It came up in conversation in the early days, when the Shield were still learning to ride together, on one of those interminable drives from middle of nowhere to slightly west of nowhere. Joey had said, stay close, make it real, and they didn't really have that much to talk about yet, so inevitably it was always work. Roman hadn't come up on the indies and he always wanted to hear about them, Seth's one side and Dean's the other.
Roman, pretending to be casual, asked about Kenny Omega. His interest wasn't subtle, but if Seth had grown up in the fed maybe he would have been interested in Kenny, too. Seth liked the stories about Roman's family, when he wasn't jealous of them.
"We're fine," Seth said. He was driving, so he pressed his palms flat on the wheel and stared out at the endless tar in front of them, flicking his eyes up to the rearview mirror only occasionally. "I like him."
Roman raised both eyebrows. "Say that like you mean it," he said. He always looked too big for the back seat of whatever rental they'd been assigned, sprawling out along the cushioning with easy grace. Seth had seen pictures of him as a teenager; no way Roman had ever known what awkward actually felt like.
Dean put his hands up in the passenger seat. "I'm staying out of this," he said. "I was too busy bleeding in CZW to know what the fuck Omega was doing."
"I worked with Necro Butcher too," Seth observed, archly. Dean didn't have a monopoly on fucked up spots and he should know it.
"Sure, Harry Potter," Dean said, eyes bright. "Hey, is that what happened? You did a curse on him?"
"Fuck you," Seth said. But it was, like, not that far off from the truth, so maybe he didn't have to use that particular tone about it. "We used to ride together, actually, when we both worked for Ring of Honor. Fucking awful taste in music, worse than yours."
"Excuse me ," Dean huffed.
Roman looked back and forth between them; Seth could see his head move in the rear view mirror. He really did have a beautiful profile. It was unfair when you thought about it for too long, so Seth tried not to.
"It was a long time ago," Seth said. "He probably wouldn't remember me." That was a lie, but Seth was a good liar.
(Tyler hadn't been a good liar, but Tyler was gone, now. So it wasn't an issue.)
“Is it true?” Roman asked. “What they say about him?”
“Almost never,” Seth said. A headache pulsed upwards from the base of his neck, where the fusion hadn't healed a hundred percent. The Architect twisted behind his eyes, hissing the way it did when Seth talked about people it didn't know how to fight.
"Okay, okay," Dean said. The Fringe was there, Seth could feel it, stirring because of Seth's disquiet. It lay over Dean like a second skin, most days, spoiling for any blood it could get. "So he's not a stuck up little bitch who thinks he knows what’s best for everyone without even asking them?"
Seth laughed. "Only sometimes." He knew what Roman was asking and he could feel Dean's interest, too. What the hell. He didn't owe Kenny anything, and he really couldn't begrudge Roman the asking. "It's not like Cena. It's not his name."
Dean hummed. He pulled one knee up to his chest, placating the Fringe. "What is it, then?"
Roman said nothing. His kayfabe was different to Seth and Dean's, too soft and new to be a distinct being, to be anything of its own. Seth thought of it like a puppy, sleeping on Roman's chest with its head under his chin. It must be nice to come in on the strength of who you were, not anything you'd done.
That wasn’t fair. Seth didn’t think that. More importantly, he couldn’t think that, not where the Architect could feel it. Roman’s kayfabe would follow whatever path he wanted it to; Seth and Dean did not have that luxury.
“They’re allies,” Seth said, fumbling for the words. That wasn’t quite right; Dean and the Fringe were allies, partners in crime, but they were nothing like Kenny Omega and the surety of his own legend. “I don’t think he lies to it. That’s what’s different. It knows everything he knows and it - wants to be with him, anyway.”
The Architect flickered in the corner of his vision, a mirrored image of Seth’s own face. It was just shy of familiar; one day it would stop unnerving him. He wasn’t sure if he was looking forward to it or not.
“Seth,” Dean said, gently. Seth was still acclimating to how gentle Dean could be. “Let’s talk about something else.”
Seth made his deal in Tampa. It was a hot day, like all of the days in Tampa, and Hunter was kneeling beside him. Hunter was good. If anyone was going to do it, Seth was glad that it was Hunter.
Hunter had barely spoken to Seth before then. Seth knew who he was, obviously, but Hunter was a busy man and FCW wasn't anything in those days.
It was less complicated now than it had been. Seth had heard horror stories, like everyone. Hunter himself was a horror story, if you heard it from the right person. But now Hunter had a good reputation, and WWE was the only place for Seth to be, if he wanted to be at the top of the Wrestlemania marquee, and he'd wanted that since - hell. Since he knew what it was to want.
Seth had had a middling time in FCW. He would classify it as middling, in that it was mostly terrible with a few moments of transcendence, here and there, that made it more than bearable, made it the only place he could ever be. Also it was more money than he'd ever made in his life. That helped.
Mostly it was terrible, though. Truly, really, God awful. The wrestling was bad, and nobody from wrestler to audience cared that it was bad, which was worse. The kayfabe was thin, barely anything. He’d believed more in wrestling school in a field in the middle of nowhere.
Hunter promised Seth the NXT title, and he drove Seth out into the green tangle that was never too far from anywhere in Florida. The air was thick, Seth remembered that. Heavy, like a blanket, like Hunter’s hand on the back of his neck.
Hunter said, "Are you ready?"
Seth probably wasn't. Later on he would not quite remember what mind he was in, would picture those events in a soft haze of heat and fear and ambition. But he knew that it was Hunter, who wanted him to succeed because that would be best for business, and that was both kayfabe and the truth.
But he must have said something, must have looked convincing enough, because at any rate, Hunter let go of Seth’s neck and took Seth's hand instead, and then he drew the knife across it.
