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Today by Maya Perez
Today by Maya Perez
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Today

 

The buzzer had been screaming in his ear for over a minute before he regained any semblance of consciousness. Joe reached over and pounded the clock-radio into silence without opening his eyes. He cursed at the thundering still going on in his head, and flinched at the grating sound of his own voice. Groaning quietly, Joe turned over slowly and accidentally pushed his mostly empty bottle of Jack Daniels from the bed onto the floor.

Opening his left eye a crack, Joe looked over the edge of the bed until he spotted the fallen bottle. Reaching out slowly, he wrapped his hand around it and brought it back onto the bed. He then worked to summon the energy to turn on his side so that he could bring the bottle to his lips without spilling its precious contents.

Joe placed the bottle on the floor as he swished the burning liquid in his mouth, letting it get rid of the pasty, leathery taste lingering there. He swallowed, grimacing slightly, and felt the liquor make its way down. As it landed in his stomach, the latter rumbled threateningly for a moment and then lay quiet. Joe closed his bloodshot eye, finding the cheerful morning sunlight coming past his tightly drawn curtains to be too eagerly trying to sizzle his tired retinas. Though he knew it'd do no good, Joe fervently tried to wish his screaming head to go away.

He knew better than to have drunk as much as he had last night. He'd just wanted enough booze in his bloodstream to make sure he'd sleep through the day, but it looked like he'd gone someway past that point. Unfortunately, his head was quite happy to remind him of his error. Why couldn't it just be satisfied with him spending the day in a drunken coma?

Joe's eyes suddenly opened and just as abruptly closed as they were exposed to the room's seemingly bright light. He kept his eyes closed and tried hard to keep hold of the thought that startled him -- Had his alarm gone off just a minute ago?

That wasn't possible. He wouldn't have been stupid enough to turn it on last night, would he?! Even when drunk, he'd never be that insane! But then... habit, he must have done it out of habit... yeah that was it. Letting his stream of thoughts wander to nothing now that the great mystery had been solved, Joe turned over on his side and pulled his cover up over his head. He'd almost fallen back asleep, when a loud, reverberating noise startled him rudely out of bed.

"AGH!!" Joe held his pounding head in both hands, as pure agony cut through his brain. With a string of loud expletives that only helped to make his head pound harder, Joe let himself fall back onto the bed. Roughly, he grabbed his pillows and put them over his head trying to use them to muffle the rumbling noise. The motorcycle engine outside continued its noisy cacophany as it was revved to a peak every couple of seconds.

Joe's multilingual expletives began again as his head threatened him that it would soon explode. Throwing his pillows disgustedly to the side, Joe slid out of bed an expression promising a painful death etched on his face.

A growl welling deep in his throat, Joe stumbled to the trailer's door and violently pulled it open. For a moment he doubled over in pain as the intensity of the engine's noise nearly tripled. Forcing himself to stand and look into the bright, cheery sunshine outside, Joe held himself up against the trailer's door-frame. Slowly he scanned the swaying landscape until he was finally able to lock on to the source of his misery.

The large bike's exhaust ports were pointed directly toward his trailer. A figure dressed in a bright, annoying purple jump suit with matching helmet, was seated on the motorcycle looking back in his direction. The helmet had a full visor and was reflective. Nevertheless, Joe had no doubt that the man was smiling from ear to ear even as his gloved hand moved to gun the engine again.

"You son of a bitch! KNOCK IT OFF!!!" Joe could feel his head truly threatening him with an explosion if the noise didn't die out soon. Joe swore however, that he'd force it to stay together long enough to let him get his hands around the purple-clad jerk before him. Joe stumbled out of his trailer and began heading in the motorcycle's direction.

Seeing Joe coming, the cyclist first saluted and then waved in a friendly way at him. Joe started to run even as the man let go of the motorcycle's brake and allowed the machine to jump forward. Joe shouted profanities as he ran after him, his fist shaking in the air. He stopped as the bike and rider wheeled around a far corner and moved out of sight.

Joe bent down, putting his hands on his thighs and tried to get his breath back. His head stopped threatening to spill his brains all over the neighborhood, but continued to throb wildly. Ignoring his few neighbors as they came out and stared at him as he stood dressed only in his underwear, Joe made his way back to the trailer.

