We open on Caledonia Highlander, CWF’s World Championship belt around her waist. A spotlight shines down on her, and she looks directly into the camera.
So here we are again.
You know… it doesn’t seem all that long ago that I was driving into Atlantic City, preparing for the first time we did this. It doesn’t seem all that long since our positions were reversed, since you were the World Champion and I the challenger.
But so much has changed since then.
She looks down, contemplating for a moment, before returning her gaze to the camera.
Shifting alliances, broken promises, twists and turns and shattered glass. It’s been a hell of a month. Is it strange that fighting you, one of the most challenging battles I’ve ever faced, comes as something of a relief?
Because you were one of the toughest fights I ever had, MJ. I didn’t think I could do it - I had all the momentum and all the hype going into Paradise, and in my heart of hearts I thought that you would be the one to stop me dead. The youngest World Champion in CWF’s history, with among the most successful title defenses.
I would be lying to myself if I said that I wasn’t a little bit happy when I heard your challenge, MJ. Not because I think it’ll be an easy match - no, nothing involving MJ Flair can be called “easy.” I was happy because you deserve this opportunity. There are many who feel that “MJ was robbed” at Golden Intentions. And in truth… I’m one of them.
She pauses for a moment.
Because ours was truly one of the great wrestling stories, MJ. A story seldom told, these days… a story that begins with respect. And a story that has continued with mutual respect throughout. Before we fought at Paradise, we shook hands, like sportswomen. And when I beat you, you raised my hand, and we embraced. It’s not something you see every day in this sport.
So I was looking forward to our story continuing.
It seems the natural climax, doesn’t it? The former champion, driven on by sheer grit and determination, wins the Golden Intentions Rumble, and faces the woman who beat her on the grandest stage that CWF can offer - the main event of Wrestlefest, in your home town of New York City.
But that’s not what happened.
I know that you’re obsessing about your loss. And trust me, there was some extent to which I did as well, after I found out about it.
When you named me as your chosen number one contender, you said that you believed that I was the best overall wrestler on the CWF roster. I like to think that I’ve shown you that you were not mistaken in that belief. And meaning no disrespect to my venerable Wrestlefest opponent, the man who eliminated you, I believe that you’re the best in CWF…
… except for me.
I beat you at Paradise, I choked the title out of you. And at Golden Intentions, I beat Omega - who behind her childlike-princess act is one of the most vicious and savage fighters I’ve ever encountered - in a match of her choosing, an environment virtually tailored for her victory.
And yet here I stand, still the World Heavyweight Champion.
Don’t get me wrong, MJ. I’m not taking you for granted. There’s every possibility that you’ll beat me this time. And if you do, you’ll have earned the title through and through. You’ll show me that I’m wrong, that you are the best - and you’ll get to achieve your dream, headlining Wrestlefest at Madison Square Garden. Just not against the opponent you envisioned, the perfect climax to one of the great stories of modern wrestling. But hey, a dream’s a dream. And now I stand in the path of your dream.
Sorry to say, MJ, but I’m not budging.
You know the best thing about you, the thing I like most? If I did succumb to the pity of friendship, the desire to help you achieve your dream, a momentary weakness that afforded you the chance to take your dreams and grab it - I don’t think you’d take it. You’re not the sort to take handouts. You’ve earned everything you’ve got - and between us, you’ve earned a good deal more than what you’ve got.
I intend to give you everything I have this week, Mariella. You’ve earned nothing less.
I was at a loose end.
Eris and I had ended up spending most of last week in New York City, then visiting the Commune. Many of the residents had opted to continue their martial training, despite now knowing what had begun it. Despite Elijah and Omega’s manipulations, they’d now seen the true face of the Institute, and they knew that a war was coming.
Although the war looked very different now to how it looked when all this began.
I don’t think that even Elijah and Omega had anticipated the return of the Order; I hadn’t, and I had literally grown up in it. Looking back, I occasionally found myself wondering how the hell I missed it, how I had missed the fact that my parents belonged to such a horrific organization… but I knew. I had seen it in hundreds of cases in my training as a psychologist. It was cognitive dissonance.
