My tongue was so dry it felt like sandpaper when it rubbed across the roof of my mouth, and I could feel the vein in my neck throb with every irregular beat of my heart. With a handful of Paxton’s pants in my grip, I pulled back with everything I had until the echo of a hand slapping against the mat filled my ears. I released my grip as soon as I heard it, and after what felt like a lifetime – but was more than likely less than ten seconds – I exhaled.
As if it was second nature, I rolled out of the ring as fast as I could. Elvis Nixon was left alone in the ring with the Bayou Butcher, as he made his way to his feet. It was pretty obvious that Paxton Ray wasn’t in the best of moods, and it didn’t take Nixon long to realize he too needed to get out of the ring before Paxton took his frustrations out on him.
I stared back at the ring as I made my way up the ramp, careful to not turn my back on the man that had put his own partner in a wheelchair. Despite everything else the man had accomplished in his short time in PRIME, that was the first thing most people spoke about and would be something that he may never be able to step out of the shadow of.
Much like nicknames, reputations were earned in PRIME.
I should know, I had earned one myself…even if it wasn’t a good one.
It had started with a match against Chandler Tsonda, but it wasn’t until that cold night in hell on December seventeenth that people realized I needed to be taken seriously. That night had ended just like this one, with a hand slapping against the mat for a third and final time.
It’s a night I’ll never forget, because I swear for a brief moment… I felt my heart stop beating. Everything came to an abrupt halt, as I watched the hand Bernie Roberts let go of just stop and hover for what seemed like forever before it finally fell to the mat with a dull thud.
I released the submission hold I called the Smile For Me and rolled onto my back, my arms burning from how long I had to keep it locked in because the son of a bitch on the receiving end just wouldn’t give up. At that exact moment, I thought that the crowd was cheering for me, that they were as happy as I was that I had won the match, but I know now that that wasn’t the case.
That night, just like tonight, I had beaten someone they hated more than they disliked me. I wasn’t their hero then, and I sure as hell ain’t their hero now, but for a moment I made them happy and brought a smile to their faces.
These cheers are temporary, and I’m okay with that.
= = = = =
“You sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah,” Domingo Cruz is down on one knee clutching his side as he inhales deeply, his chin tucked tight against his chest as a grimace creases his lips. His eyes flutter open slowly as he struggles to breathe normally, wincing with each breath he takes.
Frank Pastore turns away from his friend and looks across the ring, where the new kid on the block is leaning against the turnbuckle adjusting the black wristband on his left wrist. “You’re not in a match for the Universal title here, Gio, take it easy.”
“Take it easy,” Giovanni Ancora stares back at Frank with a look of surprise on his face. “Your boy’s been working stiff all day, and I’m the one that needs to take it easy. Screw that, I’m here to get ready for the Belmont, not pussyfoot around some asshole that clearly has a problem with me for some reason.”
“Who the hell are you calling an asshole,” Domingo rises slowly, still favoring his left side. “Ungrateful little shit!”
“Chill out, Dom.” Frank extends his arm toward Dom, palm up motioning for Cruz to hold up.
“Yeah, Dom,” Gio cracks a smile. “Chill out.”
“Seriously?” Frank’s head whips around, a stern look on his face as his attention returns to Gio.
Gio shrugs his shoulders, the smile on his face widening. “I’m just messing around, jeez. I really didn’t expect you guys to be so serious.”
“Were you expecting us to be doing stand up?”
Everyone’s attention turns to the man walking toward the ring in a dark blue pinstripe vest with matching pants. His arms are crossed behind his back, and despite the permanent grin scarred onto the left side of his face he does not appear to be in a jovial mood.
The cocky smile and attitude that Ancora was just sporting fades quickly when his eyes meetwith the Permascar Superstar’s.
“Nuh…nuh…no, sir,” he stutters as the former Gamble Champion approaches, which brings a smile to Cruz’s face.
“Good,” Tony replies. “Because we only do stand up on Saturday nights.”
