"The Hermit"

By Penumbren

Disclaimer: No one belongs to me.
Distribution: ask first
Rating: R to NC-17
Characters: Triple H, Ric Flair, Shawn Michaels
Mentions of: Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, Bret Hart, Chyna, Stephanie MacMahon, Chris Jericho, Randy Orton, Dave Batista, Sean Waltman, Steve Austin, Kane, 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. The Hermit reversed has several meanings, including obstinacy, suspiciousness, fear, impatience, folly, and arrogance. Negatively The Hermit can imply arrogance and obstinacy, suspiciousness and a refusal to accept advice when help would be beneficial. Other negative aspects of this card are impatience leading to bad decisions and loneliness. (Meaning taken from http://www.free-tarot-reading.net/meanings/index.php.)

Milky Way bar

~ Backstage, 2004 ~

It had taken him years to realise what a fool he'd been. He'd had what he wanted within in his grasp, but he'd been unable to keep it there. He'd been so close, but his courage had failed him time and time again, and then it was too late. He'd thrown it away, never even realising he was missing anything.

He let out a sigh as he watched an achingly familiar figure across the room, smiling and flirting with another man. Happy. Without him. Not that he'd ever had him to start with, he reminded himself bitterly. There had always been something else, someone else, not enough time, not the right words...

A hand on his shoulder made him jump and he looked up to see Ric's concerned face.

"Hey, champ. You okay?" Flair's voice was low. Hunter laughed, a low, bitter chuckle.

"No." His voice held a sharp edge that even he winced at. "Pretty damned not okay, Ric. And nothing you can say can fix it. Not this time. Not unless you can change the past."

Ric dropped into the chair next to him, his eyes following the direction of Hunter's gaze. Understanding lit his eyes.

"Brooding again, huh?"

Hunter nodded. "Not like I have a hell of a lot else to do right now, Ric. No wife anymore, remember?" The harshness of his tone made Ric wince.

"Sitting here like this, staring at him, isn't going to help anything, you know."

Hunter shrugged. "So? The only thing that can help is an impossibility, and we both know that." An uncomfortable silence settled over them.


~ Backstage, 1995 ~

"So you're the new guy, huh?" Hunter started and spun around, eyes wide, and found himself looking into clear blue eyes that captured him immediately. He didn't realise he was staring until the tanned skin around those amazing eyes crinkled with the smile the man was giving him. Flushing, he shook his hand, mumbling an apology.

The blond smiled at him. "It's okay. It's just my overwhelming charm." He winked at Hunter as he said it. "I'm Shawn. Nice to meet you."

"Yeah, I know. I'm Hunter." He paused, feeling his embarrassment fade at Shawn's easy familiarity. "Overwhelming charm?" He raised an eyebrow, and Shawn grinned.

"It got you to answer, didn't it?"

"Otherwise known as his overwhelming ego," a new voice said wryly. Shawn rolled his eyes and turned, letting Hunter see the two men who were approaching. He recognized them, too.

"Funny, Hall, very funny. Trying to give Hunter a bad first impression, huh?"

The new speaker shrugged, but his smirk remained in place. "Dunno, chico. Is it deserved?"

Shawn frowned at him. "Probably not."

"Partially honest, at least," a lower voice drawled. Hunter looked up, managing not to take a step backward as a large man stopped beside him.

"Hey there. I'm Kevin, and this furry goof is Scott." Kevin offered a hand and Hunter shook it gingerly, pleasantly surprised when the other man didn't try to crush it, as he'd been half-expecting.

"I'm Hunter. Nice to meet you." He managed not to stutter this time, at least. He saw Shawn frowning slightly and felt suddenly awkward.

"So, you're just up from WCW, aren't you?" Shawn spoke quickly to fill the silence. Hunter nodded, grimacing.

"Um, yeah. This is my first day here," Hunter managed to blurt out. Mentally, he rolled his eyes at his own tone. Way to go, Hunt. Look like an idiot in front of one of the hottest guys you've ever seen. And one that you've drooled over for the last year... "At least I haven't been pounded into pulp by anybody yet for looking at them the wrong way. That's an improvement already," he said.

Shawn's eyebrows raised in brief surprise. "They really did that?"

Hunter nodded, grimacing. "Anything you've heard about the place doesn't really do it justice." He was surprised at how quickly Shawn put him at ease. He missed the quick look that Scott and Kevin shared. Shawn frowned again, cocking his head to the side as he put 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." Hunter managed not to let his shock show at the way Shawn casually threw out Vince MacMahon's name. He'd heard that Shawn and his friends had a lot of pull around the company; apparently it was true.

"Yeah. And if you have any problems, just let us know. Not that you should," Kev said with a sidelong look at Scott. Before Scott could reply, Shawn spoke again, this time with a mischievous glint in his eye.

"So... you seeing anybody, Hunt?" Hunter blinked, taken completely by surprise by the question.

"Umm... no. I don't really know anyone yet," he said, feeling incredibly awkward all over again. Shawn smiled at him, putting a friendly hand on his shoulder. Hunter's eyes widened for an instant, the casual touch like an electric shock.

"That's okay. I didn't mean to pry; sorry if I upset you," he said, sounding totally unrepentant. Hunter felt himself flushing again as Shawn stepped up to him, standing right next to him. He saw Kevin and Scott walk away, talking quietly to each other, but his attention was yanked back to Shawn as he put his other hand on Hunter's neck, running his fingers through Hunter's hair.

"You've got such nice hair, Hunter," Shawn murmured, moving even closer. Hunter could only nod, speechless as Shawn pressed against him, his eyes half-lidded as he gazed up at him. He struggled to take a breath, opening his mouth to ask Shawn what he was doing... only to find his question answered as Shawn leaned up and covered Hunter's mouth with his own, taking ruthless advantage of Hunter's surprise to plunder his mouth. Hunter stiffened in shock before leaning into Shawn, his hands wrapping around the other man of their own will, lightning rushing up his spine.

When Shawn stepped back, Hunter was nearly gasping for air. He was dimly conscious of Kevin and Scott watching them, but his attention was focused on Shawn's smile. He tried to speak, but Shawn shook his head, his smile gentling as he saw the confusion in Hunter's eyes.

"Don't, Hunt. Just... think of it as a hello. Welcome to the WWF." He looked like he wanted to say something more, but another voice cut across the room.

"Shawn... ready to go? You're up next." A new glow entered Shawn's eyes and he turned with a wide smile. Hunter's heart dropped for a reason he didn't understand, watching Shawn's reaction to the new arrival.

"Yeah, Bret. Hang on." Shawn nearly ran across the room to the dark-haired man, who was standing in the doorway with a hand at his waist, wearing a look of tolerant impatience. Hunter watched, feeling as though the room were shrinking in on him, as Shawn approached Bret, chatting animatedly. A smile crept across Bret's face and he slid an arm around Shawn's waist, dropping a kiss on his cheek.

