It is barely half past six in the morning and the Florida sun is doing its best to make Karl want to fight it. His position on the dining table makes his face the unwilling receptor of sunlight but the pounding in his head neuters any thought of making his life easier.
His companions are of no help. Finn sits to his left, unusually chipper despite the lack of tea and Karl lying on top of his Legos. To the right is Sami Zayn, unsurprisingly energetic after his third mug of coffee as he fixes their grub.
Karl’s introduction to Zayn was through coffee, made from the expensive machine at the Performance Center. Their set-up then was not that different from what they have now: Karl was the lollygagging visitor, Zayn did all the work, and Finn smiled the way he did when he understood a joke no one had caught onto yet.
This smile is what keeps Karl from breaking a window and picking a fight with the sun. Karl’s seen that look before, seen all Finn’s smiles, his shit-eating grins. His familiarity is the only reason he can distinguish it through the film of dark, seething hatred clouding his mind as the demonic ball of light they call the sun assaults his beady little eyes.
He’s aware that there’s a conversation that requires the bare minimum of basic words for his participation. He is, however, unaware of its context. He doesn’t know if he’s affirmed a fact or a slight, or finally allowed Finn to talk him into having all his hair waxed off to fulfill his supposed destiny as a walking penis. The sun does not encourage him to care more.
“We went kayaking the other day. First time since you were injured?” Finn says as he squirms a hand under Karl’s left shoulder for a brick.
“Mmm, I think so? You might wanna check your little doodad, see if you blogged about that,” Zayn teases.
He taps a pancake out of his pan onto a waiting stack before pouring more mixture in. Karl’s distracted from shouting his opposition to the tiny shitty seeds and yogurt in it by Finn abandoning his bricks to stare at the cook.
“It’s not my fault that “blogging” is the latest thing on the internet that you know about.” Finn’s damn smile is there again.
“Oh yeah? At least I don’t check my phone every five minutes to see if I can—”
“—what Karl said—or if I got another marriage proposal from a fan.”
“Hey," Finn interjects, "I’ve been trying to reply to emails and messages more promptly—as you’ve instructed, might I add.”
Sami rolls his eyes. “Except for all the times I called and you were out—”
“—thank you, Karl.”
Finn flips Karl off. Zayn turns to look at him and Finn meets his gaze, says, “I have a life outside our little talks.”
“You’re one moody motherfucker, you know that?” Zayn replies, grins, and turns back to the stove and his nasty pancakes.
Karl hears the pointed curse and decides he likes this Zayn kid, weird healthy shit in his pancakes and all. He turns his head carefully to tell Finn of his approval when he sees the look on Finn’s face.
Now, he was no slouch on the mic. He could talk, and talk, and talk, and earn a few hundred thousand dollars on the strength of his yap alone.
But all the wealth in the world couldn’t help Karl describe the look Finn’s face as he stares at the man cooking those god-awful pancakes.
“What time is it? It’s—” Zayn swears as he did a double-take on his wristwatch. “Hey Karl, can you take over here? If I run late again, she’s gonna get hot.”
“She?” Karl asks as he lifts himself off the table and cringes at the bricks still embedded in his back.
“Girl—my girl.” The way Sami’s face lightens upon answering reminds Karl of the times Finn would jokingly refer to the man as a ray of sunshine. “It was nice meeting you.”
Another god-awful healthy pancake gets made before Karl realizes what the look Finn had earlier might have meant.
“So you and Sami—”
“Karl,” Finn interrupts him, “We’re friends.”
The kitchen stays silent until Karl sets the stack of pancakes down the table.
“Are you absolutely sure?” Karl asks again.
“Karl,” Finn says seriously, or as seriously as he can when he’s trying to imitate Giant Bernard. “Sit down and eat the damn pancakes.”
“Man, fuck you man,” Karl slurs and nearly makes Finn smile. “Trying to keep you out of trouble with married—”
“He’s not married,” Finn cuts him off. “And he’s a friend.”
Karl retrieves beers from the fridge before he sits down to tell his friend that he knows the last part was absolute horseshit.
“That last part is absolute horseshit.”
“Your face is absolute horseshit,” Finn retaliates.
His reply dies in his throat when he sees the way Finn is gripping his brick.
“He’s not married,” Finn repeats. “And he’s just a friend. Now, help me eat these damn pancakes.”
Karl relents from bringing the morning up in the subsequent months because A) Finn is helping him pay for his house and the least he could do is rib him less; B) He still couldn’t figure out what made him stop; and C) They were damn grown men who had other things to be petty about.
It works out for both of them, and everything goes well for the next few months.
They laugh over dumb shit that comes out of Gallows’ mouth. Video calls are exchanged at odd hours, sometimes with the wife and kids, and sometimes with nothing but a few bottle of beers. They argue over the amount of dicks discussed on the podcast with Rocky. Finn’s tour with NXT to Ryugoku reunites them and allows them to gorge on a sponsor’s dime. Karl watches Finn’s father light a rocket in their backyard in Ireland, lets his kids bid their Uncle Finn good night as a new year dawned in Cincinnati.
Neither of them have dry eyes the minute Karl calls to confirm the rumors, or after his last match in Japan, even as the boys laughed in the background.
When Karl flies in to Arlington two months later, Finn is the first person he sees at arrivals. They take a minute to collect themselves before boarding their ride to AT&T. Both are thankful for the tinted windows and the box of tissues the driver offers them.
“Next year,” Karl mutters, wipes his eyes as they step out of the car. “You’re gonna make the jump from TakeOver to WrestleMania, and it’s gonna be our faces on that arena.”
Finn blows his nose, answers, “Let’s work up to getting on SmackDown or Raw first.”
Old and new friends alike greet them backstage, harried as they are in preparing for the show. They sit through the matches, congratulate both AJ and Jericho after their fight, and pay their respects to Taker and Shane when they come out battered.
Karl even helps Finn put on the outfit for Hunter’s entrance, jokes that if Finn ever asks to help with his face paint for a show, he would just scribble all over him with a felt marker.
He adamantly does not comment on Finn’s careful avoidance of a certain man, nor his disappearance during said man’s match and reappearance an hour later.
Instead, he waits until they’re five bottles of fancy beer in at the after-party.
“Not this again.” Finn burps and unscrews another bottle of beer. “Sami’s celebrating his anniversary in a week.”
“I didn’t say anything about him and his girl.”
“You were getting to it.”
Karl cocks his fingers in the shape of a gun and aims it straight at a man standing a foot away from the tower of sushi Gallows mythicized in the past.
Finn swats his hand down and grumbles, “Don’t point at him, you damn beast.”
“All I was asking was how your boy Zayn was doing! I told you not to mess with married hoots—”
“Sami is not married.” Finn grits his teeth. “And he’s not my boy.”
Karl picks up his beer and points the lip at his friend. “You didn’t come back until he got the thumbs up from medical.”
“I fucking held your hand when we thought you needed to go to the hospital after a match.”
“That was different—you didn’t wanna fuck me afterwards.”
“I don’t want to sleep with Sami.”
The way his friend grips his beer can reminds Karl of that morning in Florida.
“Then what do you want to do with him?”
He sees his friend look at Zayn, now in the company of who he thinks are all wrestlers from NXT.
“I’ll see you later. I’m having a drink with the boys.” Finn picks his jacket up from the table and leaves.
“He doesn’t even drink!” Karl shouts after him and gets a bird in return.
Finn walks between tables and well-wishers for his destination. Karl thinks Finn would have taken the empty seat beside Zayn if he wasn’t watching.
“What do you think?”
Karl twists around his seat and shakes the outstretched hand Kevin offers him. “Congratulations on the match earlier.”
Kevin preens at the compliment and takes the seat Finn abandoned.
“And what were you asking me?” Karl asks when Kevin settles down.
“What do you think about Finn and Sami?”
Karl shrugs and offers Kevin an unopened bottle of beer he takes for himself after Kevin refuses it. “From what Finn told me, they’re good friends. You should know that—you two drove together until he learned how to drive and you had that feud.”
“This edible?” Kevin points at the uneaten food in front of Karl and takes a pair of chopsticks after he answers in the affirmative. “Thanks. Gallows cleared out the last plate I could reach. And you sure you haven’t noticed anything?”
Karl looks at where Finn and Sami are seated. “Finn doesn’t mess with people in relationships. Except for that one time with that singer and his husband.”
“Didn’t need to know that. And you don’t have to be in a relationship to do what he’s doing.”
Finn, at that moment, is doing nothing more than talk to his friends.
If he were to be particular about it, Karl would say Finn is doing that thing he does when he only wants to talk to one person in the crowd but doesn’t want to be rude to everyone else.
Karl saw this in California, in Tokyo, in Fukuoka. In every town where someone caught Finn’s eye, in every city he’s dropped them.
"It’s not his style to hold on like this," Karl tests the words on his tongue. "When he knows it’s over, it’s over."
"They haven’t even started yet."
Karl takes a long pull from his bottle. "If there is a thing to start.”
He’s aware of the look Kevin throws his way.
They glance at their friends and see Finn laugh at a joke Sami made. Beside them, a man Karl recognizes as Neville excuses himself from a table and meanders around before settling beside Kevin.
Neville nods at Karl, thanks him for the beer he's offered, and laments, "Watching them’s agony. I'm almost glad they don't both work on Raw, gives me a break from the puppy faces Finn makes."
Kevin makes a pointed look at Karl, who throws up his hands and cries, “What do you want me to say? I don’t know if you could describe that unless you’re a poet or some shit."
He can’t. Months after his last visit to Orlando, he still couldn’t think of a word that describes the crinkling thing Finn's eyes does when he looks at Zayn. No metaphor, or simile, or whatever crackshit his freshman English taught him could explain how the expression developed.
Because, loathe as he is to admit it, it’s a look Karl’s never seen before.
Neville, unaware of Karl's dillemma, answers. "Capital moron. Kev, d'you remember what he told me when I saw him make moony eyes at Sami? 'He's got a nice arse. I'm not helping him cheat on his girl.' Didn't even have to say anything about cheating and he's gone off about it."
Karl uses the ensuing conversation to watch Finn. His friends slowly abandon him and Sami until they are left with empty cans of La Croix and empty chairs, without their notice.
Sami’s the first to see it. He moves like he’s about to call on people when Finn puts a hand on his arm. With a few words, Sami sits down and they’re drawn back to the little world Finn’s made for them.
A part of Karl wants to believe in Finn’s words wholesale. What he sees are two good brothers talking shop, the one drinking a cold brewski and the other an actual, god-given non-alcoholic beverage.
The other part, the part that knows Finn, seen him at his worst, recognizes the look on Finn’s face as the same one he had in his kitchen as the Floridian sun beat Karl’s beady little eyes into submission.
“Two years.” Neville polishes his bottle off with a grimace. “Never made a move. Don’t expect that stubborn bastard to change.”
Compared to the man he knew two years ago, Karl’s not entirely sure that Finn hasn’t changed.
Finn does meet him again later. Karl drives him back to the airport with someone’s rental in time for his flight. Their conversation is decidedly mundane even though they will be limited to phone screens and static again. Karl thought he should sacrifice his curiosity to make the distance more bearable.
Sacrifice is a skill he’s perfected since Finn left Japan.
“You better show up soon,” Karl tells Finn as he loads his bag out of the trunk.
Finn takes the bag from him and they walk to the awning of the airport. “And you and Gallows warn people about your mouth diarrhea before they ride around with you two.”
Karl yawns. “Anything else you wanna remind me, daddy?”
He walks a few steps ahead and pauses when he sees that his friend has stopped. He puts on a voice he knows Finn hates and hollers over his shoulder, “Come on now, your plane’s leavin’, let’s go.”
“Karl,” Finn says in a tone that forces him to look back.
“Take care of Sami ‘til I get there.”
Karl’s gone back to the hotel, rode out to Dallas for Raw, strapped down for his flight home, and he’s still not an asshair closer to figuring out what the hell Finn meant by that.
Zayn had his own posse he rode around with, guys Karl knew by different names and gimmicks. Man’s clean as a whistle and, Kevin informs him, used to do the backing-up in fights they picked outside the fed.
Motherfucker sure as hell ain’t asking him to give the kid any handsies.
So Karl lets this sit out in the following weeks. He figures it’s safe to let go when Finn doesn’t mention anything during their almost-daily video calls.
Karl likes to believe it doesn’t eat away at him. He still does his job well, goes home every week to his hot Asian wife and three boys, and has as healthy of a social life as a good brother on the road can.
He’s forced to acknowledge that he may be lying to himself when his problem confronts him head on.
