Age is Just a Numbuh

by lightning-bird

A/N: This came about because I didn't want to face the idea of Sector V being decommissioned once the Fusion Invasion was stopped. Since they're loyal operatives I can see them submitting to decommissioning, but I can also see their non-KND friends taking up the torch on their behalf.

This was supposed to be a one-shot. I failed.

All the characters belong to Cartoon Network and their respective creators except for Chip Morton, who belongs to Irwin Allen and 20th Century Fox.

OoOoOoOoOoOoO

Part One: Fine Thanks

". . . with deepest regret, I must order the Sector V command crew to report to headquarters for decommissioning on Saturday, August 31st." There was a pause, and then Fifty-Two quietly added, "I'm sorry, Nigel."

Silence followed as the five teens who were Kids through and through tried to absorb this grim news. Disbelief was written across their faces and they stared at the screen in shock. Decommissioned? After years of fighting a war, a real war where people had been killed and wounded and cities had been leveled and the Great Lakes poisoned and towns had been reduced to sludge? After countless missions and endless hardship? After watching friends die and facing alien invaders against hopeless odds? Decommissioned? This was their reward for helping to win the Fusion War? Their memories of serving in the Kids Next Door – loyal, dedicated, unwavering service - would be wiped clean and they'd be cast into the realm of teenagers? Everything they had done, the people they had known, the adventures they'd shared – would this all be taken from them?

"On behalf of Sector V, I must protest!" Nigel Uno exclaimed, finding his voice. He stepped forward, his hands balled into fists. "Number Fifty-Two, this is wrong and you know it!"

The young boy facing them on the screen dropped his gaze, unable to look them in the eye as he delivered his devastating message. "Number One, I understand that you're upset. I don't blame you. I would be, too, and I'm sure I will be when my turn comes. But you knew the rules when you signed up, and it's because of the Fusion invasion that the KND extended membership for all of you. You're sixteen. You're not Kids any more."

"Numbuh Five begs to differ," Abby challenged with savage intensity. She leaned in toward the screen, her expression dangerous enough to make Fifty-Two pull away from the comm unit even though he was a sector away. "Age is just a numbuh."

"What she said," Wally growled, though clearly he had no idea of what he was agreeing to. He managed to sum up their reaction quite neatly, though, as he snapped, "We gave everything. What, now you're just gonna take everything?"

Number Fifty-Two sighed. "I'm sorry," he repeated, plainly meaning it. "But these are the rules, and you all joined the KND knowing this would happen some day, and you all agreed to submit to decommissioning when your time came. You guys got four more years than anyone else. Be glad."

Plainly anxious to get away, he ended the transmission. Sector V's command team sat together in their tree house and stared at the dark screen. For the longest time no one spoke or moved, and then Wally folded his arms with a loud huff.

"Right, well, this stinks!"

Number Three seemed to wilt, gazing with anxious eyes at her friends. "What are we going to do? I don't want to forget."

Nigel placed his hand on her arm. "No matter what, we'll all still be friends, Kuki."

"You sound like somebody that just gave up, Nigel," Number Five snapped.

"Yeah!" Number Two exclaimed, as shocked at Number One's conduct as at the notion that they were to be decommissioned from the organization they had served well above and beyond the call of duty. He paced the floor, waving his hands in frustration. "This is fine thanks!"

The sector leader sighed. "I hate to say it, especially to all of you, but Fifty-Two is right. This is what we agreed to, what we promised to submit to. If they make an exception for us, they have to make it for everyone."

Abby shook her head, not buying it, and she was hurt beyond words that Number One was right. "But they already made an exception for us."

OoOoOoOoOoOoO

"This bites, Dex."

Dexter sat up straight and then cautiously leaned over a bit to look at the sample of Fusion Matter he'd just placed in the viewscope of the microscope he was using. He stared at it suspiciously, waiting for it to do something, but it was just as inert as it had been when Billy had collected it for him yesterday. No teeth. No biting. Not even any gnashing or gnawing. Nothing at all. Thanks to Professor Utonium's counter-virus, all Fusion Matter on the planet was, for all intents and purposes, dead. Realizing his best friend must mean something else entirely, the Boy Genius cautiously asked, "What bites, Ben?"

