CM Punk had learned a lot in the past few years. Knowing when to keep his mouth shut was right on the top of that list, and brought with it some distinct advantages.
For one, guys who kept quiet caused fewer waves in the already volatile ECW locker room. He had learned that the hard way his first few months in the company, and he was still living down his loud-mouthed reputation. Plus, the less time you spent mouthing off, the quicker you could sneak out of the arena after the show and get some much-needed private time. And, of course, once you got a reputation for being habitually quiet in meetings, you could drift off for a few minutes without anybody noticing.
Which is exactly what Punk was doing now, slouching in his chair in the back of the room, hat pulled low over his eyes. Vince’s generic words of encouragement for the roster were lulling him right to sleep; in fact, he’d probably be out already if the cramping in his back would stop. Punk shifted in his chair and started fantasizing about a long, hot shower before bed.
And then Matt Sydal stepped into the room.
He flashed Punk a smile as he swept past, bounding up to Vince at the front of the room. Vince clapped him firmly on the shoulder, and Punk started paying attention just in time to hear “…introduce you all to your newest coworker here, a young man I’m sure will—“
“Hi, I’m Matt Sydal!” he blurted out before Vince could finish. The other wrestlers snickered at Vince’s slightly annoyed frown, but Matt kept smiling.
“I was getting to that,” Vince remarked drily.
“Not very quickly,” Matt observed matter-of-factly, as the wrestlers fought to smother their laughter. “Hi, Punk!”
Vince raised his eyebrows. “You two know each other?”
“Well, duh,” Matt laughed. “It’s a Ring of Honor thing.”
“A what of what?”
“We worked a couple indies together,” Punk explained.
“Ah, indies.” Vince nodded in satisfaction. “Well, hopefully you’ll get a chance to work together here as well, on a more…professional level.” Punk’s jaw tightened, but Vince continued. “In the meantime, maybe you can show Matt the ropes, introduce him around, that sort of thing.”
Punk nodded as he watched Matt stick his hand out to Tommy Dreamer. “Hi, I’m Matt Sydal. We should be friends. What’s your favorite color popsicle?”
So much for private time.
“Give it up, guys. Where is it?” Punk demanded, planting his hands on his hips and inwardly wincing at the whining note in his own voice.
“Where’s what?” Shelton Benjamin drawled, grinning at the muffled snorts of his coworkers.
“THIS ISN’T FUCKING—“ Punk cut himself off, running his fingers through his hair as he forced himself to take a few slow breaths. “This isn’t funny,” he continued more quietly. “I’m onscreen in 10 minutes, and I need the briefcase. Whoever has it, give it back.”
More laughter, which didn’t bode well. Ever since winning the Money in the Bank title shot, the accompanying briefcase had become a target for cheap wrestling ribs. Originally, the case had been locked, but a carton of broken, rotting eggs had still found their way inside within the first week. Since then, the case had been stuffed with increasingly revolting or obnoxious items. The dozen bricks had been particularly difficult to lug around, the industrial strength electromagnet that kept the case seemingly glued to the ringpost had won points for originality, but the handful of used condoms had provoked Punk’s first full-fledged backstage tantrum, a diatribe the boys still jokingly imitated over drinks.
Punk had tried bringing it to Vince’s attention, but Vince just chuckled and waved off the incidents as high-spirited antics. The rush of pranks that immediately followed convinced Punk to keep his mouth shut, no matter how disgusting his briefcase became. Entirely missing, however, was another matter altogether.
“Look,” Punk bargained, looking at each wrestler in turn. “I don’t care who has it. I’m not mad about it. I don’t even care what’s inside it. I just don’t want to catch heat for not bringing it out to the ring. So give it to me now, let me wave it around out there, and I’ll give it right back to you when I’m done. Deal?”
“Absolutely,” Matt Sydal agreed cheerfully. “Um…what were we talking about again?”
Punk closed his eyes, letting his anger simmer. Matt had been all over the locker room the last few weeks, chattering inanely about anything and everything. His ability to make friends would’ve been enviable if it hadn’t been so damn annoying to Punk. In this case, though, it might prove useful. Punk’s eyes snapped open, focusing hard on Matt. “Have you seen my briefcase?”
