“Pax, you in here?” Foster banged on the door to the locker rooms of Gray’s Wrestling Academy. He assumed he would find Paxton Ray, but was surprised to see The Bayou Butcher, seated on a bench, jump. “Did I scare you?”
“Nah.” Paxton shifted his weight and quickly stuffed his phone into his jeans. “Jus’…lookin’ at the card for the next show.”
“Good, that’s what I was coming to talk to you about. Pretty big match. Always good to main event the show. It proves that even though she hates you, Troy knows what she’s got.” Paxton’s scowl spoke volumes as Foster cocked a brow. “But you don’t seem too happy about it.”
“It’s a tag match.”
After five awkward seconds of silence, Foster pressed forward. “Yes?”
“I don’t like tag matches.”
“I know,” Foster laughed, “you hate them so much you paralyzed your tag partner just to get out of the division.”
“Ya ain’t funny, ya know that right?”
Foster sat down next to Paxton. “I know you like to rely on yourself, but there are worse people to tag with. You get your hands on Tom. You get some revenge on Youngblood. And all you have to do is…”
“…look beyond fact that he is an unhinged American and everything will be fine.” Russians weren’t often “bright side of things” thinkers, but Alexei was doing his best with his cranky comrade. “It could be worse, Ivan.”
Stanislav grumped while they were chauffeured towards Gray’s Academy. “And maybe better if I simply go against the Luchador and Youngblood alone.”
Ruslan’s expression flattened. “Try to keep an open mind, Praporshchik. You were tag champions with Orpheus Grant, remember? African-American with gold teeth and ‘PAIN’ tattooed on his stomach. It cannot be more extreme than that. ”
The Louisiana heat was murder as Ivan tugged a suspender from his shoulder and felt the sweat beneath cool. They were close to Gray’s. “All right.”
Alexei placed his hat atop his head and fixed his tie. “Okay, Praporshchik. Here’s the plan: We just…”
“…head into the gym, they’ll be here in a few.”
The two men walked onto the hardwood of the open gym, where the students were wrapping up individual training. Quinn Fleetwood ran the ropes with Ian Nackedy, timing him; Theodore Boswell and his father Nathan grappled each other while reversing holds, with the younger Boswell wrenching a hammerlock on his father; Connor Nackedy sat in the corner, head downcast as he listened to Tani Albright and Roosevelt Black’s instructions. Foster narrowed his eyes in his son’s direction before shouting out from the middle of the ring and clapping his hands twice.
“All right, everybody take a seat!”
Paxton slunk to the back of the crowd as the students and trainers sat near the ring. Foster waited until the stragglers were in front of him, then smiled. “Today is an important day. One of our semifinal matches is happening soon. Quinn and Connor will be locked in battle to move onto the finals. Will Quinn dominate for Team Foster? Will Connor Nackedy somehow cheat to win the match for an idiot in a wheelchair? It is a pivotal match with far reaching consequences, and with that in mind I’d like to introduce a special guest.”
The doors to the gymnasium flew open as the imposing form of Ivan Stanislav towered over the students, his face a mask of concentration. Alexei flanked him with his hands behind his back, and for a moment the duo scanned the room and took a fleeting glance at the nonchalant Paxton Ray.
Stanislav stepped confidently onto the apron and then into the ring. His tall presence was amplified by the height of the ring, and he leveraged that energy to lord over the seated students. Ruslan stood on the floor and surveyed the scene with a smirk.
“The man beside me knows a thing or two about pivotal matches.” Foster smiled at the big Russian, then looked back out to his students. “He is a former PCW World Champion, soon to be PRIME Universal Champion. In less than two weeks he will team with our own Paxton Ray against Brandon Youngblood and The Anglo Luchador. Listen closely to what he says; you may be able to literally see the wisdom coming out of his mouth.” Paxton shook his head as Foster continued. “My friends, please welcome Ivan Stanislav.”
Dith Timble clapped, but he was the only member of Gray’s to do so.
Stanislav took in the awkward clap and peered down at Foster. “Praporshchik Ivan Stanislav,” he growled. Dith Timble sheepishly stopped clapping.
“Your teacher missed some things: OSW World Champion. Winner of multiple National Pride matches. PCW Co-Champion of World with my dear friend, Alexei. PCW Tag Champion.” Stanislav’s shadow stretched from the ring out over the students. “My career has far eclipsed yours, collectively or individually. Foster is right, you might learn a thing or two from me.”
The top rope sagged as The Russian Bear rested his forearms upon it. “Gray’s Academy sees this as shining moment for their students.” He nodded past the assembly, at the slouching Paxton Ray. “As I am sure Paxton Ray can echo with overwhelming pride at opportunity to destroy PRIME Universal Champion Brandon Youngblood and The Anglo Luchador. They will crash against the might of the…”
He paused and hesitantly glanced at Alexei, who beamed excitedly.
