The weary king pushed and the boulder barely budged.
He couldn’t remember when he started doing this. He couldn’t remember why it was so important that he did. All he knew was that this boulder had to reach the top of that hill. If he stopped to reflect on the answers to those questions, then the boulder would slip from his grasp and tumble to the bottom of the hill again.
The whole process of man versus boulder was excruciating. There was the sheer weight of it pressed against his body. His muscles tore and then un-tore, an agony beyond agonies. His body strained, but never completely exhausted. The pain was exquisite. Then there was the strange texture of the boulder, smooth and slick enough that it slipped easily if he didn’t keep all of his attention on it. One false move, and down it would go.
Once, he would get farther than he ever had before, and then suddenly lost his ability to breathe. Down the boulder went. And then, most recently, he came within feet from going over the crest. And then every one of his tendons in his limbs felt like they were exploding at once, and down the boulder went again. This time, the boulder rolled over him, and he felt like one of those cartoon characters who got the business end of a steamroller.
After that, he just laid there.
He was exhausted. Exhausted of being told that he wasn’t strong enough to push the boulder. Weary of the idea that men far worse than he was could achieve something that should’ve been his a long time ago. Tired of the world at large.
From where he lay, he saw the boulder come to a stop at the bottom of the hill. He saw the taskmasters urging him to get back into position to try again. They wore the faces of his enemies, men who rolled the boulder themselves an age ago.
How many times had this happened?
He didn’t know. He didn’t remember. A minute felt like an eternity in this place.
But as he laid there, gasping and wheezing from his latest failed effort, he found himself wondering if it was even worth it to try again. Wouldn’t it be better to just… lie here?
Wouldn’t it be better to give up?
And so, the weary king thought about it longer than he ever had before.
The Captain decreed that they shall go and partake in the local cuisine, and as we in the Bandits all know by now, “what the Captain says goes”.
Coral Avalon was still trying to wrap his head around everything that’s happened to him in the past few days, particularly after the bitter disappointment of his elimination from the Almasy. Perhaps in seeing how crestfallen his fellow Bandit was, the mighty Captain that was the Beautiful Man from Honalee chose to utilize his keen sense of knowing exactly where to go for the best fast food in the country to bring them to a Popeye’s in New Orleans.
As a childhood native of the city, Coral was baffled. New Orleans was a great food city, and the way Bobby Dean intended to go about it was to… go to a chain.
Yeah, that makes sense.
“I’m calling this strategy session into order!” the Captain declared.
Coral didn’t really understand any of the “Captain” business. In fact, he hadn’t even seen Jiles skulking about since the loss of the Golden Ticket at ReVival 39. The most he’d seen of him were the T-shades that Bobby wore to this meeting.
Perhaps Jiles wasn’t the man at all, but the T-shades?
That’s definitely one of the thoughts of all time.
In any case, Coral decided to humor Bobby about this Captain business, because it was a lot easier for his mental bandwidth to let Bobby do what he wanted. Though there was one piece of information that Bobby should really know, “Cap, it’s just me here.”
“To order!” Bobby said, before he used the salt shaker as a makeshift gavel.
Coral was brought to order. Or more accurately, he allowed Bobby to assume that he was brought to order. At any moment, though, he might decide to misbehave. Truly embracing the Bandit way.
Wait, am I the Bobby to his Jiles?
That thought hit him like a gym sock full of bricks.
Oh Jesus God.
There have been many things that have horrified Coral Avalon over the years, including his first time in the cryostasis chamber, but that one might be up there.
“Right,” Bobby said, “So you need to do something about this, uh… this guy.”
“You literally fought him on pay-per-view six months ago.”
“You tried to hire his doppelganger to agree to take a dive for you so that you wouldn’t have to actually wrestle him.”
“That doesn’t sound like me.”
“You also tried to extort a frozen piña colada from him so that you could be persuaded to show mercy.”
“Oh, that does sound like me.”
A rubber match with Chandler Tsonda wasn’t what he hoped for at the end of his journey through the Almasy, even if he’d won the bounty for the Alias Championship. But as usual when it came to Coral Avalon, his chronically bad luck had doomed him once again and his leg gave out on him when he needed it the most. He felt like the only man who could call heads ten times and get tails all ten times.
Did I break any mirrors lately?
“So, strategy… strategy… have you considered kicking him in the dick?” Bobby asked. He was trying to be so helpful, but Bobby was terrible at helping himself, let alone his ostensible friends, allies, or (in this specific case) minions.
“Well, you should start. Also, I bet if you get him with the double wet willie, he’ll do that thing people do when they give up the match.”
Coral stared at Bobby.
Well, there was that time that Typhoon Timothy sent me through a mirror placed between two chairs like a makeshift glass table on a cross-promotional show in Denmark, but that was way more than seven years ago.
Though I did have to go to the hospital for that one.
“Pretty sure they send you to jail in at least one U.S. state for the double wet willie, Cap.”
“Really? Shit. What about a purple nurple?”
Coral shrugged, and tried to focus on what little meal he had compared to Bobby.
“Well,” Bobby said, “Maybe you could hit him with a chair when the referee’s not looking. That’s what the pre-gallows management always did, and it worked all the way up until it didn’t.”
“Cap,” Coral said, “I’m more of the ‘beat people until they stop thinking conscious thoughts’ school of pro wrestling.”
“Oh. That sounds exhausting,” Bobby asked, “How do you do it?”
“Getting a running start and kicking them in the face as hard as I can usually works.” Coral said.
“You lost me at ‘running’.”
“I think it’ll be fine, Cap,” Coral said, “Tsonda probably thinks he has me all figured out and will come at me with guns blazing, but I have more than a few surprises for him. I’m banking that he doesn’t know my history, stuck in his own world like he is. But I know his. I can harness th—“
Coral’s phone, which had been left on vibrate, was making a racket from an incoming text message. The noise interrupted Coral and caught both Bandits off guard, and the more socially aware Coral quickly fumbled with the phone to quell its howling.
Then he looked at the text message, and his heart leapt out of his chest and was now escaping down the street chased by local authorities. The color quickly drained from his face, “Bobby… no, sorry. Captain?”
“Yeah?” Bobby asked with chicken in his mouth.
“It’s… it’s a Code Blue.”
Bobby hadn’t known Coral for long, but even he knew what that code meant in context.
Okay, so that’s mostly because Coral had to tell him like five times that day what it meant. Either way, his reaction was appropriate for the situation.
The weary king didn’t know why he was there, or what he was doing.
Could he just leave?
Would they let him?
He laid there even as the taskmasters made their approach, spears at the ready. If the king did not push, did not complete his task, he would meet a fate even worse than this one.
And yet, in this moment, he wondered if this fate would be better than the heartache of seeing the boulder slip from his grasp yet again.
Meaning that if Coral and Annabelle were separated while they were in New Orleans and Annabelle went into labor, then that was the code word for Coral to immediately drop everything he was doing and face the reality that he was about to become a father.
Understandably, panic had already set in as he urged Bobby across the street and to the hotel.
Why right now?
How long do we have?
Annie, are you okay?
Coral didn’t even have the mental headspace to note the irony of being able to ask that question unironically.
He found Annabelle in the hotel’s foyer, surrounded by other Bandits.
Lunchbox Leary, clearly a man who knew his way around a pregnant woman, was trying to fan her with one of the hotel fliers. Cardboard Dan Ryan was doing cardboard tasks related to the present situation, and should be left to his own cardboard devices. Even the Bandit-in-Training, Chris Chickentenders, was being helpful by passing Annabelle something cool to drink as Coral was dashing in.
Of course, all of his helpfulness was undermined by the shout of “You’re late, buttmunch!” in the petulant tone of a boy who thought he was far too cool for this.
Coral rightfully ignored him, and went straight to his wife. Annabelle looked like she was having a bad time, like there was a whole new life within her waiting to burst out. Preferably not like the Alien movies.
He whirled around to the man waddling inside the foyer, and shouted at him, “Bobby, the car!”
The Captain looked like a man who wanted to be the one delivering the orders in situations like this, but had no idea how to accomplish that. He was a man overwhelmed by the weight of his position, the pressure of his T-Shades. In that exact moment, the Captain was merely “Beautiful” Bobby Dean. As he normally was.
“Bobby!” Coral shouted again.
Bobby straightened like a puppet at the mercy of the puppetmaster’s strings. He patted himself down for the keys. He had them somewhere, right? Wait, he found them! Oh, no. That’s just some pocket jerky. Munch.
That’s when Doozer appeared, keys at hand. No one was more startled by his sudden appearance than Coral, who let out a yelp of surprise when Doozer conjured himself into existence next to Bobby like fucking Batman. For his part, Bobby seemed so prepared for this eventuality that he held his hand out for Doozer to hand him the keys before he’d even appeared, and Doozer… well, Doozer didn’t give them to him.
“Fuck you, I’m driving,” Doozer said. He turned to Avalon, “Let’s roll.”
They were upon him.
The taskmasters – his lifelong tormentors – all wore the faces of his enemies. He recognized them all. That surly grimace of the Original. The snide look of the Smark, his spear decorated in star ratings. The arrogant Gold Standard, who lined his equipment in gold. The menacing Godslayer, whose sash was a cornucopia of symbols of gods he had slain. The inscrutable Mr. Finish Line.
Even the Crumb.
Their spears looked sharp. Their grimacing faces were united in purpose, to purge this king from this hill the moment he faltered. And make no mistake, he was faltering.
The king closed his eyes in anticipation for that sweet oblivion.
Let it happen. Let this all be over soon.
Many Bandits piled into that most luxurious of rental cars, the Hyundai Santa Fe, and may have committed several vehicular misdemeanors on the way to the nearest hospital.
Doozer was a lot of things: nearly invisible, from Boston, has an uncanny resemblance to the title character of HBO Max’s Peacemaker. He was also, let’s say generously, a very terrifying driver when the need was great. He weaved through New Orleans traffic like Dominic Toretto’s estranged brother, and every man and woman and sentient cardboard in the vehicle were rightfully terrified that they might all die before they even got to the hospital.
Yet, because Doozer never gave up, he was able to establish that his time was now and arrive at his destination. Cue the trumpets.
The Bandits got to work in making themselves useful. Doozer had lovely conversations with local police officers about his driving, and the officers were very confused about this man randomly existing and not existing even as they spoke to him. Lunchbox Luxembourg immediately fetched a wheelchair for Annabelle, and Coral was just impressed that the big lug did it without kicking over an elderly person. Coral helped his wife into the chair and then hurried into the hospital with the Bandits hooting and hollering behind him in vague cheers of encouragement (indifference in the case of the BIT).
Often when Coral and Annabelle visited the hospital together, it was because Coral did something stupid in his job that required a visit like that aforementioned mirror spot. Or all those times he (almost) died. He felt out of place being in this position. He felt more anxiety now than he did in the match with Farthington nearly two weeks ago.
As Coral wheeled his laboring wife inside, she still found it within her to quip at him, “Did the car fucking drive itself?”
“Ssh,” Coral whispered comfortingly into her ear, “Less snark from Belle 2.”
“God dammit, Coral.”
He smiled anxiously. It was the only kind of smile he was currently capable of. All other smiles had gone out for the holiday.
“How are you doing?”
“You’ve… asked me that like fifty times, sweetie. All I can say is that this… isn’t… very pleasant.”
She grabbed hold of his hand as though doing so was a matter of life and death.
“Hey. Everything’s going to change soon.”
“Yeah,” Coral agreed, “Scared?”
“Me too,” Coral and all of the butterflies in his stomach agreed. Consciously, he placed a hand on Annabelle’s shoulder, “Hey. You’re gonna do great.”
“Stop that,” Annabelle made a dismissive sound, “It’s supposed to be my job to be encouraging.”
Coral’s anxious smile grew, “Remember, deep breaths.”
The doctors would meet them at the door, and quickly take them inside.
The Avalons had waited some truly long months for this day. And now that it was here, it was all in the hands of doctors, God, Hoyt, and Annabelle herself.
All Coral could do was wait.
And then he saw it in his mind’s eye. Something beautiful. Wondrous. Awe-inspiring.
