Cougar rests against the back wall of the cell, hat covering his eyes. He'd worked his ass off to get the hat back, to give him some protection from the other prisoners. They're only four to a cell, and he's still reigning champion, but if the other three decide to gang up on him outside the ring, it isn't guaranteed he'll survive. Most of them know he's dangerous, that he'll kill them, either with his bare hands or the shank he has hidden somewhere on his person at all times. That'd kept them away long enough for Cougar to get popular in the ring; popular enough to get a few amenities, his hat being one.
He uses it to sleep. He always has it on, always makes it look like he might be sleeping, so there's no way to know when he really is. One unfortunate new guy had made the mistake of trying to off Cougar while he was pretending to sleep. The man had died on his knees. No one bothered Cougar much after that.
They bring the new guys in a shipment, eight to ten at once. Cougar knows they have to be in the middle of the desert somewhere, knows it in his bones, though he can't remember why anymore. If he does escape – never going to happen, he's watched plenty of other guys try – he'll die of thirst or heatstroke or exhaustion before getting anywhere. Better to survive in here.
He's been here long enough for his focus to narrow to the little fighting world. He remembers vaguely there were people outside these walls, but he can't exactly remember who they are or why he should care. He knows he has to survive, though. If he can do that much, things will change for the better. He already has his hat. He might gain his freedom.
He watches the new guys march by in their manacles, keeping his eyes shadowed underneath the hat. Half of them look a little bruised up already, the other half look terrified. It's the same mix as most new batches, some terrified, some stupid, most no challenge at all. There's one on the end, though. He cracks jokes, like the stupid newbie he is, but he's confident. Cougar can tell from how he walks that he's a threat. He has muscle and he knows how to use it. The only good news is the glasses. If he really needs them to see, it'll be a big disadvantage for him.
"Cougar?" he asks as he passes Cougar's cell.
Cougar ignores him, still feigning sleep. Other people have known him down here, idiots who watched the fights and made stupid bets and were brought down here to pay them off. This guy doesn't seem like the type to watch, though. There's something else about the way he said Cougar's name, something that rattles in Cougar's ear. He lets it slide. This guy'll be Cougar's next prey, he can tell just by the look of him. Cougar'll have plenty of time to watch him from the cages tomorrow.
He finally falls asleep for real when everyone else has settled in for the night, when the only sound besides the heavy breathing of thirty sleeping men is a single, scared sobbing. That won't last long. His cellmates will kill him if he makes it through the fight tomorrow.
Cougar isn't much of a boxer. It doesn't favor guys like him. He's a wrestler, and a cheater. They like to pair him with big guys because they think it looks impressive, this wiry little guy kicking the shit out of the muscle-bound dudes. Cougar isn't going to complain at any advantage in this place, but sometimes he longs for a challenge. Some of the more wily fighters would be harder fights.
Cougar gets a cage backstage. He knows it's for whoever's reigning champ, but it's been his since he got here and he's not planning on letting anyone else have it. It's his cage, and will be until he dies.
There are four, total, and he and his favored final match-up are always put on opposite ends, and the people they're going to meet before then put in the cells between them, fresh ones moved in while they're fighting so they know who is up next.
"Cougar!" his ultimate challenger yells across the bars between them. "Cougar!"
Cougar doesn't acknowledge him. He never listens to anyone, not since he tried to befriend one of the kids in his cell and ended up killing him in one of his first round matches. Better not to get attached.
He doesn't have time to look over the guy who's so desperate to get his attention; all he can see is muscles, spiky blond hair, and those stupid glasses. He still can't tell how much it'll hurt him if he loses them, but the weakness registers nonetheless.
Cougar fights first and last, always. His first fight tonight is against the guy who was crying in his cell last night. Cougar can taste the fear on him, and he's cowering against the back of the cell, dead center so he's as far from the people on either side as possible. Cougar grins at him, a slow stab of a smile, and he whimpers.
