A blast of thunder and an explosion of ice and water roared through the Arctic Ocean as the S.C.A.M.P.E.R. burst through the ice cap and headed south.

"Wow, Numbuh One! This thing flies smoother than even the S.C.A.M.P.E.R.S.O.O.P.R.E.M.E.!!" piped the inventor, obviously happy with his new toy.

"Presuming it doesn't kill us," Nigel added blandly, taking the center seat and finding it not only posh and stylish, but very comfortable. Great, he was starting to like it.

"We're being hailed from Moonbase, Numbuh One," piped Kuki rather suddenly, and oddly enough, without giddiness.

"Sounds to me like the script's arrived," Nigel smirked. "Steady as she goes, Numbuh Two. Numbuh Four, stay ready at tactical. Numbuh Three, put them onscreen." Nigel swiveled his chair to face the screen, standing up to greet their caller.

The screen activated to reveal a more alert Numbuh Three Sixty-Two, who eyed Sector V with what appeared to be…………uncertainty?

"I trust you've been re-supplied with the tactical devices and other stuff that was prepared for you, Numbuh One?"

"It seemed more like a museum tour to me," Nigel paced. "Honestly, Numbuh Three-Sixty Two, where did you dig up that fossil?"

"There is no time for explanations there, Numbuh One." She pulled up a report. "KND Intelligence have been tracking Father's use of inventory and suppliers, and their final report tells me that he's going to……pull out most of the stops this time."

"This wouldn't be the first time he's tried to do so," Nigel scratched his chin. "I'm sure it's nothing we can't handle."

"That is what I'm counting on, Numbuh One. The most preliminary reports indicate that Father is working on a prototype for some new kind of Delightfulization ray. I'm afraid we don't have much else to go on.

"And you want us to go in there and break it for him? No sweat, Numbuh Three Sixty-Two."

"NO! Listen to me, Numbuh One. That ray could be the only hope we ever have of recovering our missing operatives from Sector Z. I want your team to go in there, get as much data as you can, and bring it back. We'll try to duplicate Father's research from this end. But that might not be possible, and I'm afraid that means we might have no choice but to let Father finish it, and then take it from him. No fireworks. It's just a simple milk run, got it?"

"Why does Numbuh Five suddenly have that feeling like this is just gonna go very, very wrong?" The black girl shook her head.

"The girl's got a point," Hoagie quipped. "We're talking about going into the belly of the beast here. Maybe it's nothing we haven't done before, but if he's really working on what you're suggesting…"

"That's why we needed the cloaking device…" said Abby, suddenly realizing things.

"That's if it doesn't try to turn us into operative tar tare, Numbuh Five. The cloak is still clearly untested," Nigel frowned, resisting the urge to shoot Rachel a disapproving glare.

"Perhaps, but I'm sure you trust in Numbuh Two's abilities, as much as I trust our…operative you saw earlier. Your inventions and modifications have yet to fail us, Numbuh Two, so I trust that this mission will run smoothly," Rachel sat back with slight satisfaction.

Nigel bit back the comment he had been about to make regarding his observation that she wasn't on board the experimental S.C.A.M.P.E.R. with them. "Don't our missions always run smoothly?" Nigel turned the conversation towards a more positive spin. "After all, this is Sector V you're calling on…"

"The best in the world," replied his commander. "So if all of you are finished semi-questioning my orders, and if you're clear on your present mission, then that will be all……unless any of you have questions?"

"Oi have a question!" Wally piped up, turning around.

"Yes, Numbuh Four?" she asked with a slight tone of condescension.

"Wot's the idea of sendin' us inta Father's mansion without bein' able to even attack? We'll be sittin' ducks for those Delightful Dorks insoide!"

Rachel face-palmed and turned to Nigel, "Someone explain to this boy the meaning of COVERT MISSION. Moonbase OUT."

With that, the monitor turned off.

"Wot?" Wally asked as everyone shot him a look. "Wot's everyone lookin' at me for?"

Nigel grimaced, "This is why I never worry about Numbuh Four getting poached by Global Command."

"Unless Numbuh Sixty needs someone to harden recruits…" said Numbuh Two. "Anyway, Father's mansion is coming up in five minutes. Charging up cloaking device…"

"Steady as she goes, Numbuh Two. Numbuh Five, ready the fire extinguishers. If our teenage friend," Nigel unsuccessfully tried to keep the disdain out of his voice, "messed up again, this flight could be cut disastrously short."

"Aye, commander." Abby stood and pulled out a garden hose from under a panel, and aimed it at the device that looked a bit like pressure cooker.

"Thirty seconds to cloak…" said Hoagie.

"Numbuh Two, engage cloak when ready."

"Standing by…and…engage!" A red light lit up on the "cooker", and some wires began to redden with heat. Some steam began to wisp out of it too, but beyond that, there was no visible difference in the cabin. Outside, however, where there was a S.C.A.M.P.E.R. before, there was suddenly none, even though the roar of the turbines, while muffled, was still audible.

"Well, we still appear to be in one piece…" Nigel took stock of the craft. "But are we fully invisible, even to radar?"

Everybody seemed to be holding his or her breath, until Hoagie replied, "Only one way to find out." He punched a few buttons on the console, and leaned back, "Numbuh Three, hail the nearest Treehouse…Sector W, and ask if they have us on radar."

"Okay!" Kuki said cheerily, she always loved to call out. "Um, hello? Sector dub-a-yew, guess where we are!" She giggled, speaking into the microphone like it was a new toy.

It was Lee who replied a few moments later. "We read you, Numbuh Three. You're not calling from your Treehouse, are you?" Some more button presses were heard, as well as an "…odd…" and "…can't…"

"No, silly! I'm up here! Me and the rest of Sector V are just passing through!"

"Wha? Numbuh Three, I'm….getting an approximate heading of 180-0-0, but you're not on our radar screen. I hope we're not having a malfunction here."

Numbuh Four and Numbuh Two high-fived each other.

"Nope! It's just because of our coat. I mean, our cape!"

"END TRANSMISSION!" growled Numbuh One, rather suddenly.

"Huh? Hey! Numbuh One, that wasn't very nice! Now Sector W is going to think we don't like them or something!" Kuki pouted.

"Numbuh Three, the CLOAKING device is TOP SECRET! Or have you forgotten Numbuh Sixty's orders already???!!!" It wasn't often when Nigel thundered at Kuki, much less in front of Wally, but the tension of the whole mission seemed to be getting to him.

"Um…..what was it again?" The girl scratched her head nervously. "Um, I guess I did forget, didn't I?" She shrunk in her seat slightly. She knew Nigel was probably going to yell.

Instead, the bald Briton turned back to the front and ordered, "Full speed ahead to Father's mansion…whatever may be left of it." He took a glance at Numbuh Four, who was almost glaring at him with anger over what he had just said to Kuki, but he knew Numbuh Four wasn't stupid enough to berate his commander, much less in the middle of a mission.

Quietly, Kuki breathed a sigh of relief that she hadn't been bawled out.

From up in front, Hoagie further distracted their leader with news of their destination. "Looks like Father's been doing some redecorating, Numbuh One. The mansion hardly looks like it's been through much…"

"Must have cost him a fortune…" said Abby.

"He's got it." Nigel muttered darkly, throwing himself into his seat and brooding.

As they approached, Hoagie checked his readings, "I don't think he's scanned us either, Numbuh One. None of his defenses are activating!"

"Finally, maybe something is actually going our way. Now all we have to do is figure out how to land without attracting the attention of Father or his Delightfully deviant children."

"How about landing on the part that isn't finished yet?" asked Kuki, quite happily.

Nigel reflexively turned to bark at her that he was looking for constructive ideas, but stopped when he realized she might have hit on something. "Numbuh Three…" Nigel growled in his most annoyed tone, watching her gulp audibly. "That's a spectacular idea." The bald boy smirked at her. "Excellent work."

"Numbuh Two, head for the construction area. Sector V, prepare for assault. We're going inside that thing." Nigel gripped the edge of his chair tightly, thinking hard about the last time he had met Father in his mansion and learned the truth about his heritage. But he was with his father then, or rather, Numbuh Zero, the single greatest KND operative ever to grace the field. Around him, his team seemed to look at him expectantly, ready to carry out his orders and march into hell if he thought it was worthwhile. He breathed deeply, realizing that his team wouldn't move until he gave them the order they so loved to hear him cry. A wry smirk tugged at his lips, and he raised his arm into the air, pointing towards their landing zone. "Kids Next Door…battlestations!"

Numbuh Two acknowledged and pulled back on the throttle, while Numbuh Three shut down the comm lines, Numbuh Four made sure all the weapons were armed, and Numbuh Five re-checked the fuel and shields.

No turning back now.

Hoagie set the modified S.C.A.M.P.E.R. down on a rather crowded part of the construction area. It was a tight fit, but it also afforded them the convenience of being up against a brick section of the main mansion that did not have any windows. This would allow them to infiltrate the building without losing the element of surprise. In the back of Nigel's mind, he could hear Rachel's voice. No fireworks this time. We need to know about what Father's up to. Don't go in there starting a fight. Her orders made sense, but carrying them out would be a difficult task. "Numbuh Four," Nigel asked, "break out minimal weaponry. Remember, we're not here to launch an all-out assault. If at all possible, I'd like for us to pull this off undetected. Any ideas what our best route to take is, Numbuh Five?" He asked, turning to Abigail as Hoagie shut the S.C.A.M.P.E.R. down, switching to standby mode that would keep the cloak in effect.

Wally grumbled under his breath as he put away the laser weapons and readied the M.U.S.K.E.T.'s.

Abby looked at her leader from under her cap and replied, "It's best we follow the areas under construction, into the main part of the mansion. That way, we'll also reckon any new rooms and installations Father may be adding to his new mansion. Once we're inside, we'd best go to the 'throne room' and see if he has his plans there."

"I like the way you think, Numbuh Five. Numbuh Two, did you get a good layout of this construction zone when you flew us in? If possible, we need to avoid areas where we can be easily spotted by anyone in the mansion. If Father or any of the Delightful dorks spot us, we're sitting ducks out here."

Without hesitating, the response was, "There is a half-built wall around the corner, leading to a sheet of plastic, obviously covering an entry. We shouldn't have problems going inside there."

"So long as nobody's waiting ta ambush us on the otha' soid." Wally sulked, longing to wrap his arms around more heavy artillery, even a T.H.U.M.P.E.R.

Numbuh Five whacked his head with her hat again. "Okay, let's get this straight, EINSTEIN: 'covert mission' means that it's a SPY mission, meaning that you CAN'T pull off a Rambo or McClaine or Van Damme or Han Solo, is…that…clear???"

"Oi know, oi know! Lay off already! Sheesh! You certainly know how to take all the fun out of a mission!" Wally rolled his eyes sulkingly and straightened his bowl cut.

"Do you wish to stay here and guard the S.C.A.M.P.E.R., Numbuh Four?" growled the Briton. "You might find it more fun than just sneaking around a half-built house!"

"Yeah, roight, and let you guys hog all the action? Not a chance!"

"Then I suggest that you do NOT shoot or punch unless Father or the Delightful Children shoot first, is that clear??"

"Yes, sir," Wally emphasized the title a little too much, but he knew when he ought not to push Numbuh One any farther. His patience had limits.

M.U.S.K.E.T.'s drawn, the children sneaked out of their ship. Only when they were about to clear the wall did they turn and see that, indeed, the teenager's invention was a success.

"I always knew she could pull it off," Hoagie smiled with satisfaction, admiring TM's handiwork. "It's perfect!"

Nigel couldn't help but agree, "Everyone remember where we parked, then," though he did make a mental note to thank her later. Nigel gestured for Hoagie to take the lead, since he seemed to have their route already mapped in his head. As the group picked their way cautiously through the tangle of support beams and scaffoldings, Nigel did his best to see the larger picture for himself, wondering what new features Father would soon be adding to his fortress.

Wally, meanwhile, grunted as they moved on, wishing he could shoot or hit someone.

Cautiously, Kuki moved with her friends, keeping up pace. She felt restless and nervous, licking her lips and feeling unsure of herself. She longed to hang onto someone else, at least until she got inside, but Wally seemed agitated, and she knew better than to distract Nigel. Hoagie was busy plotting their route, and she couldn't ask Abby to baby-sit her when they were on a mission. She was on her own.

"………………uki………"

"W-what?" She asked, pulling her oversized shirt around her tighter as a gust of wind blew through the unfinished construction area.

"Wot wot?" asked Wally.

"I thought you asked me something?" she turned her head inquisitively.

"Oi didn't say nuthin'!" he grunted.

"……………kuuuuuukiiiiiii……"

The petite girl clamped her hands over her ears and shook her head. "I guess it was just the wind…" she said absently. But she knew that it wasn't. Someone was calling to her, as though from far away. As though the voice really was being carried along by a haunting wind. A voice that was meant only for her to hear. Now she only longed to be inside. Even the walls of Father's mansion would feel safer than out here. Because at least she knew who was inside.

"You okay, girl?" asked Abby.

"I thought someone called my name," she turned to Abby, all smiles. "It was probably just the wind."

"Um, that didn't sound like Father or a Delightful Dweeb? Despite her coolness, not even Abby could remain not-nervous near those people.

"No, it was more like…someone far away…like I could only barely hear it," Kuki sniffed, shaking her head. "Don't be worried, Numbuh Five, it's just the wind!" She giggled lightly, even though she didn't much feel like it.

