Ugh! Puma was sick of this!
Why couldn't he just see Mundo as another fighter? Why did it feel so wrong to slam his body down, tie the Luchador in a knott and get the tap? Why did being forced chest to chest with an indifferent Mundo hurt him inside?
He needed a break from all that.
Unfortunately, Konnan didn't see it that way.
He thought things were getting better with Puma, just because he was the one pulling off the submissions now instead of getting himself twisted up in knots!
Definitely not true. He was getting those pins and locking those holds because his 'sparring partner' was letting him. He could tell. He'd sparred the guy before and they were neck and neck when it came to grappling skills.
Sure, Mundo was doing a great job of pretending to be the Machine and stopping himself from breaking holds in ways Cage was likely incapable of bending his joints to break; he had to tip his mask to that. But aside from that, the guy was treating him as if he was some sort of- as if he was coming back from some sort of physical injury. Instead of just... sparring him.
It was a sad continuation of how things had been the last week or so: the two of them doing their best to ignore each other.
But... hadn't Mundo asked Konnan to let him spar 'the Champ'? It hadn't been the other way around; he knew Konnan would never have approached, "That gringo loco," about it, no matter how messed up the situation.
And then they'd kick boxed. Like shadows. Like two people who really knew their ways around each other. Like they were dancing a dance meant for... swans or something. Something graceful. So maybe not swans. Those things had webbed feet; they were only graceful underwater.
Probably just because they were both good fighters, but it'd felt... more real than the last several days all smooshed together.
Then Mundo'd gone and opened his mouth. And revealed his game plan. Had he really just wanted to mess with the Champ's head... all along?
Besides that: Puma needed and wanted nothing to do with someone who wouldn't take responsibility for their own decisions. He almost couldn't believe that Konnan still wanted him in the ring with that- with that... He guessed his coach had his reasons, and he hoped they were good ones, but after that little explosion of his... It wasn't gonna be easy to get back in the ring come morning.
Maybe a good night of sleep and a big breakfast would do it?
Yeah, now he was kidding himself.
Morning came, a big breakfast got half eaten, and Puma still didn't know how he was gonna face the Mundo.
Once he arrived at the Temple though, it became rather obvious: Konnan was gonna make him.
"No. I don't wanna hear any complaints. I know you and... Mundo been hittin' it hard, but preparation makes for good performance, and you need to be in top condition come fight night, mijo."
Heh, Konnan could still hardly bring himself to say the guy's name. That fact calmed some of the rankle from Puma's unhappiness. Coupled with the knowledge that his coach was just about one hundred percent right; he couldn't put up a worth while argument and settled for sticking his tongue out at him between stretches and every time the guy tried to say something comparing the technique of Johnny 'the Machine' Mundo and Cage.
They were quite similar.
Johnny walked in to work that morning with his game face on. He was pretty sure one of the security personnel was just a tad spooked by it, but he needed to stay focused. If he didn't, he'd probably end up sitting in a corner between spars and never talking to Puma again.
He couldn't let that happen. Not after... all that had happened. Especially not after hearing and seeing how broken up about his supposed betrayal the Prince had been, and indeed, still was.
He was going to continue performing admirably. At the same time doing something very few people were expecting of him: He was gonna tell the truth.
"¡'Morning, mis amigos!" He greeted a pair who seemed to be already most of the way through a thorough warm up.
He wasn't late or anything; just got most of his warm up in on the way to work. He only needed to join in and they'd be ready at the same time.
Everything was going perfectly.
Great! Mundo was gonna horn in on warm ups too!? Was nothing sacred anymore?
Ostensibly, not to that-
"Mundo, sleep well?" To say that both younger fighters were surprised by the thoughtful question would be an understatement. Big time.
They even glanced at each other.
"Uh," Johnny started, coming out of his White Crane Spreads Its Wings movement to face the coach. "Yes? Fine, thanks. How 'bout y-"
"Good, 'cause Puma's gonna have you eating mat all morning again." Both of them caught the Champ's 'private' eye roll.
"Before that though, I want you to do that Tai Chi form from the beginning and Puma's gonna follow along. Got that, mijo?" He said, giving his protégé a look which brooked no argument.
Johnny was gifted a snapshot of the Lucha Underground Champ sticking his tongue out at his mentor. He couldn't help the grin spreading across his face, getting wider until he was full on smiling and he realized that was weird, so he wiped it away with a quick forearm swipe. Glad the others had been too preoccupied to notice.
