Berg Katse wasn't dead, to begin with. There was no doubt about that. The register of his burial hadn't been signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, or the chief mourner. Joe hadn't seen the body.
In the corner of the Snack J, he sat at a table with a half-empty glass of something wicked-looking and wicked-tasting, something he no longer lifted and nursed every minute or so. Either his heart or his coordination wasn't in it after this long--he'd paid up front for Jinpei to keep making the glasses reappear, and Jinpei had done a marvelous job despite the typical Christmas Eve crowding of a romantic hot-spot.
By the bottom of this glass, which Jinpei exercised good judgment in not refilling, Joe had passed out on the table, only occassionally muttering to himself, "Ears, Joe."
Ken looked over from the bar, where he sat beside Ryu while Jun washed dishes. "Joe's unconscious again."
"He does it every Christmas," Jun said. "Poor guy. I mean--I wonder if anyone can ever teach him the True Meaning of Christmas?"
"Gimmee a break." Jinpei ducked back behind the bar carring two pitchers. "The True Meaning of Christmas is loot!"
Jun smacked him in the back of the head.
"But I saw it myself at www.toysrus.com/truemeaningofchristmas.html!"
Ryu stretched. "Oh, I don't know. Although I've had fun playing Santa Claus for the holiday."
Jinpei poked him. "No wonder!" He dashed away to wipe down some tables while Ryu glared after him.
Ken said, "When I asked him to buy me a drink, just in the spirit of the holiday, you know what he said? 'Humbug.' Then he laughed like he thought it was actually funny." He stood.
"No, don't wake him," Jun said. "I don't want him driving home like that anyhow. When he wakes up, there's a cot upstairs where we can put him. Until then, let him sleep it off."
At three am, long after the Snack J had closed, Joe lifted his head from the table and realized he'd passed out again. Quiet, finally. "If there's one thing I hate about Christmas," he thought, "it's all the noise, noise, noise, noise."
Hearing a soft rustling from the direction of the bar, he squinted, held perfectly still. Someone was definitely behind the bar, and it wasn't anyone who should be. Ryu's general shape, but shorter by far. Joe maneuvered in absolute silence to the edge of the booth, then waited. The figure stepped away from the bar toward the door.
Joe launched, executing a midair combat maneuver that would have had Nambu nodding appreciatively. His kick connected with the intruder's shoulder, and the intruder connected with the wall fairly loudly.
Crouching over the person, Joe had him by the collar. "Who the hell are you?" A useless question. Joe had done his job well enough that he wouldn't be getting any answers within the hour.
After a minute, Joe looked at the red suit, the beard, and the sack the man was carrying, and put it all together.
That moment, every bell in the Snack J began ringing--the bell over the door, the chimes by the windows, the bell by the bar. Joe let go his prey and stepped backward. A greenish glow swirled before him and suddenly solidified into a man wearing a Galactor outfit. Joe tossed a suriken directly through it; it stuck in the wall.
"What do you want with me?" Joe said to the image.
"Much." The voice was deep and threatening at first, but suddenly the shade realized it couldn't possibly make its voice as deep and threatening as Joe's got just saying "hello" and "good morning," so it dropped the pretense. "I'm here to warn you we wear the masks we make in life!"
Joe said, "And--?"
Now the spirit looked puzzled. "That's what I'm here to warn you about, that's all."
"Are you going to show me how the world wouldn't be a better place if I hadn't been born?"
"That's Clarence's job, and he's out on another assignment today--some guy named Beavis, and apparently the world would have been better. Anyhow," and he tried to drop his voice six octaves to match Joe's, "I'm going to take you to Christmas Past!"
Joe looked around the bar, checked his watch, and shrugged. "Okay."
The spirit took his hand, and suddenly they were engulfed in total blackness.
Looking around wildly, the spirit clung to Joe. "What the hell?"
"I don't remember anything before my eighth birthday," Joe said.
"What?" The spirit gaped at the murk. "How the heck are we supposed to go to Christmas past if you don't remember anything?"
