= = = Thanks for the reviews. They lowered my bad cholesterols. Not really, but they still made me happy. = = =

Fanny turned and, without a word, led her beloved leader out of the bridge and into the hallway by the hand. All the kids who crowded the halls pressed their backs to the walls and watched Fanny and Rachel as they walked by. The two girls were followed by the 44 twins and Nigel. The entire journey from the bridge to the decommissioning chamber was silent and tense, save for the whispers that followed them. Rachel did not try to run. She did not pull on Fanny's hand and she did not weep. She held her head high, her eyes steely.

And then they were in the packed decommissioning chamber. Two other operatives were being strapped to the chairs as well. One of them smiled guiltily at Rachel.

"Happy birthday, sir."

"…Happy birthday to you too."

Rachel's breath hitched at the sight of the ominous chairs. The monitors before each chair were full of static. Fanny's decommissioning squad went about their business, checking wires, pulling on straps, pushing buttons and checking the health of the soon to be ex-operatives. There was a trolley off to the side with several packaged wires and other things.

"I guess there are worse ways to spend your birthday besides getting pulled at by plungers," Rachel said.

"No plungers today, sir. The decommissioning machines got wrecked, remember?" one of Fanny's squad members answered. "The scientists got their hands on them. They rebuilt the machines so that they don't use plungers anymore."

It was a small improvement. If Rachel was going to do this at all, then at least she wouldn't be doing so with a face full of plunger.

"It doesn't make it any better though," a kid muttered. "It looks just as scary."

"Sister leader, sir!" a rather short operative pushed through the crowd of children. "Call it off!"

"Harvey?"

"Don't let them do it, sis!" Two bigger boys stopped Harvey's advance and held him back. He kicked and squirmed and for the first time Rachel remembered, he was struggling away from them for a reason apart from his phobia. "You're the Supreme Leader! You don't have to do this!"

"That's enough, Numbuh 363," Rachel commanded. Her jaw was set. "As my brother you'll respect the choices I make and you will back down."

"No!"

"That is an order," my last order, Rachel realized. "And you will follow it. Don't make Fanny's squad tie you up."

"I…yes, sir," Harvey slouched and slinked off in defeat.

"Please sit, sir," an operative beckoned to her and she sat in the chair he offered. On either side of her were the two other operatives. They were in the process of being strapped down. Restraints were buckled around their wrists and their ankles and across their knees and their chests. As soon as she sat down, a kid came up to her and strapped on the same kind of restraints. Then he uncapped a tube and began rolling some kind of gel over her temples.

"Uhm…"

"It's to keep you from burning, sir," the operative put the tube away and lowered some kind of wired helmet over her head. Then he strapped that down too and Rachel could no longer move for the braces holding her in place. "You could still call it off," he whispered as he reached for something on the trolley. "Even now. We'd still let you go."

Rachel closed her eyes. "Thank you, but no."

"We'll miss you, sir," the operative ripped open the package and Rachel opened her eyes in interest. The operative took the sterile mouth guard out with two fingers and held it out to Rachel.

"What is that for?" Of all the things that had happened so far, Rachel only saw fit to look suspiciously at something only now.

"It's to keep you from biting your tongue, sir." Rachel looked at the boy, expecting him to crack a grin and say it was a joke, but the operative had gone pale, and he didn't laugh. He didn't even smirk. The hand that held out the mouth guard was trembling. Rachel stared at him for a second, then opened her mouth. The kid gingerly put the guard in her mouth and retreated to a safe distance. The guard was like a foreboding stone in her mouth. It was heavy on her tongue; a veritable bit and as much as she wanted to, she couldn't spit it out.

"We're ready, Numbuh 86, sir," one of the operatives said. Fanny just stared at Rachel with her red eyes. Her brows knitted together and she slouched in defeat. She bit her lip.

"No," she finally said. "We're not. I'm not. I'm not going t'decommission yeh, sir! I can't. I won't. An' yeh can't make me do it." Her face screwed up again. Whispers broke out among the operatives in the hall.

"86!" one of the operatives called out. "You gotta do your job! You gotta order the decommissioning to start!"

"No!" Fanny turned on her heel and fled. She pushed through the throngs of children crowding the corridors and was soon lost in the crowd. Fanny's decommissioning squad shifted fidgeted at the control station.

