“–so you really think it’s a bad idea?” There was a bite of agitation in Brandon’s voice as he brought the petit robusto to his lips. “Amy worked with them in Japan and thought the world of them. They’re young, talented, a bit crazy–”
“The New World Trash are more than a bit crazy.” Sweat dripped from Avalon’s brow as he maintained his plank on the concrete, the Albuquerque skyline a mosaic of oranges and purples. The loading dock of ‘The Pit’ was a good place to get fresh air, the summer temperate and comfortable. Elastic bands rested nearby the 5 Star Champion as he continued his stretching for his title defense against Sage Pontiff. “You want to train with someone more seasoned.”
Decades before, the pair were rivals, coming up in the sport at the same time. Their paths had crossed time and again, but their careers had different trajectories. And all that time later, despite it all, despite youthful antagonism, despite death, here they were, the men holding the two most prestigious singles championships in all of wrestling. They did so as friends. “I had someone. And then, he ghosted me out of nowhere..”
“And what happened there?”
The habanero wrapper gave Youngblood’s cigar a hint of spice. Swirling the inhale, he blew a heavy pair of rings before ashing the cherry. “Dunno. And I really don’t care. If he wants to hash it out, he can do so when he’s not babysitting Cross.”
Coral rose from his plank, stretching out his back as best as he could. “Been struggling myself with Franco going down. He’ll be back, but it doesn’t make it suck any less.” He gathered the bands, slinging them over his shoulder. “What about Nate over there? Maybe he or Jake know someone…maybe a bit more local to Wisconsin?”
The Next Diamond didn’t respond, his attention pointed at his phone, as it had been much of the night. Every moment, texting, smirking, devoid of interest in all else. Wasn’t like he was wrestling on the show. The person on the other end had his full attention. They had for weeks. At this point, there were whispers about his commitment to the sport. The shift hadn’t gone unnoticed.
Brandon tossed the remains of the cigar away, his eyes cast toward the former 5 Star Champion, then to the man who beat him. “Think I’d get more headway if I talked with Mr. Colton himself. Besides…Savage and Quinley are perfect. Crazy enough to deal with someone wanting to throw them around. They can give different looks. Different styles. And with having to deal with Streets at Turmoil…” a cognizant error. If only the ‘kid’ knew just how deep into a lab the Tower of Babel was.
Despite the conversation surrounding him, Colton’s attention remained on his phone. It was only when Brandon clasped his hand on his shoulder that he jerked from his trance. “Wha…”
“You’re zoning out, Nate. Seriously, everything alright with you? Know it was tough losing–”
“Nah nah,” Colton brushed it aside, a nervous chuckle. “I’m just…well…” A pregnant pause without an end.
“If something’s up, you know I got your back, right?”
A furtive nod from The Next Diamond. “Appreciate it, but no. I’m good.”
Coral tried remaining limber with a few high steps in place. In truth, they’d spent enough time outside, ducking out before the bell rang for Arthur Pleasant and Kohime Mori. No reason to give it a second thought.
If only they knew.
The steel was unforgiving. It had worn through the tape, and ground the flesh of her wrist against bone. The edge had cut deep, though she wasn’t sure quite when. It had all become a blur. First there was Freeman with the chair, then Schwartz had almost damn near run her over, all clearing the way for Ivan and his barking lapdog.
She should have paid more attention, kept her head in the game. Maybe then Alexei wouldn’t have been able to get the drop on her when her attention was divided. But the bastard was cunning, and he knew just how tight to bind her hand so that fighting against it would wear her down. Knocking that stupid grin off his face was intoxicating. Oh how she ached to do it again.
Yet all the while the bear pressed his attack, and there was nothing she could do but watch. Thin rivulets of blood ran the length of her forearm. The cuffs had bit again.
He’s coming back over here. You know what he’s going to say.
The Russian stormed back across the ring. Under the arena lights he was more than a more, more than a bear even.
Don’t give him what he wants.
He was the devil, sent from hell so that she and Jared both would suffer.
Her love battered and broken, her own wrist sticky and stinging, Justine conceded defeat. In the end, they both knew she would.
Two thousand miles away, the last leaf fell into a pile of crimson and yellow petals. It would be another year before that particular tulip bloomed again, bringing all the memories with it anew.