"I don't know--look, why don't you just show me the world wouldn't be a better place?"
"I told you that's not my job. Okay--we'll go up to your eighth birthday."
Joe found himself standing in an orphanage, saw himself in a corner with bandages still on his head and arms. "I was one messed-up kid."
"You're telling me? This wasn't my first choice for jobs," the spirit said. "This is the first Christmas you remember."
A bunch of kids approached the young Joe. "Joe, you wanna play cops and robbers?"
Joe turned away, and in a boy's voice that made adult Joe wince, he said, "I don't wanna."
The other kids began shoving him. "No--Joe doesn't want to beat up goons- Joe wants to be a dentist!" Joe tried to walk away, but the other boys surrounded him. "Joe wants to be a dentist!"
A fiendish look came into little Joe's eyes. "Touch me again and you'll be needing a dentist."
One of the other kids shoved him, and little Joe rapidly made minced meat out of the crowd.
"Hey!" Joe-senior grinned. "I needed to work on technique, but I think I did that pretty well."
"That's not the point," the spirit said. "The point is, you began to associate Christmas with ridicule."
"Let's go to the next year."
Abruptly they were in a different orphanage; little Joe no longer bore the wounds of the Devil Star's attack, and now Ken was the boy in the corner.
"Oh, I remember this," Joe said. "All of the other orphans used to laugh and call him names."
The spirit stared. "You mean you never let poor Ken join in any ninja games?"
Joe shrugged. "Fair's fair."
"Don't you feel even a little sorry about that?"
"He turned out all right."
The goon spirit sighed. "Okay--let's go ahead to when you were fifteen."
Christmas Eve that year found the team, not yet the Kagaku Ninjatai, gathered in Dr. Nambu's office. He was clearly exasperated as they debated the best method to approach an training exercise, and every time Ken made a suggestion, he gave a frustrated huff and lost a little more composure.
"Christmas Eve was always business as usual for you," the spirit said to Joe.
Joe said, "You think evil takes a holiday?"
Nambu suddenly stalked away from his desk, paused by the window looking out on the foggy Christmas Eve night, and shouted, "Ken, if you've got such bright ideas, why don't you go lead the team tonight?"
"Then all the ninjas loved him?" the spirit said.
"He'll go down in history," Joe said.
The spirit suffered a moment of deja vu, then said, "Well, on to that night."
Ken and Joe were sitting in a bar. "Drink it," Joe said. "I dare you--no one will notice if you're drunk. It's Christmas Eve."
"Is it on you?" Ken said.
Joe said, "Maybe."
Joe and the Spirit watched as the pair drank themselves silly. Joe ended up passing out on the table.
They went to the next year. Ken and Joe drank themselves silly. Joe ended up passing out on the table.
They went to the next year. This time it was Joe and Ryu. Joe ended up passing out on the table.
"I think I detect a trend," said the spirit.
Joe shrugged. "Are we up to Christmas Present yet?"
"Not yet--one more."
The team travelled to a small country where Galactor goons handed out Christmas presents to all the kids, which on opening released a deadly gas.
"Merry Christmas," Joe said that night before the first drinks came out.
"You don't do much variation," the spirit said, nudging last year's Joe's prone body.
"It's a tradition. I thought you holiday spirits were big on tradition. Look, are we going yet?"
They landed in the present. The spirit stood over Santa. "I can't believe you killed Santa. What'd he ever do, other than bringing presents to all the good little boys and girls?"
"Except poor ones," Joe said. "He's not dead, anyhow--just a bit behind schedule."
"Lucky for everyone--if you had killed him, you'd have to take his place. I think they call it a Santa Clause or something..."
Joe brushed the ridiculous notion aside. "I'll leave him some scotch and a plate of my friend's deadly bourbon balls, and he'll be good as new. Aren't you supposed to be a new spirit now?"
"We're so short-staffed this time of year," the spirit said. "Everyone who needs to discover the True Meaning of Christmas thinks we can just waltz through their lives and snap our fingers and make them see clearly and all that--but these things take time, you know? Anyhow, tonight I'm also serving as the Ghost of Christmas Presents."
