Magneted to the fridge, a dry erase goal board. Before the ReVival, it was filled with small yet desirable goals. Building towards a 5k. Dollars to raise for Habitat For Humanity, The Chippewa Valley Veterans Tribute Foundation, The Summer Cookoff for HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital. The names of those in the Pediatric Center, Little Athena and her other friends, with dates so he could get crushed in Mario Kart.
All these slivers of who he’d become, erased in favor of Universal goal posts. Dates and names. ‘This amount of defenses passes this person on the list.’ ‘This many ReVivals marks this many days held.’ Nova and Troy, Tsonda and, in the distance, Snow. Climb the ladder, and he’d surpass them all.
He wouldn’t just be Universal Champion; he’d be the greatest of them all.
So many months passed, the board’s scrawling still lingered, untouched. Mocking. Something to cross and remind him of what he’d lost.
Of what he’d left unfulfilled.
Look not at the man but the child with the ragged blue necktie. The measure of his ascent sounds through haggard breaths raising his shoulders, arms and legs brandished with scars, exacted by the crags for his challenge. But there he was, after being told the peak was not for him, standing.
Beyond fathom, standing.
The peak was supposed to be narrow, so why was its expanse flat? Why was the rock’s face soft cinder? Light had beckoned his eyes, drew him forward through the bellow on high; where had it gone? He expected stars yet found only an azure void. And in his hands, the reward; The Championship.
“You made a promise, man.” The Starchild was clearer than The Diamond remembered, his voice sans the damage of countless cigarettes. Even his hair was full, dirty blonde, healthy. “It’s the boy’s time. Let him run. Let’s see how far he can go.”
The Diamond shook his head. “He had his chance. And look at it.” The Universe had become transitory, left worse for wear. The leather of the strap was rough rawhide, every plate littered with cracks through their faces, none more so than its heart. Rot and soot blackened all. “There’s no light.”
A moment of hesitation. The Risen Star chewed his appeal. “He looked up to us. You know this. And when he finally made it–”
“The celebration’s over.” The skies yielded no confetti, glistening and bathing as it had on that important night. “This is what remains. You expect me to stop because of an echo? You know what has to be done.”
The Starchild’s hand reached out toward his shoulder, pulling him close, his eyes desperate. “But he looked up to us!”
“No,” The Diamond brushed his arm away. “He looked up to you. Looked up to Snow. Looked up to Troy and Tsonda. So stop pulling at heartstrings, Caesar.”
“Then you know you’re a big part of the reason why what he holds is in the sorry shape it’s in. So rather than judging, how about you take responsibility?”
A gruff exhale. He turned back to the boy some measure away. A hoarse choke rippled throughout his tiny frame, narrow fingers struggling to hold. The Diamond pointed toward him in affirmation. “The adrenaline pushed him through, but all it did was make the hypoxia worse. He’s drowning–”
“I am!” The shout is enough to draw the attention of the child, his cheeks flooding flush, his skin sallow with tinges of growing blue, his sclera pulsing red in sequence with his heart. “You think I want to do this?”
The Starchild’s fate was settled ages ago. Honesty brought him no further harm. “Yes.”
He was right, but it didn’t matter now. “I started this because I didn’t know what it meant. Now that I understand…it’s on me to fix it.” The Diamond turned to the Starchild once more, not seeking affirmation, but acknowledgment. All he saw when did was what he’d grown used to; a fallen skull embedded in the ash, the only signatures of its occupant coming from the lightning bolts running along its bandana and the scorched brand filling its forehead.
So close to healing it all.
So hauntingly close.
Yet so far away.
Brandon emerged from the Argyle Position, storming through the alley of AT&T Stadium. Sweat poured from all over. Two nights of grueling wrestling should have hobbled in his step. An explosion forward of pure cortisol. Mind and body were in mauradering sync. He ripped at the straps of his singlet, throwing them aside as he strode, hands on his hips before slouching on his haunches. “RIGHT THERE! IT WAS RIGHT THERE! YOU STUPID FUCKER! GODDAMMIT!”
The pause was momentary. Tyler Best. Tyler Adrian FUCKING Best. He had him in his hands, could feel life leaving his body after the knife edge chop. Randallplex and pitched. Then, it would be down to three. Nate Colton. Cecilworth Farthington. His body failed him. Too much sweat on the hands made the bastard slippery, giving him an opening. Ty-Breaker to double knees. The Murder Rumble was still going on, but Youngblood’s night was over.
