Ivan Stanislav sat at his desk and gazed at the flitting snow. Snow was a representation of his people and nation as much as anything else and yet, for all of its beauty, it could not compel himself to smile.
He reclined in his office chair, adjusting a suspender as he surveyed his cluttered desk. Despite his minimalist taste, he stomached the cards with cakes and party hats, and one in particular covered in glitter that had taken him hours to remove from his hands and beard.
Amidst the mess, a tall bottle of expensive Russian vodka stood resolute. It was a stalwart tower rising from the chaos with a simple card tied tightly around its neck. Nearby rested a large stuffed penguin with a party hat upon its head.
Plenty had changed in a year, as the PRIME Universal Championship rested upon the wall overhead. He was the stalwart champion now, no longer the scrambling challenger. He thoughtfully turned his eyes back to the window, when his office door brazenly swung open unannounced. His face turned stormy, but shifted into surprised calm.
His busy schedule had prevented him from spending much time with the Russia One anchor, aside from official interviews. She slid into The Bear’s den in a professional yet beautiful teal suit, gliding across the cement floor with grace and maintaining eye contact. She unbalanced Stanislav when she boldly placed her delicate hands in his calloused paws while he stood to greet her.
“This is unexpected.” He said quietly, looking down at hands that fit in his own like a child’s would a normal man.
She smiled crookedly back, assuming he was referring to her entrance. “Is my surprise visit an issue?”
Stanislav hesitated. “Well… no.”
Her smile grew wider as she batted her eyes at him. “That pleases me.”
After an awkward moment, The Russian Bear cleared his throat. “Why have you come?” Olga released his hands.
“I know I am a few days late,” she said softly, “but I wanted to take you out for a belated birthday dinner. Just the two of us. Are you available now?”
“Now?” Ivan blinked curiously and nodded. “Certainly, I know a good place.” He moved to open the door for her.
She watched him and smiled. “Don’t forget the belt, Starshy Praporshchik Champion.”
He gripped the door handle and watched her with furrowed brows. “It’s just dinner…”
Her voice was silk as she approached him. “You look better with the Universal Title, Ivan,” she whispered, “and I know just where I want to eat…”
Ivan had insisted he dress appropriately for dinner, but Olga would have none of it. She sat across from him as he peered out the tinted window of his specially built van. The massive gold belt looked like a band aid rested across his tensed thigh.
The ancient Cold Warrior had endured countless trials and sacrifices for his Motherland, and he bore the physical and psychological scars of battle. It had galvanized him and helped him command a presence from his countrymen. His iconic red suspenders supported his dark trousers and were a stark contrast to his gray shirt. Just simple clothing that had grown to become a symbol of his unwavering dedication to his country. With each passing day, Ivan Stanislav had become more deeply ingrained into the collective Russian consciousness.
But time had taken its toll on his once-handsome features. Lines deeply etched his face and his beard sprouted more gray and white every day. Dark brown eyes reflected a man of fire, fiercely protective, capable of tenderness and empathy and yet also held, deep within, a ravenous sadness.
He turned his eyes to Olga, and found her not looking out the window, or at him, but at the glittering gold draped across his thigh. He bristled and grumbled as he watched streams of people surge towards Luzhniki Stadium – Russia’s national stadium and known to become a “swamp” during sporting events. “Why on earth did this driver choose Khamovnichesky Avenue?”
“Am I not good enough company, Starshy Praporshchik?” Olga asked with a playful smile.
Ivan navigated the playfulness in the only way he could. Directly. “You drag me out of my office, don’t let me dress appropriately for dinner, and now we’re stuck in this mess,” he grumbled and yet lightened his tone to add some levity.
Butterflies fluttered in her stomach as she smiled back at the Champion, trying to contain her excitement. “Just a little longer, Ivan.”
The snow had stopped and despite the open air setting, eighty-thousand excited Russians served as a furnace of humanity for one another. Patriotic songs filled Luzhniki Stadium as the crowd sang along with raucous energy. The stage in the center of the arena was adorned with double-sided projection screens, making sure every Russian viewed this grand event.
Alexei emerged from the side entrance, where most sports teams would charge out to the field, and felt the uptick in excitement immediately. Behind him, the Masters of the Moscowverse, Arthur Pleasant, Speedy Riggs, and the rest of Ivan’s staff followed suit. While the English speakers placed an earphone in their ears for translation purposes, Alexei approached the podium at the center of the stage.
