A/N Not sure how well I'll be able to link this, but I have a ko-fi account now so if you like my writing and you want to keep me caffeinated so I can write even more, anything would be appreciated! My Ko-fi account name is corneroffandom, of course. Thank you!

-x

He's sore. Every step throbs with the ache that he has come to credit with a hard-fought victory. Sure, the average idiot in the crowd might look him in the eye, call him a coward, despicable, a blight to the craft of wrestling, but every match Tommaso Ciampa fights in, he gives his all in, no matter how the finish may eventually come to be. And now he's champion, the NXT title held loosely in his grasp as he stares at it in awe. Every surgery, every minute of rehab, every obstacle he pushed past, everything he lost along the way, it's all tangled up in this belt, proving to him that it was worth it. That he is capable of being champion.

Even dropping carefully down on his bed sends pain shooting up his knees, across his shoulders, along his core. He twitches and exhales, laying the belt down gingerly, and trying to find the strength to move. To lay down. To ease some of this deep agony coursing through his veins. But there's no respite, no calm to the flood of thoughts racing through his mind. He's just closed his eyes when he hears the footsteps, a soft hiss of fabric as the bed dips. He recognizes the warmth pressing against his leg, the smell of the gentle lilac perfume, and opens his eyes to find Candice leaning over him, a small smile spreading over her face as she touches the belt, eyeing him. "I did it," he tells her, still too tired and sore to move.

"Of course you did," she responds softly. "I knew you would." He thinks he should be surprised by this but she looks so content, so sure in her words, that he lets it go. Sighs as she strokes his face, runs her fingers through his beard. "I'm really proud of you."

"Yeah? Even though it should've been Johnny?" he asks, some bitterness welling up within him. "Everyone says it should be Johnny."

"Johnny will have his time. This was your moment," she tells him, eyes soft, touch gentle as she warms him from the inside out. "You've been through so much, you deserved this."

He trembles under her hand, in awe of the pride and conviction in her voice, two things he hasn't had in himself in a really long time. Fighting and stubbornness, a deep rooted anger and determination not to let his own shortcomings- be they physical or emotional- defeat him in the end, keep him from his goal in this business were all that has kept him going to this point. "Johnny-" he tries to continue, but then a soft hand rests on his battered, worn knee.

"Johnny's fine," the voice of his former tag partner greets him. "Focus on yourself right now. This is such a big deal, man. You earned this." Johnny has no clue, wasn't there for any of Tommaso's rehab or the depression and uncertainty leading up to his return to NXT, how hard each morning was to get out of bed and function just well enough to even find his way back. But Johnny's eyes are so sincere, so happy for Tommaso that he can't even find it in him to be mad, or snap at the man who'd caused him so much anguish when he knew he was injured and all Johnny could do was feed into Tommaso's insecurities when tweets started pouring in about who could replace Tommaso as Johnny's partner, and on and on.

Tommaso exhales and reaches out, taking first Candice's hand and then Johnny's. "I'm glad you're both here," he admits. No matter how angry he is with them, how much pain they've all caused each other in the last year, some of his best memories had been living with them, before everything went to hell.

"I'm glad we're here too," Candice says, her light touch slowly moving to his shoulders while Johnny helps stretch his knee, work some of the tension out of the strained muscles. "Is it like this every match?"

"Sometimes better," Ciampa murmurs, staring up at the ceiling. "Sometimes worse."

"You should alternate ice and heat more," Johnny chides him softly.

"Too much effort," he sighs. "I usually just want to sleep."

Things quiet and he can sense them exchanging unhappy glances before they shift, lay side by side with him, tangling their fingers with his once more. "I hate thinking of you alone and in pain," Candice tells him. "It doesn't have to be this way."

"I made my choice a long time ago," he tells her, a sharp ache growing in his chest at just looking her in the eye. "I just have to live with it now."

"Never say never," Johnny says with a slight smile as he nudges Tommaso, making him look over. "We can still fix this, somehow. Nothing's ever hopeless. Especially in this business."

Tommaso exhales painfully, feeling a headache start to pound behind his eyes. "I don't deserve forgiveness. From either of you."

"That's our decision to make," Candice says, voice light and almost as painful to hear as the look in her eyes had been for him to stare into.

"She's right," Johnny says, cupping his face and making him look once more into the hopeful, brown eyes that used to ground him through the worst of things during their time as a tag team. "Tommaso, we for-"

"NO!" He sits up in a dizzying rush, gasping and choking on thin air as pain stabs through his stiff knee, suddenly wide awake and twisting left to right, looking. Searching. But the room is empty. He's alone.

It had just been a dream.

