“Hey, instead of taking you home, why don’t we go out and grab something to eat?”
Maksim Stepanov’s smug smile widened as he propped his hip against Arina Timofeyevna’s desk. He silently thanked the heavens when her rusted, jalopy car had finally died and she had quietly asked if he could drive her home until she could afford a replacement.
Hopefully that never happened.
Arina exhaled heavily, her shoulders sagging. She reached up to brush a lock of dark black hair away from the side of her face. Her gaze met Maksim’s, who was wearing his usual smug expression. His blonde hair was slicked back and heavy with gel that clung in the air around him, along with the strong scent of the cologne he doused himself in.
“I’ve told you before, Maksim, I appreciate the offer but I have to get home. My dad will be mad if I’m late.”
She’d worked with Maksim for, gosh, over a year now, but he always was so… unsettling. She unconsciously pulled the neck of her blouse tighter to her body as she glanced up at him, feeling completely exposed and vulnerable. She wished she could have kept her denim jacket draped around her shoulders for protection; instead, she had hung it in the closet a few minutes before he arrived.
Still, Arina felt heat come to her cheeks as she mentally chastised herself. She shouldn’t have such negative thoughts about someone who was gracious enough to give her a ride home. Maksim wasn’t great company, but he hadn’t actually done anything to warrant her trepidation.
She tried to change the subject.
“Are you excited to go back to the United States? I don’t know anything about Louis-Ville.”
“Louisville, Arina.” Maksim replied as he rolled his eyes. “You can be such a bumpkin. And yeah, it should be fun. That crowd, huh?”
She frowned. “Yeah, that crowd.”
With a tilt of his head, Maksim studied the pretty girl’s face. “What?”
“I just…” she started with a shrug, “I don’t understand why they yell at Praporshchik, I mean, Starshy Praporshchik so much. Yes, his words were harsh but… why can’t they just like him? Don’t they understand that he does all of this for them? It makes me sad.”
“You can be so naïve, Rina.” Maksim said with a chuckle. “He says he does it for them, but he’s doing it for, what, us? For himself? Who knows. Sometimes I don’t think the old man even knows himself!”
“I prefer Arina,” she replied softly, “and you shouldn’t call him ‘old man.’ It’s disrespectful.”
“He’s so hard of hearing he’d never know anyway.” Maksim said with cockiness oozing from his voice.
“He’s still very brave to go out there and fight for us…” She trailed off thoughtful and then opened her mouth to speak once more, when the door to the office flew open. For a moment, she expected to see a mass of humanity filling the frame, but that wouldn’t be right. She would have heard him approaching.
Instead, it was a much smaller individual, but in many ways much more dangerous.
Clad in his brown overcoat and hat, Ruslan stepped into the office with a loud thud as the door shut behind him. Maksim, who had just been leaning over Arina’s desk, quickly jumped away from her, while the much older Alexei offered a disapproving frown.
“You don’t look like you’re working.” Ruslan barked at Maksim, who crossed his arms casually and shrugged in response.
“I was helping Arina,” he replied smugly, glancing towards her in amusement.
Ruslan stared down at Arina intently and waited for her response. She flinched beneath his gaze before stammering, “He… was just looking for the addresses of the arrangements in Louis-ville. I… I mean Louisville.” A complicit smile tugged at the corners of Maksim’s mouth.
Raising an eyebrow, Alexei stepped back and crossed his arms to observe Maksim. His youth was plain to see, but the smirk on his face made Ruslan seethe. The son of a wealthy oligarch, Maksim was the polar opposite of the people Ruslan wanted to work with. His father’s money insured that the whelp had a job in Stanislav’s office. Even Ruslan couldn’t outright fire him. Alexei had little choice but to work at the behest of his more affluent countrymen. And their sons.
Still, that didn’t mean he had to deal with Maksim if he didn’t want to.
“Well you got the address. You are wasting Starshy Praporshchik’s labor hours pretending to be a statue, Maksim. Hit the road.”
“Yes Sir…” Maksim growled as he nodded at Arina. “I’ll see you in the garage at 5.” Then, he walked past Ruslan, moving nearly to the point of shouldering into the older man, but even he didn’t dare.
As the door shut behind him, Alexei whirled around and lifted a brow at Arina. He nodded back toward the door where Maksim had just exited. “Anything interesting from him?”
Compromising the meek and gentle Arina had been easy, since Maksim couldn’t keep his hormones in check when around the cute girl. Alexei feared she might lose her nerve from time to time, but Arina knew what she had to do: Report anything and everything about Maksim to Alexei. Especially any counter-productive talk or work.
Young people were always so stupid. They always thought they were invincible. They always thought they knew everything.
Knowing everything was Alexei’s job.
“No, Mr. Ruslan,” Arina said softly as she drew her arms around herself and cast her gaze to the floor. She felt like her heart was in her throat, fear coursing through her veins as she hoped to hide her dread from Ruslan’s prying eyes. “Maksim said nothing of interest.”