Hunter stared, not understanding why his chest suddenly hurt. It shouldn't be a surprise that the two top guys in the Fed were together, right? Right? He slowly turned around, his eyes unseeing as he stared at his locker, oblivious to Scott and Kevin's sympathetic gazes.


~ Backstage at Raw, Christmas 1997 ~

"So, Shawn... think we horrified Vince enough?" Hunter asked, smirking, as he and Shawn walked back to their locker room, arms around each others' waists. Hunter kept his tone casual, trying not to reveal how much he was being affected by the feel of Shawn's naked flesh against his. Thongs didn't really count as clothing, he decided. Shawn chuckled.

"Yeah. He's probably shitting himself. Wonder how big the fine'll be this time?" Hunter shrugged, enjoying the chance to have Shawn within his grasp, however fleetingly. Shawn seemed to be even more touchy-feely than normal---and Hunter wasn't complaining one bit. He pushed the locker room door open and reluctantly let Shawn slip free of him as they entered.

They chatted while pulling things out of their lockers, Hunter trying not to be obvious as he watched Shawn strip from the corner of his eye. He tried so hard not to, but it was so damned hard not to look---Shawn seemed intent on flaunting himself around Hunter lately.

A comfortable silence settled over them as they showered and dressed again, Hunter sneaking glances at Shawn whenever he thought Shawn wasn't looking. He wondered if he'd ever have the nerve to tell Shawn how he actually felt about him. He was involved with Joanie right now, but... he was starting to wonder if he was really in love with her.

Shawn's voice took Hunter by surprise, as lost in his thoughts as he was.

"Hey, Hunt---what're you up to tonight?" Hunter was mildly surprised at how tentative Shawn sounded, but chalked it up to distraction. He shrugged, zipping his jeans.

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

"Oh." Shawn sounded disappointed.

"Why? Did you want to do something?"

"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." It had been a while, Hunter realised with a start, wondering when he'd started drifting away from the man he considered his best friend... and his longstanding wet dream.

"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." She had, too, and he'd laughed at her, not seeing it himself until now. His own voice was tentative now, and he hated it, hated that he didn't know the mind of his best friend anymore. The suddenly tense silence made him keep talking. "I'm not sure how she came to that conclusion, given how much time we spend together." Hunter forced a chuckle, suddenly wanting desperately to change the topic.

Shawn was silent, for so long that Hunter finally turned and looked at him in concern.

"Y'okay, Shawn?" Shawn hesitated, then shrugged slightly.

"I dunno, Hunt. I mean..." He trailed off for a minute, before turning to look at Hunter, an unexpectedly serious look on his face. "Hunt, look... I need to tell you something."

Hunter's heart stopped, seeing... something... in Shawn's eyes.

"Sure, Shawn," Hunter said, concerned. He reached out, intending to put a hand on Shawn's shoulder, and was hurt when Shawn flinched away. But for some reason his mouth kept working, completely independently from his brain, and hearing what came out of it, he cringed, knowing that whatever Shawn wanted to tell him, it was important, and he was blowing it. "You know I'm your best friend, Shawn. You can tell me anything. I'm here for you."

Shawn hesitated again, his struggle for words completely unlike his normal self. He started to speak, then stopped, looking as though he were debating with himself. Hunter frowned in concern, ignoring the triphammer racing of his heart. Shawn took a breath and opened his mouth.

"Hunter... I..."

There was a knock at the door.

"Hunt? You in there? You done yet?" Jo's voice carried even through the thick door. Hunter grimaced at her timing, still worried about Shawn but almost relieved that he'd been interrupted. He looked at Shawn apologetically, but Shawn shrugged and smiled at him.

"It's okay, Hunt. Nothing important. Just... a lot of stuff going on lately. Don't worry about it. Really." Shawn's tone was light, but Hunter could see the shadows in his eyes. He reached out again, but Shawn side-stepped him without seeming to, and motioned toward the door, shooing him out.

"Go on, Hunt. Jo's waiting for you."

Hunter hesitated, but a nod from Shawn convinced him and he picked up his gym bag as Jo called through the door again. Part of him was screaming at him to stop, to make Shawn talk to him... but Shawn gestured toward the door again with a smirk, and he opened the door.

He walked out, smiling down at the woman he loved, and wondered why he felt like his heart was still in the room behind him.


~ Spring 1998 ~

Hunter sat on the bed of the hotel room, staring at the television. He'd turned it on half an hour ago, but he couldn't have said what was on. His mind was filled with images of Shawn. His best friend. The man he was more than half in love with.

The man he hadn't spoken to since the night after Wrestlemania.

Joanie knew something was wrong. She'd tried to get Hunter to talk to her, tried to get him to talk to Shawn... She'd even pushed Kid at him, knowing that Sean could pry anything out of anybody. But none of it had worked. Hunter wasn't sure himself what was wrong, and the only person he could talk to about it... was the one person he least wanted to talk to. Hunter knew Jo wasn't stupid and that she probably knew better than him what was going on. He wasn't sure if she'd realised yet that he didn't love her anymore. She was a great person and a good friend, but...

His thoughts were interrupted by the phone.

He flopped backwards on the bed with a sigh and grabbed it, wishing that he'd thought to tell the front desk to hold his calls. He really wasn't in the mood to talk to anyone.

"Yeah?" he growled.

"Well, Christ, Hunter, don't sound so damned cheerful!"

He sat up again at the sound of that voice.

"Shawn?" he almost breathed. A hoarse chuckle sounded over the line.

"Who else? Haven't heard from you for a while, wanted to check in... y'know."

Hunter frowned, wondering if the underlying exhaustion in Shawn's voice was just his imagination.

"How've you been? Jo told me the surgery went okay," he asked almost hesitantly, wondering if he should bring the subject up, but he wanted to know. There was a pause before Shawn spoke again, tension audible through his forced cheerfulness.

"Yeah, it went fine. As fine as it could, anyway." Hunter heard Shawn take a breath. "Considering that my career's over, I'm doing just great, Hunt. I'm surprised you asked."

The bitterness in the words hit Hunter like a punch to the gut. He clutched at the phone cord as he realised what Shawn had just said.

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

"Coming back. No." He could hear the harshness in the voice, could picture Shawn on the other end, face like a mask as he swallowed back hated tears.

"Shawn..." he breathed, not knowing what to say. His own throat felt suddenly clogged, his chest tight. Shawn... not around anymore? Not there to joke with, terrorize Vince with... not there to smile at?

"What's the problem, Hunter? You've got everything you ever wanted, now." The unexpected, biting words were like a slap to the face. "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."

