This story takes place only hours after Lonely At The Top, and together with its predecessor, the two serve as the prelude to the upcoming Operation: M.O.T.H.E.R.
Sometimes I just like to lie awake in my bed and thing about a more ordinary life. It doesn't really matter whether I sleep up here on the Moonbase or down below in my home. My mind always drifts to the same thing. And that's why I can't let go of him so easily. I'm afraid that I'll do the wrong thing, that I'll make the wrong call, and kids will suffer because of me. So far, I've been pretty lucky. But only because I've had good backup. The last time that I was wrong, it was only the efforts of Numbuh 1 that saved us. And then there was the incident where we were all saved by "The Tommy," formerly known as Numbuh T. And that ultimately led to Nigel having to save me from myself when I tried to quit this job last year. I could've kissed him for reawakening something in me that I'd thought I lost. It's because of him that I remembered what it really means to be the Supreme Commander. I'd forgotten what made the job important and meaningful. Funny how he was the one who knew what to do all along—after telling me he would make a lousy commander. I don't believe that for an instant. He's too charismatic to fail, and he had more than enough experience. But we come from different backgrounds. Me, I'm just a spy who stepped in because no one else wanted to. And I did want the job. I was afraid that the same mistakes would be made again after Chad turned traitor on us. So I resolved that I wouldn't just step up—I would make a difference. I would find a way to make the KND even better than it is now. Back then, I believed in myself and in the KND. But now, I've begun to lose my confidence. And no matter how I try, I feel weaker without him. And I've come to realize that somewhere along the line, I made him a part of me. I never admitted it to myself until now. And it hurts because I know that I have to get over him. It's one thing for my heart to want what it wants, but I can't allow it to affect my judgment. I have to trust in myself. Ordinarily, that isn't a problem. But ever since the incident where Father took control of the KND. I can't stop the visions. I can still remember being sprawled over him, throttling his prone form into submission, demanding him to tag me. But did I really want it? Or was I only taking the burden again because there was no other choice?
I remember waking up and him being the first that I saw. He was sitting in a chair next to my bed, keeping vigil over me. And inside, I felt so happy, almost happy enough to cry. It may sound strange, but that is exactly how I felt. I saw him standing there in front of me, asking how I felt, and I knew that it wasn't an empty question. He actually cared. He really is my friend, and how I marvel at that. I have very few people that I can really call friends. It's not that I'm aloof or stuck up, it's that I can't afford to show favoritism. I can never allow my personal feeling to get in the way. I have to stay detached, but I can't do that where he's concerned. Not anymore. I can't go on lying to myself. The heart wants what the heart wants, and mine is firmly fixated on Nigel Uno. I just wish that fixation made more sense. He doesn't make plans, or worry about the future. He's cocky. He's impulsive. He leads with his emotions and trusts to his guts. There are times when I feel as though there's nothing alike between us. And then I remember that we're not supposed to be alike. I'm a girl, and he's a boy, and that marks a fundamental difference between us that goes far beyond the physical. But maybe that's just part of the magic. All I can do is make wishes on the sea of stars I can see through my window, hoping for a miracle and wondering if Elizabeth Divine even realizes what she's holding onto. Oddly enough, I don't hate her. How can I? It's not just that she's on the arm of the boy I want, but somehow, she makes him happy. And I won't try to compete with that. If Nigel cares for her, then that's enough for me. I'd rather he be happy, even if I'm not. Because ultimately, this may be the way things are meant to be. I'm older than he is, as if my embarrassment isn't complete enough already. And I've gone this long without a boy, I can keep waiting. Perhaps after we're both decommissioned. . .no, that won't work. We'll never remember each other. We'll be lost, and I hate knowing it. How many other kids does this happen to? Do we have any right to do this? Since the inception of the Kids Next Door, we have always decommissioned our operatives when they reach the age of thirteen. We've convinced ourselves it was for our security, and it pains me to that the threat is real. I wanted to find a better way, but the battle between kids and adults has become to hot to take chances with. And soon enough, even I will take my turn in a decommissioning chamber.
I'm brooding, I know. I can't help it. And sometimes, it's all I can do. I'm still waiting to feel content, but I think that I'm old enough now to understand that none of the stuff we achieve in life is very satisfying unless we have someone to share it with. And I can't share it with my family. I'm all alone. But I've chosen this. So what if I'm lonely? I can take it. It's not like I'm hanging on his every word.
From the nightstand, I hear an all too familiar beeping. Someone is trying to get in touch with me, and its urgent. And I have a very good idea who that someone is. Jumping out of my bed, I reach for my orange jacket, throwing myself into it. I already have a brush in my hand, making furious strokes through my hair as I push the button that brings the image of Numbuh Eighty-Six up on a screen across from my bed. "Three Sixty-Two." I curtly mutter, wincing as the bristles on my hairbrush break through a particularly harsh snag.
