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Six Pieces by Ali
Six Pieces by Ali
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Six Pieces
Part One: Feeling is Believing

an Alternative BotP/Gatchaman fanfic
by Alisha ‘Ace’ Ema
edited by Wendy Dinsmore & Jane Lebak

 

Jason peered into the empty hallway; there was no one there. Here he was, fifteen minutes late for school; by now his first class would have already started, and if he dared show his face now, his Math teacher would give him detention for the next ten thousand years. I’ll just hide somewhere, and show up for my second class, and avoid Callaway for the rest of the day. Then she’ll think I was sick or something...

He walked cautiously, his back against the wall, backpack silently following behind him. Stopping for a second, he looked behind: nobody. He turned forward and walked smack into someone.

He dared himself to look up, only to find a pair of intense deep blue eyes staring down at him from behind a pair of glasses. There was a light smile on the man’s face, a gentle firmness that radiated like deep burning fire.

Jason rolled his eyes, chalking one up for stupidity.

"Why are you late, Jason?" the gentle voice asked.

"I overslept, sir," he answered, his foot shuffling back and forth on the floor.

A quiet laugh. "Oh, stop with the formality. We’re not in class yet."

A faint smile crossed Jason’s tight features. The voice was always so comforting, so trusting; he never did understand why. "Okay, Ken."

Ken knelt down in front of Jason, holding his shoulders. "Now, I leave you four at home alone for one night and you oversleep. Explain that to me, Jason."

Jason scratched the back of his head, ruffling his light brown hair. "I was up late last night, all right? I did the research like how you told me to, but it took longer than I thought it would. Princess, Tiny and Keyop were already sleeping by the time I was finished. They tried to get me up this morning... and they left without me!"

"I take it then that none of them had any breakfast, and neither did you?" Ken asked as he combed back Jason’s hair with his fingers and fixed his collar. "You’re certainly scruffy today."

"No. I didn’t; I’m not sure if they did."

Ken sighed as he rose to his full height and combed his dark hair back to the nape of his neck, binding it with a leather band. "Keyop’s going to be complaining all morning; I’ll have to go over to the elementary school and check on him later. Meanwhile, you’re going to have to make sure Tiny and Princess eat well at lunch. And you are late for class."

Jason felt a pang of guilt well inside him. Again, Ken had given him the chance to take charge of the Washio household, and he had blown it again by oversleeping. "Look, I’m sorry, Ken. I shouldn’t have —"

"That’s enough now," Ken said. "You have a class and an apology to deal with. Just be glad that I’m the poor teacher on detention monitor today."

"You are? That’s a relief."

Ken nodded as he led Jason to his class. "Hmm. Maybe we can translate another prose, neh? A good way to while away an hour of detention."

"With Ms. Callaway I think it’ll be at least three."

"Then we’ll do three pieces of prose. So what?"

Jason smirked as he walked next to Ken. They appeared an odd couple: the tall graceful Ken and the shorter, lanky thirteen-year-old Jason beside him. Five years they’d been together as guardian and ward. A twist of fate had brought Ken to Sicily, where he found the boy alive and scared for his life next to his murdered parents, and a master of finagling as he was, the people of Sicily ended up holding a funeral for three: Giuseppe Asakura, Catarina Asakura, and their son Giorgio who was represented by a collection of weights equal to the that of an eight-year-old boy. Giorgio became Jason, and Ken became the guardian of one lost child.

Then Tiny. The boy had been the sole survivor of a family trapped in their burning home. Ken had arrived on the scene with the local authorities, and after finding that young Rick Harper had no living relatives who could take him in; Ken, who had been following a gut feeling the whole time, took in yet another lost child.

Princess and Keyop were a package deal. He’d seen her running around in the streets, stealing bread from the bakery and hiding away in the alleys. He’d followed her, and found her with a little boy. He discovered later on that she was homeless as was her young companion. She had been no more than ten, the boy about five. And he took them in from the streets; two more lost children.

It had taken an ocean of paperwork and months of patient and careful maneuvering through the system to finally acquire what he had now: the guardianship of four orphans, a home big enough for the five of them, a job, education for four, food, clothes... every day was a struggle for him and the children, but he had to keep them together no matter what.

Otherwise I can never go home...

"Ready?" Ken asked slyly.

Jason shrugged, placing a hand on the doorknob. "Here goes."

Ms. Callaway turned to face the door almost as soon as it slid open. She hated late-comers because tardiness was a sin in her personal Bible, which was unfortunate for Jason. "Mr. Elwyn, you are late. And not one, not five, but ten minutes late."