"Puma, baby, you're all tense. You do exactly as this payaso does, the breathing too, you'll be good to go. Ay! What I say about complaints, huh?"
The Prince crossed his arms, looking sour and altogether unhappy about how this day was shaping out.
Johnny Mundo, not peeved at having to start his long form from the beginning, and deciding that a short form was probably a good idea, came back to the Beginning Of The Universe and exaggerated the first movements. Since they were pretty subtle.
"Left foot steps out," he said, quiet enough that he figured it wouldn't be annoying. "Right hand pushes up, Left pushes down," around the time they reached' "Stroke The Peacock's Tail," he thought he heard shaky breathing coming from his impromptu 'student'. Which wouldn't make much sense, considering that this wasn't a physically difficult exercise for someone as fit as the two of them.
"Niño, show some respect. People been practicing this discipline since before mi abuelo ever heard of Lucha Libre."
After that, Johnny couldn't help but turn to see what was up. Oh. Right. He'd been practicing long enough that he'd completely forgotten how funny the names of the different movements were. It was nice to see Puma chuckling again...
"From the top! And no laughing this time," said Konnan, sounding almost serious too. But, if Johnny was guessing this right; the coach was just as happy as he was that the Champ was gleaning enjoyment out of this. A simple Tai Chi form.
Yep. The Barbarian was crinkling his eyebrows in a way he only did when he was 'not totally disappointed'. So he was also glad for Puma and his nearly silent giggles.
Johnny was glad that Puma's mentor was someone who cared as much as Konnan did. The guy was so protective that he was practically enthusiastic about threatening other fighter's if they breathed in his protege's direction. Arguably not the best reaction, but at least the entire locker room knew the Champ wasn't alone.
Johnny took them through the short form 'from the top' straight through to the end, where the coach gave them the okay to start the next phase of the morning; ground and pound.
He was pretty sure Konnan let Puma off easy there, seeing as it'd sounded like the guy had laughed about twice as much as he had the first time. Who was he to judge? His serious face hadn't stayed put long either.
"We're gonna be doing it on the practice floor this time. Sexy Star and Mariachi Loco have the ring reserved till lunch." The fighters nodded in acknowledgement and got in position to start right where they were standing.
As soon as Konnan moved to grab a nearby seat, Johnny caught the Luchador who was going to be crushing him into the mat all morning's attention by forming the signed letter 'P' with his right hand.
He got an open handed, palms toward the ceiling gesture which he guessed was the sign for, "What?" Pretty intuitive, really. Strongly resembled what a lot of people did when asking that question.
Johnny dug down for the confidence he knew was still there, the knowledge that Federico had trained him for all of three minutes for this exact moment pushing him to just go for it. So he brought his right hand to his chest, arranged in a loose fist with the thumb pointing at his chin, and from the elbow, moved it in a little circle. As if polishing his heart. Or scratching his chest. Depending on how well he'd done it.
He'd practiced in a mirror but that was no guarantee that his execution was gonna be perfect.
Puma stared at him, perhaps unsure of what he'd seen, then moved his arms akimbo and shook his head at the mat covered floor.
"Alright, kiddies! No time for chit-chat. We got a Machine that needs his culo kicked come fight night!"
"Sure thing, jefe!"
"Don't call me that, Mundo! What I tell you 'bout butchering my native tongue in my presen-"
"Okay, wanna start with Takedowns?" Knowing well how riled up the -fluent- Spanish speaker could get about... pretty much anything, he cut him off and brought everyone's attention back to the task at hand: Getting Puma ready for a Boyle Heights Street Fight. With the Championship on the line.
He'd practically forgotten the parameters set on the bout, what with all the messed up things that'd been going down. He and Konnan were really gonna have to turn it up a notch if the Champ had his sights set on Aztec gold.
Johnny found himself flat on his back, a smug Puma face moving into and then out of his view of the frankly worrying ceiling. He flicked his eyes over at Konnan when he heard gruff chuckles.
"Good one, baby. Let's see if you can pull it off when this bromista's paying attention!" It was rather eerie to see the coach chortle. Or display any signs of mirth, for that matter.
Had they stepped into the Twilight Zone? Why did Konnan know anything about Tai Chi? How had he missed Puma going for a Takedown?
Eh, he'd been kinda spacing. That's all it took. Especially in the ring. One moment of lapsed concentration and wham! The win is miles away and you're stuck holding an ice pack to your keister for twenty minute blocks over the next hours of your life.
