PRIME’s Medical Wing in the Arena México had seen its fair share of activity this evening, but Dr. Astrid Fihlguud hadn’t expected anything quite like this. Nor had she expected to have a captivated audience while she worked.
Seated on the heavy-duty examination table was PRIME’s representative in the night’s main event and Astrid’s boss, Lindsay Troy. The Queen looked like she’d gone ten rounds in an underground fight club, not competed in a wrestling match that was more farce than fight. Sweat matted her hair to her scalp and glistened over her exposed skin. Blood caked her face, shoulders, and arms, and her ribs were bruised and possibly broken. A cut above her eyebrow had been stitched and bandaged, and Astrid was now working on cleaning and stitching prominent puncture wounds on her shoulders…the result of two sets of eagle talons that had sunk themselves into her.
Standing a few feet away were Wade Elliott and Kaz Troy. Both men had their arms crossed, and both looked like they wanted to hit something…or someone. Seated to the right of Lindsay and spinning around on a stool was Ami Troy.
“You know…” Astrid began, “when I told my father I was taking this job, he said to be prepared for anything. And yet, I never would have thought to be prepared for what happened in that match.”
Wade replied with an agitated snort through his nose. “If’ ya can even call it that. Who th’hell sends in fuckin’ birds?” The Bad Dog looked at Lindsay, then his expression turned dark. “I should’ve shot ’em’ outt’ve the air!”
“With what?” Lindsay exclaimed. “It’s 2023, not 2007. We don’t do guns in arenas anymore, and even if we did I’d have to hobble around town to find out which jail the cops threw you in, and then I’d be very upset with you.”
“Isn’t it a PRIME rule that if you have a gun in an arena, you have to shoot Dusk?” Ami asked.
“I think the rule is if you have a gun in an arena you have to have Zs at the end of the word and call yourself the King of New York,” Kaz deadpanned. “But Muriel took care of him last year so the rule might’ve died too.”
Lindsay sighed and winced as Astrid finished with one shoulder and started on the other. “You two aren’t helping.”
“Fine. Forget the gunz. We should’ve just found Lee and beat his ass,” Kaz said, then looked at Wade. “Would’ve been more fun than going after the birds.”
Ami chimed in again. “Speaking of, are we really gonna talk about the eagles and not talk about the owl?”
She gave her mother a pointed look. Lindsay held up her hands as high as she could without impeding Astrid’s work. “Don’t look at me. I have no idea where that came from.”
“Maybe Anna was here,” Kaz shrugged.
“She sells a game about owls, Kaz,” Ami said. “A game about Mom and owls.”
“One’ve you wanna explain this shit with the owls?” Wade asked. “‘I keep hearin’ ‘bout Lindsay commanding murder owls an’ I don’t get it.”
“It’s a long—“ Lindsay started to say, however a heavy knock thudded against the steel door to the medical area. All eyes peered over toward it. As the door opened, the hulking (and freshly showered) Russian Bear, Ivan Stanislav, stood in the doorway. He had changed into identical clothing from what he had worn down at the ring, and despite a few bumps and bruises here and there, he was relatively unscathed.
The blood from Dr. Fihlguud’s face drained as she saw him. She hadn’t tended much to Ivan, but she certainly had rehabilitated those who had gotten in his way and she was well aware of what he was capable of.
Ami stopped spinning in her chair and stood up, leveling a scowl at Ivan as she did. Kaz moved in front of Astrid and his mother while Wade took two big steps toward the Russian Bear, thunder in his eyes and a finger pointed hard toward Ivan’s chest.
“Not a god-damn chance in hell, you big fuckin’ cunt! Now ain’t the time! Piss off ‘fore I make a fuckin’ mess’ve ya!”
Yet Stanislav, surprisingly, seemed remarkably calm despite the obvious threat. He lifted his hands and looked down at Wade. “I have no quarrel with you, Wade,” he said calmly and then looked over Wade’s head to both Ami and Kaz, “Nor do I have one with either of you. I just come to talk.”
