"The Hanged Man"

By Penumbren

Disclaimer: No one is mine, darn it. But I'd happily buy HBK if they were selling him.
Distribution: Kliq's Camelot, Shadows, anyone else please ask first
Rating: R to NC-17
Characters: Shawn Michaels, Chris Jericho, Triple H
Mentions of: Ric Flair, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, Bret Hart, Chyna, Stephanie MacMahon, Randy Orton, Dave Batista, Sean Waltman, Kane, Steve Austin, others
Content: ANGST, language, m/m relations and sex (implied and explicit), implied m/f relations
Author's Notes: Please forgive any factual faults or time line inconsistencies; I've researched as much as possible, but I wasn't watching wrestling during the 1990s, so I'm sure mistakes will creep in.

The title comes from one of the major arcana of the tarot. Each tarot card has two meanings, depending on whether it's dealt head-up or reversed, head-down. Negative associations with this tarot card: materialism, inflated ego, lack of willpower, easily influenced, martyrdom. The Hanged Man can represent ill health, stress and anxiety.... selfishness, the use of emotional blackmail by playing the martyr. Another negative aspect of this card is that a weakness of will may lead you in a wrong direction, materially, emotionally and lead to missed opportunities. Meaning taken from http://www.free-tarot-reading.net/meanings/index.php.)

Milky Way bar

~ Backstage, 2004 ~

"You're a fool, Shawn."

The easy tone of the words didn't hide their sincerity. Shawn sighed, running a hand through his hair as he looked at his long-time friend and sometime lover. He didn't need to be told that; he was well aware of what he'd let slip by him. Not a day went by that he didn't think about it.

"What now, CJ?" Weariness was evident in his voice. Chris cocked his head, looking at him, and put a hand on his shoulder.

"You keep bitching and moaning about the past and all the things you've done wrong with him." CJ shook his head and held up his other hand, ticking off his points on his fingers. "First of all, you're not the only one who screwed up. He's just as responsible. Secondly, it's in the past. You can't change it. Thirdly, this is now, and you can change the present." Shawn opened his mouth to protest, but Chris spoke over him. "And fourth, he's been staring at you ever since you walked in."

Shawn's head snapped around, his eyes falling unerringly on the man in question. He frowned, not liking the defeated air that seemed to hang over the man. He watched Ric sit next to him, obviously trying to pull him out of his slump, and wondered what they were saying.

"He's not staring at me now, CJ. So what's your point?" Shawn growled as he turned back to Chris, hating the angry tone that had crept into his voice. Chris shook his head and pulled him closer, lowering his voice.

"My point, you stupid assclown, is that Hunter stares at you like he's a drowning man and you're his lifeline every time he thinks you're not watching. I know we've had some good times, Shawn, but I'm not him. I'm not what you need." Chris's voice was regretful, and Shawn shook his head, hugging CJ.

"You're not him, CJ, and I'm damned glad of that. You've been there when I needed you... but..." He paused, his lips quirking as he met Chris's eyes. "I happen to know that I'm not who you need anymore, either." Chris blushed, dropping his gaze to the floor, and Shawn couldn't help but chuckle. "C'mon, Chris, I know you and Benoit have a history. If you've finally managed to work things out, that's great." Chris looked back up at him with a grin, blushing a little.

"Yeah, we have. We talked last night... a lot. And... he wants to see me tonight."

Shawn smiled at the happiness radiating off his friend and pushed away the bitter thoughts that threatened to choke him.

"Well, you'll have to see him, then. I'm glad for you, CJ. Benoit's a good man, and you both deserve to be happy." He wasn't prepared for Chris's response.

"You do too, Shawn. But you won't be as long as you let yourself brood over him."

He didn't have a response to that.


~ Backstage, 1995 ~

Shawn nearly whistled in appreciation as he eyed the newcomer. Bret laughed and gave him a gentle shove.

"Go on Flirt, go say hi. Just remember who you belong to," he said teasingly. Shawn smiled at him, reaching up to tangle his fingers in the brunet's hair as he kissed him. A shiver ran through him; Bret always affected him, even with just a simple kiss. He didn't think he'd ever get tired of it. He certainly wasn't going to get tired of Bret.

"I'm yours, Bret. You don't ever have to worry about that," he promised breathlessly, his love evident in his eyes. Bret smiled back, his expression tender.

"I know. Now go on. I have to go check and see when my promo's up. I'll be back in a few minutes."

Shawn nodded, watching his lover's backside with appreciation as Bret headed down the hall, then entered the locker room with a happy bounce in his step. He still couldn't believe that he was with Bret, and it'd been a year. He was an incredibly lucky man, and he knew it. Bret was even willing to deal with his... sense of humour. He might call it flirting, but Shawn didn't mean it that way... usually. Was it his fault if people kept misinterpreting his friendliness? He stopped a few feet away from the blond digging through his locker, wondering if he was really as cute as he'd been told.

"So you're the new guy, huh?" He watched with amusement as the other man spun around in surprise, his eyes wide. Shawn gave him a minute, wondering how long he was going to stare. His smile finally broke out as the moment stretched on. He didn't normally get this kind of reaction! Not that Shawn minded having a few minutes to stare at the other guy. He was even better looking than he'd heard. Long blond hair, gorgeous whiskey-coloured eyes that you could probably drown in, and a really nice ass. The nose was a bit... large, but it worked on him. And, Shawn thought with a smile, you know what they say about big noses.

The embarrassed, mumbled apology was charming, and Shawn couldn't help but tease him, hoping to put him more at ease. "It's okay. It's just my overwhelming charm." He winked as he introduced himself.

"I'm Hunter.... Overwhelming charm?" Shawn grinned as Hunter's eyebrow went up questioningly. The man was too cute! Before he could say much more, though, Kevin and Scott showed up. Trust them, Shawn thought with a sigh. They had horrible timing... and they never wanted to let him have any fun. He waited impatiently through the introductions, then spoke up again, barely managing not to glare at the big goofs. This was his newbie, dammit.

"So, you're just up from WCW, aren't you?" He saw the grimace on Hunter's face as he nodded, and had to push down a sudden urge to wrap his arms around him and comfort him. Where the hell had that come from?

"Um, yeah. This is my first day here," Hunter said quickly. "At least I haven't been pounded into pulp by anybody yet for looking at them the wrong way. That's an improvement already." Shawn raised his eyebrows, surprised.

"They really did that?" He couldn't keep the shock out of his voice. He'd heard things about WCW, but he'd never heard that sort of thing. He'd been told that it was getting worse down there, what with the new ownership and all, but still...

Hunter's nod convinced him. For some reason, he found himself ready to believe the other man completely, even though he barely knew him.

"Anything you've heard about the place doesn't really do it justice." Shawn glanced at Kevin and Scott, wondering how they were taking that, and saw the brief frowning look that they exchanged. They'd been talking about feeling WCW out, seeing how much they could get if they jumped ship next year when their contracts were up. The thought made Shawn frown again. Bret might not like them very much, but they were Shawn's two closest friends and he really wasn't looking forward to them leaving. He forced a lighter tone to his voice as he replied to Hunter, putting a hand on his hip.

"Don't stress too much. I've heard about the way things are down there, and it's a lot different here. Vince is a pretty good boss," he answered almost carelessly, wanting to reassure Hunter. He saw Hunter's eyes widen at the mention of Vince, and kicked himself mentally. Vince might be a friend of his, but he knew better than to just casually drop the name. Too many people took that the wrong way. After all, it wasn't like Shawn had any extra pull around the company. He just wasn't afraid to talk to Vince about things that were bothering him, that's all.

He missed what Kevin said, but took advantage of the brief silence to ask mischievously, "So... you seeing anybody, Hunt?" The nickname came naturally to his lips, and he was pleased when Hunter didn't say anything about it.

"Umm... no. I don't really know anyone yet." Hunter looked pretty surprised at the question. Shawn was a little surprised himself; that wasn't normally something even he asked people when he first met them. He wasn't trolling, for heaven's sake! He had Bret. Shaking off the odd thoughts, Shawn smiled at the other man as he put a hand on Hunter's shoulder. He almost jumped at the contact, feeling like he'd just been shocked. What the hell? Trying to cover his reaction, he replied quickly.

"That's okay. I didn't mean to pry; sorry if I upset you." He knew he didn't sound sorry, and part of him wasn't. That part was cheering wildly and dancing around screaming, 'He's single! He's single!' Shawn stomped on that part. Even if he were looking---and he wasn't---he was with Bret, for God's sake! What was he thinking? Just because he'd never gotten that odd tingly feeling from Bret didn't mean anything. He loved Bret! But... he couldn't stop watching the other man.

"You've got such nice hair, Hunter," he murmured, only half-aware that he'd moved closer as he ran his fingers through that lovely hair. He pressed up against Hunter, suddenly realising that he was about to kiss him. He hadn't planned to, but...

He covered Hunter's mouth with his own, sucking softly on the man's lower lip before running his tongue along the crease, sliding inside Hunter's lips to taste him. The intensity of the kiss surprised him, as did Hunter's enthusiastic response. He felt Hunter's hands wrap around him, that tingly electric feeling sparking along his nerve endings, and that brought him back to himself. Covering his own breathlessness with a smile, Shawn stepped away from Hunter, out of the other man's reach. He watched with mixed emotions as Hunter tried to speak, his heart aching a little at the confusion he saw on that oddly endearing face, and shook his head, not wanting Hunter to say anything they'd regret later.

"Don't, Hunter. Just... think of it as a hello. Welcome to the WWF," he said quietly. He paused, wanting to say... something. As he searched for words that could express the way he was feeling, a familiar voice called out.

"Shawn... ready to go? You're up next."

His head jerked up and he smiled as he turned toward Bret. Just the sight of his lover was enough to make his heart beat faster, and when Bret looked at him like that, with that light in his eyes...

"Yeah, Bret. Hang on." He practically ran to his lover, chattering excitedly. Bret smiled down at him as he wrapped an arm around Shawn's waist, answering his questions patiently as they walked out.

When Shawn paused for breath, Bret tightened his grip momentarily and asked, "So, who's the new guy? He sure seemed to like you." Shawn heard the faint jealousy under the casual words, and shook his head.

"His name's Hunter. Just came up from WCW. Sounds like it's gotten pretty bad down there, too." He shrugged, and added casually, "He's a nice guy, Bret. I hope we can get to know him better." Bret raised an eyebrow at that, and Shawn replied to the unspoken question. "Not like that. God, you've got such a filthy mind. He's a good guy. I think... I think he'd be a good friend."

Bret snorted but didn't reply, and Shawn leaned into his embrace as they walked down the hall. He turned his mind to his match that night and resolutely pushed away any thoughts of sparks and amber eyes.


~ Backstage at Raw, Christmas 1997 ~

Shawn hid a wistful smile as he slid an arm around Hunter's waist, hoping that Hunter would interpret it as a purely casual gesture. He was infamous for being more "hands-on" than normal anyway, so hopefully Hunter wouldn't pick up on the effect he was having on Shawn. He still felt sparks every time they touched. And these days...

"So, Shawn... think we horrified Vince enough?" Shawn heard the satisfied amusement in Hunter's voice without even looking at him. He chuckled, walking slowly so that he could enjoy the moment. This was probably the closest he'd ever come to actually having Hunter naked in his arms, and he wanted it to last. He'd been trying to get Hunter's attention, trying to tell him without words how he felt, but he'd failed.

"Yeah. He's probably shitting himself. Wonder how big the fine'll be this time?" Shawn didn't have to fake the grin on his face. Vince had been a friend of his, had been someone he knew he could turn to for support... and had been a major nail in the coffin for his relationship with Bret. He stiffened slightly as the name crossed his mind, then let out a quiet breath. He suddenly didn't want to be touched, and used Hunter's opening the locker room door as his chance to slip out of the loose embrace, heading straight for his locker.

He listened to Hunter's idle chatter with half an ear, nodding in all the right places, but his mind was elsewhere.


Images swam through his mind. Bret smiling at him, love in his eyes. Those eyes wide and dark with passion. Bret dripping as he stepped out of the shower, reaching for a towel... the laugh he'd given when he'd finally realised Shawn was holding it out of his reach, naked and smirking. Bret telling him that he loved him.

Shawn sighed, pausing momentarily as he dressed, his eyes squeezing shut.

What a joke. Bret had loved him... for as long as he was useful. And docile, and non-threatening. The Iron Man match had been the beginning of the end. After Shawn won the title from him, he'd changed. Turned brooding and angry, his moods changing like the winds. He'd started sniping bitterly at Shawn, started fighting with him. Shawn could still vividly remember Bret standing in the middle of their hotel room, his hands clenched, one half-raised, eyes burning with anger and disgust, as he told Shawn that he'd lied, had never wanted him as anything but a fuck toy. That he was only champion because he was good in the sack and good on his knees. That he was too stupid to know the truth... that Bret had never loved him.

His breath caught, and he forced himself to raise his head, open his eyes, and take a deep breath. That had been nearly a year ago, but he still felt like it was yesterday. He cast a sideways look at Hunter. The other man had lapsed into silence, and looked contemplative. Shawn couldn't help but let his eyes travel up and down Hunter's body, drinking in the sight before pulling his eyes away. Hunter had been another reason for Bret's changing attitude. The closer Shawn had become to the other man, the more Bret had pulled away from him. Bret had thrown that in his face, too, accusing him of cheating on him with Hunter.

Even then, Shawn had laughed at that. He loved Bret completely, had given himself totally to the other man, and the breakup had torn his heart apart. But... there was a small part of him, a part that he'd kept hidden from himself for years. A part that had fallen in love with Hunter the first time they'd met. He hadn't realised it until he'd collapsed to the floor, his dry eyes burning, after Bret had slammed the door on his way out for the last time, and he'd been able to think of nothing but how much he wanted Hunter there to hold him.

He'd never told Hunter exactly what had happened that night. When Hunter knocked on his door later that night after seeing Bret, Shawn had nearly been calm... until Hunter put hesitant arms around him. Gentle fingers stroking through his hair had undone him. He hated crying, hated losing control, hated showing the world that he was anything other than the Heartbreak Kid, the Showstoppa. But Hunter hadn't said a word, just held him.

And Shawn fell even deeper in love with him for it.

He finished dressing, and looked at Hunter again. The other man looked almost... depressed. Shawn suppressed an urge to walk over and wrap his arms around him, holding him for once. They hadn't really spent a lot of time together lately, not that Shawn could blame Hunter for wanting to spend time with the woman he loved. But he missed their time together.

"Hey, Hunt---what're you up to tonight?" He'd meant the question to sound casual, but knew as soon as he spoke that he'd failed. He sounded... hesitant. He hoped that Hunter wouldn't call him on it. He'd been trying to work up the courage to tell his best friend how he felt about him, but by the time he'd recovered enough from Bret to try, Hunter had been dating Joanie. He needed to tell Hunter, though. Even with Jo... but he didn't want to hurt either of them. They were both good friends, and they were happy together.

"Dunno. I think maybe Jo wanted to go out, but I'm not sure."

Hunter's answer sent a wave of depression through Shawn, which he tried to kick himself for. How selfish was it of him to get angry with Hunter for wanting spend time with Jo? He managed to respond, his disappointment obvious even to him.


"Why? Did you want to do something?"

Yes! he wanted to scream. I want to tell you that I've been madly in love with you for the last two and a half years and I'm incredibly jealous of Joanie, and I need you, Hunter! The words burned in his throat, hovered behind his lips. He stomped them down, shrugging and saying instead, "Oh, I don't know. I was just thinking... maybe it'd be nice to hang out together tonight. We haven't done that for a while."

"If you want to, I'm sure Jo won't mind, Shawn. She's been saying that we seem to be almost avoiding each other lately." Hunter sounded amused by the thought, but Shawn wasn't. He knew Jo was more perceptive than most people thought, and he wasn't surprised that she'd noticed Shawn's absence. Not that he'd intended to avoid his best friend, but those words had been trying harder and harder to escape lately, and he knew that Hunter loved Joanie. The last thing he wanted to do was come between them.

Hunter kept talking, and Shawn winced at the words. "I'm not sure how she came to that conclusion, given how much time we spend together."

Maybe because all the time they spent together was for work, nowadays? Hunter obviously hadn't noticed that Shawn slipped away after they reached their hotels these days. As much as he cared for the other two, it was just too much to watch them together anymore. He was silent for a few minutes, not sure how to respond to the unspoken need for reassurance he heard in Hunter's voice.

