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R.O.D: Do I-jin Dream of Electric Books 04
Chapter Title: Birthday Girl
Rating: M
Length: 4066
Warnings: Will eventually include depictions of violence, coarse language, spoilers for R.O.D the TV, the English released Manga, and the use of Google as a plot device.
Follows from the end of R.O.D the TV. In the wake of the fall of Dokusensha and The British Library, there is another organisation seeking control over the information economy. What will come of the Google Books deal? Previous Chapters 00|01|02|03
All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.

Before the paper sisters there had been a few years where Nenene had spent Christmas with the usual end-of-year industry parties, exchanging pleasantries with Mr. Linho, and sitting in her apartment refreshing the missing person pages and checking her email. The family party had come as a surprise. She'd been touched to be included, really. Nenene felt more like the sort of person whose ideas were suitable in published form as Christmas presents for many people, but that perhaps her company wasn't. Her new family had changed her opinion on that subject quite easily. Though as she hefted a bag of decorations out of the elevator and towards the front door, she grumbled.

“I don't see why this has to be such a big thing this year. Did we get a tree last time? And anyway, what do trees even have to do with birthdays?”

Michelle smiled vapidly, in that way she did when she knew something hard and painful to swallow at the bottom of it all. “Well, nothing really. But it has a lot to do with Christmas, which I think Junior hasn't celebrated before either. I'm not even sure if he's ever read a story about it. I mean, he's not as old as he looks.”

Nenene grunted in agreement, though she really wished that Maggie had been in to lug the damned thing home. It was heavy. They cluttered in past the door, Michelle at least obligingly keeping the books in the entryway out of harm's way, a flurry of exhausted poorly co-ordinated construction as they followed the barely translated instructions for assembling the thing.

“So is he still growing?” Nenene thought to ask the question once they'd collapsed back into the sofa and were observing the dilapidated and abused looking plastic tree. “I mean, do we know how his growth was accelerated? Will he need any medical care?”

Michelle frowned across the room. She stared at her own reflection in the glass doors to the balcony, and Nenene realised that Michelle had been thinking about this for a while. She looked stern, serious. A far cry from her usual theatrical pouts and flouncing.

“I think they did it to all of us. We were all vat grown, remember? We're all effectively what they called the I-jin. I think the real difference is that Junior doesn't have any false memories. I have these vague ideas of having grown up and had a normal childhood. He just has...”

“Whatever that mad bitch that Wendy turned his world into. Whatever life she gave him.”

Michelle tried to smile, but it just looked twisted and pained. “Exactly. I can't remember how I grew up, but from what the doctor says he's developing fine. Just faster than normal.”

Nenene boggled. “The doctor?”

“Oh, right!” Michelle was back in her usual form, one slender hand over her mouth and a tittering laugh. “We went to see a doctor that we met in Toto Books. He seemed very trustworthy, after all.”

Nenene would have fumed about how nobody could be trusted. Not after someone in Google or President Cole's coterie had brought Donnie back. But of course she hadn't told anyone about Donnie and she sure as hell wasn't about to. It wasn't jealousy, either. She just didn't want it to hurt Yomiko. One faked appearance of a long dead lover was more than enough for anyone's mental health.

So instead Nenene opened her mouth, shut it, and stared at the reflection of the room right beside Michelle. They regarded the lights of the city that shone through their blurry faces.

“He has a crush on you, you know.”

Michelle sighed, and shrugged with a lopsided smile on her lips. “At least it's on a real woman, and not someone who'd take it badly, like Anita or you.”

Nenene made a face. She'd never been that keen on men, let alone boys. But it wasn't like that made her any less of a woman, honestly!

Either a trick of the light or evil intent made Michelle's reflection's eyes shine. “...or Maggie.”

“He doesn't even deserve to lick her boots.”

Michelle placed a hand on Nenene's shoulder, nodding as if she was in on some huge important secret. “I think, perhaps Junior isn't the only person with a crush.”