Working hard to forget the annoyance of just a few moments ago, Joe grabbed the JD bottle from where he'd set it on the floor, took a small swig from it and then crawled back into bed. His head's thumping slowly mellowed to a low roar. Joe began to think that perhaps he might make it back to sleep after all. The phone rang.

"Kuso!" After the tenth ring, Joe finally gave up and reached across the bed to answer it. "Hello?!" Click. "Shit!!"

Joe slammed the phone back on its hook, his head berating him for the unwanted noise. Mentaly cursing the ancestors of whoever had called, Joe half fluffed half beat his pillows for a moment before laying back down.

The phone began ringing again. Joe caught it on the second ring. "WHAT?"

Shrill, sadistic laughter poured from the phone into his unsuspecting ear. Grimacing in pain, Joe quickly pulled the receiver away from his ear. He heard the click as the caller hung up on him again. "Chikusho! Why me?!!!"

Joe slammed the receiver onto the small night table, accidentally cracking the plastic casing. Just happy that the phone would be off the hook, allowing no more calls to come through, Joe buried himself in his covers.

After a few minutes, the phone began to beep. The more he tried to ignore the low-key beeping, the deeper it seemed to penetrate his skull.

"Chikusho!!" In one fluid movement, Joe sat up reached over to the night table and yanked the phone cord from the wall. With a look of pure, murderous glee, he picked up the phone and pitched it across the room. Joe watched intently as it arced through the air and hit hard against the far trailer wall. As a satisfied, sadistic smile lit on his lips, Joe got ready to lay down again. His gaze flowed momentarily over the rest of the trailer and he froze. All traces of sleep drained from his face. "What the hell?!"

His normal messy neatness was trashed. Clothes, both clean and dirty, were strewn everywhere. Every cabinet of his small kitchen was open, their contents piled all over the counter and floor. His few books, racing magazines, and bills had been randomly spilled to fill what few clear places had remained on the floor.

"Did I do this?" He hadn't gotten that drunk. Well, he was somewhat sure of that. But, if he hadn't done it, who had? Who would dare?! Joe's bloodshot eyes studied the mess around him trying to extract a clue. His head pounded mercilessly as he tried to concentrate enough to make a half-hearted attempt to think straight.

It would have been immediately obvious to anyone coming in that he was here. So who could have been so confident as to come in here and do all this to his place while he was in it? Had they somehow guessed that he would be drunk?!

Damn! That didn't make sense! He had nothing of value. And from what he could see, it didn't look like anything had been taken anyway. What was going on?

Cradling his head, Joe tried to make himself relax. His gaze snapped up abruptly, however, locking onto the night table. The alarm clock! He was almost positive that he hadn't turned it on last night. Yet, it had gone off this morning...

With an unsteady hand, Joe picked up his clock-radio from where it had tipped from his pounding earlier that day. It showed the time to be 8:30 am - shit. Fumbling with it, Joe pressed the alarm set button. It showed that the alarm had been set to go off at 7:47 am. Figured, the noise from the thing had reverberated in his head like a jumbo jet. He would have never set his clock for such a ridiculous time. That meant that whoever had trashed his trailer had also set the alarm... But why?! It didn't make any sense! Joe put the clock-radio back on the table and then dismissed it from his mind.

This was the type of puzzle that Ken should try to solve, or even Nambu. He wouldn't call either of them though, at least not today. He'd basically threatened them all with bodily harm if they disturbed him today. How would it look if after all that, he bothered them? Especially today, of all days...

Joe ran his fingers through his tousled hair, his throat feeling dry. Finding his bottle of JD, he took a long swallow before getting up to make his way to the bathroom. Stumbling into the small room, Joe set the bottle in the sink.

Taking a deep breath, Joe dared to look at himself in the mirror. His hair was a tumbled disaster. His eyes were bloodshot and there were dark bags under them. A thin layer of growth was spread unevenly across his face. A small grin flickered in his reflection as he realized that he didn't give a damn. Joe ran his rough tongue over his teeth and found out that all he could taste was mothballs. Water, perhaps he should go ahead and drink a little of it... sure. Yet, he'd barely placed his hand on the knob to turn on the sink before he moved it away. He'd only had a hangover this bad twice that he could remember. One of those times he'd made the mistake of turning the tap water on in a small enclosed space. Oh no, not again, not ever... raging waterfalls didn't do much for seriously sensitive heads.

