UPDATE TYME!

Kat and Nini: Glad you enjoyed the action in the last chapter. I can't say if you are right or wrong on your guess on the mystery people, but I will say that, so far, out of all the guesses, only one of the mystery people has been correctly guessed. By who, I won't say, cause I'm mean like that lol! YES! OBEY CHUCK NORRIS! Thanks for reviewing!

LuffyMarra: Like I said to Kat and Nini, only one of the mystery people has been guessed correctly so far, but I'm not saying whose guess was right~! Thanks for reviewing!

Lightning bird: It's gonna be a tough call! We'll just have to wait and see what happens! Thanks for reviewing!

SplitDemonIdentity: *does german psychologist impression* Ze emotions you are experiencing are normal…eet means I am doing my job right as a writer…lol. Don't worry, it's not a style change. Sometimes, when people are really tired and have just gone through a big ordeal, their sense of relief over the end of said situation can make one's thinking a little loose…at least until they can regain their composure. Like, think if you and a friend of yours got caught doing something that's not really a big deal, but still something you could still get in trouble for (like maybe doodling a mocking picture of your least favorite teacher saying "NAG NAG NAG"); only you get caught doing it by someone who hates you both. That person rats on you, and you and your friend get sent to the principal's office. After what seems like forever, the principal decides to let you off with a warning, and lets you leave. Your friend might be mad at you for almost getting them in trouble, but usually, in such a situation, what do you do as soon as you're out of the principal's sight? You both start laughing and joke about how close you came to getting your hides tanned because that stuck up kid who hates you caught you doing something silly. Make sense?

Thanks for reviewing!

Eyelovefantasy: Yeah, I just like to mess with people~! Lol! The identities of the two mystery people will probably be revealed sometime in the next few chapters…thanks for reviewing!

Gat'toron: Will do! Thanks for reviewing!

FILE 10: Hide and Seek

Sonya let out a sigh of dismay as she laid her headset in her lap. The operative who had approached her made his way back to his own work station.

"Our UFO is gone." She said. "We've lost track of it."

Dexter and Mandark looked disappointed.

"It can't be helped." Mandark said.

"Have the air units patrol over the compound a bit longer…" Dexter said. "At least until Numbuh 1 returns…Just to be safe."

Sonya nodded.

"I wish that were all…" Sonya said. "I've just been informed that Numbuh T just assaulted Numbuh 363 and made an unauthorized launch in a SCAMPER. He's already shut off his radio."

Mandark and Dexter raised an eyebrow at one another.

"But I already know where he's going." Sonya clarified.

"He watched Numbuh 2 crash. He's on his way to the crash site." Sonya said softly. "Numbuh 2 was his big brother."

The two boy geniuses nearly physically winced.

"I'm afraid the best we can do about that is to warn Father…" Dexter said grimly. "…let us hope that Father can reach him before he sees something that he can never unsee."

~!~!~!~

Courage's heart was racing as he tore down hallways, dodging people left and right, running between people's legs if he had to…

It was impolite, Courage knew, and he felt bad for the people he had startled or caused to stumble…but Double D told him not to stop for anything…

…and Courage would be damned if he was going to let Double D down.

If he let Double D down now, he wouldn't just be letting down Double D…he'd be letting Muriel down by letting Mandy down …

After Muriel and Eustace disappeared, Courage had no one to take care of him.

Sure, the kids that passed through always made sure he got plenty of food and a loving pat on the head…in fact, Courage got more food and attention in one day from the kids passing through Nowhere than he usually got from Muriel in 3 days…and that was saying something…

…However, much to the resentment of his daily visitors, word of the ownerless dog reached the wrong ears, and Courage was taken to the pound "for his own good".

The children were heartbroken…but before he could even be led to his stall, his handler was informed that someone had arrived to claim him…

Courage was led to the front…and to his great shock, it was Mandy who stood on the other side of the adoption desk.

She was showing the woman behind the desk a stack of paperwork.

No one else (except for Muriel and Eustace, that is) knew it, but Courage had known Mandy since long before the war.

The steely little blonde came for weeklong visits to the Bagg farmhouse every summer; and would occasionally return for Thanksgiving or Christmas…and once, at Eustace's request, at Halloween.

Such an unlikely mix…a sweet, simple, kind-hearted woman…her husband; the mean, grouchy old farmer…and the emotionless, maniacal little blonde in the pink dress…

…yet when they were all together, they were in harmony…and Courage wasn't just talking about the singing and feminine charm lessons Muriel started giving Mandy after Mandy mentioned that she had entered the "Little Miss Scurvy" pageant…

It was truly bizarre to watch them all together. Muriel adored Mandy…and shockingly, so did the farmer!

Muriel loved having a talented, ambitious girl to watch as she blossomed.

Eustace loved the girl's brazen personality…Mandy was the only person that Courage had ever seen the farmer try to befriend. No one else could spark that glimmer of pride and affection in the old farmer's eyes.

As for Courage's thoughts on these visits…he felt that when Mandy visited, it was awkward.

Mandy was impossible to read. Never had a little blonde girl in a pink flower dress and black dress shoes struck him as such an imposing figure.

She never smiled. She never showed any emotion. She was so blunt in conversations. She had always creeped Courage out.

Courage just couldn't read her.

She was never mean to him, nor had she ever shown any mal-intent or dislike toward the Bagg's.

…but she never clearly communicated any endeavor of well-meaning or extensions of friendship either.

Eustace and Muriel didn't seem to notice that; but Courage…

Courage and Mandy were both well aware of one another.

Courage knew that Mandy seemed to know that Courage wasn't like most other dogs. Mandy seemed to know that Courage knew that she wasn't like most other girls. They had an unspoken understanding from the day they met.

You could say that their relationship was that the two acknowledged each other.

They didn't spend a lot of time alone together, but there had been times that Mandy would take Courage with her to wander the farm and they would walk together in contented silence…and once or twice, Mandy let Muriel place Courage in her lap, and she allowed the dog to stay there without any indication of either favor or displeasure as they all watched a late evening movie together…

Courage really couldn't say whether or not he liked Mandy…nor could he tell whether or not Mandy liked him…

He did know this much…that fateful day when Courage was taken to the pound left Courage not only indebted to Mandy for her actions, but obligated by Muriel to repay his debt to Mandy in loyalty and obedience.

"If you insist on labeling Courage "abandoned" after a month of his owners going missing, then fine. We'll play this the legal way." Mandy said, holding up the papers. "If you say that you must assume the missing persons dead, then here."

"This is Muriel Bagg's final will and testament. Here, in the very first paragraph, she made it abundantly clear that, and I quote: "Should anything happen to me, I leave my dog Courage, my dearest and most precious treasure, to my little rose, Amanda; the daughter of my closest cousin's daughter; but a daughter of my very own to my heart"; End quote." Mandy recited.

"If you don't hand the dog over to me, the first paragraph of Eustace Bagg's final will and testament entitles me to inherit a very sizable mallet…and I'm sure I can find a way to put it to good use…" Mandy glowered. "…And the use I have in mind would make the old farmer mighty proud of me…"

"Well, little girl, I'm sorry; but if the little guy's owners have been missing this long, he should have been claimed by now; and there are already several families lined up to adopt him." Said the woman.

Oh boy….she did NOT know who she was messing with…

"Is that so?" Mandy said, quirking her brow. She held up Muriel's will again, leaning across the counter. "This means I am entitled to have full legal custody over that dog."

"You do not know who you're messing with here, lady. I'm not like any of the other precious, empty headed little girls who prance in here every day…" Mandy warned. "I eat those simpletons alive."

"You had no right to remove him from the Bagg farm without first notifying me that he had been classified as abandoned and allotting me time to claim him." Mandy hissed. Mandy leaned further over the counter. "You know Dexter McPhearson? The Boy Genius? Short, redheaded, blue eyes, glasses, weird accent, easy to piss off, cute in a nerdy, obnoxious kind of way?

The lady opened her mouth to speak but Mandy cut her off.

"I know him. I know how to get into his lab. He's got some really good lawyers, being the head of DexCorps and all…" Mandy said. "He knows me too…if he were old enough, he'd drink to forget me…betcha can't guess why…"

"I have my ways, sister, and let me tell you, it won't take much to persuade Dexter to let me chat with one of those lawyers of his, and I'm sure they'll agree that with all these legally binding documents behind me, I have a solid foundation for a lawsuit…" Mandy said, her tone laced with malice.

Less than 60 seconds later, Mandy walked Courage out of the building on a leash.

Mandy, as usual, remained unreadable. Courage, however, was in shock.

