Chapter 0: Prologue

It was with a dark chuckle that a 17-year-old Cree Lincoln finished typing up the specifications of a mission that she planned on leading the next day. She hit the enter key on her laptop and sent the message to the Teen Ninjas' resource manager. Very satisfied, she leaned back in her armchair and propped her feet up on a small stool.

Ever since her sister's decommissioning six months ago, it seemed like everything in the world was going exactly as Cree wanted. Abigail Lincoln, once upon a time the Supreme Leader of the Kids Next Door and before that the second-in-command of the all-star Sector V, had become a perfectly complacent younger sibling upon her thirteenth birthday. With the fighting and tactical skills that Abby possessed, she was prime recruitment material for the Teenz even after her decommissioning. It would simply be a matter of relearning mentally what her muscle memory still knew - a long process, sure, but the vast majority of Teenz managed it. All the benefits of KND training and none of the pesky attitude.

It would've been preferable for Abby to have defected before her decommissioning, but like with Maurice, it had been much easier to convince her to join once she had forgotten her old loyalties.

Best of all, the Kids Next Door had no idea yet that Abby had joined the Teen Ninjas.

This was a very good thing when the Teenz had been on a recruiting drive for several months now. The organization had been on its way to independence practically since its formation, but with the disappearance of Father and the Delightful Children half a year ago they had finally tipped over the line into self-determination. One of the first decisions they had made was to expand their ranks immensely, something Father had always forbade them from doing. Cree had immediately inducted her sister into the Teen Ninjas, and with Abby on their side they had a fantastic opportunity coming up as the last member of Sector V celebrated her thirteenth birthday.

It had been annoying how her sister had kept wanting to hang out with her old friends, especially during the first month when she was the only one of them decommissioned. But then came Nigel Uno's thirteenth birthday, and then Hoagie Gilligan's. As more and more of her sister's generation of operatives reached the magic age of 13, Cree had begun allowing Abby to spend more time with her old team so long as she understood the need for secrecy regarding the Teenz organization.

Cree was very glad that her sister understood secrecy. The children's visits to the Lincoln household had actually become more entertaining than dangerous as the number of KND operatives among them decreased one by one.

Particularly amusing had been the past few weeks, with Kuki Sanban left as the only member of Sector V yet to be decommissioned. The pathetic girl had glued a paper smile to her face as she continued to hang out with the same four friends she'd always had, despite them being unable to recall half of their time together.

Cree would laugh when the 12-year-old shot her glares while the others weren't looking. Still, tip-toeing around the brats was annoying, especially when their younger siblings were around.

But she wouldn't have to, starting tomorrow.

She was interrupted from her reverie by the unexpected ding~dong of the doorbell.

"Coming!" she shouted as she planted her feet on the carpet and made for the front door.

Standing on the welcome mat when the door swung open was a strange man whom Cree didn't recognize. Dark hair and dorky glasses, and wearing suspenders and a bowtie of all things. The pipe sticking out of his mouth rang a bell somewhere in her mind, but she still couldn't quite place how she was familiar with him.

"Hello," she greeted politely, "Can I help you, mister?"

He responded darkly, "You can help me by rethinking what you're about to do."

"What?" said the confused teenager.

"Don't play dumb with me, Cree!" growled the stranger.

She knew that anger.

"F-Father!" gasped Cree, "Where - What - You've been gone for ages! Sir!"

He raised an eyebrow, "Did you only just recognize me?"

"Uh, uh…" stammered the girl.

"I'll take that as a yes," said Father.

Cree gulped, "Um… You were saying?"

"Hm? Oh, right," he continued, "I know you're planning on recruiting Sector V for the Teen Ninjas after Numbuh 3's decommissioning. I'm warning you to stop right now."

"W-what? Why?" asked Cree, still shocked.

"Because I say so isn't enough for you anymore?" Father crossed his arms.