He hammerfisted the loading bay doors, causing them to rattle, startling support staff from PWA and Ace Network. “YOU FUCKING LOSER!” Another powerful blow, this one enough to rip away skin. The pain didn’t register. He’d done the work, hadn’t he? Pushed himself to be the best he could be? A shifted diet streamlined to shed a few extra pounds, a ramp up in cardio knowing he needed to expand his gas tank if he wanted to claim the offspring of the Dual Halo. His mind had been elsewhere leading up to the last two nights. Old wounds and mesquite. Fuck you, Dad. I know you’re laughing.
He wasn’t the only one. Glasgow scarred, blood filling the bangs of his perfect platinum locks, Cancer Jiles was worse for wear. Brandon looked up at the COOLympian from his perch of arena equipment suitcases, T-Shades obfuscating his glower. With the approach, Jiles instinctively reached inside his tights, readying an egg to punctuate the night’s proceedings. A frown. No dice.
A year before, it was the two of them locked in battle, finalists of the Almasy Invitational. That night forever linked them. The truest of hatreds. Only the worst wished for the other. Brandon looked at his forever rival, the one who he never wanted to acknowledge. Pent up rage and disappointment meant nobody would bat an eye if he decided to take a piece from this pizmo. Jiles merely turned the crank on an imaginary jack in the box, his middle finger rising.
Youngblood spit at him, continuing forward. Just the faint passing made his skin crawl. If they ever faced off again…WHEN they faced off again…he would be sure to get with Lindsay about the prick’s entrance. So he has stupid fucking pyro, and as he starts to make his way out, it begins to snow, and everyone is like ‘what does this mean’. It’s crumbs. Stale old fucking crumbs falling and hitting him like he’s some dipshit goose at the park. Crumbs for the Crumblord. What was he doing? Even acknowledging that damn insult meant…no. Embarrassment filled him as he finally arrived at his locker room, the door flinging open before slamming shut.
He fell into his seat, away from the world. Every sensation questioned as a knife in the back, all landing on The Queen’s orders. She’d trained Best. Just beat the sagging Anglo Luchador and you bypass lord knows how many minutes of empty wrestling before the first bodies could fall, saving himself the damage. She knew Nate Colton was close. Jake Colton had been like a father to Brandon. Then, there was Lord Cecilworth Farthington, a close personal friend of Troy’s. After The Kick and the rope grab and The Shotgun, and when Phil Atken…there he was, feet up in the pool. Part of the celebration committee. Did that link her directly to The Glue Factory?
Jiles needed only survive to earn contendership. Rezin had been choked unconscious and pinned in back to back 5 Star Title matches. Hayes Hanlon was granted an immediate rematch. In all his time in PRIME, for all he’d given, all he’d done, never was he granted the same fortune as any of them.
Tears stung his eyes because he believed he’d never know peace. So he sat, locked in racing thought, coda, until he truly exhaled.
“…I’m…I’m so tired…”
It’s the hunt, isn’t it? You sat there and turned this Battle Royal into an all or nothing, knowing full well that you walk amongst killers. You weren’t pinned. You didn’t submit. Your feet hit the arena floor. Does it wound your pride? You gave it your all. Finished within the Top Four. An entire roster save three would kill to be in your shoes, and yet, even compared to those who finished above you, you’re the only one that views this as a failure.
The doubt machine is hungry. It craves fresh insecurities and swallows them without savoring their flavor. Do you think this tortured walk, bearing your cross, appeals? Do you feel more fully formed? Are you ticking those boxes of depth to make others understand your struggle?
You fucking imbecile. You haven’t known peace? Fuck you. To your very core, fuck you. It’s all a lie. It’s always been a lie. You redeemed yourself. You rose up from what you were and did what so many couldn’t; become an honorable Champion.
And you know why?
“I thought the belt weighed too heavily on my own shoulders.” The Diamond trudged forth through the ash, drawing ever closer to the child in the throes of oxygen death. “But it wasn’t that at all.”
From the periphery grew another form, hunched, nursing his knee. Athletic tape wrapped from his fists up his forearms, just below the heavy braces on his elbows. Battle armor for an Inhuman Being. “You’re just doing what we all would do with the child. There is no place for empathy here. And if he doesn’t know it, it’s not on you to help him understand.”
The detached sentiment wavered The Diamond’s approach. “He was a boy with a dream. Like we all were. And he did the best he could. We should be honored he’s made it this far.”