Nenene knew that she'd been spending a bit more time around Maggie than she should have. It was a bit cruel to take advantage of her, but Nenene had a soft spot for the solemn and shy appreciation that Maggie had for her writing. It was hard to hold back from teasing her, or exploiting her small crush.

“Yeah, well, she'll grow out of it soon enough, see me for the bitter frigid bitch I am.”

Michelle seemed surprised by that, and she was starting to say “I didn't mean Maggie, I meant-” when the door opened and Maggie came in with her arms full of groceries.

“Ah, Maggie dearest, welcome home!” Michelle swept away in a swirl of skirts and the scarf she hadn't taken off quite yet. Nenene was left sitting blankly in the living room for a few seconds. Was she missing out on something important? Oh, it hardly mattered. If Maggie was making dinner then Anita and Junior would be coming back soon too, and there were presents and decorations yet to be dealt with.

Michelle seemed to be keeping herself busy in the kitchen, getting in Maggie's way and chattering about the things they'd seen at the department store. Michelle didn't need to put on such an act; Nenene knew when she was being wanted in any other room but the one she was in. She headed upstairs to her room and the paper bag full of gifts that they'd agreed the week before were best hidden in escrow under her computer desk.

Nenene had objected, until Junior had pointed out that most of the gifts would be books, and hardly take up any space. She couldn't really argue with that, and at the very least it had headed off the fight about to break out between Michelle and Anita. So she dragged the bag out, looked once over the pile of brown paper wrapped books with the names of her strange family written on them, and then pulled the small cardboard packet out of her jacket pocket.

It wasn't much. Not really. Just something extra that had caught her eye when they'd been balancing the boxed tree at the train station. A small multiple pack of stiff paper card bookmarks with ukiyo-e woodblock print replicas, reproduced in much smaller sections, and cheap fraying nylon ribbons. About as far from the personalised and finely crafted bookmarks that Yomiko and Michelle both made for everyone as you could get. There was just something about the minimalist lines and the sense of the movement of the wind and the space of it all that reminded Nenene of Maggie, that was all. Even if they were trashy and cheap.

It was a bad idea. And who needed bookmarks in their household, let alone a pack of five? Stupid, stupid idea. But then, Maggie would like them...

She was vacillating. She should just make a decision and stick with it. She wasn't usually this flighty. She was the stern one, the buck-stops-here member of the family. Gritting her teeth and feeling the chain of her locket itching against the skin of her neck, Nenene took the thin packet of bookmarks out again and set them resolutely down on top of the other presents. Whatever she'd wanted to talk to Maggie about, Michelle had had more than enough time to herself.

Nenene slumped downstairs and headed straight for the Christmas tree. “Want to get this stuff done before Junior gets here,” she explained. She set the presents out in neat piles, and by the time she was done with that the odd tension she'd been feeling had loosened up inside. Maggie's cooking smelled wonderful. Michelle was directing a banner saying “Happy Birthday” to attach itself near the roof on the wall closest to facing the front door she could get. Assorted cheap looking Christmas decorations hung here and there, and Nenene was pretty sure she saw some unfortunate New Years things mixed up in the lot.

The house was a mess. Chaos. It was like the confusion and frustrations over the events in America had bled through into what had been a sweet and comforting event the year before. But at least there wasn't that much time to think about that. The door was opening, and Anita was shepherding Junior inside. They both had shopping bags that looked full of crap, and Junior was wearing an expression that looked equal parts fear, exhaustion and horror.

“I guess Christmas shopping is catching on more this year.” Nenene couldn't help saying as she watched the brats shuffle over to the sofa and collapse into it. Anita noticed the Christmas tree and shrugged, but Junior just stared at it.

“Yeah, just a cheap one made of plastic. It's terrible, isn't it?” Nenene rested her elbows against the back of the chair between the kids' heads. “But Michelle got all excited about the special feature.”