"Ms. Callaway, I —"

"Could it be because my class isn’t important enough for you to show up on time? Or are you simply too lazy to bother moving a little faster? Perhaps you’re looking for a reason for me to black-list you in my book? Well, my tardy little man, you’re —"

Sensing the impending humiliation that was about to be delivered to his ward, Ken stepped into the battlefield.

"Ms. Callaway, I think that would suffice."

The middle-aged woman looked up to the door, where the younger teacher stood. Her eyes flared with a kind of vehemence that Ken was thoroughly used to. "You! Washio, you’re partly to blame for this! Just because he’s your child doesn’t mean that he can do whatever he likes around here."

"He was late. It was just this once. Jason has a perfectly good record," Ken replied, not batting an eyelash. "I don’t let him get away with anything."

She stood in her seat, her entire form visibly quivering with indignition. The other thing she had contempt for was a younger teacher who wouldn’t back down from her. And Ken was the only one who fit that description. "You’re too young to know anything about teaching, much less raising children. I ought to have the Welfare Department come after you!"

Oh, he’d heard this threat before. It had always frightened him at first, but as time passed, he had grown immune to it. He had perfect legal rights to Jason as well as the other three. "Ms. Callaway —"

"Ms. Callaway?" Jason’s voice piped up. Both teachers looked at the young boy between them. Ken saw the set expression on the boy’s face, the mischievous glint in his eyes. Oh, no... Jason, please don’t...

"Ms. Callaway," he said, "You may think that Mr. Washio is too young to look after kids, but you’re too old to even have kids, so maybe he does know more about raising children than you do."

It took every bit of strength Ken had to not explode laughing. Still he turned away, pretending to clear his throat.

The woman teacher’s face turned a dark shade of red, her fists shaking with anger before she snapped up a pen and wrote furiously on a slip of yellow paper. "You march to the principal’s office right now, Mr. Elwyn, and see what kind of sentence you’ll get for your behavior. As for you, Mr. Washio —"

Ken kept a perfectly straight face.

"— It’s too bad you’re a teacher. I’d like to send you in too."

"Oh, I already am there. I’m the one on duty."

"And it serves you right," She seethed.

Jason took the yellow slip of paper and walked out of the class, Ken following close behind. Jason turned to him, wondering why he was going with him; he seemed to have heard his thoughts.

"This way, if Mr. Carter wants to speak to a parent or guardian, he won’t have to look very far," Ken answered flatly. Then he thumped Jason on the top of his head.

"Ow!"

"Why’d you have to hand out that crack?" he asked. "Now you’ll probably get detention till dinner!"

Jason rubbed where Ken had smacked him. "Hey, I was going to get detention already, and she was picking on you; I figured I may as well make the detention worth it."

The guardian’s anger slowly faded, a small knowing smile breaking across his face. A sigh escaped him as he slowly patted his ward’s shoulder with a gentle hand. "Just... just don’t do it again, all right?"

And Jason nodded, walking close to Ken. "You know, I’ve always wanted to ask you..."

"Yes?"

"How’d you come up with Jason Elwyn for my name? That’s a long shot from my real name."

Ken could not suppress a grin. "Huh. If you thought your name was tough to come up with, imagine how I had to try and get Princess’s name done."

Jason laughed all the way into the principal’s office.

 

 

 

 

"Ken, is anything the matter?"

Ken nodded, sipping his cup of coffee. "No, Mr. Carter. Why do you ask?"

The gray-haired principal leaned forward in his chair, closing the gap between him and his young faculty member. "You have four children who aren’t even your own, you’re single, and you’re hardly thirty."

Ken thought that was strange. Truthfully, he was twenty. He had been twenty for the past seven years. He hadn’t aged a bit; that caused some problems with his identity. Change the dates, give a little background, more finagling. Now technically, he was twenty-nine. But as far as he knew, he would remain twenty for a while...

Until I find my way home...

"We’re getting by, sir," Ken answered. "My paycheck goes into the kids’ needs, and it covers very nicely. They’re comfortable. They’re doing well in school. I take care of them the best I can."

"Yes, but I only want to ask you why, Ken."

Ken stiffened slightly, and slowly relaxed. You’ve answered this question before. Deal with it. "I believe it’s of a personal matter, sir. In any case Jason, Tiny, Princess and Keyop are all under my legal guardianship."

The principal smiled slightly. "Er, ‘Tiny’, you said?"

