Only several days after the success that made up the World Famous Rematch between the Machine known as Cage and the defending Underground Champion Prince Puma, it was back to business as usual in the Temple. Or was it?
Prince Puma -the reigning Lucha Underground Champion-, his somewhere beyond best friend Johnny Mundo, and the mentor known as Konnan had a nice day of practice in a practically deserted gym; being treated just about free reign of the practice ring, weights, all the bags, and even the lone speed rope, which by some miracle had yet to be ripped in half by someone trying to prove just how tough they were.
The two Luchadores worked up a good sweat with their high flying and mid-air quick changes up until the last of the company they'd had for the day left. Sending each of them a kiss as he sauntered past from the locker room, sequined duffel hanging from the crook of one elbow.
"'Bye Pimpi! Hasta luego!" Called a Johnny who'd been impressed with just how much the Exótico could bench, barely breaking a sweat too.
"Alright, let's call it a night. Abajo, c'mon," said Konnan, holding down a middle rope from ringside. Wishing in some far away recess of his... unique mind that he'd taken the opportunity and let that rope smack Johnny between the legs back when he was mad enough with him that it might feel warranted.
He'd probably never get the chance now.
"You two chuckleheads put yourselves through cool down; I'mma go do some busy work," he said, making sure his fighters didn't hop right back in the ring before taking off for wherever 'busy work' got done.
"He called us that because we were laughing earlier, right?" Asked a Johnny on the verge of both laughter and good natured offense.
Puma, eyes not quite meeting his, shrugged and started off in in a vaguely 'gym exit' direction. Gait not near as smooth as usual; setting off tiny alarm bells in the more experienced fighter's head.
"The leg buggin' you?" Delivered with an admirable veneer of apparent nonchalance.
Puma nodded, at the same time putting visible effort into erasing the hobble to his walk.
It didn't work as well as one might hope. Must've been pretty bad if he couldn't cover it up.
"Uh, mind if I?" Johnny asked, showing just a hint of concern and indicating the troubled appendage.
Puma hesitated, his legs stopping while he considered the offer. Before the third beat, he'd started moving again and shook his head, redoubling his efforts to smother the pained hitch in his step. Hm, looked as if he was trying to 'walk it off', going for a lap around the gym.
"Man, if it's that bad, you might wanna get off it. Think of what Konnan would say if he saw- Oh, hey Konnan!"
The shorter fighter nearly jumped out of his skin at that, and without wasting a moment checking the doors, dove for the closest practice mat.
Johnny cocked his head at the reaction, wondering why Puma's first thought was to start a rep of sit ups? He'd never heard the guy's coach say, "Drop and give me twenty!" Besides, he was pretty sure that was supposed to mean push-ups. So...
"Konnan's not actually here... I just wanted to see what would happen," he informed. Chuckling quietly before dropping to one knee in a loose approximation of a 'spotter's' position in front of his... Puma's bent legs.
"Let me..." Johnny said, putting a hand on one of the Luchador's knees.
The senior of the two had some first hand experience with leg injuries. Kinda hard to avoid really, in this line of work. So he figured he was just as qualified as the Barbarian was in helping out. Only he wouldn't be totally flipping out and ordering an entire day of bed rest on the poor guy over it. Then strapping him down and sitting on him if he tried to wriggle out of it.
Besides, this wouldn't be the first time the Prince had accepted help from him.
"This one, right?"
He got a nod, followed by the practically horizontal Puma poking himself a couple times in the bicep, arranging both hands in claw like formations, then scrunching them into fists.
Oh! Right, ASL! Too bad he hadn't been paying close attention. And still didn't know more than a few dozen signs all put together.
He gave himself a second to figure it out before giving it a try. "Muscle cramp?" Made more sense than 'bicep crush'. And got him the nod.
"Alrighty then. Achilles or Hamstring area?" Looked like the kinda limp you got when the back of your leg was in pain.
The lower Luchador averted his eyes and executed a beautiful tuck and roll, backwards from Mundo. Getting himself a good few feet away and almost to his feet. He stumbled to his knees though, a pinched look on his face as he made an aborted clutch towards his hurting leg. Topping it all off with a thumbs up.
