I don't have the rights to Kids Next Door. Now, let's cut to the chase, shall we?
Her sore cheek was resting against a smooth, cool surface. That was the first thing Dolores became aware of when she reemerged into the waking world. The next, as the blurring before her opening eyes slowly adjusted, was that she was definitely not on the rooftop anymore. There was no sign of the four young operatives she had come here with.
Groaning, Dolores pushed off the floor and stood up. The petite girl pivoted around, taking in her surroundings. She was in a very large chamber, so vast that all she could see were shadows when she gazed up toward the shrouded ceiling. There were several piles of steel crates scattered around the floor, stacked into groups of various sizes and heights. Lining one of the thick, reinforced walls were row upon row of closed-circuit televisions, and she slowly approached it, recalling the tour Father had given them.
If her memory served, this was one of the chambers where the mechanical playground equipment was tested. The many screens she was currently watching were used to monitor the experiments from several angles, allowing for more complete data and more detailed analysis.
As her blue eyes strayed from screen to screen, however, Dolores realized that there had been some rerouting of resources. One of the broadcasts displayed a clear view of the small shack on the rooftop, the one that housed the stairs leading down into the building. By squinting a little, she was able to see several broken chains scattered around the entrance, which had been left ajar.
(Does that mean they made it inside all right?)
The girl unconsciously gripped the hem of her skirt with one hand, wringing the white fabric. Strange as it was, she felt an undeniable sense of relief at the thought that they hadn't been caught as easily as she had…
Remembering the violence in which she had been brought here, Dolores shuddered, rubbing her hands up and down her folded arms and lowering her gaze to the ground. She was grateful to note that, while the white fabric of her left sock had been shredded, her bared ankle underneath hadn't been injured beyond a few light scratches.
(Well, surely my family wouldn't want to injure me, anyway, right…?)
Dolores sighed, closing her eyes tightly. She just wasn't sure what to think anymore…
"What troubles you, sister dear?"
Immediately Dolores' eyes opened wide and she gasped, staring down at the floor as it began to shudder and lurch. Stumbling backwards, the petite girl stared in mute shock as a shaft opened up directly in front of the wall of screens, close to where she'd been standing. A previously concealed elevator rose into view, the sides collapsing to reveal its passengers…all four of them.
It was all Dolores could do to keep standing straight. Her legs had frozen up beneath her, threatening to give way – but at least she hadn't outright collapsed. Her mouth worked silently, struggling to form words she couldn't find to adequately express the devastating torrent of emotions that had overtaken her.
The quartet of Delightful Children from Down the Lane returned her shocked stare with an unwavering, calm gaze and the vaguest hint of a collective smile.
"Oh, sister, how have you been faring? We have been most concerned about your welfare as of late…"
"Where… where have you…" Dolores shook her head slowly; she wanted to ask where her comrades had been, why they hadn't come to liberate her from the Kids Next Door immediately. Instead, what came out was "Where have you put Nigel?"
Her siblings simply stared at her silently for several seconds. She felt curiously unnerved by their intense study, and lowered her head a bit, allowing her long tan hair to partly veil her face. This was the only concession she allowed her body language to make, however, not wishing her formerly constant companions to see her uneasiness.
"A curious request… but certainly understandable. After all, it was because of him that you were able to return home, isn't it?"
She bit the inside of her lip, the perfect retort screaming silently inside her:
(He had more to do with it than you did!)
"If you wish to see him, then so be it," continued the quartet of Delightful Children.
One of them, the boy with neatly cropped blond hair, produced a handheld control and pressed a button. There was a loud clanking, and Dolores turned to see the mechanical mockery of a swingset raise into view from another, far larger platform. She gasped, covering her mouth with both hands, spotting a slumped figure sitting on the center swing. Even as she stared, horror-stricken, the seat swayed back then came forward so roughly that its passenger was flung off to land roughly in front of her.
