PART II: THE END
Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall
Atlantic City, NJ
If he held his breath, Terryl could just about hear the crowd. Not with his ears – they were deep in the thick concrete bowels of the venue after all – but with his bones. Like some sort of ossified transducer. There was a deep-seated thrum, something that reverberated and passed by proxy through water pipes, structural beams, electrical cables and internal fittings. A palpable vibration made from excitement and the aggregation of nervous energy like only a few thousand people squeezed together for some common purpose could build. Their anticipation was building to fever pitch as the evening wore on.
It was almost time for the main event. Fexxfield, Meyhu, Edwards … And Ryan. Four heavy hitters and a whole bunch of ladders, all fighting for one thing …
Peeking out from the folds of his scuffed gym bag, the Atlantic City Championship caught the shine of fluorescent striplights overhead. Smoothing the end of the roll of tape over his circled wrist Terryl reached down, pulled the title free and set it down on the wooden bench that ran along three sides of the dressing room.
Swallowing the last dregs of water from an upturned bottle, he squashed the plastic between strapped fingers and tossed it down onto the matt-grey concrete. Through a small square window set high into the breezeblock wall, the late summer sun hung high in a moody New Jersey sky – fat orange bands, smeared by ribbons of dark cloud that cut blade-shaped gouges in its bright disc.
The fingers of Fexxfield’s right hand tapped against the intricate, embossed lettering of the Championship's main face, drawing circles around bolts which held his nameplate in place. Embarrassingly, he couldn’t immediately place how long it’d actually been fixed there for. He knew it was now the longest continuous time of all the names that had held such pride of place, but as for the specifics?
Terryl wasn’t really a man for numbers, or the quantitative. A lot of men and women had tried to bring that particular record-setting run to an end, but so far none of them had managed. Some he regarded in a purely professional sense as they went about the simple business of trying to hurt him, others he’d held a powerful dislike for. Still Did.
One he loved with everything he had in his heart and in his hands. The same one he was about to visit significant physical harm on, and her in kind on him.
He laughed at the absurdity of it. She could do it, he knew that beyond doubt. Amber was one of the most dangerous people he’d ever had the mis-and-fortune to meet and exchange physical displeasures with. There was every chance she would walk out of the Dead Man’s Hand event with the gold.
Fexxfield hefted the title up. This gold.
Still, Terryl had beaten Amber before. Terryl had beaten every single contender ever since he’d dethroned that Hydra; Devlin and Ramona …
Just the name of the former, that piece of trash, made his teeth set on edge. For the longest time, the Gumshoe had considered this – all of this – just a means to an end. A way to earn green in exchange for spilling red. Usually but not always his own. Even after winning the Atlantic City Championship from Boardwalk’s self-appointed King and Queen, Fexxfield hadn’t taken it personally. No ego, no pride, no hurt. Not really.
But beating Devlin again in the final of the inaugural Manifest Destiny Tournament, to win the whole thing? That’d been mighty special. Intoxicating. Something stronger than the most powerful firewater or gut rot. Dangerous stuff. A dark heart that invited you over the threshold with sweet whispers, until it could sink its fangs inch-deep into your pulsing neck.
Terryl set the title belt back on the bench. Better to be careful with this thing. Don’t believe your own hype too readily. Don’t surrender to its poisonous, Siren-like call. It was just waiting for the chance to consume your whole world. There were antidotes, of course. Balms that could soothe the soul, fortify it against the lure of this sweet gold success. He was particularly fond of one in particular, painted red.
Still, a lot of folk wrote him off. Less these months later, maybe, but most preferred their Champions a little rougher around the edges. Bit more maverick. Sharp. Stormier.
He might lose tonight. Might not. That mattered much less than what he stood to gain afterward. It felt like a whole new beginning was shaping up, one shining brighter than any polished metal could hope to match. Something the Iron Underbelly could never tarnish no matter how long it had to try to corrupt and corrode. Together, they could–
A knock at the door broke him out of his reverie.
“It’s open,” He said, and the very subject of his thoughts stepped through in the very shape of Amber Ryan.
Fexxfield offered her a small smile as he leaned back against the breezeblock. “Can’t win it until the bell rings. Even I know that.”
