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Abre Los Ojos

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***

Today had been awful.

He had made one mistake after another and he couldn't stop beating himself up about it. Hiding in the tiny locker room he shared with his fellow Young Lions was an escape from his surroundings but there was no getting away from the neverending litany inside of his own head. Jay was so irritated and frustrated with himself. A single simple mistake could be excused but he had kept making them.

A mistimed dropkick - a move he had been using for months now.

An ice pack applied in the wrong spot to the wrong wrestler - something he would be lectured about for months now.

Worst of all - being completely out of a position as a wrestler had collided with the barricade, resulting in a far more painful landing than they should have endured.

And no matter what he tried to tell himself, the fact that said wrestler had been Tetsuya Naito made it that much worse.

Their eyes had met in the aftermath and the pain in Naito's eyes had only served as yet another reminder how unworthy he was. Someday. Someday, Jay would be good enough for him to finally notice. To finally see. But that was most certainly not today. Today was only for surviving and tomorrow was for trying to make up for everything he had gotten wrong.

Tonight was for doing his best to not let his dreams wander away from him again.

Jay had no idea when his feelings about Naito had changed from admiration to something else. There were no words to describe his own thoughts - let alone his emotions. He just wanted. Sometimes it felt like his skin was on fire any time they were close to one another. A crush was a thing that he could deal with - maybe - but this was different. Naito was constantly teasing him outside the ring - poking at him and demanding things of him. That really wasn't a solid basis for anything except making him look forward to the attention like a dolt.

But that wasn't the only thing.

Naito made sense to him. Every move, every taunt, every gesture. It was like he was speaking a language that Jay somehow understood. And more than anything, he wanted the skill and the words to be able to answer him. He couldn't. Not yet. But someday. They would stand across from each other and be able to hold an entire conversation that wouldn't make sense to anyone else. And that crush - that affection - wasn't something that would ever be reciprocated but it would be all right if Naito understood him too.

What wasn't all right was Naito sitting down right next to him.

There was absolutely no reason for him to be in this locker room. The expression on his face was completely unaffected but there was this tiny hint of warmth in his eyes that made it impossible for Jay to look away. And now they were just staring at each other. Jay didn't have a single clue as to what Naito wanted or why he was here - of all places - but he couldn't make his mouth move.

Young Lions were supposed to be humble and timid. Something that was both far too easy and far too difficult for him.

Besides, if he said the wrong thing - or anything at all - Naito might leave and that was the absolute last thing he wanted. They were almost close enough to touch and it felt like a welcome sort of invasion. Apparently, his heart and his mind were made of equal portions of ridiculousness. And for all that he understood Naito in the ring, this moment was a language he didn't speak.

But Naito didn't seem eager to talk, either. He was just staring at him - that cool, blank look firmly in place. Was he waiting on an apology for his fuck-up earlier? That actually would make sense and be an actual reason for him to seek Jay out. Why else on Earth would Naito have come looking for him of all people?

Jay opened his mouth to try and apologize but as soon as he did, Naito moved closer.

Closer.

Casually and deliberately, he shifted closer until he was leaning against Jay's shoulder.

And that definitely didn't make any sense.

It took intentional effort to force air in and out of his lungs. What was Naito doing? What was he thinking? His head was facing forward now so Jay was just staring at the side of Naito's head, trying to breathe. Was he supposed to say something now? How was he supposed to string a sentence together with Naito touching him like this? The warmth between them was nothing like the fire that liked to burn beneath his skin, even though it should be. Instead, it was the most disconcertingly familiar sensation that Jay had ever experienced. It felt as if they had been this close a hundred times before and he wanted it to absorb into his skin so deeply that it settled into his bones.

Carefully - so he didn't dislodge Naito - Jay leaned only his head forward so he could possibly catch a glimpse of the expression on his face.

And that was even worse.

His eyes were closed and he looked relaxed.

What in the fuck was he supposed to do with that?

Naito was resting against him like he was someone that could be trusted. Like they were more than what they were. It was impossible and his heart was singing and his mind was screaming. He needed to do something. There was no way that Naito was actually sleeping. But what was he doing?

A game.

That was all that this was. Another one of Naito's tricks on him.

But even that bit of understanding didn't dampen the warmth at all. It stayed just as it was so Jay did the same. He couldn't look at Naito - definitely couldn't push him away - so he just focused on the wall across from them and sat as still as he could. Out of the very corner of his eye, he could see Naito's fingers twitch from where they were resting on his thigh and a flash of insanity shot through him. It would be so easy - such a short distance - to reach over and place his own hand on top of Naito's but Jay couldn't even imagine doing it. Taking that kind of risk - doing something so brash - was beyond his ability to even contemplate.

Besides, this was enough just as it was. To ask - or want - for anything more was pointless.

The moment would pass and Naito would move on but he would stay in it as long as he could.

***

It hadn't been that long but everything looked different.

Or maybe he had just gotten used to arenas in America.

Jay wished that it felt good to be home but he didn't even know where that was any more. New Zealand seemed like a different lifetime belonging to a different person. America had been nice but it wasn't right either. And Japan? The only home he had here was a feeling not a place.

Not that it mattered.

That feeling was something that only he knew. Jay had carried it across an ocean and all over an unfamiliar continent like some bizarre mix between a crux to bear and a good luck charm. It hadn't faded over time but instead, it had only grown stronger in all these months apart. With all of this distance between them.

Sometimes, he wondered what it would take for his heart to stop thinking of Tetsuya Naito.

Not even watching from afar as Naito had chosen Hiromu Takahashi to complete his precious familia had done it. Knowing that he had been forgotten and abandoned. Understanding that the language he thought he had been to read wasn't something he was ever supposed to know. None of it had been enough for him to let go.

He needed to let go.

The vignettes had already started to air and Jay knew who he needed to become. It was a work-in-progress. A mask that had to become his new face. Something he wore without having to think about slipping it on. His crumbling heart almost needed the Switchblade and maybe it wouldn't be so bad. Maybe it would be better if no one could see the tears that he couldn't ever let fall.

Everything he had learned - every skill he had gained - had a purpose other than just trying to get Naito to see him, after all. He was going to be a champion. He was going to be great. Undeniable and inevitable. If each of his actions spoke louder than a thousand words, then he couldn't be ignored.

By anyone.

Why did it matter if that mindset felt uncomfortable inside of his own head? Like a jacket that was a size too small.

Jay rubbed his hands against his arms, trying to warm them up. He wasn't supposed to be here yet but he had wanted to spend some extra time to get used to Japan again - the food, the culture, the places - and to see all of it with eyes that were no longer a Young Lion's. He had completed his excursion and now it was time for everything to finally begin. Even if - at moments - he wanted to go back to the beginning and experience things for the first time again. But then there were things it felt like he waited forever for.

Things like this. Things like seeing Naito again.

And against everything that he should be doing, Jay felt a smile curving his lips.

It had been too long if that was all it took to make him smile.

Jay knew he should let go of this quiet joy. This connectedness he felt. It was almost as if he had been guided here in order to arrive at this exact hallway junction at this exact moment. That warmth he still dreamed about was there in Naito's eyes and Jay couldn't stop his heart from wondering if it would deepen when he turned just enough to realize who was standing across from him.

That was possible, wasn't it?

It was still possible. It had to be.

The Switchblade couldn't smile at Naito but Jamie could. He could be both if he had to be. If Natio smiled back at him. He couldn't have forgotten him completely. Their paths had crossed once while he had been on excursion but they hadn't truly stood across from each other. That was all it would take for Naito to remember. Maybe he should say something but it would only take a second or two more for him to be seen.

But in the moments in between those seconds, Jay watched as Naito became surrounded by that familia of his. Nothing could be glimpsed past that circle of togetherness and there was no space in which he could be seen. Everything had been shut away from him. He could hear laughter and happiness and it was more than he could bear.

What would the Switchblade do?

An image of arrogance lifted his chin and pulled back his shoulders. Each step was purposeful. Each stride meant to be as menacing as possible. Nothing mattered. No one around him mattered. Each person was only an obstacle in his way. Everyone - there was no such thing as warmth to be found in unspoken language. The only words he needed now were his own. The only thing he needed was himself.

A handful of steps took him right past Naito and his hanger-ons and it was the first real challenge of this new persona of his. Jay - Jamie - wanted to stop. Maybe if he waited long enough Naito would see him but that wasn't who he needed to be. The Switchblade would prove himself in the ring. Naito wouldn't be able to escape him forever. He was going to be everything.

So he kept walking. He needed to let go, after all.

***

The leader of Bullet Club.

It was a title that still didn't fit quite right but it was his. For a month now, it had been one he had worn and someday, Jay knew that calling himself that would feel right. The same disconnect had been there when he had become the Switchblade so it was just a matter of time.

Time and events and actions.

Everything hadn't been worth it - not yet - but it would be. The day was coming. His skills improved every single time he stepped between the ropes and now he truly had people that would actually watch his back. Like everything else, with time, they would have their own bonds and laughter.

Nothing else - no one else - mattered.

And he still wished that his heart would understand that.

Why couldn't he just forget?

But he couldn't forget Tetsuya Naito. He was simply there - embedded so deeply within his own heart that it seemingly didn't matter how many times he clawed at it. Every word, every action, every betrayal. It all should have made him go away. Jay wasn't that pathetic Young Lion any more. He wasn't Jamie any more.

He was the Switchblade.

It was more than a mask. It was who he was.

And the Switchblade didn't have a heart that always felt like something was missing. The Switchblade embraced the coldness of his skin and turned it around on his enemies. Nothing could get past that. It didn't matter that sometimes that coldness was the cold sweat he woke up drenched in after another nightmare. It didn't matter that on those nights, the only way he could fall back asleep was remembering that single stupid moment so long ago now. The sensation of Naito resting against him after a bad day.

And like all the other things he kept trying to force himself to forget, the echo of that warmth still lingered under his skin.

It was such a foolish thing for his heart to hold on to.

Jay just needed to keep going. Continue down this path. One day - soon - he would stand across from Naito and show him that they were meant to be rivals. That moment was the last thing he needed for everything to finally be complete. Naito would finally see him then. He would know that he should have chosen him. He should have seen him. And Naito would know that it was too late. Jay had his own family now.

But in this moment, Naito stood alone. And he was looking right at him.

They must have come around the corner at the same time and it was the sort of collision that Jay was unprepared for. They hadn't touched at all but his heart was brightening anyway. Stupid, pitiful thing. Their first real interaction was supposed to be on his terms, not on fate or Naito's. He had earned that right.

It took more effort than he would ever admit but Jay forced himself to look at Naito through the Switchblade's eyes. And there was no reason to stay here. The gentle smile that had quietly formed on Naito's face was just a deception. The softness in his eyes was simply an attempt to get him to lower his guard. That would never happen.

Never again.

But it was the tentative brush of fingertips along the back of his hand that required all of his self-control.

Because there was that warmth. That fire he couldn't forget spreading beneath his skin once more. The cold dissipated with a terrible and impossible swiftness - deserting him when he needed it the most. Naito was touching him with a careful tenderness - such a tiny thing - and the Switchblade started to crumble at the edges. He desperately needed to hang on to it and he dangerously wanted to let it go.

How long had it been since anyone had been gentle toward him in even the smallest measure?

It would be so simple to return the motion - to match Naito's reach. But it would defy everything he had become. Everything that he had done. Did he stand firmly enough to finally try and answer Naito in his own language? Was he enough to do something like that?

To absorb that softness. To believe that Naito was seeing him. That this moment was real.

It hadn't even been a single minute but the longer they stood there, the more Naito smiled. It was the one Jamie remembered and he hated it. His memory of it was perfect. It was just like he knew it to be. Naito's mouth opened and Jay wondered what he could possibly want to say.

A distant voice called his name and it was all the Switchblade needed to reform itself. Cracked - as always - but back in place.

Gedo.

He pulled his hand away with emphasis and ignored the aching sense of loss that immediately took up residence inside of his heart. That was fine. It could do what it wanted. He would tear it to shreds later anyway. It didn't belong there. He didn't belong here.

Jay was a part of Bullet Club. He was the leader and he had no need for the pathetically contrived concern in Naito's eyes. It wasn't real. That was the thing that he needed to remember. Everything else was to be forgotten and left behind. Baggage that was unnecessary to carry with him any more. Those days were done. That weakness was gone.

It didn't matter what Naito was going to say. That language of theirs was extinct.

Chapter Text

***

The day had finally come.

It was finally time.

The match was simply a warm-up - the standard undercard tag match - for their G1 Climax face-off tomorrow but that didn't matter. He hadn't been in a ring with Naito in over two years. That was what mattered. Jay only needed one more victory to carry him to the final and it would be deliciously sweet to take that victory at Naito's expense.

Today.

Today, Naito would finally see him. He would be forced to acknowledge that Jay was his equal - his destined rival. His own heart would be forced to finally let those fucking dreams die. Nothing else had done the job. No matter how much damage he inflicted - no matter how much of his heart he had torn apart so it would wither and rot - Tetsuya Naito had remained. Stubborn and determined, his memories and his longing would not let go of him. Every tainted victory, every excused loss, every forced smirk. So much of what he had once been was gone for good. Shattered into a thousand pieces and destroyed.

But in those memories of Naito's smile, his heart still hesitated.

In that lost warmth, Jamie still endured.

No more.

So Jay stood at the edge of the ring, leaned against the ropes, and waited. Naito's music blared throughout the arena and that same old sense of anticipation raced through his veins. Yujiro and Chase were the corner behind him and it didn't matter that they had no clue as to the significance of this match. Bullet Club had each other's back - they didn't have to be buddy-buddy or anything like that. That familia was a weakness of Naito's. He had even added to it with the so-called Dragon. Takagi looked intimidating but Jay had easily beaten him earlier in the tournament. No one was better than he was between the ropes.

Naito was the only one who could possibly come close and today, Jay would finally prove that even that was a stretch - when Naito eventually decided to appear.

Taking his time to make his entrance was an old trick of Naito's that Jay was well-prepared for. What he wasn't ready for was the way his heart started to beat a little faster as soon as he stepped through the curtain. He had waited for this. He wanted this. And yet… the very sight of Naito walking toward him was a shock to his system. It wasn't just his racing heartbeat but yearning and wanting shaking off a too-long hibernation.

He couldn't take his eyes off of each one of Naito's movements - couldn't even blink - and he was suddenly even gladder that Chase and Yujiro were unobservant. The holes in his mask - the dents in his armor - had to be more visible than he would like. It would be easier to steal a different trick and make his own face nothing but indifferent if Naito was doing the same. That wasn't what was happening, though. Jay - and his heart - weren't sure what to do with how happy Naito looked. With a smile that was just as he wished he didn't remember.

It hadn't been there as Naito had walked down the path to the ring and Jay had assumed he was safe from it. But as soon as their eyes had met, that smile had started to light up Naito's face. And that just wasn't fighting fucking fair in the slightest. It was a cruel trick meant to throw him off his own game but Jay wasn't going to let that happen. He had done too much - fought too long - to get to this exact moment. All the longing, the smiling, the warmth… none of it mattered. None of it was real. The only language that was true was that of superiority. Beginning today, the Switchblade would finally stand tall over Tetsuya Naito.

So he tried to think little of how Naito walked right up to him. That playful and teasing smile doing its best to draw a matching one out of him. They were standing so close and it was as if his body had instantly become reattuned to Naito's presence. Remembered what it was like to want to be closer. Even that fucking taunt of his was something he had waited to see like this. To be the sole focus of it.

To be the center of Naito's attention - the only thing that mattered to him - even if it was for a single pathetic moment.

One more step.

That was all this match was. Another step in his ascent. His first - but not his last - chance to prove so many different things to Naito. To make him finally understand. Switchblade Jay White would not be ignored. By anyone - especially Naito. Jay kept repeating those three words over and over again but it didn't seem to matter how loudly he screamed them. But with each beat of his heart, another set of words grew even stronger. Louder.

I missed you.

***

What was he thinking?

The past few matches he had been completely out-of-control. Played right into Naito's hands like an idiot. An infatuated fool. That familia of his had probably been laughing their asses off at him for days. Bullet Club's silence on the matter was likely all he needed to know about how stupid he had looked.

But it had been too hard to resist.

Matching Naito taunt for taunt. Move for move. Smile for smile.

For so long, Jay had wondered what it would be like to face Naito in the ring. To stand there as his equal. To finally be able to answer him in that unspoken language he could still feel in his bones. There had been the rush of pride in not only what he had learned and achieved but in finally being proven right. He had expected that. It was the fun that had taken him by surprise.

How good it had felt. How easily the Switchblade fell away until Jay found himself down on one knee waving the Intercontinental Title at Naito like an overdramatic marriage proposal.

He had felt like himself again and it needed to stop.

Jay knew he had gone too far - it was all he had been able to think about this past week. His stupid antics had left himself open for whatever counterattack Naito chose to employ. The weaknesses he had worked so hard to hide and the softness he had tried to completely destroy had been on full display for anyone who wanted to look hard enough.

And for what?

For Naito?

There was nothing more foolish or contemptible than that. How many times did he have to tell himself that he was nothing to Naito? How many more times would it take before his heart believed him? There was absolutely nothing different about how Naito was with him. He knew that. How many fucking matches of his had Jay seen close up as a Young Lion? How many different wrestlers had he watched him act like this with?

He was nothing special to Naito. He just wasn't.

So he was determined to do better from now on. There were only two matches remaining before he faced - and beat - Naito for the title. He needed to focus. No more antics. No more smiles. No more flirting. Even if he barely recognized it himself - he didn't do that with anyone - and even if Naito had no clue.

It was still ridiculous.

And it didn't matter - couldn't matter - how much he wanted these ridiculous tag matches to continue. More than once, that single pathetic idea had kept him from sleeping. Him and Naito in a neverending feud, sharing the ring and those smiles for days and days to come. Having their interactions to look forward to without having to know that it was ending soon.

But at the same time, he needed to be done. To hold the championship belt high above his head so he could be as far from Naito as he could possibly get. Because Jay was all too aware of how Naito still drew him in so easily. His pitiful heart wanted every single second it could get near him. Didn't want him to walk away from any possible moment. No matter how badly it tore him apart.

And he had done his fucking best to avoid falling into those comfortable patterns with Naito in this match. To not react. To not smile. To not play along. All the while, he ignored the pangs and the aches it caused. It shouldn't take as much effort as it had but that wasn't important - he could mock himself for that later.

Besides, half of that extra effort was entirely Naito's fault in the first place.

How dare he look lost and confused at Jay's actions or lack thereof?

They had a title match in a handful of days. It was time to be serious. There was no room for having fun. For feeling alive again. So he just kept it up. Utilized dirty tactics like the leader of Bullet Club should. Didn't hesitate. Shoved down and buried the irrational hope that had arisen in his soul every time he saw that searching look on Naito's face. It was impossible, anyway. Couldn't possibly be real.

Except it felt real - especially like this.

This close.

He and Naito had entered the ring and despite all of the stubbornly appealing taunts, Jay had managed to keep his expression and his actions neutral. Not perfectly - he couldn't help himself - but he had tried. Every time Naito had tried to draw any sort of reaction out of him, he hadn't immediately responded even if he had wanted to. It had been painful but possible until now.

Naito had gone for what he had assumed would be a pin attempt - not that it was enough to keep him down yet - but instead, he had simply laid slightly on top of him. So now Naito was just gently holding him down as time froze altogether. The smile on his face wasn't teasing but tender. Why was it that the only person who had been soft toward him at all these past few years was the man that was supposed to be his rival? It wasn't fair.

But more than anything else, Jay's focus was the concern in the eyes staring down at him, as if Naito was trying to see if he was still in there somewhere. He was and he wasn't but Jay had no idea what to do with the fact that Naito was looking for him at all.

So he kicked out and the match - and Jay - moved on.

***

He was so fucking tired.

There wasn't a single part of his body that didn't ache - that wasn't on fire. Each step down the hallway had been complete agony. And of course, he had made those steps alone. No one at his side. Not a single sign of support or concern. It was just him. In defeat, it was always just him.

Jay had long since had enough but tonight?

He couldn't do this any more.

Yet another loss in a title match at Wrestle Kingdom. At least he had been in the main event to put an even bigger spotlight on his pathetic failure this time. All that work. All that effort. What in the fuck was it for? He had main evented Wrestle Kingdom for what? To be reminded that no matter what he did - no matter how far he thought he had come - he would never truly be good enough?

He knew that already.

Deep down, Jay knew that.

If he had been - if the possibility existed at all - things would have gone far differently these past years. He would be the double champion right now. He would have been walking away triumphant - and surrounded by his factionmates - tonight instead of staggering down a deserted corridor all alone.

If he was good enough, Naito would have wanted to face him too.

Like a fucking idiot, he thought they understood each other. That he and Naito were on the same wavelength - speaking that language of theirs. But of course, he was fucking wrong. Naito didn't want him. Naito had chosen Ibushi - granted him their title match. Everything he had done just to face him again - to share that main event moment with him - had been pointless.

All of it had been so fucking pointless.

And he should have known that too.

These feelings - this affection - were his and his alone.

At least everyone had already seen him collapse onto the floor. Seen what was left of his dignity spilling out of his mouth uncontrolled. So there was no reason to worry about what anyone would think of Switchblade Jay White leaning against a wall with tears trailing down his cheeks.

Of Jamie having nothing else left to give.

What was he supposed to do now? As it stood, he never wanted to step foot into a cerulean blue ring again and he didn't know if he wanted to change that. His contract guaranteed one more night but after that, there was no reason to stay. No one to care if he disappeared. Would Bullet Club even notice if their fucking leader never came back? EVIL was probably prepared for the day. Gedo always had a plan, after all.

If it had been any other hand, he would have struck back instantly. Attacked or moved away or done anything other than shudder. But Jay knew the outline of the hand that was suddenly resting on top of his shoulder. Knew the contours of the fingers and the texture of the palm even though he really shouldn't. He didn't have any strength left to open his eyes but he didn't need to.

Naito.

Jay had no idea what he was doing here - not just in this random distant hallway but in the arena itself. There was no reason for him to be around tonight. No matter how exhausted he was, Jay was still fully aware that he had lost too. Maybe Naito had found comfort in the fact that he had lost to someone that he felt was worth facing.

Which was apparently a description that Jay didn't - and couldn't ever - meet.

So now they were standing there in silence - the wall and Naito's hand vying for what was keeping him upright the most. Jay didn't have anything he wanted to say and there was nothing he wanted to hear. Even if there was, those were words that were never going to leave Naito's mouth. And as for himself, he had spoken enough already. His words and his heart were scattered all about that press conference room. Not that anybody had actually been listening.

But he stayed right where he was anyway.

Naito's hand was cold against his skin and the sharpness of it stung. The warmth he had once known felt like something he must have made up. Imagined or dreamed or something else equally pathetic. This was what Naito was supposed to be. A rival that meant nothing to him. Or did he not even qualify as a rival any more? Was he not even enough for that distinction?

Probably not.

Brushing away the evidence of his tears was only going to draw attention to them; fortunately, Naito couldn't possibly care about something like that.

Maybe he was here to congratulate Ibushi on his obviously inevitable victory. That would make sense.

Naito was speaking but Jay was too tired to focus on the words - translate Japanese to English if that was even the language he was using. It could be Spanish for all Jay could get his brain to function. Even if his understanding of that particular language was far better than he would ever let on. Learning a third language years ago in the hopes of being invited to join a faction - a familia - was pitiful, even for him.

The words themselves didn't really matter.

Did Naito know that no one spoke to him like that? With that warmth in their voice? But such things were meaningless. As pointless as each and every one of his sacrifices. Because it had to be his imagination. An effect that Naito didn't even intend. Something that only Jay could hear. There was no other option. If reality was any different, then Naito would have been standing across from him tonight.

If that warmth was real, then Naito would have wanted him too.

A single step away caused those fingers to grasp his skin a little tighter but that was only instinct. He couldn't stand here any more. He couldn't listen to that voice any more. Everything hurt too much and he was just too tired. Too drained. There was no purpose in letting his heart listen to that false warmth in order to find strength in it.

It wasn't real.

That thought echoed in his mind with each painful footstep he took and thankfully it was loud enough to drown out the sound of Naito calling his name.

Chapter Text

***

He was back.

There had been days this past month where he seriously hadn't known if he would come back to Japan. Nights that he had laid awake staring at the ceiling as every doubt and every dream he had ever had raced through his mind. Was any of it worth it? Were the defeats worth the victories? There were other places he could go. Other promotions he could wrestle for. But that would mean walking away and admitting defeat. Leaving so much behind - never to be seen or known again.

He couldn't do it.

So Jay was wandering around backstage almost aimlessly.

He had a plan for later in the night - Ishii was going to regret getting that pin on him - but for right now, he was mainly just looking around. Nothing was really different but he felt different. And it wasn't a good feeling.

Everything that happened at Wrestle Kingdom had seemingly altered something fundamentally deep down and Jay didn't like it. All of those shattered pieces that he had tried so hard to bury were floating to the surface and trying to hide them was harder than it ever had been. Walking into the building tonight, he had had to slip on the Switchblade mask - forcing himself to be arrogant rather than vulnerable.

Not that anyone had noticed.

Every single person he had come across had looked at him the same way they always did - with suspicion and irritation. None of them mattered, not really, but it wasn't the comfort that he thought it would be. He felt exposed yet no one saw the holes. Jay knew that ambushing Ishii tonight would be all that it would take for everyone to forget the things that he said after his latest loss to Ibushi. And that should be a good thing.

Except for how empty it felt.

All those days and he hadn't heard a word from a single member of Bullet Club. No one had reached out to him and it hurt. It wasn't too much to ask for someone to check on him, was it? Maybe it was. Maybe he expected more than he should. It wasn't like he needed someone there to be waiting for him at the airport or anything like that. There was no reason for him to feel abandoned, right?

The hallways were quiet except for the distant sounds of people moving about. Not a single step had a purpose other than to simply put one foot in front of the other. And apparently to lead him straight to Naito. He was just standing there - a handful of strides away - in the middle of the hallway with his back turned toward him.

Jay had tried so fucking hard the entire time he had been gone - every single one of those days - to not think about Tetsuya Naito. Forget about how he had chosen Ibushi over him. Ignore the fact that the most painful part of Wrestle Kingdom hadn't been the loss but not sharing the main event with Naito. Erase the hope that the stupid and pitiful affection he felt for Naito was a shared thing.

But all his mind could focus on was the weight of Naito's hand on his shoulder. The sound of his voice and the warmth in it that had to be a figment of his imagination. When Jay separated away the pain and defeat he had felt in that moment, the simple reality of Naito's presence had remained. Naito had been there. Not Gedo or KENTA or any other member of Bullet Club.

He could still hear the sound of Naito calling his name as if it had been mere minutes ago. It had followed him to America and back again. That weight had been there, pressing him down into the airplane seat as he returned to Japan. That warmth had been there with him, trying to keep him company on sleepless nights.

Jay could feel himself taking steps toward Naito - always compelled to be as close to him as he could be and too weak to fight it. All it took was three steps for Naito to hear his approach and turn to face him. He was right out in the open - no adjacent hallway to run down or open room to duck into. There was nothing to do but freeze.

And watch Naito's face transform right in front of his eyes.

The nonchalant indifference faded as soon as their eyes met but it wasn't replaced by mutual playfulness or that infuriating smirk. And it wasn't that soft happiness he could just barely recall. Instead, there was nothing there but this unmistakable overwhelming relief. No one had ever looked at him like that before. Jay had no idea anyone looked at someone like that. Naito was smiling at him with his whole being - eyes wide with joy as his body relaxed as if he was finally taking a deep breath. Naito was looking at him like he had expected to never see him again. Like that single idea had been painfully weighing him down.

Like he had missed him.

Like he had been worried about him.

Jay was one of the best wrestlers in the world - the number one asset in all of pro wrestling sounded about right - and part of what made him great was his ability to think five and six moves ahead. To see what his opponents were going to do. To read their movements and manipulate them to where he wanted them to be. And here and now - removed from the exhaustion of Wrestle Kingdom - Jay knew that that relief was true. That worry was real.

Everything started to crumble even further.

With a frightening desperation, Jay pulled on what he had become. Tried to protect himself with the soothing coldness of his armor. He couldn't walk away from Naito - too weak for that - but that didn't mean he had to smile at Naito in return or let dangerous words like 'hello' and 'Tetsuya' cross his lips. It would be so much easier if he could just turn around. Force his feet to move. Something. Anything would be better than just standing there like he was an idiotic Young Lion again, unable to do a thing until instructed to.

All he could do was remain right where he was as Naito drew ever closer. It was a compulsion and it wasn't. Walking away from someone who actually looked like they were happy that he was here wasn't something that he could do. Especially as that happiness only deepened with each step Naito took. That - not the Switchblade - was what he wanted to wrap himself up in.

And yet - for all of his inabilities - the last stride to close the gap between them wasn't Naito's. It was his.

"Jay."

Naito's voice was gentle - like he had known the same desperation that Jay had. And the only thing that kept him from running was the ever-softening smile on Naito's face. If he had even blinked once in those first few seconds, Jay was almost certain he would have been gone.

"Naito."

He could still feel that hand on his shoulder even though Naito's arms were still at his sides. Hear his voice even though neither of them were speaking. But the impossibly tender and tentative caress along the back of his hand was no echo. Or if it was, it was an echo from a moment so long ago that Jay doubted Naito even remembered it.

It seemed impossible for him to return it, even as that warmth - false but real - spread through his own fingers and up his arm until it settled into the places in his heart that he had tried to forget were there. But faced with his pathetic immobility, Naito still smiled. And he wasn't quite sure what to do with that smile. He wanted to smile back - keeping his own lips from curving upward took actual effort - but Jay knew that he shouldn't. It was a weakness to fall for something like that.

But Naito made him want to forget that. A gesture so small made him feel seen and wanted, even though he knew neither of those things was true. Footsteps came closer and voices got louder so Jay knew he - they - needed to walk away but for a moment, he lingered.

A handful of stolen seconds.

They drifted apart slowly with Naito's fingers trailing from the back of his hand all the way down to his fingertips - as if he was stealing extra time too.

***

Jay had to see him.

Just a glimpse would be enough.

This worry and concern that had overwritten almost every other sense he possessed felt weird and foreign. Deep down, he knew that it was because he cared but that was something he would deal with and pick apart later. When he was alone and no one would ever know of his anguish. But right now, he needed to see Naito.

Ibushi had won.

Naito had lost.

And now the fucking belts were going to be unified - destroyed - and there was nothing anyone could do about it. The Heavyweight belt he had carried into Madison Square Garden - gone. The Intercontinental belt that he and Naito had feuded over - gone. Jay knew it wasn't personal - wasn't a deliberate attack - but it felt personal.

These were his accomplishments and his memories that were going to be erased. He wouldn't be forgotten - at least he hoped so - but the belts and their lineage would no longer be centerstage. His and Naito's names would no longer be side-by-side. Those matches had meant more to him than he knew how to explain. Certainly meant more than anyone would ever care to hear about. Going back-and-forth with Naito like that. It had been agonizing being that close to him and yet so far away but it had been fun. That seemed like such a ridiculous adjective to put on something like that.

But it was the truth.

Months and months removed from it, Jay could look past how hard all of that had been on his heart. It still stung - especially now, when his own self felt so shaky. But looking back, he was far too aware that those matches were the last time he could remember being happy. He had felt the emotion as a superficial thing since then - the tiniest rush of amusement - but that had been different.

As always, Naito made it different.

And tonight, it was a history that Naito had tried to save - and failed. There was no way that Jay would ever tell him how much the effort had meant to him. The sentiment couldn't possibly mean anything to Naito so sharing it would just be exposing himself for no reason. But he had almost eagerly watched the progress of Naito's challenge - chastised himself for it but had done it anyway.

Did Ibushi even know how lucky he was?

To have Naito acknowledge him?

To choose him - time and time again?

To be able to see Naito's true feelings up close?

But all Jay could do was watch from a distance as Naito spoke of something that mattered to him. Made it clear what he wanted. It had hurt to hear him care about the Intercontinental Title - something that Jay was quite aware he had a mixed past with. He had been proud of Naito, in a twisted, pathetic way. To want to save something that had caused him so much grief was remarkable in Jay's eyes.

And he had lost.

Which was why Jay was lingering backstage. He had his mask as firmly in place as he could get it but the worry he felt in his heart made it heavier somehow. All he wanted to do was see Naito. Even just a brief glance to make sure that he was all right. Jay knew he had no right to these emotions - to this concern - but he also knew that he would never be able to settle without doing something.

Naito had no need of this wild impulse of his - this battered bit of Jamie - but his feet kept moving anyway. He had his familia and was undoubtedly surrounded by the people who were supposed to care about him. The people that he cared about in return. There was no reason for Jay to be hoping to see with his own eyes that Naito was okay. It would only make sense for him to tucked away in their locker room. That was where he should be.

Except there he was, all alone and leaning against the wall with his eyes closed.

For a moment, Jay had a sort of reverse deja vu. Was this what he had looked like after Wrestle Kingdom? Had Naito come across him by accident and felt compelled to interact with him? Whatever it had been, it was probably nothing like the relief that flooded his veins at the sight in front of him. There was no sign of an ice pack or anything like that so his knees were probably not that bad off. Hopefully, his neck wasn't too awful - Ibushi was as big of a pain in the ass to his opponent's neck as he was to his own. Not that he was going to ask.

This was what he needed. This was enough.

Naito was okay.

Okay and looking right at him.

And there was an ache in those eyes that Jay wished he could make disappear. An odd sort of anger and frustration rose up in him without warning. Where was that familia of his anyway? Shouldn't they be taking care of him? Why was he alone with that hurt?

But it was an ache that Jay knew. Recognized all too well. It was born of loss and defeat. Of letting yourself down. And Naito was letting him see it. He was probably too tired to hide it that well but Jay could see it nonetheless. His worry - that care that he could never bury deep enough in his heart - was begging him to do something. Comfort Naito - even though he couldn't possibly want such a thing from him. Even though he had no idea any more how to be a person that did such things.

They held each other's gaze and Jay knew that he needed to look away. Needed to walk away. He had done what he needed to do and now it was time to leave. But there was something there in Naito's eyes - something impossible - and it was trying to hold him captive. It was there behind the ache - this vulnerable sort of happiness like Naito had wanted to see him too. Shaking his head and closing his eyes, Jay tried his best to sever the tentative connection between them. It was easier to walk away when he wasn't looking at Naito but the sound of his voice kept him from taking a single step.

"Don't go."

If it wasn't so quiet around them, Jay wasn't sure if he would have heard the words at all. They were a whisper and a plea and he needed to ignore them. Especially with how much he wanted to answer them. The gap between him and Naito wasn't that far - the length from one side of a hallway to another - but it felt like so much further than that. But at the same time, for a part of him, it felt like no distance at all. Maybe that was the part that could still so easily remember the weight of Naito's hand on his shoulder. Could still hear the indistinct murmur and warmth of Naito's voice when he had been the one leaning against the wall.

It gave him a foolish sort of courage. The kind bolstered by lies and falsehoods. The Switchblade was rather familiar with that sort of bravery. But it was Jay that walked over and leaned up against the wall a few meters away from Naito. It wasn't as close as his heart wanted to be but it was far closer than he should be. He had kept his eyes trained away from Naito with each step and even now, he refused to look over at him. Any bit of courage he possessed wasn't enough to see what sort of impossible emotion - or the blank expression that was just as likely - was there on that face now.

But Naito was looking at him.

Jay could feel those eyes against his skin. It didn't burn, though. Not like it should. Instead, all he felt was that fucking warmth again. False but real. It was taking so much effort to keep his own eyes focused on the plain white wall across from him but he couldn't look at Naito. He just couldn't. But there was as much of a plea in that gaze as there had been in his words.

He didn't dare look.

"I tried, Jay."

How could his voice sound that gentle? Jay had heard him being playful and mocking. Had heard him taunt and tease. But that? It was as if Naito was being careful with him - like he was the one that had just wrestled - and lost - a title match. Why was he making that kind of effort for him? Jay didn't understand it but he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he would be hearing that soft tone in all of his dreams yet to come.

The words hung between them, though.

Even just his name was more than he knew how to respond to. Naito did that sometimes. Called him Jay instead of Jay White. He had a probably perfect catalogue of each moment in his memory. Using only his first name like that implied an impossible closeness but Jay treasured it anyway. But the 'I tried' had gone straight for his shattered heart. With deadly precision, it caused that urge to comfort Naito to rise up into something he couldn't quite choke back down.

Jay wanted to reassure him - tell him that it was okay. He wanted to touch and soothe and pull Naito into his arms - like that was something that would ever be wanted or welcome. He knew he had his familia - that they would inevitably track him down soon enough - but Jay wanted to be the one to make sure Naito got to his hotel all right. To be the one to take care of him.

What a fucking joke that was. He couldn't even look at him. What right did he have to yearn like that?

"I know. I saw."

Even his own voice was pathetic. Trembling and raw. What kind of comfort could that sound possibly be to someone like Naito? Someone who was so much when he was so little. The brush of a shoulder against his was more like an impact that he should have been bracing for. Why was Naito so close now? On reflex more than anything else, he had squeezed his eyes shut and there was nothing capable of making him open them - let alone turn his head.

And there was that warmth again. Something he hadn't known since he was a Young Lion and Naito had been this inexplicably close in a single random moment that had become a closely guarded memory. And it still felt like they had touched like this a hundred times.

Did Naito remember that moment too?

"I'm glad."

Maybe he did.

And that single thought was almost enough to make him look at Naito. Almost enough for him to embrace that particular weakness. But his head was too heavy to turn as if the mask was weighing it down. Maybe it was. Maybe this moment was everything and nothing all at the same time.

Maybe.

But Jay still couldn't do anything other than stare at the wall and hope that Naito couldn't hear how quickly his heart was beating. Had no idea of how deeply he was longing for something more. Or how badly he wanted to look and see that longing mirrored in Naito's eyes. It wasn't there. It wouldn't ever be there but that never stopped him from wanting.

All he had needed to do was see Naito and now he couldn't even look at him. His heart was such a pathetic thing.

Don't go.

And he couldn't. So he stayed right where he was - shoulders brushing as Naito watched his every breath - until the sound of that familia of his coming closer echoed in his ears. But even as he walked away, Jay didn't dare risk another glance.

Chapter Text

The G1 Climax.

It was the toughest part of any calendar year or at least that had been Jay's experience so far. And this year wasn't promising to be any better. He was exhausted. His own wrestling schedule hadn't even been that difficult or full lately. Asking for some extra time off and heading back to America for the summer hadn't helped either. It was as if he was coming apart at the seams and there wasn't anything he could do to stop the inevitable.

But now it was time to focus and it seemed like that was the last thing that he was capable of.

What was wrong with him?

Why did he feel so disconnected from everything around him?

The blocks had been announced and that certainly hadn't helped either. He was being fucked with. That had to be it. There was no other reason for the blocks to be laid out the way they were. Ishii probably hadn't - unfortunately - forgotten about his attempts to asphyxiate him earlier in the year and would be looking for painful payback. Yano's bullshit was bullshit to deal with. Those two were going to be annoying. But putting him and EVIL in the same block screamed of politics and backstabbing. It was a red flag in what had become a sea of them. Bullet Club wasn't fine and he wasn't ready to face that yet. He had no idea how. It would probably make sense to force things back into some semblance of order - make everyone listen to him. However, it seemed like - especially lately - that every time he opened his mouth, he was subtly undercut by Gedo or EVIL. That there were meetings or discussions being held that he wasn't aware of. Jay was out of the loop with a loop that he wasn't sure he wanted to be a part of.

It was a difficult thing to even think about. Did he even want to be a member of Bullet Club any more? Its leader? Was that even still true? But now was not the time for such things. If he was having so many issues with focusing on anything, then the sole recipient of his effort needed to be the G1.

Because Kota Fucking Ibushi.

Right there, in his block, listed first because of course, he was. If he wanted to win - claim the trophy and the right to challenge at Wrestle Kingdom - he was going to have to beat Ibushi. The block was going to come down to the two of them. Jay knew it. And once again, the fucking Golden Star was standing between him and what he wanted. Someone was fucking with him.

If the universe had been capable of showing him the smallest bit of empathy, then it would have at least thrown him a bone. Given him something to look forward to. The tiniest shred of anything. But he wasn't even going to get that.

Because Naito was in the other block.

Of course, he was.

The undercard tag matches were back this year and being in the same block as Naito would have given him two opportunities to stand across from him. Two chances to make another memory to hold onto - no matter how foolish it made him feel. Would it have been so hard to at least give him that? Instead, he was going to have to deal with Togo and EVIL's ridiculous shenanigans. Bullet Club did whatever it took to win but those two were just stupid. Naito's bruiser would have been a solid addition to Bullet Club but instead of that, he got idiocy that couldn't be trusted.

And if he got through all that, Kota Ibushi would undoubtedly be standing between him and the finals.

Between him and Naito.

That was assuming Naito won his own block but Jay knew he would. If he wanted even one match with him, he was going to have to be practically perfect. And once again, they would be facing each other with so much on the line. At least, they would be in the main event like they were meant to be.

Not that it was the outcome Naito would be hoping for.

Jay was far too aware that Naito preferred Ibushi - liked him better. So that was probably what Naito would be wishing for again. Another match between him and Ibushi that Jay would watch and hate himself for every minute he saw. They had Castle Attack and Wrestle Kingdom together. Why couldn't he have this? Why couldn't the universe give him this one scrap?

"Jay?"

Everyone had been lingering around after they had been given the block assignments - a handful of days before they would be publicly announced. So of course, Naito had wandered into finding him. But he couldn't stop himself from interacting with him - his heart would never let him - so Jay pulled on the mask of the Switchblade and turned around.

"Naito."

There was the slightest smile on Naito's face but Jay found himself mostly relieved that he looked far better than the last time he'd seen him. That warmth was back in Naito's eyes where it belonged. Not that it was for him - nor would it ever be - but Jay liked to see it there. That was how Naito should look.

"I'm glad you're back."

And there was that fucking warmth in his voice - like his words were the truth and not some game. Why did someone who had dug their way so deeply into his heart have to be like that? Tease him with that possibility of maybe even though Jay knew it was impossible.

"Is that so?"

He put as much antagonism into his own voice as he could and it took more effort than it probably should.

"It is."

That small smile had only widened further after Naito spoke. It reminded Jay of how Naito had smiled at him after he had returned following his defeat at Wrestle Kingdom. Soft and happy and true. False but real.

He wanted to return that smile with one of his own. But soft smiles weren't something he possessed any more. It wasn't possible. And that want was a weakness, anyway. All he would be doing was exposing something to Naito that he shouldn't ever, ever see. If there was anyone that could see what remained of his heart, it would be Naito with those warm but shrewd eyes of his. So he had to protect himself as best as he could. There was no point in acknowledging any of his own feelings. They were his - never to be shared or returned.

"I'm surprised." With a slight quirk of his eyebrow, Naito took a step closer. "Shouldn't you be wanting me to be far away so I don't interfere with you getting who you want again?"

"No?" Yet another step closer. "Who I want?"

Why in the fuck did Naito look and sound confused? He knew exactly what he was doing. There was a tiny part of Jay that was almost certain - almost heartsick over the idea - that Naito was aware of every bit of longing and yearning he had ever felt for him and used such things against him.

"I'm Switchblade Jay White… King Switch. I'm the NEVER Openweight Champion. I single-handedly sold out Madison Square Garden. I'm the biggest threat between you and another match with Ibushi."

And now he was chuckling. Naito was laughing at him.

"It's just us, Jay. You don't have to talk like that."

And now it was his turn to be confused but Naito didn't need to know that.

"I can talk however I want. I'm going to be the B Block winner and you are going to get stuck with me!"

Jay knew that he was giving away his confidence that Naito would advance to his own block finals but that was fine. It was getting more and more difficult to think straight. The expression on Naito's face was shifting from confusion to concern and Jay yearned for Naito to keep looking at him like that. Like he cared about him. But it wasn't real.

"Maybe I want to be stuck with you."

It was so close to the sort of thing that he longed to hear - said as gently as he wanted even - that Jay knew he couldn't stay in this room for much longer.

"That's bullshit, Naito. You want Ibushi. Not me. You don't…" His voice faltered, his heart screamed, and the Switchblade lashed out. "You're just playing games with me. You've made that perfectly clear."

And now concern shifted to distress and Jay forced his own anguish back down into the depths. Naito looked hurt. Not physically but as if his words had wounded him somehow. Naito was taking yet another step closer to him and it took so much of his own false courage to hold his ground.

"I have?" Naito reached up until just his fingertips were resting on Jay's chest. Directly over that pathetic heart of his. And it burned even through the fabric of his shirt. "Is that really what you think, Jay?"

Taking a step backward, Jay shoved Naito's arm almost wildly. Anything to break that tiny point of physical contact. He needed to get out of here.

"Don't act stupid, Naito. We both know that I'm nothing to you."

That hurt was only deepening with each passing second and Jay could feel his bones vibrating beneath his skin. This was wrong. This was too much. There was something there in Naito's eyes. A dawning comprehension or realization and Jay needed to be as far away from it as possible.

"Jay…"

The anguish he felt was reflected in Naito's voice and he was completely certain that no one had ever said his name like that before either. All the more reason to leave this tiny room.

"I'd say good luck but it doesn't matter. Try not to be too upset when you have to lose to me in the finals."

And he was gone before Naito could say another word.

***

Changing in and out of his gear in a tucked away bathroom was obnoxious and pitiful but it had become his habit anyway.

Jay arrived as late as he could get away with and was out of the arena as soon as he possibly could be. He had barely spoken to anyone outside of the ring - exchanging text messages with Yujiro, his tag partner during the G1, was about it. If all of it could be attributed to his extreme focus on the tournament, then it would probably be acceptable.

Is that really what you think, Jay?

No matter how quickly he got in and out of an arena, Naito's words still followed him. They were there when he closed his eyes and were certainly the reason he was lucky if he got four hours of sleep each night. He was falling apart - fatigued and constantly aching everywhere. His appetite was just not there and that with the lack of sleep mixed with the rigors of the G1? It was a nightmarish combination and Jay wasn't sure if he could keep going.

If anyone actually looked at him, the toll was probably easy to see in every line on his face. The bags under his eyes and the slowness of each step he took. Every bit of energy he possessed was for his performance in the ring. And by that one measure, the G1 had been a success for him so far. He had only lost one match - fucking Yano - and he was the co-leader in the block with Ibushi. Of course. SANADA had served Ibushi with his one loss so far - Jay owed him a drink or something someday for that one.

They were on a collision course again. Jay knew it. Everyone probably knew it. Ibushi had better know it.

But between him and that inevitably block-deciding match with Ibushi was EVIL. They most definitely hadn't interacted at all during the tournament thus far which wouldn't normally be anything out of the ordinary. However, during his limited time around the tour, Jay had spotted Togo, Gedo, and EVIL mingling in a corner more than once. And all he could do was hope that exhaustion and heartache had made him paranoid.

He needed to win this G1 for so many reasons.

Is that really what you think, Jay?

Jay was hiding. He knew he was. If the option had been available, he would have asked to go back to America for a while again - fuck the consequences to his career. But this was the G1 and that trumped everything. Even his aching and battered heart.

That single conversation - probably the longest they had ever talked alone and away from a ring - was one of the most painful things he had ever known. It wasn't just the things that Naito had said to him. It wasn't just how he had said them or the expressions on his face as the words left his mouth.

We both know that I'm nothing to you.

How could he have been so stupid?

Jay had dropped that agonizing hint to the most guarded secret his heart possessed. Not the fact that he was nothing to Naito - that was a known quantity. But he had revealed something worse - how that fact bothered him. That it hurt him. Naito was too good at reading people. If he was looking for the slightest advantage, Jay had given it to him on a silver platter. That idiotic yearning of his pathetic heart had been on display.

He had left it bare and exposed, even for the briefest of moments. And it didn't matter how short of a time it was. The fact remained that he had been stupid enough to do it in the first place. He was nothing to Naito. Always had been. Always would be.

But none of that had stopped him from keeping track of Naito's progress in the tournament. Catching up with his matches late at night when sleep was ever-elusive. Naito had been walking through the G1 like a man consumed by something. There was an edge to his wrestling that Jay had never seen before. Each move looked that much more forceful. Even his antics had been practically non-existent. He was focused and determined. Probably eagerly awaiting his chance to clash with Ibushi again.

Not that he was going to get it. Like he had told him, all Naito was going to get was an opportunity to lose to him again.

Victory was all that mattered.

Is that really what you think, Jay?

Why couldn't he just escape those words? Everything he had done - every part of himself that he had tried to destroy - and Tetsuya Naito was still there. Deeply embedded into his very soul. A part of the very make-up of his being. No mask could ever truly hide that fact. It was simply a burden he needed to carry. And that was exactly what he had done ever since he was a pathetic Young Lion.

Jay wanted Tetsuya. Yearned and hoped and chose.

Why couldn't it have stayed an infatuation? A stupid crush on a brilliant wrestler? But the feelings had settled and steadied. A quick burning match had become a glowing ember. The further he had fallen, the stronger that ember burned. It was as if his affection for Naito was the one light that remained and it shone even brighter as a result. Weary and lonely, Jamie still dreamed of being loved in return.

We both know that I'm nothing to you.

It was the truth. Jay had known it was the truth for days and months and years. But it still fucking hurt. He just needed to keep going. Beat Ibushi. Win the G1. Main event Wrestle Kingdom. Become champion again.

These were the things that he needed to do. These were the things that mattered. Not his pathetic heart or this useless longing. It would be easier if he could convince himself that Naito was nothing to him. But that was something that he would never be able to do - something impossible. And Jay knew that.

So he simply needed to shove it all down again. Bury it. Push it down so far that maybe he could finally sleep. But he could never forget it. Not ever.

Even now, he was sitting on a production crate and taking an extra minute that he really shouldn't be. Sitting there and listening to the distant sound of Naito's entrance music as it echoed through and around concrete walls. Fortifying himself with something that made him wish he could smile. His eyes were closed, his legs were pulled up against his chest, his forehead was resting on his knees and he knew he shouldn't still be sitting here. It went against almost every instinct he had cultivated.

But here he was anyway.

Listening to that music and picturing Naito in his mind. That playful smirk - oddly absent during this G1 but something Jay could see perfectly. The way he would stand so close when he taunted him - personal space be damned. And that smile - the one that felt like it was Naito's real smile even though Jay knew that wasn't possible.

But the longer he sat there, the more the image in his mind changed. He remembered Naito leaning against him and the warmth his heart had carried everywhere since. Fingers tentatively brushing against his. Eyes that searched his own for something. A hand on his shoulder as a warm voice murmured softly. The relief in that expression when he returned. The anguish in it when they finally spoke.

We both know that I'm nothing to you.

Is that really what you think, Jay?

It was. It had to be.

***

Chapter Text

Fuck.

One word to encompass so many things. He was that exhausted. He was hurting that much. And he had beaten EVIL but as Jay stared at the ice pack the trainer had carefully put on his left wrist, he couldn't help but wonder and worry about the cost.

His wrists had always given him trouble. For as long as he could remember - from even before he stepped foot in the dojo - they had been weak. Easily hurt. Delicate. No amount of athletic tape had ever seemed to help but going without it was worse. So his wrists were always tightly taped and had been ever since he was a Young Lion. With the exception of his pathetic display after losing to Ibushi at Wrestle Kingdom, he never undid the tape where anyone could see - certainly not in Bullet Club's locker room - because Jay knew how dangerous weaknesses could be. Which was why no one knew about his wrists.

Except one man.

One night in the CHAOS locker room, after a particularly draining match, Gedo had caught him gingerly holding his wrist and had - with a face full of concern - asked about it. And Jay had believed he cared. Trusted him. And it had been their secret ever since. They had developed shorthand to discuss his pain levels - something they had continued even after joining Bullet Club.

And EVIL had targeted his wrist.

Not to set-up his finisher or to wear down his opponent. A repeated and planned assault to get him to break. To falter and fail. EVIL had set out to hurt him using a weakness that Jay thought no one knew. Something that he had kept hidden all this time. And as he stared at the rapidly-melting ice pack, Jay knew exactly how EVIL had learned it.

Gedo.

That was the play then. They were going to come for him. Jay didn't know when but he knew the day was coming. Bullet Club had decided they were done with him and now all that remained was for them to pick their spot. There was relief under the hurt. The choice had been made for him. Had Bullet Club ever really wanted him anyway? Or had this always been the plan? Had there always been things he wasn't allowed to know?

Jay knew he should probably prepare but honestly, he couldn't think of anything to do in the first place. Every bit of energy he possessed was for the ring - the G1. He was too tired to muster anything else. Any defense he made would quickly be countered by Bullet Club's sheer numbers and there was no one he could ask to stand by his side.

There would never be anyone like that.

Fuck.

The last thing he needed to do right now was think about Naito. There wasn't room in his life right now for that pathetic longing. For that foolish hope. He had idiotically spilled a bit of his shattered heart out in front of Naito and now all that remained was to wait for enough time to pass for Naito to forget all about it. Jay would never forget sharing that weakness with someone he wanted to trust but if the stars aligned, Naito would easily forget that moment and it would fade from his memories like everything else that didn't matter to him.

There was still the final of the G1 to endure but he didn't have to look Naito in the eyes to wrestle him. Maybe he would be more successful if he wasn't distracted by his own heart. Jay would be victorious in that match and then he never had to stand across from Naito ever again. He could just watch from afar. It was safer.

"Jay?"

And that wasn't fair. What was he doing here? The trainers had given him space so there wasn't anyone else in the small room but there was absolutely no reason for Naito to be here. Jay refused to look up at him. If he didn't do anything, Naito would leave. He had no reason to stay.

But then a face he was achingly familiar with was looking up at him as he sat perched on top of a short stool. The sight of Naito crouched in front of him didn't quite make sense to his eyes but his heart recognized the concern that was so clear to read on that face. He wanted to close his eyes but he didn't have the strength to do it.

"An official said you went to medical." Naito's gaze shifted to the ice pack on his wrist and in that moment, it felt more like a bullseye to Jay. "Are you all right?"

Jay had no idea why Naito was asking. But his voice was so gentle. There was a tenderness in it that he hadn't known he was missing until that very second. It was soothing. It shouldn't be. He had no right to take anything like that from it. But he felt it anyway. He should be lashing out. Doing anything he could to push Naito away. Jay knew how to do it. The tone to use. The words to say. The Switchblade excelled at it.

But Naito's fingers were hovering over his throbbing wrist as if he was longing to touch him and there wasn't enough of that broken mask left to cover how much he wanted to know what it would feel like.

"I'm fine."

His words weren't believed - that was much was easy to see - but there was a slightly crooked smile on Naito's face anyway. Almost like he was comforted in some way.

"Okay."

The single word was careful but it seemed as if Naito was hesitating in saying something more. Those eyes were searching his and it reminded him too keenly of a moment years ago - a cover of concern not victory. But he was too drained to keep track of which emotion was showing on his own face. There was nothing for his practiced harshness to cling to in the face of such softness.

It was impossible.

Everything about this moment was impossible.

Especially the way Naito's hand was moving. It was slow and deliberate, giving Jay plenty of time to notice it and watch as it carefully lowered until it was on top of his hand that was holding the ice pack in place. The first bit of contact almost made Jay jump off the stool but the weight of Naito's hand was enough to hold him still. And the sight of their hands together like that was as surreal as the concern on Naito's face. It was safer to look at their hands, though. Far safer.

That warmth soaked into his skin as his bones - and his heart - tried to absorb all that they could.

"Why are you here?"

His voice was cracked and pathetic but it wasn't as bad as knowing that he was exposing such things to Naito again. Why couldn't he just keep his mouth shut?

"Because I care about you, Jay."

He couldn't.

There was no reason for him to. And if he had, wouldn't there have been a sign of it at some point over all of these years? It wasn't real.

"You don't."

A tiny sound of distress was almost enough to make him look up.

"I do."

And that was pleading in Naito's voice now. Why did he sound like that?

"You can't."

That was what it came down to do, wasn't it? Naito couldn't possibly care about him. He couldn't possibly carry feelings for him like the ones Jay had buried over and over again. Tried to destroy so many times he had long since lost count. This wasn't just want and desire - it was an emotion that he would never have the courage to name. And the idea that Naito held even the smallest bit of those same feelings for him was too impossible.

There was no reason for it.

He wasn't enough. And he hadn't been even when he was still whole. Before he had become the Switchblade. He hadn't been enough then so how could the fractured leader of a faction that no longer wanted him - someone who carried a mask too heavy to wear and could barely remember how to smile - be enough now?

"If I had known…" Naito's hand gripped his - grasping and holding on. "Oh, Jay…" He sounded so hurt that Jay's mind didn't quite know how to process it. "I'm so sorry."

I'm so sorry.

Naito knew he was hurting and apologizing for it.

Oh, God.

Jay wanted to wrap himself up in that apology and keep it close for the rest of his days. It wasn't the sort of thing that Naito really ever said. He taunted and teased - and often trolled - but he didn't apologize for his actions. Jay wasn't quite sure what Naito was saying sorry for but his heart had the smallest of inklings. His hands had started to shake and Naito's grip had tightened ever-so-slightly.

"Known what?"

The words escaped completely without his permission but Jay almost desperately wanted to hear Naito's answer.

"I thought maybe you were shy in this. Or maybe that you were scared too." Too? Such a small word implied such a big thing. "I didn't think you doubted… that you didn't believe." Naito's thumb caressed the back of his hand and it only made the trembling worse. "I thought we understood each other, Jay."

Had they?

Had they ever?

Jay had always felt that each interaction with Naito he had given too much away while he had just been playing games with him. But what Naito was saying now was something far different. That language - rusty with disuse - spoke loudly in his head once more. What had Naito given away in those smiles and that warmth? Was there something he was supposed to have understood? None of that was real. It was all in his own mind - twisted and altered by his own unrequited feelings.

"You don't…"

He probably sounded like an idiot but he couldn't get his mouth to form any other words. Couldn't get his body to cooperate and let him get out of this impossible situation. Nothing was listening to him. Every part of him was simply captivated by the anguish that was leaking out of Naito. Frozen in place.

"Jay…" There was such a tender intimacy to the way Naito kept saying his name. Why? "Look at me. Please." He couldn't. "Look at me and let yourself see."

He was shaking his head 'no' before Naito even finished speaking. Didn't he realize what he was asking of him?

There was the lightest of touches along his jawline - a couple of fingertips - but Jay couldn't stop himself from flinching. And that sound of anguished distress echoed between them once again. It was as if Naito could feel his own pain along with him - as unlikely as that sounded. Those fingertips were steady against his skin, though. Ever-so-gently encouraging.

So he looked.

The softness in Naito's voice was outshone by the affection in those brilliant eyes. By a longing that matched the one that Jay had carried with him since the first time he had seen Tetsuya Naito smile.

He was something to Naito.

It was there in every part of that expression. In unshed tears that were threatening to fall. In a hopeful smile that might be one of the sweetest things Jay had ever seen. All of that - Naito's heart on display - was for him.

It was real.

"Naito…"

He didn't have the words. Not a single one. So much of what he had earned as a wrestler were things that he had literally talked himself into. Using his voice to demand and bargain and challenge. But he had nothing for this. Nothing for something that should be impossible but was right in front of him. Something that Naito was so patiently showing him.

Maybe the mirage would disappear when he closed his eyes but in this moment, the only thing he could do was try to find a smile of his own. It shouldn't be so hard. He remembered what it felt like to stand across the ring from him and how easily those smiles - despite his best intentions - had come. But he could do this. He could.

Jay felt his lips curve upward but he had no idea if Naito could even tell the difference. He shouldn't have worried, though. Naito's smile deepened as he watched and it made it a little easier to breathe.

"There you are, Jay."

In that moment, he felt both seen and wanted and the only thing keeping him from being completely overwhelmed - from shutting down and disappearing - was the grounding reassurance in Naito's eyes.

"Hey."

This felt good in a way that he could never possibly explain. As if something inside of him had settled. Like his heart had finally been proven right. It didn't make any sense. There was no reason for Naito to be like this - to be here at all - but he was. Naito was right there in front of him with care and affection in his eyes. Carefully holding his hand and gently caressing his face.

It didn't feel like a lie.

And he wanted it to be real. With every broken part of himself that was left, Jay yearned for it to be real. Maybe it would stay real if he touched too. Maybe. Trying to pull his hand away from underneath Naito's was more difficult than it probably should be. It wasn't just his own reluctance. Something akin to panic mixed with the affection in that gaze and Jay certainly didn't have the words to fix that. All he could do was keep going. Lift his hand as slowly and as carefully as Naito had lowered his and reach out. Each millimeter required him to fight against his own instincts. Battle that voice in his mind that lectured him and reminded him.

We both know that I'm nothing to you.

Is that really what you think, Jay?

It was - but maybe he had been wrong.

Naito's eyes softened and filled with that warmth as his fingers came ever closer to his face. It wouldn't be too much - too far - if he caressed Naito's cheek like he was doing to him. It couldn't be. Not with the longing - the hope - that Naito was looking at him with. A single fingertip glided across skin and Jay found himself almost embarrassed that his trembling was probably easily felt but that smile didn't falter or fade. It just became something more.

"Naito-san!"

His hand jerked away like that one instant of contact had burned instead of soothed even as Naito made a seemingly desperate grab for it.

Jay knew that voice. Hiromu Takahashi. One of Naito's precious familia and someone else that he had chosen. Naito obviously recognized the voice too but he wasn't moving, just shaking his head ever-so-slightly back and forth. Those fingers were still resting against the side of his face. Those eyes were still locked onto his, full of hope and tenderness and yearning.

"Come out and play, Naito-san! Where are you?"

What was Naito doing lingering here with him when he had other places to be?

But that voice sounded closer now and this was the last way that Switchblade Jay White should be found. Vulnerable and weak - it was barely all right for Naito to see him like this. Anyone else was unacceptable. With the last bit of energy he had for today, Jay tried to put the mask back in place. Straighten his back… ice over his eyes… do the things that - after practice and pain - had once come naturally.

"No, no, no." Naito's voice was low and frantic. "Don't do that, Jay. Stay with me. Please."

He couldn't.

"Naito-san! You said you would drive us!"

And now Naito was holding his head in both of his hands, cupping each of his cheeks and almost forcing Jay to look him in the eyes. But he couldn't look away. He just couldn't.

"I'll go talk to him. Give me five minutes." The entirety of Naito's being seemed like it was pleading with him. "Trust me for that long, Jay. I'm not leaving you all alone ever again. I promise."

Those eyes were searching his own again - hoping for an answer that Jay didn't have.

"Naito-san!"

They just stared at each other - Naito begging and Jay overwhelmed - for a handful of heartbeats.

"Please…"

Slowly and with a reluctance that Jay could both see and feel, Naito stood up - pulling his hands away with a soft brush of his thumb across one side of his face. He walked almost backwards to the door, keeping his gaze locked on Jay's the entire time. Pausing in the doorway, Naito did that 'settle down' hand motion he did. Tranquilo. And Jay found himself wishing he knew how to nod in return.

For a long moment, Jay couldn't do anything but stare at the empty doorway. He wasn't sure what was racing faster - his mind or his heart. Something impossible had happened.

Not false but real. Instead, it was real and true.

Naito cared about him.

The affection and the longing… things he had seen glimpses of… things Naito was seemingly trying to not overwhelm him with… he couldn't quite believe those. Not all the way. But that care was real. Jay had felt it - in Naito's words and those gentle caresses and his pleading gaze.

Jay didn't know what to do. He didn't know how to stop shaking. He didn't know how to stay where he was. How in the fuck did he trust Naito to come back? How did he believe that he would? He didn't know how. And he wanted to. But it was asking too much. Two impossible things in a single day was just too much.

The now-useless ice pack slid to the ground as he stood up. There was a back exit to the room. Of course, there was. With a last glance at the doorway, Jay turned toward the exit. He just needed to keep going. That was all.

He was something to Naito and it was terrifying.

This time, Jay didn't walk away.

He ran.

Chapter Text

BUSHI was staring at him.

It wasn't exactly easy to tell - with the mask and everything - but Jay could feel it. He'd been doing it since he'd entered the ring and it was vaguely unnerving. BUSHI was watching him for some reason and it felt a bit like he was being analyzed. There was no reason for that level of examination. BUSHI wasn't even in the G1 and this was just an undercard tag match anyway. Jay's next opponent was SANADA which was the whole point of this match in the first place.

It made no sense.

Jay did his best to ignore it as things started to get underway. Yujiro wanted to start the match which was fine by him. Naito's familia did that fist bump of theirs and maybe they could actually get started. The sooner the match started, the sooner it ended, and the sooner Jay could get away from BUSHI watching him like he was trying to figure out what made him tick.

The bell rang and things almost immediately went awry.

SANADA and BUSHI nodded at each other - which raised Jay's suspicions - and then he made the mistake of blinking. The next thing he knew, BUSHI was charging straight at him and using his bodyweight to send him flying off the ring apron. It was too unexpected and too surprising for him to be able to brace that much and Jay knew he would be feeling that impact tomorrow. A quick glance to his right showed him that Gedo was scrambling away and probably making himself completely useless.

Fucking fantastic.

What in the fuck was BUSHI doing? Especially now since he was watching Jay haul himself up with that calculating look in his eyes. His face was coming closer and closer and Jay was too shaken and confused to push him away.

"You look terrible." That was a… weird distraction tactic. "No wonder Tetsuya has been so worried about you."

Jay was going to blame his total shock for why BUSHI was able to manhandle him and throw him into the guardrail. That and he was pretty sure that the man was stronger than anyone - or at least himself - was probably aware of. And it stung too. His back was already hating this match. However, it wasn't as painful as it probably could have been. Jay had been wrestling long enough to recognize restraint when he saw - or felt - it and BUSHI could have made that move far, far worse. The Switchblade was furious. Jay was confused.

No wonder Tetsuya has been so worried about you.

This wasn't the time to think about Naito. He'd been avoiding even thinking his name since they'd had that encounter after his match with EVIL. But now… his mind was racing. BUSHI was still leaning over his half-crumpled form and still staring at him but all Jay saw was Naito's pleading eyes. He had flung his exhausted body out the arena that night as fast as he could get it to move - needing to put as much distance between him and that affection as he could. It was too much. It was something that he didn't know how to deserve.

"What the fuck are you on about?!"

People usually backed away or ignored him when he started hollering. He needed BUSHI to do one or the other. Because there was something in those eyes that Jay couldn't quite decipher. The match needed to be over with now. As best he could see, SANADA was toying with Yujiro and as irritated as he wanted to be, he wanted this match to be over with even more. SANADA could pin Yujiro - it didn't really fucking matter in the grand scheme of things.

That kick to his gut did, though. Now Jay was all the way crumpled on the floor and he supposed he had that coming for taking his eyes off the man trying to kick his ass.

"Drink more water. You're probably dehydrated."

BUSHI was hovering over him and Jay had a bad feeling about what was going to happen next. Sure enough, BUSHI started to haul him upright. His counter kicks were completely ineffective, though. They were definitely connecting with BUSHI's shins and thighs but he was ignoring them like they were nothing. Jay knew he was tired but that was ridiculous.

"What?"

Any reply BUSHI made was completely drowned out by the sound of Jay's back impacting the guardrail he had been whipped into. That was really starting to hurt. At this point, it was probably safer to be in the ring with SANADA. A little help would be nice but he couldn't even see into the ring from this angle and Gedo was nowhere to be found. And now, BUSHI was crouched in front of him, pointing a finger at him.

"Please tell me you eat your vegetables." The slap to his face would have actually made sense but that inexplicable restraint was there again. "Tetsuya is terrible about it. One of you has to have better sense."

One of them? Why was BUSHI talking about him and Naito like they were a unit? Or a couple. Jay felt his cheeks instantly flush at the very idea of the two of them being together like that. It was either that or the kick to the side of his ribs. Maybe it would be better if he just stayed down for a minute or two. But BUSHI was still just looking at him like he expected an actual answer and Jay was still too confused to do anything other than respond.

"I… like vegetables?"

That wasn't an insult or a taunt but that seemed to be an actual smile on BUSHI's face. And the look in his eyes wasn't questioning but instead, it was something that made absolutely no sense whatsoever. Because that was fucking kindness and he had almost forgotten what that looked like. Naito had looked at him with warmth and worry but this was something different. This was compassion without any sort of bond or connection. This was just because.

And that mask was nowhere to be found.

Maybe that was why BUSHI was tossing him around so easily. Jay expected the whip into the guardrail this time but that impact was still likely going to leave a bruise. And there was BUSHI again - pulling him up into the gentlest headlock of all time.

"That's good. It'll be nice to have some help making sure Tetsuya eats actual food." It sounded like that to BUSHI, it was a foregone conclusion that he and Naito were going to end up together and Jay didn't know whether to laugh or cry. "Maybe he can help you rest better. The bags under your eyes are atrocious."

The headlock portion of their conversation seemed to be done because Jay was being tossed into another guardrail and at least BUSHI was changing things up because he had impacted this one chest-first. He had no idea why any bit of offense he attempted to mount was completely useless like Naito's favorite luchador was made entirely of teflon.

There was some sort of commotion in the ring and Jay assumed that SANADA was about to make Yujiro submit so hopefully this crazy half-match would finally be over. He was just going to lie here for a few minutes and try to figure out what was going on.

Or BUSHI was going to lean over him again.

"What do you want?"

His tone was terrible - petulant and pathetic - but the stomp to his stomach was unnecessary. Even if it was weak.

"Wrong question." And there was that kindness again. "What do you think he wants?"

It would be easy to feign ignorance. To pretend like he had no idea who BUSHI was referring to. That would be the simplest thing to do. But nothing about tonight made any sense at all. And BUSHI was looking at him like he cared - maybe not about him directly but about the situation. About him and Naito and things that terrified him.

"I don't know."

It should matter to him that the crowd near the ring could probably hear him. It should matter that BUSHI wasn't afraid of him - wasn't cowed by the Switchblade in the slightest if he saw it at all. But all Jay could focus on was the sadness in BUSHI's smile - like his answer had hurt him to hear.

The gentleness with which BUSHI rolled him over and propped him on the floor against the corner of the ring didn't quite take him by surprise this time. The bell being rung and SANADA's music starting to play only startled him because he hadn't been watching the action in the ring at all. But rather than climb into the ring to celebrate, BUSHI was crouched beside him.

"What he wants most of all is to hold you in his arms."

"He… what?"

Jay had no idea what expression he was showing to BUSHI right then but it apparently merited an only slightly patronizing pat on the top of the head. Gedo and Yujiro were being incredibly helpful right now by doing absolutely nothing and it was yet another unpleasant reminder of the inevitable.

"Someday I'll have to tell you about how much trouble Hiromu got into for interrupting you both." BUSHI stood with another half-smile on his face. "And make sure you stretch later."

And with that, he walked away - leaving Jay alone after the strangest match of his career.

***

One more match.

One more match tomorrow and he couldn't sleep.

The lack of sleep wasn't really surprising and frankly, neither was the match.

Him versus Ibushi - winner takes the block.

Winner got the chance to face Naito again.

Not that Jay had doubted Naito would come out of A block victorious again. His deciding match had been against Okada and Jay had almost eagerly looked forward to seeing Naito triumph over the Rainmaker once more. And of course, he had. So he would beat Ibushi and they could stand face-to-face.

Although, whether or not he would be able to focus on the match itself was a complete question mark. Jay had no idea. Would he be able to stop seeing Naito - those eyes full of unshed tears - on his knees in front of him? Would he be able to stop hearing that voice begging him to stay? To trust him? And worst of all, Jay didn't know if he wanted to.

What he wants most of all is to hold you in his arms.

BUSHI's words hadn't stopped repeating themselves in the back of his mind. They had been there in every hotel room between then and now. Echoed in the ring as he had barely managed to pin SANADA in a match that had been far too close for comfort. Even Gedo had been visible in his frustration with him - shaking his head as Jay had his hand raised.

If he couldn't focus - if he couldn't finally fucking sleep - he had no chance at beating Ibushi. And he needed to. Wins and titles were the only thing that mattered to him. To the Switchblade. But Jamie? His battered heart couldn't stop remembering the texture of Naito's skin beneath his fingertip. Couldn't stop wondering what would have happened if they hadn't been interrupted. Would Naito have tried to pull him close like BUSHI claimed he wanted to? Would Jay have been able to let him? All this time…

I thought we understood each other, Jay.

The ceiling held no answers as he stared up at the plain nothingness. What had he missed? What had Naito assumed he knew? Naito cared about him - not even he could deny what he had seen so clearly - but the longing in that voice - the ache - said something even more. Sleep was impossible; Jay hadn't even bothered pulling the blankets back on the bed. Maybe, though, there was something he could do.

Adjusting the lights, the sterile hotel room was illuminated by the small bedside lamp and the glow coming from his laptop. This was a completely ridiculous idea but there was something that he was missing. Something that had almost devastated Naito when he realized that Jay didn't know it. That was such a strong adjective for an effect that he had on Naito but it had been there - so visible on that face. He kept his emotions close - hid them behind that tranquilo attitude - but in that moment, he had let him see so many things. Showed Jay his heart. Had that ever happened before?

I thought we understood each other, Jay.

So he started at the beginning.

It wasn't all there but the reasons why weren't that important to him. There was something awkward and embarrassing about watching his younger self in the ring. Seeing the mistakes he made and struggling with moves that came far more naturally to him now but that wasn't what this was about.

Jay watched himself interact with Naito as they teamed together - just that once - and he found himself smiling at a half-remembered confidence as he grew impatient with antics that he had come to look forward to. Sprawled on the bed, he rewound and rewatched the two of them interacting as they stood on the corner of the ring apron. What had he been thinking back then - being bold enough to almost admonish Naito? Had he really not minded?

There was only one of the tag matches in which they had faced each other when he was a Young Lion available to watch but it was more than enough. It took some effort but Jay did his best to focus on Naito - his reactions to him. The facial expressions he thought he knew how to read better now. That genuine smile and real playfulness. They were there, weren't they? If nothing else, Natio had liked facing him.

And so, he continued.

Hours passed as he slowly watched every single match of their Intercontinental Title feud and each time they had stood across from one another. Pausing the video to examine the frozen images, trying to find a flaw in his own thinking. Because over and over again, all Jay could see was the same thing. He saw Naito enjoying Jay playing along with those antics of his. Found himself mesmerized by how real that smile looked. How much fun it looked like Naito was having.

And there they were, lying on their stomachs in the middle of the ring and just grinning at each other. The moments he had admonished himself for - hating how easy it was to be himself with Naito. Had he seen that - seen him - and liked it? Had Tetsuya Fucking Naito seen the remnants of Jamie and wanted to pull him close? And still?

There were the backstage segments to watch too. Jay avoided his own - was far too aware of how much of his own heart had slipped past the Switchblade in those moments - but Naito was as amusing as always. And that smile. So piercingly true whenever he said Jay's name. As if the very thought of him made Naito happy.

I thought we understood each other, Jay.

All of it was real.

That was what Naito had meant. None of that had been a game to him either. All of those moments - all of that time - and Naito had been right there with him. Wanting and longing. Scared and hoping. BUSHI had even confirmed it directly to his face - with both his words and his genuine kindness.

And that was his answer. That moment back in medical - all of that pleading and tenderness - hadn't been the first or the only time that Naito had shown him his heart. It had been there all along, hadn't it?

Look at me and let yourself see.

There were still a couple more hours before his alarm went off and his eyes were heavy enough that he might actually be able to doze off. Stowing his laptop was simple enough and the light from the sunrise was just starting to peak around the curtain as Jay laid back down on the bed. There wasn't much point in pulling the blankets back - if he did manage to sleep, it wouldn't be for very long.

Stretching out, he couldn't stop thinking about Naito. It wasn't a new problem but this was different. He hadn't felt like this in years. Jay hadn't allowed himself to feel like this in so long that it was almost hard to believe that he remembered how. So many nights, he had laid awake rebuking and reminding himself that he was nothing to Naito. That Jay was just another game to him. But he wasn't.

They were something to each other.

And Jamie - the parts of his heart that were left - still knew how to lie here and let his mind drift off into possibilities. Knew how to imagine what it might be like for Naito to be there beside him, gently caressing him with a touch that he now knew for real.

What he wants most of all is to hold you in his arms.

Maybe someday he would be able to fall asleep like that. But for now, Jay let himself find a little bit of comfort in the memory of Naito's hand on top of his - the weight and the grasp - as he tried to take a nap.

Chapter Text

It wasn't going to be enough.

Jay felt it. Apparent and obvious in even that very first lock-up. His body didn't have one more match left in it. The inability to sleep - no matter that scarily peaceful nap he had taken early this morning - had robbed him of some of his stamina. His lack of appetite was there in the diminished strength of his strikes. He wasn't fast enough. He wasn't strong enough. He wasn't enough. Not tonight.

He was going to lose.

Outwitting Ibushi was a possibility but it would take an opening that he just couldn't see. Not yet and maybe not at all. Ibushi was always focused. The sort of opponent that took everything you had to defeat and with each exchange, Jay became more and more aware that everything he had right now was going to fall short. Ibushi was one step ahead of him in a way that was both annoying and impressive. Jay knew that he was the sort of opponent that should be strategized for and it was a boost to his own ego that Ibushi had seemingly done just that.

Kota Fucking Ibushi paid more attention to him than Bullet Club did.

Not that he actually wanted the type of attention that they were probably going to be giving him sooner rather than later. Even Gedo hadn't shown up to make his entrance with him until the last possible moment. Nothing had been outwardly amiss with Gedo's usual posturing and hollering but Jay knew better. There was a part of him that had been hoping to see other members of Bullet Club there waiting to walk out with him - for once - even as futile as he knew that hope was. And he had stood there - just on the other side of the curtain - and prepared to walk out alone. The day was coming. He knew it was. And maybe - just maybe - that would be okay.

But first, he had to survive this match. There was no way he was just going to roll over and let Ibushi take the victory that easily. So he fought. Countered each move he could. Reached for the rope to break a hold. Jay didn't have the energy for posturing and taunting. No extra oxygen for trash talk. Everything he possessed was reserved for trying to find that opening. He couldn't seem to make one. Not quite.

Out of the corner of his eye, Jay saw Gedo jump on the apron on the opposite side of the ring, distracting Red Shoes. His opening. They hadn't discussed strategy beforehand - hadn't really at all during the G1 actually - so Gedo must be taking matters into his own hands. And it rankled. Was this Gedo wanting to save face? To look slightly less than incompetent? Jay knew it didn't matter to him - to Bullet Club - if he won or lost. None of them cared. This distraction had nothing to do with him.

No.

Jay locked his gaze onto Ibushi as the man used the ropes opposite him to stand back up, ignoring Gedo entirely. Leaning back against the ropes nearest him, he did his best to catch his breath as he waited. Their eyes met and Jay watched as Ibushi's gaze slid over to Red Shoes semi-ineffectually dealing with Gedo and then looked back at him with an eyebrow raised. All he could do in response was simply shake his head back-and-forth once. He didn't know how else to explain and he wasn't sure if Ibushi would understand. But the little half-smile that appeared on his face told Jay that at least his message was received. And honestly? That slight quirk of his lips was almost more frightening than that look Ibushi would get whenever he was about to attempt to murder you.

"What the fuck are you doing, Jay?!"

No more.

If today, there wasn't enough left, then so be it. If he was going to lose, then he was going to lose on his own. Bullet Club didn't want him. And he didn't need them. There wasn't anything he could do to prepare but he could choose.

No more.

So he and Ibushi stared at each other and waited for Gedo to give up and get down. It wasn't even a minute but it felt like hours to Jay. But with each heartbeat that passed, Jay felt a little lighter. A little stronger. It still wouldn't be enough but maybe he could at least make Ibushi work for his victory. Red Shoes turned around and looked at the pair of them like they were crazy. Jay managed to give Ibushi the smallest smile before they rushed at each other, meeting in the middle of the ring.

Receiving his message and understanding it didn't prevent Ibushi from hitting him as hard as he could so Jay tried to match him. Answering a forearm strike with one of his own probably wasn't the best idea he had ever had. It certainly wasn't a sound tactical decision. Neither was getting into one of those ridiculous series of forearm-to-the-face exchanges but that didn't really matter either. It was fun, though - in a way Jay had almost forgotten. Coming out on the losing end - flat on his face and in more pain than he expected - didn't change that.

He was going to have to work on those.

But for now, it was hard enough to draw in enough air. Hard enough to lift his arms. Hard enough to think quickly enough to anticipate anything. Not even a Kamigoye as he finally started to get back up. And it was only instinct that had him lifting his shoulder just enough at two. The headache had been almost instantaneous and was getting worse by the second. And Jay knew this was the end. Ibushi pulled him up and on a different night, he could have dodged the second Kamigoye. But not on this one.

There just wasn't enough left.

And Ibushi's music was just way too loud for how much his head was already pounding. Crawling over to the corner of the ring, Jay - after a few attempts - managed to sit up. Gedo was nowhere to be found but that wasn't surprising or irritating. And if Bullet Club chose tonight to ambush him - take him out - at least maybe Ibushi wouldn't be helping them. That would be nice of him.

And there was Gedo, walking away from the ring and up the ramp - and not caring at all about who he had left behind. But it was the feeling of eyes on him that mattered more. Ibushi was staring at him. Shouldn't he be celebrating or something? Anything other than focusing on his vanquished opponent. But Ibushi was looking at him as if he truly wanted Jay's attention. Once again, their eyes met and Jay watched Ibushi turn slightly to look in the direction of Gedo and then turn back to him with just as much intensity in his eyes as he had during the match.

And a single, slow nod.

Ibushi had seen Bullet Club bullshit and drama before, hadn't he? And had probably heard even more about it. Jay had no idea what his status was with Omega these days but that wasn't the point. His heart ached just a little at such a small gesture. At that little bit of awareness. Whether it was kindness or a warning, Jay wasn't sure but maybe Kota Ibushi wasn't that bad, after all.

So Jay nodded just once in return and rolled out of the ring.

Chapter Text

At least he had managed to avoid making a fool out of himself in the interview room this time.

Muttered only a handful of single-word responses and staggered back out the door. Too many arenas and too many empty hallways. The wall was cold beneath his hand as Jay forced his legs to take one step after another even though he had no idea where he was going. His belongings were about eight hallways away - stuffed inside a supply closet.

An ambush would have been nice - almost.

But Bullet Club had decided that his head could stay on his shoulders for tonight. They were biding their time - probably sadistically delaying making a move just so he had to live with waiting for an attack. Right now, though, his body was in so much pain - and he was so drained - that maybe combining that assault with his Ibushi-gifted headache wouldn't have been so bad. Get it all over with.

Not today apparently.

So he continued moving slowly down the hallway - one hand braced against the wall for support and his entire body encumbered equally by pain, exhaustion, defeat and failure. Just because he had known that he was going to lose didn't make the actual loss any easier. Jay listened as people walked by him without stopping. Silent footstep after silent footstep. Not even a single word to see if he needed help. Even someone taking a second to mock him would have been nice. Enough so he didn't feel invisible.

