Punchy: First Blood Part III

The Cage 
#1
Jane sat in her car a couple blocks from the Cage for a handful of minutes—okay, two handfuls of minutes—until she no longer felt like her chest was pinched too tight. And then two more minutes (she counted them) before she dragged herself out of her truck through sheer force of will, which lasted approximately a dozen steps, but a keen awareness of how weird she would look to the strangers smoking on the street corner if she just turned back around drove her the rest of the way into the back alley that terminated in an unfriendly-looking bouncer.

Stepping into the Cage felt like stepping into a wall of sound and smells and cigarette smoke, which was an exaggeration because it wasn't even that busy, given the week night, but her wolf was one shattered glass or banged table away from flipping out.

She jostled her way past a group of humans and planted herself at the bar, flagging the bartender down for The Strongest Goddamn Whiskey They Had (or just one Crown Royal, please) as she side-eyed the makeshift ring and tried to simultaneously convince herself that this was a great idea an that it was also a terrible one.
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#2
The Cage was the closest thing to home that Julie had, which was... tragic, really.

She knew her place of work inside and out; she knew every scent, every sound. Having familiarized herself with the faces of the establishmnt's patrons when she was both on and off the clock, Julie could generally pick out the strangers from the regulars. There were few other places in Cedar Creek—the world, even—that the Spaniard would rather be.

Thus, it didn't take her very long at all to zero in on the meek presence at the bar, Julie's wolf perking up at the arrival of a packmate. Tonight, she was here on her own time, so she was quick to venture off to the bar and greet the mousy brunette who had wandered rather unexpectedly into the Cage.

"Hola," Julie said to Jane as she approached, a smile offered alongside her greeting. "Lost?"

Taking a seat beside her packmate, the Spaniard tilted her head with curious intent, wondering why Jane was here and not wherever she usually was. Julie also figured at a bit of humor wouldn't hurt. Hopefully.
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#3
Jane straightened up and glanced aside when the felt the familiar metaphysical ripple of a packmate approaching, mentally crossing her fingers that it was either Dante (whom she could sit in semi-comfortable silence with and drink whiskey) or Julie.

And, in her first stroke of good luck in actual weeks, it was Julie and not another wolf she'd have to bumble her way through an inane conversation with. Not that she wouldn't also bumble along with Julie.

"Nup," she answered with a tiny smile and indicated her drink with a finger tapped against its rim. "Wasn't too hard to find the bar."

"I, um. Just thought I'd ch-check out the fights." It was hard to think when her wolf was taking up so much brain space in its anxious investigation of Julie's wolf, tail held meekly low so not to offend.
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#4
"You don't sound terribly sure of yourself, Jane. Is everything okay?" From one of the nearby doorways came a chipper, kind sort of voice as one of the bartenders for the night made herself known. She flashed Jane and Julie each a broad, happy smile as her wolf barked out a metaphysical greeting. "You sound like I did the first time I showed up at this place -- which is to say, like you're trying to psych yourself up. Like you're trying to belong."

The mousy-haired girl reached out and placed a reassuring hand upon Jane's shoulder. "Or maybe I'm just projecting," she laughed. "Either way, I'm supposed to be taking orders... Can I get the two of you anything?"

Indeed, Liza had expanded her waitressing enterprise to include the Cage as well as the brewery. It was honestly not that difficult a change; she felt more comfortable these days around her packmates, and they tended to frequent both places with regularity. The girl offered a kinder sort of look over towards Julie, though her focus remained upon Jane for now.
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#5
Julie gave a quiet huff at Jane's assurance that she hadn't gotten lost, offering a soft smile in kind. Upon being told that Jane had shown up to check out the fights, the Spaniard tilted her head even more. "Didn't realize you were interested in them," she said, her smile growing somewhat.

There was a moment when Julie's wolf and Jane's sought to greet each other, equally curious and intent to investigate. Unlike her packmate, however, Julie's wolf exuded confidence, tail erect and demeanor excited. The urge to make contact was there, and Julie barely gave it a second thought before reaching over and brushing her fingertips down Jane's arm; the touch allowed her wolf to meet with Jane's in that weird metaphysical space they inhabited, curiously burying her nose into the shy wolf's flank.

