The hospital waiting room is quiet. Tense. Johnny shakes his head, staring down at his hands. "Dammit," he breathes, startling when Candice sits next to him, glancing over at him worriedly. "I... I had no idea it was so bad," he tells her and she frowns, rubbing circles against his spine. "He never tells me anything. Why is he like that?"
"I don't know," she says honestly. "Maybe he thinks he's protecting you... maybe he thinks he can work through things on his own... Maybe..." Her voice falters and Johnny stares up at her. "Maybe he thinks no one will care."
Johnny shakes his head hard. "He can't still believe that," he mumbles. "I've done everything to prove he matters, I..." She squeezes his hand and he looks up at her, eyes wide with pain. "Sometimes no matter what a person does or says, they just can't register it as truth, huh?"
"Yeah, sometimes. But you can't give up on him," she tells him softly. "And I know you won't."
"Never," he says with conviction, his strength returning as the doors are pushed open and Tommaso walks through, not quite looking either of them in the eye. Bad, Johnny thinks. It's bad. He's not quite prepared for how bad, even Candice losing her cool some as Tommaso sits with them and explains what the x-rays had determined. "You're coming home with us," he says after a few minutes of quiet panic. "And I don't want to hear any arguments from you. We... the ... your bedroom is ready for you."
After being written out of NXT in 2017, Tommaso had taken it upon himself to move out of where they'd all lived together for months, find a place of his own to convalesce by himself while recovering from knee and double shoulder surgery. He'd allowed Johnny and Candice to visit now and again, help sometimes with errands and doctors appointments, but he'd mostly insisted they had their own lives to deal with, and he didn't want to be a bother. They had pushed at times but Ciampa's recovery went well, and they allowed him his space as he prepared to return to NXT.
But things are different now. After getting him home and making sure he's settled comfortably in bed, a bottle of water on the bedside table in case he gets thirsty, and pain meds resting nearby should he need them, Candice and Johnny sit down on the couch in the living room, staring at each other. "Fusion surgery," Johnny finally whispers and she presses a hand to her lips, the two of them allowing it to wash over them once more. "Candice..." He digs his knuckles into his forehead and groans, feeling like he's going to be sick. "The last thing we did... at the taping... we were standing over his prone body, grinning like obnoxious school yard bullies, and..." He looks up at her. "We did this, didn't we? He... he was fine enough to get cleared to compete, he was going to hold on until Wrestlemania, he... was ok..."
She grips his hands and squeezes them as tight as she can. "Listen to me, Johnny," she says softly, her eyes intense and affectionate as she stares at him. "We can't know what caused his neck to get so much worse so quickly, ok? We're all well-aware he makes injuries seem less than they really are. He fought through shoulder injuries for months. The man is stubborn and ridiculously tough, but it doesn't really do him many favors in the long run, especially in situations like these." She sighs, seeing the pain on his face and trying to ease back. "He wrestled on Raw. He wrestled on Smackdown. He wrestled twice at the NXT tapings." She reaches out and wipes a tear away from Johnny's cheek. "It could've happened during any of those, you can't blame yourself."
"Yeah, I can," he says heavily. "I was supposed to be his tag partner, I was supposed to protect him. I was supposed to leave him laying at the end without really hurting him. I failed at all of it."
Candice clucks at him and leans forward, hugging him tightly. "Look, I doubt if he really blamed you for any of it, he would agree to staying with us again. You know how he is, he has no problems with finding his own path, taking care of himself." She smiles sadly at him. "We basically came home to an empty guest room and him all but out the door, staying only long enough to give us our key back and thank us before he was driving away. The fact that he's asleep down the hall right now should tell you just how much blame he lays on your shoulders."
Johnny shakes his head. "He might not blame me, but..."
Candice nods. Goes back to both of them struggling to accept what's so clear to everyone else around them. "I understand. I do." She stares into his sad brown eyes and sighs. "Do you want to go to bed, or are you staying out here for awhile?"
"I'll stay out here awhile," he says grimly. "I don't want to keep you awake, I doubt I'm gonna be sleeping much tonight."
She doubts her own ability to sleep well tonight but doesn't argue with his plans, leaning forward and kissing him. "Alright," she says softly. "Try to get some sleep, Johnny. I'll see you in the morning."
He nods, waiting until he hears their bedroom door click shut behind her before getting up. He walks carefully, relieved when the door to the guest room doesn't squeak or pop as he pushes it open. He stares through the darkness at Ciampa's quiet form, reminded once more of being at Full Sail, standing on the ramp, Ciampa's arm draped over his face as he laid prone at their feet, Candice's proud grin echoing Johnny's. It had only been a few minutes later that Ciampa had stumbled back, a panicked look on his face as he'd held Goldy to his chest with one hand, talking desperately to the trainer before getting ushered back into his office. Whispers had started to make the rounds only seconds later and Johnny had had trouble digesting it at first. He says he can't feel his fingers, his arm's numb... He has no grip strength...
Ever since then, he's been existing through an undercurrent of panic as he goes through the motions, trying to keep himself occupied, staying strong for Tommaso. Exhaling hard, he pads over to the bed and stares down at his best friend, tears welling up in his eyes as he sits down on the edge of the bed and breathes in and out shallowly, trying to stay calm. He gasps softly when fingers ease down his back and Ciampa's sleep-rough voice greets him. "Can't sleep, Johnny?" he asks groggily and Johnny slowly turns to face him, eyes wide and wet.
"I'm sorry," he offers quietly. "I didn't mean to wake you up. Go back to sleep, man. You need it." More appointments, tests and surgical evaluations are in Tommaso's future, as doctors decide the best course of action for him.
Tommaso scoffs softly. "So do you, Johnny," he says, sitting up and frowning at Johnny. "Wanna talk about it?" Tommaso may not talk much, keeping most everything to do with himself close to the vest, but the man is an impressive listener, always has been, and Johnny scoffs just a little, shaking his head. "What?"
"You're the one who's injured, man. Maybe you should try talking for once." Ciampa quirks an eyebrow at him and Johnny sighs. "I wish you felt comfortable telling me when you're hurting, or... anything. We're friends, and partners more often than not. I just want to help you when things are bad. Which, by the way, they most definitely are bad right now."
Ciampa looks away, scrubbing at his face. "It's not... it's not that I'm uncomfortable telling you things, Johnny. I just... it's how I'm wired, you know? You get hurt on the indys, you suck it up, you... you fight through it until you can't anymore. The fact that it's different here, the fact that... we have job security and everything... I'm not sure what to do with that yet. I'm still... I'm still adjusting. Learning."
"I get that," Johnny says softly. "I do. But we want to help you, Tommaso. The doctors, Candice, me. So many people. You just have to let us, you know?"
"Another thing not really easy for me," he says with a grim little smirk. "I'm not... I'm not like you and Candice, Johnny. I'm used to fending for myself. I'm... used to my temper and my behavior pushing people away." He pauses and licks his lips. "It's why I left before my other surgeries. I'm... I'm not... it's... I'm just an awful person to be around when I'm hurt. I... I should probably-"
Johnny shakes his head, a warning look in his eye. "If you say anything about leaving before your neck surgery, I swear." He shifts and sits next to Ciampa, staring straight ahead blankly, trying to decide how to word what's spinning around in his head. "You act like we're not aware of your moods," he says carefully. "You get injured, you get hurt, and you get defensive and go overboard trying to protect your territory. It's... we get it. We've accepted it as just the way you are, and we're fine with that. We just want to make sure you're ok, and that you're eating and sleeping and not overdoing rehab. You can snarl at us and ignore us as much as you want. It's fine. I swear."
"It sounds miserable for you both," Ciampa insists. "Who wants someone who's injured and so pissed off that you have to walk on eggshells around at your place all of the time? Johnny-"
"I'm not letting you leave, so don't even try to change my mind," Johnny says. "I can be just as stubborn as you, Tommaso. And don't even get me started on Candice. You'll barely want to leave your bedroom once she gets going on you."
Tommaso shivers a little. "Oh please, I remember those days all too well."
Johnny chuckles and leans into him, quiet and pensive. "It's gonna work out just fine, Tommaso. I have no doubt about that."
Ciampa sighs. "I'd like to believe that, Johnny, but it's neck surgery. We know how things can go with this stuff."
Johnny swallows hard and presses his hand into Tommaso's, frowning softly when there's very little strength behind his grip as he curls his fingers around Johnny's. "I'm so sorry," he whispers, eyes wet and miserable as he stares at Tommaso.
"It's not your fault," Ciampa says dismissively, clearly not understanding the motivation for Johnny's apology. He catches on, however, when Johnny falls quiet, pensive. Glancing over at him, he shakes his head. "Johnny. You know this isn't your fault." Johnny still doesn't say anything and Ciampa huffs, tugging as hard as he can on his fingers until Johnny looks up. "This. Is. Not. Your. Fault. I've been ignoring this for a long time, and yet again, it caught up with me. I knew wrestling with it was a risk, but I didn't want to disrupt what was going on. I... I wanted to drop the belt to you. After everything we've been through, it's what you deserved. But..." He shrugs. "The mind is willing, but the body is weak."
