor's visit, there was a second, unscheduled "appointment" at T.J. Maxx. Ron hated shopping for clothes more than anything. He could only barely stand browsing with KP and her mother; trying on clothes himself, on the other hand, was completely unacceptable for young Ronald. No matter how tightly he or his mother strapped on the belt, any pair of pants he tried on would inevitably fall down and ALWAYS during the period when he had to parade around before her to show how the "well" they fit.

Ron did not like his mother's doctor. More precisely, he didn't like her doctor's waiting room. It proved both incredibly boring and intensely terrifying for him. "Boring" was obvious. "Terrifying" was due to the doctor's specific choice of décor. Most doctors, pediatricians especially, seemed to favor poorly drawn clown pictures. Ron, for all of his phobias, surprisingly liked clowns, normal clowns that is. Unfortunately, his mother's doctor, who was not a pediatrician, did not have pictures of "normal" clowns. Instead he had over half a dozen-Ron had never dared a precise count-pictures of diseased-looking chimpanzees in clown suits. When Ron had come to appointments with his mother when he was younger he always found the pictures vaguely disturbing, but in the post-Camp Wannaweep days of his adolescence, they became bone-chillingly frightening. Since they were hung at his approximate eye level, poor Ron pretty much kept his head down throughout the entire visit.

Fortunately, there were magazines to look at, but nothing a normal eleven year old boy would be interested in. The copy of "Highlights" dated back to 1976, and all the puzzles had been filled in several times over. Briefly thumbing through a few pages, Ron thought he recognized his own handwriting from a few years back. This suspicion was confirmed when he read "Rufus and Ron 4-Ever" scrawled into the corned of one of the magazine's dog-eared pages.

Two other magazines lay face down on the table. From experience, Ron cautiously lifted the first by one of its corners.

"Eeeep!"

Almost quicker than humanely possible, Ron reflexively dropped the magazine. Unfortunately, he was not quick enough to miss the disturbing close-up of the spider monkey that "graced" the cover of this particular copy of the National Geographic. Bugs were something else Ron could not handle. Sure, the monkey didn't look like a spider or any type of bug, but naming a monkey after one was simply sick and wrong. After a few short breaths, Ron regained his poise and confidently picked up the remaining magazine. This was the one he had been looking for.

As stated before, Mrs. Stoppable's doctor's office did not stock magazines that would be of any interest to normal eleven-year-old boys, but Ron had never been normal, and he certainly wasn't normal at age eleven. The 1982 copy of Redbook provided the one glimmer of hope in the dreadful 45 minute to hour wait they lay ahead for him. He flipped to a random page.

"Booyah! Got it in one!" Ron laughed.

Before his eyes lay the recipe for "Super Moist Chocolate Cake" that he had been making improvements on for the last two every time he had been dragged into this office. It was amazing how he never failed to add an ingredient to what-he had to admit-was a pretty solid chocolate cake recipe in the first place, to make it taste a thousand times better.

With his head down, Ron walked gingerly over to the appointment desk and took the clipboard with the chain-attached ball-point pen. He always copied down the recipe on a spare appointment sheet, added a few of his own creative ideas, and took the page back home to bake a cake for Kim and his parents. He had added ginger and nutmeg to his last recipe and felt certain he had taken things as far in that spice direction as he could. He would start from scratch and try attacking the recipe from a different direction this time.

Kim loved his cooking. His cakes never failed to bring a smile to her face, and the fact that they appeared so randomly (coinciding with these random doctor visits), made them nice surprises as well. As he sat back down, Ron mused on how Kim might look after eating a slice this year since she was supposed to get braces put on just that Thursday.

Crumblies caught in her braces? Cuter than ever probably. He smiled.

Ron made a few radical changes to the original recipe; however unorthodox, they were changes that would surely result in a rainbow of unexpected flavors that would no doubt have shocked and amazed the recipe's original author. Unfortunately, Ron discovered he had only been in the waiting room a mere twenty minutes. He knew there were no other recipes that piqued his interest in this edition of Redbook, so he briefly started to scan some of the non-food related articles. What else was there to do?

That's when the pages fell open to the relationship quiz.

It wasn't the first time he had seen the quiz, but it was the first time he gave it any actual attention. Basically, it was a standard personality quiz to determine whether or not one and one's current partner were made for each other. He absently started answering the questions as they applied to himself and Kim. He still didn't think of Kim in a "partner-sense"-romantic partner that is, but his friendship with her was, without question, the most important relationship in his life.

Although he still felt a pre-adolescent boy's seemingly innate queasiness when it came to all things mushy, he would occasionally ponder the possibility that he might end up married to Kim. This was always pondered in the vaguest of terms, the same way he would ponder what he was going to be when he grew up (hip-hop star) or where he might live when he finally moved out of his parent's house (either the Possibles' or Go City). Marriage was not something he liked to think about but it was something he assumed, more or less, was going to happen someday whether he wanted it to or not. When he considered this inevitability in connection with Kim, it didn't seem so bad. If he could be married to his best friend it might even be fun.

He didn't even get past the first page of the quiz before Ron had his first dance with heartbreak.

Each question was followed by a brief summary paragraph explaining the importance of the question and the background research that proved why any answer the quiz-taker made was irrelevant. The summary under question three spelt it out in words that were as final as the death date on a tombstone: "people typically end up married to partners who share the same level of attractiveness." "Typically" is, of course, the operative word, but eleven-year-old Ron Stoppable did not see THAT word. All the others made it clear that he and Kim would never get married.

Ever since he met her, Ron had known that Kim was beautiful, and for the past few years he had been aware, however slightly, that she was becoming even more beautiful as they grew up. However, these thoughts were always shuttered off to a back corner of his mind. In another dark space located nearby was kept the knowledge that he was not attractive. Kim had never given him that impression, but he knew from statements made and signs given by other girls at school (and even by his mother in a few thoughtless moments) that he was awkward-looking at best.

He sighed deeply and lay the magazine face down on the table. Why did he feel so bad? He hadn't exactly been looking forward to getting married had he? So he wasn't going to get married to Kim, big deal. They would always be friends, right?

A second wave of doubt washed over him. What was to say that Kim, once she realized he was awkward-looking, wouldn't stop being friends with him? No, no, that wasn't like Kim. She would never do that.

On purpose.

But what if she couldn't help it?

That stupid quiz made it sound like it was beyond anybody's choice. What if she met some good-looking guy in middle-school and was simply drawn away from Ron and their friendship like a kitchen magnet to a refrigerator door? Oh man.

If Barbara Stoppable had been somewhat surprised later that day when Ron barely touched his chimarito, she was floored when his mood failed to sour at the announcement that T.J. Maxx was their next destination. He didn't even react when the blue corduroys he was modeling dropped to his feet just as a trio of giggling Pixie Scouts walked by.

That day Ron became something he never thought he would become: a bigot. From then on, he was prejudiced against all pretty boys.

III.

Ron couldn't remember the last time he called for Rufus. Kim had made an idle comment about his giant imaginary friend, and it suddenly occurred to him that he hadn't thought about his invisible protector, let alone summoned him, for a very, long time. Maybe even a couple of years.

This discovery mildly disturbed him, but mainly because it didn't disturb him at all. That is, it really didn't upset him, but part of him really thought it should have. Although he no longer believed Rufus was real in the same way he or his parents or Kim was real, it was kinda sad that he was gone. Gone and not missed. Thinking of all the various complications and permutations of this discovery made poor Ron's head hurt. To avoid the encroaching migraine, which wasn't helped by the super slurpster Kim had bought him with her babysitting profits, Ron elected to store this topic back in the darker corners of his mind for another day. He filed it under "Growing Up Tanks."

A few days later when Kim was treating Ron, again with her babysitting funds, to a grande-sized chimirito, the topic of "Rufus" came up again. Specifically, Kim was not quite adjusted to her braces. She had gotten them the previous Thursday afternoon and things had not gone well the next day at school. She was so not looking forward to school on Monday.

"They're so ugly," she moped.

"No, they're not, KP," Ron said, his mouth full of chimirito.

Looking at her reflection on the table's shiny surface, Kim sighed, "They ARE ugly. Besides, food gets stuck in 'em."

"Ewwwwww, gross," Ron said his mouth still full of food.

"Thanks, Ron," Kim glared. Then added, "Look who's talking."

"Sorry, Kim," Ron said. Then catching on a few beats later, he said, "Hey! What do you mean by that?"

Without speaking, Kim leaned over the table and with a napkin mopped up the glop of chimirito mush that had just escaped from Ron's mouth. Without looking, she tossed the wadded napkin over her shoulder. It swished through the garbage can's retractable lip five feet behind her.

"You were … spewing?" she asked him evenly.

"Ok, ok," Ron said covering his mouth, "you've made your point."

Kim shook her head. Ron never ceased to amaze and perplex her. How could someone who was capable, on a daily basis, of exhibiting horrendous (the word was not too strong) table manners at the same time be able to be so well mannered at special occasions –like Nana's birthday dinner the previous week and the Seder feast in the upcoming week. Kim smiled briefly at the thought of the Seder. She always looked forward to the one night that Ron spoke Hebrew. Hmm. When his voices changes, I wonder what it will sound like?

She immediately frowned, however, when she caught sight of her tin-teeth smile in the tabletop.

"What's wrong, KP?" Ron asked, careful to shield his still working "mandibles" from his friend's line of vision.

"What do you think?" she said a little too harshly. "These stupid braces."

Fortunately, Ron could read that tone and knew her displeasure was not aimed at him.

"It's that Bonnie girl again, isn't it?"

"Yeah," Kim sighed pushing the unfinished half of her chimirito over to Ron with her spork.

Ron shook his head. Bonnie Rockwaller was in Kim and Ron's sixth grade class. Although she had been in their classes years earlier (second and third grades) and had been remembered as a shy and, on occasion, nice person, something had happened to Bonnie in the intervening years. Middleton's elementary school had three classrooms for each grade. Students would get shuffled from different classes from year to year. Sometimes a close friend in one grade would be in a different classroom for the next grade, and even the closest of friends might lose touch and become only slight acquaintances when they were reunited a few years down the line. Since Kim and Ron always hung out together after school and on weekends, it seemed unlikely that such a thing could happen to their friendship. Nevertheless, they also had the good fortune of never being shuffled away from each other and shared the same classroom all through elementary school-a fact that made them both very, very happy.

Whatever happened to Bonnie in the fourth and/or fifth grades, it must have been major. She was no longer shy; she was abrasive. In addition, she seemed hell-bent on disrupting the relatively un-stratified system of friendships that heretofore flourished in the Middleton Elementary classes and replacing it with a clique-based hierarchy with herself crowned as Queen Bee. Unfortunately, Miss Rockwaller proved to be as charismatic as she was caustic and, by turns, charmed those she sought as allies and belittled those she saw as being beneath her. Her two-pronged attack was almost one hundred percent effective.

Almost.

IV.

The one time it failed was when Bonnie crossed Kim and Ron on the first day of sixth grade. One of the first people she had tried to charm onto her side had been Kim. A pretty, popular girl who also happened to be one of the best students at Middleton Elementary and was also involved with practically every club (and had even initiated a few on her own), without question, Possible would have been a great ally.

"Hi, Kim," Bonnie said with a big smile and an outstretched hand.

"Uh, hi," Kim replied tentatively holding out her hand to meet Bonnie's. Kim didn't recognize Bonnie, well, not completely, although the brunette did look familiar. However, this was not the reason for Kim's hesitation; Kim was only in the habit of shaking hands with her parent's colleagues and friend's, not typically with other kids.

