(Again, a huge thank you to panthology and her mad skillz for this graphic!)
Features: Undertaker (Mark Calaway)
Rating: NC17 for language and sexual situations
Usual disclaimer - own nothing but my original characters, all the other people own themselves, WWE owns the trademark names, I'm doing this to exercise my creativity and for the sheer pleasure of writing. Ask my therapist!
Yes, another chapter - call it a New Year's present! Hoping to have more time to write this year, and therefore have more to post - we shall see how that goes.
Thanks for reading and remember - feedback is always appreciated. I'm writing for the love of it, but it's always nice to hear the opinions of others.
And since it has been such a long time between updates, and to save you trolling back through the archives (although I have helpfully tagged all the chapters!), you'll find links to all the earlier chapters here.
Harley's morning had been busy. Once she and Mark had arrived at the arena, she'd gone straight to work with Bob Threadgood.
They'd caught up on what had been happening during the last ten days with both crews. Bob was pleased with the progress the second crew had made for the PPV, and how Harley had managed them.
The house shows that night and the following one were being held in the secondary part of the arena. So half of the now-combined crews were busy setting up the lighting and entrance stage for that.
The rest of the crew, including Harley's inferno match team, were working on finalising the set build for the PPV in the main arena. The task that morning was to get the overhead lighting in place so that Mark and Glenn would have uninterrupted access to the ring for the afternoon's live flame rehearsal.
Harley and Mark met for lunch, where they were joined by Glenn, who'd flown in that morning.
From there, they'd moved into the main arena, to begin a walk-through of their match plan.
As long as they'd known one another, and been working together, it had been fairly easy for Mark and Glenn to visualize the way they wanted the match to go. And because of that familiarity, they'd developed a kind of verbal shorthand to describe to one another what they were envisaging.
When explaining their plans to the writers and announce team, so that they were cued for commentary, they used the same language, because those people were likewise very familiar with the business and with Mark and Glenn's move sets.
Now, stepping through the match for Harley before the first rehearsal, they were both well aware they needed to explain themselves in much more detail. Because, despite her talks with Jeff, Harley was still very much a novice at wrestling.
The stage director was there to suggest when the flame effects could be best utilized, and Harley worked with him, making notes as they went. At his suggestion, she noted the moves down in one column, and opposite them indicated possible timing points and effects.
The first rehearsal consisted of Mark and Glenn demonstrating the planned flow of moves, mostly for Harley's benefit, so she could see what each one looked like. Knowing when either man would be upright or on the mat, against the ropes or turnbuckles, helped her suggest possible flame effects, and to know how safe they would be.
Of course, surrounding the entire ring with continuous flames barely a foot from the men meant that "safe" was a relative term at best.
Still, both Glenn and Mark, in particular, were at pains to demonstrate an awareness of the flames at all times, even suggesting times when they should be at their absolute minimum when a move or moves would bring them in too close a proximity.
But an inferno match was mostly about creating moments of suspense, when the audience might suspect or fear one of them would come in contact with the flames. Harley liked that part of it the least, but she had to admit that while Mark and Glenn knew what moves would create that suspense, they kept each other's safety in mind at all times.
It still didn't stop chills running along Harley's spine as Glenn demonstrated a move that had him back Mark into the ropes and force him to lean backwards with a hand at his throat, suggesting that the flames should leap a little at that point to come close to Mark's hair as it hung downwards.
The stage director's casual mention then of the flame retardant that Mark would of course have applied to his hair prior to the match did little to allay her fears.
Once they had the match blocked out, as Harley was informed this stage was called, the next step was for Mark and Glenn to run through it at more like the speed they expected to go during the PPV.
That would allow Harley and the stage director to add approximate timing marks to their run sheets, and Harley in particular to get a feel for how much time she'd get for the various flame effects.
Which to her almost alarm was very little. For big men, Mark and Glenn moved very quickly in the ring, and likely would be even quicker with the adrenaline of a live event driving them.
That told her that they'd definitely need more rehearsals if she had the proverbial snowflake's chance in hell of getting it right on the night.
Once Mark and Glenn had hit the double clothesline that would bring the match to its fiery conclusion, Harley made a final note on her clipboard and turned to the stage director.
"I need a minute."
Without waiting for a response, she set the clipboard down on the announce table and walked away.
Which was what Mark saw as he sat up in the ring. He frowned.
Glenn, sitting up opposite him, raised his eyebrows at the frown. The run through had gone pretty much perfectly. He followed Mark's gaze and saw Harley standing up near the entrance stage, her back to the ring. Uh oh, he thought to himself.
Mark got to his feet, climbed through the ropes and out of the ring, and approached Harley.
Quietly, he asked, "Everything okay, Kate?"
She didn't answer right away. Long moments ticked by as he waited, until she finally spoke, without turning around.
