Shinji, to his own great displeasure, was the last member of the bunch to complete his undergraduate degree.
Admittedly, Shige had graduated in Home Economics…
Keigo and Kunimitsu had both achieved firsts at Oxford last year. Keigo had moved to Cambridge to write his postgraduate thesis. Kunimitsu was working towards an MBA at Harvard. Kaoru, the little shit, was also on his second degree, having achieved a double first in mathematics and physics, when he was 16, in Chinese. They’d all trooped over to Beijing last summer for the ceremony at Shinghua University. Ken had cried (naturally) and Shinji couldn’t help thinking about the time when people called him a prodigy, in tennis.
“I think the standards were low,” Shige chipped in. (Shinji still did all his thinking aloud.)
“You would certainly be the one to know,” Kunimitsu observed from his seat by the window.
“Just ignore him,” Keigo added supportively.
“I’m ignoring all of you,” Ken growled, as he finished removing the pins from the hem of Shinji’s robe. But to Shinji, who was standing on the dining table, he continued, “You’re done at last. Wanna give us a twirl?”
“Don’t fall off!” Fuwa said quickly, holding his hands out to help Shinji get back to the ground.
At least Shinji had a boyfriend.
“I dunno,” Ken said, when they’d all finished admiring the view. “I’ve never heard of anyone graduating in a jedi cosplay before. Fuck knows what your dad’s gonna say.”
“They’re art students,” Keigo reminded him. “Half the room will probably be dressed as a cardboard box.”
“Shinji’s outfit almost looks traditional though,” Shige remarked, scrolling through the photographs he’d just taken. He glanced towards Ken, grinning toothily. “Tell Brad it’s that! He’s American, he’ll never know.”
Kaoru... pointed silently towards Kabaji.
“I find your lack of faith disturbing,” Kabaji said, breathing heavily through his mask.
“Ken?” Shige had poked his head around the bedroom door. “My dad wants to speak to you. He said he’d…”
The hotel phone rang just on time.
“That’s just great,” Ken muttered, pushing himself off the bed where he’d been attempting to 'take five' after the afternoon’s drama. Shige disappeared with a gentle snick as the door closed.
“There were fucking snakes,” Schuldig shouted, as soon as Ken picked up the phone.
“Lots of countries have snakes,” Ken replied tiredly. “Japan has them.”
“He didn’t get bitten in Japan!”
“No,” Ken said. “He got bitten when he was out for a walk with his father.”
Some swearing followed at the other end of the line and then a brief sullen silence. A small smile found its way across Ken’s face. Telepathy, he’d discovered, didn’t work across a long distance phone call. The German bastard just had to put up with being normally frustrated.
“You still there,” he finally asked, some remnant of good humour now restored.
“Testy aren’t we?” Schuldig snarked, as if he hadn’t been the one to complain.
Ken used his foot to hook out the chair which was pushed under the dressing table and sat himself down. “I’ve just had Brad ranting at me,” he admitted. “Apparently I should have been more freaked out and it would have been different if it was Kaoru. And so on.” He made a dismissive gesture with his free hand which was pointless when nobody else could see it.
“Did he really panic?”
Ken recognised morbid curiosity when he heard it. He temporised. “What did Shige say?”
“He said talk to you, the little shit.”
Well that figured. “It wasn’t panic exactly, he just… " Was really pissed off about Ken being stronger and faster now? Everyone got old, for God's sake, and Ken still trained. "He’s probably right," Ken sighed. "I don’t know what I’d have done if it had been Kaoru who got hurt. It doesn’t mean I don’t care about Shinji. And he’s going to be fine. He’s got to stay in hospital for a few days but the antitoxin is working.”
Schuldig huffed down the line. Ken was tempted to ask if he’d already booked his flight but Schuldig wasn’t much better at 'fessing up to being an actual feeling human being than Crawford. It would be easier to just let him arrive. And there was something that was troubling Ken more.
“Are they letting your little prodigy keep the corpse?” Schuldig asked sweetly. Maybe telepathy did work down the phone.
“Oh shut up.”
“Just the skin perhaps? That would be one hell of a show and tell.”
“I’m not encouraging it!”
“Guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
“I will fucking hang up Schuldig.”
“Actually,” Schuldig said, chuckling deeply. “It sounds much more the sort of thing Abyssinian would have done. You were never that reckless.”
And that, hit the nail on the head.
“I’m not actually sure where this path is going,” Ken admitted when they emerged from an unusually dense patch of undergrowth. “It feels like we’re walking in a circle.”
“Not to mention we’re going back uphill. I knew I should have let Kaoru do the map reading,” Crawford replied. But he didn’t sound unduly concerned. They weren’t that far from civilisation. It was a beautiful sunny day (despite some ominous clouds further uphill) and they were enjoying a rare moment of solitude, as the boys had dropped behind to explore the caves they’d passed earlier.
“I can read a map,” Ken grumbled but he couldn’t really argue over Kaoru’s superior outdoor skills.
The path had levelled out in a hollow of tree roots so he turned to wait there, putting a hand up to shield his eyes as he squinted back down the trail. The caves were still visible from this vantage and the ruins of the cottage that once had been built around them stood out in picturesque relief against the distant landscape of the mountain. Although broken up by cloud, the sky was still bright blue. The only real sound was the constant chirping of crickets which had accompanied them for most of the day.
It really was a pretty place. Ken’s inner florist had been cataloguing wild flowers he’d never seen in Britain or Japan and Shige had been going mad with his camera. The boys were probably waiting for him to get a close up of an insect, again.
