FWA ‘Back in Business XVII’ || Promo Thread

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Mandalorian

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The sunlight beamed down on Christopher’s face, causing him to squint and reach to cover his eyes with his hand. It had been days since he had felt the sun’s warmth on his skin and it took several moments for his eyes to adjust after becoming accustomed to the darkness of the Guadalahar Caverns. The adjustment process was made even more difficult due to the scorching temperatures. Once his vision had returned, Christopher examined himself and noted the dirt covering his clothes.

Despite the dry conditions, Christopher heard the faint trickling sound of water nearby. His suspicions of there being somewhere to refresh himself seemed more plausible given the healthy-looking foliage around him surrounding the exit from the caverns which had brought him back into the open around half way up a mountain. Christopher jostled through the shrubbery and found himself in another clearing which had a free-flowing current of water running through the middle of it.

A conveniently-placed boulder was sufficient as a seat and Christopher threw himself down onto it, not caring that doing so sent another jarring sensation up his spine. He lifted his sword from its sheath on his back and placed it next to him on the rock. The sun reflected off of the golden blade and caused him to wince slightly before he removed the sheath and then his shirt which was torn in several places and stained with blood - mainly belonging to him.

As Christopher looked down at his chest he saw several fresh cuts strewn across his chest and the stinging sensations of incoming infections could be felt on his back too, after the skirmish in the cave. Christopher was reminded of his most recent battle - which he would consider to be a defeat - against the cave-dwelling weaselpeople. He slowly considered the golden necklace around his neck in his hand and shook his head, lamenting the potential fate of the holder of its counterpart.

Christopher had left Alyster in the cave to continue their fight with the weaselpeople; he had to leave as he could not withstand the toll of that particular battle any longer. It was another tale he was sure would come back to haunt him through ridicule, along with his failure to slay Daniel the Great after leaving Lynbrook. Despite asserting his position over Johan Sommer and defeating Octillian’s forces alongside Alyster, Christopher chose to dwell on those encounters with Daniel and the rodents in the cave. He knew that everyone else would.

“I’ve never seen a champion less worthy!”

“How many times is he going to lose?”

“If he can’t handle the pressure, he should just give up!”


The voices tormented Christopher as he rested his head on his palms as he sat on the boulder. These defeats had left him feeling vulnerable. The life of a champion was tough and now being in possession of the necklace as well as the sword meant that it was going to be twice as tough. Enemies could appear at any time. Threats would emerge from almost nothing. These were things that Christopher knew, but he did not care to think about further as he reached down and removed his shoes.

Soon enough, Christopher was completely nude with the exception of the necklace which he did not feel he needed to remove. Whilst this was ostensibly for practical reasons, he felt safer whilst wearing it and he felt that Alyster would be safer whilst he wore it also. With no trepidation, Christopher approached the stream on his tiptoes to avoid any loose stones digging into the soles of his feet. His natural nimbleness and agility made this look effortless.

He dipped a toe in the water and retracted it immediately when he felt how cold it was in stark contrast to the sun’s heat. Despite this, he decided to throw himself in and stand in the water with both feet but was taken by surprise at how deep it was. Christopher was immediately submerged and he was grateful that his feet touched the base of the stream which allowed him to propel himself up so he could get his head back above water.

The sudden shock of going completely underwater and the radical change in his body temperature caused him to gasp for air initially upon resurfacing, but after a few seconds he regulated his breathing as he began to tread water to keep himself afloat. The water did have the desired effect on his body, though, as he did feel some relief from the scratches sustained in the cave. He used one of his hands to wipe away the dried blood from his skin and the patches of dirt which adorned his entire body.

In doing so, Christopher failed to appreciate what was happening around him. His feet got further and further away from the floor underneath him as the water level slowly began to rise around him and spill onto the banks on either side of the stream. Christopher finally realised something was happening when he felt the current grow from calm to barely manageable to actually needing to fight against it lest it sweep him away.

As the panic began to set in, Christopher looked in the direction where the current was attempting to take him and realised that not fifty feet away he could no longer see where the stream went. He could only assume that it was a sheer drop that was waiting for him. He looked further up the mountain and his eyes widened when he saw what was coming his way.

The water crashed in various places on the mountain as it traversed various natural curves in its path before its direction straightened out and Christopher realised that it was cascading towards him at an alarmingly fast rate. Christopher desperately clawed against the current, trying to reach the boulder and more specifically, his prized sword. He fought with all of his will, but the wave from above clattered into him with such force that it knocked him completely underwater once more.

Still, Christopher fought. He pulled his head just above the water and moved in any way he could to move himself closer to his sword… but it was too much. After all of the fighting, victories and defeats, Christopher was simply too tired. His last gambit was reaching with his fingers towards his golden sword but it was futile. The current overtook him, sinking his head under the water and the last sight of him before the current sent him over the edge was his fingertips - still reaching out - slowly disappearing as the water level rose.

Christopher was out of his depth, and he had realised it too late.

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**********

One Hour Later…


The clearing had calmed following the sudden burst of water which swept Christopher of Lynbrook away and the stream of water bisecting it was as calm as Christopher had found it.

The serenity was broken by the sound of voices. Angry and frustrated voices. “Surely the time for preparations is over? Now it must be time to strike! The time for action! How much longer can you expect me to wait and watch?”

“You are in no position to question us! You will continue to wait until you are instructed otherwise. Only then will you be considered for return.”

“He is weak. Now is the perfect time-”

“Careful of which stones you cast when speaking of weakness, exiled one. You will do as instructed as is our creed. Your honour swears on it. Now, resume your duties, Watcher.”


Even though two voices could be heard, only one figure emerged on the opposite side of the clearing that Christopher had. The Watcher - a tenured warrior and known around the world as one of the most skilled with a blade - brushed away the low hanging branches of the trees around him and closed his hand, extinguishing the fire that he had conjured as a means to communicate with his counterparts.

Known to the other watchers as ‘the exiled one’, this Watcher had been present for Christopher of Lynbrook’s entire journey up to this point. Their paths had crossed several times before; in all previous melees, Christopher had bested him. It was these failures and many others like it which led to his exiled status from the rest of his kind. Whilst they had all decided to accept their success and status, content to live off of past victories and leave their legacies intact, this one wanted more.

Being regarded as a great warrior and champion was not enough. The Watcher would not be content until he had proven to himself, the other watchers and the rest of the world that he was still capable of reaching the heights that he had before. However all that he had to show for it were increasing doubts in the minds of those around him as that defining victory to solidify his status continually eluded him. He was tarnishing his own great legacy but knew he was too committed to this cause to abandon it now.

As he lowered his hand he caught a glimpse of the wounds he sustained during his sojourn into the nearby caves; he, like Christopher, was unable to fend off the weaselpeople. Whilst he was examining scars he also pulled the sleeve of his cloak up further to examine the jet black branding of a skull which had been imprinted on him by the satanic beast known as the Death Walker. These represented his weaknesses and his falling star for the Watcher of old would have never suffered such defeats. The defeats that the other watches avoided entirely by calling it a day when they believed their time had passed.

They were wrong to believe that though, for there was no one in Fantasia who wouldn’t think that The Watcher was still capable of ascending to the heights of his former glory. No one thought this more than The Watcher himself. It was all he lived for. Constantly striving to do what he needed to do to reach that point once more and now the only man standing in his way was Christopher of Lynbrook. The Watcher knew that the only thing that he needed to silence all of those creeping doubts was the golden sword.

The very same sword, which The Watcher noticed had been abandoned on a rock on the opposite side of the small stream in front of him.

There it was. The key to the place in the world which he truly believed belonged to him as the true champion of Fantasia. Without hesitation, The Watcher approached the sword, using his control over the elements (for he had walked this world many times and come to understand its powers and how he could control them) to cause the water to break so he could walk through. Once on the river bank he stood over the sword, looking down at it.

The Watcher was principally a man of honour. The sword and the status it brought with it did not belong to him… but he was duty bound to liberate Fantasia from its false idol champion. Christopher of Lynbrook had evidenced time enough that he was not fit for purpose, much like the several that had come before him. Their moments had been fleeting but the one constant throughout was The Watcher and he was always watching and always finding time and time again that whoever held the sword did not truly own it.

Its rightful home was with him. The Watcher felt content as he realised that the sword presenting itself to him in such a manner was fate and Christopher had fallen. He placed his hand on the hilt and grimaced and winced as it burned his skin. Whilst this was indication enough that the sword did not recognise him as its true owner, The Watcher had not come this far to fall at this stage. The weight of being the champion was one he knew he could manage and his willpower was enough to negate the pain caused by the sword’s resistance to him.

It was the cost of being the best in the world. Very few in recent times could withstand everything that came with being recognised as such. The Watcher knew he could. It was time for the doubters to be silenced. With the golden sword in his hand and the skin on his palm fusing with it due to the searing heat, The Watcher’s time in exile was finally over.

**********

Christopher gagged and coughed up the contents of his lungs up and then back down onto his own face and he sat up with a start. He breathed heavily and gasped for air and quickly took in his surroundings; he was next to a large waterfall at the base of the mountain. As he stood up he got a better view of just how far he had descended down after being pulled under by the unexpectedly strong current.

Still completely naked aside from his golden necklace, Christopher paced on the spot a few times. He stopped when he discovered that his chest was not completely empty from water and vomited some more up, but whether this was caused by the insetting panic he was unsure of at that moment in time. What of course was bothering him was that his precious golden sword had been left on a rock and anyone could have taken it, or at least tried to. Christopher did not know of anyone able to withstand the pain caused by holding the sword for any considerable amount of time.

After an initial consideration of just how he could get back to the sword - he was not as concerned about his clothes - he simply fell to the ground. It was hopeless. How could he allow himself to believe that he could handle the pressure? Why did he allow himself to believe that he was going to be the exception to all of this?

Christopher caressed the necklace around his neck. Usually Alyster would be who he would turn to in moments like this. But this was his mess. How could he have allowed himself to get into this position? He closed his eyes. He hoped when he opened them again that this would all be over. It was just too much to handle.

“Hate to saaaay I toooooooooooold youuuuuuuuuuuuuu soooooooooooo…”

Christopher’s anguish was interrupted by a very familiar-sounding voice and his wallowing paused momentarily as he opened his eyes with a quizzical expression on his face. Perhaps this all had been a nightmare? Or was this the actual nightmare? Or a nightmare within a nightmare?

Sure enough, though, when Christopher rolled over to face the direction that the voice came from he saw a person that he never thought he would see again. More potently, a person that he never wanted to see again.

The Golden One.

“Helloooooooooooo, Christopher. Hoooooow are youuuuuu todaaaaay?”

Immediately, Christopher was reminded why he hated The Golden One so fiercely. One could put to one side all of their clashes; just the way he talked and acted was enough to consistently draw Christopher’s ire. The Golden One looked exactly as he did the last time Christopher saw him; stained in his own blood and a dagger sticking out of his left eye. Even with his face partially obscured due to the weapon which Christopher used to bring upon his death, he still wore the same smug and smarmy expression that Christopher had grown to loathe.

“Are you real?” Christopher asked as he sat up, and he grabbed a small pebble from the ground next to him and threw it at The Golden One. It passed straight through him, and Christopher was disappointed. “What do you want?”

“I think you knoooooooow what it is I waaaaant, Christopher.”


The Golden One took a couple of steps closer and then bent down so his face was right in front of Christopher’s. The smugness was off the charts and Christopher wished he could stab The Golden One in the other eye. And the nose. And the rest of his face.

“I want to hear you say it.”

A sinking feeling developed at the pit of Christopher’s stomach. He knew exactly what was being asked of him and there was nothing he wanted less than to have to say the three words that his former foe was waiting to hear. If only for the possibility that saying them would end this nightmare, Christopher gulped and then met The Golden One’s eyes with his own;

“You were right.”

The Golden One let out a gleeful cackle and stood up straight, clasping his hands together. “OF COURSE I WAS RIGHT! Were you not paaaaaying attentionnnn, CHRISTOPHER?”

“I remember hooooooow confident you were, Christopher. Youuuuuu thought that by beating meeeeee, all of your problems would juuuuuuust… vanish! I tried tooooo waaaaarn youuuuuuuu that they were only just beginning… buuuuuut nooooooooo… you thought you knew better. So tell me, how is that working out for you?”


What irritated Christopher even more about The Golden One’s way of speaking was that he could snap out of it at any chosen moment. Further, The Golden One had always known that this attribute bothered Christopher so much and it bothered Christopher even more that The Golden One played on that.

Christopher was not interested in engaging with the figment of his imagination any further. He rolled back over so he was no longer facing The Golden One. Being presented with the most irritating person in the world was the final straw. This was it.

“What’s this? You’re giving up? You’re telling me that you went to aaaaaall that trouble to take my sword from meeeeeeee and noooooow you’re just going to give it up without aaaaaaany sort of fight?”

No answer from Christopher.

“Come ooooooon, Christopher. Are youuuuuu trying to not be so predictable as aaaaaalwaaaays? Is this laaatest set back not going to be followed by a redemptive triumph this time? I muuuuuuust say I’m disappointed!”

“Leave me alone.”

“Whyyyy? And miss this? I’ve been waiting for this for a looooooooong time, Christopher. Finally, the woooorld sees you for whooooooo you really are! You’re nooooot their champion, Christopher! They doooooon’t like you!”


That comment felt like a dagger to the heart for Christopher. All of his life, he had just wanted to be accepted and to fit in. No matter how much he tried to do what he thought was the right thing, he never did. There was always something holding him back from acceptance. He was beginning to realise that thing was himself.

“I toooold you that life at the top was lonely. Heeeeeere you aaaaare, with nothing. Not even the clooooothes on your back. Beeee careful what you wish for-”

“Shut up! Just… shut up! I’m not alone! I’m not alone!”


Christopher’s outburst came as he held the necklace in his hand tightly. It was his reminder of Alyster and Alyster was his reminder that he wasn’t alone. He knew that The Golden One was merely taunting him for his own perverse amusement.

“HA-HAAAAAAAAAAA! ALYSTER?! Youuuuuu wish to be the champion of the world but you’re so reliant on anoooother, who wants what you have more than aaaaaannnnyyyythiiiiinng. One waaaaay or anoooother, you’ll push him away, Christopher. Liiiiiiike you have done with everyone before him. Like you will everyone else.”

That thought was one that Christopher could not even bear thinking about. He let out a soft whimper as a tear trickled down his face at the mere prospect of it. The Golden One leant down low and got very close to Christopher’s ear, almost whispering.

“You aaaaaaare a poisonous man, Christopher Peacock of Lynrbook. The sooner you admit that to yourself, the sooner this charade can be over and you can fall back into your natural place in the world. Remember, you brought this all on yourself.”

“That’s not-”
Christopher stopped himself as he rolled over but noticed that The Golden One was no longer there. He exhaled heavily and sat back up and looked around him and allowed himself to listen to the relaxing sound of the waterfall.

He hated to admit it, but The Golden One was right. It was a reality check from the man who lived with his head in the clouds.

This was not a champion. No one was going to accept this as a champion.

**********

Baritone voices chanted together and echoed around the grand stone hall as a ceremony of sorts seemed to be getting underway. A cloaked man, his face obscured by a hood, lit a candle and then from under his hood blew out the long match that he had used to light it. Watching this sacred ritual take place were dozens of other cloaked figures, presumably the ones chanting. It was the daily Commitment Ceremony of the Watchers.

Suddenly, at the entrance of the hall in front of the large wooden doors which stretched from the floor to the ceiling, a ball of fire appeared from nothing. This drew the attention of the congregation who all directed their gaze towards it. Once the flames had dissipated, a figure stood in their place. A gruff and grizzled man in battle-worn garments and holding a golden sword in his right hand.

The Watcher - ‘the exiled one’ - walked towards the man who had lit the candle in the middle of the room, with the crowd parting to allow him to pass unencumbered. “I have returned. My exile is over. I present this as proof of my repentance.”

The Watcher dropped to one knee and then presented the sword to the elder, who saw the burn marks and peeled, weeping skin on both palms of the man before him. The Watcher looked up at the elder, the same one he had been conversing with through the fire, with the candlelight glimmering in his eyes which were trying vehemently to hide the pain that he was in.

“The allegiance of this sword is not to you, exiled one.” The elder said, dismissively. The Watcher’s determined expression faltered for a moment, cracking into a slightly disappointed visage. “This… is not sufficient for repentence.”

“But… I have suffered. I am suffering.”
The Watcher motioned towards the sword with his head and he winced as it sent another jolt of searing pain through his hands. “No man, woman or beast could withstand holding this sword for as long as I have. It presented itself to me after the man it belonged to proved he was not worthy to hold it. I am worthy to hold this sword. More so than anyone else in this world. I have proved it. I deserve-”

“YOU DESERVE NOTHING!”


The booming shout echoed around the hall and complete silence followed as the elder reached up and pulled his hood back, revealing a visage the same as The Watcher’s. Except, the elder was actually younger.

“Braying and mewling that you deserve recognition and you are the only one worthy… you sicken me. Is this what we would have turned into had we not decided that we had our fill?”

The elder looked around at the gathering and a few disapproving murmurs responded. The Watcher looked around also, almost in disbelief.

“What you view as determination the rest of us consider foolishness. All your quest to prove your worthiness has brought upon you is embarrassment. You, quite simply, are making a fool out of yourself. How many times must you taste defeat before you grow a shred of humbleness? Until you drop these delusions of grandeur and finally realise that you quite simply are not as good as you used to be, you will never be accepted here or anywhere else.”

The Watcher slowly shook his head and then stood up. He put one of his hands to his head and grimaced when he looked to see how maimed he had allowed his hands to become after holding the sword. It reminded him of how committed he was to this cause and how he could not turn back now.

“No. I refuse to accept your rejection. You are wrong. I have not come this far to give up on this now. My fire will burn whether you endorse it or not.”

The elder approached The Watcher and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Until you truly prove yourself, exiled one, no one else will believe in you. Give them a reason to believe again.”

Looking at his hand once more and the multiple layers of skin that had been eroded, he nodded his head and realised that if he was to achieve his goal then he would have to defeat Christopher of Lynbrook once and for all.

**********

Christopher grimaced as he walked through the thicket on his way back up the mountain in search of his sword. He had attempted to fashion some garments from leaves and branches but this proved futile and therefore he had to navigate his way through the trees and bushes still naked. He stopped to check his feet which were covered in small cuts and he picked some thorns out of them which were causing him particular discomfort.

As he traversed his way up the mountain, climbing over large roots and crawling through hollowed out trunks of downed trees, Christopher thought to himself why he was going through all of this. The reason he wanted to be the champion in the first place, in his belief, was to make the world a better place for the people that lived in it. That is why he was so determined to slay The Golden One; to spare Fantasia from his tyrannical rule.

As Christopher exited the trunk and stood back up, he felt a momentary breeze on his back which made him shudder. He looked around and noted from the trees and leaves that it was not windy. A muffled whispering sound followed by the crack of a stick echoed around Christopher and he looked around cautiously. “Is someone there?”

There was no answer and Christopher was actually relieved that it was not The Golden One appearing to him once again, but when he turned to resume his trek, he jumped and fell back onto the ground as there was someone else standing in front of him.

From the ground, Christopher looked up to see another completely naked man. Starting at his feet, then his legs… then another area… and then his chest until finally his eyes rested on the man’s face. It was one that he recognised as his own.

“You actually believe that, Christopher?” The alternate Christopher asked and the original Christopher held a hand up, hoping for assistance back to his feet. “What am I, your mother? Get yourself up.”

As Christopher stood up, using the tree trunk for support, he watched as this other version of himself walked around in a circle with his hands out, taking in their surroundings. “What kind of mess have you gotten us into now?”

“What do you mean? Do I actually believe what?”
Christopher asked, referring to the initial question posed to him.

“Oh… I was asking if you seriously believe that you wanted to become the champion to make the world a better place?”

Without hesitation, Christopher nodded. This caused the other Christopher to start laughing heartily to the point where he even had to wipe a tear away from his eye. “That’s some really good stuff, Christopher. Honestly, that’s great.”

“Hey! I don’t know what’s going on here, or who you are… but you don’t know me! Now, I’ve got something that I need to do-”


With that, Christopher continued his advance back to his sword, marching defiantly away from the latest trick that his mind had played on him. However, he paused when he heard the same gleeful chuckle that he did a minute previous.

“I don’t just know you… I AM you. Everything you’ve been through, I’ve been here going through it all at the same time. Hey, I’ve even had my share of control too. That’s why I know that this whole ‘man of the people’ act is just that. An act.”

The other Christopher walked towards Christopher and spoke from behind into Christopher’s ear. “You see, I am your Selfishness, Christopher. That’s why I know that once you really find it in yourself to admit it, the reason you want to be the one holding the sword and ruling Fantasia are for you. It isn’t about anyone else. Tell me I’m wrong, Christopher. Tell me that you don’t enjoy being able to say that you are the best in the world. Tell me that you don’t get a high off of being able to say that you’re better than all of them.”

Before answering, Christopher thought about Selfishness’s words. It was true, Christopher did like having his status. He had toiled and worked hard for it. However, The Golden One’s words then reentered his mind about how the masses do not care for him and that his recent experiences with Daniel the Great and the weaselpeople showed that he was in fact not better than everyone.

“I’m not better than them and that’s why they haven’t accepted me as their champion. I need to work harder-”

“You are missing the point, Christopher. What you need… is to not care what they think at all. Don’t you realise it yet? Maybe there’s someone else you should speak to.”

“HI!”


The sudden loud greeting in Christopher’s other ear made him jump and fall to the floor once more and when he looked up he saw that there was another naked version of himself standing next to Selfishness. Christopher stood back up and put his hands on his hips, annoyed that he was taken by surprise in such a way. “Who are you?”

“I’m not going to tell you.”
The third version said and then started prancing around the clearing that they were in. He jumped onto the horizontal tree trunk and started thrusting his hips, causing everything to swing around haphazardly.

“This… is your Pettiness.” Selfishness said, looking equally as annoyed as original Christopher at Pettiness’s antics. “Have you ever noticed how sometimes you do things to hurt or upset other people impulsively? That happens when he’s in control.”

“Why are you showing him to me?”

“Well, getting you to realise why people don’t like you will help me in the long run, so I’ll subject myself to this for as long as I need to.”


Christopher watched in a mixture of disgust, bewilderment and annoyance as Pettiness continued with his irritating actions which included swinging from a tree branch and then rubbing his genitals against a blooming flower. “Look! I’m pollinating it!”

“Is this really how people see me?”
Christopher was in disbelief at the sight and could only wonder what the impression other people must have of him were. They surely could not think he was just some crass, selfish clown.

“Well, there’s got to be something that I can do. There must be some sort of way that I can suppress this and so people change how they see me. It’s no wonder they refuse to accept me.”

“You can try, but it won’t work. He’s part of who you are. So am I. It would actually just make things a lot easier if you just accepted us. Then we can get back to getting the sword-”

“What? No!”
Christopher said, astonished and angered. “I refuse to believe that you’re both part of who I am. I’m a good person. People will see that.”

“Stubbornness, can you get out here, please? I don’t know how much longer I can put up with this. Oh, look, that’s brought Impatience out as well.”


Before Christopher could realise what was happening, two more versions of himself popped out and they rounded on him along with Selfishness as Pettiness continued to make stupid noises in the background.

“Can we get on with this?” The alternate that Christopher could only assume was Impatience asked. Stubbornness stood still with his arms crossed and Selfishness wore an exasperated expression on his face.

“I don’t know what is happening! What do you want from me?”

“I need you to accept us.”


“I’m going to through my faeces at you if you don’t”

“We’re not going anywhere until you accept us!”

“HURRY UP!”


The voices began to merge into one and Christopher put his hands on either side of his head to cover his ears and he crouched down whilst scrunching his eyes. He wanted them all to stop, but they wouldn’t. He screamed and when he opened his eyes again, he saw that there was now at least twenty of them surrounding him, all shouting at him and demanding that he accept them.

Christopher felt his heart beating heavily and his chest growing tighter at the same time, making his breathing quicker. A very unhelpful shout of “GREAT! NOW WE’RE NEVER GETTING OUT OF HERE NOW THAT PANIC IS HERE!” from Impatience did not help matters.

Christopher thought about everything that had happened to him that day. The water being too deep for him to swim and the pressure just being too much and being what cost him his golden sword. The Golden One making him realise that he in fact was no better than the megalomaniac that he was trying to depose in the first place. His negative traits being set out for him for him to see himself as everyone else does.

He opened his eyes and stood back up and motioned for them all to be quiet, but they wouldn’t. Even when he was prepared to hear them out, they were too obnoxious to stop - one of them was probably called Obnoxiousness, Christopher thought - and the repeated shouts of “ACCEPT US!” were drowning out any other thoughts in his mind.

The version which he recognised as Impatience got closer to Christopher. “ARE WE DONE HERE? CAN WE GO-”

A swift punch from Christopher knocked Impatience to the ground and after a couple of seconds, Impatience’s body began to morph into something else and then in a rush of wind, Impatience entered Christopher’s mouth and was completely absorbed by him. Christopher was shocked as he did not believe he could touch these other versions of himself, believing them to have just been figments of his imagination like The Golden One was.

“We’re parts of you. We’re real, Christopher.” Selfishness said as Christopher looked down at his hand and then touched his chest. “That was awfully impatient of you to punch Impatience… I guess you accepted him. Come to think of it, it was quite petty as well.”

Christopher’s eyes darted towards Pettiness, who was shaking his backside around and rubbing it on the other Christopher’s to their annoyance, but then he too was sucked towards Christopher and entered his mouth. For some reason, Christopher felt an awful taste as this happened.

“There’s nothing wrong with accepting who you are, Christopher. Go on…”

After taking a deep breath, Christopher clenched his fists and braced himself for what was about to happen. “I’M RUDE! I’M CRASS! I’M OBNOXIOUS!”

With each acceptance, a different version was sucked into his mouth and the herd began to thin quickly. “I’M STUBBORN! I’M COCKY! I’M MANIPULATIVE!”

“I knew that I could get him to admit that…”
Manipulativeness could be heard saying before he too was absorbed into Christopher’s body like the others. Panic, Anger, Arrogance and Jealousy all went through the same fate as well.

This continued until there was just one other left in the clearing along with Christopher. He nodded his head. “I’m self…”

However, this final admission was one that he was not sure he could bring himself to say. His entire life up to this point he believed that he was doing the right thing for the right people for the right reasons.

“Christopher… the only way that you’re going to get what you truly want is if you accept who you are. You don’t need to pretend anymore. Not everyone has to be a hero.”

Christopher nodded his head again and realised that Selfishness was right. He had never wanted to accept that this is who he was, but it was who he needed to be.

“Alright. I accept you. I’m a selfish son of a bitch.”

Selfishness cracked a satisfied smirk before he too was absorbed into Christopher’s body. Christopher felt rejuvenated. He felt whole. He felt ready to go and get his sword back.

**********

Following his reinvigoration, it did not take Christopher long to make it back to where he was earlier that day. He entered the clearing with purpose, emerging through a bush and his eyes were immediately drawn to the spot where he had left his sword on the rock. Christopher realised that the sword was in fact where he left it, but it was in the hands of another. All he could see of it was its tip as the holder if it was sitting with his back to him atop the boulder with their legs crossed.

The individual was wearing a brown cloak with a hood covering their head and despite the noises of Christopher entering the clearing, they did not flinch or react in any way. Christopher smirked and he thought of as amusing an opening line as he could. “You know, there is not much honour in taking something that does not belong to you.”

Upon hearing the word ‘honour’, the figure stood up and turned around, removing the hood. Christopher recognised The Watcher immediately but did not offer any sort of reaction to this revelation either. “Do not speak to me of honour, boy. This sword is rightfully mine. I have worked too hard-”

“Well, I think the sword would beg to differ.”
Christopher pointed to the hideously burned hands of The Watcher caused by holding the sword. “I don’t think that would happen if I was holding it.”

“You held this sword, Christopher. It hurt you too, though. I speak not of physical pain, though. The pressure of this sword was too much for you, that is why the sword presented itself to me. I am the rightful holder of this sword and the title of champion. You are nothing but a starstruck child who crumpled under the burden of it. I am strong enough to carry this burden… all of Fantasia knows it! The people deny you as champion!”


Whilst not the same words as those spoken by The Golden One, the sentiment was the same. Christopher remembered how deeply those words cut him when he heard them before. Now though, he simply smiled and nodded his head in understanding. The Watcher seemed confused by this. “What amuses you, fool? I have watched with my own eyes as you have paraded yourself around, recklessly throwing yourself into dire situations and failing to consider any true threat to your position. Even when you have been close to reaping what you have sown, your depressive friend has been there to bail you out. You are no true champion - and you never will be!”

“Maybe to you.”
Christopher said frankly, and he began to pace slightly. “The thing is, are the people ever going to accept you as the champion, either? There’s no denying that you’re one of the greatest warriors of all time and by today's standards still are considered to be one of the elite. Have you asked yourself why you are doing this, though?”