It was clear that Numbah One had not enjoyed his stay with the Delightful Children. His red shirt was torn, the right sleeve missing entirely. His shades hung askew, revealing his blackened left eye. His arms and legs were scratched up. Thankfully, however, Dolores couldn't see any wounds that were especially life threatening. This didn't prevent a wave of nausea from sweeping over her as she turned back to her siblings.
"What… why did you do this?!" she choked. "It's…barbaric! Beneath us!"
"But we were not the ones to do this to him, dear sister," came the monotone reply. A tone of malice entered their detached voices as they smoothly went on, "It was our servants who sullied their hands in this way, not ourselves…"
"T…that doesn't matter!" Dolores shook her head furiously. She stumbled over her own words as she continued, "W…when I w-was p-prisoner of the Kids Ne…"
"Were not they responsible for that mark on your face?" interrupted the other Delightful Children.
Without meaning to, Dolores reached up and felt the side of her face. It still hurt where Numbah Four had punched her, and she belatedly realized that there was probably a huge purple bruise marking the spot. But, somehow, the dull throb of her sore cheek paled in comparison to the way her insides were twisting.
"Did not the Kids Next Door keep you singled out? Did not they make you feel how horribly different you are from them? Did not they torture you with the knowledge that you did not belong there?"
Dolores stared at the ground, unable to look at either her siblings or the beaten and bruised Numbah One. Her hand remained covering the bruise on the side of her face.
She turned when the moaning started beside her, and saw Numbah One stir. The leader of the Kids Next Door tested his limbs slowly, his face contorting as each movement sent painful replies.
"He awakes," noted the indifferent chorus.
The group stirred, and Dolores turned back to the rest of the Delightful Children as they advanced. The boy with blond hair extended his hands toward it, and it took a moment before Dolores realized he was offering her something. Automatically taking it, she looked down to see that she was now holding the remote control to the swings.
"Now then, sister dear, why don't you be the one to finish the job?" they invited.
Dolores stared down at the remote in silence, blue eyes wide. Taking her stunned pause as hesitance, her siblings pressed the issue.
"It will be the perfect revenge, sister dear, will it not? Because of Nigel and his fellow agents, you were taken away… treated differently… an outsider. They singled you out… made you feel unaccepted… because they couldn't accept you as one of them."
She slowly shifted her gaze from the control cradled in her hands to the battered boy lying in front of her. Numbah One continued to groan and twitch.
"Once Nigel is gone, the other Kids Next Door will shortly follow. With him removed from their ranks, they will never pose a threat again. Things will return to the way they were…even better, with their group no longer able to stand in our way."
Numbah One rolled over, and his eyes slowly opened. The first thing he saw was Dolores standing over him with the remote control in hand. He tensed, the shock that first flooded over his face soon becoming stony resolve.
It was clear to him that things had come full circle. Just as he had once held Dolores' fate in the palm of his hands, so now she was holding his in the form of that control. He already knew how this would play out. He had no reason to believe that she would show him any more mercy than the other Delightful Children had.
The leader of the Kids Next Door braced for the worst. He glared definitely up at the girl and the rest of her spooky siblings. If he was going to go out here, it might as well be in a fashion worthy of a great leader.
"Go ahead and finish the job, sister dear," the quartet prompted, their monotone voices laced with wicked eagerness.
Dolores looked back at the remote control in her hand, then bowed her head, long tan hair hiding most of her face. All that Numbah One could see was the thin line her lips were pressed into as she began to enter a command.
Behind her, the rest of the Delightful Children from Down the Lane looked on. Four pairs of glassy blue eyes gleamed with cruel fascination, eager to see one of their worst enemies finally get exactly what he deserved.
Behind him, Numbah One heard the swingset shudder violently, and fought down a shudder of his own. He couldn't allow his opponents to take any more pleasure from his pain, sadistic siblings that they were. He closed his eyes so he wouldn't have to look at those smug smirks on their faces, their emotionless glass blue gaze.
Instead, he attempted to form a picture in his mind of his teammates, of their smiling, joyful faces and excited laughter. That was what he wanted to remember in his last moments, the good times… not whatever might await his friends if he was truly meeting his end here.
