I’m in the Hot Zone, about a minute before I’m set to head out to the ring for the biggest match of my career. My heart is in my throat and I can’t believe the day is finally here.
I’m pacing. So is MJ Flair, the World Champion, on the other side of the room. I don’t know if she’s as nervous as I am, but she looks like she’s feeling it. I walk over to her. Hey, I say. Cali. Hey, she says back. It’s awkward. We like each other, we’re friends… and yet we’re about to go out there and beat the crap out of each other, fighting with everything we have.
We talk for a while, about how strange this is. But we agree that it’s a friendly competition even if it’s fierce. The Champion offers her hand. See ya out there, she says. May the best woman win, I say.
We both intend to.
I don’t think I can win this.
MJ’s countered the Fall From Grace, she kicked out of the Queen’s Gambit… she’s a hell of a fighter, resilient as anyone. I lose my cool. I begin stomping on her - and she clips me in the face with an uppercut. Stupid of me. Should have kept my focus. I’m still recovering from the Van Terminator she hit me with earlier. Her newest strike knocks me off balance.
MJ runs up the ropes and jumps. This is my only chance. With all my remaining strength and agility, I duck her attack, get behind her. I lock in the Bed of Roses.
I can hear the crowd roar, but it’s remote, like hearing something underwater. My whole world is her, in this ring, with the woman in my arms.
Huh. That was oddly homoerotic.
MJ refuses to give up. We lie here for what feels like an eternity. I tighten my grip. This is my strongest move, the move that beat Jace Valentine and my husband. I have to hope that it’s enough.
I feel MJ Flair tap out. I hear the bell, the roar of the crowd. But it’s not until the World Championship belt is handed to me that my new reality fully kicks in.
I am the World Champion.
‘Fuck me, I’m World Champion,’ I said, about an hour after the match, halfway through my third margarita.
‘We know,’ said Eris, who was halfway through their third Long Island Iced Tea. I was amazed at their ability to stay coherent.
‘Sorry, I’m…’ I collected myself. ‘It’s just kind of unreal to me. I’d only just gotten used to the idea of being the top contender, and now I’m actually the World Champion.’
‘We know,’ said Amber, smirking. ‘And it’ll get more real when you wake up tomorrow morning and the belt is still there by your bedside. Right now, though, I’m thirsty. Next round’s on me.’ She pounded back her beer and headed for the bar.
‘Cheers love,’ I said, slurring.
Eris was quiet for a moment as they sipped their cocktail. ‘I am proud of you. You know that, right? I may give you shit, but you’ve been through so much to get that belt.’
I squeezed Eris’ hand. ‘I appreciate it.’
Neither of us spoke about what still lay ahead. Instead, Eris raised a different topic. ‘So, it must be fairly weird for you, drinking with the person who can challenge you for the belt at any time.’ They nodded in Amber’s direction.
‘Maybe a bit,’ I said, ‘but MJ did it with me a few times, while we were in - what?’ Eris had shifted a bit during that last sentence.
‘Hee. You said “MJ did it with me”.’
‘Oh, for God’s sake, is this about the shippers again?’
‘Hey, #marielledonia is popping right now!’
I buried my face in my hands. Amber arrived back at the table bearing fresh drinks and I gratefully inhaled about half of mine in one go.
‘What’s with her?’ said Amber.
‘Shippers,’ said Eris, not even bothering to conceal their smirk.
‘The fuck’s a shipper?’ said Amber.
‘Don’t!’ I said, putting a finger to Eris’ lips. ‘Let’s just get back to the drinking, shall we?’
We did. After about a minute of quietly savoring the alcohol, Amber spoke. ‘So I’m surprised, Cali - would’ve thought there’d be some big to-do at the Academy for you.’
Eris stiffened. I responded. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Well… I mean, I wasn’t there, but from what I hear there was a party to end all parties when you two won the tag team championships. Kinda surprised you’re getting obliterated at a crappy hotel bar in New Jersey rather than… well, I don’t know exactly what you’d do at the Academy, but I’d assume it’d be bigger than this.’
Oh my God, she doesn’t know. There was an awkward silence as my internal debate raged as to whether or not to tell Amber that I was no longer welcome at the Academy. The debate was rendered moot as Eris fell off their chair. I honestly couldn’t tell whether it was deliberate or not. Whatever it was, it changed the subject, and we ended up spending about half an hour laughing at Silas Artoria.
But just as my spirits were beginning to run high, a notification came in on my phone, telling me the card for that week.
‘Ah, fuck me,’ I said.
‘I told you, if you’re down I will, but you have to let me describe the experience in an Eridonia fanfic…’ said Eris with a coy wink.
‘Not literally, you perv,’ I said. ‘Here. Look.’ I handed Eris my phone, which displayed our match at the top.
Their face fell. ‘You sure you can do this?’
‘Beat a former World Champion and a former Impact champion with one of my closest friends at my side? Sure.’
‘I meant - ’
‘I know what you meant,’ I said. ‘But I’m not exactly happy about this booking.’
‘What?’ said Amber. ‘What is it?’
