A screech of tires. The chugging of the unleaded petrol engine. The sound of Buttercup's frustrated growls as the vehicle came to a stop.
"I thought you said you were getting those fixed!" she glowered, folding her arms. Why did they have to ride in the car, anyway? It's not like flying to and from school was strenuous! The Professor had decided to take measures into his own hands today, however. He didn't want any energy wasted on behalf of the girls whatsoever, especially considering that in about 8 hours a spaceship would arrive in orbit carrying a foe that demanded every bit of their resilience to topple. Buttercup was surprised at the Professor's optimism given that she was still sticking to her belief that the fight could easily not go in their favour. Apparently the ticket to success was in the avoidance of doing anything superhero-like, which is exactly what annoyed Buttercup. She wanted to fly! Instead she was strapped to the back seat of the family sedan, an old white car that looked like it hadn't seen a garage in 15 years. That wasn't to say it didn't work. It just LOOKED old. It was the Professor's pride and joy, bought after his previous automobile project (codename K.A.R.R.) was rather... effectively cancelled. Buttercup was ashamed. Not only was she stuck in a car that looked like it belonged in Happy Days, but she downright hated seatbelts. Nobody was allowed to restrain Buttercup. NOBODY!
"It's on my list of things to do, right after nano-proofing your pinafores and pruning the front garden." the Professor sighed, realising his commitments were mounting. The screeching brakes could wake the dead, even he knew that. Buttercup was embarassed that she had to be stuck inside this rust bucket and not inside a hooned-up roadster or street racing car. She'd HAPPILY wear a seatbelt in one of those. Chicks dig muscle cars, it seemed. Buttercup was heavy on the digging right now. She folded her arms, sitting by the right hand side door, the seat sash firmly strapped across her chest. Bubbles was in between herself and Blossom and was looking around curiously, particularly at the house they had stopped outside of. What was the Professor doing here? School started in less than 20 minutes, and it always paid to be early. It was only a few blocks away, besides. Why stop here of all places? Why not drop them off and come back to chat to whoever it was that the Professor had screeched to a halt to say hello to. Buttercup glared out the window, finally.
What lay beyond was nothing more than a normal-looking suburban home with normal-looking sandstone tiles on the roof and a normal-looking garden out the front, which was currently being tended to by a normal-looking woman with orange-red hair that curled on the fringe and was short and curly upon her nape. For some reason she was wearing an apron and a pair of yellow rubber gloves as she knelt amongst what appeared to be hydrangea flowers with a pair of secateurs. As the brakes of the car screeched into the morning air as the engine's ageing pistons tried to keep churning, the woman looked up. Her eyes were blue like the sky, which seemed to go strikingly with her fire-red hair. Buttercup blinked in surprise. She believed that she had seen that sort of colour combination before. A smile came to her face, and Buttercup could not tell what that meant. Was the woman EXPECTING the Professor? Or did they previously know each other? Buttercup knew that the Professor had been writing down a woman's on paper every now and then and left the around the place, including on the kitchen table, in his journal and on his personal organiser. Could this woman be the mysterious 'Kira' he kept mentioning? Then again, what if she was expecting him? The problem with early bedtimes that were compulsory for the children of the Utonium family was that they didn't know of any last-minute arrangements made by the Professor before he went to bed almost two hours later. Buttercup hated being uninformed. A lot of people confused that with being stupid. Buttercup hated being called stupid.
The woman, smiling, sat her secateurs down next to a dirt-covered garden trowel, stood up and in a dainty fashion, dusted off her apron which, surprisingly, didn't have any dirt on it whatsoever. Then she made her way toward the car, her hands clasped in front of her politely.
"Oh great," murmured Buttercup, "here comes the anime maid..."
"Oh shut up..." Bubbles mumbled, not in the mood for Buttercup's 'humour'.
The lady spoke in a gentle voice, her accent nothing special other than it seemed to be Minnesotan. Kira didn't sound like an American name anyway. Perhaps this wasn't Mystery Woman #1 at all. "Why, hello there, it's good to see you at last!"
