She kicked a toe around on the pavement idly as she listened. "Him? No, he ain't one of those things. Fuck him, if he wants to be like that. I got better things to do with my life than play that game. I'm a busy woman, too busy for their bullshit. You, me an' Abby - we got more... direct things to focus on." She drummed her fingers on the steel slats. "Well, yeah... alright. I take your lead on that one. I'll move if you move. Huh? Oh... nah, Carey, Leander, that whole bunch, they're just funny. They ain't worth my time either. Nah, I'm fine. It don't bother me that way, they're a bunch of morons. It's not really any one person. It's the whole thing, it's everyone. It's all so... so..." she cast around for the right word, then sighed and kicked a bicycle post absently, "...what's the word for when something gets to be so tedious it just becomes depressing to even look at?"
She grinned as the other end made a suggestion. "Hah, maybe. You know what I mean though. Every day it's the same argument. People talkin' in circles over each other, tryna make sure their own brand of idiocy is the only one that gets heard. Swear to god, some days I think we need Magnus back." She sucked in a cheek and glanced at the dusklit sky. "Honestly... semi-serious. Lemme just say there's a reason I changed my Twitter profile to Bayushi imagery. Aw, really? I'll have to show you Five Rings some time, it's pretty good actually." Laurel glanced up, and by chance, saw a blonde figure walking in her direction from the train station. "Hey, listen, I better go. The - the friend I'm meeting is here."
Friend wasn't exactly the right word, not these days. But it would do.
"Yeah... you too, man. See you on Monday, Wulf. Bye"
While she slipped her phone into her pocket she looked up and forced a smile at the woman who'd agreed to meet her tonight.
"...hey, Sal," she said weakly, tentatively.
"Hi," replied Sal, glancing at the bar for a moment with a slight frown, then she asked in the Glaswegian accent that was still strong after years of living in Colorado, "Surely it's no' full?"
"Nah, I was just finishin' up a call with a mate," said Laurel with sudden brightness, "Might as well stay out in the quiet. An', uh, fresh air. Should we -" - and she gestured towards the door with her shoulder.
"After you," nodded Sal. Laurel, too sore and too tired to stand on ceremony, pushed the door open and stepped inside. The reverberating beat morphed into an actual song - "Balloons" by Foals. It reminded Laurel of the days back when she and Sal really had been friends. Neither was the kind of person to base a friendship on similar tastes in clothes or music, but... it had been nice, at the outset of the strange journey in wrestling that was to come, to have someone who actually appreciated the value in the things she liked instead of assuming she claimed to be into things just to be a perverse hipster. Sal's dapper-hippy-rave-punk style, even it was toned down from her days as a pro wrestler, had stood out to Laurel among a heady mixture of people, and Laurel's own dayglo sensibilities had likewise distinguished her to Sal.
The world had contracted harder than usual after Laurel's last match, a street fight against Nero, the mastermind of the Nirvana faction. Lately, Nirvana had been... well, actually, Laurel couldn't say with certainty just what Nirvana had been doing. They'd been crossing paths weekly with Laurel and her tag team partner in The Zodiac Killers, Allison Lorraine, in brutal hardcore matches. Certainly no love lost between the two teams. But it would be a stretch to call it a "feud". It was just... violence for the sake of violence, mandated from the top down. It was Gloria Noel - formerly Glory Braddock - enacting petty retribution against The Zodiac Killers for their refusal to bow to her own faction, Camelot.
For some reason, the usual nihilism she felt after her matches was more cloying this time. In desperate need of air and alcohol and company, and feeling like she needed to see a face she couldn't possibly run into backstage at one of this week's shows, she'd flown to Denver ahead of schedule and turned to the only person she knew who lived around that area despite the years of animosity between them.
"What you havin'?" called Sal as they approached the bar.
Laurel scanned the rack of bottles for a moment, then shrugged. "What's good here?"
"Cocktails here are good," replied Sal immediately, "I'll get the first round, if you wanna find us a table."
"Mkay, yeah, that sounds grand."
"You know me," replied Laurel, "I'll drink anything. Surprise me." And then she realised that, in actuality, it had been probably something like five years since the two of them had last gone out drinking together.
Leaving Sal at the bar, Laurel wandered through the dimly fairy-lit room taking in everything, right down to the drawing pin holes and Blu-Tack grease stains on the walls, until she settled on a booth beneath a particular arrangement of torn posters that spoke to something in her. The time between sliding onto the bench and looking up as Sal set down a glass of something pink in front of her seemed to pass in an instant, as the same handful of thoughts played themselves over and over in her mind.
