The GM's decree was, of course, that if Brian and Jeff were going to insist on fighting each other, they should do it in the ring where everyone could see instead of sniping at each other backstage and disrupting the show. This next confrontation occupied the minds of both Hardys and Cathy as they made their way back to the hotel that night. Although the match-up did help solve the problem of guarding Cathy during the show, it also added to it because Brian would know for certain that they were somewhere in the building.
Cathy was sitting on the edge of her hotel bed in her dark cotton pyjamas, eyes staring off into the distance but seeing nothing, when Jeff came in and sat beside her.
"I'm sorry I wussed out tonight," Cathy apologised after a short silence. Jeff put his arms round her shoulders and squeezed her softly.
"Hey, it's no big deal," he told her gently. "It's been a tough week on you, that's all."
Cathy shook her head and shifted her gaze down to her slippers. "I thought I was prepared for it… that I was ready to face him, if I had to." She twisted her feet round each other until they would bend no further. "I messed it all up…"
Jeff untwisted her feet and pulled her round on the bed so that she was facing him. The faintest hint of tears had risen in the corners of her eyes and she looked so very tired. He grasped her hands in his own and waited until her deep brown eyes focused on his own.
"It's not your fault," he said firmly. "You might be deeply entwined in these events and how it all goes, but this isn't your fault and you can't shoulder the blame for not being ready to fight." He paused, hoping she was taking the message in. "Tonight was just one of those things that happens too soon, happens before you can prepare. But now it has happened you know what to expect and next time you'll be ready."
She smiled softly and her eyes flicked up to meet his, but quickly dropped back down to an inward gaze. "It all seemed like such a good idea at the time," she confessed, squeezing his hands as she thought. "To come along, to support him, to make him happy; and then to leave and pay him back – every time I had to choose, it felt like I was doing the right thing." She looked into his eyes and Jeff felt the full force of the sad, confused and conflicted face that met his. "So why does it seem like everything turned out so wrong?"
Jeff pulled her close and hugged her as a spasm of shaky, not-crying rolled through her small body. "Not everything turned out wrong," he whispered gently, stroking her long soft hair as it fell over her face. "You've got me, and Matt. And no matter what Brian does, we'll look out for you until you say otherwise. That's not wrong, is it?" Cathy shook her head and then slowly pulled herself back till she was sitting up straight again. She smiled the faintly embarrassed smile of one having been caught being silly about things, and took Jeff's hand once more.
"Thank you," she told him softly. "For everything. Thank you."
Jeff smiled affectionately. "That's okay," he replied as he stood up. "We'll find a way to set things right. But we won't do it a moment sooner by losing sleep over it." They murmured good nights to each other as he made his way to the door. Cathy snuggled under the blankets to try and find the peace of a deep sleep and the room ceased to be lit by anything more than the faint glow of the moon and the stars coming from the darkness beyond.
* * *
Jeff walked through the backstage area, psyching himself up for the match he would be called to in a matter of minutes. As he walked, he tried to clear his head of the maelstrom of emotions crowding around for the uppermost position in his thoughts. Those concerning the physical ordeal he was about to undergo were easily dismissed as no more than the background noise of his career – important, but not worth significant attention. Similarly, his plans for the match could be shifted to one side – he knew the moves he could do and every combination so well that he could easily do them in his sleep. What could not be shifted, however, was the anger he felt when he considered his opponent tonight. Jeff had not really spent any time with Cathy until recently, but he was able to recall a gentle, bright, vivacious young woman appearing backstage, confident yet hanging on Brian's every word. When his thoughts changed from that image to the frightened and fragile creature he had taken from Brian's arms only two weeks ago, a cold rage swept over him, causing the idle chatter of his mind to cease without exception. It didn't come easily to him – Jeff had always been more inclined to trust and believe the best of people, but once his ire had been raised it was a true raging storm, a deep, howling anger that the world was not as good as it could so easily be. It would have been so simple for Brian to be nice to Cathy, to look after her and make her happy, and he had refused to do it. Beating Brian into submission would not right that wrong, but at least justice would be seen to have been done.
