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The Mask Behind the Monster (Sonic the Hedgehog)

DeliriousAbsol

Call me Del
A/N - Here we go. Del's first foray into Non-Pokemon Stories (on this site, at least!) I don't think I'm alone in being somewhat dissatisfied about what happened to Infinite at the end of Forces? Well, this story was nagging at me for about a week, causing many sleepless nights until I had to force myself to actually stop thinking about it. My solution was to get it out of my system. It wasn't until I was listening to Billy Talent's 'Rusted from the Rain' when I got that final push to actually make a start as the opening scene played in my mind. (Plus the lyrics fit the story quite a bit, ngl) I'm currently five chapters deep, and I don't know how long it will be. My guess is around twelve chapters, like my other Sonic chaptered 'fic, but I really can't say at this point.

I feel I should warn you that headcanons fly in this story. Regardless, I hope you enjoy it! I don't often write in first person perspective, but it's the dominant narrative in this story. It doesn't jump perspective a lot at all (and when it does, it's in third person as I won't write multiple first person perspectives. I don't really like reading them, either...) I did toy with the idea of having the entire story in third person, but doing so would sacrifice a lot of what I was going for. Namely psychological impact. Plus, you can hide things better in first person.

So. That's enough rambling from your friendly Mad Brit. Here's the first chapter. Updates are planned to be on Wednesdays, weekly.

Song suggestions, given they're highly key to this story - Billy Talent - Rusted from the Rain; Treat - Together Alone

Disclaimer (covers this entire story) - I do NOT own Sonic the Hedgehog or any of its characters!

The Mask Behind the Monster

Chapter 1​

Huge grey clouds filled the desert sky, offering a much needed respite from the punishing sun. Yet it was still blisteringly hot. I lay spread eagled on my back between the dunes in what little shade they cast, panting heavily. It was a good thing I'd carved the bottom jaw of my mask away, or I'd be baking alive. Or smothered in my own air.

A tiny drop of water trickled down the glass eye piece and I paused my frantic panting for a moment as more drops followed it, splashing over my fur and peppering the ground. It grew with intensity as the grey clouds opened, releasing their torrential downpour. It was about time.

The soothing rain, though warm, was wildly welcome after the dry, arid heat. Reviving. I let it soak through to my skin for a while, watching it pool around me before vanishing into the thirsty ground.

It was refreshing until it began to fall like a sheet. A streak of lightning forked through the sky, followed by a loud rumble that shook my eardrums. I forced myself up before the rain flooded my lungs and drowned me, and looked around for somewhere to wait it out. My crude little den was a good run away. I don't know what I'd been thinking venturing so far away. I grabbed my scimitar and jacket, and lifted the latter over my head, not that it helped much. It soon became a sodden mass. As I bolted towards the burrow, the sand was already turning soggy. It would probably cave in on me no sooner had I scrambled inside.

I spotted a spindly green shrub a few feet away from the entrance. One that sometimes had fruit, but had long been picked clean by the desert wildlife. It would provide some shelter, but dry shrubs like that were a magnet for lightning storms. I briefly considered resigning my fate to the soggy underground, then shook it off and trusted it into the wiry branches of the shrub.

Another streak of lightning lit up the sky and I huddled beneath my jacket and what little shelter the shrub provided. Water fell down around me, almost flooding the dry ground. I don't know if it was a purely psychological thing, but the plant was already looking a lot happier. Not that it typically minded dry climates. I, however, was not. If anything, I was resembling a drowned rat desperately hiding to wait out the storm before foraging for what little water would remain after it stopped.

Something moved in the sky and I snapped my head back, bracing myself for another fork of lightning. A low rumble resounded in my ears, like a drawn-out thunderclap. No. It wasn't thunder. It was the unmistakable roar of a huge engine.

The clouds parted as a hulking black ship lowered itself towards the ground. Bile pushed up into my throat and I felt my tail stiffen. No. Not here. Not now. I glanced back at the now flooded burrow. No escape. I'd have to hope it just flew overhead and…

Doors slid open beneath it, dropping round hunks of metal onto the floor. Legs sprouted up beneath them and they lifted heavy machine guns up to their chests, marching in formation across the wet desert. The rain fell harmlessly over them, causing their bodies to glint in the dim light. Of course, he'd thought of everything. Can't have a robot army that would rust in the rain, now, can we?

I grit my teeth together, pulling my lips back from my canines. If they spotted me, I'd have to fight, and I was already exhausted. I lowered my jacket to fasten around my torso. I cringed slightly at the soggy lining as it clung to my sodden fur. Hopefully the black fabric would hide that wretched ruby. The robots' eyes would probably be trained onto that. If it was even me they were looking for. Eggman had already been wreaking havoc across Mobius. What on earth would he want with a barren desert? Freedom Citadel was several miles north of here…

The synchronized thud-thud of the army's mechanical feet fought with the thunder and slap of rain on the sand. I braced myself, clutching my red scimitar's handle tightly in my right hand. They were heading right for the shrub. They'd march right over it. Nothing would stand in their path. And if I fled, they'd see me and shoot. I'd have to go down fighting.

I should have just gone into the burrow. They'd never have found me there. Even if it caved in, I'd be safer than I was at that moment.

With each step they drew closer, my body tightened like a coil. I wasn't wrong. They made no efforts to avoid the shrub. Marching like mindless drones towards a hidden target. As they reached me, I swung my blade. It cleaved right through the legs of three robots, carving them from their bodies. They tumbled backwards, machine guns firing in a perfect arc above my head and towards the sky. The others reacted, aiming their weapons and firing. I leapt from the shrub with a roar, narrowly avoiding a barrage to the tail. My blade came down on the head of one of the robots, silencing it in a flurry of sparks. I leapt from it onto another. Then another. Bullets flew left, right and center and I brought up one of the dead robots to use as a shield. Sparks of electricity claimed my wet fur, shocking my left arm. I lobbed the robot free, toppling its allies and clearing a path for me to flee.

I don't think I'd ran so fast in months. Weapons fired behind me, sending up torrents of wet sand. It struck my back all the way up to my ears, and I lowered my head to pick up speed. Hot metal skimmed my tail and I bit back a howl, diving forward to avoid the encroaching spray of bullets. I missed my footing, falling nose first into the sand. My heart almost froze in my chest and I rolled to the side, avoiding a well-aimed machine gun burst.

The closer robots dropped their guns, their arms forming a variety of weapons from blades to heat guns to mallets. This had to be a bad dream. I'd fallen asleep in the heat. Heat fatigue. That's what it was. They marched towards me, but my strength was gone. I placed a hand over the lone eye of my mask and resigned myself to whatever grisly fate they would bring.

Then one of them exploded. A black streak leapt from the shrapnel before aiming itself towards another of the robots. Their attention went to their new assailant. But before any of them could do anything, they were raised from the ground to be lobbed aside like playthings. The next thing I remember was a blazing fire, slicing through the rain like an inferno, melting metal like it was nothing.

After that, everything went black.

...​

Shadow dusted down his gloves as he joined Silver's side. The grey hedgehog stood amid the shrapnel, his long spines almost plastered to his back. He nudged a robot's arm with a foot, causing it to drop its blade.

"I've not seen a robot army this size in years," he said. "What would Eggman want with a desert?"

"Someone was fighting them, wasn't there?" asked Shadow. "Maybe he was after them."

"Or looking for us," said Silver. "I just hope whoever it was got away."

Shadow merely grunted and folded his arms. "Well, I don't see any clues among this mess. I say we move out."

"Erm, guys?"

Blaze's voice drew Silver's eye and he looked up at the lavender cat. She hugged her arms about her, almost cowering in the rain. Her ears and fur dripped with water, and at first Silver expected her to beg them to find somewhere dry. Then he spotted the motionless figure clad in a wet black jacket, lying at her feet. It was difficult to see their shape through the sheet of rain that fell mercilessly down on them. He'd dismissed them as another broken robot, or some low-growing desert plant.

He joined Blaze's side and Shadow let out a snort of derision.

"Didn't think we'd be seeing this guy again," said Shadow. "I thought he were long dead."

"He's alive," said Blaze. "I checked."

Silver shook his head slowly as he took in Infinite's ragged form.

"What do we do?" he asked. "Just leave him?"

"Yes," said Shadow. "He isn't worth our time. The locusts will finish him off when they move in after the rain stops."

Silver looked up at the black hedgehog as he made to move away.

"But why would Eggman be attacking him?" he asked.

Shadow froze and cast a sneer back over his shoulder. "Failed experiment? Spite? I don't care."

"I'm just saying, something seems off here," said Silver. "If he's fighting against Eggman, I say we take him back with us. He might know something we don't."

"Are you kidding me?!" Blaze and Shadow replied (the latter with much less formality.)

Shadow waved a hand at the jackal's motionless form. "He's killed thousands of people!"

"You're not exactly innocent in that area yourself," Silver retorted, drawing a glare from the other hedgehog. "Yet you fight on our side."

"Sometimes," Blaze added, glancing aside.

Shadow chose to ignore her comment, rounding on Silver. "You know how dangerous he is. You fought him yourself!"

"Yes, and I also know I can hold my own," said Silver.

"He tortured Sonic!" Shadow snapped. "Do you really think he's gonna want him within the village walls?"

"Please, Silver," said Blaze. "Think about what you're actually suggesting here."

Silver was silent for a moment, staring over Shadow's shoulder in the vague direction of the citadel.

"Sonic forgave us, didn't he?" he said.

Shadow's eyes narrowed dangerously. "I'm starting to question your sanity, Silver."

"I'm just saying you were given a second chance," said Silver. "And so was I. I tried to kill Sonic myself, until I realised I'd been tricked. And you should know yourself Eggman has a way of getting under your skin. Why is it so different for him?"

Shadow seethed and Blaze took a step towards Silver, gently ushering the darker hedgehog aside.

"It's not as simple as that," she said. "Please don't be so naive. He's a war criminal."

"He's one small jackal," said Silver. "Everyone deserves a second chance. Besides, the phantom ruby is gone. He's no threat. We can at least give him a chance."

"Freedom Citadel doesn't exactly have holding cells," said Shadow. "You'll be carrying a walking death-wish into a place filled with innocents!"

Silver flexed his fingers, glancing between the fallen jackal and his two allies.

"I just think…" he said slowly, "that I'm not going to be alone thinking this…"

Shadow let out a sigh and trailed a hand down his muzzle. "Do what you want. But I'm not dragging his sorry ass back."

"Then I'll fly him back myself," said Silver.

"And if he wakes up on the way?" asked Blaze. "He could kill you."

"I'll leave his sword."

"Oh for goodness' sake!" Shadow snapped. "You wanna bring him, fine, you're on your own. I've said my piece." He fixed crimson eyes on the silver hedgehog. "But it'll be on your neck if he turns on everyone."

Silver turned to Blaze, who shook her head sadly. She grabbed Shadow by the shoulder and hugged her other arm around herself.

"Please get me out of this rain," she said.

Shadow didn't even reply. He kept his glare on Silver as the pair of them vanished into thin air.

Silver let out a sigh and stooped to pick up Infinite in his arms. He was oddly light, and his long, waterlogged tail hung down like a dead weight. Almost nothing to him. But it wouldn't be long until he proved too heavy. It was a long way back. Sometimes he wished he could just use chaos control like Shadow. But he wasn't going to let the dark hedgehog win this one. Using his psychokinesis, Silver raised them both into the air and headed back towards Freedom Citadel, through the rainstorm.

...​

Freedom Citadel was a fortified town a good few miles beyond the desert. A huge wall stretched around it where a moat would have been many centuries ago. The storm hadn't reached the town, but Silver still dripped with water, splashing a few guards perched on the battlements. They watched him curiously, keeping a tight grip on their crossbows and Wispons. It wasn't so much him that had them worried as the soggy bundle he was carrying. Many of them cast glances towards the desert, keeping an eye out for whatever threat had caused the damage.

But Silver was beginning to wonder if the threat was being carried beyond the walls of Freedom Citadel.

He drifted down towards the refurbished castle towards the east wall. No longer a royal palace, but instead providing homes for refugees and the army, as well as a base of operations for what was left of The Resistance. The entrance to the base was at the foot of the rightmost tower, but before Silver could reach the handle, it swung inward. Shadow leered out from the gap, with a gun held over his head. The weapon belonged to Omega, who's red eyes appeared angrier than usual.

"I should inform you I am not afraid to use this," said the robot.

"Let him in," came Sonic's voice.

Shadow sneered over his shoulder then stepped back into Omega. The robot begrudgingly lowered his weapon, but neither of them took their eyes off Silver.

The room was well furbished for a meeting room. Not your usual formal table and chairs. Two sofas sat in an L-shape, one of which had been removed of all its scatter pillows (hand picked by Amy). The other still had its vibrant adornments, plus one bat who feigned a yawn at Shadow's expense. The long meeting table that seemed detached from the room, as close to the kitchen as possible, had recently adopted a cafetiere. It made the entire room smell like fresh brewed coffee.

"You look like a drowned rat," said Sonic.

Silver remained silent as he braced himself for Sonic's reaction.

Sonic climbed down from his perch at the table, leaving his steaming mug behind.

"Put him on the sofa," he told Silver. "Tails, grab the first aid kit."

It wasn't the response Silver had been expecting. He deposited the still-unconscious jackal on the sofa, glad that it was made of faux leather. He dripped sandy water, and blood trickled from a wound in his tail. He'd also begun to adopt an unfortunate 'wet dog' smell. Silver absently wiped his gloves against each other and took a step back as Tails politely cut in front of him.

"This is more Amy's forte than mine," said the fox as he opened it. "All I can really do is bind up his tail."

"I'd remove his mask," said Sonic. "I imagine it's hard to breathe with that thing on his face."

Tails obliged, placing it behind him on the coffee table. His blue eyes widened and Sonic let out a small 'huh.'

"So that's what you look like," the hedgehog said.

Silver crept closer, peering over Sonic's shoulder. Without the mask, Infinite looked a lot less threatening. Save for an old scar over his right eye.

Rouge let out a long whistle and leant sideways for a better look. "Wow-wee! Someone hold me back!"

"Really, Rouge?" Shadow scoffed. "Really?!"

The bat grinned at Shadow and settled back into her seat. "I'm just saying. Why hide all that behind a mask?"

Sonic and Tails rolled their eyes and the latter continued wrapping bandages around the tip of Infinite's tail.

Shadow shook his head and rounded on Sonic. "I still can't believe you're doing this. It's like you've not listened to a word I've said."

"Oh, I listened," said Sonic. "To both you and Blaze. And I recall you avoided Silver's argument entirely."

At the cat's name, Silver lifted his head to look around the meeting room.

"She went up to her room to get dry," said Rouge. "Poor dear was soaked to the bone."

"I said everything I felt you needed to know," said Shadow. "I'm not backing Silver's argument at all." He paused and looked over at the grey hedgehog. "You're oddly quiet. Not feeling as talkative as you were back in that desert?"

"I don't really have much else to say," said Silver.

Shadow snorted. "You sound doubtful."

"Like you are questioning your motives," said Omega.

"I had a lot of time to think on the way back." Silver ran a hand over his quills and sighed. "I wish I'd been here for the conversation. What was it exactly that made you side with me?"

"Easy," said Sonic. "Blaze fought your case, despite not really understanding it herself. I wasn't leaning either way, but that swayed the argument in your favor."

"And I'm all one for second chances," said Tails. "I think if Knuckles had been here, it would have been a tougher case, though."

Silver nodded and pinched the bridge of his muzzle. "I'm sorry. I think I'm going to look for Blaze."

As he turned to the door, Shadow cut him off. "Fat chance! This was your idea, and you'll see it through."

"Shadow has a point," said Sonic. "Besides, if Infinite turns out to be hostile, you're the only one who can restrain him without unnecessary force."

Silver faltered and turned back to the blue hedgehog.

"Unnecessary force my tail," said Shadow.

"If he turns out to be hostile," said Omega, "I suggest sending him to the closest holding cells, which would be…" He drifted for a moment. "Station Square."

"That's miles away," said Shadow. "I'd sooner chaos control him into the dark depths of space."

"Oh boy," said Rouge. "Someone took an extra dose of 'edge' this morning."

"Team Dark," said Sonic. "If you're going to argue, I'm going to have to ask you to leave."

"What?" Rouge pouted and crossed one leg over the other. "I've not done anything. It's just the boys being boys."

"I have not done anything either," said Omega. "I am just offering suggestions of caution."

"Hey, you ain't pinning all this on me," said Shadow.

Sonic lifted an arm and pointed towards the door. "Out."

Shadow sighed and wrenched it open. "Fine. But I'm not leaving the citadel. I'm not letting that war criminal out of my sight."

He let Omega past then slammed the door behind him. Sonic looked up at the bat, who lowered her lids as she smirked at him.

"Not joining them?" he asked her.

"Not a chance," she said. "I want to see this through. This is possibly the most exciting thing that's happened here in months."

"Yeah? Hold onto that thought." Tails stood back from the sofa and wiped his paws on a towel. "I think he's coming round…"

...​

Blinding sunlight stung my eyes and I squeezed them shut, shielding them with an arm. The rain had stopped, but my fur was still wet. How long had I been unconscious? I shuffled on the ground, trying to get myself back up. Wait… no, that wasn't sand. My hand shot beside me, my leather glove squeaking against whatever I'd been lying on. I forced my eyes to focus on wherever I was, picking out several figures. But it was no use. My ears swiveled back and forth as I struggled to take in my surroundings. But words leapt out of my throat before I could even finish thinking.

"Where am I?!"

One of the blurry figures raised their hands. "You're in Freedom Citadel."

"What?" My eyes widened. I knew that voice. "Sonic?" I groped at my side and my heart sank. "What do you want with me? Where's my sword?!"

"I left it in the desert." Another voice. That was honest.

"We don't want to hurt you," Sonic went on. "You were found in the desert. You were attacked by Eggman."

A trick. It had to be a trick.

The room began to focus, and I found myself crouching on a leather couch before Sonic and a small number of his team. I looked from each in turn - Sonic, a fox, Silver, a smirking bat. Nothing I couldn't handle… if I was armed. And they knew it. Not one of them was scared. Instead, it was me, cowering on a sofa, heart racing. Too exhausted to flee. Pathetic.

The bat chuckled from my right, drawing my attention if only so I could see her. She leant her head on one hand, tracing me with her eyes. She shifted one leg and my head snapped towards it. But something else caught my eye. My mask, perched beside her on the table. My hand leapt to my face and I pulled my lips back in a snarl.

"Give it back!" I snapped.

No one even flinched. The bat, however, reached towards it and smirked.

"Whatever for?" she asked. "Rouge likes what she sees. A little scrawny, but… nothing a pizza can't fix." Wink.

I felt my fur bristle and I had to try everything to stop my ears from pulling back. I didn't want to show these wretches how terrified and pathetic I was.

"Now isn't the time, Rouge," said Sonic. "Let him have it back."

She tutted and flopped her arm towards me, letting my mask dangle from her finger. "Yeesh. Forgive a girl for trying."

I snatched it from her hand and placed it back where it belonged.

"You've still not told me what you want from me," I said.

"Like I said." Sonic folded his arms and shifted his weight to one leg. "You were attacked by some of Eggman's robots. We wondered if you knew why. I doubt it's something as reassuring as him wanting to be shut of a failed experiment given you were given up for dead two years ago."

Those words, the way he spoke… whatever it was pushed my fur on end.

"So let me get this straight," I said. "You dragged me… someone who tried to kill you… back to your precious little base?" A dry chuckle left my throat and I shook my head. "You're more foolish than I thought."

"Not exactly," said Sonic. "If you're fighting Eggman, that puts us in the same boat. We have a common enemy. Silver could have let you die in that desert, but you now get to see another day. I'm willing to let bygones be bygones if you are. If so, you're welcome to stay here. If not, well…"

"Let me tell you something, Sonic," I spat. "We are not allies, and I don't want to be here."

"My offer still stands!" The voice came from the other side of the door.

My pupils turned to pinpricks and I stared at the door, suddenly very cold as though an arctic wind had crossed over me. I knew that voice. It still mocked me in my sleep.

"Shadow did offer you an alternative location," said Rouge. "But I doubt you'd like it."

"Shadow's dark alternative aside," Sonic went on, "the only other alternative is a prison cell in Station Square."

"And that place is a dive right now," said the fox. "Shame, too. It used to be great."

"So you're blackmailing me?" I scoffed. "To stay in your little village, among hundreds of innocents?"

"You're unarmed," said Silver. "And outnumbered. No one can come or leave without being noticed."

"You see, I'm not really willing to just let you go." Sonic was very good at acting sorry. "So those are your only two choices."

"There's three!" came Shadow's voice.

Rouge fixed me with an amused look and shook her head. "I wouldn't choose his."

"You're not doing a very good job of staying out of the discussion!" Sonic called to the door.

"I left the room didn't I?" was Shadow's reply.

What was this place? A joke? I closed my eyes, fighting for strength. I had to leave, I just had to. How difficult would it really be? They got me in here. Unless it was a trap? A way to finish me off. Watch me suffer.

"You're clearly exhausted," said Sonic. "Why don't you sleep on it? Decide in the morning?"

I opened my eyes again and looked up at him. He still looked sorry. Was it not an act after all?

"You're not… joking, are you?" I asked, stammering slightly.

He spread his arms in a shrug. "I wouldn't joke about something like this."

"But… I tried to kill you," I said. "All of you. And you're just gonna let me in here? Like it never happened?"

"What? You think you're the only guy who's tried to kill me?" Sonic aimed a grin at Silver. "If I had that attitude, I probably wouldn't have any friends right now."

The small fox jolted and fixed the hedgehog with a wounded expression. "Hey!"

"So I can either show you a room and let you sleep on it," Sonic went on, "or you can choose the other option."

"So it's either here or a cell?" I paused, narrowing my eyes. "What's the difference?"

He folded his arms and raised an eyebrow. "I think I'll let you decide that one."

I frowned, flashing a canine. Well… I think it would go without saying I decided on taking a room. We'd soon see which one of us would regret it first.
 

DeliriousAbsol

Call me Del
Chapter Two​

Sunlight danced through the window between the blinds, chasing away morbid and grisly images from my mind. I grimaced and dragged my hand down my face, trying to stifle the ones that lingered. Wretched nightmares. I let my hand fall onto my chest where it brushed the hard edge of the ruby. I jerked it away to instead rest on my stomach and rubbed sleep from my eyes as I stared up at the ornate ceiling.

Well, I’d made it through one night. Opting to lie on top of the duvet perchance I had to make a quick getaway. Yet for some reason I’d decided to remove my gloves, shoes and mask. Oh yes… because I’d had to use the shower. That’s why every small movement wafted up the scent of a wildflower meadow. What was with this place? I recalled that shower, water cascading from a vent in the ceiling. The knob on the wall had two settings - water and hot air. No option to remove the fragrant floral scent whatsoever. I’d ended up falling onto the bed slightly damp, hoping it would eradicate it, but it hadn’t.

I decided to get up and have a wash in the sink. It was drinking water, so at least it wouldn’t smell like an orchid or something. Although it was alarmingly cold, I found out as I splashed a handful on my face. Well, if I wasn’t awake, I was now.

I frowned at my reflection in the mirror. Moreso at the scar over my right eye. A foolish mistake that had turned the pigment from yellow to blue. Although I wish that was all it had claimed. My old squad had seen it as a token of bravery and survival. Me? I saw it as a foolish mistake and a sign of weakness. I muttered to myself, returning to the bed to retrieve my mask from the bedside table. Once that scar was hidden from view, I stood in the middle of the room pulling my gloves back on when a knock came from the door. I scowled at it. Who on earth would that be?

“Good morning!” A female voice?

I sighed and pulled the door open, meeting the grinning face of a pink hedgehog. She leant on the handle of a massive hammer, almost blocking Sonic from view. I didn’t care about him. I sneered at the massive mallet, balling my hands into fists.

“Amy,” said Sonic. “I told you, you don’t need it. Put it away.”

“Oh, I know.” The pink hedgehog hoisted the massive hammer effortlessly onto her shoulder. “It’s just for show.”

I narrowed my eyes, meeting hers. Lies.

“We came to get you for breakfast,” she said. “I guess you must be hungry? I mean, you couldn’t have found much food in the desert during the dry season, right?”

I briefly glanced over at Sonic, trying to read him. Taut, nervous, ready to spring to the girl’s aide. She, however, looked fearless. What was this? Some kind of test? ‘See how much that nasty jackal can take before he snaps’?

I took a step closer to the pink hedgehog, and she leant away from me, holding the mallet at an angle at her side.

“I don’t know what you’re playing at,” I said slowly. “But I have you know I’ve faced scarier things than an over-sized hammer. I’ve stared death in the face and won. But if it’s a fight you want-”

Sonic grabbed Amy by the shoulder and pulled her behind him, eliciting a startled squeak. But I didn’t take my eyes off her.

“We’re not here for a fight,” he said. “Amy is just a little… over cautious.”

“Yeah, I wasn’t letting him come up here alone!” she snapped, raising her mallet. “And if you want a fight-”

“Put it away!” Sonic half-growled. “No one is fighting.”

I studied him for a moment and let out a lone laugh. “Starting to see your mistake? Because your girlfriend certainly can.”

The pink hedgehog’s jaw dropped and she lowered her hammer to the ground with a thud. “You think I’m his girlfriend?”

“Amy, go down to the kitchen,” Sonic told her.

She rounded on him, waving her hammer in my direction. “And leave you alone with him? Are you kidding me?!”

“Now, Amy.”

The pink hedgehog sighed and marched past him towards the stairs, carrying her mallet as though it were nothing more than a pillow.

“As for your question.” Sonic gathered himself and forced a smile at me. “I still remember what I saw yesterday. That mask hides a lot more than just your face.”

I seethed, flashing a canine. What was he insinuating? That he could clearly see what I loathed? I took a step back into the room and shook my head.

“Leave me,” I said. “I want to be alone.”

“Are you sure?” he asked. “Because after the way you just were with Amy, I’m hesitant to send up room service.”

I shook my head again, feeling my heart begin to race. “I don’t understand you! I threatened your friend, and you’re still acting like you want me here? What is this? Some kind of sick torture? An eye for an eye? Revenge from when I kept you locked up?!”

“No,” he said flatly.

“Then why keep me here?! I should be in a cell! You should be braying for my blood!”

“I’m not like that!” he said. “Look, Infinite, I’m not saying what you did was right, but I’m trying to offer you a second chance. If you really want to be sent to a prison cell, then fine. I can have Team Dark take you there. But you won’t see dawn.”

I glanced away from him, sneering under my mask. What I really wanted was to be back in the desert, miles away from civilization, struggling to survive. Not cooped up in some town while its occupants secretly thought up imaginative ways to kill me. Staring at me like some freak show exhibit. Muttering behind my back.

Not that I didn’t deserve it.

“So what’s it going to be?” Sonic asked.

I looked back up at him, keeping my head low like a scolded pup. If I really only had two options, I wasn’t going to walk straight to my own death. And I was hungry.

“Fine,” I said. “I’ll join you. But I still don’t understand you.”

The hedgehog beamed and straightened. “Great! It’s right this way.”

He led me to the stairs, winding down towards a massive hallway. I kept him on my left where I could see him and took the opportunity to glance up at the floor above. Unlike the one we’d come from, it wasn’t a narrow walkway to various doors with a view of the entrance hall. The entire floor was sealed off by another ornate ceiling decorated with a flower that looked like a sun. The only sign there was anything above us were the winding stairs that vanished beyond it.

“I’ve got loads of questions to ask,” Sonic went on. “So I hope you don’t mind some other friends being there.”

“I have nothing to do with Eggman.”

“Whoa, wait for the party, Infinite! We’re not even there yet.” Sonic laughed.

I leered at him out of the corner of my eye. Oh, how it took everything in my power not to shove him down the stairs.

He vaulted over the banister and zipped towards the meeting room I’d seen the previous day. Well, I wasn’t doing that. He’d jolly well wait until I’d reached the hall. Wait, was he actually tapping his foot at me? I flashed a canine as I joined him by the door, receiving a grin in return. He opened it with a flourish and I was immediately assaulted by voices. Not aimed at me, just being thrown around the room. The smell of frying billowed out into the hall, almost choking me before it made my mouth water. I absently wafted the air as I tried to assess everything.

Rouge was sprawled out in the same spot and smirked at me as I entered the room. Tails and Amy busied themselves beside a little stove I’d failed to spot before. I was deeply glad the latter was no longer brandishing her mallet. Silver sat at the table opposite a lavender cat who failed miserably at trying to be more interested in her coffee. But the hedgehog beside him drew my attention. Shadow… I remembered him. All too well. My lips pulled back involuntarily, then the door clicked shut behind me. Something glinted beside it and I stifled a yelp as my eye snapped to a robot standing sentry.

“Good morning. I trust you slept well?” Was it mocking me? It lifted its gun, pointing it over my shoulder towards the table. “I believe you biological lifeforms are enjoying bacon and eggs. Take a seat.”

“Put the gun away, Omega,” said Rouge. “You’re not impressing anyone.”

The robot, somehow, tutted.

I climbed up into one of the seats far away from the rest of them. But it didn’t stop Shadow from glaring my way. He didn’t say anything, however. Brooding silently as he sipped his coffee. Black, and if I were to guess, no sugar.

“You know mostly everyone in here,” said Sonic. “But I don’t think you’ve met Blaze?” He waved towards the cat.

“Coffee?” Blaze ventured, reaching for the cafetiere.

When I didn’t answer, she let it go, scooting closer to her silver friend.

Sonic joined me at the table, placing a sizzling tray of bacon and eggs in the middle of it, right beside a stack of plates. He grabbed one and piled it up, then placed it in front of me. Then he reached for the coffee.

I stared at the plate for a moment and reached for my fork. The room fell silent, all eyes on me except for Sonic, who was more occupied with the cafetiere.

I sneered at the anxious cat and her friend as I said, “What? I’m not gonna stab him with it.”

Shadow slid from his stool, taking his mug with him. “Forget this. I’m leaving.”

“Oh, Shadow.” Rouge rolled her eyes. “You’ve got no sense of humor.”

“Humor?” he spat. “When all this goes wrong, I’ll be the one there to say ‘I told you so’! Then we’ll see who’s laughing.”

Rouge sighed and shook her head. “We might find something out about Eggman. You really want to miss that?”

“Fill me in later.” The door slammed behind him.

Sonic nudged a mug of coffee beside my plate, drawing my attention back from the closed door.

“Ignore him,” he said. “He’s a grump.”

I glanced up at everyone else, now tucking into their meals. Slowly. With one eye fixed on me. I stabbed a piece of bacon and lifted it, giving it a cautionary sniff. It only served to make me feel more hungry.

“Want me to taste test it for you?” Sonic joked.

I sent a glare his way and stuffed it into my mouth. Okay. I was definitely hungry. Another piece followed and I turned my full attention to the plate and its contents. I barely noticed when Amy sat down beside Sonic, shooing Tails onto the seat beside her.

“I don’t know what makes you think you’re gonna find out anything about Eggman,” I told him. “Because I don’t know anything.”

“Really?” Sonic asked. “You’ve no idea why he was in the desert?”

“No,” I said. “Couldn’t care less.”

“Oh, I think you care,” said Silver. “It was you his robots attacked.”

“Silver’s right,” said Blaze. “We saw the fight from the sky and leapt in to help.”

I snorted, casting her a glance. “I don’t know if I was their target or not. I was just defending myself.”

“Well something is clearly up,” said Sonic. “Things fell quiet two years ago, after the war blew over. But recently, there have been an increasing number of robot attacks. Just small armies, no bigger than five or six, showing up and causing trouble. Or just randomly appearing in secluded areas. Easy enough to wipe out. But only two months ago, Team Dark told us they’d spotted Eggman’s Egg Carrier flying over the ocean.”

“We followed it, but it vanished,” said Rouge. “Just like that. I mean, where do you hide a huge ship? I’ve had an easier time taking jewels from bank vaults.”

“So we’ve been working together to get to the bottom of it,” said Sonic. “Nip things in the bud before they start. But, for two months, there was no sign of Eggman. No robot sightings. No ship. Until yesterday.”

I laid my fork down on my empty plate and wiped my glove across my chin. Wow, I really shouldn’t have eaten so fast. My stomach was doing flips. I glanced down at my black coffee and searched the table for the milk jug. Silver caught my eye, clearly twigging what I wanted. He waved a finger, sending the milk jug sliding across the table into my open hand.

“You really don’t know anything?” Sonic asked.

I trickled milk into my coffee until it turned into a much more pleasing brown.

“Let me paint a picture for you,” I said. “I was living in a burrow I dug with my bare hands in the middle of a baking desert, tapping cacti for water. I didn’t even know Eggman was still alive until I got wind of random robot attacks. News doesn’t fly very well in such a harsh environment.” I took a sip of my coffee, which did little to settle my stomach. “So no. I don’t know anything. That attack came as much a surprise to me as it did you.”

“Well, it’s worrying,” said Amy. “This world is still recovering, so if Eggman’s back then that’s bad. People are still missing. Families are still separated…”

I stared into my coffee as I tried to fight back a flood of nausea, telling myself it was only from the food and not the hedgehog’s words. The memory of my squad being slaughtered before my eyes flashed through my mind and I grit my teeth. I really wanted some air.

“Well, I’ve said my piece.” I scooted my stool back and abandoned my coffee to the table.

The room fell silent and all eyes fixed on me. Sonic looked like he was about to leap from his seat and bowl me over if I moved one more inch.

“What?” I chuckled edging towards the door. “Worried I’ll run away? I know this place is heavily fortified. I just want to clear my head.”

Before I could reach the door, Omega’s arm swung down in front of me and he aimed his gun at my head.

“You are not to leave here unsupervised,” he said.

Rouge smirked at me from the sofa. “If he needs supervision, I’m always available.”

“That won’t be necessary,” said Sonic, settling back into his seat. “Shadow’s out there. He’s always keeping an eye open.”

Silver grimaced slightly and slid from his seat. “I’ll go, too. It doesn’t hurt to have an extra pair of eyes. Blaze?”

The lavender cat met his eyes and fidgeted her fingers together. “I told Amy I’d help dry the dishes. I’ll join you later.”

What, so now I was getting an entourage? I snorted and eyed the robot until he retracted his gun. Then I opened the door, slipping out into the entrance hall before Silver could join me. The huge, ornate double doors opened before I could touch them, engulfed in a blue light. I glanced back at the silver hedgehog, his psychokinesis dissipating.

“I thought you might want someone to show you around?” he said.

I tutted and turned my back on him, marching through the wide open doors into the town. A few people leapt back when they saw me, and one lady dropped a box of groceries. Three children - two foxes and a cream rabbit accompanied by a chao - rushed to help her gather them up. Beyond her, beside a tree, stood a group of children. Watching me. Wide-eyed, hands clasped to their chests. Pointing. Talking. I shook my head and turned away, sticking close to the wall of the old castle.

Silver floated towards me and tried to keep pace at my side.

“You won’t see much from over here,” he joked.

I rounded on him and he drifted back slightly, righting himself in the air.

“You’re the one who ‘rescued’ me from the desert?” I said.

“Well, yes…”

“Let me ask you something,” I said, letting a growl escape my throat. “What gave you that right?”

He narrowed his eyes and drifted closer to me. I silently berated myself for taking an unconscious step back until my back was against the wall.

“You were wounded,” he said. “I wasn’t going to leave you there to die, was I?”

“I was living in a desert.” I placed emphasis on the last three words, leaning in towards him. “Every day was a struggle. What makes you think I didn’t want to die?”

“You were fighting back.”

I snorted and turned from him, following the castle wall. “I just don’t want to give Eggman the satisfaction of finishing me off.”

“So you were actually out there to die?”

Something about his words chilled me.

I rounded on him again, flashing my canines. “Sonic looked at you when he said I wasn’t the only one who tried to kill him.”

“I was tricked,” said Silver. “I was told he was the one I needed to stop.”

“And when you realised you were wrong, everything was just dandy? A little sorry. ‘Oh don’t worry about it. We all make mistakes!’ Well, I sided with a maniac and helped him take over all of Mobius! I killed thousands! This place is full of refugees, right?” I waved a hand towards the group of children. Still watching. Except for that rabbit who smiled up at the greying sheep as she carried the grocery box into her little cottage. “How many of them know I’m responsible for killing their parents? Do you really think they all want me in here?” I pointed up at the guards nestled on the ramparts, high above me. Crossbows and Wispons at the ready. “And what about them?! They don’t want me in here, Silver. No one does. You should have just left me to die.”

I stood against the wall trying to catch my breath. My breakfast really wasn’t happy, and I fought the urge to bring it back up. I was still exhausted, and hot. I briefly considered removing my mask to make breathing easier, but I pushed that to the back of my mind quickly. Instead I pushed it back up my muzzle and trailed my fingers through my mane.

“You’re wrong.”

I looked back up at Silver, his expression stoic.

“I shouldn’t have just left you to die,” he said. “You’re right, a lot of people here are scared. There were times I even questioned what I was doing when I carried you back. I let Shadow’s words get to me. He told me I was insane. But if I’d let that stop me, you probably wouldn’t have seen daylight.”

My eyes widened and stared at him, aghast. My mind was still processing what he said about Shadow. I knew what that was like. I adjusted my mask again and let my eyes wander towards the grass.

“Forgiveness isn’t easy,” he went on. “But it goes a long way. Besides, I’m wondering how much of what you did was influenced by the phantom ruby. If it can warp reality, I’m fairly sure it can warp minds. But one thing I’m sure of, the person I’m talking to now isn’t the same one I fought two years ago.”

I fixed him in a glare. “Then why do I remember it?”

Silver was silent, watching me. I sank down against the wall and waved him away.

“Go,” I said. “Don’t worry. I won’t do anything. I don’t have the strength.”

“I’m not worried about you doing anything,” he said.

“What, you’re worried I’ll run? I doubt those guards would let me leave if I tried.”

He looked up at the castle behind me then nodded. With one last look in my direction, he flew away and vanished beyond the double doors. I leant my head back against the cold stone wall, still warring with keeping my breakfast down. Thankfully the nausea was starting to fade, but I had no desire to stand back up. I took deep breaths through my mouth, desperate to cool myself down. Had there been something in the food after all?

I caught the staring eyes of the children, now growing in number. Slowly edging closer. Clutching toys from footballs to stuffed animals. Their expressions were a mix of fear, curiosity and anger. That cream rabbit had rejoined them, holding the chao to her chest. Not one of them looked over the age of ten.

“What do you want?” I groaned. “Just go back to playing your dumb games.”

“What are you doing here?” a black and white badger piped up.

“Yeah!” said a wolf. “Everyone said you were dead.”

“Are you a ghost?” a cat whimpered.

The rest of them joined in after that. Jeers. Questions. Panicked cries. The wolf scooped up a stone and lobbed it at me, narrowly missing my right ear. I swiveled it to follow the rock, pinpointing where it hit the floor.

I flashed my canines and picked it up, tossing it right back at them. It flew straight at the wolf’s head. He ducked aside, narrowly avoiding it.

“I said go away!” I roared.

Some of the children rose into an uproar, screaming and crying. The smaller ones turned and bolted. Clattering weapons came from the battlements but it silenced as a flash sliced the air. Shadow appeared before me, fixing me in a crimson glare. He looked between me and the children and his lips curled into a sneer.

“They’re just kids,” he said.

“They started it.” I struggled to pull myself up against the wall, not letting the hedgehog out of my sight.

He moved so quickly I didn’t even see it coming. I lost my footing against the wall, slipping back down against it. Something hard struck my muzzle with an explosion of flames, sending my head bouncing off the rocks. I wasn’t sure which side the sick crack came from, but a sharp stabbing pain raced across my snout. My ears rang and I clasped my hands to my head, trying to blink the spots from my eyes. Shadow still stood before me, his hands balled into fists. It was obvious he hadn’t intended to kick me in the face, but there wasn’t a hint of remorse in his eyes.

He turned to the children, now cowering away from us. “Go back to your homes.”

The group began to disperse. He gave me one last look and tutted.

“Turning on children? Good grief, you’re pathetic,” he said. “If kids just being kids is going to make you snap, then what will be your breaking point?”

Words failed me. I stared up at him, still clutching my pounding head. My mask had come loose, and I struggled to keep it in place.

“I told Sonic you were trouble,” he went on. “I have every right mind to bail. Tell him you’re his problem, not mine. But there’s no way I’m leaving this place while you’re still in it. Consider yourself warned.”

He vanished into thin air, but I couldn’t shake the feeling he was still watching me.

The children had mostly vanished, leaving only the badger and the cream rabbit. The latter rushed towards me and I braced myself to get up and flee. Not because of her, but in case Shadow was still lurking somewhere.

“Mister Infinite, are you okay?” She released the chao from her arms to hover beside her as she leapt to my side.

“What?” I flinched away, trying to fix her with my good eye.

“You’re bleeding.”

She reached for my mask, but I jerked back, bouncing my skull off the wall again. Pain shot through my head, stifling my retaliation before I could voice it. Instead I grimaced and she managed to prise my mask from me. Something warm trickled down the side of my muzzle. Blood. I could smell it. Argh, I felt exposed without that mask. I raised my hands to my face in a desperate bid to replace it.

“What are you doing?” I growled.

She shook her head, holding the two halves of my mask in her lap. My heart sank at the sight of it. Useless.

“Nanny might need to take a look at that,” she said, referring to my wounded face.

I stared at her, dumbfounded. But all she did was smile at me.

“I like your eyes!” she said. “I’ve not seen anyone with two different colours before.”

“Chao chao!”

Any words I tried to form came out as a stutter. I looked back at my mask, desperate to take it back but fearing another attack off that black hedgehog. She followed my eyes and held it out, a small, sad frown turning down her mouth.

“I’m really sorry,” she said. “It looks like Mister Shadow broke it. But maybe we can fix it?”

I took the pieces in my left hand, while the other kept my scarred eye hidden.

“I’m sorry Rufus threw a rock at you,” she said. “He wants to be a soldier, and it sometimes goes to his head.”

I stared at her for a moment, but that smile soon replaced her frown. No fear. Not even the chao looked afraid.

I sighed and pushed myself back up against the wall. “You should get back to your friends.”

As I rose, my head began to spin and I had to steady myself against the wall. The little rabbit leapt to her feet and grabbed my hand. I jerked it from her grip, fixing her with a look of terror I feared I would regret later. That nausea flooded through me again, although more because of the knock I’d received than bad indigestion. I toppled back into the wall and tried to steady myself, taking deep breaths to quash it.

“You must see Nanny,” she said. “It looks like you really bumped your head.”

The little blue creature hovered before my face, scrutinizing me. Then it nodded. “Chao!”

I screwed my eyes shut and pinched the bridge of my muzzle. “I’ll be fine.”

“I insist!”

Her little voice snapped my eyes back open and I stared down into her frowning face. I couldn’t help but wonder if she was the ‘mother duck’ to the other children.

“All right,” I said. “I cave. Take me to this Nanny.”

A smile lit up her face and she held out her hand. “I’m Cream. And this is Cheese.”

Cream and Cheese? I looked between the two and shook my head, letting the rabbit take my hand. The remains of my mask were clutched tightly in the other. Maybe this Nanny could repair it? Or have some means I could do it?

Cream led me through the village, past the sheep’s cottage, towards what looked like a school. But it wasn’t the school she was taking me to. A small house was built beside it, with children playing outside between the flower beds. I spotted the wolf, Rufus, who frowned at me. Then he ran off with his friends, throwing his football ahead of him.

“She’s just in here.” Cream opened the door and ushered me inside.

The house opened straight into the sitting room. A caramel furred possum rose from her sofa, discarding a book beside her. A look of worry crossed her face, soon washed away with concern. At me, or at herself, I wasn’t sure.

“My, that’s a nasty gash,” she said, brushing back a lock of wavy hair from her face.

“He hit his head,” said Cream.

She looked me over briefly and nodded. “Very well. Take a seat.”

I obliged, sinking into the plush cushions. I caught a glimpse of the book cover beside me. ‘Hidden Messages’. Hmm. A crime fan, then?

The possum pulled open a drawer, her long bushy tail swaying behind her through a hole in her patchwork dungarees. Then she returned to the sofa, carrying a green plastic box.

“I’ve seen my fair share of bumps and scrapes,” she said. “But you look like you’ve been in the wars recently.”

I tried to ignore the poor choice of words. “So you’re Nanny then?”

“That’s what the kids call me. I prefer the adults call me Mocha, however.”

She dampened a cotton swab with some antiseptic and leant towards me. Too close. I jerked back and tried to take the swab from her fingers. She snatched it back and pressed it against my muzzle. I sucked in a hiss as it stung like crazy.

“It looks worse than it is,” she said. “It’ll heal up in no time.” She paused, frowning as she pulled my hand away from my right eye. “What colour are your eyes?”

I frowned back at her. “What?”

“Answer me. Calmly.”

I took a few steadying breaths, not sure what she was getting at. “They’re meant to be yellow. But… some idiot lashed me with a sword and the right one’s never been the same since. Why?”

“I was making sure the colour change wasn’t due to you hitting your head.” She took the swab back and stared down at me, inclining her head on one side. “I’m rather worried about that whack you received. What were you doing?”

“It was Mister Shadow,” said Cream. “He got pretty upset when Mister Infinite shouted back at the boys throwing rocks.”

Mocha jolted and looked down at me as if seeing me for the first time. Her blue eyes wandered to the jewel in my chest, before finally settling on the mask still clutched in my hand. They widened slowly. I instinctively covered my face and looked away from her, past Cream, towards the door.

“Oh.” She fastened the green box shut then glanced down at my tail. “Oh yes. You might need to change that.”

I turned back to my tail, spotting the mucky bandage wrapped around the white tip. Something glinted in her hands and my eyes snapped wide open. Before I could retaliate, she snipped the bandage free, letting it pool onto the floor.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I hadn’t put two and two together right away. So you’re the reason the town is making such a fuss?”

“I can leave,” I said.

“Nonsense. Not until I’ve checked you don’t have a concussion.”

“So you’re not scared of me?”

She sat back on her heels and released my tail, meeting my eyes. Well… the one she could see.

“A little,” she said. “But you don’t seem particularly threatening right now.”

“I’m not gonna lie. I’m too exhausted to be threatening.”

She stood up, discarding the bandage to join the swab in the basket. Things began to look a little… strange. Hazy… like a dream. I found myself sinking into the arm of the chair.

Mocha narrowed her eyes at me. “Don’t fall asleep!”

I pushed myself back up and muttered to myself.

“He doesn’t look well at all,” said Cream. “I’m a little worried.”

“You do look bad,” said Mocha. “Besides tiredness, do you have any nausea? Dizziness?”

“Yes,” I said flatly. “I started feeling sick after breakfast, actually. So it’s probably got nothing to do with me hitting my head.”

“Well, it might not be helping matters.” Mocha paused and scrutinized me. “When did you last eat?”

“This morning.”

She rolled her eyes. “Before then?”

“I dunno.” I paused, rubbing my muzzle. “Days?”

“And what did you have today?”

I shrugged, my shoulders feeling heavy. “Bacon and eggs.”

“Seriously?” said Mocha. “It’s no wonder you feel sick. You should have had something lighter.”

I sighed and shook my head. The motion made everything spin.

“I’m going to get you a coffee,” she said. “Cream, Cheese, keep him awake.”

Cream saluted then clambered up onto the sofa beside me. She placed the book onto the coffee table then tucked her legs beneath her. She reached for my tail, checking over it like a pretend nurse. I flicked it from her grip and she beamed up at me.

“I told you Nanny would know what she was doing,” she said.

“Why are you being so nice to me?” I narrowed my eyes, keeping my hand over the right side of my face. “You’re meant to hate me.”

She shook her head, making a sound like ‘Nuh-uh!’ “Hate is horrible. It makes people do bad things.”

I jabbed a thumb into my ruff. “I did bad things!”

“Sometimes we all do, but we can make up for it. Right? If you show someone kindness, you get it back! That’s what my mother always used to tell me.”

Used to? I felt my stomach tie in knots.

“It just takes longer for some than others,” she added.

“You people are weird.” I rubbed my face with both hands, trying to stave off the urge to sleep. “You let me in, and I’m the reason you are all living like this. Being all nice to a monster. It makes me sick that the only person who can see that is Shadow!” I paused and let out a sigh. “And that kid who threw the rock.”

“Do you really want everyone to hate you?”

“You should.” I paused, staring off into the distance.

“That’s really sad.”

I looked up at her. She stared down at her hands folded in her lap, with Cheese mirroring her expression.

“What happened to your mother?” Part of me dreaded the answer, and I didn’t know why. It was an obvious one. One that shouldn’t take me by surprise.

“We got separated in the war,” she said. “The Chaotix are helping me find her.”

There it was. Orphaned.

A bitter laugh left my throat and I shook my head slowly. “And you’re trying to ‘be nice’ to the monster who did that to you?”

“That’s beside the point!” Tears glistened in her brown eyes. “If we crossed each other in the street, and you fell down, I would help you back up because that’s what good people do.”

I stared at her, watching as one of those tears trickled down her cheek.

“Then you’re naive,” I said.

Mocha strolled back into the room, clutching two mugs of coffee. She looked between me and the little rabbit, who slipped from the sofa rubbing at her eyes.

“I… I have to go home.” She rushed from the room with Cheese in tow.

“What ever happened?” Mocha asked.

I fixed her with my good eye. “She saw sense.”

As she approached the table, looking between me and the door, I rose to my feet. Mocha faltered on the other side of the coffee table, a look of fear crossing her eyes. But it melted away when I had to use the arm of the chair to steady myself. I kept my right ear trained on the door while my eye remained fixed on the possum, armed with nothing more than scalding hot coffee.

“You chased her off,” she said.

“Exactly. You all need to realise what you’re dealing with.” I tried to release the sofa, to take a step towards her. She took a step back, still clutching the coffee. “If I had my full strength, there would be nothing to stop me destroying this place and all of you with it. Yet you just take me in?”

My breathing started to turn heavy again, and I felt my eyes widen. Mocha trailed her eyes over my body, making me feel even more agitated.

“You only took me in because that phantom ruby is gone!” I went on. “Otherwise, what? ‘Kill the monster’? Well, newsflash! He’s still me.”

Mocha shook her head, but I could see the fear return to her eyes. My tail bristled and swept back over the sofa.

“You’re all crazy!” I snapped.

She stooped to put the coffee down and lifted her hands. “Calm down.”

“He could have just let me die, but no, he has to bring me to Weirdo Ville where no one knows a threat when they see it! Where an orphaned rabbit, orphaned because of me, tries to be all sweet and nice!”

I gave a burst of hysterical laughter, before my breathing turned quick and shallow.

“Infinte, please… sit back down.” Mocha pleaded, hands still raised. “I’m a nurse, I know what I-”

“You’re not a nurse! You’re a nanny to a bunch of orphaned kids!”

Her expression turned sour but her tone remained annoyingly calm. “I’m a medical professional, and I know a panic attack when I see one.” She advanced towards me, slowly. “Now sit back down-”

“Don’t touch me!” I sidestepped the table, making for the door. “I just want all of you to leave me alone!”

But I didn’t make it that far. The room began to spin and I twisted on the spot. The very floor seemed to fly out from beneath me, and the last thing I remember seeing was Mocha throwing her body between myself and a glass storage cabinet.
 

DeliriousAbsol

Call me Del
Chapter Three​

Everything was red and black. The night sky smeared with clouds dyed crimson by the moon. Wiry trees growing up out of rocky crags, bare limbs lifted in a frozen state of fright. Spring water trickled like blood down the slope, seeping through the cracks and washing over my boots. I stood clasping my sword, struggling to catch my breath, frantic eyes searching for my comrades.

I could hear them, somewhere in the distance. But I couldn’t pinpoint them. Just the odd cry for help, sending a chill down my frozen spine. I felt like I knew this place, but I couldn’t recall it. All I knew is I had to get out. Get us all out.

“Boss, please!”

My eyes snapped to the mountain peak. Scurrying along the rocks was a small, black shape. His long tail swishing behind him as he fled from… something. I tried to work it out, but it was just a black blur, lighting up everything around it with a red hue. I gripped my blade between my teeth to free my hands and scrambled up the rocks towards him. It was like trying to run through tar. My gloves kept snagging in the sticky pools of red, my toes jamming in the crumbling gaps between the rocks. But I could make that blur out more clearly now. It looked like one of us. Long tail, mane. It lashed out at my friend, knocking him onto his back. A shrill scream filled the air, and I wasn’t entirely sure if it was from him or me.

I tugged my foot free and dragged myself further up the slope. It was getting steeper, and that red river flowed like oil around me, almost gushing from the precipice below the battle. I narrowed my eyes, spotting several more figures. All down. Limbs splayed, lifeless eyes reflecting the crimson moon. Anger mixed with fear in my chest and I let out a roar, forcing myself over the sticky stuff.

The floating monster drifted over my struggling friend. It lifted a hand, and a jagged red spear shot from it, striking him in the torso. Another blood curdling cry.

“Riley!”

No sooner had the word left my mouth, the floating creature turned on me. I could barely make out its face. It lifted its hand again and I stumbled backwards, losing my footing on the mountain. My eyes almost bugged from their sockets and all I could hear was my pulse rushing in my ears.

Then I fell backwards, somehow scurrying back down the mountain slope. Frantic eyes fixed on the monster as drew closer towards me. Words stuttered from my mouth as I begged it to spare my life. To let me go. To return my friends. To not be real.

It narrowed its lone eye. “So pathetic. Only the weak cower in fear.”

“I’m not-” My voice stuttered off.

“If you weren’t so weak,” it said slowly, “they would have survived.”

I grit my teeth and braced myself, but everything trembled like a leaf. Then I swung my sword. It flopped across its pointed face, waving like a tea towel.

The monster laughed, echoing around my head. Then it was gone.

I sat huddled in a corner, clutching a blanket in my fist. Heart racing and fur damp with sweat, staring at the point it had vanished.

Where was I? Everything was so quiet…

I craned my neck to take in the room. Brown sofa, rug by the fireplace, coffee table with a mug still sitting on it, its contents likely cold. Curtains drawn, but I could see the stars through a gap between them. My nose twitched. Something was cooking somewhere. At this hour?

“Are you all right?”

I jolted at the voice, ears flicking towards it. Sitting opposite me was Mocha, a mild concern in her eyes. Her book lay open on her lap, the pages lit up by a little desk lamp on the book case beside her.

I let my head fall into my hands and dragged my fingers through my mane. Just a nightmare. I leant back against the arm of the chair and groaned.

“How long have I been out?” My voice croaked and I considered downing the cold coffee.

“A few hours.” She closed the book and placed it onto her little table. “I wasn’t sure if you were awake earlier or not. You were going on about needing to find some guys in what I guessed was a fever induced hallucination. The only names I remember off the top of my head are Ace and Riley.”

I sighed, parting my fingers to stare up at the ceiling lamp and its fan. So I’d gone delirious?

“Who are they?” she ventured. “Friends of yours?”

It felt like someone was crushing my chest and I bit back tears.

“You mean ‘who were they’,” I said, trying to keep my voice void of any emotion. “They’re dead.”

“Oh…” I heard her shift in her seat. “I’m sorry…”

I shrugged. What else was there to say, really?

“I made soup,” she said. “I’ll get you some.”

She rose from her seat, visibly trembling. That’s when I realised she’d completely avoided my gaze. Good, she’d taken the hint.

Yet why did it bother me?

I clutched the blanket in my fist as my appetite retreated back inside me like a frightened rat.

She shuffled back into the room, clutching a steaming soup mug and a small plate topped with what looked like crusty home-made bread. She set it down on the table then returned to her armchair. I looked past the mug towards her, trying to catch her eye. But she absently grabbed her book and opened it again.

“If you’re scared, why didn’t you just turf me back outside?” I asked.

“Because I’m not a monster.”

I grit my teeth together and pushed myself up to lean against the arm of the chair. She closed her book and looked up at me, briefly meeting my eyes before nodding at the steaming soup.

“You’ll want to eat that before it goes cold,” she said. “You brought everything up earlier, so you’re probably hungry.”

My jaw went slack and I brushed my mane back. “I don’t remember that…”

“No. I didn’t think you would.”

Then I spotted the glass cabinet. Its door had gone, and its contents lay sprawled on the shelves. I looked back up at Mocha again, finally noticing the bandage around her upper right arm. She caught my stare and shook her head, turning back to her book.

“It’s nothing,” she said. “Just three stitches.”

“But I thought you dealt with ‘bumps and scrapes’,” I said.

“There are other medical professionals here. And I’d much rather it were just my arm than someone’s head going through a glass sheet.” She narrowed her eyes at me. “Please? Eat something? You’re thin enough as it is.”

I muttered to myself and discarded the blanket. “I don’t know why you’re still wanting to help me after I exploded at you.”

“Well, I’ll be honest. I’ve asked myself the same thing over and over since you passed out. But I kept arriving at the same conclusion.”

I paused to look back up at her as I dipped the bread in the soup. “Go on. Humor me.”

