Homecoming

Nigel Uno crept quietly through the Sector V treehouse, letting himself in after a rather lengthy absence. It was the dead of night, and his teammates all appeared to be fast asleep. This comforted him, because he knew it would be easier to just sneak in and act as though he had never been gone. It was, perhaps, the perfect crime. Except for the fact that it had been anticipated. As Nigel entered the small office he sometimes used when he wanted to avoid distractions, a solitary figure was waiting patiently for him. She shined a flashlight on him in the darkness, causing Nigel to wince.

"You know better than this, Nigel. You may be a lot of things, but never once have I ever had to think of you as shirking your duties. I need an explanation for your actions." Rachel paced back and forth in front of a rather sheepish looking Nigel, contemplating what she was going to do with him for being so blatantly irresponsible.

"Yes sir, Numbuh Three Sixty-Two, sir. I. . .I offer no excuse for my misconduct. I can only tell you that my absence over the past few days has been due to a matters of a personal nature. I just. . .I needed to let it all go for awhile. I think you know why."

"I have a pretty good idea." Rachel sighed, pausing in her footsteps. "She hurt you, didn't she?"

"No." Nigel shook his head. "I felt that way at first. But then I came to realize something. I was the one hurting her. Lizzie deserves a real boyfriend, someone she can depend on to be there for her when she needs him, someone who won't break a promise because he has to go gallivanting halfway across the globe to uphold the oaths he swore to kids everywhere when he joined the Kids Next Door. I never realized until now what I was doing her. She was brave to put up with me for as long as she did."

"I understand." Rachel sighed, looking away. "Look, Nigel, I'm all for giving you a leave of absence if you need time to grieve, but just because your girlfriend dumped you doesn't give you the right to take yourself off the radar."

"I know. I stand ready to accept whatever punishment you see fit, sir." Nigel held his head high, not in pride, but because he knew he had to own up to what he had done and not try to shrink away from it.

"I didn't come here to punish you, Nigel. Although I will be forced to put a disciplinary report in your record." Rachel shook her head. "We're the Kids Next Door, Nigel. We don't punish kids, we help them. We help each other. But I can't help you if you keep shutting me out."

"I shut all of my friends out." Nigel said quietly. "Why should you be any different? I don't want to talk about it, Rachel."

"But you need to! If not with me, then with someone! You can't keep bottling it all up inside and pretending it didn't happen!" Rachel yelled, threw her arms in the air, exasperated.

"I'm not pretending! I know very well that I've lost Lizzie and that there's nothing I can do to bring her back! It's cut me to pieces and I don't feel like revisiting it, so what's wrong with that?!" Nigel yelled back at her.

"Why are we fighting?" Rachel asked quietly, and her question birthed an uncomfortable silence between them. "I'm. . .I'm sorry for your loss, Nigel. Truly I am. I don't pretend to have known Lizzie at all, but it's obvious that you cared a great deal about her."

"I still do." Nigel breathed quietly, sitting on the small desk. "Bless her heart, I still do, Rachel."

"Are you…going to win her back?" Rachel asked hesitantly, fearing she wouldn't care much for the answer to the question.

"No." Nigel shook his head, pursing his lips. "I've given this a great deal of thought, and I've decided to let her go. I realize now that I never deserved her, never once did I live up to her expectations no matter how many times she forgave me. In some way, maybe the greatest gift I've ever given her is not to fight on this one. I know it must sound weird, hearing this from someone who's been dumped…but I just want her to be happy again, Rachel. Even if I'm not the one to make her happy."

"That's a…a rather mature attitude to have, Nigel. Try not to take offense, but that sounds like something an adult would say."

"No offense taken." Nigel nodded. "This time." He added, causing Rachel to smirk. "As it is, I think I'll try to get used to this whole being single thing. It's been a long time, I'd nearly forgotten what it's like."

"It can get lonely sometimes." Rachel hinted. "It's not easy, Nigel."

"Perhaps not. But maybe it's just what I need to help me get over Lizzie."

Rachel sighed, deciding not to say anything more on the subject. Trying to get through to Nigel about such things was often the equivalent of asking a wall to move. "Maybe. But I think you have more on your mind than your ex-girlfriend. We both do."

"I'm still here, aren't I Rachel?" Nigel sneered, trying to antagonize.

"Not lately!" Rachel growled. "You're a real piece of work, Nigel. You had me worried sick for days! I thought they had finally gotten to you! I thought that they had--" Her voice threatened to break, but Nigel was kind enough to interrupt her.

"Not yet, they haven't. I'm not going anywhere, Numbuh Three Sixty-Two. I have my duties to perform."

"They'll take you, Nigel." The blonde girl said weakly, sounding defeated. "They can do it whenever they want. And none of us will know until it's too late to make a difference. I can't protect you. You'll be another one of my failures."

