A lot can change in nine months, right, Eddie?
The first time we met in the ring, I had to give you a bad time. Another in a list of adversaries on my march to becoming the 5-Star Champion. Don’t feel ashamed by that. You’re among the few that’re still here, after all. Apart from Nate, I still can’t even remember the name of one of them and the other one… well, I’m sure he’s got a future in podcasts with a six person listener base.
Where you went wrong wasn’t your talent. You have plenty of that. You just didn’t know who you were, and I did. Something as simple as that can make all of the difference in the world. When it was all said and done, and we shook hands in Dallas two months later, I knew I’d done my job. I put you on your path. Even in defeat, you’d taken your first test.
Nine months feels like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it?
You’re riding high after passing Gibby’s final exam – sorry about the eye, by the way – and I’ve exchanged my king’s cloak for the electric blue of a Bandit.
Yeah, I know. You probably think I’ve lost my way, what with all that’s happened to me lately. But don’t worry, I still know exactly who I am. The colors may change, but they remain the colors of a king.
Be ready, Eddie. More importantly, be afraid.
The Crownless King is coming for his crown.
And you’re in the way.
Annabelle Avalon made her assessment known almost the moment Coral walked in the door.
“Of all the absolutely stupid things you’ve done in the years we’ve been married, this is without a doubt in the top three.” After a beat, she corrected herself, “Okay, really, at least top five. There’s a lot of stupid to sort through.”
Over the past few weeks, Coral had been laying low at home following his semi-involuntary stay on board the USS Octane. When he finally hatched from his frozen egg cocoon, he got in the ring with Arthur Pleasant and managed to eke out a victory over the newest member of the Red Army. Then he came back home, and his wife wasn’t very happy for reasons that were about to become obvious.
“Annie, I swear, this wasn’t my idea.” Coral said as he pled with his wife to calm down and to put down the medieval morning star that she’d somehow grabbed hold of in the middle of the conversation. You know, just an average piece of decoration that you’d have in your house when your husband liked to go around wearing the colors of a king and looking ridiculous doing it.
At least it wasn’t a sword. Coral kept those under lock and key for a reason.
“No shit,” Annabelle said, before she pointed the business end of her weapon at a space just behind her husband, “I can’t believe you invited Tweedledipshit and Tweedledumbass to our home.”
Okay, it’s time to rip the Band-Aid off and talk about the very reason Annabelle was the angriest she’d been in months: the fact that Coral had brought his new “friends” home with him. You know, the guys that kidnapped him and put him on ice on the Octane. You know, Bobby Dean and Cancer goddamn Jiles.
Bobby Dean, dressed up as best as the cherubic pro wrestler could dress himself, looked between Coral, Coral’s wife, and King Crumb. The other two Bandits had spent plenty of time gawking at how modest the Avalon residence actually was, used as they were to the Ivory Tower or the Octane. Bobby gestured between himself and Jiles as he asked an all important question.
“Which one of us is Tweedledipshit?” Bobby asked.
“Him.” Annabelle said, finger pointed directly at Jiles.
Bobby sulked, “Aw, man. That means I’m the Tweedledumbass.”
Coral had every intention of leaving his new Bandit brethren behind in Louisville, but Jiles insisted that Coral didn’t have to fly coach anymore. After all, they had Bandit One (you know, the jet). One thing led to another, and then… well, let’s just say that he found himself stuck between a rock and a hard mace.
“Alright, introductions,” Coral said, trying to find some sense in this hitherto undreamt of scenario where he had King Crumb himself and his cherubic wingman in his house. He sighed. He knew this was going to suck from the moment the two of them insisted on paying a visit to Castillo de Avalon, “Jiles, Bobby, this is Annabelle.”
“Didn’t we meet, already?” Jiles asked. He considered tilting the T-shades down to get a better look, and decided that… no, he would not be doing that. “Could’ve sworn some pregnant ho threw shoes at me in Chicago.”
Annabelle took a step forward with her menacing weapon, “I’m sorry, what?”
The only reason why those T-shades weren’t broken across the floor of Castillo de Avalon was because Coral had to stop her. It was a sacrifice he had to make, knowing that it would send him to a one-way-trip to the couch for the month. It wasn’t because he was particularly concerned for Jiles’ well-being, but because it would be such a mess to clean up afterwards. Scrambled eggs would ruin a carpet like this one.