Brian scowled heavily as he stood backstage, waiting for his match to begin. He was ready to fight Hardy – he'd beaten him before and he could do it again – but the indignity of having to fight him in public in order to retrieve Cathy grated on him. Bringing the fight into the ring almost legitimised Jeff's possession of her by obliging him to win her back rather than just taking her. Jeff must have planned it this way – he would know that if Cathy was allowed to see him she would return to his side in an instant, so he was doing this to force her to stay. That was it – it had to be. Why else would she have stayed away from him for so long?
Brian paced the area irritably. By rights, he should be the US Champion by now – would have been if Cathy had not gotten all self-righteous and prudish about doing her part, that night of all nights. She'd been so good about it before; for a smile and a kiss she would do whatever was necessary. When she came back he was going to make damn sure she knew what was expected of her, at all times, not just when it suited her. He wanted sexy but submissive, and that was exactly what he was going to get.
His posture stiffened as he saw Jeff approaching, alone. He'd guessed Jeff wouldn't risk letting Cathy come anywhere near him tonight but the slightest fleeting feeling of disappointment flashed through him as he saw him on his own. He dismissed it quickly – it would have been good for Cathy to be here to see her guardian utterly defeated and prostrated at his feet, but she would learn her lesson soon enough anyway. He would have plenty of time to find her and teach it to her after he'd beaten Jeff senseless. He eyed the tall lean man contemptuously, with his stupid arm bands and ridiculous multi-hued hair – how could he possibly think Cathy would rather be seen with him than with The Brian Kendrick? Giving him a hard kick to the head would be doing everyone a favour. Stretching in a seemingly careless way, he began moving surreptitiously closer to the entrance to the main arena.
Jeff approached carefully, maintaining a respectable distance between himself and Brian as he took up his position to wait for the start of their match. The other man had a cold, arrogant air about him, emphasised as he tossed his head this way and that like a bull, refusing to meet Jeff's steady gaze. His face was still not troubled by a single iota of remorse, not a single shred of concern for Cathy, or anyone apart from himself. Jeff shifted awkwardly. It was taking a supreme amount of effort not to go over there that instant and hit him hard. Breathing heavily, he hauled in his anger. The GM had been very clear that any fighting not taking place in the ring would be deeply frowned upon and he didn't need any more trouble with the management. He could wait just a few more minutes before striking down that odious, sneering countenance.
The wrestlers in the previous match appeared from the main arena and briefly acknowledged the two waiting men before heading back to the locker rooms. As one of the crew gave a one minute warning for Brian's entrance, he turned and for the first time looked Jeff straight in the eye.
"You've still got time to give her back," he told him in what could have been a throw-away manner, if not for the harsh, piercing glare that accompanied it.
Jeff stretched up to his full height and a brief mocking laugh passed his lips. "Even if I did, she wouldn't go with you." He paused, watching the red mist descend on Brian. "She can't stand the sight of you, or she'd be here now to watch you suffer."
"Liar!" The word burst forth in a heavy growl as he closed the gap between them, eyes blazing angrily. "You're just jealous," he suggested in a calmer, but still enraged, tone.
"Jealous?" Jeff scoffed openly. "She won't see you, she won't talk to you – she can't abide even the thought of you – and you think I'm jealous of that?"
Brian recoiled almost imperceptibly. "You can't have her," he snarled. "No matter what you do, she'll come back to me. She knows who she belongs to."
"Cathy belongs to herself," Jeff replied sharply. "If you had half the brains you claim to, you would have figured that out by now."
"And if you had half the brains you think you have," Brian retorted fiercely, "You'd have given up when you had the chance. I'm going to rip Cathy from your grasp and the longer you try to hold on, the worse it'll be for you." And with that, he turned and stalked off to the main arena. Jeff shook his head as he watched Brian parade out to his music. Then he pushed his hair back from his face to reveal a poisonous black stare and stepped forward to follow him into the arena.
