Backstage, the camera catches sight of Justine Calvin for the first time since the end of the first night of Culture Shock. Moreover, it’s also the first time she has ever appeared on PRIME television without the thing she’d carried with her since the night she stepped foot on the national stage: her half of the PRIME Tag Team championships.
Tonight the woman one person calls a “Toxic Hell Banshee” and another calls “The Murder Valkyrie” is a queen of a dead empire.
With one hand in her pocket and the other scrolling her phone, Justine is in a world all her own. It’s only when a nearby door slams that her eyes look up from the screen, and then a scowl draws itself across her lips when she sees the source of the noise: Alexei Ruslan. The Russian, in his brown overcoat and hat, grins at her from afar and waves.
Alexei Ruslan: Ah! Ms. Calvin! I have something for you!
She keeps her eyes back over her shoulder, but she doesn’t acknowledge the comment or even break her stride until she walks directly into a brick wall. Except it isn’t a brick wall at all.
It’s Ivan Stanislav.
As she whips her head up up up to stare into the grizzled features of the Russian Bear, Ruslan approaches from behind and she is, for all intents and purposes, trapped between the two Russians. Stanislav grins.
Ivan Stanislav: Uh-oh!! Careful where you are walking, Ms. Calvin, you could get hurt!
Ruslan hisses in her ear from behind.
Alexei Ruslan: Indeed! But how lucky for us all to have found you. We wanted to give you something.
Ruslan looks past Justine and up at Ivan, who advances towards her and compels her backwards while Alexei backpedals. For all his menace and the constant looming, Stanislav speaks conversationally.
Ivan Stanislav: We missed you last ReVival, Ms. Calvin. I am sure you saw our conversation with your betrothed, dear Jared Sykes? The poor boy. He was lamenting how his own pride at Culture Shock stole once in a lifetime opportunity from you. Tut tut. Selfish.
Given the tone of the encounter she had with Alexei during the Culture Shock press conference, it’s difficult for Justine to mask her annoyance at the situation she finds herself in.
So she doesn’t try.
Justine Calvin: (sighing) Oh for…
The phone she once held is slid into her pocket.
Justine Calvin: Honestly, the way you two spin things I’d think you were better suited to cable news than this sport. Someone breathes in the wrong direction, and here comes the Red Army to tell everyone how that person is directly responsible for contributing to… I dunno, greenhouse emissions, or something. And yeah, I watched the show. I know what was said. I also know that I’m the one who put the call in to Troy’s office when the damn thing was announced and said which of us was getting the spot, so if that’s the best you’ve got then you’re going to need to try a little harder.
Stanislav continues to advance with a steady, but unwavering cadence. Ruslan moves fluidly to the side, and it’s clear this kind of tandem surrounding tactic has been used many times in the past. Before Justine can realize it she’s backed into a brick wall and facing the two Russians. She’s cornered.
Ivan Stanislav: You know, Justine, I believe this is really the first time we have honor to speak with you. I had hoped that Jared would be here as well, but it appears he left you high and dry again. Lamentable. I think of our long distance conversations, Justine. So many times we spend just discussing such things on Jabber…
Ruslan chimes in sardonically.
Alexei Ruslan: With your popcorn emojis and oh-so-hilarious quips…
Ivan continues as the two Russians speak as if they are one.
Ivan Stanislav: But it is so wonderful to see the beautiful other half of now-defunct Tag Team, Eminence, in all of her glory. I have always respected your work and athleticism. I see why you were part of tag team champions, Justine. Athletic and yet still feminine and… breakable.
Alexei Ruslan: Ah, forgive Praporshchik Stanislav as English is not our first language. Of course not breakable but rather, let us say, delicate?
Ivan just lets the word hang in the air as he looks down at her, emulating a looming anvil that could fall at any moment. His words suddenly lighten and he smiles broadly.
Ivan Stanislav: You know, I wish to make sure: for your wedding, did you need our address for invitations? It would be shame if we were snubbed. And might we see the beautiful ring Jared got you?
The cameras won’t show how the hairs on the back of her neck are standing on end, just like they won’t be able to catch her next movement, imperceptible as it is.