"Jay."

But that voice was actually what he wanted to hear.

He barely had enough energy to lift his eyes but the worry and the care in the entirety of Naito's expression were worth the effort. They were so close - as if Naito's very presence was this soothing shield between him and the rest of the world.

"You're here."

The wonder in his voice would be embarrassing except for the tenderness that filled Naito's eyes.

"I promised. Remember?"

He did.

I'm not leaving you all alone ever again. I promise.

Naito was there for him. Had he known there wouldn't be anyone else? And suddenly, Jay wanted to tell him about so many things. About what was going on with Bullet Club. About that moment in the ring with Ibushi. He wanted to share these things with Naito. Share his worries and fears. He had no idea how but Jay could almost believe that he wanted to hear them.

"I tried, Naito."

Such a small sentiment encompassed so many things. Trying to beat Ibushi. Trying to become Naito's equal. Trying to lead Bullet Club. He had tried.

"I know. I saw." Naito's hand ever-so-gently came to rest on his shoulder. "You did so good."

Jay had to close his eyes at that. It was too much. He had failed but it was still good enough for Tetsuya Naito. Tears welled up even in his closed eyes and the last thing he needed was for them to fall. But he didn't know how to stop them.

"Shh…" Even the sound of Naito's voice was soothing. "Hold on, Jay. Just a little longer, okay?" Naito's hand slid across his back and gently pulled him away from the wall. "Come on."

His body was moving without his permission or attention but Naito's hands were carefully encouraging, holding him up but not holding on too tightly. Like he knew that any more pressure and Jay would shatter yet further.

His vision was blurred by fatigue and those unshed tears but Jay was aware enough to know that they were headed back toward the locker rooms - directly and not through some obscure pathway. They were out in the open and Naito had to know that this kindness was visible to anyone that cared to look but maybe that didn't matter to him. Maybe it shouldn't matter. Maybe it never had.

Slowly, they entered a room that Jay didn't recognize. The door closed behind them and he looked around to figure out where they were. He wasn't completely certain but SANADA's ring jacket was unmistakable.

"Naito… I shouldn't be here… I don't belong here."

He was tired enough that he didn't notice Naito coming around to stand in front of him until he was right there. And they were close together - standing near enough that Jay was almost certain he could feel that warmth of Naito's. But those eyes… it looked as if the only thing Naito wanted to do was reach inside of him and heal whatever was hurting. Of course, he could look at Jay and see those wounds. Of course he could.

"I'm not trying to…" Naito made the softest little sound of frustration. "I just wanted to bring you somewhere I knew you'd be safe."

Safe.

Such a simple word could mean so many different things. Safe from attack. Safe to collapse. Safe to be Jamie. And Jay had a suspicion - strong and deep down - that Naito meant all three of those things with the word. The tears couldn't be stopped now. He thought he had finally understood that Naito cared about him. Realized that these feelings - the affection and the longing and the desire - that he had tried so hard to destroy were something that they shared. But here that fact was - in plain view - and the weight of it almost made his knees buckle.

Somehow, despite their closeness, Naito's careful touch took him by surprise. And it was so easy to let his eyes fall closed as his tears were gently wiped away.

"Pobrecito…" Had anyone ever spoken to him with that sort of compassion before? He wasn't quite sure what Naito had said but he knew enough to know that it was as close to an endearment someone had used about him since he was far younger. "You've held on for so long. Let me…"

Naito's words trailed off and even as Jay waited for him to continue, he somehow knew he wouldn't. There was something wrong but it wasn't with him - other than the residual effects of the match with Ibushi. Something was wrong with Naito. And he could draw a little courage in how those fingers were still resting ever-so-slightly along his jaw as if Naito wanted - or needed - that little bit of contact. So Jay forced himself to open his eyes and look.

What he wants most of all is to hold you in his arms.

That was how that sentence was supposed to end.

Let me hold you.

But that was fear in Naito's eyes. Uncertainty in the set of his jaw. Doubt and worry in the trembling of the fingers touching his skin. Naito wanted and yearned but he was scared to push too far and afraid to ask for too much. This bond meant so much to both of them, didn't it?

"I…" Jay refused to succumb to the temptation to close his eyes. He wanted to see Naito. "... I want to be safe with you."

His voice shook but he managed to say the words. To share a little bit of his own heart. And it was worth the effort it took to keep his eyes open. Jay could see some of that doubt fade away and the fear be replaced by hope. And he was almost certain that Naito had moved a little closer. They were right there.

One more step. Naito would catch him.

He would.

Jay believed it.

His eyes stayed open as he took a tiny half-step closer and let himself lean in. And this close, it was like magnetism. Something was urging him forward and Jay suspected that it was his own heart - finally so close to something he had been certain that he would never know that it refused to stop now. Those eyes were full of that warmth and that smile was unsteady but encouraging. His fingertips grazed Naito's sides and Jay could both see and hear him barely repress a gasp.

"Please…"

And all Jay managed was one shaky nod before Naito was wrapping his arms around him and pulling him in. His own arms easily returned the embrace; out of instinct or want or stability, Jay wasn't sure. But it didn't matter. Not one bit. That warmth he had first felt as a Young Lion was surrounding him, refusing to be doubted or denied.

This was safety. This was home.

It was there in how Naito was holding him. Earlier in the hallway, he had been so careful - treating Jay like he was delicate. But this was far different. Naito had pulled them so close together that Jay could feel his heart beating against his skin. Their embrace was that tight - like it didn't matter if he shattered completely because Naito would be there to hold all of the pieces together. And it was overwhelming and perfect and Jay never wanted to let go.

"I've got you." Naito's gentle words were whispered into his ear and Jay didn't know which one of them he was trying to reassure. But it felt like both. It felt like finally. "I've got you, mi cariño."

The idea that Naito looked at him and thought about sweet things - endearments and softness - was almost as staggering as their embrace. He had always tried so hard to banish all such thoughts from his mind, forcing them away as best he could. And that mi. My. To Naito, Jay was his. Bullet Club didn't want him but Naito wanted to claim him. He couldn't do the same in reverse. Had no clue how to tell his brain that maybe - just maybe - it might someday be okay to start thinking like that but all he wanted was to be given the time to learn.

So Jay let his head drop onto Naito's shoulder and allowed himself to start to collapse, trusting him to hold up some of his weight. It was tiny, tiny progress - almost a single muscle at time - but still Naito held him close. But his posture wasn't quite right. It was as if he was holding him but he wasn't quite letting Jay hold him. And he wanted it in a way that his heart was begging for. Jay wanted Naito to feel safe with him. He knew he had his familia but maybe he could make room for him too.

Jay tried to pull him closer - a hand on the back of his head - but Naito refused to budge.

"Jay… you're hurt."

Naito cared about him.

"I'm all right. Sore and tired but not hurt." There was this trembling in Naito's arms - in the body he was holding close - and Jay's heart spoke for him. "Let me, Naito. Please. I've got you too."

For a single beat of their hearts, nothing happened but then there was a shift - just a little change - and Naito buried his face in the crook of Jay's neck as his whole body shuttered. Had Naito been holding back just as much as he had? Pushing it down but not trying to destroy it. Instead, Naito had kept it - nurturing it and waiting for something. Anything. All of that longing and yearning echoed between them.

They were both trembling now.

Shakily clinging to each other, uncaring of time or exhaustion.

Together.

One of Naito's hands had slipped up and under his hair until it was resting on the nape of his neck and the gesture was so affectionate and tender that Jay could feel his eyes starting to water again. He kept doing so many little things that Jay had done all that he could from even contemplating. Things he had tried to stop himself from dreaming about.

"Jay?" Naito's breath was ticklish against his skin. "I don't know if…" For a terrifying second, Jay's stomach lurched. "... could I come with you back to your hotel room? I'd like to look after you… if that's okay."

Each one of Naito's words was tentative as if he was afraid to speak them. Afraid of being rejected and it just made his heart sob. There was nothing he could do to stop the whimper - as pathetic as it was - from being heard, especially as close as they were. Naito slowly adjusted their embrace - almost telegraphing every move to keep him from doubting - until they were looking at each other with his face cradled between Naito's hands. He immediately missed the feeling of those arms around him but once again there was something grounding about the affection in Naito's eyes.

"Is that too much?"

And that shakiness was there in Naito's voice too.

"No one's…" Honesty and hurt flowed through him and the willpower to keep his eyes open failed him. "No one has ever wanted to before."

"No one?" There was comfort in the pain and disbelief in those two words. "Jay…" It took a second for him to realize that the pressure was Naito resting their foreheads together and it took another second for that simple contact to start to soothe his headache. "I want to. I have for a long time."

Maybe someday he could tell him that he had wanted to take care of him too but those particular words were completely stuck. Jay opened his eyes and all he could see was tenderness.

"I probably won't be very good company."

Jay had seen Naito's real smile. He had seen hopeful ones and teasing ones but never anything like the way his lips were curving upward this time. Never a smile that looked like a burden had been lifted or washed away. He had no idea Naito could look that soft. And it was for him.

"You don't have to be."

A knock on the door and the sound of it opening almost made Jay jump out of his skin. He definitely pulled out of their embrace, though, and was frantically looking around for somewhere to hide when Naito took a hold of his hand - lacing their fingers together. And that simple motion - simple sensation - was as overwhelming as everything else had been. But the look in Naito's eyes was as much hopeful as it was pleading and Jay couldn't bring himself to tug his hand away.

"Naito-san? Jay White? Do you still have clothes on?"

What the fuck?

"Hiromu…"

Naito's voice was equal parts irritated and fond but Jay noticed that he wasn't only one blushing when Hiromu bounded into the room with an almost manic grin and a familiar bag in his hand.

"That's… my bag? How did you find that?"

Hiromu started bouncing up and down on the balls of feet and nodding his head like he was listening to music that no one else could hear. And it answered something that Jay had pondered once or twice. It seemed that in-ring persona of his was no act. That made more sense, actually.

"Ahh… I asked Daryl. He knew where it was." His bag was dropped with a thud onto a nearby bench. "Mama BUSHI said you'd probably need it so we wanted to help."

Wasn't Daryl one of those stuffed animals of his?

Both Hiromu and Naito were looking at him expectantly and it felt like he was taking a test, even if that wasn't their intention. But it was hard to concentrate on anything. Hiromu had tracked down his bag despite it being in a supply closet. He must have been searching for a while - Daryl's help or not. And he was searching because BUSHI said that he would need it - trying to look after him again. Did that mean that Naito was always intending on being there? No matter if he won or lost, would Naito have been there waiting for him? Such little things but more than he had known in so long that his heart barely knew how to respond.

"Thanks, man." He could feel the softness again in Naito's gaze. "And… uh… tell Daryl I said thanks too."

He must have said something right because Hiromu's grin got even bigger and he dashed forward with a quickness that startled Jay. But the way he crouched down to stare at his and Naito's joined hands was even more surprising. That was… different. It felt like another test and it was only how Naito tightened his grasp that kept him from trying to pull his hand away. He had spent so long keeping his affection buried - hidden away in the shadows - so that no one could ever see it. And now it was visible in a way that almost made his skin crawl uncomfortably. But Naito held fast - seemingly unembarrassed that it was his hand that he was holding - so he did too.

"This is so good!" Hiromu jumped up and that grin of his was now more joyful than manic. "Naito-san is going to be so much happier now!"

Jay was pretty sure that Hiromu was actually skipping as he headed back out the door, oddly quietly closing it behind him. But now there was silence between them. They were still holding hands, though, which was soothing in its own way.

"Are you still with me, Jay?"

Naito's voice was so careful and gentle and when they turned to face each other again, Jay saw why. His eyes were wide with worry and his grip on Jay's hand had tightened yet further. Naito had held it together in front of Hiromu but now it was just them and he could see the emotion on his face. Naito was scared. Afraid of him shutting down and walking away. And it was something he either couldn't or didn't want to hide in front of him. For all that his own mask had fallen to pieces, maybe some of Naito's had too.

"Trying to be." With his free hand, Jay reached up and brushed his thumb slowly across Naito's cheek as his expression morphed into something far less painful to look at. "I think I might like your friends."

"I'm glad."

Jay wasn't sure if Naito intended to say more but he was seemingly distracted by the motion of his thumb. The way he was leaning into the tentative caress with his eyes half-closed… it was as if he was savoring it. Like he had dreamed about it.

"Do you think you could be someday?"

For a moment, Jay wished he could take the question back. Naito's eyes refocused on him and it made it a little harder to breathe.

"Hmm?"

"Be happier because I'm…"

Jay couldn't finish the sentence. Could barely think it. But Naito understood him anyway.

"Oh, Jay…" Naito brought his hand up and Jay could only sigh as he brushed some of his hair back, carefully tucking a few strands behind his ear. "I already am."

Chapter Text

Naito's hand was still on his back.

They had gotten out of the car, walked into the building and through the lobby, rode in the elevator, and then walked to his hotel room door. And the entire time, Naito's hand had been resting there on his back. The weight of it enough to give him the strength to keep going, even as exhaustion finally began to win that particular battle. The warmth of it a reminder of everything that had changed in such a short amount of time.

Very little had been said between them - beyond basic instructions and questions - but Jay had a feeling that it was their shared nerves that were keeping them silent. He opened the door and Naito's hand finally drifted away as they removed their shoes. And he missed the feel of it almost instantly. His bag was chucked randomly off to the side and he couldn't stop himself from laughing ever-so-lightly as Naito's joined it.

"I haven't heard that laugh before."

There was this measure of awe and wonder in Naito's voice and it went straight to Jay's heart. It really wasn't just him. He wasn't the only one who had wanted to know things like that. Experience the littlest of moments together. Naito came around and stood beside him - close enough that they were touching - and that hand returned to his back. The expression on his face was so open and affectionate that - with the help of his own tiredness - Jay couldn't stop the honesty.

"Me neither."

And the ache that took over Naito's eyes was so acute and so strong that Jay had to look away as a part of him mocked his own patheticness. How easily he could be made weak. He had lost to Ibushi tonight and now he couldn't even look at the emotions in those eyes. That voice was getting louder with each beat of his heart. What was he thinking? Why would he…

"Jay." With a gentle touch, Naito turned his head back toward him and Jay braced himself for pity. But instead, the emotion he saw could only be described as tender devotion and he had to fight the urge to ask if Naito realized who he was with. "There you are."

He had said that before, hadn't he? Seemingly capable of seeing right through everything. Seeing him.

"I'm trying."

And he was. Jay was doing his best to fight past so many learned instincts when it came to Tetsuya Naito. Holding everything he felt deep down inside. Doing whatever it took to destroy those feelings and that longing. Pushing it down. Over and over again. Hiding his hurt from not just Naito but everyone around him. Never letting any of it show.

"I can see it." That tentative touch became Naito's hand cradling one side of his face and Jay couldn't stop himself from tilting his head slightly into the contact. "I can feel it. Be patient with yourself, mi cariño."

"What does that mean anyway?"

The soft, shy smile on Naito's face should have looked out of place but it was filled with sweetness anyway.

"My darling." His hand drifted upward and brushed some of his hair back from his forehead. "My darling Jay."

Call me Jamie.

The words sprung up suddenly and it was only those instincts that stopped him from saying them. He wasn't Jamie anymore. And even if being around Naito - especially like this - was as close to being that as he was capable of, it didn't mean that name was something to share with Naito.

Not yet.

Even if Naito looked at him and thought 'my darling.'

"How many people would laugh at you if they heard you call me that?"

And now there was a little bit of sadness at the edges of that expression.

"None… if you ever let them see your real smile."

It was another reminder of how Naito could see so much of him. So many things that he tried to hide. Jay let himself reach out with both hands - his fingers playing with the fabric of Naito's shirt, holding on with the barest of grips. There was something comforting about a full circle of physical contact like this.

"You make me smile."

And the answering smile on Naito's face was more brilliant than Jay thought was possible.

"And you make me smile, Jay."

His cheeks flushed almost instantly and Jay needed out of this moment. It took so little to overwhelm him but he wanted to keep trying. He wanted to keep Naito smiling at him like that.

"Do you want the grand tour?"

And Naito's chuckle was knowing and amused as they separated and went further into the room. But no matter the acceptance that was doing its best to work its way into his heart, Jay was still aware enough to notice Naito's ever-so-slight limp as he walked from one side of the room to the other. Was that something he had been fighting all night? Had he been standing there in their embrace as his knee throbbed? And the idea floating about in the back of his mind - that Naito had finally let that limp show because he knew he was safe with Jay? He didn't know what to do with that.

"You're limping…"

Naito turned and there was something almost sheepish in his expression.

"It's not that bad." Jay wasn't sure what sort of expression was on his face but Naito looked chagrined. He needed to take better care of himself, regardless. "It's a long few weeks. You know that too, mi cariño."

And using that endearment there was cheating.

"I do. But you have one more match. And I'm not going to sleep easily." It was only a couple of strides to close the gap between them. "If you need to rest…" They were so much the opposite of what he wanted that the words were stuck on the other side of his lips. "... you don't have to stay."

The intensity in Naito's eyes reminded Jay of his tournament matches. Focused and determined.

"Yes, I do."

And he wanted him to. They were so close to it - that half-formed dream of sharing a bed - that Naito leaving was the absolute last thing that Jay wanted to happen. But some things were more important.

"It's the G1."

A chance to be in the main event at the Tokyo Dome. An opportunity to win the toughest tournament in all of professional wrestling. And he was so close. But Naito was shaking his head like none of that mattered.

"There will be other G1s." Hands grabbed a hold of his and pulled them upward until all Jay could see was the sight of their hands clasped together and the pure emotion in Naito's eyes. "There is only one you."

The tears were immediate and there was nothing he could do to stop the almost sobbing, mournful noise that escaped him. It was too much. Naito had asked him that before but now it truly was. He meant that much to him. It was overwhelming in a way that Jay couldn't explain. Everything had become white noise to him. His vision was just slightly out-of-focus. The only thing he knew for certain was that Naito had wrapped his arms around him and pulled into an embrace just as tight as the one back at the arena.

He had nothing and he had everything.

He had lost and he had won.

He was all alone and he was with Tetsuya Naito.

Everything he had done. Every victory. Every defeat. Everything he had done to himself. All of those pieces he had carved away in order to make room for the Switchblade. The pathetic Young Lion he had once been. Jamie.

"Let it out, Jay. It's all right."

And through all of the static in his mind and his heart, Naito's voice cut through perfectly clear. Each brush of his fingers as he held him close was reassuring. Each breath that tickled his hair was comforting. How long had it been? Had he ever trusted anyone like this? Jay was a trembling, distraught mess and it hadn't even for a moment occurred to him to push Naito away. To force the shards of that mask of his back into place. That instinct just wasn't there. All of these years between them and it probably should be. Instead, Jay wanted to feel.

The tears slowed and dried but still he held on. And Naito showed no sign of letting go.

"This feels good… doesn't it?"

There was a hesitation there as Naito spoke. As if he wasn't sure. As if he needed reassurance that Jay liked holding him and being held by him. He had never known Naito to be shy or uncertain and somehow, that was yet more affirmation to his battered heart.

"It does."

Each moment that they stood like this - like Naito held him as if it really was the only thing he had ever wanted - was a reminder to his heart that these feelings weren't his alone. That all this time Naito had been longing and hoping. Everything Jay had tried to tear apart was everything that he wanted to protect.

Slowly and by some unspoken signal, they pulled apart and Jay couldn't quite recognize the look in Naito's eyes.

"Besides, I won't rest if I leave."

Apparently, he wasn't going to let that go.

And that didn't make any sense to Jay. Staying up with him - and his restless snatches of barely there sleep - were no substitute for actual rest. They had both wrestled Ibushi on multiple occasions. Naito had to know that he had to be at his very best to beat him. And Jay wanted to see him with that trophy in his hands. If it wasn't him, he wanted it to be Naito.

"You won't?"

Naito's caress was almost as soft as the look in his eyes.

"You finally let me see where you've been hiding." Somehow, Jay knew that Naito was talking about more than just a hotel room. "Don't make me go yet. Let me stay with you." The pleading in his voice rocked Jay to his very core. "Please, mi cariño."

That was the problem.

He didn't want Naito to go. Not ever. It was outlandish and stupid and asking too much of the universe again. But Jay wanted to keep him. A handful of hours was all it had taken for his heart to remember long-forgotten dreams. To want days and nights and weeks and months again. This had always been the problem. His heart - Jamie - wanted everything with Tetsuya Naito. All of it. Sleepy mornings and weekends spent entirely in bed. Kisses and caresses that set his skin aflame. A knowledge of him that took a lifetime to get.

And like this?

This pleading and warmth and affection?

It was just enough for his heart to try and believe that Naito wanted the same with him. But other things had to matter too.

"I'm not…" And there were those unshed tears again. "I know how much the main event at Wrestle Kingdom means to you." Naito's promos were as hard for him to resist as the rest of him. "I don't want to be the reason you don't get there."

"So I'll win."

There was a stubborn set to his jaw that suddenly made Jay think of BUSHI looking forward to having his help looking after Naito. He wasn't going to budge on this, was he?

"Not if you're exhausted from trying to make sure I sleep. After the finals we can…"

"No, Jay." And that ache and that hurt were both back in Naito's eyes. It wasn't just a longing to share a bed with him that was driving this determination of his. "No more waiting."

He didn't want to wait either. He really didn't. Jay had wondered so many times what it would be like to fall asleep to the sound of Naito's calm breathing. Had forced himself to wake up from dreams where they were curled up together like because there was no point to even dreaming about it. And now they were here. Naito was in his hotel room and almost begging him to let him stay the night. He needed to say no - there was no way Naito could possibly rest with him nearby - but he just didn't want to.

"Naito, I…"

"No." A single tear rolled down Naito's cheek as he slowly shook his head back-and-forth. "I haven't slept well either. How could I?" There was the tiniest of cracks as his voice wobbled. "How could I sleep knowing that you were out there somewhere… all alone and certain that you meant nothing to me?" The anguish in those eyes was hard to look at and enthralling all at the same time. "How could I rest knowing that you didn't believe that I care about you?"

No wonder Tetsuya has been so worried about you.

It was an odd sensation trying to comfort someone - he had no idea what he was really doing - but Jay wiped the tears from Naito's cheeks as gently as he could. Held his face in his hands with every bit of affection he knew how to let himself feel. And watched as those watery eyes closed as Naito seemingly found a drop of comfort in his touch.

"I believe you now." Was that soft thing his own voice? "I believe you, Naito."

And he did.

The evidence was something that couldn't be denied. Overwhelming and true. He didn't know if being together like this - letting Naito see him - would weaken or strengthen it but in this moment, it was real.

As real as the way a sort of tension fell away on Naito's face - only to be replaced by a hopeful smile that Jay could feel beneath his palms. And he was curious - and equally hopeful - and he had to ask.

"Do you believe that I…"

He couldn't quite finish the question but Naito's eyes popped open anyway. And the warmth in them was stronger than ever.

"Oh, Jay." And the path Naito's fingers took along his forehead was softer than ever too. "That's something that you've never been able to hide." He trailed downward until he was cupping the nape of Jay's neck and pulling their heads together - foreheads resting against one another. "The light in your eyes when you look at me… it's so bright, mi cariño."

He was exposed and seen and it could be okay.

Leaning back, Jay let himself reach ever-so-slightly upwards to card his fingers through a few strands of Naito's always-wild hair. And holding back from telling him that he liked how long he had let it grow took more effort than it probably should. He wasn't there quite yet. But Naito looked so completely happy at such a simple motion and the words almost slipped out. Instead, his tired body insisted on something else.

"Do you need to borrow a pair of shorts to sleep in?"

And surprisingly, there was the playfulness he had seen so many times before. But never like this. Never with them so close.

"I do." That smirk was even more attractive this close. "I might steal them if they're comfortable, though."

The idea of Naito happily laying claim to an article of his own clothing was beyond appealing and Jay knew that his cheeks were turning red. Naito's eyes were wide with both amusement and joy and it looked good on him. Letting go, Jay walked over to his suitcase and pulled out his favorite pair of basketball shorts - not that he was going to tell him that.

"Here." If the light in his eyes was bright, then Naito's eyes were sparkling and Jay couldn't resist saying something more. "If you look good in them, you can keep them."

And there was nothing that could possibly be as bright as Naito's smile in response.

"You'll have to tell me."

They were flirting, weren't they?

For real. Both of them were perfectly aware of exactly what they were doing. This wasn't in a wrestling ring or under the context of a feud. This was just them. Just him and Naito. Had Naito actually realized that Jay had been flirting with him back then? Even if he had tried to stop himself from doing it, he had still done it. And given how easily Naito apparently saw him?

Fuck.

"I'll give you a few minutes to change. I'll be in the bathroom."

Jay was running away - he knew he was - but he needed a minute. And behind him, Naito's chuckle was knowing and amused again.

---

The blankets were pulled back when he went to climb into the bed.

Naito was slightly propped up on his side, reminding Jay of that favorite in-ring pose of his. But the smile on his face wasn't teasing or playful. It was warm and inviting in a soothing sort of way. His heart still felt like it was going to beat out of his chest but at least it wasn't planning a revolt. He had enough of those to deal with already.

It was easier to lay down than he thought it would be. Drawn as always to Naito.

"Is it okay if I turn off the light?"

"Yeah."

Jay wasn't sure if he was going to be able to get any sleep - not with Naito so close. He had never done this before. Never shared a bed with someone. Sleeping was an act of faith and sleeping next to someone else was an act of trust. And he didn't know how to trust like that. But if there was ever going to be anyone that he could, it would be Tetsuya Naito.

A hand against his side became arms trying to pull him close and Jay didn't want to fight that sort of embrace. His head came to rest against Naito's chest and his first thought was that he should have probably tied his hair back or something. And then, for a single moment, everything was perfect.

Just one moment.

It was too much.

And then suddenly, Jay was worried and terrified that it was going to be impossible to relax. That he was too aware of Naito's body beside his. Every muscle was stiff with a tension he didn't know how to release. Even Naito's arms around him quickly felt almost like a claustrophobic cage. Almost.

"You can do this too, mi cariño." Naito's voice was whisper-quiet. "I know you can."

Each one of Naito's caresses was delicate and careful but they still made him flinch as his fingers passed across his skin. And the choked-back mournful sound told him that Naito noticed each spasm and Jay wished he knew how to make it stop. To let go and just let himself be held like this. They had hugged and held each other close.

Why was this so different?

Was it the darkness or something else?

Why couldn't he just be enough?

"I can't."

He wanted this. He did. Why couldn't he just have it?

Too much intimacy. Too much warmth. It felt like he was on fire - like Naito's skin was burning his. A gentle stroke along the side of his head made his entire body jerk and he had to bite his lip from crying out in a sort of pain.

"Shh…" A push to his shoulder had him rolling back onto his side and Jay could feel Naito moving with him. "Take a deep breath. In and out."

He tried to breathe like that even as the sound of Naito's exaggerated breathing made him want to smile. But Jay copied him as best he could and let the tension slowly drain away. As the time passed, he realized that they were lying beside each other - both on their sides and no longer touching - with a small bit of space between them. His eyes had adjusted enough to the bare amount of light in the room that he could just about make out Naito's face in the darkness. It wasn't quite enough to see any detail in his expression but somehow Jay knew there was nothing but affection and understanding there.

"I'm sorry."

But he needed to apologize anyway. He needed Naito to hear it.

"Nothing to be sorry about. We have time, Jay."

But how long?

How much resistance could Naito tolerate? How many failures would he allow?

Failure meant abandonment. Jay knew that as well as anyone. He wasn't enough. Not really. Not deep down. But tonight? Tonight, Naito was here with him - caring about him. And he felt that way now but what happened if they spent more time together? What would happen if Jay showed him all of the broken remnants and things he had destroyed?

I'm not leaving you all alone ever again. I promise.

Naito had to stay. He had to.

Reaching out, Jay blindly searched for one of Naito's hands, grasping it with his own as soon as he found it. And that little bit of contact was grounding and soothing and exactly what he needed. Especially as Naito held on just as tightly - entangling their hands and fingers into something that felt unwavering.

"Try and sleep." The light pull on his hand was almost as surprising as the featherlight kiss placed against the back of it. "You're not alone. Not anymore. I'll watch over you."

But was it too late for that?

"You need your rest too."

"I'll sleep when you do." Naito's voice was equal parts earnest and stubborn and those feelings entrenched themselves a little deeper. "Close your eyes, mi cariño."

So he did.

And he slept.

***

 

Chapter Text

They were still holding hands.

It was the only thing Jay was capable of thinking about at that moment. He usually woke quickly - always wary and restless anymore - but it had taken him a few seconds to understand what he was looking at. And even blinking and wiping at his face with his free hand hadn't changed what he saw, illuminated by the dawn light shining through the window.

That was Tetsuya Naito. He was right there. He had apparently shifted about in the middle of the night and was fast asleep on his stomach, hair sticking up in about eight different directions. His face was turned toward him as if he had wanted to watch over Jay for as long as he could keep his eyes open. But it was the smile that was ever-so-gently tugging at the remnants of his heart.

It looked just like it had the last time he'd seen it - as he had succumbed to comfort and exhaustion. So soft and affectionate and - somehow - meant for him. And it wasn't just that but also how being close to him like this had put that smile on Naito's face. No one had ever looked at him like that and he was still doing it in his sleep. And he was holding his hand - unwilling to be apart even in the night.

Somehow, Jay knew that if he pulled his hand away, Naito would be awake instantly.

It was an odd sort of surety.

And hope welled up inside of him, bringing with it another surge of tears that fell quietly against his pillow. He did his best to not make too much noise. Naito needed as much rest as he could get and the last thing Jay wanted to do was bother him with his emotional nonsense again. He had shed more tears in the past twelve hours than he had in longer than he could remember. Maybe - probably - it was that safety again. Knowing that Naito wouldn't think he was weak if he saw him. He was - he felt like he was anyway - but it didn't seem to bother Naito.

He had never known a morning like this one. Not ever. Jay wasn't one to linger in bed - no point in doing it - but he didn't want to move. Not a single centimeter. Even as his sudden tears dried and he could once again clearly see just how soft and content Naito looked, he wanted to stay right where he was. Any closer would be a terrible idea - be too much.

That panic last night had been embarrassing and overwhelming. The only thing that made it bearable had been Naito himself. Trying ever-so-gently to push him past that unexpected boundary and then being ever-so-careful with him when he just couldn't do it. It made him believe. Not in Naito's affection but in that he wanted more with Jay. That somewhere in Naito's heart were the same dreams of something more.

But now he was looking at him - so peaceful - and he wondered again. What would it be like to be pressed up against Naito? To wake up in those arms. To start the day feeling that warmth and that safety. Someday.

For now, though?

On this morning, this was perfect.

It felt like a dream that had become real. Like one of those things that his heart had refused to forget had been made manifest. Naito was there with him. Trusted him like that. Hadn't set some alarm and disappeared in the middle of the night. For a moment, Jay could feel the echo of the devastation he would have felt if he had awakened to an empty bed and he couldn't help but tighten his grip on Naito's hand. And he matched it with a gentle squeeze of his own. Even as Naito slept, he was watching over him.

I'm not leaving you all alone ever again.

Oh, God.

He meant it.

Naito meant those words as if they were a part of his very soul. Like they were a promise that he would go to any length to keep. This was only their beginning to Naito, wasn't it? This was simply the first night of many. They were together now. This was who they were to each other now. It wasn't only that their feelings were more. They were more.

His throat was dry and it was impossible to swallow. Jay needed a drink of water or something. He needed to get out of this bed. Go somewhere else. Anywhere else. Get away as far as he could from that soft smile. It was that claustrophobic feeling again. Panic and terror made his stomach roll. His muscles tensed and his toes curled uncomfortably. What was he thinking?

Naito was here now but it couldn't possibly last. Could it?

He couldn't possibly be enough.

But as his mind raced and doubted, his heart focused his eyes on their joined hands once again. Naito didn't want to let him go - not even in his sleep. And Jay wanted - with a depth that surprised him - to be right here when he opened his eyes. He almost believed that Naito would be happy that he was there. Could almost picture the way he would smile. All of this felt like something impossible - an image that his heart had conjured to help settle him after a difficult day. But Naito was real and warm and soft.

And he was awake.

Jay watched as Naito's eyes slowly fluttered open. He looked sleepy and oddly adorable. How many people before him had seen this very sight? And no matter how his heart lurched at the very idea of the faceless people who had been in this spot before him, Jay knew that it couldn't have possibly meant as much to them as it did to him.

Because he had dreamed about this.

On those occasions when his heart won out - when Jamie insisted - and his dreams of Tetsuya Naito couldn't be denied, this moment was the one thing that returned. Over and over again. Not just waking up and finding Naito there beside him but being there to watch Naito wake up. How many times had he dreamed about Naito looking happy to wake up with him?

Somehow, Naito even made stifling a yawn look charming and captivating. His eyes were half-lidded and unfocused. Jay wanted to say something - anything - but the words were stuck. It was so hard to make his mouth work. How could it be so difficult to whisper something as simple as 'good morning'? But Jay felt himself smile and it felt good in a way he couldn't explain. It was a smile that came easily. One that he didn't have to fight against himself to make.

And that smile changed something in Naito. His eyes widened and his hold on Jay's hand tightened. But it was the wonder written all over his expression that made his own smile a little deeper. It was unbelievable and believable all at the same time.

"Jay…" There was this sleepy raspiness to Naito's voice that was honestly delightful to hear. "You're here."

Had Naito woken from a dream like this only to find an empty bed before too?

"I am."

The quiet joy that filled Naito's eyes was a balm to so many things. He shifted - never letting go of Jay's hand - until he was on his side too. They were so close now. Barely any space between them but they weren't holding each other. Naito was leaving him enough space to breathe - being careful with him again - and Jay could only smile more.

"Did you get some sleep, mi cariño?"

Maybe someday his heart wouldn't beat a little funny when Naito used an endearment like that for him but today wasn't not that day. Not yet. And how did he even start to explain how long it had been since he had slept through the night like that? Sleep was so elusive for him and yet, all it had taken was Tetsuya Naito beside him for him to find it so easily. For a single heartbeat, Jay wondered if Naito would even want to know that but his expression was as open and peaceful as could be.

"I did." Naito was looking at him with his whole heart again and it was so very tempting to simply hand over all of the broken parts of himself and entrust them to his safekeeping. "Thanks to you."

"I didn't…"

Naito looked doubtful and it was almost a shock to see. Did he view their failed in-bed embrace as a personal failure? Did he blame himself for that? It had been entirely Jay's own fault but that wasn't what he needed Naito to know right now.

"Yes, you did." Carefully, Jay pulled his hand out of their hold and slowly slid his fingers through Naito's wild hair before resting his hand along the side of his face. "I wasn't alone. My heart knew you were there, Naito."

Those eyes slipped closed with a sigh. Jay watched as Naito's head leaned into his hand, almost nuzzling his palm and mouthing something against it. That warmth became heat and it took actual effort to keep himself from pulling his hand away. Something must have given him away, though. Naito's eyes reopened and that gaze focused so directly on him that Jay felt himself blush instantly. But the moment passed and once again there was nothing but softness between them.

"I always have been, Jay." Naito reached out and tenderly placed his hand on Jay's bare chest. Right over his heart. "My heart has been right here with yours. You've carried it with you, mi cariño."

Each word had been spoken with utmost gentleness but he came undone anyway. With a quiet sob, Jay squeezed his eyes shut as he felt them fill with tears again and the urge to run came back with a vengeance. Almost as if it became stronger each time he fought against it. He needed to stop doing this. He was too much for Naito. He had to be. Naito deserved someone…

"Oh, Jay." Somehow, they were even closer now. Naito had taken both his hands in his and that warmth was everywhere. "Let them fall. It's okay." The soft kiss placed on his forehead was more than anything he had ever known. "I wasn't trying to… I just wanted you to know."

Something so overwhelming said so simply. Presented as a basic fact of his life that Naito only wanted him to hear. To know.

"Fuck… I'm pathetic, aren't I?"

"No." Naito's answer was immediate and stern. "No, Jay." There was the lightest of pressure as he touched his forehead to Jay's. "You're hurt and you're tired." A thumb brushed across his now tear-stained cheek. "You've held so much inside. It's escaping any way it can. That's all."

Naito's voice was whisper-soft and held an ache that made Jay think Naito felt every bit of pain he had ever put himself through. As if no matter how many tears fell, they would never be pathetic to him. Not a single one.

"It's you." His own voice was ragged and weak but he pushed through it anyway. "It's only safe because you're here with me."

The noise Naito made was something like a gasp crossed with a whimper and Jay was almost certain that he was trembling.

"Tell me something." He sounded wrecked in a way that went straight to Jay's heart. He couldn't quite open his eyes but more tears fell anyway. "Even if it's something small. I want to hear it."

"Naito… I don't…"

"Share anything with me. Please." A gentle squeeze of their still-joined hands. "What's your favorite arena to wrestle in? What do you like on a sandwich?" Naito's tiny laugh sounded almost self-conscious to Jay's untrained ear. "Do you like baseball?"

Anything.

Naito really meant anything. He just wanted to hear Jay say… anything. To share something with him that he had kept to himself. No matter how small of a piece it was, Naito cared because it was his. Because he knew. Because he saw.

And Jay knew what he wanted to share. What he needed to say out loud.

You can do this too, mi cariño. I know you can.

"Gedo…" He was whispering and he knew it but even that single word was so hard to say, that Jay doubted he could speak any louder. "Gedo betrayed me."

"Jay…"

And that was fear in Naito's voice and somehow, it made him feel a little stronger.

"My wrist has always bothered me… since before the dojo even." Their handhold shifted until instead, Naito's hands were tenderly encircling his wrist - protecting it - and if he wasn't already teary-eyed, that simple motion would have done the trick. "Gedo is the only person I've ever told that to." Until now. "But EVIL…" His stomach turned at having to say his name in front of Naito. He was never going to forget who EVIL had betrayed first. "... he targeted it. He knew what he was doing."

Jay expected to feel weird for saying something like that. To feel like a failure. To feel pathetic. For that urge to run to become irresistible. Instead, all he felt was a little more whole.

And a kiss.

The gentlest of kisses brushed with complete affection to his weak wrist as Naito held it close like he could strengthen it with his touch alone.

"Oh, Jay…" Naito sounded heartbroken but it wasn't enough for him to find the strength to open his eyes just yet. "I knew there was something wrong there but…" Another kiss to the delicate skin of his inner wrist. "... no wonder I came back to an empty room."

An empty room.

Naito was talking about that night when he had asked him to trust that he would return. Jay had assumed ever since that he hadn't bothered. Why would he? But Naito had come back to find him gone. And even though there was a part of him - loud and obnoxious - that said it couldn't have possibly mattered, Jay knew better. He had seen too many emotions up close now. Had held Naito and been held in return. It was that echo of devastation from before. Naito must have been hurt.

"I'm sorry."

He meant the words in a way that he wasn't sure if he ever had before. Jay needed Naito to believe him so he forced his eyes open. Let him see in his own eyes how sorry he was. And there was this pain etched into every part of Naito's expression and it went straight to Jay's heart. A single nod and then he closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath - seemingly trying to compose himself.

And Jay wanted to do something to help. To soothe.

So he tilted his head and leaned forward just a little, softly and swiftly kissing Naito's forehead. Pulling back, those eyes had widened with wonder once more and Jay knew he was blushing again. He didn't know how to do any of this but he wanted to keep trying. To keep making Naito smile and look at him like that.

"No more empty rooms, Naito. I promise."

Did that even make any sense?

But it did to Naito and that was all that really mattered. His understanding was there in how completely soft and hopeful he looked. In how happy.

"Mi cariño…" This kiss pressed to his wrist was something that Naito lingered over. "My brave, sweet Jay."

"Brave?"

Disbelief weighed down the single word but Jay really didn't understand why Naito was using it. He wasn't… that. Or sweet. But that wasn't where his brain was stuck at the moment.

"You were so brave to stay there with me as long as you did. To let me see you after learning something like that."

He wasn't. But Naito looked so adamant. So certain.

"I…"

"And then you ignored Gedo and fought Ibushi on your own terms. You chose for yourself." Another kiss to his forehead and Naito lingered over this one too. "My… brave… sweet… Jay."

Each word was so carefully spoken. Emphasized to try and make it impossible to doubt.

"You saw that?"

Naito was blushing again but there was something sweet about it.

"I've seen every match of yours that I can find." Oh. That was sweet. "But we were watching last night." We? 'We' as in who he thought Naito was talking about? "Shingo wouldn't stop cheering when you started throwing forearms with Ibushi."

Shingo?

That meant…

That meant that Naito was talking about exactly who he was talking about. Not just himself but that familia of his too. And it seemed so unlikely and bizarre that the very idea was rattling about in his mind. Why would they care about him? Why would Shingo be cheering for him? He was nothing to them. He wasn't enough for Bullet Club so why…

"Jay…" He had no idea what sort of expression was on his face but Naito looked worried. "I didn't…" And he sounded worried too. "But you should know that we were there for you."

For him.

Had they all waited for his match? At first, it didn't make any sense but then Jay remembered Hiromu bringing his bag because BUSHI knew he would need it. And those admonishments - BUSHI basically telling him to take better care of himself. Takagi cheering for him. Hiromu looking delighted at them holding hands. None of them seemingly having any sort of issue with Naito wanting more with him.

When was the last time that Bullet Club had cared a single bit about him? Had they ever? But here was Naito and his familia, cheering for him. Trying to look after him.