He adjusted the front of his brown overcoat and raised his hand, commanding the crowd to silence, and yet the electric energy still crackled about the place. He whispered conspiratorially into the microphone. “Now, my friends. We require all of your help with this. Please… absolute silence.”
Save for the hum of the sound system, no Russian dared make a sound.
“What the hell is this about?” Ivan grumbled from beneath the enormous black blindfold. Olga held onto one of his huge fingers as she guided him along the turf and up the stairs to the podium. She kept a close eye on the PRIME Universal Title as it rested upon his shoulder.
He fumbled once as he ascended the stairs, which were precariously small beneath his enormous feet and, after being situated just perfectly for the cameras, Olga removed his blindfold with a flourish.
Before him, behind him, and all around him, Ivan Stanislav was met with a sight that would reverberate forever. He stood surrounded by Russians and comrades.
On that night, he would learn just what he meant to them.
As Ivan stood on the stage, his legs trembled beneath the weight of the surprise. He stared, dumbfounded at Alexei, who removed his hat and approached his friend. With a voice thick with emotion, Alexei spoke those long-awaited words for all to hear: “We wish you a happy belated birthday, Starshy Praporshchik Stanislav!”
The audience cheered as they sang “Happy Birthday” as one, and Alexei embraced his friend. All Ivan could hear was the thudding of his heart and Alexei’s muffled words against his chest.
“You have earned this, Vanya.” The crowd erupted into a Russian battle cry.
The cheering masked his question to all but Alexei. “I earned this?” Was this celebration not for him, but for what he was at this moment? The PRIME Universal Championship, normally quite lofty upon his shoulder, grew heavy.
Alexei nodded and squeezed his arm tightly. “Yes, Ivan.”
The words reflected cerebrally as he turned to the podium and grabbed it tightly. At his feet, incessant camera shutters instantly sent the event around the world. He fought through the maelstrom in his mind and realized he’d been gripping the podium for too long. “I am afraid you have me at a disadvantage.” He mumbled, while laughter rippled through the crowd.
Having bought himself some time, he asked the crowd a more pressing question. “Are you here because I earned this?” He patted the belt with his huge hand.
The arena exploded in jubilation, yet behind his strained smile, Ivan’s heart sank into his stomach. It was not the response he wanted.
The sea of expectant faces kept him in their crosshairs and he spoke mechanical words masked with energy.
“I cannot think of a better celebration than being surrounded by my countrymen and friends,” he smiled with rigid, defensive shoulders. “A sea of proud Russians is a dream come true!”
The response would have melted Pompeii.
He rallied and raised his oft-waggled finger into the air. “However, my friends, our Motherland is not without its struggles,” he announced, swaying to one side as all eyes doggedly followed him. “We have a Frenchman knocking at our gates.”
Speaking of his upcoming match centered him and distracted him. “He thinks he’s some great sword.” The crowd turned disgruntled as their anger surfaced. “But he is simply Julien. He cannot even measure up to Napoleon, and we know what happened to Napoleon when he tussled with Russia!”
Unsurprisingly to Ivan, the crowd reacted with renewed fervor. Communicating with crowds, in or out of the ring, was second nature. Be it taunts, moves, defeats, or victories, they were a singular entity to which he could gauge his standing. He tested them and continued his conversation. Tinged with regret, he intoned, “I once saw potential in Julien. I wanted him to join us. To be part of this victorious moment.”
Boo’s and jeers erupted from the crowd. Customary.
“But he lacks the conviction of Kenny Freeman! The faith of Randall Schwartz! The fervor of Arthur Pleasant! He had the chance to join the greatest group of wrestlers in history, but he chose second best. So be it.”
A stronger reaction. Triumphant. Just as he had expected. They had failed him earlier in their reactions, but it was time to snap them out of their stupor.
“Let’s hope that his dying bitch of a mother lives long enough to watch her son learn one lesson he will never forget!!!!”
Vulgar language from Ivan was a rarity. Yet hatred and epithets, all directed at Julien, the likes of which he had weathered his entire life, rained down from the crowd. They should have detected the change. They should have understood the change. They should have listened to the man, not the words.
But they didn’t care.
The speaker didn’t matter.
Alexei believed the deep scowl on Ivan’s face was an act. It wasn’t. Ivan marched across the stage and adjusted the belt atop his shoulder. A boom mic floated overhead, harrying him from above. It had been a long road, full of personal and professional sacrifices, but Alexei now saw the fruits of their long journey. Ivan was a war machine in the flesh.