"C'mon. Just tell me- when did it happen? In the ring, or after?" Puma indicated 'after'. Which was good. Johnny'd hate to think the Champ'd been sparring on something that had the potential to get him hurt.
"Does it feel torn? We can get Clara, Gabby, or Federico to loo-" A fierce shake of the head nipped that in the bud. At least nothing serious was wrong. Probably. A Luchador didn't kid around with serious.
"Then let me see it. If you don't wanna bug them about it," he said, a taunting grin affixed to his face, in place of the concern he knew Puma wouldn't appreciate as much as he would some help.
"It's okay. Just a muscle cramp."
"Well, in that case, me looking at it couldn't make it any worse. I took a couple of masseuse courses back when I was your age. I'm qualified."
The skepticism in that one blink: Astounding.
"C'mon Champ, where's your sense of adventure?" He said, approaching the skittish fighter with slow care; not wanting to spook him again.
Puma seemed to glance over Johnny's shoulder, eyes going wide, before he grabbed at both of the standing fighters 'remain calm' hands and pulled so Johnny was down on one knee again.
He had zero seconds to ponder the meaning of that, because Puma was already back down on the mat and pumping out sit-ups.
One guess as to why.
"Since when you need a spotter, baby?" Came the dulcet, gruff tones of none other than Konnan, walking to where he'd forgotten his empty water bottle by a lone folding chair. Hehe.
Johnny still had no idea why working out was the way Puma chose to hide a potential injury from his coach, but he was gonna play along for now. Just until he knew what was bothering the Prince.
"He just wanted some pleasant company," said Johnny, throwing a winning smile over his shoulder, hands pinning a pair of steady feet to the practice mat. Unnecessarily.
"Uh-huh. So he settled for you?"
"Not cool, man! He asked me."
"Mmhm. Knowing your ASL, he prolly asked you to scram-"
"Don't you have important... coach things to be doing?" Asked a Johnny who didn't need that negativity in his life.
Konnan huffed, then made eye contact with his protégé. "You're good for the day, so cut it off soon. Alright? Don't wanna overdo it," satisfied by the serious nod, he turned, crumpled plastic bottle in his free hand, and left the Luchadores to their fun.
"Puma, he's gone. You can stop now," said a spotter who was starting to be concerned over the number of these 'cover up' sit ups the guy was rolling off the assembly line.
He couldn't let the original problem go unhandled, so he stuck a hand behind the Champ's knee and squeezed, just a bit.
Puma froze in the middle of a motion, body curled halfway off the ground. Suspended there almost as comically as the look of shock on his face. No obvious discomfort though, so, "I'll take that as a 'no'."
Johnny moved his fingers a hand's length down, toward the major calf muscles and repeated the question.
A rather reticent Puma formed the signed letter 'H' with one hand and flicked it 'up', looking as if he was very unsure about giving out such information.
"Higher?" Asked Johnny, switching his grip and putting his palm against the corresponding length of thigh, right above the back of the knee joint.
Puma stiffened, regret about the only thing on his face, along with a helping of self-consciousness, and the supine fighter made to roll to one side. Surprised to find his move cut off by a weight plopping down on his midriff.
"Okay, how 'bout here?" It was plain as the mask on the younger's face; embarrassment was winning out over pain. Johnny wasn't about to let Puma leave without getting this checked out. Any number of career impacting things could be going on and-
A set of suddenly rock hard abs bucked, getting enough room between them and the keister for the Luchador being sat on to flip onto his front and-
"Whoa, careful there!" Said the total butt that landed right on the small of the Luchador's back, pinning Puma to the same piece of mat before he could escape. "Here?" Asked a Johnny who had the Champ's leg almost in a submission hold in order to keep it still, and was pretty sure he was getting close to the problem area. There, after all, wasn't much leg left for it to not be.
Puma, reaching for the proverbial ropes, shook his head hard enough for the monkey on his back to feel it. Then, after a few seconds of trying, realizing he was unable to break the hold the guy had on his leg, he went slack and gave Johnny the tap.
"We're gonna play nice, right?" Feeling what must have been a nod through his tuchus, he stood from his seat and, without fully letting go of the leg in question, let Puma choose what position he would.