"Thank you." His words were quieter than he wanted but at least he had managed to say them. And some of that worry seemed to fade away from Naito's face. "What about you? Were you cheering too?"

Jay was fishing for the answer he wanted. He knew that but he still wanted to hear Naito say it.

"I was hoping." What? And there was a tenderness in those eyes that Jay felt deep down. "The hope you gave me then, Jay." Once more, a single tear started to trail down Naito's cheek. "You made me believe that someday you might be able to choose me too." Another tear fell. "And then you did." His voice cracked and Jay found himself overwhelmed on Naito's behalf. "You let me into your hiding place. You stayed, mi cariño."

Now Naito was trembling again.

He had said that Jay had kept so much to himself but he was beginning to believe that Naito had done the exact same thing. How many gentle caresses had he held himself back from giving? How many times had he wanted to pull him into his arms? How many sweet words had he forced back down? How scared had Naito been?

Jay knew that he had done everything he could to hide what he felt for Naito - from everyone… from Naito… from himself. But trying to unbury those feelings and trying to share them? It was only possible because of how safe he felt with Naito. This was something else.

This was Naito feeling safe with him.

Safe to share the emotions that he had hidden away.

And there was courage - that bravery - to be found in that. In knowing that he wasn't alone with how badly his heart had yearned in silence.

"I did." Gently, Jay pulled his hand out of Naito's grasp so he could wipe away the remnants of his tears. "I will. I promise." And his smile was so soft now. "I'm not leaving you all alone ever again. There's room in my hiding place for both of us."

Naito wasn't all alone, not really, but that wasn't the point. This was different. They were different. They both slowly moved forward until they were as close as they could be without embracing. Jay wanted to know that warmth again but at the same time, the last thing he wanted was to ruin this with his anxiety about being held in bed. But the expression on Naito's face was one he hadn't seen before and he wasn't quite sure what to do about it.

"Jay…" Naito had cupped his face again, brushing tender caresses across his cheek with his thumb. "If I kiss you, do you think that you could let yourself kiss me back?"

Oh.

And fuck, he wanted to say yes. With every part of Jamie that remained, he wanted to say yes. Especially given how gently and carefully Naito had asked. Especially with how he had asked at all. But he didn't know if he could. Didn't know if that panic and anxiety would come rushing back. And Jay didn't want to do that to Naito. Didn't want to give him something else to worry about. Didn't want to scare him any further. Didn't want to ruin that moment.

"I don't know."

He was a disappointment. He had to be. But Naito's smile was still soft. Still gentle.

"That's all right." Naito's caress was steady and sure. "We'll get there." But there was something playful in his eyes. "We could practice..."

"Practice?"

Naito's head dipped ever-so-slightly as he placed a delicate kiss to Jay's collarbone. Such a small thing but Jay still felt it all the way down to his toes. And as he pulled away, Naito looked so delighted with himself - with everything - that Jay was helpless to do anything other than copy the motion. His lips touched Naito's bare chest and it was surreal and true.

But not as true as the affection in that smile.

And it was overwhelming in a way that felt good. It was lightening and brightening and Jay felt it in his soul. And he wanted Naito to feel that too. Cupping the back of his neck, he urged Naito to meet him in the middle - resting their foreheads together. There was a sigh as their skin touched but Jay had no idea which one of them had made it. That warmth was everywhere in the best possible way. Like it was seeping into his bones so he would never be without it again.

"Do you feel that, Naito?"

For a single beat of his heart, Jay worried that he sounded crazy. That Naito had no idea what he was talking about. That he was going to pull away, shaking his head. For one heartbeat.

But then, Naito's hand was there on the back of his neck - its weight solid and real - as his fingers played with a wild strand of his hair.

"I do." Two words but there was so much emotion in them. "I feel it too, mi cariño."

So many things rushed through Jay's mind that he had to close his eyes for a moment.

Asking Naito to call him Jamie. Calling him Tetsuya. Using an endearment of his own. Kissing him for real.

But all of them were terrifying in their own way. A step further than he could take. But he wanted to do something. Say something in return.

Tell me something. Even if it's something small. I want to hear it.

"Mayo."

"Hmm?"

"I'll eat any sandwich as long as there's some kind of mayonnaise on it."

Naito pulled back ever-so-slightly as he laughed. And it wasn't a laugh that Jay had ever heard before. Not just from Naito but from anyone. It was more than a chuckle but it wasn't mocking or cruel. It wasn't even that amused or loud. It was awe and wonder and pure joy. He - and his simple words - had made Naito uncontainably happy.

And before he truly realized what he was doing, he had placed a quick kiss right at the very corner of Naito's smiling lips.

"Jay…"

He was blushing. He knew he was.

"Just practicing."

***

 

Chapter Text

Naito had insisted on wearing his shorts to the arena.

Arriving together had been interesting enough but there had been an odd streak of normalcy to it. Or at least, it felt like something that could someday be normal and that simple thought hadn't made him hyperventilate or start crying again so perhaps he had taken a step forward. The day had felt like progress already.

And beyond that, he was excited.

It was weird walking into an arena with the level of anticipation that was building in his bones and knowing that none of it was for his own match. Instead, Jay was waiting for Naito's. He wanted to see him win. Hold the G1 trophy in his hands. He had cared about the accomplishments of the other members of Bullet Club but only from the perspective of wanting to see his faction do well.

This was something different.

This was wanting to see Naito triumphant. And it was knowing that it was okay to feel that way. That Naito wouldn't scoff at him saying something even as simple as 'congratulations'. That it would be okay to be happy for him. His heart kept beating a little funny when he thought about Naito and happy too close together.

It hadn't even been an entire day yet and so much had changed.

They had held one another close and shared the things that they had both kept hidden. They had spent the night together, resulting in a near-miraculous amount of sleep - at least for him. Jay had Naito's number in his phone and Naito had his. They had shared a late room service breakfast and he had almost instantly realized why BUSHI had been so concerned about what Naito ate.

Then, they hadn't been able to resist briefly lacing their fingers together on the walk to Naito's room so he could collect his things - shoulders brushed against one another and soft smiles were shared. He hadn't done that before and Naito's bashful whisper that it was new to him too had made it hard to let go.

Even Naito's room had been something special.

It was disorganized in a way that Jay wouldn't be surprised to learn frustrated BUSHI as well. Clothing tossed everywhere. A baseball balanced on top of a haphazard stack of take-out containers. And it made him smile. Naito hadn't looked embarrassed in the slightest and Jay liked that too. The room looked alive - especially compared to how sterile his always were. It looked like a life and for a few overwhelming moments, Jay could almost perfectly see himself as a part of it. Coming along behind him and folding his clothes. Tossing that baseball back and forth in some game with rules they had long since invented. Playfully arguing over what food they were going to order. Little images of little moments that had soon almost overpowered him. But as soon as he reached that point of wanting to run, Naito had been there - pulling him into his arms with a gentle yet understanding smile.

So they had arrived at the arena the same way they had left - side-by-side. Only with Naito wearing his shorts because they were his darling Jay's and that made them good luck. He had walked away from Naito before they had reached the locker room area, despite him trying to convince him that it wasn't necessary. That separation was something that he could still feel tingling beneath his skin. It wasn't quite not wanting to be apart but it was right there. He liked being near Naito with so much revealed between them. That warmth was a little harder to find without that hand in his.

Was it the newness of it?

Or was it the leftover weight of all of the years of knowing that he was nothing to Naito dragging him down?

Lingering shards of doubt and disbelief?

But as he laid his laptop out on the makeshift table he had put together, Jay tried to remind himself that none of those worries were as important as the affection in Naito's eyes when he looked at him. The quiet truth of the words he - they - had shared. The tenderness of the caresses they had exchanged.

My brave, sweet Jay.

And he knew that he would have to call upon that courage that Naito swore he possessed sooner rather than later. He didn't have a match tonight. But the other members of Bullet Club were scattered about the card, teaming together in various matches. And not a single one of them had even tried to contact him after he had ignored Gedo last night. Not even an angry 'what were you thinking' from Tama.

They really were done with him. And he really was done with them.

But the time had arrived to do something about it. Make sure Bullet Club knew exactly where he now stood. They would be gunning for him - Jay didn't doubt that - but he didn't want to just wait for them to come. He wanted to draw the line in the sand himself. No one in Bullet Club would hesitate to stand against him but that was okay. Naito had chosen him - they had chosen each other - and that mattered more. BUSHI had reminded him to stretch and drink more water. Hiromu had looked so happy to see them holding hands. Takagi had cheered for him. And maybe he could find his bravery in all of that.

I'm not leaving you all alone ever again. I promise.

It would be okay.

He needed a plan but in the end, it would be okay.

But tonight was about Naito and the G1 Finals. And this little corner should be tucked away enough that he wouldn't be bothered while he tried to watch the match. It wasn't the first time that he had streamed Naito's match while he was at an arena but this was the most 'out in the open' that he had ever done it. Jay was more wary than he wanted to be but if he and Bullet Club were done with each other, then he didn't want to think so much about their reaction if they were to catch him.

His feelings for Tetsuya Naito weren't this unrequited secret that had to be hidden from everyone - especially himself and Naito - at all costs anymore. The world wouldn't end if Gedo saw him smile. These feelings were something they shared and there was strength in that. Courage. But the show started and Jay let himself get drawn into it.

There was always something that could be learned from watching other matches - no matter who was in them. A preciseness in a Young Lion's technique that he had left behind and could do with picking up again. Inspiration to be found in Yano's creative cleverness in outsmarting his opponents. And Tanahashi's dragon screw leg whip was as envy-inducing as ever. He drew the line at finding anything useful in EVIL's antics with Dick Togo, though. Using interference to win a match was fine but at least be interesting with it.

His jitteriness, though, got worse as the night went on. Anticipation kept building in his bones. Fuck, he wanted Naito to win in the worst way. He had been Jay's favorite wrestler before they had ever spoken and before their eyes had ever met. Before the longing and the yearning had taken up permanent residence deep in his heart - never to be removed. And now they were something more and it only made that need to see him win that much stronger. One more match to go and his fingers were tapping against the table.

And that was a cup of coffee next to them.

Jay looked up and around and there was Shingo Takagi with a matching cup in one hand as he dragged another random folding chair over with his other.

"Hey, pretty boy."

He was the only one here so did that mean he was 'pretty boy'? That was… odd. He wasn't that. And how had he found this spot in the first place? His face was curled up in irritation but Takagi had tracked him down - and brought him coffee - for a reason.

"What do you want?"

The measured hostility in his tone didn't seem to bother Takagi in the slightest. He just plopped down into the chair that he had set up right next to him, taking a peek at the screen in the process.

"Cranky, aren't you? Still not sleeping well? BUSHI probably has a few suggestions to help."

All of those words made sense in his brain but taken as a whole, Jay was completely confused. How did Takagi know he was having trouble sleeping? And BUSHI...

Maybe he can help you rest better. The bags under your eyes are atrocious.

Just how much observation had he been under? He wanted to bristle - could feel the urge rising up - but he did his best to force it back down. His interactions with Naito's familia lately had been… kind, if nothing else. There was no need for the Switchblade here. No need to pretend. He could just be.

"Thanks for the coffee, Takagi."

"It's Shingo." And he pointed at the coffee in question. "Drink up. You're going to need that."

It wasn't some sort of peace offering? He had assumed that it was that or an ice breaker. But Takagi… Shingo had brought him coffee because he thought he would need it. And that was kind too. What was with these people? They didn't know him - not really. He was just the soon-to-be-deposed leader of a rival faction that their friend happened to…

A hand on his shoulder shook him out of that line of thought and he looked over at Shingo. And there was the compassion he had seen in BUSHI's eyes during their so-called match. This time, it was matched with a wry smile and somehow that made it a little easier to swallow.

"BUSHI was right. We have work to do with you."

What the fuck?

Was he the hot topic of conversation at familia get-togethers or something?

"Is that what the coffee is for?"

It was a deflection - he knew that - but Jay wasn't actually sure what else Shingo could be referring to when he said that he would need the coffee. And the idea that Naito's familia sat around and discussed him made him a little uncomfortable. It wasn't like it was probably a pleasant conversation.

"No. Win or lose, you'll be up forever trying to get Naito to take care of himself. SANADA put extra shots of espresso in there for you."

Jay wasn't sure what was worse: the assumption that he would be spending the night with Naito or that finishing the coffee was likely to keep him awake for two days straight. His reactions to caffeine were occasionally… extreme. And taking a sip, the coffee was obviously strong but with his usual amount of sugar added. How did SANADA know how he took his coffee? This was also the first he had gotten wind of SANADA being part of any of this weirdness from the rest of his familia, which suited the seemingly quietest member of the group.

"SANADA, huh?"

And now Shingo was just looking at him like he was an idiot.

"It looked like Naito was the only reason you were still standing last night. He thought you might need the boost."

Out of everything that had happened in the past 24 hours, Jay couldn't remember Shingo or SANADA being part of any of it. Didn't recall even catching a glimpse of them anywhere.

"You saw that?"

What was with Naito's familia and patronizing pats on the head? First BUSHI and now Shingo.

"SANADA was guarding the door. You walked right past us, pretty boy."

Protesting being called 'pretty boy' almost seemed like a waste of time. The man was stubborn enough to not care about anything he said about it. But Jay's mind was more stuck on the idea that both Shingo and SANADA had been there too. Not even drinking more of the coffee cleared his head. Naito had been there to catch him. Hiromu had - under BUSHI's instructions and with help from a stuffed animal - found his bag in a supply closet. SANADA had been there to guard the door.

I just wanted to bring you somewhere I knew you'd be safe.

His safety hadn't just been Naito's concern. It had mattered to his family too.

"What were you doing?"

And that just made Shingo laugh. So loudly and so boisterously that Jay worried that it was going to attract the wrong kind of attention, even tucked away as they were.

"Someone had to be there to carry you if you keeled over." Despite trying to swat his arm away, Shingo patted him on the top of the head again anyway. "Naito would have tried to do it and then someone would have had to carry him."

Was that the way it was supposed to work?

Everyone just looking after one another?

He hadn't had that. Had never known it. Not ever. Jay had always kept to himself in the dojo - making friends but never letting them very close. Preferring to lick his wounds in private and take care of himself. And whether it was Gedo whispering in his ear or his own ambitions, he had never gotten close to anyone in CHAOS either. Bullet Club was different, in the beginning. He thought that it might be able to be something that it just wasn't. They might have been able to care about each other, even if none of them cared about him.

Shingo's hand was just resting on top of his head now and he couldn't help but look at his sad smile and the understanding in his eyes.

"We're family, pretty boy."

And he was almost afraid to ask the question. Almost.

"What does that make me then?"

Shingo's smile was somehow happier and more serious at the same time.

"Family-in-training."

And he had to look away. He just had to. And every little bit of progress that it felt like he had made in gaining some kind of control over everything that he was feeling disappeared in a heartbeat. This was ridiculous. What was he doing? Bonding with Shingo Takagi? For what? For something that could never last? Naito would never…

The hand on his head moved to his shoulder and it was heavier this time. A solid and steady grip. If nothing else, running away would take more effort now. And he could hear the exaggerated breathing coming from Shingo and it sounded bizarre.

"Breathe with the Dragon, pretty boy."

Jay wanted to snap back at him. He really wanted to. Holler with righteous indignation and complain loudly about the stupidity of the world. But instead, all he was capable of was laughing. Shingo was trying to help him and trying to mock him and all he could do was laugh. It wasn't the full thing - the unrestrained sort of laugh that only Naito could pull from him - but it was just as real.

"My name is Jay. Stop with the 'pretty boy' shit."

"No." Looking over, the expression on Shingo's face was unsurprisingly and predictably stubborn. "I've listened to Naito drunkenly talk about how pretty your eyes are for a long time. You're 'pretty boy'. Deal with it."

"He talks about me when he's drunk?"

And now his expression was of someone who had suffered over and over again.

"Drunk. Sober. Doesn't matter. He adores you."

Somehow, that simple sentiment - stated so plainly - settled underneath his ribs and travelled straight to his heart. Naito talked about him to others. To his family. Said things that made it clear how much he mattered to him. Jay wasn't quite sure what to do with that but it meant more than he could probably explain. And he liked the idea that Naito hadn't borne the weight of the gap between them all on his own. That they had been there to help him.

"I…"

Any attempt he was going to try and make to respond was interrupted by a sound he knew so very well.

Naito's music.

And his focus immediately shifted to the screen in front of them. Not that Naito would appear instantly - he never did and Jay adored that about him. The grin on his face was formed before he could realize it and stop it from happening. He wasn't supposed to smile at Naito's music. It was a terrible idea. He needed to… do nothing.

Not a single thing.

Shingo wasn't going to care if the sound of Naito's music made him smile. There was nothing to be hidden there. It was okay. Even if keeping the smile there made his hands shake a little, it was okay.

"You two make the exact same face."

"Huh?"

He really didn't want to turn his head to try and figure out what Shingo was talking about. That moment when Naito stepped out was one of his favorites.

"Every time we watch one of your matches, he always smiles just like that when your music hits."

Smiling was one thing. Laughing was another. But if he could not blush like that in front of Shingo Takagi, that would be nice. However, it was impossible to stop his cheeks from heating up and turning red. It wasn't just the confirmation that Naito probably really had seen as many of his matches as he could find. And it wasn't just that hearing his music made him smile too.

That smile was something that they had in common.

"Really?"

And the glimpse of Shingo's own smile that he could see out of the corner of his eye was something indulgent.

"Yes. It'll be nice to see more of it." Naito-san is going to be so much happier now. "Just stop challenging Tanahashi. Please."

That didn't make any sense. Jay wasn't sure what him facing off against Tanahashi had to do with anything. Naito finally made his entrance and he was distracted for a few minutes watching him take his sweet time to enter the ring. It never failed to be entertaining, even like this when he wasn't standing across from him. Ibushi's music started to play and Jay let his attention wander enough to look over at Shingo and ask him why.

"How come?"

"Because this last time turned him into a menace. Whenever you would show off your abs to Tana, you could see the steam come out of his ears."

And that one sentence made his brain completely freeze. That sounded like Naito was jealous and he wasn't quite sure how to handle that. Did that mean that Naito had wanted to be the one he was trying to get to look at his abs? Because that was what that sounded like. Just thinking about repeating those actions in front of Naito made Jay start blushing again. Enticing him into taking a closer look or even a gentle caress.

There was a snort next to him and Jay realized that the match had already started. Naito and Ibushi were maneuvering their way through the first lock-up and he hadn't even heard the bell ring. He felt Shingo staring at him with that wry smile on his face again.

"You did that on purpose."

"Maybe." The expression on Shingo's face shifted into something that he definitely didn't recognize. "I was curious. Naito is easier to read than you are." That was nice to hear, actually. But then, Shingo's eyes narrowed. "You are serious about him, aren't you?"

Jay had a sneaking suspicion that there was a threat layered under there somewhere. Explaining to Shingo - to anyone - about his feelings for Naito was an absolutely daunting concept. He was barely able to talk about them to Naito. It was pathetic and he knew that. But Shingo's concern was certainly more logical than the rest of the familia being as kind as they had been.

But he had no idea how to explain just how deeply intertwined in his heart Naito was without giving far too much of himself away. Revealing that weakness and vulnerability was out of the question. At the same time, though, he understood why Shingo was asking and there was a part of him that was glad that someone was looking out for Naito in this way too. It wasn't like there was anyone to care if Naito hurt him.

"Taichi. I hate it when he wrestles Taichi." Shingo looked confused and Jay knew that he needed to explain a little more. "He plays with him too much."

And now Shingo was laughing at him.

It didn't feel like he was mocking him this time - not really - but Jay felt self-conscious anyway. It was the truth, though. Watching him taunt and tease Taichi didn't just make his blood boil. It hurt. Yet another reminder that he was nothing to Naito. That everything between them was just a game and his part was easily played by anyone else.

"Jay." The laughing stopped and Shingo placed his hand on his shoulder again. "Believe in him."

Whatever expression must have been showing on his face had obviously given more away than he would like. That much was obvious. But Shingo's words were reassuring in their own way.

"I'm trying."

Shingo nodded once and they both turned their attention back to the match. This wasn't the first time that he had watched Naito and Ibushi face one another but it was the first time he had watched him wrestle since they became something more. And it was probably a good thing that Shingo had left his hand on his shoulder because it was likely the only reason that Jay was still in his chair.

Every kick. Every shot. Every bump.

Every time that Naito landed on his neck or clutched his knee.

Jay felt every single one of them.

That part wasn't really that unusual. It was one of the reasons that he tried his best to never let anyone see him watching Naito wrestle. There was no way that he could ever keep an entirely blank face. But it was the depth of those feelings that repeatedly took him by surprise as the match went on. This was the man that he held in his arms. Tenderly caressed and shared practice kisses with. And he was fighting and hurting and struggling and Jay felt it.

He knew that this was something that he was going to have to get used to. Wrestling wasn't just their job but an undeniable facet of who they both were. And maybe he would just have to find solace in that he would be allowed to pull Naito close after matches like this. That - as Shingo implied - it would be almost expected that he was the one that would be taking care of him.

Maybe that would be enough to help settle his heart next time.

But this time?

There will be other G1s. There is only one you.

He wanted Naito to win this one. To beat Ibushi - even if he wasn't that bad of a person. To hold the flag and the trophy. What if he was too tired to match Ibushi step for step? What if he really could have used extra time asleep or resting instead of keeping him company? Jay wondered if all of the emotional upheaval in the past 24 hours - everything that gave him courage - had weakened Naito. Was it too much to endure and still be able to beat Ibushi? What if his weaknesses had cost Naito the ability to win the G1?

Believe in him.

Naito had said that he would win.

So he watched as they battled. Each time Jay thought Ibushi might have the upper hand, it seemed like Naito fought that much harder. All of the focus and all of the aggression that Jay had seen in him in his previous matches this tournament was there in full force. Each comeback, Naito seemed a little stronger and he felt Shingo's grip on his shoulder tighten. Neither of them said a word to the other but it felt like mutual support nonetheless. Each time Naito kicked out of a cover attempt, he could hear Shingo's sharp intake of breath. Whether or not he made the same noise, Jay had no idea. He wasn't even sure if he was breathing at this point.

With enough experience, you could see the end of a match coming. When it was reaching that crescendo that would determine who walked away victorious and who walked away in defeat. The same thing happened when you were in the match itself. A honed ability to read the ebb and flow. To know exactly where and when and how to strike that final blow.

There.

The Destino was perfect. One of the best Jay had ever seen him hit and he found himself willing Ibushi's shoulders to just stay down.

One.

Two.

Three.

The bell rang, the crowd cheered in spite of themselves, and he and Shingo let out almost identical shouts of excitement. Pure joy rushed through his veins more rapidly than he had ever known. Naito had done it.

He had won - just like he said he would. The winner of this G1.

Shingo stood up from his chair and immediately started to hurry away. That made sense. The familia were probably going to celebrate with Naito. Maybe even go out to the ring and be there with him. Jay turned off his laptop and slipped it into his backpack. Somehow, he had managed to finish the cup of coffee without realizing it so he should look for a trash can on his way out. He probably needed to talk to an official or two as well before he left. There were things that he needed to straighten out about his matches and any future cards.

"You coming or what?"

There was Shingo standing there in the hallway, confusion all over his face. But it didn't make any sense. He could meet up with Naito later. Back at their hotel or something. It wasn't necessarily what he wanted but it was fine. The absolute last thing he wanted to do was to be in the way.

"Later. I don't belong…"

And Shingo just shook his head.

"Don't you realize how happy Naito would be if you were there waiting for him too?"

Jay could almost picture the smile. Just about. Soft and warm and matched with a quiet joy in his eyes. And he wanted to see it. He wanted to be the reason that Naito smiled like that. Be a tiny part of a moment - an achievement - with him. It was okay. It was.

"I want to but …" Shingo rolled his eyes and walked back over to him. And he barely had time to grab his backpack by a single shoulder strap as he was bodily dragged toward the hallway, arms and legs flailing. "Fucking hell, Shingo."

The sound of laughter echoed off the concrete walls as he pulled himself out of Shingo's grasp and started to walk along beside him.

"You'll get used to it, pretty boy."

***

 

Chapter Text

***

There were a lot of people in the hallways.

Lingering and loitering and mingling. Jay supposed it made sense. Tonight was the last night of the G1 and the tournament usually required more backstage support. And this year, it was a tournament that Naito had won.

Naito had won.

He had said he would and he had. There was a sort of happiness building up inside of him that was entirely new. It was joy mixed with pride and warmth and relief. Naito had won - Jay hadn't cost him such a victory with everything that had happened between them. And it was okay to be happy that he had. Nothing had to remain hidden about that joy. He was going to be allowed to say something.

How many times before had he wanted to congratulate Naito on a victory? Take care of him after a long match?

So many words bitten back. So many things pushed back down over and over again. Sentiments and gentleness that Naito could never, ever want. Weakness and softness that Bullet Club could never be allowed to see.

But this time, it wasn't Gedo in his ear or hovering over his shoulder.

Shingo was walking beside him - their strides hurried and long. Jay really had buried himself pretty deep back in the building so they had a little ways to go. But it hadn't been his intention to meet up with Naito directly after his match. Had assumed they would get in-touch later - after Naito had celebrated with everyone else. And he definitely had had no idea that one of Naito's familia would try and seek him out. They were being unexpectedly kind to him. It was something uncomfortable and something that he wanted to soak up all at the same time.

There really were a lot of people nearby.

How many of them had noticed he and Shingo walking side-by-side? No violence or arguing between them but simply matching expressions of determination and happiness. What would he do if they came across any members of Bullet Club? Was this the right moment for that confrontation? The last thing he wanted to do was take anything away from Naito. He had earned his glory and he deserved to bask in it for as long as he wanted.

And he really and truly didn't want to get Naito and his familia involved in his own issues with Bullet Club. That was his problem to handle - and his alone. Even the vague image of Naito getting hurt because Bullet Club went after him turned his stomach. There had to be a way to keep everything separated. He had handled everything with Bullet Club on his own up until now. It needed to stay that way.

People that they passed were mostly faceless blurs - Shingo walked faster than he did but Jay refused to fall behind. Despite the pace, he was able to see Taguchi looking at the pair of them oddly and it was hard to not smirk in response as they passed by. Finlay's glare probably could have been felt no matter how quickly they were walking - eyes staring daggers into his back until they turned the corner.

Jay could see the other members of Naito's familia at the other end of the hallway, crowded around the exit from the interview room. But that wasn't quite what had his attention. With a wave, he encouraged Shingo to keep walking, which - after yet another pat on the head - he did.

"Ibushi?"

He was leaning up against the wall, half bent over and drenched in sweat. Jay assumed that this was as far as he had gotten which was understandable. However, why wasn't there anyone to keep an eye on him? It was a painfully familiar sight - an experience that he knew all too well - and he couldn't stop himself from walking closer.

Kota Ibushi had a weird obsession with godhood and he was seemingly kind of an idiot that liked to murder people and his own neck. But he wasn't that bad of a person. He'd found a moment of kindness for a rival and was a brilliant wrestler - not that Jay was ever going to tell him that part. It wasn't like Ibushi was him and everything that he had done to himself - everything that he lacked - that meant he had stood against that wall all alone so many times.

Win or lose, he shouldn't be by himself.

"Ibushi?"

This time, he responded by looking at him with a blank but tired look on his face. Jay took another step closer and pulled his water bottle out of his backpack, holding it out to him.

"Here." Ibushi just looked at it skeptically and Jay didn't really blame him. "It's not fucking poison, okay?"

And there was that tiny smile again and it was still a little disturbing. But Ibushi took the water bottle from his hand, gulping down its contents in long, slow drinks. Jay felt bad looking at him. He had just been rooting for him to lose, after all. But hopefully, Ibushi didn't ask him any questions about that part. It wasn't like he appeared to be in any shape to do much of anything. Idly, Jay wondered if Shingo would be willing to carry him if he keeled over. Would it be weird to ask?

"Concern makes your face look funny."

Self-consciousness immediately rushed through him and Jay tried to pull on the Switchblade to protect himself. Naito and his familia was one thing - and even that was difficult - but letting Kota Fucking Ibushi inadvertently see past that mask of his was too much.

But it wasn't there.

Somewhere in the past 24 hours, it had cracked and crumbled beyond repair. The pieces scattered through Naito's locker room and across the tiny spaces between them as they slept. What did he do now? Who was he now?

Panic tried to set in but Ibushi could barely stand and there was no one to help him. There was something steadying about that. He could panic later. Much later. There was no way he was bothering Naito with more of his pathetic emotional instability tonight of all nights.

"I'm out of practice. Besides, you look half-dead."

That tiny smile widened just a little as if Ibushi had taken that as a compliment. That was better than mocking him, Jay supposed. It was still weird, though. He was standing a little more upright but Jay could tell that it was costing him. There was a shakiness to his limbs that had him looking down the hallway at the cluster of Naito's familia to make sure that Shingo was still there.

"I knew I would." That made sense. It was the G1 Finals. "Just like I knew I would lose."

Jay knew that feeling.

He knew exactly what Ibushi was talking about. It had been there when they had faced off. Had known that loss was coming in his very bones. It was the worst feeling but that didn't explain how or why Ibushi had felt it and had it come true. Maybe something was wrong but that didn't quite match up with the pain he saw in Ibushi's eyes. That wasn't physical - no matter how much he was hurting right now.

The urge to comfort him was sudden and even more uncomfortable. That wasn't who he was. That wasn't who he had been in a long, long time. But that urge rose up in him, nonetheless.

"You did?" A grimace crossed his face and Jay wasn't sure which one of them was more surprised at the hand he put on Ibushi's shoulder. "How?"

Jay hadn't intended to ask - not really - but the question had slipped out anyway. He had known that losing was inevitable from their first lock-up. Had felt it in his aching muscles and exhausted mind. There hadn't been enough left in him to beat Ibushi yesterday. Insomnia and heartache had finally caught up with him.

But Ibushi's eyes peered at the gathering of Naito's familia down the hallway, lingering for a moment before returning to look at him. And there was something piercing and knowing in that gaze.

"Love isn't a weakness." Ibushi's eyes went distant with a remembered ache and Jay felt that odd urge to comfort him again. "It's a strength."

Love.

Love.

Love.

The word was simple enough but he had never - ever - associated it with himself. And Jay had done everything that he could to avoid thinking of Tetsuya Naito and such a thing. But that was exactly what Ibushi was referencing. Somehow - for some reason - Kota Ibushi knew what Naito meant to him. Had seen something or heard something. Was that another pair of eyes that he had missed yesterday? But his affection for Naito shouldn't have had any effect on his match with him. Unless that wasn't quite what Ibushi was talking about. Not him and love.

But Naito.

Naito being stronger because of him.

Unbeatable on this night because of their love.

That was impossible. It couldn't possibly be true. Couldn't possibly be real - despite what his own heart might claim.

And Ibushi was looking at him so fucking calmly as if he hadn't just upended Jay's entire world. Love was impossible. Didn't he know that? Didn't he know who he was talking to? And how had he seen that? How exposed were they? How many mistakes had he made? Everything was starting to spin and spiral.

"Jay White." But the sound of his name slowed his mind enough so that he could force it to focus on Ibushi again. "Bullet Club didn't suit your heart either, did it?"

There was an odd and searching look on his face. Once again, Kota Fucking Ibushi had paid more attention to him than so many others. But as a part of himself happily reminded him, not more than everyone.

"Just Jay is fine. And no, it didn't."

That was the first time that he had referred to himself and Bullet Club as being something that was in the past and it stung - although not as deeply as it probably should have. And his brain couldn't quite linger on the thought. Not with the way Ibushi was a little more bent over and the strain was starting to become visible on his face.

With another step closer, he shifted his positioning just enough so he could help him stay up right. Not too close - he had been the Switchblade for so long and it wasn't like anyone was going to forget that instantly or ever. But Ibushi didn't flinch. Maybe gods had no reason to be afraid of a broken knife.

"It'll be okay."

Ibushi's voice was quiet but Jay heard him easily. And the words reminded him of something else Ibushi must have seen and known before: trying to put your heart back together again after you had torn it to pieces.

"Thanks, man." Jay took a closer look at Ibushi. "What about you?"

"I need more ice packs."

A doctor, some medication, at least eight hours of sleep, more than a few days off and more ice packs - in his opinion. But out of those, Jay knew that he could at least help him get started with a few of them. A quick look around and he found exactly what he needed.

"Hey! You two!" The two young men he was looking at were staring at him oddly but those haircuts and that gear was unmistakable. "Yes, you two. Young boys!" They were still just staring at not moving. "No, I don't know your names yet. Get over here!"

Ibushi's chuckle next to his ear was soft but weak and Jay found himself hoping that it was only the long match causing that. The pair of them finally walked over to him, eyes wide with what was probably fear. Maybe he was hollering a bit too loudly but they would get used to it.

"See him?" He gestured at Ibushi with his free hand as they stared at him in unison. "Make sure he gets to the doctor. Do not let him leave your sight. Understood?" Were they even blinking? "Nod so I know you heard me." Only one of them nodded and Jay was semi-disappointed. "Fuck, I miss Yuya. At least he knew how to do his job."

Ibushi took a couple of staggered steps over to the two Young Lions. Jay knew that eventually he was going to have to learn their names but not right now. Tonight was for making sure Ibushi didn't faceplant somewhere and for Naito. There was a Young Lion on each side of him now, holding him upright and the sight tugged at those remnants of Jay's heart.

"Ibushi?"

As he turned to look at him, Jay pulled off his backpack and reached inside to get out a piece of paper and a pen. He felt a little stupid and more than a little self-conscious as he used the wall as a solid surface to write on. But he had been there - been all alone in that hallway before - and it was easier to remember that with the Switchblade shattered across the night.

"Here." He took the paper and shoved it into Ibushi's hand. "That's my number if you need anything."

And Jay considered it a minor victory when Ibushi didn't just let the scrap of paper fall to the floor. Instead, he gripped it in his fist and nodded with a smile that seemed tired but genuine. Irritatingly, it took more than a few oversized hand gestures to get the Young Lions to start guiding Ibushi down the hallway and toward the doctor but he stopped himself from yelling at them.

For a moment, he stood completely still and just tried to breathe. When was the last time he had done anything like that? Tried to be kind for no reason where someone could see. And the hallways weren't empty. Anyone around them could see what he had done. Could see his weakness.

Love isn't a weakness.

Naito's familia was still gathered at the other end of the hallway - Naito was probably about done with the in-ring posing - but BUSHI was watching him with a small half-smile.

Don't you realize how happy Naito would be if you were there waiting for him too?

Shingo was staring at him with that bemused expression on his face again. And now SANADA had turned to look at him too, glancing around - probably at Hiromu dancing next to him - before stepping a little bit to one side. And his uncertain heart lurched and ached and rejoiced. He had made room. Made a space in that circle of theirs for him.

It's a strength.

"Why are you so slow, pretty boy?!"

And with a smile on his face, Jay walked toward them.

***

Chapter Text

***

SANADA really had made space for him.

There was this gap in that circle of Naito's familia. It was there waiting for him, even if stepping into it felt weirdly uncomfortable. A square of concrete shouldn't be so odd but this one was. Jay knew that no one here was going to attack him but they still could so easily cast him out. It was as if this was an initial audition and he had no idea how to pass through to the next round. How simple would it be for them to tell Naito that he wasn't worth his time?

But Shingo was looking at him like he was sorely tempted to pat him on the head again and BUSHI was sizing him up like he doubted that Jay was properly hydrated. And there really wasn't anything threatening about that. Hiromu had seemingly yet to notice that he was there - still dancing with a grin on his face - and Jay wasn't sure how to read SANADA's expression. It was that same one he almost always had - a blank face that made him think that SANADA wasn't sure if he had left the oven on.

So Jay just tried to stand as still as he could and take up as little space as possible. It was nice that they weren't going to immediately reject him so he could focus on Naito. He had never done this before. Congratulating Tama and Tanga on reclaiming the tag belts wasn't exactly the same thing. By every indication, Naito might actually want to hear his words - might actually want to see him standing here. It would be something far different than being laughed at and brushed aside, at any rate.

Even Naito just looking him in the eyes and nodding would be something to be treasured.

It was more difficult to stand here than he expected it would be, though, and he had known that it would be hard. His hands were clenched into fists at his sides - the tension a necessary outlet. It almost helped to have Naito's familia around him. Jay doubted that he would have been here on his own.

Don't you realize how happy Naito would be if you were there waiting for him too?

There was so much that he was taking on faith. That Shingo was right. That his own heart wasn't lying to him. He promised Naito that he would stay but Naito didn't even know that he was here. It would be easy to walk away, if the others allowed it. If he wasn't here, then he wouldn't have to see Naito look unimpressed or confused at the sight of him. But everything that had happened between them in the past day was such a strong counter-argument to such thinking. It would be far more difficult to leave than that part of himself believed.

Jay wanted to stay.

He wanted to see Naito smile.

It was all so much. Having his affection so clear and easy for everyone to see. There were others mingling and wandering in the hallway - production staff and such people - so it wasn't just the group of them. But the fact that Jay was standing with Naito's familia had to have been noted by someone.

What if that piece of knowledge got back to Bullet Club?

What if they took the opportunity to choose this moment to go after him - ruining so much with what lay between him and them?

Jay couldn't stop himself from looking around. This spot was suddenly too open to be comfortable at all. Walking away - disassociating himself - made the most sense. He was painting a target on Naito's familia - on Naito - by standing here and he clenched his hands even tighter. He wasn't worth the sort of hell that Bullet Club could so easily bring down on their heads. They were nice. They didn't deserve that. His issues with his… former… faction were his and his alone.

But the now-almost familiar hand on his shoulder was enough to catch his attention.

"Stop worrying, pretty boy. If your idiots show up, we'll deal with them."

He wasn't quite sure which was worse: Shingo calling him 'pretty boy' where other people could hear him or the fact that he had effortlessly put together what was bothering him. And he definitely didn't know how comfortable he was with the idea of Shingo (or any of the rest of them) facing down Bullet Club alongside him. Not counting the still-dancing Hiromu, Naito's familia was staring at him with almost identical stubborn looks on their faces. If it came down to it, there had to be a way to lead Bullet Club away from them. Draw their attention or prolong a violent confrontation until he was facing them on his own.

That was his temporary plan, then.

"They're not my idiots."

Disavowing a group that he had been the leader of still felt wrong on his tongue. It probably would for a while. Ibushi had taken it in stride, though, which had helped a little bit. He needed to draw that line in the sand but not tonight. Tonight belonged to Naito. He - they - just needed to get past this one night and then he could step to Bullet Club. Pick a battlefield that kept Naito and his familia safe. It was his battle. Not theirs.

"Good."

SANADA speaking to him honestly took Jay by surprise but it was a pleasant sort of surprise. And it was a single word of approval which tugged at his heart a bit too. Bullet Club wasn't exactly a popular faction backstage but this - all of this - felt more like approval of his own choices. Of him. And it was a little easier to unclench his fists and wiggle his fingers briefly.

"Do they know that?"

There was something unnerving about BUSHI's gaze. It was understanding and piercing in equal measure. The mask somehow only amplified the effect. But it looked like BUSHI wasn't even going to blink until Jay responded to him.

"No."

There wasn't as much strength behind his answer as there probably should be but he never spoke about things like this out loud. For all of his hollering and that pathetic moment after Wrestle Kingdom, he rarely talked about the things that were truly bothering him. It was hard to force the words up and out when he had kept them locked away for so long.

Be patient with yourself, mi cariño.

BUSHI was still staring at him but that compassion was back in his eyes. Sadness in his small half-smile. He - everyone around him - knew what had yet to happen. The division between him and Bullet Club wasn't going to be settled quickly with a few words and a parting handshake. It was going to be a fight - a battle. Painful and drawn out. They - Tama, EVIL, Gedo and who knows who else - were going to say and do things to him designed to hurt and he wasn't sure if he was ready for it.

Or more precisely, if he was ready to endure that final betrayal and not withdraw completely. But Shingo's hand was still on his shoulder and BUSHI was nodding encouragingly. And Naito. If there was anything that he could still believe in, it was him. That Naito would be there to hold his hand when that battle was done.

And even from this vantage point, the sound of Naito's voice made him smile.

He was talking to the reporters and he sounded okay. Obviously out of breath but he didn't sound hurt. There was a different cadence to his voice when he was in true pain. Jay supposed maybe all of that time listening to Naito's interviews and promos had helped him notice that. And just like it had been with Shingo earlier, keeping that smile on his face took effort. How long was it going to take for his brain to understand that it was all right if someone saw him smile because of Tetsuya Naito? Not a single person standing or dancing near him was going to judge him poorly for liking the sound of Naito's voice.

"How could I not win after finally holding my destino?"

And his voice was perfectly clear and easy for all of them to hear. But that sentence made little sense. Maybe Naito had gotten hurt? Why in the fuck was he talking about his destino being something that he could hold? With a quick glance around, he expected to see his familia looking concerned too. But everyone was still just staring at him. Was there some nuance in the Japanese that he just wasn't picking up?

"Naito-san is talking about his Jay!"

Oh.

Oh.

Hiromu had apparently stopped dancing at some point and was now standing right in front of him with a giant grin on his face. But Jay couldn't quite see him clearly. His mind didn't want to function quite right. That was what he meant, wasn't it? Naito was talking about him. The destiny that he had finally held was him.

And his heart didn't know what to do with that.

Jay could feel the rest of Naito's familia smiling at him but he didn't dare look. There were only a handful of people that would understand or even pay attention to the reference and they were all right here. But that didn't matter. Not really. Naito had spoken of him out loud - for anyone to hear. Had referred to him as something good in his life. His destino.