First of all, it disturbed him greatly to hear them talk about Muriel as though she were dead…Courage never allowed that possibility to cross his mind. He convinced himself that she was alive out there somewhere.

He was also in shock that Muriel had left him to Mandy in her will…really, he knew he shouldn't have been all that surprised…he couldn't think of anyone else that Muriel would trust enough to leave him to…

…but that Mandy would actually come to claim him was certainly a huge shock…and the vigor with which she pushed to get him…

It gave Courage his first indications that maybe Eustace and Muriel's affections were not as trivial and meaningless to Mandy as Courage had suspected…

Wordlessly, they walked to the bus stop. Mandy didn't so much as look at Courage.

Everyone but Mandy and Courage exited the bus at the stop right before Endsville. It wasn't until then that Mandy looked down at him intently. Courage met her gaze nervously.

"I know there's more to you than what meets the eye…" Mandy stated. "I know you can understand me."

Courage gave a hesitant nod.

"That's what I thought." Mandy said. "So I'm going to keep you around."

"You'll be staying with me in Endsville for a few weeks…" Mandy said. "I've already got a dog. His name is Saliva. He's a real idiot, but you'll have to put up with him."

"You may find yourself staying over at Billy's house while you're in Endsville. He's got a cat named Milkshakes." Mandy said. She looked at him questioningly. "You won't cause any trouble with him…?"

Courage shook his head.

"You better not." She said. "And I know you've heard me talk about Grim."

Courage swallowed thickly.

"Muriel and Eustace think I have a vivid imagination, but you know I don't play pretend." Mandy said. Courage nodded.

"He might swing by, but I doubt it. Lately, he's been busy overseeing Orchid Bay." Mandy said.

"I'm nowhere near as oblivious as Muriel and Eustace…" Mandy said. "I've noticed all the crazy stuff that goes on in Nowhere."

"You seem to be pretty accustomed to dealing with all that paranormal stuff by yourself." Mandy said, more an observation than a compliment. Courage stared for a moment and shrugged.

"Crazy stuff goes on in Endsville too, but it's been pretty tame around town since Grim got stationed in Orchid Bay. You don't have anything to worry about from Grim if he does happen to swing by…so long as you don't use him as a chew toy." Mandy said.

Courage shook his head frantically.

"That's what I thought…" Mandy said. "Grim's got a friend named Juniper Lee. She's powerful, and she's got guts."

Translation: Mandy approves of this "Juniper Lee" girl.

"I've been hanging out with her." Mandy said. She looked down at the Bagg wills in her hand.

"Turns out, I'm the main beneficiary of the Bagg wills…" Mandy shrugged, her voice just –almost- leaking a hint of some unknown emotion.

"Don't ask me why…" she said with indifference.

"This is nothing but a hassle…" Mandy said. "Muriel and Eustace aren't dead, but the judicial system doesn't care."

"So, since they left almost everything to me in their wills, I figured I might as well claim it before it gets auctioned off…it'll save a hell of a lot of pointless court dates if one person has all their stuff instead of having to get everything back from a bunch of different people…" Mandy shrugged. "Besides…the farmhouse has potential to be of use to me…"

Mandy looked down pointedly at Courage. "Same goes for you too."

"Just north of Nowhere, the Plumbers, a galactic law enforcement group, are about to establish a base of operations called Area 51.5." Mandy said. "That's what's bringing so much traffic to the area."

"Plus, word is leaking to the public of a system of caverns under Nowhere that the Plumbers have been investigating that's infested with fusion monsters." Mandy said. "Everyone's going to want a piece of the action."

"The access point to the catacombs is right next to the farmhouse." Mandy said. "The increased traffic to the area is creating a growing need for suppliers of weapons, boosts, and a Great Machine to serve the area…"

"I've already made sure that Juniper Lee has heard rumors about all the weird stuff that goes on in Nowhere…" Mandy said. "June is a mediator of sorts when it comes to the supernatural, so I know it's got her attention…"

"I'm planning to offer up the Bagg property for use as a commerce center for people going into the catacombs." Mandy said. "I'll make sure June hears about it, and then, it won't be long before she applies to be reassigned to Nowhere; and she'll get the reassignment."

"In the meantime, I'm going to arrange for you to meet her, and you're going to cozy up to her." Mandy said. "She's a big time dog lover…her pet pug disappeared a few months ago, and she's still torn up over it."

"Her dog was kinda like you in that it was special somehow…" Mandy said. "She's bound to pick up on that in you, and she'll fall in love with you."

"Once she's good and attached to you and her transfer to Nowhere is assured, I make sure she overhears your sad story, I let slip how difficult it is to look after you because of how busy I am, and presto." Mandy said.

"She'll offer to take you with her back to the farmhouse and look after you for me." Mandy said. "You get to go home, the Earth Forces have a new base, June has a new outlet for affection, and I have someone to look after the farm, and have military protection for the farm as well as a pair of eyes in Nowhere."

"That's you, by the way." Mandy said, poking Courage lightly on the nose.

"Everybody is happy, and I still hold all the cards." Mandy said. "Another victory for yours truly."

Courage had to wonder if all that was just exactly what Mandy said it was, or if part of Mandy was doing it for Muriel and Eustace…

Whatever her motives, things happened exactly as Mandy said they would. He lived in Endsville with Mandy for about a month and a half before Juniper Lee transferred to Nowhere and offered to take Courage off of Mandy's hands.

About a week into his stay with Mandy, Courage began to get the inkling that Mandy was more than just an eerie little girl…it wasn't until a week after Juniper Lee took him with her back to the farmhouse that Courage fully realized the amount of power Mandy controlled.

The directive of that power, Courage decided, was for the greater good. Distant and obscure though the connection may be (Muriel's cousin's daughter's daughter…that made her a third cousin perhaps?) , Mandy was family. Courage chose to believe in the good that Muriel saw in Mandy. Until Muriel returned, Courage belonged to Mandy. Muriel had entrusted him to Mandy; which meant that Muriel was entrusting Mandy every bit as much to Courage.

To let Mandy down was to let Muriel down; so Courage gave Mandy the same unwavering loyalty he had given to Muriel. Muriel had faith in Mandy, so Courage did too.

Courage had already lost Muriel and Eustace…and he had failed to prevent the Bagg Farm from falling to Fuse.

He was not about to be responsible for losing his new owner as well. Whether they shared a bond or not, Courage owed it to Muriel to protect Mandy.

His duty to Mandy as bestowed upon him by Muriel was the only thing that prevented him from leaving the compound and traversing fusion-ridden landscape to curl up on what was left of the front porch of the farmhouse and die when he learned that Muriel wasn't coming back.

…Courage intended to serve Mandy for as long as she would let him.

After all…she was all he had left in the world now.

~!~!~!~

With a weak sigh, the boy in his arms went utterly limp. His eyes fluttered closed and head lulled back.

He nearly went into a panic as he gingerly lowered the boy to the ground and pressed his ear to his chest.

He breathed a sigh of relief.

It was faint and sluggish, but the boy still had a heartbeat.

Panic averted, he leaned his back against the boulder and gently lifted the boy's head to rest on his lap.

He took the time to get a good look at the boy…

At first glance, he could be described as covered with dirt and blood, tattered, bruised, scraped, and battered.

Duh.

Upon closer inspection, he observed that the boy was young…heartbreakingly young to be in the condition he was in…the poor child couldn't be older than 15 or 16.

Under all that dirt and dried blood was someone's beautiful son…he was soft and boyish in the cheeks…long, dark eyelashes (a striking accent to what he had seen to be the most stunning pair of green eyes he'd ever seen)…an elegant jaw-line that swept to a handsome, lightly defined chin…

Short hair…too matted with dirt and blood to determine the color…a little lengthy in the bangs…those bangs of his most likely fell over his eyes a lot. A little scruffy…the boy was perhaps in need of a little trim.

The boy was lean in the neck and shoulders…his overall build spoke of a young man capable of impressive agility, flexibility, sharp reflexes, and decent speed.

He was just a bit on the scrawny side…he seemed a little small for a boy his age; but for that, he was thankful; because the only way this boy was going to be able to get to help in his condition would be if he carried him.

The kid was in a bad way…even if he were to regain consciousness (which he highly doubted would happen) there was no way the boy would even be able to sit up; let alone walk.

He was thankful for the boy's small build, because in his own fatigued state, he doubted he'd be able to carry a larger teen…

The boy had the tell-tale long legs of adolescence, but he didn't look lanky or awkward. He had slim wrists and…

Wrist.