Not a fun alternative to winning.
As Johnny picked himself off the mat, ready now for anything Puma might have waiting for him, he figured the Luchador hadn't taken what he'd signed seriously. At least he seemed to be taking the spar seriously.
Now that he got a good look at him, that short form must have helped him loosen up; he was bouncing from one foot to the other, shoulders more relaxed than they'd appeared in the longest time.
Konnan was a genius.
Before he could make a 'come at me' gesture, the Prince was leaping at him, in a maneuver that would force Johnny to either move out of the way quickly or-
"Gotcha," he couldn't help but say, low and close to a yellow masked ear. Then, just as the befuddled Champ began to squirm, the fighter who was holding him four plus feet off the ground, span and 'slammed' him onto the mat. Punctuating the Slam by going for a cover.
Puma was shocked enough with the turn of events that Johnny got to two before being shoved off. The Champ sat up and looked him straight in the face. Quite surprised indeed.
"It's what Cage would have done," he supplied, shrugging as he checked over his shoulder.
Yep, Konnan was directly behind him.
"He's right, baby. You gotta be ready for anything when you jump in the ring with a Machine." Words to live by.
While the coach spoke, Johnny took the still moment to sign in secret to Puma the same thing he had before their spar had begun.
The reaction was more confused than derisive, which Johnny figured had to be some sort of improvement, so he didn't let his shoulders droop when the Prince averted his gaze and shoved himself to his feet. Just kept himself ready for the next round.
"Alright, kiddies. You know there's no time for a breather in a street fight. Pick up the pace, órale!" Said their tireless... advisor. Clapping a couple times and leaning forward in his chair.
So their morning went. Puma meeting far more resistance from his sparring partner than he had all week, and Johnny taking every spare moment to sign the exact same message, away from the watchful eye of the Champ's coach.
It was a private exchange after all. Also a one sided one, but he wasn't going to split hairs when things were going so well. Puma was beginning to look at him with something aside from... that look he'd been giving him the last couple days. Hurt and anger, mixed in with enough loss to win him one at his next match.
It was a relief to get confused, "What?!"s and perplexed, "Shut. Up."s in place of straight up scorn. Or worse: being ignored.
It also seemed as if- No, he wasn't imagining it; Puma's technique was improving for sure. The pins were locked in tight, the submissions were snug -snugger anyway-, though still not quite what they needed to be come fight night. Not if they were gonna submit a living, breathing Machine like Cage. The guy's biceps were massive! He could break out of this hold way more easily than...
Johnny bunched his muscles, pulling harder and twisting just so, until the beautiful Armbar he'd found himself snaked into was broken and he was moving to cover a surprised Puma.
"Cage is stronger than me," he whispered as non-creepily as he could. Wedging the statement into that space between crawling on top of the Prince and getting tossed off.
Soon as Puma and he were back to vertical bases, he caught the fighter's attention and had his message signed once more, before getting shouldered in the middle for another Takedown.
At least the guy'd definitely seen it.
Lunch time hit, Konnan helped them untangle a gnarly Kamura, and the three trundled off for the cantina, waving to a busy Mariachi Loco and Sexy Star as they left.
"Good hustle out there niños. You almost looked like real Luchadores," which the mentor topped off with a wry cackle. Just so the two knew he wasn't completely serious.
Puma moved in front of Johnny, behind where Konnan was leading the procession, and turned to face him, walking backwards.
"What's up?" He asked, a rather fed up look dominating his visible features.
He then put a flat hand against his forehead area, and brought it away and down in a 'y' formation. Followed by, "you saying", ending in the same sign Johnny'd been directing at him all morning.
The two of them stopped, halfway between the gym and the cantina, Konnan not seeming to notice as he continued on his way, chuckling to himself about how funny Mundo's face looked squished into the mat.
The lights above flickered and Johnny took a deep breath, figuring he deserved it after that spar.
"I've been saying, 'I'm sorry', all morning... because it's the truth."
Puma's eyes narrowed, but he made no move to speak nor leave, so Johnny took it as permission to continue.
"I am sorry, Puma," he said. Signing the sentiment as best he could along with the words he hoped sounded as sincere as they felt.
"I meant to be there and I'm... as sorry as I've been about anything that I wasn't."
That hung for a long moment. Quiet enough that it didn't ring; loud enough that every word came across in hi-fidelity.
