[Cecily]Twelve: "First Impressions"

July 7, 2189

       "Why don't we have a mom and dad, Harry?"
       There was a deeply uncomfortable pause. "We have parents, Silly."
       "Then why aren't they here? Why have I never seen them? Are they dead?" Some people said things, mean things. She wanted to know if they were true. Or at least know if she was justified in beating some of them up.
       "It's complicated, Cecily."
       "Well, where are they?"
       "They're gone. I don't know where they are. I don't know why, I don't know how." His voice was dark, filled with what she thought then was tremendous anger at her, but would realize, many years later, was fear and pain, for them both.
       She said nothing more on the subject, but a few hours later, found him in the library. Never one, even then, to avoid the point, she asked, "Are you going to leave, too, Harry?"
       "Oh, goddess, Silly." His face a study in remorse and guilt, he gathered her up and hugged her hard. "No. I'm not going to leave you, dearest, not ever. I will always be here to take care of you."

        There are few conversations from my childhood that I remember with equal clarity to that one. I couldn't have been more than seven at the time, and I was terrified he might have answered my question with a yes.
       Even now, all these years later, knowing how the world works, and the risks we both take, I've never really let myself think about losing him. He's always been a constant in my life, the one solid thing I've always had to count on. I'm more than capable of taking care of myself, and really, in recent years, I've found myself keeping an eye on him more than him watching over me. But I've never tried to fathom what it would be like not having him. I subconsciously took him at his word, that he'd never leave, that he'd always be there for me.
        So between two days on the savannah arguing with an arrogant hologram and another seven or eight hours of listening to Stark and Ilie... Well, it was more than my nerves could handle when I heard the unfamiliar voice say my brother and the others had been cast to the four corners of shadow.

       It took me less than two minutes into the first conversation with "Reynard" to come to the conclusion the guy was a grade A arrogant jerk. By the second conversation, when I'd began to suspect this wasn't the real Reynard, but some sort of computer-generated hologram, it became apparent the original was a clever jerk. The worst kind, in my opinion. Further conversation with his computer-clone only cemented said opinion. Woe be to the real Reynard when I got my hands on him.
       For two days I trudged through the never-ending grassland, periodically having useless conversations with a bunch of animated pixels with an attitude, and getting a good sense for why bipedal primates had evolved that way in such an environment.
       As I sat down to my dinner of well-charcoaled rodent the second night, I picked up some of my compatriots in the mirror. I'd seen Shen and Griffin the night before, living in the lap of apparent luxury. I found them again, this time with Fletcher too. But no sign of the others, or most importantly, Harry.
       I was worried. My brother is a very intelligent man, but as evidenced by recent experiences, he doesn't often think before he acts. It's ironic, since that's the behavior most would (and probably do) expect out of me. But sometimes, compared to Harry, I'm caution and patience incarnate. I usually consider the dangers of a situation before I walk into it. Harry, when lost in the rosy-eyed view of scientific inquiry, doesn't think of anything beyond the minutae of discovery. So the very thought of him out there, even possibly with Salome, who I don't trust, or Rhiannon, who already sold us out, had me grinding my teeth with anxiety.
       I was about to give up on the mirror when I ran across Amber again. My mirror man was standing on a pier, looking out into a wind-swept harbor. He was intent upon a ship that was floundering into port; it listed disturbingly to the right, and looked like it had been hulled at least once. The damn thing was practically sinking as I watched. Eventually, after a painful few minutes, it made it to the dock, and a big man, who looked like he was the merry sort, when not exhausted and battle scarred, made his way from the decks and grabbed the mirror-man in a huge embrace. They left then toward the fairy castle up the mountain, and I let the image fade, wrapping the mirror and placing in my pack. More intriguing mystery, but for once I felt too distracted, too tired to ponder it. I just wanted the hell out of this place.
       Stage One of my salvation came the next day when the hologram Reynard reappeared, apparently recovered from the short-circuiting I'd caused it the previous day. It told me I was being followed, and after I refused to trade my mirror for an unspecified trump, I doubled back to cross paths with Stark and Ilie.
       While I was glad to be back with some familiar faces, in retrospect I think I'd have rather toughed it out alone. Both Stark and I were about at the end of our proverbial ropes, and I think we each were pretty close to using said proverbial ropes to throttle the other. Ilie, for the most part, wisely kept his mouth shut and stayed out of our way.

       I'll admit I'm the tiniest bit ashamed of what happened next. By the time we found the center of the Shadow, and had regrouped, to find Harry, Salome and Rhiannon still missing, I thought I was about ready to kill Reynard. It was mostly just aimless wishing brought about by pent-up frustration. So I was okay, really, until I heard him say that he didn't know where the missing were. They were gone, cast somewhere in shadow. About ten different consequences of this ran through my head, none of them good. My brother was lost in shadow, possibly with one or two traitors, and being hunted by a crazy demon sorceror.
        I slowly walked up to the red-headed man in the middle of the room and poked him in the chest, just to make sure he was the real one. He gave me the oddest look, his face mottled with old bruises. "What do you mean, dumped into random shadows?" I asked, very quietly.
       "It's a failsafe of the system," he explained, looking confused, and beginning to look concerned, probably because I was glowering at him. "If someone is too destructive to this shadow, it transports them to a random point outside of it."
       "So you have no idea where they are, no idea how to get them back."
       I think in some remote corner of his mind he saw it coming, but not in a conscious enough manner to get out of the way. So he just stood there looking faintly distressed as I clocked him, dropping him like a rock.
       I immediately realized that had probably not been the best move, nor was it going to be at all helpful, but I had to admit I felt at least a little better on some deeply petty level. I splashed some water on his face from my canteen to revive him, before Stark shoved me out of the way. "I need to talk to him," she hissed, causing me to step back a bit at her vehemence. I let her tend to his old ( and new) wounds, moving to the side of the room where I could regain some shred of my composure and pretend to ignore the looks my companions were bestowing upon me.
       My hand started to hurt about as the rush of adrenaline subsided, and I discretely checked to make sure I hadn't broken anything. I hoped too, I hadn't totally screwed our chances of getting out of this place or getting Harry back, with my ill-mannered introduction. One hell of a way to make a first impression...