“All children, except one, grow up.” ― J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan
“There’s gotta be a loophole. I’ve always got a fucking loophole.”
He slams his fist down onto a legal pad full of scribbled out notes, his frustrated outburst sending the smallest of shockwaves across the makeshift War Room table. Like in all aspects of the life of Michael Lee Best, however, his tantrum does little to help his circumstances.
It’s the first time that he’s ever used the dining room, and it shows. Stark white walls bathe the room in an almost faux-fluorescence, which is a very artsy way to say that they are as bare and soulless as the rest of his upper middle class apartment. No decorations on the walls. No built in cigar humidor. No balcony overlooking the much smaller mansions that are dwarfed by his mansion that is the best mansion in the history of mansions. Devoid of personality and desperately in need of a woman’s touch.
The Perfection of Townhomes.
Sitting around the table, the other two members of the so-called “Braintrust of Death” hardly even flinch at his outburst– if there are any two people in the world who have grown nearly immune to the toddler antics of the Son of God, it’s Jack W. Adler and the Mother of GoD herself, Lindsay Troy.
“Just take it back, idiot,” mutters Jack Adler, beyond annoyed. “It’s not like you signed a fuckin’ contract. The only person holding you to this stupid stipulation is you.”
The look of disgust on Michael Best’s face is so familiar that you could almost see his father, if you were to squint hard enough. He stares with almost sad eyes at his longtime business manager and attorney, clearly unhappy with the tone of the answer.
Yeah, just take it back.
It was a trope almost as old as professional wrestling itself– for as long as grown men had been sliding on spandex tights and punching each other in the face, they’d been talking shit that they never intended to have to back up. You could close your eyes and swing a steel chair, and these days it would be hard not to hit someone who had wiggled their way out of a stipulation to be someone’s manservant for a year, or come back to the company after a Loser Leaves Town match. Nobody takes this shit seriously– when Michael Lee Best got on television and swore that he would set the ICON Title record for most defenses or never compete for the title again, there was barely a reaction. I mean, it’s like Jack said:
It’s not like he signed a fuckin’ contract, right?
“I don’t know, Jack.” Michael rubs his tired eyes. “Doesn’t it just feel… predictable? Isn’t that exactly what everyone is expecting me to do? Isn’t that what I always fucking do?”
Adler shrugs– he’s beyond arguing.
It might be growing hard to care, after being cooped up at Casa del Selfie Blanket for the better part of four hours, going over the same bullshit over and over again. The same old bullshit he’d been dealing with for eight years– Mike Best talks himself into a shitty situation, and Jack Adler becomes the legally billable shoulder to cry on. At some point, it would have to wear on even the most patient of human beings.
We’ve reached exactly that point.
“Listen, kid.” Adler reaches for a slice of cold pizza, slapping it onto a paper plate. “You fucked up. We can all agree on that, right? That you fucked this one up?”
He turns to the council, not expecting much resistance. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t get any; the question may as well have been rhetorical.
After all, this was the crux of the whole meeting in the first place— Michael Lee Best made a promise that was nearly statistically impossible to make good on. Eight successful ICON Title defenses, or this would be the final reign. It had looked great on paper, it had sounded smooth with a microphone in his hand, and the weekly banners advertising “The Final Reign” had certainly put a few extra asses into seats for the Lethal Lottery. But of course, like all of Michael Best’s marketing stunts over the years, it had come with a catch that he hasn’t foreseen.
He was absolutely fucked come War Games.
No one enters War Games to come in second place– if you come to play, you come to win, and the winner takes the big one. The HOW World Championship. For seven other competitors, this meant a shot at walking away with the biggest prize in High Octane Wrestling. But for Michael Lee Best? Winning War Games meant losing the ICON Title.
And losing it without eight total defenses.
Jack sits back comfortably in his chair, biting down on a slice of pizza and letting the error of his client’s ways really sink in. For a gentile, he was really good with the lawyer guilt.
“So let’s lay out the facts.” He speaks loudly, through disgusting chomps. “You got what, one match down, seven to go? Let’s say you run through this little bleached blonde Ken Doll shithead like you’re Forrest fuckin’ Gump, right? Gives you three shows to defend that fucker six times. Two matches a show, you win them all, and you’re in the clear.”
Somehow louder than his open mouth chewing, a very audible scoff escapes from the depths of Lindsay Troy.