With clenched fists, Ivan bellowed. “We are all honest, honorable people who do not slap the hands of those who offer help!” Maybe now they would listen. Could they hear him? Yet Arthur Pleasant rose to his feet, flashed his sharpened teeth, and pumped his fist.
He felt the futility of his attempt and he realized this celebration was not about, nor for him. He realized his own words began to feel hollow, gutted by clarity. “You could have been surrounded by those who love and support you, but alas, it is not to be!”
Maksim surged upward in a leap and cheered loudly for Stanislav. The movement caught The Bear’s attention, and he half-turned to offer Maksim a pensive stare. Ivan was surrounded. The ravenous crowd dragged his eyes back to the swarming mass before him, whose excitement now shook the very earth.
From 1250 kilometers away, Fanya Stanislav clutched a picture of Kliment and Sergei to her breast and watched her son on television.
She rose from her couch, ignoring her painful hip and joints, and kissed the picture of her husband and fallen son.
Ivan had finally achieved what he always had wished.
Not mere titles or awards.
Not shining medals or prestigious offices.
Through tear-stained eyes, she remembered her battle scarred child, shattered and vulnerable, weeping into her arms begging to be the hero that Russia needed. He had poured himself into his work, sacrificing blood, sweat, and tears for his country’s sake. And now, after decades of unwavering dedication, Russia’s son stood as her undisputed hero.
Yet a mother’s intuition was strong. She saw the way her Ivashechka’s shoulders sagged when something weighed heavily upon his mind. He was fighting something in front of eighty thousand people.
Something was terribly wrong.
He waited, patiently, for the jubilation to ebb, and Ivan lowered the Universal Title from his shoulder to his side and partially out of the crowd’s frantic view.
One last attempt.
He spoke softly, “The truth is, dear friends and comrades, we must think about how fortunate we truly are. For even if, by some sick twist of fate, the outcome does not resolve how we wish? I can assure you that you will always have Ivan Sergeiovich Stanislav!”
He strained his aging ears as the reaction was mixed, halting, and unsure. He knew a placid response when it was offered. It lacked the degree of enthusiasm as before. Ivan nonverbally flailed, puffed out his chest, and squared his shoulders. He plaintively presented himself, bare, before them and hoped for more. Stanislav without the championship was a middling consolation at best.
Alexei squeezed beside him and grasped Ivan’s thick wrist, dragging the Universal Title up higher for the crowd to see and with it came increased volume. As the belt rose to its apex, their roar reached a fever pitch and Ruslan screeched into the mic.
“He is unstoppable!”
“He is unbeatable!”
“He is indefatigable!!!”
The chant echoed through the stadium and grew louder and stronger with each voice. Ivan stood painfully resolute upon the firing line and allowed their joyous bullets to sink deep into his frame. He gazed into the crowd and regretfully unfocused his eyes.
Many hours later, the door to Ivan’s office closed behind him and The Russian Bear leaned against it with his powerful back. Even Brandon Youngblood hadn’t pummeled him so. The silence in the room was only broken by the blinking red light on his answering machine.
With a deep sigh, he mustered enough energy to approach his desk and dumped the PRIME Universal Title upon it. He pressed the button as a sickeningly beautiful voice greeted him. “Starshy Praporshchik Champion? It is Olga. I just wanted to say–” He skipped the rest of the message.
The machine beeped and a male spoke. “Starshy Praporshchik Stanislav. Director Borisov here. We are pleased that you…” But Ivan couldn’t take it anymore.
In a fit of rage, he launched the machine across the room. It shattered into pieces against the wall and Ivan slumped his heavy hip against his steel desk. He released a cathartic scream and covered his face with shaking hands and wailed once more.
His life was a translucent cage and he, the dancing bear, was forced to perform for others without any recognition or meaning within. His elbow bumped his monitor, and he backhanded it across the room with a crash.
In his loneliness, he desperately wanted to call his mother, but as he grabbed the receiver he realized that by now she would be long asleep.
But Alexei never slept.
With shaking fingers, he dialed Alexei’s number, who answered immediately. His voice brought comfort, if for a moment. “Vanya? Did you enjoy the celebration?” Alexei asked cheerfully.
Ivan’s smile melted. “Alyosha, when you said I earned the–”
“Apologies, Vanya,” Alexei interrupted, “I am busy reviewing footage of who stood and who didn’t at tonight’s event. Can we talk about this later?”