He had a slim wrist…

…midway down the boy's right forearm, the tattered, brown-stained sleeve of what might have once been a green jacket was knotted; likely to truncate blood loss

…there was a certain lack of a second wrist and hand filling the sleeve…

He winced. At least it didn't appear to be bleeding…what this poor boy must have been through…

It was easy to tell by the look of him that they boy had lost a lot of blood…most of it from his right arm, his still bleeding left shoulder, and a nasty looking gash across his side. He was lucky to be alive…even if only barely.

The boy was deathly pale. His breathing was alarmingly slow and shallow. His pulse was dangerously faint. His skin was worrisomely cool, and his lips held a light tinge of blue.

Solemnly, he gently slid one arm around the boy's shoulders and the other under his knees. He took a moment to ready himself before carefully hoisting the boy up into his arms. He let the boy's head lull limply against his shoulder.

His own body screamed in protest to the added burden, but if he didn't get the boy to someplace warm for medical attention, he wasn't likely to last very much longer.

Maybe it was his own head injury…but he could swear that he knew the young man…

The way his limp body felt in his arms…it was familiar…like he'd carried the boy in the very same way sometime in the not-so-distant past…

A faint recollection of urgency rose to his mind…fresh, warm blood coating his hands…the smell of burning cardboard…a normally prideful young man screaming the name of his brother in absolute horror…a young lady sobbing heartbrokenly for her twin…a man falling to his knees over the body of a child he nurtured and watched as he grew…

…He had a feeling that, if the frail young man he was carrying in his arms right now were to die, he would be losing a dear comrade….

~!~!~!~

The ground rumbled ever more frequently under his feet as he ran the length of the crevice. He guessed that he wasn't far from wherever the Graveworms were spawning from.

Thankfully, as Larry traversed the canyon floor, he found the towering walls around him becoming less and less impossible to escape. At this rate, the floor of the canyon would meet ground level soon enough.

He knew that his route was taking him farther and farther away from the base, but he had no other choice. In order to get out of the canyon created by the Graveworms, he had to backtrack.

"Sorry, China Doll…" Foul Larry said to himself as he ran. "Looks like Foul Larry's gonna be a little late…"

~!~!~!~

"Okay now, Eduardo…" Frankie said softly as she helped the large, furry, purple monster onto a small cot. She draped a large blanket over him and slid gracefully to her knees beside him. She reached up to stroke his arm as she spoke.

"I talked to the medic who patched you up…" She said.

"He said to make sure you get plenty of bed rest for the next few days…" Frankie said, removing her hand from his shoulder to poke him playfully on the nose. "So that's just what we're gonna do, okay?"

Eduardo sniffled softly.

"I no think that I can sleep, Frankie…" Eduardo said. "How can I when my bestest friend es stranded out on the battlefield…"

Eduardo's worried eyes locked with Frankie's.

"It es muy frio…very cold out there! Especialemente with the storms rolling in from las montanas…" Eduardo said. "He es muy flaco…skinny like a twig…cold wind go right through him! He no has any fat to keep him warm; and if they no can find him before it starts to rain, he will get sick!"

Frankie laid her hand on Eduardo's shoulder.

"They're gonna find him, Ed…" She said softly, her eyes full of sorrow. Eduardo stared down at his hoofs forlornly.

"Wilt no es afraid of storms…" He said. "Wilt es very brave…and he help me to be brave too…"

Eduardo's eyes bored into hers intensely.

"…but what if he es afraid right now? What if he es all alone out there, cold and wet?" Eduardo blurted. "He no has had anything to eat for almost a whole day! He is probably hungry and cold!"

"Eduardo…" Frankie said softly, trying not to cry; but Eduardo cut her off.

"He could be being attacked right now with no one to help him!" Eduardo cried. "What if he es hurt?!"

"EDUARDO, PLEASE!" Frankie cried, covering her ears and squeezing her eyes shut.

"Please…" She said, her voice shaky. "Please stop…please don't talk like that."

"Senorita Frankie…." Eduardo said remorsefully, laying a hoof gently on her shoulder. "Por favor…I am sorry…I no meant to…"

Frankie held up a hand to silence him.

"It's okay, Ed." Frankie said. "I know you're worried…and…well…I guess…I'm a little worried too…"

"Even though I shouldn't be." Frankie said. Eduardo gave her a questioning look.

"I met Wilt when I was three years old." Frankie said. "I know him better than any of the friends at Fosters."

"He's been through a lot..." Frankie said. "You know about what happened between him and his creator."

Eduardo nodded.

"Wilt is blind in one eye, missing an arm, and has quite a few scars…" Frankie said. "but he still works through every day with a smile on his face and love in his heart."

"Even though he's had his heart broken…more times than you know, Eduardo…" Frankie said. "he doesn't give up."

"He learned to live happily with one arm and one good eye." Frankie said. "Like you said, he's very brave."

"He's also very strong; emotionally, for sure; and, though he doesn't often let it show, it'd surprise you how strong he can be physically." Frankie said.

"That no surprises me. I seen him when he play hard in basketball." Eduardo said. "Muy intense. Muy powerful."

Frankie nodded.

"Exactly. And, you know, Wilt lived alone on the streets for a time before he came to live at Fosters. Wilt is a fighter." Frankie said. "He'll never start a fight; but when push comes to shove, you've seen it with your own two eyes…he will finish it."

Eduardo's expression was one of great reverence. He nodded slowly.

"Si…he es muy scary when he decide to fight…"

"And once he decides to fight, he never loses." Frankie said with a smirk. Eduardo's eyes widened slightly. A small smirk tugged at his lips as he nodded.

"No…you are right…" Eduardo said. He locked eyes with Frankie once more. "He never does lose."

~!~!~!~

He was surprised to find no visitors in the room when he peeked inside. He could smell the fresh scent of musty cloth and earth and bone…that was when he saw the shadow of the long shadow of the Grim Reaper down the hall from around the corner. He could faintly hear the thick Jamaican accent as he spoke in low tones with a doctor.

Judging by the scent, Grim couldn't have been away from the room for more than a minute or so. Judging by the strength of the scent and its dispersal down the hallway, Grim had likely been pacing steadily up and down the hall for at least a good hour now.

Grim seemed to be occupied with talking to the doctor, so Courage decided to slip into the room while he was distracted.

Her figure was illuminated dimly by the light emitted by the screens displaying her vital stats. Her head tossed restlessly in her sleep. Her slim, pale fingers grasped the sheets tightly. She whimpered softly, her expression distressed.

Courage knew that the poor girl must be having a fever-induced nightmare. After all, her temperature read 102.4.

Cautiously, he hopped up onto the bed and lay beside her hand. He whimpered softly and gingerly licked her hand, trying to wake her as gently as possible.

Courage scrambled back when Mandy suddenly gasped loudly and her body jerked sharply.

Courage saw her raise her head slightly, gasping for breath. She was awake.

Courage cautiously crawled up to lay near her shoulder, whimpering softly to alert her to his presence so that he wouldn't startle her.

"Courage?" Mandy asked weakly, struggling just to keep her eyes open. She tried to sit up, her eyes searching the room for something…

"Muriel?" Mandy asked softly. "Muriel?"

Courage raised an eyebrow at the girl.

Did she think they were back at the farmhouse?

"Mandy…Muriel isn't here…" Courage said. "You aren't at the farmhouse…you're not even in Nowhere…You're in the hospital…"

"Don't you remember?" Courage asked. Mandy looked thoughtful for a long moment.

"Wait…it wasn't Eustace here earlier…i-it was…sunglasses…" Mandy stammered. "Uno…"

"Yes! That's right! It was Nigel Uno! You got it!" Courage said. "Do you remember now?"

Mandy winced and squeezed her eyes shut, laying the back of her hand across her forehead.

"Something went wrong…" She whispered.

"Yes, Mandy! That's right!" Courage said. "And I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but things have continued downhill since Nigel left!"

"Uhn…why does everything hurt?" Mandy breathed.

"I know you're sick and in pain, Mandy, but please! You've gotta focus! Your life is in grave danger!" Courage said. "Double D sent me to warn you! He's on his way here now! We have got to get you out of here!"

"Why are you acting so weird, dog?" Mandy snapped suddenly, making an unproductive effort to push Courage away. Her speech was slurred and her movements weak and clumsy.

"Muriel?" She called weakly. "Muriel? Where are you?"

The girl was exhausted, sick, in pain, and on medication…the cumulative effects had her in a state of delirium.

She was starting to slip back into unconsciousness.

