Alabaster- CHAPTER 1

Summer had fallen upon the Carolinian swamplands like a damp rag.

"More tea, Judge?", asked Anabella. Her withered hands shakily moved towards the teapot to pour more of the fragrant beverage for her guest.

The immense grandfather clock chimed the hour, sounding hollowly throughout the empty house. Five o'clock. Anabella turned her gaze to the huge window that overlooked the vast expanse of swamps. The sun was beginning to go down, burning red fire through the treetops. The old woman absently fanned herself, lost in her thoughts.

"Anabella", prompted the Judge softly, his deep voice breaking through her musings, "you said you had something to show me."

She blinked, and looked at him, her face hard. He gazed back, expressionless.

A staid and practical man in his late fifties, the Judge was, as usual, dressed in black from head to foot. He was always respectful, even deferential, when in Anabella's presence, though there was, somehow, an air of danger that seemed to lurk beneath his benign demeanor. Anabella respected this.

"Here", she said, proffering two bent, worn photographs.

He glanced down at them. Each pictured a young boy, smiling and laughing. These appeared to be typical children, engaging in typical childhood activities. He looked back to Anabella, waiting for further explanation.

"These are my grandsons, Matthew and Jeffrey", she said slowly, softly touching the photographs still being held in the Judge's hands.

The Judge's eyes widened, and he leaned forward slightly. "I see."

Anabella stared at the photographs, her back straight, her face tight, her eyes dark. "They left this place long ago, you know. They left to live in sin, and every day they disgrace me and this family. I tried to show them the way. I tried."

"I know you tried, Anabella", soothed the Judge, "But boys will not listen to the likes of us."

Her piercing eyes found the Judge's impenetrable gaze.

"Why are you showing me this, Anabella?", asked the Judge, carefully handing the photographs back to the old woman.

She took them with care, holding them as if they were prized possessions.

"Because", she replied, her voice warmer than it had been moments before, "my wayward grandsons will be returning home very, very soon. And I will need you to be my sword and my shield upon the road to their redemption."

The sun sank below the horizon, and darkness moved in swiftly, and fiercely.

* * * * * * *

He moved slowly, languidly, but with a definite purpose. It was dark, pitch black. There was something he needed to get away from, and he could hear it just behind him, moving with heavy, deliberate footsteps through the underbrush. He tried to move faster, or at least get a sense of where he was. He could hear the crunch of small sticks under his shoes, the pound of blood in his ears, the hitch of his panicked breath. There was water rushing somewhere up ahead. Hearing his pursuers closing in, he moved towards that, his slow pace maddening.

When he reached the river, which was far too wide to cross without aid, he saw a large shadow sitting on the bank. Sure it must be a boat, he loped down to the water's edge to push it into the current. He could hear that they had cleared the trees, and were making their way down to him. They weren't even hurrying.

He, however, had frozen. He was staring in horror at the dark thing lying on the river's edge. A hand fell heavily onto his shoulder, another onto his arm. Feeling them drag him towards the shadowy mass, his shoulders slumped in defeat, and he gave up hope.

Knocking. Knocking. The hands, the darkness, the river, the- thing, all gone.

Matt Hardy shot up, his eyes wide, his chest heaving in remembered exertion.

He shook his head in disbelief as he realized it had been a very vivid dream. What had that thing been on the riverbank? His brows furrowed in concentration as he struggled to recall it. It seemed familiar, somehow.

There was a loud knocking at his door then, causing Matt to nearly fall out of his bed in fright. Shaking his head in annoyance, he realized he'd been hanging around Jeff far too much lately if he was pondering the meaning of his dreams.

After running his hand back through his dark curly locks, he jumped out of bed and answered the door. As he expected, his younger brother Jeff had been the insistent knocker. The younger Hardy brother leaned against the doorway bonelessly, his dyed hair tied back into a neat ponytail, his eyebrows drawn into a tight arch over his dark green eyes. He shouldered his way past Matt into the hotel room.

"What the hell, man?", Jeff said, his voice taut, "You were supposed to be up hours ago. Are you sick or something?"

Matt raised an eyebrow, turning to shut the door. "Jesus, Jeff, you're in a mood."

Jeff glared. "I am not in a god damned mood! I was just up late last night. I'm tired."

"What were you doing last night?", asked Matt incredulously.

Jeff smiled. "You don't wanna know, man."

Matt shook his head and chuckled. He began moving slowly towards the bathroom, stretching sore and tense muscles.