Seth remembered that very clearly: the red of his blood, the loam-rich softness of the earth into which it fell. The way it cracked open when Hunter put his arm around Seth's shoulders and held him tightly. Hunter's body held him to the ground, pinned him there, a warm and endless safety. Seth would never stop being grateful for that, as long as he lived.
It came out of the air, in a shimmer of not quite light but not anything else for which Seth might have a frame of reference; a kind of tearing, a kind of splitting in the world. There was no way to describe it, but there was nobody he would have described it to who didn’t know, so there was no need.
It had no form. No form and all forms; everywhere and everything at once.
Hunter spoke Seth’s name aloud. In the speaking it was bound to Seth, finding a home in his bones, in his skin, in every muscle he had ever torn down and rebuilt in service of the squared circle.
It said his name and the name was theirs, rolling through Seth like a wave. It said who are we and he told it, and in telling he knew that he could not allow that to have been a lie.
Kayfabe. Don't look behind the curtain.
Hunter clapped him on the shoulder after. His hand was huge. Seth could see it now, the way his shadow was Triple H, the King of Kings. The way it wanted to swallow the world.
Hunter didn't want to hurt him. Not like that. He knew it was a business. Somewhere inside of him his kayfabe twisted. It was a new thing in the world and it trusted him, trusted whatever story he would tell it. He knew whatever story it was it would have Hunter in it. He'd known that from the beginning. It wasn't hard to guess.
Hunter pulled Seth into a hug. Seth's skin pressed against the edges of him. It hurt. "Welcome to the show, kid," he whispered. His voice pressed fiercely into Seth's hair. It echoed.
Seth closed his eyes but that did not hide him from the endless enveloping light.
Kenny called sometimes. The time difference meant Seth didn't always pick up. It was just the time difference, nothing personal. Seth liked Kenny fine.
Sometimes Seth called Kenny. Neither of them drank to drunkenness so it wasn't an excuse. It was just a thing that happened, sometimes. The time difference wasn't in Seth's favour. Any time it was late in the States Kenny was in the middle of his day, and for some reason that made it feel worse than when the reverse was true.
If Roman or Dean - people Seth knew how to trust, even though trust didn't come easy to him - asked what they talked about, he'd tell the truth. It was nothing, really. Kenny watched his clips and he watched Kenny's. Kenny would tell him his hair looked like it was going to fall out, and Seth would tell Kenny his hair looked like ramen noodles.
They weren't friends. That was true. But they weren't enemies and they weren't indifferent, and sure as hell they were not acquaintances. Maybe you could call them long-distance coworkers, of a sort.
Kayfabe was difficult. People always said it and they were always right. To keep the story straight night after night, while being pushed to the edge of your physical endurance, while pushing yourself beyond the edges of your body: it was a kind of alchemy.
It was also something more than will.
Seth didn’t remember how he’d learned. It blurred into all the long stretch of memories that made up identity. When did you tell your first white lie? What was the first white lie you ever heard?
Kayfabe was a collective narrative, a suspension of disbelief. An act of collaboration, an act of gratitude; a fragile thing, at its heart, something that could as easily as faith in Santa Claus be shattered by one misspoken word. So, unlike Santa Claus, but like all other kinds of belief, it grew teeth.
Or maybe the teeth were there from the beginning.
What Seth had wanted to tell Roman and Dean was this:
To wrestle, you gave up something of yourself. All of them did, every one, even in the tiniest backyard shows. So that was a deal, right? It was a deal, and in exchange, you got something back. Maybe, you were the gift. It was unclear.
You didn’t write your own story, not in wrestling; you were at the whims of the bookers, of the weather, of the traffic, of the crowd. You belonged to other people. Your story belonged to other people.
But kayfabe - the myth of it, the curtain that they all hid behind - pretended that wasn’t true. In kayfabe everything you did mattered.
If you said that enough, something had to hear you. You couldn’t be surprised that something came. That it believed you. That it wanted to fight with you, every night, the way you wanted to fight with it.
When Seth was a kid, before he was Seth Rollins, he knew that you couldn’t go through a table, not at full strength, not with the full force of a man behind you. He knew that a punch couldn’t hit like that, that a superkick would severely injure a man. That Shawn Michaels couldn’t do all of those things on his own.
He’d been right. None of them did any of it on their own. You made your deal, you paid your price. You called it kayfabe, because it was; because if you let the thing that you were dealing with know the real story of how wrestling worked you’d betray it, too. If it couldn’t trust you in the ring then it couldn’t protect you in the ring, and you’d just be a man, up against all those elemental forces, against decades’ worth of storytelling so strong you wouldn’t be wrong to call it magic. That was a terrifying thought, enough to leave you out in the cold: once you’d taken that first bump, the real one, with the weight of kayfabe behind it, you knew you couldn’t stand it alone.
But Kenny Omega wasn’t like the rest of them. Kenny Omega went out to a crossroads in Manitoba and he dripped his blood on the ground, just like the rest of them, and when he found the thing that became his ally, he told it the truth; all of it, every part.
It was a death wish, wasn’t it? Shouldn’t it have been?
But here was Kenny, bright and golden, untouchable as any of them had ever been. Here was Kenny, and he was so sure, every time, with such unfailing clarity, that you could do the same.
Sometimes, not often, Dean and Roman would go out after a show. They’d close down a bar and get into a fight, one or maybe two; they’d spin each other longer and longer stories, to see who could get Seth redder when they finally came back to the room. Seth would wait for them there, in those little rooms with one queen or two twins, curling up on the quilted bedspread with his phone in his hand.
It was never Kenny he called then, at Japanese midday, to hear the sound of that familiar voice, and the unfamiliar language in the background. Seth and Kenny were not friends. They were barely allies.