Numbuh Five adjusted her cap, but even she could tell that Numbuh Three was definitely scared, and it wasn't because of the mission. Just then, everyone looked ahead, as Nigel had raised his hand, signaling a stop. They had reached the plastic tarp, and he was holding one edge of it.

Nigel made a simple hand motion, gesturing for his fellow operatives to enter single file. Numbuh Two went first immediately covering the area, but the corridor seemed deserted. Apparently, this part of the mansion was seldom in use considering the construction underway. The others slithered behind him, M.U.S.K.E.T.'s drawn, forming a strategic pose, prepared for any strike. Numbuh Two looked around for security cameras, but one look at an unfinished fray of tangled wires signaled that this area hadn't been electrified yet. Where to progress from here could prove a problem. This wasn't their first trip into the mansion, but the reality of the remodeling quickly made Nigel realize that they might not be able to trust their memories on this one. There was also the danger of tripping an alarm—they could easily cross from an unwired section to a wired one without noticing, and Nigel had the distinct impression that Numbuh Three Sixty-Two would not be terribly forgiving if he failed to keep this mission covert and quiet. She'd probably turn Numbuh Eighty-Six loose on him and his team, and that was the last thing he needed. What he needed was information—a commodity that the team was sorely lacking at the moment.

"……kuuuuuuukiiiiiiiiiii……"

Kuki shot Numbuh Four a dirty look, "Cut it out, Wally," she hissed between clenched teeth. "It's not funny anymore." Previously, she had thought that the wind was playing with her ears, but now that they were inside, it was becoming obvious that Wally was just trying to ease his boredom by teasing her.

"Cut wut out?" he hissed back, annoyed.

The Japanese girl turned to give him an earful…

…except to find that he had his back turned to her.

A dawning realization came about the green-clad girl, and she didn't much like it. She was bringing up the rear. Nobody could be whispering to her. Besides, Numbuh One would never approve of a practical joke on a serious mission like this; even Numbuh Two wouldn't do such a thing. Anxiously, Kuki looked back upon the tarp that Nigel had cautiously put back into place after they had all filed inside. It billowed occasionally, so there was still an active breeze. It had to be her imagination.

And then, it came to her.

"Numbuh One, we should head toward the left and go down the next flight of stairs."

Everyone turned to look at her, surprised not only that she had made a clear suggestion, but at how she had arrived at her conclusion.

"Numbuh Three?" Hoagie asked.

"How do you…" Abby continued.

"Know where to go?" Nigel finished darkly, his senses becoming ever more alert.

Numbuh Four stared at the small girl, trying to determine why she was acting so flighty—even for Kuki.

A part of Nigel suspected a trap, but then, how could it be? Kuki would have no reason to betray them, and even if she could be trying at times, there was no questioning her loyalty.

"Ummm……doesn't anyone remember when we were all turned into animals and we all looked around this place? I think I remembered something from then."

Nigel lowered his M.U.S.K.E.T. thoughtfully. "Come to think of it, the last time I was here, I came right through the front door with…" He trailed off, his words clearly bringing to mind an emotional wound that hadn't completely closed over yet.

"…with…?" asked Wally

Abby elbowed the blonde boy in the ribs and quickly changed the subject. "Well, since we don't have any other leads, Numbuh Five says we listen to Numbuh Three here."

Everyone looked at their leader. It was his call now.

"Numbuh Three, you're certain?" Nigel asked as adjusted his sunglasses, fixing his gaze on her.

Kuki shut her eyes, squeezing them tightly. She didn't know how or why, but it was as though…someone was telling her the way to go. A voice that only she could hear. And she knew without question that the voice was right. Only she had no idea why, and it was starting to scare her. Warily, she nodded at Nigel, wanting him to turn away from her. She felt as though she couldn't breathe.

Nigel turned away, and led the team toward the stairs.

Abby, meanwhile, leaned back. "You sure you're okay, girl? We could get you checked up on the Moonbase after this."

"Numbuh Five?" Kuki sniffed quietly. "I'm…scared. I feel like something's wrong with me." She shook her head.

"Have you felt that since this morning?"

Kuki nodded. "I feel like…someone's watching me…calling me…"

Abby looked at her friend. This was certainly nothing she'd ever handled before. Even Numbuh 20,000, while paranoid, didn't have Kuki's fright. Not to mention, Kuki was much more fragile than he was—

"We're at the stairs, Kuki! Up or down?"

"D-down. We have to go down." She steadied her voice.

They all stiffened at that. In the lower levels was where Father had his dungeon…and most of his labs.

"I think…" Kuki sniffed. "I think I can hear him," she squeezed Abby's hand.

"Father?" asked Abby, slightly alarmed.

"I don't know. It's telling me to go down." Her voice had risen an octave…gone was her normally pleasant demeanor. Abby was worried she was on the verge of complete terror.

"It??" She hadn't felt that scared since that huge sea asparagus swallowed her in one bite.

"The voice…I don't know who or what it is….but it's telling me to go down. All the way down." Her nose was running.

Abby had enough. She turned and stated, "Numbuh One, as Lieutenant Commander, I request permission for Numbuh Three to abort this mission and head back to the Treehouse immediately on the grounds of a medical emergency."

"Absolutely not," Nigel rounded on his second-in-command, then fixed his gaze on Numbuh Three. He hadn't meant to sound so harsh. Sighing, Nigel softened his tone. "Numbuh Three…I cannot abort this mission now that we're in the middle of it. But if you're not feeling up to this, there's no reason for you to push yourself. You can wait in the S.C.A.M.P.E.R. if you like. Once this mission is complete, we can go back to the Treehouse or to a medical facility."

Numbuh Three looked at her leader, trying not to have her lip tremble. Numbuh Four eyed her with concern now, and hoped inwardly that she would go back to the S.C.A.M.P.E.R.

"Numbuh Three?" Nigel asked. "Will you be all right? Or should I have Wally escort you back? Do you feel capable of continuing?"

Kuki heard what her leader said, but the words barely passed through her. Her mind was roiling, and she just wanted to go home to the safety and comfort of her Rainbow Monkeys™. But the more she thought about leaving, the more her stomach began to hurt, like the voice in her head was growing displeased.

"…kuukkii……"

"I…I'm going with you," she suddenly said with a determination she wasn't at all sure that she felt. But none of that mattered now.

She had to go.

She then felt something grab her hand. Turning—

"Are—are yew sure?" asked Wally, with a very unfamiliar look of concern in his face.

"I have to," she sniffed, squeezing his hand gently. "Stop worrying about me, silly." The words seemed out of place with tears in her eyes. "I'll be fine."

Wally, too, began feeling scared, as she led him on. This was totally unfamiliar territory for him: not only the covert mission, whatever that meant, but also something was wrong with Kuki, and no one had any idea what.

The quintet quietly descended into the darkness.

"Farther down." Kuki whispered as their group descended to the lower level; Hoagie wondering when their luck would run out.

"Oi wonder if those Delightful Dorks are nappin'…" said Wally, looking frantically around him.

"Doubtful," Nigel bristled. "They have a habit of showing up at the worst times."

"They're close…" said Kuki, and then suddenly realized what she said.

Everyone stopped, and again, all eyes were on her. "Do you know where they are, Numbuh Three?" Nigel suddenly asked, deciding he would worry how Kuki might know later when they were all safe.

"They're……on this floor…I think…or the one above us…I'm not sure…"

"Do they know that we're here?" Nigel asked grimly, things suddenly becoming quiet and solemn among the team. Because if Kuki's answer to his question was an affirmative, all hell could break loose at any moment.

"I….I don't know…."

Nigel struggled not to get frustrated. Again, lack of information was being a greater enemy than anything they might find here in the mansion. This was not their turf, which immediately put them at a disadvantage. Moreover, his team had been very specifically instructed to avoid a confrontation. But it would be all too busy to play into the Delightful Children's hands by making one wrong turn—and if the precocious pre-teens were already aware of their presence, Nigel had no doubt that they would make themselves known on their terms and at the time of their choosing—a time which would doubtlessly be very poor for Sector V.

Hoagie checked the ceilings and walls. "This area may be electrified, but either they didn't think they needed cameras…or they're not where I can see them."

"If you ask Numbuh Five, she says that neither possibility is good for us." Abby adjusted her hat, tugging her braid.

"And wut is it that we're lookin' for again here?" hissed Wally. "If we can't foight for it…"

"Information," Nigel interrupted him. "I'll explain the details when we get out of here. But if we can fill Global Command in on whatever it is that Father is up to, there's a good chance we can turn it to our advantage. And short of that, they'll send in a strike team to crush it."

"Yeeesh…you'd think WE would be the strike team chosen for that…"

"Whoever said we wouldn't be, fool!" Abby glowered at him. "But right now, we have a job to do! What is it with you today, Numbuh Four!? Keep your head in the game!"

Wally grumbled something about his game being kicking Delightful Butts, but that seemed rather irrelevant now, as his primary concern was his girlf—Kuki. Right. Just Kuki.

"Stop arguing! You're making it worse!" Kuki tugged at her hair in exasperation, and then pressed the palms of her hands to her temples, trying to enhance the reception in her head.

"……kukiii……"

The voice in her head seemed a little less distant now, more fluid. Almost as though it were traveling throughout her mind, beckoning to her.

Seeing her trouble, Wally was about to put his hands on her shoulders, but knowing that Hoagie would give him a ribbing later on, he just held her right arm. "S—sorry, Numbuh Three. Which woy now?"

"I'm trying to hear…" Kuki waited for some sort of revelation. She sought the voice now, even though she continued to fear it.

"…down…down…doooowwwwnnn……"

"We're not far enough." Kuki shook her head. "We need to go down. There must be another staircase somewhere."

They had already reached the end of the flight they first took, and now they were in what seemed to be a long corridor, almost tube-like. They all knew that the dungeon was in another wing, as was the "organ room".

"Oi just hope we can get out reeeeal quick if we need to…" said Wally.

Nigel rubbed his chin. "If the Delightful Dorks know we're here, they'll attack when we reach the middle of the corridor. It's a classic setup."

"That's a suicide run, Numbuh One. We need to take their attention off of us somehow," said Abby.

"They're…still above us…way above us now…they're not moving, either." Kuki seemed to be speaking almost ethereally.

"We can't just keep standing here," Abby took control of the situation. "If we're gonna do this, we've got to do it now. The longer we stand here, the greater the chance of us getting noticed. Or worse, the battery running out on the cloak."

Nigel looked at Kuki. "Which way leads further down?"

"There's a staircase…at the end." Kuki shut her eyes tightly. "I can see it. It's dark…I don't want to go…"

Wally didn't know whether to hold her gently or—

"See it? What do you mean SEE it?" asked Hoagie.

"I don't know," Kuki kept shaking her head, not wanting to look at them. "It's…like I'm watching a TV in my head. We have to go down. It's dark and quiet. And then…"

"…then?" asked Wally, almost fearfully.

"It gets bright. Really…bright, Numbuh Four. Like looking at the sun."

Everyone looked at Numbuh One, silently begging him to abort the mission.

Nigel looked upon her, a stab of remorse kicking him in the chest. How could he be so cruel? Kuki was obviously frightened out of her wits, but she was concentrating every ounce of her will on not crying or running away. At the best of times, she was playful and irresponsible, often putting her own interests before her duties as a KND operative. But now…she stood as brave as any soldier. Begging him without words to take them home. But she would not ask him. Somewhere inside, Nigel knew, she refused to shame herself.

"Oi knew we shoulda brought the lasers…"

The Brit glared at the blonde boy, but said nothing, choosing instead to focus on his distraught teammate. "Numbuh Three," Nigel moved towards her, gently placing his hands on her shoulder. "It will be all right. We won't let anything happen to you, or any of us. I wish we could go home, but we have a mission to complete. Are you able to carry on?"

She shivered for a moment, but stopped when Wally instinctively held both shoulders.

"Numbuh Four, bring up the rear with Numbuh Three. I'm making her your personal responsibility," Nigel smirked, knowing that this would likely comfort Kuki a great deal.

"Aye, Commander," he saluted. He waited just a bit for everyone to turn and begin moving, and when they did, he held her hand with his left, while drawing his M.U.S.K.E.T. with his right. "We'll git yew outta here, Numbuh Three," he whispered, "Juss' wait a bit longer."

Slowly, Nigel began to lead them down the long hallway, thoroughly expecting to be ambushed at any moment.

Kuki was running with her eyes closed, it seemed, but she trusted Wally to lead the way.

The otherwise empty hallway flooded with the dull thud-thud sound of their footfalls as they traversed it. With every step, Nigel expected the Delightful Children to emerge and challenge them, and it was with some shock that he placed his hand on the far door and realized that they had, so far, gone unnoticed.

Everyone halted and took offensive stances, as their leader carefully opened the door.

Slowly, Nigel pulled back on the heavy oak woodwork, which revealed……

……a steep, narrow staircase that looked dark as night.

"Too bad we don't have night vision…" said Abby, looking down, and remembering the ancient passages under Gallagher Elementary.

"Down," Kuki sniffed "…I'm down at the bottom. You finally…came."

Everyone looked at Numbuh Three. "What? WHO is at the bottom?" asked Abby.

"Huh?" Kuki asked, blinking twice and looking at her friends. "What? How should I know?!" Kuki sounded a bit more like her usual self. "Of course, it's probably Father, since it is his house and all…"

"No, you said I'm down at the bottom…Kuki, what's going on?"