"Why?" Johnny remembered was the meaning of the forehead to 'y' hand.
"Why wasn't I there, if I wanted to be?" He got a stiff nod. To which, he hesitated. Remembering Puma's reaction from the last time he'd tried this, and wishing he didn't need to chance a repeat.
"I don't want to lie... I know how it sounds, but I told you the truth the other-"
Aand Puma was outta there. Face radiating something akin to annoyance before he'd turned his back, cutting off the unwanted noise.
Johnny, rather understanding -almost expecting- the reaction, only let his face fall so far.
He had the rest of the day ahead to keep trying.
After a lunch spent largely ignoring each other, the three made it back to the gym, rehydrated and refueled, without anyone getting hurt.
Ivelisse and Son Of Havoc had the ring for the next couple hours, so they were gonna practice focusing on height differentials on the matted floor till their arms gave out.
That's what Konnan told them anyway. Most of the time was actually spent standing around watching Ivee tripping up and tapping out the other biker in the practice ring. Konnan whispering commentary about her technique and how, if Puma just paid more attention, he could be pulling off the kind of crazy stuff a "real fighter like her was!"
Johnny thought he saw Ivelisse send a wink the coach's way, following the rather loud... statement.
He also thought he saw Puma balk at the exchange. Weird.
Konnan, looking almost sheepish after that, put an arm around Puma's shoulders and whispered something about him being his 'favorita, no importa que' before pulling all three of them away from ringside and back over to their comfy slice of practice mat.
At least it wasn't time wasted. Even Johnny was pretty sure he'd learned... something from watching that whole biker brawl thing. Even if that something had been to never mess with the 'Baddest In The Building'. Unless of course, you wanted your arm twisted just so behind your back till the shoulder popped out of joint.
Not that Ivelisse had done that in the ring. Johnny just knew that she could. And that he didn't want her to.
Man -it clicked in his head as he bore witness to the two exchanging DDT's within the confines of the ring-, they really had let him off easy when all they did that time was steal his lunch. He'd kinda thought they'd been bluffing.
Watching Ivee do exactly what she'd done to him in their numerable spars, Puma felt a tinge of second hand embarrassment for Son Of Havoc. That submission hold was pretty painful, and that one really difficult to snake out of. Even just enough to give the tap.
Konnan snapped him out of his daze of 'please never let me be in the same ring as her again' with a loud chastisement about him needing to pay more attention, which wasn't untrue, considering he hadn't been at the time. But then Ivee had winked -At him? Konnan? He couldn't tell!- and suddenly he was worried he was gonna be tossed in there with them, and-
He felt a warm arm encircle his shoulders, and soft words soothing his heart rate back towards its resting pace.
Konnan's funny little show of mentor's favoritism reminded him that, although demanding, his coach wasn't the kind who'd toss him to the wolves because he'd been distracted by the sight of them tearing each other apart.
Soon as his shoulders relaxed, Konnan was pulling them away from the circus of violence still taking place inside the practice ring, and setting them back up where they were supposed to have been all along.
Puma set his jaw and dared a Mundo who appeared entertained by something to say, "What?"
The fighter just shook his head and took up a 'ready' stance. Whatever. Mundo'd been... less annoying all morning. Aside from all the weird little messages he kept flashing. He could let whatever he was smirking about go. So long as the guy kept up his more serious sparring style. Puma was having to actually try with the holds and pins today.
It was... refreshing. Almost as if Mundo cared whether he survived his upcoming battle for the Championship.
Before Johnny knew it, they were facing off, then exchanging kicks and checks, ducking relatively careful Clotheslines, and tumbling all over the place faster than they had since Konnan had said 'yes' to letting them spar.
The occasional chair someone had left sitting out standing in for middle ropes for them to jump off to practice what to do if Cage caught you trying to take him down with a Cross Body Press.
Puma was beginning to relax and react more naturally by the third time Johnny'd caught him from a perfectly executed Press. Konnan had insisted they do that one over until Puma could get out of it before his opponent had time to counter with any number of Backbreakers or Slams.
"Either do it again, or forget you even know the move, 'cause it'll just give Cage another- That's more like it!" Practically shouted the coach as his protégé popped out of the Mundo's arms and landed on his own two feet, ready for something offensive.
Remembering that he hadn't tried his hand at a Spanish translation, Johnny leaned in just an inch or two, to a proximity not generally recommended one bring themselves to an opponent, and went for it.
