guy who trained me called in a favor
so weve got a spot at the foundry in bedford park
you good with that figure ill be there around 10
Hayes was quick to swipe the notification from Jared away as soon as it popped up on the screen, obstructing his sister’s face on the voice call.
“You wanna tell me what the fuck happened between you two?”
“Not really,” Hayes replied, traversing his suite in the MGM Grand for the sixth or seventh time, collecting a gray hoodie from the back of a chair and tossing it onto an ever-growing pile of clothing next to a suitcase.
“Stop being a brat,” said Olivia, her eyes hidden behind a pair of obnoxiously large sunglasses, head shifting as she sat behind the wheel of her car.
“It’s not really your business, Liv,” Hayes sighed, frustrated. “It is what it is.”
“Except it kinda IS my business, because mom is up my ass about it and I need that to not be the case.”
Younger Brother exhaled through his nose, eyes pinched shut in the middle of the suite’s living room.
“So c’mon. Spit it out. I’m about to pull into Starbucks.”
Hayes rubbed the back of his neck, stepping out onto the balcony and into the noise of Las Vegas. He leaned against the railing, repositioning his phone.
“I told him he didn’t fit anymore,” he conceded.
“What the fuck does that mean?”
“I dunno, Liv. He showed up here, needing a place to stay. So I let him, but now that PRIME is on the road I’M not here. And every time I come back after a show the place is a fucking mess with his groupies and shit.”
“Weird. Sounds right up your alley. Okay, so why doesn’t he grab his own spot? Why’s he drunk texting me about crashing on my couch?”
He managed to stop himself. He wanted to tell her about Paul’s debt, and how severe it was. His mind raced back to June, when he showed up at the suite to find Pauly, after so many months of silence. To poolside, when he told him he could help with the money. To mid August, when he told him he didn’t fit anymore.
It put a pit in his stomach. He wanted to puke.
“…I don’t know. I think he’s just a little lost.”
“Uh uh,” Olivia replied, unconvinced.
“Hey, Liv…” said Hayes. “Do you know where he is? Has he mentioned anything?”
“Not a damn clue.”
Another urge to hurl. He knew without knowing; that Paul was hopping from one random druggy’s couch to another. Somewhere.
“Welp, I’m about to order. Call me if you two get your shit figured out.”
“Okay, and let me know if…”
Hayes scowled at his phone, and fought the urge to chuck it over the railing.
Stepping back inside, Hayes placed his hands on his hips to survey the mess that was his suite: a pile of clothes next to a suitcase on the living room floor. His boots and elbow pads tossed by the entrance. A toothbrush and deodorant on the coffee table.
He hated packing. But it was a welcome distraction in the moment. Chicago, and UltraViolence, sat on the
Horizon. Night One’s Main Event, the chance to get his hands on Cecilworth Farthington and FLAMBERGE: the sources of his frustration and ire for the last few months. The glue-y stain on PRIME’s good name.
If he was being honest with himself, he wasn’t exactly sure why they wound him up so much. Sure, they put the boots to him after Youngblood took the Universal Title back, but that had more to do with PRIME’s Ace than the Event Horizon.
If he was being honest with himself, he’d realize he was making noise for the sake of making noise.
If he was being honest with himself, he’d recognize that he was just being a jealous child.
But that was the problem.
He was rarely honest with himself.
The thought of Chicago reminded him of Jared’s text. “Shit,” he muttered under his breath, retrieving his phone and unlocking it, opening the message to reply.
yeah man sounds good
If there had been any doubt in Justine’s mind about Jared’s desire to start a family, the speed at which he tried to schedule a check-up put that all to rest. In his world doctors weren’t someone that you visited willingly, but rather the people who kept you from having a decent night’s sleep after you were sent to the hospital for pissing off the wrong coworker. They were the ones who brought the worst news, the kind that altered your life and shaped the trajectory of your future. The ones who stole away the people you cared for the most.
It was at a doctor’s office when he first heard the word ‘terminal’, until then thinking it was nothing more than the place where planes landed.
“Why is Andy going to the airport?” he’d asked his parents. They traded a long look with each other, and then they broke his heart.
