Only as it approached the early hours of the morning did the faint buzz of the hanging lights, illuminating the kitchen of the treehouse, become audible. During the day it was always either just busy enough or just loud enough to drown it out and Numbuh 2, being the sound sleeper that he was, had never noticed that some of the bulbs needed to be replaced. But Numbuh 1 noticed it often, was noticing it now, and was inevitably bothered by it. He'd just rather keep it a secret.
It wasn't just Nigel's insomnia that drove him to this same counter every time it started to see the tiniest bit of sun. His regular sanctuary for a sleepless night was his bedroom desk, where his hand blurred through mission reports and he soaked up plans for new vehicles, weapons and defense systems. That was normal and (honestly) quite comfortable for him, and apart from his teammates nagging him about exhausting himself he saw no problems with doing it or recounting it to anyone. The kitchen behavior, on the other hand, was something he preferred to log away when he heard signs of others awake around him. It wasn't that he didn't trust his friends, it wasn't that he had anything criminal to hide; he just didn't want to talk.
He didn't want to talk about Lizzie.
Nigel repeated his usual slogan of self-advice as he eased himself onto the stool against the counter's far corner: back out gracefully. Having a girlfriend wasn't like going on a mission; that was the one thing he now understood. It wasn't as straightforward as planning an objective and seeing it through step-by-step, and he wasn't the grand strategist who got to say how it all went down. Lizzie had her strategies too, she had objectives and goals, and it was the most wonderful thing was when the plans they made by themselves fit together...but in the end, they weren't after the same thing. He wasn't what she needed. Nigel could go on about how he wasn't a person who breathed the word "surrender," but Lizzie taught him that she wasn't a mission and the end of their relationship wasn't something he could put into such objective terms. In the end, focusing too much on his work had been what tore them apart-couldn't he at least give her the respect of learning something from that? He needed to stop trying, he almost muttered to himself, sliding his elbows onto the worn wood in front of him. He needed to back out. He needed to leave her alone.
Remembering those words only brought him back to that night for a few fleeting seconds before they launched him into a twisted montage of all the times she hadn't said them. Had she even said those words to him before? Wasn't it always "I'll see you tomorrow," "Call me when you get home," "Be careful out there," "Have a good night" instead? Was it ever goodbye, that word that gave him the odd sensation that an isolated place in his chest was being twisted, that word that was like slamming a door in his face? And should it have been Nigel, in that sad voice the way he had never heard it? Shouldn't she leave him with Nigey, Nigey, smiling, laughing, fixing her hair, looking sad when he left, coming through the door looking pretty and complimenting his clothes, her silky white glove squeezing his hand as the fireworks light up the sky and he can almost close his eyes and fade into the background of the night because there is nothing left he can think of doing now that he...
The boy's whole face squeezed shut as he roughly jammed the backside of his palm against his right eye, rubbing at the stinging corner. That tear would not reach his skin; he couldn't let himself become a vulnerable subject to be targeted or pitied. He protected his team. He looked after them, and his duties didn't change just because of a personal problem. He needed to stop this.
"Numbuh 1...?" he jumped slightly in his bed, woken up by a familiar voice and the fabric of a sleeve nudging him weakly in the dark. A timid ray of light peeked through his bedroom door and he squinted sideways and upwards to meet frizzy hair framing Kuki's face. her other arm was fiercely curled around the belly of a purple bear-like animal with a toothy grin.
"Yes?" he croaked, not sure in his confusion if it was a coherent answer. He groped for his sunglasses in case he needed to get dressed for some kind of emergency, fighting past the drowsiness to rise to a sitting position.
"Um...I'm sorry for waking you up..." her whole posture was withdrawn and cautious, signaling him that he was probably the only one who knew she wasn't in bed. The fuzzy slippers protecting her feet were squirming with what looked to be nervousness. He was just about to ask if she was all right when she murmured, looking down at the floorboards: "I had a bad dream."
He blinked and thought for a few seconds, taking in the fact that she appeared about 7 years younger than she really was, shivering in the draft of the wood room with her eyes shifting to peripheral vision perhaps in an attempt to catch a monster creeping out of the shadows. As a leading operative, he accepted unexpected responsibilities. Noticing Kuki's shoulders stiffened as if flinching from an attack, he felt like this happened to be one of them.
"All right...would you feel better if you talked about it?" Nigel shifted over a few centimeters, inviting his teammate to sit on his bed. She did. "I dunno..." she didn't seem like she intended on looking him in the eye. "You were...everyone was in it...and it was scary. I have them a lot..." there was a slight break in her voice.
Nigel had enough intuition to know that what he said to her tonight mattered; there was as much courage involved in her confrontation as she displayed in the field. Logging away his operation-related concerns in a way he didn't know he could, he rose and smiled at Kuki, bare feet pointing towards the bedroom doorway. "You know what always helps me when I can't sleep?"
Those same words made Nigel jump in the kitchen, turning around to meet Kuki's form. A rainbow monkey hung down from the right sleeve of her pink nightie, her left resting on the counter. Knowing she surprised her leader left a wide smile.
"Numbuh 3! A-are you all right?" he rushed, trying to gain back a sense of vigilance, but she just kept giggling, propped her toy against the counter, and came to sit down beside him.
"Of course I'm all right, silly! I came down here to see you!" Then she leaned in closer, still smiling, but her eyes softened and her voice went gentle. "I finally decided I would. Everyone's gonna notice you're tired soon, you know."
"Er, yeah..." Nigel closely inspected the wood under his hands. She had known the whole time.
