"Up is down. Black is white. Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together: mass hysteria."
"This company has been turned on its head in at least one capacity: the challengers have become the challenged."
"Silas Artoria interrupts the end of a title defense, then refuses to engage with me, then runs from a challenge. Twice."
"The SSRIentologists talk at length about taking over the CWF and how scary intimidating they are; playing around with Rish and Yente to open up their Ouroro Borealis in the Ivory Tower with the Childlike Empress, or whoever runs things this week. Presumably, their bid to take over the CWF would include the CWF World Title. I expect a challenge, or at least a semblance of a threat to my Championship reign by the Oreo Cookies at some point... but... silence. Not just silence, but they've made a point to only be in the ring when I've already left."
"I hesitate to continue at the moment, because I respect Amber Ryan and Caledonia - but let's be honest here. Caledonia deserves the title opportunity she's getting at Paradise: she has defeated what's passed for top tier competition in her time with the CWF, and she has earned the shot she's getting at Paradise... and she's got it because I said I want her to get it. Amber Ryan is the ultimate predator: with her Unhinged win she's officially stalking me until the moment that she makes her strike."
"And I still called her out and put her on the spot. That she refused to commit does not diminish that fact in the slightest."
"Champions are supposed to be reactive; challengers, proactive. Champions are supposed to wait for their contenders to approach, not the other way around."
"But I've never been all that good at goin' with the flow."
To say that Adrian Evans is agitated is an understatement.
He's waiting for the Champion after Evolution goes off the air, and he's pacing nervously around the hot zone just on the other side of the curtain.
Adrian: Have you lost your mind?
And it takes approximately two and a half seconds for him to ruin her night. MJ Flair stops in her tracks and stares down at him.
MJF: Is... is this a trick question?
She smiles at him, but his face remains deadly serious as they walk together towards the locker rooms.
Adrian: Last week, you put out the challenge to Caledonia and you got into Amber Ryan's face. I won't even get into how utterly stupid both of those moves were, and this week you take a massive dump on the whole of the Ouroboros, and now, for some reason, you're giving Silas Artoria - and by extension, Autumn Raven and the Lost Boys - which also ties into the Ouroboros - the time of day?
MJF: I'm the Champion, Adrian. I'm supposed to be the visible one, and I'm not gonna hide behind--
He grabs her by the wrist and stops them both.
Adrian: This isn't about hiding or visibility, Mariella. The fact of the matter is, you're playing with fire with the Ouroboros, and you're taunting a madman with Silas Artoria.
MJ considers this for a moment, then turns back and starts walking again.
MJF: I'm a Flair, sir... that's what we do.
Adrian keeps up as best he can.
Adrian: That's what your family does, and I've come to accept it. What nobody in your family has done is make enemies, while at the same time challenging its friends to a fight.
That stops MJ in her tracks.
MJF: I didn't know the details when I opened the challenge up to Caledonia.
She turns back toward Adrian.
MJF: And I wouldn't necessarily call Amber Ryan a friend.
Adrian: You've declared yourself as opposed to the Ouroboros, therefore you have a common enemy. Look at the greater good, look at the greater threat.
He shrugs his shoulders, holding his hands out, palms up.
Adrian: It's like you said, if they want to control the CWF they need to control the CWF World Title. They can do that if they press the numbers advantage and you have no allies to balance it out.
The conversation stops for a moment, while a few members of the ring crew walk past. They nod their greeting to both MJ and Adrian - two people who never fail to do the same - but no words are exchanged.
MJF: So what would you do? What would you have done?
MJ leans in to Adrian while he leans against the wall, relaxed.
Adrian: Based on tonight? I would've avoided calling out the Ouroboros earlier in the night, and I wouldn't've given Silas Artoria the time of day. He and Autumn get the win with Amber's emotional swing of the briefcase but it's not something that makes people think he has a legitimate claim to a shot.
As Adrian finishes, he steps forward, his eyes locked on MJ's.