"I…I'm not sure, Numbuh Five."

Hoagie turned to Nigel, now quite frightened himself. "Numbuh One, I suggest we go down there, grab the closest notebook or disk, and leave this place IMMEDIATELY." Whatever "information" Global Command wanted, it sure wasn't worth Kuki getting all incoherent about it. That, and for some reason, he was beginning to remember what happened to her the previous winter.

"I understand your concerns, Numbuh Two." Nigel said, tapping his foot in exhilaration. "This mission…the information we're trying to retrieve is vital. I can't tell you everything just now…but suffice it to say that it concerns Sector Z. I would not pursue this mission unless I was certain that what we're doing is vital."

Abby turned to Kuki again, "Numbuh Three, is the information we need at the end of this stairwell?"

"Beyond it." Kuki trembled. "There's…a room. It's big….bright….he's down there…..more sacrifices are necessary…"

"So Father is down there and—WHAT sacrifices?" blurted the black girl.

"Sacrifices?" Kuki asked, looking at Abby and cocking her head. "What kind of sacrifices?"

Abby face-palmed. "I don't know. YOU tell us! You just said that more sacrifices are necessary!"

Kuki's eyes seemed to grow more distant, her voice more hollow. "Did I?" she asked. "I…I don't remember." She shook her head.

Nigel stepped up. He looked at Kuki, and then, something from within himself seemed to well up and sort of connect, not with Kuki, but with something else close by: "What sacrifices do you need?"

"How should I know?!" Kuki asked, flustered. "You guys are acting funny…"

Nigel face-palmed himself, and continued his way down the staircase. He knew something huge was going to happen, and somehow, last winter's events were going to be part of it.

His team followed, if a bit hesitantly.

"What's this about Sector Z, Numbuh One? You can't go dropping a bomb like that on Numbuh Five and not follow through!"

Nigel continued his silent walk downward. True, Numbuh Five was his lieutenant commander…shouldn't she have the right to know about this?

"Numbuh Five doesn't believe this. You aren't going to answer her, are you?"

He suddenly turned and eyed her over his shades, "In…my…quarters……later…understood, lieutenant?"

"Yes, sir." Abigail bristled, fuming.

Satisfied, Nigel continued, with the rest following, still rather frightened. But, at last, the end of the staircase came into sight.

"Here. It's through here!" Kuki ran forwards towards a steel doorframe, flattening the palms of her hands against it. "You're close. I can feel it."

"Feel WUT?" asked Wally.

"You're through here!" Kuki banged on the door with her fists, ramming herself against it, trying to make it give way. There was no handle to provide passage, as though the door had been shaped out of the wall itself, never to open.

"Numbuh Four, enough!" yelled Nigel, as he and Abby grabbed the girl's arms. "Do you want to give up our cover??!!"

"Let go of me!" she snarled, wrenching her arms backwards with much more force than anyone could have though imaginable. Surprised at this, they were shoved back up the stairs. Angrily, Kuki flattened her palms against the door as though she would push it in. As her team watched in shock and fear, they looked to one another, as though wanting to ask if anyone else was seeing…something…that seemed to be emanating from Kuki.

Heat…not quite shimmering heat, but even though there were no vents nor fans, her raven hair began fluffing and lifting, and……

…were her hands glowing?

A low groan filled the room, and it took several moments before Hoagie made the connection: the frame of the door was beginning to buckle.

"N…Numbuh Five thinks that this covert mission just lost the 'covert' part…"

Wally almost wet his pants. He had heard of Kuki's "flareups", though he had only seen one up close—when they were fighting that evil mustache—and even then he thought it was just his imagination, but now—now——"

"Numbuh Five's right." Nigel face-palmed himself harshly. "This mission is burnt. We'll be lucky to get out of here without alerting the evening news, much less Father. He turned back to look at the frighteningly powerful Kuki, who was panting heavily, a steady snarl of hatred emanating from her throat, as though she would rip apart anything in her path just to reach the other side of the door.

"Well, Father won't be alerted…yet…but we couldn't help but hear all the noise you were making…" chanted five children behind them.

"Oh…[CENSORED," said Wally, turning.

Instinctively, Nigel and Abigail dropped and rolled backwards, coming up in a crouch with their meager side arms drawn and trained on their former comrades-turned mortal enemies. Nigel instructed Abby to hold her fire with a simple hand gesture, addressing their opponents in a tone that spoke of strength even though they were at a supreme disadvantage. "I should've known the five of you would show up sooner or later."

They continued their slow descent, apparently thinking Kuki had a device that was weakening the door. "We're actually a bit surprised that you made it this far, Nigel Uno. We just wondered why Little Kuki kept yelling all this time…"

"Lasers…we shouda brought the lasers…" mumbled Wally.

"Kuki, would you kindly stop trying to melt down Father's door? He'll get very upset," they chanted, coming closer.

If Numbuh Three heard them, she paid them no attention. Nigel risked a quick glance in her direction, but Kuki seemed to be in her own little world, muttering to herself darkly, straining herself to the limit. The girl seemed to have reached an impasse, as though her progress was being impeded by something.

"Kuki, whoi didn't yew tell us they were coming???!!!" yelled Wally.

"I don't answer to you!" Kuki's black hair billowed upwards as she screamed at Wally, pushing him out of her way. No one from Sector V dared to stop her.

The Delightfuls gasped as a…demon…they could only call her that, turned to face them. Abby saw that she had morphed into that…flare-up she had when her My First Rainbow Monkey™ went missing, but this time, she seemed……to have increased in rage. Kuki ascended the staircase slowly, one step at a time, her face a mask of hatred and rage and outrage fury that bore the promise of impending release upon the Delightful Children. All of Sector V looked on in shock as, almost imperceptibly, the Delightfuls took a step backwards.

And this time, Wally knew it wasn't his imagination when he saw steam—or was it smoke?—billow from her shoes with every step. He glanced back at the door, and saw two orange-hot glowing dents where her fists had been pounding just now.

"Y—you're not Kuki!" said the five kids, never having seen her like this. "Are—are you an experiment of the Kids Next Door or something?"

"Naughty children who disrespect their elders deserve to be sent to their rooms without supper!" The girl mocked as she advanced upon them. "Yes, you, who presume to give me orders. Look at me when I'm talking to you." There was an evil mirth in her voice…was Kuki…enjoying this? But no, something was wrong. This wasn't like Kuki. It hardly sounded like Kuki at all anymore.

"Elders?" asked Nigel. What was she talking about?

"What do you mean, 'Elders'?" the five kids echoed, "You're YOUNGER than us!"

"Speak when you're spoken to," Kuki turned her head as though to turn her rage upon the bald boy, but she then turned back to the huddled Delightful Children, who apparently seemed much more enjoyable prey. "Now, what do you have to say for yourselves?"

Mutant…whatever…or not, they would not answer to someone they KNEW was their enemy, and a younger one, too. They pulled out THEIR laser blasters, and replied, "Just…'good night, Kuki Sanban'," with a hint of glee, momentarily masking their fright.

Even after being decommissioned one day, Wally knew he would never forget what happened next. He watched in horror as Kuki continued her slow march towards the Delightful Children. He cried out when, as one, they fired their laser weapons at her, practically at point blank range. Wally knew he would never forget the look on Kuki's face, not of pain, but of surprise. The small girl stumbled backwards, and then fell completely over, her head banging violently against one of the stone steps, her eyes rolling up in her head, her still form sliding backwards down several steps before stopping awkwardly only a few steps above the bottom, where Sector V watched in horror and morbid fascination.

No one said anything.

No one spoke.

Not even the victorious Delightful Children.

It was as though time had completely stopped.

Almost in slow motion, Wally looked at the girl he loved, sprawled on the steps, and up at her assailants, who, oddly enough, didn't seem to have expressions of victory, but that of surprise as well. Perhaps, it was as if they couldn't believe they had actually finished off one of the Kids Next Door.

Thusly, his own rage began to build.

In unison, the Delightful Children descended the curvature of the staircase, moving down towards their fallen enemy. But still, they did not appear triumphant, or even pleased with themselves. Everything in the dark room still felt wrong, somehow.

"Leave here alone you freaks!" Abigail rapidly closed the distance to Kuki, brandishing her weapon fiercely.

The Delightful Children took no notice, also maneuvering themselves right next to Kuki. But they did not seem interested in admiring their work, or even gloating. Instead, they focused their gaze, and weapons, on Nigel. "You are in our home now, and you will answer to us or face the consequences. What are you doing in our home? And what have you done to Kuki Sanban?" Their guns were trained on him now, and he was about to reply, but he was interrupted by a low rumbling.

It seemed to be coming from behind the door, but as it got louder, they realized it was a growl coming from behind them. They turned and saw raging green eyes filling with tears, and then in the most fearsome voice he had ever conjured, Wally drew his M.U.S.K.E.T. at them and grunted,

"YOU…"

"…DIE……"

"……NOW……"

"Numbuh Four, no!" Nigel yelled, finally driven out of the shock of seeing his own teammate murdered before his very eyes. But there was no stopping Wallabee Beetles. He rushed into the Delightful Children like a bowling ball assaulting a set of duckpins. So furious was his physical attack that, in a rare moment of disharmony and confusion, all five of the Delightful Children separated, but it was not enough to escape the pain of his blonde fury.

Amid the melee that followed, with each of the remainder of Sector V fighting the Delightfuls individually, the blonde girl received a hard right cross on her face, knocking her back and falling sideways, sliding down next to Kuki's inert body. She grunted, feeling blood streaming from her lips, but her original personality bubbled inside her, pushing her to turn and stand and go back for more.

And then, her ankle began burning.

She looked down, and for the first time in two months, she spoke individually. "Kuki? You're alive? OW!! HEY, THAT BURNS!!"

Kuki wrenched the girl's ankle fiercely in the wrong direction, knowing it would sufficiently incapacitate her but still relishing in the delicious expression of her enemy as she clearly felt the conjoined pain of her breaking ankle and scorching flesh.

"Consider it a taste of hell," Kuki told her wickedly, then flung her with a frightful amount of force into the door she had previously tried so hard to open.

The sudden CLANG stopped the fight right when the Aussie was about to ram his knee on David's nose. Wally's hoodie was torn in a hundred places, and the other four Delightfuls appeared to have met a tribe of bullies. His eyes calmed down a bit when he saw Kuki trying to sit up. "Kuki? You're alive?" he asked, still holding David.

"Numbuh Three?" Nigel asked, still somewhat in shock, his sense of command seeming to have left him for a moment. Rapidly, he struggled to regain control of the situation. "Numbuh Two! Prepare evacuation procedures. Kuki needs immediate medical attention!"

Taking advantage of the distraction, the other four Delightfuls pushed Wally off David. The four then seemed to "reset" their positions, turned, and ran back upstairs.

"Will someone please tell Numbuh Five what's going on?" Abigail pleaded angrily for some sense.

Nigel couldn't begin to explain things, given that he didn't know what had just transpired, either.

The Delightful girl seemed to recover a bit, and tried to get up. A sudden feeling of detachment overcame her, and she looked up the stairs, where her "brothers" had gone. She tried to stumble up the stairs to re-join them.

"Don't be absurd." Nigel called to her, drawing one of the laser blasters they had dropped. His voice sounded rough and commanding, but inside, he couldn't help but feel a twinge of pity for her. Her own comrades had deserted her and left her to her fate, and she was clearly quite injured. Not to mention the fact that in another life, she had been a valued Kids Next Door operative, and along with her friends, she had even helped to save his life during the whole Grandfather incident before turning back into her unpleasant, delightful self. "You're seriously injured. You can't possibly climb that staircase."

The girl looked down and saw her scorched sock and shoe, and she was leaving red footprints. VERY close to her, she could actually feel heat emanating from Kuki. Turning to her, she saw the laser blasts that had charred the green oversized sweater…but that seemed to be the only damage she had.

"If you come with us, we'll take you to a proper KND medical facility." Nigel offered. Of course, he didn't bother mentioning that he'd also try to get some information out of her in the process, but right now, she was a fellow kid in need first, even if she was his enemy. He could not leave her there to suffer even more injury, especially when she clearly couldn't threaten him anymore even if she wanted to.

At that moment, the Asian girl collapsed into the Aussie's arms. Abby saw that, and knew that there was no more time for espionage. "We won't find any info here, boss. The room is sealed, and we have an injured party. Numbuh Five STRONGLY suggests we git."

Nigel looked to the pleading Abby, to the unconscious Kuki, to the still-struggling Delightful blonde girl who kept trying without success to haul herself up the staircase, a small trickle of blood in her wake. "I suppose it's not a total loss: we won't be leaving empty handed. "Numbuh Two, we're going to need that S.C.A.M.P.E.R. prepped ASAP. Numbuh Four, carry Kuki with you. Numbuh Five, you're with me. We're taking the blonde with us."

The blonde girl was grabbed by both arms, and though she was in terrible pain, she moaned, "No…no…I must get back to my brothers…they need me…we can't…stay apart…please…" Their grip shifted, and now they were hoisting her up between them. "Ow…ow……what…how did that brat do that to me? To the door? What have you Kids Next Door been doing to each other??"

"You can come with us willingly, or we can do things the hard way if you prefer, but you are coming with us, so you might as well stop struggling before you get hurt a lot worse than you are now." Nigel said coldly, letting her know that he was in command of the situation. "As for Numbuh Three…we haven't done anything to her. But while you get medical attention and have some time to contemplate your place in the world, we will be finding out."

