The light shone in softly through the blinds. Even though the sun would soon set, it was enough to make Danny squint as he awoke.
Finding himself in a hospital-style bed, he stared up at the plain panels of the ceiling. At his side was a plastic curtain, with another bed like the one he was in behind it. And on his other side, he saw Arras seated beside him.
“You awake?” she asked, seeing him stir.
Danny stared back at her, somewhat confused. She had changed from the gown and underclothing from before, back to the clothes she had worn aboard the cargo plane the other day. At first, he thought she looked exactly as she had that evening at Teleios, and he wondered if everything after that had been nothing more than a dream.
Then he noticed the black patch over her left eye. The straps crossed her brow, disappearing into her hair, meeting at the thick, dark material that seemed more to lock her eye away, rather than protect it from the outside world.
“So I guess that wasn’t a dream,” Danny said, defeated as he reviewed the past few days.
In a swift moment, he remembered his conversation with Arras inside Ridarin’s quantum cocoon; he then took another look at her patch.
“Don’t worry,” she told him with a reassuring smile, adjusting one of the straps. “I’m all right.”
“It went into your eye,” Danny remembered. “That virus, or whatever it was…”
He pieced the moment back together in his head, feeling a twinge of embarrassment as he came to how it had all ended.
“Whatever Truth left in Ridarin,” Arras explained, “I guess my net managed to absorb it. I also managed to repair the suit’s control restrictions while you were asleep.”
“And you’re okay?” he asked, not worried about Ridarin in the slightest. “With that virus in you, I mean. Or did you kill it?”
“It’s still active, but I think my net’s keeping it neutralized.”
“Is that what happened to your eye? Was it your net?”
Arras stared down at the floor, her minding turning to Ila as she put a hand to the patch. “More or less, yes. I still don’t fully understand what happened myself, but it seems that my net’s been somehow altered...”
Laying back in the bed, Danny said, “As long as you’re all right,” he said. “I mean, if it stopped that little Easter egg Truth hid in my head, then it can’t be too bad.”
With a heavy sigh, he let his questions go for now.
“I’m just glad we made it out alive,” he finally said. “I really thought that was it.”
“So did I.”
They both went silent for some time. Neither of them seemed to know what to say to the other, at least not then. The memory was there, fresh on their minds, but it was almost as if there was too much to talk about.
“Thank you,” Danny suddenly said, watching Arras from the corner of his eye. “For saving me, I mean. Thank you.”
She smiled, and her face turned a little red. Hesitantly, her hand found his, and their fingers intertwined.
“Any time,” she said quietly.
Looking like that, at least to Danny, she seemed so different. Sharing that moment with her, it was as if neither of them was who they really were, as if the past four months had been nothing but normal. As if they were just two people coming together.
A knock at the door startled them both. The door opened, and Laura stepped into the room.
They stared back at her like two children caught in some terrible act. Arras pulled her hand away, her face even more flushed, as Danny struggled to say something to his mother.
“Whatever, kids,” Laura said, dismissing awkward fumbling with a wave of her hand. She smiled down at Arras. “I do hate to interrupt, but could I have a moment alone with my son?”
“Uh, absolutely,” Arras insisted, shooting up from her seat, moving for the door immediately. “I— I’ll just be outside.”
The door closed behind her. In the hallway, she found two marines, armed and standing as sentries on the opposite wall. Neither of them seemed especially alarmed by her presence, and they even seemed to ignore that she was there.
Down the hall, she could see Milo, who had already spotted her. She went to join him, leaving Laura and Danny alone.
“How do you feel?” Laura asked her son, sitting down in the chair beside him.
“Like I’ve got a terrible hangover,” Danny replied.
He never expected this when she had entered the room, but all of sudden he found it difficult to look at his mother.
“How are you?” he asked her, trying to dodge the unexpected anxiety. “Are you and Milo okay?”
“We’re both fine,” she said simply, already noticing his distance. “We were more worried about you. Everything stopped so abruptly, and they just found you and Arras at the center of it all. She was all right, but you were out like a light.”
As hard as he tried, he still had trouble looking at her. Finally, he decided to say what was on his mind.
“I’m sorry, Mom. I should’ve told you what I was doing. I’m sorry I lied to you, and… I’m… sorry you had to see me that way…”
Quietly, they both looked out the window. They could see the light flee across the rocky surface of the far away desert as night drew near. And just outside that room, the base seemed peaceful, though that may have been more to do with the fact that no one was outside.
Judging by that view alone, neither of them would have thought something so terrible had happened only hours before.
“I think your dad would be proud.”
Rolling over, Danny was finally able to look at Laura. He found her smiling, holding back tears.
“I mean it,” she said. “I know what he was like at the end… but I also know who he really was. Through it all, he loved you kids with all his heart. He was so angry at the end, and I think that was because he just couldn’t take what he was doing to you.”
Danny stared back up at the ceiling, thinking about Edward Eick, and how his father’s memory had revisited him in startling ways as he stood on the edge of that roof.
“When I first started learning how to use the suit,” Danny said, “I was so afraid of becoming like him. I didn’t want what happened to him to happen to me. And when I… when I lost control earlier, I was so afraid that it really would happen—that I was going to end up like him.”
Wiping at her eyes, Laura said, “I can’t speak for your dad. I tried to understand what he did, but I’ve learned over the years that I’ll never really understand. None of us will. I know you didn’t want anything to do with what happened today. I talked to Arras, in fact, and she filled me in on what happened to you—at least, as much as she thought I needed to know.”
Really having trouble looking at his mother now, Danny nervously asked, “What did she tell you?”
“Something about your suit malfunctioning,” Laura explained in a reverent voice, “and how you tried to sacrifice yourself to stop it…”
“She stopped me…”
They were quiet once again, but only for a moment more.
“She really does care about you,” Laura said with a faint smile. “Not to pry, but do you know what you’re going to do?”
“Don’t act like I don’t know, Daniel; you know you’re a terrible liar.”
Slowly he worked up the courage to look at her again.
“I… I don’t know. I don’t think she knows what to do either. And, of course, that’s assuming I keep using the suit…”
“You will.” Laura sounded so sure as she said it. “I can’t imagine the kind of hell you must have gone through today, but I know it’s not going to stop you. Because there are people who are relying on you. Besides, even if you did try to pull out of whatever crazy scheme you and Arras cooked up, I sincerely doubt she would just leave.”
Danny stared down at his hands, thinking about Ridarin, imagining the armor over his skin. He thought about summoning up the set for a second, just to look at it, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Not yet. And not in front of Laura. Even with his apprehension, however, he knew she was right. There was no way he would just stop, and there was no way Arras would leave—and no way he would leave either.
It felt strange to let himself think that so freely, even stranger to know Arras was thinking the same thing. He thought about that last moment on the tower, in his mind—their kiss.
“I came to say goodbye,” Laura said squarely, catching Danny off guard.
At first he wanted to ask her why, but he sank back into his bed, coming to his own conclusions.
“I understand… After all of this, I get why you wouldn’t want me around.”
“What’re you talking about?” Laura asked incredulously, surprising her son once again. “That’s not it at all!”
“Daniel, I would never disown you, not even after today. Yes, you spun me a fake story, and yes, today was awful… for all of us.” She stood up from her seat, staring him into submission the only way she could. “But regardless of all that, I will never stop loving you, and you will never not have a home to come back to.”
“Then why is this goodbye?”
As he sat up, he sat on the edge of the bed, watching her heave a heavy sigh.
“These past few days have been hard on all of us,” she said. “When they came for me and Milo, we were at the high school. When they took us in, they told us so little about what was going on. All they would say was that you were in some sort of trouble, and that was it. And when I saw Arras again, I realized what they were doing, and why they wouldn’t tell us anything. They didn’t need us for anything other than to lure you out. We were their insurance. They used us as leverage against you, and I… I just…”
With another deep breath, she stared down at her son, smiling fondly.
