Vanilla had the photographs spread out for him to look at on the dining room table and was telling him about one where Mrs. Redall took the class to see a philharmonic orchestra. She was the second child to the woman's left, beaming up at her teacher as she clutched a flute case. She gave the memory a fond little smile while he studied the grainy image; was her first time away from home, she reflected, tapping a finger to the photo's laminate.
The smoke alarm shrieked, freezing her instantly.
"Oh, dear," she breathed, and craned her neck: "Cream, did you remember to set the timer?"
"Oh! I'm sorry, Mama, I forgot!"
Vanilla clutched her ascot, eyes wide. She dashed into the kitchen, her apprehension growing as she returned coughing back purls of smoke with a mittened hand. She gazed upon a tray of burnt sugar cookies with no small measure of dread. "Oh, no, no, we're supposed to be leaving in fifteen minutes—"
He pushed away from the table and its open scrapbooks. "Leave it to me."
"No, I can't possibly ask you to run out to the store. We'll be late." She turned to her daughter as she dashed down the stairs, taking her coat off the rack. "Cream, you must remember to set the timer every time something goes into this oven. Otherwise these poor cookies get burned to a crisp."
"They did?" Cream slowed, fingers poised over her zipper. She gave an apologetic bow, her ears sliding over her ducked head. "We're awfully sorry, Mama."
"It's quite all right." Flipping open the trashcan lid with her foot, she dumped them in.
It didn't take the young girl long to spot their accompanying guest. "Hello, Mr. Shadow!" Leaning past him, she admired the photographs while Cheese got a good view from atop her head. She loved looking at them perhaps even more than her mother did, as she'd helped cut out the construction-paper decorations that bordered the glossy pages. "Is she showing you the pictures again?"
"Me and Cheese like that one the best." She pointed at a photograph of her mother sitting in a tree as a child, juxtaposed next to one of her own, beaming from the same thin, wispy branches of the front yard willow. "Wasn't my mama cute when she was my age?"
The squeaking of faucets cut a steaming jet short as Vanilla left the burnt pan to soak in the basin. "Time to go, you three. Have you tied your shoes?"
Cream nodded, and tugged on Shadow's wrist. "You'll like the school Mama picked out. They have a playground with a hu-u-ge jungle gym, and a twisting slide, and—" And she proceeded to gush about it until Vanilla gave her head an affectionate pat.
"Come on, now, let's not be late."
She unrolled the living room blinds as Cream and Cheese raced each other to the car. To be young again, she sighed; if only they could be that enthusiastic forever. Then she strode into the dining room, shaking herself out of her nostalgic bout.
He was still studying the photographs when she laid a gentle hand on his shoulder.
He gave a silent nod.
The school was a modest red brick building, two stories, flat-roofed. Pink hydrangeas sheared into perfect orbs lined the smooth curb leading up to the double-doors where greeters offered visitors pamphlets.
"This school is one of the few with an extensive arts curriculum," Vanilla told Shadow as she examined hers, somehow never breaking her quick stride through the dense crowds. "It's so important to have a well-rounded education. Not many people seem to feel that way anymore… "
Cream ran ahead of them, her kitten heels clacking the polished floor as she darted this way and that, marveling at posters and brightly-colored booths. She flicked on a water fountain and giggled as Cheese lapped at the brief stream.
"Now don't go too far, dear. Stay close where we can see you."
The crowds were thickening, however, and soon the halls became crammed to the point where they had to hug the lockers just to squeeze on past.
"Hmm." Vanilla pivoted on her heel, her long pea coat swaying around her. "This layout isn't anything like I remembered from last year. They must have done more renovation over the summer."
A narrow set of stairs carried them toward a mural-painted hallway, the swirls of which Cream traced with her hands as they walked. They stopped just outside the classroom of one Mrs. Josephine Redall, respected community member and well-loved music instructor.
That she was even alive seemed a sheer coincidence in and of itself. He'd stumbled across the name while researching old periodicals on GUN's database. The usual exploits of both the Doctor and the Professor emerged, along with rare mention of Maria, although those typically centered around the Professor's efforts to cure her disease.
He had no real reason to do this other than curious impulse. Simply wanted to know more about the Robotnik family and their lives before the ARK. Long hours of searching and reading led him to a salient bit of information. One result stood out from the flickering screen, made him sit bristle straight in his hard-backed chair.