Adrian: But to be perfectly honest, if we're playing the hindsight game? I might still call out Amber Ryan to get a statement of purpose, but I wouldn't have insisted on a title match for Caledonia at Paradise.
MJF: She deserves it--
Adrian: Of course she does; that's not the point. The point is that you have an enemy with the potential to overrun this company and you've got a match scheduled with your strongest ally. The Ouroboros decide to make an example of both of you in Atlantic City, you absolutely can't count on anyone coming to your aid.
He takes a breath.
Adrian: The psychological advantage of carrying the CWF World Title at the forefront of this battle with the Ouroboros cannot be understated, Mariella. But it should be in stable hands while doing so: this fight is terribly ill timed.
They stand in silence for a moment.
MJF: Fine. Point taken, sir. But this is the hand we're playing; how do you see it shaking out?
Adrian: You need to have your match and fight with honor. I sincerely hope, though, for the future of the CWF, that you both wrestle clean and that the loser can live with it. You and Caledonia don't get through this as a team, this company goes down.
He crosses his arms.
Adrian: That's a fact.
MJ seems to consider this for a moment.
MJF: So what do you suggest?
Adrian: At this point? You need to let it play out. You need to get through it, win or lose, and hope Amber Ryan doesn't bungle everything up with an ill - timed cash in. Caledonia is the least of your concerns right now - the worst thing she can do is take that title.
He points. MJ looks down at her shoulder, then back at Adrian.
MJF: The worst thing she could do is jump to the Ouroboros and forget everything that's gone before. If she thinks it's her only chance to find Dan, you know it'd cross her mind.
Adrian was about to say something but MJ had interrupted him. He waits now, for confirmation that she's finished.
MJF: Has she hit you up for help on that yet?
Adrian: She has not.
MJF: That's a little suspicious.
Adrian: Is it?
He climbs onto an empty table, so he can look MJ square in the eye.
Adrian: Dan is the most important person in Caledonia's life. He's gone missing. Out of nowhere, a teenager shows up to her place of business and wins the World Title in what's gotta be record time, and out of nowhere, she and her dwarven sidekick say ‘Hey, we can help.' Wouldn't you be a little suspect? And if not suspect, you'd be skeptical.
He hops down to the floor and they start walking again.
Adrian: You ask me, Caledonia's carrying herself exactly the way she should.
MJF: Allrighty then, I trust you. What time's our plane tomorrow?
Adrian: ‘Our' plane? Yours is at eleven. I'm driving to Greensboro tonight, I'll meet you in Atlantic City before Paradise.
She takes this in for a second, then stops.
MJF: Wait, what?
Adrian: This weekend is mother's day, Mariella - and it's also my mother's birthday.
He smirks, and pats her on the thigh. Don't get creeped out; it's at eye level.
Adrian: There are things in this world more important than wrestling. Never forget it.
Having arrived at the womens' locker room, Adrian shakes the Champion's hand and leaves her to it.
"Here's the deal: I am the envy of everyone in the CWF."
"They don't want to be MJ Flair, or be with MJ Flair."
"Can't speak for the rest of the roster."
"But the title belt around my waist makes me an object of envy. Don't care who you are - Caledonia, Elisha, Christian STARR, Billy Anderson - if you're in the CWF, your ultimate goal is to be the CWF World Champion."
"If not? Why are you here?"
"Even when the World Championship isn't your goal in and of itself; the World Championship is a means to an end. Can the Oreo Boroughs truly take the CWF over without taking the CWF World Title?"
"This gives me an appropriate level of paranoia towards anyone that might be my ally. It's a lonely existence; blind trust can only go so far."
"But that's the point: that's what separates us from the Oro Borealis. I'm willing to take that risk."
The plane pulls to a stop, but not at a gate. MJ waits for the people in front of her to get up and go before she does the same: the passengers are deplaning on the runway, about a three minute walk to the terminal.
She steps outside and takes a deep breath. New York air revitalizes her.
