AJ stood at the bottom of the entrance ramp in the Impact Zone, hands stuffed in his pockets, shoulders slightly hunched. The air was still chilly in here, even though the air conditioning had been shut off hours ago. Without the swarm of fans, the glare of lights, this place was almost creepy in its emptiness.
In the six-sided ring stood Christopher Daniels, resting forward with his forearms on the top rope. Dark slacks, dark shirt, just as AJ had come to expect from Daniels, but not quite the same as always. Daniels had a beard. It made him look strangely unkempt in a way, when he was usually the embodiment of precision itself with his appearance.
"You want me here, I'm here." AJ's voice echoed. He didn't like it. There was a crawling sensation at the back of his neck that he fought not to scratch. He felt as though they were about to be caught at any moment, which was silly, because if there was one thing AJ had learned about Daniels, it was that Daniels was always prepared. Just as he didn't bother asking how Daniels managed to get them entrance in here after hours, he didn't want to bother worrying about getting caught when he was sure Daniels had taken care of that.
In the ring, Daniels stared at him, and AJ grew increasingly unnerved. It was a struggle not to fidget. Daniels had disappeared, and when he returned, he was a different man. Not that AJ cared. Things were different now. It only made sense that Daniels had changed with them. But the knowledge that the change in Daniels was brought on because of him was no comfort.
"You want me here, so I'm here!" AJ hadn't meant to yell, but he did. Prone to emotional outbursts. He remembered that piece of observation from Daniels. That cool, calculating assessment of AJ Styles' many flaws. It had riled him, to have his passion mistaken for foolishness.
*"Not everyone is a neat little package like you, Chris."* He had accused Daniels of being cold, but the truth was the exact opposite.
None of these memories was helping AJ now, though. He shouldn't have come.
"If you got nothing to say, then I'm leavin'."
AJ was a half-second from turning around, and that was when Daniels spoke. Always minded his timing, that damn Daniels.
"Why did you come?"
The urge to fidget was unbearable. AJ yanked his hands free from his pockets, squared his shoulders, never mind the chill in the air. He had no weakness before the eyes of Daniels.
"'Cause you invited me," AJ answered, edge of sarcasm in his voice. Not quite to cut, not just yet. Maybe just a nick.
"You've never been one to do as you're told."
"Just what's this about, huh? I could be gettin' a real good night of sleep right now instead of standin' around, jacking my jaw with you."
"I asked. And you came."
"So?" AJ searched Daniels' face for some answers, not even sure why he was bothering. Like seeking emotional cues from a statue, and it wasn't like he cared. But a flash of understanding jolted him, followed quickly by disgust. "It's over, Chris. All of that. It's done. It's through. The end."
Even from where AJ stood, he could see Daniels clenching his jaw, something tightening at the corners of his eyes.
"It's not over," Daniels hissed. "It will never be over."
"Didn't think it'd be you of all people who can't let go."
"Don't." The word was a snap, like a clothesline aimed at his throat, and AJ almost felt like he should've ducked.
"It's over, Chris! There's nothing left. We burned the tank dry." It was somehow more truth than AJ had wanted to admit, in a way he couldn't explain why. He made up for it, though, before Daniels could get a word in. "We lost the belts. It's done."
"You know as well as I do that none of this has anything to do with belts or glory."
"I thought everything Christopher Daniels did was for glory."
There it was again, that little crinkle at the corners of Daniels' eyes. It might be a sign of mild annoyance on anyone else, but AJ knew the difference. He had scored, and scored deep. But it gave him little satisfaction.
"This newfound sarcasm of yours is really unbecoming, AJ."
"What?!" The shout tore out of him with ferocity, and it scared him. Daniels shouldn't be able to do this to him anymore, drag these reactions out of him like he'd been infected with some sort of apocalyptic fever, where everything was life or death and never in between. "You think I was just gonna stay the way I've always been forever? You don't think I'll ever learn? This is what you wanted, isn't it? The newer and better AJ, and you can thank yourself for that, Chris. You told me I'd never learn better, but I did. I learned better."
Daniels seemed stricken, and it was a look that AJ had never wanted to see again. But he drew closer anyway, stalked to the ring apron and climbed up upon it, facing Daniels, eye to eye.
"I'm through giving a damn."
The rest of the sentence hung in the air. About you. AJ was through giving a damn about Daniels, in any capacity, be it hatred or friendship or anything else in the spectrum.
But Daniels shook his head, refused to accept reality as it was. Just like Daniels, to put his own spin on everything.
Maybe AJ should take pride in being able to reduce the verbose Daniels into giving a monosyllabic response. Instead, he pushed Daniels back from the ropes and stepped inside of the ring.
"You don't get to say 'no'. It just is."
"Then why are you here?" Daniels backed to stand in the middle of the ring, and the move confused AJ for a moment, until he remembered what Daniels had told him once, about manipulating your opponent's movements. AJ remained near the ropes, unwilling to be drawn forward, and wrapped a hand around the top cable to remind himself of his position. Remind himself that he didn't want to play Daniels' games anymore. Except Daniels just asked a question that he couldn't answer.
"You want to settle this? Then let's settle it."
