"Shadow… what did you do?"
He turns to the sound of Sonic's incredulous voice, then tightens his hold on the Emerald gripped in his fist until his knuckles crack. His reflection shows saliently on dark, extinguished glass. Damned if he knows himself.
He'd screamed the command the moment the Doctor's bomb blinked 00:00—before blistering heat rained down. Chaos Control intercepted the explosion, freezing it before the immense shockwave ground Sonic's skeleton into a fine paste.
But it has also halted the surrounding environment altogether. The clouds have frozen. Leaves fallen still. Fleeing birds sweep impressionistic dashes over the sky by the brush of an unseen painter. There is no sound to speak of except the tattered scrape of Sonic's breath, the creak in his gloves as he grasps a patch of grass for support.
Sonic lies prone in the grass, arm still thrown over himself where he'd tried to shield his eyes from the explosion. Dirt smudges his cheek. Groaning from the strain, he reaches into his mouth with a probing finger and winces at the red smearing its tip. He's bitten on his tongue.
Pushing himself up, he gazes upon the bomb's brilliant, flaming core. Awe flickers across his illuminated face, followed by questioning.
"I don't know." Shadow grabs his wrist. "But we shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth."
"What about the bomb? What the heck's going on here? Eggman's—"
And they do.
"This is givin' me the creeps," he says, glancing around at frozen streetlights. "You sure you didn't, uh… break the Emerald or anything?"
"I had plenty of time to split, y'know."
"You're welcome, Sonic."
Red sneakers smack empty stretches of asphalt, accompanying the fluid glide of hover skates.
"Shadow?" He doesn't know what they're running from. "Are we dead?"
"What do you think?"
"I think something's majorly screwed up here. Chaos Control shouldn't last this long."
He carefully closes the door to Tails' lab and rubs his hands against his cheeks, warming them. After a while he breathes out and straightens himself up. The neighborhood is empty, bright, quiet.
"They're not home."
Neither, it seems, is the rest of the world.
"Can I see the Emerald?"
"Go to sleep, Sonic."
"Shadow," he says. "C'mon, man. Emerald. Quick. Gimme."
"Why should I give it to you? You're not thinking clearly. You need to sleep."
"Me? What about you?"
"I'm not like you. My faculties remain intact no matter what."
"Whatever you say, buddy."
"It's still daytime."
"It will always remain daytime in this part of the world. Go to sleep."
"I think you broke time, Shadow."
"Go to sleep."
"Know any other good songs on that broken record of yours?"
"Yes: be quiet, close your eyes and stop talking so I can think."
"I'm not closin' my eyes."
"Tell you the truth, the thought's freakin' me out a little."
"I don't know if it'll still be today when I open my eyes."
Sonic yawns as he dangles from a pine bough, rubbing sore eyes whose white sclera have tinged pink at their edges. "Maybe Knuckles can help us," he suggests. "The Master Emerald can knock out the power of the Chaos Emeralds. They've gotta be able to fix… whatever the heck this is." He waves at the stagnant sunlight pouring through the needles. Warmth nudges their skin like a congealed, syrupy mass.
Shadow considers this while observing a woodpecker paused mid-peck. A fine spray of sawdust has burst from its beak. "And if the guardian's also frozen?"
"We're just borrowing his stuff for a minute. No sweat."
Shadow's gaze flicks toward the sky. "How are we getting on the island?"
Sonic scratches his head. "Hitch a ride with a UFO?"
"There's no such thing."
Sonic laughs, quivering the lifeless branches on which he sits. From nerves borne of insomnia, Shadow supposes. Nonetheless, it irks him enough to ask just what it is he finds so funny.
"Dude, you were born on a UFO."
Shadow briefly wonders if mortals can lose their minds from lack of sleep, and whether it's worth it to drag them back from the brink. "First," he says, "the ARK maintains a geosynchronous orbit. It does not fly. Second—"
"We come in peace." Sonic clutches his gut and wheezes.
There is no guardian in sight.
"Weird… Guess Knucklehead took a vacation, too." Sonic turns. "You got the Emerald?"
He places the gem at the foot of the Master Emerald. Nothing happens, making him squat down and tilt his head. Irritation chafes Shadow's raw nerves like sandpaper as he prods a finger at the drained Emerald. "There, uh, might be kind of a problem here."
Shadow clenches his fists. "What now?"