Ruslan didn’t even spare her a glance as he strode to the huge double doors which served as the last defense before entering Ivan Stanislav’s den. Arina took a deep breath and opened her mouth to speak once more, but he had already thrown the doors open and peered inside.
But Ivan wasn’t there.
He checked his watch and indeed, Ivan should have been in his office. The man was, if nothing else, always devoted to his work. With a puzzled look, Alexei peered at Arina. “Where is he?”
“Out.” Arina replied.
It had been a decade since Speedy Riggs had stood in Moscow and he had forgotten how dreary the city could be. He felt a chill run through him and knew it wasn’t just from the cold drizzle that was slowly soaking his black umbrella. Everywhere he looked were towering buildings surrounded by gray clouds, with only the occasional patch of bright light peeking through. The oppressive weight of the city seemed to hang in the air like a damp fog, muted laughter and music barely reached him. Even in the park in which he stood, there was no warmth. He missed the colorful energy of Havana.
Pulling the long coat that Ivan had given him around himself, he was grateful that Ivan was so thoughtful. Without it, his Hawaiian shirt wouldn’t have been enough to keep off the cold Moscow rain. Speedy hoped his Cuban blood would thicken soon enough that he’d get used to the drop in temperature. He suspected he wouldn’t be visiting his family much. Not when Ivan needed him to help in PRIME.
“What in the world is going on out here?” Alexei said as he approached Speedy from behind. His coat and hat had done enough to shield himself from the light drizzle that clung to his cheeks, though it didn’t seem to bother him. Riggs turned and smiled at Alexei, then moved the umbrella to cover both of them.
Speedy nodded out towards the jogging track, illuminated by the dull, gray sky. “Hi Alexei.”
What Alexei saw nearly blew his mind. He blinked hard, once, as it to dispel what he was seeing. But it persisted.
Ivan Stanislav was jogging.
Heavy splattering footfalls chased droplets of water this way and that over the cement track as Stanislav’s combat boots hammered the moisture below. Wet socks, pulled up high enough to be along his shins, clung tightly to his legs and calves. A white and blue striped tank top clung tightly to his barrel chest and stomach. Ivan lumbered as he moved, like a great grizzly bear tromping through an invisible forest. But no, it wasn’t all of that which nearly short-circuited Ruslan’s brain.
Ivan Stanislav was wearing shorts.
The Russian Bear rounded the final corner and approached Ruslan and Riggs. He was breathing hard, his abdomen heaving with exertion, his jogging maintaining its cadence. The steam of his breath mixed with his own sweat and trickled down his beard, which hung in great strings like vines clinging to an ancient rock. As he stopped before the two of them, he let out a loud exhalation of steam and roared mightily.
Riggs checked a stopwatch and smiled. “Your best yet, Starshy Praporshchik!”
Alexei could only blink as he looked up at his mammoth old friend. “Ivan, what are you doing?”
It had been a busy couple of weeks since Ivan Stanislav won the Universal Title. The two of them, Ivan and Alexei, hadn’t even had much time to talk as the whirlwind of public appearances and preparation for the Almasy Tournament had devoured their lives. But as Alexei stared at the man before him, who was very much the same man he’d known for almost fifty years, something was definitely different.
He seemed… happy.
“What does it look like I am doing, Alyosha?” Ivan boomed. “I am jogging.”
Ruslan was beyond confused. “But why?”
Stanislav was huffing and puffing all the same, and while Speedy stretched to cover him with the umbrella, Ivan waved him off.
“Why?” Ivan said as he swallowed thickly and then grateful drank from a bottle of water that Riggs gave him. “I need to stay in shape!”
It still didn’t compute. Ruslan shook his head. “Ivan, you are gifted with tremendous genetics. I do not believe I have ever seen you exercise at all. Surely you don’t have to do it now?”
But The Russian Bear shook his head slowly and firmly. “No, Alexei. I saw all those competitors at the first round of the Almasy Tournament. And Brandon Youngblood nearly made my heart stop pumping at UltraViolence. It is for the best. I am Universal Champion, after all!” Ivan positively beamed, pride emanating from every pore. His eyes twinkled mischievously as he rubbed his hands together with satisfaction and he let out another gout of steam from his maw of a mouth.
But Ruslan kept his guard up all the same.
“I know but…”
“But… but… but…” Ivan interrupted and playfully slapped Alexei’s arm. “Enough butting, my old friend. Are you a goat? DYAAHAAHAA!! Even I could use some working out from time to time. Why don’t you run with me, hm?”
Ruslan frowned. “No thank you.” He then looked at Speedy. “Do you mind giving us a moment, Pedro?”
“Of course, Alexei.” Speedy said with a smile and turned on his heel and walked some distance away.
