“Who are we now?”
The Boy stood stalwart at the top of the tower; dark eyes angled upward and arms hanging limp; the Blue Necktie fluttering from his forehead in the cosmic wind.
“We’re…still learning,” said The Man, his broad image framed by the stars behind.
“We’re always learning.”
The Boy offered a frown, and squeezed his tiny fists.
“What did it cost?” he asked with a tremble.
The Man turned his gaze away. To the void. He drew air long through his nose, and pinched his eyes shut.
The Boy pursed his lips, disappointed and angry. And while his eyes held true, The Man couldn’t bring himself to meet them in kind.
“We don’t have many more of those…”
His body spasmed, lurching from slumber to cognizance. Blinking eyes fought for focus, to a blue, hazy mass forming into a small t-shirt, clinging to the meek frame of a young boy with shaggy black hair, one hand clinging to his mother’s pant leg.
“What?” asked Hayes, half asleep and confused, sitting upright in a faux-leather chair inside Lambert International Airport.
“We don’t have go in there, do we?” asked the child, pointing through a window to a loading bridge attached to a 737 beyond.
“Yes, we do,” the mother assured. “And it’s going to be just fine.”
She took his hand and led him away. Hayes could hear the boy’s cries before the clamoring of the airport downed them out. He leaned forward, fixing his backwards ballcap before pressing both palms to his eyes, rubbing away the drowsy remains.
Immediately, his thoughts drifted back to the night before. To ReVival 36; his first show back with all his new friends.
Hayes Grayson Hanlon. The Event Horizon. The Comeback Kid.
The Thresher of Hooves.
The fallout was expected; he’d seen it over and over again in the PRIME of old, at Pacific Northwest Wrestling, and now, in the ReVival. How quickly the masses turn to drag you when they don’t like what they see. Without fail they’d called him cheater. Coward. Bad Guy. Not a word of it a surprise.
What was surprising, though, was how comfortable the fallout felt. Too comfortable. Hayes had always been pretty good about ignoring the wrath of the internet’s finest keyboard warriors, the personalities of Jabber included, but the barbs from ReVival 36 fell on equally deaf ears.
“I’m sick to death of the mustachioed Hayes Hanlon and all the food particles that have taken up residence in there,” Arthur Pleasant had said.
Good one, buddy. A burn surely worthy of a post-UltraViolence in-ring. Fucking tool.
“Hayes Hanlon has been showing you for months who he is,” was the oh-so-bold statement from Rose.
No, Rose. He’d been showing you since ReVival ONE.
“Maybe I should have let him figure stuff out on his own,” Jared had admitted.
That one, though? That one pissed him off. Not because of what lay beneath the surface of those words, or because he’d rather Jared hate his guts than show him a shred of empathy.
No. It pissed him off, because it was too little, too late. If the Dragonslayer had just left the Event Horizon alone, things might have been different. If he’d let the young, naive former Champ to learn his own lessons, maybe we wouldn’t be here. But that’s not what happened.
Instead, Hayes found himself seated next to Cecilworth Farthington.
Oh what a year can bring.
“Who is Max Kael?, anyway?” asked Hanlon, retrieving his mobile device and crossing one leg over the other.
The mention of Max’s name alone was enough to pull Cecilworth’s dull gaze from the grip of his phone screen. He had sat relaxed and patient next to the Glue’s latest addition, snores and all, while they waited for their respective flights; Hayes back to Las Vegas, Cecilworth bound for England and Farthington Manor.
Hayes had asked the question drowsy and absent. So absent that he’d failed to notice Cecilworth’s concerning sidelong glance.
“You’ll have to elaborate,” Farthington replied, eyes drifting back to his phone to flick and swipe away. “He is a man, on the roster, with a questionable birthdate…”
“Man, you can miss me with all…whatever this is,” Hayes interrupted, gesturing broadly to the man known as the Financier.
For as odd and out of place as the young Hanlon had found him over the better part of the year, Farthington had been extra strange in the previous months, even before Hayes had taken his left turn, flirting with a level of ludicrous to match even Joe, Sid, and FLAMBO. Far from what Hayes expected from Phil Atken’s Money Man.
“You know the guy, right?” Hayes pressed. “Back in HOW or whatever? What am I in for?”
“I knew the guy,” Cecilworth corrected while flinching at those three letters. “If this was four years ago, I could give you a list of the antics that the real guy gets up to..”