Hunter shook his head violently. Everything he wanted? Where had this come from? He'd never said that, never thought that.

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

"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?" The spiteful words shocked Hunter, and he tried to stammer an answer.

"I-I never--"

"You've never been around when I really needed you!" The sudden anger almost hid the desperation in Shawn's voice. "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!"

Hunter's heart wrenched at the half-choked sob that Shawn tried to hide.

"Shawn, don't, I never wanted you gone. I... want you here," Hunter said desperately, wishing he was there with Shawn.

"Don't lie to me, Hunter. You've never been good at it," Shawn 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."

Hunter's own temper started to rise at those words, against his better judgement.

"God damn it Shawn, if you'd snap out of your hysterics, you'd see how wrong you are!" Hunter's voice was nearly a shout.


His anger drained away as quickly as it had come, leaving worry behind.


A muffled noise.

"Dammit, Shawn, talk to me!" He could hear his heart pounding in his ears as he strained to hear something, anything.

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

"What?" Scared now, his anger rising again because of it. "What the hell are you talking about?"

"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, full of anger and pain.



Hunter stared at the phone in his hands, confused and angry. What the hell was Shawn talking about? He'd never done anything to him, just tried to be there for him, tried to be his friend. He wouldn't hurt him like this!

With a sudden movement, he turned and ripped the phone away from the wall, hurling it across the room with a wordless yell. He heard the crash as it hit the wall before bouncing to the floor but didn't see it, his eyes squeezed shut as he wrapped his arms around himself, almost gasping for breath. He couldn't seem to calm down, couldn't think through the hurt and the anger that was swallowing him...

He sank back down to the bed, unaware of the tears sliding silently down his face.


~ November 23rd, 1998 ~

Hunter halted, his coffee cup halfway to his mouth, blinking in surprise.

"What? Of course we're still friends, Sean." He remembered the coffee and took a swallow before continuing. "I mean, yeah, we split up, but it was mutual. Why? Are you planning on asking her out?" He hid a smile at the embarrassment on his friend's face with another drink.

"Well... I was just thinking..." Sean hedged, fidgeting. Hunter patted him on the back.

"If you're interested, ask her out. Joanie's a great person. It just... didn't work out with us, that's all," Hunter tried to encourage him. He wasn't prepared for the sudden intensity of the look Sean gave him.

"Didn't work out? Don't you mean, never had a chance?"

Hunter stared at him. "What the hell are you talking about, Kid?"

"Hunter, it's perfectly obvious how you feel about Shawn. If he's too stupid to notice, he's the only one," Sean smirked. Hunter carefully set the coffee cup down on the cart before looking at his friend again.

"Number one, don't ever call Shawn stupid." Hunter's voice was low. He'd spent too much time trying to get that belief out of Shawn's head to ever want to hear it from anyone else, especially a friend, even as a joke. "Number two, how I feel about Shawn---and I have no idea what you think you know, Kid... however I feel about him, is none of your damned business." The sudden anger thrumming through him surprised him, but then, he hadn't voluntarily talked about his supposed best friend in months.

Not since that phone call. Joanie had found him later that night, still upset and angry, and had tried her damnedest to find out what had happened. She'd failed. He knew she'd called Shawn because she'd confronted him about the phone call a few days later, but he refused to talk about it... or about Shawn. Sean might mean well, but he didn't seem to realise that he was ripping open a wound that hadn't closed yet.

Sean held his hands up, the amusement on his face falling away as he seemed to realise he'd broached a very bad subject.

"Okay, Hunter. If that's how you want it, that's how it'll be. Fine." He muttered something under his breath as he turned around, but Hunter didn't have a chance to call him on it.

"Yeah, Vince, that'll work out just great. I'll just talk to Austin and see what he thinks."

The voice carrying down the hallway froze Hunter in place for a stunned second. He slowly turned his head, almost dreading what he knew he'd see.

"That's great, Shawn. I'll leave you to it, then." Vince nodded at Hunter as he strode by, seemingly oblivious to the shock on his face.

Shawn. And he looked great, Hunter noticed unwillingly. A reluctant smile twitched the corner of his lips. Only Shawn could get away with a suit and tie... and a cowboy hat. And look damned good, at that.

He stopped that chain of thought as soon as he realised what he was doing. This was the same man who'd been his best friend, who'd taught him almost everything he knew about the business... and who had lashed out at him, accusing him of never caring, never being there... blaming him for things he'd never done. Hunter's heart hardened again at the thought and his face smoothed over.

He offered Shawn a bland smile and a nod when he stopped in front of him. He ruthlessly ignored the ache in his chest as Shawn looked at him, his eyes shuttered.

"Hey, Hunter. You're looking good," Shawn said, his drawl thickening. That was something that happened whenever Shawn was tired or nervous. Hunter wondered briefly why Shawn would be nervous about talking to him; he'd pretty much told Hunter what he thought of him months ago, after all.

"Thanks. You look like you're doing well," he said in reply, his voice cool. A part of him cringed at the tone, but he stomped down the feeling, reminding himself that his "best friend" had shoved that friendship back in his face. Anything else---not that there was anything else!---was definitely secondary to that hurt.

Shawn paused, looking as though he wanted to say something. Hunter's eyes caught movement down the hall and he glanced to the side, breaking their silent contact for a minute.

"If you're looking for Steve, he's down there, Shawn." He silently thanked whatever angels were watching over him for that timing. Much more of this cool, pretending-like-we're-just-acquaintances shit was going to make him puke. Shawn glanced down the hall before looking at Hunter, an indefinable sadness in his eyes for just a split second before he nodded briskly.

"Thanks. I need to talk to him about a new angle." Hunter raised his eyebrows, surprised. Shawn smiled, but there was no friendliness in the motion. "I'm the new Commissioner. Vince wanted me back, so here I am." He glanced toward Steve again, and Hunter suddenly remembered that Austin had been a friend of Shawn's practically since day one. That was why the on-screen feud between them had worked so well; they trusted each other enough to throw themselves completely into their roles. He'd always thought that a feud between him and Shawn would be a great angle for the same reason.

"I've gotta run, Hunter. Catch you later." And Shawn was gone before Hunter could reply. Not that he had any clue what he would say. He envied Austin for just a second, before he found himself hating the bastard for still having Shawn when he didn't.

Ignoring Sean's too-knowing gaze, Hunter turned and walked the other way down the hall.


~ Summer 2001 ~

"Damn!" The word escaped before his lips pressed tightly together. A sheen of sweat broke out on his brow and he was trembling as he levered himself down onto the bed, carefully raising his leg and propping it on the pillows at the end.

