Maksim Stepanov checked his smartwatch while seated at the table in the low lit, expensive restaurant. The twenty-something son of an oligarch sighed and peered at his smartphone. He used the camera as a mirror and brushed his light brown hair through his fingers. Then he bared his teeth and, with a napkin, flossed away the hint of food he had eaten for breakfast. He gazed to the door of the restaurant as a couple walked through, and then resumed picking his teeth.
Satisfied with the impromptu cleaning, he folded the napkin, flipped it over, and swapped it with the one across from him. No reason why he should have a soiled napkin. He checked his watch again.
His guest wasn’t late, but he would have preferred if she had shown up early. He had been trying to nail Arina Timofeyevna for some time, and only managed to get her to have lunch with him. Maksim couldn’t suppress an inward smile. Maybe today would be his lucky day. Or hers.
His phone vibrated as he checked his messages. It was her.
-Are you sure this is the place? Lubyanskiy Drive?
-Yes, I’m here in the back.
-Was this approved?
-Come on Arina, the dinosaurs are away. Have some fun!
The “dinosaurs” were Ivan Stanislav and Alexei Ruslan. It made young Maksim’s skin crawl just thinking about the two of them. Here he was, a would-be wealthy son of a Russian oligarch, and he was stuck dealing with that duo? He shook his head in disgust and thought back to the words of his father, “Ivan will help you appreciate the simpler things in life.”
“Stupid old man…” said Maksim as he shook his head. Instead of having a position of real power and making money (and taking money from his father), he was stuck with the eponymous “dinosaurs.” At least Arina made it slightly tolerable. Just slightly. She was lucky that she was pretty.
When Ivan Stanislav left his forced hibernation last year, Maksim was given the lofty task of “modernizing” The Russian Bear. He had grand ideas! Change his outfit. Adjust his hairstyle. Eliminate his anachronistic ways. Ivan and Alexei were too obstinate to listen. He was overjoyed when Hayes Hanlon defeated Ivan at UltraViolence. The Bear deserved it for not listening to him.
Some people have positive, happy memories they never forget. But not Maksim Stepanov. One of his core memories was watching Stanislav trudge away in defeat while Maksim gloated in Ruslan’s face. Ruslan, with venom in his eyes, had told the rich boy to watch his step.
The memory was tinged with annoyance, however. Because he believed Ivan and Alexei would give up.
Wrong. Instead they doubled down. And then?
Ivan Stanislav started winning. And even worse?
The big bastard wouldn’t stop.
Maksim pushed away the annoying thoughts as the door opened and in walked Arina Timofeyevna. Timofeyevna was one of the two aides who served as gatekeeper to Ivan Stanislav’s office in Kaliningrad, and thus Maksim got to see her a fair amount of time. He certainly wanted to see more of her. Thus, he was uncharacteristically gallant. He stood from his table and looked down at his watch for confirmation. Now she was late.
“Hello Arina. You’re late.” He said as he watched her. She wore a dark blue business suit with a knee length skirt. Her brown hair, so dark it was nearly black, had been pulled back into a bun and she wore a light amount of makeup. He hoped she’d worn red lipstick, but alas, she settled for pink.
“Hi Maksim, yes I’m sorry. You gave me the address but not the name and when I saw where we were, I thought there was some sort of mistake.”
“Me? Make mistakes? Hah!” Maksim laughed as he sat down in his seat and beckoned her to do the same. “The name of this place doesn’t scare me.” Arina looked distracted. No doubt she was so excited to be in his presence.
Arina lowered in her seat and nibbled her lip. She glanced through the window towards the cars driving along the street. Light lines formed in the corners of her otherwise round face while her button nose wrinkled. “Praporshchik Stanislav specifically said we should not eat here.”
Arina was referring to the name of the establishment: Butcher Steakhouse. It was, essentially, an American-inspired steakhouse and Stanislav hated it. Why eat at an American steakhouse in Russia, after all?
For Maksim, the answer was simple. The food was good and in some way it enabled him to “rebel” against The Russian Bear.
“Ugh,” Arina grunted, “my napkin is dirty.” She lifted the napkin with two fingers and frowned. There, along the corner, was the drying soilage of Maksim’s mouth when he flossed at the table.
Time to be the hero.
