Chapter 9: Can't Hold Us

Cree, with one arm slung around Kuki's shoulders for support, gingerly lowered herself into the seat of a wheelchair. Moving from her bed to the chair was irritating the cuts under her mud-caked jeans and aggravating the purple bruises beneath her crusty sweatshirt in all the worst ways. Her broken bones had all been set, but the smaller injuries she'd suffered during her battle with the Executives were paining her more than she was willing to admit.

Hoping for distraction, she turned her attention away from her physical aches to the scurrying actions of her… allies.

Kuki caught her sideways glance and offered her an amiable smile. Cree quickly turned away.

Someone bumped her wheelchair from behind. The young adult turned her head to her right and saw Hoagie hanging her IV bag off a pole on one side of the backrest.

He met her eyes and, as he took hold of the plastic push handles behind her seat, said with a cheerful wink, "Hello, ma'am, I'll be your wheelchair pilot for the day. We're expecting light turbulence, but no need to worry, I'm a professional! I hope you've paid your chair fare, because we're next up on the runway."

The joke actually wasn't as bad as most of the others she'd heard from Hoagie, but Cree wasn't about to let him know that. She deadpanned, "Your sense of humor has gotten worse in the past three years, if that's possible."

A slightly affronted look passed over his face, and he opened his mouth to protest. However, Nigel interrupted before he got the chance. The bald boy directed them, "Numbuh 2, you and Cree are center formation. The rest of us will surround you to defend against guards."

"If there are any guards," mumbled Mushi with suspicion.

Nigel didn't give any sign that he'd heard her, and he continued, "Numbuhs 3 and 4, take left; Tommy and Numbuh 4.4, take right; Mushi, cover our rear with demolitions. I'm on point. Kids Next Do- er…" he hesitated for a brief moment, "Team, move out!"


As it turned out, there were guards present at the compound. Scary ones armed with briefcases, earpieces, laser guns, and cheap suits. Ones who had more smarts than the typical Ice Cream Man or candy pirate mook. Ones who might have been a problem if there had been more of them; however, luckily for the children, they only had to fight off a handful of men.

The half-dozen adults who attempted to subdue them were themselves quickly subdued. They met with punches, kicks, chokeholds, mustard blasts, and hot sauce beams to the face, and all were quickly taken out by youths half their age and younger. Bodies fell to the floor, unconscious or wishing that they were. Hoagie made sure to run over one who was crawling after his briefcase with Cree's wheelchair, even as the ex-Teen Ninja that occupied it complained about the jostling.

That confrontation had occurred on the second subterranean floor. The kids and teens ran into no one else on their way to the surface.

Nigel kicked open the door to the hangar bay. They all streamed down a concrete staircase, most of them hopping two or three steps at a time. Cree held onto the armrests of her chair with a pale-knuckled death grip as it bumped its way down the stairs, Hoagie barely in control behind her.

Her voice warbled and wavered with every impact of the wheels on another step, but still she yelled, "You-u-u people-e a-a-are cra-a-a-a-azy!"

When the chair at last made it to level ground, Hoagie apologized between tired huffs, "Sorry about that."

The hangar bay was dark, but the ship entry port was wide open on the far side. Through those massive openings, they could see rocky, hilly terrain and starry night sky. Moonlight glimmered like hope on the other side.

Sector V and company raced across the empty, concrete floor for that exit. Mushi deliberately fell behind the rest of them. The girl expertly took a handful of M.A.R.B.L.E.s from her pockets and flung them with all her might at the nearest support pillar.

Boom.

The tiny explosives struck true, blowing sour, mustard-flavored smoke everywhere and annihilating their target.

Groans of shifting metal and concrete echoed throughout the hangar. Mushi tossed another few M.A.R.B.L.E.s at the next steel pillar as she passed it. The resulting explosion sheared clean through the column, and the roof began to crumble.

One person made it outside. Then two. Three four five, six seven…

Eight.

