The air stank of sweat. Rosy beads of blood dripped off clenched white knuckles, spattering on the slick ground in a splash of red. The crowd roared and rattled the chain-link cage, but the din was muted by the rushing static in Connor’s head. He swiped a hand across his split lip, leaving a scarlet streak over his cheekbone.
Breathe in . Breathe out.
Connor rolled his shoulders and raised his fists. Adrenaline made his fingertips tingle, and his heart thumped wildly in his ears. His opponent mirrored his position, looking a little worse for wear. Ragged breathing split the air between them, but Connor couldn’t tell who it came from. Both were heaving for oxygen. Neither could last much longer.
Time to wrap this up.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
Connor eyed his opponent, analyzing each little weakness. Early on, he had managed to twist the man’s leg; from the man’s yell of pain, he had succeeded in tearing something. Now, his opponent favored his right leg, his weight shifted to his left side. Blood dribbled from a slice in his brow, matting his eyebrow and clumping his lashes. Partially blinded. He had his elbows drawn in and forearms up. No chance of getting a strike to his abdomen or throat.
Feign a strike to his right to knock him off balance.
Connor shifted, ignoring the way his bruised joints creaked and his muscles screamed. He took a sideways step, and the man did the same. They started to prowl in a circle, neither eager to throw the first punch. Connor darted forward, feigning a blow towards the man’s shoulder. As predicted, his opponent shrunk back and put his weight on his injured leg. A grin split Connor’s lips, bloodstained teeth glittering in the harsh overhead light.
This time, he struck like a cobra, ramming a fist into the man’s now-unprotected solar plexus. A wheeze escaped his opponent, and he folded like wet paper. Hooking a leg around his bent knee, Connor swept the man’s foot out from under him and sent him tumbling to the ground.
The man rolled off his back slowly, trying to stand. He made it to his hands and knees before Connor planted a firm knee in the small of his back and shoved him back into a prone position. He wasted no time in grappling his opponent’s arm and twisting his elbow behind his back. He put pressure on the hold as the man began to struggle violently.
Connor leaned forward, sweat-drenched hair peeling off his forehead. He peered at his opponent’s face, his own stuttering breath mixing with the man’s in too-warm gusts. “Yield.” He hissed, his command nearly drowned out by the shrieks and shouts of the crowd. The man responded with a sneer; he spat at Connor, sending a spray of saliva and blood across the brunet’s face.
Hot anger swelled in Connor’s chest, and he wrenched harshly on the man’s twisted arm. A low whine of pain wheezed from his opponent’s throat. “Yield!” He ordered again, his tone little more than a bark. His pressure on the man’s shoulder didn’t lessen, and the man squirmed underneath him.
“Alright!” His opponent finally gasped. “Alright! I yield!”
Connor threw aside the man’s arm and staggered upright. Someone—the referee or whoever oversaw the fight—gripped his arm and raised his still-clenched fist above his head. The crowd screamed ever louder, a low chant building.
‘Wolfhound,’ They cheered.
Wolfhound. His stage name. The name that rang around the crowd in excited whispers whenever he stepped into the cage. A dog that fought and drew blood for their viewing pleasure. Send the fresh meat to him to get chewed on; see if they’d last or not. Most didn’t. The ones that did made sure to steer clear of him.
A cold, vile feeling built in Connor’s throat. The adrenaline and post-fight endorphins were fading. Every raging ache came into sharp focus, and the blood that slathered his jaw and neck was congealing into a sticky mess. He wormed his wrist free of the fight referee’s clammy hand and slipped out of the cage door. He didn’t spare his beaten opponent a second glance.
The instant he left the chain-link cage, the audience swarmed him. Sweaty bodies reeking of booze and cigarette smoke pressed in on him. Connor squared his shoulders and shoved past them. Too many hands clapped his shoulders and grabbed at his face. Countless fingers traced over his jawline and tousled his hair. Shirtless, he was at the mercy of the crowd as they poked and prodded at his bruises and scars with unforgiving touches.
Connor blindly grabbed at the nearby wall until his fingers snagged the cold metal doorknob. He gave the knob a sharp twist and yanked the side door open. A yelp drifted into the smoky atmosphere as the heavy door smacked an unsuspecting audience member. Connor didn’t care.