“Because I have. In fact, I have figured out exactly why I am doing this… and I’ve realised that I DON’T CARE WHAT PEOPLE THINK OF ME!”
Christopher stopped on the spot and pointed to the ground. “I started this journey because I wanted to make Fantasia a better place, but it seems that no matter what I do, everyone is so quick to judge and criticise every misstep I make. It doesn’t matter to some people that I am the champion, they’re going to do whatever they can to discourage me regardless.”

“So, from now on, I’m doing this for me. That is what this journey with all of the highs and lows has helped me realise. If the people won’t accept me, it doesn’t matter. I ACCEPT MYSELF.”


The Watcher took a step closer to Christopher, “I deny you-”

“I DON’T CARE. You think I didn’t know it was you this entire time; the vagrant in Lynbrook, skulking around the desert and even following me and Alyster through the caves? You’ve cuckolded my entire journey only to arrive at the same realisation that everyone had about me in the first place. You do not matter to me. Whether it is you, The Bandit Queen, Alyster, a weaselperson or even Daniel the Great standing across from me challenging my claim, you do not matter. I am not going to let you take this away from me. Your time has passed.”


Clearly angered by Christopher’s dismissal of him, The Watcher raised the sword and pointed it at Christopher, who smirked once more.

“Now give me my fucking sword back.”

The two men then approached each other and The Watcher swung the sword horizontally towards Christopher’s chest, but Christopher ducked and slid on the ground to avoid the strike. The Watcher immediately repositioned his feet and drove the sword backwards, but Christopher jumped into the air and did the splits to avoid it. The Watcher turned around and Christopher grabbed a handful of dirt and threw it at The Watcher’s face, causing him to groan, temporarily blinded.

Even whilst he could not see, The Watcher flailed the sword around and Christopher managed to avoid being struck by simply walking away from him and watching from the distance as The Watcher desperately tried to make contact with him. The Watcher’s vision eventually returned and upon seeing where Christopher was he charged towards him with the sword like a lance, but Christopher moved out of the way.

The momentum caused The Watcher to continue forward with the sword and it then got lodged into a tree, but The Watcher immediately pulled it out and swung it at Christopher again, who narrowly ducked it. However, Christopher was on the floor naked with his legs spread, which gave The Watcher an easy target and Christopher had to crab walk backwards to avoid the lunges towards his genitals.

Christopher backed away further and further until he felt the cold surface of the boulder behind him and he realised that there was nowhere to go. The Watcher also knew that Christopher was trapped and he raised the sword for a killing blow at Christopher’s head. The Watcher drove the sword down, but Christopher moved at the last second and the golden sword became wedged in the boulder.

The Watcher began to pull as hard as he could on the sword, but it would not move. The skin on his hands was almost non-existent which made it even harder. Christopher rose to his feet behind The Watcher and smirked. “You know, before I defeated The Golden One, he told me that I was too focused on the man and not the prize. In your case, I think you are too focussed on the prize that you’ve forgotten about the man you’re dealing with.”

To demonstrate Christopher’s point, The Watcher was so enthralled with trying to pry the sword out from the rock that he did not even hear Christopher’s words. So he also definitely was not prepared for the kick from Christopher in between his legs from behind. The Watcher dropped to the ground and he made eye contact with Christopher as the champion approached the sword and then pulled it from the stone with ease.

“You… do not fight with honour.”

“The Truth is…”
Christopher looked at the sword and smiled as it felt at home in his hand. “Real champions don’t.”

The Watcher pulled himself up to his feet and Christopher tracked him with the tip of the blade as he did so. “That’s why I’m the champion… and you’re finished.”

Before The Watcher could even retort, Christopher had driven the sword into his chest, straight through his heart. Blood began to seep through his cloak as Christopher pulled the sword out and then Christopher watched as The Watcher fell back into the river and his corpse was taken away by the current until he disappeared over the ledge.

Christopher looked at the sword and the blood on it and watched as the sword absorbed the blood of its latest victim. For the first time since beginning his journey from Lynbrook as champion, Christopher felt content. It was not the slaying of The Watcher that made him feel this way, but defeating the biggest obstacle he had ever faced - himself.

He may not be perfect, but whether people liked it or not, he was the champion of Fantasia.

Christopher sat down on the rock with his legs crossed and he closed his eyes. He smiled as he imagined who the universe would bring him next as a challenger to his status;

…a satanic beast…

…a reformed vampire…

…a childish buffoon…

…a sheep…

…a weasel…

…or even his best friend.

In reality though… it didn’t matter.

FOP2_The_End.jpg


COMING SOON…

THE GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY DLC PACK!


 

The Golden One

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What’s the haps?

Purpose: TRIOS
Location: Mexico City, Mexico
More specific location: Estadio Azteca
Character: El Narrator, a man with a white handlebar mustache and a country twang to his speech
Setting: An otherwise-vacant ticket booth looking out to the parking lot, walkways and other constructions

“Howdy, friends. It’s your trusty narrator here, back with ‘ole XYZ and the gang – should I say ‘The Menage’. Things’ve been up ‘n down lately, but it’s Back in Business season, so there’s always a nugget of hope for even the smallest, weakest, and most tired rabbits in the woods.

Let me tell y’all ‘bout the ‘ole Magic School Bus, now. That dang bus has been quite the reliable mode of transportation, bringin’ XYZ and whoever his comrades are at any time from planet to planet, galaxy to galaxy, and FWA show to FWA show. Yeah, sure, the faded yellow paint continues chippin’ away, and the black smoke from that exhaust pipe gets more toxic with every 20 lightyears of travel, but it’s still chuggin’ along. Looks as old and tired as my great grandma after the walls fell in Germany, but hell man, even she smiled when the walls went down still.

It’s been institutional, and it’ll be sad to see it go one day, but that day ain’t today. No, the downfall of XYZ and the Menage has been foretold too soon, my friends. Ms. Frizzle was a queen, too. Never forget. Now, let’s get on with it, ‘cause this ain’t your usual XYZ catch-up. Hell, I don’t even think XYZ is ‘round to do the catchin’ up! Y’all see that bus over yonder? Sittin’ in the mostly empty parking lot while construction workers are tryin’ to work and set up for Back in Business XVII? That’s where our group is right now! Hey, maybe we need a little recap of who’s who. Can we get one of them title cards to pop in?”


The Menage

XYZ: Fearless, yet erratic, leader
Wild Jerry: Outspoken second in command; also Mexican
Frank: Lovable black man who tries to keep the peace
PacMan Bert: Mostly mute tag-along who always plays a handheld PacMan video game; also German
Sierra: Ex(?)-wife of “The Rotten Gold” Devin Golden
Lizzy: Child of “The Rotten Gold” Devin Golden
Christian Howard: New recruit from a random sports apparel company in a side story that made absolutely no sense and was used completely for filler, and now the character has no real direction aside from the fact no one in the group but XYZ trusts him

“You’re still playing this shit, yo?” Wild Jerry barks from the third seat in the bus.

“Gotta stay on the grind!” Frank shouts back, not in an angry manner but to make sure his response is heard.

“On the grind? You ain’t even playing online!”

“I ain’t playing online ‘cause we don’t have any internet in the bus.”

“Well, talk to the chief on that one.”

“I ain’t fussin’ much. I’m good with offline. Franchise mode is a classic for Madden.”

"You just sayin' that 'cause you don't wanna make a thing of it."


Do you want context? Here’s some: Frank has been spending a lot of time playing the Madden NFL 23 video game. Wild Jerry is currently watching him play. XYZ is sitting in the driver’s seat of the bus and looking intently into a printed-out road map that is large enough to cover half the bus’ width and a third of its height.

“Well, you gotta get your mind on Back in Business.”

“Why? I ain’t wrestling. X is.”

“What about trios, yo? It’s open entry. Any three people!”

“Nah. I’m good.”

“You good?! We talked about this yesterday! I said I wanted you and me to do it!”

“And I said no. You don’t listen, man.”

“I don’t listen?! You stupid ass. I just figured you were hangry or somethin’, or maybe you were losin’ your damn video game. Why you ain’t wanna do this?”

“‘Cause I ain’t you, man. I don’t want the same things as you.”

“We came from the same damn person’s mind, you estupido! You never wanted to be a champion in the FWA?”

“Champion of Madden maybe. Not the FWA.”

“Aye, man. There ain't no damn 'Champion of Madden' for offline mode! I can’t even! You have an opportunity to do something with your fake-ass life that someone else created, and you gonna sit on your damn ass playing a video game. You no better than Bert.”


More context? Sure! PacMan Bert is sitting four rows back playing his handheld PacMan game. All the video-gaming has created a bridge on his nose that prevents his glasses from staying on properly.

“Ask X.”

“Already said no. Said he gotta worry about the Walker of Death.”

“Why do you give a shit, Jerry? You never wrestled before or showed any interest.”

“‘Cause, yo. I … I don’t know. Maybe ‘cause I’m home and wanna show out for my people. My flag. My colors. Red, green, ‘n white. Somethin’ movin’ me. But anyways, it ain’t shit now since you ain’t in.”

Background action
: Christian Howard is eavesdropping on the conversation.

“Aye, goin’ for a walk. Anyone wanna join me ca …” Wild Jerry says, before seeing Christian's eyes on him.

“Nevermind. Gonna do a walk on my own, yo. Y’all be whatever.”





What’s the haps?

Location: Somewhere in Mexico City
Character: Wild Jerry
Action: Walking alone
Weather: Blazingly hot
Amount of time passed since last scene: 12-15 minutes

“Hey y’all. Trusty ‘ole narrator here to step in ‘n give some much-needed context. I know y’all are askin’ for it ‘cause I see little contextual tidbits added throughout the dialogues. Anyways, lemme get on with it, yeah?

When I first started watching Wild Jerry way back in the Sauce Man days, I thought he was an odd character. He always seemed so dang angry, like my old Uncle Henry whenever a horse would escape the barnyard. Happened regularly, poor ‘ole bastard.

Anyways, the more I got to watchin’ Wild Jerry, I knew he wasn’t so oddball. He was rather simple. He was just a lost soul who only knew where he was from, Me-hi-co, but didn’t actually know where he was from. He ain’t know nothin’ of his parents, his upbringin’ or anythin’ else about what made him. All he knows now is he’s the thoughtchild of a man who decided he was done with this place. He’s the mental creation of ‘The Rotten Gold’ Devin Golden, which sounds like it could be cool but when there’s no more Devin Golden ‘round, it ain’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

So, you could understand why someone like Wild Jerry is searchin’ – searchin’ for somethin’, some purpose – and, well, no better place than where he’s supposedly from, right?


But that’s not so easy, ‘cause ain’t no one else the same as Wild Jerry, and he can’t do what he wants to do on his own. Hey … look at that … a little depth for The Menage. Didn’t see that one comin’, did y’all?”

Wild Jerry’s solo walk and internal monologue – one of doubting his very existence – is interrupted by …

Character entrance: Christian Howard
Location: Somewhere in Mexico City
More specific location: A sidewalk along a road about two blocks from Estadio Azteca

“Jerry. Slow down.”

“Oh god. This gringo now?”
Wild Jerry says under his breath.

“Hey, hey … can we talk?”

“What you want, gringo?”

“Hey … I uh … I heard you talking about wanting to be in the trios match.”

“Ah … well … I gone and changed my mi…”

“No you haven’t,”
Christopher Howard says, interrupting his stablemate.

“Oh, I ain’t?!”

“No, but I know you don’t want me here.”

“Smart cookie, yo. And how would that inspire you to talk to me about the trios match? Why would that make you think I’d want to talk to you on a sidewalk in the middle of the city where I was born?”

“Do you know you were born in Mexico City?”

“I wasn’t born anywhere. One day, I was just here because the mind of D…”

“But … your backstory is that you’re from Mexico City? How do you know?”


After a lengthy, reflective pause from Wild Jerry, he finally responds, “I don’t. I just know I’m Mexican. Why you care?!”

“So you might be from somewhere else in Mexico.”

“Does it matter, yo?!”

“Well, I think it matters to you, and we are on the same side, right?”

“Do you even know what side you on, estupido?! You know what we doing here?!”

“No! I don’t. I don’t know what XYZ is about or what he says half the time, but I know he rescued me from a purposeless existence. And I think he rescued you and Frank and PacMan Bert and Sierra and Lizzy from the same type of purposeless existence, too, right?”


There’s another long pause before Wild Jerry responds, “Okay, yeah. I ain’t know what that gringo loco says half the time, either.”

“You say ‘gringo’ a lot. Is that the only Mexican word you know?”

“Only one I been programmed to know. Well, that and ‘loco’ and ‘estupido.’ Those three get me by as Mexican, I suppose, in the mind of Devin Golden.”


After a brief pause to let this progress sink in, Christopher Howard changes direction and says, “Listen … I want to help you … not just because I’m trying to prove something to you … but also because I want to figure out my own purpose. So … maybe there’s something here. It’s up to you, but I can tell you want to try this. And even if you don’t like me, we both want the same thing … to figure out if there’s anything more to who we are … than what we already kn...”

“I’ma stop you right there, gringo. I ain’t got trust in you. I don’t really know you well enough like I know everyone else … but you’re damn right about one thing … I do want to try this. I’m around this wrestlin’ stuff … watchin’ XYZ do it … lose a bunch of matches … talk a lot … and hell, can’t be that hard, right?

But I don’t know where to start. Can’t just walk in and demand a match.”


“Seeing this place up close, I think you probably could,”
Howard says slightly under his breath.

“This is the chance. This is the opening. And … well … aite, I guess. You and me wanna try this?”

“I’m gonna try to gain your trust in …”

“Shut up, gringo! Quit with the emotions. Ain't no trust game here. Plus, it’s trios and right now, we a tag team. Frank too damn busy playin’ Madden, ‘n PacMan won’t stop playin’ PacMan. X is focused on his thing. What that leave us, eh?”






“Well, will y’all look at that? Wild Jerry and that Christopher fella gettin’ along good enough to go for the gold? I didn’t see that one comin’, but in ‘ole Me-hi-co, anythin’ is possible apparently. So that leads us to the ex(?)-wife of Devin Golden and his kid? See how I sort of asked a question about the ‘ex’ part? ‘Cause it’s unclear. I added inflection to it. That’s important for y’all to know.

Anyways … this little chicklet was born in 2021 … and now she’s yay feet tall. How is that? How is she halfway to as tall as me? She’s 6 years old, she says. How’s that possible? Beats me, but maybe we’ll get some answers here … on the back of the Magic School Bus, where mom and daughter spend most of their time toilin’ away talkin’ about stuff way above my pay grade. Ya’ see, little Lizzy Golden is one of them kids who says super smart things like, ‘Books may well be the only true magic in this world.’ Then Sierra, if she actually cared enough, would go on Twitter and post that Lizzy said this, and then someone would reply, ‘Shut up, Karen. Your daughter didn’t say that.’ And it would do, as the kids say, ‘a ratio.’

Anyways, let’s check in with ‘em.”


What’s the haps?

Location: Parking lot of Estadio Azteca
More specific location: The Magic School Bus
Character: Sierra and Lizzy
Action: Sitting
Weather: Not as blazingly hot as outside thanks to portable fans and low AC, but still pretty damn hot
Amount of time passed: 8-10 minutes (Wild Jerry and Christian Howard sped-walked)

“Mom … that chicken’s ghost is gonna haunt you for eating it,” Lizzy says without looking up from her fingers.

“What?!” Sierra responds, wide-eyed looking over at her daughter.

New characters: Wild Jerry and Christian Howard
Action: Walking through the bus and sitting in the row opposite of Sierra and Lizzy

“Sierra,” Wild Jerry says, a little out of breath from the hasty walk back to the bus, “will you be in our tr…”

“No.”

“Why, eh?!”

“Because I don’t know how to wrestle.”

“We can teach you,”
Christian replies.

“I don't want to learn how to wrestle.”

“Why, hermana estupido?!”

“I think it’s estupida for a woman,”
Christopher tells Wild Jerry.

“I don’t give a mierda! A caca!"

“I’ll do it.”






“What?!” Sierra says, just like the first time about the chicken ghost.

“I’ll do it. I’ll do the wrestling on the three team.”

“Trios,”
Christian corrects her.

“Trios."

“How old are you?”

“I’m 6 years old. I turn 7 next month. 8 the month after.”

“You weren’t even 2 when Devin Golden retired!"

“I think she ages at a faster pace now that Devin is gone,"
Sierra says.

“A year every month.”

“Why are we doing math?”

“You’re technically Devin Golden’s daughter, right?”

“Why ‘technically’?”


Sierra makes a face at Christian for saying that and then makes a hand motion with her neck, signaling to “cut it out” because Lizzy doesn’t know.

“Why ‘technically’, mom?”

“He doesn’t know how to talk right.”

“Yeah. I … uh … anyways … I think you’re too young.”

“Well … I’m the only option you have right now.”


Sierra looks at her daughter, who, again, is 6 years old.

“You can’t.”

"Whyyyy?!"

"Because I'm your mom and I say so."

“I’m going out to that ring for the match if you’re not going out there first. The Menage needs one of us. I mean … Wild Jerry hates this guy and he’s even going to be on his team. If you don’t do it, mom, then I will.”

“How do you care about The Menage? You’re 6 years old.”

“I care enough to care.”

“That doesn’t mean anything, AND YOU’RE SIX YEARS OLD!”

“Gonna be 7 next month. Then 8 in September! By my birthday next May, I’ll be a teenager. So I know more than you think … mmmmother.

Plus, I like everyone here. I like Christian and Jerry and PacMan and Frank ... and I think XYZ is funny.”


A pause.

“Fine. I ... will do it. Not Lizzy. Me. But just this once.”

“Unless we win the titles,”
Christian mumbles, catching a glance from Sierra and a smirk from Lizzy.

“Aite then. We got a Mexican, a former clothes salesman, and the ex-wife of Devin Golden. What a side!”

“You need to say ‘ex’ with a question mark at the end. Like, you need an inflection in your voice that signals you’re unsure, because it’s not exactly clear if I’m his ex wife or not. We never got divorced, so to speak.”

“I stopped paying attention.”

“Be nice to my mom … or you’ll regret it.”

“Alright, gang!”
XYZ says from the driver’s seat, finally picking his head up from the map he has been scouring over for the past hour. “We’re set to go! Back in Business is 3 days away, which gives us just enough time to take one last trip!”

“But we’re already here at the stadium,"
Frank says.

“Yeah, but the world needs us elsewhere. So … off we go! Because …”

XYZ ends there, hoping for the rest of The Menage to fill in the blanks. He gets one response from Frank, but it’s not satisfying. Meanwhile, in the back of the bus, Wild Jerry turns to his teammates.

“You guys will have to teach me everything. I literally don’t even know how to run.”

“Because?!”

“I’ve got some tricks up my sleeve, muchacha."

“The bend-fingers thing you were telling me about on the way back to the bus?”

“BECAUSE?!?!”
XYZ yells.

“Because the dream never dies!” they all say in pseudo-unison.

“Because the dream … never … dies,” XYZ repeats, mostly to himself, unsure of the conversation happening in the back of the bus.





What’s the haps?

Character: El Narrator
Location: None, it’s a voiceover
Action: Just a little sign-off, nbd

“Well … figure I should pop in as El Narrator and sign off. Looks like our group is comin’ together a little bit in Me-hi-co City. They always say a little heat can bring the biggest enemies together. Now we got ourselves a squad for trios! Imagine that, eh?



Anywho … if the dream is to die at some point, it won’t be today. That’s good to know. I can rest easy yet again. I’ll catch y’all later.”
 
Last edited:

Tommy Bedlam

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dOBOd1XnSor87TWLBNvXwNLf7HvtNzYriglpUH2Z7lTe41HseiuXbVFHnl-gsAAPN6ZXLZOWq930QaeaVvo6k0y01pumzB88z4Rp4P33KIE4U-j1Rkq94xI3up6CmXQOCcozeEpwe6F4nWskb_toNfQ

The Monster Inside Me

“It is true that I am a person with black pockets of evil and hatred in my heart. There are underground places inside of me.”
-Lynda Barry

“Good morning, old friend.”


The voice woke Tommy out of a dead sleep. He sat up in bed and looked over at the clock on the nightstand. It was 5:15 AM. The Sweetwater sun had yet to rise, and the bedroom was pitch dark. He glanced over to make sure that his sudden jolt hadn’t awakened Randi who was still soundly asleep.

Maybe it was a bad dream. Tommy laid back down, but just as he closed his eyes…

“It’s been a while, Tommy.”

Goddammit. There was the voice again. He hadn’t heard it in months. He knew that there was no getting back to sleep, so he slipped quietly out of bed, grabbed his jeans and a t-shirt from the chair that sat at the edge of the small bedroom and slipped into the bathroom.

As Tommy took his morning piss, his mind was already racing. It had been doing that since the last episode of Fallout. After Shawn Summers threw down the gauntlet for a Three Stages of Hell match, Tommy dragged Rupert Watkins, the only person on earth who could stand Summers, to the ring to announce his acceptance.

When he threw Watkins over the back of a horse, his face completely shrouded by a hood, he had every intention of beating the old man to death. He had spent the last week angry at himself for not getting to Rocco in time before Summers had time to choke him out. But something inside Tommy stopped him. The force that made him stop short of kicking Watkins’ head off his shoulders certainly wasn’t the same voice that he had just heard.

Tommy stepped over to the sink, filled his hands with cold water, and splashed it onto his face. Deep down, he was hoping that he was going to come out of some sort of dream-like haze to find out that he hadn’t heard the voice. Unfortunately, both he and the source of the voice knew that this wasn’t a dream. As he raised his face slowly, the ambient glow of the small plug-in air freshener, the only light in the room, he saw it. There, staring back at him was the face of The Monster.

Tommy stood there, paralyzed for what felt like hours but was actually only seconds. The reflection in the mirror almost looked like Tommy, but it wasn’t truly his face staring back at him. As Tommy frowned into the mirror, a devilish grin came across the face of The Monster.

“We need to talk.”

Tommy frantically looked over his shoulder. He knew that if Randi woke up and found him standing there talking to a creature that appeared to embody evil, she’d flip her shit. He quickly pushed the bathroom door closed.

“Don’t worry. You know she can’t see me. She can’t even hear any of this.”

“What do you want?”

“I’m here to help.”


Tommy knew the monster was right and that Randi couldn’t see or hear any of this. Still, he couldn’t help himself from slipping into an increased state of paranoia. He pulled the bathroom door open, and there she was, still sleeping. The moonlight coming through the window gently kissed her skin as she lay there, completely unaware of the fact that her fiancé the father of her child, was out of bed and having a conversation with something eviler than anything she’d ever seen before, even eviler than Shawn Summers.

When Tommy turned back around, The Monster was gone. There, in the mirror, Tommy saw himself. Pale, mouth agape, and eyes the size of saucers.

He quietly slid out of the bathroom and down the hallway. He turned the coffee pot on and sat down on the couch. Rocco had promised to send him a series of X-Title matches to watch in preparation for his title shot at Back in Business. As he opened the laptop, he saw The Monster once again. If eyes are truly a window to the soul, the hollow eyes of the creature who was staring back at Tommy indicated that it was a soulless beast. Then again, it always had been.

Tommy and The Monster (he never knew if it had a name, so he had assigned it that moniker after he saw it for the first time) had a long history. Sometimes, The Monster prompted Tommy to do horrible things that he later regretted, but he didn’t always feel like he had control. Still, other times, The Monster prompted Tommy to do the right thing, even if the “right thing” created a certain amount of chaos.

Tommy’s first interaction with The Monster came when he was only eight years old. It wasn’t a “monster under the bed” type of situation. Instead, Tommy vividly remembered seeing The Monster on the playground at Tom Landry Grade School. There was a boy in Tommy’s class named Edwin who was always “different.” The teachers didn’t really know what to do with him, so they left Edwin to himself, which didn’t seem to bother the boy. He spent lunch sitting alone at the end of the table and spent recess walking around the perimeter of the playground seemingly talking to himself as he stared at his feet.

Every school has a bully, and TLGS was no different. One day during recess, Clark Peters, the most feared boy on the playground, set his evil gaze on Edwin. Tommy saw Clark push Edwin to the ground before he stood over his fallen prey launching into a tirade of insults. As Edwin curled into the fetal position, bursting into tears, Tommy saw someone on the playground that he had never seen before. It was a little boy, around his age. In fact, the unknown student looked a lot like Tommy. The two locked eyes, and he told Tommy, “Go ahead."

Tommy sped across the playground and threw all of his weight into the larger Clark Peters, knocking him to the ground. By the time Coach Tackett, the PE teacher who was supposed to be watching the kids, threw down his cigarette and came running to break up the fight, Clark was battered, bloodied, and bruised. Tommy had never been in a fight before that moment. As Coach Tackett dragged Tommy across the playground by his arm, Tommy looked for the little boy who told him to go help Edwin. He was nowhere to be seen.

“Help?”

“The X-Title. It requires a special brand of violence. A brand that I represent well.”


The Monster certainly seemed to be an expert on violence. After what became known as “The Clark Peters Incident,” Tommy didn’t see the face or hear the voice for eight years. Unfortunately, every day that made up those eight years included at least one passing thought about his experience that day on the playground. All of that changed when he was 16, just after his mother sold the struggling Bennet Family Ranch to Neuman Hill.

Tommy was in the bathroom at school when some upper-classmen walked in behind him. One of them, Tim Robinson, was the only kid in school whose parents ran a “successful” ranch. He had more money than everyone else, and he made sure that everyone knew it.

As Tommy stood at one of the three sinks washing his hands, Tim decided to rub salt in a gaping wound.

“Hey, boys! It’s Tommy Bennett! Y’all hear the family ranch failed and his mama sold out? Guess being a whore isn’t the worst thing she’s ever done.”

That was the first time that Tommy ever saw The Monster’s face in the mirror. It didn’t speak. Instead, Tommy saw the distorted reflection of himself more clearly than he had seen it years before. A devilish grin spread across The Monster’s face, and Tommy simply heard a soft, but evil chuckle.

With no warning and even less thought, Tommy grabbed Tim by the shirt and threw him into one of the stall doors. Once again, Tommy felt himself endued with a supernatural strength that he hadn’t felt since that day on the playground. As Tim scratched and clawed, scrambling to get away, Tommy grabbed him and bounced his head off the toilet seat. The blood flowed freely, soaking Tim’s white Polo brand shirt almost instantaneously. After delivering a couple of kicks to the ribs, Tommy took a step back and looked at the other upper-classmen who were watching in astonishment. Neither of them dared say a word as Tommy sent himself to the principal’s office.

He knew the school had a zero-tolerance policy on violence, so a suspension was coming. He didn’t care. When the principal asked him what made him do what he did, he had no answers. He couldn’t exactly tell Mr. Williamson about the face in the mirror. When he got home, he offered his mother the same number of answers. However, he spent every day of his five-day suspension reliving the fight. He struggled to sleep over the course of that week, as every time he closed his eyes, he saw that face again. As the nights went by, it stopped scaring him. In fact, The Monster became more of a friend than a mysterious foe.

Another year went by. For almost a year, Tommy didn’t see or hear The Monster. Then, the two of them had their first-midnight interaction. It was the first time that The Monster woke Tommy up as it had earlier.

Tommy’s mother developed a pattern around his 17th birthday. The pattern involved working a shift at a local bar, getting sweet-talked by one of the patrons, and then bringing his drunk ass home for the night. If Tommy was awake when she came stumbling in, he tried to pretend he didn’t hear anything. Most nights, he made it a point to be asleep.

The same voice that jarred him out of his sleep nearly an hour earlier did the same thing on a steamy July night in 1997.

“She needs you.”

The voice snapped Tommy out of his sleep and onto his feet before he had time to fully process what it had said. Initially, the sound of his own heart beating in his ears made it difficult to hear the commotion taking place downstairs. He heard a man mumbling and slurring, which wasn’t unusual. But this time, something was different. His mother wasn’t playfully flirting with her flavor of the night. Tommy could hear her declining the man’s advances, and then he heard the tussle. Something, presumably a lamp fell to the floor and crashed. That’s when Tommy grabbed the baseball from his closet and charged downstairs.

He got to the bottom of the stairs just as the man, who had a knife in one hand, started attempting to unbutton his pants with the other. As he clumsily fumbled with the button on his ill-fitting Wrangler jeans, Tommy drew closer, completely unseen. 16 years later, he could still see the look on his mother’s face as the sound of a loud PING filled the living room when the bat bounced off the man’s skull. As was always the case when The Monster spoke, there was blood.

Tommy stood there, hands shaking, heart pounding, as his mother jumped to her feet. She never thanked him for what he did. Instead, she simply got her would-be one-night stand to the door, shoved him out, and told him to never return.