"Stop it." Nigel turned, wondering why he sounded so harsh. "I've no intention of abandoning Sector V."

"Don't you think I know that!" Rachel hissed, then stopped, refusing to give in to her frustration. "Nigel, I'm here for you. I came here tonight for you. Because I was afraid they had gotten ahold of you already. I've got nothing left to bank. I let myself get fooled by the teenagers and it's cost us dearly. Right now, you're the greatest asset I have. I need you doing what you do best."

"And what do you think I have left to give, Rachel?" Nigel sighed. "I'm running on empty. I've lost Numbuh Zero forever, all I have left is a memory of what my dad used to be. Lizzie's left me to find a boyfriend who can actually spend time with her and keep his promises, and your mysterious Splinter Cell has made it clear that an anytime, they can yank me away from everything that I care about. And so what if they do? I'm just…I'm tired, Rachel. I'm just so tired. I can't be the kid you need me to be right now."

Rachel hung her head, trying to think of something she could say to make a difference. But sadly, she knew exactly how Nigel felt. She felt it too. The heaviness. The walls of the world closing in, the seas of turmoil trying to drown her, offering to let her sink into their warm, forgiving waters, if she would only let go. But she couldn't. Too many people were counting on her to make a difference again. "Do you remember when we used to be kids?" She asked wistfully, slowly shutting her eyes to envision it more clearly.

"We are kids."

"That's not what I meant. I miss just being a kid, Nigel. I miss having fun. When did that stop being important to either of us?"

"Heavy is the burden of command." Nigel deadpanned. "I think now I finally understand what that means. I'm…I'm sorry Rachel. I didn't mean to make you worry. I didn't mean to make my friends worry, either. I just…had to do something. Anything. I had to get away."

"I forgive you." Rachel grinned, advancing on him as his back remained turned to her. Carefully, she placed the palms of her hands on his shoulders applying enough pressure to lift herself up."

"Rachel! What are you, whoa,-augh!" Nigel yelped as Rachel clumsily forced him to give her a piggy-back ride, the girl propelling her arms greatly for balance as Nigel staggered for several steps, nearly falling forwards before finally grabbing her legs and balancing himself out. He frowned as the supreme commander laughed uproariously at his plight. "Was that really necessary?!" Nigel grumbled.

"Absolutely!" Rachel giggled, patting his bald head with her left hand. "Come on, Nigel. Where's your sense of fun?!"

"I must've left it in my other pair of shorts."

"I'm not that heavy." Rachel pouted.

"I never said you were."

"You implied it."

"No I didn't." Nigel slowly pivoted, gripping her calves tightly as he began to walk, lurching slightly as his burden slipped wildly to the right for a moment. Numbuh Three Sixty-Two's helmet slipped off her head and clattered to the floor, but Nigel was able to recover, rebalancing his leader.

"There! You see?! You're struggling!" Rachel chided.

"Maybe a little." Nigel admitted. "You're heavier than you look, Rachel."

"Gee, thanks Nigel." Rachel slapped his head lightly.

"Merely an observation." Nigel grunted, lumbering towards the wall.

"You can set me down." Rachel acquiesced. "It's all right."

"And let you prove whatever point you're trying to make?" Nigel laughed. "Never!"

"You are impossible!" She sighed in exasperation.

"And you aren't the first person to tell me that." He needled her. "Nevertheless…" Nigel slowly maneuvered himself towards a free chair, feeling the urge to sit. "You don't mind if I take a load off, do you?"

"Nigel Uno, if you drop me, so help me I'll--"

"Wot?" Nigel asked with a smug expression on his face, carefully turning around and half falling into a cushy easy chair. Rachel bounced on impact, falling forward slightly, but Nigel grabbed her from behind, slowly easing her down into his lap as she fell. "There, good as new." The Brit seemed rather pleased with himself.

"So you say." Rachel squirmed for a moment, grabbing the arms of the chair as leverage so she could turn herself around, facing him properly. She easily trapped his body with her legs, scissoring him with them and lifting her rear back onto his lap. "Now then, do I have your attention?!" She asked coyly.

"P-perfectly." Nigel gulped, realizing how close she now was. "About what, Rachel?"

"Don't play games, just…please, don't. Not like this. I need to know, Nigel. I don't have a lot of time left, and I'm a little scared, and…I need to know. Do you…do you want me?" She breathed, quivering slightly.

"It's not a question of what I want." Nigel shook his head very slightly, lifting his right hand to gently brush some of her hair out of her face. "I'm…I just don't know if I have it in me anymore. I've been pulled in so many different directions. Lizzie left with what I fear was the better part of me, and your Splinter Cell that you're so frightened of wants whatever's left. I'd be a terrible boyfriend for you, Rachel. I don't want to hurt you."