But Kenny -
There was no way to say that to Roman and Dean. He barely knew how to say it to himself.
The Bucks were stateside when the show was in California. It didn't often work out like that, so Seth took his off day and went out to San Bernardino to bully them into a box owned by a friend of a friend and then get tacos. They shot the shit for a while - Seth watched all their stuff, when he had time, like he watched Kevin and Sami and Jimmy Jacobs and whatever Marek felt like sending him. They kept tabs on him, too. Nick always had something to say, and Matt had never met a silence he couldn't amicably fill.
So it took a decent chunk of time before the Bucks did the thing they always did, which was the same thing that Kenny always did. Make something out of nothing; make something out of Seth.
Matt called him Tyler. Couldn't shake the habit, if Seth was being generous. Had something else on his mind, if Seth wasn't. But it wasn't like the Bucks were hurting for friends or collaborators.
They were back in Matt's little apartment, surrounded by boxes of t-shirts. Seth had been grilled many times by many different lawyers about not getting photographed in another company's merchandise, but he was feeling bold enough to look at the Elite merchandise and tell Matt and Nick it looked good as they preened. He even let Matt take a picture of him in a t-shirt, posing like Kevin Steen for the cellphone flash.
Matt said, “So, how’s the contract going?” He was trying for casual and had almost made it all the way there. He was good, Seth had to give it to him. Some guys were charming in the ring, and some guys were charming outside of it, but not so many guys were charming all the time.
Seth shrugged. When he squinted he could see the bucks watching him, with their antlers and big eyes. He wanted to reach out and offer them his palm, but it wouldn't be right. Not here, not with his own kayfabe tugging at his skin. "It's good enough," he said. "Don't have that Wrestlemania main event yet. They’re telling me this year."
Nick reached out to his own buck. It was a little bigger, a little leaner. Tyler had been able to tell the difference between them, but Seth needed context clues. The buck nuzzled at Nick's shoulder, friendly and accommodating. In the ring it was different, furious and flashy, but not here.
Matt's buck, a little smaller, a little stouter, ventured out of the safety of Matt’s shadow and came towards Seth. The light rippled around and through it, glimmering in some way that human eyes could not register. It extended its long neck and sniffed in Seth's direction.
"They're curious," Matt said, apologetic. "They think they know you, but they're not sure."
Seth's pulse raced, his kayfabe fluttering anxiously. He was a company man with company kayfabe. It knew - he knew - that he was pushing it, being here. This wasn't part of the company narrative.
But Seth had also made himself, at least a little; some of his story belonged to him.
“Hey, buddy,” he said, offering the tips of his fingers to Matt’s buck. It lipped at him thoughtfully with thick, velvet lips and then retreated back to Matt’s shoulder, while Nick and Matt and Nick’s buck all watched. “They look good.”
“They’re happy to be home,” Nick said. “It’ll pass in a minute, they’ll be begging to get out of here.”
Seth laughed. Sometimes he saw his memories of Ring of Honor through a fog, but other times it was clearer. Now he remembered, as if he could see it, the shape of the two bucks racing into the woods after a show; all of them standing outside with dew on their sneakers to watch them.
"The betrayal," Matt said, carefully. "Are you handling it?"
Seth winced. "C'mon," he said. Matt's buck stared at him like he was a truck with full headlights. "You know how it is."
"No," Nick said. "We've never lied to them." He looked at Seth with that deadpan earnestness the Bucks had about them. Back in RoH it had never failed to make Seth feel small. Nick’s hand rested flat against his buck's neck; it stamped its feet once but allowed it. Seth thought it must be soft to touch.
“I turned heel on him, in TNA,” Matt said. “I don’t know if you watched that.”
Seth shook his head. His kayfabe was electric now, humming. He didn’t know if he could calm it down; it was all he could do to keep it inside his own skin. He was thinking about Dean's face, about the way he'd reeled when Seth had first hit him. As though he didn't know it was all fake.
"They flipped out on us," Nick said. "We told them ahead of time. They knew. But they hated it anyway. They couldn’t handle it."
"Kenny turned on Ibushi," Seth said, speaking that name aloud. He didn't flinch as he said it. It felt like something to be proud of. "Did you guys all talk about that first?"
"Fuck you, Tyler," Matt said. "You used to -" he closed his teeth with a click. "We just wanted to be here for you. Like we used to be. Like you were there for us."
Seth's kayfabe mantled, clawing itself to the surface of his skin. It rolled over him with calculating ease: the Architect, the thinker, the betrayer. His face must have changed with the effort of it, because Nick's buck darted back, ducking behind its brother like the younger sibling it was.
"Rollins," Nick said.
Seth's kayfabe stretched through his shadow, through the ends of his fingers. "I got it," he said. He let the betrayal sink into his mind, the logic he'd used to build it, the rationale. "It was the game, Jacksons. It had to be done."
"You miss them, though." That was Matt, a clear crispness in his eyes. Matt was so good at making conversation easy you forgot that on a dime he could do the opposite.
"They were just business partners," the Architect said.
Matt tilted his head. The light caught his bright eyes. "You don't mean that."
The Architect looked away. Seth felt its hurt roll through him, its confusion. The sharp-edged longing that started somewhere in the Architect and ended somewhere in Seth, or maybe it was the other way around. “I want to be the best,” Seth said. That was true, and it was true for both of them, true in reality and in un-reality and in any story that was worth telling. “I am the best.”
He hadn’t spoken to them in months, except for phone calls and the occasional text. The kayfabe was easier to keep up from a distance, but Dean was a notorious loser of phones and Roman a bad texter, so Seth wrote long emails to himself and got, in return, the occasional picture of a cornfield taken from the window of a moving car.
