It was a beautiful day.
Birds were chirping. Children were playing. Everything was as it should be in this tranquil field where nothing really happened. Coral Avalon had found his zen, at long last. All of his hopes and dreams and birthdays had come together.
There by his side was his wife, as beautiful as she’d ever been. Also, a little less pregnant that he remembered her being. The thought crossed his mind that this might’ve been a little weird, but he considered it a minor detail. Playing in the distance with other nondescript children was a little girl that looked as beautiful as Coral’s wife did. She might have a little more forehead than average, though, but that might’ve just been his imagination. The PRIME Universal championship that Coral had long sought lay between Coral and his wife, treated as though it were a member of the family.
God, it really was a nice day, wasn’t it?
It wasn’t like Seattle. Coral loved living in Seattle because it was the furthest you could get from New Orleans without leaving the continental United States, but the fact that it could shit mist upon you on any given day really took the wind out of his sails.
Speaking of the wind, it was picking up a little bit, wasn’t it?
Well, that’s fine. A little wind never hurt anyone. Hell, look at Coral’s wife! Her hair was blowing in the wind like she was in one of those shiny hair ads! That’s really nice. That’s the best, actually. She’s always been a beautiful woman, and…
She’s flying away like she’s been carried off by that same wind.
Oh, and then a sheep flew by.
Well, that’s unusual. As in, that’s not what sheep usually did. Flying sheep were supposed to be extinct.
He looked back over at the children, who were running away screaming. One of the nondescript children was suddenly yeeted out from Coral’s field of view when another sheep slammed right into them, and that might have been the most horrifying thing Coral had seen in the last half hour or so. That title of “most horrifying thing Coral had seen” was quickly usurped when Coral turned to look in the direction that the sheep were flying in from.
It reached the very top of the sky, a column of air and sheep that stretched well above the clouds. An absurdity beyond absurdities, this “sheepnado” was approaching like a stealthy colossus, threatening to decimate all that it touched.
Including, it would seem, Coral’s idyllic little scenario.
He wanted to yell at it. Scream. Tell it to go away and leave him alone.
It only grew in response, as though furious at Coral’s laughable attempts at telling a sheepnado to piss off. You simply don’t tell a natural disaster what to do, especially when such a disaster was hardly natural.
Coral felt himself being lifted off the ground. He screamed in a different way now, especially when a sheep plowed into him and knocked him topsy-turvy. Another one hit him, and it was all he could do to cling for dear life to the next one that came by in a vain attempt at finding any sort of safety as he was being carried further and further up the wooly funnel cloud.
For a brief moment, Coral found himself at the top of the clouds. The highest of heights. Higher than he’d ever been before in his life outside of an aircraft.
He saw something glint out of the corner of his eye.
The Universal championship.
He knew he needed to get that. It was his life’s work, after all. He leapt off of the sheep he’d caught a ride from and reached out for it with everything he had.
But an incomprehensibly large and well-manicured hand took it away just as he’d gotten a fingertip on it.
Coral spun, looking up at the sky. For the briefest of moments, he was suspended between heaven and earth, and he saw the man that took the belt from his grasp.
He was, in a word, the most beautiful man on earth.
And with a casual grace, this Vietnamese deity waved him goodbye as Coral plummeted from the sky amidst a sea of sheep.
Coral screamed as he fell.
That’s been happening to Coral a lot lately, hasn’t it?
Eddie Cross punished him that night in Greensboro in a way that he didn’t or couldn’t in Coral’s former hometown back in February. It took every square inch of Coral’s technical knowhow – and a bit of luck – to eke out the victory. He even had to be assisted to the back by Bobby Dean, which proved to be an order too tall for the Beautiful Man from Honalee. The instant the cameras looked away, Bobby fell over from the strain of having to carry Coral.
His forehead anyway.
There were no news reports about this incident, but let’s just say that Coral might have made a sound like a squeaky toy getting the squeeze when Bobby fell on top of him. He was lucky to still be alive. So, the decision was made that all of the Crownless King’s men and all of the Crownless King’s horses were needed to put him back together. And so, off to the Octane for some, let’s say… cryo maintenance.
Coral wasn’t sure he could ever get used to it or the weird-ass nightmares that often came with the cryostasis, let alone the fact that he considered it some kind of weird Bandit magic.