“Sonic and his friends often described the monster they’d had to fight. Every one of them described the same thing, so I never doubted their claims. But you don’t fit the bill.”

“But it was me!” I said.

“Was it?”

Her words stunned me and I stared at her aghast. She hugged her arms around herself and looked away, letting her book fall to the floor.

“Look,” she said. “I won’t deny it. I am scared. Terrified. I don’t know what to expect! But all I know is that you, despite what you claim to be, do not resemble what they described. At all.” She paused, watching as I took a mouthful. “It makes me wonder how much of it was just that ruby’s influence.”

I wanted to retort, but the hot soup burned my mouth. I gulped the cold coffee to cool it down, catching an amused look off the possum.

“You’re not the first person to say that,” I said as I reached for more bread. “But you’re wrong. I killed people before I got that ruby. I was a mercenary. I stole stuff and killed people for a profit.”

“And I was a literature teacher before I became a nanny.”

“What’s your point?”

“People change.” She scooped up her book and popped it back on the bookcase.

I shook my head and grabbed the mug in both hands, downing a few mouthfuls.

“Not gonna lie, this is good,” I said.

“Well, they say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.”

Her words caught me off guard and I choked. I dropped the mug back onto the table and wiped my glove across my snout.

“And slow down,” she said. “You’ll make yourself sick again.”

“You think I’ll kill you if you don’t feed me?”

“I was just trying to lighten the mood.” She huddled into herself again and glanced towards the door. “When you’re finished it might not be a bad idea to get a good rest.”

I idly wiped what was left of the bread around the mug and popped it in my mouth. I certainly felt a lot better. Not tired enough to go back to sleep. Not really wanting to after that nightmare, either. My eyes wandered to the broken mask on the table and my mind drifted back to Shadow. And that little bunny…

“How’s the rabbit?” I wasn’t even sure why I was asking, but part of me felt the need to.

“Cream?” Mocha sighed deeply and trailed her fingers through her hair. “I’ve not seen her since she left. But it’s too late to check on her now.”

I licked the remains of soup from my lips and sank back into the chair. I could feel her eyes on me, searching me. So I fixed my yellow eye back on her.

“So you’re asking me about Cream,” she said slowly, “yet trying to convince me you’re a monster?”

I flashed a canine, but she lifted a hand to silence me before I could even begin.

“Infinite, answer me something,” she said. “How would you feel right now if you had me at your mercy?”

I pulled my lips back, searching her with my eyes as I tried to work out what on earth she was getting at. But she wasn’t done.

“Begging for my life, desperate to escape,” she said. “Or maybe not me. How about one of those soldiers? Still armed with their weapon, aimed at you? What would you do?”

My heart quickened and I felt my tail bristle. I warred with the urge to leave my seat as my pupils turned to pinpricks.

“Sonic, Silver, Shadow…” she said. “They all said you enjoyed watching others cower and suffer. You relished in it. You even mocked them.”

“Stop!”

I hid my face in my hands, trying to calm my rapid breathing as panicked faces filled my mind. I could still hear my own voice. Teasing. Mocking. Tears pricked my eyes and I tried to force them back. Right back, along with those vivid memories.

“Just stop,” I whispered.

She took a steadying breath. “I guess you’ve proved my point.”

My own breath trembled and I really wished I still had my mask to hide my wretched face. Whether or not those memories unsettled me, it didn’t change anything. I’d still done it. I was still a monster.

The sofa sank down beside me and I glanced to my left. Mocha sat beside me, still hugging her arms around herself.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I needed to ask. Part of me was… scared I might be wrong.”

“Really?” I grunted. “And what if I’d said I wanted to? That I wanted to watch you suffer?” I lowered my hands slightly to look at her. “What would you have done then?”

“It was a risk I was willing to take.”

I snorted and tossed the blanket aside. “I need to be alone.”

“Okay. I’ll walk you back.”

She reached out to place a hand on my shoulder, but I ducked aside and rose to my feet.

“There’s no need,” I said. “I know where I’m going, and I don’t want anyone near me.”

“Well, I’ve been told you can’t be unsupervised,” she said. “It’s either me, or Shadow.”

I balled my hands into fists as I stared out of the door’s little window. “Fine.”

“Here.” She held out the two halves of my mask. “If you need to repair it, Tails might have a welding gun.”

I took them, letting them hang at my side. I wasn’t sure how the fox would feel about me asking to use his tools. Or repair his enemy’s mask.

She moved past me and opened the door, letting me out ahead of her. The air was crisp, with a salty breeze flying over from the ocean. It certainly didn’t feel like mid summer. Mocha kept pace at my side as she led me back through the town towards the castle. The walls were still alive with soldiers, their eyes glinting in the moonlight as they surveyed the town and its surroundings.

“I’m glad you’re looking better,” she said.

I said nothing, keeping my eyes on the castle doors. I wasn’t aware of picking up my pace, but she trotted to stay beside me. She brushed a few strands of hair back from her mouth and stopped, letting me move on ahead.

“Please listen to me,” she said.

I froze, but I didn’t look back.

“You need to understand,” she said. “I didn’t say what I did to hurt you.”

“You didn’t hurt me,” I said. “I wouldn’t let you.”

I continued on towards the door, expecting to now be alone. But she trotted to catch up with me. Before we reached it, the doors opened, and Omega peered around it. He pointed his gun between us.

“What time do you call this?” he asked.

A sneer twisted my lips but it was Mocha who replied.

“I’m sorry, Omega. He fainted.”

“A likely story,” said the robot.

“I wasn’t given a curfew,” I half-growled.

“Then that is Sonic’s oversight,” said Omega. “You were meant to be back by no later than supper time. That is seven o clock.” He lowered his gun and stood aside. “Do not do it again, or I will not be nice about it.”

I caught Mocha’s eye and she stood back, biting her lower lip. Well, it wasn’t her fault. I turned and marched into the castle.

“Infinite?”

I froze at her voice and swished my tail to the side.

“I don’t recommend having fried food for breakfast,” she said. “At least not yet. So…”

I turned my head to look back at her, prompting her to continue.

She took a deep breath and forced herself to meet my eyes. “I can make porridge?”

I let out a sigh and waved a hand as I turned towards the stairs. “We’ll see. I’m not promising anything.”

Omega closed the door behind me, plunging the castle hallway into darkness. I had to grope for the banister to guide me up towards the second floor. When I found my room, I flicked on the light and it flooded out into the hallway. But not for long. I slammed the door behind me and tossed my mask onto the little dressing unit. My reflection leered back at me from the mirror and I tugged off my gloves, sneering at my unsightly face.

‘I like your eyes.’

Cream’s voice echoed in my mind, and I stared back at my surprised reflection. But then Shadow’s voice crept in, shooing the rabbit from my mind.

‘Don’t let me ever see your pathetic face again!’

My canines flashed and I brought my fist up to the mirror, shattering the glass and my reflection with it.

...​

Sleep didn’t come easily. I just didn’t feel tired at all. Probably because I’d slept most of the previous day. I lay staring at the ceiling, eventually giving in and flicking on the bedside light. My mind reeled over the recent events, up and down like a yo-yo of bitterness. When light finally seeped through the blinds I dragged myself up, resigning myself to yet another day of tiredness. Not a single sound came from the other rooms, and I searched the wall for its digital clock. Not quite six in the morning. After two years in the desert, I’d become used to getting up at sunrise. But obviously no one else was prepared to do so.

Oh well. I wanted a long shower anyway. I glanced down at my tail. The white tip was still congealed with dried blood, although it didn’t hurt at all. Mocha had decided against giving it a fresh bandage. I’d just guessed it wasn’t a bad wound.

But when that floral water cascaded down on me, every part of my body that had received a recent injury stung like crazy. I grit my teeth and stood there until the pain finally stopped. I found myself thinking back over the previous day again. That silly rabbit and her possum friend had triggered something in my mind, and I wasn’t sure I liked it. It scared me. Yet for some reason, I wanted to do something about it. I sank down against the wall and shook my head, sending my soggy mane over my eyes. Cream had cried. She’d cried and I hated it. Isn’t that what I’d wanted? For her to leave me alone, to see sense and flee? There was a time I would have just laughed at her tears, but that time I hadn’t.

‘If we crossed each other in the street, and you fell down, I would help you back up because that’s what good people do.’

You wretch! That’s how you die! You show weakness, then the monster strikes!

I bared my canines, leering at the water as it spiralled away into the drain. Chaotix… That word had been popping into my head most of the night, and there it was again. Oh yes. They were the people helping her find her mother. Something that was my fault… And they were cleaning up the mess. Why? Did they have something to gain?

I wasn’t aware of how much time passed. It wasn’t until I heard someone’s driers switch on in the next room I realised the rest of the citadel was finally waking up. I finished removing the grime from my coat and switched on my own driers. Then, after I was good and dry, I decided to seek out a brush. The dresser seemed like a good place to look and I rifled through the sparse drawers. Thankfully the shattered mirror meant I couldn’t see how ridiculously fluffy the driers made me look.

Oh good. The room did actually come with its own brush. Unused, by the looks of it. I decided to check over my tail as I groomed it out, confirming those bullets only skimmed it. Good. I actually liked my tail. Once I was done, I tossed the brush onto the dresser and stared longingly at my mask. Well, it was no use as it was. I’d have to just grin and bear it.

I spotted my jacket hanging on the back of the door. It had been chilly overnight. And it would hide the parts of my ruff I couldn’t smooth out. I tugged it on and strolled out into the hallway, still somewhat dark as the sunlight hadn’t quite reached it yet. But I could hear voices coming from the hallway. The door to the meeting room was open, letting out the smell of a fried breakfast. It reminded me I was actually hungry. Maybe it wouldn’t actually make me sick this time? A wave of apprehension washed over me and I tugged up my collar to hide as much of my face as it would allow. When I entered the room I froze. Shadow sat at the table with Sonic and Amy, his expression of disgust contrasting with their surprise. His eyes widened slightly when they met mine and I lifted my right paw to shield my face.

“So I see you’ve decided to go without the mask, then?” Sonic asked.

I glared at Shadow, my shoulders tensing. “It wasn’t a choice.”

The black hedgehog tutted and turned back to his coffee.

“Well, I think you look better without it,” said Amy, rather cheerfully. “Less intimidating.”

I swished my tail, remaining in the doorway as I checked out the rest of the room. They were the only three that were up, with no one keeping an eye on the grill. Amy shook herself when my eye fell on it and leapt up to check everything was okay.

“With the time Omega said you got in last night,” said Sonic, “I wasn’t expecting you to be up. Are you joining us?”

I looked back at Shadow again and seethed. “No. I have other plans.”

“Really?” Sonic’s eyes widened. “Wow, I thought Omega had been joking when he said Mocha-”

“Who are the Chaotix?” I wasn’t even entirely sure why I was asking. I just really didn’t want him to finish that sentence.

“They’re detectives,” said Amy. “Why? Are you joining them for breakfast or something?”

“I might.”

“I don’t know…” Sonic scratched his quills and inclined his head on one side. “I’m a bit concerned after the way you were yesterday. I’d rather you weren’t left to your own devices.”

Shadow snorted and lowered his coffee. “Finally coming to your senses, Sonic?”

“Oh, I’m perfectly sane.” Sonic turned back to me. “If Mocha hadn’t told us where you were and why, we were going to have an army looking for you. And he,” he jabbed a thumb towards Shadow, “lurked outside her house all day.”

I practically bristled, glaring at the two hedgehogs. Amy looked between the three of us, her green eyes widening.

“The Chaotix are pretty strong fighters,” she said. “If you’re wanting him supervised, then-”

Sonic looked back at her. “I don’t know, Amy. They’re pretty busy.” He turned back to me and forced a smile to mask his concern. “What do you want with them?”

There was a lot of emphasis on that ‘you’. As though it tasted disgusting. I stared between them, still hiding behind my hand. What was I meant to say? I don’t even know why I asked in the first place!

It was that rabbit. She’d got to my head.

I reluctantly let my hand fall to my side as I diverted my gaze to the wall, and clenched it into a fist. “I just… I want to know… if I can…”

What did I even want to say? Why were words so hard?

Shadow deposited his mug to the table and rose to his feet. “I’ll take you to them.”

“You?!” I locked him in a glare, but he didn’t even flinch.

“Yes, me,” said Shadow. “If you don’t like it, you can go back to your room and hide like the coward you are.”

Sonic looked up at him with a start. “Shadow…”

My eyes widened, turning livid. The room had fallen silent and Sonic slipped from his own stool, keeping a watchful eye on the pair of us. But I didn’t care about him. All my attention remained on the black hedgehog. A coward? He was calling me a coward?!

‘So pathetic. Only the weak cower in fear.’

I screwed my eyes shut, trying to block out that monster’s pointed face. “Fine…”

Shadow moved from the table, catching a nod from Sonic. I backed from the room before he could reach me, and he slammed the door behind him. He didn’t even look at me as he marched out into the town.

“Stay close,” he said. “And don’t you dare wander off. You put a foot wrong and I’ll snap your pathetic neck.”

That was it.

I halted, glaring at the back of his head. My hand curled around where I expected my sword to be. An instinct. I knew I didn’t have it. He came to a stop and looked back at me over his shoulder, his expression unreadable.

“I’m unarmed.” I waved an arm to the fully manned ramparts. “What exactly do you expect me to do?!”

He stared at me for a moment, then turned and continued on. “They’re this way.”

No. He was going to freaking well answer me. I marched after him, catching up to his back. But he twisted on the spot and fastened his fingers around the ruby embedded in my chest. It jerked my ribs as he tugged me towards him, and I let out a squeak of a gasp. I stared down at his hand clasped tightly around it.

“I warned you.” His words drew my attention back to his eyes. Still unreadable. “Sonic and I do things very differently, and unlike him I won’t hesitate to end your miserable life.”

He shoved me away from him and I fell back, absently rubbing my chest. My voice came out as an embarrassing wheeze. “Then why don’t you?”

“I want to know what you want with the Chaotix,” he said. “And since you got here you’ve not proven yourself to be a threat. Yet.” He turned to lead me after him again. “Now. It’s this way.”

The path led away from the castle towards the far end of the town. A little building stood aside from the other houses. It closely resembled a shack, and nailed above the door was a wonky sign that read ‘Chaotix Detective Agency’. I frowned up at it in bewilderment. It looked like it would fall down should I even sneeze on it.

Shadow knocked on the door and one of the nails came free from the sign, causing it to fall slightly more to the right. Well, at least it was now straighter.

“Charmy, would you get that?!” came a gruff voice from the other side.

“I’m having breakfast!”

“Nonsense! You’re on that silly game!” A sigh. “Espio, will you get it?!”

“I’m a little busy right now, Vector.”

“Well so am I!”

“Oh forget it!” came Charmy’s squeaky voice. “I’ll get it!”

The door opened, revealing the confused face of a bee. He looked between us, his eyes widening slowly.

“Shadow?” he asked. “What do you want?”

“Who is it?!” the gruff voice bellowed.

“It’s Shadow!” Charmy called over his shoulder.

“What does he want at this hour?!”

Charmy turned back to us, but before he could recite the offered question, Shadow pointed straight at the side of my head.

“He wants to see you. Not me,” he said.

I rubbed the bridge of my muzzle, filing this entire encounter under ‘biggest possible mistakes ever’.

Charmy’s tiny nose crinkled as he stared down at me. “I don’t think I recognise you.”

“You wouldn’t without the mask.” Shadow shoved me forward into the shack’s narrow hallway. “Don’t hesitate to sting him if he gets up to no good. I’ll be right outside. Listening.”

The door slammed shut, narrowly skimming my tail. I leapt further into the house to avoid it, startling the bee in the process. Once the walls had stopped trembling, taking with it any worries the building would fall down on my head, I finally looked up at Charmy.

“Hmm,” he said. “It’s been a long time since I’ve stung someone.”

“Don’t take him so seriously,” I said, flashing my teeth. “I’m not here to cause trouble.”

“Oh. Okay then. This way!” He buzzed off into a room at the end of the hallway.

The room was as bedraggled as the building’s exterior. Devoid of wallpaper, unless the spattering of posters counted as such. One worn sofa sat in the middle beside a large plank of wood propped up on four breeze blocks. It was clearly meant to serve as a coffee table, given the dirty plates and soiled magazines strewn across it. A chameleon sat back on the sofa with a book on his lap, using what little space was left on the table as a foot rest.

“We’re not open yet.”

The voice came from my right and I had to turn my head to fully see yet another desk. An old one, battered at one side, with a crocodile sat behind it. He sipped his tea, not looking up at me.

“You need something,” he went on, “you can either wait in the hallway, or come back in an hour.”

“Shadow almost threw him into our office,” said Charmy. “It might be urgent.”

“Don’t care.”

The chameleon looked up from his book to say something. His eyes widened slowly as they trailed down to my chest. The book found itself tossed onto the table in favor of a throwing star he seemingly pulled from thin air.

“Vector, you might want to actually look at our guest,” he said. “I’m surprised this went over your head, Charmy.”

The bee stared down at me as I began to edge back towards the hallway. A look of realization crossed his face and he buzzed backwards towards the window.

Vector finally looked up and sighed, running his hands over his long snout.

“A jackal, eh?” He snapped his eyes onto me, his mouth turning into a frown. “All right. State your case and be off. And leave your contact details. This is too much hassle for seven-thirty in the morning!”

“Vector?” Espio waved his star in my direction. “Don’t you recognize him?”

The crocodile narrowed his eyes as he scratched the top of his head. “Nope. Isn’t ringing any bells.”

I instinctively covered my right eye and sighed, reversing into the hallway. “I didn’t come here to bother you. I’ll go. This was a stupid idea anyway.”

I turned tail and made for the door.

“Bye Infinite!” Charmy yelled all too keenly, making my spine bristle.

“Yo, hang on a sec, what?!” Vector’s chair clattered to the floor. “No, you’ll get back here! Right now!”

I grimaced and leered back at him over my shoulder. “I thought it was too much hassle for seven-thirty in the morning?”

Vector met my leer with a snarl. “You’ll tell me what you’re doin’ in my office.”

“’Our’ office,” Espio corrected.

I looked between the trio. The crocodile’s large jaws, Espio’s poised throwing star, Charmy’s stinger at the ready. I shook my head and stuffed my hands into my jacket’s pockets.

“I’m wondering that myself,” I said, turning back to the door.

“Hands where I can see ‘em, jackal,” said Vector.

I reluctantly complied, letting them fall limp at my sides.

“Shadow wouldn’t have shoved you into my office without good reason,” Vector went on, ignoring Espio’s added correction. “Now what do you want?”

I turned to face them fully, searching my mind for whatever reason prompted me to come up with such a ridiculous idea. But the only thing I could think of sounded so dumb. I grimaced as the words left my mouth.

“I spoke to Cream.”

“What?” Vector’s eyes flew wide open and he almost lost his headphones. “The little rabbit?”

I nodded stiffly and looked away from them.

“What’s she got to do with this?” Espio asked. “And why would she talk to you? You’re the reason she’s orphaned.”

“I’m aware of that,” I said.

“So what, guilt drove you here?” Vector spat.

I visibly cringed and took a step back towards the hallway.

“You here to turn yourself in?” he went on. “Well we ain’t cops. So don’t go botherin’ us.”

“Hang on, Vector.” Espio silenced the crocodile with a wave. “Don’t go jumping to conclusions.” He narrowed his eyes at me and lowered his throwing star, but he didn’t relinquish it. “I’m curious.”

I realised I was hiding behind my hand again and I forced myself to lower it. Good grief, I was pathetic. I closed my eyes and let out a sigh.

“I don’t know why she spoke to me either,” I said. “But she did. For some reason, she wanted to help me after I… I don’t know.” I stifled a growl and looked back up at the detectives. “I want to help her find her mother.”

A loud ‘What?!’ exploded around the office. Four voices. Espio dropped his throwing star and it embedded itself in the floorboards.

Vector regathered himself and waved me off. “Forget it. We’re about to give her up for dead.”

My lips twisted into a sneer but my heart leapt into my throat. “What?”

“It’s been years.” Vector returned to his seat and picked up what was left of his breakfast sandwich. “We can’t find her. No sign of her at all, and we’d have thought she’d have contacted us by now.”

“Yeah, it’s not like we’re off the grid,” said Charmy.

“But an extra pair of eyes wouldn’t help.” Espio stooped to tug his throwing star from the floor then palmed it, leaving no trace of the deadly weapon. “I can tell by your face you didn’t like that news.”

Vector swallowed his mouthful and smirked at me. “Cream got to you, huh?”

I grimaced and looked away from him.

“Yeah, I’m not surprised,” said Vector. “She’s a sweet kid.”

“Can I help you or not?” I asked quietly.

The room fell silent again as the Chaotix exchanged glances. Save for the loud slurping from Charmy as he finished what was left in an over-sized milkshake carton. Where on earth had he pulled that from? I hadn’t seen one in the room. Although it was such a dump it was hard to tell.

“Tell me, Infinite.” Vector leant over his desk towards me. “What do you expect to get from this?”

I stuffed my hands back into my pockets and shrugged. “I haven’t figured that out yet.”

“Well, if it’s money you want,” said Vector, “we ain’t got none.”

“Yup, we’re living rent free!” Charmy punctuated his statement with another noisy slurp.

“I don’t expect you to pay me,” I said. “Look, if it’s too much bother then forget I even said anything.”

“No, no.” Vector’s words froze me mid-spin. “You know more about what happened in Station Square than any of us. You might actually sway this investigation in our favor.”

My pulse quickened as I desperately fought back those destructive memories. Espio and Vector seemed to have read it in my face, as they exchanged worried glances. I tugged my collar up and tried to avoid their eyes.

The crocodile sat back in his seat and spread his paws. “When you’re ready to talk, that is.”

I said nothing, gazing back towards the worn front door.

“Why don’t you go for a walk and think it over,” said Vector. “If you’re back here before ten-thirty, then you can help us find Vanilla.”

“Vanilla?” I scoffed.

Espio’s brow furrowed. “Problem?”

I rolled my eyes and turned tail. “What happened with you opening in an hour?”

“An hour, three hours.” Vector shrugged. “We open and close when we feel like it. It’s not as if we’re snowed under with cases. Besides, we’ve got a lot to discuss right now. Go grab a bite to eat or something.”

I nodded stiffly and marched back down the hallway. Cool air washed over me and my snout found itself almost buried in Shadow’s chest. He frowned down at me, arms crossed.

“What are you playing at?” he asked.

I stared back up at him, words failing me. My mind was still reeling with the discussion I’d just had with the Chaotix, already trying to answer his question before he’d even asked it.

“So you want to help find a bunny’s missing mother?” He shook his head. “I’m not sure I quite comprehend.”

I sidestepped him, which he surprisingly allowed.

Glancing back at him as much as my right side would allow, I said, “Neither do I.”
 

DeliriousAbsol

Call me Del
Chapter Four​

It wasn’t a long walk back to the castle, but it felt like an eternity as my mind replayed my conversation with the Chaotix over and over at sonic speed. It was dizzying and I tugged at my ear to try and make it stop. It finally paused when something caught my eye beside a tree. It marked the entrance to the orchard, and Cream skipped into it with Cheese in tow.

Shadow stopped and looked back at me, frowning as he followed my gaze to the vanishing rabbit. He was clearly thinking the same thing I was. What was I doing? Why was this suddenly so important to me? I needed to know myself. Whatever it was, it was hidden behind a huge, towering mental wall and I needed to find a way to tear it down.

A gnawing sensation spread through my stomach and I became increasingly aware I’d barely eaten anything. I briefly considered heading to the castle’s meeting room to see if there was anything I could scavenge when I recalled Mocha’s offer. Hunger overrode my reluctance and I sought out the path to her house.

Shadow appeared before me in a flash of light and scowled. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“I was gonna take Mocha up on her offer for breakfast,” I replied, forcing myself to meet his crimson eyes.

“I think you’ll find Amy will make plenty…”

I shifted uncomfortably as I tried to decide whether or not I actually wanted to risk a fried breakfast after the previous day. Finally I looked back up at him and matched his frown.

“I’ve been advised to stay off fried food for the time being,” I said. “And I really don’t want another day of crippling nausea.”

“I don’t trust you,” he said. “How do I know last night wasn’t a fluke and you won’t hurt her?

I wanted to ask him what reason he had to believe that, but I knew full well he had plenty. I cringed and clasped my fists in my pockets.

“My word won’t be enough, will it?” I asked.

“No.”

A heavy silence washed over us, and he just stood there, staring me down. Making me feel oddly small. I hated it. I tried to avoid snarling at him and masked any subconscious attempts with a sigh.

“Look,” I said. “Come with me if you want. Lurk outside. Hide behind the sofa. Stand with a glass to the door. Whatever it is you do.”

Another awkward silence. I was about to give up and turn to the castle when Shadow’s voice froze me.

“Fine. Go. But I’ll be watching.”

I gave him a quick glance to check he wasn’t bluffing, then moved past him to join the little road through the town. He kept close to my tail providing an imposing presence that caused me to shrink into myself. When I spotted Mocha’s house, nausea twisted my insides and I silently cursed under my breath.

The possum stood outside between her vibrant flower beds, surrounded by little birds. A chain of daisies adorned her neck in a childish manner, wilting slightly in the sun. She tossed seed onto the floor which the birds pecked up with relish. Many flocked in the branches and bedding shrubs, preening and twittering to themselves, or bathing in a large raised basin. The jovial smile on her face vanished when she saw me and she straightened up, dusting her hands to remove any lingering seed.

“Oh,” she said. “I wasn’t sure you were going to show up.”

She cast a glance to Shadow, a silent message passing between them. When she nodded, he vanished in that eerie way that sent a chill down my spine.

“What are you doing?” I scoffed, looking down at the colourful birds.

“Feeding them,” she said.

“Why?”

Her blue eyes widened with surprise and her jaw fell open slightly. “Because they need it?”

I shrugged my shoulders, not taking my hands from my pockets. “Can’t they find their own breakfast? I mean, they’re wild.”

“It’s the middle of the dry season,” she said. “Food and water is hard to come by. You should know that.”

“I survived.”

She eyed me for a moment, twirling a lock of hair in one finger. If she wanted to say something about my struggles, she skirted past it. “It’s a nice thing to do for them, and it helps me feel peaceful.”

“Peaceful,” I spat.

She stepped towards me, startling some of the birds back into the air. Her bag of seed found itself in my hands and I stared between it and her.

“Try it,” she said. “I’ll be inside. Join me when you’re ready.”

I watched her retreat into her house then looked down at the open bag in my hands. How on earth did I land myself in this situation? I marched after her, barging through the colourful birds. They leapt aside, save for a few that hopped along the floor after me. I leered down at them, but they just stared up at me with curious, pleading, beady eyes. No fear. No judgment.

With a sigh, I reached into the bag and dropped a handful of seeds onto the floor. They hopped into it, chirruping and squabbling with their kin. Sticking close to me where the seed had fallen. Trusting. Easy to hunt. If predators learned this skill, those little birds would be wiped off the face of the earth in a hurricane of teeth and claws. I shook my head and strolled through Mocha’s door, dropping the bag onto the coffee table.

The oaty smell of porridge filled the house, growing stronger as I moved through the open kitchen door. The table was already set, marking what place she wanted me. I flopped into it and let my arm fall onto the table mat.

“You know you’re taming them?” I said.

“Hmm?” She looked up from the steaming saucepan.

“The birds,” I said.

“They know what their dangers are.” She ladled porridge into a bowl and set it before me. “You have a choice of toppings. Take your pick.”

I looked over at a display of various sweet and sticky condiments and reached for the one marked ‘honey’. The jar was sticky, almost out of place in Mocha’s tidy home, and I silently berated myself for not having the good sense to remove my gloves. As I spooned it over the hot porridge, Mocha sat down opposite me with her own bowl.

“You were waiting for me?” I asked with some surprise.

“Not especially,” she said. “I’ve not been awake all that long, and I don’t like to eat straight away.”

Part of me felt she was lying.

“The children came round while I was cooking,” she said. “I sorted them out, then I did my morning gardening. I was planning to eat now whether you showed or not.”

I leant on my left hand, idly stirring the honey into my porridge. I bit back the urge to tell her I wasn’t actually planning on joining her at all. Her hospitality still felt alien and unsettled me greatly.

“Not hungry?” she asked.

I glanced up at her, pausing in my mindless stirring. There was no coldness in her eyes, but I couldn’t shake the feeling she didn’t really want me there. That I was simply nothing more than a bird in her garden waiting for its breakfast. I silently spooned porridge into my mouth, it was good. Then I tucked in with all the relish of a half-starved stray.

She chuckled and shook her head. “I guess you are.”

We continued on in silence, me trying to ignore her probing eyes as she looked for something to say. I had nothing to say, and honestly the silence was less unsettling than idle chatter.

“Are you doing anything after?” she asked, shattering the silence like glass.

“No,” I lied.

“Okay then.” She twirled her hair and sat back in her seat. “Well… I could show you around the town? I’m guessing you’ve not seen much of it yet.”

I looked up from my breakfast, briefly meeting her eyes. Was she serious? Show me around? My eyes flashed and I bit back the urge to snap. To test her. But the false rant rolled through my mind. ‘Go on! Show me the gates! The walls! Tell me which soldiers are the weakest! Their weak points! Show me everything I shouldn’t know!’

I lowered my spoon and let out a sigh. I tugged at my mane, trying desperately to calm myself.

“I am actually busy,” I said.

“Really?” A look of surprise crossed her face. “Doing what?”

I trailed my fingers through my fur and pushed myself back up into my seat. I’d been hoping to avoid the subject given I’d finally managed to lock it away for a short while in the back of my mind.

“Working for the Chaotix.” I actually couldn’t think of any way to cover it up. I jabbed my spoon back into the bowl and scooped a heaping pile into my mouth.

“Oh! Did Sonic set you up with them?”

“Not exactly.” I lowered my spoon again, losing my appetite. “Look, I don’t really wanna talk about it.”

She raised her hands and slid from her chair, gathering up her bowl. “Then I won’t pry.”

She turned to the sink to wash her bowl and I forced myself to finish my breakfast. I had no idea if I’d be having lunch, and I didn’t really want to see the state of the detectives’ kitchen.

“What time do you have to be there?” she asked.

I checked the time above the kitchen door. It was drawing closer to eight-thirty.

“Soon,” I said.

“That’s vague.”

I rose from my seat and carried my bowl over to the sink. She looked up at me and I held it out for her to take it. A small silence passed between us as she searched my face, making me feel very exposed. I wracked my mind for something to say. Anything. Just so I could leave.

“Do the birds ever thank you?” I asked.

“In their own little way,” she answered.

I nodded curtly and turned from the room, making my way back into her garden. The birds fluttered up into the trees as I marched down the path, keeping an eye open for Shadow. There was no sign of the hedgehog, but I’d be surprised if he’d gone far.

I noticed the orchard on my left and paused, ears swiveling towards it. Without thinking, I followed the path through a willow archway, decked out with trailing honeysuckle. Fruit trees and raspberry bushes spread out before me, as neatly manicured as the grass. The cobbled pathway looked like it had been scrubbed clean regularly, and kept free of any weeds. Cream sat beneath an apple tree with Cheese, the pair of them picking daisies and stringing them together. They looked peaceful, laughing together. A huge contrast to how they were when they left Mocha’s the previous day.

The rabbit looked up as I approached and her brown eyes sparkled. It set me back a step. Not the reaction I’d been expecting.

“Good morning!” she said. “You’re looking a lot better.”

“Chao!”

I shrugged and said nothing, letting my eyes wander over the fruit trees and wildflowers.

“This is Freedom Citadel’s orchard,” Cream explained. “I help out here sometimes.”

“It’s big.” I honestly couldn’t think of anything else to say.

“Yup! It has to feed the whole town after all.” She paused and reached for another daisy. “If you’d like, you can help me pick some strawberries? I’m making tarts with Nanny later.”

I stared down at her, tucking my hands into my pockets. “I’m busy.”

“Oh really?” A sadness crossed her eyes, reminding me of those tears I’d seen. “Well… maybe you can join us later then?”

I flinched and glanced away from her. “You actually want me around after what I said to you?”

“We all say things we don’t mean.”

I let out a sigh and closed my eyes. “You’re a forgiving kid.”

Before I could finish my statement by calling her foolish, I felt a tug on my arm. My eyes snapped back open, fixing on the yellow rabbit. She beamed up at me, clutching a chain of daisies in her free hand.

“Bend down, please,” she said.

A confused sneer twisted my muzzle. “Eh?”

She waved her hand, urging me to crouch down. I begrudgingly complied. She leant in, stretching out the daisy chain between herself and Cheese. Before I could fully comprehend what was happening, the chao flew over my head. The daisy chain flopped around my ears and landed around my neck. I stared down at it, aghast, lifting it up between a thumb and finger.

“There!” she said, beaming. “Now you’re officially one of my friends.”

I fixed her with my yellow eye, my jaw hanging open as I tried to find the right words. But she’d stunned me into silence.

She stood there with her hands tucked behind her back, eyes closed in a beaming smile. The chao matching her perfectly.

“Please say you’ll join us for tarts later?” she asked.

I pushed myself back to my feet and brushed back my mane. “Maybe. I’m not promising anything.”

“A ‘maybe’ is fine,” she said.

I shook my head and moved from the orchard, Cream and Cheese waving after me. That mental barrier was still there, impassable. Why did I want to help her? She was just a kid. A naive little kid. My fingers went to the chain of tiny flowers, their white petals almost blending into my ruff. Exactly like the one Mocha had been wearing. As I left the willow archway, Shadow stood beside it, leaning back against a tree.

He eyed me and scoffed. “So you got Creamed with a daisy chain?”

I stared down at it, still unsure what exactly it meant. One of her friends… why? Why me?

“She gives them to everyone.” Shadow kicked himself back from the tree and marched past me. “Don’t read too much into it.”

...​

I lurked outside the Chaotix’s office, keeping my eye on the castle clock until ten-thirty finally rolled around. I wasn’t entirely sure whether or not to knock or just go straight in. So I knocked twice and strolled through the door.

Vector looked up from his desk and raised an eyebrow. “Came back, then?”

I said nothing as I stood in the doorway to the office. I glanced around the room, now in more a state of disarray than it had been earlier. Charmy stood half-buried in a closet, the only visible part of him his stinger.

“Where is it?” he squeaked.

“You can hang your coat up if you like?” said Vector.

“No,” I said.

“Suit yourself. It gets pretty hot in here.”

The draft coming through the window told me the opposite was probably more true.

Espio wandered from the kitchen, clutching two steaming cups of tea. One found its way into my hand and I glared back at the chameleon. He met my glare with a stoic expression.

“So let me ask,” he said. “Given none of us are entirely sure we heard you right. You want to help us find Vanilla?”

I nodded stiffly. I still wasn’t sure why. All I knew was, for some reason, it was important to me.

The chameleon waved towards the sofa and I took his offer and sat down against the right arm. I set my cup down on a coaster, which I was rather surprised to see amid the paperwork and tea-stained comics.

“Well, if you really want to help,” said Vector as he rose from his desk, “you might actually be able to fill in some blanks.”

A thin folder flopped onto the table and I eyed it curiously. Blue, with the words ‘Missing Vanilla Case-File’ scrawled on the front in black ink. I cautiously picked it up as though it might explode or throw accusations at me and opened it to the first page. The face of a yellow rabbit that looked like a much older Cream stared back at me, smiling.

“Recognize her?” Vector asked.

“Of course I don’t,” I spat.

“Then you didn’t confront her personally then.”

I glared up at the crocodile, meeting his fierce eyes. Then I let out a sigh and dropped the file back to the table. Of course he had reason to think that.

“Look-” I was cut off by a loud clatter.

Charmy zipped back from the closet with a squeal as an avalanche of boxes and appliances fell from the haphazard shelves. I leapt from my seat and lifted my hands, matching the looks of surprise on the other two detectives. The chaos finally came to an end as the closet’s contents reached the side of the sofa. A small whisk bounded down the slope to land at my feet.

“Charmy!” Vector barked. “Leave it! You can look for the TV remote later!”

I narrowed my eyes and looked up at the crocodile. “Are you guys really detectives?”

Vector puffed out his chest. “Some of the best!”

That was tooting his own horn if ever I’d heard it. I slumped back into the sofa and pinched the bridge of my muzzle.

“Look,” I said, “let’s just get this over with.”

Vector snorted, but before he could speak, Espio interrupted him.

“It could take a while,” said the chameleon. “We’ve been looking for Vanilla for almost two years now. She’s one of twelve that went missing from Station Square during the attack. All of them have been given up, presumed dead. But… we’re reluctant to believe that, given there’s no solid evidence to support either scenario.”

“That’s why we’re hopin’ you could fill in the blanks,” said Vector. “If anyone knows what went down in Station Square, it’s gotta be you.”

I retrieved the file again and flicked it open. Everything they’d told me was on the front page. Vanilla’s last known location - Station Square. Suspected to have been on the train, but no body had been found in the wreckage.

My eyes widened as the memory of a train careening from its tracks through the air filled my mind. Ploughing through the streets of Station Square. Crashing through buildings. Screams rising into the sky. A monster hovering over the chaos, relishing in it…

I covered my face with a hand and rose from the sofa. “I don’t think I can do this…”

No. I had to.

I lowered my hand and stared at the peeling wall. I could just see Vector out of the corner of my eye, staring at me with his head inclined.

Charmy hovered into my line of sight, staring at me curiously. “Are you okay? You look a little pale.”

“I’m fine,” I growled.

“All you need to do is tell us what happened,” said Vector. “I mean, we were there, sure. But we were too busy evacuatin’ people.”

“I don’t think it’s that easy, Vector,” said Espio.

I bristled at the chameleon’s words. I didn’t need his sympathy. I stared back down at the folder. At Vanilla’s smiling face. Why was I doing this? I brushed the daisy chain with my fingers and felt something twist inside my chest. I closed my eyes in a grimace and let the folder hang at my side.

“I might need some time to recall things,” I said.

“Take all the time you need!” said Vector. “Until tomorrow morning if you need it.”

I grunted a reply and moved towards the door. Then froze. I was still carrying that folder.

“Can I take it with me?” I lifted the folder but didn’t look back at them.

“Sure,” said Vector. “Everything we know so far is in there.”

I nodded and left the office, stepping out into cool air. Now what was I to do? I’d need to find somewhere to go over it. My room, maybe? The smell of baking filled the air and I tilted my head to sniff at it. One thing was for certain, it wasn’t coming from the Chaotix. It wasn’t quite lunch time, but it wouldn’t hurt to find a snack. Of course, I didn’t have anything to buy it with. I sighed and followed the path towards the north wall. I was hoping to see more of the town, but before I knew it I was on the little path back towards Mocha’s house.

I froze and clenched my teeth together. What was I doing? I glance down at the folder and shook my head. Was there any chance she’d even met Vanilla? That she’d have any idea what might have happened? The only other person I could think of to ask was Cream, but I wasn’t willing to put a child through that kind of torment.

The smell of baking reached my nose again, making my mouth water. I shook off my irritation and clasped the folder at my side, following the path towards Mocha’s little cottage. That lovely smell grew stronger and before I knew it, I was knocking at her door.

“I’ll get it!” Cream’s voice came from the open kitchen window.

I took an apprehensive step back and was about to turn to walk away when the door opened. Cream beamed up at me, her chocolate eyes sparkling.

“Mister Infinite!” she said. “You came to help us make tarts?”

Before I could answer, she grabbed my right hand and dragged me through the door. Tarts… of course. I’d completely forgotten. Mocha glanced around the kitchen door beating her floury hands down her apron. At that moment I began to wonder what on earth I’d accidentally got myself into.

“Oh!” she said. “I thought you were going to be busy all day.”

“So did I,” I muttered.

I placed the folder on the table, cover down so the title wasn’t showing. On the back was a rather crude drawing of a ninja star.

“If you want to help, we’ve only just started,” said Mocha.

I watched her vanish back around the door, then caught Cream’s happy smile. I let out a sigh and shrugged my shoulders. It wouldn’t hurt, would it? And it might help take my mind off things.

“All right,” I said as I entered the kitchen. “Where do you want me?”

“Can you measure flour?” Mocha asked.

“What, like with a ruler?”

Mocha stared over her shoulder and raised an eyebrow at me. Cream and Cheese, however, burst out laughing.

“With scales,” said Mocha, stifling a laugh. “Have you never cooked before?”

I didn’t answer, instead taking in the kitchen counter and table. Scattered about were various confusing items that begged to create much more difficulty than I deemed necessary. A plate of strawberries sat on the table, chopped neatly like an art form. A set of silver digital scales were perched on the kitchen counter beside a plate of butter and two bags of flour, and on the stove was a pan slowly steaming away. And that wasn’t even the start of it.

“We want to make about twenty-four small tarts,” said Mocha. “So if you could measure up five hundred and twenty grams of flour while I warm the butter-”

“Five hundred and twenty?” I gasped. “That’s more than is in one of those bags!”

“I know.”

I shook my head and decided to give it a shot. How hard could it be, really? Well… there wasn’t even that much in the first bag for starters. I discarded its empty carcass into the bin and reached for the other one.

“Chao! Chu-chao!” Cheese hovered down and took it from me, tearing it open.

“You know, I have got this,” I told the chao. “You don’t need to-”

“Chao!”

“I think he just wants to help.” Mocha returned with the plate of butter.

He fluttered his tiny wings, struggling to lift the bag of flour into the air. I watched with amusement as it rose inches off the counter.

“Be careful, Cheese,” said Cream. “It looks heavy.”

The paper began to tear around his paws and I reached out a hand. All eyes went to the chao and everything seemed to move in slow motion. The zip of tearing paper cut through the air, followed by a crash as the heavy bag landed back on the counter. The metal plate resting on the scales flipped into the air as the bag struck it, sending a white cloud into the air. Mocha yelped and stumbled back from the counter, while I wafted my face to dispel the dusty cloud.

When the flour began to settle, the kitchen looked like it had been on the receiving end of a blizzard.

“Oh, Cheese…” said Cream, coughing between breaths.

“Is everyone okay?” Mocha leant across the counter to open the window further.

“I think so,” said Cream.

“Chao…” Cheese fluttered down onto the counter, now more closely resembling a snowman than a chao.

My nose twitched and I twisted from the counter, letting out a sudden sneeze. Cream burst into laughter and I looked back at her, raising an eyebrow.

“You look like a ghost!” she choked out.

Mocha covered her mouth, trying to stifle a giggle and failing miserably.

I looked down at myself and spread my arms. Every black part of my body had been tinted grey with the flour, and huge patches adorned my black jacket. A chuckle left my throat, taking me by surprise, and I shook my head as I feebly beat myself down.

“Well, it’s a new look,” I said.

“It sure is,” said Mocha. “Why don’t we try again? And Cheese, you might want to help me with the butter instead.”

Round two went a lot smoother, and before long the tarts were in the fridge. We gathered around the kitchen table to give them time to cool and enjoy a summer fruit mocktail.

“So how did your meeting with the Chaotix go?” Mocha asked as she handed me a glass.

“It went fine,” I said.

“I thought you’d be there all day.”

Cream looked up from her drink with surprise. “You’re helping the Chaotix? What with?”

My mind reeled over her question and I choked. I wiped fruit juice from my nose and avoided her gaze.

“Just one of their cases,” I said.

The two girls stared at me for a moment while Cheese sipped his mocktail through a straw. Finally, Cream beamed and closed her eyes.

“Well, I bet it will be fun whatever it is!” she said. “It’s great you’re helping them, anyway!”

“Cha-chao!”

Mocha looked between us, her mouth turning into a frown. She silently sipped her drink and gazed from the window.

“So!” Cream turned back to her. “When do you think the tarts will be ready? I’m so excited to give them out!”

“Oh, at least two hours yet, Cream,” said Mocha.

“Do you think Mister Sonic and the rest of the resistance will like them?” Cream asked.

Resistance… My fur bristled down my back as that careening train crossed my mind once more and I tightened my grip around my glass.

“I’m sure they will,” said Mocha.

“I can’t wait to give them to them!” Cream turned back to me. “What about you?”

“I really don’t care,” I said.

Her eyes widened and she puffed out her cheeks, frowning at me. I backpedaled quickly and glanced away.

“I mean… well, it would be a lot sweeter if you gave them out,” I said. “Not me.”

“But you want to try one, too, right?” she asked.

I shrugged and let out a sigh, my eye wandering back to the coffee table. Or what I could see of it through the kitchen door, anyway. I took a swig of my drink and slipped from the chair.

“I should probably get back to work,” I said.

“You’re going back to the Chaotix?” Mocha asked.

“Somewhere quiet.”

I felt Mocha’s eyes on my back as I strolled into her living room, still clutching my glass. There was that folder, face down. Untouched.

“Cream, why don’t you go to the orchard and pick me some raspberries?” Mocha asked.

The little rabbit raced across the living room with a wicker basket in her hands, tailed by her chao friend. She gave me a cheery ‘bye!’ before vanishing from the house.

Mocha joined my side and her hand went for the blue folder. I tried to intersect but she snatched it up with alarming speed.

“It’s confidential!” I snapped.

“If it were confidential they wouldn’t have let you take it from their office.”

She flipped it over to read the title and gave me a sideways glance. Then she turned to me fully and trailed her eyes over my body. Her mouth opened and closed a few times as she tried to find something to say, but clearly had as much difficulty processing it as I did.

“I don’t understand either,” I said through gritted teeth.

She looked at the title of the folder again then fell down onto the sofa. “So you want to find Cream’s mother?”

I said nothing, gazing out of the window. The little rabbit vanished through the orchard’s willow archway, swinging her basket at her side.

“Do you even know where to start?” Mocha asked.

I flexed my fingers and looked over at her silently. She twirled a lock of hair and met my gaze.

“This isn’t going to be easy for you, is it?” she asked, and I diverted my attention back to the window. “Why do you want to do it?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I just feel like I have to.”

“Because you made her cry yesterday?”

I clenched my fists and screwed my eyes shut. “Do you really think that’s the only time I’ve made her cry?”

“You could say that about any of the children here,” said Mocha. “Or any of the adults.”

I looked up at her with a start, my mouth hanging open. She dodged my gaze and let the folder lie on her lap.

“I can’t put words in your mouth,” she said. “But it sounds to me like you feel this is a way for you to make up for what you did.”

“How can finding one girl’s mother make up for everything?” I snapped.

She flinched away from me and I let my head drop into my hand. I leant against the arm of the chair, keeping my back to her.

“I don’t know what it is,” I said. “I just feel like… if I find her… then at least I’m doing something right.”

She stared down at the folder and trailed her hand over its cover.

“I don’t even know where to start,” I said. “They want me to try and… remember what happened in Station Square.”

“Do you want some help going over it?” she asked.

I turned my head to face her, but she didn’t look up. “Why on earth do you want to help me? To sit there and listen to all I did?”

“Because I get the feeling this is going to be pretty traumatic for you.” She glanced at me out of the corner of her eye. “Especially if that nightmare you had is anything to go by.”

My hands began to tremble and I had to place my glass on the coffee table. She wasn’t wrong. I didn’t want to relive it. She tapped the sofa beside her and smiled at me.

“I didn’t know Vanilla personally,” she said, “so I’m not sure how much help I’ll be. But let’s give this a go.”
 

DeliriousAbsol

Call me Del
Chapter Five​

All I could do was stare at her. Was she serious? Those memories went to some pretty dark places. I closed my eyes and sighed, letting myself fall into the seat beside her. As much as I didn’t want to dig it all up, everything began to surface. Maybe it wasn’t so bad to actually talk to someone? I couldn’t deny the thought that someone being there was oddly… comforting.

I grabbed my glass in my trembling hand and tried to distract myself with a few overeager gulps.

Mocha looked up at me with a start and cleared her throat. “Well, let’s say I’m glad I made mocktails and not the real thing.”

I wiped my mouth on my glove and let the glass rest in my lap. I couldn’t look at her, so I kept my eyes trained on the brown rug beyond the coffee table while trying to keep my face hidden behind the flour-tinted hem of my collar.

“If this is too hard for you,” she said, “you can always do it later?”

“No,” I said. “I have to do it. Besides, the sooner it’s over the sooner I can move past it.” My left ear twitched as she flipped open the file and my golden eye flicked towards it. “I do feel I need to warn you, though. You might not want me in your house after this.”

“It’s not like you weren’t all over the news,” she said.

“No, but you only heard things from victims and bystanders.” I paused and brushed my fingers through my mane. “Not from me.”

She sat back against the couch cushion and trailed a finger over the edge of Vanilla’s photo.

“I never encountered you personally,” she said. “But I’ve not always lived in this town. I’m from Central City, where I worked as a University professor teaching literature. But when it fell under attack, I got evacuated and sent to several refugee camps before finally landing in Freedom Citadel. It was smaller, then. Just a little smattering of houses inside the refurbished walls of an ancient ruin, where I was hired to help take care of terrified and orphaned children. But that wasn’t all that changed for me. I had family in Central City. My mother, father, twin sister. I lost all of them.”

My fingers tightened around the glass in a bid to stop my arm from shaking. I’d done that… me… I was the monster responsible…

My other hand went to the dead Phantom Ruby and locked around it, and my muzzle creased in a grimace. I felt her hand brush my shoulder and I flinched away, shrugging her off. She retracted it and absently brushed flour from her glove.

“What I’m saying is despite all that I’m willing to help you,” she said. “Nothing you tell me now can change that.”

“But why?!”

She stared back at me, unflinching. “You could ask the same of Cream.”

“She’s just a kid,” I said. “But you?” I trailed my eyes over her, searching for the right words.

“What difference does it make? Besides, I want to help you.”

I waved her off and lowered my head behind my hand. It made no sense. Why help someone who slaughtered your family? Shadow flashed through my mind. The frightened shouts of my crew as they struggled to fight back. The fur along my spine stood on end and I glared at the little armchair across the room.

“What I said was meant to help,” Mocha said quietly, bringing me back to the present. “I’m sorry.”

“You should hate me.” My voice came out as a whisper.

She was quiet for a moment, but I could feel her watching me. I leant forward to place my glass on the table, bracing myself to leave.

“Like I said before, anyone can change.” She paused again and shrugged. “Even Eggman.”

I froze, still clutching the glass above the table, and turned my head towards her. A small smile spread across her lips at the look of surprise on my face. Somehow I couldn’t imagine Eggman turning over a new leaf, but… I shook my head and flopped back into my seat, abandoning my glass to the table.

“All right,” I said. “If you really want to help me. But I think you’re crazy.”

“It’s served me well so far.” Mocha set the folder aside and rose to her feet. “I’ll go grab a notepad. It might be worth writing everything down.”

I stared at the red liquid settling in my glass as she crept across the living room to her bookcase. She swiftly returned with a large notebook and rifled through the pages as she sat lightly back down. I caught a glimpse of some sketches of the garden birds and random flowers as she searched for a blank page. My mind boggled. To actually have time to sit down and sketch wildlife… I’d never known a life like that and it baffled me. Everything I knew had been a hard grind trying to scrape by.

She folded the notebook and smoothed out a blank page. “I can write if you want. Then all you have to do is talk.”

“Think you can keep up?” I asked.

She shrugged. “Back in University I had a tutor who didn’t give us much time to make notes. I got pretty adept at speed writing.”

I waved her off and closed my eyes. “Well, let’s hope that holds up then. Because anything I tell you might be key, and I don’t have any desire to repeat myself.”

She merely smiled and waved her pen to encourage me to start.

I took a steadying breath and stared straight ahead at the far wall. The memory of Station Square filled my mind as I let it play out, getting lost in it all.

“It was one of the first places I attacked,” I began. “People were already being evacuated before I even got there. Small planes, helicopters… even the train was being boarded to take an express route to the suburban outskirts. I remember people fleeing, screaming. I also remember enjoying it. Eggman wasn’t far behind, remaining in the sky in his Egg Carrier, ready to drop Egg Pawns into the city. No one saw him. I kept him well hidden behind the illusion of a thunder storm, raining red lightning down into the streets. Anything it touched exploded into a rain of rubble, glass and metal. Claiming lives, starting fires. I even sniped a few of the helicopters because why not? They only added to the fire, and sent people scattering like frightened rats.

“Soldiers were already prepared, but not for the onslaught. They tried to fight back with their Wispons, but they didn’t phase me. I’d hidden myself behind another illusion, and they couldn’t see behind it. An unbreakable wall that picked them off with spears of red cubes, scattering them with the rest of the terrified city dwellers. I remember taunting them. I even spoke to one of them, who lay cowering before trying to feebly fight back. I remember their tears and whimpers, and I’d wanted to cause more. I laughed in their face and let them run, leaving them to the mercy of Eggman’s robots while I turned my attention to something bigger. Something that could cause even more chaos and destruction than the virtual storm cloud. The train. ‘Station Square’… it was a fitting weapon, and a feat those witnessing it would remember for the rest of their lives. Or it would be the last thing many would see.

“As the train prepared to leave Station Square, I twisted it off its tracks and sent it hurtling down the streets. People tried to escape, fleeing to the elevators into the sewers. I blocked them off with exploding red bolts, trapping people inside. The train ploughed over fleeing soldiers, crushed hundreds of Eggman’s robots, and cleaved its way through alleyways. It brought down Twinkle Park, demolishing the rides and destroying the gates, leaving people trapped inside and desperate for a way out. You might think the flimsy train got destroyed in it all, but no. It sliced through brick walls like a knife through butter, bringing buildings down around it to crush its carriages. Crushed anyone unfortunate enough to get caught in it. The screams were phenomenal. It was like the city itself was begging for its life. When I was finally bored, I let the beaten wreck reach its end back at the station, impaling the wall like a flaming spear.

“After that, I brought down one of the planes. Just to finish the job. To spite those trying to get away. The city was a blazing ruin, filled with panicked screams and streets that ran red with blood and fire. And that’s how I left it.”

The room fell into silence, and I let the image melt away along with the mental memory of my deranged laugh. At some point I’d picked up one of Mocha’s chocolate coloured scatter pillows and clutched it to my stomach.

Mocha tapped the pen on her notepad; irritating rapid taps that made my skin crawl. I clenched my jaw tight and grimaced, huddling down behind the pillow. Bracing myself for her to snap and send the pen soaring my way.

“How many helicopters?” she asked.

“Eh?” My ears pricked upright and I turned to look at her.

“How many helicopters did you take out?” she asked. “You missed that, and it’s pretty important. They couldn’t work out the number amid the wreckage.”

I groaned and ran my hand down my face. “I dunno… five?”

“The Chaotix are going to need as accurate a number as you can give them. I’m sorry, I know you don’t want to repeat it, but-”

I sighed, rubbing my forehead as I tried to recall the chaos again. It was still pretty clear. I could see those helicopters raining down, exploding as they hit the streets.

“Seven,” I said.

Her pen scratched the paper as she jotted it down. “And planes?”

“Just the one,” I said flatly.

‘Just’… Really? My muzzle twisted as I found myself wondering which one Vanilla was unfortunate enough to be on.

Mocha frowned down at her notes, her blue eyes flitting left and right as she read over them repeatedly. I found myself wishing I knew what she was thinking. She’d surprised me several times already, and deep down I hoped she wouldn’t suddenly change her opinion and shove me out through the door. I cringed and dug my fingers into the pillow. Pull yourself together, jackal! Friendship’s an illusion and you know it!

Tap tap tap

I snapped my eye open, fixing on the bouncing pen in her fingers.

“Twelve people were unaccounted for among the bodies,” she said. “Vanilla was one of them. This was a bit of a trend after the attacks. A small number of people would be missing, believed dead. Hundreds have fallen into that category. But the Chaotix won’t let Vanilla go, for Cream’s sake.”

I rubbed my muzzle, staring at the little armchair. “If they couldn’t count the helicopters, then how could they accurately count bodies?”

“Exactly.”

It wasn’t what I wanted to hear. I grimaced and let out a flustered sigh.

“This is pointless,” I said. “Why am I even bothering? We’re not going to find her. She’s not gonna just drop from the sky one day. It’s been what… two years?”

“Almost three since the attack on Station Square.”

“Then that makes it even more unlikely.” I glared at the wall over my hand. “Surely she’d have tracked her daughter down by now. It’s not like you haven’t got a phone service running now. Computers. Internet. Unless she’s really gone AWOL.”

Mocha pursed her lips and scanned the notes again. “Cream has a rail card.”

I glared at her out of the corner of my eye. “What’s that got to do with anything?”

“She was six when her mother went missing,” Mocha explained. “Her rail card doesn’t allow her to travel without one of her parents. It’s part of a parent-child combination that allowed Cream to travel for free while her mother took her to school. It can be traced to check if either party was on the train. Neither was recorded that day. I remember Cream telling me that her mother took her to school every day on her way to work at the hospital in Westopolis. Just a short train ride. But that day, Cream hadn’t taken the train. It was a Thursday, so technically she should have been in school. Cream was one of the many bundled into a helicopter by Knuckles to be taken to a refugee camp. But where was Vanilla?”

I frowned at her as I tried to make sense of her words. “Maybe Cream was having a sick day.”