"Figures," he said, rolling his eyes at a face that said, plain as day, 'Keep it up and I'll kick your a-'
"I'm runnin' out of thigh here buddy; help me out," he wheedled, taking up his spotter's position once more. Definitely not smirking at the other's preference to look as if they were just getting in a little more exercise before knocking off for the day.
After a moment of wavering, the Prince threw an arm over his eyes and tossed the other out so that his hand landed on the one intent on violating his last vestiges of 'personal space'.
Oh... No wonder he'd been embarrassed. Yeah, Johnny guessed he couldn't blame the pink crawling out from under that mask.
The hand guiding his didn't tremble, but the long haired Luchador tried his best to ignore the way the place it left his did at the foreign touch.
Johnny gulped against a sudden nervousness. Somehow, he'd never imagined the work day ending with his hand as close to anyone's groin as he found his then. Barely a finger's breadth away, resting on those tender muscles of the inner thigh, right near where a leg connected to a pelvis.
For a full few seconds, his mind shorted out and all his masseuse training went out the window. All two months of it.
Before Puma could get it in his head that Johnny also wanted to cover his eyes and pretend this never happened, the world of massage clicked back into place and the older fighter found his battle strengthened gripping muscles engaging -seemingly- of their own accord.
He softened the firm fingers when they felt a flinch, followed by the sound of a breath pulled between gritted teeth.
"Sorry," the whisper far more meek than he'd meant it to come out. "Better?" When he heard a relaxed exhale he put some intensity back on the pained muscle group, knowing he needed to assess just how bad off the younger had it.
He looked up when he heard what sounded like- yep. A fist thumping the mat, as if trying for a tap out.
"Yeah. Feels like a muscle cramp. How you holdin' up, Champ?" Pretty sure the one attached to the thigh he was switching to running both his hands up and down was barely holding back flipping him the bird, he put his attention back to what he was doing.
...Yep. Those muscles were considerably tighter than the rest. Time to loosen them up.
He wished he could say this wasn't gonna hurt. Instead; he said nothing. Knowing silence was preferable to a lie any day.
He felt a pang of guilt every time Puma had to try not to jerk away, and regret-regret-regret at the sound of the Luchador's rough, 'This really hurts,' breathing.
He didn't let himself get distracted by the little noise he thought he heard come from behind him. Prolly imagined it anyway, and besides: This was important.
As little as he wanted to cause the Prince more pain than... he already, tragically, inadvertently had, Johnny knew enough about leg problems to understand that a little pain now would save more pain down the hallway. If not the road.
Trying not to let his polite attempts at avoiding the whole 'groinal region' distract him, he clamped down on the hardest knot he could find and started a mental count.
Moving his gaze up, he caught sight of a not quite forearm covered mouth brutalizing an unfortunate bottom lip.
"You know how, when you lock in a good chokehold long enough, the other fighter goes lax? Like a rag doll?" He got a confused nod.
"That's what I'm doing right now. Choking out your... thigh. That made more sense in my head."
Puma gave a huff that shared an uncanny resemblance to laughter, then his taught diaphragm let out all the air it'd been holding onto in a big, relieved sigh. Chokehold successful.
Johnny 'the Masseuse' Mundo gave the entire leg, then the other one for good measure, a thorough rub down. Still focusing on the problem area so it wouldn't have a chance to seize back up on them.
He finished up by testing range of motion, standing to manipulate the laid out fighter's leg all kind of directions.
Pleased with how little grimacing he saw from under that shy forearm, he pronounced his success to the room at large.
"All done! Was that so bad?" He received an admirable 'bird' for that, as Puma uncovered his eyes and squinted in the suddenly not so abysmal gym lighting.
The Champ reached for a hand up, which Johnny gave without a second's hesitation.
Really should have thought that one out a little first.
Before he could yelp, the tall Luchador found himself face down on the mat, another Luchador using him as a seat and locking one of his legs in for a submission hold.
What? Oh, right! That was the one he'd used on Puma!
Oh how the tables turn.
Even being pretty sure it wasn't gonna go any farther than that, he gave Puma the tap and admitted, "I deserve that." Got him out of the tight spot without injury. Nor further insult.
"I deserved that," he paraphrased, soon as he and Puma managed to stop snickering. Both helping each other to their feet and dusting themselves off. Puma favoring the unhappy leg far less noticeably, to Johnny's pleasure.