"That's pretty damned scary, Mark."
As well it would be, the first time you came up against it, he thought, even without the complicating factor of their developing relationship.
"What can I do to help?" was his immediate question.
Harley turned to face him with a small smile. "Just makin' that offer is a good start, Mark." Her smile faltered as she looked at the ring, and she whispered, "Other than that, I don't know."
He opened his arms to her. There was a moment he thought she'd refuse, but then she was in them, hugging him close, her face buried in his chest.
He held her, hands stroking over her back. This was just reaction, he realized. She needed the release of it before she could focus on moving forward.
Sure enough, it wasn't long before she patted his chest and stepped back from him a little. His hands moved to her shoulders, and he looked into her face.
She took a deep breath, and then another, before nodding. "Okay."
He nodded back. "Good. What now?"
She looked thoughtful. "Immediate reaction? That match is gonna be damned fast, which means it'll be tough for me to fit in all the flame effects, let alone make sure you guys are safe."
He considered this. "There's not much we can do about the match pace, Kate. That's how Glenn and I have always worked together and that's what the fans expect of us. Plus, being as how this is the main event, we slow it down any and it's gonna ruin the whole card."
She nodded. "And I like that it's going to be last match. For one, we don't have the hassle of breaking down the rig while it's hot."
That had been a concern of the fire marshalls, and she'd agreed with them. They'd given the match preliminary approval on the proviso that wasn't attempted. Which the company agreed with - logistics aside, it was hard to top the spectacle of an inferno match, so it was a good one on which to end the PPV.
"So, since we can't do anything about match pace, how about we look at scaling back on the flame effects?"
She blinked at him in surprise. "Can we do that?"
He shrugged. "They're flashy and they do kinda make the match but it's been my experience they're overdone sometimes." He paused. "It'd be like you cramming every firework ever made into a display, Kate. Sure, it'd be a helluva spectacle, but no-one would be able to appreciate any of the individual ones. Like those gold ones - they wouldn't pop against all the others."
It took her a moment to realize he was talking about the new shells she'd used in Texas at the last PPV. The fact that he remembered that conversation made her smile, and she nodded.
"So perhaps if we think of a way to make the flame effects really pop - not just the size of the flame, but when they happen . . ." she said slowly.
"Exactly. I'd rather have one that really makes an impact than ten that just take away from the stuff Glenn and I are doing."
"I'm sorry, Mark," she said quietly. "I feel like I'm ruining your match for you."
"Aw hell, sweetheart, that ain't true!" he insisted.
She looked up at him. "Mark, if Bob were running the board for this match, you wouldn't be trying to work out what effects you could do without because he was too slow to fit them in."
He couldn't argue with that, unfortunately. He simply shrugged. "True. But I still trust your instincts on creating a great visual spectacle, Kate. I'll take that any day."
There he went again, she thought helplessly. No Lost Boy denials, just the truth. It made it damn near impossible to argue with him.
"Just hope I can live up to your expectations, Mark."
He put his arm around her shoulders, giving her a quick squeeze. "Hasn't been a problem so far, Kate. Come on, let's see what we can do with this thing."
She leaned into him for a moment, liking that he'd said, "we".
They went back down to the ring together, and Harley collected her clipboard. On second reading, particularly with the timing points courtesy of her wristwatch, it seemed even more impossible than before, and her shoulders slumped.
The stage director, unaware of the topic of Harley's conversation with Mark, and referring to his own clipboard notations, said matter-of-factly, "Right, so that's the wish list. Let's see what's actually possible."
Mark patted Harley's shoulder as he looked at her clipboard. "Gotta say, that does look like overkill to me."
Glenn was more blunt, casting his eyes over the stage director's notes. "Jeez, you guys trying to cook us or something?"
That provoked laughter, and they got down to paring back the effects. Harley was half a step behind whenever they suggested a move to include or exclude for an effect, and Mark sat with her, pointing them out when they were mentioned.
When she couldn't remember the specifics, he and Glenn either explained or demonstrated, which was enough to remind her of what she'd seen in the ring. And as they went over the match again, she started to see it in her head and felt more confident in making suggestions.
As Mark believed, she did have a knack for visual spectacle, and combining that with his and Glenn's instincts for what created match pace and suspense, they eventually came up with a match plan they were happy with.
More importantly, they had something Harley felt confident with, both from a safety perspective and the technical feasibility aspects. She'd discovered a certain amount of lag in the motherboard while working with it in the preceeding week, and even without her inexperience, that limited how many effects could be achieved in a given time.
They did one more run-through to check timing points, with Harley again using the stopwatch function on her watch to nail it down more closely, and then they were ready for the first live fire attempt.