“She was completely fine. The school had been closed that day. It had fallen under attack prior to Station Square, which was why the city was being evacuated before you got there.” She paused, waiting for me to respond. “Can you remember why?”

“I was told to recall the events in Station Square,” I growled.

“You’d destroyed Westopolis on your way over,” she said.

My blood turned cold and I pulled my lips back from my canines. She ducked back from me and placed the notepad on the table. Well, I guess I’d be finding myself outside, then…

“Let me get a map.”

She rose from her seat, and my wide eyes watched as she returned to the bookcase.

“A map?” I scoffed.

“I think it might be a good idea to track where that train rampaged,” she explained. “It might give the Chaotix more to go by. Main buildings to check, and so on.”

“Don’t they already know all this?”

“I’ve no idea.” She flopped back into the sofa and flicked through a series of maps for the United Federation. “But if it helps in their investigation…”

I flashed a canine and tossed the pillow aside. “I’m really beginning to think this is some kind of sick torture.”

“Torture?” She looked up at me with a start and her tail twitched. “I’m just trying to help you! If we can uncover something that might have been missed, no matter how small, then it could be huge. We could find out what happened to her!”

“Isn’t it obvious?” I spread my hands. “I killed her! Just like everyone else who died in that city! Just like your family!”

She closed her eyes and her mouth turned down in a sad frown. One that gnawed at me. I covered my face with my hands and leant back in the seat, trying to steady myself.

“You should just send me back to the desert and let me die,” I said. “You know I deserve it.”

The couch shook and the map book landed in my lap. I snapped my eyes open to find Mocha mere millimetres from me. I flinched back, sneering at her. Confusion fogging my mind. Tears glistened at the corners of her eyes.

“We’re mapping that train,” she said. “I’m not letting you give up on this.”

The pen found its way into my fingers and the possum slipped from her seat.

“I’m going to get us both more strawberry mocktail,” she said. “And see if the tarts are ready. When I come back, I expect you to have made a start.”

I stared after her as she vanished into the kitchen, feeling exactly like a scolded delinquent who’d found himself moved to the front of the class. I took in a steadying breath and turned my attention to the map. Station Square stared back up at me, not entirely dissimilar to what I’d seen from the sky. Maybe I could do this. Not accurately because my memory wasn’t perfect, but it wouldn’t be a bad start.

Surprisingly, when Mocha came back in, I’d already tracked the train around the east part of Central Square. She plopped back down beside me and leant over the map, nodding as she sipped her drink.

“It’s pretty vague,” I said. “It wasn’t confined to any tracks, and it’s hard to map its damage through Twinkle Park.”

“It will do. I wasn’t expecting perfect accuracy.”

Time ticked past as we finished mapping out the train’s wreckage, demolishing two of the small tarts between us. They weren’t entirely set yet, but they were still amazing and oddly enough helped to lift my mood.

I frowned at the scrawled map, turning it left and right to get a better idea of it. There were some areas I wasn’t entirely sure of, so I marked them with a question mark. There were bound to be some inaccuracies, and I still didn’t know why Mocha wanted me to map out the path I sent the train.

I lowered the map to look at her. “You really think this will help?”

“It highlights key areas Vanilla might have been in,” she said. “So yes.”

“How, exactly?”

“Well look here.” She pointed at an area in the east. “This is the bank. If the train went that way, then it’s one of the major buildings struck by it.”

“But you already knew it was destroyed, so what difference does it make?”

“I was only using it as an example,” Mocha explained. “It was difficult for people to escape that train. So the Chaotix can use this map to help navigate its path of destruction. They know Station Square better than I do, and Vanilla, too. I don’t know which area she lived in, but they do. I don’t know what her general routine was. They do, mainly due to their investigation. I don’t know how close they were, personally.”

Well, that made more sense. I set the map beside my empty plate and exchanged it for my glass. I quickly downed what was left in it as I tried to clear Station Square from my mind. It had been a tough hour, and one I swiftly wanted to forget.

“I think we’ve made some good progress,” she said. “When do they want this information?”

“They said to take my time and bring it back when I’m ready.” I paused and rubbed my muzzle. “Tomorrow morning, ideally.”

“Then it might be worth dropping it off on your way back to the castle.”

Was that a hint to leave? I was pretty exhausted given I’d barely slept the previous night, and all this had really taken its toll. It might not be a bad idea to head back… I checked the time on the clock beside her television. Only one in the afternoon. If I napped now, I’d probably sleep until supper and then have yet another bad night.

Mocha retrieved the map and sipped her drink. “Maybe we should go over things again, just to make sure it’s as spot on as we’re gonna get it.”

“I don’t really wanna relive it again,” I said. “I feel I’ve done my bit now.”

She glanced at me and lowered her glass. “This is all you’re doing for them?”

I returned her glance with a frown. “What do you mean ‘all’?”

“I thought you were helping them find her.”

“I am!” I waved at the map book and folder. “I’m not a detective, Mocha. What else am I supposed to do? This is basically a… I dunno… criminal confession.”

“I see.” She set the book back down on the table. “I hadn’t thought of it like that. Of course you’re not a detective.”

I scratched between my ears and sighed. “I probably should get back. I could do with getting the rest of this flour out of my fur.”

I stood up and retrieved the file with its note pages. Mocha bundled the map book into my hands and met my eyes.

“I don’t need it back,” she said. “So they’re free to keep it.”

I stared down at the book, a cold feeling washing over me. Now it had my train’s rampage scrawled through Station Square, of course she wasn’t gonna want it back. Memories. Yeah, I knew what that felt like. My eye shot from the book to my hands. Hers were still clasped over mine, holding the book in place. I flinched and took a step back, shrugging her off.

“You’re welcome to join me for breakfast again, if you like,” she said. “Or tomorrow dinner? You could tell me how things are going.”

“Maybe…”

I turned to the door and wrenched it open. Cream stood before it, her fist poised to knock. She beamed up at me and raised her little basket.

“We got loads of raspberries!” she said.

Both her and Cheese were wearing daisy crowns. I remembered the chain around my neck, suddenly aware of it brushing my fur. I forced a chuckle and sidestepped her as she trotted into the house, swinging her basket and dropping a couple of raspberries behind her.

“I hope you’ll join us again!” She deposited the basket on the coffee table. “I’m thinking raspberry crumble with lots of custard!”

“Chao chao!” Cheese copied her jovial pose perfectly.

I caught Mocha’s smile over the bunny’s head. A little sad, as if she knew I was about to decline. So I said nothing and slipped from the door, letting it click shut behind me.

I didn’t know how to return the folder to the Chaotix without being caught up in a long explanation. So I opted to deliver it the next day. As I entered the castle, Sonic left the meeting room and his emerald eyes widened when he spotted me.

“No Shadow?” he asked.

I glanced behind me. I’d barely noticed the black hedgehog hadn’t been sticking to me as good as his name suggested.

“I guess not,” I muttered.

Sonic chuckled and folded his arms. “You look like a grey ghost. What have you been up to?”

I stared down at my formerly black fur and jacket and shrugged. “I got caught in a flour explosion.”

“No, I meant seriously.”

I narrowed my eyes. “I was being serious.” I sighed and rubbed my snout. “Look… I really wanna get this cleaned off me. Where’s your laundry room?”

“I’ll show you.”

Sonic shot past me in a streak of blue and I spotted him again on my far left, standing beside a lone door. I joined his side at a much slower pace, if only to test his patience. The door opened into one of the castle’s towers, and a winding staircase stretched up towards the roof. Sonic vanished beyond where it entered the floor and I followed him down into a small basement. It stunk of laundry powder, and a small clothes horse stood at one end sporting a matching pair of gloves and socks.

“It’s fairly easy to use.” He nodded to one of the two cylinder washing machines. “Just toss your jacket in, and whatever else you need to clean, add some soap and turn it on. Just… you might want to beat some flour off your jacket first or it might come out as cake mix.”

He winked, setting my fur on end.

“Thanks, I think I get it,” I scoffed.

“Great. Then I’ll leave you to it.” He strolled past me and paused at the foot of the stairs. “Oh. Dinner’s gonna be around seven. Will you be joining us this time?”

“I’ll think about it.”

“Have you anywhere else you’d rather be?”

I looked back at him, meeting his raised eyebrow with a frown. My mind went back to Cream’s crumble invite and my shoulders slumped.

“No,” I said. “I guess I don’t.”

“Then I’ll see you later.” He zipped up the stairs in a flash.

I shook my head and shed my jacket, tossing it into the machine. My gloves and boots were leather, so I wasn’t putting them in there. The machine itself was as simple as he’d made it sound. I waited until I heard it fill then climbed back up the stairs for a shower. I paused at the doorway to the main hall, gazing up the stairs towards the roof. Would it be possible to get out up there? Fresh air, solitude… I shook my head and made for my room.

When I entered, I tugged off my gloves then stooped to remove my shoes. But I caught sight of that daisy chain. I slipped it off as carefully as I could, but it came undone at the back. Oh well. My first thought was the trash can, but I froze and stared down at it. The yellow cores slightly tinted by the flour where it had been exposed.

Officially one of her friends…

A sentiment I didn’t understand. Yet the chain of tiny flowers found itself curled up beside the remains of my mask.

It didn’t take long to get the flour from my fur. I returned to the laundry room still damp, the breeze from the stairwell chilling me. I couldn’t be bothered standing in the fur driers until I was bone dry. And the machine wasn’t done. Another twenty minutes, it said. I decided I’d see where those stairs led after all.

They wound up for a good while, making me wonder how many floors the castle actually had. Light leaked in through the narrow windows, paned with thin glass. A wooden door stood at the top of the stairwell, with large gaps retreating back from the ancient stonework. That explained the cold draft. I tried the handle, finding it opened quite easily. As I stepped out, I found myself at the top of the tower. Two huge brass bells hung above me beside a rotting rope. It looked like they hadn’t been rang in centuries. An old remnant of what the castle once was.

The low, circular wall was topped with battlements. I positioned myself between two and looked out at the world beyond the citadel. The ocean stretched out for miles, lapping back and forth over a clean beach. To my left was a huge, rocky crag which the ocean crashed up against in a flurry of spray and froth. A salty breeze washed over, chilling my damp fur. Nevertheless, it was refreshing. I crossed my arms and leant forward on them, feeling the Phantom Ruby scrape against the stone. Once again, I found myself wondering what I was even doing here.

My ears swivelled towards the ocean, picking up the mighty roar as it engulfed the sandy shore. Peaceful. I shouldn’t be somewhere peaceful. I was meant to be somewhere barren and heartless. Wasn’t that what I wanted, after all? A ruined world, reduced to a soulless wasteland?

Yet here I was, surrounded by people most of whom wanted to give me a second chance. It made no sense. They went around flaunting their illusions of friendship, not just at me but at each other. And they were happy. It was slowly chipping away at me, and I couldn’t take it anymore.

I closed my eyes, trying to block out the images of Mocha, Cream and Cheese. Their smiling faces. Their offers for company. An unending flurry of kindness I didn’t remotely deserve.

No. I couldn’t let them in. Friendship, family, love… they could be shattered in an instant. Bringing pain and leaving ugly scars that had to be hidden from view. But I knew they were there. I could feel them under my skin. Burning. I pulled my lips back from my canines in a grimace and glared out at the ocean. Desperate to stop the voices from my wretched past. Something twisted deep inside me and I kicked myself back from the wall. It was time to see if the washing machine was done. And if it wasn’t, I’d huddle beside it until it was done. Then lurk in my room until morning while the fur driers blasted my jacket dry. And when it got to dinner time, well… I kicked out at the bare ground. Maybe someone would think to leave some leftovers in the kitchen…
 

DeliriousAbsol

Call me Del
Chapter Six​

The sun had long set when I decided to venture to the kitchen. I poked my head out of my room, twisting my ears back and forth for any sign of life. A few voices drifted down the stairs from the floor above, and I craned my head back. A faint light leaked out onto the stairwell and the sound of tinkling laughter filled the air. Hopefully whoever it was wouldn’t venture down and spot me.

I trotted towards the stairs and crept down towards the hallway. No sign of Shadow, or Omega policing curfew. The meeting room door was shut tight but it opened when I turned the handle. Odd. Wouldn’t they have locked it? I peeked around the door, peering into the shadows. Empty. Good. I spotted the fridge lurking in the far left corner, blocking the stairs to the tower door. When I opened the fridge, light poured out from it and my fur stood on end. I froze for a moment, straining my ears and swiveling them back towards the hallway door. Just those faint voices from the second floor. That was it.

I took a breath to calm myself and sought out any leftovers. A plate of cold bacon and a wedge of cheese. That would do. I placed them on the worktop and was about to close the fridge when something rustled behind me. I snapped my head around, eyes wide as I strained to spot the invisible spy.

“Hungry, huh?” The voice came from above me.

There, sprawled out on the top of the kitchen cupboards, was Rouge. The faint light reflected off her blue eyes and she smirked down at me. I shook her off and flicked the fridge door shut, plunging the kitchen back into darkness. I then started rummaging through the cupboards until I found a neatly folded bread packet.

“You could have just joined us for dinner,” said the bat.

I said nothing as I groped through a drawer for a bread knife. Rouge dropped down from the cupboards behind me and I kept most of my attention on her as I tried to prepare a crude sandwich.

“You either have fantastic night vision,” said Rouge, “or too much confidence in your ability with a knife.”

I glanced at her out of my left eye. She yawned and stretched, then leant on the counter. I raised an eyebrow and glanced back to the kitchen cupboards.

“Were you sleeping up there?” I scoffed.

“Not really,” she said. “I was dozing on the sofa and leapt up there when I heard the door go. You know… since everyone else has gone to bed. Or in Shadow’s case, playing pool. And sports bore me silly.”

I snorted and returned to my sandwich making.

“You might want some sauce on that.” A bottle of brown sauce appeared beside me and I caught a wink from the bat.

I shook my head, trying to tune her out. But it was a pointless endeavor. She crept closer to me, setting my fur back on end.

“What do you want?” I growled.

“You missed a lot earlier,” she said. “Eggman has been spotted again. I thought you might want filling in on the details.”

I turned to face her fully, setting the knife back down on the counter. “Were you lurking in here waiting for me?”

A smile tugged at her lips and she chuckled. “Perhaps.”

“And how did you know I’d come in here?”

“I didn’t,” she said. “But I doubted you’d willingly starve, and you’d barely touched a thing since… I dunno. Breakfast?”

“I had lunch.”

“I’d hardly call a flimsy bite-sized tart ‘lunch’, hon.”

I froze and glanced at her again. “Have you been spying on me?”

“Shadow,” she said. “When everyone wondered where you were, yet again, I believe his words were ‘He’ll show up if he’s hungry’. So, after pressing him for details, I took his word on it.”

I glared at her, muzzle twisting with confusion.

She smirked again and winked. “I can be very persuasive.”

I shook my head and slammed another slice of bread on top of the pile of bacon. “So what’s this about Eggman?”

“Interested, huh?” Another chuckle. “Well, I could tell you everything you need to know.”

There was too much emphasis on that ‘could’. I fired her a sideways leer before slicing my sandwich in two. It wasn’t easy. I’d picked up a butter knife by mistake.

“Are you still interested?” she asked.

“Depends on the price.”

I picked up one half of the sandwich and took a bite. Yes, it definitely did need sauce. I swiftly rectified that.

“We could agree on something.” Rouge handed me a plate and I waved it aside. “You do seem to keep dodging your meals.”

I raised an eyebrow and forced myself to swallow my barely chewed mouthful. A sense of dread washed over me as I sensed where this was going.

“What?” I choked out.

“Lunch,” she said. “That’s all I ask.”

My eyes narrowed and I lowered my sandwich. “You want me to join you for lunch?”

Another smirk tugged at her lips. “My treat.”

I sighed and took another bite, diverting my gaze to the shadows between the boarded up tower door and the fridge.

“What about Shadow?” I asked.

“What about him?”

“I thought… well… aren’t you…?”

She waved a hand and laughed. “He wishes!”

I rolled my eyes and leant against the worktop.

“There’s a great pizza place in Freedom Citadel,” she went on. “And if you join me, I’ll tell you everything you need to know.”

“And that’s all you want?” I asked, avoiding her eyes.

“Well… you also have to promise to be good company,” she said. “No snarky comments or flipping the table in a blind rage.”

I shook my head at her brazenness and went to grab a glass of water.

“So what do you say?” she asked.

“I don’t have to let you touch me, do I?” I asked.

I could almost hear her smirking. My fur bristled down my spine and I glanced back at her over my shoulder. She’d noticed.

“Because I can’t stand people touching me,” I said.

“Like I said. All you have to do is be good company.”

“Fine,” I growled. “It’s a deal.”

She winked and fluttered towards the hallway door. “It’s a date.”

Once the door had closed, I leant back against the sink and groaned. I dragged my hand down my muzzle and frowned at the wall. What had I got myself into?

...​

Red. Everything was red. The rocks, the sticky blood running over my shoes, the sky. I stood trembling as fearful cries filled my ears. Cries from people I couldn’t see, but knew so well. I propped myself up against a burnt tree, reaching for my sword.

Crimson, jagged lightning cut through the black sky and the panicked voices morphed into frantic, fearful howls. My fur bristled along the base of my neck and I clutched my scimitar tight. Then I ran. Dashing towards the lightning as it arced through the sky for a second time. The rocks split, sending out a flood of fresh blood to wash over the sticky mountain.

Then I saw it. The monster as it rose into the sky. Its accusing gaze fixed on me. It clutched a limp jackal in its right hand, and in one swift motion it discarded his body into the bloody river.

“This is all your fault.” The monster’s voice was distorted. It lifted a hand, glowing red as it readied an attack in my direction. “But if you want, I can put you out of your misery.”

The body of the beaten jackal rushed past me, carried along in the river. His lifeless eyes met mine as he drifted past. Pleading. Accusing.

“If you weren’t so pathetic and weak,” the monster went on, “you could have saved him. Saved them all.”

A flash of red struck my hand and I dropped my sword. It vanished between the sticky rocks and I looked back up. My fearful eyes widened as the monster advanced. I found myself scrambling back, trying to avoid his piercing yellow glare. Pleading cries leaving my mouth as I begged it to leave me alone. My back brushed against the tree and I groped for something, anything, to defend myself with. I found a low branch and tugged it, but it wouldn’t break free. That monster kept advancing, its eyes glowing as it raised a hand to strike me again. Another tug. And another. The branch broke free and I brought it around towards the monster’s head.

Bang bang bang!

The monster vanished as the branch glided through its body. Then the crimson landscape vanished. I stood gasping in my room, my back against the wall. Another series of bangs… or taps… echoed through the dark room. The door opened and Sonic poked his head around it. A look of concern washed over his face and he looked between me and the disheveled bed. Then his eyes went to my hands.

“Is everything okay?” he asked. “I heard shouting.”

I followed his gaze to a lamp clasped in my right hand. Its cable ended in a tuft of tattered wires where I’d wrenched it free from the plug socket. The remains were wedged behind the small bedside table.

I sighed and pinched the bridge of my muzzle. “I’m fine.”

“Nightmares, huh?”

I glanced over at the window. Still dark. I shrugged and set the lamp back down on the nightstand. I likely wouldn’t be falling asleep again after that.

“Well, so long as you’re all right.” Sonic let out a chuckle and shook his head. “Oh boy, I thought someone had broken in!”

“Just bad dreams.” I flopped onto the bed and waved him off. “I’m fine. Go back to sleep.”

Sonic chirruped a ‘goodnight’ and let the door click shut behind him.

I placed my face in my hands and rubbed my temples. Those nightmares… they’d been on and off for years. It was like I couldn’t escape them. Memories of my crew being slaughtered… but they weren’t killed by a monster. It was Shadow. So why did they keep playing out like that?

I fell onto my back, face still covered by my hands. I didn’t understand them. Maybe they weren’t meant to make sense? They were just dreams after all. Horrible dreams, but still. I glanced the clock. Five am. Not too long, then. Maybe I could snatch a little more sleep before I had to show up at the Chaotix?

But it didn’t happen.

The image of that crimson landscape burned into my mind, along with the monster’s accusing words. I grit my teeth together and dug my fingers into the pillow. Glaring at the wardrobe. When light finally leaked through the window, I gathered myself together and ventured down to the kitchen.

Amy stood behind the counter, wrapping sandwiches in brown paper. She looked up when I entered and gave me a nervous smile.

“Good morning!” she said. “You decided to join us today?”

“Briefly,” I muttered, clutching Vanilla’s case file to my chest.

“Well, if you like, I can make you a sandwich?” she said. “I’m putting these together to send to the Chaotix, if you’d rather join them?”

I met her eyes for a moment then nodded stiffly.

“Great!” She sliced a small baguette. “What fillings do you prefer?”

I shrugged and leant against the long table. “I don’t know. Surprise me.”

“Peanut butter and jam it is, then.”

She clearly hadn’t grasped the concept of surprise.

Once she’d finished, I found the bag stuffed in my free hand and I stepped out from the meeting room’s small side door, straight into the town. Surprisingly, Shadow was already waiting by the Chaotix’s office. He glared at me as I approached the door, but said nothing. Once I was inside, a telltale flash suggested he’d vanished.

Vector looked up from his desk with a frown. “You’re early!”

I dropped the sandwiches before him and the frown melted into a cheerful smile.

“Never mind!” he said. “All’s forgiven!”

He tore the bag open and pulled out his sandwich. Then mine found its way into my hands. Amy had named them, and I glared down at the word ‘Infinite’ scrawled across the paper in pink pen. Maybe I wasn’t hungry…

“So!” said Vector with his mouth full. “What did you find out?”

I dropped the file and map book before him and fell down onto their lumpy sofa. I shifted until the nasty spring that had decided to poke me was no longer beneath my leg. I absently tucked into my own sandwich, pleasantly surprised to find it was actually really good.

“Not a mornin’ person, then?” Vector asked.

“I didn’t sleep well,” I said.

“Ah! I gotcha.” Vector flipped the file open and whistled. “I’ll give this a read over once my own foggy brain has cleared, eh?”

I grunted a reply.

Espio strolled into the room, running a towel over his head. He nodded in my direction and discarded the towel over the back of a dining chair.

“You’re early,” he said as he retrieved his sandwich from Vector.

I glanced up at the clock. Not quite nine am. Not all that early. I shrugged it off and tried to finish off my breakfast in silence. It didn’t happen. Charmy’s voice filled the air as he burst into song, right before buzzing into the room. It was some crazy ditty about sandwiches. What was with these people?

I tried to tune it out as I finished my breakfast. No sooner had I tossed the wrapping into the waste paper basket, the sofa sank down beside me. I looked up to see Vector with the folder open on his lap.

“What’s with the map book?” he asked.

I took it from him and flipped it open to Station Square. I’d dogeared the page for ease.

“I roughly tracked the train’s rampage,” I explained. “In case it helped.”

Espio grabbed an office chair and set it beside Vector. He swivelled it so he was leaning forward on its backrest, and he leant over the crocodile’s shoulder to see the map.

“Not bad!” said Espio. “Although we did kind of have a vague idea.”

“That’s what I thought,” I muttered.

“Eh?” Vector cocked an eyebrow.

“Nothing,” I said.

The three detectives stared at me, the only sounds coming from Charmy’s curly straw as he slurped away at a soda.

“Your hand writing is pretty girly,” said Espio.

My muzzle creased as I stared back at the chameleon.

Vector inclined his head on one side. “Have you had help?”

I sighed and waved a hand at him. “Yes.”

“Huh.” Espio blinked. “Who?”

“Mocha,” I muttered.

“Whoa, the possum nanny?” Vector laughed and struck his knee. “Nice!”

I flashed a canine and leered at him. “What are you getting at?”

“Nothing, nothing!” Vector laughed.

Espio raised his hands and shook his head, trying to hide a small smirk.

Charmy stopped his soda slurping and looked at us each in turn. “I don’t get it.”

“Nevermind!” Vector returned to the folder. “Let’s get to work. At least I can read her writing, eh?”

“Exactly,” I said. “You wouldn’t have been able to read anything with my spider scrawl.”

“Sounds like you and Espio went to the same school,” said Vector.

“Hey!” Espio whined.

The room suddenly morphed into something much more serious as Vector dismissed the chameleon to read over what I’d managed to recall. Charmy perched on the sofa between the crocodile and myself, occasionally slurping up the dregs of his soda. I kept a wary eye on the bee’s stinger as Vector read over things not just once, but three times. Each one more painful than the last.

Finally, he sat back and handed me the map. “It might be helpful to know where the helicopters crashed down.”

I took it and frowned at the page. Why hadn’t Mocha and I thought of that? It would surely be much more helpful than just the train, given the number of helicopters hadn’t been accurately totaled.

I tuned out the office for a while as I tried to recall their demise. My hand flew over the page, marking red crosses in seven separate locations. Some much closer than others. When I handed it back, Vector nodded and scanned it over.

“Well, we already knew about Twinkle Park,” said Espio.

“I miss the theme park,” said Charmy. “Why did they have to build a prison there instead?”

“Because no one wanted to go back to Station Square,” said Vector.

I grimaced and clenched my fists. Station Square flashed through my mind again, along with Eggman’s ship raining down illusory lightning bolts. I didn’t want those memories. But if they’d help to find Vanilla, then at least something good would come from them.

“I think this must have been mistaken for one crash.” Espio pointed at two of the crosses I’d marked close together.

“I thought so, too, pal,” said Vector. “Huh. But I’m still non the wiser. Cream doesn’t even remember what her mother was doing that day. She’d left Cream with a child minder while she ‘went to run some errands’.”

“I thought the city was being evacuated already,” I said.

“Not straight away,” said Vector. “The alarm hadn’t gone off before Vanilla parted from Cream. No one knows what happened to her.”

“We thought the bank might be a good starting point,” said Espio. “But witnesses from there claim they hadn’t seen her that morning.”

“And she hadn’t gone to work since Westopolis had been wrecked,” said Vector. “So that ruled out the train. Unless she was one of the many bundled onto it.”

“But no body showed up amongst the hundreds on the train,” said Espio. “Although… it wasn’t easy to count in all fairness.”

Charmy shuddered and dropped his glass onto the sofa. Thankfully empty.

“Most of the railcards survived intact,” said Vector. “They gathered them up amongst other means of ID. Nothing that said Vanilla was on there. I’m at a… I dunno… eighty or ninety percent certainty she wasn’t on the train.”

“Which is why we aren’t giving up,” said Espio. “If there’s a chance she’s still alive, we’ll find her.”

I hugged my arms around myself and looked over at the closed door I guessed lead to the bedrooms. “I still don’t understand why she wouldn’t have contacted you or Cream if she was still alive.”

“Well Cream’s got a new phone,” said Vector. “The other one got destroyed.”

“How?” I asked.

Vector shrugged. “I dunno. I guess she dropped it in the panic. As for Vanilla finding us, well… we’re pretty low key out here. I’ve put our number out there now, but there’s no saying she’s looked for us since. She might have assumed we were killed.”

“Or she doesn’t have any way to contact anyone herself,” said Espio. “She might be in one of the many desolate refugee camps still scattered around Mobius.”

“Given she’s a doctor,” said Vector slowly, “we’ve considered that might be likely. But there are so many we couldn’t travel to them all easily.”

I frowned at the crocodile. “So you’ve not visited any?”

“We’ve visited about ten,” said Espio. “Two of them overseas. None of them had even heard of her.”

I stroked a finger over my lips as I mulled this over. Something was missing, and not just Vanilla.

“I’ve been told twelve people went missing in that attack,” I said.

“Yup, twelve!” said Charmy.

I glanced up at the detectives. “What if they all went in the same way?”

“What do you mean?” asked Vector.

“I don’t know,” I scoffed. “What if they all went to the same place? The same camp? The same plane? What if they aren’t even on Mobius anymore? Anything!”

Espio leant back on his seat, clinging to the backrest. “Hundreds of people have gone missing. I’m not sure it’s that likely they’re all in the same place.”

“People go missing every day,” said Vector. “It’s a sad truth. Some show up again, others don’t. And in some cases, we never even find out what happened to them. At the end of the day, Infinite, this was a war! People could have died and not been accounted for.”

“They could have even been tossed into the ocean,” said Charmy.

Vector and Espio nodded to the bee.

“What he said,” said Vector.

I sighed and sank down in my seat. Things were starting to feel very bleak.

“Maybe I should visit some of the camps you can’t reach,” I said.

“How?” Vector spread his hands. “You’d need a plane. Probably a personal one with your rep. And I highly doubt Sonic’s gonna just let you saunter out of this town without a small army to keep you in check.”

I screwed my eyes shut as my fur bristled along my spine. Of course he wouldn’t. Then what was I going to do? I needed to find her, if only to keep myself sane. Maybe there was a way I could find a record of all the survivors in the camps? Something the Chaotix hadn’t thought of? Although if they really were desolate then they’d more than likely be off the grid. So would it be at all accessible?

I had no idea, and the Chaotix were swiftly moving on to comparing my notes against theirs. I tried to force the thought to the back of my mind and focus on helping them as best I could. But it wasn’t proving to be easy on so little sleep. Before long I found myself being forced awake by Charmy trying to offer me coffee.

...​

When lunch finally rolled around, I left the Chaotix office, refusing their offers for yet more sandwiches. As I made my way back to the castle on impulse, I realised something. I didn’t know where that pizza place was, or where Rouge was expecting me to meet her. If anywhere.

I paused, sighing into my hand. Maybe it wasn’t worth the hassle? I’d just go back to the castle, find something in the fridge. Or join the rest of Sonic and his friends for lunch. Ask them about Eggman’s recent attacks instead. A fleeting thought ran through my mind to make my way to Mocha’s. But… a huge part of me wanted to avoid that at all costs. I fidgeted, glancing over my shoulder at the little stone path that led up to the school.

“I wondered when you were gonna show up.” Rouge’s voice came from above me.

I looked up at the castle, spotting the bat leaning out of the second floor bay window. She had her head resting in one hand and a sly smile on her face that curdled my insides.

“Not gonna lie,” she said. “Part of me thought you were gonna stand me up.”

I bit back the urge to tell her I’d been thinking about it.

She leapt from the window and fluttered down to my side, landing without a sound. She stood with one hand on her hip and chuckled.

“So.” She winked. “Shall we?”

She tried to take my arm, but I stuffed my hands into my pockets and stepped aside out of her reach.

“Not exactly a gentleman, are you?” she said. “I thought we’d agreed you’d be good company.”

“I also thought we’d agreed you wouldn’t touch me,” I said.

She rolled her eyes as she shrugged. “Can’t blame a girl for trying. Okay. It’s this way.”

She zipped on ahead of me, leaving me to follow behind in my own good time. I didn’t lose sight of her until she vanished down a little stone street. I found her sitting at a wooden picnic table outside a small, unimpressive-looking restaurant. It’s name was ‘Piero’s Pizzas’. ‘The Best in Freedom Citadel’. I was willing to guess it was the only one in Freedom Citadel.

I flopped down opposite Rouge and grabbed a laminated menu from the wooden stand. Not a vast selection. I’d probably opt for the meat feast.

“Not feeling chatty?” she quipped.

I didn’t respond, to make my answer perfectly clear. Instead idly flicking through the menu to the drinks options. Again, not a massive selection. In fact, it didn’t even take up half the page. The rest were just deserts and a number for home delivery.

“You could tell me what you’re getting up to with the Chaotix, if you like?” she went on.

I set the menu aside and frowned at her across the table. “You don’t need to know.”

“Oh, but I’m interested.”

“And I’m more interested in what you have to tell me about these Eggman sightings.”

A small smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. “Not a fan of small talk?”

“It’s pointless.” I leant my head in one hand and trailed my finger across the grain of the wood. “So what do we do here, then? Get up and place our order at the register?”

“They come to us,” she said.

“When?”

“When they’re ready.” She let out a small chuckle and inclined her head. “Not a fan of ‘patience’, either, are we?”

“I just want to get this over with,” I scoffed.

“I’m flattered.”

A lithe, pale blue otter emerged from the restaurant door and shuffled over to the table.

“Okay, sorry to keep you waiting.” Going off his accent and his name-tag, this wasn’t the ‘Piero’ the restaurant claimed to be owned by. “Welcome to Piero’s Piz…” He trailed off, his gaze settling on me for a moment.

He froze up, his eyes flitting between me and Rouge. A mumbled ‘erm’ fell from his lips and he shifted, juggling a clip board between his hands.

“He’s with me,” said Rouge.

“Oh… well… uh…” He glanced down at his clipboard. “A customer is a customer, I guess…”

“Been a quiet day, huh?” asked Rouge.

I rolled my eyes and pinched the bridge of my muzzle. This really wasn’t worth it. I started to stand up, but Rouge clasped her hand around my wrist. I bristled, ears shooting back, and I glanced back up at the otter.

“We’ll have a ham and pineapple,” she said. “To share.”

Pineapple? I fixed my eyes back on Rouge. This bat was pure evil…

The otter nodded and jotted it down. “Drinks?”

“Nothing,” I said.

“Two melon sodas.” Rouge motioned for the otter to leave, which he gratefully obliged. Then she turned back to me as I settled back down. “You look as if you’re worried they’re going to poison it.”

“What’s stopping them?” I scoffed.

“Easy. They have a reputation to uphold.”

“What reputation?”

She gestured to the sign. “’Best in Freedom Citadel’.”

I looked away from the restaurant to a small park I’d failed to notice. Several children were playing in it, kicking a ball around and bouncing it off the wall of another much more upscale restaurant.

“Besides,” Rouge went on. “They’re not exactly going to risk poisoning me, are they?”

I turned back to her and cocked an eyebrow. Was that the reason she’d ordered one to share? Maybe she wasn’t just flirting after all. Or she was just trying to make me uncomfortable? Whatever the case, I was beginning to wonder if there was more to this bat than met the eye.

“On a change of topic,” said the bat, “I’m pretty happy to see you dropped the whole Phantom of the Opera act.”

“Eh?” I sneered.

“Tell me,” she went on. “Why on earth would someone want to hide a face that handsome behind a mask?”

I stuttered as my mind reeled over her words. I wasn’t sure what had thrown me, exactly. Her brazenness or the fact she actually thought that. How exactly was I meant to answer that?

‘Don’t let me ever see your pathetic face again!’

Shadow’s voice echoed in my mind and I grit my teeth together, looking away from her.

“You wouldn’t understand,” I muttered.

“Try me,” she said.

I continued to stare at the park, focusing on one of the trees and hoping the children’s laughter would drown out the bat’s probing questions. I didn’t want to go down that path, and she wasn’t dragging me.

“Look,” she went on. “I didn’t just bring you out here with the hopes of a date and pleasant company, you know. I just thought you could use a friend.”

I looked back at her then, my jaw hanging open slightly. She smiled back at me with one of those sly smirks.

“There,” she said. “That got your attention.”

My muzzle creased and I pushed myself back from the table. “Are you messing with me, bat?”

“Not at all.” She was completely unfazed, still smirking. “You keep dodging people. You hardly ever show up at meals, lurking in your room until everyone else has gone to bed. Well… I’m going to assume last night was the first time you ventured to the meeting room looking for scraps. It’s usually locked, you see. If I wasn’t in there, you’d have been stuck.”

“What are you getting at?” I asked as I settled back down.

“I can see right through you,” she went on. “You might not be wearing your old mask, but you’re still hiding behind a facade. I don’t see a monster like so many others do, Infinite. What I see is a timid, frightened jackal who doesn’t know what he’s landed himself in.” She stared back at my dumbfounded expression and chuckled. “I’m right, aren’t I? Thought so. It’s one of my talents.”

I had no words. She’d read me like a book. I let my head fall into my hands just as the waiter returned to place a large pizza in the middle of the table. Something cold brushed my arm and I jolted, spotting a glass of vibrant green soda beside me. Condensation dripped down the glass leaving a damp print on my fur.

Rouge watched the waiter leave then reached across and switched our drinks.

“Just in case you’re still worried he’s trying to poison you,” she joked.

I faltered for a moment then reached out to switch them back. But she moved the glass away and took a sip from it. I sighed and let my head fall back into my right hand.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Have I struck a nerve?”

“A raw one,” I muttered.

She let out a lone laugh and grabbed a slice of pizza. “Well. That proves my point then, doesn’t it?”

“What do you really want?” I growled.

“I already told you,” she said. “I want to show you that you have friends here. And I’m one of them.”

“And what about Shadow?”

“What about him?”

“Won’t he be angry that you’re ‘befriending’ me?”

“Oh, seething,” she said. “Smoldering away like hot embers on a coal fire. But I couldn’t care less what he thinks. You eating or not?”

I looked down at the pizza, suddenly not hungry. But I picked up a slice anyway and flicked off the pineapple.

“Isn’t he lurking somewhere?” I asked as I took a bite.

“Probably,” said Rouge. “He might not be my boyfriend, but he’s pretty protective.” A smirk crossed her lips. “If you want to really cheese him off, then take my hands.”

I swallowed my mouthful and scowled, looking between her outstretched hands and her sly face.

“I’m serious,” she said. “Go on, it’ll be a laugh.”

“You’re supposed to be telling me about Eggman,” I said.

She retracted her hands and returned to her pizza slice. “And you’re supposed to be good company, but I guess neither of us are getting what we want.”

“So this was all a game?” I growled. “You’re not going to tell me anything?”

“Oh, I am.” She took another bite and chewed it slowly as if toying with me.

I shook my head and took a sip of my melon soda. Then froze. What the…? I stared down at the neon green liquid fizzing away and licked my lips. What was this? And why hadn’t I had it before? I took a larger swig and set it back down with a ‘clink’.

Rouge chuckled as she watched me out of the corner of her eye. “Great stuff, huh?”

My appetite came back with a vengeance and I attacked my current pizza slice before reaching for another one.

“Well.” Rouge gave me a more genuine smile and sipped her own drink. “I guess I’ll tell you what we know now.”

I paused mid-bite to look up at her.

“Eggman has been sighted again a few miles north of here,” she explained. “Another robot attack, but no sign of Eggman himself. A few Egg Pawns were dropped in the coastal city. Less than were dropped in the desert. But that wasn’t all. The Egg Carrier also let loose a larger robot. One designed to look like a beaver.”

“I beaver?” I asked with my mouth full.

Rouge tugged a napkin from the menu stand and handed it to me. I took that as a cue to wipe my muzzle and I held off demolishing a third slice while she continued her story.

“It was about three times the size of one of his Egg Pawns,” she said. “And it smashed up the docks and three freight ships with its tail. It was completely water proof, using that to its advantage to avoid Sonic’s attacks. So it was mainly down to Tails and Silver, really. And Amy. She’s a little… less aquaphobic than Sonic.”

I didn’t find that hard to believe. She’d probably dive right in with her hammer swinging.

“The strange thing is,” Rouge went on, “once it had taken enough damage, it was whisked back up onto the ship. Not left to rot in the ocean.”

“That’s strange,” I said. “Eggman never claimed back fallen robots while I was with him. Not unless he needed the parts, anyway. But he usually had spare parts by the bucket.”

“That’s what I thought. And I wasn’t alone in that. Maybe there’s something about that beaver-bot that he can’t get easily elsewhere. But it makes me wonder if it’s going to be unleashed again.”

I slowly nibbled away at my next slice as I mulled this over. “If Eggman’s robot attacks are getting more frequent, then he’s planning something.”

“Exactly. Thankfully there weren’t any casualties. Just a few minor wounds.” Rouge claimed one of my discarded pineapple pieces. “But, true to the trend, five people have been recorded missing.”

“Given the art of the attack, is it not safe to say they’re in the ocean?”

“They could be. I mean, it did completely decimate the docks. And a huge chunk of the Aqua Hotel, too.” She paused and took a swig of her drink. “They also could have fled.”

I was really beginning to wonder what Eggman was up to. And what did he want in the desert? Right by my burrow? Oh, it was enough to make my head spin. When I’d finished my fourth slice I realised I’d almost finished my soda. I resisted the urge to ask for a refill and quickly downed it.

“Well, I should get back to the Chaotix.” I pushed myself back from the table and paused, looking back down at Rouge. “You sure you’re okay getting this?”

“Well you don’t exactly have any money,” she said. “And I’d be surprised if the Chaotix were paying you when they can barely afford rent.”

I nodded stiffly and stuffed my hands into my pockets. “Maybe I can return the favor one day.”

“You mean a date?” She feigned a jovial, girly smile and clasped her hands together.

I stared back at her and slowly shook my head.

She pouted and waved me off. “Go on, off with you. Get back to work before they chase me down for keeping you too long.”

I nodded and gave her a polite wave before heading back towards the Chaotix office. Pushing everything about Eggman to the back of my mind while I focused on Vanilla.
 

DeliriousAbsol

Call me Del
Chapter Seven​

Nothing much happened over the next few days. I’d wake up, grab a breakfast to go and head to the Chaotix office. While they were their normal, loud selves, I cross-referenced our different accounts of the attack on Station Square. And when I’d exhausted that, I decided to check the surrounding areas. But when Saturday rolled around, I was still non-the-wiser. Vanilla had vanished, along with the other missing people. Every time I broached the idea of investigating the refugee camps it seemed to fall on deaf ears.

So instead I asked for a complete list of everyone who went missing during the war. No photos necessary. Just names and a vague appearance. It kept the trio busy while I strained my mind to see if I’d missed anything. Not for the first time, either. But each time I tried to recall those attacks it became more difficult than the last. I was snapped out of my dark thoughts when Vector dropped a wad of paper before me. I blinked, bringing the printed list into focus.

“Twenty four sheets,” said the crocodile. “If I were payin’ you, it’d be comin’ outta your paycheck.”

“Drop it, Vector,” said Espio. “It helps with the case, doesn’t it?”

“I don’t see how.” Vector aimed a thumb at the door. “Anyway, it’s getting late. You should be off. I ain’t gettin’ accused of overworking you.”

I glanced up at the clock. Almost seven thirty. With a sigh, I bundled the wad of names into Vanilla’s folder and made for the door.

“And don’t show up tomorrow.” Vector slumped back behind his desk where a half-eaten sandwich waited. “It’s a Sunday. We’re closed.”

I gave a curt nod and left the office into the chilly evening air. The salty breeze blew over from the ocean and I tugged my jacket tighter around myself. I might have started to put weight back on recently, but the cold still bit through my fur.

“How should I know where he is?”

Shadow’s voice carried on the breeze and I faltered. He stood a good few feet ahead of me wedged in the castle doorway talking to Mocha.

“Well you tend to keep an eye on him,” she said. “I’m sorry, I was just a little concerned…”

“As far as I know, he’s fine,” the hedgehog grunted.

Mocha had her back to me, unaware of my presence. I shifted wondering if I should take a detour. I’d managed to avoid both her and Cream over the past few days. They did nothing but confuse me, and I wasn’t sure how to explain myself if she confronted me on the matter. But before I could escape, Shadow looked up over her head. Straight at me.

“That’s a little reassuring, but-” Her words trailed off as she looked over her shoulder, following his gaze. Her blue eyes widened slightly when she saw me.

Thwarted. I let out a defeated sigh and lowered my head, marching towards the door with every intention to just slip past and retire to my room. The door swung shut and Shadow scowled around it at me.

“You can deal with this,” he said. “I’m not handling your domestics.”

The door slammed, reverberating against my eardrums. I clenched my teeth together and clutched the folder to my chest. I just knew he was standing on the other side, listening. No way out of this one.

“I’m sorry,” said Mocha. “I came here looking for you, but I guess you were working late.” She gave a small chuckle and fidgeted with her hair. “And now I’ve got you in trouble.”

“Shadow doesn’t scare me.” A lie. I glared at the door, almost willing it to open and let me in.

“I’ve not seen you in a little while,” she said. “You’re looking well. That’s good.”

I reached out and grabbed the iron loop handle. Nothing. I jiggled it as rage began to pool in my chest. The wretch had locked it.

Mocha sighed and hugged her arms around herself. “I was right. You are avoiding me.”

I couldn’t look at her. I pressed my forehead against the cold wooden door and dragged my fingers down the grain.

“Please, Infinite.”

I felt my fur stand on end down my neck and I glared at the woodwork.

“Tell me if I’ve done anything to hurt you,” she went on. “Because I can’t think of anything. All I want is… Oh, I don’t know. Cream’s been asking about you, and I know she’s not done anything wrong.”

Cream… I clenched my jaw as I secured my grip around Vanilla’s case folder. Of course she’d not done anything wrong. I felt my anger ebb and I let my arm drop from the door to hang limp at my side.

“Please tell me,” Mocha went on. “Have I pushed my boundaries? Because I’m at a loss.”

“How much have you told her?” I asked.

She hesitated for a moment and I swivelled my ears back to check if she was still there.

“I’ve not told her anything,” she said. “Why would I? She already knows you’re helping the Chaotix but she’s never asked why. And I wouldn’t dream of telling her myself since I don’t want to get her hopes up.”

“So you think this is all hopeless?”

“I never said that.”

I pushed myself from the door and stood with my back against it. I clutched the folder to my chest and stared past the possum, avoiding her eyes.

“Look,” she said. “I’ve been re-living that afternoon trying to find out what could have happened to make you avoid both me and Cream. If it was having you remember that attack-”

“That had nothing to do with it,” I said.

“Then what was it? Because I want to make it right.”

I narrowed my eyes at her. “You wouldn’t understand.”

“Try me.”

“All right.” I turned my head to face her. “I don’t deserve anyone’s kindness, and you trying to get close to me is frightening me.”

She blinked and shook her head. “What?”

“I said you wouldn’t understand,” I snorted.

“Surely you’ve had friends before?” she said. “You even told me-”

I fired a glare at her and she diverted her gaze.

“Right,” she whispered. “I think I understand.”

“Do you?” I kicked myself back from the door as a bubbling sensation erupted in my chest. “I’m staying out of your way to protect us both! And Cream! You shouldn’t want to get close to someone like me. I’ve hurt you both already!”

She stared at me, tears glistening in her eyes as she shook her head. “You’re really in a lot of pain.”

I clenched my jaw tight and slumped back against the wall, trying to hide my face behind my hand. I could feel tears welling in my own eyes. She wasn’t going to see me like this. I wasn’t going to let her. I reached for the door handle, finding it still locked.

“I’ll give you some space if you want it,” she said. “But I can’t ignore someone suffering like this. You know where I am if you need me.”

I heard her feet on the grass as she walked way. Cream’s little voice piped up in the distance as she called my name. But when I lowered my hand, I spotted Mocha steering her away, back towards her home. Away from me. It was what I wanted, wasn’t it? I’d asked, and I’d got it.

I screwed my eyes shut and turned back to the castle. That bubbling sensation flared into a boiling furnace and I rammed my fist on the door.

“Let me in, Shadow!” I roared.

A loud click came from the door and it swung open, revealing the black hedgehog.

“There!” I said. “She’s gone. Are you happy?”

“Why would that make me happy?” he sneered.

“You told me to deal with it and I did. That’s one more person out of my miserable life. And why? Because of you.” I swept my arm to the side and flashed my canines. “My life is a wretched mess because of you!”

Shadow’s eyes narrowed and he stepped out of the castle, letting the door close behind him. I took a step back, but the rage didn’t leave my face. Fire pulsed through my veins and I clenched my free hand into a fist.

“What have I got to do with your pathetic mess of a life?” His voice was laced with danger, but I didn’t care.

“Oh, you know,” I said, a wavering laugh emerging from my throat. “You killed them!”

“Who?”

“My crew!” I roared. “You killed them all and left me to deal with the aftermath! You took everything from me!”

“That jackal squad?” He snorted. “They were just obstacles.”

Was he trying to make me mad? I pulled my lips back and let the folder drop to the floor to free my other hand.

“That’s the price you pay for helping Eggman,” he went on. “Besides… what kind of leader would just let his entire crew be slaughtered like that?”

That was it. Rage flared in my eyes and I swiped at his face. But he vanished in the blink of an eye. Before I could fully process it, he reappeared and struck me in the gut with his knee. I flew away from him with a grunt and landed hard on my tail. He shot towards me, but I leapt to the side on all-fours. I didn’t even have time to stand up. He shoulder barged me in the back, sending be sprawling on the floor. I fixed my left eye on him as he stood over me, arms folded.

“Are you quite done?” he said.

I spat dirt from my mouth and pushed myself onto my knees. That fire was still roaring in my chest. My mind was blinded by the image of my fallen crew. Deafened by their cries of despair and Shadow’s condescending words. That skirmish had only served to make it more clear. I didn’t stand a chance. I never had.

“It’s all your fault,” I said.

I could feel his crimson glare burning through my mane. I pushed myself up and turned slowly to face him.

“The only reason I used the Phantom Ruby’s power was because of you,” I said.

“Don’t you dare,” he growled.

“What? Scared of the truth?” I let out a dry chuckle and forced myself to meet his glare with my own. “How does it feel, Shadow, to know you could have stopped that war before it really started? If you’d just killed me like you had the rest of my crew, no one else would have died!”

In a flash he was on me. His fist struck my jaw and I landed flat on my back. The wind flew from my lungs and I coughed as I tried to get it back.

“Don’t you go pinning all this on me!” he roared.

Pain shot through my chest as he grabbed hold of the ruby and my eyes flew back open. He dragged me from the floor until I was almost nose to nose with him.

“You’re the one who wanted this thing fused to your body.” He shook me hard, causing me to howl with pain. I clawed at his arm if only to stop him tearing the ruby from my ribs. “You’re the one who used it for evil! Killing thousands of people for your own sick goals! If you regret it all, then good. You should regret it. But don’t you dare go blaming me. I tried to stop you.”

“Well you didn’t finish the job,” I wheezed.

His crimson eyes locked onto mine. “You honestly don’t think I regret sparing your worthless life? Maybe now I should just put you out of your misery.”

I stared back at him, meeting his livid expression with one of fear. Why did he have this effect on me? Whatever. If he really did want to kill me then I wasn’t going to stop him. I let my eyes close and released his arm, feeling a painful tug across my ribs as I let my weight drop. He dug his fingers into my chest and for a fleeting moment I thought he was actually going to end me. But instead he shoved his hand into the ruby and sent me sprawling to the floor.

“Pathetic,” he spat. “You see, that’s the difference between you and me. Unlike you, I’m not a monster.”

I grimaced, ducking behind the collar of my jacket.

“If you really think I’m responsible for making you like this, you’re wrong,” he went on. “I didn’t make you into a killer, you did that. You should take responsibility for your own foolish actions.”

He cast one more leer my way before marching back into the castle, locking the door behind him. I lay there, staring at the stone wall as the gravity of everything I’d just said washed over me. A torrent of fear I’d tried to repress. Fear and grief that had been driven to anger. Driven to the birth of a monster. A pained roar left my throat and those restrained tears broke free. I curled up into a tight ball, clutching my tail to my chest. I sobbed into my hands. Loudly. Breaking the silence I’d not been aware had fallen over the town.

I barely noticed the footsteps as someone rushed towards me. Dropped down in front of me, placing a tiny hand on my arm. She said something, but it didn’t register. Nothing did until I felt fingers in my mane. I became aware of Mocha leaning over me, talking to me. Trying to drag me out of the mire I’d fallen into.

“Please…” Her voice finally broke through the chaos in my head. “Let me help you.”

Those words only made me curl up tighter. I couldn’t even move, as much as I wanted to. I just wanted to get away. Crawl into a hole and hide like the pathetic monster I was.

I felt Mocha tug on my arm, dragging me to my feet. “Come on. You’re coming back with me.”

“Just let me go,” I groaned.

“No,” she said. “I’m not giving up on you.”

I buried my face in my right hand. The other arm was locked around Mocha’s shoulders as she tried to drag me away from the castle.

Cream shifted behind me and her voice cracked with sobs. “Mister Infinite, please. You’re my friend. I know you’re not a bad person.”

“Chao…”

“We can help you,” she added.

As Mocha tried to steer me away, I heard the castle door open. She craned her head around and nodded at whoever had opened it.

“Do you think that’s such a good idea?” Sonic asked. “After what I’ve just been told-”

“Just let me get him off the street at least,” she said.

Sonic fell silent and I pinched my muzzle, wishing I was anywhere but this crazy town. I realised Mocha wasn’t holding onto me tightly. I could slip away, yet for some reason I stood there. Exposed. Leaning on her shoulder like an invalid.

Sonic made a thoughtful noise then said, “It probably is a good idea to keep him away from Shadow for a while. But I’m not too comfortable leaving Infinite with a civilian right now.”

“He won’t hurt me,” said Mocha.

“Well, if you really insist.” Sonic paused. “Cream, you should get back home.”

“But…” Cream stuttered, clutching something to her chest. “But Mister Infinite’s my friend, and he needs help.”

I pulled my ears flat against my head and stared blankly ahead of me. What was with these people? I wasn’t anyone’s ‘friend’.

“And Missus Barbara isn’t home right now,” Cream went on. “Nanny was…”

“It’s okay, Cream,” said Mocha. “Don’t worry, Sonic. She’ll be fine.”

The blue hedgehog sighed and ducked back into the castle. “Okay. If you really think you’ve got this. But I’ll be over there shortly to discuss this further, and make sure Cream is back with her foster family.”

Mocha nodded and steered me away down the stone path. I barely saw it. It wasn’t until I was set on her sofa that I even realised we’d left the castle grounds.

I huddled into the arm of the sofa and pulled my tail tightly around myself. What had I done? I grimaced and idly rubbed my chest. It still hurt, pulsing with a dull pain. The sofa sank down beside me as Cream clambered up into it. She still clutched whatever it was she was carrying. I tried to ignore her, burying my muzzle behind my collar.

A large, yellow coffee mug appeared on the table before me, complete with a matching saucer. My nose twitched as I failed to detect the tell-tale hint of coffee beans.

“It’s tea,” said Mocha quietly. “I often drink it when I’m feeling a bit… well…” She waved a hand and diverted her gaze to the fireplace. “I thought you might like it.”

I sat back against the sofa and rubbed my muzzle. “Everyone’s going to want me out of here now, aren’t they?”

“I don’t,” said Mocha.

“But I attacked him.”

Mocha shrugged her shoulders. “I both heard and saw everything. And… I feel I might be partly to blame.”

“You did nothing,” I scoffed.

“Well… You might think so, but all it takes is a catalyst.” She hugged herself and glanced towards the door. “I feel like he might have done a lot.”

“So you think he had it coming?”

“I’m not defending your actions,” she said. “You shouldn’t have attacked him. But from what you’ve said, it sounds like there’s a lot bottled up inside that led you to this. And if you keep hanging onto it, who’s to say it won’t happen again?”

I grimaced and cowered behind my hand.

“We’ve all, as kids, shook up a bottle of soda to see what happens,” Mocha went on. “I fear it’s only a matter of time until something shakes you so much you’re just going to explode.”

“What are you trying to say?” I growled.

“She’s saying you need to let all the fizzy out,” said Cream.

I turned to look at the rabbit, but she wasn’t looking at me. She clutched the blue case folder in her hands, leaning back to admire it in the light. My heart lurched and I fought the urge to snatch it off her.

“Cream’s right,” said Mocha. “I don’t know how it might happen. I don’t know if Shadow or someone else will be on the receiving end. But in some way, I feel you’re self destructing. And by pushing people away, you’re not giving yourself any way to actually deal with it all.”

“I am dealing with it!” I snapped.

“No, you’re not.” Mocha paused and perched on the arm of the sofa beside me. “A bottle of soda can’t remove its own lid.”

I sighed into my hand and closed my eyes. So she wanted me to spill everything. Tell her exactly what it was that led to Infinite. Well, I wasn’t sure I was ready. I glanced back to the door and spotted a spiky shadow on the other side of the glass. My blood turned to ice and I gripped the arm of the chair, causing Mocha to leap from it with a squeak. She followed my gaze and muttered to herself as she went to answer it.

Sonic stood on the other side, and he spotted Cream instantly.

“Barbara is back home now, I just saw her,” he said.

“Okay.” Cream pouted and slid from the seat.

She looked down at the folder in her hands and held it out to me. I took it hesitantly, but she gave me a beaming smile.

“Are you really going to help me find my mother?” she asked.

I met her brown eyes, filled with hope. Mocha was right to have avoided telling her anything. Something clenched in my chest and I stared down at the title of the case file. If I got chased from Freedom Citadel, now… No. I’d still keep searching. Even if it meant doing so from a cell while the hours ticked down to my inevitable death.

“I can try.” My voice came out oddly quiet.

The little rabbit leapt back onto the sofa and threw her arms around my neck. My entire spine stiffened and I froze, unsure of what to do with my own arms. But in a flash, she dropped from me and trotted towards the door.

“Bye, Mister Infinite!” She waved from beside Sonic with Cheese imitating her. “I’ll see you soon, okay!”

“Chao!”

The rabbit skipped away down Mocha’s footpath with Cheese at her side. She vanished from view when Mocha closed the door behind herself. I spotted her blurred form through the glass as she spoke with Sonic. I didn’t catch much of the conversation. The odd word here and there. It wasn’t heated, but I could tell from his tone Sonic was worried.