“…Bayou Bolsheviks.” Had the name been run over by a KV-1 tank, it still would not have been flatter than Stanislav’s recitation of Alexei’s “great name” for the duo. Ruslan’s chest swelled three times in size.
Rather than an endorsement from Paxton, however, Stanislav watched as Ray pushed himself off the wall and made his way towards the weight room. Ivan’s glance to Alexei was met with equal disdain at the snub. The Bear boiled.
Ivan kept his composure, despite an eyelid twitch, and cleared his throat. “My prepared remarks are for three hours, but before I begin are there any initial questions from these young, spongy minds?”
After an awkward pause, Connor Nackedy slowly raised his hand. “I have one.”
Stanislav nodded toward Connor. “Speak, younger Nackedy.”
“Do you know what you’re getting yourself into with Paxton? He paralyzed the la–”
Foster interjected and raised his hands. “No, no. Sorry, Prapor–”
Stanislav raised a paw towards Foster. “Nyet. This is good question.” His icy glower spoke volumes and he nodded down to Connor. “It is important that you trust your partner. Comradeship, collective work, and mutual care is key.” He laced his huge fingers to illustrate his point.
“We should not judge what Paxton Ray did to Jonathan Rhine. Perhaps it did not have to happen? Perhaps it did?” Ivan smirked. “In this world of wrestling, children, you must be ever steadfast and vigilant. Do not expect to be saved. Do not expect to be protected. You are only ones who can decide your fate. Only you bear responsibility for your successes and failures.”
Stanislav straightened and allowed his barrel chest to expand. “That reminds me when I got out of the war…”
Foster stepped forward, looking down at his bare wrist. “Whoops! Looks like we ran out of time. The match will begin in ten minutes. Take a break, or get some training in if you think it’ll help your chances.” Foster smiled at his son and dodged the ocular laser beams Ivan leveled in his direction. “Let’s thank our guest for his time.” As the crowd dispersed, Foster looked into the corner of the gym and frowned. “Pity, I don’t see Jon out here. Would’ve loved for him to hear your opinions on his condition, Praporshchik.”
Stanislav was already leaving as the canvas flexed beneath Foster’s feet and the ring became four hundred pounds lighter. The Universal Champion-To-Be stomped purposefully towards the weight room, while Ruslan passed him and made his way to Foster.
The students began to move about with their last minute prep. Ruslan slid next to the taller Nackedy and spoke without looking at him. “You know, Nackedy, you should instill more discipline in your pupil. He might learn something if he just listened. Neither Praporshchik Stanislav, nor I, have much stomach for insubordination.”
Foster glared down at Alexei, and for a moment, he let the thought of violence float through his head, disco concussion helmet and all. Ruslan wasn’t even a wrestler, and he was going to stand in this ring and tell him how Ray should be handled? Yet, he shrugged his shoulders. “Y’all are welcome to try. He won’t listen to anyone.” Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Ivan walking towards Paxton in the weight room. He turned to Alexei. “Tell me. How do you rein your monster in?”
Alexei looked up at Foster and pursed his lips. He sensed a certain degree of exhaustion on Foster’s face. “Rein my monster in?” The question was nearly a slap in the face. “Ivan Stanislav is not ‘my’ monster,” he said firmly. “Our union is not based on using each other or making money. Capitalist talk. We are lifelong friends, first.” Yet still, a conflicting thought wormed its way into Alexei’s head. He blinked it away.
“Be united in cause and ideology, build trust, and even show vulnerability, honesty, and care.” Ruslan studied Foster. “If you do not have that? You are doomed for heartache or failure.”
The weight room seemed so far away as he nodded towards it. “Unfortunately, those two need to figure this out on their own if they are going to have any chance of beating Youngblood and the Luchador.”
“Yeah,” Foster sighed, staring through the window at the two wrestlers. “Good luck with that.”
Paxton sat hunched at the bench press, his phone to his ear. His eyes were closed, but suddenly opened as he felt a massive hand slam onto the bench in front of him. The light blotted out above him as the looming frame of Ivan Stanislav cast shade all around. To say the grizzled sexagenarian was frowning would be an understatement, and in true Russian form, he didn’t mince words.
“My would-be tag partner walks out on my glorious speech to do what? Listen to the TokTik?” Thunder rumbled in his voice. “Not best first impression, Paxton Ray, considering your history.”