“That’d be a first,” Kaz quipped and held his ground.
“No kidding.” Ami looked around Wade and Ivan out into the hallway. “Where’s the Electrician?”
“He is, ah…” Ivan started, but Ami continued.
“On the roof again?”
Astrid looked at Lindsay, who shook her head. “Don’t ask.”
Kaz took a couple steps forward to flank Wade. “You can talk to Mom with all of us here, since whenever you like to talk to people you also like to throw them through ceilings or tables or harass women in hallways and you can miss me with that bullshit.”
The tension in the room had thickened. Ivan looked down at the two men standing in front of him, unwilling to concede their positions. Even Ami held firm, and to the Russian Bear the young woman looked stronger than the last time he had seen her in person a few months ago.
The Queen’s Army stood their ground, and Stanislav cleared his throat to try and ease the hostilities. “If I intended on harming anyone in this room, I would not have knocked on the door. I would have knocked the door in.” He placed his hands on his hips and exhaled. “And so I ask that you all, please, allow me to have the room with Lady Troy.” Ivan’s voice subtly shifted from the flatness it had when he entered into a more hardened stare. Stanislav never purported to be an expert in bomb disposal, but this was his best attempt to defuse the situation.
The Bad Dog kept his size fourteens planted and his jaw set, and turned his head over-shoulder to his Queen. She held up a hand, signaling to keep calm.
“It’s okay, Wade. Everyone take a breath.”
She sighed as she looked at Ivan, and thought back to the conversations the two of them had in private in her office and on the phone just a week prior. “Can you give us a few minutes, please?”
“Mom!” Kaz started to protest until Lindsay’s fierce glare made him think twice.
Astrid looked to Troy, who nodded. She tied the last stitch, walked briskly around Stanislav, and took her leave. Kaz and Ami were the next to exit, and the twins made it a point to throw wicked side-eyes at Ivan on their way out the door.
Wade turned back to Ivan with another burst of air through his nostrils, not at all comfortable with the situation, then looked back to Lindsay.
“You holler if this sonnuva bitch tries to pull somethin’, and I’ll come put ‘im in the fuckin’ morgue.”
Lindsay smiled softly. “I know you will.”
On that note, Wade gave Ivan one last glare from sharp blue eyes before shouldering past him, slamming the door behind.
Ivan’s eyes followed Wade as he exited, and stared at the closed door for a few moments. He was thinking about something, but did not vocalize it. Then, he looked back at the battered Queen and, after letting the tension fade between the two of them, he slid his hands into his pockets. It took three Stanislav-sized steps to clear the distance between them and stand in front of Troy.
“Got room on that table?”
Lindsay nodded and gingerly maneuvered toward one end, grimacing as she did, to give Ivan room to sit. “Guess we’ll see if this thing really has a weight limit,” she said, then leaned back against the wall.
Ivan let out a grumbling chuckle as he tugged the waist of his pants up slightly. “I have been the same weight for the last thirty years.” As if that might mean that surely the table would be built for him, or was he joking? Either way, he settled on the table next to her and said nothing for several moments. Then he spoke with a sigh. “What a night, eh?”
He let the words hang in the air as he looked slightly over at the Queen. She was in a lot of pain and wasn’t even bothering to hide it. The wheels were turning in his head as he gazed outward once more. After about another forty-five seconds, the grizzled veteran spoke again.
“I just want…” he began, before the door flew open and a whirlwind pretending to be Alexei Ruslan burst in, screaming.
“This entire contest is void! There was no Russian flag! There was no—”
“Alexei!” Ivan barked, and his friend clammed up immediately. Ivan nodded toward the door. “Give me a minute. We deal with that later.”
With a huff, Ruslan nodded and turned toward the door, which once again burst open and Ami stomped in.