"Huh?" Ken blinked. "Oh... Well, you see, Tiny, Rick has always been a little big and it bothered him, and Jason called him Tiny just for the irony of it, to make him feel better." He smiled slightly. "The name sort of grew on us."

"And um, ‘Princess’?"

"Jean," Ken corrected. "She was homeless and found her company with other homeless people. They nicknamed her Princess I think because she was young and pretty, and it stuck. Even after we found out her real name."

Carter nodded, then sighed. "I still don’t see the reason for putting yourself through this. You’re young; you shouldn’t be trying to raise four children."

"But that’s what I’m doing, sir," Ken retorted. "And that’s what I’ll keep doing. Because I was like them once, too."

"It’s strange, though, don’t you think?" the older man said in a lower tone.

Ken tilted his head slightly. "What is, sir?"

"You have four children, step-siblings to each other. And yet they get along well. I very rarely see that in adopted siblings."

It wasn’t something new for him to think about. He had wondered about it a little himself. But he had one theory to believe in. "I think maybe they just... ‘fit’ together, sir. They work like a neat little team."

"And you’re the coach, perhaps?"

Ken gave a small shrug, accompanied by an equally small smile.

Carter pulled off his glasses, wiping them with his handkerchief. "You may go now."

Ken rose from the chair and moved slowly to the door, but a voice held him back. "Yes, sir?"

There was a broad smile on the principal’s face, one of fatherly pride. "I admire your devotion to your wards."

Devotion: Ken knew that quality very well, was ever so familiar with it in his previous line of work. Had sowed it within his four beloved team-mates; his heart ached. He swallowed. "Thank you, sir." His voice was barely a whisper.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Keyop had incessantly complained to him the moment Ken walked into the elementary school during their break. Jason did this, Jason didn’t do that, Jason, Jason, Jason...

"It’s not Jason’s fault, Keyop," Ken told him. "Stop blaming him."

"But he’s the oldest," Keyop argued. "He should be taking care of us."

"No, I am the one who should be taking care of the four of you," he replied as he combed out Keyop’s hair. "I shouldn’t have stayed out last night. I should have come home. I’m sorry."

Keyop looked at him, feeling very small and sad, and snuggled closer to him. "You won’t leave us at night anymore?"

Ken shook his head, holding the youngest of his wards. "No. Never again. Never."

"Promise?"

"I promise."

 

 

 

 

Jason was alone in the detention room. Typical. He had to be lone occupant the day he had to do time. He looked up from his desk to the teacher’s desk in front: Ken was busy marking History essays. He had given Jason an old poem to read and translate, and he’d gone through half of it before he got bored. It was always more fun when they did it together.

"Ken?"

"Hmm?"

"How did your parents die?"

Ken looked up from his paperwork. Slowly he removed his glasses, unbound his hair, letting it fall loosely as it always did. "My parents?"

Jason nodded. He saw that, for some reason, just this once, Ken seemed willing to answer the question when he had avoided it a number of times before. For the briefest moment, he wanted to know why.

"Well, they —"

The door swung open, and in marched Tiny, Princess and Keyop, bright smiles on their faces. "Hi, Ken!" Tiny grinned. "We figured since Jason’s here, and you’re here, we’d join you until Jason gets paroled."

Jason rolled his eyes. "It’s detention, not jail, moron."

"Pretty good resemblance though, don’t you think?"

Ken laughed lightly. "Tiny, Jason, stop it. Tiny, if you want to stay, sit quietly, get some work done. Princess, you too. Keyop, come over here and stay close to me. I don’t want you to get into any trouble in here."

The older two took their seats and pulled out something to do. Jason went back to his poem while Tiny and Princess took out some homework to finish up. Keyop pulled a chair up next to Ken at the big desk and was promptly given a stack of paper and some coloring pencils. He got busy quickly.

"What were you two talking about just now?" Tiny asked.

Jason immediately remembered his unanswered question. A small mischievous grin appeared on his face. "Ken?"

"Mhmm." Now there were four of them waiting for the answer to one of the questions he had protected himself from. He never quite understood himself why he never wanted to talk about his family. Just to avoid the pain, perhaps, Ken? "My father died a long time ago, during the wars. I was still pretty young."

"He was a soldier?"

He shook his head. "No, Princess, he was a pilot. He was killed on assignment."

"And your mother?"

"She died of leukemia when I was eleven," he said softly, the memory slowly coming back to him, bringing along with it a touch of pain.

Tiny moved one desk up, closer to the big desk. "So were you alone after that? Didn’t you have brothers or sisters?"

