Nate, like any traveler, was running on empty. He barely had the gas to make it up the stairs after the flight. Even after a night’s rest at home (on the floor, mind you, but he wasn’t about to make the others get another hotel) he had none left to put away the things he brought back from Japan.
Well…maybe one thing.
He unzipped his rolling suitcase and pulled out an old friend. Nate’s smile grew as he looked at the familiar pink snout, and he gave Oinkers a little squeeze before setting him on top of the dresser.
“Hopefully you’re gonna stop being weird about him,” said a voice from behind. “With all the money we spent on little outfits, you better not hide him in the closet again.”
Nate turned to see the smirk on his sister’s face. “Nah, he deserves his position of honor. I know I was mad at first–”
“For half the tour, you mean.”
“–but I’m glad you brought him along. Thanks.”
“De nada,” she said. “I bet Kohime was pretty glad you brought him along too, eh?”
An exasperated sigh, like only younger siblings can inspire.
Once Oinkers was comfortable, Nate and Jenny went to the living room, where several bags were piled up near the door. Dennis sat on the couch, looking up briefly and nodding before returning to his paperback.
Nate turned to face his sister. “You sure you can’t stick around town?”
“Sorry, big brother. MVW’s got a show in the Ville coming up. Can’t let Jill Berg track mud in our house, y’know?” She took a quick glance at her phone, which buzzed in her hand. “Besides, Trece misses me.”
Nate arched an eyebrow, though he kept quiet. It’s not that he didn’t like Trece Vickers; they got along well, and Trece was great to work with in the ring…but “I’ll help you learn to wrestle” is a far cry from “I’m cool with you dating my sister.”
He settled on something more diplomatic. “Sounds like it’s going well, then?”
She smiled and shyly brushed her hair over her ear. “Mayyyyybe.”
Part of him wanted to lecture her on the perils of dating within the industry, but he quickly reminded himself that those were his rules, not hers…and besides, if he complained about her dating life, then she would talk about his, and no thank you.
“Glad to hear it,” he said, and mostly meant it. “Tell him I say hi.”
She nodded and gave Nate a big hug, just as Benny came out of the bathroom.
“Minty fresh, bitches!” he declared, and Nate prayed he was talking about mouthwash. “Let’s get you to the airport, short stuff.”
Jenny went to kick him in the shin, cursing under her breath when Benny avoided it. Dennis stood up, and the three of them started disassembling the luggage mountain.
“You coming back after?” Nate asked.
“Can’t,” Benny said. “Gotta swing by the SHOOT office so they can get pictures of their conquering heroes.”
“Lots of other stuff to get caught up on,” Denny added. “Probably won’t have time to talk before our own flight tonight.”
“All right. Travel safe, you goons.”
Another quick round of hugs, and then the other three were gone. As the door closed, he felt a twinge of sadness in his heart, and his face fell.
The last two weeks had been brilliant, to put it mildly. To go overseas, to live out his dreams alongside his favorite people…it had been incredible. But as with all great adventures, eventually you reach the worst part.
Admitting that it’s over.
He closed his eyes, and wished that his family was still here.
# # #
Huge, stupid grins covered the Coltons’ faces as they walked inside together. The Denki Gai Steakhouse was everything they’d been told, and more.
It was an unassuming building in the middle of the Akihabara neighborhood of Tokyo, nestled inside a neighborhood of neon lights, loud music, outlandish costumes, and all the other attention-grabbing accouterments of the city’s entertainment center. It specialized in American-style steak dinners, offering a little taste of home to the tourists that constantly flooded the area since the 1950s.
The owner, Junzo Kubota, started the business with money from his father’s adjoining electronics shop, and over time carved out a comfortable existence for himself and his own family.
The establishment gained its true reputation when an American wrestler stormed in, demanding “a proper gawddamn ribeye.” Junzo–himself a lifelong wrestling fan–spoke with the man while he ate, talked about the current tour, and even got a few pictures. The wrestler gave a glowing review of the meal–”that weren’t half bad”–and said he’d tell his friends. Junzo thanked him profusely, but expected nothing. Americans were big talkers, after all.
The following night, he saw a dozen wrestlers crowded around two tables that they’d pushed together.
Soon after, the photos taken inside the restaurant started adorning its walls. Wrestlers donated items to be put on display. And of course, the jackets. Within a few short years, the Denki Gai Steakhouse became a requirement for any wrestler on excursion to the country, thereby earning its nickname: the Steak Shrine. A kind of holy place…and the destination for many a pilgrimage.