He stood and barked at a nearby waiter, “Hey! What kind of an establishment is this? Can’t you see my date has a dirty napkin?!”
The waiter approached quickly and apologized, profusely, “I am so sorry Mr. Stepanov. I can get another one.”
“You will get another one this instant!” he said and watched the waiter rush off to fix the problem.
Arina smiled at Maksim. “Thank you.”
“Ridiculous,” he replied with barely veiled disgust as he lit up a cigarette and puffed smoke into the air.
“You really shouldn’t do that. Praporshchik…”
“Fuck him!” Maksim blurted angrily. “Yes, I know he forbids cigarette smoking. But he is not here, is he? He is busy with Culture Shock. Thank goodness. It’s nice to get him out of our hair for a period of time.”
The young woman coughed once, as if to tell the stubborn Maksim that she also did not like the smoke, but he was either oblivious or uncaring. He was right, however, in that Culture Shock and the big Universal Title match granted them some time off. Stanislav even graciously paid for his staff to travel to Moscow for a few days as a means of raising morale. Technically, Ivan didn’t pay. Russian taxpayers did.
Not that Maksim’s morale was ever very high.
They ordered their food and Arina received a clean napkin. Maksim took the opportunity to browbeat the waitstaff once more, but it was awkward between them. It wasn’t like they had much to talk about, and truthfully, Maksim wasn’t very good company. Invariably, the conversation between them moved back to work.
“So,” Arina started as she nibbled on her salad. She glanced out the window once more, “Do you think he can do it?”
“Do you think Praporshchik Stanislav can win the Universal Title?”
“I certainly hope not.”
More silence. Arina frowned to herself as she considered her options. She knew this question would whip up the sullen Maksim, and yet she was curious why he had such a disdain for The Russian Bear. So she took the risk.
“Why?” He asked, as if the question was stupid. “Because maybe if he loses we won’t have to work for him anymore. If he loses, maybe they’ll get rid of him!”
Arina sat back in her chair and spoke softly. It was best to be honest, “I enjoy working for Praporshchik Stanislav.”
Maksim rolled his eyes, “Of course you do, Rina. I mean, let’s be honest, you come from a fairly mundane background. You’re not the son of an oil magnate like me, so you don’t have many options, I understand. But me? Stuck with this drudgery? It’s beneath me.”
Maybe accepting the invite was a mistake. Arina smiled all the same, “I uh, prefer Arina, please? And it might be beneath you, Maksim, but you have to admit that Praporshchik…”
“Ivan, Arina. He’s not here. You don’t have to kiss his ass. He’s just a man.”
She exhaled slowly and nodded, “…admit that Ivan does try to do what is best for the country. I have my own opinions on certain things, as we all do, but his heart is in the right place. At least, I think.”
Maksim shook his head and peered through the large glass windows of the Steakhouse to Lubyanskiy Drive. “If he can lose that Universal Title match, and then lose the Battle Royal the next night, that would be such a blow to him.” He smiled inwardly, “Maybe that would force their hand and put him down.”
He cut into his steak and gloated, “Do you know how many times I’ve tried to subvert those two? Every call they send out to PRIME? I intercept it. Every request you send through me? They never get it. Even that leak in Ivan’s ceiling? I blocked the work order! Because I hate them.” There was an awkward silence between them. Arina didn’t know what to say. He continued.
“PRIME was supposed to have the best talent in all the world, right?” Maksim finally asked. It caught Arina off guard as she sipped her water.
“If the roster of PRIME is so good, why can’t they stop him?”
Arina blinked and lowered her water slowly, “Well, maybe Ivan is just better than they?”
He didn’t want to believe it, but it was hard to deny the truth. “Why do you give him so much credit?”
Arina shrugged and brushed a stray hair out of her face, “I don’t know. He inspires me, I guess. And the people in PRIME? They say such hurtful things to him.”
Maksim rolled his eyes again, but Arina continued.
“I hear he has a long lost love, even, whom he misses dearly. Who would have thought a man like that would be so romantic?” She smiled wistfully.
Maksim was starting to think he’d puke up his steak. If he didn’t know any better, he thought that Arina felt more for The Russian Bear than for himself, a man of great wealth. Well, great potential wealth. Arina could see the look on his face and she frowned.