Hunter took a deep breath, and another, until the trembling stopped. He wished that he could stop the pain as easily. He wished that he didn't have to deal with the pain in the first place. He wished that he didn't have to deal with the pain alone. He wished... he stopped that line of thought as quickly as it had appeared. Self-pity wouldn't accomplish anything, and it was up to him to get past this. No one else.

His mouth twisted as he reached for the prescription bottle on the nightstand and unscrewed the cap, dropping two pills into his hand. He stared at the half-full bottle, wondering, just for an instant, what would happen if he just took all of them. Would it make the pain go away? He shook his head and replaced the lid, swallowing the pills dry as he set the bottle back down.

The pills might help the pain in his leg, but they couldn't help the deeper pain, the one he hardly ever admitted to anyone, let alone to himself.

But now... now, things had changed. Now he was the one injured, depressed, scared, not knowing if he'd ever make it back to the job that was so much more than just a job.

Now he understood how Shawn had felt after his back surgery.

He let out a sigh as he finally allowed the name to form in his mind. He'd been adamantly denying Shawn entrance into his thoughts because he was scared of what might happen if he did. Now he knew.

When Shawn had called him that night, he'd been scared to death and lonely and angry. He'd needed someone to talk to, to comfort him... and failing that, someone to lash out at. Hunter knew because that was exactly how he'd felt for the last month. He remembered that phone call word for word, and even though he still cursed Shawn for his impatience and his anger, at least now he knew that nothing he could've said would changed anything.

Almost nothing.

He sighed again, almost a groan, as his head fell back against the pillows. Nothing like a career-threatening injury that no other athlete had ever recovered from to make you honest with yourself. When he'd been crying angry, bitter tears of pain and frustration into his pillow in his lonely hotel room in a strange town after his first day of physical therapy, he'd thought of Shawn. And he'd finally admitted to himself what he'd known for years.

He loved the man.

He'd loved Shawn practically from the first time they'd met, when he was an embarrassed, stuttering newcomer to the Fed and Shawn was on his way up to the top and involved with Bret. He let out a soft, bitter chuckle. Bret. The bastard. By the time he'd broken Shawn's heart by dumping him, Hunter had been involved with Joanie. By the time he'd realised that she wasn't the one for him, Shawn was gone. And when he came back, Hunter had been too wrapped up in his anger and his hurt to realise why he was so angry and so hurt.

Kid was right, he thought ruefully. He'd have to remember to tell him that... someday. When he could stand the gloating.

He winced as he turned partially to the side, pain shooting through him at the movement. It had taken something this bad to crack that wall of denial and make him admit how he really felt. Not that it was going to do him any good now. Shawn was gone again and they hadn't talked in almost a year.

His eyes fell on the phone, next to the prescription bottle. He sucked in a breath, suddenly wondering. Was he brave enough to do it? Would it do any good if he did? Would he be able to do what Shawn hadn't, and not let his fear speak for him?

His hand trembling, he lifted the receiver to his ear and turned the phone toward him, dialing a number he knew by heart.

With a quiet curse, he hung up before he finished.

He stared at the phone, his eyes narrow, before trying again. And hung up again.

He tried three more times before he was able to force himself to finish dialing and pull his hand back before he could chicken out again. He listened anxiously as the phone rang, his heart racing.


His heart leapt at that familiar voice, tired and grumpy as it was. He opened his mouth... and nothing came out. He struggled, trying to force the words out, but his fear overcame him.

"Is anybody there? Say something or I'll hang up!"

Hunter's eyes closed in frustration. So close, but so far away. His lips shaped a name, breathed it almost silently into the receiver. There was a long pause.

"Damn it!"

And a click. Hunter was left listening to the dial tone. His head dropped as he dropped the receiver back into place.

"I love you," he whispered, staring up at the ceiling.

He hadn't made the same mistake Shawn had. Instead of letting his fear speak for him, he'd let his fear make him unable to speak at all.


~ June 2nd, 2002 ~

He was talking to Ric when he heard it.

He was in mid-sentence, talking about the current angle, standing in the hall in front of the monitors when the music hit. He'd been half-listening to Kevin's voice, wondering in the back of his mind who he'd found that would make such a difference.

He should've known, he realised dumbly as he turned around, the world moving in slow motion around him, and watched him saunter down the ramp, the monitor showing every detail. Black and white instead of chaps and vest, short hair instead of long, a few more wrinkles around his eyes... He was still gorgeous. He hadn't changed at all, really. The audience was going crazy, screaming, just like they always had. He watched entranced they cut their promo, wishing in the back of his mind that he was in Kevin's place, close enough to truly enjoy the sight. He was barely conscious of Ric standing next to him, his focus entirely on the man in the ring.

"Lookin' good, ain't he, Hunter? Can't believe Nash got Shawn to come back as a heel," Ric grinned. Hunter took a moment to realise what he'd said, then snorted derisively.

"It won't last. Vince'll have to turn the nWo face because of this." His tone was sure, and Ric glanced up at him, raising an eyebrow.

"Really." It was almost a question. Hunter nodded without looking away from the monitor, watching Shawn soak up the attention, the adulation. He almost felt like falling to his knees himself, he realised, as the bitterness threatened to swallow him, remembering when he'd been a part of that presence. He forced the pain back, not willing to admit that it was there.

"The fans won't let him be a heel." He tried to sound casual, but he couldn't quite bring himself to say his name. He couldn't tear his eyes away from Shawn as he made his way back up the ramp.

Ric shook his head. "You gonna be okay with this?" Ric had been a friend for a long time, but he'd become Hunter's confidant over the last year. He knew more than anyone else how Hunter felt about Shawn. Hunter suspected sometimes that Ric knew more about it than he did.

Hunter finally looked at him as Shawn disappeared through the curtains with Kevin, the monitor showing a commercial break. He knew his expression was cold, grim, but he couldn't help it. He could feel the old emotions rising up, trying to overwhelm him, but he shut his heart against them.

"Sure. I've got Steph now, Ric. She's all I need." He didn't believe himself, and from the look Ric gave him, he didn't, either. He twisted the wedding band on his left hand, wondering what Shawn's reaction would be when he saw it. If he'd even notice. If he'd even care. Did he even want Shawn to care? He wanted to cringe against the sharp, bitter edge of his thoughts, wondering when his love had turned to hate.

A heart-wrenchingly familiar voice carried down the hall.

"God, Kev, that was great. I haven't had that big of a rush in years!"

Steeling himself, Hunter turned to look. Shawn was babbling excitedly, adrenaline obviously rushing through him, and Kevin was following half a step behind with a half-amused, half-exasperated expression that Hunter recognised. It was the same sort of long-suffering tolerance he'd always had when Shawn got like this. He ruthlessly pushed away the ache he felt at that thought and forced himself to smile at Kevin, reminding himself to kill the bastard for surprising him with this. Kevin knew that they had issues, even if neither of them had ever been able to explain exactly what those issues were or why they were there. At least, Hunter hadn't been able to. He suspected Shawn hadn't done any better, since Kev still pried at him occasionally, obviously wondering what had happened to the close friendship he'd seen when he and Scott left for WCW. His anger at Kevin subsided at that thought, knowing that the big man had to be suffering himself right now, with Scott being gone. Again.