The ache in his heart he’d felt earlier now multiplied tenfold. His unthinking fingers tampered with a worn black band around his left wrist, his touch bringing to life the firebird insignia he once fought for. "In a manner of speaking, yes, I did. I had three brothers and a sister."

Keyop brightened. "Wow, really? You mean like us?"

Ken grew thoughtful. Yes, when he looked at them, they were so much like his siblings. Jason was Joe all around, Princess was so much like Jun, Tiny was as cheerful and gentle as Ryu, and Keyop would someday grow up to be like Jinpei. Age them six or seven years more... "Yes," he said with a quiet smile. "Very much like you."

"So where are they now?"

He opened his mouth to reply, but quickly shut it: he couldn’t answer. In his own confusion he heard Jason’s harsh hiss to Tiny, "Stop it. You’re upsetting him."

"But —"

"Guys, stop it. I think Jason’s right," Princess whispered. "Don’t ask anymore."

It was then that Ken felt a small hand upon his own; he saw Keyop’s tiny fingers entwining with his, and with a silent nod he smiled at the child.

Jason’s gaze went from Ken, to his poem, to the clock on the wall: an hour to go. He sighed. "Ken, could you give me a hand with this poem?" he said finally. "I’m stuck on the fifth stanza."

Ken regained his composure, going back to his stack of History essays, his pen flying through sheet after sheet. "Give me a few more minutes, Jason. I have to mark these, get them to the car and pick up the reference book I got that poem from, ‘kay?"

"Sure."

He made short work of the essays, quickly bound them up, grabbed his jacket after leaving strict orders to not move from their seats until he returned, and went out the door. He ran to his car, opened the trunk and dumped the paperwork in, shutting it roughly. The cold September air wafted about him, sending an abrupt chill throughout his body.

And then a voice.

Ken.

Ken turned around, but found no one near him. He listened again.

Ken.

The Voice. The one he’d heard when he first arrived in this world seven years ago. Ken felt his fear and anger rising and coiling together inside him. "What do you want?"

Time is running short, Ken. You must hurry.

Ken breathed deeply. "How much time do I have left?"

Twenty-one days, and your seven years will be done. Your body cannot last here in this world much longer. You have only twenty-one days left before your body here dies.

"And what will become of me then?"

If you complete your task, if you assemble the Six Pieces before the time ends, you will return to your world, your family, your true form. If it is not completed before this time is over, you will die here, and you will be lost between two worlds, belonging neither here nor there.

His heart pounded deep in his chest, a shock of cold dread shooting up his spine. Die? Here? And with no chance of ever going back home? To his beloved team? And the children here, now... What of them? "I have four Pieces now," he said, a tone of desperation leaking into his voice. "Help me find the last two."

I cannot help you. You must find them and assemble them, before you may journey home.

"Three weeks isn’t enough!" he said to the Voice. "How could you do this to me? You pull me away from where I rightfully belong, leaving me here to a half-familiar task, with a seven-year limit!"

In your world then you were near death. I brought you here to preserve you, but it is not without cost. Assemble the Six Pieces, and you will journey home...

Ken had heard the faintness of the last few words. He was being left alone, again. "No, wait! Please, a little more time! Help me find the last two Pieces!"

Twenty-one days is all that can be spared, Ken... Assemble.... and you will journey home....

He listened to the wind, the air around him. But there was only silence.

Ken leaned heavily against his car, sighing deeply, his body shaking as he fought the urge to cry.

 

 

 

 

Four impatient kids in the car. An armful of groceries. After this, the cleaners, then the bank.

Yes, he felt like a parent now.

"I said, open the door!"

Tiny threw the door open, nearly ramming it into Ken’s gut, and helped him cram the groceries into the back seat between Princess and Keyop. He pulled the door shut again as Ken shot for the driver’s seat and started the car, racing out of the parking lot.

"We’re running late again, aren’t we?" Jason asked coolly, riding shotgun.

Ken sighed and gripped the steering wheel tighter. "Jason, we’re beyond late." He switched gears, and he knew for some reason that Jason was reveling in the sheer sound of the engine. The boy was smiling to himself.

A tap on his shoulder.

"Keyop, how many times have I told you not to do that while I’m driving?"

"But you missed the dry-cleaners."

Ken slammed on the brakes. "Chikusho!"

Four pairs of eyes were on him. Ken felt himself blush. He hadn’t spoken his native Japanese for a while, at least not in front of the children, much less sworn in Japanese.

"What was that you said?" Tiny asked, eyes wide.

"Nothing." Ken barely noticed his voice sounded like a squeak.