Mushi was the last to escape, and, with great finality, she threw her last few M.A.R.B.L.E.s at the building before booking it after the rest of the group as fast as her legs could carry her. Behind the pigtailed girl, the hangar collapsed in on itself, taking part of the roof and walls of the main compound with it. A great cloud of dust billowed out into the air, heavily obscuring the view of anyone or anything that might have been watching the area that night.

The youngest Sanban allowed herself a small glance back at the pile of rubble that was her handiwork. A vicious smirk of satisfaction stretched across her lips and remained there as she continued running.


Hoagie wheezed and groaned with exertion as he and the rest of his friends and allies finally made it to the well-hidden recess in the side of a rock wall where they had parked the ship. Pushing a wheelchair up the side of a mountain was no easy task, and once the adrenaline had worn off, the journey had become an incredibly arduous chore.

The others began chatting and gathering at the base of the rocket as Hoagie leaned on the handles of Cree's wheelchair and caught his breath, much to the older girl's annoyance.

Unexpectedly for him, the wheelchair suddenly pitched forward, and Hoagie fell to the dry dirt with an oomph.

"Aaah!" he exclaimed, "Hey!"

Cree had rolled the chair away under the power of her one good arm. She moved quickly toward the rest of the group and steadfastly ignored Hoagie's complaints and accusations of rudeness as he trailed behind her.

Once everyone had gathered together, the alliance of eight ceased all the idle chatter that had cropped up in the aftermath and elation of the successful jailbreak. In the subsequent silence, they turned as one to look down upon the remains of the Executive compound in the basin below.

The dust kicked up by Mushi's explosions had mostly settled already. After what she had done to its supports and walls, the hangar was nothing but a messy pile of dented steel beams, wooden splinters, and chunks of concrete. The main building, however, had survived largely intact. Although its lights flickered and several broken pipes spewed water all over the place, most of the compound seemed to still be running.

There were surely more Executive mooks hidden somewhere inside the building's subterranean levels, but none of them had crawled up to the surface just yet.

Tommy frowned, "Does anyone else think that this was a little bit too easy?"

Nigel nodded and tersely agreed, "Yes, quite. Either these Executives are the sorriest excuses for supervillains who've ever come so close to defeating the Kids Next Door... or this was meant to be a trap."

"Well," interjected Wally, "If this 'ole thing was a trap, let's not stick around to spring it."

He turned around and marched back to the ship. Everyone else followed and waited as Wally pulled down the ladder. The blond boy climbed up first and opened the door for the rest of them.

There was a bit of fuss as Sector V and company figured out how to help Cree up the ladder while Joey packed her wheelchair away, but their preparations to leave were otherwise uneventful. Mushi kept watch to make sure no one would get a jump on them as they boarded the rocket, but all was quiet.

The night was warm, and crickets were chirping. It was fairly gusty in the general area, but the rock wall shielded their party from the worst of it. All in all, it would've been quite a lovely place if not for the Executive compound alarmingly nearby.

Well, if not for the Executive compound and the roaring jet engines of a C.O.O.L.B.U.S. zooming past overhead.

"What the-?!" exclaimed Hoagie in astonishment.

The bright, yellow, KND vehicle took no notice of them in their little alcove. It was descending toward the recently damaged compound in the basin below; however, upon catching sight of the ruined hangar bay, the bus altered course and landed on the grass just a little bit out of range of the compound's (probably) still-functioning cameras. The windows on the C.O.O.L.B.U.S. weren't mirrored, but at the distance away that the vehicle currently was, that made no difference in the slightest. Whoever occupied the ship would remain a mystery unless someone approached it.

Those of the group who had already entered their own ship immediately rushed back out, many of them bypassing the ladder and simply leaping to the ground. Cree did not exit the rocket, but given her injuries, that could be forgiven without difficulty.

"Who's down there?" wondered Kuki.

Wally tensely grumbled, "Somebody who's lookin' for a pounding."

Mushi retorted caustically, "We aren't picking a fight when there could be who knows how many people down there!"

"I-I don't think I wanna pick a fight…" mumbled Joey with concern.

Tommy asked no one in particular, "Do you think they're onto us?"