"I'm sorry to bother ye so late, but that boy insists on speaking with ye immediately." Fanny drums her fingers as though she's disinterested.
"Numbuh One?" I ask coolly, cocking one eyebrow.
"Who else?" The redhead rolls her eyes at me. "I tried to tell him you were busy, but-"
"No, that's quite alright Numbuh Eighty-Six. This may be as important as he says. Patch him through.
Fanny sighs at me before acquiescing, looking as though she's lost a battle. "Aye." She acknowledges my request, and her image is replaced with that of a rather haggard looking Nigel Uno.
"Numbuh One?" I ask tentatively, worried.
"Numbuh One, Supreme Commander of Sector V, reporting in with urgent information, Numbuh Three Sixty-Two." His salute was hurried, and I can see scorch marks on his shirt.
"I told you this wasn't a raid." I say sternly, pulling my tiger-striped jacket tightly around me. I hate it when he does this. I specifically told him not to start a confrontation. I thought that I could trust him. I was wrong. Maybe there really isn't a future for us.
"We were set up. The Delightful Children From Down The Lane were all over us before we'd barely even gotten inside. They took Numbuh Five, but we were able to get her back. You were right, Father is planning something. But it's not an offensive. He's developing some new kind of Delightfulization Ray. If we hadn't rallied, Numbuh Five might've been his first test subject."
"Is she all right?" I ask, wide-eyed. I had no idea I was sending them straight into the lion's gaping maw. The den, perhaps, but Father usually isn't so prepared unless he's already made the first move. "What happened in there Nigel?" I softened my voice, empathizing with him. "Is everything all right?"
"Numbuh Five is doing fine. It doesn't seem as though she's suffered any ill effects, we made it in time. It's Numbuh Three that I'm worried about."
"Numbuh Three?" I ask him, confused. "Was she hurt?"
Nigel is studying my face, as though he's searching for something. And slowly I'm beginning to realize that he's deciding whether or not he can trust me. That stings, especially after what we've been through together. I thought he told me that I was the one he trusted to lead the KND. And then, a far more sinister thought strikes me. What did Nigel see in there to make him so suspicious? Trying to appear less threatening, I shuck my duty jacket. For the moment, I'm less the Supreme Commander and more of a friend. "It's just me, Nigel." I smile weakly at him. "If this is really serious, I'll put the entire resources of the Kids Next Door behind you. I believe in you." I'm a little surprised at myself for gushing so much, but I do believe in him, both personally and professionally. It doesn't matter how I feel about Nigel, he's earned this kind of trust through his own loyalty and devotion, not the crush of a silly schoolgirl.
"I. . .thank you, Rachel." He still looks very worried. "It's Kuki. There's. . .you asked me if she was hurt. But that's just it. Quite the opposite, anyway. Kuki wasn't hurt, but she should have been. Very badly, I might add. And yet, there isn't a scratch on her."
"What happened to her?" I ask him.
"She fought Father single-handedly. And beat him."
An uncomfortable silence settled between us. "That isn't funny, Nigel."
"No, it isn't. Numbuh Two is the jokester, not me. I'm serious, Rachel. Believe me, I wish I weren't. Father's flames were powerless against her. She—she grabbed a molten metal bar with her bare hands—and there isn't so much as a mark. She should have sever third degree burns and in danger of losing her hands altogether, but it's as though the heat didn't have the slightest effect on her."
My breath is catching in my throat. I can hardly believe my eyes. My heart is pounding with worry. What Nigel just described isn't even technically possible. "H-how is she?"
"Fine, as far as I can tell. She's sleeping peacefully right now. But something is very wrong with Numbuh Three. I'm worried about her, Rachel. I suppose I haven't paid her enough attention in the past. She annoys me sometimes, but she's like a mascot for our team. She's a part of us."
"I understand. You can bring her to the Moonbase, I can have our medics give her a thorough examination. From what you're describing, there's something about this that feels very wrong. Do you think Father is responsible for this?"
"No, he was more alarmed than I was. I feel like something is happening to Kuki, but I'm not sure what is causing it. I need answers."
"We'll get them together." I tell him. "I promise you that we will not abandon Kuki. She is a fellow operative."
"Thank you, Rachel."
"Anytime. I have to ask you about the mission, though. What information can you give me on Father's new ray?"
"Not enough, I'm afraid." Nigel sighs. "But it's big, Rachel. Whatever he's planning with it, we can't leave him unchecked for much longer."