The article had printed her maiden name. "UHS Student Wins Graduate Award, Station Square Press, January 20XX."
There she was, Josephine Robotnik, then seated at a grand piano as a student of the United Federation's University of Humanities Studies. Her pedigree listed her as the daughter of tenured Professor of Anthropology Gerald Robotnik; the rest of the article body lauded her efforts toward enriching the school's music program.
She gazed over the piano's lid as though the camera had caught her off-guard, hands frozen mid-chord. Her clumsy half-smile suggested a young woman's earnest hope for the future.
The award still existed, just in a much more tarnished and battered version. He could see it now through her classroom window, sitting on a shelf next to a potted spider plant while she showed a group of parents the various instruments their children could learn.
He'd taken a copy of the article to Rouge, who performed an even more vigorous search of her own. She came back shaking her head, telling him you're not gonna believe this, whistling at the list of alumni. Apparently the woman had taught quite a few students over the years. Anyone we know? Well, Rouge mused, actually…
Vanilla had been all too happy to serve him green tea on idle summer afternoons and speak of her childhood mentor. For that he was thankful; she'd proven an invaluable source of information. She'd goad him into trying another blueberry scone as she recounted memories of being taught the piano. How Mrs. Redall's hands deftly and patiently guided her prodding little ones over the ivory keys. How every Sunday morning without fail she would wait on the porch steps for the small blue car to pull into the driveway.
Despite his appreciation for her generosity, however, Shadow didn't know what to feel as Vanilla told him these things. Most of the time he felt like an intruder prying into someone else's memories, an unwelcome guest hoping to catch glimpse of some important secret through tightly-shut blinds. The fact remained that it fascinated him, how such an ordinary and decent life could have grown alongside such prestigious and twisted men.
Although he'd never admit as much, it had always bothered him that the bloodline ended with the Doctor. Once the incredulity wore off, he felt a certain measure of relief, a lifting of a pressure. It comforted him to know there was someone else in this world who was just like him, carrying on his creator's legacy.
He knew he shouldn't go into this with such lofty expectations, but how could he not?
Whenever he studied Vanilla's photographs, he'd been haunted by a feeling he was peering into a past Maria should have had, a future she should have looked forward to.
This Josephine had lived a peaceful life here on Earth, one she should have given her daughter despite the circumstances. Despite him. It was possible deep down in his subconscious he felt a vicarious pulse of envy for her because he knew the truth. He'd robbed that peace from the family.
Even so, he couldn't be too envious: in the scrapbooks there seemed to be a lingering aura of loneliness about her. The smiles she gave her students, though patiently kind much like her daughter's, never quite reached her eyes. Vanilla had assumed from her husband's early passing; Josephine seldom discussed her family. Had always preferred to steer the conversation elsewhere.
Vanilla assured him this would be a low-pressure atmosphere. The open house would be so full of parents and children curious to know the ins and outs of the impending curriculum that Mrs. Redall might not meet him at all. Oh, she said, but I don't mean to suggest we oughtn't meet her, that came out wrong— Don't worry about it.
To Cream, who'd only been told that Shadow wanted to meet her prospective teacher, this was a prime opportunity to drink in the new experiences and point them enthusiastically out to him. Look there, Mr. Shadow: A gym with a dance instructor. An arboretum of Japanese sakura. A quaint, cozy art room smelling of fresh acrylic paints. Until now her mother had homeschooled her, and while she'd flourished under her instruction, Vanilla had decided it was time for Cream to broaden her horizons a little.
They had that in common, at least. He'd never had what anyone would call the quintessential education. Metal walls and thick-paneled glass dominated his 'childhood' settings instead of red bricks and jungle gyms. And his learning had been sporadic, long periods of nothing occurring while tests were conducted to measure his abilities.
He tried to follow the Rabbits through the clinched halls as best he could, but unfortunately his celebrity status eventually pulled off his slipcover as it usually did.
A young bear cub, perhaps no more than five, tapped him on the shoulder. As he turned, he heard a loud, cheerful shout: "Hey, mister, aren't you Shadow?" He beamed and pointed a stubby claw at him. "Yeah, hi! I saw you on TV!"
