I was enjoying Lenin at forty-thousand feet when Alexei snapped me out of my reverie with an exclamation.
“Eddie Cross!” He said with excitement, holding a large bottle of vodka. My gaze from behind my glasses told him I didn’t follow his pronouncement.
“Your next opponent, Vanya. Eddie Cross!” He poured me a glass and raised his own. “To our victory!!”
What victory was to be had in maiming a young man?
Still, I complied with the toast.
To you, Eddie.
I was through mauling the innocent.
Alexei sat in his dark office and shook his head. His cozy executive chair granted him little comfort and the burgundy carpeting and teak walls projected scant warmth. He rocked agitatedly and listened to the “squeaka squeaka” of the hinges. A week had passed, and Ivan still hadn’t begun preparations. What was he waiting for?! When Ivan finally texted him, it brought only further dismay to his old friend.
22 July 2023
“Alexei, has there been any word about the condition of Stefan Kulikov and his family?”
Alexei rubbed the bridge of his nose and spoke to the darkness.
Typically, when a sacrificial lamb was announced for ReVival, Ivan’s war machine exploded to life. Arina made reservations, Yanukovich worked the ad campaign, Maksim coordinated with Russian media, and Alexei gathered intelligence. All the while, Ivan anchored the maelstrom, directing traffic and preparing for his opponents’ complete destruction.
Eddie Cross should have been just another piece of unrefined metal fed to the machine, doomed to be reduced to scrap.
This time, however, it wasn’t so easy.
Pre-Culture Shock had inflicted a silent psychological wound in Ivan that had refused to heal, and Alexei had a hand in the injury. Lindsay Troy, who had certainly been responsible for booking the match, was unwittingly leading Ivan and Alexei to an emotional reckoning.
To prove he had what it took to win at Culture Shock, Stanislav’s doubting, manipulative superiors had demanded that he prove himself in an exercise of loyalty. This act of fealty, hidden behind the facade of an exhibition match, required Ivan to wrestle and defeat an opponent of Alexei’s choosing. The circus bear was forced to dance in front of his overseers. However, they only allowed the match to end after compelling Ivan to maim Alexei’s challenger of choice: the aforementioned Stefan Kulikov, an up-and-coming Russian wrestler.
Alexei was unaware that such bloodletting was required, but still he cheered with approval while a vacant Stanislav broke Kulikov’s arm and shattered his jaw. It wasn’t until Ivan, with Kulikov’s blood still on his hands, walked past Alexei without a second look that he knew it had gone too far. The guilt that Alexei felt in his stomach had nothing to do with the howling boy. It was for his tortured friend.
Ivan broke an innocent Russian. A cardinal sin, even for the atheist.
Still, emotions were pesky things. A victory at Culture Shock would wipe the slate clean.
It never came.
Alexei sneered to himself.
Defeated and battered in a post-Culture Shock reality, Ivan insisted on a hospital visit to see the shattered boy when Kulikov’s pregnant cow-wife barged into the room! The shame on Ivan’s face was unmistakable.
How dare that bitch try to drive a wedge between them and tear open that wound! The gall of the woman to hurt his friend and threaten their great patriotic work!
Those damned Kulikovs.
The memory of that exhibition stayed with Ivan, but he could take his mind off it sometimes. Jared Sykes provided a momentary respite from his grief. The pain roared anew after Sykes was vanquished. But a lull in Ivan’s Universal Title opponent and the Cross booking only made the pain more pronounced.
Ruslan blinked and stopped rocking. The squeaking hinges silenced. Was Ivan’s hesitation based on concern for Eddie Cross? Particularly in the wake of Kulikov?
Was this possible?
He sneered and thought of that dumb little bastard Bolamba.
“You little fucker…”
To think, at one time, Alexei used his talents to actually find the whelp when he was unconscious in a desert! He should have left him to die.
First things first. Respond to Ivan.
“I will look into it, Praporshchik.”
He dialed a phone number. Two rings. Olga Karishnikov, the young, beautiful anchor from Russia One picked up.
“Ms. Karishnikov? This is Mr. Ruslan. Yes. I need a favor.”
He hung up and grinned broadly. “Do not worry, Vanya, I will fix this.”
Time to burn the midnight oil.
Timo was always annoyingly positive, but never more than when he presented baby Eddie. How he paraded you around for all of us to see! This fat little child held in proud, steely fingers. Rachel gushed over you, and while Alexei and I joked at how ridiculous your father was, I wondered if I would ever be so lucky?
I was not.
I held your diapered body in my palm, Eddie. So fragile and innocent.