That was perhaps the most interesting thing about The Monster. The first time Tommy heard him, he busted Clark Peters’ nose. The second time, He bounced Tim Robinson’s head off a toilet. The third time, he cracked a man’s skull with a baseball bat. Each interaction with The Monster resulted in more bloodshed than the time before it.

It had been months since Tommy had last heard that voice. The last time was perhaps the most jarring evening of his life. From his couch, with the laptop still in his lap, The Monster’s face still smiling at him from the screen, Tommy looked out the small living room window that overlooked the street. There wasn’t a day when he passed by that window without thinking about hearing Randi’s screams on the night that Bobby Ray Gallimore attacked her.

The Monster’s voice didn’t prompt him to go outside that night. If The Monster had spoken at that point, Tommy couldn’t hear him. No, he didn’t hear the voice until he picked Randi up and carried her back inside. It was then, just as he saw Bobby Ray’s taillights fade into the Texas night, The Monster spoke.

“Go get him.”

Typically, The Monster only spoke in short, concise sentences. That night, everything was different. It was The Monster that reminded him to grab his Glock when he was heading out the door. It was The Monster that reminded Tommy of his friend, Scotty’s propensity for blowing shit up. It was The Monster that guided him through creating an alibi with Larry. And, it was The Monster who told him exactly what to do when he got to Bobby Ray’s meth lab.

When Tommy kicked in the door of Bobby Ray’s trailer, he was filled with a plethora of emotions. He was enraged that a man like Bobby Ray would put his hands on a woman as perfect as Randi. He regretted not walking her to her car like he had every other time that she had been to his place. And somehow, he was sure that he felt love for the woman whom he was there to avenge. Through all of those emotions, The Monster was there, talking him through the entire process. And just like before, the fourth interaction brought more bloodshed than the third. If nothing else, this other-worldly creature was consistent with his patterns of violence.

Tommy vividly remembered The Monster telling him where Bobby Ray’s baseball bat was. Tommy certainly had no understanding of the human anatomy, but somehow, he knew exactly where to swing.

Suddenly, Tommy’s laptop flashed a bright white light that hurt his eyes. Then, it was as if something else had taken over control of the computer. The file that Rocco had sent him containing a series of 7 X-Title matches opened on its own, and the cursor clicked on an option marked “Beldam/Summers BiB 2023.”

Tommy sat there and watched the second stage of the Three Stages of Hell match unfold. There was no audio, no commentary, no crowd noise. Silence filled the room. Well, it did for a moment. As the referee motioned for the bell to sound, Tommy could hear The Monster dictating everything that he was to do.

After a series of “traditional” wrestling holds, the voice became clearer.

“Go get the chair. Smash his skull.”

“Put his ass through the table.”

“There’s a barbed wire bat under the nearside ring skirt. Get it. You know how to use a bat.”


Tommy somehow sat by as a spectator watching a match that hadn’t happened yet. There were moments where Summers got some offense in, including a moment similar to their Grand March match when Shawn smacked him in the face with the TV title. This time, it was the X-Title, but the match continued. Tommy watched on in awestruck silence as he saw his own mouth fill with blood; blood that he spit on the mat as he laughed in the face of Der Basterd, and go in for more. After delivering “The Bullseye'' onto a steel chair, Tommy rolled on top of Summers for the pin.

1…
2…
3….

The screen went back to black, and Tommy saw The Monster once again.

“I’ll make you what you need to be to beat Summers.”

Tommy had heard those words before. He was sure of it. His mind raced, and suddenly he remembered. That’s the same thing that Lucien said to him just before he signed the contract. Tommy struggled to catch his breath. He felt like someone had just kicked him in the gut.

He was fully aware that Lucien was Satan incarnate. He knew that when he signed his deal with the devil. Was it possible that Lucien had been one of the only stable forces in his life dating back to his youth? Had Satan spotted Tommy at conception and decided that there was something about him that he liked?

“Wait, so you work for Lucien?”

The monster let out a demented, guttural laugh.

“Oh, Tommy. You’ve got it all wrong. Lucien works for me.”

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“Wake up, sleepy head. It’s almost noon. We’ve slept all day.”

Tommy opened his eyes and quickly shut them back. The glaring Texas sun was bursting into his bedroom window. He looked over at the clock on his nightstand as he felt Randi’s soft hands rub up and down his bare back. It was 11:36 AM.

He rolled over and leaned in for a kiss, but Randi pulled away.

“What’s wrong with your mouth? Your lip’s bleeding.”

Tommy put his hand to his bottom lip and immediately felt the same warm blood that he had just watched flow from his mouth in his match from the future pool into his hand.

“Must have bit my lip in my sleep. I had some weird dreams last night.”

“Wanna talk about it?”

“Nah. I’m good. How ‘bout some breakfast?”


Randi hopped out of bed, looking as wonderful as ever in Tommy’s favorite Texas Longhorns t-shirt, and headed down the hallway. Tommy stepped into the bathroom, filled his hands with some cold water, and sloshed it around in his mouth. As he spit into the sink, he watched as the blood slowly swirled around the drain. Once he was sure that the blood had stopped, he grabbed a towel, wiped his face, and looked into the mirror.

“Good morning, Champ.”
 

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Location: Planet X

Mission: Retrieve the hidden treasure on Planet X and eliminate anyone trying to get in the way.

That was my mission, and that's easier than it sounds to the average person. Let's say I ran into more trouble than I had expected. I should be used to risk, but something different from this.

Note: If you're reading this, then by now, you'll have realized that I could overcome all obstacles, or else I wouldn't be here telling this story. I shouldn't have to add this note, but there are some dumb people out there, so I felt the need to clarify on their behalf. I shouldn't have to cater to them, but it is what it is.

Whatever, I'm getting off track. None of that matters; all that matters is this story I'm about to tell. You can listen to or read this story or not; it doesn't matter to me; I'm not your Mom or your Dad.


Jason Randall in…
THE FINAL BOUNTY



Prologue.

Uncle told me this was my final mission before becoming a full-fledged Nephew. Previously Uncle wouldn't refer to me as a Nephew because I hadn't earned the title yet, but he has since retracted from that and realized that it was silly of him to do that. I'm still a NIT, a Nephew in Training, but I'm a Nephew after this mission, win or lose.

Yes, you read that right, win or lose. You're probably thinking that if I fail, I shouldn't pass, but Uncle doesn't see it. He sees something in me; I don't know what that is, but whatever that is has allowed me clearance in the Nephews, regardless of the outcome. For that, I am grateful. I've not had many allies in my time in FWA, and even when I did have them, they didn't last long or pan out. I've always been a loner, but now I have the Nephews behind me. I've learned in this business that while it is good to get a job done on your own, it doesn't hurt to have a backup. The Nephews are a one-of-a-kind unit. They're more than just a collective group of individuals…

They're a family.


******************************


I had been traveling for several days before I finally reached Planet X. I exited my ship and immediately saw that the planet was desolate and quiet. It's a far cry from prior years. A year prior, this place had been ruled over by the man in the mask. I had a tussle with him but came up short. In that fight, we had earned each other's respect.

Then his rule ended abruptly, and the Roman overthrew him. It was a messy situation all around. The Roman showed great promise, but then he was quickly defeated by a bleach blonde-haired devil with a distinctive mark on his neck. This devil has since ruled the planet, and since he has taken over, he's made this place a barren wasteland. What was once a world booming with activity now it's quiet and desolate. Not a soul in sight, or so I thought.

I began my journey on the planet, and it wasn't long before I stumbled into a familiar face. The rambling man from my previous bounty hunts. I offered this man an alliance to defeat a common enemy, but he declined my offer. I didn't take this declination well and lashed out at him.

This meeting is different at first. The man is still rambling and spouting off nonsense as only he can. I don't believe that he recognizes me, or he does, and he chooses not to acknowledge our last encounter, and if that's the case, then I wouldn't blame him.

"Rambling man."

He looks at me, and from the look he gives me, I can sense that he does remember me.

"You have traveled far and wide to get here, yes?"

He asked me, which I did not expect, but you can expect the unexpected with this guy.

"Yes, I have, and presume you have traveled here with the same goal in mind."

"I am everywhere."

"What does that mean?"

"It means whatever you want it to mean, my friend."

"Now you want to be friends; well, it's too late for that. If you're here for what I'm here for, then the smart thing for you to do right now would be to get out of my way, or else, this will end like our last meeting, or even worse than that, because maybe I won't leave you breathing. Maybe this time, I won't show you mercy like I have done so in the past."


The rambling man doesn't care what I'm saying and hasn't moved from his spot. He must think I'm joking, or he has no fear of me or my threats.

"Anger will only get you so far."

"Can I ask you a serious question? Do you even care about this treasure?"


He doesn't answer, which doesn't surprise me. I shake my head at him and continue.

"That's what I expected. You don't care about this. You act like you do, but then you speak in riddles and say these strange things, and for what? To get in the head of those that oppose you. You can say whatever riddle or gibberish you'd like to spout off, but it won't make a difference to me. You're not confusing me. All you're doing is angering me and making me realize that I'm better off not forming the alliance I had proposed with you."


"You faced real trauma in your life, and you use these tactics that you display as a coping mechanism. That's all good, but that doesn't matter to me. I'm sorry whatever happened to you in the past, but here and now, you're standing in my way of what I want. I don't care what I must do to remove you from this equation, but I will do so by any means necessary."

"It's far too long since I've held this treasure, and I'm not about to let you stand in my way. I've stood on the sidelines and watched many others take what was once mine, and seeing what some of them did to it made my blood boil. It's about time I take back what is mine, and if that means going through you, then so be it."

"Do what you must do."


In the end, he didn't put up much of a fight. That's not me undermining him, either. His heart isn't in it anymore, but he still sticks around. I admire him for standing his ground, but what's done is done, and my journey will continue until I reach what I desire.


******************************


I conquered the rambling man and continued my journey on this planet. I'm so close to reaching this treasure that I greatly desire. I realized that myself and the rambling were not the only people vying for this prize. I know that there is someone else out there that wants this prize. The common enemy that the rambling man and I had shared.

The Dark Traveler and his Guardian.

I've had my fair share of battles with The Dark Traveler, and he's come out on top in most of them. I've gained a taste of vengeance, but he keeps coming back. No matter what I do, he keeps coming back. He's like an annoying fly that won't stop buzzing around your face, and when you swat him away and think it's over, he pops up out of nowhere like nothing had ever happened before.

No offense to the rambling man, but The Dark Traveler is undoubtedly the biggest threat to me reaching what is mine. He doesn't scare me, though. He doesn't intimidate me in the slightest. He may get the upper hand on me repeatedly, but I keep coming back just like him. You can't keep me down.

Sure enough, I found The Dark Traveler and His Guardian. We are mere steps away from our goal and standing in the way of one another.

"We meet again, Wildcard."

"We have to stop running into each other like this. People might start suspecting something."

The Guardian laughs while The Dark Traveler remains stoic and unflinching.

"I saw that you removed the rambling man from his travels. We would have done the same, but we'd let you have that.

"You're in a giving mood now, huh? If you're still feeling generous, why don't you and your monster get out of my way and let me take back what is mine."

The Guardian laughs again, and he looks at his monster.

"He thinks it'll be that easy, my lord; how foolish of him to think that."

"I know it won't be easy, but I decided to try my chances. It would have made things a lot easier had you and your monster removed yourselves from this, but I've learned that you don't like doing things the easy way."

"Where's the fun in that?"

"That's what I think, too; maybe the three of us are more alike than you think."


I start to approach them slowly. Thanks to them, there's a limp in my step, so I move slower than usual.

"The only difference between us is that I want this more. I need this more than you."

I point my index finger at Dark Traveler and jab it in his chest. He doesn't flinch, but he does respond with a scowl.

"You have plenty of time to have your moment. On the other hand, I am still determining how much longer I have left. This could be my last opportunity to regain my treasure. Not only that, but I haven't had a chance to have a big moment, and I feel like this is my time."

"I said it before that many men have tried to come at me, and while most of them bested me, at the same time, they made a mistake. They left me still breathing. They allowed me to still be standing. They won the fight, but I'm still here. You can do whatever you want to me, but it won't make a difference. I'll still be here. There's nothing that can keep me down."


The Guardian looks at Dark Traveler and then back at me.

"My lord will make sure to keep you down for good."

"Were you not listening, you old fool? He can do whatever he likes to me, but it won't make a difference. I'll still be standing. You can't kill me. There's not a thing or person in this existence that can end me. I'm like a recurring nightmare; I'll keep coming back."

"Your lord, on the other hand, doesn't stand a chance. He can beat me and gain that treasure, but then what? He won't be able to handle the pressures that come with it, and he'll crumble. I've seen better men than him try, and they faltered, so what makes him any different? Nothing. He can't even speak for himself; he has you do the talking for him. Without you at his side, he'd be nothing."


I shove The Guardian to the side, and he falls on his back. He's stumbling to return to his feet but can't.

"It seems like you'd be nothing without him."

"My lord, finish him!"


It was an ugly battle. We beat the hell out of each other. There were times in the midst of it all that I thought he might beat me.

In the end, though, I stood tall. He had been defeated, and his Guardian was left to rot and wither away.


******************************


Rambling man? Eliminated.

Dark Traveler? Vanquished.

I am one step closer to my treasure. Now all that is in my way is that bleach-blonde devil, and now I have learned not only he stands in my way but a man in a cowboy hat does as well. Whoever it is doesn't matter.

I will have my moment.
 

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"Punisher."
Phoebe Bridgers.








October 28th, 2018.

She could feel each bump of the uneven dirt track as the van rumbled northwards, ever northwards. There was no train here. If there was a train here she would be on it right now, but instead she rode the unsteady currents of the Skurov Road. This is what it was called, according to the old man driving the van, but it wasn’t much of a road. Impressive, however, was the manner in which tonnes of snow had been forced aside into massive drifts for hundreds of kilometres to keep the track clear. It was a feat of human persistence that even Michelle couldn't flippantly disregard.
It had snowed for almost the entire journey from Chaklov to here, which was a two-hundred kilometre north-easterly trundle - slow and painstaking and hardfought - through Siberia's less hospitable regions. The trip was only possible thanks to Mikhail and his van. Michelle liked Mikahil because he was quiet. He’d begun the journey by telling her about the monthly trip that he took through the winter along this man-made chasm in the snow to take essential supplies to the village. She nodded but didn’t reply. He followed suit and said nothing else for twelve hours.
"Almost there," he said, finally. He was working from memory, she assumed, given that the white walls either side of them showed no signs of receding.
"Almost there," she repeated.
Almost where? She knew what lay behind her, both literally speaking and less so. This was an easier question than what lay ahead. When she closed her eyes, she involuntarily conjured the image of a boat, her own frail figure on the deck, a continent receding behind her with her old friends standing on the shore. It was inarguable that she was running away: from America, from Snowmantashi and from Bell, and now from Europe, too. She’d already been to Vladivostok, the end of the Earth, and found that it wasn’t far enough away. Jean-Luc waited in Moscow. Was she running away from him, also? Their trajectories had run in parallel since they’d left their separate lives under distinct big tents. But he hadn’t come to the Arctic. There was nothing for him here.
Whether that was also true for Dreamer remained to be seen. It didn’t help that she didn’t know exactly where she was going. All she knew was that they were almost there. But something about the approach - as the dirt track narrowed beneath their tires and the snow drifts on either side of them continued to grow - filled her with hope. She knew hope was a dangerous thing, but this road was a frontier and a horizon.
This road also, incidentally, led to the village of Tretyakova. We’ve already established Michelle’s ignorance with regards to her destination, outside of the obvious fact of its remoteness, but I think you’ve earned a little advanced knowledge. You deserve it. Wading through all one hundred and thirteen previous volumes is a task comparable to Michelle and Mikhail’s silent sojourn into the distant, lonely north. So sit back and enjoy your reward. The end is in sight.
Tretyakova was a small village with a permanent population of eighty three, not including the conscripts stationed at the two adjacent military bases. Indeed, the settlement itself now mostly existed to support and sustain the men and women (but mostly men) who came and went from the Lazarev Naval Base and the Borodin Army Barracks. These soldiers were tasked with maintaining and strengthening Mother Russia’s claim in the Arctic Circle, which is an important pursuit of several nations in the neighbourhood. Important to governments, that is. I'm sure most regular folk care even less about Arctic territory than they do everything else.
The village itself, separated from the military institutions by a wide estuary of the East Siberian Sea, was comprised of four districts of differing size but roughly equal importance to its precarious survival. These four districts were nestled around the Plain, or Prostoi in the local tongue: a gentle slope that flitted periodically between summer green and winter white, through which flowed the Yakupova river from Lake Khodyrev. Flowed when it wasn’t frozen into a sheet of ice, of course. To the west, upon the banks of the eponymous lake, was the Khodyrev District, where the old squat huts had character and their own kind of grace, and the fisheries mostly amounted to warehouses for family-run trawlers.
South was the Zoloev District, the newest of Tretyakova’s regions and its industrial powerhouse (as much as it had one). There, the large, brutalistic housing was an assault on the eyes, the incessant rumbling of the lumberyards concurrently working over the ears. North of the Prostoi were the large abodes of the Ryabtsova District, elaborate new-builds that remained empty and wasteful for most of the year, and beyond that the whalers’ huts. Now, in 2018, less than a half-dozen Melville-channelers remained in the village of Tretyakova, but there was a time - during the great and terrible whale culls of Stalin’s years - when there were more of them here than soldiers and sailors across the estuary. The few whalers that remained were reclusive and wary. Seeing one had become a rare and special treat.
On the north-east tip of the peninsula, high upon a cliff perpetually battered by the cruel and unpredictable Arctic storms, the Tretyakova Lighthouse sat at the end of a thin finger of land that jutted through the frozen water.
Easy to visualise? Maybe not. Good job I drew you a map, dear reader.
For a point of reference, if you need one, Dreamer’s arrival in Tretyakova meant that she was two hundred kilometres north-east of Chaklov, which itself was fourteen hundred kilometres north-east of Yakutsk. These numbers and names will mean nothing to you, unless you happen to be a mathematician with a reasonably strong understanding of Russian geography. This is rather specific and seems unlikely. It is enough, dear reader, to know that Michelle is a long way from home, which in itself is something of a complicated concept for her in the first place.
"You know where you’re staying?" Mikhail asked, as he took her rucksack from the back of his van and handed it to her. He’d come to a halt in the first fork in the road since leaving Chaklov. There had been no other vehicles, people, or animals on the single straight road, either. Only them and the snow.
"I know where I’m staying," Michelle replied. She pushed her arms through her rucksack’s straps and went on her way.
The instructions to find her accommodation - a whaler’s hut on the north coast of the peninsula that was empty during this and every other winter - were straight-forward enough. Follow the dirt path northwards, keeping to the wider road, until you couldn’t follow it anymore. The arrangements had been made by Anastasia, a performance artist Michelle met in a Belorusskaya dive bar back in Moscow. Anastasia had spent more than a year living here (sometimes alone, sometimes with her cousin, the whaler) whilst on the verge of a mental breakdown. She’d told Michelle about it in a different Belorusskaya dive bar, and sworn the remote location and fresh air had helped to drive the demons away. Michelle had her doubts, but pretty soon realised that Anastasia was describing the exact thing she’d spent years searching for. Memories of Vladivostok, of disappointment and regret. She hadn’t come this far to go no further.
It was only as she crossed the arched bridge over the Yakupova River that she was high enough to see the village. The snow had slowed to a gentle pace and she welcomed the respite by lighting a cigarette. She counted a few dozen buildings in various clusters, distinctive only because of the long, wooden stilts on which they stood. She assumed this was one of the defenses the villagers employed against the ever-encroaching snow. Another was evident only each morning, when teams of soldiers would arrive across the frozen estuary and begin loading the excess fresh powder from around the village into trucks, which were driven back across the ice and disposed of further west. It seemed like an arduous, endless cycle for very little gain, but she at least admired the symbiosis between the villagers and the soldiers. Neither would survive without the other, regardless of the futility of their overall task.
Dreamer rounded the Prostoi and passed a surprisingly busy inn with Лебедь written (in cyrillic) on a sign that flapped in the frequent, cold winds. She could read the letters but not translate them, though in this case their meaning was illuminated by the weathered painting of a white swan on a frozen river. The hill grew steeper between there and the Whaler’s District, which amounted to eight short, squat, identical huts and the harbour buildings. This part of town - the oldest, smallest, and furthest north - occupied the shadow of the huge, octagonal lighthouse on the peninsula’s tip. Hers was the one labelled #8, on the oceanside of the road and (somewhat inconveniently) directly next to the only other dwelling with obvious signs of inhabitation. On the porch of #7, wearing an unfastened bathrobe, baggy black boxer shorts, and hiking boots, sat a tall, barrel-chested, bearded man with a tumbler of brandy in one hand and a cigarette in another.
"Здравствуйте, девушка!" he announced as she shuffled by, the stilts beneath his house giving him a high, almost throne-like vantage point.
"Здравствуйте," she repeated. It was one of only two phrases she’d mastered, and she feared she’d be employing the second soon.
"Где Сергей вас всех находит?" he asked. She could tell it was a question from his tone only.
"Я не говорю по-русски," she said, whilst climbing the stairs to her own porch. A rocking chair was positioned there but she approached the door instead, checking under a pot housing a dead plant for the key. The barrel-chested man let out a chuckle.
"English, then," he continued. He threw the end of his cigarette down into a nearby snowdrift. "Ivan Dyadyović Volgin. Welcome to Tretyakova."
"I didn’t expect anyone here to speak English," she replied. The key clicked and the door opened, but she paused to regard Ivan Dyadyović’s keen eyes. They were as cold as the snow.
"You spend time on the sea, you learn lots of things," Ivan answered.
"You’re a whaler?" she asked.
"No. But I know whalers. You’re in the right place for them."
"Where are they now?"
"Not sure. Probably out whaling."
"I guess that’s what they do."
A pause. Michelle exploited it and began her exit.
"Make sure you keep your doors locked, девушка," Ivan said. "Windows, too."
"Because of the cold?" she asked. His attire suggested there was little to worry about.
"Because of the bear," he said. He was still smiling. She went inside.
She had a week until Mikhail would climb into his van and trundle back to Chaklov. A train waited there to return her to Yakutsk and some semblance of civilization, and so she spent the next few days acclimatising as much as one can to such harsh and inhospitable environs. The cold didn’t bother her too much. She could dress for the cold and it was warm inside. The inn on the northern tip of the Prostoi, with the weathered image of a white swan on its sign, seemed an ideal place to start.
She didn’t have to wait long to meet her neighbour again, either, for it seemed that - prior to descending on unsuspecting foreigners from his raised porch in his bathrobe - the Лебедь was a favoured haunt of Ivan Dyadyović, just as it was for much of the rest of the village. As she nursed her fifth beer (which was preceded by her fifth vodka, designed to warm her and accompanied by a toast to Mikhail, the village’s delivery man and thus its saviour), the barrel-chested man emerged into the tavern, fully clothed and not yet fatigued by an afternoon’s consumption. He spent a moment heating his hands over a fireplace, smiling at Dreamer when he noticed his neighbour sitting alone in the corner, and then ordered a brandy.
"You’ve settled in already, I see," he said, nodding at the array of empties on her table, positioned around an unopened copy of Anna Karenina. She’d been carrying it around with her since Moscow and Berlin before that, and in a less literal sense for a lot longer. Ivan, with what she was learning was trademark familiarity, sat down on one of the empty stools at her table. "Good book?"
"I don’t know," she answered, both truthfully and evasively. She thought that perhaps this trip would be the one on which she would finally conquer that particular personal mountain, but her seclusion didn’t shake her from apathy. Maybe the Лебедь inn was too close an approximation of what she’d left behind. "Haven’t started it."
"Heard it’s a classic, девушка," he said, between sips of his brandy. "Not much of a reader myself. But my daughter tells me this village is perfect for it. Not a lot else to do, unless you prefer to drink. She’s young, and will learn eventually."
"Your daughter lives here?" Michelle asked. Ivan nodded his head.
"When she’s not at school," he replied.
"Where’s her mother?" she enquired, without tact.
"Not here," he answered, absently. "Not anywhere."
In the ensuing silence, Ivan removed a pack of Russian cigarettes from his pocket and tapped one against the end of the table thoughtfully. Michelle regarded the quizzical look on his face, which brimmed with expression despite being mostly hidden by thick fur. Eventually, with a sigh, he lit his cigarette and turned back towards Dreamer.
"You want me to leave you with your book?" he suddenly asked, breaking a silence that had started upon their table but spread across much of the bar. She’d come to learn that such interludes were common in Tretyakova.
"I think today I prefer to drink," she said.
She retrieved the book and placed it in her bag, next to a small, silver case filled with a half-dozen joints she’d prepared for the day. Only on her porch as the moon watched over the end of it could she finally enjoy one, and she did so whilst reflecting on the surprisingly thoughtful man who’d spoken to her for much of the afternoon in forceful half-truths. Her early understanding of him was fragmented and incomplete, but she found him a tantalising concept nonetheless.
Her train of thought was interrupted only by the sight of the octagonal lighthouse, overlooking the frozen bay and producing a beam of bold, pink light that cut through the winter mist. This image - uninterrupted by even the currents of the sea, which were held in stasis (or at least obscured) by a thick sheet of ice - was disturbed only twice. Once by the slow, clubfooted figure of Mikhail the van driver limping up the footpath between the Ryabtsova District and the Lighthouse, his body obscured by thick, old-fashioned robes but his frame unmistakeable. And maybe half an hour later by a slender, lithe girl - eighteenish, probably - with pale skin, black hair, and a pair of ice skates tied up by their laces around her neck. The blades shimmered in the pale moonlight. She paused when she smelled Michelle’s smoke, sniffed, smiled, and then entered #7. Ivan’s daughter, Dreamer assumed. She finished her joint and watched the lighthouse's pink beam scanning the frozen surface of the water.
Her assumption was confirmed the next day, when she met the pair whilst walking amidst the eaves of the Tambiev Forest to the village’s south. Maria seemed like a sensible girl. She said little and remained aloof to the conversation between Dreamer and her father, instead preferring to inspect the trunks of trees deadened by winter, or to listen closely to distant birdsong. Michelle only knew she understood English by subtle reactions to her father’s heavily-accented speech and the muttered greetings she offered upon introduction. Ivan warned Dreamer about bears again before he left, his daughter illustrating his caution with an exhibition of her own teeth and claws.
Michelle saw both Ivan and Maria, sometimes together and sometimes alone, frequently throughout the days that followed. On the fourth night following her arrival in Mikhail’s van, Dreamer paused on the bridge over the Yakupova River to light a cigarette and watch a young woman skating on the frozen surface of the Khodyrev Lake. It took several minutes for her to realise that it was Maria, who'd been formally introduced by her birth name by Ivan and then henceforth referred to as Masha. She was nearly a grown woman but her father still used this childish shortening. Perhaps always would. All fathers coddled their daughters. It was one of the reasons Dreamer was glad hers died when she was so young.
She watched Masha complete a series of figure eights, first expanding in size before contracting again until she was barely moving from the central point. She progressed through a sequence of toe loops, axels, Euler jumps, and eventually a quite remarkable flip that elicited a gasp from her one-woman audience. Dreamer continued to smoke, a small mound of discarded ends accruing around her Vans, as the girl gracefully glided in concentric circles, her elegant, almost hypnotic path eventually taking her into the centre of the lake. Where the frozen layer was thinnest. Her blades cut through the frost, plumes of disturbed snow and ice cascading either side of her as she traced her powerful arcs. Michelle matched her with an expulsion of smoke.
Dreamer realised the girl knew she was being watched. Enjoyed it, maybe. Certainly wished to put on a show: one that flaunted her poise, her grace, and her cavalier daring. Michelle was impressed despite the narcissism. Perhaps because of it.
Eventually, the girl turned in a one eighty on her heel and then skated in a straight line towards the bridge. Michelle thought she might disappear beneath it, but she angled her blades and came to a sudden halt amidst a dancing column of disturbed snowflakes. She stood, smiling and satisfied, in the structure's shadow.
"Very impressive," Michelle said. She stopped short of a round of applause.
"How long have you been watching?" Masha asked. Michelle glanced down at the pile of cigarettes next to her feet. Counted them. Eight. Shit, eight?!
"A while," she answered, evasively.
"Can you skate?" Masha continued in her enquiries.
"Of course I can skate," Michelle replied, perhaps a little defensively. "I'm from the Netherlands. Not like that, though. We skate for speed."
But on thin ice, too, she thought about adding. She didn't and lit a ninth cigarette instead.
"I've got some spare blades at home," the girl went on. Michelle was beginning to enjoy her smile less. There was a suggestion about it that she didn't like. "What size are you?"
"Where's your father?" Michelle asked, mostly to change the subject. "He doesn't skate?"
"Not this late," the girl replied. "He says it's too dark."
"Maybe it is."
"He's at the lighthouse if you need him," Masha went on, whilst beginning to glide again on one skate. "But I don't think you're allowed. I'm not."
"I saw Mikhail going to the lighthouse two nights ago," Michelle said, absently. It wasn't clear if it was to the girl, but Masha heard it and responded either way.
"All the men go to the lighthouse."
"There was a pink light."
"Always is."
A pause. The night felt a little colder.
"What happens there?"
The girl only shrugged, and smiled, and then skated away. Michelle saw her briefly again the next morning, when she met Ivan for a walk they'd planned to take into the Tambiev Forest, but around her father Masha would say nothing beyond cursory, inconsequential salutations.
"Tretyakova is not a normal holiday destination for a young woman," Ivan said, as they traversed the mossy land beneath the eaves of the Tambiev. They continued in an easterly direction to where the dead trees were less dense. "Tretyakova is not a normal holiday destination for anyone."
Michelle thought about this pair of statements for a long while. There was no question but, given Ivan's searching glances and his reciprocation of the ensuing silence, she sensed a reply was expected of her.
"Maybe I'm not normal," she said, finally. It was a non-answer. Ivan shook his head and rolled his eyes.
"Why are you here?" he asked. "With me?"
"You're showing me the forest," she replied. He scoffed at the response.
"That's not what I'm asking," he said. She knew that and he knew she did. "You want to know what I think? I think you're looking for something new. Something other. Poor wording, I know, but it's the best way I can describe it in English. You don't know if it's a place or a person or a thing, and you don't know where to look for it. But you know it's not where they are. The rest of them. They're just as sad as you are. And that's why you're here, with me: you think I can show you something that nobody else can. I have at least this going for me."
Dreamer considered the analysis, which was freely given in a kindly, even tone. Too kindly, even. It differed from her own framing of this journey, one that suggested cowardice and abandon in the more pejorative sense. It was pleasant to picture herself as an adventurer - intrepid and empty - searching for truth or beauty or anything, rather than a scared young woman running away from her problems.
"Am I close?" he asked, eventually. She didn't know how long she'd been entranced in silent thought.
"I hope so," she said, truthfully. She didn't want to be a coward.
It was then that they saw the bear. Huge and silent and powerful, he reared up onto his hind legs, maybe thirty metres away from them upon the frozen estuary. Ivan placed his hand in front of her to stop her from moving any closer, which she had very little intention of doing.
Their breathing was quiet, eventually synchronising in rhythm amidst the tension and the freezing cold.
The bear stared at them with sad and lonely eyes.
Then, he stretched out and walked into the forest. Ivan would go no further. They turned aside from their morning plans and returned to the village. The barrel-chested man said very little on the walk to his hut, into which he promptly disappeared as the bear had the trees.
They met again the next evening at the Boathouse Inn in the Zoloev District. Ivan's terror and the requirement for subsequent isolation following their encounter with the local wildlife seemed to have retreated. Michelle decided not to bring it up.
She found him smoking on the deck, staring out at a boat that was sundered within the frozen ice atop the estuary. It was a startling image, and one that she carefully considered herself before disturbing Ivan's own thoughts. She knew that, logically, the boat must have been freed from its natural shackles each summer, when it could be moved even if it couldn't move itself. Why, then, did it appear as though the ship - disused and dishevelled, but far from a wreck - had been stuck here forever? Perhaps it was an affectation, or a symbol, or a reminder. She didn't think to ask.
"You want to eat?" he queried, when his cigarette had burned to the filter and he'd grown tired of the boat in the ice. "I'm not hungry."
"I think I’d prefer to drink again," Michelle said.
"Just set that down here," Ivan instructed the barman a short time later as he emerged from the backroom with a fresh bottle of vodka. The first was only two-thirds full, in their defense. The barman shrugged and obeyed the orders before returning to his own drink. Michelle, meanwhile, continued to stare at her companion, aghast and perplexed at the latest in a long series of proclamations of worldliness.
"You’ve been to Rotterdam?" she asked, with a healthy helping of condescension. For once this was unintentional.
"Of course!" he answered, whilst pouring them each another measure of the clear and sharp alcohol. "I'm a man of the sea! Spent a season in Rotterdam, though I wasn't so lucky as you have been with beautiful Tretyakova. No knowledgeable locals to show me around."
"Why did you come back?" she asked. And then, perhaps unnecessarily, she repeated and elaborated. "Why did you come back here?"
Ivan smiled. She realised he was missing two of his teeth.
"I'm never anywhere for long," he said.
"You remind me of someone," she replied.
"Who do I remind you of?" he asked, whilst raising his vodka to his lips.
"I don't know," she said. "I don't think I've met them yet."
"That doesn't make much sense," he mused, as he placed his empty glass back on the bar. "But you told me that you aren’t normal."
"I said maybe I’m not," she answered. She feared that ultimately she was.
A few hours later, after the bar had stopped serving and they'd been asked twice to take the rest of their third bottle with them and go home, they stood upon the decking again to look at the pale silver moon above the sundered boat. When she kissed him he tasted exactly how she expected him to. Vodka and tobacco on a surface level, which in itself was fine, but there was an earthiness beneath this that hooked her. He tasted real. They walked home in silence.
Out on the frozen surface of Khodyrev Lake, Masha drew lazy figure eights upon the ice with her shimmering blades. A torch fastened to a headband illuminated her immediate path, but beyond this the darkness ruled. She placed her hands behind her back, interlocked her fingers, and bowed her head. She tried to skate for speed and grinned as the wind rushed through her hair.
His eyes were still keen but less cold when she was this close. His hands were heavy but firm and steady when he pushed against her hips. She was pressed between his barrel-like chest and the wall behind as if clutched in a vice. The wall had more give. He was huge but somehow delicate and graceful, even as he enveloped her. She burrowed into him.
Masha skated in the shadow of the forest, the tallest trees of the Tambiev towering above her and - from the right angle - blocking out the moon. Shrouded in the darkness, she extended her left leg behind her in a grotesque arabesque, her momentum slowing and then rapidly increasing again as she completed a camel spin. She grasped at her skate with outstretched hands at the end of the turn, attempting to level out into the elusive Biellman, a spin she was still yet to master. Her fingertips brushed against the cold blade. Not tonight. Next time.
Out of the dense undergrowth of the Tambiev, heavy paws padding on the thick frozen surface of the lake, the bear emerged. His white fur glistened in the moonlight. His soft breath misted in front of him as he watched the girl.
Her jeans pulled down around her thighs and her knees up beneath her chin, Dreamer sat atop the kitchen table and braced herself for his entry. It was clumsy, hasty, impatient. Regrettable and surprising, given the firm and deliberate nature of his movements to this point. Grace and poise were dead. Lust had clouded his mind and robbed him of his delicacy. An untamed hand gripped her thigh, but her bare skin was cold and sharp to the touch. He grasped her belt instead and used it to pull himself deeper into her. She bit down on her lip and closed her eyes.
The last act of Masha’s young life was an uninspiring bracket turn that took her closer to the eaves of the forest. If she’d have known, she might’ve attempted the Biellman one last time. Her dance with the bear was short and violent. She preferred to dance alone.
Several parts of Masha lay strewn upon the ice, the frost stained red with her blood. One shoe had come loose in the struggle.
He finished with another low, guttural grunt, having managed to elicit a solitary murmur - a deathly quiet opening gambit that was never built or dwelt upon - from her suddenly dry lips in return. After a few heavy breaths, drawn through his tight and rattling chest, he pulled away and meandered half-hard towards a window. He opened it and lit a cigarette, a rasping cough momentarily overcoming him. He didn’t look at her. They never did afterwards.
She pulled her trousers up and collected the one shoe that had come loose in the struggle. There was half a bottle of vodka in the freezer. She was parched.
Masha’s body was found by Anton Nikolaevich Zakharov, a worker at the Zoloev Lumberyard, and Alexandra, his Siberian husky, whilst the pair were out for a pre-dawn walk. The short bout of frenetic panic, paranoia, and decisive calls to action that ensued in the village resulted in the majority of Tretyakova’s able-bodied men gathering weapons (or approximations thereof) and trudging across the snow with hazy, half-hearted notions of revenge. Ivan didn’t go. He sat on his porch in his bathrobe, boxer shorts, and hiking boots, smoking cigarettes and drinking brandy.
Michelle collected her bag from #8 and paused as she passed beneath Ivan’s raised porch. The sun was rising in the distance, its harsh, bright light shimmering across the polar desert, vast and white. She realised that it wasn’t snowing.
"You’re leaving," he said. It wasn’t a question.
"Mikhail’s waiting for me," she replied. She hoped that was true. She didn’t want to wait a month for his return and it was a long way to walk.
"You’ll come back," he mused, after a lengthy pause.
"You don’t know me," she answered. Her tone was soft. "At all."
"Maybe," he shrugged. "Maybe not. But I know you’ll be back. Perhaps not here specifically, but somewhere like it, and with someone like me. You think you’re the first European girl I’ve seen hiding? Vladivostok is full of them. Have you been?"
"I just left," she said. He let out a chuckle.
"Wasn’t far enough away?" he asked. She didn’t answer, but the truth of it stung. "I don’t need to know very much about you at all to see this. The world you left behind? The one you run from? It’s not your world."
Michelle left Tretyakova. She didn’t return for many years.