"Look," Hoagie pointed at the enemy vehicle, "Two guys just left the bus."

Sure enough, two adult-size figures had exited the yellow ship and stepped onto the grass. They conferred with each other for a moment before rushing off toward the rubble of the hangar bay. However many people had occupied the C.O.O.L.B.U.S, there were now two fewer.

"... Should we leave now?" Kuki questioned with uncertainty in her voice.

There was silence.

Then, finally, someone spoke.

"No," decided Nigel, "Not yet. We'll send a small team to get a closer look at that C.O.O.L.B.U.S. while the rest of us wait inside the rocket. If we decide to take action, a fast getaway may be in order shortly, so everyone needs to be ready and on guard."

They were all nodding.

Wally asked bluntly, "Who's going down there?"

Nigel answered, "Numbuh 4.4 and I."

"M-m-me?!" stuttered Joey, wide-eyed.

"Yes, you," affirmed Nigel encouragingly, "A vehicle like that bus may hold Kids Next Door operatives prisoner. If that's the case, it'll be very helpful to have someone along who's actually still in the Kids Next Door."

Joey hesitated at first, but then he quickly snapped into a rigid salute, barking, "O-okay! I m-mean, yes, sir!"

Kuki voiced concern, "Are you sure? Just the two of you?"

"We'll be just fine, Numbuh 3," Nigel confidently reassured her.

She offered her usual cheery grin in response before she became the first to climb back up the ladder and re-board the ship. Her sister followed immediately after. Joey scurried up the ladder next, stammering embarrassedly that he had to grab the G.U.M.Z.O.O.K.A. he'd left on his seat.

Hoagie stepped over a large rock and tried to make his way back toward the rocket as well, but he found himself held back by a hand on his shoulder. He turned his head to see Nigel looking at him with an even more serious expression than usual.

The bald boy pulled him aside to speak with as everyone else ascended the rungs and entered the rocket.

"Don't connect that copied hard drive to the ship's systems," Nigel gravely intoned, "There's something strange about how easy it was to obtain that information."

The sudden change of subject had him off-balance for a moment, but Hoagie quickly recovered. He responded worriedly, "But it's the only lead we have."

"Then decrypt it on a computer that we can afford to lose."

Hoagie snorted, "Hah, of course. Because those just grow on trees."

Nigel clapped him on the arm, replying blithely, "I'm sure you'll figure it out, old friend. Just make sure that everyone else knows better than to try it themselves."

"Right," nodded Hoagie with professionalism.

It was then that Nigel surreptitiously conducted a visual survey of the surrounding area. All the other people from their party were already inside the rotunda ship. Nobody else was around. He could hear Joey's voice echoing a series of apologies from somewhere within the rocket, but the younger Beetles had not yet returned outside. Nigel slid a hand into one of his pockets, and his fingers grasped the edges of a thin slip of paper. However, he hesitated to pull it out.

So many secrets to keep. So many promises made in earnest. So many reasons to break them.

Someone has to be told, Nigel thought to himself, They need to know where it is, in case I'm not here and they need it - or need help… And my team was there when we finally managed to do the deed. Hoagie, Kuki, Wally... they already knows everything - everything, except for this. Sweet Seventh Age, I wish Numbuh 5 were here.

His friend noticed his distraction.

"Numbuh 1?" Hoagie lightly prompted.

He came to a decision then.

"Here," Nigel removed his fingers from his pocket and pressed the slip of paper into the palm of Hoagie's hand. His next words were grim and solemn: "In case you do have to leave me behind."

Behind his glasses, Hoagie could only blink in surprise.

"... Okay," he eventually responded, "But that's not gonna happen, Numbuh 1."

"Haha," chuckled Nigel. He smirked, "Of course not."

Joey interrupted from the top of the ladder as he was climbing down, "Sorry, sorry, I-I'm ready now!"

"Well, what are you two waiting for?" said Hoagie warmly, "Finish this so we can get outta here."

Nigel and Joey left quickly, and Hoagie joined the others inside the relative safety of the ship.