He pulled himself free of the lingering grasps and slammed the door shut. A shudder ran up the doorframe, and several heads turned in his direction. Connor met the curious glances of the other fighters with a cold stare; the eyes dipped away, though they did linger on the droplets of blood and sweat he left on the concrete floor.
Though he was free of the crowd, he could still feel their greedy touches. Connor stalked past the other fighters and squeezed his way into the locker room. The door snapped shut behind him, and the cold air swirled against his sweaty skin. The room was blessedly empty.
Connor’s stomach churned with the intense smell of blood and sweat, and bile rose in his throat. He barely made it to the trashcan before the acidic taste of vomit bit the back of his mouth. He heaved, spewing up the contents of his stomach—water and today’s dinner mixed with whatever blood he had swallowed. The heaves died away, leaving him feeling even more drained than before. He wiped a shaky hand across his lips and rested his back against the lockers. Slowly, he slid to the ground and laid his head on his knees. He felt like utter shit.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
The door creaked as it opened, and a faint snap followed at its closing. Connor didn’t bother looking up. A gentle hand rested on his shoulder, smooth skin cool against his too-warm body.
“Panic attack?” Simon’s voice was soft, a stark difference from the roar of the crowd.
“Yeah.” Connor said in a husky tone. His throat was sore from the vomiting, and he couldn’t muster the strength to raise his voice.
“A bad one?”
Connor’s shoulders rose and fell. Simon accepted the answer and pushed something into his hand.
Condensation collected on Connor’s fingers, the icy water washing away some of the blood. Connor raised his head and lifted the water bottle to his lips. He swilled the first gulp around his mouth and spat it onto the floor drain beside him. At Simon’s quiet insistence, he drank the remaining water slowly. The bottle crinkled in his grip as he turned the plastic in his fingers. “Thanks,” He finally remembered to mumble.
The blond offered him a warm smile. Connor leaned his head against the cold lockers and pressed his eyes closed. The overhead fluorescents buzzed softly, and the only other sound was Simon shuffling as he picked through the first aid equipment he had brought. Connor winced and swallowed thickly as a needle bit into the skin on his torso. The beginning of the fight was a bit hazy—he tried not to remember his fights—but he recalled being thrown against the chain-link wall of the cage. He didn’t think the cut had been that deep, but apparently it warranted stitches from Simon.
“Alright?” The question wasn’t much, but Connor appreciated it. He pried open an eye and peered at the blond.
“Yeah. ‘M alright.” He said. He shifted as Simon tied off the stitch and snipped the thread. That would be another scar for his growing collection. He was sure the crowds would appreciate it, at least. “How’s Traci?”
Simon smiled at the mention of his sister. “She’s good. Mom n’ Dad’s rejection hit her hard, but Tracie’s helping her work through things.”
A chuckle escaped Connor. “I still can’t believe she and her girlfriend have the same name.”
Simon’s face split into a grin, and the blond sat back on his haunches. “It can get confusing sometimes. North calls them the Traci 2 .” Simon started wiping at the blood drying on Connor’s neck with a wet towelette. In a cautious voice, he asked, “How’s Nines?”
Connor scowled, fresh anger blossoming in his chest. “Don’t know, don’t care.”
“The fucking prick only came back because Dad’s in the hospital and he sees it as his ‘moral duty’.” Connor made air quotes with his fingers at ‘moral duty’. “You know the first thing he asked me when he got back?”
Simon shook his head, his expression flitting between neutral and troubled.
“If I wanted to mooch money off of him.” Connor huffed an angry breath, hot air disturbing a few strands of his sweat-clumped hair. “If we hadn’t been in a hospital with a dozen officers milling around, I would’ve punched the shit out of him.”
The blond clucked his tongue, gingerly dabbing at Connor’s lip. He pressed a hand, tender yet firm, on the curve of Connor’s neck. The brunet stilled his movements, but his nostrils still flared with obvious irritation.
Connor was silent as Simon finished tending to his injuries and cleaning away the obvious traces of blood. As the blond drew away, he looked up at Simon. “How much do you think I made tonight?”
Simon tossed the dirty towelettes in the trash, not meeting Connor’s gaze. “It was a good fight.” He admitted. “The crowd liked it. You’ll probably have a good haul tonight. Enough to tide you over for a while.”
“As your friend and, quite frankly, the only person willing to patch you up, I’m advising you to lay off for a week or two.”