Johnny's eyes are wet and sad as he looks upon his best friend, letting go of his hand and shifting closing, tugging Tommaso into a hug. "Whether we agree that it's my fault or not," he mumbles into Tommaso's shoulder, "I'm still sorry. I'm so damn sorry that this is happening to you, again."
Tommaso nods, minutely, reaching up and carding through Johnny's hair as he waits out the hug, squeezing Johnny back until he lets go, smiling weakly at him. "I'm gonna say this to Candice in the morning, but may as well say it to you now. Thank you. Thank you for taking me in, thank you for wanting to take care of me when I'm going to be at my absolute worse... just... thank you."
Johnny's lips tremble, just a little, and he nods. "Like we told you, any time you need us, we're here for you."
Tommaso is still visibly struggling with this, but he nods anyway, and Johnny smiles at him, helping him to get as comfortable as he can when they both lay down.
When Candice wakes up the next morning and peeks in, she finds both of them fast asleep, curled in towards each other. A small, sad smile crosses her face before she eases the door shut and heads off to start breakfast.
There are a lot of things to do leading into serious neck surgery. Meetings with WWE doctors so Tommaso understands what's to come from the surgery and aftercare, tests and physical exams to ensure Ciampa will handle the surgery fine, meetings with HHH and other higher ups in WWE so things regarding both his NXT career and the brief introduction he had with the main roster will be squared away and dealt with. He'll be keeping the title past his surgery, because they filmed enough NXT shows to air until after, but the main roster is off of the table for both of them, for now. Johnny feels a little disappointed, but as he looks over at Tommaso and thinks about how leaving to travel now would feel when Tommaso so clearly needs him, well... he decides it's just as well. He wouldn't want to leave Tommaso alone, or leave all of the weight of aftercare on Candice's shoulders. There's a lot to think about, and even more to do.
Something comes to him and he looks over, finding Candice staring at him with a small smile on her face and when he nods, her lips twitch up just a little higher. "Doc," Johnny intercedes during one of their meetings. "I was wondering." Ciampa is staring at him, eyes wide and more than a little confused. "Candice and I were planning on going to Disney on Thursday." He picks at a nonexistent piece of lint on his knee. "If you think it's ok so close to the surgery, would it be alright if Ciampa came with us?" After saying this, Johnny is careful to keep his eyes trained on the doctor on the other side of the desk but he can still feel Ciampa's jaw drop, struggling not to chuckle as he waits for a decision.
The doctor is quiet for a long, tense moment, and they all think it's going to be a big no, Johnny's face starting to fall. Candice has just reached over to squeeze his leg in consolation when the man finally looks up, glancing from Ciampa to Candice to Johnny. "I suppose," he hedges. "But if he gets tired, or anything out of the ordinary, he should rest... and I'd advise taking it easy with the rides, especially high stress ones."
Tommaso cracks a faint, derisive smirk. "Can I at least ride the cups, doc?"
The doctor scoffs a little, then stands. "Maybe even the kiddy carousel, Tommaso," he responds before scooping up papers and putting them in a folder. "Just make sure you're on the flight to Atlanta in the morning. Surgery is early. We'll get you fixed up good as new before you know it." He nods at all of them. "So unless you have any questions, I'll see you on Friday morning."
Ciampa nods and stands up, clearly eager to leave. "Thank you." They follow him out of the office and find their way to the exit, Tommaso glancing at them as they head for the car. "So Disney," he says. "How long have you two been planning that?"
Johnny just grins at him as Candice pats his arm and gets into the car. Johnny hesitates outside of the car and leans against the door. "Hey, man. We just want you to have some fun, and get your mind off of things a little. Alright? I know it's not your favorite thing, but it's really all we could think of that would fill up a day and be fun without a lot of driving and stuff. If you don't want to do any rides, that's fine. Just your company will be good. Alright?"
Ciampa looks awkward, rubbing his arm as he stares off into the distance. "I've told you, I'm not going to be good company at all. I just... I'm not sure why you're insisting on putting yourselves through this, but alright."
"You know why we're putting ourselves through this," Candice's voice comes from inside the car as she rolls her window down and looks up at him. "We love you, you're our family. Now I don't know about you two, but I'd like to get out of this parking lot and go home so if you could please get into the car before the sun sets..."
She rolls the window back up and Johnny smiles at Tommaso. "You heard the woman. C'mon."
They eat a quick meal of some leftover lasagna Candice reheats for them, and then go to bed so they can get an early start at Disney World the next morning.
Candice greets Tommaso when he wakes up with a steaming mug of coffee and he inclines his head at her in thankfulness, sipping from it as she tries to get Johnny up and moving. "I have an idea," he says, putting his mug down and going into the bathroom.
She watches as he soaks a washcloth in water and rings it out before going to the bedroom and slinging it at Johnny, stepping back quickly when Johnny jumps and tangles himself further in the sheets, hair all over the place and eyes blurry. "What?! Wha-" He gapes as Ciampa peeks in, Candice laughing from down the hall. "Seriously?!" He glares at his best friend. "I expect that from her, but you?!"
Ciampa just beams at him before returning to his coffee, barely flinching when Johnny comes out and slaps him across the arm with the wet towel, Tommaso chuckling as Johnny takes a long, slow drink of his coffee, grimacing at him until he's a little more awake. "What can I say, man, just get up the next time Candice says so."
Johnny grumbles, yawning into his coffee mug. They're all a little slow and lazy this morning, but even with taking time to eat breakfast and take showers and get dressed, they make it to Disney before 9 AM. Ciampa smirks at him over the car as they get out and Johnny rolls his eyes at him, lips twitching upwards as Candice gets out of the car and pats Johnny on the back. "Ready to go, boys?"
"Yes," they say together and she leads the way, Tommaso looking around quietly while Johnny and Candice discuss what areas they want to go, rides they want to ride, where they want to eat at, and if they want to hang around for the parade later. He feels tired just listening to them debating over everything, but when they turn expectantly towards him, he tries to look interested and nods along with what they're suggesting.
"So we'll start with Fantasyland," Candice says cheerfully. "I'd like to drop by Frontierland for a little bit."
"Yes," Johnny agrees. "It's been too long since I've been on Splash Mountain."
Ciampa lags behind them, his lips twisted uncertainly as he listens to them discuss what rides they want to go on, most of which sound a little too rough for him right now. He hadn't complained before, he wasn't going to start now, but his problems had worsened considerably since the NXT tapings the week prior, pain and numbness alternating down his arm into his fingers. Sometimes he feels off-balanced too, trying not to attract attention as he stumbles a little before regaining his footing every now and again. He dreads the surgery, but he hopes that it'll be enough to fix all of these problems so he can live somewhat normally again.
Lines are annoying and, while Candice and Johnny are waiting to get onto the Dumbo the Flying Elephant ride, Tommaso sits and watches from afar, waving at them here and there whenever they look over at the bench he's claimed within eyeview of the ride. Even though he's not been active for too long, it's nice to be sitting down, clenching his fingers into a fist and feeling how poor his grip strength is, the numbness not easing off no matter what he does. He sighs lowly and looks away, shaking his head grimly. Choosing to rest and people watch for awhile, he doesn't move as Johnny and Candice shift over to Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, smirking slightly when they get through that ride relatively quickly and then Johnny all but drags Candice over to Many Adventures of Winnie Pooh, Candice catching his eye as they walk past his bench, mouthing Help Me to him. He shrugs, grinning a little as she rolls her eyes at him.
Once they're out of sight, he gets up and walks over to the Mine Train area and finds the booth for picture claim, relieved when he finds the photo he wants and passes them some money for it, laughing to himself as he walks back over to the bench. Once he's settled and some of the discomfort has eased, he checks his phone again, Johnny and Candice still in line, and blinks hard. It's approaching 11:30 AM, which means they've already been here over two hours. He chuckles incredulously and scrubs at his eyes. "Well, at least I'm getting a good tan," he mumbles, squinting up at the sun high in the sky. By the time they make it through the line and ride the ride, Ciampa checks his phone again to find it's a little past 12 now.
He's not exactly hungry but it's still no huge surprise when they join him a little later, Candice looking wind-swept and happy while Johnny grins, patting Tommaso on the back. "Should ride with us, man. The cups at least would be alright, I think."
"Eh, maybe next time," Tommaso says with a strained sort of smile. He's not big on rides when he feels well, much less when he's in nagging, deep pain like this.
Johnny nods, some of the light fading from his eyes, and Tommaso casts around for something to ease the torment on his face. "Hey, look," he says, and hands then the picture of them on the mine train, Johnny looking fearful and tense while Candice screams and lifts her arms up, the roller coaster type ride always bringing out vastly different reactions in the two of them.
