The transit of the frost giants was something amazing to behold.
Stef settled back against the snowbank – the cold came through her uniform, but something in her agentyness allowed her to process it as nothing more than a cold, wet chill, rather than the debilitating cold it truly was.
Magic had almost become…a circumstance. Nothing made it less wonderful, but certain bits of magic were becoming everyday, something she could get used to.
Once in a good while though, something just took her breath away.
The phoenix; spinning through the universe in the time after death, and now this.
The giants were immense – most of them were, according to her HUD, between six and ten metres; but there was one, towards the middle of the pack, that surely should have ranked as a minor kaiju.
They looked like slabs of grey-blue rock, rimmed with snow and ice. Some moved on all fours, like gorillas; others walked upright, like man-shaped rocks. They were something…old, something quite different to everything else she’d seen.
Beside her, Curt stamped his feet, in some little effort to combat the cold.
‘Are you going to fight them?’ she asked of Grigori, who stood a little ahead and to the side of them, seemingly fine to ignore both of them.
‘I keep an eye on them,’ he said without turning. ‘I don’t fight them unless they get close to civilians. I try not to kill what cannot be replaced.’ He turned, and proffered a small hip flask in their direction, which they both declined. ‘These giants are a special kind of nature fae. They were born from a mountain, so their numbers are finite. Some times, they will split, but they cannot breed in the traditional senses.’ He gave a wide grin. ‘It’s all rock falls and splitting crags, nothing warm, wet or sweet.’
Grigori turned his face towards Curt. ‘Do you want to see where your people are?’
She expected Curt to say something like I beg your fucking pardon or some other combination of query indignation. Curt, however, being the sensible person that he was, said nothing.
Stef looked up, some need to snark on Curt’s behalf building in her chest. We know where the recruits are, sir. The words danced on her tongue, but she dropped her head, unwilling to risk the blond agent’s wrath.
Grigori lifted his hands and they were shifted.
In front of them was an isolated shack. There was nothing around, as far as the eye could see, except for a few hopeless, helpless trees that were barely more than sticks.
‘This is the home of the last, worst Solstice in Russia,’ Grigori said.
‘And what are we doing here?’ she asked carefully.
Grigori bent low to the ground, rolled a snowball, and handed it to her. ‘We’re here to seek revenge.’
She gave him a strange look, so he took the snowball from her, and pelted it at the shack-house.
He did it again, and then smiled.
After a moment, Stef bent low to the ground and rolled a snowball of her own, then threw it at the house.
As the snowball smashed against the wall, something seemed to release – some of the tension left over from the limit tests, some of the fear of Grigori, some of the…everything that had been wearing her down, holding her down.
Throwing snowballs was fun. It was innocent. It was- Good.
After a moment, Grigori held up his hands, and she heard a crash from within the shack. Grigori flicked his hands, and they were shifted up onto a snowbank high above the house. ‘Be quiet,’ Grigori warned.
The door of the shack crashed open, and a man – presumably the Solstice occupant, came out screaming.
Grigori gave a low, rumbling chuckle as the man – the Solstice – tore around his shack, occasionally stopping to stoop and hurl a handful of snow at the air. He cursed in English and Russian, pulling every anti-Agency and anti-Agent epithet that seemed to exist in the Solstice dictionary.
‘He is the last,’ Grigroi said, then took a swig from a small flask, ‘I cannot bring myself to kill him. He’s no danger to anyone.’ Grigori turned and slapped Curt on the back. ‘He’s nearly as impotent as you are, Recruit.’
Stef sucked in her lips, and ran her tongue along them. It was calming. It let her focus on the lingering taste of sugar, and the sharp touch of ice from the few snowflakes that had landed there.
The solstice was a raving lunatic. An utter madman. Dissociated from reality. Cursing the sky and arming himself with snow.
If it hadn’t been so cold, she would have been crying. The snow kept the tears at bay, locked behind an imagined wall of ice.
‘He is my god in the basement,’ Grigori said, ‘I did this to him. I cannot kill him. He only joined to save his family, that’s not something I can fault the man for.’
It had been fun to pitch snowballs at the home of a Solstice. Knowing what Pitor’s state was like erased any of the fun from the act.
She had done this. She had raved and raged against imagined foes. Had beaten her fridge with a baseball bat. Had pissed in the bath because of imagined things in the toilet.
Below them, Piotr stopped raging, and turned towards the house, his head bowed. ‘Grigori,’ he said – so quietly that she knew Curt hadn’t heard. ‘Grigori, I am out of bread.’
Grigori pushed the bush out of the way, stepped up over the snowbank, then effortlessly slid down it. He waved warmly at Piotr, a loaf of bread appearing in one hand, a bottle in the other. There was a minute of swearing as Grigori approached, then both men went into the shack.