The Professor smiled, the window on the right hand side of the car wound down so he could communicate, "It's gratifying to meet you too, Mrs.... I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name last night..." Utonium sounded sheepish. He was never too good with ladies. Buttercup's eyes widened. So there HAD been a secret over the phone meeting last night behind their backs! She knew it! CONSPIRACY!
The lady grinned, tilting her head and beaming, "Debra. Debra Burchill. Sorry about last night, I was in a rush. So many things to clean." she giggled. Buttercup scoffed. This woman was a ditz. She noticed that the woman was walking on her tip-toes. That was unusual to say the least. The emerald puff sighed. Why'd she have to sit in this seat today?
"Is he ready?" The Professor asked. All three girls listened intently. Who was 'he'?
"He'll be out in a moment. Probably receiving some words of advice from his father, you know how it is..."
"Happened to me all the time." The Professor admitted.
"And they say I'M obsessive!" the woman, Debra, simpered. "Well when it comes to certain things, I suppose a bit of a father/son chat is important. After all, he's blessed to have three such wonderful friends!" her face lit up as she glanced into the back of the car as though just noticing the other occupants. Buttercup turned away. "Oh, mercy me! Are these your girls, Adric? They're lovely!" Blossom and Bubbles grinned. Buttercup harrumphed, her arms folded. Blossom thought she had seen this woman somewhere before.
"Thankyou!" chimed Blossom and Bubbles.
"I know he'll get along just fine. Everything's ready for the sleepover?"
The Professor nodded, "Yes, everything. All he needs is a change of clothes and pyjamas." The Professor nodded. The girls gasped. A sleepover? They had no idea! And it was a BOY!? Even with what was supposed to be happening tonight? Was the Professor INSANE?!
"That's wonderful! He has two clean pairs, just in case." the lady chirped. She reached into a side pocket and pulled out what looked like some sort of list written on paper, "Now, I've made a summary of all his possible allergies and intolerances. Please take extra good care of my boy, he's really so frail underneath his calm exterior."
Utonium accepted the paper and read it over. His eyes widened slightly. That was a LOT of 'possible' allergies. He was beginning to suspect that, with the apron, the gloves and this excessive list, this woman was a typical paranoid mysophobe. What was this? 'Afraid of cooties'? Did this woman even know that there was no such thing? Well, if it kept the boy in good health, then the Professor presumed that it wasn't doing any harm. "Well, thanks again for letting us care for him today. I am sure he will enjoy his time with us."
"He'll have his own bed, right?" Debra asked, looking concerned, "He won't... need to share?"
The Professor chuckled, "Oh trust me, I'll have everything set up for him by the time he comes home. I hope he is ready, though. We need to get to the school before the morning bell goes..."
Debra turned her head and murmured, "Well, he shouldn't be taking too much longe- Ah! Here he is!" she beamed, the front door to the house swinging open and the newcomer stepping onto the garden path that was lined with the flowers that his mother worked so hard to take care of. From the back seat of the car, a collective gasp arose. The boy walked up to the car, clutching the straps of his schoolbag smartly just as his mother opened the car's passenger-side door for him to enter. His glasses shone in the morning sunlight, framing his azure eyes which sparkled the same blue as the sky above. His red hair was neatly combed and curled. He wore his typical long labcoat with indigo gloves and knee-high working boots. "Dexter, sweetie, have a good time with the Utoniums, ok?"
Dexter glanced at Blossom, who was giving him a most peculiar stare, "I shall."
"C'mon Dexter. We need to get a move on. Thanks again, Mrs Burchill."
"No problem! Don't forget to change your underwear and go to the toilet before going to bed, Dexter!" his mother reminded.
The girls shared a worried glance amongst each other. What was the Professor doing? Was there some sort of unknown collaboration going on that the girls had failed to become aware of? Often the Professor would conduct his business behind their backs, usually with the intent of surprising them. Girls loved surprises, after all. However this was more of a welcome shock than a mild surprise. Yes, it was good that Dexter was allowed over, and certainly Blossom was the most thrilled of the three, but it was no time to be bunking at their place! Barasia was only a few hours away! The Professor had better explain himself! Dexter sat the schoolbag in his lap and buckled himself in the front seat, next to the Professor. He seemed almost embarrassed that his mother doted him the way she did. "Take care of yourself, ok?" she pleaded. Blossom knew why she was acting that way. No mother would want to put their child in a position where harm could come to them. Dexter shut the door behind him after a convincing nod to her. He wound down the window and his mother gave him a kiss on the cheek. Dexter continued his silence, his mind hard at work.