"You don't remember me do you?" Bonnie asked, still with a smile.

"I'm sorry, no," Kim smiled uncomfortably, "you look familiar, but…"

"I'm Bonnie Rockwaller," Bonnie smiled sweetly.

"Oh, OH, yes, I remember you," Kim beamed, "we were in third grade together." The name brought back the image of a quiet little girl, who had once helped her with an in-class project and had once shared a sandwich with Ron when he had mistaken his lunch box for his seat one day. My, though Kim, she sure has changed. Bonnie certainly wasn't the shy little girl she had once been.

"Bonnie!" Ron exclaimed walking over to the two girls after putting his bookbag in his in-class locker.

Kim just had to shake her head at her friend. He remembered EVERYTHING and everyone. Even from behind, he recognized a girl they probably both hadn't seen in two years. He probably remembers what type of sandwich Bonnie split with him way back then, Kim mused with a smile.

After giving a quick smile to Kim, Ron turned his goofy grin to Bonnie. She didn't return the pleasantry. In fact, she seemed to bristle at his very presence.

"Excuse me," she said coldly to Ron, "we were talking."

"Oh, I'm sorry," Ron apologized, "I didn't mean to interrupt, Bonnie, I was just …"

"And why are you using my name?" Bonnie asked incredulously, "Do I know you?"

As Ron's face fell, Kim snapped out of her stupor. She had been so shocked by Bonnie's hostile behavior toward Ron that she had been momentarily stunned. Sure, there had been bullies who had picked on or belittled her best friend in the past, but she had naturally assumed that anyone who had been eager to extend friendship to her would not have been that type of person.

"Hey, you can't do that! Apologize!" Kim demanded.

"You heard, her, loser," Bonnie smirked to Ron, "Say you're sorry."

Ron looked like he had been sucker-punched and was about to launch into just such an apology.

"Whoa!" Kim said sternly to Bonnie at the same time she gestured for Ron to stop giving whatever apology he could sniffle out. "Don't call him a loser! Bonnie, I was talking to you!"

"I'm sorry?" Bonnie asked, genuinely confused.

"Ron was just saying 'hello' to you, Bonnie. There's no reason to talk to him like that." Kim explained heatedly.

"Ron?" Bonnie asked with distaste. "Don't tell me you know this loser, Kim."

"He is NOT a loser!" Kim couldn't believe what this girl was saying.

Bonnie looked concerned. "A piece of advice, Kim, we're in sixth grade and next year we will be in middle school-the big leagues and you need to start distancing yourself from the pack." She stated these last two words with visible contempt, and meaningfully stepped in between Kim and Ron. "The sooner," she spoke conspiratorially, "the better."

She placed her hand on Kim's shoulder.

Kim jerked instantly away from Bonnie's touch. Her head was spinning. What was going on here? Who was this girl?

The disgust on Kim's face did not, by any means, go unnoticed by Bonnie. Bonnie shook her head slowly at Kim. She felt, in equal measure, pity and bewilderment. "What is it with you and this loser?" she breathed.

"STOP CALLING HIM THAT!" Kim yelled.

Fortunately, class had not yet begun and Miss Harlowe hadn't entered the room yet. Even so, Kim did have all eyes in the classroom on her. She was embarrassed, but she knew she had to make Bonnie understand. In a calmer, yet still heated voice, she explained to the brunette, "Ron is my best friend, Bonnie, and I am not going to stand here and let you insult him."

Bonnie couldn't believe what she was hearing. She started eyeing Kim warily, like she was coming around to the idea that some prank was being played on her. How could she have been so wrong about Kim? To all appearances, Kim seemed like an ideal partner/friend-someone with pull on the popularity chain that she could win over. Her being friends with one of the dregs of the school just didn't make sense. It was obvious Kim was not who she had appeared to be. In fact, it looked like she was going to be trouble for Bonnie; she was going to be a rival.

"What is wrong with you, Bonnie?" Kim asked. "I mean, after all, you split your lunch with Ron."

Now Ron AND Bonnie were staring at Kim in utter confusion.

The clouds lifted for Ron a few seconds later, and his face broke into a grin. "Hey! That's right! Two years ago … it was a tuna salad sandwich on toasted rye," he said happily to Bonnie. "It was verrrry good. Thanks again!"

Bonnie took a few slow but deliberate steps back from Kim and Ron. She had been confused before; now she was flat-out nervous. "Okay," she said looking from one to the other, "you two are whacked!"

Miss Harlowe entered the room at that moment, and everyone made their way to their desks. As she was walking away, Bonnie overheard Kim ask Ron if he was okay and reassure him that he wasn't a loser. Then another thought struck Bonnie. If Kim was that "caring" for someone like Ron, she would undoubtedly give a similar impression to most everyone else in class. If Kim was to be a rival, this might cause a lot of problems. She needed to beat Kim to the punch.

If charming her didn't work, and it certainly had not, Bonnie had to belittle her. This didn't appear to be such an easy task at first. There was very little to attack Kim on. Apart from her misguided principles, Kim was, by all accounts Bonnie had heard, very much on par with Bonnie in every way. Then the solution occurred to her. If she could hurt Kim through her sub-par friends, it would almost be as good as attacking Kim herself. And when it came to that, Bonnie could always pretend Kim and Ron were one and the same.

Bonnie soon learned another valuable piece of information about Kim. As smart as she was, the redhead was also open and trusting to the point of being naïve. Bonnie couldn't fault Kim for that; she herself had once been very trusting. It was just surprising that Kim was still that way. Apparently, she had never been burned by anyone before. Bonnie smiled inwardly (and outwardly for that matter) because that was going to change.

V.

Bonnie's influence on the class had been felt within the first few weeks. Suddenly, things that had mattered little, if at all, to the majority of students started to matter a great deal. Whether someone wore glasses, had freckles, rode the bus or had their parents chauffer them in a luxury car to school, and whether they had braces or not became of tantamount importance.

"Don't worry about Bonnie," Ron reasoned, "when your braces come off you teeth will be like perfect. She's just jealous of how they're going to look."

Kim smiled at Ron, but she self-consciously kept her mouth closed as she did so. He was sweet and probably right, but that didn't help her right now. Besides …

"It's not just Bonnie, Ron."

"Really," Ron asked just as he was about to stuff the rest of Kim's chimerito into his mouth, "what else is bugging you, KP?"

"Not what, but who," Kim answered sheepishly.

"Who?" Ron asked completely at sea. Well, not completely. He could sense that this was something major. Kim was most definitely uncomfortable about something. But if it wasn't Bonnie, who could be causing Kim so much grief?

"It's actually a boy," Kim said, looking despondently at her reflection in the table.

"A boy?" Ron asked both oars still out of the water.

"The new boy from Upperton," Kim sighed. She still sat dejected, her head pointed at the tabletop, but her eyes were closed.

Ron's ears started to twitch. He knew the boy she was talking about, but he didn't think he had ever gotten his name. Apparently, he had suddenly moved to town last week. So suddenly, in fact, that the kid had been introduced to the class in the late afternoon while Ron had been in the nursing station getting "a mishap" at recess remedied. When he got back to class, there was just this new kid sitting in the front row. For some reason Kim had never brought him up, and Ron had never thought to ask about him. Well, that wasn't true. Ron had thought about him, but had decided against bringing him up with Kim. He was a pretty boy after all.

None of that mattered though because it was so obvious what was wrong with KP. And why she was so embarrassed to talk about him.

"Who is it?" Ron asked a rising edge just discernable in his voice.

"Walter. Walter Nelson," Kim managed with a deflated sigh.

Ron exploded.

"Just who does he think he is making fun of my best friend!"

Kim was taken aback by Ron's outburst. She had never seen him so angry.

"He'll be lucky if he has any teeth once I …"

"Ron, chill out!" Kim said lowering Ron's raised arms (and the squishy remains of Kim's chimirito) down to the table.

"It isn't like that."

Kim was still a bit unnerved by Ron's explosion. What had gotten into him? His sudden anger had even scared her a little. "He is NOT picking on me. In fact, I don't think he has even seen my braces."

"Oh," Ron said completely calm again. "So," Ron asked rubbing the back of his neck, "What's the problem then, KP?" Although he was still at sea with what Kim was driving at, a small part of Ron felt the distinct impression that he was taking on water.

"No, Ron," Kim said a little sheepishly, "it is not exactly a problem or anything like that. It's just ..." then she smiled, again careful not to show her teeth and buried her head in her arms, "it's just that I think I like him."

" I didn't catch that, KP," Ron said, "your sweatshirt was kinda muffling what you said."

"I said that I like him!" Kim said shooting her head up from the sleeves of her sweatshirt. She pleaded with her eyes that he would understand THIS time; she so didn't want to have to say it again. For whatever reason, admitting to Ron that she actually liked liked a boy was both difficult and embarrassing for her.

"Huh?" Ron asked. "You like him? Well, I'm sure he likes you too or will once he gets to know you I mean you are ferociously friendly KP and I am sure that even if he is the new guy he's bound to join one of the clubs you're a member of ..."

"No, Ron," Kim had tunneled her left hand into her right sweatshirt sleeve and was anxiously scratching her right elbow, "I mean I like him like him."

"Oh," Ron said.

And then he said nothing for a long time.

A very long time.

In fact, he didn't even seem to be breathing. Kim was just beginning to think something was really wrong with him when he suddenly and unaccountably said, "... Rufus ..."

"Ron?" Kim said shaking his arm; he still seemed to be in some sort of a daze. "Ron, are you okay? Did you just say 'Rufus?'"

"Ahh," Ron shook his head and blinked rapidly. "I think I uh yeah I uh need to go to the bathroom, KP, uh sick yeah going to be sick ..." He stumbled out of the booth toward the restroom. Although he had addressed her as he came out of his "coma," Ron never looked at her or even glanced back to see her worried expression as he was swallowed by the men's room door.

VI.

It was very strange.

This feeling of utter despair was affecting Ron in ways he couldn't have foreseen. Even in his most paranoid nightmares after reading that horrible quiz in his mother's waiting room, he never would have imagined that Kim would start being drawn away from him within a week! Even at his lowest moment, when the Pixie Scouts were laughing at him in TJ Maxx, he had been worried that he might only have a few years left with Kim as a friend. A few years! That little bit of time seemed like forever now. He'd be lucky if their friendship lasted another month. Another month? Walter was a very good looking guy, very good looking. Goodprettyboylooking in every possible way. His friendship with Kim would barely last a week.

Since Ron was in the habit of crying over pretty much everything, he was a little surprised and disappointed in himself when he realized that as he sat moping in the handicapped bathroom stall (the non-handicapped stall was out of order) that he wasn't crying. Then he tried to cry. Tried to pour all the despair he felt out his eyes. But nothing came. His tears ducts were all dry. It was almost as if he felt too sad to cry. That was strange.

After sitting in the booth rocking back and forth for a little over ten minutes, Ron didn't feel better, but he was no longer in shock. He knew he had to go back out and face Kim. If nothing else, he couldn't leave Kim waiting for him forever in the BN lobby. She had already finished her food when he ran in the restroom and probably wanted to go home. Probably so she could write Nelson a love letter for tomorrow and... no. No, he was not going to be like that. For however long (or short) their friendship lasted, Ron was going to be the best friend to Kim he could be. After all, he reasoned, it isn't her fault. It is just the law of the universe. An unwritten law, but still a law. Pretty girls like pretty boys and eventually they don't have time for friendships with awkward guys.