“Double bookings?” Troy laughs, despite herself. “You want him to wrestle twice a week, every week, and then walk into War Games? Do you not give any semblance of a shit about his well being? Are you actually stupid?”
Jack stops chewing, his expression turning sour.
“First off, fuck you,” he grunts, annoyed. “Second off, no, what *I* want is for him to pretend he’s not a shitty gambling addict and never slaughtered his own fuckin’ golden goose, but since Captain Conscience here doesn’t like that idea, literally his only other option is to get in EIGHT FUCKIN’ DEFENSES before the show.”
“Give him some hope, why don’t you.” Lindsay rolls her eyes, crossing her arms in front of her chest.
Jack slams the half eaten pizza down into his plate, picking a piece of pepperoni out of his teeth.
“He doesn’t need hope.” Jack sighs, fishing through his molars. “He needs perspective. Somebody at this table has to be realistic about this shit. The kid is a fucking addict. How many times have you loaned him fuckin’ ten grand out of your pocket, because he couldn’t walk away from a blackjack table and needed to pay his rent? How many times has he called you up at two in the fuckin’ morning in fucking tears because he’d bit off more than he could chew?”
Lindsay Troy looks down at the table, unsure how to respond.
It was impossible to ignore that the Son of God had a problem. Everyone assumed it was gambling, but over the last few weeks, Michael had come to learn that it wasn’t nearly that glamorous. We all love that old romantic notion of the down-on-his-luck junkie in Vegas, swearing up and down that his horse was about to come in. Everyone knows the stereotype. But Michael Lee Best wasn’t addicted to gambling…
He was addicted to self-sabotage.
You don’t stand in front of thousands of people and set insurmountable obstacles for yourself because you like to make bets. You don’t literally put your career on the line a half dozen times a year because you have a gambling problem. You don’t pick fights you don’t need to take, against guys who could take everything away from you, because you like to live on the edge.
You do it because there’s a rush in losing everything.
Lindsay had heard him joke about it— about his little Trump card. About how if every match was “must win,” then he had no choice but to win every single match. But it wasn’t just wrestling. It wasn’t just stupid title stipulations and bad bets in HOW. Every relationship, every friendship, every business deal… he’d injected his own brand of poison into every facet of his life for over a decade, and watched them all wither and die. He’d become a man who couldn’t be happy unless he was wallowing in misery, and it had brought him so much success over the course of his career that he’d become his own enabler.
If being broken ain’t broke, then don’t fix it, right?
But this time he’d gone too far, and he’d gambled with something a lot more valuable to him than money. Than friendship, or family. He’d gambled with the only thing he’d ever truly earned on his own. With the only thing that ever truly gave him a measure over whether or not he was any fucking good or not. Lee Best had handed him a million World Title matches over the years, and he was always bound to win a few of them. But the ICON Title?
He’d done that all on his own, every time.
And then he gambled it away… just for the rush.
There is a silence around the table, as Jack Adler stares defiantly at Lindsay Troy. He’d seen this schtick a million times. He’d seen it pay off, and he’d seen it crash and burn. He knows that she doesn’t have an answer– yet another question that may as well have been rhetorical. In truth, the Mother of GoD had no idea what she was getting herself into when she first met with Michael Best in that hotel room after Rumble at the Rock.
This isn’t quite what she’d signed up for.
“Jack’s right.” Michael mercifully breaks the silence, getting her off the hook. “Six defenses. Three weeks. It’s a lot, but I can do it. I got myself into this mess, no choice but to fight my way out, right?”
He wanted Lindz off the hook, and he got it– the heads of both Jack Adler and Lindsay Troy whip around almost in unison to stare him in the face. The looks of disappointment, bewilderment, and anger on their faces might be the first thing they’ve agreed on in the four hours that they’d been trapped around this table.
“Jesus Christ!” Jack rubs at his temples, exclaiming even through exhaustion. “I was being facetious, dummy. The broad is right, that’s just plain stupid. Even if your old man books it, which he fuckin’ won’t, you’re looking at–”
“He’ll book it.” Michael rubs at his beard, a spark in his eyes. “He’s the other captain. This is what he wants, Jack. He wants me worn down. Wants me broken. I’ll give it to him on a silver platter. What other choice do I have? It’s the ICON Title, guys. It’s not just a fucking belt, okay? This is… it’s everything. I know you don’t get it. I know you could never possibly understand why it means so fucking much to me, but it does. So it’s this, or I lose everything. I don’t have a–”
The shockwave that his fist sent through the table is nothing, compared to the sudden crash of a dining room chair slamming against the hardwood floor. The mask of emotions on Lindsay’s face is a hard blend to make sense of– anger, frustration, exhaustion, concern, pity. The strange mixture boils over suddenly, snapping Michael out of his spiral of optimistic sabotage as she bursts to her feet.