Ken had just turned around to say this to Crawford when the older man turned suddenly and shockingly pale and, seconds later, Keigo came charging up the path, Shige not far behind.
“What’s happened?” Ken hurried down to meet them.
“Shinji’s been bitten,” Keigo exclaimed, before bending down to catch his breath. “It was a snake.”
“In the cave,” Shige added, looking thoroughly distressed.
“I’m going back there,” Crawford said, brushing past the three of them.
Ken didn’t instantly follow. He was thinking hard. “Have you moved him?” Both boys shook their heads. “Good. Shige, go back with Brad, make sure nobody does. I’ll be right behind you. Keigo, can you get a phone signal?” Keigo was the linguist of the group and he always had at least one cellphone with him. Proving Ken’s point, Keigo retrieved an iPhone from one pocket and his Hyotei customised flip phone from the other. He held up the Gratina to confirm it had nearly three bars. “Good enough,” Ken said, “I want to you to dial 112.” He repeated the number again, slowly, then held out the map he’d been crumpling in his hand. “Try and give them our location from this. They’ll probably have a better idea than we do anyway.”
“I expect they rescue idiot tourists every weekend,” Keigo replied with a wavering smile. He’d calmed down quickly upon being given a specific task. He pointed up the path. “I might get a better signal there.”
“Call first.” Ken patted him on the shoulder. “We won’t be long.”
Ken slid his daypack from his shoulder as he jogged back down the path at a steady pace – not too quickly, the trail was rocky and uneven and he wouldn’t help anyone with a broken ankle. Shige and Kaoru were waiting outside the cave when he arrived. Ken climbed through the ruins of what might in the past have been someone’s living room to find Crawford and Kunimitsu sitting on the ground beside Shinji, just inside the cave entrance. Shinji looked pale, sweaty and terrified.
“He’s been sick,” Crawford snapped.
“That’s just stress,” Ken assured him. “Where’s the bite?”
“On my hand,” Shinji said. "I was just climbing over the wall and..."
“Okay, don’t hold it out.” Ken squatted beside him, retrieving his first aid kit from the pack. “We need to keep your arm as still as possible and make sure you’re sitting up. Keep your hand down, that’s right.”
Crawford had adjusted his position so Shinji could sit leaning against him, the boy cradling his hand gingerly in his lap.
“Keigo’s calling the ambulance,” Ken continued. “You’ll be just fine but we need to clean the bite out and put a bandage on.” He glanced across at Kunimitsu. “Did you see what type of snake it was?”
“I didn’t,” Kunimitsu admitted. “But Kaoru...”
Even Crawford snorted at this.
“I guess it was a silly question,” Ken acknowledged. “Okay. This might sting.” He lifted Shinji’s hand carefully, turning it over to see the bite marks just below the inside of the boy's wrist, and used a sterile wipe to clean the wounds as gently as possible. The two punctures looked deep and there was already some worrying discolouration around them. Ken had a strong stomach – he’d seen and inflicted much worse injuries after all – but it was different when it was one of your kids. Even a stepkid.
“Should we rinse it out?” Kunimitsu asked.
“I don’t think so,” Ken replied, folding a light bandage over the cleaned cuts. “And I’m not sucking poison out either, before anyone suggests it. It was probably a dry bite anyway,” he added for Shinji's benefit. “We could do with a splint though. Is there anything here?”
“I’ll find one,” Kunimitsu replied, clearly relieved to have something useful to do. And probably to get out of the cave.
“But what if the snake’s still out there?” Shinji asked fearfully.
“It definitely isn’t,” Shige called out from his station at the cave entrance.
“They’re usually more frightened of us than we are of them,” Crawford agreed. Although he was looking past Shige with suspiciously narrowed eyes.
Kunimitsu returned quickly, carrying two sturdy pieces of branch. Not perfect but they’d have to do. Ken used the sticks and his last bandage to wrap Shinji’s wrist in a makeshift splint, then removed his plaid shirt, ripped it along the length of the hem and used the knotted, torn off strips to make a basic sling.
“You just bought that,” Shinji protested weakly, as Ken checked that his wrist was secured comfortably.
“If Keigo complains, I’ll blame you,” was the cheerful reply.
“If you’re finished, we should leave now,” Crawford cut in.
Ken agreed. “Pass him to me, it’ll be quicker if I carry him.”
“It will not.”
“C’mon Brad,” Ken insisted.
Silence reigned in the gloom of the cavern for several long moments before Crawford, tersely, conceded.
"Keigo texted," Shige announced brightly, stepping aside when Ken emerged back into the daylight with Shinji in his arms. "He's right by the road. And, um." He pointed towards Kaoru, who had been waiting quietly outside. Kaoru was holding out a long piece of branch, at a very careful distance from himself and everyone else. The scaly black-striped body which was hooked in the fork of the branch provided its own explanation. Ken muttered a silent imprecation, which might also have been a prayer.
“Where’s the head?” Crawford asked bluntly.
Shige, grimacing, pointed towards a stained area of ground and a large rock. “It kept moving after, you know.”
“That was very DANGEROUS Kaoru,” Ken told his only begotten son. “But thank you.”
Kaoru shrugged, as non-committally as any twelve year old can while displaying his first kill. “The doctors will want to know what type it was.”
They didn’t have long to wait for the ambulance. After dialling the emergency number, Keigo had followed the path a short distance and discovered that it reconnected with the road into town on the other side of the ridge. He and Crawford continued to do the talking while Ken helped Shinji get strapped into a seat and Kaoru handed over his dead snake, with great solemnity. It was a relief to see the thing decanted securely into a sealed container although Shige made sure he got some photographs first. Crawford elected to travel with Shinji to the hospital. Ken waved them off reluctantly, glancing at his wristwatch as the vehicle disappeared down the hill.