Julie didn't exactly understand what all was going on between their metaphysical, wolfish halves, but it gave her good vibes. Humming softly, the Spaniard opened her mouth to say something before another familiar voice beat her to it.

Liza appeared, bright and friendly as always. Julie's smile broadened upon her arrival, always amused to observe how receptive Liza was to others. The brunette's talkative, social nature was also fun to watch, especially for someone like Julie, reserved and observant.

"She belongs," said the Spaniard, grinning as she gave Jane's arm a little nudge before pulling away. "Tonight's a good night. There aren't too many people." A full house at the Cage was a force to be reckoned with, almost as many brawls outside the ring as there were inside of it.

Upon being asked by Liza if she wanted anything to drink, Julie spared a glance at Jane's glass and answered. "Whiskey."
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#6
There was! An awful lot of touching happening right now!

First Julie, which Jane almost didn't mind. Just a brush of fingertips along her arm, leaving a chill in their wake, to open up that instant, visceral connection for their beasts to touch. Her wolf dropped to her belly, craning her neck to nose at the other's muzzle with a little whine, equal parts needy and nervous but that was basically the default for both human and wolf.

And then... that one wolf. From the lingerie store. Pointing out the obvious because Jane was (almost) never sure of herself and she didn't need it rubbed in her face and broadcasted to everyone in the vicinity, thank you very much. Her face flushed at Liza's words, then her hands gave a fluttery kind of twitch where she nursed her drink when the girl touched her shoulder.

Deep breaths, Jane.

Julie remained at ease, which was the only thing keeping Jane in her seat when she'd really like nothing more than to abscond. And while she appreciated the other woman's vote of confidence (and her cheeks flushed even brighter accordingly), she absolutely did not belong here, for virtually every definition of "here".

Jane gave a frayed smile at Julie's nudge. "A-another whiskey?" she requested, looking aside at Liza but not quite meeting her eyes. Her first drink was still half-full, but only until Liza stepped away and she could drain the last of it. Liquid courage or whatever, not that she'd need it for longer than it took Julie to get bored of her because never mind on that whole punchy thing.
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#7
It wasn't hard to pick up the visual queues of Jane's vexation. Liza may have been oblivious, but she was not unkind. Her hand quickly left the shoulder of her packmate; apology filled the lines of her otherwise pleasant smile. "A pair of whiskeys, then," the young wolf chimed with an amicable nod. "I'll just -- I'll just be a moment."

The wolfess hurried off, her smile dropping as soon as she was out of eyeshot. She seemed uniquely situated to the occupation of bothering her fellow wolves, it seemed -- never mind folks who didn't have beasts chomping at the proverbial bit within them. She'd have to do better next time if she wanted to have a smidgeon of hope with regard to the possibility of 'having friends'.

Ducking behind the bar, Liza began to pour the requested drinks.
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#8
During that brief, viseral meeting between beasts, Julie’s wolf was enthused with the submissiveness of Jane’s own. It felt good to be the dominant one of the two, but the ruddy-furred wolf was far from cruel, gentle in her nosying around the needy, nervous wolf’s fur. Once Julie withdrew from the physical contact, her wolf retreated as well, leaving her shy counterpart to her own devices inside Jane’s head.

Wolves were strange.

Meanwhile, Jane’s mortification hardly went unnoticed by the Spaniard. Be it the touching or the setting, Jane seemed far from at ease, her features flushed red as if she had been drinking for far longer than she had. Julie idly wondered why Jane was always so anxious.

Still, her nervous little packmate offered an awkward smile, so it couldn’t have been all bad.

Then Liza relayed their orders, moving to prepare them a shot of whiskey each. "Thanks," Julie called after the brunette, a subtle fondness to her gaze as she watched Liza duck behind the bar and make their drinks.