October 22nd, 2032.

The track was new and the ride was smooth. The train cut through a man-made channel in the trees before emerging onto a white field, the station - one of only a handful of buildings that she didn’t recognise from her last visit - rearing up before the procession of carriages and opening its arms in embrace. The train slowed down and then came to a halt on the platform whilst a vaguely-robotic woman welcomed them over the speakers, in Russian only, to the village of Tretyakova.
Dreamer remained in her seat for a few minutes after the train had stopped. This was often down to the patchwork of old wounds and nagging aches: her shoulder, her hip, her left knee and her right ankle. Or, sometimes, a resistance to confront whatever situation she was being delivered to. Both of these things were true now, but neither was responsible for her current inertia. The last few words of her book, the dog-eared corners and crinkled spine of which were indicative of long neglect, held her temporarily in stasis.
‘"I shall go on in the same way, losing my temper with Ivan the coachman, falling into angry discussions, expressing my opinions tactlessly; there will be still the same wall between the holy of holies of my soul and other people, even my wife; I shall still go on scolding her for my own terror, and being remorseful for it; I shall still be as unable to understand with my reason why I pray, and I shall still go on praying; but my life now, my whole life apart from anything that can happen to me, every minute of it is no more meaningless, as it was before, but it has the positive meaning of goodness, which I have the power to put into it."’
She was as conflicted by this last paragraph as she was most of the novel. She felt something resembling empathy for Kostya, and identified with his penchant for angry discussions and tactlessly expressed opinions. She had no such feeling for his wife, who she found sort of pathetic, a weak and fragile thing complicit by her meekness. And she couldn’t suffer Kostya’s leap to prayer, and to attribute such frail and facile meaning to his existence. She wished the book had ended on the platform, with Anna caught between the screeching wheels and the tracks, the thoughts of the onlookers left unwritten.
When she walked out of the station and beheld the panoramic of the village, the lake, and the forest, she remembered the woman that she was the last time she came here. She viewed it from a different angle and at a different time, but the most significant differences between then and now were found in her. She was more Kostya than Anna at that stage: meek and tactless, full of fear and regret, and dominated by vile obsessions. She was still wrestling, too. Taking a break, but very much in the game. This last thought made her smile, the wrinkles around her eyes and mouth more pronounced under this subtle exertion. Upon these rare occasions when her mind raced to her time within the squared circle, memories long receded and half-hidden under less extravagant ones, one image more than any other dominated her thought.
But she hadn’t travelled this far (again) to relive Mexico City. There were other bones to dig through. She arrived in the Whaler’s District at sunset, half-expecting to find him on his porch in his bathrobe and boxer shorts. He was there, but wearing a heavy trench coat and a black fur ushanka. He was fourteen years older, she mused, and all men lose their daring with age. A cigarette hung limply from his lips and his hand clenched a glass of brandy. So many constants, so little variation.
She stood in the shadow of his porch. He looked up but barely registered her presence. Sucked the end of his cigarette. Sipped his brandy. Neglected to speak, at least not first.
"Do you remember me?" she asked.
"Of course, девушка," he said.
She didn’t answer right away. Didn’t move much either, except to shuffle awkwardly and anxiously beneath the weight of his averted gaze.
"I said you’d come back," he added, finally. She sighed. Shook her head. "Why are you here, Michelle? Fourteen years is a long time."
"A long time to think," she said.
"A long time to move on."
Moving on. Easier said than done. It’s not a skill she’d mastered. Perhaps she hadn’t tried hard enough.
"One week isn’t very long, in the grand scheme of things," Michelle began, whilst lighting a cigarette of her own. "But this place left its mark on me. I have questions, I guess."
"Fire away, девушка," he said, with a toothless grin. "Maybe you’d like to go inside?"
His hut was exactly as she remembered it. Unremarkable, both outside and in, but for one feature that Michelle couldn’t help but steal glances at after being seated at the kitchen table. When she’d last passed over the threshold, Ivan had checked the shoe rack next to the door and noted Masha’s missing skates. Now, Dreamer’s eyes frequently regarded the blades, well-polished and sharpened as if she might return at any moment and slip them on.
"Well?" he asked, after sitting down with a black tea, a slice of lemon floating on its surface, which he placed down next to his brandy. Her eyes were dragged away from the blades and met his cold, keen stare. She found herself swimming in them, and almost forgot he’d lost his teeth and his hair. He seemed young and powerful again, even if she never would.
"Why didn’t you go after the bear with the others?" she asked. He sipped once from each of his drinks.
"Right to it, девушка?" he mumbled. His voice had lost some of its command, breaking the spell of his eyes. "To what end? To catch the bear? To kill it?"
"I guess the others thought of it as justice," she said, careful not to frame the argument as her own. "Revenge."
"Revenge against what?" Ivan responded, with a scoff that quickly descended into a rasping cough. She remembered this, too. "The bear? Nature? Equally ridiculous, for different reasons."
Dreamer thought about his conclusion and found that she agreed. She shifted focus.
"What happened to Masha’s mother?" she asked.
"Same thing that happened to Masha," he replied. He finished his brandy in one so as to steel himself.
"She was killed by a bear, too?"
"No. The same thing more widely speaking. I brought her here shortly after we were married. She hated it. Spent most of our life together here dreaming of getting away. I should’ve let her. Helped her. Gone with her, even. She finally drifted far enough away to leave me. Never made it out of Tretyakova, though. Died in a blizzard the day before her boat left for St. Petersburg. Have you been? It’s quite lovely."
"I’ve been," Michelle said. Ivan refilled his brandy. "It’s quite lovely."
"You think I should’ve searched for revenge on the blizzard, too?" he asked.
"Not if she was going to leave you," Michelle mused. "Why didn’t you go? Either with her or since?"
"I’ve come and gone over the years," he answered. "But my roots go deep. Always found myself drifting back here. There’s nothing in Tretyakova, granted, but there’s not much else out there either. I guess you know that. You came back, afterall."
"I came back, afterall," she repeated. The concept of home reared its ugly head once again. She felt placeless and timeless and ultimately ashamed.
"You all out of questions?" Ivan enquired. He was asking almost as many as her.
"What happens at the lighthouse?" she asked.
Ivan smiled. He finished his cigarette and stubbed it out on the arm of his chair. Flicked it into a nearby snowdrift. Stared at the rising moon.
"You want to see for yourself?" he said. "It’s almost time."
"Time for what?" she asked. He was still smiling. He didn’t say anything else until they got to the lighthouse.
The маяк was a tall, tapered octagonal prism with a domed roof and - still now, as had been the case in 2018 - a pink light scanned the frozen surface of the East SIberian Sea. The beam seemed more solid now, as if its strangely curious operator had kept up with the technological advancements of the time. Contrary to the houses and dockyards in the village, which were wrought of hardwood from the Tambiev Forest, the lighthouse was entirely composed of white stone and stained glass. Ivan led the way along a path atop a thin, high spit of land that jutted out into the ice.
A man wearing a long, purple robe, tied around the waist by a length of thick, gold thread, greeted them at the lighthouse’s entrance. Well, he greeted Ivan specifically. He didn’t acknowledge Dreamer’s presence at all. They spoke in Russian and as if she wasn’t there, except for a brief interlude in which Ivan nodded at her and the other - who amounted to a guardsman, she assumed, but guarding what she couldn’t yet say - searched her with a long, daunting glance. She shivered, the wind and the guard’s eyes conspiring against her.
Then, he stood aside, and climbed the spiral staircase towards the lantern room. It was wide and with low ceilings, its central focal point the convoluted mechanism that perennially searched the frost with its pink beam. They weren’t alone. Sat cross-legged in a wide circle around the pink lantern were seven other men, each identically dressed in purple robes, Ivan removing his trenchcoat and ushanka and taking position around the lantern. Michelle knelt down next to him, an eerie sensation that she’d been here - or somewhere like here - on more than one occasion in the past taking hold. She recognised Mikhail but he didn’t recognise her.
The ninth man appeared from the watch room below. He was different from the rest. He was dressed for the sea, and carried with him a barrel that he set down next to the pink light.
"Who is he?" Michelle asked. Her voice was soft but carried and echoed around the wide room. She was certain that the rest of them, particularly the narrow, wiry man in the middle of the circle, had heard her, but none were interrupted from their ceremony.
"He’s the Whaler," Ivan said.
"There’s only one?"
"There’s only one here."
"What’s in the barrel?"
"The blood of his catch."
She didn’t have any more questions. The whaler began to chant. Slowly and quietly and in a language that she neither spoke nor recognised. The other men, Ivan included, lifted their hoods to cover their heads. They stared at the ground in front of them and softly reciprocated. The chant gained not only volume but also melody, harmony, and rhythm. It was enchanting and repugnant in equal measures.
Dreamer watched the whaler carefully, his song constant and unchanging, as he lifted his barrel and held it in front of him. He closed his eyes. Raised the drum above his head. Upturned it, soaked himself in blood. The chant, now a symphony, persevered, unchanging and terrible.
Michelle knew enough about the hunt. She had embarked on a few of them herself. Forty two years had taught her little. She had always been obsessed and bloodthirsty, even if the impending end that she felt rumbling beneath placated her in its finality. Many of these whales had been caught, and she’d bathed in their blood in her own way. Less literal but equally as macabre. Others had escaped, and still swam freely amidst less frozen currents. But what had been the purpose of those long, oft-fruitless searches, if not this? To absorb their power: not in a literal sense, but rather that of their legacy, to feed ego and narcissism on both sides of the screen.
The whaler drew his knife and cut his forearm. He bled into the barrel, his own essence mixing with that of his catch. Then, one by one, the men rose from the circle and approached the barrel. She didn’t find out what they were doing. This is when she left.
The spit of land, which was sheer like a narrow cliff near the peninsula, was more forgiving and approachable on the other side of the lighthouse. She clambered down onto the ice, which felt thick and sturdy underfoot, and carefully began to shimmy across it. The wind picked up, a barrage from all sides, and a thick snow intermittently masked her vision and coated her in a freezing jacket of flakes. But the moon, high and bright and large, almost purple as it reflected a projection of deep space around and beyond it, was a beacon and a herald. She went on. Always, she went on.
The bear was already there, docile and lounging upon the ice, perhaps a stone's throw or two away. Stone-throwing was not advised, though. She was already unsteady on her feet and now she had the bear to think about. She didn't know if it was the same one. Fourteen years is a long time but she imagined they lived for longer. Didn't know for sure. But it was the only one here now, so she felt comfortable referring to it as the bear, not a bear.
This was always the way. Even when it was the mountain and the sea, and twinned obsessions penetrated her mind, rocking its already precarious stability, the two were each one of a kind. Twin fantasies: together only for her, separate in reality and objective perception thereof. So much as it exists.
The bear stared at her with lazy eyes, sad and old, as she crept across the ice towards it. She didn't want to hunt him, as the villagers had years ago and as she might if this adversary was more human. Nor did she wish to dance with him, as she often imagined Masha had during her more poetic moments of indulgent nostalgia. She didn't know exactly what she was doing. She only wished to be close to him. This, too, had always been the way.
She managed this and nothing more. When she was close enough to touch the bear, he casually stood from his semi-slumber. There was no aggression or hostility. Maybe a vague curiosity, but distant and different from her understanding of it. She felt an understanding, a connection, beyond her comprehension of the material world. Alas, as such things often are, this moment of clarity was almost immediately punctured by physics, a phenomenon as powerful as any, and most certainly of this material world… a world that Dreamer has, or had, always tried to move beyond.
The bear's shifting weight disturbed the ice around him. Around Michelle too. The integrity of their frozen platform gave way, at first gradually and then all at once. Dreamer had always felt, in life, like the floor was constantly disappearing from beneath her. Now, at the end of it, she saw some poetry in experiencing the sensation quite literally.
She'd been here before, too. Upon Tsushima. But there was no Last Star to drag her from this cold, watery grave. The bear wouldn't save her.
This was it, she realised.
As the first lungful of water poured through her desperate, parted lips, she realised this was it.
As she thrashed against her end, an instinct that didn't require thought, and found only a ceiling of hard, frozen ice, she realised this was it.
As she fell from the platform, into which the train screeched, she realised this was it.
The ocean filled her lungs. Blurred her vision. She choked to death before she drowned.


The train came to a halt. The doors opened out onto wilderness, a huge purple moon rising overhead. A forest that, except for the rail line that cut directly through it, felt more remote, abstracted, and other than any she'd walked through in life. It was denser than the Tambiev and even the great Taiga, but it had that same lifeless feeling, only amplified, that accompanied those places in the dead of winter.
Michelle stepped out of the train and into this new place. Above her, wires ran in a convoluted network amongst the rooves trees, humming with activity that occasionally flared in pulsating lights of purple and pink and electric blue. That she remembered. Could place, even, as far as that was possible in the fragmented and scattered landscape of her dreams.
A short distance into the forest she came to a clearing in the shape of an octagon. A campfire blazed, flickering slightly in the wisps of wind that managed to snake their way through the dense branches. A pair of people, familiar to both Michelle and you, my dear reader, sat in silence on a felled trunk, passing a bottle of brandy back and forth and sipping from it in what Dreamer thought was a dissatisfied fashion. There was an oldish man and a girl on the cusp of adulthood. Ivan and Masha. The girl, still wearing a pair of bloodstained skates, as if the blades had been used as a murder weapon, offered the bottle to Michelle. Dreamer took a swig and handed it back. Masha continued to drink. Bad parenting, perhaps, but Michelle didn't know if that really mattered anymore.
A rustle in a nearby patch of trees announced the arrival of the fourth character in the scene. Out of the undergrowth and into the clearing emerged the bear. Masha grew anxious. Ivan lit two cigarettes and gave one to Michelle. She smoked it and watched the bear, who was skulking around the perimeter of the campsite as if on guard. Dreamer assumed that he was guarding Ivan and Masha didn't know why. To protect them was the obvious answer, but Michelle felt that the animal was protecting his catch rather than their lives.
"Please, Michelle, sit," Ivan said, as he took the bottle of brandy back from his daughter. The bear, content that the campsite was concealed and safe, sat down at a vertex of the octagon and raised his eyes.
Michelle sat down on a stump across the fire from the log, and as she did the scene began to shift. Or, more truthfully, its characters did. Around Ivan and Masha, everything else remained constant: the trees, the fire, the bottle of brandy. But Ivan and Masha were gone. Only their eyes were the same.
She didn't feel any more or any less comfortable now that she was sitting across the fire from Uncle and Bell. She sensed the metaphor unravelling, as if this shift brought her closer to the nucleus. She was still a fair way from it, though. She turned around to confirm her hypothesis. In place of a polar bear, Jon Snowmantashi sat on the edge of the octagon. Of course. She declined to speak first. JAY! beamed as he gave her the brandy.
"Glad you could finally make it, Dreamer," he began. His tentacles bristled happily as he spoke. "We've all been here for some time."
"Sorry to have kept you waiting," she answered. "Don't suppose you plan on telling me where I am?"
"And ruin the surprise?!" Uncle asked, with ample indignation. "I love surprises, Dreamer! And I abhor spoilers! No, tulip: I'll let you figure this one out for yourself."
"Okay," she said, with a deep and disgruntled sigh at the thought that would be required to follow along. She didn't enjoy riddles. Or thinking, really. "Can I ask you questions?"
"Of course!" JAY! declared. "I love questions almost as much as I love surprises! Fire away?"
"If you can't tell me why I'm here," she began, whilst handing the brandy back to Uncle. She briefly regarded Bell, who sat with her arms folded and a sullen look on her face whilst the other two spoke. "Why are you here? Why you, specifically?"
"Well, that much should be obvious," Uncle said. He scrunched up his face, the contortion suggesting he didn't think the question was worth much. He did his best to subdue the disappointed edge to his tone. "I'm the gatekeeper of the universe, of course! Of the secrets and wonder therein! I am to the cosmos what Ivan was to Tretyakova."
"Was Ivan real?"
"As much as me. As much as you. Although, you and I are from different places. I don't mean Rotterdam and, well, we don't have time for me to say the name of my place of birth. I mean that we had different creators. No, creators isn't the right word. Curators is more like it. But we have been converging for some time, and it is now difficult to tell where I end and you begin. Quite beautiful, don't you think?"
Dreamer did think, but didn't think it was beautiful. She was more confused than touched.
"Ivan reminded me of you," she mumbled. "Even before I’d met you."
"That's not a question," Uncle replied. "And what do you mean by before? Before is a difficult concept for you and I, and not only because of our brief experimentation with the temporal. Our lives don't follow the natural linear progression. They are viewed as if they are images in a kaleidoscope, and only when the contraption is broken will the whole of it be laid bare."
"If you break a kaleidoscope, you can't see anything," Michelle argued. "Not even fragments of the whole."
"It's not a perfect metaphor, I'll admit," Uncle admitted. "But we aren't here to talk about kaleidoscopes. Or Ivan, really. We're here to talk about you, Dreamer. And that endless search of yours."
"My search?" Michelle asked, playing dumb.
"Yes, your search," Uncle repeated. "The one that led you across the world before you met me, and then away from it afterwards."
She nodded her head, almost in defeat. There were times when she thought that maybe, just maybe, Uncle was this great object of the search that had been the one driving factor in her life. Before she'd met him, she didn't exactly know if she was looking for a thing or a place or a feeling or an idea. She least expected it to be a person. Uncle was all of those things, and had brought her closer to truth and clarity than anyone or anything else.
There were other times, though, when she felt as though the COSMIC HORROR asked more questions than he answered, and that he only opened doors that she didn't wish to walk through.
"What's she doing here?" Michelle asked, with a tilt of her head in the direction of Connelly. She almost snarled the pronoun. Uncle shrugged in response
"Her? Haven't the foggiest," Uncle asked and then answered. "Maybe if you'd enquired about the big guy I could provide some insight. We're Goldensiblings, you know? But Connelly? I don't have access to that part of your mind."
"What part of my mind?"
"Don't have the access codes," JAY! replied, whilst shaking his head. "Ask her."
Hesitantly, Dreamer dragged her gaze towards the other woman. What stared back was unsettling: a set of familiar eyes, but they weren't Bell Connelly's. They distracted focus, giving the woman - once an object of Dreamer's obsessive desires, manifesting as both lust and woman - a sense of otherness that almost knocked Michelle off-balance. She clutched the side of the tree stump to steady herself.
Maybe it was the discordant image of Bell staring back at her through someone else's eyes that afforded her a moment of clarity. Perhaps it was simply the view from half-way down. Whatever it was, when she now thought about Bell - the time and energy spent on the chase, and the concept of love that she thought she'd gained comprehension of because of her fragile princess - all she felt was regret. None of her other obsessions filled her with the same sense of dread and wastefulness as the moments spent dwelling, chaotically and uselessly, upon Bell Connelly.
"I don't think I ever loved you," Michelle said. "Not really."
"I know," Bell answered. The voice was hers, even if the eyes weren't. "You were in love with the idea of me. Falling in love with a concept isn't ideal, tulip. Not easy, either. But you sure managed it! You lusted after what I came to represent for you, in your mind and your mind alone. A fragment of you. The thing that was left behind when you ran away from America. The first time, I mean."
"How do you know all this?" Michelle asked. "How do you know my mind?"
"Because I am you, silly!" Bell said. "Or a part of you, to be more precise. The part that deals with the memory of Bell."
"Did Bell know?"
"Did I know what?"
"That I didn't love her. You."
The other woman shrugged.
"How should I know? Maybe, but probably not, if you're forcing me to guess. I'm pretty naive. Impressionable. Easily manipulated and, most importantly, I need others to accept me."
Bell smiled, and then spoke in a voice that wasn't her own.
"The flipside of the coin," she said, and in that moment Dreamer knew where she recognised those eyes. They belonged to Gerald, and suddenly he sat in her place at the campsite. Uncle seemed much more pleased with this new companion. He patted the Daredevil heartily on the back as he continued. "Bell was your great unrequited love, just as you were mine. Not in the same way, obviously. Rather than unreciprocated lust, it's your respect that I craved. To be looked upon as an equal. But this you could never give me."
"We were the champions, Gerald," Michelle replied. "We reigned as equals."
"We were partners at the start," he answered, after a scoff at Dreamer's assertion. "But by the end we'd almost become, what is it that Uncle called it? Goldensiblings? This may sound like progression, but it isn't. Here, with the knowledge afforded to us by this place, we see this for what it is. Convergence again. But almost by force. This isn't the same. And it's what you would've done to Bell, too, if she'd allowed it."
Gerald said no more. She realised that she had come to view him as a projection of Bell, only with sincerity. Sincerity was one of the attributes she least valued. She shuffled anxiously, awkwardly, uncomfortably, and then turned away. The kaiju glared back at her from his spot on the perimeter.
He was the obsession born from inadequacy. A manifestation of her self-loathing and shame; a stark reminder of her physical and mental weaknesses. He was an impenetrable fortress, an unclimbable mountain. This had always enraged her, but now, here, she let the shame wash away in a sea of serenity. Of acceptance. She knew, as she looked into his eyes, his sad, glum, passive eyes, that some wars couldn't be won, that some summits were not to be conquered.
For the first time, she found his indifference endearing. She understood his calm. Bathed in it.
"Are you going to say anything?" she said, finally. She'd asked the same question to the same man a number of times before, both in reality and in dreams, but this time she was smiling. That was new.
"This isn't about me," he said. She nodded her head. Uncle tapped her on the shoulder with the brandy. She took a deep pull, turning her back on the kaiju, and lowered an empty bottle when she was through.
"We're out of drink," Michelle said.
"No we aren't," Uncle answered. Dreamer stared down at the bottle of brandy and realised that it was no longer empty. It was also no longer brandy. She regarded the Jameson's label and smiled to herself.
"Satisfaction is dangerous," a voice said, from the direction of where Uncle was sitting. When she looked up, JAY!'s eyes still stared back at her, but now a mirror image of herself was wearing them. Gerald and the kaiju, too, now only existed as a pair of eyes on a version of Dreamer's stern, pale visage. Michelle didn't flinch. Again, a layer of abstraction was removed from the metaphor. She was close now. Close to the middle. “Especially self-satisfaction.”
"You're them, and you're me," she said.
"That's right," the first Michelle, whose eyes shone with the same brightness as Uncle's, began. "The only parts of them that mattered are those that we shaped, or that shaped us."
"How did they shape us?"
"I'm the adventurer," Uncle Michelle answered. She was more forthright with her answers than her previous companions. Dreamer felt more layers of abstraction being unravelled.
"The follower," Michelle Grayson added.
"The serf," Kaiju Dreamer said.
"Each part of the same whole," Uncle M continued. "The wars fought on Valentine's Day were never with JAY!. The struggles at Mile High and the Anniversary Show were nothing to do with Bell Connelly. The battle in Mexico City wasn't fought against Jon Snowmantashi."
"I understand," Michelle said. "But if it's about me, if it's always been about me, the question simply becomes bigger, as does the hole. I don't know who I am. I don't know where I am, or what I am, or why I am. I only know that I am, or at least that I was."
Dreamer fell silent. The others didn't reply. They stared at the fire. She pulled from the whiskey and attempted to pass it on, but only one of her companions remained. He sat on the centre of the log, and reached across to where Ivan (and then Uncle J (and then Uncle M)) had been sitting to retrieve the bottle. As he did, Dreamer noticed that wires ran from his fingers and wrists in all directions, the centre point of the network she'd seen above the trees when she'd first disembarked the train. And before, many times in many places, and always in dreams.
She'd seen the man before, too. Twice, in fact. Once on a bridge in Richmond, and once more on a train to nowhere. She had been dreaming on at least one of these occasions.
The old man, whose kindly smile was the one describable feature on his otherwise unremarkable face, was regarding the bottle thoughtfully.
"Jameson's," he began, with a sense of wistfulness and nostalgia. "Has been a while. Sort of lost the taste for it. But I was in that phase back in 2016, I imagine. Well, the evidence is right in front of me."
He took one short pull from the bottle before handing it back to Michelle.
"Are those your wires?" she asked.
"They're mine and they're yours," he answered. "In different senses. They’re strings, not wires."
"Your name is Charlie?" she asked. "I think I remember that."
"Charlie is what they often call me," he said. "But, if you'd believe it, it was a name given to me by someone else. A misunderstanding, or a misremembering. Maybe a misnomer. You can pick the label. But perception is important. Perception becomes reality."
Dreamer was lost in something resembling thought. She wasn't capable of much of it here, she found. Something about the thick air and the general smog of confusion that lay upon the scene slowed the cogs. But she knew the unravelling of the abstraction was complete. They had reached the centre. He was the centre. The very centre of her. She had some idea of what that meant.
"You created me?" she asked, bluntly.
"In a manner of speaking," he answered. She was unsurprised by his candour. She heard his words before he said them, almost. "But it is more true that you are a part of me. An important one."
"I've never felt important," she said. "And less so now than ever. None of it mattered?"
"It mattered to me," Charlie said. "Even if, at times I was screaming into the wind, or an abyss, or a void. There were times, I must confess, when my dear readers were not so dear. But you were always a vessel for thought and feeling, a conduit for understanding."
"I'm glad I could help you," Michelle shot back. Charlie smiled at the sarcasm. "A shame you couldn't do the same for me. A little understanding might have helped."
"What do you think I'm doing right now?"
A brief pause. The wind whistled through the tree tops and Charlie's string, which still pulsated with a strange, unnameable energy.
"Am I dead?" she asked, finally.
"You have been for a while."
"Was I ever alive?"
"As much as anyone else."
She took his hand and followed him into the woods.
The von Horrowitz household had a lot of cats when Michelle was a child. One of them, a tabby named Charlie, took particular interest in the floor-to-ceiling mirror in Michelle's bedroom. On the day they brought him home from the shelter, he mistook his reflection for a potential rival. For the first few months of his life, Charlie would complete this daily ritual, staring at himself in Michelle's mirror with mistrust before launching into a ferocious but ultimately futile series of attacks. Eventually, lamenting the wits and guile of his fierce opponent, Charlie would scarper away and lick his wounds. On the day they had to put him to sleep, he sat by the mirror, staring at his reflection and dozing in and out of sleep. He was an image of comfort. Michelle would never manage this degree of self-acceptance, but it's nice to think that Charlie did. Charlie was a good cat. They buried him under a patch of tulips on the twenty second of July.
 

