Braun Strowman calls himself the Monster Among Men, and Roman has fought monsters before, he's been toe to toe with the Beast Incarnate, the Cerebral Assassin and the Eater of Worlds, he's been betrayed by his brother, has seen his daughter threatened, has had victory snatched out of his grasp more times than he can count, but none of it has prepared him for the freakish strength and sheer brutality of Braun Strowman.
He's not about to give up or back away, but there has been a moment in every match where he has been afraid. Where he has thought: He's holding back. For more than ten years now, Roman's been fighting, and he knows the difference between a stiff blow and a pulled one.
Braun Strowman picks him up and throws him into the steel steps and Roman thinks, with a flare of panic: He's not human.
He thinks: I'm going to die.
When he staggers out of the ring, bloodied and broken in ways he can't let the trainers see or they'll pull him out of action, strap him down to a gurney and send him off on another extended medical leave, his mind is reeling with it.
Nothing human hits that hard. Nothing human hates that much.
What is he?
He pushes aside the refs and the trainers, dodges the medical staff with a determination that would make Dean proud and narrowly escapes into an empty locker room where he doubles over, cradling his damaged ribs. A pained hiss escapes him and he clenches his teeth around the keening sound working its way up his throat. He needs to keep it down, buy himself enough time to assess the damage, change the bandages and get his act together before someone comes find him.
It'll be Seth, probably. Unless seeing him injured brings back the old guilt and the things they don't talk about, in which case Seth will avoid him for days and then show up grudgingly, all awkwardness and tension, until Roman punches his arm and tells him to cut it out already. He wishes Seth would man up and apologize. Or failing that, accept the forgiveness as granted and move on.
Roman puts a hand on the bench at his side, pulls himself up. The pain is sharp, searing. The ribs have the worst of it, sending a stabbing pain through his chest each time he breathes, but there's not a part of him that isn't aching. His shoulder feels broken. He’s afraid to try to extend his arm.
Not for the first time he thinks about quitting. Last time they skyped, Jojo talked about a fight with Mel and he made all the right sympathetic noises to hide the fact that he couldn’t remember who Mel was. He had to ask Galina afterwards. It’s a constant ache, seeing his daughter grow into herself from a distance, over phone calls and skype sessions in desolate hotel rooms. The thoughts of quitting have been there ever since Seth turned on them, and they’ve grown more intrusive in the last couple of months, since he fell out with Dean, since the brand split kept them from mending all that broke.
It's not easy, though. Walking away. He's tried, but he can't. Especially not now, with Braun Strowman working his way through the roster and the thought of what he'll do once he gets to the ones that matter. He has nightmares about it; Braun tearing Dean limb from limb, tossing Seth around the ring like a rag doll, making his fight with Triple H seem gentle and kind in comparison. They may not be brothers, anymore, but Roman will never not look out for them.
Even monsters can be taken down.
He sees movement out of the corner of his eyes, catches a glimpse of something off-white. He startles, hits his elbow against the bench as he looks up at stranger who entered the room unnoticed. His first thought is "stalker" and it chills him to the bone. Not that he couldn't defend himself - the fan is just a kid, barely out of his teens, all long limbs and angles. No, what scares him is the level of dedication it'd take to get through all the security and slip into his locker room unnoticed. With a person like that, all bets are off. And Roman draws more than his share of haters. Until tonight, he hadn't even known the "you deserve it"-chants could be used like that.
Then the kid turns and catches his gaze and Roman realizes he had it wrong. It's not a kid. And it's not a he. She's pregnant, towards the end of the last trimester by the look of it, the size of her at odds with the fluidity of her movements. When Galina was that big, her pain and discomfort was constant. He pulls himself up, aware of the sweat cooling on his skin and the blood stained bandages. As he opens his mouth to ask how she got in she takes his sweaty face between her smooth, cool hands.
”I choose you, little warrior.” Her voice is deep. Rough. Very definitely a man’s, except- She brushes a strand of hair away from Roman’s face and smiles at him, terrible and kind. ”Darkness walks these halls. Don’t let it go unchallenged. Be brave, be strong, and know that you carry my favor, Child of the Burning Moon.” She - he? - leans forward and presses a soft kiss to his forehead, and Roman feels moonlight spilling through the frosted glass near the ceiling, hitting his skin like liquid silver. A bond between them, familiar and fey at the same time. Her love is not a gentle thing, her blessing not a comfort. She's otherwordly, terrifying, but he finds himself curiously unafraid.