"Muriel…" She whispered as her eyes slipped closed. "Don't leave…"

"No! Mandy! Don't fall asleep! You can't fall asleep! You have to stay awake!" Courage cried, nudging her sharply with his muzzle.

Mandy jolted sharply with a loud gasp, frightened by the sudden action.

"Aunt Muriel! Uncle Eustace!" Mandy cried in alarm as she stumbled out of bed in her frightened state. She was so weak from her injuries that she ended up falling harshly to the hard tile floor. It was made all the worse when her sudden movements caused the IV tubes attached to her to pull tight and pull over the IV stand. It crashed loudly to the ground; only adding to her rare moment of panic.

A jolt like electricity shot through Courage; not so much for what he was witnessing as what Mandy had said.

Mandy had –never- referred to the Bagg's as AUNT Muriel and UNCLE Eustace; and certainly never called them with such fear in her voice.

"MANDY!?" Called a voice down the hall. There was a loud clatter and the rapid sound of footsteps. Courage managed to dive under the bed just in time before the door flew open and Billy dashed in.

"GRIM! HELP!!" Billy shrieked upon discovering Mandy on the floor among destroyed medical equipment.

He dashed to her side and dropped to his knees beside her, gingerly pulling her up to lean back against his chest. Her body was slack in his grip. Her eyes were half lidded and her head lulled against his shoulder in a daze. She was breathing heavily.

"Aunt Muriel…" Mandy breathed. "…where are you…Aunt Muriel…Uncle Eustace…"

"Mandy!?" Billy cried, grasping her hand tightly. "Mandy, it's me! Billy! Can you hear me?!"

"Th-they left me…they left me alone…" Mandy breathed, her expression troubled as her eyelids fell.

"Mandy, it's okay now…You're not alone! I'm right here!" Billy soothed, though the boy was shaking like a leaf. "Just don't move! I gotcha!"

"They left me…" Mandy whimpered. "Muriel and Eustace don't want me to be their daughter anymore…"

Billy froze for a moment.

"huh? What are you talking about, Mandy? Those aren't your parent's names…" Billy said. Mandy squeezed her eyes shut as if struggling to remember something. Her silvery eyes opened wide for a moment in sudden realization, glistening brilliantly with unmasked emotion before turning dim and cold.

The emotional barrier was back in place. Mandy was once more a stronghold.

"Forget I said anything, Billy." Mandy whispered. She closed her eyes and laid her head on Billy's shoulder. "It doesn't matter anyway…."

Billy was frozen with anxiety and confusion. Mandy was his best friend, and he'd never seen her act like this before…to openly make physical contact with him in a way that would almost seem like she was seeking comfort…

"It was only a matter of time before they saw me for what I am…" Mandy breathed, her body relaxing against Billy's chest and her eyes slipping closed. "Just like everyone else…"

Courage knew in an instant…what he just witnessed was Mandy's heart breaking.

Suddenly, it all made sense to Courage. Everything clicked into place. The reason that Muriel, Eustace, and Mandy were in harmony when they were together couldn't be more obvious…

Courage knew from his short time living with Mandy in Endsville that Mandy's parents were afraid and utterly ashamed of her.

They left her to her own devices to spare themselves the woe of having such an abnormal little girl. They didn't take interest in her personal life or her hobbies…they rarely spoke to her…they were hardly ever around.

Eustace and Muriel gave Mandy everything her parents didn't.

Eustace knew that Mandy was a brazen, saucy, willful, underhanded girl, and that's exactly why he was so fond of her! He loved to hear Mandy's gruesome stories of vengeance taken and brutal martial arts sparring.

Muriel was well aware of Mandy's hobbies and attitude; but rather than seeing a little hellion, Muriel instead chose to see a poised, intelligent, strong-minded, multi-talented, ambitious girl who was, perhaps, in need of a bit of molding in the art of coming into herself as a young lady, but nevertheless, headed for great things. Mandy could float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. To Muriel, she was a beautiful rose of many thorns.

Every time Mandy would come to visit, Eustace wanted to hear about her latest exploits in her Martial Arts studies; namely the newest and most creative techniques she'd developed to use against anyone that crossed her.

Eustace admired her cunning and power; Muriel admired her diligence, skill, grace, and discipline. Both demanded a demonstration of her latest moves (and reenactments of her latest and greatest matches), performed after dinner just as the last of daylight was fading and the fireflies were emerging.

Eustace and Muriel would sit in rocking chairs on the front porch and laugh, cheer, and applaud as Mandy, decked out in her uniform, would perform a demonstration for them on an old scarecrow that all three of them made together, just for the occasion.

Both Muriel and Eustace doted upon the girl during her visits.

Eustace would take Mandy out to town for a day, where he'd take her to the carnival (mostly for the freak shows, so that Eustace could coerce Mandy into recounting some of her more gruesome exploits back in Endsville); then he'd take her to see a horror movie; and the old tightwad would even pay extra to get popcorn and candy. Mandy never asked for it…Eustace did it because he hoped she'd enjoy it.

Muriel would sew and buy clothes for Mandy year round, and when she was visiting, she loved to fix Mandy's hair and dress her in lovely clothes, and teach her how to be a lady. Mandy was a pretty girl…Muriel had a way of helping that beauty shine through.

She gave Mandy singing lessons, and trained her in posture. The two talked literature and cooked meals together.

Eustace only half-teased about wanting to bring along his mallet to keep the young fellas away from Mandy after Muriel got her dolled up and they all went into town together.

Mandy would never say it out loud, but now, Courage could see it in her eyes…Mandy always put up a strong and confident front, but Muriel and Eustace had a way of making her feel strong and beautiful…

Everyone knew that if Mandy didn't like something, she did something about it. So, why would she put up with the Baggs and their incessant coddling if she didn't have some liking for it?

She could be herself around the Bagg's without being criticized. They didn't love her in spite of who she was…they loved her –because- of who she was.

Muriel and Eustace looked underneath it all to see the best in Mandy.

She was the daughter Eustace and Muriel never had, and Eustace and Muriel were the supportive family she never had.

It was bittersweet one summer eve, just a few hours after the Bagg's returned home from seeing Mandy off at the bus station…

The old couple had a long talk about what a wonderful girl Mandy was and how much they enjoyed having her…the conversation ended in teary remorse as they lamented never having any children of their own.

Mandy and Courage were the closest things they had to children of their own.

It was why Courage and Mandy could co-exist peacefully at the farmhouse together. Subconsciously, they each saw the happiness that the other brought to the Bagg's, so neither looked for a reason to do wrong to the other.

As he stared at this girl in Billy's arms who was, by right, his sister- Courage wondered how he could not have seen this sooner?

Billy remained tense and silent for a long moment, waiting for Mandy to…well, to do anything…to move…speak…something…

"M-mandy?" Billy asked hesitantly. No response.

"Mandy?" He asked again. When she failed to respond again, he hesitantly adjusted his grip on her. He lowered his head carefully to listen for her breathing.

He confirmed it. She was unconscious again.

Tears welled in his eyes as he looked down at his closest friend.

Ever since they were little kids, Billy and Mandy had gone together like peanut butter and jelly.

Just like it seemed odd to have a peanut butter sandwich without the jelly, or vice versa, it was odd to think of Billy with Mandy or Mandy without Billy.

Billy was the jelly, gooey, colorful, and sweet; and Mandy was the peanut butter; not just because the company she kept tended to leave a lingering, nutty aftertaste…

She could be smooth or coarse, she was tough to get rid of when she decided to stick around, and if the wrong people tried her, she could cause gruesome and possibly deadly reactions.

Peanut butter may not be right for everyone, but it made a perfect accompaniment to Billy; and he couldn't be happier with it.

As for Grim…he was the bread. He could be found on either side and was essential to a proper sandwich. He was a safety barrier, preventing either of them from falling onto the floor, and had a way of keeping the two kids close beside each other (plus he came with an option to remove pieces of him to give to the dog…).

At the same time, when one of them was in a mood to be alone, He could accompany either of them and provide them support and security when spread too thin. After all, if you're hungry and you want just peanut butter or just jelly by itself, it's less filling and harder to enjoy if you just spread it onto the counter…no, you spread it onto bread so it's more filling and you don't anger your mother by leaving drool all over the clean kitchen.

Getting back to the point of the analogy, even though Mandy was dark, cynical, and rough, Billy didn't really dwell on it. It was her strength and her wit that Billy was most aware of.

Mandy was the smartest, toughest girl he knew; and for whatever reason, she let him hang around. She was like a sister to him, and to see her so unsettled and hurting so tore away at his innocent heart.