"Acknowledged. This could be big, Nigel. Father may be handing us a way to bring back Sector Z."
"But I thought that their Delightfulization is permanent?"
"So we've been told. But I find that a little tough to swallow."
"Numbuh Zero tried bringing them back when we were fighting Grandfather. But the recommissioning device couln't overcome their programming for long."
"True, but Father didn't creat the recommissioning device. But he did develop the Delightfulization Ray. So, if we could reverse engineer it-"
"Then we could recover Sector Z and restore them to their former selves permanently! Rachel, you're a genius!" Nigel beams at me, making me blush.
"No, I'm just a planner and strategist. Our scientists and engineers who can work the magic, they're the geniuses." I smile for him, trying to see a glimpse of the Nigel I know and love. He looks terrible, and scorch marks are covering his clothes from his recent encounter with Father. " You look awful, Nigel."
"It's nothing, really. Just a few bumps and bruises that I haven't tended to in all the commotion."
"That's the trouble with us leaders. We take care of everyone but ourselves." I chide him.
"Goes with the territory, right?"
"Are you sure about that Nigel? I seem to recall a certain someone watching over me while I recovered from a broccoli-induced coma." My heart still beats fast whenever I think about that. I was barely even dressed! But for some reason, that didn't embarrass me in the slightest. It felt very natural. But we're like that, I find. Some kind of bond that commanders share. We're intimate and familiar without need of a long history. We understand each other, and that's what makes us special.
"Even I make exceptions sometimes." I watch him chuckle, glad we're able to laugh. A storm is coming, I'm certain now. The things that Nigel is describing terrify me, but I pride myself on being stoic in the face of danger. No matter how bleak the situation, we can never show despair.
"I want you to bring your team up here, Nigel. We need to inspect Numbuh Three and Numbuh Five. We also need to strategize. This is a lot bigger than Sector V."
"Agreed. I'll keep an eye on Kuki in the meantime."
"And I'll pull an all-nighter up here to see what personnel we can spare. I'll try to have some ideas ready to put into action. This may be the last chance that we'll get to rescue Sector Z. Failure is not an option."
"I know what you mean. I had the pleasure of working alongside them during the Grandfather incident. They saved my life. The least I can do is return the favor."
"Then it's settled." I smile. "Bring your team up tomorrow and we can start to get organized. And in the meantime, try to get some rest."
"I could say the same for you." Nigel chides me.
"I know. I've never been good at taking care of myself. At least, not since I took this job. But it is good to see you again. I only wish the circumstances were better."
"A sign of the times, I'm afraid. I'll keep watch over Kuki. Hold tight."
"See you tomorrow. Three Sixty-Two out." I hide my disappointment. Why do I always expect more?
"Hmm?" I ask, keeping the connection open.
"Nice seeing you again too. Of course, you will be in uniform tomorrow?" He asks, teasing me. Feeling a mixture of anger and frustration, I give him a look that lets him know he'll be paying for that one, then I close the connection before he has a chance to torment me about the bright shade of crimson red I can feel my face turning.
I always let this happen. I always let him get the better of me. Someday, I'm going to get back at him. Maybe I should sick Numbuh Eighty-Six on him—oh, would that be delicious. The very idea is almost enough to make me forget about Numbuh Three. Almost.
Can it really be starting? Scant images from years earlier, snatches of a night that I've tried very hard to forget are playing inside of my mind. The old secrets that burns within me, from my first real experience as a KND operative, only a week out of the Academy. "I won't let you." I whisper to myself, reciting it over and over again like a prayer. "I won't let you I won't let you I won't let you I won't let you. . ."
I clutch my bedcovers around me, shivering. If only I could believe myself. . .
I'd like to thank everyone who has been waiting on this little story, particularly my fellow Courting Commanders who can never get enough 1/362 interaction. While I realize that there wasn't much here in the way of romance, this scene plays a pivotal part in the M.O.T.H.E.R. story, particularly when we'll see it later from Nigel's perspective.
Before anyone asks, yes, we will see the events in Father's mansion, and then you'll have a much clearer idea of what transpired there. I look forward to bringing you that tale when the epic proper launches.
And so, I bid you all Merry Christmas. I know this isn't much, but it's the best I can do on short notice. I hope that you all felt it was worth the wait. Already I'm looking forward to 2007, I just know it's going to be a fabulous year.
Lastly, I just want everyone to know that I flew into this one blind without The J.A.M., my ever faithful co-author. That means that he'll be wading into the mess I've created, so be sure to cut him some slack! Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!
Kids Next Door Rule!
Until next time, please send your questions, comments, compliments, complaints, love letters, death threats, marriage proposals, and ransom demands to: