BIRTHDAY WISHES AND BROKEN PROMISES Lori McDonald
art by Dan Rush
It was pouring rain as Jinpei raced down the sidewalk, holding his bookbag over his head as he ran. It was a pointless gesture, though, for he was already soaked.
Reaching the corner, the boy glanced both ways and darted across - narrowly missing being hit by a car - and scurried in the door of the Snack J.
"Well," Jun exclaimed from behind the bar. "I see you forgot your coat again."
Jinpei just grinned at her. "But it wasn't raining this morning, Onechan," he protested.
Jun just shook her head. "Try listening to the weather forecast next time. If you had, you'd have known about this. Now get changed before you catch a cold. I need you to tend bar tonight."
"Aw, but Onechan... it's my birthday!"
"Not until tomorrow it isn't. Now get moving."
Sullenly, Jinpei dragged himself up to the tiny apartment above the Snack J. He used to have fun working in the Snack, but now that the war with Galactor was over and he was doing it almost full time, it'd lost a tremendous amount of appeal. They were only receiving veterans' benefits now instead of their old hazard pay, and he and Jun had to work hard to get the Snack J to make up for the lack. Which meant long nights on weekends and fridays. The only nights he got off were school nights and he still had to help with the dinner crowd.
"This sucks," he mumbled as he stomped into his room and slammed the door. He'd wanted to get ready for his birthday the next day, since turning ten was a monumental event, but now he began to suspect Jun wouldn't even throw him a party. Probably she'd be afraid that closing the Snack would lose them too much money. Deep inside, he knew she wouldn't, but he was one day short of ten and he didn't want to be reasonable. School sucked, he had few friends, had been labelled a geek because of his intelligence, and didn't get any respect. Not like when he was the Great Swallow Jinpei, he thought with a reminiscent smile. The Galactors had certainly respected him.
With a sigh, he yanked his shirt off and went looking for a clean one in the closet. Much as he was glad the war was over, he missed the excitement of it all. It'd been a lot of fun at times. Still, the team would be there for his birthday. It'd be great to see everyone in the same room. He still saw Ken a lot, since he came to the Snack a lot when he was too lazy to cook, and to see Jun, but Ryu lived too far out of town to make it in on a regular basis. It'd be like old times again.
As he dug in the closet, he found a shoebox and crowed as he brought it out. How had he managed to forget this? It was his birthday box, filled with neat stuff he'd collected to use at his party for months. He pulled the lid off and gazed happily at the firecrackers, itching powder and assorted other pranking materials. This would definately be a great birthday.
A napkin from the Snack caught his eye, yellowed from being in the box with the darkened ring of a glass on it, and he took it out curiously and unfolded it. It had been written on with a felt marker and Jinpei felt a lump catch in his throat as he recognized the message. He'd had to use major bribery to get it, mainly involving sneaking out a lot of beer under Jun's nose.
Okay, you little punk, you got a promise.
I'll show up at your 10th birthday and I'll
even let you drive the Condor Machine.
But you better believe I'm gonna try and
get out of this.
Jinpei's lip began to tremble and the napkin started to crumple as he cried with all the feeling he'd put away for ten months. It didn't matter if the rest of the team was there. They'd never be the same again, they'd never be five.
"I guess you got out of your promise after all, Joe," he whimpered and buried his head in his arms, sobbing uncontrollably.
When Jinpei hadn't come down for over ten minutes, Jun started to glare at the stairs in annoyance. He knew she needed his help. She couldn't afford to hire enough staff to run the Snack without him.
The bell on the door tinkled as Ken came in, closing his umbrella and leaning it up against the corner before coming over towards her. "Hi," he smiled.
Jun smiled back, feeling her heart melt as always, then returned to glaring at the stairs.
"Is something wrong?"
Jun gave the clean counter a vicious swipe with her rag. "It's Jinpei. We're going to be innundated with people in about ten minutes and I need him down here."
Her former commander grinned. "Want me to go get him?"
"Oh, would you? I can't leave."
"Sure, no problem." He started towards the stairs. "While I do, you can get me some sushi."
"Not until you pay your tab, mister."
Ken chuckled as he climbed up to the second floor. Jun never changed. Neither did he, come to think of it. He had no idea how much he owed her by this time, as well as no idea how he was going to pay her back. His airfield made less money than the Snack did.
He reached Jinpei's door and was surprised to hear crying. Quickly, he pushed the door open and went in. "What's wrong?"
Jinpei looked up at him from where he sat in the midst of a typical kid's messy room, toys and clothes scattered everywhere. He was soaking wet, his shirt off, and was clutching a napkin in one hand. "N-nothing," he sobbed.
Carefully, Ken made his way over to him and knelt down. "Come on, Jinpei. What is it?"
The boy sniffed, then thrust the napkin at him. Ken took it and read the message, feeling a familiar pain in his own chest. "Oh."
"I miss him, Aniki," Jinpei sobbed.
Ken put an arm around his shoulders, pulling him against him. The little body was cold to the touch. He'd have to take a hot shower to counteract it or risk getting ill. That could wait a bit though. "I know, Jinpei," he said softly. "I miss him too."
Jinpei scrubbed at his eyes with a hand that was far too grubby for a boy who'd supposidly come straight home from school. "Why am I crying?" he asked. "I mean, it's been so long. This just came out of noplace."
Ken nodded, rubbing his shoulders to warm him. It'd been close to ten months since Condor Joe died at Cross Karakorum and sometimes it still hit him like it'd just happened. He'd taken possession of Joe's trailer, loathe to let it get sold or junked, and finally had to park it in an unused hangar. Everytime he looked at it, he felt like he'd been punched in the gut. "That's the way grief works, Jinpei. You're fine, then you see something that reminds you of him, and it hurts all over again."
"That sucks," Jinpei pouted.
Ken smiled. "It does. Believe me, it does. It'll get better though. Eventually you'll be able to remember him and feel happy about the memories, not sad. But your birthday is the first big day you've had since he's been gone. You're bound to feel his absence."
Jinpei gave a sullen snort, pulling away and rubbing his eyes again. "He never came to my birthday before. Last year I got him to promise to come. He even promised to let me drive his car." The tears started up again. "Then he had to go and die. I hate him!" Yanking away, he ran out of the room and Ken heard the bathroom door slam.
Ken followed him to the door, but hesitated before knocking. Jinpei was crying again and he knew he needed time to work out his grief for himself. He looked down at the napkin. He had no idea how Jinpei had gotten Joe to agree to either of these. He'd always felt miserable at birthdays and the like, so avoided them, and was downright vicious to anyone who even touched his car. But he'd given his word.
"And Condor Joe always kept his word," Ken mumbled. He couldn't keep both promises this time, but Ken would see to it that he at least kept one of them.
Turning, he hurried down the stairs to use the phone.
Jinpei was dreaming of candy and an especially cute girl in his science class when he heard a pounding on his door.
"Get up, Jinpei!" he heard Ken yell. "It's your birthday!"
Jinpei opened one gummy eye and focused on his clock. 7 am. He groaned and buried his head under the pillow. Couldn't it be his birthday in a few hours?
Ken apparently didn't think so. "Better get out here now or we're giving away all your presents!"
That got him moving. Jinpei leapt out of bed and raced to the closet. Yanking out some clothes, he got dressed in record time and yanked open the door just in time to see Ken sauntering towards the stairs as though he were leaving.
Ken turned and smiled. "I knew that would get your attention. Come on."
Jinpei raced ahead of him down the stairs and into the Snack J. Immediately, he was swept up into Jun's hug. "Happy birthday, Jinpei!"
He hugged her back. "Thanks, Onechan!" He peered around her to see who else was there. His heart sank as he recognized only two people. Ryu, yawning sleepily, and Hakase Nambu, looking as somber as always.
"What, no party?" he asked, well aware of the disappointment in his voice.
Ken laughed as he came down the stairs. "Oh, there'll be a party, but that doesn't start until noon. For now it's just us."
Jinpei blinked at him. "Why at seven?"
The young man grinned and crooked a finger for him to follow. "Because we have an appointment on the base at eight."
There was a lot of talk and teasing on the way out to the base, but no one would tell Jinpei WHY they were going out there. It was the first time he'd been there since they officially retired from active service and he looked around excitedly at the familiar sights, even sticking his head out the window of the van to wave at someone who'd known the Swallow.
Jun yanked him back in. "Sit still."
Jinpei looked up at her pleadingly. "Why are we here, Onechan?" he begged.
She just smiled. "It's a surprise."
"Pull over here, Ryu," Ken said suddenly. The van stopped, but before Jinpei could leap out, Jun grabbed his arm. "Oh no you don't. Not until you put on a blindfold. We want the surprise to actually be a surprise."
Jinpei looked at her suspiciously, then over at Nambu, but to his surprise, their guardian actually smiled at him.
Quickly, and with a minimum of tickling, they blindfolded him and Jinpei hung onto Jun's arm as he was led out of the car and across the base. His ninja training let him know he was being led into a hangar, but he didn't have any idea why and he suspected that Ken was ready to grab him if he tried to sneak a peek.
Then the blindfold was yanked off. "Happy birthday!"
Jinpei stared. In the centre of the hangar before him was a blue car, low to the ground with fat tires and a raised back. It looked a bit like a racing car but the extra additives showed it was a vehicle designed for war. "The Condor Machine..." he whispered.
Ryu slapped him on the back. "That's right. Think of it as a gift from all of us, since Joe couldn't be here. You've got permission to drive it on the main runway for an hour."
"But only an hour," Ken cautioned. "And no trying to blow anything up."
Jinpei just stared at the car, then up at all of their faces, but they only smiled at him. Slowly, he walked over to the car. He'd always wanted to drive it, mainly because he wasn't allowed to, but after Joe died he never thought it was going to happen. Gently, he opened the top and climbed in. The leather felt strange against his back, form fitted to the Condor's body, and the interior even smelled of Joe. Jinpei took a deep breath and tried to fight down the tears as he closed himself in. "I'm ready," he called, knowing they'd be able to hear him through the speakers.
Ken and Ryu pulled the main hangar doors open. "Be careful," Jun called.
Someone had moved the seat forward, and tilted the steering wheel down. Jinpei took a grip on it and turned on the ignition. The smell, the feel, the sound... it felt like Joe was right there with him, and tears poured down his face as he floored it out of the hangar and reved it up to maximum along the runway, ignoring his sister's screams.
Joe would expect nothing less from him.
When he was done, or rather, when Ken forcibly dragged him out of the car, and Jun stopped screaming, he was asked where he wanted to go next. Ryu wanted ice cream, Jun wanted some tea to settle her nerves, and Ken and Nambu were ambivalent, but Jinpei had his own ideas. He made them take him to a flowershop, then to a graveyard.
"Hi, Joe," he said softly as he knelt in the soft grass and laid a small bunch of lillies at the base of the headstone. "I'm sorry you didn't get to come to my birthday, but I had a lot of fun driving your car." He grinned wickedly. "You should have heard Onechan scream. It was great."
He stared down at the flowers for a moment, swallowing. Joe actually had three graves. One on B.C. Island for George Asakura, the child he'd been before his parents died, one in the Utoland main cemetary for Joe Asakura, and one in the Utoland national cemetary for Condor Joe. Condor Joe's grave got the most visitors, George Asakura's the least, but the one Jinpei had come to belonged to Joe Asakura. The eighteen year old racecar driver who, according to his official death certificate, died in a car accident. Joe would have hated that excuse, though they'd needed one to keep the reporters away. They would have figured out the truth if it were known he'd died from multiple gunshot wounds at Cross Karakorum at the same time Condor Joe did. Not that Joe's body was in any of the three graves, but Jinpei felt like he needed to go someplace to talk to him. Here was as good as any.
The boy glanced up at his friends, but they were standing well back, giving him room to speak his peace. Jinpei swallowed again.
"I don't know if you can hear me," he told the air. "And I'm sorry I haven't come to visit you more often, but I'm in a real school now, and working at the Snack, and it's a long way out here." He bowed his head. "And it hurts to visit you too. I miss you, Aniki." He bit his lip, wishing things had been different. "Um, I have a confession to make, Aniki. I said I hated you last night. I just wanted you to know, in case you'd been listening, that I don't. I never did. I was just upset because... because... well, because you'd broken your promises, though it really wasn't your fault. I know it wasn't, and I'm sorry." His lip quivered and he wiped his eyes viciously. He did not want to start blubbering again. "I just wanted you to know that I love you, Aniki, and I miss you, and Onechan and the others helped you keep one of your promises to me. I really did get to drive the Condor Machine." His voice dropped. "And I release you from the other one."
Despite his best efforts, a tear slipped down his cheek. "Goodbye, Joe," he whispered.
The party had been a huge success. With dozens of kids crammed into the Snack, the noise had been incredible and the dancing went on for hours. Nambu Hakase fled relatively early, but Ken, Ryu and Jun stayed, to act as chaperones, and to shovel the kids out once Jun decided the party had gone on long enough.
Shortly before midnight, an emotionally and physically exhausted Jinpei, stuffed with far too much cake, candy, food, and not a small amount of stolen beer, lay in his bed, fuzzy with dreams.
He felt a weight on the side of the bed. "Happy birthday, Jinpei," he heard a voice call softly, not loud enough to really wake him up. Half asleep, Jinpei rolled over and looked up at Joe, sitting in tattered birdstyle on the side of his bed.
"Hey," he mumbled. "Am I dreaming?"
The Condor smiled, dimly seen in the moonlight coming through the window. "At least one of us is."
Jinpei smiled back. He wanted to sit up, wake all the way, but he was afraid that if he did, it would turn out he was the one dreaming and Joe would be gone. "I missed you," he told him.
Joe looked down. "I missed you too, Jinpei. I wish I could have been there for you. For all of you."
He looked lonely, so Jinpei took his arm. It felt... different than he remembered. "It's okay," he told him. "We still love you. We talk about you lots." He smiled. "I got to drive the Condor Machine today."
Visibly, Joe shuddered. "I know."
Jinpei giggled sleepily. It was getting harder to keep his eyes open. "You kept your first promise to me."
Joe laid his hand over his. It was cold. "And I came to keep the second." He sighed. "Only I have to go now."
Suddenly frightened, Jinpei grabbed his arm more tightly. It felt like holding steel. "Please stay," he begged.
"I can't, Jinpei."
"Please," he pleaded, sniffing back tears. "Just until I'm asleep?"
Jinpei squirmed over in the bed and Joe sat back beside him against the headboard, gently stroking his hair with a gloved hand. "Go to sleep, Jinpei," he murmured softly, over and over again. "You're dreaming. Go to sleep."
Jinpei drifted off to those soft words.
That had been an incredibly risky thing to do.
Once he was five blocks away from the Snack, Joe Asakura stopped on the roof of a building to drop the birdstyle. He never should have come back. If Jinpei had woken up, or if Jun came in and caught him... He'd died on them once, he had no intention of putting them through that again, and with the antimatter bomb in his new cyborg heart, he knew he was going to die, forever this time.
Still, it felt good to see Jinpei again. It'd felt so good, and he was glad that he could keep his promises to him, even if Ken and the others had to fulfill the first and Jinpei would never know the second really happened.
Quietly, the machine who'd been a man stood on the roof and stared back at the building he'd never allow himself to approach again. In an hour he'd be out of Utoland forever. For Jinpei, seeing him had been a dream. It'd been a dream for him too. But when Jinpei woke it'd be into a normal, happy life.
He would only wake into nightmare.