And immediately, falls back into the rhythm of being a New Yorker. She steps aside for the person who asked her to move after committing the cardinal sin of not-walking for almost a whole second, but MJ picks up like it's second nature.
It's a skill that only native New Yorkers ever seem to master. Most call it subway walking: strategically planning your route through crowds of people to minimize the time spent walking amongst people.
The sky is overcast, but MJ instinctively puts on her sunglasses anyway: there were a few stares of recognition on her flight and, while she enjoys speaking with fans, sometimes she prefers solitude. It's moot, though. Her speedwalking manages to put her into the terminal third in line. She's even lighter on her feet than usual, the result of not having any checked luggage.
Now that she's home from the Far East, each trip for the sport essentially requires ring gear plus three changes of clothes. MJ pays extra for a second carry on bag for her boots and World Title belt, but it's worth it to be able to walk right out.
MJ keeps her head down and walks past security, past the restaurants and vendors... past the luggage carousel. It's easy to remain anonymous when not making eye contact.
Easy. Not guaranteed.
MJ looks up and towards the voice calling her name, and she locks eyes with her sorta, kinda, maybe not really boyfriend, Roger. And she freezes.
Mariella Jade Flair is a confident woman. She's a smart, quick - witted woman who is never short of a sarcastic comment. Except when it comes to this man. When it comes to Roger, she turns into a shy, awkward teenager.
That might be one third accurate, but MJF has never had a single moment of shyness or awkwardness before this year.
MJF: Hey... hey, what are you doing here?
Roger: I heard a rumor that you were flying back in this morning, so I made sure to get here to pick you up.
She hesitates, but only for a moment. MJ steps into Roger's embrace and hugs him, and kisses him passionately, but not obnoxiously.
Yes, there is a distinction.
Roger: Should we go?
MJ smiles, and instead of answering, she wraps her arms around his and they walk towards the parking structure.
Roger: So everyone knows you're coming back today, and everyone's trying to see you. Al is bartending at Double Down, Tim has Brooklyn, there's a No Mercy Metal happening at Lucky's... you've got your choice, and I'm pretty sure anyone that isn't working is gonna go where you are.
He can feel her deflate, even as they walk.
MJF: You think anyone would be offended if I disappeared tonight?
He looks at her.
Roger: No welcome home party? No local media darling?
She looks at him. Her gray eyes can barely hold back the mental exhaustion behind them.
MJF: No feeding the monsters tonight. No MJF. Just Mariella.
They continue to walk, though Roger takes her bag from her and loops his arm around her waist.
"The earliest memory I have of my mom's life advice was her telling me that monsters are real."
"She'd go on to tell me how they aren't fantastical beasts, or grotesques, or Lovecraftian horrors. Monsters are all around us, and until we interact with them, we can't tell the difference between a regular person going about their day, and an evil motherfucker who wants to ruin yours."
"I wouldn't know what Lovecraftian would mean until I was at least six, but I understood what she was saying."
"Monsters are all over the place. They're the fans who insist you owe them a picture, or an autograph, or an interview when you've been awake for thirty hours and are nearly in tears over the prospect of a hot bath and a long nap. They're the local promoters who never pay what they've promised, and whose security is... lax."
"They're the cult that kidnaps innocent people. They're the asshole that weighs the safety of his crew of wrestlers against how much money it'll cost him if they get injured."
"But my mom also told me that the monsters could only hurt me if I let them."
"She instilled on me, from day one, that all the power I need is already mine; all I need to do is walk up and stare ‘em in the face."
"This is why I've been proactively putting out the challenges for the past few weeks. This is why I'm not waiting for Rish to tell me who I'm facing, because let's be honest here: if I waited for the office to do something, I'd still be sittin' in Tokyo on vacation until Paradise while Mike Rolash tries to convince the world that the SSRIentologists are the biggest threat to the history of the free world instead of the collective participation trophy that they actually are."
"This is why I said my piece last week."
"I do not fear you. I am not intimidated by you. The Ouroboros want to be the monsters, well, guess what, motherfuckers... I'm the monster slayer."