Paxton silently took in the larger man for nearly a minute before slipping his phone into his pocket. He unfurled himself to full height, still coming a half-foot under Stanislav. Yet the Murdergator snarled. “Ya think I care ‘bout first impressions?” Paxton sized up the large Russian. “‘Bout your dumb nickname for us? ‘Bout your little speech? Well lemme clear it up for ya, Red.” To illustrate his lack of fear, Ray pushed his finger into Stanislav’s thick chest. “I don’t give a shit what ya got t’say.”
Stanislav’s dark eyes sparked. His suspenders creaked in protest as his breathing quickened and his pants pulled against his hips. “You might not care what I have to say, but you had better listen. I have been waiting to destroy The Anglo Luchador for months and I have wanted to annihilate Brandon Youngblood for even longer. I will not have some young punk, chained to his telephone, lousing it up.”
The clang of the ring bell interrupted both men temporarily. The match had started.
Ivan’s jaw shifted in his mouth. “Start caring about our situation and less about whatever frivolity is against your ear.” His growl turned to gravel. “Let us not forget I outlasted you in Murder Rumble, and I beat you at Tropical Turmoil. You should do well to listen to me. Get your head out of your ass and fall in line!”
“Fall in line,” Paxton muttered back, tasting the words as they left his mouth. The sneer turned upward into a smile. “People been tryin’ t’get me t’fall in line for years. Best case scenario, I tell ‘em t’fuck off and they walk away. Worst case scenario? They never walk again.” Paxton took a step backward, then without breaking his stare grabbed a dumbbell from the wall. “I respect your fight. An’ yeah, ya outlasted me a couple times. But I don’t fall in line.”
The Russian Bear crossed his arms over his chest as his face clouded over. While Paxton grabbed the dumbbell, he shook his head and muttered. “I travel across planet for this!?” He turned on his heel and growled with exasperation. “Maybe there is someone else in this ‘Academy’ who has their head where it needs to be!”
From afar, Alexei watched Ivan exit the weight room. His friend was seething as he crossed his arms over his chest and tapped his foot. There hadn’t been blows, but Stanislav’s expression told him how close he and his “partner” had come to a bloodbath. Good enough. Ruslan was watching a literal bloodbath in the ring.
Connor stood slowly, his face dripping crimson. The turnbuckle pad lay at his feet. He briefly looked over at the exposed turnbuckle, then wiped blood from his forehead.
“Dith!” Jonathan Rhine gripped the handles of his wheelchair. “Quinn is cheating! Call the damn match!”
Dith looked from Rhine to Foster. “N-no DQs.”
“Bullshit!” Jonathan made to protest further, but his voice halted. Despite everything, Connor smiled.
“Ok Quinn,” the younger Nackedy said, blood dripping into his mouth. “Let’s go.”
“You’re fucking dead.” Fleetwood lunged with a big boot, but Connor ducked, delivering one suplex, then holding on for another. Still clutching Quinn’s tights, Connor lifted him up one more time before planting him on his face with a Falcon Arrow.
Quinn fought the cover, but Connor held tight until the three count. He leapt up, raising his arms high and spraying blood into the air. Foster rang the bell in disbelief.
“Your winner…my son.” Foster dropped the ring bell, but a hand gripped his elbow.
The Russian smirked and nodded his head. “Perhaps I misjudged you. A son like that who fights so hard? Must have been brought up well, eh?”
Foster barely acknowledged Alexei as he freed his elbow and walked towards his office. “Yeah. Real proud.”
Stanislav’s huge hands and booming voice echoed through the room. He pointed proudly to Connor, bloodied yet victorious in the ring. “No weak disqualification needed,” he said, smirking at Jonathan Rhine. “That is kind of partner anyone would want in their corner: small of stature but large in heart and conviction!”
The assembled masses could not ignore Stanislav’s braying, but only Ruslan caught the subtle shift in Ivan’s expression. His own words brought an idea to mind and he acted on it. Ivan spun on the heel of his combat boot and marched back into the weight room.
The sight of Paxton Ray, still sitting with his ear against the phone, nearly set him over the edge as Ivan seamlessly slammed the door behind him with a WHAM!
His words were broken glass. “Here you are, ear stuck to damned phone while Connor Nackedy claws victory from jaws of defeat. That is a boy who fights for something he cares about! Not some slacker more interested in his phone.” He snarled with derision. “I would rather have him on my team. And if I cannot have him, I’ll defeat Youngblood and Luchador alone!”
His bluster was static to Paxton, who focused all his attention on his phone. That was the problem. A symbol of the disconnect between the two of them and the sickness that pervaded this younger generation.“You want to win our match?!” Ivan barked. “Let us see what is more important than honoring our partnership!”
Ivan’s paw moved with surprising agility, snatching the phone from Ray’s ear. He intoned with stubborn determination, “Any information between partners,” he growled as he pressed the speaker button, “should be shared.”