It was okay to miss them. That was the story. Sometimes in matches his body leapt as though it expected Dean to meet him from below; sometimes when he hit a Wyatt or Rusev he overextended himself, expecting Roman to save him with the spear. Every time it hurt, not just in the landing but in his chest, in the part of him that his kayfabe had hollowed out to make a home for itself.
It was when he let the longing be tinged with bitterness that it unsettled him. Because it would be easy to sidestep the kayfabe, to go and be with his brothers where nobody could see them. Dean would pour him a drink and Roman would ruffle his hair. They were his brothers. Maybe that was kayfabe, something that was unavoidable like his own heartbeat. But when he was alone in the dark it was just brutally avoidable, a waste of his time and his energy and his love.
“Ambrose is doing good,” Nick said tentatively, a peace offering. “It was a little rocky at first. Reigns getting that push.”
“Reigns is always getting the push,” Seth said. It wasn’t just the Architect who was bitter when he said it; he’d chafed about it on the road, like Ambrose, and even Roman himself. It had been easy to pull to the fore, in the end. But he shook his head. “He’s good. He deserves a push.”
Matt scratched his buck behind its antlers. “You know,” he said, slowly, “Kenny and Ibushi wasn’t a work. They really did break up.”
“Oh,” Seth said. And then - “You shouldn’t tell me that, should you?”
Nick said, “You’re the one always saying the two of you are friends.”
“Well, if he wasn’t,” Seth began, hotly. His kayfabe was not interested in Kenny Omega; he was outside the sphere of their joint influence. So the irritation was all Seth. “I thought you liked Ibushi.”
“Of course we like Ibushi,” Matt said. “Have you seen Ibushi? Have you wrestled Ibushi?”
“Fuck off,” Seth said. Of course he’d have loved to wrestle Ibushi. But he’d wrestled Evolution and won, twice. Shawn Michaels knew his name . “What are you trying to say, man?”
“Just that the two of you sound the same when you say that,” Nick said. He shrugged. “We’re happy to have him. He wouldn’t be in NJPW - wouldn’t be our guy - if he hadn’t left Kota. Maybe it’s like you and your boys.”
“They’re not my boys,” Seth said. He rubbed his hand over his face. “We all knew it had to be like that. Someone had to do it, and hell. It worked out great for all of us.”
“Especially you.” Nick showed his teeth sometimes, when he smiled. When he was being everyone’s kid brother. Seth had always been the kid brother himself, before Nick. “Worked out real good for you, Mr Money in the Bank.”
Seth shrugged. “That’s the business, ain’t it?”
“Be nice if it weren’t,” Matt said. But he was always saying stuff like that, had been since they’d started sharing motel rooms. “If it could just stay on-stage, I mean.”
“Even the most housebroken kayfabe isn’t gonna play nice like that,” Seth said. “I mean, you tell me.”
“You’re such an asshole sometimes,” Nick said, wryly.
“I promise I’d be nice to you if you came over,” Seth said, lightly. “We could put you guys in matching suits, I’m always looking for bodyguards. I'm a big deal now, I could make that happen for you."
"Oh, eat dirt, Rollins," Nick said, throwing a t-shirt at him.
"You should call Kenny, though," Matt said, catching the shirt when Seth lobbed it back to him. "He's never been a heel like this before, and neither had you."
"Sure," Seth lied. "Why not."
Betraying Dean Ambrose was more difficult than Seth had anticipated. For a business built on stabbing your friends in the back, it really did hurt.
They were in Indianapolis, fresh off war with Evolution. Seth's whole body ached and he knew he'd gotten off lightly in comparison: Roman's ribs were black and blue and Dean hissed under his breath whenever he put his weight on his right arm. In his right mind he was buzzing to have had that match with them, not just once but twice, but his kayfabe still snarled and spit about it.
There was something they’d made that wasn’t just their own kayfabe, something collective. Maybe the hounds they’d named themselves for. Something more than the sum of their parts. Seth didn’t look at it too closely, but he felt it whenever they got in the ring together. That collective - spirit, magic, presence, thing - got stronger and stronger as the crowds screamed for them. Roman’s kayfabe had taken a mirrored shape of it, a big dog pacing at his side; it only had the one head, of course, but it was sweet to see.
Hunter had asked Seth to come in early. Seth didn't bother placating his kayfabe too much, figuring they were just going to fuck, but instead Joey Mercury shut Hunter's office door behind them.
Hunter was wearing a full suit. He had a black eye from last night, swelling up bright and ugly. He crossed his arms over his chest and said, “It’s going to be you. Tonight.”
The Architect hissed. Seth scrambled to fit it into place: the story, the pieces, before they became dissonant and it became distraught. He and Dean had known it was coming; they'd both been seeding the stories for weeks, months. He'd thought it would be Ambrose, though. It was a no-brainer. Seth was a face; his kayfabe was a face. Ambrose was the unpredictable one. Seth picked up the pieces. (Roman, obviously, wasn't in contention. He didn't have the mic for it and they were building him as a face to end all of them.)
Hunter gave Seth the moments to put it together - just enough, the pieces barely clicking into place - and then he had Seth's shoulder in his hand. "You'll be mine after this," he said. "I told you you would earn it. I'm proud of you."
Seth had always been a singles wrestler. Not like the Bucks, who were alchemical in tandem. He came close to it with Dean - sometimes it felt like everything he did was chasing that first electric moment when they'd locked up down in Tampa. But WWE was a singles game. You made it on your own or not at all.
"Hunter," he said, helplessly.
"Let me," Joey said, coming across the room to him. He stopped just in front of Seth, waiting.
Seth shoved his hands into his pockets. He nodded, accepting.