Brandon could’ve used this, but good luck getting him on the Octane. Jiles would shriek and yell and it’d be a whole thing.
Coral shivered as he put his clothes back on, still frigid from the cryostasis.
“How the fuck do you manage to scream in there?” Cancer Jiles inquired walking into the room. He wore his electric blue tracksuit, his white hair standing out in stark contrast with his tan. Coral, who never went out of his way to tan, looked like a ghost compared to him.
Or maybe that was from being on ice again.
Either way, Jiles looked like he was genuinely interested to learn the answer to that question. For, like, a second. “Whatever. I don’t give a shit. Get on set in ten minutes. You’ve got shit to say to the next crumb you’ve got in the Almasy.”
Coral looked up at the ceiling, coming to grips with the notion that in addition to all of the amenities available to him on the USS Octane, it also had a set where a ridiculous promo could be filmed.
He reckoned that he did have things to say about Chandler Tsonda… so many enlightening things.
Coral Avalon had been placed in a lot of strange situations in his twenty years as a professional wrestler, so the fact that the Bandits dressed him up in a big poncho and a wide-brimmed Stetson hat didn’t faze him that much.
Okay, maybe the yellow yolk-style design on the poncho bothered him a little bit. It was so garish.
Coral had been flown onto the USS Octane for this occasion, and shuffled into his costume by such esteemed Bandits as Lunchbox Lazenby and Cardboard Dan Ryan. Then he got introduced to the set.
You see, the Bandits had built a whole set for Coral. The saloon bar had that Bandit charm to it. That meant that the swinging doors were an electric blue, the bar was full of cardboard patrons, and Bobby Dean as a bartender wearing an ill-fitting bartender’s suit and spending his time looking behind the bar for various snacks. When Coral strolled onto the set with a swagger otherwise alien to him, it was like getting transported back to the Madhouse that he’d participated in what seemed like a lifetime ago.
Off-camera, Jiles had given him plenty of instructions on how to approach what he was going to say. Plenty of reminders of the Bandit way of doing things. Plenty of… you know, Jilesisms.
“Fellas,” Coral said, wearing the expression of a man who continued to have no idea what he’d gotten himself into and was trying to affect a Southern accent that’d long been beaten out of him, “I’m looking for this man.”
Coral held up a wanted poster, showing it around the saloon.
The poster depicted a candid shot of Chandler Tsonda taking a big mouthful of lunch, very likely the picture you’d take of such a beautiful man if you wanted to make him look as bad as possible. Infuriatingly, he still looked immaculate.
The wanted poster said as such:
WANTED: PINNED OR SUBMITTED
CHANDLER “CRUMB” TSONDA
REWARD: ONE (1) ALIAS TITLE SHOT
WANTED FOR: AGGRAVATED SNARKING, THE PINNING OF BOBBY DEAN, SUSPECTED OF ATTEMPTING TO REINTRODUCE MATH TO PRIME
After looking around the room, Coral handed the bounty poster to Bobby the bartender, “You see this man, you let me know.”
“Sure?” Bobby said. He was already breaking the immersion of the bit by pulling out a bag of Cheetos and chowing down, so when he took the poster from Coral, he doused that thing in orange Cheetos dust. Coral already knew that the poster was going to be lost, Bobby might see that dust on it and decide that it was edible. He wouldn’t put it past him.
Coral looked towards the camera.
“Let me explain to y’all why I’m after this man,” he said.
It was time to get to work, wasn’t it? Coral already knew what time it was.
“Because I haven’t forgotten, you know,” Coral said, “You got me at ReVival 32.”
He tapped at his chest, right where the rib injury used to be before a little date with the cryostasis chamber.
“After Pontiff and Farthington did the mother of all one-two punches to me, all you had to do was pick at the bones of whatever was left of me. Maybe if I hadn’t hurt my rib before we met and took that loss, I’d have never had to deal with Jiles as much as I did and gotten myself mixed up in this whole Bandit business.”
He smiled an acrid smile, already half-disgusted with the entire act he was putting on.
“So, you already understand the reason why I have to kill you now, right Chandler?”
Off-camera, a single hollow sound could be heard from the director of this feature film.
Coral’s eyes drifted to said director for a long moment before he carried on, “Okay, you know what? That’s not fair. That one’s on me. I can’t blame you for that.”