In the annals of all, no one had reached the pinnacle as many times as The Inhuman Being. And yet, here he sat with the rest of the gathering dust, plucking at the fragments of skulls, skipping them over the precipice. “And if you hesitate, he will eat you. Just like you did me. Time’s a real bastard that way. Failing us like it does.”
“You called for it. The Orange.”
“I had a dream of four.” A flashing smirk, his eyes narrowing as he met the gaze of his conqueror. “Didn’t matter to you. So what makes him different from me, Dream Killer?” The Wrecking Ball rose from his place, dusting his thighs, then his chest. “That’s what made you tired, isn’t it? The chase? Snuffing out other’s dreams because you can’t have your own?”
The Diamond looked back to the resting place of The Starchild, realizing why he seemed so desperate. A haughty sense of righteousness. Of supremacy. Judgment rendered. The child didn’t climb a ladder or a winding road to arrive at this destination; his path was fraught with peril, with uncertainty, with terrors. Ruthlessly doing what had to be done would only leave the status quo. Would grow more hurt. “No. It wasn’t that at all.”
As he walked past, the Inhuman Being’s body flowed away like hourglass sands.
I’m so tired because of the hatreds I built in my heart.
Every opponent, an obstacle. Every moment, a referendum. Perfection demanded. Anyone against me seeks only my ruin. I build and I calcify because it’s all I thought I knew my whole life. I never truly won with it. Sure, I’d draw ever so close. Find myself at the precipice. A place in the Hall Of Fame and more 5 Star Championships than anyone else. Most envied that. I didn’t. I hated it. Hated it so much that after my last foray into a Battle Royal, I left, spent. I’d given my best. There was no path forward.
I thought the time away healed the wound.
I thought the will to achieve dominated my entire being.
Only tearing down this contempt gave me the chance to truly heal.
If one slip or one loss takes me back, it costs me all I’ve worked so hard for, that others have given me. And if so, what use is any of this? That’s not the way.
Brandon Youngblood was great when he had hatred in his heart.
It was only after he’d let it go that I became something greater.
The boy was close now. But as he drew near, a final volley.
“That’s cold blooded, even for me. Killing a kid.” From the soot rose the visage of manicured baby blue and platinum, maintained despite the rifts rising from center-mass. Salt Shoes sucked on his lips with exaggerated bravado. “Just do it, you fucking crumb.”
The Diamond glowered toward him, his nostrils bellowing caustic vapors. The eGG had his attention. “You broke the chain.”
Salt Shoes shrugged. “Needed something to entertain me between Bobby’s trips to the buffet.”
“I’m not you.”
“Could’ve fooled me.” An egg lands, its rancid yolk oozing down The Diamond’s chest. “Then again, maybe not. If you were, ole Philly A wouldn’t have rearranged your face, and then, it’s your Crumb Dumb Dome going to the guillotine at COOLossus. Like it was supposed to be. ”
“But you got him.” The Diamond pointed toward the boy. “All that big talk, and what did it get you? The kid conquered you. He became the Event Horizon off your bones. And now you’re going to take joy in seeing the two you couldn’t beat fight for the Universe?” A pitiful spit. “At least the boy’s still standing.”
A gurgle. A riposte. But it falls on deaf ears. And as it does, as The Diamond pushes forth to his ultimate destination, the eGG splintered apart.
Even in the best of circumstances, the drive from Arlington to Eau Claire was a two day sprint. He hit the road, kept going until sunrise, landing near Kansas City before grabbing a hotel for a few hours. Then, he continued on, managing to get home in Monday’s early morning hours, a call to Amy to tell her that he’s fine, not to wait up for him. Opening the door to his home, he rolled his suitcase inside, making as little noise as possible before passing the pantry, walking into the kitchen, its lone light acting as beacon. Reaching for the refrigerator door, he went for a water bottle, all until a soft whine caught his attention.
He hadn’t been careful enough; Cheddar was awake, laying on the tile, nuzzled against the Wrestle Buddy of his Papa. He tried standing up as best as he could, slowly walking to him, but he slipped, his little paws going out from underneath him. Poor Cheddar was near senior age when Brandon adopted him after returning from Pakistan, but in the last year, his health had deteriorated. Trouble walking. Sleeping more than he did before. Not eating. Yet there he was, persisting, making his way back up, even though he might fall once again.