Joey could talk kayfabe better than anyone Seth had ever met. Better even than Dusty, and Seth would have walked into a war if Dusty had asked it of him. He had this way about him, a kind of solemnity, an earnestness. He could make anyone believe anything, because he never lied.
Joey said, "You're ready for this."
It was the Architect who answered him. It spread their hands and shivered through their voice. “I don’t know,” they said. “They’re my brothers. Dean and Roman - I love them.”
Joey took Seth’s chin - the Architect’s - in his hand, and tilted it up to his face. His eyes were so clear. "You've been waiting," Joey said.
"What will you say to them?" Seth's voice shook. He was glad he wouldn’t have to deliver the news. He barely understood it himself.
"The truth," Hunter rumbled. "That there's nobody left for the three of you to fight."
Joey held up his hand. "Hunter."
Hunter stepped back, deferring to him.
Seth sank down onto the cheap linoleum floor, crossing his legs like a child. His back ached. "They take me for granted," he said, feeling it out. "It's bullshit. I hold them together." Parts of it were honest. He wanted to strangle Dean at least once a week and Roman had been handed everything Seth and Dean had been fighting for since they were teenagers.
And God. The idea of working with Hunter - of being the one that Hunter had picked - that made Seth's whole body shake. He wanted it so much.
"I promised you in Tampa," Hunter said. "Didn't I?"
"Yeah." Seth looked up at him. "You mean it?"
"Everyone will see it," said the King of Kings. Its voice echoed, resounding. "You're the one. My heir."
Joey's hand settled onto his shoulder. "You're angry," he said. "You loved them but you can't stay. Look at what he's offering. What we're offering."
Seth had built the Architect from his own naked ambition. It surged through his skin. Sometimes it scared him, the force of it. It made him want to toss everything he’d ever been aside, until the only part of him that was left was the knife’s edge, the glory.
"I want the main event," he said. "I do this, you give that to me." Seth would have asked it but his kayfabe demanded.
Hunter laughed. The shadow crown glimmered on his creased brow. "You'll be mine," he said again. "You'll be the face of the company. What kind of face wouldn't main event Wrestlemania?"
Seth swallowed. "Tonight? The turn?"
"Tonight," Hunter said. He came to Seth then, stepping easily past Joey to catch Seth's chin in his hand. "Architect. Look at me."
Seth was in the back seat, then. Just watching his own body move. Sometimes he got like this from the top rope, from the top of the jumbotron. It had plans and he was along for the ride. Dean got like that with the Fringe and it left him shaking, afterwards, unnerved. Seth always felt electric, complete. Like he could see into the heart of the world.
"Sir," the Architect said.
"Good," Hunter said. He dug his fingers into Seth's skin. "Don't forget who made you."
"I won't," they promised, and then they went out there with the chair, and around them everyone was screaming.
It was late. But all time blurred together, Seth with his busted knee lying on the couch next to his dog; all time was the same. He picked up the call. It would be midday in Japan.
“Hi, Kenny,” Seth said. “How’s the weather?”
"You know there was something there before," Kenny said. His voice cracked. "You know Hunter ripped it out of you. Don't you? You have to know." He sounded weak, despairing.
Seth had thought he would like the idea of Kenny sounding vulnerable but it turned out in practice he was left nauseated. Kenny wasn't supposed to be like this. Kenny was supposed to be constant. Kenny was the surest person he'd ever known.
"Kenny," he said. There was no Architect, no Mr Money in the Bank; he was barely even Seth Rollins, now, like this. He hadn't been so alone in his skin for such a long time. The ache of it made him feel like he understood all those part timers, all the guys who couldn’t walk away, who kept coming back.
"I told you not to do it," Kenny said. "Didn't I? Did you forget, Tyler?"
"That's not my name," Seth said, but Kenny wasn't listening.
“They want me,” Kenny said, urgent, voice shaking. “WWE. They keep asking me. Offering me - Jesus, Tyler. Seth. Whatever. You let them just toss it out of you like it didn’t matter.”
“That’s not how it happened,” Seth said. His voice must have gotten sharp, because Kevin yipped and scrambled off the couch. Seth’s knee fucking hurt . They'd given him shit for the pain but it left him lightheaded and empty so sometimes he didn’t take it.
"How did it happen, then?"
"This is about Ibushi," Seth said, piecing it together. "Something happened with Ibushi. He wanted to be a star more than he wanted you. Is that it?"
"Aren't you supposed to be busy rehabbing?" Kenny asked, sounding bitter. "You have time to watch all my clips?"
"Nick and Matt are my friends, too," Seth said. "In case you forgot."
Kenny said, “You should have listened to me. I thought you were listening to me. I thought we were friends.”
Seth said, “We are friends.” He knee ached. "I should have called when you turned."
"I tried," Kenny said. "You weren't answering. I was hurt."
"Oh yeah, that's why you became the Cleaner? I hurt your feelings?"
"Fuck you," Kenny snapped. "I was hurt, actually, Tyler."
Seth flinched. "You want to talk about it?" He meant it, actually.
"Don't be a fucking asshole," Kenny said. "You were so annoying when we first met, did you know that? Nobody liked you. Matt had to beg me to get dinner with you."
It was nothing he hadn't heard before. Him - Seth, Tyler - he knew who he was. Sometimes that was difficult. How many guys had hated Shawn Michaels? Seth knew what he wanted. He wasn’t going to be an asshole on purpose, but he was going to get himself where he needed to be. He could pull them up after him once he had. Or it wouldn’t matter. Either way, he needed to get up there first.
“Says Kenny fuckin’ Omega,” Seth said. "You didn't take your nose out of your video game for what? That whole first year?”
“One weekend, asshole,” Kenny countered. "One weekend and it was a very intense level."