Billy was a naïve idiot, but one thing he knew extensively was his friends.

He knew…and had known for almost two years…that Mandy had been hiding something from him and Grim. He knew it was something very important. Something big.

Only his trained eye could see it, but it put her under a lot of stress. She was constantly on guard, staying alert for a spectrum of dangers that Billy knew he probably couldn't even begin to understand.

There were forces…some near and some distant, that Billy knew wanted to do Mandy harm.

There were nights he'd lie awake hating himself.

He knew Mandy was working so hard…he wanted to help her, but he knew that whatever Mandy was doing was too important for him to even know about. He knew he had a tendency to mess things up, and he knew that whatever Mandy was doing could not afford any such risk.

He wanted so badly to be able to help her…he wanted to protect her from the many dangers he knew surrounded her; but he couldn't even do that knowing that even in the compound, some of Billy's friends were Mandy's foes.

What was worse; he couldn't tell them apart. He didn't know how to identify them.

Gently, Billy hugged Mandy close to him. He laid his head atop hers, fingering her blonde hair absently.

"I may not be smart…but I can tell that something's been going on…" Billy whispered. "It's important…and I don't know whether or not you need me or want me to help you with it…but…"

"But I do know this…Even if I can't help you with whatever you've been up to…I can still be with you…" Billy said. He pulled back a bit to look down at Mandy with tears rolling down his cheeks while he continued to stroke her hair. "I can still stand by you and be your friend…"

"I'm not a good fighter, but I can stand beside you and watch your back at the same time…" Billy said. He sniffled.

"I don't know all the faces you're looking out for, but I can do my best to protect you against the ones I do know…" Billy shrugged. "I can at least do that much…"

Billy wiped his eyes on his sleeve.

"So that's what I'll do…" Billy said to himself. Carefully, he lifted Mandy up into his arms. He paused to look down at her.

"It might not be much, but it's the only way I know I can help you…" Billy said. He gently laid Mandy back on the bed. He grasped her hand and stooped to one knee, holding her hand to his cheek as he spoke.

"I'm gonna stick by your side and watch your back. You'll never be alone 'cause you'll have me right there beside you." Billy said. "I'm gonna protect you, Mandy. I swear it."

Billy stood solemnly and strode over to the fallen IV stand. He was setting it upright when Grim appeared in the doorway. Billy didn't notice him.

Billy let out a long sigh, taking off his hat to run his fingers through his shock of red hair before replacing it and slumping down into a chair at Mandy's bedside. He rested his head on his elbow on the bed and covered Mandy's hand with his free hand.

Grim's already high alert climbed higher.

He had rarely ever seen Billy so solemn…serious…

"Billy?" Grim asked softly, practically gliding into the room. "Billy, what happened in here?"

"She's getting worse, Grim…" Billy said worriedly, his eyes never leaving Mandy's face. "Why is she getting worse when everyone's said that she's gonna be okay?"

Grim stepped up behind Billy and laid his bony hand on the boy's shoulder. His expression was…well…grim.

He squeezed Billy's shoulder lightly.

"Well, Billy…" Grim said hesitantly. "Sometimes people get worse before they get better."

Grim looked genuinely shaken as he struggled for more words.

"I-it…it means her body is working to heal itself…she's fighting the infection." Grim said; though he appeared to doubt his own words.

Billy looked up at him with hopeful eyes.

"…A-and she's gonna win…right, Grim?" Billy asked hopefully. "I mean…she's never lost a fight before…she'll win this one too…"

Billy's eyes searched Grims.

"Grim…is Mandy going to die?" Billy asked softly. Again, naïve though he may be, Billy knew his friends.

He was quick to pick up on the reaper's uncharacteristic demeanor. He'd noticed it even before Grim had even entered the room.

It had come on suddenly…out of the blue…about 10 minutes ago, the grim reaper was struck by an overwhelming feeling of foreboding. Grim himself didn't seem to know what brought it on, and even as he did his best to pretend nothing was wrong, Billy wasn't fooled.

Billy had felt it too. It was what fueled his own sudden urge to check on Mandy. The instant Grim walked into the room, Billy knew that Grim had experienced the same sudden, strange feeling.

Grim frowned.

"I don't know, Billy." Grim said. "I honestly don't know."

"You always know…it's your job to know…Grim…What's happening?" Billy asked anxiously.

"You're right, Billy…I should know without a doubt whether Mandy will win or lose this fight…" Grim said softly, gripping his scythe tightly. "My vision of fate has blurred."

"What's that mean, Grim?" Billy asked.

"Cliché as it sounds, there's been a disturbance in the force…" Grim said. "And now, I can't clearly see who is fated to live and who is fated to die."

"Something is going very wrong." Grim said, turning his attention to Mandy. "It's only just started in the last 15 minutes or so…that's when I felt the disturbance and my sight of fate began to distort…"

"Never in all my years has the force of destiny shifted so greatly…" Grim said softly, reaching out to brush Mandy's bangs from her face. "And it seems to be centered around our girl here…"

"What's gonna happen to her?" Billy whimpered. Grim drew a deep breath and sat down on the edge of the bed, deep in thought.

"What I can pick up in my foresight is jumbled…blurry...short, random bursts…" Grim said. He sighed and rubbed his temples. "I just can't make sense of it…"

Grim slowly looked from his own hands to Mandy and then to Billy as he spoke.

"The only ting that seems to be clear is that Mandy is in danger…some of it from obvious sources, and some subtle…" Grim said. He actually shuddered. "I don't know if we'll see it coming or not when it presents itself…I don't know if we'll recognize it when it's standing right in front of us until it's too late…"

"I don't know if –she'll- recognize it in time…" Grim said.

"She might not." Said a voice from outside the door.

A pale, petite boy with purple shorts, a t-shirt, tall red stockings, and a strange black hat on stepped into the doorway. His clouded amber eyes saw nothing, yet everything at once.

He was clutching at his shoulder and was accompanied hesitantly by a shorter, stockier boy in baggy clothes. They both looked like they had just been through a great ordeal.

The shorter boy looked uncertain, yet at the same time his eyes burned with determination.

The taller boy had an air of mystery about him. He trembled slightly, but his face too was set in determination. Meek and subtle, yet in possession of a great secret power and wisdom.

Billy knew he'd seen these boys before…

"Even of the threats I know of against her, there could be more that we don't know about; but most of them, I don't have to be able to see to recognize." The taller boy said.

Billy stood swiftly, staring coldly at the boy.

"Then I guess I'll just have to protect her from everybody just to be sure…" Billy said in a tone of malice. The taller boy's brow quirked.

"Not a bad idea, actually…" He shrugged. He took a half step forward.

"I'm sorry…allow me to introduce myself…" The taller boy said. "My name's Eddward; but everyone calls me Double D."

"This is my friend Eddy." Double D said, gesturing to the shorter boy.

"He has kinda been accidentally dragged into this…but I'm here on the same mission as you…to protect Mandy." He said.

"Billy…Mr. Reaper…as far as Mandy talk goes, she's talked a lot about you two…" Double D said gently. "For reasons I can't reveal, I wouldn't be surprised if she never mentioned me to you…"

"All I can say is that Mandy and I have a working relationship stemming from some business we exchanged in the Cul-De-Sac back before it was destroyed." Double D said.

"Ah! I tought I recognized de two of yuh!" Grim said. "The Ed boys that head the Cul-De-Sac!"

"Yes. That's right." Double D said. "Mandy and I…worked…with one another for about a year and a half…"

With a look of paranoia, he proceeded into the room, followed closely by his companion, who, taking the hint from Double D's cautious movements, closed the door behind them both.

"Point is, Mandy is a business woman….she keeps work and friends separate…" Double D said lowly. "I happen to be on the business side of the fence; and I know Mandy is one tough customer when it comes to business…"

"I'm lucky enough to be on short list of allies…but she's made a lot of enemies on my side of the fence that you two probably never imagined…" Double D said.

"Can't say I'm much surprised by dat." Grim grumbled.

"So why are you here?" Billy demanded, standing his ground between Mandy's bed and the intruder.

Double D froze, casting his blind gaze to the ground. He rubbed his injured arm gingerly and let out a remorseful sigh.

"It's a long and complicated story…but let's just say a plan of Mandy's went sour and some information reached someone Mandy has been trying to steer clear of and was misinterpreted…and now Mandy's got an enemy coming after her that even she knows she can't take…not even on her good days…" Double D said. He took a deep shaky breath, brushing away some tears stinging at his eyes.