“Of course,” Matt nodded, eyes wide. “You carry it everywhere.”
“THAT’S NOT WHAT I—have you seen anybody else messing with it?”
“Oh.” Matt fidgeted, and Punk almost regretted snapping at him. “You mean, like, another wrestler?”
“Messing with your briefcase? The Money in the Bank one?”
“Have I seen it?”
Matt’s eyes slanted to one side, biting his bottom lip as he thought. “No,” he finally decided.
“DAMN IT, MATT!”
“Hey, chill,” Stevie Richards interrupted, standing up and stretching. “I don’t know where it is, but we’ll all look for it, OK? Come on, guys.”
The wrestlers grumbled, but dutifully got up and started searching under chairs and in bathrooms. Matt hesitated a few seconds, then dashed outside, returning moments later with the briefcase in hand. “Found it!”
Punk seriously considered grabbing the case and smashing the side of Matt’s head with it, but its unexpected heft when he grabbed it made him think twice. “Matt! Why did you tell me you didn’t know where it was?”
Matt frowned in confusion. “You asked if I saw anybody else messing with it, and I hadn’t. Just me.”
“What did you put in here?” Punk demanded apprehensively , hearing the rattle as the case moved.
“Nothing bad, just tapes.”
“Yeah, you seemed stressed out lately. I thought maybe we could hang out together sometime and talk. I had some old wrestling tapes from Japan I thought you might like. It was kind of a surprise. I had to dump out some of your other stuff to fit them in, though. You should really clean that thing more often.”
Caught between laughing and screaming, Punk settled for staring blankly until Matt patted him on the shoulder. “Well, have a good match, and give me a call when you want to come over, OK? Later!” Matt bounced out of the room without looking back.
If Matt had noticed that Punk had not, in fact, given him a call, it didn’t seem to bother him. Punk leaned his forehead against the inside of his hotel room door as Matt knocked briskly again, staring hopefully at the peephole.
The door rattled against its security chain as Punk impulsively yanked it open. “What now, Matt?”
“Good, you’re awake. Can I come in?”
“Sorry, man, I’m real sore tonight and I just want—“
“I brought Dragon Gate,” Matt offered, pulling a DVD case out of a bag and sliding it through the partially opened door to Punk. “And, um, some old AWA stuff, if you like that, and some brownies. But you’re gonna have to open the door to get that.”
Punk slid the chain off against his better judgment, and Matt quickly squeezed past him. “Thanks. I didn’t want to get caught half-naked with old Harley Race tapes out here. That’s always embarrassing.”
“Does it happen often?” Punk laughed, taking in Matt’s tight white t-shirt and baby blue pajama pants and feeling slightly more comfortable in his own boxers.
“It’s a long story,” Matt sighed, seating himself in the middle of Punk’s bed and starting to unpack his bag. “So what do you want to watch first?”
Three hours later, they were on their second video and Punk had given up counting brownies. “Where did you get these, anyway?” he asked between mouthfuls.
“The tapes? Some promoter tried to rip me off, so I stole a whole bunch of New Japan stuff from his gimmick table. I got an awesome t-shirt and a hot dog, too.”
“I…you stole it?”
“It was a really good hot dog,” Matt deadpanned.
Punk laughed and shook his head. “I meant the brownies anyway.”
“Oh. I stole those from Stevie Richards. I think some girl made them.”
Punk chewed thoughtfully. “You seem to have a habit of stealing things.”
“Yeah, but only things I really, really want. Hey, this match sucks.”
“Yeah, it does. What else did you bring?”
“Let’s see...” Matt rummaged through the scattered tapes. “Some AAA, some All Japan, some porn, some FIP, some—“
“Did you just say porn?” Punk blinked.
“Yeah.” Matt bit his lip. “I didn’t know if you’d be into that, so I didn’t want to offer, but I brought it.”
“I’m going to regret asking this,” Punk sighed, cringing in advance, “but it’s not Harley Race porn, is it?”
Matt laughed, ducking under a pillow. “No way, that’s gross, dude.” Gasping for breath, he added, “It’s Raven porn.”
