Oh, somewhere in this favoured land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,
But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.
He didn’t move for some time, as he sat on the floor of that AT&T Stadium. The Champion had left after basking in the glow of victory. No one quite knew where the former Anti-Champion had gone. Best leave that to rampant speculation. But the Bear? He sat there, with his prodigious back against the section of cage which still stood.
And for as big as he was, in that moment of glory for Hayes Hanlon, Ivan Stanislav could not have been smaller. The sexagenarian Russian Bear always carried with him a momentum that, when he willed it, could not be stopped. And for once, he allowed himself a moment’s rest.
It had happened again.
Just like in PCW all those years ago.
A nemesis. Someone younger. Someone faster. No, not stronger. And surely, not someone who had more heart than him.
And for all of the similarities, this was so, so different.
It hurt so much more.
No one on the crew dared to interrupt Ivan as he sat there. Even when they started to pull apart the wreckage of the ring and began the arduous task of deconstructing what was left of the cage.
It took a long time for the fans to leave. With that big Russian bastard sitting there, they hurled insults, launched epithets, and tossed barbs at him with reckless abandon. They verbally kicked him while he was down behind the protection of their barricades and aided by The Bear’s own unwillingness to move.
The only man who dared to approach him was the only one on this planet who ever could.
He staggered with his hand over part of his face. Blood trickled from the wound opened up from the handcuffs that he brought into the ring. His baton was twisted from using it to exact painful damage against both Hanlon and Rezin.
It wasn’t enough.
Can two old men quench the fire of one young man? Can anything be done?
His legs hurt. Embarrassment still lingered from his failed descent down the cage. Rage and pain and frustration drove him up the structure. All the while, a voice, wholly rational, annoying, nagging, and realistic, screamed to him to never, ever go up there. Emotion, desperation, and fear drowned it out.
Ivan mulled over these things and Alexei stood to the side just enough to be in his periphery. Let Ivan decide when to look at him.
Ivan didn’t look at him. But he did speak.
“I threw her away.”
Ruslan only heard part of it, “Praporshchik?”
Stanislav did not answer and instead chose to remain silent. Alexei, always the mindful and tactful friend, gave him his space. He did not push Ivan. He did not rush him. It all rested on the edge of a knife.
There would be hell to pay at home. A shitstorm, as the more crass members of PRIME would say. There would be reports and excuses. There would be explanations and justifications. There would be brow beatings and second guessings. Ruslan frowned. These would all be bothersome, and losing the title was painful in itself. But for him? What hurt worse? Ivan wouldn’t receive his promotion. Their great plans for PRIME when they won were not coming to fruition.
It was awkward around the two Russians. The men and women who were tearing down certainly would have liked them to move. Still, no one dared to go near either of them.
Finally, Ivan Stanislav twisted his aching body toward Alexei Ruslan and put out his huge paw.
Ruslan took it.
He helped mighty Ivan to his feet. He looked like hell. Perhaps memory had changed his perception, but Alexei wasn’t sure he had ever seen Ivan look worse in his wrestling career. Truly, the only time he may have ever looked worse, to Alexei, was in Afghanistan, when Ivan fought for his life in a hospital. All the while, the haggard, bedraggled, bleeding Stanislav stared down at Alexei and in his friends face, he thought beyond the descent and his own knees.
That look on their face when Ruslan came out from beneath the ring? Priceless.
Destroying the cage wall? Fantastic.
And that bottom feeder, Hanlon, did nothing but snatch the belt from Ivan after he himself, singularly, dispatched the current Champion. Cowardly.
If such a win was good enough for Hayes Hanlon. So be it. Yes. If that was good enough for him, then let him accept such a tainted victory.
Just like the first one.
Ruslan saw the slight grin that showed on the damaged Russian Bear and his expression was one of confusion. Ivan’s voice was hoarse.
“Let us leave the bullshit in Russia for now, eh? We are in America. I have yeeting to do in just a few hours, anyway.”
Alexei smiled, “Yes, Praporshchik.”
Yes, he was old and his body wasn’t what it was, but this Bear wasn’t going to just roll over and die. He would grapple with it more in the days, weeks, and months to come. We all do. But right now? It didn’t matter.
Ivan limped on damaged, aching legs while supporting his much smaller friend with one huge arm. Alexei supported his enormous friend and walked along with him. Together, they limped and wobbled away from the wreckage which was the Hell in a Cell. They limped together, like good Bolsheviks.
The crowds had left and the crew was working. But if someone was listening just right, beyond the din of the ratcheting and the movement of the wreckage, they might have heard something under the old Bear’s breath: