When AJ chose to align himself with Ric Flair, he knew that he's have to break some promises, lose some friends, make some sacrifices for the greater good. He hadn't expected it to hurt as much as it did, or to suffocate him was much as it was, but he was the Phenomenal One. He was AJ Styles. He could cope. He could cope with losing a lot of things.
His pride? His dignity? His very identity? He'd live. It wasn't pleasant and it made him want to rip off his own skin at the end of the day, but he dealt with it. He coped.
But there was one thing AJ would not surrender – one promise he refused to break for anything or anyone. Whatever happened, no matter what they were doing, no matter if they loved or hated each other, no matter if they'd rather kill each other than be in the same room together, AJ would not let Christopher Daniels leave without saying goodbye.
And so here he was, sitting in a rental car parked outside Orlando International Airport at nearly midnight, waiting for Chris to show up. He was going to regret staying up so late at the taping next day, he just knew it, but some things were more important. Or they should be.
Rumours that Chris was thinking of getting out while he still could had been floating around for some time, maybe a week or two. That should have been enough time for AJ to go talk to Chris about it. The old AJ – the pre-Ric Flair AJ – would have been straight over to see Chris the moment he's heard about it to talk things over, maybe even try to talk him out of it. But now now. Not this AJ. Not the brand new limousine-riding, jet-flying, stylin', profilin', whisky drinking, wheelin' dealin' kiss-stealin' Ric Flair-Lite AJ, who wouldn't be seen dead without a busty supermodel on each arm or with somebody like Christopher Daniels. And Ric would have bust a blood vessel through sheer outrage if he'd tried. So that just left the hard way.
It was near impossible to sneak around behind Ric's back, but somehow, AJ had come up with a plan that – so far – seemed to be working just fine. The call that had finalised meeting up with Chris, for example, had taken place in a five stolen minutes in a nightclub bathroom. And right now, Ric thought AJ was in a motel somewhere with a giggly blue-eyed blonde who'd taken a shine to him, having some "private time". In reality, AJ had paid her and her friends to go bar-hopping over Orlando and keep their mouths shut and they were only too happy to agree.
And tomorrow morning, when AJ rolled in half-asleep with dark circles under his eyes and five o'clock shadow, Ric would never know the difference. He'd joke about having a "busy night", AJ would force a smile and a laugh, and life would go on without anything changing or anyone finding out that he was lying. Life would go on. Night after night, drink after drink, girl after girl pumped full of silicon and paid to look pretty by the hour. Life would go on.
Somebody tapped on the car window and AJ jumped, broken out of his thoughts. He looked up to see Chris standing there, an overnight bag slung over one shoulder, and smiled at him awkwardly. Just like Chris, always turning up at the point when you least expected him to. And it was good to see him again, although the coldness on his face hurt. Bittersweet – that was the word for it.
AJ leant over, clicked open the passenger door, and watched Chris walk round the front of the car, dump his bag in the footwell and climb in. It could almost have been like old times, like being tag-team partners again, but for Chris' stony expression and the twisting uncertainty in AJ's gut. Not that he could blame Chris for that: had their positions been reversed, he knew he'd be the same.
AJ put the car in drive and turned out onto the Florida 528, following it round past Williamsburg and onto the I-4. He and Chris spoke briefly – basic greetings, the usual pleasantries (how's the wife, how're the kids, that sort of thing) – but the line of conversation soon dried up and they lapsed into the sort of uncomfortable silence that hadn't haunted their conversations since the last time one of them had monumentally screwed up and acted like a jackass. And so they spent most of the journey out to the I-4 without another word.
The silence was almost more suffocating to AJ than playing at Ric Flair and pretending to like it. It was heavy, heavy and thick, the sort of silence that makes you want to scream or smash things or just bash your head into the nearest solid surface, anything to make a sound and break the stillness. And AJ knew he should speak first – he was the one who arranged this stupid meeting in the first place – but he didn't know what to say, didn't know where to start, didn't know what to apologise for first. A hundred different excuses and explanations and regrets flickered through his head like bees, swarming at the base of his tongue, tumbling over each other in their attempts to be the first to be spoken.
So he said nothing.
Stared through the windshield at the dark road ahead.
Chris settled down in his seat and folded his arms.
"If you're here to ask me not to leave, you're too late."
That was the question. AJ wasn't sure he knew the answer himself, not for certain. But he went for the nearest and most vital.
"We made a promise, Chris," he said, fingers tightening on the steering wheel. "No matter what, we say goodbye. This is my goodbye."
"Late goodbye, then. Better late than never."
"You had two weeks to come speak to me, AJ. Why didn't you?"