“We do the karaoke on the Sundays.”
Johnnie Newsman is a few feet behind Gamble, a smile on his face that may as well be permanent since it is rare that you see him without it. He enjoys karaoke night, and A Thousand Miles by Vanessa Carlton is his go to jam.
The fact that the expression on Tony’s face doesn’t change confuses Gio a bit, as he is uncertain as to whether or not either one of the men is joking.
“Relax, Giovanni,” Tony turns his attention toward Domingo as he speaks. “Dom just wants to make sure you’re ready for anything when you get to the Belmont. Not to mention there’s a chance the two of you could end up facing each other.”
Gio looks away from The Grin, and into the icy glare coming from Cruz. The two lock eyes for a moment, and as if it was pre planned the ends of both of their lips curl into devilish grins. As if tensions weren’t high enough, this new information adds another level to their little back and forth, and Tony is here for it.
“Now wouldn’t that be something.”
“From what I’ve seen so far,” Ancora is the first to speak his mind. “I doubt I have anything to worry about.”
“If it happens,” Domingo doesn’t hesitate to strike back. “I won’t be holding back like I have been.”
“How about we focus on making sure both of you are ready to get that far,” Frank ever the mediator, attempts to bring things back into focus on the topic at hand. “before we break out the rulers.”
“How do they look, Frank?”
“They look good, Boss,” Frank answers, as he approaches the ropes where Tony is standing. “They’ll be ready for the Belmont, if they don’t end up killing each other first.”
“A little healthy competition isn’t going to hurt,” Gamble chuckles softly. “I’m certain you’ll do everything in your power to make sure they’re both still alive until I get back.”
“I’ll only be gone for a week, then all my attention will be on Sykes.” The words pass through Tony’s slightly parted lips as he glances up at Frank. “I promise.”
“I didn’t mean for it to sound like that, Boss.”
“No worries, Frank, I know what you meant.” Tony glances at the two men staring daggers at each other, neither man willing to turn away. “Just focus on these two knuckleheads for now, then we’ll figure out what I need to do to beat Jared.”
= = = = =
“Are you sure you can beat him?”
The words of his daughter sting like alcohol on a papercut, but the truth is he doesn’t really know the answer to her question. He shrugs his shoulders and answers, “I’m not sure, I’ve never played this game before.”
“This is one of the early boss fights, it’s not supposed to be that hard.”
“What kind of name is Dirty Two-Horned Beast anyway,” Tony mashes buttons on the DualSense edge controller, clearly not sure of what he is supposed to be pressing.
“You have a persona attack, Dad,” Olivia yells out. “Press the triangle! NOT THE SQUARE, THE TRIANGLE!!”
“I’m pressing the triangle!”
“No, you’re pressing all the buttons at the same time,” Olivia folds her arms in front of her chest and side eyes her father. “I thought you said you were a gamer.”
“I am,” Tony finally presses the right button, and the cinematic attack starts to play. “Just wasn’t expecting that shadow guy to turn into this big old beast. I’m really good at Fall Guys, why don’t we play that?”
“What’s with all the yelling?”
“It’s my fault,” Tony hands the remote to Olivia. “She was showing me how to play this Strikers game and I’m not doing that good.”
“He’s not,” Olivia agrees, shaking her head slightly.
“Wow,” Tony turns to her, smiling wide. “That hurts a little bit.”
“Only hurts if it’s the truth,” his daughter adds with a shrug of her shoulders.
“Hey love,” Victoria interrupts their back and forth. “You mind if I talk to your dad for a bit?”
“Nope,” Olivia pauses the game. “It’ll give me some time to change the game to something easier, you think you can handle Minecraft or should we go with Roblox?”
“What kind of monster did you raise,” he asks Victoria as he walks past her.
“You’re definitely bringing out the best in her,” her response comes without hesitation as she closes the door behind her.
“Is that sarcasm I hear coming out of your mouth?”