“This is amazing,” Nate whispered.
Claire chuckled and said, “First round’s on me. You kids take your time.” She walked off to join the others.
“Kid?” Nate replied. “Pretty sure I’m older than you are.”
“Pretty sure I tapped you out yesterday…kid.”
As the Merciless Queen left the conversation, Nate and the others scattered around the room to take in the spectacle.
Every inch of the wall was covered with wrestling memorabilia–show flyers, pictures, ring gear, titles–and it didn’t take long for the Coltons to find people of interest, since the staff would swap items in and out based on who was currently visiting.
“Check it out! Sound & Fury!”
“I just found Karina Wolfenden!”
“Oh shit, that’s GD West’s World Title!”
For his part, Nate had spotted at least a dozen familiar faces–PRIME contemporaries like Brandon Youngblood and TAL, old friends like Melissa Talamantez, and innumerable wrestling legends like Duke Williams, Johnny Belmont, and the Heartless Express.
Maybe later he’d spend more time with those, or with the other artifacts on the walls. Right now he was looking for one photo in particular.
“Guys! GUYS! I FOUND IT!”
Benny was the lucky winner, and the others bolted across the room to join him. Nate almost knocked over a server on his way, and lost valuable seconds apologizing and giving him an extra tip.
Are we supposed to tip here? I’ll ask later
At last, Nate arrived at the hallowed spot. He crowded into the group and followed Benny’s finger toward the pictures on the wall.
They gazed in wonder at the image of Jake Colton, almost thirty years younger, shaking hands with a middle-aged Japanese man in a charcoal gray suit. Jake was sporting the world’s biggest grin and a blue satin jacket with the restaurant’s name and logo.
“It’s different, seeing it here,” Benny said under his breath.
“Yeah,” Nate agreed. A picture just like this hung in Jake’s office on the other side of the world, the centerpiece of his wall full of memories. He’d been slowly replacing his own highlights with the next generation’s accolades on that wall…but Nate knew that if the day ever came that Jake removed himself from that wall entirely, this picture would be one of the last to come down.
It was all Nate could do to stop himself from reaching out and touching it.
I wonder if Dad would know if I did. Would he feel it? Man, I wish he was here for this.
“I say, Coltons!” a voice shouted; the English accent marked it as belonging to Lord Gavin Yum. “Would you do us the honor of joining us for dinner? Preferably before I pass out from hunger, if you please.”
The four of them took up the available seats, each with a freshly opened Sapporo. They sat across the table from the Crownless Kingdom; Gavin drummed his fingers on the table to signal his impatience.
“I don’t suppose we can order now,” he said as he tucked a napkin into his collar.
“Can it, Gavin,” Claire said, though without the bite her voice usually carried for the low man in the Crownless Kingdom hierarchy. “Everyone have their drinks? A toast, then…”
# # #
Dinner alone, then.
That was fine. Simple. A quick DoorDash order, since there was nothing to eat in the apartment–Nate had barely been here since September, and his incompetence in the kitchen was rivaled only by his father’s.
Chili lime chicken on a bed of rice, and a side salad with ranch. These were quickly consumed and barely tasted. That was also fine; he needed to get back on his diet after letting Dennis pick all the restaurants in Japan. That said, he made sure to leave room for dessert.
Nate opened the last container to find a thin slice of cherry cheesecake, one last piece of decadence to mark the end of his “vacation.”
He prepared the first bite, and stared at the dribble of sauce as it slowly ran off the edge of his fork. Nate had ordered it almost automatically. It wasn’t even his favorite–he much preferred strawberry, only he hadn’t had that in years because…
because Skye is allergic to strawberries
The utensil dropped with a clatter, splattering bits of sweetness across the table. He closed the container again and threw it straight into the trash.
Jesus Christ. She’s broken my heart how many times now, and I’m still letting her run my life. I coulda sworn I was finally over her.
Boy, if that wasn’t the biggest lie Nate ever told himself…
He stared at the mess on the table, knowing he should clean it up but lacking the motivation. At least this would be an easy fix, unlike the rest of his problems.
The smell from the cherries wafted into his nose. He closed his eyes, and wished that it was strawberries.
# # #
In that room filled with sizzling steaks, open bottles, and muscular bodies, Nate was confused by a slight aroma of strawberries.
Where the hell is that coming from?
He quickly realized that the scent was coming from his left. Specifically, from Kohime Mori.
