Honolulu, Hawaii, October 2018
After the disastrous conclusion to the Summer Games pay-per-view, incorrigible PI, John Kreese, gives the authorities the slip and flees the country. He prides himself on being slipperier than a snake and is laying low on the beaches of Hawaii, stretched out with a fruit drink in hand and enjoying his view of the bikini clad landscape.
“For a man whose profession includes hunting people down, you’re not very good at hiding Mr Kreese.” Sitting at an exterior table at Duke’s Waikiki in Honolulu, John’s moment of idyllic bliss is shattered. He turns to the newcomer ready to deliver a vitriolic rebuff but is stunned into silence upon discovering the newcomer’s identity.
“You shouldn’t use my name…” Joh Kreese hisses, trying to recover from the shock.
“Look Kreese! Kreese we got John Kreese over here!” The stranger calls out, receiving next to no reaction from the surrounding patrons. “See nobody cares.” He adds and sits at the table.
“What do you want?” John barks.
“I’m not here to make you relive your past mistakes John. But I do epect you to pay for them.”
“How was I supposed to know the kid would pull of the impossible?!”
“Lucky for you I could still use a man lacking in morals. And I’m sure you’re keen for payback.”
Under normal circumstances John Kreese would jump on the opportunity. But now…now he’s not so sure.
“I ain’t getting involved again.”
“Oh, I made it seem like you have a choice. You’re going to help me, otherwise the authorities may receive a tip as to your whereabouts.”
Lacking options John throws back the remainder of his drink.
“Alright. Fine. What will you have me do?”
“We will educate him in matters of pain and loss. We will make him suffer, for the cunning warrior attacks neither body nor mind…No, we will go straight for the heart.”
John is a little unnerved by the intensity of the newcomer, but acknowledges there deal with a tip of his empty glass.
If nothing else it was good to be coming back home
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, December 2018
Christmas is a festive time of year full of sentimentality, charity and togetherness. It is a time for family and sad to say, on this particular year Zach van Owen is more akin to Scrooge, not feeling any of it. Instead he feels out-of-place.#, and embittered because of it. He and Leona return to Philadelphia to spend some time with her family and the Game-Changer can’t help but feel like the ultimate third wheel. With a half-hearted attempt at a half-hearted smile Zach excuses himself from the pleasant reunion out onto the front deck of the Gainsborough home. He’s never been very good at masking his expressions, so he’s fairly certain Leona could see right through it. That’s another thing he’ll have to deal with at a more appropriate time.
He gazes to the suburban horizon in the approximate direction of his own family home, a mere few blocks away. Anxiously he retrieves his phone, still gazing out, and dials up the Vaughn family number. It takes considerable willpower not to hang up immediately as soon as the dial tone picks up. It dials several times over before the calls is mercifully answered by Zach’s younger sister, Sarah.
“Oh hey sis…Merry Christmas.”
“Oh My GOD. Zach! MUM, DAD. ZACH IS ON THE PHONE!” Her excited screeches are loud enough to alert the entire street that is in fact Zachary Vaughn on the phone. There is a muffled sound of movement on the other end of the line as someone new replaces Sarah Vaughn on the line.
“Hello?” It is the voice of Zach’s father, former independent wrestler and hometown hero, “Atomic” Adam Vaughn.
“You have the wrong number. I have no son named Zach. Good day.”
The abrupt end to the call stings Zach more than a little. He knows the relationship between him and his father is strained, but is it really THAT bad? There had been distance between Zach and his family ever since he snuck out that night, several years ago to start his own career, but now, when they were so close, he’s never felt as far away as he does right now. He regrets every returning home to Philly. He restrains himself from throwing the phone onto the deck and instead errs on the side of invoking the one ‘F-Bomb’ his self-imposed PG Rating allows.
“God fucking damnit!”
“Everything ok Zach?”
It’s a redundant question. Nothing is ok and Leona very well knows that, but it breaks the ice and brings Zach back to the present, where Leona stands in the doorway. Her expression one of concern, but also trepidation, as if looking at someone she doesn’t completely recognise.
Zach pauses to take a breath and calm down. Despite the maelstrom going on in his head, he knows she isn’t the one to blame.