Candice laughs, delighted, and Johnny grins, a little subdued, but both look happy as they lean their heads together to get a good look at the photo. "Thanks, Tommaso," Johnny says softly, smiling at him. Before Tommaso can think of something to say, Johnny checks his phone, eyes widening. "Oh man, it's after noon already? Are you guys hungry? Let's go find something to eat."
Tommaso doesn't argue, just follows them through Fantasyland until they find Gaston's Tavern, relieved to be out of the sun for a little bit. They skim the menu and place their orders, Candice and Johnny getting sandwiches while Tommaso finally just orders a LeFou's Brew. When Johnny stares at him, he forces a smile. "Not too hungry, I'm just thirsty right now." Johnny doesn't look too thrilled, neither does Candice, and he sighs. "I'm ok, guys. Really. Just... not much of an appetite right now."
Candice checks the time. "You should take more pain killers," she says quietly. "It'd be better if you ate something." She pulls her purse over and finds the pill case she'd brought, aware that he'd not have anywhere to carry them and probably would forget them anyway, shaking out a couple of pills. "Tommaso, please."
He closes his eyes, well aware that he's beat, and nods unhappily. When Johnny and Candice's food arrives, they pointedly cut off portions of their sandwiches and pushes them towards him, watching until he chews on the stack of meat and bread, swallowing down his pills with the marshmellow thickened drink. Tension easing from the table, they begin to eat as well, laughing and planning more for the afternoon. "Now about that cup ride," Johnny says to him and he pauses mid-bite, eyes widening.
"I thought you were joking," he gasps.
"Nope," he says proudly and Tommaso shakes his head with a small laugh, the pain dulled as he moves. He exhales softly and Candice stares at him, eyes soft with understanding.
"Thank you," he tells her and she smiles a little, reaching out to squeeze his hand. His grip strength is still weak but he squeezes back as best as he can and they all resume eating in peaceful silence. "Fine, this tea cup ride," he mumbles as they go to leave, Ciampa holding onto the souvenir cup that had come with his drink. Johnny looks so happy that Tommaso thinks he would ride the damn thing every day of his recovery if it kept the guilty, exhausted look off of his best friend's face.
It's a lowkey ride, the three of them pretty much the only group riding it without children, but Tommaso doesn't let it bother him as they look around while the cups spin, allowing them to see Fantasyland from different positions, despite being in constant, dizzying motion. By the time they get off, it's almost 2:40 and Johnny looks around. "Hey, guys, the parade's gonna start, let's stay and watch."
Candice claps her hands together, nodding. "Yes, I was hoping we'd be here long enough to see it!" Tommaso looks over at a nearby bench and Candice, catching where he's looking, grips his hand and walks over with him, Johnny following slowly behind. "Good idea, we should have a perfect view of it from here. Come on, Johnny." Once the three of them are sitting down, Tommaso relaxes, glancing first to Johnny, then Candice. Absolutely not his kind of vacation but, he thinks, the food was good, and it gives him something to keep himself busy, his mind off of the impending surgery Not to mention getting to spend one last, somewhat normal day with his friends before everything changes the next day.
Candice and Johnny whisper back and forth, giggling on either side of him, and he smiles a little, wistful and bemused by them, as always, until the parade begins. Johnny and Candice wave at the various characters in the movie and even Ciampa gives in and waves a few times to the ones he recognizes, all of them enjoying watching children of various ages running around, excited and happy to see Princesses and other Disney characters until the parade disappears out of sight around the corner. "So, are we going to Frontierland still?" Johnny asks, checking the time once more.
Ciampa knows it's his fault that they can't just take their time and enjoy everything around them, because they have to wake up early for the flight tomorrow. "Guys," he says quietly, and they look over at him. "I'm really sorry-"
Candice frowns and Johnny leans forward. "What are you apologizing for? Tommaso..."
"I should've stayed home, you guys could relax and enjoy yourselves without worrying about getting back in time to prepare for tomorrow, and you'd have a lot more fun than constantly dealing with my medicine and my limitations-"
Candice and Johnny move as one, but Candice is closer and cups his face, searching his eyes. "I was glad to do that, Tommaso, and we are both happy you are here. Seeing you on the tea cups is something I won't soon forget. And you got me this, so no, I would not have been enjoying myself if you weren't here." She holds the picture from the Mine Train up and he smiles just a little. "Don't even think about those things, because not a one of them is true. Ok? We wanted you here with us before we even knew how quickly the surgery was going to be. Understand me?"
"Yes," he says, lips trembling just a little. She clucks and hugs him tightly, smiling weakly at Johnny as he rubs Tommaso's back, eyes dark with sadness. The moment passes, however, and Ciampa eases away from her, wiping at his face before exhaling deeply. "So, I think you guys said something about Frontierland?"
He doesn't do much here either, just walks around while they go to Splash Mountain. This takes even longer than the other rides, the line ridiculous, and Tommaso passes the time by wandering around the outside of Pirates' Lair, gazing inside thoughtfully. Once Johnny and Candice return, they and Tommaso quietly get in line to enter, Tommaso content to trail around after them as they explore Tom Sawyer's Island, Johnny grinning as they look around the Shipwreck together.
It's approaching 5:30 by the time they get out, and Candice hums. "Hey, what do you guys think? Do we wanna go eat at the Boardwalk? I have a little bit of a surprise for you both. I made us reservations at Trattoria al Forna a couple days ago."
Tommaso blinks, confused. "Bless you?"
Candice rolls her eyes at him. "It's one of the nicer restaurants in the boardwalk area. Now come on. Let's go!" She slips one hand into Johnny's and the other's into Ciampa's and starts to walk, the two men exchanging uncertain glances before following along.
The Boardwalk is a relatively busy place. There are all kinds of little restaurants and snack stands, and different sorts of entertainment around the street, along with variations of carnival games and Tommaso considers trying to win a prize later when Candice turns and leads the way into the restaurant she'd mentioned. It's busy but the matron nods as soon as she gives her name, leading them back to a table and passing out menus. Ciampa again hesitates over the food but Johnny eases his menu down and smiles wearily at him. "So since the prices here are pretty high, we should probably buy one main item, and a pizza, and split it all so the three of us will have plenty to eat. Alright? No arguments. You still have to eat, Tommaso. That hasn't changed."
Tommaso sighs, makes a face. "Fine," he mumbles, requesting the Aranciata drink, Candice and Johnny going for Limonata and Pompelmo. They sit and quietly chat, chewing on some bread offered while they wait, things slowly becoming more subdued as they sense their time at Disney coming to an end, Tommaso's surgery lurking ever closer in their minds.
"It's going to be fine," Candice tells Tommaso comfortingly when she senses his anxiety growing, his teeth worrying over his lips more and more often. "We'll be with you every step of the way."
He nods. Swallows hard, then nods again. "Thank you," he says, never quite able to think of anything more than that to say. "Both of you. So much. I don't even know what I'd do without everything you've done for me..."
"You never have to worry about finding out," Johnny says with a fierce determination that even Johnny Wrestling can reach when the crowd is at their loudest for him.
Ciampa's lips twitch up into a small smile and they sit quietly for a few moments until the food comes, all of them pausing for a moment over the Lasagna al Forno and the chef's specialty pizza. "Wow," Tommaso mumbles at the amount of food. For the price, not as much as you'd expect, but he figures they all deserve one last, ridiculous expenditure before tomorrow.
"My thoughts exactly," Candice laughs. Shrugging, she takes a slice of the pizza while Johnny and Tommaso lean over the lasagna, exchanging glances before actually trying it.
"Whoa," Johnny mumbles. It's good, a little different than what they're used to, but he thinks he likes it.
Tommaso nods, brows raising as he takes another bite. "Yeah, not bad." The three of them eat quietly, enjoying the food and ambiance of the place. Tommaso gets full first and sitting back long before the other two, staring out of the window. Between bites, Candice watches him, her brows furrowing. Eventually, their eyes lock and he smiles faintly, neither paying much mind to Johnny perusing the dessert menu. "Would you two laugh too much if I said there was one more thing I wanted to do before we leave?"
An almost concerned glance passes between Candice and Johnny. "Of course not," he says. "What do you want to do?" she wonders.
Tommaso smirks and waits for the dessert Johnny insists they share to come, taking a bite or two just to get a taste of the Dark Chocolate Semolina Torta. Once it's all gone and the bill paid, they go back out onto the Boardwalk and Tommaso walks as casually as he can over to the games, staring at the Lob-a-Lobster game. "Oh," Candice says in some surprise as he stares at the circling buckets that they have to try to get the lobsters into by hitting a catapult with mallets. "This looks ridiculous. Let's do it."