The Professor glanced at the car's clock, fortunately one of the few devices in this car keeping with the times, because it happened to be digital. He shook his head, "Alright, we'd better go. Thanks again!" Debra smiled and waved, a bit too airheaded for Buttercup's liking but Bubbles didn't mind her at all. Blossom was still staring at Dexter. The car's brakes released and the engine gave a gravelly surge as the vehicle lurched forward and away from the sidewalk. Buttercup hissed, the entire car getting on her nerves. Dexter, realising something, poked his head out the window and called out to his mother before he slipped out of her earshot, "Mom, if the world gets bombarded by an orbital salvo or the sun goes supernova while I'm gone, it wasn't my fault this time!"
"That's great, sweetie!" his mother called, waving back to him, "Have fun!"
Dexter flopped back into the chair, his head rolling against the old wooly seat-protectors and messing it up slightly. He sighed, relieved that that didn't go any worse than it did. His mother embarrassed him frequently, but thankfully she had held back on her unnecessary lectures about germs, hygiene and other matters of personal health and safety, this time. And to think, his scientific genes came from HER! His father was smart in his own right, but the real genius was from his mother's side of the family. Still, he supposed that what she was doing now was better than doing what Marie Curie did...
"Managed to convince her over the phone last night. She's very sweet." the Professor chipped in.
"She didn't suspect anything at the time?"
"Good." Dexter closed his eyes, feeling tired. He had downloaded a lot of information from his laboratory computer last night and brought it home for reading on his much smaller personal computer in his bedroom. He hadn't even gotten through half of Bell's stored files when he noticed that it was past midnight. Sleep was important to him, and to lose sleep meant to lose focus the next day. Today was all about focus. Without it, he'd not be able to do what he was intending to do tonight. And that was, hopefully, save the planet. "If ever you need to cover your tracks, always come up with a sleepover..."
Buttercup, arms still folded and now further annoyed that she didn't get the front seat when the four-eyes instead had, growled, "Mind telling us why the heck you're in our car and planning to stay in our house tonight!?" she demanded. The Professor grit his teeth but said nothing. He knew not to admonish Buttercup about her choice of language when not in a completely public forum, because it only ever lead to her shooting her mouth off more.
The Professor was the one to answer Buttercup's question, however. He raised out his hand and gestured to Dexter as though presenting some sort of grand prize on a gameshow. He kept his eyes firmly on the road as he announced to the girls, "Dexter is my new partner in crime, so to speak."
All three girls responded with a dumbfounded "Whaaaa?"
"Well, we're both men of science, and he's a family friend after all. Who better to help us take care of Bell and deal with Barasia? And... it's no secret that you like him, Blossom." Hearing this, Blossom's cheeks went as red as the bow atop her head. Dexter, too, went red and glanced out the window, knowing Buttercup was probably uttering some sort of rude jeer beneath her breath at him for trying to 'corrupt' her sister. Dexter's cheek was still a rich pink from the slap he had received yesterday, but the pain had died away overnight. And, yes, he still believed that the slap had been worth it. "The sleepover was a cover-up for the fact that Dexter will need to be in his lab tonight for this little... confrontation. His parents would be suspicious if he didn't come home on time."
"Professor, you don't sound serious about this whole Barasia thing." Buttercup muttered.
"Buttercup, nothing against you or anything, but you should be happy that he is this way about it." Dexter muttered. He half-expected Buttercup's fist to punch right through the seat and impale him through his back, but thankfully she kept her hands to herself, "Nobody on Earth except us knows about it. If others did, there'd be hysteria just like back when War of the Worlds was broadcast. It's simply better if people didn't know about it, or assumed that it'll all be fine in the end if they did."
"Have you any idea how STUPID that sounds!?" barked an irritated Buttercup. She would not put up with having to share the car with Mr Bookworm.