A loud crack of thunder wakes MJ up from what had - until then - been a deep sleep. She looks around, momentarily disoriented, but relaxes as she recognizes Roger's bedroom. The window is opened slightly, and even on the 24th floor of his apartment building after dark, the sounds of the street can be clearly heard over the pouring rain and whipping wind.
It is New York, after all.
To her left, Roger is still sound asleep. He snores quietly, but rolls over and his breathing normalizes. MJ looks out the window for a moment. She closes her eyes and breathes in deeply, enjoying the smell of a May storm.
For the first time in weeks, she seems relaxed.
MJ eases her way out of the bed, taking care not to disturb Roger's sleep, and picks her T-shirt and underwear up off the floor, sliding them on. Roger lives alone, but habits are habits and her own home is - literally - never empty. As she navigates the apartment to the kitchen, she pulls the hair tie from around her wrist and pulls her messy mane into a ponytail, keeping all strays away from her eyes just in time to open the refrigerator and pull out a bottle of water.
She sits down at the kitchen table, which is next to a window, and draws her knees to her chest, taking in the view.
And her attention shifts to the doorway, where Roger stands, watching her.
Roger: You okay?
MJF: Yeah, I'm fine. Sorry, I didn't mean to wake you up.
He takes a seat at the table across from her.
Roger: It's fine. It was the weather, actually. What's on your mind?
MJF: Can't sleep.
She takes a sip of water, and continues to look out the window.
MJF: I've been thinking about Caledonia.
Roger: She's gonna be a tough opponent, sure. But I've got my money--
He stops as MJ's eyes meet his: this is evidently not what she's talking about.
MJF: You know my parents, they-
Roger: I don't, actually. I'd like to.
MJF: Not now.
Roger: Just saying.
MJF: Not. Now.
He sees her eyes shimmer a bit - as if there are tears on the verge of forming, and wisely stops talking.
MJF: My parents, you know, my dad was married before.
Roger didn't know that, but he stays silent.
MJF: He was, I dunno, can we call it high school sweethearts if they're of that age, but he actually dropped out before they met?
MJF: So he was high school sweethearts with my aunt Ivy's older sister, they were together for years, all thru his struggling to not go homeless after his mom died, thru his training at TC's and his start in the wrestling business. They got married when he was like 22, just a few months after he broke in.
Roger: Ahhhh, that makes sense, then, why you call her your aunt.
MJ doesn't respond to that; she drinks more water and averts her eyes.
MJF: Anyways, so they get married and like two months later, he's at the Cow Palace for a cross promotional thing, and she's late but driving in, and someone sideswipes her and she and her car jump the guardrail and flies off the Golden Gate. They never found the car.
Speechless, Roger just stares at her, mouth agape.
MJF: Aunt Ivy pretty much stepped up and took care of him, kept him going to the arenas for his bookings and whatnot, and made sure his brain didn't fall apart. Six or so years later he met my mom, and the rest is history, but for a while there from what I understand, he was a complete wreck.
MJ puts her legs down and crosses them, facing away from the window.
MJF: He doesn't talk about it at all, but aunt Ivy does, and she's convinced that the reason he got to be such a big deal in professional wrestling was because he was essentially a homeless nomad: he would go anywhere and wrestle anyone in any kind of match, and he put everything into everything because he literally had nothing to get up for the next day. But it's making me think of Caledonia.
She takes another sip of water. Roger is leaned in on the table, enraptured.
MJF: Is it worse to be my dad, who lost who he considered the love of his life, when he was 23, or is it worse to be Caledonia, who has no idea what's the deal with the love'a her life? And it makes me wonder... is the biggest hurdle to overall success the prospect of a better wrestler out there, is it the threat of a fatal blow to your personal life?
He stops, realizing he has nothing to say, but he manages to collect himself.
Roger: It's a little askew, isn't it? Your dad had a terrible few years, but he met your mom and you came outta that, so that's got a happy ending. Caledonia's ending isn't written yet.