The voice was that of a young, excited girl, who spoke with longing and love.
“…wish you had seen it, Daddy! I ran so far! Mommy took a video but she said it’s too blurry to send to you.”
Paxton scowled at Ivan, his eyes a stormy gray. Yet there was a shift behind those clouds, far too fleeting for Ivan to catch as Ray averted his eyes and stared at the phone.
“I miss you. I wish you would quit wrestling, but if you have to, please be careful. Tell Mr. Rhine hi for me. I love you!”
Paxton didn’t look up as the message ended. “That was from ‘bout a year ago. Last time I heard her voice.”
Silence blanketed the two men as Stanislav gazed down at his big hand. The voice from the phone was small, but it made the device unexpectedly heavy. Ivan grappled with his thoughts. The rage faded from his face and was replaced with something more sympathetic. “That… was Nora?” He whispered as he offered the phone back to the father of that youthful voice.
“Yeah. That’s why I hate TAL. He’s got her.” Paxton looked up at the softening expression of his tag partner. “You’re gonna face Youngblood at Ultraviolence for a piece’a gold. But when I get my hands on Luchador…it’s gonna be for so much more.”
Grooves dug themselves into the forehead of The Russian Bear as his lips curved downward. “Why does Luchador have your daughter?”
Paxton looked through the glass pane window, where Jonathan Rhine and Shweta Kallemullah celebrated with a bloody Connor Nackedy. “‘Cause everyone’s got flaws, but some people like t’crow ‘bout yours while hiding theirs in the dark.” Paxton slipped the phone into his pocket, then looked up at Ivan. “I ain’t a good man. But I want my daughter back. An’ I’ll go through anybody I got to.”
Stanislav mirrored Paxton’s gaze and stared at the others from beyond. The self-righteous. He narrowed his eyes and looked down at Ray. “You may not be good man, Paxton Ray.” He used a pause to draw Paxton’s eyes from the glass to his own. His words were pointed. “Can you be good father to your little girl?”
Paxton’s eyes closed. His chest heaved in a sigh. “That’s complicated,” The Bayou Butcher muttered. “Someone tol’ me a few weeks back that I could be better. That I could be a person deservin’ of Nora. An’ I can sit here now and tell ya that I wanna be. More than anythin’.”
Paxton suddenly balled his fists. “But then I jus’ get so angry. TAL shockin’ me, then actin’ like a hero…I jus’ lose my mind. An’ suddenly I’m on a plane t’Philly, wantin’ to burn the whole fuckin’ world t’the ground. Anger’s been good t’me.” Paxton stared up at Ivan. “You’re gonna see how good it is in that match. But sometimes it…” he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, finish his sentence.
Ivan’s face was unreadable as he listened, carefully, to Paxton. His eyes never once left him, yet as Ray trailed off, Ivan spoke slowly, “…it what?”
“It makes me somebody who shouldn’t be allowed ‘round nobody, ‘specially a little girl.”
Stanislav pushed one hand into his pocket while the other grasped Paxton’s shoulder. “I saw children disintegrate before my eyes in Afghanistan. Babies, blasted from their father’s lives for no good reason.” He hardened his jaw. “Your Nora was sick, and could have been taken from you as well, Paxton.” Ivan inhaled slowly, and exhaled just as slowly. “Do not come close to getting her, only to lose her now.”
He released Paxton’s shoulder and turned his attention away from his eyes. “I wish I could have been a father. You are very fortunate, Paxton Ray. You have no idea.”
“Thanks.” Paxton scratched the back of his head. “Nice t’hear kind words every now an’ then. Don’t usually care, but I don’t hear ‘em much.”
“Listen to her voice and feel anger, but control it,” Ivan boomed. “Because neither Brandon Youngblood nor the Luchador deserve any quarter from us. Brandon Youngblood boasts how he wishes my elderly mother would rot in prison. So many self-righteous hypocrites in PRIME.”
Ivan nodded solemnly. “Self-righteous fools judge you constantly, Paxton Ray.” Ivan averted his eyes. “So did I. I was wrong.”
Paxton’s teeth gleamed as he looked upwards at Ivan and grinned into the light. “People don’t like ya, Ivan. They don’t like me either. We earned some’a that, and now it’s like the whole world’s against us. But I like it that way. Know why?” Paxton held his hand out for Ivan to shake. “Us against the world is the only way the world stands a chance.”
Ivan’s eyes fixed on the hand that had held Nora’s voice so close to Paxton’s ear. Youngblood and Luchador didn’t understand them. Their lack of understanding was a vain attempt to appear superior. Ivan grasped Paxton’s hand and squeezed with resolve. Ray matched his tension. The Russian growled with a nod.
“Us against the world.”