"Y'okay, Shawn?"

The quiet concern took him by surprise, and he shrugged a little. "I dunno, Hunt. I mean..." He stopped, not sure of what he was going to say, and turned to look at Hunter. The expression in the other man's eyes resonated within him, and he suddenly couldn't keep quiet any longer, couldn't not tell him. Even if Hunter hated him, or pitied him, or whatever... he had to know.

"Hunt, look... I need to tell you something." He saw Hunter blink.

"Sure, Shawn." He flinched away from the hand Hunter put out, and regretted it at soon as he saw the hurt in those whiskey eyes. But... if Hunter touched him now, he wasn't sure what he'd do. He might change his mind, or break down, or just jump on the man and tear his clothes off. Before he could speak, Hunter said, with a hurt tone in his voice, "You know I'm your best friend, Shawn. You can tell me anything. I'm here for you."

Shawn sucked in a breath, feeling like he'd been sucker punched. Best friend? What kind of best friend was he, keeping secrets like this, resenting Hunter's happiness with someone else... how selfish was he? His doubts and insecurities rose up and threatened to choke him, making him speechless as he searched for the words he needed. After a long moment, he took a deep breath and met Hunter's eyes.

"Hunter... I..."

His newfound courage fled as someone knocked on the door.

"Hunt? You in there? You done yet?"

Shawn's eyes fluttered closed for a second, wondering at how much he was able to hate someone he loved. But this wasn't really just about him, was it? Hunter loved Jo... they were happy together. What was he thinking, trying to come between them? And that's what he'd been about to do. It was better this way, better that Hunter not know. When Hunter turned back toward him, he plastered a smile on his face and shrugged, forcing words out through a throat tight with unwanted emotion.

"It's okay, Hunt. Nothing important. Just... a lot of stuff going on lately. Don't worry about it. Really." He could see Hunter's uncertainty, and the concern nearly undid him. He managed to side-step the concerned touch, amazed at how normal he sounded. He gestured at the door.

"Go on, Hunt. Jo's waiting for you." He nodded at Hunter as the man hesitated, suddenly wanting him gone, so he could have his breakdown in peace. Joanie called through the door again, sounding impatient, and Shawn smirked a little, waving at the door, wondering if Hunter could hear his heart breaking.

He watched silently as Hunter walked out, smiling at Joanie. As the door swung shut, he sank down onto the bench and pressed his hands against his face, shaking.

But no tears came.


~ Spring 1998 ~

Wincing, Shawn leaned gingerly back against the wall, sitting at the head of his bed. He stared at the phone in his hand, wondering if he really wanted to use it. Hunter hadn't talked to him since Wrestlemania, after all. Jo had called, but all she could say was that Hunter wasn't acting like himself. Shawn could think of lots of reasons why that would be, but combined with the long silence from his best friend, all the bad ones seemed likely. He tried to tell himself that he was overreacting, but the loneliness from the lack of contact and anger at the news he'd been given was melding together into one bitter knot.

He sighed, pushing back the confused emotions and dialed. He'd talked to Vince earlier, so at least he knew where they were. He waited as the phone rang, almost holding his breath until it was finally picked up.


The distinctive growl almost made him laugh.

"Well, Christ, Hunter, don't sound so damned cheerful!" His smile came through in his voice, but it almost sounded forced even to him. There was a short pause, and Shawn could just picture Hunter staring at the phone.


The shock in Hunter's voice did make him chuckle, and he found his tense grip on the phone relaxing slightly.

"Who else? Haven't heard from you for a while, wanted to check in... y'know." No need to tell him of all the lonely nights, the unwanted tears, the damned dreams where he had Hunter in his arms and the aching emptiness when he woke up from them... No, better that Hunter never know. He had Joanie, after all.

"How've you been? Jo told me the surgery went okay."

Shawn's breath caught in his throat. Okay? Joanie knew what the results were... had she really not told Hunter? Maybe she'd wanted him to hear it from Shawn directly, but.... All of the bitterness swam back up, his dark suspicions at the forefront of his thoughts. Was Hunter just playing ignorant, wanting to make Shawn say it out loud, so that he knew he was about to be handed everything he'd ever wanted? His fingers tightened again the receiver, his knuckles almost white as he tried to sound casual.

"Yeah, it went fine. As fine as it could, anyway." Shawn took a deep breath, the bitterness overwhelming him as he remembered the doctor's pitying look, the condescending tone as he'd been told that his _life_ was over. "Considering that my career's over, I'm doing just great, Hunt. I'm surprised you asked."

"E-ended? You're not--"

Shawn was mildly surprised at the actual shock in Hunter's voice. He hadn't stuttered since the first few weeks Shawn had known him. Maybe he really hadn't known... but the anger and loneliness and bitterness denied him that easy of an escape. He interrupted, his voice harsh.

"Coming back. No." He could feel the damned tears welling up again, feel the tightening in his throat and chest, and he adamantly denied them escape. He would not cry, dammit. He was not weak, he was not a little kid, and he was not going to cry on the phone to someone that he loved. Especially not to Hunter. No matter how much he wished Hunter was here with him to hold him, he would not lose control like that again. Not ever.

The quiet whisper of his name into the phone, revealing Hunter's distress, almost undid Shawn. In response, his temper flared, his anger making his words sharp, painful... even for him.

"What's the problem, Hunter? You've got everything you ever wanted, now." Shawn tried to stop, knowing better, but his sudden anger, his memory of the long, silent days, wouldn't let him. "You've got DX, you're with Joanie, you're well on your way to being the top guy in the company. Why would you want me around? I always held you back." He cringed at the words, wondering if Hunter would see the deeply-hidden insecurities he'd just revealed.

"No, Shawn. It's not like that--"

The denial further fanned the flames. If Hunter would shut up, would just listen to what Shawn was really saying, would understand...

"Isn't it? How long have you wanted me gone, Hunter? How long have you been pretending to be a friend while angling for my spot?" Shawn almost wanted to laugh, but it would've strangled him if he did. Would Hunter ever understand how much of what Shawn was saying was aimed at himself? He knew he was hurting his friend, knew that his suspicions were founded on nothing but his own insecurity and hurt, but he couldn't stop the words from coming. Nothing could.... Almost nothing. If Hunter could just hear past the words into what Shawn couldn't come out and say...

"I-I never--" Stammering again. Shawn's eyes closed briefly, able to picture the hurt on Hunter's face all too clearly.

"You've never been around when I really needed you!" he interrupted, almost desperate to make Hunter understand. "You weren't around when my knee blew out, you weren't around after Mania, you haven't been around now... And now, it looks like you won't have to be. I'm not going to be able to wrestle again!" His anger was ambushed by a sob that he was only partially able to stifle. The tears that he'd tried so hard to hold back slid slowly down his cheeks, almost unnoticed. He couldn't just go down gracefully, could he? He had to try to drag down the man he loved with him, and for what? For not knowing something that Shawn had never told him, for not understanding something that Shawn didn't fully understand himself?

"Shawn, don't, I never wanted you gone. I... want you here." The desperate, pleading tone made Shawn's lip curl. Of all things to say... so close to what he wanted, what he needed to hear, but so far from it.

"Don't lie to me, Hunter. You've never been good at it," he snarled. "All I ever was to you was a way to the top. You followed me, learned everything I had to teach, watched me fall... and now you're just throwing me away. Like everybody else."

That had done it. He'd just pushed Hunter's own anger to the forefront.

"God damn it Shawn, if you'd snap out of your hysterics, you'd see how wrong you are!"

His voice failed him. He stared sightlessly at the wall, wondering...

"Shawn?" Hunter was worried now.

Shawn tried to say something, tried to force the words out, but they wouldn't come. If he hadn't been able to say them in better, calmer times, how could he say them now?

"Dammit, Shawn, talk to me!"

Taking a shaky breath, Shawn surrendered.

"... I can't do this anymore, Hunter." So soft he could barely hear himself.

"What? What the hell are you talking about?" Hunter demanded, obviously worried even over the phone. Shawn's eyes closed, unnoticed tears still falling from them.

"Enjoy your life, Hunter. Enjoy it all... while it lasts. Until someone comes along and does to you what you've done to me." Shawn's voice was low, pain threaded through it. He could hear Hunter saying his name, but he turned and dropped the receiver down, cutting off the call. He leaned his head back against the wall, wondering if Hunter would ever understand what he'd just done.