A sensitive head, right, and he'd better do something about it soon too. He wouldn't want to prolong the agony if he could help it. If he'd been left alone, he could have slept through it, but nooooo! Some jackass had thought it would be ridiculously funny to wake him up at 7:47 am. It had probably been that jerk on the motorcycle. But who was he? He didn't think he'd made any new enemies of late.

Joe moaned softly and sat on the rim of the toilet. This wasn't going well. Today of all days... Maybe he was cursed... Now, what had he been about to do? Oh, yeah, taking care of his hangover...

Forcing himself back on his feet, Joe reached up for the medicine cabinet above the sink. Everything in it was exactly as he'd left it. Why go so thoroughly through his place but leave this intact?! It didn't matter! None of this mattered! He was not going to think about anything today!!

Rather roughly, Joe reached into the medicine cabinet and extracted a large bottle of Tylenol. He knew from experience that they wouldn't help much, but it was a start. With any luck, it would dull his roaring head just enough to make it tolerable.

Struggling with the childproof cap, it suddenly popped free and fell into the toilet with a soft plop. Ignoring it, Joe quickly scooped out three of the Tylenol and then added two more for good measure. Joe shoved them into his mouth and sent them down to his stomach with a JD chaser.

Joe closed his eyes and leaned against the sink waiting to see what his stomach would make of things. It grumbled in complaint for a minute or two and then settled back down. Figuring that the stuff would stay down then, Joe stumbled out of the bathroom and into the small kitchen.

As he stooped to pick up a fairly clean cup off the floor, Joe found his gaze drawn to his bed. Swaying slightly, he felt himself tempted by the oblivion he knew that it might still provide him. With a sad sigh, he turned away from it. For no matter how much he said he didn't care or wanted not to think about it, he knew that he had no choice but to worry over the fact that someone had broken into his home. It would be extremely foolish for him to be caught sleeping again if for some reason the perpetrator decided to return. His best bet was to get dressed and get the hell out of there. He could spend the night at the ISO building until he could report what had happened tomorrow. Damn, why did it have to be today of all days!

Moving stuff around on the kitchen counter, Joe was finally able to find an unused tea bag. Dumping it into the cup, he poured cold water into it from a container in the fridge. He stuck the filled cup in the microwave and set it to heat for three minutes. Turning around slowly, Joe scanned the floor for some clothes to wear. Grabbing anything that didn't look outright filthy, he was able to gather enough to get dressed in by the time the timer rang on the microwave.

Flinching at the sound of the high pitched, repeating bell, Joe opened the microwave and removed the cup. Making sure that it was warm enough by stirring the tea with his finger, Joe tipped the cup up and swallowed its contents in one sitting.

Setting the cup down, knowing that the tea would make his stomach slightly more content, Joe grabbed his clothes and headed toward the bathroom. On his way, he picked up a package of Twinkies he found sitting at the bottom of the kitchen sink.

Stuffing a half-squished Twinkie into his mouth, Joe dropped his clothes onto the bathroom floor and then stepped into the cramped shower stall on the far side of the bathroom. The Twinkie scraped at his raw throat on its way down.

Joe closed his eyes as he stood in the stall and took three deep breaths trying to prepare himself for what was to come. As he exhaled the last, he raised his right hand and with a hard twist, turned on the cold water as far as it would go. Joe tried not to scream through his clenched teeth as the icy water slammed against his unprotected skin.

Joe cringed against the stall's wall, his balls shrinking against him in his wet underwear. With a grimace, he turned around so that his back could get its share of the icy torture.

Shivering, Joe eventually turned back around and shut off most of the cold water before eagerly turning on the hot. He breathed a sigh of relief as the quickly warming torrent did the same for his skin. Joe stuck his face into the shower's flow, trying his best to ignore the slamming sounds echoing in his head.

After about five minutes, Joe turned the water off and clumsily toweled himself dry. Stuffing another Twinkie into his mouth, Joe looked at himself again in the mirror. Hm, that was better... now he only looked half like hell.

Popping a couple of more Tylenol, Joe placed his full concentration on going through the motions of brushing his teeth, shaving, and generally getting dressed. Twenty minutes later, he looked at himself in the mirror again. With a look of disgust, he pulled away at the pieces of toilet paper that clung bloodily to his shaved face. Overall he looked alive again, but damn the bastard that woke him, damn him to hell! He hadn't injured his face this bad since he'd first learned to shave. Damn, damn, damn!