His first fight doesn't even wind him. He keeps his hat on the whole time, circling the ring. They have to use the cattle prods to get his opponent to come close enough for Cougar to get a hand on him. He eventually comes into the center of the ring to meet Cougar, already weak from the electricity. Cougar kills him with a strangle hold, the only mercy he has to offer. Besides, he's got at least three more fights. Better to conserve his strength for the big guy.
The big guy is hyper; he paces his cage, casting furtive glances at Cougar and trying to talk his opponent into a false sense of security by sounding like an idiot. Cougar knows the guy's first opponent, Jim. Jim isn't likely to realize that the big guy, who finally gives the name Jensen when he tries to shake Jim's hand, is a real threat. He doesn't look like it, in his fashionable jeans and hipster t-shirt, and he doesn't sound like it, with his non-stop prattle, but bodies don't lie. Jensen's body is owned by someone who knows how to use it, no matter what show he puts on.
They take Jensen and Jim into the ring and Cougar takes a second to look over his next opponent, pacing in the cage next to him and glaring at Cougar like he's just itching to pound his face in. He's one of the new guys from last night, and the look in his eye tells Cougar he's up for a fight and certain he can kick Cougar's scrawny ass. Cougar shakes his head. He'd bet money this guy's never actually been in a fight, though. He's muscle-bound in the stupid way; someone who spends hours in the gym and doesn't even know he's cross-training his muscles to work against each other.
He turns his attention back to the ring. Jensen's talking, practically putting on a show. Cougar can't hear the words, but the muffled sounds of Jensen's voice and Jim's punctuating shouts of annoyance – "Shut up! Get over here!" – come through loud and clear. They're going at it hard; Jim chasing Jensen around the ring. Apparently Jensen doesn't want to fight. That's good, that means he'll be worn out and emotionally unstable by the time he has to fight Cougar. The audience is making a lot of noise, too, drowning out Jensen's monologue with jeers and laughter. That's good, It means they'll let the winner of this match live, because Jim is a good fighter, and Cougar's pretty sure that even if he loses, Jensen'll put on enough of a show that he'll become a favorite quickly.
Whoever's in charge must get sick of Jensen's avoidance tactics and catches him with the cattle prod because he lets out a throaty yell. That knocks something loose and Cougar shakes his head involuntarily. He knows that sound. It makes him prowl up to the front of the cage, all of his protective instincts screaming. Fight, he thinks at Jensen. Give them a reason to keep you.
He knows Jim's fighting sounds intimately. He knows what he sounds like when he lands a punch, when he gets winded, when he's surprised. Jensen's silent now, the only sounds coming from the ring landed punches and ragged breathing. Finally, someone lands a knockdown blow because a cheer goes up and a few seconds later Jensen is trotted back in and put in his cage, next to the huge guy he's going to have to fight next round. Jim comes back in with another guard, bleeding from a cut over his eye, and as Cougar and his next opponent are taken to the ring, he glances back to see Jim shoved into the cage next to his. Cougar groans. That will be a tough match, and he has to let Jim put enough into it before Cougar beats him to avoid having to give a killing blow.
This match is over nearly before it starts. The guy takes a swing at him as they're entering the ring. Cougar ducks, and while the guy is off balance, he gives him a kick that sends him sprawling. The audience starts booing the guy as he gets up, his face open and stupid in surprise. Cougar decides evasion is his best tactic here. If he makes it funny enough, maybe they won't make him kill this one. They can kill the idiot themselves afterwards, however they do that.
Cougar puts his hands behind his back, dodging the guy's punches with ease, curving his body out of the way. The crowd starts cheering his name – Cougar! Cougar! – and he lets a little catlike grin cross his face. That pisses the guy off even more and his punches get wilder and more desperate. Cougar debates letting himself get hit just to get the guy off balance, but he's easily two hundred and eighty pounds, and even with a completely uncontrolled punch that's too much weight to risk the possible damage.
When the audience is good and riled, Cougar leans in the wrong way and the guy grins like he's got him, throwing a short jab. Cougar ducks and rolls, knocking the guy's feet out from under him, getting up fast to put a boot heel on the guy's throat.
