When evil didn't lurk within the walls of the Father's mansion, it was because Father wasn't home. As the man they called their "father" had gone out to yet another conference meeting with the villainous adults (the one he told them they weren't allowed to go to), the Delightful Children from Down the Lane were stuck at home. Often, they'd be doing something productive like scheming with the teenagers for an attack on the Kids Next Door, or blackmailing Kids Next Door allies, or even, when they were out of other ideas, polishing the Really, Really, Incredibly Destructive Machine that Father prized so much. Today, however, it was as if there was nothing left to do. The teenagers were in that conference with the adults, they were pretty much out of allies, and they'd polished the machine twice.
Instead, they sat on the sofa lazily and flipped through the channels, as if waiting for excitement to pop out of it. That was rare, since they were almost never satisfied with simply staring blindly at the TV screen like all those other dull-minded kids. They flipped and flipped and sighed, "Boring… boring… boring…"
"Welcome back to the Price is Correct! I'm your host, Bob Barker and-"
"Charlie, did you take Jake out to the horse races again?-"
"You have the right to remain silent. If you give up that right, anything you-"
"Welcome to Cooking with Kenny. Today, we'll be making butterscotch brownies with chocolate chips."
The Delightful Children sunk deeper into the sofa. "Father's favorite show," they said like they were going to fall asleep at the snap of somebody's fingers. Bored out of their minds, they finally decided that television was not going to save them from it. The blond boy clicked the power button and the TV screen flickered off. They sighed and chewed noisily on the potato chips.
They were relieved at the sound of the doorbell. "Oh, goodie. Visitors." They bounced up off their seat and rushed to the door. "We'll be right there," they called when the person rang the bell again.
The shortest Delightful with the pigtails turned the knob and pulled open the front door. "Yes?" They reeled back when they discovered who it was.
"Hi," said the little girl wearing a Skunky Scout badge and a cheeky smile. "Would you like to by some delicious peanut butter cookies?"
"Uh…" They exchanged glances. "No, thank you."
Laura Limpin's bliss dissolved into disappointment. "You won't buy my cookies?" she said with a trembling lower lip. Swiftly she crouched down when her body began to tremble. Multiple warts sprung out from beneath her skin, and she began to snarl under her breath. "Buy… my…" Her voice then changed to one of a professional wrestler. "…cookies!"
The Delightful Children stepped back fearfully when she grabbed the doorframe. "Buy my cookies!" she screamed again, sticking her head in through the doorway.
"All right, all right. We'll take two."
Two, they said. As a first grader, Laura had barely begun to learn how to multiply. However, somehow, she developed the ability to forcefully multiply the Delightful Children's request by a thousand or so, and so they had no choice but to accept the "generous offer."
Laura Limpin saluted her customers. "Thank you for helping to support the Skunky Skunk-"
"Yeah, yeah, we know."
They shut the door on the little girl and leaned against it. Out of patience, they looked up at the pile of cookie boxes in their entrance hall. "Well, at least we've got something to do now." They sighed. "Look at us! We were once Father's biggest hope of defeating the Kids Next Door, and now we've been stooped down to roaming around the mansion in our robes."
They looked up at the large portrait of them and their father. Again, they sighed. "Well, at least we're not worse off than those Kids Next Door."
"Ak! Careful with that."
"Well if you stop wiggling like a baby, it wouldn't hurt so much."
Numbuh 4 put his hand over the damage on his shoulder and scowled. "What is that stuff anyway?"
"Alcohol," Numbuh 3 replied as she squirted some more onto the cotton ball.
His eyebrows rushed to the top of his head. He quickly moved away. "Are ya nuts? Adults drink that stuff. Next thing y' know, Ah'll be standin' on the table, wavin' my shirt over my head an' shoutin' 'Party in dorm seven!' like a crazy person."
"Don't be a dummy head, Numbuh 4. Now hold still. This might burn a bit."
Deciding to comply, he squeezed his eyes shut and turned his head away as the cotton ball made contact with his wound.
As the doctor of his sector gave the hand-to-hand combat specialist special treatment, leaning against the doorway behind them, Numbuh 1.1 watched them over the rim of his sunglasses. He enjoyed seeing them interact together. Now he knew how his parents were feeling when they saw him and Lizzie together. Not exactly pride, but pleasure. The corner of his mouth tightened when a blush spread across Numbuh 4's face as Numbuh 3 began wrapping gauze around his shoulder.
