Strings of old Christmas lights bobbed in the wind, joining other lamps around the rooftop, illuminating the scene atop the apartment. Not many people were there, but it was a celebration nonetheless. Mostly friends from Cornell, plus a few other guests—Eli preferred to keep things simple, it seemed.
Off to the side, he and Danny rehearsed a few stories to Damon of when they had first moved to Ithaca. As the two boys laughed their way through the memories, Damon listened politely, watching them go back and forth like clockwork. Though he kept up with their tales, he found himself more interested in the fluidity the two of them shared—clearly they had known each other for a long while.
“But what is all this, Eli?” Danny suddenly asked, stifling another laugh. He looked out at the hanging lights and all the people, all of them engaged in conversations of their own. “Something like this, it doesn’t seem like your style.”
“It’s not,” Eli confessed, shaking his head. “Actually, it took some convincing to get me to do this. One of the professors actually. You remember Jacob, right?”
“Tall, lanky,” Danny listed, “impossibly well-groomed hair?”
“He thought it might be nice to commemorate the occasion. I mean, with my master’s finished and my doctorate right around the corner...”
“And once you have your PhD, what then, Eli?” Damon asked as he reentered the conversation. Leaning over his knees, his cane resting against his shoulder, he seemed all too eager to ask this. “Truth be told, I’ve had Daniel assist me in a few projects when he’s not performing his ‘usual tasks,’ but I would love to have an actual physicist like you on staff.”
“Ooh, low blow,” Danny chuckled, lifting a cup from next to his feet, taking a deep sip. “Besides, don’t you already have an army of scientists to help you—you know—prepare to dominate the world?”
“None quite as gifted as Eli, I’m afraid,” Damon lamented, fixing his eyes on the young man in question. “After we met, I took the liberty of running a background check on you, which included a look at your academic records. You’re bright. You’d be a great addition to Teleios.”
Eli looked embarrassed, putting up a hand to dam the praises. “Thank you, really, but I already have plans.”
“Face it, Damon,” Danny said with a smirk. “Our dear friend here was already taken before you were ever even an acquaintance. Eli’s had his heart set on teaching from the beginning.”
“Is that so?” Damon looked almost baffled, looking from Danny back to Eli. “Where would you teach?”
“Cornell, actually,” said Eli. “In fact, a few of my professors—we’ve become pretty good friends—they’re helping me figure out what I need to do to prepare. The university’s actually been looking for someone who specializes in the most recent scholarship related to M-theory, and they might be able to help me get a position.”
“Just to be sure,” said Danny, eyeing Damon slyly as he spoke, “that M doesn’t stand for military.”
Putting his hands up in surrender, Damon added somewhat theatrically, “Only an offer. They say if you don’t ask, the answer is always no.”
“Thank you,” Eli said again, “I’m grateful that you would ask me.”
As the three fell into laughs again, Danny felt a hand rest on his shoulder. Looking up, he met eyes with someone he hadn’t seen for months.
“I thought you might be here, Danny.”
“Jonathan,” was all Danny could say, already sounding as if he had been winded. “Long time.”
“You’re telling me,” Jonathan said, smiling down at his old student. Dressed in a light blue button-up shirt and dark slacks, he circled the group of three until he reached Eli, extending a hand. “Thank you so much for inviting me, Eli.”
“Of course,” Eli said, smiling right back at Jonathan, as if the two were old friends. “I’m glad you could make it.”
“Forgive me, but I do have to be a bit selfish,” Jonathan said. “Danny, do you have a moment? I’d love it if we could speak.”
Danny found himself struggling to speak. The last time he had seen Jonathan, he was helping Danny prepare for his thesis—before he bailed on Cornell altogether.
“Sure, I’ve got time,” he finally said, deciding to just bite the bullet.
Damon and Eli watched him follow Jonathan to one end of the roof.
“Didn’t even introduce himself,” Damon said, shaking his head. “Am I just furniture?”
Eli laughed uneasily, realizing after a second that he was only kidding.
“I do mean it, though.” Damon suddenly looked serious, returning fully to Eli. “If you would ever like a place in Teleios, you know how to contact me. I’m unsure why, but something tells me Daniel won’t stick around once everything’s finished, which means I might not have the ideal physicist I was hoping for after all...”
Leaning in closer to Damon, Eli lowered his voice and asked, “Is ‘everything’ almost wrapped up, then?”
“Things are moving. Slowly, but they’re moving. With any luck, Danny and our other friends will complete their work sooner rather than later.”
From the rim of his raised cup, Damon’s eyes found Danny, then began searching for Val. He found her at the opposite end of the roof, staring down at the lively street below. From her, he looked for Arras, finding her sitting alone near the exit to the stairwell, watching Danny and Jonathan closely.
“I certainly hope it is soon,” Eli muttered into his drink.
“Yes,” Damon sighed. “So do I.”
Far off from the rest of the party, Danny and Jonathan leaned over the concrete ledge, staring into the dark buildings across the street. Neither of them said a thing for a while, leaving only the sound of the people behind them.
At last, Jonathan broke the silence.
“I won’t tiptoe around it, Danny, I know you appreciate frankness.”
“More or less.” Danny looked away, already feeling uncomfortable. “Depends on what we’re being frank about.”
“No one knows why you left,” Jonathan sighed, looking back at Danny, even if he wouldn’t look at him. “I’m obviously not the only person interested in knowing your reasons. Poor Eli’s been pelted with one question after another—he never gave anyone any info, though. All he would say was that it was your decision, and that if you wanted to explain it, then you would.”