He watched silently as they approached, aware of Ric by his side still, a supporting presence. Kevin saw him first and Hunter almost laughed at the regret that he saw on his face. If he'd really cared, he wouldn't have brought Shawn back... of course, with Vince breathing down his neck, he probably hadn't had much of a choice, Hunter acknowledged to himself. His father-in-law had a definite knack for getting his way.

"Hey, Hunt. How'd you like the spot?" Kev asked, stopping in front of him. Hunter had to chuckle as he watched Shawn almost visibly jerk to a halt, both physically and verbally, as he finally spotted him.

"Good, Kev, it was good. Of course, with the Heartbreak Kid in the nWo, how could it have been anything else?" The cynical undertone to his apparently jovial response was obvious. Kev winced slightly, but took his words at face value.

"Yeah. It took some convincing, but I think it'll work out great." Hunter swallowed as Kevin slid an arm around Shawn's shoulders, their easy familiarity another jab, reminding him of what he'd had once.

He forced his voice to remain steady as he replied, "You know you'll have to turn face, right?"

Kevin shrugged. "If we do, we do. It'll be a hell of a ride, either way."

Hunter had to agree with that. He flicked his gaze at Shawn, feeling a mild jolt when their eyes met. Shawn's eyes were shuttered, but Hunter could see... something. Before he could try to figure out what, Shawn blinked, plastering his trademark HBK grin on his face.

"C'mon, Kev, let's get going." He looked up at Kevin with what Hunter could swear was a leer. Kevin blinked, then smiled back. "I've got plans for tonight, big guy." Shawn's arm slid around Kevin's hip with an intimate touch. He reached up, caressing Kevin's face before leaning up to kiss him, plastering himself against the other man as the kiss turned hungry, Shawn practically humping Kevin in the middle of the hallway before they broke apart.

Hunter didn't know what his face looked like, but he could feel something breaking inside. Clique was Clique, sure... but they didn't normally flaunt it, not like this. Kevin caught his eyes and Hunter could tell that Kev was trying to tell him something... but he wasn't capable of reading it, not now.

Shawn glanced at him, his expression unreadable, but Hunter could see a triumphant gleam in his eyes. "Let's grab our stuff and get out of here." Kevin grinned down at him and followed Shawn down the hall, glancing back once with an almost... apologetic look on his face. Hunter took a deep, shuddering breath, trying to preserve some dignity as he pretended that he wasn't picking up the pieces of his heart that Shawn had just torn out and stomped on.

"Champ?" Ric asked from the side. Hunter shook his head slowly, finally meeting the older man's gaze.

"You were right, Ric."

Ric frowned, not understanding. Hunter's mouth twisted as he glanced down the hall again, his voice almost too quiet to hear.

"I don't think I'm gonna be okay, after all."

He sighed, pulling his familiar shell over his heart again, reminding himself that he was married to Steph, he loved her, and he was happy with her. So what the hell did he care who Shawn was fucking? He didn't, and that was that.

He almost convinced himself.


~ Backstage, Wrestlemania XIX ~

Cursing softly, Hunter left the trainers', wondering what the hell they'd expected. His leg was strained, he needed to take it easy for a day or two, keep weight off of it as much as possible... blah blah blah. He rolled his eyes. In other words, do exactly what he couldn't afford to do, but exactly what every doctor had told him every time he'd talked to them for the last year and a half. Sure, he'd take care of it tonight... but tomorrow the pain pills were going to have to take care of it.

With a grimace, he realised that he was on the same cycle Shawn had been with his knee. The same cycle Hunter had given him shit about for years. And look where that had gotten them; Shawn giving up the title and out for half a year, and Hunter able to say "I told you so."

He wondered as he neared the locker room who would be around to say "I told you so" to him.

He saw Ric standing by the door, looking worried, and had to smile. That was probably the answer to his question. Ric had become one of his best friends over the last couple of years, and he tried to listen to the advice the older man gave. But he couldn't listen to advice that involved him giving up the title and taking anywhere from a month up to most of a year off for health reasons. He wasn't Shawn. He couldn't count on the fans giving a shit about him once he was gone. Sure, they'd given him great heat when he came back from the quad injury, but that was an amazing thing, and probably due in large part to the hype Vince had given him while he was gone.

He tried to push away the negativity that seemed to be surrounding him, knowing that he'd just gone out and given a great match. Yeah, it was with Booker, but he respected Booker. He just wished the man could be consistent. They'd had a great match tonight, but tomorrow night, Hunter was willing to bet that Booker wouldn't even get a pop from the crowd.

"Hey, champ! Great work out there," Ric said with a grin, clapping him on the back. Hunter smiled back at him and headed into the locker room.

"Thanks, Ric." He frowned as he reached his locker, aware that the room had gone quiet. Not silent; there were still guys talking, but the overall volume had dropped noticeably when he walked in. What the hell? He looked over at Ric as he sat on the bench and started unlacing his boots. "Did I grow another dick and not realise it? What's up?" He stood up and reached for his towel, wrapping it around his waist after he pulled off his trunks. He was looking forward to a hot shower, that was sure.

Only when he turned around again did he realise that Ric hadn't answered him yet. The furrow between his brows deepened as he saw Ric looking distinctly uncomfortable.

"Ric..." Hunter paused, running a hand through his sweaty hair with a grimace. "Fuck it. Whatever the problem is, you can tell me about it after I shower."

"Hunter... you may want to wait on that," Ric said reluctantly, casting a glance toward the shower entrance. Hunter blinked down at him before chuckling.

"You're kidding, right? What, are we out of hot water? Geez, Ric." He shook his head and stepped around Flair, heading for the entrance. He frowned slightly again as he heard a couple of guys snickering behind him.

He sighed when he walked in and heard, over the sound of running water, heavy pants and grunts. He stopped in front of a showerhead, his hand on the towel at his waist as he called, "C'mon, guys, get a room..." He glanced to the side and his voice trailed off, as he suddenly understood why Ric had tried to convince him to wait.

Shawn looked gorgeous when he was being fucked. He was pressed up against the wall of the showers, his head tilted back and his legs wrapped around Jericho's waist, his hands clenched on Jericho's shoulders. His hair clung wetly to his neck and his eyes were shut in an expression of ecstasy as he shuddered and ground against his partner. Hunter could see Jericho's hips pumping, his head resting against Shawn's shoulder as he supported them.