Anita craned her neck to stare up at Nenene. There were bags under her eyes, and Nenene suddenly worried that she hadn't been paying enough attention to her recently. She hadn't been around much, and Nenene had holed up in her room with Maggie instead of pitching in much with the anti-book settlement efforts. Anita had been working herself too hard, and Nenene should have been there to tell the kid to stop being such an idiot.

“Feature?” Anita asked.

“Oh, right. Hang on.” Nenene walked over and fumbled around between the branches until she found the switch. “There's fibre optics.”

Among the plastic fronds of greenery the small pinpricks of light at the end of the thin cables lit up. They changed colour slowly and added a strange glow to the room.

“Huh. Weird.” Anita said. She shrugged. But Junior just stared at it, as if it was the strangest thing he'd ever seen. She looked at Nenene, they shared a confused look. If Junior didn't know what to do at a time like this, they sure as hell didn't know what to do with someone who didn't know what to do.

“Presents go under the tree.” Nenene said finally. She stepped back a little and watched carefully as Junior politely and awkwardly unpacked their shopping bags. More books, more brown paper, and a few other small things that were just bundled up in branded shopping bags. As Junior made his way through the pile of stuff, he looked visibly more at ease.

Was he taller than when they'd met him? Maybe. He looked older, just a little bit. Not as older as Nenene would have expected, if Dokusensha had grown the I-jin and the Paper Sisters in a matter of years. One year would have been what, a third of his developmental life? Shouldn't he look older?

Nenene looked over at Maggie, who was bringing something out from the kitchen, setting it down on the coffee table. They had all been force-grown. Even if, as Michelle said, the Paper Sisters had been given false memories to compensate psychologically, there was no guarantee that they were completely normal now. More to the point, they might still be aging rapidly. Nenene's throat closed tightly and she felt a sense of vertigo and dizziness. She couldn't outlive Maggie. Refused to. Couldn't imagine that in a year or two the contentment and warmth of her family might be fading into her memory.

“Are you okay?” Maggie paused halfway back to the kitchen.

Nenene shook her head, smiled, and nodded. “Yeah. Just remembering what it was like without you guys.”

That put a bit of a smile on her face. As soon as she turned away, Nenene grabbed Michelle by the wrist and leaned close enough to whisper in her ear. “Did the files tell you how long you'd live?”

Michelle looked surprised, but then laughed and gave Nenene a very fond look. “Oh, it's sweet of you to worry about us. But both the parties involved with our... inception... they wouldn't have risked wasting all the money they put into it. We were built to last. On a technical level we are genetically human, you know.”

Nenene felt all the air in her lungs rush out before she realised she'd been holding her breath in the first place. She couldn't put words to what she was feeling. It was a bit of relief, and a bit of something else. Something more hollow. Empty. She'd never felt as scared in her life as she had in the last ten minutes. It was absurd. Not even when she'd been desperate to hang on to Yomiko – when she'd seen the depths of Yomiko's past and the long-reaching grasp of The British Library – had she felt scared like that. When she'd found Yomiko safe and alive after all those years, she hadn't felt this wobbly shocked relief that still shook in her elbows.

She had to sit down. Luckily, the world's best tall-dark-and-housewifely girl was there to smile shyly and reassuringly at her, and pour her a glass of... something or other. Nenene hid behind it and felt warmth slowly seep back into limbs she hadn't noticed were feeling cold. She had to say something. Even though nobody was really paying that much attention to her – they were all just being together and happy and maybe putting on a bit more of a show of it for Junior's sake – it felt like the occasion called for something special.

There was a present that she'd been a little unsure about wrapping, since it seemed too mundane to be a present and she wasn't sure she should be encouraging any more permanent visitors. She'd have to invest in a house or something, any day now. But it felt right. So Nenene stepped forward, put a hand on Junior's shoulder, and held out the small package in the palm of her hand.

“Happy birthday, Junior.”

He took it with a look of confusion, as if he didn't know quite what to do with it. Nenene waited, then frowned and poked him in the shoulder.

