Alexei Ruslan threw the papers on Ivan Stanislav’s oversized desk and screamed, “Can you believe this shit?!” But as he looked over at his enormous friend, Ivan’s brown eyes told the tale. He had already seen a copy of what Ruslan had thrown.
The rain in Kaliningrad matched the drawn look on Ivan’s face. Storm clouds choked the sunlight beyond the panes of glass and the few interior light fixtures failed to convey much warmth. The mood between the two Russians only seemed to invite the dreary exterior inside.
Ruslan was hoping for a more animated Russian Bear, but he didn’t get it.
“What can one do, Alexei?” grumbled Ivan. “The Motherland is demanding woman. Can any single man truly sate her expectations?”
Ruslan wasn’t about to give up so easily. He tapped his finger against the documents, “This is bullshit, Ivan!” He was nearly shaking. “Borisov and his ilk think you are lacking in killer instinct in ring? You nearly destroyed the Freeman Coliseum!” This was true, but they stated, specifically, that Stanislav should have crushed Hayes Hanlon with the soda machine, not thrown him into it.
That was the long and short of the memo which both Russians had received. The overseers of “Operation: Sleeping Bear” were not content with Stanislav’s performance, despite exceeding most expectations. One might argue it was their duty to have unassailable expectations. But the orders were clear. On April 2, Stanislav was to have an exhibition against a wrestler of Ruslan’s choosing. There, Rostya Borisov and the other powerful Russians would carefully observe Ivan’s conduct in the ring.
“So I have exhibition to prove myself?” Stanislav said to himself as he leaned forward and fixed an errant suspender. “So be it.”
Ruslan hated seeing his friend in such an impassive state. Many times Ivan stonewalled people emotionally, but Alexei could see through that tactic. He’d been with Ivan long enough. But this? Something was on Ivan’s mind, and for all the years of experience he had, Alexei could not decipher the secret message behind those eyes.
Ivan plucked up a nondescript wooden case which rested permanently on his desk. It had a glass window, from which to see the contents. His large fingers trailed along the smooth glass reading nonexistent braille. It held several small items which were of great significance to him. The fingers did not stop at the medals, like the Order of Lenin, nor even the prestigious Hero of the Soviet Union. The newest acquisition, For the Merit of the Fatherland, did not impede the digits, and they even moved beyond his deceased brother, Kliment’s, dog tag. Finally, Ivan rested his fingers above the last of the treasured items. It was wholly out of place, nestled amongst the cold, glittering representations of war and valor.
A purple feather.
Alexei was speaking, but Ivan did not hear his words. He just stared through the old, smudged glass at the infinitely precious feather. It was the final physical manifestation of a person who had, at one time, created a breathtaking change in The Russian Bear.
Rachel “Tempest” Tyrell
On April 2, 2023, the exhibition was held as requested. Alexei Ruslan sat in the bleachers of the modern gymnasium in Moscow, rather than standing at ringside as backup for Ivan Stanislav. He felt like a fish out of water. Closer to ringside and off to his left, a dozen old Russians with their wives, mistresses, and girlfriends carried on with drink and food in hand. Rostya Borisov, the aging intelligence officer more powerful than even Ruslan himself, served as executioner for the evening.
Ivan stood like some bewildered ursine goliath. Even while wearing the wrestling gear he had worn for most of his career, this all felt so foreign. Never in the past did he have to prove himself to his own people.
Across from him was bald-headed Stefan Kulikov. The young man of twenty-five had just fallen short of the Russian Olympic Wrestling Team. Still, his defined three-hundred pounds stretched his red and white wrestling singlet. It was the official singlet worn by Russian Olympians, complete with the Russian flag emblazoned over his heart. Yes, Ruslan had picked him, but not primarily for ability, though it was impressive. He picked him for the bushy mustache he wore above his lip.
Stefan was respectful though. He knew the honor, and opportunity, when wrestling Ivan Stanislav. He had politely shaken his hand and offered the grizzled veteran typical words of respect. Yet he also knew that if he were to somehow defeat this decorated national hero his meal ticket would be stamped. It was always a game in Russia.