"So, are you gonna stay here all day, or are we going?", Jeff asked impatiently.

"Ok, ok. I'm coming!," Matt said apologetically as he picked a wedge. "Just give me a minute to throw some shit on and we can go grab a beer."

Jeff smiled and shifted to the opposite wall to wait for his brother. The thought of a cold beer in the morning before practice always perked him up. They would probably head over to The Crab Palace, as the bartender there had a habit of giving them free nachos with their lagers. He wondered if the bartender had a bit of a crush on…

"Alright, let's go!" Matt said with the excitement of a little boy going to his first monster truck rally. The older Hardy was dressed in his usual wife beater and camouflage skull pants, his hair greased back into a tight ponytail.

"It's about time, jackass," said Jeff sarcastically. "Let me dump first. I'll meet you in the lobby in about ten."

* * * * * * *

The Crab Palace was hopping. No one thought it at all strange that the bar was full at 10:00 AM. Well-known wrestlers were seated next to unknown truckers, who were in turn seated next to somewhat-known female regulars. The bar area was dimly lit and smelled of desperation. When Jeff and Matt walked in, the patrons barely seemed to notice, but somehow shouted, "Har-DEES!" in perfect unison. It was instinct, born of familiarity. Jeff and Matt took their customary bow and headed over to the bar.

"Two lagers, please," said Jeff, silently hoping his brother remembered to bring his wallet. Jeff had been strapped for cash since Tuesday, when, after a long night of partying with one of the female regulars, he woke to find his man-purse gone. He couldn't file a police report because of the illegal substances involved in the evening's activities, so he decided to just make due until Friday when his WWE paycheck came.

The bartender, a balding, heavyset man wearing a stained WWE t-shirt, smiled shyly at Jeff as he handed two foaming mugs over to him.

"Here you are, my man", he drawled. His eyes traveled down Jeff's body, slowly and purposefully. Jeff, oblivious to the scrutiny, took the beers and turned to study the room.

He saw that Matt had already taken a seat next to Shawn Michaels, who was leaning heavily into the worn wood of the bar. There were a bevy of empty glasses sitting in front of him. He picked up a half-drained glass, and raised it to his lips with shaking hands. Throwing his head back, the Heartbreak Kid drank the beer down in one huge gulp.

Jeff made his way over to Matt and Shawn, pushing his way through the drunken crowd.

"Mornin', Shawn", Jeff greeted Michaels with a nod. Shawn nodded back, then turned back to the bar, to order another lager.

Jeff sat down next to Matt, and handed one of the beers over to him.

"Uh, I forgot my wallet", Jeff murmured.

Matt, who had been about to partake of the Crab Palace's excellent lager, put his glass down on the bar. He glared at his brother.

"Again?", he asked, annoyed.

Jeff sighed. "Well, it's more like I, um, lost it." He tried to make light of the situation, and smiled mischievously. "Last night was a little out of control, man."

Matt rolled his eyes, and shook his head in disbelief. This was all he needed.

"Hey, buddy!", slurred Shawn, interrupting the brothers' exchange, "Can I get some damned service over here, or is this side of the bar closed?!" He leaned in, every muscle in his body clenched tightly in his anger.

The bartender was accustomed to being yelled at by irate drunks, and took his time making his way around to Shawn.

"Yeah?", he said, his tone bored.

"Gimme another beer", said Shawn.

The bartender was looking at Jeff, and smiling. The younger Hardy brother shifted uncomfortably under his eyes.

"Surely", said the bartender, breaking his intense study of Jeff, "And I'll bring some nachos over as well." He looked back over his object of interest once more, smiling like a Cheshire cat. "Free of charge, of course."

Shawn sighed contentedly, collapsing back onto his barstool. "I love nachos, man", he said dreamily.

Suddenly, sunlight streamed into the darkened barroom as the Crab Palace's front door swung open. The patrons squinted in pain when the morning light hit their eyes. Someone in the back yelled "Shut the god damn door, asshole!" A beer can was promptly flung at the offender, who, after dodging the alcohol-soaked missile, immediately turned to close the door.

Matt Hardy, who had been occupying himself playing a game of 9-ball with a ragged-looking chick named Gibbie, peered up from the stained green felt of the pool table to see who had come in. There, standing in front of the closed door, intently eyeing the dark room, was Ken Kennedy, a formidable face in a sea of drunken debauchery.

"Bee-yow!" Kennedy yelled with a voice that penetrated the thick, musty air like metal on metal. "I am here, bitches! Let the party begin!"