"You didn't hear?" Ben's feet slid off Dexter's equipment-strewn work bench and he sat up straight to give vent to his anger. And he was angry, Dexter realized. It was a rare state for Ben Tennyson and usually reserved for things he felt were unjust or plain wrong. "Where have you been, kiddo?"

"Where am I ever, Mr. Tennyson?"

He was here, in his lab, working to defeat Fuse. Now that the job was done, he might actually start living in the real world - provided he could figure out how to go about that order.

"You gotta get out more," was the older boy's sage advice.

Dexter smiled faintly. "Maybe now I can."

Ben snorted in disbelief. "This I gotta see."

"You will," promised the redhead. "So what bites? We defeated Fuse. The monsters and mechs are gone and all we have to deal with now are EVOs and aliens. Our Fusion copies are reduced to nasty, smelly slag. The Infected Zones are all recovering. There are no more sea monsters in the Great Lakes. The Plumbers have contracted with the Highbreed to use their dimensional gate technology to remove most of Planet Fusion's remains and restore a moon in orbit around this planet. Soon, we'll have tides again. Mandark finally asked DeeDee out. My lease with Mandy ends next month and I'll have earned a whole dollar. Mr. Smoothy is re-opening next Friday and I'm buying. I swear, I'll have money on me. What could possibly be wrong in the world?"

Despite his ire, Ben smiled to hear his best friend list the many successes made by Earth's Combined Forces. It was only a small fragment of what they had achieved, but even then his news was pretty depressing stuff. Leaning his elbows on his knees, he looked Dexter in the eye and quietly said,

"The KND is decommissioning Sector V's whole command team."

Dexter frowned. He was ignorant of the finer points of decommissioning, though he could tell by the older teen's body language and tone that this was not good. "What does that mean, exactly?"

"It means that our friends have to walk into the KND headquarters on Saturday and have their memories wiped clean of everything they've done for the Kids Next Door all the way back to the day they joined."

He felt his jaw drop in horror. "Everything?" he echoed, a chill running through him. Few things frightened him more than the thought of losing anything he had learned. "Ben, they fought a war! They've been at it for years, just as we have! They would take that away from them? Why?"

"By KND rules, they're too old."

"So Nigel . . . he won't remember being my friend? And Wally – he'll forget everything he did for my dad?"

Ben nodded, the enormity of what his friends stood to lose robbing him of speech.

Not Dexter. Fury consumed him as he stood up to his full and very unimpressive height. He pointed imperiously, his heavily accented voice rising up in indignation. "That is sickening! Unacceptable! Insufferable! How dare the KND rob their memories when they should be applauding them as the heroes they are! We owe them better than that. They saved you! They saved me! They saved my father." He shook his head, incredulous. "Why would they do this?"

"Maybe . . . maybe because they're living proof that teens and adults aren't the enemy."

"It's wrong."

Happy to get such a reaction, the Wielder of the Omnitrix nodded his support for whatever plan of action Dexter proposed no matter how far-fetched or stupid it might be. Something had to be done – but what? "I'm right there with ya on the whole pissed off thing, Dex, but there's not a lot anyone can do."

Blue eyes narrowed sharply behind tinted glasses as the smartest, richest boy in the world demanded, "Says who?"

OoOoOoOoOoOoO

"Idiots!"

"Told you you were wasting your breath, Einstein," droned Mandy, not looking up from her paperwork.

Dexter's spine stiffened and he clenched his hands into fists, his anger compounding mathematically as he glared at the now silent comm unit in Mandy's office. He had just had a long and fruitless argument with a lisping KND paper-pusher who probably had never seen a moment of combat and who rambled on about regulations and oaths. Dexter promised himself he was going to have his super computer Computress crash the entire KND network if they dared go forward and decommission his friends.

"I had the exact same argument with the exact same idiots and got the exact same answers," Mandy went on, managing to read and talk at the same time. "I don't like it any more than you do, but the KND are an independent organization and Sector V has to follow their rules."

The young girl that had guided them successfully (and ruthlessly) through the entire Fusion Invasion looked up from her endless work. She glanced at Ben where he sat on the edge of her desk, then at Dexter where he stood just seconds away from bursting into flames.

"I'm all for breaking rules when it suits my purpose," she admitted. "But you're not going to get results this way."