“What’s going on Zach? I can see you growing distant, you’re not really talking to me…Is this because I got involved with Freddie?”
“You shouldn’t have done it, you could’ve-“
“What? Gotten hurt? Why is it any different for you? I’m here to support you Zach, and I know the risks! I’m not going to be forced to stand on the sidelines and watch day after day as you risk your wellbeing. I ain’t no April O’Neil or Lois Lane! I stepped into the ring FOR you, to stop the bad guys from winning the day. You may not realise this Zach, but every once in a while someone has gotta save your butt. You can’t exactly be the hero the CWF needs if you’re put out of commission.”
It’s another poignant reminder of how much of the real world Zach still needs to learn. The combined hurt, anger and sadness that Zach’s life-long friend and now partner is feeling is more than evident. Navigating emotions is one thing Zach desperately wishes had cheat codes or a walkthrough. A quick save option at the very least!
But lacking in those options he takes draws in a long breath and takes the plunge.
“I don’t know what’s going on Leona. That’s the problem. All I know is that there’s a glitch in the Matrix.”
At that admission Leona advances and pulls Zach in to embrace him. When they separate Zach struggles to maintain eye contact.
“They haven’t been right since Pierreia. I thought I’d enjoy seeing the Moonchild finally brought to justice but what I witnessed…And then finding out Mia IS Loki this whole time…That rocked me to my core. Has me questioning everything I thought I believed in. Of course the fractures with my family, and now this shit with Styles, Milenko, and maybe even Tobias. Something foul is a foot. I can feel it. My Spidey-Senses are tingling, but I just don’t know what it is.”
Defeated Zach sits down onto the steps of the front deck.
“I’m starting to see the red ring of death Leona and I don’t know if I can keep this up. I’m not even sure if it’s worth it anymore.”
“I wish I knew what Milenko, Styles and Tobias were up to. But I’m pretty sure this is what they want. They want to psyche you out. Have you off your game and doubting yourself. They want an easy target.”
Leona sits beside Zach, who drops his head onto her shoulder, exhausted.
“You rush down to that ring like Daredevil, a man without fear, and put your mind, heart and soul on the line. You’re a beacon of light, of hope. But the brighter you shine, the more of a target you become. There will always be people out there looking to extinguish that light. It’s one of the hardest parts of growing up. Realising that the world isn’t as simple as we want it to be and some people will always lie, cheat and steal to bring themselves up. All we can do is tank the damage and do our best to help others.”
With a gentle finger under Zach’s chin she raises his head to once again meet eye to eye.
“I know it feels isolating and that only you can be the stalwart hero of the CWF. But you are not alone. This is a cooperative game. So please, don’t give up. And you better believe that if anyone tries to come after you, then they are gonna have to deal with me!”
A smile does creep across Zach’s face and they share a deep kiss.
The smile disappears once more.
“It’s just…well it’s starting to feel like Xander and Kreese all over again. So I desperately need answers, but I’m afraid of what I may do to get those answers.”
“Tobias Devereaux may have some answers. And don’t forget Chaotic Good is still on the Good track.”
“Yeah, but I’m not convinced he’s completely in on it. I hope not, I always liked Gambit. He knows something, but probably not in the good books with Milenko or Hostility. Not after his attack at Civil War. The last time I stepped foot into the ring against Devereaux was in the 16-Bit Mess that was the Northern Crown Tournament. Back then he spoke a lot, without really saying much.”
“He and Jimmy won don’t forget. He can clearly pull through where it counts, so don’t underestimate him.”
With a sigh Zach tries to reorient his thoughts, to focus on the more pressing issues of the here and now, pushing his memories of the raid aside and his confusion over Mia and Loki. Someone clearly has it in for the Game-Changer and he’ll need to finish that game before returning to the others.