"Whatever, we don't need her. Begin the decommissioning," the nameless operative commanded. The squad members looked at each other with wide eyes. "What are you waiting for? Do it!" One of the squad members closed his eyes and slammed a hand down on the big red button.

The kid on Rachel's left whimpered through his mouth guard. A loud electrical clap shot through the air and the kids shouted in alarm. The grating noise continued as the current flowed down through the wires and gathered into the machine. Sparks flew out as it received more and more energy. The kid screamed and pulled against his restraints. His eyes rolled. The onlookers backed away in fright.

BZZZ!

Volts of electricity were released into the three doomed operatives. Rachel screamed through her guard and gripped the arms of her chair. It hurt. And the pain was the most surprising thing of all. Was it supposed to be painful at all? The kid on her right was convulsing. His fits shook his chair and the shudders reverberated into Rachel's. The one on her left was screaming and the sounds were muted through his guard.

BZZZ!

Electricity arched through her again and Rachel heaved a sob. Her knuckles turned white as she braced herself. The kids in the room turned away from the three of them. They ran out of the room. They cried. The scientists may have done away with the offending plungers, but they had replaced them with this, the stuff made of nightmares.

BZZZ!

Nigel was the only operative who was unable to look away. In truth, it was like watching a train wreck, or a car crash. It was mangled and messy and terrifically gruesome. All around him kids were retreating. They buffeted him in their bid to get away from the mess, but he didn't offer them a second glance. Thick, writhing arcs of electricity surged through all three of the decommissioned operatives. They cried and they jerked and twisted within their bonds. But Rachel just sat there, rigid and unrelenting, her face twisted in horrid agony. Nigel raised a hand and took the slightest step forward. He had the immediate compulsion to go to Rachel, to rip the bonds that held her to shreds and to pick her up and whisk her away to somewhere safe. The KND could hunt him and the GKND could threaten and shout of the pressing importance of the decommission all they wanted, but such torture was a travesty.

Then it was done. The lights dimmed and the machine stopped howling to hiccup the odd shower of sparks. The kid on Rachel's right was still convulsing and an offending smell told Nigel that the kid on her left had soiled himself. Rachel slumped in her chair, lifeless. The kid on the left opened his eyes and moaned. No one moved to help him.

Nigel, broken from his stupor, rushed to Rachel. She was dreadfully pale and her cheeks were shiny with tears. Her eyes were closed and her breaths were shallow. He pried the mouth guard out from between her teeth and threw it away, then he gently pressed two fingers to the side of her neck and paused. Rachel shivered under his fingertips. She looked as if in sleep, but Nigel knew she was awake. She was in terrible pain, but she was awake. She would not open her eyes and pretend to be a clueless and snobbish teen. Feigning sleep would be her coward's way out and Nigel let her take it. He undid the straps that held her in place and lifted the helmet off her head. Rachel fell forward onto Nigel's shoulder and he slipped one arm under her knees and the other one behind her back and eased her out of the chair. She was surprisingly light, either that or Nigel had become unusually strong for a boy through his work. Nigel turned and exited the chamber with Rachel in his arms and no one protested his actions. Not even Harvey, who had fled out of the room.

Nigel walked with Rachel like that all the way to his ship. It was sleek black and sporty and looked very much like a powerful performance car turned spaceship than the product of a specialized team of alien children. His's ship was designed for stealth. The interior of the ship was dark, which served to emphasize the lights at the controls and the world beyond the windshield. The boxes from Rachel's office were already stacked neatly in the back of the ship, balanced and strapped down so they wouldn't be a nuisance. Nigel set Rachel down on the built-in bed and turned to his controls. He slid into the pilot's seat and started the ship up. There was no time to lose, not even to get clearance for takeoff. Nigel pulled the controls back and shot out of the Moonbase. When he had gotten far away enough, he put the engines on glide and his ship was immediately lost among the vastness of space. Nigel let go of the controls and leaned back in his chair.

Nigel turned to check up on Rachel. She was still pale and shaking. Nigel put a hand on her forehead. "It's okay, Rachel. You're safe now."

Rachel's eyes opened, revealing peaks of brown. "Nigel?"

"We're in my ship. I'm taking you home," Nigel pulled his hand back and sat on the edge of the slender bed. "It'll be a while yet before we get there though. Think you'll be able to sit up?"

"Uugh…I feel kind of sick. That might be a bad idea."