"It's happening because of me; and…"

"Double D, it is not!" Eddy snapped.

"It is, Eddy. It wouldn't have happened if she hadn't needed to protect me." Double D said. He didn't allow Eddy a chance to argue. "I'm here not just because I'm obligated by being at fault for this…but…well…let's just say I'm in a unique position to know how to keep her out of harms' way."

Grim and Billy looked Double D up and down carefully, looking for any signs of mal intent. Eddy shrunk further behind Double D under the reaper's scrutiny with a whimper of "we're reasoning with the grim reaper…we're staring death in the face…oh –god-…this is –not- how I thought today would go when I got out of bed this morning…what the hell happened to get us to this point?"

Double D, remorseful, reached back and gave Eddy's arm a reassuring squeeze. Eddy was genuinely afraid. So much had happened in just a few short hours…Eddy had discovered a whole new side to Double D that, for their own safety, Double D had hoped his friends would never have to find out about…

Eddy was in shock…he wondered how he could know someone since age 4 and not realize what was going on under his very nose…

Reguardless, the events had been set in motion, and now Eddy was stuck along for the ride. Right now, Eddy had no other choice but to trust Double D.

Whether he was trusting Double D out of necessity or if the trust was genuine and stemming from their friendship, who could say?

At the back of his mind, Double D knew if Eddy hadn't already pondered on it, then the critical assessment was close at hand…

Very soon, he'd have to face Eddy, and eventually Ed…and the fate of their friendship would be decided.

Would they even want to hear his explanation? Would they even be willing to listen?

This could be it for their nearly lifelong friendship…if not, then at the very least, their friendship would never be the same again.

Double D's thoughts snapped back to the present when Grim spoke.

"What does all this mean, exactly?" Grim asked. "What is it you're here to do?"

There was a long, thoughtful pause before Double D spoke.

"I'm going to be frank with you…" Double D said. "Someone is coming here to try to kill Mandy…"

Billy almost fell flat on his face. Grim jolted.

"This person is highly trained…this person could potentially take Mandy on even when Mandy is at peak condition…" Double D continued, causing Billy's eyes to bulge. "Mandy's in less than peak condition right now…and I don't know about you, Billy…even Mr. Reaper might have trouble neutralizing this threat…but Eddy and I are certainly no match for this person…"

"Mandy isn't going to like it….but I don't see any other way…her hunter could be here any minute now…we need to work together if we want to save her." Double D said.

"What do we need to do?" Billy asked.

"We need to move her…and it must be done secretly." Double D said. "I wish I didn't have to involve you…you are two extra factors that could make this a lot harder, but I really don't have a choice…I don't think Eddy and I can move her by ourselves, especially with my arm busted…"

"Not to mention, as I've already stated, he and I don't stand a chance against the person who is after her…this person will probably be able to track us down, and when this person finds us…" Double D winced. "Game over."

"I need the manpower…and a little supernatural assistance from Mr. Reaper certainly couldn't hurt our chances…" Double D said.

"I'm afraid that…well…for reasons I can't reveal that…well…I can't reveal much of what's happening to you…" Double D shrugged. "I know it must be very hard for you…trusting someone you've only just met with the life of your close friend…but…if you want her to be safe…I need you to trust me and do exactly as I say when I say it and without question…"

"I know it's a lot to ask…but it's Mandy's best chance." Double D said.

Billy and Grim looked from Double D to Eddy, back to Double D, then to Mandy, to Double D again, and to each other. For a long moment, they shared an unspoken exchange.

Grim turned to Double D, adjusting his grip on his scythe.

"Tell you what boy…" Grim began.

"Quit callin' me 'Mr. Reaper' and we'll agree to follow your lead." Grim said. "De name is Grim, got it?"

Eddy nearly fainted from relief and Double D broke out into a big grin.

"Oh, thank you, Mr. Rea-…er…um…I mean, Mr. Grim…" Double D said.

"No, it's GRIM, boy. None of this 'Mr.' nonsense." Grim said.

"Yes sir…er…I mean…Grim." Double D said sheepishly.

"That's much better." Grim said. "Now…what is it you need us to do?"

~!~!~!~

Frances "Frankie" Foster had been around Imaginary Friends all her life. Though everyone knew that she was a caretaker of Imaginary Friends, few knew that Imaginary Friends had had a major hand in her own upbringing.

Frankie was raised by her grandmother, Madame Foster, in her grandmother's home for Imaginary Friends; however, Madame Foster was by no means her primary caretaker as a child. It was Mr. Herriman, Madame Foster's very own imaginary friend, who tasked himself to educating her in proper behavior, and, 9 times out of 10, it was all of the other imaginary residence of the home who kept her company.

They served as not just her entertainment or companions, but her friends, playmates, and guardians. They were her security blanket. She lavished them with the much needed simple love of a child, and they loved, cherished and protected her in return. They were every bit as much a part of her family as her grandmother was. They had every bit as much a part in raising her as her grandmother did.

In the first year and a half of the war, there had been a huge controversy over whether or not Imaginary Friends from Fosters should be asked or even ALLOWED to fight in the war.

Many were against it. In their eyes, it was like sending orphan children out onto the front lines because they had no family, no one to miss them, no one to stick up to them, and weren't serving any other useful purpose. Even just ASKING them to fight was unfair. It was unfair because if asked to fight, it is the nature of an imaginary friend without a child of its own to protect any child needing protection. The Earth Forces are mostly comprised of children, therefore an imaginary friend without a child of its own would be unable to go against its nature and was sure to say yes.

It felt wrong, to say the least, however, no one could argue that imaginary friends, especially those without owners, had everything that the earth forces so desperately needed; availability in large numbers, special abilities, varied talents, the wellbeing of children as their main concern, and a ready willingness to protect a child with its life.

After all, it was an imaginary friend's purpose in life to protect children, and in the midst of a war in which the planet's greatest defense was comprised of children, it seemed the place of the imaginary friends to fight alongside them. After all, Fuse was looking to use Imaginary Friends against the earth forces…the logical thing to do would be to use them against him first! Let them fight!

The case was strong on both sides of the argument. Frankie was bombarded by both sides for support, but she never took an official position. She was completely on the fence over the issue. It seemed every day that there were 2 rallies just outside the gates of the house every day, and every day ended with a riot between the two and the deployment of a KND SWAT team to restore the peace. Bedtime was whenever the SWAT team finished breaking up the riot.

Apparently, the friends at Fosters got sick of the bickering. They felt that the fighting going on in front of their home would be far more productive if turned against Fuse rather than each other. So, one day, without mentioning a word about it to anyone that wasn't an imaginary friend, every Imaginary Friend at Fosters marched together to City Hall, declared Imaginary Friends an independent society(with extensive legal reference compiled by Mr. Herriman to ratify the rights of the Imaginary Friends to do so), reserved the right to be equally represented in the war, and thusly ended the conflict by taking the decision of whether or not the Imaginary Friends should fight out of the hands of the rest of the earth forces.

It took a lot of pressure off of the commanders of the war, ended needless fighting amongst the ranks, and gave the imaginary friends a chance to voice their own opinions and make their own decisions.

The imaginary friends had done a bang up job in governing themselves. As an independent society, they were well organized, easy to work with, reliable, resourceful, strongly united amongst themselves, and highly dedicated to the war effort.

Only about a fourth of the imaginary friends were actually suited to fight in the war, but it was most especially the works performed off of the battlefield by the imaginary friends that made them such an asset to the earth forces.

Off the battlefield, they did everything in their power to help. Anything they could take off of the hands of the earth forces, they would.

Aside from making up a majority of all watch duty crews, there was one role filled by the imaginary friends that made them so invaluable to the earth forces…

After 80% of the adult population vanished literally overnight, it was the imaginary friends who rose up to take on their duties…

Sure, that did include taking on a lot of menial but important and extremely helpful tasks off the workloads of the earth forces such as cooking, cleaning, and over all maintenance of the troops and compounds…but it was more than that.

Thanks to them, after 80% of the adult population on the planet disappeared, children sick, injured, or too young to fight had someone to watch over them, take care of them, and love them. Kids who had lost their parents had someone to turn to when they needed a hug. The troops could always count on returning to the compound to be greeted by a friendly face, a caring embrace, a hot meal, and a place to sleep.

The imaginary friends took it upon themselves to try to fill the role of all the moms and dads that were suddenly gone from the lives of the children. In partnership with Double D in the Cul-De-Sac, they organized life for refugees, civilians, and also for the troops when not on the battlefield.