Is that her shampoo? Perfume? Body wash? No, don’t ask her, you idiot, that shit’s weird
Nate focused his attention on Benjamin, who was just finishing up one of his inappropriate stories. “So this guy tells me I’m never allowed in the Space Needle again, and I said, ‘Then how am I gonna get my pants back?’”
Nate laughed along with the others, though he’d heard the story a hundred times. Everyone else seemed entertained, but in all the raucous laughter he also heard an embarrassed squeak, and saw a bright-red Kohime covering most of her face.
Holy shit she is adorable
Nate looked away just as Kohime’s eyes started to shift toward him, though he was pretty sure he saw a knowing smile on RIA’s face. He also suspected that if he looked to the other end of the table, he’d see Justine Calvin winking at him.
Never gonna hear the end of this, am I
Clay Byrd started talking about his first tour of Japan. Normally, the Next Diamond would have been fully absorbed–that dude tells a great story–but he kept drifting back to the young woman seated next to him.
They’d spent some time together on the tour, mostly on group outings. Any time the family went for ice cream, he made sure to invite Kohime and RIA. But there was also their “secret” meeting in Tokyo, where she displayed a sort of maturity that hid underneath her childish sweetness. The way she refused to let bad experiences define her, or lead her into bitterness, was honestly impressive.
She was also pretty damn cute, and she seemed to be interested. Why not?
I’ll tell you why not, he thought. She’s a wrestler, and you know the rule about dating in the business. Besides, she’s about Blake’s age. That’s a bad look, even before you consider what the dirt sheets will say about it.
He stole another glance, only to find Kohime looking back at him. They smiled at each other; Mori blushed slightly before looking away. “Umm…Nate?” she asked.
Nate leaned in closer–her voice was hard to hear in such an environment. Much like the voice of reason, but he was less interested in what that had to say.
“Can…can I hug him again?”
“Of course.” Nate reached into his backpack, wedged between his chair and the wall, and brought out the now-famous Oinkers. No sense being ashamed of him anymore, I guess. The pig’s out of the bag, so to speak.
Kohime shook with glee as she accepted the pig, her muscular arms bulging with the force of her hug.
Damn girl, if he had ribs you’d have cracked one
When Mori handed the pig back, Nate refused. “Nah, let’s keep him out. He deserves to be here too.”
Thank you for helping me see that
Kohime giggled, and set Oinkers on the table next to her strawberry daiquiri. Between the cheers, the laughter, and her obvious delight, that voice of reason became harder to hear.
# # #
With no distractions, the voice of reason came through loud and clear.
What happened to “I’m working on me for a while?”
“I don’t see the problem,” he said to himself, a perfectly normal thing to do. “She’s interested, I’m interested, what’s the big deal?”
She’s basically a kid. Can you imagine what Savannah Scandal’s going to say about you? Never mind that her last relationship ended when she got punched in the face on live television.
“I would never hurt her like that.”
No, you’d find some other way. Like you did with–
“That’s enough,” he growled–again, perfectly normal for someone in conversation with himself. “I’ve got work to do.”
Nate opened an email he’d been ignoring for the last few days. It contained the press packet and some basic research on his ReV42 opponent, Crash Jackson.
He had some familiarity with the high-flying sensation; they’d bumped into each other a few times backstage. Nice guy. Good attitude. Crowd loves him. Had that viral video last year, too.
Nate was reminded of some of the guys he faced years ago on the indy circuit. Crash was obviously superior to them–none of those guys would even get a sniff from PRIME–but he recognized the similarities.
Last year, Crash tore through the Belmont until the semifinals, pulling off implausible upsets against Joey Burkhalter and Moriton, and nearly Izzy Sia. Was that the Crash he was going to get?
Or would he get the one who just got clowned by Bobby Dean?
He wouldn’t know until the bell rang, and he hated that.
These guys are all-or-nothing, and buddy it had better be “all” or you’re wasting my time
He hated that, too.
The bitterness, the sensation of being slighted. He knew it was the nature of the business; sometimes you had to wait your turn while someone else got a chance. Other times, you had to be the measuring stick for the new guy.
He also knew that looking past an opponent was the easiest way to get caught.
I wonder if this is how Dusk felt when I faced him. Or Gamble. Gotta shake this feeling if I don’t want that to happen to me
He tried to push those feelings down. Nate knew the best course of action was to plan for the best version of Jackson. If Crash brought his A-game, Nate could find a way to test his own limits.