That sparked an intense crowd. Children, parents and faculty swarmed him with a barrage of questions.
"—really is you—"
"—vive your fall from spa—"
"—meralds give you superpowers—"
—see your hover shoes—"
"—President gave a speech an—"
"—saw it on television, was that scary—"
"—working with GUN's gotta be tough—"
"—old are you? Aren't you a little young to be—"
"—faster than Sonic? My friend says—"
Words failed him. "I—" Shadow began, slowly raising his hands palms outward as he backed away from the crowd.
The classroom door swung open.
"What's all the commotion out here?" The blood drained slightly from his face as he saw her. A thin old woman in a dust-gray cardigan. Pale blue eyes. Blonde hair which had long since turned pale silver, which she'd swept inside a bun. As she stepped out into the open, she gently waved them away. "Back to your halls, everyone, please. There'll be plenty of time to visit each classroom."
"There you are," Vanilla said, running over to meet her.
"Vanilla." She smiled as they met in a warm hug. "Always a pleasure to see a star pupil again." She bowed a bit stiffly to clasp hands with a bouncy Cream. "And this must be my soon-to-be pupil. I've heard many a good thing about you, young lady, you know that? I expect you to live up to them."
Vanilla showed her the pamphlet. "Pardon the intrusion, but we're running a bit lost around here, and I'm absolutely stumped trying to find this playground Cream wants to see. Do you know anything about this extension on the east wing?"
Squinting at the schematic through horn-rimmed glasses, she nodded. "They're building a small observatory down there."
"Oh, really?" Vanilla covered her mouth with a hand. "Isn't that expensive?"
"Very," said Josephine with a slight sigh, readjusting her glasses. "The board wants to get the students involved and hopefully encourage direct engagement with the sciences. Next week they'll be hosting guest lectures there as well. Constellations, how stars are born, meteors and planets, that sort of thing. The children will be encouraged to bring visitors, of course."
"Oh, how fun," she crooned. "Cream and her friends just love to stargaze. Our neighbor Tails has this telescope, why, you look through it and you practically think you can see pebbles on the moon… "
"Bye, mister!" The bear cub waved at him as his mother profusely apologized for the trouble and yanked him away. The exchange reminded Vanilla she was neglecting her principal reason for coming up here.
"How could I forget? This is our good friend, Shadow. Shadow," she said, "this is Mrs. Redall."
The noise in the hall melted away. For a terrible, vulnerable moment, as he lifted his gaze toward hers, staring into too-familiar eyes that thought him a stranger or maybe even worse (the thief that stole your daughter and your father) he found himself at a loss. Words seemed ill-fitting in his mouth. What he meant to say, he couldn't. And what he wanted to say, he didn't.
They regarded one another in sheer silence.
After the moment passed Mrs. Redall turned, without offering word or hand to him. "Are you three going to stay for the social?"
Vanilla opened her mouth and closed it. She seemed perplexed and at somewhat of a loss herself, but regained her poise quickly enough. "We'd love to, but sadly the cookies I made got a tad burnt."
He knew that sidelong gaze. The one that said no matter what he made of himself, he could not outrun his origins. For all intents and purposes he might as well not exist. That particular look told him to inhabit space just like his namesake, insubstantial.
He had to remind himself to unclench his tightening fist. He could shrug off misgivings from the rest of the world. He just hated having to prove he deserved to be here amongst the average populace, and to see the message repeat itself without hesitation, you're not supposed to be here, reinforced his general feelings of misplacement.
Shadow stared sullenly into the polished floor while they chatted. Right. He blew it. That was how these things usually went. He shouldn't have expected a different outcome.
"Mr. Shadow?" Cream asked, tilting her head. "Are you okay?" She gazed after the dispersing crowd, musing. Cheese fluttered down, poked him gently in the arm with a stubby paw. "Chao-o?"
He said nothing. Only stepped aside as Josephine stuffed papers into a leather attache case.
"Forgive me for cutting this so short, Vanilla, but I have to be getting ready for a presentation in the auditorium. The dean is an absolute stickler for punctuality—"
Vanilla whirled around as she stormed down the stairs, her purse in hand. "Wait, Mrs. Redall? You forgot your—" By then she'd vanished into the throng.