Truthfully, she didn’t really want to be here. Maksim’s mood was hardly improving and she had no appetite. “Maksim,” she said softly and felt her heart in her throat, “I know this isn’t what you wanted in life, but you should try to make the most of it. Maybe it would be best to, you know, write about it?”
“Write about it?”
She offered a wan smile, “Yes. If you write about your feelings, even if you don’t let anyone else see them, perhaps it will help work out your frustrations. Just write it out on the computer. I find such things admirable.”
He felt like she would be better to work out his frustrations. Though if she found it admirable? Maybe she would be more interested in him. He sighed, “Maybe so…”
Maksim could tell that there was no way he was going to get laid today, so he allowed the lunch to progress without much fanfare. He had Arina pay for her portion of the lunch and they parted ways.
He wasn’t about to walk Arina to her car, so she left by herself. With fear gripping her heart, she turned a corner and nervously strode past a black, nondescript van. She nodded, just once, to the driver.
She held back tears and never broke her stride.
My name is Maksim Stepanov. I thought it might be helpful to write my feelings down. So here goes.
PRIME. I hold you responsible for my suffering. For the fact that Ivan Stanislav is still wrestling in your federation.
Hayes Hanlon started the work that could have rid the organization of Ivan Stanislav for good. He beat him. All you had to do was follow through. Just a string of defeats might have been all it took. Instead, what happened? You lost. He won. He just kept going.
Now he’s doing interviews. He’s raising money and hosting charity work. He’s at banquets. His picture is on street corners. His annoying-as-hell laugh is on the radio and streaming online. And it is all your fault.
But you have a golden opportunity now. A perfect one, PRIME, and it’s so important that you don’t screw it up. You see, Ivan sees Culture Shock as the chance for supreme vindication and victory. I have heard him say it. It’s his “Battle for Berlin.” He can win the Universal Title and stand at the top of PRIME and beat you all down with his overwhelming presence.
But what if he lost?
Then he went to the Battle Royal the next night, wounded, but probably not beaten.
And what if he lost again?
What if you managed to hand Ivan Stanislav two losses in two days? That might do it. My father and the government and the military might lose faith in him and the cause. Then I’ll finally move on with my life, instead of being shackled to this deadbeat from the 20th Century.
PRIME, do you think you can finally do this? Do you think you can give him two losses in two nights?
I know the old man spends a lot of time on Jabber. He says it’s important to get the word out about “revolution” and a bunch of other stuff I care not to think about. But you all take the bait. Don’t you? You poke him and prod him and piss him off. And then he wants to kill you in the ring.
That’s what keeps him around.
If you could just see Ivan and Alexei on Jabber when they get wound up and start typing together! It is insufferable.They’re like children. If you only knew how many times they pretended to be far away while chatting on that platform and they were literally sitting side by side.
But here’s the problem, PRIME: you’ve had a lot of chances to finish him off and you haven’t. There were plenty of opportunities to get me a new position through his defeat and you let me down each and every time. And if I’m being honest with myself? I’m afraid you’re going to let me down again.
Because you just don’t get it and I hate that you are making me have to admit it. The first step is acceptance. So here it goes:
Ivan Stanislav is a serious threat.
The sooner you come to grips with that and stop playing his game, the better off you’ll be. Because as dense as you might think he is, he’s manipulating you all.
Let’s take that guy named Youngblood, for example. I’ve read his threats on Jabber. About how he’s going to “put him down” and “end him” and other shit like that. He attacks Ivan’s military record and disparages his fellow Russians who died in Afghanistan. Fine. Whatever. I really don’t care.
But that is quite easy to say on Jabber, Mr. Youngblood. When you get in the ring with him, I hate to admit that it’s a lot different. You haven’t frightened him. No. You’ve angered him. You’ve driven him. He’s dug in and no one will move him.
Or Jared Sykes. He’s another good one. He’s less angry and hateful than Youngblood, but just as disrespectful to Ivan and makes jokes at his expense. How’s that worked out for you? I think he tossed you through a ceiling.
Let me repeat that.
He tossed you through the ceiling. Not into the ceiling. You went up one place and fell through another. You basically teleported. That’s just because you annoyed him.
Same goes with Kenny Freeman. He thinks it’s smart to be cute with Ivan and what happens? He’s flying through the air into the audience and a woman’s water breaks.
Consider who has tried:
Shawn Warstein? He’s not even in PRIME now.