VII.

Kim was definitely starting to worry about Ron. He had been in the bathroom for almost ten minutes. She had already cleaned up the mess he had left of the squashed chimirito (I've never seen him so angry), and couldn't shake the fact that she KNEW he had said "Rufus" before he had staggered and then bolted for the restroom. He NEVER did that anymore. In fact, the last time she could remember him calling out for his imaginary friend it had been, well, it had been a long time ago when they were just kids and she had been trying to teach him to roller blade.

He must really be feeling ill she thought. She was just about to ask one of the male employees to check on her friend when she realized the grande sized Sprite she had had with her meal was starting to take its toll. She quickly entered the Women's room, resolving to grab a BN employee as soon as she got out if Ron wasn't waiting for her.

VIII.

Ron didn't want to believe it. But it was true. Kim had left without him.

When he came out of the bathroom, she was no longer sitting in the booth. Their booth. The booth they always sat in ever since BN first opened. Ron even got down on his hands and knees to make sure she hadn't somehow slipped underneath the table. Not there.

He walked slowly around the dining area twice to make sure he hadn't somehow mistaken which booth was theirs. Since there were no other customers in the dining area (it was three-thirty on a Sunday afternoon after all), the second trip around the dining area was more out of desperation than to serve any practical purpose. What finally broke Ron, what finally broke his heart, was when he looked outside and noticed that Kim's bike was also gone.

She really had left him there.

He slowly opened the door and walked mournfully to the empty bike rack. He touched it gingerly as if he was checking to see if it was real.

When his hands closed around the cold metal, he felt an urge building from somewhere beneath his navel that rapidly rose to his shoulders, twisted its way up the back of his neck and cascaded from his eyes.

Ron could hardly breathe by the time he reached his house. Running the half a mile from BN had not been the best idea, he thought as he collapsed on his bed. He felt like the wind had been knocked out of him and the top of his mouth was burning. But what choice did he have? If he had walked home, he would have had to explain why he was crying to anyone whose path he crossed.

IX.

When Kim exited the restroom Ron was not waiting at their booth, or in the dining area, or in line again (that had happened more than once in the past). He must really have been sick. She asked the young man behind the counter (his nametag said "Ned") if he could see if her friend was all right in the Men's room.

"Oh, you mean the little blonde kid with the big ears?"

"Y-yes," Kim glowered at Ned. She so did not like it when anyone, especially people who didn't even know Ron, made fun of him.

"He left."

"What?"

"Yeah, just about a minute ago. In fact, he took off pretty quick. He was sprinting through the parking lot. He almost got hit by a car."

"Oh," Kim said, very concerned, "thanks."

"Have a muy bueno day," Ned replied with much less enthusiasm then he had invested in telling of Ron's recent departure.

Poor Ron! He must be super sick, Kim thought as she pushed open the doors of Buena Nacho and headed for home. She wondered if she should stop by and check on Ron, but thought better of it. If he is THAT sick, I should probably just give him a call in a couple of hours.

She was so preoccupied with worry over her friend's condition that she automatically walked up to the bike rack to retrieve her non-existent bicycle. "Doi!" Kim slapped her forehead. She had forgotten that the tweebs had appropriated all the spokes on her bike (not the wheels or the tires-just the spokes) the previous evening for some "experiment" of theirs. She had forgotten to break the news to Ron when his mother dropped him off to meet her at BN. He would have been disappointed … if he hadn't gotten sick that is.

Ron loved to sit on the handlebars while Kim pedaled. Not the safest way to travel, but it was fun, and it certainly built-up the muscles in her legs she would need to be in great shape if she was to try out for the cheer squad this summer. Although Kim enjoyed giving Ron rides on her bike, she didn't mind walking, and since Ron was not here it didn't matter anyway.

No, she thought as she crossed the street and entered her neighborhood, I'll at least stop by and see if Ron made it home okay. Kim took the fork that led to Ron's house; she still couldn't shake the memory of Ron saying "Rufus" though. He might have said it because of extreme bellyflips, but something told her that wasn't quite right.

His father's car was in the driveway, so Kim rang Ron's bell and waited.

Elliot Stoppable seemed surprised to see Kim, especially since he knew that his wife had dropped Ron off to meet her at Bueno Nacho just an hour ago. Kim explained that Ron had gotten sick at the restaurant and according to a BN employee had run all the way home. Ron's father had just driven up a few minutes earlier and wasn't sure if Ron was home or not. He invited Kim inside and hurriedly went to his son's room to see if he was there.

Mr. Stoppable came down the stairs a few moments later. Ron had been fast asleep on his bed. Although he was completely dead to the world, Ron's forehead had not felt hot, so Elliot didn't believe he had a fever.

"I'll check on him in about a half hour, but he seems fine."

As he walked her to the door, Elliot thanked her for stopping by. "I know this isn't exactly on your way home … hey—where's your bike."

"A little sibling problem," Kim said making a face.

"One of their experiments?" Ron's father asked with a laugh.

"So they say," Kim said with an attempted smile.

Even at six, the tweebs were known throughout the neighborhood for their inability to keep their hands to themselves or to keep their experiments to their own yard. In fact, one of their first prototype rockets had landed in the Stoppable's back yard. Elliot had been somewhat miffed by the small projectile but when he later learned that a couple of four-year-olds were responsible, amazement had replaced his anger. Like most of the Possibles' neighbors, Elliot Stoppable viewed the young twins with a combination of amusement and wariness.

"Anyway," Elliot smiled, "it was really nice of you to go out your way to check on Ron."

"Well, he's my best friend, Mr. Stoppable, so it's no big." She smiled, almost forgetting about her braces, and waved goodbye.

Thank goodness Ron's all right. She thought as she headed for home.

X.

He was not.


To Be Continued ...

Chapter Text

"Flesh and blood, I'm yours forever / And forever, it never dies." -Neil Diamond

I.

When he awoke from disturbing dreams that he couldn't remember, Ron Stoppable had trouble determining what time of day it was or, indeed, what day it was in the first place.

The sky outside his window was deep purple, the half-light of evening … or of morning. He didn't remember falling asleep, but he must have. Running nearly a mile at top speed and crying all the way, he must have worn himself out. Or maybe he just fell asleep to escape what he had been running from.

He still couldn't believe Kim would have taken off without him. She was his best friend; she'd never do something like that to him. It was all like some horrible nightmare.

Maybe it was a nightmare. And now it was morning, Sunday morning! Kim still hadn't gone to church yet. They were still going to meet at BN afterwards. None of it had happened yet!

As these thoughts rushed through his mind, Ron excitedly thought about calling his friend as soon as possible. He had overslept that morning, no, he had dreamed he had overslept that morning and missed out on joining her family for church. But that wouldn't happen now. He had to go, and he would hug her tightly when he first saw her, no, no he would act natural. He might tell her about the dream, but no! He would tell her he had a bad dream, but not about what. He would do anything he could to make her happy, to make her want to never stop being friends with him, he would …

"Burp!"

Simultaneously, three things occurred that told Ron the sad fact that it was Sunday evening, not morning, and that the horrible day had not been a dream.

First, the sky grew noticeably darker, not lighter. Second, Ron heard the hum of the TV antenna changing position on the roof. His father always fiddled with the antenna on Sunday evenings to try and pick up PBS. Finally, the distinct chimerito flavor to his belch confirmed the awful reality of the day he had just undergone.

Ron bitterly vowed never to eat at Bueno Nacho ever again.

He was too depressed to get up. He lay in his bed and allowed the night that was slowly darkening his window to wash over him. He felt like he had lost everything he had ever cared about, and, as painful as that feeling was, he wanted to wallow in it. The only pleasure he saw in the darkness of his friendless future was throwing a gigantic pity fiesta for himself. Laying awake all night in utter darkness seemed like a good start.

For five minutes. And then the grande-sized root beer he had drunk a few hours earlier started to kick in.

With an annoyed groan, Ron pushed himself out of bed and wandered to his bedroom door. Even with the lights off, he knew where every toy, book, pair of semi-clean underwear lay on his floor. Inside his room, Ron had the radar instincts of a bat. So why was he so clumsy everywhere outside of his room in broad daylight?

As he walked down the stairs, Ron didn't seem to feel the steps. His mind was so awash and numb with despair that he felt unconnected with his body … with the obvious exception of his bladder. He didn't even hear his father calling him until the elder Stoppable patted him on his shoulder. Of course, this resulted in Ron almost not making it to the bathroom.

"Are you all right, son?"

"Y-yeah, y-you just scared me a little, Dad," Ron stammered, trying to catch his breath and otherwise recoup.

"Are you sure?" his father asked, "I called you about four times and you acted like you didn't know I was there." Ron's dad placed the back of his wrist against Ron's forehead. "Still no fever."

"Dad," Ron said testily, moving away from his father's touch, "I am fine. Whatever gave you the idea I had a fever, that I was sick?"

Elliot Stoppable didn't know what to make of his son's sudden show of temper. Ron was not usually like that; however, he wrote it off to after effects of his sudden illness at Bueno Nacho. "Well, Kimberly said that you were sick. That you even ran all the way home from the restaurant."

"Kim?" Ron asked hopefully. Then he forced his mood to blacken again. So she's feeling guilty about dumping me there. Fine.

"Did she call or something?" Ron said acidly and turned toward the bathroom.

"No," his father still couldn't make out why Ron seemed so angry, "she stopped by a couple of hours ago to see if you made it home all right."

Ron barely heard him as he walked in the bathroom and shut/slammed the door closed.

II.

Kim had been staring at the same word problem for five minutes, doodling in the margins of her notebook and oblivious to the chaos going on around her. Her father was chasing after her twin brothers who, in addition to the spokes of her bicycle, had "borrowed" some of his blueprints from work. At the same time, the television was on full blast on Country Music Televison because in addition to the spokes, and the blue prints, Jim and Tim had also "modified" the universal remote for the Possible entertainment system so neither the channel or volume switches worked anymore.

In the kitchen, Anne Possible acted equally oblivious to the pandemonium in the living room; of course, she was focusing on preparing dinner. Kim, however, was oblivious to every male member of the family as they each jumped over her prone form on the floor because she was completely unfocused.

Well, maybe not completely unfocused. On the right margin of her notebook she had scribbled the following:

Walter

Walter Nelson

Kim + Walter

Walter + Kim

Kim Nelson

They were heartless doodles since neither Walter's first or last names contained any "i"'s, and it seemed silly to Kim to dot the "i" in her name with a heart.

The last video she had heard before the modified remote had gone haywire was from one of the older country guys that her father seemed to like. She hadn't really been listening or watching but she did catch his last name: "Nelson." And that had started her down the daydream path with the pretty boy from Upperton.

Suddenly, Kim's mind switched back to its previous topic: Ron. On the bottom half of the page, she had absently doodled a couple of crude, stick-like pictures of Ron: smiling, waving, running, goofing. As pleasant a diversion as Walter had provided for the briefest of moments, her thoughts and feelings about him couldn't keep her mind off her growing concern for her best friend.

"Okay, guys!" Anne Possible called in a pleasant voice that also conveyed unequivocally that she meant business, "It's time for dinner!"

James T. Possible and his two namesakes immediately stopped horsing around and piled into the kitchen. Lost in thought, Kim did not move.

"Kimmie, time to eat." Anne called.

"Huh?-oh, I-I'm not hungry, mom."