“The ‘real’ guy?” queried an unsatisfied Hanlon.
“Yes, the one who doesn’t claim to be birthed from a jizzpod, that one…”
“Man,” Hayes said, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Cut the shit. If I’m gonna go deep in this tournament I need a little more than antics and jizzpods.”
The mention of the Almasy forced a pause. The announcements of gate attendants droned overhead against the roll of luggage wheels and hustling, bustling travelers. Each set of eyes held true to the other in a brief, tense moment.
“Remember what you might find in round three, Young Hayes.”
The young man felt his lip curl back behind his mustache, and a flush in his cheeks. Cecilworth’s deep-set stare threatened a fiery flicker.
“Regardless,” Farthington inserted, righting the ship and breaking the tension at its root. “It’s safe to assume that whatever, whoever, or however this man has happened to be, he’s studied Max carefully. I mean, that countout shit with Anna Daniels? The jovial odd air around his insanity… that’s classic to the man I know. Gets everyone chuckling then slits their throats. Don’t lean into his antics, that’s what’s got him his victories so far.”
Hayes lifted an eyebrow, his mind still very much on the Almasy and the possibilities of the third round. And yet, found himself re-engaging. There was something in Cecilworth’s tone; a shift on the subject of Max. As outlandish as the words may be, there was weight behind them. Hayes was far from comfortable with his new-found state of Glue, and even less so than with their supposed leader, but Cecilworth had moments within the chaos; moments where his words struck sharp.
“Look,” Farthington continued, shifting his body to better face the young man to his left. “PRIME may have its fair share of shock collars and super soldiers and chocolate waterboarders, but this…”
Cecilworth cut himself short with a genuine pause, the thought tumbling within his skull before he could finish putting it to words.
“…this could be much worse. Be prepared to get very violent, very quickly. Take a gun to the ring if you need to.”
Hayes opened his mouth to respond, but a dull tone from within their waiting area forced an interruption.
“All passengers with destination to Heathrow International Airport, Gate 37, standby for the boarding process.”
Farthington smirked, flicking his eyes back to his young cohort in Glue.
“First class should be seating quickly,” he quipped, standing and collecting his bag. He shot Hayes with a cheeky finger-gun and a wink. “See you in Kentucky.”
Hanlon watched as Cecilworth made way toward his gate, and allowed the Financier’s warnings to marinate.
With more questions than answers, he collected his own bag, and headed off to find the gate bound for Las Vegas.
“I swear, man! I’ve never ripped so many lines off a hooker’s ass before! I almost had a fuckin’ heart attack, dude!”
Paul’s gangly frame waivered left and right, his grip on the railing preventing him from stumbling to the wooden deck beneath his feet. A perma-grin smeared across his face, beads of sweat sticking his mop of black hair to his forehead.
Everything was a haze. Out of focus.
It had been that way for a few months.
Late night, at some bar in Portland, the eldest Hanlon sibling regaled his many drug-addled escapades and sexual conquests. He was too loaded to regulate his voice, or realize how little interest anyone took in his rambling. He looked like shit. He looked like death.
He didn’t care.
“Fuck man,” he exhaled after a clumsy swig from a bottle. “Vegas was so fuckin’ good!”
Lucky for Paul, at least someone was willing to join him. To his right, leaning against that same railing, a large, dark, hazy blob chuckled at his stories, taking the occasional sip of its own. Paul hadn’t bothered to even turn his head; those deep, amused grunts were enough for the show to go on.
“But man,” he said, shifting his tone, dark eyes glossing over. “He took that shit away from me…”
Paul lingered on the thought, regardless of the alcohol and psilocybin pushing through his bloodstream.
He gazed into Portland’s downtown.
And watched the lights and sounds merge together. Like a kaleidoscope. Like a frozen layer of ice with colors pushing through.
It was like Vegas.
“Fuck it, though,” he spat, dribble settling on his chin. “Portland’s pretty fuckin’ good, too! Right dude?”
Paul reached a long arm to slap the blurry blob on the back. It was like slapping a 50 gallon oil drum, or a stone wall.
“Jesus, dude! You’re a big fucker, huh?” Paul giggled, resting his elbow on the railing to turn toward his best friend for the evening.