It was not the distance from the ring, or even the remote chance that Stanislav might fail that made Alexei uneasy. It had been Ivan himself. Since that day the memo was sent, Stanislav’s emotional distance had persisted and try as he might, Ruslan could not understand fully what was going on in his friend’s mind.
Was pulling him out of hibernation a mistake? Alexei had known there were risks involved. The shock of modern life, getting back into wrestling shape, and learning a new, more contemporary craft. But he had not fully considered the feather, and what it meant. Leaving his apartment after so long exposed Ivan not just to the changes of the world, but also to the changes, or perhaps stagnation, of his heart.
If only, Ruslan lamented, he had this one chance to peer into the soul of his old friend and listen to his thoughts.
The young pup across the ring from me had the same look as so many others: opportunity at my expense. Polite as he might have been, I saw through it immediately. My paranoia manifested concern: was he here because my superiors wanted to supplant me? This was a common means of retirement in Russia.
Alexei was far away, sitting there on the bleachers. With no referee and yet a timekeeper present, our masters would decide when the contest was over. Not some official.
Without fanfare, the bell rang and the boy approached. He was a young man with a wife, evident by the indentation on his otherwise naked ring finger. He had to provide for a family. He had something to fight for. Best to feed from the carcass of an aging bear.
I allowed him to brazenly throw a punch. It hit rock as it thudded against my chest. But the boy, for his size, was quick. He followed with an elbow which snapped my head backward. The whiplash slowed time and my thoughts left the ring and the people near and far who were watching. I left the boy who fought to drag fame from my body and my thoughts traveled elsewhere.
I thought of the owner of the feather. Known to most in wrestling circles as…
I can only imagine you listening to me. For I know we may never speak again. You are the only one who I can tell the most protected feelings of my being. I miss talking to you about these things, Tempest. In lieu of actually doing it, I must settle for musing in my mind.
But where do I start?
First, allow me to wish you a happy belated birthday! Us Russians are superstitious at times. April 1 may be April Fools’ Day for most, but since knowing you, I have only known it as your glorious day of birth. I am almost embarrassed to admit it still holds special meaning to me.
Do you know the great things that I am doing? That I, at such an age, and after going through so much, can still wrestle competitively in a federation for which, inwardly, I have so much respect. PRIME! To be able to do it alongside my closest comrade in all my life, Alexei, is a gift the likes of which I can never have deserved. It brings me such life-fulfilling affirmation. Still, the landscape is so different now. My first match upon my return, embarrassingly, was a defeat at the hands of a young upstart named Hayes Hanlon. I thought it would be a triumphant return, but instead I served as nothing more than a springboard for a young boy with many years left to give to this profession. I stubbornly denied the defeat publicly. But I know the truth. I always do.
Tempest, I refuse to accept that my time is over even as it hurtles toward a close.
As I recover my senses and grab the boy, I scoop him and slam him effortlessly. His nearly three hundred pounds are as light as your feather. Still, he returns. Fire burns in his eyes and spews from his lungs and he is upon me like a maggot on carrion. He has something that I have lost and shall never recover: youth. Jealousy pervades my being. He uses youth against me and hits me again and again. My knees do not wish to move quickly, and so I absorb the blows with my physique. I don’t show it, but it hurts.
How I hate how much it hurts.
He is so young and has so much more life to live, Tempest! Hanlon is the same way. He ridicules me about my age and insults my way of life. The fact the bastard beat me enables it to sting. Of course, you would certainly know that these transgressions would not go unanswered. You know how I hold grudges. And when it was time to finally get my hands on him?
The fly in the ointment, Tempest, came in the form of a complete failure of a human being: Rezin. If Hanlon represented the up-and-coming energy and foolishness of youth, Rezin represented something more abhorrent: a complete lack of self-respect, order, and decency that should come with maturity. My calculated plan to trap Hanlon and exact my revenge backfired spectacularly.
