"Alright," said Sonic, "victory celebration, take two!"
Everything was good. Everything was funny.
Tails was happy. His tails moved around almost as creatures of their own, betraying his excitement at all that had happened.
It wasn't nighttime, and there was no campfire; instead it was noon, and the village of Knothole was relaxing beneath the trees.
Sonic sat down next to Sally—though of course they took pains not to sit too close to one another. Tails was next to Sonic, Antoine next to Sally.
Sally stood. "I'd like to explain just what we hit. Our target was one of Robotnik's biggest microchip plants. Everything Robotnik makes depends on those chips—they're in the hover units, the Swatbots, even the blasters. If we hit it, we take out a major portion of Robotnik's manufacturing ability.
"So," she said, smiling, "we beat Robotnik at his own game of pollution. Tails opened a hole in the ceiling. Sonic and I took control of one of Robotnik's freighters and dumped a full load of oil into the plant."
Her smile widened. "Funny thing about oil. It gets everywhere, it's hard to clean, and it makes everything grimy, especially before it's refined. Crude oil is some of the nastiest stuff on the planet.
"Now, Robotnik's priceless microchip plant is totally flooded with oil. It's not destroyed, but it might as well be; it'll require a lot of work to clean up that mess. Plus all that oil was ruined, too—it wouldn't be worth it to try and clean it."
Every animal present was smiling in satisfaction. Sally hadn't been aiming for exultation—a strong but temporary feeling. She'd wanted a subtle but deep-rooted satisfaction. And if the citizens' expressions were any guide, she'd succeeded.
"Alright. Tails, Antoine, tell them how you did."
Antoine stood. "Zo there we am, outnumerated, trying to get into ze impenetratable buildings. We hided—because we were scared? Oh nonononono, of course no. But because smashing ze Swatbots with bears' paws would be taking much too time. Instead, we brave-ely go to ze factory, where Tails would do his ting."
Tails stood, somewhat sheepishly. "I have to thank Antoine," he said. "He got me there safe. Once there, it was all on me." He started to get into the description, leaning forward and locking eyes with villagers. "First thing we had to do was get past the perimeter. Robotnik has started guarding the abandoned buildings next to his factories because we use those so often to get in. We went in—and there was a Swatbot inside!"
Tails was drawing the crowd in. They hung on his words. Sonic and Sally looked at each other—the kit was getting good at this.
"Antoine distracted it… kinda, then I took it down!"
In reality, Antoine had fallen while trying to sit down. This had drawn a Swatbot into the room. Luckily, Tails had been alert, and blindsided the bot as it came through the door. This time, his knife had driven true—the side seam had popped, the Swatbot's armor shell had split apart, and Tails had gutted it with silly ease.
"I checked the security of the building. There was a LOT of Swatbots there! They were on the ground, there were hover units going around, and a few more Swatbots on the roof."
He scanned the crowd. "Yes, the roof. Right where I needed to go."
He paused for a while, letting the tension build. "A blaster would be way too loud, and I probably wouldn't be able to hit with one anyway. So I did the only thing I could do. I went for it. I got to the roof of my building to make it a short trip. I got a running start and flew to the other building at top speed!"
"The first Swatbot saw me too late. It didn't have time to react before I was on top of it. Bam! Took him out instantly. No prob. The second Swatbot came to see what the noise was. I hid for a few seconds, then when it got close, I went for it. Took its knee joint out, then finished it off."
He shook a paw. "I'm not gonna tell you how I opened the hole in the roof. Too boring. But it was tricky tryin' to get away, because Sonic and Sally had started the party, and they were getting close to me. So I had to high-tail it out of there."
He scanned the crowd again. "It was even harder trying to get away, because all the Swatbots in the city were after Sonic and Sally, but they would've been satisfied with us. We had to be really careful. Well, it took us a while, but we were getting away. But there were three more bots in our way, and we couldn't find a way around them. We decided we'd have to go right for them.
"Just as we decided this, the bots looked away, like they were tryin' to see something else. I knew this was our chance. Before they could look back at me, I went in and got 'em! Bam, one, bam, two, bam, three!