The girl groaned and resigned herself. Quickly, the children doubled back from where they came, all the way back to the plastic tarp they had entered.

"I love what you've done with the place. You simply must tell Father that his new decor makes it so more convenient to drop in on him unannounced," Hoagie chuckled, needling their enemy as he took the lead back towards their transportation.

By the time they had gone outside, the cloaker had shut off, in time for the girl to NOT see that the SCAMPER was invisible. Quickly, the kids climbed in.

"Numbuh Four, set Kuki in the back where she'll be safe. I need you to guard our guest while we're in flight," Nigel ordered. "Numbuh Two, set a course for the nearest KND medical center and take us there at the best possible speed. Numbuh Five, cover for Numbuh Three at communications since she's out of commission at the moment."

The four saluted.

Later…

"This is Numbuh Five of Sector V. We have a medical emergency: we have one operative severely injured, she just HAPPENED to be our med officer, and she's currently out cold. We also have a…'civilian' with us, and she's also in need of medical assistance. Any KND med officers, please respond."

"This is Numbuh 83 of Sector W. We read you, Numbuh Five. I'm on my—"

"NUMBUH ONEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!!!!"

The shrill sound of unadulterated fury crackled over the speakers, enough to wilt even the stoic, defiant sulk on their prisoner's face. All of the conscious KND operatives on the S.C.A.M.P.E.R. knew who was calling them, and that it wasn't going to be a pleasant conversation.

The redhead's face filled the front screen. "WOT is the meanin' of ye brreakin' rradio silence?? Yerr s'pposed t'be on a COVERRT operration!!"

"We had a change in plans." Nigel said dismissively, as though he couldn't be bothered with the rantings of Numbuh Eighty-Six.

"Change n'plans??" she mocked, "So Oi s'ppse ye STYUPID boys couldnnae finish yerr mission t'get top secrret info??"

"We've got injured here, Numbuh Eighty-Six. Numbuh Three is in critical condition, and there's something very wrong with her beyond her injuries. We've also picked up a…straggler." Nigel decided not to reveal all the details just yet.

"DARRNIT, NUMBUH ONE, DID YE GET THE INFO ORR NOT???!!!"

"Not, I'm afraid. There were a few…obstacles we came across that we weren't properly prepared for. We may have to risk a second attempt soon. But right now I've got an operative down and I wasn't going to risk permanent injury on her."

The redhead's face began matching the color of her hair. "Oi KNEW ye STYUPID boys wouldnnae have been able t'pull this off! If Numbuh FOIVE had gone at it alone, SHE would have given us th'info YESTERRDAY!!"

"If Numbuh Five had gone in there alone," Nigel said darkly, "I fear she would no longer be with us right now."

Abigail growled, pushing Nigel out of the way. "Now you listen here, Numbuh Eighty-Six. Numbuh Five was the one who made Numbuh One abort this mission! He wanted to keep going and carry out the orders YOU gave him, but Numbuh Five wouldn't let him! How could she?! Kuki was lying on the ground, dying! Now we need a KND medical team to assist pronto before we lose her for good!"

"Wot is wrrong with Numbuh Four?"

At this, someone in the back spoke up. "You should ask what ISN'T wrong, Francine. Your precious Kuki Sanban almost—"

[POW!!!

"SHUDDUP YE [CENSORED!!!!"

Fanny wasn't sure if she actually saw what she did, but she swore she saw the blonde Delightful girl, in handcuffs, sitting next to Numbuh Four, who had just silenced her with a right cross.

"Numbuh Four!" Nigel bellowed, now ignoring conflict between Fanny and Abigail completely. "Cross the line again and I'll put you in the brig! I don't know where you were trained, but when I attended the KND Academy, I recall that part of training included learning never to attack an unarmed prisoner, especially one who can't even defend herself!"

"Prrisoner?? Wot arr ye—" Fanny almost gasped when she saw the Delightful girl with disheveled hair, bruised face and bleeding nose, and a reddening bandage wrapped around one ankle. It also seemed that Numbuh Four was just about ready to break the girl's neck at a moment's notice, considering the look he was giving her. She did wonder if Wally was restraining himself, given that he hit the girl with his fist and not the butt of his laser rifle. As Wally backed off, Fanny continued, "Well…it seems this mission isn't a TOTAL failurre, but—"

At last, she saw Numbuh Three on the stretcher.

"Wot happened t'Numbuh Three???!!! Did she trroi foightin' Fatherr boi herrself??!!"

"Numbuh Five thinks she would have if only given the chance. Numbuh Three went all kinds of crazy down there!"

"Oh, no, Abigail," mumbled the Delightful girl. "Numbuh 20,000 is crazy. But Kuki Sanban here turned into a mix of Francine Fullbright AND the Human Torch!"

Wally was about to give her another right cross, but a dirty look from Nigel stopped him.

A pregnant silence permeated the atmosphere, and the operatives each seemed to be jarred by the sound of one Delightful Child speaking without the voice of their brothers and sisters. It sounded almost, eerie. But if Wally took notice, he hardly showed it. The young boy was shaking, as though left to his own devices; he would seize their prisoner by the neck and squeeze as hard as she could until she was no more. Never before had any of them seen such raw hatred in a fellow operative.

"Stand down, Numbuh Four," said Fanny. "'Ee girrl is prroperrly rrestrrained, 'n she cannae move without help. Oi'll head t'yerr trreehouse t'prrovide medical assistance t'Numbuh Three."

Slowly, the Aussie sat back, but he still had one finger on the trigger of his rifle.

"Numbuh Four, man the communications station," Nigel ordered. "Numbuh Five will take charge of our guest."

"Thank ye, Numbuh One. Oi'll be rroight therr," said Fanny, stoically.

"This is Numbuh 83 of Sector W. We'll also meet you at your treehouse to give medical assistance."

"This is Numbuh 77 of the Undersea Base! We heard your initial transmission, and a medical team is on the way!"

Fanny sighed and disappeared from the screen.

None of that seemed to matter to Wally, as he still kept his cold glare on the smirking blonde girl in front of him. Slowly, he stood, veins popping.

Abby also stood, ready to pounce on the boy if he lost his cool again, but doubted she'd be able to restrain him alone.

Wally eyed the girl for a long and dangerous moment, and slowly raised his rifle—

—to hand it to Numbuh Five. For a moment, it seemed that the girl sighed with relief, and Numbuh's Five and Four switched places.

The young, Delightful girl looked upon her new guard with disdain. "If you expect me to be grateful, Abigail Lincoln, I'm not. I understand that you Kids Next Door are only concerned with my condition because of my value as a prisoner. And that your goal is to obtain information from me. It will be a waste of time. I will never break."

Abby looked at the girl's ankle, and back at the girl's face. She raised her head a bit, just enough so they could see eye to eye. "Don't make us sick Wally on you, girl."

It was the way the blonde girl looked back at her that irritated Abby. Her cold, pale blue eyes held no fear, no gratitude, not even hatred. Abby quickly realized that their prisoner was looking upon her with disdain…as though Abby were something unpleasant stuck to her perfectly polished white shoe. Not to mention that, now that she spoke individually, Abby swore that the girl's voice was rather similar to hers…that, or she was imitating her just to annoy her.

"You almost killed Kuki. Don't expect us to be model kids, either."

"I am the only model child aboard this…vessel, Abigail Lincoln." The girl seemed loathsome to dignify the experimental S.C.A.M.P.E.R. as appropriate transportation of any sort. "It is the purpose of children to become adults. You and your obnoxious friends struggle uselessly against the inevitable instead of facing the unparalleled glory of adulthood." When she spoke know, it was with conviction, as though she were a firebrand preacher standing in front of her congregation on a Sunday morning.

"If 'model children' blast other kids at point blank, then you can take your 'glory' and stuff it up your—"

"That's enough, Numbuh Five," said Numbuh One, not turning around. "And from you as well, Delightful."

"Nigel Uno," the Delightful child spoke his name with a slight laugh, which always sounded sinister and frightening when coming from one who had been delightfulized. "You know this most of all to be true. Why do you deny your illustrious heritage? Father would make you his most privileged child if only you would join him. And with the proper attitude adjustment, you would make a most agreeable brother."

Suddenly, the boy turned to her. "I suggest you remain quiet for the rest of this trip, girl. Don't make me regret having pulled Wally off you."

"Maybe Wally should at least knock her out," said Hoagie, also not turning around.

"I'll be quiet if it pleases you, Nigel Uno. But one day, you will join us. You do not need me to tell you these things. Because you already know them to be true." She smiled at him now, a smile that was not pleasant, not sinister, nor even playful. It betrayed nothing. But what irked Nigel the most about her expression as that she now sat quite as a church mouse, staring at him, waiting for him to break her gaze.

Hoagie looked at the exchange, and then turned at Abby for a moment.

She seemed to give him an approving blink, and—

"WHOA!!! AIR POCKET!"

The whole S.C.A.M.P.E.R. jolted in the air.

Kuki remained in her stretcher, being strapped in, but when Hoagie straightened the ship—

"Numbuh Two! Watch were you're flyi—"

The blonde girl was out cold, and Numbuh Five was rubbing her elbow. "Uh….sorry, boss. I kinda slipped there."

"I'll be sure to note the unfortunate accident in my report." Nigel said gruffly. There was no humor in his voice, but Abby was certain that she caught a smirk playing at the corner of his lips. She glanced at Wally, expecting a BIT of lightening up. He was still reseating himself, unsmiling, but glancing at the pair with a bit of satisfaction.

Still, nothing could remove the fear and worry from his green eyes.

The rest of the flight transpired in silence, with Wally occasionally turning to cast a worried eye on the unconscious Kuki. He also glanced at the thermometer, which caused him even more worry.

She appeared to be running a fever.

Numbuh Five wasn't sure what she should be feeling. He had been unnecessarily harsh on their prisoner, even if she did deserve it. But Abby also knew that Wally was worried sick about Kuki, and though she was much better at hiding it, Abby herself was concerned.

Hoagie shoved the throttle down a bit, and the S.C.A.M.P.E.R. sped on to the Treehouse.

"I just hope we can make it home in time to help Numbuh Three." Hoagie sighed. He had pushed their craft as hard as he could, leaving the cloak down to squeeze a bit more power out of the engines. But there was a limit to how fast he could push the S.C.A.M.P.E.R. without risking it breaking down on them when they needed it most.

"Steady as she goes, Numbuh Two. We want to get home in one piece."

"I'm still planning on getting us there as fast as possible. I just hope Numbuh Eighty-Six knows what she's doing. She lit up like a pinball machine when she got a glimpse of blondie back there."

"Roger, Numbuh One."

The S.C.A.M.P.E.R. arrived at the Treehouse, but as they approached the hangar, they saw that there was a S.K.R.A.M.B.U.L.A.N.C.E. and a C.O.O.L.B.U.S. waiting inside, with their crews already outside and on alert.

"Looks like the party started without us" Numbuh One grimaced, wondering how things would move.

Hoagie brushed it off. "Ah, don't worry, Numbuh One. It all shows that there are plenty of kids who are worried about—WHOA!!!!" The S.C.A.M.P.E.R. lurched as Hoagie swerved out of the way of what seemed to be a missile.

"WOT WUZ THAT??!" yelled Wally, readying the blasters.

Abby looked out the view port and let out a cry of warning. "Whoo boy, Numbuh Five is warning y'all, they've sicked the cavalry on us!"

Nigel glanced at Wally, "At ease, Numbuh Four!! That was just the KND Global Command personal transport! We have an officer waiting at the Treehouse right now."

The blonde boy slowly removed his thumbs from the triggers, and sat back, powering down the weapons system.

"Man, is it just me, or has Global Command been up our butts all day?" ventured Hoagie as he began the landing sequence.

"Well, Numbuh Five is just guessing, but given that we just botched a spy mission AND have one unconscious operative, that might have got them a teenzy bit upset."

"Theire cruddy, stoopid mission that nearly got Kuki killed!" Wally shook his fist in anger.

Nigel replied, "No, Numbuh Four. That was the Delightful's doing, understood? Now, take Numbuh Three to the medics. Numbuh Five, wake up the prisoner."

"Do we have to, Numbuh One?" Abby asked. "Can't we just hand her over unconscious? Numbuh Five likes her better this way. Numbuh Five didn't like that look she was givin' you earlier…kind of how a snake looks at its dinner."

Numbuh One thought for a moment, and made his decision when the engines stopped. "Numbuh Two, help Numbuh Five carry the prisoner out of here."

Abby gave Nigel a discrete thumbs-up before taking hold of the blonde girl's shoulders. Her head flopped eerily for a moment, until Hoagie stepped up and helped Abby lift the girl up and take her out of the S.C.A.M.P.E.R. Wally had already picked up Kuki, and carefully carried her outside, holding her as if she were made of glass, and looking at her as if he had just lost something very close to him.

"Two kids down, even if one is a prisoner," Nigel scratched his chin. "And nothing on Father's plans. Global Command is going to rip me a new one. When Rachel hears about this, she'll have to give me a promotion just so she can demote me." Nigel hung his head.

When he got outside, however, he was surprised to see every single kid, even the med officers, completely still.

And then he saw the reason why.