Jeff Hardy got up from the bar and skipped over to him. "Hey, bro! What up?" he asked as he high-fived the blonde, spiky-haired renegade.

"Man, I need a lager before practice. McMahon is pissing the shit out of me lately," complained Kennedy, taking a small step back to avoid Jeff's morning breath. "If he has his lackey writers put me in one more storyline with Umaga and that asshole, The Great Khali, I will seriously kill someone."

"Yeah, I know. Boss is out of control." Jeff said. "Come on, let's go grab a beer." He skipped back across the room to his place at the bar next to Shawn Michaels and motioned for Kennedy to follow.

Ken started to follow, but before he was able to take two steps, a fat bastard named Henry, a regular patron who liked to cause trouble with the wrestlers, blocked his path and put his hand in his face. "You SUCKED at Wrestlemania!" Henry yelled, his yellow teeth an inch from Kennedy's nose.

Matt, Jeff and even a visibly drunk Shawn Michaels, immediately moved into position behind Kennedy, ready to defend their colleague at any cost.

Henry under any other circumstance would be a fool to even try to stand up to four of the buffest WWE superstars of today, but he was running on a misleading combination of adrenaline and Crab Palace lager. In his mind, there was only one outcome and it consisted of four bloody wrestlers left writhing on the dirty barroom floor. He took a monstrous, clumsy swing at Kennedy.

Immediately, like a well-oiled machine, the other three superstars sprung into action, locking into a robot-like formation they called Stank-oto, a move known only to the most elite wrestlers in the world. In one graceful motion, Shawn Michaels wrapped his legs around Jeff Hardy's torso, leaving his body parallel to the ground. In unison, Jeff slung his arms onto Matt's shoulders as Matt simultaneously stuck his head through Shawn's legs, forming the lethal Stank-oto and in one final motion, Henry was gone, a pile of gray dust in his place. No one saw what happened. Whatever it was came and went too quickly.

Kennedy, who had taken great care to dodge Stank-oto's lethal path, now moved back in to help his friends right themselves, a great smirk on his handsome face.

"Thanks, guys", he said, while grabbing Shawn's waist to ease his passage to the ground, "But I've dealt with that fat fuck before. You didn't need to do that."

Matt rolled his shoulders back, stretching the muscles. "He had it coming", said the older Hardy softly, "I hated that guy. He's been starting shit with us since we first started coming here, and for no reason I can think of. Good fucking riddance."

Kennedy's smile widened as he looked down at the pile of gray ash on the filthy wooden floor. In one sweeping, graceful move, he pulled his leg back and kicked it into the smoky air. "Good riddance, fat fuck", he said, laughing.

"Hey man, that shit got into my beer!", came an angry protest from an anonymous patron at the bar. After seeing the deadly consequences of confronting this group, however, no one moved to throw any punches.

"Speaking of beer", said Kennedy, his eyes shining excitedly, "It sounds like just the thing to wash down the pancakes and grits I had not an hour ago."

Kennedy took the seat next to Shawn, which a vagrant had just vacated. He ordered a beer from the bartender, who made sure to walk past Jeff and give him a good eyeing again. The younger Hardy rolled his eyes, and munched on the gifted stale nachos and congealed cheese that had been brought over earlier.

The front door swung open then, with such force that it slammed against the wall and bounced back. An imposing figure stood there, backlit by the blinding sunlight, his shoulders thrown back, his head held high.

"Close the door, asshole!" A beer can was thrown from the dark recesses of the shadowy bar, exploding onto the wall in an extraordinary display of amber liquid and foam.

"Waste of beer", muttered Shawn Michaels mournfully.

"Dammit!", cried the man who had just come in, a strong English accent marking his words, "This place is disgusting!" He turned around and slammed the door shut, and all inside breathed a palpable sigh of relief.

When the bright spots had stopped dancing in their vision, the wrestlers saw that the irate man standing in the doorway was none other than William Regal, the general manager of RAW. He appeared to be seething in unchecked anger.

"Oh shit, man", whispered Jeff, ducking down lower so the daunting Englishman wouldn't see him, "Remember the last time he caught us in here before practice? He said he would cut off our balls and wear them on a necklace if we ever did it again."

Kennedy shook his head, and smiled. "He only said that about the drunk guys. And, unless Monsieur Regal intends to utilize breathalyzer tests on us this morning, I'd pretty much say we're made in the shade." Jeff looked back at Kennedy, incredulity written all over his chiseled features. Rolling his eyes, Ken said, "Just eat your nachos."