Stef sighed, turned, and leaned against the snowbank – glad that her agenty powers were dampening most of the cold. ‘I am so not cool with what is going on here,’ she said.
Curt stamped his feet. ‘Newbie, I know I look like a marshmallow, but I’m still Aussie. I’m freezing. Can we go back to the agency?’
‘Can I complain when we get there?’
He pushed his hood back so that she could see his face. ‘Of course.’ He held out a gloved hand, and she processed the shift.
She allowed herself a small, proud smile as she landed in the doorway that connected their rooms. Curt immediately slipped his hand from hers, and moved into his room, divesting himself of his plushy outer layers. Stef turned, required away the heavy jacket she’d worn, kicked her shoes towards her bed, then walked into Curt’s room.
Curt was sitting on the edge of his bed, his winter gear gone. He looked at his feet, and wet boots were replaced with thick socks. He pointed to the fireplace. ‘If I open the grill, do you promise not to accidentally set yourself on fire again?’
She smirked, and hurriedly moved to sit in front of the fire. ‘I’ll do my best,’ she said, as he proceeded to set it up for marshmallows.
Curt sat, and a bowl of marshmallows appeared between them.
‘I’d love to say this reminds me of England,’ she said, allowing a slip of her mother’s accent into her voice. ‘That I can share perfect Christmas memories of polite little pommy kids sitting around by an open fire.’ She speared a marshmallow and held it near the fire. ‘We were never allowed to do this. All of the rooms had central heating and underfloor heating. Fireplaces were for decorations and-‘ she blushed. ‘Well, from my cousins said, newlyweds.’
Curt pushed his own marshmallows close to the fire. ‘I’m about as okay with what he did as you are.’
Stef pulled her marshmallows back, pulled one from the stick, and began to squeeze it in her right hand. ‘I didn’t know- Throwing snowballs at a bad guy is one thing, but-’
‘Kids at school used to throw rocks at my sister,’ he said. ‘Only small rocks, and only a few kids, but it’s why I got so good at fighting.’ He leaned close and bent down the top of his ear, exposing a three-inch long scar. ‘I didn’t get good enough, quick enough.’ He pulled back, giving her the space she needed. ‘He said- He said he did it.’ His eyes looked everywhere – the fire, the carpet, the growing mess in her hand. ‘He-‘ Curt started to shake. ‘He sent that man insane. He couldn’t even kill him. Killing’s the kinder choice.’
He started to shuffle away, but Stef grabbed his hand. ‘You’re safe,’ she said, trying to make her voice gentle. ‘No one is going to hurt you. The agency’s good, you know that. You got a second chance, and-‘
Curt was shaking.
Stef laid her marshmallows down, required her hand clean, then moved the bowl out of the way. ‘Padawan?’
Curt stared at the floor. ‘You think the Agency is shiny.’ His voice cracked. ‘I can’t ruin that for you.’
‘Limit testing,’ she said, her voice straining. ‘I’m not about to forget about that anytime soon. It’s cracked some of the veneer.’ She shuffled closer to him, and bumped her shoulder against his – something he did when trying to comfort her. ‘Talk. If you want to. I’m not sure-‘
‘I told you what I did,’ he said, ‘I’m not going to repeat it.’ He stared straight ahead, his eyes hollow. ‘How do you think they treated me?’
A cold feeling – far colder than the snow that had been swirling outside – slid down her throat and settled into her gut.
She opened her mouth, but no words came out. Nothing came out. This was peopling, and she wasn’t good at peopling.
Be sensible. Be sane.
‘I don’t think you want platitudes,’ she said. ‘But I don’t know what else to say.’
‘I was worried,’ he said, ‘that- When they augmented you. That you wouldn’t be- You. I’ve seen how bad an agent can be. I know it sounds like rhetoric, like something a good little recruit shouldn’t say, but- I was worried for you.’
He smiled, and some of the tension seemed to have slipped away. ‘Now, newbie, I just worry about the things you do.’ He reached for her hand, lifted it, squeezed it, then poured a glass of water over her sleeve. ‘You were on fire again.’ He grinned. ‘Never change, newbie.’ He smirked. ‘But I wouldn’t mind if you became less flammable.’
She looked down at the patch that had burnt from her sleeve. ‘I don’t even know how that happened!’ she said, shaking the water droplets from her arm before requiring a new shirt. She stood, and gave him a careful look. ‘By the way, I totally noticed how we avoided having a serious conversation.’
‘Good,’ he said, ‘but I’m not up for it.’ He pulled out his phone as it buzzed. ‘If you promise to get straight to your paperwork, we’ve got time for one movie.’
‘I’ll promise that right now I promise.’ She held out her hand, and shifted to the tech theatre.
The transit of the frost giants was something amazing to behold.