"Lo ciento por-" was all the very close Johnny had time to whisper, before he was pulled into a Whip, which he Reversed, sending Puma far enough away that he could flash him a, "Sorry, instead. Pretty sure Konnan didn't catch that one either. His intended had though, and that's what mattered.
By the time the next hydration break met them halfway, about the time Ivelisse and el Hijo De Havoc called it quits in the practice ring, Puma's reaction to his sparring partner's antics, the pace of which hadn't slowed, was one of mild nonplus.
With that brand of indifference, something was bound to give soon!
Again, before having a chance to get some juice in him, Johnny Mundo found himself with a less than peachy Prince Puma facing him down. This time, with a countenance of bored, genuine curiosity.
"You-" and Johnny felt a flicker of despair as the rest of the sentence was lost on him. Though it was obvious, even to him, that Puma was signing slowly and deliberately, Johnny's vocabulary just wasn't up to snuff.
"He asked if you 'mean it'," supplied a Konnan who'd appeared next to Johnny's elbow. "Don't know why he even tries with you," he added, shaking his head but not walking away.
Johnny, not flinching at the sudden proximity, nodded 'thanks' to the coach who wasn't looking at him, and set a determined gaze Puma's direction. "Yes. Cada palabras. I'm-" He cut himself off when the fighter across from him moved his hands again. Still completely lost as he concentrated on the patiently crafted, likely baby sign simplified, words.
Konnan turned enough to squint up at Johnny, lips curled at the corners just enough to be concerning, and translated, "He said, 'Stow it or I'll kick your a-'"
The Champ took a couple loud steps forward, looking riled up and pointing accusingly at his mentor. A mentor who started chortling and leaning on his cane for support while he composed himself.
"I'm sorry- perdoname, hijo. I couldn't resist! The look on this gringo's face!" The laughing petered, Konnan wiped an eye, straightened up, and looked a cross armed Puma straight in the frustrated face.
"I know, baby. No haré un hábito de ella," promised a well sobered coach, who swiveled his head back to that of a discombobulated Mundo.
"He actually said, 'You can give it a rest. I'll think about it.' How's that?" He asked of the Prince.
Puma gave a thumbs up and turned on a heel, peeling off for the cantina and a waiting box of milk with his name on it. Literally. His name was on the carton. Johnny'd seen it earlier.
Johnny wasn't sure what to make of... all that. Looked like Puma didn't appreciate being misinterpreted, for starters. Also looked like Konnan had a vicious sense of hu-
"Hey, Mundo." Oh geez, he hadn't left! The Barbarian was still standing right next to his elbow, watching him watch Puma leave the gym in a huff.
He took an involuntary gulp and said the first thing that came to mind. "Yeah?"
An eyebrow raised at the strained pitch of the word, Konnan gave Johnny a good scrutinizing from closer up than the taller fighter was comfortable with before continuing. "They offer classes para adultos down at the community center. Not too far from here."
"Oh? That's coo-"
"You know: macrame, lip reading, Spanish, basic job skills. They even teach people how to read down there. You ever heard of a place that does that?" He looked like he expected an answer too.
"Not aside from a preschool or-"
"It's a great place. Might wanna check it out sometime," he said, pulling his glasses down his nose far enough that Johnny was pretty sure they'd fall clean off if he let go of them.
The long haired one nodded and took a step to the side, getting the Barbarian far enough away that he couldn't feel his breath on his arm anymore.
"Puma needs friends he can trust." Johnny stilled at the sudden shift of subject. "He thought you were that kind of friend, and if you're damn lucky, he'll give you a second chance to prove it to him," the coach closed the 'distance' between them and poked the professional Luchador in the chest. "Don't prove the kid wrong again."
Then the dead serious expression melted away, replaced by a face that struck far less unease into Johnny's chest; one tinted with the slightest layer of... approval, of all things.
"Keep up the good work, Mundo."
"Will do, je- boss," Johnny managed the save in the nick of time. Earning only an eye squint for his near transgression.
"Let's get some jugo in you. Before Puma's ready to hit it again," Konnan offered, turning to trundle toward the cantina.
Johnny couldn't help the way his head and chest rose at the almost praise. And the 'advice' concerning the community center. Konnan must really be warming up to him if he was suggesting he learn stu-
The Barbarian had stood elbow to elbow with him and translated, when he could far more easily have just stood back and watched the 'gringo' flounder.
Wow. Looked like he had a new friend! With Konnan in his corner... it all still hinged solely on Puma's decision, but if the Champ's coach didn't hate him, that had to count for something. Right?