There's a sudden silence in the ring, heavy and waiting for whoever is in charge to give the last order. There's a beat, and a movement Cougar sees out of the corner of his eye, and then the crowd roars, shouts of kill him coalescing into chanting. The guy flails under him, dislodging his boot, and Cougar goes to his knees on the guy's chest, knocking the wind out of him. The audience is screaming now, the chanting given up for more enthusiastic bloodthirst. Cougar stands and delivers a kick to the temple with the triangular toe of his boot. It might kill him, but it's more likely to knock him unconscious and make the guards kill him later, if that's really what they want. They come in to drag the body away and escort Cougar back to his cage.
Jensen looks wary, looking Cougar up and down as he walks back into his cage. Jensen's next opponent is another one of the new guys, one with almost as many muscles as Jensen, but who has no idea how to use them, Cougar can tell. Whoever gets them their guys has never been in a fight, Cougar's pretty sure. He has no idea what to look for, and probably only gets the decent fighters he does because he uses overwhelming force when he sees someone who can handle themselves. Cougar went down fighting seven guys, and he took four of them with him.
Jensen and the other guy are taken into the ring, and Jensen starts talking almost immediately. He's funny, Cougar realizes, and the crowd is laughing with him, not at him. Cougar has a strange feeling as it becomes obvious Jensen will be around for a while. There's relief, but he always gets that when he knows he won't have to kill someone. There's something else, too, and he tries to stamp down on it. Hope is dangerous in a place like this.
The crowd likes Jensen, and it sounds like he's pulling the same stunt Cougar did, running around the ring, not getting hit.
"He's fast for a guy his size," Jim says. Cougar nods his thanks. He's not surprised.
Jensen gets the cattle prod again, his yelp this time one of surprise more than anything. Cougar prowls his cage, noting Jensen's next opponent, Spider, with some worry, and waiting to hear the outcome. The crowd is chanting something, but he can't hear what. Finally, they cheer enthusiastically and the match is over. Jensen is carted back in, his mouth a grim line, and Cougar wonders if he killed the other man. It seems likely.
"Come on," Jim says, as he leads the way into the ring. "Let's get this over with."
The fight with Jim is a real fight, Cougar's first of the day, one that takes some measure of his resources. He can beat Jim pretty handily if he wants to, but it takes too much concentration and doesn't give Jim the time he needs to prove himself in the ring. Besides, Cougar can take a beating. It's always best to go into the final match a little bloody.
He goes in to grab Jim, ducking his head and curling himself around Jim's stomach, letting Jim pound on his back. His hat falls off and they kick it to the side of the ring in the shuffle as Jim tries to dislodge Cougar.
It's the sweat that finally gets Cougar, makes him lose his hold on Jim and lets Jim shove him away, circling the ring to get his breath back. After a minute he crowds in close to Cougar, throwing a flurry of little jabs and catching Cougar on the chin with one. Cougar reels back, pinwheeling his arms to get his balance, and Jim follows his flailing to give him several punches to the ribs and stomach.
Cougar goes for Jim's shirt, yanking and catching Jim across the throat with the collar. Cougar's always fought in his skin. He'd ripped his shirt off before his first fight and used it to strangle his opponent – the last champion of the ring. He'd known he needed to prove himself right away, that they'd obviously thought he'd be a throwaway fight for the three hundred pound man who'd probably cracked more than one skull in his time.
Jim coughs and Cougar circles him, letting him get his breath back before going in to wrap his arms around Jim's waist again. He puts his shoulder into it and plows Jim into the corrugated metal wall of the ring, holding him against it while he takes the blows to his back.