The Gumshoe tested the flex of his taped wrists, pushing against the strapping pulled in tight around the thumb on his left hand – the one that always gave him trouble. A particularly violent man going by the name of “Big T” had dislocated it years earlier, back in Strike Towers Wrestling, and it had never healed right.
Still did the job, mind you. Did everything asked of it. Just not quite the way it should. A crass but apt metaphor for Fexxfield as a whole. A dislocated thumb trying to do the best it could. He smirked to himself again, looking back up at the redhead.
“Almost time,” Terryl nodded, gesturing at himself with a binded palm. “Try not to mess up the face too badly. Haven’t finished making all the payments yet and can’t get the credit for a trade-in.”
"No promises." Amber murmured as she rolled her taped wrists, reinforced in places with the peek of black kinesio tape from the edges of her T-shirt sleeve.
She didn't want to admit it aloud – but she felt sick. Down to the very depths of her being. Not from the pressure though, nor the spotlight that would soon consume them all. Not even from having to face the ex-boyfriend who'd ghosted her in favour of returning to his own miserable ex-gold digger.
No, it was the fact she knew she had to choose.
Fexx would never present the option, he'd never put her on the spot like that but soon… Soon she'd have to choose.
… And just the thought filled her with an overwhelming dread ‘cause she wasn't sure whether she'd be able to choose 'right'.
"I hate this." Trying to work out the final cricks in her neck, Amber avoided making eye contact with the champion… And his prize. Focusing on the carpeted floor,wondering if the dark patches were less ominous than she assumed. "Anticipation mostly."
Reaching across and over the Atlantic City Championship, Terryl picked up the fedora sat on top of a pair of well-worn loafers. The leather was cracked, robbed of its suppleness and shine by too many long miles walked through a rotten city … And the hat? The hat wasn’t in much better shape. It might have been black once, but exposure to industrial affluent masquerading as rain, thick clouds of traffic smog and too many bar room floors courtesy of its method of transport being knocked off his feet had made the material patchy-grey.
He ran the rim around in his hands and with the striplight directly overhead, saw the shadow of taped fingertips through threadbare material.
“... Mostly,” He echoed, but there was obviously something more loaded into the word. “Got plenty of hate reserved for what we’re about to do to each other, to be plain. Maybe most of that, in fact. All for this thing …”
Fexxfield hefted the title onto his lap and looked down, catching sight of a gold-tinged reflection staring back up. The Gumshoe tipped his jaw left and right, following the mirror image with his eyes as it did the same.
“Suppose it’s worth a fair bit,” He said. “ … The jewels, the metal, the thing itself. Maybe enough to hurt someone for …”
Looking up at Amber, Terryl pursed his lips. “Folk would hurt each other a whole lot more on account of what it stands for, though. Visit some terrible violence to take its legacy as their own. Becomes their whole world, consumes every synapse, every fibre of being. Worst tunnel vision you ever knew.”
He kept his gaze on the redhead. “Reckon you know that though, don’t you?”
Fexxfield smirked to himself, squeezing the leather backing in his hands. “Funny how it all works out. You kill yourself to get it, kill anyone who tries to stop you, then you die trying to stop them taking it back.”
“Not me though,” He continued with a shake of the head. “Not dying for this. Hurt? Sure. Bleed? Surely, but got too much to live for afterwards, no matter what happens. Maybe someone else will go the distance, take this weight off me …”
Running a fingertip around the groove of the main plate, Terryl let his head roll back against the breezeblock. “Give ‘em hell for it, though. Give you hell for it. Stand on my own two feet to get knocked right off them. That’s the way it’s got to be. Only thing I can think of worse than dying for this and missing out on what comes after is to never get the chance to make someone work for the privilege. Nothing worth having ever came easy.”
He stood, heavy Championship unfurling to swing from one hand as he crossed the distance between them. His bandaged hand squeezed Amber’s bicep gently, for just a second. “We’ll do it face-to-face; knock-down and hellfire. You wouldn’t want it any other way, I know it.”
"I wouldn't accept it otherwise." Faint remnants of a smile crossed her lips. Eyes following the man as he moved… Or the belt that hung loosely from his hand. Even she wasn't sure as she found herself wanting for more than she'd ever known…
Need that ran deeper than pride, need that courses through her veins threatening to tear her asunder if she came agonisingly close to having it… Just one. Need that wanted to burst from her chest in the same way it might cave if she couldn't be enough…
Startlingly, Amber shook out the cobwebs as the realization hit home that she wasn't sure if she was talking about the Atlantic City title… Or the man holding it.