He wished he had. God, he wished he had. AJ tightened his grip on the wheel until his fingers hurt and his knuckles had turned white with the pressure.
"I wanted to, Chris, I did, but I – I couldn't. Ric..."
"The Nature Boy wouldn't let you out to play."
The scorn in Chris' voice almost made AJ flinch – it was one thing to hear that scorn in his own head, quite another to hear it from Chris – and for a few seconds, he was sure that Chris was going to ask him the question he wasn't sure he could answer – why, AJ? Why Ric Flair? Why did you do it? – but he didn't. He just sat there, unmoving, like a statue of choler and contempt erected in memory of their friendship, Rest In Peace amen.
AJ loosened his grip on the wheel and cleared his throat, unwilling to let the silence creep back and take over again.
"So, uh, you going back to Ring of Honor?" he asked.
Chris made a quiet noise of assent in his throat and nodded.
"They respect wrestling," he said, every word as sharp as glass. "They value what you can do in the ring, not whose ass you kiss."
AJ stole a glance at Chris. Same stony expression, nothing changed, except maybe a glimmer of something in his eyes, an offering of a chance to make things right.
"They'd kill to have you back, AJ."
The invitation hung in the air like a gossamer web, light yet unbreakable and wrapping slowly around AJ's neck. He wanted it. In so many ways he wanted it, wanted it so hard that the longing felt like a physical pain, a pain he could feel deep in his chest just below his breast bone, almost a physical mass that pushed the air from his lungs and made it hard to breathe.
Oh to just leave, to forget about Ric and the title and all that crap and go with Chris to a place where he didn't have to smile and drink and make out with three different girls per night. To go to the iMPACT! Zone tomorrow night, tear off his expensive suit, tell everyone where to shove it and just leave.
Except TNA was his home. Except he needed the money. Except he'd given in to Ric's offer for a damn good reason and he couldn't just throw that away on a whim.
"Sorry, Chris. I can't."
And the silence crept back anyway, lighter now – no longer stifling – but still uncomfortable. Still awkward. AJ stared at the road ahead, watching Florida go by, urban Orlando giving way to trees and brush. It looked bleak in the harsh beams of the headlights that picked out the worst in the surroundings – empty beer cans, discarded McDonald's packaging thrown from car windows. Bleak. Like the knowledge that sooner or later, they'd have to go back, follow an intersection and turn around and go back the way they'd come. Back to the airport. Back to normality. Back.
Or they could keep going. They could just refuse to stop. Keeping on driving into the night. They could follow the I-4 all the way down to Tampa, then pick up the I-75 to... where? Back home to Georgia? Or even further? To Ohio? Michigan? Or hell, maybe even right on to Canada. Just somewhere, anywhere, that was as far away as possible from the iMPACT! Zone and Orlando and Florida and everything to do with TNA.
He wanted that, too. But it wasn't going to happen either. Not now. Not ever.
That was when, for the second time that evening, Chris broke him from his thoughts. Only this time, he was yelling.
"What the hell were you thinking?!"
The question came out of nowhere, like water bursting from a broken dam, and Chris had gone from icy cold disdain to burning anger in a heartbeat. Just like Chris. Always unexpected.
"You used to have dignity, AJ. You used to use your talent. ANd now all of a sudden you need to be Ric Flair's kiss-ass to get anything? What were you thinking?"
God, how could he even answer a question like that? AJ had explanations and excuses that he told himself. He was even starting to believe some of them some of the time. But they weren't the real reason. They weren't the trigger. But he didn't want to talk about that unless he had to.
"Ric said I'd lose the belt if I said no," he murmured. "Never get it back either."
"Not good enough. You've lost belts before and nothing has ever stood in the way of you getting them back. Try again."
"Needed the money."
Chris snorted in disbelief. "AJ Styles selling out for money? Bullshit."
"It was Ric Flair. He's a legend."
"So you'd just pucker up for any vet walking in the door?"
That got to AJ. It stung somewhere deep, somewhere that had been almost forgotten, and his temper flared. Chris wanted to know? He'd tell him.
"It's because I'm weak, alright?" he snapped. "Happy now?"
"I was weak. Pathetic. I gave in. I wasn't good enough. I –"
That was when Chris punched him in the mouth. Hard. Harder than AJ would have ever expected, considering the angle, the amount of space, and the fact that he was driving the car. His head was thrown towards the left, and his hands followed suit. The car swerved wildly toward the opposite lane. AJ twisted the wheel back, stamped hard on the brake. His seatbelt locked and slammed into his chest like a second blow and they lurched to a sickening halt on the verge, just missing the fence. When his heart stopped pounding, he pressed his tongue to the flesh beneath his lower lip to find the skin had split against his teeth and he could taste blood.