"Penny for 'em?"
Laurel smiled weakly. "Lot more'n a penny I'm afraid."
Sal pulled off her jacket, making Laurel realise she hadn't taken her own off yet. She did so while Sal got herself comfortable. After an awkward moment Sal asked, "So what is it?"
"You wouldn't have asked me of all people to meet you if there wasnae something you wanted to talk about. So - what is it you wanna talk about?"
"Some'n you prolly won't wanna talk about," admitted Laurel.
"Well, yeah," replied Sal patiently, "I figured there was a pretty good chance of it bein' somethin' wrestlingy."
"Yeah. I know you don't like talking about it, but that's... kind of why I want to talk to you about it."
Sal shook her head and laughed. "Aye, I'm used to that. Who ya think Amy's sounding board was when she was havin' all her drama over quittin'? Who ya think Nate talks to when he's frustrated with his career?"
Staring blankly into her bright pink drink as she swirled the straw around in it lazily, Laurel said, "I guess." Finally she sampled it; it was very nice, kinda like a bay breeze but with a hint of gin. "Thanks," she said, gesturing to the glass.
"S'alright, you can go up for the next one."
Laurel opened her mouth, closed it again, cleared her throat, then finally asked: "When - uh - how did you feel about wrestling when you decided you were done with it?"
Sal paused before answering. She felt like she still knew Laurel well enough to know when an obvious sarcastic or trite answer wouldn't be helpful. She sat back and spoke slowly, carefully considering each word as it came out. "You know the... biggest reason."
Sal nodded. "That, Kam breakin' ma leg, was the final straw. But that just solidified what I'd been thinkin'... pretty much throughout my whole time as the GEW World Champion. To have my friends, the people who'd supported me on my way there, stab me in the back once I got there just because it wasn't them on the top for a change... honestly? I figured, is it actually worth it?"
"You felt like your friendship with Kameron and Magnum was more important than your career?" suggested Laurel.
"No, no," corrected Sal, "Bear in mind back then I figured that was it for my friendships with Kam an' James, I figured they were over forever. What I was scared of was other friends goin' the same way with me. Shane. Maria. Ripp. Even..." - she swallowed, about to reveal something she never had - "What if it was me versus Nate for the title? Would it come between me an' him?" Nathaniel Grant - a.k.a. Sah'ta Thor, a.k.a. Sal's husband. A man driven by ambition and insecurity to prove himself over and over and over. No matter how many dozens of titles he'd won in his career, they were never enough to make him happy.
"You think he would?" asked Laurel, "Y'know... turn on his own wife over a title?"
"No. He wouldn't. But the point back then was I didn't want to be put in the position to find out."
"So that was it, then? Wrestling versus the people you care about?"
Sal sighed through her nose. "Made me resent it," she said evenly,"It felt like my life had been consumed by this one aspect of it, aye? Like wrestling was the master control modulatin' everything else. Pinnacle of my damn career was bein' GEW champ, an' I loathed every minute of it because of what it did to the rest of my life."
Laurel didn't reply directly. She stared into her swirling drink for a few seconds, then started to speak: "I'm in the middle of three hardcore matches in five days. Nero yesterday, Behemath tomorrow, Nina Stokes on Sunday."
"I don't know who any of those people are, Laurel. I'm sorry. I don't follow wrestling anymore. Outside of where the family work, the only places I know the slightest bit about are Sin City, only 'cause Shane an' V signed there, and EXODUS because a mate of mine owns it."
The blank expression on Laurel's face curled into a sneer. "Hah! Watch yourself there. Friendship comes and goes easily for Jonathan Collins apparently."
"Think I musta missed something..."
"Eh. Nothing. I just found out recently just how mercenary he is about when he considers someone a friend and when he doesn't," grunted Laurel. She pulled her straw out of the cocktail and sucked it, then shoved it back through the crushed ice.
Sal coughed awkwardly. "Well, you didn't drag me all the way into the city to bitch about Jon," she said, trying to tactfully imply that she didn't want to be part of that, "So... these three matches. Just remember - I'm sorry - that I won't necessarily know who or what you're talkin' about."
"Well - Nero, he's no big deal to me. Glory Braddock-"
"Heh - Glory? Now there's a name I do know. How is Glory these days?"
"Snapped," replied Laurel without missing a beat, "She's totally lost it. She's lettin' Julia Noel push her around. She does anythin' Julia wants. An' they've decided they're tryna make my life hell just 'cause I wont bow to 'em."