"Shit," he whispered, unable to tear his eyes away from the sight. He could feel his shaft twitching, thickening at the unspeakably arousing view.

Shawn was noisy. He gasped and moaned and grunted, and when he gasped out Jericho's name and his back arched, Hunter sucked in a breath, feeling almost lightheaded as he watched Shawn's orgasm. Jericho came seconds later, slamming into Shawn with a groan. They stayed like that for a long moment before Jericho slowly pulled away, holding Shawn up as he wobbled on his feet. Shawn said something to Jericho, touching his cheek gently before looking up.

Time stopped for an instant when Shawn's eyes met his. Shawn's were surprised, fading toward amusement... and something else. Hunter's were embarrassed, shocked... and incredibly turned on. When Shawn's kiss-swollen lips curved into a mocking smile, Hunter finally yanked his gaze away, flushing.

He walked quickly, unsteadily, into the bathroom, knowing that he couldn't go back into the locker room in the state he was in. He glanced around to make sure it was empty before closing a stall door behind him, dropping the towel and taking his erection in hand. He shuddered, the images of Shawn flooding his mind. It only took a few quick strokes for him to come, spilling over his hand with a deep shudder.

With a muffled curse, he wiped himself off with toilet paper, throwing it into the toilet and flushing it. He stared at the wall, wondering if Shawn wasn't at this very moment regaling the locker room with the story. He laughed humourlessly at the thought, but knew better. Whatever went on between the two of them, they didn't talk about it. Not publically. Not to each other.

He sighed, not even trying this time to sort out what he was feeling. He didn't want to look at it, didn't want to think about what watching the man he'd loved for years getting fucked by someone else had done to him. It hadn't broken his heart; that was too poetic, too romantic, for this raw edge of emotion that he was trying to ignore.

He wrapped his towel around himself again and walked cautiously back into the showers, relieved to see that they were empty. His mind turned to his wife as he stood under the hot spray. Stephanie was worried about her dad, worried about the street fight that was happening even as he stood there. She'd barely had time to say anything to him today beyond a hurried kiss goodbye and a quick "Good luck." Hunter was fairly sure that their marriage was failing. Not that he didn't love Steph, because he did. But... always a but.

Grimacing, he finished his shower and dried off, heading back into the locker room almost defiantly, expecting catcalls or laughter. Instead, he was faced with a normal locker room, although one that was starting to empty, since the pay-per-view was nearly over. He didn't expect to see Shawn or Jericho there, and was taken aback when he spotted them standing together against the side wall, talking. Shawn was smiling. Hunter felt cold for an instant, watching the two of them, before Ric saw him.

"There you are!"

He headed toward his locker, nodding at Ric, who looked vaguely regretful.

"Y'okay, champ?" A familiar question, asked in an unfamiliar tone. Hunter paused, then reached for his clothes.

"Yeah." A monosyllabic answer, short and to the point. And completely untrue. He could tell that Ric knew that, but the expression on his face prevented any further conversation. He got dressed and threw everything into his gym bag. Ric had packed up his belt for him while he was in the shower, he realised.

"Hey, thanks for doing that, Ric." Practically no emotion in his voice, but Flair smiled anyway.

"No problem. Ready to go?"

Hunter nodded and shouldered his gym bag, carrying his title, and walked out of the room, leaving Jericho and Shawn behind.


~ Backstage, Survivor Series 2003 ~

Hunter hesitated in the hallway, torn between the knowledge that he only had a few minutes before he had to be in the ring, and the undeniable urge to make sure that Shawn was okay. He knew it was blading, knew that Shawn had years of experience with it, but that had been a lot of blood. Sure, he'd managed to walk up the ramp without help, but Austin had been following close behind and not just because he was a friend. He'd been right behind him so that he could catch Shawn if he fell.

He chewed on his lip for a minute, indecisive, then took a breath. Shawn might hate him, he might hate Shawn just as much as he loved him, but... he loved him. It might kill him inside every time he saw his former best friend, but he couldn't stop caring, no matter how much he'd tried denying his feelings. And right now, he was worried.

Casting a look down the hallway, making sure that no one was watching him, he stepped out, then turned toward the trainers' room, trying not to look as though he were hurrying. He could just imagine Shawn, sitting on the table wincing as his cut was stitched shut, his fingers tight around the edge. Once upon a time, he'd been with Shawn every time for every stitch, holding his hand so that he could draw the comfort from him that he couldn't get from the cold table. Hunter grimaced a little as he shook himself out of his dreary thoughts, reminding himself that he had to hurry, had to focus on his match tonight. The match that was in less than fifteen minutes.

He rolled his eyes. Like he was in a hurry to get to the ring for this match. Another example of the great-and-mighty Goldberg demonstrating his impressive mastery of three whole moves and retaining the title. Not that he had a hell of a lot of say about that right now. After Stephanie had served him with divorce papers, Vince had seemed to take a sort of malicious joy in taunting him. Granted, giving Goldberg the title was inevitable once he'd been signed, but even Vince had to have known that the man's mystique couldn't be kept up. The unbroken winning streak had been impressive once... right up until it had been broken. Hunter's lips curved a little at that. Too bad he couldn't resort to a tazer tonight. His footsteps slowed as he approached the room and realised that someone was standing outside of it, leaning against the wall beside the door. He halted a few feet away, cursing mentally. He should've known. This had been a stupid idea anyway. Shawn could care less about him, after all.

"Ya look lost, Trips."

The slow drawl set his teeth on edge, and he glared at the other man. He hated that nickname. It had been okay once upon a time... before it became a derogatory title used by people backstage who thought that he was keeping his title by fucking the boss's daughter. Hardly. Especially now.

The other man just smirked at him, his arms crossed as he leaned nonchalantly against the wall... blocking the doorway. And not moving anytime soon, his body language said.

"Yer knee hurtin' ya? Bad timin', with yer match in a few minutes. Ya'll hafta wait anyway, since Shawn's in there gettin' stitched up." It was almost casual, almost friendly, meaningless chatter. But Hunter knew better, and the look in the cold blue eyes facing him told him otherwise.

"I'm fine, Austin." He managed not to growl the words. "I just... " He paused briefly, knowing how Austin would react, but continued on anyway. "I wanted to make sure that Shawn's okay."

A snort of laughter met his statement. His fingers curled into fists at his sides before he could force down the spike of anger that shot through him at the derision on Austin's face.

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

Hunter took a deep breath, his eyes closing briefly before he met Austin's gaze again.

"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." His voice trembled slightly, and he cursed himself for it. Showing weakness to others was what got him in trouble. He'd been weak around Shawn, had allowed himself to believe that it was okay because they were best friends, because they cared for each other. Look where it had gotten him; that friendship thrown in his face and his weakness ripped open. He might understand now why Shawn had said what he had, might even understand a little bit why they'd never been able to recover from that, but it didn't make the pain any less.