They put down $10 and divide the lobsters up between the three of them, Tommaso hesitating over his, having some doubts as he eyes the mallet. "Dammit," he breathes. Candice and Johnny are on the side, while he's at the front of the stand, and it takes them a minute to realize he's having a problem, until he's failed at hitting the contraption right three times, leaving him with one lobster left. He grimaces, usually good at silly games like these, even though he never bothers with them often, but between his numb fingers and lack of grip strength, this clearly was a bad idea. Considering the other games he can see is a basketball throw and a water pistol game, nothing looks like it'd be good for him right now, and he exhales hard, dropping the mallet and turning, shaking his head. Pain is starting to creep back up his neck, the medicine fading as more time passes, the more active he is, so he grits his teeth and walks off, trying to catch his breath, let the frustration and panic ease.
Johnny and Candice notice this and Johnny moves past her to go to him, Candice smiling tensely at the game attendant as she waits for the men to return to continue attempting to win a prize. "Hey, hey," Johnny says, resting a hand on his partner's tense shoulders and leaning closer to look at him. "What's wrong? Did you hurt yourself?" He watches as Tommaso flexes his fingers, shaking his head miserably. "Tommaso... are your fingers numb again?"
"They never really stopped being numb," he admits and Johnny exhales softly next to him. "I'm in pain, and my grip strength sucks, and I don't know why I thought this'd be a good idea. I just used to be good at these kinds of stupid games and I... I wanted to win something..." He closes his eyes and shakes his head, unable to look Johnny in the eye as he struggles to breathe in and out. "I'm sorry, I just-"
Johnny turns him around and hugs him carefully, tucking Tommaso in close. "Stop apologizing, ok? You have nothing to apologize for," he whispers. They stand there for a few minutes until Tommaso's breathing becomes more normal and Johnny eases back. "Come with me," he says softly. "I have an idea." Their lobsters are still there, waiting, so Johnny transfers his remaining two lobsters over to Tommaso's side and Candice watches, with a small smile, as Johnny stands by Tommaso's side. "No one can do it for you, right?"
"You've gotta do it yourself," Ciampa recites with a small smile, staring at his fellow DIY partner. Nodding to himself, he picks up the mallet once more and positions one of the lobsters, exhaling quietly. Johnny nods and reaches over, squeezing softly as he curls his fingers around Ciampa's trembling hand, helping him to grip the mallet, steady his hand, and prepare to hit the catapult. The first time, they miss- just a little, the lobster flopping down aimlessly between two of the pans. Closer than what Tommaso had managed earlier before nearly giving up. Determination flowing between the two of them, they adjust their hands, shifts their positions, and try again. This time, the lobster flies straight into a pot, Johnny barking out a laugh as Tommaso exhales.
Candice smiles, hitting her final lobster into a pot as well, watching as Tommaso and Johnny position their last lobster, getting a very, very rare two in a row as they repeat their earlier move, sending it straight in as well. "Can we pool our wins?" Candice wonders, the attendant nodding. "So three," she says with a pleased glint in her eye. "That means we get a large prize."
They stare at the wall for a minute before Johnny looks over at Tommaso. "Well, playing this was your idea, man. Go ahead and pick something."
Tommaso mulls it over for a long moment before pointing up. "The dolphin, please."
The dolphin is a nice sized prize and Candice grins as she watches Tommaso hug it close, almost as possessively as he does Goldy at NXT tapings and sometimes around the house. Her smile wavers when she remembers that, soon, Tommaso won't have the belt to hold onto anymore and she rubs his arm gently. "Are we ready to go home then?"
"Yes," he says. It's clear that he'd rather not, none of them eager to face the reality of the morning, but it's necessary, so they quietly walk back through Magic Kingdom to find the car and head back home.
After a short, restless night of sleep for all of them and a quick, haphazard breakfast of eggs and toast, they all make it to the airport for the obscenely early flight to Atlanta. They all know the facts of the surgery- the incision spot, the recovery time, that if all goes well, Tommaso should be released on Sunday, a rental car already waiting for them to drive back to Florida since Tommaso can't fly so soon after surgery. It's all overwhelming but they all try to stay strong for each other, none of them packing much, just small carry ons with a change of clothes and some entertainment for Candice and Johnny, for those long hours in the hospital when Tommaso is in surgery and afterwards, during recovery.
Tommaso gets taken back quickly for pre-op stuff, which involves more of the doctor running through some facts of the surgery with him while they put an IV in, and a quiet argument over his beard, which Tommaso refuses to have shaved off, so finally they tie it up, Johnny feeling a little ill when he sees the lines and notes they're placing along the column of his throat to mark where the surgical incisions will be. It all suddenly feels too real. Tears fill his eyes and he swallows hard, approaching Tommaso's bed once it's quieter and some of the staff have cleared out of the room. "We're gonna be right here when you wake up," he promises quietly, reaching out and squeezing Tommaso's hand. "You'll see, everything'll be fine."
"Sure it will be," Tommaso says, his deep blue eyes fixed on Johnny. "Hey, Johnny. Johnny. Look at me, please." Their eyes lock and he smiles. "Hey, you've been the best tag partner a guy could ask for, huh? I... I hope we can finish our story some day."
"We will," he says. "We will." There's no other choice. He leans down and, careful not to smudge the things written across Tommaso's throat, hugs him. Pulling back, he kisses Tommaso between the eyes. "I'll see you soon."
"Right," Tommaso says softly, Candice leaning in to hug him also.
She cups his face and searches his eyes for a few moments. "We'll see you in a few hours, Tommaso," she whispers and he smiles shakily at her.
"Sure." He watches them leave and swallows hard, leaning back in bed to wait to be taken out to the operating room, already feeling the pinch of the drugs running through his veins.
The WWE film crew is on hand, photographing things for the website and whatever else purposes they might need pictures for- Tommaso isn't really interested, just wants it done, but he's relieved that they seem to be keeping their distance from taking any pictures of Johnny and Candice. They catch him on the way out of the room, giving the cameras the peace symbol with his fingers as he's pushed through the hallway. Johnny squeezes his hand on his way past and Candice smiles at him, emotions clear on both of their faces. He nods at them before his bed is turned and he's pushed out of sight, his throat tightening up as he fights the urge to cry.
The hours of the surgery pass tensely, quiet. Johnny sits for awhile, then gets up and paces for what feels like a lifetime to Candice. Steps up to the TV and listens to the droning infomercial there. Candice watches him before going over to a vending machine and getting a bottle of water and some donuts, needing something to keep her fingers busy. The donuts are this side of stale and she mostly just picks at them, sending crumbs all over the place, before she gets frustrated and tosses them out, Johnny now staring aimlessly out of the window, picking at his bottom lip. She pulls a notebook out of her purse and tries to make notes of things that will need attention in the next couple of weeks, but her thoughts are scattered, and she can't think straight, so that too gets tossed aside relatively quickly.
Johnny finally sits down and Candice closes her eyes, trying to find some relaxation over the droning TV in the corner and other people wandering around, hoping for news on their own relatives or friends in surgery. They're still sitting there when a nurse comes up to them. "Excuse me," she says softly. "I've just been informed that Tommaso Ciampa's out of surgery and is in recovery. Soon as we move him to a room, you may sit with him for a little bit." She bustles off after they thank her, dazed and exhausted.
Reaching out for each other, they exhale sharply, relieved that this part is over with at least. Johnny's hands tremble in hers and Candice sympathizes thoroughly, squeezing his hand gently. "He's going to be fine," she says, refusing to believe anything else. "He has to be."
Johnny nods but she can still sense the tension and worry in him, lifting his hand and holding it close, smiling sadly over at him as they continue waiting to go see Tommaso.
They had been forewarned about post surgical realities, but it's still something of a shock when they walk into his room later, finding him with an oxygen cannula in, eyes open only a slit as nurses wander around, checking his vitals and doing what they can to make him comfortable. A large bandage is covering his throat, and he looks exhausted, only just giving a thumb's up when the doctor informs him the surgery's been a success. Johnny sits next to him, Candice on the other side of the bed, and they smile at him, eyes bright. "Hey, man. You did great, huh. We knew you would."
He can't talk or move too much so they try to sit in ways that he can look at them without turning his head, Johnny lightly squeezing his hand while Candice rubs his arm. He drifts back off to sleep before too long and Johnny exhales shakily, shaking his head at Candice when she looks at him. "God, I hate this," he whispers to her and she nods, leaning over to take Johnny's hand.
"I do too," she murmurs. "But he's a fighter. We'll make it through this."
Johnny sincerely hopes she's right, watching his best friend sleep, relieved that whatever medicine they have him on seem to be keeping him out of the touch of pain post-op.
The next couple of days pass with Tommaso sleeping a lot, and when he's awake and as lucid as the medicine will allow, they keep a close eye on his swallowing, still urging him to limit his talking as much as possible. Everything seems to be going well, on track for a proper recovery, so come Sunday, the doctor agrees to release him, even going so far as to allow them to drive him back to Florida once he hears that they'll be in contact with WWE if there's anything concerning, and Ciampa will get examined first thing Monday morning by WWE doctors. The nurses seem upbeat and cheerful as they help first get him into his wheelchair and out to the car, and next from the chair to the little cocoon of blankets and pillows that Candice and Johnny had worked together to set up in the spacious backseat of the minivan they'd rented for this purpose alone.