Inasmuch as I’d seen the signs, I’d dismissed them. Subtly, I’d put together reasons for things that seemed wrong; all could be explained away.
A young girl descends down the stairs of an opulently decorated townhome. In her hands she holds an exercise book and a textbook with brightly colored, smiling jungle animals: Maths Safari.
As we move down the stairs, voices come into the range of hearing. Three loud, male voices, all clearly at least somewhat inebriated.
‘… and the farmer says “Exactly, neither do the potatoes!”’ Loud, braying laughter. ‘Go on, Fitz, your turn.’
‘All right, all right… A Soviet man is waiting in line to purchase vodka from a liquor store, but due to restrictions imposed by Gorbachev, the line is very long. The man loses his composure and screams, "I can't take this waiting in line anymore, I HATE Gorbachev, I am going to the Kremlin right now, and I am going to kill him!" After 40 minutes the man returns and elbows his way back to his place in line. One man asks him if he has succeeded in killing Gorbachev. “No,” he responds. “That line was even longer.” More braying laughter. The little girl rounds the corner, peeking quietly around. The three men are sitting in a smoking room, two on leather armchairs, one on a sofa, all with glasses of brandy in one hand and Cuban cigars in another. Two are in suits, the other in a military uniform.
‘So…,’ says the one on the sofa, ‘an artist is commissioned to create a painting celebrating Soviet-Polish friendship, to be called "Lenin in Poland." When the painting is unveiled at the Kremlin, there is a gasp from the invited guests. The painting depicts Lenin's wife naked in bed with Leon Trotsky. But - Caledonia!’
‘I don’t bloody get it,’ says the man in the chair that faces away from the door.
The man on the sofa stands up and hurries over to the girl. ‘Caledonia, you startled me, shouldn’t you be doing your homework?’
‘I am,’ she says, ‘I need help.’
‘Wasn’t Miss Tibbs meant to help you with your mathematics?’
‘She was, but she went home. Please, Daddy, what’s six times nine?’
‘You know what it is, Caledonia!’ says her father, stroking her hair. ‘Go on now. Your times tables.’
The little girl takes a deep breath. ‘Six times one is six. Six times two is twelve. Six times three is eighteen. Six times four is… is…’
‘Go on,’ says her father.
‘I say,’ says the man in the military uniform, ‘what say you try it from the other way, m’dear?’
‘The other way?’ she says.
‘Well,’ he says, pulling himself up with more difficulty than perhaps he should, ‘six times nine is nine times six, right?’
‘The commutative property,’ slurs the remaining man in the suit. Caledonia looks confused, and her father glowers briefly at him. The military man, Peter Spencer, ignores him.
‘I’ll tell you a little trick,’ he says, ‘with the nines. Look, nine times two is eighteen, yes? One-eight. What’s one plus eight?’
‘Nine,’ she says.
‘And nine times three is twenty-seven,’ he says. ‘Two-seven… what’s two plus seven?’
‘… nine,’ she says, with dawning recognition.
‘All the multiples of nine,’ he says, ‘add up to nine. Jolly useful, yes? And they tick up by one at a time. For any number, to get it times nine, you subtract one, then that’s the first digit, then nine minus that number is the second!’
Her dawning recognition is gone. Her father laughs. ‘You’ve confused the poor girl, Spencer,’ he says. ‘Go on, Caledonia, try the times tables again. Nine times four is…?’
She thinks. ‘Thirty-six.’
‘Nine times five?’
‘And nine times six? Add one, subtract one,’ says Spencer.
She thinks again. ‘… fifty-four?’
The three drunk men applaud her and she blushes. Her father ruffles her hair and kisses her forehead. ‘Now then. Be off with you, we have grown-up things to discuss.’
She curtseys, and remembers her manners. ‘Thank you, Mr. Spencer.’
‘Vice Admiral Spencer,’ says her father, though his admonishment is not especially angry. ‘Now back to your chambers.’
