December 5, 2022. 6:55 pm.
The Colton Academy.
For two months, the Coltons’ lives revolved around the Belmont Classic. On top of Jennifer’s usual training and match preparation, there had been extra training sessions, film study, tune-up matches, and even interviews.
There had also been arguments.
Lots of them.
Jennifer sniped at her father all the way home from Champaign after her first loss, a stunning upset by the Midnight Kid. Jake tried to stay level-headed, but things blew up and they spent thirty minutes in Grayville waiting out a Red Light. The arguments after her next losses were almost as bad, but at least they didn’t happen on the road.
The biggest fight was after Paxton Ray was confirmed for the tournament. Jake spent an hour trying to convince Jennifer to withdraw, and Jenny replied with increasingly creative ways of saying “fuck that.” Eventually, Jake did what he usually did when Jennifer dug her heels in that hard.
The training continued, and Nate headed back to Evansville after ReV20 so he could pitch in too. On this day, Nate handled the training while Jake dealt with some emergency paperwork..and since it had been six hours since the last argument, Nate got to handle that too.
Should be any minute now.
They had almost wrapped up for the day; Nate had some blocker pads and was helping Jennifer with her strikes.
“Nice!” Nate said as she threw. “Great job, sis. Watch your left side though, you leave it open sometimes.”
“Got it,” the young woman gasped as she caught her breath. “I’ll work on that tomorrow.” She wiped the sweat off her face with a towel, then walked toward the locker room.
“Ahh,” Nate said, causing his sister to stop in her tracks.
“What?” she asked. “It’s seven. We’re done.”
Nate shook his head. “Not quite. Your counters need some more work.”
As Nate removed the blockers, Jenny threw her towel down at the floor. “Bullshit. My counters are fine.” She stomped toward the practice ring and rolled under the ropes; Nate stepped through moments after.
“Because I’m tired, douche. How much longer are we going to be at this?”
“Until you’re ready,” Nate said. He squared up toward his sister; Jenny tried to do the same but barely lifted her arms.
“I’m ready now,” she muttered, even as she half-heartedly slapped Nate’s arm away on the first attack.
“No, you’re not. This year’s bracket is probably the toughest ever.” He shot his arm in again, but Jenny didn’t even bother to block, allowing Nate to catch her in a headlock. “C’mon, Jen. Head in the game.”
“Head up your ass,” she fired back as she slipped out of her brother’s grip and twisted his arm into a hammerlock. “Try doing that tomorrow when I can lift my goddamn arms again.”
Nate scowled. “God dammit, Jenny. This isn’t like anything you’ve done before. The Belmont is a meat grinder any year, but this one especially. What happens if you run into FLAMBERGE?”
Jenny gave a humorless smile. “Then there’s one less guy you’ll have to worry about in New York. You’re welcome.”
He gave a laugh equally devoid of mirth, then twisted and transitioned into an armbar. “All right, smart ass. What about Paxton Ray?”
That name brought a fierce snarl to her lips. “I’ll knock his fuckin’ teeth out.”
Nate pulled her back into a headlock. “Terrible idea, Jenny. You can’t play to his strengths like that.”
“Fuck him, and fuck his strengths!” She pushed her brother away with all the force she could muster. That shove that didn’t say “escape the hold;” it said “get the fuck away from me.”
“What the hell?” he shouted, his own anger rising in response to hers.
“And fuck you!” Jenny screamed as she pushed him again.
“Jen, why are you acting like this?”
“Why are you acting like such an asshole? WHY ARE YOU PUSHING SO HARD?!”
At any other time, Nate would have just fired off a quick response that might have defused the situation…or escalated it. But sometimes a question catches you so off-guard that there’s only one answer you can give.
“…okay. I’ll tell you.”
# # #
May 9, 2001. 10:56 am.
The Colton residence.
After almost ten years in wrestling, Jake had broken through to the upper echelon. He was getting bigger crowds and better offers than ever before. The downside was that he was almost never home. In fact, he was currently on a trip that would define his career: a month-long tour of Europe, doing battle with old friends and enemies, as well as countless up-and-comers across the continent. A chance to perform in front of thousands of new fans, and rake in enough cash to set the family up for years. Truly, Jake Colton was on top of the world.
But the thing about being on top of the world, is that someone else has to be on the bottom.
That’s where Mallory Colton saw herself.
