He likes Johnny.
At the start, Tommaso isn’t sure he would be able to say that if “JOHNNY GARGANO” didn’t just happen to be the name scribbled in big, messy letters down the side of his ankle. Knowing him, he probably would have never even given Johnny a second glance if it wasn’t. That thought doesn’t really sit well. But it doesn’t matter- because he did, he did give Johnny a second glance, and a whole lot more glances after that.
The NXT suits ambushed him at the training center one day with their tournament papers and their “would you be willing to fight as a tag team” and their “there are a few other unpartnered new guys we could put with you” and he very nearly walked away, because fuck depending on somebody else to win your matches- but then they asked him “how do you feel about Johnny Gargano?” and that was that. Something inside him leapt up at that name, light and electric in his chest, and he stomped it back down because that’s the kind of shit that makes you easy prey in a business like this, but he agreed. He agreed right there on the spot.
He wanted to be disappointed, the first time they met. It would have made everything easier in the long run. Like maybe then he wouldn’t lose his head about this soulmate stuff, the way everybody else always seemed to. Johnny certainly didn’t seem like the kind of soulmate Tommaso had imagined for himself. He was just another small guy (probably why they suggested him in the first place). A measly 199, and, what, like 5’5? He wanted to be disappointed that this was what fate stuck him with: Johnny B. Goode. Johnny nice-guy, Johnny plays-fair, Johnny always-look-on-the-bright-side. Johnny who he kind of doubted could even win a match. Johnny with a terrible haircut and an even worse beard and a boyish twerp’s face and an overplayed spunky underdog gimmick and-
And then Johnny flashed him a warm, hesitant smile, and he wasn’t disappointed. Not even a little bit.
Coming from anybody else, he would probably find the cheeriness exhausting, and the constant grinning would be aggravating, and Tommaso would want to grind his boot down on that childlike optimism until he heard bones crack. He’s done it before. And maybe it’s because of those words on his leg that made him agree in the first place, or maybe he really would have felt this way even without them, but he doesn’t hate these things about Johnny. He doesn’t hate anything about Johnny. Because it’s Johnny. He feels… something completely different than hate about Johnny.
When Johnny tells him they’re gonna win, for some reason, he always believes it. And when Johnny’s happy, he feels weirdly, fiercely protective of it. And when Johnny Gargano smiles at him, his heart thuds hard up against his chest. Every time. Every single time.
Johnny smiles at him a lot, it turns out.
They win. Match after match after match. And it feels fucking great. If he had reservations at the start, they’re long gone now, because he can’t get enough of tagging with Johnny. He can’t get enough of Johnny, and for some reason, Johnny seems to like him a whole lot too. He can’t even be disappointed when Johnny pins him at the Classic- he tries to, tries to feel hurt and angry and betrayed and all the things you’re supposed to feel when you lose to your- to your-
But then Johnny calls his name, on the brink of tears, and something sharp gets caught up in his chest. In his throat. And when he holds Johnny after that, it almost feels better than winning. (Almost. He’s not quite that big of a sap. Winning would still have felt better.)
They become real, full-time partners after that. And real, full-time friends. They get signed together and it’s the best day of Tommaso’s life. He can’t read minds, but he thinks it’s probably the best day of Johnny’s too. They move into the same house together- work, carpool, all those very normal and mundane things, and also the fact that they’re-
They work well together, somehow, despite their differences. They work really fucking well together. Feeding off each other’s strengths and backing up each other’s weaknesses. Inside the ring and out of it. It seems like it comes as the most natural thing in the world to Johnny, but Tommaso finds himself dumbstruck every time at how well they read each other. They never miss a step. Hell, they could finish each other’s sentences. And something hot and light and persistent in his gut can’t stop singing: We were meant to do this. This is how it’s supposed to happen.
And something smaller in him thinks, even though they’ve still never talked about their marks: Johnny must know it too.