He wondered if he ever would.


~ November 23rd, 1998 ~

Adjusting his hat as he talked to Vince, Shawn glanced around under cover of the brim. He was nervous at being backstage for the first time in months, wondering what his reception would be. He hadn't really anticipated being back. He knew Steve would be glad to see him, but he wasn't so sure about some of the other people that he knew he'd run into. He carefully avoided thinking of Hunter by name.

He nodded and answered Vince's questions absent-mindedly. They'd already ironed out the new contract, and now it was just details. Vince had been a bit surprised when Shawn immediately shot down the initial idea of him doing something with Hunter, but had brightened up again when he'd suggested something with Austin instead. Shawn offered no explanation, but knew that Vince suspected something of what was wrong between them. Vince had always been a friend, although some distance had come between them because of Bret. The man wasn't stupid, and he wasn't blind to the goings-on backstage; his attitude had always been one of toleration.

And he was currently looking at Shawn with far too much understanding and concern in his eyes. Shawn sighed.

"Shawn... I know you and Hunter have... had some issues lately," Vince said diplomatically. Shawn nodded and raised a hand, cutting him off.

"Yeah, Vince, we have. But... please. Just... let it go." He paused, looking down at the floor. "We... I said some things I shouldn't have said, and I really can't take them back." And didn't say some things that I should have, he added mentally. But how was he supposed to have known that Hunter was going to break things off with Joanie shortly after that call? Who knew what would've happened if he'd had the balls to actually spit out the words that had been burning in his throat?

Vince cleared his throat and put a hand on Shawn's shoulder, squeezing lightly.

"Well... that's between you two. I hope you can work it out, Shawn. I know you've been close for a long time," Vince said gruffly before letting his hand drop and starting down the hall. Shawn followed, a reluctant smile on his lips. They discussed some further details as they walked, and came to a final agreement as they reached the main area backstage next to the monitors.

"Yeah, Vince, that'll work out just great. I'll just talk to Austin and see what he thinks." Shawn couldn't hide his growing excitement. He really was looking forward to coming back, but at the same time, the fact that it was in a purely non-wrestling capacity was going to kill him. He'd done his railing against God and fate and the world already, but there were times...

"That's great, Shawn. I'll leave you to it, then." Vince sounded satisfied and shook his hand before striding off. Shawn smiled after him, shaking his head slightly, before looking around. He spotted Sean by the coffee stand, and headed in that direction, wanting to say hello. As he approached, he realised that Sean was talking to Hunter, and his pace slowed as he hesitated. But if he was going to do this, he was going to have to deal with Hunter eventually. Better to get it over with sooner rather than later... and if he tried, maybe... maybe they could get back to being friends. He stopped a few feet in front of them and smiled at Sean before looking at Hunter.

"Hey, Hunter. You're looking good," he said. He cursed himself for letting his nervousness show as he heard his own drawl, something that Hunter was sure to pick up on. He watched as Hunter's eyes traveled over him, almost dismissing him, but... there was something there, something that he couldn't quite make out.

"Thanks. You look like you're doing well." The cool tone of Hunter's voice made Shawn wince slightly, although he certainly couldn't blame his former best friend. The things he'd said to him... he still wanted to crawl into a hole whenever he thought of that phone call. No matter how much he'd been hurting, he hadn't had the right to take out his anger and pain and jealousy on someone who didn't know what he was going through. And, Shawn suddenly hoped, someone who never would understand that kind of pain.

He wanted to say something, anything that would mend this gaping hole that stood between the two of them, but the only thing that he could say was the one thing that he knew would make it worse. Even though Hunter wasn't with Jo anymore, there was obviously no way that he could accept a sudden confession of love from Shawn... there was probably no way that he could even believe it, now. And that was due solely to Shawn himself.

"If you're looking for Steve, he's down there, Shawn." The flat statement almost caught Shawn by surprise and he glanced down the hall, spotting Austin standing in a doorway talking to someone. He looked back at Hunter, sorrow for the damage he'd done, the pain he'd caused the man he loved, welling up inside him. He pushed it back down, knowing from Hunter's attitude that it was useless to try to apologise now, and nodded instead.

"Thanks. I need to talk to him about a new angle." He kept his tone level, smiling blandly as Hunter looked surprised. "I'm the new Commissioner. Vince wanted me back, so here I am." He glanced down the hall again, not wanting to lose track of Steve now that he knew where he was, needing to talk to someone who could understand how he'd felt and why he'd said those things to Hunter. Turning back to Hunter, he was surprised to see a brief look of envy on his face, but before he could say anything, Hunter blinked and it was gone, replaced by that infuriatingly cool mask.

"I've gotta run, Hunter. Catch you later," he said abruptly, turning and walking away before he could say something that he'd regret.

He called Steve's name as he approached, hoping fervently that the man wasn't in the middle of something, because he really needed to talk. It had taken them a little while, but they'd developed a good friendship before he'd had to retire. He managed not to snort at that euphemism. Steve was probably the only person in the locker room who he could talk to who would understand. Maybe he'd understand well enough to tell Shawn how to recover his friendship with Hunter. He snorted at the thought. Austin couldn't do the impossible. At this point, he'd settle for advice on how to deal with being around Hunter without causing more damage to either of them.

"Shawn?" Surprised disbelief tinged Austin's voice, and he had to smile, before he winced as a heavy hand thumped down on his shoulder. Then he was swept into an energetic embrace, Austin's arms nearly squeezing the air out of him, and as he wrapped his arms around his friend in response, he realised that he'd missed this, missing being around his friends and missed the contact. When Austin finally loosened the embrace and looked at him, he couldn't keep the grin off his face.

"Surprised a little?"

Austin grinned back at him."Hell yeah. So whatcha doin' back here, anyway? Causin' more trouble?"

"You could say that," Shawn replied, his smile faltering. Steve caught the change in his mood immediately.

"Not doin' as good as yer tryin' ta look, huh?" Steve's voice was stern. Shawn shook his head, leaning it against Austin's shoulder for a moment.

"No, I'm not. I need to talk, Steve, and you're the only one who'd understand," he said softly. Steve looked at him, and then nodded, his face serious.

"I reckon yer right, Shawn. This ain't the place, though. Let's get on down ta my dressin' room and we'll have ourselves a private little talk."

Shawn stepped back, nodding gratefully. "Thanks, Steve. I appreciate it."

Austin shrugged, draping an arm around his shoulders and guiding him down the hall.

"It ain't nothin', Shawn. Yer a friend, an' I help my friends." He paused, then glanced at Shawn. "'S Hunter, ain't it?"

Shawn gaped at him for a minute before closing his mouth and looking down.


Steve nodded, his eyes knowing, and they continued on in silence until they reached Austin's door. Austin opened it and ushered him in. With one last glance down the hall, Shawn followed him inside.


~ Summer 2001 ~

Shawn rolled over with a sigh. He glanced at the clock, groaning when he saw the numbers glowing greenly at him. Two in the morning. He punched the pillow under his head to fluff it up, but knew that sleep was probably going to elude him for the rest of the night. Not, he thought as he laid his head back down, that he really had any reason to be suffering from insomnia. It wasn't like he was worried or anything...

He snorted softly, looking at the pale shadows on the wall cast by the faint glow of the clock. He'd always been good at lying to himself.

His eyes closed briefly and he shuddered at the memory of that drawn face, the long, hobbling walk back up the ramp, not even able to walk without help... His eyes opened again and he stared sightlessly at the ceiling. He couldn't pinpoint the first time, or even the worst time, that his knee or his back had been injured. They'd been hurt so often, for so long, that it all blended together. He remembered the surgeries, yes, and he still cringed at those memories. But this one... this one, he knew he'd always remember vividly.

And he'd always wish that he'd been there for Hunter when it happened.

He'd hoped so much that Hunter would never know what it had been like for him when he'd had his back surgery. Being alone and scared to death and angry at the world and hating yourself and everything around you but worried that you'd lose it all...