"Are you feeling sick, honey?" Anne knew about Ron's misadventure at Bueno Nacho earlier in the afternoon, and although she knew food poisoning typically took more than twenty-four hours to hit, it was still possible that Ron had some other type of bug that might be affecting Kim.

"No," Kim looked up, "just worried."

"Why don't you give Ron a call? I'm sure once you find out he's going to be fine, you'll get your appetite back." Anne could tell when her daughter was moping about her best friend. When Ron had spent the summer at Camp Wannaweep, Kim had been this listless for weeks straight, and it took everything Anne could come up with to get her daughter's spirits up.

"Okay."

"Oh, and Kim, could you turn the television off? That music is driving me crazy!"

"O-oh, sure. I didn't notice it."

III.

When the phone rang, Elliot Stoppable had just sat back down at his desk. Since he was not expecting a call and did remember the phone's ringer being turned up so loud, he gave a slight yelp and jump that caused the stack of compact discs on his desk to cascade to the floor. He took two deep breaths and then picked up the receiver.

Just at that moment, Ron started to leave the bathroom.

"Oh, hi, Kimberly. No, Ron's awake." Elliot said cheerfully. "In fact, he is right here … Ron!"

As stealthily as he could, Ron tiptoed back into the bathroom and shut the door.

Elliot looked bewildered at the shut door; he could have sworn he saw Ron coming out seconds before.

"Actually, Kimberly, he is in the restroom right now. Can I have him give you a call back? Okay. No, no, he still doesn't have a fever. Yes, I think he will be all right. I'll let him know you called. Bye, now."

After he hung up the phone, Ron's dad stared at the bathroom door. From the way the shadows fell against the light coming from underneath the jam, he would swear Ron was pacing in there. He shook his head and began restacking the discs on his desk.

IV.

Ron was trying his best not to start crying again. But, as it seemed practically everyone in his life was always reminding him, his best was not always good enough. As he tried to muffle his cries with his hand, the thought occurred to him that the only person, other than maybe his father, who never doubted his best was Kim. This just made him cry harder. He was grateful for the churning of the exhaust fan; hopefully, his father wouldn't be able to hear him.

Ron suddenly became aware of a melody coming from the other side of the door. His father must have just started playing music. The tune seemed very, very familiar, but who cared?

He had so wanted to run to the phone when his father had answered it and had spoken his best friend's, no, his former best friend's full first name. Heck, he had felt a strong pull at the first ring, even before his father picked up the receiver. At the same time, however, the cool feel of the bike rack came back to him.

Why did she do that?

Sure, he was a loser. He knew that now, and he couldn't really blame her for realizing it too and wanting to stop … to stop being friends with him.

But why didn't she at least say good-bye to me?

If she is feeling guilty now, good. She should!

He would have done anything for her. He would have given up their friendship freely without regret … at least without much regret … or at least not THIS much regret if she had just asked him to. He wiped his nose with the last bit of toilet paper on the spool and then looked underneath the sink for another roll. There wasn't one.

Great!

For the second time that day, Ron felt a strong urge to call out to his imaginary friend. He fought it as best he could, but all his feelings were crowding around him. He needed some kind of release to give him emotional breathing room. Ron sniffled twice, tried to steady his quivering lower lip, wiped his nose on his shirt sleeve, and gave voice to his misery in a quiet cry for help.

"Kimmmmmmmm."

Wait I minute! I didn't say Rufus! Why did I say Kim?

Suddenly, it occurred to Ron that he had been friends with Kim for so long that Rufus wasn't there anymore. Like the Neil Diamond song that he used to listen to constantly, Kim-the Kim that until that afternoon had been his real friend-had taken the place of his imaginary one. For some strange reason, this made Ron feel a little better. And then he realized something else; the music he had heard his father playing a few minutes earlier had been that very song. He half smiled.

Maybe if the real Kim was no longer his friend, her memory – his Kim – could still be. That way Kim could still be his friend in his heart.

As crazy as that sounded, and it did sound crazy, Ron couldn't deny that it also made him feel good and that he was no longer crying. Maybe crazy wouldn't be such a bad thing to be … at least for a little while.

V.

As Ron made his way through the living room toward the stairs, his father swiveled in his desk chair to face him, "Kimberly called."

Ron tried his best not to noticeably wince at the sound of his former best friend's name. "Oh yeah," he said as cheerfully as he could, mentally running through happy memories he and Kim had shared and trying to focus on one long enough to keep himself from tearing up.

"She wanted to make sure you were feeling okay."

"Yeah, cool," Ron answered with a half-smile. He was thinking about how Kim had helped him with a planet mobile made from Styrofoam balls in fifth grade. They had gotten high marks because, unlike every other group that had only given Saturn rings, they-with insider knowledge from Kim's dad-had placed rings around Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune as well. No matter what it was they did, Kim always made him feel important … or she always had, that is.

Don't cry, don't cry …

"You really have a good friend in Kimberly …" Elliot Stoppable continued as Ron tried to make it up to his room as quickly as possible without looking like he was trying to make it up to his room as quickly as possible.

Man! It is almost like he knows and is trying to torture me!

Ron wasn't sure if he could maintain the plastered smile on his face if his father said any more nice things about Kim.

"I mean to walk all the way out here …"

"Huh?" Ron froze.

For the second time in a half hour, Ron's dad gave a yelp, jumped out of his seat, and knocked over the tower of compact discs at his right elbow. This time it was because Ronald, who mere seconds before had been at the top of the stairs, was suddenly at his left elbow.

"What do you mean 'walk?'" Ron asked.

After letting a small groan escape, Elliot bent over to collect the discs from the floor and explained that by "walk" he meant … well … walk, as in to travel by foot. "Oh," he continued, "I guess you didn't know. The terrible twosome apparently did something to Kimberly's bike yesterday, so she walked here."

When his father faced Ron again, he could have sworn his son had just undergone a growth spurt. He seemed to be standing a full two inches taller. His eyes were alert, if somewhat bleary; he looked wired. Elliot, as a precaution, waved a hand in front of his son's face. No reaction. Still more bemused then worried, he took Ron's wrist in his hand and felt for a pulse. Yes, even though he didn't seem to be breathing, Ron was still alive.

"So," Elliot Stoppable continued, as if everything was normal – he had learned from experience that this was the best course of action whenever his only child seemed to be acting … well … bizarre, "have you tried it out yet?"

"Huh?" Ron shook his head vigorously and blinked a few times, as if he was just waking up for school after not getting enough rest. The only difference, his father noted, was that when Ron woke up for school, he typically wasn't wearing a broad grin.

"The cassette player," his father explained. "You were really dead to the world, Ron. I set up the player while you were sleeping. You didn't even budge when I knocked one of the speakers off your shelf. Don't tell me you didn't notice your new sound system."

Ron then noticed the large stacks of compact discs on his father's desk and then his eyes shot to the entertainment center. Right below their betamaxx was a "new" compact disc player with a five disc carousel where the old cassette player used to be.

"Gene just got some new thing that plays those CDR, MPG or MP3 things, and he said I could have his old player and all his old compact discs."

"Wow!" Ron exclaimed as he jumped in the air and proceeded to dance in place. Ron was, of course, excited by the new technology but not as excited as he was letting on to be. In fact, he was channeling what he was really excited about – the fact that the end of his friendship with Kim had been, after a fashion, a bad dream.

VI.

Kim had been staring at herself in the mirror for five minutes trying to practice her best smile without opening her lips. So far, the best non-teeth, non-brace smile looked like an uncomfortable grimace. The worst smile looked like she was trying to hold back a yell after someone had stomped on her foot.

This is so not happening! I can't even say "Hi," "Walter," or "Nelson" without my braces showing!

She was getting pretty frustrated. There was no getting around it; she had braces and there was no way to hide them and still look normal. Just as she was about to switch off the light in disgust and head off to bed in a funk, Kim remembered something Ron had said to her earlier in the day.

She dropped her hand from the switch and looked straight into the mirror. Taking a deep breath, she slowly, hesitantly, smiled her best smile, braces and all.

She was still not happy with what she saw, but she had to admit that the braces didn't look too horrible, and she did look normal with them showing.

"Hi Walter! I'm Kim Possible. Nice to meet you, Walter, I'm Kim."

She couldn't help noticing how red she got when she spoke Walter's name. It was crazy; her cheeks were almost the same color as her hair!

Kim so hoped she wouldn't be blushing this much when she really spoke to him the next day. Then she realized that if she was concerned about her cheeks, she was no longer bothered by her braces. Wow!

She smiled broadly and practiced her greeting one more time with a noticeable downshift in the blush factor. She could do this, she could.

No big!

As she flipped off the light, Kim happily whispered to the darkness, "Thanks, Ron."

VII.

Ron couldn't sleep. He was too excited. Too excited about his new cassette player and the new collection of tapes he had inherited from his father. Of course that was all gravy to the immense feeling of relief that had washed over him when he realized that Kim hadn't abandoned him at Bueno Nacho. She was still the same caring friend she had always been.

Of course, that relief had been replaced by a few minutes of intense guilt over how he had been feeling about her earlier.

Oh man! How could I have ever doubted her? And then refused her call? Oh man, I am such a jerk!

By the time he realized that he was a jerk with the best friend in the world and not a loser without any friends, it was almost ten, and Kim would already be in bed. So he would have to wait to apologize until he saw her at school the next day.

Then again, how could he apologize since she didn't even know he had been a jerk? Maybe it would be best to pretend nothing had happened since nothing had, in fact, happened?

No, that wasn't right; something had happened—he had mistrusted his best friend even if she didn't know it.

This is going to be hard.

Then the perfect solution occurred to him. His father's tape deck, well, his tape deck, was a dual tape deck. He could make Kim a mix tape and give it to her as a surprise present tomorrow! Ron's father had made his mother a tape a few years ago for their anniversary. Why couldn't he make one for Kim?

Fortunately, part of Elliot Stoppable's cassette collection contained a half dozen unopened blank tapes. Unfortunately, the collection was not exactly ordered as meticulously as it could have been. In addition, his father had thrown out all the cases for the tapes (they took up "too much" space), so, at first glance, all the case-less tapes pretty much looked alike (most were made of white plastic with black type on them – a handful were white with light blue type). In short, searching through the various stacks of almost identical cassette tapes for the song Ron knew would be the "perfect first song" took a great deal of time. By the time he had the original tape and the blank tape cued up to begin recording, it was practically eleven.

Ron hooked up the earphones which fortunately fit in the cassette's output jack as well as they had in the 8-track's. The earphones no longer looked comically oversized on Ron's head (in fact, they fit his ears perfectly); all the same, they did look disproportionately large on his head.

As the song played, Ron bobbed his head to the melody as he mouthed the words. He knew the song so well that he could sing (or mouth) along while he wrote up a set list of songs he wanted to record next for Kim.

Wow! With ninety minutes I could put like fifty songs on it! Boy, is Kim gonna be surprised!

Math had never been one of Ron's strong subjects.

Then something strange happened. Ron was bobbing along to the melody when he realized that the song hadn't stopped where it should have. It just kept going and then, even more disturbing, the singer kept signing too. It wasn't like the chorus was being repeated either; these were words he had never heard before.

When the song really did end, Ron rewound the tape and played the "new" section of the song again. Then he rewound it a second time and played it to the end again. Ron was so agitated that he failed to notice that he hadn't stopped recording on the second deck.