How many times had he said such things to Naito? How many times had he said that they were meant to be - that they were each other's destiny?

Even if it had been his yearning and lonely heart sneaking past the Switchblade and speaking for him, Jay had still said the words. Spoke them in interviews and promos and directly to Naito's face. Always pathetically hoping for a response. The recognition that his place in Naito's life belonged to him and him alone. That even if he was nothing to Naito's heart, he was still enough to be his greatest rival.

An acknowledgement that never came. Until tonight.

This wasn't the time or the place for those pitiful tears of his. The ones that it was barely fine for Naito to see - and wipe away with so much gentleness. But Naito had attributed his victory to finally holding him and keeping those tears at bay required yet more effort. Shingo's hand on his shoulder tightened - almost painfully so - and Jay knew that he was once again more exposed than he would like to be. But it would be okay. This was Naito's familia. The people that he cared about. The people that cared about him. It would be okay.

"You two need better nicknames for each other."

It was probably more surprising that SANADA was - gently - making fun of him than it probably should be. But it was still hard to not lash back out. Complain and rant and rave. It was an ingrained reflex at this point. He didn't need to be the Switchblade anymore. He wasn't even sure how much of that part of himself was still lurking at the edges - watching and waiting. And he had no idea how to be Jamie or even who that was. But that discovery - if he ever found the courage to make it - would involve the safety of Naito's arms. A place he hadn't even managed to sleep yet. But BUSHI was staring at him again. The gaze of expectation.

"That's not what he calls me."

Hiromu's grin grew even bigger and that was Shingo's amused chuckle again. Maybe this place in-between wasn't so bad.

And it got even better as the noise increased near the doorway and Jay realized that Naito's interview was over.

He was limping but it wasn't bad enough that he couldn't walk on his own. And he looked tired and triumphant and the only thing Jay wanted to do was go to him. But his feet wouldn't move. He didn't want to be in the way. Shingo's hand had already fallen away from his shoulder and BUSHI and SANADA had moved closer. Hiromu was literally pulling the G1 trophy out of Naito's hands and he couldn't help but snicker.

"Naito-san! Give me the trophy. You're too mean to trophies."

Did trophies get names like stuffed animals too?

If nothing else happened in this moment, being able to see Naito like this was worth every bit of effort it had taken him to stay right where he was. He had never seen this before. Naito happily victorious. If Jay had been this close to this sort of moment, it had been paired with his own defeat. His own failure. This was so much better. His smile was so much sweeter when he could see it clearly.

But that smile changed as soon as their eyes met - as soon as he realized that Jay was there too.

For a long moment, everything felt like it had gone wrong. Naito's expression went completely blank and Jay had to fight the urge - the need - to run. To leave. He wasn't supposed to look like that. He was supposed to be happy to see him. Jay knew that face. That was the face he had seen every time Naito ignored him - brushed him aside. That panic twisted around inside of him and hiding it from view took almost everything he had - every muscle tensed so hard that he felt himself vibrating.

"Jay…"

And then it was as if saying his name out loud was all that the rest of him was waiting for. Something cracked and that tranquilo mask fell completely away until it revealed Naito's heart shining out at him through his eyes. His smile was softer than even his heart had dared imagine it might be. Gentle and warm and so full of affection that Jay was worried that he was going to start crying again. He needed to get that under control but the way Naito was looking at him was…

I'm not leaving you all alone ever again. I promise.

My brave, sweet Jay.

Love isn't a weakness. It's a strength.

Love.

Naito took a step forward before he paused - caution in the tilt of his head - and Jay did his best to smile. His own body was paralyzed - too drained to take a single step. But his weak little smile was enough to encourage Naito. Enough to tell him that it was okay because he knew Jay. Naito didn't break eye contact as he came even closer. Not even blinking or wavering. His smile kept getting softer, though, and Jay felt his own doing the same.

It was okay to smile.

Arms wrapped around him, pulling him close without hesitation. Making his own body move in response was easier than so many other things tonight. Holding Naito felt so close to natural that it gave Jay a taste of the kind of hope he had nearly forgotten. As soon as his fingers had touched his sweat-soaked skin, his arms had completed the motion - no forced input from him required. It was soothing and settling and warm.

Their embrace wasn't the desperate clinging thing it had been last night in this same building. And they weren't pressed quite as close as they probably would have been if they were alone. But it was romantically affectionate, even if Jay was pretty sure that he could hear Hiromu muttering about being disappointed they didn't kiss. Especially as Naito held him just a little tighter and rested his head against the crook of his neck.

"Mi cariño…" Naito's voice was pitched low for only him to hear. "You stayed."

Of course Naito knew how hard standing here had been. Of course he did. But that wasn't so bad. Jay resisted the urge to kiss the side of his head - that was too much and too far - but he needed to say something. He had wanted to so many times before. Tell him well done or good job. Tell him how good of a wrestler he was to his face. But his heart wanted something more and so many things were easier to believe when Naito's arms were holding him close.

"I promised, remember?" Jay kept his voice just as quiet - the words were only for him. "Congratulations, Tetsuya."

***

Chapter Text

***

Naito had insisted on going back to his hotel room.

Jay wasn't quite sure why - Naito's own room seemed much more comfortable than his own - but he didn't want to argue with him. Naito had won the G1 - something so few people had accomplished in their careers - and instead of celebrating by going out or staying in with his familia, he was tucked against Jay's side with a hand around his waist as he opened the door. He didn't know if he needed the support but that would make sense. The G1 was a brutal, taxing thing that had to be difficult on his knees. And he was honestly still slightly stunned by the fact that Natio would show such a thing to him.

Their bags were unceremoniously tossed to the side again, although Jay was more careful with his backpack since his laptop was in there. For a moment, he considered kneeling down to remove Naito's shoes for him but that felt like a step too far. Closer than they actually were yet. But he listened carefully for him to make any sort of sound of discomfort or distress anyway. Maybe Naito would ask him for help? It was doubtful but it would be nice.

However, what truly mattered was that tonight was Naito's night. He should be doing something that he wanted to do and enjoying himself. Jay knew that he needed to keep his turbulent emotions to himself. Use that failed mask of his to hide them away. The absolute last thing that Naito needed to be dealing with on the night that he had become G1 champion was him. It was simply a matter of holding himself together until Naito left for the night. And he could do that for Naito. He could.

It had taken them too long to exit the arena for his liking. His nerves too battered to tolerate standing there with Naito leaning against him as his familia hovered around them. And Jay was certain that they had pre-coordinated about Naito coming back to the hotel with him. No one had even tried to get him to go out to a bar or something. It had just been a quiet affair of packing up as Jay had lingering outside of their locker room door. Hiromu still hadn't given Naito the trophy back but he was pretty sure that he had seen BUSHI prying it out of his hands at one point.

Jay could almost imagine the conversation that he must have missed. Naito carefully explaining to his familia that he should probably spend a bit of time with Jay tonight instead of going out and doing something with them. Or maybe since Naito could see through him so easily, he felt obligated to look after Jay and those battered nerves of his. It didn't make any sense, otherwise, why he was here. Jay remembered the celebrations at Area 51 that Tama and Tanga had held court over after various Bullet Club victories. Naito should be going out and having fun like that instead of being stuck with him. He wouldn't be surprised if Shingo could drink everyone under the table.

But Naito was with him - still leaning against him as if he was soaking up every little of physical contact that he could. That warmth was ever-present, loud and constant as if making up for every time that he had sworn to himself that it was false. Jay liked him being close like this. No words spoken - just the two of them together. It made him feel selfish in a way. Naito should be somewhere else but Jay wanted him here. Wanted him to always be there. To always be with him.

"Mi cariño…"

My darling.

It was still - and probably would be for a while - astounding to him that Naito thought of him like that. Said something like that to him so easily - as if the words had been sitting there on the tip of his tongue for days and weeks and months just waiting for Jay's permission to say them. There were so many things that he wanted to say to Naito in return, even simple and tiny things. But figuring out how to give them a voice was so, so hard. Fuck, even just standing there with his familia - vulnerable and exposed - had taken so much out of him. Drained him dry.

But that wasn't for tonight.

On a different night - maybe - he could try and explain to Naito about those struggles. Of that discovery of the shattered Switchblade mask. Of reaching out to Ibushi, unburying his compassion. Or tell him about what it had felt like to stand there in the spot that SANADA had made for him and feel Shingo's hand on his shoulder. And see Hiromu's grin and BUSHI's concern. That underneath the discomfort and the fear… it had felt good.

"Jay?"

Somehow, he had missed Naito coming around until he was standing in front of him. The depths of worry in those eyes was almost overwhelming. Naito should be dancing with joy - brilliantly happy over such an amazing accomplishment. Instead, he was tending to Jay's jagged edges and he was already failing him.

"I'm sorry. I got lost in thought. Do you need something?"

And now Naito looked confused.

"Need?"

This was something that he could do. He could. He knew that. There had to be things that Naito needed after a match like that. If he wasn't going to disappear to celebrate quite yet, Jay could make sure that he was okay.

"Do you need an ice pack or something?" A thought occurred to him. "Or are you hungry? I can still order room service, I think. Or I could get something delivered. When was the last time you ate?"

His expression altered again - Naito's smile becoming soft and indulgent. It was something that was nice to see even if it didn't make much sense. But it was more understandable than the way his thumb was out-of-nowhere gently caressing Jay's cheek.

"Shhh…" And the warmth in his eyes was tender. "I'm good, Jay. I don't need anything other than what's in front of me."

Him.

Naito meant him.

How could he so easily say things like that?

It wasn't fair. It wasn't fair to Naito. He deserved someone better. He truly did. But he was here with him and Jay wanted each and every single moment that he could have. There was a part of his mind mocking him with impossibilities and deadlines. That none of this tiny miracle could last. But his heart was just a little louder. Naito's hand squeezing his in his sleep and drunkenly telling his familia about his 'pretty' eyes was just a little stronger. But it was a battle.

It was a fight.

"Please stay with me." Naito's words were whisper-soft but they refocused his attention quickly. "Please don't hide."

Jay did his best to plaster a believable smile on his face. It didn't matter that it was highly likely that Naito could see through it easily. The effort mattered. Tonight wasn't about him. It wasn't a night for his patheticness. His weakness.

Love isn't a weakness.

Tonight wasn't about that emotion. About how long his heart had beat with Naito's name in each thump. Or about how badly he just wanted to wrap himself up in every display of tender affection. Or about how that part of him almost needed to collapse and let Naito hold each shattered piece.

Tonight was for Naito.

"I'm not, Naito. It's just…"

"Do you really think that I can't feel how tightly you're holding yourself?" His thumb moved upward and brushed along the corner of his eye. "Or see the tension in your eyes?"

His voice was far softer than his words but they were piercing nonetheless. All the time he had felt invisible to Naito when in actuality he had been so seen. Unwanted but wanted. False but real.

"I…" Jay needed to swallow past the odd lump in his throat. "I'm fine."

And that hurt.

But not him. Naito. He looked hurt. It was there in his sudden half-frown and the tightness of his own expression. Jay wasn't trying to cause that. He really wasn't. All he wanted to do was to keep Naito at bay until he left. There would be time and space for him to release the strain of staying later. After he had gone, Jay could curl up in bed - knees pulled against his chest - and let go of the exhaustion then. It wasn't something that Naito needed to deal with tonight of all nights.

"No… you're not." Naito's hands moved until they were rubbing up and down his upper arms as if he was trying to work away some of that tension. "It's okay. It's just us now. You can let it go."

That was it.

That was why Naito was here with him. He had come back to his hotel room to help him. It was as sweet as he apparently thought Jay was. The smile on his face grew to be a bit more genuine.

"Not tonight, Naito."

There was an inexplicable but noticeable wince that further tainted Naito's expression. That was an odd sight.

"Don't do this, mi cariño." And strain of a different type in his voice. "Please don't try to hide from me. You said there was room for me in your hiding place. You promised."

Naito's voice cracked along with Jay's resolve to keep things to himself. He had promised. And it was a promise that he wanted to keep with every part of Jamie that had endured this long. His eyes closed and his head fell. Fuck, he was a disppointment already, wasn't he? Failure was never an option.

"Naito…"

There was that sound of pained anguish again.

"You don't have to say anything." And now he was being so careful with him again. "Just let me hold your hand." Jay's head was shaking even before Naito continued. "You've been doing so good, Jay."

He wasn't. He really wasn't. He was making Naito deal with his nonsense on a night that belonged to him. Maybe he should just say that he was tired - which wasn't far from the truth - and let Naito leave for the night.

"Not really, I…"

His mind briefly froze and his mind completely stopped moving as Naito's thumb ever-so-slightly rested on his lips for a moment.

"You have been. You are." That worry was back in Naito's voice and Jay wished he knew how to make it disappear. "Let me stay with you. Don't push me away. Not tonight."

"Tonight?" Jay couldn't do anything but scoff. "You won the G1, Naito. You should be out celebrating." Naito made the tiniest little grunt and the words came out anyway. "You shouldn't feel like you have to put up with my…"

His voice trailed off as Jay realized that he had seen the look on Naito's face once before. It felt so long ago now with everything that had happened - everything that had started to change. He had told Naito that he knew that he meant nothing to him. It was that same look of anguish and blossoming comprehension. That urge to run surged through him - stronger than ever before - but there was nowhere to go. Nowhere to run that didn't involve leaving Naito behind. And he didn't want to.

He had made a promise.

But he was so tired.

No mask to call upon. Nothing to hide behind. Caring about people when anyone could see. Letting his guard down far enough to smile his actual smile. It was all overwhelming and exhausting. Any courage he possessed was long since depleted. And the anguish had been building between them - his and Naito's.

And he was tired and weak and there was only one thing he wanted.

The instant he laid his head on Naito's shoulder, it was easier to breathe. The moment Naito's arms wrapped around him and pulled him into a tight embrace, it became easier to just be.

"Pobrecito…"

Naito's voice was so soft and the only thing that kept tears from forming in his eyes was the fact that Jay wasn't sure if he had any more to cry. He tried to stop himself from slumping against Naito - the man had wrestled a G1 Finals match tonight - but his hold on him was so secure that it felt like it would be possible to finally collapse. That it was safe. The Switchblade had turned to dust and Jamie was there - exposed amidst the debris. But he didn't want to do that to Naito. Not tonight. Maybe on a different night if dealing with him wasn't too much. Slowly, Jay registered that the hand rubbing soothing circles into his back and he leaned into Naito just a little more - almost against his will.

"That's it. Just like that, Jay." He understood Naito's words but they made little sense. "I've got you, mi cariño."

He was the one falling apart but Naito was the one trembling. What if he was hurt and refusing to say anything because Jay was having issues again? He had seemed fine after his post-match interview - weary and aching but okay. Could he have been hiding an injury from him, the doctors, and his familia? How had he gotten something like that past BUSHI?

"Naito…"

And there was that tiny pained sound again and Jay's words stuck in his throat. He was hurting Naito somehow. Were his ribs sore or did he have a headache? Jay tried to pull back so he could see his face and ask but his hold was steadfast. It would take force to move away from Naito and that might make things worse. Another tug just resulted in their embrace becoming tighter and that trembling getting stronger.

"No, no, no. Please don't do that. Hold on to me as tightly as you need to."

Naito's hand carefully stroked along the side of his head and Jay bit down on his lip to keep from whimpering. The motion continued - slow and soothing - as Naito held him close. And he had a feeling that he would stand there all night in this embrace if Jay needed him to. When was the last time that he had let himself need someone for anything? Even something small? He wasn't sure. He really wasn't. Jay had tried so hard to never need anything from anyone. Hadn't asked for a ride or a couch to sleep on. If he was ever going to be Naito's equal, then he needed to do it on his own.

But this was something so different that his mind still wasn't quite sure how to do any of it.

They were together and Naito called him his darling and looked at him like that. That familia of his had encouraged him to stand amongst them tonight. A single caress from Naito was enough to remind how little warmth and affection he had known in these past few years and it was as if his very soul was starving for such things even as they made him yet more uncertain. All this time, he had wanted to be enough for Tetsuya Naito. Now the only thing he could think was that he was too much.

"I'm sorry." There was a tiny hitch in Naito's breathing. "I didn't want to ruin your night with my…"

Jay couldn't finish his sentence because Naito started to pull back slightly - hands never letting go of him.

"Jay, could you look at me for a moment? I… need you to be looking at me."

It was safe and warm right where he was and he really didn't want to move. So many things were easier to endure like this. His racing mind and wounded heart calmer and steadier in those arms. But Naito needed him to look. Jay took a deep breath and lifted his head from Naito's shoulder as his hand slid down to cup his jaw. The feel of his trembling fingers were soothing against his skin but he still needed another moment to find the little extra strength to open his eyes and meet Naito's gaze.

And he very nearly closed his eyes again.

The only thing that kept them open was the fact that Naito had asked him to. If he hadn't, there was no way that Jay wouldn't have faltered at the expression on his face. He knew that. There had been a part of him that was assuming he would see that tender devotion or gentle warmth. Or that emotion that had been earlier in the arena after his interview. But this was so far from that. It was agony and heartbreak. Naito's eyes were watery and his lips were quivering. Everything about his expression was pain.

"You are not a burden, Jay." Naito's voice shook with anguish. "You are so important to me."

It was as if Naito felt every bit of his pain like it was his own. And his words. Simple and soft yet so unparalleled. Unprecedented. Jay didn't believe them - he didn't even know how - but it was clear that Naito believed them. He could see that in how deeply he seemed to be hurting. All he could do in response was nod once and that was enough for a single tear to fall down Naito's cheek. But before he could try and wipe it away or do anything else, Naito had tugged him back into an embrace and it was too easy to bury his face in the crook of his neck without making an objection.

They stood there for a while, just holding each other. Naito's hand returned to rubbing those small soothing circles into his back while Jay discovered that pressing his hand lightly into Naito's lower back made him sigh happily. It was such a little thing to learn but Jay was protective of the knowledge immediately. Each heartbeat that passed drained a little bit more of that tension out of his limbs and leached away a little bit more doubt from his heart.

What he wants most of all is to hold you in his arms.

The longer they stood there, the more BUSHI's words seemed like an inescapable truth. It was Naito's night of triumph but it didn't seem like he had any intention of moving. Or leaving. Naito was holding him close like it was a celebration in and of itself. Like even on a night like this one, all he needed to be happy or content was Jay himself. No matter if he was barely keeping himself together.

"That feels better." Naito's voice was soft as it tickled his ear. "It's easier to be brave like this, isn't it?"

That didn't sound like this was him and him alone. There was something about his tone that made Jay think that maybe this was something else that they shared.

"You too?"

"Me too." And that was a kiss to the side of his head. "You give me courage, Jay."

And that seemed impossible. So incredibly unlikely that he was the source of something like that for Naito. Why would he ever need Jay for that? Naito was the one who was…

Trembling in his arms.

Holding on to him so tightly.

Being just as nervous and just as scared as he was.

He wanted to question it. Doubt each and every word. The things Naito kept saying about him seemed so far beyond anything that should ever be. There was a part of Jay that almost needed to beg him for reassurance. But he gave Naito courage. And he wanted to be that for him. If he truly wasn't a burden, then he wanted to be a strength. He wanted them to be stronger together.

My brave, sweet Jay.

This time, he was the one that was gently encouraging Naito to lift his head, even if he was a little afraid of what sort of emotions would be there in his eyes. That pain and heartbreak were something that he never wanted him to be feeling, especially not on his account. But there wasn't a sign of it other than the single path of a dried tear on his cheek. Instead, Naito looked tentatively hopeful and curious.

But Jay wanted him to be happy.

Not just because they were standing there like this or because tonight he had been victorious. Tetsuya Naito should be happy as often as possible. Content and loved. Warmed from the inside out by the same light that he swore was there in Jay's eyes. His thumb traced along Naito's lower lip and Jay wasn't sure if Naito had stopped breathing. Time felt altogether frozen.

Be brave.

"If I kiss you, do you think that you could let yourself kiss me back?"

Naito's beautiful eyes went wide even as he searched his face, looking for something. Jay wasn't quite sure what it was but he tried to smile as he waited. The gaze was piercing, though. Staring straight into his heart - that broken and battered thing that he damaged so badly over these years. He didn't know what he saw there - still didn't understand why Naito had chosen him too - but he wanted him to find what he was looking for. Jay hoped that he would.

"Mi cariño… you don't have to push yourself that far if you're not ready."

And that both settled him and decided him. Naito was so careful and so patient. This was something that they both wanted. It was certainly something that he had wondered about - dreamed about when his heart refused to listen to reason.

"Just one then." His own smile steadied and deepened and it simply felt good. "For practice, Tetsuya."

With wonder and such true affection shining in his eyes, Naito nodded twice and leaned in just enough that Jay knew exactly what he wanted. That was halfway between them. Bridging the gap - closing the distance - would be up to him. His choice. Because it would change everything. Was he ready for it? Was he ready for that - for kissing - to become something that they did? Ready to know what Naito's lips left like against his own?

He had no idea.

But he wanted to be.

The distance between them was both massive and tiny all at the same time. Naito kept his eyes locked on his as Jay leaned in closer and it was a reassuring reminder that this wasn't just him and him alone. That it wasn't another dream. Naito always closed his eyes in Jay's dreams - as if he wasn't sure if Jay was the person he wanted to be doing such things with. But those eyes were open as their lips finally touched.

And it really felt like finally.

One of each of their hands had drifted upward until they were holding the other's face in their hand and Naito was still trembling. And Jay knew he probably was too but his mind was too focused on that single point - on their kiss - to really be certain. It was a simple kiss - delicate and soft. A gentle brush of their lips. A peck. And he wanted more.

So he lingered there, leaning back for one more kiss. This time, Naito stifled a sigh as their lips connected and Jay could feel it against his skin. With each passing heartbeat, it was harder and harder to hold still. He wanted to stay just like this. In this moment together. He needed every kiss that Naito was willing to give him. To share with him. To accept of his.

As they both pulled back in unspoken sync, Naito's hand slipped backward until he was cupping the nape of his neck. Their foreheads leaned against one another and Jay didn't dare open his eyes. It wasn't quite that he was afraid of what he would see. He knew that Naito would be looking at him with tenderness and warmth. He knew it. But he felt so close to coming undone again. Like he was right on the precipice of it and he wanted to keep this moment just as it was. Something treasured and untainted.

"Are you afraid to open your eyes, mi cariño?"

Naito's voice was carefully gentle again and the sound alone was almost enough to make him whimper.

"A little." Why was being honest with the one person he wanted to be honest with so hard? "I don't want to fall apart on you again. Not tonight, Naito."

This time, Naito's sigh was anything but happy. It was frustration and sadness mixed together with yearning. There was something that he was missing. Something important. And the sound made it even more difficult to open his eyes. He couldn't lose the comfort he felt like this if he kept his eyes closed.

"Tonight isn't important, Jay. This is." Naito shifted enough to softly kiss his forehead. "You are."

"You won…"

"I did." Another lingering kiss to his forehead. "But tonight is just a night." And another. "Two weeks ago, I was staring at an empty room wondering if I had lost the only chance you'd ever give me." Naito's voice cracked with distress and need. "And then you… how long had you thought you were nothing to me?"

Jay had no idea if Naito wanted an answer to his question or not. And he equally had no idea if it was an answer he was ready to give. He knew when. But was that something Naito needed to know or was it something that he should keep to himself?

Tell me something. Even if it's something small. I want to hear it.

"Since the day I left for my excursion." The words stuck in his throat at Naito's tiny whimper but he needed to say the rest. "I cried over you on the flight to America." And he hadn't let himself shed a single tear since until last night. "I tried to forget you but you wouldn't go away. You stayed with me, Naito."

Arms wrapped around him and pulled him close until they were once again in one of those tight embraces of theirs. Naito's breath was shaky and almost ragged in his ear. His words had hurt him - Jay knew that. But they needed to be said. He knew that too.

"My brave, sweet Jay." It really was easier to be brave like this. "We've carried each other in our hearts, alone and scared. And now we're… I don't want to be apart from you yet. I want to be here with you."

His brave, sweet Tetsuya.

Not that they were words that he could ever imagine himself saying but they were there in his heart nonetheless. If there was any obligation that had drawn Naito into coming back to his hotel room, it was rooted in how he felt about Jay. In wanting and needing to be close after so long apart. In him being important and someone Naito wanted to take care of. And it was touching and sweet and wonderful.

"I don't like being apart from you either. It's…" His hesitation grew into a lengthy pause and Naito started rubbing circles into his back again. "... it's real when I can see you."

"And it's real when I can touch you."

Something about how he had emphasized real told Jay that he wasn't the only one that was having trouble accepting where they were now. What they had admitted to each other. That them being together now was a real and true thing. And that was the last sort of feeling that he wanted Naito to have about him. There had never been anyone else in his heart. Not ever. No one that he had ever wanted to trust and hold and caress. There would never be another person that he would let see him cry.

And as that realization set in, Jay slowly understood - or at least thought he did - why tonight being the night that he won the G1 was so meaningless to Naito.

It was because this meant more.

They meant more.

He meant more.

He didn't understand why. Couldn't even begin to comprehend that part. But it was as real as all the rest.

"There are a few days before the next show." Even if he had no idea what he was going to do next. "We could spend them together."

It took the absolute last remaining parts of his courage to not put a qualifier on that sentence. To not add maybe or if you want. They both wanted it. Jay knew that too. Naito's hold on him tightened in a way that felt like it was both relief and affection before he let go so they could look at each other.

With their eyes open.

"Mi cariño…" His smile was so soft. "That sounds perfect."

***

Chapter Text

***

Naito was wearing his shorts again.

Technically, they were Naito's shorts now - Jay had given them to him - but the sight of Naito in an item of clothing that had once been his made his stomach do a little moonsault. He was standing in the doorway looking adorably uncertain with sacks of something that smelled delicious in one hand and a duffle bag tossed over the opposite shoulder. They were spending the night together again but there was something slightly different about the fact that they had planned it ahead of time. It was a very deliberate thing.

Reaching out, Jay grabbed the bags of food from Naito's hand.

"I'll take those to the kitchen."

It wasn't a very large kitchen but it was a functional enough space for his needs. There honestly wasn't much he needed but the appliances that came with it weren't too finicky with temperatures and such things. It was one of the reasons he continually booked a room at this particular long-term stay hotel - not to mention the attached gym had everything he needed too.

When Jay turned around, Naito was still standing in the doorway. His shoes were off but he was looking around the room with a confused expression on his face.

"Jay…" Something about the tone of his voice wasn't quite right. "This is a hotel."

He glanced at the room behind him, trying to see what Naito saw. A small living area with a kitchenette to one side and a bed to the other. A closet and a bathroom. It was basic but he didn't need anything more than that.

"It is." Jay shrugged. "It works, Naito."

Confusion had drained away for a sort of sadness that made Jay more than a little uncomfortable. Naito saw through him so easily. The duffle bag was dropped onto the floor and Naito walked over to him - hands grasping his without hesitation.

"When you gave me the address, I thought you lived somewhere more…" Naito's gaze was both considering and questioning. "What about an apartment, mi cariño?"

He had done that before.

A decent place with room for people to lounge about and enjoy themselves. An entire paycheck spent on liquor and a good stereo system. A kitchen in which he had tried to teach himself how to cook various recipes in case anyone was homesick. A more comfortable bed even though he had known that he would always sleep in it alone. But invitation after invitation had been rebuffed and ignored. Bullet Club having no desire to take their new leader up on his offers. So he'd let the rental lapse and started staying in places like this.

His townhouse in America looked a lot like this too.

"Not necessary. I'm not…" His voice trailed off as sorrow filled in the edges of Naito's expression. He needed to change the subject. "What did you bring to eat? It smells good."

One of Naito's hands came up to cup the side of his face while the other just squeezed his own hand a little harder. Warmth and affection surrounded them completely and somehow Jay knew the sensation was something that he would never tire of. Each moment yet more evidence in defiance of the parts of himself that still doubted. Naito cared so deeply about him and had for as long as Jay had cared for him.

"There's a story there, isn't there?" Of course, he could see that and all Jay could do was nod. "I want to hear your stories, Jay."

And as always, Naito's voice was so careful - that element of fear of scaring him away layering every word.

"I've never said them out loud."

And a kiss - soft and barely there - pressed against his lips. It was still so much that that was something they did now. Still just almost unbelievable. Almost.

"I know." And of course, he could see that too. "Please try and remember that I want to know you, mi cariño."

That one was probably going to be easier to remember than some of the other things that Naito was patiently trying to show him. They hadn't spent yesterday together at all once they had parted for the morning - Naito had been busy with press conferences and photo shoots - but they had continued to message each other back and forth. Naito's messages had been full of questions - even asking him which shirt he should wear at one point - and each message had been a reminder that they were together now. His own questions had been far fewer and farther in between but Jay could just about picture Naito's smile as he received each one.

They had stopped texting one another when Jay realized that Naito was messaging him in the middle of the post-G1 press conference - happily typing on his phone and ignoring everyone else. It had been rather sweet, actually, but Jay had a feeling that BUSHI would be irritated with him if he encouraged it.

"I'm trying."

"And I know that too."

Everything about Naito's expression was so soft and Jay pulled him into an embrace. It was still something that he had to pause and give himself permission to do but they relaxed so easily like this - tension fading away - that Jay had hopes that it wouldn't always take that extra thought. The night Naito won the G1 they had spent time just holding each other. Time to let the support and comfort take a hold of both of them. Until Naito had finally admitted that his knee was bothering him and Jay had insisted on him laying down. And the victory celebration had been balancing ice packs and falling asleep holding hands again.

Naito seemed so content like this. BUSHI had said this - holding him - was what he wanted most but that idea was so much more real with Naito's arms wrapped around him. With the way he nuzzled the side of Jay's neck with such soft sighs. Everything was easier when they were like this but the way Naito held him - so close and so tight - made him think that it was something that he needed. Like he needed to be held and was afraid - or didn't know how - to tell Jay that. So he did his best to hold Naito with every bit of affection - of love - he felt.

Had Naito never known this sort of intimacy either?

There was something so deeply wrong about that. How had no one ever wanted such things with him before? Jay tried not to think too deeply about why Naito wanted such things with him. It would only make him panic again. He didn't want that sort of day with Naito. He just wanted to spend time together just being together. He wanted to share food and sit together and hold Naito's hand.

Definitely food first, though. His stomach was irritatingly reminding him that his post-workout meal this morning had been insufficient.

"Jay? Was that your stomach?"

And now it was embarrassing him.

"Yes. Apparently, I didn't get enough protein this morning."

At that - of all things - Naito pulled back with a delighted grin on his face. He looked so pleased with himself and there was something adorable about it. Jay could spend a foolish amount of time just looking at that smile. Especially close like this. How long had he known that a teasing grin from the other side of a ring was as close as he would ever get to Naito's smile?

"I brought karaage for us to share."

Were all of the containers in those bags just fried chicken?

Naito walked over to the kitchen area and started pulling boxes out of the bags, opening them as he went. With a few steps, Jay was able to peek inside and confirm his suspicions. That was a lot of karaage. It looked like there were multiple types and flavors - his eyes barely knew where to start.

As he turned to look at him, Naito still had that pleased smile on his face.

"It's from BUSHI's shop." Jay had always wanted to try the food there but had lost his nerve each time. "It's in honor of our first date."

Oh, fuck.

First date.

That's what this was, wasn't it?

This was their first date. Him and Naito. Together. Dating. He was dating Tetsuya Naito.

Tetsuya Naito was dating him.

And there was that panic again. Suffocating and cruel. His skin was on fire and he had forgotten how to blink. They were dating. That was a real thing. Almost blindly, he reached for one of Naito's hands as his hand was clasped in return.

"Take a deep breath, mi cariño." Naito was right there but not quite touching him - other than their joined hands. "In and out. I didn't… I didn't mean to scare you."

His mind slowly remembered how to function and Naito's eyes came into focus. And there was such worry and warmth there. It was there for him to see. To draw strength and understanding from. Because they were together now.

"You didn't."

Now that expression was doubtful and skeptical and Jay didn't blame him. But he hadn't been frightened. Not really.

"Jay…"

"I'm not scared. Just a little overwhelmed." With his free hand, Jay caressed the side of Naito's face with his thumb as that doubt started to fade away. "I haven't really ever…" The words were stuck and he knew that he was probably being confusing. "... um… it's always been you that I wanted so…"

Naito's smile was full of wonder and it was so bright that Jay almost needed to close his eyes. He wasn't sure what he had said to make him look like that - his words sounded pathetic to him - but it was a beautiful sight. And he wanted Naito to keep making it. At him and because of him.

"It's the same for me." And in that moment, there was something bashful and shy about Naito. "No one but you could ever inspire me to want such things."

He'd been right before. He really had been.

"You're sweet, Naito."

But instead of the smile he expected, his entire expression darkened. Something was wrong.

"Tetsuya." His voice was strained and tight. "I want to be Tetsuya to you."

The ache and the longing in those words was almost overwhelming. But they were both things that Jay understood. How many times had he wanted to be more than just Naito's - just Tetsuya's - rival? How close to his own heart had he held those few times before that he had simply called him Jay?

It was simple and difficult. A single word - a single change - shouldn't be that hard to make. But it was that intimacy again. An explicit acknowledgement that this was what they were now to each other. It had slipped out of him back after his victory. Jay hadn't intended to call him Tetsuya then. But his smile had been so full of love and he had pulled Jay into his arms so easily that there it had been - said as if it was how it should have always been.

He had said it a few times since but never with intention. And that was what Tetsuya wanted. To be that to him without doubt or hesitation.

"I'll try, Tetsuya."

And you can call me Jamie.

There it was again.

That strange urge that was trying to become a need. He wasn't Jamie anymore. He just wasn't. But there was a part of him that wanted to know what it would sound like - what it would feel like - if Tetsuya called him Jamie. He wasn't going to ask. That wasn't a question - a name - that was ever going to be said but he could call him Tetsuya.

He would.

---

His stomach was now happily full and no longer complaining. The black garlic flavored chicken was his new favorite thing to eat and there had to be a way to properly express his appreciation to BUSHI. Would it be weird to ask Naito for his phone number?

However, Naito looked a little odd - like he was standing awkwardly as he turned his phone back and forth in his hands. Was his knee bothering him or something? Had he eaten too much?

"Tetsuya? Are you okay?"

His expression was both rueful and shy. It truly wasn't fair that he was that attractive no matter what expression was on his face.

"I'm fine… the Carp are playing the Swallows this afternoon."

Baseball. His beloved baseball. He was thinking about baseball and trying not to. It was sweet and adorable.

"Is it starting soon? We could watch it." A thought occurred to Jay. "Can we watch it? It's on television, right?"

"It is…" The expression on his face wasn't one that Jay could easily identify. "Jay, we don't have to…"

His voice trailed off and there was that shyness again. He didn't want to push. Didn't want to overstep or ask for too much. But as nervous as he often was in all of this, something about Naito's tentativeness didn't sit right with him. It was such a small thing to want. They didn't have any concrete plans other than spending time together. Watching baseball - seeing Naito enjoy his favorite team up close - seemed like a really good way to spend an afternoon.

"But we should." Jay knew his smile was probably wider than it needed to be but he liked the image of the two of them that had formed in his mind. "It'll be fun."

That helped. Jay could see that. Whether it was using his name or the offer itself, he wasn't really sure but some of that shyness had been replaced by something closer to longing. He wanted that too. Maybe Tetsuya even saw the same image of them in his mind - near enough to possibly cuddle of all things.

They were just at the edges of how far his dreams had been brave enough to go. Each moment they spent together took them further away from those barely formed ideas of being with Tetsuya Naito. There was something both equal parts exciting and terrifying about how rapidly they were approaching the types of things that he had never even dared dream about. Intimate and domestic things.

"Only if you're sure." There was that tentativeness again. "I know baseball isn't…"

Enough with that. Two long strides was all it took to bridge the gap between them and Jay quickly took a gentle hold of Tetsuya's head between his hands. Almost immediately, hands were resting at his waist and the ease at which they touched each other only deepened the smile on his face.

"I want to know you too, Tetsuya."

The pure and simple warmth in Naito's eyes was too much but Jay couldn't look away. Couldn't even blink. But this time, it wasn't panic causing it. This was him wanting every single drop of that warmth for his very own. To keep with him even when they were apart.

"All right, mi cariño." Yet another soft kiss to his forehead. "Which side of the couch should I sit on?"

All Jay could do was shrug as Naito walked over to the couch. He took a moment to gather his thoughts and settle his own nerves once more as he heard the television turn on. There was a tiny bit of grumbling as Tetsuya fought the remote but eventually the game appeared on the screen.

The couch in the small living area wasn't that big but there was plenty of space for the two of them. They didn't even have to sit that close to one another. But that wasn't quite what he wanted. Jay was hovering - hesitating - as Tetsuya looked at him oddly from the side he had chosen to sit on. It shouldn't be difficult to simply sit down beside him. They had shared a bed - a couch cushion shouldn't be a bridge too far.

But that also wasn't quite what he wanted.

"I'll be right back."

Jay could feel Naito's eyes on him as he walked over to the closet. The item he was looking for was right where he had put it when he had moved his stuff into this suite when he'd come back to Japan for the G1. He rarely pulled it out but as his hand skimmed fabric, he couldn't quite remember why not. There was never anyone around to see him indulge in sentimentality, anyway. But somehow, he knew Tetsuya would appreciate it. Quilt in hand, Jay turned back around and walked over to the couch.

Tetsuya was watching him quietly but with his eyes full of an almost gentle curiosity. His gaze darted down to the quilt but quickly looked back up. No pressure or expectation. And it made it so much easier to speak.

I want to hear your stories, Jay.

"My grandmother made this for me before I left New Zealand." Naito's eyes softened yet further. "I brought it with me to the dojo. I haven't kept much…" And now that sadness had returned at full strength. "... but I have this."

Memorabilia and keepsakes of his had been scattered about dumpsters and trash cans from Japan to America. Stupid fragments of himself better left behind. Futile sentiment that the Switchblade had no need for. But Jamie had refused to part with a handful of things - like the quilt in his arms and the man on the couch.

Jay sat down on the empty cushion and raised his arm in invitation.

"We could share it?"

That shyness was back but this time, he understood why. Neither of them had done anything like this before and this was with each other. But he wanted to feel Naito curled up against him like that. Both of them tucked under the quilt he had kept. It was part of himself that he could share. A place to begin.

After a moment, Tetsuya moved over until they were sitting together. Jay's arm draped across his shoulders - not wanting to push too far and ask for too much - but it was instantly almost perfect. They shifted about a bit as they both got comfortable. He had no idea how to sit like this with someone but maybe they could learn together.

It felt wonderful, though.

He had no other way to describe it. Warm and affectionate and something that he couldn't quite pin down. A quality that was too new to him to be truly understood. But he liked it. And Tetsuya's sigh as they worked together to spread the quilt over them both tickled his ear in just the right way. Was this something else that was new to him too?

There was a slight tug and Jay realized that Naito was looking at him instead of the game.

"Thank you, Jay."

And he knew that he was thanking him for more than just wanting to watch the game with him. For more than the shared couch cushion and quilt. His heart didn't know what to do with that information. With the knowledge that they were starting to know each other a little deeper.

"You're welcome."

"Ask questions if you don't understand something, okay?"

"Next time." Even those two words could make Tetsuya smile. "This time, I just want to enjoy being with you like this."

With a soft nod, Naito settled back down beside him as Jay tried to understand what was going on in the game. Sports weren't necessarily his strong suit and the commentators were speaking quicker than he thought they would. His Japanese was solid but there were multiple words and phrases that he couldn't quite catch. He would definitely need help later with some of the translations and general rules of the game but this time, he wanted to do exactly what he told Tetsuya he did.

Spend time with him like this.

This was something that he had never imagined: spending time with Tetsuya as he was relaxed and happy and enjoying a hobby. Even if some of the things going on in the game made him complain almost under his breath in this odd mixture of Spanish and Japanese. His arm was around him as he fidgeted just enough to tell Jay that the Carp weren't playing quite as well as he wanted them too.

And it was easier to get sucked into the game than Jay thought it might be. There was a level of intrigue in the overall strategy of both teams. Only one point - he thought it might be called a run - had been scored and it seemed that had merely increased the tension. Each pitcher was angling for an advantage and he wanted to see which one of them made a mistake first. And whether or not the opposing team could capitalize on that mistake.

The teams went back and forth - no one scoring after that one initial point - and Jay was beginning to understand why Tetsuya enjoyed the sport so much.

But that was the third time that Naito had made that tiny disgruntled noise. Was he uncomfortable or in pain? Jay hadn't caught him limping and nothing really seemed off. Was that the sort of thing that he would continue to hide until he couldn't anymore?

"Tetsuya…" He hesitated slightly - uncertain of his place - but Jay wanted him to be comfortable with him too. "... is something wrong?"

Another huff.

"I'm sorry." That sounded far too ominous for Jay's liking and he was suddenly nervous. "I was hoping for a more exciting game for you."

What?

That was what Naito's grunting was about? The baseball game? He was actually worried about Jay not enjoying the game. But Jay was confused. There wasn't anything boring about the game in the slightest.

"What's wrong with this one?"

As Naito lifted his head to look him in the eyes, all Jay could see was a mirror of his own confusion. But a noise coming from the television drew his attention away. Yamada had struck out again. Morishita had finally pulled the trigger on throwing a ball up high after all of those throws that went down low. He'd set him up for that perfectly.

"Jay?"

"I mean Morishita threw all of those balls so Yamada would be expecting a different throw when he really needed to get an out." Jay knew that there were different types of baseball pitches but he wasn't sure how to tell them apart yet but there was time for him to learn. "It was a great strategy."