Shaking his head slightly, he cursed himself. It wasn't his fault that Hunter had been hurt. It would've happened whether he was there or not, and no one was to blame; it was an accident. And Hunter, the damned fool, had just gritted his teeth and nodded and told Jericho to put him in the Walls anyway, knowing what he'd just done to himself. That was Hunter, all right. Suck it up and grin and make it look good, 'cause you damned sure can't fall down screaming and clutching your thigh and ruin the show. And Shawn knew, knew that even though Hunter was naturally a damned stubborn idiot, that he'd learned that do-or-die, "the show must go on" attitude from him.

So. Nothing to feel guilty about at all, right?

He lay there, lost in his thoughts, arms crossed behind his head as he gazed at the ceiling.

The phone rang.

With a startled curse, he grabbed at the receiver, wondering who in the hell would be calling in the middle of the night. Kevin immediately flashed to mind, and he prayed fervently that whoever it was wasn't calling to tell him some horrible news about Scott or Sean. He'd had too many late-night calls about those two to dismiss the thought, however well they may or may not actually have been doing recently.

"Hello?" he almost growled into the phone, his exhaustion and worry coming out in his voice.

There was no reply, although he could hear faint breathing. He frowned, his worry about Sean and Scott fading even as annoyance at a prank call in the middle of the night grew.

"Is anybody there? Say something or I'll hang up!" He couldn't help but hope that maybe it was Hunter, but shook his head at his own idiocy. Why would Hunter be calling him in the middle of the night? It wasn't like he had any long-hidden secrets to confess or anything. He wasn't sure why he hadn't slammed the receiver back down yet, but something made him wait just another minute.

Listening intently, he thought he heard... something.

He blinked, not believing his own ears, but there was just silence.

"Damn it!"

He hung up, torn between anger and an unwilling sort of hope. It couldn't have been Hunter. No way. He flopped back down on the bed, forcing himself to calm down, telling himself that he had to have imagined it.

But... he could've sworn that he'd heard something.

His name.


~ June 2nd, 2002 ~

"Y'okay?" The whispered question almost went unheard in the noise, but Shawn caught it and nodded. He couldn't stop grinning as he turned around, drinking in the cheers, the screams... the attention. Yeah, he'd missed this. He'd never denied that he had a huge ego, after all, and only a few people knew better. He thought he was probably almost in shock from the crowd reaction, and he didn't want to leave the ring, afraid that as soon as he did, he'd wake up and realise that he was just dreaming again.

Kevin practically had to drag him out of the ring, but he took his time heading back up the ramp, and as soon as they were through the curtains, he was talking a mile a minute, adrenaline sizzling through him.

"God, Kev, that was great. I haven't had that big of a rush in years!" He saw the tolerant look on Kevin's face and recognised it immediately but ignored it, too hyped up to really care how amused Kevin was by him at the moment. Kev nodded and smiled at the appropriate places, letting him rattle on as they walked down the hall.

He'd actually managed to forget that he'd have to see Hunter.

"Hey, Hunt. How'd you like the spot?"

That brought Shawn to a complete halt and he stared at Hunter as time seemed to stop. Hunter hadn't really changed, he realised, and was suddenly almost painfully aware of his shorter hair, the grey that he dyed out of it, the bit of extra weight that he'd put on... every little fault leapt to mind as he tried to drink in Hunter with his eyes without being obvious about it. A little more muscle on top, hair a bit shorter and not bleached anymore, beard... God, the man looked good. And those damned eyes... those amber eyes still seemed to see straight into him. Not to mention the wedding ring, he noted with a sharp jab of jealousy.

"Good, Kev, it was good. Of course, with the Heartbreak Kid in the nWo, how could it have been anything else?"

The painfully familiar voice cut across his thoughts and he cringed inside, hearing the bitterness in Hunter's words... and not missing that those words were addressed to Kevin, not to him. He barely rated a quick glance before Hunter was looking at Kev again.

"Yeah. It took some convincing, but I think it'll work out great." Shawn saw Hunter's expression flicker as Kevin slid an arm around his waist, and he leaned into it a little, suddenly needing the touch. He had to appreciate Kevin's careful wording. "Convincing" wasn't even close to the truth. He'd known that Vince wanted him back, had wanted him back for a while, but had refused every time he'd been approached. He'd used one excuse after another: His back wouldn't take it, his knee was starting to act up again, the fans wouldn't remember him, he didn't have anyone to work with...

And then Vince had done the unthinkable and brought back the nWo. A stroke of genius, really. And Shawn knew that he was out of time, and out of excuses. The doctors had cleared him to wrestle again, somewhat amazed at the recovery he'd made, and Vince had sent Kevin to talk to him.

He'd never told Kevin what exactly had happened between him and Hunter to ruin their friendship, but he knew Kevin suspected the truth. He certainly knew how Shawn felt about Hunt; he'd known that even before Shawn had, had brought it up shortly after first meeting Hunter, and Shawn, still devoted to Bret, had denied it adamantly. Uselessly, as it turned out, since Kev had been the one he'd called after the DX Christmas incident to cry over the phone to. He still cringed, remembering that phone call. He hated losing control, and that had been... bad.

And of course Kevin had convinced him. He'd never been good at turning Big Sexy down... he had that nickname for a reason, after all. It hadn't been Vince's idea to call him that. But he'd managed to make them promise not to tell anyone, especially Hunter. He'd claimed that he just wanted to surprise the fans and his friends... but Kevin---and probably Vince, if he was going to be honest with himself---both knew better. He didn't want to deal with Hunter any more than absolutely necessary.

He still loved the man, of course. But he found himself hating him, too, and that scared him. It was honest hatred, and it was real. It had started out mildly enough, as aggravation, but that turned to resentment, and that turned to jealousy, and that turned to hate.

So many things, he thought, so many little things had turned into something so big. All the times he'd tried to reach out, the times he'd needed support, the times he'd broken down... all the times that he'd needed Hunter and Hunter hadn't been there. All the times that Hunter had been in the ring, had won or defended titles, had cut great promos... had hurt himself... all the times that Shawn wanted to be there, and couldn't be.

He barely paid attention to what Hunter and Kevin were saying, too busy trying not to drown in his own bitter thoughts to really care. As the conversation paused, he became aware of Ric looking at him, a sympathetic look on his face, and that pushed a button. Pulling out his trademark "HBK smirk", he leaned closer to Kevin and looked up at him.

"C'mon, Kev, let's get going." He could see the initial confusion in Kev's eyes turning to dawning understanding, and then to sadness, even as he forced a smile, but refused to let that stop him. He was damned if he was going to fall apart in front of Hunter, of all people, after all this time.

"I've got plans for tonight, big guy," he purred. He slid an arm around Kevin's waist, running his other hand down Kev's cheek as he draped himself against the big man, tangling his fingers in his hair and pulling his head down before kissing him for all he was worth. Kevin's surprise quickly turned to heat, and Shawn melted into him as he welcomed the arousal spreading through his body.

When they finally broke apart, he took a moment to catch his breath, then glanced at Hunter to see his reaction. He was hoping for some kind of hurt, some kind of anger... something, anything to show that Hunter could be affected by him. The broken look on Hunter's face caught him by surprise, though, and he felt his heart clench at the raw emotion he saw there. He hadn't wanted that... had he? Sure, he'd gotten a reaction, and he could feel smug about that, but... had he wanted that reaction? Pushing away the sudden doubts that assailed him, he turned back to Kevin.

"Let's grab our stuff and get out of here." He wasn't feeling quite so giddy anymore. He felt... heavy. He glanced at Hunter again from under his eyelashes and saw that horrible broken look firming up into a cold look of resolution. That didn't make him feel any better, and he headed quickly down the hall with Kevin following, not wanting to see that look again.

They were almost to the parking lot before Kevin spoke, his voice low.

"What the hell was that, Shawn?"

Shawn blinked and tried to look confused, but knew that Kev wasn't going to buy it. "What do you mean?"

"Give me a break, Shawn. You put on that little show back there just to get at Hunter, didn't you?" Anger throbbed in Kevin's voice, and Shawn winced, ducking his head as he stopped beside their car.

"I... well... yeah," he finally admitted, his voice almost a whisper. "I'm sorry, Kev, I just... I couldn't look at him, and he wouldn't look at me, and--"

"So you pulled a trick a fourteen-year-old would be ashamed of." Kevin slammed the trunk down and glared at Shawn across the top of the car. "In case you've forgotten, Shawn, Hunter is a friend of mine, too. He's been through a damned lot, y'know, and as easy as you may think he's had it, you've obviously forgotten what it's really like backstage." He talked right over Shawn's attempts to interrupt. "And just so you know, Shawn... He's not made of ice."