Dexter stiffened even further, turning a haughty glare at her. He said nothing, waiting for her to continue. In the past Mandy had proven she was better at understanding people than Dexter could ever hope to be. Mandy ignored the attitude and addressed the genius.

"You're barking up the wrong tree, Dexter. It's not the KND that need to change their attitudes, it's Sector V."

"They don't want this to happen any more than we do, Mandy!" Ben answered.

She shrugged, going back to work. "Question is, do they not want it enough to do something about it? Now get out of my office while it's still mine."

OoOoOoOoOoOoO

Nigel wrapped his hands around the cup of steaming cocoa, remembering fondly how he and Dexter had shared cocoa and conversation that day four years ago when he'd finally worked up the nerve to address the young scientist. It seemed odd that come tomorrow morning, the memory would be gone. Once he was through with being decommissioned, only Dexter would be able to recall the conversation . . . and this one as well. He could count on one hand the times he'd spent with Dexter, yet this boy's presence had been felt by every person fighting the Fusions. He was such a part of the war that Nigel knew come tomorrow, he would not know him any more. Dexter's constant aura was as great a loss as the memory of his adventures with his team. It was a very . . . sad feeling, and he tried to accept the inevitable as he looked at the teen sitting opposite him.

"I appreciate your stance, Dexter. As horrible as it sounds to you – as horrible as it is – we all agreed to abide by this rule when we joined the Kids Next Door. We're fortunate to have had the extra time that we were given."

"The KND are fortunate you agreed to stay on," countered Dexter, pouring more cocoa without bothering to find out if Nigel wanted some.

"It was easy to agree to the KND terms when I was little. Thirteen seemed forever away. I don't think I ever really believed this day would come."

"It still hasn't. Don't they value the bonds and contacts you've formed? The Plumbers, Providence - do they actually think DexLabs will continue supporting them if they do this?"

"I would hope you do," the leader of Sector V said, trying to be reasonable. "Dexter, the war is over. It's done. We won. Now our part is finished and it's time to get on with living."

"Living?" scoffed the redhead. "When you don't remember everything you've done to make living possible? We win, but Sector V loses. What about my father? Is he just supposed to abandon his friendship with Number Four? What about me? Ben? Those Ed people? Do you expect us to simply forget you as you'll forget us?"

"We can still be friends."

"Can we? You won't know me or Ben or Mandy any more than we'll know you. You won't be the Nigel Uno we know and value. You won't believe our stories. You won't know yourself. Can you honestly say that's what you want?"

He closed his eyes so he did not have to look at the fierce intensity that was Dexter. The depth of what he and his fellows had to lose was almost overwhelming. He drew a deep breath, trying to collect himself, promising himself he would not break down in front of the boy that had financed almost the entirety of this war. He owed Dexter that much, at least. It was a long few moments before he trusted himself enough to answer.

"I would be lying if I said yes."

"Can you speak for your team?" was the instantaneous question.

Number One stared over his sunglasses, a wild, desperate, crazy hope rising in his chest as he caught the determined gleam in Dexter's eyes. He leaned far forward, his voice dropping to a tight whisper. "What do you have in mind?"

"Come with me. I'll show you."

OoOoOoOoOoOoO

They were seated together outside the Burger Shack by the Downtown Mall, nursing watery sodas and trying very hard not to be miserable as they talked about capturing Albedo at this very eatery. They knew they would be up all night, clinging to the last moments that defined them as some of the greatest fighters earth had ever known. Other KND - so young, they seemed! - and ECF soldiers partied on around them, ecstatic that the war was over.

"Yay for us," muttered Wally crossly. "Why do I feel like we lost?"

Hoagie leaned heavily on his hand. "I feel used."

"Numbah Five knows whatcha mean," Abby added, looking with disapproval into her almost-empty cup.

Kuki dug for any sort of comfort. "At least we'll all still be friends."

"I think we'll really need friends after this," grumbled Number Two, slumping further down. "I -"

They all jumped as Nigel's voice, as crisp and no-nonsense as ever, came over their communicators. "Sector V command team, this is Number One. Respond."

"Do not tell Numbah Five we are going on a mission now," groused Abby.

Number Three bit her lip, then quietly said, "I'd take a mission."