"Yep... aye sounds like wrestling," mused Sal.
"Anyway, they've had me in a bunch of street fights, me an' Allison in an electrified cage match... Behemath's someone I've literally never exchanged a word with, but the guest referee for that is my challenger at the next pay-per-view. She's gonna try to fuck with me somehow and I just can't be bothered with it. That shit, mind games an' that, don't even anger me these days. It's just boring. And there's another match to find another challenger to make it a triple threat and of the three guys in it... one's the kind of idiot who goes on an' on forever about how dark an' twisted he is, one's the guy who's all ego who'd sell his mother for a title shot, and the other one... Declan James... god, he's a fuckin' cockroach."
Laurel dropped the straw onto the table and shot some of her cocktail straight into her mouth. "He calls himself 'The Gimmick Killer' because he's too dishonest with himself to accept that other people are who they are. Basically, at best he's deluded out of his goddamn mind, or at worst he's willingly the biggest fraud and hypocrite of all. Either way he acts like life is a story about him an' everyone else is a villain."
Sal smiled, recalling a mutual friend saying a similar thing about Laurel a few years ago, that she saw life as a story about herself. Laurel didn't seem to notice it.
"And the third match?"
"Nina. She's different. She's a friend. But... I dunno. I really, really don't want to be doing it. It's a company I don't work for, she's the hardcore champion there, and she was offered the chance to defend her title against anyone from outside the company."
"And she picked you?"
"Yeah," sighed Laurel.
"How come, if you don't want to?"
Laurel shrugged. "Because she wants to face a friend in a good match, and because I'm the best deathmatch wrestler in the world," she stated without a trace of irony or arrogance. She set her head down on the table and added, "And that means nothing to me anymore. It's just a... I don't know. Laurel Yunokawa: hair colour - black. Handedness - left. World deathmatch ranking - one. Blood type - A+. It's just a... factoid. And it shouldn't be. It should mean something to me. It means things to everyone else. I love Nina. I don't want to give her less than everything I've got. But I don't want to face her in a deathmatch. I haven't done any kinda publicity for this match and when people bring it up I smile and say the right things..."
Laurel's eyes closed.
"...I don't care. I don't even want her damn title. I just wanna get through this week's matches as quick as I can and go home. None of them mean anything to me. They're not expressions, and I'm not fighting for anything anymore beyond showin' that I'm still fighting. Me an' Annie get to take our FGA tag title back in a few weeks an' I don't care about that either. Annie... our opponents, Ash Sullivan an' Colton Sterling..."
"Ash Sullivan..." mouthed Sal, thinking, "I know that... oh wait, Erin's wee protégé?"
"Yeah," mumbled Laurel, still with her eyes closed and the side of her head on the table.
"Go me. I heard of someone."
A weird noise escaped Laurel's respiratory system. "Her an' Colt are mates too... I think. I think at the last FGA show I mighta fucked things up there. But they deserve to fight someone who has shits left to give. Annie an' Allison deserve a partner with shits left to give. Nina deserves to be defending against someone who actually gives a damn about beating her."
"Why d'you agree to these matches if you don't wanna do them?"
Laurel didn't reply.
"I mean... I think I get it. You feel like if you turn the matches down you'll be lettin' your mates down even more, aye?"
It took a moment for Laurel to answer. "When I wrestle people I love I hold back against them," she murmured, "And wish I was wrestlin' people I don't care about. But then when I wrestle people I don't care about I just find it pointless and shallow. And when I wrestle people I hate I turn into..."
"Yeah, I heard about that," said Sal softly.
"When that happens... when I stop, y'know... reining m'self back... that's when people like Annie get hurt." Even over the music, it was apparent to Sal that Laurel's voice was breaking up. To mask the fact she didn't really have anything to say, Sal drained her drink.
Laurel suddenly sat up, then sucked in air through pained teeth.
"Everythin' okay?" asked Sal, truthfully rather relieved at the fact she might not have to reassure this person she really didn't know anymore.
"Yeah... fine," rasped Laurel, the pitch of her voice rising even higher than it usually was, "Just... sat wrong on a cut. Baaah... Jesus!" she yelled as she repositioned herself.
Sal watched the act apprehensively, then ventured, "Can I ask you somethin'?"
The retired wrestler turned fashion designer folded her arms, studying the young woman opposite her. "Sounds like you wrestle for, what, five companies?"
"Uuuhh," hummed Laurel, "Eight, actually? But the only ones I'm really full time with are GCW an' XWA."