"Then Sonic picked us up. That's what had distracted the Swatbots—they were lookin' for Sonic gettin' away, not for me, so I got 'em easy. Sonic came our way and pulled us outta there."
Tails sat. "I got six by myself, and helped out Sonic and Sally. Quite a night!" he said. The crowd cheered Tails on.
Sonic stood and said, "Well, Tails said I was on that mission, so I guess I was. Might as well tell what I remember…" The crowd laughed as much at the joke as at Sonic's scene stealing mannerism, but Tails was relieved, and it showed to the few who looked. As soon as the crowd was watching Sonic and not Tails, the kit hid himself and shook.
Sonic and Sally watched the stream as it ran by beneath their feet. "That went well," said Sonic.
"I'm surprised at myself," said Sally. "I never thought I'd be able to sleep last night."
"Because of all the gambles I took."
He shrugged. "Gettin' smashed around'll make you sleepy anytime."
"I guess. But, in a way, I didn't want to be able to sleep. Kind of as punishment for my own recklessness."
"You were gonna punish yourself?"
"In a way. I know how that last mission scared you, Sonic, but it scared me more. I knew you trusted me, but I didn't have that same trust in myself."
"Oh, I feel great," said Sonic.
"You're makin' me feel like some kinda chump! Like any time you don't have a plan I'll think it's still cool!"
"Well, isn't that the case?"
"Sonic, knowing you trust me helps me trust myself. It's good to know that you'll be able to help me compensate for my mistakes."
Sonic hmph'd. "I was tryin' to feel mad at you."
"I don't know whether to apologize or laugh."
Sonic simply growled, causing Sally to laugh. Silence came again.
"Rotor's feelin' up," said Sonic.
"So I heard."
"Says he may be able to get Bunnie back real soon."
"So I heard."
"You think maybe Rote says it'll take forever just to give himself a little time?"
"Makes us think he's better."
"Maybe he IS better."
They were dancing around what they were trying to talk about. Sonic was willing to dance as long as Sally was; he was in no hurry.
"So, who's going to talk to Tails?" said Sally.
So much for that. "I will, Sal."
"Do you know what to say?"
"Alright then." She turned to him. "Good luck."
"Thanks." He turned and started walking towards the village.
"Remember… it's his choice."
He shook his head. "I couldn't forget that."
"Sonic! What's up?"
"C'mon, let's go to the Power Ring pool."
"But the Ring's not due for at least another hour."
"Trust me, big guy. I need to talk to ya."
"Oh, cool. Here I come!"
Sonic paced Tails as they jogged to the pool. Even trying so hard, Tails just wasn't very fast, his sluggish body trying to keep pace with his hopes and ambitions. His appetite, large normally, was becoming positively ravenous with the large amounts of flying time he was logging. He was trying—oh, yes, he was trying.
Sonic slowed as they reached the pool and walked around a bit to cool Tails off. Tails decided to discard his shoes and leap into the water instead.
"C'mon, Sonic! The water's great!"
"The water's always great." Which was true.
"I know, but come in anyway!"
"No thanks, big guy. I hate the stuff."
Tails sighed helplessly, as if he was trying to get a kid to do something and failing. He turned on to his back and leisurely stroked around the pool.
Go on ahead, big guy, Sonic thought. I'll wait. If you don't wanna come back today, I'd be happier. I don't wanna do this.
He watched Tails frolic in the water for a while before the kit went to his back and floated. Motionless, just perfectly relaxing.
The only sounds were the ambient ones—birds, the stream, the breeze. Sonic was reminded of the day after Bunnie went down. Yet there was a sharp contrast between the two days. That day, the quiet had been suffocating, the lack of motion bringing on only stiffness. Everything had seemed inert, dead, waiting for a breeze to blow it all away.
Today, everything was simply… relaxed was the best word he could conjure up. The sounds were the same, the environment was the same, but the mood was profoundly different.
Almost one of… satisfaction.
That was it. He looked at Tails' face. The worry marks and wrinkles had totally eased out of it; there was just a hint of a smile on his face. He was at ease, without care, a kit enjoying his life.
Sonic had just gotten used to this when Tails flipped backwards into the water and propelled himself over to Sonic. He slid out of the water like a seal and shook himself to get rid of some of the water.