I’d definitely messed up. Since when did it matter to me if I was sent out of this crazy place? I combed my fingers through my thick tail as I strained to hear what was being said. From the few words I picked up, it sounded like Mocha was telling Sonic exactly what she’d seen and heard. Maybe I didn’t want to listen in after all.

Mocha came back inside and closed the door behind her. No sign of Sonic. I glanced up at her, my eyes flitting about as I braced myself for whatever she had to say.

“He’s worried,” she said. “But apparently Shadow has a reputation for rubbing people the wrong way.”

I grunted and trailed my fingers over my tail. “Why doesn’t that surprise me?”

“Sonic didn’t know Shadow killed your crew. And Shadow didn’t exactly go into detail about your argument, either.” She paused and wound her hands together. “On the bright side, Sonic says you can go back to your room whenever you want. But if you wish to avoid Shadow for a while, you’re free to stay on my sofa.”

Well, that was a surprise. I stared at her, mouth agape.

“So they’re not sending me to a jail cell?” I asked.

“Not for that, no.” She brushed her hair back from her mouth. “But you’ll need supervision again for a while.”

I snorted. “What? From the shadow himself?”

“I think Silver volunteered.”

I rolled my eyes and sat back against the sofa, absently trailing my fingers around the ruby. My ribs still hurt.

“You keep messing with that,” she said. “I’m worried you might have broke something. Let me check.”

As she approached me, I cowered back into the sofa. “I’ve not broken anything.”

“You don’t know that. Let me check.”

“Mocha, no.” I raised a hand to stop her advance. “I don’t like people touching me.”

“A broken rib can be pretty dangerous if left untreated. It could lead to a punctured lung.” She met my gaze and shrugged. “All I’m going to do is quickly check, then I won’t touch you again. Okay?”

“I’m fine,” I said slowly.

“Are you?” She placed her hands on her hips. “Would you even tell me if you weren’t?”

I stared at her, hoping my feelings on the matter would hit home. Instead, she inclined her head on one side and sighed.

“I won’t stop until you let me examine you,” she said. “So you can either sit back and let me check you over, or we can do this all night.”

I buried my face in one hand and waved the other in defeat.

She leant in towards me and gently ran her fingers over my chest, straying too close to the Phantom Ruby for comfort. The scent of roses wafted from her fur and I fought the urge to leap over the back of the sofa like a terrified pup. I flicked my tail to the side and screwed my eyes shut. I hated feeling so vulnerable. My hand instinctively groped for my missing sword, but instead found a scatter pillow. Not exactly something I could defend myself with if things turned ugly. I felt her trace up towards the long hair of my ruff. Much too close to my throat. My eyes snapped open involuntarily and fixed her with a warning glare. I suddenly became aware I was breathing heavily and my heart was pounding as though it were trying to burst the ruby clean out of my chest.

She met my eyes and fell back, wiping her gloves on her dungarees.

“I think they’re just bruised.” She rose to her feet and headed towards the kitchen. “Although it would have been a lot easier to check a few days back when you were just skin and bones.”

I chose to ignore that back-handed insult. My skin prickled and I absently rubbed my clavicle to set the fur back the right way.

“You weren’t wrong when you said you don’t like people touching you!” Mocha’s voice came from the kitchen. I watched as she came back in, carrying another over-sized mug of tea. “I could have described it as a phobia.”

“That’s putting it strongly. But in my old line of work you don’t know who to trust.” I picked up my own mug, still hot, and used it to warm my hands. “Someone could no sooner try to kill you the moment they got close enough.”

“So I guess you’ve never had a girlfriend then?”

“I never said that.” I sipped my tea and glanced towards the fireplace. “But not really. Nothing serious anyway.”

“Well… I know it can’t be easy,” she said, “but you don’t have to behave that way around me.”

“Old habits die hard.”

“You have my word I’m not going to kill you,” she joked.

I rolled my eyes and took another sip of tea. It was oddly calming. A moment of silence passed between us, broken only by the occasional bird cry as they flew in to roost in the tree outside the living room window.

“I’m not going to push you,” said Mocha, drawing my attention. “But when you’re ready to… ‘let the fizzy out’ as Cream put it, then I’ll be there. I’m not a counsellor, but I know it helps to have an ear to talk to.”

The faces from my past began to cloud my mind and I tried to stifle them. They sent a chill down my spine and I huddled into the sofa, clutching the warm mug like a lifeline.

“I’m not ready, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever be,” I said flatly as my eyes drifted back to the door. For a fleeting moment I thought I spotted Shadow lurking in the garden. “But I’ll keep a tight screw on that lid.”
 

DeliriousAbsol

Call me Del
Chapter Eight​

The crimson landscape was oddly quiet. Empty. I don’t think I’d been this far away from the trees. The plane was flat, but I could hear the bloody river gurgling away on my left. Not that I could see it. Where were my crew? Was I too late, or had they actually got away?

“They’re behind that outcrop.”

The distorted voice sent a chill down my spine. I flicked my ears towards it then turned to follow the sounds of rustling. That monster sat in the branches of a dead tree, its long tail trailing down behind it.

“Do you want to see?” A glimmer of humor crossed its lone eye.

No. I didn’t want to see. A lump welled in my throat and I clutched the handle of my scimitar.

The monster sighed and nudged the bridge of its pointed muzzle. “Pity. But I suppose you do have bigger things to be worried about.”

“You’re oddly talkative,” I growled.

The monster laughed, a horrible grating sound that seemed to fill the entire landscape. “Oh, I could have so much fun with you tonight, Infinite.”

My fur bristled at its words and I bared my canines. It slid from the branch, drifting down towards the floor. Then it turned and blasted the blackened tree with a burst of crimson lightning. The action made its body flicker as if it were detached from reality. But it didn’t seem to care. It looked over its shoulder and narrowed its golden eye.

“Just so you have less places to hide.” Another distorted laugh.

I took a wary step back and raised my sword to defend myself. But it didn’t advance. It just stood watching me, chilling me with its terrifying presence.

“You know you’re the one who killed them, right?” it said. “Not that Shadow.”

My lips curled back and I narrowed my eyes. “No, he killed them! They didn’t stand a chance!”

The monster tutted and turned fully to face me. “Oh no. It was you. Because you aren’t strong enough. But I guess if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t exist.”

“What are you getting at?” I hissed.

“I’m that voice that drives your anger. The one that makes you see your real worth.” In a flash it was before me. Black and crimson and horrible. I could barely even focus on it. “You couldn’t even beat him with the Phantom Ruby’s power. What’s worse, you were ruined by a mere child!”

“I don’t even want it!” I roared. “Look at what it’s done to me!”

“Oh, the ruby didn’t do that. You were always worthless. Maybe you were right. Shadow should have put you out of your misery. Rather than letting you wallow and write around in a despicable pool of misery.”

I clenched my teeth together and closed my eyes. The scimitar dropped from my hand as it fell limp at my side.

“Oh, look at that,” said the monster. “Even words can beat you down.”

“Just leave me alone,” I mumbled.

“I don’t think you really want me to leave you alone.”

“You know nothing.” I looked up at the monster, fixing it in a leer.

“I know you better than anyone else,” it said. “And you keep coming back here.”

I stared back at it for a moment, still unable to focus on it. It was as though it wasn’t even solid. As though it didn’t want me to look at it. Or was it me being unwilling to see it?

I grimaced and clasped my hands into fists. “I said leave me alone!”

My voice shook the air and the crimson landscape vanished in a flicker of strobing lights. I found myself standing in a garden, surrounded by fragrant flower beds. It was still dark, but a few lights flickered in the distance from beyond small windows.

What was I doing outside?

I frowned at the oak in front of me. Great, I’d been shouting at a tree…

“Infinite?”

The small voice drew my eye back to the house. Mocha stood in the doorway hugging herself. She sported a fluffy brown nightgown peppered with pink hearts and her hair was dishevelled, hanging before her tired eyes.

“What are you doing outside?” she asked.

I turned back to the tree. No sign of the monster. Although I’m not sure what I expected. That crimson world was a figment of my imagination, after all. I turned from the garden and slumped back to the house. Mocha stepped aside to let me in and closed the door behind me.

“I guess I was sleepwalking.” I returned to the sofa and gathered up the discarded blanket, wrapping it around myself like a burrito before flopping into the seat.

“You were shouting,” said Mocha. “I thought someone else was actually out there.”

“Nightmares,” I said. “I’ve had them for months.”

I shifted under Mocha’s gaze as she trailed her eyes over me, causing me to huddle further into the blanket.

“I’ll be fine,” I said. “You should go back to bed.”

“If you’re sure,” she said. “I find it difficult to get back to sleep after a bad dream.”

“Same.” I poked an arm from the blanket to reach across the coffee table for Vanilla’s case file. “And I don’t plan to.”

“Really? It’s only half one in the morning.”

I shrugged and flipped the file open. “I’m used to it.”

“Put that away.”

She moved over to the bookcase and pulled out a small, hardback book. I found it plopped on top of the open folder. ‘The Hunting of the Snark’?

“It’s one of my favourite childhood stories,” she said. “Helps me escape reality for a bit. It might help you sleep.”

Before I could reply, she moved into the kitchen and I heard the stove flare up. Her voice called out to me from the open door.

“It’s about a group of hunters,” she said. “They go on a voyage to find a creature no one has ever seen, called a Snark. But there’s the ever present danger that what they pursue might actually be a deadly creature called a Boojum instead.”

My nose crinkled at the bizarre plot. I picked up the book and flicked over a few pages. It was filled with illustrations and wasn’t a novel at all. Just a poem, filled with words I’d never heard of and sentences that didn’t even make sense. I frowned at the silly book. How was I meant to use this to escape reality? Well… it did seem very far from it. Maybe that was the point?

As I was trying to wrap my head around the first page where some guy called the Bellman tried to rally his unusual crew onto his ship, Mocha came back into the living room. She clasped two steaming mugs in her hands and the smell of milk filled the living room. She placed one in front of me then held her own in two hands.

“It’s malt,” she said. “It’ll relax you. If you’re okay, I’ll head back up to bed.”

I rolled my eyes and returned to the strange book. “I can’t get my head around this. I’ll just work on the case for a while.”

“You’re not working at this hour. You’ll never sleep!”

“That’s the point,” I said. “Besides, this makes no sense. If anything, this will keep me awake more than my case notes will.”

“It’s nonsense-verse,” she said. “But if you’re struggling with it, maybe you’re reading it wrong?”

“How many ways are there to read something?” I scoffed.

She sank down beside me and took the book from my hands. “I’ll show you.”

“You’re actually going to read it to me?” I asked.

“I wasn’t planning on it, but if it will help, yes.”

I rubbed my temples and groaned.

“Don’t worry. I’ve read many books to children before,” she said.

So I was being treated as a child now? I ran my hands down my muzzle and sank down into my blanket.

She flicked to the beginning of the chapter. Or, should I say, ‘Fit the First’. “’Just the place for a Snark!’ the Bellman cried-’”

“Wait, wait…” I said, pleadingly. “You really don’t have to do the voices.”

She narrowed her eyes at me and said, “I’m doing the voices.”

I raised my hands in defeat and motioned for her to continue. Begrudgingly. While I sipped my hot malt.

“’Just the place for a Snark!’ the Bellman cried. As he landed his crew with care; Supporting each man on the top of the tide by a finger entwined in his hair.’”

The poem flowed from her with the grace of a song as the Bellman rallied his crew aboard his ship. A Boots, a Bonnet Maker, a Barrister, a Broker… every one beginning with the letter ‘B’. Even a beaver, and not the kind that might live in Freedom Citadel. One you’d find living in a dam chewing bark. Although it had as much personality as the rest of the characters. It sparked the memory of Eggman’s beaver robot at first, but I forced myself to sweep it under the rug and focus on the ‘story’.

After a while I found myself laughing at Mocha’s comical voices and actually following the plot. Well… what could pass as a plot. If anything it was just a fun ride as the rag-tag crew strove to find their trophy, even going so far as to get split up for a while. I even found myself joining in when they recited how to hunt the elusive Snark:

‘They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care; They pursued it with forks and hope; They threatened its life with a railway-share; They charmed it with smiles and soap.’

Each time, we doubled over laughing and Mocha wiped a jovial tear from her eye the third time it came up. I realised I’d moved closer to her to get a better view of the silly illustrations. Although I was still wrapped up like a burrito. The rendition of the Snark wasn’t what I’d expected (although none of the characters had actually seen one.) I pictured it as an aquatic creature, probably because of the similarity to the word ‘shark’.

However, when the end of the story rolled around it left an unsettled feeling in my gut. The Baker found himself separated, where he came across their goal. I followed the words as Mocha read them, clutching the inside of the blanket.

“’In the midst of the word he was trying to say, In the midst of his laughter and glee, He had softly and suddenly vanished away - For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.’”

She snapped the book shut, causing me to leap slightly. Mocha smiled at me, but I returned it with a glare.

“What was that?” I scoffed. “You call that a happy ending?”

She chuckled and shook her head. “It’s just silliness!”

I huffed and stared down at the book in her hands. It had been fun, but I’d been expecting them to actually find what they were looking for.

“Is there a sequel?” I asked. “Do they actually find the Snark?”

She stood up and made her way back to the bookcase. “I like to think the Snark doesn’t exist. Or if it does, it’s safely tucked away on an island they can never find. I mean, they’re only out to kill it, right?”

I pondered this for a moment and nodded stiffly. As she slid the book back, I found myself asking something that took me by surprise;

“Leave it out?”

She looked back at me with a start.

I cleared my throat and huddled into the blanket. “I might read it again.”

“Well, if you want to.” She looked between me and the book then set it on the coffee table. “I’m going to head back up to bed now. It’s nearly four in the morning.”

I watched her vanish beyond the door that led to the stairs then scooped up the book. I settled back against the arm of the chair and read over two of the ‘chapters’. Then my eyes began to blur.

I found myself on that ship, clutching a bell in my hands. The rest of my jackal crew were behind me, mulling about while Ace argued with the beaver about nachos. The sea was quiet and there was barely a breeze. I leant on the head of the ship, peering over into the clear blue sea. It parted as the ship pressed on towards its invisible goal.

Something moved beneath the water. Something big. Big enough to cause the ship to lurch to the side as it slowly rose towards the surface.

I leapt back from the head and rang the bell. “It’s here! The Snark is here!”

Riley and Jack leapt to my side. One clutching a thimble, the other a bar of soap.

Whatever it was emerged from the water, causing the ship to keel sideways. The creature’s pointed face parted the waves as it leapt out with all the violence of a geyser. Water rained down on the ship, flooding the deck up to my knees. The huge monster brought its fist down on the ship, shattering the port side. The vessel lurched from side to side and I had to clutch the mast to stop myself from being carried overboard. Screams hammered my ears as my crewmates scrambled against the current. But it was no use. They vanished from sight, tumbling from the shattered deck into the deadly sea.

“In the midst of your laughter and glee…” The chilling voice filled the air, driving my fur on end. “…They have softly and suddenly vanished away.”

One lone, yellow eye peered down at me from the monstrous face as the sky turned crimson. Red static crackled around its body and it let out a dry, distorted chuckle.

“For your Snark is a Boojum, you see!”

I sat upright with a gasp, sending the book clattering to the floor. The living room was deathly quiet. Still dark. I ran a hand over my ears and flopped back against the arm of the chair. The digital clock beside the TV blinked at me in neon green.

Five forty five.

I reached across the table for the case file.

...​

I’d barely taken in the case notes. Staring at the pages as that dream messed with my head. Three hours had passed by the time Mocha emerged from the stairs.

“Good morning,” she quipped.

I grunted, drawing a concerned look. But I didn’t meet it. I continued to stare at the pages of text. To her, I probably appeared focused on my work moreso than distressed. I hoped.

“I’m going to make breakfast,” she said. “The shower is free if you want it.”

“I’m fine.”

She muttered a ‘very well’ as she moved into the kitchen. That familiar stove flare momentarily drowned out her singing. I let the file slide from my lap and rubbed my hands over my face.

That night had been the first time I’d genuinely laughed in a long time. It had resulted in the happiest dream I’d had in months… and it had ended like that? What was wrong with me? I stared at the front door, watching the shadows of the birds flitting back and forth. I couldn’t even have a happy dream about my old crew. Of course not. I was the reason they were dead, so why would they be alive in my dreams, spending time with me?

Mocha crossed my vision and she paused to raise an eyebrow at me. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

She clasped a bag of seed in one hand and a pair of thick, brown tartan gloves in the other. I kicked myself from the sofa and slumped towards the kitchen.

“Infinite?”

I froze and swished my tail. “Go feed the birds. I’ll watch the stove.”

“What… I…” A slight note of offense rose in her voice. “It’ll be fine. I do this every morning.”

Great. She’d taken it the wrong way, thinking I was berating her for leaving the kitchen unattended. I leant my head against the door-frame and pinched my muzzle.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” I said. “I’m just trying to be helpful.”

She let out a long sigh. “You seemed so happy last night.”

Tell me about it. I rolled my eyes.

“Is this because of what happened with Shadow yesterday?” she asked. “Or did you have another nightmare?”

I didn’t want to answer that. I pushed back from the wall and vanished into the kitchen. The oaty smell from the slowly heating pan did little to wash away my bitterness. I grabbed the wooden spoon off the worktop and idly stirred the contents. Did I need to do anything else? I cast a glance over the various containers and decided against it.

Mocha moved beyond the window, drawing my eye. No smile on her face. That was my doing. The last time I’d seen her feeding the birds, she’d been smiling. I bit my lip and tore myself away, turning back to the pan. I didn’t want to drag her down with me. Maybe it would be better if I went back to my own room? Take my chances living close to Shadow. No… She’d only gone and looked for me, so who’s to say she wouldn’t do it again? She’d let me get under her skin, and I was beginning to do the same. Just like I had with Cream and Cheese. If they wanted me in their lives then I’d have to put on a facade. It wasn’t as if I was a stranger to wearing a mask. How hard would it be to wear an invisible one, really? People did it all the time. Some even won awards. It was called ‘acting’.

A little voice reached my ears and I turned back to the window. Racing up the path was Cream with Cheese trailing behind her. Mocha straightened from her flowerbeds and beamed down at the little rabbit. There was that smile. It warmed me a little.

I turned my back on the window and leant my elbows on the worktop. My mind went back to Mocha reading that book. The laughter and lightheartedness. How it had chased those bad dreams away, if only for a little while. That was what I wanted. The concept surprised me and I stared down at my hands as I tried to fully process it. It made sense. Compared to how I was feeling… how I had been feeling for years… I rubbed at my face as the porridge began to sputter away in the pan.

“Good morning!” Cream skipped into the kitchen and paused beside me. “Are you okay?”

“Just tired,” I said.

Mocha discarded her gloves as she moved towards the stove. She raised a hand towards my shoulder then faltered, instead reaching for the spoon.

“I’ll take over,” she said. “You two take a seat at the table.”

I obliged, taking the spot furthest away from her, while Cream opted to take the closest seat to me the table would allow.

“I thought you didn’t like to eat first thing?” I said to Mocha.

“I’ve been up a while,” Mocha explained. “I had a shower and sorted my hair before I came downstairs. It’s a Sunday, so I don’t get a house full of children on their way to school. A rare opportunity to take it easy.”

I turned to the little rabbit. “And you’re here because…?”

“I always join Nanny for breakfast on a Sunday!” she exclaimed with a smile. “Missus Barbara likes to have a lie-in.”

“Huh. I bet that’s nice.”

Cream and Cheese both chuckled. “Well, when you go back to your room or get your own house, you could have a Sunday lie-in, too!”

“Chao!”

“Cream is quite the morning person.” Mocha placed a tray of condiments on the table. “I’m going to guess you’re not?”

The humorous tone in her voice made me roll my eyes and I leant my head on one hand. I did quite like the idea of a lie-in, if I could ever get a decent night’s sleep.

“So what are your plans for today, Cream?” Mocha asked as she spooned porridge into three bowls. Plus a smaller one for Cheese.

“I was thinking of going to the park.” Cream lifted her spoon as Mocha placed her bowl before her. Her brown eyes sparkled and she looked at us each in turn. “Oh! You should both come!”

I stared at her, aghast. My muzzle began to crease and my eyes widened as I gave myself a mental scolding. ‘Remember, you’re supposed to be acting!’ I tilted my head to look up at Mocha. She returned my look with a cocked eyebrow.

“You want to?” she asked.

I shrugged and sat back as she gave me my bowl. “It couldn’t hurt.”

“Fresh air is good for you.” Cream spooned jam into her porridge. Then she handed me the jar. “You must try this! It’s amazing!”

Strawberry? I took her recommendation.

Mocha settled down opposite me and reached for the syrup. Cheese grabbed his tiny bowl and tilted it back towards himself, drinking it like soup. At the rate he was going, he was probably going to end up with more on his bow-tie than in his stomach.

“A trip out might do us all some good,” said Mocha. “We’ll go after we’ve finished breakfast.”

“Yes!” Cream threw her hands into the air. “I really want to go on the pirate ship!”

Ship? I almost dropped my spoon as the wrecked ship from my dream careened through my mind.

Cream fixed her beaming smile on Mocha. “Maybe we can get ice cream, too?”

“Of course,” said Mocha, returning her smile.

“I think I’ll get a strawberry one!” Cream spooned more porridge into her mouth then turned on me. “What flavour will you get, Mister Infinite? I bet your a chocolate mint kind of person.”

I chuckled and lowered my spoon. “I don’t think I’ve ever had chocolate mint.”

“What?” Her brown eyes widened. “We have to fix this!”

“And fix we shall.” Mocha tapped Cream’s bowl. “Eat up, then we can be off.” She pointed at me. “You, too. Or no ice cream.”

I didn’t need telling twice. The strawberry jam in my porridge was rather appealing. Afterward, I opted to help the girls cleaning the dishes while Cheese popped them away where they belonged. A chao’s physical strength never ceased to amaze me.

When we left the house, two figures stood lurking just outside the garden. Mocha looked up with a start then smiled at the two. Silver and Blaze leant against her fence, a total contrast to Shadow’s familiar skulking. They beamed at us and the silver hedgehog pushed himself back from his perch.

“Good morning!” Cream chirruped. “We’re going to the park.”

“So are we,” said Silver. “I hope you don’t mind us tagging along?”

Blaze said nothing, instead glancing up at the sky as though worried it might rain. But only a smattering of fluffy white clouds lay against the blue backdrop.

“Not at all,” said Mocha.

“The more the merrier,” said Cream. “Right, Cheese?”

“Cha-chao!”

A smile tugged at the lavender cat’s lips and she joined her friend’s side. Cream tried to engage her in conversation, occasionally succeeding, as we followed the path back towards the castle. If I remembered right, the park was near the pizza place.

As we turned towards the main part of the town, I spotted Shadow leaving the castle. He paused when he spotted me to fix me in a crimson glare. A low growl rose in my throat and I balled my hands into fists. But my growing rage was swatted aside as a hand brushed mine. I leapt slightly and looked down into Cream’s concerned face. She tried again, trying to encourage me to relax my fist. I cast one glance back at Shadow. It wasn’t worth it. I took Cream’s small hand, letting her lead me away from the smoldering hedgehog. I spotted Blaze beyond Mocha, her wrists flickering with flames. Golden eyes fixed on me. But the flames fizzled out as Silver led her away.

We followed the path through the town’s main street and I soon discovered I’d been wrong about the park. The one I’d seen was part of the adjoining restaurant. Cream’s park was much further on, close to the north wall. I stared up at the cast iron fence spanning out on either side of me.

“It’s huge!” I gasped.

“It even has its own hedge maze,” said Cream.

“How big is this town?” I turned to my companions, expecting an answer.

Silver shrugged his shoulders. “A couple of miles either way, I guess.”

“It’s about three and a half,” said Blaze. “Squared.”

I looked back up at the gate again and let out a long whistle. Cream skipped ahead, tugging at my arm, and I stumbled forward as I found myself dragged behind her. Mocha laughed and followed after us with Silver and Blaze. Cream led the way down the cobblestone path, taking each fork without fault. Vibrant flower beds buzzed on either side of us as bees and butterflies busied themselves amongst them.

I spotted a tall sign post at one of the forks. One arrow pointed towards a pond. The other, the playground. Cream didn’t even acknowledge it. She skipped ahead, chatting to Cheese as she made a beeline for the playground. Tinkling music reached my ears from an ice cream van perched a few feet from the playground’s fence. Just beyond the fence, spanning the entire circumference of the playground, were the scaly, snake-like arches of a blue and green sea monster. Its reptilian head rose up in the middle of the playground where two children sat on it while they enjoyed their ice creams. True to Cream’s words, a large ship graced the far end of the playground. Sprawling cargo nets spread between the masts, filled with children clambering over them. A couple stood in the crow’s nest, pointing at something across the park. At the tail end of the ship was a slide, and the only way I could see to reach it was via a climbing frame that took up the entire length of the starboard.

I stuffed my hands into my pockets and followed Cream to the ship. My intention was to take up refuge on one of the benches and lose myself in my thoughts. I had my eye on one not too far from a large compass children were spinning around on. Not too far from that were a set of spring-based rocking seahorses. There was definitely a bit of a nautical theme going on.

Cream cleared her throat and I froze mere inches from my desired bench. I stared at her over my shoulder, and she stared back. Arms folded and foot tapping.

“Yes?” I ventured.

She pointed toward the ship. “We have a job to do.”

I looked between her and the crowded ship and stuttered as I tried to work out what she was getting at. But before I could actually form any words, she grabbed my wrist in both her hands.

“The ship needs her Captain!”

Since when did I get promoted to ship captain? I fixed a pleading gaze on Mocha who merely shrugged. So I turned to Silver. He strolled over to us with Blaze, the pair of them sharing a soda in a green glass bottle.

“All of us,” said Cream. “Get on the ship. Blaze, you’re on the canons.”

Blaze blinked a few times. “I’m what?”

Silver nudged her and rose into the air. “Come on, live a little. It might be fun.”

“I’m living just fine!” Blaze retorted.

“Last one at their stations is a rotten egg!” The silver hedgehog soared over us to land on the head of the ship. Completely defeating the point of the climbing frame.

The ship looked a lot bigger from its base. It was definitely not the size of an actual pirate ship (not that I’d ever seen one) but it was still fairly monolithic. I flexed my hands as I took in the climbing frame. It was a mixed up structure of wood, rope and swinging loops, the latter of which formed the top where one was expected to hoist themselves on board. A little monkey clambered over the frame with ease, while his muskrat friend followed behind with little difficulty. Oh well. I was no stranger to climbing.

I looked up as Mocha scrambled up the rope with Blaze. I gave them a moment to get ahead of me before attempting it myself. It didn’t so much as shake. Reassuring, I had to admit. Once I was on board, the deck was chaos. The masts protruded from wide gaps in the floor where a chain bridge spread between them. Children scurried along it as they made their way to the strong masts. The rope was higher up, and any risk of falling was washed away as another net spread out beneath them. To reach the head of the ship, I had to climb over stepping logs. Not because there was no alternative, but because Cream gave us no choice in the matter. Blaze found herself sent back the other way to go beneath deck and ‘man the canons’. I deeply hoped Cream didn’t expect her to launch fireballs across the playground.

The other children didn’t seem to object to adults climbing over their ship. If anything, Silver and Blaze were like magnets. I noted a handful of children scurry down below decks to where the ‘canons’ were meant to be, while others tugged at Silver’s arm. Of course. They were practically celebrities.

Then where did that leave me…?

I huddled against the starboard beside Mocha, watching the children warily. A few sent nervous glances my way but remained velcroed to Silver’s side.

“Are you here to play with us?” a polecat squeaked at him.

“I guess,” he replied. “Although I’ve not been told what my role is yet.”

“You’re on lookout!” Cream pointed towards the crow’s nest. “There’s a big sea monster and we have to hunt it! Keep an eye open, Mister Silver.”

“Roger!” He drifted into the air towards the crow’s nest.

“You could at least take the normal way!” I told him.

“This is my ‘normal way’.” He laughed and landed neatly on the platform.

The small children ran after him, waving their arms as they begged him to carry them up. Surprisingly he obliged, floating back down to lift them one by one into the crow’s nest. But they didn’t stay there. They clambered back down the cargo nets for ‘another go’.

“So where is this sea monster?” Mocha asked Cream.

The little rabbit tapped her lip with a finger, and Cheese copied her.

“We haven’t seen it yet.” She turned to the three children still stood watching us. “Have you?”

They shook their heads and a little deer clutched her cuddly angel-chao toy in a death grip.

Cream looked back up at me and Mocha. “So we don’t know what it even looks like!”

Mocha made a thoughtful noise. “Then maybe it’s a Snark.”

I watched her as she stepped up onto the head of the ship behind the wheel.

“What do you think, Captain?” she asked me.

All right. I’d read the book. I could play along.

I stepped up beside her and placed my hands on the wheel. “I think this is a pretty big ocean and we’re gonna need a map.”

“I can get a map!” said the squirrel.

He dove into his rucksack and pulled out a sketch book. His two friends sat down beside him as he scrawled over a blank page with a green crayon. The more vocal of his two friends - namely not the one with the cuddly chao - pointed at the page as she suggested ideas.

In no time at all, the page was torn from the book and thrust into my hands. I frowned down at its nonsensical scrawl and nodded. Fitting, given the plot. I handed it back to the boy then grabbed the wheel.

“This ship’s heading right for a cliff!” I bellowed. “We’re gonna have to turn it around!”

I spun the wheel to my right and Mocha stumbled away from me towards the port side. Acting, or had I knocked her? Whatever it was, she was still smiling.

“Easy there, Captain!” called Silver. “The wind isn’t in our favour!”

I glanced back at him with my good eye. “Just keep an eye open for the Snark, crewman! I know what I’m doing.”

Cream popped up beside me and a look of terror crossed her face. “The tide is too rough! We need to lower the sails!”

“You heard her,” I called to Silver. “Lower the sails!”

The children hanging from the nets began dropping into the safety net with cheerful cries.

“How’s that, Captain?” one of them asked.

I gave him a thumbs up. “Much better. Should be smoother sailing from here on out.”

“Do you know anything about sailing?” Mocha asked near my ear.

“Of course not,” I muttered. “Why, is it showing?”

“A tad.”

“I think we’re getting closer,” said Cream. “It’s rumoured to be in these rough seas, where the waves never settle.”

“Because it makes them?” I asked.

Cream and Cheese both nodded. “It’s a way of it keeping hunters at bay.”

“Oh no.” I bit the end of my glove. “What if it’s not a Snark?”

“We have no means of knowing,” said Mocha. “When one discovers the difference between a Snark and a Boojum, it’s often too late.”

“No, we know!” the map boy said. “One has feathers and bites, and the other has claws that scratch!”

The shy girl hugged her stuffed chao to her chest. “I don’t want to find a Boojum.”

Cream lifted a finger. “Then we need a Boojum Identification Spyglass!” She turned towards the crow’s nest. “Mister Silver, do you have one?”

The silver hedgehog rose from his perch and drifted down towards her. “What was that, Cabin Boy?”

“I am not the Cabin Boy!” said Cream.

“No, she’s not,” I told him. “That’s Mocha.”

The possum gasped and covered her mouth to hide her amusement.

A small smile spread across my muzzle. “You should be scrubbing the deck, Cabin Boy.”

Mocha pursed her lips and shook her head, but dropped to the deck to pretend cleaning it anyway.

Both Silver and Cream chuckled and the former leant forward and tucked his arms behind his back.

“Make sure it shines!” he quipped.

Mocha threw an imaginary sponge at his head, causing the children to burst out laughing.

Cream tugged Silver’s arm. “We need a Boojum Identification Spyglass. Do you have one?”

He looked down at his soda bottle, now empty. “Why, yes, I believe I do.” He handed it to the small rabbit.

“Excellent!” Cream beamed, then frowned at it. “But it’s missing something…”

She looked thoughtful for a moment, then Cheese pointed at something beyond the nose of the ship.

“Chao!”

“Oh!” Cream’s eyes sparkled. “Perfect!”

In a flash, she was hanging from the cargo net at the nose of the ship. I recalled that nightmare as the monster struck the ship, sending my crew to their demise. Before I knew it, I was leaning over the head of the ship.

“Don’t fall overboard!” I roared.

“I’ll be fine, I just…” She reached out towards a patch of honeysuckle growing through the fence while Cheese steadied her by the collar. “Got it!”

I reached down and grabbed her arm, hoisting her back over the nose of the ship. She didn’t appear remotely fazed. Instead, she fastened the honeysuckle vine around the neck of the bottle. No one else appeared to have noticed my momentary panic. Mocha, Silver, the children… they were all still smiling. Likely thinking I was just remaining in character. I took in a steady breath as my nerves slowly settled.

“There!” said Cream. “The Boojum Identification Spyglass is now optimised!” She handed it to me.

“All right…” I lifted the bottle to my left eye, and the entire playground was reduced to a murky green blur. I aimed it at the sea monster’s head. “Oh no… It is a Boojum!”

“No!” Cream gasped. “Fire the canons!”

“Fire the canons!” I parroted.

Below me I heard the cries of children - and Blaze - as they made fake canon noises. I actually thought I saw a few stray sparks of flame from Blaze humouring the children with her skills.

I lowered the glass bottle and let out a sigh. “We’ve done it. We’ve thwarted the Boojum. The ocean is now safe from its tyranny.”

Cream cheered and threw her arms in the air. Cheese copied her, chirruping jovially. The whole ship filled with cheers as Blaze and her canon crew climbed up from below deck.

“That was a lot of fun!” said Cream. “But I think I’m ready for ice cream now.”

“Seconded.” I handed the bottle back to Cream. “You should hang onto that, you might need it should more Boojums show up.”

“Hmm… I think we defeated the only one in the park,” she said.

“Well, you never know.”

I climbed off the ship and made my way to the ice cream vendor. We weren’t alone. Our new ‘crew-mates’ tagged along, squabbling amongst themselves. Mocha and Cream went to the vendor, along with Silver, leaving me stood aside with Blaze.

The lavender cat folded her arms and gave me a sideways glance. “That was kinda sweet.”

“Huh?” I cocked an eyebrow at her.

“The game.” She huddled into herself. “You and Cream managed to get most of the kids involved.”

I shrugged and stuffed my hands into my pockets. “It was just role-play, really.”

“They seemed to enjoy it.”

I didn’t get another word in as Silver reappeared with a pair of ice creams. Blaze found one in her hand but it began to melt rapidly. It didn’t seem to bother her. She perched beside her friend on a bench and lapped it up.

I felt a small tug on my jacket and looked down to see Cream beaming at me. She held out a cone of green ice cream complete with chocolate chips. So this was the chocolate mint she’d been telling me about? I took it cautiously and joined Mocha on a nearby bench.

“We also got soda!” Cream handed me a green bottle as she flopped down next to me. Then she retrieved another from the floor and pouted. “Oh, he forgot to open this one…”

She made to get up but I stopped her. “Here.”

I traded my ice cream for the bottle and tugged off my right glove with my teeth. Using the metal buckle as a lever, I popped off the lid and pocketed it. She gratefully took the bottle back and I retrieved my cone, opting to leave my glove for the time being. Given the sun and the slowly melting ice cream, it probably wouldn’t be the best decision to put it back on. I gave it a wary lick, feeling Cream’s eyes on me.

“So? How is it?” she asked.

I let out a small chuckle. “Surprisingly good.”

“See? I thought you’d like it.” she said.

“First the jam and now the ice cream.” I flashed her a smile. “I’ll be sure to trust your recommendations from now on.”

She laughed and licked at her own dessert with relish.

“So!” Mocha leant forward so she could see the rabbit. “Are there any more adventures to be had in this park?”

Cream shook her head. “No. I need to get back and help Missus Barbara make dinner.”

Mocha turned her attention to me. “What about you? Any plans?”

I shrugged and wiped chocolate from my nose. “Not really.”

“Then maybe you can help me make dinner?” she said. “Given you’re staying with me for now.”

I rubbed my mane in thought. “I don’t imagine you’re making chilli?”

“I can if you want?”

“Then deal.”

After we’d finished our snacks, we saw Cream back home. When we reached Mocha’s, Silver stopped at the garden gate and fixed us with a small smile.

“That was fun,” he said.

Blaze let out an ‘mm-hmm’ and diverted her gaze to the castle.

“It was, wasn’t it?” said Mocha. “Thank you for joining us. Cream seemed to really enjoy it.”

“Yeah.” I cast him a sideways glance. “And you’re better company than certain other hedgehogs.”

Silver chuckled and shrugged his shoulders. “We were all kids once. Well… most of us.”

My brow furrowed with confusion, but he didn’t elaborate.

“I’ll be hanging around if you need me,” he said.

Blaze cleared her throat and took a step back. “I’m needed back at the castle. I’ll see you later.”

Silver waved cheerily after her then floated into the nearest tree.

I pulled Mocha’s gate open and let her ahead of me. She fumbled for her keys, a smile playing at her lips.

“You did well today.” She pushed the door open and motioned for me to head inside. “I wasn’t expecting you to join in with Cream’s game.”

“I didn’t have much choice,” I said.

“Admit it. You enjoyed it.”

I tossed my coat over the arm of the chair. “It was a break from reality.”

“I’m sure she’ll pull you into more, yet.” Mocha slipped into the kitchen, motioning for me to follow her. “Come on. I’ll show you how we make chilli Mocha Style.”

“Can I give it a desert twist?” I asked.

“What does that entail?”

“Extra chillies.”

She poked her head back around the door and grinned at me. “If you wish.”
 

DeliriousAbsol

Call me Del
Chapter Nine​

A brief fog enveloped Angel Island as a large cloud drifted over it. Knuckles sat back against the Master Emerald with his arms tucked behind his head, squinting into the fog. A small shape drifted towards him through it. An invader? He braced himself, lowering his arms as whatever it was touched down a few feet ahead of him.

“Hey, Knuckles!”

The shape parted and one half waved. Knuckles frowned at it. He recognised that voice. He pushed himself up as the two shapes bounded over to him. A red armadillo and yellow squirrel emerged from the fog.

“Mighty?” Knuckles snorted. “What are you two doing up here?”

“We thought we’d drop in on our way to the Mystic Jungle.” Mighty shrugged. “You sound like you don’t want us here.”

“I don’t generally enjoy visitors.” The echidna settled back down against the emerald.

The duo exchanged glances and Ray lifted his hands in a shrug.

“I guess it could just be a flying visit?” he said with a grin.

Knuckles rolled his eyes at the squirrel’s joke. “I suppose it breaks up my day.”

“A day of what?” asked Mighty. “Sleeping?”

Knuckles fixed one eye on him. “Why exactly are you going to the Mystic Jungle?”

“Robot sightings,” Mighty explained. “I thought we might discover something.”

Knuckles scratched his quills and sighed. “So Eggman’s back then, is he? I guess I need to up my defense.”

“You’re a bit behind on the news,” said Ray. “Robots have been sighted for weeks.”

“Well I’ve not seen or heard anything,” said Knuckles. “News doesn’t exactly fly up here, you know.”

“If you weren’t so cold to your visitors-” Ray was cut off by a nudge from Mighty.

“Hang on, Knux,” said the armadillo. “You may be about to become a little more enlightened.”

Knuckles followed the duo’s gaze. Emerging from the clouds was a huge, black ship.

“Eggman…” Knuckles growled as he rose to his feet. “What is he doing here?!”

“Dropping in, apparently,” said Ray. “Oh, I kn-knew we should have come here a d-day earlier…”

“Hang in there, li’l bro,” said Mighty. “We’ve got this.”

Knuckles clenched his fists and leered up at the ship.

A hatch slid open beneath the ship and the trio readied themselves. The entire island shook as a huge grey robot landed in a crouch. A thick tail swayed behind it and it fixed glowing green eyes on them.

“A fox?” Mighty scoffed. “I guess he’s not running out of ideas, then?”

“Less talkin’ more smashin’!” Knuckles zipped past them towards the robot.

The robot took a step back and its green eyes flashed. Two laser beams shot towards Knuckles. He glided to the side as the beams tore through the ground, spraying up turf and rocks.

“Hey!” Knuckles barked. “Watch what you’re doing!”

The fox’s eyes lit up and fixed on the trio as it readied another attack. A yellow dart flew towards it and Ray landed a kick to the torso. It staggered backwards, allowing Knuckles to get in a well-timed uppercut. Twin lasers sliced the air in a neat arc as the fox careened through the air to land hard on its back. Mighty followed it up with a cannonball to its metal gut. The fox doubled up like a lawn chair as the armadillo landed beside it.

Its eyes flickered as it stared up at the sky.

“I d-don’t think it’s d-down for the c-count yet,” said Ray.

The robot struck the ground with its right hand and began pushing itself back up. Its eyes lit up steady and it turned its head towards the squirrel.

“Move!” Mighty shoved him aside and struck the robot in the head.

The two lasers carved through the sky and struck the ground just before Knuckles’ feet. He leapt back with a squeak and fixed Mighty in a glare.

“Careful with those lasers!” said Knuckles. “I don’t want it shattering the Master Emerald.”

“Oh, like you’ve never done that yourself,” said Mighty.

“That’s different!”

Knuckles smacked the fox on the muzzle, reducing it to shrapnel. Its right eye flickered like a bad TV channel before blinking out for good. It lifted its hand to cover its wounded eye while the other appeared somehow angrier. It pushed itself to its feet and swung its tail at the trio. They scattered, Ray with an ‘eep!’, and Knuckles took cover behind a laser-warmed mound of earth.

“We need to take out the other eye!” he told his allies. “When you get a chance, aim for it!”

He leapt from his hiding spot, aiming for the fox’s face. It ducked and swiped him with its tail, sending him rolling away from it like a bowling ball.

“You should take your own advice,” said Mighty as he leapt over Knuckles’ dazed form.

But the armadillo found himself meeting the same fate. He landed stunned beside the echidna.

“I think we’ve angered it,” said Mighty.

The huge metallic fox strolled towards them, its remaining eye glowing with all the vibrancy of the Master Emerald. Knuckles forced himself to roll backwards onto his feet, raising his fists for a counter attack. If one could counter lasers.

A yellow streak shot over his head and Ray span, launching a rock from his tail. It flew so quickly the robot didn’t see it coming. Its remaining eye shattered and it staggered backwards, clawing at its face with both hands.

“Way to go, Ray!” said Mighty as he pushed himself back up. He gave the flying squirrel a high-five. “Now let’s finish it off. Come on, Knuckles. Let’s triple-team this thing.”

As they ran towards it, a beam of light shot from the Egg Carrier’s hatch, engulfing the robot. It slowly rose into the air, locked in the beam. It lowered its hands and reached down, grabbing Ray by the tail. The squirrel let out a scream, feebly flailing against its pull with his patagium.

“Ray!” Mighty roared.

He grabbed his friend by the hand and tried to pull him back. But he just slid along the ground, carving up turf with his heels.

“Help me!” Ray cried. “Help! I d-don’t want to d-die!”

Mighty screwed his eyes shut as he strained against the tractor beam’s pull. He found himself hoisted from the surface of the island, flailing as he hung from the squirrel’s hand.

Knuckles shot towards the robot, striking its arm with a fist. It shattered free from its body, letting Ray and Mighty drop to the ground in a crumpled heap. The armadillo clasped his head and watched as the robot vanished inside the Egg Carrier.

The hulking ship rose back into the clouds, and the dull drone of its engine faded away from Angel Island.

Mighty grabbed the robot arm and prised its death-grip from Ray’s bushy tail.

“Thanks,” Mighty said to Knuckles.

“Yes, th-th-thank you.” Ray wiped tears from his eyes. “I thought I was a g-goner!”

The echidna stared up at the clouds with his fists clasped at his sides. “I don’t think that’s the last we’ve seen of him. Or that robot.”

“I want to know why he called it back,” said Mighty. “I mean, it clearly still had some fight left in it.”

Knuckles lowered his gaze towards the horizon. “I think I’m gonna pay Sonic a visit.”

“You’re leaving the Master Emerald?” Mighty gasped.

“No.” Knuckles looked back at the duo. “I’m hoping I can ask you two to guard it while I try and find out why Eggman decided to drop a robot on Angel Island.”

“Wow, really?” Mighty’s eyes widened. “You trust us to do your job?”

“We could always go to Freedom Citadel for you.” Ray glanced anxiously back up at the clouds.

“I’ll get the information faster if I go myself,” said Knuckles. “Can you do this for me?”

Mighty put his arm around Ray’s shoulders and tugged him into his side. “You can trust us. No one will be taking that emerald on our watch. Right, li’l bro?”

“R-right!”

Knuckles grinned and turned back to the horizon. “I doubt I’ll be very long.”

With that, he leapt from the island and glided in the direction of Freedom Citadel and hopeful answers.

...​

Fleeting images faded from my mind as the fog of sleep lifted. Fractured memories remained. Strolling along a beach, the wind drifting through my mane. Ducking low branches that seemed impossible to avoid. The occasional crimson storm brewing on the horizon which seemed to fade as the salty breeze chased it away. All gone to be replaced by the sound of an owl hooting outside the window. Yet for some reason, I could still feel that breeze rustling my mane. Was the window open? My ear twitched as something brushed it and I cracked a tired eye open, trying to spot the window. It was too dark to make out anything. But no, it wasn’t a breeze. Whatever it was brushed through my mane again. Not unpleasant. Oddly soothing. My eye began to close again then I jolted. I gripped the sofa cushion as the room came back to me and both eyes snapped open, fixing on the dull silhouette of the vacant arm chair.

Mocha shifted beside my head and my entire spine stiffened. I shot upright into a crouch, locking her in a glare.

“What do you think you’re doing?” I growled.

She lifted a hand to calm me. A feeble attempt. I bared my canines, demanding an explanation. She rubbed her hands over her face and sighed.

“Give me a moment to think,” she said. “I was dozing myself.”

“’Dozing’ my eye!”

“I was trying to help you…”

My muzzle relaxed as confusion set in and I cocked an eyebrow at her. “Help me? With what?”

“It was when I went to make us hot malt before bed,” she explained. “When I came back in here, you’d already fallen asleep. So I left yours on the table and was about to retire to bed myself after tidying up a little. But you started mumbling in your sleep.” She paused and lowered her hands to her lap. “It sounded like you were panicking and I thought about waking you up. But if I shook you or made a loud noise it would probably only make things worse, so I tried to wake you up gently.”

I narrowed my eyes. “Well you succeeded.”

“Not quite.” She paused to yawn. “I stroked your head and tried talking to you, but it only calmed you down. And given you’ve not been sleeping well, I decided to…” She lifted her hands in a shrug. “Well, make sure you did.”

I diverted my gaze to the coffee table as I tried to make sense of it all. I certainly didn’t feel as tired as I had been recently. Or as unsettled. Mocha pushed herself up but I kept my gaze on the cold mug of milk.

“It’s gone five now,” she said. “I should get some sleep myself before the children show up for their reading session.”

I couldn’t even look at her. I just stayed kneeling on the sofa with my claws digging into the cushion as I desperately tried to calm my racing heart. What did I even say? I was completely thrown.

She paused at the foot of the staircase. “I’m sorry if I crossed a line. I know you don’t like people touching you.”

My ears drooped slightly and I turned my head to look over the back of the sofa. But she’d gone. Her footsteps echoed above me as she retired to her own room. My body began to tremble and I screwed my eyes shut.

“It’s fine,” I muttered.

Then my arms gave way as my stomach knotted. I slumped forward, grabbing a scatter pillow in my hands. A low groan escaped my throat as I buried my muzzle into it.

No. It’s not fine. I’ve lashed out during my night terrors, you idiot! I could hurt someone! How foolish are you?!

I rolled onto my side and clutched the pillow to my chest, staring blankly over it at the kitchen door. My heart was still racing. What a foolish mistake… if her ‘tactics’ hadn’t worked, I could have grabbed whatever nearest object I got my deluded hands on and battered her to death, and I wouldn’t have realised until the nightmare’s haze had lifted. I squeezed the pillow to my chest in a bid to suffocate the Phantom Ruby. Not that it would do much good. It was dead anyway. Maybe it would be better if I just went back to my own room? At least I could lock the door and keep everyone out, and myself in.

Of course, a locked door wouldn’t stop me.

I buried my face in the pillow. It smelled like her.

I really needed to leave.

But I hadn’t had a nightmare, had I? Even the previous night the dream had started out happy. Would it really be terrible to let these people in? To find happiness and have those wretched nightmares end?

But what if I hurt them?!

My breathing grew heavy and my eyes snapped back open. I dug my claws into the pillow in a bid to calm myself. Pull yourself together, jackal, you’ve not hurt anyone yet!

I relinquished the pillow back where it belonged and pushed myself up. I needed to do something. I couldn’t sit here and stew until dawn. So I sought out the reading lamp beside Mocha’s armchair then made my way towards the bookcase. I had no idea what I was looking for, all I knew was that I needed to take my mind off those dark thoughts. They were the reason I’d driven myself into a burrow in the desert in the first place.

My eyes landed on a book by the same author as ‘The Hunting of the Snark’. I grabbed it and frowned down at the cover. ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass’? The first story was apparently about a girl who falls down a rabbit hole and finds herself in a strange, new world. Well, it was worth a shot.

I took up residence in the armchair and began to read it, finding myself pulled in. It was just as weird and random as his other story had been. Except less a poem and more a novel. The poor girl had found herself lost in a strange world, chasing after a white rabbit as she tried to find the beautiful garden she’d seen. No desire to get back to her own world whatsoever. Somehow, I could relate.

I’d just reached the Mad Hatter’s tea party when sleep engulfed me once more. A somewhat dreamless sleep. It wasn’t until a knock resounded at the door that I jolted awake and the book fell to the floor with a thud. The smell of porridge tickled my nose and Mocha’s tail moved past me like a caramel streamer. I rubbed my hands over my face and ears then stooped to grab the book before it found itself trampled under a herd of children.

“I suggest you wait in the kitchen,” said Mocha. “It can get pretty chaotic. Help yourself to porridge, I can always re-heat mine.”

I didn’t need telling twice. I had no desire to be pelted with questions or fall victim to yet more flying projectiles. I tucked the book under my arm and migrated to one of the dining chairs, making sure the kitchen door closed fast behind me.

I didn’t touch the cooking porridge, but I did seek out the coffee. Funnily enough, a decent sleep had made me feel groggier than usual. I filled up a small caffetiere and poured out my first mug while I ventured back into Wonderland. The living room soon filled with the voices of children as Mocha tried to get them settled down. I could just make them out through the frosted window in the kitchen door. I tried to tune them out, but it wasn’t easy. My ears pricked upright as I heard one of the children venture;

“Is Infinite really living with you?”

It had been said with some venom. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was that little wolf kid.

“Don’t be like that!” came Cream’s voice. “He’s really nice.”

I placed my hand on the book to hold it open as I turned my head back towards the door. It never failed to shock me how she could see something I couldn’t. Or maybe I had seen it but I couldn’t fit through the door. So I had to go the long way, chasing after Cream and anyone else trying to point me in the right direction. Warring with the confusion and forking paths that threatened to lead me back the way I’d come.

I rubbed my hands over my face and tried to tune out the chaos in the living room, focusing all my attention on the book and my finite supply of coffee.

By the time Mocha arrived back in the kitchen, I slowly realised the house was quiet. I’d managed to reach the end of the book and was sat mulling over it, somewhat dissatisfied with the ending. Yet at the same time I wanted to read the next one. I warmed my hands on my third cup of coffee while Mocha busied herself by the stove.

“You haven’t eaten then?” she asked.

I looked up with a start and cleared my throat. “Not yet.”

“It might be a bit overdone.” She paused as she reached for a bowl to look at me. Or at the closed book. “I see you’ve been reading ‘Alice’.”

I shrugged and sipped my drink. “Well his other book was interesting so I thought why not?”

“It’s good escapism.” She loaded up two bowls and settled at the table, nudging mine towards me. “I guess you’re going to the office today?”

I stared down at the bowl, not feeling hungry. Now I’d finished the book, my mind was throwing itself into chaos once more. What time was it? I glanced the wall clock. Already nine am.

“I’ll head there now.” I pushed the chair back from the table.

“But you’ve not eaten yet,” said Mocha.

“I’m not hungry.” I turned to leave the kitchen but her voice froze me in the doorway.

“Is this because of last night?”

I gripped the door frame and glanced towards her as much as my right side would allow. “Yes…” When she didn’t reply, I let out a sigh and closed my eyes. “I can be pretty violent when I start acting them out. You could have got hurt.”

“I’m not silly, Infinite,” she said. “I was behind the sofa.”

“I can vault the sofa.”

She closed her eyes and sighed. “If it helps, I won’t do it again. I was only trying to wake you, and I hadn’t expected-”

I balled my free hand into a fist. “Leave it.”

She nodded and placed her spoon on the table mat. “Okay. Well… to change the subject, Cream is staying here for a few days. I often look after her when Barbara goes out of town. It will only be until Friday.”

So Cream was staying? I dug my claws into the wood and stared blankly at the sofa and my discarded blanket. Whether or not Mocha might know to keep her distance while I was panicked, what about Cream…? I desperately hoped she asked me to leave. It would make the decision easier.

“I thought it might be nice if we all watched a movie tonight,” Mocha went on. “Would you like that?”

I turned my head fully towards her. It was as if she knew I’d been thinking about leaving and was trying to find some way to keep me around. I grimaced slightly, but she read my face like a book.

“She’ll be in my room,” she explained. “With me. I’m not going to force you if you’re not comfortable with it. It’s not as if you don’t have anywhere else to go.”

“You want me out?” My attempts to mask my hopefulness coloured the statement with regret.

“Not at all. In fact, I’d quite enjoy it. And I know Cream would, she’s already been throwing movie suggestions at me.”

I sighed and rubbed the bridge of my muzzle. “Fine. I’ll come straight back when I’m finished at the Chaotix.”

A small smile tugged at her lips, briefly, before being replaced with a sad frown. “I’m really sorry if I’ve upset you. It was the last thing I wanted to do.”

I lowered my hand and gave her a nod. “I know. Just…”

I took in a trembling breath and looked up at the ceiling. Wherever I was going with that would only have gone in pointless circles. I waved a hand towards her and slipped from the kitchen to find the case file. It was sat beside my gloves on the table. I tugged them and my boots on then grabbed my jacket in my free hand. I soon regretted wearing it. The clear sky allowed the sun to bake the town and it wasn’t even noon. Even the gentle breeze wasn’t enough to cool me off.

I spotted Silver drifting a few feet above me, tailing me as he’d promised. Even he didn’t look happy. Had he noticed something was wrong? I shrugged it off and let myself into the Chaotix Agency. Words had barely formed in my mouth when a loud clatter came from the coffee table. For a brief moment I thought the weight of Vanilla’s case folder had broken it.

Standing on the other side of the table in a puddle of steaming coffee was a red echidna. His muzzle creased in a sneer and his violet eyes flitted over my body. His heavy gloves creaked as he clenched his fists tight and I braced myself for a pummeling. I wasn’t in the mood to fight… and with nothing to defend myself with, I’d have to fight dirty. But I wasn’t about to be this echidna’s punching bag.

“Oh yeah.” Vector cleared his throat behind me. “Infinite’s workin’ for us now.”

“What?!” The echidna narrowed his eyes over my shoulder.

“Yeah, helpin’ us find Vanilla.” Vector sounded much too cheerful. “Infinite, you know Knuckles?”

I narrowed my eyes at the echidna. “No.”

“He swooped in this morning,” said Charmy.

Knuckles waved a fist at me. “Are you kidding me, Vector?! You’re working with this scum?!”

My fur bristled and I began to bare my canines. Oh who was I kidding? I didn’t want to stick around in this office anymore. I let out a sigh and reached for the folder, but Knuckles took a step towards me, freezing me in my tracks.

“You have some nerve showing up here,” he growled.

“I’m not here by choice,” I said.

“What, so they’re holding you here against your will?” he scoffed. “You should be rotting in City Prison!”

My ears drooped and I clutched the folder to my chest. “At least we agree on something.”

“Knuckles, you really need to calm down,” said Espio.

I hadn’t noticed the chameleon creep up behind me, shuriken drawn. I briefly wondered who’s aid he was jumping to. Whatever. I wasn’t about to stick around and find out. I turned to leave, feeling the echidna’s violet death-glare on my back.

“Knuckles is only here to tell us about Eggman attacking Angel Island,” said Vector. “Given he’s already filled Sonic in on it all at a ridiculous hour in the morning, he’ll probably wanna be on his way soon, so…”

My ears pricked up and I froze with my hand on the door handle. An Eggman attack? Another one?

“You can’t go yet, Knuckles!” said Charmy. “You said you’d play video games with me!”

“Well he’s not. It’s a work day,” said Espio.

I glanced back over my left shoulder. Espio was still holding his shuriken, although no longer poised to use it. Knuckles stood at the ready beside him, leering at me.

Vector was out of my line of sight, but I heard him clearly. “He attacked you, too. Right?”

Knuckles raised an eyebrow at this, softening his glare slightly.

“Just a bunch of Egg Pawns,” I said. “I hardly think it was personal.”

“Given he’s only been attacking inhabited areas,” said Espio slowly, “I’m beginning to think you were actually his target.”