Tommy Bedlam

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A Man Called Justice
Part 2

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“Who the fuck does he think he is? Get this goddamn mic off me!”

Shawn was furious. He had refused to lower himself to attending Fallout 31 in Guadalajara, agreeing only to appear via satellite. Somehow, Tommy Bedlam wormed his way into Shawn’s segment and then refused to answer Summers’ challenge. Did Bedlam really have no fucking clue who he was dealing with? Was “The Cowboy” really that much of an egomaniac, or was he as stupid as everyone else who called Texas home?

Shawn tried to call Rupert Watkins, but got no answer. He knew that Uncle Ru was at Fallout. Shawn assumed that he was in a meeting with Russnow or someone else who made decisions. He waited five minutes and tried to call again. No answer. Ten minutes later, another call, and another message telling him that Rupert’s voicemailbox was full.
Rupert. Call me. Now
Delivered

Shawn sat there, his cell phone in one hand and the television remote in the other. He didn’t want to watch Fallout, but he wasn’t getting any sort of response from Rupert. Why would he watch the show? He wasn’t there, so it was really nothing more than a group of mid-card wrestlers who wanted to be him.

He sat there in stony silence as Toner beat Randall. He watched a segment that went on entirely too long as Jason Randall whored himself out to the crowd who didn’t care about him. They just wanted to see him create chaos. He grew annoyed as Lizzie Rose, Princess Nova, and Keres ate up a large portion of Fallout’s remaining time. “Just what we need. Women out here trying to wrestle,” Shawn mumbled to himself.

Shawn got up and paced around the room. He knew there was no point in calling Uncle Ru again. He still hadn’t read the text message. The show went from bad to worse. The Connection running into Bell Connelly, who no one had given a flying fuck about in years made way for a trios tag match between more people that didn’t impress Summers. In Shawn’s mind, the announcement of the Trios Championship was just another bad decision in a long line of bad decisions the FWA was making. Deep down, he knew it was because he would never be able to find two people willing to team with him.

He sat there for what felt like forever. More matches, more segments, none of it mattering to him until finally, he heard “Wanted Dead or Alive.” His lips snarled as the crowd sang along to a 40-year-old rock song that had somehow become the anthem of Tommy Bedlam. And of course, he was on a goddamn horse. Why wouldn’t he be?

Shawn was almost amused by Tommy’s relentless pandering to a group of foreigners. He really was committed to doing anything to fit in with whatever crowd the FWA was pandering to, wasn’t he?

Then, it happened. Shawn sat there in stunned silence, clutching the small glass of expensive bourbon that he had been sipping on for most of the show. As he watched Tommy rip the hood from Rupert’s head, he squeezed the glass so hard that it cracked, slicing his palm open. As the alcohol slowly seeped into his blood, Shawn was overcome with a rage, unlike any rage that he had ever felt.

That’s how this fucking cowboy was going to accept his challenge? Who in the fuck did he think he was dealing with?

“Fine, Bedlam. You want to play dirty, I’ll be the dirtiest motherfucker that you’ve ever encountered.”

Bill. We need to meet. Tuesday. Noon. Roscoe.
-Jacob

Delivered
Read

Shawn didn’t want to create any sort of papertrail, so he didn’t book a plane ticket. Instead, he set out in his Trans Am, opting to make the 17-hour drive from Laguna Beach to Sweetwater himself. As he threw the TV remote into the wall, shattering it into pieces, he stormed towards his bedroom. He pulled out the file that Sheriff Harris had given him months earlier, read it for the hundredth time, and started packing. Packing and thinking.


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Texas. The home of backwoods hicks and a wave of illegal immigrants scrambling across the southern border like cockroaches when the lights get turned on. For a place that claimed to espouse true, traditional American values, it certainly had the feeling of Mexico North. Just before The Grand March, Shawn had driven all the way into Sweetwater, the home of Tommy Bedlam. After everything that had gone on over the last couple months, Shawn decided he should try to hold his meetings outside of Tommy’s hometown. Too many people in the area knew who he was, and none of them liked him.


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As Shawn veered left, taking the exit towards Roscoe, TX, he found himself once again being torn between what the town felt like and what he knew it was. On the surface, it looked like the kind of town that John Mellencamp would write a song about. A place where men worked hard to provide for their families, while their wives took care of things on the homefront, just the way it was supposed to be.

The fact that he was only 9 miles away from Sweetwater, a town that had become obsessed with Tommy Bedlam, made Shawn a bit sick to his stomach. How could people who knew the truth about what society was supposed to look like throw their unyielding loyalty behind a man who knocked a woman up outside of wedlock, and then somehow, landed her a job where she showed off her body for millions of FWA fans? The fact that she dared to involve herself in Shawn’s business cemented the fact that Tommy wasn’t only a shitty Texan, he was making a mockery of the American values that he claimed to espouse.

He didn’t have enough service to get a text out, which meant he couldn’t confirm the meeting that he had set up. He had nothing to worry about. Sheriff William Harris, or “Bill,” as he had allowed Shawn to call him, had every intention of meeting at noon just as they had agreed. He had more answers for Shawn and he had some questions of his own.

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“The ‘Famous’ Roscoe Diner,” Shawn thought to himself. “Place looks like a breeding ground for Hepatitis A, B, C, and at least three letters they hadn’t come up with yet." Shawn would never eat at such a place. He deserved the finer things in life, not the sort of dysentery that people get from eating at places the Health Department should shut down. It also wasn’t lost on Shawn that if this place was so “famous,” there should be more cars in the parking lot. Outside of a rusted-out Chevy Silverado that looked like it was held together with Bondo and duct tape, there wasn’t a soul there.

Shawn sat in his car for a few moments, his heart rate increasing. If Bill wasn’t coming, he should’ve let him know. Bill had no jurisdiction in Roscoe, but there was no way for Shawn to go back to Sweetwater. The only restaurant there was Larry’s Longhorn Bar and Grill, and the owner had held Shawn at gunpoint until the police arrived the last time he was there. Roscoe was the best he could do, and this shithole diner was the only eatery in town.

After what felt like an hour, an unmarked Crown Victoria pulled into the parking lot, careful not to park too closely to Shawn’s Trans Am. Following the orders that Shawn had given him, Bill walked into the diner first. Shawn watched attentively as the sheriff from the neighboring town took his seat in a booth away from the windows.

Shawn stepped out of his car and pulled his Houston Astros ball cap down low. He reached into the backseat and pulled out a Wrangler button-down shirt that he threw on over his black wife-beater. Shawn wasn’t used to attending meetings in jeans and boots, but remaining under the radar was crucial.

He didn’t acknowledge the waitress behind the lunch counter, moving across the diner deliberately and sliding into the booth across from Bill.

“Jacob.”

“Bill.”

“Why in the hell haven’t you used what I gave you?”

“Because it wasn’t time to use what you gave me. Listen, ‘Sheriff,” when you handed me that file, it became my property. That means that I get to use it at my discretion. Did I need it for the TV Title Match? Obviously not. I’m still the fucking champion.”


Sue, the waitress who had been there longer than the tattered old booths that littered the perimeter of the room, made her way over to the table.

“Can I get you fellas anything?”

“I’ll have a coffee, Sue.”

“Water. Bottled water.”

“I gave that to you because I need a voice louder than mine to get the truth out there. Most of the town is still happy that Bobby Ray is dead, but that’s because most of them still don’t believe that their native son, Tommy Bennett, Bedlam, whatever he goes by now, would do such a thing. I’ve got a re-election campaign coming up, and do you realize how good it would look for me if I could get this case to get the traction it deserves?”

“Do you really think I give a good goddamn about your re-election campaign? Bill, I don’t give a fuck about Sweetwater, you, Texas, or anything else around here. I care about keeping my titles. If I thought that having a press conference that announced that I had proof that Tommy Bedlam was a murderer would help me do that, I would’ve dropped the hammer.”

“You really are a selfish son of a bitch, aren’t you, Shawn?”


Summers’ eyes darted around the room. They had agreed that Bill wouldn’t use Shawn’s first name any time that they met. Summers’ bleach blonde hair and perfect complexion already made him stand out in these little backwoods hellholes that they met in. That’s why he was stuck wearing that ridiculous baseball cap.

“Watch your mouth with me, Sheriff. If you had enough evidence to get this case reopened, you would have done it yourself. And my name is Jacob.”

“Fine, ‘Jacob.’ What brings you back to The Lonestar State? You’re the one who demanded we meet.”

“Did you happen to see what Tommy did on Friday night?”

“Can’t say as I did.”

“Long story short, he disrespected me. I extended him an offer for another shot at my titles, and he spit in my face. He also hurt someone very close to me, and now he needs to pay.”

“Then have the goddamn press conference. When someone with your pull comes out and says that they have proof that Tommy Bedlam is a murderer, Governor Abbot won’t have any choice but to let me reopen the case. Your boss will cancel the match, and Tommy will be gone."

“What do you mean ‘let you?’”


The Sheriff slid down in his booth, his eyes giving away the fact that he was hiding something.

“What are you not telling me, Bill?”

“Goddammit, I’ve been trying to reopen this whole Bobby Ray thing for a long time. A couple days after the coroner wrote it up as a meth lab explosion, I got a call from somebody who lives down the street from Tommy and Randi. She wanted to remain confidential, but it wasn’t real hard to figure out who she was. Smalltown USA gossip mill, and she had been running around for weeks talking about what an abomination that it was that there was an illegitimate child on the way.”

“She’s right, you know.”


The Sheriff couldn’t exactly openly agree with Shawn. He had fathered at least three illegitimate children of his own, none of which his wife knew about.

“Whether that’s the case or not, I figured out who she was. She told me that she saw Tommy jump in his truck and take off after Bobby Ray. Her husband was at Larry’s Longhorn Bar and Grill and saw Tommy run in there with Scotty. They were acting real weird around the counter. A couple hours later, the volunteer fire department got called out to an explosion at Bobby Ray’s. It’s circumstantial, but there’s also some stuff in that file I gave you that would help you and me both out.”

“I’ve read it. I’ve read it all.”

“I figured you had.”


The most damning piece of evidence that was never entered into official evidence but found itself in the folder came from the Sheriff's nephew who claimed to see Scotty and Tommy out around Bobby Ray’s place. It couldn’t get into the official report because the boy was out there scoring his weekly supply of meth. The boy also claimed that he heard a gunshot, or maybe two gunshots, he couldn’t remember, a couple minutes before the trailer went up in flames.

“If you were me, how would you play this, Bill? I’m curious.”

“What matters more to you than anything else, Jacob?”

Summers tensed up a bit. He had never been completely transparent with anyone before, and it was unlikely that he was going to start with a crooked sheriff from some shithole town that was overrun with drugs and Mexicans. What sort of answer was he going to give? It sure wasn’t going to be the truth.

“Bill, contrary to what you may have heard about me, I’m a man of the people. I hate the way that Tommy Bedlam has convinced people that he’s some sort of blue-collar, everyman hero. He’s lying to them. You know that and I know that, but the general population just doesn’t see it.”

“How bout you cut the shit with me, Sha-Jacob? You’re no more a man of the people than I am. The people are stupid, and they just run after whoever tells them what they wanna hear. In my world, that means telling people that you’re going to get drugs off the streets and keep Mexicans on their side of the wall where they belong. Am I ever gonna do any of that shit? Fuck no. Those drug dealers pay me good money to turn a blind eye to what they’re doing. I pick up an occasional teenager selling pot out behind the mall, and they drool all over themselves thinking that I’m winning the ‘War on Drugs.’ Fuck, Reagan started that catchphrase in 1986, and people like me have been winning elections with it ever since.”

“Sheriff…I’m appalled.”


Both men laughed.

“I’m sure you are. I grab an occasional undocumented kid who gets sticky fingers down at the Stop n’ Shop, throw him in a cage until we send him home, and suddenly, I’m protecting the great state of Texas from the illegals. You tell ‘em what they wanna hear. From where I’m sitting, Tommy may do that a little better than you, and I think that bothers you.”

“You think it bothers me that people fawn over that fucking hypocrite?”

“As a matter of fact, I do. We’re not so different.”

“You’re….you’re…right. Fine. Is that what you wanna hear?”


The Sheriff folded his hands over his bulging gut, a satisfied smirk coming across his face.

“Those titles mean more to me than anything in this world. They force people to respect me. When FWA fans turn on a show, they know that even if I’m not there, my fingerprints are all over two separate divisions. When the boys in the back see me walk through the locker room, they know that if they’re ever gonna move up the card, they’re gonna have to climb over me to do it. When the girls in the back see me, including Randi, they wonder what it’d be like to be with a real man, a champion. Those two titles mean more to me than anything else.”

“And you don’t like that Bedlam wants them?”

“I don’t like anybody that wants them, which means I don’t like anybody. Everybody wants to be Shawn Summers.”

Everybody but Shawn Summers.

“So you’re this committed to destroying the life of anyone who you come up against?”

“Yes and no.”


The sheriff leaned across the table. So close that Summers could smell the stale coffee that rolled off his breath.

“Then what’s so different about Bedlam?”

“Bill, I wake up every morning in a house that’s worth more than Tommy Bedlam’s life. I climb out of bed and put on a robe that cost more than his truck. When I sit down for my morning tea, I look at two championships that make me a big fucking deal. I can stand up and hold one of them in each hand. Tommy doesn’t have that. But, he has a woman who for some reason is crazy about him, and a kid on the way. He’s going to have something in each hand. If he beats me, he’ll have a title over each shoulder and someone who cares about him on each side. I’ll have nothing. I can’t let that happen.”

“So what are you proposing?


“I can beat Bedlam, but wrestling is a fickle mistress. I want some insurance. If something happens and I falter, he has everything and I’m left with nothing.”

“How can I help?”


Shawn reaches into the booth beside him and picks up a blank manilla envelope.

“I can’t go back to Sweetwater. Too many people looking for me. So I want you to make sure Bedlam gets this letter. If he tries to take everything from me, I’ll take everything from him.”

The sheriff took the envelope and slowly opened it.

JeWWFsC7pXl2cutB47FyywHHBcLxZrut8BRgrz5jJNuWQIxfw-HYMl9p0BWqi9ZtVgL-sOj_2fZjd8xJRMl__OCL-7Z-Yat-ViwkMKKBsg2yPWyPyl1kJRHLtlMMJqodcjin0CxcgH-b6pfY04GCtDo

Tommy,

I know what you did, and soon everyone else will too unless you’re willing to play ball. Lose at BiB or the world finds out.”

Thanks,
Sheriff William Harris


"Thanks, Bill. I knew I could count on you.”
 
Last edited:

weaselperson

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Joined
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Messages
40
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80
Points
18
v. MvH

Kaiju had not always been known as an indominable mountain. When he first entered professional wrestling, Jon Snowmantashi cared very little for the sport. He'd had no interest in anything else in his youth. He was a middling student with little prospects, and littler willingness. A fraudulent wrestling scout trained him and then recruited him for the then-regional NWA: Japan company. Snowmantashi met early success solely on account of his weight advantage. But after his first defeat, a championship challenge, the losses began to gradually pile-up. His opponents learned how to work around his weight, and he didn't learn to rely on anything but his weight. He made no effort to maintain his physique between matches, and had never bothered training since he'd graduated from his scout's school.

Truth be told, he was still considered "the Mountain" at the time, but hardly for the same reasons he's titled as such today. Jon Snowmantashi, realizing that he had nothing else going for him, and deeply resenting the string of defeats he suffered, had been thoroughly humbled. He decided to dedicate himself to the sport, the first time he'd chosen to dedicate himself to anything. It is very possible that Jon could have dropped this dedication swiftly after, but it just so happened that he landed in the lap of American gaijin legend KAITADESU. It was a marriage of shared circumstances. KAITADESU, despite his accomplishments and reputation, was a foreigner and a gruff man. He had no desire to return home, but the sporadic matches he wrestled weren't enough to keep his rent paid. He attempted to open a wrestling school, but on account of his vicious methods, and his foreign status, he found little success.

Jon Snowmantashi became that little success. KAITADESU's vicious methods were somehow the perfect match for Jon who hardened, and developed a similarly vicious streak. KAITADESU and Snowmantashi often emerged from training sessions with chests redened, swollen, and ripped from their brutal chop battles. As time went by, KAITADESU was often the only one of the two limping out of the gym.

When Jon Snowmantashi finally returned to NWA: Japan due to a missing competitor, he was victorious in a tag team match without ever tagging his partner. Snowmantashi quickly found himself rivaled with the veteran who felt disrespected by the lack of tag, but this rivalry was short-lived, and Snowmantashi stunned the Hall with a victory in six minutes. Snowmantashi became NWA:JP World Champion within a year, and reigned dominant in the position for the next half-decade, with reigns broken up through the wear and tear of a career. He had earned a reputation for the stranglehold he held on the title when he was active. The few times the belt had not been in his possession were during the resting periods he took after losing a title, and the time it took for him to return, and have his first opportunity at winning it again.

Snowmantashi's first breakthrough towards an international audience came in his budding partnership and rivalry with Canadian Independent superstar Jonathan McGuinnis. The pairing were called the Suicide Dive Squad on account of their tandem suicide dive, and would go on to pair up both in Japan and the US. They also had their share of singles matches, though it was Snowmantashi who walked away victorious in these early exchanges.
Spurred on by his rivalry with The Indy God, Kaiju, as he then began being called, travelled the globe to fight the greatest champions he could find. Snowmantashi had a preference towards facing would-be superstars who were either the stars of their companies, or were looking for the notable win that would establish them as that. He believed himself to be the Mountain, and a Mountain's purpose is to be as Mountainous as it can be. To Kaiju, that meant being unclimbable. And to assure he retained that status, he challenged the most daring of climbers. Kaiju emerged from this world tour assured of his capabilities, but as he completed the task of vanquishing a luchador supernova in Mexico City, his eyes looked towards the north, where Jonathan McGuinnis reigned as the World Champion of one of the premier companies in the globe, the CWA.

Snowmantashi joined the CWA and though his early days did not find him as much success as he'd become used to, the Kaiju found his form and achieved perhaps the greatest run of his career. Snowmantashi would go on to win the World Championship from McGuinnis himself (though he'd lose the belt back to the man in a Steel Roulette, he would go on to win it back a second time). Snowmantashi's dominant run in the CWA included several victories over McGuinnis, a title defense run in the Ruler of the Ring tournament featuring victories over Krash and an Echo Brother, former champion Prince Pain, current-FWA double champion Shawn Summers, and Wrestle Royale winners LIGHTBRINGER... and 'Dreamer' Michelle von Horrowitz.

The first time Kaiju had laid eyes upon Michelle, it would be honest to say that he was not impressed. This was a shallow impression, of course, on account of the size different. But Michelle quickly earned his ire, and wrath, after a string of dishonorable tactics leading up to their eventual encounter at Five Star Attraction. Snowmantashi had vowed to Dreamer that he would do the same to her as he had done to countless rising stars across the globe, the very same vow he would go on to make the year after to LIGHTBRINGER: he cared not for her self-assessed destiny. Cared not for those expectations she had of herself. Cared not for the culmination of her lifelong journey. He was Kaiju. A force of nature. Unstoppable. Uncaring. Unmerciful. And so, Dreamer was defeated. Just another star that could not shine brightly enough. Another dream that would not come true.
But for Dreamer, this hadn't been the end of the story. Michelle von Horrowitz would go on to bear a grudge she could not shake. This was not an unusual pattern for Michelle, Snowmantashi would eventually discover, but though he may have been noted on her list of grudges, more names would follow and be crossed out before the affair between two would truly be settled. Of these grudges, the most notable would be Bell Connelly (whom just so happened to have teamed with Snowmantashi against a team composed of Michelle and FWA legend PAJ), and her husband, Chris Kennedy (whom Snowmantashi would go on to face in 2021 in a match Michelle herself intervened in).

Michelle would suffer setbacks against both, but emerge victorious in the deciding showdown. The former, in a World Championship defense, her first ever defense. And the latter in a Back in Business streak-killing match. Now, with Jon Snowmantashi declaring that he would be retiring once and for all, Michelle had desperately sought her final showdown, the one where she would emerge victorious and close the book on the sordid story. Snowmantashi had little interest in another match with Michelle. The truth is, while he did acknowledge her talent, she had faltered as of late. Spent her time in tag team matches, and some fatal singles losses - to Thomas West in an embarassing dozens of seconds; to Alyster Black in the Climaxxx; to Peacock in a three-way with Truth - had served to lessen Kaiju's interest.

But then she dangled a prize that even Kaiju could not reject. Her career. She was offering him her last match ever, if he would win. Michelle was still in her early 30s, she had accomplished more than most, had solidified her place in the history books, even with her significant defeats, she was the most dominant wrestler in the world, and she still had more to come. She had more success waiting in the wings. She could possibly even be better, if that was believable. She could establish a career that would surpass every career that had come before her in the FWA. These were all within reach.
Unless she made a challenge whereby she would never wrestle another match if she could not beat Kaiju at Back in Business. Her burgeoning Back in Business streak would end. Her pursuit of a Grand Slam would end. Her dreams of a World Title run that would be remembered for years to come would end. Her pursuit of 100 victories would end. Her chances of vengeance against Peacock and FTN would end. Her anticipated showdown with Danny Toner would never happen. The Valentine's Day date would never come to pass again. The Volumes would be no more. The reign of terror would stop. The one who carried the Nephews banner above all Nephews, would no longer be there, and what would come of those Nephews, then? The woman every wrestler in the FWA feared would be gone forevermore. It would be the singular biggest loss the FWA would ever feel.

She had offered this to Kaiju. She had offered this not because she was willing to risk everything... but because she was still the very same Dreamer he had faced many, many years ago. Dreamer who believed that this was her moment. That fate had written this script. Every step she had taken. Every victory and every loss. They had been building to this moment. Her vengeance against Bell. Against Kennedy, They were to prepare her for the mountain she had once failed to climb. This was the last ghost holding her back. She would do this, and she would be reborn. The loss of the tag titles would be a thing of the past. The world would be at her fingertips.

Snowmantashi would have to remind her once again that this was not a fairy tale. It was not the perfect story. There was no happy ending. She had made a fatal mistake, and she would have to suffer the consequences for it. Truly, suffer the consequences. There'd be no going around this. No circumventing it. No exceptions. She would never wrestle another match. All her hopes... all her dreams, would be dashed.

Kaiju was the Mountain. Indominable. Unclimbable. Countless had tried, and all had fallen.