“You sure you wanna eat that?” Zayn asks him backstage at catering, a week before the draft around July. “Pretty sure you’re not supposed to eat that much hummus.”
Karl looks down at his plate and puts it down as quietly as he could.
“Now I’m concerned.” Zayn smiles as he looks around for coffee cups. “No jokes I can’t repeat to my mother?”
“Just a little tired.”
It’s a phrase that’s worked on everyone except for his wife and now Zayn, who says, “Yeah, no, now I can see how you and Finn are friends.”
Zayn grins when he doesn't reply. "See? The quiet thing. Finn does that too. ‘I’m fine, it’s fine,’ then I wake up with a text asking me if I'm free so he can vent. Does he do that all the time or is it a new thing?"
"No, that's definitely Finn," Karl answers because he's been on the receiving end of "the quiet thing" for more than eight years.
"What's eating you?"
Karl looks away from catering to give Zayn an appraising look.
Zayn, as Karl's come to understand, gets comfortable with others too easily. It's a trait he appreciates, in spite of his paranoia. He partly accepts it due to his sincerity; the other half of him knows he's comforted by Finn's trust in the man.
This is not enough.
He takes a second to form a lie. "I think I caught something from my youngest. He was sick all day last time I went home."
"Uh huh." Zayn tuts. "If you don't wanna say anything now, we can talk later."
“Nothing but a head cold.” Karl picks up a cup to give his hands something to do. "What's got into you, man?"
The confused look on Zayn's face would feel insulting on anyone else. "Me? I'm coping. You've had this—look, I guess—for weeks. Kinda weird on you."
Karl’s impressed. He thought he hid it well, or put on enough airs to dispel any questions.
"Coffee?" He replies. "Maybe over coffee."
They don't have coffee until a few days later, in a café somewhere in Ohio after a house show. Between the catering table and now at this rinky-dink café, they chat about the worst truck stop food, negotiating contracts with people who didn't know a lick of English, and casual things good brothers just know.
Karl half-expected things to pick up at this café. He didn't expect the kind of chatter you get with drunk brothers past midnight, or something similar to it, a heart-wrenching chat he never cared to have sober. But he thought he’d at least get an idea what the hell Finn meant by taking care of Sami.
He is a more subtle man than most people give him credit for, but he couldn't stand the thought of teasing out his headache any longer.
“It's something Finn said," Karl explains as Sami puts their coffee on their table. It's a mystery how he remembered his coffee order from a year ago.
"What was it?"
"He asked me to look after you."
If he were more poetic, perceptive, Karl would say use words other than "shocked" to describe Sami's face.
Because there are nuances, barely-perceptible, that shock can't cover. The sad little smile Sami’s initial whatever melts into is one.
"Yeah," Sami's breath hitches on a syllable that never gets completed.
The coffee Karl drinks has milk in it, just a dash, unlike the milk-with-coffee or the black evil the Bucks make. It has spice in it too, makes it taste like an unsweetened pumpkin pie.
He wants to bring these observations up along with some visual facts about the café: the curtains are green, customers refer to each other by name, there's a huge slice of cake on the table between them that has two forks and no sides eaten.
Anything, in short, to break this awkward damn silence.
"Do you remember the girl I talked about way back when?" Sami asks, after a stretch of eternity.
Karl's tempted to answer that yes, he does remember her; he thought Finn helped him cheat on her.
"We broke up."
"I'm sorry," Karl responds immediately. When he evaluates his response later, he finds that he means it too.
Sami scratches his nose. "Kevin doesn't know yet. I think you're the only other person who knows now."
"Not even Finn?"
The chuckle that Sami makes is the type that would get a brother or a sister a free beer from Karl.
"Finn introduced her to me while we were biking. We went hiking when he found out. It distracted me... For a day."
He stops and chuckles. "We were supposed to talk about your problems."
We are, Karl doesn't say.
"You can tell Finn to lay off the surveillance," Sami jokes. "It's fine. I'm fine."
He's not, Kevin tells him in so many words later. They're in another town, in another week, in another permutation of a headache they're mutually nursing. He looks fine, he's not fine.
Karl doesn’t stick to Sami in every waking moment, doesn’t document every shit he take, to Finn's chagrin. What does happen is this:
A ticket to a garage band is refused in return for songs from said garage band. Advice on what toys to buy his kids is swapped for what property to buy in what state. Some house shows, he sits in the back of Sami's rental instead of Gallows and AJ's. Beer is traded in for coffee and tea to help him keep up with Sami’s insomnia for the late night chats after.
Except for the one time AJ mentioned replacement goldfishes in their group chat, the changes to his schedule go without comment.
With time, the pitiful face Sami makes when his ex gets mentioned turns to a minor twitch.
Karl believes this meant he was free from his obligation.
He's taken care of the kid, to a point. He's happy, hale, and hearty, not in want except for the girl he's lost to undisclosed reasons.
"Oh damn it," Karl mutters to himself when it dawns on him that his job is far from over.
This damnation he extends to Finn, whose texts and calls about their mutual friend has nearly driven him insane.
“Finn,” Karl says firmly one night. Behind him, his wife tucks their kids into bed after their video call with their Uncle Finn. “The draft’s in a week. You have to tell me why they broke up when you get called up.”
“If I get called up.” Finn's frown is visible in the low light of his living room. “And no, he hasn’t told anyone why his girlfriend broke up with him.”
His voice is hushed. Karl only hears him use this tone when he’s beside someone he’d rather not wake up.
Karl blinks. “Are you with someone?”
Finn purses his lips. “Sami. Kevin’s home and Neville’s just left.”
“You know he’s been having trouble sleeping lately.”
“I know; me and your little buddies have the eyebags to prove it. Doesn’t explain why he’s in your house.”
“I’m trying to be a good friend,” Finn pauses to look accusatorily at him through the phone screen. “Like you were before you started this shite, Karl.”
Karl rolls his eyes and changes the subject back to the draft. What little hair he has left will have turned white before Finn would admit to having emotions.
Not that Finn was not an emotional guy; he just prefers to secret what he truly feels in lurid displays of affections. Throw a grand declaration of affection, feign a smitten look, have one of the young boys leave a bouquet and a pack of beer on the nightstand of his hook-up before their bus leaves for Nagoya or some shit; this was how the man operated in the years Karl’s known him.
The point he’s trying to make is this: Finn may have stopped trying to plow through half the world to plow one specific individual, but he’s still the same stubborn man he first met in Nashville.
He’s also the same talented, legend-in-the-making he’s worked with in Japan and thus, his call-up to Raw was not as surprising as Finn makes it out.
“Your mother told you the same thing,” Karl tells him while he adjusts his boots with one hand and keeps his phone up with the other. “And don’t tell me your dad was surprised. He’s been asking who you’re riding with since April.”
Gallows grabs Karl’s arm to force his face into the video call and say, “When you kick out this bald bastard and Uncle Allen over here from The Club, don’t forget me. I am a tag team specialist, as you know, and—”
AJ cuts him off, forces Karl to extend his arm outward to fit his face in the frame, and rants, “It’s criminal that you’re only getting called up now. If this draft is going the way I think it will, tell—”
They argue over the phone from the locker room to gorilla, where Kevin and Sami are watching the monitors.
“We could hear from the locker room all the way here,” Kevin greets them without looking away from the monitors. “And congratulations on the call-up, buddy.”
“Is that Finn?” Sami asks.
Finn, of course, hears him. “I guess I owe you a quid for this, Sambo.”
One of the producers signals to them and AJ and Gallows move into position.
Karl moves his thumb to cut the call then thinks better of it. The course of action that forms in his head is divisive: a part of him thinks it’s juvenile, another part knows it’s a waste of minutes, and one other part considers it helpful—helpful to whom, he’s not sure yet.
He decides, as he thrust the phone into Sami’s hand, to figure out who has the most to benefit from this later.
“Take care of that,” Karl instructs Sami, pokes at where Finn’s nose is on his phone screen. “I’ll come for it later.”
“I can call him later,” Sami tries to argue but Karl is already halfway through the curtain.
He finds his phone with Kevin after the match. Sami is nowhere in sight.
“I made him move the call to his phone,” Kevin informs him. “By the way, what the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“I’m letting them talk.”
Kevin finally looks away from the screens to tell him, “You do know it’s gotten to the point that Neville and I are planning an intervention, right?”
“Finn’s a grown man. He can do whatever he wants to.”
There’s a retort hanging on the tip of Kevin’s tongue. It retracts and in its place, he murmurs, “It’s hard seeing Finn so head over heels and do nothing about it.”
Kevin’s spent less time with Finn in comparison to Karl, but he’s been around their friend long enough to know that he is not the kind who waits.
He’s also apparently spent enough time with Finn to realize something faster than Karl.
“Did I ever tell you that it took me a year before I figured out that Finn was seriously dating Zack Sabre Jr.?” Karl asks, because there was no point voicing the obvious. “And not just plowing kind of dating. It was the kind Finn is thinking of right now.”
Put into words, Kevin’s reaction could only be described as “Great job, buddy, you finally caught up.”
Sami’s offer for a pre-drive coffee later that night is postponed for well-deserved beers to put off thinking for a night.
Midway through his fifth bottle, Karl decides to put Finn’s infatuation in the furthest corner of his mind, for now. Nothing he can say can make him out for anything but a hypocrite, given that AJ almost subjected him to an intervention over missing Finn.
He knows what it’s like to miss someone hard enough to feel it in his bones. A raw bruise, a deep, gnawing pang healed through time and video calls.
It doesn’t take him much to imagine how more fucked up Finn must feel, knowing what Sami means to him.
Finn’s debut goes without a hitch. The pop he gets when he parts the roster to meet the crowd is as loud as Karl expected it to be. When it goes meteoric after he seals a win over Reigns, it almost reflects the raucous celebration in the locker room, the heights Karl’s heart soars.
“What did I tell you, man,” Karl tells Finn when the applause dies down.
“You told me jack shit, Karl.” Finn laughs and pulls him into a quick hug. “Do you have my phone? I need to call mum.”
Karl hands Finn his phone and calls his own family. His eyes wander as he listens to his kids tell him about their day. He sees Gallows surrounded by the usual suspects, laughing at his own jokes. At the doorway, he sees Sasha and her husband chatting with Xavier, both men smiling and nodding at points.
Leaning on the row of lockers next to the showers is Sami and his half-smile.
Karl follows his line of sight and sees the solid back of Finn, tucked behind Sasha as he chatted with his parents.
Of course, Karl doesn’t know what to make of it. Hadn’t he decided with drunken gusto that he would put this whole affair behind him?
Even if he hadn’t, the configuration of this arrangement was wrong. It was Finn who did the pining; thus, it should also be Finn who looks like he’s looking at a piece he’d been missing all along. Not Sami.
Eventually,—and by eventually, Karl means the next Raw—he gives it up as a bad job.
Karl reasons that Sami was entitled to that smile. He did become one of Finn’s closest friends upon settling in Orlando, owed their mutual friend for helping him recover from injury, and publicly admires his friend’s dedication to the business.
Seeing Finn in the same locker room after months of speculation must have felt damn good.
Being effortlessly drawn to Sami’s gravity again didn’t hurt Finn either.
And so, Karl lets it go.
They have to travel in separate buses and cars sometimes, but the locals are easier to understand, there are less pork cutlet bowls, he and Finn are on the same road again, and damn if it doesn’t feel great.
The same board game they played in Fukui is replayed in New Jersey. A tired joke made in Bethnal Green gets a new license in Anaheim. Ziploc bags of Lyons tea are stuffed in their bags along with cans of B-Double-L’s, their precious numbers hoarded for rooms with fridges.
All the little details of normalcy Karl took for granted is solidifying again.
He gets used to seeing Finn spend time with Sami without any issue. Finn doesn’t give him a reason to doubt that his little—crush seems too small, juvenile—could become an issue and seems happy.
By the time SummerSlam rolls around, Karl’s fairly confident that his life’s gone back to normal. There’s no doubt that Old Day will haunt him for the rest of his life, but at least he’s making bank and he and Gallows are on their way out of that garbage.
“The Good Brothers!” Gallows roars as he grabs AJ and Finn by the shoulders and squeezes them, “Taking over the wrestling world again!”
“Technically,” Finn pushes off Gallows, laughing, “I’ll be rejecting you three.”
“Doesn’t make you not a Good Brother,” Gallows replies, somehow enunciating the capitalization of each word.
AJ looks at him, frowns, and says, “That doesn’t make even make sense.”
Their argument makes the crew putting their set together laugh. Karl and Finn turn to each other and grin. Finn and AJ may have only crossed paths in a tag match in Japan, but they know how incessant Gallows can get when he’s riled up for a show.