The audience is clapping and cheering sporadically. Cougar tries to determine if he's let Jim have enough of a showing, but Jim surprises him with an elbow to his shoulder, forcing Cougar to let go and stagger back a couple of steps. Jim follows it up with a punch square to Cougar's mouth that makes Cougar spit blood. He nods at Jim, acknowledging the skill. Jim nods back, so Cougar figures it's time to end this before he has a serious disadvantage in his final match. He throws a couple of punches to Jim's head, going for a headlock and bringing his knee up to Jim's ribs. He sweeps Jim's legs then, taking him down and putting a knee on his chest lightly.
Someone in the crowd yells, "Kill him!" but it ends with a squawk that assures Cougar Jim's going to live to fight another day. He doesn't see the signal this time, but the guards open the doors and escort Jim out the loser's gate. Before heading back to his cage, Cougar jogs to the side of the ring to collect his hat and the audience howls.
Jensen's final match is with the toughest fighter in the joint, except for Cougar. It's a smart match; Jensen doesn't seem like he's martial arts trained, so he'll probably get his ass kicked by Spider. That would mean Cougar has to fight him, though, and he hates fighting Spider. He's tough and fast, and if Cougar didn't cheat, he'd probably never win. He's surprised to find himself disappointed about not fighting Jensen. He thinks it would have been fun.
As they walk in the ring, Cougar says a quick prayer for Jensen. Spider kills more people accidentally than the rest of them do on purpose.
Jensen starts out talking, but the crowd isn't with him this time. There's no laughing or cheering, just silence as Jensen's muffled words echo back to the cages where Cougar's finally alone. Jensen shuts up, and Cougar can tell he's taking a beating – he has no idea how he recognizes Jensen's breathless noises of getting slapped around, but he does. He knows that Jensen's getting his ass kicked. Cougar sends up another prayer.
"Sorry, friend," Jensen says after another minute, and Cougar has a bewildering moment of thinking Jensen's talking to him before Jensen adds, "but I've got a date with Cougar and I can't let you get in the way."
That works on the crowd, and there's some jeering and chuckles as Cougar hears Jensen's punches hitting home. They're fighting hard, Spider doesn't give in to anyone, but Jensen is landing at least half as many punches as Spider is, and that's surprising – Spider's a tough guy to hit. There's suddenly a loud crack and Cougar's heart drops – Spider's killed a lot people by beating their skulls in, but when the door to the ring is opened so Cougar can see his final opponent, Jensen is the one standing in the center of the ring, battered and bloody, but steady on his feet. He sees Spider getting put on a stretcher, bone sticking out of his shin at a forty-five degree angle.
Fear runs through him like electricity. Spider's strengths are the same as his own. If Jensen's here to kick his ass, he could be in trouble.
One of the guards opens his cage door, and Cougar saunters into the ring, taking his time, keeping his face blank. He can't let the big guy – Jensen, and how he'd taken to that name, how easily it seems to fit – know he's worried, even a little. Jensen looks at him, and unexpectedly, he looks relieved. That would piss Cougar off except he knows Jensen can't take him because no one can take him. He also, inexplicably, knows Jensen won't.
There's never been a threat from Jensen; not to any of his opponents, and especially not to Cougar. He's not here for this, and that sets something off in Cougar's long-forgotten memories, something reassuring and yet uncomfortable.
They stand around in the ring for a minute, waiting for Spider to be taken out on his stretcher, and Jensen sidles closer to Cougar. "Cougar," he whispers, looking at him with pleading eyes. "Come on, man, get with the program."
Cougar's not sure what Jensen means, but there's something about him that Cougar just can't place, and he's desperately trying. He rakes his eyes over Jensen's body, trying to remember something, anything. When he finally meets Jensen's eyes, there's something there, a heat. That strikes home, and Cougar can feel himself respond with a hungry familiarity.
The door slams shut, breaking Cougar's trance, and the bell rings. They walk a slow circle around each other and Cougar sizes Jensen up as an opponent. Jensen is wary but not unready; he can defend if Cougar jumps, but he's not planning any strikes. Cougar can see the cattle prods coming out, and he goes in for a showy shove on Jensen's shoulders to get him out of harm's way.
