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Friends That Never Ache

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Tommaso's phone makes a fake shutter-click when it takes a picture. The sound effect is loud in the trainer's room, and too cheerful for the silence that's only been broken by the soft rrrip of the fresh roll of bandage tape being wound around Tommaso's ankle and his barely-suppressed gasp of pain when Terra first started manipulating the joint.

Johnny smiles sheepishly when they both look over at him and shrugs. "Rumor's going to be all over Twitter anyway.  We might as well set it straight, right?"

Tommaso's smile is a complicated thing that doesn't warm the ice-blue of his eyes at all before it folds in on itself and falls away, taking Johnny's with it. "Sure. Maybe if I tweet something profound enough with it they won't put me on the shelf just yet."

Terra stays dishearteningly quiet as she secures the end of the tape along the arch of Tommaso's foot. The decision to clear him for the match isn't hers to make, but her report about his condition will count for a lot, and from the way she's not joking around with them now, Johnny has a feeling it won't be good. The disappointment he feels about what that probably means for Takeover is washed away quickly enough by a wave of gratitude that someone's looking out for his partner, protecting him where Johnny can't and Tommaso himself won't.

He scares up another faint smile and assures her that Tommaso will follow her instructions about icing, and then it's just the two of them and a heavy silence.

Tommaso's staring a hole through his own bandaged foot; Johnny figures that's probably at least partly to keep from having to look at him. He turns back to the corner where their bags are stowed and bends to tuck Tommaso's phone back into the pocket where he keeps it, moving slowly to give him a minute. Still, when he speaks up, it's nothing Johnny wants to hear.

"I'm sorry."

"Don't do that," he says, whirling back to face him. He knows he's snapping, just as much as he knows Tommaso doesn't deserve that, but Johnny can't let him think he's got anything to feel guilty about. "Don't apologize for being hurt."

"I can't be sorry for how it's going to hurt you?"

Tommaso's sitting hunched on the trainer's table, eyes unreadable but at least looking at Johnny now. It is going to hurt: watching Tommaso wait for medical to confirm what he already knows, seeing through the casual front he's going to put up with everyone backstage, knowing that it should be the two of them out there retaking their Titles through every second of whatever ends filling their space on the card, sitting by uselessly while he grits his way through rehab. It's all going to hurt. Somehow, he doesn't think that's what Tommaso means.

"You've never hurt me," he says softly, and he wonders if Tommaso is also remembering the CWC and how Johnny can't say the same.

"Maybe not, but I'm getting ready to cost you a Title shot."

"No way. There's almost a whole day left for you to rest and ice down. We don't know that you won't be cleared yet."

"Johnny, I know," he says. "I know the difference between hurt and injured, and I know they're not going to let me get in the ring with you tomorrow."

"So we make it a handicap match, and I'll bring you home a belt. I can still climb faster than both of Ellering's boys. Let him cut some smart-ass promo about me doing it myself, and then I'll just leave them in the dust."

"You're not funny." Tommaso's voice is flat and his eyes are dark and cold. Johnny's pretty sure he could drown in that gaze, and not in the corny, romantic way Chuck likes to tease him about on Twitter, but in the way of a sailor cast adrift by a storm, exhausted and alone. "I'd take you out myself before I let you feed yourself to those monsters for me."

There's probably an answer to that, maybe even one that would smooth that look off of his face, but Johnny doesn't have the slightest damn clue what it could be. He's never had a partner – not like this anyway – and he's lost for the words to fix whatever's going wrong here.

"Well, I'm honored that you love me enough to murder me, I guess." When Tommaso shakes his head and snorts something that might be the beginning of a laugh, Johnny feels like he might be able to keep his head above water for a little longer after all. "But maybe it doesn't have to come to that? We'll figure something out. We'll talk to Regal. Maybe we get our shot in Brooklyn?"

"Or maybe they'll just line you up with a new partner. Hell, we're in Chicago. Maybe CM Punk will make a surprise return."

He means to play that off as a joke, and it might have worked with someone else - might have worked with Johnny once upon a time - but his tone's all wrong and Johnny knows him well enough to hear it, and he can't let that stand.

"Not a chance."

"Well, no, of course not. He's made it pretty clear he's out for good, but you're a great partner and there's a lot of guys looking for an opening to get on the card –"

"You're not listening to me,” he says, and moves to the edge of the table, crowding Tommaso a little. “I said 'Not a chance'. Not just to Punk or Lorcan or Roddy or Ohno or anybody else in the locker room, no matter how good they are. I only have one partner, and I only need one partner."

Impulsively, he slings out an arm and hauls Tommaso into a hug, tight but weirdly-angled to avoid jostling his wrapped-up leg.

