Karl had insisted. That was what he would tell anyone who asked.
Karl had insisted, Luke was drunk as all hell, and he had poor impulse control when he was tipsy. The night had passed relatively fast, from the party jumping as Bálor, paint chipping, flaking, and smearing more with each new swarm of people looking to get close, to escaping into the night as Finn. Everyone wanted to touch, everyone wanted to see, everyone wanted to be close, that when he finally escapes the last of it, towel in hand, he remembers why he stopped this sort of life in the first place.
That’s how every year seems to go, he thinks as he stumbles down the steps of the porch and shivers through the chill that cools his sweat slick skin, he forgets and gets swept up into the festivities. Party and bar hopping like he’s twenty-one again. God what is he now, twenty-six, seven, eight? Nine? Was he thirty? Even the memories blur, years of poor decisions and worse substances muddling with the alcohol in his system even as it dims from the pyre it had made in his stomach, wears off with pitch-dark suburbia and the chill of early-morning.
How many years spent trashing his body, picking fights? Drinking of all kinds? Somewhere in the mess of his mind, he finds a sense of pride. His downfall, but not in the measures that he feels now. Pride at finding a rock-bottom to hit, at rising from it and getting himself back into school. Now, though, that feeling withers into shame. How close was he to taking one too many shots and passing out in some random person’s home? How close to even slipping back into that mindset?
Finn finds, at least, his stuff is still on him. His wallet is still safely tucked into his boots, along with his phone. The sweaty screen reads a stark 2:49, ticking silently onto fifty as he smears the back of a hand over his eyes. Red and black comes away but the towel is already a messy black-grey-red-pink, so he wipes up some of the sweat-paint and throws it around his neck. There’s a small street corner, still surrounded by long rows of houses, that boasts a late-hour diner and a Seven Eleven. Finn wipes a thumb on his thigh and tries calling Karl first.
The sidewalks break down as he approaches the corner, older and covered in history and age. Weeds peek out between slabs, the dates and initials written in counting back in time, fading out as he walked, head down and phone ringing distantly in his ears.
“This is Karl, be a good brother and leave a message, will ya?”
Jasmine and ivy crawl the walls of the building as he approaches, taking a breath and wiping his hands down one of the few patches of unpainted skin as takes the door handle to the store. He tries Luke this time as he ducks the double-take at the counter and disappears into the forest of tall shelves. A bag of cheddar popcorn, they’ve got small chocolate donuts on discount, so he grabs two plastic wraps of them, some milk that’s a day from expiration.
“It’s ya boy Luke, leave a message! Karl, would you kindly get the hell off? What? It’s still recording? Wh–”
Finn huffed, dialing Karl again as he snatched two towels from the miscellaneous aisle. He’s pretty sure he’s accidently wiped some paint on it by the time he shuffles to the register, but the woman there is too busy pretending to not look at him to check it as he tosses a few coins in the donation box and pays for his things.
The diner next door is abandoned for all but a man behind the counter on his phone, but he sweeps quickly to a back corner as fast as he can anyway. Thankfully, one of the towels was one with a hood, allowing him to sit on it and use it to cover his back half, wrapping the other one around himself as the A/C quickly plastered the filthy mess of sweat, liquor, water, and whatever else to his skin.
“This is Karl, be a good brother and leave a message, will ya?”
“I’ll leave you a message alright,” he hisses under his breath as it beeps at him, and then louder. “Hey, where the fook are you? I’m guessing Luke is with you, seeing as both of you arseholes left me at Rollin’s place. What the hell happened to responsible designated drivers? Listen, I’m at that diner on 14th, by the Seven Eleven, call me back or meet me if you’re still up, alright? Call me.”
Finn hangs up and takes a moment to stare at his phone, the way some of the paint on his hands that hadn't rubbed off yet clung to the light-colored case, crusted into the buttons and small crevasses.
“You gonna order anything?”
Finn snapped his head up, and then craned it back farther to meet the man's eyes. Whiskey brain says holy fuck, I wanna climb him like a tree. Normal, rational brain cuts that train of thought off at the pass and takes over quickly. “Yeah, uh, sorry, d'ya have hotcakes?”
“We sure do. You want anything else with that?” The man doesn't bother to write it down, but absentmindedly licks a thumb and flattens a stray hair back into his tight ponytail, and Finn can feel a shiver race down his spine like an earthquake. Holy shit.
“Coffee,” he blurts, pulling his towel tighter around him. “Or, uh, anything warm? It's a bit chilly and I don't have a ride just yet.”
The man, Reigns he spots on the chipped plastic name tag, frowns as his brow furrows. “Well, what're you doing back here then, man? It's way warmer by the bar,” he jerks his head towards the register. “Plus, you look like you could use the company.”
Finn shrugs after a moment of thought. He wasn't gonna turn down a direct offer like that from what was probably the most handsome man on the damn continent. Even at the cost of possibly embarrassing himself. He half stumbles after him, slipping onto a barstool as the man turned on the coffee pot (coffee pot, Jesus) and rolled up his faded red shirt to a sleeve tattoo, tightening his bun again and beginning to put together batter. It’s a very difficult thing, trying not to melt in the seat. Big strong arms, fitted shirt, the dusting of facial hair and the soft hum as he makes Finn’s food, the slight sway to his hips and fluttered from setting to setting in the open kitchen.