The smiling face of Crash Jackson looked back at Nate through his screen. He closed his eyes, and wished this opponent was more like his last one.
# # #
Twenty-four hours ago, they were opponents. Now, Claire felt like an old friend.
The party was still going strong. A few people had left already, allowing the others to move around the table and set up different pockets of conversation. Benjamin and Dennis were laughing it up with Powerslam Anubis and Ignacio el Jaguar, while Nate talked with Claire Merci.
“No bullshit,” Nate said, “I think that was the best match I ever had.”
“Too bad it wasn’t a little better,” Merci replied with a smirk. “You might have won.”
“Ha ha. But you know what I mean, right? Like, I remember when you did the Belmont. You were good–damn good–but now? That was phenomenal. You could go anywhere and be a star, if you wanted.”
“I don’t want to, but thanks. You’re no slouch yourself. PRIME’s been good for you.”
Nate shrugged. “It’s been…a ride. Been some good moments, though. Learned a lot.”
“Did you learn not to challenge my old mentor?” Claire’s bravado might have gotten on Colton’s nerves, but he knew she didn’t mean it.
Okay, actually she did, but not maliciously.
“Don’t regret that at all. I’m always gonna go for the win out there, same as anyone else…but I’d rather take a hard loss than an easy win. Like tonight? Better believe I’m gonna study the shit out of that, and the next time we do this I’ll be even better.”
“Glad to hear it. Maybe next time you can last until…” She trailed off suddenly, her eyes widening with surprise. “Holy shit. Never thought I’d see this again.”
Nate turned to see what shocked Claire so much, and was stunned into silence himself.
He’d only seen Junzo Kubota in photos, mostly on the wall in his dad’s office. That man had been much younger, stockier, with a full head of hair. The Junzo of today was rail-thin and mostly bald, and could only stand thanks to the cane on one side and his son Dayu on the other. His charcoal suit, once perfectly tailored, now hung off his gaunt frame.
The Denki Gai Steakhouse was a love letter to professional wrestling…and now Nate was looking at the man who wrote it.
“Mister Colton?” he asked, his voice barely above a whisper. Nate immediately stood up and faced the old man.
Shit, what do I do? I’m supposed to bow, right? That’s a thing here? “Yes, sir?”
“I remember…your father…” Junzo said, with labored breath. “A man of…incredible…spirit…”
“Thank you. I’ll tell him; that will mean a lot.”
“I watched…your fight with Claire,” Junzo continued, as if Nate hadn’t spoken at all. “You have…the same…spirit.”
The Next Diamond’s words caught in his throat. What could you say to a man who had seen thousands of wrestlers in his day, and made a point to sing your praises?
Junzo tugged on his son’s sleeve; Dayu Kubota produced a neatly-folded jacket and gave it to the old man. “Please accept…this gift.”
With shaky hands, Junzo presented the black satin garment to Nate. Colton accepted it with wide eyes and a bowed head.
“Thank you, sir. I am…deeply honored.”
It was a rite of passage for visiting wrestlers; perform in Japan, come to the Steak Shrine, receive a complimentary jacket (unless you were a total clown shoe, like Gavin.) If you really impressed Junzo, he would present the jacket himself at the end of dinner. That part of the ceremony fell off as Junzo turned the business over to his son, and was now so rare that whoever received the honor might be the last.
A distinction that–until just now–was held by Claire Merci. But judging by her smile, she was honored to let someone else have the mantle.
“May we take…a picture? I would…like one more…memory.”
“Of course, sir,” Nate answered, still in mild disbelief.
“Follow, please.” Junzo and Dayu led the way, while Nate unfolded the black satin jacket and slipped it on…and just when he thought the night couldn’t be more special, he saw where the Kubotas were leading him.
Within a few days, a new photograph took up a position of honor within the Steak Shrine. The photo featured Nate Colton and Junzo Kubota shaking hands and smiling…and just above their heads, a young Junzo did the same for Nate’s father.
# # #
Nate ran his hands over the new jacket, savoring how the satin felt, before hanging it in the closet. The unpacking process now complete, Nate was free to address the future.
A future with a company that seemed to have less room for him with every show. Where Anna Daniels’ discouraging words on Jabber wouldn’t leave the edges of his mind. Where his problems started showing themselves again, like old wallpaper underneath flaking paint.
Nate looked at his flight information, giving special attention to the destination of Philadelphia.
He closed his eyes, and wished…