The first thing he did after he got on board was check the L.U.N.C.H.B.O.C.K.S. next to his seat.

"Hey, whaddya know? The Moonbase scan finished... Oh... Oh, wow."


The interior of the bus was brightly lit. Whatever was outside in the dark remained a mystery.

The rope around Fanny's abdomen was starting to chafe through her jacket. She felt that she would like nothing more than to be able to stand up, but she stayed silent. It wouldn't do to show her discomfort to her captors. She would prefer putting up with her bindings over having to tolerate interacting with the three disgusting men at the front of the vehicle.

While a part of her mind could not be dissuaded from focusing on her kidnappers, another part was busy reeling from the realization that she had, indeed, been flying. On a school bus.

Her stomach had turned flips when the vehicle had begun descending and decelerating, and an icy chill had shot up her spine when the jarring impact of the bus' touchdown on Earth occurred. There was something extremely unusual and frightening about the airship - a freaking airship - she was in.

Now that she looked more closely at the bus driver's dashboard, Fanny noticed that there were far too many controls for a normal school bus. Levers made out of broken pool cues and walking canes stuck haphazardly out of the console and overhead controls in every which way. There were buttons that looked like actual buttons from a sweater, and random devices like calculators and alarm clocks were embedded next to the steering wheel by gum and duct tape. The driver himself was blocking her view of what else comprised the controls in front of him, but what she could see reminded her more of an airplane's cockpit than the controls to any bus she'd ever seen.

Fanny was disturbed and unsettled as much by the strange technology as she was by the whole 'kidnapping' situation.

When two of her captors exited the vehicle, she became tenser rather than relieved. Something was changing, and that warranted caution on her part.

The only one remaining on board with her was the driver, but he paid no attention to her, too busy speaking into a radio handset. He'd been at it for a few minutes now, explaining the same thing to several different people. "Yes, station B is a wreck, it looks like something exploded here, man. Hangar's completely gone, but the main facility seems intact…"

"..."

"They're checking it out now. I'm still on this stupid bus, guarding the target."

At that, he cast a brief glance back at Fanny, who stiffened under his gaze.

"..."

"Yes sir, awaiting orders."

Crash!

Something fast and bullet-sized crashed through the driver's window, shattering the glass. Three more projectiles struck the man in the head, causing him to fall out of his seat and into the aisle. He was slumped over, unconscious - or possibly worse.

Fanny couldn't help it. She screamed - well, tried to.

The gag in her mouth prevented the noise from being as shrill as it could have been, but her screech was admirably ear-splitting nonetheless.

One of the projectiles which had struck the driver rolled down the rubber ridges of the aisle and stopped at her shoeless foot. Fanny, astonished, stopped screaming.

A stinkin' gumball? She thought, bewildered, The hell?

Bam!

Someone's leather-shoed foot kicked open the bus' door.

A vaguely familiar boy her age entered the vehicle. Red shirt, glasses, bald - Fanny felt like she should recognize him, but her mind was barely processing what was happening around her. The world was a blur.

The boy jumped over the driver's body and rushed to her seat with a pocket knife in hand. She was too shocked react when he grabbed her zip-tied wrists and cut the plastic bindings, freeing her own hands. It took her a moment after he disappeared behind her seat to realize that he'd given her the knife and probably expected her to free her own feet next.

Reality reasserted itself, and Fanny leapt to work.

She lifted her knees to her chest to bring her feet up onto the seat. The zip-tie around her ankles was thicker than the one around her wrists had been, but the blade of the pocket knife still sufficed to cut through the white plastic.

As soon as her legs were free, Fanny set to work on the coarse rope around her stomach. However, she had barely begun when the restraint loosened of its own accord. She quickly realized that the boy who'd given her the knife must have untied her bindings on the other side of her seat.

Fanny stood and turned around to face him, tearing off the gag around her mouth as she did so. The rag which had silenced her was unceremoniously thrown to the ground. She firmly gripped the knife's handle and raised it in front of her defensively. Fanny slowly edged into the aisle and toward the back of the bus, keeping a number of seats between her and the stranger who'd untied her.