With a final glare, Kevin got in the car, but Shawn stood stock-still outside it, almost frozen to the spot. He had forgotten, hadn't he? But... he hadn't forgotten what had happened between the two of them. Had he? Had he misremembered? Had he been lying to himself without even knowing it?

He finally got into the car, closing the door behind him almost mechanically, staring out the window as they pulled out of the arena parking lot. Hunter wasn't made out of ice? Shawn wasn't so sure. That last look had been cold, bitter. Almost how he felt. He remembered that mysterious phone call, and wondered all over again.

If that had been Hunter... what kind of damage had he just done?


~ Backstage, Wrestlemania XIX ~

Grimacing as he swallowed the pills, Shawn nodded at the trainer and slid off the table, glad that he'd been worried over nothing. CJ was going to be glad, too. He'd really been concerned, no matter how much Shawn had tried to convince him that he was fine. Now that he had a medical opinion to back him up, he could at least get his friend to stop fussing over him. And speak of the devil...

"Shawn, how are ya? Back's okay?" Chris was still concerned, and Shawn smiled at him.

"I'm fine. Told you it was just normal strain, didn't I?"

"Yeah, but... I worry." Chris couldn't quite meet Shawn's eyes, and Shawn raised his eyebrows. He dropped a friendly hand on CJ's shoulder, patting him reassuringly.

"It's fine, CJ. I promise," he teased, his smile widening as CJ finally met his eyes, studying him for a minute, before nodding. "If you're that concerned, why not walk me back to the locker room? Y'know, make sure the old man doesn't keel over or something." He could feel the adrenaline rush subsiding, leaving behind a warmer sort of trembling in its place. He cast a surreptitious glance at Chris, wondering just how his friend was feeling. Times like this were when he really missed Bret, he admitted to himself. Bret would've taken one look at him and dragged him off to the nearest dark corner and sucked him off before he even realised how horny he was.

"You're not old, Shawn," Chris said, shaking his head as they walked out into the hall, his arm around Shawn's waist, Shawn's hand still on his shoulder. Shawn could feel him trembling slightly and wondered if it were just adrenaline or something else. Chris took a breath and glanced at him with a smile, and Shawn could read the answer in his heated gaze. "You're still the sexy boy... to me, anyway."

"Really?" Shawn drawled the word out, looking Chris up and down, sliding his hand down CJ's back to rest on the upper curve of his ass. Chris nodded, his own hand slipping lower and squeezing gently.

The rest of the trip down the halls back to the locker room were a bit of a blur to Shawn, lost in the growing haze of lust that was fogging his vision. They talked and joked, their words barely disguising the verbal foreplay that they were indulging in. Shawn paused at the doorway to the locker room, glancing in to make sure that Hunter was already gone to his match before entering.

He slipped out of CJ's grasp and headed for his locker, intent on changing so that they could get back to the hotel, but as he bent over to pull off his boots, he could feel Chris looking at him. Smirking slightly, he straightened up and looked over his shoulder. Chris was practically devouring him with his eyes.

"I'm gonna take a shower, Shawn. Do you... want to join me?" Chris's tone was mild, but he wasn't trying to hide his obvious reaction to the other man, and Shawn shivered at the intensity of his look. His own body was demanding attention itself, and he realised that he didn't want to wait to get to the hotel. He nodded slowly, then grabbed the towel that he'd draped over his open locker door and stripped off his tights, wrapping the towel around his waist. He heard a soft sound from Chris, and then he was being pinned against the lockers, Chris's mouth on his, one hand in his hair, and he couldn't breathe and he was loving every second of it.

When Chris released him, he was aware that he could've heard a pin drop in the room, but he couldn't bring himself to care. CJ smiled at him, and said softly, "I'll meet you in a minute." He nodded mutely and headed for the showers, barely noticing as he passed Ric on the way. He picked a shower head off toward the corner and hung his towel up, noticing with some amusement how quickly the showers were emptying. He'd just finished rinsing his hair when he felt arms wrap around his waist, pulling him back against a warm, solid body.

"Miss me?" Chris breathed into his ear. Shawn turned in his embrace, hissing as their erections rubbed together, and kissed him. They fumbled backwards toward the wall, Shawn wincing slightly as he was slammed up against the cold tile. Chris kissed his way down his neck, licking along his collarbone, and Shawn groaned, pushing one leg between CJ's, grinding against him.

"Eager?" Chris asked hoarsely, and Shawn nodded once, suddenly impatient. The adrenaline was leaving him incredibly turned on.

He wrapped a hand around Chris's cock and hissed, "Fuck me, CJ. Now."

Chris shuddered, nodding, then grabbed the shampoo. Squeezing some out onto his hand, he quickly worked two fingers into Shawn, stretching him roughly while he kissed him. Shawn moaned at the feeling, craving more, and couldn't prevent the whimper that slipped out of his mouth when Chris pulled away from him.

"Easy, Shawn. Easy..." Chris whispered, lubing himself up before wrapping his hands around Shawn's hips, picking him up. Shawn leaned backward, wrapping his legs around CJ's waist. They struggled for balance for a minute, and then Chris was sliding inside him and he gasped, tossing his head backwards as his eyes closed, trying to impale himself on Chris's cock. He groaned and grunted as they moved together, not able to stop the noises from escaping him.

He felt Chris lean his head against his shoulder, and then CJ moved just right and Shawn was coming, his back arched, gasping out Chris's name. He felt Chris shudder against him seconds later, groaning, and sighed quietly, stroking Chris's back. They stayed like that for a few minutes, until Chris looked at him ruefully and carefully pulled out, supporting Shawn as he did. Shawn put his feet back on the ground, wobbling for a minute as circulation rushed back into them. He smiled gently at Chris and put a hand on his cheek.

"That was... incredible. Thank you," he said softly. Chris smiled back, and Shawn lifted his head as he stretched, stopping cold as he met Hunter's stunned gaze from across the room. His heart constricted at the hurt he saw in those familiar whiskey eyes, but Hunter's arousal was plain to see, and he felt a smirk stretching across his lips as he wondered just how long Hunter had been standing there. The thought that he'd seen them sent a strange mix of emotions through him, and he wondered at the pain that he felt mixed in with smug pleasure. He watched as Hunter flushed a deep red and hurried from the showers, his shoulders slumped.


He blinked and looked back at Chris. His lips twisted slightly, he shrugged as he answered the unspoken question.


Chris peered at him with unexpected concern written on his face.

"Are... you okay? That he saw, I mean?"

Shawn hesitated, then shrugged, not wanting to admit how shaken he was. "Yeah. It happens sometimes." He paused long enough to kiss Chris again, then grinned. "Let's get cleaned up and get out of here."

They headed back into a surprisingly quiet locker room, and Shawn was worried when he realised that Hunter wasn't there. He caught Ric's eye, but before he could ask anything, Ric glared at him.

"Still a selfish jerk, huh, Michaels?" he hissed. Taken aback, Shawn stared at him, hurt at the harsh words from someone he respected so much. Ric huffed and shook his head before turning his back on him, packing up Hunter's title belt with conspicuous carefulness. Taking the hint, Shawn walked to his locker and dressed quickly, making sure that he wasn't leaving anything behind, carefully not thinking about what Ric had said or what he might've meant.

"So, Shawn... do you want to go out to dinner with me?" CJ's teasing tone drew a smile from Shawn, and he turned around. As he started to reply, he caught sight of Hunter from the corner of his eye. His one-time friend looked withdrawn, distant, barely speaking even to Ric. Shawn felt... something at the sight. Something cold and bitter, and he forced himself to bite back any expressions of regret, because he didn't regret what had happened... only that Hunter had seen it. He knew that Chris was still mooning after Benoit, but he also knew that those two had been apart for years. He didn't expect forever from CJ, but he was perfectly happy taking what he could get. Not being alone, however long it lasted, would be worth it. The smile still on his lips, Shawn returned his attention to his new lover.

"Sounds like a good idea to me."

They chatted for another few minutes, Shawn managing not to be obvious as he watched Hunter leave. Hunter had won his match that night, but he looked like a defeated man. The hurt written so clearly on his face earlier still echoed in Shawn's mind, and he couldn't help but wonder if anyone had really won that night.