In my fear of dwindling time, I became desperate. I feel as if an avalanche could fall upon me at any moment, Tempest, and when it does it will be over.
I will be over.
Now I must battle both miscreants, Rezin and Hanlon, for the Universal Title! It is my chance to etch my name in the annals of PRIME forever. I cannot allow myself to be stopped from succeeding in this endeavor. I failed once, many years ago. I will not accept failure again.
People nowadays are so different, Tempest. They have no respect for anyone. Not even for you. They use your beautiful name as a cudgel against me. They batter me with it in order to hurt me, since they are too weak to physically dominate me.
I want to think more about this, but this irritating boy is relentless and I am growing tired of him! I bury my forearm into the youth and pin him against the turnbuckle. Alexei watches from the bleachers. The idiots who forced me into this position drink and take pictures of themselves.
So I think of you, my dear. For beyond Tempest, I learned of someone most did not know. I was allowed the rare honor to know…
My life has a way of distracting me from the deep rooted care and feelings that I have. Yet, somehow and for some reason, in this moment of battle my mind can but focus on you. And in this clarifying moment, I can only think to myself what I so dearly wish I could say to you. For beyond Tempest, you are Rachel. What I wish to say is more important than wrestling. It may not be anything seismic in nature, Rachel, but these are thoughts and feelings that I harbor deep inside at all times.
Do you remember the feather I kept in my pocket, Rachel, back when we were in OSW? It was from your favorite boa. When I realized that I had feelings for you, I snatched the feather and kept it as a memento. Little would I have known that you would eventually accept my love. Did you know that, after all these years, it still sits with my most prized possessions?
I miss you, Rachel. Every day, I miss you. The tempestuous specter of your presence has never once abandoned me. I never could have imagined that your spirit would remain with me for so long in my life and yet it effortlessly lingers in the corners of my heart.
And I wish, dear Rachel, that you could be here with me. Or I could be with you. Wherever you are.
For I yearn for you in a way that is so alien from that of the collectivization and communism which frames the bulwark of my very existence. My desire for you occupies an otherwise vacuous hole in my heart. Your short presence in my long life dampened the smoke, lifted the shades, and allowed light into an existence where so much darkness prevailed. You tore down great prisons that I had unwittingly built in my soul by simply being. Rachel.
I am snapped from my thoughts to find the boy trying to slam me. No doubt a vain attempt to show off for the audience. He may be strong enough to lift me, but I shift my weight just right and it’s too much for him. He collapses with me on top of him and I hammer him for his audacity.
Part of me harbors a great, forbidden regret and as I cannot ask anyone else, I choose to ask you. Even if in this one-sided and self-fulfilling way.
Do you think, in another time and place, we could have remained together? I would have enjoyed growing old with you and no longer fighting. Sometimes, I imagine we could have had a little boy or girl together. I would have liked to have been a father. You would have been a fine mother.
Rachel? Do you ever think about these things?
Do you ever wish that I was in your life?
I am a good man, Rachel. I try to do what is right for the world. Despite what others might say. Did you know that I once met a young girl named Zofia? It was on my birthday. She thought I was Greatfather Frost! She told me that near and far, my friends love me.
I wish I could continue musing on this fairy tale, but it is foolish and I am embarrassed. Maybe ashamed? Nevertheless, beyond these secret questions of mine, the match has reached a fever pitch and even the carousing audience members were watching. Best give them what they want.
I make it quick. I level him with The Iron Curtain, and throw him across the ring with The Red Scare. He falls awkwardly on the canvas and it should be over. But there is no bell.
They want more.
The distraction of your presence, so beautiful in my mind’s eye, Rachel, managed to mask the multiple aches that now manifest across my body. But it was time to teach my overseers that I had not lost a step. There would be no hesitation. It was time to finish the boy. Nothing short of absolute victory. So, I grab his chin and arm so I can break him before their eyes. And yet?
Could the men I swore were fools be right? In PCW and OSW I would not have hesitated. But, unconsciously, I forbid myself from doing what should have been effortless. Why?! Alexei was standing. They were watching. Do it, Ivan!