"Who the hell are you, boy?" she questioned with a suspicious glare.

He wore an expression of angry incredulity.

"Unbelievable," he exclaimed with indignation, "Fanny, it's me, Nigel Uno! We went to Gallagher Elementary together! Same class since kindergarten?"

She raised an eyebrow, tightened her hold on the knife, and replied flatly, "Not ringin' any bells, laddie."

He continued, "We're in the same world history, chemistry, and gym classes at McClintock High? I was your lab partner first semester? You know, the one who did everything while you were on your phone?"

She only continued to scowl.

Nigel crossed his arms and deadpanned, "Lizzie's ex-boyfriend from fifth grade?"

Her eyes lit up with recognition.

"Oh… Oh, yeah…!" Fanny finally lowered the blade, only to narrow her eyes and attack him with sharp words, "Ye'r that try-hard history nerd who's with Abby Lincoln's bunch! The crud is a goody-two-shoes pansy like you doin' mixed up in this?"

"... Not how I'd put it, but yes," Nigel eventually responded with an odd look on his face that quickly disappeared behind a wall of grave determination, "And I'm here rescuing you, so stop threatening me and come on!"

He brushed past her purposefully and ran to the back of the bus. He pushed open the emergency exit, leaping out of the vehicle and into the dark. Fanny, after one last glance at her unconscious kidnapper by the driver's seat, followed him.

Fanny shook a stray curl of red hair out of her face as she ran out of the bus, gladly leaving behind its stale air and metal floor in favor of a warm breeze, loose dirt, and dry grass. She tailed Nigel and a much younger boy with blond hair and an orange hoodie very closely, keeping both of them within sight while her eyes gradually adjusted to the night. What on Earth a brat half her age or less was doing here with Nigel, she had no idea, but she bit back the urge to interrogate her rescuers while they were still in the middle of the rescue itself.

The trio kept to low ground as much as they could while climbing uphill. They took an extremely roundabout path that led them through the dips between hills and onto a rocky trail.

While Fanny intellectually appreciated the fact that they were keeping out of view of anyone in the basin below, her feet were killing her for walking over any number of bumpy rocks. She supposed that she might be glad the earth was dry and her socks weren't being soaked through, but honestly, she couldn't manage to feel grateful for anything at the moment. Not when the most pressing concern on her mind was cursing out the universe for withholding from her a pair of shoes.

"Bloody hell," Fanny swore as she struggled to pull herself over a meter-high ledge, "Where are we?"

Nigel brusquely answered, "Colorado," as he offered her a hand.

She took it with a grimace and grudgingly allowed herself to be helped up.

They continued walking, and Fanny grumbled as she wiped dirt from her hands onto the lapel of her jacket, "Would've grabbed boots and jeans if I'd 'ave known I'd be going on a godforsaken hike..."

The other teen snorted, responding amusedly, "I imagine you would have grabbed a musket if you'd known you were going to be kidnapped."

"Aye," she stubbornly asserted, "I would've!"

This interaction between them was unexpectedly casual.

The child in the orange hoodie did not speak to her, but every now and then he cast a timid, backwards glance at her that was half fascination and half trepidation. After her eyes had adjusted well enough to recognize facial features under the silvery moonlight, she realized that the little boy strongly resembled another classmate of hers: a very brutish, stupid blond by the name of Wallabee Beetles.

When she asked about the relation, it was Nigel who confirmed her thoughts and introduced the kid as Joey. Either this 'Joey' didn't like her much or he was extremely shy. She couldn't quite tell which.

Once, she caught a snippet of a quiet conversation between him and Nigel.

"... Is that really Numbuh 86?"

"Yes, Joey."

"Sh-she looks a lot like her brother... "

"Mmhm, both of them."

"So then, a-are we going to…?"

"... Perhaps."

It wasn't long before they all lapsed into a tense silence; it lasted until they arrived at what was possibly the last thing Fanny would ever have expected to appear in the middle of nowhere in the Rocky Mountains.