Jason wore a wicked grin on his face. It made Ken want to strangle him. "You swore in Japanese, didn’t you?"

"Did not." Ken put the car back in gear and turned around towards the dry-cleaners he’d missed earlier.

And Keyop started bouncing in his seat. "You did! You did! I didn’t know you could speak Japanese!"

"Well, my last name is Washio, isn’t it?" Ken retorted. "That’s as Japanese as you can get."

Princess giggled in the back seat. "I’ve always wondered why your English had such a strange accent... Keyop, stop bouncing in your seat! You’re rocking the whole car!"

"Say something in Japanese, Ken!" Keyop said as Princess finally pinned him down. "Say something!"

Ken thought for a minute. Joe’s signature phrase came to mind, but if they asked for a translation he would surely regret he’d said it. Then out of nowhere, he spoke, his voice changing slightly, becoming lighter, more haunting, "Aru toki wa itsutsu, aru toki wa hitotsu... Jittai wo misezu ni shinobiyoru shiroi kage."

The children fell silent. Finally, "Wow..."

"That sounded cool," Tiny said, his wide grin stretching his pudgy face.

Ken smiled. He never thought it sounded cool at all. It was supposed to be a threat, a psyche-out. It wasn’t supposed to be cool, wasn’t supposed to be awesome. It was supposed to be feared. "Guess so."

Princess leaned forward. "But what does it mean?"

Again, his eyes rested on the wristband. He thought of an awaiting battle, his so-familiar white wings wrapped around his shoulders, boomerang in hand, three team-mates behind him, a signal from his dark-winged partner from above — "Psyche ‘em now, Ken!" — and he would speak, his voice floating in the wind like a ghost, a shadow. Their enemy would be quivering with fear, seeking the source of the voice, and five shadows would rain down on them, the last things they would ever see...

"It means, ‘Sometimes five, sometimes one... the White Shadow that slips in unseen’."

There was quiet again. Then Jason said, "Why would anyone want to say something like that?"

And Ken laughed so hard he nearly missed the dry-cleaners again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ken had lived alone for a good part of his ‘former’ life. He had no one to fend for except himself, and he really couldn’t care whether he ate or not as long as he didn’t starve to death completely.

Raising children, they say, brings out new and forced experiences. And suddenly he was no longer the big picture.

He had surprised himself with his hand at cooking the first time he tried it seven years ago. One of the many things he had unknowingly inherited from his mother, he figured. He cooked well, and without instructions, no less, and he found that he liked it, no matter how troublesome it was. It was usually in the kitchen where he most often thought of home, and strangely, of Nambu.

The house he had bought five years ago when he took Jason in was big and comfortable, very much like Nambu’s home, where they all had stayed as children. Finances disallowed elaborate furnishing, but it was comfortable enough for a young man and four growing kids, and no one had so far complained. For the moment from the kitchen he could see the three boys lounging in front of the television set while Princess set the table for dinner. He tossed up the stir-fry vegetables and scooped them into a serving dish, and called for the boys to ‘pick-up’.

"Eat first," Ken ordered as he flung the apron aside and headed up the stairs. "I’ll be right down." He stood at the stairs for a moment, making sure that they were seated and their plates filled, Jason serving the younger ones before taking his share. Once they began eating, he ascended.

The corridor split this level of the house, two bedrooms on either side, and one at the end of the hallway, his room. Silently he walked into the room and closed the door.

Twenty-one days... He picked up the desk calendar and pulled a bright yellow highlighter from the desk. Counting the days, he highlighted the three weeks.

Countdown begins tomorrow, he thought as he pulled off his shirt and pants and slipped into a sweatshirt and a pair of jeans. How can I find the two other Pieces? So little time...

He sat down on his bed, one larger than any he had ever slept in, a queen-sized bed. The idea was, for as long as he could manage it, he may as well afford a bit of luxury for himself after having spent most of his life in small, just adequate beds. True to his nature, however, he only slept on one side, very close to the edge as he always had. He never bothered to understand why.

He flicked on the bedside light and opened the drawer beneath: a photograph came into his hands. Like on many other occasions, he felt a smile tug at the corner of his mouth as tears filled his eyes.

His family. Central Park Fountain. A victory celebration. Ken seated on the edge of the fountain with his arm around Jun’s waist. Ryu with a big smile on his face. All three were looking at Joe and Jinpei who were wrestling with each other.

"Jinpei, will you quit shoving me?"

"Gimme some room! I’m not gonna fit in the picture!"