Ready for some juice, Johnny jogged to the cantina, a brand new fondness for the retired Luchador hopefully not visible as he made for the 'fridge' for a 'cool' refreshment.
He turned to take in the sight of Prince Puma sitting at the ancient table, autographed milk carton in one hand making frequent trips to his glorified milk chute of a mouth, and Konnan The Barbarian easing himself into the seat opposite, a fresh cracked water bottle waiting within reach.
Johnny took a seat between them, not closer to one than the other, and together they all drank in relative silence. Lots of sipping, breathing, slurping, the occasional 'wrong tube' cough, and at least one seat readjustment, but no commentary.
As weird as it sounded; it was kinda nice. No one giving off color vibes, nor derisive, 'Maybe no one likes you because you suck?' glares. Just... a quiet 'water' break.
The remainder of the workout day flew by. Sorta like Puma kept flying by as he swooped from one end of the practice ring to the other, consideration for Cage's higher shoulders and head working its way into his rope game and offensive flips.
Johnny kept up as best as he figured the Machine should be able to and snatched the Luchador with a wild cat's agility out of the air when it felt as if he'd slowed the pace or fumbled some footwork. Konnan never missing such an opportunity to reinforce that it was attention to detail, among other things, that could win or lose a fight like the one creeping up on them.
Puma, for his part, didn't get salty with the on-pointness of his team's corrections. If anything, his determination to get it right intensified and with it, that tiny spark of mirth dancing behind his eyes.
Konnan raised a hand and called the action to a screeching halt, reminders that dinner was a thing prompting the two berserkers to hop out of the ring and go for an instinctive high five.
The noise of it surprising the both of them into the present, reminding them the reason for Puma's smile being so much smaller than his sparring partner's.
But he'd been smiling, and that was some next level kind of improvement over... the last week plus!
Sure, the Champ shook it off -as if shaking off a bad taste in his mouth-, then made straight for the locker room, but Johnny could tell: Things were getting better.
He followed not too far behind, looking forward to toweling the gnarly layer of gym grime off his exposed skin.
He didn't bug the other fighter as he went to his locker and started wiping long hours worth of sweat off his neck.
A minute or so later, as Puma made to leave the locker room for the evening, small duffel slung over one shoulder, the Champ clicked his tongue to grab his sparring partner's attention and lobbed a folded scrap of paper his way. Johnny caught it right as the Prince slipped out of view.
Unfolding the crisp lines, Mundo found the words 'Apology accepted' staring up at him, shaped in a familiar hand and followed by a little crown.
He slapped his definitely in need of a wash towel into his locker, and found a place to slip the note for safe keeping. Where it wouldn't get sweat stains all over.
Mission accomplished! He couldn't help the fist pump and the spring in his step that lasted all the way to his third story apartment. Even his lackluster TV dinner, eaten in his living room this time, couldn't bring him down.
Puma had forgive- or, rather; had accepted his apology! That was a monumental step in the perfect direction! Forgiveness then friendship, right?
Unless of course: the Prince had just written that to get him to stop pestering him nonstop in three languages? Now there was a thought to take the mac out of his cheese. But Johnny wasn't gonna let it. Nope!
They were talking again! Or, they were exchanging words again, if you wanted to split hairs.
Tomorrow could only spell good things for all three of them, he just knew it!
Johnny had a good night sleep, a good breakfast, and a good time getting to work. All made possible by his knowledge that Prince Puma was no longer under the impression that Johnny Mundo didn't care about him.
He joined in on warm ups and once again was ordered to, "Start that form again. Puma wasn't paying attention." Hearing a similar amount of snickering from behind him through the exercise, but even less complaining from Konnan's corner. The difference a day can make.
By lunch time, Johnny noted with excitement, Puma was allowing himself to grin again, and laughing at the occasional punny joke he or Konnan made at the Machine's expense.
Even his occasional forlorn 'staring off into space' moments seemed to be disappearing. Which was good, because it meant the Luchador was in the present, ready to practice some counter wrestling. Ready to dodge that Discus Lariat. Ready to lock in that hold and pull until someone as big and as strong as even Cage would be forced to submit.
The last of the fighters they'd been sharing the gym with filtered out around quitin' time. Mascarita Sagrada bidding them a thoughtful, "Buenas tardes!" before making his way out to the locker room.