Johnny drives him home after a particularly brutal match one night. There’s still blood on Tommaso even after the medics get a look at him, his head feels like it’s about to split open and he can barely move his legs. So Johnny gathers him up as best he can, and all but carries him out of the arena to the car. Johnny drums his fingers on the wheel the whole way back, plays soft music in the car, because the one thing he can’t stand when he’s worried is silence - and even with his head pounding like it is, Tommaso can’t find it within himself to be annoyed. He feels oddly touched, actually, that he knows little things like this about Johnny. Like Johnny’s trusting him with a big secret or something. He almost smiles.
(He really is in a lot of fucking pain here, though.)
Johnny helps him out of the passenger seat, one arm around his waist and another gripping the hand that Tommaso slings over his shoulders. Tommaso’s tired from his match, maybe, or he’s loopy from the pain or something, but for a minute it’s as if all he can focus on are Johnny’s fingers suddenly lacing through his. His skin feels hot everywhere Johnny’s holding him. And Johnny always did run as hot as a furnace, but this isn’t that, and-
Tommaso screws his eyes shut and blinks a few times before he reaches the end of that train of thought. He takes a deep breath when they’re inside and squeezes Johnny’s hand, and when Johnny dumps him down on the couch he almost can’t let it go.
“Do you want to go to your room?” Johnny’s voice startles him out of his thoughts. “‘Cos I figured, with your leg, you probably wouldn’t want to go up the stairs. Do you need more ice? Let me get you a blanket or something, man.”
Tommaso is too out of it to tell him not to bother, but that doesn’t matter anyway, because Johnny doesn’t even stay long enough to hear his response before darting off to bring what appears to be every last sheet and pillow from Tommaso’s entire bed down to the couch. Johnny tosses the whole armload gently over him, then bends down to straighten all the blankets, like Tommaso’s completely invalid and not just tired and sore. Johnny sweetheart. Johnny-fucking-tenderness.
And, yeah, ok, Tommaso’s too tired to stop him. Definitely much too tired, definitely, and that’s the only reason he goes so still at Johnny leaning over him, laying practically chest to chest, putting his hands all over him, and- Smoothing the blanket over him, and his arms and his hips and-
Johnny lets out a horrified little noise when he touches Tommaso’s legs, and for a second Tommaso’s stomach lurches, but when he looks down he sees Johnny holding up a hand stained with a tiny splotch of red.
“There’s blood! On your shoe! Is it your ankle, did the medics even look at this?” Johnny says, a pained look on his face.
He pushes up Tommaso’s pant leg carefully up and starts untying his apparently bleeding boot, as if he's going to pull it off and play doctor himself, and- Oh.
It’s that boot. It’s that leg, that leg, that ankle, and Johnny’s about to expose his mark if he does this-
And here’s the real kicker: Tommaso almost lets him.
His skin is still buzzing from Johnny’s touch and his head is murky from the match and he almost, almost, almost lets Johnny see it.
He thinks - in a matter of seconds, all the thoughts running through his mind at once - about Johnny carrying him, and him holding Johnny after their matches, about their strangely perfect team and their surprisingly perfect friendship, about Johnny’s dumb hair that he kind of wants to... pull? And Johnny’s dumb face that he kind of wants to- to-
About Johnny’s soft hands and his blinding, beautiful smile, and about how maybe, just maybe, that Johnny would finally see those words on Tommaso’s leg and clap his hands to his mouth and gasp, Mine too!
And then he also thinks - and he’ll damn himself a million times for this after the moment has passed - about how Johnny hesitated when they first met. About how strange they really are together. About how much everyone else loves Johnny, about their differences and about good, sweet Johnny with his big bad partner who’s still not really used to trusting another person like this.
And he thinks about how, after all this time, Johnny - Johnny who has never lied to him - hasn’t said anything about his own mark.
And he imagines Johnny seeing those words on his ankle, and standing up, and leaving.
So Tommaso kicks out.
“Don’t touch it. I already looked at it, it’s fine.”
Johnny starts to protest, but Tommaso gives him a very grave look, and kicks the blanket the rest of the way up over himself.
“I just need to sleep,” he grumbles. “I’m fine, Johnny.”
Johnny’s already walking away and yammering about giving him some space before he thinks to add, maybe a little too quietly, “Thank you.”
So Johnny never sees his mark.
