Author's notes: First of all, there are major spoilers in this fic if you haven't beaten SA2. So READ AT YOUR OWN RISK! Also, the stuff in italics is generally the thoughts of one of the characters, except for the flashes toward the end.

Disclaimer: Everyone in the story (so far) belongs to Sonic Team/Sega. So please don't hurt me!

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Chapter 1: The End… and the Beginning

This is it.

The two glowing figures approached the plummeting space colony.

Everything depends on this moment.

"No way that's getting through!"

He's so confident. But if we fail…

They stretched their hands up to the massive metallic ball.

…then everyone will pay with their lives.

The white hedgehog trailed slightly behind his golden partner, hesitating with uncertainty.

Shadow! I beg of you…!

Maria…?

Give them a chance… to be happy…

He gazed up at the colony and caught up with his comrade, a renewed determination burning in his crimson eyes.

I shall keep my promise to you, Maria…

"Now, Shadow!"

…at all costs!

"CHAOS CONTROL!"

Blinding golden light emerged from their hands, pure chaos energy enveloping the colony above. The two hedgehogs poured out massive amounts of energy to teleport the machine away from the Earth.

The white hedgehog, however, was determined not to make any mistakes. He funneled all the energy he could muster into that blast, determined to protect the precious planet below.

The golden hedgehog glanced down at his friend, noticing the tremendous strain on his face. A shadow of concern crossed his face, but only for a brief moment. It was replaced with firm determination as he looked up once again, intending to lessen his partner's burden with his own increased effort.

But a bright flash from the ARK stopped him before he had the chance.

The force of the blast sent the pair flying backwards. Sonic, regaining his senses first, grabbed at Shadow's arm. But the white hedgehog was falling at such a tremendous rate that Sonic couldn't get a firm hold on him. Instead, his grip fell on the gold cuff on Shadow's wrist, which simply slid off as Shadow continued to fall.

"NO!" Sonic watched in horror as his newfound friend plummeted into the Earth's atmosphere. "SHADOW!"

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Shadow gazed weakly up at the dissipating light as he fell. The ARK was no longer there. It worked. They had won. The planet was safe.

Maria… this is what you wanted, right?

As he entered the atmosphere, a bright flame formed around his white body. But his energy was all but depleted, and his white glow was beginning to fade. The heat grew more and more intense, and soon he could feel it singeing his fur.

This is the promise I made to you…

His fur had faded from a milky white to a dull gray by now, and the burning was becoming unbearable. He closed his eyes and clenched his teeth to keep from crying out.

Yes, Shadow. You've done well.

Shadow opened his eyes, his mind momentarily drifting away from the pain. "Maria?" he whispered.

Now, this is my gift to you.

Shadow felt his body impact the surface of water, relieving the burning, yet at the same time depleting what was left of the chaos energy in him. He was dizzy, disoriented, too weak to attempt to swim. The surface—which seemed already so distant to him—slipped further away as he sank into the dark waters.

He saw something moving in the corner of his eye. He turned his head slightly to see a dark shape moving towards him.

So this is how it ends. I accept your gift, Maria. Soon, I can see you again…

He closed his eyes as his mind slipped into darkness. His last conscious thought was of a strange, yet soothing song echoing through the water around him, carrying him away from his suffering.

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A wave of cheers greeted the group of heroes as they emerged from the pyramid and into the night air. Taken aback by the large crowd, the unlikely team gaped at such a grand reception.

The insane scientist Dr. Eggman was the first to return to his senses. "What? How did they find my hidden base?!"

From his seat in the Cyclone, Tails cast a sidelong glance at Sonic, expecting him to make some cocky retort. But the blue hedgehog remained silent. After a moment, the young fox decided to make the taunt himself. "Well gee, it's not like all the ugly statues and robots were the world's biggest tipoff or anything."

Eggman merely glared at Tails and snorted. Tails smirked back at him, but he had hoped for more. If Sonic had made the same remark, Eggman would have been infuriated, leading to more taunts. It just doesn't work with me the way it does with Sonic. Despite his recent adventures, he was still left with a slight feeling of insufficiency, not being able to match Sonic. What's with him, anyway? He looked at his friend again, who was unusually quiet. To all appearances, the hedgehog was completely oblivious to the crowd jubilantly cheering them.

But he was indeed aware of them. All too aware.

Sonic gazed out at the people, feeling more like the condemned on public display than a hero. Each cry of praise stung him like a dart, and he wished he could just shrink back into the dark night and escape from their torture. In his mind, he had no right to this glory. The others that stood with him—even Eggman—were more deserving of it than he. They weren't the ones responsible for the true hero's death. They didn't sacrifice his life because of their own lack of effort. He didn't die because they weren't fast enough.

It's because I wasn't fast enough.