Cree was suddenly struck by the dissonance between her memory of a terrifying silhouette whose rage produced firestorms and the wholly unintimidating (and kind of dorky-looking) man on her doorstep. She simply could not reconcile the two conflicting images.

"Well?" asked Father.

She finally settled on a response, confidently answering, "No."

"No?" questioned the adult.

"No," Cree repeated, "No, I will not stop just because you say so."

"Someone's gotten a backbone."

Cree continued, "You stepped out on us six months ago. The Teenz are making our own decisions now. You're not the boss of us anymore, I am not going to step in line just because you tell me to for no dang reason!"

"And if I give you a reason? If I explain myself?" replied Father.

Looking at him flatly, Cree crossed her arms and said, "I'll consider it," in a tone that implied she was never going to change her mind.

"Where to begin?" Father scratched his chin.

Cree suggested, "You could start with where you've been."

"That's none of your business, little lady," snapped the adult, "I'm not here for me."

"Then what are you here for?"

Sourly, he answered, "I'm here to repay a favor to my insufferable brat of a nephew, if you have to know."

"Your nephew?" Cree was incredulous.

Father grumbled, "Nigel Uno."

"... You're kidding."

Complete and utter disbelief took the place of Cree's scowl.

Father replied with a groan, "Unfortunately not."

"Well, why don't you want those brats recruited, then?!" exclaimed the teenager, "I would've thought you'd love this, with all the plotting and the cackling and revenge...!"

He shook his head, "It might be poetic, but they're owed better than that... Better than this."

"What are you on about?" asked Cree skeptically.

"Take a good look at where you stand right now," Father spoke cynically, "Do you want to be here forever? Locked inside the masquerade that took the better part of your childhood and your sister's? Given how fast you ran to my manor on your thirteenth birthday, I think you do."

Cree resisted the urge to step back.

Father bitterly continued, "Decommissioning is the only way anyone ever really escapes this crazy world of ours. Some people take the chance and some people don't. Now, you might have chosen to stay in the game, but that doesn't give you the right to decide for those children."

Clenching her fists, Cree shot back, "And you think you have the right to tell me what to do when it involves my sister and her pals? You?"

"..." silence from Father.

"Look," the teenager said with finality, looking away as she pulled the door half-shut, "I don't care what you think. Sector V is an asset to anyone who has them on their side. I'm claiming those troublemakers for the Teenz."

Father spoke again, "... It's really not in your best interests to do that."

The girl suddenly felt cold shivers crawling up her spine, and she remembered that it was Father whom she was talking to. She met the man's bespectacled eyes, and at that moment she could see very clearly the powerful, terrifying villain she remembered.

"I mean this very seriously," he said, "Other than your sister, you will leave those brats alone."

Failing to find words, the frightened Cree simply nodded.

"Good," Father stepped back, "I was never here."

She blinked, and the door slammed shut in her face.

Encrypted Message Log:

0832: Alright, alright, you've convinced me. They're high-risk, but valuable. You have the green light for your recruitment mission.

0855: Cancel it._

0856: What? Why?

0856: Because I say so. It's my mission and I'm canceling it._

0859: Fine. You're the one who spent weeks on this, princess.

0859: Is it done?_

0900: YES, your stupid mission is canceled.

0901: Good._

"Yo, Cree," said Abigail Lincoln as she came down the stairs, "Abby's gonna go say happy birthday to Kuki. I know we got that mission tomorrow, so that alright with you?"

Cree waved dismissively, not meeting her sister's eyes, and said, "Go ahead. Mission's canceled."

"Huh?" responded the confused 13-year-old.

Cree became aggravated, speaking more forcefully, "I said the mission's canceled! We aren't recruiting your pals, alright? Go hug Rainbow Monkeys with them or something."

"Someone got up feelin' more salty than sweet," grumbled Abby.

The younger Lincoln sister brushed off her sister's attitude and unlocked the front door. She walked out of the house and quietly shut the door behind her.

"Hey, Abby!" Hoagie Gilligan was the first of the group to spot her, waving her over.

