Every match seemed to add another layer of crackle to his knees. Every night, the walk to the locker room became so much longer than the walk to the ring.
Even now, after a match that, while hard - hitting and brutally fought, was not even in the top ten of the most difficult nights he'd had in his long career, Eli Flair felt far older than thirty five.
The King of Extreme was lying back on one of the locker room benches, his eyes shut, his breathing slow and regular. Both his feet were on the floor, the laces of his combat boots undone almost all the way down.
"Hey, me and Rudy are still waiting for you - Zieba's is staying open late for the party."
He knew it was her before she spoke.
"I'm gonna be a while, kiddo," he said, "you'd be better off going with Rudy."
He knew she would sit down on the other bench.
"You feel okay?" she asked, "You took a pretty rough tumble from the first ring."
And he knew the other wrestlers still in the locker room would be divided into two camps - those who suddenly became self conscious that Ivy was sitting down, and those who were used to Ivy not caring where she went or what kind of sights may be seen.
"Yeah, I'm fine," replied Eli, as he spun around to sit up, facing her, "just hangin' onto the last night in the CSWA."
"OK about the way things went down?"
"Course," said Eli, "Everything built perfectly, and I was still at ringside for the three. And we got the belt off'a the man. Can't be any happier about it."
"You say 'we' like either of us had so much to do with it," laughed Ivy.
A smirk formed on the side of Eli's face. "The collective 'we,' wiseass. Troy's damned good, but he's just another megastar without appreciation for the people who paved his way and the work that went into gettin' there. Every time I thought he'd learned, he never did."
Ivy shrugged. "You're surprised, though?"
"So what happens now?"
"You know better than me. You're staying on the ship."
"Don't mention ships."
Marvin was still missing, after all.
"Legends only get bigger when you're in the business," continued Eli, taking a different route, "the CSWA survived for a good seven years before we showed up, and it'll survive another nineteen after I'm gone."
"You haven't heard the rumors, then?"
"You listen to rumors?"
"No, but I hear 'em."
"This is the CSWA, Ivy - you know what that means."
Ivy stood up and smiled. "Doc's bingo hall, Bateman in the john, CSWA on the banner, at least half of us'll show up."
"That's my girl."
"Seriously, hurry up - I'll be enjoying my god**mn stupid club soda and a twist of lime, you'll have to drink for three."
Eli nodded. Ivy was barely showing - her abs were too tough for the kid to make much of a dent yet. Besides which, he had no idea how big she was supposed to be. When Angel was pregnant she barely gained any weight, but she was smaller and less defined than Ivy - certainly not with her muscle tone.
He finally pulled his boots off and started to collect what he'd need for his post-show shower and unassuming exit from the building. A handful of wrestlers who were just finishing, themselves, wished him well on their own way out past Ivy.
"I was never that young," said the Psycho B'tch, as if on cue.
"No," replied Eli, "you were younger."
For the first time, Ivy recognized and accepted the look in his eyes: he was finished with this locker room.
He said it after dropping the fWo World Title to Deacon, he had been saying it all the way through the Ultratitle, even after exiling Troy from New Frontier Wrestling, but here, where it all began, she could tell he meant it.
"Take your time," said Ivy, "me 'n Rudy'll wait."
She turned toward the door and began to walk through--
--and turned back at the sound of her name.
"We did good."
Ivy smiled. "F'k yeah we did.
As the door closed, Eli looked around the locker room. He was completely alone now, and the silence was only broken by the dripping water from the shower area and the television, perpetually tuned to U-62, mounted in the corner.
And the locker, the same one he had used for nearly every match he'd wrestled at the Merritt (as it would forever be known to the boys) Auditorium, nearly empty as he had dropped most of his stuff in his bag after the matches. Everything was off the top shelf except for a black permanent marker.
He thought about it for a second.
"What the hell."
Some of the best times
I had in this business
were in this arena.