Sonic had been mentally beating himself over Shadow's death from the moment he returned to the ARK, to the moment they arrived back on Earth via Eggman's teleporter. But now that he stood before all these people cheering—cheering for him—the pain and guilt he felt became even more acute.

His thoughts were interrupted by the sudden appearance of several microphones in front of him. A small crowd of reporters had gathered around the returned heroes, most of which focused their attention on Sonic. Photographers and cameramen trained their tools on the famous hedgehog, and he was all but blinded by the incessant flashes flooding his vision.

"Mr. Hedgehog! Can you tell us what happened on the space colony ARK?"

"How did you stop the colony's freefall?"

"What happened to that hedgehog impersonating you?"

"Was that Project Shadow that Dr. Gerald spoke of?"

"Is it still alive?"

The last question hit Sonic like a ton of bricks. 'Is IT still alive?' They don't even see him as a person...

The crowd parted as the President himself approached the group. He strode up to the hedgehog, his face a mixture of relief, joy, and overwhelming gratitude. He shook Sonic's hand enthusiastically, spouting numerous words of thanks to him and his comrades.

But Sonic did not hear his words. He stared blankly at the President and the crowd gathered about as cameras flashed furiously.

Flash.

He again saw Shadow striding past him to face the Biolozard.

Flash.

He saw Shadow attack the Biolizard fearlessly in their final battle.

Flash.

He saw Shadow drain his energy to stop the ARK, then fall lifelessly toward the Earth.

'Is it still alive?' The question was still ringing through Sonic's mind. Is that how the world will remember him?

"No…" Sonic's voice was barely audible, but caused the President to stop mid-sentence and regard him quizzically.

As some evil monster with no identity?

"NO!" Sonic yanked his hand away from the President's and jumped back, surprising everyone around him. "You've got it all wrong!" he shouted, clenching his fists. "I'm not a hero… you've got the wrong guy!" A startled murmur arose among the crowd, and his friends exchanged worried glances. He suddenly felt overcome with panic as he gazed at the crowd, and without further warning he broke into a mad dash, weaving his way through the crowd with amazing agility. Within a few seconds, he had disappeared into the night.

"Sonic!" Tails cried, his face filled with worry. With the touch of a few buttons, the Cyclone launched into the air and switched to flight mode, taking off after the blue hedgehog.

"Tails, wait!" Knuckles, also concerned for his friend, leapt into the air and glided after the plane.

"Tails! Knuckles! Don't just leave me here!" Amy futilely cried after them. Realizing that they were out of hearing range, she groaned in frustration. "Why do they always leave me behind?"

Eggman gazed after them for a moment, but soon realized that his presence might not be as welcome there without the other heroes taking the spotlight. He too changed his walker to flight mode, and hovered over the crowd. "I may have saved your skins this time, but that changes nothing! Soon, you shall all fall to the Eggman Empire! Bwahahaha!" At this he flew off, his insane cackle echoing through the night air.

The President scowled at the mad doctor's retreating figure, but decided to let him go for the time being. Instead, he turned to the two remaining figures. He approached Rouge first, shaking her hand in a motion of congratulations and thanks. Maintaining his elated expression for the purpose of the cameras, he spoke to the bat in a lowered voice.

"I'll expect a full report from you on these recent events as well as Project Shadow."

"Y—yes, sir," she replied solemnly.

The President nodded, then walked over to the pink hedgehog. She was staring at Rouge with a puzzled expression on her face, but snapped to attention when the President addressed her.

"You must be Amy Rose, right?" he said, shaking her hand.

"T—that's right, sir," she responded nervously.

"I've heard that you're a very close friend of Sonic's." He lowered his voice a bit. "Take care of him, alright? This world really needs a hero like him."

Amy nodded, surprised by the unusual request. "I will, sir."

The President smiled and stepped back, preparing to address the both of them publicly. "Since I did not have the opportunity to thank your friends in person, please give them my sincerest gratitude when you see them again." The two girls nodded, and the President nodded to them once more, then began to return to his limousine.

Rouge sighed and looked down at a shiny gold object she held in her hand. It was Shadow's gold cuff that Sonic had given her upon returning to the ARK. She thought of the pained look Sonic had before he ran off, but pushed it to the back of her mind before it could go any further. "I guess I should be going." She cast a glance at Amy as she turned to leave. "See you around, kid." Spreading her wings, she took flight into the night sky.

"Wait! Don't leave me here!" Again, Amy had been left behind. She felt like screaming in frustration but never got the chance. She was immediately swarmed by reporters, who saw her as their last hope of getting a story.

"Miss! Can you tell us what happened?"

The young hedgehog looked around nervously as questions were spewed left and right. She moaned inwardly. Why me?

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More Author's notes: Whee, that was fun! o.o No real plot in this chapter just yet… just sorta… exposition. But the plot will probably be introduced in the next chapter, so just sit tight. Please gimme some feedback! I need all the inspiration I can get. ^_^;