Don't obsess. Don't ruin it for yourself now…
Fexxfield’s lips parted as he pulled his hand away, frown creasing his features, but a loud rapping against the door broke the link between impulse and action and they lost the words meant for Amber. “It’s open …” He called out, distracted.
Another series of booming thuds. Heavy. The door itself rattled inside of its frame, joined by the creak of flexing metal hinges.
His frown deepening for an altogether different reason, Terryl crossed over and twisted the handle down, pulling the door open even as a third round of rapping made it jerk and flex. “Now’s not really the best time–”
The edge thrust forward and out from its frame, faster than the Gumshoe could react with anything more than a reflexive, defensive blink. A sharp, hard corner crashed into his temple and Fexxfield staggered, head snapping to the side at the mercy of action and reaction. Clasping the hilt of his free palm to the split beginning to run red above his eye, he looked up in time to see a white-painted fist, picked out in black thorns, fill the entirety of his vision and world.
It hit harder than anything Terryl had ever felt before, shaking the meat inside his skull and he struggled to feel anything beyond pain lancing through every synapse as they fired without rhyme, reason or instruction. Stumbling forward, Fexxfield tried to blink away the fog that made the face staring down at him from above seem opaque and smooth. It looked flushed in crimson and black, robbed of the subtle detail of flesh with a garish grin – looked like a mask …
The Woman – her lithe figure and long limbs giving his subconscious enough clues even as his rational mind hung on to consciousness by metaphysical fingertips – strode forward and took a hold of Fexxfield by the straps of his vest, delivering the point of her knee into his gut as he tried to regain balance. When autonomic reflexes made the Gumshoe try to raise up, she hit him again with that painted fist and he fell backwards and down. The back of Terryl’s skull crashed against the pitted floor and the Atlantic City Championship spun away, landing nearby with the clatter of metal-on-concrete.
Dropping to one knee over his prone form, the Stranger took a rough handful of fabric and pulled Fexxfield’s head and shoulders up; drawing that same shining hand back for another blow.
A shadow loomed over the pair, and the Woman simply turned her crimson plastic face – fashioned in the shape of a wide and embossed smile – up and towards a certain redhead. Bright blue eyes watched, and waited. Fist still drawn back.
In her grasp Terryl mumbled something incoherent, glassy eyes turning towards Amber as she took urgent steps forward . A trickle of red spilled over his lip to mix with the spittle and blood flowing down from the gash in his temple.
"Well, I don't think we've--"
Planting a hand on the Woman's shoulder, Amber shifted her weight and dug her heels into the floor as best as she could manage; a familiar fury of a hurricane beating down on a fishing village. Lithe frame deftly pivoting slightly, Amber wrenched back her hand in hopes of pulling the Woman away from Fexxfield and deterring the next shot.
Admittedly she hadn't considered much after that – focusing more on the pooling crimson that fell in the growing distance the stranger had created between them.
No, close the distance. Two against one.
"--been formally introduced."
Anticipating a reflective strike or something akin to retaining balance, Amber immediately lowered her centre of gravity. Perhaps in hopes of finding an opening of space to fulfil, to sneak into before any more blood was needlessly shed…
It was too soon.
No, it wasn't going to happen like this.
The Stranger didn’t resist Amber’s lunge which took hold of the fabric of her cobalt-coloured blouse and pulled it – and her – forwards. Instead, she leaned into the direction of travel. Pushed off the concrete floor with it. Helped it. The added momentum launched the other woman in an irresistible thrust which saw her drive a shoulder into the redhead’s own.
Amber’s ability to angle away and avoid compromised by planted feet anticipating something else, her speed of reaction almost made up the difference. She twisted left, taking some of the energy out of the impact as shoulder met shoulder. The masked interloper rolled with the momentum, springing up on bent legs opposite, a single forearm supporting her weight with splayed fingertips against the spalled concrete.
“You must be the Painted Hurricane,” She said, head cocked to the side. “That is what he calls you …”
Her bright blue eyes flicker over towards Fexxfield as he rolled onto his side, spitting clear thick ropes of pink. “I am so very glad to meet you.”