“We can get a taxi,” Keigo said, coming to stand beside him.
“He’ll be okay.” Ken was reasonably confident about it. "He needed to be in hospital within a couple of hours so there’s plenty of time. I don’t think he’ll be feeling up to visitors for a while though.”
“Was it very poisonous?” Kunimitsu asked.
“The worst,” Kaoru replied. “It had a horn on its head.”
“He’ll still be fine,” Ken said firmly. “What matters is that he gets to the hospital for antitoxins.”
“You’re very knowledgeable about all this,” Shige chipped in, leaning forward so he could look Ken in the face. “Are snakes a big risk in flower shops these days?”
“Shut up Shige!” Wrapping his arm around the boy’s neck in a loving chokehold took the sting out of his words. Ken appreciated the attempt to change the mood. And truthfully, in that moment, he was feeling quite proud of his boys. They’d all kept their heads and acted like a team. Once Crawford got over being pissed at him and phoned from the hospital, he’d take them all out for ice cream. It would give Shinji something to complain bitterly about, at length, when he felt better.
And Ken could tell the others that he’d learned everything he knew from Kaoru’s scouting manual later. When it was all just a distant happy memory.
Ken tore his eyes from the road, and the vista of sparkling sea and haze shrouded islands beyond it, when he felt someone tugging at the hem of his vest.
“Ken.” Keigo was frowning. “Where’s your shirt?”
Hidakas on holiday.
“Do you,” Ran began, then changed his mind, disguising the inappropriate thought behind another sip of his mai tai. Of course Ken hadn’t missed it.
“Do I what?” The younger man was keeping a watchful eye on the kids as they splashed about but he turned around when Ran spoke.
“It’s nothing,” Ran insisted, wishing it was. “I just...” He made a vague gesture down his chest and then looked across the pool, to where Crawford was drying himself off after his swim.
“Western men are much hairier than Japanese,” Aya-chan said brightly. The minx. “My brother wants to know if it bothers you.”
“Your brother is now mortified,” Ran replied, glaring across the table, but Ken was just laughing. “He does get a bit shaggy when he’s wet. You should see him in the shower.”
“I’d really rather not,” Ran muttered.
“Is it bad?” Aya-chan was still resolutely impervious to embarrassment.
“It’s okay,” Ken admitted, a hint of blush appearing under his tan. “I mean, I obviously don’t dislike it and it would be kind of weird if he waxed.” Ken had done that for a mission once and never again. A more cheerful thought occurred to him. He leaned in confidingly, seeing that the American was now on his way over. “Can you imagine? It hurts like shit right, sorry Aya, and he’d know it was going to.”
“We all know it’s going to,” Aya-chan said pertly, lowering her newly shaped eyebrows in a frown. “But oh yes!”
Ran smiled politely into his mai tai as Crawford approached. He could appreciate Ken’s way of thinking but the relationship still baffled him.
The boys were having breakfast on the terrace when a furious Ken followed Crawford outside to the car.
"Dad wouldn't touch it," Kaoru said firmly.
"You said that this morning," Shige pointed out. "And that's when the only designer label he'd ever met was Adidas. We might just have created a monster."
"Your children are talking about us," said Crawford, still tying the belt on his robe as he emerged from the bathroom.
Ken was flaked out on the bed wearing nothing but his jeans. "Funny how they always become 'my kids' when they're trying to use secret surveillance equipment."
"If they were mine, they'd be succeeding," Crawford pointed out reasonably. He removed the towel he'd draped around his neck after washing his hair, and folded it over the back of a chair. "Those jeans aren't new."
"They're comfortable," Ken said, turning the page of his magazine. "I think Keigo wanted the shop to take them off and burn them but I'm not giving up everything I like."
"They're full of holes." The mattress dipped as Crawford sat down.
"So nothing," Crawford replied, hooking his finger through one of the tears. "I'm sure we can compromise."
“I don’t think we’ve been properly introduced,” Crawford remarked when the boys ran inside to collect their fishing nets.
Ken had been expecting the moment but his stomach performed an interesting gymnastic manoeuvre all the same. “This is Reiko,” he started, trying not to sound apologetic, although he wasn’t entirely sure who he’d be apologising to.
“His wife,” Reiko added, putting her arm around Ken’s waist.
“Kaoru’s mother,” Ken finished.
“How interesting,” Crawford replied, after the very briefest of pauses. And then to Ken, in a distressingly familiar, measured cool tone. ”That sounds like a conversation we haven’t had yet.”
Meanwhile, down on the beach.
“I thought your mother was dead,” Shinji said bluntly, when the situation was explained.
“It’s been an interesting week,” Keigo grumbled, while Kaoru pretended to be deaf.
Crawford was upset but naturally he couldn’t admit it, so he just made everyone else’s life miserable instead.
“What the fuck was that for?” Schuldig asked, when Shinji fled crying upstairs. Kunimitsu, being more like his father, had silently stomped off to the tennis court, where the rhythmic slap of a ball being slammed around would shortly be grinding on everyone’s nerves. From his refuge in the kitchen, Nagi fleetingly contemplated inviting Keigo over to finish the job.
“You’ve never mentioned Hidaka’s wife,” Crawford said accusingly.
No situation in the world existed which the American couldn’t blame on someone else.
