1. We have moved to a new forum system. All your posts and data should have transferred over. Welcome, to the new Serebii Forums. Details here
    Dismiss Notice
  2. Be sure to join the discussion on our discord at: Discord.gg/serebii
    Dismiss Notice
  3. If you're still waiting for the e-mail, be sure to check your junk/spam e-mail folders
    Dismiss Notice

The Mask Behind the Monster (Sonic the Hedgehog)

Discussion in 'Non-Pokémon Stories' started by DeliriousAbsol, Dec 26, 2018.

  1. DeliriousAbsol

    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.
     
  2. DeliriousAbsol

    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.
     
  3. DeliriousAbsol

    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.”
     
  4. DeliriousAbsol

    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.”
     
  5. DeliriousAbsol

    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…
     
  6. DeliriousAbsol

    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.
     
  7. DeliriousAbsol

    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.”
     
  8. DeliriousAbsol

    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.”
     
  9. DeliriousAbsol

    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.
     

Share This Page