MJF: Maybe. But that shits a ton on my head, too. I've got that belt, what's it gonna cost me? Will it be the respect of the industry? Will it be self-respect?
She leans forward, and takes his hands in hers.
MJF: Will it be you?
Roger: I'm not going anywhere.
MJ smiles - but it's a small smile, without much real feeling behind it.
MJF: I hope not.
"Let's lay all the cards out on the table, Caledonia. This match might be for the CWF World Title, but it's not really about the CWF World Title. I'm not discounting your skills, or your determination to take the title from around my waist, or my determination to keep it right where it is. But it's not about that."
"In order for the CWF, not even to thrive - but to survive - the Ouroboros need to be dealt with. There is a serious danger in the herdlike mentality of a cult, and it's not only clear that they want to co-opt this company for their own needs, but they're gonna encounter exactly zero resistance from Rishel and his front office."
"You can attest to that firsthand, after Higher, Wire, Fire."
"I have a vested interest in the CWF surviving this assault from the SSRIentologists, because I'm the CWF World Champion in specific, and because this is the first company I've ever competed in that I've truly felt was a home. What do you do with your home - you defend it."
"Until your dying breath."
"You, on the other hand, your interest in the Ouroboros going away are personal. Have you gotten anything concrete on Dan's location? Are you making any headway whatsoever in your research? I'll remind you, Adrian has promised the full weight of the McGinnis Management Group to the job; my aunt Ivy just wants to know her help would be wanted before she offers it."
"And Amber Ryan has been fighting with the Childlike Empress for... what seems to be longer than I've even been in this company. For the record, Amber - no, I'm not used to not getting my way, and yes - if you've been wrestling for more than, let's say three years, your career has lasted longer than I've been dreaming of World Titles, and you would be a motherfucker of a World Champion to try and dethrone."
"The three of us - myself, Caledonia, Amber Ryan - we're auditioning for each other."
"This right here, ladies. The three of us, we're the best hope of the CWF ridding itself of the hemorrhoids called the Oreoboros, once and for all. It's only the fact of our existence as individuals that's kept us apart so far. It's only the fact that none of us truly have a cognizant sense of what the others can offer, and that'll technically be true until we fight each other."
"Adrian wanted me to hold off on throwing a challenge out at either of you until after the Ouroboros were dealt with. While I understand the sentiment, I disagree with the methods. I've watched Caledonia wrestle; I've watched Amber Ryan wrestle. I have a sense of what each of ‘em can do, but I can't honestly say that I know until it happens"
"Outside the ego, it doesn't matter to me which of us carries the CWF World Title in the coming fight. I've been as good a Champion as I could be, with - despite Amber's claims - Caledonia herself being the only opponent I've actually hand picked. Cali, on the flipside, would be just as talented and even more noble, with her only real drawback being what I see as a comparatively lacklustre mean streak, often necessary to survive as a Champion. Amber Ryan has that mean streak in spades, but her downfall is in the fact that, as an abrasive malcontent, she's wholly unlikeable by anyone who doesn't already like her personality type."
"We're all flawed in our own ways, but I truly believe our flaws compliment each other. That's what I mean when I say it doesn't matter, ego aside, who carries the CWF World Title into the battle with the Ouro Borneos."
"So that's the point of the audition, ladies. We need to confirm the things we already suspect about each other in order to more fully trust in the battles to come. That's why I wanted to face you here, Caledonia. That's why I wanted to know where your mind was, Amber, when it came to cashing in."
"That really old movie said that you never really know someone until you fight them. Maybe, maybe not. But I get the idea: when the fear, the excitement, the adrenaline are all flowing, that's when you truly allow your inner self to shine."
"Good luck, Caledonia. I'm looking forward to getting to know you."
"The concession stands are now selling those cheap hotel room round soap disks that I have personally blessed for $100’s a bar….AND SINNERS….I suggest you buy one, and use it, because if you think your God wants you in his heaven smelling like a 3am New York City uber ride you got another thing coming."