“No really,” Nagi said on the phone to Mamoru later. “It’s been the absolutely worst trip ever. Schuldig and Brad aren’t speaking. The kids have run away from home. Hidaka’s a wreck.”
He broke off to have a swig of diet coke. Junk food was bad for him but he was celebrating after all.
“I like Reiko, though, she’s a total queen bitch. Who knew that Ken had it in him?”
Mamoru murmured a mild protest. Nagi switched to speakerphone while he helped himself to pizza. “All right, yes, Kritiker’s intelligence isn’t that bad. But you still haven’t met her.”
Ken took Shige to the burger bar after football practice. It was their weekly routine. A reward to Shige for actually practising and the only time, generally, which they just spent with each other. Generally, Ken quite liked it.
This week was possibly the exception.
“Reiko’s very bossy,” Shige was observing, around a mouthful of burger. “But Kaoru isn’t and you’re not, really, so that’s sort of interesting.”
“If you say so.” Ken passed Shige a napkin to wipe ketchup from his fingers.
And Brad’s bossy too,” Shige added, assuming an air of naiveté which would never have fooled anyone.
“You do know where babies come from?”
With the house to themselves, Schwarz were picnicking on the rug in front of the fire. It was just like old times, except for the absence of Farfarello dismembering targets behind the sofa.
“Some of them come from a large vat in a Rosenkreuz facility,” Crawford reminded Schuldig scathingly.
“Very good, I correct myself. You know where other people’s babies come from?”
“Yes Schuldig.” Crawford leaned back against the sofa, sighing deeply. “I realise that Ken sleeps with women. I preferred them to stay out of sight.”
“In the past.” Nagi nodded sagely.
"What are you doing?” Ken asked, when Reiko stepped out of the house wearing one of his shirts and a pair of denim cutoffs.
“We’re building a den,” Reiko replied, brushing her hair behind her ears. “It’ll be fun. Remember that?”
“That’s not what I meant,” Ken muttered to himself. The boys had been collecting debris for days now and there had been lots of excited talk about pirates and tree houses.
Ken leaned on his workbench, watching until they’d all disappeared into the forest. Reiko was fun when she wanted to be. But she never wanted to stick around.
Ken woke up before the alarm, which was slightly after Crawford, who had already arisen and was sitting on the side of the bed, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes before he rooted around blindly for his glasses. Ken rolled over onto his side, kicking his legs free of the entangling duvet and a hitherto slumbering cat as he did so.
“Two deadly assassins, ready for anything,” he yawned widely.
“So long as it’s not first thing in the morning.” Crawford had found his glasses (where they always were) and shrugged into a robe.
“I was always more of a nightbird,” Ken admitted, hugging one of the pillows. “The kids don’t have to be up for an hour yet.”
“Otherwise known as an hour of blessed peace,” Crawford replied serenely. Although Ken said the same things pretty much every morning. He could have set his watch by the next question, had he ever had need.
“I don’t know why you bother with an alarm. I mean, don’t you know it’s about to go off anyway?”
“Well it wouldn’t be if I didn’t set it.” Crawford observed reasonably, pulling Ken’s pillow away after a brief halfhearted tussle. “And half the working population wake up before their alarms. The other half are late, which is what you will be if you’re not up and making breakfast by seven. Come and have a shower.”
Ken had flopped back onto the mattress, where he was doing a passable impression of a starfish, if starfishes were tanned and muscular and wore way too many clothes in bed. He smiled beatifically at the light fittings. “Is it one of those showers?”
“It’s always one of those showers.” Crawford threw the pillow back at him before disappearing through the bathroom door.
After years of ripping humans apart, when Hidaka Ken first held his son Kaoru, it was his secret fear that he’d look at the baby and see nothing but gristle.
What he actually felt was fear itself, a massive surging terror.
The one million things that could harm him or take him away?
Something like that.
You and every other parent, Schuldig replied.
Fortunately for them both, Ken’s team had rallied round. Thanks to Yuki, the Koneko’s new nursery had state of the art monitoring technology. Kryptonbrand were diligent in health checks. And there was never a shortage of babysitters, whether it was Uncle Michel volunteering for bathtime or Uncle Ran, looking strangely maternal, toting Ken’s kid around the shop in a sling. Nana stepped in when the Uncles were absent.
Thanks to - and sometimes despite - their layers of protective care, Kaoru was growing up well. Tall for his age, robustly healthy, independent and smart, if unaccountably stubborn. Ken blamed the Fujimiya influence for that…
And you want me to embrace this?
“It’s a good thing,” Ken replied. “It means you care for someone more than yourself.”
“I ask again,” Schuldig said, turning to favour him with a cynical glance.
Ken shrugged. “If you don’t you don’t.”
Their kids were playing down by the shore line. Ken had bought them fishing nets and buckets in a local store but these had been abandoned quickly in favour of splashing about in the waves. It was a school day so they had the beach mostly to themselves and the novelty of getting wet in their clothes, which Ken expected to regret shortly. He and Schuldig were situated further up the beach, Schuldig perched on a large flat rock, while Ken burrowed around in the shingle. From time to time he found the exact right pebble, sliding it from one hand to the other while he considered the weight and shape, and then adding it to the precariously balanced stack he was building on a patch of sand.
“I would not tell anyone this, even you,” Schuldig eventually replied.
“You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t care at all. You didn’t make the trip for the weather.” They’d had many such discussions, fragmented and inconclusive, since Schwarz first approached Ken with their offer. For obvious reasons, there wasn’t a lot of trust to build on.