“So you want to know why I left.”
“To be honest,” Jonathan said, an almost mischievous smile cracking across his face, “I couldn’t care less. Don’t get me wrong. We’re friends, and if you’re going through something, I want to be sensitive to that. But I agree with Eli: the decision is yours to make, and your reasons are your business, no one else’s. No one is entitled to an explanation, not really.”
Danny risked a glance at Jonathan, his arms folded, feeling his initial discomfort start to wane. Breathing easy, he suddenly felt confused.
“Wait, hang on a sec,” Danny said after some thought. “If you don’t want to know why I left, then why did you want to talk to me?”
“Come on, Danny, you’re smart! I shouldn’t have to spell it out for you.”
With a smirk, Danny said, “I’ve been out of school for half a year, Jonny. My brain’s practically mush now!”
“If you say so,” Jonathan sang.
He was quiet again, as if lost in thought. Soon enough, though, he looked back at his old student, his response in hand.
“What are you doing nowadays?”
Danny jabbed a thumb over his shoulder, looking back at Damon. “That’s the head of Teleios—you know, the arms manufacturer.”
“They hired you?” Jonathan tried not to sound shocked.
“Kind of,” Danny muttered, his eyes wandering from Damon, traveling along the roof’s edge. “We’ve got… an arrangement.”
“And what are you doing for Teleios?”
Danny didn’t answer; his eyes had wandered all the way to Arras. She was staring off into the groups of people bustling around the roof, though nothing about her looked as if she was interested in where she was. He found himself suddenly reviewing their travels—their mission, and everywhere it had taken them. Everything they had done until then. Amid a certain feeling of absurdity, overwhelmed at how different his life was from just a few months ago, he found himself thinking more of Arras than anything else. The world around him seemed to melt away, leaving only her.
Snapping out of his own head, he looked back at Jonathan. “Sorry, I sort of phased out there.”
“If you don’t want to discuss it, that’s perfectly fine.”
“It’s not that,” Danny said, scratching the back of his head. “To be honest, it’s just a little difficult to explain.”
Leaning against the concrete lip of the roof, he tried to bring himself back to their conversation—to not worry about what was going through his head.
“The only reason I ask…” Jonathan turned around to lean against the concrete with Danny. “The real reason I wanted to speak with you… Well… Danny, I want to ask you to finish your master’s with us.”
The offer seemed almost unreal, so unreal that Danny couldn’t respond.
“I mean it,” Jonathan persisted. “People like you and Eli, you don’t come along every day. We were all thrilled to see Eli finish the program, and he’s even preparing to get his PhD. But when you left, everyone was at a bit of a loss.”
Jonathan hummed in thought, looking almost uneasy with his own sentimentality.
“They mean it when they call you and Eli gifted. I’d hate to see your talents go unrealized. So what do you say? I can make all the arrangements. You can even pick up where you left off, if you like.”
Danny looked down at his feet, honestly weighing the offer. It wasn’t like he hadn’t thought about trying to go back, but those second thoughts had only come to him in the first couple months after withdrawing. Considering the option this time, he realized that second guessing had disappeared completely at one point—when he had followed those text messages to Thaddeus Mack’s house. To that fountain, and the rift. And Arras.
“You don’t have to answer now,” Jonathan assured him. “You have my number. Just give me a call—”
“Thank you, Jonathan,” Danny suddenly said, looking back up at his old professor. “I know this is no small offer, and I really am grateful. In fact, I’m honored. But I have to decline.”
As if knocked off his feet, Jonathan could only stare back at Danny. Despite his evident shock, however, he managed to recompose himself.
“Well… I understand,” he replied. “As I said before, this is your decision. But—and I realize how backward this may sound, considering what I told you before—but… May I ask why you won’t come back?”
Before responding to Jonathan’s question, Danny found himself looking back at Arras again. It didn’t seem like her mood had improved at all since they had landed earlier that day, but he still couldn’t help but smile at her. He supposed he must’ve looked pretty foolish, stuffing his hands in his pockets and holding back a grin.
“Like I said, it’s hard to explain,” Danny finally said. “But… I left because I didn’t feel like that was my world anymore. I know I didn’t leave you guys in the most mature way, but I did leave. And I won’t be coming back, because… Well, because I think I’ve found what I was looking for.”
Feeling his chest tighten, he cleared his throat and stood up straight. He looked Jonathan in the eye, the way he used to—as a friend.
“For the first time in a while,” Danny went on, “I feel like I’m actually accomplishing something. And I have to see that through to the end.”
“And after the end?” Jonathan asked, feeling a mix of worry and infectious enthusiasm. “I don’t imagine what you’re doing now will last forever. What happens when it’s over?”
Taking a deep breath, Danny felt a certain peace. A peace he hadn’t felt in months, not like this. Not since four months ago, when he and Arras spoke outside that lift on the platform for what he thought might be the last time.
“I guess we’ll just have to cross that bridge when we come to it.”
Danny’s words didn’t inspire much confidence in Jonathan, but he accepted the answer nonetheless. With a smile, he wished Danny the best, making sure to add that his offer wasn’t time-sensitive.
As their conversation came to a close, their words echoed. Though none of the others at the party could hear them, the cell phones in their pockets picked up their voices just fine—the microphones recording what they said, transferring it on.
Their words reverberated in tinny tones into someone’s ear-piece. And as they returned to Eli and Damon, they were observed from behind one of the dark windows across the street, through the intricate lenses of a scope.