"And drag it out forever," added Wally.

"This is Number Two. Go ahead, Number One," Hoagie replied, not even bothering to infuse any enthusiasm into his voice.

"Report to DexLabs Security immediately," ordered Nigel. "Sgt. Morton will meet you."

Resisting the urge to sigh, hoping this wasn't some last-ditch party or attempt to cheer them up, Hoagie stood. "Come on, guys. At least we'll get to say goodby to Mr. Morton while we still know he was one of us."

Abby glanced at her watch. "The Sarge ain't usually on duty this late."

"Maybe Dexter tried to go outside," the second in command replied. He would miss clashing with Dexter's security chief and that distinct, angry tone of voice he used when he shouted "Gilligan!" every time Hoagie tried to dismantle something that was listed as DexTech.

"Bet he wasn't much happier about decommissioning than us," observed Number Four.

It wasn't very far to DexLabs, and they walked the distance in silence. DexLabs Headquarters loomed large and gleaming before them. The quad before the building was jammed with children celebrating their victory - dancing, cheering, and doing everything in their power to annoy Mandark over in his corporate headquarters across the street. They had good reason to be happy, and Sector V looked at them with envy.

"Man, that should be us," complained Number Five, unable to contain her frustration.

They dodged a KND news crew that chased them all the way to the entrance of the building. The news team slid to a halt when they saw Sgt. Chip Morton looming tall and blond and heavily armed and glaring at them from just inside the foyer. They weren't troubled by the hard look - Morton was an equal opportunity glarer and gave the narrow-eyed stare to anyone that got too close to the building. His presence did stop them cold, though, because their equipment wasn't allowed in the building. If they tried to get in, Morton would just chuck the Kids out and make their parents come get the news cameras. Not even an interview with Sector V was worth that indignity.

For a long moment Morton looked at their downcast expressions, not wondering at the uncharacteristic silence from the valiant team. Almost thirty years ago, he had joined the KND in Sector T, serving exceptionally well and with great loyalty. Yet Morton remembered nothing of the years spent battling adult tyranny. The adventures, the fun, the camaraderie, the drama had all been wiped clean during decommissioning. He had only found out about his service through some ill-timed comments made by some starstruck KND recruits. At least he finally understood why so many Kids looked at him with such awe and asked him to give them a noogie and why he had a fan club - KND Operative 126's service was, Morton had discovered, the stuff of legend even all these years later.

"I heard," he said without preamble, as direct as ever.

His sympathy just seemed to drive their misery home. Here was someone who had followed KND protocol to the letter and walked into headquarters a hero, his head held high, and walked out a teenager and sworn enemy of the Kids Next Door. The example Morton had set made their own reluctance to go through with this all the more painful.

"I also don't agree with your commanders."

They looked up sharply, all of them surprised. Morton had been a career Navy officer and reservist at NIMR and a known stickler for following orders. He frowned at their reaction.

"Decommissioning you is pointless and a gross disservice. The world knows about the KND now. There's no going back."

"Like trying to sweep up the tide," muttered Wally, scuffing his feet on the floor.

"We get the reasoning behind it, but . . ." Hoagie threw his hands up, unable to finish.

"Understanding something doesn't make it right," said Morton, sounding exactly like Mr. Green for a moment.

"Hey, Sarge," Number Five said, giving him an assessing look and for the first time addressing him as a peer, a fellow Kid. "If you had a choice, would you have gone through with it? Would you have been decommissioned?"

"Of course not," he said immediately. "Who would want to forget? I went to the moon when I was eleven years old. The moon! I walked across the surface of another planet and I wasn't allowed to keep that." His face was filled with bitterness about something he could not recall, and he shook his head in disgust. "You guys may be teenagers, but you're still Kids and you'll be Kids when you're my age."

"Thanks, Sarge," Abby said softly, meaning it. With a glance at her friends and a sigh she got down to business. "Any idea where Numbah One is?"

"Yes. I'm to escort you to him." He looked over at Number Two. "You're going to love this, Gilligan, but if you get out of my sight you're spending your last night as a KND in the brig. Come on."

A slow, hopeful grin spread across Hoagie's face. "Where are we going, Mr. Morton?"

The blond gestured toward the elevator and gave them a rare smile. "Dexter's laboratory."