Up on his rock, the German was a study in angles, sitting cross legged and bare armed in his skinny jeans and teeshirt. He was leaning forward, one elbow resting on his raised knee and a cigarette held loosely between his long fingers. Sea breezes fluttered his hair into his eyes. In Tokyo, he’d been startling and vivid and terrifying but out here he was pale and thin and almost normal. He reminded Ken of a crane fly and occasionally of Yohji. Schuldig lifted the cigarette to his wide smiling mouth and blew smoke in Ken’s general direction.
Yohji’s better looking, Ken thought deliberately.
“The part about the weather is right,” Schuldig said promptly. Their excursion into Wales had coincided with a week of rain, which hadn’t surprised Ken but had frustrated the German, who was already less than enthusiastic about indulging Ken’s fit of nostalgia. But Ken was saying goodbye to part of his life, to most of it really, and it made sense to give the boys time to get to know each other before everyone was uprooted. And besides, this was where Kaoru was born.
Ken balanced his exactly perfect pebble on top of his little rocky tower and shuffled away from it before standing and brushing the sand off his clothes. Schuldig held the cigarette out suggestively and Ken sat on the rock beside him, glancing furtively towards the boys before accepting the offer.
“Your one vice,” Schuldig said ironically as Ken inhaled, then coughed. “Kudoh said you never smoked your own.”
“You never spoke to Yohji,” Ken said, frowning as he passed the cigarette back.
“A good point,” Schuldig replied, unabashed. “It wasn’t me he said it to of course. I was very shocked all the same. Your body is your temple or something like that.”
Ken favoured him with a long and meaningful look. “You know I wasn’t really planning on a long life, especially when you bastards kept trying to end it.”
“Ja ja,” Schuldig said casually, drawing Ken’s attention back to the present. The boys were climbing up the shingle towards them. “And if you do not buy the cigarettes you do not have them in the house. Crawford used to say the same boring thing. You must get Takatori to introduce you properly in Tokyo, I am sure you will become excellent friends.“ Then he smiled brilliantly. “Hello kinder. What can your loving father do for you now? By which I mean this loving father, of course,” he clarified, patting Ken’s knee in a robust show of affection.
“There’s a jellyfish,” Kaoru said breathlessly. “In the water. I think it’s dead though.”
“It looks like giant snot,” Shige said, with extra descriptiveness.
“Hang on,” Ken said, checking the shuttle boarding passes for the umpteenth time. “These seats aren’t all together.”
“Well, we are a large party,” Mamoru replied blithely, apparently unperturbed by Ken’s look of utter disbelief. Travelling with a wealthy precognitive usually had its advantages.
“The boys are going to sit with Wufei,“ Nagi intoned.
“It will be absolutely fine,” Crawford assured him. “We will enjoy a quiet and restful flight and Chang will enjoy being a man of honour and restraint. I’m assuming you have brought the ropes,” he added to his neighbour.
“Preventer issue,” Wufei replied sombrely.
As it turned out, travelling with a wealthy precognitive, and his even wealthier boyfriend, did confer some advantages. All three boys were invited to the flight deck and Ken lived his dream, of watching Kaoru see space for the first time. With a whole new galaxy of stars behind him, the captain explained the mission controls and course trajectory. At least, that’s what Ken thought he was explaining.
“I thought you’d enjoy this,” Crawford murmured beside him.
“I can fix a bike,” Ken grumbled.
Crawford laughed, not unkindly. “They’ll throw him out in a minute.”
“He’ll be back,” Ken replied.
Of course, after the excitement of take-off, and the amazement at seeing Planet Earth from afar, came the reality that space travel (as a passenger) was actually quite dull.
“It’s just a posh bus,” Shige complained. “Except you can get off a bus.”
“You can get off a shuttle,” Wufei growled, “with help.”
“Hey dude,” a familiar voice boomed through Arrivals. “How was the trip?”
“Maxwell,” Wufei nodded curtly, already the epitome of calm and dignity while Ken, feeling as harried as he looked, struggled with the hand luggage.
Duo bounded over to them, offering his hand to Crawford and Mamoru and slinging his arm around Ken Junior’s shoulders. “Looks like someone hit the duty free.” He eyed the pile of bags.
“Our resident shopaholic,” Mamoru grinned.
“I do have a credit card,” Keigo acknowledged demurely.
“Well, that's cool.”
“And probably unnecessary, once Quatre gets hold of him.” Trowa had joined them more quietly.
A small army of Winner retainers turned up to convey the visitors, and their increasing luggage, to the house which had been provided for them, just south of the colony’s thriving capital.
“Everything looks so old,” Shige remarked, as they drove through town. “But shiny.”
“It does have that newly polished gleam,” Trowa conceded, turning in the front passenger seat to talk to them. “Relena wanted to create a brave new kind of colony but Quatre’s sentimental, so we’ve ended up with Sanc.”
“In spaaace!” three boys chorused.
“Yes,” Trowa replied. As if he hadn’t heard it fifty times already.
“I don’t bloody know,” Ken grumbled. He’d been frowning at Ran’s laptop screen for at least ten minutes. In that time, the thundering sound of feet on the ceiling had been replaced by screeches and shouting and the occasional crash, and he still hadn’t worked out the weekly food order.
“Keigo didn’t want to hand over the iPad,” Michel informed them both, wearily, as he pushed the hall door shut. “Said you should have got them one each.”
“I shouldn’t have got them that one,” Ken retorted. “Apple are fucking evil.”
"That happens every time it rains," Ken pointed out before joining him on the step. And then, "Oh."
They couldn't quite decide if the view outside was misty or light or dark. They'd never really seen nothing before.