She knew how important this was, and she was definitely looking forward to the end of their money troubles. But halfway through, all Mallory could think about was how nice it would be to have a little more help around the house. Especially with two small children toddling around–three, when her sister-in-law dropped off Dennis on her way to work–and another in production.
A girl, they just found out.
Mallory tried her best, but her mask was rapidly slipping. Every time she looked in the mirror, there was a new worry line or a bag under her eye. Yesterday she swore she found a gray hair that hadn’t been there twenty minutes earlier.
She needed a long bath and a glass of wine and a cigarette (oh GOD, she would kill for a menthol) and for her husband to come home. She needed to spend one night in Jake’s arms and then lock him out of the bedroom and sleep for two more days. She was overworked, underappreciated, increasingly pregnant, and so very, very, VERY tired.
Fifteen days. She could make it fifteen days.
That was before the first conversation she didn’t want to have.
Mallory was just starting to slice some carrots for lunch when the phone rang, and the sudden noise caused her to nick her finger with the knife.
“Ow!” she shouted, and stuck her finger in her mouth while she grabbed the receiver from the wall. “Yeff?”
“Baby?” replied Jake’s voice from the other end. “It’s Jake.”
Mallory let out a sigh and took her finger out of her mouth. “Oh, honey. Yes, it’s me. How is…Paris?”
“Brussels. Paris was a couple days ago. It was…you’d love it, baby. I’ll take you someday, I promise.”
Mallory rolled her eyes–Jake promised a lot of things–but smiled anyway. “That sounds wonderful. Are the shows going well?”
“Oh, yeah. It’s been a great time. How are you? Boys not giving you too much trouble?”
“No, the boys are fine,” she replied, completely glossing over Benjamin’s recent illness that led to the purchase of an entirely new car seat. “They miss you.”
“I miss them too. How about my girl? Does she miss me?”
“Both of your girls miss you,” Mallory said, and without being able to see across the connection, she knew that Jake had a huge smile on his face. He spent the first week of the tour telling everyone he met about his soon-to-be daughter. “I can’t wait for you to come home.”
“Yeah…” he trailed off, and dread washed over Mallory like a tidal wave.
No no no Jacob Mitchell Colton, you absolutely will fucking NOT
“They want to add an extra month to the tour. We’re selling out every night, and there’s places farther east that are practically demanding us. Croatia, Poland…even Russia! The money’s going to be crazy, too. We’ll be able to pay off the house, I won’t have to work the road so much…”
GOD DAMN YOU JAKE WHAT ABOUT ME WHAT ABOUT YOUR CHILDREN WE NEED YOU A LOT MORE THAN FUCKING RUSSIA DOES
“Oh, wow. That’s…that’s amazing.”
“I know!” Jake replied, because the phone line only picked up voices, not thoughts. “If we’re smart with the money, maybe we can send all the kids to college.”
Oh, you bastard. You know DAMN WELL how much I want them to get good jobs so they don’t have to do what YOU– “That would be fantastic.”
“So…it’s OK, right?” he asked, and again Mallory’s anger flared.
No, it is NOT FUCKING OK OH MY GOD I HATE YOU RIGHT NOW “Of course. It’s fine.”
“Thank you, baby. This is going to be amazing for us, I promise.” There was another one of his promises again. “Shit. My time’s about up; I gotta go. Love you miss you, baby.”
I don’t need more of your promises, I need you– “Hmm? Yeah.”
“What did–” and then the call cut off. Mallory set the receiver down on the table then slumped into a kitchen chair, the weight of the world pressing down harder than ever.
“Ooh,” Mallory groaned as she felt a tumble in her belly. “Not now, kid.” She brought her hand to her face, only to discover that her finger was still bleeding. She watched a drop roll down and gave an odd chuckle.
Jake always says he gives his blood, sweat, and tears for this family. Well.
She needed to clean up and put a bandage on, just like she needed to finish slicing carrots and hang up the phone. But she couldn’t make herself get out of that chair.
Mallory could have done fifteen days. She’d be climbing the walls by the end of it, but she could manage.
Forty-five? There was no way. She needed help.
That led to the second conversation she didn’t want to have.
She heard the heavy footfalls of a five-year-old running through the hall. “No running inside, Nater Gator!” she called, and willed herself back to her feet. She washed her hand in the sink and splashed some water on her face.
A tear trickled down her cheek, and she washed that away too. Stay strong.