Nigel frowned and went to the kitchenette at the back of his ship. He pulled out a large bowl and handed it to Rachel, who looked slightly green. "Here you go."

"Thanks," Rachel cradled the bowl with both hands and watched Nigel as he sat down again. She didn't move when his outer thigh touched her hip. "Thanks for everything."

"It's no problem. You know, now that you're a teen operative, there's something I should probably tell you."

"What is it?"

"Numbuh 274, Chad Dickson, he's a teen operative too." Nigel watched guiltily as Rachel sat up and gaped at him in shock, as if he'd just confessed to have a liking of broccoli.

"What? But he isn't- he decommiss- he tried to send the Moonbase into the sun!" Rachel stopped shouting and took a few deep breaths. Nigel cringed. If she wasn't sick before, then she would be now. Maybe he should have waited before revealing that little secret? Sure enough, Rachel leaned over the bowl and heaved. Nigel jumped up to get a wet towel. When she was done, she'd like to wipe her face with it, or to twist it up and whip him with it. Hopefully it'd be the first one. "Augh, how…He tried to kill you. How could you excuse that?"

"Well, I don't know the story about that, but I'm sure he had lots of reasons for doing all the other stuff. Mainly, he did it because he believed we could fix it."

Rachel traded Nigel the bowl for the wet towel and she wiped her mouth. Nigel held the bowl of sick out before him, as if it would gain sentience and attack him, and made for the toilet.

"All the same, I'm glad I don't have to see him."

"Really?" Nigel's voice came from within the toilet. He flushed down the vile contents of the bowl. "You know, he's been my fellow operative in the GKND."

"What?"

"That's why you haven't seen him lately," Nigel emerged to wash out the bowl and put it away. He peered at Rachel, who sat staring into space. "He actually wanted to come and see you many times," Nigel frowned. "But I convinced him that it wasn't the best thing to do." He left out the part where he convinced Chad to stay because he had work to do, but it didn't matter. Rachel understood that KND business came before personal business.

"Why did you come?"

"Mandatory sick leave," Nigel said. "They forced me to take some time off, so I decided to spend some of it here."

A light on the dashboard started flashing red and a small sequence of beeps sounded. "Now descending into Earth's atmosphere," a synthesized voice said. Nigel slid into the pilot's chair and took control of the ship. There was a loud roar as the ship tore through the atmosphere. The air around the ship heated up and burst into flame. The inferno licked the windshield all over and the ship rocked, but it didn't burn and Nigel was able to keep the ship under heel throughout the entire descent, slowed it down enough so that it stopped catching fire, and was able to land it gently in the McKenzies' front yard.

"Impressive," Rachel said.

"Thank you," Nigel cut the engines and opened the hull. "Let's get your stuff inside."

The McKenzies' owned a modest home. Nigel took stock of the entire house as he moved between it and the ship. It was a single story, four bedroom, two and a half bathroom house, with a lovingly tended garden. There was mail fanned out on the kitchen table and dishes, from the morning's breakfast, in the sink. The hallway closet door was ajar, revealing jackets and coats of all purposes. He knew right away when he came across Harvey's bedroom if only because it was kept in such a different manner from the rest of the house. Everything: the toys and the tools and the gadgets, was put away in its proper place and the bed was made to an alarming degree of perfection. The wood floors were bare of dirty laundry and the panels gleamed from a fresh wipe down. In fact, all the furniture was wiped down, and there was the sharp, lemony smell of cleaning products. It gave the room quite an unwelcoming vibe and it gave one the impression of a dentist's or hospital clinic. Nigel paused, the last box in his hands. Rachel emerged from within her own room, empty handed.

"Thanks, Nigel. You can leave that box there. What's wrong?"

"This is your brother's room?" the degree of neatness in the room disturbed Nigel. Of all the boys' rooms he had seen, none of them were ever cleaned in such a careful manner. Boys were supposed to horse about and leave messes behind for their parents to clean. They were supposed to be terrifically destructive for their size, which is why it made them such good operatives in the fight against adults. If something needed to be wrecked, one only had to introduce it to a boy.

There was nothing destroyed in Harvey's room and it said many disquieting things about the boy: things Nigel preferred not to give voice to. He chose instead to say: "It's so…neat."

Rachel peeked into the room and closed the door. She seemed to catch Nigel's thinly-veiled dismay because she said, "Yeah, it bothers my mom too. She doesn't complain, but it worries her."