He probably could have gone on for a little bit longer. There were more details that he had noticed that he was genuinely curious about. Like how the players in the field would move slightly one direction or another depending on who was hitting. That had to be an adjustment based on a particular hitter's tendencies but he wasn't quite sure.

However, Naito was looking at him with such fondness that it stole away any ability he had to ask a question. It wasn't just happiness but more that Naito was happy with him. Happy about him. Nobody looked at him like that.

"That mind of yours. Of course, you would like the strategy of a pitcher's duel." Naito sounded amused but not in that teasing way of his. "Thinking so many steps ahead."

Jay didn't know how to answer or what to say. It didn't seem like a bad thing - the exact opposite actually - but the newness of it made him feel awkward. Especially as Naito leaned over and placed a gentle kiss on his temple.

"My brave, sweet, smart Jay."

And that awkward feeling increased tenfold. He didn't feel like the person Naito saw when he looked at him. He just didn't. It wasn't quite that he wanted to be that person but more that he wanted to believe that he was capable of it. And he wasn't there yet.

"If you keep adding adjectives, that's going to take you forever to say."

Naito's smile was playful and Jay knew the one on his own face matched it perfectly. There wasn't anything wrong with being like this. He knew that. But all those times he had mocked himself - berating and bitter - for playing along with one of Naito's games meant he needed to remind himself of that. But for all of the reminders and extra thoughts it took, there was something almost pleasant about trying to be himself again. Trying and knowing it was okay to try. To be.

"What's that smile for, mi cariño?"

That gentle curiosity was back and it was as much on Naito's face as it was in his voice. Eyes looked at him with hope but not expectation. Ever so very careful. Keeping him at his side was more important to Naito than any question he might ever have. Any answer he might ever want to hear Jay give. He was afraid.

That was what this was. It was care and fear all wrapped up together. Naito was scared of losing him. He understood why but that didn't mean he liked it.

I want to hear your stories, Jay.

"I used to get so angry with myself for smiling at you." Naito's eyes widened with a sadness and an ache that Jay felt inside his own heart. "Be so distressed when you could make me feel like myself again so easily." Pulling his hand out from under the quilt, Jay caressed his cheek. "I can just smile at you now. It's okay."

Naito's kiss was undemanding yet determined. Deeper than ever before, there was still a tender hesitation to how their lips parted ever-so-slightly. A softness in how they touched, despite how closely together they were pressed. Naito had turned enough to kiss him but it meant one of his legs was draped over Jay's just a little. Just enough to make him wonder about pulling Naito onto his lap. About being straddled and slipping his hands beneath Naito's shirt. About letting that warmth become heat.

Not yet.

Besides, as Naito leaned back, there was something quiet and guarded about his expression. It looked as if there was something he was holding back. Something he was trying to keep to himself. And that was the last thing Jay wanted. Together meant together.

"Tell me, Tetsuya." A soft, quick kiss to his forehead. "Please?"

"Every time you were mad at yourself, I was happy. I wanted to see that smile so badly." And now the sadness had taken over his expression once more. "I was so worried about you, mi cariño."

And that worry hadn't just been there in those moments. Naito had worried about him a lot - that much was plain to see on his face. Easy to hear in his voice. Tetsuya was still worried about him. He knew that too.

No wonder Tetsuya has been so worried about you.

"I'll try not to worry you so much from now on. I promise."

And his smile was so soft and made him so happy to see that Jay had the smallest of inklings about what Naito had felt back then. There would be things to worry about - wrestling was never easy on the body and the line in the sand against Bullet Club still needed to be drawn - but today he could hold Tetsuya close. Keep him tucked against his side so he knew right where Jay was and that he was happy and content.

That was so much too. Feeling like that even as the Switchblade had faded away. Jamie was happy.

Some of that must have been visible on his face because Naito leaned close once more, peppering his face with tiny kisses that Jay tried to return in spite of his insistence that he should hold still and be kissed. Eventually, Tetsuya settled back down next to him but not without one more gentle caress to his cheek. But this time, he was even closer - pressed against him a little more intimately. Leaning on him.

Jay wrapped his arm around him, allowing himself the small pleasure of letting his hand rest on Tetsuya's stomach. The soft sigh he received in response made that tiny bit of bravery well worth it. He fixed the quilt around them both and tried to go back to paying attention to the game. But it was difficult to focus on anything else but Tetsuya's warmth against him, especially as he reached for Jay's free hand, lacing their fingers together beneath the fabric.

Time passed and they sat there quietly. It wasn't a tense sort of silence - far from it - and it was nice. There were undoubtedly better ways to describe it but it was the type of nice that Jay was so incredibly unfamiliar with. They were simply spending time together, both comfortable and warm. Naito repeatedly kissed his arm simply because it was within reach. Jay dropped kisses of his own into that wild hair simply because he could. Holding hands beneath one of the few things he had brought with him from home all those years ago.

Home.

That was what the niceness was. This moment - this time - between them felt like home. It was cozy and sweet and real. And days stretched out in front of him. Glimpses of moments of just being with Tetsuya like this. Traveling and sleeping and eating. Having fun and doing mundane tasks. Together.

And there wasn't a drop of panic to be found.

From what Jay remembered about the rules of baseball, it looked like the game was just about over. Naito's Carp were going to win but it had been a few minutes since it felt like he had moved. If anything, he was almost heavier against Jay's side.

"Tetsuya?"

After a few moments with no response, Jay leaned forward just enough to see Naito's face - eyes peacefully closed with a small smile curving his lips. Despite the game, he was asleep. And Jay knew he was smiling and there were tears trying to form in his own eyes. That was how comfortable Naito was with him. How safe and wanted he felt. It was something that seemed so impossible for so long and now it was real.

Naito was really there.

They were really here.

And for a moment, Jay felt as important as Tetsuya swore he was.

Jay adjusted the quilt as best he could with the hand still curved around Naito's side so he was as tucked in as possible without disturbing him. Turning the volume down on the television, he figured he would leave it on so he could tell him the final score when he woke up. Another kiss to the top of his head wasn't too much so he lingered over it for just a moment. And somehow, even in his sleep, Tetsuya's hold on his hand hadn't lessened in the slightest.

I'm not leaving you all alone ever again. I promise.

And the only thing he could think about - the only thing that he could wrap his mind around - were his memories of his Spanish language lessons. He had taken them years ago now - still practicing when he could get away with it. A heartsick yet hopeful Jay had started to learn the language just in case Naito asked him to be a part of his familia one day. Just in case Naito ever chose him too.

And he had.

If Jay had ever learned what cariño meant, he'd forgotten it until Naito had so sweetly reminded him of the meaning. But there was one phrase - one endearment - he had kept close in his own memories. Something that he had always kept for Tetsuya Naito, even if they would never be such things to one another. Even if Naito never felt for him the feelings that lingered in his own heart.

But he did.

"Get some rest, mi corazón. I'll watch over you."

***

Chapter Text

***

At least his sleeplessness hadn't woken Tetsuya.

Jay had been reluctant to leave the bed but he had been too restless to stay there any longer. Not even the warmth of Tetsuya's hand on his chest had been able to keep him there. His mind had started going as soon as he had opened his eyes. But he had slept long enough to be unable to go back to sleep.

So now he was just sitting on the couch, staring at the shadowed silhouette of the television.

His mind was racing and he didn't know how to slow it down. So many thoughts he had avoided for so long. There was a part of Jay that wished he could just avoid everything that was yet to come. Just stay in these days and these moments with Tetsuya and never leave them. Watch more baseball and eat more karaage. But he missed the ring already and if he wanted to step back into it, then there was something that needed to be addressed first.

Bullet Club.

The distance between him and them was nothing new. It had always been like that. The number of times his text messages had gone unanswered was more than it probably ever should have been. Had there ever been a point when they had truly wanted him around? Or had he always simply been a convenient figurehead to be tossed away when they decided they were done with him?

How long he had simply accepted it - the distance and the disrespect - probably said more about him than he wanted it to. Jay had tried in the beginning. The apartment and group messages and staying late. But he had never figured out how to fit in and no one - not Tama or Gedo or Fale - had given him a hint on how to do it. Or told him what he was doing wrong. KENTA joining them had been an eye-opening experience. He should have known then. Done something then. Because KENTA had been folded into the group so easily. Accepted in a way that he had never been and never would be.

They were done with him. He had known it from the first time EVIL had stomped directly on his wrist but he should have known it sooner. His time in America played a role - he wasn't blameless - but those days had come long after he had given up on earning a place of his own within Bullet Club. Victories were expected of him and defeats were mocked and never forgiven. How many times had he staggered alone back to their locker room? How many times had his own help been rebuffed when he had tried to be there for the others? Walked straight past or his hands brushed aside. Ignored in favor of anyone else.

And he would have stayed.

Up until the moment they cast him aside, Jay would have remained loyal.

Would have.

Look at me and let yourself see.

But he had looked and finally seen the affection in Tetsuya's eyes. Believed the truth of that smile. Had chosen to face Ibushi on his own terms without Gedo's interference. And he knew what he needed to do now. What choice he needed to make.

Jay had no idea if he was sufficiently terrified of that decision. It was a leap - a blind jump off the side of a cliff - but he wasn't afraid of heights. It had been a long time since he had stood on his own but at the same time, he had been alone for just as long. But it wasn't just him any more. And somehow that made things easier and harder all at the same time.

Tetsuya was right there behind him. Soundly asleep with a smile on his face that Jay didn't need to see to know that it was there. And he would still hold him tight if the phrase Leader of Bullet Club didn't belong to him anymore. They would still be together if all he did was wrestle tag matches with Master Wato and Nagata. He didn't need to be part of Bullet Club to be someone to Tetsuya.

It would be okay.

The next few days and weeks would be hard. Especially if he went through with the tentative plan forming in the back of his mind. Calling out Bullet Club. Standing in the middle of the ring and daring them to bring their conflict with him out from behind the shadows. Enduring whatever punishment they chose and letting the whole world see exactly where everything stood. Where he stood.

Being seen was even scarier than deciding to drop the Bullet Club mantle.

Because that would be Jay standing there. Not King Switch or the Switchblade or the Man that Single-Handedly Sold Out Madison Square Garden. It would just be him. Surrounded and alone against the people that would have been his friends if he had been someone different. Maybe the fault had been his all along. Maybe he had never been enough for them. After all, what sort of glory had he brought to the faction? Held the heavyweight title but had dropped it without a single successful defense and hadn't worn it around his waist since. Did it matter how good he was in between the ropes if he had so little to show for it?

Jay pulled his legs up against his chest, resting his head on his knees. His mind just kept going. Replaying every loss. Reminding him of every rejection. It took actual effort to keep his thoughts from drifting to Tetsuya. That old feeling - so recently disproven - was just sitting there, waiting for its turn. But he couldn't let that happen. He wasn't nothing to Tetsuya. He knew that.

Bullet Club couldn't be allowed to taint this too. He had cut so much of himself to pieces in all of those attempts to belong. To be the Switchblade. To let that mask become all that he was. But Tetsuya had endured in his heart - the only light that still gave off warmth - and Jay would protect him now. Every failed title defense. Every time Gedo had spoken of a greater plan with a gleam in his eyes. Every unanswered invitation. Every mocked emotion. His mind could cycle those over and over again for as long as it wanted to.

But Tetsuya was off limits.

"Mi cariño?"

His voice was so quiet but Jay could still hear it. The sound of him sleepily talking from the bed echoing loudly in his suite. And it should be easier to answer him than it was. To tell him to go back to sleep. Dawn hadn't even begun to break yet and Tetsuya needed his rest. But there were no words to say. Every part of him was doing all that it could to keep his mind from wandering to places that he didn't want it to go. There wasn't anything left to spare.

And now that was the sound of blankets being lifted and feet landing on the floor. This was what he hadn't wanted to happen. He didn't need Tetsuya to be sleepless with him. This restlessness - this worry - was his problem. Everything that had happened - was going to happen - with Bullet Club was his problem. And his alone. It wasn't a mess that Tetsuya or his familia needed to be involved in. He would just sit here until the sun came up. They had one more day before they needed to travel for the Road to Power Struggle shows. One more day where none of this had to matter. All he needed to do was keep his mouth shut. Keep it to himself.

"Jay?"

Tetsuya was right in front of him but he didn't have the strength to lift his head from where it had fallen against his knees. And a hand on his shoulder made him flinch in spite of himself.

"Oh… cariño… oh…. you're shaking…"

He was?

Jay felt it now that Tetsuya had spoken of it. A trembling that he didn't even know how to begin to bring under control. He needed to, though. The last thing he wanted to do was worry Tetsuya. He was fine. All he needed to do was tell him to go back to bed. To get some more rest. Lift his head and say the words and wait alone for the sun to rise.

But he couldn't make his mouth open and his head stayed right where it was.

There was too much going on in his mind. Those thoughts spinning further and further out of control and keeping that spiral away from the part of him that belonged to Tetsuya Naito was more and more difficult by the second.

He wasn't as good of a wrestler as he thought he was.

He was too ruthless and not ruthless enough.

He was a terrible leader - no one feared or loved him.

He was expendable and easily replaceable.

But he was someone to Tetsuya.

He was.

The couch dipped slightly next to him as arms wrapped around him. And Jay couldn't fight the embrace - not even for a single second. He unfurled only to curl up against Tetsuya's side, draping across more of him than was probably proper or kind - given his knees. But his own instincts were in lockstep with the hands that were pulling him closer and closer and the almost needy encouragement of the murmuring in his ear.

They ended up in a position that should probably be slightly embarrassing but all Jay felt was that warmth and the reassurance of Tetsuya's breathing. Each caress seemed dedicated to spreading that warmth as far as it would go. And he waited to be questioned. Not that he had any idea if he was capable of answering but he knew that Tetsuya had to want to know what was wrong. It wasn't like he could deny it or say that he was fine. He was practically in his lap and that shaking was still there.

But no question was asked.

Tetsuya simply kept holding him tight as if he had no intention of ever moving again. Fingers carded through his hair and a voice murmured softly in his ear. The storm in his mind was too loud for him to understand the words but the very sound itself was soothing. Time passed and still they sat there. If Tetsuya was tired or in pain or completely bored, he didn't give a single hint of it. Every tiny adjustment Jay made his body was met with a tightened grip.

Ever-so-slowly, that spiral in his mind stopped spinning. It couldn't quite fade away entirely - only time would do that - but he could think a little clearer again. Jay didn't want to move yet, though. He liked being held like this in a way that he didn't really want to analyze. Maybe all of that time alone had made him hungry for closeness. Maybe his heart needed it in a way that he couldn't explain. Just the sensation of Tetsuya's body next to his was capable of settling a portion of his soul.

And it finally became possible to hear what Tetsuya was trying to tell him.

"I've got you… it's going to be okay… I'm here…"

Simple phrases of comfort. Reminders that he wasn't alone anymore. Jay let each one wash over him for longer than was probably necessary. Just sat there and listened to the sound of Tetsuya's voice as it softly echoed in his ear. Compassion without expectation. This was what being cared for felt like. And once again, Tetsuya's patience made it so much easier to speak.

"I'm sorry." Tetsuya's pained whimper told Jay that might have been one of the last things that he wanted to hear. "I'm being so fucking clingy."

It wasn't quite what was bothering him but that fear of being too much was never really far from his thoughts.

"Don't apologize for seeking comfort, Jay… please." Even his voice sounded distressed - like seeing Jay like this hurt him. "I want you to reach for me when you need me."

And he meant it. Jay was fully aware of that. Tetsuya wanted so much from and with him. But that voice - the one that had told him so many times that he was nothing - wasn't so easily defeated. He had worn the mask of the Switchblade for so long. Let it infect and corrupt every part of him that Jay honestly wasn't sure just how much remained. If there was enough of him left to build something with Tetsuya. Or if he was too broken and shattered for them to last.

"It makes me feel pathetic."

His voice personified that emotion as well. As weak and as uncertain as the rest of him.

"It shouldn't. Don't let it, mi cariño." If only it was that simple. "I like being there for you. I want to hold you like this. It's not like…"

Tetsuya trailed off and there was something odd about it. Something that he was trying not to say or trying not to burden him with - Jay couldn't tell.

"Tetsuya?"

"You're not the only one." And the depth of the longing was almost painful. "Do you know how many bad nights I've tried to imagine you there beside me? Wanted you to be there holding my hand when my knee hurts too much for me to sleep?"

It really wasn't just him. And maybe it wasn't completely pathetic how much they both seemed to need each other right now. All of that time yearning and wondering. Jay could almost imagine it too. His arms around Tetsuya - holding him like he was being held. Fingers laced together and telling him more stories to keep him company on a sleepless night.

"I'll be there, Tetsuya." Somehow, his hand had ended up resting over Tetsuya's heart. "Next time, I'll be right there with you."

For a moment, there was nothing but this satisfied hum that echoed between them. It was as if this time, it was Tetsuya absorbing comfort. Letting it soak his very bones. How many times had he been alone in those moments? But the gentle hand in his hair gave Jay another idea. Maybe it wasn't that he was alone but that he wasn't there with him. A familia to look after him but Tetsuya had still wished for Jay's hand.

"And I'll be right there with you."

And that was the problem. Jay knew he would be. If he needed him, Tetsuya would be there. He liked that. He did. It warmed his heart and gave him this tender sort of happiness that was entirely brand new. But what was coming was something entirely different.

"Even if I want you to wait?"

"Jay?"

He knew he was being confusing. But he didn't know how to say it. How to explain what he planned to do and what he was going to need Tetsuya to do in return. But Jay could hear the quiver in the way he had said his name. The fear. And it freed the words from where they had remained lodged in his throat.

"I need to confront Bullet Club and I need to do it on my own."

The silence stretched between them. The words weighty even in the dark.

"They're going to hurt you."

Tetsuya's voice was nothing more than a shaky whisper and his grip on him had tightened yet further as if he was trying to protect him already.

"I know."

And it was going to be painful. Jay knew that he was going to be surrounded and alone but it needed to be done. He wasn't the leader of Bullet Club anymore, if he had ever truly been in the first place. The scene had played out before and it was his turn. But it wasn't going to be the end of his world. He knew that too.

"And you want me to stand back and let them."

His tone was emotionless but it was as much of a mask as the Switchblade. The way that Tetsuya had started trembling beside him gave it away but it was a clue that he didn't really need. Jay knew what he was asking of him and the idea of the reverse - of having to stand on the other side of the curtain as Tetsuya was beaten and battered in nothing that resembled a wrestling match - was something that he couldn't stomach. Not now. Not with everything they had already become to one another.

But this needed to happen. If he wanted even more… if they wanted a future, then the line in the sand needed to be drawn and he couldn't do that if Tetsuya or his familia was in Bullet Club's crosshairs. He wanted to be Tetsuya's brave, sweet Jay.

No more hiding.

"Yes."

Jay knew that parts of his concerns were hinged on a very large assumption - that Tetsuya would even want to intervene in the first place. He knew that wasn't really how his familia operated when it came to the wrestling ring. More than once, he had marvelled at just how tight they seemed to be without interfering in each other's matches or coming to one another's aid. It had felt like a puzzle that he just couldn't solve. But lately, standing on the very edges of it, Jay thought it might be a bond that he could understand someday. He wasn't familia, though - no matter how Shingo described him - and he had no idea if the same sort of rules applied.

However, Tetsuya was quiet. The hand in his hair had stilled completely, an almost heavy weight keeping him tucked against his side. But the longer they simply sat there, the stronger the urge to move became. Pull away and retreat to the other side of the couch, wrapping himself up in the quilt instead of Tetsuya's arms. But Jay needed to be patient. He knew that too.

"Mi cariño… I don't know if I can watch you stand there all alone."

All of that anguish was there in Tetsuya's voice in spite of the softness of it. And it was overwhelming in its own way. The knowledge that he would be willing to put himself at risk like that for him was so much all on its own.

"Tetsuya… " There had to be a way to explain it but listening to those remnants - to Jamie - was something he had done so little of. "I won't be alone. You'll be there with me in my heart, remember?"

Even in the dark, they found each other's lips easily, coming together in a kiss so gentle that it made Jay's eyes water. Each moment - each heartbeat - filled with nothing but tenderness. And as they pulled apart, Tetsuya kept him close - foreheads pressed together and thumbs caressing cheeks. There wasn't enough light for him to see the warmth in those eyes but Jay felt it.

"My brave, sweet Jay." This kiss was far quicker but no less important. "All right." The trembling in those hands was a sign that Tetsuya wasn't as certain as he sounded. "On one condition."

And now it was his turn to be completely confused. What could he possibly mean?

"Condition?"

"Afterwards… that night… you come back to my apartment with me."

His apartment. Tetsuya was inviting him - in a demanding way really - to the place where he lived. Jay had never dared imagine for a single second what such a thing looked like. Never tried to picture a window frame or a piece of furniture. His heart couldn't have borne dreams like that. It had barely withstood his impersonal wistful wonderings. But now Tetsuya wanted him there.

"Are you sure?"

There was something so intimate about the idea that it was hard to trust it. That was his sanctuary and they hadn't been what they were now for that long, honestly. But those fingers were carding through his hair again and it was still one of the most soothing things that he had ever known.

"You deserve a home, mi cariño. And I want to share mine with you."

Oh.

Oh, fuck.

Once again, his cheeks were stained with tears and he tried not to berate himself for his patheticness, even as Tetsuya gently wiped them away without even needing to see that they were there. Whether he meant for one night or for right now or for something greater, Jay wasn't sure. But that wasn't the point. Not really.

His heart was almost too full. Filled with warmth and affection to an unbearable degree. He didn't deserve anything like that. Not even close. Not with everything that he had done. Not with every failure that could be listed after his name. But Tetsuya believed he did. And more than that, he wanted Jay in his.

Those eyes had looked around at the place where he stayed and known that it wasn't a home. Seen the truth so clearly. Jay didn't even belong in the place where he slept. He had no idea how he was ever going to feel like that in Tetsuya's apartment. It seemed so impossible. But he wanted to try. With everything that was left, he wanted to try even if it was only for one night.

"Can I bring my quilt?"

And such a simple question earned him another one of those soft and tender kisses.

"Of course you can, Jay." Not a trace of doubt or hesitation. "And I know the perfect place for it. But first…"

With a gentleness that somehow surprised him, Tetsuya pulled the quilt from the back of the couch and spread it over them both. He wanted to protest. To tell him to go back to bed. But the days to come were going to be difficult for them both in different ways. So Jay stayed curled against his side, adjusting positions into something less needy but just as close.

And there they sat, holding hands and waiting for dawn.

***

Chapter Text

***

I need a spotter at the gym.

It was such an odd text message to get from a random number early in the morning. And Jay was relatively certain that he was translating the Japanese correctly. It was tempting to ask Tetsuya to look at it but he was currently engrossed in a phone conversation of his own with BUSHI - or so he thought. He was using a rapid-fire mix of Spanish and Japanese that Jay assumed was some sort of ungovernable shorthand.

They had both dozed off on the couch at some point in the night but it seemed like the extra sleep had done both of them good. Except for their slightly sore necks. Waking up with Tetsuya's arms around him had been an entirely new experience and it made him hopeful. Maybe he would be able to fall asleep in a bed like that without panicking. Without becoming overwhelmed.

But first, Jay needed to decipher the text message.

It wasn't from a number he had saved in his phone. However, he didn't receive that many messages in the first place. Tetsuya's long run of them the day before had been so out of the ordinary for him that it had taken him some time to get used to the constant activity on his phone. But each message had made him smile. A reminder that Tetsuya was thinking of him and wanted to interact with him. To know him that much better.

He had contact information - underused but possessed - for the other members of Bullet Club so this wasn't one of them. Not that any of them would reach out to him in the first place. Jay had exchanged brief strategic texts with Yujiro during the G1 but before that… it had been far longer than it should have been since he had been in regular contact with the people that he was supposed to have been leading.

That had nothing to do with this text message, though. Bullet Club was tomorrow's problem - literally. Maybe the message was from Shingo? That would make a sort of sense, really. But how had he gotten his number unless Tetsuya had distributed it to the other members of his familia. Which, honestly, would also make a sort of sense. The man had to spend a lot of time at the gym, if nothing else.

"Is everything all right?"

How long had he been staring at his phone?

Apparently, it was long enough and intently enough for Tetsuya to finish his conversation and for him to not notice. But at least he would know if the text was from Shingo. Holding out his phone, Jay walked over to where Tetsuya was standing.

"Is this from Shingo?"

"Can't be. Not enough emojis." Why was that incredibly unsurprising? "You don't know who this is from?"

Jay shook his head and went back to looking at the short message on his phone. Which was enough of a distraction for Tetsuya to sneak around behind him, wrap his arms around him, and rest his chin on his shoulder. It felt so domestic that he knew that he immediately started to blush. There was such tenderness in every way that Tetsuya touched him and all Jay could do was let himself lean backwards ever-so-slightly into the embrace.

"I don't. I'm not sure who would…" Jay didn't quite want to get into how infrequently he actually talked to other people right now. It was as if he needed a slight break from such conversations - even if he knew that Tetsuya would be nothing but kind about it. "Not that many people even have…" He felt the echo of pressing a piece of paper into a palm and suddenly, he knew exactly who the message was from. "Fuck. It's Ibushi."

Giving him his number had been an odd moment of visible compassion. Of trying to be more than the Switchblade had ever allowed him to be. But Jay had given it to him just in case Ibushi needed something important. Like someone to make sure he got to a doctor or something like that. Not this.

"Ibushi has your number?"

Quiet curiosity laced Tetsuya's words and like before, that made it so much easier to actually speak.

"I gave it to him after your match. He was in pain and alone." The image of Ibushi slumped over up against the wall was bright in his mind. "I've been there."

Tetsuya nuzzled against his neck in a way that made him glad he had already pulled his hair back into a ponytail this morning. Each gentle kiss along his skin was soothing - even if the ache was old and something he thought he had gotten past.

"My sweet Jay."

He wanted to protest the adjective in the worst way. That wasn't who he was. It just wasn't. But he also knew that Tetsuya would disagree with him. And maybe it would be okay to try to be the person he saw when he looked at him - Tetsuya's Jay.

"I'm trying to remember how to be."

"And you're doing so good, mi cariño. Don't let your brain tell you otherwise." Each line of praise was something that Jay just wanted to soak in. Absorb it and repeat it in his own mind over and over again until it became truth. "You should go."

"But…" They had so little down time before everything began again. Before battles had to be fought. "It's our last day before…"

"I want more than just these few days with you, Jay. I want…" Tetsuya's hesitation dove straight to his heart. Still so careful with him. "... I want so much more than that."

"So do I."

It was only Tetsuya's soft gasp and the way his hold on him tightened that told Jay he actually said the words out loud. He had thought them but he had assumed that that was how they would stay. But there they had been. Spoken softly without doubt or fear.

"See? Brave and sweet." The lingering kiss to a spot beneath his ear sent a tingle all the way down to his toes. "Tell him you'll go. It's okay to make a friend." Who was the last person he could call such a thing? Finlay or Juice maybe - a lifetime ago now. "You don't have to be alone any more."

---

Ibushi could outlift him and Jay couldn't decide if he should be irritated or impressed.

He probably should have known that this was going to be an unusual trip to the gym when his ride dropped him off and he realized that the weird guy hanging from the light post outside the building was actually Ibushi himself. There didn't seem to be a pattern to what they were doing that Jay could see so he was mainly just taking it easy, focusing more on volume and form than anything else.

They hadn't talked too much but it wasn't a painful sort of silence. Weirdly enough, it didn't feel awkward really at all. Maybe Ibushi was just glad to have a little bit of company, even if it was him. Needing a spotter - ostensibly for safety - was obviously an excuse of some kind - the light post stunt had quickly shown that. But Jay had given him his number and Ibushi had used it. Such a tiny, tiny thing but no one ever took him up on offers like that. So it didn't really matter what they did or what Ibushi's reasoning was. None of it felt nefarious and spending time with someone who wasn't Tetsuya or a member of his familia without worrying about his place was too much of a novelty from Jay to question it.

And Ibushi's variation on a basic bench press - pausing at both the top and the bottom of the movement - was something that he was definitely going to add to his own routines.

The way Ibushi just seemed to decide at random what exercise or lift he was going to work on next was different - Jay was usually very deliberate when it came to putting together a routine - but it wasn't annoying or off-putting. It was actually kind of nice to have someone to workout with. Their chatter was light but focused on what they were doing. Both intense while actively lifting but relaxed in between.

But it seemed like they were finished lifting as Ibushi headed over to some mats that Jay had seen people use for stretching. That probably meant conversation and he honestly wasn't sure how to do that. He was woefully out-of-practice at something so mundane as talking to someone casually. Tetsuya had told him that it was okay to make a friend but how did that work? Fuck, it felt like something that you weren't supposed to forget but he completely had. This was different from trying to talk to Tetsuya - there was so much between them - and that relationship was something else besides. And talking with his familia wasn't quite like this either. In that case, they had common ground - Tetsuya himself.

As for him and Ibushi, they had the ring, he supposed. Failure and defeat. A rivalry - if Ibushi even thought of him like that. But that seemed too deep of a conversation to have while trying to make sure that their hamstrings didn't cramp up.

"Are you feeling any better after that match?"

Ibushi's eyes widened in slight shock but Jay wasn't sure if it was because he startled him or from the question itself. There was something kind of stupid about it. There was no way that Ibushi could have completed that entire workout if he was injured. Or at least, Jay didn't think he could have.

"Sore still. But I took a day and slept for ten hours and stayed up for fifteen. That helped."

There was something not quite right about that math.

"That's 25 hours."

And for some reason, that just made Ibushi smile. It was still slightly disturbing. Jay was far more accustomed to the other end of that expression looking either blank or murderous.

"Exactly." He looked so pleased that Jay couldn't help but smile back at him. However, Ibushi's head tilted just a little to the left like he was something that he didn't understand. "Your face looks funny like that too."

It wasn't an insult - Jay knew that - but his instincts were still intact. Honed into a deadly sharpness by the Switchblade. To lash out and mock and deride. To fight back, even though there was no battle to be fought. To go on the offensive. But he didn't want to. He was tired of it. Being like that was as exhausting as trying to change. Or remember.

"Like I said, I'm out-of-practice."

Ibushi simply nodded like there was nothing bizarre about being rusty at smiling at people.

"You need more reps."

"Probably."

With another nod, Ibushi went back to his stretching routine and Jay went back to his. It was definitely something else that they did differently. If there was a logic to Ibushi's routine, he could not figure this one out either. But they maneuvered next to each other rather easily - never bumping into the other or seemingly getting in one another's way. Another nice thing.

There was a series of stretches that he did to keep his pathetically weak wrists limber but Jay had no intention of doing them. That was a bridge too far. It was a literal weakness that he didn't even know how to begin to let anyone see. There was a part of him that was well-aware that the only reason that he had even felt comfortable breaching the subject with Tetsuya was the fact that he had seen that ice pack on his wrist. He hadn't even done that particular stretching routine in front of Tetsuya - something that with the nights and mornings they had been spending together was probably going to cause him issues in the days to come.

Although his current issue was trying to understand why Ibushi was twisting himself up into a pretzel. Jay guessed it was a stretch of some kind but it looked more like it was one of Zack Sabre Jr.'s submission moves that Ibushi was applying on himself. His body - for all of its flexibility - did not move like that.

"What is that stretch for?"

Ibushi rolled over and Jay had no idea that an elbow could safely bend like that.

"It keeps my tongue fireproof." Somehow, Jay had a suspicion that Ibushi wasn't referring to a highly developed spice tolerance. "But you're already more protected from being burnt than I am."

That was news to him. The bottles of sunscreen he had gone through each winter as a kid begged to differ.

"I am?"

Jay had no idea how Ibushi was managing to nod from that position.

"All that hair protects your brain from being burned. It's probably why you're so cunning."

And now Jay had no idea how to react. Ibushi made no sense except maybe to himself. His brain couldn't be sunburned - he knew that - but Ibushi had his logic and maybe that was enough for him. Jay liked it - liked how Kota Ibushi was Kota Ibushi with no uncertainty as to that definition. And at the end there - that had been a compliment. The blush spreading across his cheeks wasn't necessary. He barely tolerated doing that in front of Tetsuya.

"Thanks, man." It was only polite to offer a compliment in return. Or at least, he thought that was how such things worked. "And… uh… that stretch looks like it's good for the lower back too."

Ibushi inexplicably nodded again and started to untangle himself. As he flowed into another stretch that looked physically impossible, Jay figured he might as well do some of his favorite yoga poses since apparently he had the time. There was something cathartic about moving slowly through gentle movements like this. Forcing his mind to focus solely on precision and breathing. For something that was a daily practice for him, he hadn't done this in days and that wasn't good either.

Be patient with yourself, mi cariño.

Jay had spent so much time by himself that he was really unaccustomed to having to adjust his life around other people. But he could add things back in as he felt more on solid ground and less shaky in his own existence. He knew that Tetsuya wouldn't balk for a single second if he told him that he needed to take a few minutes to do some yoga. After all, how many times had he tried to remind him that he wanted to know him?

"I don't want your title."

Of course, Ibushi would say something like that while he was in the middle of downward dog - using the pose to stretch out his calves. His ankles weren't as weak as his wrists but they had a tendency to give him trouble sometimes too. Maintaining his flexibility around that joint was a key to keeping that from happening too often.

"Huh?"

"I have the right to challenge you for it." Somehow, that had slipped his mind but Ibushi was right - by beating him in the G1, he could challenge him for his title. "But I don't want to be the NEVER champion right now."

There was an assumption there that really, really didn't sit right with Jay. It reminded him of being ignored and dismissed so easily by both Naito and Ibushi leading up to Wrestle Kingdom. Just because he had failed before didn't automatically mean that Ibushi would be victorious this time. Again. And the remnants of the Switchblade were right there for him to command.

"What in the fuck makes you think that you would win?"

But the harshness in his voice and in his words were as easily dismissed as he had been.

"You can't win right now." There was something shocking about such a thing being so plainly said that he could no longer hold the pose and crashed to the mat more than a little unelegently. "Not when you need to re-learn your identity between the ropes. You're going to lose a lot."

"I know."

His voice was pathetically soft but Jay hoped that Ibushi wouldn't judge him too poorly for it. Because he knew exactly what he meant. He had felt it the last time he had been in the ring. Trying to face Ibushi with his whole heart - no Gedo interference and no attempts to cheat - had been beyond him. Exhausted and heartsick and uncertain, he'd lost. Fighting with spirit was something he hadn't done in such a long time.

And remembering how? Standing and fighting like that was something that was going to take time. He needed to be patient with himself.

There wasn't any malice on Ibushi's face. That was concern there - if anything at all. And he was out-of-practice at seeing such a thing too. But there was this weird sort of hope inside of him. Tetsuya and his familia. Ibushi. Maybe - just maybe - he really didn't have to be alone anymore. And that reminded him of how they had both ended up here in the first place and recognizing that same loneliness in the way Ibushi had been crumpled up against a wall.

"Why don't you want the title?"

Ibushi's face went wistful, only there were these layers of a deep, deep worry behind it. That urge to comfort him was back and although Jay managed to not put a hand on his shoulder this time, he still found himself scooching just a little closer.

"I can't be tied down." The title didn't mean that - Jay had taken it with him to America for an entire summer - but maybe they viewed such things differently. "Someday soon he'll…" His voice trailed off and for a moment, Jay wasn't sure if he'd continue. "I don't want him to be alone."

And that was a longing that he was painfully familiar with. An ache he knew better than he wanted to. It was the same thing that was there in their embrace every time Tetsuya pulled him close. Jay wasn't positive but it seemed like it could only be Kenny Omega that Ibushi was talking about. People's personal lives weren't something he usually cared about. Bullet Club had kept theirs from him all this time and he had done his best to avoid thinking about all of the people Tetsuya must have charmed into his bed while he had laid there in his hotel room sleepless and alone.

But he did keep track of other promotions and other wrestlers. Omega was the AEW champion but he had become consumed by it - obsessed and unhinged. Ibushi had to be concerned about him. He didn't necessarily like Omega but nobody liked him and Tetsuya still cared about him so that wasn't the point.

"I didn't realize that you and Omega were still…"

There was no way to put that delicately.

"We're everything and nothing."

At first glance, it sounded like overdramatic nonsense. It really did. But the more Jay thought about it, he realized that he knew exactly what Ibushi meant. Or at least, he thought he did.

"Bound together by a cord stretched thin but never really apart."

Ibushi's eyes widened in sadness and joy in equal measure. And that was all it took for Jay's hand to end up on his shoulder again.

"Exactly, Jay White."

There was something a little broken in Ibushi's voice and it was a little painful to hear, oddly enough. If he recalled correctly, Ibushi and Omega had been tied together for years and years. Being so far from someone who held your heart had to be beyond difficult. Like you had lost your favorite reason to smile.

"Jay. You can just call me Jay." Ibushi nodded again but something about him seemed lighter. "On that day…" He still wasn't sure how to say things like this but he wanted to say them. "... if you need help getting to the airport or anything, let me know. I'll be there."

Ibushi's smile was soft and genuine.

"Your face still looks funny."

And his own smile only grew.

"So does yours. Do you want to get lunch after this?"

***

 

Chapter Text

***

He was wearing Tetsuya's shirt.

Jay had tried to beg off from it - shaking his head in doubt and that kernel of unworthiness - but it had been carefully pressed into his hands anyway. And as he slipped it over his shoulders, the fabric had been soothing against his skin. Tetsuya had been smiling at him - hopeful and happy - and something in him had settled. Nerves, maybe? Whatever it was, he had a better idea why Tetsuya kept wearing the shorts he had given him. Part of him was coming to the ring with Jay and he needed that a little more than he wanted to.

But as he waited for the intermission period to end and his music to play, Jay found that he was simply ready to get this over with. Calling out Bullet Club wouldn't be the end of it - he knew that - but he wanted to get past this point. It was going to hurt - both physically and mentally - but he felt prepared for that part.

It was okay to jump.

Tetsuya would be there to catch him.

Convincing the production staff to let him interrupt the flow of the card had been remarkably - and probably disturbingly - easy. Jay had been ready to rant and rave and threaten but none of that had been necessary. With a nervous smile on his face, he had simply asked for their help and been honest about his intentions. And they had agreed to let him - even offering to play his music - with cautious but genuine smiles on their faces. It was such an odd thing - seeing people smile at him - but there was something equally reassuring about it. The Switchblade wasn't necessary. Just being himself - whoever that turned out to be - might be enough.

The familiar chords started to play and Jay knew that it was time.

His fingers tugged at the hem of the shirt and there really was something comforting about the tangible reminder that he wasn't alone. Not really. Not anymore. Maybe that was why Tetsuya had been so insistent. It was just a plain red shirt. Tetsuya's color. His color. Not Bullet Club's. In fact, there wasn't a single bit of black or white in anything he was wearing. Both his sneakers and his tear-away pants were gray. He had thought about wearing jeans but he hadn't wanted to deal with a doctor cutting into his clothing if that turned out to be needed. He didn't have on a single one of his usual accessories - no watch or jewelry - and his hair was pulled back with a bit of red ribbon borrowed from BUSHI instead of a hair tie.

He was as ready as he could possibly be.

The crowd was quiet as he walked down the aisle to the ring. Murmuring and whispering. Shuffling about in their seats. But no real reaction. And that was okay. Jay hadn't expected them to really care one way or another about him making an unscheduled appearance. Any slight buzz in the crowd was more for the unexpected than himself. Gesturing, he asked for the microphone as he climbed into the ring. It was handed to him without complaint or objection - someone from the back must have relayed the information that he was coming to the ring unannounced.

But the microphone felt heavy in his hand. An extra weight that he hadn't quite expected. His mouth was dry and his heart was beating too fast. It was time for this. He knew it was. And he knew that he could do it. Call out Bullet Club and tell them that he was done. Endure whatever beating they felt was necessary. Crawl to the back and find Tetsuya. Let him take care of him in the way that Jay knew he would want to.

No more.

No more silence.

No more hiding.

No more.

"You're probably wondering what I'm doing out here." And not just the crowd either. Only Tetsuya knew what he was going to say - if he could find his words. Even his familia knew just the barest details. "In case you've forgotten, I am Jay White…" Not the Switchblade. Not King Switch. Later - when such a thing felt like a nickname rather than an identity. "... I am the first ever Grand Slam champion in New Japan history. I am the man who single-handedly sold out Madison Square Garden."

It was difficult to keep the Switchblade out of his voice. It had been so long since he had tried to speak in front of an audience without those tones and vocal quirks. But that habit could fall away along with the other things he was trying to leave behind. This was Jay speaking and it was Jay that needed to say the next part.

"And I was the leader of Bullet Club."

He put as much emphasis on the past tense as he was capable of - slowing his speech so as many people could understand him as possible. Jay had thought about doing this in Japanese but he wasn't speaking to the crowd - not really - and they weren't the ones that needed to hear his words in the first place.

But now anyone could hear what he had just said. The very definition of himself that he had changed. The microphone was even heavier in his hand and it was shaking more than he wanted it to. Doing this was so much but it was time. He had never belonged and he had never been wanted - not truly. Bullet Club had been done with him long before this.

It would be okay.

"Was! Not any more! Not in a long fucking time!" For a moment, Jay wished he was more capable of borrowing some of Tetsuya's tranquilo attitude. He needed to be calm. He needed to stand his ground and state his purpose - not get dragged down in anger and frustration. "Isn't that right, guys?"

Jay knew that Bullet Club wasn't going to just eagerly appear. That they would be content to just listen to him make a fool of himself and wait to choose a battlefield of their own making. But he wasn't content with waiting. Not any longer. Not when there was so much more that he wanted than dragging this weight along with him everywhere he went.