It wasn't just the fact that Rachel McKenzie, Numbuh Three Sixty-Two and Soopreme Leader, was standing in the hangar, apparently having arrived just before the other teams did, including Fanny. The kids had saluted just a moment ago, and they were eyeing her with slight fright.

She had a fierce stance, for some reason, but that wasn't the full reason.

Behind her, five members of the Elite Guard were also poised behind her, and they had their guns aimed at Numbuh Four and Numbuh Three.

Nigel gulped visibly, unable to completely comprehend what was happening. "Numbuh Five, if Numbuh Three Sixty-Two decommissions me, I want you to wrap up what's left of our Sector and get off the radar until things blow over. Abandon the Treehouse. Something feels wrong here…"

Abby was about to reply, but she, too, was a bit stunned. She expected the Elite Guard to home in on the blonde girl, not on Kuki, but what was even stranger was the fact that Fanny was just as surprised as everyone else was.

"N—Numbuh Three Sixty-Two! The medical teams arre herre t'help Numbuh Thrree's emerrgency! What brrings ye herre, sirr?"

The wind seemed to kick up Rachel's hair dramatically as she looked upon young Francine Fulbright. Her gaze was not menacing or angry, but it was serious.

"Just some loose ends to tie up," she inclined her head towards Nigel, who was now standing next to Abby, Hoagie, and their burden. "Numbuh One? I seem to recall giving you very specific orders for this mission. I can see that you've failed to follow them. Not only that, but you've exacerbated the situation by taking one of the Delightful Children hostage. You do realize that Father's coming to come looking for her guns blazing?"

"If you look closer, she also needs medical attention. And as I recall, one of the KND prerogatives is to help ki—"

"I'm really not interested in hearing excuses at the moment," Rachel bit the comment off. "It's done, and there's no undoing it. You've already taken her as a hostage; we have to play the hands we're dealt. Like any good Yipper player," Rachel sighed. "Step into my office, Nigel. We have much to discuss."

What made all the member's of Nigel's team gulp audibly wasn't so much that Nigel was, at best, about to receive a severe dressing down from the Supreme Commander. He'd surivived worse. What scared them was that Rachel had inclined her head towards their Treehouse when she had told him to "step into her office."

Was she really going to relieve Nigel of command?

"Oh dear, she's running a fever!!!" yelped one of the meds. This seemed to break the trance from a moment ago, and the kids took the injured Asian girl and laid her on a stretcher, wheeling her to the treehouse's sickbay, with Wally never leaving her side.

Inside of the Treehouse, Rachel led the way as though she lived there, passing through the entrance of into the main kitchen. She stopped at the fridge, removing two sodas, and then headed for a backroom, one that housed only a small desk with a computer, and a chair on either side. Nigel had frequently used this room when he needed to pass need-to-know information on to Numbuh Five. Now it was to be the site of his doom.

Rachel shut the door behind them, locking it, and then sat roughly behind the desk, intentionally setting one of the sodas down in front of Nigel with a very loud thump. "At times like this, I really need a drink," Rachel opened blandly, popping the tab on the can and drinking deeply. She looked down on Nigel with disappointment in her eyes. "I gave you this mission because I thought I could depend on you, Nigel."

Nigel didn't sit down. He remained at attention in front of her and replied, "Commander, I assure you, we took all the measures we could to keep this mission covert. And the new technology worked perfectly. We weren't detected until we reached the entrance to…where the plans were, apparently. There were…unforeseen circumstances that forced me to take the measures I did."

"I know all about it, Nigel," Rachel said gently. "I'm still not happy with some of your actions out there…but I have been informed of that arose during your mission with Numbuh Three. But I still need those plans…something, anything on what Father is doing."

He sighed, "I'm sorry, Commander, but we were unable to access the laboratory where the information was, and we had no idea what to do to open the door. Given that Father is rebuilding his mansion, it does not have the same floor plans as it did when we saw it. So I got you the next best thing: the Delightful Girl."

"She's going to cost us, Nigel. I am grateful—don't get me wrong. But I don't expect Father to not notice that one of his pet children is missing. What happened to her, anyway? She seemed awfully docile. Even unconscious, she didn't look like she had put up a fight."

Finally, Nigel sat down. "Well, I guess this is better than making a written report…"

"I'm not here because of your botched mission, Nigel. And this isn't a social call either."

He steeled himself, and began, "This is what happened…" The English boy thusly proceeded to recount the events from the takeoff at the Arctic, describing with slight tremors the anomalies with Numbuh Three, and how they had captured the blonde delightful girl.

"So I see, it's finally starting again." Something liked tears seemed to play in Rachel's eyes for a moment, but she wiped them away. "I've always hoped it wouldn't happen in my time."

"A Delightful attack?"

"Something worse than that, I'm afraid. Something that, I promise you, I've tried very hard to forget."

"What are you…you mean with Kuki? You know what's wrong with Kuki?"

"I have a very good idea," Rachel whispered, but she sounded like she had become three or four years younger.

"Well, what are we doing here, then?? We should be in sickbay helping the medical teams!"

"Kuki's condition is……not anything our medical staff can treat. Her wounds, perhaps, but not…"

He leaned over. "Not WHAT?? Commander, what is wrong with Numbuh Three??"

"Nigel, there are some things that I can't talk about. Too many secrets that I have to keep. Suffice it to say that I have had many failures throughout my career as a KND operative. I've done it all. Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy, as they say. But I consider Kuki Sanban to be one of my biggest failures."

"A failure? But you weren't involved in her basic training! Chad was! Why would YOU consider yourself a failure, even after stepping in to keep the KND together?"

"What's happened to Kuki is a direct result of my own youthful foolishness and Kuki's misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nothing more, nothing less. I had long hoped that Kuki would be spared from this, but I see now that I was wrong. What was buried inside of Kuki years ago is beginning to stir. It's always been there, Nigel. Haven't you ever seen her when she gets angry?"

He thought for a moment. "She…she seems to flare up. The worst was when she messed with the thermostat in her house, but…wasn't that due to a mishap in the thermostat and a magma pocket under her house combined with some stale Rainbow Crunchies™? That WAS the official report that the scientists filed."

"Official reports are often filled with lies and half truths that are more convenient for everyone involved. I can assure you that what happened with Kuki in her home was very real. I was there to observe first hand what was happening, wondering if this was going to be the day I have been dreading for so many years. But for some reason, it wasn't. Kuki returned to normal."

"What…" he stuttered, for the first time, "…what was supposed to happen to Kuki that day?"

"What appears to be happening to her now. But it won't. Not if I can help it. Whatever it takes."

He smashed his fists on the table, "Enough with the word plays, Rachel. What—is—happening—to—MY—team member???"

"I don't know how to describe it, Nigel. Only that to the best of my knowledge, very soon now, Kuki won't be Kuki anymore. She'll be…something else. Something bad, Nigel. Something evil and destructive that will revel in destroying anyone she can. Kids. Teens. Adults. She won't care. She'll just like watching them suffer. I intend to stop her."

"Commander…if Kuki will become some sort of……monster…why wasn't this dealt with before?"

"Because we were able to quell her, Nigel. And I didn't see any reason to do unnecessary harm to Kuki. I had hoped that what lurks within her would never return. I was wrong."

"'Unnecessary…harm'? How…do you intend to stop her?"

"If we can't contain the evil that's in her……I am prepared to do what ever is necessary for the good of people everywhere. Even if it means that Kuki…there are hard choices to be made here, Nigel. But the needs of the many…"

"Outweigh the needs of the few?!" Nigel accused.

"Or the one." Rachel nodded. "I will do what I can. But everyone that created what's in her now is long since decommissioned or gone."

"Except you……Kuki was…a…project of yours?"

"Not of mine, Nigel. I was merely a guard, stationed at the base. I was fresh out of the academy, wet behind the ears; my hair still had little blonde curls in front. I got rid of them soon afterwards…"

"Are you…" he began hopefully, "…going to send Kuki to the Arctic Base for containment?"

"Nigel, I……I really don't know what I'm going to do. I haven't any idea how we can possibly contain Mother without…without…"

"Mother? Who's Mother?" More tidbits of information were dropping on his lap, but he had no idea what to do with them.

"What the scientist who was in charge of that lab called the…presence that's inside of Numbuh Three. She was created to be a weapon against Father. We soon learned that was a mistake."

"All right…all right……" he sat down in front of her. "Rachel, PLEASE. Tell me from the beginning."

"From the beginning," The older blonde pursed her lips, her eyes taking on a far-off look. "I'm not even sure where to start. I was barely out of the academy back then. I got assigned to a top secret science lab as a guard. I had come in second in my class of recruits, and I was being rewarded for my skills with an assignment that was supposed to be easy—but also prestigious. With duty at that facility on my record, I was guaranteed a fast promotion."

"That was…the lab in the ocean floor under the Arctic?"

"Yes," Rachel nodded. "And the work was easy. It's not too hard to guard a lab that no one knows about. I performed my duties as expected. But it was a pretty uneventful assignment. As a guard, we weren't told about what went on in the lab. That information was top secret, given out only on a need to know basis. And I was very good at following orders," Rachel tethered her fingers together nervously. "I've always been good at that."

"Numbuh 100 and Chad taught you well."

"Maybe it's just my nature, I don't know," Rachel sighed. "Everything that happened there…it was so fast, so horrible. I was only seven years old! I didn't even understand! I just…there was some kind of…attempt to seize power in the lab. Some of the scientists were trying to seize control…they said that the project leader, Numbuh Four-oh-Nine, had gone too far, was doing something wrong. Fighting broke out…my team got sent in…I was just the runt. I could follow orders and I could fire a 2x4 weapon with the best of them…"

"And you fired……but was Kuki there?"

"Kuki was there. Or at least, she was dispatched there in the aftermath. She was with the medical team…along with another mutual acquaintance of ours."

Nigel thought for a moment. "Numbuh Eighty-Six," he shook his head. "I keep forgetting she used to be a medical officer…but…how did Kuki get……possessed with this? Did you see how it happened?"

"Numbuh Four-oh-Nine wasn't about to let his pet project die because of a few upstart underlings. His creation needed a host body to bond with, so it would stay alive. Kuki was young and trusting, it wasn't hard to convince her that she was about to do something wonderful for the sake of kids everywhere. And she was plenty eager to please. Of course, her memory was selectively altered once Mother was implanted inside of her. And she's been living carefree ever since."

"That must have happened…on the sly, if no one noticed that so that they would stop it."

"Very few people know what really happened in that lab, Nigel. I'm just one of the……lucky ones." Her tone belied that she did not consider herself fortunate in the least.

"So you saw what happened, or heard about it….but you could do nothing to stop it?"

"I was a seven year old guard barely out of the Academy. Orders were mine to take, not to give."

Nigel sat back and rubbed his bald head, "I…understand that, Commander. And am I correct if I say that all of Four-oh-Nine's notes and plans have been……destroyed?"

"No. The remains of his project still remain safely guarded in the Archives. At a security level that only the Supreme Commander of the Kids Next Door can even access. I've never cared to look over them…I've tried very hard to forget about what happened there…what she did……but now it's my hope that what's in those archives may very well save lives."

"Then….can this…'Mother' be neutralized or removed from Kuki?"

"I don't know. If she can be, I will…provided it doesn't mean she has to go into someone else. But Mother has always been a part of Kuki. Ever since that day. Kuki might be a sweet girl, but she does have a temper. You know what I'm talking about, Nigel. And those flashes of her anger are the other personality inside of her."

He began to tremble with rage and smashed his fists on the table again, "And…why wasn't I notified of this before???!!! If I had known that those flares were signs of something TERRIBLY wrong, my team would have done SOMETHING about this already!!! Numbuh Three IS my responsibility, you know!"

"A responsibility you've done well with, Nigel. But I didn't tell you about Kuki because, until now, it's been a non-issue. It's always been my hope that Mother would never emerge in any way that could possibly overshadow Kuki. For years now, Kuki has been perfectly normal. I wasn't about to worry you that you might have a time bomb on your hands. Kuki deserved a chance to be normal, not to have people looking at her with distrust."

"Or worry?" he retorted, "Worry that her life COULD be in danger, but that as Kids Next Door, we would still strive to cure her? Or…did you think that the incident last winter was simply Mother's last hurrah and so there was nothing else to worry about?" He was grasping at straws now.

"That incident should not have happened. It wasn't an accident that I was on hand when Kuki decided to take over the Sanban house. I've been watching her very closely ever since. But aside from that isolated incident, aside from a few minor flare ups she's done before, I haven't seen anything to be concerned about."

"Until now, when you suddenly needed to bring with you ALL of the Elite Guard. Which seems to be a bit of overkill, since this 'Mother' character seemed to fizzle out when faced with low temperatures………or is there anything else I should know about MY medical and diversionary tactics officer, Commander?"

"She may be under your command, Nigel. But she is not your officer. She's a KND operative who is assigned where Global Command sees fit to assign her. I've never seen any reason to break up your team. I hope you won't give me any reason to. But being in the position that I'm in, I disseminate information on a need-to-know basis. And Mother just happens to be something I never wanted anyone else to know about unless absolutely necessary. She's my burden to bear."

"Global Command assigned Kuki to me and thusly, she's MY responsibility, and you know that, Commander. And now, my team member is being replaced by some…fire creature…and you're telling me that she's YOUR exclusive burden? Why don't we both go see her and see just how well she's doing with only ONE person bearing the burden?"