"Well, this is exciting," Crawford announced, when nothing had happened (some more) for several minutes. He sounded a little bitter, which Ken supposed he was, professionally.
Kaoru was checking resources. The electricity was still running and so, apparently, was the Internet.
"Does that mean Tesco delivery?" Shige asked.
"It's snowing!" Kurumi said excitedly, placing her hand on his shoulder as she leaned forward to get a better look. "Maybe we'll have a white Christmas?"
Ken held his own hands under the running stream of water from the tap, scrubbing them clean, before wiping them dry on his butcher's apron. "It might not settle."
The snow was melting into tiny puddles in the Koneko's back yard. Nothing like the blizzards and ice up north that they'd seen on the news.
"Spoilsport," Kurumi scolded.
With his limited English, the cooking instructions weren't making much sense.
"Why would they put a bag inside it?"
"It's for the gravy," Kurumi explained, pushing her hair behind her ears. "You stew the giblets with seasoning then sieve them out. Some people give them to their cats."
"We haven't got a cat," Ken reminded her, making a face as he shoved his hand inside the bird. He had seen intestines and organs before but pulling the neck out of a turkey was gross even by his standards.
Kurumi reminded him pertly to check both ends.
The shop doorbell pinged regularly throughout the afternoon and a succession of cars pulled up outside. Snow soon turned into slush.
Kurumi was in charge of peeling sprouts and roast chestnuts, a job she could do sitting down. Ken had his back to her while he mixed stuffing and tried to work out from the recipe where the sausages and bacon came in. She made them both tea.
"That man was here again this morning." Kurumi replaced the kettle on its plate, sounding puzzled. "The one Aya doesn't like."
Ken glanced meaningfully over his shoulder.
"The American one," Kurumi giggled.
"Oh him," Ken said, after a moment's silence. He put the mixing bowl down. "I don't like him much either. What did he want?"
"Yuki said he left us a present, and a card." Kurumi leaned back in her chair, resting one hand on the bump which was now very noticable beneath her outsized West Ham teeshirt. "Was that nice of him? I'm not sure. He always gives me such strange looks. Chloe thinks we should take everything to hospital for an xray."
"Bloody hell," Ken muttered, before remembering that he wasn't supposed to swear in front of the baby.
It was dark outside now, saving the pale yellow light that spilled from the house. The snow was sweeping downwards in luminous swirls and the grass and the walls and the window ledge were all thickly coated in sparkling white. Ken opened the back door, letting chilly air into the kitchen while he listened to the soft, smothered sound outside.
Michel had put glitter in Kurumi's hair when the shop finally closed, and made her little earrings from tinsel. Pink was never her colour but Ken couldn't help liking her best in his faded old trackpants and the silly decorations.
A sudden burst of noise from the front of the house proclaimed that the others were home.
Ken closed the door behind him, turning in time to see Ran duck into the kitchen, dressed like a yeti and brushing droplets of fast melting snow from his hair. Aya-chan was still in the hall, wrestling Mei Mei out of her coat and mittens while Shige and Keigo gleefully stomped snow across the floor tiles. Kaoru toddled sturdily behind them. It was their first family Christmas.
"You've hardly started," Ran pointed out, surveying the array of food and utensils on the table.
Memories were like a mote of dust in the eye. Ken blinked to clear them.
The estate agent sent details of a nice place in Fulham. Ken didn't know if that was upmarket or downmarket but Chelsea had a veranda and Fulham had a garden. Grass made for less scraped knees. Of course, the boys wanted the converted school house, with playground, until Crawford got the estimated bill for repairs.
Free shuffled cards.
Three irresistable objects... meet immovable force.
Ken didn’t plan on teaching Kaoru before school. He’d never been an attentive student himself and was morbidly fearful of passing on bad habits. However, Kaoru seemed to be a bright child and was ready to move on from simple shapes and colours. Abe took the initiative on a shopping trip to Beppu, leaving a paintbox and flash cards on the kitchen table, with a primer to remind Ken how he was supposed to write.
As an afterthought, next day, he obtained a plastic sheet for the table from the village store.
And eventually kicked them both onto the porch.
Ken had never been big but he had good arms and a strong back. He was popular in the shiitake depot whenever there was manual lifting to be done and his father regularly farmed him out to the town’s old folks on his days off. Sometimes they took Kaoru and his friend Hiro along, so they could ride in a van.
Fuyumi-san looked about as old as the Oka castle but had been, in Abe’s words, a bit of a girl, in her day. Her house was stuffed to overflowing with books, cats and other paraphenalia she wouldn’t be taking to her daughter’s small city apartment. Ken had cleared half the living room out before they even noticed the piano. Kaoru naturally wanted to play.
Ken lifted Kaoru over the boxes and sat him awkwardly on one knee, helping him pick out his favourite song on the rickety keys with one hand, harmonising somewhat eratically with the other.
“You’d break your mother’s heart,” Abe said from the doorway, little Hiro gawking beside him. “All those lessons.”
Mama had insisted he did something as well as football. Ken shrugged, remembering. He’d been better with flowers.
“Wanna sing along?” he asked the kids, mainly to wind his dad up.
“God help us,” Abe muttered, disappearing outside.
Of course, after that, they wanted to eat dango.
Abe moved their portable television into the corner of the kitchen and Ken turned it on for Oka-san to Issho while he cooked. Hiro and Kaoru occupied themselves at the new formica-topped table, drawing crayon cartoons, arguing over which dumpling was coolest and wistfully dreaming of life in a family with three brothers.