A flash of red makes Karl look behind Finn.
Karl leans to the side and waves him over, “Sami!”
Finn, to his credit, returns the half-hug Sami gives him without fuss.
“Just checking in before you all tear the house down,” Sami replies.
“Nosing in, more like,” Finn jeers, causing Sami to look at him in mock horror.
It’s fun, light; the banter gets them ready for their skit and takes the edge off Finn. Sami seems aware how much nervous energy Finn’s tucked away behind the bravado and keeps Finn talking, keeps his fingernails away from his mouth, his arms from crossing too much.
Karl’s thankful that Sami’s there to chat with Finn as he gets his paint done after their skit too. All that’s left for Karl to do when he gets back from his match is tease them, pick a marker up, and threaten to scribble lewdness on Finn’s thighs as the artist paints the same words on his body again and again.
Karl still gets the last word in, half an hour before Finn retreats to the back of his mind to complete the transformation. He makes it casual, wrote, nothing that he hasn’t told his friend over the week, to let him focus everything on Finn's left hand, where the space between each finger is occupied by Sami’s.
It’s a pattern Karl repeats later that night, when Finn’s on the medical bench squeezing Sami’s hand after the cameras have turned off.
“Why do you have to be such a nerd,” Karl complains as he scrubbed paint off Finn's neck. “Could’ve stuck to face paint, but oh no, you had to be a warrior king.”
“A demon king,” Finn smarmily corrects him. His jaw tightens as the doctor carefully wipes the last of the paint on his shoulder. “And as your king, I demand you to shut the fuck up, Karl.”
“You shut your whore mouth,” Karl hits back as he tossed another paper towel into the bin. “God damn it, this is 2014 again. Did you really have to paint your entire body again?”
“Did you have to get comfortable?” Finn stares pointedly at his stomach.
“Oh, you son of a bitch,” Karl growls in a barely-passable Stone Cold, making Finn laugh. “You’re lucky your mom’s here or I woulda kicked your ass.”
“Stop making excuses,” Finn makes a face at him, bites his lips as he smiles. He squeezes Sami’s hand and says, “Tell him to stop making excuses.”
Sami startles from his task of cleaning up Finn’s left shoulder. “Hmm?”
“See, even Sami clocked out of what you were saying,” Karl teases Finn because what else could he do? The man’s been silent since he stepped inside the room, a feat unheard of except for his time of prayer.
Sami continues his silence when Finn’s parents arrive to check on him, when Karl decides to shuttle with AJ and Gallows back to the hotel when the cameras arrive with Neville and Kevin, when Sami's forced to let Finn's hand go.
It becomes a matter of concern when Sami doesn’t notice Karl walking up to him outside Finn’s room, one floor above Karl’s and two below his, later.
Karl drags his feet on the carpet to make enough noise for Sami to acknowledge his presence.
“His parents just left," Sami tells him. He’s showered and changed, but Sami still looks like shit. “We ate, then we left. He said he couldn’t fall asleep.”
“So let him fall asleep.”
Karl folds his arms in front of his chest and tells him, “They’re taking him to the hospital after Good Morning America.”
“He should skip the show,” Sami responds and, upon seeing the questioning look on Karl’s face, adds, “Hunter would understand.”
“You need sleep.” Karl puts a hand on his shoulder. “Right now.”
“Hoot.” Karl shakes Sami gently. “You know he’d never skip his obligations.”
“He won’t,” Sami yields. “But that wasn’t a normal injury. That’s a surgery. I can feel it in my gut. You watched his match, right? That’s not—”
“Breathe,” Karl interrupts him.
Sami takes a short gulp of air before he continues, “His parents might stay if he gets injured, so that covers a few weeks. We have an overseas tour coming up and since Raw’s on that tour, we’re—”
“Sami!” Karl stops himself from laughing too loud, well aware of the time. “Worry about that later. Everyone needs their beauty sleep.”
“You were going to check on him too!”
“Check on you. Finn’s dad told me they saw you walking around and told me to get you back to your room.”
“He did not.”
“I don’t need to show you my phone, man,” Karl reassures Sami and pats his shoulder again. “He’ll be in his room in the morning, pal.”
“He’ll be in Birmingham with the doctors who fixed Seth’s knee by the afternoon.”
Karl pulls Sami all the way to the elevators, presses the call button, and pushes him into first that opens up. He waits until Sami reaches his floor before he calls another one up.
He’s stopped from entering the elevator when he recognizes the person inside it.
“Zack?” Karl steps back as the lanky man walked out of the elevator, looking fatigued underneath the hoodie he’s wearing.
Zack doesn’t answer. He tiredly pulls Karl into a hug and asks, “Is Finn asleep?”
“I don’t think so,” Karl says, patting his back.
Zack pulls back. He presses the back of his hands against his eyes—bloodshot, red-rimmed, and tired. “Quackenbush bought me my ticket. Got me on the last bus to Brooklyn.”
“You came all the way from Philadelphia?”
“It’s Finn.” Zack says, gives him a tired smile. “You know I’ll always do everything for him.”
Karl chuckles. “Don’t remind me. His parents are back in their room, right across the hall. I’m heading back to mine.”
“You’re not going to check up on him?”
“Hoot, he’s got you. ‘Sides, I only came up to get Generico back to his room.”
“Sami?” Zack’s face brightens. “Finn finally got his arse out of his head?”
“Not a chance in hell. But…” Karl scrunches his face up and shrugs. “Look, Finn’s gotta get up by four. He ain’t sleeping, but you might get him to rest, help his parents when he needs to shower.”
The elevator pings and opens its doors. Karl steps inside and moves to press the number for his floor when Zack asks, “Do you think he’ll ever say anything?”
“It’s been two years,” Karl tells him, presses the number on the panel. Zack adjusts the strap of his bag. “There’s nowhere to go from here.”
He receives a text from Finn telling him of Zack’s arrival as he stepped out to his floor.
Sami’s partly correct.
From the GMA studio, Finn’s whisked away to a hospital in Alabama and is incommunicado for the afternoon. His parents and Zack are there though, sending updates to a handful of family and friends.
It’s at Raw when Karl sees Finn next. His right shoulder is strapped to his body with an ultra-sling, right hand carrying a stress ball he tucks inside his sling.
His other hand is occupied by Zack’s.
When Finn tells Karl that he needs to surrender his title, it’s in clipped tones, as if the mere act of speaking pains him. Karl allows Finn to say invectives into his shoulder in the minute allowed to them before Finn gives back his belt in the ring.
There’s another set of strong, sturdy shoulders that receive Finn’s curses when he gets back.
It’s new and, for a second, it excites Finn’s parents, gives Zack a reason to raise his brow. Karl’s quick to tell them that no, it’s not like Zack; Sami is just a good friend.
Zack rolls his eyes and mentions something about stubborn, oblivious pricks.
For the weeks they’re unable to fly down to Florida, Karl tells Sami that Finn’s in good hands. His parents and Zack are there and, as evidenced by a few flowery pictures, Shinsuke is there to bring them to pubs.
The novelty of travelling to places they’ve never been before doesn’t stop Sami from checking in when he could. Sami’s at Finn’s the day after they arrive from the tour, when Zack leaves for a booking and Finn’s parents fly back to Ireland. He’s there on his days off, drives Finn to the Performance Center for his appointments, attends to chores Finn could not.
It becomes a normal thing then to wake to photos of Sami standing by Finn in rehab, to Sami’s text updates about Finn’s shoulder. His updates alternate with Zack’s whenever he’s there. Zack's health updates are essentially the same, except for the candids of Finn looking at Sami in an extremely, totally, completely platonic way.
At the hotel after Hammond, Karl tells Finn that he would do all of this if Orlando wasn’t a two hour flight away from home.
“You would make me fetch you a beer,” Finn points out in the video call. The sleek black sling that replaced his bulky ultra-sling made him look a little lighter than he did in August or September.
“Yes I would,” Karl confirms as Finn retrieves his phone from where he put it to show his new sling off. “Your eyebags look less like saddlebags. Finally back on your bed?”
“Been sleeping better too. Got to look less like death when I start touring.”
“Glad to know they’re not gonna let you go stir crazy. Or comfortable.”
“Only you can get comfortable and lose your abs.”
“Dick. Gonna fly back to Orlando from Paris before you go to New York?”
“No. I’m going to fly in direct to New York, stay there for a few days to have a look around East Village with Zack after the con and his show. I’ll fly home from there.”
Karl lets out a noise of surprise. “I thought Zack had a booking?”
“Rhode Island’s only a few hours out from New York.”
“Does this mean you and Zack are…”
Finn fidgets. “We never finished it. We thought it would be fine to keep it casual again and it’s been fine since.”
“What about Sami?”
“What about him?”
Karl’s eyebrows climb up before he could help it. A million questions try to press past his lips, but he settles for, “I thought you hated planning things that far ahead?”
He’s sure he doesn’t imagine the look of relief that flashes on Finn’s face. “Zack wanted to catch the Halloween Parade. Old friends in the Village asked if we wanted to go to parties afterwards. We’ve got other stops to make before leaves for his bookings anyway.”
Backstage at Milwaukee later, Finn has yet to stop telling him of his weekend with Zack. They plan on stopping by so many comic book stores, Halloween events, in New Jersey and New York; Karl wonders if it’s humanly possible to keep all of it under wraps, or pull it all off in a short span of time.
It’s a testament to how nagging Karl’s become when Finn sees his plain acceptance as suspicious. He has questions, of course. He holds them in because he would rather have them nag at him instead of reverting Finn’s progress at moving on from Sami Zayn.
What else could he be doing but that?
Finn calls when he arrives in Ireland, raspy-voiced but pleased with the few days he has at home before his press call. He sends pictures of costumed fans when he arrives at Paris for the call, tells Karl that he should bring his wife there, he wouldn’t mind taking the kids to Bray for a few days while they do.
Karl’s greeted with a picture of Finn, Bayley, Sasha, and Daniel the evening of another con in New York. It’s the last he hears of Finn until Sasha texts him a series of emojis the next day, strung together with the word “Zack”.
“He’s with him until his next con,” Karl texts her back.
She sends another string of emojis, of emoji-yellow men kissing under a heart, holding hands, and more hearts. “He didn’t??? With Sami???? Put a ring on him?????” Another block of emoji.
“Honey, he couldn’t even spit it out.”
Five blocks of sad faces. A feat, even for Sasha.
The next day, a picture of Finn in rehab goes online along with a picture of a skeleton decorating the lawn of a friend’s house.
“It was an heirloom from a neighbor’s grandmother,” Finn explains in a private message. “Our friend dressed it up in vintage clothes and Zack was smitten. Had to take dozens of pictures before we could move on.”
He sends no commentary when a picture of himself and Zack makes it on Twitter while Karl gets ready for Munich.
The tweet is brought to Karl’s attention by approximately five people he personally knows, including Sasha, who sends another chain of emojis in lieu of words.
Sami himself seems indifferent to it when Sasha asks about it in London days later.
“Zack’s a cool guy,” he says as he laces his boots. “He’s helped out a lot since Finn got injured. Fun to talk to. Different taste in music, but it’s nothing atrocious.”
Karl waits until Sasha wanders away, disappointed, and asks, “Something on your mind?”
Sami looks up from his boots and frowns. “It’s nothing.”
“When I walk away now, I’m not coming back until after my match, and when I do, I probably would have forgotten about this.”
Sami ducks down to his boots and Karl turns away to walk to gorilla. Only a whisper draws Karl’s attention back, to hands hovering over laces, to a face obscured.
“Didn’t know,” Sami whispers. When Karl steps close enough for his shadow to fall on Sami’s boots, he continues, “Didn’t know he stayed in New York. He said he was coming home.”
His fingers finally grasp the ends of his laces and begin the slow process of snaking them through eyelets.
A screenshot of an idle screen with the words “I miss wrestling” makes it to the private chat with Karl, Fale, and Tama before Finn sends it out.
Finn is showered with expected reactions: encouragements, friendly mockery, emojis of all kinds. It’s what Finn gets, on the scale of thousands, when it goes live.
That day, Karl sees more people call Finn or ask someone to send a text for them. He’s duly informed when the calls pour in from abroad and laughs when Finn tells him that the doctors took his phone away for ringing during rehab.
He can’t be blamed then, when he misses Sami’s reply until Twitter brings it up on his feed.
“Wrestling misses you too, friend.”
Short, sweet, reflects the sentiments of half the wrestling world. Karl chuckles at it and puts it out of his mind until he sees Sami backstage in Buffalo.