“I’m just one jackal,” I said.

“And I’m just one echidna,” said Knuckles. “But that didn’t stop him from dropping a giant robot fox on my island.” He paused and closed his eyes. “Stupid thing put up a good fight, too.”

“What do you think he wanted?” Espio asked. “The Master Emerald?”

“Probably.” Knuckles fixed one eye on me and folded his arms. “I’m beginning to wonder… given I’m not the only target with a powerful jewel.”

My pulse quickened at those words and my eyes widened with panic. I tugged the folder up to cover the Phantom Ruby and flashed a canine. “What would he want with it?! It’s dead!”

“I don’t know,” said Espio. “Maybe he’s found a way to power it again?”

My chest tightened and I staggered backwards into the door. No. They had to be wrong. My eyes darted to every corner of the hallway as my breath began to quicken.

“I need some air.” I tugged the door open.

“We’re only throwin’ guesses around!” said Vector. “We’re probably wrong! Infinite?”

I slammed the door behind me and leant against it, letting the breeze wash over me. It didn’t do much. My fur was slick with sweat beneath my jacket and my head was starting to spin. I tugged my jacket off and dropped it beside me, then slid to the floor.

Surely Eggman didn’t want this stupid Phantom Ruby replica? He’d already tried it once and it had failed. It wasn’t like him to recycle a failed experiment. He’d tossed me aside the moment the real Phantom Ruby left our world. Even tried to kill me ‘for failing him’. I’d have written his attack off as a clean-up effort if it weren’t for the other attacks.

No… it couldn’t be the ruby he was after. We had to be missing something?

I rubbed my face with my hands and let out a low groan. I didn’t need this right now. Looking for Vanilla should be my top priority, not worrying about ‘what ifs’ and ‘maybes’.

A blue light flickered beside me and I lowered my hands to spot Silver floating a couple of inches above the grass.

“Is everything okay?” he asked.

I opened my mouth to answer but the door opened and I toppled backwards through it. Knuckles stared down at me with one hand still on the door handle.

“All right,” he said. “I’m convinced.”

He stepped over me then held out a hand. I stared at it as I pushed myself back up. My head was still spinning and I placed my right hand over my ear. His fingers curled inside his boxing glove, urging me to take it. I glared at it, swishing my tail. Then I let out a sigh and took it. He tugged me to my feet with surprising strength and I had to steady myself against the doorway to stop myself from falling over.

“I’m not sure how much I can trust you,” he said, “but if you’re fighting Eggman then that puts us-”

“I have no desire to confront Eggman,” I said.

The echidna closed his eyes and shrugged. “Suit yourself. But after his little stunt, I really feel like smashin’ some robots.”

“Count me out,” I said.

“Fine, I ain’t complaining. That just means more badniks for me to trash.”

I didn’t reply. I pinched the bridge of my muzzle as I tried to stop my racing thoughts.

“Besides,” Knuckles went on. “If he is after that ruby, I know I won’t make it easy.”

I opened my eyes to look at him, meeting his half-smile.

“I think I speak for everyone here when I say I don’t wanna live through that again,” he said.

I lowered my hand and sighed. “That’s something else we can agree on.”

Silver nudged my arm with my jacket as he handed it back to me. “Eggman would have to get through all of us if the Phantom Ruby is his target.”

I tucked my jacket under one arm and leant back against the wooden frame. A few splinters dug into my shoulder. Well, at least I wasn’t alone. Oddly enough it wasn’t very comforting.

“With that talk, Knux, you sound like you aren’t planning to head back to Angel Island,” said Vector from behind me.

Knuckles turned to look up at the sky and grunted. “I might stick around. I kinda wanna know what Eggman’s up to. Besides, Mighty and Ray can handle things for a little while.”

“So… you’re sticking with us?” Vector asked.

“Nope,” said Knuckles. “I’m gonna go find Sonic. I need to burn off some steam.”

He leapt into the air and glided swiftly towards one of the castle’s open windows.

I frowned after him and pushed myself back from the door. “Sounds like he’s looking for a fight.”

“Aye,” said Vector.

“Shouldn’t we be stopping that?” I asked.

“Nah!” Vector waved a hand and pushed between Espio and Charmy as he moved back through the corridor. “They do it all the time.”

“They turn the beach into their own personal arena,” said Charmy. “I’m going to watch.”

The little bee zipped off over my head, narrowly missing Espio’s hand as he grabbed for his stinger.

“Charmy, we’re meant to be working!” Espio bellowed.

“Leave him,” said Vector. “He’ll come back when he’s hungry.”

As the two detectives vanished back into their office, I caught a sympathetic glance off Silver.

“Are you all right?” he asked. “You seemed to go a bit-”

“I’m fine.” I turned and skulked back into the office, letting the door close behind me.

I stood with my back against it for a moment as I tried to gather my thoughts. The nightmarish dread concerning the Phantom Ruby was already beginning to feel like the aftermath of a bad dream. Hopefully it would stay that way and never come up again. I shook my head to dispel the lingering thoughts and joined the detectives in their office. I tossed the folder onto the table and flopped onto the sofa. That dang spring! I shifted to the side to avoid its painful jabbing.

“Sorry about all that,” said Espio. “Knuckles can be a bit… well…”

“A bit of a knuckle-head,” said Vector.

I grunted and accepted a fresh coffee off Espio. I didn’t care if it was my fourth that morning.

“Did that list of names help at all?” Vector asked from behind his sandwich.

“I’ve not had a chance to look at it yet,” I said.

The crocodile huffed. “Decided to have a quiet Sunday then? I feel ya.”

Sunday… I clutched the mug to my chest as I thought back to the events in the park. It seemed to lift me a little and I sipped my hot coffee as I tried to let those memories take over. But there was still that lingering dread hovering over me like a dense fog. Still that back-and-forth argument warring in my mind.

I tried to humour the Chaotix by ‘reading’ over that list of names. But I barely took any of it in. I only became aware of the time when the door flew open and a very sandy Knuckles traipsed in.

“How did it go?” Vector asked.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” grunted the echidna.

He marched behind the sofa towards the closed door separating the detectives’ sleeping quarters. The echoing footsteps alerted me to the presence of stairs, and a whoosh of water erupted from the floor above. It was followed by an ominous dripping and Espio ducked behind the sofa with a bucket. I looked up at the leak in the ceiling then back down at the list.

“You really need a new office,” I grumbled.

Vector grunted and turned the page of his newspaper. “If you wanna pay for it, be my guest.”

When I found myself shooed from the office at six pm, it really dawned on me how rattled I was feeling. I hadn’t eaten a bite all day, too lost in my own thoughts. I rubbed my hand through my mane and made my way back towards Mocha’s house. I deeply hoped her promised movie night would bring back the feelings I’d had the previous day. What had started out as merely ‘acting’ had actually done something to me, and whatever was going on in my head was rabidly beating it back down from whatever depths it had emerged from.

As I opened Mocha’s door, the smells of baking assaulted me. Sugar, frosting and chocolate, almost beating me back out into the garden. I resisted and hung my coat up on the coat rack.

“You’re home!” Cream raced from the kitchen and hung from my right arm.

My heart did a somersault. Home? Since when did I live here? I stared down at her beaming face and she released me.

“We made fairy cakes for tonight!” she said.

“Chao!” Cheese licked his lips and zipped back into the kitchen.

“And we also have popcorn and marshmallows and other nice snacks!” Cream went on.

“We also made pasta, so I hope you’re hungry.” Mocha poked her head around the door. “Welcome back, by the way.”

She didn’t appear remotely phased by Cream’s sudden announcement. I abandoned the folder to the coffee table then followed the rabbit into the kitchen where a pan of spaghetti sauce was bubbling away. The faint notes of nutmeg blended with that of the cakes so perfectly you’d fail to notice the place hadn’t been warped into a bakery in my absence.

“I might be hungry,” I said quietly.

Mocha turned from the pan and looked me up and down. “Please tell me you’ve eaten something today.”

I sighed and rubbed my face. What was I meant to do? Lie?

It was pointless even trying. She’d seen right through me.

“For goodness’ sake, Infinite,” she said. “I might have a word with the Chaotix to pin you down and force-feed you.”

Cream stared up at me with a frown. “Are you not feeling well again?”

I gave a small sigh and decided to resort to ‘acting’.

“It’s nothing a fairy cake can’t fix.” I sank down at my usual spot at the table.

Cream wagged a finger at me. “Those are for dessert! And you can only have one if you finish your meal.”

I raised my hands in mock defeat. “Okay, Miss.”

“Well done, Cream.” Mocha placed a heaping bowl in front of me. “What you don’t finish, you can have for breakfast.”

I wasn’t convinced she was joking.

When everyone had settled at the table, I decided to venture a conversation.

“So Barbara’s out of town?” I asked.

“Yup!” Cream licked sauce off her fork’s handle. “She’s visiting family in the big city.”

“’Big city’? Which one?”

“New Westopolis,” she said.

I cocked an eyebrow. “What makes it ‘new’?”

Cream looked to Mocha for an answer.

“It was flattened, so they didn’t really know what to do with it,” she explained. “So they merged it with the surrounding villages and incorporated more nature into it. It’s less of a concrete jungle now, but it’s a lot bigger and…”

She trailed off as I shifted and diverted my gaze to the window.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “We can change the topic.”

“No.” I waved my fork at her. “Go on. So she’s visiting family?”

I desperately tried to keep focused during the rest of the conversation, learning all about Barbara’s family in the city. What Cream knew of them anyway. When we migrated back to the living room, all I wanted to do was lie on the sofa and stare at the ceiling as I tried to block out images of a flattened Westopolis. But there was no chance of that. Cream and Cheese gathered all the cushions on the floor into a little nest, and grabbed the nearby blankets that had not been there that morning.

I stared down at it all and folded my arms. “Is this some kind of girly movie night?”

“Not quite.” Cream flopped onto the far right of the ‘nest’ and tapped the spot beside her. “You’re in the middle!”

“What?” My eyes widened. “… You’re not planning a horror movie and expecting to use me as a shield?”

Cream and Cheese shook their heads. “Not at all. This is a movie about a princess trying to find her prince!”

So it was a girly movie night? Oh well. I let out a sigh and fell down beside her. Mocha wasn’t far behind, carrying a tray of treats. She settled down beside me and I shifted uneasily. Longing for a little bubble pod somewhere. I huddled into myself if only to give myself a bit more space, but I soon found a blanket draped across my lap.

“So… you guys do this a lot?” I ventured.

“Yup!” Cream reached for the cakes and offered me one. “They have marshmallows in.”

As I stared at the tiny cake in my hand I couldn’t help but think this was going to be the most sickly sweet evening of my life. Ever.

The movie actually wasn’t all that bad. It had a comical, grumpy horse that kept putting the prince in his place. The princess could also pull her weight, and actually didn’t want to be royalty. It was apparent that neither of the girls had seen the movie. Especially given when the prince finally kissed the princess, Cream threw her arms in the air and sent popcorn raining down on me. Much to her, Cheese’s and Mocha’s amusement. The chao decided the best clean-up option was to eat each piece that had landed on and around me.

“I’m just glad it wasn’t butter,” I muttered.

Mocha covered her mouth and chuckled. “It was. I’m sorry.”

I slapped a hand to my face, where I discovered she wasn’t lying. I ended up laughing myself as I wiped a streak of butter from my muzzle.

“Oh! Look!” Cream grabbed my arm and shook me. “They’re getting married now!”

“Oh good,” said Mocha. “I do like it when movies have a happy ending.”

I curled my tail around my feet and sat back against the sofa. Happy endings… I wondered how much that was just a movie thing. When the credits rolled, Mocha slid out from the blanket and scooped up the tray.

“Okay, Cream,” she said. “It’s almost nine thirty. You should be getting to bed.”

“Aww.” She hugged a scatter pillow to her chest. “Maybe a cocoa first?”

“Okay. A cocoa.” Mocha went into the kitchen.

“With marshmallows?!” Cream leapt from the ‘nest’ and scampered after the possum, with an eager Cheese in tow.

I stared down at the pile of cushions and blankets, wondering if I should clear up. I hoisted the cushions back where they belonged and folded the blankets as best I could. As I was dragging the coffee table back, Mocha and Cream came back in.

“I made you one, too,” said Cream.

I found a hot mug of cocoa thrust into my hands. Complete with cream and marshmallows. Cheese still had hold of the packet, unwilling to relinquish it.

“Fine,” said Mocha. “Just make sure you put it back when you’re done. I’ll be cleaning up.”

“Do you want a hand?” I asked.

She shook her head. “You’re fine. It’s not too much, and I quite like doing it.”

I watched her go then took a sip of my cocoa. I jolted back as whipped cream smeared up my muzzle and swiped it off with my hand. Cream and Cheese burst out laughing and the little rabbit shook her head.

“I guess there’s a knack to it?” I asked.

She licked at the cream in her mug then said, “Yep!”

I rolled my eyes and ventured to be more careful.

“So what did you think of the movie?” she asked.

I shrugged. “It wasn’t bad.”

“Wasn’t bad?” Her brown eyes almost took over her face. “I thought it was amazing! And the prince was so handsome.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess I’m more of an action fan.”

“There was action in it,” said Cream. “What about all the sword fights? Like that scene with the evil knight?”

“Oh yes,” I said. “That was one of the good scenes.”

“Was it too girly for you?” She chuckled.

“Maybe a little.” I put a lot of sarcastic emphasis on ‘little’.

“Then maybe you can choose the next one?” She reached into the marshmallow bag and plopped one into her rapidly diminishing drink.

I stared into my cocoa, now visible through a neat hole in the milky cream. I licked sticky marshmallows from my lips as I mulled over her words. The next one… of course, she was staying for a few days. Maybe it wouldn’t be so terrible to get involved?

“I’ll have a think,” I said.

“I look forward to it!”

A few squeals came from Cheese and Cream turned her attention to the chao. His entire upper half was buried in the marshmallow bag.

“Cheese!” Cream gasped, snatching the bag and sending him tumbling over the sofa. “Please, stop! You’ll be up all night!”

The chao flailed his arms as he tried to grab the bag back. I decided it would probably be a good idea to relinquish my drink to the table rather than risk spilling it during their playful scrap. Cream bundled the bag onto my lap, not taking her eyes off the chao.

“There. Mister Infinite will keep them from you,” she said as she reached for her cocoa.

I looked between the bag of remaining marshmallows and the pouting chao. I winked at him then reached into the bag and tossed a pink one his way. He let out a squeal of delight and stuffed the entire thing into his mouth. Cream gasped and almost spilled her cocoa.

“Mister Infinite!” she squeaked, but a chuckle escaped her. “You are a bad influence!”

“What?” I feigned innocence and tossed another marshmallow towards the chao.

“Stop it!” She clambered towards me and I held the bag behind my back. “Give it here!”

She tried to reach over my shoulder and I raised an eyebrow at the chao. “A little help here, Cheese?”

He shot from the sky and snatched the marshmallows before she could grab it.

“Cheese!” she squealed as she leapt from the sofa.

He hovered higher and I raised my hands. He tossed the bag back over her head and I snatched it from the air. Cream rounded on me and pouted. Then dived onto my lap, winding me. She flailed for the bag and managed to grab it from my hands, then slumped back beside me and wagged a finger.

“Like I said,” she said. “Bad influence!”

I shrugged and gave her a playful smile as I reclaimed my mug from the table. “What? Us guys have to stick together.” Those words took me by surprise and I glanced away from her and hugged the mug to my chest. “Or something like that…”

She took the bag back and stuffed it down the side of the sofa cushion. “Then I’ll keep an eye on it! Otherwise there’ll be none left for tomorrow.”

Cheese folded his arms and fluttered away from her in a sulk.

“You can have more tomorrow, Cheese,” she said.

The chao’s demeanor swiftly changed and he performed a pirouette in the air.

“Okay!” Mocha strolled back in, wiping her hands on her dungarees. “It’s off to bed, missy! You, too, Cheese.”

Cream quickly finished her cocoa and relinquished her mug to the table. She quickly bade me goodnight and zipped up the stairs after her chao friend.

Mocha gathered up the pile of blankets and smiled down at me.

“So… are you heading up now?” I asked.

“I’ll give her a moment to get settled.” She handed me the top blanket then smoothed out the one beneath it. “You seem brighter.”

I cleared my throat and glanced towards the fireplace. “She’s a sweet kid.”

“She does have a way of lifting the mood.”

I reached across to the coffee table and nudged the case file towards me. But it left a hollow feeling in my gut. Mocha edged up beside me and followed my gaze.

“Do you really think you can find Vanilla?” she asked quietly.

I sighed and rubbed my brow. “I really want to believe she’s alive.”

“But…?”

I sank back in my seat and glanced up at her. “It doesn’t bare thinking about, does it?”

I caught Mocha’s eye and she reached out a hand towards me, then retracted it back to the blankets. “She’ll probably want these.” She turned towards the stairs and paused in the doorway. “Good night.”

“Yeah.”

I waited until the door closed and slumped sideways onto the sofa. The soft crinkle of plastic tickled my ear and I reached beside the cushion to remove the marshmallow bag, discarding it to the table. Right beside the case folder.

I had to be wrong, I just had to be. Vanilla had to be alive. I needed her to be alive.

As I stared at it, that feeling of dread began to wash over me again. I thought it had gone, so why was it back? What was it? Loneliness? I closed my eyes and wrapped my tail around myself as it whipped up a cyclone in my mind.

I needed to take my mind off it. Maybe I could find that book I’d been reading that morning? I sought it out and curled back up on the sofa with every intention to get lost in it. But I couldn’t focus. My mind kept running over ‘what ifs’.

What if Knuckles was right and Eggman actually wanted to start up the Phantom Ruby again? What would become of me then?

What if I had one of my nightmares again and Cream came down to find me like that?

What if… What if I actually hurt her?

I dropped the book to the floor and screwed my eyes shut.

I knew what that feeling was. It was fear.

Fear that I’d hurt the people I was growing close to.

Fear they’d hurt me.

Fear I didn’t belong here.

Fear that it was all a lie.

Fear the Phantom Ruby would come back and destroy everything all over again.

And there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.
 

DeliriousAbsol

Call me Del
Chapter Ten​

I didn’t know where I was going. That crimson landscape stretched out before me, the rocky crags casting deep black shadows over the sticky ground. Faint noises came from the mound ahead of me, and I clutched my sword tight as I approached it. I placed a hand on its rocky surface to steady myself and peered around it. But what I saw turned my stomach.

Yellow eyes stared back at me from amongst a pile of bodies. I barely recognised who they belonged to. But the one barely clinging to life stretched out a blood-soaked hand towards me.

“Boss… help me…”

A dry chuckle came from above me and I leapt back from the crag. The monster sat atop it, laughing into its hand.

“What can you do?” it asked in its distorted voice. “You’re too weak. You can’t help anyone. Not even yourself.”

I clenched my jaw and stared at the ground. “You’re wrong…”

“Am I?” The monster lifted its arms in a shrug. “You’re the one who was so rattled at being so pathetically weak you had to reduce the world to ruin.” It waved a hand at our surroundings. “You made your bed. Why not lie in it? Rather than trying so feebly to find solace?”

The sword’s blade clinked against the rocks as I adjusted my grip.

“Let’s face it,” the monster went on. “If you keep up this facade, it will only be a matter of time until you drag those around you into all of this as well.” It nudged its muzzle and its eye closed briefly. “But… at least the dead will have some company.”

I jerked my head up to flash my canines at the monster. “Don’t you dare!”

A raucous, grating laugh left its throat. “Oh… it’s simply a case of who’s hands they die at first, isn’t it? You’re in charge of that one, Infinite.”

I let out a roar and lunged at the monster, stretching out my left hand to grab its throat. My other clutched the sword, ready to spear it. Its lone eye stared back at me. Not a glint of fear. Just madness. But as soon as my hand touched its neck, the landscape vanished, taking the monster with it.

It took a moment for me to gather my bearings. Mocha’s living room. Fingers fixed around the wooden neck of the coat rack. I stood breathing heavily, unwilling to let the coat rack go. I withdrew my trembling hand and took a step back, smoothing out my mane between my ears.

Another one…

I trailed my claws down my face, desperate to blot out the nightmare and that monster’s words. They’d only confirmed my fears, and I hated it.

Footsteps echoed above me and I looked up at the ceiling. Then the closed door to the stairs. Voices.

I gave a small whimper and turned back to the coat rack. No… I couldn’t do this to them. I couldn’t drag them down with me. There was no way I was leading them to their own demise. Or risking their lives at my deranged, nightmare-fueled hands. So I quickly fastened my boots and dragged on my coat, stuffing my gloves into my pockets. I couldn’t lock Mocha’s door from the outside, but there was nothing I could do about that. I let the cold night air wash over me, dusting away the cobwebs of sleep. But that nightmare’s images remained, burned into my mind.

A light flickered on above me and I glanced up at her window as I closed the gate. Mocha’s small face peered down at me, her eyes filled with concern or worry. Cream appeared beside her and shouted something, but I couldn’t make it out. My chest twisted with a pang of regret and I tore myself away, dragging myself back to the castle. I didn’t even want to go there, but the only other option was to be shot as I tried to leave the Citadel.

I tried the door, finding it locked. But it clicked open as I rattled the handle and swung inward, revealing Omega’s glowing red eyes.

“My internal clock tells me it is three in the morning,” he said. “That is an incredibly inappropriate time for you to be stumbling through the door.”

I ignored him, pushing past into the dark entrance hall.

“I strongly suggest,” the robot went on, “that you adhere to the rules set in place, otherwise I may have to resort to more permanent measures.”

I paused on the staircase and glanced back at him. “What? You’ll kill me?”

“Affirmative.”

I tutted and dragged myself up the stairs to my room, locking the door behind me. I discarded my jacket and boots to the floor as I made my way to my bed, and flopped down heavily. Face first into the pillow. Tears pricked at my eyes but I fought them back. I didn’t need that right now. I needed to think. Where did I go from here? I didn’t belong in Freedom Citadel. I was too much of a threat. Even awake I was often on a short, strained thread about to snap. I’d displayed that once already with Shadow.

“So you’ve come dragging your pathetic tail back here?”

The voice chilled me and I rolled to my side to find my window open. Shadow sat in it, arms crossed, leering at me. My lips pulled back and I dug my claws into the mattress.

“You! What are you-” All strength left me and I flopped back onto the bed and sighed, turning my back on him. “Whatever. Do what you want to me…”

I screwed my eyes shut as he approached me. He stopped at my back and stared down at me, and I braced myself for the worst. But all that came was a long stretch of silence. Then a tut.

“You know you’re only hurting them doing this?” he scoffed.

“Then I guess no matter what I do, it’s going to hurt them, isn’t it?” I paused and clenched my jaw. “It’s what I do.”

“You’re such a coward. Someone shows you kindness and you flee?”

“Exactly!” I barked. “They showed me kindness, and it hurt them!”

“Still blaming others for your actions?” He tutted again. “You make me sick. Everyone here is trying to help, although I can’t for the life of me work out why.”

I leapt up, causing him to take a step back.

“I didn’t ask for any of this!” I roared. “You’re the ones who dragged me back here. I didn’t come crawling and begging for your help!” I took a few deep breaths as I stared back at his unreadable face. “If you don’t want me here, then what’s stopping you from dragging me back to the desert and leaving me there? I know you can do it. No one would stop you. Yet you…” I sighed and gripped my muzzle. “You just want to see me suffer.”

“You’re wrong.”

I looked up at him with a start, meeting his narrowed eyes.

“I’ll admit, I thought Silver was crazy bringing you back here,” he went on. “I’ve been waiting for you to put a foot wrong, but instead you decide to help the Chaotix find Vanilla. Cream can clearly see something I can’t, and I know she can hold her own. As for whatever is going on with you and Mocha, I haven’t a clue. But it’s doing something. The only person you’ve shown any aggression towards is me, so unless you’re sticking around to dish out some personal vendetta - which I will not make easy for you - then my suggestion is you get your worthless tail back out there and stop being a coward.”

Pathetic… worthless… coward. Adrenaline pulsed through my veins and it took all my willpower not to smack him square in the nose.

“If you’re trying to help me, you’re failing.” A sneer twisted my muzzle, which he met perfectly. “And to be perfectly honest… I don’t want your help.”

He glared back at me for an uncomfortable moment and my entire body went taut as I waited for him to attack. But instead he shook his head and vanished in a flash of light.

My eyes snapped to the window, still open. I leapt from the bed and grabbed each pane in both hands, slamming them shut. A fine crack zipped across the left one like a jagged lightning fork. I stared out at the night-coated town, searching the shadows for the black hedgehog. It was impossible to spot him, but I couldn’t shake the feeling he was out there, watching. As I searched I spotted Mocha’s house beyond the trees. No light at her window. I closed my eyes and leant forward until my forehead was pressed on the cold glass. Then the tears broke free.

It hurt. But she didn’t need me. I was a risk, and the thought of hurting her - or Cream - or Cheese - felt like I was being speared through the heart by jagged crimson daggers. The monster’s pointed face filled my mind and the strength left my legs. I crumpled to the floor.

“There,” I muttered into my hands as tears soaked the fur of my cheeks. “It’s over. Is that what you wanted?”

...​

More than a day had passed, and I hadn’t left my room. I lay huddled on the bed, staring up at the ceiling or fighting off sleep. Whenever I began to drift off, those nightmares threatened me. At one point I’d found myself beating on the wardrobe, screaming at the top of my lungs while Sonic banged on the door asking if I was all right. I told him I was and clambered back into bed. Then I ignored all his attempts to draw me downstairs for… whatever meal it was I was missing at the time. I just wasn’t hungry. The thought of eating made me feel sick. All I was taking in was the occasional drink of water, obtained from sticking my muzzle under the tap in my bathroom.

I’d almost lost track of time. I’d unplugged the digital clock the moment I’d realised I was watching it as the slow passage of time tugged away at me. As I stared at the light leaking through the closed blinds a meek knock resounded at the door.

“Infinite?”

My heart leapt and I lifted my head towards it. Mocha? I hadn’t expected her to show up at my door.

“Are you there?” she asked. “I brought your case folder. You’d left it… and… well, I took it to the Chaotix but they said you hadn’t shown up since Monday. Part of me thought you might come and collect it, but…”

I let my head fall back onto the pillow and closed my eyes. I hadn’t even noticed I’d left it. Why was I such an idiot?

“Please talk to me…” Her voice cracked slightly. “I don’t understand what’s going on.”

My insides twisted. I’d done this… How did I explain? Did I even dare?

“Sonic says you’ve been missing meals, too,” she said. “Please, Infinite… what’s happened?”

She deserved an explanation. I couldn’t just blank her like this. I pushed myself up from the mattress and clambered to the floor. I stumbled over one of my boots on the way to the door and cursed under my breath, kicking it aside.

“Oh good,” she breathed. “You’re in there.”

“I have to be away from you,” I said. “For all our sakes. I’m not good for you.”

“What are you talking about?” she gasped.

“Everyone here… I’m a risk!”

“You’re not a risk-”

“I am a risk!” I snapped. “And if you and Cream had a single braincell between you, you’d stay away from me!”

A pause. I heard her shift and a faint sniffle.

“I know you don’t mean that,” she said.

I did, but not the way it had sounded. I placed my hand on the door. “I’m sorry…”

“I really thought you were making progress,” she said. “You seemed so happy spending time with Cream and Cheese. Even with me.”

“It was too much,” I said. “Things were going too fast, and it frightened me.”

“Sometimes friendships do develop quickly.”

“So is that how you see me?” I asked. “As a friend? Or is it all just pity?”

“Pity?” she gasped. “Of course not! I… I actually like you.”

I scoffed and closed my eyes. After everything I’d said and done?

“Cream and I,” she said, “we miss you. And we’re worried about you.”

“You don’t need to be worried about me,” I said. “I’m fine. Worry about your own lives.”

“You’re not fine,” she said. “This… this isn’t fine! There’s a door between us, and you’re not eating. It’s like you’ve decided to lock yourself away, and I’m scared.”

I dug my claws into the wood. “So am I…”

“So that’s why you’ve done it? You’re hiding?”

Hiding… I bit my lip. That’s exactly what cowards do…

“This is about those nightmares again, isn’t it?” she said. “It’s pretty obvious. I told you, you always have the option of staying here. You don’t have to keep yourself away from us.”

“I just need some time… to sort out my head…”

“Alone?”

“Yes.”

“Okay…” She took a breath. “I’m not going to force you to do anything you’re not comfortable with, but please understand that I… we care about you.”

“That’s what frightens me…”

“That someone cares about you?” There was a lot of surprise behind her voice.

I took in a trembling breath and dug my claws deeper into the wood. “…That it’s mutual.”

She sniffled a few times and her voice came out wobbly. “I wish I knew why this is so hard for you…”

‘I wish I could bring myself to tell you…’ Those words wouldn’t leave my throat. I leant into the door, pressing my head against it. On the other side, I heard her brush the door. In my mind, she’d placed her hand over mine, and I didn’t want to move it.

“Is there anything I can do to help?” she asked quietly.

I screwed my eyes shut. “I don’t know…”

“How about if I keep visiting you?” she offered. “Then you’ll at least have someone to talk to, if you want to. Or I could just be here?”

Did I really want to put her through that? It was a lot to ask, and I wasn’t good company.

When I didn’t respond, I heard her push back from the door.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s getting late. Look, I don’t want to push my boundaries. So I’ll only come back if you actually want me to.”

So I was going to lose her? I hid my face in my hand while the other kept me steady against the door. Why did it bother me so much? It was what I wanted, wasn’t it?

“Okay,” she said. “If you won’t answer me…”

“Will it really make any difference what I say?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said. “This isn’t the first time you’ve done something like this. You keep changing your mind and avoiding me, and I don’t understand why. It’s as if you want to push me away.”

I clenched my teeth together.

“If my attempts at friendship are having this affect on you,” she went on, “then there’s only so much I can do. For both our sakes.”

Yes, I was definitely going to lose her, and I had only myself to blame. But it was what I wanted. I dug my claws into my face and groaned. Then why did I hate it? It gnawed at me, digging up a pit of hopelessness.

“I’ll leave your case folder.” There was a rustle as she propped it against the door. “Goodnight. Please look after yourself. I’m not the only one who’s worried.” She paused for a painfully long second. “You know where I am.”

Her footsteps echoed towards the stairs, carrying her away from me. Most likely forever, and I didn’t want it to happen. Something inside me lurched and I groped for the handle. But I couldn’t bring myself to open the door.

“Mocha, wait…” My voice was thick with tears. “Please don’t give up on me.” I paused to bite back a sob but it managed to break free. I sank to the floor. “I really think I need you…”

“Oh, Infinite.” She rushed back to the door. “Please let me in.”

I couldn’t. I didn’t want her to see me like this. I shook my head into my hands as I tried to stop the tears. But they wouldn’t stop. I huddled up against the door and I heard her fall down beside me on the other side.

“If you’re not going to let me in,” she said, “then please talk to me.”

“It’s the monster,” I choked out.

“What?” If she wanted to hide the disbelief in her voice, she failed miserably.

“The one I fight in my nightmares,” I said. “It’s bad enough I could hurt someone acting them out. But… the other night, it threatened to kill you and Cream. And I… I just… I snapped.” I took a few frantic breaths to try and calm myself.

She let out a long sigh. “I know that must be scary. But it’s a figment of your imagination. It can’t hurt anyone.”

“Can’t it?” I scoffed. “Look what it’s doing to me!”

I crumbled. My entire body shook with uncontrollable sobs and I sank forward to the floor.

“Oh, I really wish I could pick this lock,” said Mocha. “I don’t understand how the mind works, especially not dreams. Is there any way we can fight it?”

“I am fighting it,” I said. “And I think I’m losing. Every time I get close to so much as hitting it, I wake up.” I took in a ragged breath. “I’m just so exhausted.”

“That’s not quite what I meant,” she breathed. “Have you been sleeping?”

“No.” I rubbed a hand over my eyes. “Not much.”

“Okay.” She paused as she rummaged through her pocket. “Cream has a key, but she might be wondering where I am. I’ll send her a message, but I’m not leaving until I know you’re asleep.”

I stared at the plain wood of the door. The tears had worn off, and my breathing had calmed. If anything, I just didn’t want to move.

“You should get back,” I said.

“No, you need me more than she does right now. She’s a mature child. When I get back, I’ll probably find she’s made me dinner and is waiting on the sofa with a movie on.” She paused for a moment. “How about I read you Hunting of the Snark again? I have it on my phone.”

I reached out a hand to the gap between the door and the wall, letting it flop millimetres from it. “Fine.”

So she began. And before she’d even finished Fit the Second, I found myself in a dreamless sleep.

...​

Days rolled by, and each one I found myself longing for Mocha to return. She couldn’t stay all night, and nights I didn’t sleep - or woke up from disturbing nightmares - I sat by the door hoping she’d visit the next day. Each time she brought a ‘care package’, usually formed up of baked goods from her favourite bakery. Something easy that wouldn’t waste quickly if I decided to leave it. I’d wait for her to leave before bringing it into my room, so she didn’t see me. There was one time I’d heard a sniffle afterwards and I knew she’d waited on the stairs, out of sight. Not that she would have seen much. I only cracked the door open and poked my arm out. I didn’t have much choice. The one time I’d left it, she scolded me. It wasn’t so much the scolding that made me actually use the dang thing. It was the distress in her voice. She’d said she thought she was losing me, and there was no way I was going to make her cry again like that. It was the only time I almost opened the door. I even unlocked it. Then apologised through the wood like it was going out of fashion.

I didn’t remember every conversation. They were usually one-sided anyway, and I’d often zone out or black out from exhaustion. But the ones I did remember meant something and I thought about them a lot.

“Cream wants to know when your birthday is,” Mocha told me.

“Why on earth does she want to know that?” I asked.

“She says she wants to make you a cake and throw a party. Maybe invite a few friends, like Silver, Blaze and Sonic.”

I scoffed at that. “They wouldn’t show.”

“You don’t know that.”

Despite my attitude, the idea wasn’t completely objectionable. I fidgeted my fingers together and stared at the wall.

“Maybe I could help make the cake?” I said.

Mocha laughed. “That kinda defeats the object of having one baked for you.”

I didn’t remember much after that, and the days kind of blended together. Often ending with Mocha reading me something. Either the Snark or another light story that wasn’t too long or difficult to follow. Sometimes I’d drift off. Often not for long. Either woken up with a start at nothing, or from one of those wretched nightmares.

One day when she showed up, I was in a right state. I’d pulled all the sheets off the bed and wrapped myself in a cocoon by the door. Not that she could see me, but she could hear me scolding myself. One of those dreams had really got to me, and it took her a long time to drag me out of it. I think in some way I’d still been stuck in it. It had been a rare dream where I’d not fought back, just let myself get beat down by that monster’s words until one of its lightning bolts woke me up.

“I’m worthless,” I said into my hands. “I’ve always been worthless.”

“No you’re not,” she said softly.

“I am. I should go back to hiding my face again. Then no one would have to look at me. I wouldn’t have to look at me.”

“If you did that, how would I see your smile?”

I let out a single laugh. “What smile?”

“You’ve smiled before,” she said. “I’ve seen it. It’s lovely. Lights up your entire face.”

I looked up then, aghast, at the door. “When?”

“In the park. When we were making chilli. When you were playing with Cream.”

I don’t think I’d really noticed. I stared down at my hands in my cocooned lap.

“And you’re definitely not worthless,” she went on. “There’s a lot good about you. You’re actually trying to fit in. Trying to help a child find her mother. And I love the way you are with Cream and Cheese.”

I took in a trembling breath and leant my head back against the wardrobe behind me. “She has a way.”

“She really does.” Mocha paused briefly. “It surprises me. You say you hate being touched, but you don’t seem to mind her holding your hand or clambering over you.”

My spine stiffened and I stared at the ceiling. I hadn’t even noticed that. I licked my lips in thought and lowered my gaze to the wall.

“I guess… it’s her innocence,” I said. “She doesn’t threaten me.”

There was a small pause, then Mocha said, “And I do?”

I screwed my eyes shut and huddled into myself. “Not anymore.”

That night, I really fought back. I woke up surrounded in down feathers over a beaten pillow, brandishing the remains of a table lamp. Small glass shards lay scattered over the sheet and floor from the shattered bulb. The lamp shade was tattered and the wooden trunk beaten in places where it had connected with the headboard. I tried to catch my breath as I cast the remains of the lamp aside. But oddly I felt a lot better. I hadn’t won the battle. The monster had kept dodging.

Mocha’s soft tap resounded at the door and I glanced to the window. Daylight. My mane hung around my face like rat tails and I pushed it back behind my ears as I approached the door. I absently scratched my shoulder and slumped against the wardrobe.

“How are you this morning?” she asked.

“More rested,” I said. “And I have a dead pillow.”

“Oh…” Realisation dawned on her and she said, “Do you want me to get you another one?”

I waved my hand at the door. “Not necessary. I’ll stuff all the feathers back in later.”

“That’s not a proper fix.”

My ear pricked up and I glanced at the door. There was something different about her. Something in her voice.

“Is everything all right?” I asked.

Her breath shook as she sighed. “Barbara’s not come back yet.”

“Barbara?”

That was Cream’s carer, I knew that. But why did I feel like I was forgetting something? I pinched my muzzle as I wracked my mind over it.

“You know she’s been away for a few days,” said Mocha. “She was meant to come back on Friday, but… it’s Sunday now and no one has heard from her.”

I stared at the wall, still pinching my muzzle. I was definitely forgetting something important.

“We’re worried,” said Mocha. “But I’m trying not to worry Cream. After Eggman’s robot showed up in Westopolis, I’m beginning to fear the worst.”

My eyes widened and I leant my head back against the wardrobe. Of course. I’d locked it away. She’d told me on the Friday. Thursday afternoon, there’d been an attack in Westopolis, but I’d been exhausted and barely taken any of it in.

“The weasel robot,” I said. “Sonic’s team dealt with it quickly. You’d said there were no casualties. That it was miles out from where Barbara was visiting.”

“I know.” Mocha sniffed and tried to take in a steady breath. “But I’m beginning to wonder. Barbara’s phone wasn’t switched on. Cream said she often forgets her phone charger, so she wasn’t worried. But now she’s not come home, and no one can get hold of her family either.”

I sighed and let my hand drop into my lap. “So what’s going to happen? Are they going to look for her?”

“There’s already people looking.”

“Then we need to hold out hope they’ll find her,” I said. “She’ll just be held up somewhere. On a train or in the airport. Maybe she lost track of time.”

“She wouldn’t have not said anything,” said Mocha.

Something didn’t settle well with me. I frowned at the wall, trying to work out what it was.

“What really worries me,” Mocha went on, “is that if Barbara is missing… if they never find her… I don’t know how Cream will take it.”

My heart cracked and I lowered my face into my hands. I hadn’t considered that. My mind went to Vanilla’s case-file sat beside my bed on the night stand. Untouched for days. Would I really need to add one more person to my search list?

“I think we need to take our mind off this for now.” Mocha’s voice was still tearful. “The police are looking for her, and Sonic and Tails were there all last night with the Tornado.”

It was easier said than done. Conversation ended up somewhat fractured, especially as my mind wouldn’t stop fixating on the issue. Mocha ended up leaving earlier than usual, as she wanted to get back to Cream. I understood, but it was still daylight. She left a package for me as usual, but I didn’t take it right away. Instead, I stared at the wall, thinking about Barbara. I didn’t even know what she looked like. Just that she was Cream’s foster parent.

Eventually I decided to leave that corner and attempt to clear up the feathers. It certainly wasn’t easy. The damage to the pillow was too great and they kept finding new holes to flutter out of. So I dropped it and dusted off my fur. Seeing that pillow lying there unsettled me. In fact, the whole room unsettled me. Filled with negativity and darkness. I ventured to crack the blind open, but it was already sunset.

As I watched the setting sun paint the sky in a vivid orange, I found myself mulling over the past few days. Just like I had been doing. I’d come to realise something through it all. I actually meant something to someone. It was enough to chase away those dark thoughts and make me actually want to keep on going. A gnawing sensation spread through my gut, dragging me out of my reverie. Oh yes. Hunger. I opened the door and reached for the package but something caught my eye. Something I’d noticed before but never really taken in. The mural on the ceiling. A flower with wide petals, reminiscent of the sun. The floor above was in darkness. I knew it led to the common-room, but I found myself wondering what was higher than that. The castle was more than two stories. Three at least. Maybe exploring it finally would help clear my head? And get me out of this fog of negativity.

I tucked the parcel into my room and slipped out, keeping my eye on the stairs and my ears on my surroundings. Faint voices came from the floor below. It was probably supper time. My heart was racing. I didn’t want anyone to spot me, but for some reason I really wanted to check out the other two floors. Especially given no one was currently occupying them.

With one final glance at the entrance hall, I scampered up the stairs as quietly as I could. I paused in the wide doorway to the common-room. It was huge. Three… maybe four sofas, all vacant. A pool table. Television. A corner filled with toys and a play mat. I turned and sought out another set of stairs beside me. Yes, I’d been right. There was another floor. I crept up it carefully, dreading that it might lead to another set of bedrooms I’d not known about. But instead, I found myself in a very vacant space. Benches surrounded it, facing windows looking out over Freedom Citadel. One set looked out over the walls towards the sea. In the dim light I made out a pattern along the walls, carved into the stone. Long, twisting vines that crept up towards the ceiling to surround that same emblem of the sun-like flower.

Maybe ‘vacant’ hadn’t been quite the right word, because I found myself feeling rather at peace. I ventured over to one of the benches and stood beside it, staring out at Freedom Citadel. From this height, I was looking over the roofs of the buildings towards the far west wall. My eyes sought out Mocha’s house, and not far from that, Cream’s. There wasn’t a single light on in Cream’s little home.

My heart twisted and I sank onto the bench with a sigh. That poor rabbit.

I went to tuck my hands into my pockets, then realised I wasn’t wearing my coat. Or my shoes. Or gloves. I shook my head and settled back against the bench. I had no desire to go back to my room just yet. There was a lot more peace up here than in a room filled with torment.

I don’t know when, but at some point I’d begun to doze. Various dreams drifted in and out of my mind. One of them, Cream rushed over to me to tell me they’d found Barbara. But when she brought me over to her, I found myself face to face with Vanilla. Of course, in typical dream-sense, I didn’t question it.

When I opened my eyes, I was lay stretched out on the bench, staring up at the flower emblem. I let my hand flop over my face and groaned. It hadn’t been the best place to lie. My back was killing me. I stretched until the stiffness eased then pushed myself up carefully, rubbing at my eyes.

Barbara… Vanilla… hundreds of missing people.

Robots.

My eyes snapped open and I stared over my hand at the staircase.

“They’re linked.”

The words surprised me as they left my mouth, and I vaulted the bench back towards the stairs. A few people sat in the common-room as I raced through it. A couple of them let out alarmed squeals, but I didn’t care. I barged back into my room and grabbed the case folder, groping for the lamp. Of course, I’d wrecked the silly thing. Instead, I went back to the door and found the main light for my room.

I tugged out the list of missing people and skimmed over their names. Twice. Just to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. To make sure I wasn’t over-thinking this.

Three names stood out to me. Rider the Fox. Beverly the Beaver. Knack the Weasel.

“They are,” I gasped. “They’re linked!”

My hands were shaking. I had to get to the Chaotix. I tucked everything back into the folder and grabbed my boots. They were all I needed. Everything else would only slow me down.

I raced down the stairs towards the door, almost oblivious to Omega’s glowing eyes. He stepped in front of me and I skidded to a halt.

“Where do you think you are going?” he asked in his monotone voice.

“I have to see the Chaotix,” I blurted out.

“Negative.”

I stared up at him, mouth agape.

“I do not possess olfactory processors to detect one’s scent,” said the robot, “but even I do not need them to notice there is a dense cloud of aromas about you. I suggest you shower before you inadvertently kill someone.” He raised his gun towards me. “Unless that is your intention? In which case I am to stop you. And I will not be using soap.”

I screwed my eyes shut. “Argh, I don’t have time for this!”

I tried to move his gun, but it was like moving a building.

“What is so urgent you need to leave at this hour?” Shadow’s voice drew my eye behind me.

I met his frown as he trailed his eyes over me. Muzzle creasing with disgust. I began to feel oddly self-conscious and I curled my tail around my legs.

“Those missing people,” I said. “Eggman’s new robots. I think they might be linked.”

Shadow let out a sharp breath of air and narrowed his eyes.

“If I’m right, this is huge!” I said. “We could have found all those missing people!”

The black hedgehog glared at me. Reading me. Most likely trying to figure out if I’d lost my mind.

“Come with me if you have to,” I said with some exasperation. “Either way, I’m going to the Chaotix.”

Shadow continued to stare at me, silently. I shrugged him off and turned back to the robot’s gun barrier.

“You can come too, if you wish,” I half-growled.

“I’m wondering if you might be right,” said Shadow.

My jaw dropped and I jerked my head around to look at him. Even Omega almost dropped his gun. Shadow, however, didn’t so much as flinch.

“But it’s not the Chaotix you want,” he said.

In a flash, he vanished. Then there was a yelp of surprise from one of the rooms above me.

“Shadow!” came Sonic’s voice. “You can’t just-”

Muttering. I couldn’t make it out. But it was followed by a door opening and a streak of blue vaulting the low fence surrounding the narrow floors. Sonic landed before me, his quills in disarray. He rubbed his eyes and yawned.

“Shadow says you might be onto something.” His nose creased but he didn’t say anything. Instead, nodding towards the door to the meeting room. “He’s gone to get the Chaotix. That should be fun, they hate being woken up.”

I exchanged glances with Omega and the pair of us followed Sonic into the meeting room. When he switched on the light, a small yelp emanated from the sofa. Rouge shielded her eyes as she frowned at us.

“Give a girl some warning.” She removed a set of headphones from her ears.

“Sorry, I forgot you were in here,” said Sonic.

The bat’s eyes lingered on me for a moment then she fluttered over to join us at the table. Before she could ask what was going on, Shadow materialised with the disgruntled detectives and Knuckles.

“This had better be good,” growled the echidna.

“I guess we’ll find out soon enough,” said Sonic.

I glanced at the room as everyone gathered around the table. “Where’s everyone else?”

“Sleeping,” said Shadow. “What, you want me to wake the entire Citadel?”

“I can set off explosives if it will help?” said Omega.

“Not now, Omega.” Rouge yawned. “I don’t think we need a fireworks display.”

“Pity,” said the robot. “It would have been spectacular.”

Knuckles fixed his leering eyes on Shadow. “So why did you wake me up exactly?”

A soft snore came from beside him and he jabbed Vector in the ribs. The crocodile sat up straight with a snort.

“I’m up!” he grumbled. “I was just restin’ my eyes.”

“I’m afraid it’s my fault,” I explained. “I… think I might be onto something with those missing people.”

“Plural?” Vector blinked at me. “I thought you were lookin’ for Vanilla.”

“Well something stood out to me after hearing about Barbara,” I said. “People seem to go missing after Eggman’s robot attacks.”

“And Vanilla went missing during the war,” said Vector. “People go missing. It happens.”

“In such high numbers over a small period of time?” I growled. “What if the attacks and the missing cases are linked?”

“Again.” Vector spread his hands. “War. We’re not at war anymore. They’re not linked.”

“Hang on, Vector.” Sonic lifted a hand and looked across the table at me. “What makes you think they’re linked?”

“Back during the war,” I said slowly, “Eggman tailed me in his Egg Carrier. I thought it was just to drop Egg Pawns into the battlefield, but what if he was actually taking people? What if the attacks are just a cover-up while he works on something bigger? Maybe his robots are a distraction while he harvests people. The fox? Beaver? Weasel? They’re very similar to some of the missing people on my list.”

“We’re all animals,” said Sonic. “If he’s making animal robots then there are bound to be similarities. I’m sorry, Infinite. I don’t think that’s enough evidence to go by.”

I grimaced and clenched my fists. I really thought I’d been onto something. Maybe he was right? I was just clutching at straws.

“Hang on a sec,” said Knuckles. “The jackal might be right.”

I looked up at him with a start.

“When Eggman called that fox back,” he said, “it grabbed Ray. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but maybe it was trying to take him back with it.”

“So the robots are taking people?” Rouge asked. “Because all I’ve seen is them trashing cities.”

“The missing tally is too high for one robot to carry back to Eggman’s ship,” said Shadow.

“I could do it,” said Omega.

“How did he lift the robot back onto his ship?” I asked.

“I dunno. Some dumb beam.” Knuckles shrugged.

“A tractor beam…” I frowned at my hands. “Maybe that’s how he gets them? Makes it look like he’s calling back his robot when in fact people are getting snatched up in the chaos.”

“But wouldn’t anyone see that?” Espio asked. “It seems rather far-fetched.”

“I don’t know,” I growled. “I wasn’t there.”

“It would have been hard to see amid the chaos,” said Sonic. “All the shrapnel that got pulled in would have made it difficult to see anything.”

“Shrapnel?” I asked.

Sonic shrugged. “Robot bits. Building scraps. Ruined ships. And that’s just the beaver ‘bot.”

My canines poked through my lips as I stared back at him, claws digging into the soft skin of my hands.

“But we evacuated everything,” said Sonic. “There was no one left in those buildings.”

“And where was the Egg Carrier during all this?” I asked. “Any of his other robots knocking about?”

“Miles above the city,” said Sonic. “It only showed up when he wanted his robot back. And of course there were Egg Pawns. We trashed them. Why?”

“I know the Carrier,” I said. “It has more than one tractor beam, and more than one exit and entry hatch.”

The table fell into silence, save for the wood creaking as Knuckles fastened his heavy fists around it.

“So why do you think he wants these people?” Sonic asked me.

There was something in his eyes. Something that said he’d already figured this out, perhaps back when he’d been ‘disagreeing’ with me.

“To turn them into robots,” I said.

“Or have them power them,” said Sonic.

“This is ridiculous!” Knuckles roared. “Oh when I get my hands on that maniac…”

Vector lifted his head from his hand. “Well that answers my question about what Eggman wanted dropping attacks on Knuckles and Infinite.”

“Yes,” said Espio. “It wasn’t the Master Emerald or the Phantom Ruby he was after.”

A chill shot down my spine and I stared down at the case file. If help hadn’t shown up, I’d likely have found myself being turned into yet another one of Eggman’s crazy experiments.

“Mind if I have a look?” Sonic reached out and plucked the file from beneath my hands. He let out a long whistle. “This is a big list.”

My hands were shaking and I had to dig my claws into the table to stop them. Had I actually done it? Found Vanilla? If so, was she even okay? Was Barbara? We’d only heard of three animal robots so far. Maybe there was still hope?

“So what are we gonna do?” Vector asked. “Raid the Egg Carrier?”

“Much too risky,” said Shadow. “His army would outnumber us, and so would the victims. We’d never get away with them all safely.”

“You might,” said Sonic without looking up.

“I am not removing my inhibitor rings for this,” Shadow growled. “That is a ‘last resort’ scenario.”

“Would it work?” asked Sonic.

Shadow flashed a canine in a sneer. “Barely.”

“Well, short of storming the place and hoping for the best, which is how I usually roll, I’d say we’re stumped.” Sonic dropped the folder which Rouge scooped up to idly flick through. “Shadow’s right. It is too risky. Hundreds of innocents and possibly thousands of robots, not to mention those that might have already been changed. If that’s what he’s even doing. The odds of getting everyone to safety are pretty low.”

“We’d need a pretty big ship just to do it all in one go,” said Rouge. “Do you think Tails could make one?”

“It would take too long,” said Sonic. “And now I have an idea where everyone might be, I kinda want to get this over with.”

“So what’s your genius plan?” asked the bat.

“We’re gonna need some pretty big guns.”

All eyes were on the hedgehog. Shadow narrowed his into a skeptical leer, which turned livid when Sonic inclined his head at me.

“No!” Shadow snapped. “I’d sooner use my full power!”

My spine stiffened and I stared at the blue hedgehog aghast. I wasn’t the only one. Vector’s huge mouth hung open, drowning out the chameleon beside him. Even Rouge raised an eyebrow and sat back in her seat, although with more of an amused air.

“You’ve made it pretty clear who’s side your on,” Sonic told me. “So if-”

“Not a chance,” I growled. “If you think for one second I’m using the Phantom Ruby again, you’re deluded.”

“He’s right,” said Knuckles. “We spent years fighting against that!”

“And now he’ll be fighting on our side,” said Sonic. “Eggman would be toast!”

“It’s also not in our world anymore,” said Rouge. “So… you know… problem.”

Sonic turned to Shadow, who leered back at him.

“Fat chance,” Shadow said bluntly.

“Look.” I closed my eyes and sighed. “I’m happy to help you, but not like that. Just give me a sword! My old one could slice through steel and bone as if they were butter! With the right materials I could make another one, then I could easily handle a few measly robots.”

“Okay, say we tried it,” said Sonic. “What’s to stop Eggman turning everyone he’s kidnapped into hostages and killing them?”

My blood turned cold and I looked down at my hands.

“I can see where you’re coming from,” said Vector. “But at the expense of this poor guy’s sanity? He were scared enough at the thought of Eggman wanting him for the Phantom Ruby, let alone you outright suggesting it!”

“The difference here is I’m not Eggman,” said Sonic.

“Enough,” I said, meeting Sonic’s emerald eyes. “I’m begging you, please don’t make me do it.”

“I’ve heard enough,” said Shadow. “I’m really starting to question your sanity, Sonic.”

“You’re not alone there, pal,” said Vector.

“No, you’re not,” I muttered, keeping my eyes on Sonic’s. There had to be something, anything, that told me he was only toying with me.

Shadow glanced in my direction then vanished in a flash of light.

“Shadow?” Rouge pushed herself back from her seat. “Urgh, he’s such a drama queen.”

“Listen,” said Sonic. “You’re not the only one who’s been manipulated into using extreme powers for evil. So Eggman turned you into a war machine. Shadow was manipulated into destroying the planet, yet it’s not stopped him using his abilities for the greater good.”

“The difference is, I’m not Shadow,” I said. “And that power wasn’t mine to use to begin with.” I clutched my fist around the Phantom Ruby, digging my claws into my chest. My muzzle creased in a grimace and I turned from the table. “I have to leave.”

“Look, I’m not going to force you into this, Infinite,” said Sonic. “I just want you to think about this.”

I said nothing as I headed for the door. A flash dazzled me and I froze in my tracks, staring back at Shadow’s unreadable face. He clasped the crimson blade of a scimitar in his hand, holding the handle out toward me. I stared at it, blinking as I tried to take it in.

“Take it,” he said. “It’s yours.”

I did so. Sandy grit coated my hand and I brushed some off the tarnished blade.

“Use it to trash some robots,” the hedgehog grunted.

He marched past me, leaving me stood there, speechless. I stared at his back, mouth agape. Then with one last look around the silenced meeting table, I left to head back to my own room, deeply wishing that entire conversation had been nothing but a deluded fever-induced dream.
 

DeliriousAbsol

Call me Del
Chapter Eleven​

I didn’t want to skulk around my room any more. My mind kept fixating on that awful meeting. To take my mind off it, I tried to clear up the mess I’d made. Discarding the broken lamp and pillow, and dumping the bed sheets in the washing machine. No one else was in the laundry room. It was much too late, and I feared the noise would wake up the entire castle. Fortunately it didn’t.

In one of the many cupboards filled with empty detergent boxes and mugs used to ‘measure’ it out, I found a brush and dustpan. That would do to clear up the floor in my room. It was filled with feathers, shattered glass and pastry crumbs. I must have spent hours cleaning everything to within an inch of its life. While I waited for the sheets to dry in one of the industrial driers I decided to take a shower. My fur was caked with grime and it was beginning to itch something crazy.

I decided to take my time, trying to think about anything else besides Sonic’s crazy suggestion. How could he want me to…? No. There I went again. I needed to take my mind off it, but everything I’d been fixated with - namely Vanilla - led me back to that meeting table. What did I do? Did I go back to the Chaotix in the morning? Discuss things with them? Vector hadn’t seemed happy. Maybe they’d have a better idea? One that didn’t involve turning me back into a monster.

Those fur driers had fluffed me out like a plush toy. So I wet the brush and tried to smooth it back down. For some reason my ruff never co-operated. I’d have to make do, or wear my jacket. I noted it slung over a chair where I’d tossed it during my frantic cleaning spree. Faint sunlight reflected off the scuffed silver button on the left pocket. I was still feeling warm from the shower, so I left it there and went to get the sheets from the drier.

Once the bed was made, the room felt a lot less dark. Although that may have been down to the sunlight starting to pour through the window. I didn’t know what time it was, and when I switched the digital clock back on it failed to tell me. Instead blinking zeroes. I sighed and grabbed my jacket as I peered through the window at the waking town. It would probably be too early to impose on the Chaotix. Maybe I could just wait somewhere until they woke up?

My gut twisted with dread as I briefly ran over that meeting once more. I clenched my teeth together and groped into my pockets for my gloves. I had to get out of here and get some air.