"Everyone needs to do that sometime!" Tails said.
"I don't need to know how to swim."
"Not that," Tails said, "just float out there an' relax. It's really great. All the… all the Freedom Fighters need to do it, at least. It helps me forget, just for a while."
Sonic despaired. It was exactly that mentality that he'd been hoping Tails didn't have yet. He really was scared.
It was just as Sonic had told him so recently—"To be a Freedom Fighter is to be afraid". Tails was a Freedom Fighter. He was afraid.
Sonic struggled to find the words. "Lil' bro… Tails… um…"
"Yeah, Sonic?" Tails stopped shaking and sat down facing Sonic. That doesn't make it easier on me, Tails, thought Sonic. Where are the words when I need them?
"Well… Sal an' I, well, we were wonderin'… Do you…"
"Do you still wanna be a Freedom Fighter?"
Tails was unfazed, as if he wasn't taking the question seriously. "You guys need me, right?"
Sonic shook his head. "Maybe, maybe not. What I'm askin' has nothin' to do with us. Don't think about that. We can manage. Think about what you want, what's best for you, Tails."
"What's best for me?" Tails looked away, into the distance.
"You know what I'm talkin' about."
Tails shivered. He did indeed.
"What do you want? I won't lie to you. We could use your help. But we can get on without you. And we want this to be about what you want."
Tails still didn't face Sonic. "Quitting? Now? Wouldn't that be… like sayin' Antoine's braver than me?"
"No one'll hold that against ya, Tails. Maybe a villager or two, but no one who knows what it's really like. None of us. And I'll make sure no one else gives you lip," Sonic said, like a real big brother.
Tails smiled weakly for a second. "We just want you to be happy, Tails. That's why we brought you in to begin with—we thought that you helpin' us would give you the best chance of bein' alive later on. Turns out, that may not be true. So we're askin' you to use your brain, Tails. Nah, more than your brain, your heart. Whaddya want?"
Sonic could see the wheels turning in Tails head as the kit tried to make the decision. "What would you want me to do, Sonic?"
"I'd want you to be happy, lil' bro. Pickin' somethin' that makes you miserable doesn't seem like a good choice to me."
"Even if I leave," said Tails, "I'd still have the nightmares, wouldn't I?"
"Maybe. I don't know, Tails, I haven't tried it. But you wouldn't get new ones, exactly."
Tails nodded. "But knowin' how scary it is now… I don't know if I'd feel right leavin' you. I mean, it helps you out to know I know, doesn't it?"
"Would that change?"
"I wouldn't feel right not feelin' scared too if you guys were."
"It's about you, after all. But know that that doesn't help us much. Like I said, though, it's about you."
Tails was still unsure. "We may need you after all, Tails. We think we don't, but we might." Trying to argue both sides, thought Sonic.
Tails looked up. "If… I… if I were… to leave… could I come back later?"
"If you were needed?"
"No prob. It's not like we're gettin' rid of you if you say you want out. We know you're good. It's up to you when an' if you help."
Tails looked into Sonic's eyes. "What would you do?"
"If it was me?"
Sonic looked away. He thought for several hard seconds on it. "All I know is we started way too early. We started when we were ten, and it was too early. If it was up to me, if I could do that again, I'd start us later. We weren't ready. But that was me."
Tails hugged Sonic. "I don't wanna be a Freedom Fighter anymore," he said, holding Sonic tight.
Sonic didn't dare say this, but it was what he'd hoped for. "Don't worry, big guy. I'll train you more, so when you're ready you're ready."
Tails gave a final shiver. "Thank you, Sonic."
"No prob." They stayed like that for several seconds. "Uh, Tails?"
"You're freezin' cold!"
The water still on Tails' fur was drying slowly, and now it was spread all over Sonic.
Tails grinned slyly and jumped into the water, splashing more of the cold water onto Sonic. Sonic leapt back, yelping.
"Come on, Sonic, what, are you scared or somethin'?"
"I don't like the water!"
"Come on, you big kit, get over here!"
I own none of the characters or situations in this story; SEGA, Archie Comics, and Dic own everything singly or collectively. This story, on the other hand, is mine, mine, mine, and bound by all applicable laws.