The imaginary friends met regularly with Double D, a civilian boy from the Cul-de-Sac well known for his public service work to not only support and aid the earth forces themselves with supplies; but also for relieving the earth forces of the difficult and consuming task of organizing relief by providing food, water, clothes, and sanctuary for civilians and refugees left suddenly hungry and homeless by the raging war.

Through Eddy, Double D had connections for supplies, but not a lot of helping hands. The imaginary friends had plenty of helping hands, but lacked a means of getting supplies. Both parties shared the common goal of doing all that they could to aid in the war, so the partnership came naturally. Generally, Double D's work was targeted toward civilian and refugee aid while the imaginary friends focused on the troops; however, the two parties did most of their planning together and helped each other however they could.

Their mission was to see to it that no one was left behind; to be someone that people knew they could turn to in these dark times. Their mission was about hope and good will to your fellow man. It wasn't just reserved for Christmas time, after all…

Through the combined efforts of Double D and the Imaginary Friends, children with no one had someone to take care of them. With most parents gone and many able-bodied brothers and sisters enlisted in the earth forces, the care of younger siblings and orphans was seen to thanks to the measures taken by Double D and the imaginary friends.

The partners strove to see to it that no one, troop or civilian, went hungry, and that each and every one of them had a pillow, a warm blanket, a roof over their head, and a clean set of clothes.

Every morning before the sun was even up, the team was up cooking breakfast. As soon as the wakeup call sounded, teams of imaginary friends dispersed themselves to help children put shirts on facing forward and right side out, find missing socks, tie shoes, button shirts, and fix hair.

During the day, there were friends available for companionship, as well as many fun, organized activities such as sports, movies, and arts and crafts; and at noon, they served lunch.

Every night before bed, they held a massive bedtime story gathering. They made sure all the nightlights were in perfect working order, and anyone who wanted to be tucked in need only ask. Good night hugs and kisses as well as lullabies were available by request, and should there be nightmares, there was a friend stationed in the hallway at all times ready to provide comfort.

Together, the team fulfilled every child's basic needs, and so much more.

They organized pep rallies, special performances, and other ways to keep moral up; even if it meant pulling little pranks here and there or making fart noises over the intercom during the morning announcements, or surprising troops and commanders alike by taking by surprise, cornering, and dragging them up to the head of the mess hall to celebrate their birthday (sometimes, it wasn't even that person's birthday) or bestow upon them some random, silly award made up on the spot…like awesome pair of shoes of the day, 100th boy to choose a side of green jello with his lunch, pinkest leg cast…

Such impromptu award ceremonies were initiated at random, and the awards themselves included being tackled by a group of imaginary friends, assaulted with kazoo music and confetti, a round of applause from the mess hall, a certificate hastily scrawled on a napkin, an extra dessert, and a lingering feeling of "…wtf?" for the dazed and blindsided random winner.

Some of their past highlights included dragging Ben Tennyson up to the head of the mess hall for "most moving opera pertaining to an electric eel" , Numbuh 5 for "writing the best best-seller book about mini avacado-flavored marshmallows in history", Samurai Jack for "musical chairs champion", Numbuh 1 for "best funky chicken dance", Bubbles for "most talented yodeler", and Dexter and Mandark for "the invention of cottage cheese".

Ben didn't even know if there WAS an opera about an electric eel, Numbuh 5 had never written a book, Samurai Jack had never even heard of musical chairs, Numbuh 1 wasn't even sure what the funky chicken dance was, Bubbles had never yodeled a note in her life, and Dexter and Mandark obviously did not invent cottage cheese; but such random fanfare had a way of making everybody laugh and boosting morale.

Seeing it all unfold in front of her, Frankie understood how it felt to raise a child and see it grow to have children of its own. Imaginary friends raised and nurtured her as a child. As she grew, she became their caretaker. Now, her charges who were once dependant on her had charges of their own.

And who was at the forefront of it all, pioneering the revolution of Imaginary Friends?

The Imaginary Friends were all working together…but the ones among themselves that they appointed to represent them were Mr. Herriman and Wilt.

Mr. Herriman's appointment came as no big shock to Frankie…after all, he had managed the house for as long as it had been open; but Wilt…

Wilt.

Frankie's Wilt.

She had been so shocked…and so very proud.

It was amazing how far he had come…

He had been at Foster's for longer than she had. Frankie had never asked outright, but she strongly suspected that he inspired Madame Foster to open her home in the first place.

Even during her visits before she came into her grandma's permanent care at age four, he had been an elusive flash of red out of the corner of her eye…a guardian angel looking out for her.

In fact, she had never even seen him face to face before the day she came to live with her grandmother; she had only ever seen him in photographs around the house. She had never really thought much of it, though. She figured that the friend in the picture was one who had been adopted before she arrived. She never drew any parallel between him and the occasional glimpse of something big and red disappearing around a corner in the house.

Even though she had only been three the day she met him, Frankie remembered it as though it were yesterday.

The day she finally met him face to face was the cold, stormy day she came to live permanently with her grandmother.

Her grandmother, accompanied by Madame Foster's imaginary friend Mr. Herriman, had come to pick her up from her house. For some reason, her babysitter seemed very sad ever since she had gotten a phone call around an hour before, and so had Madame Foster and Mr. Herriman when they arrived to get her. All they told her was that she was going to get to stay with her grandma.

Just as they pulled up to Foster's, a police cruiser pulled up behind them. Mr. Herriman held an umbrella over 4 year old Frankie and ushered her inside.

"Stay here in the foyer, Miss Francis…your grandmother and I will rejoin you just as soon as we are finished speaking with the good officers…" Mr. Herriman said, his voice somber.

"M'kay…" Frankie piped softly, unsure of what exactly was going on. Mr. Herriman paused a moment, staring at her. He looked for a moment like he might cry before he nodded and made his way back to the front door to lead his creator and the policemen to Madame Foster's office, where they could speak privately.

Frankie watched them quietly and stood in silence for a long moment after they had disappeared from view. She stood awkwardly, looking around the spacious foyer and dropping her backpack to the tile floor. She sighed and sat down beside it, her eyes still exploring the room.

The house was oddly silent. It felt so empty. There were no friends wandering about the place and none of their usual noises of merriment. The only sounds echoing though the house were the steady monotone of heavy rain falling on the roof, gusting wind, and the occasional distant rumble of thunder.

It wasn't long before Frankie started to get bored. She rummaged through her little backpack and found a little toy unicorn. On her hands and knees, she made it gallop on the floor for a short time, and when she was bored with that, she decided to make it fly. She jumped up and gleefully toddled around the room, holding the unicorn above her head and whinnying.

She decided that the unicorn wasn't flying quite high enough for her taste, and proceeded to start to run up the stairs to gain some altitude.

Halfway up the marble staircase, there was a loud squeak as her still wet rain boots squealed across the slick, smooth surface, and little Frankie lost her balance. Her hands flailed for something to grab onto as she slipped and fell backwards. She heard a loud cry and saw a flash of red jumbled into the world as it tumbled around her.

Next thing she knew, she was at the bottom of the staircase lying on something warm and soft. She looked down to her hands, which stroked short, sleek, soft, red fur.

Before she could see more, she was quickly but gently set down to sit on the tile and something red started to blaze past her.

"Hey! Wait, red thing!" She cried out. Before the red blur could vanish around the corner, it let out a loud cry, slipped on the slick tile, and fell to the floor with a mighty crash.

The red blur was now a very tall, very skinny, gangly red creature, moaning softly in pain as it lay sprawled out on the floor.

"Oh no! Red thing!" Little Frankie gasped, jumping up and running over to kneel beside it. The creature gasped upon seeing her just inches from her.

"Are you okay, Red Thing?" Frankie asked. The red thing quickly tried to scramble upright, only to fall again, clutching at its knee.

"Uh oh! Red thing! You has a boo-boo!" Frankie exclaimed. Without wasting another second, she dashed over to her backpack and took a single pink band aid with red hearts on it out of its front pocket before dashing back over to the creature, but when she got back to the spot the creature had been in, it was gone.

It was then that Madame Foster and Mr. Herriman made their way out of the office with the police men behind them.

"We're so sorry for your loss, Madame Foster…we'll let you know as soon as we know anything more. Take care, Ma'am." One officer said, tipping his hat to Madame Foster. Madame Foster took a deep, shuddering breath and nodded.

"Thank you, dearie." She said as Mr. Herriman escorted the officers out.