* * *
Brian had thought he was angry last week. But that left almost no suitable adjectives to describe his temper now. Here he was one week later, warming up to face Jeff Hardy again after their match last week had yielded an absolute travesty of a result – pinned to the mat after barely ten minutes. Brian raged and swore as he recalled it. He'd been, well, he'd been great, the same as he always was, because he was The Brian Kendrick. But Jeff had been leaping about on the turnbuckles, bouncing off the ropes, always managing to be in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time to steal hits in the one second he was vulnerable. It was nothing to do with his speed and agility – he could match Jeff leap for leap if he wanted to – it was just infernal luck, and what must have been the fastest possible three-count in existence. He growled in frustration as he remembered Jeff's smug, self-satisfied grin as he pulled himself up at the end of the match: "You've still got time to apologise," he'd taunted, trying to be smart, but Brian had just glared at him as he slowly struggled to his feet. And then they'd spirited themselves away afterwards so Cathy remained firmly in their clutches. He'd tried complaining about the result, of course, but five solid minutes spent trying to shout some sense into the GM's head had only resulted in another match for the two of them being scheduled for the next week's show. He grimaced as he considered the situation. It was hard to believe that Jeff Hardy was getting away with stealing from him, taking his property when he had no right to. And Cathy was his – he'd picked her up, invested the time and money in making her look good and provided her with a stage on which to shine – and now someone else thought they could reap the benefits of his hard work? Outrageous. She was part of his successful image and he would part with her when he was ready. And not before.
Matt and Cathy sat quietly in the little room they'd found, hidden away from the main action. Jeff had just departed for his match against Brian, full of confidence after a fairly resounding victory over him the week before, and that confidence was slowly spreading to Cathy. She'd managed to avoid Brian since the incident in the hall two weeks previously and Jeff's win over him in the ring the week after had helped restore her to a slightly more normal level of good humour. All the fears that came in the night about the WWE becoming one endless nerve-wracking, soul-destroying hell after leaving Brian seemed to have dissipated, or at least faded into the background. Today Cathy could almost say she felt… maybe happy was too strong a word just now, but definitely very positive.
"He's got to be in the ring by now," she considered out loud, not needing to explain which 'he' she was referring to. There was no chance of running into him outside and although the room was safe, her increasing confidence meant it was starting to feel confining. "Maybe we could go for a quick walk to stretch our legs?"
Matt pulled himself out of his chair. Though he wouldn't say, or give any indication of it, sitting still was not his forte. Even though he'd already had a match that night, he appreciated the chance to get up and do something.
"OK," he replied. "But eyes open for trouble, right?"
It had been a while since Cathy had felt able to stroll the halls with impunity. Granted she had never been in these halls before, but after some months with the WWE she had noticed that one set of corridors at an arena looked very much like another, so in the grand scheme of things they might as well be the same halls, and they held no fear for her. She kept a careful eye on her watch all the same though – the feeling was good, but it was finite and would run out at precisely the moment Jeff and Brian finished their match. But for now, it was enough to be able to walk freely without being afraid.
She'd walked deliberately towards the main centres of activity, those being where she would not tread when Brian was on the loose, but as she continued walking she realised that she was almost upon the entrance to the arena. She hadn't intended to come quite this far or this close, but a swift glance at the now numerous monitors fitted into the pale walls showed her that Brian and Jeff were still locked together in combat, that she was still safe, for now. Seeing the relentless back-and-forth between the two men on the monitor, she circled the area curiously, wondering if there was a point from which she could see Brian and Jeff physically in the ring whilst remaining completely hidden from view. There ought to be one, for the technicians and the runners and such, just hidden before the entrance where she could take a look. In the back of her mind she knew that she was acting in a massively risky fashion, but she ignored it. There must be a place. One little glimpse wouldn't hurt…
Brian staggered back, grasping at the ropes for support. Jeff followed swiftly, kicking him firmly into the ring post then lashing out with his fists. The referee pulled him back after the initial flurry, giving Brian room to pull himself to his feet and reassess the situation. It was only for a moment; as soon as the referee stepped out of the way, Jeff launched himself shoulder first into Brian's upper body, sandwiching it hard between him and the ring post. Brian dropped awkwardly to the mat, gasping to regain the breath that had been squeezed out of him. Jeff stepped back as if to strike with his foot, but instead he leaned forward and, with his hand firmly on Brian's throat, pushed his head back against the post.