The stomps slowed down as they approached, and little Nathan turned the corner. His blonde hair, so nicely combed an hour ago, was already a mess. His red shirt already had a grass stain even though he hadn’t been outside. Thankfully he still had a tight grip on his constant companion, a plush pig named Oinkers McGoo.
“Hi mommy!” he said as he ran up and hugged her around the middle as best he could. She smiled and tousled his hair, then did the same to Oinkers as Nate held him up expectantly.
“Where’s your brother?” she asked as she eased herself back into the kitchen chair.
“Thought so.” Benjamin seemed to have two modes, “yelling” and “asleep.” “Nathan…can we talk for a little bit?”
She expected him to say no, or run away, or even whine a little bit. Hell, she wanted him to. She wanted him to do anything except say…
Mallory looked down at her son. My sweet baby boy, she thought. I love you so much. I’m so sorry.
“Mommy is…very tired.”
“‘Cause of my sister?”
“…yes, because of your sister.” And a thousand other things.
Nathan raised the stuffed pig’s snout to his mother’s belly. “Hey,” he said in a poor impression of a gruff voice. “Stop making mommy so tired!”
Mallory giggled, which helped her not to cry. “Thank you, Oinkers,” she said, “but it’s not just her. There’s so much to do around here with your daddy gone.”
Nathan’s face fell, and Oinkers dangled loosely from his right arm. “I miss Daddy.”
“Me too, Nater Gator. But he’ll be gone for a while. So, I…” She paused for a moment, trying to keep the mask from slipping again. “I need you to help me sometimes. Be the man of the house while Daddy is away.”
The little boy’s eyes went wide, clearly having difficulty with the idea that Mommy and Daddy might need help.
“I just need you to start doing a few chores, OK? I’ll teach you how, I’ll be here to help, but then it’ll be your job. Can you do that for me?”
Nathan drew himself to his full height and squared his little shoulders, just like his daddy did when something tough had to be done. “Yes I can, mommy!”
She beamed down at her oldest son, now unable to stop a tear from forming. “My brave little man,” she whispered, then quickly turned so she could wipe it away. “Let’s set the table for lunch. How many places do we need?”
Nate started counting. “Umm…you…an’ me…annnnn’ Benny. Free plateses! That’s this many!” he said, and triumphantly held up four fingers.
“Very good. Can you go to the drawer and get three spoons?”
“Yeah!” he shouted, and ran toward the drawer…but soon returned to the table, where he carefully set down his beloved pig friend.
“Sorry, Oinkers,” Nate said. “This is a big boy job.”
Mallory felt an immediate sense of relief. There wasn’t much that a five-year-old could actually do, but any help–even the illusion of help–was enough to ease her burden.
“Benny gets a li’l baby spoon…but not me, ‘cause I’m not a li’l baby no more.”
With those words, Mallory’s heart broke all over again.
She knew her son would have to grow up someday.
But God, why did it have to be today?
# # #
“Holy shit,” Jenny said softly. “I had no idea.”
Nate shrugged. “It is what it is. Mom and I talked it out eventually, and I’m fine with it. I’m the big brother; it’s my job.”
“Real talk, Nate,” she said. “I know you’ve always looked out for us. You were there for us when Dad wasn’t. You’re the best big brother we could ask for.”
“Thanks. That…means a lot.”
“But you gotta understand…we’re grown up now. I don’t need you to protect me anymore. I need you to trust me.”
“I do trus–”
Jenny cut him off. “No you don’t. You don’t think I’m ready. Nate, I’m not scared of Paxton. Or anyone else.”
Jennifer gave her brother an incredulous look. “You. Mr. Fearless Big Brother. You’re afraid.”
“After what he did…and the idea that he might do something to you…that scares the shit out of me, Jen. God, you can’t even imagine.”
He turned away, leaning against the ropes. Behind him, Jenny crossed her arms in annoyance.
“No? You think I didn’t feel the same way when you fought Balaam and GREAT SCOTT? You think I’m not worried sick when you have to fight Suplex Daddy and Goat Bastard and French Dick all at once?”
“That’s different. I can handle my business.”
“And I can handle mine! Dunno if you noticed, but I’m not a little kid anymore.”
“True,” he answered as he turned back around. “But it’s tough to see you any other way, after all the times I changed your diaper.”
Jenny’s face wrinkled in disgust. “Gross.”
“Yeah it was. You used to poop like a demon.”
“We had to call a priest, and we’re not even Catholic.”