Joe knew his anger was foolish, but he let it simmer anyway. It would help keep him from thinking of the very things he didn't want to think about today.

Moving through the mess in the kitchen, Joe used the same cup and tea bag to make himself another cup of warm tea. He'd have to worry about getting some slightly more solid food into his stomach soon, but for now this would do.

Drinking his tea and then sitting in the bed to put on his shoes, Joe could feel his headache slowly backing off. Perhaps this hangover wouldn't be too bad after all.

The bit of good news was short lived, however, when he didn't find his wallet or car keys on his small dresser. Cursing softly as he looked for them, he finally found them underneath the bed. Beside them, he found his wrist communicator. Shit! He'd never even thought of it! Galactor could have come in here and taken it and he wouldn't have known! Baka! Imagining what Nambu and the others would likely have said to such a thing, Joe picked up his wrist communicator and quickly checked the components inside. He was no expert, but everything seemed to look okay.

He really had no way of knowing if what had happened last night had or had not anything to do with Galactor. Maybe he shouldn't wait until tomorrow. He could call Ken - he would understand - or he could just call Nambu and ask that for now it be kept from the others... No. He was not in the mood for explanations. Surely they'd ask him why he'd gone out of his way to get so drunk last night, especially since today was today. A part of him pointed out that he was being quite unreasonable.

"Screw it to hell!" Slapping his communicator to his wrist, Joe stalked out of the trailer, slamming the door behind him. The slam made his head ring in protest, but he ignored it.

He hadn't gone very far before he stopped and carefully took a look around. Finding no signs that he was being watched, Joe made his way to his blue sedan. Reaching for the door's handle, he hesitated and then stepped back. He looked down at the underside of the car and then stuck his arm through the driver's open window to pop open the hood. He looked over the familiar engine carefully, looking for any signs of tampering. Spotting nothing, Joe closed the hood and only then noticed the off angle that the car seemed to be sitting in.

"Son of a bitch!" The front passenger tire was flat. Joe kicked at it before stomping off toward the rear of the car. He knew it was no accident. He was dead sure of who'd done it. If he ever got hold of that grinning twit...!

Joe yanked his spare out of the trunk and set it next to the car. He took out the tire iron and held it as if he meant to bludgeon someone with it. He sighed suddenly, and oddly enough all his anger was washed out with it. What was the point, today of all days? Useless, it was all useless. What did any of it matter eventually anyway?

Getting the jack, Joe slipped it into position beneath the car and pumped it up until it met the bottom of the sedan. Taking off the tire iron, Joe moved to sit in front of the flat tire. After removing the hubcap, he stared at what had been hidden inside. Five lug nuts -- five held this tire together, just like five fools held the dreams of the world. But really, what had they done? What had they really accomplished? What kind of dent had he made in all this time to the debt that was owed him? What real difference did any of them make?

Joe sighed, feeling the dark mood he'd so hoped to avoid trying to engulf him. It would have been so much easier if he could just have spent the day in a booze induced coma... it would have been easier to face than this... so much easier...

Joe sighed again before forcing himself to loosen the tire's lug nuts. First came Jun, then Ken, Jinpei, and Ryu, leaving stubborn Joe for last. He was feeling quite drained by the time the tire was replaced. Before he put the flat away, Joe looked it over for any obvious holes. What he found was that the cap to the air intake was missing. Looked like the jerk had just emptied the air out of the tire rather than punctured it. Thank the Lord for small favors.

Stowing the flat in the trunk, Joe finished up with the new tire without much energy. He shouldn't have felt this tired, not even with the booze. Maybe he should go on ahead to the ISO building now and try to sleep again. But what if they were there? He didn't think he could face seeing them. Besides, why fool himself, he didn't really think he could go back to sleep after all this, did he?

He couldn't stay here, but where could he go? He didn't want to deal with the others, so that left out a number of places... actually, a lot of places... But there was one they wouldn't be going to today.

After putting everything back into the trunk, Joe got into his car. Lovingly, he passed his hand over the sedan's dash, glad that the jokester hadn't really done any harm to the car. Sticking the key into the ignition and turning it, Joe allowed himself a small smile at hearing the fine tuned purr of his engine. Revving the engine a couple of times just for the pleasure of hearing it roar, he ignored the way it also tried to excite his subdued headache back into being. Feeling his gloom brighten slightly, Joe put the car in drive and left.

