Always Five by Sam Wallace
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Always Five (a BotP Christmas Story) by Sam Wallace

Because ISO headquarters resided within the lushly landscaped
eighteen-acre grounds of the UN Headquarters, the ISO staff and residents
were often invited to attend United Nation functions. The Christmas Carol
service was one such event. The Chief had taken Mark, Jason and Tiny the
second Christmas they had been with him. Then, when Princess and Keyop
joined the family, they too had attended the Christmas Eve service. It had
since become a special tradition for them all. Even now with both elder boys
at eighteen and living away from ISO headquarters, they still gathered
together to attend the candle-lit service within the domed General Assembly
Building. The Chief had never insisted they go, but on Christmas Eve his
five adopted children would gather in the TV room and wait for him to finish
his work. It was probably the only outside event they attended as a family
anymore.

UN delegates, their families, and UN staff attended the UN Christmas
Eve Carol Service. It created an almost unique multi-cultural, interfaith
ambience and this was reflected in the order of the service. Every year five
alternate countries would be invited to perform a carol traditional to their
shores. Usually a choir performed these. Sometimes, however, the country
representatives themselves sang, if they were particularly gifted. (Or
brave. It depended on how one looked at it.) Everyone else would then given
the chance to participate in the more traditional carols that punctuated the
five performances.

The Chief looked at his children around him now as the congregation sang
'Silent Night'. To his left Keyop, Jason and Mark. On his right Tiny and
Princess. All were singing with gusto. It still amazed him to this day how
each of them seemed to turn into the best behaved youngsters in the world
during the service, Jason particularly so. They would all sit quietly,
although not perfectly still - Keyop had the habit of fidgeting when he got
bored. Sometimes there would be whispering, but mostly they would listen
with interest whilst others performed. Then when called upon, all five would
participate in the customary carols enthusiastically, if sometimes a little
off key - Jason and Keyop. The Chief winced as Keyop hit the 'All is calm'
note and then fought back the amused smile as he caught Mark's corresponding
grimace from the corner of his eye. He missed his two elder sons now they
had moved out, one to an airstrip, one to a trailer. He still saw them
often, weekly if not daily sometimes. But it was not the same as having them
living and training under the same roof. The Chief smiled again to himself,
never would he have believed that he would've missed Jason's mischievous
antics, but he did. Terribly. Not that he would ever admit it though!

After a final rendition of the 'Silent Night' chorus everyone returned to
their seats and the UN Secretary-General took the podium. The speech droned
on, the typically indistinctive address of a politician. Then the Chief was
brought up short by an all too familiar term...G-Force. He noticed the
others were listening intently now. Even Jason, who was slouched in his seat
with folded arms, had locked onto the Secretary-General's words.

"...defended Earth against terrorist forces. We owe this special team the
gratitude of not one nation but many. On behalf of the United Nations and
indeed the World, may we wish them a safe and happy Christmas and a
victorious New Year." The whole congregation broke out into spontaneous
applause.

"Amen to that!" The Chief heard Jason intone wholeheartedly. The others were
smiling as they also clapped, playing along with their cover roles as normal
everyday kids.

The final carol was the more upbeat tune of Jingle Bells. Everyone threw
themselves into the song, booming out the chorus enthusiastically.

Jason grinned as he remembered some alternative lyrics he'd heard down at
the track which were probably far more relevant. As the song ended he leaned
across to Mark and muttered, "Dashing through the snow in my rusty
Chevrolet, down the road I go, sliding all the way. I need new piston rings.
I need some new snow tires. My car is held together by a piece of chicken
wire!" Mark clamped his jaw shut and concentrated on breathing, ignoring the
suspicious look he was getting from the Chief. Jason's eyes flashed with
amusement.

The service ended, as it always did, at 10.30pm, giving those that wished to
attend the famous Christmas Eve services at St. Thomas Church on 5th Avenue
at 53rd Street, ample time to make their way the mile or so across town. The
Chief followed his charges from the General Assembly Building into the
grounds beside the striking Secretariat Building. They all ambled through
the ornate gardens towards the ISO building.

Princess, wandering several steps ahead, turned with green eyes sparkling,
"Oh that was a beautiful service, didn't you think so?"

Jason grinned and shook his head, "Would've been a hundred times better if
someone had removed that poor cat beforehand." The Chief hid his smile.
Keyop fell into it headfirst, "What cat?"

"The one being strangled during Silent Night." Jason flashed a grin.

"Woah! Yeah!" Mark nodded, "It was real painful."

Keyop glared at their insinuation. "It wasn't me!"