His skin is glowing. At her touch, he feels a surge of strength, all pain and fatigue washed away. He's crying and he doesn't know why, jubilant and heartbroken. It feels as if something has been given and something stripped from him at the same time.
She smiles at him, knowing. Her fingertips brush away the tears and she’s just about to speak when the door to the locker room is pushed open, all the familiar sounds of the post-show bustle spilling into the room.
”All right, I’ve convinced the trainers to leave you alone, so for the record, you owe me one, and you had better not be dying in he-” Seth steps through the open door and freezes on the spot. "Oh, shit," he says. And then, in a tone more fearfully reverent that anything Roman would have thought him capable of: "Lady."
She turns his gaze on Seth and Roman sees him cringe under the steely-eyed judgement, swallow and raise his hands as he backs away. "I'll go get Dean.”
That seems like a non-sequitur, but the door falls shut behind him, and the lady in question turn her attention back to Roman. She takes his hands, pulling him to his feet. He’s taller than she is, bigger and stronger in every way, but her gaze is older than the ground underneath their feet and he can’t remember ever having felt so small. ”Forgiveness is a powerful weapon. Have a care how you wield it, child.”
It strikes him as absurdly, irresistibly funny that this, this creature would show up in his locker room just to warn him against forgiving Seth Rollins, but the laughter gets stuck in his throat and then it's just sad.
There is no pity in her gaze and little enough compassion. She pushes a sweat-soaked strand of hair back from his face, turns and leaves - through the door, like a person - and this time Roman does laugh, and there's a broken, hysterical edge to it.
Later, when he unwraps the bandages, his wounds are healed. There's not a bruise on his body. He stares into the mirror for a long, long time, and he's not entirely sure he recognizes the man looking back.
Roman steps out of the locker room with the gym bag slung over his shoulder and Seth’s right there, leaning against the wall with his hands behind him. He’s listening to music, staring off into the distance with a faint crease between his eyebrows, and doesn’t notice Roman until he taps his shoulder.
Seth jumps and pulls off his headphones. ”Christ, are you trying to give me a heart attack?” He takes out his phone and kills the music before slipping the phone back into his pocket. ”You ready to go?”
He’s trying so hard to act normal that it’s painful to watch. There are a lot of things wrong with this picture, not the least Seth Rollins waiting around for him after a show. Roman's skin feels raw, stretched thin over sinew and muscle, still tingling where the lady touched him, and Seth's nervousness grates on him.
”I’m not riding with you.” It's not a rejection, just a statement of fact. They came here in separate cars - they always do - and they’re staying at different hotels.
"I promised Dean-”
”The hell do I care? Dean and I aren’t talking.”
”You’re just going to pretend like nothing happened?” Seth raises an eyebrow at him. ”Like your shoulder isn’t perfectly fine? Like you’re not suddenly strong enough to punch right through this wall if you wanted to? I’m trying to help you, here.”
Maybe he is, and maybe he isn’t. They’ve never talked. Just side-eyed each other long enough in and outside of the ring that the proximity became familiar and they shifted into an uneasy truce where they’re less than friends, but decidedly more than whatever they were before. "She warned me against you."
Seth flinches. It's not as satisfying as Roman thought it would be. ”She would. She hates my guts."
"I fucked Dean over," Seth says with a grimace, as if that was all it was, as if Dean's the only one who got hurt when he decided that the Shield was yesterday's news. Roman bites his teeth together to keep from saying something he might regret in the morning. "Come on. We'll take your car."
Roman doesn't budge. "You know what happened to me."
”I know some of it. Not enough to talk you through it. And either way, we can’t discuss it here."
They ride back to Roman’s hotel in silence, the sound of Seth's fingers drumming against the wheel loud and intrusive. Back at the hotel he watches Seth pace, like he’s the one who has too much energy for his skin to contain.
"Are you like me?" Roman asks, unable to put words to it, to define what he is, how he's changed. His body's thrumming with power and everything looks different now, sharper.
"Like you? Chosen?" Seth laughs. It's a harsh, bitter sound. His scent goes acrid and for a moment Roman thinks he’s actually able to smell Seth’s envy. "No. The moment Dean gets here, I'm out. This bullshit is way above my paygrade."
"Then how do you -?"
