Shadow the Hedgehog stood alone in the hallway, leaning against the wall by one of the doors. In the next room, the two most important people in his life were exchanging goodnight kisses and hugs. As the black hedgehog listened to his loved ones through the open doorway, he realized it was moments like these that made him feel truly normal. If only he could be home more often to enjoy them...
A moment later, a white hedgehog with blue eyes stepped out of the room and into the hallway. She glanced at Shadow and smiled. This hedgehog was one of the people Shadow loved most in the entire world; the other was still inside the room.
Shadow looked back at his wife, returning to the present. He reciprocated her smile, then stepped away from the wall, walking over to the white hedgehog. He kissed her lightly on the cheek.
"Did you put her to bed, Crystal?" asked the black hedgehog.
"I did", his wife replied, then gave him a meaningful stare. "But she wants a story before she goes to sleep. And she wants you to tell it."
Shadow looked through the open doorway into the room. His other loved one was sitting on the single bed, playing with a stuffed Chao in her hands. The young hedgehog was light gray in color, and she had dark blue eyes and faded red highlights in her quills.
Shadow walked into the bedroom, stopping by his daughter's bed. Crystal remained in the doorway, watching her husband and daughter in the room. The seven-year-old hedgehog stopped playing with her toy and looked up at her father.
"Maria", Shadow said, "your mother tells me you won't go to sleep without a story."
"Yes, Daddy", the light gray hedgehog answered, smiling as she placed her stuffed Chao lightly on her nightstand. "I need a bedtime story, or else I can't sleep. Can you tell me one, please?"
"OK. What sort of story do you want to hear? A fairy tale?"
"No, I'm too old for that. I want a story with a scary or sad part in it. Can you tell me a story like that?"
Maria's father sat down on the foot of her bed. He sat there quietly for a minute, trying to think of a suitable story to tell her. Only one came to him.
"Once upon a time", Shadow began, "there was a hedgehog. He lived in a big space station, with lots of people who worked as scientists, doing research for many experiments. But because the scientists were always so busy and never had time to pay him any attention, the hedgehog was often very lonely. His only friend was a young girl who also lived in the space station. Her name was Maria."
The young hedgehog listening to the story suddenly smiled at the sound of the name.
"That's my name, Daddy!" she said happily. Shadow smiled brightly at her.
"Yes it is, sweetheart", he said to his daughter. "And it's a very pretty name."
Maria pulled the covers of her bed a little higher over herself, then fell silent, waiting to hear the rest of the story. Shadow continued his tale.
"The hedgehog loved Maria very much. She was a sweet girl, and the granddaughter of the leader of the scientists. The two friends were inseparable; they played many games together, and talked about many things. One of the things Maria loved to talk about most was visiting the planet far below the space station. She would look outside her window at the big blue planet below, and she would tell the hedgehog how much she wished she could leave the space station and see up close how beautiful the world was down there."
"Why couldn't she go and visit the planet?" asked Maria. "Couldn't the hedgehog or the girl's grandfather take her?"
"Well, you see, sweetheart, it wasn't as simple as that. Sadly, Maria was quite sick, and neither her grandfather nor her hedgehog friend could take her out of the space station just yet. She was dependent on her life in outer space, and she would need to adapt to life in a different atmosphere before she could survive in other conditions."
The young light gray hedgehog furrowed her brow at this last sentence.
"What does that mean, Daddy?"
At this, Shadow couldn't help but laugh. His daughter was so bright that he often forgot he was talking to a child. The black hedgehog placed his hand lightly under Maria's chin.
"It means, sweetheart, that the girl was so used to being in one world, that if she suddenly moved to another, it could be dangerous for her. And her hedgehog friend didn't want anything bad to happen to her; that's why he didn't take her to the blue planet yet."
Maria smiled at her father and nodded, cueing him to drop his hand and go on with his story.
"Although she knew she was sick, Maria wasn't going to let anything get in the way of her visiting the blue planet. The hedgehog helped the girl to get well, and she was getting noticeably better by the day. Maria told her friend that, when she was better, she wanted to take him with her to the planet, so he could make friends with other people.
"Unfortunately, that time would never come. One day, a group of big men in uniforms came to the space station. They had guns, and they stormed into the laboratories and arrested all the scientists. All the experiments were destroyed, and Maria's grandfather was taken away to jail.
"Maria was scared of the big men. She saw they had guns, and she was afraid of how the men were going to use them. But she wasn't afraid for herself; she was worried about her friend, the hedgehog. She thought the big men were going to hurt him or take him away.
"So Maria grabbed the hedgehog and ran. She took him to a big room full of large capsules, and put him inside one of them. Then she ran over to the control board; she was going to launch the capsule into space, so she could save her friend from the scary men.