Ken sang along noisily (and without much tune) as he kneaded the rice flour, and skewered his dango balls with a flourish. Abe muttered something about grown men with no dignity, and retrieved a beer from the fridge.
"Is he completely fucking insane?" Schuldig was still ranting. "Even Farf knew not to do this shit at home."
"There were exceptional circumstances," Crawford placated.
"Bullshit. And another thing, my kid's here, he's probably been traumatised for life-"
"He's right," Ken murmured, when Schuldig had slammed outside.
Crawford sighed impatiently. "You know, Ken, the one thing that makes this orgy of guilt tolerable is your touching faith that Schuldig is motivated by parental concern." He reached for the tv remote.
"It doesn't matter that he means it," Ken exclaimed bitterly. "It matters that it's true."
Crawford insisted on normality. They took the boys to the park next morning. Ken rounded them up to play ball while Crawford sat on his usual bench, skimming through papers.
Ken joined him, half an hour later, looking harassed and out of breath.
"Shige's acting really wild today."
"Shige's always wild."
Crawford folded his papers away and removed his glasses. "He ate like a pig at breakfast and managed to irritate Kunimitsu at least three times. He seems healthy and unaffected."
He'd also been bragging to the others, but Ken would prefer not to know.
“Is that where he stabbed you?” Shige was all ghoulish curiosity as he poked at the bandaged area. Shinji and Kaoru leaned forward beside him, eyes round.
“I didn’t stab him,” Ken lied, slapping the blond boy’s hand away. “It was a kitchen accident.”
“Which is you should never play with knives,” Crawford intoned from the doorway.
Yohji made an odd grunting sound and reached for the morphine dispenser. "I'd tell you not to make me laugh," he grumbled. "But it's not actually funny - oh bugger." He'd exceeded the maximum dosage.
"Yohji," Ken protested, looking pained. "Language..."
Hidaka wasn't there.
The young English woman next door chewed gum and shruggged her shoulders when he asked. He's probably at work. Ran gritted his teeth silently over foreign manners.
The apartment was unlocked and nobody objected when he pushed the door open and went inside.
Ken had tidied. And cleaned, judging by the lemony smell about the place. His mattress had been put away, his clothes folded neatly into a case in one corner. His dishes were dried and stacked on the table.
A child's picture was pinned to the wall. Perhaps he was coaching again.
The mission in Rome went smoothly. Kyo seemed capable, Sena needed managing. He had Omi's sharp eyes and Ken's impetuous temper but lacked the raw instinct for killing. He was also young.
They didn't need to go back to Japan straight away. Ran wasn't much for sightseeing but it would pass time. He avoided the churches (which were many) and found himself outside the Colosseum on a white hot afternoon. A gaggle of American tourists thronged around an elderly trumpet vendor. Ran had been wanting to kill the man slowly for several minutes.
Ken would have helped.
Crawford had been in the same hospital as Yohji, until Yohji was moved away for more specialist care. Mamoru didn't tell him where. The young Takatori was busy stepping into the shoes of his dead father and brothers.
Ran encountered Schuldig in the carpark, one arm in a sling, smoking a cigarette he'd been denied indoors.
"How is he?"
"Alive. More of a bastard than ever." Schuldig said something in German which was probably obscene. "Are you really planning to visit?"
"You should know," Ran replied.
Schuldig blinked. "Ja, I did. Just seemed too funny to be true."
Ran went to America, and then to England. England was always raining.
They had a mission which involved football. Ran was glad that Ken had missed it, especially when he read the player profiles. In summer, Yohji surprised him by turning up with his wife. Not that he knew he was Yohji.
Schwarz's arrival was completely expected.
Chloe and Schuldig shared a mild contempt for the Welsh but a healthy respect for the Irish. Crawford looked older, and well. He was a businesslike associate but spent a lot of time on the phone.
He also had pictures in his wallet.
Mamoru called him at 2am, apologising.
"What's wrong?" Ran had been asleep.
"Yohji-kun is missing." Mamoru sounded oddly young over the phone, and hesitant, like he thought he was in trouble.
"Missing from what?"
"From home. Asuka was here. She says he went on a business trip three nights ago and hasn't returned."
The heating was off and Ran's room was cold. "Did she say where?"
"Osaka, somewhere, but there's no evidence he actually left Tokyo."
"Did he take his watch?" Ran asked slowly.
They sat in baffled silence, miles apart.
"Actually," Crawford replied. "I have something that belongs to you. "
Presumably he'd judged that Ken had calmed down sufficiently because he put the gun back in his desk drawer and locked it. "Would you like to see?"
"See what?" Ken asked, tiredly.
The nursery school was in the suburbs. It had a tree lined lawn and a plastic paddling pool, currently unfilled. The older children were playing on a jungle gym.
"I don't get it," Ken said, eyes fixed on the child by the sandpit. "Are you threatening me?"
"Not at all." Crawford smiled blandly. "I thought you'd be pleased."
Crawford drove them back to his house, Ken sitting silent in the car while he worried about the morning's revelations. He didn't like to think of Yuriko walking away like that, although she was young and he knew she didn't have family.
Ken couldn't have raised a child alone either, not that he was any more suitable.
The boy had looked healthy, Ken thought, even if he didn't seem to play much with the other children. Admittedly, the other children were all Schwarz.
"Come on." Crawford was holding the door open for him. Ken hadn't even noticed that they'd stopped.
"You said it was a reward for good behaviour," Ken reminded him hesitantly. "I haven't - "
"Behaved yet?" Crawford supplied, leaning back in his chair. Ken felt like a fool for mentioning it but he wanted to get to the point.
