The first time, they say, "Just try to survive, if you make it through the first time it gets easier." Paul doesn't look like much, but he's got weight in his legs and, when it comes right down to it, he's willing to fight dirty.
When he comes out of the ring, bloody, victorious, dragging some poor son of a bitch's detached head by his long hair, someone mutters, "Guess we have a contender," and someone else goes, "Beginner's luck."
Paul quietly barricades himself in the first empty bathroom stall he can find, and throws up for about a week.
Afterwards, there's a party - there's always a party, and food the likes of which he's never seen in his life. Beautiful women with soft skin and expensive clothes, they lick at his wounds with tongues as sharp as their nails, and offer him whatever he wants, at least for the night. Paul chooses the first one that comes along when he's bored enough to want to leave, and it's as good as he expects it to be. And as forgettable.
Once upon a time, in a land far far away.
Fairytales, they said.
New World Order, they said.
He used to be just a boy, ordinary to everyone except for himself, and even then, most of the time he felt like just that.
His parents said: Hide, and he did. But they always catch you in the end.
The fifth time he wins he discovers that the women he thought were beautiful weren't at all, that the real ones, the ones that were damn near perfect, they only blessed you with their presence when you were a Champion - or the Champion of today. Paul meets a woman named Helena, she trades in young women and even younger men, and he becomes hers, of a sort. Sugar and spice and all things nice, her tongue down his throat and he's thinking, always thinking, of the next night, of blades and machine guns that go rat-a-tat-tat, and fists tight and slick with the copper sheen of blood. She tells him, this Helena, that she petitioned for the use of bare hands, and only bare hands, in the Cage. "Knives and swords and chains," she says with disdain. "Only for children. Real men kill with their hands." She'll lick his battle scarred skin then, hands that kill, and wound, and maim, and gouge. Hands that used to belong to an artist, or so he'd thought at one point.
Turns out destroying is an art form too. Carlos would wax lyrical about it, philosophize and explain away their basic needs, but Carlos isn't here anymore, and all Paul wants is to destroy.
There's a woman named Sam who's been in the Ring for ages, or so they say. Stuff of legend, she's shorter than Paul imagined she would be, muscles like sleek pistons and a scar crisscrossing across her face - it must have missed her eye by a sliver, just that. She stares him down like he's worth nothing, and he shrinks back, but when she fucks him afterwards her face softens, even though her thighs clamp around his waist tight enough to bruise.
"I drew you tomorrow," she says afterwards, and she offers him a cigarette and a kiss, neither of which he wants to refuse. "I just wanted to say hello. And goodbye."
It's sheer luck, is what it is. She was far, far better than him.
His father always did say he was a charmed child.
His father ended up with a bullet through his neck while his only son hid under the floorboards like a coward.
Sometimes, surviving is not all it's made up to be.
Sometimes, you just want to be someone it was worth everything you loved dying for.
Helena introduces him to a tiny woman-child, says her name is Danielle. "Virgin," she says. "An actual one. Strange how some things remain prizes, even after all of this." Paul's, she says, for Sam. She runs her hand down the side of his face gently. "They told me to say goodbye to you - that you'd never be a victor. I told them, I had faith." Her kiss is soft and sweet. "I have faith in you."
Danielle is as sweet as all worthless, undeserved prizes are. Paul didn't think that he'd want her, but she sits cross-legged on the bed and her skin is cream and silk, and she looks terrified, resigned and terrified, and he thinks she's terrified in general, terrified due to circumstance, but it turns out it's him, specifically, him. "I didn't think it'd be you," she says, and then she halts, and flushes, and turns away. "Most of us go to the -"
"The men that own men like me?" His voice is wryer than he'd intended it to be, but he doesn't want to take it back. "It's okay," he says, and he wraps his hand in thick brown curls. "I can be a gentleman too."
But he's lying. Her body is tiny and soft and pliant, and he's a brute with rough hands and scars and a relentless impulse to push till it yields, or breaks, or both.