Her eyebrows were making a decent break for her hairline when she exasperatedly exclaimed, "Ye got t' be kidding me! What basket case builds a cabin out here to look like a cruddy Victorian tower?!"

"It's not quite a cabin," responded Nigel mysteriously.

Frustrated, Fanny dismissively retorted, "Don't be daft, ye stupid boy. This place is obviously some fur-trappin' lumberjack's mountaineering cabin that just looks like… actually…" she was given brief pause as her fury gave way to bafflement, "Kinda looks like - like tha' abandoned mansion on what's-it lane back home."

She stared up at the almost-anachronistic, red-domed structure with her brow furrowed in confusion. A thoroughly lost expression completely replaced her previous anger.

Impossible. Has to be coincidence…

Fanny was snapped out of her still bewilderment when she heard Nigel call out her name. He was standing at the base of a metal ladder a few yards away. It hung down from an open doorway halfway up the side of the strangely Victorian cabin. Joey was already up at the base of the door and stepping inside.

Before he began climbing, Nigel said to her, "What are you waiting for? Come on or they'll find us!"

After he disappeared inside as well, she approached the ladder herself. Fanny grabbed its sides with both hands. The steel creaked, but it was smooth to the touch. It was also cool enough to chill her feet through her socks as she ascended the rungs with uncertainty in her eyes.

What awaited her inside the structure she did not know, but it surely had to be better than a kidnapping. Despite not knowing Nigel or his friends very well, Fanny believed quite firmly that they were good (if annoying) people. And yet, for all evidence to the contrary, Fanny somehow still had a distinct feeling that getting mixed up in a misadventure with Nigel might be far more trouble than it was worth.


Sector V was trapped.

Now a captive audience, they collectively gulped and backed up against the cold, steel grating of the barrier between them and the exit. They were as far away from their menacing foe as they could be, but it wasn't anywhere near far enough. The children raised their weapons and slid their fingers over their triggers, but they didn't dare to fire.

Father crooned with a sadistic joviality, "Look who decided to pay me a visit today. Sector V… Long time no see."

KND

Yellow eyes glared at the children from across the room. The silhouetted man to whom they belonged leaned forward, resting his chin over interlocked fingers as he propped his elbows up on his desktop. He revelled in the fear plain on the faces of the five preteens before him.

Father began speaking. At first, he kept his voice level, but as he continued, the adult rapidly lost any semblance of restraint, "You five… how dare you trespass on my property! Try to threaten me with those silly gadgets... in my own house?!"

He slammed a fist down onto the surface of his desk. Bam! The sound echoed over the crackle of flames in the fireplace behind him.

Sector V stiffened and pulled closer together. Their fingers twitched over the triggers of their weapons. Numbuh 2 gulped and grimaced uncertainly. Despite their obvious advantage in numbers, the Kids Next Door simply didn't have much of a chance against Father when they were in a confined space full of flammable books and furniture. Experience had taught these five operatives that in a situation like this, their best bet would be to keep their opponent talking or distracted until an opening appeared.

So long as they were armed, they stood a chance.

Numbuh 2 tentatively raised his hand and stammered a reply, "Uh, we can just… leave, now, if this is a, um, problem?"

"Hm," Father scratched at his chin as he feigned consideration, "How about… No."

He slapped an open palm down on the desk, and Sector V's 2x4 weapons were torn away from them by an invisible force. Even the gadgetry which had been hidden in pockets, sleeves, and shoes were ripped from their persons. S.P.L.A.N.K.E.R.s, M.U.S.K.E.T.s, S.P.I.C.E.R.s, the works - everything, even the L.O.O.P.E.R. hidden behind Numbuh 2's back, flew from the children's grasps.

The KND operatives gaped in shock, a burgeoning sense of horror weighing on their hearts as they watched their weaponry tumble across the room. The devices came to a rest on the floor, at the base of Father's desk.

"Uh-oh."

"Oh, no."

"Come on!"

"Not good, not good…"

"Hey, we need those…!"