"That's a pretty good speech," Tommaso admits, going slowly less stiff in his arms, and Johnny finds himself cradling his partner's head. It feels as right from this side as it always does when it's Tommaso holding him. He can't help but tip his face down and press a kiss to his scalp.

"Yeah? How many more times you need to hear it before it sinks in? 'Cause I can go all night." Tommaso doesn't answer (not even to make a double entendre or suggest Rich Swann as a substitute), except to loop an arm around his waist, but Johnny figures one more time can't hurt. "You are irreplaceable."

He doesn't know what Tommaso might have said about that, because the one to break the silence that falls over them this time is Scott Dawson, slouching in the doorway with Dash lurking just over his shoulder.

“I hate to break up this touching scene,” he says, not actually sounding that regretful at all, “but we're here on business.”

Johnny reluctantly lets go of his partner and turns to stand shoulder to shoulder with him instead.

“And what business is it you think you have with us?” Tommaso asks.

“It don't sit right with us that the Authors of Pain are walking around with the Titles we made great.” Dash nods behind him, and his grimace is probably supposed to convey something derogatory about AoP, even though it just looks like my jaw hurts to Johnny. “And we've got a proposition for you.”

“You gonna make us an offer we can't refuse?” he asks, leaning into the admittedly-terrible Brando impression that Tommaso had groaned so hard at when they'd watched the movie curled close on the couch one lazy afternoon.

Wilder narrows his eyes, but Dawson is unfazed. “Something like that. Rumor is that we've got two cleared competitors between us,” he says, making a gesture that encompasses both of the teams in the room and totally ignoring the heated look Johnny sends his way, “and I know we've got a common interest in knocking the Champs down a rung. So, whadd'ya say? If the news on that ankle's as bad as it looked, then maybe we can bury the hatchet for one more night?”

“Right in the middle of Ellering's back, if you can,” Tommaso says.



The match won't be for the Tag Team Titles, of course. Production and the social media interns start promoting the revised match-card almost immediately: first team to climb the ladder and open the cardboard box suspended above the ring wins deep-dish for life from the pizza chain that's sponsoring the show. The tweaked stipulation seems a little cruel, even to Tommaso, when the backstage interview crew comes around to ask Wilder when he expects to be able to share a pizza with his partner, should Dawson and Johnny come out on top.

He doesn't spend too much time feeling sorry for Dash and his protein shake, though, because then it's time for the match – Johnny's striding out to the ring with Tommaso's bandana wound around his wrist for luck – and it's only about ten-thousand times more nerve-wracking to watch from backstage than from Johnny's corner. He can't even pace right in this fucking splint they've ordered for his ankle.

The match isn't great; neither of them are as smooth as they would be with their rightful partners (and, okay, maybe Tommaso isn't the most objective observer right now), but it's good. A pair of well-timed superkicks dumps Akam and Rezar and a ladder off the apron and into a heap with their manager at the bottom. While they frantically clear the rubble off of Ellering, Johnny shinnies up the ladder, and holds the pizza box triumphantly above his head.

Tommaso doesn't see it happen live – he's already making his way down to gorilla by the time Johnny's boots hit the canvas – but he hears the boos long before he makes it to the curtain. His gut sinks as he limps down the ramp as fast as his bum leg will take him.

It's not fast enough to catch Dawson and take a piece of what he's owed out of his hide before he slinks off through the crowd, but it is at least fast enough to catch Johnny when his knees buckle as he pulls himself up from the floor at the foot of the announcers' desk.



“Make no mistake.” Tommaso is seething into the camera, eyes practically burning through the screen of Johnny's phone. “We will be champions again, but those titles and the Authors of Pain will have to wait, because the Top Guys just wrote themselves back into the story at the top of DIY's list!”

In the video, his hand is scrubbing through Johnny's sweaty hair, and Johnny is looking over at him, equal parts dazed and adoring; he'd missed that in the moment, too focused on vengeance and guilt to see anything else. He looks up from the screen now, and finds Johnny's eyes on him, clearer now but no less warm. 

"That was good," he says. "You looked really hot."  He grins, and Tommaso can't do anything but put the phone down and scoot closer to him on the mattress, moving gingerly to keep from dislodging the ice packs from Johnny's shoulder and his own ankle.  They're quite a pair.  

"You're delirious. And I'm going to end them." 

"You're gorgeous," Johnny says, and tips his head to rest on Tommaso's shoulder, "and we're going to end them."

"Okay, it's a date.  You can treat us to free pizza afterward."

"And you'll still kiss me, even if I order anchovies?"

"Even then," he agrees, and tips Johnny's chin up to demonstrate.  

Johnny laughs, sleepy and punchy and soft. "You really do love me." 

Tommaso kisses him again.  He really does.