As his eyes adjusted, and the kaleidoscope gave way, the man’s blurry outline slowly drew into focus, bit by bit.
Broad frame. A pelt of long, black hair. A thick, messy beard.
Deep, dark eyes.
Paul’s wide smile relaxed, and he tilted his head, studying the details as they exposed themselves.
“Man…you look…really familiar…”
“Is that right?” the man said, voice heavy and low.
“Yeah…” Paul replied, eyes squinting, straining to study.
Those eyes grew, and a sharp surge shot through his spine.
“Who…who are you?”
“Toby…” answered the brick wall of a man, turning to square up with Paul’s lanky and dumbstruck frame. While his brain wasn’t able to put the puzzle together, Paul’s heart knew exactly who stood before him.
And he couldn’t let go of the railing.
“…and shit, look at th’man you’ve become.”
Hayes shifted impatiently from foot to foot, waiting for baggage claim to turn on the conveyor belts.
Stuffing both hands into his pockets of his gray hoodie, he tilted his head back with eyes shut, drawing in a long, impatient breath through his nose.
The flight back to Vegas was long. Tedious. Hayes expected his racing mind to be occupied with the thoughts of the events most-recent: signing his name in glue-colored ink. Ivan Stanislav bathing the Universal Title in red. Max, and the Almasy Tournament beckoning him to the horizon.
The Almasy, yes.
But not this year’s.
Instead, his mind hovered in 2022. To the beginning. Where Hayes Hanlon, some kid from West Linn, Oregon, would herald the ReVival in its first match back from the dead, with a victory over Cecilia Ryan.
Since night. Fucking. One, the pressure had been building, and frothing.
Or maybe night three? When Julian Bathory cut the dream down at the knees. An early exit for PRIME’s future two-time Universal Champion.
Could he survive another one? Now? In 2023?
The harsh and cacophonous buzz and spinning red light snapped him out of his trance, and he dropped his head forward. Travelers inched their way toward the conveyor, eager to snatch up their luggage and be on their way.
Hayes stood behind them, waiting for his suitcase to appear through the rubbing stripping.
But then; a shock of blue in his peripheral.
He turned a curious eye. To a blue t-shirt, hanging off the thin frame of a young boy. The same boy from Lambert, still clinging to his mother’s pant leg. Only this time, Hayes could see the front of the kid’s shirt;
and the PRIME logo across its chest.
His mustache lifted in the corner of his mouth with a grin, and he waved a gentle hand, an attempt to get the child’s attention, if nothing else but to say “hello.”
The child spotted the Event Horizon’s waving palm, and his blue eyes grew wide upon spotting Hammerin’ Hanlon.
Hayes offered another smile, and another wave. Surprising, though, was the boy’s growing frown.
Hanlon let his hand drop, along with his grin.
The child’s frown grew to a scowl, and tiny fists squeezed together, tight.
Hayes, with no answers ready, fought to match the kid’s terrible glare. He summoned the will, and mouthed his message from across the baggage claim floor.
“I didn’t mean for it…”
“…to be this way?”
A slow turn of the head, summoning the strength to face The Boy.
“What?” asked The Man.
“All this,” The Boy clarified, gesturing with his shoulders. “Was it always meant to be this way?”
The Man drew his gaze to the floor; to the top of the Tower. Or the Mountain’s peak. He would never know which.
“Maybe,” he said, taking a gentle step forward, the starlight shining against his shoulders. “But that wasn’t our decision to make.”
“I don’t believe you,” said The Boy, defiant.
The Man crouched low to level withThe Boy, his dark eyes gleaming strong.
“…and you don’t have to.”
The Man reached gently behind The Boy’s skull, large fingers carefully untying the knot in the Blue Necktie.
“But I hope you understand someday…”
He pulled the tail free, the tie falling across his palms. As he stood, wrapping it across his forehead, The Boy stood stalwart, even as his fingertips dissolved into stardust, drifting into the black on cosmic winds.
“…that for all the moments to come…”
The Man knotted the tie tight behind his head, and with a deep, beckoning tremor across the stars, the Blue Necktie traded its azure hue for stark white.
“…it needed to be this way.”
With a desperate gasp, the stardust took The Boy’s form, releasing it to the heavens.
Leaving only The Man, and his White Necktie.
At the Mountain’s Peak. Or the top of the Tower.
“And I hope one day you can forgive me.”