"Shouldn't that be--?"
"We're going, okay?"
They appeared in Sosai X's audience chamber. Berg Katse was holding forward a package. "Overlord....I....I got you a present...."
"Have you now?" said X. "I have one for you, too."
Katse saw another package in the corner and ran to it, tore it open. "Do you like it?" X said. "It's a year's supply of lipstick."
Katse said, "You...you gave me lipstick last year, too. You give me lipstick every year."
"It goes with your Devilstar ship."
"Oh....I see. Well, uh....here's yours." Katse opened it. "It's, uh...a tracking computer. For the, uh.....the turkey mech I designed."
"Oh." X dimmed for a moment. "Katse, you fool, I'm selling that moronic turkey mech to pay for this year's supply of lipstick!"
"Well I sold the Devil Star to pay for the tracking computer! How was I supposed to know--"
"Get out! Get out!" X irradiated the room, and Katse fled.
A moment later, X chuckled to itself, "I wonder if Katse knows how stupid that lipstick looks...?"
Joe had his arms wrapped around each other. "Wow--that's dark."
The spirit said, "I guess. But at least they thought of giving each other something."
Joe found himself standing in front of Nambu's Christmas tree. "What are we doing here?"
The spirit picked up five identical packages from beneath the tree. "Speaking of giving--don't you have any imagination?"
"I sold the imagination to pay for my feather suriken."
The spirit tossed one of the packages at his head. "Everyone gets a NASCAR t-shirt this year?"
Joe rolled his eyes. "I was busy."
"They're all the same size, too, O Joyous Elf."
"Shut up. At least I wrapped them."
"Fine, fine--you're hopeless, you know that? What did you give everyone last year? Numbered t-shirts. And the year before that? More numbered t shirts. Don't you think anyone has anything better to wear than that? Three years ago, you didn't even wrap them."
Joe opened his hands, shrugged.
"I don't know why I signed up for this...." the spirit said. "Haven't there ever been any presents you genuinely put your heart into?"
Joe thought of one. Abruptly they stood in Dr. Nambu's office, ten years earlier. Young Joe was making an awful racket with a snare drum while Dr. Nambu stared in confusion and raw disbelief.
"You played your drum for him?"
"I played my best for him!" Joe thought a moment. "I don't remember him especially liking that, though..."
The spirit tried to think, but young Joe was still making such a horrible commotion with the drum set that he had to go back to the Snack J in the present. He paced around the fallen Santa, saying, "I don't understand--how can we get you to understand the True Meaning of Christmas...? What else is there?" He looked up--Jun had put a pathetic, tiny, cheap Christmas tree with only two or three branches up on the bar. Every time anyone touched it, it released a shower of needles. "Take this tree, for instance--"
"It's a stupid tree," Joe said. "I gave Ryu ten bucks and told him not to get something horrible, but that blockhead came back with this worm-eaten excuse for a tree anyhow."
"But see how Jun decorated it?" the spirit said. "All it needed was a little love."
Joe snorted. "It's still a pretty chintzy tree, if you ask me. Ugly as hell. Nothing's going to make up for that."
"I give up." The spirit yanked Joe's hand. "Let's just get this over with. We'll go to Christmas Yet To Come."
Joe found himself in a graveyard. "But I know everyone's going to die eventually. This isn't news to me."
"Check the name on the stone," the spirit said.
"Takes the surprise out of life."
The spirit grabbed Joe by the collar and dragged him into an updated version of the Snack J, with new decor, a new bar, and new booths. Jun, Ryu, Jinpei and Ken sat at one of the tables, eyes cast down, hands knit around each other.
"It doesn't seem like Christmas without Joe passed out at a table in the corner," Jinpei said.
Jun wiped a tear from her eye. "I know, Jinpei--sometimes I still can't believe he died in the final destruction of Galactor's secret headquarters."
Ken said, "But we have to remember, his noble sacrifice was what made our victory possible, and he died fighting for what he believed in."