"You think I take some kind of pleasure in knowing what's happening to Numbuh Three while you and I sit here, arguing the finer points of morality?! I've seen what Mother can do, Nigel. It's like watching some kind of unending, unrated horror movie gone wrong. I watched her set an entire sector of operatives on fire from the inside once!" Rachel's voice went shrill, her eyes wide. "Do you have any idea what it's like to watch someone spontaneously combust from the inside out? To hear them scream for some kind of mercy, for someone to kill them so the pain will stop? To catch the smell of a freshly prepared meal in your nose, only to realize that the scent is of some else cooking before your eyes—being roasted alive?! I swore to myself a long time ago that no matter what happens, I would not subject any more kids to something like that. I will not allow it. Not even if she burns me to ashes in the process."

He sat back at that, and stayed quiet for a moment. "So, if Mother can do all that, then what do you plan on doing to Numbuh Three? What did you do to contain her on that first attack?"

"Nothing. She was weak, then. Newly born. Once she had spent her energy, she was easily captured. Numbuh Four-oh-Nine wanted her preserved, so he had her transferred into Kuki as a host."

"So what will you do now, by yourself? Please, Rachel, let me and my team help OUR friend!! Just tell me how she can be defeated!"

"I don't know, Nigel. My plan is to take Kuki into custody and keep her heavily sedated……anything to stop Mother from gaining further access to Kuki's mind and heart. I'll go through the files and come up with a plan. But I have to act before it's too late. I don't know how she can be defeated…but I'll certainly try. There are a lot of very hard decisions I'll have to make soon. I need to know I can count on you to support me. I promise I won't shut you out of the loop…but there are some things I don't share because even I don't want to know them. The secrets I keep are not because I want to lie to you…they're because I want to protect you from becoming like I am."

"No."

Rachel glared at him.

"Commander, do you actually think I'm going to stand by and watch you cart Numbuh Three off, without lifting a finger to help her? You can't possibly solve this problem by yourself!! Sector V has pulled through countless situations that seemed impossible! If you let us help you, ALL OF US TOGETHER can help Kuki!"

"All of you together will likely end up…I'd rather not think about it. I've seen Mother once before, I can handle her. I think it shows a great deal of loyalty that you want to be beside Kuki during this, Nigel. Heck, I respect that a lot. But it would also be irresponsible of me to risk an entire sector over this…especially one as talented as Sector V. But Numbuh Four is a mess right now, and until he gets his personal problems under control, he'd be a liability I can't afford. He's a useful operative, Nigel. But letting him get too close to Kuki now would be putting an unstable element into an already dangerous situation." Rachel sighed, "Perhaps, given the circumstances…I could take Numbuh Five with me, but doing so would put her at very grave risk , something I'd rather not do."

"You HAVE to bring us all for this. If Wally knows it's to help Kuki, he'll keep himself under control. We—can—handle—this, Commander."

"No. I'm not going to let you do it to me. Not this time, Nigel. All too often, I give orders and you interpret them as you see fit. And too many times I've let you get away with it. I will not risk your entire sector to quell a threat that only I have any experience with. Especially not now. If you hadn't forgotten, that stunt you pulled back at the mansion is going to have repercussions. But now that we have one of the Delightful Children in our hands, I'm not inclined to just give her back. I will handle Kuki before this whole thing gets out of hand. Your job is to keep Father at bay once he starts launching shots across our bow, as it were."

"I still say we can handle this better if we face this AS A TEAM. Perhaps you might not trust us, but you KNOW we've pulled through before. Consider your OWN track record on doing things by yourself, and see where that's taken you. And Kuki."

"My track record on doing things for myself has catapulted me to the highest echelons of the Kids Next Door, thank you very much. And my reasons for keeping you and your team out of this have everything to do with your safety and protection, not to mention that of Kuki. Fine if she kills me, maybe I even deserve it. But I refuse to let any of her closest friends be killed by her own hand, possessed or not."

He banged his fists again. "All the more reason to protect YOU, Commander. But if you fail and if she kills you, do you think she won't come after us, or anyone else?"

"If I fail, I don't think there's anything that can save any of us," she said in a cold, defeated voice.

"So you'll die and take all the information with you? I think not, Commander. Please, stop this pity party and HELP MY TEAM GET KUKI BACK!!!"

Rachel leaned over the desk, flattening her palms against it. "I'm ordering Kuki placed into the protective custody of Global Command. I'm also ordering you and your team to Sector O to coordinate for defense against retaliatory attacks against Father. I'll be certain to note your protests in my report."

He leaned closer, mirroring her stance, and glared at her over his shades. "Commander, with all due respect, I AM NOT—"

[BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOMMMMMMM!!!!

The med officers wheeled Kuki into her room, moments after Fanny pushed the curtain aside. Wally stood some distance from the bed, where they carefully placed her, and shortly, Abby and Hoagie were standing behind him. The medical team hooked up a digital thermometer to Kuki's arm, and it confirmed that she was running a fever. The thermometer reached 98.6° F

99°…

100°…

101°…

Fanny let out an Irish curse under her breath. They needed to bring the girl's temperature down soon.

Abby and Hoagie, meanwhile, laid down the still unconscious blonde girl on the floor. One of the medics stepped up to examine her bandaged foot.

"Ugh! Did this girl step on lava or something?" Carefully, the medic unwrapped the makeshift bandages from the Delightful child's foot. What the kids saw as the last of the bandages left them all wide-eyed. "Mon dieu," the medic covered his mouth in an effort to strangle his curse. "Numbuh Eighty-Six! Sir! There's something here you need to see!"

Fanny stopped checking the laser burns on Kuki's sweater, and stomped over. "Wot is it!!??" she screeched.

"L-look!" The young medic stuttered, pointing his hand at the blonde girl's injured foot.

At first, Fanny wasn't certain what she was looking at. And then she saw it…the unmistakable marks of an angry white handprint that, Fanny suspected, had probably burned the girl's nerve endings to a crisp. "D—did Fatherr do that?" she asked nervously. Could that dark man finally have gone over the edge?

"It wasn't Father." Abby said quietly, suddenly feeling very uncomfortable.

"Dinnae tell me that Grrandfatherr is back!"

"No, it…it wasn't Grandfather either." Hoagie gulped, taking his hat off and fanning himself with it, suddenly feeling hot. The whole room seemed to have increased in temperature.

110°…

"It wuz Kuki…." sighed Wally, looking at her inert body. He, too, was sweating, but he didn't seem to notice.

Francine digested this information gracefully, pulling off her helmet and slamming it on the floor in frustration. "Will someone lower the bloody thermostat in here?" she growled, turning her attention away from the stoic Delightful girl to look back at Kuki, who didn't seem to be sweating. But when she glanced at the thermometer hooked up to Kuki Sanban, she had to pick her jaw up off the floor.

120°…

150°…

200°…

"What is going on here?" asked one medic.

"It….it cannae be an accurate reading. The thermometer must broken."

"Broken or not, something here is fogging up my glasses…" said Hoagie, removing them to give them a quick cleanup. It was then that he noticed something, so he carefully put his goggles on again to make sure it wasn't a trick of the light. "Uh…is it just me, or is the air over Kuki……shimmering?"

"Shimmerrin'? Wot arre you blabbering on about, you styoopid…." whatever else Fanny had been about to say died in her throat as she realized that the portly boy was indeed correct.

At this, two things happened.

The blonde girl awakened.

"Uhhh…why is it so hot in here?"

And Kuki's eyes flickered open.

"They're both awake?!" Abby alerted the room to possible trouble on two separate fronts.

Reflexively, Hoagie drew his M.U.S.K.E.T. and held it at the girl's right temple. "For now," he frowned. "Now, you, girly, stay REALLY still while the medics take care of your ankle." Numbuh Five also mobilized and proceeded to handcuff the girl.

"You foolish Kids Next Doomed. I'm not the one you should be worried about," the blonde girl warned them. She seemed very un-intimidated by her captors, almost smug and complacent, as though she were the one in charge.

"Numbuh Three! You're running a VERY high fever! Lie down!!" barked a medic.

The Asian girl rubbed her eyes and yawned. "Fever? What are you talking about? I feel fine!"

"You're all going to wind up with much worse injuries than I have," the Delightful drone of the girl's voice made her warning sound more like a prophecy.

"One more word out of you and you can go back ta sleep!" Abby roared, flexing her right arm. "The hard way." The eyes of the both girls looked, challenging, unyielding, but whatever the reason, their prisoner decided not to test the patience of the others. She crossed her arms over he chest awkwardly, stretching her bonds, then said nothing.

Much to the medics' shock, however, Kuki bounced out of her bed. "Hey!! What's that Delightful Girl doing in my room??"

"K..Kuki! Yew're all right!" yelped Wally.

Or so she seemed. Her sweater was still singed, and though her hair was a bit disheveled, there was no sign of concussion or any head injury.

Almost imperceptibly, the blonde girl moved backwards, pushing her back flush against the wall, trying to put as much distance between herself and Kuki.

"Numbuh Three?" Fanny asked, disconnecting the thermometer and checking the girl for further signs of damage. "You're…all right?"

"Why wouldn't I be? It's not as if that delightful……girl………shot me?" she suddenly remembered. "Weren't we at Father's mansion just now?"

The blonde girl fought back a nasty reply. She was not afraid of the Kids Next Door. They might knock her out, but she was too smart for them. They wouldn't risk doing anything serious to her. It wasn't in their nature. And more importantly, she knew they would try to use her as a source of information, or perhaps as a bargaining chip against Father. Either way, they were just a bunch of foolish children. But the realization that Kuki Sanban was evolving into some kind of monster was enough to make her fear the wastefully cheerful Asian girl. She was a time bomb waiting to go off, and the blonde girl was certain that Kuki would maim most of her so-called friends in the process. Ordinarily, she would have taken pleasure in this knowledge—but now she only wished to make them understand the danger and believe her. Because in her current condition, the girl new she could never outrun the malice of Kuki Sanban when the monster decided to come for her. She was dependent upon the horrid Kids Next Dorks to protect her. Needing people, the girl decided, was a weakness she could not afford. Especially when those people she needed could be so stupid.

"…KUUUUUKIIIIIII…"

"What?"

"Wot wot?" asked Wally.

"You weren't…calling me?" the small girl asked, confused.

"KUUUUUKIIIIIII…"

She looked around. No one here had that voice, not even the delightful girl.

"S…someone…is calling me again…"

Someone get me out of here… thought the blonde girl.

"Don't you remember me, Kuki?"

Everyone seemed rather surprised at that question, because it was Kuki who asked it, though with a slightly different voice.

"Who…who said that?" asked Kuki, with her normal voice.

"Y…you did." Wally gulped as nearly everyone in the room seemed to take one step back from Numbuh Three. The Elite Guard, however, shakingly stood their ground and slowly raised their weapons.

"But…but I didn't……"

Slowly she turned to the blonde girl…

The look on the face of Kuki Sanban's face was not malicious. It was a look of fear and confusion, as though she were practically pleasing for some kind of explanation. The blonde girl gave her none. She screwed her eyes shut and held her arms up in front of her face, shielding her eyes with them.

"And what's wrong with YOU?" she asked. "I mean, it's not as if I'm going to……to…………………………………burn you…" her eyes flared momentarily.

"Leave me be." The blonde girl whimpered, shaking her head. She lowered an arm only to tug at her skirt, pulling her knees to her chest.

"Leave you be what?" Kuki asked again, with her normal voice. "You're not making sense!"

"N—Numbuh Three…turrn arround n'put yerr hands behoind yerr head…" stuttered Fanny.

"Wot're you doin'!" Wally practically shrieked at Numbuh Eighty-Six. "You can't do that ta Numbuh Three!"

"Yes, child, you can't do that to Numbuh Three…" taunted a voice again.

Slowly, Wally turned to Kuki

This time, he caught her eyes flaring.

"K…Kuki? Are you awroight?"

"I…I don't know, Wally…I hear an adult talking, but there are no adults here!…………Or…none that you can see….yet…..blondie…"

Every guard aimed and clicked their rifles at her.

"Don't let her trick you, Wallabee Beetles." The blonde girl hissed. She hated the idea of helping her enemies, but Kuki Sanban was a much worse threat. And if the rest of the Kids Next Door were the enemies of Kuki, then for the moment, that made the Kids Next Door her…allies. The very idea made her stomach flip over. No, the Kids Next Door would never be here allies. But they were her only hope for survival.

Wally, ever the brave boy when Kuki was in trouble, stepped forward, slowly. He could feel the heat increasing with each step. "Kuki…yew're talkin' with the voice of an adult…'n yew're gettin' awfully hot…can't you…um…feel any of that?"

"I…I feel hot…itchy…there's…something wrong…what's happening—?"

"Yes, Wallaby…you have to ask yourself: 'what's happening?" The raven girl gave the briefest of smiles, but that was enough to make Wally take one step back, and for the guards to take a kneeling position.

"Numbuh Four!" Abby shouted. "Get outta the way!"

He didn't know why, but with the hairs on his neck bristling, he suddenly dove to his left…

As Wally fell and rolled, he swore someone fired a flamethrower above him.

The air itself rippled, reminding Wally of when his mother would take a pie out of the oven, the heat escaping in waves through the open door.

The blonde girl threw the closest thing that could serve as a shield: an unfortunate Rainbow Monkey™.

Instinctively, a guard fired, and Kuki's room resounded with a loud BOOM that nearly threw everyone back.