He paused, letting his smile linger. Then it faded..
“But do you know where I can start directing my anger? Do you know what stews my pot with you, friend of mine?”
Coral pointed towards the camera, as though pointing at Tsonda himself.
“You’re a man who already had everything I’ve ever wanted as a professional wrestler.”
He started pacing, because if he didn’t, he wouldn’t be able to contain himself, “No, not the riches that you’ve gained from wrestling. Not even the fame, or infamy in some cases. You hung out with a guy called the Illustrious Face-Eater after all. If I wanted material wealth, I wouldn’t be here.”
He turned, and paced towards the other side of the bar, “I’m talking about the fact that you’ve had all of the opportunities that I’m still scratching and clawing to gain for myself.”
Coral stopped his pacing, and started counting with his fingers, “You, the Jewel in the Crown winner. You, the Colossus main eventer. You, the former Universal champion. You, the Hall of Famer.”
Then he turned towards the camera, and Coral was almost uncharacteristically angry. He was experiencing a level of… oh no, was that salt?
“And then, when PRIME went under thanks to Devin Shakur, you retired full and happy. Satisfied that you’d done everything you’d ever wanted to do.”
Coral tore the hat from his head and tossed it off-camera with enough force that you could hear Lunchbox Lincoln yelling in terror at the object flying for his face.
“You vanished… AND I REMAINED!”
His eyes widened as he continued.
“So I want you to ruminate on this, Chandler. And not just you, either. Stanislav. Youngblood. The Luchador. Gamble. Sykes. I might as well include Ward, Nova, and Hoyt, too. The ghosts of yesteryear. Everyone who decided that yes, they would like to wrestle again after PRIME reopened its doors. Every man who came out of the woodwork like the scattering of roaches. Every guy who wanted another shot at glory, even if they’ve already experienced all of the glories that I’m still chasing to this day.”
Coral was breathless, and the question that came out was only barely above a whisper.
“Where were you?”
When Coral caught his breath, he continued at his normal volume, “Because I can tell you where I was. I was in Japan. I was in England. I was in Ulaanbaatar.”
He turned to look at Bobby, whose confused expression told Coral everything he needed to know when he gestured towards him.
“Bobby doesn’t even know where that last one is!”
Bobby sheepishly nodded in agreement.
Then he turned back to the camera, “I was wrestling in places where I didn’t even know if I’d even be allowed to leave the country once I entered it. I was wrestling where I’d sometimes have to bring a supply of bottled water because I’d have gotten dysentery or something as bad if I drank the water there. I’ve shed my blood on six continents, and the only reason it’s not seven is because nobody was half-witted enough to organize a show in the Antarctic before I wound up here. Oh, but don’t get it twisted, I’ve shed other people’s blood in all of those same continents, too.”
Coral started to remove the poncho that he was wearing, recognizing that its… curious pattern might distract from the message he was trying to deliver.
“Did any of them do that while PRIME was closed? Did you, Chandler?”
Underneath the poncho, Coral revealed that he was wearing an eGG Bandits shirt. The shirt depicted Coral’s own forehead looming in the background like the Death Star, while a TIE fighter in the shape of Jiles’ (in)famous T-shades was flying towards it. The words “THE EGGPIRE STRIKES BACK” was written at the bottom.
“I don’t know,” Coral said, dropping the poncho to the ground, “Because I didn’t see you there.”
He briefly looked around, as though looking for a Tsonda that wasn’t there.
“There’s no bright lights or fancy cameras where I’ve been. It’s only the long, hard road. The small, loyal fan base scattered across the globe. And I know you. I’ve studied you. Hell, I’ve experienced you once already. If you, the great Chandler Tsonda, had to walk a mile in my shoes? You’d beg to go back to your happy retirement. You’d prostrate yourself before your Crownless King, the man who’s hunting your bounty right now, and plead with him to be allowed back to your nice place in Carlsbad where nobody’s getting paid to kick your face in.”
Well, some people might do it for free.
“After all, your narcissism wouldn’t let you toil in obscurity for even a drop in the ocean of my experience with it.”
Coral smiled as acerbic as before.