When her gaze shifts back to Amber, she slowly climbs up to her feet. “I am Masque. Now we are formally introduced.”
Staggering, finding composure again in the midst of a storm's fury, Amber brushed herself off slightly. Slowly starting to circle as though measuring up for something, anything that might rid them both of… Whatever malevolent influence had come into their existence at thoroughly the wrong time.
"Any other night, I might call it a pleasure. However I tend to believe you have thoroughly overstayed your welcome…" Polite, albeit distant smile folding into a snarl as Amber shifted her stance irritably. Searching for a space between Masque and Fexxfield that she might… Just do anything.
She moved on a strange, hopping gait; extending the flat of her foot out to point, toes angled towards the concrete, smoothly leaping from side-to-side as she circled the other woman.
“Oh, I think I have arrived at exactly the right time,” And then she laughed. Lilting, sing-song. As she moved, Masque turned her head back to look at the Gumshoe who had managed to roll onto his front and up onto forearms smeared with dust and blood.
Her gaze shifted back to Amber. “You must be very excited …” She said, continuing to circle until suddenly, coming to an abrupt halt. At her feet, the Atlantic City Championship sat upturned, leather backing embossed with the bulges of heavy rivets and the scratches of desperate fingertips.
She bent over and picked the title up in her prosthetic, the overhead striplights giving enough glare for the faintest golden hue to reflect against the plastic’s glossy white paint and painted black thornwork. Masque stared at the intricate detailing of the main plate, before slowly tilting the Championship until both her and it stared at the other woman.
“Are you excited?”
Amber couldn't help but eye the belt. Everything she'd worked for, come so close to having… Holding… Claiming as her own. However it didn't linger long, back to the Gumshoe still trying to find his composure as the rattle of something inside his head likely left him still chasing marbles spilled across the floor.
"Only for you to leave." Cooly, Amber scowled. Back to the title… The glow of gold under fluorescence had a way. Back to the Gumshoe, her heart sent aflutter in a way that might worry any reasonable cardiologist.
"Which, by my calculations, should have been… Two minutes ago."
Somewhere behind, Terryl found enough of something to climb onto one shaking knee. Still bracing himself with a hand pressed down on the floor, he smeared clotting red out of his swelling eye and around his face, spitting the rest clear.
Bright blue eyes narrowed slightly, chin upturned. “Oh, that is simply not true my Painted Hurricane. Gold makes people greedy … And you are not doing a particularly good job of hiding the lust in your eyes.”
Turning around, title belt still held out towards Amber in her prosthetic, Masque looked down at the Gumshoe. “Can you see it written on her face, with a scalpel? Permanently scored?”
Fexxfield grumbled something more, still incomprehensible.
“Look up!” Masque screamed, shrill and bursting with fury. He flinched and he did, blinking and struggling and looking out towards the redhead.
Masque stooped down, knees bent, she twisted the Championship in her plastic hand. “Look at how she covets this. That is understandable, you know you are a target, of course. No revelation here …”
She ran a flesh-and-blood forefinger through the latter on Fexxfield’s face, smearing it around his cheek. “ … But oh, there is more. It is not a matter of wanting something, or even taking it. After all, you two are about to discover who is stronger. Faster. Tougher. Better. Face-to-face. The way it should be …”
And even though her face was all but hidden, the smile was practically audible. “Or are you?”
Masque looked back at the other woman. “Are you … Amber?”
"It's not like that at all… It's not about you. Not about what you think you know." Amber couldn’t disguise the cracking in her voice, the indecision creeping into something that she'd so firmly come to believe was iron-clad and indestructible. She loved this man with everything she had… But what if this was her only chance at the title. What if there wouldn't be a 'next time'.
Terryl had promised her an after… No matter what. An end to a beginning they weren't supposed to have found together. Amber wondered silently if they could hear her pulse racing as her heart rose into her throat.
"I love him… And nothing you can say will change that." Maybe if she spoke with enough confidence, even she might have believed she was capable. With the shards she could muster though, she felt strongly… She wasn't sure what love felt like, but if it resembled breathing razorblades and drowning in your own heartbeat then maybe this was truly it.
… But what if there wasn't another chance.
She'd never been closer.
