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Chapter Fifteen – Collared Snake
Walking into a ring never felt like this. Johnny was sure he was different, and the world was a different place, too. It had to be true what songs and whatnot said about love giving you wings and all that.
For a while, he had thought that he would care less. But the soonest he jumped the ropes, into the cage, he knew that wasn’t it. What before had been anger and hate and every little dark corner of his soul stretched and bound against the world, now was a thrill, an excitement of the best kind, as he knew Ruslan was watching his every move.
He had used to fight to survive. Now he fought because he felt alive, so alive that it was like something was growing inside him, threatening to burst through all his pores.
Johnny looked up and saluted with his gloved hand. By now, people had to know he was Ruslan’s lover. They weren’t hiding or anything. But if anyone knew what was good for them, they would keep their mouth shut before spewing bullshit about the owner’s son playing favorites.
“I’d love you even if you lost,” Ruslan had joked at one point.
“I wouldn’t,” had been his reply.
“What? Love yourself?”
Ruslan had just laughed it off. But he needed to understand that now Johnny was doing it for him. Every win was for him and him only. Money and fame were nothing. Cash was a means to an end, as he still dutifully dropped fat envelopes into the same box. Ruslan had tried to convince him to give up side gigs as he could cover for everything. But Johnny didn’t want that. He would terminate that stupid debt, and then he would see what lay ahead.
For now, he had to score another win. It was the last match of the tournament, and then Johnny would cash in. But that would be the only money he was going to take from Ruslan’s hand.
His opponent was looking at him from across the cage with an ugly smirk. Johnny knew the kind. Such people were losers, but that was hard to get through their thick skulls. Not even after getting beaten time and time again, they didn’t learn. They were like cockroaches, coming back over and over.
The man had a short neck, and the muscles on his shoulders had overgrown so much that his head seemed like stuck in there by the impatient hand of a kid having fun with play dough. It wasn’t like Johnny to underestimate his opponents. And this one was a mean cockroach; he was sure of it.
That stocky build meant the cockroach could take a beating, not just a punch. If he hoped to win against Johnny, his strategy was, most probably, to try to wear off his opponent by lasting longer.
The man walked over to him and for a few moments, as the announcer recited his part, they stared at each other. Johnny watched the other intently.
“Can you last for twelve rounds, lover boy?” the man smirked, his upper lip curling over crooked teeth.
Lover boy? Johnny frowned.
“I guess not. Never went that kind of distance, huh?”
The other fighter was trying to rile him up. Johnny had a bad feeling about this.
“How will your owner react seeing you going down?” The man made a vague gesture like he knew what he was talking about.
Johnny shrugged and moved his head to the sides to work out some kinks in his neck. The sound of the whistle caught him prepared, as usual. It was a full house, and Ruslan’s papa was probably raking in big profits. Johnny knew he needed to make a good impression, not only on his lover but on Douglas, too. After all, the man had taught him everything he knew, and now Johnny felt like a much better fighter than months ago.
“Johnny’s opponent seems pretty strong,” Ruslan said, feeling a bit worried.
Sometimes it happened to him to feel anxious without an apparent reason.
“He definitely is. He would not have made it to the final, otherwise,” his papa agreed. “But Johnny is in perfect form, Russy. I trust him that he will give us yet another outstanding performance tonight.”
“I don’t really care about performance. I just don’t want to see him getting hurt.”
Douglas chuckled. “Johnny is a fighter, Russy. Getting hurt comes with the territory. And you can’t take this away from him. Also, it was this bad boy attitude that made you set your eyes on him, wasn’t it?”
“I guess.” Ruslan rolled his eyes. “But now I really worry. I’ve never seen a man looking so buff in my entire life. Where did he come from?”
“He joined the tournament sometime later. We had some injuries, and we needed the show rolling, so I gave him a shot.”
“He’s not from around here,” Ruslan noted.
“No. We only did a cursory background check on him since it was all in short notice, but I believe he is just like the rest. A fighter looking to make a name for himself.”
“So, are there no attachments we should know about?” Ruslan asked.
“It doesn’t seem so. However, as Johnny’s tutor, I must say that I have great faith in my student. Johnny will go places, Russy. He’ll hit his prime during his first fights as a pro. And I hope to see a casino siteleri long string of victories from him. He deserves it.”