As I pulled my gloves out, a green bottle cap struck the floor and rolled towards the dresser. It clinked off one of the wooden legs and rattled onto the floorboards. As I stooped to grab it and toss it into the waste paper basket, Cream’s voice echoed in my mind.

‘You need to let all the fizzy out.’

My eyes widened as I stared at the bottle cap. Even now, through something as worthless as the lid to a soda, she was chipping away at me. But she was right. There was a lot more to this whole ordeal than just firing up a powerful ruby. The Phantom Ruby itself wasn’t evil. It was what I’d done with it, and why. I clasped my fist around the bottle cap and stood up, catching my fractured reflection in the shattered mirror. Beneath it, one of the zeroes on the clock morphed into a ‘one’. I set the bottle cap down beside the dried up daisy chain then narrowed my eyes at the broken mask. She was right.

I decided to take the little rabbit’s initial advice and go and see Nanny.

The entrance hall was virtually empty, but the smell of frying bacon and eggs assaulted me like a toxic smog. I tucked my muzzle behind my collar and made for the door. Omega stood beside it like a sentinel, and he glanced my way as I reached for it.

“I see you have removed that putrid cloud from about you,” he said.

I didn’t look up at him, just shoved the door open. “Yeah, would you look at that?”

If he acknowledged my sass he didn’t say anything. No efforts to stop me. I marched out into the town and made a beeline for the path to Mocha’s. Quickly, before I changed my mind. Part of me wished I’d kept hold of that bottle cap as a reminder. Something to urge me on whenever my foot began to falter. I didn’t want to re-live it. I didn’t want to re-live any of it.

Yet I found myself at her door. Knocking.

A few moments passed and I begun to wonder if she’d heard me. Maybe she wasn’t up yet? I fought the urge to walk away and lifted my fist to knock again. But before I could, her silhouette appeared in the window and the lock clicked. The door cracked open, revealing her sleepy face surrounded by waves of tousled caramel hair. A look of surprise crossed her sapphire eyes and she hugged her dressing gown about her.

“Infinite?” she said with some surprise. A brief smile crossed her lips but it melted just as quickly as she tried to read my face. “Is everything okay?”

I diverted my gaze to the stone wall and cleared my throat. “I need to talk to you.”

“Now? It’s not even six thirty. Not that I’m not happy to see you.”

That early? I shuffled with uncertainty and took a step back from the door. “I can come back later.”

“No, come in.” She stood aside and waved for me to enter. “Just… give me a minute or two to get ready.”

I closed the door behind myself, muttering an apology. She merely nodded at me and escaped back up her stairs. So I ventured into the kitchen and decided to brew an apology in the form of a strong coffee. Two, actually. I’d been up most of the night and could use the boost myself. She joined me as I was pouring them out, her pink nose twitching at the heavy smell of coffee beans.

I handed her one of the mugs. “I’m sorry it’s so early.”

“No, it’s fine.” She stifled a yawn and turned towards the living room. “I was due to get up soon anyway.”

I joined her on the sofa and clasped the hot mug to my stomach. Her eyes trailed over me and she sipped her drink.

“I’m really glad to see you’ve left your room,” she said. When I didn’t reply, she added, “So what’s the matter? Has something happened?”

“You could say that.” I ventured a sip of my drink. I actually had made it a tad too strong. Why hadn’t she said anything? “It’s… where do I begin?”

“Just take your time,” she said quietly.

So I did. I kept what I actually wanted to say to one side for the time being. I needed a way in, rather than dropping it all on her like a ton of bricks. So I ran over the idea I’d been struck with about Vanilla and Barbara’s whereabouts on the Egg Carrier. The link with the missing people as far back as the war. Ending it all with Sonic’s ludicrous suggestion.

I sat clutching the coffee mug, waiting for her response. She brushed back a lock of hair from her face and sighed at the far wall.

“So you really think you might have found them all?” she said.

I nodded stiffly.

“What do we tell Cream?” she asked.

“Nothing.” I sipped my drink again. “Because we’ve not solidly found them yet.”

She shifted on the sofa, wrapping her long tail around her legs. “Are you going to go through with it?”

“No.”

“That’s understandable,” she said. “You seem pretty shaken.”

I was. Terribly. My hands began to tremble so I leant forward to place my coffee on the table.

“But is it not worth considering if it will help all those people?” she asked.

I froze, tail bristling. “No. It’s not.”

“Well, it just seems that-”

“Mocha, the Phantom Ruby shows you your heart’s desire,” I said.

She stared at me over her steaming coffee mug, mouth hanging open slightly. I couldn’t meet her eyes. I wound my fingers together in my lap, focusing on the rug near my feet.

“Do you want to know why the war really started?” I asked.

A long silence passed between us, or it felt like it. The second hand on the kitchen clock tore through the silence like a pendulum axe.

“That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?” she whispered.

I nodded stiffly, not looking up. “You suggested I get everything out before I explode, so…”

“Yes, I did. And after what you’ve just been through, it sounds like it might be a good idea.” She paused briefly. “Although I can’t deny I’m not a little scared.”

I met her eyes then, and I honestly thought I saw fear. It twisted my stomach into knots. My mind whirled through the past week. Everything she’d done for me. Everything she’d said. I deeply feared after hearing all this she’d take it all back. Regret ever having anything to do with me.

“I’m not going to lie.” I tried to mask the pain in my voice. “It might change the way you look at me.”

Hearing it come out of my own mouth, it wasn’t worth it. I shifted on the sofa and made to stand up. Mocha dropped her mug on the table in her haste to stop me, splashing coffee onto the coaster. I looked down at her outstretched hand, mere millimetres from my arm.

“Don’t,” she said. “If you need to talk about this, I’m here. And it won’t change anything, okay? I promise. This is you now.”

“You can’t promise,” I said. “Because you don’t know.”

“I do.”

“You don’t!” I snapped. “What I’m about to tell you will change things. Because there’s a lot more to ‘Infinite’ than a Phantom Ruby and an abuse of power.”

“Yes, and the memory of it frightens you.” She locked eyes with me, trapping me in sapphire headlights. “I can see it written all over you. So I know I meant it when I say it won’t change anything, because it already has.”

I sank back in the sofa, not breaking eye contact. Those words resounded in me and I found myself believing her. I gave a curt nod and turned back to my hands, trying to think of some way to start this wretched story.

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. “Then I guess I’ll start at the beginning.”

...​

The world had screwed me over my whole life. I never really knew where I stood in it. Even from the day I was born, I wasn’t wanted. The youngest of five. A weak, sickly, pathetic runt who’s parents didn’t expect to see out the month. I proved them wrong.

Desert life was a struggle and it was clear who my parents valued least. It even echoed in the name they gave me. ‘Zero’. Nothing. I was always last to everything. Dinner, water, education. But I strove to do better than my siblings. Their aim was to join our father in his criminal gang, and they often went off looting with him. I was never invited, and when they came home I was shooed from any following celebrations. Needless to say the day I turned fifteen I went my own way.

You see, I didn’t just lurk in my room sulking whenever I was ejected from their presence. I managed to find myself a watering hole just on the outskirts of our village. A bar frequented by the shadiest desert dwellers you’d ever meet. Father never went there. He had enemies, and I was one of them. I’d met this ringtailed cat called Blade. He hated my father the most, and at first me as well. He’d assumed I was a spy and on a few occasions I was sent running. One of the perks of being small means you can be quick and fit into places they can’t. But I persisted. Their assumption I was a spy twigged something, and I decided that’s what I would become. For them. Shamefully, at first I was a bit of a kiss-up. Running to the bar to get them drinks before telling them all I knew about my father’s next job. That got their interest. But as proof I had to go along with them. That way, if it was a trap, they could hold me for ransom. Not that they would have gotten anything out of it.

When they discovered I was right, I was in. Their little spy. Scouting out my own family as well as any other mercenaries they might have had issues with. Then when I turned fifteen they recruited me. Gave me a dagger. My first proper job was a raid on an underground arms-smith in the hottest part of the desert.

Blade’s group of mercenaries and jack-of-all-trades were a bit of a mixed bunch. Wildcats, jerboa, spiny mice, even a porcupine. But the ones I found myself talking to the most were a couple of jackals named Ace and Jackson. Or Jack for short. They were a sappy pair. Jack crooning over Ace most of the time - and she let him, and vice versa. I often found myself feeling uncomfortable in their presence, but they never told me to go away and would often reel me back into their conversation. Something I wasn’t used to. What interested me the most was that neither of them were really happy with the ringtail’s way of running things. See, Blade had favourites. Jack and Ace were not at the top of his list. Neither was I. For high profile targets, he’d send out his trump cards. Maybe a rookie or two he thought showed promise and could use the training. For high risks where the prize was small, he’d send those he saw as ‘disposable’.

To me, Ace and Jack were anything but ‘disposable’.

Over the next four years, I found myself working with them a lot. Along with a couple of faces I never made efforts to remember. Weapons raids, assassinations, hijacking… we did it all. If the job called for it, and he didn’t want to send in his more valuable troops, he’d send us. Oddly enough we made an impression. We soon became his ‘go-to trio’ for high risk/low reward jobs. Because he knew we could do it, but in his eyes we were still expendable. Still too ‘weak and clumsy’ to take on bigger, high profile jobs. I’d grown tired of being thought of as weak and disposable. And it was about time I proved to myself otherwise.

One night, after a particularly tough job where Ace had received a bullet to her shoulder, the three of us found ourselves plotting. At first, it had been a joke. A couple of drinks, maybe too many shots on Ace’s part. We’d come up with a means to get rid of Blade. Take him out. Show him we actually had promise. That he’d wasted us. I didn’t want to work under his thumb anymore. I wanted to go my own way, start my own gang, be my own boss. Blade, he had us under wraps. A contract. The only way we got out of his ‘employ’ was death. We ended up crippled or a liability, he’d kill us. Or have us killed. He had men to do his dirty work, why not use them? Let’s just say all of us were relieved Ace hadn’t been shot in the leg.

All those assassinations I’d been sent on had given me a lot of practice for what began to unfold. I’d practice on the target dummies in the training room. Made sure they never saw me. I built it up until I had a ninety-seven percent success rate. It took months, but we couldn’t be hasty. Ace and Jack joined me, along with other expendable mercs who caught wind of what we were doing. It turned out Blade had more enemies in his employ than he’d realised. But it wasn’t their mission, it was ours. Get rid of Blade and his ‘favourites’. Because those favourites would probably be after our necks. Anyone who’d twigged what we were up to had to be silenced. Unfortunately we had to get rid of five of them. Too sneaky. Too interested. Too ‘that look in their eye’. And we weren’t secret about it. If questions were raised during training drills, we were honest. Needless to say it instilled fear and everyone fell silent. Some fled, so we got rid of them too. Quickly, before anyone dangerous found out.

When the time came, it was just the three of us. We planned it secretly over drinks, well away from prying ears. Too many would have been too risky. Not to mention we had a lot to prove. Blade slept with body guards. Two at the main entrance to the base, two at his door. A couple of men patrolled the corridors. We had to take out each and every one.

One of Ace’s go-to weapons for assassination were poison darts. A poison that had tranquiliser properties, knocking the target unconscious before it messed up their insides. I won’t go into details, I lost my lunch when she described it to me. She wasn’t much smaller than me in height, but she was daintier. The perfect fit for an air vent, lying in wait for the patrol guards to walk by. Then she’d nail them with the darts. It was fast acting, and with a high enough concentration they’d never be able to reach for their radios to call for backup.

While she was doing that, Jack and I would drop onto the guards stationed by the main door and take them out. Easy, just like I’d practised. Then climb up the walls to Blade’s balcony, and cut our way in. Jack had a nifty diamond-tip on the handle of his dagger just for breaking and entering on the quiet. He removed the window carefully and we were in.

Blade snored. I remember that. A soft noise that couldn’t be heard from outside. As I approached the bed, something took over me. It was meant to be a quick and easy job. Stab the cat and run. He slept on his back, which explained the snoring. Two soft thuds came from beyond the door. My cue that Ace had taken out the guards.

Jack kept watch at the window behind me, whispering for me to get a move on. I clutched the dagger Blade had given me tight enough for the handle to leave imprints on my leather glove. No, I wanted him to know it was me who’d killed him.

I stretched out my other hand and gripped his muzzle, keeping his jaw locked shut. His yellow eyes snapped open, fixing on mine. I remember seeing fear in his eyes, then a fleeting look of admiration. Realisation that he’d underestimated me, and in doing so had made a fatal error.

“Who’s disposable now, jerk?” I’d whispered, right before I slashed my dagger across his throat.

Jack wasn’t happy with me, I could tell. I’d taken a risk waking Blade. Anything could have gone wrong. I didn’t know he’d slept with his sword. Either he’d been too stunned to use it or he’d wanted to see if I would go through with it. Jack insisted it was the former, and all it would have taken was for his reflexes to kick in and I’d have been skewered like a kebab.

I didn’t care. I’d done it. Blade was dead and we were free. Free to do our own thing.

As for the rest of his team of ‘favourites’, Ace dealt with that. She laced everything in the kitchen. All I can assume is it worked. Either that, or no one ever bothered looking for us. You’re probably wondering what happened to the rest of the disposables? My guess is they met the same fate as our targets. An unfortunate side effect of getting rid of our enemies. We couldn’t alert them because of the risk, and we couldn’t leave any witnesses.

That night, we fled. Heading towards the hotter part of the desert, away from Blade’s mansion. We ran until sunrise, then took up refuge in a bar to discuss what would become of us. I still wanted to start my own gang, and Ace was on board.

“You should be the boss,” she said. “You’re the one who killed Blade.”

“Yeah,” Jack snorted. “And the fool woke him.”

Ace cocked an eyebrow at that, and fixed it on me. But she never said anything.

It was too early to make any real decisions. We were exhausted so decided to sleep on it. And none of us could make a decision. So things remained equal for the next two weeks. Just us three, working together. Stealing and selling just to get by.

That’s when I ran into Riley.

A young jackal no older than fourteen. Much younger than me. He was a bit different to other jackals I’d seen. Fine white stripes spread along his arms which I thought at first were scars until I saw his fur moving in the breeze. His mane hung in tangles down his back, grey from the desert dust. I could almost count his ribs. He was trying to steal apples from a vendor cart without them noticing, and failing miserably. In the end, he gave up, turning away as if he’d never even been interested. As I strolled passed I snatched one, tossing it into my other hand so the vendor couldn’t see. Then I slipped it into the kid’s hand.

I hadn’t been intending to talk to him. I was on my way back from selling a couple of weapons on the market, and I had to catch up with Jack and Ace. But he caught up with me, thanking me non-stop.

In the end I had to turn and tell him to go away. But he wouldn’t stop tailing me. Asking questions. How did I do it? Could I show him? Where was I going? Did I need an apprentice?

When I asked him what he thought I was, his answer was simple:

“A professional thief.”

I frowned at him. Gold eyes full of innocence, a strength shining from a half-starved body.

“Wrong,” I said quietly. “I’m a mercenary.”

His eyes lit up at that. Then came the begging. With a roll of my eyes, I resigned myself to taking him on. In an unformed team, with no clear leader.

Needless to say Jack and Ace thought I was trying to pull a fast one. Using a kid to rank myself up to the position of leader. Although Ace was a lot more lax about it.

“We need a boss, and he did kill Blade,” she said.

“What’s that got to do with anything?” asked Jack.

“Easy,” she said. “He took out the previous leader, so the position goes to him.”

Jack stared at me over the top of Riley’s astounded and awe-struck face. Then the older jackal sighed and rolled his eyes.

“Fine,” he said. “You didn’t exactly mess it up.”

And that’s how I became leader to the Jackal Squad. And also, much to my initial chagrin, Riley’s ‘father figure’. The pup followed me around like a… well… pup… offering to help with the most menial of tasks. Given he had no home, he ended up moving in with me. We didn’t yet have a base, so I stayed in a cheap run-down apartment, with sandstone walls bleached from the sun.

Eventually I quite enjoyed having Riley around. He was a keen learner, and I taught him everything I knew. How to use a dagger. Basic stealth (start with the basics, then rank up). Target practice. I guess he reminded me of myself, how I’d been with Blade. But somehow, I didn’t think things would end up the same as they had for him. Riley was clearly devoted and had never had a father. My guess was that’s why he glued himself to me.

There was no hostility between Jack and I. I might have been appointed leader, but I was no tyrant. The three jackals were like family to me, and I to them. We looked out for each other. Even when new members joined, they ended up becoming part of our little family. The first were a pair of twins we ran into in the bar one afternoon. They hadn’t been interested at first, withdrawing back into their own private world. Their names were Jet and Ebony, and like their names suggested they were darker in colour than your average black and white jackal. They still sported the white mane and gold eyes, but no markings down their backs and their ruffs were completely black.

When we were discussing a conflict with another mercenary squad, one who we’d had too many run-ins with, the twins showed interest. Same enemy. Why not work together? That’s when they joined, and they showed promise. Fantastic assassins, quiet and elusive. Blended in with the shadows almost flawlessly.

They had this little trick they liked to do where one pretended to be the other. Despite being brother and sister, they looked identical and they ran with it. Their signature kill-skill was a simple bait and switch. Something they liked to call ‘The Evil Twin’. The girl would lure in her target (or the boy if the target was female), then when they left together, they’d subtly switch places and strike. Sick humour, but it worked.

The last one to join my ranks was Bryce. An absolute clown. Very much a brawler, and quite liked wearing bandages. None of us understood why.

As years went by, we only grew in strength. And with it, our image. That brought both the good and the bad. Soon the entire desert learned of the Jackal Squad. We were the go-to group when someone wanted some dirty work doing. If you wanted weapons, explosives, machine scraps, you came to us. Other mercenaries didn’t like that. I made a lot of enemies, often without even realising it. So I coined the name The Ultimate Mercenary, and it was a confidence my squad could rally behind.

Over time, I replaced my old dagger. I stumbled across this crimson steel in one of our raids. My blacksmith skills were shoddy at best, but I managed to form it into a sword. With each blast from the flames it only grew stronger, and once it was finished it could cut through metal and bone with ease. With Riley’s help, we even managed to forge a handle for it. It became my trademark scimitar, and was often the last thing my targets or enemies would see. I was never without it.

Day after day. Year after year. It was always the same. Find a job, do it, get the cash, survive. Maybe fend off the odd guy who wanted my head. Of course, I’d managed to gain my own bounty. Every mercenary in a ten mile radius wanted my head on his wall. One unfortunate buffoon almost succeeded. Claimed my right eye. I claimed his life. It was a sore spot. Despite what my crew thought - a battle scar that showed I’d survived. I’d won. Well, I saw it as a weakness. It took me years to perfect my listening skills to make up for the loss of most of that eye’s vision. But now, no one can sneak up on me. Many learned that the hard way.

A few years back, word got around that Eggman had set up base in the desert. The market was on fire with requests for his technology. Surely some mercenaries had got to him and raided his base? No. But they would.

All of my team were keen. It would sell for a fortune. We’d be rich. Our profile would soar, and every mercenary in the desert would fear us. Fear me enough that they’d finally leave me alone. I’d be able to sleep without waking at the faintest noise.

I wasn’t a coward. I refused to believe it. But it was becoming very difficult to trust anyone. The only people I could trust were my crew. My family. Any hopes at a normal life were out of the window. No hopes of settling down. Women liked the scar, the fact my eyes are two different colours, my tail. But they like the reward that came with me a lot more. Who’d sniff at ten grand? So after two almost fatal mistakes, I turned each and every one of them away. Genuine or not, I’d never know. But it didn’t matter. I had my crew. I wasn’t lonely.

Nontheless, the desire to get everyone else off my back was too strong. We were the first at Eggman’s base. We waited for him to drop his guard, then ran in for the kill. Get rid of Eggman, raid everything in his base. Then sell it for a hefty profit. But Eggman had something I hadn’t catered for. A powerful jewel. One he’d named the Phantom Ruby. It got in the way of my attack and I struck it with my sword. If it weren’t for that, Eggman would be dead. No war. No more Eggman. You have no idea how many times I’ve run that over in my mind. But no, I struck that wretched jewel and the world warped around me.

Ruined. Empty. Heartless.

I hadn’t noticed before how much I’d wanted it. A barren world, brought to destruction by my own hands. No one to fear because anyone left surviving in it would fear me. Little Zero, the pathetic and worthless runt, triumphing over all his enemies. Just me and my Jackal Squad.

During my stunned silence, Eggman knocked me down. Then he did something I would never had expected. He offered me a job. Work with him, and I’d rule over that world I wanted alongside him. My crew panicked. They hated it. We didn’t need Eggman, we’d be fine. But I wanted that power, so like a fool, I took it.

And yes, they questioned me. At length. I told them it would all be fine. We’d manage it, we’d defeat all our foes. Maybe at the end, we’d even take out Eggman. Just like we had Blade. The world would be ours.

Of course, people tried to stop us. We fought back, keeping other intrusive mercenaries at bay. But one night, I heard the screams as my crew tried to fend more of them off. Screams. Someone was actually proving to be a challenge. So I ran to help, drawing my sword and storming over the dunes. I found Riley first. Lying there, panicked eyes fixed on mine. By the fresh blood trail behind him, it was clear he’d been trying to make his way back to me.

He stretched out a shaking hand. “Boss… help me…”

They were the last words he ever said.

I don’t think I’d ever cried before, but I did then. I hugged his limp body and scowled towards the cries for help. Whoever it was, I’d make him pay.

So I rushed to find them, staying high up on the rocky pillars of the ruin. Then Eggman’s voice crackled in my ear.

“Your squad was useless! Go and clean up their mess already!”

I muttered my reply, too consumed with rage to fully process his insult. Below me was a massacre. The twins. Bryce. They’d fallen, lying dead in the freezing night air.

Then I saw him. That black hedgehog, Shadow. Looking for his robot friend Omega. He stood over the fallen bodies of Jack and Ace.

So I roared at him. Threatened his life for taking every one of my crew. I bit back my tears and focused it all into a blind rage. But it wasn’t like fighting another mercenary. He was on a whole other level. Fast. Super powered. Vanishing and reappearing in an instant. I couldn’t even hit him. It was little wonder my crew hadn’t stood a chance.

And neither did I.

I lay there, shaking. Actually shaking. My sword lying two feet out of reach. All he did was stand over me. I still remember his words.

“Worthless. Don’t let me ever see your pathetic face again.”

He vanished into thin air, leaving me trembling, confused and alone. My crew. Gone in an instant. Why had he spared me? Wasn’t I even worth finishing off? I stood up, enraged, roaring into the night.

The crippling loneliness that followed turned me into Eggman’s personal laughing stock. A mad man who’s only company are robots. Robots that can be repaired. Upgraded. Unlike my flesh and blood family, they’re not feeble. Not so easily taken away. What did he understand? So I resigned myself to a life of loneliness. No more pain. No more weakness.

Shadow wasn’t the only one to treat me like some pathetic weakling. I’d had it my entire life. My parents, Blade, those mercenaries who thought they could sneak up on me. Who’d had me watching over my shoulder for the flash of a blade. Everyone who’d looked down on me. Who’d turned my life into a living nightmare. So I decided I’d get revenge not only on that black hedgehog, but the world.

I wanted to be something, and I thought I’d had it. Zero had found his strength, but it had been crushed under the boot of that black hedgehog in one night. So I’d take things to a different extreme. Zero was no more. Instead, he was twisted into a different figure. That’s when I abandoned that old identity and became Infinite instead. Fusing with Eggman’s final Phantom Ruby prototype. I’d get my revenge and be something in the process, and if that meant making the world suffer then so be it.

...​

I sat staring at my hands, biting back the tears that threatened to follow. Trembling as I waited for Mocha to say something. Anything.

She took in a shaky breath and leant forward slightly. “But was it worth it?”

I shook my head. “No. I lost everything. The moment I decided to join Eggman was my downfall. I lost my closest friends and the only family I’d ever known. I lost my identity. I forgot who I was. I almost lost my own life.” I let out a bitter, single laugh and let my head fall into my hands. “I even lost my mind.”

Mocha sighed and absently trailed her hand over her arm. “I’m not going to lie, that was a common assumption.”

“Everything,” I went on. “Lost in a fleeting moment of stupidity. It still hurts. I can still hear them, begging for their lives. Shouting for me. I can still see Riley desperately trying to cling onto his life while its flowing out of him. I’m scared it’ll happen again. That because of my own stupidity, I’ll lose someone else. Or someone will take them off me out of spite because of who I am.”

“That’s not going to happen,” she said quietly.

“I’m sick of it.” My voice came out as a whisper as silent tears began to break free.

There was a moment of silence, but I could still feel her sat there. At some point she’d edged closer to me, but I wasn’t sure when.

“If I could change the past,” I went on. “If I could only go back and tell myself not to join Eggman…”

“It didn’t sound like you were happy as a mercenary,” she said.

“No.” I wiped my eyes on my glove and let my hands drop back into my lap. “But it gave me decent reflexes.”

“Well, from what it’s worth, I’m glad you’ve told me,” she said.

“You don’t hate me?”

“Of course not,” she said. “If anything… I feel I know you a little better.”

“You mean you know what I used to be,” I said. “The old me died when Infinite was created. And Infinite died when the Phantom Ruby left.” I paused and shook my head. “I don’t even know who I am anymore.”

“I feel like I do,” said Mocha. “It’s like you’ve taken off another mask. Maybe one you didn’t even know you’d been wearing.”

I gave her a sideways glance, prompting her to elaborate.

She took the hint and looked away, smoothing out her tail. “Maybe you’ve been wearing them your whole life, and that mercenary was one of them?”

“That’s a funny way of looking at it.”

She shrugged, and I watched her for a moment as she idly brushed the thick fur of her tail. I couldn’t comprehend why she’d just sit and listen to me. I’d just revealed the monster I’d been prior to Eggman’s crazed creation, and she hadn’t told me to leave. She could so easily toss me out of her life, or get up and leave mine. The thought twisted a cold blade into my chest and I became increasingly aware of my sword, tucked safely away, ready should I want it. I didn’t. It was another abstract reminder of my past. Something I wanted nothing to do with anymore. It had only brought me pain. I didn’t want anymore pain. No more death. No more Phantom Ruby. No more looking over my shoulder perchance someone wanted to claim my life.

I’d sacrificed any chance I’d had at a happy, normal life back when I was a mercenary. Was there a chance I was really being offered that? Or would someone or something come along and snatch it all away? Like Sonic and his foolish Phantom Ruby suggestion…

My eyes closed and I sank back into the seat, biting back more tears. I didn’t want it. But was it really the only way to get Vanilla back?

“I don’t know what to do.” My voice wobbled and I dug my fingers into my knee. “But I don’t want to be alone anymore.”

Mocha placed her hand over mine. Nervously. Lightly. When I didn’t flinch, she let it settle there, venturing a soft squeeze.

“You’re not alone,” she said. “I promise that.”

But how long would it be for? I decided not to ask that. I didn’t even want to think it. I shoved it to the back of my mind and adjusted my hand so my fingers were interwoven with hers.

“Maybe we should change the subject,” I said.

“Okay. What to?”

I shrugged. “Maybe… just tell me what you have planned today? Or what you’ve done all week?”

So that’s what she did. And I just sat there, enjoying her company, listening to her talk while silently thanking her for not giving up on me.
 

DeliriousAbsol

Call me Del
Chapter Twelve​

Here I was again. That crimson wasteland, black clouds drifting past the blood moon, plunging me into periodic darkness. But I could see that monster. Its lone yellow eye watched me from the shadows. Judging. Angry.

The entire wasteland was silent. No breeze to rustle the dead branches of the sparse, blackened trees. No trickle as the bloody rivers burst through the rocks. It was as if the entire world had died and just myself and the monster remained in it.

“Pathetic.” Its distorted voice sliced through the silence.

My fingers tightened around the handle of my blade. The disgust in its voice was threatening. Much more threatening than I’d ever heard it. My heart hammered in my chest but I stood my ground, refusing to step back. To show fear.

“You really think the people in that town care about you?” A raucous laugh grated through the air. “Fool. It’s pity.”

“You’re wrong,” I said.

“Am I?” The monster drifted toward me, its long tail trailing behind it. “Since when has anyone cared about you?”

“How about my old crew?” I said. “They cared-”

“Admiration.” The monster nudged its muzzle and its golden eye reflected humour. “You’re the one who foolishly let yourself care for them. And where did it get you?”

I grit my teeth and glared back at it. No. It wasn’t just admiration or pity. I wasn’t going to listen to this thing’s lies. I was going to put an end to this once and for all.

I opened my mouth to speak, but the wretched creature cut me off.

“You learned a lot when Shadow slaughtered your… ‘friends’.” It practically spat the last word, as if to taunt me. “You vowed to cleanse the world of all the scum that fill it. So why would you willingly go and live amongst such vermin?”

“Because I was wrong,” I said. “I was blinded by rage and power.”

“Blinded?” the monster asked. “Or enlightened?”

“Blinded,” I growled. “I went around hurting others simply because I was angry! I was sick of the world taking everything from me that meant something! Shadow was the last straw…”

“He showed you your weakness.”

My hand trembled and I forced myself to steady my blade at my side.

“He made you see red.” The monster chuckled. “And now you have the chance to do it all again. Offered to you by the very mouths that are trying to show you kindness. So why are you being so pathetically scared? You can have that power back and put things right. Like you planned to.”

“I am not going to hurt them!”

“Why?” The monster lifted its arms in a shrug. “They’re only going to hurt you. Just like everyone else.”

The familiar faces of my old friends flashed through my mind. Laughing. Smiling.

“Not everyone,” I said.

“If you’re thinking of the Jackal Squad,” the monster said slowly, “they left you.”

“They were taken from me!” I snapped. “Because of my own foolishness!”

The monster visibly sighed and its long tail flicked from side to side. “That Phantom Ruby was wasted on your worthless, pathetic, miserable heart. It’s little wonder you turned out to be such a failure.”

“I’m glad it was a failure,” I said. “Because I’ve now been given a second chance.”

The monster threw its head back and howled with laughter. For a fleeting moment I thought it had become genuinely insane. Then its golden eye locked onto me, chilling me to the core.

“Do monsters really deserve a second chance?” it purred. “Because it really wont be long until you kill someone again. Once a monster, always a monster.”

“I’m not the monster here,” I said. “You are. And after what you’ve put me through, I’d never give you a second chance!”

“Really? Interesting.”

Red light pulsed from around the monster, making its body look like a solid shadow. It zipped towards me and I brought my sword around in an arc, aiming for its neck. But it dodged past it and fixed its claws around the blade. Its pointed nose hovered before my face, the edges of which flickered with distortion. No anger in its lone eye, gold amongst red. What could pass as its other eye pulsed with crimson light, tinting its flowing white mane with red highlights. It reached out with a finger, tipping my chin up so I was looking it in the eye.

Low, purring laughter came from its throat. “Maybe you should take a good, long look in the mirror… Infinite.”

My breath caught in my throat. It wasn’t a face, it was a mask. Steel armour, hiding the real monster beneath it. Realisation set on me like a heavy fog and I buckled, letting my sword hang limp at my side.

“No…” My response came out as a breath.

The monster laughed again and the nightmare shattered. I staggered back against the wall, dropping my sword to the floor with a clatter. Back in Mocha’s living room, where I’d fallen asleep shortly after supper. Unable to head back to my own room because of the negativity that filled it, yet it had followed me. I covered my face with my hands, trying to quash the image of the monster’s nightmarish face. But it wouldn’t leave.

“Infinite?”

Mocha’s voice reached me and I lowered my hands, finding her stood before me. My heart twisted and I snapped my head around towards my sword, lying at the door to her stairs. All I could see was that sword’s crimson blade flying in an arc towards the monster’s throat. I snapped back to her and grabbed her shoulders, my frantic fingers flying across her fur while I desperately hoped I wouldn’t find so much as a scratch.

‘It really wont be long until you kill someone again.’

“Infinite, please.” She grabbed my hands in hers, forcing me to look at her. “I’m fine. I’m really fine.”

Tears of relief pricked my eyes and I pulled her into me. “Thank goodness. Oh, you really shouldn’t be so reckless.”

She froze, letting out a small gasp. Then she returned my embrace, but I kept my eyes fixed on the door as my mind reeled over that nightmare. It was still there, fogging my mind. I could still see that monster’s horrible face. That mask. That lone, leering yellow eye.

I screwed my eyes shut and took in a trembling breath. “It’s me.”

“What?” she asked.

“The monster,” I said. “It’s me.”

A small sigh tickled the fur of my neck and she brushed her hand over my mane. “It’s a figment of your imagination. Believe me, you’re not a monster.”

“I fear it’s trying to turn me into one…” My voice cracked and I trailed off, watching the door as if that monster might burst through it at any moment. The next words came out as a whisper, each one stabbing at me. “I could have killed you.”

“I hid.”

I let out an involuntary groan as her statement hacked at me. She shouldn’t need to hide in her own home.

“I took your advice and stayed out of the way,” she went on.

“What were you even doing down here with me?” I asked.

She shrugged. “I fell asleep reading in my arm chair.”

I hadn’t any recollection of that. I’d drifted off when she went to tuck in Cream. My ears twitched towards the floor above. Not a peep. At least I hadn’t disturbed her. I turned my attention back to Mocha, becoming increasingly aware I was actually holding her. My heart began to batter my ribs, but I didn’t want to let her go.

“Please be careful,” I whispered.

She nodded against my shoulder. “I always am.”

“You have no idea how much you mean to me.” I ran my fingers through her hair. “I’d never forgive myself if I hurt you.”

She combed her claws through the fur of my back and I let out a sigh, nuzzling into her neck.

“I don’t believe you ever could,” she said.

“You have way more faith in me than I do.”

“Well, maybe it’ll rub off on you.” She pulled away from me and reached up to brush my mane back from my face. “I’m going to head to bed. Will you be okay?”

I looked back at her for a moment, taking her in, unwilling yet to relinquish her to the void of sleep. I still found it baffling how someone could so willingly trust me after everything they’d heard. Yet that trust filled me with a little hope. Hope that the nightmares were nothing more than guilt-driven lies. I really didn’t want to be plunged into another one. The selfish part of me wanted her to stay awake with me, chasing away that rotten nightmare’s lingering cobwebs.

Yet instead I gave a curt nod and withdrew my hands from her waist.

“Good.”

She steadied herself on my shoulders and reached up, planting a soft kiss on my cheek. When she pulled back she gave me a warm smile, but I just stared at her, eyes wide like a startled rabbit’s.

“You know where everything is,” she said. “Good night.”

I placed my hand over my cheek, staring at the door. Confusion and panic swirled in my head in a kaleidoscopic fashion and I leant back against the wall as I tried to stop it. I was not going to run. Not this time.

But I wasn’t willing to put them in danger.

“Mocha?”

She peered back at me from the bottom of the stairwell.

I licked my suddenly dry lips and trailed my fingers through my mane. “I think… it’s better if I stay in my own room.”

Her eyes darkened with worry and she took a step back down the stairs towards me. “You’ll come back though, right?”

“Of course I will,” I breathed.

I needed to. I wasn’t going to risk throwing all this away. Not after everything she’d done for me.

“I’m just a little scared,” I said. “I’m not going to lock myself away again.”

As I got myself ready, she came back down the stairs to wait by the door. I retrieved my sword and tucked it away, giving myself a mental reminder to hide it away in the wardrobe when I got back to my room. I didn’t need anymore close calls.

“So what are your plans in the morning?” she asked. “Are you having breakfast with the Chaotix again?”

I shook my head as I tugged on my jacket. “I’m staying away from them while I get my head straight.”

“Then I guess you’re also avoiding Sonic?”

“Dang right I am.”

“Well…”

I looked up at her, but she avoided my gaze.

“If you’re not doing anything,” she went on, “maybe we could do something together?”

That kaleidoscope twirled in my mind again and I began to get that alien sensation of being in a tunnel.

“Like what?” I asked.

“I don’t know… Maybe Cream could decide? She’s off school at the moment, and could use some cheering up.”

I felt my shoulders relax and I slumped against the door with a sigh of relief. There I went, misreading things…

“We could go to the park?” she went on. “Maybe dinner? The beach if they’ll let us through?”

“That sounds great.” I meant it, but it didn’t sound like it. I pinched my muzzle and turned to the door. “I’ll be here around nine.”

“I’m not trying to kidnap you.”

Her voice froze my hand over the door handle.

“If you don’t want to join us, you don’t have to.”

She paused and I looked back at her over my shoulder. She leant against the back of the sofa, hugging her arms around herself.

“I mean, you’ve been alone a lot recently, so…” She trailed off and shrugged.

There was a sadness in her eyes, and I couldn’t help but worry I’d caused it. And I hadn’t intended to. I’d meant what I said. I did want to join them, but some foolish part of me had been panicking she’d been suggesting something else. I abandoned the door and pulled her into me again, nuzzling between her ears. She clasped her fingers in my ruff and let out a relieved sigh.

“I’m sorry,” I told her. “That came out wrong. I do really want to join you both.”

“And we both want you there,” she said. “But I’m worried I push you too hard sometimes.”

“Hey, I need it.”

I pulled away and brushed her hair back, trying to give her one of those smiles she said she liked. From the one she gave back, I guess I’d nailed it. I returned to the door and pulled it open, letting the cool night air in.

“Good night.” I strolled out into the town, letting the door lock behind me.

...​

I had actually overslept.

I rushed down the stairs, hopping as I fastened my boots, amazing even myself that I didn’t tumble tail over head all the way to the bottom. The fog of a decent, five-hour sleep still swirled in my mind, almost drowning out the voices from the open meeting room entirely.

“Yo, Infinite!”

Sonic’s voice brought me to a staggering stop and I reached out to steady myself on the main doors.

“Join us for a sec?” he said. “We need to talk to you.”

“I’m kind of in a rush,” I said. “I’m already running late.”

The blue hedgehog audibly winced. “I feel ya. I hate being late, that’s why I’m often early. But… this is pretty urgent.”

Urgent? Only the day before, I would have been excited, thinking the case would be soon drawn to a close. But now I dreaded where this was going. I let out a sigh and released the door.

“Fine,” I said. “Try to make it quick.”

“Preaching to the choir, bud.” Sonic zipped back towards his seat in a blue blur.

I kicked out at the floor then followed after him, trying not to give a mournful look back at the exit. After hiding away suddenly for the past week, Mocha was bound to be worried if I didn’t show face.

Every set of eyes around the table locked onto me and I found myself backing out of the room. But the door closed behind me and Omega nudged me towards the table. I begrudgingly pulled up a seat between Rouge and Knuckles, and the bat flashed me a playful wink.

“Someone’s looking rested,” she purred.

At the far end of the table, Shadow rolled his eyes.

“Okay.” Sonic placed his hands on the table. “We’ve been discussing this since yesterday afternoon, and I think we might have come to an agreeable suggestion.”

I narrowed my eyes at him. “If this is about the Phantom Ruby, count me out.”

“Only after you hear me out,” he said.

I sighed and dropped my face into my hands. I was never going to get out of this room if I didn’t, so I motioned for him to continue.

“I know you’re pretty anxious about it,” said Sonic. “But I think a lot of that stems from what you actually wanted from it in the first place. People’s desires can change, so if you wanted to use it for the greater good instead, then-”

Something about the way he’d worded that made me look up, cutting him off mid-sentence. Maybe it was the look in my eye? Either way, I needed to test this.

“’People’s desires can change’?” I asked slowly.

“Exactly.” He grinned. “If it really shows people their heart’s desires, if you were to find it again you might be shown something completely different.”

My eyes widened and I stared at him, dumbfounded. I didn’t even quite hear him. I was too hung up on what he’d just said. The Phantom Ruby was an enigma. Little was known about it, and I was fairly sure that little tidbit wasn’t included in Eggman’s records. And the only person I’d told about it was Mocha.

“That isn’t common knowledge,” I growled.

“Well…” He winced and sat back in his seat.

There. Snagged him.

Something twigged in my mind and I caught Shadow in a glare. “Where were you hiding?”

“Stairwell,” he said bluntly.

So he’d heard everything. How much had he told Sonic, or anyone else here for that matter? I groaned and rubbed at my face. Oh, if only the ground would swallow me up.

“It seems like a pretty good suggestion,” said Knuckles. “So I’m game.”

“Low risk,” said Rouge. “You find out if you still want to destroy the world, and if you do, we send that ruby right back where it came from.”

My fur bristled and I glared at the table between my fingers.

“Way to be tactful, Rouge,” said Tails.

“I don’t want to know,” I said.

“I get that, I really do,” said Sonic. “But we’ve all agreed this is a risk worth taking if we can rescue all these people. All I’m asking is you think about it.”

“And we’ve got your backs the whole way,” said Vector. “None of us are gonna force you to do somethin’ you don’t want.”

I looked up and slammed the table. “I don’t want to do this!”

The table fell silent and Vector lifted a finger to add something. But he blanked and exchanged worried glances with Espio and Charmy.

“I’d like to add something,” said Silver. “We don’t know how long Eggman’s really been planning this. If he’s been abducting people since the war, then whatever he’s planning is already well in motion. We’ve seen results already, and I’m worried that’s only the tip of the iceberg.”

“Exactly,” said Sonic. “If we’d known about this near the start, we could have put an end to it before things really got rolling. If he is turning people into robots, he could have hundreds, and just one of those takes at least three of us to take down.”

“Yup.” Knuckles spread his arms. “It took three of us. Although I probably could have taken it myself.”

“Of course you could,” crooned Rouge.

“Taking this into account,” Sonic went on, “a small army isn’t going to be able to storm the Egg Carrier and rescue all those people without some casualties. All I’m asking is that you think about this, Infinite. If you can create something that could cause some confusion or whatever it is you did, we could get everyone off and back to ground safely. Make sure we trash all his machines and doohickeys, then Eggman’s plan would be ruined, and we’d just have to keep an eye on him for a while. And hold him accountable for any possible missing people that might follow.”

I couldn’t deny it. I knew the power of the Phantom Ruby. It was immense. Sonic’s plan sounded like it would work. But it left a sour taste in my mouth. I pushed myself back from the table with a sigh.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“I’m just asking you to really think about it,” said Sonic. “And if you come back to me and say no, then I’ll drop it.”

No. A simple word. Yet as I stared at him, I couldn’t form it. Everything he’d said made sense.

“And how do you plan to get it?” I asked. “It’s not even in our world.”

Sonic nodded towards Shadow and Silver. The former’s lip twisted in a sneer.

“I’m not happy about it,” said Shadow. “If you really want it, you’ll need to prove yourself worthy.”

Well… that made things easier. I looked back up at Sonic, quickly running over everything he’d said. If I was right, then Vanilla and Barbara along with many others were stuck on that Egg Carrier, facing some unknown demise. And I knew Eggman. He wasn’t averse to turning people into his own little experiments. I absently scratched my chest around his sinister prototype and turned to the door behind me.

“Give me a night,” I said. “I’ll think about it.”

I tuned out the blue hedgehog’s thanks, and the following echoes around the table, and pushed the door open. It led straight outside. Once it had closed behind me, I dug my fingers into my chest, fastening them around that ruby. I wanted to tear it out. Without it, I would no longer be a victim to that Phantom Ruby’s influence. Its powers would be useless to me. Sonic and his friends wouldn’t be able to ask me to use it, or even force me to, because it would be gone. I released it, leaving behind sore welts where my claws had dug in through my gloves. Then I pushed myself on, in the vague direction of Mocha’s. I didn’t get very far, though, as Shadow appeared before me, trapping me in a crimson glare.

“I meant every word,” he said.

I stuffed my hands into my pockets and met his eyes. “I know.”

“I’m not allowing this for your sake,” he said slowly. “If that Phantom Ruby really does show you what you desire most, it will reveal what your true intentions are.”

I remained silent. He wanted to know, I didn’t. I honestly thought I was changing, and if it proved me wrong… if it ruined everything…

It scared me. No… it terrified me. I clasped my shaking hands into fists to try and still them.

“If it reveals something I don’t like,” he went on, “then I will personally kill you. I hope you understand that.”

He vanished, leaving behind a bitter chill.

I understood fully. The world didn’t need a monster.

I took in a trembling breath and tilted my head back towards the sky, closing my eyes. “And I’ll just stand there and let you.”

...​

Mocha’s door was unlocked, so I just let myself in. Cream was sat on the sofa, kicking her legs back and forth as she read a picture book with Cheese. She looked up when I entered.

“Good morning!” she chirruped.

Despite her cheery greeting, she didn’t look her normal self. There was something about her eyes that just seemed less… bright. I forced a smile but before I could return her greeting, Mocha poked her head around the kitchen door.

“You’re a little late, but I saved you breakfast.”

After that morning’s events, I wasn’t actually all that hungry. I idly rubbed at the claw marks on my chest and took in a breath.

“I think I’ll miss it today,” I said.

Cream looked up from her book with a start. “But breakfast is the most important meal of the day!”

“Cha-chao!”

I felt like I was being more scolded by the chao.

“She’s right, you know,” said Mocha.

I sighed and sat down beside Cream. “Maybe I’ll just grab brunch while we’re out.”

The possum narrowed her eyes at me. “Has something happened?”

I didn’t want to answer that. I tugged my jacket around the ruby to hide the sores and turned my attention to Cream and Cheese.

“So what’s the book about?” I asked.

Mocha tutted and vanished back into the kitchen, and I heard the tap switch on.

“It’s about a boy who never grows up.” Cream shrugged and closed her book, much to Cheese’s protests. “I’ve read it lots of times.”

This definitely wasn’t my usual chirpy bunny.

“So I guess you must like it then?” I said, hoping she’d tell me about it. That it would take her mind off things.

She shrugged again. “I dunno. It’s okay.” She paused and wiped a hand over her eyes. “I guess I just relate to it. I’m going to help Nanny in the kitchen.”

She bolted from the sofa and I stared after her, slack-jawed. Cheese faltered in the air then zipped off after her with a cry. I wasn’t sure if it was something I’d said. But I grabbed the book and skimmed over it.

It didn’t take me long to go over it once, so I did so a second time more carefully. A boy who never grew up, who took children into his own world filled with pirates, mermaids and fairies. But what stood out to me the most was a group of boys who also never aged. The Lost Boys. A group of kids who’d lost their parents.

Icy claws gripped my heart and I placed the book aside as a grimace twisted my muzzle. If anything, I could relate to those Lost Boys as well. But unlike me, Cream had had a family that cared about her. And I was the one who’d taken that away.

Was it really in my power to get them back?

I traced my fingers around the Phantom Ruby, wincing slightly as I trailed over one of the deeper scratches. Congealing blood clung to the fur around it and I idly tried to remove it. Then something caught my eye. A hair-line crack along the right side of the ruby. Tiny, almost unnoticeable. How long had that been there?

“Well that can’t be good,” I muttered.

Mocha moved into the living room, tugging her gloves back on. Cream followed behind her, looking a fair bit brighter. She rushed to retrieve her book and slide it back onto the book case.

“I think we’ll try to go to the beach,” said Mocha. “But wherever we end up, I’ve packed a picnic basket.”

My eye followed her to the door where a wicker basket sat beneath the coat rack. How had I failed to notice that on the way in?

“I’m not entirely sure I can leave the Citadel,” I said.

“We could always ask whoever’s shadowing you today,” she said. “They might like to join us. Any idea who it is?”

I shrugged and rose to join her. “Probably Silver. Shadow and I aren’t exactly on good terms.”

I dodged her concerned gaze and glanced over the still-doorless glass display cabinet. Somehow I couldn’t help but find it hypocritical that I was so cold to Shadow. Especially given how forgiving the rest of the Citadel had become towards me. I mean, I’d done a lot worse than he had. I winced as the black hedgehog filled my mind and tried to shove him aside for the time being.

“It would be nice if Mister Silver and Miss Blaze join us again,” said Cream. “I had a lot of fun with them last time.”

The little rabbit pulled on a rucksack and beat us to the door. I held it open for Mocha and pulled it shut behind me, where it clicked on its latch.

Sure enough, Silver leapt down from Mocha’s tree and landed lightly before us. I hadn’t even noticed him following me.

“Good morning,” he said. “I’m afraid you’ve got me again today.”

“Yay!” Cream threw her arms around his waist, taking him by surprise. “Is Miss Blaze joining us, too?”

“She was just telling us she wants her to come along,” said Mocha. “We’re hoping to go to the beach. Is that okay?”

The silver hedgehog looked between Mocha and me and shrugged. “It’s really not up to me.”

“Maybe we could ask Mister Sonic?” said Cream.

“We’ll have to be quick,” said Silver. “I kinda lost track of him after the meeting.”

Mocha twirled her hair and glanced up at me. “So that’s why you’re late?”

I lifted my hands in a weak shrug. “That, and I overslept.”

“I thought you were looking rested.” She turned back to Silver. “Well, if the beach is out, we might try the park.”

“I’m going to find Mister Sonic!” Cream called back to us from the gate.

“She’s pretty insistent,” I said.

“It’s worth a shot,” said Mocha. “If we can find him, then it will be nice to have a change of scenery.”

Silver kept pace beside us, sandwiching me between him and Mocha. She had to switch hands to avoid hitting me with the picnic basket.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been to a beach,” I said. “I guess it’s a lot different to a desert?”

She covered her mouth and chuckled. “It has an ocean and the sand is often wet, so I’d say yes.”

“Hey! I found him!” Cream shouted.

She stood a few feet ahead of us by the castle, waving her arm over her head. Sonic leant against the wall beside her with his arms crossed. A warm smile spread across his face as we joined Cream’s side.

“Cream tells me you want to go to the beach,” he said.

“If that’s okay?” Mocha asked.

“Of course!” Sonic gave her a wink and kicked himself back from the wall. “I’m off that way for a run, myself.”

“You don’t mind me going?” I gasped.

Sonic waved a hand at me. “Nah. I wouldn’t be asking for your help if I didn’t trust you, would I? Have fun!”

With that, he was off. Mocha placed a hand on her head to stop her hair from blowing into her face as the blue blur sped past her.

I watched him streak through the open gates and one of the guards looked back at me. No distrust. No scorning. So I could come and go as I pleased? I fidgeted my fingers in my pockets as I stared out at the wide open world. I could just go. No more Phantom Ruby nonsense. Nothing to hold me here.

Mocha’s arm brushed mine and my left eye snapped to her. Then I spotted Cream skipping ahead of us towards the gate.

No. I had something to hold me here. There was no way I was leaving them.

I placed my hand on the small of Mocha’s back, steering her towards the gate beside me. It was only brief. I let my hand fall away back into my pocket. But she looped her hand into the crook of my elbow and my eyes widened, fixing her in a startled stare. I don’t think she noticed. She led me through the gates, giving a ‘good morning’ to the guards. After Silver passed through the gates creaked shut behind us.

“Blaze says she’ll join us later.” He looked up from his mobile and tucked it away. “She could kinda use a break from the Citadel for a while.”

“Has she been busy?” Mocha asked.

“She’s been looking after a couple of toddlers for the past week while their mother has been out of town,” he said. “She’s just arrived back, so Blaze wants a breather.”

A felt a rush of relief when I heard their mother had arrived back safely. I watched after Cream and Cheese as she skipped ahead of us, making a beeline for the beach. I spotted it beyond sand dunes topped with the pink blooms of sea thrift and fleabane swaying in the breeze. The little rabbit bounded between them, vanishing beyond the dunes.

The path between them was narrow, forcing us into single file. So I went first, creeping carefully down the steep slope towards the beach, and hopped over the sudden drop onto the sand. I offered a hand to Mocha who took it and leapt down beside me. I’m not entirely sure she needed the help, as her balance was impeccable. But she kept hold of my hand as we joined Cream and Cheese who were setting down a blanket from her rucksack. Once she was satisfied with it, she reached into her bag and pulled out a blue frisbee.

“Does everyone know how to play?” she asked.

“I do.” Silver clapped his hands then held them in the air.

Cream sent the frisbee flying towards it and he drifted slightly into the air to catch it. I shook my head slowly. It wasn’t a game I was familiar with. What, was it ‘Catch’ with a disk?

“We’ll form two teams,” said Cream. “Whoever causes the opposing team to drop the frisbee gets a point!”

That was exactly it. ‘Catch’ with a disk.

Cream lifted an arm and beamed. “And Cheese and I will be with Mister Silver!”

“Three against two?” I folded my arms and gave her a playful frown. “That’s just not fair.”

“Cheese is pretty tiny,” said Silver. “He counts as half a player.”

“And when Blaze arrives, the numbers will be even,” said Mocha.

“Why, is she also half a player?” I joked.

Silver grimaced and tucked his hands behind his back. “Don’t let her hear you say that.”

“Don’t let me hear you say what?”

Blaze stood behind us at the edge of the two foot drop. Her yellow eyes seemed to burn into us as she looked at us each in turn.

“That you’re on their team and not mine.” Silver pointed at Mocha and me, and a silly grin spread across his face as he took a nervous step back.

Blaze narrowed her eyes at him. “Then you will lose.”

We moved away from the dunes, and Cream set her rucksack down a good way away from her blanket. Namely to avoid us kicking sand up onto it. She looked around at the beach and hummed to herself.

“We need another marker,” she said. “A nice rock would do.”

“Leave it to me.” I shed my jacket and dropped it onto the sand. “I’m getting too warm anyway.”

“Perfect!” She clapped her hands. “So try not to move too far from the markers. And aim for them! No cheating by tossing it towards the sea or something.”

“Pff, I don’t cheat,” said Silver.

He sent the frisbee soaring our way and Mocha and Blaze broke off in opposite directions. This was one of those occasions I really wished I had perfect vision in my right eye. I lost sight of the frisbee until Mocha leapt into the air and snatched it. She tossed it back towards Cream with a flourish and the little rabbit flailed her hands in the air to try and catch it. Cheese moved in to intersect it, but it became engulfed in a blue light. The frisbee snapped to Silver’s hand like a magnet.

“Hey!” Blaze shouted. “That’s cheating!”

“I’d say,” I said. “None of us can do that.”

“No one said ‘no powers’.” He grinned and lobbed it back towards us.

Blaze leapt over my head with all the agility of a cat and snatched it. She stood clutching it to her chest and frowned at the hedgehog.

“This is Cream’s game,” she said. “I call judge.”

Cream tapped her lip in thought, looking up at the sky. “I’ll allow it.”

Mocha raised her hand. “Then we get Cheese.”

Cheese pouted and folded his stubby arms. Cream shook her head sadly.

“But he doesn’t want to be on the losing team,” she said.

I rolled my eyes and took the frisbee from Blaze. I took a step back then leapt forward, sending the blue disk soaring towards Silver’s head. He blinked then reached up to try and stop it, but his psychokinesis fizzled out as he had to duck. It whisked past his ear and bounced across the sand before coming to a stop beside a puddle of seaweed.

“I think that’s a point to us,” I said.

“Hey, I wasn’t expecting that!” said Silver.

I shrugged and smirked. “Fair’s fair.”

Mocha chuckled as she looked between us. “That was a little dirty.”

“Fine,” said Silver. “No powers. Let’s start over.”

The game ended up being a lot cleaner the second time around. The fisbee soared back and forth, occasionally a little too low when Cream had to throw it. It was a lot of fun, and pretty exhausting. But I found myself forgetting about that morning’s discussion, losing myself in the crazy game. I felt I cost my team a few points when I miscalculated the frisbee thanks to my bad eye, but no one seemed to mind. Not even me.

After about half an hour had passed, the sand kicked up around us and Sonic came to a screeching stop.

“Ooh frisbee!” he said. “Can I play?”

“Sure!” said Cream.

“All right. I guess I’m evening out numbers then?” Sonic sped over to us, catching a scowl off Cheese. “Oh… right. Well, this is awkward.”

“Take my place,” said Blaze. “You’re a power-house anyway. I’ll help Cream and Silver.”

“Chao!”

“And Cheese,” she added.

“You’re all right, Blaze.” Mocha panted slightly as she beat down her gloves and dungarees. “I need to set lunch out anyway.”

“No.” Blaze glared at Sonic from Silver’s side. “I owe him for beating me the last time.”

“So it’s four against two?” Sonic tutted and nudged me in the side. “We’ve got this, right, Infinite?”

“Oh, totally,” I said, forcing a smile.

Sonic winked then turned back to his friends. “What are you waiting for? Winter? Throw the frisbee!”

Blaze snatched the frisbee off Silver and launched it towards us. I barely even saw it. It zipped over my head, trailing flames like a comet. Sonic went diving after it. He performed a somersault in the air and sent it back towards the lavender cat. It smacked down behind them, sticking out of the sand at an angle.

“That’s one point for us,” he said.

The opposing team stood with their mouths open.

“This isn’t volleyball, Mister Sonic!” said Cream.

“Cha-chao!”

“I’m not playing volleyball,” said Sonic. “You just need to be a little faster.”

Silver retrieved the disk and beat the sand off it. “I guess we’re back to using powers, then?”

Blaze crossed her arms and looked away from him. “I refuse to do this without.”

“Well I suggest leveling the playing field before you melt this poor frisbee,” he said.

Sonic laughed and closed his eyes. “I can beat you without my speed. Now no more flaming frisbees.”