"I can take it." She whispered. "I don't care about any of that. I don't need you to bring me flowers, or call me every night, or remember our anniversary. That's not what I want. That's not what I need. I just…I just need you to be there. I need you to stay next to me when I'm weak."

"What about when I'm weak?" Nigel asked, feeling unsure, useless.

"Then we hold each other up. I need you, Nigel."

"I just don't want to disappoint you, Rachel. You've had entirely too many disappointments in your life."

"Don't worry about that, Nigel. Just be honest with me. Don't worry about how we'll make it work. I need to know if you would want it to work. I'm tired of flirting. I'm tired of backing off. And I'm tired of wanting what I can't have. So if I'm making a fool of myself here, please stop me now so we can pretend I never said anything."

"You're not a fool, Rachel."

"That's good to hear. You had me going there for a moment." Lightly, she pressed her hands to his chest. "I really like you, Nigel. I always have. But ever since--"

"Shush." Nigel silenced her. "You don't have to say anything. I'm here, now. I'm sorry if I ever…if I ever led you on while I was still…"

"Attached?"

"Yes." Nigel hung his head.

"You've been bad to me, Nigel." Rachel whispered, smiling at him, moving her face forward so that their noses were nearly touching, her breath tickling his face. "How do you intend to make it up to me, hmm?"

His cheeks flushed, but Nigel was determined not to look away. "I haven't decided yet." He teased her, their lips less than an inch apart. She wasn't certain, but Rachel thought she could actually feel each syllable he spoke

"Why are we still talking?" Rachel asked, frustrated at the lengths he was going to just to torture her. Her prayers were at long last answered in response to her question. It was everything she'd ever dreamed when it came to matters of the heart. It was only a gentle pressure against her lips, but Rachel felt as though she were being somehow filled up. Brief flashes of insight seemed to bombard her mind, then release all at once. Overwhelming and yet…more pleasant than she had ever known. Sensations became more sharp and yet somehow less clear. Her fingers flexed instinctively, digging into Nigel's chest more firmly. She breathed deep, inhaling his scent into her mouth, the taste making her redouble her efforts. Now she finally new what all the fuss was about. If this was the kiss she'd been waiting on for so long, she had to admit that it was more than worth it. She felt as though she were drifting far away, and yet, she could feel the intimacy between them growing, he was hers now, of that she was certain.

Relaxing, Rachel slid her hands up to Nigel's shoulders, gently breaking the kiss, willing her eyes open as best she could. "Whoa." She smiled weekly, her cheeks flushed and feeling terribly embarrassed. "Guess that's been building for awhile, huh?"

"Is that what you wanted?" Nigel asked, looking like the cat that ate the canary.

"What about what you want?" Rachel asked.

"I want to be someone you can depend on." Nigel sighed.

"You are." Rachel grinned at him, playfully rubbing her hands over his smooth scalp. "Just promise me you won't disappear." She hugged him strongly. "You've kept me waiting too long to go away now."

"I'm not leaving you, Rachel. I'm not going to disappear on you. I promise."

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Two weeks later, Nigel Uno vanished without a trace. Rachel MacKenzie, codenamed Numbuh Three Sixty-Two and Supreme Commander of the Kids Next Door, only wished it could've come as a surprise to her. The rest of Global Command, along with Sector V, had wanted to mount a search and rescue mission to find Numbuh One. Rachel had refused to go herself. Everything had transpired exactly as she predicted. And there was no point wasting resources on a fool's errand. Nigel was gone. And somehow, Rachel doubted she would see him again.

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Author's Notes

This story turned out nothing like I'd expected, that was for sure. I'd meant for it to be a bit more serious, a bit more confusing, and ultimately, more a testament to Nigel and Rachel not having time to be together. However, it went in what feels like a very different direction for reasons I still can't explain, and so, this is what we've got. It was also my plan to involve the rest of Sector V, but again, the story seemed to transform itself on me. Maybe, in the end, I just had something to say. This certainly wasn't the average 1/362 interaction from yours truly, but it did feel pretty good to try something different. I hope that everyone forgives me for shaking things up a bit. I just felt it was time to try something a little bit different, and something that honestly fits into the series timeline. This is kind of a marriage of GIRLFRIEND, TREATY, and INTERVIEWS, so I hope it fares well enough here at the ol' FFN box office.

At any rate, thanks to everyone who took the time to give this a look. I've been beating my head against this story all week, so hopefully it's not one of my more abysmal efforts. But as always, I leave that to my faithful readers to decide. As such, I encourage you to send your questions, comments, compliments, complaints, love letters, death threats, marriage proposals, and ransom demands to:

Lord Malachite

12//08/07

5:48AM, EST

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

AIM: Asukaphile26