After he rewound the tape a third time and listened to the song's last verse one final time, he shut off the stereo's power. He slowly took the earphones off and let them drop to the floor. He stared at his hands as they lay in his lap and tried to control his breathing. He didn't know what to do.

"Shilo" was the name of the singer's imaginary friend, but it was NOT, as he had always thought, the same person as the "young girl with fire." That was the singer's real friend … or his girlfriend. And at the end of the song, she left him. She left him, and he was alone with nobody. Nobody but his imaginary friend. His nothing friend. The song ended with the lonesome singer calling out for this friend, this friend that had never existed in the first place.

It wasn't just that Ron had been fooled by what the song was really about for so long. Although that really tanked.

It wasn't just because the song was now completely inappropriate for the tape. He wasn't going to make the tape now anyway.

What upset him was the fact that what the song was really about was what he feared was going to happen to him and Kim. Maybe not today or tomorrow. But it would happen. It would.

Man, I am so tired of crying.

His chin started to quiver, but he fought against it. He ejected the original tape, snatched it from the player and chucked it as hard as he could across the room. Fortunately, Ron's throw wasn't hard enough for the cassette to reach the opposite wall of his room; it landed harmlessly on his bed.

In a rage, Ron jerked the drawer to his desk open, dug through the papers, pencils, and 8-tracks that lay jumbled inside, and tore out the Neil Diamond cartridge. His hands trembling with anger, he placed it on the floor and stomped his heel down on it as hard as he could.

With bitter satisfaction, he raised his foot and surveyed the damage. The top of the plastic case was caved in and he could see a few crinkled magnetic strips inside.

Then he remembered.

A surge of complex emotions washed over his features. And as Ron Stoppable went to his knees on the carpet of his bedroom floor, he started to cry again.

But there was a difference. This time Ron was happy.

VIII.

For an entire week during the August of their tenth year, Kim refused to go to Ron's house or even to speak to him.

Ron had received a belated birthday gift from his Aunt Naomi at the beginning of the month. Well, "belated" wasn't exactly correct. "Replacement" was better, but not right either. The important point was that Aunt Naomi had arrived to visit on the Fourth of July with Cousin Shawn in tow. Fortunately for her, Kim had been with the rest of her family spending the holiday with Nana in Florida; she had yet to meet Ron's horrible cousin. During the course of the holiday, the two-year-old had somehow managed to destroy Ron's Atari 2600 video game system. How he had gotten a hold of the fireplace lighter and the screwdriver (both of which had been locked away in cabinets far too high for even Ron to reach without the benefit of a kitchen chair AND a stepladder) was a question that Elliot Stoppable could neither answer nor really wanted to. Although his sister-in-law's son was family, he simply could not shake images of the movie The Omen from his mind whenever Shawn's name was mentioned. He had once even absentmindedly referred to the toddler as "Damien" in front of his wife. Barbara had not been amused.

In any case, Aunt Naomi had purchased Ron one of the newer state-of-the-art video game consoles to replace Ron's barbequed and eviscerated unit. The day it was delivered, Ron excitedly called Kim over to play with his new system.

That is when the trouble began. It wasn't so much that Ron beat her at every game, and beat her soundly. True, that was annoying, but the problem was that when he was playing he didn't even seem to notice she was there. After a particularly thorough bashing at his hands in "Blood Sport III: This Time It's Really Personal," Kim got up to get a glass of milk from the kitchen. When she asked Ron if he wanted some too, he didn't seem to hear her. When she came back, she found that he had started playing another game without her. After watching him beat the computer opponents to bloody pulps for about a half hour, Kim started to get bored.

She tried clearing her throat to get his attention. Nothing. She started tapping her foot rather loudly against the coffee table. Still nothing. Finally, she reverted to tossing some of the shipping peanuts from the box the game came in across his line of vision. He was so grimly focused on the images jumping on the screen that even this did not faze him. Finally, more than a little upset, Kim got up and announced that she was going home.

"Cool, KP, see you tomorrow," Ron said without averting his eyes from the screen for even a split second.

Kim rode her bike home slowly; as mad as she was, she was still more sad than angry.

The next day Kim arrived at the Stoppable house to find Ron still playing games on that stupid console. If it wasn't for the fact that he typically wore the same things everyday anyway, she would have seriously questioned whether he had moved an inch during the past 24 hours.

He didn't even respond to her saying hello. After fifteen minutes of stewing in silence as she watched Ron grimly blast mutant gerbils on the television screen, Kim stood up and left the house without saying goodbye.

She pedaled her bike home at top speed; she was no longer sad. She decided then and there that she was not going back over to Ron's house until he called her and apologized for being such a jerk.

A week went by.

When Kim came back from an extended bike ride to the Middleton Mall one day, her mother had a message from Ron. He had called and wanted her to come over. Anne couldn't remember exactly what Ron had said, only that he said it was "very important."

Kim's initial reaction had been extreme relief. However, she immediately covered her feelings over with a mask of stern indignation. Why had it taken him a week to call? Wasn't their friendship worth more than that?

Secretly, Kim had started to worry that Ron would never call and that she had lost him forever. As irrational as she knew that fear to be, she had still had trouble getting to sleep the last few nights.

As angry as she tried to make herself, Kim couldn't hide the joy bubbling through her as she pedaled furiously over to Ron's house. The fact remained that even though he had been a jerk, Kim had missed Ron terribly.

It was a weekday afternoon, so it was not surprising that the Stoppable's cars were not in the drive. Kim thought that was a good thing. Since they were going to have a fairly intense discussion (this had been the longest fight in their very long friendship), it would be best if she and Ron were alone.

As Kim marched to the door, her resolve started to weaken. Up to that point, she had been steadfast that Ron would have to apologize before she would speak to him, but now she just wanted to see him. He didn't have to apologize right away. If he wanted to come around to it after they had hung out for a while it would be fine. Ron sometimes felt nervous when it came to serious discussions after all.

Although Ron was in the habit of coming into the Possible's house without knocking, Kim had never felt comfortable doing that when she came over to his home. Maybe it was because she never felt as comfortable around Ron's parents as he felt around hers. In any case, even with Ron's parents gone, she didn't feel right just barging into someone else's house. She knocked on the door. No answer.

After a few minutes, she knocked again. No answer.

She took a deep breath and gently turned the handle and opened the door.

"Ron?" she asked from the doorway. No answer.

"Ron?" she called a little louder. Still no answer.

She was trying to decide whether to call again or to knock on the door and then call again.

"KP! Come on in!"

"Eeep!" His call had been so sudden that Kim had jumped. As she walked in and closed the door it occurred to her that Ron's voice hadn't sounded particularly concerned, much less apologetic.

She walked into the living room and there was Ron in almost the exact same position she had left him a week ago. He didn't even turn around when she came in the room. Before she could even register the disappointment and anger that was started to course through her, Ron called out, without turning to face her, "Wait 'til you see this new game, Kim, it's badical! Oh, and could you fetch me a glass of milk, thanks!"

Kim had never been angrier. Ron had no intention of apologizing. He probably didn't even know he had done anything wrong! And that request for milk wasn't a request at all. Underneath the white hot anger she was feeling was also a deep hurt. A small voice was crying in her head asking, "Did he even notice I was gone for a week?" This same small voice had actually been crying off and on all week long. She had missed him, and he, evidently, had not missed her.

Without fully knowing what she was going to do, Kim walked up behind Ron. He still didn't turn around; he was too fixated on that stupid game. She looked down at the console and before she could stop herself, all the anger and hurt that had been simmering within her for over a week erupted from her heart, shot down the length of her right leg, and exploded in a violent kick she gave Ron's game console.

"DUDE! What do you think you're doing!" Ron yelled.

"Don't call me 'Dude,' Ron!" Kim yelled back at him.

"Man! Don't kick my stuff!" Ron yelled back.

Kim had started to roll her eyes in response to Ron replacing "dude" with "man" but then she realized, much to her anger and dismay, that she had started to cry.

"I-I," she sniffled and then erupted again, "I HATE YOU, RON STOPPABLE!"

Although she couldn't see it happen because she was crying too hard, all the anger immediately drained from Ron's face. "Wh-what?" he asked.

"Y-you care more about these stupid games then about our friendship! Then you do about me!"

"K-Kim, I," Ron said raising his hands and shaking his head.

"I haven't been here in over a week, Ron! And you didn't even notice, did you!"

Although she hadn't meant it as a question, Ron treated it as such. "A week?"

"Yes! An entire week! I'm your best friend and … and, oh, forget it!" She turned and stomped toward the door.

"Kim, please," he had gotten up and was trying to catch up with her.

"Don't say you're sorry, Ron!" she was running toward the door now.

Ron didn't know what to say but he had to say something, something to keep her from leaving, so he asked the obvious. "Where are you going?"

"HOME!" She screamed as she ran through the door and slammed it shut in his face.

She didn't even reach her bike before the noise reached her. Ron was crying. Even though he was still inside, even though she was a good twenty feet from his door, and even though she was still crying, she heard him.

I don't care. He is such a jerk. I DON'T care.

But she did.

Immediately, she recognized his cries. Since they were little kids, he had cried often over minor things. He had steadily gotten better at controlling his emotions, and Kim had noticed that in the past year Ron had only cried during action films. As much as it had always pained her whenever her best friend cried, only once had it broken her heart—when they were six and she had skinned her knee. He was crying just like that now.

She ran as fast she could through the Stoppables' yard, threw open the door and looked desperately around for her best friend.

"Ron?"

From the doorway Kim could see him in the living room jumping up and down. She walked quietly into the room. He was smashing a game under the heel of his shoe.

"Ron! Please stop!"

At the sound of her voice, Ron stopped, turned to face her, and collapsed to his knees in tears. She ran to him and fell to her knees. They embraced each other tightly.

They stayed that way for several minutes.

Days later Kim offered to pay to replace the new game Ron had smashed. She had just started babysitting and could afford it. Ron would not hear of it. Other than that, they never spoke about what happened again. They didn't even say they were sorry for what each had done to the other.

They didn't have to.

They were alone in the house, so there were no witnesses. It had nothing to do with like liking each other. No words were passed. Yet as they kneeled on the carpet, hugging each other tightly and crying, Kim Possible and Ron Stoppable silently pledged their love for each other.

IX.

Almost two years later, a cracked Neil Diamond 8-track cartridge reminded Ron Stoppable of a smashed jewel case for a video game whose name he couldn't remember.

Within moments, he was in bed sleeping peacefully.

X.

Kim Possible, however, was not able to sleep.

Even though she had gone to bed in a good mood, having tentatively overcome her "braces ish," she was restless. Even the tried and true trick of using her Pandaroo as an extra pillow hadn't helped.

The problem was Ron. Although she had been reassured about her best friend's condition when she had last spoken to his father, something about it still troubled her.

For some reason she kept thinking about the moment when Ron first got sick. It had come on so suddenly. At first she had thought there was something ferociously wrong with his chimerito. Of course, her mother had reminded her that it typically took more than a day for true food poisoning to take effect. Furthermore, Ron had always had an iron-clad stomach; she had never known him to get sick to his stomach unless he was riding a rollercoaster. And, of course, there was the fact that it had been her chimerito that he had been eating when he got sick. She certainly didn't notice anything wrong with the half she had eaten.

As she replayed the moment in her memory, she suddenly recalled what she had said just before Ron complained of getting ill.

She had revealed to him that she like liked Walter Nelson.

Wait a minute. No. No. It couldn't be.

But it could.

She was now sitting up in bed, a very worried expression on her face.