She leaves, but lingers once she’s around the corner. Curiosity, wanting to know what “grown-up things” are. They seemed to be having so much fun.
‘So Summers,’ she hears the other man in the suit say, ‘are we finished with children’s mathematics? Can we get back to bloody work?’
‘Of course, Urquhart,’ says Spencer, his tone returning to utter professionalism. ‘Well, the Institute has managed to secure the support of John Mapother…’
‘Who?’ asks Urquhart.
‘An American actor,’ he replies, ‘and a fairly popular one. He’s acting in war films now, and I believe that the Institute is planning to use them as recruitment tools for OSA. It could tip the balance in Morotovia, if we don’t act quickly.’
‘Our “friends” in Morotovia have held government since the collapse of the Soviets, you think a film makes a difference?’ scoffs Urquhart.
‘Perhaps not a film by itself,’ says Caledonia’s father, ‘but an increased number of Institute-backed insurgents, combined with a stronger OSA presence, could be problematic.’
‘And you want me to secure support in Parliament for a counter-attack,’ says Urquhart, sighing. ‘Major is already balking, Summers, and I’m burning through my arsenal like tissue paper. I already set up Rafferty’s “suicide” and that thing with Ashford and the rent boy. There’s only so much I can do to reinforce the Order’s agenda in Parliament without being noticed - ’
‘Do you want them destroyed or not?’ cries Spencer. ‘If we play this right, we can bait the Institute into deploying a major offensive in Morotovia, we can kill tens of thousands of their soldiers in one fell swoop! I just need political cover, and I can wipe their entire Eastern European force off the face of the earth!’
The little girl runs to bed, and we hear no more. She cries as she returns to her mathematics. She doesn’t want to know anything more about “grown-up things.”
I snapped out of my thoughts. I had found myself wandering into memories of late; a tool I had learned about in my psychology lessons but never used myself, a kind of introspection, looking back at past things from a new angle.
But it probably wasn’t a safe thing to do driving down I-85 at seventy miles per hour.
I had returned to Atlanta, leaving the Commune behind. It had been good to be among friends, but I honestly just wanted some time to myself, time to think. So after a brief stop in Cleveland, I had parted ways with Eris and gone back to what was my home.
I had gone straight to the promo studio from the airport, since it had been about to close when I had landed. They could bend the rules for the CWF World Champion, but not break them completely. So I hadn’t been home yet.
Home… it was strange to me, but I almost had trouble thinking of Dan and my apartment as “home”. “Home” was the place where we’d built a life, where we’d snuggled on the couch watching Friends and eating butter chicken; where we’d spent our Christmases, our birthdays, where we’d had our party to celebrate getting our PhDs. But since he’d been gone… our “home” was more like a fortress, the place Eris and I had used as a base to hunt down first the Institute and then the Order.
It didn’t, in short, feel like home anymore.
With the Academy gone and my parents having effectively cut me out, it felt like I didn’t have a home at all these days. The Commune was a nice place, but I couldn’t deal with it. The people there looked up to me, even if we’d agreed that I wasn’t their leader. I knew that should a crisis ever befall the Commune like the attack on the Academy, their eyes would turn to me… and I couldn’t handle that again. Not until I had Dan back.
Pathetic, isn’t it? The brave warrior woman, the champion of the world, unable to handle a crisis without her man.
That’s not what it is and you know it, replied a firmer part of my brain. Even warriors have people they love, people who support them. It’s not like you’re going to don a 50s housewife dress and simper while Dan saves the day. You’re still the World Champion, undefeated for nearly six months. You fought the Institute’s attack on the Academy, you fought Elisha and Mapother and Sunset, you beat Jace Valentine and MJ Flair and Omega and Amber Ryan. And you did it all while the man you loved was being tortured. That would take a toll on anyone.
I sighed, and shortly cursed the arsehole in the Audi who had swung in front of me with about half a second’s indication. We were heading for the same exit, but I guess that he just had to be in front of me. Always a race with Atlantan drivers.
It was raining when I arrived back. There had been far more storms in Atlanta this year, it seemed like it rained almost every day now. I hurried to the front door, but stopped halfway, dead in my tracks.