Silver sent it back this time, and the game was a whole lot safer. No deadly flying disks and no fire. But Sonic didn’t let up. I barely touched the frisbee, and when I did catch it I felt he’d stepped aside to make sure I actually had a chance. The score was somewhat balanced, only just tipping in mine and Sonic’s favour. That’s when the sly hedgehog decided to launch the disk full-throttle.

Cream, Blaze and Silver flew into a panic, scrambling back as they tried to spot the frisbee’s blur as it streaked over their heads. It came to a stop in the air, blocked by the tiny body of a chao. Cheese fluttered his wings as he fought back against it, then he twisted and sent the disk spinning back our way. It skimmed over our heads, causing Sonic to duck. I looked back, spotting the frisbee on the blanket beside a surprised Mocha. She looked up at us and blinked.

“I think that’s a point to Cheese,” she said.

...​

Sonic didn’t stick around for the picnic, instead rushing back to the Citadel. Mocha had made plenty, however. Probably expecting to cater to whatever shadow I’d been assigned that day.

I had to admit, I’d grown rather fond of Silver and Blaze. They were much more agreeable than Shadow, even engaging me in their stories. Thankfully they never asked me about my history, instead asking what I’d been up to with the Chaotix (even though they already knew). I was deeply glad they avoided bringing up the Phantom Ruby. I’m not sure if they knew I’d already discussed Sonic’s suggestion with Mocha the day before, but my guess was ‘not’.

They helped us clear up the picnic blanket and tailed us back to the Citadel. When I looked back at them, they were walking arm in arm. More engaged with chatting to each other than keeping an eye on me. I was happy about that. I found myself wondering how close they actually were, although it wouldn’t be appropriate to actually ask.

I glanced down at Cream walking between Mocha and me, clutching both our hands as she skipped along. Much brighter. I was deeply relieved she didn’t seem to hold me accountable to what had happened to Barbara.

When we reached the castle, we said ‘goodbye’ to Blaze, and Silver shuffled his feet as the door closed, looking a little lost.

“Would you like to join us for ice cream?” Cream asked him.

He smiled down at the rabbit and before we knew it, we were off to the park again. But we took the other fork this time, heading instead to the lake. It was empty, save for a lone ice cream cart that also claimed to sell duck food. That claim was made all the more solid by the giant mallards that had set up camp around it, quacking to themselves as they preened their glossy feathers.

Cream stared up at the menu and pursed her lips as if she was making the most difficult decision of her life.

“I think I’ll try a different flavor this time,” she said.

“Chao.”

“What would you like, Mister Infinite?” she asked me.

I tucked my hands into my pockets as I eyed the menu. One flavor stood out to me, but not in the way one might expect from a menu item. ‘Vanilla’. It made me feel sour and I took a step back from the cart.

“Surprise me,” I said.

“Okay!” Cream beamed and turned back to the ice cream cart.

I rubbed at my chest as I sought out a bench not too far from the cart. A couple of the ducks followed after me, their expectant eyes fixed on my pockets. I removed my hands to let them know I had nothing, and they waddled off back towards their little duck camp. I settled into the bench and watched a swan lead its mate across the lake. A couple of smaller ones zipped past them, startling surfacing fish as they paddled into the bullrushes. It would have seemed peaceful if it weren’t for the looming threat of Eggman on the horizon.

Mocha sat down beside me, lapping at an ice cream cone. My attention went to Cream as she handed me one of a matching pair. A swirl of pink amid white. She said nothing, climbing up beside me and motioning for Silver to sit down. Cheese fluttered into her lap with his own pot of chocolate ice cream, almost half his size. Four on a bench was rather cosy, but oddly I didn’t seem to mind. I took a lick of the ice cream, finding the pink to be raspberry.

A couple of ducks quacked at our feet and Cream leant forward to smile at them.

“Maybe you can have my cone when I’m finished, okay?” she said.

“I don’t know if that’s the best idea,” said Silver. “They sell duck food for a reason.”

“But I feel so mean,” said Cream. “They look hungry.”

“Then you can get some duck food when you’re finished,” said Mocha.

That wasn’t enough for the ducks. They waddled around our legs, while their friends settled on the grass, watching with a lot more patience than their bolder brethren. They clearly had no desire to give us any peace.

Once he’d finished his pot of ice cream, Cheese tossed it into the air to land in the wire trash can beside us. An ominous buzzing rose from it and Cheese paused mid-bite of her cone to glance towards it.

“I think you might have hit a little wasp, Cheese,” she said. “He doesn’t sound too happy.”

Silver stiffened slightly and glanced towards the trash can.

“Scared of wasps?” I asked.

“Not so much if they keep their distance.” He pushed himself up, still clutching his rapidly melting cone. “I’ll… go and get something for the ducks.”

“I’ll come too!” said Cream.

She stuffed the remains of her cone in her mouth and rose to her feet. But her eyes went to the trash can as the elusive wasp rose up from it. But it wasn’t the wasp she was concerned with. Her eyes sparkled with tears and she tore herself from it to chase after Silver.

I shifted to spot what it was that had distressed her. A folded up news paper sat in it, and through the mesh I could just make out the headline. ‘More missing after Eggman hits Westopolis’.

I sighed and sat back in my seat, no longer wanting to finish my ice cream. I rubbed at those welts again, grimacing slightly, then leant across to drop the remains of the cone into the trash.

“Are you okay?” Mocha asked.

I settled back down and shrugged, keeping an eye on Cream as she followed after Silver. Each of them clutching a bag of duck food. The ducks clinging to our feet broke away to beg the pair for a snack. Those tears had vanished from Cream’s face as she laughed at the mallards mobbing her. Cheese fluttered over her head, scattering what looked like tiny pebbles around the hungry ducks. It made me wonder if Cream hid behind a mask, or if she really was a lot stronger than she looked. If she was, then where did that strength come from? My eye went to Silver. Then I glanced Mocha beside me, a smile on her lips as she watched the little rabbit.

That’s where it came from. It was exactly the same strength that had drawn me out of hiding.

I tore my attention away to stare at the lake, but I wasn’t really seeing it. My mind was elsewhere, running over Sonic’s plan. Shadow’s words.

“I’m going to do it,” I said.

Mocha looked down at me and licked ice cream from her claws. But the realisation was there on her face.

“Are you sure?” she asked. “You seemed pretty apprehensive.”

I shrugged again, turning my attention back to Cream. Her laughter filled the air as one of the ducks took food from her open hand.

“I’m not doing it for me,” I said quietly.

I closed my eyes and took in a trembling breath. Mocha’s hand fastened over mine and I settled back into my seat, listening to the ducks bickering amongst themselves. Cream’s voice as she playfully scolded them for being impatient. Yes, I was sure. It wasn’t an easy decision, but somehow it felt like the right one.

Hopefully I was right, and it wouldn’t turn out to be a raging disaster.
 

DeliriousAbsol

Call me Del
Chapter Thirteen​

I’d expected my offer to go ahead with Sonic’s plan to be taken a lot differently to how it was. Instead, it was a simple ‘excellent!’ a quick thanks, and the declaration that the plan would be put immediately into motion.

Then Sonic vanished from the room to goodness knows where.

I found myself stood in the meeting room with a stunned Amy and a smirking Rouge, and I made the point to excuse myself and head to my room. However, I found myself climbing the stairs to that quiet, peaceful room with the view of Freedom Citadel. Empty, like it had been that morning. It was drawing towards supper, but I wasn’t hungry. I’d expected much more from Sonic and his friends than that, and the sheer thought that things were happening from the get-go unsettled me greatly.

There was also no sign of Shadow, and I had no idea how he was going to react when he heard I was actually going ahead with all this. I mean, he had backed Sonic in the end, mainly because he’d heard everything I’d said. But I couldn’t help but feel it was all down to some ulterior motive. That all he wanted to know was what I really wanted to get out of all this.

I strongly felt all I wanted was to help Cream. To get back Vanilla, Barbara and everyone else held captive by Eggman. Sure, I’d wanted him to fuse me with the Phantom Ruby. But the whole procedure had not been pleasant. I’d been asleep for the most part, but I still recalled the pain of having something alien to my body fused to my ribs. The difficulty breathing as my body adjusted. Having to drift in a pod, fed nutrients and oxygen through tubes until I was finally stable and not at risk of… well… dying anymore.

All those people, if they really were being turned into robots, would be experiencing something similar. I hated the thought of them going through that.

Yet I couldn’t help but worry that the Phantom Ruby would show me exactly the same thing it had shown me that day in the desert. Desolation. A heartless, soulless wasteland. Destruction desired by my deranged mind.

I leant forward on the window sill, letting the sea breeze wash over me from the open window. I’d shoved it wide open, and it had creaked in protest. I wondered how often people even came up here. Was it forgotten about, left out in favour of a pool table and television? Well, I enjoyed the peace. It seemed to chase away those anxious cobwebs. I closed my eyes as the breeze drifted between my ears and through my mane. Refreshing, relaxing my entire body. I had to clutch on to the wooden frame before I slumped onto the floor.

I don’t know how long I stayed like that. But when I opened my eyes again, the sky was dark save for a smattering of stars and the pale moon peeking out from behind clouds blown along on the wind. I pushed myself up and yawned, stretching out my back. I should probably get to bed. There were a couple of voices from the room below me, but I didn’t let it deter me. As I made my way back down to my room, I noted Rouge, Shadow, Silver and Blaze in the common room. Along with a couple of people I didn’t recognise. The black hedgehog merely tutted when he saw me, but Silver gave a cheery greeting.

“Would you like to join us?” he asked.

I watched as Shadow putted the white ball into a red one, sending it darting across the table neatly into a corner pocket.

“Not really,” I said. “I was heading to bed.”

“It’s only nine,” said Rouge. “You struck me as more of a night-owl.”

Blaze nodded beside her, but didn’t look up from whatever book she was reading.

I glanced back over at the two hedgehogs, catching a smile off Silver. Shadow, however, didn’t even look up from the table. Any urges I’d had to leather him into the ground had passed, but I had no desire to spend time with him.

“I have a lot on my mind,” I said. “I just… want to be alone.”

“We can help take your mind off things.” A sly smirk spread across the bat’s lips and I half-expected a lewd comment to follow that offer. Thankfully, no such thing came. “Come on, we can do teams.”

I found a cue stuffed into my hand and I stared at her, dumbfounded.

“I thought you said you hated sports,” I growled.

“Doesn’t mean I don’t like the eye-candy.” She winked. “You can team with me.”

Shadow looked up from his current aim across the table to lock her in a leer. “You can wait until this game is over.”

“What, so you can leave?” Rouge waved a hand at the table. “I think it’s safe to say who the winner is, so why don’t you just wrap this up?”

“Patience.”

‘Patience’ was not this bat’s forte. She leant on the table to try and catch his eye, drawing it from his target red ball.

“You’re really gonna make me wait?” she purred.

Shadow’s aim flew off its mark and the white ball collided with the black one, knocking it into the hole it was already teetering on. He cursed loudly and stepped back from the table, letting Silver take his penalty shots. The three remaining yellow balls found themselves stylishly fired into three separate pockets.

He twirled his cue and went to join Blaze. “Thanks for that, Rouge.”

Rouge was too busy laughing to respond. Shadow seethed silently and looked between us both.

“I think you owe me for that,” he spat.

Whatever vague interest I’d had trickled away down a mental drain. I handed the bat the cue and turned from the table towards the stairs.

“So you’re not playing?” Rouge asked.

“Nope,” I said. “Good night.”

As I slumped down the stairs, Rouge fluttered after me.

“Okay, this whole Phantom Ruby thing is clearly bothering you,” she said, drawing me to a halt in the hallway. “Want to talk about it? It might help.”

I stared over my shoulder at her, trying to work her out. No sly smile. No wink. I fell back against the wall and turned my eyes to the ceiling. To that sun-like flower. The Phantom Ruby wouldn’t stop playing on my mind no matter what I did to take my mind off it. Even dinner with Mocha, Cream and Cheese had done very little, leaving them to worry about me. But Mocha knew what the reason was and didn’t press me about it. If I wanted to talk to anyone, it was her. She’d probably still be awake. But then there was those nightmares…

“We could go for a walk,” Rouge went on. “I hear you’re allowed to visit the beach now. One of the best spots for star gazing.”

There was that smirk.

My fur bristled and I glanced over her shoulder towards the stairs. Shadow stood framed by the light leaking out behind him, still clutching his pool cue. His crimson eyes narrowed at us then locked on me. I found myself wondering how many ways he could kill me with that cue alone and kicked myself back from the wall.

“Thanks,” I said. “But I don’t really feel like talking about it.”

I locked my bedroom door behind me and stood with my back against it. Then I groped for the light. Truth be told, I did want to talk about it. Badly. I screwed my eyes shut, wishing for a phone so I could call Mocha. That way, I could hear her voice and know she was there, while I’d be safely locked away here if I fell into one of those horrible night terrors.

But it wasn’t an option. So I dragged my trembling self to my bed and buried my face into my pillow.

...​

Red lightning forked through the sky, tinting the black clouds as it arced towards the ground. Flames spewed up on the horizon, swallowing the brittle dead trees. I could see it before me, that monster. Its wicked yellow eye fixed on me through its pointed, evil mask. The black lightning bolt forming its right eye lit up red as it drifted towards me, leaving a trail of otherworldly red cubes.

I clutched my sword at my side, but I found myself too weak to stand. Almost as if the tree I was leaning against was pinning me down. But I wasn’t afraid. Even as it drew closer, I didn’t twitch.

“Not going to flee?” it purred, coming to a stop a couple of feet away.

“No,” I said. “I’m sick of letting you scare me.”

I don’t know where the words came from, but they gave me strength. Enough to lift my sword onto my lap. Ready should it get any closer.

“Pity,” it said. “Your fear is delicious.” It nudged its mask and stared down at me through parted fingers. “So you’ve decided to take the Phantom Ruby again? What will become of that, I wonder?”

“Nothing you need to concern yourself over.”

“Oh but I do. I see everything you see.” It chuckled and shook its head. “The last time it drove you to destroying the world. What will you destroy this time?”

A chill leapt down my spine but I did my best to mask it, flashing my canines at the monster.

“Let’s see,” it went on. “How about Mocha? Or Cream? All of Freedom Citadel?” It lifted its arms in a shrug. “Maybe this time you’ll actually succeed in dropping a virtual sun on the entire planet, burning it to dust?”

“I won’t,” I growled.

“But how can you be so sure? Look what happened the last time.”

“I won’t hurt those I care about!”

“The Phantom Ruby has a way of warping your mind.” It tapped its temple. “It shows you something and makes you think you want it, driving you to go ahead and do anything in your power… no, its power… to take it. If that means getting them out of your way-”

“The Phantom Ruby itself isn’t evil!”

“And how do you know that? It’s an enigma. Even those in its own world don’t know enough about it.”

“If it was evil,” I said slowly, “that other Sonic wouldn’t have taken it back with him.”

“Very well.” Red energy engulfed its body, turning the white parts of its fur black. “Take it. It will be fun. We’ll soon see if I’ll make another appearance. I think the world is ready for an encore.”

“You won’t. I’ll never allow it.” I pushed myself up against the tree with my left hand. “You’re nothing more than a twisted part of my mind, and I’m not letting you take over again.”

“Some voices are louder than others, and your desperate attempt to cling onto this ideal world you’ve deluded yourself with is nothing more than a weak little whimper.”

It advanced towards me, crimson cubes forming a jagged lightning bolt. I screwed my eyes shut and lifted my sword wielding arm to shield myself. But all that came of the attack was an exclamation of surprise from the monster. When I opened my eyes again, its strikes were feebly bouncing back off an invisible barrier. I took a step back into the tree as tiny cracks erupted along the floor. Green leaves curled up from it, stretching up towards the sky. Then they folded back to reveal a vibrant yellow daffodil head, pointing right towards the monster. Its attacks came to a halt and it careened backwards, its lone golden eye fixed on the sun-like flower. Rays of light spanned out from its petals, chasing away the darkness and striking the monster. It screeched, clasping its claws over its eye.

The flower’s roots spread across the terrain, cracking the rocks into pebbles. The cracks became fissures, dragging the crimson world into them until there was nothing left but a void filled with light. Then it melted away into the familiar confines of my room.

I propped myself against the wall, still clutching my sword. The monster still floated before me, clawing at its glass-covered eye. The flower still stood between us, trailing its roots up the wall. Its three leaves were larger, providing a barrier against the masked creature.

“Where is it?” the monster growled. “What have you done to it?!”

The flowers roots extended from the ceiling, slowly wrapping themselves round the monster’s body.

“You can’t get rid of me,” it said.

“No,” I replied. “But you’re nothing more than a bad memory. A reminder of how far I’ve come.”

“Pathetic,” it spat. “You know full well if you take that Phantom Ruby, I’ll come back.”

“I don’t believe that.” My voice wavered and I fastened my grip around my sword.

The monster laughed, lowering its hand to fix me in its glare. “But you’re scared I’m right.”

“If Infinite comes back, I’ll let them kill me.”

“So you’re willing to condemn yourself to a world of pain?” Its golden eye flashed with rage and it fought against the flower’s restraints. “You made me in a bid to protect yourself! A shield! Something to hide behind so the world wouldn’t hurt you anymore!”

“Wounds heal,” I said.

“They leave scars.”

“It doesn’t mean they have to stop me.” I narrowed my eyes and waved my sword towards the window. “Look at the world. It’s scarred, but it’s still turning.”

The monster lowered its head, staring me down. I held my sword before me, but I knew the monster couldn’t do anything. The roots curled up over its head until only its golden eye remained.

“They’ll hurt you,” it said. “Just like everyone else.”

A deep crack exploded across the floor and the roots vanished into it, dragging the monster behind them. Then it healed up, and the flower faded away in a warm, soft light. I lifted my hand to shield my eyes, and when I opened them again, I was lying face down on my pillow.

My fingers tightened around the handle of my sword and I lowered my head slightly towards it. So I’d drawn it. I rolled onto my back and glanced around my room. Still dark, but at least my heart wasn’t racing. I hadn’t maimed anything. I quickly checked the bedsheets to confirm that. Not so much as a plucked thread. So I sheathed my sword and pulled myself up, shaking out my tousled mane. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes as I tried to make sense of everything.

That flower, the monster’s defeat, and the fact I’d finally woken up without finding myself in some random corner of the room. I hadn’t woken up terrified, or to someone banging on the door asking if I was okay.

I found my bleary eye being drawn to the dressing table, meeting the crimson eye of that broken mask. It sent a chill through me as though I expected it to start mocking me.

‘You can’t get rid of me.’

My response had been right. I couldn’t get rid of a memory. But I didn’t need to cling onto it.

I smoothed out my mane and kicked myself from the bed, wobbling slightly under the weight of sleep. I picked the two halves of the mask up and stared down at them. No, I didn’t need it. If anything, Shadow had done me a favour breaking it. I really had come far in the space of a couple of weeks. I didn’t need a mask. And I definitely didn’t need Infinite.

I looked towards the window, glancing the pale crescent of the moon between the curtain blinds. Sonic’s plan was being put immediately into motion, and I had no idea how ‘immediate’ things would turn out to be. At his speed, I’d probably be summoned by dawn. My heart began to race and I turned back to the mask again. Now was the best time to get rid of it. But where?

My mind went to the beach. Its peace and solitude. The steady waves and soft sand.

I clutched the mask at my side and crept out of my room into the dark hallway. Omega stood by the door, watching me as I moved towards it.

“Where do you think you are going?” he asked.

“I need some air.”

He lifted a pointed finger towards the mask I was trying to hide from his keen sight.

I sighed. “I need to dispose of it.”

“There are trash facilities in the kitchen that I think you will find suitably adequate.”

“It’s not as simple as that.”

“I do not understand.”

I looked up at him, meeting his glowing red eyes. I didn’t speak robot, but I was willing to try and put it in ways Omega would understand.

“Say you have a virus niggling away inside you,” I said. “How do you deal with it?”

“Through a complex procedure of virus removal and quarantine.”

“Then that is what I’m doing.”

The robot stared at me for a moment longer, then lowered his arm. “Understood. I shall allow you to proceed with your virus extermination program.”

I gave him a nod then stepped out into the town. Omega closed the doors behind me, his red eyes briefly lighting up the stone path. I followed it towards the gates, drawing the eye of the guards on duty. Two of them approached me and I had to search my mind for some excuse that would allow them to let me pass. Nothing. I had no choice but to be honest. I was really beginning to wish I’d brought my coat to hide the wretched thing in. But when I explained what I wanted to do, one of the guards turned sympathetic and opened the gate while his friend muttered under his breath on the sidelines.

The tide was in, lapping away at that little drop down towards the beach. Frothy surf clung to the dunes and its vibrant, sleeping plant-life. I kicked off my boots to join my gloves amid the tough grass and clambered down into the water. My breath caught in my throat as the cold water bit through to my skin. But I fought against it, strolling out until I was wading up to my waist. The tide wasn’t strong, but it still tugged at me as I moved forwards. When I finally came to a stop, the water was lapping away at the ruby and stinging the claw marks I’d dug around it.

I lifted the mask above my head, not even looking at it. I didn’t need to. The memory was bad enough, but I kept telling myself to see it as nothing more than an unfortunate landmark towards a much better life. A bad decision. One I had moved past. Been saved from.

I took a step back then leapt forward, sending the mask soaring over the dark, moon-lit sea. It splashed down in the distance with two audible ‘plops’, and I let out the breath I’d been holding. It was like a huge weight had been lifted. I turned my face to the sky, fixing on the crescent moon. In the distance I thought I spotted a little plane.

After a while, the water proved to be much too cold to stand in. So I swam back to shore if only to get out of it faster. I shook as much water as I could from my waterlogged coat and gave my boots and gloves an apologetic look. I wouldn’t be putting them back on until I was well and truly clean and dry. But I also had no desire to head back just yet. Out here, it was peaceful. Nothing but me and the calm waters. I looked back out at the ocean and settled down on one of the sand dunes, hugging my arms and tail about myself as the breeze chilled my fur.

Getting rid of that mask felt so final. Like I’d shed my old, hateful self, leaving my new skin exposed like the fragile wings of a freshly emerged butterfly. They’d sit there, just waiting for their wings to dry before attempting to fly away. Right now, I felt like I could just float away, no longer anchored down by Infinite’s deluded lies.

But of course, I’d believed them. So much had been taken from me, but it was my own fault. I realised that now. And I had new friends who actually cared about me. I wasn’t going to let some crazed monster feed me lies. Yet I was still scared I’d hurt everyone, that the Phantom Ruby would ruin everything. But I also felt it could help us in the right hands. But was that really me?

Footsteps crunched over the grass behind me and I flicked my right ear towards it.

“You’re going to catch your death.”

A towel fell down over my head and shoulders and Shadow slumped down on the dunes beside me. I tugged the towel about myself and fixed my right ear on him, refusing to turn my head to address the hedgehog.

“You should know better than to sneak up on someone’s blind side,” I said.

Shadow said nothing, following my gaze out towards the ocean. So I idly toweled my shoulders and chest dry. It didn’t do much good. The towel was soon too wet to be of any use.

“Omega told me what you were doing,” he said. “Although… he used some strange computer virus metaphor.”

“That was me,” I said. “I needed to put it into terms he’d understand.”

“That was a pretty bold move.”

I did turn to look at him then, not sure if he was still talking about convincing Omega to let me out.

“It mustn’t have been easy to throw that old thing out,” said Shadow.

“It was easier than you’d think,” I said. “I wanted shut of it.”

“Are you trying to prove to me I don’t need to kill you?”

I snorted and hugged the towel over my shoulders. “Don’t be so full of yourself. The one I’m trying to prove it to is me.”

He trailed his crimson eyes over my body, drawing my fur on end. “You remind me less of Infinite and more of that jackal I fought at Eggman’s lair.” He paused and turned away from me. “The one I didn’t kill.”

My lips pulled back and a low growl left my throat. “Why are you bringing that up now?!”

“I lost someone important to me, too.”

He was completely unfazed. So sure of himself. But I wasn’t going to lower myself by beating him into the ocean. I took a breath and smoothed out my mane, then moved to get up.

“She was killed at the hands of GUN soldiers.” His voice froze me and I fixed my ear on him. “Right before my eyes.”

“Yeah? And what did you do to them? Slaughter them like you did my family?”

It was minor, but I thought I actually saw him flinch. His crimson eyes glistened in the moonlight and he turned away from me.

“Of course I was angry,” he said. “But I now work for the very group that killed her.”

My jaw went slack and I stared at him, trying to work him out. He turned back to me, eyes no longer glistening. Back to his usual, unreadable self.

“What I’m saying is,” he said slowly, “forgiveness isn’t easy.”

I glanced back out at the ocean, running over his words. So we were in the same boat. Those GUN soldiers were just doing their job, like he was, leaving behind nasty wounds. But like I’d said to that monster, scars don’t stop the world from turning.

Shadow pushed himself to his feet. “I don’t believe you’re going to become some crazed maniac. The only one left to prove that to is yourself.”

I snapped my head up towards him. “Then why did you threaten me?”

“Like I said. You need to prove it to yourself. I was just giving you a shove.” He offered his hand to me. “Let’s get back before you freeze to death.”

I stared at his hand for a moment, trying to decide if I really wanted his help. If we were going to work together, then I needed to cast this old grudge aside. With a sigh, I took it, and he dragged me to my feet. I avoided his gaze as I gathered up my belongings into the wet towel.

“Thanks,” I muttered as I turned back to him.

He shrugged and led me back across the dunes. The cold air still bit through my fur as I scrambled after him along the sandy path.

“So we aren’t heading back your usual way?” I asked.

“Chaos Control won’t warm you up,” he said bluntly. “I expect Sonic and Tails will be back in the morning with the second Chaos Emerald. So you need to be in top form.”

“Second?”

“The first is used to power Tail’s Tornado. They’ve already found where the nearest one to Freedom Citadel is.”

So it really was going to happen faster than I’d expected. My heart began to race and my entire vision tunnelled. I hugged the soggy bundle to my chest and followed on in silence, counting my footsteps as I desperately tried to dispel the onset of an anxiety attack. All the while trying to match the black hedgehog’s brisk pace. He hadn’t been wrong. It definitely did warm me up.

Once we were back inside the Citadel, I faltered at the castle doors. My heart was still racing. Pounding in my chest like a piston. I didn’t want to go back to my lonely room. I didn’t want to be alone. My eye wandered towards the stone path towards Mocha’s house.

Shadow looked from me to the horizon beyond the Citadel gates, then followed my gaze towards the stone path.

“Go,” he said. “You look like you need it.”

I didn’t need telling twice. I turned my back on the castle and followed the path past the orchard. The dark school. Through Mocha’s gate, startling an owl from her tree. I don’t know how many times I knocked, or for how long, but when light leaked from the little window in the door my heart lurched.

The door opened, revealing Mocha’s wide sapphire eyes. “What the-?”

I moved into her, burying my muzzle into her shoulder. Her fingers brushed my fur then recoiled slightly.

“You’re soaking wet,” she said. “What have you been doing?”

I took in a trembling breath, clutching the sodden towel to my stomach. “I’m scared.”

“Come in.” She placed a hand on my shoulder and steered me into the living room. “I’ll get you a dry towel.”

I barely even noticed when I settled onto the rug before the freshly lit log-fire, huddled in a fluffy brown towel. At some point during it all, I’d also acquired a hot cocoa.

Mocha tried to coax me onto the sofa, but I declined, huddling as close to the roaring fire as I could without getting burned. The heat seemed to have a soothing effect as it warmed up my chilled limbs.

“You picked the worst night to go for a swim,” she said. “It’s oddly cold for summer.”

I ventured a sip of the steaming cocoa. “What makes you think I went for a swim?”

“The sand in your fur.” She paused and clutched both hands around her own yellow mug. “What were you doing? It’s not even two in the morning.”

I stared into the rainbow pool of melting marshmallows. “I was getting rid of that mask.”

“That’s understandable.” She trailed her eyes over my body. “You seem calmer now.”

“I’m trying.” My heart was still racing. I couldn’t stop thinking about what Shadow had said about the Chaos Emerald. “They might be going to get that ruby tomorrow.”

My hands began to shake and I had to place the mug onto the coffee table before it went all over myself and the plush rug. Mocha abandoned her own to join me on the floor and pulled me into her side, away from the fire.

“I don’t know if they want me to go with them or not,” I said. “But as soon as it’s in the same world as me, it will all fire back up again.”

The very thought twisted my insides and I swiftly regretted drinking any of that cocoa. Mocha’s fingers brushed through my mane in a bid to calm me down, but it did very little. No matter where I looked I could see the faces of terrified people screaming and begging for their lives. In the smoke from the fire, the very flames, the steam curling up from the mugs. My whole body trembled and I screwed my eyes shut.

“Please tell me this is just another nightmare.” My voice wavered and I dug my claws into my palms to stop myself from crying.

“I wish it was,” she said.

My eyes snapped back open and I pushed myself back from her. My lip curled and I met her eyes briefly.

“So you think it will backfire as well?!” I buried my face in my hands and groaned.

“I never said-”

“I was right,” I went on. “I should never have gone through with this. Even you don’t trust me…”

“Of course I trust you!” She placed a hand on my shoulder but I shrugged her off, edging back towards the fire. “Please. I said it for your sake. I hate seeing you like this. Please believe me when I say I honestly don’t think you’re going to turn on everyone.”

“You don’t know that!”

“I do!”

“But I’ve done it before!” I waved my hand, sending the towel tumbling to the floor.

“The situation was different then!” She took in a breath and closed her eyes. “Infinite, please-”

“Stop calling me that!”

I was on my feet, staring down at her. Wide, blue eyes fixed on mine. Fearful and worried, sparkling with tears. My shoulders rose and fell as I panted for breath, and I took a step back, covering my eyes with my hand. She was scared of me. She was actually scared of me.

Of course she was. Why wouldn’t she be?

My legs went weak and I sank back down to the floor. Tears pricked my own eyes and I huddled into myself.

“I’m really sorry. I don’t want to scare you.” I wasn’t sure it had made sense. I’d had to squeeze the words out between frantic breaths. “I just…”

She clasped her hand over mine and lowered it from my face, forcing me to meet her eyes. No longer fearful, just worried and still sparkling with unshod tears.

“I know you don’t,” she said softly.

That didn’t mean I hadn’t, though, did it?

I pulled myself into her shoulder as tears soaked my cheeks and my entire body shook with sobs. “I just don’t want to think… you associate me with that monster…”

“I don’t.”

She brushed her fingers through my mane, calming my frantic breathing and sobs. I buried my muzzle into her hair flowing over her shoulder, letting the scent of roses chase those horrid thoughts from my mind. I was so relieved I’d not scared her away. But that wasn’t to say things were going to be easy for us. I was responsible for the death of her family. I secured my embrace around her, winding my claws into her hair. I really wanted to change all that. To undo everything.

Her nose brushed my cheek, dragging me out of my thoughts.

“You’ve left me with a problem, though,” she said by my ear. “What am I meant to call you?”

What, indeed?

“Zero?” she suggested.

My blood ran cold and my spine stiffened. That wasn’t an identity I wanted anything to do with, either.

I took in a shuddering breath and shook my head into her shoulder. “Nothing.”

“Okay.” She combed her claws over my back and I relaxed back into her. “We can discuss it later.”

I didn’t care about a name. My heart was still racing. I tried desperately to just focus on her, following her hand as it combed through my fur, claws brushing my skin. But my mind kept wandering back to that terrified look in her eyes. I could have chased her away, and that thought left a hollow feeling in my gut. If I had been even a little bit of a threat, would she have even fled? Or sat there trying to reason with me?

My fur bristled along my spine and with the way her hand faltered, she’d noticed.

“Mocha,” I said. “I’m really scared I’m going to lose you.”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

“You don’t understand…” My entire body began to shake again. “I really care about you, and it scares me.”

She adjusted her hands around my shoulders and gently tried to push me back, but I refused to let her go. In the end, I found myself sitting on my haunches, clutching her wrists as she clasped my shoulders. She nudged my chin up so I was looking at her and wiped a thumb over my damp cheek.

“I care about you as well,” she said.

“That also scares me.”

“Why?”

“Because I saw my whole crew slaughtered because of me. I suppose… you and Cream… you’re not just my friends. You’re like my family now.” I grimaced and looked away from her. “And I scared you…”

“I was just startled.” She shook her head and a small smile spread across her lips. “You don’t need to keep beating yourself up over that.”

“Maybe not that. But this whole thing with the Phantom Ruby worries me.” I screwed my eyes shut. “If I do… become ‘Infinite’ again-”

“You won’t.”

“Please let me finish.” I took a calming breath and met her eyes. “If I do, I want you to run. Just take Cream and run, and don’t look back.”

That small smile melted away as she looked back into my eyes. I needed to tell her that. I wasn’t going to let that deranged part of my mind destroy what I cared about. As I said it, a part of me wondered if everyone was right. That my heart’s desire was no longer a ruined world. That it was instead right here in Freedom Citadel. To be part of a family. To have friends. To actually belong somewhere.

But I still wasn’t taking any chances, and her lack of an answer was hurting me.

I closed my eyes again and tightened my hand around hers. “Promise me.”

“Okay.”

She moved closer to me and leant her forehead against mine. I released her hand in favour of her shoulder and nuzzled her cheek as I stroked my free hand over the back of her ears. Her fingers entwined in my mane and she let out a small sigh, tickling through my fur.

“I promise,” she said. “We’ll run.”
 

DeliriousAbsol

Call me Del
Chapter Fourteen​

I don’t know how long I slept. Mocha refused to leave me, despite my pleading. But I was too exhausted to put up a fight. In the end, we reached a compromise. She saw me to sleep, then she’d retire to her own room. So I curled up on the sofa huddled in a blanket as she read to me.

A green meadow dappled with sunlight filled my mind, surrounded by twisted trees. Each one had a sign nailed to it, trying to throw me off my chosen path with their confusing directions. But ahead of me hopped a rabbit, leading me through the trees towards a door. I never questioned what a lone door was doing right in the middle of a meadow. No walls around it.

I froze as a polite knock reached my ears, staring at the red door. Then I blinked my eyes open, rubbing my hand over them as the bright daylight dazzled me. Mocha trotted from the kitchen to answer it and Cream’s little voice sang out a cheery greeting. I guess that was my cue to get up.

“I got us lots of raspberries!” Cream skipped into the room and smiled down at me. “Good morning, Mister Infinite!”

I sighed and rubbed my hands over my face.

“That’s not his name, Cream,” said Mocha. “So please don’t use it anymore.”

“But what do I…?” The little rabbit stared up at her through wide chocolate eyes as a look of realisation crossed her face, then turned back to me.

Cheese wore the same baffled expression and inclined his head on one side.

“Don’t you have a name anymore?” Cream asked.

I stared back at her, trying to figure out how to answer that. But I had nothing. So I just shrugged.

“Well that’s no good!” Cream handed the basket of raspberries to Mocha. “We’ll have to think of something. I’m good at coming up with names. I named Cheese!”

“Chao chao!”

I was going to end up named after some dairy product, wasn’t I? I pushed myself up, discarding my blanket, and stretched.

“If you come up with anything, let me know,” I said.

Cream nodded and skipped after Mocha into the kitchen. “Do you want to help us make lunch?”

Lunch? My eyes darted to the clock. Almost noon. I rubbed my head and stood up. The blood pounded in my ears, dragging up a well of nausea. Oh great. A good sleep and a headache to boot. I crept into the kitchen where I was assaulted by baking pastry. Water gushed from the faucet as Mocha washed the raspberries.

She looked up at me and her eyes softened. “You look a little rough. Are you okay?”

“Think I’m getting a migraine.” I slumped into my seat at the table and rubbed between my eyes.

A glass of water appeared before me, and some white tablet fizzed away at the bottom of it. I looked back up at the sink as Mocha shook out the raspberries into a glass bowl.

“Sonic called around this morning, but you were still asleep,” she said.

My stomach bubbled and I rapidly found myself losing what was left of my appetite. “I can probably guess what he wanted.”

She turned her back to the sink and looked from me to Cream. “Cream? Do you and Cheese want to find us a movie to watch after lunch?”

“Ooh! Yes, we can do that!” Cream led the chao from the kitchen.

Mocha followed after her and closed the door, leaving just the two of us. She glanced back at me over her shoulder then joined my side, pulling up a chair.

“He told me to tell you they’ve found the second Chaos Emerald,” she said. “He guessed you wouldn’t want to go with them, so… Sonic is taking Shadow and Silver with him into that other world to find the Phantom Ruby.”

Well, I had to admit I was glad they didn’t expect me to go with them. But still… the thought that it could soon be back in this world left a bad taste in my mouth. I idly scratched around the prototype then picked up the glass of water to down it. I almost choked as the bitter medicine filled my mouth. I wiped an arm across my muzzle and gave the possum an apologetic look.

“It’s fine, it gets me the same way.” She retrieved the glass and took it to the sink. “I know you’re not happy about this, but…”

I linked my fingers together and sat back in my seat. “But…?”

She brushed her hair back between her ears. “There’s not much else to say. I just want you to know I’ve listened to everything you’ve said. I’m worried as much as you are, but for your sake. Not mine.”

I wanted to tell her she should be worried for her sake, but I didn’t want to sound like a stuck record.

“I’m worried how it’s going to affect you emotionally,” she went on. “But if you really want to go through with it-”

“It’s too late to change my mind.”

I rubbed my forehead with my thumb and forefinger, trying to dispel that headache. The thought of the Phantom Ruby was only making it worse.

“If you could change your mind, would you?” asked Mocha.

I sighed and let my hand drop to the table. “There really is no other way. If I want to get onto that Egg Carrier and get everyone off alive, I have no choice.”

She gripped the edge of the sink and closed her eyes. “Is it really going to be that dangerous?”

“You lived through the war and you’re asking me that?”

Her breathing turned shaky and she grabbed a cloth from beside the sink and began idly wiping water from the worktop. I pushed my chair back and joined her side, ignoring the pounding in my head. I leant against the worktop and gazed out of the window, watching a small shimmering bird in the honeysuckle, fluttering from blossom to blossom.

“It’s the last job like this I’m ever going to do,” I said. “After this, I just want a quiet life.”

Of course, the first obstacle was getting past whatever the Phantom Ruby had to show me.

Mocha discarded the cloth over the faucet and wiped her hands down her front. “Just promise me you’ll come back in one piece.”

I looked down at her, but she dodged my gaze in favour of scattering sugar over the raspberries. I couldn’t promise her that. Shadow had already told me he’d kill me if the Phantom Ruby revealed I still wanted to destroy the planet. And I’d let him. I wasn’t living with that on my conscience. Knowing any day I could suddenly go out and try it all over again.

So I opted for pulling her into a hug instead. Right as Cream skipped back into the kitchen.

“We found one!” she chirruped.

Mocha pulled back from me and returned to the raspberries. I shuffled my feet and rubbed between my ears. Then I caught a smile off Cream.

“I’m going to go and get some air,” I said. “It might help my head.”

“Good idea,” said Mocha. “Lunch won’t be too long though.”

“I won’t go far.”

I turned from the kitchen and paused beside the coat rack. No, I didn’t need my jacket. As I stepped outside, I noted a grey cloud on the horizon, contrasting with the warm sun pouring into the garden. I let the door close and leant against the wall, leaning my head back until I was watching the fluffy clouds. The breeze chased away the lingering fog of sleep and was pleasantly soothing. I closed my eyes and let it wash over me, flowing through what it could reach of my mane. Eventually I found myself pacing towards the gate. Peaceful, the only sounds coming from the school playground in the distance and the birds in Mocha’s tree.

My ears filled with a vibrating hum and my eyes snapped open. The fur along my shoulders and arms prickled as the hum spread through my body, pulsing in my chest. Wildly out of synch with my suddenly racing heart. I looked down at my hands, surrounded by a fiery red haze. Then it vanished as quickly as it had appeared. Silence surrounded me once more. But it was far from peaceful. My legs went weak and I sank to the floor, clutching the fence with my right hand.

Mocha’s door opened and she trotted across the garden. “Are you all right?”

But she didn’t reach me. Shadow appeared on the other side of the gate, freezing the possum in her tracks. He glared down at me and pulled the gate open.

“You’re needed.”

Blunt words that turned my blood to ice. He pulled me up by my arm and in a flash I was inside a small workshop. The only other people were Sonic, Tails and Silver. The entire place smelled like wood shavings and machine oil. But my eye was immediately drawn to the strange machine the fox was busying over. Four metal wedges leant back from each other in a circle, holding up a metal ring. Sat in the middle of that ring was the Phantom Ruby, and the sight of it made my lips curl back from my canines.

“It’s a dampening field,” said Tails without looking up. “It’s set to cancel out the ruby’s frequencies and can be switched on and off at will.”

If that was meant to calm my nerves it did very little.

“How did you even get it back?” I growled.

“Hey, calm down, Infinite,” said Sonic.

I locked my eyes on him and swished my tail from side to side. He lifted his hands and smiled. This was no time for smiling…

“The other Sonic was a bit hesitant at first,” he explained. “But once I told him our situation, he was happy to oblige. Provided we send it back afterwards.”

“You can send it back and bury it for all I care.” I leered at the ruby then sighed. “Well I guess you still want to check who’s side I’m on. Let’s just get this over with.”

Shadow plucked the jewel from its ring and that ominous thrumming filled my ears again. But I tried my best to ignore it. He held the ruby out to me, his expression once again unreadable.

“Here,” he said. “I’m not letting go. But there won’t be any confusion. It’s already shown me mine.”

My hands twitched at my sides as I stared at it. Whatever it showed me, it would also show him. And if it showed us a ruined world, it would be the last thing I’d ever see. I’d die knowing I was a monster. That everything I’d been clinging to over the past few weeks was nothing but a lie. The black hedgehog waved the ruby up and down and his crimson eyes narrowed. With a sigh of defeat I reached out and placed my hand on it. The entire room warped and I stared at my surroundings, transfixed.

I was once again in Freedom Citadel, watching Cream as she tugged at her mother’s dress. Dragging her down the path towards the park. And I was following her. Mocha walked at my side with her hand linked through my arm. And in an instant, the whole peaceful scene was gone.

I retracted my hand and sank to the floor with a sob, huddling against the stone wall. Once again, a weight had been lifted. I stared through bleary eyes at the door as I ran over it once more. Everything it meant.

I wasn’t a monster. Not anymore.

I curled my tail around my feet, trying to calm my frantic breathing as that horrible noise reverberated through my ears. Then it all stopped as Shadow placed the ruby back into its dampening field.

“Well, that certainly answers things,” said Sonic. “I guess I can relay the mission to you now.”

But I was barely listening. My thoughts the previous night had been right. I knew the Phantom Ruby didn’t lie. My heart’s desire had indeed changed.

Shadow caught my eye and he gave me a small nod.

“What did I tell you?” he said. “Hopefully you’ll have a little faith in yourself now.”

...​

The plan seemed straightforward enough. A small team of us would go out to the Egg Carrier, leaving the Chaotix, Amy and Blaze to man the fort at the Citadel. They’d assist the guards if anything went wrong. The plan had also been to leave Omega, but his robocidal nature kicked in and he insisted on his place in our party at gunpoint. If his desire was to destroy all robots, I wasn’t exactly going to complain. Provided it didn’t backfire if my suspicions were correct and Eggman was indeed turning people into robots.

Once aboard the Egg Carrier, we’d locate the prisoners and get them back to the ground. That’s where I came in. Not only did the Phantom Ruby allow me to decimate large troops of robots in one fell swing, it could allegedly allow me to bring down the entire Egg Carrier. Safely. Then destroy it. It was a gargantuan task, and I had to admit I had my doubts. But if I could cast an illusion over an entire city, surely I could handle Eggman’s measly ship?

It didn’t take Rouge and Silver very long to track down the Egg Carrier. It was hovering just on the edge of the desert, stationary. I stood on the warm sand with Sonic, Shadow and Knuckles, eyes trained on the hulking metal in the sky. Every nerve practically hummed with electricity, a sensation that, unlike that pulsing noise, had not gone away. It made me wonder how I’d ever got used to it. I glimpsed Tails’ plane far away on my left, staying well out of the way of the Egg Carrier. Backup to help get people back onto the surface if anything happened to Shadow or me. It was meant to be reassuring but instead it tied my stomach in knots.

“Are you sure this is the best way in?” Sonic asked me.

I nodded. “Back entrance. Closest to the cells. Although I can’t say it won’t be guarded.”

Sonic folded his arms and grinned. “Great! Sounds like a quick job. Exactly my jam.”

I frowned at him and shook my head. But before I could express my concerns, Silver and Rouge landed among us.

“No sign of any badniks in the air,” said Silver. “That’s reassuring.”

“Good,” said Shadow. “That means there’s less a chance of us being spotted and alerting Eggman.”

Omega’s heavy footsteps crunched over the sand and he glanced back over his shoulder. “No robots on the ground. That is both reassuring and disappointing.”

“Don’t worry, Omega,” said Sonic. “You can shoot as many robots as you want once we’re on board. Just… try not to accidentally kill anyone.”

“Affirmative. I shall not harm any soft, warm lifeforms.”

“Great, you’re learning well,” said Rouge.

For a brief moment, I thought the robot somehow smiled.

“Fantastic! I’m tired of standing around,” said Sonic. “Okay, Shadow. Do your thing.”

He placed a hand on Shadow’s shoulder and the black hedgehog cast him a sideways glare.

It was difficult to say what happened next. One second we’re standing in the desert, and the next we were surrounded by iron grates and beams. Dazzling lights bounced as they rushed towards me, and Sonic streaked ahead, leaping from each one. I was shoved to the ground by a huge, metal hand and a torrent of bullets streamed out ahead of me. They clanked off the walls, ricocheting down the corridor, only missing Sonic by a hair’s breadth. One by one the lights went out and I found myself crouching in a corridor, staring at scrap metal as the blue hedgehog dusted off his gloves.

“Talk about a welcome party,” he said. “Thanks for the assist there, Omega.”

Omega’s gun hummed into silence and he lowered it, allowing me to stand. But the Egg Carrier was far from quiet. The engine roared away beneath us, and there was the unmistakable sound of fans whirring away in the walls.

“Now where are these cells?” Shadow asked me. “Before Eggman sends another troop to target us.”

“You think he knows we’re here?” asked Knuckles.

“I think it’s fairly obvious.”

I strained my ears over the racket to check for mechanical footsteps, but for now the course seemed clear.

“The holding cells are just at the end of this corridor,” I said. “Follow me.”

It actually sickened me how familiar I was with the place. I cautiously stepped around the shrapnel and led the party towards the Y-shaped bend. Each bend led to the cells, which took up the central block. No windows, just grates to allow airflow. I could already picture it. A room filled with glass pods, each one holding one individual, most likely in a form of stasis so they didn’t have to be fed.

We agreed to split up. Knuckles, Rouge and Silver went one way, Sonic, Omega, Shadow and I the other. Clanking feet and humming wings rushed towards us and without thinking I warped the corridor. The deep humming of the Phantom Ruby filled the air and spikes shot out of the ground, spearing the walking robots and knocking the bees out of the air. The spikes moved away from us like the waves of an ocean then vanished back into the ground, leaving a robot massacre in their wake.

“Impressive,” said Omega. “Such destructive power deserves merit.”

“No it doesn’t,” I muttered as I turned to the door.

A code panel greeted me and I quickly typed in the password I remembered. It failed. What had I expected, really?

“If only we had Espio with us,” said Sonic. “He’s a dab hand when it comes to hacking.”

Omega’s large hand pushed me aside and his other shot towards the panel. His claws dug into the wall and he tugged the panel free, snapping wires and sending sparks flying. He tossed the remains to the floor and the door cracked open slightly. I caught his glowing red eyes and he shrugged.

“I do not possess much patience,” he said.

“Forget it, it got us in.” Shadow grabbed the edge of one of the doors and shoved it aside.

Just as I’d thought, the room was filled with glass pods. But those inside were not in stasis. Nor were they alone. The pods were big enough to hold ten or twenty Mobians, all huddled together for comfort. Hundreds of panicked eyes stared back at us, most of them filling with fear when they spotted me. Then I saw her. Vanilla, comforting a terrified leopard. Priorities took over and I rushed to the pod, hand raised to melt it away. But the Phantom Ruby fizzled out, taking that awful electric feeling with it.

“What the…?”

I stared at my hand dumbfounded. Had Tails’ dampening field kicked back in?

The sounds of chaos erupted behind me and I turned to see Sonic shoved aside like a rag doll. Omega’s bullets filled the air, clanking off the blue metallic hide of Metal Sonic. The prickly robot rushed me and I dived aside, almost willing the Phantom Ruby to kick back in. I grabbed my sword, raising it to strike him. Beyond him, I could see Shadow attacking the pods in a vain attempt to crack the glass. Omega’s attention was fixed on my scrap with the robot, gun hesitating as he looked for an opening to strike. Sonic zipped past him to my aid. I brought my sword down towards Metal Sonic’s head, but he lifted his hands and grabbed it. The sharp blade peeled back the metal from his fingers, but he didn’t back down. Instead, he grabbed my left arm and tugged the sword from my grip, sending it flying over his head. Sonic had to dodge mid-spin before he found himself skewered like a kebab. Then Metal Sonic was on me, bending my arm behind my back. A loud snap filled the air and I screamed. The robot flew from me as Sonic barreled him into the wall. I struggled to my feet, pain shooting up and down my arm. I clutched it with my hand and staggered back into one of the pods, just in time to see Metal Sonic lifted off the ground in a blue bubble. Bullets flew at him from Omega’s machine gun, chipping his paintwork and blasting apart the exposed wires in his limbs.

“I can only hold him for so long,” said Silver. “Rescue the civilians.”

I didn’t have time to wonder how his team had reached us. Despite my useless arm, I retrieved my sword and raced to join Knuckles and Shadow beside the pods. Rouge messed with the control panels, trying to find a way to open them. I decided to take Omega’s approach and shoved my sword into the panel on Vanilla’s cell. It took a few jabs, but eventually the glass pod retreated into the ground.

Sirens blared through the walls and the lights turned red, followed my the marching footsteps of Egg Pawns. And something much larger. My blood turned cold and I grabbed my wounded arm.

“Get them out of here!” I told Shadow, nodding at the panicked captives.

The black hedgehog stopped his attack on his current cell to look at me, but I was already rushing from the door. If we were going to get everyone off this ship, I had to stop Eggman, ruby or no ruby.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Shadow barked.

My sword cleaved through two of the Egg Pawns and I leapt over them, spearing a third one in the process. That electricity flooded my nerves again and I let out a sigh of relief. The robots turned inside out as I unleashed the Phantom Ruby, sending them into a spasming, useless heap. Then I turned my attention on the big guy. The fox Knuckles had described. Dwarfed by its immense size was Eggman, grinning at me beyond his walrus-like mustache.

“Well, well, well,” he crooned. “If it isn’t Infinite and the Phantom Ruby. Got it back, did you?”

My blood burned and I bared my canines. I didn’t care about the fox. I just wanted to take out the maniac. Put an end to his deranged experiments. I clutched my sword tightly. I didn’t even need to get close to him. I could turn my sword into an over-sized halberd and cut him down right where I stood.

The Phantom Ruby fueled my scimitar, warping it as I brought it down towards Eggman. A grin crossed his face and the strength left me, reducing my sword to its usual size. I stared at him, slack-jawed. It had happened again…

“Do you really think I didn’t come prepared?” he said. “You silly animal. I’ve had this trick up my sleeve since I created you.”

I took a step back as my eye was drawn to a crimson hexagon on his lapel. He had his own Phantom Ruby? No… that’s not what it was. If it was, then why wasn’t he using it?

“This little device cancels out your powers,” he said slowly. “Just in case you decided to turn on me.” He tapped the fox and its eyes lit up, locking on me. “Finish him off.”

My heart lurched and all I could do was stare up at the behemoth, frozen to the spot. The hum of the heating lasers reverberated through the air and I took another step back from it. A flash of light appeared beside me and Shadow locked his fingers around my dead arm. I grimaced, biting back a wail. Just as the fox robot fired its lasers, I was off the Egg Carrier, standing in the desert. Clutching my broken arm.

Shadow shoved me to the ground and stood over me, canines bared. “You idiot!”

“Shadow, calm down!” said Sonic.

“No I won’t calm down! He almost cost us all our lives!”

Sonic said nothing, looking between the seething hedgehog and me.

“He’s not wrong,” said Knuckles. “I mean, yeah, I get pretty heated at times, so I totally get it, but-”

“But nothing!” said Shadow. “We’re lucky we even got anyone off that ship. And there’s still more than a hundred people left on there.”

“Urgh.” Sonic folded his arms and rolled his eyes. “I was about to call it a semi-success but you just rained all over my parade with your doom and gloom.”

Rouge dropped down beside me to examine my arm but I shrugged her off. Every movement was painful.

I screwed my eyes shut and hugged my right arm around myself. “I’m sorry…”

“You should be,” said Shadow. “Now get up so we can go home. Maybe come up with another plan.”

“He won’t be joining us in this state,” said Rouge.

Shadow tutted and turned away from me, and for the first time I spotted the captives huddling together. Muttering to each other. Eyes fixed on me. The sound of a turbine cut through the silence and I looked up to see Tails’ Tornado. Beyond him was the Egg Carrier in the distance, still unmoving. At least here we didn’t have to worry about a counter attack on the ground.

Tails landed the plane amongst us and looked over the twenty or so captives. “Is this it?”

Shadow seethed and Sonic leant against the plane, giving the fox a look that said ‘now wasn’t the time’. I let out a groan and flopped onto my back. I’d really messed up.

“I’m gonna start getting everyone back to the Citadel.” Shadow looked down at me and tutted. “Starting with you. You really need to get that arm looked at.”

“I can help, too,” said Silver.

Shadow jerked his head around towards him. “How many people can you carry?”

Silver shrugged. “Three or four?”

“Too slow. I’ll have done it all myself in less time than it’ll take you to lug everyone back from the desert.”

Silver exchanged glances with Sonic, who shrugged.

I dragged myself to my feet and joined Shadow along with a small number of terrified captives. One of them was Vanilla, but I couldn’t even bring myself to look her in the eye. In an instant, we were back in Freedom Citadel. I lifted a hand to my ear as that awful thrumming sound filled my head. Along with that burning electricity. It traveled down my body, and I could almost pinpoint the break in my arm as it throbbed with nauseating intensity. I screwed my eyes shut and clenched my jaw, wishing I had some means to turn on that dampening field from where I stood.

The Chaotix stood waiting and Vector’s jaw went slack when he took in the rescued Mobians.

“Well I’ll be!” he gasped. “Infinite was right! Vanilla was on that Egg Carrier!”

Vanilla looked up with a start, but the crocodile was busy typing away on his phone.

“You sound surprised,” said Espio.

“Aren’t you?”

Espio lifted his hands in a shrug, while Charmy nodded.

“Vector…” Vanilla moved towards them. “Is Cream here? Is she okay?!”

“She’s fine!” Vector waved a hand and laughed. “You’ll see her soon enough.”

“Oh thank goodness…” Vanilla sighed.

“Alright, now the sunny greetings are over, I need to go and get everyone else.” Shadow narrowed his eyes at the Chaotix. “I suppose you can take over from here?” He vanished before any of the detectives could even begin to argue.

“Okay, I guess we’re assigning a good few rooms then.” Vector turned to me and raised an eyebrow. “What on earth happened to you?”

“Metal Sonic,” I said flatly.

Espio reached for my arm but I ducked back from him, clutching it protectively. It didn’t stop Charmy buzzing around me like a stubborn flea, however.

“I think you need to get that looked at,” said Espio. “Freedom Citadel has a small hospital on the far side. If you can hang on while we sort everyone out, we can take you there?”

“I might be able to take a look at it.” Vanilla’s voice was thick with hesitation.

I looked up at her but she didn’t look like she really wanted to help. Her eyes kept flitting away from me, and unlike Cream she didn’t have a sunny beaming smile. If anything, it made me very uncomfortable.

“I’ll walk,” I grunted, hugging my arm to my side.

As I moved away, two figures appeared along the stone path towards the castle. I recognised them immediately and I felt my spirits lift. When Cream spotted the crowd, her face lit up and she broke away from Mocha to rush towards them.

“Mother!” she squealed.

Vanilla broke from the crowd and scooped the tiny rabbit up in her arms. There was that smile. Identical to Cream’s. Mocha stopped at my side and brushed her hair back from her mouth.

“What happened?” She eyed my arm with concern.

“Things didn’t exactly go according to plan.” I turned from the crowd and made my way towards the town.

She trotted to keep at my side. “How bad is it? Can you move it?”

Every step I took sent painful jerks up my arm no matter how softly I tried to walk, and my vision was beginning to blur. I don’t know what that Phantom Ruby was trying to do, but it was escalating the pain into blinding agony. I paused, clutching at my wrist. No. I couldn’t move it. The entire limb was a dead weight. Black spots began to dance along my vision, but at least that annoying humming noise had stopped. As I looked up at the town, the path almost seemed to lengthen and my head began to spin.