Dexter glared forward, imagining pointing a sound-nullifying device at Buttercup's big gob and watching her scream her lungs out without a sound, "Have any BETTER suggestions?" He grit his teeth, knowing that taking the car trip to school was a bad idea. But there was no real other way to convince his mother and allow her and the Professor to meet. When Buttercup stuttered a few useless syllables and fell silent, Dexter smirked. Again, logic had prevailed. It didn't matter how stupid it sounded. Nothing was stupid if it alone was the best option. He looked up at the sky, which was almost cloudless. Today would be slightly cold. The girls looked good in their pinafores. A large cloudmass would sweep in later today according to the forecasts. It'd be right overhead when Barasia was scheduled to arrive. His scans of the Dominatrix's shielding system were inconclusive but he did notice that it was barren of all external weapons. All of them except, of course, the enormous forward-mounted Diamondback. He hated to think about what one round from that thing could do to Earth and it's population. Witnessing one of those falling to the surface would probably make the Heaven's Dazzler meteor (Bell) look like an ember from a dying fire...
The next person to talk was not the hot-headed Buttercup but instead the mild and up-until-now mostly silent Bubbles, "Dexter... can I ask you a question?"
"Sure." Dexter muttered as he opened his schoolbag to double-check he was carrying all the necessary books.
"Your last name is Burchill, right?"
"Why are you called Dexter Genndakovsky at school, then?"
Dexter looked up. He had wondered if this question would surface eventually. "Could you tell where my mother was from?"
"Yeah. Where she was born."
Buttercup glowered, "She sounded sorta northern to me. But not really, no." Bubbles shook her head and maintained her silence.
"Genndakovsky is her maiden name. She mightn't sound like it but she was actually born in eastern Europe. She came to America when she was very young and learnt the language here when she began school. See how I have her eyes and her hair? I also happen to have some of her genetics. I get my intelligence from her side of the family. The only difference there is that she chose to use her own knowledge to become obsessive about hygiene. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose. Dad's a smart guy too, I guess, but apart from his uncle that I mentioned to you, Blossom, there weren't very many intellects on his side. He's just a handyman, really. When my mother got married to him she decided to keep her maiden name and add his to it, because there aren't very many Genndakovskys around. I was enrolled under that name, too. But, in case you want to know, my true full name is Dexter Isaac Genndakovsky-Burchill. Pleased to meet you." he threw in with a chuckle.
Bubbles was smiling, "That's real cool, Dexter!"
Buttercup grumped, "That's real dumb, Dexter..."
Blossom said nothing. Her eyes were still on the boy she loved. She didn't know that story about his mother and why she had elected to keep her maiden name and thus enroll Dexter under it. What other secrets did he have?
"I'm... not sharing a room with the girls, am I?" asked Dexter, suddenly worried.
"No. That would be impractical. I'll set up a bed for you in our guest room."
Dexter flushed red. The idea of staying in the same room as Blossom for a night sent tingles down his spine. Even staying in the same house as her was a blessing. He doubted the excitement would stop him from sleeping but it certainly would at least make his week. But he'd have to earn it. He'd need to work hard. The sleepover would be his reward if they all got through tonight's ordeal alive. Ahead was the final turnoff before reaching the school. The bridging mountain range that sealed Megaville into its little seaside valley loomed in the distance, a huge expanse of forest between themselves and the mountains. Megaville was the world's first planned Supercity, which would take many years to grow to its expected size. It was supposed to be eventually so big that it could be visible from space. Dexter loved that idea. In your face San Francisco! Megaville would be a city of firsts. Upon its completion, it would not only be the first city in the world of its sheer size, but also the first city to have its own military and possibly the first to have its own flag (apart from Vatican City but that was a different matter). And, upon completion, the first and only city to use state-of-the-art defence batteries to protect it from terrorism and other foreign threats. Dexter imagined the sight of lasers whizzing around the sky shooting down unwanted objects from Megaville's skies and every time he did, he got all giddy. If only they had something like that, right now, on a larger scale. Then they wouldn't need to worry about any incoming super-starships with pint-sized doomsday machines onboard. Then again, knowing the government and its secrets, they already DID have that. Dexter knew he COULD have it but at the moment he did not. None of his weapons reached beyond the upper stratosphere.
"Oh, girls, by the way... I hope this sleepover thing goes better than the last time I was at your house."