With her right hand already balled into a fist, Justine briefly lets the fingers on her left hand go slack, just enough for her to reach towards her palm with her thumb and rotate the ring on her left hand inwards. It’s not to hide the stone from the Russians, but to present a cleaner surface to strike with if the situation arises.
Justine Calvin: (deadpan) I’ll send you a picture.
Ivan Stanislav: (deadpan) A shame.
Ivan stares down at Justine, who is almost two feet smaller and three times lighter than Stanislav. His flat delivery does not brighten.
Ivan Stanislav: I know that Jared and I have had our differences, dear Ms. Calvin, and I am sure that he does what he can to slander me behind my back.
Justine Calvin: We don’t…
Her words are cut short by Ivan’s chuckle.
Ivan Stanislav: Lenin knows he does it enough on Jabber, yes? But I think it is important for you to understand the kind of men that I, and Alexei, are. I think it is important that you hear, and understand, this straight from the two of us.
He thumbs at himself and then Alexei while shifting his weight forward gradually. At his height, he is almost looking directly down on her.
Ivan Stanislav: We have great respect for women. You know, there are so many men out there who think women are less than their male counterparts? That they deserve less. That they should earn less. That they should receive less? Yes. It is true. And it is shameful. You see, Justine, Lenin taught us that all women are capable of great things. All women have the capacity to break out of the “kitchen” and be as important and influential as any individual in government. Women can work. Women can fight. Women can make decisions.
Ivan’s huge smile carries with it the sweetness of anthrax.
Ivan Stanislav: So we always have had great respect for women.
Ivan nonchalantly checks his nails.
Ivan Stanislav: For the two of us? We believe a woman deserves equality to men at all times. They deserve just as much. They should earn just as much. And they should receive just as much of whatever it is a male would receive.
He stops staring at his nails, and looks down at her coldly.
Ivan Stanislav: Whatever attention or time that we would give to a man? We would do so to a woman as well. Aggressively. With joy in our hearts. Just to let them know that they are precisely on the same level, in our eyes, as all the boys running around here.
Ivan stares directly into Justine’s eyes. His words drip with angular, Russian menace.
Ivan Stanislav: Do you understand what I am saying, Justine? We just mean that in our eyes, everything that we’ve done to the male roster members of PRIME? We would happily do the absolute same to you.
Ruslan chimes in cheerfully, in stark contrast to Ivan.
Alexei Ruslan: Why, we might even go above and beyond for you, dear Justine. Just to really drive our love of gender equality home. Only if necessary, of course. Especially as one such as yourself prepares for such an amazing future. You know, pictures, dress fittings, attendees such as family members and friends…
Ivan finally moves his weight backwards and grants Justine a small amount of breathing room.
Ivan Stanislav: It is just something to think about. Here, let us give you item for why we are here. As congratulations for your newfound future! A pretty object for the pretty bride-to-be! I have no doubt that your future will look so, so bright.
Stanislav grins wide and raises his enormous arms overhead and claps. Ruslan opens his coat and produces a fiery, red and yellow tulip with a bulb of soil wrapped in cloth at the bottom and offers it to her. As he does, a tech from down the hall calls after them, unaware of what’s been transpiring.
Technician: Mr. Stanislav? You’re almost on.
Stanislav growls, but he doesn’t once let his eyes leave Justine’s.
Ivan Stanislav: Praporshchik you imbecile!
He then smiles. It doesn’t reach his eyes.
Ivan Stanislav: I must go to my match! You be sure to tell Jared that we stopped by, okay? You be sure to tell him everything.
A massive paw catches Justine by the wrist and slowly draws her hand up as if to kiss it. It’s only when she realizes what’s happening that Justine rips her hand away. Unsaid words pass between Justine and Stanislav, who playfully winks at her as he leaves his huge hand open, devoid of her hand.
Ivan Stanislav: It has been so, so nice to finally see you, beautiful unblemished Justine. You wish me luck, eh? I always appreciate good luck from a beautiful girl!
Stanislav winks and walks away, letting his shadow recede from atop Justine. Ruslan winks at her and whispers.
Alexei Ruslan: We see you around, hm? Do not be stranger, sweetheart.
Ruslan waves, turns, and catches up to Ivan as they make their way to the ring.