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Check I: Behind the Mirror (IC)

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April 20th, 10.25AM, 2019

The paths around Lake Mackenzie

 

The sun streamed down through the trees, its light glinted across the silver-blue surface of the lake. The air was fragrant with flowers, the rich scent of warm earth, and the far-off food carts. Birds sang in the trees, boats plying the lake roared or burbled or splashed, depending how they were being pushed, and the park was thick with barking dogs, yelling children and dancing cherry blossoms. On the far side of the lake and muffled by ancient trees, a fairground had sprung up like a pale echo of Port Regal's Ocean Heights Amusement Park.

 

"Amazing," Leroy stared wide-eyed from his and Judy's vantage point up the hill, hugging her a little closer as he looked down at the scene, "playing on the surface like this...nobody without a dragon would risk it back home." He smiled at Judy "You are a brave people, Dee!" For the hike Leroy had worn the plainest clothes he had, a short olive-green tunic with black piping and the minutest little golden embroidered foxgloves at the neck, and short grey trousers with generous pockets. The thicker sandals laced up his calves looked like they had never once been used. 

 

For Pulse the air tingled with the shuddering waves of electromagnetic energy. Phones, satellite dishes, radio antennae, a raging sea of information and raw power blistered the air.

 

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They had started the hike an hour or two ago, Leroy largely drawn by a performance his father's high-school orchestra was putting on that afternoon. "He will be absent and his pupils are magnificent," he had explained gleefully, reading from the pamphlet in the mail, "and walking to the lake would be lovely this time of year." He had turned over the pamphlet, regarding the elegant signature on the back. "Lavernius never sends me these. I wonder why he did this time. In any case, why not make a day of it? A little change of pace for us devoted scholars of heroism."

 

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Leroy scanned the lake as they went further down. "Boats, the park, I believe that is a Carnivalé...so much to do! Where first?"    

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Judy hugged Leroy from the side, the heat of his body something she was acutely conscious of when she looked right at him - just as she was aware of Ashley's nearby presence. She'd been the one who suggested a chaperone for their date; after all, that was just good sense. She was wearing sturdy jeans and a denim jacket over a loose flowery top, the boots on her feet obviously worn and used but still in good condition. "Ah don't know how people in Freedom do it either," she confessed with a nervous little laugh. "Ah mean, Ah'm used to it by now, but between you and Ashley Ah know Ah'm safe out here." She looked up at the sky and admitted, "Ah don't think Ah could ever feel safe in this city, not all the way, not knowing the kinds of things that happen around here." She considered that for a moment, then said, "Let's do something where Ah can sit down," she said, "Ah haven't gone walking like this in forever." 

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"I was ready to call it quits half a mile back. Could hardly give up in front of you or Ashley, though, could I? But yes, I agree, give the legs a rest." Leroy gently hoisted Judy up onto his shoulders, heading towards the boats. 

 

"I feel like a dragon carrying a castle," he chuckled as they swayed along the shore, "mother says that was how New Atlantis began, in ancient days the people called up great dragons and built palaces on their backs that sailed miles in the air. Once risen, they used magic to fix them in place, casting the dragon back into the earth. She heard the story and tried it herself...and now the sky is home to the greatest city ever built." 

 

"Hey there!" A burly young man had appeared as if by magic, wearing a red polo shirt with a nametag('Aragorn'), a slight sunburn and the blackest pair of shorts Ashley or Judy had ever seen. He nodded brightly to the lines of clean, well-tended rowboats running along the nearby piers "You here for the boats? Only $15 per hour, plus five for every-"

 

Leroy clucked his tongue irritably "Tchah, money, money everywhere! Here, this should cover it!" Aragorn suddenly found a slim but meaningful stack of 20's thrust into his hand. The other boy marched briskly past past him, plucking life vests and a set of oars that were then tossed into a likely-looking boat, followed by Judy, lifted and placed as delicately as a vase. In moments the trio were sweeping briskly across the water, sunlight dancing around them.

 

"Would you like that, Judy? A castle in the sky?" Leroy smiled at her from the rowboat bow, leaning back and forth as he rowed "I have a dragon, after all, and you have a sky free and clear."

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Judy smiled as she watched Leroy row, enjoying the way the movements made his muscles work, and took a drink from her water bottle. Ashley wasn't smiling at all but she had made a point to sit where Leroy couldn't see her in the boat - but where Judy could. "Ooh, and let me be your dragon princess?" she asked with a smile at the fantasy. "Ah think Ah would like that, Leroy." She never had watched that show on HBO with all the nudity and violence, neither of which were things she was particularly fond of in her entertainment. "But we'd have to land somewhere," she suggested, "or how would we ever go anywhere? Ah don't think Dio's gonna fly down and buy us groceries whenever we want it." 