He turned to Chris, who looked somewhere between furious, guilty and scared shitless. And AJ stared. Amazed.
"What the hell did you do that for?" he asked in sheer disbelief. "You could have gotten us both killed."
"You are not pathetic." Chris' voice was low but tight, controlled. "And if I have to beat that into you myself, by God, I will. D'you hear me?"
AJ looked at Chris, and Chris stared back, eyes dark, brows low. Staring. So serious. So Chris.
Now or never.
"I wasn't the only one," he said softly.
"What do you –"
"Ric had a list," AJ continued, hardly hearing the interruption. "A list of people who could become the next Ric Flair. Of TNA Originals. And he told me I was number one, his first choice, but if I said no, he'd move on down the list until someone said yes."
"You were his second choice."
AJ paused, letting the revelation hang in the air between them like the light from passing headlights.
"I wasn't good enough to trust you'd say no. Wasn't strong enough to see you become this. I did it for you."
And for a third time, the silence crept back, unbroken but for the rush of the occasional passing car. Chris closed his eyes with what was almost a wince, and then opened them again.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"What, that I didn't trust you? How could I do that to you, Chris?"
AJ hung his head, sighed, rubbed his forehead with one hand. He had a headache coming on, his mouth hurt like blazes, and Chris didn't look angry any more – he looked hurt, worried, pitying, and that was worse by far. AJ could cope with a lot of things, but being a disappointment to Chris wasn't one of them.
"I screwed up everything," he murmured. "I was just trying to – I – I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
Chris reached out and gave his shoulder a brief squeeze, the lightest trace of his old smile on his lips.
AJ lifted his head and smiled. It was almost like being friends again, like being partners again, except that he was drained. So drained. Deep down, deeper than his flesh and his bones, deeper than even his soul. Ever fibre of his being was exhausted.
"I have to do this," he said. "If it's not me, it'll be one of the others. You, Joe, Kazarian, who knows? I can't let that happen, Chris."
"And you're an idiot for that. But you're a good-hearted idiot. And you're not weak."
Quiet again, but a comfortable quiet, a companionable quiet: just the whisper of their breath, the soft rumble of passing cars. It was peaceful, and AJ tried to suppress a yawn. God he was tired.
"So what now?"
Chris shrugged. "We could just stay here. It's up to you."
That was a nice idea. Maybe if they stayed still, time would too, and they would never have to go back. They could just stay there forever. It was a stupid thought, but an appealing one.
"Yeah. Let's stay here."
He switched off the car and settled down in his seat, leaning his head back against his headrest. If he closed his eyes for just a moment, it would be fine. Just for a moment. Just a moment. Just...
He woke some time later, head resting on Chris' shoulder – he didn't remember moving – and Chris was gently shaking him.
"AJ. Hey, AJ. Wake up."
And AJ did, pulling himself back up straight with a wince, neck sore and stiff.
"Sorry. Did you get any sleep?"
Chris shrugged. "I'll sleep on the plane."
And AJ was brought back to reality with a sickening thud. Oh yeah. Right. Chris had a plane to catch. Orlando was calling them.
AJ put the car back in drive and they set back off on the I-4, up to the next junction, turned off onto a side road and turned around, heaving back the way they'd come from. Heading back to Orlando. And every movement hurt because he'd slept in the car and that had been amazingly stupid. He and Chris had done it before for various unimportant reasons such as lost hotel keys or cancelled planes and he'd forgotten how sore it left you afterwards.
"I am never sleeping in a car again," he grumbled. "Ever."
That made Chris laugh. And it was good to hear.
They talked about the good things on the way back to the airport as the sky began to lighten with the impending dawn. Old matches in TNA and ROH, where they were going next, how the kids were doing. Good things. Like everything was back to normal. And AJ didn't want it to end. But the journey back seemed to end before it had even begun and they were back outside Orlando International as though they'd never left.
AJ looked at Chris. Chris looked back. There was one question left to ask.
"Hey Chris. If I had asked you to stay, would you?"
Chris smiled and shook his head.
"My time was up and I knew it. I just wanted to know you cared."
Chris nodded. They both smiled.
And with that, Chris grabbed his bag from the footwell, exited the car, and walked away. AJ watched him go until he'd passed into the airport and out of sight, then put the car back in drive and set off back to the hotel. Back to Ric Flair, to sacrifices, to lies and lost friends and broken promises. To disappointing people.
But he'd said goodbye to Chris. A late goodbye, but a heartfelt one, and that was what mattered: that there was a single shining promise that AJ had managed to keep.
And that was enough for now.