How about Coral Avalon’s non-existent balls?
Tony “I Lost My Torso to the HurricanRussia” Gamble.
Cancer Jiles who?
Christopher America? HOW World Joke.
This isn’t your typical day at the office or, I guess, in the ring. Why can’t any of you understand this?
Another case in point: His relationship with Alexei. Yes, Ruslan is a pain in the ass. He’s been decked plenty of times and I have basked in every moment of it. For this, I thank you. But he keeps getting up, doesn’t he? It’s not like he decides this isn’t for him and he leaves. He doesn’t waver. His ridiculous ideology forbids him from backing down. These two men are a unit that transcends friendship and alliance.
You foolishly think one is beholden to the other. You’re wrong. They’re equal. Perfectly equal. One does not dictate to the other. They are unlike any pairing in this profession. Every one of you are outgunned. They fought in a war together. They watched governments fall and worked to rebuild together. I don’t care if you have friends in PRIME. It is nothing compared to these two.
They. Are. Winning.
Maybe Timo Bolamba was right. I guess it takes a dinosaur to know a dinosaur. I don’t think Ivan gives a shit about Bolamba, but he’s the closest non-Russian outside of his circle who Ivan might respect. But you didn’t listen to him either, did you? You ridiculed Bolamba for warning you all about Ivan because you thought they were friends? No. He was warning you because he knew what was coming. He knew you were all making the same mistakes which made Ivan unstoppable twenty-odd years ago. He saw it from a mile away and each of you walked right into it. ReVival 25 was just the beginning. He’s just getting warmed up.
If Ivan loses his Universal Title match the night before, you’re all going to have to deal with him in the Battle Royal. That might not be too much of a “win” for all of you. If the Universal Title didn’t mean so much to him, I wouldn’t have put it past Ivan to purposefully lose just so he could be in the ring with you.
Or maybe it’s better to put it this way: you would be in the ring with him.
Of course, things aren’t quite as straightforward as they seem. I would like to present to you the absolute nightmare scenario:
Are you ready? Try to follow along.
-Ivan Stanislav loses his shot at the Universal Title. So he has to compete in the Battle Royal.
-All you have to do is eliminate him. But given your track record, you’re going to have a hard time beating him.
-He instead eliminates every champion in the Battle Royal, wins, and has a shot at the Universal Title.
-Ivan defeats every champion, to include the Universal Champion, and thus controls all the championships of PRIME. There isn’t even a tag division to block him from this feat.
Could Lindsay Troy, in her “wisdom,” have accidentally fed Ivan Stanislav the very tools necessary to take over large swaths of PRIME? This sounds far-fetched, doesn’t it? That’s where you’re wrong, PRIME.
For Ivan Stanislav, none of this is far-fetched. It drives him.
I hope and pray that you’re ready, PRIME, because your track record so far sucks. All the laughing and joking hasn’t really panned out, has it? I’m afraid I’m probably going to be stuck here chained to this idiot for a while longer, because you all are setting yourselves up to drop the ball yet again.
Don’t let me down. Please? Make me wrong. Will you?
Alexei Ruslan sat in his opulent office and stared at his computer monitor. It wasn’t the spartan space like Ivan had in Kaliningrad, but the furnishings were still dated. His walls were wood panels and the floor was carpeted. The light fixtures were “modern” back in the late 80s. One could only guess if this was a style choice on Ruslan’s part, or just what was on hand.
It didn’t matter.
He watched, with rapt attention, as words formed across the screen as Maksim typed, presumably, to himself. Under no circumstances was he going to let that gnat interfere in their plans. His smile turned to disgust while reading the words and the things Maksim revealed to his “supposed” audience of one.
Alexei didn’t want to lean on Arina as hard as he did. She was a nice girl and did a fine job. But he knew about Maksim’s insubordination, and he had to catch him. Getting her to suggest writing on this “date” was the perfect trap. Alexei tapped a few keys, saved the document remotely, and smiled.
It wasn’t like Maksim was lying. PRIME had no idea what they were dealing with. Their miscalculations would be the end of them. They didn’t take it as seriously as the Russians. Ivan and Alexei would continue to harry them. If not for the Universal Title, then certainly in the Battle Royal. They were powerless.
He chuckled as he considered not just Maksim, but all of PRIME, “You should have watched your step.”
He turned off his computer.