"Of course it wasn't, squirt." Jason agreed and then started singing Silent
Night in a painfully high voice mimicking Keyop's earlier execution.

Tiny and Mark joined in until Keyop put his hands over his ears and pleaded,
"All right, all right! Enough already!" The Chief was laughing and shaking
his head at their terrible singing.

Mark nudged Jason, "Although," he considered, "maybe we should think about
calling you Tone."

Jason eyed him warily but it was Princess who looked puzzled, "Tone?"

Mark grinned, "As in deaf."

Jason thumped him. "Jerk!" He was laughing anyway.

Princess waited for them both to catch up then linked arms so she had one on
each side of her, "Hey be nice. It's Christmas!"

Jason checked his watch, "Not for another hour and twenty minutes."

Princess made a face at him, "So be nice for an hour and twenty minutes,
then be nice for Christmas."

Jason rolled his eyes, "Yeah, yeah okay." Mark smirked at him from behind
Princess's back.

They were glad to bundle into the elevator at ISO headquarters. It was
freezing cold outside. Princess had hoped it might snow for Christmas Day,
and indeed earlier that day the clouds had looked heavy enough to fulfil her
hopes, but the ground remained clear.

Tiny pressed the button for the 19th floor and huffed into his cold hands,
"Hey, Jason you gonna make us some hot chocolate when we get back?"
Jason shrugged, "Sure, if you like."

"Hmmm that would be nice. I'm sure the end of my nose has dropped off."
Princess rubbed it with her gloved hands as if to check.

"Oh no, it's still there." Keyop said, "Don't know how you could miss it.
It's redder than a baboon's ass!"

The Chief swiped him round the head, "Keyop!" The glare told Keyop he'd gone
too far even if the voice hadn't.

Keyop looked sheepish, "Sorry."

"I was surprised by the Secretary-General's speech." Mark said,
changing the subject quickly. He was stood at the back of the elevator,
behind the Chief, Princess and Keyop.

Jason, beside him, leaning against the elevator wall nodded, "Nice though."
Tiny agreed, "Yeah. Let's hope that Spectra gives us Christmas off."

Princess paled. "You don't think they'd attack on Christmas Day do you?" she
looked at the Chief.

The Chief frowned, "I've had no intelligence reports saying as such, but you
never can be sure."

Princess's face had fallen, "I hadn't even thought about it. I thought we'd
have Christmas together, as a family."

Keyop hugged her, "We will. Won't we Mark?" he glared across at his brother,
willing him to tell her that everything would be all right.

Mark caught the message, "Yeah, of course we will." He exchanged glances
with Jason.

The elevator doors slid open at the 19th floor and they all
disembarked.

Chief took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes, "Well
guys, I'm off to bed."

"You won't have a hot chocolate with us?" Princess sounded surprised.
The Chief shook his head gently, "No. It's been a long day. And I need my
strength for tomorrow. Having all five of you on top form is going to
require all my stamina." He smiled softly then said his goodnights to them
all, leaving them to warm up in the TV room.

Princess moved straight over to the artificial Christmas tree and plugged in
the lights so a soft hue of colour illuminated the room. Tiny and Keyop
threw themselves on the couch grabbing the best spots, the ones with the
cushions. Mark turned the small stereo on, tuning it to a local radio
station that was playing Christmas songs, and leaving the volume low so it
remained as background music. Jason stayed in the doorway, leaning against
the frame.

"Go and make some hot chocolate Jason. I'm freezing!" Princess ushered him
back towards the kitchen.

Jason rolled his eyes, "Geez, you'd make someone a good wife someday!"

Princess put her hands on her hips and glared at him. "See. You got that
look dead right!" Jason dodged the slap and grinning madly, retreated to the
kitchen to make the hot chocolate.

Princess planted herself on the couch wriggling up close to Keyop, stuffing
her cold feet under her brother's curled up legs.

"Eeew! Go sit somewhere else!" Keyop made a face and tried to squirm further
away, "You're cold!"

Princess grinned, "Oh, go on. Just let me warm my feet."

"Get lost!" Keyop's face screwed up in annoyance and used his feet to kick
her feet away from him.

Princess laughed and tucked up her offending limbs underneath herself, "Oh
well, it was worth a try."

Mark sat down heavily between Princess and Tiny, squishing himself in the
small gap left.

Tiny glared at him and shuffled up further to make
room, "Gee, why don't you sit down Mark?"

"Shut up and move over, fat boy." Mark grinned, raising his eyebrows with a
challenging look. Tiny thumped him. Hard.