"Sure thing, sport," Seth deadpanned. He knew he was being a bitch but his knee hurt. When the Architect was here it fizzed at the boundaries of his skin, trying to remake them from the inside out to be impervious to gravity. When it wasn't Seth was so alone the emptiness echoed. "I'm here now. Free audience."
Kenny swallowed audibly. Then his voice changed. "You were mine," he said. "We were the same. Don't you remember?" This wasn't the Cleaner. Kenny's kayfabe didn't work like that. Kenny was himself magic, or the magic was Kenny. There wasn’t the same kind of bold line separation that existed for everyone else Seth knew.
"I loved you," Omega said. “I was trying to protect you.”
Seth wasn’t equipped to say what he wanted to say, which was to delve back through all those memories of what Kenny Omega said to Tyler Black and say, with meaning, I know, and I appreciated it . It was all foggy in his mind, like walking home on the side of a highway when he was sixteen in Iowa, coming back from a show.
He said, “I believe you.” It was the truest good thing he could say.
“ Tyler. ”
That’s not my name, he thought. “I don’t remember,” Seth said. “I’m sorry. I wish I did.”
A soft sound that might have been a sob. Kenny wasn’t like this; he was funny and light and when he was angry it was biting, razor-edged. Seth couldn’t remember ever seeing Kenny fragile like this. Except, maybe, in the ring, with -
“You were with us,” Kenny’s voice said. “I didn’t like you very much. But you liked me and they said I had to keep you, otherwise we might lose you to the other guys. I said there was no chance of that because you would never keep up at a club.”
“Hey, fuck you,” Seth said. He felt something different in his voice. Maybe that was Tyler, speaking through him. Tyler wasn’t dead . He wasn’t. But he wasn’t exactly present, either. He was a person Seth had been but who he could not get back, like an acquaintance you’d met one time at a party and then kept seeing in Facebook notifications for years after.
“You had wings,” Kenny said. “Like - shit. Not like on your gear or anything. It wasn’t like that. I just liked them. You and the Bucks, all of you. I wanted to keep you away from that place. I said it to you so many times. I thought you agreed with me.”
“Omega,” Seth said. The first name didn’t feel like the right thing to say. The second only an approximation of something he was reaching for and could not find. He wondered what Tyler would have said. Tyler with bared teeth and blood dripping into his eyes. Tyler doing all the things Vince would haul him off stage for, screaming. “I wanted you to be happy for me. I was going to change things.”
“That’s what everyone says.”
“No, it isn’t.” He was sure of that, crisp as a winter morning with fat flakes of snow drifting onto the birdhouse outside his mother’s kitchen window.
“It’s what you said, though.”
“Yeah. That sounds right.” He reached down to feel at the outside of the wrapped knee. Pain blossomed beneath his fingertips, radiating down into the reconstructed musculature. “It was worth it to come here. I think you would find that, if you did.”
That was the wrong thing to say. He knew it as he said it, wincing as if he could cover his mouth and erase the words from the thousands of miles between them.
“I hated Ring of Honor,” Omega said. “None of it was right. I hated everywhere until I met Kota.”
Seth thought about that moment, the first one, with Ambrose. That was before he was Seth Rollins, just the name but not the change . It was clear, though, despite that. His memory of it was crystalline and perfect. The magic of that first touch, when Ambrose’s hands had pressed against his, and he had thought, oh. This .
Even now when they were on opposite sides, even when Seth’s kayfabe hissed and Ambrose’s snarled, it was still - god. Still untouchable. Still perfect.
“Even after that.” Kenny’s voice shook. “It was so hard. You think I just went to Japan and did whatever I wanted. I was alone . It was only me . Any day they could have sent me home. You think I didn’t try hard enough? Fuck you.”
“But I loved you,” he was saying. “You were going to be something. And now what are you? You steal our moves and you wrestle this fucking style . You look like shit out there. Whatever it is Hunter gave you - god.”
Seth swallowed. “Enough.” He loved what he'd built. He had sweat and bled for it. Hadn't he made all that space for Kevin and Sami, for the indies to go to NXT? Wasn't it better than it had ever been because of him?
Kenny’s voice wavered. “I loved you,” he said. “I loved the person inside you, the person you were becoming. You threw him to the wolves .”
Seth’s knee ached. He hung up and tossed the phone to the floor, where Kevin sniffed at it curiously before wandering away.
2012 (for real, this time)
Seth had been furious for weeks, maybe months. They were wasting him in Tampa and he knew it, and his kayfabe knew it too. They were chafing at the bit, both of them, sick of teaching beautiful people how to suplex over and over again. They hadn't come all the way from RoH for this. They hadn't changed their name for this.
Ambrose was the one bright spot. Seth was uninterested in him outside of the ring; out there he was erratic, wild, like life was the distance between one barbed-wire spot and another broken light tube.
But inside the ring - FCW had nothing when it came to kayfabe, but what they had built together, what they were building - to Seth it seemed like enough to power a whole promotion. Maybe it was just that he'd wrestled stars, workers, the best of the indies, but none of them had felt like wrestling Dean Ambrose.
It was stupid. Jon Moxley had been on the indies with Tyler Black. They'd run into each other once or twice. Moxley had feuded with Jimmy Jacobs, who had been Tyler's best friend. It hadn't felt like anything then. It hadn't felt like this.
Their rings were shitty, their stands even worse. The kayfabe of their audiences barely anything, the slightest shiver of a presence that might be ethereal darting like light eddies of wind around their bodies. With Ambrose, though -
Locking up with Ambrose was like flying. When Ambrose’s fingerprints found their way into Seth’s hands Seth thought he had been branded. He would never touch anything without that memory, the echo of Ambrose’s touch burned into his own flesh.