“Stop it.” her words are quiet, but stern. Effective.
“It’s fine, Lindz.” a smallish smirk appears on Michael’s face. “This is what I–”
“STOP. IT.” Troy’s words are less quiet this time. “I know this is what you do. That doesn’t make it not stupid. It doesn’t make it not selfish. I don’t want to see you get hurt. I don’t want to see you grind yourself to the fucking bone, just because you think the only way you’re going to succeed is to set these impossible fucking tasks for yourself to accomplish.”
She puts a hand on her hip, her expression softening as she looks at him.
“It isn’t all or nothing.” Lindsay continues, with an almost sad smile. “You made a promise. A stupid, short-sighted promise, but a promise. You’re right– you can’t just pretend you didn’t make it. But running yourself into the ground to cover a bad bet isn’t the only other choice. You can just… own up to it. Make it the Final Reign, come what may. This doesn’t have to define you… you’re just letting it.”
The words seem to hit their mark, even if it’s only for a moment. There is a flash of realization in the eyes of the world’s oldest toddler, but it quickly fades as he shakes his head, trying to get rid of it.
“Trust me, Lindsay.” the smirk returns, as he straightens back up. “I always land on my feet. Besides, it’s just War Games. Been there, won that… it’s someone else’s turn. Farthington did it last year… he entered with the ICON Title, and he left with it. This is doable. I got this. I can fucking do this.”
The formerly soft eyes of Lindsay Troy harden, filling with an almost bewildered irritation.
“This isn’t just about you anymore.” Her words are quiet. “You can’t just float around like a fucking dipshit teenager and hope everything is gonna come out alright. We’re a team. If you get hurt, we get hurt. If you fuck War Games up, you aren’t just fucking it up for you, you’re fucking it up for all of us. You’re not the only person who gives a shit about you, and if you can’t–”
Since no one is allowed to finish a full statement anymore, it’s Jack’s turn to interrupt. If the condescending beginning of his fake “slow clap” wasn’t enough to stop her, his sudden shitty laughter definitely does the job.
“Oh my God.” Jack shakes his head, cutting her off abruptly. “Is that what this is about? You don’t wanna lose your little boytoy for War Games? I hate to be the bearer of bad news, Sweet Tits, but you ain’t even on the fuckin’ team yet. Save your little meltdown for the Oxygen network, because we’re already dealing with more than enough melodrama for one night.”
The distinct sound of a metaphorical rattlesnake tail can be heard, as Lindsay’s head begins to turn. Slowly. Methodically. If she took the time it would take to analyze everything that pissed her off about what Adler had just said, they’d be here another hour at least.
She isn’t going to waste her time.
“Doesn’t he pay you?” Lindsay stares at Adler, her eyes filled with actual hate. “What do you make, Jack? Ten percent? Could you maybe give ten percent of a fuck about his well being? Maybe his problem is you. Maybe his problem is that you’ve been bailing him out of trouble and telling him what he wants to hear for ten fucking years, and you’ve never given him a chance to FUCKING GROW UP.”
Jack’s turn to be snide. His half-smirk looks more antagonistic than is smart, at current.
“Please.” His eyes roll, reflexively. “I’m the only thing that keeps him from–”
“Not anymore.” Lindsay cuts him off, cold.
Adler empties the last of a lukewarm Starbucks cup, downing the last drop with a bitter wince. He leans back and shoots the empty cup like a freethrow, watching it land haphazardly across the half-empty pizza box in the center of the table. The cup rolls awkwardly off the corner of the box, rolling to a stop in front of Lindsay’s equally scribbled-upon legal pad.
She stares down at the cup, trying very hard not to knee him directly in the soul.
