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. We're currently having an issue where e-mails sent to gmail accounts are not going through and are bouncing back. We're currently working to resolve this matter and apologise for any inconvenience
    Dismiss Notice
  3. Be sure to join the discussion on our discord at: Discord.gg/serebii
    Dismiss Notice
  4. 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.”
     

Share This Page