“But before you go thinking that I’m just expressing sour grapes over the way our lives and careers diverged, let me tell you something. Before you crawled out of your rock in San Diego, the ReVival era of PRIME was a shared hallucination of a wrestling promotion that we all experienced in the MGM last year. It took the blood, sweat, and tears of everyone in that first year to get us touring again. That includes me. That includes every old veteran looking to prove something even if they had nothing left to prove.”
His smile dropped.
“Everyone except for you. You strolled in at number forty like the all-conquering hero you think you are after everyone else laid the foundation of this ReVival in their blood. You, the Hall of Famer. You, with nothing left to prove.”
There’s a glint in his eyes as he said, “But I… have everything to prove.”
He tapped his chest again.
“And this time? I’m at 100%. There’s no rib injury this time, because that’s apparently how cryostasis works and we’re all just going to have to accept that. And, as we both know… even Coral Avalon at half his strength was almost too much for you to handle.”
He held out his hand and Lunchbox Lucas dutifully came on-screen to deliver the battered Stetson back to Coral.
“So, like I said. I’m going to kill you.”
Placing it on his head, Avalon nodded to the camera.
“I’ve a bounty to collect, after all. Giddyup.”
Annabelle gave Coral a thousand-yard stare when he returned home, the kind that Coral recognized as the sort of look she’d give if she’d done something wrong. Coral had seen that look in her eyes before, but it was rare. She was, after all, the far more competent one of the couple. The look was accentuated by the fact that Annabelle was standing over a broken flower pot with a broom and a dustpan.
“Maybe I should get that,” Coral offered after a beat.
He put his duffel bag and the groceries on the floor and took the broom and dustpan from his wife’s hands without a word of complaint from either. Coral picked up most of the pot shards and dirt and deposited it directly into the trash.
“It was dead, anyway,” Annabelle observed when he finished. “I think Jiles put an egg yolk in there the last time he was here.”
“And here I thought the smell was from whatever hells Bobby left in the bathroom.”
“Don’t remind me. The house still smells like foul tacos because of him,” Annabelle said through clenched teeth, “I’ve gone through four cans of Febreeze.”
“Did you use the Mediterranean Lavender?”
Annabelle gave him a murderous look, “Sweetie…”
“Sorry, Annie, I knew I should’ve suggested the Apple Cider.”
“I will harm you.”
Coral held his hands up in surrender as he went to pick up his items from the door. That’s when Annabelle asked, “So, how was your Bandit field trip?”
Coral’s brain shut off for a moment.
Factory reset. Error code: SY13MK1408. Please contact your system administrator.
It took him a few moments to recenter himself after the question and breathlessly repeat the words, “Bandit field trip?”
“Look, I’ve made my feelings about your new…” Annabelle used the dreaded finger quotes, “friends…” Then continued, “…abundantly clear. I’m still going to at least check to make sure you’re doing okay.”
“Well…” Coral started, flopping down on the couch that had been where he’d slept for the past few weeks because of all the Banditry. “Physically, I’ve never felt better. It’s like I never hurt my ribs at all. I’m convinced the Bandits are cryo sorcerers.”
Annabelle heard Coral talk about being in cryostasis before, but like everything else related to the Bandits, it made as much sense to her as it did Coral himself. “Sure. But…?”
“Mentally, though… I don’t know. It’s a storm up here,” Coral said, pointing to his temple, “Like a big tornado full of thoughts, and for whatever reason half of the thoughts are big, fluffy sheep. It’s just… I haven’t slept well since I first got off that boat, Annie. I’ve barely been able to look in the mirror, or face anyone in the locker room that knows me.”
Annabelle sat down next to him, placing her hand on his knee.
His expression was haunted, and that scared her.
Whatever she was going to say was lost as Coral continued talking.
“And… I’m not blind,” he said, staring up at the ceiling, “Seven other people in this tournament, and King Crumb’s still one of them. Deep down, I know he’s using me to get to the finals and right all of the wrongs from last year’s Almasy.”
“So if the Almasy came down to the two of us, how fast do you think he’d stab me in the back?”
He might break the sound barrier.
Heh. Freaking Cancer Guile over here, am I right?
But all he had to do was look and see what he’d accomplished since that night in Chicago. Since joining the Bandits, even if unwillingly… he hadn’t lost.
It was working.
And no matter how much that tornado swirled in the center of his mind, he couldn’t deny the results.