When he opened his eyes again, he saw the blue wave cascading over the burning sky. It was composed of a radiant and brilliant array of blues, from Bandits electric to the kingly colors he’d been associated with. The wave washed over everything — the boulder, the hill, the tormentors, enemies old and new. Many of the tormentors scattered in its wake, as they feared what this wave could do if it reached them. They hid. They cowered.
The king watched as the wave approached him, and could do nothing when it washed over him. It froze him, as cold as cryogenesis. He felt the deep-seated pain in his muscles die down for the first time in what felt like an eternity. He felt rejuvenation.
And he felt something deep within him that he’d thought he’d long lost. The spark. The reason he was here in the first place. It wasn’t just that he’d spent so much time pushing the boulder that it was all that consumed him, as he’d sunk too much time to give up now.
He wanted that boulder up that fucking hill because he wanted it.
With that single resplendent word, the king rose to his feet. What tormentors still remained near him were taken aback by a purpose renewed, suddenly repulsed by his very presence.
One. More. Time.
On December 13th, 2023, Aoi Emelia Avalon was born.
It’s said that when she was born, her father was so overjoyed that he broke down crying as he held his newborn daughter in his hands.
The eGG Bandits – bereft of Cancer Jiles – willingly stood by with anticipation. They’d watched Coral pace and brood anxiously. Well, maybe one was too cool for this and played phone games instead. When the good news came, the Bandits that were present clapped and cheered in awkward un-unison, more united than they’d been in a long time.
Similarly, Coral smiled like he hadn’t in a long time.
He hugged Bobby, and the Beautiful Man from Honalee had little clue how to take that. Maybe it’d been a while since a dude hugged him out of joy, who knew? Eventually, Bobby awkwardly pat Coral on the back hoping that he’d let go. Eventually, he did. After Bobby, it was Doozer. Or, rather, the space that Coral thought Doozer occupied. Coral wasn’t sure if Doozer was getting hugged, and nobody was going to correct him otherwise.
Then it was Lunchbox Larxene, whom Coral greeted with a warm hug even if he couldn’t actually remember his name. Then it was Cardboard Dan Ryan, whose return hug was as powerful as it was perplexing. Chris Chickentenders wanted nothing to do with this shit and was already out of the door the moment Coral got all sensitive and uncool.
“Thanks, guys.” Coral said when he was done, “All of you.”
After a long silence between the Bandits, the Captain felt best to speak on behalf of the rest of them, “Well, of course we’re going to help. You’re one of us.”
Coral… blinked. He didn’t know how to react to that. Well, okay, he had one thing he could do in reaction.
He could flee.
When he returned to Annabelle’s bedside after leaving the Bandits behind, he sat down exhausted in the chair next to her.
Annabelle looked pretty good for someone who just gave birth. Then again, Coral always thought his wife looked good even when she was at her worst. When she turned to look at him, though, she had a much different opinion of what her husband looked like at the moment.
“You look like you need more rest than I do.”
Coral couldn’t remember the last time he slept. He also couldn’t remember how long he slept when he last did. He had a feeling he was going to miss being able to sleep.
“I know, I need to rest before Colossus,” Coral said, putting his face into his hands, “Just can’t stop thinking about you and Aoi, and whether you’ll be fine without me in New Orleans for a day.”
“I’m not some frail flower, sweetie. I’ll…” Annabelle said, before she looked down at the child in her arms and corrected herself, “We’ll be fine.”
Coral looked up from his hands.
“Yeah,” Coral said, before a smile formed on his face. He leaned in to kiss her on her forehead, “We will. Together. As always.”
“Love you, idiot.”
“Love you, too.”
What Coral and Annabelle got to experience, what they got to hold together as a family… that’s a magic theorem as simple and as beautiful as life itself.
One plus one plus one, just me and you and her.
The newly blued sky cast a light that was wholly different from the dreary burning smoke that once filled the skies. It was different. It was pure.
With renewed purpose giving him wings, the weary king marched down to where the boulder was once more.
When he took position behind the boulder once again, he muttered a silent prayer to himself, glaring at all of the taskmasters urging him to give up and face his true punishment. A prayer that he hoped would give him the strength to finally take him over the top. A prayer that would free him from his lingering doubts.
“This bitch is getting pushed.”
Hoyt help everyone that stood in the way.