"Well then, you'd better get all sleepy!" perking up immediately, Kuki hopped from her kitchen stool and opened a cupboard, taking out plates and glasses. "And I know just the thing!"
"No, Numbuh 3, I don't need to-"
"This works every time, Numbuh 1." there was a crinkling sound as she turned, holding a blue bag of cookies. "A really good friend taught me."
"You just get as many cookies as you want..." Nigel shook the bag, letting 15 or so clatter onto the plate, "and your glass of milk." Two tall glasses already sat in front of Kuki, and she tentatively pulled the cookies toward her. "Go on," he smiled, pulling up a stool and picking up a cookie himself. "Enjoy."
Kuki bit into one, splitting a chocolate chip down the middle. A faint smile crossed her face as she tasted one of her favourite things, but she stayed hunched over and quiet. Nigel tried to stay the upbeat one. It wasn't as easy as she made it look.
"I used to have bad dreams a lot," he said, letting his cookie soften in his glass. He wasn't lying. "I hated them. It was like I was always worrying, even when I was asleep." Mentally, he kicked himself, realizing that didn't sound upbeat at all. But as he glanced across from him, Kuki looked up and seemed less shy.
"It is like worrying." She agreed, clutching the cookie until it broke in half in her hands. "It's like worrying, only it's like it's real." Crumbs started to drift to the bottom of the milk. "And then when it's over, even though you wake up, you still feel like..." she was about to dip a half in the glass but put it back on the table, squirming like she lost her appetite. "I dream like everyone is getting hurt," her voice quivered. "And I worry that it's going to happen for real."
"I just, uh...it's hard to get used to things without her." Nigel cut through the awkward silence with as low a voice as he could manage. They had sat there for a few minutes, concentrating on their food. Maybe now, concentrating on projecting the words themselves would help him forget the emotions that came attached. Kuki was already nodding though as she chewed, swallowing her mouthful of cookie and propping her head up on her elbows. Her eyes looked past the kitchen wall and she smiled in a way that said she understood. Maybe for her the thoughtful silence hadn't been uncomfortable at all.
"That sure makes sense to me! Wherever you were, there she was. I mean geez, she set up a fireworks display to get your attention!" she covered her giggling mouth with one hand. "You were asleep," she added, noticing his disbelieving face. "...but I guess that kinda makes you sad too."
Both children looked down in an awkward, complex shame. Nigel put his hand around his glass. Kuki's eyes wandered over to her toy near the door. "But you know..." she started to speak in a tone only audible if you were listening, more gentle and shy maybe than any other fellow operative had heard. "You don't have to feel alone. We might have made you feel like she was all there was, I know we made fun of you for it, and I know we might not have been very nice to her sometimes." she looked down again. So did he.
"But even though all of that's true, you're still together with us!" her head jerked up and towards him. "And even though we acted like we didn't understand how important she was, I think we know that you're really sad now. I know I do. I mean, I came down here just because I was worried," she shrugged, tilting her head in no particular direction. "People might kinda be too embarrassed to say anything, like, especially the boys. They probably feel weird because they sorta wish they had a girlfriend to break up with!" Although his eyes were still on the floor, Nigel joined Kuki's laughter in a small smirk.
"But we wanna make you feel better and like you're safe. Because that's what you do for us all the time."
As he met her gaze, her shoulders slouched in the same shape as they had that night in his room. But the fear was gone. "So don't feel alone, okay? It's not only on missions and stuff that we're a team." He opened his mouth to answer, though he wasn't sure with what, but his silence was caught by a launching hug. "NnnnnnnnnnnNNNN!" Kuki's pink sleeves warmly squeezed the back of Nigel's neck and he tried not to wince, shyly resting his hands on her back in return. She let go just as quickly, beaming at him and giving him two pats on the shoulder. "There! All better."
He smiled back.
"Do you know the hardest part about being leader?" Nigel asked, interrupting the lazy hum of the fridge. He was rotated to face his teammate. Painfully stiff and nervous, she shook her head. "What?"
"It's the worrying," he confessed, looking at her clenched fists. "I worry that I won't be able to keep my team safe. Not just because global command trusts me with the responsibility, but because it's a responsibility I have with myself, too. And the weird thing is, the worst part isn't wondering what enemies are up to or whether my attack plan is foolproof. That's scary too, but that's not the worst part. The worst part is wondering if I'm strong enough to make sure if things go wrong, I can handle it. Because I get scared and I feel weak sometimes. I get caught up in my own business, and I don't think of the team before myself. And I don't want my friends to get hurt because of that weakness. I don't want that to ever happen."
Kuki stared at him, muscles unwinding purely in surprise. Nigel may have been embarrassed that he said so much, but his face stayed collected. He knew it was necessary.
"...but..." he hastily gathered the words, but they made sense as they came. "What I've realized is that...even though I have times where I'm scared, everyone kind of turns out okay. I worry every time, but in the end you guys are resourceful and great fighters and even without me I'm sure you could get out of anything easy."
Kuki rubbed one foot against the other nervously, nodding but visibly saddened by the thought of losing her friend.
"My point is," he said quickly, struggling to keep her spirits above water, "My team-our team-can take care of themselves. And even if they couldn't, even if we feel powerless to help them, I guess the fact that we care so much is motivation enough to make sure that things turn out well. And I didn't know before, but I guess that isn't true only for leaders." They shared a weak smile. "It will be all right. We're friends, and we cover one another's weaknessess. We're all here to protect each other."
And that night, the kitchen light went out and there was sleep.