“Holy fuck, man, that’s even worse!” Punk shouted, smacking him with a nearby pillow. “Why would you make me picture Naked Raven?!”
“Well, we were working together once,” Matt explained, “and he went through my bag and was teasing me because I didn’t have any porn and apparently wrestlers are supposed to carry that. I just had a bunch of, you know—“
“Harley Race tapes?” Punk supplied.
“Yeah, exactly,” Matt smiled. “So I stole a bunch of Raven’s porn, but I don’t know what’s on it. I tried to watch one, but I got scared.”
“Wow,” Punk exhaled, deeply relieved. “I thought you meant porn of Raven, not porn belonging to Raven. Although I’m sure they’re both horrific.”
“Ewww!” Matt squealed. “Why would you even think that?”
Punk shrugged. “I tend to assume the worst.”
“You do,” Matt agreed, suddenly serious. “That’s why I thought you might need some wrestling and chocolate. You seem depressed.”
“I’m not depressed,” Punk contradicted. “I’m in the middle of a title shot push in the biggest wrestling company in America. Why would I be depressed?”
Matt stared at him silently.
“Look, maybe I’m a little stressed out because of the travel,” Punk admitted grudgingly. “But I was never the social butterfly you are. I’m fine. I promise.”
Matt dropped his eyes to the bedspread, then grabbed a DVD and looked up. “Do you mind if I show you something?”
“As long as it’s not Raven porn, go ahead.”
Matt slid the disc in, and Punk huffed impatiently as the title screen appeared. “This is my ‘Best of’ compilation for ROH. I know all this stuff, Matt. I was there.”
Matt ignored him, eyes glued to the screen as the first promo started.
An hour later, he paused the tape. “So what happened?”
“Well, I got a better fucking haircut, for one,” Punk started, arms crossed over his chest.
“That’s not what I mean. Why don’t you wrestle like that anymore? Why don’t you sound like that anymore?”
“Because I grew up,” Punk stated sharply. “Matt, I know you don’t like to hear it, but a lot of those highspots were just dumb as shit. They looked choreographed, they looked sloppy, and they nearly crippled me every night. And the promos…OK, I miss doing the promos. But TV time is valuable, and we just don’t have a spot for ten minute segments for me to get my character over. Plus, we’re trying to appeal to a wider audience, there are kids out there, and—“
“Bullshit,” Matt spat out, blinking a little at his own vulgarity.
“That’s bullshit,” Matt pressed. “ It was never about your moveset. You used different moves every night, and it never mattered. And you never needed the promo time. ROH didn’t even do a lot of promos, but you got your character over by the way you acted, the way you carried yourself. You don’t do that anymore.”
“Like I said, I have to try to appeal to a wider group of people now. Not just hardcore superfans like ROH had.”
“Who? Who are you appealing to now?” Matt demanded. “Give me one defining characteristic you’re trying to show, because trying to appeal to everyone all at once just makes you the most generic babyface in history.”
“Matt, I’m too tired to talk about this tonight.”
“But I don’t understand. When did this stop being fun for you?”
“Oh, grow the fuck up, Matt!” Punk snapped, his voice rising despite himself. “It’s not supposed to be fun, it’s a fucking job. And sometimes it’s hard, but that’s why we get paid. And maybe you’re too fucking idealistic to understand that, but—“
“Yeah, maybe I am,” Matt cut him off, sliding off the bed and pulling on his shoes. “I need to get some sleep.”
“Yeah,” Punk agreed, fists clenching in frustration. “Let me help you get your tapes—“
Matt shook his head as he headed for the door. “Keep ‘em. Trust me, Punk, you need them more than I do.”
The ring shook as Punk hit the mat hard, landing flat on his back. The ring crew and other WWE employees milling around barely glanced up, accustomed to the sounds of wrestlers drilling moves before the show. Stevie Richards had been out there practicing with Punk earlier, but he had already hit the showers, leaving Punk to try to figure out a method of taking back bumps that didn’t further aggravate his back.
“You’re practicing?” a voice interrupted, and Punk sat up to see Matt Sydal climb into the ring. “I thought you had the WWE style down pat already.”