Behind him, another person came up and leaned against the opposite part of the doorframe. "Hey," Numbuh 1 said to him.
"Hi," Numbuh 1.1 responded, tranquilly.
That was that. And so as neither of them said another word, in plain view they watched Numbuh 3 continue to treat Numbuh 4.
"Is he going to be okay?"
"Yeah. Numbuh 3 said he'd be good as new in a couple of days."
Numbuh 1 nodded. "Good. That's a relief."
Again, neither of them made a sound, distracted by Numbuh 3 finishing up the role of gauze and pinning it secure. She turned to the first-aid kit and began digging through it while Numbuh 4 ran his fingers over the strange, itchy material wrapped around his shoulder.
Numbuh 1.1 lowered his gaze to his boots, and then to Numbuh 1. "Listen," he said, "I meant to talk to you. Care to talk a walk?"
Numbuh 1 nodded. "Sure."
So they left Numbuhs 3 and 4 to their moment of innermost denial and strode down a quiet corridor. Numbuh 1.1 made sure to secretly steer them towards the kitchen; he was suddenly in the mood for a bowl of vanilla ice cream with sprinkles and chocolate sauce. But in the meantime, he wanted to let his new leader know a few things.
"I was wondering about today's mission," he started with. "You and your brother."
Clearly knowing where this was headed, Numbuh 1's expression turned from curiosity to that of embarrassment in a flash.
"I just wanted to make sure things were all right. I mean, you're not the only operative here who has a sibling working against the Kids Next Door."
Numbuh 1 kept silent, allowing him to say all he wanted to say before giving him a full answer.
"So if you want to talk about it, you know… You're not alone."
"You don't have to worry about me. I can handle my brother," he reassured. "I'm sorry about tonight; I won't let him get in the way of my duty anymore."
Numbuh 1.1 bit his tongue. "That's not what I was implying."
"No, that's all right," he quickly said. "I know you weren't. But you're right; I do still have a few things going on that attaches me to him." As they came to a flight of stairs that led them to the floor below, Numbuh 1 impeded his pace, as did Numbuh 1.1. "He's my brother. I thought this would be so much easier, Numbuh 1…point 1." He sighed.
"Nigel's fine for now," Numbuh 1.1 declared.
Numbuh 1 nodded his head thankfully. "It's not easy at all. As much as I love one thing, I'm devoted to the other." He leaned against his elbow on the doorframe and suddenly broke into a small smile. "I'm not exaggerating when I say that you guys are the best thing that's ever happened to me. I can't stand the thought of giving this up for somebody who could betray the Kids Next Door like that."
As honest as he was being, all the doubts he ever could have had, Numbuh 1.1 wasn't surprised to hear those words. "I'm glad to hear that. That's actually what I wanted to talk to you about."
Numbuh 1.1 continued to lead them down the flight of stairs. "See, the thing about being leader of this sector… It's more than just leading the missions. Plenty of operatives can lead missions if they want to; maintaining a level head and keeping the mission in proper organization, that's not what makes this job difficult."
"Then what is?" he asked.
He opened his mouth to speak, closed it, and then opened it again to say, "It's the constant pressure. Not the pressure you might think: not the fact that you're responsible for the success or failure of the missions. It's not the pressure of responsibility of protecting the team. It's more of…the pressure of being both a leader and a friend to them."
"But you're good at it. They look up to you." Numbuh 1 bit his lip. "I mean, was… Well, you still are…"
Numbuh 1.1 waved his hand in an excusing manner. "Forget it. And I thought so too at first. But after I was replaced, it gave me a new outlook. Watching you, I know I could have done so much better." Why was his heart starting to feel so heavy? Silly question; he knew why. He just wished it'd stop. "I care so much about them."
"I know you do."
"Then you understand?"
Numbuh 1 lowered his head. "More than you know. Let's face it," – he nudged him playfully – "you left big shoes to fill."
Numbuh 1.1 looked down at his feet. "They're not that big."
They both shared a laugh.
Numbuh 1.1 stood at the foot of his bed, staring down at the comforter in a trance. The rocket ship images seemed more like an illusion than they ever did before, so much so that he didn't even notice the sun beginning to rise. He hadn't slept once that night. But he hadn't expected to anyway. Not before what he was planning on finally getting out of the way.
Never say never.