You are still just a child in a vulnerable time of your life. This is not dismissive, just honest. The wins and losses, the betrayal of Gibson, the issues with your father? It is a lot for a young man, trying his best to survive this harsh world.
You do not need an old, Cold Warrior making it harder.
What is a single loss in my illustrious career if it stops your painful downward spiral?
Is this mercy?
“I felt the interview went well.” Olga’s discomfort was veiled under a pretense of relaxed calm. Her almond eyes fluttered as she sipped her wine. Ruslan had insisted on an interview hyping Ivan’s match, and she was pleasantly surprised when Stanislav politely offered her dinner afterwards. She studied him curiously. Their relationship had evolved into one of unexpected friendship, but he was typically more jovial. His gentlemanly nature insisted on dinner, but he took no enjoyment in it.
Earlier, at the news desk, The Russian Bear was far different. Clad in striking military uniform and dazzling medals, he ensured the absolute destruction of the upstart, Eddie Cross, and swore to bring victory to the Motherland. Yet he had come to a decision and, inwardly, his pronouncements were hollow.
She felt they should have been celebrating. Why so sullen after such a triumphant spectacle? If only she knew.
His complexity bordered on frustration. What consternated this puzzle of a man?
His growl interrupted her thoughts.
Her stomach twisted uneasily as she thought about Mr. Ruslan. His influence in Russia was something to respect, and even simple requests were commands that had best be followed. She shuddered inwardly.
Being manipulated by a force beyond her control frightened her and had Ivan been in a better mood, she would have felt safe. She longed to reach out and squeeze his large, powerful hand. To comfort him, and in doing so seek reciprocal comfort in his strength.
Instead, Ruslan’s words slithered from her painted lips. “My production team tells me it should air tomorrow at 4 P.M.”
Ivan attempted to break his expression with a feeble smile. “I look forward to seeing it.”
The dull dinner ended and Ivan took her home. With immaculate posture despite the hour, he said his goodnites. A marginal squeeze of her hand chilled her blood. His skin was warm, but Ruslan’s icy claws raked her back.
The door shut behind her and she turned the locks.
What had she done?
Ivan’s new Moscow office was a spacious, organized, and up-to-date workplace. It boasted several windows and wood paneled walls that seemed to be taken from the 1980s. His metal desk was littered with pictures and memories of the past.
A muted flat screen TV hung in the corner and played State News. Flags of the Russian Federation and Soviet Union flanked his desk and represented a life which spanned not just decades, but governments.
Dressed in black jeans, white t-shirt, and gray suspenders, Stanislav cast a long shadow when he rose from his desk and greeted Alexei. Did his drab color choice betray his lagging enthusiasm?
“I asked you about that Kulikov boy, but you never gave me any information, Alexei. Any updates?”
Alexei frowned. Again with Kulikov. Far be it for Stanislav to forget. Ruslan strode closer to the desk so that only the furniture separated them.
“I have been busy preparing for Eddie Cross.” He deflected with edged words. “Just as you should, Vanya.”
Ivan’s flat expression and lack of response rankled him. The gulf between them grew as the tension coalesced. The nonchalant shrug set Alexei off.
“Vanya. What is wrong with you?”
Stanislav turned and peered out at the bustling Muscovites below while the monolithic Kremlin pierced the horizon. “I shouldn’t have ruined Kulikov.”
“It had to be done.”
“Did it?” He whispered. “He was an innocent boy. Just like Cross. Are the innocent simply fodder to be ground up and spit out?” His shoulders rose and stretched the corded fabric of his suspenders.
“Yes. It serves a greater purpose, Praporshchik.” Alexei replied.
Ivan’s frustration amplified the volume of his deep voice and he turned his head slightly so Alexei could see his profile. “Why would they pit me against that boy? After what Gibson did to him, the last thing he needs is a match against me. Yes, he makes jokes on Jabber and he insults us, but he is trying to find his way. He doesn’t understand.” His fingers chewed into his hips.
Ruslan was well aware that Ivan’s physical power wasn’t the only factor that made him unique. It was also his heart and mind. However, empathy could sometimes cloud one’s judgment, and over the past year he had noticed that this older Stanislav was more considerate of others, even the unaligned. It made certain situations, such as this, thorny.
He glanced at the clock over Ivan’s head.
Ten minutes to four o’clock.
He hoped to avoid this conversation, but Ivan was relentlessly blasé. “Ivan. Vanya. We always purport to be one and the same, but we know this is not the case.” He needed to drag Ivan out of this psychological quicksand before he thrashed himself to death.