They sent a mix of languages after the Luchador Enmascarado, all wishing him a 'good evening' as well, then all three looked at each other and snickered. That'd sounded pretty funny. Three disparate yet identical sentiments all at once? They made more of a hot mess than they did any sort of team! At least they were synchronized.
Puma just couldn't help it. After scribbling on that piece of paper and making sure Mundo got it, he'd felt... lighter. More himself.
He'd slept better, he'd eaten a full breakfast, and he hadn't felt like arguing with Konnan when he got in the next morning.
His fighting was less distracted, his technique was spot on and, to his elation, being matched by a fastidious sparring partner.
In the heat of an intense exchange, it almost felt as if the last couple weeks had never happened. It was just Johnny Mundo and himself trading perfectly timed moves the likes of which a crowd could really dig their teeth into. Konnan off to the side keeping them on track and, weirdly enough, calling Mundo by his name far more often than by an insult.
He'd never thought he'd see the day.
He'd... lost hope in ever regaining what J- Mundo and he had shared, for that brief span. A friendship- a connection that had changed the way a day of repetitive workouts and never ending reps had felt.
Having someone around who got you as well as he'd thought Mundo had; it painted a day a brand new color. Made sparring an exercise in synchronicity. Made a 'water' break a mini vacation.
Made a promise broken carry enough weight to break his hea-
He sucked in a breath and refocused his attention on what he was supposed to be doing.
Wow. He was pretty high off the ground for someone who was supposed to keep himself uninjured for an upcoming fight. His head had to be 'bout fifteen feet in the ai- Oh. He was standing on a ring post. Facing out of the ring. That was weird.
"Puma, baby, estás bien?" Sounded like it came from right underneath him. He glanced down without moving his head, not interested in overbalancing, and caught sight of Konnan standing ringside. The coach's face conveying more than the thoughtful words could on their own.
Konnan gave a discrete 'thumbs up' and backed a few feet for a better view.
Puma glanced behind himself, getting the image of a ready Johnny Mundo in his peripheral.
They must both have agreed to this, so the Champ crouched just so and sprang, going head over heels and landing in the waiting arms of... someone who obviously hadn't been 'ready' enough.
The two of them tumbled to the mat, Puma still in the grip of a Mundo who was trembling with exertion. Hm, maybe it was time they took a break?
Never mind. The guy was trying -and now failing- to hold in some pretty serious laughter. Had he landed on him that hard?
Puma extricated his body from the vibrating arms and stood to stare down at a reddening Mundo.
After a couple seconds of that, he glanced out the ring at Konnan, who seemed similarly perplexed. Then the long haired Luchador cleared his throat, sat up, and wiped at his face. Looking ready to spill.
"Yeah, pretty sure the Machine is gonna be experiencing some 'technical difficulties' after a Press like that!" He trilled, wiping at his eyes.
"You're right, Mundo," two heads snapped to the coach, both sporting identical 'what?' expressions. "He's prolly gonna need a mechanic after Puma's done with him."
Now they were both laughing, matching incredulity creeping across their faces as Konnan smirked in satisfaction.
"I didn't know you had a sense of humor!"
"I didn't know you had the brains to make up your own jokes. Puma must've knocked some sense into you!" The coach slapped the ring apron a few times, visage contorted into one which, on anyone else, would have looked like 'help, I'm in pain', but on him probably meant 'I'm too funny for my own good'.
His mentor's reaction was enough to set him off on another round of chuckles, which he's pretty sure anyone in the gym could hear; coming through his nose almost hard enough that if he'd been drinking milk, it'd be sputtering out along with it.
Had he crossed over into The Twilight Zone? No other explanation for those two to be tandem joking. It didn't even look like Konnan was secretly waiting for them to turn their backs so he could attack Johnny from behind for getting them all way off task!
"Alright, back to business," there it was! Sounding strangely non chastise-y. "That was a good Shooting Star. Let's try out your Moonsault; you never know when a surprise 'Sault could come in handy." He looked between the two fighters attempting to swallow giggles in the practice ring and shook his head slowly. One half of his mouth cocked in a slightly 'up' direction.
They hopped to it after that, not interested in pressing their luck with the guy holding what looked like a shiny new steel cane. Hm. Puma hadn't noticed till just then. He'd have to say something later, 'cause it looked really nice an- Was that a Puma for a handle!?
Damn, Konnan was going soft. He couldn't even bring himself to be a hard-ass at Mundo for sidetracking practice on stupid puns!