"Well, shall we?" The long haired Mundo asked, indicating the gym exit.
Puma, all seriousness before Johnny had even finished his question, squared his shoulders and set himself facing his friend. His confused friend.
One warm hand reached out and took hold of the closer of Johnny's, the other signing a sincere, "Thanks, J."
"Uh, you're welcome, P?"
Confidence not waning, the Prince stepped forward, until their chests were close; one big breath and they'd be touching.
With his free hand, Puma reached up and set a loose lock of the other fighter's hair straight. Moving it, with all gentleness, from in front of Johnny's eyes, over to the back of his head, where it belonged.
The taller Luchador was... confused? Nervous? Flustered? Trying not to slap himself to check that this wasn't really some cruel dream?
All of the above?
No one had looked at him with such... tenderness in- could he remember the last time? Had there been a last time? All he knew for sure, was that he wasn't gonna be the one to break the soft stare. Nor was he moving from this spot until his... Puma did.
Wait. What was Puma doing?
The Underground Champion set the hair perfectly in place among the mop running down the other's neck, his hand lingering to run down the wavy locks, just a few inches. Eyes unwavering, searching for a sign as to whether this was okay, but not explicitly asking permission.
He pulled his head back, enough to take in the whole face across from his, wondering how long it would be before he developed similar laugh lines, and whether that particular mark was a long healed scar, or a long worn sign of mirth.
He moved his hand to the front of his... Johnny's head, fingers exploring those curious features. Yeah, that was a scar. He'd have to ask him about it sometime.
Those lips... Puma found himself touching them, wisping calloused finger pads across the bottom half. Trying not to giggle when a tongue made an involuntary move to wipe away the foreign sensation.
He couldn't help but stare at the Cupid's bow; was compelled to run an inquisitive middle finger across it. Experiencing the catch and scratch of nearby stubble.
How would it feel if he... leaned in and... did this?
The end of a Puma tongue darted out, licked up from the bottom of the taller man's lips, brushing against the tip of his nose in its hurry, and was gone in a blink. So fast that, if it hadn't been for the tingling left behind on that proverbial landing strip, Johnny would have thought he'd imagined it.
He almost did think he'd imagined it. The second thing stopping him; the fighter nearly hugging him turning a shade or two redder than he'd seen even that evening.
Johnny knew he couldn't say nothing, but in that moment he was confident he wouldn't be able to make his jaw work if it would stop the world ending.
But Puma was... imploring him- his eyes were begging him to let him know everything was fine. For him to say something; do something.
So he did.
Johnny gripped the slackening hand around his, before it could slip away, raised his free hand to mirror the one against the side of his jaw -where it looked like Puma had forgotten he'd left it-, and took a big breath.
Their chests touched. Their eyes glanced down to confirm, and caught on the image of a pair of lips, inches from their own, before they locked back together in a way that felt strangely new. Like it was the first time... they'd really been honest with each other.
Johnny leaned his head down, at the speed of dripping tar. Puma watched, transfixed by the inexorable approach of something he still wasn't absolutely sure abou-
And then the Mundo paused, and Puma realized that he couldn't be any surer than he was in that moment. So he went for it.
The Champ raised his head, possessed by that same confidence he'd felt earlier, and licked those lips a second time.
Again, Johnny was caught off guard. By both the boldness in those brown eyes and the tongue running over his lips, almost as if licking a drop of milk off the side of a cup.
He sucked in a breath, mouthing a silent oath while disentangling his hand from the one that felt the loss only for a half second before following the other's lead.
Together they pulled at the small of their counterpart's back, closing what little distance still came between them on exhales. Bringing their heads close enough that their noses would have touched. If Puma's weren't covered by his mask.
It was Johnny, silent oath hanging heavy in the air, that brought their lips together; feeling for the first time in his life, the vibrations of a happy purr, straight from the Puma's mouth.
This one lasted longer than the blindside of a smooch they'd somehow coordinated in the victor's circle of Puma's most brutal match yet; adrenaline high and most forms of higher thought processes blown to kingdom come.
Johnny realized all that about the time he felt the lips against his quirk and part, a set of teeth bumping against his closed mouth, prompting his eyes open.
Puma was smiling. Embarrassment only one of several emotions mixed into the look the Prince didn't even try to wipe off his face.