With Ambrose Seth was on a bigger stage than he’d ever had on the indies. Beyond them the crowd bayed, alive, enormous, somehow doubling, tripling, in spirit and strength. When Seth’s wings came out the crowd’s spirit lifted him up and the air he got, the distance, the sheer clarity: he could see through time. Everything was in place and the place was laid out for him.
He knew Ambrose felt it too. Ambrose was flushed and giddy in the locker room, looking at Seth out of the corner of his eyes while Seth kept the same distance, the same three bodies’ length in between them lest any contact act like a live wire on the wrong material, exploding into an electrical fire or worse, petering out into nothing.
Every time he spoke to Hunter he felt like an idiot child, whimpering and green. He knew he had to set that shame aside, and he did ; back in Ring of Honor he’d learned better than to let the yelling of men above him break his nerve. It had been a hard thing to learn.
But now he could stiffen his shoulders and keep his head high. He could demand to go up and he could look Hunter in the eye as he did it, even as he heard whispering in the back rooms, behind him; even as he knew how they thought of him, as if he considered himself better than one of the boys. He’d been one of the boys. It was them who weren’t good enough.
The third match was the iron man, thirty minutes of him and Ambrose, both believing and not-believing, the kind of dual vision he’d almost never felt so smoothly before in his life. Afterwards, Seth’s skin felt new. He felt new. This was what he’d been promised when Laurinaitis had offered him not a job but an opportunity.
Hunter caught him in the bowels of the building, when Seth’s hair was fried from the lights and he hadn’t had the moment to strip out of his gear and crowd into the old showers. Hunter’s hand settled huge on Seth’s shoulder and he looked right into Seth’s face, peering as though there was something in the back of Seth’s pupils that he needed to see. There was a vastness in Hunter's eyes, a kind of emptiness that was not empty, because it was filled with hunger. It was like looking into the many-toothed mouth of a shark, some deep sea thing from a childhood nightmare Seth barely remembered.
"Come with me." He sounded like the Triple H Seth had grown up watching. The man with the sledgehammer, the dark viscous underbelly of everything Vince McMahon had built.
Seth followed him into the bowels of the shitty old warehouse, feeling weirdly exposed in trunks and knee socks and an unzipped hoodie. He zipped it up, fumbling with the tag with nervous fingers. The further in the colder they got, the condensation dripping from the ceilings into the dark concrete floors. The sweat on Seth’s thighs chilled, sticky and unpleasant.
Tyler - before he was Tyler, even, before he even had a name - was trained in Chicago, in the middle of winter. It was so cold out there, a cold that ran roughshod through your bones. He’d been a child there, a shape barely taking form. He’d built himself there in the ice, in those long drives out to Illinois and back again.
Tyler's kayfabe had taken shape around the Age of the Fall, coalescing into black wings that Tyler wore pinned against his back. They were bloody most of the time, because it hurt whenever Tyler landed, but god did he love to fly anyway.
The first Tyler - the youngest one, the newest, with wings damp from their newness - had won their AAW Heavyweight title by turning on Marek. That was the first lie and it had come from something that wasn't really a lie: from Tyler's jealousy, a white-hot nauseating fury that anyone might say Marek was better. It wasn’t something he liked about himself. But maybe he’d needed it, because it had snapped everything into clear relief.
Hunter took him into an office. Barely an office. A little room with a desk and a mop and an array of grey pipes overhead. He spread his hand for Seth; he didn’t need to talk. It was like being in the ring with Ambrose. Seth knew what Hunter wanted; he knew what he would do in return.
Seth knelt and spread his wings, the span of them trembling in the icy air-conditioning. Every breath felt arctic, icicles digging into his lungs. His hands pressed into his thighs and his kayfabe trembled against his skin, the first edge of the question starting to press against his mind, against the parts of them that they shared.
Hunter said, good boy , and brought out the knife.
They had a few moments backstage before the turn. Dean had been asking for it basically endlessly, workshopping with Seth over and over how he’d phrase it to the writer’s room to get what he wanted. Seth was happy for him - finally, finally. He didn’t want Dean to be unhappy here. They were at the top of the world. They'd won. Dean deserved to enjoy it just like Seth.
And it was good to keep that happiness at the forefront of his mind. To keep his kayfabe lulled and complacent, so the betrayal would hit twice as hard.
He could feel the power coming off the crowd. It wasn’t alive yet, not really, only just starting to coalesce, in popcorn and smudge-fingered signs, the chants coming out tentatively at first, like wobbly-footed deer.
Soon, though: soon the kayfabe would come into being, a many-headed screaming thing, with a hundred thousand eyes and even more teeth. Crowds in the WWE weren’t like crowds anywhere. Seth had seen them eat people alive. Once or twice, he’d been the one eaten.
Not tonight, though.
Dean said, "Are you happy here?"
Seth wanted to touch him. It would be so easy to do it. He could just reach out and Dean would be warm and alive beneath his fingertips.
He wondered what Dean saw when he looked at Seth; if the fire was there, overlaid on his skin like it felt it was sometimes. Sometimes when Seth couldn't sleep he lay there burning.
When he looked at Dean he just saw Dean. His friend, his brother.
Kayfabe wasn't fiction, with Dean; with him it was a story they had built together, something bigger and brighter and beyond . He'd never been with anyone like that. He didn't want to be without it.
The Kingslayer yawned. The Architect had become the Kingslayer on the back of Hunter's on stage betrayal, and even now Seth carried his gratitude nested inside of it. The crown was heavy on Seth's head, the sword always at his hip. If he reached out it would be Ambrose there, the fiction beyond the man. They would touch and it would be lights, camera, action. A relationship told in the prismed view of an audience of twenty thousand.
Sometimes he wondered what it would be like to touch without that gravity. If they were just two people. But that was a stupid thing to wonder; how pedestrian. Wouldn’t your childhood self laugh at how small you were thinking?