Could it be? Does Ron like like me?


To Be Continued ...

 

Chapter Text

"You're the reason for my today / Was tempest tossed, now I sleep soundly"

-Neil Diamond

I.

Anne Possible watched her eldest child listlessly pick at her breakfast. Kim had been distracted since yesterday afternoon. Although Anne had thought she detected an uplift to her daughter's spirits after speaking with Ron's father a little before bedtime, whatever lift that call had given her had most definitely worn off. Kim seemed more upset than ever.

Anne went to the fridge to get her twin sons more milk. When she returned to the kitchen table and had refilled the boys' glasses, she sensed that something was most definitely off. It took her a few seconds to determine what it was, but when she did she was amused, infuriated, and greatly concerned all at once.

Kim's hair was in pigtails. This was strange because Kim had not worn her hair like that in years, and she most definitely had not been wearing it like that just a few seconds ago.

The reason this sudden change in hairstyle amused, infuriated, and greatly concerned Anne was because the makeshift pigtails had been fastened with strips of bacon.

"BOYS!"

By the time Anne's outraged yell had cascaded off the linoleum tiles of the kitchen, both of her heretofore innocent-looking sons had sprinted out of the room and shot through the front door to await the arrival of the bus all three Possible children caught for Middleton Elementary.

Kim's continued distraction to both her mother's sudden outburst and the removal of the bacon strips from her hair greatly concerned Anne. Something was most definitely wrong.

"Come on, Honey," Anne said as she led her daughter to the kitchen sink, "we have to wash your hair real quick."

"Huh?" Kim asked without noticeable concern.

"The boys put bacon in it."

"Oh," Kim said numbly. "WHAT!" she suddenly yelled.

Anne gave a relieved sigh. Thank goodness!

"Those little …," Kim growled. "Wait! What time is it? I'm going to miss the bus!"

"Don't worry, Kimmie, I'll give you a ride to school - my shift doesn't start until noon. This won't take but a few minutes; you won't even be late."

Anne grabbed a towel and the bottle of Kim's strawberry-scented shampoo from the bathroom. She wrapped the towel around Kim's shoulders and gently tilted her head into the sink. With the sprayer attachment, she wet down the "baconey" sections of Kim's hair and worked in the shampoo. Since there were only two greasy spots to take care of, this would be much quicker than if Kim had gone to the trouble of jumping in the shower and rewashing all of her hair.

As Anne rinsed the soap from Kim's hair, she couldn't help recalling the last time she washed one of her children's heads in the sink. It had been two summers ago as a matter of fact.

No, wait. That was Ron.

Anne smiled at how easily she had lumped Kim's best friend in with the rest of her children. However, the incident in question was no laughing matter.

Ron had just come home from spending most of the summer at Camp Wannaweep. Kim had been very excited to see Ron, and he had been even more excited to see her. In fact, he exuded a level of desperate relief that, for some reason, reminded Anne of William Holden's character at the beginning of Bridge on the River Kwai. Of course, he would be a freckled, tow-headed, stick-thin, nine-year-old William Holden; nonetheless, Ron was extremely excited to see Kim again and to be in the Possibles' home.

Ten minutes into his visit, Ron asked Anne if she wouldn't mind too much checking him for ticks. Kim had relayed to Anne the "lowlights" of Ron's "vacation" at the camp, and they had both agreed that Ron was either suffering from such a serious degree of homesickness that he was actively hallucinating or that he was simply exaggerating his misadventures in order to get Kim and Anne to convince Barbara Stoppable to bring her son home early.

However, as she began giving Ron's scalp a cursory once over, she was shocked by what she saw. Ron's head was literally alive with ticks. How such a thing had escaped the camp nurse, the counselors, let alone Barbara on the ride home, was completely beyond Anne.

She had kept her shock to herself and instructed Kim to bring her some tweezers and some rubbing alcohol. Although Kim was as fearless as a nine-year-old could be, even she got a little queasy as Ron leaned over the kitchen sink and she saw what her mother was facing.

Fortunately, Kim and her mother's calm demeanors seemed to keep Ron from panicking. In fact, he seemed almost relieved that the ticks were actually there. His scalp had been bothering him for weeks, and he thought for sure he was going crazy when no one had the camp could (or would) find anything wrong with it.

Kim held Ron's hand the entire time and told him what little she could remember about her summer and what she had planned for them to accomplish in the two weeks before school got back in session.

After practically two hours of grueling work, Anne removed the last tick. She then gave Ron a thorough scrubbing with the antiseptic shampoo that James Possible had picked up on his way home from the rocket center. Anne had James surreptitiously remove the lemonade pitcher full of rubbing alcohol where the dozens of removed ticks were being preserved for testing.

Amazingly, none of the ticks tested positive for Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, or anything else that might have resulted in a drawn-out lawsuit against the camp.

As Kim toweled off her hair, Anne looked at her eleven-year-old daughter. Now that the hair crisis was over, she had sunk back into the same listlessness as before. Anne resolved to utilize the ride to school to find out what could be bothering Kim. Since, last she had heard, Ron was doing better, there had to be something else going on.

As Anne pulled the family van out of the Possible drive, Kim said in a very small voice, "Mom, do you think Ron like likes me?"

"Honey?" Anne had not been prepared for Kim to spill without at least a little prodding.

"I think I made Ron sick yesterday." Kim continued in a downcast tone.

"Okay, Kimmie," Anne said, "I think you need to back up a little." Anne felt somewhat ambushed and needed to get her bearings if she was going to help her daughter with her problem or problems. She decided to tackle what seemed to be the easier issue. "Why do you think you made Ron sick?"

"Well," Kim began hesitantly, "I was thinking last night about what happened just before he got sick, well, I mean just before he said he was feeling sick, and I remembered that the last thing I had said to him-why I didn't think about this before I don't know, I am just so clueless sometimes-was that I like like Walter and—"

"Who's Walter?" Anne interrupted as gently as she could, partly because she had no idea who this person was and partly to stem the rapid tide of words that were now pouring out of Kim so fast that she could only make out half of what she was saying.

"Oh," Kim blushed, "that's right, you don't know about him, do you?" She took a breath, "Walter Nelson. He's, uh, he's the new boy in class."

"And?" Anne asked with a raised eyebrow.

"He just moved from Upperton, and, well, I, uh, kinda like him."

"'Like like' is, I believe, how you originally put it." Anne corrected. She was bemused by how fast her daughter's willingness to talk had stalled once the topic of her conversation had shifted to this crush of hers.

Kim nodded. "Y-yeah."

"Well, why do you 'like like' Walter?"

"He's a hottie," Kim said automatically. A half second later she immediately turned the shade of her hair.

"That's a new one," Anne smiled. "I haven't heard that phrase before! What makes Walter a 'hottie' as you put it?"

"Well," Kim began, looking quite uncomfortable, "his eyes, I guess, and … uh, … Mom, do you really need to know this?"

"I suppose not," Anne laughed. "I just think it's cute—your first real crush."

"Yeah," Kim smiled, her color starting to fade back to normal. Then the furrows in her brow returned, and she started to absently tap her foot against the seat.

Kim stayed silent for a few minutes. When Anne stopped at an intersection not far from the school, she attempted to connect the dots with her daughter. "So," Anne said gently, "you believe that when you told Ron that you 'like like' this Walter boy he got really upset. And he got upset because he 'like likes' you. That was why he ran to the bathroom, and, I guess, ran all the way to his house?"

"I-I think so. After I told Ron about Walter, I-I believe I heard him say … 'Rufus.'"

"Oh, I see." Anne took a deep breath. "Well, I don't know what to tell you, Kimmie. It is possible. Everyone knows how fond Ron is of you. It would not be too big of a surprise to me if that fondness had moved past friendship. However, only Ron really knows for sure."

"Yeah." Kim was tapping her foot more incessantly than ever.

"You'll just have to ask him."

"I know." The tapping had become frenzied.

"Kim," Anne asked casually as the light turned green and she accelerated through the intersection, "do you think it's possible that you might 'like like' Ron?"

The tapping stopped dead.

II.

For the first time since he had fallen asleep the previous evening, Ron was getting agitated. Not much, but enough.

It was ten minutes until class started, and Kim still had not shown up at school. As was his habit, Ron had hung around at the school's entrance once he had gotten off the bus to wait the five minutes or so for Kim's bus to arrive. The first indication that something was off was when Kim's brothers had exited their bus without either running out or by leaping from one of the windows. Their standard helter-skeltered exits were always due to the fact they were trying to escape Kim who was, in turn, trying to wreak vengeance upon them for something they had inevitably done to her during the ride to school. Although Kim and Ron were five grades ahead of Jim and Tim, Ron still thought it was mondo crazy that they were all going to the same school … even if it was for only a year.

"Hey, Ron."

"Hey, Tim, where's Kim?" Ron asked

"I'm Jim, he's Tim."

"Oh, my bad. Sorry, Jim."

"He's just kidding you, Ron," the other twin Possible explained, "I'm really Jim."

"Uh …"

"Or maybe I'm the one that's kidding you, and I'm really Tim and …"

"Okay! You're freaking me out, happy? Just tell me where Kim is? She's not sick is she?"

"Nah, she just missed the bus," explained "Tim."

"Got some bacon in her hair," continued "Jim."

"Huh? How did … never mind. Is she coming to school today?" Ron asked anxiously. Considering the range of emotions he had felt about her in the last sixteen hours, he had been looking forward to actually being with her in person again.

"Don't know," both boys answered in unison. They shrugged in unison as well and walked into the school building, leaving Ron somewhat confused and majorly bummed.

III.

"No." Kim said finally.

To say that her mother's question had taken Kim completely by surprise would have been so the understatement.

However, it should not have.

Kim realized that she had been so focused on whether Ron might 'like like' her and the consequences that would bring if true, that she had neglected to question her own feelings about him. After the question's initial shock wore off, Kim began to seriously consider how she felt about her best friend. It was true that when they were kids she had thought of him as being cute in a goofy kind of why; truth be told, she still thought he was cute in a goofy kind of way. However, once she placed these feelings against how Walter Nelson made her feel, the answer became obvious. No, Kim did not 'like like' Ron.

Anne couldn't help feeling disappointed in Kim's answer. Not that she was disappointed in Kim, Anne knew that no one could control who they loved; yet, Anne had recently begun thinking of Ron differently then she had in the previous seven years she had known him. She had begun thinking that it might be a good thing if, a few years into the future, he were to become more than Kim's best friend, something more than Anne's "third son." As they neared the school, Anne kept an eye on her daughter who, after giving her one word answer, had gone silent again.

Anne sighed. "Well, Kimmie, does knowing that make things easier for you?"

A smile suddenly broke across Kim face. A real smile, braces showing and everything. Anne realized that this was the first genuine smile she had seen Kim wear since she had gotten her braces.

"Yes, Mom, it does," she beamed.

Anne was crestfallen. She couldn't believe that Kim seemed so happy with the realization that she cared more for this new boy than Ron. Even if Kim saw her "crush" on this Walter person as turning into something like "the love of her life," Anne was shocked at how quickly Kim's concern for her best friend seemed to dissolve.

"Well," Anne said trying her best not to allow her own sadness color her words, "what are you going to do?"

"Hmmm." Kim thought a second. "Well, I don't know; I don't think I really have to do anything."

"What?" Anne asked a little louder than she had wanted.

"Yeah, Mom," Kim said, a little taken aback, "I mean I haven't even spoken to Walter yet, why would I have to do anything?"