“It’s been two months, huh?” Karl says when he walks over to Sami in catering.
“Seventy-eight days,” Sami replies. He fusses over the table until he finds the cups for coffee. “We miss some days, but we keep a count.”
“First time I heard of it.”
Karl overhears Finn and Kevin joke about on the phone, how they have half a year to prepare for a slugfest in Mania over their title. His countdown with Sami is never mentioned. Sami in general has ceased to become a topic of discussion.
“He’s taken his sling off. Looks hell of a lot better now.”
Nothing gives way in Sami’s expression. The only tell is his eyes: it darts from Karl to the coffee machine, to the food, to anywhere but him.
“Yeah,” was Sami’s quick response before he excuses himself.
“Did something happen between you and Finn?”
Karl has no basis for what comes out of his mouth next, but he also has no time for bullshit.
"He told me he was coming home after the New York con wraps up. Guess he decided to—It's nothing, it's silly," Sami cuts himself off.
It is absolutely something, if his posture is any clue.
Karl tells him that.
"What's wrong with my posture?" Sami asks nervously. "And it's nothing. I'm just worried. I haven't been over a lot 'cause I wanted to give him and Zack some space, and I forgot that Zack has an apartment in Brooklyn."
"Why bring up Zack?"
It's no small amount of fascination that Karl watches Sami force himself to relax, to push his eyebrows apart and erase the scowl on his face.
"I didn’t mean to circle it back to him and Finn." The cup of coffee he's nursing is drained and thrown to the bin with perfect aim. "Anyway, it's their business. They can do whatever they want."
He excuses himself and walks off.
Later that night, Karl heads straight to his room and sets up a video call with Finn.
“What happened with you and Sami?” Karl asks as soon as Finn picked up.
“Nothing.” Finn looks genuine in his surprise. “What did he say?”
“He said you told him you were flying back to Florida after New York."
"Ah, you mo’fockin’ liar, you had a vacation planned out before you flew to New York."
Finn frowned at him through the screen. "I don't have to tell him everything."
"There is a difference," Karl reasons, with emphatic pauses, "between moving on and cutting a friend off."
"Who said anything about cutting it off with Sami?" Finn looks away from the screen. "And if you already know that I'm... moving on, why say anything?"
"You don't cut off people like that, hoot. 'Sides, if you ain't avoiding him, why'd he say that he wanted to give you and Zack some space?"
Finn shifts uncomfortably and looks away from the screen. “He… may have seen me and Zack.”
“Oh god. Don’t tell me—”
“It was a kiss. We never did anything more.”
“A single kiss?”
“No,” Finn admits. “But after a while, he said he wants to give us privacy. I didn’t see any point in telling him what I had in mind after that.”
“You still lied.”
“He doesn’t need to know my every move. What do you want me to say?”
“Something that would explain why he was fidgety as shit—”
The words fall out of Karl’s mind as he finally makes sense of Sami’s behavior.
“Sami’s jealous of Zack—he wants to be there with you, you ain’t letting him, and when he's there you're avoiding him. Then you pull off this shit and he gets all nervous and shit.”
“How many drinks have you had before you called?”
“Maybe he feels like he owes you for taking care of him—” Before Finn could latch on that, Karl barrels on, “—But, don’t interrupt me, but I’ve seen him around you, Zack’s seen that—hell, your parents—”
"Way he said things ain’t how it’s done if it's all just friendly.” Karl persists because it’s fresh in his mind, Sami’s words, his face, everything before Finn’s shoulder got fucked up and he decided to cut Sami out of his life like he’s not a vital organ at this point.
“One second, he's saying he's worried about you, then he says he wants to give you space, then he says oh, it's yours and Zack’s business, both of you can do whatever the hell you want. I didn't even bring Zack up. "
"Stop talking out of your ass."
All of Finn’s little wrinkles are creased, fused together by anger, but Karl knows his tells. The bobbing at his throat, water filming over his eyes, his lips curling inwards—Dumbass is terrified.
“What the hell are you looking so scared for?”
“Don’t stir up things that aren’t there.”
“I ain’t doing shit! I’m just telling you what I see!
“Sami does not love me the way I want him to love me.”
There is no telling what expression Finn had when he says it. He put the phone away before he cut Karl off. Karl's forced to stare at a blank white ceiling until Finn's face comes back into view, stolid, eyes a tad unfocused.
“I shouldn’t have cut him off like that,” Finn’s voice is raspy. “But you know how he is. Unless I do this, I can’t forget. I’ll latch on to him, I’ll go back and do it all again and this... This is better for him, for me.”
Outside, the hotel window, Karl sees a multi-hued field of lights. Streams of taillights, xenon and fluorescent, breaks the field into chunks, and gives him movement to hold on to.
Inside, a single amber lamp to his side, stood against the full-length window, illuminates part of the room.
Finn doesn’t look at the camera of his phone. “Zack will be with me in London until he flies back to Ohio. I’m meeting old friends in Spain before a holiday in Iceland, then home. Bray.”
They sit in silence for a few minutes before they begin talking about the holidays and their families.
A few loud snaps brings Karl back to the commotion of ten tag teams around gorilla.
“Earth to Kharhl,” Gallows nagged in his throaty, dragging voice. “Earth to Kharhl. We gotta call this match or we’re getting our ass KICKED. Unless you FORGOT it’s Survivor Series, you bald DIPSHIT.”
“Looking wall-eyed there, fella,” Sheamus comments as he stretches.
“Son of a bitch!” Gallows shouts in his Stone Cold voice, popping the boys. “Mo’fucka got drunk before the match after telling me not to drink some fuckin’ Bee-Double-El’s. Hypocritical son of a—”
“Oh em gee,” Karl cries in exasperation, popping Sheamus. “I ain’t wall-eyed, ya dumb Son Of A Bitch.”
“No, he’s probably thinking about our little Sami,” Cesaro frankly remarks as he returns from talking with the SmackDown boys.
Sheamus frowns. “What about Sami?”
Cesaro waves a hand around. “He’s a little less…”
“Insane?” Gallows hypothesizes.
“Among other things.” Cesaro looks meaningfully at Karl. Karl forgets that he sees him talk to Kevin and Neville when Sami’s not around, has overheard Sami and Finn’s name thrown about in conversations. “Could just be our imagination.”
On the surface, Sami was still Sami: manic, a little too excitable, prone to over-planning. Privately, in cafes and buses, in balconies at the dead of night, he’s completely out of it. Too muted, too contained, too unlike the manic genius everyone has come to love.
“Look, you can’t force a brother to do anything they’re not prepared to do,” Gallows says with a shrug as walks over to the SmackDown boys, “Especially if they don’t know they should do. Anyway, that ain’t important: What’s important is who’s taking the German from the Alpha boys, and that ain’t me.”
No one gets the chance to raise their eyebrow at this until after they get eliminated.
When Cesaro returns to the back, he immediately asks Gallows, “Assuming we’re on the same page: What do you propose to do about it?”
“If you mean Sami being hung up on some shit, then abso-fucking-nothin’,” Gallows readily roars. He untapes his hands and gives them a look of exasperation typically directed to him. “None of us know what’s going through his head. You gotta give a brother room to breathe. If he needs help, he’ll ask for it. If not, it ain’t our fucking problem in the first place.”
Much later, when they’re loading their bags into their rentals for the drive to the hotel, Cesaro says, “Admit it, you’re as worried as the rest of us.”
Gallows shuts the back of the SUV with a careful slam. “That doesn’t mean I’m going to invade a man’s privacy. Whatever it is, he’ll get over it. Look at Finn, ol’ Monster Cock got whatever’s been cockblocking him and got back with Brother Zack.”
“Zack?” Cesaro’s surprise is echoed by people around him, the eavesdropping fucks. “England Zack? Didn’t they break up years ago?”
“I’m pretty fucking sure that was Zack’s ass in our chat group the other day,” Gallows grimaces.
Cesaro looks impressed. “Good for him. I don’t think anyone but Karl and Kevin—and Neville, over there, wait for us in the lounge?—ever figured out what that was about, but that’s good to hear.”
Across the concrete, Karl sees Sami loading his bags inside the van he rented with Neville, ignoring what Kevin is telling him in rapid French. Neville catches his eye, shrugs and waggles his phone.
Minutes after leaving the arena, Karl's sent a text message that simply reads as: “What the fuck?”
He remembers London and Buffalo. “The last few weeks have been the shits. Give him time, he’ll be up at it by tomorrow.”
No one has the energy to argue this text, not even Sami himself, until the middle of the week, when he receives a text from the man of the week: “I miss Finn.”
“Does anyone else know that you miss him this much?” Karl asks when Sami picks up his call.
From their bed, Karl can see his wife sitting stock still, eyes unmoving on the book she’s ostensibly focused on instead of his phone call. He ignores the pout she shoots him when he steps out into the hallway.
“I don’t know?” Sami’s tone is uncertain, anxious. “He won’t be coming ho—back to Orlando until after New Year’s. We text and call, but it’s not the same, you know?”
“We all miss him.” Karl leans against the wall opposite his door and tries to judge from the light underneath it if his wife is listening. “What’s this really about?”
“No time for bull, huh,” Sami chuckles nervously. The light seeping below the doorway is blocked by a shadow. Karl wonders if he should open the door or telegraph his footsteps coming back. “I can’t believe I’m coming out in a phone call to a guy in Cincinnati.”
“Brother, I voted for two gay mayors by now.” The words leave Karl’s mouth before Sami’s words hit him completely. When they do, his wife slams their door open in alarm, his children step out of their rooms to frown at them, and Sami drops the call.
“It’s nothing, daddy just got spooked,” Karl soothes his sons as his wife moves down the hall to comfort them.
When he calls Sami back down at his backyard later, he immediately apologizes. “I’m sorry for shouting. At the same time, Jesus Christ, Sami, this isn’t something you drop on a brother unannounced on a school day at 8 p.m.”
“Surprise?” Sami’s laughter is forced. Painful on the ears. “I uh, didn’t know until a few minutes ago too, so joke’s on the both of us. Technically, I think I’m bi—bisexual? More than gay. I mean, I haven’t gone out with a man but I checked out some guys before? Kenny—Omega, you know, he’s a great guy, he uh, I think he tried to help me realize that I’m bi before I knew I was bi?—he offered to uh, once, but I thought he and—”
“Slow down, hoot. Can you explain how we got to—” Karl gestures with his hands even though Sami couldn’t see them, “You missing Finn and th—”
In the quiet of the night, Karl clearly hears the well-oiled hinges of an upstairs window creak open.
“Congratulations,” Karl mumbles when he gathers his thoughts. “You figured it out faster than the guy you’re hung up on.”
Karl opens his mouth to speak and thinks better of it. He presses the camera icon on his phone, waits for Sami’s face to appear, and continues, “Did you realize you liked dudes too before or after you saw Finn and Zack canoodling?”
The way Sami’s face falls makes the video call seem like an ill-advised move.
“That, uh,” A wry smile forms on Sami’s face. “That might have been a factor.”
“Jesus Christ,” Karl repeats because it’s hitting him now—a full year of tension, the fact that Kevin and Neville—or hell, he’s sure now, Marty and Jimmy and Zack—had known about this longer than him, and now—
He checks his clock to confirm that it’s near three in the morning in Spain. “Tell you what: that bastard sent his last picture half an hour ago, fucking drinking with his old football coach or something. He’ll wake up around eight anyway ‘cause he’s fucking insane like that. They’re six hours ahead in Marbella. You should call.”
The responding laughter is mirthless. “I don’t think this is something I should say over the phone. I would if I could; I don’t particularly want to see his face while saying this.”
“Didn’t say shit about saying shit. Go talk to him. Catch up. You two miss each other more than you think.”
Sami scratches his head and pulls back from the phone, revealing his surroundings. He’s in his bathroom, for Christ’s sake, huddled in the bathtub in his Canadiens shirt and a pair of sweatpants he’s sure Seth hung across the mirrors of Make-Up once as a rib.
Three long breaths are what it takes to bring the camera back to his face. “You know, I’m not even sure if he likes redheads. He told me in Germany, I think it was four years ago, he told me he would never date a redhead—”
“God-fucking-damn it, Karl.”
“Good morning, sunshine. Say hi to the kids.”
When the kids are put into the car, Finn continues, “You bald fuck.”
“He called earlier than I thought he would,” Karl says breezily as his wife kisses him on her way to the driver’s side. “And you’re up earlier than I predicted. Funny how things work out.”
“Did you put him up to this? This can’t be—You’re worse than Zack.”
“Did you enjoy it?”
That catches him off-guard. “What?”