“Listen, Vanya, I’m not like you. Empathy does not come naturally to me.” His words were sincere and without malice. “And that is okay. It is just one of the many ways in which our pairing is effective. The collective versus the individual, yes?”
Stanislav furrowed his bushy eyebrows and turned to Alexei. Rarely did his friend speak in such emotional terms.
“You have a big heart, Vanya, and those who can recognize it are always better for it. You care deeply for our homeland, your friends, your family, and even the weak and defenseless amongst us. That’s why I believe you will always be superior to me. Some choose to reject what is underneath the surface and others may not understand it. That is their profound loss.”
His voice softened. “But there are those who do see it: Tempest. Timo. Olga. Maybe even Lindsay Troy, if for but a fleeting moment? Your capacity for compassion is unmistakable. Sometimes it is gentle and measured, other times a fierce force of Russian strength.”
Ruslan was relentless. “But Eddie Cross is neither friend, nor countryman. Nor is he family. And he certainly is not weak, nor defenseless, and he will dismantle you if your humanity allows it. His trials and tribulations are not your responsibility nor is his future. He will leave you in the dirt.” He paused. “Ivan, I cannot let that happen. You are too special to me. As a friend. A comrade. A brother.”
Air blasted from Ivan’s nostrils as he collapsed into his chair. It was one of just a handful of holdovers from Kaliningrad and the dutiful, oversized seat creaked with pain beneath his prodigious weight. He offered his hands. “How do I crush someone who I once held in my palm?”
“You have to move past that, Vanya.” Alexei said with an undercurrent of finality. “He is not a child anymore.”
Ivan averted his eyes and instead repositioned the slide adjuster of his right suspender. Alexei rounded the desk and shortened the gulf between them. What he saw in Ivan’s eyes startled him.
“You… are not thinking of throwing the match, are you?” Ruslan was stunned.
Ivan looked away and Alexei’s frustration turned to anger.
“Stand up.” He commanded and the mountain of Soviet muscle rose.
“You listen to me, Vanya. If you lose, you will only create another Hayes Hanlon. That little shit will rub it in your face until the end of time!” He squared his shoulders and pointed up at his friend. “I did not work, no, claw you out of Arkhangelsk for you to… to consider self-defeat!”
A glance past his friend to the clock.
Five minutes to four o’clock.
“Are you listening to me?!”
Ivan’s words gained strength as he countered his friend. “He is in such a fragile state right now, Alexei.”
Yet Alexei’s words rose like a thunderclap and pierced Ivan’s own. “Fuck him! Who are we to know his state? Do you know what his nature is? His nature is a desire to destroy you!”
Four minutes to four o’clock.
Ruslan implored and lowered his voice. “Listen to me.” Desperation sent him rambling. “They will never see you as a hero. Sparing Eddie Cross will endear you to no-one, not even him.” Ruslan glanced at the floor, his lips moving, and his fingertips cracked as he snapped them and looked skyward, to his friend. “Timo would resent you for it! He would demand a warrior’s fight or some such nonsense!”
Why was Ivan forcing him into this tailspin?! Over some boy? Some sack of flesh and blood who could never, ever amount to one percent of The Russian Bear?!
“When he grew up and you met him at ReVival, he told you that he would build his legacy upon your bones. Now, the time has come. He threatened you. You! He told you that you wouldn’t see him coming.” He slapped his palm with the back of his opposite hand, “This emotional connection means to lure you to a trap!” He gripped Ivan’s suspenders and squeezed them.
Two minutes to four.
“If you want to teach him, Ivan, you have to beat him. Decisively. Brutally. For if he wins, he will learn nothing. He will assume he always had it in him. That he was right all along. That the jokes and the jabs were worth it. That you were too old and infirm. He will never accept that your humanity was what saved him. It could end you, Praporshchik Stanislav!”
One minute to four.
He tried to tug Ivan’s suspenders and move him but Ivan was unbending. Instead Ruslan inadvertently lifted himself up on his toes. “You assured victory in the interview! You cannot lie to Russia’s mothers and sons!” He released the suspenders and shook his head. “Is he worth that?”
Alexei hammered him through gritted teeth.
“Answer me! Is he worth that?!”
The tense, one-sided conversation ended as Ivan’s brown eyes languidly rose to the muted television. “My interview…”
Alexei watched as Ivan lifted the remote and enabled the audio. He shuffled past Alexei, closer to the screen, and left him in his shadow.