"Good?" Johnny asks him as he helps him settle down, his eyes fixed on Johnny the entire time. Ciampa blinks once, their cue for yes, and Johnny smiles down at him, squeezing his fingers. "We'll have you home before you know it." He's barely out of the car when Ciampa is already drifting off to sleep, even just this little bit of activity enough to wear him down, the soft hum of the car's engine underneath him oddly soothing to his taxed body.
Johnny breathes a little easier once they're on the road, glancing back now and again to see how Ciampa's doing, Candice smiling over at him when she can take her eyes off of the road and the heavy traffic they're currently making their way through. "It'll be good to be home," she says quietly, eyeing the GPS telling them there's still just a little over six hours to go.
"Yes, it will be," he sighs, leaning back and smiling over at her. "I don't know what I'd do without you. What we'd do without you."
"Well, neither of you will ever have to find out," she says with determination.
They find somewhere to stop and stretch their legs about once an hour, allowing Candice and Johnny both time to check in on Tommaso, make sure he's doing alright, doesn't need anything. At the three hour mark, she pulls out his painpills and antibiotics and gently, soothingly, wakes him up. "Sorry, but you need to eat something, and then you need to take these." She'd found some applesauce at the gas station and once Johnny helps Tommaso to sit up, she settles down next to him and helps him to eat with a plastic spoon that they'd kept from a recent trip to McDonalds. "Good?"
He blinks slowly and she smiles up at him, wiping a little of the food off of his lips. "Try to finish this if you can, we'll get your pills taken, and then you can lay back down and rest, ok?" He exhales a shaky little breath and she curls an arm around him, not surprised when he leans into her warmth. She wasn't with him in the aftermath of his prior surgeries, she's not sure if he looked this purely wiped out or not, she has nothing to compare this to, and somehow that makes it all worse as she rests her cheek against his forehead and hums. "It's gonna be ok, Tommaso. We'll be home soon, and you can sleep in your own bed. I promise."
When she pulls away, he shivers a little but continues to accept the small bites of applesauce until it's mostly gone and he miserably keeps his mouth shut when she tries another bite. Candice's heart breaks for him, seeing that he's just too exhausted and in pain to continue. "Ok," she whispers. "You did good, Tommaso. You did really good." Tossing the cup of applesauce and spoon in a small bag they'd set aside for garbage, she turns to the pills and slowly helps him take them. These go down fine, and she breathes a little easier once he relaxes, looking like he's about to fall asleep propped against her like this. She almost considers staying in the back with him and just holding him as he sleeps since he seems so comfortable like this, but the roads are a mess, so much traffic and construction and...
She kisses him on the cheek before working with Johnny to get him settled back down in the blankets and pillows, running her thumb over his brow before quietly pushing the door shut and climbing into the passenger seat, Johnny taking over the drive for the rest of the way. "He's going to be ok. He will." It's almost funny that now their roles have reversed and Johnny is trying to comfort her, but she feels more like crying than laughing, so she just stares ahead and nods quietly as he pulls out of the parking lot and they resume the long drive back home.
Hours later, Tommaso stirs once they park outside of the apartment and Candice leans over him as he blinks sleepily up at her, fingers twitching against his chest. "Oh, do you miss Goldy?" she whispers to him. "It's ok, we're home, you can hold her again really soon." They'd left the belt behind, not wanting to deal with it at the airport, and not wanting to risk something happening to it in the hospital or anywhere else along the way. Johnny comes back from unlocking the apartment and eases in and together they help Tommaso to sit up, then scoot over and out of the car. "We've got you," he says, hands gentle but steady as he wraps an arm around Tommaso, Candice supporting him on the other side.
The three of them work together to get Tommaso safely inside and once he's in and settled on the couch, Candice runs back out to get the few pieces of luggage they'd brought back. Johnny waits until she's back and wandering around the kitchen, getting Tommaso a glass of water, before excusing himself to go into the bedroom. Tommaso watches him go, lips pursed in concern, but he just blinks slowly when Candice returns and helps him to drink. "Jo- Johnny," he says, his voice raspy and weak, causing him to grimace against the stab of pain just that one word caused, and she soothes him by rubbing his hand.
"Easy," she whispers back. "He'll be back in a minute. Just had to get something." This seems to relax Tommaso a little and she eases back onto her heels, watching him with a small, sad smile. "You know, I have an idea." She walks over to the desk and searches around the drawers before letting out a small, pleased aha! When she returns, she's carrying a dry erase board and he stares at it. "Until talking is easier for you, we can use this to communicate if... if you want." She lays it down by him, with a marker that's big enough that even he can grip it well enough, she hopes.
He stares at it for a long, quiet moment, before reaching out with trembling fingers and pulls it closer, writing in big block letters. She sniffs when he finally stops and pushes it towards her. THANK YOU.
"Oh sweetie," she says softly. "You're welcome." Before she can say anything else, Johnny finally reappears and he has a faintly embarrassed smile on his face as he approaches where Tommaso is sitting. Candice quirks an eyebrow, seeing the glint of Tommaso's NXT title behind his back and snickers a little, knowing that this is going to be either fantastic or awful. Or maybe fantastically awful. With Johnny, sometimes, it's hard to tell.
"Hey, Tommaso, I have someone here who's really missed you," he says, bringing Goldy out from behind his back. Immediately, Candice slaps a hand over her face and muffles her laughter, Johnny ignoring her as he stares at Tommaso, hoping for some sort of reaction beyond incredulous blinking as he gets a good look at Goldy wearing a wrap around her top strap, as if trying to match Tommaso's own neck brace. He gets it when Tommaso huffs out a faint, sharp laugh, his eyes crinkling with pain as he reaches out for his belt. He closes his eyes as he holds it close to his chest and Johnny feels bad for a moment, defiling what will be one of Tommaso's last moments with his beloved belt with a stupid joke. "I'm sorry-" he reaches out to unwind the bandage from around the title when Tommaso reaches out and stops him.
"N- no." He exhales painfully. "Picture. Twitter."
Johnny's face lights up at both the suggestion and hearing his best friend's voice, no matter how weak and rough it sounds, grabbing for Tommaso's phone where they'd put it on the table with various other things after unpacking the car. "Perfect, we have to put it on Twitter, and..." He takes the picture and stares at his screen, reminded once more of just how worn out Tommaso looks, but he keeps his thoughts to himself, not wanting to ruin this moment. "What should the caption be?"
"May I?" Candice asks, taking the phone and quickly typing. "Good?" Tommaso blinks when he sees it and Johnny smiles, watching her press the buttons to tweet it out to the world. "Hey, FastLane's on," she realizes, scrolling through the twitter timeline for a few moments.
Johnny exhales, thinking about that. It was going to be his and Tommaso's main roster PPV debut, as a team. If things hadn't worked out like this. Everything's been so busy, he hasn't had the time to properly unpack all of that. "Do you want to watch it?" he asks softly, squeezing Tommaso's hand.
Tommaso blinks once so Johnny settles in next to him, fiddling with the TV until he finds it, the two of them alone as Candice wanders the kitchen, putting together something for her and Johnny to eat while she looks for more soft food that Tommaso can eat safely. He's not terribly surprised to find Tommaso fast asleep barely ten minutes later, leaning against his arm. Johnny thinks about letting him stay there awhile longer, but it doesn't feel wise, so he lightly nudges him. "Hey, Candice, I'm gonna get Tommaso to bed now. He looks really exhausted."
"Alright, do you need help?" she asks, peeking in from the kitchen. Her hair is tied up in a messy ponytail, there's a smudge of something on her cheek. He thinks she's never been more beautiful.
"No, it's alright. Go on ahead with what you were doing," he tells her. "I've got this." He helps Tommaso to stand before guiding him down the hall to his bedroom. Getting him out of his shoes and jeans is an adventure, but Johnny manages, tucking him in warmly under his blankets and sheets. Tommaso's eyes are wide and dark and Johnny leans closer. "Hey, close your eyes, buddy. Get some sleep, ok? We'll be here for you in the morning."
Johnny's eyes soften as he nods, not even needing a minute to think about it. "Sure, Tommaso." He lays down next to him and stares over at him fondly. "I think you scared the doctors back in Atlanta," he laughs. "No one's sure what to do with the badass Tommaso Ciampa who never backs down from anyone. That's probably why they wanted you out of there as soon as possible."
Tommaso smirks, fingers spasming against the belt still pressed to his chest, and Johnny lightly reaches out, lacing their fingers together over the cool leather strap. By the time Tommaso falls asleep, johnny's eyes are too heavy, he's just all around too comfortable to move.
When Candice checks in on them, both are fast asleep. She smiles and eases back out of the room, glad that both of them are getting some sorely needed sleep.