“Did you enjoy catching up to him?” The kids strain against their seatbelts to look over Karl’s seat when he slides into shotgun, shouting their hellos at their Uncle Finn. “He called me around their bedtime to check if you’ll be okay with him calling this early.”
Seconds pass. “Did you know it’s been 96 days since I’ve been injured? He reminded me; promised to keep count with me first time he drove me to the Center for a check-up. Guess he never stopped keeping count.”
“He said you miss some days.”
“Yeah.” The car pulls out of the driveway and the kids begin to talk about their plans at the park, how they should go down to Uncle Tama’s or Finn’s and play at the beaches again. “But we always kept count.”
“Gonna keep count again?”
A shaky exhale. “Who else can do it but us?”
“OH MY GOD.”
“Bayley. Ma’am.” Karl figures it's fine to call her that, seeing as she sneaked this phone call in before she and Finn did a press function in London.
“How are they this STUPID,” Bayley complains for the nth time in the space of a minute.
“It took you how long until you broke Finn into telling you things?”
“About the same time Sasha broke Sami into spilling. And he knows better than to be grumpy with me after an eight-hour flight,” Bayley grumbles. “He should thank Sami that I’m not telling on Kevin or Neville. Oh my god, do they even know that it’s mutual?”
“Let them figure it out for themselves,” Karl tells her and adjusts the phone against his shoulder, hands occupied with the basket he takes to the laundry room to his laughing wife.
He hands the basket to his wife and helps put in another load into the washing machine as he continues, “This is progress. They’re like cats you have to lure out of hiding. If you do it condescendingly or show you have good intentions, they hide their feelings for two years and try to go back to an ex who also thinks they’re making their life harder on themselves than it already is.”
Karl hears a door slam open on Bayley’s end and hears her tell Finn that she’s just catching up with a friend.
He figures out that Finn doesn’t buy it when he hears him say, “You’re a fucking bitter, bald prick, Karl.”
“Not on the clock, hoot.” The face Karl makes is enough for his wife to guffaw. “What if a kid hears you swear? We’re done with my house, but I have three kids and you have a dozen nieces and nephews you have to put through college.”
“What the hell were you telling Bayley?”
“Nothing you won’t figure soon. How are things with you and Sami?”
“… He sent me pictures of a coffee shop in Mexico. I promise I’d send him pictures of waterfalls in Iceland.”
“Good on you, little brother.”
Backstage, in Philadelphia. “Did Finn send you the video of him trying to pronounce ‘Jökulsárlón’? Oh man, he can’t get past the umlaut—”
A text, the day before Roadblock. “OTT’s planning something big next year. Finn can probably show up—”
Sami’s smile that night is brighter than any of the lights festooning this Chicago arena. “Finn called me yesterday and I almost missed it for some reason, I can’t remember. It was a good thing my dad saw the ugly Christmas sweater Finn had on—”
Three hours until the New Year in Cincinnati and a few minutes after Finn’s father dunks his grandchildren’s celebratory sparklers in a bucket of water, Karl receives a profound text.
“D’you know what? I’ve never taken Sami to Nando’s before. Happy New Year to everyone there.”
The number of emoticons used in this text and their group chat confirms that Finn did cut off their video call to dunk his head in the bucket before his father could use it to shake his buzz off.
“If I took my wife to a Waffle House for a first date, do you think you would have three adorable godchildren to give presents to fifteen-hundred times a year?”
“Nando’s, alright,” Finn proposes when they manage to start another video call, “They’re fine. They opened a Nando’s somewhere in America. They wouldn’t open them in America if Nando’s aren’t fine. Besides, do you think I would take my h—”
Karl couldn’t tell whether the redness in Finn’s face was from embarrassment or the Guinness he’s drunk. “That’s adorable.”
“Fuck off,” Finn mumbles. His scowl barely stays on for a second until it’s replaced with a grin. “Are you bringing the kids on the second?”
“Hell yeah, man. Unless you’re having Sami over for some ‘company’.”
“What’s with all the air quotes?” Finn’s smile almost splits his face. “My flight’s around noon. I’ll be back in Florida by tonight.”
“So you ARE making a move. About damn time, boy; I thought I’d grow my first gray pube before you done sumthin’.”
“Gonna have to ask the wifeski to pluck that pube out.” His laughter is followed by The Look, THE damn Look. The look Finn had a year ago while Karl’s beady little eyes suffered, the look he probably had months before that.
The look, Karl wagers, that will take the world’s end to wipe off his face.
“No one’s making moves. He’s picking me up at the airport and we’re going to his place to listen to a new album.” Finn’s made his way from the backyard to the relative peace of the kitchen. He takes out a beer from the fridge, pops the top off with edge of a counter, and clinks the lip on the screen of his phone.
“And you’ll be fine with just that?” Karl asks.
Finn drinks from his bottle, puts it down on a counter, and looks straight into Karl’s eyes. “I miss my friend. I miss Sami.”
That night, they watch the fireworks display in Karl’s backyard with kids on their sides, cutting their call now and then to respond to greetings from different time zones.
Four came from Sami. Two are identical greetings, dispensed to Karl and Finn at the same time.
The third, to Karl again, reads as: “Wish me luck.”
The fourth lights Finn up, as if he was back in his kitchen with Sami already.
It’s seven o’ three in the morning, his children are playing with Lego somewhere north of his head, his wife is talking to Sami about the authenticity of low fat fattoush, and Karl is pretty fucking sure that the Florida sun has it out for him and his beady little eyes.
His friends, so-called, are still of no use. From the way Lego are hitting the table, he could tell that Finn is using his children as willing labor to construct Lego sets near his tender, bald skull. South of his folded knees are his wife and Sami, contemplating if kebab halabi could be mixed with pho.
Karl’s family took to Sami quickly. His kids loving Sami was a given; his wife’s favor was won over when he sang her spring rolls hymns and asked if she could teach him how to make them.
Finn still has that dumb little smile he does when he hears a joke no one has caught on yet, except Karl wised up and now has a joke of his own.
The demonic ball of sunshine still has nothing but pure loathing for Karl's beady little eyes.
“Buy blinds,” Karl pleads with Finn as he’s hauled off the table to give the kids more space for Lego. “Every time I go here, it’s like the sun wants to fork my eyes out.”
“How about you buy me blinds?” The coffee Finn hands to him is definitely of Sami’s make, crafted with the coffee maker he apparently gave Finn as a ‘welcome home’ present.
“Might as well.” Karl downs half his coffee and sighs. “Do you have anything else you need me to buy?”
“We have a pretty huge list,” Sami pipes up. He hands him a sheet of paper he and Karl’s wife have been scribbling on and adds, “There’s a Fresh Market near here that sells lamb and everything. It should be a quick-ish trip.”
“I ain’t getting all that by myself.” Karl claps his hands together to get his kids’ attention. “C’mon, shopping trip. Get into Uncle Finn’s car.”
Sami agrees to drive and Finn rides shotgun because of course he does. The kids scramble to the back, trade places on their mom and dad’s laps during the entire drive, and burst out immediately when they reach the shop.
Their mother leaves Karl with a list and a cart, and walks off to find their youngest. He doesn’t bother calling out to Finn or Sami. The last he’s seen of them, they were pushing a cart between them as they chatted about ending homelessness or what constituted as flirting nowadays.
Karl is halfway done with his groceries when he feels his phone vibrate in his pocket.
“My breakfast is a bit toss.”
“Is that all?” Karl looks at the signs between the aisles and heads for the direction of the cereals. “Sure this ain’t about how Zack Sabre Senior failed to show up for another Christmas?”
“The last time I worried about that, you still had hair that Finn could fade up,” Zack snipes back. “You took your family to see him, right?”
“Doing his groceries now. His, my wife’s, and Sami’s.”
Zack coos at that. “Sweet of you to do a couple’s day out. Can’t wait until I fly back; it’s time my girl met Sami. She’s finally agreed not to hit him or Finn for taking ages.”
Karl blinks at a box of Froot Loops. “A) Our little friends still don’t know of how easier their lives could be if they took the sticks outta their asses and realized that not even you and Finn were this fucking sappy when you were together.”
“Dear god, we were disgusting.”
“That you were. But more importantly: B) You have a girlfriend and you’re flying here every week to suck Finn off?”
“Assumptions make arses out of you and I.”
“He sent pictures of your naked ass to our chat.”
“He’s sent a picture of his own shit in a sink, you’ve seen worse,” Zack sasses as Karl moves to another aisle. “And my visits were purely platonic with a side of snogging. My girl’s a big believer in touch therapy and seeing me snogging other men.”
“I thought you were back together. Finn said things never ended between you and him.”
“We didn’t. Still, things were pretty over when I met my girl and he reconnected with Sami down there in Florida.”
“So you going back to the hotel with him after that sponsor dinner in Shin-Okubo after you two ‘stopped seeing each other’ ended in a hug. And not in wall-banging sex that put even Gallows off.”
Karl can hear the dismissive eye roll from Zack’s tone. “It’s unhealthy to touch yourself as many times as Gallows does in a day.”
The call ends when Karl regroups with his family at check-out.
Zack resumes it when Karl sends him a video of Finn smiling contently at Sami chatting animatedly with Karl’s youngest.
“I swear on me mum’s name,” Zack shouts quite loudly into Karl’s ear, “If those two don’t get their act together, I’m hiding all his Lego.”
Finn and Sami walk back to the car, a bag of groceries on each arm that wasn’t gently swinging Karl’s youngest between them.
“Give them ‘til Nawlins,” Karl tells Zack. “Just a few more weeks. They’ll be fine.”
Gallows does not take kindly to being told that the bar has run out of Bud Light Limes.
“Mo’fockin’ NAWLINS,” Gallows whoops as he guzzles back half a bottle of Kirin Light.
“Your face looks like a puckered asshole,” Tama cackles as Gallows’ face puckers like a sour asshole after the beer’s aftertaste kicks in.
“Shut yer I-fuckin’-P-Penis-drinkin’ ass up,” Gallows retorts and grabs Tama’s drink despite the slight.
On the grand scale of things, Karl decides, the garbage that spills from Gallows and Tama’s mouths is not that bad. It is, however, a notch above the usual filth Gallows presents in the locker room; Karl doesn’t fault Sami for looking disconcerted and a little green.
“Ey Sami,” Tama nods his head at Gallows’ face. “Gallows’ face looks like a puckered asshole half the time, right?”
“Aww man,” AJ groans. “The one time we get Tama out when we’re in the same town, you two traumatize innocent people with buttholes.”
This is a rare occurrence, to have their live shows and Finn’s ambassadorial duties converge in a single state, within driving distance of each other. Tama being in the same town, and agreeing to rearrange his flight to head home with Finn, was an added bonus.
AJ’s frustration is understandable. Karl would empathize with it, if he didn’t spot the smirk AJ was trying to keep from showing.
“I think Gallows look fine?” Sami replies politely. “It doesn’t stop him from charming ladies.”
Gallows somehow manages to flourish his hands to the side while he empties a bottle into his mouth.
“This is one of the MANY reasons why you are a Good Brother,” Gallows knocks his beer against Sami’s Diet Coke, “unlike Karl or Tama here, these Filthy Taint Spots.”
“Will you quit it?” AJ yells and launches off into an argument of what constitutes proper catch-up talk.
Karl diverts the rest of the table to a conversation about Tama and his fan-fucking-tastic match at Tokyo Dome days ago. It dissolves into general banter, with Tama and Finn gossiping as if this wasn’t the first time in months that they’d seen each other in the flesh. Tama judges Sami as equally as weird as the last time he’s met him, and equally as endearing to boot.
Tama swaps stories of the odd sponsor dinner for stories of trinkets given to Finn on his overseas trips. He tells them what it’s like to see so-and-so back in the locker room after their long absence, Sami confirms and denies rumors about so-and-so in their own roster. Karl interjects to correct a detail or move a topic along.
The banter goes on as Karl gets their orders, their Strongbows and god-given non-alcoholic lemonades, nachos that go against Finn’s strict diet, with halal ingredients to allow Sami to snack on it.
It doesn’t occur to Karl to see this more than it is: a social drink with friends. He doesn’t notice the way Finn and Sami nearly occupy the same space, shoulders brushing with every movements, thighs nearly seamless where they touch. He doesn’t pay attention to how they pause, in almost perfect intervals, to say their piece, and stop to listen to the other speak and hold on to their words a little longer.
Karl’s about three bottles of Molson Lights in—three bottles too many, AJ will tell him later—when he looks up from a burrito he ordered on impulse and sees this:
The smallest hint of a smile, under all of Sami’s beard, as he pores over a menu. Finn’s chin perched on his left shoulder, lips moving soundlessly as he suggests good snacks. A few snatched glances, so quick that Karl’s afraid their eyes might fall out.