Before Princess could react, there was a full-scale wrestling match on the
couch. She was caught in the middle as Keyop decided to launch himself into
the fray with a gleeful yell. There were screams - Keyop, howls of laughter
- Tiny, yelps of pain - Mark. Princess pushed all three off of her as she
unwittingly got caught in the brawl. "Will you guys cut it out!" She shouted
as she smacked Keyop's backside, which was sticking way too close to her
face. "It's Christmas Eve! What happened to good-will to all men?"

"Show me a man, and I'll show you some good will." Keyop muttered. Then he
squealed as Mark caught him in a headlock and Tiny grabbed his socked feet
and started tickling them.

Princess suffered another round before they broke apart breathless. "Will
you all just calm down. You're not five any more!"

Mark raked his hair back which was now looking extremely ruffled, "We're
not?" he frowned seriously, then started counting, using his fingers. "Me,
that's one. Keyop, that's two. Tiny, three. Princess, four, and Jason. I
make that five." He smirked at Princess, "Yep. We're still five."

"Ha ha." Princess poked her tongue out at him, "You know Mark, you're just
so funny."

"Hey guys?" Jason stuck his head round the door, "How do ya feel about
spicing things up a little?" he waved a bottle at them with a mischievous
grin.

Mark eyed him warily, "Alcohol?"

"I don't know, Jason. I don't want to get drunk." Princess screwed up her
nose.

Jason rolled his eyes, "It's peppermint schnapps. I was only going to put a
splash in each of the hot chocolates, it's real nice." Disbelieving faces
all round. "Come on guys! Trust me! Cassie got me into it. She and John
drink it all the time."

Mark looked more convinced. Tiny was looking positively enthusiastic,
moistening his lips with expectation. Keyop's eyes had lit up, excited by
the prospect of having alcohol for the first time. But Princess was still
dubious. "You're not going to get us drunk?"

Jason looked exasperated, "No! It's just a kick. You'll barely taste it!"
"Go on, Princess. It sounds good." Tiny licked his lips again.

Mark elbowed him in the ribs, "Thinking with your stomach again, eh Tiny?
How unusual."

"Get lost." Tiny glowered at him.

"Guys, can I have a decision before I reach retirement." Jason sighed and
leaned against the doorframe.

Princess tossed her hair back and relented, "Oh go on then. But just a
little bit!" Jason grinned triumphantly and disappeared again before she
could change her mind. Princess turned to the others, "Tell me that was the
right decision."

Tiny shrugged, "We'll soon find out."

"He's not going to do anything stupid, Princess." Mark said as he sat back,
resting his head against the soft cushion of the couch.

"Yeah well, I hope not." Princess looked unconvinced.

Keyop giggled, "I think it's cool."

Princess gave him a crushing look. "It is not cool Keyop. Not in excess
anyway. But if you are going to have alcohol, I'd rather it was like this
than covertly when everyone else is not looking." Keyop rolled his eye's
which earned him another slap. "I'm serious!" Princess scolded, "I remember
my mother drinking all the time, she was horrible and did horrible things."
Her voice dropped, "I just don't want any of us ending up like that."

Mark gently put an arm round her shoulder and squeezed, "It's not going to
happen to us, Princess. I promise." His voice was soft and kind. Princess
smiled at him appreciatively.

The door banged open, kicked by Jason who carried a tray of steaming mugs
full of his 'famous' hot chocolate, "Here you go, guys!" He put the tray on
the coffee table and handed the mugs round. He then looked accusingly at the
jammed couch, "Thanks for saving me a space. Geez, and after I've just
slaved over a hot stove." He made a suffering face.

Mark shook his head "Cut the act, we're not moving. There's a beanbag over
there. Sit you're butt on that."

Jason glared at him. "Don't ya just love Christmas. Everyone is so loving
and giving..."

"Shut up!" The occupants of the couch chorused together. Jason continued
muttering to himself and plonked down on a beanbag. For a few moments
everyone was quiet whilst they supped on their drinks.

Princess was pleasantly surprised by the taste, "Hey, this is not bad!"
"Of course." Jason smirked, taking a sip of his own.

"It's kinda pepperminty." Keyop added.

"That's the schnapps, squirt." Jason said.

Keyop grinned, "What do you think the Chief would say if he knew I was
drinking alcohol?"

"You're hardly knocking back shots, Keyop." Mark sighed, "He wouldn't mind."
Keyop looked disappointed.

"I'm not tired at all." Tiny announced, shuffling in his cramped space
earning himself a dark look from Mark, "Let's play a game or something."