"Mama, will he stay over a little longer?"
"I don't know, darling. That's up to him." Vanilla gazed after him as he contemplated his reflection in the passenger-side window. "I think he may be a bit tired. The crowds were quite noisy in there, weren't they?"
Cream nodded. "Mm-hm. But Cheese and I didn't mind. Did we, Cheese?" He valiantly Chaoed from his tiny booster seat.
"Why don't you go in and wash up, and we'll catch up with you in a moment?"
"Okay. See you inside, Mr. Shadow!"
Together they watched Cream bound up the stairs, flinging the door open.
"Still wound up," Vanilla sighed, "might be a bit of a hassle getting her to bed tonight." Then looked down at him. "Don't take it to heart, dear. She's a little difficult to get to know, but once you do, she's a real sweetheart."
Shadow twisted away. Gripped the seatbelt until the fabric creaked.
Vanilla inhaled, her hands scrimping her skirt. "This a mistake, wasn't it?"
"No." He pinched his lips thin. "It's not your fault. It's mine for snooping. But… I had to know."
Vanilla stared ahead through the windshield. "Shadow." She tucked her hands over her lap, traced her thumbs in deliberate bemusement. When she found the purchase to speak it was in a thin, quiet voice. "You must know your existence is not anything to dread, nor is it a… a complication. I probably should have called to let her know beforehand… Really, this is all on me."
"I told you not to blame yourself."
"Things could have gone so much more… " She trailed off.
Say it, he thought. Differently.
Shadow slowly turned to face her. "When did you realize who she was?"
She fiddled with whether or not to answer. "A month after the news report came out about the ARK program. She called to tell me some things that had been weighing on her mind, but she didn't say anything too specific."
He went silent for a long time. "And what did you say?"
"Nothing," Vanilla murmured, eyes downcast. "I said nothing."
They listened to the wind caress the willows.
"Just," he said. "Tell me one thing."
"What is it?"
"Did she want to see me?"
" …I'm sorry." She swallowed. "I don't know what I was thinking. Won't you stay for dinner? Please, it's the least I can do."
He opened the car door. "Thank you," he said, "but I've got to get going." Glancing toward the house, he caught a gap in the blinds through which Cream and Cheese awaited them. "Tell her I said good-night, and that I wish her luck in her studies."
"I guess it's fitting." Rouge sipped her espresso, which she'd ordered piled with unnecessary amounts of whipped cream and chocolate drizzle. "The professor used to teach, right? What was it," she asked as she dunked her straw, "archaeology?"
"Close enough." She carefully plucked the maraschino and set it onto a triangular napkin. "So how mad are ya?"
"I'm not upset."
"Oh, c'mon. Your mocha's practically soup now."
He stared at the puddle dripping on the concrete. Liquid droplets tapped a steady beat as they slipped between the holes of the grated cafe table. "You know I don't like caffeine," he said slowly.
"Well, la-dee-dah, Mr. I Can Pull Triple Shifts No Problem." Rouge tapped a manicured nail against her cup as she raised the straw to her lips. "Sounds to me like somebody woke up on the wrong side of the latte this morning."
He pushed it away. "I just… I don't know."
"Don't know what? Come on now, use your words."
He turned to watch patrons chatter quietly amidst the vined trellises under which they sat, peaceful in their own entanglements. What if one day, he thought, someone came along with a pair of scissors and snipped those delicate vines all at once?
"She has a life. Her last name is different. She doesn't want to be connected to those memories anymore." A brisk autumn breeze rustled through, ringing glass windchimes, as cold on his skin as the woman's gaze. "She couldn't even look me in the eye, Rouge. It was like she was staring at a ghost—"
"You jump outta the closet and yell boo? Old women don't like that, y'know."
"This isn't a joke."
"Oh, sorry. Didn't realize this was a 'shrink glasses' kinda deal, hold on a sec." He resisted the urge to roll his eyes as she snapped on an oversized pair of bejeweled sunglasses. "Doctor's in. Now tell her what's kickin' around in that troubled brain of yours."
"She doesn't want to see me," he said.
"Brr. Must've been some cold shoulder."
"All right, all right," she drawled as she leaned back, tossing her head in an exasperated fashion, "but don'tcha think you might be overanalyzing this a little? You don't know each other. Of course she's not gonna run up and hug ya like you're thicker than thieves."
"I know. But I feel this has less to do with who I am than with… what I am."
"More like she froze you out 'cause you're about as good at socializing as a wet paper bag. Tell me you didn't stand in that hall and stare like a creeper the whole time you were there."
"I stayed back."
"Oh, good grief, you stared like a creeper."
"It doesn't matter. I've decided to drop it."
"Yeah? And how long till curiosity kills the Shadow?" Heaving in a breath, she let them dwell together in silence before softly adding: "Your choice, but I think you'll regret not going through with it. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but… Someday. 'Cause you'll always be asking yourself what if."
"All of that is moot now."
"Dunno, kid. Bad answer's better than no answer at all." She cast a quick glance over her shoulder and patted the table, fishing for a tip in her purse. "C'mon, let's get outta here. Manager looks pretty steamed about that puddle."
"Yo, Shadow," a mechanic called across the shop, stopping him from finishing a plug repair in his chopper's front wheel, "you mind answering that? Been ringin' our ears off."
He quickly packed his things and picked up the receiver in the adjoining office.
"I'm not interrupting your work, am I?"
He slung an oil rag over his shoulder. "Caught me on break," he said. Vanilla sighed lightly on the other end.
"Dear, I know this is probably the last thing you want to hear, but I've been thinking this over, and I truly feel I ought to help make this right. You deserve a proper chance to speak with her."
He swallowed, clutching the receiver so tightly its plastic casing rasped under his grip. She wasn't wrong; he wasn't certain he could handle a repeat of that abrupt coldness, that glimpse of fear and loathing. Yet, to his supreme self-irritation, his curiosity really did get the better of him. Suppose they had met under less cluttered circumstances?
"What'd you have in mind?"
"Well, she teaches adult music classes in the building next to the school every Monday night. Perhaps we can schedule a little arrangement for you two to meet?"
"Ma'am, I—" He glanced through the thick-paneled window. At the mechanics fitting weapons mounts to armored vehicles and the crackling scorch of welding equipment. "Really don't do music."
"That's all right. No one's expected to perform concertos or anything of the sort. As a matter of fact, I can accompany you if you like."
"Thank you, but—"
"Please think about it," Vanilla implored him. "If you can't do it, that's fine. I won't pressure you any longer, but— Please just promise me you won't hang up this phone and ignore her."
He narrowed his eyes a little, scrubbed his brow with the back of his hand. "This seems to matter quite a bit to you."
"Yes, well, I just… can't imagine being estranged from any part of my family, is all."
We might not be, he wanted to say in all earnestness, but chose to bite down on his tongue instead. "I appreciate your concern. But there's nothing else for me to do here."
"Live with no regrets, dear. That's all."
His lips curled up into the faintest hint of a smile. "Hm."
He was just thinking he'd heard that somewhere before.
The glossy wooden floor was so polished one could easily slip on it. That was probably why there was a circular blue rug situated in its center, around which orbited a ring of cozy Adirondack chairs and an assortment of stands and instruments. A grand piano sat in the far corner.
"Sit anywhere you like," a voice called out. "Unless you'd prefer to stand."
That he did. While he waited for her to appear, he spotted a violin case lying on the floor. Must've fallen. Wandering over to it with the intent to set it upright, he instead succumbed to his curiosity, popping the latches to an oddly familiar sight.
"Huh," he said despite himself. "A Corilon."
Josephine strode in. "You've seen one?"
"A few times."
"So you know how it works."
He reached in.
"You may." Smoothing over her skirt, she seated herself on the piano bench. "Most of my students ask if they 'can' do something, and when they do it's usually not to take the lead. They're terribly self-conscious about sounding bad." She paused. "It wasn't you, Shadow."
"Don't make the mistake of thinking you're the only one with a past to run from." She lifted the keyboard cover until the wood clicked. And crawled her fingers over the keys like vines struggling to find their proper place. "How do you tell the world you're the blood of a sick man and a terrorist? You don't. You simply move on with your life, trying to contribute what little good you can."
A slow melody wafted into the air. Why did it feel so—
He knew this.