Seth finally stops his pacing to look at Roman. "Hunter promised me more than a title. I just had to earn it first." There is a world of loathing in Seth's voice, aimed mostly at himself. He gives a bitter little smile. "You know how many times Dean's been out due to injury? How many times he's had surgery? How many months he's lost to rehabbing?"
"Not off the top of-"
"None." Seth spits it like a curse. "Not a single one. Because Luna got to him when he was seventeen and wrestling for drugs and rent money and she made him immortal. He doesn't get injured.”
”Never stood a chance of hurting him. What, you thought I’d do that?"
”You did,” Roman says.
”Jesus.” Seth looks insulted. ”It’s like you never knew me at all. I needed him out of the way, and I knew he had to play along if he wanted to keep up the illusion of being normal.”
There is too much in there for Roman to unpack. He can’t even start with the implications of Seth being a better person than he thought, or maybe just callously ruthless in another way than he assumed. Not while it’s eclipsed by the idea of Dean being - immortal is too big a word, so he’ll settle on invulnerable. There is no way that can be true. Chosen or not, he’s seen Dean injured, seen him sick. Skin split and bruised, damaged ribs, shoulder torn, concussions. He’s had food poisoning more than once, been hungover, down with the flu and delirious with fever. It doesn’t add up and he’d know for a fact that Seth's bullshitting him if it hadn’t been for the experience of bright moonlight flooding the locker room on an overcast, moonless night, and the way some of it had seemed to be coming from him.
”What am I, Seth? What is he?”
Seth crosses his arms over his chest and sighs in surrender. "The way Dean explained it to me, there’s a whole bunch of gods out there, some more hands-on than others. Sometimes they grant powers to people. Dean’s god - and yours, I guess - she’s a trickster god, a shapeshifter. Possibly not entirely sane, but she already wants to strip my skin off and wear it like a coat, so maybe don’t tell her I said so.”
”Why do you know about this?” Roman manages to bite back the second half of the question, which is when I didn’t. Seth seems to hear it anyway.
”Because I saw him. Outside of the arena in Kansas City. I forgot my phone, came back for it several hours after the show on my way back from the box, and saw Dean bathed in silver fighting this big, hulking beast. You’ve never seen Dean move like that. It was like mercury, fluid and fast and unstoppable, and he turned and roared and I swear to you, he had claws. Real fucking claws and blood up to his elbows. Couldn’t lie his way out of that one, could he? So we got rid of the corpse together and then he told me. Told me, and made me swear not to tell anybody else. Like that was ever an option. Who’d believe me if I told them that Dean fucking Ambrose had supernatural powers and that every match we’d ever had, every win I’d ever scored had been a goddamn lie, because every time I was giving it my all he was holding back, wrestling me like you’d wrestle a child. Damn right I kept my mouth shut.”
There is heartbreak and fury in Seth’s voice, and it makes sense in a way. For years, Roman has been trying to figure out what would make a man who cares more about wrestling than anything else in the world give up all his principles and settle for empty praise, foul play and hand-me-down wins over real glory and hard-earned victories. Learning that the entire game is rigged and that there are no such things as a fair fight or a clean win could go a long way to explain it. ”Why me, though?”
"Why not? You’ve already got everything else.” There’s a sharp knock on the door and Seth grabs his bag from the floor. ”That’s my cue. Guess I’ll see you around. It was fun wrestling you,” he adds, like that’s a thing they’ll never do again, and before Roman can figure out how to respond he’s already at the door, slipping out as Dean enters.
Dean pauses and throws a glance over his shoulder. ”Wait, was that-?”
”Huh.” Dean stares for a moment, thoughtful, and then he shakes himself, dismissing Seth like a bad dream and turning to Roman with a grin. ”So, I hear we’ve got a mutual friend."
”You’re going to have to take this from the beginning.”
Dean shrugs. He’s stretched himself out on the bed as if he belongs there, shoes and all, bouncing a little to test the mattress. ”Nice. Better than I expected.”
”For fuck's sake, Dean.” Roman leans against the edge of the desk, nails digging into the hard wood.
”Not much to say, really. Luna chose you. Congratulations.” Dean tips an imaginary hat at him, grinning in that sharp, closed-off way he does in the ring, like life’s a joke and he’s already heard the punchline. "You took one hell of a beating, so with a little luck you can get out of wrestling for a while, until you learn just how much you'll have to hold back to appear mortal.” Dean rolls over and sits up, as smoothly as if he hadn’t wrestled for weeks, showing none of the constant aches and pains and little injuries that always plague them. ”What did she tell you?"