"Like what?" Mark asked, clasping his mug with both hands using the heat
from the drink to warm his cold fingers.

Tiny shrugged, "I dunno. What about Monopoly?"

Jason groaned, "So we can have Property Pirate over there," he nodded at
Keyop, "crowing about his success for the next three days, I don't think
so."

Keyop poked his tongue out, "You just don't wanna play cos you suck."
Jason gave him a dark glare over the rim of his mug; "Yeah, like my Monopoly
skills are really important."

Princess stepped in, giving Keyop a look that made him shut his
mouth - silencing his retaliation, "How about a game of cards?"

Jason's eye's lit up, "Poker!"

"No!" Mark shook his head firmly. "We're not playing poker. You'll
only end up cleaning us out."

"So." Jason challenged.

"So it's Christmas, Jason. We're not going to rip each other off." Mark face
was stern.

"You're just a sore loser." Jason alluded.

"Look who's talking!" Tiny snorted, almost choking on his drink. "Last time
I played poker with you was at the track with those two mechanic's from one
of the other teams. When one of them started winning, you kept doubling the
bet until he couldn't afford to stay in. So he folded and you won with two
five's."

Jason shrugged, "If you can't stand the heat..."

Princess uncurled a leg and gently kicked Jason in the back, "Guys. This
isn't helping."

"Okay." Jason took a long sip from his mug looking thoughtful, "How about we
play truth or dare."

Mark made a face, "What a wonderful idea."

Princess looked pensive, "What if it has to be Christmassy questions only?
Nothing nasty."

Tiny nodded, "Yeah, that would be cool."

"Can I go first?" Keyop bounced, knocking Princess who almost spilt her hot
chocolate.

"Yes!" She agreed trying to catch any spillage.

Keyop sat with his forehead screwed up in deep thought. They all looked at
him expectantly.

After a minute of silence Jason sighed, "Tonight, shorty."

"Okay. Jason. Truth or dare?" Keyop's eye's flashed mischievously.

Jason groaned, "Me and my big mouth."

"You said it." Mark agreed with a wicked grin.

Jason glared at him then looked back at Keyop, "Truth."

"How many times do you fart during Christmas dinner?" Keyop smirked
triumphantly.

Princess thumped him and then looked apologetically at Jason, "You'll have
to excuse Keyop. His manner's match his size." Keyop made a face. "Now ask a
proper question. A nice one." She reiterated firmly.

Keyop looked grumpy, "Okay. What was the most expensive present you ever
got?"

Jason smiled, "That's easy. My watch from the Chief last year."

Keyop looked accusingly at his sister, "See. How boring is that. My other
question was much more interesting."

"To you maybe." Princess sighed, "I don't really care to know about other
people's bodily functions."

"Yeah, only you are that gross." Jason added with a smirk at his brother.
Princess looked at Mark, "Okay Mark. Truth or dare?"

Mark eyed her warily, "Truth."

"What would be your Christmas wish? If you could have anything." She asked
softly.

Mark took a microsecond to answer, "The end of Spectra and Zoltar."

Jason rolled his eyes, "Whoah. Didn't see that coming a mile off."

"No. It has to be personal." Princess stipulated.

Mark looked uncomfortable, "Personal?"

"Something you want, for yourself. Not for anyone else." She smiled, nudging
him gently.

Mark chewed on his lip. "I dunno. I'd guess it would be to be happy in
life."

Jason made a face, "Geez, do you have to be quite so noble?"

Mark looked indignant, "Get lost. We're not all quite as self-centered as
you."

Jason shrugged indifferently, "Your loss. I would've said a Dodge Viper.
Black, with twin white stripes running over the body."

"Now who's being predictable?" Mark retorted.

"Guys!" Princess looked annoyed, "Will you stop getting at each other! You
promised to be nice, remember?"

"Okay, you're right. I'm sorry." Mark looked at his brother pointedly,
"We're both sorry, right Jase?"

Jason nodded half-heartedly, "Yeah, sure."

"Actually, I have just thought of a question for Jason." Princess looked
over at him. "How come you have enough energy for missions, when you have
frequently been up all night mucking around with your car?"

Jason grinned, "I think you've just answered your own question." Princess
rolled her eyes.

"I have one!" Tiny spoke up. Everyone looked at him awaiting enlightenment.
"It's for you Princess. Truth or dare?"

"Truth."

"Are we okay? As a family?" at the puzzled face Tiny explained further, "You
always want us together as a family. Especially at Christmas. Sometimes I
get the feeling we let you down. I mean we're not the conventional family
are we? We fight a lot. We don't have parents..."