“You open it. It's only keys, anyway. Door, garbage, mailbox and one for the parking garage. Not that you need keys, but since you're in the family you might as well have them. Helps with appearances, and that.”

Junior unwrapped the keys carefully, folding up the paper in one hand and feeling the weight of the small keyring with the other. He murmured “Thank you,” and seemed to be searching for something else to say, but Anita interrupted him by shoving a wrapped bookish looking package into his hands and grinding her knuckles into his scalp.

“Happy birthday, brat.”

Nenene felt a little responsible for some of the names that Anita was calling Junior, but the boy didn't seem to mind. He accepted the gift with another solemn “Thank you,” and then he ducked his head and bent over to pick up one of the bags he'd put beneath the tree. “Happy birthday, Anita.”

Anita had been the one to go shopping with him, she obviously knew what she was getting. What looked like a set of straps, presumably gear that she'd use to carry more paper cartridges – Nenene guessed they were about the same colour and shape as some of the others she'd seen Anita wearing. In a strange contrast to the whining she'd been doing recently, Anita nodded silently at Junior, who nodded right back.

Shit, they were just kids. Nenene felt like she could see the shadow that Google Books was casting over her family and life. She grit her teeth and smiled as Junior handed her a bag that had a popular outdoor and camping store's branding on the outside. He was as solemn as ever, and stammered a little as he tried to figure out what to say to Nenene – it wasn't her birthday after all – but got out a “Merry Christmas” in the end.

Nenene opened the bag, saying “Thank you,” before she'd even looked inside. When she did, she was a little surprised. He'd given her a pocket first-aid kit, some long-lasting dried trail food, an emergency whistle and an assortment of emergency flares. It wasn't the sort of present she was used to, but given the trouble she'd gotten into during her life, it was very practical.

“Thank you very much. These are great.”

He nodded, and then made his way with care between the raucous mess the girls were making, throwing presents back and forth and bickering with each other. He didn't seem to stand out. Rather, he fitted in, like a natural eye in the storm of their household. They weren't a very well-matched bunch anyway. He seemed to feel more at home, was settling in. There was that smile in the corners of his mouth again, and a pinkness about his cheeks as he stood beside Michelle and tried to catch her attention.

Really, the present he'd given Nenene said it all. He knew she wasn't as strong as they were, and that she'd been vulnerable in the past. He wanted her to be safe. Nenene only hoped that the other present she'd wrapped for him, a clean new pillow and set of sheets, managed to convey a similar message instead of just being boring. You belong here no matter what happens elsewhere.

“You can't escape this just by standing over there, like some detached observer.” Anita smirked and threw a heavy looking book her way.

Nenene caught it, but the corners dug into her palms and she winced. “Hey, no cheating like that!” It really was unfair, whether Anita had used her young athletic muscles or her powers. Anita poked her tongue out, Nenene rolled her eyes and pulled a stupid face. She'd have said something else, maybe walked across the room and ground her knuckles into the top of Anita's scalp, but her half-squinting eye fell on Maggie, and everything changed. She felt her face relaxing out of its comical grimace, she probably looked completely dumbfounded, but she couldn't help it. Couldn't do anything but look at Maggie, sitting on her heels with her long legs bent beneath her and staring down at the packet of bookmarks. Maggie wasn't blushing, but it was obvious that she knew who they were from. Her lips were slightly parted, the corners raised in a gentle smile. Her fingers brushed against the cardboard packet and there was this happiness in her entire face and demeanour that left Nenene feeling like she'd been knocked for six.

Nenene felt a little too tight and awkward, compared to the slow calm peace that Maggie seemed to always carry with her. Clumsy and small and humid, with her heartbeat so fast in her chest. Her fingers were sweaty and sticking to the wrapping paper of the book she'd mostly forgotten, and she began picking at the tape in the corners absently. Maggie wasn't looking at her yet, still just looking down at those stupid bookmarks, and Nenene felt too full of everything to cope. She just wanted to be in her room, back in that quiet place with books and Maggie, where she could hide from herself. Nenene turned her head down and away so that if Maggie looked up their eyes wouldn't meet. She focused very resolutely on unwrapping her present and blinking back the unexpected moisture in her eyelashes.