Trying to ignore the shrill voice of panic at lighting the ring up around two men she cared about, Harley donned her headset and conducted the stations checks with her crew, while the stage director provided the additional commentary that would no doubt be coming from backstage.
She was aware of the propensity for a certain amount of what was called "production" but was in fact micro-managing and back seat driving by one particular company executive, but she'd already told Bob Threadgood categorically that she intended to ignore every single word this individual might say on the night.
Inferno matches were rigorously scripted and highly rehearsed for a reason, and in this instance, there were strict conditions to their performance that the company had to agree with the fire marshalls, one of whom would be present during the final rehearsals and on the night.
The Florida officials had already made it clear that any deviation from what had been agreed, unless it was an emergency situation, would result in a hefty fine for the company, and for Harley as the official in charge.
Harley did not intend to be paying one red cent because the company's chairman got his blood up during the PPV and decided to do something stupid, no matter how exciting the idea might be to him.
Bob assured her that he'd have her back in that event, and had made a point of advising the company repeatedly of the strict conditions under which this match was being staged.
There was a brief delay while Mark sat semi-patiently and had flame-retardant gel applied to his hair. While at the moment it was tied back in a ponytail, it was still going to be in closer proximity to the flames than Harley was entirely comfortable with, so the precaution was necessary.
That done, taking a deep breath, Harley switched on the gas and gave Mark and Glenn a nod. They took their time approaching the ring and climbing through the ropes. They needed to rehearse that part as well, because the fire marshalls were going to insist on seeing how the performers were around the rig even before it was lit.
Once they were in the ring, in opposite corners, the stage director explained to Harley there would be the introductions and match run down by the ring announcer.
She sat poised with her hands at the controls as he now gave a version of that, and once he announced that it would be an inferno match, she hit the switch and flame immediately licked along the the four sides of the ring, following the flow of the gas as the rig ignited, and the moment she was sure it was fully alight, she turned the dials up to around half-full, sending the flames up some three feet.
Which looked awesome, she had to admit, with Mark and Glenn staring one another down in the ring.
She damped the flames a moment later, and they began the match run-through.
It didn't go too badly for a first attempt. The timing was off on some of the effects, but they all knew that could be improved with further rehearsal.
With the rig turned off and made safe, they discussed it. Now they'd seen the rig in use with the action, it was clearer what height the flames should be without obscuring the action too much.
Harley scrawled notes on her clipboard, noting board settings to try on the next rehearsal for the varied flame heights and effects.
They agreed to call a halt for the day and get together the next morning for another live flame rehearsal. Harley tasked her crew with disassembling the ring once it cooled, so they could practice again with the set up before the fire marshall's visit the next afternoon.
Glenn asked Mark and Harley if they'd like to join him for dinner, and after another of those wordless exchanges that said plenty, Mark accepted his invitation for both of them. They agreed to meet in the hotel lobby later.
Arriving back at the hotel, Mark and Harley went upstairs to her suite. She'd been quiet on the drive back, and Mark regarded her thoughtfully as she closed the door.
She was gesturing toward the couches in the suite's living room when he took her hand and instead led her into the bedroom.
There, he swept her up and lay her on the bed, stretching out beside her a moment later and drawing her gently against him, He wrapped his arms around her and held her close in silence.
For a few minutes, she held herself stiffly, resisting, but she gradually relaxed against him, which was what he'd been waiting for. He shifted position on the bed to fit her even closer to him, bending his head over hers.
This wasn't just a hug, Harley thought, it was a full body embrace. And it felt damned good. She snuggled closer, her own arm snaking around his waist as she sighed softly.
He took a deep breath and stroked her back gently. The match run through had been tough on her for a lot of reasons, he knew.
Her first experience with the whole inferno match set up, with any kind of match really, but especially one with the potential to be so dangerous. Her concern for his welfare, and Glenn's. And the impending fire marshall's visit, to get final sign off on the match even going ahead.
There wasn't much he could do about any of that. He wouldn't insult her intelligence by telling her not to worry, though. Or make promises he couldn't be sure he could keep.
About all he could do was try to give her space to deal with it herself - he'd never doubted her intelligence and he wasn't about to start now. She'd work out for herself that with each rehearsal, things would get easier.
In the meantime, hopefully, he could help her relax. Dinner with Glenn would be good - so long as they could keep from discussing the match. A quick phone call while they were changing to go out would get Glenn on the same page as him.
As for after dinner - more of this would be good, he thought, his hand still gently stroking up and down her back.
Harley made a contented sound against his chest, and he could feel her relaxing more against him. That was precisely what he wanted. And it made him feel good to be taking care of her.
Soon enough, they'd have to get up and go to dinner. But for now, it was just them, and that suited him just fine.
After meeting Glenn in the lobby later in the evening, the three of them headed for the hotel's parking garage together.