Princess interrupted him, "Yes we do. We have the Chief. He's our father.
Maybe not biologically, but he's the one who's been there for us all these
years." Then she smiled, "And as for you lot, despite the cynicism, insults,
sarcasm and the really annoying bad habits you all have, you're the best
family anyone could ask for. I wouldn't change you for anything." Princess
looked thoughtful, "Except perhaps getting Keyop to change his socks more
often. Make Tiny put the toilet seat back down when he's finished, getting
Jason to improve his vocabulary so it doesn't include quite so many swear
words, and get Mark to relax, stop being so serious and have some fun!" She
grinned at their indignant faces.

"I'm not always serious!" Mark protested. "I know how to have fun."

Jason snorted, "Yeah, right. Your idea of fun is reading one of those crappy
novels."

"You only say that because there are no pictures in them." Mark glared.
Jason smirked at him, "I could show you some pictures that would be a whole
lot more fun than your novels."

Mark grimaced, "Errr, no thanks. Top shelf reading is not my forte." Jason
offered a single fingered response that made Princess's eyebrows reach her
hairline.

"Guys!" Princess jabbed one elbow, winding Mark and kicked out at Jason,
catching him neatly on the shoulder, "You're at it again! Cut it out!"

Ignoring her, Jason turned and nailed a glare at his larger teammate, "Okay.
My turn. Tiny, truth or dare?"

"Why do I get you?" Tiny groaned. "Go on. Truth, only because any of your
dares would be to scary to even try."

"Tell us your ideal Christmas dinner." Jason, for once thinking of his
sister's feelings, resisted the urge to ask something a lot more speculative
and therefore much more interesting.

Tiny, taken aback for a moment by the harmlessness of the question, rubbed
his stomach dreamily. Then he inhaled deeply, as though smelling the food.
"A massive roast Turkey, with apple and chestnut stuffing. Roasted potatoes.
Carrots with butter. Parsnips." He licked his lips, "Finish it all up with a
huge Pumpkin Pie, with cream! Double helpings of everything."

"Of course." Mark added dryly.

"Now I'm hungry." Keyop frowned, "Hey, Jase. Were there any cookies?"
Jason sighed, "Yeah. Go look in the kitchen."

"Yippee." Keyop extracted himself from the couch and disappeared off to the
kitchen. As soon as he had left the room Jason hurriedly grabbed the vacant
spot snuggling himself into the warm cushion next to Princess.

She laughed at him, "He's not gonna like this!"

Jason looked smug, "Tough."

Keyop came back carrying a plate of cookies. He saw Jason and pouted, "Hey,
not fair!"

Jason smiled, "Survival of the fittest, shorty."

"What crap." Keyop pouted placing the cookies on the table and taking one
for himself. "You're mean."

Princess sighed and rolled her eyes, "Oh for crying out loud, come here. You
can sit on my lap." Keyop leapt onto her and Jason without hesitation. Both
woofed loudly as their not particularly light brother landed in a heap on
top of them.

"Make yourself comfortable why don't you." Mark muttered flinching backwards
as he ended up with Keyop's socked feet on his lap.

Keyop grinned and munched on his chocolate chip cookie, "Mmmm, this is more
like it."

"So," Princess looked at them all, "Getting back to the questions. Here's
one. You have to get one person a present. Only one person and one present.
Who would you choose to buy for?"

"Who's that to?" Tiny asked leaning across and helping himself to two
cookies.

"All of you." Princess's eyes gleamed.

"Easy. I'd buy you one Princess. Cos you're my only sister." Keyop mumbled
through a mouthful of cookie, "The rest of these dumb asses can look after
themselves."

"I'll remember that in the morning." Jason poked his brother in the ribs.
Keyop just grinned a chocolate smeared grin at him and made him laugh.

"What about you Mark?" Princess asked.

Mark frowned, "Keyop I guess. He's the youngest. Christmas doesn't mean so
much as you get older."

Keyop laughed, "Cool!"

"Do you really think so?" Princess looked curiously at Mark.

Mark shrugged, "I guess so." When he saw her look disappointed he tried to
explain his reasoning, "It's just not as exciting. It's still special. Just
not as special as when you're a kid."

Jason smiled nostalgically, "Hey do you remember that Christmas when we
stayed at the Chief's mother's house in the suburbs. She had that huge
fireplace and we told Tiny that's where Santa would be coming in..."

Mark laughed, "Oh yeah. And he then went and stuck his head up the chimney
trying to see if he could see him coming."

