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Feels Like Freedom

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"Oh I do all sorts of things," said Frost cheerfully. "But here we are in valley of Kondoma River, and is fine place." He walked underneath the curving bulk of an unfamiliar tree, and tapped the bark. "Hills hereabouts kept place ice-free even when the glaciers came. These trees here, the linden, some like this were growing before Ice Age." He put his hands in his pockets and turned, heading down a rough trail in a nearby hill. "Are you expected home soon?" he inspired. "There is business we can conduct in town below if not." The town below looked like a small, lively village built along a river, loomed over by mine tailings and bustling with life. It was morning here, the sun not having banished a lingering chill. 

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Casper frowned under his mask. No. He was not expected home soon. Not like anyone was waiting for him. 


The only good thing about being alone was that he wasn't running late all the time after dealing with super hero stuff.


"Nah. I've got time." Casper still wasn't sure what he thought of Frost, but he sure as hell wasn't going to start talking about the whole divorce and kid and being on his own with him just yet. That part was easier with Fleur, at least.


He floated alongside Frost, following him as he moved. "So, what's the business? Seems like a peaceful place."

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"Sure," lied Frost cheerfully, "is village full of priests and gentle peasants, nothing to worry about..." The village turned out to be a mining town from what Ghost could see, with cars on a track heading down towards a mine built straight into the side of the hill, and rock-stained workers walking onto the streets to greet the new day. It actually looked a bit like something from the last century; he was pretty sure Russian mining towns didn't look like 1950, even in the backcountry.


Frost was greeted everywhere they went with roars of delight and firm embraces; this was obviously a place where he was known and respected. Frost made introductions as they went, but it was hard to tell since nobody seemed to speak much English beyond "Yankee!" and "Coca-Cola!" 


Soon Frost had led Ghost to what was clearly a tavern, a few bleary-eyed miners stumbling out to greet the day. Frost headed right in and introduced Ghost to the bartender, a one-eyed, fierce-faced woman named Ivanka who peered at Ghost suspiciously before demanding, "What you have?" The room was small and low-ceilinged, the wooden ceilings of the cramped little place almost brushing Frost's head. The latter had already taken a seat by the nearby fireplace and seemed to be trying to spark the coals. The place wasn't clean and it wasn't neat, but it seemed to be the best place to go in town, a sooty-faced Lenin watching them from a picture frame in the corner. 

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This was weird, right?


Casper had decided to stop floating and just walk alongside Frost as he led them through the village. His whole white and grey costume was weird enough already, floating might freak people out here even more and... he really had no idea where here was. It was weird.


He greeted whoever Frost introduced him to, but aside from a few attempts at responding with Pepsi, Casper didn't really make much progress. The way everyone talked to Frost, it felt too obvious to ask if they knew him around here. 


Casper looked up at the one eyed woman, and... yeah, alright. Not too happy to see him? Cool, cool, he'd deal with it. "Vodka?" he asked. When in Russia, right? 

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"Vodka! Hah!" That got Casper something like a smile, and then what appeared to be a repurposed glass bottle full of something clear with the strong scent of something high-proof. She walked away, humming something Casper didn't quite recognize under her breath, and began polishing the dark wood of the bar near the other end, where someone had carved "I+B, 1957" some long time ago. 


"Careful when you drink," said Frost, sitting amiably by Casper's side now that a crackling fire had begun in the inn's hearth. "They brew it from certain local ingredients indeegenous to Siberian taiga. Will curl hair on chest, as saying goes." He settled in, watching Casper watch the place, and said, "So, you spend much time in places like this? Have hangouts back in Freedom City?"

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  • 2 weeks later...

Casper looked at the glass in front of him with some apprehension, especially when Frost warned him.


The liquid was clear, see through. Looked almost like water, but didn't smell like it at all.


Pulling the mask up to clear both his mouth and nose, he reached for the glass and raised it to his lips, quickly emptying it.


And oh god that was strong. He couldn't resist a quick gasp for air, shaking his head lightly.


"Oh. Yeah. That... that was something alright." Casper shook his head. Better leave the mask up for some air, at least for now. "I, ah... no. Not really. At least not like this," he said, gesturing to himself and the costume. "Kinda tends to attract the wrong kind of people, y'know."


"So, what's the story? What is this place? People seem like they know you, and they don't even care that I'm all dressed up like this."

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"In Russia, in old Soviet days, relationship between metahumans and the people was very different than in United States." Frost looked thoughtful, toying with a log he'd pulled out of the stack by the fireplace. As he held it, a faint frost slowly crept up the bark. "Instead of many independent agents, running around in Leagues and Societies and the like, all served the people. All were the People's Heroes. This meant we never had supervillain problem, for example." He smiled thinly. "Of course some would say we were the supervillains, but tell that to all the dead Fritzes we left in Eastern Europe, hm?" He set the log back down, its surface entirely covered with ice. "So people know me here the way they might not any other place, and they are not surprised to see me with caped vigilante." 