“Of course I’m happy,” Seth said. “This is everything we ever dreamed of. Don’t you remember in Tampa, that first time? We used to talk about what we wanted, what we were going to be. How this was going to be it for us.”
“No,” Dean said. Ambrose - the Fringe - expanded beyond the boundaries of Dean’s shadow, an inky darkness that swallowed up the light. “That’s the thing, Sethie. I don’t. Are you telling me you do?”
Seth blinked. They didn't talk about this. Especially here, so close to the ring itself, the only stage that mattered. It wasn't right to talk about what it had cost to get here. Not like that. "Dean," he said.
"I didn't kill it," Dean said. "I wouldn't have." Not like you, he didn't say, but both of them heard it anyway. "We changed together. We agreed we had to. It hurt a lot to do it." He paused, looking at Seth long and hard. "Maybe not as much as what you did, though. That looked like it hurt a lot."
Seth closed his eyes. Just for a second. When he opened them the Fringe was there, wearing Dean's body. It looked almost exactly like him. It was only because Seth knew Dean so well - Dean Ambrose, not Jon Moxley, not anyone he'd been before or would be after - that the shape of the mouth gave him away. “Hi,” he said.
The Kingslayer stirred at his shoulder. He thought, no. Not now. Soon. It trusted him. He trusted it. They’d been through a war together. More than one.
“Hello,” said the Fringe. It cocked Dean’s head, blinked Dean’s blue eyes. “I have a story for you, Sethie. Do you want to hear it?”
Seth mantled his shoulders and met its eyes. He’d faced down Hunter, for god’s sake. He’d gone toe to toe with the Fringe more times than he could count. Still: his hands shook, until he crossed his arms over his chest. “Of course I do.” His voice sounded like it did in the ring, just barely free of the echo that the Kingslayer granted it.
“They asked us,” said the Fringe, slowly, delicately. “Did you know? I don’t think you did. They asked us before they asked you. Hunter, Joey, Vince. All those guys. Way back in Indianapolis, in the year of our lord two-thousand and fourteen. They offered us the first heel turn. They said we could have the chair. We said no. We wanted to stay with you.”
Seth remembered, as sharp as he remembered anything, these days: Dean Ambrose lying on the canvas, looking up at him with those endless blue eyes. Their three-headed dog howling above him, tearing at itself with its own claws.
Seth’s mouth was full of copper. He licked over the bite mark he’d left in the inside of his own cheek. "You wanted this turn. Both of you, right? To get one over on me.”
In a blink Dean was back, the change rolling over the body like a wave. He shook his head, cracked his neck. “I’ve never needed to get one over on you, Seth.” Dean looked sad. It made Seth want to punch him. “I’m not Hunter. I don’t want to be like him.”
“Who do you want to be like, then?”
“Myself,” Dean said. He looked at Seth with what felt like pity, which was bullshit for someone with a fucked-up arm, hoping a heel turn would pull his character back from the brink. “Remember when you wanted that?”
Tyler liked riding with Kenny. Usually he’d ride with the Bucks, too; often, Sami and Kevin. Rarely, almost never, it was just Tyler and Kenny, driving through California or along endless stretches of the Mid South. Tyler wasn’t Kenny’s baby like the Bucks were, but Kenny liked to hover, liked to feel like he was making up for the shit he’d been through by being a good influence for the next generation, or some shit.
Tyler’s kayfabe was never happier, outside of a ring, than it was with Kenny. It liked Kenny’s kayfabe and Kenny’s kayfabe liked it. Tyler figured it didn’t really matter what he and Kenny thought about each other, because they were kind of accessories to the whole thing.
Kenny was driving. He'd put some anime music on in the rental, which was absolutely typical, but Tyler didn't mind. He liked how Kenny lit up when he sang along. It wasn't the same as the punk Tyler liked but the brightness in Kenny's eyes was close, he hoped, to how he looked too. It was soft in the background, quiet enough that Tyler couldn't pick out the syllables. His kayfabe had drawn itself out of his shadow to preen there, fluttering on the dashboard to the beat of the music.
Kenny was talking about Deep South. He'd been there just under a year, and got grim around the mouth when he brought it up, which was often, because he told it as a cautionary tale.
“I hated it there,” Kenny said. “They wanted to crush everything that made me me .”
Tyler pulled his right knee up to his chest, wrapping his arms around it. He looked into the rearview mirror to meet Kenny’s eyes, calm and clear.
Kenny drummed his fingers on the wheel. “They wanted to break me,” he said. “Until I was just like everyone else. Or if they didn’t break me they wanted me gone. So I guess they got what they wanted.”
Tyler thought about main eventing Wrestlemania. About how he’d hold the belt above his head, how the lights would feel on his face. Too hot, probably. They’d felt hot when RoH put the belt on him, six months in. So early.
“We can make something better, you know,” Kenny said. “We are something better. All of us. All that bullshit from those guys. They were great, obviously. They were. But we - we can be more .”
Looking at Kenny, of course Tyler believed him. How could anyone not? Kenny wore his kayfabe better than anyone outside the ring. He gleamed with it. He looked like someone who’d been chosen. Or maybe better. Like someone who had made the choice.
“I have a vision,” Seth said. “I’m going to make things better .” He felt the Architect shiver inside of him, the change running over them like a melting glacier. He thought about the way Kenny had held his face. The way he’d said, there’s a new world waiting for us to build it .
He wanted to rip Kenny's throat out. He wanted to taste Kenny's blood. If there was a future he would build it. It would be his .
That was kayfabe.
Finally he saw what Kenny had been saying, that whole time. It wasn’t different. It didn’t have to be. Instead of lying, why not just -
Tell the truth.