“Uh uh, if we can’t be in here, you can’t be in here,” she said and poked Alexei in the chest.
Ruslan’s face turned as red as the Soviet flag. “I was just leaving, you—“
“Leaving to crawl through the ceiling and listen in on their convo?” Ami shot back. “I don’t think so.”
With that, she grabbed Alexei by the arm and dragged him toward the door.
“Unhand me, you little gremlin!” he protested, his struggles ineffective.
“KAZ, WE GOTTA BABYSIT THE WEIRDO!” Ami yelled as she opened the door, pushed Ruslan into the hall, and closed the door again.
There’s silence for a few moments as Ivan and Lindsay looked at the door.
“He is kind of a weirdo,” Lindsay said.
“Perhaps,” Ivan replied, “But I think it is good Alexei found new friend.”
Lindsay laughed and her ribs made her instantly regret it. With silence once more prevailing, Stanislav tried to speak again.
“I just want to know. Did you have anything to do with the absence of my flag?”
The Queen shook her head. “No. I was told there’d be an American flag and a Russian flag. Since that wasn’t the case, I have a real good idea who was behind the switch.
She looked at Ivan and said, “Melvin.”
Ivan’s eyes turned stormy. “If that is the case, I hope to see him at PRIME show soon.” But he was tired of being angry, and lacked the energy or the drive to hold onto it.
After another moment of silence, he turned his huge head toward her. “I know you wrestled tonight more for you, than for me, but you still sacrificed your body for my cause. Maybe you did not volunteer, but nonetheless you did so, Lindsay, and for that I am grateful.”
She offered a weak smile in return. “Well, you’re welcome. I’m sorry there wasn’t a better outcome for the both of us. I’m sure you and Alexei won’t let me hear the end of it.”
“No,” he said quietly. “I do not throw my comrades, even temporary ones, under proverbial bus. The outcome was not your fault.” He smiled and shrugged. “Besides, the stipulation at PWA-03 does not matter, really. Christopher America will lose, no matter what happens. And if I beat him climbing uphill? Even better. Maybe you did me a favor.”
Lindsay absently rubbed the back of her head. “That’s if he even shows up. I think he got dragged into the crowd somewhere. There was a lot going on between that and the birds and the roster brawl and Benny Newell losing his damn mind.” She lifted her eyes to the ceiling and shook her head. “What was he thinking? What was I thinking? Not that he didn’t have it coming after all the shit he’s talked over the years but that’s not something I do.”
The big Russian smirked softly. “He deserved it. And more. If I was not so busy I would have done the same thing.” He looked down at her for a moment and made sure she could see his smirk. “Maybe I am rubbing off on you, eh? I am sure it felt good, did it not?”
“I’ll never tell,” was her reply, but her smile told Ivan all he needed to know.
He let the silence rest between the two of them and he ran his tongue along the inside of his mouth. “I will have to step beyond that door soon,” he said and nodded towards the door where he entered. “And I will have to leave this joint endeavor behind us. But before I do, I want you to know that I have no regrets choosing you to represent me and, if I were to do it all over again?” He leaned toward her and gently nudged her shoulder with his arm. “I would repeat the decision, even if outcome were the same. You fought with passion and vigor, and that is all one could want.”
“I’d like the outcome to go in our favor the next time.” Lindsay nudged Ivan’s shoulder in return. “Thank you. I know your praise is hard to come by.”
A sudden eruption of shouts and a very loud shriek from the hallway interrupted the flow of conversation as the door opened once again. It wasn’t a familiar face that entered the room…at least, not a familiar face to the Russian Bear.
Scurrying toward the Queen, with a very real, very large owl perched on his heavily-gloved forearm, was a Plague Doctor. Where this visitor and others like him were no strangers to the Lady of the Hour, given her allegiances elsewhere, it was certainly a surprise to Ivan and his eyes widened to the size of saucers.