A squeeze on Sami’s bicep as he exits the booth for the bar, when Finn fails to catch the server’s attention. Sami misses, and Karl wishes he didn’t, the open look of fondness Finn gives him on the way out. He doesn’t see the deep creases next to Finn’s eyes, his tiny smile; private, warm, and sincere.
For a hot, hot, hot second, Karl is back in Japan. He’s in an izakaya in Buttfuck, Kanagawa, stumbling out the back door for a breath of fresh air, to shake off the unease from seeing Zack and Finn hang off each other. He’s clutching his chest—his pearls, Finn had screamed at him later, you hysterical man—at seeing just why Zack and Finn were hanging off each other, just a spot behind a dumpster.
The point of this digression is this:
In their decade-long friendship, Karl's never seen Finn dance around someone for this long. He’s an attack-and-doggedly-pursue kinda guy, the kind of man girls, Zack, and some lucky dudes in Florida had and lost.
Now that he seems to finally have found whatever it is that he couldn’t find with them, watching him say jack shit to Sami was getting real old, to say the least.
“Hey Tama,” he babbles, words slurring as he grabs Tama by the shoulders to turn him towards Finn. “Tell Bálor over here that everyone and their mother knows he’s in love with Generico and he should go and get with him already.”
"Fine-fucking-finally," Gallows drawls in the accent AJ hates, "He's been busting his little nutsack off waiting to bring this shit up for months."
"Oh shut up, you dumb sunovabitch," Karl counters in his best Stone Cold impression. He opens his mouth for more abuse when he notices Finn freeze up.
Sami’s voice barely carries over to their table. “They ran out of the crawfish po’ boy. You okay with the shrimp?”
“Hey man, don’t scare off a brother like that,” Tama scolds Karl. “They been acting like my mom and pop all night. Let him make moves, or not. Let the dude do what he wants to do, y’know?”
In his periphery, he sees AJ trying to talk to an irate-looking Finn. When he wouldn’t answer him, AJ gives up and says, "We're going back to my room to talk about this."
"We're not," Finn argues, tone brooking no argument from others but Karl. He slams back the rest of his Strongbow and signals a server for another round. “And shut your fuckin’ mouths, someone might overhear you.”
Gallows lets out a loud hoot and Karl follows up with, “Oh, for fuck’s sake. You spend two years martyring yourself over a guy who you can have a future with if you just talked, and you bring Zack around like a fucking beard—”
“What’s going on?” Everyone goes still as Sami comes back, confused.
He barely makes it to the table before Finn claps Tama hard on his shoulder, drops a card on the table, mutters, “Be careful with that, Nick and Shawn’s used that for a pub crawl before I flew over,” and leaves.
“Shiiiiiiit.” Tama snatches the card from Gallows’ fingers. “We was finally getting somewhere, good job fuckin’ that up, Karl.”
“Hold on now, how did I miss this?” AJ complains as Gallows settles for snatching the cider meant for Finn from the approaching server. “I didn’t even know Finn swings both ways. And I thought Zack had a girlfriend?”
Karl never hears Tama’s explanation; he walks out the minute Sami runs past patrons to catch up with Finn.
Finn gets as far as a pizzeria and a dessert shop before Sami gets him to stop.
“What—” Sami pants, out of confusion more than fatigue, “What did Karl mean, what are you martyring yourself for? And don’t say it’s nothing man, we’re too old for that crap.”
It takes one, three, five tries before Finn could make a sound come out from his mouth. “Do you remember the first time we met? Overseas?”
Sami’s face screws up in concentration. “Germany… Four, five years ago.”
“Do you remember what I said, when Jimmy asked who I’ll never shag?”
“It’s,” Finn’s nostrils flare as he takes a deep breath. “It’s different… Now.”
Syllables of varying length and coherency tumble out of Sami after a lengthy silence. They eventually form a word, “What,” followed by, “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t.” Finn pulls at his hair, squeezes the top of his head. “Don’t.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t—how long?”
“Since… The Rancid CD.”
“From the store?” From what Karl could see, behind a trellis some dope thought befits a pizzeria, Sami’s completely dumbfounded. “November...That was before—”
Sami’s face goes through several emotions at once. Guilt, disbelief, and anger, before it settles on—“I’m, I’m speechless, I’m sorry I—put you through that, sorry is not enough, but I am, I didn’t know you felt that way, and I feel bad—”
“Don’t fucking apologize for what I feel.”
Karl almost steps out of his hiding place to shout at them both.
“I’m not apologizing for what you feel.” Sami sounds sincere even as his brows bunch together in annoyance. “I’m apologizing because I had to find out about this in this way.”
“Stop it.” Finn points a finger at Sami warningly. “I do not want this, I never asked for this.”
“I want to make it up to you.”
“You have nothing to make up for,” Finn almost yells. He lowers his voice to avoid drawing more attention to them. “Shouldn’t have walked away from the bar, but it was for the best. If I didn’t I would just stop myself from forgetting.”
“Forgetting what—” Hurt and frustration danced around Sami’s features. “Look, I’m sorry it took me this long to realize it, but you never said a word. I thought—I thought we hung out because we were friends—”
“We were—” Finn stops. “Are. Were. Whatever—I—it was, all of it was because you are a damn good friend and what I feel couldn’t turn me away from you.”
Sami worries his lip with his thumb “Was it… did you always… you know…”
Finn wipes his eyes with the meat of his palm. He breaks eye contact with Sami, steps aside for passers-by and takes time to gather his thoughts.
“At first, it was just impulse,” Finn says, after a few seconds. He wipes his nose with the back of his jacket, sniffs, and continues “You’re a good-looking man. Redhead rule was a silly holdover from childhood. I wanted you. I couldn’t tell when I began to need you.”
He sighs. “But I did, for two years. I watched you argue about reggae with Nev, piss off a lot of people with your damn overthinking, fix your skateboard when your shoulder was still taped to hell, fucking—buy… Buy an engagement ring I had to return when you couldn't.”
“Then I had—I had you, for—not a month, on the road, and I thought I could live like that. Just watching you until god knows what. Then I got an injury to match yours.” Finn laughs, mirthless, stunted. “And you were there, chatting up my parents, Zack, when you had off. And I thought, that was me a year ago, fixing you tea, helping you adjust your pillows. With hell of a lot less love.”
“I did it with love.” The expression on Sami’s face could not be described. “I had fun waking up, going to your house, doing everything that you needed when Zack wasn’t there or had—”
He stops and asks, “Is this about Zack? He called last month to tell me he has a girlfriend.”
“It’s not about him,” Finn answers irritably. “This is about me sloughing off years of feeling pathetic because the only fucking person who could make me say I love them feels bad that I’m pining after them.”
“I feel bad because you—” Sami snipes back, “—you apparently pinned all of this on me, didn’t tell me anything for literally years when I could’ve done something about it—”
“—could’ve—Done what, reject me?”
“Yeah!” Sami shouts. “Back then!”
Finn laughs harshly. “And now? You’re going to love me back because you feel bad?”
Sami opens his mouth to speak and Karl hears nothing but the clicking of his throat.
In all probability, only a minute has passed, probably less. It takes less than a second for words to pass through the air and reach a person, to comprehend their meaning; less when no words come at all.
It takes more for the words to pull a person out of the little world two people can make with their hurt, and a smidgen more for one to move their feet backwards.
Small, careful steps, to turn around, to show their back. To walk until the end of the street to a taxi stand and call a cab.
Unlike Finn, Sami stays rooted to his spot.
Karl makes no other move but to back away from the hedge and return to the pub.
Karl’s told that Sami flew back to Montreal with Kevin after Nawlins. The messenger, a tired-looking Neville, asks again what the hell had happened. Karl opts to tell a lie: he tried to find Sami and Finn after they ran out of the bar but never saw them, and only heard that they returned to the hotel through texts from either men.
His words are taken as a janky version of the gospel. It goes unquestioned from Topeka to Wichita, mostly because everyone knows better than to ask.
Another reason why it goes unquestioned is it’s better to pretend that everything’s fine and dandy instead of acknowledging that Sami’s having one hell of a mood swing that turns him snappish, to horribly apologetic, to gloomy with a snap.
Pretending is a tactic Karl adopts and abandons within the first few hours of waking after the drive from Wichita to Tulsa.
He rolled out of bed that day at the bright-and-early time of 9:54 a.m. with the sole intention of buying a bagel and a beer when he meets Sami in the hallway.
Karl says meet to save Sami some face. CCTV footage would describe their encounter more as Sami almost walking into him and several walls.
This could have stayed as another Sami Zayn is Insane story. Unfortunately, Karl’s legs opt to follow Sami back to his room instead of the elevator that would’ve led him to the floor of blessed buffet tables.
Following Sami, he finds an open door to close, a mini fridge full of planned meals and unopened mini bottles of alcohol, and a laptop open to Progress’ streaming site.
Noon ‘til their call for the show is spent as thus:
Silent passing of diet soda, bottle to mouth, mouth to bottle. Fiddling of hotel appliances, eating cold broccoli and beef stew with steaming mugs of tea. Answering Zack’s call, hearing him say he’s in a similar state, albeit with warm food and in a random gym in Virginia. Watching Finn play musical chairs in one ring and commit to a speech with red-rimmed eyes in another later, like there aren’t three men sitting in hotel rooms across the pond hankering to fight him for entirely different reasons.
When Karl goes back to Sami’s room after their show that night, Karl tells him that he saw what happened in New Orleans. Guilt, moreso if it is partially misplaced, never sat well with him.
Karl also tells Sami that he knew about Finn before New Orleans, because if he were to dig his own grave, he might as well fall into it without remorse as extra weight.
He expects a lot of fists to his face, or at least a very stern shoving out the door.
What he gets instead are a lot of words, hand gestures, and pacing, more than he usually gets from Sami.
Sami's description of Finn hovers between sympathetic to self-deceptive in the time it takes to walk to the door to the foot of the bed, and back again. Unreasonable and thick is said a lot, in varying permutations, often intoned with guilt or anger or bafflement.
Almost every word or phrase is directed at Finn. Almost only on the odd cycle are they directed at Sami himself, or Karl.
Sami mostly receives unfair and justified, followed by should have, would have, and did not.
Karl often gets the nebulous why and its defiant but guilty cousin, you should have said something but thank you for letting us figure out ourselves, too bad we messed it up.
On what Karl thinks is the beginning of his twelfth rotation of walking a hole into the carpet, Sami moans that he wants to fly to the UK, right now, to clear this up.
At the end of the fourteenth, stopped temporarily in front of Karl as Karl filches a Jim Bean mini bottle from the fridge, Sami declares Finn to be an asshat.
Sami doesn’t make it halfway through the fifteenth until he apologizes.
The apology is taken back steps away from the sixteenth.
Karl’s forced to break the circle on another -eenth. All the mini bottles in the fridge have emptied, he’s dozed off twice, and he’s on the verge of ripping beards off—his and Sami’s.
Most importantly, Karl's sure it’s Finn’s number that Sami’s typed on his phone, which mysteriously appeared in his hand despite Karl hiding during the early ten’s.
Karl puts Sami to bed with much difficulty and not a small amount of help from Neville and Kevin.
The necessity of going through an abridged version of the cycles to both men earns him a bottle of Moët, on Kevin’s dime.
There’s a lot of ingesting of cold soda in the next few days, though Karl typically pulls out midway through another cycle of -eenth’s. That’s when Neville and Kevin come in, with their finite patience and infinite capacity deal with Sami’s shit as a team.
Zack periodically checks in. They bonded over the mutual respect they have for each other and mutual frustrations over Zack’s ex and Sami’s could’ve-been.
Overall, there’s a lot of ska, a lot of punk. Karl endures prolonged phone holding as Sami bargains with Zack: he’ll listen to TWIAB if he can send him some Los Fastidios. He picks out flung romaine from his gear when a fight breaks out over whether Propaghandi or Dead Kennedys has the better Nazi punching song. He spends the four hour flight to New Mexico weaving in and out of consciousness to Sami arguing the merits of The Bosstones and Hepcats to an irate Seth.
The argument carries over to their show that night. Ska and punk, Karl’s told, as he chews through a chili verde burrito, is the essence of rebellion, of freedom. It’s a lot of things that Seth and Jericho picks up on and Karl’s brain automatically filters out because catering honestly interests him more. A few things carry over though, like face punching, politics, chickenshit mainstream rock, and Rancid.