~ Backstage, Survivor Series 2003 ~

Lord, did he hurt.

Shawn placed one foot in front of the other, careful step after careful step, the drying blood on his face itching. He knew Austin was right behind him, looking troubled. He forced back a pained smile as he navigated the ramp. That probably wasn't hard for Austin to do, considering the wonderfully friendly words Steve had had for him as they stood together in the ring. "Idiot" was probably the kindest.

He had to admit that Steve was right. He'd bladed way too deep, and was feeling dizzy and nauseous at the moment. He knew better, too... and he knew why he'd done it. He was getting reckless again. Vince would undoubtedly have some thoughts of his own to add on that topic.

Finally reaching the curtains, he let out a sigh as he stopped just beyond, leaning over and bracing his hands on his knees as he took several deep breaths. He felt almost like he was drifting, the world getting more distant by the moment...

"Ya gonna be okay, Shawn?" Austin's worried voice brought him back to himself and he straightened up, wincing at the head rush.

"Yeah. I'm gonna head for the trainers and get this stitched up." He held up a hand as Steve started to say more, and reminded him, "You have to get back out there and do your "farewell" speech. I can make it on my own. I'll be fine."

Austin looked dubious, but nodded and turned around, heading back to the ring for his speech.

Standing there feeling lightheaded, Shawn wondered how much he'd just inadvertently lied to his friend. He took a few careful steps down the hall, and decided that it had only been a small lie. It might take him a while, but he could make it. Waving off offers of help, he put a hand on the wall and walked slowly toward the back room where someone was probably already waiting for him with iodine in one hand and a threaded needle in the other.

Shuddering slightly at the thought, he wished plaintively that he still had someone's hand to hold while getting stitches. Hunter had been so good for that... he understood how much Shawn disliked getting stitches, and had never made fun of him for wanting reassurance. He sighed. There were times he desperately missed Hunter; he just hadn't realised that getting stitches would be one of them.

He paused again, taking a deep breath as he leaned against the wall, his eyes drifting shut. He didn't realise that he'd drifted nearly into unconsciousness until someone shook him---hard. He whimpered slightly as the movement made his head hurt, and he forced his eyes open.

"Goddammit, ya stubborn bastard. I shoulda known better." The gruffness in Steve's voice didn't hide his anxiety, and Shawn gave in to his fierce, worried glare, offering no resistance as Austin wrapped an arm around him, half-supporting and half-carrying him down the hall.

He barely heard Austin's mutters, but the words floated through him as he stumbled alongside Steve.

"Damned stupid... Jericho's off with Benoit... concussion... fallin' asleep on me, Shawn." The last words were delivered with another shake, and Shawn shook his head, blinking. He focused on the words on the door as Austin pushed it open, and realised that they'd arrived. Stitch time... He groaned as Austin deposited him on the bed, sagging onto it. He cursed as something burning touched his forehead, moving across it in long painful strokes.

"Quite a cut there, Mr. Michaels," a cool, professional voice said. He heard it from a distance, but the rest of the words faded into gibberish. Strong hands on his shoulder and chin held him up, and he recognised Steve's touch. He managed to relax somewhat, only to jerk upright again with a whimper as the needle slid through his scalp to pull the first stitch taut. His hands tightened on the edges of the bed until they were white-knuckled, his lips pressed tightly together to hold back the unmanly pained noises that wanted to escape, as the needle pierced him again and again.

Someone pried the fingers of one hand loose and pressed a plastic cup into it. Only then did he realise that the stitches were done with. He forced his eyes open, trying to focus on the blurry figure in front of him. He squinted, the form finally resolving into Austin, who was holding his other hand out, two small white pills in it.

"Here, Shawn. Aspirin. Doc's not gonna give ya anything stronger, but he thought this might help." Shawn took the pills and washed them down, grimacing slightly at the lukewarm water. He managed a weak smile, feeling a little better almost immediately. He barely noticed Steve edging out into the hallway as the cool-voiced professional inspected him to make sure that there were no major injuries to worry about. He let the continual flow of cool-edged advice---drink lots of water and juice, avoid alcohol, no heavy activity---sail past him. He'd been here before; he knew the drill, and he knew that Steve and CJ would make him take care of himself.

Speaking of CJ... where was he? As he started to regain coherency, he realised that he hadn't seen Chris at all since the match. He vaguely remembered Austin saying something about Benoit and a concussion... That would explain it. He and Chris weren't a serious thing, although they enjoyed each other's company, and if Benoit needed him, Chris would've been off to take care of him without a second thought. Someday, he resolved, he was going to lock those two in a room and force them to talk to each other. He didn't miss the irony of that thought, as that was exactly what CJ had threatened to do with him and Hunter more than once.


That name made him ache all over again. It had been a long time he'd had anyone's hand to hold while getting stitched up. He finished off the water in the cup and set it down. The nurse finally stopped talking and shook his head, telling him to at least sit for a few more minutes to recover before leaving. He nodded---carefully---and the nurse looked somewhat mollified as he turned to start cleaning up the small mess left from the stitching.

What the...?

He cocked his head as he heard Austin's voice outside the door, just muffled enough that he couldn't make out the words, but he could certainly hear the tone. Steve didn't sound too pleased to be talking to whoever was out there. He couldn't quite hear the other person, but listening to the contempt in Austin's voice, his curiousity overcame him and he slid off the bed, clutching at it for a second as his vision wobbled, before walking over to the door and cracking it open slightly.

"Ya been smokin' somethin' an' not sharin', Trips? Since when do ya care about Shawn?"

Shawn clutched at the doorframe, not believing his ears. Steve was talking to Hunter? Hunter was here? Why?

"I'm not in the mood to be fucked with, Steve. I just... I just want to know that Shawn's all right. That's all."

A wave of trembling washed over Shawn as he heard Hunter's voice. That little tremor in the middle... He missed the rest of the brief conversation as his eyes drifted shut, his emotions unleashed from his normally tight control by the physical stress he was under. The world was blurry for an instant when he opened them again, suddenly needing to see Hunter for himself, but the blurriness vanished when he blinked. Carefully opening the door a bit more, he didn't see anything but Steve's back for a minute. Then he saw him.

Hunter looked worried, but relieved, his body tense but his face relaxed, as he thanked Austin. Shawn blinked again, trying to comprehend the sight of Hunter, worried about him. As Hunter turned away, Shawn opened the door farther, stepping partway into the hall, shielded from sight by Austin's body. Steve looked at him, concerned, but he was too busy staring at Hunter's retreating back to notice.

Did Hunter still care for him? Even after all these years, all these hurts, these misunderstandings... Shawn took a deep breath. He wasn't sure how Hunter felt, but obviously, it wasn't the hatred that he'd thought it was.

Standing there, his head throbbing and his vision blurring again for some reason, Shawn realised that he'd been wrong about the hatred between them altogether. And if he'd been wrong about that... how much else had he been wrong about?


~ June 14th, 2004 ~

He had to force himself to take a breath. He could feel the nervous tension coiling in his belly as he met Hunter's eyes, only feet away from him. Close enough to steal a kiss, if he were so inclined. The sudden memory of doing just that made his gut clench, and he forced it away again. Staring into those whiskey eyes, Shawn wondered if Hunter could read the hope in his eyes. Or the fear.

He sucked in another unsteady breath when Hunter finally broke that gaze to glance down at the hand Shawn held extended. Out of the corners of his eyes, he could see J.R. watching, could see the eager faces of the fans, but ignored everything except the man in front of him. He knew that Hunter was wavering, had seen unexpected longing in those dangerously expressive amber eyes.

His head still throbbed abominably from the beating he'd taken yesterday at the hands of this same man, but he knew that Hunter was still limping from the blows he'd inflicted in his own turn. He'd been dreading their Hell in a Cell match almost as much as he'd anticipated it. It had been wonderfully cathartic, even as his own actions horrified him. Watching the tape later, he'd paused it on his own demonic grin and simply stared, not knowing what to think of himself.

Whatever Hunter had thought, Shawn could see his eyes lingering on his hand, could almost hear the wheels turning in his head. Last time Hunter had accepted Shawn's overtures of friendship, he'd had them thrown back in his face during one of Shawn's lowest moments. He probably still hadn't realised that nearly everything Shawn had said then, in his anger and bitterness and fear, had been aimed at himself, not at Hunter. Hopefully he'd be able to explain that sometime soon. But first... first Hunter had to accept the hand he was offering.