“Connor.” Simon cut him off, finally meeting his friend’s dark eyes. “If you’re not careful, people at the department are going to know what you’re up to. And I don’t feel like finding your dead ass in some back alley because you passed out from pushing yourself too hard.”
The brunet relented with a sigh. He scrubbed a hand through his hair and dragged it down his face. “Alright. A week.”
“A week and a half.”
“If you don’t, I’ll sic North on you.”
Connor grimaced. The only thing that trumped North’s wrath was her protectiveness towards her friends. Connor didn’t feel like incurring either. “Fine.”
Smiling, Simon gathered the rest of his supplies and stood. He extended his free hand to his friend. Connor grabbed his hand and heaved himself upwards. His head spun a bit at the sudden movement, and Simon steadied him as he stumbled.
Despite being slightly shorter than Connor, Simon slung an arm around the brunet’s shoulders and guided him out of the locker room. The other room had emptied, but the roar of a crowd still echoed from behind the door that lead to the cage.
Connor shivered a bit as Simon’s arm withdrew. The blond stopped at a freestanding locker and dumped his first aid supplies inside. A soft bit of cloth hit Connor in the chest, and the brunet fumbled to catch it. Connor unfolded the cotton shirt and examined the graphic that decorated the front. It was a deer skull ladened with a multitude of flower. Shrugging to himself, Connor slipped the shirt over his head and tugged it down to his waist.
“Here.” Connor looked to Simon. The blond had his arm outstretched, though his face was still buried in the locker. In his hand was Connor’s jacket; he hadn’t seen the thing for three weeks—since his last fight. Connor accepted the item and smoothed the creased black leather under his thumb. Originally, it had been his adoptive father’s, but Hank had given it to Connor on his twentieth birthday, claiming it no longer fit him properly. And Hank always gave him grief for ragging on him about his health…
A soft smile found its way to Connor’s face, though it vanished when he remembered Hank’s pale face against a hospital bed with a bullet wound in his abdomen. Connor blinked back the tears pricking his eyes and donned the jacket. The familiar weight was comforting, but the added fabric made the room unbearably hot.
He found Simon staring at him with an unreadable expression. Connor pressed his lips in a thin line and met his friend’s concerned gaze.
Drop it. Please.
Simon seemed to understand, thankfully. He patted Connor’s back and started for the exit. “Come on. Let’s get you home.” The blond shoved open the back door, and the duo stepped into the sparsely-lit alleyway.
A man was waiting at the alley entrance, the glowing butt of a cigarette spitting smoke into the twilight air. He stubbed out the embers as they approached. “Nice work today, Wolfhound. ” Connor smothered a grimace at the name. The man said it with pride, but Connor felt no honor in the name. It was just another way of getting money. That was all. “Here’s your cut of the winnings.” The man drew his hand out of his pocket, a thick wad of bills clenched between two fingers. As Connor made to grab it, he clasped his other fingers around the brunet’s. “Next week?” His breath smelled of cigarette smoke.
“Week and a half.” Connor edged a glance at Simon. The man followed his gaze and muttered something under his breath. He finally drew his hand away and tucked it back in his coat pocket. “Thanks, John.” Connor nodded his head to the man and slipped the roll of bills into his own pocket. John only responded with more grumbles and a dismissive wave of his hand.
Connor grabbed Simon’s elbow and tugged the blond forward. They stepped out of the alley and into the light of the street. The neon lights of Jericho, the bar that stood as the front of the ‘fight club’—as so dubbed by North, illuminated Connor and Simon in a mirage of reds, blues, and purples. Connor kept his hand firmly wrapped around Simon’s elbow as he navigated his way through the line outside the bar. Many of the people waiting in line were actual patrons of the bar, but a fair few were there to see the fights. Detroit’s dirty secrets drew big crowds. He heard his name and his moniker whispered by some as he passed; other people he shouldered by shot him dirty looks and spat slurs in his and Simon’s wake.
They had nearly reached the end when Connor ran full speed into someone. Said someone fell back on their ass with a faint yelp. Connor nearly toppled forward onto them, but Simon grappled his arm and yanked him upright. The cut on his chest stung at the jarring movement, but otherwise, he was alright. Catching his breath, Connor stared down owlishly at the man he had just accidentally body checked.