The trio of Youngblood, Avalon, and Colton made their way back into the arena, drawing ever closer to the belly of the beast. A commotion of arena security and EMTs gathered without uniformity. The flashing lights of an ambulance. Never a good sign. From the congregation of support staff, a heavy set figure, dressed in black, broke away, his eyes darting toward the ambulance mere yards away. His pace caused him to barrel into the Tower of Babel. The pair were matched for size, but it was he who staggered backward. In close proximity, the man’s features were stark beyond his flop sweat. Balding with a touch of black stubble, scars pockmarking through eyelashes and along his nostrils. His name tag stated Jones. The jawline read Slavic. Recomposing himself from his stagger, the man’s eyes shot daggers toward the three of them, his shoulders coiling. Hand to earbud. He spoke in his native tongue before waiting an uncomfortable few moments. When he received his answer, his skin turned pale. “Sorry. So…so sorry. I go now.” He backpedaled, about to turn before realizing he’d be headed back into the building. With nervous footing, he began pacing a wide path to an outer perimeter, trying to cover his head with his hand.
Brandon watched as he disappeared out the door and into the night. “I got a bad feeling about this…”
As if on cue, Jared Sykes, mangled form was rolled toward them on a stretcher. Doctors Astrid Fihlguud and Graham Erly and the rest of the medical attendees moved with haste. Lingering in the periphery, in a haze, was Justine Calvin, her hand wrapped around her wrist doing little to obscure the lacerating wound dripping blood in a trail behind her. Her eyes were wide, her cheeks flush.
The trio rushed to the scene as the Dragonslayer was being loaded into the ambulance. A whirlwind of questions. A cacophony of sound the response as the medical professionals were busy with their patient. Youngblood caught Justine as she slowed to a slump, all before she let out a primal roar. “Fuck!”
While Avalon and Colton remained, Brandon made a beeline toward Justine, looking to balance her before a violent brush of the hand stopped him in his tracks. “Justine…what…what the fuck happened? Did something–”
“They jumped him,” she fumed. “They jumped us. All four of them. All fucking four of them! And they wouldn’t stop…Ivan…he…he wouldn’t–”
From the look of Sykes, he’d been mauled. Given the condition of Calvin’s wrist, he’d assumed she chewed her way free. “Did they get you–”
“They handcuffed me. Alexei…he handcuffed me to the ropes before they got going. And then they made me watch. Ivan…made me watch. Said it would end if I just apologized, but that was all bullshit… and–”
Brandon couldn’t hide his snarl. “Where the hell was Tom?”
“Gone.” There was no malice in her words. “Pleasant. He had some drone footage of his wife and kids, was making threats. Towards his kids, Brandon. His fucking kids!”
She wasn’t the only one fuming anymore. His attention turned back to her wrist. The wound was ghastly, pulsing with deep purples. “Justine…you got to get that wrist…”
“Look, you need to get that looked–”
“I said I’m fine!”
“Fine enough to get fucking infected!” Like two bulls locking horns. Their yelling would’ve snowballed if what they heard hadn’t pierced through their growing tension. “Someone slashed the tires! Quick, someone call another ambulance! Anyone see anything? Did anyone see anything?!” Nobody had noticed the dip of the ambulance before, but with Jared now hooked up to monitors and ready for transport, things were sliding into place. A disgusting sloshing in the stomach.
They already knew who was behind it. “Nate! Nate!” Youngblood stormed toward the slouching ambulance, ripping Colton away from the fray. “We got to go! That guy…that fucking guy!”
The phone had robbed him of his awareness. “What are you–”
“He slashed the tires…for Ivan!” His finger stabbed to the distance. “We need to run him the fuck down before he–”
“Brandon, what are you–”
“This is fucking bullshit!” Without thinking, without hesitation, the Universal Champion’s fist drove into the side of the ambulance. “Who the FUCK signed up for THIS shit?! It’s wrestling…IT’S A FUCKING WRESTLING MATCH! And we got people stalking and trying to kill each other and jumping people from behind and–”
Justine wrung her wrist from the clutch of her hand. “And where were you?” She growled.
Pin drop. Youngblood’s scowl remained, but the words stopped. A master plan with collateral damage reverberating. It was only Coral’s presence that stopped further escalation. “They say Jared’s pretty messed up. You guys should go, make sure everything is okay.”