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"True. He can be so quarrelsome at times. Besides, the earth is his mother, and fire his father, it would be cruel to break up a family."

 

Leroy bent into another stroke, the rowboat skimming smoothly along and leaving twin whorls in its wake. By now they were far out into the lake, the water a deep blue beneath the keel and the morning air rushing around them.

 

"But no matter, Dee, I can just draw the Earth up to us any time you like. From summit to seabed, field to forest, city to stream, whatever we desire would be at your command."

 

He frowned, leaning back to look at Ashley, his face an upside-down mask of concern.

 

"Though that leaves you out entire, Ashley. I rarely see you two apart, and could never bear to cause you grief. What do you want?"

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"Freedom," replied Watchdog flatly, giving Leroy a dead-eyed look with which he was all too familiar. For her part, Ashley regarded this as the best sort of lie - the one that was actually the truth. 

 

"Oh, Ashley will be off doing her own thing by then," said Judy with just a little trace of nerves. "Once Ah'm old enough, Ah won't need a watchdog anymore." She beamed firmly at Leroy, still trying to enjoy the fantasy of the two of them floating around in a castle together somewhere. But it was hard, even amid all the fantasy and lies of Claremont, to forget about reality. "When you're done at Claremont, are you still going back to your homeworld?"

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"No." It was more a reaction than a response.

 

Leroy shuddered, turning to look over the edge into the dark water. "It would be...unbecoming to return at this time," he said at last, "Lavern-father, I mean, he said as much after a talk with mother." 

 

"S-so instead I am attending the summer trip off-world, the one observing a nearby planet join the Coalition. I hear it is a 'magical' place, full of wondrous creatures, marvels of art and the strange science. I will try to get good pictures for you, Dee." 

 

He smiled, looking back at Judy, settling back into the rowing carrying them across the lake. "Dio is remaining as well. He has rituals to do in the fiery depths of Prime. Quite uninterested in any human faith, I am afraid! I should love to go traveling with you, someday. Somewhere new to both of us, somewhere neither of us expect."

 

He twisted around, scanning the oncoming shore. They were close enough to see the pavilions and other structures housing the fair's attractions. Leroy squinted uncertainly at one distant sign "House of...oh! 'Hall of Mirrors', never heard of such a thing. Are either of you familiar with it?"

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"Haunted," growled Ashley in that tone that meant she was trying to prevent something without really asserting herself. 

"Why doesn't your daddy want you home?" asked Judy with alarm, ignoring her sister's comment. She gave Leroy a wide-eyed look, reaching across part of the boat to touch his hand. 

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"Nothing to give. Traditionally, children sent offworld return with something that enriches or strengthens the community. As the son of our most honored citizen, it is expected I will return with something truly magnificent." Even under the circumstances, Leroy looked happiest talking about his home. "My brothers...they returned with worlds of people who longed for freedom and better lives. Their lies to steal power condemned them, and they died for their crimes on the Stareway, but the horizon is marked and I must reach it." 

 

He frowned. "My elder sister, 'Yemi Mo',  she rescued captives from the Terminus. The information has been crucial to our successes against them." Forgetting the weight of the oars, he spread his arms in frustration "But I? Nothing. All year. Held back by ignorance and worthless fear of failure that is worse than any lost battle could possibly be." He took in a breath.

 

Their boat skimmed on, Leroy setting the oars back in the locks and sculling lightly against the lake. 

 

"Dee," he said quietly, "I am sorry. This is nothing you can affect, you have your own life. Forget it, please." He smiled again, a little ruefully "I vow I will not speak of it or anything like it again. Every day of life is a treasure. What would you like to do?"

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Judy stared at Leroy, her eyes wide - it didn't seem like she'd heard most of what he'd said. It wasn't the first time he'd gotten that impression from his girlfriend. "They...killed your brothers? Who killed your brothers?" 

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"Th-their dragons. Scipio and Fabian. It is...mother has declared it anathema to kill your own kind on Earth-2." Leroy swallowed "She was furious, so were my sisters' followers. As they had attempted to steal the secret of rubedo, the awakening of fire, from them, she sentenced them to die by fire themselves."

 

"As they burned, she said to me "The morality of heaven is one of results. Bring back food, or be food yourself. If you betray me or anyone, I will not spare you." Once it was done, she broke the dragons' necks with her own hands, and cast them down into the sea."

 

Leroy shuddered, looking up at Judy beseechingly. "Dee...please, do not ask about any of that. Forget it. I beg you."

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"Are you feeling like yourself, Judy?" asked Ashley - not for the first time, Leroy had the distinct impression the sisters were speaking in code in front of him. 

 

"Ah'm okay," said Judy after a long, distinct pause. "Ah'm sorry Ah brought it up, Leroy, Ah'm not going to make you talk about something hurtful. Let's go on our date." 

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