The Russian Bear stood, stared at the strangely dressed man with an owl, and clenched his fist. He’d seen enough this night to want to take care of any random encounters with strangers all by himself. But the Queen waved him off as the Plague Doctor tipped his hat. Ivan slowly settled down once again, but eyed the man warily.
“Hi,” she greeted the masked man with a smile. “Where’s Henry?”
Stanislav growled. “Who is Henry? Who is this?!” he barked.
The Plague Doctor looked at Ivan and held his gaze for a moment longer than was comfortable. Then he turned back to Lindsay and pointed at the owl, who clutched a piece of paper in its beak and hadn’t taken its yellow eyes off her.
“Oh.” A nod. “Right.”
She opened her palm and slowly brought it closer to the animal, hoping not to startle it or cause it to attack. The owl tilted its head and watched her, then dropped the note into her hand.
“Thank you,” she said. The Plague Doctor tipped his hat again and left just as fast as he arrived.
Stanislav blinked and gazed over her shoulder easily. He squinted. There was no way he was going to use his glasses in her presence.
“Miss Troy,” she began. “Captain Keyes asked me to relay that he and Misters Kuroyama and Burns were able to get that ‘Wish.com Homelander’ Christopher America away from the fracas, however unknown parties accosted and removed him from the premises. In short, Henry says, nothing of value was lost.
“Doctor Plague Doctor will be sending along an herbal salve to help with your recovery. Expect it to arrive at your residence in two days’ time.
“Falconer Plague Doctor informs me that the owl’s name is Athena. She is a good girl, and quite protective, as you have witnessed. You’ll be happy to know she and Helen are getting on well.
“Henry has texted and will touch base again tomorrow to check on your condition. If I may say so, you fought valiantly.”
“I remain your loyal friend,
Lawyer Plague Doctor, Esq.”
The Bear blinked again and stared down at Troy. “The hell does all of that mean?”
Lindsay smiled and carefully refolded the note. “That it’s good to have friends to watch your back. And that I should’ve known where the owl came from.”
He grunted thoughtfully. “And you say my friend is weirdo?”
There was a chuckle between the two of them, and together they let the entire mood settle once more. The weight of that night’s events were still very much fresh in their collective psyche, and invariably, Ivan’s eyes moved across the room to the door, which despite being smaller than himself, seemed to loom in his direction. He sighed and his normally booming voice lowered to a rumbling, conversational tone. “Before I step through that door, Lindsay, I want to tell you that if you ever need my assistance, and it does not contradict my own mission, you have but to ask and I will help you. Immediately.”
Troy’s brow furrowed as she considered Ivan’s words. There was such a stark dichotomy between the Russian Bear she clashed with in a professional capacity on a near-daily basis, who destroyed property and threatened her staff and abused her employees physically, mentally, and emotionally, and the Ivan Stanislav standing in the room with her right now. It was a lot to consider, to unpack, and she wouldn’t be able to do it tonight or even anytime soon. So instead, she nodded, and said, “I suppose I can say the same. Before you go, though, I do have two last things to say.”
Stanislav gripped the front of his pants and hefted them up slightly along his stomach. With a cocked eyebrow, he listened curiously. There were plenty of times in which words, no less Lindsay Troy’s words, bounced off him and fell on deaf ears, but his thoughtful gaze told her otherwise in this moment.
“First, a piece of advice. I would be very careful about forming any allegiance with Arthur Pleasant. I’ve known him for awhile and what I can tell you is that snakes have forked tongues for a reason.”
Was she telling him this in an attempt to help him? Was there a hint of potential concern? Or was it just a capitalist trying to get ahead. It was hard to tell in Ivan’s strange and regimented worldview. But he nodded quietly and said nothing.
“Second, while I appreciate what you’ve said in calling out the misogyny and sexism that’s come from people like Solex and America and Benny Newell, what you’ve done to Justine Calvin just to get at Jared Sykes has gone beyond the pale. That’s not a matter of you treating her the same as any man in this sport, and I know you and Alexei are smart enough to know that. There’s a reckoning coming your way, because there always is with things like this, and I won’t be stopping it when it does.”