Any modesty the Spaniard once knew had crumbled in recent months, influenced by the company she kept; she doted over Liza’s form for a generous few moments before blinking, realizing what she was doing and returning her attention to Jane.

"Have you practiced what I showed you?" It was an innocent question, albeit compelled by a certain nosiness that was uncharacteristic of Julie.

Jane seemed far too tighly wound, like a spring ready to snap. Although she had never really seemed like the relaxed sort, her anxiety or whatever it was seemed especially charged tonight. The Spaniard wondered if that was why Jane was here, to let off steam.

She highly doubted it.
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#9
Jane at least had the decency to feel awful over the way Liza's smile grew contrite, but she had no idea how to fix this so she just tried for a non-shitty smile before the girl went to prepare their drinks.

She watched Julie watch Liza for a moment, simultaneously intrigued and embarrassed to catch her packmate... checking the other girl out? Were they dating? Should Jane have noticed that before now? So much for that mythical gaydar. She turned away to drain the last of her drink, then nudged the glass out of the way so she could rest her elbows on the bar.

The tension in her shoulders ebbed now that everyone was done touching and crowding her, but one hand found its way to her neck anyway, rubbing sheepishly at it. "Yeah. Um, Dante has been helping me, too, as—as a weekly thing."
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#10
Liza wondered what exactly Dante of all people had been teaching Jane, though she didn't press the issue as she approached with the two aforementioned whiskeys. "Here you are! I put a little extra in for both of you," she says with a kind little smile. Awkward interactions or no, they were packmates.

Her fingers lingered upon Julie's as she passed off the second glass. She offered the Spanish woman a more amorous smile than the one she had given to Jane. "I know things have been a bit hectic of late," she said in a hushed tone. "I hope you can forgive me for my self-imposed solitude. Anyhow!" Content with her murmured apology, she turned her attention back to Jane. "Are you just watching tonight? I'm not sure if Jules is signed up to go, but she's always a fun fight if you can get past the pained screams coming from the other person. I could stick around and watch with you, if you'd like -- my shift is almost over."
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#11
Julie offered a soft nod to Jane's response. "That's good." Dante was probably a better teacher than Julie was in the grand scheme of things. Still, the redhead couldn't deny feeling a touch disappointed because of it. Then Julie reminded herself that Jane was Katya's sire, so it was probably for the best she and Jane weren't exactly close.

Before she could fall prey to brooding, Liza returned to them with drinks in hand and a smile, one that felt particularly special for Julie. The brunette's fingers lingered next to Julie's own, and a similar smile warmed the redhead's expression.

"Mi corazón, te preocupas demasiado." Julie knew that Liza did not speak her language, but the Spanish woman spoke with a tenderness that said volumes in and of itself. "You're good."

Following their brief exchange, the trio's conversation then returned its focus to Jane. In the meantime, Julie was quick to knock back her whiskey, as practiced with the gesture as she was in the ring. The scorching fluid, however, nearly went down wrong when Liza described what spectating Julie in the ring was like. "They don't scream," Julie felt the need to say, "... often."

Only the crybabies screamed, or those Julie felt needed a brutal lesson in humility.

"But I did sign up tonight." It was a slow night, and the redhead was bored. Her body and spirit ached for a bit of thrill.
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#12
Yep, definitely gay. She looked away as Liza and Julie exchanged hushed words, feeling uncomfortably like a voyeur, but it was only a few moments before they returned their attention to her, which she really could have done without.

As kind as it was, Jane couldn't explain why Liza's offer stung. Something about the implied assumption that of course she would just be watching, but it was a valid assumption. Just look at her: she was small and anxious and flinched if someone just moved a little too fast. Of course she was only there to watch.

She drained her drink as Julie quipped back—although Jane was of the firm opinion that whiskey should be sipped, Dante and apparently Julie were proving to be bad influences.