"Listen, I've been there. Multiple hardcore matches a week, aye? I can see just by lookin' at you how beat up you are," she said, trying to be sympathetic while at the same time not wanting to sugarcoat anything, "When life is just a blur of international flights, your stop countin' your life in minutes or hours in favour of the move from one hotel room to another, you forget which opponent you're facin' in a what type of match in which venue for which company, they all get jumbled, an' all the drink an' drugs you take to get through it all end up just makin' things worse. I been there, Laurel. An' you get to think the best way to avoid gettin' burned out is to double down, work even hard to push yourself through it so you don't have those moments of downtime where it's just you an' your thoughts."
Laurel stared into the remains of her drink, watching the coloured lights refract through the ice, then drained the glass. "You think I'm just burned out?" she asked quietly.
"I didn't say just burned out," replied Sal carefully, "But you're clearly in no fit state to wrestle two more hardcore matches in the next few days."
"I can handle it."
"That's just the problem. You find ways to keep handlin' it, so you do. You keep goin' an' goin' either until the point whether you suddenly can't an' you wake up lost, or until you just never feel anything anymore." Sal's voice was cut through with the heavy weight of mournful waste, nostalgia for a part of her life she had no intention of ever reliving.
Laurel exhaled. "I've tried to cut back my schedule, but I get restless. I've tried to only do the matches I'm interested in doing, but the people who love me keep tryna get me to do more an' more, and the people who hate me paint me like I think I'm bigger than wrestling..."
"That's their problem. You do what's right for you."
"They make it their problem though, don't they?" asked Laurel, suddenly animated again and sitting upright, "Sometimes I feel like the only person in wrestling who can keep an opinion to themselves. You should see what EXODUS is like. It''s like a goddamn civil war with eighteen sides. Or GCW - everyone's so scared of not bein' at the top of the ladder that they won't let anyone else even be on the bottom rung." She snorted derisively. "But shit, that's the life, innit? Ain't that what you were just sayin' about Kameron an' Magnum? They couldn't stand to see anyone else on top, not even their best mate?"
"Listen," interrupted Sal, "James is my brother in law. Whatever past issues there are between me and him, they're a family matter now. That's my point, that-"
Laurel cut her off with, "They're not though, are they?" shaking her head, "The issues between you an' him played out on screen for all to see. Millions of people around the world saw the issues between you and James. That makes it public domain. I know the fans didn't see everything that went on behind closed doors but they don't give a fuck about that, do they? They still saw enough to have an opinion."
"Aye, but people gonna have an opinion without seeing anything," pointed out Sal, "It's how people are. You sayin' you wanna police what people think of you?"
Laurel shook her head. "No, no, no... I just... urgh," and she slumped back over the table, "I don't even know. I'm just fuckin' sick of it all. Titles, egos, backstabbin', gossip... it never stops. I'm the bad guy for wantin' to wrestle without all that shit? Bloody hell. It feels like I'm back in high school, and I didn't even go to high school."
Sal leaned back again, sucking in one side of her mouth in thought, then said: "Know what I think you need right now?"
"A night off. Mine's a blue Russian," she told her, pointing to the bar, "Then once we've had them - you feel up to dancin'?"
Laurel's smile was weak but heartfelt, and she stood up with purpose, planting her palms on the table. Sal did have a few ideas of how she might be able to help Laurel, but this wasn't the time or place to be able to go through them thoroughly - and, given how much Laurel had hurt Sal and the people she cared about in the past, she wanted to tread lightly in case that any of that backstabbing was still left in Laurel herself.
For now, just seeing how an evening in each other's company would feel would be enough.
It was... uh... several cocktails later, or thereabouts. Laurel couldn't remember what number she'd got up to when she'd stopped keeping track. Not that she cared. After collapsing backwards onto the bed of her hotel room, she reached down to try to find her belt, and surprisingly succeeded after the third attempt. But actually unbuckling it was beyond her, she quickly realised, and she flopped her arms back past her head. The change in air pressure blasted a bellring through her ears.
In less than 24 hours she'd be in the Pepsi Center, surrounded by 18,000 other human begins all focusing their entire being - right then and right there - on her. Hadn't that been what she always wanted? A stage on which to bring forth forms and motions expressing the ineffable?
That seemed so long ago now.
Laurel pulled out her phone and stabbed in one of the few numbers she knew by heart, even in the dark, even blind drunk. The glow from the screen bounced off the tip of her nose, helping (albeit painfully) to bring the outermost layer of reality back into focus.
After a moment, the call was picked up and a voice said, "Hey Laurel."