"He knows that I want the belt… It's not a secret, as much as you might portray it as such. However… I plan to win it, not inherit it in a will…" With a hiss, Amber reflexively clenched her fist and gritted her teeth, still furtively searching for purchase, for a definable chink in the armour…
Finding only the desperate pleading eyes of someone who knew better.
Suddenly, Masque rolled back to sit on the floor, next to the Gumshoe. She laid the Championship across her lap, tracing the detailing with a plastic finger as she pondered.
“Do you believe that?” She asked Fexxfield. He swayed, still on one knee, still blinking away stars made from excited mercury ions colliding in the glass tubes overhead. Eventually, he just nodded.
The masked woman nodded too. “I believe it … But, of course, we have to test our theory. We must prove it true. Even love had quantifiable parameters. Has …”
The last word was painfully emphasised. “ … Limits.”
A silence, punctuated by heavy breathing and grinding teeth, settled over the three for a while. Busy studying the title resting on her thighs, Masque apparently had nothing she was willing to say and beside her, Terryl had nothing he was able to.
“There …” She said without looking up from the belt. Her prosthetic hand rose up, pointing in Amber’s direction. With a quick jerk of her head, she glances into the blinking eyes of the man next to her. “Do you see it?”
He grumbles something. It sounds like Fuck … Off …
Reaching over, Masque takes a firm hold of Fexxfield’s chin and squeezes – forcing him to look in the redhead’s direction until she decides otherwise. “I said do you see it?”
“She is thinking about chance, likelihood, statistics …” Masque continued. “Very premeditated, but would you really expect anything else from someone so …”
She breathed deeply, blue eyes rolling shut for a moment, “... Dangerous. Powerful. Perfect.”
Drumming her free hand on the title belt, Masque keeps Fexxfield still with her prosthetic and a handful of sweat-slick, blood-tussled hair. “Your world is thinking about whether she will ever have a better chance, your love is considering … What if this significantly enhances her chances? What if …”
“What if …”
Releasing the Gumshoe, Masque claps her hands together. “What if this helps me become everything I have ever wanted to be.”
She nods. “I believe you love her. I even believe she loves you, but it is not monogamous. She loves something else. You are in a love triangle, Mister Fexxfield … The only one in the whole world who does not know it. And that has led you to something wicked. I do not think you will come out the other side …”
Clapping again, Masque cocked her head. “Still, that will not be for me to decide.”
And then she glances at Terryl and back at Amber. “Are the numbers working to your advantage?”
"It's not like that at all…" Amber flinched at her own words, laced with a failing belief that even she couldn't deny.
No secret. It's just… she never thought it might come to this.
It wasn't supposed to.
God, it was never supposed to be this way…
Happily ever after wasn't ever meant to end like this.
"It's nothing like that. Business is business – we both knew what was going to happen…" Locked on Fexxfield, as though he had enough wherewithal left to recieve the tone, the pleas in her voice screamed for something she knew she might never get.
… What if.
"We will get through this." Determination poisoned by guilt, Amber narrowed her glare to Masque. Everything inside screaming for her to step in… To do something aside from standing by and hearing a very painful truth rear through the paper walls they'd started to build together.
"We'll get through this… You and me." Words said what actions denied as her foot shuffled back, even before she consciously realized she had done it. Distance never seemed so far as her heart ached with every fearful thump.
"... I promise."
Climbing back to her feet, title in plastic hand, Masque considers Amber’s words. “Oh, my Beautiful Hurricane, this is not the test. Not the challenge you will both need to overcome. You are a chapter too early. Let me turn the page for you …”
And then she stepped forwards, heavy golden weight in her hands and intent to use it in her bright blue eyes.
Somewhere in the most base centres of his brain, hardwired from neuron to muscle fibre, something animalistic triggered and Fexxfield climbed up to his feet. Adrenaline burned up the blood that hadn’t made it out from cuts and wounds and he launched forwards. Clamping a hand on the tall woman’s shoulder from behind, he spun her in concert with a fist which crashed into her composite face.
She took a steadying step back, unable to resist inertia … And looked out from a cracked porcelain facsimile.
If he’d been more coherent, Terryl might have registered the pain of a broken hand. Pain was only useful in terms of quantification when it served as a warning, and it was all too obvious even to him that they were beyond the point where a warning did any good to anyone.