"Well, here he usually chants something, and—"
"You don't know what it is." He should have known better than to entertain these silly delusions. He turns from the altar and marches down the crumbled stone steps. Time has ceased, and yet he feels whatever moments they've spent here have already somehow been wasted. "Of course."
"Hey, don't— I don't know what Knuckles says, okay?"
Minutes in the span of days, days in the span of seconds. The sun remains fixed in the sky, although it changes angle only based on their location. Like a ceased current, the flow of time has begun to stagnate their perceptions.
Sonic balances himself alongside a rickety train bridge, arms thrust out on either side to keep him from plunging into the river some twenty feet below.
Shadow parallels him on the opposite side of the tracks. Where Sonic occasionally stumbles, he maintains unflinchingly perfect poise. "I must admit, this recent peace has been a welcome change of pace. Your world is incredibly chaotic. Noise seeps from even the quietest places."
"My world?" Sonic lifts a brow. "You mean Earth."
"Let's not argue."
"All this is just confirming my theory that you're from another solar system, Shad."
Speaking with Sonic for long periods of time is like exploring the wilderness without a map. He makes long, winding statements, almost reaching a point of sorts before cutting in with an abrupt detour, a sudden aside plunging his thoughts directly back into lost territory.
Steps patter steel before Sonic dives again into empty conversation, though this attempt succeeds in taking him by surprise. "What did it feel like when you fell from space?"
"I don't know." He wobbles, steadies himself. "Kinda been thinking the explosion might've felt the same way you did when… " Sonic crumples at his blistering glare. "Never mind. Sorry."
Eventually, he relents. "It didn't feel like anything."
"I was ready to die," Shadow says. "That's probably the difference between… what I went through, and what you would have experienced."
Sonic lets the deafening silence stretch.
Shadow passes a hand along the bridge's steel rail, feeling graffiti fleck under his palm. "Of course, that's irrelevant. Our goal is to reverse this prolonged Chaos Control."
"How you figure we're gonna do that? We don't even know how you managed to pull the rabbit outta the hat the first time around."
"There has to be a way."
"Sure," Sonic replies. "Just be great if we had a clue of some kind."
With all the time in the world to stoke each other's tempers, they inevitably reach a point where they argue interminably. About everything. What happened. Who deserves the blame. Shadow has begun to feel he's losing his grip. All there ever is, ever was, ever will be—trying to drill a point into this boy's thick skull.
"Chaos Control entails more than simply stopping time. It's a way of channeling your will through the Emerald."
"Okay, so lemme get this straight: when you stopped the bomb from going off… Did you wish the world would stop turning, too?"
Shadow's ears flatten. "Tell me you aren't serious."
"Hey, ya never know. Maybe you weren't exactly thinkin' it at the time, but something just slipped through. The Emeralds take what's inside of you and amplify it." Sonic sweeps out his arms as he lies on a bed of leaves. "And if this is your ideal world… Gotta say, it's a pretty boring one."
His lip curls back. "Assuming your inane theory is true," he says, "I must have wound up in hell."
"Whoa, buddy. Try not to bleed too hard on that edge there."
"Let me remind you that had I not induced Chaos Control, you would be lying dead in a patch of grass. Leave the scorn and mockery to me."
"And there it is," Sonic says, springing to his feet. "Why don't you just come out and say it? You're always running around trying to be the big macho action hero, not 'cause you wanna help people, 'cause you wanna feel like you're better than they are."
"Easy for you to say. Your mere existence earns you adoration wherever you go."
"It's called not having a huge stick up my butt, Shadow. Works wonders for making friends. Maybe you ought to try it sometime."
Sonic blinks, as if slapped. His expression darkens. "What?"
"Do you honestly believe I care if this world hates me? Humans don't enrich my life any more than the rest of their noisy planet." A forest, normally full of chatter, now stands quiet as a grave. "Regardless, I've sworn to protect it. On the other hand, you save it on a regular basis because you know you couldn't get your thrills anywhere else."
"Uh, no freaking duh? Where am I gonna live, on the moon? Gonna make a bed for me on the ARK?"
The thought is simultaneously depressing and gruesome. But Sonic, as usual, moves on too quickly to dwell on the implications.