Joe drove the car slowly through the heavy traffic, not quite trusting his reflexes in his current state. His patience started to grow thin, however, as the traffic barely crawled once he got out on the highway. His destination was not far, but at his current rate of travel it would take him at least three times as long to get there. It fit in perfectly with the way his day had gone so far. Today of all days!

Joe couldn't fool himself. He knew that if somehow he could rid all calendars of this date, he would only fixate his frustrations on another. It was almost as if they built in him all through the year only to burst out all on this day. None of the others understood. At least, he didn't think so. He could never bring himself to talk about it and find out. It never seemed the right time. And he had never been the most expressive person in the world. Could he just be avoiding the subject because he really wanted to wallow in his yearly misery? But truly, how could they understand? None of them had the drive he had... none of them had blood tying them to the job they did.

With a yank, Joe turned the wheel of the car sending them both into an exit lane out of the highway. He wove in and out of the flowing traffic, barely paying any real attention to what he was doing.

Blood... it always came back to that. Their blood for his blood... And though many sacrifices had been sent his way, none of them had for long appeased him. They hadn't been right! There was only one that would make his yearly torture stop -- Only one that would free him from his endless path of destruction... only one...

A blaring horn brought Joe back from his thought. Instantly, Joe swerved around the car before him and then cut it off while doing a U-turn. He'd just realized that he'd missed his turn.

Joe almost grazed two cars and then cut off another as he swerved into the familiar blacktop parking lot. He sped across to the far side of the lot, even as angry curses followed him from the street. Joe skid his sedan to a halt in his usual parking space.

"Fool! You know better than to drive like that when you're like this! You know better!!" Joe started at his shaking hands feeling suddenly lightheaded. Berating himself again and again, he leaned his head back over the seat until the feeling went away. He in no way acknowledged the thin sheen of sweat that covered his face.

His throat hurt. He needed a drink. He should have eaten a little more before leaving home. He knew better than this! Why was he being so stupid today? Joe had no doubt as to what Ken would say. He'd tell him he had a death wish, that he'd subconsciously been harboring one for a long time. Joe wasn't at all sure that he could tell him he was wrong... not today.

Anger flared inside him. Joe was mad at himself for daring to think this way. He had a job, and he hadn't finished it yet! He could never rest until it got done. He would not run out on his commitment to fulfill his goal, no matter how bad things got!

Joe hit the metal steering wheel with his fists. He used the pain it caused him to center himself, to push back the dark waves. He would reach his goal someday... nothing would stop him!

Joe made himself get out of the car. He looked around the almost empty parking lot and saw a few cars that he recognized.

Even from here, he could hear the roar of an engine, its rise and fall as it made it's way around the track. His head sent him a warning of what that sound might do to him if he went inside the stadium. He ignored it. There had always been something very alluring about that sound. He loved the scent of the hot oil, the squeal of the tires as they moved around tight corners, the vibrations that would course through your body as you made your way around the track at incredible speeds. He wouldn't be one of those driving in the track today, but watching others do so would still prove therapeutic. If there weren't other things filling his life, he might be tempted to give his all to racing. It was incredibly relaxing and exciting at the same time. And most of all, he enjoyed it! The speeds! Having to rely totally on yourself and your machine. Having your own little microcosm, one composed solely of man and machine.

With a sense of growing eagerness, Joe quickly made his way to the stadium's driver's entrance. He took the hallway leading down to the locker rooms and stopped before a row of vending machines. Checking through their contents, he settled for some chicken broth, a chicken salad sandwich, apple juice, fruit punch, and an ice coffee.

Loaded with his food, Joe left the locker area and headed toward the stands. Two cars were using the track as he stepped out into the warm sunlight. The unfiltered sound hit him light a brick wall. Joe swayed for a moment, breathing deeply, as his headache flared in pain. For the first time, it occurred to him that perhaps this hadn't been such a good idea.

Moving up an isle of stairs, Joe sought out the farthest seats from the track. Sound still rocketed up at him from below, but was somewhat more tolerable. Staring at the moving cars, Joe drank his cup of broth and followed it with the two fruit juices. Since his stomach didn't protest over what he'd given it so far, he began to slowly work on the sandwich and ice coffee. For a moment he wished that he'd brought both the Tylenol and JD, but didn't move to do anything about it.