To his frustration, however, all he could conjure were images of his teammates mourning his loss. For some reason, Numbah One was getting a clear picture of them surrounding his limp, battered body and crying, their tears showering his face.
A small drop fell squarely onto his nose and broke apart, spraying miniscule droplets onto the dark lenses of his sunglasses. That was when One realized that something was amiss.
(Since when do you feel things in dreams?)
Opening his eyes a crack, Numbah One then blinked and stared up at the Delightful Child standing over him. Dolores had barely moved, still holding the controller up in front of her, fingers still firmly grasping the device and keeping it pointed at the swings behind him – which he abruptly realized weren't moving closer anymore.
Though her posture hadn't changed much, the petite girl's shoulders were shaking in time with her quiet sobbing. Tears were rolling freely down her face, drawing further attention to the nasty purplish bruise covering her cheek. Numbah One hadn't noticed it before.
"Why, whatever is the matter, dear sister?" queried the quartet, genuine confusion in their voices.
"…Oh, just… let him go…"
The group blinked in perfect unison, staring at the trembling lass. Numbah One was pretty sure the look on his own face was a pretty decent match for their flummoxed expressions.
"I said, let him go." Dolores shook her head, tears trickling down freely. "I can't take… can't take this any longer…"
"Sister…" The group leaned forward slightly, matching looks of confusion and concern gracing their faces. "You've had a difficult time. We believe that…"
"I don't care what you believe!" Dolores spun to face them, several strands of her long sandy hair sticking to her dampened cheeks while she gazed at her startled siblings. "I believe…" She shook her head furiously, then corrected, "I know this has gone way too far! It was bad enough being left behind, but this…"
She choked on her own tears, and squeezing her eyes shut shook her head violently for a moment. Numbah One pushed up to a kneeling position, taking advantage of the fact that none of the Delightful Children seemed to be paying any attention to him. He adjusted his shades, never tearing his gaze away from the drama playing out before him.
"…Please, just drop it right here," Dolores pleaded, reopening her eyes and staring at her siblings again. "Nigel has… his friends miss him so much. He has to get back to them safely. I… I can't…"
Again she shook her head furiously, long blonde hair flipping about, then screamed, "I can't take this anymore!" Burying her face in one shaking palm, hanging onto the control with the other, she murmured, "I just want… I want… I want things to go back to the way they were before all this…"
Numbah One stared at Dolores, scarcely believing what he was seeing. Somehow, he'd never thought he'd be witness to an emotional breakdown of one of his despised rivals. Having difficulty watching the fragile girl cry into her hands, the wounded leader averted his gaze to the other Delightful Children from Down the Lane.
The quartet looked on silently, their faces betraying nothing: no sympathy, no surprise, no sorrow, just four masks of neutrality. Numbah One stared at them, amazed that they could remain so detached. They didn't even look the least bit uncomfortable by being confronted by their sobbing sibling.
Dolores knew she was making a scene. She knew Father would disapprove of her little outburst. But right then, she found she didn't care. A dam had burst, and she couldn't stop the tears pouring from her eyes even if she'd been so inclined.
In her miserable condition, she wasn't capable of paying much attention to what was going on around her. So she didn't notice when her siblings heaved a collective sigh and shifted their weight, hands disappearing into their pockets.
However, Numbah One was not blinded by tears. The British boy saw what the crying lass could not and reacted.
"Get down!" he ordered, springing forward and slamming into Dolores' back.
She cried out in shock, falling to the ground. She felt more than heard the whoosh of displaced air as something flew overhead, and looked over in time to see a large discus slice into the ground with a horrendous screech of tearing metal. It ground itself further into the floor, traveling several feet before finally becoming hopelessly emerged in the jagged steel ruins.
Dolores felt like her heart froze the instant that she laid eyes upon the wreckage. Slowly, tears gathering in the corners of her fear-widened eyes, her shocked gaze swung from the ruined disc to where her siblings stood, controls in hand.