As Hunter stood there, resignation crept in, and Shawn's shoulders slumped. He'd expected this, had known his gesture would be rejected, but he'd been unable to keep himself from hoping for a better resolution. And then Hunter's hand started to move, and Hunter looked back up at him with such emotion...

And then the pyros went off.

He was surprised. He'd known they were scheduled to be interrupted, although not exactly when, and he certainly hadn't expected it to be Kane. He looked back at Hunter in time to see The Game sneering at him as he dropped off the side of the ring and headed for the side door, exactly as planned. But... was there a flash of worry in those eyes? He couldn't tell, and he had more urgent things to worry about as Kane stalked down the ramp toward him, an unreadable expression on his face.

He backed up, not wanting to crowd Kane. The big man was known for unpredictable moods, to put it mildly, and Shawn wasn't happy that he'd been the one chosen to play this part. He was due for a vacation and he didn't want to end up in a hospital for real. He paid only partial attention to what Kane actually said, more intent on watching him, trying to predict his actions.

It didn't work.

When he hit the ring and couldn't get back up, he knew it was bad. He didn't know how bad until Kane positioned the steel chair around his neck, a demonic grin on his face, and then he tried to struggle. He tried to move, tried to escape... and failed.

And then it was too late.

The incredible pain shot from his throat throughout his body, and he gasped as he tried to take a breath, hyperventilating as he flopped, blood bubbling up between his lips and his breathing harsh and loud in his own ears as he tried desperately to suck in precious oxygen.

He struggled against the hands that lifted and restrained him, panicking as the world started spinning away into the swirly darkness of unconsciousness, his chest hurting from lack of oxygen, pain shooting throughout his body.

His mind seized on that image of Hunter, looking at him with that strange emotion in his eyes... Shawn tried to reach out for him, but his hand refused to move. He tried to speak to him, to tell him how terrified he was and how much he loved him and needed him and please not to leave him alone, but his voice failed him. Tears fell unnoticed from his eyes as he gasped and panted on the gurney, not realising where he was, his attention focused on Hunter and that look on his face...

And Shawn realised what that emotion was, even as the EMTs lifted the gurney into the ambulance and the doors closed behind him.

And then it all faded away.


~ After Unforgiven 2004 ~

Hesitating at the door, Shawn argued with himself. CJ had asked him to meet him at the bar after the show, and he'd agreed. So what was the problem? Blond hair, amber eyes he could sink into for days, a surprising ability to laugh at himself, well-hidden generosity... He sighed. In a word, the problem was Hunter.

It wasn't like he blamed Hunter for what Kane had done. He'd heard later, mostly from Chris, about Hunter nearly killing Kane at the next show. To say that he'd been shocked would be an understatement. Hunter was normally so collected, even when he was boiling over, that for him to have to be held back by half the locker room backstage, when the cameras were off, was practically unheard of. Of course, Shawn would have been happier, honestly, if they'd let Hunter go. A fine and a probation were incredibly light punishments for what Kane had done, but as Vince had explained to him privately, there was no real way to prove that he had injured Shawn on purpose. The move was dangerous, yes, but it had been done before---rarely---without serious consequences, and Kane's claim that he'd been off balance when he jumped and had landed wrong could be valid.

Not that anyone believed it. But it could be valid.

Shawn snorted at that, but bit back the flash of temper that threatened. He'd gotten his revenge just by coming back, let alone by beating Kane as thoroughly as he had earlier that night.

So why wasn't he eager to go and join the rest of the roster in the traditional post-pay-per-view party?

He took a few cautious steps inside, stopping in the shadows near the door. The music wasn't deafeningly loud, for a change, although the murmur of voices from the crowd made up for that. He scanned the crowd, looking for Chris... and spotted Hunter, sitting at a table with Ric, Randy, and Dave.

His lips quirked in a smile as he watched them. Dave and Randy had been together for over a year and were still going strong. They'd already weathered one (admittedly short) title reign and some high-profile feuds, as well as their on-screen dislike for each other. Seeing them smiling and laughing, especially with the man who'd ended Randy's title run, brought a warm feeling to him. Not too many couples lasted long in this business, but he suspected that those two had possibility.

Randy's laughter was audible even over the music and the crowd, and the look of shock on Dave's face made Shawn shake his head, still smiling. Most of the roster would probably be shocked to know what they were talking about, but Vince had kept Shawn filled in on the long-term plans, so he was aware of the upcoming title change. Hunter looked a little abashed; it must've been Ric who'd spilled the beans. That man never could keep a secret.

Finally pulling his gaze away from the table, he spotted CJ sitting at the bar and headed that way. Chris had told him about Hunter's breakdown backstage, but he still wasn't sure how to take it. He remembered the look on Hunter's face before Kane had interrupted them, and his half-delirious conviction had lessened to a half-hearted suspicion as to what it meant.

Did Hunter love him? He had no idea. They'd never discussed it, had never had the opportunity or the time to, and now Shawn was fairly sure that it was too late to matter. His own love for Hunter was so tangled up with years of resentment and bitterness...

Releasing a deep sigh, Shawn forced himself to push away the depressing thoughts. An honest smile came to his lips as he watched Chris lean on the bar, his sinfully tight jeans clinging in all the right places, and he slid in next to his sometime lover, wrapping an unannounced arm around his waist. Chris started, and Shawn leaned in close to his ear.

"Your humble servant, as ordered," he said with a smirk. Chris laughed and turned on the barstool, his hands falling to grasp Shawn's hips, pulling him close between his thighs as he bent his head and kissed him. Expecting a short kiss, Shawn was taken by surprise when Chris's mouth was hungry against his, his tongue demanding entrance. Shawn moaned low in his throat and yielded, his other arm creeping up around Chris's neck.

When they broke apart, he was nearly panting for breath and raised an eyebrow at the smug look on CJ's face.

"What was that for?"

Chris nodded across the bar and Shawn glanced in that direction, realising that Chris was indicating Evolution's table. His expression softened a bit as he watched Hunter laugh. He'd always loved Hunter's smile, and it was damned rare these days. His breath caught in his throat as Hunter glanced up and met his eyes. Surprise turned to... something else, and then Hunter blinked, breaking the stare. Shawn's smile faded, and a gentle hand under his chin forced him to look back at Chris.

Before he could say anything, Chris had pulled him even tighter against him and worked a leg in between his, his mouth hot and hungry on Shawn's lips again. Shawn whimpered, his body reacting to the overstimulation, and Chris slid a hand down his back to cup his ass, yanking their crotches together. Shawn's hips jerked, and only CJ's leg wrapped around his knee kept him from staggering.

This time, Shawn leaned his head against Chris's shoulder, gulping in long, shuddering breaths as he tried to recover enough control to at least make it out of the bar.

"He was watching." Chris's words were murmured against his ear, and the shudder that they brought to Shawn's body swept away the control he'd managed to establish. He finally raised his head, his eyes almost wild.

"CJ... I can't..." A finger against his lips stopped his words, and Chris slid off the barstool, an arm still around him.

"Let's go."

He managed a shaky nod, and they walked toward the exit, Shawn noticing on the way out that Hunter was gone. The pang of disappointment surprised him, but he managed to push it away, trying to concentrate on his lover rather than wonder how much Hunter had watched this time... and how much it may have hurt him.


~ Backstage, 2004 ~

Shawn barely noticed when CJ slipped away, no doubt to join Benoit. He honestly wished the two of them the best; they were both good friends, and he'd always known that Chris wasn't really his. Knowing that their relationship was over did hurt, but... probably not as much as it should have.

Sighing, he stared at the wall without really seeing it.

Why couldn't he get over this? Hunter had never been his; they'd never been together as anything more than friends. And yet... when he went to sleep at night, he dreamt of whiskey-coloured eyes. When he woke up in the morning, it was with a goofy smile in his mind. When his mind drifted during the day, it was to amber-blond hair.

It was his own damned fault that their friendship had been broken, probably beyond repair. His own pride and arrogance, lashing out for a target... Not that Hunter was blameless, but if he'd just been able to control his own emotions, things would've been different.

He sighed again.

They would've been different... but they never would've been what he really wanted. And now they never would be.

He'd seen to that.

~ finis ~

Milky Way bar

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