Alarm bells rang in the Tower of Babel’s head. “Look, we got enough crazy shit going on around here. What if Cecilworth and FLAMBERGE and–”
“I got it.” Avalon reassured. “Besides, anything gets crazy…Joe and Sid are here…”
Justine had ridden in an ambulance only once growing up. There was a quarry not far from Sarah Shaw’s house, and the two had a habit of riding their bikes there and using the rocks as staging in an ever-escalating stunt show. Invariably she would come home with a new cut or bruise and her parents would know without a word how she spent her afternoon. Then one day Sarah dared her to use one of the larger rocks as a launching pad to clear a nearby stream. It was a challenge that Justine could not let go unanswered. She built up a head of steam, leaned into her handlebars, and then she was airborne. The ground came up fast and she was thrown clear of her ride. When she tried to stand a moment later, Justine felt like a swarm of fire ants had gnawed through to the bone of her left ankle.
For thirty years it was the only time she’d ever experienced it. Now it was commonplace.
Despite her insistence to the contrary the EMTs had treated her wound, cleaning and bandaging it as she and Jared took yet another lonely ride together. The sirens whined in the cool desert air.
Listen. They’re playing our song.
Jared lay bound to a backboard, a precautionary measure that the PRIME medical team had taken given the way he was thrown around the ringside area like yesterday’s laundry. His eyes were open. His feet were shuffling as much as they could despite being restrained. His fingers picked incessantly at a bit of tape around his wrist. These were good signs, but they brought her no comfort.
“You know,” he said, “I’m starting to think that maybe we should look into seeing if there’s some kind of rewards program for this. Frequent roller, or whatever.”
She snorted a laugh despite herself.
“Sorry, just trying to ease the tension.”
Because that’s what he did, she thought. And given the chance he would be obnoxious about it. The facade was admirable. It was one thing to pretend to be a blueberry, but that mask was a flimsy, knock-off trash compared to the other mask; the one that came out whenever something went seriously sideways.
“I know it’s hard,” one of the EMTs said. He was a young man, not much older than Mark by the looks of him. “But try to keep still.”
Jared flashed a half-hearted thumbs up, and then turned his eyes in her direction.
“Christ, why does everyone keep asking me that?”
Because for the second time in a month a Russian leviathan made threats against you while you were in a position where response was impossible.
Because a monster kept you restrained and forced you to watch as he dismantled the person you vowed to share the rest of your life with.
Because this isn’t how it’s supposed to be, and none of this, not one goddamn bit of it, is okay.
“I’m fine,” she spat. “I’ll be fine.”
He tried to nod, but the strap against his forehead made the gesture look more like an eyebrow spasm, but he didn’t press the issue either. Half a life of knowing each other meant that Jared understood not to push, that if something was wrong then she’d talk about it on her terms. In that way they were a lot alike.
“How about this,” he said instead, “You’ve got your phone, right? Wanna see if the show’s over yet? Maybe we’ll get a little good news tonight after all.”
She dug the device from her pocket and flipped it on, choosing to ignore the litany of messages and missed calls that awaited her. Those would be a problem for Future Justine to deal with, maybe once they’d made it to the hospital and the endless rounds of testing began. If the ride was the appetizer, then the waiting was the main course, and what a bountiful spread it would be. Hours upon hours of time to sit and wait and wonder while Jared was poked, prodded, probed, and scanned.
She brought up the ACE stream and angled the phone so both of them could see it, then almost immediately regretted the decision.
The voice through the speaker was clear as day. “The wind has really shifted.”
Joe Fontaine and Sid Phillips, two kids that the pair had only recently called the future of tag team wrestling, stood side-by-side with Cecilworth Farthington while their mentor lay in a heap.
Jared closed his eyes and exhaled a deep sigh. Justine tossed her phone aside and watched it skid towards the ambulance door.
“Fuck this,” she said. “Fuck all of this.”
Brandon didn’t listen to Coral.
Like jackals, they descend. It is their nature, despite the strength and ability each one of them individually possess. A sickening state of affairs. But what could one expect? Everything is glue, but the mission statement, the spirit, the sentiment, it’s been drained, leaving behind only a soothsayer armed with the belief that his financing equates to proprietary. Like a hedge fund come during a wake, skinning the corpse, wearing its flesh as its own.
Cecilworth Farthington wasn’t Phil Atken. His Glueminati, even with its greater number of thralls, was a poor imitation of The Glue Factory. And why is that? Because, unlike the threat of before, the mission wasn’t his all encompassing being. Gleefully ignorant of even the most blatant of facts. Brandon knew it. What he and Atken took from each other might never be righted until the day they die. Phil would never let some child of a mortal enemy run the risk of undermining everything. It’d be akin to universally loving and reading manifestos from the rooftops. Like wrapping his arms around viking mothers.