"He was so covered in soot. He had these little white eyes." Jason was
laughing too.

Tiny scowled at them, "You were both such jerks. I really believed you!"
"You remember the old hag's face when she saw the mess he'd made." Jason
grinned.

"Jason. It's not nice to speak ill of the dead." Princess scolded as she
elbowed him in the ribs.

"Ow! She was a hag! She hated me. I hated her." Jason held his side and
glared at his sister.

"He's right Princess. She was." Mark conceded. Tiny nodded firmly in
agreement.

"You are all terrible." Princess shook her head softly, "She was the Chief's
mother. Have some respect." Jason rolled his eyes at Mark, who hid a smile
with his hand. "If I had to buy just one gift, I'd buy the Chief something."
Princess added quietly, "He's done so much for us all. We owe him
everything."

"I often wonder where we'd be if he hadn't come along and adopted us all."
Tiny reflected.

Princess sighed, "Probably screwed up, living on the streets, drug addicts
or something."

"Not Mark." Jason interjected, "Mister Bags of Money, would've been all
right."

Mark made a face, "Jealous?"

"No." Jason retorted a little too quickly to be convincing.

"What if he hadn't found you, Jase?" Keyop whispered fearfully, imagining
what would have happened if the Chief hadn't rescued the critically injured
Jason from the Devil Star's attack on the beach all those years ago.

Jason's jaw hardened, "Then I would've been found by someone else." Mark
glanced at Jason, he could see that his brother was lying, and had probably
come to the same conclusion as everyone else in the room.

"We would've probably been separated." Princess whispered stroking Keyop's
hair absently with one hand, "They tried to keep us apart until the Chief
took us..."

"Let's not think about it." Keyop suddenly blurted, "It's scary."

"Yeah, change the subject big guy." Jason agreed quietly. His blue eyes had
lost some of the earlier light.

"Sure." Tiny felt a bit guilty that he'd sullied the mood, "I know one.
What's your earliest Christmas memory?"

Mark spoke up almost immediately, "My father coming home one Christmas
morning. He'd been away for what felt like forever. It could have only been
a couple of weeks. I must have been about five. He came strolling in on
Christmas morning with this huge parcel for me. A remote controlled plane.
Way too difficult for me to operate. But we spent all day putting it
together and then we went out and flew it." Mark smiled wistfully, "He was
really happy that day. I remember him laughing a lot." His voice dried up
and he swallowed hard. Princess leaned against him in a comforting gesture.

Keyop rubbed his eyes and yawned. "The one I really remember is my first one
with you guys." He said with a little smile, "It was just so noisy. The
Chief was trying to get everyone to sit still and open their presents one at
a time, and no one would. Jason had his open before Mark had even got his
first one. Then when Mark sat waiting patiently as the Chief had said, he
went and opened Mark's for him too."

"Yeah, you bastard." Mark leaned forward and looked across
at Jason, "I remember that too!" Jason grinned at him, "Hey, I was a kid. I
was excited."

Princess laughed, "Yeah I remember. I was still nervous of
you three. You'd been together for a couple of years and were so relaxed with
each other. I still felt like an
outsider. It was weird."

"I didn't know that." Mark looked at her with surprise.

"What?" Princess asked.

"That you felt like an outsider. Did you really?" Mark frowned.

Princess smiled, "Yeah I did. You were all boys. You were pretty boisterous.
I felt like I didn't fit in. Not for a while anyway. It soon changed of
course. After you all started beating me up as well as each other, that's
when I knew I was 'one of the guys'." She smirked at them.

Tiny laughed, "I can relate to that. When I was adopted, Mark and Jason had
already been together for a year. I remember being brought home and you both
looked at me like I was something the dog had done on the carpet."

"Yeah, and the Chief belted me one for that." Jason pointed out ruefully.
"You barely spoke English then." Mark reminded him.

Jason shrugged, "Like it mattered. The Chief knew when I was swearing at
him, English or not."

Tiny laughed again, "I remember I got smacked once cos I repeated one of
those Sicilian words you muttered. Said it to the Chief one morning. I
thought it meant 'Yes sir' because you only ever said it when he told you to
go and do something. He went mad at me, belted me on the backside and yelled
at me never to use the word asshole again. I nearly died. Nice one, Jase.
Thanks a lot!"

Jason grinned at him, "Don't say I never taught you anything."

"Oh, you taught me all right. Not to repeat anything you said unless I knew
what it meant first!" The three boys laughed.

"Hey, guys." Princess's soft voice caught their attention. They all looked
at her and she gestured at Keyop. He was fast asleep in her lap. His feet
curled up on Mark's lap, his head resting on Jason's leg.