That cinched it. One would think that an adult would be happy with such cleanliness, but if Ms. McKenzie was troubled by Harvey's habits then it really wasn't good. There was a beeping sound. Nigel looked at his wristwatch.

"Numbuh 1," it said. "If you wish to be back on time you'll have to leave now."

"I'm on my way, sir."

"My monitor tells me that your ship is still on Earth."

"I-ah," Nigel sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. "It was a figure of speech, sir. It wasn't meant to be taken literally."

"Oh! Well," the owner of the voice scoffed, embarrassed. "Well…you better get going. Over and out."

Nigel looked up at Rachel. "I'm sorry, Rachel. I've got to go."

Rachel gave a thin smile. "That's alright, I understand. You'll visit, right?"

"Of course," Nigel gave her a brief hug, then made his way out the house. "I'll see you around."

And then he was on his ship, barreling into space at speeds of hundreds of miles an hour. He pushed the engines to the limit, because not a second could be wasted in getting back to the GKND headquarters.

And not a second could be wasted in getting away from Rachel.

Guilt churned about in Nigel's stomach. It wasn't fair for him to be running away from her like this, but while he lugged boxes around at the house it dawned on him that he could be sharing Rachel's fate within a couple years. He had a taste of adult life before, when the Delightful Children aged him with that cigar, and he wasn't in a hurry to relive it all over again. The thought that he would be dumped to the side was heartbreaking to Nigel and the house, initially so cheery and welcoming, became stifling. He just had to get out before it trapped him too and his escape came from brief transmission from the headquarters. Rachel was already doomed. He didn't want to be doomed along with her.

= = = Good gravy, Nigel, it's not as if Rachel has the plague or anything. Calm the hell down. = = =

Everyone expects space to be sterile, but it isn't. When Nigel walked through the GKND base he encountered slimy, discolored trails, random machine parts, toys, and the odd discarded piece of uniform. He rounded the corner and bumped into Numbuh 74.239, the only human scientist in the entire base. Numbuh 74.239 stumbled back, but avoided falling. He looked up, his face set to yell, but when he saw Nigel he smiled instead. "Numbuh 1! Just the guy I wanted to see!"

"What is it, Numbuh 74.239? Is it about my gadgets? Do you need to tune them?"

"Oh no," Numbuh 74.239 smirked with delight. "I have something even better. Numbuh 1, I have found a way to cure your aging." Nigel stared as Numbuh 74.239 explained himself. He was expecting it to be a prank, but no, Numbuh 74.239 was serious. They had actually found a way to end his aging. Aging came from the pituitary gland, of course, and the pituitary gland could not be removed. But it could be altered. Numbuh 74.239 claimed to have found a successful and irreversible way to do this. Not even that wretched, aging cigar device could make him older. Nigel found his way to his quarters and fell in bed, dazed. The monitor on Nigel's desk sputtered and cleared to reveal a familiar face.

"274."

"Number 1," the picture was grainy, but the face was recognizable all the same. "I heard about Numbuh 74.239's breakthrough."

"It's great, isn't it?" Nigel said from his prone position. He'd never get taller, or wrinkly. His metabolism would always be as quick and nimble as his limbs. "I'll be a kid for the rest of my life."

"No! Don't do it!" Chad spoke over some background noise. "It's a bad idea."

"It's a great idea," Nigel frowned and sat up. "Are you talking to me while on a mission?"

"You can't stay a kid forever!"

Nigel fumed. It didn't matter if Chad was a GKND operative…or GTND, or whatever he was, because he was still an ignorant teenager. This was a chance of a lifetime and Chad was trying to muck it up. "Being a teenager doesn't make you better than everyone else, Chad."

"That's not what I meant."

"Sure it is. Now leave me alone."

Chad looked at Nigel reproachfully before the connection cut.

= = = "I want always to be a boy and have fun," –Peter Pan (2003) = = =

Nigel's behavior is probably breaking the hearts of some of you readers and I'd like to extend my heartfelt apologies on his behalf. It's very clear that Nigel and Rachel do have something between them (thanks to all the hints in canon) and it's so very precious and irreplaceable and that made it difficult to write this. (Read: Muthafreakin' Numbuh 74.239 and his muthafreakin' cure ruin everything forever.)

– Arty