"…What?" the quartet queried, monotone voices filled with false innocence. "Don't look at us like that, sister dear. You know what Father always says: 'Never let anything or anyone block your path on the road to victory. When an obstacle presents itself, show no mercy'."
Dolores opened her mouth, but nothing came out. She slowly shook her head in denial, tears trickling once more down her numb cheeks.
"'The friend of my friend is my enemy'," intoned the chorus bluntly. Each pressed a button on their controls while continuing, "Fare well, Dolores…"
Numbah One grabbed Dolores' hand and yanked her back as several metal poles came lancing down from above. The shocked lass did nothing to resist, staring blankly at her siblings while they summoned their robotic servants.
The leader of the Kids Next Door ran as fast as he could while fairly dragging the lass behind him. Glancing over his shoulder, he quickly analyzed the situation: three more mechanical monstrosities had emerged. The poles were forming into crude monkey bars, and he could see a slide lumbering in from the shadows to the right of the platform, while from the left a bunch of heavy-looking metal balls bounced into view.
"Let me guess… dodgeballs," he muttered under his breath.
Dodging behind the first set of crates he reached, Numbah One took several deep breaths, trying to fight down the panic and fear and just think things through.
(Okay, I'm up against four of my team's worst enemies, unarmed, facing down some of their most destructive minions yet, my side still hurts from that smack-down that slide gave me after that last fight…)
On second thought, blind panic didn't seem like such a bad option after all.
"…It isn't as bad as it looks…"
Numbah One looked over at Dolores curiously, raising an eyebrow. He hadn't expected the Delightful lass to do anything other than cry and carry on the way she had been. With what she'd been through, he certainly couldn't have blamed her if she couldn't help him face her creepy family.
Her head was bowed, her long sandy hair hiding almost all of her face. All he could see was her reddened, tear-streaked cheeks and her mouth, which was pressed into a thin line as she fought to compose herself. He couldn't see her eyes, yet knew somehow that they were squeezed shut, fighting back any more tears.
"…The system used to control the dodgeballs isn't perfected yet. The tracking system is off kilter. That's why we decided not to bring them along when we set up the trap."
Numbah One gaped at the petite girl. He hadn't been able to force any information out of her before, when he had the upper hand in every way, yet now here she was, reciting weapons intelligence in a quiet, blunt monotone. He flinched: it wasn't quite the same monotone he recalled as her 'Delightful Child' tone, either. This was… a dead recitation of facts.
"The controls are also a bluff," she continued evenly. "They already wreaked one of their weapons with their first assault. The go-round is out of commission, one less weapon to worry about."
"…Why are you telling me all this?" he asked, trying to sound cool and collected instead of as shocked as he felt.
Instead of immediately responding, Dolores handed him something. Numbah One gasped when he realized it was the controls for the slide.
"You can use that to try and hold them off if you want. You're a bright young man; I'm sure you'll think of someway to use that to your advantage."
She raised her head, and Numbah One fell silent at the sight of the raw emotion in the fragile girl's pale blue eyes. Her world had come tumbling down around her. With her family turned against her, she had nothing left to fall back upon, nothing to hold onto, except…
"…I… have a promise I have to keep," she replied quietly.
(There's nothing left for me. But he… his friends are all looking for him. They still care…)
"Your teammates are here to try and rescue you," she reported. "Do you think you can hang on until then?"
Numbah One looked at her, dark blue eyes unreadable behind his dark sunglasses. Suddenly, the commander smirked. Taking Dolores' hands, he folded them around the control unit. She blinked, staring at him questioningly, and he favored her with a faint smile.
"Maybe… if you watch my back for me."
Dolores blinked rapidly, tears still forming in the corners of her eyes. Numbah One didn't give her the chance to refuse. Standing up, the leader of the Kids Next Door adjusted his shades, then turned and dashed back out into the open.
He was taking a calculated risk. If his hunch proved correct, then he just might have a chance of holding out against the Delightful Children long enough for the cavalry to get there. Of course, if he was wrong, he wouldn't have to worry about it long…