“Little bit,” she walks past him toward the stairs. “I have to say though, Tony, she really does enjoy it when you come around.”
“I appreciate you letting me come over,” Tony follows her down the stairs, and it appears as if his eyes glance a little lower than needed as he does. Which is more than likely why his smile widens a bit. “I know you were against it at first.”
“You want some sweet…”
Tony notices that she stops talking at the same time as her hips twist a bit, and when his attention shifts above her waist he realizes that she’s staring at him in a not so happy mood.
“Are you serious?”
“Sorry, I couldn’t help-”
“This,” she waves her hands around her body. “This isn’t here for you, Tony.”
“I’m sorry, I really am.” Tony’s cheeks flush. “It’s just the tights.”
“The tights are what I wear so I can feel comfortable walking around my own house,” Victoria does not look to be in the mood for any sort of nonsense, especially Tony’s. “So if you want to remain welcome in my house, cut the shit.”
“Got it,” Gamble lifts his hands up. “Cutting the shit.”
“Don’t push it.”
“So about that tea,” The Grin motions toward the kitchen.
Victoria rolls her eyes, then turns and continues toward the kitchen. “You’re too much sometimes, you know that?”
“I’ve been told that once or twice, maybe more.” Tony takes a seat at one end of the table. “Seriously though, I don’t want to mess things up between me and you. I like the way things have been going, and I love being able to spend time with Olivia.”
A bit of tea spills on the counter as Victoria over fills the cup. “Crap.”
“Yeah,” she replies, grabbing a handful of paper towels to soak up the spill. “It’s just that, you being around is kind of what I wanted to talk to you about.”
“I’m not sure I like the sound of that.” If the smile permanently scarred into the left side of his face could fade, it would have.
“It’s not like that, Tony,” she begins, handing him his cup of tea. “I just think we need to have a conversation about our past, about why I left the way I did.”
“Oh,” Gamble nods, tapping his fingers on the cup as he stares off into space. “That conversation.”
“I think it’s important to clear the air,” she breathes in deeply. “Especially if you’re serious about being a part of Olivia’s life.”
“Of course I’m serious,” Tony leans forward on his seat. “So serious, that I don’t even care what happened. We can leave the past in the past, and just pretend it never happened.”
She smiled as she let out an audible sigh.
“I don’t think you’re gonna like it, but it needs to be said.”
= = = = =
“You can’t win this match.”
Tony Gamble is sitting on the most interesting stool in PRIME to date.
“Not when you have Hayes Hanlon taking laps in the back of your mind like he’s training to run a 5k.”
There’s no backdrop.
“Not when your mind isn’t on winning this whole damn tournament, and eventually challenging for the Universal title.”
It’s just Tony and the stool, and he’s okay with that.
“I get it, because I agree that a title doesn’t define who you are or the legacy you leave behind when you’re gone.”
He chuckles for a moment.
“Thing is, while that title would never define who I am…I really just want to win it one time. I want to strap that title around my waist, and hear Johnnie utter the words that would upset the thousands in attendance and millions watching around the world.”
He pauses for a beat.
He emphasizes each word by lifting his arm and kind of tomahawk chopping each syllable.
“It’s crazy when you think about it, because I’ve never really tried to win a title. I mean, I’ve held quite a few during my career, but it’s never actually been my goal. Well, unless you count that one time I challenged Nova and Tchu for the Universal title, but they ended up ganging up on me because I was on a bit of a hot streak beating the top names in PRIME at that time.”
“Kind of like I’m doing now.”
He lifts his hand, extending his index finger.
“First was Paxton.”
Then points it at the screen.
“And the next one is going to be you.”
He makes a shooting motion.
“Don’t worry though, it’ll free up your time so you can focus on Hanlon.”
His smile widens.
“That’s what you really want, isn’t it?”
A beat passes.
“I wanted to dance with the Devil once. It wasn’t what I expected, so I sent him back where he belonged.”
He stands up.
“You should have Hanlon join him.”