“Belle 2,” Jiles said smoothly, as though the horrible words “pregnant ho” never escaped his lips at all.
“Belle Harder?” Bobby suggested, then he had a “better” idea, “Oh, wait, I know! Electric Belleaboo!”
Jiles gave Bobby a disgusted expression in response as Bobby looked to him, and then to Avalon, for moral support that he would almost certainly not get in this situation.
Annabelle was not amused at the notion of being “Belle 2”, and she raised the morning star threateningly in the direction of the Bandits, “Don’t call me that, or the other thing you said, or the other other thing you said, or I’m going to start with the kneecaps.”
Bobby held his hands up pleadingly. Everyone knew that his knees already went through so much just from being attached to his body, and that being introduced to Mr. Spiky wouldn’t help matters, “But… we already have a Belle, though!”
“That, we do,” Jiles said, taking a seat on the couch like he already owned the place. Considering how Jiles came to acquire the Octane and Bandit One, this was very alarming to Coral. The last thing he needed was for Jiles to walk in whenever he wanted unannounced like he was the neighbor on the world’s shittiest breakfast-themed sitcom.
“eGGs Over Easy”, it’d be called.
“So, y’know, you might have to make some concessions here vis-à-vis being the sequel to Annabelle,” Jiles continued, putting his feet up on the coffee table.
Annabelle didn’t acknowledge Jiles, just like Jiles refused to acknowledge that Night One of a pay-per-view even existed. Instead, she turned to Coral, and Coral immediately knew he was in some deep shit and this wasn’t just going to be a couch situation.
“Coral, sweetie, can I talk to you for a moment?” she asked with a voice of pure saccharine, before she cast a less-than-sugary glance towards the Bandits, “In private?”
Coral’s expression froze like he was right back in the cryostasis chamber.
Coral had been with Annabelle for almost twenty years, and he knew every habit of her personality. Coral knew the moments when Annabelle truly became angry and not simply grandstanding with a morning star. That anger was usually accompanied with an uncharacteristically sweet voice. Like right now.
“Uh, sure,” he finally croaked.
Not that he had much of a say in the matter, as Annabelle grabbed him by the wrist and dragged him forcefully through the back door and out into the backyard.
They didn’t hear, or didn’t care, about Jiles’ disingenuous comment on their way out.
“Nice place you’ve got here! Ha.”
“Are you out of your fucking mind?”
Annabelle’s voice was that kind of whispered anger that she only used when she didn’t want the neighbors to hear her.
“More and more every day,” Coral agreed with her, keeping his voice down enough that Jiles and Bobby couldn’t hear him talk even if there was a wall and a door between them now, “I didn’t want them to be here anymore than you did, I swear to you.”
“And yet, they’re here despite you not wanting them to be here,” Annabelle said, “Jiles is putting his feet on our coffee table. Do you remember how much of a pain in the ass it was getting that table into this country after my mom got it for us on our anniversary?”
“Yeah, I remember.” Coral said. Of course he did.
It was a different time. Before PRIME’s big comeback. Before the pandemic. Before Coral’s fourth appearance in the finals of the Bang! Pro Wrestling’s annual Terminus Complex. When Coral and Annabelle had finally decided to put their roots down somewhere and buy a house together, Annabelle’s mother had graciously arranged for a table for the two of them.
They weren’t able to bring it back with them, and had to get it shipped internationally. It got lost in the mail for one reason or another, and it took months to finally arrive. When it finally did, Coral spent hours piecing it together because he’d never been able to read kanji and didn’t want to trouble Annabelle over it.
“I mean, I reckon I’ll have things to say to them when we get back inside, but…”
Annabelle interrupted him with the exact angrily sweet tone of voice he always dreaded, “Coral, sweetie, what was the first rule we agreed on when we settled down in Seattle?”
Coral felt his whole body droop as he recited the first rule, “Don’t bring your work home with you.”
Annabelle nodded her acknowledgement at her husband digging the hole just a little deeper for himself. She placed her bludgeoning tool down on a table near the door, and paced around on the patio.
“And what’s the fifth rule?”
Coral had to think about that one, “Okay, that one’s more like an understated goal of life, and…”
Annabelle suddenly stopped her pacing and her head turned towards Coral with little patience over whether her body would join her in the turn. Her withering glare caused any further attempts to defend himself to die somewhere in his throat, stabbed to death by senators at the foot of the statue of Pompey the Great.