The next day passes quietly, Ciampa sleeping through a lot of it while Johnny and Candice go through their day as normally as they can. Johnny leaves once for a quick training session at the performance center, Candice preparing some food when he returns. "Tommaso awake?" he asks her, leaning against her.
"Off and on," she says softly. "Did you see Hunter?"
"No." They both know eventually the belt will need to be relinquished, but for now, nothing's been said or done regarding it, so Candice hands Johnny a plate with a grilled cheese and homefries on it, smiling softly at him before going to see if she can get Tommaso to eat and take another dose of painkillers.
Johnny chews on his sandwich until she comes back, putting the bowl in the sink and sitting down across from him. "So I was thinking," he tells her. "Something we can do for Tommaso while he recovers."
"I'm listening," Candice says with a soft smile.
Later, when Tommaso wakes up again, he groans softly and wiggles his toes around, trying to stretch but unable to as much as he'd like to because he's still so sore and exhausted. He hums when he sees Johnny sitting next to him and tries to smile sleepily at him. "I have a surprise for you," he says, lifting a remote up and pressing a button on it. Tommaso looks up at him as soft droning sounds fill the air. "I don't know how how well you can see it," he says softly. "But Candice and I thought maybe we should bring the TV from our bedroom in and you can at least have something to listen to, or watch until you're stronger."
Tommaso blinks a few times and then exhales. "You...? Yours..."
Johnny shakes his head. "Don't worry about us, Tommaso. We have the living room TV to watch stuff on, we wanted you to have this. Alright? Trust me." This seems to make sense to him and Tommaso relaxes just a little, staring at what of the screen he can see from this angle. "Do you want something to eat? There's still a little time until we can give you more pain medicine..."
Johnny smiles a little. "Prefer Candice to feed you, huh? It's ok, I understand." Tommaso looks a little concerned and Johnny taps his hand. "I was teasing, man. I know you're just not that hungry yet." He glances over at the clock. "Do you want to watch Raw a little later, if you're still awake? It'll be on in about half an hour."
Tommaso swallows, making a noncommittal noise before closing his eyes. "Er- eraser..." Johnny understands immediately and finds the eraser board, handing it carefully to Tommaso and making sure he has a good grip on the marker before sitting back to wait. When he stops writing, Johnny leans over to read it and frowns. "I'm sorry? Tommaso, what could you possibly have to apologize for...?"
Your Raw debut- ruined by me. Johnny stares at the board with a grim, uncertain look on his face, and Tommaso continues, his scrawl filling the board. I know they haven't been using you since I wasn't cleared. It's my fault. I'm sorry.
Johnny shakes his head, turning to look at Tommaso, carefully taking the board from him. "Listen to me," he says, squeezing Tommaso's hand. "I was glad just to get that one week with you on the main roster, alright? There will be plenty of time for more in the future. But for now, NXT needs me. You need me. If I had to fly around all over the country for Raw and Smackdown like Aleister and Ricochet are doing right now, I'd knuckle down and do it, but the entire time, I'd be worried about how things here were going. So all in all, things shook out fairly well, considering."
"But..." Tommaso says, eyes wide and dark.
"But nothing," Johnny tells him steadily. "I'm sure if the situation was reversed, you wouldn't blame me if I got injured and kept you from spending more time on the main roster."
"Of- course not," Tommaso says, the most he's said at once since the surgery, utterly certain.
"We both feel guilt for this situation," Johnny sighs, patting his arm. "I think it's natural, but we just need to... be straightforward about it, ok? Because this is how things fell apart the last time you were injured. You were trying to protect us, and we didn't want to push you, and I think we were all pretty miserable and lonely because of it. Huh?"
"Yeah," Ciampa breathes out. "Yeah."
"Well, it doesn't have to be that way this time." He smiles shakily at Tommaso. "I can promise you one thing." When Tommaso looks at him curiously, he reaches out and rests his hand on top of Goldy. "I'm not sure how things will shake out, but if I win... if I win this belt, I will do my best to be the kind of champion we both would be proud of. Alright?"
Tommaso stares at Johnny. "I know... you will," he says softly. "I have no... doubt. Whatsoever."
Johnny smiles shakily at him and eases his hand off, not wanting to make it seem like he's staking his claim when the belt is still Tommaso's. He's pretty sure, no matter how long he may hold the NXT title in the future, that it will always, always feel like Ciampa's to him.
After Tuesday passes quietly, Candice and Johnny are bustling around the kitchen early Wednesday, preparing breakfast, when his phone rings. His face falls as he looks at the screen, not too surprised, and shakes water off of his hands, picking it up. "Hello?" He listens for a tense, quiet moment, and nods. "Yeah. He's resting right now, but I'll... yeah. We... we'll make it work. Let's say in an hour." He hangs up and leans over the counter, breathing in and out deeply while Candice finishes chopping tomatoes and walks up to him, resting a hand between his shoulderblades. "That was Hunter," he breathes out. "He... uh. He's coming over."
Candice understands immediately, her face softening. "Oh. Johnny..."
"I'll go wake him up," he exhales softly. Squeezing her hand, he moves away and dries his hands off fully before easing the door to Ciampa's room open. He's fast asleep, holding onto the title still, and Johnny hates having to wake him, but he has no real choice. "Hey, Tommaso," he whispers, resting a hand on Tommaso's chest. He's careful not to shake him, just letting his weight and pressure doing the work for him as Ciampa stirs with a soft groan, looking up at him in confusion. "Sorry to wake you up like this, but Hunter's coming over in about an hour."
Tommaso takes a second but it's clear when he understands, his face settles into grim acceptance. "Help- help me." He sits up with some assistance from Johnny, who stays close by his side. They go over to the closet and Ciampa pulls out his freshly laundered Blackheart shirt, and Johnny helps him to get dressed, slow and gentle. Ciampa loses strength quickly, breathing heavily, and Johnny eases him back onto the bed so he can catch his breath while he pulls his socks and shoes on his feet. "Tha- thanks."
"Sure, man, any time," Johnny whispers, sitting next to him. When Tommaso fumbles for the belt, Johnny gently hands it over to him and Tommaso holds it close, his eyes squeezed shut.
"Be- best time... of my life," he says quietly and Johnny nods, tears welling up in his eyes.
"I'm so sorry, man." They sit quietly, Tommaso leaning on him, until Candice comes to the door.
"He's here." She smiles sadly as Johnny helps Tommaso up and they walk to the living room, Tommaso sitting down slowly.
Tommaso is quiet, watchful, as Hunter walks in and pauses in the doorway, taking in his exhausted stare and tight grip on the belt. Sighing heavily, he walks in the rest of the way and sits down across from him, solemn. "I'm so sorry about all of this, Tommaso. How are things going? I know the surgery was a success. I was thankful to hear that."
"We're just taking things day by day," Johnny says softly when Ciampa can't quite find the words, or strength to say anything.
HHH nods. "Usually how these things go." He sighs. "I wish I could sit here and talk with you more, Tommaso, but I know you're exhausted. And NXT... we're doing the tapings tonight, as you know. So I can't, unfortunately, sit and visit. You, uh, you know what I'm here for."
Tommaso exhales, his eyes ringed with bone-deep weariness, and he lifts the belt, pressing his lips to it one last time before struggling to his feet. He's up before Johnny or Candice could move to help him, and HHH gapes at him for a minute before standing as well. Ciampa swallows hard. "Thank you... for this opportunity." He lifts the belt and holds it out, hands trembling as HHH gingerly reaches out and takes it from him. He shivers as soon as the belt's taken from him and Johnny inches closer, just in case, choked with emotions as HHH takes Ciampa's hand and shakes it warmly.
"Thank you," HHH tells him somberly. "You met and exceeded every expectation I had for you this past year and I'm so sorry it's worked out this way. We'll be with you every step of the way with your recovery, and when the time comes that you're cleared, we'll welcome you back in NXT with open arms."
Ciampa breathes out through his nose, trembling again, and Johnny quickly moves to help him sit down, Tommaso wincing as he settles down. HHH doesn't stay for much longer past that, smiling weakly at Candice and Johnny. "I'll see you tonight, then," he says to them on his way out and Johnny closes the door behind him before returning to Ciampa's side, watching as he flexes his hand, clearly lost without something to hold onto.
"It's going to be ok," he whispers. "You're going to be ok."
Candice sits down across from them and grips Ciampa's hands, lightly squeezing them. "Johnny, I think I'm going to stay at home tonight," she says softly. "You go do what you need to do, and I'll make sure he's fine."
"Are you sure?" he asks, eyes wet as he looks up at her.
"Yes. We'll be fine together, right, Tommaso?" He looks at her quietly and she smiles at him.
"Right," he manages after a moment.
Johnny doesn't like it, but when it's time, he goes alone. Everything feels muffled and unrealistic, Johnny walking into Full Sail alone, and nodding at a few people here and there. Some ask about Ciampa, and he answers as honestly as he can without going too deep into things, not wanting to betray Tommaso's confidence. Adam Cole looks somewhat sympathetic when they're standing side by side at gorilla. "You good to go for this?" he asks.