He tears at the knee brace he'd accidentally fallen asleep in, struggling through sweaty, trembling fingers until he finally gets it off and stretches his leg out, gingerly moving it as pain stabs up his thigh, until finally it eases off enough that he can shift upwards, leaning against his pillows as sweat drips down his face. "Who the hell says I want your forgiveness?" he mumbles to the drifting memories of his dream. He scrubs harshly at his face, gritting his teeth against the reality before him, so jarring and unwelcoming after the softness of his dreamscape. Spotting the glint that he will now have to get used to, he leans over and drags the NXT title over, hugging it close to his chest. "It was all worth it," he reminds himself. "All worth it."

His name, after all, is now in the official record books as NXT champion, where it will remain for all of time and history. And no one can ever replace him there.

-x

Velveteen Dream does not do concerned. He doesn't worry. Because those two things, that encourages wrinkles and stress, and... yeah, no. But tonight, well. Tonight is an exception to his rule. He adjusts his glasses as he walks down one hallway and the next, looking. Searching. Sensing. It's not hard to find whatever or whoever he wants, usually, but tonight, as mentioned, is not a normal night.

Tonight, Aleister Black had been dethroned as NXT champion. Tonight, Johnny Gargano had all but tossed the title into his archnemesis' hands, at a steep cost to Aleister. Velveteen Dream rolls his eyes as he tries another hallway, searching for that telltale wisp of grey energy that almost always gives Aleister away. "And they say I am dramatic," he mumbles to himself before pausing, pressing a hand against a door that he had almost walked past. It feels different than the others. Cooler. Less solid. So he stops and gingerly grips the knob, turning it quietly. He slips inside as soon as the door is opened far enough and then clicks it shut behind him, not wanting any interruptions or nosy interviewers trying to sneak in for a word or whatever else nonsense they might think of.

This is obviously the room he's been looking for, Aleister's essence is everywhere. Dream exhales softly and glances left to right as his eyes slowly adjust, finally allowing him to spot the former champion in the shadows, his bare skin glistening as he sits, legs crossed, hands outstretched over his knees, palms up, middle fingers and thumbs pressed together. His form is impeccable, his eyes are closed, but Dream can tell he's not getting anything from it. He's trembling and his breathing is echoing, raspy and harsh. Dream swallows hard, the realization striking him like a blow to the solar plexus.

Aleister has been close to hyperventilating in this dingy, dark room, all alone, for who knows how long, and it's clear that it's only getting worse, not better, so Dream moves quickly. He knows this stance, understands every nuance of it, so he's careful as he peels his clothes off and tucks them gently on top of Aleister's, eccentrically designed slacks and shirt, scarf and glasses all off in a matter of moments before he sinks down in front of Aleister, mimicking his position. Their fingertips are touching and Dream can only just sense Aleister's knees, and now that they're this close to each other, he can feel exactly how hard Aleister is trembling, how rough each breath rattling through his lungs is, how unsettled his aura has become.

Dream remains patient, however, knowing that snapping Aleister out of this forcefully will only make things worse. So he remains, barely touching him, and tries to guide him instead. Breathes in and out deeply, purple aura misting from his hands and brushing over Aleister's fingers soothingly. He keeps his eyes open to watch, observing as Aleister's breathing slowly changes, softens. Eases away from panic and approaches an almost normal rhythm once more, subconsciously following Dream's example. With that, the trembling calms as well, and soon Aleister relaxes, drifts into a true meditative state and Dream breathes out softly, closing his eyes and clearing his own mind as Aleister has been training him to do since they'd begun spending more time together the last few months.

He's not sure how much time has passed when he feels another shift in the energy around him and opens his eyes to find Aleister staring back at him. They sit quietly, fingertips still touching, knees close together, and Aleister exhales before ducking his head, palms brushing over Dream's. "You came to find me," he says lowly and Dream hums, curling his fingers up to ghost over Aleister's.

"Of course," he says dismissively, deeming it no big deal. This is proven to be wrong when Aleister looks up at him and he finds himself overwhelmed by the gratitude lingering in his eyes, mixed with anguish and disappointment, yes, but filled with more hope than he must have felt earlier when drowning in panic at his abrupt loss. "Aleister..." He swallows hard, understanding deep down inside, on some level. He's suffered some soul-rending losses as well, nothing as excruciating as a title loss, no, of course not... But Aleister had had to pull him out of the darkness of his own mind a time or two, especially after Ricochet, and...

Aleister slowly stretches his legs out to rest on either side of Dream's hips, knees pressing against his sides, a small smile on his face as Dream gapes at him, eyes wide and lips parted in shock. He reaches out and presses a couple of fingers under Dream's jaw, a quiet reminder for him to close his mouth, until Dream seems to register what Aleister is waiting on and moves as well, his long legs unfolding to once more mirror Aleister's stance. Aleister nods, subtly, and leans forward, pressing a soft, lingering kiss to Dream's lips. "Thank you," he murmurs, resting his forehead against Dream's and staring into his eyes.

Dream can tell the depth of Aleister's gratitude is for more than just finding him, and he swallows thickly, overwhelmed by the myriad of emotions on Aleister's usually stoic face. "Any time," he promises softly, reaching up to cup Aleister's face and kissing him back.