It was all that lovable lug Puma's fault! His happy face and endearing chuckling... And Mundo'd brought it outta him too. Konnan couldn't yell at anyone who could pull his protégé out of a funk like he'd been zoning into way up there on the ring post.
Come fight night, if there weren't any big setbacks, Puma'd be ready to dominate.
At least the kids were back at it when he finally managed to raise his voice.
Heh. He still had it!
"'Evening MS!" He was pretty sure the Luchador Enmascarado caught the response before turning to leave.
Then the echoes of two other 'you too's registered and his funny bone twitched. Three languages? Seriously?
He clutched at his middle, which, what with all the laughing that day, had gotten quite the work out when compared to those several of... morose despondency.
He glanced over at his hunched, practically wheezing with mirth sparring partner and had the strangest thought: He shouldn't need to hold a grudge.
It had become obvious the guy was sorry, and Puma almost believed the bit about him having meant to be there for the fight, so what was stopping him from letting go of that last bit of hurt and resentment?
Right. The lie about why he hadn't been there.
Puma didn't like lies and as a general rule, he stayed away from the people who cooked them up and handed them out like so much Halloween candy.
He wore a mask, but that didn't mean he was into accepting candy from strangers.
The lie, to his relief, hadn't been repeated in over a day. He wasn't holding his breath for the truth, but... the blue tinged happiness he could feel at hearing Konnan and Konnan's supposed least favorite Luchador laughing back and forth? So long as he wasn't being actively lied to, he could see this working.
He could see them being friends again. Someday. Pasito a pasito.
Soon as the three scruffies managed to slip out of the ring and get some more hydrating done, Konnan had them run through a warm down and dismissed them for the evening. But not before reminding them that tomorrow was 'the day'.
"And Puma?" Johnny saw the younger fighter's body tighten, ready for anything his mentor might have to say. "You bring your 'A' game, like you did today; there's no way that Machine can beat you." The coach gave that a moment to sink in, then held an arm out, toward his protégé. "Venga-" and before he could finish, he was engulfed by a full on Puma hug.
Johnny felt a warmth in his chest at the sight. Then he realized he was staring and averted his eyes, deciding that picking at the dirt under his nails would give the two the privacy they deserved.
When Konnan mumbled something in Spanish that sounded like encouragement, he did his best to not listen in and concentrated harder on that little whisker of cuticle that was threatening to come right off. He needed to take better care of his nai-
Oh. Konnan was leaving? Already out the gym entrance and taking the corner. Oops. He must've been hyper focusing to not hear the 'good bye'. Or maybe it'd been a silent one?
He flicked his attention back to Puma just as the Champ was turning to look at him. Their eyes met and stayed there longer than they'd had the opportunity, or perhaps inclination, to in... quite a while.
"Uh, great practice today. I'll be rootin' for you tomorrow," Johnny said, trying hard not to fidget and scratch at the back of his own neck. "I'll be in the building. Probably hanging with Gabby and Federico and Clara... Who has not yelled at me. In case you were wondering, for some rea-"
"Okay, J," signed a Puma who appeared to barely be suppressing both annoyance and another bout of the chortles. "See you-" followed by a loose fist coming forward and away from the Champ's cheek in a sign Johnny figured must mean 'tomorrow'.
They exchanged a fist bump and Puma took off for the locker room. Which happened to be the place he'd been planning on going, but decided to hold off on for a minute. So they wouldn't be forced to do that awkward 'second goodbye' thing.
Instead, he brought himself to the Center Of The Universe, lengthened his breathing just so, and Stepped Out. Eyes half lidded, concentrating on his ins and outs, pushes and pulls. Feeling the movements come from his center and extend to his palms and the soles of his feet.
He cleared his mind of clutter and let the day's events wash away, like water over the rock bed of a babbling brook. Managing the best pace out of the form that he'd been able to achieve in... a while.
When the White Crane's Wings hit their full extension, Johnny's eyes snapped wide as they went and his breath caught.
Puma'd called him 'J'.
One Wing tip floated over his mouth while the other fell to his side.
Was it possible? Were they... friends again?
Doing his best to not bite through his bottom lip at the thought and the swelling emotions it precipitated, the long haired 'Ender Of Worlds' started his form from the beginning, feeling a new determination behind every movement.
He was gonna be there for that fight. For himself, for Konnan, and for his friend, Prince Puma.
And this time, nothing in all of Boyle Heights was gonna get in his way.