Was I wrong?
Were they right?
The tidal wave of realization crashed into me.
You are not Tempest any longer. Nor are you Rachel. You are someone else. You are just…
What if you were watching from afar?
It is illogical, but I fear you can somehow see me in this moment. And what about ReVival or Culture Shock? What if you watched me there?
What if I did something horrific and you saw it? What if it proved that leaving me was the right decision?
I understand now. I am not stopping myself.
The care I still hold for you is not reciprocated, is it? Why?
In this moment of lucidity I realize that young Zofia was wrong about you. You care not for me. And why? I am a hero, Ms. Tyrell! I bring hope to the hopeless. Strangers write to me because I am worth it. Remember Speedy Riggs? He has growing children and they call me Uncle! They love me because I am an honorable person. I protect Russia, I defend structure and order, and yet the one who I allowed into the most unprotected part of my heart ignores me. You not once reached out. Did you?
You moved on and you do not care what I think and feel. My fears and worries are meaningless to you. My successes are nonexistent. I have been fooling myself for all these years. Everything I still hold in my heart means nothing!
I am nothing to you.
Tempest is gone and Rachel is but a fond illusion I stupidly cling to.
You have been silently strangling me for twenty years, Ms. Tyrell!
It was you.
How could you do this to me? You threaten to take the Universal Title from me? You would make me hesitate over some feelings that are so important to me, but ring hollow for you? I need to win this title and I refuse to let you steal this from me! I deny you the satisfaction of taking the last thing I have in this life. For I have no companion or children, nor do I have time. I have but this ring and my duty and your emptiness will not sabotage it!
My relevance is no longer tied to you.
It is tied to PRIME and the Universal Title.
It still hurts, but I must let you go. I cannot let you leech off of me any longer. Why bother keeping that love in my heart if all it does is hurt me?
I cannot succeed in my match for the Universal Title and still hold onto you.
One of them has to go and I hate that the choice is so easy.
Saying goodbye to her obliterated the hesitation in his heart. In a fit of painful, frustrated rage, Ivan broke the boy’s arm in three places and shattered his nose and cheeks. The attendees, including Alexei, rose to their feet and cheered with raucous approval while Ivan roared with fervor that masked the painful nature of the ordeal.
Ruslan went home supremely pleased with his friend. He was embarrassed to have wondered what was going through Ivan’s mind. To him, Ivan had acted decisively and without reservation.
If only he knew.
Ivan fled to Kaliningrad that evening, alone. He ignored Borisov and shunned Ruslan. Retreating to his office, he sat illuminated by his lone desk lamp, which dragged irregular shadows across his lined face.
Ivan expected to be made whole after dispatching Kulikov.
The hardening of his heart was supposed to free him.
He had little time to digest the many “why’s” that were going through his mind even if the pain persisted and frustrated him. Rachel Tyrell, Tempest, was gone. He broke through his hopeful lies. She had to be removed from his plans and schemes.
Hanlon, Rezin, Troy, and the others had forced him to reckon with his heart and they would experience his own suffering ten-fold. Trapping Hanlon and Rezin in a cage was just the remedy he needed. Their destruction and the Universal Title was the salve to mask the wound.
PRIME was all he had and he would lord over it, victorious. That meant holding the title and dictating to all the nay-sayers and jokesters that he was the alpha. He would shove it down Lindsay Troy’s throat until she choked and then laugh in her smarmy face. War had little use for sentimentality.
He willfully used the Universal Title to distract from the festering rot in his psyche. The Title would allow him to continue his own ignorance. It was both rage and fear that drove him. Rage against those he hated and fear from facing these events and unearthing an ugly and emotional truth.
Best focus on the rage.
He nodded to himself and finalized the death of his dogged nostalgia. Ivan opened his wooden case and removed the feather from its cradle. Its soft, beautiful form held the memories of a different time, a different place, and a different person. It was the final act necessary to say goodbye. He ignored the moisture which warped his vision.
It fell from his fingers and wafted into the dustbin.
They would pay for this. All of them.