“I couldn’t bear it, Danny. You were in the middle of some top secret, fate-of-the-world something or other, and you had to stop… just to come for us.”
“I don’t regret that,” Danny insisted. “I would never leave you behind. Or Milo. Or Eli...”
“And that’s just it,” she breathed. “They knew we were close to you, that you cared about us, and they tried to use that against you.”
His heart anxiously pounding, he wanted to tell her she was wrong, that that wasn’t how things were at all. But as much as he wanted to deny it, what she said was true, and he knew it.
“So you’re saying goodbye, then,” Danny concluded with lifeless words. “You’re leaving.”
“I am,” Laura said. “But that doesn’t mean you won’t ever see me again.”
Danny looked up at his mother just in time for her to wrap her arms around him. Holding him tightly, she hid her face from him, but he could feel her quiver.
“If you believe what you’re doing is so important,” she told him, “then I’ll trust you. And I want you to succeed, to be able to do whatever it is you’re doing without interruption.”
“It’s not that simple, Mom,” he said, reminding himself of the last altercation with Rededication, when he had met Truth. “Things are already pretty messed up.”
“I’m sure you’ll figure out how to make it work anyway,” Laura answered, still hiding her face. “I can’t remove every obstacle for you, as much as I want to, but I can do this much.”
Laura let her son go and took a step back, trying to prepare herself for the separation.
“So, when you’re done,” she told him, “and if it’s what you want, you come back home. But until then, just do what you have to do, and don’t worry about us.”
Every part of Danny wanted to resist this, but he knew his mother would not be convinced otherwise. He could see the high price she was paying for this, to give him some more room to move, to accomplish the mission—their mission.
Reluctantly, he nodded, accepting her decision.
“There’s one more thing, Danny,” Laura said. “If I’m going to let you go like this, you need to make me a promise.”
“This mission you’re on…” She looked back at the door, thinking of Arras, then back at Danny alone. “Don’t do it because she might want you to. And don’t do it because you’re worried about us. Whether you go out and save the world, or come back home and live with us until the end… Whatever you do, do it because it’s what you want to do. Understand? Whatever choice you make, make sure it’s your choice—no one else’s.”
Staring down at his hands once again, Danny weighed what she had said.
“You know,” he said, laughing to himself, “when all this started, I was just happy to have something to do. I was out of school for only two months and already bored to death, and totally lost. Then I met her. And when I learned about the war she was fighting, I was so scared that the bad guys were going to come all the way to Earth and hurt the people I love. So I fought out of fear, and because I thought it was the right thing to do… But I…”
Laura smiled at him one last time.
“Whatever reasons you decide on, Danny, I know they’ll be good ones. Because they’ll be your reasons, and no one else’s.”
Leaning forward, Laura kissed him on his forehead, then stepped away and toward the door.
“I love you, Danny,” she said without looking at him, already departing. “And we’ll all be rooting for you in Fayette.”
“Love you, too, Mom,” he said to her as she stepped out of the room.
The door closed behind her and he sat alone.
“Love you, too…”
“Ready, Milo?” Laura asked, finding him a short distance down the hall with Arras. “We can’t miss our flight home, especially not if it’s from the air force.”
“They’re letting you go?” Arras asked.
“They are,” Laura stated. “I suppose they’ve decided we’re just not worth the trouble. Besides—” she nodded resolutely, strengthening herself— “it’s not like we’d be any help here anyway.”
“I’m glad you can go home,” said Arras.
Laura stopped herself, with Milo at her side.
“Arras,” she said, keeping her eyes forward, hiding her face from her as she did from Danny. “I know you don’t owe me anything, but please… Please watch out for my son.”
With a reassuring nod, Arras told her, “I will. I’ll make sure he comes back to you.”
“Whatever happens, when all of this is over,” Laura said, walking with Milo down the hall, “just take care of him.”
Leaving Arras to ponder what she had said, Laura and Milo left the infirmary, meeting their escort outside—heading back to their lives in Fayette, leaving Danny and Arras to themselves.