Punk snorted. “Yeah, but then I saw I was fighting you tonight, and figured I’d have my work cut out for me carrying your rookie ass to a decent match.”
Matt laughed, tossing him a towel. “I guess Vince wanted to see what we could do. On a more…professional level, I mean.”
“I’ll walk you through it,” Punk offered, wiping his face on the towel and tossing it aside. “But I gotta warn you, WWE style is pretty complicated. I mean, we’re talking about pretty athletic moves here. Like, you know, the legdrop. Or the People’s Elbow.”
“Sounds tough, but I’ll give it a shot,” Matt said, launching himself into a flying headscissors as soon as Punk stood up. “Athletic like that?”
“I was thinking more like a headlock,” Punk told him, getting back to his feet.
“Yeah, we could do that. Or we could do something like this.” Matt took two steps forward, jumping into a huricanrana immediately followed by a standing moonsault. “Hey, that was pretty cool. Can we start with that?”
“Well, let’s see. We’ll have about seven minutes total, so taking away two for intros, three for headlocks, and two for punching and kicking…I don’t think we’re going to have time for any other moves.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Matt teased. “I think you just know you can’t keep up with me anymore.”
“I can’t?” Punk asked, eyebrows rising at the challenge.
Matt grinned as he hit the ropes, ducking under Punk’s leapfrog as he rushed forward. They wrestled hard for the next fifteen minutes, only pausing to help each other work out the mechanics of moves they had watched on the tapes from Japan.
“Gorgeous,” Matt noted as Punk connected with a picture-perfect shining wizard. “And don’t look now, but we’ve got an audience,” he added under his breath.
Punk tossed his sweaty hair away from his eyes, spotting HHH glaring at him from across the arena, where he was standing with Stephanie and a few of the writers. “Let’s see how he likes the finish,” Punk laughed, leading Matt to a corner of the ring.
“You wouldn’t dare,” Matt said, eyes sparkling.
Punk just smiled back, settling up and executing a quick Pepsi Plunge, the top-rope Pedigree sending shockwaves up his knees. He pinned Matt for a silent three count , then flopped onto his back. Both men smiled as they panted for air, waiting for their heart rates to slow.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” Matt finally stated.
Punk glanced across the arena, but HHH had disappeared. Rolling over onto his stomach, he planted a quick kiss on Matt’s lips. “Yeah, but I really, really wanted to.” Getting up quickly, he pulled Matt to his feet before turning and heading for the back.
“What the fuck was that supposed to be?” Triple H demanded, shoving the door to the general locker room open.
Punk looked up from taping his wrists. The room was almost completely abandoned, with most wrestlers choosing either to visit with friends or watch the show from behind the curtain. The few remaining stragglers beat a hasty retreat as Hunter stomped over to Punk.
“That indy wrestling bullshit before the show. That Pedigree.”
Punk grinned despite himself, leaning back in his chair. “It wasn’t a Pedigree. I called it the Pepsi Plunge in Ring of Honor, and—“
“I don’t care what backyard fed you invented it in, I just don’t want to see it in a WWE ring again. You’ll snap somebody’s neck doing that.”
Punk’s eyes narrowed. “You can say what you want about me in the ring, but I’m not dangerous out there. I know what I can do, I know what Matt can do, and—“
“And what you both can do is meaningless indy highspots,” Hunter sneered. “Look, I really don’t care if you two kill each other doing 850 degree somersault half-pike planchas from the rafters. But I’m telling you, you pull that shit in my show, and you’ll be back in Ring of Whatever by the end of the night.”
Punk stood slowly, going face to face for several tense seconds. A knock on the door broke the silence.
“You’re on in five,” the stagehand informed Punk, flashing him a thumbs-up before disappearing down the hall.
“Better get out there,” Hunter suggested, smiling tightly. “Here in the big leagues, we try to stick to the time cues.”
“Fuck off,” Punk growled, slamming the door behind him before Hunter could respond.
If Matt had been energetic earlier in the night, he was practically vibrating now as the ref simulated running down the rules. “You’re the vet,” Matt pointed out brightly, his back carefully turned to the camera. “You call it.”
Punk hesitated as they locked up, so Matt broke away, posing for the crowd and giving Punk time to think. “Call it,” he repeated softly as he returned to the lockup.