"Listen, chibi, you’re small enough to fit anywhere."

"Am not! I’m big enough! Ask Ken-aniki!"

"Umm..."

"Will you two knock it off? Kira’s gonna take the picture with or without you any time now!"

The camera had gone ‘snap’ three seconds before Joe and Jinpei’s melee took all five of them into the fountain.

For some reason or another, he knew he shouldn’t have the photograph, but he did. He hadn’t carried it with him at the time of his ‘disappearance’ from his homeworld; nonetheless he had found it inside his aviator’s jacket upon his arrival here, and so grateful was he to have it that he never wanted to question why and how he had it.

He held the photograph a little while longer, relishing in his moment of privacy, until one of the children — if not all of the children — came knocking at his door, and the photograph returned to its drawer.

"You haven’t eaten yet, Ken, and the food’s getting cold!" Tiny hollered from the other side of the door. "Unless you want me to finish up your share."

Ken cleared his throat. "Touch my share and die, Tiny!" He heard the boy run down the stairs. "And stop running down the stairs! You’ll kill yourself before I do!"

Once there was quiet again, Ken went to the west window of his room, where the last bit of sunlight from dusk was slowly vanishing. For a long time he just stood there and stared; it was part of a routine for him. At dawn he went to the east window of his room and bathed in the sun’s rays, and dusk he went to the west. Today, he was a little late.

He sat on the sill, folded his hands in his lap and bowed his head down, his heart whispering a silent prayer as the warmth of the sun turned into the cold of the night.

Please take care of my family there: Joe, Jun, Jinpei and Ryu, and guard my four children here... help me end my quest. Help me return home. Please dear God I beg of you...

 

 

As a child he had been used to doing chores by himself. It was like juggling colored balls: you could do pretty good on your own, but if someone else laid a hand in and tried to help you with them, you just might drop them all instead.

When Nambu took him in and later joined him with the others, he had to get used to the idea of juggling the colored balls by passing them along four other people back and forth in a complicated yet at the same time simple mechanism of something called teamwork. Their first assignment as five children had been to do the dishes together. Their first try had led to water fights, towel-whipping and general chaos because none of them were catching the balls that were being juggled. On their second try, they had fared better. Years later, they would save millions of people because of that complicated yet at the same time simple mechanism.

All Ken wanted to know was: had he been able to repeat what he’d accomplished back then here?

"I said, quit it!" Ken called as another wave of water rose from the sink and into his face. "Jason!"

Jason shrunk back, though he still wore a fiendish little grin. "Sorry."

Ken sighed as he pushed back his soaking wet hair out of his eyes. He gave each child a long silent stare, watched as each of them left the hilarity of the moment and finished up their tasks in a neat, orderly manner just as he had taught them. At this, he smiled. "Good. That’s just the way it should be."

Jason wrung out and hung all the damp towels on a rack. "Why is this so important to you?"

"What is?"

"This, this ‘working together’ thing. We’re fine. We’re not fighting with each other or anything like that."

Because you remind me of my team back at home. A team that works together in an almost telepathic motion. You are so much like them that I want you to be like them. But can I do that? Should I?

Ken herded them out of the kitchen, back out in front of the fireplace where a small fire had been burning for a while to keep away the cold. He took his usual seat in the soft armchair, Keyop crawling up into his lap while Princess sat on one armrest, the two boys at his feet.

"True," he said. "But in working together you learn and know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, how you can use them to your advantage together and to help each other. You understand which things each of you can handle best, and who should use his or her talent, and when."

Tiny lay back against Ken’s legs. "That’s a lot to learn, isn’t it?"

"Not really." Ken adjusted himself in the chair, making a little more room for Keyop. "Okay, try this. The house is burning, and I’m trapped in my room separate and away from the rest of you. You have to get me out."

Princess shook her head. "We couldn’t do that..."

"No, listen first, Princess," he said, putting an arm around her waist. "You four find the room. What would you look for to get to me?"

"The door," Tiny said.

"The ventilation shaft," Jason countered.

"Ventilation shaft’s only six inches wide, dummy," Tiny argued.

Jason folded his arms against his chest. "Fine. Go outside to a window then."

Ken nodded, ignoring the quick argument. "Both right. You find the door locked. What do you do?"

Princess beamed. "I could try and pick the lock!"

"And if that doesn’t work? If the door is being blocked by something from the inside?"

"Tiny could try and push it open. He’s stronger than the rest of us put together," Keyop answered.

"Good, Keyop," Ken said. "Now, you have the door half open. You can see me, but you can’t push the door any further. What then?"