It was a doctor at the Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center in Las Vegas who’d refused to tell him whether Wyatt Connors had survived the fall from the catwalk, because HIPAA regulations meant that it would be illegal for them to share information about another patient. It would be eleven years before Jared received the answer to that question.
That same hospital was where he learned that Jonathan Rhine may never walk again.
“I know that relatively speaking we’re both still young, and we’re lucky to be in really good shape, but we should still find out,” Justine had said. “If we’re going to do this, we need to know.”
The literature she found on the subject didn’t give her much hope. While Jared might be able to father children until his last breath, time was running out for Justine. She’d only just celebrated her forty-third birthday, but based on what she read there wasn’t much time left before conceiving naturally would become almost impossible. It was imperative they find out where each of them stood.
He needed no convincing. Her suggestion was all it took. Jared made the call that afternoon.
“Going to have to wait until after Chicago,” he said. The phone was still in his hands. His right thumb tapped a slow rhythm against the case. One of many nervous habits, she thought. “They’re booked out until then.”
“Are you okay with this?”
“Yeah. Don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty terrifying. Not the procedure itself, that’s whatever.”
“And nothing you haven’t done before,” she said, smirking. His cheeks flushed red from the implication. He pulled his right arm closer to his side, though Justine wasn’t sure if it was by reflex or shame. “Well, maybe not with a cup. And please don’t correct me if I’m wrong.”
They had agreed that Jared would get checked-out first, since it was infinitely less invasive to determine whether a man was still capable of fathering children, but the image her mind had conjured was equal parts hilarious and unsettling, so she shook her head and tried to blink it away.
“I just wish it wasn’t so far away,” he continued. “I know it’s just a couple weeks, but right now it feels like it might as well be next year.”
“It’ll pass quickly. The show will be here before you know it, and then there’ll be press events, and interviews, and then the whole thing will be a memory before you get a chance to blink.” She gestured to his phone, his thumb still drumming a steady rhythm against it. “You hear from Hayes yet? Finalize your ‘man date’ for the Windy City?”
“He said he was on board, but not much beyond that.” He shrugged. “Guy’s probably got enough to worry about. I just hope I’m doing the right thing here.”
He paused, and so did the tapping. There was something he wanted to say, that much was obvious – his tells could be read as far as one town away – but whether he said it was something else entirely. There was no dragging it out of him, that would only make him lock down all the harder.
“I think you are,” she said, and the smirk came back. “Unless Cecilworth ends up breaking your arm. You’re gonna need that for your special cup date.”
havent heard from u so im not sure if these are coming through
gonna go tot he roof and set something on fire to see if smoke signals will work instead
thats a joke im not actually doin that
Hayes really wanted to laugh at those texts. Instead, he ignored them. A few gin and tonics on the flight to Chicago quickly led to a few more after he checked into his room. To the point where he couldn’t remember what time he stumbled in, and to the point where his ten o’clock meetup with Jared at the Foundry had long since rolled by. To eleven. And noon.
A strong hangover never kept Hayes from showing up to athletics, but there was at least a reason for dodging Sykes. The reason?
Hayes hated tag matches.
The thought of them made his heart race. Crushed his chest. Surfaced every anxiety that pushed him toward a couple Xanax that one could possibly think of, inside or out of the ring. Singles competition didn’t result in the same stress. He could perform the way he wanted, on his terms. It was better that way.
He was better on his own.
But that’s not what he got. No. He got that tag match regardless. At UltraViolence Under the big lights.
The resentment was heavy. Toward Jared. Toward PRIME. Paralyzing to the point where he didn’t want to leave the hotel room, or answer to anyone. Not Sykes. Not his Mom. Not his Dad or Olivia or even Lindsay Troy herself.
Not even Paul. If he was being honest with himself.
But you don’t get to choose when they come knocking.
His phone screen brightened with its latest notification, illuminating his face inside the dark hotel room. A text message. The sender? Take a wild guess.
With a long sigh through the nose, Hayes threw the covers off his naked body, swinging both legs to the floor. He stood, reluctantly responding to the text with slow moving fingers.
on my way
Jared sat in the ring and rested his head against a nearby turnbuckle. A phone was pressed to his ear.