Crawford was in less of a rush, apparently, only giving half his attention to Ken as he scrolled through the files on screen.
Nonetheless, he reached out, sliding his hand under the hem of Ken's teeshirt as he drew him closer. Ken's mouth was dry.
"Don't worry," Crawford told him, pressing cool fingers to Ken's warm skin. "You will."
Crawford wasn't in the bed when Ken awoke. He could hear him talking in the next room. Ken pushed the quilts aside, mentally reviewing the places that hurt. Crawford had hard hands.
The shower felt good. A robe had been left on the bed but Ken preferred his own clothes. He padded barefoot into the lounge, where Crawford was already back at work with a pile of books and papers. He was fully dressed, his jacket draped over the back of his chair.
The welcome aroma of coffee drifted through from the kitchen.
"Help yourself," Crawford said, without looking up.
Ken hadn't thought about staying the night, although he didn't have any other place to be. Besides which-
"In the morning," Crawford said, correctly divining his thoughts. "You can take him out for the day."
"Thanks," Ken murmured. Crawford ruffled his hair, unexpectedly.
"You can do me a favour and take them both out. Rumour has it-"
"That I'm good with kids. Yeah, I know." Ken moved into Crawford's embrace, starting to like this set up much more than he'd imagined. "I could take them to the park and-"
"Really," Crawford cut in. "You don't need to finish that sentence."
"I didn't really know why you wanted me," Ken confessed.
It was spring and they'd taken the boys south for the holidays. They were lined along the river bank wih the tourists, pretending to fish.
"They've noticed the buckets being emptied into the water upstream," Crawford observed, watching them. "As for you," -he glanced sideways at Ken- "You could always try using a mirror."
"People don't usually mean that in a good way," Ken protested.
Crawford eyed his crumpled teeshirt significantly.
"But Shige says I make you feel young," Ken finished, grinnng. He'd had years to find Crawford's weak spot.
A school night in summer. Crawford retired to the office. Ken dealt with the fights over the television and the late homework. At bedtime, he took the trash out.
"Well, you look well on it," a familiar voice said from the shadows.
"I heard you'd become a mafia wife."
"I heard you'd lost your memory." Ken couldn't see clearly in the darkness but he'd smelled the cigarette smoke when he opened the door.
"I got it back." Yohji stepped into the light, cradling a freshly lit marlboro in one gloved hand.
Ken exhaled heavily.
It started when Takatori died.
Ken wasn't sorry to leave Weiß. He couldn't get his old life back but that had turned out to be a great big lie anyway. He liked kids, he liked coaching and he liked not killing. The new life was okay.
Crawford, it turned out, used the same bloody jogging track.
And Ken was a sucker.
It was bound to end badly. Schreient turned up and his boyfriend kidnapped Aya-chan. "We were on a break" sounded lame in his own ears. Aya would slice him in half.
Ken stayed quiet.
The museum fell.
Crawford ran him down first in Osaka. Ken had decided privately that the man must use radar, not precognition.
"Ken-seeking radar?" Crawford laughed loudly, shaking the bed, when Ken made the mistake of confiding. "Because you're so hot perhaps?"
"Oh shut up," Ken grumbled, rolling to the edge of the mattress.
Crawford was still chuckling when he pulled him back.
"If you stopped running, I wouldn't have to keep finding you. It would be a lot less effort."
"But I don't want you to find me," Ken argued.
"Ken." Crawford sounded just like his father sometimes. "You're a terrible liar."
Crawford made another surprise appearance in Hikone, strolling right up to the trailer. "Do you sell gentians?"
"That's corny," Ken snapped at him, peering anxiously down the street. Ken naturally hadn't mentioned to the rest of Weiß that he had acquired a shadow.
"You're safe for an hour," Crawford assured him. "And I am your only customer. Close for lunch."
Ken never needed persuading to not sell flowers.
He'd thought they would go to a hotel as usual but Crawford was short of time too. They drove down to Biwa Lake and just walked.
Ken didn't get that at all.
Yokohama was a washout. Their last mission had gone badly and Crawford was tired from travel. He'd also changed something about his appearance which Ken just couldn't get used to.
"It's ash," Crawford said, before he even had the chance to ask.
"It looks grey to me," Ken persisted unwisely.
"Well look harder." Crawford brushed the hair from his brow. "Are you going to the opening tomorrow?"
"At the tower? Hell no." Ken had seen enough of the new Landmark this week. He'd nearly fallen off it twice.
Crawford looked perplexed and annoyed. "I reserved us a table for dinner."
Ken wasn't sure what the others had noticed.
Omi didn't talk to him much these days. Tonight he was sitting up front, quietly reviewing their latest directions from Kritiker while Aya drove in stoic silence.
Yohji was still wearing his mission clothes, stretched out along the top bunk, pretending to read but covertly watching Ken.
Ken had showered and changed - a necessity in his case - and occupied the narrow strip of floor in the trailer, doing warm downs. He was restless from the mission, and restless from other things too.
There'd been no news of Crawford for months.
Kyoto was nothing but silence.
It was a cold autumn night. Ken had left Reiko alone in the rain.
In the apartment, he found money and jewelry that could be sold. Ken packed them away with his bugnucks at the bottom of a borrowed bag. On second thoughts, he took one of the photos from the wall. It had been taken in the summer when Reiko was still pregnant. She looked natural and happy.
Kaoru didn't protest when he settled him into the sling. Ken could walk to the bus station. If he hurried, they'd both be free by morning.