"Huh?"

"Mom," Kim said, a little annoyed at her mother's slowness, "just because I 'like like' Walter Nelson doesn't change the fact that I love Ron."

The profound silence that followed this statement lasted until Kim's scream gained her mother's attention. Fortunately, it was enough time to prevent Anne from plowing into the back of a parked bus in the school's parking lot.

IV.

After a minute or two of pacing by the bus drop-off, Ron finally turned his aimless feet toward the school building. He still didn't know what to make of what Jim, no wait, Tim … ugh … what the twins had said about Kim. What did they mean she got bacon in her hair? Well, he actually knew what that meant: somehow Kim had got bacon in her hair and had missed the bus as a result. But what exactly did that mean?

He was so focused on decoding this mystery (not to mention whether "bacon hair" would mean his best friend wouldn't be in school that day) that he failed to hear the screaming of the breaks of a family mini-van as it narrowly missed slamming into one of the parked buses at the drop-off.

Once inside, the first person he bumped into—literally-was Bonnie Rockwaller. Ron noticed that she was wearing a jacket around her shoulders, a very strange thing to do on a particularly warm April morning. He also happened to notice that the jacket seemed a little large for her and it had the unmistakable logo of the Middleton Middle School Mongeese was on the shoulder. There was also the name "Connie" embroidered just above the Mongoose's head.

"Watch where you are going, Loser!" she snarled. She reached out and pushed him back a good foot, despite the fact that he had already reflexively stepped back a few feet after they collided.

"Sorry, Bonnie," Ron said distractedly. "How are things going?" Just because he was distracted about Kim didn't mean he couldn't be pleasant at the same time.

Bonnie rolled her eyes and shook her head in disgust.

As she began stalking away, Ron turned down the hall in the opposite direction toward class. He stopped and called after her, "I like the jacket. Pretty badical."

Over her shoulder, Bonnie snarked, "Who asked you, Ron Stupid-able?"

If there was one thing Bonnie truly could not stand it was how Ron Stoppable never seemed to get it. She was as vicious and cruel with him as she could possibly be, but he never failed to be friendly with her. It was so infuriating.

She had learned how to push Kim's buttons fairly quickly and had become so adept at it that it was almost second nature to her. This had become incredibly easy recently. Now that Kim was a brace-faced loser, snarking on her was child's play. Bonnie had truly savored the first time she called Kim "Tin Teeth" to her face. Ron, on the other hand, didn't seem to have any buttons to push. Nothing riled him. Why did he have to be so ferociously friendly?

As Ron walked into his classroom, he looked around at his fellow students. They were clustered into different groups all keeping healthy distances between themselves. Since Miss Harlowe had yet to appear-it was still five minutes until eight, everyone was free to talk to friends about the past weekend. Ron could remember just last year when the groups had been fewer, larger, and the spaces between them were not quite so vast. Until this year, Ron had never even heard the word "clique" let alone know what it meant. Kim probably had, Ron reasoned, but she certainly hadn't started using it until this year. It was probably not fair to blame it all on Bonnie, but she definitely helped the situation along.

Kim tried to be friendly with everyone. If she had been there this morning, she would have been going from group to group asking friends she knew from previous years how they were doing or trying to get them involved in the various groups she was always either founding or leading. The ultimate goal would be getting people from the different cliques to start talking to each other again. Although Ron wasn't always the sharpest tool in the shed, even he realized quite quickly that Kim's involvement in all her extracurricular clubs was mainly an effort to keep everyone involved with each other. Ron was very proud of his friend's noble goal and felt honored because she always enlisted him in her efforts. Unfortunately, Ron also caught the fact that her efforts were not going to be enough to overthrow the new system spearheaded by Bonnie.

Without Kim by his side, Ron had no choice but to join "his" group—the group of lonely kids that just sat at their desks and waited for class to begin.

After a few minutes, Bonnie burst into the room with her posse of friends. Ron noticed she was definitely trying not to look like she was showing off the jacket he saw her wearing earlier. He suddenly realized it was a cheerleading jacket.

Hmmm.

He knew Bonnie, just like Kim, would be trying out for the Mongeese cheer squad next year and figured she must be using the jacket to somehow give herself a mental edge in the tryouts.

Boy, both of them on the same squad? That could be real trouble!

At Bonnie's left elbow was that cute little blonde, Tara Strong. Suddenly, Ron found himself staring at Tara's hair and wondering if it had the same strawberry scent he sometimes caught a whiff of from Kim's hair.

Kim. Where is she?

He absently followed Tara with his eyes, and therefore followed Bonnie, as the latter walked across the front of the classroom. She was making a beeline for Walter Nelson's desk.

"Hi, Walter." She smiled.

Ron heard Walter Nelson return Bonnie's salutation and then he saw him return her smile.

Ron noticed that Walter's smile was a broad smile. However, it was not quite as broad as the one that suddenly erupted across Ron's face.

V.

After hastily pulling into a vacant parking space in front of the school, Anne asked incredulously, "Did you just say you love Ron?"

"Y-yeah," Kim stammered, still quite shaken by the accident they had narrowly avoided.

"But, Kimmie, you just said you didn't 'like like' Ron."

"Mom," Kim said rolling her eyes while still trying to catch her breath, "Ron is my best friend. Of course, I love him. That has nothing to do with 'like liking' somebody."

Anne massaged her right temple. "So you are not saying that you 'love love' Ron, but just that you love him as a friend? And love is better than 'like like'?"

"Yes, Mom," Kim said, her breathing back to normal, "that's what I meant."

"Okay, I see." Anne could not believe she has misread her daughter so badly. "You are willing to forget about your feelings for this Nelson boy to save Ron's feelings."

"Of course."

Anne smiled at her daughter. She was proud of her for being willing to sacrifice a crush on a boy she hadn't even met for her best friend. However, Anne also knew that making the noble decision wasn't always enough.

"So, Kimmie, when you 'like like' another boy are you going to forget your feelings that time too?"

Kim's smile vanished.

"If boys ask you to dances in middle school are you going to turn them down, so you won't hurt Ron's feelings?"

"Uh …," Kim's foot had started tapping against the seat again.

"Are you going to stay home from the Prom so you can watch television with Ron, so he won't be lonely?"

"Mom!" Kim said in genuine anger. "That is so mean! How can you say Ron won't be able to get a date for the Prom?"

Anne was pleasantly surprised at how deep Kim's loyalty and … well … her love for Ron ran. However, Kim was still missing her mother's main point.

"Kim, why would Ron ask some other girl to the Prom if he 'like likes' you?"

"Oh," Kim cast her eyes back to her lap, "yeah."

"Kim, don't get me wrong. I think it is very noble that you would be willing to give up what you feel for this other boy to spare Ron's feelings, but it won't solve everything. In fact, it might make things worse."

"Huh?" Kim was truly puzzled. How could standing by her best friend be a bad thing?

"Without wanting to, you might find yourself in the future disliking Ron, resenting him, because of your decision about Walter. You may start to believe you missed out on something special and might unconsciously blame Ron because you did it for his sake even though he didn't ask you to. Furthermore, what if Ron does 'like like' you? To protect his feelings, are you going to pretend you 'like like' him too?"

Kim was starting to look very confused and miserable.

Anne gently placed a hand on Kim's ankle to stop her incessant tapping. "I know this isn't fair to either of you, but it needs to be faced. The sooner the better."

"But what if … what if?" Kim eyes were threatening to water.

"What if it ruins your friendship?" Anne asked.

Kim nodded.

"That could happen, Kimmie."

All the color drained from Kim's face.

"It is always possible that can happen, Kimmie. But if I know Ronald and if I know anything about you, I think that your friendship will be strong enough to withstand this. You both care very deeply for one another. As you said, you're best friends, and I do believe you love each other. But you have to be honest with each other and be prepared to face whatever that honesty might bring."

Some of the color returned to Kim's checks, and she gave a resigned nod.

"You need to ask Ron how he feels about you, and you need to let him know how you feel about him."

Kim nodded again.

"If you are honest with each other, I'm sure everything will work. It won't be easy, but it will be okay."

"Okay," Kim said.

Anne looked at her watch. It was five after eight; class had already begun. "All right. Let me walk you in, Kimmie, so you won't get in trouble with your teacher."

As they got out of the car, Kim looked at her mother and said flatly, "Ron was right."

"About what?"

"Growing up tanks."

VI.

As the classroom door swept open, everyone who was not already in their seats scrambled quickly to take them. Ron, who was seated near the rear of the classroom, turned around in his chair on the hope that the individual entering the room was Kim. It wasn't.

Mrs. Barkin was known to be one of the sweetest people in Middleton and, perhaps, in the entire known universe. She had been Kim and Ron's third grade teacher and had been Middleton Elementary's vice principal for the last two years. There were rumors that she may be retiring either this year or the next. No one quite knew how old she was, but she had been Kim's mother's third grade teacher. In fact, Kim's mom had been quite surprised that Mrs. Barkin "hadn't seemed to age a bit" since the time she had been in her class. As far as Ron was concerned, that made her at least one hundred years old. Not that that it mattered; she was still his favorite teacher.

"Hi, Mrs. B!" he called happily and waved.

"Well, hello, Ronald," she waved back, "how are you?"

"Just great, Mrs. B!"

"Good to hear." Mrs. Barkin made her way to the front of the classroom. For being over a hundred years old, she was fairly spry.

"Class," Mrs. Barkin announced from the front of the room, "your teacher, Miss Harlowe is going to be a little late this morning. Apparently, she is still having problems with her former fiancée, poor dear. Apparently, Dr. Lovelace forgot, yet again, about the restraining order Miss Harlowe filed against him. Poor fellow was serenading her on her front lawn at six o'clock this morning. She told me when she called that filing the police report shouldn't take too terribly long, so I don't imagine she will be more than twenty minutes late for class."

In addition to being a dear soul, Mrs. Barkin was also the type of person for whom the phrase "TMI" was invented.

"I'm sure Miss Harlowe will greatly appreciate it if you talked quietly among yourselves until she arrives."

As Ron exchanged waves with Mrs. Barkin as she walked past his desk, he thought about how any other teacher would have made them do some rotten worksheet or, ugh, some random word problem just to keep them busy until Miss Harlowe arrived. It was a real shame that she was going to retire. Of course, Ron had learned from his mother that Mrs. Barkin's son was going to start teaching at the high school next year.

Hmmm. That should be pretty cool.

From the hallway, Ron heard Mrs. Barkin say in her warm voice, "Anne … Kimberly! How are you two this morning?"

Ron was out of his seat like a shot.

"Kim! Kim!" Ron yelled as he burst through the door.

"Ron!" Kim replied, surprised both by the suddenness of his appearance and by the good, no great, mood he seemed to be in.

"Ronald." Mrs. Barkin admonished him sternly, well as sternly as she could. "Please, keep your voice down."

"Oh, sorry, Mrs. B. Hi, .P. Kim, I've got to show you something!"

"O-okay," Kim said. As she followed Ron into the classroom, she gave her mother one more look of concern.

Anne's smile tried to reassure her daughter that no matter what everything would work out.

As Kim entered the classroom, the first thing she noticed was that Bonnie was sitting by herself at her desk with a decidedly annoyed look on her face. At first, she thought this was what Ron had been so amped for her to see. However, he was excitedly motioning for her to look at the opposite side of the room.

"Ron, what am I supposed to be looking at?" she whispered.