"Ready to give it up yet?" he snarled almost contemptuously. Brian gracelessly pulled his leg forward and by way of a response kicked Jeff hard so that he stumbled back towards the middle of the ring. He pulled himself up and, not having the ready energy to launch a high kick at his head, leapt forward and struck Jeff in the back of his knee. Jeff's leg buckled beneath him and in that brief second of opportunity Brian delivered a second kick to his back that was just enough to knock Jeff onto his front. He tried to pull Jeff into a Camel Clutch, but he wasn't worn down enough yet and hauled himself out of it with some effort. Brian tried to regain his brief advantage with another kick, but Jeff twisted out of the way. He growled as they faced each other across the ring again.
"Is that all you got?" he shouted, gesturing mockingly. It was enough to trouble him, but he wasn't going to let Hardy know that. The appearance of strength and vitality was almost as good as having some left – if Hardy thought he was still a threat, he wouldn't try anything big. Brian knew he could still beat him. All it would take was one open shot.
Cathy watched from the edge of the entrance. This close she could feel the buzz from the audience, hear the slam of feet and bodies in the ring and, most importantly, for the first time in nearly a month she could see him. And strangely enough, she didn't feel afraid.
His face was screwed up in frustration, but was mostly hidden by the waves of blond hair falling forward over it. He moved lithely as he and Jeff made their smooth assaults like a dangerous dance through the ring. She couldn't see his eyes clearly from this distance, but she would have bet any money that they were burning with the black heat of wrath. He was handsome, she would still concede that, but that was firmly overridden by the fact that he was also a self-centred, arrogant, hateful jerk and she could see it poisoning his face. She almost envied Jeff his opportunity to hit Brian – she would, to pay him back for his deceit and callous treatment of her, if only she had the strength to give him more than a black eye at best. But Jeff was landing strike after strike on Brian entirely on her behalf and Cathy had to admit that was a pretty good second best. She shifted, trying to get a better view so that she could see each blow connect and watch him reel from it. There had to be a place to see it all…
Brian stood, panting and sore, but still standing. Maybe he wasn't going to overpower Hardy tonight, but he could still outlast him. Sooner or later, Hardy would make a mistake.
Most of his moves now were defensive, countering where he could, rolling with Hardy's movements where he couldn't in an effort to minimise the effect. As the pace of the match slowed, with both men starting to feel the burn, he was able to land one or two offensive moves on Hardy but the kind of sustained attack that could win the match remained elusive.
Then, out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a figure standing at the edge of the entrance way. Her figure was hidden under a pair of baggy black trousers and an open white shirt over a tank top, her face half obscured by loose hanging auburn hair, but he knew it was her. He turned his head towards her and he felt their eyes lock across the arena. She didn't run or turn away, but matched him stare for stare, seemingly more self-possessed than she had been for some time. Had she come out there to taunt him? Was she expecting to see him beg for forgiveness for whatever it was he was supposed to have done? If her confidence was in her guardian, he could make sure that at least was short-lived.
He snuck a glance and saw that Jeff too had been distracted by Cathy's appearance at the entrance. Summoning almost the last of his strength, he jumped and his foot connected sharply with the back of Jeff's skull, knocking him heavily to the mat. He hauled the dazed man back onto his feet and launched himself at the ropes, slamming him back into the mat with his trademark finisher. The moment the three count was completed and the bell rung, he leapt to his feet and turned to face Cathy, who was still standing there at the top of the ramp. He met her gaze once more and nonchalantly gestured at the prone form of Jeff Hardy behind him. Outwardly, neither her face nor her bearing had changed in the slightest, but as he stepped forward to the edge of the ring, towards where she was standing, she turned and fled. A satisfied smirk crossed Brian's face as he took a last glance back at his vanquished opponent still on his back on the mat. Then, slowly and a little stiffly, he lowered himself out of the ring and made his way back up the ramp, buoyantly in the mood to deal with the other half of his little problem.