Karl’s been to Sami’s apartment approximately once. It was after their impromptu shopping trip, when they realized they had forgotten to buy some spices.
His second oldest son was with them too, begging to go out to see more of the neighborhood.
Karl finds the album first. It sat on top of Sami’s sound system, jewel case pristine, hooks keeping the jacket from escaping the plastic.
Sami teaches Karl’s son how to use his player when he asks to play it. It’s not long before Sami taught him how to skank, which necessitated recording, which lead to an impromptu video call from Finn.
The call lasted throughout the ride from Sami’s apartment to Finn’s. Karl’s kid was taught that this particular album by Rancid was shorter than their debut record; that Uncle Sami waited for two years for it to come out; that “…Honor Is All We Know” was the throwback fans have been dying for since “Indestructible”; that his uncles spent that day it was released skanking around the living room and finding a replacement for the coffee table when it got defeated by the power of punk.
Karl doesn’t know the title of the song that his kid took to, the very same song that cost Sami $249.99 for a sturdier table. He only recognizes it when Seth plays it from his phone and Jericho tries to sing along.
Sami bops his head to the tune, answers Seth’s questions, nods to affirm whatever Jericho had said. He does this all in auto-pilot as his eyes fixate on a spot on the floor and glass over.
“It’s a long,” Sami faintly sings, “It’s a long, long way home.”
Karl plays it on his phone at the bus on the way to the airport. He doesn’t understand how Sami made it sound sadder than the song played during the funeral of his wife’s great-grandfather. It’s a talent.
The song loops until it’s interrupted by a text, a few minutes before his flight begins to board.
It’s from Finn.
And it’s ignored until Karl wakes up at San Antonio half a day later.
He only learns about what’s inside the text at breakfast, when Shinsuke asks if he’ll go to Chris Hero’s final indy show. Shinsuke tells him it’s half an hour away, right beside the lake at Woodlawn Park, and he should go even if Finn does what he says and shows up.
Karl only says yes when Shinsuke advises him to treat Finn like he’s part of the furniture and focus on the other brothers instead.
Finn is far too surly, Shinsuke says; at least, that’s how Karl interprets the word he uses. Finn is far too surly, Shinsuke says, for a guy constantly surrounded by people who love him.
Zack confirms via text that Karl’s suspicion of Shinsuke not knowing about Nawlins on the short drive to Woodlawn Park. Karl replies, as he pulls into the parking lot, that he knows of now.
A volunteer sneaks Karl into the gym before anyone can recognize who he is and is immediately pointed towards a small office. Through the small glass window on the door, Karl sees Finn argue, in piecemeal Japanese and English, at a phone propped up on a desk.
Karl hears footsteps behind him and spins around to greet Chris, all smiles and clad in a spiffy tracksuit.
“Thanks for coming!” The hug Karl receives nearly takes him off his feet. “Means a lot for you to be here, even if we never got to wrestle before.”
“All in the past. Might get to wrestle now though, you never know.”
Chris beams at him. “Looking forward to it.”
He peers inside the office where Finn continues to be berated by a phone. “That’s actually mine. Shinsuke called a few minutes ago to greet me good luck then asked for Finn. Is everything okay?”
Karl shrugs. “You really don’t want to know.”
Chris looks back inside the office, worried.
They retreat to the locker room and Karl sets about greeting acquaintances and Dustin. Everyone, and Dustin, seems to remember cards they or an acquaintance were in together and greets him enthusiastically.
Karl would be lying if he said he didn’t miss this: a small locker room, refurbished on the city’s dime, little groups clumped in corners like living, breathing, brothering mold, gelling together at convenient times to continue a roast. And Dustin.
A few brothers catch him up on their life; others introduce them with little ceremony as Dustin sits in his corner. It’s fun, and it distracts Karl from Finn coming in, looking haggard from Shinsuke’s verbal beat down.
“Everything okay?” Chris asks, unable to help himself.
Finn smiles at him reassuringly. “It’s nothing.”
The smile turns a little wan as he acknowledges Karl. “Shinsuke’s had a few interesting words to tell me.”
“Really?” Karl packs the word with as much earnestness as he could without vomiting. “Very interesting.”
Chris raises his brow and opens his mouth to speak when Zack comes in. No one pays attention to his overtly cheerful greeting or his legs in their skintight leggings; all eyes zero in on the young lady holding his hand.
“Dear god, she is real,” Karl croaks in awe as he offers his hand to the girl. “I’m sorry your boyfriend’s getting monopolized by this asshole.”
“I can’t have him fawning over me all the time,” the girl replies. She winks at Finn and asks, “Has he been too clingy?”
“Had to pry him off me with a shovel,” Finn responds and laughs when Zack walks away in mock offense.
She leaves after a quick peck to Zack. Karl gapes after her.
“We can carpool to TakeOver later, if you’re coming along. We’re having drinks afterwards,” Chris suggests once he’s sufficiently recovered. “We can drop Zack and Finn off at our hotel so Zack can shower, pick them and Zack’s girl up on the way to the Alamodome.”
He turns to Finn, curious. “Hunter said you had a room at the Marriott with the rest of the guys?”
“Didn’t feel right to take it,” Finn answers quickly. “I’m not on the card anyway.”
“Avoidant bullshit,” Karl whispers to him when Chris walks away to watch Zack run out for Brown and Allin’s spot.
To Karl’s delight, Finn squirms in discomfort. “Can talk about this later?”
Seeing the way Dustin is staring at them, Karl reluctantly agrees.
They watch the show through a monitor propped on top of a bench, calling out spots and congratulating the boys when they come back. No one seems to pick up the tension between them except for Zack and Chris, who shoots fatherly looks of concern at their hunched shoulders throughout the card.
Riddle has just re-entered the locker room when they hear Dustin chant, “Olé olé olé!”
“Sami!” Chris runs to the man when he walks in and immediately lifts him into a bearhug. “I thought you couldn’t make it?”
“Couldn’t miss your last match, buddy.” Sami grins when Chris pulls back.
With his face inches from Sami’s, Chris doesn’t miss the look that passes between him and Finn. Sami notices and smiles sheepishly at Chris. “I uh, I really do want to watch you and Zack work.”
Because Chris Hero is an infinitely better man than most, he leads Sami, Finn, Karl, and Zack out of the locker room under the pretense of talking about his match.
He leads them to the office where Shinsuke verbally squashed Finn and offers, “I don’t know what’s going on, but all of this feels real unhealthy.”
Chris holds a finger up before any of them can reply. “Shinsuke gave me a very brief peak into this and I think it’s best if I butt out of it. So I’m gonna leave you here to talk about it. Please don’t keep Zack too long.”
He leaves and seemingly takes all the air out with him.
Karl gets that feeling of timelessness again, of seconds stretching beyond their limits, until he sees Sami cross his arms.
“No answers,” Sami starts, “No calls, no texts. The only way I knew you were alive is because I saw you play musical chairs on the internet, or tweet, or hear about you from someone else.”
When Finn doesn’t respond, one of Sami’s hands fly to his hair while the other gestures wildly between them. “I try to talk to you about what happened in New Orleans and you are saying zilch. I’m getting nothing and I want, I want to hear it from you, I want to hear from you, a word, a small peep, just a sound.”
“Can we forget what happened? ”
“I can’t, ‘cause the fact of the matter is, I know I feel the same way about you.”
“Don’t say that,” Finn warns him.
Sami glares at him. “Why can’t I? It’s what I feel.”
“You hear me pour out everything I’ve held back, and you tell me you ‘felt bad’ and you want to ‘make up’. I told you then, and I’m telling you again: you have no obligations to make me feel better or reciprocate what you don’t feel.”
“Who said I didn’t feel what I did before New Orleans? And I AM sorry because if I said any of this earlier, we could have avoided all of this!”
Finn points at him angrily. “When I asked you what you would do now, if I told you all of this, you said nothing, and before that—”
“You were putting me on the spot!” Sami yells back. “What was I supposed to do? I didn’t even know you felt that way until we were outside that bar. You never told me anything; then, when you got injured, you had your parents and Zack over and you were making out with him—”
Zack raises his arms in front of him, alarmed. “In my defense, I was only supposed to stay when you were overseas. I was kept around because Finn was too chickenshit to do more than release his frustrations with me.”
“I’m sorry for bringing you up but,” Sami pauses and waves helplessly at Finn, “You being there made me re-evaluate everything I have with this guy.”
“I’m telling you again, there’s no need for that.” Finn gnashes his teeth. “I am forgetting about this. We can pretend this never happened and we can—”
“Yeah, no," Sami bluntly replies, "You dumped all this baggage on me—baggage that, as I’ve said, I had no awareness of—and you’re telling me to drop it like it’s just a rib? Feelings aside, man, I care about you and I can’t—I can’t go around like I didn’t hurt you, that’s not fair to me or you.”
“I’m offering you a clean break. I won’t insult you by pretending this will be easy ‘cause I’ve, god knows, been trying to.”
“Guilt just can’t be—” Sami swipes at his palm furiously, “You can’t wipe it off like that. I can’t forget about this, not when I know how much this is affecting you and not when we have a shot of working this out.”
“I don’t need your—” Finn releases his breath. “—pity.”
Sami’s eyes narrow in fury. “This isn’t about pity. This is about me trying to tell you that I love you.”
It occurs to Karl then that the office is poorly ventilated. There’s small grate near the door and behind them, a window cracked partly open, but the air’s far too thick to be normal. His skin feels too heavy, too drenched with sweat, porous on the back of his head.
If he looked to his left, he would see Zack discretely wipe his forehead and the spot under his nose, above his lips.
Sami exhales. “If this is what you want, fine, but this shouldn’t have to end this way. Maybe if we talk about this in private, we can—”
“I’m flying back to Orlando in a few hours.”
Of course you are, Karl thinks. It isn’t as if you ran away from this before.
“Were you flying home before or after I showed up?” Sami crosses his arms over his chest, bites his lip. Karl can feel the irritation coming off him in waves, can see conflict on his normally sunny face.
“Before.” Finn is impassive. “They want me in Orlando to film last minute things.”
Sami pinches the bridge of his nose.
“Have a safe flight.”
He turns around, opens the door, and leaves.
The next few minutes move slower than molasses. But they move, more out of necessity than ability.
Chris peeks in the room an indefinite amount of time after Sami leaves and apologizes to take Zack to prepare for their match.
Karl moves next. He needs fresh air. And, later, beer.
The lake outside the gym is thankfully devoid of fans. Karl and Finn walk away from the gym to cross the road and walk on the path beside the lake. They keep near the grass as the sunset dyes the water orange and gold, masking plastic and cigarette stubs floating in the water with a pristine glow.
They ignore the sounds of cars in the distance, the chatter of odd couples; savor the relative peace, the hollow.
Eventually, they hit the pier, empty save for fowl pecking at the green before it. Mallards and ducks scatter away from where they step, quack incessantly as Finn and Karl walk on the wooden boards. They walk until they find a spot across the lighthouse and stop as abruptly as they started.
Their eyes adjust to the sting of sunlight before Finn finds his words.
“Flight leaves at three.” Hoarse, held back. Karl doesn’t dare look at him. “Gonna have to watch you kick arse on the telly.”
“You’re a coward.”
“What the hell else was I supposed to do?” Finn answers angrily. “Sami was confused.”
“No,” Karl snaps, jabbing a finger into Finn’s chest, “Sami’s been—I told you he was jealous! Do you know how happy he was when you began—talking, yeah, talking—to him again?”
Finn pushes him back, face wretched and red. “It’s not—”
“Everything you want,” Karl shouts—he’s had enough, he’s been too fucking quiet—“It’s right there, it was staring you in the face. Sami’s stopped with his fucking excuses; in fact, he never gave a fucking excuse when it came to this, he just said it outright that he fucking loved you—twice! And you’re here, like a tool, being stubborn for stubbornness’ sake.”
“I don’t want to fuck this up,” Finn whispers.
“You already did!”
Karl closes his mouth immediately, pockets his fists. He hears Finn cough, sees feet move in and out of the spot on the pier where he trains his eyes on.
“You tell a guy you love him, he tries to talk to you about it, tells you he loves you,” Karl says, after a while. The sun makes him squint at the pier’s wooden planks. “You bring your flight up, make no attempt to reschedule or listen to him ‘cause you’re too up in your ass, martyring yourself.”
Finn breathes deeply before he says, “After Christmas, I thought: if I could just keep him, in any way I can, it would be okay. If I forgot about it, we could be… the way we were without all of this.”
When Karl looks up, it’s to the sight of Finn stubbornly keeping his cheeks dry. “I never blamed him for what I felt. It would’ve been easier to make him resent me, would’ve driven me away. I guess I did it now, when I didn’t want him to.”