“Come, Alexei,” Ivan said warmly, “a little jog in the rain will not hurt anyone. I need to do this. I need to be ready. I can say I want to keep this belt forever, but every one of those competitors wants my head.” The grizzled Bear shook his head. “Their chances might be remote, but there is always a chance.”
Ruslan gave Stanislav a slow look up and down. “But shorts, Ivan?”
Ivan chuckled and rolled his eyes. “Just do not take any pictures, and you rub out anyone who does, okay?”
Despite his confusion, Alexei smiled. “I assure you I will not document any of this, nor allow any of it to exist in the historical record.” He then added. “I will even try to delete it from my own memory!”
The drizzle had lessened while Alexei stared at his friend. Steam rose off Ivan in light wisps and plumes that curled away from his body. Ivan looked youthful, energized, and joyful. He beamed as he smiled up into the gray sky above them. The wrinkles around his eyes were permanent, but did not detract from how ruggedly handsome he was when he smiled with his whole face. For the first time in what seemed like a long time, when Ivan smiled, it actually reached his eyes.
Ivan let out a spontaneous whoop of joy, as a sudden wave of catharsis hit him. “I have done it, Alexei. We, together, have done it. I am Universal Champion!” He shook his head and sent flecks of water this way and that. “At my age, can you believe it?”
Alexei tilted his head and smiled in response, the water from his hat cascading onto his chest. “Yes, I have always known it, Vanya.” He patted Ivan’s back in affirmation. He flicked the water from his fingers.
“My life,” Ivan continued, “I feel it finally means something. PCW and OSW are dead and gone but PRIME? It will live forever. And so will my name.” He bumped Ruslan’s shoulder with his elbow. “Whether they like it or not.” Stanislav nodded towards Speedy, who began to make his way back. “But, I need to get back to running, my friend. It never hurts!”
Before Riggs had returned fully, Alexei gripped Ivan’s wrist, “I wanted to talk to you about the Jabber situation, Ivan, I–”
But Stanislav cut him off. “Alexei, relax. It will be rectified. Lindsay Troy will see the error of her ways, but for now? Just take it in stride. It has been well over a month…”
“Yes, it HAS been well over a month I–”
“…and what is a few more weeks?” Stanislav steamrolled him.
Ruslan’s face flattened and he fluttered his eyes. “Well… your plans for The Red Army, I–”
“Alexei.” Ivan said softly as Riggs fully arrived and produced his stopwatch. The Russian Bear squeezed Alexei’s shoulder tightly. “Trust me. It will be all right.”
With Riggs’ return, Stanislav winked at Alexei and resumed his workout. Alexei stared at his lumbering friend, jogging, and in shorts. He could only mutter to himself as The Bear lumbered around the far corner.
“What the fuck is going on?”
Despite his smaller stature and public profile, Alexei Ruslan’s apartment was bigger and larger than that of Ivan’s. He sat in the dark at his computer, which was far more advanced than what his Universal Champion counterpart possessed in his own office. A woman called from the other room.
“When are you coming to bed, Mr. Ruslan?”
“Whenever I am ready. Just hold on.” He called back and shook his head. She had nearly derailed his concentration.
Alexei rested back in his chair, steepled his fingers, and ran took inventory of this very strange day. Why was he feeling the way that he did? It wasn’t jealousy. He was anything but jealous of Ivan Stanislav. Ivan had finally achieved what Alexei always knew he would, and it brought him insurmountable joy to see the peace that his friend had found.
It wasn’t even Jabber which was, in many ways, nothing but a sideshow. Yes, it hurt his pride and surely he didn’t expect Lindsay Troy and her annoying daughter to drag this out for so long and yet it wasn’t even that.
So what was it?
He hadn’t felt this way since Tempest.
His eyes trailed his file folders as he thought back to earlier in the day, in Ivan’s office when he spoke to Arina and…
Maksim Stepanov, whether he realized it or not, had sealed his fate on the night of UltraViolence 2022. As the defeated Ivan Stanislav trudged backstage after a stunning loss to Hayes Hanlon, the fool had intercepted Ruslan to gloat.
“Perhaps next time, the two of you should listen to me.”
Yes, Maksim had offered several foolish ideas leading up to the match, and yes, Ruslan could see the glimmer in that young man’s eyes as he basked in the loss. Alexei remembered every contour of that young face, those greedy eyes, and that wry, gloating smiled. It was the look of a traitor. A capitalist reveling in another’s misfortune.
He swore he’d make him pay.
“He’s Universal Champ now, you snot nosed son of a bitch…” Ruslan grumbled to himself.
He closed the file and plucked up his phone and pressed one single button.
“This is Ruslan. I want information on all assets and properties owned by the Stepanov’s.”
He hung up the phone without awaiting an answer. Although many challenges lay before him, he chose to concentrate on one specific task that he was able to tackle by himself.
Time to tie a knot around one loose end.