"I know that there's been strategizing and planning behind my back and frankly, I don't care."

And that was a lie. He did care. It hurt knowing that he had been betrayed. Knowing that he had been deliberately kept apart for their own purposes. Knowing that his trust had never really been wanted or deserved. It made him feel pathetic and idiotic for being willing to just stay for as long as they were willing to endure him.

"This is over. I know it. You know it. So why don't we just end it?"

Still no sign of them but that was to be expected. But Jay wanted this to be over already. He wanted to know what Tetsuya's apartment looked like. He wanted to see if this was the night that he could finally fall asleep in those arms. So many little things that they were waiting for.

"I don't even care which one of you does it." And that was the truth. Whichever one of them was chosen to stick the knife in his chest was almost meaningless. They had barely formed any bonds - there was no friendship to violate. "Stop hiding, you fucking cowards! Get out here!"

There was something almost vaguely amusing about him calling someone out for being a coward. He had hid so much for so long. Thought that all it would take to bridge the gap between him and Bullet Club was time and force of will. Forced himself to ignore that distance - pretend that it was normal and fine. Jay had buried everything he felt - transformed each ache into another hollering rant - but he didn't have to live like that anymore.

My brave, sweet Jay.

You can do this too, mi cariño. I know you can.

I want to hear your stories.

Love isn't a weakness.

It's a strength.

"Enough is enough! I'm done with you."

Apparently, that was the magic phrase. And somehow, Jay wasn't surprised that it was EVIL's music that had started to play.

Of course, it was that fucker.

At least, he would finally be able to punch him in the face. He had been idly daydreaming about that since he had matched Tetsuya's fist with a 'too sweet'. Gedo had assured him over and over again that he had a plan. That Jay needed to keep his cool and not jeopardize that plan. And now, it didn't matter a single, solitary bit what that plan was. Not to him, anyway.

So Jay leaned against the ropes and waited. They were taking their time and it was only amusing when Tetsuya did it. Unless EVIL was planning on attacking him from behind but the crowd was quiet enough that if he couldn't hear that approach, then he deserved to get hit in the back. It had just about hit the point of ridiculousness when a murmur went up from both his left and his right. It seemed that he merited more than one assailant.

At least there was that.

EVIL and Dick Togo - like the idiots they would forever be - were walking straight down the aisle toward him. But in his peripheral vision, Jay could see that the others were approaching in multiple directions. He didn't need to do a direct headcount to know that it was probably every single member of Bullet Club that was in Japan at the moment. They were starting to surround the ring so Jay moved to the middle of it - microphone still in hand - and looked around at the people who could have been his friends if they were all different people.

The blank expressions of Tanga and Yujiro weren't that big of a surprise. Gedo was calculating. Tama was annoyingly arrogant. The flash of uncertainty in KENTA's eyes was almost enough to make him smile. But it was indeed everyone in Japan - no dissenters. There was something relieving about that. No doubt. No questioning.

"So which one of you fuckers is it going to be?" And Jay was looking right at Gedo when he spoke. "What about it, Gedo? Betray me like you did Okada?"

And all Gedo did was shake his head. Jay knew that Gedo had already betrayed him - that every single person surrounding the ring knew that his wrists were weak and vulnerable - but he wanted him to say it. Admit to it. The only person Jay had managed to trust before Tetsuya and all he could do was hope that his heart had chosen far better this time.

"Come on! Step up! Do something!"

There were footsteps behind him and Jay was disappointed before he even turned around.

"Really?! EVIL? You?" Togo wasn't even beside him and he was just staring at him. Jay ignored him - dismissing him - and turned to look at Tama. "Gonna let someone else do it? Gonna stay in the shadows? I don't even get the OG? Fucking coward."

And still EVIL was just standing there with that blank but supposedly menacing look on his face. It was stupid. All of this was stupid. So Jay chucked the microphone to the side and gestured at him. Begged him to just do something. His heart was racing. It was pure adrenaline coursing through his blood. The feeling was different than in a match. This was an ending and a beginning all at once.

EVIL lunged forward and Jay dodged him without issue. He hated how easily his opponents dismissed his speed and quickness. Even those that should know better - like Okada - did it. Fuck, Gedo should have laid out a blueprint on how to take him down to Bullet Club months ago. His punch hit its mark across EVIL's cheekbone perfectly but there was no precision to the low blow he followed that up with. And it was almost too tempting to yell that that was for Tetsuya as he watched EVIL crumple.

But pulling him up into position for a Blade Runner must have been some predetermined signal of some kind and part of him was strangely pleased that his finisher was considered to be that much of a threat. Jay could hear people coming closer but even knowing what was going to come next wouldn't stop him from twisting back and planting EVIL into the mat.

Hands grabbed him and the assault began.

Each strike and each kick was just as painful as he thought it would be. Jay wasn't even paying attention to who was attacking him. Retribution and vengeance weren't even a thought in the back of his mind right now. Tonight was about survival. Enduring. Getting through whatever Bullet Club chose to do to him. And all of it hurt.

He was flung into the ropes toward both KENTA and Ishimori who were still standing on the outside. For a long moment, Jay waited for them to close the distance and strike him while he was tangled up in the ropes but KENTA just nodded ever-so-slightly and neither of them budged. He did his best to nod once in return but he had no idea if they could tell with the way he was immediately whipped backward again.

Every movement his body was capable of was dedicated to trying to protect himself. Self-defense was his only focus. They couldn't keep this up forever - if nothing else they would get bored - and Jay knew that it wouldn't last. The night would end and Tetsuya would be there when he got to the back. Worried and careful and gentle. But he refused to conjure up his memories - not imaginary but real - of Tetsuya's arms around him. Didn't let his mind think about those tender caresses and soft words. Everything they were to each other was the last thing that Jay wanted to be tainted in the slightest by what was happening right now.

There was a part of him that was disassociating and he knew that. Whatever it took. He could put himself back together later when all of this was over. His back and sides were starting to throb but it wasn't anything he hadn't experienced before. It was more like all of this was merely to prove a point. That Bullet Club was stronger than he was. That he was weak and useless. And Jay knew that that would scar and he would be staring down those demons later but that was later.

Movement caught his attention, though, and for the first time, he was actually worried. Two of the Young Lions - he really needed to learn their names - were coming closer. Trying to interfere. Trying to help. It made him smile in spite of himself but their help was the last thing he wanted. Bullet Club wouldn't hesitate to hurt them. And this was his problem - not theirs.

"No! Stay back, you two!" His Japanese was as clear and as loud as he could make it with the pain in his jaw that had come from somewhere. "Don't do anything! Protect each other!" This time, they both nodded. "Good boys…"

If nothing else, he had managed that. But Jay was tired. His body was as tired as it was in pain. Why couldn't they be done yet? He knew he could handle it but he wanted it to be over. And that single thought was the only thing that his mind would seemingly focus on.

Just let this be over.

There was this bizarre pause where it seemed like everything - even time itself - had stopped altogether. And then a buzz. Jay couldn't tell where it was coming from. It seemed like it was surrounding the ring as if the crowd was speaking with one voice. The hands that were holding him upright let go and he dropped to the mat with a thud. The buzz was joined by Bullet Club shouting and Jay was almost positive that Gedo was swearing up a storm.

But before he could even try to get up, a face was looming over him.

"What are you doing down there?"

And the only thing Jay could do was laugh. It probably sounded more than a little crazy but it was so unexpected that there was no other response he could make.

"Ibushi? What are you doing out here?"

"Helping you." A hand was extended and Jay found himself being pulled upward on wobbly legs. "You looked like you needed it."

He had.

He really had.

Jay knew that he could have endured it all alone and that he needed to stand on his own. Asking Tetsuya to not do a thing to help him had been equal parts difficult and necessary. But this was something else. Ibushi had no reason to be out here. Working out together and eating Subway together wasn't anything binding.

But he was here for Jay anyway.

And he didn't know how to process that. Jay would have to at some point but there wasn't time for that now. Yujiro and Jado were right there. He and Ibushi struck them with completely out-of-sync forearms and that just made him laugh too. But there was something not quite right about what was going on. Bullet Club had the numbers advantage by far so they should be swarmed. It was insulting if they considered Ibushi to be that much more of a threat than him.

The commotion on the outside of the ring forced him to refocus his attention. But even blinking several times and shaking his head back and forth didn't make what he saw make a single drop of sense.

"Tanahashi?"

The man was too busy making Dick Togo look like even more of an idiot to realize that Jay had even said his name but that definitely Hiroshi Tanahashi. How many times had they feuded? How many cruel things had Jay said and done to him? But here he was anyway. That made even less sense than Ibushi's presence did.

Bullet Club was starting to scatter. Disappearing down the various aisles - their point made to their own unknown satisfaction. It was almost disappointing. Almost. But Ibushi still looked ready to fight and even Tanahashi seemed to smile a bit as he flung EVIL into a guardrail before he was able to fully get away.

"What is he doing out here?"

Jay was speaking mainly to himself but he could hear Ibushi chuckle beside him - a sound that was still slightly scary.

"I asked for his help."

"Did you tell him it was me you were helping?"

And now the expression on Ibushi's face was soft and almost sad. Jay couldn't hold his gaze and stumbled away, trying to figure out the best way to climb out of the ring. Rolling under the ropes would probably be for the best but he also knew that his body was more injured than he realized. Just because he could move now - just because the pain was bearable now - didn't mean that it would stay that way as soon as this rush started to fade. At least he didn't seem to have a concussion or anything close to it other than his mind feeling exhausted. Bullet Club had avoided his head - other than that one kick to the jaw - for the most part which seemed idiotic of them. They had only wanted to literally get their shots in and that was good enough for them.

It was something that seemed insulting in its own way. They didn't even care enough about him to hate him.

As soon as his feet touched the floor, Jay knew that he was worse off than he thought he was. That each step was going to be more painful than he expected. But it wasn't the first time that he had struggled to the back and it wouldn't be the last. He had taken exactly two steps before there was an arm wrapped around his back.

"It will take you forever to walk like that."

Ibushi's face was the slightest bit mischievous and Jay couldn't help but smile. Tetsuya had been the only person he could possibly envision even considering bothering to help him but here was Kota Ibushi - helping him to the back and bluntly teasing him like he might not mind his company too much.

"Thanks, Ibushi." His face tilted to one side. "I mean it. Thank you."

They had taken three more steps - Jay leaning into Ibushi's side more than either of them were probably comfortable with - when another arm joined Ibushi's.

Tanahashi.

Not one of the Young Lions - who had listened for once - but the Ace himself was trying to help him.

Both Tanahashi and Ibushi had an arm around him and Jay knew that it was going to be impossible to stop a tear or two from falling. How many times had he stumbled to the back alone or with Gedo carelessly dragging him along? How many times had his only assistance been from reluctant Young Lions that were merely doing their jobs? But the two of them were keeping him upright without being obligated to. It was kindness extended to him, even if neither of them had a reason to give such a thing to him. They had already done more than he had ever really known.

Jay turned his aching head toward Tanahashi but the expression he saw there almost made him look away. It was confusion and caution and curiosity. Not a trace of hostility or doubt.

"Thanks, Tanahashi." Even that basic sentence took him visibly by surprise but his grip didn't falter. But those words weren't enough. He still had no idea how to be himself, though, but he needed to start somewhere. "You do have good abs. Sorry about all that."

And someday, being able to make people laugh would stop taking him by surprise. It wasn't the response that he was expecting but it wasn't bad. At least, there didn't seem to be anything malicious in Tanahashi's light chuckle.

"I think you might have been hit in the head too many times."

Before Jay could respond - his brain was moving a little more slowly than he would like - Ibushi snorted on the other side of him.

"He's just like that now. Blame Naito."

The affirmation that Ibushi definitely knew about him and Tetsuya wasn't quite as important as the way Tanahashi's face crinkled up in unmistakable bewilderment.

"Naito?!"

Something about the way Tanahashi said Tetsuya's name didn't sit very well with Jay. Tetsuya was so many wonderful things - patient and gentle and affectionate - that it bothered him that Tanahashi doubted he could be any sort of good influence on him. He was so much more than that.

"Hey… Tetsuya is sweet." Tanahashi's eyes widened and Jay didn't know how to explain everything that happened between them. What he and Tetsuya had started to become. "I'm… I'm trying to deserve him."

But something about that - his simple truth - affected Tanahashi. His eyes softened into a far deeper kindness and the arm helping to hold him up pulled him a little closer. And something so close to the edge of being proud was there on his face. It was painful to look at but Jay didn't want to even blink. Wanted that expression to stay just like that. People who weren't Tetsuya didn't look at him like that. Not even before the Switchblade had been born.

"Come on then, Jay White. Let's get you to the back. I'm sure he's worried about you."

***

Chapter Text

***

Tetsuya was there waiting for him.

It wasn't completely impossible - Jay knew that - but the sight was so new and so unfamiliar that it took a moment for him to realize that it was real. Waiting for him openly and visible. But so was the rest of his familia. SANADA was stoic and Shingo looked vaguely irritated but BUSHI and Hiromu were staring at him with such worry and concern that it gave him the urge to peek behind him to see who else was there. Tetsuya, though?

His eyes were wide with something so close to rage that Jay wanted to look away. Not a sign of a smile or relief or anything close to it. Everything else about his face was so completely blank. It was an expression that was more painful than anything Bullet Club had done to him. And even though it was only a handful of meters, there was too much space between them.

Somehow, Ibushi seemed to realize that and helped him get untangled from him and Tanahashi, giving him a light shove on the back as he took a wobbly step forward. Tetsuya wasn't moving but Jay found a way to take another step closer. He probably should be hesitating but the only thing that mattered to him - the only thing he wanted - was wrapping his arms around Tetsuya.

It was only a couple of steps but it felt so much further than that, especially with how frozen Tetsuya seemed to be. At least, his body didn't seem to be in too much pain. He was more exhausted than hurt as if carrying that weight - the ball and chain that was his nebulous relationship with Bullet Club - had been far more tiring than he had really known. There was a part of him that simply wanted to laugh. It was over. Not completely. Not entirely. But the tether had been severed for good.

A few steps closer, though, Tetsuya looked even worse.

He hadn't said a word or even flinched but the anger in his eyes had only deepened. Jay was afraid to get any closer. He didn't want to be but he was. Tetsuya had done exactly what he had asked him to. Stayed out of his confrontation with Bullet Club. Had remained in the back and watched even though he hadn't been sure if he would be able to. Had seen every strike and every blow that had been directed his way. Watched as Tanahashi and Ibushi came out to help him when he had been told he couldn't. Of course, Tetsuya was mad at him. Not only did that make sense but it made him feel like a failure once again. Could he ever do anything right?

Jay had hoped for yet another sign of how much Tetsuya cared about him but this was definitely yet another sign of just how bad he was at this. At being with someone. At being a part of a life. It would be so easy to reach out and touch him but somehow, Jay knew that Tetsuya's cheek would feel cold beneath his fingertips.

His expectations had been entirely wrong, apparently. He'd thought that maybe Tetsuya would be concerned about him - worried and kind. Maybe even happy for him - a twin to the weightless relief that he felt growing in his own heart. But this silent blankness and the visible proof that he had made yet another misstep wasn't something that Jay had anticipated.

And neither of them had said a word.

Jay could feel them - right there on the tip of his tongue - but he had no idea how to say something. Not even Tetsuya's own name. How did he apologize and say thank you at the same time? How did he reassure him that he was okay when he wasn't sure if he was? How did he explain that it had been his affection that had given Jay the courage to make a choice for himself? How did he let himself collapse into Tetsuya's arms the way he needed to - the way he did when it was only the two of them?

Because right now, that was what he needed. Those arms around him, holding him safe and close. But he didn't know how to ask for it. And Tetsuya's face robbed him of any and all courage. Of what he would have used to just do it himself and trust that he wouldn't be shoved away.

And he wasn't brave enough to lie and tell himself that it would be okay.

This would be easier if Tetsuya would just say or do something but this was his fault. Jay was the one who had made a mistake. He knew that. But he was too drained to even start fixing it. And any condition and every promise were too much for that fatigue.

Would it be wrong to beg Tetsuya to say anything? He was too much and not enough.

And Jay didn't have that mask anymore. The Switchblade wasn't something he could call upon. He could find the harshness in his voice but that was it. The ability to mask that he was hurting and scared was gone. No more hiding that he was overwhelmed and weary. And Tetsuya - who had always seen him - was doing nothing.

Maybe he could try again later.

Tanahashi's expression was equal parts confusion and concern. And that made as much sense as everything else. Ibushi had a single eyebrow raised and all Jay could do was shrug.

"Where is medical in this arena? I should probably get looked at."

"It's just down the hallway."

And now Tanahashi sounded sad and it made him feel more pathetic than he already did. All Jay could do was nod and start walking. Each step was slow but not pained - the ache contained solely to his equally-tired heart. Ibushi came up beside him and he could hear Tanahashi walking behind him too. The escort wasn't necessary but it was appreciated, even if he had no idea how to say that. 'Thank you' stuck in his throat like everything else. And neither of them tried to help him further as if they both knew that the last thing he wanted right now was physical contact.

If there was any sort of commotion back at the curtain, Jay didn't hear it.

He was fine.

Bumps and bruises. Sore and tired. No signs of concussion. Even his jaw had been dismissed as 'struck with a great deal of force but not broken.' What felt like hours and hours of sitting here getting poked and prodded and now Jay was merely waiting five more minutes to make sure nothing more cropped up so he could just leave. Find his way back to that fucking hotel room and get some sleep.

It wouldn't be Tetsuya's apartment but it wasn't like he knew what that looked like anyway.

Sleeping for a week sounded pretty good, actually. Just rest and forget. Even though he desperately wanted to remember. Missteps happened in… relationships, didn't they? Tetsuya was still Tetsuya to him, wasn't he? He had to be. Jay was just too much for him right now. He had known that that was going to happen eventually.

Too much and not enough.

Maybe in a few days it would be okay to text him and say hello. That might be a decent way to start again. Slower, maybe? Jay had let himself get so attached so quickly and that had probably been a wrong move too. He was clingy and emotional and pathetic. If he had just been capable of holding himself together. Of not being so needy.

You are not a burden, Jay.

But he was - Tetsuya's kind words aside. If there was a next time, he would have to be better. Find a way to be stronger. To deserve him. Hold Tetsuya a little looser. Keep those tears from falling. He wouldn't have wanted to deal with him tonight either.

Ibushi had disappeared somewhere - Jay wasn't exactly sure where and when he had gone but he thought that he heard something about him still having a match tonight that he needed to get to. Which might explain why Tanahashi was sitting beside him - eyes carefully staring at the wall across from them.

"Don't feel obligated to stay, Tanahashi." Eye contact was beyond him right now. "I can take care of myself."

And the sigh beside him was drawn out and almost sad.

"Somehow, Jay White, you say that like a man who has failed at that many times before."

"Somehow?"

This time, Tanahashi merely chuckled.

"It's not a tone I ever expected to hear in your voice."

Jay had no idea what to say in response to that. Everything that had happened - every embrace, every choice, every unguarded word - had exposed him more completely than he could ever possibly feel comfortable with. Tanahashi of all people had proven that easily. The things he had done and said to him should have made it impossible for Tanahashi to pity him. But here he was anyway. Sitting next to him and keeping him company. His quick, hopeful glances at the open doorway had long since stopped. It was nice to not be alone - Jay could only acknowledge that - but he wasn't the person he wanted here.

"I wish you weren't here."

And that definitely wasn't kind. Fuck, he was such a fuck-up. But Tanahashi only lightly patted his thigh gently a couple of times.

"I can imagine." Another long and drawn out sigh as if he was searching for the words too. "I thought Naito would react differently as well."

That was probably more delicate than he ever would have managed.

"Me too." If only it was possible to not sound pathetic for five minutes. "But I don't blame him."

And he didn't. It was Jay's fault - he knew that. How could it not be? Tetsuya was so many wonderful things that he probably never had a chance of matching but he wanted to try. Jay wanted to keep trying.

"You don't?"

Not even the Ace himself could keep the curiosity out of his voice and that made him feel a little better about his own unsteady tones.

"How many times have we faced each other?" Jay couldn't help but scoff. "I mean… you know me. Would you trust me with someone's heart… especially his?"

The long, uncomfortable silence was more telling than Jay wanted it to be. He barely understood the glimpses of that life he had just started to see and he had been the one in it. None of this could possibly make any sense to Tanahashi. And that was okay. It really was just nice to not be alone.

There was too much to think about. His in-ring future for one. He had no idea how that was going to work. So many of the set-up matches were multi-man tags. Who in the fuck was going to be willing to be stuck with him? Especially with Bullet Club inevitably lurking around. At least he had gotten accustomed to changing and preparing in various tucked-away guest restrooms. So Jay knew how that worked already. And he wouldn't have a place at World Tag League coming up so that was one less thing to worry about too. Maybe he'd go back to America for a month after Power Struggle.

Clear his head and give everything and everyone some space.

The light touch on his shoulder was enough to make him both flinch and close his eyes. Too gentle.

"I do know the person you've been…" But it wasn't as gentle as Tanahashi's voice. "... but I also remember the Young Lion you once were. I had wondered what happened to him." And now all he could think about was an encouraging gaze that he had barely been able to meet. "You've loved him since then, haven't you?"

There was a part of him that wanted to run with everything that he still was. Holler and rage. Rant and mock. But it was that word again. The one he had tried to bury over and over again. Destroy and shatter - no matter how many times he failed at it. The one Ibushi had used so easily to describe something he thought no one could see. And it was a truth that he couldn't deny. Not to anyone. Not even to himself anymore.

"Yes."

And somehow, he knew that Tanahashi wouldn't mock him for that bit of honesty.

"All that time. All those years… you've kept that love, even underneath the darkness and the anger." That made it sound far more romantic than pathetic which was rather impressive. "Don't give up now. Keep fighting, Jay White."

Tanahashi made it sound so simple. Like it was something that was easily done. Like it was something that he believed that Jay could do. But he just nodded - eyes still closed - and the silence surrounded them again. Why wasn't this over with? He felt as fine as he probably could feel given everything.

Bullet Club hadn't been worried about ending his career or causing him serious harm. They had merely attacked him to dispose of him. Tossed him away like it was nothing. As if he was nothing to them. Wasn't anything, had never been, and could never be. And it was far too easy for his battered heart and his tired mind to draw a comparison that he really didn't want to. It was false. It had to be. It was only a misstep and he was too drained to fight back against those notions his head was toying with.

I'm not leaving you all alone ever again. I promise.

But Naito wasn't here.

He needed a distraction and Tanahashi's words - oddly enough - gave him an idea. It was something that he needed to deal with anyway and the more he thought about it, the more Jay liked the idea that was trying to form in the back of his mind.

"Speaking of fighting…" Jay took a deep breath and forced himself to look over at Tanahashi. "I need a challenger for the NEVER Openweight title. Wanna go again?"

"Me?"

Tanahashi looked as confused as he had earlier.

"It needs defending and I don't want one of those fuckers to take it off of me." And admitting the next part was just as difficult as it had been the first time. "And Ibushi is right. I'm going to lose while I re-learn who I am in the ring." Tanahashi's eyes widened in a sort of sympathetic understanding. "And I… I trust you between the ropes."

The hand that had never left his shoulder ever-so-carefully squeezed.

"Name the time and the place, Jay White. I'll be there."

Finally.

Medical had given him the all clear and allowed him to head out - with the usual short list of warning signs to keep an eye out for. His head hurt a little bit more than he would like and he almost wished that BUSHI would pop up out of nowhere to remind him to hydrate better. But now wasn't the time for such things.

Jay was just ready to leave. It seemed as if everyone else had long since left. The audience long since gone home. And now, his taxi should be waiting for him. Tanahashi had been kind enough to call it for him while he had grabbed his backpack from where he had stashed it. Little bits of kindness that kept adding up and Jay only hoped that he could hold on to them.

Either the door was heavier than he remembered it being or he really was that tired. It would be good to get some sleep. He and Tanahashi had decided on Power Struggle itself for their match so he had a few more days to just let himself rest. Figure out if he needed to get used to sleeping alone again.

All that time in medical and it would have been so easy for Naito to even just pop his head in. Ask if he was okay. But nothing.

He needed sleep that he knew would never come.

"Hiromu?"

And apparently, he really, really needed it. Because that wasn't a ride or a taxi or anything like it. That was Hiromu Takahashi, leaning up against the absolute ugliest car that Jay had ever seen.

"There you are, Jay White. You took forever."

For some reason, there was a layer of worry underneath that manically expressive face and it was touching in a way Jay didn't quite expect.

"I did?" Somehow, Hiromu managed to bounce up and down on his toes and nod at the same time. Jay didn't think he was coordinated enough to do that. "Did…" And his heart hesitated over the name. "... did Naito ask you to wait for me?"

It was the longest of long shots but he needed to ask anyway. And the pure annoyance on Hiromu's face gave him the answer he expected but didn't want. But the incredibly overdramatic sigh - rivaling any on any soap opera - was amusing enough to make him smile a little in spite of everything.

"Nooooo." Another sigh. "I told Naito-san he should have just kissed you but he didn't listen." And Jay couldn't help but blush - in both embarrassment and pleasure - at being met at the backstage curtain with a kiss. "I decided to wait for you anyway."

It was yet more that he had ever known and Jay could only smile softly.

"Thanks, man." Suddenly, Hiromu was right in front of him and grabbing at the shirt Naito had insisted on him wearing. He hadn't been able to take it off yet. "What are you doing?"

And now he was being physically dragged by a decidedly determined Hiromu. It continued until they were next to one of the doors and the hold was briefly relinquished so the door could be thrown open and his backpack could be pulled off him. Jay was shoved down into the passenger seat of the small car. Inexplicably, the inside was even uglier than the outside. Hiromu came around, tossed his backpack in the back and sat down in the driver's seat, staring at the steering wheel in a way that made Jay more than a little nervous.

"Is this your car?"

The aesthetics just didn't match if nothing else.

"Despy found it for me."

The expression on Hiromu's face was equal parts proud and smitten. It was actually a rather good look on him. And Despy could only be El Desperado and Jay wasn't sure if he wanted to know how he had found the car.

"That was nice of him." And that smile only widened. "Um… can you drive?"

"I think so." The car lurched and made a sound that Jay had never heard before. "It's not important. We need to get going."

He wasn't in that big of a hurry to get back to his hotel room but the thought was nice.

"Do you need instructions on how to get to my hotel?"

"No." They started moving and Jay was suddenly glad that he had remembered to buckle his seatbelt. "I'm taking you home."

***

 

Chapter Text

***

Hiromu had driven them exactly where Jay had thought they were going.

Every protest Jay had made had been dismissed with a scoff and another painful bump into a curb - something that he was almost certain was entirely on purpose. But he shouldn't be here - no matter what Hiromu thought. It was too much to ask. Plans had to have changed. There was no reason that Naito would actually want him here tonight. He wanted to keep fighting - as Tanahashi had put it - but not now.

Not tonight.

There just wasn't anything left.

It had taken so much out of him to confront Bullet Club - to draw that line in the sand - and he was realizing just how much with each passing minute. His body throbbed from head to toe but not necessarily from pain, even though he was equally aware of his newly-gained bruises. That ache was deep in his bones like even the association had been more of a burden than he had known.

The knowledge that he was truly no longer the leader of Bullet Club - no longer a part of any faction - felt like it was both weighing him down and a relief beyond any measure. Jay wanted to be happy. To be angry. To be upset. To feel anything other than this cloud of dread that had wrapped around him from the moment he had seen that fury in Tetsuya's eyes.

He hadn't said a word - had barely been able to picture it inside of his own mind - but Jay had imagined tonight going very differently. Had thought about falling into caring arms as sweet things were whispered into his ear. He had done something that he never would have done without knowing that he wouldn't be alone when it was over. It was pathetic of him but it was the truth. Jay was far too aware that he would have stayed with Bullet Club until they tossed him away completely if everything hadn't happened between him and Naito. But they had become something more - and Jay had wanted even more for them.

Greedy and selfish and stupid.

And now Hiromu was staring at him like he didn't understand why Jay wasn't already inside whichever apartment in the small, unassuming building was Naito's. How could he possibly think that he was going to be welcome? Hiromu had said he was taking Jay home. That was…

"You're thinking too loud, Jay White." Hiromu's groan was too much for such a small space. "This is why Naito-san should have explained familia to you better."

Nothing about anything that had happened tonight could be blamed on Naito. Not a single thing.

"It's not his… I'm the problem. Not him." Jay had to look away. "I appreciate this, man, but I don't…"

Suddenly, Hiromu was right there in his personal space - just slightly closer than was acceptable - and with a hand on each of his shoulders. It was invading enough that Jay had to look back at Hiromu's face. And the expression on his face was so worried and so serious that it was tempting to try and hug him.

"Mama BUSHI was right, wasn't he?" The hands on his shoulders tightened just a little. "You've been very brave tonight, Jay White, but you need to find a little more courage." Hiromu sniffled and his eyes widened. "Please… for Naito-san."

Jay wasn't sure how to handle this. Every bit of unfamiliar kindness he had received from others - with the exception of Tetsuya - had been more distant. But this was up close and personal. Pleading and begging. Hiromu was looking at him as if he needed him to be brave. As if he believed that he could be.

And the only thing he could think about wasn't that anger in Naito's eyes or the loneliness he'd felt sitting in medical - despite Tanahashi being there beside him. Instead, his heart was insistent on reminding him about each and every one of Tetsuya's soft words. Gentle caresses and tender embraces. Everything that was real. Everything that he wanted to last.

"Okay."

Somehow, Jay knew that Hiromu was going to walk right in the front door.

No hesitation that he was welcome inside. No doubt that he belonged within those walls. But Jay stood at the threshold - the door open and voices just barely audible - and this moment was so much different from what he thought it might be that he couldn't quite take another step. Tetsuya was supposed to be standing beside him with one of those unbelievably bashful smiles on his face. An encouraging hand was supposed to be resting on his lower back. He wanted to be anticipating not dreading.

But he was alone.

He was so tired of being alone.

You deserve a home, mi cariño. And I want to share mine with you.

Jay looked up from staring down at the line separating Naito's apartment from the hallway, only to realize that Hiromu was standing right there and waiting for him with a hopeful smile on his face. With a nod, Jay took a step forward and walked inside. Taking his shoes off was as difficult as his tired body warned him it would be but he tried to not take too long or make too much noise. Hiromu's patience was seemingly worn out, though, as he frantically pointed at a pair of guest slippers and made exaggerated hand motions that he could only assume meant that he should move faster.

It had taken more courage than he thought he possessed to walk inside. There was none left for glancing around at his surroundings. Seeing exactly what Naito's home actually looked like. All Jay could do was keep his eyes fixed on Hiromu's back and try not to listen too carefully about what was being said in the rooms beyond.

He failed at that one.

"I do not understand why you are still sitting here."

It sounded like a sentence that BUSHI had repeated multiple times at this point. Jay didn't understand why but the undercurrent of exasperation was easy to hear in his voice.

"I made a mistake. I can't do that."

Oh.

Oh, Tetsuya.

Jay had heard him say so many different things. Promos in a wrestling ring. Interviews and press conferences. Whispered words of sweetness as they lay together in bed. But none of it had ever sounded like that. His voice was lifeless. Defeated and lost.

And it hurt.

Despite what had happened as he staggered back through the curtain, there was no relief in knowing that Naito was hurting too. It only felt like an extension of his own pain - like it was something that they could only heal together. And the words themselves carried a different sort of problem. Did he really think that? How many mistakes had Jay made in these days of theirs? Over and over again, he had screwed up only to be greeted by patience and softness.

"Seriously?" BUSHI's loud sigh sounded so much like Hiromu that he wondered if that was where he had picked it up. "Do you have that little faith in your Jay?"

Your Jay.

And it was said so easily and so decisively. As if there could never be any doubt about it. Like there was nothing wrong with it. As if it was meant to be.

Your Jay.

My brave, sweet Jay.

Like he was worth claiming.

It felt like one of those realizations - one of those moments - that was easier to endure with Tetsuya's arms around him. But they were apart right now. Meters between them that it was up to Jay to cross. A few more steps put him closer to the room that BUSHI and Tetsuya were in, based on how Hiromu had stopped.

But either all of that or none of that explained why Hiromu had started giggling.

"Where have you been?"

Did that mean BUSHI hadn't known that Hiromu was going to wait for him either?

"Getting something important, Mama."

Jay took one more step forward and it was enough to catch BUSHI's attention; although, Hiromu eagerly pointing at him probably would have caused that too. And the frustration faded away from that masked face and transformed into something that made Jay deeply uncomfortable to see.

Pride.

BUSHI was proud of him. Openly and unabashedly proud of him.

He had to look away. He needed to look at something else. But what his eyes focused on was so much worse.

Tetsuya had been crying, that much was for certain. Jay knew what those cheeks looked like stained with tears, even though he had squeezed his eyes closed. The entire room was filled with his anguish and he felt it starting to press against his own heart. Work its way inside of him. Slightly hunched over himself as he sat at one end of a couch, Tetsuya looked so miserable that it was only fear that kept him from rushing over to him. But it was what he was holding that was more painful than everything that had and hadn't happened tonight.

His quilt.

Tetsuya was clutching his quilt like it was the only part of Jay he still had left to call his own. Like it was the only thing holding him together. He hadn't even unfolded it to wrap himself up in it or anything like that. No comfort to be gained other than from its very presence. Jay had no idea how it had gotten here but he was so glad that it had.

And Jay wanted to find the words. There had to be the right thing to say. A way to start. But his mouth remained motionless. He didn't even know if it was still okay for him to call him Tetsuya. Should he just use Naito to be safe? Or were they past the point of being quite so safe? All he knew for certain was that he wanted him to know that he was here. That he wasn't alone.

They had promised each other.

"Hey."

His voice was rough and his mouth felt dry like it had been days and days since he'd had anything to drink. But that didn't matter. Because Tetsuya had looked up.

Jay watched - fascinated and hopeful - as a visible weight fell away from his shoulders and that anguish receded just enough for him to take a deep breath. His eyes were red but light was returning to them as if Jay had been holding it for him this entire time. And the look in them was something that he had never seen before. Not even from Tetsuya. It was pride and love and joy and hope and wonder.

Neither of them had moved - Tetsuya still had yet to speak - but it felt like that was okay. Like they were going to be okay. They had time. A hand on his shoulder startled him probably more than it should have but Jay had legitimately forgotten that BUSHI was still there. Up close, though, that proud look was even more difficult for him to look at.

It was more difficult to forget about Hiromu's presence when he was standing behind him and muttering about kissing again.

"I'll go set out some things in the kitchen for you and then we'll be on our way." All Jay could do was nod in response and smile slightly as BUSHI turned his attention to Hiromu. "Call Shingo and SANADA and tell them they can stop stalking the hotel building."

BUSHI and Hiromu disappeared into a different area of the apartment that Jay could only guess was the kitchen and he and Tetsuya were left alone. He wasn't so far gone that he hadn't noticed the reference to the other members of the familia, though. Shingo and SANADA had seemingly been enlisted to stake out his long-term stay hotel and there again was that tightness in his chest that appeared every time he realized that Tetsuya's familia was taking care of him too.

Maybe family-in-training meant more than he thought.

But right now, what mattered - what was important - was Tetsuya's wide eyes and trembling, barely-there smile. They were both still not moving. Not a single muscle. There was a part of him that wanted to look away. To break that gaze and that connection. But it was so much smaller than it had ever been in these moments. The ones where the urge to run away rushed through his veins and it was so much harder to believe.

There wasn't a single drop of anger in Tetsuya's expression. He still didn't know for sure what had caused it - if there was really more to it like Hiromu implied - but for now, Jay was just comforted by its absence. Few things were more wrong than seeing that had been. He could hear BUSHI and Hiromu moving around in the apartment and after a handful of moments, the door could be heard opening and closing.

It was just them now.

Ibushi and Tanahashi had helped him from the ring, Tanahashi had sat beside him at medical, and Hiromu had practically driven him to Tetsuya's very door but the rest was up to him. The tiny distance between them was up to them to navigate. Missteps happened in relationships, Jay knew that. But knowing it didn't change that it was new to him. All of this was so new to him. And it was Tetsuya - the man that had held his heart for so long that he couldn't remember what it felt like for it to beat without him.

All those years… you've kept that love, even underneath the darkness and the anger. Don't give up now. Keep fighting, Jay White.

And he had just enough energy left for one more thing. One more drop of bravery to call upon. Slowly, Jay lifted his hands ever-so-slightly, extending his arms in open invitation. He didn't have any more words. Another step left to take. Everything had been used up in a cold ring and an empty hand. But he had this. And Jay needed it to be enough.

He knew that he could be too much and not enough but right now, he needed to be enough.

And those eyes - that heart - that had always seen him softened with the same tenderness that Jay had felt in every kiss they had shared. Tetsuya stood - carefully placing his quilt on the couch - and walked a few steps closer. The nearer to him he got, the better Tetsuya looked. Happy and grateful - as if he had needed Jay to come to his rescue. It reminded Jay of the way he would lean against him as they held one another.

BUSHI - someone he had known longer than Jay had known anyone - hadn't been able to get him to stand up from that couch. But a tiny gesture from him had done the trick.

You're so important to me.

It felt like it right now. In this moment, Jay could believe that Tetsuya's affection - his heart - had always been his.

He didn't know how to say that. Express it in words or actions. But he hoped that Tetsuya could see it in his eyes and his cautious smile. Fingertips ever-so-gently brushed along his jaw with a featherlight touch - a careful examination of where a bruise had to be formed by now.

"Jay…"

Tetsuya's voice was so quiet as if he was afraid of scaring him with the sound.

"I'm here, Tetsuya."

The name slipped out as his heart spoke for him but Tetsuya only leaned forward just enough to rest their foreheads together with the barest of pressure. Like he was worried about hurting him. About breaking him with a little extra weight. And it was so much gentleness - so much care and concern and tentativeness - that Jay didn't know what to do with it. Didn't know how to reassure him or tell him that it was going to be okay. Didn't know how to take the fear away from the softness in his eyes or the trembling away from his tender caress.

His hands found their way to Tetsuya's sides and Jay tried to remind himself not to hold on too hard - to not make his grip so tight. But the way Tetsuya's breath stuttered at his simple touch made it so hard to remember that he needed to keep more distance between them. And his heart wanted no part of that idea, either. It was begging him to pull Tetsuya into his arms and keep him there until the sun rose again. Not even the image of anger in those eyes could stop him from wanting and longing. From needing to be as close as he could be.

Tetsuya's head fell to his shoulder - resting there as if he had no right to anything else - and Jay could only wrap his arms around him and hold him close. He tried not to cling to him - tried not to hold on too tightly - but he wanted to so badly that it made it difficult to breathe. And Tetsuya himself wasn't helping. Not with how careful and uncertain he seemed to be.

He was acting as if he was waiting for the moment that he would go too far and Jay would shove him away. Take off and disappear. Not because he wanted it but because it was only a matter of time since he had made a mistake that couldn't be fixed.

Tetsuya was still afraid of losing him.

He was someone that Tetsuya was afraid to lose.

So Jay pulled him yet closer - refusing to admonish himself for it. There was no reason to berate himself for something that they both needed. Tetsuya's arms wrapped around him but there was still hesitation in his movements. And the shaking. He was shaking so badly - while Jay felt steadier. Even Tetsuya's breath was ragged against his neck as he whispered something that Jay had to strain to hear.

"Lo siento."

I'm sorry.

"Lo siento."

Tetsuya kept repeating it as he trembled in Jay's arms and he almost wished that he would stop. His voice sounded so broken and scared. He didn't feel as… fragile as Tetsuya seemed to think he was. He was sore like he had wrestled a long match and his tiredness felt more mental than physical. But mainly, he felt lighter. Relieved. No more Bullet Club. He was just… him.

"Lo siento."

His hand lifted and he slowly ran his fingers through Tetsuya's hair, trying to soothe him and comfort him. The apologies stopped but his breathing was still uneven.

"We're gonna be okay, Tetsuya. I'm right here." They still weren't clinging to each other like they had before and somehow, Jay knew that it was fear not concern that was keeping them from holding one another so tightly. "I'm… I'm not going to leave you." There was a whimper and a shudder and Jay knew that he was right. "Hold on to me as tightly as you need to."

For moment after moment, they both stood there in that embrace. The time didn't matter to either of them. Jay was fully aware that they were going to need to talk. He needed an explanation for that anger - an understanding that his mind couldn't fight - and he needed to share that relief with the only person who might know what it meant to him. But right now, they needed each other more.

And Jamie didn't know how to handle that. Being needed by Tetsuya Naito was almost beyond his comprehension. But the evidence was right there in his arms - in the man that was holding him like there was nothing more precious or beloved in his life.

Love isn't a weakness. It's a strength.

So he held on and let himself fall.

***

Chapter Text

***

At some point, Tetsuya had started to cry again.

Only a few tears but Jay felt the wetness on his shirt and had heard the little hitch in his breath. They were still holding on to each other but neither of them had said anything. He didn't know how to do this. Didn't know how to reassure Tetsuya when his own mind and his own heart were still so muddled but he needed to try. His fingers were gently carding through his hair but he wished he knew what to say. Those quiet words of soothing comfort that Tetsuya had whispered into his ear more than once before already seemed beyond him.

He was so tired - empty and drained - but he needed to find more. Enough to be enough for Tetsuya in these moments. He needed him and Jay was so completely out-of-practice at being needed by anyone that he didn't even know how to begin. If they were in that hotel room of his, he would probably just try and pull him in the direction of a place to sit or lie down but this was Tetsuya's apartment and Jay had no idea where the bedroom was or if it was okay for him to sit on the sofa.