Austin's eyes widened slightly as Hunter continued to look at him, silent. He cocked his head, considering, then nodded abruptly and pushed himself forward, away from the wall, so that he was face to face with Hunter. The icy blue depths of Steve's eyes warmed a little, and Hunter found himself almost holding his breath.

"I believe ya." Austin's words took him by surprise, and all he could do was blink speechlessly at the bald man. Austin nodded again, clapping a hand on his shoulder. "Maybe I shouldn't, Hunter, but I do. Ya say yer worried about Shawn, an' ya sure look like ya are. So, I guess it wouldn't hurt nothin' to let ya know that he's okay."

Hunter's shoulders sagged slightly as he exhaled, relief washing over him like a wave. He'd tried to tell himself that he was worried about nothing, that of course Shawn was fine, but it was a lot harder to convince his heart than his head when all he could see was the blood rushing down Shawn's face and chest for the last half-hour and the unsteadiness in his legs as he'd walked up the ramp.

"Thanks, Steve," he said quietly, and saw those blue eyes widen again at something they saw. He didn't know what, and didn't really care at the moment. Now that he knew, now that he wasn't worrying, he could focus on his match without being distracted by thoughts of Shawn. As much of a shitty match as it was going to be, he was at least going to do his damnedest to make it look good. Austin dropped his hand and leaned back against the wall, a small smile on his lips.

Hunter's eyes were already clearer, more distant as he focused his concentration on the match. He headed back down the hall, his steps lighter than they had been on the way up.

He didn't notice confused, bright blue eyes looking out from the doorway after him.


~ June 14th, 2004 ~

He could feel the eyes on them, thousands of fans practically holding their breaths as he met the steady gaze of the man in front of him. Time seemed to pause as their eyes met, the blue eyes in front of him strangely intent, trying to speak to him. For a long moment, Hunter held that gaze, startled by that intensity into the unthinkable. He knew that Shawn was seeing some of how he felt. Finally blinking, breaking that unwavering stare, his eyes dropped to the hand that Shawn was holding out.

That wasn't part of the act. The fans might think so; hell, J.R. might even think so. Hunter knew that they were supposed to act like they were going to make up, be friends again, but this whole handshake thing was unscripted. He'd been pretty sure that J.R. would ask them to shake hands, since it was J.R. He just hadn't expected Shawn to actually extend his hand. His eyes flickered back up to Shawn's briefly, surprised by the unexpected pleading he saw there.

His fingers twitched at his side, and he took a breath. Did he dare? Could he accept that gesture, and shake Shawn's hand? He knew that there was more at stake here than just an empty gesture for the sake of an angle; if nothing else, the fact that Shawn was willing to make the offer spoke volumes. But... what exactly was he offering? Could Hunter really risk taking that hand and losing the shell that he'd created over the years? That shell had come into being when the man in front of him had done the unthinkable and torn his heart apart. Did he dare risk letting him that close again?

He saw sadness in Shawn's eyes now, resignation creeping in. His fingers twitched again, the sight making him want nothing more than to give and take that hand, take his place by Shawn's side again, be able to play the part of protector again. His hand started to rise toward Shawn's, shaking slightly.

And then the pyros went off.

His head whipped around to the ramp, taken by surprise. He knew that they were going to be interrupted. Shawn was getting time off to recover from injuries, after all. He hadn't known it would be Kane. He bit back sudden panic at the idea of leaving Shawn alone in the ring with the Big Red Machine; the man was highly unpredictable. He glanced at Shawn and saw the surprise on his face, before looking back at the ramp as the big man appeared at the top. He forced a sneer to his face, wrapping himself in The Game as he stumbled backwards, dropping to his knees and rolling out of the ring as called for as Kane stalked down toward the ring.

He headed for the side door, casting a few looks back at the ring, at Shawn, standing there alone, as he went. Kane stopped on the ring steps and grinned at him before looking at Shawn. Hunter prayed that it was only the lighting that had put that insane light in the big man's eyes as he closed the door behind him, slumping against it and closing his eyes momentarily.

"You okay, champ?" Ric sounded worried, and Hunter forced himself upright, opening his eyes and meeting Ric's concerned gaze.

"Sure. I'm fine, Ric." His voice gave him away, and Ric frowned at him as he headed down the corridor to the monitors by the gorilla spot. He had to see what happened. He'd just left Shawn alone in the ring with a monster. He hurried his steps at that thought, something inside him telling him that he shouldn't have left. Screw the script! He should've stayed once he saw who it was.

Dave and Randy were there already, staring at one of the screens as he walked up. A group of guys were clustered around behind them, everyone dead silent as they watched. That was a bad sign, and dread filled Hunter as he stopped next to Dave, lifting his eyes reluctantly to the monitor.

He ignored Kane's ramblings, his attention focused solely on the man he'd just abandoned. Shawn didn't looked frightened, just surprised. Although... Hunter sucked in a breath as he watched the wariness on Shawn's face start to change to something else at Kane's actions. What had he just done? Kane had hurt people before, and Shawn was more vulnerable than most people realised. Hunter's mind whirled as he tried to figure out what Kane was going to do, how much time he had to get back out there...

When he saw Kane knock Shawn to the ground, saw him lying motionless in the ring as the steel chair was placed carefully around his neck, he snapped, anger and fear forcing him to act. He headed for the entrance, heedless of the men around him trying to stop him. He struggled against the arms restraining him, cursing as he saw Kane climb the ring ropes.

"Hunter, calm down. It's just a work, you know that. You can't go out there now." Dave's voice in his ear brought him back to sanity for a minute. But only for a minute.

His head pounded from lack of oxygen as he held his breath, fear making his heart race as he stared at the figures on the monitor. So tiny. So distant.

He lunged forward when Kane landed on the chair, unaware of the broken cry that ripped from his throat, oblivious to the shock and disbelief around him. All he could see was Shawn writhing, coughing up blood, panicking as he tried desperately to take a breath...

He dropped to his knees as Kane walked up the ramp, unable to take his eyes off the man in the ring. He never noticed the EMTs rushing past him, never even noticed Kane pausing next to him, smirking down at him. All he could see was Shawn.

"God... what have I done?" he whispered, not realising that tears were pouring down his face. He felt Dave's arms move, the restraint changing as the other man knelt next to him, trying to offer some comfort. He knew Dave was talking to him, could hear Ric saying something, but he couldn't understand the words. His attention was focused solely on Shawn as he was strapped to the stretcher, lifted onto the gurney, rolled out of the arena.

He tried to stand up so he could follow, every fiber of his being screaming for him to be with Shawn at that moment. He couldn't do it. His legs wouldn't support him, and he nearly fell before Randy grabbed him, holding him up.