With an ominous sound like a thousand snapping twigs, the logs in the fireplace were abruptly incinerated as the inferno blazed ten feet high and scorched part of the ceiling.

"Silence!" Father roared furiously, "Do you brats think you can just waltz into my office whenever you feel like playing hide and seek and get away with it?!"

No one dared to respond. In the immediate silence that followed his outburst, the flames behind him disappeared. The fireplace was empty but for smoke and ashes, and with no logs or attention from Father to fuel the conflagration, it simply died out. The room was plunged into a thick, burnt-smelling darkness.

"... Oh, poop," complained Father in a petulant tone that more befitted a six-year-old than a middle-aged man. He shouted out in the dark, "Hey, can one of you kids get the light switch?"

Numbuh 5 recalled spotting said light switch to the right of the door before the portcullis had fallen over that part of the wall. She reached through one of the gaps in the barrier's metal bars and fumbled around for the switch. To her memory's credit, her fingers met plastic almost exactly where she thought it should be.

The lights in the ceiling turned on and brightened the room considerably. All the eeriness which had been projected onto the setting by the flickering firelight promptly bit the dust under proper illumination. The office was still very grand and impressive with its rococo decor and showy bookcases, but the place no longer screamed 'no one will find your body' like a horror movie. It would have been a lovely room if not for the presence of the adult who occupied it.

Sector V was still blinking in surprise at the unexpected change in atmosphere when Father spoke once more.

He slouched in his chair and tetchily griped, "Okay, okay, so that one was my fault. Do you snot-nosed munchkins want a do-over, or can we just call this a day?"

The children glanced at each other with identical looks of confusion.

Behind his desk, Father pulled open a drawer and removed from it a half-empty carton of rocky road ice cream.

"Say what?" Numbuh 5 at last questioned disbelievingly.

As he removed his pipe from his mouth and set it down on the desktop, Father glared at her with annoyance, responding, "What are you, deaf? I asked if you brats want to go through with this whole charade or just leave and go back home. You gotta have something better to do than harass me all morning."

"Is this a joke?" wondered aloud Numbuh 2.

"Nope," said Father, painfully sullen.

Numbuh 4 crossed his arms, asserting, "Oh, come off it, there's just no way!"

"Says who?" the adult retorted crossly, "Your Supreme Leader? Well, she's right there, and I don't care."

All wide eyes and innocence, Numbuh 3 piped in curiously, "So… you're retiring?"

Father, still cradling his ice cream to him with one arm while rummaging through another drawer for a spoon, shrugged and replied, "Sure. Let's go with that."

Dubious, Numbuh 1 exclaimed, "That can't be it. This has to be a- a trap or a plot or- or something! What's wrong with you?"

"What's wrong with me? What's wrong with me?" Father raised an unseen eyebrow and answered with an inflection full of self-loathing, "I'm a spineless, useless, cynical loser whose life choices have revolved around making kids utterly miserable. I built up an international corporation for the express purpose of doling out punishment to an organization of sticky pests who won't remember a thing I did to them after their thirteenth birthdays. I'm a pathetic coward who's finally realized that everything he's ever done all amounts to diddly-squat! Zip! Zilch! Zero!"

When Father finished ranting, he completely deflated. The man stabbed a spoon into his ice cream and carved out a generous portion of rocky road, which he then proceeded to eat with his shoulders hunched over and his eyes half-lidded in a downright pitiful expression.

The members of Sector V looked at each other, completely baffled. None of them could find words. What exactly were you supposed to say to an archenemy suffering from a severe mid-life crisis? 'You're not useless, look at all the pain you've caused us?' 'Yeah, you really do suck, now get over it so we can have our status quo?' 'So long as you're wallowing in misery, could you do it at the Arctic Prison?'

The silence lasted for several moments.

Then, Father paused in his consumption of ice cream to give the children a scrutinizing look and complain, "I swear, you grubby little monsters break in here so often, I should just give you a key."

"Er… The Kids Next Door would appreciate that?" tried Numbuh 1 experimentally.

Somehow, this prompted another confession.