Stanislav could not help but smile at her words, but he nodded in acceptance of her assessment. “I cannot expect you to understand how it works, Lindsay. What I did, truly, had nothing to do with Justine Calvin’s gender. What I say, I hope one knows, is sincere. Otherwise, why would I pick you to represent me, eh?”
He shrugged. “There are many people who need wake up call, Lindsay. These young kids running about who seem to forget. Maybe I get the reckoning? Maybe I do not? Maybe I deserve it? Maybe I do not? Who is to say? But some think this is part of professional endeavor to make money and retire and rest easy, and then there are others who do believe this is war, and in war, it is ugly.”
His expression turned more thoughtful as his bushy eyebrows flattened thoughtfully. “And even those who fight the good fight make mistakes. I leave it to the future, and then to history. Either way, I hope they learn something. Who knows, maybe I learn something as well?” He winked at her and glanced back at that door, which was a portal to a different relationship between the two of them. It pulled on him, whether he wanted to accept it or not.
In a slow motion, Ivan clasped his large hand over Lindsay’s shoulder and engulfed it. He squeezed gently. “Take care of those ribs, eh? And here, from me.” With his off hand, he fished into his pants pocket and produced a small, leather ring box and offered it to her. “Please, a final token of my personal gratitude.” There was an emphasis on the “personal” portion of that statement. Most things, in his mind, were framed by politics and ideology, even economics and “us” versus “them.” Not this. “Do with it what you wish. Believe me. It is not bugged. Have Ami check it if you like.”
“If you’re proposing, Wade really is going to put you in the morgue,” she chuckled, and lifted the lid. Inside was a lapel pin of a five pointed star, painted gold, but it clearly was not made of a precious metal. The points were corroded slightly, betraying the painted gold to show a light green/brown color. It had to have been steel that had oxidized with age and clearly was quite old.
“I—“ she shook her head in disbelief. “I don’t know what to say.”
Ivan simply nodded, then released Lindsay’s shoulder and his massive, outstretched hand was offered to her for a handshake. She easily obliged.
“Da svidanya, Lady Troy. I see you again, on the other side of the door.” With that, Stanislav walked to the door and opened it to a barrage of complaints from Ruslan, and a moment later he was gone.
Lindsay looked down at the gift and contemplated its significance. She was about to remove the pin from its velvet resting place when Kaz, Ami, Wade, and Astrid all poured back in.
“Oh boy, Alexei was mad mad,” Kaz grinned at his sister. “How do you manage to get under his skin?”
“It’s a gift.” Ami lightly hip-checked her brother. Her eyes twinkled mischievously. “Besides, he deserves it, since he’s always up to something.”
Wade walked over to Lindsay, put a big paw on her hip, and looked down at her with concern. “You wanna tell me what th’hell that was all about?”
Kaz frowned. “Yeah, what did Ivan want?”
“And what about Henry’s friend?” added Ami. “Besides being the one behind the owl.”
“I think it’s time I call it a night.” Astrid peeled off her medical gloves, washed her hands, and gathered her things. “Ice those ribs and no competing for four weeks. The stitches will come out on their own,” she said to the Queen. “Shut the lights off when you all are done, please.”
“Yes ma’am,” came the reply, and Lindsay tossed the small ring box to Ami. “Have a look at that. I’m sure it’s fine but—“
Another impish smile from the tiny terror. “But you never know.”
“Ivan wanted to thank me for competing tonight,” Lindsay said to her son. Kaz didn’t seem assuaged, but chose to let things go for now. Her hand rested on Wade’s elbow, and her eyes found his.
“Sure yer alright?” he asked, taking her hand.
“I’m fine,” she softly replied as he helped her off the table. “But get me a late dinner and a drink and I’ll tell you whatever you want.”