Joe recognized both of the cars racing on the track. He watched them with interest. The red Mustang was Carlucci's and the one with so many stickers that the make was almost unrecognizable was Reed's. Reed was a long time veteran of the tracks and had given Joe a run for his money on many an occasion. Of late though, Joe had noticed that Reed's time had not been up to par with his usual standards. Carlucci, however, was another matter entirely.

Carlucci was young, brash, and new to the game. And he was filled with an overflowing enthusiasm that shone through in his driving. Joe had no doubt that he would go far. He looked forward to testing his skills against him, it should make for quite an exciting time.

The men and women that raced here and elsewhere, all had something in common -- their joy of racing. It subconsciously bound them all into a unique group. Yet, he had a drive that consumed him more than racing, and because of it, he had secrets that he could not share. All too often it drove a barrier between him and others that he could never bring himself to cross.

But, wasn't all that irrelevant? There was a group to which his belonging could not be denied... the Science Ninja Team. He was closer to them than he'd ever been to anyone, including his parents. Yet, even with them, there were things that -- what the?!

Joe flinched as a beam of bright light fell on his face. Shading his eyes, Joe moved to the side to try and spot the source of the blinding flash.

A bolt of anger coursed through him as he spotted a purple helmeted figure at the bottom row of bleachers. The purple clad figure waved cheerfully toward him. Again Joe got the inescapable impression that the prankster was smiling from ear to ear. What brought him to the boiling point, however, was the fact that he saw a mirror in the prankster's other hand.

"Teme!!" The helmeted figure bolted as Joe sprang to his feet. Joe ignored his empty drinks even as one of them fell on the floor to shatter to a million pieces. The prankster disappeared down the tunnel leading out of the stands.

Joe leapt over the bleachers even as his blood raced hotly through his veins, trying to get to the stairs leading down. "Kono yaroo! I'm not going to let you get away from me!!"

Recklessly, Joe thundered down the wide steps, knowing yet ignoring the fact that his tormentor had too much of a lead on him. Cursing as he went, Joe finally turned into the tunnel. His prankster was nowhere in sight.

Winded, but not yet willing to give up, Joe ran down the hallway hoping to somehow pick up his trail. He moved quickly looking in every direction hoping for any clue as to where he had gone. As Joe took a likely corridor, he stopped as the echoing sound of a revving engine blared at him. That wasn't a car's engine, of that he was sure. Could it be a motorcycle's? With a flare of hope, Joe followed the sound.

When he entered the main hallway leading in from the driver's entrance, Joe forced himself to pick up speed as he spotted his quarry sitting on his bike just inside the gate. The revving grew louder as Joe got closer, and it reverberated more and more agonizingly in his head.

"You bastard! Wait 'till I get my hands on you!!" The purple clad figure waved at him and then released the bike's brake allowing it to wheel out into the parking lot with a loud squeal of tires.

Wheezing, Joe reached the gate, gas fumes filling his flaring nostrils. He coughed hard for a moment, feeling suddenly dizzy, but never let his gaze waver from the prankster's fleeing form. Joe raced for his car, hoping to give pursuit. He stopped as he drew near, noticing that the passenger tire of the sedan was flat again.

"KUSO!!"

In cold rage, Joe stared from the flat tire to the quickly disappearing purple figure on the motorcycle. A snarl marred his face, but Joe never took notice of it. With deliberate calm, Joe opened the sedan's trunk. He swept aside the flat tire already inside and reached for the tire iron beneath. Walking some distance from the car, Joe uttered a primeval shriek and proceeded to use the tire iron to beat at the defenseless asphalt at his feet.

By the time he'd vented out his rage and frustration, Joe's shoulders felt on fire and it hurt to breathe. He stared at the gouged hole in the parking lot and fell on his butt, breathing heavily. After a moment, he looked up at the street as he wiped the sweat from his forehead. He sighed, having half expected to have found his purple prankster waving at him from the sidewalk.

 

**********

 

It took Joe over three quarters of an hour to drag the flat tire to his rented pit area within the stadium, fill the tire up with air, and then roll it back to install on the car. A low simmering fury infused his whole being as he made himself chug-a-lug two more cans of fruit juice. The SOB had gone too far. He didn't know who he was or why he was doing these things to him, but he would find the little bugger and make him pay!