Jason snapped his fingers, a figurative lightbulb appearing above his head. "We send in Keyop after you. He’d be able to fit through the small opening that we made."

"I could do that! I could!" Keyop wouldn’t stop bouncing in Ken’s lap. Ken winced.

"Keyop, I need to walk later...."

"Sorry."

"But that’s all of us except Jason," Princess noted. "What would he do?"

A smile grew on her brother’s face. "Easy. I give the orders."

Tiny could not roll his eyes any higher. "Give it a rest, Jase."

"Seriously, guys," he replied. "Without me, where would the three of you be?"

Three voices at once: "With Ken."

"Well Ken’s not gonna be around forever."

Princess stood. "Jason, take that back!"

"That’s enough." All of them fell quiet. Ken had learned in raising the children that he could put the same amount of authority in his voice as he would in a command aboard the God Phoenix without shouting. It was a good thing to know, considering what he was usually like when it came to showing authority. "You’re all missing the point. I just wanted to show you how if you know each other well, if you’re familiar with every little bit of each other you could accomplish something like that solely because you trust each other’s talents, and you know you’re backing each other up." He took a quick look at the clock in the hall and stood up, scooping Keyop into his arms. "Okay, that’s it. Bedtime."

"Aww... I’m not tired," Keyop insisted before yawning hugely.

"Uh-huh." Ken smiled at this. He remembered very clearly how he had to carry Jinpei back to his room almost every night after a long tired day; the only difference was Keyop was younger, much lighter. He never could comply to Joe’s suggestion of "just leave him there and let him freeze down here. He should know how to get to his own bed."

Ken held Keyop tight; suddenly he missed Jinpei very badly.

 

 

The children had fallen asleep hours ago, yet he still lay awake on the far end of the bed, staring at the ceiling. It had been a long time since he’d had a bout of insomnia, what with his job and raising four children. But the thought of his closing time limit frightened him, the impending death terrifying, not only for himself, but the children.

"Ken’s not gonna be around forever."

What would happen to them if he died? If anything at all happened to him? They needed him. Back in his world, with his own siblings, they had long considered him the core of the team, the beating heart, but he had taken it lightly and figuratively. But here, in this world, with these four children, it could not be any truer.

He shifted around between the sheets, trying to clear his head with very little success. Memories came back to him: memories of Jun, her soft, warm body pressed close against his as they lay together in a deep, tired sleep, the love they had shared previously still tingling through him, the smell of her skin, the softness of her hair against his face... He took in a deep shaky breath. Would he ever again share another night with her? Would he really have to die here alone, breaking the solemn vow they had made as children to die together?

His thoughts were interrupted when he heard the door open slowly. He tensed, and waited.

"Ken?"

"Jason?"

"Are you still awake?"

"Yeah. Have been, anyhow."

The shadow leaning against the doorframe moved a step forward. "Mind if I come in?"

Ken’s eyes adjusted to the darkness a little more, and he could see him now, in a faded sweatshirt and jeans to match, holding a book against his hip. A quick glance at the clock told him that it was one-thirty already. "Sure. Come over here."

Jason strode over to the bed and settled down on the floor, flicking on the bedside lamp, going into his book. He looked up at Ken for a moment, reading the stern expression effortlessly, and answered the unasked question. "I couldn’t sleep."

"Hmm." He nodded towards the book he held. "I thought you’d finished all your homework."

"I did." He brought the book up into view. "I didn’t finish translating that poem you gave me earlier. Thought I’d finish it up. Maybe get me to sleep."

Ken gave him a thoughtful look. "Don’t you mean get you back to sleep?"

Jason didn’t answer at first. Then with a shrug, he said, "I was up the whole time."

It amazed him that somehow Jason had Joe’s poker face; it amazed him so much it bothered him. "No you weren’t." He reached over and ruffled Jason’s hair. "You’ve got bed hair."

For the longest time he stared at the same page, his eyes on the same words. Finally he sighed, his next words emerging a murmur. "How come you’re always right?"

"It’s not that I’m right; I just know you well enough." He sat up in bed now, looking down at his eldest ward. "Now what is the matter?"

Jason set the book down slowly; Ken saw the faint trembling in his hands. After a time, he said, "I dreamt tonight, just now."

Ken had suspected as much. He had grown very familiar with all the signs now, knew them all by heart, could recognize them in an instant. Jason was not one to admit to problems, again, not a whole lot different from Joe. It had been worse when he was younger; he used to wake up crying and calling almost every night, and Ken himself grew haunted with Jason’s trauma, afraid to sleep himself, realizing that this was what Joe might have gone through as a child, and now had a first-hand experience of the pain it had brought then. "What about? Like before?" he asked gently.