"Hey Matt," she slurred at her brother.
"How much've you had, then?"
She squinted as she tried to work it out, then gave up and settled on, "...a lot."
"Sounds like it," replied Matty dryly, "W'sup?"
"I - iunno, really, I just - guess I just needed to talk to you. Hear you."
"Aw," said Matty, while he indicated to the others around the kitchen table to deal him out of the next hand. He tossed his six of diamonds and jack of clubs into the discard pile. "You had a good night?" he asked.
Laurel made a queasy noise, then said, "It was alright, yeh? It was nice that Sal doesn't hold... like Amy does... over me..."
"How is Sal?" asked Matty quickly. Not that he particularly knew her, but it seemed best to ask anyway, and he wasn't in the mood for another retelling of The Asylum's story.
"Yeah, she's fine. Told me all about the family an' that. An'... animals..."
"Animals?" repeated Matty, raising an eyebrow.
"Mm. Pets. Cats an' dogs an'... I dunno, they have a shitload."
"Oh. Cool. Listen, you gonna be alright facin' Behemath tomorrow?"
"Yeah, well, I'm already in Denver so I can sleep off the ha-" - she hiccupped - "Hangover... long as I keep one eye on Serena I'll be fine. I don't really care whether I win."
Matty nodded. "What about Nina?"
"She wasn't out with us."
"I mean are you ready to face her on Sunday?" asked Matty patiently. Jay, Lily and the others smiled, able to work out what Laurel had said from Matty's reply to her.
"Oh. No," said Laurel bluntly. "Don't fuckin' remind me about that match."
"If I don't, you'll forget about it."
"Sober Laurel will remember," said Laurel plaintively, "Sober Laurel remembers all the shit things that are gonna happen to her."
"Fuck sake - you got gifted a title shot, literally, and you're actin' like somebody shat in your breakfast."
"Aaww, I'm just sick of smilin' for the cameras and pretendin' this kinda bollocks ain't turnin' my insides to mush. I just wanna come home and sleep in my own bed."
"Sober Laurel's gonna feel like such a tit if she beats Nina."
"If sober Laurel even faces her."
"Listen, you better not drink before that match... or tomorrow's for that matter..." warned Matty.
Laurel ignored him. "I'm comin' off two more deathmatches right before I fight her, an' I don't even want to win. I ain't even got time to work for HKW. If I win that match I'm gonna be handing the title straight back to her anyway. It's so pointless me even being there."
Matty groaned, "Then why are you still doin' this? Why don't you back out?"
"Can't..." mumbled Laurel quietly, "Too late..."
"You been feelin' like this for ages, though. Basically since you agreed to the match. Same as that damn tournament. You shouldn't keep agreein' to things you don't wanna do."
Somewhere on the other end came the distant murmur, "Smile an' fake it..."
A moment later, the sound of snoring began. Matty sighed and shook his head and hung up.
"She's bright an' ready for these matches, then?" asked Lily.
"Oh yeah. Her usual cheery self..."
"I don't understand why she does this," frowned Lily, "Why she keeps pushing herself into these things she knows she's gonna hate. Nina's match, that tournament, this thing with Annie she got comin' up..."
"Honestly?" sighed Matty, "It's... it's something to hold over people. It's so she can go back to Nina or Annie or whoever way down the line and just say, you know how I did that thing for you even though I didn't want to?"
Jay looked up after he was done turning over the flop. "She's collectin' favours?"
"No, no... she's buying loyalty. She's makin' people... what's the word... beholden to her. It's just pure manipulation."
Lily gasped. "You think that? She's your sister!"
"Exactly. Remember, I've known her as long as all you lot put together. But still, you know how manipulative she is. I dunno if she even knows she's doing it half the time, but... she's makin' sure everyone knows how magnanimous she is, doin' these things for Nina or Annie even though she don't want to, not complainin' in a way that makes it clear she's not complainin'... all cause she wants everyone else to need her. And I'm always the one who has to sort it all out..."
Lily looked down at her hand, and found herself unable to concentrate on it properly yet unable to say anything back to Matty. As everyone else's attention shifted from her, a pall of silence fell over the kitchen.
Jay cleared his throat. "Well, we can worry about that when she's home. No' much we can do right now. So with that in mind... raise."
And he dumped a stack of chips into the centre of the table. Matty drummed his fingers on the edge, then pushed his seat back.
"'Scuse me," he said quietly, "Back in a minute." And he walked away. The others watched him go, then glanced at Jay. Jay shook his head as if to say 'give him some peace', and they got on with the game.