“Answer my question.”
“Always…” Coral said, and then hesitated for a moment to turn his eyes away from Annabelle’s judgment, “…Always come home safe and sound.”
Guilt hit him harder than any rib injury ever had. His wife had been worried sick about him ever since the Bandits took him, and now he was bringing those sons of bitches into their house, and Cancer Jiles was putting his grubby salt shoes on their coffee table.
Turns out, there’s a lot that Coral missed while he was on ice. He didn’t know the depths of Annabelle’s panic over his disappearance, or how worried sick she was that the very things that the two of them often worried about when he chose to sign with PRIME were coming to fruition.
“That’s right. You know I love and appreciate your boundless capacity for liking people that nobody else does, but at least Brandon got his shit together. At least Joe hid how much of a piece of garbage he was before he stabbed you in the back. At least Gavin always means well despite being maybe the most incompetent man I’ve ever met, which says a lot considering your usual company,” she pointed at the back door, “But these two dipshits? They don’t even know what the third rule is.”
“Don’t put your feet on the furniture,” Coral recited.
Annabelle’s expression was wilting, “I’m glad that your knowledge of the house rules are so encyclopedic now that I’ve called your shit out.”
When she pointed at the back door again, it was with some finality, “Just… get them out of here. Please. I don’t want to look at them.”
He sighed, and turned to go face the Bandits. Annabelle stopped him before he could leave, “Oh, and Coral?”
“Get rid of the tracksuit, for God’s sake. You look like a nerd.”
Everything that could’ve gone wrong for the Gates of Avalon had gone wrong in the past year. Franco’s knee injury, Gavin’s ridiculous incompetence, the fact that he’d been forced to relocate the school… all of it contributed to the smallest class the school’s ever had. Most prospective students had gone on to the Silver Lining during the confusion, leaving Coral with only a handful of loyalists.
One of those loyalists greeted Coral and the Bandits when they walked inside, “Whoa, holy crap, you’re finally back.”
“Hey, Lance,” Coral said. It was easy to remember the name of the best student in the school even with his extended absence. Lance Castle reminded Coral too much of himself when he was his age – eager, quick to learn, quick to adapt, and not exactly overly fond of the idiots that surrounded him. Especially Gavin. His hair was already growing long like his own once did, and his long face had the potential of giving him a forehead to rival Coral’s own.
It’s like he’s a clone.
Coral sighed as he heard a clearing of the throat behind him. Time to make some introductions, he supposed.
“Jiles, Bobby, this is Lance. He’s the best student here.”
“Looks like the only one,” Jiles quipped, his eyes having already scanned the otherwise empty school behind those T-shades of his, “Best by default. Ha.”
Coral continued undaunted, “Lance, uh… you already know these guys, right?”
“Yeah, those’re the Bandits.”
“That’s the eGG Bandits to you,” Jiles corrected him.
“Yeah, sure,” Lance said, already looking like he was done with this conversation. He gestured towards the nearest door, “I gotta head out. Break room’s over there, Bobby, if you’re looking for snacks.”
Bobby was already heading that way the moment he heard the words “break room”, moving at what passed for a rapid pace for the most corpulent Bandit. Lance gave Coral a quick nod and a fist bump, all while pretending to not notice Jiles before he left the two of them to their own devices.
The silence between Coral and his UltraViolence opponent was deafening. This was the first time Coral had been alone with Jiles since the Octane. What did one say to the man that kidnapped you after a wrestling match and put you on ice? “Hello?”
It was Jiles who broke the silence when he caught sight of something at the back of the building.
“What the fuck is that?”
“Oh.” Coral said, “That’s my, uh… mural.”
Over the years, Coral had gained a huge collection of children’s artwork from his time as Baron von Blackberry. Each time he did, he’d post it on the back wall, covered in corkboards. This process had been going on since even before the character found itself in a popular web cartoon, but it exploded when the cartoon began and hadn’t really let up ever since.
Jiles walked to the back, with Coral trailing behind him. He hadn’t known Jiles long, but being the salty son of a bitch he was, he wouldn’t be surprised if he had ill intentions for what he saw.