Ruslan looked down in the ring. His papa still didn’t know that Johnny had no idea that he would sign a contract for Efige at the end of it all. Of course, from that point forward, he would be a pro, and that changed things. Ruslan wasn’t sure he wanted to pull that trigger.
But, on the other hand, Johnny had a stellar career in front of him. And Ruslan knew all the risks. If he didn’t take them, he wouldn’t be worthy of having Johnny as his lover.
“As you can see, he’s doing fine,” Douglas pointed out. “This bulldog he’s facing may be out for blood, but Johnny’s not your average amateur fighter. I wish Martin could see him.”
“Why didn’t you bring Martin along, papa?”
“He has something important to take care of.”
“What? Polish the silverware? I swear that house is sparkling clean.”
“Don’t be a smartass, Russy. Martin is in charge of many other things, besides overall property maintenance.”
“Like what things?” Ruslan hurried to ask.
“Are you sure you want to listen to me talking about Martin’s administrative duties instead of watching your boyfriend winning the tournament? Or should I say, fiancé?”
Ruslan snickered. “I don’t plan on scaring Johnny off, papa. He is upset with me if I buy him socks, let alone a ring.”
“He should accept your generosity more often. As someone by your side, he needs to look the part. I noticed that you did manage to dress him up a little.”
“Oh, you should never talk to him about such things,” Ruslan replied. “He’s already too sensitive about it all. Each time I manage to buy him something, it is after a long and tough fight. I mean it. Tougher than whatever happens down in the ring right now.”
Douglas laughed. “At least you’re making progress. Just say the word, and I’ll convince him.”
“No way. I’m taking care of him.”
“I’m sure of it,” Douglas added with a small smile. “Now let’s just pay attention to the fight, shall we?”
“Sure. Johnny’s kicking ass,” Ruslan said and smiled, too.
Johnny’s opponent seemed to be in the ropes most often than not. This match would be easy. And then, Ruslan would present Johnny with the shiny collar he so much wanted.
Things didn’t look good for the cockroach. But Johnny didn’t like it when things were too simple. Something fishy was happening, and he needed to find out what. After all that nasty talk in the beginning, his opponent seemed to lack basic skills. And that couldn’t be true. If the man was there, in the ring, facing him in the final battle, it meant that he had beaten plenty of other fighters.
So, for Johnny, the man’s game was transparent. He was trying to get Johnny frustrated, make him commit too soon or too late, put himself in the way of a kick or a punch at one point. As expected, he was trying to wear him down.
But Johnny had learned the importance of patience a long time ago. And he wouldn’t fall for such shitty acting the cockroach was putting on. As a snake, he could lay in waiting for the right strike.
The trick was to split his effort. As he had understood from the first look at his opponent, this one could take a beating. Until Johnny could land a critical hit, the man would stand his ground.
“Why don’t you hurry and finish me off, lover boy?” The other sneered at him at the end of the fifth round.
The crowd was booing, by now upset with the lack of real action in the ring. Johnny could tune out the noise without a problem. Yet, it was a matter of pride and honor to show his trainer and his lover that he could provide the entertainment they were expecting from him.
During the small break, he looked over at his opponent some more. The cockroach had a tough exterior, but any man had a weak point. By how high the guy was holding his guard, he wasn’t afraid of kicks to the ribs too much. But he was protecting his ugly mug very carefully. Johnny needed to find an opening.
He pushed the mouth guard into his mouth and put his fists up. This time, he waited. The opponent came to him, but instead of attempting a hit, he began dancing around Johnny. In an instant, the crowd started booing.
“They’re cheering for you,” his opponent said. “Too bad to end your pro career even before starting it, right?”
Johnny continued to look at the other fighter, over the close guard he held to his face.
“Aren’t you afraid your boyfriend’s gonna kick you out if you lose?”
The cockroach knew about Ruslan and was trying to use that to his advantage. He needed to do better to make Johnny lose his cool.
Unlike him, his opponent seemed to let the noise of the restless crowd get to him. He was shaking his head once in a while like a horse bothered by flies. Johnny focused on the man’s moves, hard, until he could predict an opening. When his fist exploded like a sling, it was in a blink of an eye that everything followed.
The man’s head snapped canlı casino to one side, and he wobbled.
“Time to get real, bitch?” The cockroach threw at him.
The whistle announced the end of the round and Johnny returned to his place. There would be no twelve rounds. He would kayo the cockroach by the end of the tenth.