Abby joined her four friends sitting in front of Nigel's house - just because they no longer remembered anything to do with the Kids Next Door didn't mean they'd forgotten all the fun they'd had there just being friends. It had long since become habit for them to meet at the Uno household whether they were on the job or not. Decommissioning couldn't touch that.

"Hi, guys," she greeted, "Sorry I'm late."

Nigel responded, "That's alright. You still made it before Kuki's birthday trip."

"Yeah, glad ya made it, Abby," said Wallabee Beetles.

Kuki Sanban, her eyes watery and faintly red, was the last to speak, "Right… I'm really happy to see you, Abby!"

"Oh no, Kuki," Abby's expression became concerned, "Are you crying, hun?"

The birthday girl shook her head and replied with a sniffle and a wide smile, "Nah, it's just... allergies."

"I feel ya, Kooks," remarked Hoagie sympathetically, "Hope it gets better soon."

"Aw, shucks," exclaimed Abby, "That don't sound like fun on your birthday!"

There were nods of agreement and pity all around.

Kuki laughed, perhaps a little too forcedly, and said, "It's okay, really! I don't want this birthday to be a big deal, you know?"

Wally animatedly yelled, "Oh, come off it! Ya won a free trip to the cruddy Rainbow Monkey amusement park, ya oughta be bragging! It's your thirteenth birthday Kuki, you're never gettin' another one!"

"Wish we could've celebrated it with you, though," chimed in Hoagie.

Nigel made a suggestion, "Well, why don't we all go to the movies tomorrow, then? Our own little, belated celebration after Kuki's big day today."

"That sounds like a great idea," agreed Abby.

"Sure," Kuki gave her affirmation and then giggled, "But, uh, you know I forget little things like this. I'm such an airhead sometimes. Remind me again tonight?"

"Of course," replied Abby with a kind smile.

Just then, they heard the approaching metallic screech of a large vehicle starting to pull itself to a stop.

Kuki's grin fell off her face as she remarked, "Oh, they're early…"

"Just means you'll get to that park all the sooner," commented Nigel optimistically as a lumbering, muddy-green vehicle halted itself along the sidewalk.

The door to the "bus" slammed open and two children wearing strange helmets and eyepieces walked out. One of them gestured for Kuki to come with them. Kuki herself stood up slowly, her head downcast, and began walking toward the transport as her oblivious friends waved goodbye with bright smiles. Turned away from them as she was, they couldn't see her face, which she was very glad of given the fat tears rolling down her cheeks.

Abby called out, "Happy birthday, Kooks!"

At the last moment, one foot inside the transport, Kuki decided to take a good look at her friends one last time. She wiped away the tears with a sleeve and turned around, giving them the most genuine smile she had managed in months.

"Thanks, guys! For everything!" she exclaimed, "I'll join you again soon, and I promise I'll feel better!"

The two helmeted kids followed her inside the vehicle, and the door slammed shut with a bang.

The next day was sunny and moderately warm. A neighbor's cat stretched on the porch and a light breeze tinkled at an old set of windchimes. It was mid-afternoon, and few cars were driving down the road. The air smelled of freshly cut grass. Also faintly of skunk, but still mostly grass.

"Later, Cree!" Abby called back at her sister, who was leaning against the doorway of their home with a challenging expression on her face.

The elder Lincoln sister responded, "Later, Abigail! Don't you dare come back before six!"

"It ain't alone time with your boyfriend if Mama's in the next room over, girl!"

"It isn't a date at the movies if you have three friends tagging along, brat!"

All was right with the world. For a few years yet, at least...

Author's Note: I saw somewhere that Sector V in order of youngest to oldest was confirmed to go as follows: Kuki, Nigel, Hoagie, Wally, Abby. The way I wrote this prologue has them in the order of Kuki, Wally, Hoagie, Nigel, Abby. I considered correcting this, but in the end decided to leave it as is. I will continue to use my order for the rest of this fic if I have to refer to their ages. - 7/17/2016