He looked around and said, "This is Siberian village of Old Suntar. Mostly Yakuts and Russians here, had roots going all the way back to before Cossacks claimed land in name of Tsars. People worked hard, lived day-to-day, was all right. Came here after war when there was scandal involving attempt to summon ghost of Marx and Lenin to consult at local Party meetings but it was fine, was not even a real ghost." He waved a hand cheerfully. "New Suntar is down by uranium mine, is dirty and overgrown, far inferior in my humble opinion." 

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"Home sweet home, then?"


Ghost leaned over the table. He kept the mask pulled up to free his mouth, it always felt odd if he kept moving it up and down.


"So, all a matter of perspective, then. Everybody's a hero to somebody and a villain to someone else. I know there's a fair share of people that got opinions about me, anyway." 


He kind of wanted another glass of that vodka, but on the other hand... he really shouldn't ghost and drink.

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"It's not really so typical, is it?" 


It was all so very Russian, but there had to be something more to this place, didn't there? Some reason that Frost had brought him here. Was it just part of the standard meet and greet for people that wanted to join the league? Casper kind of doubted it.


"So, why'd you bring me here? I mean, the sights are nice and everything, for a cold Russian town, but I kinda doubt you'd bring a new guy here without having some kind of point?"

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  • 3 weeks later...

"So... looking at the things around here," Casper motioned towards the rifle behind the bar with his head, "it looks way too new for something that old. I didn't see any cars, everything's old models, but looking new."


Was this some kind of time travel thing, then? Some sort of alternate reality sub dimension thing? Magic? Ah, joy. Three things that always gave Casper a headache.


"So... time travel? Some kind of preserved bubble of your childhood home? Am I getting any closer here?"

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"Oh no," said Frost baldly, "My childhood home was in penguin's nest and my mother was polar bear, very different than this..." He raised the fireplace poker to Ghost in salute. "But yes, you have solved mystery. Here is test for you." He set the tip of the poker, point down, against the wooden floor. "Trolley problem. A man with great power has gone mad and threatens to kill two thousand, five hundred and thirty people. It is a terrible thing; a man who has once defended the people has become their enemy. You have all the necessary means to stop him but said means will certainly kill him. What course do you take - and is your choice different if this man is your...old friend, say he is one of the few left you can still talk about the old times with. Hm?" 

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A morality test. Great.


"Kill one to save many?" Casper made sure his mask was pulled down over his face. "Nothing's ever that simple, is it? Why's he doing it? What's happened? How's he doing it?"


He shook his head.


"So is this the part where you're either trying to find out if I'll take the hard choices, or the one where you want to know if I'll stand up and do the real hero thing and save everyone without killing?"

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  • 4 weeks later...

"It doesn't matter what you pick, boy," said Frost with a cold shrug, his Boris Badinov accent fading like the snow in mid-summer. "He had killed them all before I even arrived in the valley. Every single one." He opened up a knife from his sleeve and drove it firmly into the wooden table by his side. "So I killed him and damned him to an eternity of torment for his crime. But I have close ties with a goddess of Death, so I was able to improvise the fates of his victims." He pulled out the knife, the wood closing up where it had once been almost instantly. "Here it is forever 1957, and the people go about their lives unknowing that one of their heroes will soon come to burn them to death in their homes. This is the Freedom League. There is no organization on this planet with lower stakes. If you join this team, sometimes you will fail, and be left with only the memory of failure after. That is the test." 

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Casper paused.


That... was unexpected.


He looked around. Always the same year, things never changing. 


So, then what? What was he going to do? 


"I've failed plenty of people," he started, trailing off. Yeah. He'd failed. He couldn't save everyone, try as he might. "I know you've been around forever, but I've been doing this for 18 years." Casper's tone was perhaps a bit sharper than normal, his words carrying more weight. "I've failed before. People have died because I was too slow to show up, or because the bad guy got the better of me, or whatever. But what's the alternative? I stop trying?" 


Ghost stood up, slamming a hand into the table.


"I've been down, yeah. I've made mistakes. But I've made my decision: I'm gonna be better. I want my kid to be proud of me. I want to be the kind of hero that people trust, the kind of person that will do everything I can to save everyone I can. And yeah. I might fail, but if I don't try, then I won't be making any difference at all."

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Frost was looking into the fire by the time Ghost had finished, listening and nodding his head occasionally. "Eighteen years, well. I had died several times by then so you have come out ahead." He smiled at Ghost, the accent returning as he added, "These are good answers. You should not look for my approval in personal life because what am I, just some elderly Russian man. But you should look for it in professional life - and you have it!" He offered a cold handshake to Ghost before continuing, "Now you must understand, cannot have you just walk off street into League, that is not done. You will officially be Auxilary representative on main team. Once time has passed, then they can talk to you about a permanent place. This is good, yes?" 

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