“Headlock,” Punk finally grunted, slipping behind Matt and cinching in the move.
“You’re insane,” Matt giggled as he pretended to struggle, finally opting for a jawbreaker to escape. Punk bumped onto his back and Matt leapt to the top rope in one fluid motion.
“No!” Punk yelled as Matt prepared to jump. Matt froze awkwardly, and Punk scrambled to shake the ropes, crotching Matt and bringing him back to the floor.
Punk landed a few heavy, slow kicks as Matt worked his way up, and the first smattering of boos sounded throughout the arena. Matt grabbed another lockup, bringing their heads close together as he asked, “What are you doing?”
“I’m the vet,” Punk reminded him, floating over into another headlock. “And I’m not letting you get fired for highspotting your first month here.”
Matt’s blue eyes went wide. “But before the show—“
“That was fun, but this is work,” Punk insisted, dragging Matt down to the canvas. “Let’s just get through this,” he added, bracing himself to wrestle the worst match of his career.
Punk had always considered himself lucky to have a circle of friends who he could count on for total honesty. Unfortunately, that honesty wasn’t always easy to hear.
“Dude,” Samoa Joe’s voice crackled over his phone speaker as he sighed heavily. “That sucked. Call me.”
Colt Cabana was only slightly more diplomatic on the next voicemail. “So…I was just wondering if anything was up, you know…anything you’d like to talk about. Or maybe you’re sick. Are you sick? You looked kind of sick out there…”
Punk skipped to the next message. “Yo, you know what you look like out there?” Homicide demanded. “You look like a retarded monkey trying to fingerpaint with—“
Punk snapped the phone shut, tossing it onto the dresser and collapsing onto his bed. He closed his eyes and focused on taking deep breaths to combat the ache in the pit of his stomach, and wound up falling asleep between one breath and the next.
His eyes snapped open when he felt a tug on his left foot. Matt glanced up nervously at him, Punk’s shoe dangling from his hand. “Sorry,” he offered quietly. “Wasn’t trying to wake you up, but you looked kind of uncomfortable. It was open,” he added, gesturing vaguely to the door.
“Yeah, I know. I thought you might want to stop by,” Punk said, sitting up and scooting back against the headboard.
“If you’re too tired to talk, it’s OK. I just wanted to make sure you were doing all right.”
“That was the worst match I’ve had in years.”
“Oh, I’m sure you’ve had worse,” Matt suggested helpfully, then ducked his head. “Not that you usually have bad matches or anything. You know what I mean.”
Punk frowned, looking away. “Are you OK?”
“Yeah, I’m good. I tried to find you after the match, but you disappeared real quick. I thought maybe you were mad at me. And then Vince wanted to talk.”
“What did he have to say?”
“He said he liked it. He said I looked nervous, but at least I didn’t panic and start doing dives.” Matt smiled. “For such a smart guy, he’s really dumb sometimes.”
Punk grunted in acknowledgement, then climbed out of bed, wandering into the bathroom to get a glass of water. When he returned, Matt was seated on the edge of the mattress, waiting expectantly. “So I’m sorry I fucked up your match. Is that what you want to hear?”
Matt shrugged, smoothing down a wrinkle in the comforter. “Did I do something wrong?”
“Yeah, actually, you did.” Punk drained his water, setting the glass down firmly. “I don’t know if you didn’t believe me or if you’re just not getting this or what, but this is not Ring of Honor. There’s tradition here, and there’s a power structure here, and there’s a certain match style here, and you’re fucking it all up.” Matt stared at him calmly, so he continued. “Yeah, the match tonight sucked, but at least it was the right style. You can either learn to work with that, or you can piss Vince and Hunter and everybody else back there off.”
“And that would be bad?”
“Yes, that would be fucking bad!” Punk snapped as he dropped down next to Matt. “I like you, OK? I don’t know why, but I like you. And I don’t want you to politic yourself out of a chance at a real career.”
