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Dance With Your Ghost

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Johnny guessed he should have known Brooklyn would be a bad time. It had been the last time, after all.

Everyone had that match wrong, though. Johnny caught the shirt and did blink at it for a second, that was true. It wasn’t the shirt that froze him though, no matter how it had looked, he’d been prepared for Zelina to pull some kind of stunt. What got to him was when he’d looked over and seen Tommaso standing behind Zelina, grin on his face, mouthing “Forget about me already?”

Then Johnny had blinked, Tommaso was gone and Almas had him.

Johnny lay awake for a very long time that night, nursing his sore neck and aching heart.

***

They never did get a new roommate. It turned out they didn’t really need the money anymore and if he made the house pretty quiet when Candice was off on tour, well, that’s what keeping every TV on in the house 24/7 was for. Johnny turned the empty room into a home gym and as the days went by he’d started spending most of this time in there. Sometimes when Candice wasn’t home he slept in there.

Okay, most of the times. He didn’t tell anyone about that.

Tommaso sat in the corner, watching him go through his sit up cycle. “Going for those Finn Balor abs, huh? Looks good, people are noticing.”

“Shut up.”

“Imagine if you’d been this serious about things when we were still teaming!”

“Shut up. You’re not here.”

Tommaso leaned his head back, smile widening, turning cold. “Johnny, Johnny. I’m always gonna be here.”

***

Johnny liked to tell people he hadn’t watched Tommaso’s promo after Chicago, that he’d just wanted to move on, but that was not exactly…true. It was true that he hadn’t felt like he’d watched it so much as he’d experienced it, he’d absorbed it like he was the Borg so it hummed under his skin whenever he managed to have a quiet moment. Whenever anyone asked him if he’d had any clue what had been going on with Tommaso he just told them the truth, that he hadn’t known.

Had he known?

When Tommaso was worried about something he wasn’t the type to come out and say it, he either got sarcastic or went quiet, that Johnny knew and he’d done both that last night. Johnny had assumed he’d been worried about the bad ankle, not that Johnny had asked him really, talking about injuries was bad luck. But he’d known that Tommaso had been broody and worried and glued to his phone, not meeting Johnny’s eyes. Clingy in bed that night, when Johnny finally got him to go to bed, his arm locked around Johnny’s waist. He knew Tommaso hadn’t slept, he’d woken up twice himself and both times he’d caught Tommaso wide awake, staring at the ceiling. Johnny should have said something then. Should have kissed him maybe, told him it didn’t matter how this one match worked out, they’d be solid regardless. Johnny had a bad habit of assuming everyone knew exactly what he was thinking sometimes, he knew that, but he’d thought he and Tommaso had been so in sync.

He’d been making a lot of bad assumptions, he’d found the next day.

But the very worst part, the reason he watched that promo until he felt like his eyes were going to bleed was that Tommaso had been right. Not about the big stuff, Johnny had wanted to keep #DIY going until he’d died, but Johnny had been looking at other partners. He’d even floated the idea to Kassius because Kassius was both of their friends and he’d thought that would be okay. Obviously not, but it had seemed like a good idea at the time, Tommaso was hurt and Johnny hadn’t wanted it to get any worse, which did wind up happening.

“You’re not replaceable,” Johnny said out loud, lying on the mat of his gym, Tommaso draped over the weight bench.

“Funny, you sure tried.”

“I didn’t….” Johnny shook his head. He knew you couldn’t actually win an argument with the guilty voices in your head but he kept trying anyway. “I didn’t want you to get hurt worse by forcing yourself out there and surprise, look what happened.”

“You wanted to win.” Tommaso was staring up at the ceiling, the same way he had that last night in Chicago. “You do what you have to do to win. You always do.”

“This is about the CWC again, isn’t it.”

“You’re the only one who ever brings up the CWC. Guilty conscience?” Tommaso stretched, folding his arms behind his head. He had on the knee brace Johnny had last spotted him wearing at the PC; Tommaso kept switching his rehab schedule so no one would know he was there, it was first time Johnny had seen him in months. He’d lingered so long he missed the flight he’d just been hustling out of there to catch.

“There’s nothing wrong with wanting to win.”

“ ‘Course not. You couldn’t win with me, so you looked at some better options.”

“That’s not fair.”

“Oh, were we talking about fairness? I’d lost track.”

“I’d rather lose every match teamed with you than have won with someone else in Chicago.”

“Hey, you got your wish. Good for you.”

Johnny threw a dumbbell at Tommaso but of course it only sailed right through him and put a dent in the drywall.

***

Johnny was sprawled out on a bench backstage pretending to listen to music when Regal approached him. Johnny didn’t get up. “I know you’ve been in a bit of a rut lately,” Regal said, putting that probably as delicately as he could, William Regal wasn’t a delicate man by nature, “and I’d like to help you break out of it. I need a partner for Roddy Strong tonight and I thought the two of you….”

“No.”

Regal’s expression shifted for a second, first annoyance at being defied so flatly and then concern. “This is not intended to be a long term arrangement, I only….”

“I’m not interested. Sorry,” Johnny added on as an afterthought.

There was that concern again. “Young man, nothing is going to change unless your thinking changes.”

Johnny shrugged. “I guess. I’m just…I don’t know, not interested in tagging with anyone.” Nothing against Roddy of course, he and Johnny went way back. Roddy had even been one of the guys he’d considered subbing in at Chicago if Kassius hadn’t been interested, everyone really had been right about that.