"Guess the alcohol knocked him out." Jason mumbled.

"What that small amount?" Mark asked in disbelief.

Jason shrugged, "The kid's never had any before. It was enough to relax him,
and it is late." He checked his watch, "Hey, Merry Christmas everyone. It's
half one in the morning."

Princess checked her own watch, "So it is. Merry Christmas!" she kissed
Jason softly on the cheek, then turned and did the same to Mark. "Sorry
Tiny, can't reach you." She added, gesturing at her sleeping brother
sprawled across her legs.

"Story of my life." Tiny commented ruefully.

Princess closed her eyes and let her head drop back onto the couch, "Do any
of you miss your parents? You know, do you think of them more often at this
time of the year?"

Tiny nodded slowly, "Yeah. Especially when you're out in Central Park and
you see other kids with their Mom's and Dad's. That's kinda hard."

Mark smiled sadly, "Make's you wonder what you've missed, doesn't it."

Princess looked despondent, "I probably missed being beaten to death or
something equally horrible." She swallowed, "Things happen for a reason."

"I wonder if things hadn't worked out the way they did, if there would have
been a G-Force?" Mark reflected.

Jason snorted softly, "Yeah. They would've just found some other poor kids.
We were just convenient."

Mark looked at him sharply, "Do you really believe that?"

Jason shrugged, "I dunno what I believe. There's no point dwelling on the
past. Like Princess said, things happen for a reason."

Princess let her head droop onto Mark's shoulder, "So what was the best
present you ever gave anyone, guys?" This was nice. They were talking.
Really talking. The alcohol had probably helped, Princess thought with a
small smile. Lowered inhibitions. Even Jason's guard was down. She was
toasty warm, snuggled between her two eldest brothers. Keyop out cold on her
lap. This was how she had envisioned Christmas with her family.

Tiny yawned, "Gee, I dunno. It's probably easier to say what was the best
present I got, rather than what I gave."

"Okay, so what was the best present you got?" Princess asked.

"And food doesn't count." Mark added with a grin.

Tiny glared at him, "It has nothing to do with food actually." He shuffled
uncomfortably, "My best present was a pet rabbit. I got him when I was about
five." Tiny swallowed and looked embarrassed.

Mark and Jason were taken aback. Neither had heard of this rabbit before.
Princess leaned forward so she could look at her brother, "What was his
name, Tiny?"

"Hopper. Original eh? It was Hopper and Harper..." The corners of Tiny's
mouth turned upwards slightly.

"What happened to him?" Mark asked, trying to be sympathetic and not ruin
the mood.

"He died. After two years. I was kinda upset and didn't want another one."
Tiny bit his lip, lost in his own memories.

"That's really sad." Princess said soberly.

Tiny shrugged, "That's life I suppose."

"What about you, Jason?" Princess looked back at her distinctly silent
sibling.

"Best present?" Jason screwed up his nose, "Geez, I dunno." He thought for
a few moments then his face softened, "I don't about what I got, but the
best I gave, I guess, would be the locket." His voice had dropped almost to
a whisper.

"Locket?" Princess asked gently.

Jason nodded, "Just before my parents were killed my father helped me pick
out this locket for my mother. When you opened it up it had a picture of me
and my father in it." He stared into his mug not daring to look up. "I don't
remember much about it. I just have this really strong image of the locket
in my mother's hands when I gave it to her. She was in tears." He felt
Princess touch him on the arm, but Jason still did not look up.

Princess gave Mark a meaningful look - say something. Mark fought for
something to respond with, "Maybe the Chief knows what happened to it?" He
suggested.

Jason shook his head letting his hair fall into his eyes, "No. I asked once,
after the memory came back. He's never seen it."

A silence fell.

Tiny yawned again and shuffled lower into the couch, resting his head on the
arm. Mark smiled softly and took a final sip at his chocolate, draining the
mug and placing it back on the coffee table carefully so as not to disturb
the sleeping Keyop. "So Princess, what would you like for Christmas?"

Princess looked thoughtful and leaned her head against Jason, her hand had
not moved from his arm. She knew he was pretty upset but would be the last
person to admit it, the touch would be a comfort to him. She sighed, "A
peaceful New Year. A life for us all. A real life. One without death,
destruction and horror."

"Not much chance of that, Sweetheart." Jason muttered softly.

Mark rubbed his eyes, "We can all hope, can't we? Maybe we'll defeat
Spectra..."

Jason snorted, "Yeah, maybe. One day. In our dreams."