Once they stepped out of the elevator, Harley asked absently, "Hummer?"
Glenn stopped dead in his tracks, eyes almost bugging out of his head.
Mark's response was a decidedly wicked grin. "Well, if you're offering, sweetheart . . . " he drawled.
Busy digging her keys out of her pocket, Harley suddenly noticed their reactions and couldn't help her laughter. "I mean should we take my car. You know, the Hummer?" She pointed at it.
Glenn chuckled. "Oh, good - so if I say yes, I don't have to worry about a punch in the mouth from Mr American Bad Ass over there!" He jerked a thumb in Mark's direction.
Mark flipped him the bird with a grin. "Fat chance, buddy. You're still in line for one if I think you're thinking about any other kind of hummer!"
Glenn's answering grin was every bit as wicked as Mark's had been earlier, and Harley burst out laughing again.
"You're both a pair of dirty minded deviants!" She paused and gave them a grin of her own. "I dig that about you!"
By lunch time on Saturday, though she would have had a hard time crediting it beforehand, Harley was feeling far more confident about the inferno match.
She doubted she would ever feel truly comfortable with it - the very notion of it went against everything she believed about safety, but she did feel they'd covered off pretty much every eventuality in their planning.
The number of times they'd run through the match, and she was well aware that was primarily for her benefit, she now knew how the moves were meant to flow together, and she could get the flame effects pretty much spot on.
Bob had sat in through one of the run-throughs, and had assured her that in this case, near enough really was going to be good enough.
"Far better there be a delay, Harley - because sure as shootin', if you came in a bit early on any of 'em, the internet and the armchair bookers'd leap all over it as 'proof' it was all a work. We know it is, of course, but that doesn't mean we have to advertise it, you know?"
That put her more at ease. What helped even more was hearing from Mark and Glenn that they were happy with how the match was coming together. She was keenly aware of not wanting to spoil the spectacle of their match.
They broke the rig down just before lunch, ahead of the fire marshall's visit, slated for mid-afternoon.
Mark watched Harley pick at her lunch with little enthusiasm. She didn't even try to filch any of his fries, which he found he rather missed.
He lay one hand over hers. "Everything okay, Kate?"
She gave him a half smile. "I think the nerves are starting to kick in."
It hadn't occurred to him until she said it, but he guessed she would be nervous. This wasn't just about getting a lighting effect or pyro right from the back - this was getting it right with thousands of people actually watching you do it. He was used to an audience watching his every move - she wasn't.
Objectively, he knew most people in the audience the following night would be far more interested in what was going on inside the ring betweem him and Glenn, but even the small fraction of those who would find the work of pyrotechnician at least a little fascinating, even if it were only the people seated near the motherboard, would be more than Harley would ever have experienced first-hand.
He stood up beside her and held out his hand. "Come with me, Kate."
She looked up at him curiously. "Where are we going?"
"Trust me," he said quietly.
She took his hand as she rose to her feet. She knew that she could trust him, which was still something of a surprise to her.
Mark led her along the corridors to one of the unused hospitality rooms that could be found in almost every arena. Drawing her inside, he closed the door after him. She still regarded him curiously.
He stroked a hand gently over her hair. "Figured you might prefer having some privacy if you needed to deal with the nerves."
She could only blink in surprise as he bent to kiss her forehead. "Take the time you need, Kate."
He turned towards the door and she reached out to catch his hand. "Don't go, Mark. Please."
"If that's what you want, okay," he smiled.
She didn't know she was going to do it, but a moment later she found herself clinging to him, arms around his waist, face buried in his chest.
He could feel her trembling, and his arms came up around her, his hands stroking her back gently. More reaction, he figured. It felt good knowing she trusted him enough to let him even see that, let alone turning to him for comfort.
But exactly how it had happened the day before, once she'd gotten past the initial freak-out, minor as it was, she proved herself made of sterner stuff.
Taking a deep breath, she looked up at him. He could see the steel behind those blue gray eyes, and smiled.
She reached up and curled one hand around the back of his neck, drawing him down as she rose on tiptoes to kiss him.
He clasped his hands loosely at the small of her back, smiling. "What was that for?"
She chuckled. "Oh, what, I need a reason to kiss you all of a sudden?"
"For the record, darlin', you can kiss me any old time you please, and I'm not gonna complain," he smiled. "But that one kinda felt like you wanted it to say something."
She nodded. "How about just, 'Thank you'?"
Pulling her close, he caught her lips with his, kissing her deeply, murmuring as their lips parted, "Then you're very welcome."
Her arms went around his waist, hugging him as he held her. They stood together for long moments, and Harley very determinedly thought of nothing more than how nice it was to feel so close.
All too soon, though, it was time to get back to work, but she did so feeling far calmer than she had been.
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