“Hey, uh… I know you keep a bunch of eggs on you like it’s some kind of egg-based superpower, but I’d prefer if you didn’t throw any on this wall. Any of the other walls is fine, whatever, I can clean that up,” Coral said, “This one I can’t.”
“Better this than whatever Timo’s got,” Jiles said.
“You’ve been to Timo’s gym?”
“God, look at this one,” Jiles said, “It’s like someone ate one of those Willy Wonka blueberries and then had sex with your forehead.”
Jiles was gesturing at a crude child’s drawing of Baron von Blackberry seated upon a rocket throne and laughing maniacally as a tornado of sheep attacked a building that looked suspiciously like an important government building. There was more stick figure than proportions to it, but it was still much more detailed than some of the other drawings on the wall.
Coral let the comment pass with mild amusement, “That’s supposed to be me.”
Jiles nodded and studied the mural for a few more moments, before he came to a conclusion, “God, you’re hideous.”
“Like two wombats fell into a vat of acid and then reformed into pure forehead.”
Things went quiet after that.
Coral silently made a mental note to grow his hair back out.
“You’re probably wondering why I do any of this, the whole training people thing and keeping all this artwork and all that.”
Jiles was very blunt in his response, “I could tell you that I am, but then that’d be a lie. I don’t tell lies to Bandits.”
“You literally told Bobby that Eddie Cross was made of chocolate to encourage him to eat him before we have our match,” Coral reminded him.
There was a pause, which Coral took to mean that he was free to keep talking, “Listen, Jiles, I don’t know what you want out of me as a Bandit. I’m not even sure I’m cut out to be one, if I’m being honest. I’m not exactly a guy who goes around causing problems, because problems find me well enough on their own.”
“But I mean, you helped me in your own… unique way. I needed to be back to a hundred percent for the Almasy. So the least I can do is watch your back,” Coral said, before he held out a hand, “As your friend.”
Jiles considered this apology and the outstretched hand for a long moment, before he accepted.
Coral added, “Sorry about my wife, by the way, it might take her a while to warm up to you.”
Jiles’ expression never changed as he offered his response, “Wait until she finds out where I hid all of the eggs.”
Coral’s smile faltered.
Coral returned home later that night, now bereft of the Bandits. They’d gone back to whatever home they came from onboard the Bandit One. The Tower, the Octane, Coral didn’t know nor did he care.
Once he was certain that Jiles and Bobby were gone and couldn’t hear him, he let Annabelle know what Jiles had told him.
“You’re definitely sleeping on the couch for a month,” Annabelle informed him. As it turned out, Coral was already on the couch, under siege by the cats. Mordred always seemed to plot his death as he balanced on Coral’s shoulders. Suisei decided to just curl up next to him.
“I know. I deserve it. I’m sorry.”
“You’re such a dumbass. A loveable dumbass who apologizes too much, but a dumbass all the same.”
Coral repeated his apologies, causing Annabelle to roll her eyes and sit down next to him with some measure of difficulty. His daughter was just a couple of months away from arriving, and Coral knew that his work-life balance was about to get an adorable thumb on its scale.
A lot could change in nine months, after all.
“I know it’s not my business to meddle in your wrestling affairs any more than it’s yours to meddle in my music.” Annabelle said, taking Coral by the hand, “All I’m asking is that you be careful. I don’t want to have to worry about where you are again.”
“I’ll be fine, Annie,” Coral said, “I can handle Eddie Cross, and I can handle the Bandits, too.”
“You said that before you ended up in an eyesore of a tracksuit, too.”
Coral winced, “Okay, yeah, you got me there.”
He leaned his head back and stared at the ceiling. The spackling could use some work, he decided.
Then he said something out of the blue, “Hey, Annie, I want to be there when Aoi’s born.”
Annabelle perked up.
“And I want to be able to hold her, take her to school, be that one obnoxious parent shouting at all the other kids in soccer practice. All of that. I want to be there for her in ways my own parents refused to be. If that means I have to step away sooner than I expected, then that’s what’s going to happen.”
He smiled, though he didn’t stop staring at the ceiling.
Annabelle squeezed his hand, “Oh, that’s very sweet of you, honey…”
“…But you’re still sleeping on the couch.”
Coral’s smile faded. When he turned his head to look at her, her expression told him everything he needed to know.
He might as well not even move from his spot for the rest of the night.