One might say that Kaiju had every reason to desire to defeat Michelle, even beyond the glory of snuffing out her candle. Michelle had assault Kaiju time and time again, going back to before their first showdown. She had costs him opportunities in the Gold Rush. Had ruined fateful matches in the FWA. Had blown up his dojo.

But, these were not factors for Kaiju. When he was in the ring, his fury was unquenchable, and nothing could be added to the flames that would make any difference. Snowmantashi was a monster. Provocation was unnecessary. He would terrorize. He would destroy. And he would leave everything behind as a wasteland. That's what Kaiju's do. And when it was over, Snowmantashi would walk, and he would not glance again to Michelle. He would never again look at a wrestling ring. Never again think of Dreamer. Or of any of his many successes. He would move on with his life. Find something that would steal his heart. Like he had stolen wrestling's.
 

weaselperson

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v. dragonperson

weaselperson was excited for Back in Business. The first time he had been in the FWA, he'd held back his excitement for these type of events. He believed that the name of the event itself didn't matter. There was a wrestling ring. There was an opponent. That's all that matter. The building, the arena, the company, the prize on the line if there was one, the size of the audience, the referee, the commentators. None of that stuff matter. Just you. Your opponent. The four corners of the ring (and if there was more than four corners, he was pissed).

He had reduced wrestling to its most essential components, and to him, anything that went beyond that was irrelevant. It diluted the beautiful sport. Combat between two individuals, within a firm list of rules. A smart, tactical affair, where skill, and willpower won out.

Things were never that simple. He knew that before he even got to the FWA. He'd wrestled around the world. Faced all sorts of characters. He'd worn a mask in Mexico, even. But when he got to the FWA, he believed, in his heart of hearts, that he could change the FWA. That they would do away with the Trial by Fires, the thirty man battle royals to determined title challengers, the gimmicky title belts. He would do that by doing what he did best: wrestling. But he also stood firm by his values... too firm. He won the X Championship and refused to defend it in anything but pure rules. Soon enough, he was forced to either defend it in an X Rules match or relinquish it. He relinquished it.

He turned his eyes towards the FWA World Championship, sacrificing his pride and participating in the Carnal Contendership, where he finished second. He lost his chance to main event at Back in Business, to defeat Cyrus Truth, to change the FWA forever. And oh, did he try not to think about what could've been. But sometimes he had a moment of weakness and he did think about it. He thought about how he would've beaten Truth the way he did just recently. And Bell Connelly never would've touched the belt, he'd already proven she couldn't compete in the ring with him. Her delirium didn't work against a man who didn't play those pitiful games. Chris Kennedy, he surely would've tested him. Maybe bested him. He was all too aware that he wasn't a perfect wrestler after that loss to Danny Toner, so maybe he didn't have it in him to beat Kennedy at the time. Or maybe that momentum, that's what he'd long needed but was missing. But the person he was back then, he would've cared nothing for momentum. All that matter was your skill, and your willpower.

And then there was Saint Sully, who some would argue had changed since they'd fought long ago, but he doubted he'd changed enough. That low period, it never would've happened. And the endless barrage of title switches, not if he'd stuck around.

What if?

All of that was very optimistic, to be sure, but if he'd fantasize for one sliver of a second, then at least he'd allow himself to fantasize quite optimistically.
In the end, he knew, he knew, he knew, he knew that it didn't happen. He lost. And he lost his willpower. And his skill was nothing without his willpower. And he became a laughing stock. And WOLF, the legend he thought he could wrestle circles around, won the North American Championship, the consolation prize that should've been him.

He left. Tried again against Devin Golden. And you know how that story goes. Roll-up win over Devin. He's pissed it was a roll-up. Round two, submission match, a request because he needed to make Golden tap out. But he didn't. He's the one that tapped out. Round three, the ultimate test. An I Quit match. Call it a submission match with a bit more drama if you want to. But he'd vowed that if he quit, he was really quitting. Quitting it all. Never coming back. If he quit, then he didn't deserve to wrestle another match.

And he did quit.

And for 3 years, he didn't wrestle again. Until a person was run over. Was skinned. And this skin was given to him. And he took his name. And he took his identity, and he came back to the FWA to wrestle in the Carnal Contendership with a dream of making up for that failure from 6 years ago. And... he came second. To Cyrus Truth. He wouldn't get that storybook return. The redemption. It wasn't his to have.

And his heart faltered for a moment. But he kept it pumping. He challenged Cyrus Truth, the man who had unceremoniously tossed him over the ropes. And when they faced off, weaselperson did what few had ever witnessed, he made Truth tap out. He made the Vagabond King. The most feared and respected man in the roster tap out. He was one of the best. He always knew he was one of the best. But failing to beat Golden those many years before. Failing to live up to his potential the first time around. It shook his faith in himself. But this restored it, at last.

And then he made his challenge. He was a new person. He had improved upon his mistakes from the past. He had learned to appreciate wrestling, in its every facet. The ridiculous outfits. The stupid names. The ring sizes. The companies. The fires. The X-Rules. The Golden Opportunities. The pay-per-views. The main event spotlight. The entrance music. The crowd. The chants. These were all part of wrestling. And just a tiny fraction of it. Wrestling was a spectacle where everyone could find a place. He'd been wrong, not simply wrong, but quite fascistic about how he conceived of wrestling.

And he'd seen first hand how ridiculous he'd sounded for speaking as he did. Every week was another opportunity for someone to criticize his choice to become weaselperson. To make a joke about popping weasels, about roadkill, about rodentpeople. He was ignored. Looked down upon. All because of the costume. Tapping out Truth hadn't even changed a thing. Going that far in the Contendership, nada. But this was his way of rectifying things. It was his way of holding up the silly end of wrestling that he'd naively buried.

And with this turning of pages, he looked towards Back in Business, the Back in Business, the biggest event of wrestling, with excitement. He decided to be healthy, and to allow himself to be excited. Not simply was he going to wrestle at Back in Business, but his handpicked opponent had accepted the challenge. Alright, not exactly what he'd intended, but he had no issue with how things turned out.

Alyster Black was one of the toughest wrestlers there was. He was relentless. Brutal. Tossed aside his morals when he stepped into the ring. One of the hardest hitting, bone breaking strikers to have stepped foot in the ring. And if weaselperson had to list everyone he wanted to face in the FWA when he returned, when it came to simply having a go at the most dangerous person he could find, there was no one more dangerous than Alyster. No one willing to go further than him.

A part of him feared that Alyster would leave after Carnal Contendership. The third place finish would've done to him what weaselperson's own shortcomings had done, taken him off the road. Killed his will. So he made his challenge. Demanded that he not succumb to his disappointment, and that he step up and fight the man who'd taken him out.

And at first Black Jesus had ignored weaselperson. And then he'd made a joke of it, calling himself dragonperson. That was the technicality part of facing Black at Back in Business. And though weaselperson got a belt to the back of the head courtesy of FWA World Champion Chris Peacock in ascertaining his challenge, he got his challenge in the end. Plus he made Peacock pass out while he was at it, and that was more than a fair exchange in his eyes.
But now he got to focus on dragonperson only. And he'd consider him dragonperson with a great deal of respect. It could be possible that Black was still solely interested in mocking weaselperson in embracing the moniker, but weaselperson would treat him with respect. He knew who was under that costume, and who was under that costume represented the costume itself. That meant that dragonperson could hit you with one shot and kill you. He could make you ride the bomb to hell. He could bust your brains in. Invited you to a violence party. Make you bleed out of every orifice. Break your neck. Split your nose with an elbow. Kick your head off. Make you scream that you tap out. Give you the biggest beat down of your life at ringside. And then some.

That was dragonperson.

And weaselperson? He wasn't someone you should ignore either. weaselperson knew every way the human body should bend, and naturally, every way it shouldn't bend. He knew where to apply pressure in just the right spot to make you shed tears of pain. weaselperson could make the most headstrong, stubborn man tap out. weaselperson could make the toughest man pass out. weaselperson could knee the shit out of your skull. weaselperson could slip out of every move you can think of. weaselperson can turn your glorious brainbuster into a sleeper hold that'll live up to his name. weaselperson is a technical wizard, a submission specialist, a wrestling genius. Because the person under that weaselperson mask is the man who could've been.
At Back in Business, weaselperson would find a man that was perfectly suited to him as an opponent. The most bad ass brawler on god's green earth, facing off with a submission terminator. Two styles that were quite different, but brutal in their own ways. And to sum it up like that would be doing a disservice to the two wrestlers: dragonperson and weaselperson. Because they weren't just brawlers or technical wrestlers. They had multitudes. They were veterans. They'd been around. They could do what the other could as well. And then some.

Most of all, weaselperson was happy to go to war with dragonperson. He was happy to pull out every and any obscure submission from his book and to see what would make dragonperson rawr, and what would make him squeal, and what would make him say that he couldn't go anymore. And he was masochistically thrilled at the thought of being able to take one of his elbows, of being stricken down with the violence part, of being dropped on his head, maybe even from the top turnbuckle. He wanted it. And he wanted to prove that he could take all of that, and he could get back up.

He wanted to prove that he had the willpower again. That loss against Danny Toner, that was just a slip up. Being eliminated at the last hurdle of the Carnal Contendership, rough luck. But when it came down to it, weaselperson wanted to know that he could take the absolute fucking worst, and stand up afterwards. That's what he desired. And there was no one who could do that to him besides dragonperson.

So yeah. He was excited for Back in Business. He was excited for this match like he'd been excited for no other. When he stepped out of those curtains, he planned to bask in the moment. To appreciate the song echoing across Mexico City. To admire the sound of Kurt Harrington's voice as he's announced. To listen to those barks, those barks that are for him. To nod at Jean-Luc Watkins, that piece of shit, and Allen Price, and Rod Sterling, and Anzu Kurosawa, and whoever else is at ringside. To acknowledge that he's there with them. And they're going to put on a show. To steal the show. And he's going to shake the referee's hand. And nod to the camera man. And every agent. And every wrestler he sees on the way to gorilla. And he's going to sign every autograph anyone wants.

He's going to take in the moment. He might even shed some tears, underneath his mask. Then he's going to step in that ring. And he's going to wait for dragonperson. And the bell is going to ring. And Mexico City will watch two men torture the shit out of each other, and it's going to be the greatest match of his career to that point. And then the bell is going to ring again, and they're going to hold his hand up. And hey, maybe, just maybe, weaselperson and dragonperson will shake hands. No. They won't. Because whoever is losing is getting dragged out of there in a gurney. But maybe dragonperson might offer him a thumbs up, and weaselperson will give him a thumbs up, and that'll be good enough. And with the crowd barking, and rawring, that'll be more than good enough.

So yeah. He really, really was excited for Back in Business.
 

weaselperson

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Joined
Feb 27, 2023
Messages
40
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v. FTN & Aka Manto

Zom Gippy and Makima Snowmantashi sat huddled in an abandoned hut in the middle of nowhere.
"Things aren't going exactly as planned," Makima observed.
Zom Gippy took a deep breath. Though she was typically subservient to Makima, and respectful, and deferred to her in most matters, her patience had finally run out with the Last Twinkle in the Sky, seeing as it was quite possible they could die soon. Or Makima would die, Zom Gippy would be mostly fine.
Zom Gippy had practiced her sarcasm quite a bit recently, it was becoming her armor against Makima's chaotic aura.
"You mean, when you decided to accept an investigation from Boss Izaya to have us play a game that allegedly abducts people while were supposed to be preparing for our tag team title match, and landed us in a world of monsters, diseases, civil war, racism at every corner, witch hunts, bandits, and lawless militia, and then got yourself further cursed in being unable to sleep, none of that was was part of the plan."
"The first part where we get abducted into a video game as part of an investigation was part of the plan."
"We should've been training, working on our teamwork."
"This was supposed to kill two birds in one stone."
"We didn't need to do this, we had extra time to prepare!"
"We did! Extravagant set ups, lavish stories, a reference to our opponents recent foray into video games, this was going to help us more than watching tapes. Besides, this is a ladder match, what are tapes going to do. You climb a ladder while everyone else is down, and you grab the belt. Otherwise, you keep your head down and avoid getting attacked until there's one person left, and they're vulnerable, and you take them out, then everyone's down and you take the gold. But you can't do that part, I'm doing it. You'll have to do some damage so they don't notice that they're only fighting each other."
"We don't even know if we'll make it out of here!"
"We will, Boss Izaya said he'd take us out if it was the day of Back in Business!"
"We're not even sure if he's capable of doing it."
"He's not a liar, Zom Gippy. He's never let me down."
"And if he does get us out, we'll be too tired for the match. You'll get dizzy climbing up the ladder. We won't even be prepared."
"Zom Gippy. Have I lost in the FWA? No. The Connection had to cheat to beat us. I've won two multi-man matches already. We don't need to be worried about this ladder match. Aka Manto, Shaka Smanto. FTN. FTFTN. Besides, we're going to break this curse on our own, we're not waiting for Boss Izaya to take us out."
"We've been here for almost four weeks already, Makima. If we don't do it by sun up, it'll be too late."
"But those are werewolves outside. And it's a full moon."
"We have no choice but to wait for him to pull us out."
"No! I refuse. I'll slay those werewolves. And I'll get a good night sleep before Back in Business."
Makima stands up, and is promptly smacked from behind by Zom Gippy.
"I'm sorry, but if you die, I don't want Boss Izaya to hate me."
 

The Golden One

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“When do we tell him?”

“Tell him about …?”

“Trios. Us. You, me, and Sierra.”

“You wanna tell him, gringo? You estupido?”

“I think he’ll find out when we go to the ring for the match, right?”

“Aye, yeah. I … well … do you think he’ll be mad?”

“I don’t know! You’ve known him longer than me.”

“Barely, yo. Ain’t know this gringo much longer. He just sittin’ there on a park bench lookin’ all sad ‘n shit ‘cause his make-believe best friend died.”

“Yeah, that was sad.”

“Yeah, man, but shit, I can’t get any sense out’a him. So us bein’ in trios? I dunno, yo.”

“Well … I think we need to tell him sooner than later, right?”

“Aye … let’s sleep on it tonight. We gonna be at this damn planet some time tomorrow. We talk then.”

“We’ll talk?”

“Yeah, yo. We talk then. You need me to say it a third time?”

“Good night, Jerry.”

“Aye, yo. Don’t be sayin’ friend shit. We ain’t friends. I still ain’t like yo gringo ass. I just need ya’ for this.”






When the group of seven – XYZ leading the pack, followed by Wild Jerry, Sierra, Frank, PacMan Bert, Christian Howard, and 6-year-old Lizzy – reach the last step of the Magic School Bus, their next step is onto an orange dust-like substance. Imagine ground filled with asbestos that’s orange instead of white, brown, or blue. It’s surely not the actual soil, is it?

The Menage – minus XYZ – are unsure of what they’re doing here, considering XYZ never really tells them much. He didn’t even tell El Narrator this time where they were going! Therefore, you’re stuck with a narrator of no face and no personality. Sorry!

What’s the haps?

Location: Giggleton Prime 2.4, a planet of the Gordox galaxy
Characters: Everyone in The Menage
Date and time: Two days before Back in Business XVII
Action: Just walking around

There’s a hill about 100 yards up ahead covered in the same orange dust. When Lizzy reaches down and scoops some up, she immediately drops it and holds her clenched right hand in her left.

“Is it hot?” Sierra asks.

“No. It’s really really cold, mom.”

“X, what we doin’ here, yo?”


Wild Jerry's question is on the mind of everyone else. He's just the most outspoken to ask it.

“Just up ahead. Over that hill is where we’re meeting them.”

“Who them?”


They didn’t even have to get “over the hill” to find the answer. Meeting them at the top are three gophers all giggling to themselves as the seven-person stable musters themselves up the 30-foot orange hill.

“Hehehe. XYZZZZZ! You made it! Hehehehe!” says the gopher standing on the right in the group of three.

“Always, Giggle Gophers. Always. You seem to have some trouble here on Giggleton Prime 2.4”

“Hehehehe. It’s the oppressive sloths. They’re … hehehe … trying to ask for our walnuts again! Hehehe!”

“Is it a laughing matter?”

“Christian!”
XYZ says, turning to him with a glare that demands more respect.

“They giggle not because of humor, but because that’s all the can do. They are the Giggle Gophers of Giggleton Prime 2.4, not to be mistaken with the Giggle Gophers of Giggleton Prime 3.6.”

“What about 2.5 and all the other decimals?”
Frank asks.

“What about them?”

“Are there no Giggle Gophers on those Giggleton Prime planets?”

“What Giggleton Prime planets? There are only two.”

“Then why are they called 2.4 and 3.6?”

“Why not?”

“We … hehehe … are about to go to battle with the Grumpy Sloths. They’ve come across … hehehe … to our side of the planet! They have turned our soil cold and orange … heheheh … again!”

“So it’s usually not cold and orange?”

“No. It’s usually warm and purple,”
XYZ says bruskly. “You guys didn’t read the briefing I sent?”

“Sent where?”

“I faxed it.”

“Why would you fax it?! We’re in the same bus as you.”

“Still … you guys should’ve been paying attention to your fax machine.”

“We don’t have a fax machine, yo!”

“Buy one and give me the receipt. I'll send it to HR to have you reimbursed."

"Just send an e-ma... whatever."


XYZ turns back to the trio of Giggle Gophers and quickly apologizes for his team’s “lack of knowledge of the situation.”

“Hehe … it is okay! We are just happy to have XYZ, our … hehehe … friend back to help! And his friends will help, too! The Grumpy Sloths will be … hehehe … outmanned.”

The Menage begins the trek of 2 miles through the cold, orange soil over two more hills before coming to a valley that’s half purple and half orange. There are 150-170 sloths standing in the orange soil on one side, and there’s about 120 giggling gophers on the other, guarding the only purple soil they have left.

As XYZ and the gang walk up on the groups, there’s already a tense discussion happening.

“Weeeeeee … muuuuust … reeeeemiiiiiiiiinnnnndddd … yooouuuuuuuu … ooooooooffff … theeeeee … aaaaaggggrrrreeeeeeemmmmmeeeeeennnnnnnt …”

Before the slow-talking sloth can finish, the whole group of giggling gophers begin giggling in unison.

“Do the sloths always talk this slow?” Frank asks.

“Of course,” XYZ says, shooting him a glare.

“Did you not read the briefing?” Sierra asks sarcastically.

XYZ then begins walking forward, into the middle of the scene. He’s set on interrupting this potential physical altercation and letting the sloths know they must stand down. Wild Jerry looks at XYZ and then at Christian Howard, standing behind him, and steps forward.

“X … yo. I gotta talk to you.”

“Now? We are in a busy moment of time.”

“Yeah … well … I gotta ask, man. Why we here?”

“We are here because the Giggle Gophers of Giggleton Prime 2.4 need us. We answer the call. Always.”

“Yeah, but Back in Business, yo. I mean … we gotta get back for that.”

“We? I am wrestling and I think I need to do this first.”

“Man … you ain’t the only one wrestlin’, gringo!”


Wild Jerry’s eyes go wide as he lets slip the plans for trios.

“What … do you mean?”

“I mean … we got … we got a team for trios.”

“A team?”

“Me … Sierra … and Christian Howard.”

“Well … um … good luck to you three. Now … if you’ll excuse me … the giggle goph…”

“NO!”


Wild Jerry’s raised voice causes everyone in The Menage – and even some of the gophers – to look up with surprise.

“What is your problem, yo? You just cool with losin’ all the damn time?You cool with losin’ ‘n we out here in some galaxy fightin’ for some gophers against a bunch of sloths? That ain’t it, X! I thought you were a leader. A revolutionary. A hero. Lemme tell ya’, amigo, heroes don’t lose like you do, yo. All people seein’ is you losin’ ‘n us taggin’ along without a purpose or nothin’. What we supposed to do? Just sit on our hands and wait for you to figure out what you even doin’ here?”

“You think I’m okay with losing? No! But there’s always rain before a rainbow. I still believe in me, in you, in all of us.”

“But people … PEOPLE … believe in results. They want to see their heroes WIN. What you gonna do to make us winners, yo?!”


A pause as Wild Jerry looks at XYZ and then back to Christian and Sierra.

“Maybe when Back in Business is all over … if me, Christian, ‘n Sierra are champs and you ain’t … maybe we should be the leaders. What you say about that?”

XYZ feels, for the first time since The Menage formed, a lacking confidence. He feels his leadership in question. He feels … challenged by someone who should be on his side. Yet, he knows the right answer.

“I say maybe you should be the leaders. I say … maybe you are the leaders already. Maybe everyone is a leader already. Maybe me, you, Sierra, Christian, Frank, PacMan, Lizzy. Maybe all the kids watchin’ at home. Maybe all the 9-to-5 grinders who don’t know a life better than what the world has given them. This is not an authoritarian. This is not even an oligarchy. We are all in this together.”

“Yet … you the one doin’ the talkin’ ‘n the wrestlin’ ‘n everythin’ else. You the one front ‘n center tryin’ to get the glow. Now … you tell me who the leader supposed to be.”


Another pause as Wild Jerry steps to X and gets in his face.

“You can say all this wack-stackin’ mierda about everyone bein’ a leader, but someone gotta step up. That’s you, gringo. That’s you, whether you like it or not. You drivin’ the bus. You the one bringin’ us to this Giggleshit planet to fight monkeys. You makin’ the decisions, yo. So you be a leader, yo. You be a leader and you go fuckin’ win for us. We gonna try ‘n win for us ‘n for you, but you gotta try ‘n win too.”

“You don’t think I try? You don’t think I want to win for you … and for everyone else watching and hoping for us.”

“Yeah, well, try ain’t mierda, yo. It ain’t much more than a pile of caca. The Menage need to be bringin’ in results, especially on the biggest stage … against rivals … against people who tryin’ to STEP to us … to you … to those 9-to-5 grinders you talkin’ about. What about them and how they feelin’ watchin’ someone like Death Walker run all over you, yo?!”


Another pause.

“Go to your fight for these gophers. Go be the peacemaker, yo. We ain’t come out here for nothin’, I guess.”

XYZ does just this, but he is certainly given a lot to think about. He takes the steps needed to reach the middle of this potential battlefield between the armies of giggling gophers and grumpy sloths. Yet, there's an internal monologue happening within him.

“Sometimes … when you try to see the forest from the trees, you miss something really beautiful … trees. I’ve been thinking and looking past the Walker of Death ever since he first came out to confront me and The Menage in the ring. I’ve been thinking and looking past Jason Randall ever since the first time he asked me for support against the Walker of Death. I’ve wanted to keep my sights beyond pebbles, and more to rocks flying high in the sky. I’ve wanted to shoot towards an island, ignoring the sandbars. But maybe I need to grab pebbles before reaching the rocks. Maybe I need to find my footing on a sandbar before getting to the island’s sandy beach.

Jerry of the Wild is right. How can people believe in me when I don’t give them any success? How can they believe we will get to the most majestic rocks when I can’t show them any pebbles?"

When he looks up at the 150 sloths, all lined up with sharp swords in their hands, XYZ doesn't flinch. The internal monologue is over. Now it's an external one.

"We will search for that island in the sky. There’s a floating yellow star on the island … and the floating red coin atop the singular tree. We will travel to the bottom of the mountain. There’s a turtle waiting to race to the top, and we will win. There are seven more red stars. We will find them all. There’s a shark chained behind a gate. We will get behind it and let the shark go.

And when we get our wings, we will fly. We will get them all on Bob-Omb’s Battlefield, and then we will go to the snowy mountain and help the penguin find its mother. No, we won’t throw the penguin overboard. We will bring the penguin to its family because it’s what all of our believers want us to do.

DO YOU WANT ME TO KEEP GOING?! DO YOU WANT ME TO TELL WHAT WE’LL DO UNDERWATER IN THE SUNKEN PIRATE SHIP? HOW WE WILL ESCAPE THE TREACHEROUS ELECTRIC EEL?! OR HOW WE WILL AVOID THE BITING PLANTS AND CHOP THE WALL AWAY? OR OUR PLAN TO AVOID THE QUICKSAND IN THE DESERT? AND WHEN WE REACH THE EVIL TURTLE, WE WILL THROW THEM ONTO THE SPIKED BALLS ON THE EXTERIOR! NOTE THAT THE TURTLE IS A ‘THEM’ BECAUSE WE DON’T KNOW HOW THEY DEFINE THEIR GENDER! WE JUST KNOW WE WILL TOPPLE THEM! AND WHEN WE ARE READY … WE WILL SHOVE THE GOOMBA INTO THE CANNON AND FIRE OURSELVES TO THE GREEN YOSHI ATOP THE CASTLE! IT IS NO SECRET ANYMORE! HIT THEM WITH THE PEACE SIGN WHEN IT’S DONE? OF COURSE WE WILL!”

We’ve got an answer for every question. I … XYZ … have an answer for every question.


Do you, slithering sloths of oppression? Do you have an answer to every question I’m asking you today?

And when we finish here, we will return to the blue skies of earth for Back in Business. I ask these questions to my foes there. Do you, Walker of Death? Do you … Jason Randall? Do you have an answer to every question?"

One of the Grumpy Sloths steps forward, albeit slowly, taking about 30 seconds to stand apart from the pack.

“Weeeeee … aaaaaaare … noooooooot … theeeeee … oooooppreeeeessssoooooorrrrrsssssss … heeeeeeeere … exxxx … whyyyyyyy … zeeeeeeeeee. Yooouuuuu … siiiiiiiiiiide … wiiiiiiiiiiiith … theeeeeeeee … ooooppppreeeeeeeeesssoooooooooorrrrrrrsssssss … toooooodaaaaaaaaaayyyyy.”

“Quiet! Your slow-speaking mouth spits VERMIN! You think I cannot read between the lines of the book you write?"


The sloth points his sword towards XYZ, which causes the 150 sloths to slowly move forward in an "attack." It's not a fair fight.

The Menage get involved, and all 140 sloths are forced into submission before a single giggling gopher is even touched. XYZ dislikes death. He dislikes causing death. Therefore, he does not kill ... not a single one. He ties them up and leaves them for the gophers to decide what to do.

As The Menage head back to the bus, the orange sand begins to change back to purple.

"Ah. The gophers got the sloths to reverse their curse. I am pleased."

"Feels good to win one, yo?"

"We will win more, Jerry of the Wild. Thank you.

Let's never have a one-on-one conversation again, though. It might be hard on the eyes."
 

Rawr

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Alyster Black
dragonperson
is
WEASEL STOMPER

Alyx II

The heart monitor beeped at a steady rhythm, a normal rhythm. The patient was officially stable after almost an entire month of fighting. Constant surgeries and procedures had taken its toll but the worst had passed. For now, it was only a matter of time. Time spent waiting for him to awaken from his coma.

\\//
//\\

Alyster’s eyes shot open as the morning light peeked through his curtains and struck him at just the right angle to wake him. He grumbled under his breath as he turned over in bed and shielded himself from the harsh blinding rays with a pillow.

He felt miserable, as he most always did around this time of year. Back in Business season was upon us and once again Alyster had failed to secure himself a main event match. A heartbreaking third place at the Carnal Contendership and no long term feud had left him stranded in the midcard. You’d think that achieving the fastest recorded triple crown in FWA history would have earned him more pull, but as was the case last year, FWA was at its most competitive. One couldn’t just pass by on past accomplishments. They needed to reinvigorate themselves and conquer more.

Reinvention was something that Alyster struggled with throughout his career. He’d come far wrestling the way he did and being true to himself. To make matters worse, this passing June he had turned 40. He was officially past his peak, it was too late for reinvention. Perhaps it was time to retire?

What a concept, retirement. It was almost unthinkable. The Alyster Black of two years ago would never consider such a possibility. He remembered muttering those words on camera during the build to Back in Business in 2021. “I want to die in this ring.” That sentiment, at the time, held true. He really did want to die, and he wanted to die doing the only thing he loved. Fighting.

But the passing years had changed him. He’d grown, he had so much to live for now. Fame, fortune, friends. He had a real legacy to leave behind, one that he wanted to continue building. But time had been unkind to him, the injuries were beginning to take their toll. He should have won the Carnal Contendership, he should be facing Chris Peacock in the main event of Back in Business. He should be the conquering masked luchador celebrating his second FWA World Championship win.

Instead, he laid in bed, denied the main event he craved so much. Instead rewarded with two matches whose appeal was less than desirable. A clusterfuck ladder match where he would defend his FWA World Tag Team Championship against two teams he refused to acknowledge, whose identities even this far removed from the event were hazy to him. And a match that left a bad taste in his mouth. He’d decided to throw a bone to that barking lunatic. That weaselperson.

No, he shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that way. His opponent was dangerous, and one of the all-time greats, even if he didn’t have a laundry list of achievements to back up that claim.

weaselperson was more than just some out-there gimmick. It was the ultimate litmus test for the man under the fur - Zachary Kazadi. Wearing that fur Zachary had proved all of his critics wrong. He was more than some wash-out, he was more than a failure, his history did not define him.