It was a book Nenene had heard about, of course, but not one she'd read before. It was obviously from Maggie, because it was in English and Nenene knew she'd seen copies in Japanese in one of the newer stacks in her room. This was part of their ongoing promise, which seemed to have had all along much more significance than Nenene had realised. An anthology of short stories, Ray Bradbury, I Sing the Body Electric. Another of Maggie's favourite writers, a book for them to share, now. Nenene pressed her nose between the pages close to the spine, and inhaled the strange dusty dry scent that came off of thick pulpy American paper. A writer like Bradbury, American, between the 60s and 80s, low quality paper was more likely than high-grade stuff to indicate a surviving first or early print for some books. They had cult appeal, and the binding glue in those cheap editions died young. Yomiko had taught her, once, when they'd been chasing a robot simulacrum obsessed serial killer, and had stumbled across Phillip K. Dick's We Can Build You on his bookshelf.

Maggie touched her hand gently, and opened the book to a scene involving, from what words Nenene understood, a bathroom, some tiles, a mosaic. Maggie slid one of her new picture bookmarks in, and there was a promise of later in her eyes that started a shiver at the base of Nenene's spine. She felt, inexplicably, grumpy. Happy and grumpy. It was easier to turn around and lean back into the curve of Maggie's arm than think about it.

“So how are you finding today, Junior? Do you like Christmas?” Michelle had a secret, loving smile for Junior that made Nenene want to give the woman a stern talking to about appropriateness and teenage boys and crushes. For once, Junior didn't blush at it. He was folding lumpy, bent paper cranes out of the leftover wrapping paper and lining them up on the floor beneath the tree.

“It's just another day, after all.” He sounded thoughtful rather than disappointed, but Michelle's smile faltered anyway.


“Yes. It is like gender, or government, or books. Cultural constructs that are nothing without people.”

Anita squinted at him. “So translated into sane-person language, you're saying it's family, not calendars, that make holidays special.”

Junior nodded. “Though it sounds very mundane and small when you put it into words.”

Nenene shrugged. “Most important things do. Whatever you do kid, don't become a writer when you grow up.”

Maggie's arm was warm and close against her belly, Anita had left the room to call Hisami, Michelle was tying plaits in Junior's hair while he played with his keyring, letting the keys fall in turn through his fingers to clink against each other. They had all fought so much, and they had hardly had enough respite. Junior, in particular, needed time just to live and grow and become used to himself. Nenene was sick of being kidnapped, sick of being the victim, of running after people or waiting for the mistakes of the past to catch up with them all. She had to do something, before things started happening, because if there was one thing she'd learned from recent events it was that Nancy was as bad as Yomiko at communicating ideas and working in a team. Postcards and scraps of information wouldn't be enough.

There was a knock at the door. Nenene waved everyone else back to what they'd been doing, and she heaved herself up, walked over. She'd half expected it to be Yomiko – who else would be around and visiting at that time of night – but when she opened the door and saw her there, she still felt shocked. Instead of hello, or that they were going to get active and involved now, she opened her mouth and said “Donnie's alive.”

Yomiko didn't look surprised.

“Well, maybe not Donnie, but I'm sure it's his appearance. Maybe someone like Ridley, or they cloned him?”

Yomiko nodded, still not surprised. “I know,” she said, “I was going to wait until something happened, or you were ready, but I can't... Oh.”

Yomiko knew her well enough to see it in Nenene's eyes. It was scary as all hell now, but Nenene felt justice and fury and anticipation. She stepped aside to let Yomiko in.

This entry was originally posted at Links to subsequent and previous chapters are updated at LJ every couple of months, until then everything may redirect to DW pages. Please comment there using OpenID.


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