“Now!” She chirped, clearly excited, glancing back at Amber. “Now it is time for the next chapter. Now, Mister Fexxfield, it is time to see just how comparable your equivalent love is. You think of her as your first star at night. After all, without her light, you would just be lost in space …”
“I wonder,” She pondered. “Whether that star has any use for you? Such a celestial wonder. Burning. Beautiful – unassailable. After all, what use does anything so wonderful have for something so mundane? The rapture awaits. She will get to heaven with or without you.”
Tossing the Atlantic City Championship down to clatter against the concrete between them, Masque looks up. “I was truthful when I told you I had arrived at exactly the right time. I have come to give you such a wonderful opportunity. All you have to do is leave.”
She gestured towards the door. “Walk out, my Beautiful Hurricane. Walk away. Leave your Gumshoe to me and I will take such care of him.”
Pushing her foot forward to tap the edge of the belt, Masque cocked her head to the side. “It is time to ignore your heart; what has it ever achieved other than self-inflicted misery and failure? Disregard it. Deactivate it. It is time for your head to decide. Embrace the cold, white-water, brutalistic logic flowing through its channels and valleys. Let me finish my great work, and you will be all the more likely to finally have what you truly feel passion for. Something that will beat with all that desired virility and essence …”
“Something you can carry on your shoulder instead of in your chest, something that does just as much work in making you feel alive as that lump of meat thumping against the shadow-side of your ribcage.”
Nodding, she fixed her gaze on the redhead. “It is time to choose.”
Stooped over, knees bent, Fexxfield looked up at Amber. Given a little time and respite, the fog that robbed him of any useful sense lifted and coherent eyes watched. “Wasting … That time …” He managed between grimaces. “She wouldn’t … Have it …”
He straightened up, pushing against his thighs. “ … Any other way.”
Another shuffled foot, automatic as it was devastating. Her whole system in a state of shock and virulent rage – words piercing through the armour she'd maintained like it never existed to begin with.
"It's not a choice at all. Not from where I'm standing. Nothing changes regardless what I choose. Only the manner to which it occurs. Just like nothing that happens tonight changes the way I feel…" Choking slightly on the words, her voice trailed off.
It wasn't a decision as advertised, there was no 'right' or 'wrong' because fate had already made it's play. Decided to intervene – only now they were left with the merciful shreds of what could remain.
Another hesitant step back, heart violently resisting the motion but the head overrode as the glint of gold danced along her fraying synapses.
He promised no matter what.
Might never get another chance.
“Oh …” Masque piqued, stooping down to collect the Championship, angling it in the buzzing light so its face reflected Amber’s in its own. “I think she has already chosen …”
She sat squatting, angling gold as if she could set the redhead on fire with the right refraction angle. Perhaps she already had – something under the skin, at least. The taller woman nodded, her voice dropping to a whisper.
“You have already decided … Embrace the decision. Take another step backwards. Does it feel strange? …”
Bright blue eyes dipped in obvious accompaniment to an invisible smile below. “ … How it gets easier with every inch you move towards that door? Do not stop now.”
And then she spun, spatial awareness such that she somehow – intrinsically – knew Fexxfield had stepped into reach with the intent to deliver a decisive blow. Into a kill zone. His, however, not hers. With the edge of the Atlantic City Championship presented as the curved edge of a blade, she swept the title like a knife across his face and split him temple to forehead.
The Gumshoe frowned, hardly moving in anticipation of another hard plastic fist that never came. Then he blinked. Again. Again and again. Within moments he struggled to keep his eyes open and then his shaking hands came up, desperately trying to clear a way through the red curtain flowing free from the choice wound drawn just under his hairline.
Blood splashed liberally against the concrete floor, soaking the ruts pink.
Circling a blinded Fexxfield, Masque kicked out at the back of his left knee and he folded forward, collapsing down. Casually retrieving a towel from the bench as she stepped forward, she wrapped it around his weeping forehead to stem the floor for a while, using it as a restraint to pull his head back hard.
“Look at her …” Masque whispered, porcelain face pressed up against Terryl’s ear. “Open your fucking eyes.”
He did. And he saw her.
“Watch her choose to leave you behind to me,” She said, and when her eyes moved to the Championship dropped on the floor in front, so did his. Glistening red trails filled the embossments and indentations making up the intricate detail of the title plates and where they met, their combined volume spilled over to run down in trickles.