“How did your sesh’ with Hayes go?” Justine asked. “Did you guys get actually manage to get anything done, or did you spend the whole time making out?”
The plan was to try and get some ring time together with Hayes to see if they could get on the same page, and maybe put some of the issues that had plagued them over in the last few weeks behind them. Darren Stracker, the man whose family owned the gym where Jared trained, had called in a favor with an old friend. One of the two rings that The Foundry boasted had been put aside, so the day’s students all had to share the one that remained.
The plan had gone to hell.
“He never showed. I have no idea where he is,” he said. “Starting to think this was a bad idea. If I knew I was going to get stood-up I could still be home. There’s so much to do. We could…”
“It’s okay,” she said. “It’s just a few extra days. I’m coming out that way on Monday, so next week was always going to be a wash. I am going to send you pictures from a florist I found, though.”
A group of students was packing up for the day a few yards away while the gym’s owner, a stocky ball of Polish muscle named Carl Wojtunski, looked on. Jared let his eyes linger for a moment. The oldest couldn’t have been over twenty-two, maybe twenty-three at the most. Still just kids. Unburdened by the rigors of the job. Their whole lives ahead of them. They could have anything they wanted, and with time to spare. The thought made his joints ache.
“But I’m sure he’ll show up,” Justine continued. “I know he likes to have his fun, but Hayes always struck me as someone who’s got it all put together. I think it’s the outfit, if that makes sense. No one else dresses up for television.”
“And if he doesn’t? Then what?”
A little voice nagged at the edge of his thoughts. It wondered what brought him out here, why he suggested the match in the first place. They never wanted your help, it said. Not Nate. Not Hayes. Because they know they’re better off. Who did you think you were fooling? Who were you trying to be?
You know who you are.
“I know you’re not going to listen to this,” she said, “but the best thing you can do is try not to think about that. There’s plenty more for you to worry about.” Even a thousand miles away, he could hear the smile on her lips. “Like the grip strength on your left hand if things go sideways in that match.”
Back home Justine had joked about his arm, but there was a truth to it that he was reluctant to admit. Cecilworth Farthington did have a history of claiming limbs, and it was no secret that Jared’s right shoulder had been a nagging source of problems throughout his career. Three separate surgeries were required to mend it, and while his current bill of health was clean it was only a matter of time before he’d be under the knife again. Or worse. He’d seen the photos, he’d heard the stories. Men far stronger than him with limbs atrophied due to irreparable nerve damage.
He traveled further down the spiral.
What if he and Justine were successful in starting their family? How would he trust himself to hold a newborn with one functioning arm? How could he tell his son or daughter to hold their head high and proud when his own neck was collecting dust on a shelf in Julien’s terrarium?
“Can I ask you something?” he continued, his heart suddenly racing. “We didn’t miss a window because I came out here, did we?”
When they decided to try and start a family one of the first things Justine had done was download an app to her phone. The goal was to use it to track ovulation and find out when the best chance each month was to get pregnant.
There was a pause on the other end of the phone.
“Cal? You there?”
“It’s okay. It’s just one month, you know. I’m not worried about it.”
He hissed a curse under his breath.
“I’m sorry,” he started, then fell silent.
Someone at the front of the building had caught his attention.
From his seat in the ring, Jared had a clear view of The Foundry’s entrance and the figure making his way through the hall that opened up into the gym proper. He could feel the muscles in his neck tense. His jaw tightened. What was it his mother used to say? I’m not mad, just disappointed.
But that wasn’t true. He’d left Boston early to fly out here for this, with Justine remaining back home. That meant days lost that could have been spent planning for their wedding. More opportunities to try and conceive had been burned.
This was more than disappointment.
And Hayes could feel it. Expected it, really. Considering he was walking into the Foundry hours late. He didn’t even have a duffel bag in hand, or any of his ring gear. Just a pair of jeans, his gray hoodie, and both hands stuffed into the pockets. His footsteps echoed a touch as he emerged through the building’s dim-ness, the place closing about forty-five minutes ago.