There was a rose on the doorstep.
Steamboat Springs, Colorado - November 2008
I’m backstage at Colorado Pro Wrestling’s latest big event - where “backstage” means “in the girls’ locker room of Steamboat Springs High” and “big event” means a few hundred drunk tourists crammed into the basketball stadium. There seem to be a few locals, but mostly it’s people visiting the mountain ski resort, with little else to do of an evening.
I’ve been put into a special match, an exhibition match with a former CPW Statewide champion - the man who used to hold the title currently sitting around my waist. He’s apparently signed up with the Championship Wrestling Federation; an organization that was apparently huge about five years ago, but closed… and is now reopening, apparently. His appearance here is intended to build publicity for CWF.
I’ll show him just how good CPW is.
He enters first, using his old theme music. Back in Black by AC/DC. Good choice. I can’t see him yet, but I’ve looked over his profile.
He’s cute, but I’d never tell him that.
The crowd’s reaction is surprisingly mixed. Chants alternate between “Highlander!” and “You sold out!” I guess some fans weren't okay with him leaving for the big leagues.
The ring announcer, John “Buddy” Wallace, speaks into his microphone. ‘Making his way to the ring first, from Canberra, Australia, weighing two hundred and thirty pounds, representing CWF, he is a former CPW Statewide Champion - DAN “THE HAMMER” HIGHLANDER!’
The crowd’s reaction seems to turn more to cheers as Highlander walks down the ramp. I haven’t exited yet, but I can only assume he’s going through some of the old motions.
My music hits and the crowd goes wild. I smirk, in spite of myself. I love the elation of a roaring crowd. And CPW is proud to have the drunkest fans in North America. They know how to roar.
I reach the ring. Highlander looks taken aback. Maybe he wasn’t expecting that sort of reaction to his opponent? Maybe he wasn’t expecting to wrestle a woman tonight?
I wink at him. He shifts uncomfortably.
Well. Maybe he wasn’t expecting to wrestle a woman he’s attracted to tonight.
We lock up in the center of the ring. He’s bigger than I am, he gains the advantage. I expect him to start throwing punches; this guy is supposedly one of the best strikers in the game. But he hesitates and goes for a vertical suplex instead.
... how did this guy win a Statewide Title?
He covers me, but I kick out. I spring to my feet and clock him across the face with a left hook. He staggers, and I nail a Handspring Elbow. The crowd goes wild and Highlander rolls out of the ring.
Big mistake, Danny boy.
I vault over the ropes and take him down with a cross-body, then I lay into him with punches. He counters eventually, and rolls back into the rings. I follow him. He attempts a clothesline - a good one, but not good enough. I duck under his swing and take him down with a flying senton. I get him in a Thesz press and start throwing down more punches. Finally, he reverses. Okay. Now I see what this guy’s about. He hits hard, but I’m able to counter, a back-knuckle strike to his temple. He’s thrown off just enough for me to get him completely off me. We retreat to opposite corners, and take a second to regain our composure.
I taunt him, as much for the sake of the crowd as anything. But somehow it works. He charges in with a Superkick, a big one - but not fast enough. I duck underneath him and lock in the Bed of Roses.
After the match I see him storming backstage, with what I assume is his manager, a little emo-looking guy, skipping around him. I’m too far back to hear what they’re saying. I decide to give him some space. This is more than his “manager” gives him; he hammers on the door for about five minutes before finally giving up. I give it another minute. I don’t know why I’m still waiting around to talk to Dan Highlander, it’s not like I know this guy, and…
…oh, bloody hell.
I toss up calling it there, whether to just walk away and not risk getting entangled in a romance with someone who I know will be all over the country; a romance I barely have time for anyway. But I don’t call it. I walk over and knock on the door.
‘Bugger off, Wynters!’ comes the barking response.
‘This isn’t Wynters!’ I say. The door opens. Highlander looks like he’s about to groan, but he doesn’t.