Regal patted Johnny on the shoulder and walked off, shaking his head. Once he was gone Johnny looked over to where Tommaso had been sitting. For an instant Johnny had wondered why Regal hadn’t said anything about Tommaso being there, forgetting himself for a second. That was probably a bad sign. Tommaso raised both eyebrows, putting his hands up in mock innocence. “Don’t turn the man down on my account.”

“Shut up.”

“How messed up would you be if I ever did shut up and went away for good, though?”

Johnny guessed Tommaso had him there. “Thought you’d be happy.”

“Hmm. Kinda too little too late.” Tommaso leaned forward. “Besides, you were really never a tag team guy, right?”

When Johnny turned to glare at him Tommaso was gone.

***
So Johnny hadn’t slept in two days. That was probably an issue. Johnny knew he should…he didn’t know. Talk to someone, he guessed. The insomnia had started right around when Pete Dunne had tossed him all over Houston although he knew that wasn’t the source, he’d had insomnia on and off before then but it sure hadn’t helped. And he guessed he was tired, just when he got into bed…nothing. Staring at the ceiling until he realized the sun was up and his eyes hadn’t closed once.

Regal must have been worried about him walking around looking like warmed over road kill but instead of forcing some torturous intervention Regal scheduled some PC time for him after hours when no one else would be around. Johnny tested the ropes, feeling some of the tension inside him uncoil. Being in the ring was the only time he felt…not good, it was a long time since good had happened, but okay? He felt okay, as much as he felt anything. It was a lot more muscle memory and habit than actual motivation lately but Johnny would take what he could get.

Johnny went through his drill, putting everything out of his mind as he picked up speed running the ropes. This was good though, this might be what he needed. Get his heart rate up, work up a sweat, get some of the poison out.

Then he came out of a mock moonsault and turned around to see Tommaso standing right behind him. Johnny stumbled backward and Tommaso stayed right on him, throwing him so off balance he got tangled up between the top and second ropes. Tommaso grabbed him by his hair and loomed over him, grinning like Johnny was a steak. “So you don’t feel anything, huh?” Johnny could feel him breathing. He’d missed that. Tommaso got in close, his thigh pressed between Johnny’s legs. The first time they’d messed around it had been just like this.

“Is this the best you can do?” Tommaso said, the nails of his free hand almost absent-mindedly trailing down Johnny’s stomach. He let out a low, mocking whistle as he wrenched Johnny’s head back more, leaning in even closer. “At the rate you’re going you’re not even going to be in NXT by the time I get back.” Tommaso laughed at him again, kissing him on the lips and then was gone.

Johnny got himself free of the ropes and crumpled to the mat in a heap. He touched two fingers to his lips, shaking as he dragged himself to sit in the corner.

That’s what Tommaso thought, huh? Okay. Johnny sat there with his head bowed over his knees for a long time, feeling clarity he hadn’t touched in months.

Okay.

***
Winning felt nice. Johnny knew he should probably feel more than nice, but he would definitely take “nice” for now.

He did an interview after that was supposed to be a WWE.com exclusive, where he’d been asked about the win and he’d play acted being fired up because when he did that people stopped being worried about him. “It feels good,” he’d lied, but really that was only a little white one, he didn’t even think it should count. “It’s the first step toward me getting back what I’ve wanted all these months.”

He hadn’t elaborated and the interviewer asked, “A title opportunity?”

“Yeah, that too.”

They didn’t wind up using the interview

***

Johnny loved Takeovers, even though he tended to have a rough time at them. Almas grinned at him to start the match, I-know-something-you-don’t-know laughing in his eyes but Johnny did know. He hoped he knew.

(He knew.)

He even knew when it would happen: when the match was at its height, when the entire crowd was screaming John-ny Wrest-ling, John-ny Wrest-ling, when he had the match won. He set Almas up for the STO and then thought about it some more, took a step back. Johnny took a deep breath and launched into the best, crispest superkick he’d ever done in his life.

It didn’t land because of course it wouldn’t. He was in the main event of Takeover, about to win the biggest match of his career, and was going to win it with his half of their team move. The crowd completely erupted and Johnny smiled to himself, not looking up before that knee strike sent him sprawling. He was only out for about a second; he spit out a tooth as Tommaso picked him up by his hair, a little broader and his beard wilder than when he’d left and wearing the Psycho Killer mask from their old indie days. “Took your time,” Johnny said, licking some blood from his lip.

Tommaso blinked at that, like that wasn’t the reaction he’d expected, but that he pushed the mask off and smiled, crouching down to sneer in Johnny’s face for a second. Whatever he was about to do was going to hurt a lot but that was okay, Johnny knew that was just the only way Tommaso would be able to bring himself to say Missed you too.

Someone being irreplaceable meant when they left a hole and Johnny felt real for the first time since Chicago, like he’d exhaled there and finally got to take a breath again in Philly. “Your beard looks dumb this long.”

Tommaso smiled, stroking it like he was preening for a second before swinging his fist back.

Of course moping and daydreaming hadn’t brought Tommaso back. Why would Tommaso interrupt such a good pity party? Johnny had to be successful and happy, even if he had to fake it hard. Tommaso had only done what he’d done because he’d convinced himself Johnny might not need him, of course seeming like that fear was coming true brings him roaring back.

Johnny would pretend he didn’t need Tommaso Ciampa as long as he could stand it if it kept him standing in front of him. And if Tommaso was going to pretend he believed Johnny, all the better.

He’d let this all fall apart. Johnny didn’t know quite how yet, but he was going to fix it.

After all, no one was going to do it for him.