“Is it just me or is this dragging a bit too long?” Ruslan asked.
His papa appeared a tad concerned. “Indeed,” was the short answer.
“Um, care to enlighten me? Unlike you and Johnny, I am not well aware of the intricacies of this sport you two love so much.”
“Johnny’s opponent is trying the drag the match on purpose.”
“But Johnny got him good just last round,” Ruslan pointed out. “Why is Johnny hesitating? He should have no trouble with someone who appears to be so unskilled.”
“Johnny is not hesitating, son. He sees his opponent eye to eye in the ring, unlike us. And he observes him, waiting for that opening that will hand him the victory.”
“Ah, so all is well,” Ruslan said, crossing his arms over his chest. “Why are you so worried, then?”
“Because I don’t believe it’s the right strategy. Johnny is now made to believe that his opponent can take a beating and still stand.”
“Ah, damn,” Ruslan whispered. “So what should he do?”
“Johnny is good at trusting his instincts. I think he’ll realize that he’s being played. I expect him, soon enough, to go at his opponent hard.”
“And what if he doesn’t realize it?” Ruslan asked, now even more worried than before.
“Have faith in Johnny. I know I have.”
“Can’t we do anything to transmit Johnny what you think he must be doing?”
“That would be cheating, Russy. No. Johnny will win on his own.”
“Okay,” Ruslan said and returned to watch the evolution closely in the ring.
The cockroach was eyeing him with an ugly grin splitting his face in two. Johnny was still keeping his distance, but an idea was starting to make rounds in his brain. His opponent didn’t look like it, but he was good at mind games.
Changing his strategy, at this point, seemed risky. Even if he didn’t send the other to the floor, he would still win. No judge in the world could be this blind.
But that was not what he was after. He wouldn’t hand Ruslan and his papa a lackluster victory as the end of the tournament. It was a matter of pride, as a fighter, as a trainee, but most of all, as a lover.
Douglas had told him before he liked to keep his distance too much. He needed to get into the other’s space and start kicking his ass for real. The whistle announced the beginning of the eighth round. Without one second of hesitation, he went straight at his opponent, pelting him with rights and lefts fast.
Within seconds, the guy was pushed into a corner and was resisting the rain of hits, still carefully guarding his head. Suddenly, he moved, with more agility than expected from a fighter with that kind of build and attempted to hit Johnny’s side.
He dropped his elbows by pure instinct but left himself open for a fraction. The next hit was to the head. Johnny took a few steps back, fast, shaking his head.
“Running already?” The cockroach sneered.
“Come at me.” Johnny grinned and quickly dodged the predictable punch.
The next was his. His opponent wobbled and crashed. Johnny could hear the referee counting, but he wasn’t celebrating just yet. The cockroach had to come back, at least one time. Otherwise, Johnny would be disappointed.
The man got to his feet. His scowl was as ugly as Satan’s ass. He wiped the blood from one corner of his mouth.
He tried to rile up Johnny once again. “You hit like a fucking fairy.”
For the first time since the beginning of the game, Johnny worked his jaw. It was no surprise the guy was trying to make him lose his cool. Actually, it was surprising that he had waited so long to play this card.
“At least I can hit,” Johnny said curtly.
The man launched himself at him like a crazed animal. Johnny tied him up effortlessly and kept him close.
“Who’s pulling your leash, mutt?” he asked.
“None of your fucking business. You’ll know when I win,” the reply came back.
The referee pushed them apart and sent them to their corners. Johnny watched his opponent and got stared back. The man made a vague obscene gesture and Johnny nodded. This round the cockroach would go down.
But he was still resisting. And that was not the outcome Johnny was after. Ruslan wouldn’t care if what he said was true, but Johnny cared about not being made a fool in front of his lover. The next time he put his fists up, he was sure he wouldn’t win by points decision.
“How does it feel to hit that loose ass?” the man taunted him as soon as they were facing each other.
The crowd noise faded away. Johnny could feel blood shooting his eyes, his skull under pressure, and his fist traveled fast, hitting nothing but air. The blow to his side that followed, in the same spot as earlier, kaçak casino almost knocked the wind out of him. Quickly, he pulled himself out of the harm’s way.
“Gassing out already, bitch?” the cockroach laughed at him and followed to continue.