Buttercup grumbled, "If we even live long enough to have one..." she folded her arms, completely hating the situation she was in. She wanted to tear this scrapheap of a car apart, ignite its fuel tank and burn all her schoolbooks on the resulting fire.
Bubbles ignored her grouchy sister, "Why? What happened last time, Dexter?" she was a superhero, but her memory wasn't exactly crystal. To be honest, it was more like thick fog. At the best of times.
Dexter blinked, "You don't recall? Last time I was at your house..." his cheeks flushed and he was glad he was sitting in the front seat at that moment, "I left with more clothes on my body than what you had in the whole house." He expected Buttercup's fist to tear through the back of the seat and into his back, punching his heart into the dashboard.
Utonium smiled, "Believe me, that won't happen again. I found the perfect solution."
Dexter blinked, "Nano-disabling electrostatic?"
Utonium shook his head, "No. I just won't invite that dog-thing over again."
Dexter shrugged, "Well, that works..." Dexter's back had gone numb in anticipation of Buttercup's angered strike. His body did that whenever it expected something to touch it. His head always tingled when his mother tried to cut the hair around his nape to prevent it touching his collar and thus violating school uniform policy. He was getting shivers. He had to take his mind off her. He remembered seeing something in this morning's paper that hew knew would interest the Professor, his self-confessed partner in crime. "You hear about the developments in the Quintaine case?"
The Professor nodded, his face now serious. Quintaine was an longtime acquaintence and no more, but what had happened was very serious, "They're stepping this up to a murder investigation. They found copious amounts of his blood in one compartment of his basement but no sign of his body or his daughter." The daughter he spoke of was Bethany, who was a few years older than his own girls, who had never met her. The Professor only saw Bethany once and was astounded by her innocence, her beauty and the potential she showed. Bethany attended a private school out of town and her classmates were rallying with support for the missing girl. "The police suspect abduction now... it's frightening. What did Quintaine or his girl ever do to deserve that?"
"In this unfair world it is the best of us who are forced to suffer." Dexter glanced over his shoulder. Blossom's eyes were still on him and when they met with his, her cheeks went a delicate, darker shade of pink, "Those who endure it are those who survive." he nodded at her, indicating that she was the one who was to survive. She smiled a little wider and nodded back. "And when more than one of the best band together against a seemingly overwhelming force of despair and strife... there's no way they can be harmed."
Blossom muttered, "Dex... I agree with you."
Buttercup fidgeted, "Nyyeeeehhh.... why you gotta sound so mushy all the time??"
Bubbles had her own opinion, "Dexter... I agree with you too." she affirmed, making Buttercup groan loudly. The day had not started well for her.
Ahead now was the turn-off from the main road that lead to the school. Today would proceed like any other day until the end of classes, in which the girls would head home and prepare, whilst Dexter stayed here. And, when the time came... he hoped that they were strong enough to make it through. Yes, what he had said wasn't exactly true. You could fight for all the peace you wanted. You could be the best of your kind, the perfect example, the one everyone looked up to or wanted to be like. And even then, there was no ticket to immunity. Breannin was the perfect example. That little girl died because she was one of the best. That was what Barasia hunted, after all. But if there was one thing truthful in all of Dexter's words, it was that life and this world were unfair. Perhaps, when all this was over, for better or worse, things would not be as rough anymore. If they survived, then a menace to everyone who had the privilege to call themselves human would be no more. And if they failed... if they died... then at least they'd be at peace, spared from Barasia's oncoming storm.
On the sides of the roads, children were walking toward the large front gates, within standing the large school building itself and the expansive forest beyond that. Dexter saw Otto Osworth talking to a tall fourth-year boy he didn't recognise, and he spotted nothing out of the ordinary with any of them. It was good that they didn't know what was coming. That was for the best. The Professor pulled up next to the gates, where other families were dropping off their children for just another normal day. Back down the road from which they came, where at the end stood a petrol station and convenience store where a few of the richer students went to waste a few dollars on the day's junkfood in advance, more cars followed. How mediocre the day seemed to be. It really had no right to be special. As the Professor stopped the car, Dexter popped his door open. "Remember girls, straight to the car when the bell rings. No socialising. That means you, Bubbles."