“You’re right. He’s definitely a crafty player, one who maximises his damage per second with well-placed damage over time techniques and status ailments. No doubt he’s out to cause as much damage as possible. The long game plays to his advantage. He exploits any opening, any hint of weakness. A misstep will cost me dearly. Luckily my speciality is in the well-aimed, hard and fast strikes…May need to try some new tricks, break out the New Moves Pack or something, just to stay ahead of the curve. What does Tobias gain from this anyway? If he’s no longer in leagues with Milenko where does he fit in the Rogues Gallery? For me, a victory isn’t about retaining my title or my pride. It’s about learning the truth. Finding some answers. So I guess this match comes with greater stakes than most. I both need and want to win this. I need to know so I can go into Frozen Over prepared and with a clear head.”
“It’s not going to be easy.”
“Not by a long shot. We’re entering Extreme Difficulty and there are two things I am certain. One, Tobias is going to prove to be a significant challenge, and two, we should expect some underhanded tricks or hacks. If not from Tobias, then from Styles or Milenko in some form.”
“That’s why you got me as a Bonus Character.”
“You sure you’re up for this? This isn’t Pong or Pacman. This is going to be Mortal Kombat.”
“Then call me Sonya frigging Blade. Just trust me Zach. You deal with Tobias. I’ll handle keeping your arse from getting stomped by any other Goombas that try to get in the way.”
The heavy veil of anxiety and angst seems to lift and the couple share an affectionate laugh together. Until Zach’s gaze returns once more to the horizon, and the pain of his estranged family. Leona puts a hand softly on his shoulder.
“Give him time. I’m sure he’ll see the superstar your growing to be.”
Zach nods, forcing himself to believe it.
“You ready to come back inside? My folks are about to bring out the eggnog and Christmas pudding?”
The Game-Changer takes a moment to consider his options. He turns back to Leona and gives her a smile and a nod. This one slightly more than half-hearted. In that gesture Leona seems a little bit more of her Zach than before. At least for the moment he can put it all behind him and try to enjoy the holiday season.
Tobias would have to wait…Besides there was someone else Zach would need to talk to for answers…
Des Moines, Iowa, January 2019
Understandably James Milenko is feeling pretty pleased with himself these days. His tyrannical grip over the CWF feels stronger than ever. These are the pleasing thoughts running through his mind as he relaxes in his room in the Staybridge Suites, when suddenly...
BANG! BANG! BANG!
Milenko is so shocked at the forceful nature of the knocking he tumbles out of the hotel room bed and unceremoniously to the floor.
He didn’t order room service.
“Milenko. Open up. We need to talk.”
James recognises that voice. He recovers, hiding to the side of the door and peering out of the peep hole in the door. He sees a nonplussed Impact Champion standing on the other side.
“Zach? What the hell do you think you’re doing here?!”
The Game-Changer tries to the door but realises his way is still shut.
“You’re up to something and I’m here to find out what it is!”
“You’ve been watching too many superhero movies kid. I’m not about to start monologuing and reveal all my plans. Dastardly or otherwise. This isn’t personal, it’s just business! So I suggest you turn back around and retire for the night. Otherwise you’ll find yourself locked in a jail cell instead of just some renovated stadium room.”
The commotion is drawing the ire and attention of some of the other patrons on the floor, so Zach errs on the side of control. He steps away from the door with his hands raised.
“Besides you’ve got bigger things to worry about than me. You wouldn’t want to jeopardise your match against Tobias now would you? I’m not too pleased with him as of late, but compared to you, he’s my best friend. Do you really think you can beat him?”
“Dude, I’m the Impact Champion. Of course I can beat him. In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve got a particular set of skills in the ring. And once I’m done with him, and Freddie at Frozen Over. I’ll be back for you. Believe it!”
From the safety of his locked hotel room door, James Milenko watches as Zach leaves. He breathes a sigh of relief as soon as the Game-Changer is no longer in view and grabs his phone resting on the bedside table. He dials a number.
“Hi…Yeah, it’s Milenko. It’s working, he’s starting to lose it…You better have something more planned…I didn’t agree to be his target! So hurry it up, or our arrangement is over!”
What Zach doesn’t realise is after Tobias and Freddie a whole new level of suffering would be coming his way. James Milenko would be the LEAST of his worries. That brings a malicious grin to James’ face, as he once again muses just how much he enjoys being in control of the growing wrestling promotion.
Zach isn’t the only one who can change the game, and for some, Milenko’s changes are going to mean grave trouble.