Such a sticky situation. With each stride, Brandon knew he wanted to take not just Tyler apart, but Cecilworth as well. Debts to be collected. That they got away, that they were able to have their pow wow with their newfound Judas and his Powerbomb lap dog was a minor miracle made possible only by arena security. Coral was wounded and needed help. So he went.
The original three joined by another two. After everything Avalon had done for them. Loss can drive someone mad, and while idiocy ran through the blood of Joe Fontaine, to throw away everything? Would he even be standing there, hugging this lot of parasites, if it wasn’t for the one he drove down?
Cecilworth was a false king.
Now, he had his jester.
Both would pay with their heads.
Albuquerque ER & Hospital’s trappings were sterile, bathed in fluorescence and seafoam green. The seats in the waiting room were just a touch uncomfortable, enough to cause constant shifting. Another PRIME vigil. Far too commonplace, to the point where those who came had been winnowed down. Jared’s state was being assessed, as was Coral’s. Justine’s wrist was dressed, wrapped, a bitter sting filling the wound thanks to antiseptic.
Brandon’s feet bounced against the tiles. Sitting next to her, the silence was getting to him. “You know…you look like shit.”
The volley hit its marks. “Hey, thanks! I’ve been working on that. Now I just need to figure out how to grow a goatee and I’ll look just like you.”
A chuckle. His knuckles were bruising from the ambulance punch, causing him to instinctively flex his fingers. “What a fucking night. Think Whataburger is still open? Could go for a patty melt with extra onions and some green chiles. And you could get a grilled cheese off the kids menu. My treat.”
“Don’t know. Always had you pegged as a chicken nuggies kind of guy.”
Given what had went down this evening? To even break proverbial balls meant something. “Look…Justine…I’m sorry I wasn’t there. And I get it if you need to take time and energy away from all this. And that’s not because I don’t think you’re strong enough…”
“I’m not going anywhere.” Her response was terse, slowly leveling out. “I’m just getting more and more pissed off. About Ivan. About all of it. But right now? Everything I just had to deal with… I wanna pay it forward on Joe’s dumb ass.”
“I hear you.”
Her eyes grew wide with sincerity. “No. You don’t understand. Like, whenever I’m having a bad day, I just start watching clips of a goddamn mannequin beating the fuck out of that dumbass. I’ll send you my YouTube playlist. You know, I this his birth certificate lists me as his daddy.”
He stifled a laugh. They knew the match. Cecilworth Farthington and Joe Fontaine. The puppetmaster and his newest himbo. And given their mindsets? “All I can think about right now is…my face is swollen. Nose just put back together. And I can barely breathe from it. And I’m watching ReVival, and I see Atken, all beaten up, black and blue, milling around in a pool. But he’s not alone. He’s got this extravagant beanpole lapping it up beside him. And he’s acting like HE did this. Heard he likes to collect arms like Julien has been collecting crotch glimpses. Might just feel good to take both of his.”
“Was going to say, that would be real weird.” A flash of a smile. “Look, Brandon, this is fun and all, but look where we are. Like patchwork soldiers. Throw some stitches on us, and get us back in the fight. And it’s getting really old.”
“They want it this way. Divide and conquer. They’re the aggressors. They come out of the woodwork when you’re beaten up and tired and spent. And they strike. It’s psychology. Make you look over your shoulder. Worry. Hesitate. That’s the only way to silence the doubt in their own head. Always pushing for an advantage.”
“So where’s the line?”
He pointed to her, then to himself. “It’s here. I got a big belt that says I’m the best in a one on one. But you? You’re the best tag team wrestler in PRIME history. Never been pinned. Never been beaten. I say that’s a pretty damn good line.” A wicked thought crossed his mind immediately after saying this. “Maybe you should bring your Forever Championship to Phoenix. Remind that little prick just what he will never be.”
There was pride in the acknowledgment. “Only if you promise to break that Jabbering hand of his. Dude makes Tom look well-adjusted and I’m kind of over the fancy-lad bon mot bullshit.”
“Which hand is it?”
“Deal.” he extended his bruised fist toward her.
Ever the boxer, she returned the favor. “Let’s put a little fear in their hearts.”