And that’s fair, probably, because it’s not like he’s ever seen Johnny’s mark either? And it’s fine too. For a while. They’re still best friends. They’re still a dream team. A match made in heaven. Something is still buzzing around in the back of Tommaso’s mind that their marks must match, that Johnny must have a good reason for sitting on his own confession. That he can wait for it. That it’s coming.
Because it is coming, isn’t it?
Johnny’s an endlessly lovable guy. He’s probably never pissed off anybody in his entire life. He’s open, he’s kind, he’s easy to talk to, and he makes friends at NXT. He makes a ton of them.
Tommaso’s always been kind of a loner.
And that’s fine too. It’s not that he’s jealous, not that at all. Tommaso’s always appreciated having his space. Johnny’s the only friend he really wants anyway.
The thing is just that... after a while, he starts to feel less certain.
Johnny doesn’t tag with anyone else, of course. Why would he? He actually swears he wouldn’t, unprompted, over a couple beers one night. But something in their team starts to fall out of sync anyway.
They lose their rhythm. They lose the song. And then the Revival catches the scent of blood in the water, and they start losing matches.
They start losing a lot of matches.
And maybe it’s Tommaso, psyching himself out, making this worse than it needs to be.
Or maybe it’s-
Because Johnny’s got a whole lot of other friends now. Practically the whole roster are his friends, hell, half the people grinding them into the mat are Johnny’s friends. And Tommaso’s not jealous, not about that. He doesn’t have the energy or the patience to be Johnny’s only friend.
But Johnny is his only friend. And Johnny is his only mark, which means Johnny is his-
Johnny is his soulmate. The only one he is ever gonna get.
Tommaso is scared to hear those words out loud like that even in his own head, because he still hasn’t seen even a glimpse of Johnny’s mark. What he has seen is him and Johnny falling out of sync, and Johnny spending all his time with all his other friends. With Finn and Kassius and Sami and Ember and Candice- especially Candice. Oh does Johnny spend a lot of time with Candice.
Tommaso noticed right away, the first time they all three got lunch together, or the first time they all went to a movie together, or something, what does it matter- that Johnny and Candice are practically the same person, aren’t they?
They’re both so happy, being around them is like a big feedback loop of smiles and sunshine and energy. They make each other happy. They even make Tommaso happy, despite himself; it’s hard to frown around either one of them alone, but it’s impossible when they’re together.
They like all the same sugary foods, they shop at the same dumb stores at the mall (who even still shops at malls?), they watch their same favorite CW shows together (“You’re always invited, Tommaso!”), and they talk tirelessly about all those stupid cartoons they both love. And Johnny will stop in the middle of their workouts to send Candice a selfie sometimes, and Candice will send Johnny panda videos at 3 in the morning that make him laugh so loud he wakes Tommaso up in the next room over, and-
And Tommaso’s starting to feel kind of pathetic for grasping at these straws. And he’s starting to get angry about feeling pathetic. And he still hasn’t seen Johnny’s fucking mark, has he?
Because it does make sense that it would be her name. They’re perfectly in step, they were on the same page before they even met. Meanwhile Johnny and Tommaso can’t seem to get their shit together at all, and they’re only getting worse the longer this losing streak goes on. It has to be her name, because why else, what other earthly reason would Johnny have to spend this long with Tommaso and never once mention his mark? Someone like Johnny should have blurted it out the minute they met. He loves those romantic soulmate movies. He should have said it a hundred thousand different times by now if they were a match.
The next time Johnny and Candice invite him out for “three best friends go to the water park!” or whatever the fuck- The next time Johnny invites him out, he very politely declines. Says he’s not feeling good. He waves the two of them off despite their painfully genuine concerns and he sits at home. He watches TV very, very casually. He doesn’t chew on his lip until it starts to bleed a little, and he doesn’t pull every fraying string out of the couch. He doesn’t.
Nobody gets to pick their mark, that much Tommaso is becoming achingly aware of. He doesn’t hate Candice for this. How could he? She’s been a friend to him all this time, and a good one at that.