When Wally finally opened his eyes again, he saw that the room was filled with a dull haze, tiny pieces of Rainbow Monkey™, but more frightening for him was when he saw that Kuki's left sleeve had been completely burned off, but her arm was intact.

"What…did I just do?" asked Kuki.

Everyone was staring at her, none of them knowing how to answer. The room was deathly quiet for several moment, as though everyone was afraid to even speak about what just happened.

"Surprised, aren't you, children?"

"STOP THAT!!!" screamed Kuki. "WHO ARE YOU AND WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH MY VOICE??!!"

"Whatever I please!" Kuki laughed horridly, her voice filling the room with dread and awe.

The child trembled and put her hands on her head. "What…what…are you doing with me? Guys? Help me!!! Help……help me….Wally!!"

"A mere boy won't be able to save you, Kuki dear," the Asian girl continued to laugh demonically. "Soon, you'll all be lost in my inferno!"

250°…

400°…

600°…

She was flaring up again. Only this time, the fire wasn't dying down. Instead, it was starting to char the wooden floor below her.

The blonde boy then turned to the blonde girl who was cowering by the wall and asked the first thing that came to his slow mind, "ALL ROIGHT, YEW DELIGHTFUL DORK!! WOT DID FATHER DO T'KUKI????!!!"

"Why would Father waste his time doing anything to Kuki Sanban, Wallace? It would be a waste of valuable time and resources. The only friend of yours that Father has any interest in is Nigel Uno." She let her words cut into him, appalled that this idiot child was so stupid as to be concerned with assigning blame when faced with certain destruction.

"Hmmm……so this 'Father' came to mind when you saw this, child?"

"STOP THAT!!! GET OUT OF MY MIND!!"

"Now, don't be precocious, little girl. Who is this 'Father'….?"

"AAHHHH!!! STOP THAT STOP THAT STOP THAT!!!" Kuki suddenly knelt and banged her head on the floor, as it trying to dislodge something.

"Thank you," she suddenly stood straight, seemingly unharmed again from the head banging. She turnedand looked at the blonde girl. "Interesting, this 'Father'…I think I'll go pay him a visit…"

"Father won't be frightened of you," the Delightful girl said in defiance, helpless though she was.

"Not at first, he won't. But I assure you, he'll be just as terrorized of me as you are now before the day is ove—"

"NO HE WON'T!!" the flames seemed to flicker and fade for a moment. "GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT!!"

"Kuki, please, tell us what is happening to you!!" yelled Abby.

"She's in my head…over and over…clawing…it hurts…make it STOP!" Kuki screeched, shaking her head back and forth so hard that Abby was afraid the poor girl would snap her own neck.

800°…

1100°…

1400°…

2000°…

[FWOOOOOSHHHHHH!!!!!!

The Treehouse's automatic fire extinguishers—several super soakers that emerged from the walls—suddenly shot their load at the flaming girl. Steam exploded, along with a hellish scream that seemed to be both from Kuki and from an adult woman.

Right then, Numbuh One and Numbuh Three Sixty-Two ran up.

"WHAT WAS THAT BLAST???" demanded to know the Brit, but was suddenly silenced when he saw the writhing teammate in front of him.

"I'll make you burn in my own private hell!" the voice of Kuki challenged them all before crumpling to the floor, unconscious.

At this, Rachel eyed everyone and demanded, "All right—what—just—happened?"

"Numbuh Three-Sixty Two, sir!" Fanny rose to attention, saluting her Supreme Commander. "It's Numbuh Three, sir, she's…she's…" Fanny had no idea how to report Kuki's condition.

"Out cold…" said one of the medics. "Quick! Get her back on the bed!" The medics ran to the child to try to continue their assistance.

"But…Numbuh Eighty-Six…" Hoagie moved to protest.

A few explanations later…

"Well, Commander, it seems that….'whatever is wrong with Numbuh Three'…can be solved with cold water," said Nigel, eyeing her calmly.

"You're treating the symptoms, Nigel. Not the problem."

"Yes, speaking about that…" Abby stepped up. "Would someone be so KIND as to tell us what is wrong with Numbuh Three and why we almost had a rehash of the thermostat incident?"

"The thermostat incident was just one of those symptoms, Numbuh Five," Rachel provided. "What's wrong with Kuki is…classified. I'll be taking her into custody where a more properly trained medical staff can address her…problem."

"CUSTODY???" blurted Wally. "Kuki's done NOTHING wrong!! She's just……having problems…I think…"

"She's not under arrest, Numbuh Four. I'm taking her with me for her own good. And the good of the rest of the KND." Nigel's signals that he thought Rachel was spinning a web of lies did not elude her.

"Your talk isn't going to have much effect on them, Rachel," said the blonde girl. "Everything is happening very, very fast now, and soon it will be too fast for you to keep containing the truth."

"And what would you know about it?" Rachel turned to the Delightful child, looking strangely satisfied. "Ah, yes, I'd nearly forgotten about you. I'm sure it will come as no surprise that you'll be coming to the Moonbase with me as well."

Wally had calmed down a bit and was standing next to the sleeping girl. "Yew hear that, Kuki? We'll be going t'the Moonbase again and all the scientists will get that oogly woman voice out of yer head…"

"Ugly voice?" Rachel asked, but it wasn't really a question she needed the answer to. "She's farther along than I thought. We need to get moving. Numbuh Eighty-Six, take the Elite Guard and the medics and have them prepare Numbuh Three for an immediate evacuation to Moonbase. Leave one guard for our friend here." Rachel stretched her neck to indicate the Delightful girl.

One guard nodded and stood beside the blonde girl.

"The Sanban child is not a toaster that one of your ridiculous 'medics' can simply fix," the Delightful girl appealed to the KND commander. "If any of you hope to survive, you should take action against her. Now."

Wally fumed and stomped over to her. "Oi'm going to take action against YEW again if yew don't shut yer—"

"STAND DOWN, NUMBUH FOUR!" Rachel and Nigel looked at each other with surprise after having given the same order.

Which was enough to make Wally stop, but he was still glaring at the girl.

"Finally, some voices of reason." The girl looked appreciatively at Nigel and Rachel, as though something of value might actually be accomplished. She raised her shackled arms and pointed her left index finger at Rachel. "Rachel McKenzie knows the truth better than anyone else. Perhaps you should tell your Kids Next Doomed just what they all face."

At this, everyone turned to their Supreme Leader. "Commanderr? Wot is goin' on?" asked Fanny. "This dinnae have t'do with wot happened back in th—"

"When I classify something, it's for a reason, Numbuh Eighty-Six." Rachel cut off the conversation before it could start.

"S—sorry, sirr…"

By now, the medics were ready to move Kuki out of her room.

"Oh, please, Commander! Do you really think that keeping this under wraps is going to save Kuki?" asked Nigel despondently.

"You're silence will doom them all…doom us all," the Delightful girl said in a scolding tone.

"Maybe it will," Rachel nodded. "But it might also save countless other kids from a burden that none should have to bear." She shook her head. "I will not watch any more kids be crushed beneath the weight of Mother. She ends with me."

"Mother?" asked Abby. "Who is this…Mother?"

"A mistake." Both Rachel and the Delightful girl nearly spoke in unison.

"I'm sorry," Rachel started, "But how do you know about Mother?"

"I don't, Rachel McKenzie. I only know if the monster you've created that assaulted my siblings and I, the monster that you have hidden inside of Kuki Sanban."

"Monster? Numbuh Five always thought it was just part of who Kuki is."

"It isn't," Rachel shook her head. "It can't be."

Nigel immediately stepped between both girls. "What makes you so sure, Numbuh Three Sixty-Two?"

The blonde leader looked at her feet, not wanting to meet his gaze. "Because I've seen it before."

"Seen what before." Nigel asked, annoyed. "I'm growing tired of the riddles, Rachel."

"Yeah," added Abby. "This whole day has been one big jumbled mess fo' Numbuh Five. Can we PLEASE get an explanation?"

"Some things you're better off not knowing about, Numbuh Five," Rachel tensed up.

"Even if we're worried sick about Kuki?" grunted Wally.

"There are bigger things at stake than Kuki. For all of us."

"You know, they're just going to keep on nagging you about it until you break," said the blonde girl. "And do you honestly think you still have everything under YOUR control? Open your nearsighted eyes, Rachel, and smell the smoke."

"More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones," Rachel sighed in defeat. "Everyone says they want the truth. I promise that none of you will want it anymore if I tell you."

"Then how are we supposed to help Kuki or the Kids Next Door?" asked Hoagie.

"By staying alive." Rachel whispered.

"Aloive?" asked Fanny. "Commenderr, yew talk as if this 'Mother' thing can des………trroy……………………………us?"

"….bingo…" said the blonde girl.

"Destroy isn't even a strong enough word." Rachel felt angry that her voice lacked authority. It sounded weak, anemic, tired…much like how she felt.

"Okay…here's the deal," said Abby, "If this 'Mother' thing can do so much damage…Commander, can you PLEASE stop running around the bush and just tell us what we can do to minimize the damage?"

"Minimize the damage?" Rachel asked, almost bemused. "You don't get it, Numbuh Five. There is no defense against Mother. There's nothing effective against her. There's nothing she fears. If she fully awakens, the only way we can even pretend to be able to survive against her is rooted in one thing only—our ability to generate absolute offense."

"Does this girl evah speak English?" Wally asked, completely lost.

"Like…by killing Kuki?" the blonde girl chuckled. "In that case, we practically almost did you a favor earlier tod—"

[POW!!!

Wally didn't bother to rub his fist as he huffed at his silenced enemy.

"I'm not in the mood to tolerate your insubordination, Numbuh Four. Consider yourself suspended from duty until further notice from Global Command." Rachel felt some of her strength returning to her. "And as for you," Rachel inclined her head to the Delightful prisoner, "I'd learn when to keep your foul mouth shut. Unless pain happens to be something you enjoy."

"Pain…" she replied, "…is something you will be feeling any moment now…and if I'm lucky then Wallace here will knock me out before I feel what YOU will, Rachel."

Wally, however, seemed to understand Rachel's orders and held back from giving her another right cross.

"I already know enough pain to last my lifetime, thank you. Of course, talking about pain with you is pointless. You don't feel it, anymore. Not really. You're a monster that isn't capable of feeling anything."

"And now everyone is going to share your pain, dear Rachel. How considerate of you to be so….unselfish…"

"Then you'll have to forgive me for being such a poor hostess, I'm afraid." Rachel's expression darkened. "Because I'm going to go right on being selfish to the last. I don't need anyone to tell me the suffering that the truth about Mother can cause, least of all you."

"But your friends need to be informed. You keep the truth from them as though you're protecting them. You don't do them any favors…and you know that keeping the truth won't be of much help, either, at least in the next day or so."

"What exactly do you think you know, that gives you the right to hurl insults at me? The last I checked, you were my prisoner." Rachel's voice raised an octave, angry lines forming on her face, giving her a beautifully fierce, unrepentant look.

"Me being prisoner is going to be VERY irrelevant in the upcoming hours. Because I know that Kuki is becoming a monster…and I say 'monster' because I'm VERY familiar with that look on her face…not to mention the heat coming from her. And, knowing what I DO know about Dear Father…and knowing how unpredictable Kuki is…I can very much say that your hiding of the truth will become a VERY moot point that will be consumed in the fires of Heck."

Rachel growled in frustration, hating the idea of being bested by such a spiteful, adult-loving young girl…and knowing all the while that the manipulative Delightful girl was right. "Numbuh Four! Go with the medics and help prep Kuki for transport to the Moonbase. The rest of Sector V, you're with me in the common room. You too, Fanny. And…bring her with you." Rachel inclined her head towards their prisoner, who smiled in triumph at the mortified Global Tactical Officer. Everyone saluted, and the medics and Wally re-connected the thermometer. Two of the Elite Guard lifted the girl and followed the rest of the kids out to the commons room, while Fanny kept a threatening M.U.S.K.E.T. held to the back of the blonde girl's head.

Moments later, they settled on the circular couch that surrounded the tractor tire.

"Everyone wants the truth so badly." Rachel muttered, pacing back and forth, refusing to look at anyone. "But no one will ever understand until it's too late. Mother is my…urgh!" She stamped her foot in frustration, causing Nigel and Abby to exchange a worried glance. Neither could remember the last time they had seen their commander so flustered. They all sat in total silence and total shock. Not even Grandfather's attack earlier this year had caused so much angst to come from her. "What do you want me to tell you?" Rachel asked. "That if we sit back and allow her to be born again from Kuki, that there won't be any stopping her? There's nothing we can use against her. Mother doesn't have weaknesses. She doesn't care about anyone—kids, teenagers, adults. She serves no one but herself, turns anyone she feels like into ash without even thinking about it. She makes Father look like the Toilenator."

"What about all the original notes from the lab?" asked Nigel.

"The only reason Mother didn't take over the world back then is because she was still immature. She expended all her energy, leaving herself defenseless. She wasn't fully formed yet. But Numbuh Four-oh-Nine refused to let Mother die. She was his childhood's work, after all. So, he injected what was left with her into Numbuh Three, so that she could grow and gestate properly inside of poor Kuki. But now, she's reaching her potential. She's outgrown her need for Kuki, and now she's taking Numbuh Three's body for her own."

"What about cold temperatures?"

"We haven't met the air conditioning system yet that can overpower her heat. I doubt we ever will, Nigel. Father himself was powerful enough to melt an ice cream cake the size of a small moon, remember? And his powers are nothing next to Mother."