"Of course," Johnny says. No matter how wrong things feel, how much he's not feeling it, he's doing this for Tommaso. He has to sell it, he has to make it work. For himself, for the crowd, for Tommaso. There's no other choice. The belt is in the middle of the ring, Tommaso's sideplates glistening in the bright lights overheard, distracting him. Despite it all, he thinks it all goes well, the crowd is absolutely invested, and HHH claps him on the arm once he comes backstage, nodding at him and Cole before moving onto the next segment.
He escapes to catering then, sitting down in the corner and trying to breathe steadily as he waits to see if he's needed for anything else. Most of the others leave him alone while he sits there, drinking from a bottle of water, but before too long, he hears a throat clear and when he looks up, he's not terribly surprised to find Aleister Black standing there, a conflicted look on his pale face. "May I sit down?"
"Of course," Johnny says, picking at the label on his bottle of water. Neither say anything for a long moment, and Johnny's considering getting up and leaving, going outside for some fresh air, when Aleister shifts uncomfortably.
"I'm sorry," he says after a moment, and Johnny looks up, brows furrowing. "I was unaware Ciampa was dealing with that bad of an injury during our match. If I had known... we would've handled things much differently that night."
Johnny laughs sadly. "That's the thing, barely anyone knew," he admits wearily. "He always keeps things really close to the vest. So you have nothing to apologize for. I know you didn't go into that match with the intention to make his injury worse. We're not even sure which match may have led to this, or if it was cumulative. He did wrestle four times in three days. And the beatdown afterwards..." Johnny swallows hard. "Just... don't blame yourself. Ok?"
Aleister hesitates for a moment, not giving a concrete response to that. "Do you know, when we were wrestling at that live event that I got injured at, he stayed with me in the trainer's room afterwards? Actually helped me to stay calm that night, though I doubt he fully realized just how much." His lips twitch. "If I had known how bad things were the night of our match, I would've tried to return the favor."
Johnny's eyes soften. "That sounds like him, yeah." They sit and quietly think about things when the mood seems to shift a little, and Johnny looks up to find Velveteen Dream making his way over, resting a hand between Aleister's shoulderblades.
"Hey, Hunter's looking for you," Dream informs him, the North American title glistening over his chest as he cradles it close. Johnny barely glances at it, though, blinking when Dream catches his eye, however. "I'm sorry to hear about Tommaso."
"Thank you," Johnny breathes, looking over as Aleister gets up.
"Tell him... we hope his recovery goes well," Aleister says, and Johnny nods, watching them leave side by side, Dream leaning in to hear him better over the general bustling of the hallway.
Time passes and he blinks when Ricochet walks up to his table, looking a little uncomfortable. "Hey. Can I...?"
Johnny grimaces. "If you want to apologize for being involved with Tommaso's injury, you really don't have to, Aleister already has, and I told him the same thing I'll tell you: it's really no one's fault." He hesitates. "I don't mean to sound angry or anything, but I'm really tired and there's a lot on my mind, and I'm just waiting to see if I'm needed to film something else before the tapings end, so..."
"No problem, man. I just..." Ricochet looks at his hands for a long moment, piecing his thoughts together. "You know, when I first signed, Ciampa was like the first person to come up to me. You hear a lot about locker room leaders, but I never really understood it until that, you know? He made sure I felt comfortable, and knew if I needed anything, I could come to him. Considering how he acts on TV, you might not really expect it, but he's probably one of the nicest guys I've ever met in this business. I wish we could've interacted more, I bet he was a blast to really compete against."
"As someone who's been both partner and opponent, he absolutely is," Johnny says with a small smile. "Toughest guy I've been in the ring with in a long time."
"Hopefully when he's back, I'll get a chance to compete one on one against him."
Johnny nods, though he knows it's way too early to think about such things. "I hope so too, for both of your sakes," he says. "I know Tommaso would enjoy that."
Ricochet smiles briefly, then steps back, tapping his hand against the table. "Tell him our thoughts are with him, and... if he needs anything, at any time, he has my phone number."
Johnny blinks. "Yeah. I'll do that. Thank you."
Ricochet nods, and leaves, Johnny's gaze following him. He'd been busy with his own career, and Tommaso had been busy with his, they'd always been a close part of each other's lives so he sensed it on some level, but to actually hear how invested Ciampa was in helping other talent, and how much everyone appreciated that, is bittersweet and overwhelming all at the same time.
It's a relief when Johnny's done for the night, everything as set up for Takeover as it can be, despite the gaping hole of where Tommaso should be in its plans. He closes his eyes and hits his hand against the wall on his way out, before looking up. He's face to face with the merch table and swallows hard, looking at his shirt, and every other random thing scattered along the surface. Something catches his eye and he steps closer, brows furrowing. "Excuse me," he says softly. "Do you... uh, do you still have those in stock?" he asks, pointing at one of the signs.
The people working together to put everything away pause and look up at the board. "Oh. This? Actually, we do," the one closest to Johnny says, reaching into a box and pulling out a couple of the championship pillows, holding them up so he can see them. She waits until he indicates which one he wants and tosses the others back, handing the NXT one over to Johnny.
"What's it cost?" he asks, reaching into his wallet and waiting for an amount.
"Don't worry about it," she says, waving her hand dismissively. As he stares at her, she smiles slightly. "You're still friends with Tommaso, right? Tell him we hope he recovers quickly and makes it back as soon as possible."
Johnny swallows hard, nodding. "Thank you," he says, feeling even more choked up. "Thank you so much." He turns and leaves, one hand gripping his duffel, and the other squeezing the pillow close as he walks to his car, impatient to get home and check on Tommaso and Candice.
"He's asleep," Candice whispers when Johnny lets himself into the apartment, greeting him with a hug. "How did it go tonight?"
He shrugs. "It wasn't easy, but we're all set for Takeover." She guides him quietly down the hall so they can peek into Ciampa's room, and Johnny sighs, the man still looking wrong without the title in his hands, held tightly to his chest. "God, this is so awful," he mumbles, turning and walking back into the living room. He stares blankly ahead while Candice sits next to him, lightly rubbing circles against his back, waiting him out. "His title was right there, with the nameplates and everything, and..." He swallows hard and digs his knuckles into his eyes. "Aleister and Ricochet, even Dream, had all of this nice stuff to say, and I didn't know what to do or how to respond. I don't even know if my promo made sense." He exhales roughly and looks up at her. "It shouldn't be like this. It was supposed to be me and him. You know?"
She nods, squeezes his hand. "I know. I know, sweetie. I'm so sorry." She holds him for a few moments, easing back when he pulls away, once more tugging at his lips as he stares blankly ahead. "Listen, I'm gonna go to bed. You need to get some sleep too, Johnny." She runs her fingers down his jaw and smiles sadly before getting up. "Good night."
"Good night," he intones. The apartment is quiet, subtle lighting soothing after an evening spent surrounded by talking wrestlers, excited fans and loud music, lights constantly flashing here and there. He doesn't stay long, however, feeling antsy and uncomfortable. Gets up and pads back to Ciampa's bedroom, watching him sleep. He seems relaxed at least, lips parted as he breathes in and out steadily. Johnny sniffs, wishing things could be different. There's still a sense of failure and guilt as he stares down at him, certain in his own culpability in all of this despite what he'd told Aleister and Ricochet earlier. "I'm so sorry, Tommaso," he whispers, feeling like he could say it a million times and it'd still never make up for what his shortcomings as a partner- as a best friend- had cost the man.
He's exhausted and drowning in so many grim thoughts and memories that he can't stand staying here, watching Tommaso, so he quietly leaves and heads to bed, careful not to disrupt Candice too much as he settles in next to her. He stares at the ceiling for what feels like the longest time, never quite sure when he drifts off. It's with a startled gasp and jerking motion that he wakes up what feels like only moments later, Candice leaning over him with a sympathetic, worried look on her face. "Wha- wha-?"
"You were... you were calling out in your sleep," she tells him. "It seemed pretty bad, so I just... had to wake you up."
He doesn't remember a lot of the nightmare, just a tense, strangled kind of sadness, and short flashes of a bleak reality that he'd never want to face. He stares up at her, unable to shake the sensation, even with such fragmented memories. "I... I... Tommaso?"
"He's fine," she whispers. "Come on, let's go see. Alright?" She eases out of bed and waits until Johnny gets up too, the two of them quietly wandering down the hall. Tommaso is still sleeping peacefully, his hand resting against his chest and Johnny's lip twitches just a little as he reaches out and curls his fingers gently around Tommaso's, squeezing softly. His exhale is slow and relieved and Candice aches for him. "Johnny... C'mon, maybe you'll sleep better in here tonight."