Matt interrupted their exchange then, pointing with wide eyes to a dark alcove across the bar. They had to squint to see what exactly was going on, but when their eyes adjusted, Kennedy and Jeff were just as horrified as the older Hardy brother.

William Regal had been slowly stalking around the crowded barroom, intently searching each face. He'd found, in one dark corner, Triple H, Umaga, and Finley, all surrounded by empty glasses and beer cans, and all passed out drunk. The Hardys and Kennedy watched in horror as Regal moved in slowly, a grimace on his bulldog face. He was holding… something. A long stick.

"What the hell is that?", whispered Jeff, his eyes wide.

The three wrestlers, passed out from copious amounts of alcohol, didn't move.

Regal touched the stick to Umaga's side. The reaction was both instantaneous, and explosive. The giant man screamed something in his native Samoan tongue, jumping up and away from the general manager. His eyes were wide, and his breaths came fast and hard.

If he'd been drunk, Umaga was stone sober now.

Moving in close to the huge man, Regal said coldly, "Get back to the gym. If I ever find you in this state again, I will recommend to McMahon that you be dismissed from the company."

Without a word, the tattooed giant left, rubbing his side all the way.

"A fucking cattle prod!", whispered Matt, who was watching the scene in utter disbelief.

"Uh, boys, I think we should get the hell out of here", suggested Kennedy, who was trying to wake Shawn up, "You wanna help me before His Highness makes his way over to this side of the bar?"

Moving quickly, Jeff, Matt, and Kennedy all worked to haul the nearly unconscious Shawn Michaels off of the bar stool.

The Heartbreak Kid was not an easy lump to simply carry off into the wild blue yonder. His physique was obviously a hindrance to the escape effort. If only he would snap out of his stupor for a moment, giving them the few precious seconds they needed to dodge the wrath of the nasty Brit.

"Shawn, you fucking oaf!" whispered Kennedy into his ear. "Get off your ass and MOVE before Retard Regal sees us!"

HBK stirred a bit, but still could not support his own weight. Kennedy tugged at Shawn's cut-out bib-style shirt to try and get a response, but only succeeded in ripping the shirt further, fully exposing the drunken wrestler's beer gut to the entire bar.

Jeff was over it. "Leave him," he said sourly. "Leave the sorry son of a bitch."

"He's right," Matt chimed in. "If we try to help him any further, we'll pay for it for a week with Regal. Let's go."

Matt reached for Kennedy's arm, but he ducked. He jumped up and yelled, "Bee-yow!" and smacked the top of the older Hardy brother's head as he came back down. "Let's bust it!" he yelled as he skulked toward the exit.

William Regal was closing in. Jeff and Matt took off in the direction of freedom, but Matt tripped over the pool table and landed on his face. Jeff saw his brother fall, but kept going. He recalled his grandfather (or was it his aunt?) once telling him, "Clumsiness is like a fool's dirty laundry. It should never be shared."

Matt silently cursed his brother for not helping him, but he kept his head down and crawled along the sticky floor, intent on making it out before Regal had a chance to stick his electric cattle prod anywhere near his precious ass.

"Fuck!" Matt said under his breath. Some pig had thrown up on the floor and the idiot bartender hadn't bothered to get anyone to clean it up. Matt's hand was covered in yellow slime and he was not happy about it. But he continued crawling toward the exit and finally made it to the door.

Regal saw the door open, but saw no one entering or exiting. He didn't know that Matt Hardy had just crawled his way to freedom right under his snooty English nose. "Doesn't matter anyway," Regal thought to himself. "I've got bigger fish to fry," and turned his attention to a slumped over mass at the bar.

The dirty straw cowboy hat was a dead giveaway. "Only Michaels would wear that disgusting headpiece," Regal thought with disdain. He took great joy in the thought of shocking the Jesus cowboy back into consciousness. Regal readied his cattle prod and struck HBK square in the kidney.

"Jesus H. Crispy Christ!" screamed Shawn Michaels, as he jumped up from his seat. "Balls, that hurt, you damn English wrangler!"

Regal looked at the risen superstar like a mental patient would look at a candy bar. "Get back to practice, you pissy pile of mung!"

"Take a chill, babes!" HBK said to the irate general manager, and strolled off as if he had never had a drink in his life.

Regal stood there shaking his head and muttered to himself, "Fucking bastards… McMahon has hired a bunch of alcoholic apes. Alcoholic, motherfucking apes."