“Hey, buddy,” said Hammerin’ Hanlon, setting a hip onto the ring apron and rolling under the bottom rope.
“I was wondering when you’d get here. Or if you’d get here at all,” Jared said. The time for pleasantries had long since passed. “I see you dressed for the occasion.”
Hayes offered a shrug as he stood, eyeing the building’s rafters as he rested against a ring post.
“It was never really my thing,” he said, dodging Jared’s barb. “The whole ‘wrestling academy’ thing. But man, it’s such a thing in PRIME these days. Gray’s. Timo’s spot. Something about it just feels kinda…”
He paused, searching for the words. And while shaking his head, he knew he didn’t like what was about to come out.
Jared’s snort was almost imperceptible.
“You know, I’ve got kind of a history of poor decision-making skills,” he said, leaning back into a corner of the ring. “The forklift. The mannequin. The taser. You’ve seen it.” He let his arms drape loosely over each rope. “It usually takes me a while before I stop and think I’ve done something stupid. So forgive me if I seem a little off right now, because that feeling’s hitting a lot faster than normal.”
Hayes smirked behind his dark mustache, mimicking Jared by draping his own big arms over the ropes.
“Oh yeah? And what’s your latest bad decision?” he asked, knowing full well the answer.
Jared didn’t answer, not with words. Instead, he slowly raised his arms in an exaggerated shrug before letting them fall, all the while keeping his eyes laser-focused on Hayes.
Hanlon replied with a snort of his own, and shook his head.
“Spit it out, Jared,” he said, cutting to the chase with acidic amusement. “What’s this all about? Really about? Are you trying to look after me or something? Because I know I had a little slump going there for a minute but I think I’ve proved that I can deal with PRIME’s big baddies on my own.”
“Riiiiiight,” Jared drew the word out. “Do you want to know what it looks like to try and deal with all the awful shit all by your lonesome? Here, let me show you.”
Jared spread his arms wide and stepped from the corner, slowly turning in place.
“Get a good look,” he continued. Jared stopped his turn and let his arms fall. “Is this the future you want? You want to be Nova, right? You want to be Brandon? All the gold, all the prestige? Great! You know what those guys don’t do? They don’t dive on a live grenade to try and prove a point, and they sure as shit don’t pull the pin themselves.”
He was pacing in the corner now, each step coming quicker and quicker, the speed matched only by the words pouring from his mouth.
“Twenty-three years I’ve done this, Hayes. I wasn’t always the one trying to blow himself up, nah, sometimes I was the asshole. I’ve seen it from both sides, and do you know what I’ve learned?” The pacing stopped and once again Jared’s eyes were set on the man across from him. “You’re a fucking idiot if you think you can do this alone.”
“Oh, so I’m a fucking idiot now.”
“I think there’s some shit you need to figure out in a hurry.”
“AND YOU’RE NOT MY FUCKING DAD!”
The roar bursting forth echoed against the walls, loud enough to give the two pause. Hayes grit his teeth, fire in those dark eyes, while Jared stared back, flabbergasted.
“You’re not my DAD, you’re not YOUNGBLOOD, and YOU’RE not NOVA, Jared!”
Jared took a single step back as if struck, a kicked dog. In that instant all the fervor had bled from him, all the passion drained away. He could feel every day of his forty-four years, and the weight of it threatened to crush him. A thousand miles from home, the voice in his head had taken shape.
He took a moment to let it sink in, and then slowly walked across the ring until he was no more than a foot from Hayes.
“I know,” he said. His voice was scarcely a whisper. “That’s the point.”
Jared stepped through the ropes and hopped to the floor. Hayes set his jaw, holding fast to stand by his words. He watched as the Dragonslayer took slow steps toward the exit.
In a fleeting moment, he stepped forward, hands on the top rope.
“Hey…” Hayes was able to force.
But per usual, he was too late. Sykes had pushed through the metal doors, letting them latch loudly behind him. Hayes exhaled heavily through his nose, and let it go.
He was glad Jared didn’t hear him. It was better that way.
If he was being honest with himself.