Beautiful Olga Karishnikov began her report on screen, looking striking in a white blouse and teal suit, her smile brightening the cloudy room. “Good afternoon,” she began before a graphic of Stanislav standing with arms raised in the ring popped up at the corner of the screen. “I had the honor of speaking with Praporshchik Stanislav and I…”
Alexei nodded from behind. Right on cue, Olga paused abruptly and put her hand over her earpiece.
“Dear friends, I apologize but I have just received some breaking news.” The image of Stefan Kulikov replaced that of Stanislav. Olga continued her report hesitantly.
“We just received word that Russian wrestler Stefan Kulikov, who was injured in a car accident earlier this year, has been arrested.”
Stanislav glanced back at Ruslan with a face of confusion and then returned to the screen. Alexei’s feline eyes glinted.
“Reports are still coming in, but it appears Mr. Kulikov and his wife were heavily involved in counter-Russian activities related to the Wagner Rebellion last month.” She paused dramatically, her voice taking on a grave tone as she continued. “Anti-Establishment flyers, voice recordings via surveillance, and other incontrovertible evidence have been discovered not just at their residence, but also on their person.”
Time stopped as Ivan muted the television and slowly turned to face his friend. His visage was pale while he processed the news and his eyes drilled into Ruslan’s soul. Alexei suppressed a chill that threatened to run up his spine as the anticipation in the room grew heavy.
Finally, Ivan haltingly whispered, as if to convince himself of this unexpected news.
“A traitor all along?”
Before Alexei’s eyes, a monstrously beautiful transformation transpired. Over the next hour, the sullen shell which strangled Stanislav melted away and from it emerged a Bear renewed, invigorated, and resuscitated. Unchained by Kulikovian shackles, Ivan jettisoned the fear of injuring Eddie Cross and instead began focusing his anger, perhaps even frustration, towards the boy.
Just as Ruslan wanted.
It was breathtaking.
Alexei returned to his office with a spring in his step. Olga had innocently done her part and the tarnished Kulikov’s were now locked away. He felt an ache for their unborn child, but dismissed it. After all, Russia had plenty of orphanages to go around.
A wave of relief washed over him; Ivan was ready to take on Eddie Cross with the full force of his formidable zeal. The world was right, once more. No distractions. No more problematic heart-strings.
He felt uneasy, resorting to subterfuge to clear Ivan’s conscience, but he had left him no choice. He loved his friend too much to let Eddie Cross, Kulikov, or his pregnant wife get in the way. Besides, it was for the greater good. Sometimes, Ivan was too empathetic and didn’t think far enough ahead. Too much empathy could be dangerous. His good nature could be manipulated by nefarious forces, albeit unknowingly. If he allowed Cross to win, it would have harmed him in the long run. Alexei was determined that Eddie Cross go the way of the Kulikov’s: utter destruction.
He sighed deeply. Everything was back in order.
Eddie, Alexei was right.
Sometimes, in the great war that is life, we must fight battles which we would prefer to avoid. But this is an all or nothing affair. You are arrayed against me and mercy serves no purpose.
I won’t make another emotional mistake, like I did for Stefan Kulikov.
I wept for him.
He drove a knife in my back.
How fortunate the timing was that I learned of his treachery. In hindsight, I wish I had knocked Kulikov’s head clean off. And you, you little snake in the grass. I nearly walked right into the trap you so clearly stated you would set. It does pain me to know that I have to hurt you, but this was your choice, not mine.
I want to give you the benefit of the doubt, but that is not my place.
The thing is, Eddie, you won’t listen. I warned you about Dave Gibson and you rebuked me. Even after the attack, you were too prideful to admit how correct I was. Headstrong, just like your father. But you are no longer the innocent child, defenseless and soft in my hand. Nor am I the forty year old World Champion with love on my arm and many years left to expend.
You must reap what you sow.
I wish you could understand. I tried to keep you out of my way, even when you brazenly clamored for my attention. The names. The jokes. The insults. The veiled barbs. I resigned myself to never crush another Bolamba. My respect for your family was too great.
But what is respect if it is not reciprocated?
You wanted my attention at ReVival 18, but I denied it as a means to protect you. Lindsay Troy’s stroke of a pen has changed that. Rejoice. You now have my attention. Undivided. You should have recognized the peril of joining this profession. For there was always the risk of eventually facing Ivan Sergeiovich Stanislav.
Still, Eddie, I implore you: Don’t do anything stupid.
For once, I would not enjoy the cries of a grieving father mourning their injured child. I do hope Timo understands.
Don’t be as stubborn as your father.
I tried, Eddie.
I was wrong.
There is no other way.
History is against you.
You will learn to regret it.