A smile, faint, quirked the corner of Daniels' mouth. AJ hated it, and fury rose inside his chest.
"I don't want to settle anything. That's my point."
"It started in the ring. Let's just finish it here. Right here, right now." AJ seized upon the only thing he could count on: Daniels was a man who couldn't function outside of an adversarial context. Give him a fight to prove himself, and he'd always take the bait.
But Daniels just smiled that infuriating smile even as AJ's heart pumped fast, a rapid staccato inside his chest.
"If you want to fight, let's fight."
That was all AJ needed to hear. He let go of the rope and dropped into his usual fighting stance, circled Daniels, then attacked, locking up with Daniels with a determination that hurt. But it fueled him, fury at his heels as he backed Daniels into a turnbuckle, pressing into him like he wanted to crush Daniels with all his weight.
A headbutt from Daniels, though, left AJ seeing stars, a slack in his hold now that Daniels took full advantage of, a tackle to AJ's midsection that brought them both down onto the canvas. The fall robbed AJ's breath, but he reeled on instinct when his shoulders touched the mat, though a pin was the last thing he needed to worry about. The moment AJ was on his hands and knees, Daniels came at him with a kick to his midsection. AJ howled, cradled his ribs, and rolled as fast as he could away. When he finally found footing, Daniels was on him again. AJ blocked the first blow, then the second, finally managed to score a jab to Daniels' face that forced Daniels a step back.
This wasn't a wrestling match. Wasn't a brawl either. And it wasn't about proving anyone's best. For so long, they had pushed and pulled. Daniels seeking glory that AJ had deemed to be his own. Who was the best. Who was deserving. But it had all fallen to the wayside when they'd teamed together.
So much had fallen, and AJ roared his rage. He charged Daniels, took them down to the canvas again, that fever once again overtaking him. Nothing but red. He always saw nothing but red with Daniels. He couldn't understand why it had to be like this always. Never any peace. Never any contentment. Just the screech of a phoenix dying, reborn only to be incinerated again and again, to die over and over in the most horrific fashion imaginable.
They became a tangle of limbs, and AJ no longer knew where he ended and where Daniels began. But he was going to win this. He was going to pry them apart and keep them that way, except Daniels was gaining the upper hand, and AJ growled in frustrated wrath when he found himself flat on his back with Daniels on top of him, an arm barred across his throat, choking him.
AJ clawed for freedom, but Daniels would not relent. They locked eyes, and AJ suddenly stilled.
"It will never be over, AJ."
Daniels' voice was calm. Too calm.
"We fought for years before TNA came to be, and even when TNA is dead and buried, we will still circle each other. I will never be free of you, and you will never be free of me. I see that now. I know that now. And I accept it. I embrace it. Do you, AJ? *Do you*?"
AJ gave one last burst of resistance, but Daniels crushed it with authority, driven by the heat of his own conviction. AJ could see that in Daniels' eyes. No matter how calm his voice was, AJ could see the fire in his eyes, the one that burned them both.
"It hurt you, didn't it? It hurt you to know that you cared about me. That it tore your heart to see me broken and bleeding. It tore mine."
"It's not true," AJ rasped out best he could, denying it with all the vehemence he had.
"Passion cuts both ways, AJ. Don't deny what you know is true. We have left our mark on each other, and it is indelible. You will never be washed clean. Face the truth, AJ Styles. Face the truth that's in your heart."
"You *burned* everything outta me, Chris! There's nothing left!" The truth, horrid, like wreckage, jagged and broken. AJ slumped, fought no more, and Daniels responded in kind, backed off. "You burned everything out of me," AJ said again, voice as broken as the truth in his words. He pushed himself up to a seat on the canvas, head turned away from Daniels.
"I'm not built like you, Chris. Obsession doesn't make me stronger."
"We bring out the best in each other."
"And the worst."
Daniels had nothing to say to that.
Shaking his head, AJ climbed back to his feet. He didn't dare look at Daniels, only sensed his movements in standing as well.
"I can't do this. Not ever again. I don't wanna fight you. I don't wanna be near you. Just let it rest. It'll be better for the both of us."
AJ expected a rebuttal. Lengthy rhetorics. For a moment, he forgot that Daniels knew just as well that, like a picture, an action was worth a thousand words. Then AJ was made to remember.
It was a touch. A simple one. Daniels' hand on his face, palm against his cheek. AJ squeezed his eyes shut tight. He tried to conjure up all the memories he could of this. Daniels cradling his face after a match, the supportive arm around his waist. It always came after a beating, after pain and hurt and suffering. Even behind closed doors, there was always hurt. No matter how good it felt, it always hurt.
But this touch, soft upon his face, didn't feel like dying.
AJ tore away, made his escape as fast as he could, climbing out of the ring and dropping back down onto the ground. Daniels didn't try to grab him, didn't try to make him stay. Not until AJ was halfway up the ramp when Daniels called out after him.
"It's not over, AJ."
AJ stood still, head bowed and eyes on the ground. Behind him was Daniels, a presence so strong that he could feel it even with his back turned.
Under his breath, he answered Daniels, the only thing he could say,