"You will not speak of Father that way, Rachel Mackenzie," the Delightful child bristled. "You're not fit to say such things about his greatness."

Rachel just glared at her, but ignored the comment and continued, "There's not much else to say. If we don't stop her now, then none of us has a future. We'll never have a chance to change the world, to become adults, to be a kid, to fall in love, to…to live. And it's my fault that Mother has survived to this day. That makes this my fight. I will not allow anyone else to fight it in my place."

"NO!!"

The British boy stood and walked over to face her down.

"You could NOT handle her by yourself before. What makes you think you can handle her by yourself now, if you say she has matured?? You may have made horrible mistakes in the past, but you do NOT have to keep dragging that with you now, especially if this Mother character is as powerful as you say! Darn it, Rachel, if Mother is more powerful now, what will you do? Keep Kuki sedated for the rest of her life while refusing to let our scientists come up with a way to destroy Mother? Will you let your memories be erased, and those of everyone here, while Kuki remains sleeping for the rest of her life? Stop playing MARTYR, and let the Kids Next Door solve this problem TOGETHER".

"I've got a score to settle with Mother, Nigel, and one way or another, I will end her threat. I'm not afraid of her. At least, not like I should be. Because when she truly awakens, she'll remember me. And unless I miss my guess, she won't be in a hurry to kill me. She'll want to make me suffer as much as possible. She will use the entire Kids Next Door against me, and I can't just let her snuff you out in some vendetta against me. I don't think I can do it all alone, Nigel…but I have to try. I don't think I can take it if she does it again…makes kids die by just looking at them…I keep watching my old sector die…over and over…etched into my…it's not that I don't want your help, it's that I don't want to lose you." She whispered.

"And who says you will?" He put his hands on her shoulders. "Rachel, while Mother may have matured, the Kids Next Door have also improved in technology and research. And if you have visited that lab, then you KNOW that is true. You may not have had the right weapons to destroy her before, but chances are WE have them now! My team survived the inferno at Kuki's house, so if we ALL work together, we can survive anything Mother can dish out against us! And who would we be if we let ANY enemy attempt to take your life and not lift a finger to help you? You KNOW that goes against EVERYTHING that the Kids Next Door stand for! You haven't taught us to behave that way, Commander, not me, not Fanny, not Patton, and certainly not Kuki. Rachel, please don't face her alone…or at least…let everyone pitch in so you can make the final blow."

"I admire your courage." Rachel shook her head, fighting a sniffle. "It may be more than I have at this point…" she trailed off, saying nothing, not even able to look at her comrades. "All right then. What's the point? You're all against me, and I know darn well not a single one of you will obey me if I say no. But I refuse to order anyone to go through this. This is a voluntary mission. But I'm warning you…if you accept this task, you will see things that you will never be able to un-see, and I can't guarantee the safety of any of us." She trembled slightly.

Numbuh Eighty-Six stepped up, along with Numbuh Five and Numbuh Two. "Sirr, we've been frriends since basic trrainin'. Dinnae think f'rra moment that Oi'm gonna let ye take on this Motherr thing all boi yerrself." And she gave Rachel a very uncharacteristic smile.

"If this Mother is similar to what Numbuh Five saw at Kuki's house, then we know what WE need to improve to bring her down."

"That's right," added Hoagie. "That battle left me with plenty of ideas about how to counter extreme heat, hotter than Father's. I never implemented them, though, but now I'm itching to try them out."

"I'm glad to hear you say that, all of you. But it is still my fond hope that we can suppress Mother before she overshadows Kuki completely. We need to get her to our advanced medical facilities on the Moonbase to examine what's going on in her brain. If anyone's volunteering, you've just been drafted for the trip. Numbuh Two, you and Numbuh Five will have a chance to work in one of our two by four tech labs once we reach the moon."

"Yes sir!" they all saluted.

"Now, Commander, shall you do the honors?" asked Nigel, smiling, and hands behind him.

"All operatives, let's move out. Prepare shuttles for launch. Ready transport for one medical emergency and one prisoner. Let's do this. Kids next door, BATTLE STATIONS!!!"

The blonde girl just looked at them blankly, even as they filed out and as two Elite Guards carried her to the hangar. Something huge was going to happen, and it wasn't going to be…delightful…

She was along for the ride…doomed to whatever foolish errand the KND would embark upon, and for the first time since her capture, she began to miss the mansion.

The commanders returned to Kuki's room, where the medics were making the final preparations.

"Are we really going to be able to do this, Nigel? Can you really fight against her if she awakens? With Kuki trapped inside of her?"

"Mother was subdued twice before. She may have got stronger…but so have we."

"But she was never in Kuki before, she was just…like energy….only…evil."

"Perhaps. But now we have another factor Mother never faced: Numbuh Four."

"And you're certain that Numbuh Four can do it? He could fight against Kuki?"

"Or even better: Kuki could hold off Mother back so she won't hurt Numbuh Four. And, Numbuh Four has plenty of endurance. Not even a boulder falling on him can break him."

Rachel looked at Nigel intently, weighing his words. "If you believe in Numbuh Four, and if he proves himself worthy of the responsibility, then the mission will be his."

"Can it be any other way? We all know how he feels about Numbuh Three. If she's being tormented by Mother, he will do anything to stop her."

"Anything?" Rachel asked. "Anything, including…Nigel, I can't rule out a more…permanent…solution if all else fails…"

"Then we'll be sure that 'all' is tried first. I haven't lost any members of my team…and I'm certainly not about to start now."

"I do consider any such action to certainly be a last resort. But given Mother's ability to burn the entire world down at any time she desires…if I am forced to choose between the safety of Kuki and the safety of the world, then I won't hesitate to do what needs to be done."

Nigel looked at her, "We will destroy Mother first, Commander. And we will rescue Kuki. I've never failed you once, and I'm not going to fail Kuki, either."

"I wish I shared your optimism, Nigel. But there isn't a lot of hope I have at this point. And the failure lies with me."

"For the moment. Now, with everyone's help, this can finally be put behind you."

"If not, there won't be enough left to matter anymore."

Nigel didn't reply to that, but just watched stoically as the medics prepared his team member for transport.

Rachel shook her head, "I'm sorry…I…I don't mean to sound defeated. I'm just…it takes a lot to scare me. And inside right now, I'm terrified."

"Rachel…before, you were just a foot-soldier who didn't know what was going on. Now you're our Soopreme Commander, and you know perfectly well what's going on. I assume that at least, that would give you a bit of confidence, if not to you, then at least to your troops."

"Maybe I'm just getting old," she sighed. "I keep second guessing myself."

"Or you're just being cautious."

"Perhaps too cautious. I can't make decisions anymore."

"That's why you have your Global Command…and other advisors, Rachel. You don't have to do this alone anymore. Never again."

"Delegating most jobs is easy. But where Mother is concerned….I've still got a score to settle."

"And we'll help you all the way. The Kids Next Door is NOT going to end with you."

"Not without a fight it isn't. If this does turn out to be our last stand, then I can promise you that the world over will remember the Kids Next Door by the time we're through."

"Even if WE don't?" he chuckled.

"You've still got your sense of humor." Rachel smiled for him. "Good. Don't let her take that away from you."

"And don't let her take YOU away from US."

"It might be too late for that." Again, Nigel noticed that her eyes took on a far-off look, as though she were remembering something from long ago.

"You've always done your best for the Kids Next Door, Commander. We won't give YOU up without a fight, either," he placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder.

"Huh?" Rachel blinked, shaking her head to clear the cobwebs in her head. "I…I'm not sure what to say…"

He leaned closer, "Just…give us your orders, Commander, and we'll carry them out."

"Right now, our biggest concern is to stop Mother from gaining total control over Kuki. If we lose Numbuh Three, the consequences will be disastrous."

"Kuki is out cold, and the medics have her strapped down. What's next?"

"We've got to get her to the Moonbase medical facility. Our only hope is to help Kuki bolster her own mental defenses against Mother's invasions."

"Then what are we waiting for?? Let's move her out now!!"

"Does this mean you're supporting me again?"

"I've always supported you, Commander," he grinned.

"Oh really?" She cocked an eyebrow. "That's not what I recall from just a little while ago."

"A while ago you were a foot-soldier once again practically making a suicide run. Right now, we got out Soopreme Commander back."

"Do you really think so?" she asked, still feeling unsure of herself.

Nigel seemed to fume for a moment at this unstable pre-teen, and then replied, "You knew you were the true leader, even when Father took over. I'd say you're being a true leader now."

"Thank you. I'll…I'll try to have a little more faith in myself." She clenched her left fist, feeling a bit invigorated. "All right, then. Let's get to the Moonbase and see if there's anything we can do to help Kuki remain stronger than her dark shadow."

At this, the medics wheeled Kuki out of her room, closely followed by Numbuh Four and the Elite Guard, and took her to the hangar.

"What about the girl?" Nigel asked, changing the subject.

Rachel stopped dead in her tracks and face palmed herself. She then turned to Hoagie and ordered, "Bring her along too. With her heavy injuries, she can't cause any trouble in the S.C.R.A.M.B.U.L.A.N.C.E., and we don't have time to wait for a prison transport."

Hoagie saluted and ran back to the Commons room.

"She's a security risk, Rachel. You can't trust her."

"Well, Numbuh One, we CAN keep her sedated," Abby smiled slyly at her commander.

"No." Rachel said flatly. "She knows things. More than she should. She could come in handy."

"So we're going to keep her awake on the trip?" she asked.

"Not just awake. Engaged, Numbuh Five. Keep her active. Keep her talking. Try not to antagonize her. But don't be too obvious either."

"Aye, commander," she grinned. Saluting, she ran back to help Hoagie carry a struggling and complaining blonde girl to the hangar.

Rachel had to struggle not to roll her eyes at the expression on Nigel's face. "Let me guess, you disapprove."

"At first, I did. It didn't seem like a good idea to cram her up in the S.C.R.A.M.B.U.L.A.N.C.E., but given her injury, you are 100 on the nose here, Commander."

"I'm also hoping that Numbuh Five can gain a greater insight into what she knows. I just have a feeling she'll be more important to us than she looks on the surface."

Nigel looked at her, "I was wondering if I had made the right decision to bring her as prisoner…but as you said before, we have to make the best of the circumstances."

"And play the hands we're dealt. I won't lie to you Nigel, we're in deep. I'd ask you to trust me because it's deeper than you think, but there's nothing I can really say to put it into perspective for you. And once you have that perspective…well, if that happens, it'll already be far too late."

"And we'll be ready."

"You're always an optimist, Nigel. Good. We're going to need all the optimism we can get."

Nigel nodded.

The S.C.R.A.M.B.U.L.A.N.C.E was huge, even by KND standards, but huge nonetheless. They had enough room to properly strap Kuki down and keep an eye on her. One by one, the kids boarded and took their positions.

"I need to know, Commander." Nigel quietly asked as he found a seat near the doors. "What exactly are Kuki's chances?"

Rachel paused and shook her head.

And as the S.C.R.A.M.B.U.L.A.N.C.E. sprang to life beneath him, Nigel began to know both fear and doubt. He opened his mouth as if to say something else, but whatever he was going to say died on his lips as he realized that Rachel now refused to meet his gaze. The ship lurched as it became airborne.

"That low, huh?" he asked.

"I don't care to speculate." Rachel said gruffly.

"They're higher than what your original sector had, commander, I can assure you of that."

"We're facing a fully mature Mother developing inside of poor Numbuh Three…I…it's up to Kuki. If she can find the strength to keep Mother from totally corrupting her, we stand a chance. But if she loses that battle…"

"We'll pick up where she left off. Kuki is quite strong, Commander, and Numbuh Four can assure you of that. Mother is going to have a tough fight with her," he turned to see Wally sitting next to her.

"Good. Because as unlikely as it might seem, Kuki Sanban is all that stands between us and oblivion."

Nigel shivered at those words, but thought, Kuki, don't fail us now…

OooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooO

Author's Notes

The J.A.M.

Yes, I know, it's been a while, but it's not totally our faults. We've been working on this chapter whenever we had time (which wasn't too often). But, we managed to finish it, and as you can see, we're barely scratching the surface on what's happening with Kuki. We hope this chapter was as fun to read as it was to write it. And fasten your seatbelts, people, this ride is going to get REALLY rough and it's barely beginning!!

Lord Malachite

It's true, and The J.A.M. is right, we've taken too long to put this out. I admit that a great deal of the fault lies with me, the hours my job has me keeping certainly aren't conducive to writing. I have long hours and a ton of responsibility, and as such, I find I can't dedicate myself to my writing anymore, which saddens me greatly. But the two of us have put in some late nights to make this new chapter not only a good read, but a lengthy one as well. It's the least we can do for everyone who has been waiting so long for us to update. But I do hope you'll all bear in mind that none of this would be possible without the tireless efforts of The J.A.M., who takes on not only serious co-authoring duties, but did all of the hard work of transforming this chapter from simple AIM logs into something worthy of reading. It never would've happened without him.

And I think that's it. So, by now, you should all know the drill when it comes to a story that I'm involved with. Send your questions, comments, compliments, complaints, love letters, death threats, marriage proposals, and ransom demands to:

Lord Malachite

10/23/07

4:38AM, EST

E-mail: ranger(underscore)writer(at)yahoo(dot)com

AIM: Asukaphile26