He felt Dave's hands on him, helping Randy support his weight, and then he was moving, the other two walking him down the hall toward their locker room. He stared sightlessly at the walls as he moved, replaying over and over in his mind the sound of the chair snapping, the sight of Shawn's panicked eyes as blood bubbled up between his lips...

He felt himself being lowered onto a couch and collapsed gratefully, pressing his palms against his eyes, trying to blot out the images of the man he'd left to his fate. The man he still loved, even after everything they'd done to each other.

He shuddered, his eyes closing. But the images stayed with him.


~ After Unforgiven 2004 ~

Playing absently with the half-empty glass in front of him, Hunter smiled as he watched Dave and Randy across the table. Dave said something too softly for Hunter to hear, and Randy laughed, turning his head and dropping a quick kiss on Dave's cheek. They were good together, Hunter mused. He thought these two might actually last, too. They knew how to communicate with each other, which was a rare skill.

"That was a great match tonight, Hunter." He was glad to hear no resentment in Randy's voice, and nodded.

"Yeah. You put on a hell of a performance, Randy." He lifted his glass, took a long a drink. Randy smiled at him a little ruefully.

"Not good enough to keep the belt, though."

Dave snorted at that and wrapped an arm around Randy's shoulders, but Hunter caught his eye before he could speak.

"That's not why they had you drop it to me, and you know it. You've got the skill, you've got the charisma, you've got the talent. Vince just doesn't seem to understand how to push you younger guys. And since I've got the belt again, we can work into a feud between me and you before I head into one with Dave." He tossed the words out casually, knowing that it was news to the younger man. He watched Randy's face light up as he looked at his lover.

"Really? That's great! Are you gonna get the title, Dave? You should! You--" Randy's exuberant stream of words was cut off by Dave's mouth closing over his, and Hunter smiled again, genuinely happy to see these two together.

He waited until Randy could breathe again before speaking, a smirk playing around his lips, knowing that Dave was going to be surprised, too.

"You're right, Randy. He should. And he will." Hunter paused, enjoying the shocked stare from Dave. "At Wrestlemania." He took another drink, exchanging a smug look with Ric, who'd known the plan as long as he had.

"You're kidding, right? No way in hell will Vince give me that title, man," Dave said, shaking his head in disbelief. Hunter's smirk widened as he finished his drink and set the glass down.

"You're wrong. That scene we shot a couple of weeks ago where you told me off? That convinced him. The crowd response was incredible." Hunter leaned back in his seat, openly grinning now as Dave just stared at him.

"The fact that someone pointed out that you were more than capable of carrying the title---and the company---at the last creative meeting didn't hurt, either," Ric chimed in, his own grin escaping. "After all, they've been looking for somebody who could have a long enough run to give Hunt here a break... and he convinced them that they already had somebody."

"Ric..." Hunter complained, rolling his eyes. He hadn't wanted Dave to know that. It was too much like he was playing with the other man's career, in his eyes, if that got out. Ric had argued with him about it. Watching Dave's growing delighted grin, Hunter had to admit that maybe Ric had been right. It'd probably do him good if more people knew that he wasn't the asshole that he played on t.v.

Randy's laughter spilled out, and Hunter knew that the two of them would do some private celebrating over the news later that night. It was amazing, really. He'd never seen another couple so able to shrug off the angles and the title chases as them. Hell, he'd been jealous of Shawn and he'd been his best friend.

Almost as though the thought of his name had summoned him, Shawn appeared in Hunter's peripheral vision, walking through the crowded bar with a smile on his face. Hunter suppressed the pang that went through him at the sight, watching him head toward the bar. Thank god Shawn was all right. The last few months had been some of the worst in Hunter's life. It had hurt more than when Shawn had been forced into early retirement; at least that time it hadn't been Hunter's fault. His lips twisted at the thought. Ric and Dave were still trying to convince him otherwise, but he knew better. He knew how unsteady Kane was, and he'd left Shawn alone in the ring with him. The script had called for him to leave, since Vince wanted to be able to start the feud up again later if he wanted, but...

His thoughts were interrupted as he watched Shawn walk up to someone sitting on a stool at the bar and wrap an arm around him, saying something in his ear. The other man laughed and turned toward Shawn, his hands falling on Shawn's hips, pulling him in between his thighs to kiss him. Jericho. Hunter sighed, his good mood gone.

So what if people knew he wasn't an asshole? Everyone knew what he'd done to Shawn. Nobody seemed to blame him, but they all knew what had happened. He supposed his reaction had surprised most of them. Who would've expected him to even give a shit about Shawn, the way they'd acted toward each other for the last seven years? If only they knew... hell, they probably did know. He'd almost ripped Kane apart the next time he'd seen the man. It had taken half the locker room to hold him back, snarling at Kane's smirking face. Knowing that Kane had been put on probation and fined made him feel better, but it took Vince's direct order for him to back down. If they were ever in a feud with each other, the Big Red Machine was going to be dismantled. Permanently.

He glanced at Ric, drawn from his depression as the older man made a joke. It drew a startled laugh out of him, making him feel a little better. He looked across the bar again, his eyes automatically landing on Shawn.

Who was looking at him. Hunter almost stopped breathing as their eyes met. Shawn's expression was almost... wistful?

He blinked, doubting his eyes. When he opened them, Shawn was wrapped up in Jericho's arms again in a position that was probably illegal in Texas. He watched as they kissed, Jericho's hand sliding down Shawn's back to pull them firmly together. A memory of watching the two of them in the showers came to mind, and he had to pull his gaze away, sliding a hand under the table to adjust himself.

Suddenly exhausted, both physically and emotionally, he stood up, reassuring Ric that he was fine, just exhausted, and nodding goodbye to Randy and Dave. The two barely noticed, they were so wrapped up in each other. The sight brought a small smile back to his face.

With one last glance at the blonds still twined together at the bar, he left, wondering if he'd ever have anything even close to what Dave and Randy had.


~ Backstage, 2004 ~

He watched Shawn and Chris flirting with each other for another few minutes before it became too much for him.

With a sudden movement, Hunter pushed his chair away from the table, the sound breaking the silence. Ric looked at him, but Hunter shook off the older man's concern.

"I'll be fine, Ric. I always am."

He stood up, wondering if the mere sight of Shawn would ever not provoke that distinctive mix of love and hate, resentment and longing. He wondered if he'd want it to. He doubted it. It was all he had left of a relationship that had never really existed except in his wildest dreams. The friendship had been so close, but had splintered so deeply... Why couldn't he stop hoping that someday, he'd have Shawn back? A useless hope, since he'd never really had Shawn in the first place.

With a quiet sigh, he nodded at Ric and walked out.

~ finis ~

Milky Way bar

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