I handed her my phone. She scrolled through the card. ‘Hmm. Good lineup for the tag title contendership… Starr’s got a non-title match for the Impact… alrighty, here we are.’ She scrutinized. ‘I don’t get it, what’s not to like? Yeah, we’ve got a tough bunch of guys, but like you said, I’m pretty sure we can take them.’
‘It’s not who we’re fighting, it’s who we’re fighting with,’ I said. I noticed Eris tensing up.
‘… okay darl, I’m about three beers past the point of being able to get nuances like that.’
To hell with it. ‘Omega. We’re teaming with Omega, and I’d really rather not.’
Eris let out an audible sob. Amber ignored it, possibly unintentionally. ‘…why the hell not?’ she asked. ‘She’s one of the best fighters I know and one of our best friends, what’s not to like about teaming with her?’
‘Yeah, see… I don’t think Omega and I are friends. Or ever were, for that matter.’
Eris excused themselves, leaving their Long Island Iced Tea half-finished and walking away with a sniffle. That raised Amber’s eyebrows. ‘Okay, what the fuck is going on, Cali?’
I took a deep breath. And then I explained everything.
I explained how Elijah and Omega had manipulated the population of the Academy into becoming their private army.
How they had called us all to the Academy, despite knowing that it was a former Institute stronghold.
How they had stood by and done nothing while my search for my missing husband went around in circles. And while Jace Valentine and I had put our lives on the line to stop Elisha from taking control of both the CWF and the Institute.
Amber nodded through most of my talk, but after I finished, she said ‘Yeah, Cali… I already know all this. Those two have been super fucking shady, but to say that you’re not friends anymore… we’re still on the same side against the Childlike Empress and his army of fuckers.’
‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘but there’s another thing. And it’s something I’ve only come to realize in the last week or so.’
Silence hung for a few seconds before Amber gestured for me to go on, rotating her wrist in a circle. I took a deep breath. ‘All this shit that’s gone down with Dan being kidnapped? It wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for Elijah.’
Amber did a double-take. ‘Wait, what? Are you saying he was… involved, or…’
‘No! Well… not that I know of. At this point, I’m not ruling anything out. But what I know for sure is that if Elijah hadn’t filled Dan’s head with that Amorality crap, Dan wouldn’t have fallen in with the Order. He wouldn’t have gone with them, and he’d be here with me, on what’s meant to be the biggest night of my life!’ I hadn’t realized how much anger entered into my voice, and I was almost yelling by the end. Heads turned, but swiftly turned back.
Amber gingerly took my hand and squeezed it, with the stiffness of someone who was imitating something she’d seen in a movie. ‘But…’ she said, confused, ‘but I thought Elisha was the one with all the Amorality shit. Elijah’s fought against it… his whole life, right?’
I sniffed. I could feel the tears welling up, tears of anger and sadness intermixed. ‘He’s fought against the Institute his whole life. Amorality… he’s never abandoned Amorality. Just its Institute.’
‘What did he say exactly?’ asked Amber.
‘He said…’ I struggled to remember the quote. ‘Which sin is greater - to stain one's soul in pursuit of a noble good, or to stand by in silence through desire to remain pure?’
Amber’s eyebrows raised. ‘Well, that sounds like Elijah… but how does it play in with Dan?’
‘Dan used the exact same fucking line when he joined the Order. To… “stop the Institute at any cost.” Elijah got into his head, all those months leading up to CWF coming back, and he kept inside his head through the fight with Elisha. All of it, all that shit, meant that when Dan lost the match with Elisha he lost his morality. Before all that Dan would have said that there’s always a way, always a way to defeat evil while remaining good.’
Amber nodded and looked pensive. ‘Cali… you know as well as I do that that was naivete on Dan’s part. And it cost him dearly.’
‘I know, but…’ My anger had given way almost entirely to sadness at this point. ‘I just… I just want him back.’ I collapsed, sobbing, onto Amber’s shoulder.
‘Some party…’ Amber grumbled.
After that, Amber reminded me that I was, in fact, the World Champion, and that she had squarely defeated the most annoying man in CWF, and both of those facts deserved celebration. So, we did a fairly alarming number of shots.
I don’t remember much between that and arriving back at Eris and my hotel room. Just vague snippets of singing karaoke (whether or not I was in key, I don’t remember), and Amber managing to chug a boot of beer. I had sobered up somewhat by the time I got back to the room, around 1:30am. I walked in and Eris hurriedly slammed their laptop shut.
‘Eris, we’ve discussed this, you don’t need to be ashamed of watching porn as long as it’s tasteful porn,’ I said.
Eris looked sheepish. ‘It, um… it wasn’t porn.’
‘What was it?’ I asked suspiciously.
‘Gimme that!’ I said, lunging for the laptop. Eris protested but I managed to get it open before they could stop me. I read aloud. ‘Hmm… “The younger woman writhed in joyous ecstasy as the new World Champion nibbled at her neck, moving slowly downwards. Mariella gasped as Caledonia’s hands worked their magic, firmly grasping her - " … people get off on this dreck?!’
‘People try to!’
I groaned. ‘I’m going to bed. Gonna see about flying back to England tomorrow.’