“So, what’s your story?”
“I used to be a big party guy but… not anymore, I suppose. Got a little drunk, got the munchies, waiting for my pals to pick me up.”
Reigns smiles over his shoulder, and Finn’s breath comes in a sharp exhale. “I meant the full get-up.”
“Oh! Uh, it’s an old tradition, full make-up every Halloween and this year was demon, but all those people pressed close and sweaty kinda…” He spreads his arms out, making a face at the heavily smeared mess over his chest, black and white making a colored mess of the red.
“Yeah. I’m usually a lot cooler.”
“You are, are you?” He chortled, raising an eyebrow as Finn flushed. He muffled a yawn behind a hand, huffing.
“Yeah, I actually am. Finn Bálor, know the name?”
“Don’t yawn! You’ll start a–" the man himself yawned wide, eyes watering. “–yawn chain. And yeah, I do know the name. Bit of a daredevil, they say.”
Reigns rose to his full height, stretching high and popping his joints as he removed his apron and began rolling it up, and Finn felt that heat burn back up to his ears as he traced the silhouette in shitty fluorescent light. A solid, earthly shadow against a painful neon background, slowing the pounding the headache behind his eyes.
Fuck, he’s whipped as all hell. “Ye-eah. Daredevil, that’s me.”
Reigns looks amused again, and Finn stuffs the first hotcake into his mouth and avoided his eyes as he poured a cup of coffee, hunching farther into his towels with a small grin.
“I’m a college student.” He glances away when Reigns turns to look at him. “Mythology.”
Thankfully, Reigns doesn’t laugh or anything, simply glances up at him as he leans against the back wall. “Do you go to the one down the street?”
“Yeah, do you know it?”
Reigns flashes him a toothy grin. “I’m going there. Don’t got a major yet, still an underclassman.”
“Oh, nice! Do you have Hardy?”
“He talks about you a lot. Good thing!” He cuts over himself, “Good stuff, he says you’re one of his, uh, favorites. Really smart and nice and…”
That grin is back, a little smug as Finn burns bright. “And?”
“Professor Hardy said that?”
“No,” he itched at his jaw, refusing to look away as it’s Reigns’ turn for color to rise. “That’s my own addition, but the rest… I’ll take his word for it.”
Finn drops his head again and shoves another hotcake in his mouth, eyeing the touched expression as Reigns thinks on it.
He slows between mouthfuls of flat cake to meet Reigns’ eyes, where the man was intently studying him between the few scrubs of the griddle, putting the last plate on the counter. “Woaght?”
Reigns shakes his head, corner of his mouth twitching up. “Nothing’. Just thinking.”
“Closing time’s soon. Thinking about walking home, usually I have my friend Dean with me on shift to go with but I’m alone tonight.”
“I’ll walk you home,” he blurted, slapping a delayed hand to his mouth after swallowing.
Both of Reigns’ eyebrows jumped and an unreadable expression passed his face. Finn wants to let the Earth swallow him. “O-Or not! I don’t want to be creepy and we don’t know each other, I could walk you a few blocks away? For safety in numbers? Or, uh–”
“It’s fine, don’t have an anxiety attack, man.” Reigns' hand is large and warm against the back of his neck when he gives a comforting squeeze. “Walk me a few streets down, will you?”
“I wouldn’t want to intrude,” he coughs out, bashfulness swallowing him where his own loose tongue left a void. Reigns sighed with another warm grin that toasted him inside and out.
“It’s not intruding, y’damn idiot. You offered and I’m taking you up on it. A few streets away from my house is intruding?”
“No, I’m just–” Lovestruck and a little drunk, “–trying to be careful. We’re pretty much strangers other than my oversharing. Don’t want to upset you or make you, ah, uncomfortable.”
The large Samoan turned to properly face him, leaning close with both hands on his shoulders. “Then let’s clear this up. You are, in no way, making me uncomfortable, and I would like you to walk me towards my house and give me your number.”
His number? His number, Reigns wanted his number, oh Lord Karl and Luke would never let him live this down. He’d embarrassed himself beyond belief, and yet Reigns still wanted his number? Dear lord.
“Breathe, Finn. Try breathing, in and out.”
“I’m normally a lot more put together than this,” he squeaks out.
“I figured it was the alcohol,” Reigns surmises, pulling a sharpie from his rolled-up work apron and taking his hand. His phone number tickles his palm and he fights to not twitch or clench his hand as he writes it out slowly and clearly. “Are you sure you don’t need me to call and Uber or something for you? Are your friends still coming?”
“Yeah, yeah, don’t worry about me,” he bobs his head, still locked on those pale blue ice eyes. “I’ll make it home. Jus’ wanna walk you home, Reigns.”
“Well, let’s get going then, drunkie.” The large man smiles at him one more time, holding out a hand when he stumbles out of his seat, tucking his bag of donuts and milk under an arm. He only catches a glimpse of Roman Reigns, the hotcake man on his palm, and Finn wants to memorize and frame the feeling that bubbles up in his chest, or of his sharpie-tingling hand clasped clammily in the other man’s as he hits the lights, locks up quickly, and guides him down the road, illuminated only by the Seven Eleven twinkling behind them and the soft bass of parties in the distance, still spinning on without him.