He looks up at her, a distant haunted look in his eye, and she breathes a little easier when he nods, allowing her to ease the blankets over him as he settles in next to Ciampa. "You... you can stay too," he whispers, and she smiles, brushing some of the hair out of his eyes before moving to the other side of Tommaso and laying down too. The bed isn't really big enough for three people, especially with one still recovering from neck surgery, but she makes it work, tucking in close to Tommaso and reaching over, sandwiching Johnny's hand between her own and Tommaso's.
"He's fine," she whispers to Johnny. "We're all gonna make it through this, I promise you, Johnny."
He stares at her through the half-lit room and nods, finding comfort in the knowledge that her stubbornness and strength had gotten them through many difficult times already. "Thank you, Candice."
"You're welcome, honey," she whispers to him, rubbing soothing circles against his wrist. "Try to get some sleep now, huh?"
He nods, looking over at Ciampa for a few, long moments, watching him breathe, before his eyes slip closed and he relaxes into some much needed sleep.
Johnny is slowly pulled from a deep, heavy sleep by a groggy chuckle, stirring and looking around until he finds Tommaso staring over at him, eyes soft but amused. "Hey, man," he says quietly, sitting up and brushing his fingers through his sleep mussed hair, squinting down at him. "How are you feeling?" Ciampa yawns and shifts his fingers, Johnny realizing then that he's still holding onto Tommaso's hand, slowly pulling away. "Sorry about that."
Tommaso quirks an eyebrow at him and clears his throat. "It's fine," he says, voice still not quite normal, but stronger than it was even yesterday. "I'm ok." He searches Johnny's face for a long moment, eyes piercing and intense. "Are you?"
Johnny, flustered, searches for something to change the topic, make Tommaso stop looking at him like that. "Hey, I... I'll be right back." He gets up and makes his way to the living room, listening to the familiar sounds of Candice starting coffee in the kitchen as he digs around in his duffel. Finding what he's looking for, he returns to Ciampa's bedroom. "I bought this for you," he says softly, watching as he gently lays the NXT championship pillow on Tommaso's chest. "I... I know this won't... uh. Replace the actual thing, but... It... it's something to hold onto, right?"
Tommaso lifts it so he can look at it without moving his head too much, and swallows, tracing his fingers over the NXT logo, along the ridges of what's supposed to resemble his belt. They've all had emotional moments the last few weeks, especially once Tommaso's condition worsened so quickly, but he's stayed stronger than all of them. Until now, his face crumbling as he digs his fingernails into the pillow, large, hot tears pouring down his cheeks into his beard.
Johnny gasps, numb and unsure what to do as he watches Tommaso fall apart after holding it in for so long. Finally moves into action, easing Tommaso up into a sitting position and tucking him in carefully, stroking his back, murmuring soothingly to him as he sobs into Johnny's neck. "It's ok," he whispers, crying too now. "It's ok, I'm here. Let it out, man. You're gonna be ok." He thinks Candice peeks in at one point, but she doesn't intercede, to Johnny's relief. Though they get along well, Tommaso's pride makes it hard enough for him to show his more vulnerable, damaged side to Johnny, much less Candice too.
Johnny holds him until Tommaso's hand, clenched into his shirt, relaxes and lightly pats at his back, Johnny easing back and cupping Tommaso's face, lightly wiping the lingering tear tracks away with his thumbs. "Ok?" he whispers and Tommaso exhales, sounding congested and still more than a little miserable.
"Yeah," he whispers.
"I'm sorry," Johnny says, pulling the pillow out from where it had gotten trapped between them when Johnny was trying to console Tommaso. "It was a dumb idea, I should've known-"
But Ciampa reaches out and grips it, staring at Johnny with wet, bloodshot eyes. "No." He licks his lips. "No. I... I want it. Please." Johnny relinquishes the pillow, watching as Ciampa hugs it tight. "I miss Goldy."
"I know you do, buddy." Johnny sighs, wishing he could do something to change all of this for Tommaso. Make it right. Unfortunately, life just doesn't work that way. "I know you do."
They slowly fall into a routine between Tommaso and his recovery, Johnny and his looming Takeover responsibilities. Tommaso begins rehab and his voice and appetite slowly come back as he gets stronger day by day. Johnny breathes a little easier when he stops looking quite as exhausted, not as worn around the edges, but it's still difficult. Wrestlemania weekend is coming ever closer and with it, the knowledge that at the end of it, there's a fair chance he will be bringing Goldy home, but with his name plates on it, it being his prerogative to hold onto the belt at every chance if he so chooses to. It's maddening, part of him is excited, and part of him hates the very thought of it. "Will you..." He hesitates over his own thoughts, tapping his fingers against the counter anxiously while Tommaso stares up at him, waiting. The NXT championship throw pillow is sitting on the island between them, taunting him. "Will you be ok... if I... if I bring the belt home if I beat Cole..."
Ciampa's eyes lower, his face going carefully blank. "She... It'll be your belt, Johnny. Why wouldn't you bring it home?" he asks, picking at the label of his water bottle.
He shakes his head, struggling. "It... it's still technically your belt, man." Tommaso looks up at this and their eyes lock, the two of them saying more this way than they could ever find the words for. "I don't want to make this worse for you."
"You couldn't, Johnny," he says with a soft, bitter laugh. They sit for a few quiet, tense moments, before Tommaso licks his lips and starts to speak, the most he's said at once since his surgery. "I want you to succeed. I want you to win, and bring the damn thing home. It's all I've ever wanted for you, and the only thing... the only thing that's going to make seeing you with the belt difficult is that I was unable to see it through, to finish our story." His shoulders slump a little. "To give you your moment."
Johnny struggles to breathe through a sudden rush of emotions and walks around the island to wrap his arms around Tommaso, hugging him for a few, quiet moments. "Hey, you know what? After all of this is over, and you're a little stronger, we should totally try Disney again." He lightly presses his knuckles to Tommaso's jaw and smiles down at him. "To celebrate, right? And this time you could ride all of the rides and kick all of our asses at all of the games..."
Tommaso laughs slightly, exhaling slowly. "Yeah, sure, Johnny, whatever you say."
It's not perfect. Johnny doesn't think things will ever be perfect again, but it's something, at least. To know how Tommaso actually feels about things bolsters him, gives him just one more thing to fight for.
"I don't know," he frets the Wednesday before they leave for New Jersey. "Are you sure you're going to be ok for the next few days? I mean, it's barely been a month, and-"
Tommaso's lips twitch up patiently. "Johnny, you've given me the name and number of pretty much every neighbor in this complex, of every delivery place around, you've even talked the super into checking in on me a couple of times? I'll be fine." He knows it won't matter, Johnny will still worry. Especially since Candice is leaving with him, needed for both NXT and for Axxess. "Come on, Johnny. I can get around easier now, and my voice is better. I'll be ok for a few days. I promise. If anything goes wrong, I have plenty of help all around. I can call one of the neighbors, I can call the performance center if I need to. It's ok."
Johnny sighs, shaking his head. "I know you're probably right, it just..." He looks away. "I wish you were coming with us for this."
Then it clicks, on some level, and Ciampa sighs softly. "Listen, man, I'll be watching from right here on this couch, ok? I might not be with you physically when you win, but I will be with you in every other possible way." He taps his hand against Johnny's chest and relaxes a little when a smile comes to his best friend's face.
"You're so certain I'm gonna win, huh?"
"Hell, yeah," Ciampa says simply, no doubt whatsoever in his voice or stare.
"Thank you," Johnny says, lip trembling slightly. "For always believing in me. For being the best tag partner a guy could ever ask for."
Ciampa eases into his hug and exhales softly. "Right back at you, Johnny," he says quietly, squeezing him back as best as he can.
It's almost time. Candice is rubbing his shoulders, listening to him trying to control his breathing as he hops around, tries to loosen up. Adam is nearby, the other members of Undisputed Era lurking around, and they all exchange nods, none eager to speak and break into their thoughts, ruin their concentration on the match before them. Candice suddenly shifts and pushes her phone into Johnny's hand, kissing his cheek before stepping back. He blinks and lifts the screen, his eyes brightening when he realizes. "Hey, man."
Tommaso stares back at him, his eyes tired but resolute. "Hey, Johnny. Sorry this is so last minute, but I honestly just woke up after a post-rehab nap."
"No problem," he says softly, just happy to see his face, hear his voice once more before he has to hit the ring. "I... I'm about to go out." he sounds dazed, as if he can't believe it's actually here. The belt is within his grasp. Within the hour, everything is going to change.
"I know," Ciampa says. "Hey Johnny?"
"Yeah?" he asks, looking at the screen.
"Kick some ass out there for me." Ciampa's eyes soften. "And bring her home."
Johnny nods, his emotions calming, his nerves easing as he focuses on that one goal. For himself. For Tommaso. "I will." There's no other way. "I'll see you at home."
Tommaso's smile is a sad, slow thing, and it sticks in Johnny's mind as he hands the phone over to Candice, squares his shoulders, and walks past gorilla as his music hits.