‘You’re going through with it, then?’ Eris said sadly.
‘I kind of have to,’ I said, taking a drink of water. ‘Someone needs to call Elijah and Omega on their bullshit. Those arseholes have gotten away with too much for too long.’
‘Seriously,’ I said, feeling my temper rising even thinking of it. ‘They manipulated all those people, they got some of them injured, some of them tortured, one of them killed. James was fucking nineteen years old, he had a full life ahead of him, and all he wanted was to be a wrestler. But no. Elijah and Omega wanted to turn him into a soldier. And they got him killed. Talk about fucking scum. And that’s not even mentioning - ’
‘Shut up!’ screamed Eris. ‘Just shut up!’
Their words rang. I turned around slowly. I didn’t say anything, just stared Eris down. Their eyes were full of tears. ‘I know that they did horrible things, ruthless things, manipulated us all. I know that their actions led to the terrible things that happened to James, to Flame… to Dan. But… they saved my life, Cali.’
I couldn’t say anything to that.
Eris continued. ‘Before they found me, I was…’ They choked on their words. ‘Genderqueer people aren’t exactly the most accepted folk in the world, and I’d been in trouble with the law. People wouldn’t take me in. I had to do… unspeakable things, just in the name of surviving one more day. Until they found me. So yes. I know that they’ve done horrible things. Even their charity came at a price. But they saved my life. Please don’t forget that.’
Eris’ words hung over the room like thunder. Neither of us could speak for almost a full minute. Finally, Eris spoke again. ‘I know that you need to confront them. I’m not naïve, it needs to happen. There’s too much bad blood to just ignore. But we’re on the same side in this war. And if you go to them now, full of fire and fury, you might say things you can never take back. And they might too. So please, for me. Just give it a couple of weeks.’
I took a deep breath. ‘Okay, Eris. For you. A couple of weeks.’
I changed into my pyjamas and got into bed. ‘Hey, Eris?’ I said.
‘I’m the World Champion.’
They groaned and chuckled. ‘I know.’
We see Caledonia standing in a darkened room under a spotlight, the CWF World Championship around her waist.
Caledonia: Well. I said last week that I never thought I’d be in a World Title match. I certainly never thought I’d win one.
And yet here I stand.
She looks down at the belt, contemplating.
My three opponents are no strangers to gold. Two of you hold the belts Eris and I were forced to forfeit, the other was Impact Champion… one of you even held the belt that is now mine.
Duce Jones. Perhaps the ultimate underdog, though the Blue Scorpion might take exception to that nickname. But let’s face it, you deserve it more than he ever did. No one expected you to take the gold from Harley Hodge - but you did. And you got a few people believing in you by the time the finals of Modern Warfare came about, but most didn’t expect you to hold onto your title against Jace Valentine… and you didn’t. You came close, true. And because of how close the match was, you got a well-earned rematch - which you didn’t win. No… Mariella Jade Flair stood victorious on that night.
Since then, I’ve beaten Jace Valentine. And I’ve beaten MJ Flair.
Both of them tapped out to my Bed of Roses. Neither of them could take it anymore. Will you be able to, should the time come? Let’s just say… I don’t expect you to.
Freddie Styles… weren’t you one of Sahn’s lot? Whatever happened there? Oh yes, you left the Eternals because you were merely “hired muscles”. Still. I have to admire your strength of will there. Few who enter the ranks of the Institute are permitted to leave… at least without a severe beating. You knew that, and yet you left, decisively. That takes guts. You know the fortitude, the grit, the will it takes to oppose them.
And because of that, you know what you face when you step into the ring with me.
I’ve been fighting the Institute since CWF returned. You, Freddie… you know what it is to face the Institute when they’re distracted. Me? I’ve been their Enemy Number One for some time. I’ve taken everything they can throw at me, and I’ve emerged stronger than ever. I’ve emerged the World Champion.
And finally, Dorian Hawkhurst. The new Forsaken. That took me by surprise, I admit. Not so much that you would join a stable, especially one for those for, so to speak, lost souls… but that you would team up with Ataxia, until recently your sworn enemy. But stranger things have happened at sea… no pun intended.
But seriously. You’ve fought a long battle against your demons, becoming a Demon yourself to win. An almighty force, plowing through powerful opponents. You’ll do whatever it-
The Champion stops. Her shoulders tense inwards, and she takes a deep breath.
Caledonia: You'll do whatever it takes to win that battle.
Let me give you some advice, Dorian. Don’t lose who you are. “Whatever it takes” is a covenant not lightly taken. It can send you down dark paths, paths you would never tread if you could see what was at the end of them.
Caledonia closes her eyes for a moment and contemplates.
Caledonia: Duce Jones. Freddie Styles. Dorian Hawkhurst. All of you are strong fighters. All of you have faced considerable battles. Some you’ve won. Some you’ve lost. And maybe your worst battles lie ahead.
Me… I’d like to believe my worst battles are behind me. But I know better than to pretend that that’s true. So, I’m going to keep fighting.
The three of you are strong. Only a fool would underestimate you. I’m no fool.
I am the World Champion.