The first night they'd dragged him in, hands and feet bleeding from the chains he'd only recently been released from, the person they'd roomed him with - he's dead now, looked him up and down and said, "Babyface - you gotta harden up or you're getting dead, real quick. That's the only advice I'm gonna give you, ever. Now get the fuck out of my way."
He'd never thought he would, he's an Artist, a Drifter, a Dreamer, but he looks into the mirror now, and Danielle is curled in the corner of the bed trying not to cry, and somehow he'd slid, inexorably, there. Or maybe it wasn't so much that he slid, but that he fell, with one twist of a pale neck, and it was always you or them, always, but sometimes Paul wonders about choices, and he wonders if it was just that he'd wanted to live more or that he'd loved less. He tells himself it's not that he loved less - but he's still standing here, and if that's not irrefutable proof, he's not sure what is.
It's been said you can go through round after round and never fight everyone. Too many cities, too many players. Paul travels away in the back of retrofitted buses, proofed against the ever encroaching desert and bandits, but no-one alive ever dares disturb a Glad bus in any case, so it's mostly to keep out the sand. Danielle sits next to him most times, wide eyed and peering out curiously through the slats cut to let in light and let out bullets. "It's all just brown," she says once, disappointed, and he responds, "Yeah baby, that's all that's left." She's barely a teenager, she probably doesn't remember Before. Sticks and Snails and Puppy Dogs Tails.
Ipods and plasma tvs and the incessant drone of your cellphone, always someone on the line trying to disturb you. That's the one thing he doesn't miss, at all. The multi-hued vibrancy of Tokyo and French movies and the endless search for the perfect martini - Danielle stares curiously at him, and he snaps, "Stop it." And then, conciliatory, "Come here. Come sit on my lap, baby. There we go."
She doesn't hate him so much nowadays. It's not quite the relief he thought it would be.
"What do you get for ten dollars?"
"Oh, honey. It's the end of the world. Your money's no good here."
That's an old, stale joke, and maybe if the first person he'd fought hadn't looked like a baby, Oliver Twist came to mind, it might have turned out differently. But he was more scared than Paul was, and Paul had never met very many people more scared than he was, not then. Ryan, he remembers the name suddenly - you always remember your first. Long dead Ryan, followed by long dead someone else and someone else and someone else. And then there's Carlos, because there's always Carlos, but Paul doesn't think of him anymore. Can't, not anymore.
There was a man named Carlos that Paul doesn't think of anymore. Asshole. Infuriating, annoying, the first man Paul had ever laid eyes on that if he'd had a choice, he'd volunteer to get in the ring with. "Who is he," Danielle asks, because, when she's not afraid, it turns out she's inquisitive and can't ever shut up.
"How the fuck did you hear that name?"
"You mumble in your sleep."
"Oh. No-one," he says, firmly. No-one. In the next city they go to, New Amsterdam which is Old Las Vegas minus the clink of the slot machines, he goes on a rampage and doesn't turn down a fight. Danielle sits in the front row and he holds head after head up to her, while she pales and tightens her lips, and refuses to speak to him all the way back home.
Helena says, "Keep traumatizing the child and I'll take her away from you."
"I thought she was a gift."
"She's a loan. You don't get to own anything." She's annoyed, furious, and it's the first time she's reminded him of his place, of his social status in the tumbledown hierarchy of their decimated lives. Paul wants to feel contrite, and some part of him is, and in the end he mumbles something close to an apology, and she lets the matter drop.
There's a man.
There was a man.
There was some crap about how opposites attract, some thing, Paul can't recall. He recalls that Carlos was everything that Paul loathed, then and now and forever and ever amen. A body that wasn't built for fighting but a brain that made up for it, sometimes Paul forgets that they'd only known each other for two months before it ended, but then you count your life by the day and two months is two months worth of lifetimes.
"Beautiful women and good wine, isn't that what it's all about?" Carlos said, one night, and Paul nodded his head, and Carlos kissed him.