Heterochromatic eyes of stunning blue and green stared back up at him. They glittered in Jericho’s neon lights, an ever-changing impressionist painting of a rainbow. On autopilot, Connor helped the stranger to his feet and stammered out a stuttered apology. Or three. When the man was upright, Connor jerked back his hands as if scalded. His eyes never left the stranger’s face, and he was fairly sure his mouth was hanging open. A hand reached out and clasped his shoulder. It wasn’t Simon’s.
“I didn’t hurt you, did I?” The man’s lilting tone was full of concern, and his eyes roved over Connor’s form in search of injury.
The brunet finally found his voice. “I—n-no. I think I should be the one asking you that.” He grinned sheepishly.
“Oh, I’m fine. Happens more often than you’d think.” The man drew out of Connor’s personal space; Connor almost missed the weight on his shoulder.
Connor opened his mouth and quickly snapped it shut. “Oh.” He said softly, finally tearing his eyes away from the stranger. He met Simon’s gaze; the blond had an eyebrow cocked at him, his expression split between confusion and amusement.
“I’m Markus.” The stranger blurted out. A shade of faint scarlet flushed Markus’s face, and he rubbed a hand down the nape of his neck.
“I—oh, uh…” Connor blinked, trying to shove down the fluttering feeling that erupted in his stomach. How could such an awkward movement look so cute? And the way the half light splayed across Markus’s sharp features sent his heart to thundering.
Simon butted in, laying a hand on Connor’s shoulder. “What my socially-inept friend is trying to say is he’s Connor. I’m Simon.” The blond extended his hand to Markus, grinning warmly. Markus shook Simon’s hand with a smile, though he looked far more hesitant. Simon nudged Connor, and the brunet stuck out his hand robotically.
“My name’s Connor.” He said lamely, trying and failing to pin a smile on his face. Whatever face he managed to conjure must have been amusing; it garnered a chuckle from Markus. Happiness bubbled in Connor’s chest at having made the handsome stranger laugh. The original tension of the situation had passed.
“Nice to meet you, Connor.” He clasped Connor’s hand. The palm of Markus’s hand was rough and calloused, but there was still a sense of delicateness about his touch. Their hands remained tangled together, and Simon gave a half-hearted cough. Blinking, Connor jerked back his hand, a blush creeping along his cheeks. Markus’s blush deepened, though the red discoloration was obscured by the poor lighting and his darker skin tone. Connor thought he saw a flicker of sadness cross Markus’s face as he dropped his arm to his side, but the expression was gone before he could tell for sure.
Markus’s gaze drifted from Connor’s eyes to his lips. A faint frown curled his mouth, and he reached a hand toward the brunet’s before he remembered himself. “What happened to your lip?”
Oh. His lip was busted. Connor’s hand flew to his face, hastily covering the ugly tear in his skin. His heart began hammering with renewed vigor, but this time it was driven by shame and fear. What would Markus think of him if he had seen what Connor had just been doing?
Thankfully, Simon was there to swoop in and save Connor from digging his own grave. The blond rested a hand between Connor’s shoulder blades. “We should be going. Sorry, again, for knocking you down.”
Markus swallowed and nodded, stepping back to allow them to pass. The duo edged past him; Connor’s gaze remained glued to the dirty sidewalk.
The brunet’s head jerked upwards, staring at Markus with wide doe eyes. Markus procured a pen and napkin from his jean pocket; he hastily scribbled something on the napkin and held it out to Connor. “My number. I, uh—we should go out for drinks some time. Or coffee. Or something.”
Dumbfound, Connor took the napkin and stared down at the phone number imprinted on the soft material. Suddenly aware that both Simon and Markus were watching him expectantly, he flashed the ghost of a smile at Markus. “Yeah—yeah… I’ll—text you.”
Markus mirrored his smile, though his was much brighter than Connor’s. The sight warmed Connor, and he ducked his head to hide the blush spreading across his freckled cheeks with a vengeance. Simon’s quiet laughter met his ears, and the blond patted his shoulder. “It was nice meeting you, Markus.” He said. Giving his head a shake, Simon bumped his shoulder against Connor’s.
The brunet jerked into action, and he fell in step beside Simon as they continued down the sidewalk. Heterochromatic eyes trailed after them, still glittering green and blue in Jericho’s lights.