"Right there," he sort-of whispered back as he pointed toward, of all places, Walter Nelson's desk where a couple of boys were standing around joking with Walter.

One of the other boys must have said something fairly funny because Walter smiled, revealing practically every tooth in his pretty head. Every one of which was encased in silver braces.

"That." Ron said with a smile.

Kim couldn't help giving out a semi-squeal/giggle and a broad "brace-ful" smile of her own.

"Oh, Ron," she whispered happily.

Suddenly, her smiled disappeared, and she was looking at Ron with a very serious and troubled expression.

"What is it, KP?" Ron asked. He had been sure she was going to be pleased that Walter Nelson could have no problem with her braces.

"We need to talk about something serious, Ron," she said a little sadly.

"Oh, okay," Ron replied, more than a little worried about the vaguely familiar sinking feeling that was spreading across the base of his stomach.

Kim took Ron's hand and led him out into the hall. Both her mother and Mrs. Barkin had already left; in fact, the hallway was deserted.

Even though Ron had seemed genuinely excited for Kim's sudden change of fortunes with Walter, she knew how big Ron's heart was and how easy it would be for him to sacrifice his own feelings for someone else, especially for her. She had to see this out to the end. Braces or no, their friendship was worth far more than Walter's smile. When she was quite sure they were alone, Kim said quietly, "Ron, I need to know something."

"S-sure, what is it, KP?"

She took a deep breath. "You didn't really get sick yesterday at Bueno Nacho, did you?"

"Uh," Ron said caught off-guard. "Uh, no, I-I didn't, KP. I was upset, but I wasn't sick … exactly."

She nodded. "Did you get upset because I told you that I really liked Walter?"

Ron's head shot to the floor. He felt so ashamed. But he knew he shouldn't, that he couldn't, keep this from Kim. He nodded and muttered, "Yes."

Kim took another deep breath. Then she said, "Please look at me, Ron."

As he raised his head, Kim noticed that their eyes were no longer level with each other. When did he get shorter than me? "Ron, this is hard, but I need to ask."

"Yeah?" he breathed.

"Ron, do you … 'like like' me?"

Ron blinked twice, obviously taken completely by surprise. "I-I don't know, Kim. I've never thought about it before."

A churning wave of emotions hit Kim. First she felt enormous relief, this was followed quickly by a just as strong current of bewilderment, and, finally, she was stung by a slight prick of disappointment.

These tangled feelings were clearly reflected in her eyes because Ron immediately held up his hands and, in a hurried voice, said, "Now, KP, it's not that I don't think you are super pretty because you are, I just never thought of you in that way before!"

After blushing slightly at Ron's revelation that he thought she was "super pretty," Kim asked, "Then why were you so upset by how I felt about Walter?"

"I-I'm sorry, Kim. I was worried that I was going to lose you as a friend." Ron looked completely disgusted with himself.

"Why would you think that, Ron?" Kim asked.

"Well, gosh, this is so hard to explain." Ron paused for a moment and then gave it his best shot. "You see, I read this magazine a few weeks ago a-and I thought once you noticed some prettyboy you were going to turn into a magnet … you know, like on a fridge."

"What?" Kim arched her eyebrow.

For some reason, that arched eyebrow put Ron at ease, and he was able to explain. "I thought you wouldn't have time for me anymore. That you'd forget me."

"Ron, that would never happen! We're best friends. I mean … if you started really liking someone, would you forget about me?"

Ron briefly thought about Tara, and, sure enough, he found that Kim was right. His new feelings for the petite blonde did nothing to harm his feelings for Kim.

"No, of course not, Kim," Ron smiled. Then the shame crept back into his cheeks. "I'm so sorry for flaking out on you yesterday. But when I came out of the bathroom and you were gone and then I didn't see your bike …"

"Oh, you didn't know Mom had dropped me off, did you?"

"Still, I feel like such a terrible friend for doubting you."

"Ron, it's okay," Kim said placing a hand gently on his right shoulder. "You can't help what you feel. And after seeing how excited you were for me because Walter has braces, I think it is pretty obvious that you are not a terrible friend. Not at all."

Ron smiled and breathed a sigh of relief.

"And as far as Walter or any other boys are concerned, if they aren't cool with my best friend, then I'm not cool with them," she smiled, hugging him close to her with her arm.

"I always want to be your best friend, Kim," Ron said getting slightly misty.

"You always will be, Ron." She smiled and gathered him into a hug.

For a moment, neither said anything; they just enjoyed the hug.

"Mmmmmm. Strawberry bacon!" Ron muttered into Kim's hair.

"What?" she said looking back at him. She giggled and shook her head, "You are so weird, Ron."

"Ha-ha! Look at this," came a sharp cry from the classroom doorway. Bonnie Rockwaller was looking malevolently at the two friends who were still in their embrace. She began to taunt them in a sing-song voice. "Tin Teeth and Loser sitting in a tree. K-I-S-S-I-N-G!"

Kim balled her fists and stepped away from Ron. "What have I told you about calling Ron a loser, Bonnie!"

"First comes love then comes marriage …"

"Bonnie!"

"Tell it to the hand, Possible," Bonnie stated without concern. She took off her cheerleading jacket and whipped it over her right shoulder, just missing Ron's head. She laughed as she turned on her heel and entered the girl's bathroom. The last line of her song echoed off the tiles as the door closed.

Kim was steaming. She turned to Ron and noticed that for the first time all day he seemed sad. "Oh, Ron, don't let her bother you."

"It's not that, Kim."

"Well, what's wrong? Why are you sad?"

He sighed. "I'm sad for her."

"Bonnie?" Kim cried incredulously. "Why would you be sorry for her?"

"Isn't it obvious, Kim," Ron said. "She's never had a real friend."

For the second time that morning, Kim Possible was completely floored by the size of her best friend's heart.

"I'm so glad you're my best friend Ron Stoppable." Kim gave Ron a warm "brace-ful" smile. She slung her arm around his shoulder and marched with her best friend back into class.

VII.

The Stoppables' Seder meal three nights later went very well indeed. Ron had never sounded so confidant. He did all the tellings and, at Kim insistence, he did them all exclusively in Hebrew. Now that Kim's presence had become such an annual event, the meal was not quite as solemn as it had been that first year she had been invited. Jokes were passed with the matzah, and Kim almost seemed as relaxed with Ron's parents as he was with hers. Well, maybe not that relaxed; it was hard to imagine anyone more relaxed in someone else's home than Ron was in Kim's.

As it had been the last three years, the hunt for the Afikomen had been a hard fought affair. This evening Kim narrowly made it back to the table with the prize. Ron, more than likely, would have found it first if he hadn't wasted five minutes rummaging through the downstairs' bathroom for the hidden piece of unleavened bread.

Even though Ron no longer had bad feelings connected with letting in Elijah, he and Kim, as had become their own private custom, both opened the garage door for the prophet.

After the meal and festivities were over, Ron walked Kim to the door where her father was waiting to drive her home. They gave each other a tight hug, and he smiled as he watched them pull out of the drive.

VIII.

Ron had been in bed for maybe a half hour when the four full glasses of watered-down wine started to take their toll.

After finishing up in the bathroom, Ron walked quietly upstairs and tried to make as little noise as he could while walking past his parent's bedroom door. He was a little surprised when he saw the light from their slightly ajar doorway and could hear them talking.

"Well, I definitely think that went very well," Elliot Stoppable said in a satisfied voice. "I think Kimberly had a very good time …"

"Yes," Barbara Stoppable sighed. "Even if it will be the last year she celebrates with us."

Just past their door, Ron stopped dead in his tracks and the hair on the back of his neck stoop up.

"What do mean, Barb?"

"What do you think I mean?"

"I don't know that's why I'm asking."

"Dear, they're practically teenagers. It won't be long now before she outgrows this."

"Outgrows what? The Seder?"

"Yes," Ron's mom sighed, "the Seder, but, more importantly, before she outgrows her little friendship with our son."

"What are you talking about, Barb?" Elliot sounded almost as upset by his wife's statement as Ron was. In fact, the shock that registered in his father's voice was the only thing that kept Ron from fainting right there in the hallway.

"Dear, I like Kimberly, you know I do. But, I also know what type of girl she is."

"I don't know what you mean."

"Let me put it this way, she's going to be a cheerleader next year. Did you know that?"

"Yes, I think Ron did mention something like that, but what does that mean?"

"Cheerleaders only think about one thing: boys."

"Well," Elliot laughed, "Ron's a boy."

"I'm trying to be serious, Elliot."

"What are you trying to say, Barb?" Elliot Stoppable's tone indicated that he was most definitely serious now.

"Elliot, Kimberly is a very pretty girl and Ron … "

"What?" Elliot asked tersely.

"He isn't in her league. Don't look at me like that. You know it's true."

Ron's blood pressure had been on a roller coaster ride throughout the conversation, but in the few moments of very telling silence that followed his mother's pronouncement upon him, he felt as if his heart had stopped.

"Even so," Elliot began finally, "even if that is true, that doesn't mean she won't stay friends with him."

"Elliot, I knew boys who I was "just friends" with when I was her age too. I lost touch with them in high school. That didn't happen because I wanted it to; it just did. I can't even remember their names now."

The thought that in twenty years or so Kim might not be able to recall his name was too much for Ron. He began furiously wiping the few tears that had started to trickle silently down his cheeks. It was one thing to have his own silly doubts, but if they were being validated by his parents?

"Barb," Elliot stated firmly, "I know what you're saying and I agree with you to an extent, but I don't believe that when we were their age that you or I ever had friends as good as Ron and Kim have in each other."

"Maybe," Ron's mom admitted.

"No maybes about it. Furthermore, I really believe you are selling Kimberly short. Did you see the way she was looking at him this evening while he was giving the tellings? Well, I did. There was real love in her eyes."

"Dear …"

"Okay, maybe not 'love love' but love nevertheless. No, you are wrong, Barb."

"I hope you're right."

"I am right. I fully expect to see her at Ron's Bar Mitzvah in two years."

"You really do put a lot of store in their friendship, don't you."

"Dear, I can't imagine anything breaking up their friendship."

"Anything?" she asked suspiciously.

"Well, okay, if something crazy happens, like, I don't know, your office transfers us to Norway or something … then maybe."

Barbara Stoppable laughed.

"Otherwise, I fully expect to see them at each other's weddings."

Ron's mother laughed at again. "What? Is Ron going to be her best man?"

"Why not?" his father asserted. "As far as I can tell, he is her best man."

IX.

As Ron snuggled underneath his covers, he reflected on what a crazy week it had been for him emotionally. And it hadn't even been a full week! He was so tired of crying, so tired of having his heart kicked around like a hackey sac. He was afraid of what the next three days might bring.

No. No. Not going to happen.

He firmly resolved to let nothing anyone said about Kim and his friendship bother him ever again.

Well …

Even Ron knew that wasn't going to work. Instead, he resolved to try to always remember this past Monday when she had hugged him and said she was so glad he was her best friend. And he resolved to remember what he has dad had just said about him being at her wedding and being her best man.

Best man? There's no way that's not going to happen!

X.

And Ron's resolves would be tested. They were sorely tested a little more than a year later when Kim and Walter had their first and very complicated kiss. They were tested even further when the Mankey family moved into town from Go City at the start of their freshman year at Middleton High.

However, Ron always kept those two memories close to his heart, and they served him well. And on the few instances when even these didn't prove to be enough, he would simply look into his heart, where he would inevitably find a cracked 8-track cartridge and a broken video game case.