Kozaburo Nambu watched his young wards from the window. They tore across the yard in some game that looked like a combination of soccer, football, and a few other random rules tossed in for good measure. He loved catching them in these unguarded moments, when they weren't trying hard to project the impression of the warriors they would become. For now, they were just kids.
As usual, Ken and Joe played the roughest, though mostly with each other. At thirteen, the two of them still continually jockeyed over everything. Each week came the claims that one of them grew taller than the other, or could jump higher, or could hit harder. There were times he despaired that they were far too competitive to place on the same team. Then the two of them would pull off something so spectacular together, all the while pushing one another, that he felt certain he'd made the right decision.
Though sometimes they pushed one another the other way. Kozaburo watched the pair try to pull something on gentle Ryu, using their collective speed and wits to try to steal the ball. The twelve-year-old was already big, never managing the more lithe build of his teammates, but the boy was no fool. Ken feinted left and Joe went for the ball. An impressively quick flash of a foot and Ken ended up with his face in the dirt. One shove of Ryu's hands, using the bulk of his body to power him, and Joe flew through the air until he landed on his back.
Kozaburo chuckled. The older boys looked flat out stunned. Ryu watched them with gentle concern for a moment, but then they were up again, and the game continued.
His only girl still looked a bit unsure of herself. Jun was out there playing, dirt-streaked like the rest. Yet the eleven-year-old who was already lethal grace in training was a bit more shy in her personal time. He regretted not having more female role models and influences for her. Tracking any down who he could trust, and had the core of strength he wanted her to cultivate, had proven difficult.
Still, while the three older boys jostled over the ball, Kozaburo could see her planning. She might not have Ken and Joe's aggression or Ryu's bulk, but the girl was smart, very smart. If they weren't preparing for war, Kozaburo would ensure she had access to the very best schools. Hopefully, once the war ended, he could rectify that.
He watched as she let the boys get absorbed in their battle. Then she looked to her little brother, who at just five was valiantly out there with them but not making much headway. She gestured Jinpei over, whispering in his ear, and then the two of them started to flank the others. Pigtails flapping, Jun managed to collide with the boys. They all stopped apologetically to fuss over her. Then suddenly she grabbed the ball. Only when she took off with it did Ken, Joe, and Ryu jerk and collapse into a heap, discovering that Jinpei had tied their shoelaces together.
Kozaburo chuckled again. Trying to undo the mess turned into kicking off shoes, and then squeals as they chased Jun and Jinpei all over the yard, game forgotten.
If he could just make time stand still, he might choose this moment, when they still had their innocence and war was far more play and theory than real. Even now, though, he could see their dynamics changing. As they charged toward adulthood, hormones coming into play, he occasionally caught them noticing one another in ways that had nothing to do with training or play.
Should he do something about it? He wasn't sure. They were so young, but fairly isolated compared to most kids their age. He'd taken the coward's way out and asked their doctor to give all but Jinpei the basic "talk," not sure that he could survive having that discussion four times. Or worse, trying to talk to all of the boys together, then Jun one on one.
His watch beeped. They were late for training. He might not be able to freeze time, but for fifteen more minutes he could let them remain children. After that, they would once again be warriors.