"The Kids Next Door…" Father's eyes clouded over with an emotion resembling bitterness, or maybe grief. He sighed, "I really wonder if I made the right choice, opposing the Kids Next Door. What was I doing it for? … Oh, yeah."

He laughed sadly and continued, "Ha. Haha. I'm almost fifty years old, and I've spent most of that time planning the downfall of the brats who took my family from me, even after all their faces have changed six or seven times over," he closed his eyes, "Sometimes, I think… I think Monty had the right idea. Decommissioning. Forgetting all this. It lets you grow up properly, lets you escape this crazy mess... Should've taken up that offer," he sighed once again, "... There's so much that I regret."

Listening to their worst enemy drown in rue and nostalgia was awkward for Sector V, to say the least. If not for years of struggle and conflict between the two parties, they might have felt sorry for him. As things were, the children neither pitied Father nor held much in the way of sympathy for him. There was simply far too much history between these five KND operatives and Benedict Uno for anything short of decommissioning to change the nature of their relationship, and that, perhaps, was the reason why he had opened up to them.

An idea was beginning to form in Numbuh 1's head. It was a risky, reckless, outrageous idea, but it was an idea to which he was already committing himself.

With only the slightest hesitation, Sector V's leader asked, "Do you regret delightfulizing Sector Z?"

The drop of a pin would have been as loud as a clap of thunder in the silence that followed that question.

Numbuh 1's teammates could only stare at him in horror as they registered what he had said.

Numbuh 5's thoughts were whirling in shock: What in the name o' the Book of KND does Numbuh 1 think he's doing?

Their hearts climbed into their throats when Father answered.

His words were hushed and emotionless, a quiet statement of fact.

He whispered, "Yes. I do. More than anything else."

Fears were somewhat allayed, and the opportunity before them was seized.

"Then I think you should know," Numbuh 1 continued at a brisk pace, "That we're here to capture Sector Z for a long overdue decommissioning. It will cure their permanent delightfulization. It will restore their normal aging process and wipe them of all memory of both their time as part of the Kids Next Door and as the Delightful Children From Down The Lane... All we need to know is where they are."

Father put away the ice cream, mumbling to himself, "So it really is hide and seek, then…"

He leaned back in his chair and pressed his fingers together in thought, very carefully considering everything he had been told.

After what felt like an eternity to Sector V, the adult responded, "I'll do it. I'll tell you where my Delightful Children are, but I want a promise out of you."

The KND operatives stiffened in apprehension.

Father spoke darkly and firmly in a way that left no room for negotiation, "I demand to know what happens to them. After it's all said and done - or tomorrow morning, whichever comes first - at least one of you brats is going to come back and tell me everything I want to know about the condition of my children. Do we have an agreement?"

The members of Sector V met each other's eyes, and, one by one, they all nodded.

Numbuh 1 looked back at Father and spoke on behalf of his team, "I believe we do."

Father seemed to smile with his eyes, and in that moment, the promise they were making, in many ways, felt exactly like a deal with the devil.

Suddenly, Sector V's attention was stolen by the pile of 2x4 weapons at the base of the desk when it slid across the floor and stopped just a few feet in front of them. They glanced back up at Father.

Numbuh 2 pointed and exclaimed, "Hey! That's ours too!"

In his hands, the adult held the prototype L.O.O.P.E.R. tauntingly. The KND operatives tensed.

"Is it?" Father asked insincerely, suddenly all cunning and guile, "But I haven't seen one of these before. It looks new. Oh, well, it's insurance now."

Numbuh 5 protested, "This wasn't a part of the deal!"

"Tough luck," replied Father, "I'm just being pragmatic. If you want this thing back, follow through on your side," he set the device down on his desk before continuing with a growl, "As for my end of the agreement: my Delightful Children are in the basement. The access code is 1996Z. Now take your toys with you and get out of here."


Author's Note: Sure took me awhile to get this one done. Apologies, everyone! ^^ Anywho, please leave a review if you enjoyed this chapter, and Happy New Year to all!