Stef looked up as a door appeared in the wall beside them. Grigori stepped through and the door disappeared.
He put a hand on Curt’s shoulder. ‘How about you let me run the next one with her?’
‘Yes sir,’ he said, snapping himself from his “yelling at newbie” posture to his “ass-kiss the agent” posture. ‘We were just finishing up here.’
‘I know,’ Grigori said as he tapped his head. ‘I was watching.’
Curt turned to her, his disapproving look reappearing. ‘Ma’am,’ he said. She made a face at him, and he exited back the way they had come.
‘So what do you want to run next?’ Grigori said, falling onto a freshly-required couch, the touchscreen scenario chooser in his hands. ‘I think you’re fine at thinking your way out, so another combat based one I think.’
‘Jones is expecting me,’ she said as she turned to follow Curt. ‘I’m already late.’
Grigori shifted ahead of her, leaning against the door frame. ‘I think getting a handle on things here is a little more important than adding more played hours to your Warcraft account.’
She pointed in the direction that Curt had left. ‘I was training with him.’
‘And now you’re training with me,’ he said, ‘change, it tends to happen in the Agency, you should get used to it.’
‘I was only supposed to run three. Or four. I’ve done seven. I’m exhausted.’
He grinned. ‘No you’re not. You only think you are.’
‘Unless I can shoot magic from my fingers in the next one, I’m not interested.’
‘Don’t you like me?’
‘I don’t know you.’
He shrugged. ‘I’m easy, I’m exactly what it says on the box.’
‘Huh?’
‘I am Grigori, I’m an angel, can’t you trust an angel?’
‘You’re also apparently Taylor’s best friend. Forgive me if I’m a little uneasy around you.’
‘You don’t like him, do you?’
‘He’s big, he’s scary, I’m pretty sure he’s hated me since I set foot in here, and-’ She holstered her gun. ‘Look if you want to run one, can we at least make it something quick, I want to at least help mind the snack table or something, have a bit of fun tonight.’
‘What were you going to say?’
She tripped her slash-serious macro and stared up at the tall agent. ‘When I was first brought back here, he found me, and he snapped my neck. And then he shot me. Then he let his little bitch have some fun. He…tore my limbs from my sockets, watched me bleed to death, and kept hurting me, even while I was screaming. I have my reasons not to trust his friends.’
‘He wasn’t always so much of an ass. Bad things happened to him.’ He poked her in the chest. ‘You’ve got a backup for your soul, your…your self, your memories, everything you are. We don’t. If we die, all that are left are scraps, we are our only copy.’
‘He died?’
‘He did. And his resurrection wasn’t as fortunate as yours.’
‘And that gives him a free pass to be a violent psychopath?’
‘It means I give him leeway.’
‘Why did you make the offer to let me do external training with you?’
‘It would be Christmas and his birthday all at once if they discontinued your project. Wrapped you up, put you in storage, or recycled you and used the piece of mirror for something else, or have it destroyed like it should have been in the first place.’
‘And you want to give him a present? Throw me at the frost giants so I can get stomped or something?’
He waved a dismissive hand. ‘You misunderstand how I feel. You, I do not have a problem with you. I wouldn’t purposely put you in danger. On my person right now I have no less than six items of contraband, and I’ve done more than a few things that I shouldn’t have. And yes, I even used mirror magic once, but keep that to yourself, it was during the war, and that’s far behind us.’
‘Which war?’
The room shimmered around them, the generated abandoned building turning into an apartment. ‘Sniping scenario,’ he said, gesturing to the gun set up in the window, ‘but it’s nicer than that dank building.’ He sat on the couch, swinging his legs up, making himself very much at home. ‘Can I presume you haven’t been given your history lessons yet?’
‘I’ve got several piles of paper taller than me to read through. I think the history lessons have taken a backseat to the more pressing matters of being able to fill in a form.’
‘Do me a favour,’ he said as he pulled a hip flask from his jacket, ‘turn off the android face, I dislike being around newborns because of their lack of personality, but on a human, it’s just disturbing. And…sit, this is going to take a few minutes.’
She toggled off slash-serious, and took a seat on the carpeted floor, crossing her legs and requiring a coffee.
‘What do you know about the Solstice?’
She shrugged. ‘They’re the bad guys.’
He stared at her. ‘I do hope you know a little more than that, otherwise you’re no better than the people they recruit who unquestionably kill fae.’
‘They hate anything non-human with a shoot-first kind of mentality. If it’s not like them, it’s dead, no exceptions.’
‘What about where they came from?’
‘I presume that’s where the history lesson is coming in,’ she said, sipping her coffee.
‘The short version is this: they grew out of KGB paranoia and hatred. That’s where the organisation skills come from – the original leaders, as well as many of the current leaders, are military. There is some access to black budgets, but mostly they’re independent from any one nation or military, though the contacts come in handy.’
‘I think the war is still going.’
‘This? Everyday? This isn’t war. This is…dealing with assholes and murderers, you’ll know it if we go to war. The whole damn world will. We barely keep things contained these days, what do you think will happen if they decide that silence stops being in their best interest?
‘Then what was the war?’
‘Back when they first started, there weren’t nearly as many of us as there are now. All we had to worry about was…the kind of thing we were designed for: fae, demons, follies, end-of-the-world-magic-apocalypses, that kind of thing. Other than for recruiting and dating, humans weren’t a big part of our day-to-day lives. We would, like we do now, get the occasional crazy cult that we had to calm down, not the bad kind of cult, not usually. More like…a guy find outs he’s one-eighth crocodile, figures out how to grow a tail at will and hangs out a shingle looking for hot priestesses to come worship him.’
‘That actually sounds amusing.’