Meanwhile, a photograph on a nearby table caught Frankie's eye. It was of her grandmother…and beside her was Red Thing! She slipped the bandaid into her pocket, quickly fetched the picture and toddled over to her grandmother, who immediately scooped her up into a big hug and held her tight. She seemed so sad…

"Gramma?" Frankie asked, trying to get her grandmother to feel something other than sad. "What's Red Thing?"

Madame Foster set the child down.

"What's what now, dearie?" She asked, her voice sounding weary.

"What's Red Thing? Here…lookit…" Frankie said, handing the photo to her grandmother and pointing to Red Thing.

"Red Thing? Oh! That red thing!" Madame Foster said, a small smile tugging at the corners of her lips. She even managed a light chuckle. "Oh, why that's Wilt!"

"Wilt?" Frankie asked.

"Yes. He was one of the first imaginary friends that I ever took in." Madame Foster explained. "He's very, very sweet."

"Uhoh, gramma…" Frankie whispered urgently, standing on tiptoe to try to whisper to her grandmother. "Gramma…I think I scareded him…he's ascared of me…"

Madame Foster laughed.

"What?" She asked.

"I slippeded on the stairs when I was flying my unicorn and he catched me, and then he runned away!" Frankie exclaimed. Madame Foster chuckled softly.

"You don't say!" Madame Foster said.

"Master Wilt was out of his room during a mandatory house-wide temporary room-confinement order?" Mr. Herriman said, sounding surprised. "How…uncharacteristic of him to break house rules…"

"Easy now, funny bunny…let the poor dear be...he doesn't mean any harm…I'm sure he was just worried about me." Madame Foster said with a sad smile. Mr. Herriman nodded, his expression sad and concerned.

"Oh, my…" Madame Foster sighed, placing her hand on her granddaughter's back and leading her down the hall.

"Wilt isn't scared of you, dearie…he's just dreadfully shy…He has always tried to hide from you whenever you came to visit…well…when any children come, actually…that's why you've never met him before…" Madame Foster explained, handing the photo back to her granddaughter. "See…he is afraid that you will be scared of him…"

Frankie studied the photo of Wilt carefully.

"How come? He don't look very scary…" Frankie said. Madame Foster sighed with a smirk.

"That's what I keep trying to tell him…he gets sad because he thinks he's scary looking." Madame Foster said. "He's afraid that little girls and boys will be scared of him and not like him and not want to be friends with him…"

"Aww…but he's cute!" Frankie pouted. "He looks like fun! Gramma, I'm not scared of him! I like him! I wanna be friends with him!"

"That's wonderful, dear!" Madame Foster said happily, excited to see her granddaughter take a fixed interest in the one friend in her household that needed the attention most.

"Can I be his friend, Gramma?" Frankie asked.

"Of course you can, dear…but Frankie…let me tell you…" Madame Foster said, grasping Frankie's shoulder gently. "Wilt is very shy around children…I don't know where he came from, but I don't think he was treated very nicely before he came to live with me…I think he might be afraid that you might hurt him, so you must be patient and gentle with him."

"Wilt is very, very sweet. He helps me and his fellow imaginary friends a lot. He has a very kind heart and is wonderfully gentle and loving; it just may be a little while before he comes around with you…once he finally gets the courage up to approach you, I know you'll simply love him, just as I do." Madame Foster said.

"Does he like to play outside?" Frankie asked.

"Oh yes…he loves playing outside. He loves sports…Basketball is his favorite. Maybe, come a sunny day, he'll play with you." Madame Foster said.

"YAY!" Frankie exclaimed. Madame Foster smiled sadly.

"Well, Frankie…Dinner will be ready in about an hour. You're free to do whatever you want until then, as long as you stay in the house, okay?" Madame Foster said. Frankie nodded.

"M'kay Gramma! I'm gonna go 'sploring!" Frankie said, and without another word, she dashed off.

After a few minutes of darting down hallways laughing, she thought better of the decision and decided to instead head to the kitchen to see if she could help make dinner. After all, her momma had always told her that it was polite to help when you were a guest at someone's house.

The house was still seemingly empty as she made her way through the massive dining room and into the kitchen through the double doors. She could hear the sounds of water boiling and something sizzling as she entered the kitchen, but it took her a moment before she spotted anyone.

"Oh! Fiddlesticks!" Came a pained cry, accompanied by the loud clatter of metal on tile, as well as a great thud.

"Ow…oh…oh no!" The voice came from behind a counter. "Sorry, sorry, sorry…I'm such a klutz!"

Frankie toddled over to peek behind the counter. Half way sprawled out amidst a mess of spilt sauce, rubbing his knee was a familiar figure…Her face lit up.

"RED THING!" She exclaimed happily. The creature let out a loud cry of surprise and fear and tried to scramble to his feet. Again, he fell back down with another cry of pain, grasping his knee.

"Whoops! I mean –Wilt-." Frankie corrected herself. She took a few hesitant steps forward. "Are you okay, Wilt?"

He ended up scrambling to the corner with its back against the wall, its uninjured knee drawn to its chest, and one arm raised to shield itself.

Frankie's expression piqued with concern for the frightened creature.

"It's okay, Wilt…I not gonna hurt you…" Frankie soothed, stretching her hand out slowly until it touched the spot just above the creatures injured knee. "Here…you runned away before I could give you this…this will make your boo-boo all better…"

The little girl knelt, removed the bandaid from her pocket, and, as gently as she could, stuck the bandaid onto the creature's knee, despite there being no blood. In the eyes of a four year old, bandaids healed all wounds. She then leaned down and kissed the bandaid.

"There!" She exclaimed happily. "See? All better!"

She could see a large, glistening silvery eye peering at her from over the top of his hand.

"See? I didn't hurt you. I helpedid you gentle!" Frankie said. She reached up and absently started to stroke the soft fur on his uninjured leg.

"See? I not hurt you. I gentle, not scary." Frankie said. "You're not scary either."

"I-I'm sorry…b-but really? I'm not?" The creature stammered.

"Nuh uh. You not scary. You're soft!" Frankie giggled. "I seed a picture of you with my gramma…you cute! I like red!

"I like you! Gramma says you're nice and that I can be your friend!" Frankie said. "Wanna be my friend, Wilt?"

And from that day on, they were inseparable. They adopted one another, and together, they learned and they grew. Out of all the friends to come and go at Fosters, Wilt stood out the most in her memory. Their meeting was destiny. They met on the day that her parents met early and tragic deaths; a day on which she needed a true friend more than anything. At her very young age, he got her through her transition into life at Foster's. Her focus on building her relationship with him dulled the trauma of the sudden loss of her parents, and, having a multitude of emotional scars of his own, taught her much about the emotional care of Imaginary Friends.

In Madame Foster's eyes, Wilt was Frankie's first case as a caretaker of imaginary friends; though Frankie saw it more as Wilt taking care of her. Her experiences with him coupled with the advice of her grandmother helped her flourish and grow into a well-practiced caretaker…

She was what she was today thanks to him.

The sound of a door opening snapped Frankie out of her musings.

She could hear Coco's soft cooing as Mac stumbled into the room. Bloo was close behind, followed by Coco as she ushered the two into the room. She stuck close to them, keeping her wings over their heads and keeping them close to her body as a mother hen would do to protect her chicks.

There was sadness in Coco's eyes. The two boys also looked very downtrodden. Tears shone bright in Mac's eyes, and Bloo's expression was hollow…empty…disbelieving…

"Hey, what happened?" Frankie asked worriedly, rushing over to kneel in front of the three. Frankie first looked to Coco for answers. Coco met her gaze for a long moment before closing her eyes and turning her head away, shaking it lightly.

Mac whimpered softly and brought his hands to his eyes. Frankie quickly enveloped him in a gentle hug.

"Mac? Hey little buddy…what's wrong?" Frankie asked, stroking the boy's hair. Mac looked up at her with tears streaming down his face.

"The first search and rescue wave just got back…" Mac sniffed.

Frankie's heart skipped a beat. Her blood ran ice cold and her breath caught in her throat.

There could only be one possible explanation for why the return of the first search and rescue wave would upset Mac, Bloo, and Coco so much.

"Oh…" Frankie breathed. "oh please…no…"

"No!" Frankie whimpered. "Please don't tell me…don't tell me Wilt is…is…"

TO BE CONTINUED…

~!~!~!~

DUN DUN DUNNNNNN!

Another cliffhanger! *watches at a distance sitting on a lawn chair and eating popcorn as readers fling themselves off the cliff face like so many little lemmings….*

I lose more readers that way…lol!

If you like it, please review it, folks! I may not have all my shots, but I don't bite! I can't! I have to wear a muzzle around company! Lol!

'Till next I update, hope y'all have good days!