Joe started up the sedan and tore out of the stadium's parking lot. He was prepared to cruise around Utoland for the rest of his life, if need be, to find that purple-clad creep. The jerk had pushed his luck once too often... It was payback time!

For hours Joe cruised the streets looking for any sign of his tormentor. His mind focused on nothing but the pleasure he would gain by smashing in the little creep's smiling face. Nothing else mattered now, he'd finally had enough.

It was mid-afternoon when his anger had cooled enough for him to realize the true impossibility of his self-appointed task. Joe realized that his chances of finding the guy were incredibly small. His stomach growled, feeling more like its old self and not at all happy about the neglect it had suffered so far. With a frustrated sigh, Joe turned at the next corner and then turned in into a McDonald's drive-thru. Getting two Big Macs, a large order of fries, and a chocolate shake, Joe parked the sedan in a parking slot facing the street. He started in on the first of his two sandwiches, his eyes glued to the passing traffic.

Joe choked on the last bite of his second sandwich as he spotted a motorcycle being driven by a purple-clad man. His fury reached a new peak as the cyclist waved at him as he went by.

"YAROO!" Throwing the rest of his lunch on the passenger side of the car, Joe started up the sedan and drove over the sidewalk to get onto the street. Cutting off a number of cars as he merged violently with the flowing traffic, the only thought in Joe's mind was the need to get his hands around his tormentor's throat. He had no room to wonder how his prankster had known that he was there.

Methodically, Joe began closing the distance between him and the motorcycle. He wove expertly in and out of the traffic around him, never once noticing the scared and angry motorists that he left behind.

Joe saw his quarry turn sharply into an alley, and cursed. The bastard was toying with him - they both knew that this alley was too narrow for his car. Well the little creep wasn't going to get away from him that easily! Joe turned at the nearest corner and then stomped on his accelerator. The alley went on a ways, but Joe knew that there was no exit from it but one. Joe cut around the far corner, his eyes searching for any sign that the cyclist had already made it through. Seeing none, Joe screeched to a halt before the end of the alley, sealing the way out. He looked down the alley, but saw no one coming down it.

An insistent honking far down the other side caught at his attention. Straining, Joe could barely make out a purple-clad figure at its far end. An arm rose to wave in his direction, even as the cycle's engine was revved to a high pitch. Joe snarled, hating himself for having been so easily outwitted. Nevertheless, he stomped back on the accelerator. Turning the wheel hard, Joe made a one-eighty to go back the way he'd come. There was still a chance that he might catch his tormentor and he was not about to let it slip away.

As Joe turned the last corner, he stared frantically ahead trying to catch some glimpse of his purple-clad prankster. Catching sight of him, Joe forged ahead.

He was not going to get away! There'd been too many times in his life when his true quarry had escaped him. It was not going to happen today!! Joe accelerated. Subconsciously, he realized that they were quickly making their way to Utoland's warehouse district. A small, cold smile lit his lips as with the decreased traffic in that area, he slowly began to gain on his tormentor. The cops would show up soon; of that he was sure. He needed to have caught his prankster and had his way with him before then.

Joe saw the cyclist turn a corner ahead, and he struggled to get there not too far behind him. As the sedan careened around the corner, Joe could see no sign of him. Snarling, Joe turned right at the next corner, trying hard to listen for the sound of a motorcycle's engine.

"Shit!!" Joe stomped on his brakes forcing the sedan into a sideways slide as he spotted what might be his quarry's motorcycle sitting before a large, metal warehouse.

Joe leapt out of the car, leaving it where it was, and ran toward the building. As he ran, he reached down into the secret compartment in his pants and pulled out a feather dart. He threw it forward. The dart punctured the cycle's front tire giving out a satisfying hiss. That should stop the lousy bastard from escaping him again!

Moving quickly, Joe approached the slightly open door leading into the interior of the warehouse. He peeked in through the cracked door, but saw only darkness. Silently, not caring anymore about the risks he might be taking, Joe eased the door open enough to allow him to slip quickly inside.

Following the wall several feet away from the door so as not to become an easy target while his eyes adjusted to the dark, Joe crouched and listened carefully into the darkness surrounding him. Hearing nothing, Joe had been about to move, when bright, overhead lights kicked on throughout the building. Blinking as he tried to shield his eyes from the light, Joe stepped back against the wall and prepared himself for an attack.