The spirit looked at Joe intently. "You see, Joe--you really did lead a miserable life."
Joe whistled lowly. "Tell me, spirit--are these things which might come to pass, or *will* come to pass?"
The spirit puzzed and puzzed till his puzzler was sore. "I think they pretty much have to come to pass."
"You're incorrigible," the spirit said. "Happy holiday, damn it."
Abruptly Joe found himself back in the bar, in the present.
"So is that it?" He looked around for the spirit, but it was gone. Santa was slowly getting to his feet, and Joe helped him to a stand. "I'm sorry, man--I didn't realize it was you. I thought it was some Galactor jerk."
Joe guided Santa to a chair and let him get his wind back. Finally, Santa said to him, "Is it my fault you don't have the True Meaning of Christmas? Was there a toy you really wanted for Christmas that I didn't give you?"
"Not really," Joe said.
"What do you want this year?" Santa said.
"You mean I've been a good boy?"
"Well, not as such, but I don't want to get beaten again."
Joe shrugged, thought, and then brightened. "There is something!"
"Come sit on my lap and tell me."
Joe delivered a glare.
Santa inched backward on the chair. "We can probably dispense with that. What do you want?"
"I want to decide who lives and who dies."
"Oh, I don't know." Santa shook his head. "Isn't there anything else?"
Joe told him.
Santa started. "Ho ho ho! You'll put your eye out with that thing, kid!" He stood. "I'll see what I can do...kids today..."
Joe went back to his booth in the corner and laid his head on the table, more because of tradition than anything else, but shortly he fell asleep anyhow.
In the morning, Joe raised his head remembering the team talking about how he'd died, and the first thing he heard was Jinpei cleaning up behind the bar, singing softly "Fahoo foris dahoo doris welcome Christmas..." But this sound wasn't sad--why, this sound sounded glad!
He groaned. "Can it, squirt. I feel like I've been hit by a truck. How many days have I been asleep?"
Jinpei rolled his eyes as he washed dishes. "It's Christmas, you nimrod. You drank yourself senseless again last night."
What happened then? Well, in Galactor they say that Condor Joe's heart grew *three* sizes that day.
Pulling out his wallet, Joe said, "Jinpei, that prize turkey--is it still up for sale? Not the little one, but the one that's as big as you--the big prize turkey?"
"Joe, sometimes I think you're a prize turkey." Turning his head, he saw Joe looked serious (the first clue being the wad of cash Joe had in his grip). "Uh, no, I don't think they have."
"Go and buy it," Joe said. "And tell them to bring it to Dr. Nambu's--let's have a real Christmas dinner for once. On me."
Jinpei grabbed the money and dashed into the street.
Joe went around to the bar and found five packages in the stockings Jun had jokingly put up for them, although the fifth stocking, his was sitting on top of a box large enough not to have fit inside. Joe lifted it and rattled it a little, and slowly a grin overspread his face.
At Dr. Nambu's, Joe, Jun, Jinpei, Ryu and Ken tried to figure out how to prepare a turkey. They all had cookbooks open and wore aprons over their matching NASCAR t-shirts.
"We have to cut it here," Ken said, and he pulled out a knife that set Jinpei's eyes gleaming. Everyone hovered around close while he made the first cut, only he stopped just under the skin.
"That's not right." Ken's cut appeared to have exposed some metal pieces.
The head raised and they eyes began to glow as Berg Katse's prized Turkey mech got to its feet and began squawking about the kitchen, chasing Jinpei and Jun while Joe, Ryu and Ken ended up shoulder to shoulder to shoulder.
"Oh well," Joe said. "I thought I could buy you guys a good meal for once, but maybe Christmas doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, is a little bit more."
With the True Meaning of Christmas still not quite in full bloom in his heart, Joe lunged forward at the Turkey mech and wrestled it to the ground with the strength of ten condors, plus two.*
"I'm glad that's over," Jun said.
Ken said, "No more Christmas spirit, okay?"
Joe said, "Not even next year?"
Jinpei said, "God save us, everyone."