"That she chose me. Something about a darkness to challenge. What about you?”
”Oh, you know. Stuff.” Dean waves his hand, and Roman can tell from the look on his face that he’s not going to get a better answer than that. ”Look, you’re not exactly human anymore. You’ve got powers. You’re faster, stronger, tougher to kill. You can do some weird shit.”
”Weird shit like-?”
Dean’s grin grows. He gets out of the bed and kicks his shoes off. ”Don’t freak out,” he says, like he’s really, really hoping that Roman will, and then he’s gone.
There's a rat on the floor, a large, brown, vicious looking one. Roman gasps, staggering backwards. The rat scoffs, a very human sound, and Roman has the dizzying impression that it's judging him.
"Goddamn," Roman breathes.
The rat chirps at him. It sounds a lot like laughter. Roman’s heart is hammering hard in his chest as he takes a step forward and crouches down. He’s not exactly scared of rats, but he’s never been fond of them either. It means he’s never looked at one closely before, never seen the way the fur shifts from brown to gray, or noticed the sharp, clever eyes or the smoothness of their movements. Without warning it darts between Roman’s feet, making him flinch, goes under the bed, and comes out again with an old, dusty nacho chip in its mouth and a satisfied look on its face.
Roman grimaces. ”Oh, come on, dude. I do not want to know how long that’s been under there.”
Roman gets the feeling that if a rat could roll its eyes, it would. It holds the chip in its paws and finishes the nacho in two seconds flat, then pauses and looks at Roman as if trying to figure him out.
This time, Roman can see it happen. The change is fast, but it’s not instantaneous. There’s an impression of limbs stretching, twisting, the spine straightening, rapid growth, and for a dizzying instant Roman thinks he can see them both, like two superimposed pictures, before it’s just Dean standing there, licking the salt of his fingers.
”Less than a week,” he says, smugly. ”Still crunchy.”
There is no way this is happening. There is no way this is his life now. "I need a drink," Roman says.
To Seth, immortality is something enviable - well, of course it is. He's ambitious, larger than life, and was determined to live forever in history long before he knew that actual immortality was on the line. For Dean, it's the gift of reckless abandon, knowing that nothing he does in the ring will kill him.
To Roman all it means is that he'll live to bury his children. As he downs his seventh shot of tequila that's what makes his eyes blur. He and Galina were meant to grow old together, side by side. He'd retire from wrestling eventually, be a full time dad and family man, and when the kids moved out the two of them were to enjoy their sunset years together, surrounded by kids and grandkids, nephews and nieces. And Luna stole that. Gave him power, like he wasn't already powerful enough, adaptability, like he hasn't been able to take every curveball life threw him in stride, and a new direction, as if he didn't already have one that suited him just fine. It makes him furious. And if she were to appear in front of him right now, he'd punch her right in her goddamn face.
"Nah." Dean pats him on the shoulder, grinning like this is funny, and Roman digs his nails into his palms to keep from decking him. "That's the booze speaking."
They’re sitting on the floor, bottle and glasses right on the carpet, and somehow Roman’s ended up leaning against the bed, tilting his head back to watch the room spin around. Dean’s sitting crosslegged, tracing patterns in the coarse texture of the carpet.
"You said we couldn't get drunk."
"I said we can't get drunk unless we want to. Try to keep up."
To be fair, Roman's did want it, but now the room is lurching and throwing up is starting to feel if not like a good idea, then at least pretty damn inevitable. "You're full of crap."
"Do I look drunk to you?"
Roman squints at him in the low light of the room. Dean looks - relaxed, and amused, his gaze and hands steady, pupils normal, and the flush on his face might just be from the heat, despite having matched Roman shot by shot. He’s a good friend. Went out and got the tequila while Roman was silently freaking out, then sat down on the floor to drink with him. Seth wouldn’t do that. Nobody would. Just Dean.
”Why’d we stop talking? I’ve missed you,” Roman says, shoving Dean lightly with his knuckles.
”Pretty sure it was all on your side, Mr One-Against-All.”
The words are laced with something sharp and bitter, and it’s not right, it can’t be, because Roman doesn’t remember ever turning away from Dean. He just got busy with the title runs, caught up in the madness of it and fighting to keep his head above water, and when he finally came up for air he’d been rooming and riding solo for a while already, always on his way from one press conference to the next, desperate to fit in some work outs between doing publicity and fighting to retain, night after night.