Tightening the towel in her grip, Fexxfield grimaced, neck compressing against the rest of his spine. “Look at those eyes – they have already decided what she loves. Not who.”
Inaction was a far greater evil than anything that she might do, despite the clench of her fists that had sent everything up to the wrist numb. Nerves screamed to intervene, just in the same way they told her to run. A tug of war between head and heart that no one was destined to win.
"You're lying!" Came the hoarse cry, something she hadn't even felt well in her chest until it trickled from her eye. Yet it didn't stop another jarring step back. "You're wrong. It's not like that at all!"
She wanted to swap places, to offer her own existence as forfeit; however everyone in the room knew that's not what was at stake. Masque had already claimed her prize, splattered across the floor and dangling from her hand.
Hearts pouring out in excess, souls bleeding for reasons yet to be defined.
It wasn't supposed to be this way…
No matter what.
Only now, she wasn't quite as sure if she meant the man or the belt.
Masque pulled away. “The head wins,” She offered Terryl finally, before releasing the towel and shoving him forward. He tried to break his fall with groping hands but slick with blood and sweat, they slipped. Falling face to the cold ground, Fexxfield sprawled on the concrete.
“Now, Mister Fexxfield …” She continued. “Do not be rude. Say goodbye.”
Standing over, she picked up the heel of her shoe and pressed it down into the flesh of his deltoid. His head rocked up, teeth bared, but then he forgot about the point of plastic pressing through bruised muscle. His eyes found purchase through the clotting blood and the half-dozen concussions all concurrently delivered waited a spell patiently, giving him a moment of clarity. He looked at Amber.
And he knew.
She was going to leave him.
Lips flexed, in some strange inversion where action wanted to lead impulse. They expected the brain to conjure up something. Anything. Say something. But there was nothing for them to elucidate.
He saw, he comprehended. The impulse could have been there. It could have been carried out. But in that singular, agonising moment – totally distinct from the brutal physical reality – that clarity delivered the most terrible truth of all.
Sinking to her knees beside his upturned head, Masque dropped onto her chest so she could rest parallel to the Gumshoe. That garish, varnished grin looked at him, then her and stayed there.
“You know …” She mused. “I think he really did love you. Like a storybook …”
She laughed. “Happily ever after.”
Shuddered breaths of realisation racked through the redhead as her foot found the threshold of the door. Waves of cold meeting the violent warmth that radiated from the smouldering embers in her chest.
She loved this man… She loves him with everything she could muster… But it would never be more than the override switch thrown by her head; by a ferocious pride and self loathing that everything she had worked for had to mean something. That she'd give everything to be able to justify her existence…
"I told you I couldn't promise... That I couldn't just put what I am aside.
After everything... In spite of everything."
She couldn't maintain eye contact through the lava flow of tears, the inescapable fissures cracking through her facade – exposing the way that what few fragments of a heart she had left to salvage were crumbling on sight. Words tasted like ash as they tumbled into the void, in hopes of finding something tangible left in their wake…
Love was never supposed to hurt this way.
"I still need you…"
He searched her face – every inch of that beautiful, vitriolic, impassioned, unassailable, inescapable face – for that miracle. Into the pores, through the windows of the soul as if he could see the thought process and their accompanying neurons firing behind. He just needed a miracle. Just one.
Blood gummed everything, making it feel like he was underwater. Maybe he was.
This must be what drowning felt like.
The moment should only have been a moment. Why was it stretching out like this, agonising like it spun minutes into years? His head sank down, fatigue overcoming disbelief and he laid his cheek against the red-slick concrete.
His eyes drooped. He waited for his miracle.
But it wasn’t going to come. Instead, his miracle was going to walk out that door.
God loves a tryer …
No. He doesn’t.
“Close the door, Miss Ryan,” Masque called out. “I do not want to disturb the other competitors.”
Tearing herself away, gripping the edge of the doorway as though willing herself against nature, Amber cast a teary eyed glance back before her deafening footsteps consumed the remainder of the heart she had left in an unforgivable dark. A final act of defiance, a minimal comfort in the face of something she couldn't internally justify.
An act she'd never be able to forgive herself for, for something she might never get the opportunity to attain again.