"You don't think we will?" Princess moved her head so she could see Jason's
dark blue eyes.

Jason shrugged, "I don't know. This past year we've been through hell and
back. How long till one of us doesn't make it?"

Princess shuddered visibly, "Please, don't say something like that."

"Just facing reality." Jason's eyes had hardened.

"It's not going to happen, Jason." Mark's voice, firm and reassuring. "We
are all going to get through this, together." Jason didn't argue. It wasn't
what he believed, but this was not the time or the place to go into their
mortality.

A gentle snore got their attention. Mark smiled, "That's the big guy out for
the count."

"I'm not surprised. He put away a huge dinner tonight." Princess giggled.

"I'm sure he eats more in one sitting than a small third world nation does
in a year." Jason sighed.

Mark yawned, "As long as he still has the strength of three men, I don't
care."

"Until the day he can't fit down a corridor..." muttered Jason.

Princess glared at him again, "Can't you be nice for one day!" she hissed at
him half-sternly. Jason gave her a sheepish grin to show he hadn't meant
anything by it and she broke out into a smile, "You're incorrigible."

"I could think of a whole list to add to that," Mark said, then laughed as
Princess's eyes flashed dangerously, "But I won't because its Christmas."

"Good." Princess started to smile but it turned into a stifled yawn, "Oh, I
am tired."

Jason looked at their baby brother, "I don't think any of us are going
anywhere tonight."

Mark grimaced, "For once, Jason, I think you're right."

"Shit. It must be Christmas!" Jason's profanity was rewarded by a slap on
the arm from Princess.

"So, my cynical second, what do you want for Christmas?" Mark asked with a
grin.

Jason let his head drop on the back of the couch, "Other than a girlfriend
who doesn't blow up, die or turn out to be a Galactor spy? I dunno...for the
Chief to get off my back about everything. To win next years Group
Championship. To get to participate in the Daytona 500. To live to see my
21st birthday." His voice had dropped again.

"They are all possible." Princess pointed out firmly, "You have to have
hopes and dreams Jason, we have to believe that one day all this will be
over, and we will have normal lives. Families even."

"What me? I don't think so." Jason laughed quietly.

"Why not?" Princess asked.

"Because no one is ever going to want to hang round with me for that long,
Princess. I am not the marrying type. Just me, my car and my trailer, that's
all I need." Jason brushed her off. Mark didn't believe it for a
microsecond. If anyone needed a loving, long term, stable relationship it
was Jason.

Princess obvious shared his opinion, "You are such a fraud. You would make a
wonderful husband, and a good father."

Jason's head shot up. He grimaced, "Err yeah, right. Not in this lifetime,
Honey."

Princess rolled her eyes, "Oh sorry, forgot you're such a tough guy. You
can't keep this wall up forever you know Jase, one day someone other than us
will get through. And then, boy, will you be in trouble." She poked him
playfully in the ribs.

Jason smiled patiently at her, "Okay, what ever you say. I'm not going to
argue with you."

"Wise decision." Mark commented fuzzily, earning himself a gently punch in
the arm. He was getting really sleepy now, his eyes were constantly drooping
and it was getting harder for them to obey the order to remain open.

Jason noticed and grinned. He elbowed Princess to get her attention and
nodded at their half asleep Commander, "Nice to know our company is so
riveting." He whispered.

Princess giggled softly, "He's sweet when he's asleep. He looks like a
child."

"Get lost." Mark mumbled without opening his eyes. Princess and Jason
laughed quietly at him without him noticing. A couple of minutes later and
Mark was in a deep slumber, snoring softly.

"So, it's just you and me." Jason whispered. Princess was leaning on him,
her eyes were closed but he could tell she wasn't asleep.

"Seems like it. Although the amount of coffee you drink, I'm surprised you
sleep at all!" she answered drowsily.

Jason smiled, "Don't worry about me, I'll sleep."

Princess moved her head against his arm, trying to get more comfortable.
"This is nice, Jase." Her voice was so quiet Jason had to lean his head down
and rest on hers to hear her.

"Yeah." He said softly listening to her breathing slow. She was asleep a
second later. Sleeping like an angel. Her face soft and innocent. Jason
swallowed back the pang he felt in his heart. They were all so young, so
full of hopes and dreams. They all believed that Spectra would be defeated,
and that they would win the war. Jason couldn't explain why he felt that he
wouldn't be there to share that day with them when it came. His family.
Everything he had. Everything he wanted was in this room on this couch.
Jason closed his eyes, and made a silent wish. That nothing would change,
and they would always be five. Forever.
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