“I don’t think I’m going to make it all that way,” I muttered.

So I sank to the floor before my vision went completely black.
 

DeliriousAbsol

Call me Del
Chapter Fifteen​

Mocha paced back and forth in the kitchen, at a loss of what to do. Everything had been cleaned to within an inch of its life, and her stew was simmering away on the hob. That wouldn’t need touching for another hour at least. She gazed from the window and hugged her arms about herself. Flower beds were tidy, birds were happy, not a single leaf lay on her cobblestone path.

A slender figure appeared at her gate, and her attention snapped to the cream rabbit as she softly locked it again behind her.

Mocha trotted through her living room to the front door, pausing to check on the unconscious jackal sprawled out on her sofa. Propped under a pile of pillows and huddled against the back rest, much to her advice against it. But he’d insisted because it felt comfier. His left arm lay at an angle across his stomach, wrapped from shoulder to wrist in a cast. His other hand clutched his tail like a stuffed animal.

Vanilla’s silhouette appeared in the window and Mocha rushed to open the door before she could ring the bell and disturb Infinite. She mentally scolded herself for using that name but he’d not given her any other option.

Vanilla stood with her hand above the doorbell and her brown eyes widened with alarm.

“Vanilla! Hi.” Mocha beamed at the rabbit.

Vanilla’s gaze wandered to the sofa above the possum’s shoulder and her mouth turned down into a frown. “I’ve just come to collect Cream’s reading material for tomorrow morning.”

Mocha glanced back at the sofa and her brow furrowed slightly. She stepped out to join Vanilla on her doorstep and closed the door behind her.

“Is everything okay?” she asked.

“Not really.” Vanilla smoothed out her dress and took a step back from Mocha. “I’ve just been giving it some thought and… I don’t really want my daughter hanging out with that criminal.”

Mocha’s blue eyes widened and her jaw went slack.

“And so long as he’s staying with you,” Vanilla went on, “I don’t want Cream coming here for her reading lessons.”

“He doesn’t live with me, he has a room in the castle.”

“Well he’s here an awful lot.”

Mocha wound her hands together and met the rabbit’s eye. “I don’t mean to come across badly here, Vanilla, but he did rescue you from the Egg Carrier.”

“He’s also the reason I was on it in the first place.”

“He didn’t know-”

“He knew full well what he was doing!” Vanilla diverted her gaze to the oak tree and sighed. “Whether or not he knew people were being abducted is irrelevant.”

“He’s not that person anymore.”

“A leopard can’t change its spots.” Vanilla met her eyes again. “You need to realise what exactly is in your living room. Surely you were affected by his actions as well? I’d have thought an intelligent woman like yourself would have more sense.”

The fur bristled along Mocha’s spine and she took a deep breath to calm herself.

“I can’t speak for you,” Vanilla went on, “but until Cream is old enough to make her own decisions, I’m going to have to make them for her. I want her safe.”

“You don’t need to worry about that. He cares about her. He wouldn’t hurt her.”

“Until she gets in his way?”

Mocha shook her head and reached for the door handle. “I’ll get you tomorrow’s reading material.”

It was on the bookcase. She tugged it out and returned to the door to hand Vanilla the reading exercises. The rabbit took it with a mumbled ‘thank you’ and strolled back towards the gate. Mocha didn’t even watch her go. She closed the door behind her and leant against it, screwing her eyes shut.

Behind her, Infinite muttered something incoherent and she glanced back at him as he rubbed his eyes, letting his tail flop from his stomach to the floor. Mocha’s heart ached. What was she meant to tell him? She shook her head at Vanilla’s words as she headed back towards the kitchen.

...​

My arm ached. It was becoming a familiar greeting whenever I woke. I resisted the urge to rub it, given it didn’t help anyway. The cast was too thick, and it itched like crazy. I pushed myself up with my good arm, squashing the fluffy pile of pillows as I struggled to right myself against them. You don’t notice how much you rely on something until you lose it. A crushing realisation.

Thankfully the throbbing had stopped. Mocha and I had practically begged Tails to turn the dampening field back on. When the doctor examined my arm, the fracture had already started to repair at an odd angle. None of us could have even guessed the Phantom Ruby would have the power to repair wounds, but it made sense given the nature of the thing. My desire to have my arm back had prompted its virtual reality, and everyone knew those alone had permanent effects. But due to the spiral fracture from Metal Sonic’s brutal twisting, it meant my arm had to be broken again just to set back more naturally. As much as I wanted it to repair quickly, I didn’t want the Phantom Ruby activating again. Not only was it agony, it caused me too much distress. The feelings. The noise. The knowledge it was there, waiting for me to use it.

Mocha caught my eye as she came into the living room carrying two mugs of steaming coffee. She set mine down on the table and perched on the arm of the chair. So I scooted along to give her space. She hesitated for a moment, and I could tell there was something wrong just from the way her eyes kept going to the window. Finally, she settled beside me, closer than normal thanks to the pile of pillows propped against the arm.

“You seemed to have a good nap.” She sipped at her coffee.

I grunted and idly scratched at the cast. It took every ounce of willpower I possessed to not tear it off just to ease the wretched itching. I looked back up at her, trying to read her.

“Is something wrong?” I asked.

She sighed and rubbed above her eye. “I… don’t know how to tell you this…”

In the brief silence that followed, my mind reeled over every disastrous possibility that might happen during a nap.

“Is it Vanilla?” I asked. “Has something happened to her? Or the other captives?” I almost flew from my seat. “Has Eggman done something to the ones-”

“It’s not Eggman.”

I settled back into my seat and dragged my claws through my mane.

“Vanilla…” Mocha took a breath. “She’s not… happy with you being so close to Cream.”

I looked up at that, but Mocha still wouldn’t meet my eye. Instead staring into her steaming cup.

“So she won’t be visiting for a while.” She took a sip, staring at the far wall.

Those words cut me. I sank back against the sofa and rubbed my hand over my face. It made sense. What had I expected, really? A fanfare for getting her off the Egg Carrier? If it weren’t for me, she wouldn’t have even been on it. Goodness knows what Eggman had put her and the others through during all that time. I could only imagine their feelings, knowing they were just waiting for him to experiment on them. Turn them into robots or test out his latest weapons.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I tried.”

Words choked in my throat as I recalled the image the Phantom Ruby had showed me. Cream reunited with Vanilla, strolling through Freedom Citadel, as Mocha and I followed close behind. Peaceful. Warm.

And it had been shattered like the illusion it was.

To Vanilla, I was still a monster. I would always be a monster.

Mocha’s fingers brushed my mane behind my ear and I flinched. I flicked my ear back, swatting her away, then pushed myself from the sofa.

She watched me head towards the door, blue eyes wide. “Where are you-”

“Leaving.”

“Leaving? Where?”

My boots were waiting under the coat rack, but it wasn’t going to be easy fastening the buckle with only one hand. “I don’t know. I just want to get out of this town.”

“Please…” Her voice choked and she rose to her feet. “It hurts me, too. I know you’re a good person, and so does Cream. Just give Vanilla some time and she’ll see it, too.”

“You don’t know that.”

“I do! Because so many in this town have also realised it. Sonic, Silver, Blaze… even Shadow.”

I leant back against the arm of the chair and pinched my muzzle. They might well have realised it, but they wouldn’t be here forever. This was a refugee town, and soon enough the Resistance would have to leave. But I hadn’t wanted to. That image was enough to prove that, and it was still clear. Burned into my heart, and it hurt. Tears pricked my eyes and I screwed them shut to stop them falling.

“Believe me when I say this,” Mocha went on. “We both want you in our lives.”

“And I want you both in mine.” My voice cracked and I pushed myself back from the arm of the chair to head for the door. “But everything I care about gets taken from me.”

“Please, Infinite-”

She placed her hand on my shoulder but I flinched away. Tears broke free, trailing silently down my cheeks as I hugged my good arm about myself.

“I’m sorry,” she muttered, and ventured closer to my side.

But I couldn’t look at her. It wasn’t because of the name. I just didn’t want the closeness. It was a reminder of what I could so easily lose. I desperately wanted to blame the Phantom Ruby, baiting me with yet another image that only served to ruin me. But it wasn’t that. Life had been screwing me over since my birth. Although everything had only really started to fall apart when that crimson poison had landed in my lap.

“Please don’t do this,” she said. “I don’t want to lose you.”

My breath trembled and I clenched my jaw. “I don’t want to lose you either. But I’m scared something is going to happen to tear you away from me, like with Cream.”

“It won’t, I promise.” She paused as her voice wavered. “I’ll fight.”

Fight… after what I’d done, surely Eggman would come looking for me. For all of us. I’d end up bringing disaster on this peaceful town. Then what would become of it? I needed to stop it before it happened. Before he took it all away from me. Mocha, Cream, Cheese, the park, the home I’d begun to make…

“I… can’t watch my life fall apart before my eyes again…”

I choked on those last words and slumped sideways into the wall, jarring my injured arm. But I didn’t care. My entire body shook with uncontrollable sobs and I buried my face in my hand. Mocha looped her arms around my shoulders and pulled me into her, and I let her. Too lost in my own mind to succumb to the desire to push her away again.

“This is going to sound pretty selfish,” she said. “But I’m not going to let you go anywhere. Not without me.”

“What? You’ll follow me?” I mumbled into her neck.

“Perhaps. But it won’t come to that. A few days ago, you told me you need me, and I think you still do.”

“I really do.” I lifted my hand to her shoulder and let out a ragged breath. “You stop me being an idiot… But what if-”

“Nothing and no one is going to drive a wedge between us,” she said. “I won’t let them.”

I pulled back from her and met her eyes. Hers were watery with tears and I brushed a thumb over her damp cheek.

“Thank you,” I said, voice hoarse. “I… needed to hear that.”

She gave a small nod and placed her hand over mine. “And I also need you.”

My eyes widened and I opened my mouth to ask her to elaborate, but I couldn’t find the words.

“There isn’t really anyone in Freedom Citadel I would call a close friend,” she said. “I know there’s the kids most mornings, and Cream, but it would get pretty lonely. I left all my old friends back in the city and we’ve sort of lost touch. I guess… even though I thought I’d settled here I never really had. So I’m glad you’ve come along and… well… changed all that.”

My throat tightened and I closed my eyes briefly. That blissful image didn’t seem so far away anymore.

“Then I’m not going anywhere.” I actually meant it.

She squeezed my hand in response.

“But I’m curious.” I looked over her shoulder at the door. “How exactly would you stop me from getting out?”

“I’d chain the door shut with a padlock.”

I shrugged and looked back down at her. “I can pick locks.”

“And I’m a pretty light sleeper,” she said. “I’ll strap a cow bell around your neck if I have to.”

A small smile spread across my face and she matched it. But then her ears twitched and she looked over my shoulder towards the kitchen.

“I think the stew is boiling over,” she said.

I released her and stepped aside, watching as she vanished beyond the kitchen door. My heart certainly felt a lot lighter. She had a strange way of grounding me. I looked back down at my boots, still not fastened. They soon found themselves back underneath the coat rack.

...​

I hadn’t expected a call back to Tails’ workshop so soon. The following morning, Sonic showed up unannounced and whisked me away before I could even finish my morning coffee. Well… it wasn’t so much ‘whisked’ as ‘leisurely stroll across the town’. It was early, and given the nature of the meeting I was in no rush to arrive back at that workshop. So Sonic was forced to match my slow and unwilling steps as we made our way to the west of town.

The smell of wood chippings and oil brought back uncomfortable memories and my fur bristled at the sight of the Phantom Ruby. It wasn’t even active and my arm began to ache. Oh how I wanted it to just disappear. I cocked an eyebrow as a thought crossed my mind. If I kept thinking like that, would that desire alone have the power to blow the wretched thing to smithereens, or write it out of existence? Or did it have some kind of defense mechanism or immunity in place in order to protect itself? It was something I found myself wanting to try, just so I’d never see it again.

“Tails has come up with quite an ingenious plan,” said Sonic. “Do you want to tell him, Tails? Or shall I?”

The twin-tailed fox looked up from the dampening field and nudged a pair of goggles up onto his head. I doubted his idea was anything like the one I’d just concocted.

“You said Eggman has some device in place to counter the Phantom Ruby’s frequencies,” said Tails. “Well, if we want to defeat him, we need to alter them ourselves.”

My heart twisted as I twigged where this might actually be going.

“We also don’t think it was just Eggman,” said Sonic. “Given what happened when Metal Sonic showed up, I think he had his own little Phantom Ruby Counter Measure installed. This makes me worry Eggman’s new ‘bots might be equipped in the same way.”

“I hadn’t thought of that.” My muzzle creased and I glanced back at the Phantom Ruby. “So is this whole plan void now, then? Have you decided to send this thing back?”

It was a blind hope, given what Tails had just told me. But deep down I hoped they had a fall-back plan.

“No, there’s no need for that,” said Tails. “I’ve found a means to amplify its strength. That way, you can get around Eggman’s tricks and wipe out his Egg Carrier. Maybe even reverse the robots back to their former selves.”

I clenched my teeth together and glanced up at the wall. Yes. Just as I’d been fearing.

“I don’t really know how the Phantom Ruby works,” Tails went on, “but if it’s virtual reality has lasting effects, then it might be completely possible to reverse Eggman’s experiments and free his victims unharmed.”

“That’s definitely possible,” I said.

“Great!” Sonic exchanged grins with his friend. “So you’re on board with this idea?”

“Have you actually confirmed he’s turning those people into robots?” I asked, dodging his question.

“Oh yeah, you’ve been away from those meetings.” Sonic chuckled. “It turns out you were spot on. Eggman had been running these experiments for the past couple of years, trying to perfect these huge robots. Unfortunately… a few lives have been lost in the process. He has about eight or nine of those mega-bots at the moment. His plan is to amass a huge army of them.”

So we’d been pretty fortunate Vanilla wasn’t one of the casualties, then? I fixed my eye back on the blue hedgehog.

“So what is he playing at dropping the odd one on us?” I asked.

Sonic shrugged his shoulders. “Who really knows with Eggman?”

“The main point right now is stopping him,” said Tails. “Because I think I speak for everyone when I say I don’t want to know what he’s up to.”

That was a good point. I sighed and looked back down at the Phantom Ruby. It sent a nauseating wave through my stomach. I just wanted to get as far away from the thing as possible.

“So you think you can increase its power output?” I asked.

“Yup!” Tails beamed. “A few tweaks and you should be able to circumvent Eggman’s counter attacks and tear that Egg Carrier to shreds, or whatever it is you decide to do with it.”

“Just don’t drop it on us,” Sonic joked.

I flashed a canine at him but he waved it off with a chuckle.

“If that’s all you want to tell me, can I leave?” I asked. “I want to be away from that thing.”

“Eh, not quite.” Tails scratched behind his ear and a nervous look crossed his eye. “You see… in order to test it… I have to switch the dampening field off every now and then. When I do… I want you to test it.”

“Test it how?” I narrowed my eyes at the fox.

Tails glanced up at Sonic with a somewhat pleading expression and the blue hedgehog shrugged.

“I dunno,” he said. “Do something you’ve never done before?”

What had I never done before? I’d gone from cloning people to distorting entire cities. I rolled my eyes and decided to drop it.

“So do you want me to stay here or something?” I failed to hide the growl in my voice and the fox shifted uneasily.

“Not exactly,” said Tails. “You can be wherever. Just… make notes or something.”

I sighed but Sonic grinned at me.

“Think of it this way,” said the hedgehog. “Whenever it’s switched on, it’s speeding up your recovery.”

He nodded at my arm and I glanced down at it. A grimace twisted my muzzle and I closed my eyes. Of course. How many times would I be about to pass out from the pain? I’d better seek out some powerful medication if that was going to be an issue.

“I’ll be trying it throughout the day,” Tails warned. “So… just be aware.”

“In that case, I’ll be in my room,” I said.

On that note, I left the workshop and slumped back towards the castle. Given the circumstances, I wanted to head back to Mocha’s. But I also didn’t want her seeing me struggling when the Phantom Ruby activated. Maybe I needed to be less of a coward? I glanced towards the path leading to her house and shook it off. I wanted a shower and for some reason I felt awkward having one at Mocha’s. It felt like I was invading on her personal space, and given the time of year I just got fur everywhere.

So instead I picked up my pace and made a beeline for the castle. It was virtually empty inside. Just the odd voice from the common room. It was a pleasant day, so most families were probably out enjoying the sun.

The feeling of warm water rushing down over me was a welcome blessing. It would have been nicer if I’d not had to cover my left arm in plastic wrap I’d scavenged from the kitchen. I let myself sit under the falling water for a while, watching it carry black and white fur into the drain. Once again, the threat of the Phantom Ruby unsettled me. But at least those nightmares had taken a back seat. Since that dream with the sun-like flower, any mocking from the monster had been little to none. Occasionally intruding on a dream but not enough to make me leap up and lash out at my surroundings. Deep down I dreaded they’d start again with me using the Phantom Ruby, even if it was to rid the world of Eggman’s latest threat.

I tore off the plastic wrap and let the fur driers blast me until I was almost dry. The warmth permeated the cast, soothing my wounded arm. But I could only stay there for so long before my entire coat filled with static. Once I left the bathroom I tried to smooth out my fluffed-out fur, which wasn’t easy with one arm. There was no way for me to sort out my back, either, and it felt somewhat uncomfortable compared to everywhere else. My mind went to Mocha wondering if she’d be happy to help me when that humming filled my ears. Just as expected, my left arm began to throb and I grimaced. I let out a groan and glanced down at the prototype in my chest. Well, if I was going to stay true to my word I needed to check out this thing. But I wasn’t sure what exactly Sonic and Tails wanted me to test.

My eye went to the mirror and my shattered reflection struggled to stare back out at me. ‘Something I’ve never done before.’ Well… I suppose I’ve never really fixed anything. I mainly used the Phantom Ruby to destroy. Keeping my eye on the mirror I lifted my right hand and brought up some of those crimson cubes. The eerie light spread over the glass and I had the fleeting image of that crimson landscape. I swallowed back a nervous lump and tried to focus on the mirror instead. A flash of red light shot from my hand over the glass, tracing over the cracks. They sealed up with a snap and my reflection stared back at me, clear and somewhat startled.

Well, it had worked.

I lifted a claw to tap the glass and flinched as a sharp pain ran through my ribs. I coughed a couple of times and a metallic taste filled my mouth. When I looked back up at my reflection fresh blood trickled from the corner of my mouth. My pulse quickened as I wiped it away. Then I looked down at my chest. That hairline crack on the ruby had spread, forming a faint jagged line across it towards the bottom, where it vanished beyond my thick fur. I trailed my claw over it, but it didn’t really feel like anything. Did this have something to do with Tails’ power spike? Or maybe the fight with Metal Sonic? No… that crack had been there previously. But I still didn’t know what had caused it. Did I report it back? I sighed and let my hand drop from the ruby to retrieve the brush I’d dropped. If I said anything, they’d only worry. Besides, it might just be a one-off.

That humming subsided, taking the pulsing pain with it, and I felt my strength wane. I wiped my muzzle again and leant forward against the dressing table, avoiding my reflection’s mis-matched gaze. Whatever was going on, the prototype wasn’t meant to crack like that. Maybe something had weakened it? I glanced down at the drying blood streaked across my black hand and sighed.

“Somehow I feel this is going to end very badly.”

Suddenly I didn’t want to be alone. I swiftly rinsed off any traces of blood and left to head back to Mocha’s.

“Hey there, handsome.”

I froze in my doorway and looked up at the stairs. Rouge stood leaning against the banister rail, smirking at me. But the smirk swiftly dropped and she looked me up and down.

“You look like you’ve just seen a ghost,” she said. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” I mumbled.

“I’m pretty good at detecting lies, and that’s a fat one.”

She fluttered from the stairs to land before me and I took an unconscious step back into my room. I silently berated myself for that moment of cowardice and moved back into the hallway, letting the door lock behind me.

“You did well getting those people off the Egg Carrier the other day,” she said.

“So people keep telling me.”

“Then why aren’t you happy about it?”

“Because it was a failure,” I said. “There are still near a hundred left on there.”

“Hey, we’ll get them. Don’t you worry.” The bat grinned and leant against the wall. “How about I wipe that frown away with a nice drink and some pizza?”

I looked away from her and made for the stairs. “I’m not interested.”

She let out a playful chuckle and shifted against the wall. “That grumpy act is just making you even more appealing, yanno.”

I bristled and glanced back at her, but that grin had gone to be replaced by a look of surprise. She had her eyes on the ceiling, scratching her left ear.

“Man, they’re right. I really do have a type…” she muttered.

I don’t think she intended me to hear that, but I rolled my eyes and marched down the stairs to the door. I didn’t intend to hurt her, but I had too much on my mind to be interested in anyone. I wasn’t about to string her along by accepting her offer.

Despite the warm sun, I felt oddly cold. I hugged my arms around myself, following the stone path, every nerve on end perchance Tails dropped the dampening field again. My mind whirled as I warred with the desire to be far away from everyone should that happen. But I found myself knocking on Mocha’s door, and before I’d even lowered my hand she answered.

“I was expecting you to be gone most of the day,” she said.

I shrugged and glanced towards the oak tree.

“Is something wrong?” she asked.

I didn’t know how to answer that, and I didn’t want to lie. So I dodged the question.

“They didn’t need me for long,” I said.

I stepped past her into the living room and caught her eye. A small smile spread across her muzzle and she stifled a chuckle.

“You look like you had a fight with the fur driers,” she said.

I looked down at myself with a frown. Was it really that bad?

“Hang on, I’ll get you a brush.” She vanished into the stairwell.

I settled onto the sofa and checked over the ruby once more. That crack was still there, but I’d been deeply hoping I’d only imagined it. That it was nothing more than an illusion designed to frighten me. When Mocha returned with a wire tooth brush she fell down beside me. Then motioned for me to turn around. I cocked an eyebrow at her, not entirely sure I wanted her help anymore. But… it might take my mind off things. So I complied, pulling my feet up onto the sofa and curling my tail about myself. As she dragged the brush over my shoulders I let my eyes close and sank forward against my knees.

“I do really like your markings,” she said. “It’s a shame you tend to keep them hidden with your jacket.”

I mumbled a ‘thanks’ into my arms, mentally following the brush as she trailed it along my spine. It was enough to lull me to sleep.

“So what did they want?” she asked.

I waved my right hand idly. “Just… throwing another plan out there. That’s all.”

“So you’re going to try and raid the Egg Carrier again?” There was a note of concern in her voice.

I stared at the wall, almost oblivious to her combing my ruff. I should probably tell her what was going on. It might actually alleviate some of her worries. I hoped. So I brushed over the conversation in the workshop. However I avoided telling her about the ruby cracking. The last thing I wanted to do was add to her concerns.

“It sounds promising,” she said.

I grimaced and scratched at my chest. ‘Promising’ was hardly the word I would use.

“If it will help rescue everyone else,” she went on, “then I’m with Tails on this one.”

I frowned at the wall but said nothing. I understood where she was coming from. I even understood where Sonic and Tails were coming from. I just didn’t want to be the tool they exploited. But… if I could help, and change things, then I’d do it. Cream had her mother back now, as did a few other children not in Freedom Citadel. If I could reunite other lost friends and broken families then I’d do it. Broken arm or not.

That humming filled my ears ever so briefly and I jolted. Pain shot down my arm, causing me to yelp. I felt Mocha move back from me, and she said something but I didn’t catch it. I was too distracted by the red haze flickering about me, glitching and distorting. Then it vanished, taking the humming and pain with it. Once again that metallic taste filled my mouth. I groaned and leant my head back on my arms, but something was different. I fixed my left eye on my wounded arm and flexed my fingers, and a wave of surprise washed over me when I realised I could move them. Not much… but it was something.

Mocha let out a flustered sigh and placed her hand on my shoulder. Comforting and warm. I closed my eyes as she trailed her fingers over my mane.

“I really hate seeing you like this.” She fastened her arms around me in a hug and leant her head against mine. “I’ll be glad when that Phantom Ruby is gone.”

“That makes two of us,” I muttered, rubbing my mouth.

I stared down at the blood streaked across my fingers and clenched my fist to hide it. I just deeply hoped the Phantom Ruby didn’t take me with it.
 

DeliriousAbsol

Call me Del
Chapter Sixteen​

I didn’t want to stay indoors dwelling on things, so Mocha and I decided to head out into the town. After Rouge’s suggestion of pizza I found myself craving it. Mocha took to the idea, swiftly dismissing her initial thoughts to make one from scratch. Not that I would have minded. It would actually have been a lot of fun to help, but instead we strolled down the cobblestone path towards the town.

The sun beamed down on us, warming my fur. Thanks to Mocha’s compliments on my markings, I’d decided against my jacket. I was really starting to feel I didn’t need to hide behind it anymore, and it was awkward to wear over a cast anyway. Silence still filled the town, broken only by the occasional voice from beyond an open window, or the birds singing from the rooftops and trees.

“It’s so calm here,” I said.

Mocha nodded and brushed her hair back from a stray breeze. “School is out for Summer, so most families will be enjoying the sun.”

I glanced over at the main gate, wide open as the guards stayed vigilant. One guard sat back against the wall in the shade, eyes closed and foot bobbing in time to the music from his headphones.

“I suppose Vanilla will have taken Cream out somewhere, then?” The thought did make my heart ache, but I was still happy for them.

Mocha shrugged and looped her arm through mine, steering me into the town. “I’ve no idea. I guess so?”

Part of me wondered if Vanilla would want to move Cream and Cheese out of Freedom Citadel. Maybe back to the city, where she’d previously worked. A lump rose in my throat and I swallowed it back, trying to fix my mind on the prospects of pizza. Hopefully, this time, without pineapple.

A deep roar resounded in my ears and for a brief moment I thought the Phantom Ruby had activated again. A familiar noise, one I couldn’t initially place. The guards leapt to their feet, shouting commands at one another. The one with his music was shaken out of his reverie by an ally and he shoved his headphones back as he readied his Wispon. All eyes were on the sky, weapons aimed. I followed them, and there, looming in from the sea, was the familiar hulk of the Egg Carrier.

Mocha’s hand tightened around my arm and her voice wavered. “He’s found us…”

My insides twisted as screams filled the air, and I spotted the glistening black and white body of a robot as it was dropped onto the beach. People began to flood back through the gates. Adults herding children along ahead of them, teenagers assisting the elderly. A blue streak vaulted the wall, narrowly avoiding the panicked crowd, while the guards directed them back into the town.

I drew my sword and rushed towards the gates.

“Wait! Where are you-”

I glanced back at Mocha as she trotted after me. “Stay here!”

She paused and lowered her hand, nodding as she glanced over at the crowd.

I cut through the mass of screams and tears to follow the path to the beach. I could already see it. A towering robot in the form of a sheep. Sticky bombs blasted from its body, splattering the sandy shore as people dodged it in all directions. But some weren’t so fortunate. I noticed a couple of people struggling to tug their loved ones free from the sticky mounds the bombs left behind. They stretched like tar, plastering limbs to the ground. I wondered what on earth they were doing to the sand if someone couldn’t dig themselves free.

Egg Pawns dotted the beach, exploding into shrapnel as Sonic and his allies tore through them before they could harm the citizens. Hundreds of them, firing bullets and lasers across the sand to target anyone who was unfortunate enough to be too slow to avoid them.

I came to a stop beside Amy, but before she could acknowledge my presence a huge sticky bomb flew right towards us. She swung her hammer towards it, but it knocked it from her grip, sending it spinning over her head into a sticky pile against the dunes.

“Drat!”

She turned to retrieve it but I grabbed her arm and pulled her back.

“Don’t touch it!” I barked.

She looked back at me with a leer then her expression softened. She looked out at the beach, at those struggling against the weird glue, and stamped her foot.

“But I need it!” she said. “I can’t help Sonic without it!”

I grimaced and released her. “Then help those who are trapped.”

The pink hedgehog gave another glance out at the beach then rushed across it to the nearest victim. Beyond them, I saw the sheep as it swept one of its large hands across the sand. It scooped up two people trapped in its glue and tossed them into its giant mouth. My heart sank as I realised what it was doing. Eggman was gathering yet more people to turn into those monstrosities. I flashed my canines and ran across the sand towards it, but a flash of blue caught my eye.

Cheese fluttered before a frantic Vanilla as she followed his tiny paw across the beach. Then he spotted me and darted from her, hovering before my face.

“Cha-chao!”

Tears filled his eyes. I knew immediately what he was trying to tell me. He span in the air and shot away from me like a dart.

I took off after him, cutting down two Egg Pawns that tried to intersect my path. Sand kicked up around my feet as I struggled to keep up with the desperate Chao. He yo-yoed back and forth, urging me on, until I finally spotted her.

Cream lay sprawled on the sand, struggling beneath one of the sticky bombs. When she spotted me, she stretched out a hand.

“Please! Help me!”

My eyes widened as the image of Riley filled my mind. Desperately reaching out as he clung onto life. Begging me to save him.

The sheep robot’s shadow fell over us and I looked up as it raised its arm, ready to swing down onto the beach. My blood burned and I rushed towards it, leaping over Cream’s tiny body. My sword caught the robot’s arm, slicing through it in a shower of sparks. The robot let out a mechanical roar akin to a groan and stumbled back as its arm crashed onto the sand. It bounced away from me, landing in a sparking heap in the surf.

I turned my eyes back to Cream, still desperately clawing at the sand. Without thinking, I swung my sword down towards her. It sliced through the glue, flicking it into the air. It fluttered in the air like wool before pooling into small sticky puddles. Cream scrambled free, peeling the remains from her fur and dress.

“Go!” I told her.

She glanced back at me as she fled the enraged robot. A small wave of relief washed over me. I was fortunate that had worked.

I flicked my sword to free its blade from the glue, but the stubborn stuff didn’t want to move. So I took a step back and aimed it like a javelin towards the robot’s right eye. The blade struck home, embedding itself and gumming up some of the robot’s circuits. It pawed at its face, staggering back into the ocean.

Several Egg Pawns exploded as Sonic and Knuckles rushed towards me. The blue hedgehog gave an impressed nod at the wounded robot.

“Nice work! But I think we’ve got it from here,” he said.

Knuckles thumped his large fists together as he bared his canines at the robot.

“Just incapacitate it,” I warned. “This might be one of the missing people.”

I winced as I looked over at its discarded arm. Hopefully that wouldn’t be a problem?

“No worries there!” said Sonic. “I’ll tag you back in when Tails has these new readings sorted out.”

Sonic shot towards the robot in a streak of blue while Knuckles aimed at its legs. The large sheep splashed down into the ocean, flailing against the current.

My fingers flexed where my sword should have been and I glanced around the beach. Omega blasted Egg Pawns apart with his bullets while his teammates assisted those still trapped. Amy helped them get back to the town with the Chaotix. I couldn’t see Vanilla or Cream.

When that humming filled my ears I turned back to the robot. No longer filled with dread. I knew what I was doing. I lifted myself into the air if only to let Sonic and Knuckles know I was ready to finish off the robot. They leapt aside from it and I readied my attack.

I didn’t know what Eggman’s poor victim looked like prior to being morphed into a killer sheep robot, but all I could do was hope the process would be reversed. And that losing an arm wouldn’t be a problem. Red light engulfed the robot, peeling back the metal like the rind of an orange. Its mechanical roar shook the beach and I screwed my eyes shut, fearing this was going to go horribly wrong.

When the roaring subsided I let myself fall back onto the sand, keeling forward as pain radiated through my chest and arm. As I tried to catch my breath I opened my eyes, staring at my hands spread out over the sand. Both of them. I fell back on my haunches, clutching my bandaged arm. No longer hurting. But I was more occupied with the remains of the robot.

Sonic sat beside an elderly ewe, encouraging her to her feet. Much to my relief, she still possessed both arms. I let out a sigh and swiped at my muzzle as warm blood trickled from my mouth. Above me, the rumble of the Egg Carrier filled the sky as it retreated back across the ocean.

I was almost knocked to the floor as two arms fastened around my neck.

“Thank you.” Cream’s voice was muffled by my ruff. “That was scary.”

I returned her embrace, fastening my arms around her small body. Tears pricked my eyes. I’d almost lost her. If I hadn’t made it here in time, if I hadn’t noticed Cheese…

Another set of arms fastened around us both, pulling us into a warm body.

“Thank you.” The voice was tearful and muffled by my mane. “Thank you so much.”

I managed to look up as Vanilla pulled back from me, wiping her eyes. Cream finally released me, returning to her mother’s side with Cheese. But when she spotted the ewe, she rushed towards her to be caught in another embrace.

“Missus Barbara!” she squealed. “You’re okay!”

Barbara… I chuckled as the adrenaline wore off and strength began to leave my body. I’d done it. I’d actually done it.

Sonic said something as he arrived at my side with Knuckles. But I didn’t catch it. I slumped to the ground at his feet, exhausted.

...​

I came to in the meeting room, sprawled out on the sofa. As I blinked the sleep away, the first person I saw was Sonic, perched on the edge of the coffee table. Watching me. I cleared my throat and pushed myself up against the arm.

“What am I doing here?” I croaked.

“You passed out after you freed Barbara,” he said.

“I remember that,” I said. “But why here? Why not my room, or Mocha’s?”

“Mocha is currently chatting to Vanilla and Cream.” Sonic scratched behind his ear. “I didn’t really think about your room. Although waiting for you to wake up there would seem a bit awkward.”

I rubbed my eyes and decided to drop the topic. “So… how is Barbara?”

“She’s fine! She’s had a check over and been told she can go home.”

“And everyone else? Cream?”

“All fine, just a little sticky.”

There was something about the way he kept looking at me that left me unsettled. Something that told me he wasn’t telling me everything. I stared back at him for a while, trying to work him out, but he kept dodging my gaze to mess with a coaster or glance around the kitchen.

“Why exactly were you waiting for me to wake up?” I asked slowly.

The blue hedgehog sighed and tossed the coaster into the air to catch it with his other hand.

“All right. I’ll be frank,” he said. “I originally wanted to send you to a hospital, but Vanilla insisted there was no need. She’d check you over in here, saying you were clearly just exhausted. But once we got you back, you started coughing up blood and that’s just not right. But she said your chest is clear, and your pulse is fine. So all we can put it down to is the power boost Tails has given you.” He nodded towards the prototype. “I think all the damage it’s taken is enough to back that little assumption.”

I looked down at it and grimaced. More cracks, some much more obvious than the first. I slumped back against the arm of the sofa and dragged my fingers down my face. How was I meant to free everyone else like this?

“I think I might have to ask you to bow out of this fight,” said Sonic.

“No,” I said.

“Yes.”

I glared up at the hedgehog but he shrugged.

“Look,” he said. “I don’t want to kill you, and I’m worried if-”

“Eggman needs to be stopped,” I said. “And you said yourself none of you can just run in there and save everyone with no casualties.”

“And if you did it, you’d be a casualty,” he said. “Or worse - a liability.”

I dug my fingers into the sofa cushion and a low growl rose in my throat. But I stifled it with a sigh and closed my eyes. He was right. Like this, I’d just be holding everyone back.

Unless…

My eyes snapped open again and I stared across at the other sofa. I licked my lips slowly as an idea sparked in my mind.

“Where’s Shadow?” I asked.

“Helping the guards increase the town’s defenses,” said Sonic. “There’s a big possibility Eggman knows where we are now, so-”

“I have a plan.” I kicked my legs around off the sofa and leant forward on my knees. “And I think he might be able to help.”

Sonic’s eyes widened. “Really? I’d better go and get him then.”

The hedgehog kicked up a gust as he zipped from the table top through the meeting room’s side door. I brushed my mane back from my eyes and glanced over at the kitchen. It crossed my mind to grab a bite to eat but there was no time. Sonic was back in his spot on the table as Shadow strolled through the door at a more leisurely pace.

“You wanted to see me?” The black hedgehog sounded less than impressed.

I straightened up to look him in the eye. “Yes. I have an idea that might help us defeat Eggman-”

“If you’re talking about using that Phantom Ruby, you can forget it.”

That wasn’t what I’d wanted to hear. I let out a sigh and stared down at my hands. No… I had to say something. There was a chance this could really work, and if they both thought the same then we could rescue everyone still on that Egg Carrier. I forced myself to meet his eyes again, and he returned my look with a glare.

“Between the two of us, we could probably do this,” I said. “No one else even needs to be involved in this fight.”

“Hang on a sec-!”

Shadow cut Sonic off with a wave but kept his eyes on me. “Go on then. Humour me.”

“If I can turn the entire Egg Carrier inside out, everyone and everything on it would be expelled,” I said. “All you’d have to do is make sure they landed safely back on the ground.”

“And what about all the robots?” asked Sonic.

“Okay then, I take back what I said,” I told him. “Someone might be needed to destroy all those robots.”

“So you are suggesting using the Phantom Ruby when it’s clearly destroying you?” Shadow folded his arms and tutted. “Given it’s to save hundreds of innocents then I guess I can get on board.”

“So you agree it might work?” I asked.

“There’s a possibility.”

“It sounds like a good enough strategy,” said Sonic. “Not something I’d ever considered myself, but if it works it could be pretty quick and painless.”

“Or it could open up a can of chaos.” Shadow sighed and fidgeted with one of his gold rings. “If you’re ready, I’d rather get this over with now.”

“You know where Eggman is?”

Shadow nodded once.

“His Egg Carrier has settled over a small island a few miles out from the coast,” Sonic explained. “It seems he’s set up base there.”

A funny taste filled my mouth and I stared down at the cracked ruby. If this went badly, I might not actually come out of it alive. And given the damage it had taken from my efforts to free one sheep… I grimaced and pushed myself to my feet.

“Okay,” I said. “Just… give me a few minutes.”

Shadow continued to stare at me as I moved over to the open side door.

“I guess you’re off to see Mocha and Cream?” said Sonic.

I paused with my hand on the door frame and fought back an onset of tears.

“It’ll take us a few minutes to gather everyone,” said Sonic. “So take you’re time and join us by the main gate when you’re ready.”

I gave a stiff nod and stepped out onto the cobblestone path. I had no desire to rush, yet at the same time I just wanted to see this through. As though if I took my time I’d never do it. But I couldn’t risk Eggman destroying this place, or those who - like me - called it home.

I pushed open Mocha’s front door, drawing a surprised yelp from the sofa. Cream shot from it like a bullet and threw her arms around my waist, and I felt those tears begin to leak out over my cheeks. I stooped to wrap my arms around her, trying my best to bite back the worst of the tears. Vanilla looked back at me over the sofa but unlike Mocha she didn’t get up. The possum’s blue eyes filled with concern and she brushed her hair back as she looked over me.

“It’s good to see you up.” She paused and placed a hand on my shoulder. “Something’s wrong. What is it?”

I took in a breath and released the small rabbit. “I’m going with Sonic and Shadow to rescue the others.”

“To the Egg Carrier?”

I nodded and took a step back.

“Then you’ll need your sword.”

Mocha reached behind the sofa and handed me my scimitar. The sparkling blade glistened in the sunlight.

“I managed to get the glue off,” she explained. “It just took a little solvent.”

I tucked the sword away, muttering a ‘thanks’. But I didn’t think I’d be using it. The look in her eye said she knew, and tears glistened at the corners of them.

“Please tell me you’re not planning on using the Phantom Ruby,” she said.

I sighed and brushed my fingers through my mane. “I have to. How else are we meant to—”

She moved into me and placed her hand on my chest. “Please… don’t do this.”

She knew. It was obvious. I screwed my eyes shut and pulled her into me, nuzzling her hair.

“Thank you,” I said. “For all you’ve done for me.” I paused and took in a trembling breath. “All of you.”

She tightened her fingers in my fur and her body shook with sobs.

“Please,” she whispered. “I don’t want to lose you.”

I bit my lip to stifle yet more tears. “And I want you safe.”

I trailed my fingers through her hair then pulled back from her. She kept her hands on my shoulders, reluctant to let me go. But she let them fall to her sides as I stepped back out into her garden.

Birdsong. Buzzing from the flower beds. My throat tightened and I pushed myself on down the path towards the gate.

Footsteps raced after me with frantic breaths.

“Wait!” Cream squealed.

I froze and turned back to her, noting the tears flowing from her eyes.

“You’re coming back, right?”

Her words choked me and I dropped to my knees so I was level with her. Cheese fluttered beside her, his eyes watery.

“I don’t know,” I said.

She threw her arms around my neck. “Please do. I’ll bake you a cake, okay? And we can come up with a new name for you. And go to the park to fight more sea monsters, or to the beach! I think there’s one there.”

My heart shattered and I swiped a hand across my muzzle. “Then I’ll try.”

I pulled back to place a kiss on her forehead then rose to my feet. Mocha and Vanilla stood in the doorway, but Mocha couldn’t look at me. She leant against the frame, her body shaking as Vanilla tried to calm her.

I couldn’t watch. There was nothing else I could even say.

I turned and slipped through the gate, following the blurry path through the fog of a town towards the main gate.

Sonic and his friends stood waiting for me. Every member of the resistance minus the Chaotix. But only the blue hedgehog wore a smile. One that was meant to lift my mood but failed miserably.

“All set?” he asked.

I didn’t want to look back at the town, so I focused on the gate and what lay beyond it. The path to the beach. One that had brought me joy. I glanced up at the sky as my throat tightened once again and closed my eyes.

“I’m ready.” It came out as a strangled choke.

When I looked back at Sonic, that smile had gone. And before I knew it, each one of us was swallowed up with Shadow’s Chaos Control.

...​

Soft green grass spread out around us, dotted here and there with sprawling palm trees. It would have been tranquil if it weren’t for the deep hum of the Egg Carrier as it levitated above it, slightly swallowed by fluffy clouds.

The clattering of marching Egg Pawns greeted us and Sonic, Amy and Knuckles rushed them, tailed by Omega. Sonic curled into a ball so Amy could send him flying with her mallet, then she chased after him, swinging left and right to clobber the robots. What wasn’t destroyed was picked off by Omega’s rain of bullets and Knuckle’s raging fists. I drew my sword to join in but Shadow nudged me away from them.

“Our target is up there.” He pointed to the Egg Carrier’s grey hull.

“You take it,” said Silver. “We’ve got you covered down here.”

“Great,” said Shadow. “You can catch any pods I miss.”

I wasn’t sure if he was joking. Did he even have a sense of humour?

“You ready?” Shadow glared at my scimitar still clutched in my right hand.

I nodded and re-sheathed my sword. The Phantom Ruby’s energy was still pulsing through my nerves. I lifted myself into the air, but a quick look down told me Shadow wasn’t yet ready. He handed his inhibitor rings to Rouge who muttered something that didn’t reach me. But the expression she wore was less than impressed. His entire body seemed to radiate golden energy, and it chilled me to my stomach. I turned my gaze onto the Egg Carrier, bracing myself to unleash the Phantom Ruby upon it.

But each of its hatches popped open, dropping out massive animal robots. Weasel, beaver, otter, rabbit, skunk… one after the other, they just dropped. Sonic let out a cry of surprise and the battle turned away from the less threatening Egg Pawns. Bullets and shrapnel flew across the island as my allies retaliated. Sod kicked up from the ground as lasers and rockets missed their targets. Several attacks took out a mass of Egg Pawns that Amy had used to provide herself some cover. How on earth had Eggman made them all so quickly?

I didn’t have much time.

I focused all my attention on the Egg Carrier, and its body began to warp and twist.

‘I don’t think so, Infinite!’ Eggman’s voice echoed out from it.

The ship began to fight back, resisting my attack as it fought to keep its normal appearance. Rockets fired from the side of it, aiming straight for me. Shadow intersected them, that strange energy acting as some kind of shield. They turned away, heading back for the Egg Carrier and taking out the missile launchers.

Whatever means Eggman had in place to counter the Phantom Ruby was putting up a massive fight. I grimaced as I tried to put all my efforts into it, forcing the ship to twist once more. Eggman let out an alarmed expletive and I spotted him further down the Egg Carrier as he dropped out in his tiny ball-shaped ship.

The Egg Carrier’s form flipped, twisting sparking wires and cracked piping. Robots rained down from it, smashing into the larger ones and hammering pits into the soft soil. The grass was singed where Blaze had unleashed an inferno to incapacitate the purple weasel robot. Shadow flew towards the Egg Carrier, freezing the falling prisoner pods in place. All but the robots. Omega sent out a flurry of bullets to take them out before they hit the ground, blasting them into shrapnel. Then his attention turned to Metal Sonic as he landed amid the fray. Panicked shouts filled the air and I soon lost track of the commotion.

I lowered myself to assist the battle, removing a good number of the egg pawns just before Blaze unleashed another inferno. Silver lifted some of the pods off the ground with his psychokinesis so Omega could pick off the smaller robots. I let loose a rain of crimson lightning to clear a path for the rest of the pods to be lowered to safety. As it erupted, pain flashed through my chest and my hand fired to it. More cracks had appeared along the ruby. Jagged enough to snag on my gloves. I grimaced and turned back to the battlegrounds below, now significantly clearer. I had to continue, but I dared not do anything to the larger robots. If I turned them back to normal they’d be helpless. I was best leaving them until later.

Satisfied the battle was now in our favour and the prisoners were safely on the ground, I turned my attention onto Eggman. The mad man was trying to make a getaway, and I wasn’t about to allow it.

I wiped blood from my muzzle and narrowed my eyes. Anger burned inside me and in a flash I was before him, crouching on the nose of his ship. My muzzle creased in a sneer and I dug my fingers into the white metal. A look of fear crossed his face but it was soon replaced by a grin.

“Oh, hello, Infinte,” he said. “I see you’ve decided to show your face. Whatever happened to that mask I made you?”

“I don’t need it,” I growled.

“Really?” He raised an eyebrow as he took in my face and scar. “Well, if you’ve made peace with yourself… but I find it rather insulting that you would side with Sonic after everything I did for you.”

“What you did for me?” My breath came in quick bursts and the fur bristled along my spine. “You destroyed me! You turned me into a tool then left me to die!”

“You were already deluded! The Phantom Ruby revealed that much.”

Those words were like a blow to my chest.

“That’s beside the point!” I roared. “You took advantage of that for your own sick gains!”

Eggman raised a hand. “Now, now. Calm down and we can-”

“I should never have gone that far,” I growled. “And I should never have teamed up with you.”

Red energy flared from my hands, taking over his small ship. The metal peeled away like orange rind, starting at the nose and curling down towards the ocean.

“What are you doing?!” he squeaked. “How are you…”

His eye went from the hexagon on his lapel to the cracked ruby in my chest. Then a deep laugh left his throat. Quiet at first, then rising into a maniacal crescendo.

“I see!” he said. “Now it makes sense! Oh, you’re a fool, Infinite. You were always a fool.”

“I was a fool to ever trust you,” I said. “I’ll make you regret what you did to me. And all those innocent people!”

“But you’re the one who killed them all,” he said.

My blood turned to ice and I stared at him. The peeling metal slowed to a stop as my attack petered out.

“Mass genocide,” he went on. “Destroying the world and everything in it. And why? ‘Because you were bored’. That’s what you told me.”

I let my eyes close as my lips pulled back in a grimace. Those words had been chosen to make me sound like more of a monster. To make me sound ‘strong’. And I hated each and every one.

“So you regret it?” Eggman asked. “Do their screams haunt your sleep?”

I snapped my eyes open to see Eggman’s grinning face, and he chuckled.

“Looks like you do,” he said. “But regret isn’t going to get you anywhere. You’ve let those animals get to you. Feelings like that are a weakness. And I know how much you hate weakness.”

I shook my head and flashed my canines. “It’s not a weakness! I was dead before I found Freedom Citadel, and you are not going to take it from me!”

I set my attack off again, further removing his ship’s hull and exposing its fragile wiring. A few sparks flew from my hands as I prepared myself to attack its insides. Destroy the ship and send Eggman into the ocean. Let him swim for shore, or his robots can leap to his aide.

“So you plan to kill me?” Eggman asked calmly. “I mean… if you regret killing all those people, surely you aren’t going to kill me?”

“You’re right,” I said flatly. “Unlike you, I’m not a monster. Not anymore.”

A few audible snaps filled the air and I flinched as a metallic taste filled my mouth. A few shards of the prototype broke free, raining onto the small ship’s bonnet. Eggman’s eye went to it and a sinister grin spread across his face.

“Fool,” he said. “Such a pity for you I don’t share that sentiment.”

A hatch opened up behind him and a long pole rose into the air. It flicked forward at the top, aiming a glowing red light right at me. My eyes widened as it flashed, and a crimson beam struck the Phantom Ruby square on. Pain exploded through my chest and I roared, falling back from the small ship. My tail curled up between my legs as I fell down towards the ocean, leaving a crimson trail of blood behind me. The last thing I saw was Shadow as he appeared above me, still shrouded with a golden light. Then everything went black.

...​

I sat back against the cold stone wall, bleary eyed and exhausted. A faint light leaked in through the window, warming me and drawing me out of my daze.

“Fool.”

The voice lacked its usual threatening menace.

I looked up to see the monster sitting opposite me, tangled in green vines and roots. Its lone golden eye fixed on mine, but it didn’t struggle against its confines. Above it, the sun-like flower rose up towards the ceiling and its leaves curled up around the edges of the room, occasionally moving as if a breeze were disturbing them.

“You had him right where you wanted him,” the monster said. “Then you showed weakness and lost.”

“We got the prisoners.” My entire chest burned with the effort to speak. “We didn’t lose.”

“But Eggman lives.”

I chuckled, a painful motion I swiftly regretted. “He’s a living being, like everyone else. If I killed him… he has no chance at redemption like me.”

The monster shook its head and laughed. “You think sparing him is going to change everything? Eggman is evil. When he comes back, he’ll take away everything you love. Maybe even your own life.”

“I’d give my life before I let him take my friends.”

“You’re a fool. You’ve let yourself become weak.”

“Oh believe me,” I said. “It’s not a weakness.”

The room melted away as a repetitive beeping broke through the silence. Voices… I blinked my eyes open then screwed them shut again as a blinding white light attacked my retinas. I lifted a hand to shield them and tried again. I was on a soft bed, covered up to my chest in a clean white sheet. I didn’t get to see much of the room as Cream’s face took up most of it, followed by Cheese.

The little rabbit beamed from ear to ear. “You’re awake!”

“Chao chao chao!”

Then they vanished out of my line of sight. “Mother, Nanny, he’s awake!”

I tried to push myself up, but something tugged at my left hand. A drip? So I was in a hospital? The memory from the battle began to come back to me. Eggman. His attack. Shadow.

The door opened and Cream and Cheese rushed back in, followed by Vanilla, Mocha and Sonic. The possum rushed to my side, tears filling her eyes.

“Thank goodness’ you’re all right!” She took my hand and leant forward to place a kiss on my nose.

I jerked back with surprise and she just chuckled, flopping into a seat beside the bed. But she didn’t relinquish my hand.

“We’ve been worried sick,” she said.

“They were.” Sonic leant against the bed. “I knew you were fine.”

“What happened after that fight?” My voice croaked and a glass of water replaced Mocha’s warm hand.

“Well, Eggman got away,” said Sonic. “But when Shadow saw you falling he caught you in his Chaos Control. He kept you locked in a stasis bubble until the doctors could stop the bleeding.”

I almost choked on my water. “He saved my life?”

“Pretty much.”

“Where is he?”

Sonic shrugged. “Long gone. As soon as things settled back down at Freedom Citadel, he did his Shadow thing and vanished.”

So I couldn’t even thank him? I slumped back against my pillow and let my arm fall over my eyes. After all that hostility, even threatening to kill me, he’d actually saved my life?

“I wish he’d stayed around enough for me to actually thank him,” I said.

“I’m sure you’ll get chance to at some point,” said Sonic. “Besides, I think these four thanked him enough for you.”

I looked over at Cream and Mocha. Cheese. Vanilla. All of them were smiling. A warmth spread through my chest and I let a smile take over my muzzle. Then something twigged in my mind and I turned back to Sonic.

“What about the Phantom Ruby?”

“That’s back where it came from,” said Sonic. “And you don’t have to worry about that anymore. What was left of it has been removed.”

He nodded towards Vanilla and I looked back at her. She shifted uneasily and brushed back one of her ears.

“Thank you,” I said.

She nodded and gave me a smile. “It was the least I could do.”

So I was safe from that nonsense. But something else nagged in my mind.

“The robots?” I said. “How are you going to change them back without it?”

“Already dealt with,” said Sonic. “We harvested the machinery Eggman used to transform them and Tails reversed it. They’re all well and back in their own homes.”

A sigh of relief left me. So they were all safe. I set my glass back on the little table and the room fell into silence once again, save from the beeping from the heart monitor.

“Well, I should be off,” said Sonic. “I’ve got some tidying up to do back at Freedom Citadel. Have you decided what you’re gonna do with yourself when you get out of here? Because… you’re not tied down to just one place anymore.”

My eyes widened and I stared back at his grinning face. So I’d definitely earned his trust. And not just his… I looked over at the girls again, and Cheese. All of them still beaming at me. I turned back to Sonic and shrugged.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve grown rather fond of Freedom Citadel.”

“That’s fantastic,” he said. “Then I’m leaving it in good hands.”

“Wait, what?” I almost sat bolt upright but my chest complained with the effort. “You want me to defend it?”

“I think you’ve proved you’re capable with that sword,” he said. “And the pay is good.”

I laughed and let my head flop back. “Okay. I’ll take it. Although… I had been hoping for a bit of peace.”

“Freedom Citadel is usually a peaceful place, random Eggman attacks aside.” Sonic pushed himself back from the bed. “I’ll see you around!”

With that, he was gone, leaving nothing but a brief gust of air.

“Yay! So you’re staying?” Cream placed her little hands on the bed and practically bounced. “That’s great! So are we!”

“You are?” I looked up at Vanilla.

The older rabbit nodded. “After I removed that ruby from your chest, the hospital here snapped me up. We won’t be going back to the city.” She paused to smile at her daughter. “Besides, Cream and Cheese are happy here.”

“Chao chao!”

A huge smile spread across my muzzle and I settled back against the pillow. So it was actually happening. My heart’s desire was becoming a reality after all.

“We should let you get some rest,” said Mocha.

“No, I’m fine,” I said. “I quite like your company.”

“In that case,” said Vanilla, “Cream and I will get some lunch and bring it back with us. Would you like anything… erm…?”

She toyed with her ear as she waited for my answer.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Surprise me?”

“Yes! I have just the idea!” said Cream. “Oh! And I came up with a name for you.”

She leant on my bed again and I met her chocolate eyes. “Okay? It’s not Milk or Cookie or something is it?”

She laughed and shook her head. “Don’t be silly! That doesn’t suit you at all! How about ‘Finn’?”

I blinked at her as I took it in. “Finn? Hmm…”

I exchanged glances with Mocha and she gave me a half-smile.

“It was all Cream’s idea,” she said.

So I turned back to the rabbit. “I think I like it.”

“Yes!” She threw a hand into the air, imitated by Cheese. “I told you I was good at coming up with names.”

She turned to follow her mother from the room, waving at us before the door closed behind them.

“Finn,” I chuckled as I rubbed my face.

“It’s not too close to ‘Infinite’ is it?” Mocha asked.

“No, it’s fine,” I said, smiling at the closed door. “I’m glad they’re staying.”

“So am I.” She took my hand again and let it rest on the bed. “I’m also glad you’re okay.”

“Yes, that’s a relief.” I closed my eyes and sighed. “I’m sorry I worried you like that.”

“Forget about it. It’s over now.”

I opened my eyes and met her smile with my own, giving her hand a soft squeeze.

“So I need to decide what to do with myself when I get out of here.” I released her to push myself up against the headboard. “It’s actually nice to have something to look forward to.”

“Do you think you’ll stay in the castle?” She adjusted the pillow behind me so the iron bar wasn’t digging into my back.

I half-shrugged. “For now, I might. Then I can look for somewhere in the town.”

Mocha gave me a playful grin. “A couple of people near me are leaving now they’ve found their families.”

“Are you suggesting we be neighbors?” I gasped.

“I might.”

“Oh boy.” I cleared my throat. “Keep your music down.”

She nudged me and laughed, just as Cream and her mother returned with a bag of pastries, carried by Cheese.

By the end of the week, I was released from the hospital, just in time to see off the remainder of the Resistance. Save the Chaotix. The goofy bunch decided to stay in their run-down office.

As we left it later that morning, Vector turned to me and grinned.

“Say, you wouldn’t be looking for a room in an attic or something would you?” he asked. “We could use the rent.”

I swiftly declined his offer, worried the floor might fall through or something.

But as I looked around Freedom Citadel’s peaceful town, a smile spread across my muzzle. I’d actually found somewhere I belonged. Friends. A family. Everything I’d desperately tried to avoid for fear of being hurt again. There was still every possibility that someone might try to take it away from me, and the thought still worried me. But I’d defend it all with my life. I tucked my hands behind my back as I walked with the bickering Chaotix. Following the cobble path towards the park to join Mocha, Cream, Cheese and Vanilla for a celebratory picnic.

...

A/N - This was the final chapter! To anyone reading, I hope you enjoyed! =D It was a joy to write!
 
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