Finn sniffs, snot glistening under his nose. “Could’ve handled this better.”
Karl sighs. “Yes. Yes, you could’ve.”
He reaches out, puts his hand on the top of Finn’s head and shakes it.
He gives Finn time to put himself back together. Sometime after the sun sets past the lighthouse, Karl lets Finn set their pace back to the gym.
“If I didn’t think that Hunter would personally strangle me if you got re-injured, I woulda pushed you into the lake,” Karl mutters as they pass through the back door.
Finn snorts as he wipes his face dry with the back of his hand. “He’s one to talk. Everyone he wanted turned out straight or Born-Again.”
By the time they return to the locker room, Finn’s as put together as he once was.
Karl’s worked shows before with massive hangovers. One of his title matches in Japan was won after a lengthy session on the toilet and treadmill to shake the worst of the alcohol off.
This is why he’s sitting in Gallows’ room, pounding back a BLL, listening to the boys arguing about someone’s gimmick or penis. With Gallows involved in the conversation, it could very well mean the same thing.
It’s a welcome change of pace. There’s no chaser in sight, except for AJ’s usual bottle of water and the soda Braun is sharing with Primo to mix their Disaronno with. He’s not exactly sure how Primo got a hand of a Disaronno, or the Canadian lager Jericho’s knocking back. Karl doesn’t mind.
Karl figures Cesaro would give them until seven the next day, with or without a sudden press call, before he wakes them up for a sobering run. Until then, Karl wants to toe the line between deceivingly coherent and functionally alcoholic. He’s said goodnight to his wife and kids already; he has no reason to use his brain for the rest of the night.
A shot glass full of what he thinks is mulled wine—Primo, what the fuck—is snatched from someone’s hand and downed before his thoughts could skid the edges of what happened in the afternoon.
Another shot is downed for acknowledging that said afternoon actually came to pass.
“Slow down, hoot,” AJ scolds Karl. “You ain’t getting young. You can’t sweat your entire hangover no more.”
Karl points at everyone but AJ. “These guys are drinking too, why just me, Uncle Allen?”
Primo puts a hand on his chest and makes an unimpressed face. "'Scuse me, takes more than weak drinks to down me; got the constitution of a stallion here.”
“You ain’t the only stallion that got Karl’s panties in a twist today,” Stone Cold Doc Gallows bellows. “Sheet Stallion, Pussy Murderer Hoot's flying home without coming here to say bye-bye and Little Samuel Zayn comes back from the indy show looking like he’s been forced to kill a litter o’ pups. Five fucking guesses as to what’s making Karlski here drink like a damn fish.”
Everyone but AJ and Karl fires off a series of questions. AJ, bless him, merely looks sympathetic.
Karl can feel his hangover come on earlier than usual as he fends them off. He’s got half a mind to strangle Gallows; he’s sure he can convince AJ that it was humane and that the office wouldn’t mind if he swapped partners this late. They could call up Chris, maybe finally work together.
Gallows, however, lives another day thanks to a simple text message from Sami.
The sprint from Gallows’ room on the 7hth floor to Sami’s on the 11th churns Karl stomach and nearly makes someone’s graveyard shift a hellish landscape of human-processed alcohol and cold chimichangas. Still, it’s worth almost dying from slipping on his sick in an emergency stairwell to see Finn standing like a dumbass in front of Sami’s doorway while holding his stomach.
“Really? Just a single punch?” Karl says. He feels like there should be more, especially since Sami’s near-incandescent with rage. “Not even on the face?”
“I worked out the minute I got back,” Sami explains, “So I’m sore, had my heart broken for the second time in a span of a month, and I ran out of teabags. And I know for a fact that Hunter will strangle anyone who re-injures Finn or mess his face up before filming, so even if I wanted to, I can’t.”
They stand there, unsure what to do, until Finn admits, “I probably deserved that.”
“Yes!” Sami exclaims, “You really kind of do!”
“I would take a shot,” Karl adds, “But I asked Regal and he confirmed to me that Hunter did in fact say during a meeting that he will strangle anyone who reinjures Finn.”
Finn sighs and massages his stomach some more.
Sami places a hand on his door. “I’m sorry I punched you. My hand moved by itself. But I need you to make sense now or I’ll have to close this door.”
Finn straightens out as much as he could. “Can we at least talk about this inside?”
Sami looks at Karl, who traces the length of the room with a finger before tapping his ear.
The awkwardness does not subside when they walk into Sami’s room. No one sits down, too tense to do much else but stand.
It’s Sami who talks first. “I thought you had a flight?”
“I still do,” Finn answers. “My bag’s downstairs with the concierge.”
“Then why are you here?”
“I’m sorry.” Finn looks like he’s beginning to regret his choice. Karl steps a little closer to the hallway leading to the door, just in case. “For running instead of talking. For not taking you seriously.”
“And for getting stuck in your head and only acknowledging it when someone calls out your bullshit,” Karl interferes. When Finn looks like he’s about to talk, he turns to Sami because this shit show is a two-man act. “And you really should’ve told this mooseknuckle that you liked him in Nawlins, saved us a few weeks of agony.”
Sami grinds a knuckle on the bridge of his nose. “Even if I did, I think I still would’ve needed to take out a billboard somewhere to spell it out to him.”
Finn looks between them, annoyed. “You two done laying the boots on me?”
Karl waves a hand at them and steps a little backwards.
Seconds pass before Finn begins. “This afternoon was… unplanned. So was New Orleans. None… none of this was never supposed to come out. I decided I couldn’t wait for you anymore. Zack was a crutch.”
“Did you apologize to Zack yet about that?” Sami asks.
Finn points at deep red spot on his upper left arm. Sami nods for him to continue.
“Then, I don’t know how he put you up to it, Karl gets you to call me.”
“I told him I love you," Sami interferes, "He said I didn’t need to say anything I wasn’t ready to yet, but I should call ‘cause we miss each other more than we thought.”
Finn looks at Karl with a mixture of gratitude and bewilderment, then turns to Sami and concedes, haltingly, “I didn’t want to believe him when he said you missed me. Or when he said you were jealous of Zack.”
Because he couldn’t help it, and he was so belligerently drunk, Karl shouts, “Multiple times, hoot!”
“Thank you, Karl,” Finn murmurs under his breath.
There’s a pause long enough to allow Sami to sit on his bed, for Finn to be yoked on the armchair opposite him. Karl stands his ground.
“Those phone calls made me think a lot about what Karl and Zack, and my mum and dad—the words they had for this.” Finn is staring at his own hands, like he’s reading a script from the lines on his palms. “But I was stuck in my own head. Lots of voices coming at me all at the same time. Yours was one of them. Sincere. Made it harder to forget.”
“Did I never… Was I that opaque?”
“I thought I felt something, from you, once,” Finn admits this like it’s a deep secret. “But when we had that argument in New Orleans—I wasn’t ready. I thought would have more time to think about it, to see if it was false hope. Get back to fighting shape. Get back on the road.”
“And what?” Karl’s eyes snap to Sami at the remark and widen when they see the microscopic turn at the corner of his lips. “Woo me?”
Karl nearly gets a whiplash from turning to see Finn’s reaction. The uptick on Finn's lips is a sliver more visible than Sami's. “I still thought I was being delusional. So no. No wooing.”
Karl watches them talk. He sobers up slowly, as slow as these two picking apart the months that lead to this in reverse. His expertise is called on several times to settle a contentious detail or two, steps in when voices get too loud.
At some point, Karl feels he’s no longer supposed to be there. Nothing physical tips him off; Sami’s still perched at the edge of his bed, Finn’s still on his armchair. Their faces go from mildly constipated to almost-over-constipation.
Their words don’t even change; Karl has to get them back on track once or twice after they talk themselves into a circle.
It’s the aura, Karl decides, when he closes Sami’s door behind him. The smell of an impending fist fight has dispersed. The low amber lighting of the room has made them look less like men sent to Gallows’ room after taco night and more like men finally getting their shit together.
Karl's not sure if everything’s gonna turn out fine. But they haven’t noticed him leave yet; he’s fairly certain
In any case, they know his number.
The second thing Karl does after the photo shoot, the promo, the cosmetic bullshit and the family phone call that comes after winning his first title with Gallows the following night at the Rumble is to answer a video call from Finn.
“Congratulations.” Finn’s grinning ear to ear. “Finally getting the money for that new SUV?”
“Only if you’re picking up the rest of the bill.” Karl allows Gallows to hijack the phone to receive part of the adulation, before he snatches it back. “Too bad you flew back to Orlando instead of cheering your man.”
“Fer Chrissakes’, leave him alone. Kid’s still got relationship jitters,” Gallows, of all people, scolds him. He sticks his face next to Karl’s and points a finger at the camera. “But you shoulda stayed on. You don’t leave a brother with blue balls.”
“We haven’t even kissed yet,” Sami says as he approaches them with a grin that slowly tips the world back on its axis. “Didn’t even say I love you back.”
“You’ll get one when you win the Rumble tonight,” Finn tells him when Gallows hands the phone to Sami.
“What happened to praising me?” Karl protests though he couldn’t contain his smile.
Finn frowns and makes a shooing motion with his hand. “Go on, my man needs a pep talk.”
“Did you hear that?” Sami brandishes the phone at Karl and Gallows. “Yesterday he’s telling me that my love is pity and now he’s calling me his man?”
“Sami ain’t even on until later!” Gallows lifts his belt next to his face. “Let’s bring the adoration back to me, The Big L.G.”
Karl, as per usual, lets the scene play out. He already knew that, despite their best efforts, neither Finn nor Sami completely pulled their heads outta their asses yet. Finn’s gone back to pet names and Sami’s apparently told him that he loved him again; this, of course, doesn’t mean that everything’s completely hunky-dory.
Surely enough, Karl gets wind of a small argument later that week. Finn’s parents have apparently taken to the news too well and asked Sami if he was moving in with Finn or if they were going to look for a house. It makes both of them panic and takes more than a few calls, texts, and tea to wind them down.
Zack called it a speed bump. Neville had a worse term for it.
Kevin had sent them a toaster.
It’s a whole other kind of shitstorm when Sasha overhears Sami call Finn ‘dear’ over the phone. There’s a lot more screaming, for an instance. Sometimes, it’s Karl’s ear that gets screamed into; sometimes, it’s accompanied by a bone-crushing hug.
Karl really wonders why Bayley wasn’t given the bear hug as a finisher.
Karl’s wife takes the news as a given, a natural conclusion he shouldn’t have worried his beautiful bald head over. At least his kids were thrilled to know their Uncle Sami might come around with their Uncle Finn more often.
The news trickles down to the people who it needs trickling down to. The Biz Cliz chat group has a hundred unread messages at any given time to roast Finn. Zack tells Karl that the English lads have done the same a thousand times over too.
Kenny calls Finn and Sami separately. Their relationship, apparently, got stronger after that.
It’s still a wonder that Karl can call it that: a relationship. A romantic relationship, even. This isn’t lost on Finn or Sami.
Since San Antonio, they spend at least an hour on a phone re-acclimating to each other’s voice. It’s a process, going back to their old habits knowing what they do now.
On Sami’s days off and when Finn’s not in rehab, they spend it outside revisiting familiar sights, driving for hours to some river, touring the neighborhood on bikes and skateboards. This is a little easier; tactility is always a bonus when dating.
Karl rolls his eyes at them when they insisted all of this didn’t make them a couple yet.
They argue the term ‘dating’ until Valentine’s. Finn disputes his claim, asserts that their hike-dinner-movie deal that day was their first real date; Sami points out that this was conventionally true.
No pictures come out of it, despite strict instructions from everyone and their mothers.
To make up for it, Finn films Sami react to the news that he’s been cleared for a few house shows in March.
If pressed to describe it, Karl would go for “vomit-inducing sugariness” and “blinding sunshine.” He doesn’t complain much; he did call Finn and told him he was looking forward to seeing him back in the sappiest way possible.
He’s as equally as sappy in the call as he is when he spots them at the Buffalo Airport weeks later. Finn’s dressed to the nines, his old Armani suit dry-cleaned and creaseless under the straps of his backpack. Sami’s still dressed like an old man, cap on head, cardigan blindingly yellow.
Their hands are occupied with their various bags but Karl knows that if there weren’t dozens of cameras flashing their way, they would be holding hands.
“Welcome back,” Karl finally tells Finn when they’ve put away their luggage on the bus.
Finn smiles widely. Beside him, Sami reaches for his hand and grips it tightly.
“Glad to be back.”