When nothing happened, Joe looked up before him and immediately spotted his tormentor. Joe stood still, his eyes glued to his quarry, waiting to see what the prankster would do next. His hands clenched and unclenched subconsciously at his sides.

The cyclist stepped forward, reaching up to undo the helmet's strap under his chin. As he came closer, he swept his arm to indicate something behind him. Joe didn't look at what was there, all he had eyes for was him. His hand itched to reach down for a feather dart, but before he could follow the impulse he changed his mind. He knew of something that would feel much more satisfying.

The purple-clad figure reached up to remove his helmet and that was when Joe pounced. With a yell, Joe plowed into his foe and drove him backward, his hands reaching up trying to wrap themselves around the prankster's neck. The cyclist gave way before him until he slammed violently into something Joe couldn't see. Joe paid no attention to it as they both suddenly went down, his rage having only one thing in mind. He blinked as something blue and white splattered onto the floor beside him, some of it sticking on his cheek. It smelled sweet.

"Joe, will you get your damn hands off my neck?! What's the big idea?!!"

"Wha -- ?!" Joe looked down at his pinned opponent, his rage stalling at the all-too- familiar voice.

"So much for your surprise party." Joe sat back, confused, even as the man under him reached up to raise the helmet's visor. The critical blue stare that met his startled confusion was only too well known. "Ken? Wha --"

"Aniki, I spent all day working on that cake! I bet you didn't even look at it before you smashed it on the floor!!"

With wide eyes, Joe looked up at Jinpei's unhappy face. Joe followed the latter's disappointed gaze to the white and blue mess that was spread all over the concrete floor.

"It'd serve you right if we decided to cancel the whole thing! If you weren't so stubborn, we wouldn't have had to go to so much trouble just to get you here." Joe barely glanced at Jun's annoyed stance as his eyes finally registered all that he, in his all-consuming rage, had ignored before.

The large table that he and Ken had landed on and collapsed was draped with a white tablecloth bordered by colorful race cars. Bright, rainbow colored plates lay strewn on the floor near what was left of the cake, blue plastic forks and spoons spread out not far behind them. Two other tables stood on either side of his, both with the same white tablecloths. One held a huge punch bowl and a stack of rainbow colored paper cups. The other was stacked full with all of his favorite foods. A large race car pinata hung over head, while blue and red balloons and streamers filled a large part of the ceiling.

"Wha -- ?"

"We'd all wanted to surprise you..." Joe couldn't miss the red tinge covering Ryu's cheeks. "We'd been working on this place since early this morning, hoping to make it just right for when you arrived."

"Yeah, we were busy while Ken here got to go out and play tag. I still think I should have got to do it..." Jinpei shot both of them a dirty look.

"Wha -- ?"

"Come on, Joe, get off me, will ya?! You're heavy! Just because you're the birthday boy, you've no right to sit on me all day!"

Birthday boy... Joe carefully removed himself from his friend's body, his mind a whirl. Today... of course they'd known it was today... And they'd done all these things just to get him here?! What were they, mad?!! He'd never wanted this! He'd told them so often enough. He hated his birthday. He hated how it counted each passing year that he'd failed yet again to avenge his parent's death! He'd never felt like celebrating it. It only served to prove how incapable he was in carrying out one simple thing! Couldn't he be left to wallow in his depression alone?! Yet... yet today of all days... he'd barely thought about these things. Today, of all days, he'd been preoccupied by something else!

"Joe, are you all right?"

Joe's gaze focused on Ken and then drifted off toward the rest of them. God, how he loved them all!! In their bumbling, well-meaning way they'd done for him the very thing he could have never done for himself! The irony of it!!

Joe began to laugh. It was a deep, hearty laugh. He laughed so hard that his sides began to ache and tears coursed down his face. The idiots! What a gift they had given him! And never in the rest of his life, would he be able to express how much it meant to him!!

"Joe?"

His laughter slowly began to subside until he made the mistake of looking up into their concerned faces. Leaning back on his arm while using the other to hold in his aching sides, Joe felt a piece of cake squish through his fingers. Yes, they'd tortured him all day and now he owed them more than he could ever repay... but, they didn't need to know that. Oh no, for now it was time for a different type of payback, a different type indeed.

A sadistic grin grew on Joe's face as he turned away from them to scoop up two handfuls of splattered cake. They would pay for his indignities, yes indeed. And oh how he was going to enjoy it!! His own perfect birthday...

 

The End :-)

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