"Why do I keep fighting Egghead? Gee, I don't know—let's count the ways. Maybe 'cause he won't give it a rest? Maybe 'cause there's too much beauty in the world to just lay down and let him steamroll over everything? And 'cause it's wrong to let someone like him wreck everyone's future? Or maybe because no one should ever get hurt the way he hurt—"
This marks the first time Sonic willingly bites his tongue, as well as the first time Shadow wishes he would elaborate.
"What do you mean?"
"Nothing. Forget it."
Later, they encounter a meadow. Beautiful, if not for its eerie stillness.
Sonic scans the rolling slopes for a single woodland animal, his shoulders sagging when he realizes there are none. "Shadow," he begins, "you really think everyone hates you?"
"I know they do."
"By looking in their eyes. Their fear is the same. It becomes easy to recognize after a while."
"Ever meet someone who wasn't?"
"Scared of you."
Shadow folds his arms. "That hasn't happened in quite some time."
"At first," Sonic corrects. "She warmed up to you, though. So did Omega."
"Who attempted to shoot me down on sight."
"You just haven't tried, Shadow. That's all I'm sayin'." Plucking the Emerald he's currently studying out of his grasp, Sonic refuses to return it until he focuses on him. "This world is so big, so full of good people, you're really gonna stand there and say they'll all reject you? More like you don't give 'em the chance. You shut down anybody who tries to get close. What are you scared of?"
"The same thing you are."
Sonic falls silent. He will remain so for a maddeningly indeterminate amount of time. Could be years for all Shadow knows. The sun glares bright as ever on the world. Perhaps it's time to move toward the opposite side of the globe in search of answers.
They trek through deserts, woodlands, tundras, the Doctor's bases.
Sonic's tread grows less resolute. His pauses stretch ever wider. He begins to sleep with less provocation and stays asleep for longer. Once, they pass through an empty city that he's certain used to burst at the seams with life, and he sinks to his knees, curls into himself, refusing to take another step. Come on. Get up. Believing he's being stubborn to spite him, Shadow slings him over his shoulder, taking him down a flight of subway stairs before Sonic vomits greenish bile.
Shadow returns with a soda can and a fistful of candy bars he's gleaned from smashing his fist through a broken vending machine. A small risk, but given the derelict state of the subway, he feels it safe to assume their absence wouldn't amount to much in the grand scheme of things. Sonic devours the snacks and sleeps fitfully on a steel bench. When he wakes, the train remains exactly where it is, cramped halfway through the tunnel, never arriving, never departing.
"I think we've gotta head back."
Nothing catches him as off-guard as much as Sonic's quiet aside. They stand on a white strand of beach, the ocean painted pale by moonlight. The waves have crystallized into motionless curls, never reaching the rocks they intend to crest.
"Everyone's gone. I don't think they disappeared, though. I think we did. They probably can't see us." Sonic gazes into the stillborn moon. "If no one can see us, there's absolutely no way they can help us out, so we gotta help ourselves. And the only place we know for sure that this weirdness started… " He takes a deep breath, rakes a hand through his quills. "Well, it's kind of a long shot, but maybe it can unstick this time freeze for us."
"If time resumes its natural course, the detonation will as well."
"I know." He shakes his head. "Shadow, I don't wanna live like this. Every day the same thing, nothing changing, nothing… " Lifting his gaze again toward the moon, he swallows. "This world's just gotta keep turning. That's all I know."
"We'll both be caught in the blast."
"You won't be. You can still run. You were on the edge, remember? Almost cut yourself on it."
Shadow remains stony to his feeble grasp at humor. "There's nothing I can say to make you reconsider, is there?"
Sonic offers him a wan smile, and slowly, resolutely, shakes his head.
"This can't be happening." Panic reduces his voice to a dry whisper. His stomach plunges like a stone, sinking deeper and deeper. "No, this isn't right— It was here, right here—"
Here, there is no bomb to speak of. No conflagration threatening to swallow the forest. Just a peaceful, wooded clearing, the grass slightly taller than it was before.
Shadow kneels in the grass exactly where Sonic lay. With a gentle sweep to clear the brush, his hand reveals a faded inscription.
SONIC THE HEDGEHOG
Beloved friend, fallen hero,
spirit like the wind
Sonic reels back a step, then another, distancing himself from that smooth slab of stone. His lips crack. His heart pounds. His throat doesn't know whether to curse or scream. But his legs, his truest source of faith, do what they've always known since the day he was born.
May flowers bloom
in your footsteps
wherever you run