Johnny put his guard up fast. He could see all crystal clear. Getting mad about stupid insults wasn’t like him. There was only one way he could avenge Ruslan for the bullshit his opponent was spewing and throwing random punches was not it.
He focused. What he needed now was to understand how he could crush that cockroach. All the time, the man had protected his head, but he had proven that it was no trouble for him to take some hits.
All the time, his opponent had almost flaunted his unprotected sides like he was sure Johnny would fall for that any minute now. And Johnny finally understood. Douglas had warned him about mind games throughout their training. He had been stupid not to see it.
When he slammed one fist into the guy’s right side, the cockroach grunted. His head dipped low, almost bent from his waist, Johnny went at it with all his strength. He pushed his opponent into the ropes and relentlessly hit the same spot.
The man sank to his knees. The referee pushed Johnny back.
But now he knew. The cockroach’s eyes were filled with mean despair. He had just been discovered, and he couldn’t tell how. Johnny smirked. Twelve rounds? There was no way that would happen.
The moment they could fight again, Johnny knew all he had to do. It was as easy as taking candy from a baby as he began pelting the guy’s side with punches again.
The cockroach was on the ground, spitting and coughing. The referee was counting, again, and trying to push Johnny back.
“Hitting that ass feels fucking great,” Johnny spat at him and turned.
When the referee hurried to grab his arm, Johnny didn’t even care about the victory anymore. What mattered was that he had shut that asshole’s trap and he would never talk smack about Ruslan again if he knew what was good for him.
“Now that the formalities are over, I think it’s time to honor all our obligations.” Douglas gestured at him with a glass filled with bourbon. “Russy, you have the papers ready, right?”
“Of course.” Ruslan moved to pick something from his desk.
“Papers, what papers?” Johnny asked roughly.
Ruslan hoped he could do that without his papa watching, but it was not like he could drag it out forever. Damn, it would be awkward.
“It is an honor for us.” Douglas patted Johnny’s back. “Now you are part of the Efige family, Johnny.”
Ruslan looked straight at his lover. Johnny looked at the glass in his hand as if he was trying to make sense of something.
“Could we talk about papers and whatnot later?” Johnnys asked, working his jaw.
Ruslan now felt his papa’s eyes on him, questioning, for sure. He had expected this fight to take place sooner or later, and he wasn’t afraid of it.
“I think Johnny is a bit tired, papa. I’ll take care of everything. It’s been an interesting night.”
“Interesting?” Johnny snorted.
“Yes, interesting,” Ruslan decided to have the final word. “So, papa, is it okay if we celebrate some more another time?”
Douglas said nothing as Ruslan kissed both his cheeks and pleaded with his eyes.
“Of course,” his papa replied. “I will see you both soon at dinner, I hope.”
“Definitely,” Ruslan accompanied Douglas to the door.
He closed the door behind him and leaned against it. Taking in Johnny’s hunched back, he pondered over his next words.
“What is your answer, Johnny?”
“My answer?” Johnny looked at him over one shoulder. “Was this the plan all along? To make me sign?”
Ruslan shrugged. “It was part of the tournament deal. So, yes, that was the plan all along.”
“And never, for one time, you thought to tell me about it?” Johnny moved his eyes away.
“For starters, you should have known. It wasn’t a secret.”
“So you call me stupid?”
Ruslan had a vague sensation of restlessness in the pit of his stomach like muddy waters troubled all of a sudden by a foreign presence in their midst.
“Where is this coming from? Are you hurt? Do you feel ill? Do you need the hospital-“
“I’m fine. But I thought you were the last person on earth to play me, pretty.”
Ruslan exhaled and walked toward Johnny’s chair. He embraced him from the back, winding him tightly between his arms.
“You asked me for a leash, Johnny. This is your leash. Does it chafe your neck already? Is that what’s eating at you?”
“What’s eating at me is you not telling me about it.”
Ruslan could feel the bad sensation in his stomach dropping lower as an alien thing bent on devouring his insides. “I thought it fitting to tell you about it tonight. And, from the start, I wanted that, I guess. Of course, it all sounded better in my head. The outcome is … maybe not what I hoped for.”
“From the start? You were gunning for me, pretty?” Johnny asked.
Ruslan could feel his lover relaxing, if only for a fraction. “I guess I was. Of course, no one is forcing you. You can take it or leave it.”
Johnny chuckled. “And here I thought you were serious about collaring me.”
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