He was the most dangerous game in town. He beat Cyrus, he beat Peacock, and most importantly, he single handedly cost Alyster Black his chance at the main event of Back in Business. weaselperson, Zachary Kazadi, had eliminated Alyster from the Carnal Contendership, and Alyster hated him for it.

Alyster hated Zachary Kazadi so much that he was willing to deny him this requested match at Back in Business just to hurt him. You see, Alyster understood Zachary on a fundamental level. He understood Zachary’s desire to fight. It was a shared desire. So when Zachary challenged Alyster to a match at Back in Business, try as he might, he couldn’t resist.

Fighting the weasel was just too mouth-watering. But he didn’t have to like it.

Misery was Alyster’s default emotion, and recent events have exacerbated his condition. The loss of the FWA World Championship and X Championship in quick succession, the loss of the F1 Climaxxx, the loss at the Carnal Contendership, plus his 40th birthday had left Alyster feeling less than confident, and very resentful. For the first time in his life he was beginning to hate professional wrestling.

Not even the highs of winning the FWA World Tag Team Championship, or helping Krash snap out of his post-revival stupor could ease the blackness that plagued his soul, the poison pumping through his veins, or the sound of barking which followed him wherever he went.

He could hear it now, even with the pillow smothering him, he could hear those cold, lifeless, soul rattling barks. Oh how he hated the sound of barking. Especially this sound.

BARK! BARK BARK!

It rattled his brain, echoing, suffocating him. There was no escape to be had. None until Back in Business at least. After he got his hands on Zachary Kazadi, the barking would cease.

This much he hoped.

\\//
//\\

The steady sound of the heart monitor beeping was drowned out by the sound of barking. The patient’s eyes began to twitch and a heavenly feminine voice rang out.

“I think he’s waking up!” The voice was familiar. Filled with relief and overcome by emotion. The patient could hear a high pitched hitch as she exclaimed in excitement.

His eyes fluttered open, the light was blinding. It was the first time in weeks that he had opened his eyes after all. He needed some time to adjust.

That heavenly voice rang out again, drowning out the barking and helping him return to the land of the conscious.

“Alyx!” She called out, “Alyx baby come back to me.”

Alyx opened his eyes, his pupils returned to their proper size. His blurred vision slowly came back into focus. He recognised her immediately, leaning over the side of the bed, staring down at him. They gazed into each other’s eyes.

Her name was Elle, she was an angel.

“Hey,” her voice was soothing. She reached down and took him by the hand, squeezing it. He never wanted to let her go. “Welcome back to the land of the living.” Tears welled up in the corners of her eyes, her voice hitched again and they began to stream down her face.

He opened his mouth to speak but could only exhale. She immediately touched his cheek, caressing it with her warm hand. “Save your strength, just lay still. We’ll be able to go home soon.”

His eyes moved away from this angel and scanned the room. He quickly realised where he was and naturally was curious as to how he ended up here. A look back at Elle told her as much.

“You’ve been in a coma for over a month. They don’t know what happened. But you went nuts, walked out in the middle of work and disappeared. They found you laying down in a park, looking up at the stars but you were catatonic.” She paused, recalling these events were painful, “They didn’t find anything in your system, but you were covered in bruises, bleeding at the knuckles, but they didn't think you were beaten. It’s a mystery what happened to you. But I’m so glad you’re back.”

She leaned forward, planting a kiss on his chin then whispered into his ear. “I’m so sorry about everything, I’m so sorry I left you. I didn’t know what was going on with you and I was a coward. Please forgive me.”

He did forgive her, he couldn’t bear to stay mad at her. He managed to raise his arm and wrap it around her shoulders. He held her as tightly as his weakened body could, hoping it was enough that she would never leave him again.

They stayed there, laying in each other’s embrace for what felt like hours but in reality was no time at all. In his weakened state he couldn’t bear to stay awake for much longer, he needed more rest and was happy to pass out with her at his side.

\\//
//\\

Alyster splashed his face with cold water from the bathroom sink. He stared at himself in the mirror, taking note of the bags under his eyes, the bloodshot veins and pale complexion. Staring back at him was an almost sleepless, miserable excuse for a man. One whose passion was quickly dying.

He grumbled as he turned the cold tap, watching the sink fill up further until it began to overflow. Water spilled down onto the mat below, then over the black tiled bathroom surface, all down toward a drain in the centre of the room. Alyster let out a sigh before inhaling deeply and plunging his face into the overflowing sink. Submerging himself and staying down for a long while.

His mouth opened, expelling his last breath, the bubbled shot up past his face, the sensation was tingling. He opened his eyes, they burned, he wasn’t used to having them open under water. But he didn’t bother to close them, what would be the point? He felt dirty, he felt a need to be cleansed. His very soul was on fire and no amount of water would extinguish the flame.

Alyster began to feel light-headed, as a reflex he lifted his head out of the water and began to desperately suck in oxygen. Now able to breathe, he composed himself. Turning off the tap and pulling the plug out of the sink. His eyes closed as he listened to the roaring water as it was forcibly drained away.

When his eyes opened again he was surprised to see a different reflection staring back at him. It was his own face, but different. He couldn’t quite pinpoint how. Perhaps the hair was a lighter shade than his own. The bags under the eyes were missing. If the reflection’s eyes were bloodshot Alyster couldn’t tell, the reflection kept them closed. Instead of a naked torso this man was wearing a hospital gown.

Alyster reached out, touching the mirror. The glass behaved like water, Alyster’s touch sent a fine wave through the surface. After that the mirror returned to normal, his finger was pressed against cold glass and the reflection staring back at him was his own.

Grumbling, he stepped back, but not carefully. On the wet tiles Alyster lost his footing, his feet were thrown overhead and he landed flat on his back. Years of wrestling had taught him to tuck his neck and protect his head, this was likely his only saving grace and instead of receiving a head wound he had taken a relatively safe back bump.

Still he felt humiliated. Who slips in the bathroom? Old people, past their prime, ready to be laid out to pasture and forgotten about.

Old miserable cunts like Alyster Black.

He closed his eyes, his body was throbbing, it felt like it was on fire. But his torment wouldn’t end there, he could still hear the barking.

\\//
//\\

Alyx had awoken again. The light beams that greeted him earlier had been replaced with darkness. He was alone in the room, Elle had apparently left. He felt a familiar stinging sensation in the pit of his heart, like a part of it had been ripped out. It was a nonsensical feeling, he had no reason to believe she’d left him for good. These were just old emotions rising to the surface.

After calming down he began to figure out a few things. For starters, just what his body was capable of. He could raise his arms with a slight struggle. He could hold things, though his grip was quite weak. He dropped a get-well card that sat on his bedside table. It fell down to the floor and slid beneath his hospital bed. His legs felt like they were on pins and needles, but he could wiggle his toes. So there was no permanent damage. Sitting up was next to impossible, but he felt his lower half folding as he attempted the task.

Considering how long he’d been asleep for this was a good sign. Now all he had to do was rehab his muscles and remember just what had happened to him. How did he end up here anyway? He didn’t remember, Elle’s story of him freaking out at work and ending up in the park felt partially true, but wrong. The details, not that there were anyway, felt off. He’d done more than just go nuts at work then disappear.

To end up here? He’d have to have committed some sort of atrocity.

Alyx laid down alone for some time, in the dark, too weak to move. Elle’s absence was noticeable and he was beginning to feel anxious. The anxiety was alleviated at the sound of footsteps approaching the door. Alyx perked up as the light from the hallway illuminated his room, followed by the sound of the lightswitch. His excited expression, or lack thereof due to his current state, quickly subsided. It wasn’t Elle, in fact Alyx was quickly overcome by anxiety.

Standing in the doorway was a familiar face, though Alyx couldn’t quite place him. A doctor he’d met before certainly. But something inside told Alyx that this man was more than just any old plain doctor.

The doctor entered the room, examining his clipboard. His deep voice reverberated through Alyx’s soul, filling him with dread.

“Ah, it’s true. You have awakened.” The doctor pulled up a chair and sat down beside Alyx.
The patient felt compelled to reach out and strangle the good doctor, but was too weak to manage the feat. He could feel whatever strength he had left being sapped from his body.

The doctor continued, introducing himself, “I am Dr. Smith, though you may already know that. I’ve been attending to you for the past month.” The doctor raised an eyebrow, swaying from side to side, trying to gauge Alyx’s reaction. Nothing.

“Perhaps you don’t recall. Regardless, I'm very glad to see you’ve awoken from your coma. It was touch and go there for a while, I almost wrote you off completely. But you are a persistent and stubborn man it would seem. You’re not going to just fade off into the night quietly.”

Alyx gritted his teeth, his throat still felt hoarse but he managed to mutter one word to the doctor, “Elle?”

Smith was taken aback, scratching his head. “Elle? I’m sorry friend, I don’t know what you’re asking me.”

It pained Alyx to follow up but he did, “Where is she?”

“I’m sorry, I’m afraid that you’ve had no visitors during your stay in our hospital. I don’t know who Elle is.”
Dr. Smith cleared his throat and rose to his feet. “Maybe she was part of some delusion brought about from your awakening.”

Smith could see the hurt in Alyx’s eyes as he pondered this possibility. For a moment he couldn’t help but to smirk. “I’ll be back in the morning to check on you. Please keep these delusions to a minimum. It’s a miracle that you’ve ever come this far. We wouldn’t want to have to institutionalise you.”

The doctor chuckled brightly as he made his leave. Making sure to turn off the lights and shut the door to Alyx’s room. Alyx could hear the distinct sound of the lock clicking shut from the outside, leaving him alone.

At least it was momentarily quiet.

BARK! BARK! BARK!

Momentarily…

\\//
//\\

Alyster groaned as he began to sit up. He reached for the back of his head and confirmed that he hadn’t hit it. Though his hair was wet, he fell back into the puddle he’d slipped on and lamented his life.

What was wrong? He was FWA World Tag Team Champion. He was a CDW main eventer. Currently in possession of the Tentacle of Justice as well as the longest reigning CWA World Tag Team Champion. Why did he still feel so empty inside? What more did he need? He had fan support, more than he ever had in his career. He was finally recognised by his peers and critics as one of the very best in the game today.

At 40 years old he was still riding an absolute career high. What was missing?

It wasn’t ageing that bothered him, he could still throw hands with the best of them. Plus his experience more than made up for any lost step.

Was it that fact that he’d caved and decided to give weselperson their match? He was dreading facing that fursuit-wearing wrestling-savant. He was kicking himself for buckling. He deserved more than “Neither of us have anything to do.” Alyster Black at Back in Business was deserving of a blood feud. Something personal. Another round with Summers, a revenge match with Jeremy Best, a chance to take that NA Championship from Baxter and earn his Grand Slam. A one on one match with his best friend for the World Championship.

Something, anything more than “Neither of us have anything to do”.

That cemented his greatest fear. No one gave a shit about Alyster Black.

What was the point of earning all of these accolades if at the end of the day no one was interested in doing battle with him?

“Neither of us have anything to do.”

Those words left Alyster feeling empty inside. And the barking that followed boiled his blood.

Fucking Kazadi. He thought to himself. Bastard.

Alyster lifted his head ever so slightly, looking down at his hand. He struggled to lift his arm, and as he did so an image flashed through his mind. A hand taking his, squeezing, reassuring him that everything was okay. There was a warmth, a longing.

And then it was gone.

For a brief moment, Alyster felt whole again. For a brief moment he felt like walking into Back in Business with his head held high and taking down the weasel.

For a brief moment he imagined himself stomping out the barking permanently.

\\//
//\\

A day had passed, Elle had not returned. Dr. Smith had come to visit Alyx twice, the first time was to check his vitals. The second was to check his range of motion.

Alyx had been stretching in between sessions, he was capable of movement. But he kept this a secret from Dr. Smith. When the doctor prompted Alyx to lift his arm Alyx pretended that he couldn’t. It was enough to satisfy the doctor, so he left Alyx alone.

He knew he had to get out of here. He knew he was in danger. Alyx didn’t quite know why but he could feel it deep down. Dr. Smith wanted him gone. Why the doctor hadn’t acted yet, Alyx didn’t know. He just knew that he couldn’t allow him a chance.

Aided by a walking frame, Alyx managed to climb out of bed. But before he made a break for it he first reached under the bed, finding the get-well card he’d dropped the day prior.

Alyx opened it and was immediately filled with disgust.

“We’re sorry you’re not well, we hope to see you back in the office soon.

Get well!

Love Jerome!”

The card had clearly been passed around, it was signed by his compatriots. Shelly, Rusty, and Daniel. But Jerome had clearly written the contents and made them all sign it.

Alyx found an appropriate place for the card, buried in the bottom of a nearby vase, drowned and forgotten about.

It was time to make his escape. Alyx approached the door, carefully opening the handle. It was unlocked, Dr. Smith hadn’t bothered to lock it after his previous visit. It was arrogance on his part. Alyx took advantage of this and began his escape.

The “hospital” was empty. But the abandoned building still appeared to be a hospital. One filled with the sounds of incessant barking.

Alyx gritted his teeth and persisted. Making his ways through the halls, the sound of the metal frame supporting him clanking throughout the empty void.

In the distance he spotted a green exit sign, illuminated but flickering. The buzzing cut through the barking. As Alyx moved closer to the sign the barking intensified.

BARK! BARK! BARK!

Oh how he wished they would shut up. They’d been barking at him ever since he had woken up.

“Shut up, please.” He pleaded desperately. His pleas fell on deaf ears. The barking intensified.

Alyx reached a door leading to a stairwell. The bottom was a vast darkness, but higher up there was a light. He was drawn to it and began the long audacious climb. Each step was a struggle. Alyx had to put his all into lifting his legs up each step, and in pulling himself up with the aid of the metal frame.

But he persisted, climbing and climbing until he reached the top of the stairwell, where an open door waited. Where his salvation would be reached.

\\//
//\\

Alyster couldn’t take it anymore. The barking was becoming unbearable. He rolled onto his front, slamming his fists into the cold tile and let go of a frustrated, primal scream.

He’d had enough, he wanted out of this situation.

“Fuck weaselperson!” He screamed as he slammed his fist down again, and again, and again.

Until the tiles below shattered, the entire bathroom floor gave way and Alyster plunged into darkness.

\\//
//\\

Alyx stood atop the hospital roof, surrounded by snow. It was wet, cold and empty. His breath was visible, rapid. This was wrong, he was sure that ascending the stairs would lead to his escape. This wasn’t true, all it did was trap him in a worse position.

He dragged his feet against the snow, feeling the cold wet grime stick to the soles of his feet. The frame crunched as he moved it forward.

Alyx approached the edge of the roof. It was unsecure, a foot high. Not enough to prevent someone from plunging.

Perhaps this was his salvation?

And end to it all.

No.

He wanted more than just a quick end. He wanted to get out of here. Figure out what happened.

Take revenge on those who deserved it.

The barking had subsided the moment he reached the outside. But looking down into the dark abyss below he could hear it starting again.

A chorus, a thousand gravelly voices shouting at once. All barking at him.

In the darkness below Alyx could see them, their yellow eyes looking up at him, snarling smirks. They wanted to tear him apart. But he wasn’t about to let them.

Alyx tossed the metal frame aside, he wouldn’t need it anymore. Below was his salvation. He had a chance to escape and to shut up the barking.

All he had to do was step up onto the ledge…

and leap.

\\....
/\//

7q2pkQajnihD4Bh6zELxa0YnwY3fDpxpiGdRtDYRevizpx6rDWZlNqYl-k8IpC7mDpFkCHNIOdIePeTn_2G86C1xrQxJVSsEAjbZ9w8GYJmPV3zFb9miM75vPYorZGWu095IWHJdtR_iZuNivOdIoSY


As they plunged into the dark abyss they found one another. Staring into each other’s eyes, Alyster and Alyx existed at the same time in the same place. An impossibility? It shouldn’t have happened. Alyx was a part of Alyster given life so that Alyster could recover from the most grievous of injuries. Alyster had absorbed Alyx back into his being, becoming whole again.

But there he was, falling alongside his masked other. Both men, the same yet not, reached out for each other. Their hands clasping together, they felt a missing part of their souls returning to them. Their embrace filled them with warmth.

Alyx spoke first, moving his lips, his voice however was silent. But Alyster could hear every word.

“I want the barking to stop.”

Alyster nodded his head in understanding and responded in kind, “I want the pain to go away.”

Both men looked to one another, for a brief moment they were in complete understanding. Alyx, whose life was fleeting, whose only purpose was to invigorate Alyster Black, had to achieve his purpose. There was no way around this. His fate was to be a part of Alyster Black.

Alyster Black, who without this part of him, was incapable of feeling love, was losing his passion for everything that made him Alyster Black. He needed Alyx.

This time they’d do it right. Alyx would give his life willingly, not being forced to give it up for Alyster’s benefit. And in turn Alyster would fight for Alyx.

It was as sweet a deal as either could hope for.

Their long plunge was coming to an end. Below was the outline of Alyster’s mask. Green lines, resembling a dragon, opened its massive jaws and swallowed both men whole.

Into the darkness two souls plunged.

Out of the darkness, one emerged.

Alyster Black.

The dragonperson.

The weasel stomper.

The yellow eyes and snarling snouts surrounded him. Barking incessantly.

Alyster had promised to silence them, and silence them he did.

A loud crunch was heard as his boot slammed down and the first weasel was silenced.

The barking intensified as the horde pounded, covering Alyster in darkness.

The masked man threw them aside with ease, light shining from his body as he continued his rampage. Stomping repeatedly, stomping until he couldn’t stomp anymore.

He was filled with a sadistic glee as each weasel expired at his feet. This was Alyx’s gift to him. Passion. Love. Violence.

Zachary Kazadi had made himself a weasel, but he was still dangerous. Unfortunately for him, Alyster Black was everything that he wished he was. Consistent. A multiple time champion. Acknowledged by his peers as one of the very best of all time. But envy was their only difference. Zachary Kazadi was an amazing wrestler, whose lust for battle was matched by Alyster Black.

And he was looking forward to doing gladiatorial battle with a man who understood him on a fundamental level. A level of understanding that would permit two men to battle in a ring and take each other to the absolute limit the way that only these two could.

Rawr! Rawr! Rawr!​
 

Rawr

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Alyster Black and Chris Peacock

are..

FTN

in..

Choose Your Own Asshole
(or why you don’t get to tell us how close we are).


It was the first time Chris Peacock had been to Alyster Black’s home. Seven days before the biggest series of shows in his life and he was spending them hanging out in California with his tag team partner. It was a good idea on paper; over the next seven days they would strategize and train together. Alyster being a former double champion on two separate occasions meant that he had insights that he could impart on Chris, whilst Chris had insights into what being in the ring with weaselperson was like. Not that Alyster actually needed any insight into how weaselperson fought, it was dragonperson who required such knowledge and dragonperson was apparently a close associate of the Gang Star.

Unlike Chris’ pad in New York, Alyster’s Californian home was lonely. There was enough space for guests sure but that was superficial. This house was clearly designed to be a fortress built for a hermit to hide away from the world. Alyster Black didn’t surround himself with family like Chris chose to; he was all alone in California and his home reflected this choice, if it could even be considered a choice.

Gated off, constantly cold in spite of the warm weather, and very much catered toward his particular tastes. This differed very much from Chris Peacock’s New York apartment which was frequently filled with guests, family, friends, even neighbours from around the ‘hood’ (although Chris had been strongly advised several times not to refer to his street as such). It was constantly warm in Chris’ home, always welcoming. Alyster’s was the exact opposite and as a result Chris’ feng shui was way off.

The worst offender that affected Chris’ aura was a broken lightbulb in the living room. As he sat down to relax he couldn’t help but fixate on it. He questioned why Alyster had just left it there, broken. Perhaps his masked partner hadn’t noticed. Maybe it wasn’t worth feeling irritated about. Alyster would probably change it soon. Regardless, the state Alyster lived in was a bit of a culture shock to say the least.

This wasn’t a major problem, Chris actually preferred the relative solitude in the lead up to Back in Business. Besides, the lack of distractions would keep him focused on his upcoming matches. At least that was the theory. The truth was that FTN’s “ride or die” attitude was about to be put to the ultimate test and it was unlikely that their relationship would survive. On the surface the pairing acted like the best of friends, but feelings the two harboured beneath that could threaten their relationship would soon come to light (and it wouldn’t be because Alyster would get around to fixing that lightbulb).

Four trials to be precise. Four trials on the road to Back in Business that will test the very bonds that hold FTN together. Trials that will have to be carefully navigated if this tandem has any hope of retaining their coveted FWA World Tag Team Championships against the well-oiled team of Aka Manto and whatever the fuck you could call what Makima Snowmantashi and Zom Gippy had going on.

Our first trial will come in the afternoon of the first day. Over lunch.

Dearest reader, we have reached the first fork in our road and this story had barely even begun to unfold. Choose carefully between the next two options, nay, choose carefully between all storytelling options as FTN’s fate, their very existence hangs in the balance.

You wouldn’t want to be responsible for their demise would you? Although, the chances are you probably would.

Option A: Alyster Black and Chris Peacock enjoy a fabulous lunch together.

Option B: Chris Peacock and Alyster Black enjoy a groovy lunch together.


Choose carefully…







OPTION A

San Dimas, California
7 Days Before Back in Business XVII

After an intense morning spent sleeping in, the FWA World Tag Team Champions had finally awakened. It was not unusual for both Chris and Alyster to sleep in when staying together, as both had come to realise that they shared a similarity in that their dreams would frequently be haunted by their real life worries. It was the crack of noon of the first full day that they were going to be spending together at Alyster’s house, and during their sleep they had grown hungry. A trip to the kitchen was forthcoming, but the pair had conflicting ideas.

As Alyster opened the fridge, Chris had already reached for a frying pan. When both men realised what the other was doing an intense staredown followed, a silent, rage inducing staredown that was broken by the masked homeowner.

“And just what do you think you’re doing?” He inquired.

Not intimidated, the dual singles and tag team World Champion responded, “I’m making us lunch. What of it?”

His tag team partner scoffed. Offence was clearly taken at this brazen disregard for hospitality, “Nah mate, you’re a guest in my home. I’m making us lunch.”

Peacock refused to budge, “That’s cool and all but I want to eat something that tastes good.”

“Are you saying that you’re a better cook than me?”

“Uh, duh!” Chris threw his hands up, “I grew up in the restaurant business, remember?”

“Yeah? I’ve been to your family’s restaurant, the food sucked.”

Chris frustratedly rapped his knuckles on the counter, trying to stifle the surge of anger that had just coursed through his body. “That’s a fucking lie and I know you’re just saying that to hurt my feelings.”

“Maybe, the fact is that if you were there cooking then it would be even worse.”

“I don’t believe you’ve ever used this frying pan before.” Chris said as he held it up to the light, examining the coating. “This looks fresh out of the box.”

“It is fresh out of the box, I’ve just had the kitchen redone because I love cooking so much.”

Chris murmured lightly under his breath, looking over to a stack of fast food bags by the bins. “Oh yeah, you’re a real gourmet chef.”

Alyster spotted them too, clenching his teeth. “That is the result of crippling depression. And to be even more obvious, literally just had the kitchen renovated.”

“A convenient excuse, but it doesn’t mean you’re any good at cooking. What were you even planning to make? Crap covered crap with crap, you piece of crap?”

“You’re talking crap covered crap. I was gonna make omelettes.”

“You? Cooking omelettes? Please, I’d rather scarf down one of Gerald Greyson’s socks.”

Alyster kicked at the floor in frustration before rummaging through the fridge. He pulled out a carton of eggs, butter, some sliced smoked ham, green peppers, onions, garlic, four different kinds of cheeses, and some fresh parsley that was growing by the window sill.

Chris was clearly impressed, but quick to brush off Alyster’s effort. “So you like to waste money grocery shopping. Doesn’t mean you can cook it.”

“That’s it, I’m sick of this. I’m sick of you and I’m sick of this team. You and I are going to cook for each other, and then after I outcook you, this team is over!”

“That’s fine by me! I was sick of carrying your ass anyway!”

Both men immediately went to work, they each had two frying pans to work with, sitting on opposite sides of the stovetop. The eggs were whisked and seasoned, Chris choosing to use a whisk and Alyster using a fork to do his. The restaurant-experienced cook scoffed at his former tag team partner's home cooking technique. Alyster was unperturbed, his omelette would speak for itself. Besides, he only owned one whisk and Chris had beaten him to it.

Both men began melting their butter whilst frying a few garnishes in a separate pan. FTN butted heads through the entire cooking process, each man lightly shoving one another as they fought for stovetop real estate. Miraculously the food did not suffer for this and each man was able to garnish and fold their omelette. Though it should be noted that Chris’ plating was far more presentable than Alyster’s.

The end result was two restaurant quality omelettes carefully crafted and served to perfection made entirely out of spite. As Chris and Alyster both bit into what they would both consider to be the best omelette either of them had ever tasted they quickly realised just what their team was and why it worked.

Spite, hatred, their “Fuck The blank” attitude. This is what brought them together and why they were successful. As long as they shared a mutual hatred for anything then they could achieve anything.

Alyster was the first to apologise. “Christopher, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean a word of what I said. I just get so hateful sometimes and I take it out on those closest to me.”

“Say no more friend, I know exactly what you mean and I do the same. Let’s never direct it at each other again though, let’s focus that hatred on others. Let’s focus it on the Nephews, and on the Joshis, and on every other wrestler in the FWA who thinks they’re better than us!”

“I’ll drink to that!” Alyster cheered as he poured out two glasses of rum. Chris had noted that alcohol was readily available at most any time in Alyster’s home, an issue that he was currently considering whether to confront or not. For the moment he thought it best not to tackle Alyster’s casual drinking problem and instead toast FTN. “You know, this lunch turned out pretty groovy.”

“I’d even call it fabulous.”

OPTION B

San Dimas, California
7 Days Before Back in Business XVII

After an intense morning spent sleeping in, the FWA World Tag Team Champions had finally awakened. It was not unusual for both Chris and Alyster to sleep in when staying together, as both had come to realise that they shared a similarity in that their dreams would frequently be haunted by their real life worries. It was the crack of noon of the first full day that they were going to be spending together at Alyster’s house, and during their sleep they had grown hungry. A trip to the kitchen was forthcoming, but the pair had conflicting ideas.

As Alyster opened the fridge, Chris had already reached for a frying pan. When both men realised what the other was doing an intense staredown followed, a silent, rage inducing staredown that was broken by the masked homeowner.

“And just what do you think you’re doing?” He inquired.

Not intimidated, the dual singles and tag team World Champion responded, “I’m making us lunch. What of it?”

His tag team partner scoffed. Offence was clearly taken at this brazen disregard for hospitality, “Nah mate, you’re a guest in my home. I’m making us lunch.”

Peacock refused to budge, “That’s cool and all but I want to eat something that tastes good.”

“Are you saying that you’re a better cook than me?”

“Uh, duh!” Chris threw his hands up, “I grew up in the restaurant business, remember?”

“Yeah? I’ve been to your family’s restaurant, the food sucked.”

Chris frustratedly rapped his knuckles on the counter, trying to stifle the surge of anger that had just coursed through his body. “That’s a fucking lie and I know you’re just saying that to hurt my feelings.”

“Maybe, the fact is that if you were there cooking then it would be even worse.”

“I don’t believe you’ve ever used this frying pan before.” Chris said as he held it up to the light, examining the coating. “This looks fresh out of the box.”

“It is fresh out of the box, I’ve just had the kitchen redone because I love cooking so much.”

Chris murmured lightly under his breath, looking over to a stack of fast food bags by the bins. “Oh yeah, you’re a real gourmet chef.”

Alyster spotted them too, clenching his teeth. “That is the result of crippling depression. And to be even more obvious, literally just had the kitchen renovated.”

“A convenient excuse, but it doesn’t mean you’re any good at cooking. What were you even planning to make? Crap covered crap with crap, you piece of crap?”

“You’re talking crap covered crap. I was gonna make omelettes.”

“You? Cooking omelettes? Please, I’d rather scarf down one of Gerald Greyson’s socks.”

Alyster kicked at the floor in frustration before rummaging through the fridge. He pulled out a carton of eggs, butter, some sliced smoked ham, green peppers, onions, garlic, four different kinds of cheeses, and some fresh parsley that was growing by the window sill.

Chris was clearly impressed, but quick to brush off Alyster’s effort. “So you like to waste money grocery shopping. Doesn’t mean you can cook it.”

“That’s it, I’m sick of this. I’m sick of you and I’m sick of this team. You and I are going to cook for each other, and then after I outcook you, this team is over!”

“That’s fine by me! I was sick of carrying your ass anyway!”