But this was something that Jay had wanted to do so many times before.

How many times had he wondered about this very thing?

Being the one to take care of Tetsuya Naito. To be entrusted to get him home and look after him. Make sure his knee was propped up on a pillow or make sure he ate and rested. Tiny simple things of affection and care. Of being wanted and needed.

And now, here he was. In his apartment with Tetsuya in his arms, holding on to him like he was the only thing keeping him upright. Being trusted with these needy parts of his heart. How many people had ever seen him like this? His familia undoubtedly but selfishly, there was a part of Jay that hoped the list was fairly small. After all, Tetsuya was the only person who had ever seen him as vulnerable as he had let himself be in these days together.

That was something that he had told himself needed to stop. Sitting there in medical with Tanahashi at his side, Jay had promised himself that he wouldn't hold on so tightly. Would back away and not get so firmly attached to Tetsuya. Slow down. But right now, with Tetsuya still slightly shaking, that promise had vanished into the night air. Drifted away with each broken apology and each stuttered breath. Pulling away would only make everything worse - Jay knew that.

And he didn't want to.

It was easier to think about such a thing when there was that distance - both physical and emotional - between them. Easier to tell himself that he should wait days to even try and speak to Tetsuya again when they were far apart. But when they were like this? When Tetsuya was trembling in his arms and Jay could see him and touch him and hear him?

Not now.

He just needed to figure out what to do next.

"Tetsuya?" He flinched as if he wasn't expecting Jay to speak. "Can you show me where the kitchen is? BUSHI said he was going to put some stuff out and I think we could both use some water."

Jay felt him nod against his shoulder and take a deep breath as if he was gathering the energy and the courage he would need to move. And something about that tiny motion hurt. He didn't know how to ease Tetsuya's pain. He had his own but it didn't matter as much to him in the face of that fear and doubt. He wanted to know what he had done to make Tetsuya so angry - he needed to do better from now on - but it could wait. It wasn't as important as making sure Tetsuya understood that he wasn't going anywhere - despite what he had been trying to tell himself he needed to do. Jay wasn't going to disappear because he blinked wrong or anything like that.

He wanted to stay. To build something more. To find a home.

Tetsuya slowly lifted his head and Jay couldn't see anything but the worry and apprehension in his eyes. There was still a tear on his cheek and he wiped it away as gently as he could. Carefully and slowly, he leaned forward and kissed Tetsuya's forehead before that part of himself could tell him that it would be an unwelcome gesture.

"Everything is going to be okay, Tetsuya."

"How do you know?"

In all of their time together, Jay had never heard doubt like that in Tetsuya's voice. Had never heard him sound so small and so scared. And those emotions were mirrored by his eyes - still red from crying and whatever else. It was a vulnerability he never expected but treasured all the same.

"Because we both want it to be."

And somehow - maybe the night had finally decided to be kind - that seemed to be the start to the right words to say. He could see some of that hurt fade away from Tetsuya's shoulders in the way they relaxed. Light started to come back to his eyes and Jay couldn't stop himself from placing another kiss to his forehead. His hands rested gently on his chest but Jay almost desperately wished that Tetsuya was touching him too.

As soon as they had pulled back, Tetsuya's hands had dropped away. In uncertainty or fear, Jay wasn't quite sure. All he knew was that he liked it better when they were both connected like that. When they had that physical contact. His body wasn't as cold beneath Jay's fingertips as he was afraid it might be but things still didn't feel truly right. With a deep breath for a little extra courage, he let his hands slide upwards until he was cupping Tetsuya's face between them - not warm but not cold - and he watched as that simple touch was enough to make those eyes fall closed. As if Tetsuya was the one trying to absorb every bit of warmth and draw it into his bones.

Did he get this same tightness in his chest when Jay did that? Did he feel this longing to find a way to heal every hurt he had ever known?

Tetsuya's eyes stayed closed even as Jay started to lightly caress each of his cheeks - thumbs sliding across his cheekbones as slowly as he could. The tiniest whimper of distress echoed between them and it could only hurt Jay's heart yet further. Tetsuya was so scared. As much as he wanted to understand that anger from before, it paled in comparison to how much he wanted to help and soothe and comfort.

"It's all right." His own voice was both quieter and shakier than he expected. "I've got you, mi corazón."

Those eyes suddenly opened wide and Tetsuya gasped. For a single heartbeat, Jay couldn't quite figure out what he had said that had garnered that sort of reaction until his own words repeated themselves inside of his head.

Oh.

Oh.

He had said that, hadn't he?

He'd only thought about it in Tetsuya's presence one time before - whispered it aloud to him once while he slept - but now Jay had said it straight to his face. Fuck. But he couldn't deny his own words, could he? They had escaped even if he had never imagined saying them when they could be heard.

The expression on his face wasn't necessarily bad. It was so awed and so hopeful that Jay felt a tentative smile form on his own face. Tetsuya tried to stifle that hope but the warm light remained in his eyes and his hands had reached forward until they were resting on his chest - palms flat with his fingers curled into the fabric of his shirt. There was the slightest of trembles but Jay had no idea which one of them was making it. Probably both of them. He had stumbled his way into something important.

Could he get this moment right on a night when he had already made so many mistakes?

"Jay…" His voice was soft and warm and it sounded so much better than the last wary time Tetsuya had said his name. "... do you know what that means?"

It seemed that maybe he could deny his own words. Lie and state that he had no idea as to the actual definition. Avoid the actual meaning of the endearment. Jay wondered if Tetsuya was giving him that ability on purpose. The chance to back away from something else that might scare him or overwhelm him. Hide away from a sentiment - a concept - that might be too much.

But it wasn't too much for Tetsuya.

That was easy to see in so many ways. In that hope and in that wonder. In the love that had been there in his eyes after his G1 Finals victory. He was giving Jay space to decide if he was ready for such a thing. And maybe those two words hadn't slipped out. Maybe they had simply been waiting there for him to say them. Waiting for the Switchblade to disintegrate and for him to finally cast away that Bullet Club anchor.

How many times over all of these years had he tried to convince himself that it wasn't love? And that had been before.

Before caresses and kisses and embraces.

Before soft smiles and tender words of affection.

If it had been love then - even in spite of the damage he'd caused to his shattered heart - what else could it be now?

"I do." Tetsuya looked almost too happy and too surprised to take a single breath. "I don't know if I can say it in other ways…" Blatantly and clearly in English seemed beyond him. "... but I can say it like that… if that's…" It was too difficult to keep his eyes open. "... if that's enough."

His heart stopped beating in anticipation of Tetsuya's response. Jay fortified himself as best as he could for whatever his reaction might be. It couldn't be allowed to matter that much. Despite the turn their words had taken, Jay was determined to not collapse on Tetsuya. Tonight, he wanted to be strong for him. Wanted to be the one to hold him upright.

"Enough?" Tetsuya's voice had that undercurrent of pain again. "Oh… mi cariño…"

It was quiet after that. Just quiet enough that Jay felt he had to open his eyes. He didn't want to leave Tetsuya struggling with whatever was keeping him silent all by himself.

But there wasn't a sign of any sort of struggle on that beautiful face.

Instead, Tetsuya was smiling. A soft, affectionate smile that matched the love shining in his eyes. There was a pureness to it - as if Jay had just given him a gift that he had never dared wished for. And he wanted to say it again and again. This time with intention and purpose. Knowing that he was actually saying the words and Tetsuya was actually hearing them.

"Mi corazón."

There was more to it than love. It was the possessiveness of such a thing. Claiming Tetsuya - his heart and his future - as his. Claiming him in the same way Tetsuya had claimed him from that very first embrace. He didn't know how to deserve that. To be enough and not too much. But they were here, weren't they?

They had gotten this far.

Tetsuya's eyes were so bright and the idea that he - and the things his heart had protected from the Switchblade's destruction - could put that light there and bring it back to a place that had been so lifeless not that long ago was just on the right side of overwhelming.

"Jay… you can say that…" His voice was quiet but this time it seemed like it was wonder and not fear that was making it that way. "Even after tonight?"

Tonight.

Tonight, he had made a choice. More than one, actually. Repeated and exhausting courage. But he was no longer the leader of Bullet Club. He belonged to no one, really, except the man still softly smiling at him. And he belonged to himself. Jay felt that, deep into his soul. He finally belonged to himself again. The choices he had made were all aimed at those glimpses of a life he barely understood but longed for so badly it ached.

"Even after we both made a mistake."

Because that's what it was. That was what had happened. Jay knew that they needed to talk about it still. He needed to understand Tetsuya's anger and he needed to tell him about how badly his reaction had hurt. Because they were together and that was how they should handle things.

Oh, fuck.

That was the problem. That was what had made Tetsuya so angry. For all of his concerns about keeping his distance… his fears about getting too attached too quickly… the exact opposite was the problem. He had kept too much distance. Tetsuya wanted them intertwined so tightly that the bond could never be undone. That was why he wanted him in his apartment - why he wanted to give him a home. They were together and Jay had realized - accepted - the depths of it a day too late for Tetsuya's heart.

Jay didn't have the words to ask for it. They were beyond him at this point. All he could do was pull Tetsuya into him - wrapping his arms around him in an embrace so tight that there wasn't room for air between them. Holding him like his arms were a shelter and a shield. And Tetsuya didn't fight him for even a second. His hold on him was matched in every bit of pressure and worry. It eased something yet more within him.

"I'm sorry." How did that phrase go? "Lo siento." Tetsuya shuddered and Jay wasn't sure if it was from him using more Spanish or the apology itself. "I…" He sighed - that wasn't quite right. "You needed us to face tonight together, didn't you?"

The nod against his shoulder was easy to feel and it only made Jay wish he had understood a little sooner that much more.

"I want you to believe me when I tell you that I've got you." The kiss to the side of his kiss was brief yet tender. "You don't have to fight all alone anymore, mi cariño. No matter the battle."

And it wasn't even just staring down Bullet Club in a wrestling ring that Tetsuya was referring to. It was trying to be patient with himself and remembering how to be Jamie and letting others see how he felt. All those little battles and anything else that might happen down the road.

But it was the wrestling ring battlefield that was going to be the next big test.

Bullet Club wasn't done with him. Jay knew that. They would be there when he faced Tanahashi. They would see his name on the card and know that it was an opportunity to screw him out of his title - not understanding that it was a loss he had already accepted. And he wasn't sure if he could trust Tanahashi to have his back - without Ibushi's influence - but Jay also felt that he wouldn't make it worse.

And that was only the next match.

He would have to face Bullet Club in the ring eventually - someday soon - and he had no idea how that was going to go. Jay supposed that someone was going to get stuck being assigned to team with him at some point. The image was there in his mind - walking out to the ring with Tetsuya by his side instead of Gedo - but he knew that that was impossible. That familia of his only helped each other. They never stood with anyone else. And if Tetsuya wanted him like that, he would have asked years ago.

But now he was almost outright stating that he wanted to fight at his side. It wasn't an invitation to join his faction that was a family and he knew that. It was affection - love - not family. Shingo had called him family-in-training and that was nice. It was good. That meant there were people who tried to look after him - who worried about him - and that was still yet more than he had had in so long.

It was enough.

The ring was his problem, though. His and his alone. But that wasn't what Tetsuya said he wanted or needed and Jay had no idea what to do. He had made so many mistakes already and the absolute last thing he wanted to do was hurt Tetsuya further.

"I have a match at Power Struggle with Tanahashi." For some reason, Tetsuya lifted his head and looked him in the eyes - a tentative smile on his face. "Will you…" The smile brightened and he didn't know why. "... be there in the back for me again?"

Jay refused to explain how difficult it was to ask for such a thing, especially when a few hours ago he had been greeted with stone-faced rage. But it didn't seem to matter. That smile had vanished - only to be replaced by the very hurt he was trying to avoid.

"Is that all you want from me, mi cariño?" Somehow, a gentle caress along the side of his face took him by surprise. "Or is that all you think you can have?"

It was only the years of being the Switchblade that allowed him to do his best to keep how badly that question burned from showing on his face. What he'd wanted as a Young Lion - his longing to be a part of a familia - didn't matter any more. That choice had long since been made. But there was a truth that he could give and maybe be understood.

Family-in-training didn't mean faction-in-training.

"I'm trying to keep you safe, Tetsuya." Those eyes widened and Jay forced himself to keep talking. "I couldn't have said a word if I'd known it would get you hurt."

And the tender kisses to each of his cheeks were even more surprising.

"My brave, sweet Jay." His voice was again full of that softness. "Is that why you…" Tetsuya brought their foreheads as he sighed. "I don't want to be safe. I want to stand beside you." His voice softened yet further. "In everything, mi cariño. Everything."

He emphasized everything like he wanted it to settle into his heart and stay there until he understood how deeply he meant it. Until Jay accepted it as truth. And he wanted that everything. And he wanted Tetsuya to want that everything with him. Jay wanted to protect him when he needed it. But this was as close as he could get. He knew that.

This wasn't a conversation - a pain - he wanted to get into tonight.

"I don't… we can talk about this later."

Jay expected the hurt on Tetsuya's face but it was still painful, even this close up.

"The timing isn't important, Jay. We were always going to have to say these things." Tetsuya pulled back again - eyes searching his own. "So many words and feelings that we've both hidden away. Please talk to me." And this kiss to his forehead lingered. "What's going on in there?"

And he couldn't help but scoff and look away.

"Figures. Here you are… being so… I was trying to take care of you for once, you know."

"For once?" His face was gently turned so he was forced to look back at those warm eyes. "You've been taking care of me, mi cariño. Every time you've held on. Every time you've leaned into my touch. Every time you've fought yourself and stayed. You've given me what I needed." And those eyes filled with love once more. "You've been wonderful, Jay."

Too much and not enough.

Jay was so certain of it. But what Tetsuya was saying was something completely different. Something that should be impossible.

"We've been taking care of each other…"

He hadn't meant to say that out loud - especially so softly - but Tetsuya didn't seem to mind his quiet revelation. Lips brushed against his and this kiss was just as tender as all the rest had been.

"Exactly."

"If timing isn't important, can we talk about this more later?" Tetsuya looked confused but Jay wanted to be a little bit more honest. "I'm exhausted, mi corazón." Those eyes softened as if he suddenly remembered just how long the night had been for them both. "I need some water and some sleep. And so do you."

Tetsuya backed away from their embrace with a nod but they were both smiling gently at each other. He could see it and feel his own. A hand touched his and Jay curled his fingers around it, holding on with as much affection as he could find.

"Okay. Let's get some water and then I'll show you where our bedroom is."

Jay knew he was blushing again as they walked - hand in hand - toward the kitchen.

Our bedroom.

***

Chapter Text

***

It was just a bedroom - Jay knew that - but there was still something intimidating about the fact that it was Tetsuya's bedroom.

That he wanted him in a place like this.

You deserve a home, mi cariño. And I want to share mine with you.

The room itself was sparsely decorated. A western-style bed which his back was exceedingly pleased to see. A small table on each side of the bed. Moonlight was streaming through the window and it made everything look cozy and inviting. But it was the sensation of Tetsuya's hand on his back that made him feel welcome. Jay felt his eyes on him as he looked around the room but there was no rush in that gaze.

No questions - only hope.

They had both quietly drank an entire bottle of water and shared some of the diced fruit that BUSHI had put out for them. He had even included a bottle of ibuprofen, which had been helpful since Jay had realized that his backpack was still in the car that El Desperado had helped Hiromu acquire. He could only hope that Hiromu had grabbed it at some point - his phone and wallet were in there, amongst other things. But that was a problem for after he had finally gotten some sleep. Logistics were beyond his equally exhausted body and mind.

Right now, he only wanted to find a way to take another step forward. Find a way to just lie down in Tetsuya's bed with him there beside him. But Jay couldn't make himself move. He was exhausted and he needed to rest. But every bit of drop of courage and bravery he possessed had been consumed by everything that had happened tonight. By severing his ties to Bullet Club. By crossing that distance between him and Tetsuya.

It was pathetic - the way he couldn't muster the strength to take a single step.

"It's only a bed, Jay."

But that voice was still gentle in his ear.

"I know… it's just…"

"You need to lie down, mi cariño." Jay knew that too but he was still stuck. "How else am I going to know if I need to buy a new mattress?"

And now, he couldn't help but look at Tetsuya. At those soft eyes and the encouraging warmth in them. Because it sounded like he had every intention of replacing a piece of his own furniture if Jay didn't like it and that couldn't possibly be right.

"What?"

"I need to know what you like better… if you sleep well or if something else would be better for you…" He had to look as confused as he felt because those eyes softened yet further even as they maintained this layer of seriousness. "I know I haven't done a very good job of it so far but I want you to be comfortable here."

The worry in his voice led Jay to giving him a quick kiss on his cheek. Tonight hadn't gone how he had almost imagined it would either. But buying a new mattress was more than a bit too much. It implied too much about staying for as battered as he felt right now.

"I…"

Fuck, he couldn't even finish a sentence. Jay tried to look away - to lower his head - but Tetsuya's sudden touch beneath his chin was steady yet gentle.

"I want to make your hiding place a little bigger, Jay."

There was so much pleading and love in that gaze that it made it so hard to not just close his eyes. To shut off his glimpse of such a thing. But his eyes remained open as his heart had heard the words and understood what Tetsuya meant by them. What he wanted to give him. What he wanted to share with him. It was that life he could almost picture in his mind. It was all those things - the closeness and the little moments and the affection - that he had never known.

It was Tetsuya wanting to give him a home.

Because that offer of his wasn't a one night thing. His suitcases were tucked away in the corner of the room - out of the way and unassuming - even though Jay had no idea how they had gotten there. His quilt. It had never been a single night he had imagined - not in all of these years. His heart had always been greedy about it. Not one night of passion that was never broached again but this. Even if his mind had never been able to conjure anything beyond a tender kiss and a body beside him in a formless bed.

Together.

"I don't know how…"

"Neither do I, mi cariño." Something about Tetsuya's response comforted him. Maybe it was something about they were both uncertain about how to do what they were doing. "I just know I want you to stay."

The for good was unspoken but Jay heard it anyway.

"Then we should probably start by getting some sleep."

Part of that answer was truly tied up in his own exhaustion - something so deep that he felt in his bones. But part of it was also about trying to sidestep that entire conversation. There were so many things that they needed to talk about and they didn't need to say everything at the same time. And part of it was also how badly he was longing to feel the warmth of Tetsuya's body across from him. To fall asleep with that bit of peace he had known a few times already but it was something that soothed.

He needed that bit of peace tonight.

And all Tetsuya did was smile and nod in return so maybe that conversation was beyond him too right now. They separated just enough so Jay could pull off his tear-away pants - thankful that he was wearing shorts underneath. While he usually slept with no shirt on, he didn't want to take off the one he had on - Tetsuya's shirt that he had insisted on Jay wearing to the ring. It wasn't bloodied or torn and he liked that extra little bit of connection against his skin. He was so preoccupied by slowly changing his own clothes - his body was sore - that he missed Tetsuya stripping down to the shorts Jay had given him.

From there, climbing into bed was almost automatic. It was almost as if they each had a chosen side - a way already that they shared a bed. A tiny thing but it felt significant nonetheless. They both rolled over onto their sides - completely in sync - and it was easy to return the small but soft smile on Tetsuya's face. There was still a gap between them but that was alright. Jay just wanted - needed - to know that he was there. That he wasn't all alone.

But as his exhausted body sank into the comfortable mattress, all of the doubt he had been trying so hard to hold back came rushing back into his heart and his mind. As he tried to take a deep breath, it could no longer be ignored.

I'm not leaving you all alone ever again. I promise.

But he had.

"Jay?"

The expression on his face had changed from that softness to something far more concerned and Jay knew that his own ability to keep his face from showing everything that he was feeling had long since faded away. He could only hope that he would be able to find it again when he felt more stable. When he wasn't so tired. There was little appeal in being an open book. Being seen by Tetsuya was already so much.

"I'm just tired, Tetsuya."

But those shrewd eyes saw straight through him.

"No… it's not only that… there's so much you're thinking and feeling… and you're holding so much of it back." Shifting closer, Tetsuya reached out and placed a hand over his heart with an almost sad sigh. "I did that, didn't I? I put that wariness back into your heart."

His voice cracked ever-so-slightly and Jay had to close his eyes so he couldn't see that anguish grow yet further. He couldn't even respond. Couldn't even speak. There were no words to say. No denial to give. Nothing left for him to hold himself up with. He just wanted to relax into that warmth. Let it surround him and strengthen him. But being held was beyond him - Jay knew that. They had tried that before.

A single finger brushed along the bruise on the side of his face with the barest of touches and he still didn't want to open his eyes.

"I didn't even ask if you were okay…" The words were so quiet that if they hadn't been as close as they were, Jay didn't know if he would have heard them. "... and you're still here beside me." A kiss to that bruise surprised him more than it probably should have. "My brave, sweet Jay."

Tetsuya had moved even closer to him and that warmth was close enough to touch but he couldn't. He just didn't have anything left. No energy remained for reaching out or trying again. No courage left to do anything other than stay. Perhaps admitting out loud the fundamental truth his heart had always carried - mi corazón - had taken too much out of him.

Maybe it was the entire night.

But lying here was all he was capable of. Jay just wanted to sleep. To wake up to the sight of Tetsuya sleeping softly beside him. Tomorrow. He could be brave again tomorrow.

"Could you open your eyes?" That hand shifted upward until he was reaching behind his head and finally pulling the ribbon he had borrowed from BUSHI out of his hair, gently combing through the loosened strands with his fingers. "Could you let me hear your voice?"

He couldn't.

If he spoke.. if he looked… Jay knew there was no more controlling everything that he was feeling. Every bit of hurt and sadness. No possibility of holding back how disappointed he was in Tetsuya's response to his return from confronting Bullet Club. No ability to not speak about his pain and his love in the same sentence.

Tomorrow.

He could be enough again tomorrow.

So Jay carefully shook his head back and forth - the movement small but noticeable.

"Oh, mi cariño." Had he ever heard Tetsuya sound so sad before? "Lo siento." Those fingers kept up their repetitive but soothing strokes through his hair. "I'm going to stay right here. Try and rest. I'll watch over you." Jay was so tired that he didn't know if he could sleep. "Would it be okay if I talk to you until you fall asleep?"

There was a part of him that was afraid of what Tetsuya wanted to say. And he hated it. That wasn't what he wanted. Not at all. So this time, he nodded - eyes still closed and mouth still shut. Those fingers stopped for only a moment as Tetsuya gently kissed his forehead with a tenderness that started to spread across his skin.

"I had a plan for tonight. I was going to take care of you. We moved your things from that hotel room to here." The disdain in his voice as he mentioned his hotel room was easy to hear. "You're not checked out… BUSHI said that you should do that yourself."

A choice.

BUSHI had made sure that he still had a choice and Jay was oddly tempted to hug him for that alone. He would definitely have to say thank you later, even though the image of Tetsuya and his familia wandering all over his suite was a vaguely uncomfortable one in his head.

They kept trying to help him.

"I was going to pull you close and stay by your side. Hold your hand as the doctors examined you." And for a moment, Jay could easily picture Tetsuya there in Tanahashi's place. That would have been nice. "We put blankets and pillows in my van so you'd be as comfortable as possible on the trip over here. SANADA even agreed to drive so I could sit next to you."

The tears started to fall and still he kept his eyes closed. Tetsuya gently wiped them away and still he didn't dare say a word. That definitely would have been better than bouncing along in Hiromu's hideous car.

"Shingo was going to come along in case you needed to be carried. He said I'm not allowed to do it."

There was an irritated scoff-like noise and Jay felt his lips turn up in the smallest of smiles. But as always, Tetsuya saw. The knowledge felt in the tiny kiss to the corner of his mouth.

"We'd get you settled on the couch… wrapped up in your quilt… so you could sit up and take some medicine and eat something. BUSHI brought over the ingredients earlier today and made you a stew." It was so much and it was hard to just let himself listen. To not get up and run away. "There are vegetables in my refrigerator, Jay."

And he sounded so put out by that fact - so annoyed - that it reminded Jay of all of their bantering and teasing back and forth over those precious months. That smile grew a little more and enough of the pain faded away that his eyes opened so he could see the love in Tetsuya's eyes.

"I was tempted to see if you'd be willing to lie down and rest your head in my lap. I've…" Tetsuya's voice softened yet further. "... wondered about what that would be like." He was going to have to file that away in his mind. Tetsuya wanted that. Such a small but sweet thing to share between them. "I was going to run my fingers through your hair and tell you how brave you'd been. Tell you how proud of you I was."

They reached for each other at the same time, fingers intertwining as they held hands just like they had that first night together.

"Because I am. You chose for yourself, mi cariño. You did so good."

This time, the tears were Tetsuya's and Jay used his free hand to brush them away as gently as before. He was proud of him. He thought he did well. People didn't say things like that to him. In all these years since he left New Zealand, Jay had only heard words like that a handful of times before. Had only heard them from one other source - Gedo.

But Tetsuya wasn't lying to him for his own benefit. This wasn't manipulation or a betrayal that he should have seen coming from much further away. This was affection and understanding and love. And everything that Gedo had said to him over the years - the words whispered into his lonely ears - was something else that they needed to talk about. But not tonight.

So Jay let himself push back just enough of that doubt - quieted that voice - so that his own love could rise up once more. It wasn't enough to speak. Not enough for a single word. Any energy he had regained had been borrowed from Tetsuya himself. But it was enough for him to tighten his grip on his hand. Enough for that light to come back into his eyes. Enough for Tetsuya to see it.

"There you are, Jay." A tender kiss to his still-closed lips that lingered as long as he needed it to. "Do you want me to keep talking?"

Another nod was met by a smile and Tetsuya letting go of his hand only long enough to tuck them both in a little better. That warmth was surrounding them both and Jay felt himself start to drift off as soon as he started speaking again.

Tetsuya's voice was like his very own lullaby. He moved on from discussing his hopes for the night and started to talk about the building he lived in. The stray cats that liked to hang out on his balcony. The old woman in the apartment down the hall that even Shingo was afraid of. The conbini down the street that he liked to go to. Little things about a world - a life - that Jay had never let himself imagine a single detail of.

And he kept talking - telling him more about baseball and his favorite players as sleep finally and mercifully claimed him.

***

 

Chapter Text

***

Everything hurt.

Every muscle, every bone, every bit of skin.

Bullet Club hadn't stopped. Not for a single moment. Not even long enough for him to catch his breath. The crowd was cheering every punch and every kick but that wasn't surprising. Jay knew that it was what he deserved. All of this was what he deserved. If he had been good enough, none of this would have happened.

But Bullet Club had turned on him - surrounding him with disappointment in their eyes - and he didn't blame them. What good had his leadership ever done for any of them? He should be surprised that they had kept him around this long. No one ever got that attached to him anyway. He wasn't that sort of person. He was alone. Always had been and always would be.

The assault continued and so did the cheering. Jay couldn't even stand anymore. His legs refused to hold his weight but there was no ground to hold anyway. Just him and the mat and Bullet Club's attacks. They had all taken their turn without hesitation or remorse. All of them smiling - happy to finally be rid of the burden that he was. That made sense. He had tried so hard to become as ruthless as he needed to be despite every one of his heart's protests. They had to see that weakness and were glad to be done with someone as pathetic as him.

He was in pain - a fire that screamed beneath his skin - but that didn't matter. They would never stop. There was no reason for them to stop. The crowd enjoyed every move as much as they did. No one would ever stop them. Why would anyone bother? He was just the broken Switchblade. No one cared about him. He knew that. He had known that for a long time. He was nothing. And each kick was only confirmation of that.

Gedo was leaning over him - staring at him with that calculating and cruel look in his eyes. He had seen that look so many times before. Knew exactly what the tone of his voice would be before he said a word.

"What are you doing down there?"

And then he started to laugh. As if what was happening to him was the funniest thing that he had ever known. Despite everything, Jay could still easily remember Gedo's hand on his shoulder and voice in his ear. Could still recall the way that Gedo had been the only one to reach out to him while he was on excursion. A plan whispered during phone calls and long nights. Reminders of who he needed to become if he wanted to be seen.

Trust given and unwanted.

He had never been wanted.

There was no answer for Gedo. No words to say. No response to give. Jay wasn't sure if he could speak. His mouth felt glued shut by pain and years of silence. But what words would come out in the first place? What could he possibly have to say? Who would even listen to him?

"I made a mistake. Why did I get stuck with you?"

Jay didn't know why either. That plan of Gedo's just required a wrestler willing to be cold. Willing to betray anyone and never get attached. Gedo could have sharpened anyone into the Switchblade. He was expendable.

"I should have chosen Ibushi. You can't win. How often have you lost?"

So many times. That was part of this life but he could never defend a title. Never hold onto one. Couldn't win without cutting a corner. And that mattered and it didn't - all at the same time. Gedo was right. Anyone would prefer Kota Ibushi to him. There was no reason to choose him.

"You were too much work and not important enough to care about."

Too much and not enough. That was what he was. Jay knew that was what he had always been. Nothing could ever change that. It was an immutable thing. Only his grandmother had ever truly cared about him. Why would anyone else?

"How did you never realize that none of us ever wanted you there waiting for us?"

Bullet Club had made it perfectly clear over the years that they wanted nothing to do with him. Pushing away his hand when he tried to help or ignoring any message he ever sent. But Jay was pathetic enough that he had stayed anyway. He had nowhere to go. No place to land anytime he fell.

Gedo stepped back so the beatings could continue but Jay didn't even bother to try and stop them. There was no point in fighting back. What of himself was left to fight for? It didn't matter. He didn't matter.

"Jay…"

He knew that voice. Gedo had started laughing again, grabbing him by his hair and roughly pulling his head upward so he could see. Naito was standing right there. Watching him from just outside the ring with no expression on his face. Looking at him like he was looking straight through him. Like he wasn't even there.

"I told you. How many times did I tell you? Naito doesn't give a fuck about you."

The members of Bullet Club had lined up to kick him square on the side of the ribs - each one delivered with more force than Jay thought possible. It didn't stop. They didn't stop even when he finally screamed. Unable to stop himself from begging for help. Pleading with them to stop. He knew it was pathetic. That it was just another sign of weakness. But it hurt so badly. He was hurting so badly.

"Look at him! He's just standing there. You mean nothing to him."

Naito's blank expression didn't change. He didn't move or even blink. It was pointless to hope for an outstretched hand. For Naito to see him and make even the smallest attempt to pull him to safety.

"You're safe…"

There was no such thing as safety. That wasn't the way his world worked. He would never be safe. Not just from attack or assault but safe. Never safe or warm. No home. There was no such thing for him.

"Why would we stay with you? You're all alone. I promise you, Jay… you'll always be alone."

"I'm here, Jay. Please…"

Another hand grabbed his shoulder and he curled in on himself even further. As much as he could to try and protect himself. It was pointless but the instinct was still there. He was tired. He was so tired of being hurt.

"I know the person you are. Just give up. Don't bother fighting."

Maybe Gedo was right. Why was he even trying? It wouldn't be enough anyway. Bullet Club was done with him and no one else would ever want him. They hadn't even wanted him. It would be so easy to just give up. To stop. To walk away.

"How could you believe that we cared about you? I thought we understood each other, Jay."

They did. Jay had always known that he was just a means to an end for Gedo. But he had hoped that maybe he might like having him around even just a little. And he should have known that they truly would never care about him. Not for a single moment of a single day. He'd had a purpose that he was terrible at fulfilling. It was both easy and difficult to ignore the chatter that his Bullet Club was the worst and weakest iteration. Such a thing came down to leadership and he knew he fell far short in that. He wasn't the sort of person that anyone would look to for strength.

"Please open your eyes and look at me…"

Naito was still standing right there. His voice was easy to hear even if Jay couldn't see his mouth move. He was looking at Naito and Gedo had started laughing again. What was there to look at? What was there to see? Nothing. He was nothing to Naito. He had known that from the moment he had graduated from the dojo. And then, Gedo had told him that over and over again but that pathetic heart of his had always refused to listen.

"Why did you even think that you did good? How could we possibly be patient with all of your failures and all of your mistakes?"

"Jamie… please… you're not alone…"

There was a warmth against his face - something wiping away his tears of pain - and he didn't have the strength to shove it away. He was pathetic like that. The warmth was too unusual - too new - for him to do anything but lean into it. So starved for gentleness in all moments and not just this one that he didn't dare question the source.

It was simply warm.

"Please wake up, mi cariño."

That warmth spread over his face and across his skin, soothing his aching body as it traveled. Gedo's hand was pulled away from his hair with a carefulness he had never known. It was replaced by a stronger version of that warmth - something almost brighter - and Jay could only sigh. Naito was still just staring at him but there was the smallest of smiles on his face.

The assault continued but Naito was smiling at him.

Not through him or past him or in spite of him.

Just smiling as their eyes met.

"I've got you… my brave, sweet Jay… I've got you…"

Jay wasn't any of those things. He wasn't brave or sweet or claimed by anyone. Why was Naito saying something like that? There was no reason for him to. Even just calling him by his first name alone was too, too much. Beyond his heart's pathetic dreams.

"Look at you. No wonder no one worries about you."

But Tetsuya did.

The kicks stopped.

Tetsuya.

The crowd went silent.

Tetsuya worried about him.

Naito's hand reached out.

"Please wake up, Jay. You're safe. It's not real."

Bullet Club vanished and Gedo disappeared. The ring transformed beneath him into something far softer and the pain his body was in lessened. His surroundings fading away until all he could see was Tetsuya…

… and the fear in his expression.

"Tetsuya?"

It hurt to say a word as if something had scrubbed his throat raw. But Tetsuya was leaning over him, his weight both grounding and soothing. The softness beneath him was a very comfortable mattress and the moonlight coming in through the unblocked window was enough to let him see every part of that fear and that concern. His hand was ever-so-slowly stroking along the side of his head and the sensation felt better than it ever had.

"Jay…" And Tetsuya's voice was so gentle as if he didn't want to scare him further. "... are you okay?"

He couldn't help but reach up to touch Tetsuya's face with his own fingers. He was real and warm and true. They were in Tetsuya's bedroom - in his bed - and it was easier to know that all of that had been a nightmare when he could touch and see.

"I think so… sorry about that…"

The apology escaped his lips before he could stop it but that was probably inevitable. He was so much to deal with - Jay knew that - and the last thing he wanted to do was overburden Tetsuya with his baggage. Was it tomorrow yet?

"Mi cariño. My brave, sweet Jay. Please don't apologize." Tetsuya lingered as he placed a tender kiss to his cheek, hovering as if he wanted to snuggle close against him but was afraid of pressing too hard. "Do you want to talk about it?"

He didn't.

He really didn't.

Jay could still hear every word Gedo had said. Feel every punch and every kick along his body. He could still see Naito - the man in his dreams but not the man of his dreams - standing there and just watching everything happen. Doing nothing to help him and looking straight through him.

"I just want to forget."

Tetsuya's eyes were sad but understanding. There was something, though, at the edges of his expression. Something curious and wounded all at the same time.

I want to hear your stories, Jay.

But this was a story that he didn't want to share. He didn't need to burden Tetsuya with the contents of his nightmares. It was bad enough that he had been exhausted enough to have one while they were in bed together. Tetsuya needed his sleep and he didn't need that sort of disturbance. And none of it had been real - that was the important part.

"You were shaking and screaming, mi cariño." The hand in his hair slid downwards, brushing along his chest. "You're still shaking…" He was but Jay was trying to ignore it. "How can I help you? What do you need?"

He didn't need anything. He wasn't supposed to need anything. But that was the remnants of the Switchblade trying to speak for him. Tetsuya was here - worriedly hovering over him - and Jay wasn't sure if the novelty of that was ever going to wear off. He had severed his ties to Bullet Club and had fallen asleep in the bed of the man he knew that he loved. And there was strength to be found there - a little more to draw from after such an exhausting night.

"Could you…" Jay hesitated over his own words and that pause made Tetsuya nervous. He could see that. "Could you please kiss me?"

The smile that settled across that face was so tender - so loving - that Jay was certain that his battered heart was going to jump out of his chest. It wasn't too much. He wasn't too much.

Tetsuya slowly came closer - his weight warm and welcome - until their lips touched. They had kissed before - a handful of times - but each one of those kisses had been far more tentative. They were still careful with each other but this kiss was far deeper anyway. His hands couldn't quite stay still, even though it wasn't impatience. Jay simply wanted more. He liked Tetsuya's weight on top of him like this. Liked the way it felt to have him pressed against him like that as their mouths moved together.

Liked how it felt like love and protection.

The tendrils of the nightmare faded yet further with each passing heartbeat. Falling away as they kissed and no single dream he had ever dared have compared in the slightest to the little noises Tetsuya made as Jay tried to pull him yet closer. The blankets were long since gone so it was just them - the warmth between them belonging to the two of them alone. One of his hands had decided to settle in Tetsuya's wild hair and he was doing his best to make it even wilder.

By some unspoken signal, they slowly pulled apart - each of them stealing another quick kiss along the way. Tetsuya was propped up on one elbow - trusting Jay with the rest of his weight - and his hair was sticking out in three different directions. His gaze was nothing but pure affection and just enough heat that it made him wish that he wasn't sore, tired, and a little shaken. He wasn't sure why Tetsuya slept with the curtain open but he was thankful for the extra light that allowed him to see such a thing.

"You look beautiful in the moonlight, mi corazón."

Tetsuya's eyes widened as Jay realized that he had actually said that out loud. It was something that he would think - that smile so easily made him swoon - but never something that he would say. But he had and Tetsuya was smiling at him so softly as the barest of blushes spread across his cheeks. Once again, he leaned back down to capture Jay's lips with his own - a kiss so tender that it made him blush.

"Gracias, dulce Jay."

But there was something more that Tetsuya wanted to say. Jay could see that in his eyes, especially this close. He was holding back. Trying to be careful with him. Always so careful when they were like this.

"What is it?" Tetsuya leaned into his caress of his cheek as if he was drawing strength from his touch. "Háblame… por favor. Me gusta tu voz."

Jay felt awkward, trying to speak Spanish - trying to use something that he had learned years ago solely for the man on top of him. But Tetsuya was only smiling at him - a fond and quiet thing.

"That's a story I would like to hear someday, mi cariño." Another gentle kiss as it seemed Tetsuya was trying to find his words. "I know you said that you can say…it… like that… in Spanish but…" His voice was hesitant but Jay knew what he was referring to - mi corazón. "... is it possible… could you hear it? Is there any way I can say it to you?"

Tetsuya's voice trailed off as if he was trying to not scare him with each word. So careful and patient. Asking something like that. Not pushing him too far. But the words themselves couldn't be denied. Tetsuya wanted to tell him that he loved him. He wanted to say the words and keep Jay in his arms. It should make him feel pathetic that it felt good to be treated so delicately. That it made it so much easier to trust and only strengthened his own love in return. The concept itself should terrify him and would if that love wasn't there already. But hearing it so openly?

"I don't know."

A part of him waited for disappointment that he knew would never come. And it didn't. Tetsuya simply kept smiling at him and Jay wished he had a different answer. But that was a word - a phrase - he hadn't heard directed at him since he'd left New Zealand and there was something frightening about it. He knew how he felt about Tetsuya - had always felt about Tetsuya. Accepted that. But hearing Tetsuya say that he loved him? It seemed too far.

Not yet.

"Do you know that I feel it?"

Tetsuya's gaze felt like it was trying to penetrate deep into his own heart. Plant that love there itself so Jay couldn't deny it. Not now and not ever.

"I do." And the awed and wondrous smile that started to form on Tetsuya's face was almost too bright to look at. "It's there, Tetsuya. It's in your eyes and in your touch. I feel it, mi corazón."

"Then I'll keep showing you. In every way I can until you're ready to hear it."

And even that was overwhelming in its own way.

Jay pulled Tetsuya close but he didn't fight the motion for a second. Tucking him against his side, Jay wrapped his arms around him. It was too much to look at those eyes right now but he needed that warmth and that weight against him. Tetsuya adjusted himself until his head was resting on his chest and after a moment, a leg was draped over one of his. They laid there and any remnants of that nightmare faded from his mind with Tetsuya snuggled beside him.

It felt like he could finally - after everything that had happened tonight - take a deep breath.

"Jay? This is okay?"

The questioning tone took him by surprise. He didn't know why laying like this could be that odd. For a long moment of silence, Tetsuya simply burrowed even closer and Jay's arms only tightened their hold. A soft kiss was placed against his chest and he realized exactly what they were doing. He was holding Tetsuya. Holding him in his arms in the exact way that his own body had yet to be able to tolerate. The same motion that made him panic and made Tetsuya wary of pushing too far. But like this? There was nothing but comfort and love.

"Yeah. This is good." Tetsuya's satisfied little hum echoed between them. "We can do this, Tetsuya."

"I like this too. I can feel your… I can feel it, Jay."

Love.

Held like this, Tetsuya felt his love.

"I'm glad." They both sighed and Jay could only bend down just enough to kiss the very top of Tetsuya's head. "We should try and get some more sleep."

Jay could feel his nod as he let himself gently caress Tetsuya's back. There was a part of him that was afraid to go back to sleep but it was always easier to be brave with those arms around him. They laid there quietly and Jay knew that it wasn't going to take long for him to doze off again. He was that tired and that warm.

That safe.

"Mi nueva canción favorita…"

Tetsuya's sleepily muttered words were hard for him to translate with his own tired mind but the phrase slowly made sense as he repeated it over and over again to himself and thought about how they were curled up together.

His heartbeat.

His heartbeat was Tetsuya's new favorite song.

***