Jensen sees it coming, like Cougar knew he would, and gets his hands around Cougar's wrists. A spike of fear rips through Cougar as Jensen easily turns them and presses Cougar into the metal wall of the ring, holding Cougar there, his wrists pinned low, next to his hips. Jensen presses his thighs and chest against Cougar, weighing him down. A spike of something else, recognition and heat, keeps Cougar from moving, from bringing his knee up to Jensen's balls.
"Cougs," Jensen whispers, his mouth close enough to Cougar's ear that he can feel the hot breath on his neck. "Carlos," Jensen says, and the fear comes back in a rush. Cougar brings his knee up, not quite hitting Jensen square in the balls, but close enough to get his hands free. He grips Jensen's hair, pulling his head sideways and forcing him down to his knees.
"Fuck," Jensen says, and the word contains everything, hope and fear and longing and despair.
Seeing Jensen on his knees sparks a memory, and Cougar says, low, "Blow me."
Jensen's eyes go round, and Cougar is momentarily distracted by the fact that he's still wearing his glasses, making his eyes look smaller than they actually are. Cougar pulls on Jensen's hair again, a thrill running through him at the hiss Jensen makes. Jensen's hands come up to his fly and he undoes the buttons on Cougar's jeans in a single practiced flip.
The guards with the cattle prods are on the either side of them, but there's no movement. The audience is completely silent, the heavy nothingness of people in shock. Cougar would be too, except this is somehow right, and even with all these people watching, he lets his eyes slide closed as Jensen takes his cock in his mouth.
He can't risk being completely distracted, though, so he opens his eyes and watches Jensen's mouth move up and down the shaft of his cock, the slow reveal of skin between Jensen's lips hotter than anything he can remember. Then Jensen makes a noise, something keening in the back of his throat, and Cougar comes suddenly, his eyes closing in surprise.
Jensen makes a couple more little moaning noises and then Cougar can feel his body stiffen in the space just in front of his thighs. Jensen's coming too, Cougar knows it somehow, deep in his bones. He came with Cougar's cock in his mouth and Cougar's half hard again, just thinking about it.
He hears something then, gunfire and shouting, moving up the loser's gate. He shoves Jensen off, grabbing his fly and buttoning back up.
The door bursts open and a woman walks in, one that looks tougher than every man in this place, himself included. She's carrying two semi-automatics and she sprays the crowd with bullets. "Let's go, boys," she says, and Jensen grabs Cougar's arm, shoving him forcibly down the loser's hallway, one he's never gone down before. He can't do anything but try to keep up, staring down at the guards every few feet, bleeding out onto the cement.
"This way," the woman says, after Jensen and Cougar have taken a wrong turn. Jensen yanks Cougar around by the hand on his arm. There's a couple more turns in the maze of cement tunnels, and then they're through a door and out in the desert, the dry air hitting Cougar like a wall of heat.
"We're out," the woman yells – Aisha, he thinks, her name is Aisha – and a jeep pulls up, its doors flopping open for them to jump in.
Jensen throws him into the jeep, shoving him over and pressing him into the far door. Aisha hangs out of the jeep, like she's waiting for something.
"Where is he?" she complains, and the driver cranes his neck around to look the way she's looking.
Pooch. The driver's name is Pooch. These are his people. Relief washes over him, the sound of Clay slamming into the jeep at a full run comforting, Pooch's fishtailing swerve comforting, Jensen's body pressing his into the door… more than comforting. He's safe. He's with family. He lets himself lean into Jensen, his hat falling off into his lap. He's tired now, reeling as the whole world crashes back in on him, the Losers, Max, the whole god damn world and their mission to save it. It was easier as just Cougar, as a man with no history and no future, no one to know or care what he does but fight. This is harder, these people, this life. Better, though.
He meets Clay's eyes when Clay turns to check on him. Cougar blinks, slowly, and shifts to let his cheek rest on Jensen's shoulder. Clay nods at him and faces forward, scoping out the drive as Cougar falls asleep to the rumble of the road and Jensen's unstoppable chattering.