Both men immediately went to work, they each had two frying pans to work with, sitting on opposite sides of the stovetop. The eggs were whisked and seasoned, Chris choosing to use a whisk and Alyster using a fork to do his. The restaurant-experienced cook scoffed at his former tag team partner's home cooking technique. Alyster was unperturbed, his omelette would speak for itself. Besides, he only owned one whisk and Chris had beaten him to it.

Both men began melting their butter whilst frying a few garnishes in a separate pan. FTN butted heads through the entire cooking process, each man lightly shoving one another as they fought for stovetop real estate. Miraculously the food did not suffer for this and each man was able to garnish and fold their omelette. Though it should be noted that Chris’ plating was far more presentable than Alyster’s.

The end result was two restaurant quality omelettes carefully crafted and served to perfection made entirely out of spite. As Chris and Alyster both bit into what they would both consider to be the best omelette either of them had ever tasted they quickly realised just what their team was and why it worked.

Spite, hatred, their “Fuck The blank” attitude. This is what brought them together and why they were successful. As long as they shared a mutual hatred for anything then they could achieve anything.

Alyster was the first to apologise. “Christopher, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean a word of what I said. I just get so hateful sometimes and I take it out on those closest to me.”

“Say no more friend, I know exactly what you mean and I do the same. Let’s never direct it at each other again though, let’s focus that hatred on others. Let’s focus it on the Nephews, and on the Joshis, and on every other wrestler in the FWA who thinks they’re better than us!”

“I’ll drink to that!” Alyster cheered as he poured out two glasses of rum. Chris had noted that alcohol was readily available at most any time in Alyster’s home, an issue that he was currently considering whether to confront or not. For the moment he thought it best not to tackle Alyster’s casual drinking problem and instead toast FTN. “You know, this lunch turned out pretty fabulous.”

“I’d even call it groovy.”









So, all’s well that ends well there, right? Alyster being a top notch chef was a bit of a surprising turn of events, but stranger things have happened. Although, there was a bothersome thought in the back of Chris’s head as to how he could have a newly-renovated kitchen but still not make the effort to change a sole lightbulb in the living room. If it was that hard for Alyster to do… why couldn’t he just ask the kitchen fitter to do it for him?

It isn’t our place to just assume that any sort of tradesperson can do any sort of handyman-like task, but changing a bulb is surely less taxing than fitting an entire kitchen so it can’t be that much of a stretch to assume that a kitchen fitter can change a lightbulb.

This has become a tangent, and we apologise. Let’s just treat how long this topic was lingered on as a reflection of how irksome Chris found the lightbulb. Anyway, once lunch was completed on that first day, the competitive spirit and the fact that they were consuming rum at midday meant that they did not actually get around to training for their matches at Back in Business until the second day of Chris’s stay with Alyster.

San Dimas, California
6 Days Before Back in Business XVII

Training was going well. Alyster’s home gym was perfectly equipped for a wrestler, the man was a hermit and despised going to public gyms afterall. Even if he enjoyed showing his face in public, he would still have to put up with the douchebags hogging the equipment and the smell of everyone’s taints. His gym had everything that he needed and the only perineum he would have to smell was his own. He even had a ring set up, not the standard 20x20 size that FWA employed on its shows, mind you, but it was large enough to roll around in and practise a few moves.

Fortunately the gym ceiling was high enough to fit a ladder into the ring. Which, given that Jon Russnow had arbitrarily decided that he was going to make Alyster and Chris defend their FWA World Tag Team Championships in a ladder match, was very fortunate.

Chris was inexperienced in ladder matches, insofar that he had never been in a ladder match before. Even in his pre-FWA career when he was teaming with his brother, he had never been a part of a ladder match. Luckily for FTN, Alyster Black had seen his fair share of ladder action during his career.

“Krash and I won the CWA Tag Titles in a three way ladder match.” He kept reminding Chris at almost every opportunity when discussing their contrasting levels of experience in this specific match type.

Every time Alyster brought up this fact Chris was reminded about something that FTN critics frequently mentioned - that Chris was nothing more than a Krash replacement, and now that Krash had “woken up” his and Alyster’s days as a team were numbered and it was only a matter of time before Alyster returned to teaming with his former partner. In fact, losing at Back in Business could be the stimulus for this chain of events occurring.

Of course Chris kept this concern to himself, he wouldn’t want to give Alyster the impression that the rumour-mill actually affected him in any way. Chris had recently decided not to let the thoughts or opinions of the masses affect him, so he paid no mind to this sort of discussion, but that Krash theory was something that rattled in the back of his mind.

Regardless, Chris didn’t need training on how to climb a ladder. “Alyster, my man, I’m the FWA World Champion, I’ll figure it out.” He retorted when Alyster suggested that he try climbing the ladder inside the ring.

Still, Alyster would insist that Chris climb the ladder, if not to just show him that he could do it in the ring. “I live in my own apartment, who do you think fixes things? I know how to climb a fucking ladder dude.” Chris was obviously alluding to the broken light in the living room that Alyster still hadn’t attended to over the last two days. This point flew clear over the masked man’s head.

They’d gone back and forth on the ladder issue for a few days now - even before Chris had arrived at Alyster’s house - and it was beginning to irritate Alyster. “You don’t know how to climb a ladder in the ring. It’s way harder.”

“And you don’t know how to change a lightbulb!”

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

“I’m just saying, you could figure it out, and I’ll figure it out. I can’t waste all my time learning how to climb ladders, climbing ladders is easy. I’ve got a World Title defence to prepare for, now get in the ring and pretend to be Cyrus Truth.”

Alyster gritted his teeth as he apparoached his partner, grabbing him by the shirt, Alyster hissed “Fuck Cyrus Truth.”

“Exactly, fuck Cyrus Truth. And not that I need the help cause I’ve done it so many times before, but help me beat the bastard once and for all.”

“Learn how to climb a ladder first!”

Chris scoffed and pried Alyster’s hands off his shirt. He grabbed his partner by the shoulders, trying to be reassuring, “We’ve got this in the bag my friend. You and I are like a perfectly constructed omelette. Every element that brings us together just adds to the flavour. Together you and I are the ultimate ass-kicking machine. We are absolutely unstoppable. At Back in Business, I’ll play zone, keep all those goons from fucking up our title defence, and you just need to climb that ladder and make yourself famous kid. We’ve got this!”

“No we do not have this!” Alyster retorted, “Mate, I don’t know why you think everything is just going to go to plan. It’s not, a million things can happen. A stagelight could fall and hit me in the head, killing me and forcing you to climb the ladder and defend the titles.”

“I dunno mate, I think if you died that’d be it for our championship hopes.”

“Bro, if I die you need to focus on defending those belts. I’m going to be buried with the FWA and CWA World Tag Team Championships.”

Chris rolled his eyes at the mention of the CWA Tag Team titles, “Aye-aye mate. I’ll spend two minutes showing you that I can climb a ladder. Whatever..”

Alyster threw his hands up in celebration, “Finally. Let’s get to it.”

Alyster hopped over to the ring, beneath which was already a ladder. “How convenient”, Chris thought to himself as Alyster slammed the steel down onto the floor. The sound reverberated through the gym. “Ah, what the fuck?”

“What? Go set it up!” They stared at one another for a few moments, “Do you really think it’ll be that easy during the match? You’ve got to set up your own ladder mate.”

And we arrive at another fork in the road, the tale of Alyster Black and Chris Peacock has reached another breaking point where your choice will affect the very fate of their friendship.

Option 1: Chris sets up the ladder and learns to climb.

Option 2: Chris sets up the ladder and leans to climb but isn’t happy about it.


OPTION 1

Chris gritted his teeth, he was ready to punch his masked partner right in his stupid masked face. But better heads prevailed. Chris managed to compose himself. Taking a deep breath, ‘Disco’s Last Warrior’ picked up the ladder and slid it into the ring beneath the bottom rope. All while shooting Alyster a condescending look.

The masked man followed his partner into the ring, and as Chris was about to pick up the ladder, Alyster gave him a clubbing blow over the back.

“Ah! Again, what the fuck?!”

“I cannot stress just how hard setting up a ladder in the ring is. You’ve literally got to fight for it.”

“For real mate?”

Alyster nodded his head, “For real, now I figure if you let me hit a Violence Party or two then you’d be in roughly the same shape you’d be in during the match when it’s time to set up the ladder and win. So like…drop your hands and take it.”

Alyster reeled back and threw a forearm, which Chris Peacock blocked.

“Like hell am I just gonna sit here and let you beat me up.”

“Aww come on, it’s part of your training.”

“Fuck that, I don’t see you getting your ass kicked for free.”

“That’s cause I’ve literally wrestled in this exact match like seven times before.”

“Yeah, and how’d you learn to climb a ladder for that first match?”

“Oh, I just went into the ring and figured it out.”

Alyster was quickly dropped by the fastest and hardest backhand he’d ever eaten in his life. He was dazed, taking a moment to get back up to his feet.

“I hope you realise why I had to hit you.”

“Yup.”

Both men stared each other down, tempers were beginning to flare. Fists were cocked, punches were about to be thrown.

“Are we about to do this?”

“Oh yeah, you’ve had this one coming for a long time now.”

They began to circle one another, neither man moving their eyes off the other for even a second, they were staring daggers into each other.

“Oh shit, you really think you’re gonna kick my ass? I’m the World Champion son, and you’re some masked schmuck parading around with a worthless Tentacle.”

“Hey! Don’t shittalk CDW!” Alyster screamed before charging his disco dancing compatriot.

Chris caught him with a knee lift right to the face, but Alyster managed to move with the motion and hit Chris with an elbow butt that pushed him back into the corner. Alyster followed with a knife-edge chop, then a second forearm. A follow-up chop was blocked and Chris threw Alyster into the corner. Peacock began stomping Alyster in the gut, knocking the wind out of him, then grabbed his arm and whipped him across the ring. Alyster put on the brakes at the opposite corner and caught a charging Chris with a back elbow to the face. Alyster then scooped Chris up and dropped him with a body slam.

Chris quickly rose to his feet, only to be caught with a second slam. Then a third. The fourth however was blocked with two elbow strikes. Alyster staggered backwards and Chris charged, tackling his partner into the corner then lifting and spinning him, hitting the Roller Disco.

Chris rolled off of Alyster, taking a moment to catch his breath as his masked partner was left staring at the ceiling.

“So, had enough then? Gonna apologise?”

Alyster coughed then raised a middle finger, “Take two more body slams then try to climb the ladder…”

There was a short pause before Chris mumbled, “Fine.”

Two body slams later Chris had begun setting up the ladder. That process was easy, what came next was difficult. As Chris began to ascend the ladder he found that it’s footing wasn’t quite secure.

“Oh.” He remarked in understanding.

“Oh indeed.” Alyster cracked his neck then began running the ropes, the ring shaking with each step, doubly so whenever he bounced off the ropes. Chris could feel the ladder shaking and the higher he climbed, the more likely it was to topple over.

When Chris reached the fourth rung from the top Alyster had bounced off the ropes, the ladder shook so hard that it toppled. Chris fortunately was able to land on his feet.

“I almost blew out my knee!”

“That’ll happen, why do you think Krash’s knee is so fucked up?”

Alyster just had to remind him about the famous Gang Stars ladder matches. It made Chris sick to his stomach that Alyster wouldn’t shut up about his old partner.

“It’s better you figure this out here than the night before you have to fight Cyrus Truth.”

“Yeah, you’re right. I’m sorry for how I acted earlier.”

“That’s very big of you Chris, now climb again.”

It took seven more attempts before Chris could climb to the second rung from the top. Which Alyster insisted he be able to reach and balance on before he was ready for Back in Business. But…once he was up there Alyster grabbed the ladder and began to slowly tilt it backwards.

“Alyster?” Chris beckoned to his partner in shock. “Buddy, what are you doing?”

“I’m sorry mate, but this is the only way to learn how to fall off a twenty foot ladder.”

“Please no…”

Chris’ pleas fell on deaf ears as he plummeted to the mat below. Landing in a pain filled heap.

“Honestly, I couldn’t bring myself to do that to Makima. She’s too adorable.”

Training would go on for another three hours.

See OPTION 1 above.

If you clicked this one after reading the first, what made you think that Chris was happy about how that went down?

San Dimas, California
4 Days Before Back in Business XVII

Both men were in pain, training had been gruelling, but fruitful. Both men were ready for their double shots at Back in Business, they knew it and if their opposition knew it, they’d be living in a state of dread.

The next three days would be spent resting. Resting and mending their straining relationship. FTN was on the verge of breaking up. Chris was not happy about being dumped from the top of a ladder, when Alyster knew full well that he wanted to be in the best condition that he could be for Cyrus Truth.

Maybe the critics were correct. Alyster and Chris really had no reason to consider themselves friends, at least no reason to consider themselves as tight as they did.

The ladder climbing fiasco had nearly led to the end of their team, and any hopes they had of defending the FWA World Tag Team Championship at Back in Business.

Fortunately, a day spent not throwing hands allowed them both to calm down somewhat.

A peace that would be relatively short lived as a banging began shaking the house, followed by the sound of the doorbell ringing repeatedly.

“What the fuck is that?!” Alyster screamed from his bedroom. It was barely even 10 in the morning, far too early for him to be awake. “I disabled that fucking doorbell when I moved into this place!”

In a huff the masked man threw his covers off of the bed and stormed to his feet. Grabbing a nearby robe and fastening it on, he went into the foyer to answer the door.

“Whoever the fuck is out there better have their last will and testimonies sorted.” Alyster yelled as he opened the door, only to be greeted by a big tooth filled grin underneath a rather magnificent moustache.

He had come.

A friend of FTN.

Allen Price.

“ALY! How are you doing, pal?” Allen quickly took advantage of the stunned state that Alyster was in due to his unplanned appearance and hugged Alyster warmly, which Alyster did not reciprocate. Before he could be begrudgingly invited in by Alyster, Allen was already over the threshold of the house and inside.“Is it just me… or is it cold in here?”

Despite how little he wanted Allen to be there, Alyster ignored his initial instincts and decided not to be flatly rude, although there was a terse undertone in how he chose to address Price. “What brings you here, Allen?”

“I invited him.”

Alyster was not surprised in the slightest when he turned around to see Chris walking down the stairs with his hand caressing the bannister and the smuggest of expressions on his face. As soon as Allen laid eyes on Chris he let out a childish squeal and ran towards him and embraced him even tighter than he did Alyster. The two exchanged some quick pleasantries and then looked at Alyster with their arms over each other's shoulders. Allen’s excitement was perfectly contrasted by Alyster’s fury.

“I’ll try that again… why are you here, Allen?

“Well, I was keen to get some jaw time with Chris before Back in Business so I could give him a few pointers and whatnot- admittedly about his match with Cyrus - but he assured me that he had that one all in hand and didn’t need any input from me at all. Then I said I could help you guys out with the tag title match and Chris said he was staying with you so he invited me along! The team is all together, guys!”

By his own admission, Alyster Black had turned somewhat of a corner on Allen Price. He, like most, had spent the majority of the time knowing Allen hating every single thing about him. At this moment in time, Alyster regretted that reversion.

“So, shall we get to work?”

So, the wheels had started to turn on the road to the third critical moment that Chris and Alyster would share on their retreat which would decide the fate of their team.

Before long, FTN found themselves sitting at Alyster’s dining table after the customary omelettes had been served. Both Alyster and Chris looked at Allen, who had just eaten two omelettes, one prepared by each of them. He used his jacket sleeve to dab his moustache and then shook his head. “You both make an absolutely fantastic omelette. There’s no way of judging it!”

Alyster and Chris looked at each other and both rolled their eyes and Allen then pushed the plates to one side, with one smashing on the floor and him not reacting to it at all. He lifted up a briefcase and plonked it onto the table. Alyster held his head in his hands as Price was damaging his dining room and not even realising it.

“What’s in the case, Allen?” Chris asked eagerly. Although to Allen it appeared as eagerness, Alyster knew that Chris only feigned such intrigue from a position of already knowing what was contained inside the unnecessarily ornate briefcase.

“This… is for you, Alyster.”

Allen pulled out a wad of paper, stapled together and slid it across the table to Alyster, knocking the other plate onto the floor as he did so. Ignoring the broken crockery, Alyster examined the document and he was surprised when he saw what the title of it was - ‘TALENT AGREEMENT - ALYSTER BLACK AND ALLEN PRICE PROMOTIONS’.

“What is this?”

“Well, now that you’re working with Chris, you’re also working with me and I’m a real stickler for details as I’m sure you’ve learned from my commentary, so I decided that we should make this working relationship official.”

Alyster looked at the paper in complete disbelief, but his mask did not allow Allen to correctly interpret his feelings. He thought that Alyster’s silence was a stunned one, with how impressed he was. “I know, Alyster. It really is something. But here’s the thing, I really think I can help you, bud. I’ve seen a copy of your contract and the FWA are grossly underpaying a talent such as yourself. With my help, I can get you in the right channels and we can fix that salary up toot sweet and I can probably get you a bump on your cut of the merch sales… masks sell crazy style.”

Alyster knew that masks sold ‘crazy style’, because he had made at least seven figures from mask sales since joining the FWA alone. Brand new kitchens don’t pay for themselves.

“Not only that, but I’ve got some big ideas for Chris planned that we can get you involved. I’m talking about becoming cross-media stars, Alyster. Stage productions, movies - the ‘Wrestlers versus Zombies’ film genre is about to explode and we can be on the ground floor! Not only that, but we’ve got some video games in development - hey, we could do a multiplayer level with FTN! I should write that down, actually.”

Hastily pulling out a pen and a notepad, Price jotted his latest idea down on the already crowded sheet of paper with the others. He then reached across the table and offered the pen to Alyster. “So, what do you say?”

Now, here is your next decision and this one is a big one, dear reader. What does Alyster do here? Does he flatly refuse Allen’s offer? Doing so is probably going to upset Chris some way after all of the care and effort that Allen has shown.

Option I: Alyster gets out all of his mask sale receipts to show that Allen does not have a clue what he is talking about, and then tells him to fuck off.

Option II: Alyster hears Allen out some more and the group discuss FTN.








Option I

ERROR RETRIEVING OPTION I.

TROUBLESHOOTING.

TROUBLESHOOTING.

ERROR IDENTIFIED.

RESOLVING.

RESOLVING.

RESOLVING.

RESOLVING.

RESOLVING.

ERROR COULD NOT BE RESOLVED.

PLEASE OPEN OPTION II BELOW.

Option II

Even with the contract in front of him and the pen in his hand, Alyster was not going to make such a decision straight away, especially when he had a sock drawer full of receipts from mask sales upstairs which were evidence that Price was either horrendously ill-informed or as much of an idiot as everyone presumed him to be.

“Alright, I knew you were going to be a tough nut to crack, so how about I set out my ideas for how I can help you in the FWA, and I don’t just mean around the negotiating table. Look, there’s a problem with how FTN is coming across to the audiences at home. A lot of the opinion polls are coming back with some quite concerning results, if I am being honest, guys.”

There was silence around the table as both Chris and Alyster pondered what that could actually mean for them, given their experiences over the last few days. Chris remained silent with his arms folded, as he had to really find it in himself to care what opinion polls thought of him, given his own recent realisations about himself and his resolution not to actually care what the people wanted from him due to their rejection of him as the FWA World Champion.

Alyster similarly did not care what the masses thought of him, or of his team with Chris. His trail of thought was cut off by Allen talking once again, out of turn in Alyster’s mind.

“So, I think I can pull some strings to get you some more on-screen time together. Interviews, promo packages, merch... we need to sell this thing a bit more, you know?”

“What is there to sell? Our friendship is natural and it is important to both of us… why should we care what a bunch of pricks think?”

“I’m saying that this is a view shared by people in general, not just a specific group, Alyster.”

“Yeah, a bunch of pricks.”

“People in general?”

“That’s who I meant.”

“You can’t just think everyone is a prick, Alyster.”

“I can. It’s not hard.”

“Alyster, come on. You can’t speak with such certainty-”

“Me? Have you heard yourself? You know absolutely dick about this business and you’re here lecturing me, telling me what I need to be doing better. I’ve had the career of ten men rolled into one. FWA World Champion, longest reigning X Champion, FWA and CWA World Tag Team Champion.”

Chris gritted his teeth as he listened to Alyster reel off his accomplishments once more, wondering why he just had to bring up CWA - and by connection, Krash, once again. The frustration was broken by Alyster then turning to him. “What is it with you people? Why do you just assume that you fucking know everything? You with the ladders and this clown with all of his bullshit.”

“Come on, it probably wouldn’t hurt to boost FTN’s profile a bit more. If you’re struggling with those mask sales-”

“MY MASKS SELL JUST FINE, THANK YOU! I KNOW..that you don’t really feel like this, and you care just as little as I do about what people think. Did you bring this idiot here just to get back at me? Was it because of the ladder? I was trying to help you, Chris.”

Both Chris and Alyster rise from their seats at the same time. “Oh, now it is about me? Helping me? That’s funny, because I don’t think you’ve actually been thinking about me - AT ALL - since I got here.”

“What the fuck are you talking about, dude?”

Before Chris could blurt out the ‘K’ word, he backtracked and composed himself slightly.

“The lightbulb.”

“WHAT?!”

Exasperated, Chris turned around and left the room, ensuring that his stomps up the stairs could be heard throughout the entire house. Alyster shook his head and leant on the table, extremely frustrated with the current situation between him and his partner.

“Erm, Alyster?” Allen said nervously and he gingerly pointed towards the contract that he had placed in front of Alyster. “Are you on board?”

“Fuck off, Allen.”










San Dimas, California
2 Days Before Back in Business XVII

The boys had ensured to go to sleep early, as they had a long drive ahead of them the following day. Although given how their week had been going, their idea for Chris to drive them both from San Dimas to Mexico City seemed a worse one by the moment. The coordinated bedtimes were merely a coincidence, as Chris and Alyster had not spoken to each other at any sort of great length since their most recent spat in Allen’s presence. Chris also was not pleased that Allen was kicked out of the house, and was staying there himself still mostly out of spite.

It really did seem like those who wanted to see the cracks formed between Chris and Alyster had gotten their wish; both of them had agreed to themselves internally that if Back in Business didn’t go their way against Aka Manto and dayspring/nightfall, that FTN was done. So if that was your wish - hopefully you’re happy, and also go fuck yourself. All this was dependent on one final trial that Chris Peacock and Alyster Black were going to go through.

Whilst Chris and Alyster had intended to go to sleep early, neither actually did. Chris left his room approximately five minutes after entering it, because he wanted a drink. Since spending as much time as he had in Alyster’s house and with the copious amounts of alcohol available to him so readily, he had taken up drinking a glass of rum or two before bed each night. It actually helped with some of his terrors.

As he passed Alyster’s room, he saw that the door was closed and the light was switched off and assumed this meant that Alyster was already asleep. As petty as he was, he knew that he would be severely pissed off if someone interrupted his precious sleep, so he did his best to move across the landing and then down the stairs as quietly as possible.

His time spent in Alyster’s house thus far meant that he had a good idea of the layout of the living room and he moved towards the drinks cabinet and planned to use the moonlight filtering in through the blinds as his source of light whilst he poured himself a drink. Suddenly, the television switched on and began to show a recent Aka Manto match, causing Chris to jump and almost drop the glass and the bottle of rum.

“Couldn’t sleep?” Alyster asked from across the room, having been sitting in the dark when Chris entered the room. He was not wearing his mask and he dropped the remote control down next to him on the sofa and took a sip of his own drink.

“Something like that… You know, if you’d have fixed that lightbulb, I would have probably been able to see you.”

It was an attempt at sarcasm from Chris, but it definitely could have come across as yet another snide comment from Alyster’s perspective.

Well, this is the big one. What is going to happen next? Does Alyster bite his tongue and the boys sit down and talk about their opponents, or does he give Chris both barrels?

Oh, who are we trying to kid? If you haven’t learned anything from this story, you can take this away for free; it doesn’t matter what you want. You don’t have a right to assume or dictate anything in the lives of these two men or how they feel about each other. So, what happens next? What do you think?

“What is your fucking problem, man?”

“What’s my problem?”

“You deaf now as well as being an asshole? You heard what I said. You keep going on about that lightbulb like it actually means anything-”

“Oh, it doesn’t matter to you? It isn’t relevant? So you do know what it feels like to have someone repeatedly mention something you don’t give a fuck about?”

“I still have no idea what you’re talking about, Chris. You’ve been a dick this entire week and I don’t understand why. Do you understand how much of a big deal it is for me to have someone here? I’m not like you, I don’t like putting myself out there and opening my home to anyone that will come around.

“It is a big fucking deal to me that I brought you here for a whole WEEK no fucking less, and all you’ve done is complain the entire time and then you abused the trust that I had put in you by inviting that fucking moron here.”


“I thought you liked him now?”

“Not enough to have him in my house! Do you understand how few people have been here? It is literally just you and-”

“Krash.”

The pure vitriol that Chris said Krash’s name caused Alyster to immediately realise what the wider problem was and why Chris had been acting the way he was. Alyster stood up and approached Chris with the light from the TV illuminating one side of their faces.

“Am I not allowed to say his name now? Because you haven’t shut the fuck up about him all week!”

Alyster could see that Chris’s eyes were beginning to well up with tears. He simultaneously wanted to slap the taste out of his mouth and also give him a reassuring hug. It was clear that this was a big deal for Chris and perhaps Alyster drawing on his past experiences with Krash made him feel inadequate and of course, jealous.

“I thought we’d been through this already, Chris. You know, after Back in Town when he came back. I told you this is what I’m doing and look at what we did. We’ve got those titles, we Fucked the Nephews!”

“Yeah, but now he’s actually back, Alyster. It’s not the same. Things take another downturn here, then what? We lose these titles and what’s stopping you just going back to him, huh?”

“Oh for fu… you’ve got to drop this thing, man. I don’t know what I can do to convince you that you’re just being paranoid.”

Chris didn’t say anything. He felt a plethora of emotions at once, a primary one being embarrassment about how he was clearly reading into things too much and assuming the worst.

“Look, I have to be honest with you, Chris. What Krash and I had was special and I don’t think there is anyone I can truly replicate that with. Remember, you used to team with your actual brother… your twin, in fact. If there is anyone who can understand what it is like to share an unbreakable bond with a partner, it is you… although, saying that, my bond with Krash did get broken.

“I’m not trying to recreate what I had with Krash with you, Chris. Yeah, you might both be assholes and have the two best moustaches I’ve ever seen, but you aren’t the same. There was a time where Krash would have been my everything, but right now, you’re the asshole I choose. You’re the one who has been there for me through every difficult moment since we started doing this thing.

“You’re not perfect, I’ve come to realise that. Neither am I, as I’m sure you’ve learned. But Chris, we’ve been tested this week.”


“That’s a bit of an understatement.”

“Do you think we passed?”

“I’m not sure, Alyster. I care about you a lot and honestly, with the way I feel about everything going on in my life right now, you’re in a pretty exclusive club. I just look at that night at the party after Back in Town… and this past week… he’s just going to keep coming in between us.”

“Chris… I don’t know what to tell you. Is there anything, and I mean anything, that I can do to at least just show you that you’ve got nothing to worry about?”

After a few seconds of Alyster looking desperately into his eyes, Chris wiped his own and then looked up at the ceiling. Alyster immediately knew what he was looking at and what was wanted from him.

“No.”

“Yes.”

“Now?”

“Yes.”

“Is that really what it’s going to take?”

“Yes.”

“You really are a stubborn bastard, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t know how. Will you help me?”

“Yes.”

A smirk began to form on Chris’s face and he stood still as Alyster motioned towards the troublesome lightbulb. “I’ll go get the ladder…”

Ten minutes later, Alyster was atop the ladder in his living room in the middle of the night, fiddling with the fixing in the ceiling. Chris was at the bottom of the ladder, holding it in place.

“Now just turn it…”

Alyster did as instructed and instantaneously the room was filled with light. ‘Black Jesus’ had his mouth open with awe. “We did it!”

“Maybe me running zone and you climbing to the top makes more sense?”

“You could be right, man.”

“Alyster?”

“Yeah?”

“I love you, man.”

“I love you too, dude.”

“That’s good to know. You know what I’m about to do, right?”

Alyster did not answer the question and simply accepted his fate as Chris pushed the ladder to one side and it fell with Alyster on it, with Black crashing through the coffee table. He groaned as he laid in the wreckage of the table.

“HOW DO YOU LIKE IT?”

“Yeah, I definitely couldn’t do something like this to Makima. Too… cute…”

Unfortunately for Makima Snowmantashi, Chris Peacock has absolutely no qualms about hurting her if it meant keeping the FWA World Tag Team Championships with Alyster. Zom Gippy’s mere existence means an absolute drubbing from both members of FTN and Aka Manto can learn a thing or two from FTN about not caring what people say about them.

As for FTN? They’re as solid as a house. Whether it is a warm and welcoming one or a cold, isolated one. So cast your aspersions, doubt their bond, do your worst. Because if anyone can withstand spending an entire week with one of these assholes, then they’re made for each other and there’s your proof.