‘I’ll send you a few archived reports to add to your you-sized paperwork piles.’ He took a drink from the hip flask. ‘So it really was surprising when humans began to attack us. Not only attack us, but be able to capture us.’
‘They had blackout bombs back then?’
‘Don’t be so surprised. The delivery systems have gotten better, but there have always been children of Time around. But there are more than a few ways to make blackout zones, not all of them are done with time energy. Some are just done with heavy concentrations of fae magic. We can’t shift around within fae territory. And sometimes it wasn’t even that complicated, they would just affect the agent, paralyse them against being to do anything, and that is a lot simpler than it sounds. It requires a lot less magic than blacking out an entire area.’
‘You fought back.’
‘Not at first, no, we had no idea what we were up against. Our friends were being taken, but we knew nothing of the group behind it, where they were being taken, or if they would be released.’
‘Did any of them make it out?’
‘Of course, they were still novices, they would use too little of a dose of a paralytic and the agent would be able to get away, or the method they had protecting an area would fail, and we’d be able to get in. But they got better, they got more and more of us.’
‘You shifted here, so it’s not like you’re region-locked, so why didn’t you just shift the hell out of there?’
‘We told them to,’ Ryan said, ‘everyone told them to.’ She turned and saw him standing behind them in the small, faux-apartment. She smiled at him, and he sat beside her on the floor. ‘But they didn’t listen.’
Grigori tipped his flask in Ryan’s direction. ‘Being stubborn is a flaw we share.’
[I wanted to check on you,] Ryan said. [You’ve been in here twice as long as expected.]
[Blame Curt,] she said, [I think he’s more an agent than I am.]
‘I was just regaling her with some history she really ought to know,’ Grigori said. ‘Nothing bad, no reason to worry.’
‘I would wager,’ Ryan said, ‘that you worry when your children are around people you don’t trust.’
‘You trust me Ryan, you just don’t like me.’
Ryan simply stared at the Russian. ‘I believe you were giving a history lesson?’
‘We learned about them, we fought back, but they had the numbers – and this was when they began to splinter, to take their cause elsewhere in the world. We…won, so that’s all that matters. Agents one, Solstice zero – the score, and the number of each left in Russia.’
‘You’re the-’
‘Only Agent? Exactly.’
‘How the fsck do you manage?’
‘A combination of good friends, good recruits, nearly eighty children and nearly a hundred and eighty grandchildren.’
She stared at the agent for a moment, then let herself roll back and hit the floor.
‘Stef?’
‘Brain restarting,’ she said, gently batting Ryan’s hand away. ‘Just…gimme a minute.’
‘I take it you’re impressed,’ Grigori said.
‘…scared would be more accurate,’ she said, staring at the ceiling. ‘Why no other agents? I mean-’
‘I asked for it,’ Grigori said, all pretense of humor gone from his voice. ‘And they let it be that way…my reward for doing my part. I’m sure that when I’m gone, they’ll reorder the entire country, but at the moment, I have a system that works, without other agents.’
‘I see.’
‘Grigori, why do you want to take her?’
‘I’m trying to remove a little of the tension from your Agency, Ryan,’ Grigori said, slipping the flask back into his jacket. ‘She comes with me, Taylor knows she won’t get any special treatment, that I won’t be easy on her, I’ll just treat her as anyone else under my command. You give her to one of your friends for a week, or let her take the Madchester job, it proves nothing.’
‘Quite enough has been proven.’
‘That so?’
‘It will satisfy Taylor, it might let you get some work done.’
[Is Taylor bothering you that much?] she asked Ryan.
[No. It’s nothing. Nothing out of the ordinary for him.]
[This time you’ve got to be truthful.]
[Grigori’s…right. It should shut Taylor up for a while. I just don’t like the idea of-]
[Let me do this, let me make it easier for you. Come on, I can do this. Besides…I had Madame Cousteau for a ballet teacher, how much scarier can frost giants be?]
[Stef…]
[You’re one headspace IM away if I need help, right?]
[Of course.]
[Then send me away with the crazy Russian guy.]
He smiled. [Fine, but you’re taking Curt with you.]
[…come again? Sending me away with one guy you don’t trust is bad, but two is good?]
[Since I doubt Grigori is a secret Solstice traitor, their goals would be incompatible. If Curt is a traitor, there’s no gain in the situation, as there’s no Solstice in Russia, so his priority would be keeping you alive. It’s playing the odds.]
[…your brain is kind of scary, do you really sit around thinking about stuff like that all day?]
[It is nothing more than taking the situation to it’s logical end. That, and if Curt is nothing more than he appears, it should endear him a little me, make him less afaid.]
[Why?]
[Under the rules of his probation, he isn’t allowed out of the city, much less the country. It’s a deserved reward for his service.]
[Babysitting the newbie isn’t exactly a reward.]
[I’ll speak with him.] He looked away. [Are you sure, I can deal with Taylor-]
[You brought me back from the dead, least I can do is help you placate the psychopath.]
[Stef.]
[I’m sure.]
She broke out of communication mode, and looked up at Grigori, who had required a magazine containing…if she read the cover correctly “1001 breasts” and a bottle of beer.
‘Don’t mind me,’ he said, ‘continue your conversation if you need to.’
She stared at the magazine, wondering if the breasts were disembodied, or if the rest of the woman was included. She looked away from it, feeling her brain beginning to go fuzzy.
‘I’m coming,’ she said.
‘Really? You’re very calm about it.’
‘Huh?’
‘Nothing, nothing. So, you’re in?’
‘On one condition,’ she said as Ryan stood and offered her a hand.
‘Name it,’ Grigori said.
‘I want one of those fuzzy hats.’