Jane shifted in her seat, went to clasp a hand at her neck but caught herself a moment later and dropped the offending hand to her lap. "Um. I was thinking about it. Fighting, I mean." But not anymore, just show her the door, please and thanks. She smiled as she added, "But I can't say no to company." Sometimes it was like her mouth and her brain were just entirely disconnected because that sure didn't sound like "actually I'll be leaving now sorry".
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#13
"Company it is, then," Liza replied with a smile. Though the situation was undeniably awkward, it was nevertheless a pleasant change of pace to have someone to chat with while the fights went on. Julie couldn't entertain her all the time, after all, no matter how many sets of puppy dog eyes Liza attempted to entrance her with. She leaned against a nearby support pillar and closed her eyes for a moment.

"Admittedly, I'm not great at the watching bits," she said. "I'm a little squeamish, though I'm getting better about it. I actually made it through all of Julie's most recent fight without even covering my eyes." Her tone carried a hint of pride, though it was clear that she was also aware of how relatively goofy she sounded. Levity gilded the edges of her otherwise legitimate words.

"What made you decide to want to give it a shot?"
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#14
Things were feeling undeniably awkward at the bar, and Julie silently wondered if her name would be called to the ring soon. Perhaps Jane was feeling overwhelmed and would take to socializing better without the young Spanish woman looming over her and Liza. Julie felt like she had a tendency to loom.

At Liza's mention of her own squeamishness, Julie couldn't help but smirk and roll her eyes. "My fights aren't that bad," she said, arguing with a lightheartedness to her words. Still, she was entertained by Liza's sense of pride on the matter.

Julie typically didn't resort to dirty fighting, at least not the kind that made those in the audience squirm.

Although the Spaniard's gaze had settled on the ring, she listened intently to Liza and Jane's conversation, if it could even be called one. Their exchange of words felt more like awkward small talk, but Julie supposed it was better than nothing.
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#15
Jane did her best to not be a log, even smiled and made appropriate sounds of acknowledgment as Liza explained her squeamishness. Liza was hands-down the most outspoken wolf she had met, and it was as refreshing as it was nerve-wracking. She'd gotten rather used to everyone else's gruffness.

And back to Jane, even though she'd much rather hear Liza's entire life story. She continued to be baffled by that question—why she'd roped Julie and now Dante into sparring with her. One day she would just point to her neck or her entire self, really, in lieu of answer because she'd clearly seen some shit.

Oh wait. Maybe Liza meant the Cage specifically, not just punching things.

Yeah, that was a valid question.

"I met a really lame jaguar at the gym and was inspired. And then he told me—um, he told me about fighting Julie at the Cage, and I figured if he can do it, so c-can I. I mean. Not Julie specifically, but." Jane offered a sheepish smile as she dragged the pad of a thumb along the rim of her empty glass to occupy her hands.
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#16
Liza offered a grin in return. It didn't carry any real substance -- it almost seemed hesitant, as if the girl wasn't certain how she ought to talk properly with Jane without overwhelming her. Suddenly it was Liza's turn to feel self-conscious. Maybe she wasn't welcome here and the others were being too polite to say anything. Was this some sort of pack-related sympathy conversation? Was she just making everything worse? It certainly wouldn't be the first time.

Liza's smile grew a tad strained as she began to fret over her own appearance, her mannerisms, her -- well, her everything. Time to hyperanalyze, apparently. "That seems as good a reason as any," she responded, noncommittally. "I bet you'll be good at it! Or at least, better than I would ever be. N-Not that that's a particularly high bar, I suppose."
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#17
Jane had been inspired by a lame jaguar she met at the Gym; Julie almost immediately suspected it to be Abraham. Her suspicions were confirmed when said jaguar told Jane that he had fought Julie at the Cage. Although Julie wasn't entirely convinced that her nose had healed straight since then, she had fond memories of that fight. That Abraham's tale had inspired Jane to come here of all places also amused Julie.

However, the redhead wasn't blind to the awkward tension between the three of them.

Liza was normally rather upbeat, unaffected by less than pleasant influences, yet Jane's innate social awkwardness seemed to infect Liza. Watching the two pass the awkwardness back and forth, Julie felt like she was watching an imminent train wreck in slow motion.

It wasn't the best feeling.