Picking up the bow, he adjusted his hold on the violin's neck. Yes, once upon a time he knew something about this, about this sound. He didn't know the song's name or its purpose, but it was familiar.
The bow drew softly across the strings, little more than a whisper. A memory. Another. Lights and lab coats.
She refused to do it. Getting frustrated with her plodding, inadequate notes, this was impossible, why did they need to run this silly test anyway? After all, she was never going to be the virtuoso they wanted her to be. She couldn't do this.
Don't give up. Play that section again, they coaxed, you can do this, Maria. You need to show him how.
Why me? Because he trusts you. You're going to have to lead him. Please, Maria, just one more time. That's all we ask.
His own voice, faint.
Can we try?
Oh, Shadow… All right.
Eventually she stopped; he found her staring at him. "Where did you learn that?"
"The reseachers—" He paused, rubbing his thumb along a rut in the maple. "They taught us at the same time. Told me to copy every motion she made. It was to build up muscle memory and chart my motor skills, I believe. Then we moved on. They didn't want me to waste all my efforts on lessons."
Considering this, she tipped her head. "Well, that's a shame, knowing only one song. I'll bet you'd make a fine violinist with some diligent practice." She gingerly closed the keyboard cover. "Did she keep up at hers?"
"Yes, but—" He frowned a bit at the floor.
"She hated it." Josephine smiled. "I know. She made it clear every chance she got."
Maria huffed as she nestled the chinrest to her shoulder. "These songs are always so sad," she complained. "Or angry. Or fast. Or all over the place. Have you ever heard a happy violin song?"
"I like hearing you play," he said. "Happy or sad."
"You're just saying that because you have to, silly. Grandpa wants us to have a 'cultured' background. I'm just saying, Shadow," drawing out a slow, languid note, "you don't have to be 'cultured' to have fun."
Shadow drew the bow slowly away from the dying diminuendo,memories echoing in his mind as the notes drained away.
"Have you always wanted to teach?"
"No," she said softly. "But I thought— Perhaps if I did this, my father would have come to respect me more as an equal, even if I lacked the genius he passed onto my brother. Then I thought perhaps when she was well again, we could have… " She exhaled a shaky breath, pausing to wipe a prickle of moisture from her cornea.
"I'm sorry," he said. "How long did you have with her?"
"Two months." She sniffed, straightened her posture so her back formed a trained right angle with the bench. The wan smile that crossed her thin lips no less modestly hopeful than the one in the article. "What about you?"
He shook his head. "I'm not sure."
The room quivered with a lonely sound.
"I do hope more people come in tonight," she remarked. "If we're lucky, we usually get a handful. Most students come and go as their schedule demands. Vanilla comes in on occasion to brush up on her piano," she said. "Not that I'm complaining, mind you. We need all the participation we can get, even if does grow rather thin around here."
"Lately the district has been considering severe cuts to our art programs. They don't want to pay for supplies or lessons when that money could be going toward STEM instead. And it's hard to argue your case to a bunch of suits whose minds are crammed in their wallets."
"Both are significant." Shadow gently set the violin back in the case. "'Science describes the how of life, art the why.'"
"My father told you that, didn't he?" she asked with a faintly weary mien. She shook her head. "I loved her. I loved them both. But if you could believe it, I also envied them for what they had, being able to spend every day with Pop while he doted on her. What they had was nothing short of precious, and while I was glad for that, it also… It also saddened me a little. And then they were gone."
They don't have to be, he wanted to say.
"I did the ordinary thing. Got married to a nice man. When he passed, I went back to teaching children their scales. And you, Shadow, you did the extraordinary thing. You saved the world. Now here we are."
Here we are. It seemed apt.
Getting up, Josephine walked across the room to retrieve something. "Why don't you take that back with you for a bit? Maybe some sheet music, too. Nothing too difficult, seeing how you're still a beginner… "
He paused as she rummaged in her attache case. "You let your students take the instruments home with them?"
"Aren't you worried they'll steal them?"
"Of course. But to be honest, they might be better off in hands that want them than in no hands at all."
GUN weren't always such tight-lipped disciplinarians. Sometimes they just had nothing better to do.
"Was the pomp and circumstance really necessary, you two?" Rouge asked the snickering guards, propping a hand on her hip. "For Pete's sake, he's just the mailman."