Brandon scooped him up in his arms, planting a kiss on the top of his wrinkled forehead. “I’ve missed you too.” As he ran his hand through his graying coat, the phone in his pocket came to life. Nursing his pug in one arm, he reached for it with his free hand. It was the Queen. “Hey Lindz. What’s up?”
“You get home okay?”
“Just pulled in actually.” He gently rocked his pug in his arms, excitement filling the good boy, his tail wagging, his mouth open and panting. “Didn’t think I’d be hearing from you for a little bit…not with DEFCON and that big fucker Vargas coming up.”
“He’s big, but he’s wounded. Kick him until he goes down. And if he keeps getting up? Kick him again. Enough kicks, and you know what that means?”
“You’re damn right.” Her smile bled through the receiver. “But I wanted to check on you. See how you’re holding up.”
There was a saccharine tinge to her probing. This wasn’t a check-in. “You want to know if I’m walking. Like I did in 2010 after the Halo.”
“Oh no,” she lied. “That’s silly. I got you for fifteen more years. But some of the Ace folks, they were–”
“It’s all good.”
Was it? “As much as can be expected. I dug deep on a fast food binge. Did you know therapy can come from Famous Fries?”
“Look…you have nothing to hang your head about. Matt gave you his best shot, and you took him down. You were in the Top Four. Against forty-one others, that’s incredible–”
He cradled the phone against his shoulder, reaching with his hand into the freezer, pulling out a cup of Frosty Paws, opening it and resting Cheddar onto the countertop so he could eat it. Before returning to the call, he covered the receiver, whispering to him, “Don’t tell Mom, okay?”
“–and as hard as it might be–”
“Lindsay. I’m good. Really. Sucks, but it wasn’t my night. Balance on narrow places ain’t exactly my thing…was always shit from the top rope…”
“Well color me surprised. I figured you’d want to rip my head off.”
“I did. For a bit,” he confessed. “Have in the past. Will be times in the future too. But here’s the thing; when I was at my lowest, you found me. You looked at me wallowing in my own shit, and you told me to earn my redemption.” His hand found the back of his pug, softly petting him. “My kid is about to go for a state title. I have people who I care for, and care for me. And I’m not going to throw all that away with you over one shitty spill. There’ll be more opportunities…just have to work hard and make the most of them.”
For a moment, silence. And then, “Maybe sooner than you think.”
Cryptic in every way. Read between the lines. The realization was clear. But for the moment, it didn’t matter. There would be weeks to prepare for that. He was on the phone with his friend after a long trip. “Anyway…enough with talking about work. How are Kaz and Ami doing…”
As their conversation grew, his eyes caught the goal board.
He wiped it clean without even hesitating.
The blue necktie whipped about in the threshing yawn of pinnacle, the boy’s limbs languid, every joint bruised. His eyes watered and his mind raced as the warm sensations of fear swept through his shoulders. Panic. Sheer panic.
Until The Diamond’s hand rested against his shoulder. Comforting him. Nurturing him. “Don’t be afraid. Just look outward.”
The boy wiped away his tears as best as he could, then drank in what surrounded him. The clouds parted, opening the way for an astonishing view of the world below. Isolas and vast blue stretched to the great beyond. From such a height, one could only help but get lost in such a sight.
“Not many can say they’ve reached this place. But you did. Against everything, you did. Find comfort in it. Nothing will ever take this moment away from you.”
The Championship was heavy in the boy’s hand. Let him hold it until the final moments. It was only right. He collapsed on his knees, trying to maintain his composure.
And as he did, The Diamond stood him up, bracing him against his body. “Where you are…it’s not a mountaintop. It’s a tower. It wasn’t made by winds or waves. It was built. You’ve seen the top…but you aren’t built to live here. Your dream was winning the Championship.” He reached down, plucking at the desiccated faceplate, breaking off a piece before holding it to the child’s head. The brand given. No need to prolong this.
He palmed through the boy’s hair, and as he did, the blue necktie fell to the ash, as did The Championship. In The Diamond’s hand was the skull of his freshest conquest. His heart heavy, he knelt. The tie found its rightful place with its owner, held fast and wound tight. In his other what he so desperately sought. Pushing the child’s skull into the center of The Championship, the fractures began to heal upon themselves, the belt renewing itself once more. Through the ash, small leaflets of green began to rise. The azure sky melted into lilac as the sun began to rise.
“My dream…is being the Champion.”