“Punk…” Matt reached out, grabbing Punk’s hand. “I know how the WWE works, OK? I know I’m too small for Vince to take me seriously. I know I don’t work the right style. But man, there’s a million big, slow, dumb guys dying for a shot to be on TV, and they’re not here, but I am. And I could waste my time here pretending to be one of them, or I could try to do things my way. And yeah, maybe I’ll fuck it up and go back to the indies, but at least I brought something new to the table while I was here.”
Punk swallowed, his eyes focused on a dark stain in the carpet. “I don’t want you to go,” he finally admitted.
Matt stared hard at him before leaning forward and pressing a kiss to the side of his mouth. Punk jerked away hard, taking a step away from the bed. “That’s a really bad idea.”
Matt laughed, getting up and stepping towards Punk, backing him against the dresser. “I am full of really bad ideas,” he said, pressing his hips against Punk’s for emphasis. “Really, really bad ones.”
Punk moaned as Matt’s lips found their way to the side of his neck, then jumped as teeth scraped against his earlobe. “That’s it,” he decided, shoving Matt backwards hard. Matt hit the bed, falling onto his back with a yelp and a laugh. His giggles degenerated into breathy pants as Punk descended on top of him, kissing him hard.
Matt tugged at the back of his shirt, and Punk sat back on his knees, peeling it off and tossing it to the floor as Matt ditched his own. “You’re a tease, you know that?” Punk accused as Matt’s hand shot out, reaching for his zipper.
“I am not!” Matt insisted, wide-eyed and innocent even as he pushed Punk’s jeans and boxers down off his hips. “I was just waiting for you to stop making excuses and start doing stuff.”
“What kind of stuff?” Punk taunted, sliding one hand slowly down Matt’s muscular torso and into his jeans.
Matt’s hips jerked upward, and he squealed softly as Punk’s hand wrapped around his growing erection. “That feels like a good start to me,” he stated enthusiastically, leaning up for another deep kiss.
Punk groaned as his alarm clock rang the next morning. Sticking his arm out from the pile of blankets lying on top of him, he fumbled for the clock and wound up knocking it off the bedside table. Swearing vehemently, he sat up, noticing for the first time that he was alone in the room.
“Matt?” he called, but nobody answered.
The insistent ringing distracted him momentarily, and he jerked the clock’s power cord out of the wall before realizing that the sound was coming from his phone. “Hello?” he answered, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes as he stumbled out of bed to look for Matt.
“Ah, CM,” Vince’s voice boomed cheerfully over the line, and Punk winced. “I didn’t wake you, I trust.”
Punk mumbled something indecipherable as he wandered into the bathroom, immediately spotting the scribbled note lying by the sink.
“Excellent,” Vince continued. “I just wanted to tell you how much I was looking forward to your performance tonight. I talked to Mr. Sydal after your match last night, and he told me how much interest you were taking in helping him mature his in-ring style, giving it a chance to develop among more…conventional lines. It’s very generous of you, and I want you to know that your extra effort is appreciated by the office.”
Punk frowned in confusion. “Yeah, well…I mean, he’s already a good wrestler, and—“
“Of course, and your input is sure to help him make the transition to the WWE style. In fact, he seemed so influenced by your good example that I’ve decided to have you work an extended program with him.”
Punk swallowed hard, skimming the brief note Matt had left him. “Sorry, gotta get to the gym early. Big match tonight! Love ya, Matt.” “A program?” he echoed to Vince.
“Exactly, starting tonight. In fact, Matt was raving about a new finishing move you had been working on?”
“Don’t be shy, my friend. Something about a…Pepsi Bomb, was that it?”
“Pepsi Plunge,” Punk murmured, breaking into a grin.
“Yes, well, we’ll have to change the name, copyright reasons and all, but I look forward to seeing it.”
Punk bit his lower lip, staring down at Matt’s signature on the note before making a snap decision. “You’ll definitely see it tonight, Vince. In fact, you’re going to see a lot of things tonight that you’ve never seen before.”
“That’s the kind of enthusiasm I like to hear!”
Punk left the bathroom and moved over to the television, rummaging through the Japanese DVDs that Matt had left him. “I appreciate that, Vince, but if you don’t mind, I’ve got some film I need to go through before the match, so…”
“I completely understand,” Vince assured him. “I’ll see you tonight.”
“You absolutely will.”