"Never know, ma'am. Could be carrying a bomb."
"Or someone's mommy sending in their lunch."
"I hope it's tuna salad."
"Classified recipe, real hush-hush stuff. And hey," said the other guard as he nudged his partner in the ribs with a padded elbow, "maybe she bugged their Twinkie for dessert."
They cracked up even more.
"You're unbelievable." Shaking her head, she wandered over to where the poor hapless man stood in the middle of the busy foyer with a large cardboard box in his arms, meekly asking every ounce of decorated brass that strode by if they could spare a moment. Such relief flooded his features when he saw her that she vowed to get those two chuckleheads written up. Or at least drop a strongly-worded note into the suggestion box. Either way, they were going to be in for an unpleasant afternoon.
"I'll take that off your hands, slick." She tossed a thumb behind her. "You better skedaddle while you still can."
"Er, actually, ma'am? I need a signature."
He blinked once before squinting at the tight cursive written on the package sticker. "Delivery for, uhh… Shadow?" He quirked his lips at the name, but seemed in no position to protest as he glanced nervously around the foyer. "There a Shadow around here?"
She smirked at the man of the hour, who'd finally arrived from his dungeon down at the shop to take the pen. "Hey, your sense of humor finally arrived. Was gettin' kinda worried it mighta got stuck in the mail."
"Hardy-har." Needless to say, once he finished signing the last bit of paperwork, the mailman dashed for safety at roughly a speed that could have given Sonic reason to pause. He glanced after the man as he bumped shoulders with a colonel and spilled the colonel's coffee all over the buffed floor. Brandishing his clipboard like a shield, he ducked around the corner. The guards looked about ready to die. "They give him a hard time?"
"Yeah. Kid's sweatin' buckets."
"Call the custodian, then."
She sighed. "Sometimes I don't know who's worse, them or you."
He walked into the staff lounge, leaving her to follow. There she settled into the black leather sofa as he set the box onto the glass coffee table.
She raised a brow at his hesitation.
"Don't leave a girl hangin'. Let's see what your secret admirer sent you."
As if he'd enjoy such a thing. He stared at her, stoic, and plunged his thumbs under the scotch-taped borders and cracked the flaps open. Then sifted through the Styrofoam peanuts to withdraw a long, tapered bow.
He froze as he cradled it in his hands. He wiped away more peanuts and found nestled within them a leather violin case. Within that, the glossy red spruce of a vintage Corilon.
Lifting it carefully by the neck, he examined it from every angle. He traced the violin's curve with the bow's thistles, let them brush once over the newly-taut strings, the swirling scroll curling into itself. These things felt familiar. They were familiar.
"Gonna play a concert, maestro?"
Rouge's comment brought him back to reality.
"This is hers," he said, looking up. "This is the violin she used to play. Her mother wants me to have it."
"Yeah? Why don't you play something on it?"
Her tone didn't make it clear whether or not she intended that as an earnest request. "You want me to?"
Her ears perked. "You mean you can actually play?"
"Just one thing," he said. "Don't laugh."
"Well, then, let's hear it."
Couldn't back out now. Perhaps this was what Josephine had intended all along: to help him preserve something he'd long since forgotten. Inhaling, he balanced the chinrest on his shoulder and positioned the bow over the strings.
At first the bow murmured in a tentative voice, unsure of itself and its place, before eventually growing stronger in its conviction. He felt it return to him, thrumming through his fingertips, the memory of Maria's patient guidance etched into his muscles vibrating alive. An ache pulsed through his fingers, but the good kind of ache, the kind that let him know her memory still lived within him.
His performance wasn't perfect. Some of the notes slurred together, and despite his concentrated efforts to recall what he used to execute flawlessly under scrutiny, he'd forgotten the more complicated chords. Truthfully, he wasn't sure what reception to expect once he left the last note to quiver and hang on the air.
Rouge didn't mock him; instead she seemed enraptured as she listened, almost puzzled in a faint manner close to sadness once the only song he knew wound down to a close. She tilted her head softly and gave him a wan smile as she propped her temple in her fist.
" …That's nice, Shadow," she remarked. "Little old-fashioned, but nice. Who taught you that?"
GUN's overhead sconces glistened in his eyes.
"A friend," he said.