"You can do it." Julie opted to encourage her insufferably timid packmate. "I can get the ref to set us up for the next fight. It'll be fun."

The Spaniard wasn't pressuring Jane, but she was at the same time. Anything to spare them from the awkwardness.
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#18
Jane felt like she was watching a car accident -- prescient, fully aware it was about to happen, but unable to stop it.

Liza's smile was off, and Jane's wolf wiggled anxiously. Fuck, she should've just stayed home tonight. "Hey, if I can learn, you c-can too," she encouraged the girl, feeling distinctly like she was on the wrong end of this conversation, but she concentrated hard on her smile because this palpable tension was all totally her own fault.

She considered suggesting Liza join her and Dante one week, desperate to fix the awkward knot she'd tied them all into, but recognized at the last moment that the offer might be rude. "You've got a pro to teach you right here, too." Jane even gave Julie a playful nudge that sorta made her want to die, but she was trying, please just stop looking at her like that.

Wait.

Wait, what? Jane blinked owlishly at Julie's proposal, brain catching up with her ears. One, Julie could kick her ass in a heartbeat. Two, nooooo. No no no, terrible no good very bad idea, time to leave.

"Suuure," Jane drawled instead, fundamentally incapable of saying no. She smiled, ignoring the goosebumps on her arms that might've been just nerves or might've been her wolf pressing up beneath her skin. "Yeah. Sure."

She just needed another goddamn whiskey (or three) first.
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#19
Oh! Oh. This had taken a number of unexpected turns in the span of thirty-five seconds or so. "You're right!" Liza said, a bit of her trademark cheer returning to her voice. Sure, it was mostly fake -- but fake it 'til you make it, yeah?

And then Liza processed the proposal on the table. A fight between pack members wasn't exactly unusual. But a fight between Julie and Jane?

Liza's smile very nearly short circuited. "Y-Yes!" she said, utterly stunned and helpless to do anything but roll with the waves of the conversational momentum. "That'll be good. It's like -- a practice bout. And Julie will pull her punches a bit, just to give you a feel for the whole thing."

Liza gave Julie a look that said nothing short of please do not kill my awkward new friend.
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#20
Julie normally wasn't one for flattery, but she would happily take being called a pro. Jane even gave her a gentle nudge, to which the redhead responded with a smile and a nudge of her own. Moreover, Liza seemed to regain some of her cheer, which Julie was also happy to see.

The thought of teaching Liza how to fight was entertaining at the very least.

Nevertheless, that thought was brushed to the side once Julie's offer was out there. Both of Julie's packmates were stunned at first, but they were both receptive to the idea, which left Julie a little stunned herself. Liza went on to add how it would be more of a spar than an actual fight, tossing the redhead a pleading look. A soft nod was given before Julie returned her gaze to Jane.

"I'll go tell the ref, then." With newfound energy in her step, Julie departed from the bar and sought out tonight's referee, intent on pulling whatever strings she had to for this to happen.
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#21
Julie flounced on off, and Jane offered her remaining packmate a dry, frayed smile. "If I die, you've gotta make up a c-cool story that makes me sound like a badass, okay?" Because she was definitely going to die, either from Julie punching her to death or from embarrassment.
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#22
Liza looked just as terrified as Jane, once Julie departed; perhaps even moreso, which was rather silly indeed considering the fact that she was not the one going into the ring. "I'll t-tell them it was ninjas," she confirms with a solemn nod. "But like, vampire ninjas or something so they don't sound lame."
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#23
While it took some persuading with the people in charge of the fights for tonight, Julie cleared the next match for herself and Jane. How exciting or entertaining of a match it would be, she was uncertain since Liza had promised Jane that the redhead would pull her punches. It made sense, giving Jane a fighting chance when she had never done anything like this before.

Still, Julie didn't want to baby Jane. How else would she get better?

Soon returning to the bar, Julie gave both her packmates a smile before nodding to Jane. "We're up."

Despite how awkward the evening had gone so far, Julie was genuinely excited for what came next.
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