To see that- such joy and... fondness directed at himself, was... nothing short of nirvana. To know that Puma was feeling exactly the same...
"So," Johnny managed through a thick throat, not breaking eye contact, "are we telling everyone?"
Puma dropped the hand from Johnny's jaw to his shoulder and rolled his eyes, embellishing the answer with a head tilt.
"Heh, you're right. No need! Even Cage thought we were dating before we did." Johnny gave himself a mental kick for bringing up something that jabbed both him and his- Puma right in the sore spot left behind by a... traumatizing few weeks of doubt, guilt, and blame.
He nearly flinched at the cloudy, pained shadow that passed over the masked face hovering less than a foot from his.
He felt his own heart sink at the memory of hours on end spent worrying himself raw in the back of an inescapable-
Then, a set of inhumanly defined abs pulled flush against his and he realized that they'd pulled each other into a tight hug. Unthinkingly tugging the arm they had around an already close Luchador's back and slotting heads into that sensitive crook between shoulder and ear.
Tension and worrying thoughts leaking out and away, left the two melting into the embrace. Then Johnny felt the chest against his take a massive inhale, followed by an equally huge exhale. A hitch near the end made his own breath catch; too close to a sob to be coincidence.
Johnny's hand resting on the laces of a yellow mask instinctively pulled the head snugger against his, willing away memories of a time when this would have been far to much to ask of the Prince. Even if it was something they'd both wanted- needed, in the most desperate of ways.
"I'm not going anywhere, P. Not unless you're taking me there," he mumbled, lips catching some on the well sweated skin of his practice partner's neck. The sensation of another's personal scent mixing with his next breath of air filling him with a feeling of intimacy that made him want to hold on tighter.
"Cage is in jail, awaiting arraignment; I'm working with... someone who knows how to to press charges," Johnny shifted his head a little flusher against Puma's, relishing the tightening and loosening of the shorter Luchador's arm around his shoulders, in time with the guy's attempts to level out his breathing. He kept his strong and even, hoping to help in any way he could.
"He'll probably serve time, and either way; I'm told Cage the 'Automated Teller' Machine owes me money." That snicker well worth he taste of bad pun on his tongue, Johnny smiled.
Before long, Puma's arms around him loosened, the Champ took one more steadying breath, which just barely caught in the middle, and Johnny felt cold bands across his back at the retraction of that warmth filled embrace.
He almost chased it, wanting to yank his Puma back in and keep him there until everything was right with the world. But that wouldn't do. Like Konnan had told him once, a while back; Puma needed folks he could trust in his life. Johnny needed to be one of those people.
Doing his best to ignore the feeling of affection slipping away, he took in the downcast head and limp arms of someone who thought they'd just embarrassed themselves in front of their shiny new... significant other.
Before Puma could shy away or get anything more negative in his head, Johnny lifted an arm that wished it could do much more and set a hand on one hunched shoulder. Relieved when the only reaction was a sniffle.
"Hey, I understand; Cage did something- some things that he needs to answer for. He's going to too... and," Johnny moved an increment closer, touched the fingers of his other hand under the yellow swathed chin of his... beau, and lifted with the barest hint of pressure, "you won't have to face any of this alone."
A pair of eyes, hinting towards bloodshot, made slow, halting work of raking back up to meet his. And when they finally did; Johnny found himself speechless once again.
The depth of sadness- the sharp quality to the pain looking back at him; informed him of just how affected by the entire debacle the strongest fighter he knew had been. Still was.
Johnny hadn't realized- hadn't imagined that the poor, poor Puma could possibly have taken the hit of his purported betrayal that hard.
No wonder Konnan had bitten his head off with such- oh. That also explained Clara's outrage. They'd been there and seen first hand the fallout from that Machines malicious machinations.
Johnny blinked hard in lieu of shaking his head, and steeled himself to continue looking into that devastation. Hand dropping away from Puma's chin and back to his own side.
"Konnan will be here, Drago and Aero Star too, I think..." He got another snicker at the mention of Puma's ASL bestie and said bestie's extremely... interesting marido. Protective, that one. Over a Dragon man he's reportedly known for a thousand years, no less.