"But one of the men had seen her running away, and had followed her to the big room. Just as Maria placed her hands on the lever to launch the capsule, the man appeared in the doorway and pointed his gun at her. He told her to stop, or else he would shoot.
"Now Maria had a choice to make. She could do as the man said and stop, so he could take the hedgehog away; or she could pull the lever and save her friend from the man, but get shot for disobeying the orders she was given."
"What did Maria do?" Shadow's daughter asked, quivering slightly. Shadow's eyes gleamed with a distant look for a moment before he turned back to the young hedgehog. He knew she must have already guessed what the answer to her question was; she had requested a sad story, after all.
The black hedgehog replied in a whisper. The next four words he spoke were enough to explain to his intelligent daughter exactly what happened next in his story:
"She pulled the lever."
Maria gasped in a very sympathetic manner, as though she could actually see the scene playing out in her mind. In the doorway, her mother, who had been listening since the beginning, subconsciously placed a hand over her own heart. Shadow continued before his daughter could have a chance to feel too much sorrow over the tragic event.
"Maria loved the hedgehog so much that she wanted to save him, so he could live the happy life she wanted him to live. After she had put her friend inside the capsule, but before the man with the gun came into the room, Maria made the hedgehog promise that he would live that happy life. She made him promise to be good, and help the people of the planet below the space station. And because the hedgehog loved her too, he promised. So Maria pulled the lever, and..."
Shadow couldn't finish, but he didn't really need to. His daughter sat up straighter, leaned forward, and wrapped her arms around him. The black hedgehog hugged Maria in silence for a minute, then released her and looked her in her dark blue eyes.
"That's very sad, Daddy", said the young hedgehog. Her father smiled subtly.
"Don't worry, sweetheart", said Shadow. "The end is happier. The hedgehog kept the promise he made to Maria. He did his best to help the people of the blue planet, and he even saved the world once. At first he was sad because his friend was gone, but after a time, he lived the happy life she wanted for him.
"The hedgehog eventually met another hedgehog. She was very beautiful, with white fur and blue eyes. The two of them fell in love, and some time later they got married. Not very long after that, the couple had a child: a beautiful baby girl.
"The day she was born, the nurse handed the little girl to her father. From the moment he first held her in his arms, the hedgehog loved her with all his heart. And when the girl's mother asked him what they should name her, the father didn't hesitate to answer. There was only one name he wanted for his daughter, the most beautiful name in the world..."
Shadow put his arm around his daughter, hugged her, and smiled brightly at her before whispering the name she already knew he was going to say:
The young hedgehog grinned back at her father, who finished his story with the classic "And they lived happily ever after", followed by "The End". Maria then proceeded to hug Shadow tightly, while Crystal beamed at the pair of them.
"Thank you for the story, Daddy!" said the light gray hedgehog to the black one. "It was very good."
"You're welcome, sweetheart", Shadow replied happily as he embraced his daughter. "Now it's time for bed."
He released the young girl, then pulled the covers over her as she lay back on the bed. When Maria was tucked in, Shadow bent down to kiss her goodnight, then stood up and began to walk back to the open doorway and to his wife. When he was halfway there, however, his daughter called him again. Shadow turned back to face the light gray hedgehog, cueing her to speak again.
"Daddy... did you really love her?"
Shadow stared at Maria for a moment with a serious expression, then broke into a smile. There was no getting anything past that bright young girl of his.
"Yes, Maria", he muttered softly, "I loved her very much. She was my dearest friend."
Maria smiled at her father, and said happily, "Then thank you for giving me her name. I love it! And I love you, Daddy!"
Shadow gazed fondly back at his daughter and replied, "I love you too, Maria."
The black hedgehog walked back to the door and, once he reached it, turned off the light and kissed his wife. Crystal grinned and went off to their bedroom, but Shadow stayed behind to watch Maria drifting off to sleep.
Staring into the darkness by the bed, Shadow could just make out the faint, translucent image of his daughter's guardian angel and namesake: a pretty girl with blonde hair and blue eyes, staring down at the young hedgehog with a smile on her lips. The phantom girl turned to her hedgehog friend, and gave him a sympathetic look, as though to congratulate him on his beautiful family. Shadow smiled brightly back at the angel, thinking to her:
"Everything I ever did, I did for you. And now I do it for her too. Thank you, Maria."
The girl nodded once to acknowledge her friend's kind thoughts, then winked and faded away. Shadow took one last look at Maria lying asleep on the bed, then quietly closed her bedroom door, thinking as he did so how much he truly loved his daughter, and praying that his friend would always look after her.