As a chill shivered down his spine, Ivan dropped the receiver and angrily unplugged the phone. Would no one listen to him? Was there no one who cared? He straightened and looked to his wall, full of past titles and accolades. The old men in the pictures, those who he had dedicated himself to fully, peered through him. Yet it was the Universal Championship, upon his desk, that watched him.
He pondered the belt like a glittering landmine and wondered if men like Brandon Youngblood had ever been so tormented?
The ‘celebration,’ with all its saccharine sweet players, surrounded him like apparitions. Olga’s advances were forced and her soft words betrayed her true feelings. Even Maksim, who showed no kindness in the past, clapped for him upon the stage.
He marched to a massive poster of the Almasy brackets, complete with handwritten results in his red pen, and studied the names. Would Kenny have truly given up his chance at victory if he faced Ivan? Would Arthur have done the same?
Did the belt not exacerbate this fact? After all, Speedy didn’t want to join the cause until after Ivan was champion. Had he not asked Riggs to join a year ago and he refused?
But it was Alexei, most of all, by whom he felt most abandoned. Why did Ivan have to earn a celebration? Was it not about friendship? Did Alexei think so little of their relationship? Was he so worthless? Alexei lied to others to serve a purpose, but were his smiles for Ivan just as duplicitous?
His conference table took the brunt of his pain as he upended it and sent it skidding into his desk. The bottle of vodka reflected the light and swayed lazily back and forth before tipping over and clanking on the floor. It rolled ominously towards Ivan and stopped at his feet. The card around the neck pointed up at him.
“Happy Birthday, Ivan – LT”
The cynic in him wanted to believe the simple message wasn’t personalized, but he knew the truth. He picked up the bottle with trembling hands and peered into it. Despite their tumultuous past, Troy had sent him an honest gift. She had no reason to placate him, nor any reason to reward him. She simply sent it to him. He choked out a sad laugh at the irony of it all.
Through the booze, the white, blue, and red flag of Russia warped, and his mind drifted to FLAMBERGE. Had he not bravely, and honestly, rebuffed his advances last year? Did he not plainly deny Ivan again a few weeks ago? Had the boy not, at all junctions, been honest with the man, even if as an adversary?
Ivan tramped through the remnants of the Almasy poster and scrambled to pick up the Universal Title. He peered at his legacy wall with darting, hysterical eyes.
Jane Reagan laughed in his face and jettisoned him after he lost the OSW Title, and while he thought Lindsay Troy far more honorable than Reagan, could she not do the same thing? Had she not ambushed him with FLAMBERGE? Julien was given a match where he had, literally, nothing to lose. Furthermore, did she not orchestrate a “performance review” to occur just after Colossus? Not just that, but conveniently before his contract negotiation?
He squeezed the bottle hard enough that it might have broken had he not dropped it on the desk. Would Lindsay Troy do that to him? Could she? Was she setting him up? Was this a calculated plan? Without PRIME, did he have anything else? Other than the Universal Title, was any of this his own?
From Afghanistan to PRIME, was it all a farce? His overseers could take his office, his rank, and most everything else, but they couldn’t take his Universal Title. Nor could FLAMBERGE. Ivan would have to lose it.
Could PRIME itself, alongside the Title, help break the cycle he had been subject to for decades? Was the wrestling ring the only place where he could truly be the master of his own destiny? Were his enemies, the Americans, Julien, Sykes, Youngblood, and possibly Troy the only honest people in his life?
Ivan Stanislav pushed the wreckage wrought by his rage into the corner and hung the Universal Title high upon the wall. He slumped in the huge couch near the window and stared at the gleaming Sword of Damocles overhead.
He turned his head to watch the snow fall from the window once more. He quickly averted his eyes.
Arina entered Ivan’s office the next morning and found him sitting grumpily at his desk.
“Good morning, Starshy Praporshchik Stanislav.” She saw the shattered state of his office and gasped. “Oh my, what happened?”
It wasn’t uncommon for the man to wear an identical outfit the next day, but his hair was less manicured, and the shirt was wrinkled. His voice was gravel. “Nothing, Arina. Please just have it all fixed and replaced.”
She smiled politely. “Yes of course.” She turned, walked to the door, and stopped. “Do not forget, Mr. Ruslan has you scheduled for a speech this afternoon, and you have a gala with Ms. Karishnikov this evening.”
His words stopped her from gripping the door handle. “Cancel them.”
Arina Timofeyevna turned around with wide, shocked eyes. “But they want–?”
With a resolute stare capable of knocking her through the door, Ivan Stanislav nodded curtly. “No more hoops, Arina. They can see me at Colossus.”