‘Look, Ms Summers, if you’re here to gloat…’
‘I’m not. And it’s Caledonia. Ms Summers is my aunt.’
‘Not your mother?’
‘She’s Ms Carlton. Kept her maiden name.’
‘Look,’ I say, ‘I came by because - well, you looked kind of annoyed, and I guess I didn’t want there to be sour grapes between us.’
‘And why would I be annoyed?’ he says.
‘Because I used my feminine charms to lure you into a reckless attack, which I then capitalised on.’ And because you were expecting an easy win.But I didn’t say that.
‘Oh,’ he says, ‘yeah… that pretty much covers it.’
There’s a brief silence. ‘Anyway,’ I say. ‘I just wanted to, y’know, check in.’ I find myself running my fingers through my hair.Stop it, Cali!
‘All’s good,’ he says, with clearly false bravado. ‘The better wrestler won tonight. No sour grapes. Besides,’ he said, ‘you’re way too cute for me to hold anything against you.’
I laugh, but with more than a tinge of sarcasm. ‘You’re going to have to do a lotbetter than that.’
He chuckled. ‘Let me see what I can do.’
I smirk, and he closes the door. I turn around and find myself face-to-face with the emo guy who was hanging around him. ‘Hi!’ he says brightly.
‘Hi,’ I say, unsure of what to make of him. There’s an awkward silence for a few moments before he says ‘Bye!’ and scurries off.
Well. That was weird.
I go back to the women’s locker room and shower. It takes a while for my hair to dry. I don’t risk going outside with wet hair anymore, not in Colorado in November. I made that mistake once; the word “icicles” is all the description that mistake needs.
It’s nearly an hour before I finally arrive back at my hotel room. As a Champion, I’m allowed one of only a handful of private rooms that CPW can afford in Steamboat Springs this time of year. I pass a bunch of drunk Floridians in the lobby and arrive at my room. Huh. There’s a rose outside my room.
‘Top of the Gondola. Tomorrow night. No sour grapes.’
In spite of myself, I find myself sighing at Highlander’s romantic gesture.
Oh, what harm can one date do?
I hurried over, despite the rain, and snatched up the rose. No note this time. I throw open the door, hoping against hope that Dan has somehow escaped, that maybe Elijah and Omega had been playing the long game to manipulate the Order and liberate him… but no, the house is empty.
What the hell is going on?
It was possible that it was just some crazed fan… but CWF was pretty good about keeping the home addresses of its personnel under wraps. And if this were Elisha manipulating things, it’d be something far more worrying than a single flower.
No… this was always Dan and my thing. The flower came from him.
So why is there nothing else?
I sank into the couch. I managed to hold back the tears for now. Why would he leave me a rose now, of all times? And why no message? Why isn’t he here? What’s going on?
I took a deep breath, quieted my mind. The house stank, I hadn’t been back to it in ages and some mildew had built up. I opened the windows, cleaned up the place a bit. The cleaning helped me think.
Until I got any further information, I couldn’t make anything of the rose. I would have to go forward as though I had never seen it, hard though that would be.
Once the kitchen was cleaned up I turned on the TV and set Netflix playing. I should probably have been training ahead of my match with MJ, but I needed a break. I needed to switch my mind off, and Nailed It! seemed like as good a means for that as anything.
I was about halfway through my second episode when I noticed that I’d gotten an email about an hour previously. I hadn’t seen it in my distraction… but when I saw who it was from, I immediately paused Nailed It! and opened the email.
These Order motherfuckers have the best firewall I’ve ever seen. I can only get through for a few minutes at a time before they patch the hole, and I haven’t gotten anything good until now.
They’re having some sort of big meeting at the end of the month, at the fucking Watergate, if you can believe that. I’m attaching the details. I hope they help you, kiddo.
P.S: Don’t go too hard on MJ this week, ‘kay?
P.P.S: On second thought, scratch that. Give her all you got, and tell her to call her Aunt Ivy.
I took a deep breath, taking everything in. So this was it. I had a location for the leadership of the Order of the Oncoming Storm; an opening to confront them.
I was ready.