Dexter slung his schoolbag over his shoulder, turning to the driver of the old white sedan, "Thanks for the ride, Professor."
The dark-haired man nodded curtly, "Anytime."
There was a chuckling from behind him and a short and slightly pudgy boy with slicked-back hair, a yellow shirt and a mischievious grin tapped Dexter on the shoulder, cackling with his own personal enjoyment. He was flanked by lanky boy in an orange-red sweater with a black beanie and a rather dim-looking guy with really short hair and a baggy green overcoat with a red and white striped T-shirt beneath. "Kyah hah! Nice ride, Dorkster!" he jeered before heading into the school grounds, the tallest boy of the three chuckling like a neanderthal. Dexter fumed.
Blossom sighed, "Eddy's so close to being expelled, I wouldn't worry about anything he has to say."
"Don't be late, girls!" the Professor called out, before he chugged away in the old family car. Buttercup was more than happy to see it go. She took a deep breath, ready for school. Ready for sleep. Then she realised she had inhaled a good whiff of car exhaust, and she coughed.
Dexter sighed, "Well... I'd better do as much as I can today. We still have a few minutes." He sounded nervous, "Buttercup, I'm surprised you didn't beat the crap out of me in the car..."
Buttercup blinked, and then leaned in as though she were the elder sister chastising the smaller, stupider brother, "Why would I beat the crap out of you BEFORE the biggest fight of our lives?" she asked loudly.
Dexter gulped. If not for setting up his schoolbooks and unpacking his overweight backpack, then he'd head inside at a run just to get away from her, "S-See you in class!" he turned and sprinted toward the giant palace-white building. The huge clock on the top declared five minutes until nine o'clock. Dexter called over his shoulder as he disappeared into the mob of students from all years, "Thanks for letting me sleep over!"
Bubbles was waving, "Well, today's gonna be interesting..."
Buttercup grit her teeth, "First Barasia... now Dexter... next thing you know those stupid fangirls will want my autograph AGAIN!"
"HI BUTTERCUP!" squawked Tootie, Suzy and Lola as they walked past her, giggling uncontrollably. The emerald puff seethed.
Bubbles tilted her head, "What is wrong with Dexter? He's nice!"
"He's a BOY! And a boy staying in OUR house is gonna cause problems! And besides... he... he..." her face paled, "he saw us naked!"
"Oh come on, don't worry... he wouldn't have been looking at YOU!" Bubbles teased, gesturing with a jerk of the head toward Blossom, implying something no doubt naughty. Blossom was too busy watching Dexter disappear into the crowd to notice what her sisters were saying.
Buttercup folded her arms, "Oi." Blossom didn't respond. "Leader girl!" Buttercup growled. Blossom sighed, sounding dejected. He had run off without her. She wanted to get lost in the commotion with him. His cheek hadn't even gone back to its proper colour yet. She felt sorry for him. The stress on his shoulders right now was probably unbearable. "HEY! FAIRY FLOSS!" screamed Buttercup suddenly. Blossom jolted to her senses and spun around, her ribbon swishing in a mad rush to keep up. Sufficiently startled, Blossom panted lightly and Buttercup glared at her, "You honestly worried?"
Blossom gulped down another gasp for air. Buttercup was scary, "A... A little..."
"Think we can do this?" Bubbles asked. Blossom was always considered the wisest Powerpuff, even if they didn't care for her opinion. In this case, they did.
"I don't know..." she answered. Sometimes, even the wise had no clue. None of them did.
"I guess we just gotta wing it... and find out for ourselves." Buttercup surmised.
"You'd know all about THAT!" Bubbles giggled, "It's just like any other test for you. Pull an all nighter and hope for the best."
"Shut up, goldilocks..."
Blossom found herself smiling. Even in a crisis, nothing would stop her sisters from being themselves, "We won't know until it happens. And when it does, we fight as a team. Powerpuffs always." with that note of confidence, hoping that it all wasn't just an act, she turned and started walking toward the building.
Buttercup, following behind, grinned slightly, "Well, there's one thing we DO know already..."
"What's that?" her sisters asked in unison.
Buttercup's grin was sly, "Blossom couldn't take her eyes off Dexter the whole way here..."