But he does kind of hate Johnny, a little. Because Johnny’s just too good for him. Isn’t that the problem here? Johnny has always been too good for Tommaso Ciampa, and everyone has always been able to see it except him.
Everyone expects him to turn on Johnny, to hurt their lovable Gargano, the darling of Full Sail. And he really fucking hates fate for doing this to him, for giving him a mark that he’s becoming more and more certain by the day has no match. It would’ve been better not to be marked at all. Not to get his hopes up. Not start to-
It would’ve been better to never even meet Johnny than to be constantly letting Johnny down these days, than feeling so damn pitiful about it. It would’ve been better to never even meet him than to watch Johnny’s open fondness start to dim into wariness and uncertainty when Tommaso can’t do anything but rage after their matches, better than to lay at home like this groaning and whining and thinking about stupid Johnny, who’s out with his friends and might never come back, and stupid Johnny who he’ll never get his hands on no matter what he does because his own stupid name isn’t on Johnny’s stupid skin.
And he hates, hates, hates himself for feeling like this at all.
He’s distracted all the fucking time now, thinking about Johnny. He’s distracted in the ring.
He gets injured.
He gets injured at fucking house show because he couldn’t keep his traitorous mind off-
He doesn’t tell Johnny right away.
Johnny can promise left and right that he doesn’t want another partner, but if this is bad and Tommaso isn’t better by Chicago, and they’re tag team wrestlers, then those promises don’t mean anything, do they? Johnny will take a new partner. He’ll have to. And then Johnny will move on. Johnny will replace him in the ring with somebody who doesn’t fuck up all their matches, somebody who can actually protect him, somebody who can pull their own weight.
And if they’re not partners anymore, then Johnny won’t have any more reason to spend time with him, really. Johnny will spend all his time with his other friends. With Candice LeRae whose name is almost certainly written in cute little cursive on his ass or his foot, or one of the few parts of Johnny that Tommaso hasn’t seen. And Johnny’s going to forget about him. And that’ll be the end of that.
He doesn’t tell Johnny at all, actually.
Johnny hears about the injury on Twitter the next morning. Because right on cue, as if all his insecurities had been projected up on the big screen when he walked out of that ring, fans start looking for a new partner for Johnny. Who’s gonna be the best replacement for Tommaso Ciampa? Who’s a better match for Johnny? Who’s better for Johnny than Ciampa was?
They only suggest everyone else on the roster.
To his credit, Johnny does call the second he sees rumors of what happened. “Are you okay?” he spits out over the phone, sounding genuinely worried. “Are you with the trainers right now, is that why you’re not at the hotel? Can I do anything?”
But he doesn’t ask why Tommaso didn’t tell him. And underneath Johnny’s concern, all Tommaso can hear is: Will you still be able to wrestle?
Something anguished inside him is screaming that he needs to tell Johnny right fucking now, that he needs to get home and show Johnny his mark before it’s too late, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t need that. He stomps the feeling down, and it fights back, and he smothers it.
When he does get home later, he tells Johnny it’s not serious. He’ll be fine by tomorrow. He’ll wrestle in Chicago.
“Hey, that’s great. I’m glad you’re okay, buddy.” Johnny smiles weirdly at him. After an uncomfortably silent second, he laughs a little, and adds: “Y’know, the internet had some really wild ideas today about other people for me to tag with?”
And Johnny’s just smiling at him like that’s normal small talk, like it doesn’t mean anything, like he doesn’t know- and Tommaso is suddenly so fucking furious he can’t breathe. Because Johnny doesn’t know.
Johnny doesn’t have his name. Johnny never did.
Then they lose in Chicago. Tommaso blows his knee out during the match, and when he looks in Johnny’s eyes on the ramp afterwards, there are three things he’s certain of: One, that this time his injury is serious. Two, that whatever Johnny’s mark says, it does not say “Tommaso Ciampa.” And three, that he is not the one who’s going to be forgotten here.
He puts Johnny in the fucking hospital.
The next day, Tommaso gets his mark tattooed over. Standard procedure; cover-ups are perfectly common for stupid fucking fuckups with stupid fucking one-sided marks like his. A solid, featureless black bar, wrapping down his ankle.