”You’re my brother, Dean. You’re my best friend. If I fucked up, I’m sorry.”
”Yeah, whatever.” Dean holds up the bottle. ”Want another?”
Roman shakes his head, groaning as the motion sends a wave of nausea through him. He pushes himself upright. "How do I get not-drunk?"
"Just gotta want it, man."
"What, like -" Roman frowns. "Make a wish?"
"No, dumbass. What do you think this is, Neverneverland? Want it. Like you want the Universal championship. Like you want to pound Strowman into the pavement. Want it."
"That is the shittiest explanation I've ever heard."
"It's your body, right? You decide when you eat, go to sleep, stand up, sit down, throw a punch, right? So decide this. Fucking want it."
Roman opens his mouth to call bullshit.
"Unless you can't face this sober?"
"Fuck you," Roman growls, because Dean isn’t wrong. Not about the booze, and not the rest of it either. As he closes his eyes, he finds he's aware of his body in a way he never was before. The intoxication feels like a tangible thing in his blood, in his brain, and when he tries to push it aside it evaporates like mist in sunlight. He blinks, startled by the cold harsh angles of soberity, the way reality slips and slots perfectly in place.
"Told ya," Dean says smugly.
Roman wonders if he looks as wide-eyed as he feels. "Holy shit."
"There's techniques and meditations and shit you can learn if you want to. But it's pretty intuitive. You feel it, right? The energy? The way it’s there in everything around you, binds it all together? Just gotta channel it, let it enhance you. That's what she gave you. The mission you can take or leave. But this, the awareness of yourself and the world and the essence of every living thing - that's yours to do what you want with."
"And if I don't want to do shit?"
Dean shrugs. "Up to you, man. Sounds pretty boring if you ask me."
"Galina's going to think I'm crazy.” It's been dawning on him during the night just how impossible this is going to be to explain and to believe. Roman wouldn't have believed it himself, if he hadn't felt it happen. And the kids. The twins are still too little, but what is he supposed to say to JoJo? ’By the way, honey, daddy's got superpowers and can turn into a bear?’ He can’t decide if she’ll be appalled, jealous, or completely over the moon. Dean doesn't say anything, but it's written all over his face.
"You want me to lie to my wife," Roman says flatly. "To my family."
Dean grimaces. "If you want to still have a family, yeah."
"You told Seth."
Dean laughs then, and there's no joy in it. "Not by choice. And then he stabbed us in the back first chance he got, so tell me again how I fucked up trying to keep it a secret."
Roman gets it. Still doesn't mean that it he likes it, the way Dean and Seth kept this secret from him, making him the odd one out in their team of three. The only one who never knew why Seth left. The only one to believe that Seth almost killed Dean with those cinderblocks. He tried to hurt Seth for it. Almost succeeded. He's had nightmares for years about his his brothers killing one another and him having to pick up the pieces and bury them both.
"I'm not Seth." He says it quietly, keeping his temper carefully reined in. "And I'm not you. I've never lied to my wife and I'm not going to start now. She has a right to know who she's married to."
Dean opens his mouth then freezes and tilts his head like he's listning for something. When Roman is about to ask Dean shakes his head sharply, nods at the door, then gestures for him to go on talking.
Roman narrows his eyes but says out loud: "Don't give me that look. How were you even expecting me to keep it a secret? You think she wouldn't notice that I've stopped aging? Maybe not now, but in five years? Ten? Or is it just that you can’t imagine a relationship lasting that long? I’m with her for life, uce. There’s no goddamn keeping it quiet and hoping it’ll solve itself."
While he’s talking, Dean gets to his feet and moves soundlessly to the door. He hesitates for just a moment before he slams it open, making it crash into the wall. The corridor outside is empty, but there’s a sweet, pungent scent of incense in the air and a low, eerie giggle that can only come from one person on the roster. There is something lying on the floor right outside of the room.
Dean picks it up, holding it between his thumb and index fingers as if it repels him. It takes Roman a moment to recognize it; a long, thin bamboo stick with a sharp spike attached to it, used to make tattoos the traditional way, hand tapped.
Dean tries the spike against his thumb, and sucks in a sharp breath as it pierces the skin. ”I hate Bray Wyatt.”