“I swear, once there was enough that I could have made a whole new sister. A poop sister.”
“You fucker!” Jenny punched him in the shoulder, though she was laughing too hard to put much force behind it.
“Ow.” Nate rubbed his arm for dramatic effect. “Anyway, you’re the only poop sister I’ve ever needed.”
She raised her arm to punch him again, but Nate stepped back, and Jenny softened her stance.
“Bro, I love that you’re trying to help. But when you say I’m not ready, it just says you think I can’t handle it. I trained just as hard as you and Benny. I have busted my ass for this, but the way you talk sometimes makes me feel like…like I’m not allowed to be here. Like our ‘family legacy’ is some secret boys’ club. It feels like you don’t believe me.”
“I do believe you, Jen.”
“Then believe in me.”
Nate looked at his sister. In his mind, he saw all the faces she wore throughout her life. The open-mouthed wonder of her infancy. The mischievous smile in elementary school. The sarcastic sneer of her teenage years. And now, a grown woman starting her own path through life. No matter when he saw her, one thing remained the same: a look of fierce determination. When she knew what she wanted, God help anyone who stood in her way.
“You’re right. I’m sorry.”
Nate took a deep breath. He cleared his mind of what his sister used to be, and focused on who she was in the moment.
“Jen…as soon as you decided you wanted to wrestle, I knew nothing in the world was going to stop you. Of course you’re part of our legacy. You’re a Colton all the way down, and when we get to St. Louis you’re going to show everyone what that means.”
He held out a hand, which she grabbed. They held that grip for a while as fellow fighters, before drawing each other in to hug as siblings.
“You got this, kid. Time to bring that trophy back where it belongs.”
“And if it’s FLAMBO, or Paxton Ray? You think I can whip their asses?”
“I’ll do you one better, Jen. I dare you to whip their asses.”
She smiled with a hint of malice. “Oh, now it’s on.”
Both of them left the ring, because…well, the fight was over. Jenny went to pick up her discarded towel before they headed for the locker rooms.
As he walked, Nate realized that he was breathing a little easier, as if a long-standing weight had been lifted.
“Can’t believe it’s almost here,” he said. “Time to write your name into the history books.”
“Damn right. And when you get to New York, I’m gonna need you to do the same. Get out there and show the world what our name means.”
“You think I can?”
Jenny smirked as she threw the towel over her shoulder.
“I’ll do you one better.”
# # #
“Here we are.”
“Four of the best wrestlers in PRIME, fighting for the Five Star Title.”
“I gotta tell you…ever since I picked that belt up off the ground at ReV19, it’s been just about all I can think about. The gold got its hooks in deep, and now I’d do just about anything to get it back.”
“You’ve all held it for real, so I know I ain’t gotta tell you about it.”
“But I realized something. For the last couple months, this whole time since I first told Rezin I wanted a shot, it feels like this fight has been about everyone else. Even when I did get involved, it was more about what happened with someone else. And yeah, some of us still have beef, and if you want I’d love to talk that out at Colossus.”
“On Night Two.”
“Night One, though? That’s all about what I want.”
“Don’t get me wrong; I know y’all will be bringing your A games that night. You’ve all got your reasons for that, beyond the title belt and everything that comes with it. Well…so do I.”
“See, my sister reminded me of something the other day. I came to PRIME for a reason.”
“I believe with all my heart that my dad should have been a household name. He made his mark, for sure; seems like everyone in the business knows my old man. But the fans forgot about him as soon as his last match was over, and I can’t accept that.”
“So I’m gonna fix it. Me, my sister, our brothers and cousin, we’re gonna make it right.”
“It all starts this weekend in St. Louis. If Jennifer takes care of business at the Belmont Classic like I know she can, there’ll be no question as to which family that trophy belongs to.”
“Then it’s on me at Colossus. Taking on any one of these guys would be challenge enough, never mind all three. But that’s the kind of challenge I came here for. That’s how you build a legacy.”
“And if I can pull it off…that’s how I build a legend.”
“That’s why I’m here. I feel like I forgot about that for a while, with all the other bullshit that’s going on. But that’s what I’m bringing to the fight at Colossus. A promise I made to the people I love.”
“Brandon, FLAMBO, Rezin…you can try and stop me if you want. But you’d better do it at Colossus, ‘cause there’s no stopping us after that. By this time next year, the whole damn industry will belong to the Colton family.”
“All over the world, letters big as the sky…we’re putting our name on it.”