"I hope... it goes without saying, that I'll be right here as well," he said rather haltingly. Not sure whether it came out sounding more like a statement or a question. Or maybe even a plea.
Puma looked down and to one side and for that moment, Johnny's entire world became anxiety. Was the Prince too hurt to disregard his non-involvement in the whole mess and... trust him?
But then a pair of eyes, still pinked with emotion, sought out his and Johnny received one of the firmest nods it'd ever been his honor to. It caught him off guard.
Almost as well as the fingers that came up and lifted his chin, ever so gently, so his head which he hadn't noticed droop, was once again where it should be.
"Me too, J. You need a hug; I'm here." The Prince returned his comforting hand to his side and scrunched his brow. "Maybe not D-r-a-g-o."
It was Johnny's turn for a snicker. Or a full on laugh, more like, at the thought of getting a hug from the horned, spiked fighter. "Yeah, prolly have better luck with Konnan, there."
Aaand that got a belly jiggler out of the fighter in the yellow mask.
Until, without warning, a rather impressive-
cut the air, and two heads whipped down. Half a beat and the Luchadores relaxed in the knowledge that it was just the sound of a full grown Puma being-
A bashful shrug... followed by a wry smile nod combo.
The Underground Champ stepped to the side and bowed, making a sweeping motion towards the gym exit. "After you."
"Hehe, beauty before age," said Johnny, mirroring the motion.
"Haha," Puma signed, two 'L' hands bouncing out and away from his face. Then the Champ moved himself abreast of his beau and looped an arm around a proffered elbow.
He stopped their progress just inside the gym exit, a contemplative head cocked in Johnny's direction.
"You think I'm b-e-a-u-t-i-"
"Every time I look at you," blurted a frazzled Johnny. A blush coloring his face well enough that he almost turned his head away, stopping himself at the last moment, knowing Puma deserved to witness his sincerity.
"And every time I think of you!" He couldn't stop himself divulging in a single, breathless huff, right as Puma was blinking the first wave of new information into place.
Both fighting blushes by then, Puma used his free hand to say, "You're..." Johnny half mistook the soft fist, thumb touching the bottom of a chin, that came forward as some sort of insult before remembering the meaning as 'not', "o-l-d, J."
They stared at each other until the giggling got a little out of hand. Then, shaking that off best they could, the couple squeezed themselves, side by side, down the dingy hallway, made a quick stop in the locker room, and got dinner.
Agreeing somewhere along the way that Konnan would not be hearing about Puma's little 'injury' from either of them. After all; What Konnan didn't know, wouldn't hurt him.
Oh, right! Speaking of Konnan: That little noise Johnny thought he'd imagined? He didn't imagine it.
Konnan, mind set on making sure that his protégé had actually listened to him about being done for the day, made his way back to the gym. Walking only half way through the entrance before his eyes nearly burned out of their sockets at the sight they beheld.
He wasn't sure what the two were up to, but it sure looked and sounded like something most decent folks would find a closed door to do it behind.
He crossed himself soon as he twisted out of the room and put himself against the closest wall, just to be on the safe side.
"I gotta have a talk with that kid," he whispered to himself, doing his best to blink away the afterimage of Johnny hunched over his protégé's lower body, hands doing God knows what. And-
They were both -technically- adults, so there was nothing he could do if the two were... doing things together, but there was no way he needed to be cool with it! He still didn't like that Mundo character. Not if he was the one with the audacity to suggest they do 'things' together in open, public rooms that had no doors! No matter how happy he made Puma...
He supposed the talking to didn't need to be an angry one.
"Ai: Niños," he mumbled, unsticking his suddenly sweated through shirt from the wall and shuffling off. More than happy to wash his hands of the Temple for the evening.
He never should have put that nasty old cornflake blanket on them. Would'a saved him a lot of headache.
Least he'd got a cute picture out of it.
Hope that tickled some fancies! And hope that anyone who's followed this story to its conclusion has had anywhere near as good a time reading it as I have writing it! It's been an adventure. :D
Oh yes! I forgot to mention at the end of the last chapter: If anyone was wondering how Aero Star and Drago met, one could read all about it in another story I've started by the name of 'Once Upon A Time In Mexico'! (Which is available only on AO3 at the moment. Sorry!)
Until next time, kind readers!