Jason shook his head. "No. It was different."

"How different?"

"It wasn’t about them; it was about you."

Ken felt his breath catch in his throat, but said nothing to it. Jason looked up at him, met his blue-eyed stare with his own before the younger one shifted his gaze down, focused on his lap. Ken shifted on the bed to see his ward better. "Do you want to tell me about it?"

Jason shook his head again.

"Okay." He waited a little longer, then asked, "Would you like to spend the night here?"

Steel-blue eyes glared at him, but with a slight glint of apprehension. "What? You think it’s bothering me or something?" he said.

Ken saw the defensiveness fall flat. He shrugged. "No, I’m not saying that. But you said it’s about me, and now it’s bothering me. I don’t know if it’s bothering you, but if you stay here, maybe it wouldn’t bother either one of us at all."

Jason could not hide a smirk. "So you’re not all high and mighty after all, huh?"

He allowed a smile. "Even the high and mighty get nightmares, Jason."

Jason’s grin vanished. There was a moment of quiet before he gave a shrug and said okay.

Ken lifted the comforter away and moved in a bit, giving Jason enough room to crawl in. He watched as the boy laid himself down facing away from him. Then he pulled the comforter back up, tucking Jason in as he snuggled back under the comforter himself, sleep slowly overcoming him at last.

"Ken?" came a sleepy voice.

"Hmm?"

"Tell anyone about this and I’ll kill you."

He chuckled lowly. "I won’t."

As time passed Jason pressed himself closer to his guardian, holding him tighter, and Ken complied, his arms circling him, shielding him from dreams for the rest of the night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ken felt the space next to him cold and empty: Jason had already gotten up. He also felt something heavy resting on his chest. It made breathing hard, and it was tickling his face.

He opened his eyes and nearly jumped. "Katse!"

The gray-and-white tabby did not move from her place. She simply sat there and glared at him, daring him to make her move from there.

"C’mon, you dumb cat, move!" Ken inched her off him bit by bit. He sneezed. "Katse..."

The cat didn’t wince. She absolutely refused to be moved.

"Katse, good cat, please move, because I have to go to work." That took a lot of sugar. He hated pouring out that much just for a cat. But Katse got up and moved to the other side of the bed, freeing him. Ken shot out of bed and headed for the shower. "Thank you."

Even as he dressed and made the bed, the cat was still there. He liked her, yes, but the implication of the name just bothered the life out of him.

The children had wanted a pet a year ago. He got them the sweet patchy tabby. He didn’t mind pets; he liked cats, though he very much preferred the Kagaku Ninjatai’s scout-mascot falcon, Azrael. But that was a whole other thing to consider. Falconry probably wasn’t legal in this time and place, and he had many scars from training Azrael. A cat was perfect.

The ordeal of naming the cat was something he and the cat had to bear with for two days after bringing her home. The children had gone from ‘Patches’ to ‘Jigsaw’ for her coat pattern, from ‘Fluffy’ to ‘Muffin’ for her fluffy coat and from ‘Sugar’ to ‘Honey’ for her nature plus a host of other names, and he had gone through a few bottles of aspirin. Finally it was Princess’s suggestion that they just name the cat ‘CAT’ in another language. He had wanted to offer the Japanese word ‘Neko’ when the children came across an English-German dictionary in the school library.

"Her name is Katse," they had announced to him. And he had nearly fainted. The children never did find out about his quiet fits over the choice.

What was funny though, was that Katse adored Ken. She came to him whenever he came home, and sat in his lap as often as she could manage. He in turn could not shake off the irony of the entire situation. Many times before the kids had questioned the strange look on his face whenever Katse showed him ample affection; he never answered.

"Katse, stop staring at me," Ken told her as he did his tie and pulled his hair back into the leather band.

She did not move. She stared, purred. Did not move.

Shrugging, he picked up his things and started out of the room; he could hear the cat toddling behind him. Half-way out he stopped, turned back, remembering his glasses. Katse screeched to a halt and decided to wait patiently at the door.

He found them on the dresser, where they had not been previously, with a note attached to the rim.

 

 

Ken,

Thanks.

Jason.

 

 

For some reason, he turned to the door. Jason stood there, leaning against it, arms folded as a backpack dangled from his left shoulder. He wore a soft smile.

Ken nodded, winked. "You’re welcome, Jason."
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