“Lemme tell you something, sweetheart.” Jack leans forward in his chair, “I don’t know if your husband is one of these stay-at-home daddies who puts up with your bullshit and doesn’t have the stones to give you one across the mouth, but you can get right the fuck outta here with the doting mother routine. Me and Mikey here been close as family since before he knew your fuckin’ name, and if you think he’s gonna turn this little car wreck around just because some little bitch started coming around here with a pair of–”
Before Jack can finish his thought, he dodges swiftly to the left, as the four spinning corners of the pizza box go whizzing past his head like an inefficient throwing star. He leaps to the side of his chair, reflexively covering his head, as the disgruntled eyes of the Son of God burn a hole into his forehead.
“Finish that fucking sentence.” Michael’s words sound calm, but dangerous. “I dare you.”
Feeling sheepish, since he’s just reacted to a thrown pizza box as though it was an actual hand grenade, Jack raises himself back up to the height of the table, dusting off his cheap suit jacket. He’s past the point of admitting that he’s overstepped, and so he does the only thing he can think of– he doubles down.
“You know what?” Adler scoffs, wiping the collar of his blazer. “Fuck it. Throw your whole goddamned career away because Little Miss You Can Do It wore a low cut fuckin’ tank top and treated you like you were Thomas the Goddamned Tank Engine. Walk away from the brand we built, the records you set… your whole fuckin’ legacy. Be a man of your word, and I’ll enjoy ten percent of the jack fucking nothing you’re worth when it’s over with. You need to sleep on this. Call me in the morning.”
Jack yanks his cell phone up off the table, shoving it into his pocket as he briskly makes his way toward the door. He can’t seem to help himself, though, as he bashes a shoulder into the Queen of the Ring on his way out. She seems content to let him have his tantrum, though, instead of breaking his jaw on the spot.
“Yoko Ono cunt,” he mutters, under his breath.
And those are the words that do it.
Adler’s back slams against the doorway with a force that must feel inhuman to a man who doesn’t fight for a living– the cheap suit jacket creases in the bunched up fists of Michael Best, who holds him in the air up against the wall.
“Say it again,” Michael barks, his face turning crimson. “SAY IT AGAIN, MOTHERFUCKER!”
After a moment of hesitation, determining whether or not it might be fun to watch a lawyer die, Lindsay intervenes– she tries to get between the two grown men fighting like teenagers. Michael eventually drops the emaciated attorney, letting him slump to the floor as he walks away, still looking beyond livid.
His words sound a lot more calm than he is.
“You’re fired.” Michael turns his head away, not even looking at Adler. “Get the fuck out of my house and don’t come back.”
And just like that, a decade in the life of Michael Lee Best collects himself and walks out the door. While he fumes on the outside, the Son of God doesn’t actually know how he feels– it’s as though the emotions aren’t ready to be processed.
He’s staring at a wall.
Tired. Exhausted. Over all of it.
At some point in every man’s life, he has to actually suck it up and become a man. Michael Best had made quite a run at dodging it for the better part of thirty three years, but as he stares at the blank wall of a soulless, unused dining room, he realizes that maybe… just maybe… it was time to come the fuck out of hiding and grow up.
“You okay?” Lindsay asks, for lack of anything else to say.
The laugh that escapes him is an uncomfortable one– a question with so many possible answers, and in that moment absolutely none of them feel right. Adler was a friend. A father, in a way. A mentor, and a shoulder to cry on. He was also a piece of shit who had been leeching ten percent of his income for a decade– these weren’t ever mutually exclusive, and he’d always known it. Everyone who had ever meant fucking anything to him had only been around to reap the benefits– why should Jack be any different?
Hell, would Lindsay be any different?
Time would tell. A different spiral for a different day.
“I think you’re right, Lindz.” Mike speaks, after a moment. “I made a promise. Maybe it’s time I grew the fuck up.”
He means the words. The smile, not so much.
“Yeah?” Lindsay chuckles, sliding back into her chair. “You actually mean that?”
The Queen of the Ring kicks her feet up, grabbing a half-destroyed slice of pizza off the top of the table where the pizza box used to live. The room is a fucking mess of anger, exhaustion, and shitty Italian food, and yet amidst the chaos, Michael feels suddenly serene. As though a weight has been lifted off of his shoulders. As though he’s about to escape from a prison of his own making.
Come what may, this would be the Final Reign of HOW’s ICON.
Whether it ended this week, next week, or when the final bell tolls at the end of War Games, Michael Lee Best would finally achieve the one thing that he’d never accomplished, over the whole of his career. Over the whole of his life.
He would live with the consequences of his own actions.
“Yeah, Lindz.” he nods, forcing a smile. “No loopholes.”